Archive for the ‘Trends – Hip Hop, Grunge and Alternative’ Category

I was honoured to be asked by Trebuchet Magazine (thank you Kailas and Naila!) to contribute a brief article to their website…And I totally failed them by contributing a lengthy rant instead! Luckily they’re kind people and found enough of substance in my growling that they were happy to publish it as a two part discussion piece.

In essence, have you noticed how inescapable ‘the beat’ is? In a world of infinite possibility how limited the possibilities used actually are? I’m not talking absolute rejection but I like the thought that my world might be limitless rather than limited by unconscious design.

Spent the last few days living with the three disc ‘Be Here Now’ reissue – Oasis, credit to them, they always knew how to cram a single with worthwhile B-sides (always the maximum number of fresh originals every time) and that gives them the depth to sustain a substantial reissue too where most bands can barely fish out a live show to fill up a supposedly ‘deluxe’ edition.

Doesn’t mean I love ‘Be Here Now’ of course. But it’s a moment I recall, that time when Oasis really did feel like something everyone of any age could love. Speaking to so many musicians and journalists these past couple of years, quite a few have spoken of feeling the need for change after 1994 – things had become too pressured, too precious, something lighter was needed to refresh the palette. Oasis provided that to the popular mainstream in the U.K. and for a few years they felt untouchable.

A side bar topic really, research indicating that there is a genetic component involved in whether someone is able to master a musical instrument or not. In the tales of Kurt Cobain’s upbringing there’s much emphasis placed on the presence of musical relatives and his acquisition of instruments and ultimately on his meeting with the Melvins and other local punk fans which all leads him toward developing a particular style and approach as well as solidifying his musical direction. Actually, none of that emphasis is invalidated by saying that some of his abilities are innate and nothing to do with the environment in which he found himself. An inbuilt ability is nothing if there’s never an opportunity to exercise it (yes, that’s why the socio-economic divide in education matters; some kids would be just as good as the privileged few but are never given that chance – what a waste), likewise a gift for something will come to naught if not pursued and encouraged. Cobain’s family members encourage him to practice which means he gets better, his new friends point him toward a particular sound, his own self-motivation and satisfaction keep him putting in the hours that ensure his instrumental and vocal abilities are sufficient to get him noticed.

Where the genetic element makes a difference to his tale is simply in allowing him to be more responsive to practice and to musical stimulus. One of Cobain’s greatest traits was that he seems to be able to listen to other facets of the underground music scene and very rapidly cherrypick those styles to incorporate them into his own idiom. The Fecal Matter demo covers most of his nascent influences, the January 23, 1988 session is an entire new world of alternatives and options, he takes less than a year to create something tailored to Sub Pop’s specific sound, then between January and September leaves it behind and lets his power pop influences show for the Blew EP bonus tracks, by April 1990 only Lithium has the Pixies-ish dynamic going but by the end of the year he’s perfected it…His talent for hearing things and knowing how to use them within his own vision is what puts him above a lot of players who perhaps had a more singular sound throughout their career (perhaps altered only by changing the cast of collaborators) but couldn’t match Cobain’s very good ear for what made things new and different.

Just placed this one here because it intrigued me. Essentially the modern age in which money goes to technology firms not to publishers, agents or – god forbid – the majority of writers has its plus side (i.e., yes, the majority of people can now create and upload art, photography, music and writing in a form accessible by others) at the same time as it’s hugely reduced the opportunity for anyone to actually practice a creative skill as a full-time occupation outside of the designated corporate business outlets and career paths. An occasional one-off will rise to the top but basically, as those running technology firms and financial institutions can’t comprehend things that aren’t processes of manufacture with a pre-defined and near-guaranteed outcome, there’s an ongoing effort to convert it into something they do comprehend; delivery mechanisms that systematically undermine the power of any individual creator and derive profit from the agglomeration of a large number of micro-payments from which they take their cut with the majority seeing little fruit from their work…Until they re-enter the standard and approved path.

Oh, and this one is just a glorious example of the wealth of random connections the world possesses – intricate ol’ place isn’t it?

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.

“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 ( 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.

