Thursday, April 19, 2018

Chuck Warner compiler of Messthetics / Hyped to Death postpunk and DIY CD-R series

Messthetics: An Interview with Post-Punk Archivist Chuck Warner of Hyped To Death
Blissout website 2001?




Q: So how did you get in this lark---doing CD-R compilations like the U.K. D.I.Y post-punk series Messthetics?

A: You can run through the press-stuff at http://www.hyped2death.com/ for my background as a record-label-owner (16 releases in 4 years at a loss of $100,000), deejay, seminarian, astrologer’s helper, vacuum-cleaner salesman… I'd been selling all this stuff --or trying to sell it--for 20 years, though just by mail-order. I started making cassettes in ’97 as a sort of shopping aid--to encourage my mail-order customers to buy stuff that WASN'T already bootlegged on Killed by Death and Bloodstains (many of whose tracks had been purchased from me in the first place). All the cassettes were called Hyped to Death, though they were themed. The H2D numbers ending in -1 or -2 were North American punk [these are now the HYPED to DEATH CDs]; -3 was UK punk & mods [now BAD TEETH]; -4 was American power-pop [now TEENLINE]; -5 was UK D.I.Y. [now MESSTHETICS]; -6 was world punk [briefly PLANET PUNK]; -7 was New Zealand Flying Nun-style gnarlpop/DIY [WIMPLES] or world D.I.Y [GERĂ„USCHVERGNUGEN]; -8 was American D.I.Y./punkwave [HOMEWORK] and -9 & 10 varied.



Messthetics in particular? Well, the style, if there is one, has been a personal favorite, since 1980 or so. I’d been in London (a Baron’s Court bedsit for £4.50 a week) for January and February of 1978, but the better bands were all out on tour and there was this awful "power-pop" revival clogging up the clubs--bands like the Boyfriends and the Pleasers–who were utterly tuneless pubrock leftovers in skinny ties who liked the Rich Kids but couldn’t write a tune to save their lives. The closest thing to D.I.Y I saw was Patrick Fitzgerald busking between sets at the University of London the week before "Safetypin Stuck in My Heart" came out. He was brilliant, but I had no idea the Desperate Bicycles, etc. were out there, too. Mostly I groupied enthusiastically for the Soft Boys, who were busily opening up the Troggs reunion "tour." I learned about DIY rather slowly, and after-the-fact as I came across the records over the years.



Throughout the early 80s my major energies went into buying and selling 1960s and early ’70s garage and psychedelic LPs. Much of the American stuff that now trades for thousands first hit the $100 level on my auctions in Goldmine and Trouser Press. I bought collections and store-stock when some shop went out of business, so there were always older punk and new-wave 45s coming in along with the new stuff. I felt no specific allegiance to any one style. But back then it was actually the first Chocolate Soup for Diabetics bootleg that made the most vivid impression. In 1981 I could probably have recited the entire International Artists catalog from memory, but most of the Chocolate Soup stuff-–I never knew it even existed : I was stunned and delighted beyond description…. SO, in a very long, windy, and round-about way, that’s what I want for my compilations… It’s my hope that Messthetics, Teenline, and Homework might bring that same shock-of-the-[old]-new to a few 20-somethings today.

Q: Messthetics and Homework do indeed remind me a bit of the old PebblesMindrockersBack From the Grave etc compilations of Sixties garage punk that I used to buy circa 1983-84, at this point when nothing much was going on in contemporary music. But your CD-Rs are effectively bootlegs, right? Although you give the bands royalties if they contact you, right?

A: Hey, wait a minute. Those were ALL bootlegs. Nuggets was legit (and seriously limited by what Lenny Kaye could pry out of the major labels’ vaults). Pebbles was a pure bootleg series that Greg [Shaw] parlayed into the excellent, mostly-legit Highs in the Mid-60s series as bands started turning up. Mindrockers, if memory serves me, was an example of a quasi-legit thing a buncha people did in ’81-83 or so where they sent letters to the addresses on all the old records and parked royalties in escrow accounts. Tim [Warren] compiled the excellent Back from the Grave series from his legendary cross-country journeys: he’d talked to some of the bands (while he was buying the last of their 45s from them). While they were 10-15 years away from the records they were compiling (and Lenny Kaye was as little as 5), I’m putting the H2D CDs out 20-25 years after the fact. It’s a lot harder to track people down by word-of-mouth or by old addresses and phone-numbers.

So it was the combination of affordable CD-R gear and the Internet that gave me a better idea. Unlike vinyl or glass-mastered CDs, where you're limited to a minimum pressing of 500-1000 (you can get fewer, but the cost is no different), you can duplicate CD-Rs to order, so I didn't have to worry about how well power-pop or American or UK D.I.Y. would sell, at least in terms of carrying expensive inventory. And I could start off with a catalog of a dozen titles, instead of just one or two. More importantly, however, the CD-Rs meant I could be in a perpetual state of upgrading and rearranging. Like with the Messthetics series, where I’ve been very slow to get organized. There are half a dozen new tracks and-–at last—liner-notes just within the past six weeks.



The internet lets me maintain the newest versions of all the notes and links where fans and bands can easily get to them, and the Hyped to Death website gives them an easy way to reach me. And the H2D website gives the bands hype and appreciation, a way to turn up on search-engines, a chance to tell their story in the context of the styles and scenes of ’76-82, and plenty of links to anything they want advertised. I’ve talked to well over a hundred bands to date (and installed links to many more) and not one so far has asked to be taken off of the CDs. Although more and more bands are learning about H2D from folks who own the CDs, a majority of those who find us do so because they’ve typed their band-name into Google or Metacrawler or Dogpatch (or is it Dogpile?). There’s usually 3 or 4 a week that come in that way.

