Thursday, June 26, 2008
DISCO DOUBLE TAKE: NEW YORK PARTIES LIKE IT'S 1975
Village Voice, July 11 - 17, 2001
by Simon Reynolds
Bang the Party prides itself on being "the last real underground house party in New York." Held upstairs in Frank's Lounge, a Fort Greene, Brooklyn, bar, it's an unpretentious and intimate affair. The lighting and decor are minimal, and there's free food laid out in a back room. The crowd, mostly black and Hispanic, includes many people who look old enough to have been clubbing for two decades or longer. Likewise the music: The beats kick with a contemporary sharpness, but most of the tracks played by resident DJ E-Man sound like they could have been made in the mid '70s, exuding a played-not-programmed feel and brimming with warm textures that feel "organic" rather than computerized. Most importantly, that crucial intangible "vibe"—the thing that makes or breaks a party—is fully present. When a fuse blows, temporarily cutting the sound dead, the audience claps and hollers to maintain the absent beat, with one patron rhythmically chanting, "We don't need no music!"
Bang is one of a number of New York parties directly modeled on the Loft, a legendary dance party of the early '70s hosted by David Mancuso in his own apartment. Fascinated by the futuristic, dance culture feels an equally potent tug toward the past: It's obsessed with roots, origins, and all things "old school." In the last few years, interest in this pre-disco era of New York nightlife—during which the Loft and similar clubs like the Sanctuary and the Gallery thrived—has grown dramatically. Partly this is a response to a sense of malaise in the city's contemporary dance culture, which some identify with slick corporate superclubs like the recently closed Twilo and others attribute to the Giuliani-sponsored crackdown on clubland. Reinvoking the "original principles" of the New York dance underground, nights like Body & Soul, Together in Spirit, Journey, and Soul-Sa appeal both to disenchanted veterans of the original scene and to neophytes who feel the romance of a lost golden age they never actually lived through. With clubbing tourists coming from all over the world to experience "the real thing" as a sort of time-travel simulacrum, New York's '70s-style dance underground has become a veritable heritage industry similar to jazz in New Orleans.
Stoking the interest in this period during the past year were a spate of books (ranging from the disco memoir Keep on Dancin' by Mel Cheren, financial backer of the Paradise Garage, to histories like Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton's Last Night a DJ Saved My Life) and CD compilations (like the ongoing series David Mancuso Presents the Loft and Disco Not Disco, a collection of the "mutant disco" played by the late Larry Levan at the Garage). There's even a documentary movie, Maestro, due out this fall and featuring interviews with all the major players of the era. "We have rare footage of the Loft, the Gallery, Paradise Garage—stuff that no one's ever seen," says producer-director Josell Ramos. Excerpts will be previewed at Body & Soul's annual July 22 birthday bash for Levan, which is hosted by the Maestro team this year.
Some of the most diligent curators of this era of New York club culture are actually foreigners. The first academic treatise on this subject, You Better Work!, is by a German, Kai Fikentscher. And it took a London label, Nuphonic, to honor David Mancuso's legacy by organizing the Loft compilations. Right now, Nuphonic is about to issue a trilogy of anthologies that pull together the hard-to-find output of avant-disco auteur Arthur Russell, creator of quirky "Loft classics" like Dinosaur L's "#5 (Go Bang)" and Loose Joints' "Is It All Over My Face?" The Russell project is a labor of love that has taken Nuphonic founder Dave Hill six years to complete. Nuphonic is also home to contemporary U.K. outfits like Faze Action and Idjut Boys, whose music is steeped in the '70s New York sound. Listen to Faze Action's debut Plans & Designs, and you imagine the brothers Simon and Robin Lee fanatically studying the orchestral arrangements on old Salsoul 12-inches, like the Stones once did with Muddy Waters records.
What exactly is the allure of this period? "It's that whole mythic aura thing," says Hill. "None of these people went to the Loft in the '70s or the Garage in the '80s, so the spell can't be broken. It's like some mad idyllic party that they can't ever have attended. Who knows if these clubs were really that great, but they certainly yielded some fascinating stories, and some fantastic records."
Pretty much anybody who's anybody in the New York house scene, from David Morales to Danny Tenaglia, was a "Loft baby" (or claims they were). Although the Sanctuary's Francis Grosso—who died this year—invented DJ'ing in the modern sense (long sets "beat-matched" to sustain a nonstop groove), it was Mancuso who pioneered the we-are-family vibe central to house culture and the idea of the club as total experience, with every aspect—audiophile sound system, lights, decor, free food—micromanaged for your pleasure.
"I started doing the Loft regularly in 1970, as an invitation-only rent party at my Soho apartment," says the bearded and big-bellied Mancuso between mouthfuls of Italian sausage at his favorite East Village restaurant. A few blocks away is his 6th Street office, where Mancuso keeps the remnants of the Loft's legendary sound system. Keen to demonstrate the importance of what he calls "Class A audio," the 56-year-old DJ treats me to a private performance. Tracks like Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares for Me" shimmer with lustrous detail—the crisp, clear sound gives me goose bumps. Suddenly, it's easy to understand all those stories of people being brought to tears by Mancuso's DJ'ing.
One record Mancuso plays—Van Morrison's 1968 classic Astral Weeks—reveals the crucial, underacknowledged links between the proto-disco scene and the rock counterculture. Today, disco is often celebrated for its camp and kitschy plasticness. But the pre-Saturday Night Fever dance underground was actually sweetly earnest and irony-free in its hippie-dippie positivity, as evinced by anthems like M.F.S.B.'s "Love Is the Message." And the scene's combination of overwhelming sound, trippy lighting, and hallucinogens was indebted to the late-'60s psychedelic culture. Mancuso still uses the Timothy Leary catchphrase "set and setting" to describe the art of creating the right vibe at parties.
Part of the fascination for the Loft era is that it's about as far back as you can trace the roots of today's dance-and-drug culture. But it was actually another DJ—Nicky Siano, cofounder of the Gallery—who took the Loft's synergy between sound, lights, and drugs and turned it into a full-blown trance-dance science. "I had this brainstorm—no one was eating the free bananas, so we dissolved LSD in water, borrowed a syringe from a junkie friend, and injected the fruit," says Siano. Larry Levan, then learning DJ'ing under Siano's tutelage, was given the job of spiking the fruit punch. With much of the Gallery crowd buzzing on acid, "the vibe was electric; people were having seizures on the dancefloor," says Siano. Another popular substance was Quaaludes, which created a touchy-feely "love energy" similar to Ecstasy.
The New York dance underground described by Siano—clubs with house dealers, audiences hyped on a polydrug intake, trippy lights synchronized to a hypnotic beat, DJs working the crowd into mass hysteria—was essentially rave culture in chrysalis. More immediately, clubs like the Gallery inspired Studio 54, where Siano DJ'd for a few months. When disco went mainstream, the original scene bunkered down in the underground. The Paradise Garage, founded in 1976, was a members-only club with resident DJ Larry Levan playing to a mainly gay, black and Hispanic crowd. That same year Levan's friend Frankie Knuckles moved to Chicago to take up a residency at the Warehouse, transplanting the New York underground ethos and in the process fathering house music.
