Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I see that Public Image Limited's debut LP from 1978, Public Image: First Issue, is getting its first ever official US domestic release c/o the good folks at Light In The Attic on both vinyl and compact disc formats. They've probably made enough money off Rodriguez that they can release whatever the damn hell they want these days. It's strange to think that this classic - and it is a classic - was never deemed commercial enough at the time to get a US release (even though Warner/US printed a test pressing), but then again, Never Mind The Bollocks kinda stiffed in the American marketplace at the time (it eventually went Gold) and I guess Warner weren't about to take a gamble on John Lydon's new group, a goddamn "art band" at that. PiL's 1979 meisterwerk, Metal Box/Second Edition, was seen as such a monumental shift in sound, that the band's debut, barring the well-known "Public Image" single, is often viewed as merely a lead-up to a much more satisfactory sophomore effort. I would almost claim that Metal Box can be seen as a warm-up to the even more mind-blowing Flowers Of Romance LP from 1981 - their last gasp as a "real" band and the end of Lydon's musical career as a true innovator (there's some great PiL singles from the rest of that decade, I'll admit), but maybe that's an issue between myself and my therapist. The fact is: the first 3 PiL longplayers represent three brilliant successive leaps in the career of Lydon, a guy whose life in music very well could've been deemed dead on arrival the moment the Sex Pistols called it quits in early '78.
Lydon's "new" PiL toured Australia just a couple of weeks ago. It was steeped in predictable controversy after he acted like a jackass to other, even bigger jackasses on an annoying TV panel show down here (watch it), something which guaranteed him headlines for at least a few days, and yet all of this brouhaha couldn't drag my sorry bones out to see him play live... and I was offered a free ticket! I just don't really care what John Lydon is doing in the year 2013 - musically or in other aspects of his entertainment career - and the thought of seeing him whining on stage, acting the fool and wearing some godawful multi-coloured suit sounded like a chore rather than a treat. Word is the shows were very good - the Melbourne show the best of them all - so I guess he got the last laugh. His band, featuring longtime member Bruce Smith (ex-Pop Group guy) and a guy who's played w/ the Damned, apparently played the material faithfully and w/ energy and vigour, whilst Lydon kept the tiresome/predictable obnoxiousness to a minimum, concentrating on being a jovial and engaging frontman. Who'da thunk such a description would define a "good" Lydon show in the 21st century?
Where was I? The first album... Some of the tracks on the debut were written whilst Lydon was still in the 'Pistols: he tried to get Jones & co. to jam on "Religion" when the band was in its dying days, though apparently they wouldn't have a bar of it. Glen Matlock always said that Lydon was just a messed-up Catholic, and he was probably right. I can't imagine Jones and Cook getting their heads around such subject matter, and I can't imagine Sid getting his head around much at all by that stage. First Issue is an excellent combination of the two records it's sandwiched between; sonically, it's a perfect balance of the two - "art-rock" which actually rocks. It was recorded in three separate studio sessions, though the sound throughout is seamless. The one great (and obvious) anomaly is the end track, "Fodderstompf", nearly eight minutes of a repetitive drum-machine track interpersed w/ giddish vocals and electronics. It could be dismissed as aimless farting about, or filler to pad out the album (the latter it actually was), although as a complete song it's entirely listenable and points forward to their epic 1979 double/triple set. The rest of it could well have wound up on a second 'Pistols LP if Lydon could have convinced "the lads" to expand their horizons a little.
The rock & roll tracks on First Issue are a real treat. There's seven of them, and there's not a dud in the batch. The opener, "Theme", probably wasn't a good way to convince coked-out Warner execs that they had a possible hit on their hands. At nine minutes long, it's probably ther least-commercial song on the LP, and not just because of its length: it's a torturous, screeching sludge, a decent blueprint for Flipper's subsequent career in audio annoyance (though when I asked Steve DePace if the band listened to much PiL in their early days, he responded in the negative. He said Flipper were inspired by the Stooges, Leonard Cohen and Led Zep[!!]), a great, cavernous-sounding production. Much hoo-ha has been made about the alleged dub influence in PiL. It's more prominent in Metal Box, but the massive echo on First Issue's drum sound shows it was there from the beginning.