I send sample copies of the CD to any and all band-members, update the liner-notes with whatever dirt they’re willing to share with me, and add links to reissues, fan clubs, personal pages, new bands, etc. There’s no money involved, but I do tell them as soon as there’s any real money being made, we’ll figure out a way to share the wealth.



But the "bootleg" approach is important. (1) it’s a completely "above-ground" bootleg –like you say, anyone who wants money can find me and get it, but what’s more important is (2) I get to start off with absolutely the best collection I can put together. That’s what bands hear as their first impression: their song sounds great and everything else sounds great, too (especially if they remember how crummy the original vinyl pressings sounded: I frequently spend hours cleaning and restoring individual tracks with a couple of digital editing programs.

 Q: So is there a collector's market for original postpunk DIY singles? What kind of prices are being asked? And do you sense a resurgence of interest in that era? There seem to be a bunch of bands coming through, from Life Without Buildings to Erase Errata to Liars, who reference that period.

A: Over the years I was occasionally able to sell that stuff for $10 or so, but only rarely. 90% of the market and 99% of the upward pressure on prices these days seems to be spill-over from punk-collectors who’re buying stuff just because it’s rare and it’s been bootlegged on vinyl. I’ve always had a half-dozen collectors who’d dutifully pay $50 for the weirder stuff because I told them to, but I didn’t have the feeling there was a bigger market waiting to happen.

I’m thrilled that interest is building. And it’d be great if the enthusiasm was more musical than principally archival and/or mercenary, the way Killed By Death has been, or Pebbles, etc, at least until the garage-revival thing got rolling in the early 80s. As I’ve been deliberately ignoring my mail-order business since starting the Hyped2Death CD thing, however, I can’t say I’ve had an increase in collectors wanting to buy DIY.



Q: Messthetics is organized alphabetically, but starts more than half-way through the alphabet, and is quite micro-focused -- Messthetics #1 is R-to-Si, Messthetics #3 is Th-to-Va. Seems like you'll have around thirty or forty volumes of Messthetics if you see the project through to its end!

A: Twenty anyway. More if I can rehab some of the cassette-only material before it all self-destructs in people’s basements. (I’d love to hear from people who still own a DIY cassette-releases: NO ONE imported that stuff to the U.S. Better yet, I’d like to hear from the bands who still have the master-cassettes or tapes…)

Q: Although the series title references Scritti Politti--the name is taken from a track on their Peel Sessions EP--most of the stuff you've collated isn't really from that post-punk vanguard sound that one associates Green & Co with: i.e. the funk/disco/dub-influenced, self-deconstructing, anti-rockist, politicized/theorized strand (Gang of Four through This Heat to Lemon Kittens). You also shy away from the proto-Goth sub-Banshees/Killing Joke end of things. Mostly you've gathered up the sort of Swell Maps-y/Desperate Bicycles/TV Personalities scrappy-scratchy D.I.Y stuff and lotsa Buzzcocks/Undertones-wannabe pop-punk. It even gets a bit mod revival in flavour here and there.

A: I wasn’t a fan of the stuff with horns back then, and I’ve always loathed the lesser Goth/bat/death combos. That said, the Pop Group-wannabe subspecies of D.I.Y sounds better all the time: I’m mentally compiling and searching for a title even now. For the moment, though, I am indeed focusing on the punkier end while mixing in what I think of as the most coherent of the other/outer DIY stuff, like Nigel Simpkins or Take It, and my favorites of the honking and ranting variety, like Vital Disorders’ "Let’s Talk About Prams" or the Stolen Power track I just added to Messthetics #2.





I make a distinction between "post-punk" and "DIY" that’s more useful taxonomically than historically. Post-punk-–sorta by definition—looked at punk (and major-label punk, at that)…and decided to be something different. D.I.Y., on the other hand, just did what was easy and cheap: it was a reaction to the expense and corporate control, but it never set out to re-define or improve on what had come before. 90% of the time it was everyone’s first band, and 80% of the time it was their last, as well. Everybody did the best they could even though they knew other people could sing and play a whole lot better…

Q: What do you think are the defining differences between UK D.I.Y and US D.I.Y?

A: Sort of the same as with punk. The UK has the dole (and sometimes even things like the G.L.C): it seems like 70% of the guitars are owned by the unemployed. D.I.Y there (i.e. putting out a DIY record) was incredibly empowering and freeing-–a perfect and really satisfying piss-off to the world of commerce and pop charts. In the US, meanwhile, 90% of the guitars are in the suburbs, and the teenagers among their owners all either have after-school jobs or they don’t need them because mom and dad are generous with their allowance. The ’Stones’ "What can a poor boy do / ’cept for play in a rock’n’roll band?" was apt enough in the U.K., but it’s pure pose here in the states. (The better equivalent would be a poor black kid from Newark hoping to make it as a basketball star. It’s THE way out.)
All kinds of class boundaries DO exist here, but the American promise--and the American problem—is that we’re proudly ignorant of them. Most bands dream of being rich and famous, but it wouldn’t occur to any of them that it’s their only chance to be rich and famous. We vote for Republicans who promise obscene tax-breaks for the rich because we all expect to be rich ourselves, somehow, someday. So showing how cheaply you could put out a record is definitely not part of an American mindset: no matter how crummy certain stateside records sound, those bands spent every penny they could on making them sound that way…



