Alt-Classic

I’m hugely looking forward to this. My three all-time favourite albums, the ur-text of my tastes, are Nirvana In Utero, Sonic Youth A Thousand Leaves and Swans Soundtracks For The Blind. There’s something about the teenage moment that can never be reproduced when it comes to impact.

On Sunday 23rd, at the Shacklewell Arms (see below for website/location) I’m in attendance to hear the  entire 140 minutes of pure genius that is Swans Soundtracks For The Blind over a cheerful pint or two. I admit I’m curious to consume it over the sound system at the venue, to see if it helps me peel back a few layers and find something my own stereo doesn’t quite get to. With an album I’ve lived with for some two decades it’s a moment like this where I can hear with fresh ears, step outside of my usual distracted home state and into a room where this is the core of my attention, stand in a place where I’m not bothered about thrashing the neighbours with sound and really absorb it. I’m looking forward to going to the opposite end of the spectrum from the private headphones in the dark experience.

https://www.shacklewellarms.com/info

This is part of an ongoing, and deeply wicked, series run by Michael Brooks bringing together those who love an album, those who are just curious, those who fancy a (free!) night out on a Sunday with good music and a touch of bonhomie.

Why Soundtracks For The Blind? In my view it’s still Swans finest hour – and I say that in spite of my admiration for the past four albums. This was 1996, building dense layers of ambient sound in studio was still in its infancy, and there’s a physicality to the process Michael Gira and Chris Griffin had to go through to realise these results. Post-rock, in the form of bands like Mogwai or Godspeed, hadn’t quite taken off yet, so this kind of widescreen, orchestral approach to sound – something way beyond jam-band noodling – was near new. The source materials elide the entirety of Swans history into one album, most overtly in the form of Jarboe’s take on ‘Your Property’, but also in the use of aging tape loops, outtake material, the new set being played by the 1995 era band as laid to tape in a west coast studio at the close of the U.S. leg of the tour for The Great Annihilator. To this day, I think Swans is the only band to work successfully at a double CD scale: this is a coherent album experience, something requiring a journey rather these gross ‘album as compilation to be self-curated and deleted’ releases that seem to fill a lot of chart time to an increasing degree.

https://www.shacklewellarms.com/events/2018-09-23-swans-soundtracks-for-the-blind-listening-session-the-shacklewell-arms

I’ve agreed to introduce the album, provide reading from the book to contextualise its creation, to locate it in time and space…before we’re all sucked into its all-consuming maw of sound where we’ll dwell for just over two hours. Weightless, fleshless, devoid of physical form – at the mercy of pure experience. Wonderful.

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https://blank-slate-creative.com/2018/09/swans-sacrifice-and-transcendence-book-release/

Was rather gratified to see this go up today! Part of being a writer is not just ‘writing stuff’, it’s trying to make sure that people even know the words are there. Sure, no writer wants to be a marketing person too – which is ultimately what this spell of a book entails – but there’s still fun to be had.

For a start, the individuals working in music and arts journalism are passionate: there’s little money to be had in the field so these are people who do it because they love it. It’s a genuinely energising intervention in a day to receive responses from people who have much to say about music, who feel your work might offer something to them and to their audiences, who believe in what you have done or are doing.

Personally, I also enjoy what I call ‘the hunt’. When I’m preparing a book a lot of what I do is track people down – find ways to get in touch with them. It’s precisely the same process with the media. Which outlets are out there? Who would be best to speak to? How could you contact that person? How do you make sure they know you have thought about them, that you’re aware of their work, that you’re not just spamming them?

https://luminousdash.com/boek-swans-en-michael-gira/

Very kindly, the crew at Luminous Dash in Belgium also shared the press release piece. Press releases, I try very hard because I want them to have some energy and excitement to them…But they’re also generic in some ways – it’s a balancing act. I’m delighted when people broadcast the press release. The next stages up are book reviews, then there are interviews about the book, extracts from the book, the video piece PopMatters permitted was a new innovation for me, then articles/other content surrounding the book – one magazine has asked me to do a ‘my worst records ever’ piece!

 

I was invited, by Pop Matters to contribute a video excerpt from Sacrifice & Transcendence so, at the Moth Club book launch last month, we took over the ex-servicemen’s committee meeting room upstairs (complete with darts board, trophies and portrait of Winston Churchill – well it is the ‘Winston Churchill Bar’ after all) and I gave it a shot.

Decided to tackle the early days of the Swans Are Dead tour in 1996, a fraught time but one that – I think – shows the perfectionism, the pressure, the frustration, the striving for excellence that went with that moment in time for Gira and the other members of that line-up of Swans.

https://www.popmatters.com/nick-soulsby-swans-reading-2591807163.html

Review_1

Was delighted to see this review in the July issue of Record Collector magazine.

