127. POSITION NORMAL- STOP YOUR NONSENSE (1999)

By 1999, I had completely lost interest in new music. There was one aberration from this disconcertingly reactionary development: my obsession with an album by a ‘band’ called Position Normal. I knew nothing about them except that the album was entitled Stop Your Nonsense.

I later discovered that Position Normal was a guy called Chris Baliff who had been experimenting with tape-to-tape multi-tracking since his early teens, using his family’s Amstrad hi-fi and an SK1 drum machine. At college he borrowed a Marantz tape recorder to do a project on ice cream vans, and from there began utilising guitars and other instruments. In the guise of Position Normal, with help from John Cushway, Baliff inhabits a discomfiting subconscious world of nonsensical gibberish, dreams and nightmares, delirium and hysteria. All conventional ideas about how music should sound have been abandoned, liberating him to create discombobulated aural collages which – depending upon the listener’s own psychological state – have the capacity to amuse excite and disturb in equal measure. If he has cultivatied his own mystique over the years (sporting faceless masks for example), resolutely maintaining a deliberately low profile, there is certainly nothing taciturn in his willingness to completely mess with your head.

Stop Your Nonsense is one of the most fearless records I’ve ever heard, made without the remotest concern for commercial viability. That is fairly unusual in itself, but what makes the album even stranger is that it is constructed almost exclusively from obscure samples of found sound. [‘Plunderphonics’, according to at least one website] In sharp contrast to DJ Shadow’s painstakingly seamless reconstructions on Endtroducing however, Position Normal layer the samples on top of one another in the most anarchic way imaginable: visualise a Banksy mural stencilled over a fresco by Botticelli or custard being thrown over a plate of sausages. Take ‘The Blank’ for instance, where a mechanical clang of Beefheartian guitar locks horns with what sounds like some syrupy children’s (loonee) tune knocked out on a xylophone. Meanwhile, vocal samples from a television quiz show (“What is the blank?”), manic bouts of laughter, and an obscure loop of eveningwear jazz arrive to gatecrash the party. It’s all utterly disorientating, rather marvellous and somehow makes perfect sense.

Everything sounds fractious, frenetic, desperate not to outstay it’s welcome, as much the perfect recipe for those suffering from attention deficit disorder as once was Pink Flag. Things move quickly here. You might struggle to keep up. Perhaps the strangest juxtaposition of styles is on ‘Rabies’ where the lyric (“Missing her like I miss rabies”) read by the narrator in a ludicrously accelerated tempo, fades into a devastatingly poignant moment from some ultra-solemn piano sonata. ‘Undada Sea’ likewise begins with looped varispeed voices before a playbarn bossa nova party is bashed out on flutes, tin cans and glass bottles.

‘Drishnun’ could be Broadcast or Stereolab on downer acid. Then there is ‘German’, where a strident rendition of what sounds like some theatrical composition by Kurt Weill (perhaps sung by his wife Lotte Lenya?) dissolves away through the addition of some sumptuous sonic phasing. Despite this Teutonic phonic interlude, the sounds Baliff harnesses together are typically unmistakably English, from the lumpen cockney accents on ‘Whoppeas’ and ‘Jimmy Had Jane’ (“Pickled egg, pickled egg, pickled egg eyes…”, which could be Derek & Clive or the Monty Python team reworking Rock Bottom) to taped telephone calls and source material extracted from UK children’s television and radio shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Simon Reynolds has detected elsewhere the same spirit of adventure characteristic of the UK post-punk scene of the early ‘80s, even comparing some of the eerily disembodied guitar to the work of Vini Reilly (check ‘Pepe Pepaymemimo’ or the haunting and genuinely hypnotic closer ‘Bedside Manners’), as well as citing other reference points as diverse as St. Etienne, Nurse With Wound and De La Soul. Perhaps another might be The Residents or early Matt Johnson (check the heavily reverbed guitar on ‘Bucket Wipe’)

It’s all defiantly lo-fi, at times making The Fall’s Dragnet sound as smooth as late period Steely Dan. Mind you, there are so many snippets and samples it becomes a challenge in itself to discern which sounds are authentically original. In the end, that doesn’t really matter, for in the early years of the noughties, when I like many others, had been left utterly unmoved by Coldplay, The Strokes, Primal Scream et al, this beautifully unhinged little gem contrived to keep my sanity intact. (JJ)

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92. GOLDIE – TIMELESS (1995)