"Religion I" is Lydon's anti-religious spoken-word rant, nearly two minutes of it. He really was a fucked-up Catholic. "Religion II" is the five-minute musical accompinament and it "rocks" in the way the 'Pistols did; more obtuse in approach and rhythm, although the guitar riff isn't a thousand miles removed from AC/DC. "Annalisa" and "Public Image" follow; the former could've been a hit, the latter was (down here and in the UK, at least). Jah Wobble's opening bass rumble remains one of the great opening moments of it or any other song the past 35 years. Levene's guitar shards lead the way for the likes of U2 and every other annoying idiot from the UK and its hinterlands who discovered a flange pedal in the '80s, but you can't always blame a good idea for inspiring bad ideas further down the track. My fave number from the LP is next: "Low Life", an anthemic number which harkens back to 'Pistols tracks such as "Bodies" and "Liar", only there's no Jones Wall Of Sound, but a Levene Sheen: no low-end on the strings, but this was when every punker in the UK was de-rockifying themselves in the pursuit of some righteous goal I don't quite understand, but at least PiL did it well for a handful of platters. Second-last is "Attack": more of the same, still good.
Lydon was only 22 years old when First Issue came out. He'd already played in the most important UK rock band of the 1970s, and his reinvention at such a young age, and one done so publically, isn't something to sneeze at. Lesser men would have fled for the hills. He later got fat, lazy and stupid and everything else he said he'd never be. By 1983, PiL's musical quality took a serious nosedive and he took to hiring sessions musicians to back him up. Right or wrong, he did it his way. He's an asshole, though I'm glad he's still around and still getting up people's noses (even mine), and First Issue is more than a mere footnote. As I am fond of saying: you need it.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hawkwind's monumental rep as one of the finest bands there ever be, at least for me, mainly rests on the achievements which lay within their first four LPs - Hawkwind, In Search Of Space, Do Re Mi Fasol Latido and the desert-isle meisterwerk, Space Ritual - yet there are other gems in their vast catalogue worth indulging in. 1977's Quark, Strangeness and Charm is one of them. Released during the height of the punk boom in the UK, it was the band attempting to come to grips w/ a new scene which they had inspired earlier in the decade. Sans Lemmy, for myself the band lost a lot of grit and looseness which his playing contributed to the group; his booming four-string beast really anchored their sound. Their peak albums - Do Re Mi and Space Ritual - presented a band w/ one of the loosest, most organic, swingin' and undeniably heavy takes on rock music ever achieved. Only Black Sabbath ca. Master Of Reality comes close, and they never got "cosmic" (well, not in that sense). Sci-fi author and all-round space cadet, Robert Calvert, was the unofficial leader of the band at this stage, and they'd also roped in ex-High Tide violinist/keyboardist Simon House into the mix, along w/ 'wind veterans Nik Turner and Dave Brock, as well as ex-Pink Fairy Paul Rudolph on bass, and for me, and for many others, Quark... is the band's finest post-Lemmy moment. Of course the unabashed heaviness and lo-fi qualities of their earlier works had been lost; this is clean, the guitars are mixed down and the keys more prominent, but Hawkwind ca. '77 were not a band to dismiss. Skinsman Alan Powell ably whacks out an ace, metronomic beat, especially on the opener, "Spirit Of The Age", which for me represents the sonic nexus of Neu! and Eno-period Roxy Music. In fact, a lot of Quark... sounds like it's borrowed from '70s Roxy or even the Sparks, with Hawkwind dropping the boogie for a slightly more refined, UK art-school sound. The title track has a giddy, Maels brothers quality to it - a thousand miles removed from the relentless biker-boog grind of "Brainstorm" - but nothing I'll sneeze at. I saw Hawkwind play here a couple of years ago at Billboard in the city. The venue was booked out later in the evening for its weekly teen-disco shenanigans, so the band and its support played at a ridiculously early hour to accomodate this: support to be on stage by 7 PM sharp; Hawkwind to hit the stage at 8 PM and everyone to exit the venue by 10 PM. Given my increasing seniority in the age dept. (it's a one-way street), I was happy to be home by 10:30 in the evening on a hot summer's night, although it sure felt strange seeing Hawkwind in what felt like an afternoon matinee performance in the year 2012 (I'm assuming it was last year... it's all a blur to me now). Some friends of mine thought the 'wind blew - especially their late, late-night performance at the Meredith Festival (which I didn't see) - although I thought the group, or whatever remnant of a band now passing as "Hawkwind" on bills are, were a whole lot of fun. The sound was atrocious, the bass either completely absent or totally dominating the mix, but they had that loose-as-a-goose boogie-drone still sitting in their