91. DISCO INFERNO – THE 5 EPs (2011*)

Experimental, Indie / Alternative, Post rock

Disco Inferno: A Sense Of Otherness  Somehow I contrived to miss Disco Inferno. They arrived either ten years too early or ten too late, it’s hard to tell, but by the time they had established themselves, popular music’s few remaining visionaries were retreating into hibernation. 1991 proved a pivotal year. It was the year of Laughingstock and Loveless, as well as the last significant records by Public Enemy and The Young Gods. And then, suddenly, as those few flickering wicks burnt out, indie music was plunged into its Dark Ages. The air was thick with the stench of grunge and grebo – Neds Atomic Dustbin and their ugly ilk – while the nightmare of Britpop hovered vulture-like, ready to strip its rotting carcass. Britpop would become a model of retro complacency, mostly underwhelming, largely uninspired. Many of us felt queasy and headed for the dancefloor. I had a pretty good time there. The one regret I have is that I missed Disco Inferno. 

DI were, on the surface, a conventional post-punk (guitar/bass/drums) trio – Ian Crause, Paul Wilmott & Rob Whatley – with a penchant for early Joy Division and Wire. They began to suffuse those primary influences with the spirit of ’88 (AR Kane, Public Enemy, Young Gods, My Bloody Valentine), and then, following the release of their first album Open Doors Closed Windows in 1991, they stretched out into genuinely new and uncharted territory augmenting their sound with sampling technology alongside a proliferation of inspirational ideas. Crause recalls: “I had been at home with my guitar synth and sampler since late ’91. We came back in to rehearse again with the sampler and what I had written on it in about April or May ’92, not really knowing how it would all piece together as a band. We had a whole week of rehearsals booked and by the end of the week we were kind of stunned at ourselves ‘cos none of us had ever heard anything like it before, not even stuff like Public Enemy or the Young Gods. It just sounded so fucking odd…all of us were completely thrown by the noise in that room.”
A succession of spellbinding EPs followed between 1992-94, gathered together here on this 5 EPs compilation. And they are brilliant. At the time, those critics in the know wilted, quickly running out of fresh superlatives with which to embroider their reviews. Crause knew the band possessed something very special indeed, but the public wasn’t ready. And there was nobody else doing what they were doing. “Oh we were in the middle of fucking nowhere from the start of using samplers ’til we split.” Despite that, by the time Britpop hijacked the airwaves, DI were continuing to make authentically original music, uncompromising, challenging, visceral and at times breathtakingly beautiful. “When we were recording ‘DI Go Pop’ and ‘Summer’s Last Sound’, Charlie, our producer, did say he was finding it hard going as we had chosen the sounds for their narrative and not musical qualities.” Lyrically, Crause steered an uneven path from (poetically) documenting existential crises (“All the joy in my life had rotted away/I saw a vision in blue and my blues flew away/And just for a second I truly believed/Though I don’t know what in” – from ‘Second Language’) to caustic social commentary. It was often dark stuff.
“And the gulls are coming in off the coast/the smell of corpses pour from in/mass graves uncovered/must be abroad, it can’t be here/I can sense your violence, but I still don’t understand/the way the past looks dead when you’ve got the future in the palm of your hand.” And so begins ‘Summers Last Sound’ a magnificently unsettling fanfare to this most fertile of periods. 
Shrill screams undercut a naggingly insistent guitar riff on ‘A Rock To Cling To’ while ‘The Last Dance’ & ‘The Long Dance’ (from ‘The Last Dance’ EP) are poppier, more infectious, almost straying into mid-period New Order territory. But it is the more experimental tracks which sound positively scintillating. Crause has expressed his distaste for ‘Scattered Showers’ mainly due to what he regards as its lyrical deficiencies (“they really let the thing down. I was so far off the mark with it.”) but I can’t help but hear The Velvet Underground’s ‘The Murder Mystery’ being leaked through a distorted PA system at Brands Hatch. Here and elsewhere, the band utilise their Foley’s Sound Effects toolbox to its full potential, yielding extraordinary results.
Then there are the glistening guitar lines of the aforementioned ‘Second Language’, which alongside those on ‘At The End Of The Line’ recall Vini Reilly’s wonderfully inventive work with The Durutti Column. In actual fact, as Crause explains, those songs bore a more surprising influence: “The original guitar sound I had, with a lot of delay lines, was inspired by a German guy I saw on telly called Eberhardt Weber. He put his cello through massive delay lines and I was stunned by it. I liked Durutti Column what I heard, but I didn’t hear an awful lot to be honest…I realise it can sound very similar sometimes.”