With the Paradise Garage era ending with the club's closure in 1987, and the Loft in difficulties, New York's dance underground survived into the '90s thanks to enclaves like Better Days, Tracks, Shelter, and the Sound Factory Bar. But at these clubs, the underground's sensibility became gradually more conservative. DJs venerated Mancuso and Levan (who died in 1992), but few emulated their openness to left-field artists like Jah Wobble and Holger Czukay, Nina Hagen, and Liquid Liquid.
Instead, "garage" solidified as a genre term referring to soulful New York house characterized by organic textures, Latin percussion, and a jazzy feel. By the mid '90s, the city's dance culture was divided between the traditionalist house scene and the more future-leaning rave, which arrived here as an exotic U.K. import (but was actually a mutant form of Chicago house). On one side, white glow-stick warriors stoked on E rally to superstar DJs from Europe. On the other, it's Europeans who flock to worship at the shrine of all things authentically old school—the largely gay and black dance underground, where the DJs are local.
Since Twilo went wholesale into the Euro-trance sound, there's been a real divide in New York between drug clubs and what you could call soul clubs or 'vibe' clubs, like Body & Soul," says Adam Goldstone, a local DJ-producer who records for Nuphonic. Body & Soul—founded in 1996 by two veterans of the '70s underground, François Kevorkian and Danny Krivit, and their friend Joe Claussell—almost single-handedly sparked the renaissance of interest in New York's pre-disco club culture. Harking back to the approach of Mancuso and Levan, the trio DJ together round-robin style, and generally play tunes from start to finish rather than mixing. Echoing Mancuso and Levan, they believe the real art of DJ'ing is "programming"—the selection and sequencing of songs—a reaction against the cult of DJ virtuosity where jocks like Sasha and Digweed show off their seamless mixing by picking compatible samey-sounding tracks.
Another aspect that Body & Soul revived is the old-school ethos of playing healing, redemptive music. "Back in the day, the talented DJs really spun to tell a story with their records," says Krivit. "At Body & Soul, we are conscious that the music's talking, and you can't just play nonsense, or go to a song that contradicts the message in the previous song." Like the Loft, Body & Soul is dedicated, says Kevorkian, to "cherishing and perpetuating" a gay urban tradition that's over 30 years old and that survived both the disco backlash and the decimation of AIDS.
The party — hailed by U.K. dance magazines as the best club in the world — draws party animals and purist house scholars from Britain and Europe, immaculately retro-styled Japanese waifs, and bored New York hipsters who want a taste of what things were like "back in the day." "Dance music had become too technical, people were missing the soulfulness," says Richard Costecu, another member of the team behind the Maestro documentary. "That soulful house sound never went away; there were always people who lived for it. But maybe more people are ready for it now—they're sick of hearing disco loops all night long, they want 'real music.' And the new recruits are really interested in the history of the scene. It's still a more mature crowd at Body & Soul, not annoying suburban kids who are popping E's and want to hear fast music."
Not everybody is happy about the newcomers, though. "Some people say that the vibe at Body & Soul has deteriorated as the composition of the party has changed, and I'm one of them," says Fikentscher. "So I've looked for other parties that are more 'underground.' "
This is a vital contradiction running through house culture: The overt ideology is one of love, unity, and inclusivity, but in reality this is limited to insiders, "those in the know." "Body & Soul was initially a secret you passed only on to your best friends, just like the Loft and the Garage," says Fikentscher. "To this day, you see parties advertised that say, 'If you have a Paradise Garage membership pass from way back, you get in for free.' " The most positive spin on this exclusivity is to see it as tribal rather than elitist. To maintain the right vibe, clubs need to control access. But even the best-kept secret can't stay on the down-low for long, and clubs have an in-built mortality. By the time they've established a killer vibe, it's only a matter of time before outsiders arrive to alienate the "true believers." Hence the post-Body & Soul rash of small underground nights like Bang the Party, Journey, Together in Spirit (like Body & Soul, a Sunday-afternoon party), and Deep See, an after-work club DJ'd by veterans like Andre Collins and sometimes kicked off by Kai Fikentscher's irregular series of lectures on the history of house.
Clubs like these are glorious proof that New York's disco-house tradition is a living thing. But there's a downside: The keep-the-faith attitude often translates into a kind of cultural protectionism (typified by the snobbish disdain of most New York house purists toward 2step, London's radical twist on garage). Worse, the excessive sense of heritage ensures that the scene evolves very slowly. In truth, New York dance culture hasn't delivered the shock-of-the-new in well over a decade. Despite the rhetoric of open-mindedness and eclecticism, the fusions that occur—Afro-Beat, Brazilian music, the lighter side of electric jazz—are rather predictable, and hidebound by the scene's premium on old-fashioned notions of "musicality" and "soulfulness." The underground's refusal to break with the past has effectively denied it the musical breakthroughs that have occurred in other cities: Detroit, Sheffield, Ghent, Frankfurt, Rotterdam, Berlin, and, repeatedly, London. There's a fine line between honoring the past and living there. The solution? A little less reverence, maybe.
BODY & SOUL
'Sound of the City' column, Village Voice, June 1st, 1999
by Simon Reynolds
During VH1's rock history series, Tom Petty (historically speaking, a louse on Dylan's scrotum) declares: "Our goal in the Seventies was to destroy disco". VH1 clearly endorse Petty's view of disco as "a terrible menace to music." Blissfully unaware that their culture is still being written out of history, a thousand mad-for-it dancers gather every Sunday evening for Body & Soul at Vinyl, and celebrate disco as a living musical tradition.
Like many in the crowd, resident DJs Francois Kevorkian and Danny Krivit are middle-aged veterans of Manhattan's 1970s underground disco scene; B&S is modelled on the legendary Paradise Garage, right down to the alcohol-free juice bar and fabulously crisp sound system. The crowd--a utopian mix of black and white, male and female, straight and gay, drugged and undrugged, shirted and shirtless--clearly don't recognize the rockist version of disco as the death of community and meaning. Soul classics by Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield are dropped next to Nineties deep house anthems, as if they're all part of the same sonic/spiritual continuum. Krivit sometimes cuts out the testifying choruses so the audience can participate, call-and-response style.
This can get a bit too Pentecostal, though, and I prefer it when vocal-free house tracks are meshed into a redemptive flow of ambient gospel. The combination of the club's sweat-stippled humidity and the spongy, succulent sound creates an intimate pressure, amniotic and baptismal. Often, I'm reminded of Talking Heads at their Steve-Reich-meets-King-Sunny-Ade peak--like Remain In Light, the music's built from onionskin layers of melodic-percussive pulses. Afro-funk is actually a major fad in house at the moment, with Masters At Work reworking Fela Kuti tunes.
