98. GYRATE – PYLON (1980)

One point to clear up and get out of the way immediately – Pylon are not a footnote in someone else’s story. Sure, their fellow Athenians REM covered their 1981 single Crazy – but it was a devout act of homage to a band without whose influence and tutelage they might never have crawled from the South. In fact, Peter Buck felt driven to despair the first time he heard it, so far did he (wrongly) feel it was beyond his own band’s reach. This is Pylon’s story.

They emerged at the dawn of the ’80s, a time of mystery and wonder, when the reviews and releases pages of the NME and Sounds were filled with names which fascinated but which, short of turning up on one of about three reliable radio programmes, would remain unattainable and undiscoverable. Even if they appeared in a record shop, to gamble pocket money away on a potential  disappointment was an overambitious folly and so there would be a lengthy wait before I would discover the truth behind Half Japanese, Tin Huey, the Bush Tetras – and Pylon, who were, for purely alphabetical and alliterative reasons, filed in my mind alongside Pyrolator.

Geographically, they were very much a Southern band – singer Vanessa Briscoe and drummer Curtis Crowe, both native Georgians, came together with Virginia-born, Georgia-based bassist Michael Lachowski and the late Floridian guitarist Randy Bewley in Athens, Georgia’s university town which was already a more invigorating and challenging musical proposition than some entire states. Georgia had previously offered vast riches – James Brown,  Little Richard, Ray Charles, Otis Redding – but the common ground Pylon and their peers had with them appeared to amount to naught and Pylon less than most. It seemed like Rothko next to Grant Wood, ee cummings next to Walt Whitman.

Or so it seemed. In fact  the band themselves have revealed to TNPC that the soul, country and blues which surrounded them all seeped in in some form. Not least the influence of Brown’s arid, frantic funk of the late ’60s and early ’70s, which pulsed far, notably at the end of the ’70s to Talking Heads and James Chance in New York and to Gang of Four and the Pop Group in the UK. Pylon closed this particularly spiny loop with their terse and quite thrilling interpretation. And while they were contorting rock into quixotic new shapes, they were still playing a form of edge-of-the-seat rock and roll and you can definitely trace a line back through to those ripest peaches.

One of the first things you notice about Gyrate, from the earliest seconds of opener Volume, is how far Crowe’s  bass drum is shunted to the foreground. It remains a leitmotif throughout the album; it’s blunt force but not bludgeoning, a thing of knockout blows but not black eyes – the kiss of the Louisville Lip. It hunts in a pair with Lachowski’s bass, which declaims and proclaims as eloquently as the same instruments in the hands of Hook, Weymouth or Wobble, while Bewley’s guitar doesn’t so much jangle as oscillate and, yes, gyrate like a kinetic sculpture in a gale. And Briscoe is a proudly abrasive singer, less in rage than in exultant celebration of the fizzing commotion she describes and surfs upon.

So many moments rush through, like snapshots of an unforgettable holiday. Feast On My Heart, with its gleeful riff, deliriously seesawing bridge and wall-embracing climax, is what college radio was invented for. Precaution shares a plot of land with the Cramps’ contemporary Sunglasses After Dark (and therefore also Link Wray’s Fat Back) but races well ahead into the new decade, running into the Fall at the other end. Human Body is lighter, poppier almost, but is still several time zones away from anything that could be described as commercial. Danger uses every one of its 339 seconds to justify its title with deep echo, screams and slide guitar that slips along like a train through 4am silence. Driving School also cleaves the calm with what initially sounds like the intrusion of an alarm clock but, as it envelops the song, takes on the timbre of a member of Kraftwerk’s choir or even a heavily processed Jew’s harp (Pylon have revealed the source to be a TV set – see Q &  A), all to a breathless sequence of postcards from behind the wheel (“Caution, red light, bus stop, turn right/Reverse, forward, neutral, low gear”).

Like much of Gyrate, Driving School’s lyrics are stacatto, almost cut-up, but one theme which does push itself forward is a desire for purpose. Working Is Not A Problem goes beyond the commonplace dead end job,  sticking-it-to-the-man posturing and locates in it a drive to maintain a goal where there seem to be none (“Putting things in boxes/I look at them and pack them”) while Read A Book similarly transcends the notion of learning more from books than TV with the urgent exhortation “Don’t be afraid.” It may have on occasion been  a source of mirth within the band but the intent is plainly there – nothing so trite as Follow Your Dreams but at least make some kind of mark.

A second album, Chomp, was at least as barbed and spidery as Gyrate. I could just as easily have chosen it but Gyrate edges it on the shock of the new test. Since then, they’ve continued to function, despite the sudden and shocking death of Randy Bewley 2009, and can currently be seen under the banner of Pylon Reenactment Society. The ripples from their boulder spread as far as Throwing Muses, Pavement and Sleater-Kinney – as far detached from the rock ‘n’ roll silliness they were born into as from the hipster whimsy that prevails today. Gyrate will make your head spin. (PG).

Q & A – Vanessa Briscoe Hay and Michael Lachowski

To an outsider, the music of Pylon appears to bear little relation to the musical heritage of the South in general and Georgia in particular. Received wisdom, rightly or wrongly, perceives Athens as an enclave apart from Georgia but to what extent has the state shaped Pylon’s sound?

VBH: I think being of the time and place that Athens, GA was at the end of the 1970s contributed to who we were and how the sound of the band progressed.  There were influences from Georgia and the South that were in the background for me personally. Music from artists like Georgian James Brown and the proximity to Atlanta and the musical offerings there shaped a lot of my early interest in music. Blues, jazz, rock and funk were just a short drive away and on the radio. My parents were super interested in country music and I would be remiss if I didn’t credit early exposure to female artists like the Carter family and Patsy Cline with the innate knowledge that women could be equal to any man. But, the music of Pylon was tremendously influenced by music not on the Georgia family tree. The new music of our college years made a tremendous impression which was mostly coming from elsewhere — places like England, Germany and New York. We shared and listened to records at parties. If we liked the record, we might keep flipping it over and dance to it.

