Flying Lotus stares moodily from the cover of The Wire's October issue, his third eye caught in a blur as it materialises in the region of his right temple. A neat/corny camera trick by photographer Jake Walters, you might think. But either way it feels like an appropriate representation – after all, FlyLo is a producer-DJ whose ancestors were cosmic visionaries.
As interviewer Britt Brown points out, but as all you Generation Bass cadets will already know full well, FlyLo's great aunt was Alice Coltrane, that divine messenger who appeared to us in the guise of a jazz musician – although Britt doesn't go on to state the next obvious but still rather mindnumbing fact that this meant his great uncle would have been John Coltrane himself, had he lived long enough to anoint baby Steven Ellison's head once he'd come into the world in October 1983.
Another of FlyLo's great uncles (a blood relative rather than in-law – he was Alice's half-brother) was the somewhat lesser known Ernie Farrow, a double bassist who was another family fixture on Detroit’s vibrant post-war jazz scene. He might not be up there in the pantheon of black music mystics alongside John and Alice, but in the late 50s Ernie was a core member of the group led by Yusef Lateef, who definitely is. Lateef was one of the first jazz musicians to reject his given identity (William Emanuel Hudddleston – a slave name if ever there was one) and convert to Islam. A multi-instrumentalist who introduced strange new instruments and scales to hard bop, he was a significant influence on John and Alice's emerging concept of Universal Consciousness. Great Uncle Ernie's basslines and rebab playing were core components of Lateef's late 50s/early 60s jazz-exotica albums such as Before Dawn, Jazz And The Sounds Of Nature, Prayer To The East and Eastern Sounds. These were records which mixed modal jazz and Hollywood kitsch with pan-Africanisms and proto-New Age spirituality in a way that ensured they would become foundation stones of the fusion aesthetic that would underpin much of the advanced black music to emerge in the subsequent two decades – which is to say the traditon which lends FlyLo's Web 2.0 cosmogrammatic beat science the kind of historical weight that is both real and deep but also mediated and synthetic, predicated on a very conscious process of fabrication.
FlyLo is an industry player too, of course – recording for Warp, pulling down all those headliner DJ slots, mentoring the next generation of downtempo beatnutz via his Brainfeeder label. And as Britt also points out, he has some family precedents for these rather more pragmatic aspects of his operation too.
Even closer on the bloodline than Alice or Ernie is their half-sister Marilyn McLeod, aka FlyLo's granny, who in the 1970s was a songwriter for Tamla Motown. And if Marilyn wasn't exactly a one-woman Holland-Dozier-Holland, a handful of her songs found their way into the repertoires of some of the label’s headline acts, as both they and Motown attempted to adjust to the seismic changes in black R&B precipitated by the rise of disco.
(There's a nice family photo on the site of photographer Theo Jemison which has FlyLo holding up a copy of Great Aunty Alice's A Monastic Trio LP, while behind him granny sits playing an upright piano).
In his article, Britt singles out Marilyn's big moment, Diana Ross's recording of "Love Hangover", which was co-written in 1976 by Marilyn and regular collaborator Pam Sawyer. This was the track that reignited the solo career of Motown's hottest property by propelling her into the realm of the glitter ball (literally almost, as during the recording sessions producer Hal Davis rigged the studio with a glitter ball substitute in the form of a strobe light to get Ross the Boss, initially something of a reluctant disco diva, into the appropriate mood of hedonistic abandon). Despite being issued six years into the disco decade, by which time the music had established an irresistible style and momentum that was all its own, "Love Hangover" is one of those cuts whose structure carries a trace-echo of disco's debt to Bronx salsa: watch out for the vertiginous moment around 2:50 minutes in when dreamy bliss turns to urgent desire as the sickly-sweet sentiments and structure of the song suddenly shift into a mantric bass-drums coda that builds and builds but never peaks.
Four years before "Love Hangover" yoked itself to the disco juggernaut to hit serious paydirt, Marilyn co-wrote "Walk In The Night" for veteran R&B saxophonist Jnr Walker. This was a proto-disco-cum-Easy Listening instrumental phantasia that predated by a year the records most commonly cited as the ones that ushered in disco as a musical genre in its own right, namely The Temptations' "Law Of The Land" and Eddie Kendricks's "Girl You Need A Change Of Mind" (both also issued by Motown). As well as having a melody that was somehow both ethereal and indelible (a classic Easy Listening strategy), "Walk In The Night" had the kind of propulsive mid-tempo backbeat that would ensure it would become a Northern Soul staple.
The same year she wrote "Walk In The Night", another of Marilyn's compositions (this one co-written with Berry Gordy Jr himself no less) was given to Marvin Gaye, who recorded it in the fraught interregnum between the post-civil rights laments of What's Going On and the carnal entreaties of its eventual follow up Let's Get It On. "The World Is Rated X" was originally slated for inclusion on the abandoned You're The Man album and has had something of a peripatetic existence ever since (it was included on the Got To Give It Up anthology and the expanded edition of Let's Get it On). So it's one of the lesser known tracks from the most feted period of one of the most conflicted artists of all. But it's an amazing performance by the singer, in terms of the timing and the flow, and the way he invests the rather parochial protest lyric with urgent beseeching drama. As the track progresses the arrangement thickens to add the kind of epic backdrop of strings and horns that would become a disco archetype. You can still hear it all percolating away beneath the rebarbative drum programming and EQing on this typical mid-80s remix (the original is nowhere to be found on YouTube's increasingly compromised archive).
In 1979, Marylin finally got to record and sing one of her own songs, though not for Motown. "(I Don't Wanna Dance Tonight) I Got Love On My Mind" was originally released as a Fantasy 12". The A side was reissued earlier this year on the American Hot volume of the Disco Discharge series. But whatever her talents, Marilyn was no Loleatta Holloway, and it's the instrumental B side that you need, a 144 bpm disco flyer in the style of Azymuth’s "Jazz Carnival". The track has never been reissued, and its 'record spinning on a turntable' YouTube post has been wiped from the archive by the copyright lawyers (although you can hear it here courtesy of the Disco Delivery blog). Which is a double disservice, because while such posts are vilified by the record industry as pure piracy, their comments pages can serve as channels for the dissemination of some illuminating local history.
As an example, on that now deleted YouTube post someone called Charles had commented: "I had the pleasure of working with [Marilyn] on my group's first album Rare Gems Odyssey." This turns out to be Charles E Givings, an LA session drummer who, in the mid-70s, worked regularly with Marilyn when she was demoing her songs for Motown (the organisation relocated from Detroit to LA in the early 70s taking Marilyn with it – which I guess might be the reason FlyLo grew up in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley rather than inner city Detroit: what would his tracks have sounded like if Motown and granny had stayed put, I wonder?). The record Charles is referring to is the 1977 debut by his fabulously obscure Cali-funk troupe Rare Gems Odyssey. The album, which contained a number of Marilyn McLeod writing credits, disappeared without trace (although it seems the group is still a going concern). But a decade after its release, two of its tracks had a brief second life in the UK's Rare Groove underground, one of the incubator club scenes for the generation of Brit-hop producers and label runners who would emerge in the 90s to help define the jazzy downtempo loops 'n' beats aesthetic that would become one of the (unacknowledged) templates for FlyLo's jazzy downtempo hiphop-electronica fusions (if FlyLo doesn't owe props to Mo'Wax, then my name's James Lavelle).
Fast forward two decades to 1998, when time folded in on itself, and Marilyn and Pam Sawyer got paid twice over, by writing the cookie cutter R&B of Monica's "The First Night", which pivoted on a sample of "Long Hangover" (cute).
"The First Night" is one of those tracks which became a YouTube meme, generating multiple webcam karoake versions. I'm not saying it pre-echoes FlyLo's own cyber-soul productions with Erykah Badu on the new Until The Quiet Comes album, but I can't help flashing on one serendipitous correspondence. In his interview with Britt, FlyLo refers to the album as "a children's record, a record for kids to dream to". Meanwhile, one of the comments on that YouTube post states: "My mum used to sing this to me as a Lullaby... and I'm planning to do the same for my kids."
Is the term remix redundant? Music has been begging, borrowing and stealing since day one. But does a remix denote more about the working process than the actual nature of the track? When so much is on long term loan, where's the dividing line between say, a prodigiously used sample and a remix? Is 'remix' just a label that's used top-down, from label to listener, to make sure you're accessing an audience efficiently?
