Thursday, September 20, 2007

“Doing it For The Kids” Creation Records Alldayer, Town and Country, London August 7th 1988
Melody Maker, August 1988

As rock grows long in the tooth, as the possibility of it exceeding itself seems to dwindle further each day, so the temptation is to look back wistfully to the high points. For some the definitive Lost Moment is (still) punk’s Pyrhric rage and convulsive passage through the mass media. Others can’t see their way past the immaculate personal/political anguish of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On. And the truly perverse can currently be heard “cheekily” espousing the likes of Wendy (James) and Patsy (Kensit), in homage to that Lost Moment when Paul Morley got Kim Wilde onto the cover of the NME (as if there were still “hippies” to be baited, as if we hadn’t all been through New Pop). In every case, though, the past pinnacles are venerated so utterly, the result can only be a neurotic endeavour to recapture the lost glory of those moments and extend it into eternity.

For Creation and its constituency--the sea of floppy fringes, black leather, suede and paisley gathered here today--rock is over, something that’s been and gone. Creation isn’t fixated on a particular Lost Moment, or a golden age with clearly defined boundaries, but it does have a canon of visionary outsiders, honoured tonight on the tapes played between acts. Tim Rose’s “Morning Dew”, Alex Chilton, The Seeds, Gram Parsons’ “Grievous Angel”, the Stones’ “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby”, Lee Hazelwood, all pretty incontestable, really, and close to my own ideas about the past, not least in the implicit rejection of punk’s long-term effects (New Wave and New Pop). It’s a canon that should be remembered, privileged even. The trouble is that the sense of upholding a legacy through the dark ages of plastic pop has bred a servile and lily-livered deference to the sources. Rewriting is unavoidable at this late hour, sure, but what’s needed is an approach that can inflame these traces rather than preserve them in aspic. Otherwise you become a living, breathing archive of rock gesture. A mere footnote. The fate that’s befallen too many of the bands at this event.

HEIDI BERRY is an admirably eccentric gesture for Creation. She harks back to the islet of troubled AOR occupied in the early Seventies by Sandy Denny and John Martyn, and indeed looks gloriously unfashionable in this context--her thigh-length suede boots, puce velvet jacket and boob tube jarring conspicuously with the (admittedly ravishing) ideals of female indie-style visible all around…

The reputedly “quite good” JASMINE MINKS get people jigging from one foot to the other with their moderately radiant guitar interplay, but the singer sounds like he’s gargling a sock, and ultimately theirs is a thin-lipped and ill-fitting appropriation of “the Sixties”. I never saw a band leave the stage so lackadaisical and unemphatic a manner.

Then the gaunt, scarecrow figure of NIKKI SUDDEN shuffles on for a couple of rather scrappy blues numbers. “Death is Hanging Over Me” would be affecting in its abjection if not for the camp effect of Sudden’s weak R’s. “Crossroads” is introduced as a song about Robert Johnson: “And he’s ultimately the reason why we’re all here today… even though you probably don’t know his name.” Well, yeah, no doubt that’s true, in the strict archeological sense: but a hell of lot has happened in the interim. For a lot of the kids here, the Mary Chain’s riot gig is almost prehistory.

THE JAZZ BUTCHER gains a point for sounding comparatively robust, but loses several for his Jennings-and-Darbyshire/Robyn Hitchcock Englishness, and for his session-standard saxophonist. Unclassifiable, clever-clever indie-bop, somewhere between Monochrome Set, The Woodentops and Jimmy the Hooever. Packed, bustling and void.

PRIMAL SCREAM’s moment has long passed. The talk of feyness and innocence has evidently riled them into aping the Stones. They’ve abandoned the gossamer fragility of “Crystal Crescent” and “Gentle Tuesday” for a blues that sags but never approaches the ponderousness and tumescent turgidity attained by various visionary white bastardizations of R&B. Bobby Gillespie and the drummer are the main culprits, the dragging vestigial limbs. Gillespie’s voice just doesn’t have the grain for raunch, can only sing ba-ba-ba Bay City Rollers tunes. “Fire of Love” is rendered impossibly lukewarm and lackluster. Gillespie crouches low, wigs out in that boneless, rag-doll manner of his, a flailing cod-dementia, willing it to be as good as the old days.

