Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Big Black: It's a Heartache

There is a rarer version of this e.p. the cover features a picture of a suicide victim.
The poor unfortunate had split his head in half with a shotgun blast.
I've never seen it.
Perhaps, it's a myth...
But if you know the work of Steve Albini, and particularly the work of his eighties' band Big Black, the possibility of that deeply unsettling image being used as cover art for this recording is not incomprehensible: it is well believable.
And that says quite a lot about this Chicago based, post-hardcore band.

Touch and Go Records, an independent label also based in Chicago, took-on the band after they fell out with their previous label.
The Headache e.p. (1987) was the only release Touch and Go put out while the band were still together and active (Songs About Fucking came out a little later, after the band had retired due to Santiago Durango's academic commitments).

Albini was not happy with Headache, apparently, and that is maybe why the British edition, put out on Blast First Records, included a free give away of the excellent 7" single 'Heartbeat'.

For my money, Headache, along with 'Heartbeat', captures the energy and anger that was so indicative of the Big Black sound.

The opener 'My Disco' contains one of the weirdest audio inserts I have ever heard.
Essentially, a group of guys who fire a home-made mortar bomb: Ba-Boom!
Followed by lots of giggling.
Those responsible are credited:
'field recording of mortar shell July 4 1986 [I guess if you're going to fire a mortar in the States, the 4th of July is a pretty good time to do it], roof of the graystone, detroit, by chris gordon for gnec: during the six-man zeus god of thunder [!] tournament'

It's wicked, listen out for it: slap bang in the middle of the track.

The heaviest track on the e.p. is undoubtedly 'Ready Men'.
Misleading in its slow, slightly progy opening, it soon morphs into a metallic, thrashy jam, at about 320 beats per minute; typified by the archetypal Big Black guitar sounds - just what kind of 'strings' did they use?

Coarse and abrasive, as metallic and mechanical as possible (the band never did have a drummer, preferring the beats generated by Roland; that's Roland the drum machine), 'Pete, King of all Detectives' is misanthropic, misogynistic and offensive, but one-hell-of-a-noise!
It is also funny - I'm not sure why, but Albini screaming 'I'm Pete: Yeah Pete' at the top of his voice just amuses me.
And as for that wonderfully thugish bass-line...

The almost Burroughs-like delivered preamble sets the song up perfectly:

'I'm tough as dirt
I'm mean as blood
Where I blow out come spiders
Where I step a weed dies
No smokes with diapers for Pete, King of all detectives
Fall down on your knees
Fall down and worship King Dick'

Big Black were ever so good at covers.
Their most recognised song is without doubt their version of Kraftwerk's 'The Model'; but their take on Wire's 'Heartbeat' is even better.
Adapting Colin Newman's mechanical, vacant delivery, Albini transformed the track into a bombastic scream: crystallizing perfectly the fear associated with body-paranoia and mortality.

'Things To Do' is right mean and nasty, with the refrain 'Kill the Dog' aiding its spiteful malice.

The final track, 'I Can't Believe', all one minute of it, is one of my favourite Big Black tunes.
Just turn it up as loud as you dare, and see if you don't start bouncing yourself off the walls.
Go on! Go for it!

According to Albini, the track originally had lyrics: 'something about the American political system, but Sant hated them. Thus are all great instrumentals born'.
And a great instrumental it is.

Albini, as a musician, lives on through his current band Shellac (I will be posting a taste of their excellent catalogue in the near future), although for many he may well be known more as a producer (Nirvana, Polly Harvey, Pixies, et al.) than he is a musician.

Big Black created a sound that has been much emulated over the years; but very few did it as well, and very, very few did it better.
I believe it was Albini's skill in the studio that allowed the band to shine: to stand out from so many of their contemporaries and later imitators.

An awful lot of noise and hardcore music can come across as lifeless and stilted when recorded in a studio; recordings totally unable to capture the energy associated with live performance.
Big Black did not suffer from this; their recorded music was always dynamic, vibrant, and brimming with vital energy; so much so that of all the hardcore style bands, Big Black sound as good, if not better, on record as they did live.

Big Black - Headache e.p.