If anything, B& S set a tad too much store in vocal accomplishment and live instrumention (chickenscratch guitar, horns, etc), not enough on disco's plastique fantastique side. To my rave-glazed ears, the most exciting stuff at B&S is what house heads call "tracky" as opposed to "songful"--instrumental rhythm tracks that are dub-spacious and FX-addled. But even spinning a hoary slice of faux-disco like the Stones's "Miss You", Kevorkian will use the mixer's EQ switches to cut out whole frequency bands, creating violently lurching, staccato dynamics. It's like a latent house track is fighting its way out of the original song, Alien-style. The phuture manifesting itself through the past's flesh---this is how disco/house culture evolves, honoring its ancestors even as it bastardizes the legacy.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
THE STONE ROSES
Manhattan Centre, New York
Melody Maker, May 1995
by Simon Reynolds
Then and now, there's a curious blankness at the heart of the Stone Roses phenomenon. Neither diehard devotees nor the band themselves seem able to articulate exactly why the Roses mattered so much. Because of this, the fervour that greeted The Stone Roses in 1989 and the bitterly disappointed response to Second Coming in '94, both seem--rom a detached, non-partisan standpoint--equally out of proportion.
Perhaps, first time around, it was just a question of right place, right time. There's a theory that people fall in love when they're ripe, and project their latent amorousness onto the least unsuitable candidate to come along. In
Manchester, E seems to have facilitated the bonding process, as freefloating fervour and will-to-belief found a focus in the band; this spread to the rest of the country by plugging into Brit-rock's latent hunger for a Big Band, a four-man trad-guitar combo (the Smiths, the Jam; Suede, Oasis).
But why the Roses, and not, say The House Of Love? If there was a kernel of magic to the Roses (discounting their obvious assets i.e. good-to-great songs, Squire's
flair, the band's flares, the looselimbed rhythm section, the cryptic class-war lyrics), it's got to be that oft-cited, seldom elucidated intangible, 'attitude'. Really, it was just a self-confidence that fit the turn-of-decade positivity like
a glove, and briefly resurrected a heretical notion: that being young could be fun. The Roses' melodies had a soaring unfettered spirit that echoed the optimism that coursed through everything the Beatles did, even their sad songs.
That idea--adolescence as endless possibility as opposed to endless torment--seems illusory and irrecoverable, post Kurt and Richie, despite the insouciant efforts of jack-the-lad combos like Oasis, Supergrass etc. The difference between the Roses in '89 and Oasis in '95 is that the latter are all ME ME ME, a purely individualistic escape route from dead-end drudgery into self-willed rockstardom. With the Roses, it was more a case of WE, "we can all it make it out of this place": their narcissism was somehow on behalf of a community.
Anyway, right now the Roses are in the unenviable position (although the money probably eases the pain) of being just another band (now that everyone's copped their attitude and Sixties recycling is this nation's seventh most profitable industry). Divorced from the context that lent them the lustre of meaning, the Stone Roses must bear the brunt of everyone's disappointment (as if any band could
singlehandedly turn back the clock to the happy daze of '89/'90). They have to get by on good singin', good playin', on the trad virtues of their deeply traditionalist thang. In America, where the resonances of 'Madchester' were always impossibly remote, the Roses must above all make it as a ROCK BAND. And that's how they project themselves tonight.
After a mood-establishing prequel of Hendrix' "1983, A Merman I Should Turn To Be" (Electric Ladyland being a life-changing aural revelation for John Squire), the Roses EXPLODE onstage in a glare and blare of searchlights and overdriven guitar. They start, like they useta, with "I Wanna Be Adored", only now it's much heavier than before, a monolithic shock-wave of sound that almost obliterates Ian
Brown's wind-tunnel vocals. Next is "She Bangs The Drum"; all the lithe and lissom bouncincess of the original is exchanged for Steve Jones-like aggression ("God Save The Queen" being another formative moment for Squire). Apparently this is how the band wanted the debut LP to sound, until John Leckie got his emasculating hands on it.
What's weird about Second Coming, and about the Stone Roses tonight, is the way the band replay the entire 1965-72 era at once--from mid-Sixties beat through psychedelia to heavy rock-- but jumbled and anachronistic. So "10 Story
Love Song" has a Merseybeat melody but a Santana/Hendrix solo, while "Good Times" fast-forwards Brown's 1966 Manc mod whine to sit uneasily amidst blues-boogie bombastics circa 1970; the Crosby Stills & Nash acoustic balladry of "Tightrope" contrasts with the ZZ Top-isms of "Love Spreads". After Brown's done with his cod-bluesman jivetalk, "Daybreak" provides Squire with pretext and launching pad for an
extended fretboard freak-out, the kind of polychromatic ejaculation-fiesta last heard with Beck, Bogart & Appice's "Jizz Whizz". It sounds great, actually: along with J. Mascis, Squire's one of the very few contemporary guitarists
who can sustain a solo. If nothing else, this kind of phallocratic pyrotechnicism will get the band on the cover of all the muso guitar mags.
As you might have twigged, the guitarist dominates proceedings so extensively that it can only be a matter of time before the band is renamed the John Squire Blues
Explosion. Poor old Ian Brown (whose own 'instrument' is by comparison expressively rather limited) is utterly eclipsed by his schoolchum's onanistic exhibitionism. In truth, these days the Stone Roses' balls-out rockist furore really requires a singer as histrionic as Robert Plant; Brown emanates from an aesthetic universe whose cut-off point is 1967.
A band as good as the Roses can get by with one weak link, but not two. It's early days yet, but it looks like new sticksman Robbie Maddix is no replacement for Reni (one of the few great drummers this country's produced in the last decade). A rock band is a complex rhythmic engine, and you can't just replace a crucial component like Reni and expect things to swing along as groovily as before. The resultant
stiffness doesn't really mar the heavy-rock that most of the set comprises, but "Fool's Gold" is a farce: what was once exquisitely poised and in-the-pocket becomes clod-hopping, closer to funk-metal than baggy-beat.
Now that the Roses are hard rockin' muthas rather than dance-pop, "Begging You" works better as a rave/rock hybrid than "Fools". A weird crush-collision of blues rock and technorave dynamics, Yardbirds and Joey Beltram, "Begging" is
the set's highlight, just as it's the pinnacle of Second Coming. The song is apparently an evocation of that period in 1990/91 when the Madchester party soured: E'd up euphoria turned to edgy paranoia as punters necked one pill too many,
while the drug gangs' bloody struggle to control a lucrative market killed the luv vibe good'n'proper. 16 year old "baby-gangsters", as Brown puts it, stalked the Hacienda openly sporting guns and selling dodgy powders. With its churning
cylindrical groove and almighty turbine-roar guitar, the song sounds exactly like the panic rush of an E'd up raver wondering how and why the rave-dream's dying all around him.
"Begging" sort of begs the question: now the Manchester moment's long gone, what are the Stone Roses "about"? What are they good for? (More good-to-great songs? Yet another axe hero?). I don't think the Roses really know, and in some sense the blitzing bombast of their performance tonight masks that abscence; the volume is almost like a barrier between audience and band. You can barely see the players through the swirling dazzle of the lights; likewise, there's no banter from Brown to the crowd. Beneath the glare and the blare, that curious blankness remains.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
HAPPY MONDAYS, The Rock Garden, London
Melody Maker, May 2nd 1987
by Simon Reynolds
Happy Mondays is where the repetition repetition repetition of post-Velvets jangle-drone meets the repetition repetition repetition of Seventies funk. Imagine a cross between The Blue Orchids and Hamilton Bohannon, The Fall and The Fatback Band, James and JB. The wah-wah on ‘Freaky Dancin'‘ cues memories of both The Stooges' ‘Ann’ and Isaac Hayes' ‘Shaft’ simultaneously. I'd like them to take this hybrid further still, bring in a clavinet and some John Cale viola...