I’ll venerate FELT until the end of time for “Primitive Painters” alone. Like Durutti Column’s “Missing Boy”, it’s a classic defeatist anthem, a shamefaced confession of an inability to cope with life’s most rudimentary demands (like eating vegetables). Live, even without the stratospheric powerhouse of Liz Frazer’s vocal, it’s an irresistible, cascading surge, a contradiction of the vocal and its morose words. Laurence’s listless whisp must be the ultimate voice of deficiency and unrealized selfhood: a one note range, and even then he doesn’t sound in full command of that note. And there’s plenty more of Felt’s halcyon dappled sunlight and gilded ripple tonight, a sound perfectly complemented by the trippy back projections, including one that looks like rays of light convering on a retina and its burnt-out pupil.

What else to say about THE HOUSE OF LOVE? Nobody has a bad word for them. In the nicest possible way they are the Consensus Band of 1988, unimpeachably wondrous. Tonight, an incredible piece, like a whale song reverberating through the recesses of the galaxy, turns out to be Terry Bickers messing about while the others tune up. There’s the godlike glow and gazelle grace of “Destroy the Heart”, the vast cathedral resonance of “Christine”, the luminous aftermath of a personal apocalypse that is “Man to Child”. “Shine On” is all baleful gravitas and cold smouldering ascent, while “Nothing To Me” is one of these great Guy Chadwick lyrical inversions, like “Blind”: the title’s a monstrous fib as the sound tells you the singer’s minds eye is ablaze with the memory of her. Burgeoning axe hero Terry introduces sounds and effects that just don’t belong in this kind of pop. “Real Animal” leads into “I Wanna Be Your Dog” from the first Stooges album, which--impossibly--manages to be both bestial and celestial. Drowned, I tell you.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE are about to release a fabulous and quite extraordinary five-track EP [You Made Me Realise]. But live, the delicate melodies and the fine-tuning of chaos get crushed in the melee. “Cigarette In your Bed”, a most peculiar, unplaceable song on record (a Sonic Youth lullaby?) is a shambles live, Belinda Jayne Butcher’s bloodless vocal almost completely lost. The stop-start paroxysms of “Drive It All Over Me” and “You Made Me Realise” thrive better under the thrash approach, churning up foaming noise in the Husker Du/Dinosaur style. But they disappoint me by not playing “Slow”, the sex song of the year (along with “Gigantic” by the Pixies). With its colossal “Sidewalking” bass, disorientating drones, and langorous, enervated vocals, it conjures up a honeyed, horny lassitude of desire to rival AR Kane. This raven-haired thrash-pop has a sight more edges and secrets to it than any of its “rivals.”

The event peters out with a bit of malarkey involving a cut-out Alan McGee and Joe Foster attempting to lead a singalong of “We Are the World”. The “no encore” rule (to ensure each act doesn’t over-run) is observed even at the end, leaving the crowd restive and frustrated. Overall impression: a sense of “now” being eclipsed, drained vampirically by the past and its stature; the loss of the present moment through being made to seem impoverished next to the history it was umbilically bound to. Only The House of Love and My Bloody Valentine know that you have to torch the whole heap of pop signs and totems, rather than shuffle them about a bit. Only those two bands brought back the sudden quickening of “NOW” that eluded us most of the time today.


Tuesday, July 3, 2007

MARC ALMOND, The Stars We Are
Melody Maker, 1988

Can we trust Marc Almond? I don't know if we can trust someone who uses the word "I" so often - in 1988, the year of the eclipse of the self. Is he really the man, as he so incessantly claims, to take us to the borders of experience
("I'll take your heart to limit", he promises), or lure us to our doom in the "labyrinth of hopes and fears" that is his soul?

Marc Almond seems a little too happy in his abundant awareness that he's one crazily mixed up kid. His ideas about himself are just a little too collected. And he's far too confident that we all share his fascination with himself. Is he really that uncomfortable with himself and the world? His work smacks more of of self-possession, than of a soul possessed or dispossessed.

Of course, there's still a place for autobiography, or storytellers who use the first person singular - Nick Cave springs immediately to mind. But in 1988, the real "heroes" are on a suicide mission. They are vanquished by, and vanish into, some Other - whether it's the Loved One, or the blue Beyond, or some irretrievable, halcyon memory of continuum at the mother's breast. Guy Chadwick, A.R. Kane, My Bloody Valentine... they want to gaze, not be gazed upon; they disappear, rather than dramatise themselves in the spotlight, centre stage.

