5 weeks ago
Saturday, November 22, 2008
CHAPTER 23 : GLORY BOYS: LIVERPOOL, NEW PSYCHEDELIA AND THE BIG MUSIC
(second half of Chapter 21 in the US edition)
“This is not Earth music,” Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun declared, before passing on the opportunity to sign the group. Television were staples of the CBGB/Max’s scene but they didn’t really fit. Unlike the punks, Verlaine and Lloyd were virtuosos, able to take a solo and fly. “Marquee Moon” climaxes with orgasmic cascades of pearls and dewdrops from Verlaine’s fretboard. The lyrics likewise bypassed gritty urban realism grit for dream logic, hallucinatory iridiscence (“Broadway looked so Medieval”), and ineffable sensations that are “too ‘too too’/to put a finger on”.
>Television had a much bigger impact in Britain
Although they were critically celebrated in America, Television had much bigger impact in Britain. Their first NME front cover was based not around an interview but a full page album review of their 1977 debut Marquee Moon by Nick Kent, who across the course of some 2000 words(oh the word counts in them days) showered the group with hosannas.
The Teardrop Explodes’s Julian Cope preferred TV’s debut single “Little Johnny Jewel” to “Anarchy In the U.K.”. There was a special attraction for Liverpudlians in the fact that they were on Elektra , home to Merseyside hipster icons like Love and The Doors.
> even had hit singles
Television had two UK Top 30 hits with “Marquee Moon” and “Prove It”, albeit not massively large ones. But their second album Adventure entered the UK charts at #7, despite being reviewed as a disappointing sequel.
>“was just such… unoriginal-sounding instrument”
the Edge, Rolling Stone, date unknown. At http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/_/id/5928789
Another striking thing abou tIan McCulloch’s voice: the fact he sang with a pronounced American accent (e.g. "Rescue": "won't you come on down to mah/rescue?"). One of the first British singers after 1977 to go against the punk ethos of singing in a British accent?
At that point, not such a bleedin' obvious thing to be influenced by as it would be later. When The Stranglers brought back the Doorsy keyboard-dominated sound and menacing moody vibe, it seemed pretty esoteric stuff tod raw on. The Doors's profile had dipped away during the Seventies, apart from some Best Ofs, and the Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine double album anthology, it was quite hard to get hold of the original albums; not having more than a couple of medium-sized hits in the UK, they weren't on the radio as golden oldies. Paul Du Noyer: "Maybe it sounds odd to describe The Doors as ‘esoteric’ but at that point they were--there was no reissue culture, records went out of print, there wasn’t the rock heritage thing that we have know. If you weren’t old enough to have heard The Doors at the time, you barely knew of their existence.”
> NME album of the year.. . Anti-New Pop protest vote
The readership of the UK music press is a conservative electorate at the best of times. Its ideas of what music matters and counts as “serious” are rather staid. Year after year, the annual readers polls are topped by an all-male British guitar band. If you tracked the NME polls between punk and the present, the winners would run something like The Clash, The Jam, Joy Division, The Smiths, U2, Stone Roses, Oasis, Radiohead… You'd have to go some ways down the chart before you find female or black artists, or indeed American ones (exceptions: REM and Nirvana; later the Strokes). This isn’t sexism or racism or jingoism, though, so much as a logic of identification and representation that makes the readership (which skews heavily male, white, British) keeping looking to a band that resembles itself.
The runaway evolution of trends during the punk/postpunk /new pop era left many music press readers confused and alienated. Having coped with the shift from Old Wave to New Wave, and then the rapid transition from punk to postpunk, New Pop was a leap too far for most from their essentially rockist mindset with its ideas of what constituted real music, substance, depth, edge, value, etc. Many had only just settled on Joy Division or The Jam as their new heroes when the papers started telling them that synths and salsa were where it was at. Accordingly, in a spirit of loyalty and recalcitrance, NME’s readers poll for the Best of 1981 featured The Jam at #1, even though they’d not even released an album that year. More significant was the high placing of Echo & The Bunnymen at #2 Best Band /#1 album. Under the headline “Do Not Adjust Your Audience”, one of the paper's editors Phil McNeil parsed the results as a repudiation of Morleyism: the NME readership remained a rock audience and they still liked the kind of stirring, melodic guitar-based postpunk they’d liked in 1980. That same year, in the Bunnymen’s first major NME feature, singer Ian McCulloch had expressed the same sentiment: “People ask us what sort of band we are, and I always say 'we're a rock band'. Because i'm proud of that... but a lot of people seem to be embarrassed about it… I much prefer good basic drums, bass guitar, guitar and vocals to good electronic experimental stuff…”
>nor did postpunk flourish there.. or at least not the experimental kinds
The exception here being Pink Military Stands Alone -- Jayne Casey ex-Big In Japan's group -- later to evolve into Pink Industry
Two aspects defined Liverpool’s unique form of postpunk:
1/ Poetry ruled, agit-prop was off-limits. Paul Du Noyer: “Politics has never been big in Liverpool. The place is just too undisciplined. It’s a rebellious place, but it’s not ideological. People are all for making trouble, there’s a strong inclination to disobey authority, it’s an instinctively democratic place, but they’re not really interested in formal politics. You see that in the total absence of explicit political messages in Liverpool music through the years.”