My Disco
Ready Men
Pete, King of all Detectives

Big Black - Heartbeat 7"

Things To Do
I Can't Believe

Both these are ripped from vinyl @256kbs

Get them both here

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Omigosh, it's the Cardiacs

Remember Pronk?
Well the Cardiacs were the masters.
Brash, in your face and often damn right creepy and weird, the early part of the Cardiacs' career produced some wonderful and uniquely bizarre music.
Listening to these tracks is comparable to being spiked with hallucinogens and strapped in to some crazy fairground ride; you want to get off, but at the same time you never want it to end.

So herewith a cluster of Cardiacs' e.p.s, from their early peak-period.

Initially known as Cardiac Arrest, after a couple of years of constant touring, in 1979 the band released a three-track e.p. on Tortch Records entitled A Bus for a Bus on the Bus.

Now a coveted rarity, it did nothing on release; forcing the band to rethink and rebrand.
Hence the birth of the Cardiacs: a new name, a new line-up, and a far more exciting and innovative sound.

Listening to this early recording now, there is certainly a lot to suggest where the sound could go, but it's just too reserved, and the vocals (by Peter Boker, aka Michael Pugh) lack the exuberance and dynamism they demanded and cried out for.

Tim Smith, original member and guitarist, decided to take over the vocal reigns; his brother Jim remained on bass, but the rest of the band was made up of new members: Tim Quy, percussion and synths; William Drake, keyboards; Dominic Luckman, drums; and Sarah Cutts on saxophone (Tim and Sarah soon married and Sarah took the name Smith [!]).
This was the classic line up, and the band responsible for the rest of the excellent material available here.

After a couple of very limited releases, the band formed their own label: Alphabet Business Concern, and it was this autonomy that gave them the confidence to form and mould their own distinctive noise.
Pronk was often the term banded at the Cardiacs, but that label seemed to be banded around a lot at that time, directed at any artists who didn't sit easily within the confines of a a genre category.

Their first great, now classic, release was undoubtedly the e.p. Seaside Treats.
It sounded like nothing else.
Thrash-beats, progy solos, unpredictable stops and starts, and frantic pitch and time changes that can unsettle the most ardent of avant listeners.
Just how many times can a time signature change during a single track, before it becomes a different track?

From what sounds like steam-driven instruments making music to machine-like rhythms and thrashy guitars; this was the perfect springboard for what was going to become a successful few years for the band.

With their new sound and adopted new look (kind of gothic clowns, dressed and prepared by schizophrenics), the Cardiacs became the darlings of the London underground, and were selling out the best London venues on a what seemed like monthly basis.

Their stage shows took on a theatrical flavour, and all sorts of shenanigans would go on; mainly centering around the bullying of Jim, the bass player.
Tim would pinch him, or give him a Chinese burn, and the others, often spurred-on by Sarah, (who adopted one of the most vacant and disturbing of visages I think I have ever seen a woman sport. Check her out on the Big Ship cover) would join in, until poor Jim would break down in floods of tears.
Okay, so it wasn't the Alice Cooper Show, but in its own little way, it was very dramatic and totally compelling; its alienating surrealism forcing the audience to feel somewhat awkward; voyeuristic even.

Comparable to what it must have been like to gaze down at the lunatics in Bedlam: entertaining, sure; but sometimes you have to wonder whether an audience is really the best thing for these people. Are we only encouraging them?

But the music was wonderful. Tight as you like. They never missed a beat.
Which is something when you listen to the complexities of their sound.

Even the studio recordings sound like the band are on the edge of pandemonium; but it was obviously a very well controlled and orchestrated madness.
Teetering on the edge of the abyss, but with feet nailed firmly to the floor.

Next came Big Ship, (1986) which was a real tour de force.
Fantastic production, with a grand dynamic sound, capturing the now big, rich noise they had perfected during their continued touring regime.

The track 'Tarred and Feathered', always a firm favourite with audiences, features a highly infectious chorus, reminiscent of good drinking songs.
And if one had to define the intoxicant that seems to sum up the band, it would definitely be beer.