collective craw and enough grit under their nails to make them an enticing proposition. For me, they sounded a lot like a spacey crust-punk band w/ elements of Amebix or Rudimentary Peni in the mix, but, you know, maybe that's just me reading something into it. Back to the album in question... the edition I'm reviewing is in fact a double-CD reissue on the band's own Atomhenge label from 2009. Atomhenge has been documenting the absolutely living buggery out of the band and its voluminous output (barring the essential four albums I listed at the start of this piece: EMI ain't giving them up any time soon); some of it's great and some of it's not. Not only is Quark... an excellent album in its own right - eight tracks of straight-up art/glam/punk/space-rock FUN - but this version, fully remastered, sounds fantastic, has a ton of really great bonus material (earlier, rougher studio takes and good live recordings) and a hefty booklet detailing the band and its plan ca. 1977. You need it.

PS - there's also a great, previously unheard bonus track on CD1 you can listen to here. I highly recommend it; sounds like late '80s F/i.

I was late for the Godspeed You! Black Emperor gravy train the first time they were around. They'd been and gone before I even bothered giving them a spin. Of course, I knew who they were - working in music retail, I had to - but I'm a recalcitrant mofo, and their goofy name and alleged post-rock tendencies put me off having not even spun a second of their wares. Fact is, when I started working at Missing Link in '99, and found myself selling their records, I had to do a bit of research as to who the fuck they were, so out of the loop w/ contemporary sounds at the time that I was. Anyway, maybe none of this is particularly interesting. I bought a couple of their records some time 'round 2004 or so and found myself quite impressed: these bombastic French-Canadian epic orchestral punkers (or whatever) were A-OK. Far from being the saviours of rock-not-roll that the British press hailed them as (they made a big splash there at the turn of the decade), although their three main LPs from the time - F# A# (infinity), Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven and Yanqui U.X.O. - were something I could sink my teeth into after the fact. They did, for better of for worse, capture the tension of the times. I had the entire genre known as "post-rock" pegged as a tiresome noodlefest which had totally run out of steam after the release of Tortoise's second album, although, in fairness, Godspeed's music was an amalgam of many different elements (Swans/Sonic Youth art-rock noise, Savage Republic-style musical panorama, the melodic bombast of the Dirty Three, et al) which put them streets ahead of the coffee-shop tedium of many post-rockers ca. the latter half of the '90s. Yanqui U.X.O., however, saw them running out of puff. It's an OK set of tunes, although the band had fallen into a well-worn formula by then - and after only two LPs and an EP! - and by then the quite start/build-up/bombastic-middle/slow-retreat-to-quiet-and-dramatic-ending schtick wasn't bringing anything new to the table. And Godspeed aren't like Motorhead or the Ramones: bands who could rip out 4 or 5 albums of the exact same formula successfully within a relatively brief amount of time and really pull it off. Which isn't to say that Yanqui isn't a good record - it is - but I didn't see where they could go from there, and likely either did they. Band members have been busy the last decade running the Constellation label and pursuing a myriad side projects. Thee Silver Mt. Zion (and their other, more ponderous aliases) have put out a number of fine discs, although one of my favourite artists on the label has remained Hanged Up, a Montreal viola/drums duo who've released three excellent albums of clang. You could nominally compare them to a stripped down Dirty Three, although their approach is more amelodic and, dare I say, "industrial" in its sound (perhaps in the tin-banging 'Neubauten sense of the word). Whatever, I like 'em a lot. Listen here if you please. But back to Godspeed. Last year they announced they were reforming and recording and releasing new material, and that brings me to Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, another platter w/ a pretentious, cryptic title, but it is indeed a whole lot better than I expected, especially given the slightly mixed reviews it received upon release (I only just heard/bought the thing last week). I've been playing this a lot of late, and an honest appraisal would have me concluding that I actually think it's the best thing they've done. The centrepiece track, the 20-minute opener, "Mladic", is the one which has grabbed me and their most atypical song thus far. For the lack of a better term, it gets heavy; not laden-in-an-army-of-strings heavy, but doom 'n' gloom guitar-riff heavy, and I dig it. It sounds more like a Sunn-damaged Southern Lord groove to me, and the build-up and comedown are timed perfectly. What the heck, you can hear it here. The rest of the album strays towards a more familiar formula (two shorter tracks and another 20-minute epic), although the darker shades of sound and sense of drama puts it above Godspeed-by-numbers. GYBE aren't everyone's bag - I have actual friends who consider them a gigantic, monstrosously pretentious yawnfest - and whilst I see their point, I'm not going to let it ruin my good time. Allelujah!... is a fine disc, GBYE are a fine band, and their recent performance at the ATP festival in Melbourne, which I witnessed, was yet more proof of that.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