2/ Another local peculiarity was the lack of engagement with black music, the absence of reggae or disco influences (c.f. Manchester with A Certain Ratio etc). Liverpool has one of the longest established black populations in Britain, a residue of its height-of-Empire role as major port for all forms of trade (including slaves). Paul Du Noyer: "The black families are longer established than much of the white population, being as it’s largely composed of Irish immigrants". Yet Liverpool is also very territorial, and the city’s geographical segregation is reflected in the sonic whiteness of its postpunk groups.
> Pete Wylie... Wah!
Wylie's big pop moment, the stirring, rousing, populist, vague, blustery "Story of the Blues"
>“cries of joy”
Julian Cope. Quoted in Mark Cooper’s Liverpool Explodes! London: Sidgwick and Jackson Limited., 1982 - P. 44.
>Big In Japan... explosion of colour
>“there was this big movie…. spurred me on”
McCulloch.MM 9/30/89. Interview by yours truly.
>Narcissistic hours of self-contemplation
Paul Du Noyer: “McCulloch just seemed to drift from school into pop stardom all the while encased in his own bubble of self-esteem"
>heresy in those postpunk times
Dave Balfe: "This was the height of the fashion for Rough Trade. Success was supposed to be evil and the charts were treated like a cesspool.”
>Never do any albums… compilation To the Shores of Lake Placid
Zoo also put on an anthology of Scott Walker’s music, compiled by Julian Cope and called Fire Escape in the Sky.
cover of To the Shores of Lake Placid
>Next big thing to has-been status
Following the ecstatic reviews of the early singles, Killimanjaro was received as a disappointment; it made little impression in the market.
>cut off his cute hair… Kevin Stapleton
Possibly yet more Barrett homage from Cope, in so far as Syd had done similar in terms of repudiating being pop stardom.
>Julian Cope’s backing band
The Teardrop Explodes’s faultline was its ever-fluctuating line-up (caused by ego battles within the group) which meant they never developed a cohesive band sound comparable to the Bunnymen’s. Cope kicked out his best co-writer, guitarist Mike Finkler; other early co-writers like keyboard player Paul Simpson and Finkler’s replacement Alan Gill didn’t stick around for long either.
Misnomered--really it should have been called Tamer.
> Hated the irony and detachment of meta-pop
But nor did Cope like the mystery and drama of the New Rock/Big Music direction represented by Echo & The Bunnymen and U2: “this creeping gloriousness” for which “I’d been at least partly responsible,” he recalled in his memoir Head On. That "rejoicing"/"glory, glory" tousled Romanticism had been him pushing “pushing against the icy metallic late-punk thing.”
>Reaffirmed his psychedelic creed
Cope made a jab at the ABCs of this bright new pop world: “Who could listen to Arthur Lee’s Love and want to make music like Bacharach and David?” . Which you sort of understood on a gut level -- until you thought, hmmm, but Arthur Lee was crazy about Bacharach & David, that's what Forever Changes is totally going for: psychedelic M.O.R.
>Tales From the Drug Attic
The piece ended with the plea “don’t turn hippy on me”--a veiled jibe, perhaps, at the Bunnymen, then charting with a sitar-laced single “The Cutter”.
Martin Bramah being yet another Tom Verlaine worshipper
>recorded with the Blue Orchids high
Recording under the influence of psychoactives: something The Fall had never actually done, claims Bramah. Doesn't speed count?
>“Disney Boys”… lost year
When Una Baines was holed up with a dodgy boyfriend in Manchester’s scuzzy Chorlton area. Today she says: “'Disney Boys' was about illusions, taking drugs and thinking that everything is so real. And also about superficiality, men as illusions, full of shit.”
