Archive for July, 2018

Review_1

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

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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.

There was much made in the late eighties and early nineties of the influence of Jarboe over the turn in Swans music, then much comment on her absence from the return of Swans in 2010. My belief is two-fold: firstly, that Swans couldn’t continue without her by 1996-1997 and, secondly, that the present iteration of Swans would be impossible without the influence she had Michael Gira and the nature of Swans between 1984 and 1997.

The former seems inarguable. During interviews for SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence (http://smarturl.it/swansbook), both Gira and Jarboe made clear something curious: that the traditional understanding is that their relationship bled over into and affected the band while, in their view, it was the other way around. It makes sense: the ethos of Swans was so absolutist – so focused on making every show, every recording and every performance the zenith of what could exist in that moment – that each would leave their mutual love and affection at the door and show barely a hint of mercy to one another’s feelings. Swans had to be everything. Each would argue, critique, dissect and demand whatever it was felt a song might require to reach the heights. Jarboe had become increasingly prominent as a vocalist – by the time of The Great Annihilator in 1995 she sang fully five of the songs on the record – but also was contributing lyrics, working up music with Lary 7 and others then introducing it to the context of Swans (‘Volcano’, from Soundtracks For The Blind for instance was apparently intended as a Jarboe solo work with Lary 7 to appear on a compilation or a release outside of Swans), adding her instrumental textures to near every song performed. Swans would have been sorely lacking in contrast and surprise in her absence. More so, in terms of the functioning of the band, Jarboe and Gira were the ‘officer class’ and, to some degree, seem to have occupied good cop/bad cop roles with Gira kicking people’s ass while Jarboe rallied, mollified, persuaded and encouraged. Having the two poles can be extremely beneficial in any working environment (I’ve seen it fairly regularly in offices) because each pulls different positive responses from those they work with – it certainly has an effect when it comes to a music like Swans with its reliance on tension. At times, during the later tours, it seems the band would have quit if not for Jarboe’s persuasion and ability to raise spirits. Gira couldn’t envisage, in 1996, Swans continuing without Jarboe and he clearly couldn’t imagine making it work in the aftermath of their romantic relationship: their symbiosis had become the core of Swans.

The latter is a more nuanced point. Swans, in 1984, was at a turning point: when Roli Mosimann and Harry Crosby left, Swans consisted solely of Gira and Westberg – Gira considered abandoning music. Jarboe persuaded him to continue and was subsequently recruited to the line-up – Swans continued, in part, because of her. With Cop, Swans early template reached its fullest expression: the sound itself needed to change if the band was not to tread over old ground. Greed and Holy Money, for all their claustrophobic bludgeoning vibe, contained significant space – loud quiets so to speak – as well as Jarboe’s vocal contributions, even a piano. Gira would speak of his increasing disquiet at the component of the band’s audience who saw the music as nothing more intelligent than some kind of arcane heavy metal, loudness and heaviness just for the sake of it – that kind of predictability was unsatisfying. Jarboe possessed the musical education and knowledge that would offer Gira the new possibilities he craved – as well as the confidence and encouragement to learn and to try. Gira’s evolution into a genuine singer was the open door to Swans’ future and began with Jarboe teaching him rudimentary vocal techniques to build on and practice and develop. The Skin project, meanwhile, was an opportunity – paid for by Product Inc (Mute) – to gain experience and comfort working with acoustic instrumentation in combination with the possibilities of the studio. Again, everything learnt in Skin would bleed back into Swans making possible the flourishes present on Children Of God and the full-blown Americana of The Burning World – by the time of White Light and Love Of Life Swans’ sonic expansiveness was the new norm with guest performers, session musicians and other specialist musicians making regular appearances. Jarboe was no passenger, any more than Gira was a puppet: increasingly they were equals allowing one another the room and comfort to experiment and go further.