Michael Gira: “Jarboe’s version of ‘Your Property’ on Swans Are Dead and Soundtracks For The Blind is awesome: there’s no effects on her voice, she goes down however many tens of octaves and sings those low notes by reaching into her belly and emitting these notes — she was fantastic in that way.”

During the interviews that led to the creation of the book “SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence – The Oral History”, there was one conversation, focused on his song-writing at the time of Cop/Young God (1983-1985 era) that truly enthralled me. I had to cut the tale down for the book but the original transcript reads:

“I remember reading Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology Of Fascism in ’83-’84 and it had a particular influence on the song ‘I Crawled’ from the Young God EP. In that book, if I can summarise it in a very plebeian manner, he draws the parallel between the typical model of the family with a strong father as a microcosm of the state. He talks about how that shapes behaviour and identity and helps to inculcate a kind of obeisance to authority very early on. It was written pre-World War Two, and he talks about the parallels between Hitler and Stalin, which was pretty prescient of him: he notes how both men reached back to this mythic atavistic past when everything was great in the country and their goal was to bring it back — they were like avuncular, paternal figures for the nation.

At that time, Ronald Reagan was being re-elected and I thought the parallels — though less overtly deadly and destructive — were very apposite. I wrote that song — “you’re my father, my father, I obey you,” and took it a step further. I had read this essay by J.G. Ballard Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan and thought the image of Reagan fucking and choking me was an apt image for the times.

I had been obsessed with the media’s — not that the media is one entity or one conspiracy — colonisation of our consciousness, particularly in the west and capitalist corporate countries, its shaping of our identities and its formulation of the anxieties that compel one to consume: a recent phenomenon that didn’t begin until the end of the Second World War when advertising and production amped up and corporations had to create need. It had a lot to do with having all these factories after the war that needed to do something, so they began manufacturing anxiety in people so they would consume products. Nowadays that equation is rampantly out of control, culminating in the probable destruction of the planet and the species — all the horrible social effects from mass media on our consciousness and our sense of who we are on the planet.

I felt this whole process, along with working as a low-level wage slave for most of my life, was akin to being raped: being invaded against your will by stimuli over which you have no control and where you’re helpless as it impinges on your consciousness. That’s another reason I used the word ‘rape’, I felt it was what modern existence was. I carried that sort of imagery on for some time and then grew weary of it because it became a cliché in its own right to harp on such things. That was the kind of thing that I was obsessed with in those early days. The song ‘Your Property’ from Cop was probably another way in which I dealt with it, and Time is Money (Bastard), of course… that way of thinking about media, mind control, work as slavery, and consumerism was very much on my mind in those days.”

I’ve interviewed around 600 people in my spare time after/around work since 2012 and I’d not encountered an artist or musician who was able to articulate the imaginative process behind their writing in this way. Sure, I’d heard people ‘tell me the story’ of a song or what it’s lyrics related to – this was something else. This wasn’t just an emotional response. This was hundreds of pages of reading, clearly much independent thinking, intellectual and conceptual influences being woven together into a succinct, concise and tangible result.

The nearest comparison I had was a conversation with the painter Chris Gollon describing the painting he contributed to Thurston Moore’s ROOT remix/art project. He had received a 52 second composition from Thurston and it called to mind Native American burial grounds; a film called Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford where the lead rides his horse through a burial ground; Chris’ studio on an island in the Thames formerly used for WW1 aircraft hangars and where the spice girls would rehearse; the studio next door which created prosthetic limbs which would hang from a washing line; Toledo Cathedral where cardinals’ hats are hung from the ceiling and left to decay; an art exchange between Mexico and the Glasgow Print Studio so he included a death mask; the title coming from Morpheus, the god of dreams, and the House of Sleep/Kingdom of Sleep…

To me, Gira possessed that same artistic intensity: the drawing together of disparate ideas into a composition as sharp, honed and visceral as ‘I Crawled’. I was stunned to really understand that behind the stark lyrics there was this depth: factories, fascism, Reich, Reagan, parents, working, media, the mind, consumerism…

…And Gira was able to grind that down to

You’re my father/I obey you/I want you to be my father/Eliminate my freedom/I know what I am/You know what I am/I’m weak/Take what’s mine/Come into my room/Put your hands on my throat/Now choke me, choke me/Make me feel good/Be my father/Make it right/Think for me/Choke me

You can see all the associations and wider connections flowing from fewer than a hundred words. My feeling is that it’s what makes Gira an excellent writer: that each word is precisely what is needed, but each  word opens up an entire universe of ideas.

https://thevinylfactory.com/features/an-essential-guide-to-public-image-ltd-in-10-records/

For a couple of years now Vinyl Factory has been allowing me to come up with brief spotlights on ten releases by an artist – always an enjoyable experience siphoning down to a certain core and bound to cause disagreement given my ten worthies very likely don’t mesh with many other people’s own lists. But that’s the fun of any public opinion, it invites others to say “no,” or to suggest alternatives. The funniest two comments I’ve received? Number one was on a Nine Inch Nails focused piece where someone wrote that not including Pretty Hate Machine or Still was a “tragic mistake which discredits the whole of your so called ‘introduction to NIN'” (answer: I love Still but had to leave something out while Pretty Hate Machine just isn’t on my list of favourite NIN releases at all.) The other was on a piece focused on Coil where, having listed all the things they would have preferred I include the comment said “It seems like some of these choices were poorly made – a lot of compilation albums that all have ‘Amethyst Deceivers’ on them.” To be fair, I agreed that remakes of Amethyst Deceivers cropped up probably way too much in the latter years of Coil – but trying to choose Coil releases is like deciding which diamond is most sparkly.