Ah, I just realised. It must also on some level be a play on the Beach Boys's "Disney Girls (1957)" off their 1971 album Surf's Up.
>The spiritual fortune to be won if you opted out of the rat-race
Una Baines: "We were pretty skint in those days, but we had a very interesting life. It’s like, what do you call ‘rich’? I felt that was a very rich period in my life, culturally or whatever you want to call it. I wouldn’t swap it for anything.”
Una Baines had in fact modelled her organ work on Nico’s playing on Desertshore.
>“a glory beyond…”
Bill Drummond. From his sleevenotes for for Echo and the Bunnymen's compilation, Ballyhoo (WEA International)
Bill Drummond, not long after parting ways with Teardrops and Bunnymen
> Cold, damp, darkness
"The Bunnymen to me are from the Northern part of the Northern hemisphere,” Bill Drummond told the Face in 1981.
>Northern Hemispheres tour
After Skye and Lewis the tour worked its way south to London following a route based on leylines!
>elemental imagery of natural grandeur
Icelandic vistas on the cover of Echo and the Bunnymen's Porcupine album
>“an indefinable glory”
Bill Drummond. Quoted in Mick Houghton’s sleevenotes to Echo and the Bunnymen box-set Crystal Days 1979-1999 (Rhino)
>Simple Minds… wanderlust and wonderment
Empires and Dance was a European travelogue, the travails of an “I” shattered by stimuli; circa Sons and Fascination/Sisters Feelings Call, the perpetual motion of touring the USA inspired lines like and “rolling and tumbling/mission in motion” and “America is a boyfriend”. In NME, Kerr defended the latter’s abstraction, saying" “it means nothing and it means everything… It stands for the whole fucking glory.”
>“music for plumbers… band”
Ian McCulloch. Quoted in Mick Houghton’s sleevenotes to Echo and the Bunnymen box-set Crystal Days 1979-1999 (Rhino)
>capturing that post-Joy Division audience left bereft
Around the time of the NME Reader’s Poll that crowned Heaven Up Here and garlanded U2as exciting newcomers, John Peel’s Festive Fifty for 1981 was announced. This was a listener poll for the best songs of all time: 18 months after the death of Ian Curtis it was swamped by Joy Division songs, with “Atmosphere” at #1 and four other songs in the Top 10.
>“What’s been called… something“--McCluskey.
NME 11/14/81. Orchestral Manoevres interview
“If we stay… small music”--Bono. Trouser Press, March 1982.
>“I loved the idea… man!” "surrender every day"
Bono, Mother Jones, 5/1/89
>“The beckoning ecstasy”
Richard Cook, NME 2/27/82. U2 interview.
>“It would be wrong… I’m at!”
Bono, Trouser Press, March 1982.
>“Just a con…. rebelling”
Bono. Sounds 11/1/80
>“General atmospheric work”
The Edge. Guitar.com.
>physicality of his playing
In interviews, The Edge has talked about feeling strangely disconnected from the guitar because he rarely rehearses, “at first I am odds with the guitar… I haven’t formed ruts down the fingerboard… it’s still very much unexplored territory… It’s almost like I’m going to dominate them in some way. I don’t feel like they’re part of me: they stand between me and something new.”
>“There was a crossover… sarcasm.”
Ian McCulloch. MM 9/30/89. Interviewed by moi.
>Get the nipples out… Jumped up the charts
In the years that followed, McCulloch would get stick off the other Bunnymen for being vain and obsessively worried about his appearance. “And I’d sit back and think: ‘if it wasn’t for my haircut and my lips, we wouldn’t have the houses that we’ve got!’”. (from same MM interview as above)
“Ocean Rain was totally calculated,” McCulloch told me in 1989. “I wanted strings and acoustics, ‘cos we were being lumped in with U2 and Simple Minds and there was people on our backs to go more in that direction. So we did Ocean Rain to prove that we were nothing to do with that, even though it meant we'd never be as big as them.”
