Archive for August, 2013

http://news.sciencemag.org/scientific-community/2011/07/scientists-play-worlds-oldest-commercial-record

In this age of endless reformations it’s easy to overlook the bands who survived as ongoing creative concerns. The indie superstar perennials (i.e., the only bands making enough money to continue to live on music) stand out — Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Melvins — but most others are a rebooted and rehashed occurrence giving bands a chance to finally take the bows they never get first time around. It also somehow feels reasonable, bands that have gained significant posthumous popularity receiving the chance to earn the money they never had an opportunity to first time around — I’m strangely accepting of it.

What’s most interesting is that this is a genuinely new mass phenomenon in music akin to the BBC’s discovery a few decades ago that, contrary to their policy right through into the 1970s which saw them erase numerous tapes of their shows, people often do want to watch repeated content and that there was a market for video recordings of such material. Music, to an even greater extent than television, has been a market piling new trend on latest fashion on quick fad. We’re not much over one hundred years from the first commercially available sound recordings and still witnessing new deviations and adaptations of this cultural element.

The release of greatest hits recordings started fairly early and has never ceased being a critical source of sales. Live recordings soon followed and archive recordings got going by the late Sixties when Jimi Hendrix had appalling trouble with unscrupulous characters reissuing his pre-Experience material and when the first major bootleg releases (Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes) commenced. Tribute records were more recent, the first came out only in 1981, and they’ve maintained a minor league existence ever since. The biggest shift though was the reissue of albums on CD from the mid-Eighties onwards — this gradually led to the desire to move beyond LP lengths and to fill space with bonuses and extras to encourage purchases.

Discovering that people were indeed willing to pay to buy material that, essentially, they already had was a crucial moment. Gradually reissues gained the same weight as new releases, magazines began reviewing them side-by-side, entire reissue sections entered magazines. The record company’s responded to this by placing more weight and effort into the reissues, ladling on the b-sides, the demos, the live shows until eventually the market diverged into straight reissues (usually with the pointless word Remastered emblazoned to try and claim some justification for the release as the reissued albums became CD-era) and the larger Deluxe edition for the fanatics. The arms-race didn’t cease there, however, soon Deluxe editions edged over into three disc versions until eventually the entire concept of the Super-Deluxe came about. Next the programme of reissues became a matter of packaging; the long established concept of the box-set (way back in the 1930s substantial 78 RPM vinyl sets used to come in boxes which was part of their elite cache) became a regular part of the armoury and still people were willing to buy in sufficient quantities to justify further box-sets and anniversary editions.

Somewhere in amidst it all, the same concepts became applied to live acts; if people were willing to pay to repurchase the music, there’s no reason they wouldn’t pay to see the bands essentially engage in high-quality karaoke. Reformations had always happened going right back to the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special, but usually a reformation involved new material being written and an attempt to resuscitate a career because of the feeling that progress had to be made. Other artists had never gone away, they’d simply been repackaged into Golden Oldies tours and smaller venues and package tours — but the last decade has seen a fresh development.

The idea of progress has come to a halt. A few decades of seeing that people were quite happy to pay an inflated price to see a band that they never caught in their heyday (i.e., Sex Pistols Filthy Lucre Tour of 1996), as well as the realisation that most long-term artists increasingly end up playing a greatest hits medley as a crucial and favourite component of a show (i.e., everyone from Elton John to Bon Jovi), led to the realisation that a band could be resuscitated and pushed, zombie-like, onto a stage without any need to do anything new at all. This was a cheap and easy way to make substantially more profit than a lot of new acts and ongoing artists would reap — the ticket prices can be higher, the band will take a lower cut to get the second chance, there’s no need to plan around album releases or recording commitments; just get ‘em up, on stage and done. And, of course, that’s a perfectly satisfying music product for the audience; there’s nothing wrong with one quick evening of nostalgia, or that one-off sight of the heroes you never caught working through the songs you never saw when they were still a natural entity.

