Saturday 17 September 2016

In Music #2: Musical Russian Roulette

When I wrote this, in 2012, I had been Artist in Residence at Swansea University for about a month, and I was in the middle of preparing to stage and perform my first performance show. 2012 was my annus mirabilis, and was all the better because I had recognised it as such while it was happening, and was able to enjoy it while it happened.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I had spent a year not listening to music, and when I reconnected with music, thanks to an mp3 player that my friend Emily had given me, I found that something had changed. I'd decided to shove the whole contents of my mp3 library onto it, and put it onto shuffle for a month, just to see what came out, what moved me. This is the account of one day in October 2012, during my rediscovery of music. 

Musical Russian Roulette

What follows is based on notes of what came out through one day where I took notes of my mp3 player's arbitrary tracklist.
Like so.

SEAHORSES: Love is the Law
This, as you probably know, dates to the late Britpop era and is from, I think, John Squire's post-Roses band. It's actually a recent acquisition; I never owned it first time round.

A few months before writing this, I had taken a train to Birmingham to purchase a Honda FR-V, the better to transport the family, which, having acquired, I was to drive back to Swansea. Leaving Birmingham, I found that I had no music to play in the car. Radio 1 had Zane Lowe. Classic FM had its all-Elgar-all-the-time-except-maybe-a-bit-of-Handel-and-more-Elgar Jubilee Special. There's only so much of that a man like me can take.

At Strensham Services, I cracked and in the Motorway Services WHSmiths – and a Motorway Services WHSmiths is not like a High Street one – I bought a double-CD Britpop compilation, the better to drive to, a sort of “best of” collection of the numerous Shine compilations of the mid-nineties. It had a metric crapload (2.2 Imperial or American craploads) of the sort of stuff that I recalled from those days but had never owned, but at the same time pretty much covered the sort-of-indie music that defined the Britpop era, including a lot of stuff that wasn't even British or Britpop, but fit the bill: The Cardigans, “Lovefool”; The Wannadies, “You and Me Song”; Eels, “Novocaine for the Soul”. That sort of thing.

Much of it I had never liked first time around, but found that even though I hadn't even thought about it for like a decade or more, I knew it back to front, and that it evoked a strange sort of nostalgia in me, a sort of feeling that made me at times stop myself and go, “fuck, I'm singing along to Wonderwall.” Or things that brought fond smiles to my face, despite being objectively terrible – Republica's “Ready To Go”, and, in fact, “Love is the Law” which I cannot dislike.

Some of it stands up pretty well, on the other hand – Elastica, to my surprise, made me think, “this is actually not bad.” Some was so terrible that no amount of nostalgia could save it: Space, Reef, Gomez, Ocean Colour Scene? No outs there.

THE STONE ROSES: This is the One
Funny how it works out, like the mp3 player knew the Stone Roses connection.

I was 16 when I first heard this. It still gladdens my heart, a ringing bell of hope and a soaring anthem of defiance that takes off and flies away with you on its back. It is a big smile.

Here's something I have discovered in this exercise: my tastes have changed in my hiatus.

I own every commercially available Belle and Sebastian album to date (note: since there has been another one; I never acquired it), and the six standalone EPs.

Once, I would have rated them as one of my top favourite bands.

Now? Now they bore me a bit.


I find myself skipping Belle and Sebastian songs all the time, particularly if they're from Life Pursuit or Write About Love, but frankly, all of the albums have songs I can't be bothered to listen to. This one, I can listen to. It's the version from the BBC Sessions album. But I can't say I'm a fan anymore.

Clearly I am not the man I was.

TIM BUCKLEY: I Can't See You
I do not remember buying my Tim Buckley album. I know it's on my shelf, I can see the cover in my mind's eye right now, and were I at home when writing this (I'm on holiday) I would be able to put my hand right on it. But can I remember the circumstances of its purchase? Nope. One day I found it on my shelf, and that's all.