The bass drum sound on Gyrate is extraordinary. Was it a conscious decision to have it as powerful and prominent as it is?

ML: Ha! We just wanted Curtis’ drums to be kick ass on the record just like they were live — but that’s impossible. It sounds like the drums are in balance to me, maybe I’m just used to his style. I hear a clamped-down echo on the snare, probably our way of trying to fatten it up without just turning it up more in the mix; that’s what really comes forward in the mix to me. Curtis was a barely controllable power house and he saved our band from being a nerdier sound experiment.

How was the buzzing sound on Driving School achieved? I love it but I’ve never been able to pin it down.

ML: That’s made by interference from a cathode ray TV screen, and it is regulated by adjusting the vertical hold on the screen to make sounds that “rev up” and down — which sounded a little bit like car engine sounds, so we used it on Driving School. (The vertical hold control disappeared from TV’s long before the cathode ray screen did.) This was discovered by accident; Randy and I used to practice in our apartment (way before we had the rest of the band members), and we’d have my old black and white TV playing just for its industrial aesthetic — because in Athens we could barely pick up any TV channels over the antenna since all but one of them was coming from Atlanta which is over 100 kilometers away — and it would just display active static with shifting bands of grays and the occasional glimpse of an image. At one point I leaned close to the TV while adjusting the stereo or turning on our tape recorder, and we heard the buzz. I played with the controls until we found we could change the sound. We went through some considerable effort to bring a TV with us for our live shows, sometimes it was more trouble than it was worth — but people were always fascinated when that sound was created “somehow or another” live onstage with me fiddling around behind a television.

On songs like Read A Book and Working Is No Problem, there seems to be a real ardour for purpose and fulfilment. Did you feel this was something lacking in your peers, particularly compared with the nihilism of a good deal of US and UK punk?

VBH: I can only speak for myself and not point a finger at what was lacking in others. These two songs came out of a genuine feeling that I had that it was okay to read, to work, to be yourself. I came from people who worked very hard and took education seriously and who didn’t have a whole lot of respect for having others who had never worked telling them what they should think or do.  Fulfillment for me has it’s roots in finishing the job, doing what I say I am going to do. There is nothing more satisfying than using creativity and knowledge to come up with solutions to complete a project. That said, Read a Book can be a very silly song. The band sang it to me at lunch one day and embarrassed the crap out of me.

ML: Ha ha, I’d love to be reminded of how we came to be singing Read a Book to you in a restaurant, Vanessa! Working Is No Problem is one of my favorite Pylon songs, and it is my favorite for the lyrics — I always loved the composition of those words and the revealing earnestness behind them. Vanessa wrote the lyrics to both of those songs. Pylon’s lyrics ranged from artsy to silly to earnest, but we always meant what was said and took our fun seriously.



93. TEN NORTHERN SOUL GEMS (Guest Contributor: Stuart Cosgrove)

 One of the inevitable obstacles when trying to prescribe the perfect record collection is that some musical genres are undoubtedly better represented on formats other than the LP, most notably Northern Soul. In order to rectify this situation, TNPC is delighted to welcome Stuart Cosgrove, world renowned authority on the subject and author of the fantastic Young Soul Rebels who has given us his lowdown on ten classics guaranteed to fill the floor at any NS all-nighter.

Ten of The Best


“There is no such thing as a Northern Soul Top Ten, as it’s all in the eye of the beholder: era, styles and all-night clubs. But I like these ones from across the genre.”

‘I Spy for the FBI’ – Luther Ingram (Smash, 1965)  – The original version of an all time classic, more gentle that Jamo Thomas’s more famous version.

‘Agent 00 Soul’ – Edwin Starr (Ric-Tic, 1965) – A great special agent soul record, classic mid-sixties Motown.

‘Bari Track’ – Doni Burdick (Sound Impression, 1967) – For me the best Detroit instrumental of the lot – immense!

‘I Miss My Baby’ – Rose Batiste  (Revilot, 1966) – And if you prefer it with great soulful vocals, then here it is…

‘My World is On Fire’ – Jimmy Mack (Palmer, 1967) – Hectic riot record from Detroit in 1967. Big Wigan all nighter sound.

‘Who’s Makin Love’ Johnnie Taylor  (Stax, 1968) – Memphis rollicking dancer and illicit sex all in 3 minutes.

‘Seven Day Lover’ – James Fountain (Peachtree, 1970) – An all time favourite – modern funky northern and still a big dance-floor hit.

‘Who Will Do Your Running Now’ – Marvin Smith (Mayfield, 1969) – Chicago crossover classic.

‘I Want To Wrap you in My Arms’ – The Pro-Fascination (MOT, undated) – A New Orleans wedding band still making rare soul well into the modern day.

Melvin Brown and James Mathews – ‘Love’s Stormy Weather’ (Philmore Sound, 1976) – Love duets like Marvin and Tammi are usually male-female; this is the best all male duet I’ve heard.