  Timeless is about to celebrate its 21st birthday. In 2014, Goldie launched an orchestral version, which might make it dance music’s riposte to Tommy. And like that sprawling behemoth, it too has it’s fair share of scoffers eager to dismiss it as over ambitious, pretentious even. Upon its release, Goldie likened it to a Rolex – a confident assertion for someone to make during what was one of the most fertile periods of innovation in electronic music. I am staggered by how incredibly modern it sounds today – its deluxe crystalline production seems contemporaneous with the likes of Burial’s Untrue or Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma, both equally brilliant but much later, creations.
Goldie was inspired by the blissed out synth washes of second wave US techno producers like Carl Craig, Joey Beltram and Jeff Mills, and was possibly even more closely attuned to the sonically adventurous London collective of Detroit disciples, 4 Hero. Hellbent on making a game changing record, one to catapult drum and bass into the future, he added swathes of dancehall and dub to some twisted hardcore and hip-hop breakbeats which he bullet punched beneath ceilingless synths sharper than asteroid shards hurtling through space. At times these mysteriously dissolved, tapering off like boomerangs returning to another galaxy. There was little doubt Timeless was a hugely ambitious concept and the perfect antidote to Britpop. You couldn’t dance to it, but neither could you ignore it.
Goldie’s time-stretching technique, along with those meticulously de-ranged breakbeats were in part what made the album sound so 21st century in ’95. Simon Reynolds pointed to an “astonishing soundclash of tenderness and terrorism”. That “tenderness” transfused tracks like the glacial soul of ‘State Of Mind’ with its immaculately clean piano chords – one of two tracks to feature vocalist Lorna Harris. And the “terrorism” was in evidence when flying roughneck over a disorienting clatter of beats on ‘Saint Angel’. Even better was ‘This Is A Bad’. Taut and menacing, it was inspired by a user’s frantic search to score some coke (Goldie’s own drug problems of the time were well documented). Over those shivering synths, the recurrent stuttering electric piano motif was truly inspired. ‘Jah The Seventh Seal’ was darker, sculpting apocalyptic loops from tightly coiled springs.
The samples and influences were unsurprisingly disparate. Art Blakey, The Stranglers, The SOS Band. Even Dire Straits! ‘Sense Of Rage (Sensual VIP Mix)’ fashions a miracle from the intro to ‘Money For Nothing’, it’s muscular bass breakdown half way through leaving in its shuddering wake a weightlessness which might have embarrassed Hütter and Schneider. There is deep sadness in the chords to ‘Kemistry’, written in 1992 for Metalheadz co-founder and DJ Valerie Olusanya who was Goldie’s girlfriend at the time. She would later die tragically in a car accident in 1999.

But it was the extended title track, a prolongation of his ‘Inner City Life’ single from the previous year, that was authentically groundbreaking. Co-written and performed by the late Diane Charlemagne, it is a three part hardcore symphony which remains his finest recorded moment. How long can breakbeats stay interesting within the confines of one track? With Goldie at the controls, it would seem for quite some time. Here, he manufactured the perfect soundtrack to an urban neurosis with which he was all too familiar – spraying rhythms and beats around like graffiti over claustrophobic sonic landscapes. Tension. Pressure. Release. Its 22 minutes still sound like the future to me.
If Reynolds was impressed, yet he was also critical of the album’s forays into future soul and prog jazz, where Goldie lay bare his fondness for the likes of Loose Ends, Maze and late period Miles with very mixed results (check ‘Sea Of Tears’ and ‘Adrift’). If the charge of ‘”embarrassing” was a little harsh, nevertheless those tracks reflect the perilously thin line which exists between ambition and pomposity. But on a good day the whole of Timeless sounds beautiful.
Nevertheless, the assurgent creative trajectory was not to last. When he invited Noel Gallagher to join him on the cringeworthy ‘Temper Temper’, it confirmed our worst suspicions. Goldie, it seemed, would try anything to stay in the public eye. During that time he indiscriminately produced or remixed records by just about anybody. He wormed his way into a number of TV shows – East Enders, Celebrity Big Brother, Strictly Come Dancing. Perhaps this lost him some credibility along the way and few remembered the time when he had the world at his feet.
Not only was Timeless the most vertical expanse of sound imaginable, but Goldie had created a visionary masterpiece of shattering beauty, full of elastic algebraic rhythms and skull crushing digital beats. For all his subsequent wayward moves, nothing and nobody can take that away from him. (JJ)

72. MANUEL GÖTTSCHING – E2-E4 (1984)

The Game Changer

The world’s most enduring game of strategy can evoke contradictory reactions. For some, playing chess is so mind numbingly dull, be as well painting a wall with water. Strange then that others – like the Saudi mufti who recently declared it ‘haram‘ – recognise in it something potentially more harmful. Perhaps his was an extreme reaction, one expressed by an individual who would have us return to a medieval world of theocratic absolutism. As much as he might disagree, there are always two ways of looking at things, not least a chessboard, particularly if you are sitting, clocks set, opposite your opponent, planning the first few moves. The first move, in algebraic chess notation, is usually e2-e4. It is only after that inconsequential beginning, that the mind games begin in earnest.

If by mind games one means consciousness expanding ‘head music’, then Manuel Göttsching has always enjoyed mind games. It also seems fitting that the sleeve of his inspirational ‘E2-E4’ album, features a chessboard. His musical career has featured some of the strangest moves in the history of popular music, it’s unique trajectory surprising many. Who, least of all Göttsching himself, would have anticipated that the journey which began with the kosmische explorations of Ash Ra Tempel, included sonic interludes with acid guru Timothy Leary and continued with his own experiments on electric guitar, would somehow eventually find its way on to Larry Levan’s turntable at the legendary NYC discotheque, Paradise Garage? From there the influence of ‘E2-E4’ would ripple outwards into new and alien territory – a dance culture with which Manuel was quite unfamiliar, and at times palpably uncomfortable.

