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Eardrum Buzz

Eardrum Buzz is an irregular Dubdog feature looking at key pieces of music that have altered my perception of exactly what music can be. See Eardrum Buzz (intro) for further context. All comments are highly subjective.

flux_of_pink_indians-the_fucking_cunts_treat_us_like_pricks

Title: The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks
Author: Flux of Pink Indians
Label: Spiderleg Records
UK Release Year: 1984

2016 sees celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the birth of Punk with a very London centric focus. Halfway into the year and only a couple of months into the festivities, I am already sick of the sight of computer generated ransom lettering, dayglo colours and screened images. Don’t get me started on musical anthems from my youth being used in TV adverts—every time I see that McDonald’s / Buzzcocks’ advert I die a little inside.

But I was late to punk as a teenager, that was more my older brother’s era. I grew up with 2-Tone for my teenage rebellion, before getting into punk well after-the-fact. After getting into the first wave of punk bands several years from when they emerged, I fell for anarchopunk, as much for its political stance as its musical output. If I listen to much of that genre’s oeuvre today I find it embarrassing, but musically I still hold Crass and Flux of Pink Indians in high esteem. Both pushed the boundaries of what they did and challenged their fans to embrace more than just a three chord thrash with shouty animal rights lyrics. Their investigation into social and personal politics stretched to their craft—they were progressive, embracing free-jazz, noise, industrial, electronics, and in Flux’s case, dub and funk.

When, in 1985, I returned home after swapping 8 LPs I’d grown tired of at Colchester’s Parrot Records for Flux’s second album, little had prepared me for the assault my ears were about to receive. I assumed, very wrongly, I would be getting more of the same of their first release: Strive To Survive Causing The Least Suffering Possible. That was a concise metallic guitar/feedback thrash through shouty green anarchist lyrics, pithy and earnest with song titles such as: They Lie, We Die; We Don’t Want Your Progress; and Myxomatosis. It was sharp, to the point, aggressive and polemic. But as I had already fallen in love with the uncompromising artwork and title of their second album: The Fucking Pricks Treat Us Like Cunts, The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks; I didn’t want the music to let me down.

My first impression, (after WTF have I swapped 8 LPs for?), was to ask myself whether I had a miss-pressing? The sound was muffled in places; the tracks didn’t seem to end but bled into each other; overdubbed electronic noises burst in and out; music stopped dead, punctuated with samples from different radio stations; the whole thing sounded like a complete racket. Which it is, of course. The first track  starts with feedback, electronic vibrating noises, then what sounds like the band playing live punches in with several people yelping ‘punk punk punk punk punk punk punk punk…’ The music/noise was as uncompromising as the artwork and title.

So in the spirit of these Eardrum Buzz posts, why have I picked this record out as changing my perspective of just what music can be? Firstly because it taught me the value of not rejecting something on first listen—I learned to love this record. Secondly because it was deliberately challenging and it shocked me out of my then musical complacencies. Thirdly because I got into its experimental nature. This, I thought, is what punk should be all about. Not because it is aggressive, but because it is attempting to explore new ground beyond the conventional, and anarcho-punk, like punk rock before it, had become conventional with their rockisms and formulas.

Fucking Pricks… is punk, sure, but it is also noise, industrial, jazz, and Dada. It is also extremely and unapologetically political. Sure, there are moments of pious preaching when the noise abates and you can make out spoken lyrics. This is as only anarchopunk bands can be, and this is what I have come to wince at when listening back to the genre’s cast. In Flux’s case these are the weaker elements against the sonic overload that is the rest of this album, and these wince-inducing parts become inconsequential against the rest of the musical onslaught. But all that that aside, in 1985 the record felt exciting and it got my heart racing.

As it transpires, on looking back, it was an important record for me. Later I would get into Tackhead’s industrial funk and more recently I’ve been listening to a lot of free-jazz, things I’m convinced this record paved the way for my ears to appreciate when the time came for me to discover them. Fucking Pricks… taught me to give things a second listen, it reaffirmed in me that anything can be music, and that the more you become familiar with something that you don’t first understand, the more it can reward your senses as you spend time with it.