One element may be that the pop world has degenerated into an endless remarketing of echoes whether in the form of the kareoke contests that fill primetime TV or the reappropriation of tunes wrapped into beat-heavy remixes and major league pop product that fill the charts. With audiences used to the small endorphin thrill of recognition even the most non-mainstream audiences are simply more used to hearing the past reiterated.

And that’s the truth…There’s nothing wrong with it. A few artists, still caught in their own desire for artistic authenticity and a sense of creative validity, take the chance to whack some new music out; but Swans are a rarity in that they’re currently doing phenomenally well by being one of the few outfits to genuinely go someplace new with the music even if I don’t enjoy either of their newest recordings anywhere near as much as I did Soundtracks for the Blind or Swans Are Dead.

In a culture that venerates success, there’s a tendency to underrate the destruction it wreaks upon the victor. Similarly, the fact that a victory does not halt time at the pristine pinnacle of success — that life goes on — leads to disillusionment and disparagement when ongoing reality refuses to stay still. 1989-1991 was an era of victory and all the consequent worries, woes and uncertainties that comes with it — a powerful sense of “what next?”

The Sex Pistols had certainly dug a hole in the U.K.’s consensus — exposing and parodying its vile edge in which there’s nothing more than what you can grab from those who will buy — but only in the context of a wider economic malaise and the ongoing decline of Britain from an imperial peak which now made the U.S. the self-confident and true home of rock. While the U.S. embraced some fragments of punk squalor it was primarily theatrical and integrated well into the existing superhero template — Motley Crue, Ted Nugent, Guns n’ Roses; these were the nearest the mainstream came to punk until Nirvana.

The U.K. and Europe similarly possessed genuine socialist parties which acted as strong forces with an influence on the direction of national politics. In the U.S. this simply didn’t exist; open espousal of socialism let alone communism was a severely suppressed thread in politics. While in the U.K. and Europe feminism, gay rights, vegetarianism, anti-war protests and so forth were part of both the mainstream political mix and popular mass causes — in the U.S. these were viewed as left-wing, politically suspect and only of interest to non-mainstream activists and extremists.

The impact of this exclusion was to add these causes to the realm of deviance and non-mainstream interests in which U.S. punk fermented; all were minority activities focused around tiny self-defined communities of ‘outcasts’ and increasingly, as the Eighties went on, the punk scene fused with a strong political edge whether openly critical of the current political mainstream, or of law enforcement, or in favour of pro-gay rights, or of feminist politics. It was the same rooting around in the underground that led some to latch onto extreme racist nationalism, the other side of the coin to punk’s quest for rebel yells outside the vision presented by militaristic, flag-waving, ‘us uber alles’ supermen who infested the mainstream.

Nirvana’s rise didn’t take place in a vacuum; it coincided with the entire political order of the West shifting. Nirvana’s first European tour coincided with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact with the Berlin Wall commencing its fall on November 9, 1989 and Nirvana arriving in the city two days later as people continued tearing at the symbol of the entire post-war reality. Finally, following the attempted coup in August 1991, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist on December 26, 1991 — just as Nirvana was exploding into mass consciousness.

The colossal weight of what was occurring was amplified and enhanced by the reality that this was the first global shift of the mass media era. The absence of the unifying enemy who had tethered U.S. culture for decades was a grave concern among governing circles after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the end of the last substantial external threat to capitalism. Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and The Last Man expanded was built on a 1989 article and essentially suggested that progress and time had now halted — that’s how deeply the narrative of Cold War had infected perceptions of reality and how hard it was to envisage a life without it. Fukuyama’s book has been long-criticised but its key point that the last fully functioning alternative to capitalism (in whatever gradation) had ceased and a single economic system now ruled almost the entire dialogue of world civilisation.

The shock of Nirvana’s emergence was so powerful within the U.S. not because of the music itself — debates over its originality and universal popularity are missing the point. Nirvana were the crest of a wave that had travelled far and was now breaking in so many directions. On the one hand, the extreme solipsism and air of defensiveness, indifference, negativity that many saw in Nirvana was an articulation of a new insecurity, a new vulnerability that arose because no one now knew who or where the enemy was. Simultaneously, the music acknowledged and empowered feelings that hadn’t been permitted under the old regime governed by the indestructible ‘rock star’; the need for the strong had gone away and Nirvana helped make it look ridiculous. Instead the marginalised could emerge blinking into daylight and with them all the causes that had been bred into the underground’s rising stars during the previous decade.