Perhaps the trouble is that remixes are often half-baked, passed around on short deadlines to every Tom, Dick and Harry with a URL, touted as 'exclusive', when it's one from a bag of ten or more quick-fix mixes that add a lazy beat or beefed up production to give a track a longer shelf life. (The plague of bad blog-House mixes that were recycling Pitchfork-hits for desperate music bloggers got so bad The Hype Machine built in a 'no remixes' functionality.) It's the churnalism of music production.
Of course it's not always like that, but it can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. The good ones often catch you off guard by changing everything about a track, a drastic restoration or rebuild that changes how you thought and felt about something, a sweet vocal line looped into a frightening verbal tic, a tiny synth line scrubbed clean and brought to the fore, massive and shining.
From these thoughts I'm led to the entry-level philosophical puzzle of Theseus's ship. It asks: if you change every plank in Theseus's ship from oak to teak one by one, then at the end, is it still the same ship? Applied: if you replace or change every element of a track, is it still the same track? (...And if Theseus asks Wiley to change the planks, who owns the ship when the job's done? Theseus? Or Wiley? – Leaving aside the fact that Wiley would probably take the credit for it floating.)
From Ancient Greek puzzles there's only one small step to Mark E Smith, naturally: If you change every member of The Fall – is it still The Fall?
Talking to Nik Void for a feature in this month's magazine, I was struck by the way she talks about how Factory Floor pass on their records for remixing so readily (to Chris Carter and Stephen Morris, among others). For her it's about a continuation of ideas, giving someone what you've done and seeing what they will do with it – orphaning your own work so it might see something of the world, if you like.
Void said: "We like giving our stuff to other people to see how they develop it further, just letting it go."
"Just letting it go" – is this the nub of the issue? When you slap a bunch of names on something, notions of authorship, ownership, rights, and the ego of the creator all come into a power play. An artist gives someone a track and asks them to remix it. Is the track, as Nik Void suggests, a collection of ideas passed from one person to the next? Or (philosophically speaking not – God forbid – legally) does the original work belong to one person, passed on to someone else to be reworked (but not re-authored)?
And what about Tom Moulton mixes, Theo Parrish's Ugly Edits, and the rest? The waters are muddied, and in certain areas (the stuff that would once be tagged Ambient Techno for example), there can be a disjunct between what's called a remix and how a track has been constructed and reconstructed. Music is so tied up in ideas, concepts, and the sonic properties of equipment, that it might often be more correct to talk about something's continuing life cycle than it is to call it X's remix of Y by Z.
The term remix isn't really doing its job. In the same way that genre tags are in many ways redundant, maybe the term remix is limp and ineffective too. Genre tags act as vague signposts, but they can't draw a map. A remix can tell you who's been on the buttons, but won't give up the story of what really happened behind the desk.
The Loft staff Thanksgiving party, 1979. Photo: Don Lynn
A number of disco revivals around at the moment – a four CD box set of Tom Moulton's remixes of tracks issued in the early-mid-70s by Philadelphia International; four new volumes in the Disco Discharge archive series; a ruffneck mix of vintage disco obscurities posted online by Chicago Footwork producer du jour Traxman – all serving to remind us that the more the world sinks into the mire of capitalist folly the more prominent disco becomes. As the breathless press release accompanying those Disco Discharge releases puts it: "The new installment couldn't have come at a better time as history repeats itself, when the going gets tough, disco gets going!"
But buried in that sentiment is the main reason disco is still derided by so many so-called serious music types. When the going gets tough, disco gets going – yes, but in the wrong direction. The wisdom (if we can call it that) on disco that prevails in multiple subcultural nooks and crannies from Noise to alt.rock to Improv is that it is suffocating escapist froth, a retreat from the frontline of the Real into a dressed up, dumbed down, perpetual denial state of corny, showbizzy razzle-dazzle, all flaunt and flirt, oblivious to everything other than the solipsistic desire to go bang with all your friends at once, night in, night out. (Is it necessary to point out that such judgments rarely seem based on close encounters with disco's actual milieu, let alone a close analysis of the actual music, which in its original state melted a complex of Afro rhythms – Bronx salsa, gospel and R&B, samba and Afrobeat – into a mix that was insouciant enough to suck up Broadway showtunes, Hollywood musicals, early synth experiments, jazz, minimalism and exotica? But then disco is the ultimate example of a genre whose complex reality and backstory has been obscured by its subsequent global commodity status, as the music that taste forgot, the sound that sucks.)
But as those revisionist disco historians Peter Shapiro and Tim Lawrence have already demonstrated, disco's detractors should consider a couple of other angles on its supposedly head-in-the-stars refusal to grapple with the issues, its decadent insistence on fun and frivolity in the face of all the urgent evidence to the contrary (and is it necessary to reiterate the WASP-ish dimension to so much anti-disco rhetoric?)
For instance, rather than 'speaking truth to power' in the nominally engaged manner of protest songs of all stripes (rock, folk, R&B) – songs whose visceral platitudes and patinas seduced their audiences into thinking they were right there on the barricades, fed their sense of moral superiority in the taxonomy of cultural consumers – what if in its original incarnation, disco's inclusive dancing-in-the-ruins vibe actively turned its back to the cynical machinations of prevailing elites and hierarchies? Consider the climate and conditions in which disco emerged, which is to say the dog days of the early 70s in the necropolis of Manhattan, when America was freezing in the chill winds of global economic meltdown and rampant political conservatism, and the pitiless systemic response to Vietnam protests, civil rights and the rise of identity politics. Now consider the possibility that, instead of knuckling under to this harsh 70s reality, disco proudly and defiantly resisted it by having the nous and the nerve to walk away, disappearing into a polymorphously perverse autonomous zone where none of it mattered, and where divisions of class, race, gender and sexuality were allowed to dissolve in a cavalcade of esoteric rituals that suspended time for as long as the night allowed.
Many of disco's pioneers (New York DJs-cum-club runners such as David Mancuso and Francis Grasso) had come of age during long strange trips through the 60s counterculture, and in quasi-legal private-public spaces like The Church and The Loft the prone hippie credo of turning on, tuning in and dropping out took on a whole other meaning, transmuted for harder times into a more complex mantra of silence, exile and cunning. In these and other out of the way places at the centre of it all, disco revolted in style by creating a series of occult enclaves where the young and the damned, the bad and the beautiful, the perverse and the perverted could congregate in mutually assured communion, away from workaday existence and the (hetero)normative scheme of things with all its persecutions and privations. What disco's detractors perceived as reckless hedonism, its initiates (and let's not forget who those early denizens of the disco night actually were: blacks, Latins, gays, women; the socially marginalised and maligned) understood to be a far more subversive process of self-determination and community solidarity.
The clothes and the drugs, the roleplaying and the rituals may appear poles apart, but really, when you get right down to it, is what was happening at a socio-psychological level at the dawn of disco any different to what now occurs in those subcultural scenes which emerged partly in opposition to everything that disco apparently promoted (irony rather than authenticity, the anonymity and mutability of the DJ mix rather than the fixed co-ordinates of authorial identity, music used and abused as instant hit and disposable commodity)? The rhetoric that surrounds supposedly uncompromising avant garde scenes such as Noise, Improv, DIY makes claims for them that weirdly echo the imperatives that gave rise to disco: a revolt against deleterious systems – social, cultural and political – which took the form of a retreat underground and the creation of new ways of being based on new sets of shared values. Whether you choose to frequent loft parties or basement jamz or Improv workshops has everything to do with where you as an individual feel warm and secure, cocooned by likeminds and familiar faces, free to go bang with all your friends at once, night in, night out. The differences can be measured in degrees, are mere semantics, surface details.
