60. CLUSTER – ZUCKERZEIT (1974)

Electronic, Krautrock

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)

57. SUICIDE – A WAY OF LIFE (1988)

Electronic, Post-Punk

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)

53. TELSTAR PONIES – IN THE SPACE OF A FEW MINUTES

Greatest Records, Post rock, Rock Music, Shoegaze

Sometimes I think the nineties was the worst decade for music to date. The twin behemoths of grunge and brit-pop may dominate any retrospective reviews of the decade but left very few albums that stand the test of time (to these ears) twenty plus years on. There were of course many other interesting things going on, the rise of electronica and dance culture and the global take over of hip-hop even as these genres blanded out and became the mainstream. Looking back now it is the bands that remained underground and retained credibility in the face of the music industries last hurrahs that I continue to return to and which only seem to improve as time passes. Before the internet removed record labels influence and wiped out the music weeklies.

1995 was the year of the jolly ‘oliday that was britpop. While some see the mid nineties as the time when independent music finally went overground to dominate the mainstream, in truth most of what made the charts was at best a watered down version of the music of the past ten years with particular emphasis on the type of bands who wanted to relive the sixties. As bands began to see the charts and major label deals as a viable option, edges were knocked off and sounds blanded out.

In Scotland however the best of the bands that emerged in the middle of the decade made it with their rough edges intact. While Bis, The Delgados and Belle and Sebastian refined melodic indie pop into new shapes bands like Mogwai and best of all the Telstar Ponies took inspiration from across the pond in the previous ten years of American alternative rock. Ignoring the barely disguised sub-metal that was most of the bands that exploited Nirvana’s success, these bands took inspiration from Sonic Youth, a little of the dream pop of Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star, and the disturbed sounds of Slint and Codeine, and forged their own sound

While Britpop dominated the music press, it’s easy to see why the experimental post rock of Telstar Ponies might not sit well next to Wake Up Boo, Country House et al. But while contemporaries Mogwai (who they shared more than just a drummer with) continued to bigger and bigger stages, the Telstar Ponies folded after the release of the flawed second album Voices From The New Music. In The Space Of A Few Minutes, however is a downbeat, edgy and intense masterpiece. It’s a restless music that can’t seem to settle, it’s the sound of those too hot city summer nights when you can’t sleep, the windows open to street sounds, the sound of frayed tempers and lovers quarrels, its walking home under orange streetlights anticipating confrontation. It is also tender, frightening and ultimately hopeful.

The songs are split between Brendan O’Hare and David Keenan (five each) and Rachel Devine (three), but there is little to separate them. The songs on this album sit together as a perfect whole. The opener The Moon Is Not A Puzzle, is a tense duet between David and Rachel building and building as she repeats “If you stay then I will go”. The vocals are mixed low so you find yourself leaning in, trying to catch what is going on (a couple of songs – Two’s Insane and Maya the vocals are almost indecipherable). Lügengeschichte (tall tale) is a helter skelter descent with heavy nods to from Neu! 2’s Super to, well, Neu! 2’s Fur Immer with great lyrics (I have no thoughts of self control) and ends with some crazy phasing. The single Not Even Starcrossed (taking its title from a line in a Codeine song)is a doomed romance of a song (wishing on a star, never should be wrong, when you got nothing)building to a beautifully elegiac chorus of “I’m in love with you”. Maya always reminded me of the atmosphere of Tom Verlaine’s Words From The Front.

Right in the middle of the album is a magical re-working of Patty Waters “Moon, Don’t Come Up Tonight” re-imagined as a gorgeous torch song. Sung by Keenan, importantly he doesn’t change the gender of the songs subject (these things matter sometimes). It was hearing the records of Telstar Ponies that led me to investigate Patty Waters, Shizuka, Albert Ayler.

Monster is all anguished pounding before erupting at the chorus. Best of all is “Side Netting” which just aches, heaving under a narcotic drift of guitars like The Only Ones Inbetweens. The menacing Her Name (“Me and her won’t sleep tonight”)  and Innerhalb Weniger Minuten as Rachel Devine intones a mystery tale over a brooding soundtrack . It all ends on a hopeful note with I Still Believe in Christmas Trees.

The Ponies managed one more album. The following years Tales From The New Music may even reach greater heights than the debut, but lacks the consistency of sound of their debut. After that there was the odd single released, but nothing else. Some members released further music under various guises, some of it great, all of it interesting, but not reaching the heights of what was achieved here.

As for the 1990’s, it is only when you start adding up the bands that released classic in that decade (Luna, Low, Teenage Fanclub, Mercury Rev, Bardo Pond, Pastels, Spectrum, Dead Moon, Primordial Undermind etc) that you realise it wasn’t all bad. And In The Space Of A Few Minutes is one of the best. (TT)