So despite your kind comments below about superior drumming in these parts (suburban Yanks can afford proper drum-kits and nice dry basements to practice in?) I think the main hallmark of American D.I.Y is a realistic appraisal of one’s musical talent. (So it’s the same as the UK thing, just without any sociological import or awareness.) Somewhere around 1978 (it may have been all the howling about "punk is dead"), folks started thinking it could be fun to sing and play and maybe put a record out even though they KNEW they’d never get signed and be stars. The instruments are the same in Cleveland Ohio as in, well, Cleveland County: whatever’s lying around, anything that makes a cool wheezy noise, and-–if you’re feeling really brave—whatever you used to take lessons on when you were 12. It’s about unselfconsciousness. But I think, far fewer bands here put out records (at least in proportion to their overall numbers).




Q: Although New York was very much in line with the UK post-punk vanguard and there were other weirdo outposts like Cleveland/Akron with Pere Ubu and Devo, or the San Francisco scene with Ralph Records, Residents, Tuxedemoon, Chrome, etc., generally speaking the American stuff is a lot more convincingly rockin' and rollin': there's a bottom-line proficiency, especially in the rhythm section. Whereas the UK stuff can seem really amateurish and rhythmically shaky (that's part of its charm, I guess). Generally it seems like US post-punk wasn't so determined to destroy rock as the UK vanguardists were. "Anti-rockist" was a British coinage, after all.

A: The thing about all of the first-generation, pre-1978 US bands you mentioned except maybe for Chrome is that they were part of an ART scene. Whatever their failings as vocalists and musicians were, those failings (which they were, by-and-large, almost pathologically self-conscious about) became part of their artistic statement…. Pere Ubu used their vocals. Suicide used their limited musicianship. Later Homework bands--and the Messthetics crowd--were often arty but they’d gotten over worrying about their limited skill-sets. The breakthrough Ohio bands for "real" D.I.Y were the Mirrors and the Electric Eels (and later, down in Kent, the Human Switchboard).






la lotta continua...

Monday, April 16, 2018

24 Hour Party People

24 Hour Party People

(director’s cut [ho ho] of review in Film Comment, summer 2002)

by Simon Reynolds

No British city has a greater sense of self-mystique than Manchester. Populous enough to swagger convincingly as a counter-capital to London, yet still eclipsed by the latter’s concentration of political, financical, and media power, Manchester has developed a retaliatory superiority complex: Northern suss and spirit versus those smug, effete "Southern wankers." Near the close of 24 Hour Party People--Michael Winterbottom’s lightly fictionalized movie about Factory, the legendary Manchester post-punk record label---TV presenter and Factory CEO Tony Wilson explains his motivations in terms of "civic pride". This peculiar provincial patriotism is the heart of the film, but like so much in Party People, it’s so thinly fleshed out it’s hard to see how someone not familiar with A/ the Factory story and B/ Britain’s class-inflected regional antagonisms, would even notice it.

Along with its damp climate and post-industrial grey decay (much improved since the 1976-92 period covered in Party People, thanks to urban regeneration funding), Manchester is justly reknowned for music: a series of epoch-defining bands, from Factory’s own Joy Division (and its successor band New Order) through The Smiths to Stone Roses, Happy Mondays (the other legendary Factory group), and Oasis. 24 Hour Party People’s cardinal flaw is its failure to convey what made Joy Division and Happy Mondays special, why they transcended local cult status and captured the national imagination.

Music qua music has always been a challenge for the rock movie, which is why they tend to stick to the ‘Behind The Music’ dirt ‘n’ drama of interband conflicts, mismanagement, drug abuse; the dream of fame-and-fortune achieved only for it to turn nightmare. Neither music’s germinal mysteries (jam sessions, the intracranial moment of inspiration) nor its raptures (the solitary listener’s bliss, the crowd’s collective fervor) lend themselves to narrative.

Nonetheless, for a good thirty minutes, Party People seems to have pulled it off. The reconstructions of the Sex Pistols 1976 performance at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall (attended by a scant 42 people, who became the kernel of the local punk scene) and of an early Joy Division show transmit the real rush of rock’n’roll history in the making. And the film seems to have struck an inspired balance between docudrama realism and postmodern self-reflexive wit. Wilson, played by the brilliant British comedian Steve Coogan, addresses the camera Alfie-style, narrating his own story and helpfully pointing out when things have been distorted or made up for extra mythic impact.

Almost immediately after Joy Division enter the picture, though, Party People begins to unravel. The group’s vocalist Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) was worshipped at the time as a seer who tapped into the currents of dread and anomie pervading post-punk Britain. In Party People, you get no real sense of this complicated, troubled figure. Approaching Wilson for the first time at a punk gig, Curtis greets him with the words "you’re a cunt". For no explicable reason, the movie leaves out what he said next, "’cause you haven’t put us on television": a reference to Wilson’s So It Goes, at that time the only TV show featuring punk bands. So instead of demonstrating Curtis’s ambition and hunger for stardom, the movie creates the impression of aimless, loutish aggression. Similarly, Curtis’s epilepsy (a latent trait he seems to have somehow harnessed for the convulsive trance-dance of his stage performance, only for it to get out of control) is not set up at all, and his suicide is botched, appearing as a seemingly impulsive act. In a typically pointless gesture of historical fidelity, we see Curtis watching Herzog’s Stroszek’s on TV a few hours before hanging himself---just about the only hint of Curtis’s true artiness. As a result of all this, when Wilson gazes at Curtis in the chapel of rest and declares "that’s the Che Guavera of rock there," the eulogy seems comically overstated and utterly unsubstantiated by what we’ve seen so far. Still, Curtis fares better than Joy Division’s other members, who aren’t even formally introduced by name.