Undergrounds are formed out of necessity by individuals and communities that have historically been on the wrong end of economic and cultural isolation, fear and loathing, cynicism and ignorance, snide jokes and sneering asides – the deviants, the aberrations, the exiles, the dispossessed. As David Mancuso told Tim Lawrence in Love Saves The Day: "The underground was where it was safe. It was where you wanted to be." He's referring to the milieu of the lofts and warehouses of disco's first blush, but he might as well be talking from the perspective of the occupants of the basements and backrooms of contemporary Noise and Improv: the underground, and underground status, as an end in itself; not an interim step to aboveground integration, but a defence mechanism against it (as if integration was ever possible on anything other than their terms). Aboveground is mendacious, censorious. Of course it is where you have to return, and you negotiate its treacherous terrain as best you can, like a fugitive, ducking into doorways and shadows, lurking in cracks and crevices, detouring down back streets, keeping your head down, hiding away in the cold light of day. But it's the last place on earth you want to be, and you remove yourself from it at every opportunity, night in, night out.
Disco fermented far underground, but through a number of insidious processes became the embodiment of everything that, in the eyes of other subterranean enclaves, was abhorrent about what happened aboveground. But this was merely another example of the process in which countercultures are co-opted by capital and distorted into grotesque parodies denuded of their original vernacular power to suspend one reality and replace it with another (disco is no more, no less an escape from reality than, say, Noise; instead, both are the endorsement, the validation of anOther). Punk becomes New Wave, Metal becomes AOR, revolutionary gestures become stadium grandstanding, the disco mix becomes cheesy opportunistic chart pop. And what remains of the underground responds by burrowing deeper, until its vibrations are barely discernible on the surface.
Essentially (as in: this is their true essence), undergrounds such as Noise, Improv and DIY, or Bassline and UK funky (or whatever they are calling the latest troglodyte modifications of disco DNA this week) all serve the same purpose, providing a psychic and physical refuge for those looking for other modes of existence, a context in which to intensify marginal ideas and esoteric experience, ones that might carry them up and above and beyond all the bright lies and dull routines, the banal facts of a world on the brink, if only for a night.
Mike Kelley photographed by Robert Gallagher for The Wire 235 September 2003
[This post was written following a conversation in The Wire office about the effects of the influence of the art of the late Mike Kelley, mainly as an attempt to clarify my own thoughts, and maybe confront some of my own prejudices. Many of my colleagues and associates at The Wire were longterm admirers of Kelley's work; indeed, some of them were friends of the artist – all have been shocked by the recent news of his death, reportedly by his own hand, aged just 57. In the circumstances, I doubt this post will be greeted in a spirit of critical debate. But as far as I can ascertain, Kelley himself never bothered much with matters of 'good' taste, let alone observed petty bourgeois notions of proper etiquette or knowing when to hold his tongue, so for what it's worth, I post it in a similar spirit.]
In the days following his death the tributes to Mike Kelley flooded in from the art press, broadsheets and online alt.rock sites, many proclaiming him the greatest American artist of his generation. That Kelley was a significant figure is not in doubt, which is part of the problem.
Born in 1954 into a working class family in the suburbs of Detroit, Kelley was one of a number of American visual artists whose aesthetic was formed during the 70s comedown from the failure of the 60s counterculture to actually change anything. Like his fellow art students at Ann Arbor's University of Michigan with whom he formed the performance/Noise group Destroy All Monsters, he was a blue collar freak rather than a Progressive hippy, and maybe it was the harsh realities in effect on Michigan's city streets in the wake of civil rights, rapid industrialisation and the 70s economic and spiritual downturns which deepened his cynicism and meant he saw through the facade of the corporate Prog-hippy ideal, sensing how its supine cultural politics actually buttressed the status of middle America and its ruling elites, reinforcing by other means existing hierarchies of class, race, gender, sexuality and aesthetics. As with Frank Zappa's recordings with The Mothers Of Invention a decade earlier, Destroy All Monsters seemed designed to confront apathetic hippy delusions head on, as much as it was an assault on bourgeois values, goading them from the sidelines via a series of guerilla art pranks.
In 1976 Kelley quit DAM and the boho Ann Arbor freak scene to study at CalArts, where he parlayed all his cynicism and disgust at the way the underground had been co-opted into a branch of Corporate Entertainment USA into an art world career which bowdlerised pop culture to such an extent that ironically (a double irony here) made it palatable to America's cultural elite.
Art critics, museum curators, private gallerists and major institutions all promoted Kelley's work for the way they thought it anatomised (by dissecting and rewiring pop cultural detritus) the uptight schizophrenia that reigned in America's public, private and domestic spheres (an aesthetic which reinforced their own delusions of panoptican superiority because in their eyes it articulated a process which they thought they were above and beyond). That's the macro view. At a much lower level, he was a symbol for all that could, and usually does, go wrong whenever the visual art world moves in on rock 'n' roll.
Kelley's background may have been mid-West working class but his sensibilities became those of a sardonic West Coast conceptual artist. The first rule of conceptual art is that it should be universally understood, that everyone should be in on the joke. This imperative was recognised by both Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, conceptual art pioneers who also produced its two greatest works (perhaps its only great works), Fountain and 4'33". As with Duchamp, Kelley's art was full of references to vernacular culture, was in fact constructed entirely from them. He dissed Duchamp's readymades for being 'obscure' relative to his own art of cultural appropriation and regurgitation. But despite this assertion, compared to Duchamp's subversive celebrations of materials which to the art world of his time were abject and abhorrent, Kelley's art constituted a series of bitter in-jokes and twisted asides executed on a grand scale, an aesthetic which made personal disjecta out of pop culture tropes in a way that would appeal directly to the class-based prejudices of detached art world snobs, who bought up the work in their droves.
Kelley's admirers have claimed many things for his vast body of work, the most grandiose being that it performed a total psychoanalysis of the state of the human condition, its inner space and exterior landscapes, at the close of the American century. But ultimately it was too solipsistic to perform any function other than offering an explicit tour through the conflicted realms inside Kelley's own head. Kelley had been abused by his father as a child, was an outsider lower class artist operating in an elitist establishment milieu, and he mistook the trauma and conflicts of his own personal experience for universal truths, resulting in an art which was like a perverted form of sexual and identity politics for sociopathic sick fucks (as in the entertainment industry, the more edgy and sensational art gets, the more the art establishment likes it, because it gives them something they can package and sell). It was no accident that Kelley became part of the cultural capital of Los Angeles, the most solipsistic and sick city on the planet, as well as one whose stratified topographies most thoroughly embodied and enacted the corrosive reality of the American dream that he was now living.
Destroy All Monsters proclaimed themselves 'anti-rock', which the cultural elite correctly interpreted as 'pro-art'. Barely known during its mid-70s incarnation, the group has cast a long shadow across the last three decades of DIY underground rock, and has been indirectly instrumental in the process of its embourgeoisement, abetting the migration of its milieu from the basements and the clubs to artists' studios and private gallery spaces. A conceptualised art school project, rather than a vernacular rock 'n' roll unit, DAM spewed out enough knowing references to cool underground scenes (avant garde jazz, post-Cagean experimental music, alternative theatre) to reassure the same freaks who had earlier mistook Zappa for a radical, because he namechecked Varèse and Eric Dolphy, of their superior taste to both the lumpen proles who still went out and partied hard with vernacular forms like black R&B, and the hippies, or heads, who were still zoning out to The Grateful Dead's inert/inept appropriations of American folk musics. (Mid-70s heads were hippy intellectuals who had temporarily dropped out from the bourgeois culture they were born into with impunity because they knew they would eventually be able to return to it in order to fulfill their class destiny. Freaks were alienated lower class autodidacts who hated the vernacular culture they in turn were born into – the culture of their parents, essentially – but rather than attempting to change that culture from the inside à la punk, they denied class realities by enacting the illusion of social mobility. They identified with the likes of Kelley and Zappa for the same reason the cultural elites eventually bought into them, because the work presented a grotesque parody of the vernacular culture they hated, and then put it on a pedestal marked 'art'.)
In that original incarnation, DAM dished up self-consciously inept rock noise designed to épater the very same bourgeoisie that would later commission and patronise Kelley's massive installation works. It satirised the Total Rock 'N' Roll Theatre of Iggy Pop and The Stooges to such an extent that it made Alice Cooper's cartoon take on the same material look like a profound expansion of it.
Where The Stooges presented America's ruling elite with a defiant 'fuck you!' symbol of the trailer trash they so feared (because it confronted them with the reality their mendacious dealings made inevitable), Kelley and DAM reassured it that all was well with the world by offering them a curated version of revolutionary working class culture that one day they might safely invite into their white-walled galleries and empty loft spaces. The group rechannelled The Stooges's raw power, via an ironic restaging of the feral energies of Dada and Fluxus, so it became a trash commodity the cultural wing of the ruling elite could accept and get behind, because they could contain and sell it.