What would I make of it today if I heard it for the first time? I don’t know, I expect I would find it sprawling and in need of editing and honing. But I would still recognise its challenging nature, its uncompromising and brave approach, and its sense of perversion. In listening back to it for the first time in years before writing this post, I thought of it in comparison with the Buzzcocks advert and the 40th anniversary of the first wave of punk that McDonald’s have jumped on. In thinking about this, Flux of Pink Indians need high praise indeed for making something that no corporation could ever appropriate.

Other interesting articles on The Fucking Pricks… :
Uncarved
Public Embarrassment Blues

Eardrum Buzz is an irregular Dubdog feature looking at key pieces of music that have altered my perception of exactly what music can be. See Eardrum Buzz (intro) for further context. All comments are highly subjective.

Title: Spiral Scratch EP
Author: Buzzcocks
Label: New Hormones
UK Release Year: 1977

With all the talk in the media at the moment about punk’s 40th anniversary and whether Malcolm McLaren’s son will burn his £5m punk collection in protest against the celebrations, you’d have thought that punk only happened in London. Choosing not to mention the stateside influences, and the fact that punk was vital to those living outside of the capital, the London centric aspect of this heritage spectacle is what annoyed me in the first instance when I heard about the forthcoming celebrations.

While I heard much of the original punk shenanigans coming out of my brother’s bedroom door 40 years ago, being only 8 at the time I somewhat missed the (jubilee punk) boat. A few years later when I was living in Mansfield and all my friends were into heavy metal, which I hated, I started investigating punk for myself, despite it being pretty much dead in the water by then. Living in Mansfield with few cultural attractions and a peer group desperate for Americanisms, poodle hair and denim jackets covered in band patches, punk kept me sane, even if at that stage there weren’t really any contemporary bands for me to get into.

I can’t quite remember the order in which I heard things, (tapes from my Sister’s then boyfriend’s record collection muddies the water somewhat), but one week I paid £2.50 of my hard earned paper-round money for a copy of Spiral Scratch EP from a second hand record shop in town. I think by then I had already borrowed The Buzzcocks’ Love Bites from the local library, so I was used to Shelley’s vocals being one of the key features of the band. But Spiral Scratch knocked me for six. I immediately fell in love with Devoto’s voice, who I hadn’t heard up to that point. To this day he is one of my favourite vocalists in all of music’s rich history and I firmly believe he could sing over absolutely anything and make it better.

The music was nervy, uncoordinated, and rudimentary, and to my ears back then, incredibly fast. I don’t think I had ever heard anything so fast before. There was a frantic urgency to the four tracks as if the band were desperate to get through them and didn’t ultimately care about the quality of what they put down. The lyrics that Devoto yelped over the top were very different to Shelley’s which hid stories of homosexual longing and frustration in a overly heterosexual lyrical world. Devoto came across with much more of a sense of distain for sex that made him seem asexual and other-worldly, (that, and the Enoesque hairdo). A sense of nihilism and sarcasm shone through.

For me it captured the spirit of everything I thought that first wave of punk was about, and the Sex Pistols sounded over-produced and over-complicated in comparison, (excepting Lydon’s brilliant vocal delivery—I always thought Devoto and Rotten should compete in a sneer-off). Of the other all-male bands of the time, only Alternative TV came close in contempt for rock musics’ macho formulas and posturing, most other punk bands seemed to allow such vanities within their particular rock schtick. X-Ray Specs and The Slits, by their very nature, eschewed such things, but of the male bands, the aesthetics of sexual politics just wasn’t on their agendas, unlike Buzzcocks and Alternative TV.