For the record, Ian MacKaye is on my list alongside Johnny Rotten, Kurt Cobain, Michael Gira and Thurston Moore as one of the most epoch-making figures in punk rock over the past thirty years. I make the judgment not on record sales or temporary tabloid worthiness but on being a catalyst for numerous bands and resulting strands of musical endeavour. A sincere salute.

The gentlemen behind this film have entered the production phase but, as they’re essentially self-funding this, I can only encourage and support their request for donations toward the conclusion of this work.

The film seems to provide the cinematic counterpoint to the excellent Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. The surprising quality of the footage, the slivers of revealing interview…And yes, Dave Grohl lines up to discuss his time in DC stars Scream.

By synthesising two guys tied to the North-West grunge scene, with their new drummer from the East Coast hardcore scene, Nirvana essentially placed a full-stop on the underground scene of the Eighties. While various bands and outfits dragged the overall genre in new directions at various points of the decade, the defining geographic entities were Washington DC and Seattle, the defining labels became Dischord and Sub Pop.

There’s a fair argument that the latter learned from the former. Their impact came from tying themselves so firmly to a specific location, they were not just labels based in a particular location, putting out bands who happened to be from a certain place; they made their identity synonymous with the city from which they were from and during their defining days they bound the bands on each label to that same specific identity.

The more open geography of labels such as SST or Alternative Tentacles gathered up many of the best bands playing but never unified those bands. The DC/Seattle identities gave the illusion of a gang, a home turf, people known to each other and gathered round the label flag. That sense of intimacy made each label stand out and makes it impossible to separate the label from the city and the bands from either. It’s comparable to the way bands are regularly portrayed as ‘bands of brothers’. That united front can equally apply to a label or a place and seems equally attractive; a community of people choosing to believe in and support a sound, an approach, a philosophy. It’s, to some extent, illusionary, a projection of external desire for something to belong to onto the bands/labels/people at its centre, but it retains huge power as an idea.

So! Salad Days! Take a look, support, encourage…And sometime soon I hope we’ll see the finished product. Here’s the Facebook group for further updates and beyond that…Scott Crawford and Jim Saah? I salute thee.

I’ve posted before about the way in which the age of mass electronics has elevated the work of engineers to gold status, economically, while downgrading the goods created by musicians and writers to junk. Naturally I’m fan of incomplete answers, reality is far more complete than either/or will ever allow for.

One massive benefit of the times in which we live is the ability for the willing amateur to project sigificant quantities of curious and (often) fascinating material out into the world. Over the past few months I’ve been awestruck by some of the work done out there by people tracking down and posting out-of-print and little remembered music from the late Eighties-early Nineties.

I’m not here on Monday so I thought I could draw your attention to some of this now and it’d keep people indulged and amused through Monday. What I do is use to identify bands who crossed paths with Nirvana at whatever point in time then use these sites to locate them…

My top four, all of which I’d like to recommend to you, are:
I bow down in awe to this guy…The very first thing loaded up today is a 1985 Seattle compilation released on cassette with Bundle of Hiss, with Jack Endino, with The Walkabouts all featured. Digging further into the site there’s music from Bible Stud (shared a gig with Nirvana in May 1989), music plus an interview with My Eye… Stunning work and enjoyably expressed.
Wilfully Obscure, meanwhile, does exactly what it says on the tin. This dude must have one incredible vinyl collection because I thought I had deep awareness of long-forgotten music acts but again and again I’m having to look up what this guy comes up with…Incredible. You could listen for days here and always find someone new. Well worth exploring.
Lame Stain meanwhile is leading with a comparison of TAD and Vampire Weekend; quite rightly pointing out the lack of sweatmarks, dampness and stomach disorders in today’s polished-to-a-sheen indie darlings. Useful, I admit TAD are a band I’ve known of without knowing and this is a good antidote. More to come apparently showcasing pre-TAD outlets for the various members.
I like this guy for taking the time to put up his statement of belief at all times – it sums up most of what all these sites are about, sharing music that has been lost in time, letting people know about it, while not disrespecting the artists involved and their rights. There’s a lot of unusual material here straying across punk/metal boundaries and touring the U.S. in an eccentric and all-devouring manner.