As for the label's other two geniuses, Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis), the maverick producer who had so much to do with the eerie spartan Factory sound, comes across as little more than a foul-tempered drunk, while not a single shred of evidence is mustered to sustain Wilson’s repeated claim that Happy Mondays’s singer Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) is the greatest poet since Yeats. What is actually depicted--sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rave’n’roll--makes the Mondays look more like a Mancunian Motley Crue.

Wilson hogs the screen, with much time devoted to an initially hilarious but steadily diminishing running joke about the trivial stories he’s obliged to cover on his TV show (midget zoo keepers, a duck who can round up sheep). Yet Wilson’s own complexity is sold short. Cambridge-educated Wilson was steeped in the renegade canon of anarcho-surrealist literature and politics, peppering Factory output with allusions to Lautreamont and naming his nightclub The Hacienda after a Situationist slogan. The movie gestures at Wilson’s underlying seriousness, but only in a mocking, borderline anti-intellectual way. Mostly he comes over as an odd mix of buffoon and visionary, a naif-with-integrity whose contracts (signed using his own blood) declared only that the bands retained ownership of their music and were free to leave whenever they pleased.

Party People jumps swiftly from Curtis’s 1980 death to the reign of Happy Mondays as house band at The Hacienda, during the 1988-91 "Madchester" period when the club was an Ecstasy-soaked mecca for ravers across the land. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Factory is how it survived for so long given the sporadic nature of Wilson’s A&R skills (he passed on The Smiths, for instance, and between JD and Mondays signed an awful lot of undistinguished bands—Kalima anyone?) and his lack of business acumen. New Order’s 1983 hit "Blue Monday" was the biggest selling 12 inch single of all time, but lost Factory a fortune because its lavish Peter Saville cover cost more than the label’s profit margins. When it comes to Factory’s eventual collapse (partly caused by Happy Mondays’s profligacy), the movie glosses over the real pain and humiliation this must have involved. Instead, we see Wilson closing down the Hacienda with a massive shindig and inviting the revellers to ransack the offices for computers and other strippable assets.

Like so many post-Trainspotting Brit-films—think especially of the ill-starred rave flick Human Traffic—Party People is relentlessly lively, as if convinced that the youth market will not stand for stillness or sombreness (essential, surely, if you wish to convey a sense of Manchester’s Ballardian desolation in the 1970s, so crucial to Joy Division’s atmosphere). Characters are constantly shouting and swearing, and there’s barely a scene that doesn’t involve drink or drugs. On the plus side, the movie has plenty of gags, energetic hand-held camera work, and some striking set-pieces---like the scene where the teenage Shaun Ryder and brother poison three thousand pigeons on top of an apartment block. It’s quite possible, especially if you have absolutely nothing invested in the idea of Joy Division or the whole post-punk era, that you’ll find 24 Hour Party People highly entertaining---a feel-good movie about suicide, drug fuck-ups, and business failure, yay! Then again, to actually follow the film on even a basic narrative level, you’d need to know a lot about Factory already. Here is Party People’s paradox, its Achilles heel of "negative crossover": the movie is sure to irritate the only people truly equipped to watch it, while those with no real emotional connection to the subject will most likely be confused and leave the theater having gleaned little sense of what was at stake in Factory’s struggle.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Chuck Klosterman

dialogue with Chuck Klosterman about But What If We're Wrong: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past
The Guardian, 7th June 2016

by Simon Reynolds

 Simon Reynolds: Your new book But What If We’re Wrong? is a series of thought experiments that try to “think about the present as if it were the past”. The concept really speaks to me as a fan of science fiction, but also as someone fascinated by discredited knowledge: things like the late 18th-century belief that infantile masturbation was a terrible, health-damaging problem that required drastic preventive measures, or the 19th-century pseudoscience of phrenology, using skull measurements to assess the character of people, their criminal tendencies … What led you to this subject – the precariousness of human knowledge, the disquieting thought that most of what we feel certain about today will ultimately be disproved and that the future will scorn and deride all our ideas and beliefs?

Chuck Klosterman: It happened sort of gradually and yet suddenly. Over my last few books I’ve been thinking about the history of thought, but it really came from watching Fox TV’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. I particularly enjoyed the animated clips about these hinge points in scientific history, when everybody thought a certain way but then one individual puts forward this new idea and everything shifted after that. Coincidentally I was reading about how Moby-Dick got mixed reviews at the time, Melville ended up leaving the writing profession, and it wasn’t until after world war one that the culture shifted, the book was rediscovered, and it became the Great American Novel. But What If We’re Wrong? really took off from those two things.

Reynolds: Those are two different kinds of “knowledge”, science and the arts. With science, there are new discoveries and theories emerging around them, but it’s a much harder kind of knowledge. With changing ideas about what is valuable in literature or music, about who belongs in the canon, that’s soft in the sense that it’s driven by taste, by fashion, by social shifts. It’s much more up for debate and revision. Given enough time, nearly everything that’s highly regarded will drop down in eminence, while once-minor things from the past may get elevated. In one chapter you discuss how it’s impossible to know who will come to be regarded as the defining writer of our time. And you speculate about who will be the future’s Kafka – a writer virtually unknown in his own epoch but who later becomes retrospectively epochal.