The switch in the music culture had been prefaced by an expanding roster of alternative bands on major labels prior to Nirvana’s emergence, there had been bands originating in the indie scene who had made the jump to major label record deals — but success was varied. Among the mainstream survivors, Metallica incorporated a touch more brooding into their major crossover success, Guns n’ Roses acknowledged the turn away from chest-thumping rock only in Axl Rose’s more solitary and sombre meditations, Nine Inch Nails were still to push the dial all the way to The Downward Spiral — while the move toward Cobain’s insularity had been foreshadowed by all this activity, there still wasn’t a superstar until his arrival who looked so firmly inward.

A similar explosion at that time was the twisted tale of the Black Metal scene in Scandinavia and particularly in Norway. Between 1991 and 1995, with a very young coterie of individuals egging each other on to ever more extreme and grim acts, the early scene erupted with over twenty churches burned, suicide, murder, general mayhem. In the book ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness” there’s a quotation from one figure in the scene stating “it is interesting that Black Metal exploded in Norway immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union and the final demise of the idea that fighting against the bourgeoisie and capitalist conservatives, including Christianity, could be defeated by revolutionary socialism…It’s all part of an escape from reality.”

The Norwegian scene couldn’t follow the U.S. simply because Norway was never as fully integrated into the confrontational West versus East face-off. Socialism was a well-represented presence and a successful component of the governing mix within Norwegian politics bringing with it the kinds of policies that the U.S. alternative scene was then busy trying to articulate. The Black Metal scene was forced into a different reaction of similar extremity to the Nirvana effect. A core of individuals substituted a new overarching narrative and competition, one pitching Nordic (white) paganism against other races which were deemed to be diluting strong blood and simultaneously against Christianity on the basis that it had feminised national cultures, another reason why the scene was also homophobic, a further effeminate weakening influence.

Of course it was nonsense, but no more nonsensical than Ted Nugent, AC/DC or the trappings of cock rock that had achieved two decades of dominance in the U.S. It took the world to change for the rock star to die whether in Nirvana’s rain of sardonic laughter (“hi Axl! Hi Axl!”) or Norway’s reign of blood and fire.


“Is there a clean white shirt ready for the bomb?”

This film will make more sense to those who are aware of a film called The Snowman — it’s a Christmas tradition in U.K., a whimsical and nostalgic piece in which a young boy enters his garden on Christmas Eve to find his snowman has come to life. The piece is wordless, story conveyed in drawn figures and landscapes and a swooning soundtrack; a warm dream. The piece above is by the same author/artist, Raymond Briggs, very familiar drawing style, childhood associations…And naturally disturbing because of the sheer Englishness of the characters’ responses and discussion — the myth of ‘the last war’ circles through the entire piece. The serious point being that in 1983-1984 the Soviet leadership was genuinely of the view that NATO was preparing a strike against the Soviet Union. Rhetoric from the west was sparking a reaction and that, in turn, led to escalating responses. The Able Archer exercise in November 1983 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Able_Archer_83) was the closest the world had come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis with the Russians genuinely believing the war games were our cover for a pre-emptive strike.

Direct cause-and-effect relationships are hard to find when tracing the interaction of the background scenarios that rule over the lives of entire societies and the cultural outbursts those societies then enact. Musical motion arises on the back of and in relation or reaction to previous music; technological shifts drive changes in instrumentation, sound, style and approach; musicians arise from familial, comradely, educational and psychological advantages, pressures or drivers; scenes arise supported by the emergence of supporting infrastructure whether broadcasting media, means of production, venues for dissemination. Music doesn’t, however, float free of the politics or economics that drive a society and that are so intimately intertwined.