(Stuart Cosgrove, Author Young Soul Rebels & Detroit ‘67)


The big bang, the sound of medieval voices, the fate of the dinosaurs – unfathomable mysteries all. No one came any closer to unravelling the late Ivor Cutler’s brilliant mind – I once had a shot myself but more of that later.
Whatever label might have been pinned to him  – singer, writer, humourist – none was appropriate. He was all of these things, none of them, more than any of them. It would, for instance, do him a screaming, simplistic disservice to peg him solely as a comedian – the old saw around comedy records is that they don’t bear repeated listens but this, of course, depends entirely on the strength of the material; it was the laugh-out-loud (NO acronyms here) stuff which reeled me into Ivor Cutler’s world on the eve of my teens and it retains its potency every time.
But the layers and nuances later became more and more apparent. There was bewilderment, dread, folly, sordidity, resentment and rage – loads of rage. The father and son trapped in a pulverisingly repetitive diet in Gruts For Tea are in as mutually ruinous a relationship as Albert and Harold Steptoe; the unfortunate bearer of The Curse of smelling like the kitchen sink is shunned even by the Friendless Society, and the stern environment of Life In A Scotch Sitting Room is claustrophobic and, on occasion, simply terrifying.
The names of Beckett and Kafka are frequently evoked when this aspect of Mr Cutler (as he preferred to be called) is explored, with some justification, but he actually sits at a midpoint between them and PG Wodehouse; they rarely admitted any but the briefest shafts of light but Wodehouse was incapable of being sombre; one of his finest creations was Roderick Spode, a thinly-veiled Oswald Moseley spoof in whom fascism was summarily and thoroughly satirised by the simple expedient of being made utterly ridiculous.
His genuinely unique vision went a long way towards his equally unique status of being embraced by the more leftfield tendency of the pop world while, as a proud and long-standing member of the Noise Abatement Society, having little in common with it. His late ’50s/early 60s broadcasts on the BBC Home Service – the forerunner of Radio 4 – made youthful Beatle ears prick up in much the same way as the Goons, leading to his biggest exposure in Magical Mystery Tour, appearing as Buster Bloodvessel in the film in which the world’s most beloved pop stars bemused their audience like never before. The circle was completed the same year when his Ludo album was produced by George Martin, whose Goons work had attracted the Beatles to sharing a studio with him.
In the ’70s, Ivor stood incongruously yet fittingly alongside Gong, Henry Cow and Hatfield and the North, in the ’80s with the Smiths, the Fall and the Woodentops at Rough Trade – and Robert Wyatt at both, appearing on Wyatt’s masterpiece Rock Bottom and having (Go And Sit Upon The) Grass covered by him. All of which prompted John Walters to ask in 1983: “Are you surprised to find yourself – once again – groovy?” The characteristically deadpan reply: “I suppose I must always have been groovy,” the inverted commas so pronounced they needed no spelling out, certainly not with synchronised middle and index fingers.
The genius – I don’t use the word lightly – of Ivor Cutler was to locate acute humour even in the most desperate situations – the existential despair of a saucer realising it’s a saucer, the  vengeance of a waiter whose feet have been sacrified for a diner’s platter. Not for nothing did a manic cackle become one of the Cutler trademarks.
That  cackle isn’t to be heard on Jammy Smears but pretty much every other signifier of the Cutler genius is there. Lest I’ve made it all sound too bleak, there’s plenty that may not be out-and-out wacky but is out-and-out funny and also has a great deal of warmth. When introducing people to Ivor Cutler – a selfless act of real generosity – I recommend you start with Big Jim. A desperate plea from a drowning man goes unheeded because his beguiling voice is too much of a distraction. Then move on to Lemon Flower, a devastating account of lemon juice’s destructive acidic powers which was my party piece for more years than was sensible. Choose either of the episodes from Life In A Scotch Sitting Room, an irritation-free soap opera where a walk in the country fails to deliver the slightest enlightenment on nature and the brain-nurturing power of a diet of herring is tested by a highly singular curriculum.
Ivor had himself previously been a teacher but chafed against a system which required – and would continue to do so until the early 1980s – the brutal administration of corporal punishment; even teaching at Summerhill, the ‘free’ school renowned for giving adults and children equal status, constrained him. What educational system could accommodate a febrile imagination capable of producing both the terse, stern fable of The Turn and the splendidly silly A Wooden Tree?

Beyond his familiar, if unlikely, place as a Peel and Kershaw fixture, I loved seeing Ivor Cutler appear in unexpected places – reciting Gruts For Tea on The Innes Book Of Records on early evening BBC Two (itself an improbable slot for former Bonzo Neil Innes), on flyers for ‘Teatime Special’ readings which I saw being delivered door to door by someone scarcely any older than my 12 years (he dropped one and I grabbed it for myself), in an anthology of nonsense, where How To Make A Friend and The False God nuzzled alongside entries by Spike Milligan and Edward Lear – and in Who’s Who, where he rubbed shoulders with nobility, captains of industry, High Court judges and senior politicians. A contact address was listed – and, in January 1983 , I boldly took the chance to send him a card for his 60th birthday.
A reply came, written on a shopping list and generously accompanied by a pack of stickers which, if swapped with Eno’s Oblique Strategies, could produce intriguing results, festooned as they were with sustaining messages such as “oh you lovely postman!” and “funny smell.” Another sticker on the envelope proclaimed optimistically: “Esperanto is catching on.” It still hasn’t quite stuck but could we give it a shot and see if it works? A postcard had him perched on his basket-bearing pushbike and a speech bubble in that childlike scrawl so familiar from his record sleeves informed me he was off to join Hell’s Angels, whose chains would wilt when faced with the might of the Glasgow Dreamer. All a warm and generous gesture he was under no obligation to make, even overlooking my adolescent impudence in addressing him by his first name and signing off with the description I had offered of him – “a sort of hero.” Not wishing to be a burden to a brilliant mind , I didn’t send another card – to my lasting regret.
In my card, I had lamented that, along with one of my TNPC colleagues, I was a solitary Cutlerite but was assured  I wasn’t alone – we could meet many kindred spirits at a CND rally. Sure enough, I’d come across like-minded souls as the years passed and, following Ivor’s death in 2006, at the age of 83, two motions of tribute were tabled at the Scottish Parliament, garnering between them the signatures of more than 40 MSPs from all parties, some of wouldn’t be seen within a very long range of an anti-nuclear demo.
There have been assorted covers – by Jim O’Rourke, Roddy Frame (who loosely adapted Everybody Got, a disquieting meditation on taboos from the album under discussion) and, most recently, Yorkston/Thorne/Khan. All sincere, affectionate and serviceable homages – but none in that inimitable, bottomlessly lugubrious voice. And uniquely so far among our TNPC choices, it genuinely is all about the words. There’s a range of styles on offer – boogie-woogie on Bicarbonate Of Chicken, Eastern European folk on Rubber Toy (a nod to Ivor’s Hungarian roots – his family is said to have arrived in Britain with the name Kussner) and, on the Scotch Sitting Room episodes, the skirl of bagpipes imitated on the harmonium, an instrument he did as much to proselytise as Nico –  but these are  very much supporting, the canvas on which pictures of wit and acuity are painted. For more illustrations, see the smudged and freckled works in Ivor’s books by sometime Private Eye cartoonist Martin Honeysett – all the rage, fear, warmth and, yes, absurdity of the works is there.
Speaking of supporting, a quick mention of guest artist Phyllis April King, who strews Jammy Smears with wondering sketches of nature, alongside Dust, which delivers a sinister punchline to its reflection on everyone’s least favourite houseguest, and The Wasted Call, where an argument over answering the phone ends up probing far deeper questions.
In his NME review of Ivor’s 1983 album Privilege, David Quantick offered no quotes “because I do not wish to spoil it for you.” I’ve endeavoured to do the same here with Jammy Smears and the entire Cutler oeuvre- and anyway, its brilliance still leaves me tongue-tied.  Hear the lot for yourself – privilege is the word all right (PG).