There is huge variety here, a veritable smorgasbord of sonic adventurousness. Best of of all is ‘Love Stepping Out’ which sounds like Kraftwerk’s ‘Europe Endless’ playing as the wedding guests spill out into an old English churchyard. It is simultaneously naturalistic and disorientating, and crucially, entirely devoid of rock cliche. “Punching women, kicking men/Five on one, one on ten/These fuckers getting all that they deserve/It’s just tricks with mirrors/that makes them think they’re in the right.” There is so much going on here musically and lyrically, it needs a dozen listens to unmask its own face. What was the aim behind it? “To try to create a sonic environment where the real world conducts itself like music but stays psychoacoustically in situ so it feels like the world is playing itself like a composition.” Crause wrote it on his electric guitar, “but I ripped the pickup off so had to use the nylon acoustic guitar sample which came on a floppy with my sampler to replace it. That just went through a delay like the original guitar had done.” Suffice to say, like everything else on here, it is bloody magnificent.
Disco Inferno may now be considered a seminal influence on ‘post-rock’ while Crause has continued to make stunning music of his own. Despite their inability to make any commercial breakthrough, he continues to be much respected “by the same people who were well receiving the Disco Inferno records in ’92 and ’93 like Stubbs, Reynolds, Kulkarni, etc, who understood what we were doing and what I do.” And rightly so. If I missed Disco Inferno the first time round, then it has been a fascinating late discovery. Sometimes one can have the most bewilderingly thrilling time catching up. (JJ)

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36. JOSEF K – SORRY FOR LAUGHING (1981*)

Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk

“He [Alan Horne] was never keen on our angular sound at all. He appreciated much more the softer West Coast aspects of Orange Juice. He used to say that we were The Velvet Underground of Postcard, and Orange Juice were like The Byrds. I think he felt that it was cool to have a gloomy band as well as a jolly one on the roster.” (Paul Haig)

As a young man, knee-deep in Kafka and Camus, the world weighed heavily on Paul Haig’s shoulders. At the same time as I would have been racing back and forth to The Odeon on Renfield St. to dream of clandestine liaisons with Clare Grogan in ‘Gregory’s Girl’, by contrast, Haig’s sense of alienation was finding its way onto a striking series of prickly yet savant 7” singles, released by Josef K to great critical acclaim between December 1979 and March 1982.

During that time Josef K made good their impetuous oath to release only one album and then disband, although improbably, they recorded two. Their first attempt at a debut, “Sorry For Laughing”, was shelved, the band dispirited by its ‘insipid’ production. In its place they released ‘The Only Fun In Town’, recorded in only two days in Belgium, a few months later, as a defiantly lo-fi response. It was a gamble which never paid off. The critics were divided and the fans, accustomed to the exhilarating vitality of the band’s live shows, featuring Haig’s provocatively charismatic performances, were largely underwhelmed. While ‘The Only Fun In Town’ has now assumed the status of lost post-punk classic, to my mind it pales in comparison to its abandoned predecessor. One wonders why of the two albums, this was the one to be condemned, like Kafka’s protagonist, without a fair trial. Nevertheless, whichever one holds to be the authentic or apocryphal Josef K moment, this decision helped to cultivate the mystique, the enigma, the legend, that set in motion one of the most feverish pursuits for the curious record collecting teenager of the 1980s.

In fact, Josef K arrived in my house on Christmas Day 1987, in the form of the ‘Young & Stupid / Endless Soul’ compilation album released earlier that year. 1987. I was always about five years behind. Its instantaneous impact sent me on an only partially successful hunt for the band’s fabled Postcard singles and their long unavailable solitary album. As things eventually transpired, my younger brother would beat me to the post with its capture, but while green with envy, our house echoed to the strains of the band’s music for some considerable time. It was a good time to catch on, before they fell foul of ever changing musical fashions. Guitarist Malcolm Ross recalls:

“There was a while especially when acid house music and hip hop first came along that nobody was interested in Josef K. There was a period of over ten years between 1988 and right up until the end of the late nineties when nobody gave a damn about us. I remember when I released my second solo album in 1998 the ‘NME’ was sent a copy and the editor said to the record company, ‘We are not going to review this. This has no relevance to us now.”