A significant side-bar would be Jarboe’s tireless work as Swans main correspondent with the fan community. Today it’s simply accepted that underground artists need to develop a bond with their audience in order to allow creative art to continue. In the case of Swans I’ve been amazed with the dedication and fanatical faith of the fans I’ve encountered: that relationship built over decades to become what it is today. In the eighties it wasn’t unusual for bands to write back personally, Swans simply took it a lot more seriously than some. Through fan mail, Jarboe made connections to artists like Deryk Thomas and corresponded with future band member Bill Bronson among others. She would also create Swans first website and messageboard offering an entirely new level of contact – very much one of the frontrunners in the independent music scene in that regard. The website was central to the continuation of Swans legend, legacy and reputation as the band itself exited. Via the site substantial quantities of interviews, CD-R live shows and other information were archived for discovery. Jarboe also made a point of using rare records and other Swans-related materials accumulated over the years as talismanic art objects, one of a kind objects of desire, meaning further weight accreted to Swans as an entity of ongoing significance. I specifically recall printing out and reading interviews at age 17-18 – few bands had an online site of such scale or depth pre-millennium (many still don’t today.) I remember considering whether I could afford a $100 dollar test pressing or to buy multiple shows from the 1996-1997 tour to observe the evolution of the music – I was sucked in and enthralled. This was one of the springboards that kept Swans present and enticing to new generations – they were relatively easy to learn of compared to many acts of the eighties and nineties who required substantial digging.

The connection between what Swans had become by 1996-97 – an omnivorous sonic palette encompassing whatever instrumentation, approach and delivery would yield the intensity of emotion and experience desired – and what it has been between 2010 and 2017 is very clear. The dynamism of the modern band, and recognising that its studio and live incarnations are quite different in many respects, has been what allows it to evolve and develop and continue to connect with an audience. That expansiveness arose out of the dead-end reached by the mid-eighties; out of the opportunities offered by Jarboe’s presence and the trust Gira had in her; out of the experiments she brought to the table. To this day Swans contains significant space for the contrast afforded by a female vocal or for found sounds and other interventions while the lavish instrumentation of the most recent albums has grown from the seeds planted in the mid-to-late eighties. At the time, some fans disparaged Swans turn to the esoteric – accusations of Gothicism were made – but it meant open-eared elements of the old audience, those who understood that true intensity didn’t just mean ‘loud’, stuck with the band while a new audience evolved who appreciated what it had become. Spanning generations and allowing for growth is vital if a band isn’t to become typecast, categorised, static and stale. Present-day Swans is very much the child of what Swans became after Jarboe’s influence and involvement.

I’m always awed by Adam Casto’s ability to gather together collaborators of deep pedigree from the alternative rock seen and merge their efforts into a seamless whole. The ever amusing, sometimes comedic, sometimes serious, always rocking Nerd Table project is an absorbing combination of underground party, guest curation and decent punk song-smithing.

This time around, the guest list includes Kurt Danielson (Tad), Dave Abbruzzese (Pearl Jam), Elmo Kirkwood, Dale Crover and Buzz Osborne (Melvins), Kevin Rutmanis (Melvins/Cows), Billy Anderson, Geoff Robinson (Blood Circus), Jeff Pinkus (Butthole Surfers)…Sheesh. It’s quite the crew!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/15332370/art-rock-and-revolution-and-the-punk-grace-of-mia

One of those great lost hopes of the music scene, The Gits were on the cusp of breaking through to wider awareness and onward hope at the time the band came to an unceremonious and unfortunate end. A few years ago I had the good fortune to be in touch with Steve Moriarty of the band and I was delighted when I heard he was going to be creating a deep dive volume about the band and Mia Zapata – their iconic (and bloody awesome) lead singer.

One of Nirvana’s precious few shows in the first half of 1993 came about after the death of Zapata. Courtney Love persuaded Cobain to call the organisers of a benefit concert to raise money to investigate her death and to suggest Nirvana take part. The condition was there’d be no official mention of Nirvana’s involvement until the day itself – word of mouth only. The Gits were part of the new generation of bands emerging in the north-west (though the band originated elsewhere in the country) in the aftermath of Sub Pop’s initial success and the relative popularity and fame of the first wave of bands associated with grunge. This was the post-grunge phase rubbing alongside Riot Grrrl and such scenes.