It is for this reason that Kelley's art has had the most ruinous effect on rock 'n' roll since Colonel Tom Parker first dressed Elvis up in a monkey suit.
DAM emerged at the same time as the first wave of New York punks, whose music expanded on the earlier breakthroughs of The Velvet Underground, Suicide and The New York Dolls, not to mention Johnny Burnette, Bo Diddley and The Shangri-Las. But Kelley rejected punk as being too 'retro', not realising it was part of a vital and ongoing continuum, the 'changing same' (to borrow Amiri Baraka's phrase) of vernacular experimentalism and resistance that fought the system from the inside and on its own terms, rather than trying to provoke it from the sidelines via a series of impotent provocations. For a savvy and ambitious art school educated freak like Kelley, punk was simultaneously too volatile and sure of itself to be of any interest; as raw material it was too conscious, too historically right and exact to be moulded and manipulated to serve the kind of mutable aesthetic he wanted to pursue. But when the grass roots agitprop of punk gave way to the metropolitan radical chic of No Wave (just compare the existential rage of Patti Smith and Richard Hell to the solipsistic nihilism of Lydia Lunch and James Chance) the die was cast. The group that most fully absorbed Kelley's and DAM's sardonic sensibilities, then regurgitated them as PoMo gestures, started out as a No Wave tribute band, and they would go on to become the most influential outfit in alt.rock. The moment Sonic Youth signed to Blast First was the moment rock 'n' roll's vanguard became fully annexed to a wing of the art world.
Kelley objected to other people's subjective critical interpretations of his work so much that he attempted to control the debate around it by writing his own essays and critiques of it. Without irony he claimed this process was actually intended to advance discussion, and while Kelley was ferociously intelligent and a highly articulate writer, even for a conceptual artist, and knew his art history and critical theory as well as his pop culture, this was a classic piece of obfuscation. Subjective critical interpretations are the only ones human beings are able to make, and as Duchamp understood, it is via this process that art becomes universal, by bringing individual expression into dynamic contact with external reality. SY likewise shut down the discourse that had historically existed in rock 'n' roll by conceptualising the music in advance, rendering any further interpretation or discussion mute and moot.
Celebrated in the cosy ghettos of mid-80s indie thanks to their Blast First releases, SY only made a decent record after they signed to a major (one run by that ultimate corporate hippy-turned-head David Geffen). Suddenly, these Generation X pop artists were confronted with both the blue collar existentialism of Grunge, and the reality of the tensions that had historically animated vernacular culture's relationship with Capital (thus replicating the experience of The Stooges before them, who, as soon as they signed to Elektra, sussed that their original Psychedelic Stooges incarnation, a Cage/Coltrane inspired Noise unit that was like a proto-DAM, was indulgent playing-to-the-plukes that would never change anything). Goo, SY's first record for Geffen, immediately put a rocket under the oblique strategies of those Blast First albums, a niche UK indie with art world pretensions which instilled a smug slackness in the American groups that recorded for it and which they in turn mistook for punk rock insouciance. Suddenly, the songs were tauter, leaner, punchier, the sound more vivid, the arrangements more inventively compact, the delivery more direct and urgent. The exceptions were the contributions of Kim Gordon, a former conceptual artist herself and the SY member whose sensibility was most oriented towards the visual art world, as well as the cover, which was basically a Mike Kelley tribute trash-pop artwork.
Of course, SY's fans regarded their Geffen records as sell outs, and to some extent they were, though not in the sense that the fans thought. Goo and Dirty (hyper-ironically packaged in an actual Mike Kelley artwork this time) animated SY music by injecting some of the vernacular discipline and shake appeal The Stooges had developed on Funhouse (and which they had learned from listening to James Brown), but the fans had originally embraced the group precisely because it offered them a simulacrum of rock 'n' roll, a Minstrelsy-like parody which allowed them to edge close to a distorted version of vernacular culture but whose self-conscious detachment was guaranteed to protect them from the vulgar stench of the real deal. The fact that SY now seemed to be playing rock 'n' roll at its own game was just too much for the fans who yearned for the detached longueurs of Daydream Nation.
(As Eric Lott explained in Love And Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy And The American Working Class, Minstrelsy's practitioners enacted a double insult, embracing and appropriating a vernacular culture they loved but were distinct from then lampooning it by projecting a grotesque cartoon version of it. A similar process is in play right now in the realms of hipster House, many of whose practitioners came up through America's DAM-via-SY-educated DIY underground.)
During the Geffen years, to placate the fans and simultaneously court the attentions of the art elite with their chic-trash pop avant eclecticism, Kelley's and DAM's baleful influence persisted in the multiple side projects undertaken by SY's individual members, or which they issued on their own boutique label (whose releases were like a catalogue of historical avant garde gestures, all correctly labelled, framed and displayed, from New York School composition to structuralist film soundtracks), all of which paralleled the sardonic tone of SY's most Kelley-like project, The Whitey Album. Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label even curated a three CD box set of DAM material. In fact SY were now functioning like fully fledged art curators, rather than a vernacular rock 'n' roll outfit which produced work out of sheer necessity, assembling records as art projects and putting them on display as if they were items in a SoHo gallery space. And of course, eventually that is what they would become, touring the world as part of Sensation Fix, the multimedia retrospective that was effectively a restaging of the Poetics Project, the mid-90s international touring installation which 'represented' Kelley's 'experience' of being in a band, ie The Poetics, which he had formed at CalArts with Tony Oursler for the express purpose of generating new material for his work as a visual artist. Here the ironies twist around each other as if they were strapped to a Moebius strip: Sensation Fix was SY's most explict homage to Kelley's influence, and the ultimate expression of its art world pretensions; The Poetics were an SY-influenced pop art project, in which rock 'n' roll was subordinated to a conceptual art agenda, and the Poetics Project showed SY themselves exactly what they had to do in order to gain real art world credibility.
Compounding the example and affect of the Poetics Project, Sensation Fix once and for all pinned rock 'n' roll's primal scream, its raw vernacular power, under glass for detached contemplation by the same metropolitan art tourists who meandered numb through the world's major cultural institutions, staring blankly at the now inert relics of earlier avant garde movements with the same level of engagement they would display as they shopped for 'vintage' rock 'n' roll paraphernalia in the local branch of Urban Outfitters.
(The semiotic similarity between the title of that SY show and that of the exhibiton which launched the careers of a generation of solipsistic Brit Artists was surely no coincidence, and showed how SY had an insider's knowledge of the art world's junkie-like need for increasingly sensational, ie empty, pop cult gestures. And in yet another irony, the Poetics Project had initially been installed at Documenta, the international art show that would later make cultural capital out of the emerging 'politicised' art of globalisation and post-colonial theory, ie the very stuff that was supposed to sweep aside solipsistic Western-centric pop art but which merely restocked the world's art fairs with new goods for sale.)
Mike Kelley's sudden death is a tragedy for his colleagues and friends. His body of work is formidable, but his influence on the rock 'n' roll of the last 25 years via his impact on one of its most influential groups remains a pernicious one. Effectively, it helped to kill off rock 'n' roll as a vital force, compounding its cultural institutionalisation and social isolation. The only saving grace here is that this process paved the way for the emergence of other, less clubbable modes of opposition, hiphop, Jungle, Grime, to provide the context for vernacular culture's most dynamic future moments of resistance to elitist hierarchies.
No one should doubt Mike Kelley's sincerity. He wanted his art to expose and capsize established and oppressive value systems, to upend prevailing taxonomies and systems of classification, but ultimately, and just like the corporate hippies he hated back in the mid-70s, it ended up merely reinforcing them, by feeding the prejudices and sick appetites and desires of the privileged elite he had became a part of. Mike Kelley was not stupid nor complacent, and unlike his legions of laissez faire acolytes, couldn't settle for being so co-opted, or for making the increasingly empty gestures that inevitably go hand in glove with an international art world career. And that is the lesson here, as well as the real tragedy.