The stand out track on Spiral Scratch is, without a doubt, Boredom. This track in itself sums up 1976/77 punk for me—the spirit that spawned it—and all other attempts to encapsulate the feeling of the movement were rendered pointless after this. It is no wonder that Devoto immediately left the band, having laid down the most punk of all records, there was little else to be said and he moved on to even greater things with Magazine. In essence, I suppose he became bored with punk having helped to create one of its masterpieces. He had created Boredom and became bored by it.

And all this from Manchester, not London.

B’dum b’dum.

Eardrum Buzz is an irregular feature looking at key pieces of music that have altered my perception of exactly what music can be. See Eardrum Buzz (intro) for further context. All comments are highly subjective.

Title: Venus In Furs
Author: Velvet Underground
Label: Verve
UK Release Year: 1967

Hearing Venus In Furs was a major musical milestone for me and I constantly wish I could hear it for the first time again for the revelation it caused.

Aged 15 I had at some point taped Lou Reed’s Transformer after borrowing it from my local library. Just seriously getting into Punk at the time, on hearing other’s say that Reed was its godfather, I couldn’t quite make the link with the glam I heard on his second solo LP, (excellent as I thought it was). And older friend with a wider musical knowledge than I had Diana Clapton’s Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground 1982 biography which I loved flicking through whenever I visited. It was this book that introduced me to the Velvets, or at least to their myth, prior to hearing their actual music.

On the back of this, one week I used some of my wages from a Saturday shelf-stacking job and took a punt on buying a 6 track import Velvet Underground sampler. The gatefold sleeve contained a stapled in booklet in either Spanish or Italian, with lots of photos of the band—despite not being able to read it, the photos alone made me think it was worth the £3.99 I paid. Although I wasn’t aware of the Velvet’s discography, I later found out the album collated together 6 tracks from Velvet Underground’s first three LPs. I can’t remember exactly what tracks, but can recall both Sister Ray from their second album and Pale Blue Eyes from their third were on it.

All I can now remember of putting the album on for the first time was the incredible effect hearing Venus In Furs had on me. I had not heard a single thing like it before in my 15 short years and it put my head in a spin. Those viola stabs and background drone, the laconic out-of-kilter drums, the chiming guitar and those ever so strange lyrics that were drawled poetically from Reed’s lips. And dropped into the middle of all of this, that uplifting chorus that all too soon, and seamlessly, reverts back to the repetitive atonal noise of the verse. This changed everything for me. I was unsure whether I liked it or not but felt compelled to listen to it again, and again, and again. As it became more familiar to my ears I became more intrigued with it, and more intoxicated by it.

I am incredibly grateful to this song for opening up my ears to vast new musical possibilities. Literal lyrics and actual tunes suddenly didn’t seem as important as they had moments before. And I now realise as I look back that without this song there is so much that I now appreciate and enjoy that I would never have given a chance, dismissing it simply as tuneless and unmusical prior to this experience. But Velvet Underground’s Venus In Furs didn’t just widen my musical perspective, it also opened my mind to looking at many things from a non-mainstream stance—art, politics, philosophy, you name it. In challenging my perspective on music, Venus In Furs made me question my views on many other things; views that were formed purely on a narrow experience. Ultimately it taught me the value of exploring different possibilities beyond the limitations of what was popular, what other’s deemed ‘acceptable’, and what mainstream society presented as culture.

Eardrum Buzz is an irregular Dubdog feature looking at key pieces of music that have altered my perception of exactly what music can be. See Eardrum Buzz (intro) for further context. All comments are highly subjective.

AfricanDubCh3

Title: African Dub, Chapter 3
Author: Joe Gibbs and The Professionals
Label: Lightning Records
UK Release Year: 1978

“What the fuck is this?” is not the exact phrase that would have been going through my 10 year old brain. The ‘fuck’ has been added by my 47 year-old self to emphasise the strength of reaction I had to hearing African Dub, Chapter 3 for the first time.

Opening with a heavy accented Jamaican voice declaring at volume, “They wan eya killa killa killa killa killa”. This echoes off into the sound of a deep bomb blast, immediately before impulsive snare rim-shots set the rhythm to follow; some opening to an album! Then a snare roll cuts through the heavy atmosphere, cavernous and tinny—how can something sound so thin and so loud?—before the powerful hook of THAT bassline underpins everything. All this within 15 seconds and we are truly on the way—the album has started.