Klosterman: My thought process with that started with the idea that whatever seems like the most obvious answer will probably be wrong. I build that into my thinking. The obvious example that many people would give for a contemporary author that will be remembered as defining our era is a figure like Jonathan Franzen. So I remove that from the equation. So then it came down to one of two possibilities. Someone who is known and successful but not that respected – a writer who is considered a commercial hack. The other possibility is that it will be somebody who is completely unknown today – like Kafka. Someone who will be discovered later on and that discovery process itself will validate that writer. So the challenge I set myself in that chapter was trying to narrow down the possibilities of who that currently unknown writer might be – what aspects of their career, their identity, their writing. An impossible task. But I try, because that’s what I like to do!

Reynolds: There is an industry – in publishing, in music reissuing, in the arts generally – of rediscovery, repackaging, cultural archaeology and curation. There are so many examples of once hopelessly obscure figures who are now deemed far more central and essential than they once were. Other figures who were deemed central and essential, by critics and the intelligent reading (or listening) public drop away – George Bernard Shaw, Graham Parker. And then there are whole areas of the culture that were once considered beneath consideration, but now get taken seriously. Your example of that in the book is wrestling.

Klosterman: The pro-wrestling thing to me is a weird example of how culture works. All these wrestlers from the 80s are dying now, like Dusty Rhodes, and they are being lionized by people who have this memory from watching them when they were in high school or junior high. When they write about them now they tend to inject them with some kind of secondary meaning – almost a transgressive meaning – and they overlook the fact that at the time, nobody took wrestling seriously, including themselves. But somehow they create the feeling that there was always a sense of it being taken seriously. And more generally this seems to be the way that obscure art becomes venerated – by generating a political meaning for these long ago things that matches what is happening in the political present tense. So if you’re trying – like I am in this book – to find out what will matter in the future, you have to project a visualization of what the future will be like, what people will care about.

Reynolds: Although you’re hyper-conscious about the fragility of cultural convictions, you do still muster enough certainty to make a few predictions in the book. One is that television, as an entertainment format, will shortly not exist. Explain the thought process behind that prophecy.

Klosterman: I started with thinking about the relationship between radio and television. It feels like there should be a continuum there, that TV simply adds a visual component. But in fact TV was a huge break – which is why we don’t aesthetically connect what television drama does and what a radio play does. I think that’ll happen again – something will come along technologically that adds another component to the entertainment format that makes it something completely separate. It could be some kind of virtual immersion, where you’ll be inside whatever show you’re watching, or it’ll relate to the mobility of it, which is already happening to some extent with watching TV on your phone, but it might be even more completely fluid, such that you can slide in and out of the program you’re experiencing. I don’t know what it will be exactly but I think when it comes it will be a cut-off that freezes television as we currently understand it as a period that goes from its inception in the middle of the 20th century to whenever the new thing takes over.

Reynolds: So it’s not that television is going to go extinct exactly – more that it will evolve into something so drastically different it’ll effectively be something else?

Klosterman: Television is already the most dynamic technological experience when it comes to entertainment. The experience of watching television now is drastically different from what it was 20 years ago. Whereas with music or reading, certain elements and aspects change but the experience of hearing a song is – from a physiological standpoint – the same as it was 200 years ago. Reading is a static thing fundamentally. But TV is taken so seriously now, it has really changed the experience completely. Joyce Carol Oates wrote an essay for TV Guide about Hill Street Blues in about 1980 and it starts with her saying how embarrassed and ashamed she is to admit that she and her smart friends find themselves often talking about this TV show. But now it’s like, Emily Nussbaum just won a Pulitzer prize for her New Yorker TV criticism. When something becomes that meaningful, it changes the experience of watching it. TV used to be relaxing. Now you have to concentrate.

Reynolds: Yes, watching the box used to be almost like an opiate or a tranquilizer – idle skimming through the channels. You’d have the desire, or need, to watch television in the abstract, and then look for the least tedious specific thing that was on. Now you make appointments. You manage your viewing and stockpile it. You binge an entire series. And you have to pay close attention, for fear of missing a key bit of dialogue or a narrative twist.

Klosterman: With TV in the past, there was no expectation you were going to have to concentrate. And if you missed an episode of a TV show, you just missed it – no big deal. Nowadays just about the only thing people watch to unwind still is sports.

Reynolds: Another section of the book that struck a chord with me was when you write about dreams – the way they’ve been demoted in the culture. For most of human history, dreams were considered highly significant – they had oracular meaning, they warranted being interpreted. In the early 20th century you had Freud and Jung analyzing the symbolic language of dreams, and an artistic movement, surrealism, that drew inspiration from dreams. But even as recently as the 1970s, books about the meaning of dreams were popular. As a teenager, I kept a detailed dream diary. Maybe it’s just our family, but it doesn’t seem like my kids ever talk about their dreams. It’s just not something people pay much attention to anymore. Why is that?

Klosterman: Freud and Jung were the apex of looking at dreams seriously. But more recently you have scientists who map the brain, like these two guys at Harvard who came to the conclusion that dreams are just leftover thoughts from the day. There isn’t a narrative there, it’s an avalanche of emotions that we reconstruct as a story – because we can only understand things through storytelling. The conclusion of all this neurological research was that the content of dreams is worthless. It’s just an oddity of the mind and how it works when we are sleeping. Those ideas have filtered out to the secular, intelligent public and the general view now is that dreams are a waste of time to think about. The idea that they’re significant is a really fringe, borderline New Age thought at this point.