One of the central events at the CTM and Transmediale festivals in Berlin just over a week ago was Manuel Göttsching with Joshua Light Show (whose line up now interestingly includes Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters). The show was introduced by three of the festival organisers. They asked in tense tones that people not move around the seated venue, and also that the audience resisted the urge to film the show on smartphones, as the intention was to attempt to create an immersive experience reminiscent of an original Joshua Light Show performance.
This immediately created a rift between the festival organisers and their audience, not because it was an unfair request, but because CTM and Transmediale had three cameras covering the event (one still photographer, one for the live stream and a secondary video camera). Of these three, the LCD displays of two were in the eyeline of around a third of the audience.
Before I get started though, I'd like to add that this post is not about the ubiquity of the smartphone at live shows, or the proliferation of the amateur documentarist. That's a knee jerk reaction I'm not remotely interested in. The truly uncomfortable part of the show was when two thirds of the way through a member of Joshua Light Show emerged from behind the projector screen onto the stage.
Picture the scene, it's a small-ish, reasonably low stage, in a sit down modern theatre. She's dressed in a black top and sequinned skirt, but wearing a giant cream and metal headset of the sort pilots wear, and is edging awkwardly further towards the spotlight, glittering in the halo from the spotlight focused on Göttsching. Her arms are outstretched, in them is a handheld video camera pointing straight at Göttsching. She draws closer, until she's obscuring the view of him, and circles slowly, like David Attenborough around a rare tree frog.
Göttsching ignores the camera, but the audience doesn't. In those few seconds the atmosphere in the whole room shifts, and there's a tension in the room. A couple choose this moment for a toilet/bar break. Others shift in their seats, whisper across to one another. The spell is broken.
The images she films are then sent back to the team behind the curtain, where they're altered and projected live, in glassy fragments among psychedelic lights and swirling ink flows. The effect is definitely not analogue, but it's also not what's making me antsy. It's her presence as a recorder, not the digital nature of that recording that's making me uncomfortable. I'm already trying to ignore three cameras. This puts it up to four.
This is the first time that Göttsching and JLS have performed together in Berlin, and the show has been two years in the planning. There's a large portion of the audience that wants to film the show and stick it on YouTube, or just people who want to get a photo with their smartphones, because this is an Event. Joshua Light Show, for those 15-20 minutes, are the ultimate spectator, in a crass display of how our modern recording habits disengage us and can ruin an atmosphere.
The filming also brought up another more philosophical issue, about the cultural currency of AV performance. It's often the case that even with reasonably 'big name' visuals, the musical aspect of a performance is the seller, and those creating visuals are subordinated on the bill. This can usually be explained by the bigger audience for music, and hence, the bigger name gets higher on the bill. But on these terms Göttsching and Joshua Light Show is a rare performance – a conjunction between an audio and a visual arts festival, with Göttsching and Joshua Light Show equal on the bill. In coming out from behind the screen Joshua Light Show are asserting their right to be on the stage (even if it didn't work, it was a legitimate part of the performance). It's uncomfortable. Joshua Light Show clearly feel they have the right to be out in front of Göttsching, but the reaction of the audience suggests otherwise.
What Joshua light Show are doing feels inappropriate because at an AV show, the V part of the equation is not allowed to mess with the music. The performer is centre stage, and the visuals are an accompaniment. But visuals can make or break a show (they definitely elevated Roly Porter's performance earlier on in the festival), but they're often treated with mild suspicion, as if really arresting visuals are some sort of distraction, or a bogus enhancer of the music. After Roly Porter, friends commented on the fact that they weren't sure if they enjoyed it, because they were worried they'd been sucked into the visuals and weren't able to asses the performance properly.
In Berlin this week that gap was boldly pointed out to me, and the fact that the digital processes jarred with the aim of the show only added to the discomfort. The way we experience music live is all about sight as well as sound. Great music is not diluted by visuals, and visuals do not cover up for part-baked audio. The two should work together. It's just a shame that The Joshua Light show misjudged their front of stage intrusion at CTM.
(Despite the requests, one audience member did manage to film sections of the show. Watch a section below.)
My recent interview in East London with Keith Fullerton Whitman, the starting point for the piece in The Wire 326, meandered down almost as many byways and dead-ends as we found wandering about the canals of East London that morning. In almost all magazine pieces there's interview material which doesn't make the cut, but in this case the extra detail – technical walk-throughs of his projects, reminiscences of eternally unfinished schemes, excited talk of madcap projects in his garage – seemed to present just as compelling a picture of the man as discussing his music, and sometimes a whole lot more fun. It's not just the detail, but the way he tells it – the breathless description of routing options, vocalisations of the sounds, and his engineer's eye for chip numbers and synth esoterica, all give a vivid sense of how the composer/musician connects (and connects with) the elements of his soundworld.
This set of notebooks or appendices can be considered extra technical information for the Keith Fullerton Whitman interview in The Wire 326, a snapshot at an ever-changing constellation of works-in-progress, the love-letters page of a synthesizer fan club magazine, or an intellectual portrait in appropriately fragmentary form. The interview transcript has been edited thematically to present an alternative route through his work. The interview took place in London on 19 October 2011.
The pinball piece (part of a commission for the Kontraste festival, Krems, recorded at GRM, Paris, October 2011)
“The pinball machine thing was a sound that was in the middle of the GRM piece, a crucial bit of that piece where it's all based around these rhythms – lots of field recordings of discrete events where there was a lot of rhythms going at once. So the pinball arcade was a great example. The flipper noises, they're arhythmic, it has to do with a function of the game more than anything musical.
“The sound the game is making is this raw, late 70s, early 80s digital, the TI 76477, the Space Invaders chip. There's this video arcade in New Hampshire where there's like 20 of them all next to each other. And I use this recording, and any time it would cross the threshold of an attack it would go into the synthesizer, it would cut off all the noises between the clicks. It's gating – a comparator – so when it goes over a threshold it turns it on, when it goes below, it turns it off.
“So, I've got an audio editor open in the computer, and all it's doing is playing this mono, 15 minutes, lo-fi phone voice memo recording of the arcade. The phone was taped to the bottom, where the speaker is on this Hyperball video game. It's a pinball machine where you're rapid fire, tsch-tsch tsch-tsch-tsch. It's the noisiest thing I've ever seen in my life, so loud, violent, but weird, 1970s, 80s punk looking, gnarly. It's Bally or Williams, one of those companies.
“That recording, it's coming out of the headphone out of my computer, it's split, even though it's mono, it's going into two, audio input and a comparator in the synth. That's triggering, based on the audio going into the gates, you know the low pass gate. All the synth is really doing is taking the structure of the attacks. It's using the audio, but only over the threshold, so all you're getting is the click of the flipper, and then whatever little bit of the music of the game is going on at that second, so you hear this neoh-neoh-neoh, but all you hear is nip-nip-nip. The attacks are flashing random values from like a sample and hold thing, maybe a series of eight of them coming out of a shift register which is more like a canon generator, so every time there's an attack it pushes the next value down the line. And then those values are controlling, say, the frequency of the filter, it's this quite resonant high pass filter that's ceow-ceow-ceow, moving within that range, there's two of them, one for each channel, hard pan left and right. And then other values are being flashed to control, like, the gain, the placement in the stereo spectrum. So it's really quite an advanced patch that I could never perform that with just two hands.”
Assembling a Tamiya Frog remote control car, 25th anniversary replica edition
“Ah man, I stalled out so heavily on that. Rear tire assembly. The steps are long, there's 16 grand steps but each one is like several maneuvers. That was 15 I think, and 16 is putting the body on. Oh man, so frustrating. It's sitting there, wounded, all but the back two tires. I tested it, the mechanics, the electronics, everything works beautifully, it's oiled. Looks lovely. What a funny, frustrating thing. It's the 25th anniversary of that car, and I'm 38, so I built it when I was 12, 13. You know, it took three months as a pre-teen, and as an adult, it took three days or something like that.
“Just lacking the finger strength to do the penultimate step. Oh my god, so frustrating. And I had everyone who had strong hands come up to the house for like two weeks. OK, just, tire, this thing inside, the hub, put it in there, do it. Ply them with tequila and whiskey, get the internal strength going ... nothing. It's physically and physiologically impossible ... And the other route was ebaying vintage assembled tires from the 80s. I went to three or four hobby shops in the interim to find assembled tires or different tires, slightly more pliable, nothing. The only thing I found were these foam tires, but that's not the original. The idea is it has to be the thing, you know, it has to be this absolute recapturing of this youthful energy in this present thing.