Until this stage, my musical appreciation had been, in order: The Wombles, Sweet and The Beatles. Not exactly the musical diet that would have prepared me for such a heavy dub record, (not that I knew what ‘dub’ meant aged 10). “What the fuck is this?” indeed.

What followed is now so well known to me, but to my young ears this was difficult to comprehend as music. Questions abounded: Firstly, why were there virtually no human voices except for the odd call of ‘killa’ or ‘murder’ or ‘I wanna dub you’? Where was the verse/chorus set-up I’d become familiar with? Secondly, why the repetition? Apart from the odd fill-in, once a track had truly started, it was essentially the same thing repeated over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, (as I heard it back then). Thirdly, why did some instruments keep cutting in and out, as if lost, only to reappear some 20 seconds later? And lastly, what were all those sounds that echoed in and out all about? The doorbell; the science fiction type noises I’d heard on Blake’s 7; the snapshots of a horn section, gone in an instant; and the odd vocal addition.

All these questions confused and excited my young mind. But what drove through all of this strangeness was the high fast rhythms cut by the drums, and the low, low, low bass hooks.

The accompanying sleeve intrigued also—if the music was revolutionary and somewhat threatening to my ears, the sleeve created a heavy visual accompaniment. Those dark brooding guys on the front joined as one staring directly at me, the unfamiliar architecture in the background line illustration, the red, gold and green jagged shards blasting from the sky. And the title! Who was the band? Where they called African Dub, or Chapter Three? And what did All-mighty mean?, a phrase I’d only previously heard at dreaded Sunday school, (no pun intended).

The context to this musical mayhem I was experiencing: A family gathering—maybe Christmas, maybe Easter—packed into my Grandmother and Uncle’s council house in Carshalton, Surrey; the front room barely big enough for the congregated mass there-in.

This album, more than any other, has had a massive impact on me. Not just on my musical tastes, but also on my inquisitiveness for discovering new sounds. I wasn’t sure I liked African Dub Chapter 3 when I first heard it. I certainly didn’t understand it. But it did intrigue me.

In terms of bands/music I’ve liked over the years since first hearing this record that I can draw a clear linage to, then my immediate patronage of Two-Tone as ‘my music’ when it hit the charts a year later is an obvious association. The b-side of the 10” Black Market Clash, with the dub versions of Armagideon Time and Bankrobber, was at one stage pretty much glued to my turntable for weeks on end a few years later. It wouldn’t be until my late teens and early twenties thought that I’d discover the delights of other dub producers such as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Niney The Observer, and obviously King Tubby. Later, World Domination Enterprises, Meat Beat Manifesto, Mark Stewart and The Maffia, Tackhead, The Bug, and Kode9 and the SpaceApe, amongst many others, would be opened to my ears because I could trace aspects back to this album.

I will leave the final words of this post to Woebot, writing for The Wire magazine’s The Inner Sleeve feature, (August 2010, issue 318, p79): “The music is analogous to the artwork: visionary, bold, visceral, but also conjured from the barest essentials. This record as [a] physical entity has always functioned as a desire-creating machine. In his epic reggae study, Bass Culture, Lloyd Bradley told how the demand for it was so strong that the first UK copies were stolen overnight from a London shop before they even hit the racks. The disc’s power [is] undiminished with the passing years”.

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iPhone Music montage screengrab

This blog, Dubdog, carries the strap-line: On art, design and music—mostly.

However, on closer examination a reader may come to the conclusion that in truth it is actually ‘mostly’ about design in one form or another. The music bit generally gets sidelined to lists of what I’ve been listening to at the end of any particular year. But recent thoughts have led me to consider adding a semi-regular feature that will address this.