What Happy Mondays do (quite unintentionally, I'm sure) is take the steamy stupor of the dancefloor and, through some cryogenic process of alchemy, create an unearthly frost-funk; a sound that seems newborn and yet ancient as a fossil. With its granite basslines and guitars that twinke like stalactites and icicles, it's a sound that's streaming with glistening rivulets of the stuff we rock critics call ‘magic’, when we're at a loss for words.
Shaun Ryder is like a goblin in the midst of this enchanted ice palace, unsavoury, snarling like a hobo – you can practically see the flecks of spittle in the corners of his mouth.
However, as a good reporter, I feel duty-bound to tell you that this was not, in fact, a great gig. Happy Mondays lumbered when they should have shimmered. The burnished precision of Cale's production was traded in for a coarse and sloppy tumult. The band seemed to apply themselves to the task in hand with an offhand listlessness. The percussionist's spazz dancing was a perfect representation of their stiff untogetherness.
It was not groovy. It was not dreamy. Happy Mondays came across as shabby and awkward, when they should have come across as grave and intense apostles of the cryptic beauty that has somehow come into their possession. Buy the record, and keep your fingers crossed for next time.
Melody Maker, November 1988
by Simon Reynolds
HAPPY MONDAYS, Wembley Arena, London
Melody Maker, April 21st 1990
by Simon Reynolds
A gig at Wembley Arena is generally a hollow demonstration that a band has reached a certain statistical stature. But everything about tonight has been set up to proclaim, loudly, that this is an Event, a crucial benchmark indicating that Happy Mondays are a bona fide "phenomenon", in the ascendant. The tickets and ads enthuse that "the rave is on"; the Arena's stagefront seats have been removed, leaving a giant mong-pit swarming with the herds of expectant ravers and fashion casualties; dry ice pumps out of vents and lazers spell out the bands logo; stars of the lustrous calibre of Boy George, Sonic Boom, Bobby Gillespie and Jona Lewie are to be spotted. And a grizzled, paunchy roadie who looks like Peter Hook's elder brother keeps coming on and brandishing a cardboard cut-out Number One figure at us meaningfully. Presumably this is meant to suggest that if we all went out and bought three copies of "Step On" it might top the charts. Quite why this would be such a triumph, in aday and age when being Number One in the Hit Parade means less than ever (the present occupants are a German rap group) is not made clear.
Finally, after much heralding from Gary Clail and the On U Sound System, and a fanfare of fireworks, Happy Mondays shamble on. Shaun Ryder greets the crowd with the cryptic query "where's me pickled herrings?". It's in this kind of lapse into bathos that Happy Mondays' "significance" has come to reside. They've come to be esteemed merely for unprepossessing details: for Shaun's refusal to trim his untamed nose hairs and bum fluff, for Bez's glazed vacancy. Similarly, the Mondays' gatecrashing of the Top Of The Pops party has been celebrated in
terms suspiciously reminiscent to the approbation meted out to The Wedding Present and The Pogues. The Mondays are reprobates soiling pristine pop with their warts-and-all anti-charisma, making a mess on the carpet and vandalising the fittings.
I say: Happy Mondays the indisputably magnificent underground band, make for a piss-poor pop group. No sex appeal, no style, no melodies, bar the one by the dodgy South African, and the chunk of "Ticket To Ride" in the middle of "Lazy-Itis". At the same time, the crystalline proto-funk of Squirrel And G-Man and Bummed has declined into a right dog's dinner of a quasi-pop sound, a garbled and gurned confusion of pop tinsel, Acid house production and rock grunge, with Ryder's scabby gibberish bobbing about queasily amidships.
I saw Happy Mondays' live once before, in '87, when Melody Maker was practically alone in heralding them. They were crap. Nothing has changed, except that they have more technology and more volume at their disposal. The Mondays still can't funk to save their lives, but what they can do is set up a lobotomised groove somewhere between a scuffed and shabby House and the deadbeat stomp of The Fall: a rhythm simple enough for white people to shuffle about to. And shuffle they do, sluggishly and earnestly, willing this to be the Event it's cracked up to be.
What's the Mondays have lost is readily apparent. An early song like "Tart Tart" is still an irrestible surge of glacial trance-rock, somewhere between The Velvet Underground and The Fatback Band. But the new tracks are, at best,an endearing shambles, at worst, a bloody, boring mess. "Hallelujah" remains a real sow's ear of a song. On "He's Gonna Step On You Again", the Mondays guitarist can't manage the moderately sublime, fuzz-boogie riff of the original, so emits a feeble, doodled gesture at same, that's completely lost in the turmoil. For "Lazy-Itis", a silver-haired and bewildered Karl Denver is wheeled on, to duet inaudibly with Ryder. Through it all, Bez who looks like Hugh Laurie after three years in a concentration camp) continues the endless, moronic traipse that is his dance, his feet retracing
the same listless steps as though he's crushing grapes.
Somewhere along the line, a distinction has to be made between the radically mindblowing, and the merely mindless. That's what the Mondays have degenerated into: a massive levelling down of consciousness, a bovine pleasure, pop music to masticate, like chewing gum or cud. Only the closing "Wrote For Luck" lives up to the hype: the tumultuous avalanche of cultural garbage that is the Mondays' sound suddenly escalates to 'white light white heat', and what we have is the "Sister Ray" of Acieeed. By the end, it's reached a transcendent plateau of sheer de-evolution, with Bez and the saucily attired backing singer rolling about like protozoan creatures in the primordial soup. But then it all fizzles out like a damp squib, with the Mondays snubbing the audience's calls for a
second encore, and punters exiting disgruntled.
So wherein lies the Happy Mondays' "significance"? They are significant,
but largely because they've been willed into a phenomenon, pushed from the hip by the Hip. There are other factors, of course: the perennial con of Manchester mystique, plus various sociological vectors. The Mondays have been proclaimed as the first, truly working class band to emerge since punk: real kids in possession of the truth that's "only known by guttersnipes". But it's closer to the truth to call them lumpen-proletarian pop. This was Marx's term for the underclass who've
lapsed from dignified labour into a lifestyle of shifty shiftlessness, petty crime, conniving, and other opportunistic means of survival. Not for nothing did Marx regard the lumpen-proletariat as a counter-revolutionary class, a sewer spawning illiberalism and sometimes support for tinpot dictators. Indeed, a crucial element of the Thatcher programme is the systematic debasement of the proletariat (bound together by solidarity and the discipline of labour) into a lumpen proletariat (indigent and faithless, except to kith'n'kin and mates).