“You know, the thing that I built to go on it was this synthesizer controlled by the servos. Originally I was just going to build a remote controlled synthesizer. It's quite an advanced thing, it's a trigger control that goes both ways, front and back, and then a steering column, but then there's also switches, so it sends, like, six or seven commands over one radio frequency. So the idea was the trigger was going to be LFO, speed, and then this was going to be oscillator speed, frequency, and then the trigger here, so you could actually play 'zing, zong zang' notes, and then have the switches be the shape of the trigger, ramp up, ramp down. So you could sit in the audience and have it go through a computer system, where, boom!, you could trigger a note and have nice quantised gradation, have control of the pitch, and build like a maze of all these individual things to fit into a tape delay.
“And then I thought, I could just have the thing that's controlling the mechanics control the car as well. It's a 9.6v giant battery pack putting on quite a lot of juice, quite a lot of amps, so you could power a speaker with the same battery that you're powering the car with, so why not just put the circuit on there? The same voltage that powers the car, can also power this EXAR 2206 chip, it's like a little digital oscillator chip that's got an FM input built into it and stuff. So it was really great, it was like two chips and a board, a couple of resistors and power.
“So now I have this awful, wounded, like a bird with a broken wing, sitting on my kitchen table, like a constant reminded of failure. It's so sad. And the funny thing is, after I came up with the idea of the speaker, you know what would be hilarious – we paint it like a jamiacan soundsystem, like a truck with the speaker built in? I could do dub sirens, I would have a little Jamaican car that would drive around and make dub sirens.”
“I was aware of those instruments, the Publison (DHM 89 B2 rack unit / KB2000 keyboard), the Coupigny, and I had read quite a bit about them before I got there. The Coupigny - all those analogue sounds in those early Parmegiani, François Bayle pieces, or there's a late Schaeffer piece [Le Triedre Fertile] - having experience with the Buchlas and the Serges, I was like, OK, this is maybe kind of a take on that, but it's coming from more of a scientific thing. It's like a machine shop, a machine you'd see in the dentist or something like that, these giant knobs. I figured out what it was, it was some LFOs and oscillators, it's a pin matrix like a VCS3, you had quite flexible routing options for how everything is talking to each other.
“So the Coupigny, a lot of these low range passes sound just kind of muddy, br-br-br-br, pulse wave. And then I would bring them up to 2 or 3k and that was gorgeous – oscilators that are very closely tuned, moving through ranges where you get this kind of sideband woi-woi-woi-woi kind of stuff happening? That's it, that's your François Bayle sound. That's just a fascinating group of sounds, and that's what this one machine does quite well. It doesn't do basslines, it doesn't do leads, these 1980s constructs of what synthesizers do. It's a scientific machine, it's meant to generate a tone, and then you can control how it's routed. There's a group of capacitors and resitors sitting in a box, you just turn it on and it makes a feedback loop and makes its sound.
“The Publison is an effects box, first and foremost, that's all it is – a digital delay line with a pitchshifter built in. Cheap, early granular, before we really knew what that was. Homemade granular, or boutique granular. So that was like, I bet sustained sounds will sound great. Big, complicated, two octave wide chord of reed sounds, like saw tooth kind of sounds. And I put that in there and of course immediately reducing the bit rate to the range in which it works, 5k, 10k. That sounded great, cut off all the high end. And then as it's jumping around in the buffer, you know, maybe a second worth of audio stored in there, it really accentuates little bits of where the harmonics are meeting each other within it. So it's just this little bit frozen, just this little bit frozen. And then as it starts jumping around and scaling through them, you're really accutely aware of the harmonic strata of this rich recording in there. I was like, this is really useful, because it puts a laser-like focus on individual harmonic components of this one static seeming sound, but in the act of freezing it, it creates this other harmonic on top of it, and you freeze it and the most pronounced thing is this eleventh or twelfth harmonic way up there, its way out of the range of the instrument. Really fun, and like the act of using it is fun, it's like using a toy or something.”
The recording set-up for the Generator and Generators albums
“I found a quick cheap and dirty way to make these neat little canons, little Bach-like motor rhythms, very straight, 16th note, 8th note, pulsing, beautiful sounds. It's a very small part of the patch, it's just like four oscillators, the slow one doing the rate of the melody and the other one doing the clocking of the melody, going through a quantiser. Simple, just a few modules. And then I play with that for a few weeks, and I'm getting good results. Detuning each oscillator so there's static intervals in there, like static third, static fourths, octaves of course. And then I got to a set of rules within the piece the more I played with it.
“It was almost like the exploration itself dictated the piece more than I was as a composer. I was sort of thinking what kind of results can I get from just using this very simple small thing. And then I found a way to have the whole thing be in this loop where the first oscillator the pitch was being analysed, and then was controlling this whole other group of things, so it's taking the seed from this one reciprocal thing, and then feeding it into another patch, and that got really interesting. Sort of like, this is going half the speed of that, so it's kind of accurately tracking this, but not successfully, so you get this ghost in the machine thing, where little bits of that were just off. Or it was maybe making a bad decision guessing what that was doing, feeding like polyphonic material into a monophonic pitch shifter. You play an octave pedal and you start geting those blrlr-blrlr-blrlr kind of things? OK, this is really cool!
“And then very slowly built it from one tiny little case with just eight modules, then one suitacase, then two suitcases, and then it just got ridiculous. In one year it went from the string quartet to like the Vienna Symphonic version of it. It's no better, it's just gets more complicated with the same tonality. And then I had drums, I was having this kick drum every ten beats, and hi-hat every, like, 17.... it was getting like prime number things, it was getting Prog. It was Pentangle turns into Genesis.”
Soundtrack commission for Deepak Chopra’s computer game Leela
“They just asked me, out the blue. We know you're into acoustics and tuning systems and all this stuff, and we like your music. One of the producers, this guy Lewis, had heard maybe the live guitar CD, the Recorded In Lisbon one. And I think he thought that would be a good starting point to talk about music for this one level of the game, which was the crown chakra at the end of the game – the actual, ultimate, you've achieved enlightenment. There's no goals of the game, but there's seven chakras, and you've achieved enlightenment by the seventh.
“I gave them this folder of everything I was working on just as examples. He pointed to this two minute segment of the Lisbon thing. Like squarewave, pulsewidth modulation, there's a little bit of psychoacoustics, and then this guitar overlay, like, sparkling. I spent months like almost trying to deconstruct my own music and redo it, but in a way that would make sense in the tuning scale of the root frequency of this particular chakra. It's neat, because some of the sounds are in Just Intonation, and sound of them are in equal. So when you first hear it it's really disorientating, especially because one sound comes in, and another comes in in a completely different tuning. There's these static notes but the harmonics are so prevalent that it's really constantly buzzing, almost heterodyning. and the frequency of the hereterodyning is the root frequency of the chakra.
“We analysed this harmonic so the beat frequency was the actual root frequency of it. It had to be a lot of Max. A lot of IRCAM high end spectral analysis, we're talking like floating point digits of like five values past zero, and figuring out, charting it out on a blackboard, and then finally, it's going to be exactly right. And I got it and I nailed it. And then on top of that there's a lot of analogue synthesizer, and the frequency of that pulsing is a sub-sub-sub octave, 1/32 below the root. Way down at the point where you're hearing it more as rhythm that an a picth. And then there's a lot of guitar on top playing this sparkling, Playthroughs-like floating bandpass fizzle.“
The Krems commission and Francois Bayle's acousmonium sound diffusion system
“The first six minutes of that sounds very done, I'm very confident that the last day I was in the studio, it like sculpted this six minutes. Everything lines up beautifully, it's great. there's drama in there, there's a narrative, it's very apparent that it's these sounds coming in this order because they're different clases of sounds, different ranges, and then it completes one solid image of all five, low, low-mid, medium, mid-high, high, at once, coming out of different speakers. And then they all every couple of seconds synchronise. But the rest of it's like, yeah, there's a lot of, like, this sounds cool, there's one of a fan, ventilation fan on the top of a building, doing this beautiful, slightly detuned major sixth kind of drone, and that's being gated by another class of sound, fireworks in the distance going off, and it's using the rhythm of that to control this static bah-bah-bah kind of thing. And then it goes into other things, barring the rhythm of this with the sound of this, not vocoding, just doing it, this gating this. I don't think I'll ever finish it. And it's arbitrary, the commission was for a 30 minute piece, and it's 30 minutes two seconds. What you have is akin to an orchestra of speakers.