58. MICHAEL JON FINK – I HEAR IT IN THE RAIN (2001) – Guest Contributor: Alasdair MacLean (The Clientele)

I sometimes dream I’ve been given a chance to make a feature film. It’s a free-form adaptation of the children’s book ‘The Dark is Rising’ by Susan Cooper, nothing like the horrible Hollywood treatment it got in 2007. Maybe the film will run for days – maybe it will adapt only one image or element in the story and be over in minutes, but the opening credits always show a bus in South London, early winter, grinding to a halt at a terminus. The shadows between the bus and the wall, the movement of birds on the trees, briefly form the outline of a face, something gliding, fugitive, almost unnoticed, through the world. The whole point of representing ‘the dark’ –the supernatural, shapeshifting force described in the book- would be to depict it as a part of other, everyday things. Something briefly glimpsed in the corner of the eye in a shopping mall, rather than an obvious phantasm.

Michael Jon Fink’s ‘I Hear it in the Rain’ is always the soundtrack to this film. The ninth track, ‘Living to be Hunted by the Moon’ would play as the camera panned to a wall of trees at the edge of a field, fog slowly gathering and moving outwards over nineteen long minutes to besiege a house. ‘Echo’, the fourth: the movement of undulating river water as lost objects slip away under the waves. I still see these scenes when I listen to the record. Maybe they come from the record itself.

‘I Hear it in the Rain’ is a collection of spare and beautiful instrumental pieces recorded between 1986 and 1997 by classically trained musicians in California. Instruments used are celesta, piano, glass guitar (whatever this actually is, it does sound like a guitar made of glass), clarinet, samples, electric bass and percussion. It was released on the Cold Blue Music label in 2001.

Around the time it came out I was bored of the same old guitar bands and trying out other things I’d meant to get round to hearing one day: one CD each of Japanese noise, musique concrete, skronky jazz, dub, Detroit techno. Rough Trade Shop stuff. Officially, ‘I Hear it in the Rain’ falls into the ‘post-minimalist’ category. No, me neither. Amazon bafflingly lists it as ‘orchestral jazz.’ ‘Ambient’ doesn’t work – it’s too tightly wound, focussed and ominous. It perhaps shares some of the otherworldly mood of Alice Coltrane’s ecstatic, spiritual jazz, but is way less swaggering and full of itself. The titles of the tracks probably describe it best – it really is like music you would hear inside the rain: pieces called Passing, Mode, Fragment, Echo, and Epitaph.

I first saw it mentioned in a roundup of new releases on http://www.tangents.co.uk, described as:

“patinas of notes, near and far, heard and half-heard. It’s an astonishing, entrancing album, careful and considered, yet never too precious or conceited”.

I ordered the CD after reading that sentence.

When it arrived it had that odd, magical attribute of feeling like something I’d always been looking for, but hadn’t known I was.

As teenagers, we used to listen very closely to ‘The Pictorial Jackson Review’ by Felt. My friends and I admired the elegance and feeling for space and composition on that record; the way that side A contained pop songs and side B only spacey, mysterious instrumentals. The fact that the two types of music could coincide naturally on the same record was incredibly inspiring to us. They were different but united by the same austere elegance. I could suddenly see a link between my classical guitar training and the pop music I loved. ‘I Hear it in the Rain’ brought me back to that lightbulb moment; abstract music within my grasp again.

Years later, a friend asked me to make a soundtrack for an art installation he was putting together. I recorded the trees around Epping Forest and then the sound of a harp’s strings being vibrated by the wind, and combined them, edited them into waves of sound which ebbed and flowed for twenty minutes with the rhythm of air moving through the woods. It was an attempt to get on the same spectrum as ‘I Hear it in the Rain’. Unhurried, and at the same time bringing in something disturbing – some indefinable extra voice which came from outside, something from the corner of the eye (or ear). A new kind of music, at least for me.
And one which I have still not worked out how to combine with pop songs. I haven’t listened to ‘the Pictorial Jackson Review’ in years, it’s done its job for me and I’ve moved on. A lot of game-changing, transformative records eventually get worn out in that way. But I still listen to ‘I Hear it in the Rain’ and it still opens up new possibilities in sound. (Alasdair MacLean)

Click here for a link to our feature on The Clientele’s magnificent Suburban Light compilation:



As a comparatively unloved record in the discography of a comparatively unregarded band, Do The Collapse is in something of a double bind. For a band who had earned renown for unvarnished, elliptical, sawn-off songs, being produced by RicOcasekoftheCars, pedlar of incorrigibly MTV fodder, seemed imponderable and impardonable to some, like Lester Bangs agreeing to do a column for the Saturday Evening Post, particularly following the departure of deputy chief songwriter Tobin Sprout.
The sheer prolificacy of GBV and their penchant for brevity  meant they were not immediately packageable but their irresistible way with a melody offered a chink of light to the mainstream – but it doesn’t take much for sellout to be entered on the charge sheet. Furthermore, selling out can be highly relative – Can were accused of it after they joined Virgin, even though they were still capable of breaches of the peace like Unfinished and Animal Waves. Some considered The Fall to have become a pop band in the years when Brix was chief song officer but a world in which Lay Of The Land and US ’80s/90s are pop songs is one which does qualify as wonderful and frightening. And hadn’t Ocasek, two decades earlier, applied a gloss to Suicide’s second album which made it superficially more accessible than their peerless debut but, on closer inspection, retained most of its panic, tension and threat intact?
It’s apt to mention the Fall when discussing GBV, as the simplistic equation I’ve been known to offer for them is “music by Paul Westerberg, lyrics by Mark E Smith.” Robert Pollard’s lyrics and titles devour and defile language in a similar manner to Mark E Smith’s, although it’s his rueful delivery that nudges him in the direction of Westerberg – in fact, the trajectory to Do The Collapse’s measured disarray from, say, the tunefully ragged 1994 EP Clown Prince Of The Menthol Trailer, runs parallel to the path the Replacements staggered along from Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash to All Shook Down.
I purchased Do The Collapse on a whim a few weeks after its 1999 release, reasoning that, while I’d always been impressed and intrigued by GBV, apart from Clown Prince I owned nothing by them and a new album would be a sensible place to start. The years seem to have hardened the cognoscenti consensus that Bee Thousand (which enjoys the accolade of being the subject of a volume in the Thirty Three and A Third book series) or Alien Lanes are the GBV albums against which all others are measured. I’m open to persuasion on this but they were – and remain – less familiar than I’d prefer them to be and I was able to approach Do The Collapse on its own terms.

About two and a half (more of this in a moment) of the songs could have been ripe for MTV mutilation and were within the grasp of Virgin (now Absolute) Radio’s scaly fingers and shrivelled, shrunken playlist but, mercifully, they escaped and I knew this was a far richer, more lasting and more rewarding proposition than flavourless, dehydrated contemporaries (not peers) like Fountains of Wayne or Semisonic.
The two whole songs, though, did reach, perhaps unwitting, wide audiences by other means. Opener Teenage FBI, robotically limbed and with rare lyrical directness, found its way on to the Buffy The Vampire Slayer album (though not, as I understand, the programme itself). The thrust and melody resonate with the driven-in line “Someone tell me why,” though behind the youthful doubt of the phrase, part of me also hears the teacher that Pollard remained for years after forming GBV demanding an explanation for undelivered homework – a brilliantly baffling duality.
The other most radio-ready song, Hold On Hope, would be easy to characterise as a just-add-water Everybody Hurts, a calculatedly poignant work designed to overlay emotionally manipulative montages in reality shows and dramas alike. Except that, firstly, even after two decades of grievous misuse, Everybody Hurts survives as a genuinely moving, throat-swelling song; secondly, the same description applies to Hold On Hope, and thirdly, the hospital series it soundtracked was not the blustering Gray’s Anatomy but a rare moment of pathos in the endearingly silly Scrubs.

The 50:50 split comes in Liquid Indian, where the verses don’t seem too bothered what you think of them, with glowering riffs hoisting lines like “Soft clay orifice quivering like new structures and formations” before the invasion of a chorus which could have stadiums from Shea to Shawfield levitating through nothing more than repetition of a title which seems to celebrate an ink used as a drink – surely the most radical transformation since Lucozade morphed from a pick-me-up for sickly children into an elixir for the modern superathlete. The David verse battles back but the Goliath chorus rises again – it all ends in a draw but there’s no time to go to penalties as there’s too much happening elsewhere…
For instance: Zoo Pie helps itself to the coda of the Clash’s Garageland and has Pollard hollering through a bullhorn in a particularly belligerent moment; Mushroom Art sees him confessing vulnerably “Living without you is difficult” before the odd old instincts kick in and he elaborates: “Cloud faced oldman winking/You see, he tests me.” Its already measured riff is slowed further still on In Stitches, where he promises “Human amusement at hourly rates,” in tandem with a menacing backing vocal which has its flock of wrath turned away by a delicate tremolo. Dragons Awake!, with acoustic guitar, strings and Lennonesque vocal reverb, is less psychedelic than its title promises but is still as close to that status as GBV get, while Things I Will Keep lists, veers and swerves like Prime Husker Du.
And it all came out on Creation, in its very last days. The label may not actually have been brought to the brink of financial bankruptcy by the procrastination of Kevin Shields but creative bankruptcy was definitely wrought by general post-Morning Glory hubris – the recruitment of veterans GBV and Ivor Cutler were just about its only inspired moves at this time.
GBV themselves collapsed afterwards and did so again after a recent reactivation but the songs have never stopped pouring out of Robert Pollard and this prolificacy is almost a recommendation in itself. It’s well- known that actor Paddy Considine is an enthusiastic champion of theirs, perhaps less so that, when Daniel Radcliffe was once  invited to disclose the contents of his MP3, a couple of stray GBV tunes were revealed to lurk within. Since then, he’s gone on to play Allan Ginsberg, one of the great American poets of the 20th century – a category I’d contest Robert Pollard has a powerful case for belonging in (PG).


HOPEIf Mazzy Star and My Bloody Valentine shared one thing in common then it was their mutual capacity to induce in the listener an almost euphoric stupor. For MBV, this came about through their woozily oscillating sonic textures; for Mazzy Star, primarily through David Roback’s retro slowmo jangle and Hope Sandoval’s sultry vocal delivery. So it would have come as no surprise to some when, following a short-lived Mazzy Star reunion in 2000, Sandoval hooked up with MBVs Colm O’Ciosoig – ten years into rock’s longest and most public musical hiatus – to form a new band, The Warm Inventions.

