Still reeling from Dave Tompkins’ fantastic
presentation for his book on the vocoder How To Wreck A
Nice Beach, at The Wire salon last week. Both the
book and his talk are full of little coincidences and serendipitous
overlaps. One that was particularly mind-boggling for me was Dave
interviewing Florian Schneider and Wendy Carlos on the same day.
I’d be quaking in my boots at the thought of talking to even one
such towering figure in modern music, much less two in one day!
Naturally, ensuing office chat after the talk turned to Carlos’s Switched On Bach. Some (no names, ahem) don’t see the appeal, but I had to admit that I own the Switched On Boxed Set (you can listen to some audio clips from it here), which I bought a few years ago when I was listening to a lot of Bassline. That little revelation beggared another question: why would I make that connection? I had thought the answer to this was obvious and that I had addressed it already in my previous writings about Bassline. Well, actually, I hadn’t.
Bassline is a funny genre, and the music regularly makes me laugh. Its over-the-topness verges on the ridiculous and comes generally in two varieties. The first – which I’m not so keen on – is trashy pop mindlessness. The second – which I love – is pure unabashed rave abandon. But one of Bassline’s defining and most amusing traits is the use of arpeggiated synth lines, which regularly recall the Baroque melodies that Carlos was famous for recreating and amplifying. Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself.
This Youtube clip of T2's "Oh Boy" (from his The Monster Dubz EP 12") was obviously taken from a mix, so the track isn't freed from the previous one until about the 30 second mark, exactly when those synths come in.
This is the b-side track to Dexplicit's Lifey 12", called "Over You Rmx" with Kasia. It's only the first half of the track, but you can hear the synths – a little more clumsy in this one, but still riffing Carlos-style – at around the 56 second mark.
This DJ Pyper track "What A Load" was only released digitally, and I first heard it on an excellent, short Bassline mix that Zomby did for Mad Decent. Look out for the synths around the 53 seconds mark.
While I'm only highlighting the Wendy Carlos synth connection here, the use of strings by quite a few of these Bassline producers is another (perhaps slightly more tenuous) link to the music of 'respectable' long-dead, white guys. Check out the T2 and DJ Pyper tracks again and listen out for that.
Thanks to everyone who entered our competition to win an Off The Page booklet. The question was: which of the Off The Page speakers selected John Cage's "Goal: New Music, New Dance" (from his book Silence) as their favourite piece of writing on music? The answer was: Matthew Herbert.
The first five names out of the hat with the correct answer were: George Hardy, Richard Moss, Suriano Rafael, Philip Rhoads and Lawrence Roberts.
Your prizes will be winging their way to you any day now.
Another day, another bumper pack of technicolour LPs, bundled up in cardboard and scrawled with marker pen, arrive in The Wire office from the US. The LP sleeves are homemade swirls of paint and typeface, quickly made and capturing a moment of frantic creation.
Before even putting them on the record deck, I have a fair idea as to how these discs might sound: long reverb trails on the guitar, deep hues of fuzz, and an intuitive, lo-fi feel. The explosion of lo-fi rock from the US in recent years has carried some revelatory moments, a fair amount of uninspired dross, but it all fizzes with a certain energy and can-do methodology. It raises a key question, and one which cuts across a great deal of music passing through the office at the moment: is the vogue for lo-fi more than a taste for sonic texture, a fad for scuffed-up surfaces? Another way to read this is that lo-fi is just a kind of backyard exoticism, a mindless delight in an 'other' which happens to come from a fucked-up effects pedal. On a practical level, lo-fi can blur the most ugly playing into vaguely graceful shapes, like a blob of vaseline on the lens.
As a side note, it's worth noting that criticism can be complicit in obscuring what's going on in lo-fi music too. There's a swarm of stock ideas that music writers reach for when they hear lo-fi methods and cheap reverb: ideas of distancing, haunting, ghosts in the four-track, some of which stick, others of which have become lazy rhetorical flourishes.
This explosion in the last few years isn't simply down to Ariel Pink, but many of the albums that come through the office echo the lo-fi dynamics of his amazing run of homemade CD-Rs from the 2000s (House Arrest being the one that turned my head around). So these questions about the potential worth of lo-fi methods sent me back to his work to try and recover what's fresh about them.