“It's really all about particular frequency ranges that are best represented by each kind of speaker. The trees, the elements on it are only about two inches in diameter, subs are about 18 inch. So it's all about finding a way to compose that makes sense of each set of frequencies. I thought about the piece from the top down, like, hi-hat sounds are going to be high frequency coming out of small speakers, the bass elements generated by the synthesizer trying to track the pitch of the hi-hat will be this super bassy sound, so that should go to the subs. The whole process was really about categorising each particular sound in the entire piece and thinking about where it was going to take place. I had to do all this assigning of stuff from the get-go, even when I was just recording I was making notes, like, these fireworks sounds, this big bassy brrrggghhhhhh, they're going to come out of the subs. And they can also be doubled coming out of the directional, because they're fireworks, so they have to be in your face. The drum sounds can be different, they can be farther away from you, but stuff that's loud has to be right there. All the Publison and Coupigny sounds are more ethereal and more mid range, so they can kind of go up, the speakers kind of go up at the ceiling. It's really kind of massing in the ceiling of this giant church, with this huge ceiling, 100ft high arches. That stuff can live up there. But anything that's present and punctual and pointillist has to live on the ground.
“It was one of the few times in my life where I had a very strict idea and all this research on the Acousmonium. It was such a great experience, knowing enough about the technical side to be able to prepare the music side of things so that it made sense. Obviously it's something that I lionise, the GRM thing, the sound. The ability to walk into this very high tech space and kind of pull it off, that was also really a big ego boost. They were like, you know what you're doing, just do it. They don't know me, they don't know anything about it, they were just like, I'm a weird heavy metal guy.”
Last week at East London’s Cafe Oto the new season of The Wire Salon got off to a futurological start with a talk by Adam Harper based on his book Infinte Music: Imagining The Next Millennium Of Human Music-making. In the talk, Adam repeated the book's citing of the music of the nomadic Aka Pygmies of the Central African rainforest as one example of an 'alien genre’ that can point the way towards an infinity of musical possibilities.
(Of course, referring to any indigenous non-Western music as an 'alien genre' is somewhat problematic, as Adam readily admitted, but in this case he seems to be using it to identify highly complex musical forms that arise out of normative social activity – an actually existing practice in many parts of the world, but in post-industrial societies, one which has been annexed from the public sphere by the deleterious forces of the culture industry and therefore rendered alien. Or, as Richard Henderson put it in his Field Recordings Primer in The Wire 168: "What Steve Reich accomplished with elliptical tape loops in concurrent motion on "It's Gonna Rain", the Aka manage to do while walking to work in the morning.")
Towards the end of the subsequent panel discussion, which brought Mira Calix and Nightwave into the debate, Adam took issue with one famous attempt to use this primordial polyphonic sound as a launch pad to the outer limits, dissing Herbie Hancock’s appropriation of it on the remake of "Watermelon Man" on the 1973 Headhunters album.
I was moderating the panel, and over the years have also happened to have spent God knows how many hours traveling the spaceways signposted by Herbie's 70s music. So while such a public diss would usually have had me banging the offending speaker upside the head with my chairman's gavel, on the night I let it pass, as it was an aside at most, and to take issue with it would have carried us way off message. But in the cold light of day such an assessment demands some kind of analysis or response, so...
Where Adam experiences "Watermelon Man" as an inert distillation of an ancient and complex and living communal music, I hear an integrated musical performance riven with tension and currents that run fast and deep. (And if Adam really wanted to make a point about how such an alien genre can be killed stone dead by careless sampling, then citing Deep Forest would have rammed the point home more thoroughly, not to say conclusively.)
Adam wasn't impressed with that album title either (“It's called Headhunters for God's sake!"), but I've always read it as a sly deployment of the kind of militant semiotics that would be mobilised to fuller effect by P-funk and the Hiphop Nation – as in: Headhunters as proselytizers for a new tribal aesthetix, mind expansion for headz, etc.
Like the music on Herbie's previous Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant albums, Headhunters and "Watermelon Man" were the results of a fusion experiment that was itself the product of a unifying Afrocentricism that on the cusp of the 70s was an imperative for many black American musicians emerging from a decade marked by an integrationist civil rights movement on the one side, and the separatist Black Nationalist and Black Arts movements on the other.
Still, Adam's ethnomusicological disgust hits a nerve in one respect, because Headhunters and "Watermelon Man" were also a stark indication of how Africa was an alien zone even for conscious jazzers like Herbie and his group (an indication of how thoroughly slavery had worked its nihilistic designs on the folk memory of an entire people). Admittedly, Headhunters was a step back from the advances of its predecessor Sextant, which, pace Infinite Music, contains a multiverse of sonic variables and alien timbres which has yet to be fully explored and colonised. But the quantum funk was still going on, and the whole thang was just one component in a wider programme to cauterize some of the psychic vandalism inflicted during the Middle Passage, one which asserted an ancient-to-the-future black identity by getting explicit about the African component of a sound that was mapping the pathways to new worlds.
Maybe it's a generational thing. Adam is half my age, and from the perspective of a twentysomething 21st century musicologist it might all sound a bit lumpen and prosaic. But to dismiss it as crass, or even exploitative, is to ignore the music's own temporal-spatial reality and its position within a complex sociopolitical process, one which was further complicated by the fact it was taking place in the context of the mass culture industry. Herbie was signed to Columbia, one of the largest entertainment conglomerates on the planet, with ambitions to follow his labelmate and former employer Miles Davis in breaking out of the jazz ghetto. But following the commercial failure of Sextant, he was under pressure to deliver product that would recoup his label’s investment - which he did: Headhunters shifted more than a million units, which means it landed an alien genre deep inside the collective consciousness of mainstream America with genuine force.
In the mid-90s I interviewed Herbie, when he was staying in the surreal opulence of the Park Lane Hotel overlooking Hyde Park in central London. I'd requested the meeting to talk specifically about that amazing sequence of records he'd produced in the lead up to Headhunters. I was eager to find out what had been going on in his head when he and his group of furthermuckers (© Greg Tate) had retrofitted their instruments with cyborg prosthetix and devised that technologised jazz-not-jazz-almost-funk that felt so harmonically expansive and rhythmically advanced, not to mention mythpoetically charged and quantum physically mysterious. Naturally he was affable and charming and fielded my questions with good grace, but it was ultimately a dispiriting experience. Basically, he wasn't interested, seemingly regarding the music as at best misguided exhuberance, at worst hubristic folly. (The transcript and that of a second interview conducted by phone a few months later were eventually folded into an article, all 7000 words of it, on what became known as the Mwandishi group that appeared in The Wire 174.)
As a musician, Herbie was living a weird dual existence by this point, pushing an airless heritage industry version of the kind of acoustic jazz which characterised his mid-60s breakthrough albums for the Blue Note label, as well as a form of hi-tech industry fuzak so sinisterly corporate that even now it makes James Ferarro's Far Side Virtual sound like Dock Boggs plucking a banjo in a sharecropper's shack (but I suppose that's all part of the conceptual smarts of Ferraro's guerilla hack of a record).
Appropriately for someone who could command such lofty accommodation, he was dressed like the CEO of a Dow Jones listed company just over for a weekend shopping trip to Harrods – his sports jacket, slacks and loafers combo probably cost more than I made in a month (but did he still have all those dashikis and kaftans he used to wear in the 70s, maybe hanging neglected at the back of a closet somewhere in his LA condo? I don't know, I neglected to ask). A friend of Sting, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, recipient of various Grammys and MTV Awards, his position in the upper echelons of Entertainment USA Inc was secure, and he wasn’t about to rise to the bait of an offay journo from some obscure UK music zine who wanted to know if he'd ever felt like an extraterrestrial (seriously). In the article, it was left to other members of Herbie’s group, trumpeter Eddie Henderson in particular, to articulate the music’s affective power, its alien heat and infinite potentiality.