For many, the discovery of ‘E2-E4’ is a revelation. If you like me frequented the dance clubs of the early 1990s, often the pinnacle of those evenings – perhaps three quarters of the way through the DJ’s set – was a lengthy building hypnotic groove of house or techno. This could have been a slice of Strictly Rhythm style ‘Wild Pitch’ or possibly the sumptuous minimalism of ‘Acid Eiffel’ by Laurent Garnier. Best of all though had to be Derrick May’s remix of an Italian house track ‘Sueno Latino’: eleven goosebump-arasing minutes of aural bliss. It was the tune – the one where there was a coalescent transcendent moment of sheer joy and uninhibited love of the music. I soon discovered that this ‘balearic’ classic had been reworked from an original composition by a Krautrock stalwart, the former guitarist of Ash Ra Tempel, and this rather deliciously, made it sound even more remarkable.

By the late 1970s, Göttsching had moved well beyond the undisciplined Grateful Dead-inspired psychedelic space rock of Ash Ra Tempel. He had discovered within the classical minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, a new way to distil new concepts of his own which he felt he could apply using his electric guitar. Along the way he had also become acquainted with synthesisers, experimented with a range of sounds and instruments and recognised the advantages of programming music using sequencers. Shortly before he hopped aboard a flight from Berlin to Hamburg in December 1981, he dropped by at Studio Roma, ostensibly to record some rough ideas floating around in his head, so that he could listen to them on his Walkman during the flight. He tuned his guitar from E2 to E4 (lending the album it’s title in the process), settled down for an hour and recorded one of the most influential albums of all time. Influential. That term gets bandied about all too often, but in this case it is truly deserved. As influential albums go this is close to being untouchable.

Göttsching recalls making several recordings around this time but with ‘E2-E4’ he experienced “a moment where everything was perfect, the technique was perfect, everything was floating…” He didn’t release it until 1984, but it still sounds like a beautiful unrepeatable accident. The patient deliberation of each movement, the concentration on method, wonderfully mirrors the wide angle perspective of a chess grandmaster who contemplates his game plan slowly unfolding to fruition. The music comprises one lengthy fluid hypnotic repetitive rhythm. Each part or movement is given a title, by turns descriptive (‘Moderate Start’) or chess wordplay (‘Queen A Pawn; ‘HRH Retreats’) but in truth these are meaningless – it is really one continuous suite, incorporating a series of inconspicuous little shifts in instrumentation – minor surges and ebbs, nothing dramatic but something constantly evolving, moving forward.

Some will feel more comfortable with the first half which is more synthesiser-led. This part in particular is the prototype for much of the electronic music produced during the following 20 years; while the second half is more guitar-led: a nod to Robert Fripp here, Mark Knopfler there, perhaps even Wes Montgomery. A bit jazz muso for some but of a piece with the rest of the music. And it is best listened to as a whole, having the capacity to induce in the listener a virtual trance like state – no doubt the reason Larry Levan would play the album in its entirety at the end of the night.

‘E2-E4′ was a real game changer, it’s legacy far reaching – everything from Basic Channel to LCD Soundsystems (check out ’45:33’) contains in its DNA, Göttsching’s handiwork. It’s one of those albums which has cultivated a kind of gnostic mystique and so often misses out on lists of Greatest Albums. In reality, while there is some complexity in the method, part of its enduring allure is that it sounds so simple. And isn’t that the mark of genius – making something complex sound very simple? Having said that, it is music that does require some patience and concentration from the listener too. Five minutes in and you’re either hooked or have given up. For me – and many others – I was sold instantly – checkmate in two moves. (JJ)

60. CLUSTER – ZUCKERZEIT (1974)

clusterThe subconscious mind is a powerful entity. When I listen to ‘Hollywood’ the opening track on Cluster’s ‘Zuckerzeit’ LP, I can envisage it serving as a fitting theme tune for the BBC TV series ‘Tomorrow’s World’, studio presenter Raymond Baxter enthusiastically leaning over Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, to point out the latest technical features of their electronic equipment with his trusty Parker pen. I am then reminded that this ‘vision’ was actualised by Kraftwerk on TW in 1975. I have little recollection of their appearance on the programme. I suspect it must be a vague memory buried deep inside my subconscious since childhood. Nevertheless, one can only imagine how far ahead of its time ‘Hollywood’, might have sounded in 1974. While it’s synthetic drum patterns deliver an irregular asthmatic beat (like Mylar punctured with a razor), those synth lines begin discretely, buried low in the mix, suddenly springing to life in darting oscillating arcs of sound – like aliens weeping. If it is one of Krautrock’s most perfectly realised moments, ‘Zuckerzeit’ as a whole is one of the genre’s least typical albums. Perhaps rather, it is the sound of aliens laughing.