I watched Tim Smith one night in the Marquee bar, loading-up before taking to the stage; he drank four pints in around twenty minutes!

The release of the e.p. There's Too Many Irons in the Fire, in 1987, to my mind, was the last of their best and most creative work.

I know that is a little controversial, as I do not consider their big album release, A Little Man and a House and a Whole World Window, as being any good.
The band were exhausted; they'd blown themselves out. They were double-dipping; much of their originality had passed, and the album represented a tired and burnt out band - well, at least that's the way I viewed it.

But the e.p. did manage to catch the band at the end of their fluid and highly creative run.
'Too Many Irons in the Fire' is as frantic and urgent as so many of their songs, but the highlight of the e.p. is the track 'Loosefish Scapegrace'.
With it's sinister gothic beginning it soon morphs into a choppy, paired down kind of early Genesis sound [!], then segueing into a driving punk rhythm and ending dramatically with a prog-like flourish.
They don't make 'em like that anymore!

Ah, it brings back so many memories;
all those memories of trying to dance to the Cardiacs.

I hope you enjoy these little Cardiacs' gems.

All, except Seaside Treats, are ripped from vinyl @320kbs;
Seaside Treats
is ripped from cassette @256kbs.

Cardiac Arrest - A Bus for a Bus on the Bus

A Bus for a Bus on the Bus
A Cake for Bertie's Party
Food on the Wall

Get it here

Cardiacs - Seaside Treats

A Little Man and a House
Hope Day
To Go Off and Things

Get it here

Cardiacs - Big Ship

Big Ship
Tarred and Feathered
Burn Your House Brown
Stoneage Dinosaurs
Plane Plane Against the Grain

Get it here

Cardiacs - There's Too Many Irons in the Fire

There's Too Many Irons in the Fire
All Spectacular
Loosefish Scapegrace

Get it here

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Poison Girls came out to play

A classic piece of anarcho-post-punk from 1981, capturing a live performance by the greatest of the British politico bands of that period.

'Invisible people, show yourselves.
People in hiding, come out.
Say what you want. Show who you are.
Reclaim the life that is left.
Those who desire peace and freedom must create a new economy.
The economy of peace will depend on a currency of trust.
Invisible people, show yourselves.
There are more of us than you think.'

Formed in 1976, the Poisons served their apprenticeship during the classic punk years, and found their niche in the early post-punk period along with artists such as Flux of Pink Indians, Honey Bane and Crass.

Being close neighbours of Crass (literally and ideologically), the Poisons worked productively with their fellow anarchic evangelists, touring together and sharing space on single and e.p. releases.

Crass Records was initially responsible for putting out the Poisons' music, but due to a falling-out (over feminist ideology... what else are anarchists going to bicker about?) the band started their own label, Xntrix Records.

Deeply ideological lyrics, that discuss anarchy, radical feminist ideas, sexual politics, state control, pacifism and resistance, are perfectly accompanied by the angular, choppy, sometimes tribal music prevalent to the post-punk sound of the time.
This is a deeply provocative piece and in some ways still a challenging listen. But it's not a lecture; it's not like listening to Consolidated; this is music to pogo to.

The singer, Vi Subversia, had the most incredibly apt voice for expressing the band's antipathy and disgust with the state, and those who maintained the oppressive systems of the state.

With a gravelly Marianne Faithful kind of snarl, you can not miss the real venom in the delivery of the lines: 'I'm not your fucking Mother/I'm not your fucking whore/ I'm not your baby sister/ or the girl next door/ you can roll your eyes to heaven/ for a virgin to adore/ but there's someone right beside you/ who could ask for more?/ as you eye each other up/ for a fight or a fuck.'
Or shiver at the fear and paranoia encapsulated in songs such as 'S.S. Snoopers' (that's social security rather than nazis, but then again...) and 'Don't Go Home Tonight'.
These were bleak and dark times for many; crystallized here in this captured performance most effectively.