Links page at Villiers Terrace Bunnymen fan site leading to other Bunnymen fan sites
Julian Cope's empire of sound: Head Heritage
Music…isms -- a blog dedicated to "the incestuous postpunk Liverpool music scene"
Pitchfork interview Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois on the making of The Unforgettable Fire
Me on Julian Cope circa 1991's Peggy Suicide
JULIAN COPE profile
Pulse!, August 1991
By Simon Reynolds
Julian Cope used to be everybody's favorite acid-baked fruitcake. Even when his musical output was distinctly dubious, Cope remained a fixture in the British music press. He was fondly regarded as one of the last of a dying breed of ‘characters’, looked to as an endless source of good copy. You could always rely on Jools for wacky anecdotes (like the day he took LSD and thought he'd turned into a city center), loopy theories and madcap photo stunts (he once posed in a giant polystyrene tortoise shell).
Julian Cope was on what he dubbed the "white male fuck-up" trip. His role models were figures like Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson and Jim Morrison, ‘holy fools’ who risked absurdity in their pursuit of total experience. But even though Cope mocked his own egomania with titles like ‘World Shut Your Mouth’ and Saint Julian, and acknowledged his image as brain-fried drug casualty by naming a recent compilation album Droolian, for most people he was at best an entertaining buffoon, at worst an irritant.
Sick of his reputation. Cope secretly longed to be taken seriously. So last year, he got himself together. He gave up hallucinogens, but more importantly he made his break with the rock 'n' roll-outsider tradition that had sustained him for a decade. Instead of celebrating his own unique weirdness, Cope found something bigger than himself to affirm. His new album, Peggy Suicide, universally regarded as the best thing he's ever done, is his lover's lament for Mother Earth, an eloquent protest against Man's abuse of the planet. Like a lot of rock 'n' roll rebels. Cope got religion. A Green one, anyway.
"It's wild, isn't it?" enthuses Cope breathlessly, in between remixing some live recordings up at Island Records in West London. "I always used to write autobiographically about how fucked up I was. And then I had some weird awakening. Previously, I had associated those kind of awakenings with becoming 'born again' — you know, turning into one of those people you can't bear to have in the room, 'cause they're off their head in a smiley sort of way. And I'd always thought that to be caring you had to be like Sting — sanctimonious, earnest, an asshole. But basically what happened was that I really did fall in love with everybody. I realized that there is a way forward that is very caring, but it's really hard, really meant and full-on. I don't have some highfalutin' vision of what's going on, but I do have a feeling for life that's very tingly. I decided that this time I'm gonna get people's attention, not by being fucked-up and eccentric, but by being really fucking interesting. From the start I knew Peggy had to be a double album; it had to be sprawling, diverse, epic, full-on."
Cope grew up on the Velvet Underground, garage punk, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the Stooges, Love: a rock 'n' roll tradition that's all about ego, excess and impulse. With its lack of concern for anything but the moment, isn't Cope's kind of rock 'n' roll ill-suited to ecological awareness?
Cope disagrees. "People have said to me that in my ecological paradise, there'd be no electric guitars. I don't think that matters. I think rock 'n' roll is massively primitive. If you took away the Velvet Underground's electricity, they'd be grunging away like mad mountain people. If you listen to the greatest rock 'n' roll, a lot of the time the least important thing is the volume."
A lot of writers and artists get ecologically and socially conscious when they have children; it's like their adolescence has been forcibly ended, and their dormant sense of compassion aroused. But Cope is doing it the other way round; he and his wife Dorian plan to have a child in August. "We've actually gone for the baby, because of the change in the way we feel." And that change has involved a series of renunciations, most notably of the whole rock myth of ‘living on the edge’.
"Nowadays I'm living in the center," he grins. "I always used to think that living on the edge is where it all happened. But then I realized that where I wanted to be was absolutely right in the middle. I always thought that meant middle of the road, being bland and dull. But when you're full-on and connected, you're actually open to experience far more than when you're teetering on the edge. I used to do outlandish, extreme things because that's what my heroes would have done. The idea was that the accumulation of all my heroes would be one hell of a god to be! So for a long while I resisted the idea of caring about the world because none of my heroes had done that. But then I realized that I didn't have to have a role model anymore, because I'd got me as a role model. If I have heroes now, they're psychologists. It's a great thing to go from idolizing poets and singers to psychologists, because psychologists are the classic case of scientists who are frustrated artists. Like Carl Jung. I use bits of Jung all the time, paraphrase him, 'cause he's so incredible. These days I still say crazy things that people think are ridiculous but I make a point of doing a lot of research and being well-read. Because you can't say weird shit like that unless you've got something to back it up that has a bit of credibility, like a Robert Graves quote."