There was often a gravitas about German rock music in the early 1970s. There were many reasons for this (for a greater insight, I would recommend David Stubbs’ brilliant ‘Future Days’ book). The ‘songs’ said nothing, their wordlessness articulated everything that needed to be said, or perhaps left unsaid. ‘Krautrock’ bands were reaching into the future to escape an unspeakable past. If 1968 was German rock’s Year Zero, it set in motion a revolutionary explosion of music which in the UK and US, at least initially, was often misunderstood, even lumped in with the progressive rock bands of the era. One of the distinguishing musical features of Krautrock, what set it apart from the UK/US rock tradition was the lack of conventional storytelling in the lyrics (if there were lyrics at all). Characterised by a patient repetitive minimalism, most bands eschewed any trace of blues and traditional rock’n’roll, far less the climactic guitar solo. While often rhythmic and sometimes danceable, there was nothing to resemble the ‘drop’ used today by contemporary DJs to ignite a club audience. A new Germany required a new musical language, and not through imitating American and British archetypes. As regards Moebius and Roedelius, the only concession to things ‘Western’ was the anglicisation of their name (Kluster became Cluster). But on ‘Zuckerzeit’, sandwiched between the two albums they made with Neu!’s Michael Rother [as Harmonia], they broke the mould completely.

There’s a clue in the title of course. ‘Zuckerzeit’ translated from German means ‘Sugar Time’. The sleeve too, with the title emblazoned in garish bubblegum neon, hints at a prankish spirit. The late Dieter Moebius in particular seemed to embrace this newfound playfulness. There is an air of mischievousness to his compositions. ‘Caramel’ has an effervescent circular bounce and frolicsome theremin-style synth noodling, while on ‘Rote Riki’ we could be hearing some other BBC TV characters (this time The Clangers) hard at work in an iron foundry or some wheezing radioactive industrial plant. ‘Caramba’ has the sort of twang and clang that could be construed as Moebius’ electronic reproduction of the sound of Duane Eddy tuning his broken Gretsch, while ‘Rotor’ sounds like his attempt to create music for primitive computer arcade games.

It is interesting to note that despite what sounds like an almost telepathic musical binary on the album, Moebius and Roedelius actually recorded their tracks in separate rooms in the recording studio. Roedelius’ tracks have a deftness and lightness of touch that suggest he was rather more accommodating of Rother’s influence – but this yielded some extraordinary results. ‘Marzipan’ is the antithesis of ‘Hollywood’ – we could be in a tropical garden or an aviary – while he carves out similar territory on ‘Rosa’ and ‘Fotschi Tong’ which, while more conventional, are incredibly evocative of time and place. ‘Rosa’ in particular reminds me of Boards of Canada (possibly something like Zoetrope) demonstrating that Roedelius has been as much an influence on the music of the Sandison brothers as anyone else. Eno too, would lift some of these sounds for the following year’s ‘Another Green World’. Rother’s influence is clearest on the irresistibly elastic closer ‘Heiße Lippen’ (Hot Lips). Clocking in at a mere 2:22, it’s wonderfully infectious Motorik rhythm and breezy minimalist keyboard line, has one reaching immediately to return the needle to the beginning.

‘Zuckerzeit’ represented a change of direction for Cluster. It sounds as if the doors to a nursery crammed full of toys had been thrown open to 5-year old boys. Until then, their music had been like much of Krautrock, a disorientating kosmische exploration, spacious, proto-ambient, experimental. ‘Zuckerzeit’ trims the fat: while as pioneering as their earlier work, it finds Moebius, Roedelius and producer Conny Plank mastering a new electronic language, and with this little packet of sonic Spangles, having lots of fun along the way. (JJ)