There's been some interesting to-ing and fro-ing in the internet sandpit this past week, w/ various types throwing shit around like monkeys in a cage. The one I speak of is linked here, or at least the follow-up riposte, that is. Penned by Gerard Cosloy (you probably know who he is), it's his response to a blog post on Kitty Vincent's Your Music Is Awful (yeah, I didn't know it existed, either) which went "viral" earlier in the week - that means some friends of mine posted it on Facebook - and I must say, his response is a hoot and a holler. Whilst Vincent's bagging of beard-rock dullards such as the Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons may be a worthy if perhaps trite and well-worn pursuit, in the context of the point attempting to be made, it was also hollow and, uh, pointless. As Cosloy made clear, in a manner of words: looking back to the '90s as some sort of high point in the history of rock & roll, when the music mattered, man, and "had balls", ignores all the terrible music at the time which hogged the spotlight (and I will say this from first-hand experience: for me that era was all about Cul de Sac, Grifters, Unrest, Dawson, et al, and whilst they mighta received some critical kudos, it was Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox who were selling records in the zillions), heaps praise upon the dunderhead-rock of L7 as some sort of template of righteousness (they weren't; they sucked) and then proceeds to completely ignore any contemporary rock music which might actually happen to be worth an earful (and there is a whole load of it out there - I just don't tend to cover it in this blog... but I don't claim it doesn't exist). Anyway, it was just a blog entry and Kitty won't be the first or last to say something which, in hindsight, was kinda silly regarding the state of modern music and the alleged halcyon days of yore: it's just that this one got some attention. Years ago this debate would've been ably handled in the letters section of Flipside magazine. Now you have the interwebz to air your grievances.

Speaking of grievances, let me say a word or two about "International Record Store Day", which came and went just yesterday. I think it's a great thing. Anything which brings the hoi polloi, the great masses, into the independent music stores of the globe like it mattered once again, can not possibly be a bad thing. Not that the masses ever cared about independent music stores before everything started going completely tits up half a decade ago, but it appears to have reached critical mass in the year 2013. For one, I am thankful because it helps keeps me in a job and puts money in the tills of many friends of mine. However, there is one caveat: it seems to have been slightly hijacked by the forces of stupidity. Firstly, there's the umpteen pointless "exclusive" RSD day releases brought out annually by all and sundry, both large and small. There are items of worth - the reissue of Half Japanese's epochal 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts set is a good day indeed, no matter what day of the year it may be - but it's also cluttered w/ otherwise unsellable offal from some of the indies (who shall remain nameless), w/ some of the majors chiming in with such essentials as, uh, a picture-sleeve edition of the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" 7". Whoopee-doo, indeed. If you really feel compelled to buy such an item (a fine song, of course, but it is included on the album, too, ya know), then pat yourself on the back for purchasing a "collectors' item" which will never be worth anything above and beyond what you paid for it in the first instance. And if such a thing is bought on a whim, then again, thanks for supporting the indie music retailers of the world and I hope you enjoy the tunes. I could think of other records you should be spending your money on, but of course I would say such a thing. The analogy I use for RSD is that it has now turned into the Melbourne Cup Day for record stores (MCD is a once-a-year horse race here which, for reasons not understood by me, remains a big deal): it's the annual opportunity for thousands of clueless dilletantes to pretend they care about something they actually couldn't give a shit about the other 364 days of the year. Cynical? I've been too close to the action for many years to be any other way, and I wish RSD all the success in the future. The fact remains this: I had a great time.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Goin' back a little here. I do this every once in a while in the hope of stirring up some traffic amongst older entries in the blog. Let's see what I can find here...