In the book, though, I wonder if this is something that we could be wrong about. It’s a third of our life almost where we’re having these metaphysical experiences. Sometimes they’re lucid and we know we’re in a false reality. Sometimes we can’t tell we’re in a different reality. Part of the problem is that we are so limited in how we can study them, there’s no way to see or hear or feel someone else’s dream. So maybe we are just going to keep on going down this path of thinking it’s just electrical impulses in the brain, just biomechanic. But I wonder if that’s a huge misstep. I understand the rational argument against dreams, but something feels important to me about them.

Reynolds: One thing I wondered was if the downgrading of dreams as a cultural interest had some relation to digital technology: video games, the internet, computers generally. Has the virtual displaced the oneiric? It’s hard to imagine an art movement like surrealism emerging that was invested in dreams and the unconscious as a source of inspiration. Contemporary artists are more stimulated by digital technology and internet culture. Do we no longer pay attention to dreams because we are so involved with digitally enabled zones of make-believe and magic? And does that also affect a different kind of dreaming that we do in our waking hours – daydreaming? Overall, it feels like these interior and reflective mental activities have declined in the scheme of things – and that this must have something to do with the rise of the internet and social media.

Klosterman: The amount of time we’re looking at an unreal image on electronic screens is so much greater now. Just waiting in line for the bank, nowadays I would always look at my phone. My mind is attached most of the time to something specific. But once, waiting in line, I would have daydreamed – my mind was elsewhere. Perhaps those five or 10 minutes of daydreaming had value.

Reynolds: One interesting thing about your writing style, which is unusual in arts and culture writing – perhaps more common in popular science writing – is the way you reason out an argument. You set out a proposition and then logically follow it through, methodically raising the counter-arguments, the evidence that contradicts it. Mostly in cultural criticism, the writer does that in private and then presents the results to the reader – often bombastically. But you lay out that process in real time, almost, and bring the reader along with you.

Klosterman: What I hope is that when someone reads what I’m writing, that they feel like they’re writing the piece with their own mind. The sequencing of the thoughts, the obstacles you encounter intellectually along the way – I want it to be like a real-time transfer of my mind. I want it to look like it’s easy, so that the person reading it almost feels like they could have written that. Which is kind of a trick, because that’s not what is going on! The hardest thing about doing this kind of writing is creating the illusion that anyone can do this.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Prodigy - interview, 1994

THE PRODIGY
Melody Maker, 1994

by Simon Reynolds

“So I’ve decided to take my work back underground … to stop it falling into the wrong hands.”

So begins Music for the Jilted Generation, the Prodigy’s fab second LP. See, seven consecutive hits and a gold debut album aren’t enough for 23-year-old whiz-kid Liam Howlett. He’s sick and tired of his public image: peerless purveyor of hyper-hyper bubblegum nuttercore for E’d up popkids. Liam wants to be taken seriously; more to the point, he wants to be taken seriously by you, the alternative rock fan. So that’s why he’s used rock guitar in a couple of tracks on the album, and that’s why Jilted is a sort of semi-concept album, with a “heavy” political statement.

“The Jilted Generation, it’s all the kids who’ve grown up on this supposedly corrupt dance music,” says Liam, in between hacking his lungs out (he’s run down by endless remixing and a recent tour of Australia). “The government are trying to make out the whole scene is bad, and they want to stop everyone going out and having a good time.”



On the album’s inner sleeve, a painting depicts an allegory of this confrontation, as a police force and a ragged army of ravers glare at each other across a ravine, with the rave-tribe’s chieftain about to slash the ropes of the bridge. The chorus of  "Their Law" – a surprisingly effective metal-riff propelled collaboration with Pop Will Shite Itself – articulates this defiance: “Fuck ’em and their law.” What’s riled Liam isn’t just the Criminal Justice bill, but the unofficial clampdown on legal raves.

“The police can control the sound levels at raves. Basically, there aren’t going to be big outdoors raves any more. They’re not giving them licences in the first place now ’cos of the alleged disturbance and noise pollution, and all the drugs. And ’cos of that, the punters have lost faith a bit. A year ago, you’d get 20,000 at a big event, no worries. Now you’d be lucky to get 10,000. Events happen up until the last minute and then they get cancelled, and so people stop bothering. The Obsession rave, a big three-dayer on the beach, was cancelled, and that was going to be the only major event this year. The Prodigy haven’t suffered from it at all, we’re still packing out shows and selling records. But it does annoy me, the government telling young kids what they can do.”

Because of the clampdown, rave culture’s gone into the clubs and it’s fragmented into factions: scenes like techno, jungle, progressive house, garage, et al. Liam admits to being nostalgic for the golden days of rave’s bygone unity.

“I think a lot of people are. That’s why the housey progressive scene is so popular, ’cos even though it’s not as mental and sweaty, it’s still got the love vibe. On the hardcore scene, the DJs won’t mix up different styles of music, they just wanna play the brand new dubplates that no one can get hold of, cos they only printed 10 copies.”



The Prodigy emerged from the early hardcore scene (what’s now evolved into jungle). Along with Altern-8, they were the principal ambassadors for ’ardkore in the top 10. The Prodigy’s top three hits :Charly" and "Everybody in the Place" were classic breakbeat tracks, and the debut LP Experience was ruff jungle bizness, albeit with a commerical sheen and Liam’s poptastic choonfulness well to the fore. But ever since a dance mag accused the Prodigy’s  "Charly" of instigating “the death of rave” (because it inspired a rash of lame bubblecore tracks with kids’ TV samples, like Sesame’s Treet), an embarrassed Liam has struggled to distance himself from hardcore.