59. EMPIRES AND DANCE – SIMPLE MINDS (1980)

EMPIRES AND DANCE – SIMPLE MINDS (1980)
Life on the road. Life in a band. By the mid-1970s these had become among the most prevalent tropes in rock music and the ones which demonstrated how remote and detached those making the music had become from their audience. Following the well-worn advice “write about what you know,” many were unable to see beyond the satin and denim-lined cocoon they now inhabited, often a world away from where they had started; understandably, many had no wish to go back there but those places were still inhabited by the majority who hadn’t got the break and whose daily lot remained heavy industry, characterless – literally and metaphorically – offices, or no employment at all.
The bands radiated indifference. All that they knew of, or cared about, was our majesty the road (for the first and last time ever, thank you Ted Nugent), its myriad temptations and The Business. And so we got ELP writing a song about their engineer; we got Grand Funk Railroad promising/threatening Good Singin’ Good Playin’ in an unsurpassably awful album title; and, in an unsurpassably awful title and cover, we got Mud  and their limo in the centre of an LS Lowry pastiche, cruising smugly past the suffocating factory gates and the downtrodden matchstalk masses pouring from them, in the service of an album entitled It’s Better Than Working!!!! (first exclamation mark theirs, the rest mine).
And this travel had no discernible impact on the bands or their music. Venue, hotel, venue, hotel, and possibly a couple of other unsavoury locations, in interchangeable towns, countries  continents. Not so in the case of Simple Minds. Emerging from Glasgow at a time when many of its citizens’ attainable horizons still stretched little beyond London, and from the far from prosperous area of Toryglen touring was, however banal it might sound, a real opportunity for Simple Minds – a chance for escape, not cruisin’ down the highway with the wind in yo’ hair but looking, observing, exploring other cultures which were unknown and, unless you actually went there, unknowable.
After two hesitant but ambitious albums which underperformed commercially, the crossroads they were reaching was not one Robert Johnson ever had in mind but was one which had everything to do with the mean, miserable music business they were magnificently failing to sing about. So touring Europe informed practically all of their third album, Empires And Dance, not from the point of view of a jaded, complacent rock ‘n’ roll band but detached observers of a continent where the divisions imposed 35 years earlier would start to dissolve before the 1980s were out but which, for now, were as rigid and impregnable as they had ever been.
It opens thrillingly with I Travel, where the first-person pronoun seems to mean not self-absorption but simply “I travel and wouldn’t have seen and learned what I have otherwise.” The obvious influences of Bowie, Kraftwerk and Joy Division are corralled into an unopposeable dance beat of the kind Giorgo Moroder set running alongside Donna Summer and Sparks. By this stage, the majority of the people who mattered most knew disco did not suck and Simple Minds produced, with respect to the Average White Band, the greatest dance song to have come out of Scotland at this point – and, bar the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s cover of Jacques Brel’s Next,  one of the first tartan toe-tappers to look east rather than west for inspiration.
Along with Celebrate, which followed it as a single, I Travel saw them probing the dance path that New Order would take a year later. In fact, Simple Minds’ role as navvies for the dance of the late ’80s and the ’90s is often underestimated – this despite the later adoption of their vast 1981 instrumental Theme For Great Cities as a Balearic anthem and the sampling of New Gold Dream on Usura’s Open Your Mind (which was also blatantly – though no one’s ever seemed to notice – pilfered by the Charlatans for The Only One I Know).
Today I Died Again (we’d already had The Man Who Dies Every Day from Ultravox and Every Day I Die from Tubeway Army – pattern?) has a clear echo of My Tulpa by avowed influence  Magazine but, in place of the panic Paul Morley correctly identified as permeating Magazine’s Real Life album, there’s a weight of melancholy and the deeply evocative line “The clothes he wears date back to the war,” which acknowledges that, while Simple Minds were part of a generation looking unblinkingly, if not always enthusiastically, to the future, many of those who lived through one or both of the world wars had hardly seen their circumstances change – not while others had never had it so good, not while others were swinging, not ever.

Panic is in abundance – along with tension and foreboding – on the staggering This Fear Of Gods, which I believe still stands as Simple Minds’ greatest song. The rhythm is supple, the pace brisk but this is about the empires, not the dance. I always picture it as the soundtrack to a long drive in the dead of night to an undisclosed location which may never be reached – the discordant sax, a sinister three-note figure  recurring like a hovering shadow and Jim Kerr’s increasingly anxious and breathless exhortation “faster,faster” all conspire in a hymn to horror.
Over on side two (without meaning to sound flippant, the walls on albums also came down at the end of the ’80s) Capital City’s perpetual Kraftwerk-engineered motion arises as much from Radioactivity’s glide down the dial as from the more obvious source of Trans-Europe Express, Constantinople Line progresses in fits and starts in a way you’d hope the Orient Express never does, while its incantation of “These stations we love them/Newspaper, encounter, confusion” evokes the disorientation of cross border-travel and again positions Simple Minds not as a band on tour but a band of tourists. Room, strange in its brevity (two and a half minutes), stranger still in its puttering rhythm box, its low-key web of colliding melodies and its unsettling lyric (“The razor’s song…I only live here, a fragile man”) brings it all to a splendidly perplexing conclusion.
You may have noticed that I’ve made no mention of what later became of Simple Minds – the sharp descent into hollow, clodhopping stadium catnip which reaped enormous commercial rewards but was utterly bereft of the guile and legerdemain which had previously made them so enticing. No one has ever fallen so far, so fast but I don’t believe it’s strictly relevant here – it’s true that once you’re exposed to something like Alive And Kicking or the ghastly Let There Be Love, they can’t be unheard but at the time of Empires And Dance, they no more existed than  Little Fockers did at the time of Taxi Driver.
It’s tempting but fairly futile to speculate on where Simple Minds might have gone if they’d continued on their initial trajectory but for some indication, I refer you to Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden. It’s entirely different in its construction to Simple Minds at their prelapsarian peak, owing to leader Mark Hollis’ visceral aversion to synthesisers, but is identical in its scope, ambition and texture. Empires And Dance, meanwhile, was a moment where the future was simultaneously confronted and embraced – never fled from or shunned (PG).