Their debut album Bavarian Fruit Bread’, has a fairly mediocre critical standing, beset by the kind of ‘above average’ ‘7/10’ ‘pleasant listen’ approval ratings which I find hugely offensive. It means so much more to me – comfortably one of the new millennium’s Top 10 albums – that I would be prepared to arm wrestle a grizzly bear to defend it’s reputation.

I fear the album may have instantly lost a few ears with its unassuming opener, a cover of the William Reid-penned ‘Drop’ (a CD only cast-off from the JAMCs 1989 album ‘Automatic’) With its stark plodding Johnny Cash guitar line it gives little indication of the treasures lying in wait.

By the second track ‘Suzanne’ (interestingly, written prior to Mazzy Star’s formation), one’s expectations soon begin to soar. So what is it that makes this song so curiously beguiling? Perhaps the simple, languorously strummed rhythm guitar or Hope’s trademark flirtatious vocal?

‘Suzanne is waiting by your doorway,
But all she does is waste your time
And she looks just like my sister
But she feels just like my man.’

Or could it be the enchantingly hypnotic glockenspiel, suggestive of the opening moments of ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’? Surely, all of these features make their individual contributions, but more particularly I would point to the production which here and elsewhere on the album is so crystal clear one can almost hear the guitar strings gently bend and feel the air blow through Hope’s wistful harmonica.

On ‘Butterfly Mornings’ we hear the familiar intricate picking of guest guitarist, the late great, Bert Jansch. What sounds like a bizarre collaboration – the drummer from indie avant-noise pioneers MBV and the folk guitar legend is in fact the most melodious of marriages. Jansch’s playing on this and on the equally gorgeous ‘Charlotte’ is never unnecessarily complex, demonstrating great sympathy for the album’s soporific spirit. It’s a spirit which does not for a moment relent.

Each time I hear the first few bars of ‘On The Low’ I still expect to hear Tim Buckley’s opening line to ‘Morning Glory’, but in truth any disappointment is short-lived and this song may be the equal of its illustrious ancestor. A genuine highlight, it further augments the album’s narcotic timbre, and is enhanced immeasurably by Hope’s achingly beautiful harmonica accompaniment, which is outstanding throughout the album – whether it be showcased here or by her languid blues playing on ‘Suzanne’ and even when replete with treatments as on the wonderful ‘Clear Day’.

The arrangements are carefully considered. While the cello on ‘Feeling of Gaze’ adds momentary gravitas to the proceedings, the harmonium on the gorgeous title track fashions fleeting melodic moments which seem to dissolve before alighting, disappearing like sand through one’s fingers, as Hope purrs:

‘I’ve got a brand new set of wheels
I’m gonna drive you straight to tears
I’m gonna spend all of my money
Making you cry.’

The aptly titled closer ‘Lose Me On The Way’, with its drifting reverb-drenched rhythms may run the risk of rendering the listener unconscious before reaching the finishing line – but by then the web has closed in, the entrapment complete. In fact these songs are at no point content simply to seduce my earbuds, preferring instead to lay me down, unbutton my shirt and slowly blow daisies off my chest. A second album, ‘Through The Devil Softly’ would follow, after a reasonably lengthy hiatus of their own in 2009. In some ways it was a more cohesive whole, and some will point to a development in the songwriting, but it had mislaid BVB’s elegantly wasted aura. (JJ)


“We want to put a bit of distance between what we do and the rock’n’roll tradition.”

The Raincoats interviewed by Greil Marcus

The Raincoats initially formed after Gina Birch, inspired by the chaotic energy of The Slits, teamed up with guitarist Ana Da Silva in 1977. An all-female line up was completed the following year with classically trained violinist Vicky Aspinall, and drummer Palmolive jumped ship from The Slits. It was this line up that recorded the ramshackle and scratchy debut album for Rough Trade. However, following its release, Palmolive left, forcing the band to write songs for the next album without a drummer. Just as losing a drummer allowed Spacemen 3 to make the minimalist masterpiece that is Play With Fire, this seems to have freed up their sound, and coupled with the purchase of a bunch of exotic instruments from a visit to New York, and the punk practice of swapping instruments helped to push their songwriting into uncharted territory.

In Simon Reynolds excellent Rip It Up And Start Again, Gina Birch is quoted saying “You couldn’t find a band that rehearsed more than we did, but we always fell apart. We always pushed ourselves a little bit beyond where we were capable of playing”. Listening to Odyshape now, 34 years after it was released and 18 years after I first heard it, just makes me wonder why more bands can’t or won’t push themselves that far, when reaching beyond their abilities resulted in a record that is sparse and spiritual, and almost completely uncategorisable. At the time the NME bemoaned the fact that there were no musical comparisons to be made, not even to their previous album. The Raincoats were now walking through a different musical terrain.

The influence of everything from folk, punk, reggae, krautrock (Can circa Ege Bamyasi) to all  kinds of ethnic music can be heard throughout, but each sound is woven into the fabric of The Raincoats music so perfectly it never sounds like genre tourism that occasionally  plagues music post eighties. Everything here sounds like Raincoats music, just not the Raincoats that had played on the first album. The use of such un-rock instruments as sruti box(?), claves, kalimba, timpani, balafon, ektare and finger symbols sets this record apart from many of its contemporaries and closer to the wyrd atmosphere of records like Dr Johns’s spook-fest Gris Gris or Tim Buckley’s free folk’n’jazz Lorca. Perhaps the appearance of Rough Trade label mate Robert Wyatt on a couple of tracks should give us a clue to the difference in sound from the first album. Maybe Gina Birchs involvement alongside Swell Maps Epic Soundtracks in the Red Crayola was an influence.

So is there any point in trying to describe an album that is as difficult to pigeon hole as this? I think there is.