And so the production style of the moment is the Haze, where the voice blends and bleeds into the sound. Almond, revealingly, chooses to ape the production of Sixties
"entertainment music", where the voice is mixed upfront and diction crystal clear. Every painfully ill-fashioned word (random extract: "in my hand/like grains of sand/a thousand million moments of emotion") is pushed to the fore of our

The cabaret idea is to give pain poise, even grandeur. The models are Scott Walker, Gene Pitney (there's a cover of his "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart"), Piaf, perhaps Tim Rose. Almond doesn't realise that the broken, beaten or deficient voice actaully communicates more these days (Vini Reilly, Band Of Holy Joy, The Valentines). He's even, finally, learnt to sing "properly". Like his lyrics, his
vocalisation is outre: what we get are the hallowed mannerisms of passion. It's over-demonstrative, full-bodied, plummy.

His words have always been prosaic, never quite purple or baroque enough. What inflamed them was his singing, that bruise of a voice. What was great about Almond was the way his voice didn't flow: it was the grain (the body's resistance to the voice) that gave his songs their special, glowering intensity. But The Stars We Are contains Almond's most controlled performances, and that sense of hysteria, of something being torn from the body, has gone.

As for the "classicism" of the arrangements, for all the wide-screen, windswept tumult of strings, horns, tympani and grand piano, this music isn't quite lush or flushed enough. It sounds a little cut-price, some-expense-spared. Almond's
ambitions fall short in much the same way that The Associates' Perhaps wasn't the passionade it could have been. Only "Your Kisses Burn", with its kettle-drum calvacade and Nico's frost-bite hauteur, is truly grandiose. The Stars We Are fails because you can't get that Scott Walkers feel in modern studios (you need compressors etc). But neither is it as dignified a rapprochement with modern technology as Walker's recent Climate Of Hunter, or as radical a deconstruction of orchestral pop as Skin's brilliant Shame, Humility and Revenge. Instead, what we get is faintly fetching, period drama. Hommage.

Almond's confession rise a little too easily to the surface: there's no sense of a violent unblocking. He's neither a consumptive nor a self-exorcist, but a product of
this century's incitement to self-analysis. We live in a therapeutic, counselling culture, where we're urged to a constant interrogation of ourselves, in order to penetrate the essence of our being. Madness, perversion, criminality, aberration, are no longer considered pathological, but as something within us all, and possibly the founding truth and mainspring of our identity. We're encouraged to gather more and more data about ourselves, and then reveal it the caring "experts". This
neurotic drive to self-probing and public baring has in the past driven Almond to the extreme of writing an anthem to masturbation, "Mother Fist". But some forms of self-knowledge are just banal, and Almond's writing reminds me more of the
current spate of singer-songwriters, or Cosmo-consciousness, than the haunted, hunted men he evidently admires -- the black, bitter solitiude of Scott Walker, Tim Rose's terrible burden of shame.

His work is like some exhaustive, protracted and public diary, all bald depiction and naff fantasy ("She Stole My Soul In Istanbul"!). The insatiable quest for self-knowledge that can drive someone to rewrite a diary from two years back, in order to include the insights of hindsight, can be touching in a friend. Certainly, it's better than being in poor contact with your heart of hearts. But is Almond's
relentless self-scrutiny turning up anything worth bringing to public attention? I fear not.

He was immensely special for a time, up to and including "Soul Inside", if for nothing more than his capacity for being embarrassing. And he's still an endearing presence. But what's likeable is his "innocence". He never seems borne under by the experiences he's (apparently) had, never sounds as though he's seen too much, or can't live with himself. It's this halo of ingenuousness that's the flaw in his art.

Like that other charming man, Morrissey, it could be that the seam of his troubled self is exhausted. But he's one of our last characters, you cry! Hmmm. Certainly, Marc Almond- like Julian Cope, Jobson, and all those other never-wozzers - makes the journalist's job easy. Just get them onto their favourite subject, and they're off, and you can put up your feet. I distrust those who fete the Last Eccentrics, in the same way I distrust people who say they only read biographies: people who subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, invariably secretly reckon themselves to be Great Men too. 1988 is the year of "the end of me", and poor old Marc Almond -I think we can strike him off our agenda of bliss.