57. SUICIDE – A WAY OF LIFE (1988)

The One That Went AWOL

When Suicide’s long overdue third album finally appeared, one could have been forgiven for thinking that nothing much had changed since 1980. Elsewhere, time had seemed to catapult itself forward relentlessly from 1977 to the end of the 1980s, a decade which oversaw a restlessly transient musical landscape, whose fluctuating cultural shifts were not incomparable to the seismic ones experienced during the swinging 1960s and the schizophrenic 1970s. In music, it had begun with a superabundance of post-punk inventiveness, but had given way to the shallow superficial sheen of the new romantics – their vacuous synth pop all artifice, little substance. As the decade neared its close, the thriving independent music scenes in the UK and the US, had gloried in the ebullient resurrection of guitar-based music. The decade that had begun with Closer and Remain In Light had survived its asinine brush with meaninglessness, and was ending its journey on a high with a similarly inspirational torrent of creativity, bringing us the likes of Daydream Nation, Spirit Of Eden and Isn’t Anything. By the time ‘A Way Of Life’ appeared in late 1988, somehow, despite the absence of guitars (they rarely used them) and having remained virtually silent during this period, Suicide’s cachet had remained pretty high, perhaps in part because they were one of the few acts who successfully managed to transcend this shift in styles, their two chord punk primitivism and pioneering electro sound appeasing both the indie/alternative fraternity and those brought up on a diet of Depeche Mode, The Human League and Soft Cell.

‘A Way Of Life’ arrived eight years after ‘Alan Vega / Martin Rev / Suicide’ and while it featured the original line-up – there were only ever two members – it somehow felt like a ‘reunion’ album or even a brand new incarnation. An eight year musical hiatus was comparatively rare then. However, Suicide had never really ‘split up’, despite Vega and Rev pursuing their own impressive solo ventures (check out ‘Saturn Strip’ and ‘Clouds Of Glory’) in the meantime. Alongside the new noisemeisters of guitar, a new generation of artists had built upon Suicide’s groundbreaking originality to create a sub-genre of music, sometimes called ’electronic body music’/ ‘industrial’ / ‘New Beat’, for the most part a hideous amalgam of goth fashion and automated electronic noise. For me, those bands, in addition to omitting to embellish their music with the occasional melody, also missed the point attitudinally. Suicide stood apart from them, having more in common with proto-punk icons The Stooges and The Velvet Underground (two, three chords tops), and with Krautrock pioneers Kraftwerk and Neu! (minimalist electronic pulse), than with those later groups such as Front 242 and Skinny Puppy, who utilised their machinery like a soulless bulldozer. By contrast to their pulverising racket, Suicide were impossible romantics, with a penchant for 1950s doo-wop and rockabilly. Often, the songs they wrote were love songs. Or at least, love songs buried under an aesthetic of art trash brutalism.

The band had developed a cult following from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. Inspired by the street trash image of their NYC ancestors Lou Reed and The New York Dolls, the band trawled through junk stores to acquire some electronic flotsam and jetsam (including a battered old farfisa organ), donned some leather jackets and cultivated an impossibly cool NYC street image, alongside a completely uncompromising musical style. Their debut album ‘Suicide’ – the one with the blood smeared sleeve and subtle Communist iconography – seemed out of step with the ’77 zeitgeist, and yet reputedly it had been Suicide who had first coined the term ‘punk’. Certainly their concert posters from the early 1970s were often emblazoned with an invitation to a ‘Punk Mass’. Having said that, the punk masses almost to a man, abhorred them. People attacked them in the street and threw bottles at them on stage. Once, while supporting The Clash, Vega famously even had to dodge a tomahawk! I often wonder if this incident took place during a rendition of ‘Frankie Teardrop’ a deranged ten minute purgatorial endurance test, telling the story of an impoverished factory worker who resorts to suicide, which is punctuated with Vega’s hysterical screams. Perhaps that audience was more afraid of him, than he them?

Their second album, confusingly also entitled ‘Suicide’, had a slightly more polished sound but was equally brilliant, a fluid and dazzling display of glam electro-minimalism. We know and acknowledge these albums as classics, but their third album is often ignored, and unfairly so. Musically it bears a closer resemblance to the second album, than the second does the first. But then Suicide were not a band to surprise their audience by dropping a reggae number into their set (like Patti Smith) or to indulge in a bit of genre-hopping by going acoustic or adding some orchestral accompaniment. Rather the surprises lay in their capacity to continually distil their sound to its very essence. As the ultimate purists, they bore all the hallmarks of musical sclerosis, adhering to a template from which they stubbornly refused to deviate. Indeed, Suicide songs generally follow one of four archetypes: the gorgeously ethereal atmospheric drone (eg. ‘Cheree’), the uptempo robotically pulsing drone (see ‘Ghost Rider’) the menacing hypnotic amorphous drone (try ‘Harlem’) and the jaunty electrobilly beat (eg. ‘Johnny’). In other words, a lot of drone. Vega’s nervy croon, deliriously erotic at times, sounds like Elvis had he been abandoned, petrified, in a haunted house. Rev’s drum machine punches out patterns which perform a function similar to Tommy Hall’s jug in the Elevators, while as one man band he creates a range of extraordinarily dissonant keyboard sounds.