In the glow of victory, and contrary to what one might expect, the crime rate in the U.K. and U.S. after World War Two increased — the Golden Age of Bank Robbery was over the next two decades as demobbed soldiers, trained in the use of weapons and explosives, lucratively deployed their talents. While prefabricated homes spread home ownership across the U.S. and suburbia became a new reality, war industry used to churning out metal was retooled to churning out cars. The massive organisation of society that had arisen as a consequence of war never went away, it shifted objectives, names changes but the new institutions and the accepted levels of their intrusion into the daily lives of people had simply become accepted.


(Threads — 1984)

Rock n’ Roll, then whatever it was that was started by The Beatles in the Sixties and evolved into hard rock, heavy metal, punk and so forth tended toward less emotionally revealing lyrics — artful phrasings or vagueness substituted for stark self-examination. This evolved throughout the seventies and eighties, until the heart of mainstream rock music was a macho, dominant, hyper-masculinity that matched the defiant sense of ‘them and us’ that ruled everyday reality — in the U.S. punk barely made a dent on the mainstream leaving the Seventies rock motif to live on. Remember this was a society living under the very real threat of genuine annihilation not by zombies (heh!) but by nuclear weaponry that would halt real life in its tracks with a four minute warning for the U.K. and not much more for the U.S. The renewal of the core rock image, the penis-centric God figure, fitted like tight blue jeans to the early Eighties when figures within the U.S. military scene, in concert with the conservative figures around Ronald Reagan began focusing not on the megadeath perspective of mutual destruction, but on a belief that even amidst the graves of hundreds of millions, there was such a thing as victory in a nuclear future. There was no reason to relinquish the externally directed aggression inherent in the rock star image when there was a vast existential enemy always present.


(The Day After — 1983)

Nirvana lived out their entire youth in a world where everything was about to be blown to smithereens at any moment. By 1987 when Nirvana became a reality, nothing had yet changed. The Pacific North-West was potentially one of the few places where at least some portion of the outlying population might have made it through — a survivalist community did exist in State of Washington — but the background reality of atomic decimation and the collapse of organised society walked in step with a music culture that leaned toward Superman with a pumped up and screaming wild edge that was simply a demonstration that the superheroes of rock music were meant to show we could survive any excess, any destructive act. The drugs, the sex, the lunacy of the mainstream rock scene was part of showing that America was indomitable, indestructible — its denizens did not die when famous, when centre stage, when flaunting their power before the world. This would change.

Evening all…Long day, much to do…

…So no Friday post. However, in the morning, a nice long weekend post.

In the meantime, I’d suggest, that if the Friday mood has set in, and you’re still longing for more In Utero…Just look at the left hand side of the screen, scroll down slightly until you can see the content categories for this blog…And click the one marked In Utero 1992-1993.

Have a good evening and back to normal service tomorrow.

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This is the actual summary from Mojo of the 20th Anniversary In Utero box-set (bought a copy at Waterloo Station last night). It actually lists five instrumentals, not the four believed the other day. That makes a tiny difference to the summary I suggested yesterday:

Disc 1: 13 track original album, plus Marigold, MV, I Hate Myself & I Want to Die, Verse Chorus Verse (Sappy) = 17
Disc 2: 13 track original album, plus SA from Rio, 1990 Marigold, Word of Mouth instrumentals x 4, plus Very Ape from…? = 20
Live n’ Loud: 17 tracks times two = 34, plus a clutch of bonus video footage
Total: 71 plus the bonus video material

That one addition reduces the chances even further of the January 1991 demos of All Apologies and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, of Sound City Sappy (always a forelorn hope) or the missing and vaguely described Song in D, of the April 1993 Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle, of the January 1993 covers of Seasons in the Sun and Onwards into Countless Battles and of either the full October 1992 jam or the February 1993 piece known as Lullaby.

Ah well! Still nice. Curious to see what the fresh mix of In Utero sounds like…I can’t get rid of my original CD of In Utero once I get this simply because it’s the second CD I ever owned (a gift from my aunt at Christmas), the first being the Nirvana Singles boxset I bought in November 1995 before I even had a CD player – God bless my parents for deciding to correct that.