Where Mark E. Smith's lyrics are oblique observations of Northern underclass grotesquerie, Shaun Ryder's drivel is more like the Id of the lumpen-proletariat speaking its bloody mind aloud: discredited knowledges, warped notions, bigotries and balderdash. This is fine up to a point, a sign of the times, a new thing in pop (the revenge of the plebeian upon pop's aristocratic pretensions). But when I listen to Happy Mondays now, I don't think otherworldly like I once did, I think: eating at the Golden Egg, acid casuals, terrace anthems, dog-fights and hunting rats with air rifles, Hofmeister, betting shops, people eating with their mouths open. Pickled herrings. Reality, for sure, nose hairs and all. But who needs it?
New Statesman, 1990
by Simon Reynolds
In 1990, Happy Mondays were everybody's favourite anti- heroes. The year began with the Mancunian group's first hit, the "Rave On" EP, still lingering in the charts like a stubborn gatecrasher. By mid-Summer, they'd cracked the Top Ten with "Step On You", a revamp of an obscure, early Seventies boogie hit, and packed out Wembley Arena. They end the year with a solidly successful LP Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches. But Happy Mondays have a media profile that's quite out of proportion to this merely respectable commercial showing. Partly that's because their debauched exploits have turned them into the music press' mascot, reassuring proof that rock still has the capacity to scandalise. And partly it's because Happy Mondays are considered, correctly, to be a "phenomenon" - the first group to emerge from the ranks of this country's working class "rave culture".
Happy Mondays and their ilk are Thatcher's illegitimate children. Thatcherism's assault on the defences of the old working class (the unions, Welfare safety nets, etc) was intended to inculcate the middle class values of providence, iniative, deferral of gratification in favour of the long term dividend. But a significant number of working class youth responded to the challenge of "enterprise culture" in a hand-to-mouth way: not by becoming opportunity-conscious but by resorting to all manner of opportunistic means of survival (drug dealing, bootlegging, organising illegal warehouse parties and raves). Not a black economy so much as a blag economy, where success depends on having a eye for the main chance and being a fast talker.
This lumpen milieu has its own nefarious take on the "work hard, play hard" ethos. Its skills are reactive (the sharp quip, the quick killing) and its pleasures short-term and intense (the buzz, the crack). Rave culture's combination of trance dance and hallucinogenics superficially resembled Sixties counter culture. But there was no "politics of ecstasy" here; getting brainblasted and "going mental" was the goal, not opening the doors of perception. It's a culture of consolation, an analgesic/amnesiac respite from the alertness of workaday survivalism. "Skin up and mong out" was the rallying cry.
The story of how Happy Mondays became the figureheads for this scene involves a fair amount of chance and contingency. Until mid-1988, they were a critically-lauded but obscure gang of Mancunian reprobates whose music was a bizarre fusion of rock and funk, somewhere between The Velvet Underground and Funkadelic. Their two albums Squirrel And G-Man... and Bummed were completely at odds with both the pop mainstream and the indie rock state-of- art. But during 1988 and 1989, the Mondays began to pick up a substantial following of Ecstasy-guzzling "love thugs", as much for the fact that the Mondays were big time E-dealers as for their dishevelled dance sound. By mid-1989, Happy Mondays were being pinpointed by the press as prime architects of the "Madchester" scene. And when the "Rave On" EP cracked the charts at Christmas, they were welcomed as a kind of Aciiied Pogues; gutternsipes upsetting the decorum of Top Of The Pops and vandalising the fittings. The Happy Mondays trailblazed the current resurgence of laddish rock bands (e.g. soccer-obsessed, "scally" rockers The Farm, or Flowered Up, London's "answer" to the Mondays) and the reintroduction of the concept of "street credibility" to rock critical parlance.
If the "brains" behind the Mondays is singer Shaun Ryder, in many ways the focal point and font of the group's anti-charisma is a character called Bez. Strictly speaking, his contribution to the group is negligible: he dances onstage, shakes his maraccas desultorily and out-of-time, regularly gets into trouble with the police. But for the Mondays hooligan following, he's clearly their representative: proof that anyone of them could be up there if they'd lucked out, enjoying all the unearned drugs and ardent birds. Bez is their role model, the ultimate chancer. Anthony Wilson - TV presenter, owner of Manchester's Hacienda club, and founder of Factory, the group's record label - claims that Happy Mondays are the "new Sex Pistols". Doubtless Ryder is Rotten, Bez is Vicious, and as for Wilson - he's Malcolm McLaren, doing his best to kickstart a "folk devil/moral panic" furore in the media. At the beginning of the year, Wilson was to be found in The Face opining that he wouldn't be bothered in the slightest if one of the Mondays died as a result of pharmaceutical excess: notoriety never hurt record sales, after all. And throughout the year he's always been on hand to offer credulous journalists his own potted version of the last four years of UK pop history.
According to Wilson, white working class youth discovered Ecstasy and Chicago house music in Ibiza, the Meditteranean holiday spot. E loosened up British bodily uptightness and taught white people how to dance for the first time*. Eventually groups like Happy Mondays and Stone Roses started to emerge from the hitherto DJ-based scene, rock groups who had incorporated a house feel into their sound. And the next development (and here Wilson's distorted history turns to wishful thinking) must surely be the exporting back to America by British groups of a dance sound originally invented by Black Americans (the obvious parallel being the way The Stones and Beatles sold R&B back to white America). At a music industry seminar in New York this summer, Wilson lambasted representatives of the American record business for failing to notice the "revolutionary" music on their own doorstep, in a talk entitled "Wake Up America, You're Dead".
But despite the crude shock tactics and cynical hype of Wilson, despite the vortex of voyeurism and vicarious fascination spun around them by music press and fans alike, Happy Mondays have somehow managed to avoid being simplified and classified. They are simply too wayward, unruly and incorrigible to "represent" an ideology, stance or even a constituency. No one really has a grip on what Happy Mondays are "about". Shaun Ryder's lyrics are like the Id of the lumpen-proletariat speaking its bloody mind aloud, an E-addled stream of semi-consciousness. And the group's sound is a lumpy slurry of motley influences and plagiarised pop memories, a regurgitation of all the junk culture that's been shoved down their throats. Unfathomable, instinctively post-modern, committed to nothing but the pursuit of pleasure, Happy Mondays were what pop was all about in 1990. But with the waning of the Thatcher era, could it be that the Mondays' "pills 'n' thrills and bellyaches" worldview is already beginning to look a little dated?
HAPPY MONDAYS / JANE'S ADDICTION, Madison Square Garden, New York
Melody Maker, May 11th 1991
by Simon Reynolds
It must have seemed an inspired notion to pair these unabashed champions of drug culture, but inside sources tell me that it's turned out to be a marriage made in hell. Happy Mondays stroll casually onstage half an hour late (a misdemeanour for which Jane's Addiction's manager exacts hefty financial revenge), Ryder exhaling huge clouds of wacky tobaccy, Bez loping back and forth across the stage like a Gumby, his face contorted by a stark staring grimace of brain-blitzed glee. I expected a culture clash, bemused and derisive silence from the arena horde, but, happily, droves of college radio Manc wannabees have turned up. Having studiously learnt their raver moves from seeing the Mondays videos on MTV's "alternative" show 120 Minutes, these kids bob and lurch in feigned E-blasted gormlessness, but rather touchingly get it ever so slightly wrong.