‘A Way Of Life’ was recorded in one session on one day in December 1987. Apparently, billed producer Ric Ocasek arrived immediately after the recording session finished, stunned to find the album had already been completed. Nevertheless, he retains production credits on an album which features some of Sucide’s most memorable songs, not least the opener ‘Wild In Blue’ where Vega’s echo-laden gnarling vocals over an eerily locked robotic funk groove, inculcate an air of menace. On ‘Rain Of Ruin’ one of their most danceable rhythms is buried underneath a buzz of mechanistic beats, which sounds like a relentlessly rushing great electronic river – like Metal Machine Music played by Ralf and Florian. The Lou Reed fixation is taken to the outer limits on ‘Love So Lovely’, the last half of which has a rhythmic intensity of phrasing that recalls the maniacal finale to The Velvets’ ‘Murder Mystery’. Then there is the gorgeous ballad ‘Surrender’, where Elvis meets Angelo Badalamenti at the High School Prom, 1958. ‘Jukebox Baby 96’ is archetype #4 (see above), the obligatory flirtation with rockabilly, while ‘Dominic Christ’ funky and frightening at the same time, presents the band at their despairing best, bristling with dark energy.

These songs – the ones that went AWOL – are worthy successors to those on Suicide’s first two universally hailed masterpieces and deserve greater recognition. There is a temptation to write the band off as a creative force after 1980, but they have continued to make new music since ‘A Way Of Life’, and even if subsequently they have not recaptured that original vitality, their legacy is secure with an impressive list of disciples including The Jesus & Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 and Primal Scream, not to mention many notable creators of electronic music from 1978 onwards. While our sense of time and place can indeed conspire to deceive us, listening to the music of Suicide means we can stand outside of that; it is original, unique, groundbreaking, and ultimately, ageless. (JJ)

48. CARL CRAIG – APPLIED RHYTHMIC TECHNOLOGY 3 EP (1993) / (A) UNDERGROUND RESISTANCE – WORLD 2 WORLD EP (1992)

How Indie Kids in Glasgow embraced the Future Sound of Detroit

There are no musical boundaries in TNPC. If our goal was to set out a ‘lively well-balanced collection of all that’s best in rock music’, then we aim both to ensure genuine inclusivity and to redefine the word ‘rock’ a little – or at least strip it of it’s antiquated associations. [Hair, guitars, Kerrang!] For if you are a regular visitor to TNPC you will surely know that’s not what we mean. I have misgivings about replacing ‘rock’ with the word ‘popular’ too. An equally unsatisfactory adjective. Nevertheless, whatever label or title may be most appropriate, for many there is often a musical line they decline to cross. But I make no apology for the inclusion of the following two EPs, created during one of the most fertile periods in Detroit’s illustrious musical history; an era when there was an almost inexhaustible stream of high quality records produced in the basements, bedrooms and garages of the Motor City.
We are not here to chart the historical development or the evolution of popular music, but in this regard, context is everything, both for performer and listener. As a socio-cultural phenomenon, techno grew out of frequently disenfranchised black communities who found – as they did with hip-hop – an affordable way to produce music whose exhuberance and lift was often at odds with the rhyhmic mechanistic facelessness of their urban habitats – in this case the bruised industrial heartland of Detroit, where the glory days of the automobile industry were fading fast, the city in steep economic decline. Like the proliferation of R&B performers Detroit produced in the mid-1960s, many captured fleetingly on rare Northern Soul 45s, the city was at it again twenty years later.

car plant

The earliest Detroit pioneers, often referred to as The Belleville Three, Derrick May (Rhythim Is Rhythim), Juan Atkins (Model 500) and Kevin Saunderson (Inner City) developed a new, instantly recognisable sound which both reflected the metronomic pulse of Detroit’s huge car plants and forged a twitchy new futurism. It emerged as a visionary underground music, an accidental collision between two distinct cultures (Detroit and Dussledorf); as the saying goes like ‘George Clinton and Kraftwerk, trapped in an elevator with only a sequencer for company.’

The early records sold well locally, and it was not long before there was an explosion in the growth of techno music. Fused with European influences and Chicago-based house music, it become the global ‘dance music’ phenomenon, which peaked in popularity between 1988 and 1994. By that time, the second wave of Detroit producers was in full flow.

Times were changing and techno’s audience expanding. As a youthful indie kid, I was initially very sceptical of it all, but like many young music lovers in the wasteland of the early 1990s, I had become disillusioned with the indie scene. If ‘Seattle had eaten the world’ then the response from across the Atlantic was deafening in its silence. By the time Britpop had taken it’s dubious hold, I like thousands of others, had willingly succumbed to the thrilling excitement of the new house, techno and electronic music, which by this time had spread successfully across the Atlantic into Europe and the UK’s club scene.