The way you work with a 4-track is to record tracks, bounce them down on top of each other, overdub more to taste, and then the whole thing is pretty much set in stone. Once you've bounced down tracks you can't rework them, and tape bleed means the elements blend into each other. But this whole mass can be worked with as malleable blob of rhythm and form, with tracks EQ'd together, and sped up or slowed down en mass. The attack of the drums, the fizz of the percussion, they can be squeezed and moulded away from the usual physical constraints of whacking real drums in a real studio. You lose all sense of actual physical scale, of large events versus small events, and it all becomes flow. When you'd expect a guitar solo, a pure ejaculation of distorted tone is all you need.
All this is a way of saying that the formal flow of Ariel Pink's older work is, for me, far more exhilarating than in his later, more hi-fi work. Tracks have rhythms that work because of the way the 4-track blends it all together – whacked biscuit-tins become huge splashes of noise, mouth sounds create intimate percussive shifts.
Ariel himself sounds like a different person on each track, and sometimes within each track. From gravelly growls to pristine helium vocals, the 4-track blends them all together. Sometimes there're no actual words being sung. On "Hardcore Pops Are Fun" and "Interesting Results" he's actually commenting on the production process itself – "going through this big transition phase... here we go again... I'm not going to try any more.... it may not be much but let's see what you got." There's no static protagonist stationed in the words, but a burbling inner monologue reveling in a state of total sensational flux.
What I dug from revisiting Ariel's methods was how amazingly malleable the lo-fi process is. Ambiguity of sound and lyrics is a springboard for formal innovation rather than just a reverse-snobbish taste for abrasive sounds, or a way to mask shoddy playing. Every single track on House Arrest sounds completely different, a line-up of imaginary groups, a process which resembles plastic sculpture more than it does the step-by-step process of the usual recording studio.
There's absolutely no denying that Ariel Pink's work is retro to the max, and for some the mere echo of 80s pop music immediately causes a gag reflex to kick in. But the music of that decade was so ambitious and chaotic that there's still enough gold among the shit for a canny operator to recover and remould. These kind of methods in the hands of new players like Hype Williams, Matrix Metals or LA Vampires are still valuable tools.
Once you've popped 'n' locked to this obscure slice of early 80s Transatlantic electro-soul, check for the credits, which harbour an unlikely link to one of the events happening at the Off The Page festival this weekend (and I don't mean Dave Tompkins's talk on the history of the vocoder: the track might be a prime slice of cyborg funk, but all the silicon synthesis is in the low end; the vocals remain strictly carbon-based).
Anyway, back to those credits: edited by Double Dee & Steinski, produced and engineered by Adrian Sherwood, mixed by Sherwood and Tom (Tommy Boy) Silverman, issued by Body Rock Records, a subsiduary of Tommy Boy itself, the original channel for technologized R&B. So far so good. But what's that? Hmm, a familiar looking name in the writers' credits. 'S Beresford'. Could it really be? You bet your life it could. But who'd'a thunk it? We all knew he was the nutty professor of Brit reggae, Adrian Sherwood's go-to guy whenever the On-U Sound boss needed some strange sonics or oblique strategies to goose up his latest bass odyssey. But Steve Beresford, the Everywhere Man of UK Improv, a playa in the emergence of boogie down fonk? You couldn't make it up.
This YouTube post is another nugget unearthed by the consistently dazzling Your Heart Out blog. I'm going to write about the blog in the Unofficial Channels column of the forthcoming April issue of The Wire. But for now, download Skimming Stones, the latest YHO post. It's a derive in the form of an essay through some of the dimly-lit back streets and alleyways of London’s late 70s/early 80s reggae underground (a favourite site of investigation for YHO) which along the way notes Beresford's presence at the intersection of any number of the capital’s contemporaneous sonic subcultures: LMC messthetix, subversive chart pop entryism, post-punk aktion, and of course, the alternative universe that orbited around the On-U Sound label.
At Off The Page Steve will be talking with John Keiffer (of the festival's co-producers Sound And Music) about a life lived in the thick of London's Improv scene. But one aspect of the Improv aesthetic that is not much acted or commented on these days is the way it enabled a musician like Beresford to operate almost at will across a whole host of musical activities that received wisdom still tells us were mutually exclusive – "to play, inspire, provoke and create,” as Steve Barker once put it. The same applies to David Toop, of course, another Off The Page guest, who in the period immediately following punk rock's year zero partnered Beresford in any number of audacious border-crossing sonic endeavours, from Alterations to General Strike, The Flying Lizards to Prince Far-I's Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3.
It all feels a long time ago now. But so what? As Michael Chion tells Dan Warburton during his Invisible Jukebox interview in the new March issue of The Wire: "When I like something, I don't think of it as being from 1968 or 1980 or whenever. It's the present, for me." And for me, listening to Akabu’s "Watch Yourself” (or any of the many other records that Beresford, or indeed Toop, appeared on during the same period), the distant past suddenly materialises in the here and now to sound as immediate as any present you might care to mention.