One of the standout tracks on Peggy is ‘Not Raving But Drowning’, a cautionary tale about a young ‘raver’ (an acid-house fan) who fell off a ferry while high on LSD and perished. Is this Cope completely renouncing his brain-fried past?
"Nowhere in the sleeve notes does it say that it's bad to take drugs. All it says is that when I took drugs I regularly took extraordinary risks. I'm only alerting people. I don't think people should fry their brains, but I do agree with the New York Commissioner of Hygiene who says that it has been proven that a certain amount of brain damage can prove beneficial!"
What's your perspective now on your former idols like Barrett, Erickson and Morrison, now that you personally have stepped off the rollercoaster?
"I was always scared that the artist that didn't have demons in him, couldn't be inspired. What I've discovered is that the artist who has demons can never have a true muse, because the demon in him convolutes his thinking and addles the creative process by throwing whim into the machinery. It plays devil's advocate, suggests that you do things just to weird people out. But a year before recording
Peggy I realized that having a devil in me wasn't cool. And suddenly I found I had this amazing freedom, a George Clinton/Funkadelic kind of freedom. True freedom is being free of the need to be free all the time. It's when you realize that real liberation lies in accepting discipline, getting down to work. Within that prison, you can stretch out and do things. So now I can accept being part of the industry, and having singles out, and all the business aspects that used to bug me before."
In fact Cope got so deeply into discipline and being a workaholic that during the making of Peggy Suicide, he held regular presentations for Island Records executives, in which he reported on the album's progress and explained precisely where their money was going. "People think that's it's a bit straight for somebody with my image to do something like that," he says, smiling. "But the fact is that I asked Island how many bands did that, and they'd never heard of anybody else ever doing it in the entire history of the music business."
Ironically enough, despite that fact that he's got his head together and he's given up deranging substances, Cope's music on Peggy Suicide is further out and more psychedelic than anything he's ever ventured before. Take the raging acid rock epic ‘Safesurfer’, the album's masterpiece: He's never even come close to being this cosmic, this colossal.
"I wanted to do something that was just so monumental, that it could take the subject matter, AIDS. There was one description that I liked that said it was like the end to 'Hotel California' stretched to infinity. The chord sequence was one of those where the possibilities seem endless, but it had to have a real Roxy Music ending where it just spiralled off into the void. It was a case of not copping out, otherwise it would be merely disgusting. And the track is close to being disgustingly overblown. But it is transcendental. And that's something of a first for me. I always used to do what my hero Harley Earl [the designer of classic '50s General Motors cars] advised: 'Go all the way, and then back off.' But on Peggy Suicide I realized there was an even better way of working and that was to go all the way and don't back off!
"‘Safesurfer' relates to one of my pet obsessions of the moment, which is that I'm really anti-penetration. I think we should start thinking of the penis as an overdeveloped clitoris, in order to redress the balance. Men are so dick-led. It's a fascinating area to get into because who knows if it's possible to change something so ingrained. Men would have to be saints to change their way of thinking. I'm constantly battling against it myself. 'Safesurfer' is about this guy who refused to be responsible and use a condom. Like a lot of the album, it all comes down to the line from 'East Easy Rider' — ‘Suspension's killing me/ but I can't deny myself this luxury.' That's about driving cars, but it's a real dick-feeling too.
"Man is about to be reborn as a New Man, but he's so reluctant to be reborn. 'Cause this way is OK, it's fun, but it's a fucked-up way of living. And it's also something that's terminal. We know that it's finite if we carry on living this way. We live with a kind of weird freedom because it's been offered us, but if we lived with the other kind of freedom — where we reattuned to nature, not struggling against it — we might like it even better."
Cope once dreamed of owning a 1938 Delahaye vintage car, but he's now renounced the romance of the automobile, in favor of ‘uncool’ but responsible alternatives like cycling and public transportation. But Cope hasn't become totally well-behaved and grown-up. At 33 he's still partial to eccentric pranks like walking through London with a friend wearing bizarre costumes (a grotesque, giant baby and an alien called Squbbsy). And although he no longer acts like he's the center of the universe, his favorite subject is still Julian Cope. His garrulous, gushing talk contains an inordinate amount of first person singular references.
"I wrote an autobiography called Head On," he says unblushingly. "And then I started another autobiography and finished about 150 pages. And then I had a idea for an autobiographical fantasy called Let Me Speak to the Driver. So I have all these different journals. I check out different sides of my mind, different symptoms, every six months or so. See, the only way I can really learn about everybody else, is to really understand me. The only way to make sure people don't misunderstand what I'm about is to understand all my own foibles and hang-ups."