Whilst you're at it, check out this blog I "discovered" (not really: someone sent me a link): Crusty Punks. It's a photo/story blog detailing the lives of "crusty punks" (does that need inverted commas?) in the US. Some of these people are idiots, some are sociopaths, and some are probably decent people either stuck in a bad situation or, as seems to be the case, are simply living a transient life which they enjoy. I didn't realise train-hopping was the crusty's first choice for modern transport, so there ya go. You learn something new every day. You might just kill an hour of your life perusing the site, and hopefully you won't hate me for it later on.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Here's a new self-published book worth your while: Fly. Written by local author, Ann Witherall, it  allegedly tells a fictional story of a teenage girl's experiences in the Melbourne punk/squatting scenes in the 1980s, although given Witherall's strong involvement in that scene, I'm willing to gamble that there's more than a little fact at play here. It was launched here a couple of weeks ago at the Prince Of Wales Hotel (the old punker haunt of the '80s; it is neither "punk" nor a "haunt" anymore), and coincidentally, Ann rang me at work on the following Monday as she was looking for some distribution for her work in some shops. That's not why I'm writing this (to sell books that is; this blog has nothing to do w/ my day job, really), but perhaps you should know that. She sent me a free copy that day, I received it on the Tuesday and proceeded to plow through its 254 pages in two nights. It had me hooked.

A quick backtrack here: I never was, nor never will be, much of a fan of the "hardcore punk" which emanated from Melbourne in the 1980s. Fact is, I think the vast bulk of it stunk like a dead mule. The music was heavily Brit-damaged, humourless, politically trite, musically uninventive (and mostly flat-out fucking dreadful) and in essence summed up the dopier, comical aspects of "punk" which never held any appeal to me. It seemed like a big dress-up, the music being a secondary consideration. I started going to gigs at the tail-end of this scene, in 1988, although I managed to largely avoid any bands centred around it. As a 16-year-old, I dragged my bourgeois self down to the Prince to see Massappeal on their first trip down south - the Sydney HC outfit who at that time were in peak form and borrowed their sound mostly from US HC w/ a bit of Italian thrash thrown in (the good stuff, like Negazione) - and the presence of bad-arsed-looking skinheads and glue-sniffing/cider-drinking squatter-punks scared my lilly-white ass half to death. I loved the music, "punk rock", that is, but my sheltered suburban existence couldn't relate for a second to the rough street & squat lives of some of the people in attendance. I admired their seemingly outlaw existence, but knew it wasn't for me. I would go back home to North Balwyn that night; on Monday I would go back to school. I came from a loving, if hopelessly square home, but didn't have much to flee from or a whole lot to complain about outside of the usual teenage woes. I was a shmuck. And all this waffle brings me to Fly: it takes you into the lives and lifestyles of those who didn't have the comfy existence I enjoyed, and most of them very likely wouldn't have wanted it anyway. 

It's told from the perspective of Annie - later nicknamed "Agro" - who runs away from a bad home/school/life situation in Adelaide as a 15 year-old in the early/mid '80s to Melbourne to "meet some punks". Up until then, it had all been band/music worship from afar with not a kindred soul in sight. Her and her friend Julie start squatting in an empty house in Collingwood before Julie leaves to follow a boyfriend and Annie is left to fend for herself in a new city w/ no money, no friends and the threat of being evicted at a moment's notice. She lands voluntary work at a nearby anarchist bookstore and soon begins to meet some local punkers, and then the adventures begin. By the last third of the novel, things start going very downhill indeed, as she becomes a speed freak living in a rundown squat in Brunswick mixing it up w/ the local criminal element. Fly certainly has its faults: there are multiple grammatical and syntax errors which need fixing (sentences run on when they should be broken up, and vice versa) and some clumsy spelling errors (I can't believe it went through to the final print with "Siouzsie And The Banshees"), but the involvement in the characters moves it along briskly. Like I said: I devoured it in two nights. I didn't really have to read it at all, but found that, once begun, I couldn't let it rest.

