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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7. ROBERT WYATT – ROCK BOTTOM (1974)

ROBERT WYATT – ROCK BOTTOM (1974)

If  Rock Bottom were issued today, it would probably receive the flippant response that it was the only occasion in history when a couple performing their infantile private jokes has elicited anything other that irritated nausea. This would gravely short-change, not to mention insult,  both Robert Wyatt and his wife, Alfreda (Alfie) Benge; firstly because, as is well-documented, she had just supported him through the ordeal of paralysis from the waist down after falling from a window the previous year (with characteristic restraint,  Wyatt has since suggested the accident had a liberating effect on music he’d already largely written) but also because the record is genuinely – to use another debased adjective- awesome. The pet names and in-jokes that permeate the Alifib/Alifie medley are affectionate but also more than slightly unsettling, suggesting almost a regression to a childlike state, particularly as Gary Windo’s tenor sax scurries in like a venomous snake seeking prey. There’s another pair of twins in Little Red Riding/Robin Hood Hit The Road- the former in particular almost defies description, as Wyatt pleads “Oh stop it, stop it” and the whole song begins to run backwards like an engulfing mudslide and the matchless Ivor Cutler peers out of the sludge to taunt with talk of “lunchtea” and joining  a hedgehog in bursting tyres, and it all culminates in an endless fade of what sounds like an entire nation sounding a fanfare. In fact, it’s the trumpets of one man, Mongezi Feza, who would die of pneumonia the following year. Then there’s Sea Song, possibly the most aptly named song ever, its restful drift the sound of moorings slipped and shoreline receding further and further until things get choppy with a piano solo which matches Aladdin Sane for sweet discordance and Wyatt calls out wordlessly, not waving…
If Robert Wyatt is, as he once memorably described himself, a “gawping tourist of jazz”, Rock Bottom takes him- and the listener- to the jazz pyramids, Florence and Niagara Falls. Start packing now. (PG)