Shouting Out Loud is a frantic Countess From Hong Kong, bass and drums circling like crows around intense passages of violin and guitar duels. The lack of drums on Family Treet allows the instruments to push and pull at the tempo as its tale of very english melancholy unfolds. Only Loved At Night builds verses around a killer scratchy guitar riff and chorus around kalimba. The epic Dancing In My Head (“Long, long way to go”) always made me think of Debra Keese’s Travelling without sounding much like it. The opening verse sounds like it’s heaving under a heavy weight while the chorus (“My spirit is dancing in my head and in my heart”) with great piano playing from Vicky Aspinall lifts you somewhere completely out of yourself. I would love to hear Joanna Newsom sing this.

The title track kicks off with a circular chiming guitar riffs around a lyric dealing with body image in magazines. The benefits of writing without a drummer seems most pronounced on And Then It’s Ok where the tempo refuses to settle in one place for too long, the guitar switching from a frantic Feelies strum to almost Dark Star Live Dead picking. Baby Song is Congoman put through Can’s Future Days filter, all shimmering rhythms and heat haze harmonies. There’s an almost Cajun flavour to the violin at the start of Red Shoes. Go Away closes the album in fine punky style even as the violin echoes Kashmir.

Odyshape is as classic as anything released during one of the most fertile periods for British music.  Despite people like John Lydon, Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain heaping praise on the band, it rarely gets mentioned alongside Metal Box or Unknown Pleasures, never mind making those Greatest Records Of All Time lists. Perhaps this is down to its un-rock leanings, or possibly it is down to its influence being harder to trace. I can hear reflections of Vicky Aspinalls violin in Hahn Rowe’s work in Hugo Largo, in P J Harvey at her most English. It doesn’t sound out of place amongst the post 2000 music dubbed New Weird America or freak folk. Whatever. Kim Gordon called their music “defiant in its spirituality without being corny” and that pretty much sums this record up. (TT)


There can’t have been a more unforgiving year in music than 1974. Hardly anything fitted in – its time had either been and gone or was still to come. Glam was over – Bowie and Roxy were still delivering but, post-Ziggy and post-Eno respectively, they seemed in transition and this was doubly so for T.Rex and  Mott, as those desperate dirges Teenage Dream and Saturday Gigs testified.
Music had come so far in the previous decade that it could hardly see back to where it had come from and had little idea where it was going. Revival of early rock ‘n’ roll had become big business but these lingering gazes in the rearview mirror at irrevocably lost pre-Vietnam times – embodied by the admittedly wonderful American Graffiti  – took eyes off the road ahead. Meanwhile, the idealism of seven or eight years earlier had long since curdled, calcified and ossified but many from these periods were still around yet cut adrift and much of what’s now considered classic from ’74 or thereabouts didn’t even gain enough of a profile to be ignored; what audience was there still left for the ex-singer of the Box Tops and his new band? For the guy who left the Byrds after two years? For the guy who sang The Wanderer and Runaround Sue?
Nor was there yet much of an audience for leather-jacketed bubblegum, played faster and louder than it had ever been before, for Who pasticheurs in suits, nor even for Runyon-by-way-of-Scorsese mock epics set in New Jersey. As for the Stones, the Who themselves and sundry solo Beatles, they had crested, peaked, plateaued and were settling in for Olympian sessions of water-treading. Zeppelin and Pink Floyd had the commercial momentum but, as the planet became barely big enough to accommodate them, the controls were already set for them to hit the wall. And then there were the Bay City Rollers… the truism that you have to know where to look, which has sustained many music fans through barren times, was seldom as true as in 1974.

It was in this blighted, benighted, blasted environment that Sparks made their impact and there was no one smarter, fresher or more zestful to be found anywhere. The calcium carbonate and Camembert Mael brothers, Ron and Russell, had started off in their native California as Halfnelson, named after a wrestling hold, and while the camp theatricality of American wrestling had some resonance with the music they produced, their fine debut for Todd Rundgren’s Bearsville label, and its follow-up , A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing – their first as Sparks – cut little ice in a market made for the Allmans and the Dead.
The land where Mick McManus plied his gravelly trade in the ring was in thrall to the aforementioned glam gargantuans and had just embraced Lou Reed – if not yet the Velvets – so a move for the Maels, avowed Anglophiles both, made palpable sense. Of course, everything took off swiftly after their no 2 hit, This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, a song which, despite the best efforts of some to wreck it through overplay, I simply never tire of hearing. Received wisdom – something I often find myself concurring with but always strive to avoid taking as gospel –  has it that parent album Kimono My House was Sparks’ early high watermark but my acquaintance with it at this time was fleeting. Its follow-up Propaganda is often dismissed as a hastily-conceived sequel, arriving as it did just six months later, but it’s the one that found its way into our house, that I had the time to get to know, and which confirmed Sparks as the first band I properly got into.
I was in the early stages of primary school and it helped immensely that children are a recurring theme on Propaganda, stories told with directness and empathy from their point of view, and what could have been objectionably twee in other paws is an endlessly productive grin factory instead, albeit with a sober edge. The message Never Go With Strangers, printed on flyers alongside a ghostly silhouetted figure, was being drummed into us and was as horribly urgent as it’s ever been; on Thanks But No Thanks the Maels characterise the strangers as “The merry band of how-are-yous/In tweedy suits and pointy shoes.” in Russell’s incomparable falsetto, I heard nothing sinister and thought instead of Enid Blyton’s mischievous goblins and brownies, who I always favoured over the all–too-human Famous Five, and as a mesmerising extended fade geared up, I sympathised with Russell’s bewildered infant as he mused: “My parents say the world is cruel/ I think that they prefer it cruel.”
Even so, parenthood is made to sound as much unalloyed fun as childhood on Who Don’t Like Kids, though this is as much down to reassured egos as anything else – the kids are “proof that I’m not just a vegetable” and get to chant the title between a circular riff that would have caused more than a few copies to be checked for stuck grooves. Less gleeful is Aaron,  the deserted father narrating BC who, for reasons not fully explained, loses both Betty and Charlie, paradoxically to the most upful, high-kicking melody on an album exploding with the things.
The other most prominent members of Propganda’s cast are flustered would-be suitors. The marauding, propulsive At Home, At Work, At Play recounts the familiar tale of the unattainable girl but this time she’s out of reach not because of mystery or aloofness but because of a relentlessly packed social and professional diary. The extended military metaphor of Reinforcements is characteristically clever, if not quite subtle, but enables the Maels and the piledriving but skilful band they recruited in London to spin another scintillating coda. And there’s real pathos on the album’s first single, Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth, where brevity – it’s barely two and a half minutes – is no barrier to them executing their most beautiful moment to date, while relating an enigmatic story of emotional chaos and a strange interlude of “three days and two nights away from my friends” before remorse forces temporary abandonment of the wit and smart wordplay: “I’ll admit I was unfaithful/But from now I’ll be more faithful.”
The biggest riot is reserved for Achoo, a song I was warned got loud before I heard it for the first time. A patient bass riff from Ian Hampton and a strangely menacing keyboard fanfare from Ron usher in an epidemic of “La-las with a powrful sting/That’ll stop any opera or any Bing.” Russell once observed that, in true pantomime tradition, the song lent itself to audience participation; by the time the grandstand of mingled Californian and English sneezes is done, quarantine would be strongly recommended.
There can be little doubt that Billy MacKenzie and Martin Fry were listening as closely to Sparks as to their more established contemporaries. Ron’s primitive synths teeter on the edge of Yes-scale pomposity on the closing Bon Voyage, which could redefine every notion you have of bittersweetness, but it was 1974, after all, and Sparks were tossing around incalculably original ideas which helped to ensure pop, or rock if you must, survived its most fraught period to date (PG).