All of this only encouraged a creeping and somewhat perplexing notion that Herbie had always been the most conservative member of every group he fronted, but had still somehow found himself at the controls of some of the most significant departures in post-war black music, and not just with regard to those early 70s records either
If you know Sunlight's boogie down productions, or the future shock electro of "Rockit", but are hazy on the backstory, check the playlist below.
And wonder what it must be like to be a musician who has this kind of history, but whose reality over the last two decades or more seems to necessitate the denial of a past in which any of it actually happened.
Sitting conspicuously at #9 in our 2011 Releases of the Year chart was Lou Reed and Metallica's Lulu, one of the most hated albums of the year. Reactions to its charting have ranged from noisy retching to charges of conspiracy. What's struck me, looking after The Wire's various digital channels, is the nature of these reactions - it's not the fact that hardly anyone likes Lulu that's unnerving, but that the response has been so over the top.
A few readers were bemused by the fact that James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual was our album of the year, but the reaction was rather more considered to say the least. As a result of Lulu's Top 10 placing, we have been accused of constructing the chart purely as a hyper-ironic statement, received an email (on Christmas day) that referred to it as a "piece of shit", and otherwise been variously slagged off. While every music magazine is used to receiving its fair share of beefs, the reaction to Lulu (and its appearance in our chart) has been uniquely venomous.
Interestingly, people seem to think the Loutallica album is objectively bad music; not just something that few people like, but something it is impossible for anyone to like, at all. It's a bizarre response to a record that is essentially a mix of overwrought beatnik poetry and overwrought Metal riffing, especially in the context The Wire - there's really nothing in it that's so shocking to modern ears it warrants the reception it's been getting. Why is it legitimate to react to it like this? What's the key difference between Lulu and other 2011 albums that people didn't like, the one ingredient that pushed everyone over the edge?
The obvious answer to that is Lou Reed himself, who has been (intentionally) whipping audiences into a hate-filled frenzy since at least the mid-1970s, and even once released a live double album, Take No Prisoners, full of obnoxious crowd baiting routines (sample line: "Give me an issue, I'll give you a tissue, and you can wipe my ass with it"). But that can't be the whole story. There's also the attitudes of Metallica fans to take into account. And of course, the ever present trolls.
Perhaps because there's been little consensus on what's definitively great this year, there's relief to be found in a consensus on what's terrible. In some ways that happens easier online – the balance of negative and positive in comments sections, YouTube and sometimes on Twitter tends towards the former. Add the objections of Metallica's more conservative fans to the group going way off message, stir it up via a YouTube preview and a set on Jools Holland, add some scathing reviews, and hey presto, Lulu's branded as safe to hate.
But not all zines, papers or sites thought Lulu was awful (although it garnered 1.0 ratings and "one of the worst albums ever made" type assessments). Ultimately, the reaction to it is a testament to Lou Reed's ability to still get up the noses and under the skin of even the most open-minded listeners. He's probably laughing his head off at it all this very minute.
(The above image comes courtesy of Rock Sound magazine, whose office is just across the corridor in the same building as The Wire's. They think Lulu is a joke too - obviously)
Indiana based label Auris Apothecary is only a record label in part. A package sent from them recently contained cassettes and CDs, but also a small spice mix, a tin full of dirt, and a small wax sealed scroll printed on acetate.
Sitar Outreach Ministry's Spring Of 1970, a two track cassette, is wrapped and bound in a dried sunflower leaf. Unwrapping it made a dirty mess on the floor of The Wire's meeting room, and coated my hands in a dusty organic scuzz. Wrapped like it was, once I'd starting tearing layers of green leaves away, I'd never be able to wrap it up neatly again. I had to tear it apart piece by piece, and now I've got a plastic bag full of crackly old leaves that smell like earth, and a cassette in cardboard case, and I'm not really sure whether to chuck out the leaves or not.
This packaging challenge is something that's been explored by other artists and labels: Entr'acte's vacuum packs, and Dreams Of Tall Buildings's plaster cast William Morris box. The packaging must be destroyed for you to access the music, forcing the listener/owner to choose between the physical artefact and the cultural artefact, between being a listener or a collector.
But there's more than that simple dichotomy at work in Auris Apothecary's releases. The packaging that I find most compelling is the one I find most crudely titled. Unholy Triforce's Sandin' Yr Vagina is an "anti-cassette" (Auris Apothecary makes a number of different "anti-cassettes", including one nailed into its plastic casing). It's filled with black sand, the holes plugged with Scotch tape, and bound in black emery board. Silly? A bit. But interesting too: the sand poses a direct risk to your cassette player - play this tape, and you'll almost definitely ruin your machine.
This is all part of the plan. Dante Augustus Scarlatti, Auris Apothecary founder says: "We spend countless hours perfecting each fold and drop of ink on our releases, part of the absurdity in what we do is that we also promote absolute destruction – sonically, physically, socially, spiritually and mentally. If that happens to entail destroying part of the package we worked so hard to make, it was all part of the greater plan and should be considered an acceptable casualty in the pursuit of understanding.
"Anti-cassettes are our extension of that idea, promoting physical alteration to a degree that it would appear unplayable or damaging to perform in its presented state... They are obstacles designed to provide tangible insight into otherwise abstract concepts, and we encourage the listener to perform whatever tasks are necessary to hear the audio. They also represent a basic test of logical reasoning, serving as a mental measure of common sense. If you believe it will damage your equipment, why would you play it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to solve whatever is preventing it from playing correctly?"
The cassette is given an agency it doesn't enjoy otherwise. Playing this tape, it's your machine that becomes the transient, finite thing in the equation, not the music. It's a direct opposite to the current discussion about the direction of music consumption. This cassette leaves reminders of itself everywhere – there are still grains of black sand on my desk.
"I imagine folks view [the cassette] too often externally and write it off, thinking it’s created as an art-object that holds no audio value. We present a challenge, and we hope people attempt a solution. But that's not to say that we don’t entirely condone people destroying equipment by shoving a sand-filled tape into their perfectly-functioning tape players."
The music lives on to destroy another machine, and will (presumably) change from one play to the next, depending on the dispersal of sand on the tape and in the reels, and the hardiness of the machine you've chosen to sacrifice next. This cassette is put together to be a mechanical aggressor (which probably explains the title), hell bent on ruining your listening for years to come, as you hoover grains of sand from your Walkman.
Internet radios spider the internet for stations: algorithms track down broadcasts. Spinning a dial means I don't head for a particular target, I browse. Channel surfing by location, I stumbled (and stuck) to South Korea. Not regional or national stations, but ones that seem to be broadcast from a user generated platform a little like Fnoob, and are called things like Coffee, Music, And Emotion, Little House Under The Stars, and Lamp Of Love. I say seem, because I don't really know much about these stations.
What I do know is that these stations are solely interested in a type of seriously emotional manufactured pop: tales of teenage heartbreak, epic adolescent sagas, and intense melancholic ballads. At least, that's what it sounds like. My radio only goes so far in translating the Korean text (and Google hasn't proved much more useful), so ticker lines and track names get scrambled from Korean into Wingdings-like lines of symbols and letters, with only the station name staying intact.
Sung in my mother tongue I'd be far less interested in these cheesy ballads. Obscured by a language barrier the vocals are removed of the lazy romantic cliches I'm presuming make up the lyrics. Predictable, reliable, and stripped of potentially alienatingly bad lyrics, I really enjoy these stations - the warm intensity of the I-Really-Mean-It key change that suggests a statement of everlasting love; the same chord changes in every track, and a vocalist that always fits the same sonic box.
The tracks all sound the same, and in part it's this consistency that appeals. They wouldn't stand up to close listening, and further investigation might reveal an unsavoury production line of pop artists, or just a lot of terrible albums. I listen to this only in the context of my radio, because it's a mood I tune in to, not a collection of artists whose back catalogues I'm interested in. Even so, I don't seem to have a choice: Coffee, Music And Emotion is as impenetrable online as it is on my internet radio (unless of course, you speak Korean).
A little like Rollo Jackson in Tape Crackers (if you swap out the Jungle and inner city tower blocks for South Korea's bedroom broadcasters) I don't know the artists being played, and I don't know who's playing them, just the station name and when to prick up my ears for the key change, and that's the way I like it.