One of the remarkable things about Peggy Suicide is how funky some of it is, considering that Cope has hitherto been associated with pallid English psychedelia. Cope says it comes from listening to a lot of Sly Stone and Funkadelic.
"Donald Ross Skinner, my guitarist, is an out-and-out Sly fan, but I particularly dig There's a Riot Goin' On. To me that's almost white trash music. Low-life whites could just about cut it. When you devolve yourself, you can get down to that low down sound. I just don't have enough animal in me to get down any further. Funkadelic is great for that too, in that those guys wanted to be white acid rockers. You have to attempt stuff that's within your range."
The brilliantly baleful ‘Uptight’ sounds like Miles Davis circa On the Corner (his early-'70s James Brown/Sly Stone phase), while ‘You’ is like a fusion of garage punk and house music.
"I like that 'baggy' beat," says Cope, referring to the James Brown ‘Funky Drummer’ rhythm that underpins most of the post-Manchester groups. "And I'm always looking for something to cop, 'cause I cop from the same sources all the time. I like that beat 'cause you could add a bit of Sly Stone wah-wah guitar and it works really well. And I found that with a lot of the Manchester groups, they had that beat but the songs were really weak, wishy-washy and not really about anything."
The Manchester scene's mix of psychedelic music and hallucinogenic vibes was like a flashback to the early-'80s Liverpool scene (Cope's first group, the Teardrop Explodes, and their kindred spirits like Echo and the Bunnymen). Cope thinks a return to drug music was inevitable. "But the laziness has to stop. Groups like Happy Mondays and Stone Roses are selling rock 'n' roll as indolence. It's like they're the children of Thatcher and they're so beaten. All they wanna do is mellow out and get stoned. But the good side is that they are very community-minded, they want to hang out together and celebrate themselves. The Stone Roses could change a lot of things, but they won't 'cause they're lazy bastards. One thing about previous figurehead groups like the Clash or the Smiths was that they were very hardworking.
"But then my peers" — and here he means people like Mark E. Smith of the Fall and Ian McCulloch, formerly of the Bunnymen — "are all really lazy, too. To be allowed to do this as a job and be paid to do it, you almost have a duty to be wildly interesting and full-on, all the time. I'm very lucky to be allowed to have a far-out existence. So I can't insult people by being really average at it. Even if people think I'm shit, they can say to themselves, 'Well, y' know, I enjoy hating Julian Cope!'"
Julian Cope, standing, with standing stone
Me on the Blue Orchids first best-of anthology
THE BLUE ORCHIDS
A View From the City
Melody Maker, 1991?
by Simon Reynolds
Blue Orchids were an anomaly. They were hallucinogen-fuelled at a time when drugs were extremely unfashionable (the early Eighties days of healthy New Pop, when Martin Fry, Adam Ant etc denounced intoxication as hippy decadence). Fall refugees Martin Bramah and Una Baines quickly propelled the wired garage sound of The Fall towards unabashedly psychedelic territory. Their sound lay somewhere on the continuum that connects the brain-fried minimalism of Question Mark and The Mysterians, The Seeds, Thirteen Floor Elevators, to Tom Verlaine, Meat Puppets, and Happy Mondays's early mantra-rock.
This long-overdue compilation gathers their singles and the outstanding songs from The Greatest Hit LP and "Agents Of Change" EP. Blue Orchids happened upon a sound - tumultuous drums, thick gluey bass rumbles, eerie swirlround keyboards and kiss-the-sky guitar - that was ramshackle but visionary. Lyrically, Bramah and Baines were nakedly mystical. "Sun Connection" celebrated the heroic torpor of dole culture, a life without rules (except "the law of dissipation"); it advocated opting out of the struggle up the "money mountain". "A Year With No Head" anticipated the "zen apathy", indolence-as-route-to-enlightenment, anti-stance of Happy Mondays' "Lazy-Itis" and Dinosaur Jr's "Bug": "threw my name in the bin/ate the fruit of surrender, surrender to no-one". "Release" proposed a life of passive fealty to the majesty of Mother Nature: "let's touch the flesh of the breeze/And feel release."