“It’s the 180bpm breakbeats I’ve moved away from. The new album is as hardcore as anything I’ve written, but hard in a different way, a German techno way. But I still use breakbeats, ’cos I’ve always been into hip-hop and that side of me will always be there.”

It’s all a bit ironic, given jungle’s creative renaissance in 93 and its long overdue return to hipness in 94. (The dance mag in question just leapt on the bandwagon along with every other rag in town.)



Admits Liam, “There’s loads of quality jungle tracks around. The problem was that a lot of people thought it was so easy to make hardcore that they just knocked out white labels and flooded the market with crap. But this year there’s been a lot of intelligent jungle. Moving Shadow are the leading label.”

But Liam still doesn’t like the attitude and moody atmosphere that so often surrounds jungle ’94, and which is so different from the nutty, luv’d up vibe of ’ardkore ’92.





“The reason I got into rave was that hip-hop had gotten too much into attitude. To me, the jungle scene now is really confused. One minute they’ll play something really uplifting and the next it’s dark and gloomy. Also, that music’s lost a bit of energy. Because it’s so fast, people don’t dance to the 160bpm drums, they lock into the reggae baseline, which is half speed. So you dance really slow. With techno, you dance to the full-on beat. The stuff I really rate is European, like CJ Bolland and a lot of the German artists.”

When I suggest that the Prodigy are the last representatives in the charts for the old rave spirit, Liam frowns. What he really wants is to get back his underground credibility – something as difficult and arguably futile as attempting to recover your virginity.

“We actually do everything we can to stay off the telly and out of Smash Hits and the pop media,” he stresses. “We only do interviews that I feel are credible. It is a battle, a constant battle to get the correct press.”

Hence his flirtation with alternative music and deployment of rock guitar on Jilted. He’s been listening to Led Zep and Pearl Jam, and he might be producing Skinny Puppy’s debut for Rick Rubin’s American label. He tells me how much he likes Senser’s “energy” (they were actually first choice before Pop Will Eat Itself, but were too busy). As well as on"Their Law", grunge guitar features on the killer next single, "Voodoo People".




But Howlett doesn’t need to latch misguidedly onto that dodo “alternative rock” for cred; his own roots – in electro and early hip-hop – are solid enough. I always thought his thang was like a hyperkinetic version of Mantronix’s breakbeats-and-samples collage aesthetic, and sho’nuff, it turns out he was a big fan. His old-school hip-hop background comes through in the funky, fusiony "3 Kilos", which is part of the LP’s "Narcotic Suite" – songs meant to evoke different drug atmospheres.

Back to the present, to Generation J, the kids who live for dance and drugs … Are they going to fight back against repression, or are they just going to languish at home, get despondent, get wasted?

“At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do. But as long as people can still go to clubs, it’ll survive. They’ll never kill the whole thing off completely. Why are the government so threatened? I don’t know. We live in Essex and there’s a massive farmers’ festival every year at the showground. They block up the whole fucking road and it’s totally disruptive. But they won’t have a rave there. It’s the same with football matches – there’s loads of drugs at football now, people taking Es. So it’s one rule for us, one rule for them.”