I have no idea why Buckley Sr is so rated. The songs, particularly, are lame; they're nothing special, trite boy-girl nonsense, and not even good examples of it. I think they especially suffer because they are lacking in generosity. It's all the girl's fault; her doing him him wrong is never the fault of this whiny fucker. I have little sympathy.

Clearly – I may have mentioned this – I am not the man I was.

(Note: I hadn't heard "Song to the Siren" when I wrote this, though, and let's be frank, that's a great song.")

Which title is of course Welsh for “Empty Blue Head”.

Gorky's were like a high-speed prog band with experimental sounds and tempo changes and kitchen skin solos and songs about wizards and elves, only a real prog band has songs that are 20 minutes long, and Gorky's managed to cram all that stuff into two minutes and thirty seconds flat. In Welsh.
Years ago, I found Gorky's at first entertaining and then mildly irksome. They got old quickly. Now, well. Now I see what they were doing.

Now, their early stuff sounds to me like creativity and experimentation and a sort of mashing up of genres that can only – I firmly believe – happen out here in the sticks, where the alternative scenes and tribes aren't big enough to survive in isolation, so the indie kids and the rock kids and the goths and the stoners all hang out with each other and listen to each other's music.

Gorky's sounds like home, and more specifically, like home-grown genius, and their work could never have come to pass in the big cities.

My friend Michael, who was murdered in an Indian slum three weeks before his year working there finished, loved Sigur Ros. I always think of him when I hear them, and although I love hearing them they make me sad.

Michael died in December 2006.

Face it, this song is dull. I pressed skip before I got to the end.

Back in 1993, I heard Grant Lee Buffalo's Fuzzy and decided that it was the record REM should have made instead of Automatic for the People, and that was underlined by Michael Stipe coming out and saying he thought they had made the “best new album of (1993), hands, down.”

I was 18, and should be forgiven my youthful folly. The fact is, each successive album sounded more or less exactly the same. They weren't a bad band... but they weren't an exciting one, either.

Once upon a time I would have included two out of three of Nick Drake's albums in any putative top ten. He could play. His songs were all right. He was talented, so talented.

He was not, however, the avatar of Beautiful Doomed Youth. He was a privileged public schoolboy who smoked too much weed, whined about not being famous, and who got ill, ill with a hideous psychiatric condition that (probably) killed him. I might well have wanted to slap him if I had known him. If his work was wonderful, it was in spite of who he was.

Interesting thing is, once you cease to romanticise Drake, his music becomes more engaging. Because he was, in some way, aware of his limits. “Know” is a pretty good example of that, with its hammering, almost atonal guitar rhythm, and its sole four lines of text. I think it's about depression, that feeling of being unable to communicate your illness.

GORECKI – 3rd Symphony, 2nd Movement
I don't know where this came from. I suspect it might have been in a mix my friend Daniel circulated some years ago.

I don't recall ever having listened to it before. It's quite, quite lovely.

For some reason, the numbers 3003 and 4004 feature in a lot of tracks by both Pizzicato Five and several of their Shibuya contemporaries. I own the late 90s Bungalow Records compilations Sushi 3003 and Sushi 4004, for example. I do not know what it means. A year? A serial number? I do not know. No idea.

This song is nine minutes long, and is, as Pizzicato Five go, pretty minimal. Nomiya Maki says filthy stuff in Japanese (at least it sounds filthy – the word “sexuality” or something like it comes up a few times) over minimal beats and samples which I think are supposed to be redolent of 70s dirty movies, although I have a feeling, and this is really just a feeling, because I have never seen 1970s porn, only parodies of it on not-porn TV shows and films, that an actual porn movie soundtrack is not really much like this.

I am sure that I have shared this anecdote before, but my friend Big Dave who used to make ambient darkwave and proto-dubstep under the monicker Zenopede, used to subscribe to The Wire and around 1998, which is when Pizzicato Five released Happy End of the World (their best album, and the source of “Porno 3003”) The Wire loved Pizzicato Five's stylings, wittering about ironic deconstructions and interrogated tropes and nonsense like that.