Let me explain… I’ve been thinking a lot about music recently, partly prompted by corridor conversations with work colleagues and discovering a joint love of a particular band; but also through meeting new people and finding they have cross-over tastes to mine, but who then reel off a huge amount of band names or artists I’ve never come across. This has led me to ponder on how I have arrived at my subjective musical ‘tastes’.

I’ve never been a fan of pigeonholing. As a teenager, like many others, I had a perceived need to belong to something and thus create an identity for myself, usually based on a particular youth culture that followed the fashions of a particular musical ‘tribe’. As I matured I rejected this need to identify myself by the music I listened to, just as most people do when they distance themselves from their teenage years. But even when I was pigeonholing myself to the outside world through dress codes, I felt at odds with assigning myself to just one particular style or genre of music. When I was wearing bondage trousers and spiking my hair I was listening to far more than just The Clash.

As I think back on my life’s musical journey, one important thing it has taught me is to be open-minded to new experiences. As an addition to this I learned not to define something as being ‘music’ or not, especially as I learnt about, for example, Industrial Music, experimental sound artists, and more recently, Free Jazz. As a result, the term ‘music’ suddenly seems as arcane as the concept of dressing in the same style as the people in the bands you like. As I have heard new sounds, whether that be through chance happenings or someone directing me towards a particular artist, I can pinpoint key moments in my life when I’ve heard something for the first time and it has fundamentally altered my mind about music. I’m not talking about just hearing a new band, I’m talking about moments that have made me question my preconceived opinions and have taken me on an exciting journey of discovery. To use the term ‘paradigm shift’ is not too strong a term to use here in relation to what I’m trying to express.

Obviously context is everything. There are certain pieces of music that I’ve heard that if I’d come to them earlier in life I might not have been able to accept them—not having had preceding musical experiences I might need to get to that point of acceptance. A good example of this is the first time I heard Venus In Furs by The Velvet Underground. To my 15 year-old ears this blew my mind and I couldn’t stop playing the track on rotation for several days as I soaked up this incredible sound; a sound that I can’t recall having heard previously. Had I first heard this at age 10, my personal experience would likely be quite different. Equally, the situation I heard something in for the first time may also have bought a lot to the experience that outside of that situation it may not have had the same effect. Others who may already be familiar with a specific work which I signify as a paradigm shift in my conscious understanding of music may not consider that it the best example of that specific musical approach. This doesn’t matter as this is personal to my experience, and besides, if they are right, I will generally work that out for myself anyway as I explore further. And while I may come to the realisation that what I’ve heard is at the tame/lame end of its particular spectrum, the fact that it opened my world still holds a significance for me, and therefore I would still hold it in high regard, (albeit with accepted caveats).

As these considerations on music that I have been ruminating on recently have continued, I’ve started listing all the key works that have prompted a real paradigm shift in my musical appreciation. Over the coming months I will revisit some of these pieces and subsequently write about them here. Some will be very well known and discussed at length in other forums, but some will have slipped off the musical map and no end of searching online will uncover them being given any serious attention, (I can’t wait to write the post on Flux of Pink Indians’ The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks, for example). They will all, obviously, be personal to me and my experiences. But equally, some readers may discover new music they haven’t previously experienced or re-evaluate something they had previously discarded. As an exercise I hope to find this personally enriching, but more than that, as I consider music in more depth and the phenomenon of the effect it can have on an individual, I hope to learn a little more about what music is, and the power it can wield over and above subjective appreciation.

As a sneak peak, first up will be a key album that has shaped much of my musical appreciation from a young age and that has aligned my tastes for many years to come, right up to the present day in fact. That album is Joe Gibbs and The Professionals—African Dub All Mighty: Chapter 3. Search it out on YouTube and give it a listen, I’ll be writing about it here soon. Until then, I’m now off to trawl the BBC Glastonbury website, while the festival goes on many miles away from my home town, in order to search out some new acts I’ve never heard of before. Who knows, I may be writing about them here in a few months time.

This series is titled Eardrum Buzz after the track of the same name by Wire.

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