In truth, as far as being fashionable or relevant, the emerging post-punk Scottish music scene was slow to blossom and certainly lagged behind the rest of the UK in developing the spirit of ’76/77. At the very least, it took longer for the records to arrive. But, by allowing the more artless and noxious aspects of punk to fizzle out, that gave Josef K and Orange Juice, along with their peers, given the tag ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’, sufficient distance to confidently exhibit a more expansive range of influences in their music than most others could muster.

Often parallels are made between the distinctive Glasgow / Edinburgh music scenes with the corresponding US demarcation between East Coast and West Coast sensibilities, but these are overplayed. If the Glasgow bands (Orange Juice, The Pastels, Aztec Camera etc) professed an admiration for Love and The Byrds, they were quite often equally in awe of NY’s The Velvet Underground. Likewise if the Edinburgh bands (Josef K, Fire Engines, Scars) were more indebted to the sharper caustic traits of Television and The Voidoids, at the same time they bore the influence of Beefheart (LA). And, as is well documented, Josef K preferred Chic in any case. In truth there was more harmony than discord between the two scenes. However, when it came to Josef K’s music the reverse was true. Discord was a fundamental ingredient of the bands thrilling sound.

John Lydon had penned Death Disco, which I always felt was the perfect Josef K song title. Behind those near-nerdy (occasionally) baggy suits, were detuned twitchy guitars, equal parts punk scratch and funk catch, underpinning a batch of lyrics brimming with existential angst. Consider ‘Drone’ for instance, which features guitars so ferociously discordant it feels the fretboards will ignite or even fingers fall off, where the lyrics sound like they’ve been ripped from a random page of Knut Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’:

‘I’d like to starve, fade away
Don’t need the cash, just decay.’ (‘Drone’)

On ‘Variation Of Scene’ I’m imagining Haig lurking in the shadows a la ‘The Third Man’ (Auld Reekie surely could have been as atmospheric a location as Vienna for Carol Reed’s classic noir, a film with which I’m sure the band would have been familiar)

‘I hear our footsteps echo
This trip is so much fun
One more eternal city
The psychos always rerun’

Between them, on ‘Heads Watch’, Haig and Ross somehow contrive to create a frenzied guitar battle between Television and Gang of Four, while David Weddell, playing Hooky, does his best to drag the whole thing through the floor and into the bass-ment. You can dance to it, you can sing along to it, and at the same time affect a supercilious urbane sneer:

‘I stand and look outside,
At pseudo-punks and all the mindless,
I see what they think about here,
I watch the girls and watch the heads turn.’  (‘Heads Watch’)

The influences are worn openly but converge to create something unique and vital. At times the band borrow heavily from Martin Hannett’s production for ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (‘Citizens’, ‘Sense Of Guilt’), while the jocular bass on ‘Crazy To Exist’ could be from one of The Fall’s early singles, and the intonation on ‘No Glory’ is a straight lift from David Watts. I imagine Alan Horne’s ears may have pricked up, his inner voice screaming ‘a hit at last!’ as he tuned in eagerly to the beginning of ‘Art of Things’. It promises a shift towards Orange Juice’s more melodic shamble and anticipates the charming amateurishness of The Pastels, but it soon flexes it’s rhythmic muscles to reveal a jittery heart of beef.

Despite that darker edge, Josef K still managed to find room in their album titles for the words ‘Laughing’ and ‘Fun’, but they were young then after all. The band’s reputation has grown, aided by a number of factors, not least through the high profile of Scottish bands Belle & Sebastian and public devotees Franz Ferdinand, but also through the booming vinyl market. Josef K were a band made for vinyl, if ever there was one. This, the album they themselves rejected, finally saw a  vinyl release in 2012. It makes it into The New Perfect Collection not only for its bravery, wit and invention, nor simply because it is has the most sparkling guitar playing from any Scottish band ever, but  also because every connoisseur’s collection should contain the stuff of legend:

“The world needed a squeamish, jumpy quartet of po-faced, slapstick modish punk kids with concerns about their mental health who would leave behind a messy legacy, a near legend, a fragmented narrative, a bent brilliance, a throbbing rumour of false starts, different versions, other mixes, half songs, shadowy codas, rejected tracks, bits and pieces, lost meolodies, twisted torch, bitty thoughts, missed hits, different members, temporary aberrations, bad dreams, old classics, nervy remakes, buried treasure, Peel sessions, failed ambition, part time associations, sure things, collapsed potential, scattered lies, romantic vision, sentimental sickness, solo attempts and dynamic inadequacy.” ​​​​​​​​​(Paul Morley)

[The documentary, ‘Big Gold Dream: The Sound Of Young Scotland’ is scheduled for release on July 4th 2015] (JJ)