My view is always I refuse to write about an artist I don’t respect or enjoy (the two don’t have to coexist – I respect Radiohead but only enjoy them in patches. I don’t want to spend my limited time focusing on anything that doesn’t enthrall me – there are enough such distractions in the world.

So this month I decided to swallow the whole of Public Image Ltd’s discography whole, with a couple of John Lydon sidebars added on for good measure.

The greatest enjoyment I took from it? Comparing Commercial Zone to This Is What You Want…This Is What You Get! The original piece was two, maybe three times as long – there was just so much to say about the comparison. For a start, Commercial Zone gets that extra ‘gloss’ that sometimes adheres to anything that can be described as lost, secret, unofficial – anything with that outlaw edge. I wanted to try to disregard that and consider how it really stands up. Truth is it’s a mixed bag: some of the songs gain an eerie and atmospheric vibe in early demo form – if you like horror/sci fi movie soundtracks, it’s great. Other tracks though are just blatant noodling and tossed off time-filling. Thing is, that’d be a pretty balanced description of the official album too: so it just becomes a Pepsi/Coke question – depends on your tastes because neither is significantly above the other.

The least enjoyable moment isn’t visible in the final post: having to listen through Happy? (1987), 9 (1989) and That What Is Not (1992) in search of something good to say about them. It killed me. I respect and enjoy John Lydon’s work deeply: most artists are hard pressed to wind up with one truly significant band let alone two; to make one album that people might claim as an all-time favourite let alone three or four (depending on your take on Flowers Of Romance.) There’s something about that late eighties-early nineties British guitar pop tone that never hooked me even as a cheery nine or ten year old. The jaggly drums, the over-production, the gleaming plastic vibe of so much of that time. I just can’t fathom what Lydon was singing about by then: the mansion liberal substituting CNN for any contact with life – harsh but I see little evidence on those albums of it being unfair. Still! To digest them in detail and in full was something I’d meant to do for ages. Two whole weeks working those albums round and round, giving them all the energy I could, then realising it was hurting to write about one of them let alone all three.

The most obvious moment, well, sheer truth, I love the first three PiL albums: such a distance travelled, so many different terrains explored, words and sounds that work, humour and seriousness in equal measure – glorious. And the two comeback reecords have been very pleasing.

Norman Westberg (Swans guitar god referring to ’85-’87 era): “playing Swans music made me feel ‘I can’t wear a shirt to this, you have to be close to naked, you have to be hard.'”

Nick Soulsby (2018): “Reading about Swans made me feel ‘I can’t wear a shirt for this, you have to be close to naked, you have to be…Errr…”

Inappropriate

This is my fifth book and it’s been really intriguing to me to discover what a difference format makes. Reading it on a screen, in Word, on A4 print-outs, as part of the editorial review process – it’s not like ‘real reading’. It’s a colder process where you’re looking to trim weakness and slice out anything that clunks or doesn’t fit. Reading it in book form, it flows differently – maybe because there’s no longer a pressure to fix it, maybe because it’s no longer work. The clarity of the text when printed in normal book-sized pages also makes it feel less weighty, easier somehow. Add on that there’s normally an eight to ten month gap between handing in a manuscript and seeing the final book. That means it’s like a stranger’s words when I finally get hold of it.

I’m usually hypercritical of my own writing: I had to re-read the introduction twice this week to realise I quite liked it and that I stood by the words. I still spotted things about Swans I would have liked to have said more about – but I remember wanting to keep the introduction down to the bone. What I really wanted to avoid was some horrible gushing PR-puff-piece. I hate books TELLING me that a band is or was important or that a band’s music is oh so good: the reader can decide themselves by listening to the band’s music – it’s up to them. Similarly, I think importance is overrated. I wanted to say why Swans was unique: why it could only arise with these people, in a particular place and circumstance, why it’s a unique phenomenon in so many ways and what makes it so.

I also wanted to avoid writing an ‘English Literature A Level’ analysis of the lyrics: yes, the lyrics are fascinating, but I was really worried about creating some grim analysis of imagery and blah blah blah. So I avoided that too! I kept the introduction down to: Gira, the People in the band, NYC late seventies-early eighties, the business behind the band. It felt like those were the factors governing how Swans existed and functioned – a fair context for reading people’s stories of their life and times in the outfit.