Monday, April 9, 2018

Island Records at 50

Island Records

blog for The Guardian, 23rd March 2009

by Simon Reynolds

I had some issues with 24 Hour Party People, the Tony Wilson/Factory Records biopic, but there was one touch I found rather lovely. It's 1976 and Anthony H Wilson and crew have returned home after the Sex Pistols' Manchester debut. So what do Tony and his future Fac-heads do after witnessing this insurrectionary performance? Put Funhouse or Horses on the turntable? No, they roll spliffs and get stoned to the dreamy drift of Solid Air by John Martyn.
A lovely touch, I thought, and an acute one. First because it communicated, subtly, the fact that Factory's founders were actually hippy-ish sorts (think of Martin Hannett's long hair and drugginess) who were associated with Manchester's bohemian milieu of Didsbury. And also because it conveyed another truth: the majority of hip listeners in the pre-punk period weren't pining for the back-to-basics barbarianism of the Pistols, they were quite contentedly listening to a diffuse, eclectic array of "progressive" (as opposed to prog) music. Virtuosity, sensitivity, maturity — all these were at a premium until punk reversed the rules.
A UK hipster's musical diet from 1973 to 1976 would have included bearded folky-bluesy minstrels like Martyn, Roy Harper and Richard Thompson, post-Soft Machine sorts like Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers, some krautrock, a bit of reggae, and from America figures like Little Feat, Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell (the emphasis here being less "progressive" and more "sophisticated", maybe). This audience wasn't waiting for punk. Which is precisely why it came as such a surprise. A nasty one, for many; for others (the Anthony H Wilson types), a revelation.
I thought of the Solid Air moment in the film not because Martyn has been on my mind (although I am still in mourning and playing his music a lot), but because it's Island Records' 50th birthday this year. All kinds of celebrations are planned for May and already there's been some commemorative coverage.
Inevitably with Island, the first impressions are of Bob Marley and the label's historic relationship with Jamaican music. The second thing, typically, is U2 and how the biggest rock band of the last three decades made Island their home (until 2006). What tends to get passed over (sometimes sidelined altogether) is the basis of Island's cult reputation: that late-60s/early-70s period when it was the world's leading label for progressive music. John Martyn, the first white solo artist to sign to Island, kicked off this era with 1967's London Conversation. And in a strange sort of way he bookended it with One World, which may actually be even better than Solid Air, but whose oceanic funk and ambient ethereality was gloriously out of step with the UK rock scene in 1977. ('Small Hours', funnily enough, anticipates Durutti Column, so maybe Factory's hippy-dippy side crept back in soon after the rupture of punk).
Even though I've long since jettisoned my punk-reared prejudice against all things prog, when it comes to this era of Island — the Pink years, they're sometimes called, after the pink labels around which their platters revolved — it's still the case that a fair amount of the label's output eludes me. I'm not sure I'll ever fully understand why Traffic were so highly rated in their day (psychedelic ditties like Hole In My Shoe are lovely, but the John Barleycorn-type stuff?!) or Spooky Tooth (although admittedly the riff on 'Lost In My Dream' rocks mightily). Nonetheless the breadth of the music released on Island during its heyday is breathtaking: from Fairport Convention to Free, Mott the Hoople to Sparks, Blodwyn Pig to Roxy Music, Quintessence to John Cale.
Island's big Five-O got me thinking about what makes certain record labels iconic. It's clearly something to do with a flexible A&R policy that still manages to be coherent, held together by a certain hard-to-tag sensibility. Another crucial factor to label "aura" is the record design, the packaging and the way promotional campaigns are conducted. This kind of thing is now retrospectively sullied by the coinage of "branding" as a concept, such that it's difficult to recall how fresh and innovative "hip(py) capitalism" of this sort was in its original context (i.e. an unbelievably square, corny, and clumsy record industry). Beyond these specifics of aesthetics and market positioning, though, what we're really talking about here is a larger issue: the knack that certain entrepreneurs have for reconciling the opposed agendas of art and business (for a while, at least). After all, there are loads of labels who just do the pure art-for-art's thing but never make an impact; it's the easiest thing in the world to be uncommercial and obscure. (We're back to my first blogpost here, on the cultural function and value of "middlebrow" as an inbetween space).
When it comes to balancing the bottom line with an arts council-like indulgence of maverick creativity, Island's only peers were Elektra and the early Virgin. (I'm not suggesting, by the way, that any of these companies were especially enlightened when it came to deals and contracts, just that they did, at that point, treat their artists like… artists). Later on, you'd consider Rough Trade and Mute and, yes, Factory; later still, Warp (who coincidentally are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year).
Another thing that makes labels achieve legendary status is a degree of longevity. They need to have survived at least one major upheaval or musical "all change!", as opposed to being tied to a single trend or period. The Bob Marley story and U2 overshadow Island's "Pink era", but then again, isn't it impressive that a single record label has several claims to fame, several successive and overlapping phases of being relevant? One way that Island kept its cool for so long was by forming alliances with other labels or production/management companies. Label founder Chris Blackwell never relied entirely on his own ears or sense of what was happening. That started in the Pink years with Chrysalis (originally part of the Island family, they brought acts like Jethro Tull and Steeleye Span), Witchseason (Joe Boyd's folk-rock production company) and E.G. (who brought King Crimson and Roxy Music, which in turn led to Eno's solo career and experimental imprint Obscure being launched through Island). Effectively, Blackwell was outsourcing taste and aesthetic judgment to others, and a highly effective strategy it proved to be. In the 80s there were fruitful partnerships with New York mutant disco label ZE and ZTT.
By the late 80s, though, the Island "brand" had lost some of its lustre. Attempts to do with African music what the label had achieved with reggae were admirable but not nearly as successful. There was a misguided attempt to pull off a similar trick with Washington DC's go go, with the movie Good To Go (starring Troublefunk and… Art Garfunkel!). The steady erosion of identity continued after Blackwell sold Island to Polygram for £272m in 1989 (even though he stayed on as CEO for another eight years). But when Polygram was in turn bought by Universal, Island was dispersed amid a corporate welter of amalgamations and restructurings. In the UK, it merged with Mercury; in America, it became Island Def Jam; in Germany, Polydor Island. Which is not to say that today's Island isn't successful in record-industry terms. But it's hard to connect the emptied-out signifier of its name with the legendary Island of the pink-labelled progressives. Then again, you could trace a line that connects John Martyn to Amy Winehouse: that archetypal British projection towards the music of Black America, that hunger for "the real stuff" to satisfy our hollow souls. That, and a monstrous appetite for intoxicants.
Thinking about record labels also got me wondering about this decade: which were the Noughties labels that really mattered, that contributed to defining our time? Was there anybody operating at the same level as Island? Not really. But that may fundamentally be a structural issue, the withering of that threshold between underground and mainstream. The closest counterpart today might be Domino, who started out in the early 90s largely linked to lo-fi indie, but really came into their own when they signed some of the biggest bands in the land while continuing to produce esoteric music (they are currently the home of Animal Collective). Other labels that have a certain "aura" seem to be more boutique-like and niche-oriented, like DFA, Kompakt or (in a different, archive-raiding way) Soul Jazz. I'm sure we all have our favourites. One of mine is Ghost Box, with their merging of record design and sound, their guiding vision, their close-to-flawless discography. But then Ghost Box operates on the remote periphery of the mainstream. They can tightly control their output and release records as infrequently as they wish, because it's simply not a business for them (the label is not how its founders or artists earn their living). Small is beautiful, but it's rarely bountiful. Making bohemia pay, which is what Island in its heyday managed and other "large independents" (like Factory) also pulled off, is a whole different game.