At some point, it dawned on them that Pizzicato Five were in fact serious, and they did in fact really like easy listening music as a basis for big beat dance-pop. I recall thinking their back-pedalling review of The International Playboy and Playgirl Record was a thing of beauty.

I remember exactly what I was doing and where I was when I first heard Pizzicato Five, in the form of “Mon Amour Tokyo”, the single off Happy End of the World. I was in 27 Park Place, Brynmill, in the kitchen. My housemate at that time liked Radio 1 in the morning, and Mark and Lard were still doing the Breakfast Show, meaning that they would play each week something quite interesting. This was a featured single one time. Worm of the Week.

The last time I spoke to that guy was in Summer 1998, when he finished his PGCE and I had just broken up with his French lecturer, Gwen. He moved away shortly after the girl he had asked to marry him dumped him on the spot. He drove me insane. He was a year-out bore and a public school idiot and his heartbreak made me feel sorry for him, which he, convinced of his superiority over me, could never process.

I wonder what he is doing right now.

Which I suppose brings up one of the other realisations that this exercise has brought to me, vis. in engaging with my music this way, I am finding myself re-engaging with the story of my life.

I hadn't thought once about him for God knows how long until I heard this song for the first time in ages, a long enough break that the familiarity it once had was broken, so that it returned to me things I had thought I had forgotten. Funny thing, memory.

This beats therapy any day.

Also, it's cheaper.

DAVID BOWIE – What in the World
Weirdly, when I first got into Bowie, in that first year of uni that so shaped my tastes, when I was buying dozens of CDs and nearly bankrupting myself, I didn't like Low and Heroes all that much, preferring the Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity, and Hunky Dory end of the oeuvre, although even then I was smart enough to know that parts of Hunky Dory were indefensible.

Recently, I've found those first two Berlin albums to be much more listenable, less dated, and much more interesting. They are restless, uncomfortable. That holds my attention.

JULIAN COPE – Senile Get
This is from the 20 Mothers album.

I pre-ordered 20 Mothers from Rival Records, Royal Parade, Plymouth, a sprawling independent record shop that is of course now long-gone, and it was in that desperately lonely summer of 1995. I was in Plymouth at my parents', and no one else was. No one wrote to me. I had only Louis and Pete, old friends who had other stuff going on, for company.

I remember the otherwise miserable crusty girl who worked the till at Rival – a vision in excessive piercings, white-girl dreads – giving me a double thumbs up when I picked it up, a gesture that seemed way too goofy for someone like her. She evidently liked Copey. Hell, I did. By this time, I had been enough of a fan to buy the Queen Elizabeth album so I could could peel the sticker off the front and send it on a used envelope – and it had to be a used envelope – to KAK Ltd so I could get the ultra-limited Paranormal in the Westcountry EP. I still have it, yes.

20 Mothers is not one of Copey's best records. It actually soured me on him a little. It does have a bunch of decent songs on it, but it's way too long – twenty songs long, obviously – and at times the songs revealed that Cope has a real tendency to be a colossal throbbing cock. His best songs channel an awareness of this fact and a sense of humour; the worst just show flat-out smallness of spirit.

“Senile Get” is a classic example of this. It's basically about he hates old people, and it's utterly, utterly hateful.

I deleted it from the player before I got to the end.

ROBYN HITCHCOCK – Acid Bird, Like a Rolling Stone
With the amount of songs by Robyn Hitchcock I have on this thing – about 10% of the whole affair – it's actually a surprise I got this long without one, although like buses, two came up at once.
“Acid Bird” is from his first solo, Black Snake Diamond Role, and it channels the ghost of Syd Barrett. I know he was still alive back then. But he was in fact still a ghost.

The latter song comes from over 20 years later, from Hitchcock's Dylan tribute album, Robyn Sings. I don't like Dylan all that much, although I recognise Hitchcock's debt to him, and an album of dead-straight Dylan covers never really sounded like my idea of fun.

I have talked at length of Robyn Hitchcock before. I've seen him play live twice and although my enthusiasm has waxed and waned in the meantime, I still consider him the one musician of whom I am still a Big Fan.