But it wasn't all nihilism and self-harm inducing; the Poison Girls' gigs I was at were among some of the best gigs I ever attended.
The anarcho-punk movement at that time was fairly small, and going to a Poisons' show was like attending a family reunion. In fact I would go as far as saying that Vi's fiftieth birthday party, which took place at London's Hammersmith Clarendon Ballroom (R.I.P.), 1985, was one of the most joyous and celebratory gigs I have ever attended.
Forget Barry Manilow concerts, here was a very sincere and genuine love offered to a brilliant artist and performer by a deeply reverant audience.

The advice given during the song 'Daughters and Sons' ('Daughters and sons/ sing your own songs/ got your own songs to sing') seems to have been heeded, as both Vi's kids (Pete Fender and Gem Stone) went off and created their own bit of anarchy with the bands Rubella Ballet and Fatal Microbes, both of whom raised a fair amount of attention and interest.

The Poison Girls' own career was mainly ignored by the music press. Having a front woman in her mid-forties spouting radical feminist ideas was probably not the most eye-catching of copy. But in the true spirit of punk, Vi merely questioned established gender roles and stereotypes, in similar ways to bands like the Slits and X Ray Spex had.
But both of those bands featured young women, of course, and their digs at patriarchy were hardly going to raise the spirit of Mary Woolstonecraft.

Whereas the Poisons were so provocative they forced listeners to delve deep into their own consciences, and many didn't really want to do that (the residual machismo that was ubiquitous to music journalists at that time wouldn't have led to the band being office favourites).

During the time the band were active they fell out with most of their genre mates, they upset the extreme left (the SWP accused the band of describing their party as bullies) and they upset the extreme right (ditto. And they meant it). But for those who connected with their philosophy and ideology, they were a deeply motivating and inspiring force.

Released on clear vinyl, on Xntrix Records. Recorded live in Edinburgh, 5/7/81.
Along with many other Poison Girls' recordings, this has not had a CD release.

I believe, they were a band that never got the recognition they truly deserved.

The Poison Girls:
Vi Subversia - voice, guitar.
Richard Famous - guitar, voice.
Lance D'Boyle - drums
Bernhardt Rebours - bass, voice.
Nil - tapes.

If there is an interest in this album, I will post more of the Poisons', now hard to get, albums in the future.
I hope you enjoy this

The Poison Girls - Total Exposure

Persons Unknown
State Control
Old Tart's Song
Bully Boys
Another Hero Bites
Don't Go Home Tonight
S.S. Troopers
Daughters and Sons
Fucking mother
Dirty Work

Get it here

Sunday, 14 September 2008

This is House-Music, Butt...

Take the number 'Swingers' Club': rapid notes from a stun-guitar, paired-down beats and dissonant loops accompanied by Gibby Haynes screaming through a bull horn: not exactly what you’d consider house-music in its purest form, but a House Record this is.

In the years 1990 and 1991, it seems the members of the Butthole Surfers had a lot of time on their hands. And the muse was good to them.
Piouhgd was in the can by mid-1990, but their new label Rough Trade decided to release 'Hurdy Gurdy Man' as a preemptive e.p.

Neither Gibby Haynes or Paul Leary had expressed any great enthusiasm for Piouhgd, and this lack of belief may have been partly responsible for the band drifting apart; attracted by the creative freedom and liberty offered with side-projects.

King Coffey appeared to have the greatest itch, and created the independent record label Trance Syndicate (later to put out Roky Erikson, Coffey's own band: Drain, and ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead); Paul Leary went off and put together his excellent The History of Dogs; and Gibby Haynes and Jeff Pinkus, not to be outdone, devised a little 'Dance Music' project, and the short-lived Jackofficers were born.

Pinkus, one of the vast number of bassists the Surfers had on their books throughout their career (they used-up bassists like Spinal Tap used drummers), through longevity seemed to have found a permanent place with the band; permanent enough for Haynes to take him along for the ride; and what a strange, crazy ride it is.

Sample heavy: everything from Hendrix and James Brown to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Mission Impossible to cult British TV and a selection of wimpish utterances from bathetic Ollie North (remember him?).