Of course, in the UK, club culture was bound up inextricably with the drug culture. And the drugs were changing too. Paradoxically, most of Detroit’s techno producers eschewed drug use. Indeed, the message was often to escape the dope culture of the ghetto. Instead in Detroit, by 1991, it seemed the objective was to venture fearlessly into the future with the most innovative sounds imaginable. Label and artist names (sometimes interchangeable) began to reflect this preoccupation: Red Planet; Transmat, +8, Metroplex. Amongst the most outstanding of this second wave of producers, were Carl Craig and the musical collective known as Underground Resistance.

URUR adopted the role of urban guerrillas, wearing militaristic garb, (masks / facial scarves) and presented as a kind of techno version of Public Enemy. There were coded political messages but little information about their releases. Led by Jeff Mills and ‘Mad’ Mike Banks but featuring dozens of other contributors, their music was truly ‘out there’, wilfully uncompromising, and despite the rejection of any commercialisation of their sound, they developed a huge following amongst poorer African-Americans whom they aimed to inspire to escape the cycle of poverty. In Europe, UR became a byword for quality and cool. In the early 1990s some of the records were very hard to acquire and fans competed against one another to complete the set. They are highly respected by other electronic artists, upon whom their influence has been incalculable. Since 2000, even Kraftwerk use their remixes during live shows.

carl craigBy contrast, Carl Craig was relatively more successful and sought a wider commercial audience for his music, touring and DJing regularly throughout Europe. Nevertheless,  his music, recorded under various pseudonyms (Psyche, 69, Innerzone Orchestra, PaperClip People amongst others) was at least as artistic and innovative as that of UR.

I could have selected dozens of other EPs which could have been equally worthy entries, but despite their differing ethics, both UR’s ‘World To World’ EP and Craig’s ‘Applied Rhythmic Technology 3’ (credited to BFC / Psyche) are brilliant examples of the second wave Detroit sound.

There are similarities too. Craig’s brilliant ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’ (attributed to BFC) is a spiritual companion to UR’s ‘Greater Than Yourself’. Both share a shuffling motoric beat, distorted dialogue and gorgeously simple but euphoric spaced out futurist synth lines. ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’ benefits too from a muffled but inspired hypnotic jazz scat vocal.

Psyche’s lengthy and much celebrated ‘Neurotic Behaviour’ (from ART 3) typifies the quintessentially classic Detroitian acid analog sound. Here the Kraut-Rock influence is transparent: in particular it contains the fingerprints of Cluster and Manuel Gottsching.

‘Amazon’ and ‘Jupiter Jazz’ from World 2 World are both superb. The bird sounds on the former sound like they come from a symphony by Rautavaara, but the portentous descending chord sequence has one anticipating Armageddon – it seems almost a relief when the cluttering beats arrive to arrest the descent into darkness. ‘Jupiter Jazz’ by contrast, reminds us that this is music made to dance to, even if we’re doing so on other planets. The staccato piano riff is super-funky, ably abetted by brilliant hi-hats and bass heavy pounding beats. Meanwhile, a bizarre interstellar freeform solo is played out on the synth. If Sun Ra had been born 50 years later, he would surely have been making music like this.

BFC’s ‘Sleep’ (aptly titled) is a kind of electronic opiate; beautiful, but the kind of track suited to the 5am comedown. Meanwhile, UR’s ‘Cosmic Traveller’ is an astonishingly heady brew of spacious futuristic rhythms, musique concrete and purist acid techno. Like much of the music on both of these EPs, it is emotionally draining but also works at a subconscious level, inducing an otherworldly euphoria. In other words, it takes you to those places…

Back in the day, everyone seemed to have purchased a pair of decks. Some went further, buying synths and sequencers (I was never very attuned to the technicalities of the equipment; all those numbers – 303s, 808s, 212s etc) and it is hard not to compare this phenomenon to the punk DIY ethic from 1977-1980. Some techno enthusiasts forsook their musical roots altogether, while others returned to their punk and indie records as the creative progression in electronic music slowed down and the scene became stagnant and flabby. The cult of the international DJ superstar may have been off-putting. The explosion of sub-genres (trance, hardcore, gabba!) seemed to undermine the quality somewhat. Or perhaps, simply the drugs didn’t work anymore? Many found their way back home to the music they had first loved. As a consequence, a lot of the very best music from the genre has been forgotten, disowned even, although dance music itself, survived, much to the consternation of the snipers who claimed it was ‘a flash in the pan’. The great techno and house LPs? Well, there aren’t many – only perhaps Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and one or two others have made  genuinely enduring long players. Hip hop had greater success with the album format. As a consequence, because most dance/electronic music was based around the 12″ EP format, the best music is often unfairly overlooked when Greatest Albums lists are written. But to dismiss the genre entirely in TNPC would be foolish and unjust. There is ample room in the New Perfect Collection to celebrate all genres of music. Neither should we forget a time when those 13th Floor Elevators LPs and Orange Juice 45s were pushed aside for a while, and in Glasgow’s West End (as in towns and cities throughout the UK) a different sound was heard pumping from those tenement flats, at those post-Art School Disco parties. The future sound of Detroit.  (JJ)