The closing event of Off The Page this coming Sunday promises a collaborative and performative lecture by Claudia Molitor, Sarah Nicholls and Jennfier Walshe that will “muse on radical (or irreverent) modes of music notation”. What form this event will actually take is as elusive and mysterious as all the projects initiated by these mercurial composer-performers, who between them incorporate elements of film, theatre and multimedia into aesthetic strategies that playfully subvert the furrowed-brow, testosterone-heavy atmospheres of the kind of 'New Music' scenes they all emerge from.
When I asked Claudia for some inside information on her role in the scheme of the thing, she sent me the following photographs.
They look a little like images of hennaed hands, but with Persian tracery replaced by notes on staves. The mail from Claudia that accompanied the photos referenced Heidegger's theory of zuhanden (which translates from the German as 'hands-on'), using it to emphasise her highly tactile approach to the actual material process of composition: “Zuhanden? is a series of images that engages with my ‘visceral’ relationship to notation... In Zuhanden? the focus is on the physical reality of the act of notating and its transmission onto paper by hand."
How will such a seemingly prosaic notion be combined with Jennifer Walshe's multiple personas (her Miller Corp website is a twilight zone of alt.realities and shifting identities) or Sarah Nicholls's 'inside out' pianos?
Who knows? But from where I'm sitting it has all the makings for a fascinating way to (sp)end a Sunday afternoon.
The Wire’s monthly series of salon events returns after an extended Christmas and New Year break with an illustrated talk by the magazine’s former hiphop columnist Dave Tompkins on the history of the vocoder. The talk will be based on Dave's acclaimed recent book on synthetic voice phenomena, How To Wreck A Nice Beach (available from Stop Smiling Books)
In anticipation of the salon Dave and Monk One have made an exclusive edit of their How To Wreck A Nice Beach mix for The Wire. You can download it here. Also, click here to read Dave's extensive annotated track list for the mix in all its unexpurgated glory.
The Wire Salon: How To Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War Two To Hiphop takes place at London's Cafe Oto, 15 February, 8pm, £4.
In addition to his appearance at the salon, Dave will also be talking on (as opposed to through) the vocoder at the Off The Page festival in Whitstable this weekend...
It's by way of some sweet synchronicity (as opposed to careful programming) that appearances by Robert Wyatt and Scritti Politti's Green Gartside will top and tail the Off The Page festival in Whitstable this coming weekend.
Way back in the days of North London’s burgeoning post-punk underground, writer Ian Penman was a regular visitor to the now legendary squat Green shared with the other members of Scritti Politti, and he has recalled how Wyatt's Rock Bottom and Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard albums would reverberate through that famously squalid Camden house night and day, insinuating themselves into the occupants’ addled but expanding collective consciousness. And sure enough, in 1981 when Scritti’s still sublime sounding “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” single was released by Rough Trade, who should pop up playing piano but Old Rottenhat himself.
What Green and his comrades recognised in Wyatt's music was a shared belief in the pop song as a cultural agent that could act on you rhetorically and sensually at the same time. (Of course, just a few years earlier this was the self same notion that Wyatt’s colleagues in Soft Machine had utterly failed to grasp, and so they kicked their greatest asset out of the group – duh!) The directions that both Wyatt and Green have pursued over the years have kept faith with the idea that if you build them right, pop's shiny plastic vessels will be sturdy enough to accommodate and transport anything you might care to load inside of them, even Stalinist propaganda and Derrida-derived post-structuralist theory.
This Friday in Whitstable, at Off The Page's opening night event, Robert will be discussing live on stage some of the music that has most animated him over the years, and without wanting to give anything away, all of his choices somehow reconcile the urge to innovate or proselytize with the desire to craft perfect pop moments. Meanwhile, on the Sunday afternoon of the festival, Green will be going head to head with Mark 'K-punk' Fisher in a discussion that will no doubt make the synapses snap as it attempts to deconstruct the processes by which such a seemingly flimsy form as the three minute pop song can both distill and amplify hyper-advanced philosophical concepts, and in turn can be re-energized (rather than overloaded) by absorbing such heavyweight material.