The Mondays' sound is a slick shambles, an immaculate hotch-potch that sounds remarkably close to the records, suggesting – knock me down with a feather – a substantial reliance on tapes. But who cares, when they sound this good? "Loose Fit" is a magnificent mirage, its golden riff shimmering forebodingly over sultry, low riding rhythms. A new song is in the same Seventies vein; synths that spume and froth as obscenely as World Of Twist's Moog ejaculations, bubbling swamp-funk pulsations, boogie guitar. It's like the primordial soup from which terrestrial life emerged. Then, like William Hurt in Altered States, the Mondays regress still further, beyond the protozoan to the sub-atomic "white light" state of pre-consciousness, with 'Wrote For Luck': a raga-house mantra for a state of mindlessness, like 'Sister Ray' crossed with 'I Feel Love'. The band exit one by one, as the beat slows down in sync with a strobe, and isolated pockets of jeers and boos are drowned out by a thoroughly merited ovation.
Jane's Addiction are another twist to the rock/dance collusion, but their thing is fission/fusion rather than the Mondays' pilfered pick 'n' mix, hacking freneticism rather than groovy brain-death. The sheer funk of Jane's Addiction's sound is startling. Perry Farrell jerks and spasms like he's the human fuse wire in Patti Smith's equation "art + electricity = rock 'n' roll". His helium-high peal of petulance careens across Navarro's cascades like a surfer riding the Mother Of All Waves. One side of Jane's Addiction is all about back-to-nature primitivism (the rhythm section is as tumultuously tribal as Bow Wow Wow, my absolute favourite group of 1981), but they have an equally powerful drive to revolt against nature, weird out. Where Happy Mondays are degenerate, Janes Addiction are decadent – a sublime fusion of excess and elegance, not a wallow in stupefaction. Although Farrell gives us the pagan blessing "good sex", and declares that "God is in your scrotum," most of the songs aren't about carnality but transcendence; the refusal of limits and the aspiration to god-head (the grandeur-lust of 'Wish I Was Ocean Size'). This self-aggrandisement/self-annihilation complex is the thread that connects rock shamanism with Farrell's other great releases, heroin and surfing.
Ironically, Farrell looks set to spurn the real power that's now his for the grasping. The fervour of the 14,000-strong coalition of subcultures here tonight underlines the impression that Jane's Addiction have become the focus for the disparate disaffected. The group's upcoming Lollapalooza tour of the USA, a kind of mobile rock festival, looks set to resurrect the idea of counter culture. Farrell could actually turn the twenty something generation's "those were the days" defeatism into "these are the days" pride. But apparently he's already decided to end Jane's Addiction. If he does, it'll be an act of sheer willfulness comparable with Big Black's premature hari-kiri, except that so much more is at stake. I hope he changes his mind, but I'll admire the heroic perversity if he does pull the plug.
Melody Maker, September 1992
by Simon Reynolds
God, doesn't Madchester seem an aeon ago? When Ian Brown comes back, is he still going to be doing all those baggy body-moves? And right now, here's Happy Mondays, two years after the heyday, and provoking similar curiosity and concern about the Moment having passed. I've no particularly axe to grind: I loved the Mondays' first two magical LP's, detested their brief stint as pop stars, was won over again by the brooding shimmer of "Loose Fit". Basically, I'd be glad if Yes, Please was a great album.
It's actually pretty good**, but it has this strange air of irrelevance to what's goin' on. The UK is ruled by the two hardcores: American(ophile) slacker grunge, and the techno/hip hop mutant known as 'ardkore. Compared with these two scenes, Yes, Please lacks urgency, menace and above all, resonance. The Mondays, when they mattered, derived their rhythm and resonance from rave culture. By defacing and disfiguring rave music, they provided the scene with Faces and Figureheads; they rockified house with their rough guitars and ruffian anti-charisma. But since 1990, the Mondays have disconnected from the ever-evolving dancefloor. Obviously, they aspire to be a Great Band with their own self-sufficient aesthetic impervious to trends. But do they have enough stuff to sustain them?
Well, Happy Mondays were never gonna be the new Beatles (no great melodies). The Stones analogy was closer (black rhythm, orgiastic drug abuse, bad boy allure), but the Mondays' hedonism has never had a spiritual dimension like the Stones. They don't have it in them to write Nineties equivalents to "Gimme Shelter"; good as it was, "Loose Fit" was no "Let It Loose". The Mondays share rave culture's boorish celebration and excessive lust for kicks, but their music doesn't deal with the comedown and complications of the crash-and-burn lifestyle.
Like Pills N' Thrills, the title Yes, Please captures perfectly their gimme-gimme-gimme, "more E, Vicar?" attitude. The conditions surrounding the making of Yes, Please were bacchanalian; Shaun Ryder developed a serious crack problem, spending days in Barbados drug dens where hyped-up natives played reggae at an insane 78 rpm. If only some of that mania and derangement could made it into the Mondays music. Instead, Yes, Please has the Caribbean stamped all over it. At best, we're talking about the oceanic funk of late, late Can or John Martyn's One World; at worst, a typically tropical soundtrack to the Mondays' expensive vacation. The album's sun-baked mellow-yellow vibe is a culmination of the Mondays fantasy of life as an endless holiday, an eternal Ibiza. But most people have to come back to grim workaday reality, which is what gives the weekender lifestyle its special intensity and poignancy. Happy Mondays can now live the life of Riley in perpetuity, which makes it a bit meaningless. And that's where The Stones comparison really connects, as in the late Stones and the dull sterility of being no-work-and-all-playboys.
Happy Mondays are still a ways from that, but Yes, Please is really more of the same only better-produced (and at half-a-million quid, so it should be). The emphasis is on groove, hardly surpising since producers Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (ex-Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club) were, in their day, one of the best rhythm sections in the white world. The album kicks off well with "Stinkin' Thinkin'", all bubbling bass, spindly rhythm guitar and squelch-amatic keyboards, with Ryder cast as the irresistible rogue; "kiss me for making you wait/kiss me for screwing everything in sight/kiss me for never getting it right". "Monkey In The Family" is pretty fab too: reggaematic techno-funk that packs a fair old wallop, spangly, bubblegum sitar-rock and tingling tablas filling up the Sly & Robbie chasms between the beat. The doubtless drug problem inspired lyric is one of the few times Ryder acknowledges the costs of excessive hedonism.
Thereafter, Side One degenerates into bumptious jubilation. "Sunshine & Love" is brisk, amiable, tuneful, and turns me off like only happy-go-lucky music can. I'd venture that no great art has come out of pure affirmation or unproblematic joy, unless it's joy so convulsive it's close to madness (which is where Happy Mondays lose out to the manic rush of 'ardkore). "Dustman" has boogie guitar, simmering, summery percussion, and that's about the size of it. "Angel" is almost ominous, a tensile throwback to the early Eighties (ESG meets "Walking On Sunshine"), with another addiction and/or rehab blues lyric: "when did the pain start?/When did the symptoms begin?" (slurred so it sounds like "The Simpsons begin").