The notion of alternative culture has been diluted enough to leave a gap where the Pacific used to be. What purports to be an alternative is, all too often, scarcely any better than – or even much different to – the thing it’s offered up as an alternative to; trace a line in 2015 from celebrity culture to hipster culture and you’ll hardly travel the length of your own toes; the distinction has been all but erased and there are  far too many intersections at Ukulele Junction, Animals In Adverts Corner and Live Lounge Ring Road. And maybe it’s an inevitable by-product of the passage of time but when some of the most emotionally complex and ideologically committed artists of the last half century – the Smiths, the Jam, REM, Radiohead – end up on a Conservative Prime Minister’s Desert Island Discs, is there anywhere left for anything to go? Yes, I’m well aware that there’s still much that’s radical to be discovered  but even its most ardent champions have seen it all, heard it all and the notion of anything even vaguely subversive penetrating the mainstream now seems as fanciful as the discovery of a bootleg of Geoffrey Chaucer reciting his own work.
Consider, then, what the Adverts and their peers were up against in the late ’70s. There were no politicians or ubiquitous TV presenters self-consciously and ingratiatingly clamouring to prove how really into this groovy punk stuff they were. Who were they surrounded by when the unforgettably gruesome Gary Gilmore’s Eyes became an improbable hit? Smokie, The Dooleys, Brotherhood of Man; Crossroads, Des O’Connor Tonight and Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club on TV; Keith Joseph and Willie Whitelaw on the news. Punk defined itself against all of these; if they were aware of it at all, the response to it was a deeply-felt revulsion, shown most viscerally towards the Pistols but nobody was immune.

The Adverts stood out as close-quarters observers of the culture they were part of but seemed to be ambivalent towards. On their torrential debut One Chord Wonders (which, along with Gary Gilmore’s Eyes and Safety In Numbers, formed an opening volley of singles fit to stand alongside any), TV Smith berates an indifferent audience which starts off as irate hippies (“Come back when you’ve learned to play”) but turns into fickle, bandwagoneering punks (“We must be the new wave, they’ll like us next year). Safety In Numbers adds a double meaning to its title’s readymade cliche – not only did the scene’s proliferation provide plenty of lookalikes to hide behind but it also eroded its impact. Meanwhile, to the most mellifluous melody of their early period, New Church acknowledges this conformity but urges you to turn it to your advantage (“strength within you, not without you”).
More obliquely, On The Roof slows the headlong charge to a surreptitious tread and Smith appears to be calling for an escape from everyday pettiness (“We’re fighting on the floor for a ha’penny”). On Wheels is much more specific, a reflective and, for its time, bold contemplation of life with disability. It’s less blunt than Peter Hammill’s similarly stark Handicap And Equality, which appeared the following year, but both are notable in dating from a time when a whole lexicon of breathtakingly tactless terms was still applied, without qualm, in official circles to people with disabilities.
The dyspeptic jewel in this tarnished crown is Great British Mistake, one of the most unblinking examinations ever of the nation’s conscience, as lyrically forensic and musically excoriating a dissection as any performed by Weller, Costello or Morrissey. The error is diagnosed as “looking for a way out…getting complacent, not noticing” and personified as people “out of the prepack, into the fear, into themselves.” Torpor and resistance to ideas are the consequence and Smith is fearful – “When will it be over? How can they avoid it?”
It took the Adverts a full year to deliver Crossing The Red Sea… and it appeared a month after the Pistols’ ignominious implosion. I’ve never held with the notion that punk was all over by 1977 – for me, it flourished as late as 1980 – but the Adverts themselves didn’t capitalise on the detonation of this album. A series of strong but sporadic singles came over the next year and a half but the follow-up album, Cast of Thousands, was dangerously flawed. It had one of their finest moments – the untypically gentle, Television-echoing but profoundly sinister I Will Walk You Home – and probably their worst, the hysterical and frankly awful I Looked At The Sun, which ELP would have rejected for being too pompous. But at their peak, they had few equals ; they were once described as “a great band, for a moment” – Crossing The Red Sea… was that moment (PG).