Everyone attending this weekend's Off The Page festival will get a free copy of a special souvenir booklet that has been produced in a one-time-only hand-made edition of just 200 copies. For the booklet, all the festival’s speakers, delegates, guests, etc were asked to select a favourite piece of writing or thinking on sound or music. The resulting selections range from the philosophical musings of Ernst Bloch to a poem by Philip Larkin, David Bowie prognosticating on the future economy of music to Ian Penman riffing on Bryan Ferry, Lester Bangs hymning Van Morrison to Alex Ward analysing Derek Bailey. The booklet in which all these and more are now reproduced has been designed and assembled by The Wire's art director Ben Weaver. We are holding back five copies of this one off document in order to offer them as prizes in a competition, just in case you want one (and believe me, you want one) but can't make it to the actual event itself.
All you have to do to win one is tell us which of the Off The Page speakers went for John Cage's "Goal: New Music, New Dance" (from his book Silence) as their favourite bit of music writing. Was it Matthew Herbert? Jennifer Walshe? Or Christian Marclay?
To enter, send your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org with 'Off The Page competition' in the subject line. Closing date: this Friday 11 February.
I've been alarmed recently to see how Grime's history is fading away, at least in the digital domain. Aficionados are probably familiar with how some of the most important tracks never even got a release. "Headquarters" by Essentials, the original version of their track "State Your Name", is a paradigm case, a posse cut Grime track where each MC would state their name and location before spitting 16 bars of lyrics – when time came to release the track commercially, the track's big name MCs such as Kano and Crazy Titch mysteriously disappeared. Perhaps it was contractual obligations, but either way, commercial releases seemed just an echo of the real music.
In retrospect it's easy to see why - some tracks were just CD-Rs sent to DJs to play on air, or in the case of Essentials, thrown into the crowd at shows. This stuff circulated quick, but old tracks would get left on old harddrives, or copied over, etc etc. But it illustrates an uncomfortable paradox: that this most digital-savvy of musics could get cut and copied until it was unrecognisable from what really happened.
(some cases in point: you can hardly find any tracks online by Essentials, although you can check out "Headquarters" via a tape rip; the amazing "Sidewinder" by Wiley, Flo Dan, God's Gift, Trim and many others is available to watch right now, but half the time I look for it it ain't there; and one which really tears at my heart is that Wiley's "Dylan's On A Hype Ting", an extraordinary response track to Dizzee Rascal, can't be heard anywhere)
Anyway, anyway: the point of this post is to introduce the excellent Grime Historian YouTube channel, which while it isn't remotely exhaustive, at least goes some way to plugging some of the gaps in Grime's history which have been punched in the last few years. There's over 200 tracks on there thus far, and it's been worth it for me simply to check out many long-cherished tracks by Ears, one of the best Grime MCs of the mid-2000s who somehow never really quite broke through and whose work seems to have disappeared into the ether. How can you resist a track called "Verb And Pronoun Boy"? I certainly can't. Ears was known for a tongue-twisting, syllable-mangling vocal style which somehow managed to always sound precise and elegant, and it's put to good effect on "Backwards Riddim", where he neatly tip-toes around a reversed version of Dexplicit's "Forward" rhythm. Finally, you can check out a version of Ears's "Fine Fine" – this is just a snippet, but this track is absolutely devastating, a sing-song delivery which darts in and out of the most futuristic body-popping beat that I'd ever heard, at least back in 2005. Back to the future...
I'll be doing a Q&A with film maker Rollo Jackson and pirate radio tape hoarder Michael Finch at the screening of Jackson's film Tape Crackers at London’s ICA tomorrow. The doc is an oral history of Jungle, told through Finch’s tapes which he recorded while growing up in Islington, North London, but it's also an untold (or more accurately unheard) history of UK underground music of the last 10 years – Jungle, Garage and Grime are all knitted into the story through the MCs and DJs who manned the decks and mics. Movers of the underground today such as Riko Dan and B Live are on some of the tapes played in the film. The D90s might be dusty but this music still sounds ultra-crisp.
Warning, may contain: late days of Dream FM, middle days of Kool FM/MC Ruff and DJ Uproar on Dream FM/MC Fize and DJ Swiftly/Riko Dan on Pressure FM/Evil B on Rude FM/DJ Target and Maxwell D on Rinse FM/DJ Brockie, MC Five-O and MC Moose on Kool FM in 1993/DJ SL with Strings, Koji and Flinty Badman (Ragga Twins) + Deman Rockers
The event is sold out but this is a free event with pre-booking, so there may be returns on the door. Jeremy Gibson of the University of East London will introduce the film, and there'll be a DJ spinning some 12"s in the bar, too.
For more deets: Tape Crackers at the ICA