Side Two resumes the sunny side upful vibe, with the sweltering, horn-powered, vaguely Latinate "Cut 'Em Loose Bruce". The near-instrumental "Theme From Netto" is, on a purely musical level, the best track on the album: sublime flecked rhythm guitar, succulent bass, brimming keyboards - gorgeous, the Barbados Tourist Board should employ it in their ad campaigns. "Love Child" is good fun too, a Seventies disco up-and-down-the-scale bassline, a raunchy riff, and a dub-spacious production -the first time Weymouth & Frantz really let rip on the console. It's striking that for all their huge intake of psycho-active substances, the Mondays music rarely sounds druggy, never simulates or induces disorientation, delirium, or a hyper-real kinetic feeling, rather sounds a bit stoned, to say the most. Thereafter, Yes, Please tails off with "Total Ringo" and "Cowboy Dave": apart from Ryder's drivel, these could be Island Records jet-set funk-rock a la Steve Winwood or Robert Palmer. Yuk-ola.
So. Yes, Please is baggy growing up a bit, but not really evolving. It's hard to fault, it's as good as Happy Mondays get, but perhaps not good enough to matter. To recoup a half a million quid outlay a record has to be laden with potential hit singles or to strike some kind of chord with a sizeable faction of the populace. Yes, Please, unless I'm very much mistaken, will fail on either count. In the end, Happy Mondays are too self-absorbed and un-driven to create anything that really resonates. They're having fun, living it up, but whereas in 1989/90 that was the whole point (they represented a lumpen underclass of chancers, were Thatcher's illegitimate children, etc), in 1992 - who cares?
* possibly the most egregious myth peddled by Wilson, Factory (Steve Morris: "it takes Ecstasy to make a white man dance") and many others involved in Madchester (Mani: "Whitey could dance, with a pill in 'im"). What's most amazing is that many of the Mancs peddling this myth that no white people danced before MDMA/house were either aware of or actually involved in.... NORTHERN SOUL, ferchrissakes. But what about the Southern jazz-funk scene with its rave-like all dayers and soul weekends, what about the warehouse funk culture of Eighties London and the many flavours of metropolitan club cutlure? What about 2-Tone, whose ska-sploitation movie was called Dance Crazy? What about postpunk's ideas of "dangerous disco"? What about the original Sixties mods, the R&B obsessed precursors to the Northern soulies? What about trad jazz, which was all about reviving the pre-WW2 function of jazz as a dance music, music to get drunk and go wild to, and a scene where the word "raver" even had some currency? True, house/E brought in a different kind of dancing, more fluid, ecstatic and tranced out; with different kind of body-moves and a tribal-vibal synergy that was new (if prefigured in gay club culture and the original 70s disco). But what they're really talking about, if anything at all, is that a bunch of indie-dance types who'd never been into dancing (at least to dance music) got turned on to it.
* * I was way too kind to this bland-beyond-belief album, wasn't I?
Friday, June 13, 2008
director's cut of Frieze feature, May, 2008
WOLFGANG VOIGT Q & A
by Simon Reynolds
It starts with a fanfare, dilated into a canopy of somber sonorousness, a slowly unfurling cloud-bank of sound like the distant lowing of massed alpine horns. Listening, you feel like you're on a high mountain path, looking down on mist draping the lower slopes. When the bass-drum pulse finally kicks in, it's like your heart starting up again after being stopped dead with awe.
This is the title-less fifth track of Konigsforst, part of a remarkable tetraology of techno albums released in the late Nineties under the name Gas, by the prolific producer Wolfgang Voigt. Although critically acclaimed at the time for those releases and his work using alter-egos such as Mike Ink and M:I:5, Voigt is best known today as co-founder of Kompakt, the Cologne-based label that's contributed more than any other to Germany's dominance of electronic dance music this decade. Voigt's decision to reissue the four Gas albums on Kompakt (they originally came out on Frankfurt's Mille Plateaux label) as a deluxe box set titled Nah und Fern, in parallel with the publication via Raster Noton of a book of photographic work (an integral, if not widely known, element of the Gas project) that also includes a CD of unreleased music, is an intriguing gesture. It's a statement of belief in the artistic durability of (some) electronic music, at a time when the sheer volume of output and high turnover of micro-fads in post-rave music contributes to a sense of "growing ephemerality" (Voigt's words). The monumentality of the box set--a chest for sounds worth treasuring--claims for techno what is a routine occurrence (and unexamined assumption) within rock: this music will stand the test of time. The Gas work passes Posterity's entrance exam. Alongside the records released contemporaneously by Berlin's twinned labels Basic Channel and Chain Reaction, these albums represents the towering achievement of German electronic music in the second half of the Nineties.
The core of the Gas series resides in 1997's Zauberberg and 1998's Konigforst. Although partly bidden by Voigt's overt framing of the project through the album titles and the color-treated cover pictures (Konigforst's sunlight dappling through the leaf canopy, Zauberberg's sombre throng of conifer trunks, both derived from the photographic stockpile that composes the accompanying book), the music does irresistibly conjure mind's eye imagery of rugged natural grandeur: the deep forest's rustling shadows, Alpine vistas of altitude and remoteness. Named after woodlands near Cologne, Konigforst actually gives off more of an alpine aura--sensations of panoramic splendor and rare air--than does Zauberberg (which translates as Magic Mountain). On the latter, the tenebrous shimmers and lustrous darkness of "Vignt et un" make me picture a regiment of dwarves marching through Tolkien's Mirkwood.
In interviews at the time Voigt talked of his desire "to bring the German forest into the disco". Gas was the first publically released product* of a fictitious "lab project" called Blei, which involved Voigt putting Austro-German classical music (Wagner, Berg, Schoenberg), brass bands, volksmusik, and the schlocky middle-of-the-road pop known as schlager "under the microscope" in order to find a sort of audio-cultural DNA. The Gas sound is literally spliced together out of small samples from classical records, which Voigt subjected to processes of " zoom, loop, and alienation". The music's provenance is instantly audible from the rainfall-like hiss of aged vinyl, the discernibly orchestral sonorities of the grave cellos and tingling violins. There's a marvellous irony to the fact that one of the signal triumphs of techno, that most future-fixated genre, is sourced almost entirely in music from the latter decades of the 19th Century, when late Romantic composition scaled its summit of portentous majesty before swerving into the angst-wracked realm of twelve-tone and serialism.
Voigt received some criticism at the time from German music journalists, who, hyper-conscious of a shady side to the national cult of mountains and forest, worried that Gas was somehow the missing link between Eno's ambient classic On Land and "blood and soil". Over-sensitive as this may seem (surely that kind of craggy and verdant natural grandeur has a primordial appeal that cuts across cultures? Then again, perhaps "primordialism" itself is the problem...), it's understandable perhaps given that in German left-wing circles anything that seems to flirt with nationalism will necessarily invite close scrutiny. (This was also not that long after the reunification of West and East Germany, when all these issues were particularly raw).