Having said that, I do still hit the skip button for him from time to time. When you're as prolific as that, you cannot expect it all to be good.

MIRA CALIX – Isabella
I bought Mira Calix's first album, oneonone, back in 2000, because a review said she sounded like a “wistful android”. I gave up on it pretty quickly. I didn't get it at all, and more or less forgot about it. It never made the charity shop pile, though. I don't honestly know why that was.

When this track came up, I turned off shuffle and listened to the whole record through, twice, entranced.

That is not completely a metaphor. Mira Calix, so Wikipedia tells me, has gone on to do orchestral stuff and commissions for art projects and that, but oneonone is minimalist avant-garde electronica; street noises and samples and snatches of music-box lullabies are overlaid on top of each other to create a sort of ersatz naturalism, a sort of aural beehive wherein the bees have wire wings and legs made of plastic forks, and collect pollen from knitting-needle trees.

It's white noise music, but with detail and texture, sort of off-white noise. I found that it drew me in, pleasantly hypnotised. It's hard to describe, but in effect, some time without actually realising it – it must be all that Nico – I learned how to listen to this kind of music, and appreciate it.

Most of the tracks on the record start with almost nothing, and then something else adds to it, and then something else, and so on, and this merges, if you're walking on the street, with the rhythms and sounds there. To find oneself in a meditative space where one can engage and enjoy with this music – to realise that it's not supposed to be inaccessible, you just access it from a different door – is quite powerful.

AIR – Modular Mix
This is from Premiers Symptomes, which is a collection of EPs and singles that predates Air's first proper record, Moon Safari, which album, when it was released in 1998, I listened to through eight times in a row on the day it came out, and oh the days when I could do that. I have to be honest, Premiers Symptomes, like all the Air albums apart from Moon Safari and the Virgin Suicides soundtrack, is really uneven, and a bit disappointing. This track is OK. It does its jpb, passing a few minutes painlessly.

REM – Feeling Gravity's Pull
The opening track from Fables of the Reconstruction. The era of the CD and its fall have obscured the fact that on the vinyl and tape, side B was called Reconstruction of the Fables and one side of the cover read “Fables of the” and the other read “Reconstruction of the” meaning that you essentially had an infinite album title, and when you're fifteen, that's genius.

REM did that a lot in their earlier records: the gnomic fragments in the notes for Lifes Rich Pageant, the transposed 4s and Rs on Green, the comic strips on Out of Time.

It made for a complete artefact, and for me as a teenager made them immensely attractive, added a mystery to them (part of my original disappointment with Automatic for the People was that the inlay to the CD had nothing interesting in it all, just photos of the band that looked just like the ones of U2 on The Joshua Tree, which is fair enough because they were done by the same fella, but you see my point).

I loved and still love Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables. I can still hear in my head the segue between the closing strings on this song and the opening of “Maps and Legends.”

I have this because it is on the Stiff Records compilation.

It's not Christmas and I hate it anyway.

Skip, skip, skip.

JUDY AND MARY – Hitotsu Dake ver. WARP
I bought Judy and Mary's WARP album in Little Tokyo, LA, on my one visit there. I bought it because I liked the cover. I had no idea what it would be like, but since it was a brilliant record, I did not care. It's sort of punk-pop with moments of atonal grindcore and sugargirlypink loli-pop. If that makes sense.

Jangly Mark told me not long ago that the album, now out of print, commands quite sizeable sums on the collector's market. I don't care. It cost me ten bucks American but I don't care. He can't have it.

This is from the soundtrack to Park Chan-Wook's film Lady Vengeance, which the film company put up as a free download some time ago and which I have treasured ever since, it being a mashup of Paganini, Vivaldi, and (Korean) dialogue from what is one of my very favourite films. Playful at times, moving at others. I love Lady Vengeance. As my friend Andy Keen put it, it's like Park Chan-Wook creates situations so he posit these extreme moral and ethical quandaries.

The experiment (but not my account of it) continues.