Best of all remain the colossal, head-sundering tidal deluge of "Low Profile", and "Dumb Magician". The latter's lyrics say more about The Blue Orchids' than anything I can muster. "We move so fast today, nothing stands in our way/We're free to act, and forced to pay/See behind the scenes/The strings attached to all things/'This gets me that'/Try so hard to get your foot in the door/Get what you ask for and nothing more/The only way out is up, the only way out is up". The mystic blaze of keyboard and guitar escalates towards a heaven-ravishing climax, quite possibly the most transcendental music of the early Eighties.
Blue Orchids were ahead of their time, out on a limb, timeless. Tune in, turn on, drop UP.
Me on U2's return-to-the-band's-early-sound-and-spirit move with 1990's All that You Can't Leave Behind.
All That You Can't Leave Behind
by Simon Reynolds
U2's tenth album, says Bono, is where the group "reclaim who we are". It's always alarm-bells time when a band starts pining for an earlier sonic incarnation of itself, for a time when it all felt so fresh and for-the-first-time. Think of those other Eno-ites Talking Heads scaling down from Remain In Light's oceanic sprawl to the rootsy scrawn of "Road To Nowhere". In U2's case, though, they've scaled back up to the panoramic swirl of Unforgettable Fire/Joshua Tree, the Eno/Lanois sound that made your ears gaze into the far distance.
That sound coincided with U2's megastardom, but I really don't think the band have got Uncle Brian and Danny Boy in the co-producers' chairs again purely and cynically in order to be Big once again. No, this album is a naive, heartfelt attempt to go back---back to when they sounded naive and heartfelt. "Reclaim who we are" means no more postmodern play with identity, no more sub-McLuhan/Baudrillard embracing of media hyperreality , no more Warhol-esque we-are-product malarky.
It's good timing, too, Zeitgeist-wise. The culture is shifting away from media-saturated referentiality and surface-oriented cynicism towards earnestness, activism, giving a fuck. Hence Bono's work with Jubilee 2000's Drop the Debt Campaign, and his heralding of this album with pre-postmodern phrases like "righteous anger" and "fire in the belly". Soon, very soon, the blank irony and mainstreamed camp that ruled the Nineties will be rejected as mere fin de millenium decadence (Seinfeld as our Oscar Wilde), and loss of nerve.
But isn't it simply too late for a U2 makeover? Here's Bono again: "Pop music often tells you everything is OK, while rock music tells you that it's not OK, but you can change it". Hang on a minute, wasn't the last U2 album actually called Pop? Didn't the first video off it have the boys camping up it under a giant discotheque glitterball? U2 seem to be suffering a bit from Orwell/1984-style doublethink: "Howie B? Who's that then? Dance music---not us, mate!"
All That You Leave opens with "Beautiful Day," a song stunning enough to blast your hackles into oblivion: for four minutes you truly believe U2 can go back to 1987. Apparently almost abandoned at birth because it sounded too much like "quintessential U2", the song is like Boy's wide-eyed ardour filtered through Unforgettable Fire's tingly shimmerscape production: Bono struck by a bolt of joy, Edge's echoplex chimes cascading like a sun shaft through clouds, the rhythm boys shedding Achtung-style funk'n'grit for the chaste, chesty surge of old. The tune sounds deceptively simple, but the production teems with subtle flickers, dub-wise backwash whooshes, and vocal harmony embellishments.
"Stuck In A Moment" is gorgeous, too: a Philly soul-influenced midtempo ballad with a "tears are not enough" lyric to an emotionally paralysed friend. But lines like "if your way should falter on that stony path" point ahead to the album's slide into boggy Rattle N' Hum terrain: the sort of semi-balladic bombast and elemental widescreen imagery that have made U2 scorned by sophisticates for so long. "Walk On" and "Kite" resound with epic-sounding vagaries, as if Bono wanted to come back and show Richard Ashcroft how it's really done. In "Kite", Bono admits "I don't know which way the wind will blow". Most likely it'll be gusting in whatever direction your gob is pointed, Bono.
The Stax-flavored "In A Little While" and Caledonian soulful "Wild Honey" (featuring yet more wind and breeze imagery!) belong on that chest-beating Celtic continuum that spans Hothouse Flowers and (shudder!) The Commitments. "Peace On Earth," a song for the bereaved and their "sons underground", at least lets Edge sound Edge-like, with radiant supersaturated overdubs. "When I Look At The World" likewise glimmers like a planetarium, all shooting stars and reeling constellations, but by this point the listener is suffering from grandeur fatigue, like spending one day too many at the Grand Canyon. It makes you want to listen to something modest, withdrawn, almost imperceptible--like, where did I put that Young Marble Giants album?