By the very end, I didn't want it to end. There is a second book already planned, which carries on from where Fly finishes off, and I'm curious to see where her life will take her. For the first half of Fly, I found the main protagonist quite unsympathetic, but the story arc presented some glimmer of hope that her life would ultimately lead to something more than a life of drug abuse and bad company. There's many mentions of bands and music from the era, from X to Venom P. Stinger to Fear & Loathing, Death Sentence, the Germs, Husker Du and Black Flag, although it's not a trainspotter's handbook and the music is not really discussed (it's not that kind of book). I would highly recommend it as a document of a time and place, tracing the lives of desperate characters, many of whom didn't have much to lose. If nothing else, it's inspired me to at least consider a crack at a similar book myself one day, although I'm not sure if the world needs to read about the dull exploits of a suburban nudnik trapped in his room listening to SST records and jerking off to pictures of Molly Ringwald. For now, stick with Fly. You can get it here.

I've heard this album so many times over the past week that I feel I should at least give it a brief spiel. Why so? I just spent six days down in Tasmania w/ the family on a holiday, and hired a car to get around. I didn't bring any CDs to play in the car (nor do I have a hook-up for my iphone to play through a car stereo system), I struggled to find listenable radio outside of a classical station, and most importantly in this thrillride of a story, a friend of mine who runs a record store down there gave me a copy of this very album in the compact disc format - The Groundhog's Thank Christ For the Bomb - and hence it was the only thing I had to play. It sat in there on repeat for days on end. By the last day of the trip, I reverted back to the classical station. I think this album a whole lot, but too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Got me? Good.

I have written of the Groundhogs before: their Split LP from 1971 is an absolute classic of Brit underground rock (the best track, "Cherry Red", is here), although since the album reached # 5 in the UK and they toured w/ the Stones, perhaps it's too overground to be undergound, although the sensibilities were certainly there. They originally formed in the early '60s - the mainstay of the band has been guitarist/singer Tony McPhee - and backed the likes of John Lee Hooker and Little Walter on tours and recordings. They morphed into a heavy Brit-blues outfit by the late '60s and released their holy triumvate or LPs from 1970 - 1972: Thanks Christ For The Bomb, Split and Who Will Save The World? The Groundhogs. These were recorded when they were a power trio par excellence. They eschewed the jamming borefest oft propogated by the likes of Cream and instead concentrated on a stripped-down raw power which mixes up sharp, jagged blues riffs w/ a white-hot rhythm section and shouted vocals. They're caught sonically between the worlds of High Time-era MC5 and early-'70s Hawkwind (now that's a good place to be), with a dash of UK diehard undergrounders like the Pink Fairies and the Deviants (sans the lame humour) and the Beefheartish twang of the Edgar Broughton Band and various John Peel/Dandelion Records types (The Fall even covered "Strange Town" from Thank Christ..., adding in an extra Peel-related footnote). Are you sold yet? You oughta be. Thank Christ..., the CD I had on repeat for days on end (to the point where my eldest asked me, frightened in tone, if I was going to play "that record" again), is a disc you need. There's a cheapy CD on EMI/UK which is a nice remastered edition w/ 3 killer bonus tracks (BBC 1 recordings from 1971), and McPhee's spiky guitar jabs are present throughout. They were a unique proposition as a band: steeped in a certain reverence for "da blues" but leaping beyond the cliches of the UK blues-rock genre through an explosive approach to the material that made them a far more desirable listening prospect than many others in the field. Since I'm in the mood for drawing bows to breaking point, I may even put it on record that I would consider them the English equivalent of the Coloured Balls. Or something like that. Groundhogs are good. You need 'em in your life.