The style changes from song to song. Absurd ('L.A. Mama Peanut Butter'); singalong ('Do It') and even commercial [?] ('#6').
Some tracks are very dancy and at times this album sounds a little like Orbital or the Propellorheads (appearing a good four years or so before either of those bands made their own breakthroughs), and at other times you are firmly reminded of its genetical inheritance, as occasionally it really kicks ass and wigs out; especially during the aforementioned 'Swingers' Club', the best track on the album: manic and intense, chaotic and frantic, perfectly emulating the live sound that was so associated with underground and psychedelic music of that time.
And dance music had firmly infiltrated into the underground, influencing all areas of alternative music.

Rough Trade, which was so often the case, were able to capture and package this sound so well; both on this album and on the Jackofficers' label mates the Gaye Bykers on Acid's Pernicious Nonsense, which Rough Trade also released at the beginning of the new decade.
If you know that album, when you listen to Digital Dump, comparisons are inevitable.

The final track 'Flush' really does break the rules.
Very bleak and sombre. Very dark, sludgy, and rather Scorn-like.
Impossible to dance to: a total floor-clearer.
The end of an album; the end of a night; the end of a band; and in some ways, very much the end of an era.

The Jackofficers - Digital Dump (1990)

Time Machines (Parts 1 & 2)
L.A. Mama Peanut Butter
Do It
Swingers' Club
Ventricular Refibulation
Don't Touch That
An Hawaiian Christmas Song

Get it here

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Kazoo-ming, who?

The Kazoo.

It doesn't exactly cause an anticipatory excitation of the soul, does it?
It hardly conjures up the pastoral or the sacred, let's admit it.
And I'm not sure I recollect any great kazoo period: no golden age or even passing fad.

The only person I tend to associate with the 'instrument' nowadays is the poet Michael Horowitz; who finds the need to end the reading of a poem with a Yankee-Doodle Pigeon type kazoo fanfare! And to be quite honest, it bugs the shit out of me.

I can only recall one kazoo 'break' within a song where the hum-oriented rasping of a spitty membrane sounds at all appropriate, and that's The Mothers' 'Hungry Freaks, Daddy', from the Freak Out album.

That was until I heard this.

This, in my opinion, is one of the greatest collection of covers ever recorded, juxtaposed and put out there.

Now some might say that this is nothing but an absurd novelty record, and the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra leader David Humms with those down at Rhino Records were having a bit of a laugh and a joke; but in a post-post-modern world, who knows? They certainly look pretty sincere to me. What do you think?

This e.p., one of the first Rhino Records released, kind of summed-up what they were all about in the late 70s.

Before they became a reissue label Rhino specialised in producing recordings for outsider musicians, such as Wild Man Fisher (producing their first 45, essentially a commercial entitled 'Come to Rhino Records' - checkout the excellent movie Derailroaded for the back-story to that little project - save that for another posting...).

Now, Rhino is a very different animal.
To the extent that this early piece of punk-situationism isn't even mentioned on their own web site!

Maybe I have the only copy!

At only four tracks long: it's long enough.
It's just right. Anymore and you'd want to attempt to break the world's discus record with it; any less and it would leave you salivating; slavering for more.

Beginning with a Vegas flourish; the humming rises slowly, shaping and forming the classic notes of 'Also Sprach Zarathustra', and then before you know it, it's as if you've been thrown into a slaughter house for cats. (I find it best to listen to this track via distorting plastic speakers.)
Before you have time to draw breath, the seventies are alive again, and the technicolour nylon hum of white disco 'music' bursts forth.

The version of 'Miss You' is a lot more emotionally raw than the Stones' original, I feel. It's far more vital; more authentic - the Kazoo really seems to ratchet up the emotional intensity of the blues, as you can imagine.

In classic tradition, they save the best till last. Again, in some ways out-classing the original, this 'Live' version of 'Whole Lotta Love' is staggering. Literally.
The hum-work is tremendous. Lips bled for this recording, and they must have known this could only be achieved once; truly making this recording the Trout Mask Replica of the kazoo genre.
So look out for it in ten years time or so, perhaps it will be up there, alongside the top few, the best, the classics.

The Temple City Kazoo Orchestra - Some Kazoos. 1978.

2001 Sparch Kazoostra
Staying Alive
Miss You
Whole Lotta Love

get it here