"New York" saves the day with its subdued "Streets Have No Name" twinkle-rush. It gets louder, though, and you start praying that it doesn't explode into passionate gesticulations, and of course it does. Even so, it's a fabulous showcase for Edge as cinematographer of the guitar. "Grace," lovely and low-key, ends things with a welcome whisper.
Book-ended with brilliance, All That You Can't Leave Behind's centre is hollow and overblown, and that's got everything to do with bad faith. You can't simply unlearn the lessons of postmodernity--it's like imagining you can become a virgin again. Removing the quote-marks and attempting to speak straight from the beating heart, U2 end up somewhere even worse than lame-ass Beck-style irony: corn without authenticity, its only saving grace.
Me on Simple Minds early music
Themes--Volume 1: March 79-April 82
Themes--Volume 2: August 82-April 85
Melody Maker, September 1990
By Simon Reynolds
It's a trick of history. Just as it's difficult to listen U2's genuine peaks without looking for the seeds of the fatuous flatulence of Rattle N' Hum, so too is it night on impossible to remember that Simple Minds could often be inspirational, now that Jim Kerr is lost in the realm of platitudinous populism.
The first two volumes of Themes, a rather unnecessarily deluxe collection of their 12-inch singles (each colume contains five silver discs, where two would have sufficed), both invites and confounds speculation as to exactly whenabouts Simple Minds went astray. When did heroic vagueness degenerate into vague heroics?
The standard interpretation is that all went awry when Simple Minds exchanged fascination with Europe for the challenge of America's wide-open spaces (and markets). "I Travel" was doubtless inspired by the confusion of being on the road on the Continent, but nonetheless manages to render this tawdry experience as a form of spiritual nomadism: perpetual motion as an eternal exile from everyday life. Musically, the track sounds a bit dated: it's basically Eurodisco, a Moroder pulse-matrix and a chorus that sounds uncannily like Sparks's "Beat the Clock". The calvacade of "Celebrate" sounds far more alien and unsettled. It's not as schizo as side two of Empires and Dance, but it's still a celebration of travel not as a means of broadening the mind, but of breaching: the story of an "I" scattered and saturated by stimuli.
Simple Minds didn't exactly deflect all the prog rock accusations by choosing Steve Hillage to produce "The American", and despite the slap-bass and sequencers, there was no disguising the rockism of this dirge. But "Love Song" has real funk propulsion beneath its swirling vistas. It's a love song to geography ("America is my boyfriend"), a kind of reversal of Lyotard's idea of the lover's face as a landscape in which you lose yourself. "Sweat In Bullet" is another surge of panoramic, only slightly stiff-joined funk-rock: the line "rolling and tumbling/mission in motion" is valorously unspecific, there's a vague desire for some kind of crusade or Holy Grail, but Live Aid and Mandela Day are still a long way off. Thank God.
The glistening "Promised You A Miracle" was Simple Minds' breakthrough (into the charts and out of the fug of progressive rock production). Its brimming anticipation ("golden daybreak wondering/everything is possible") perfectly captured the feel of the moment, as the charts were engulfed by the accessible-but-weird New Pop of The Associates, Human League, Japan, etc. "Glittering Prize" is possibly even more ardent and awake. These two singles and the shimmering New Gold Dream were Simple Minds' moment of perfect equipoise. For a moment, they hovered in mid-air: between grandeur and grandiosity, nobility and pomp, abstraction and woffle. And then came the plunge…
Well, not quite. Sparkle in the Rain is supposed to be when the rot set in: a regressive step back from pop to stadium rock. But the ambient bombast of "Waterfront" is actually pretty magnificent in a Jim Morrison sort of way. And "Up On the Catwalk" is probably Simple Minds' s most underrated single, their last bout of topsy-turviness and abstracte euphoria, before the descent into facile transcendentalism and blunt, unwarranted affirmation ("Alive and Kicking", etc). But "Speed Your Love To Me" is as bad and boring as "Don't You Forget About Me".
Thereafter, Kerr & Co exchanged their glory daze for Springsteenesque glory days; the quest became concrete and coercive; finally, they abandoned wonderlust/wanderlust for roots, responsibility and homecoming to the heartwarming hearth. From outlandish alienation to "a big country" and "the little people". Pah!
All non-pictorial contents copyright Simon Reynolds unless otherwise indicated