It is also undeniable that historically Germany has had a peculiar thing for the Alps and the Wald (their term for uncultivated forest land, of which there remains an unusually large amount for an industrialised European nation). Zauberberg's title nods to Thomas Mann, but "magic mountain" has resonances that run through Goethe, Wagner, Strauss, and Nietzche, to name just a few. Prone to sickliness, Nietzche was literally inspired by the exhilarating air of Switzerland. He described his ideal reader as a hardy soul "accustomed to living on mountain tops" and possessed of "loftiness of soul"**. You could see Nietzche's philosophical ideal of "self-surpassing" as a kind of spiritual Alpinism, while his hermit-prophet Zarathusa spends ten years of solitude in the mountains before descending with wisdom for humanity. Richard Strauss in turn composed stirring works like An Alpine Symphony (which depicts a day-long climb to a mountain's peak) and Also Sprach Zarathusra, whose "mountain sunrise" sequence is well known to us as the bombastic main theme of 2001, A Space Odyssey.
"Zauberberg" is also a hair's breadth from Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain), the title of Arnold Fanck's 1926 movie and one of the most famous "mountain films" (a genre unique to between-the-wars Germany and whose biggest female star was the young Leni Riefenstahl). Socialist critics in 1920s Germany accused the genre's cult of rugged athleticism and alpine purity of being "blatant propaganda for a lofty humanity and eternal blondeness," with the film historian Siegfried Kracauer subsequently concluding that their "overblown heroism and glorification of the German alps as a supernatural force" (the words here are Riefensthal biographer Jurgen Trimborn's paraphrase) prepared the climate for Nazism. Riefenstahl's later, allegedly apolitical work, Tiefland (Lowlands) ***, which was begun during World War Two but only released in 1954, was based on an obscure opera that contrasted decadent lowland dwellers with pure-of-spirit mountain folk: an opposition between "civilisation" (seen as Franco-Mediterranean) and "culture" (Germano-Nordic) briefly espoused by Thomas Mann himself during the First World War****.
As for the forest, there is an association between woodland and German national identity that goes back to the Romans' failure to conquer the Wald-dwelling pagan tribes, and reverberates on through German Romanticism, the Brothers Grimm, painters like Casper David Friedrich and Anselm Kiefer, and even the Green movement. ***** Although Voigt was tapping into all of this as part of his long-term desire to make a "genuinely German form of pop music", his primary associations were personal: childhood family vacations to the Alps, hallucinogen-enhanced teenage adventures in Konigsforst, which he describes as "Hansel and Gretel on acid" but also as a womb-like "spiritual refuge".
Contrasting the amorphous immensity of Gas (and similar "heroin house" records recorded by his peers for Basic Channel/Chain Reaction) with today's German electronic music, you can see a revealing shift in the meaning of 'minimal'. In the mid-Nineties, the word was suggestive of austerity and meditational spirituality. Even though the scene was rampantly druggy, underneath the hedonism there was a sense of quest, a reaching out to a transcendent beyond, a vastness conjured through music built to overwhelm. Gas took that impulse and connected it back to Romanticism, to an idea of the sublime as outside society and essentially barbarian. Today's electronic culture is secular and agnostic; 'minimal' connotes the elegance of exquisitely small details. Known initially as microhouse but now more commonly (and confusingly) called 'minimal', contemporary German electronica drifts around in the area between house, techno, trance, disco, and the more glitchy-twitchy zones of experimental electronics. Where minimal used to be based around reduction (Voigt's "high art of leaving out"), today it is often quite busy, riddled with fiddly nuances. Minimal signifies more what is avoided out of tastefulness: the crassly anthemic hooks of cheesy mainstream club music. Modern minimal is designed to reward the close attention of the connoisseurial ear, attuned to slight fluctuations of texture and rhythm but also historically informed enough to appreciate the borrowings and citations from earlier phases in dance music's rich tapestry.
"Connoisseur" is key , because contemporary minimal presents itself as gourmet audio for the discerning aural palate. Alongside its German counterparts such as Get Physical, Kompakt pioneered the art of positioning the record label as a quality brand. Of course, there has long been a cult of particular labels within techno. But what’s changed is how electronic music as a whole situates itself in relationship with the mainstream. In the Nineties, the subculture saw itself as both a vanguard and an underground; techno rhetoric then was full of appeals to "belief" and paramilitary imagery. And operations like Basic Channel or Underground Resistance did seem shrouded in mystery in a way that today’s labels, including Kompakt, couldn’t recreate even if they wanted to; digital culture’s over-bright omnipresence of knowledge has chased away the shadows (just as the digital audio workstations that took over at the close of the Nineties enabled the obsessively-finessed productions that today cluster under the misnomer 'minimal'). The mise en scene for the music has changed too. Minimal techno from the 90s brings to mind a cavernous space--a spartan hangar or hall (in Germany, the ultimate perhaps being E-Werk's abandoned power plant). "Minimal" today is mostly experienced in designer bars with comfortable seating and expensive bar prices.
For electronic music today, the model is no longer the underground (in opposition to mass culture) but the boutique (a niche market running in parallel with the mainstream but at a slight elevation******). But as I write this I realize that I’m reconstituting that dubious binary between culture and civilisation: 90s techno representing a cluster of values (heroic pioneers and explorers, the great outdoors) with an unmistakably virile cast, while early 21st century electronica suggests an equally gender-coded opposite (audio-décor*******, metrosexuality, postmodern pastiche)********. Vanguard itself is a term of military origin, of course.
It all seems an aeon ago, the idea of being a soldier for the techno "cause"--irrecoverable, even slightly silly. Gas was arguably the swan-song of that impulse. Beneath Voigt’s shimmering clouds of glory, there’s often a submerged martial feel to the rhythm, a trudging resoluteness. The sound, perhaps, of an army marching home to disband.*********
* Well, not quite the first: he slipped out an EP called Polka Trax in
1996. But the Gas records were the first to get attention, for their obvious beauty, but also for the ideas and methodology behind them (the credit on the original CDs reads Musikonzept: Wolfgang Voigt fur Blei., which seems only proper).
** Nietzche: "One should live upon mountains. With happy nostrils I breathe again mountain freedom. At last my nose is delivered from the odour of all humankind."
Also, in the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzche uses the word ‘Zauberberg’ in reference to Mount Olympus.
*** For more on the opposition between highlands and lowlands, see Barthes on The Blue Guide (a tourist book series) in Mythologies:
"The Blue Guide hardly knows the existence of scenery except under the guise of the picturesque. The picturesque is found any time the ground is uneven. We find again this bourgeois promoting of the mountains, this old Alpine myth (since it dates back to the nineteenth century) which Gide rightly associated with Helvetico-Protestant morality and which has always functioned as a hybrid compound of the cult of nature and of Puritanism (regeneration through clean air, moral ideas at the sight of mountain-tops, summit-climbing as civic virtue, etc). Among the views elevated by the Blue Guide to aesthetic existence, we rarely find plains… never plateaus. Only mountains, gorges, defiles and torrents can have access to the pantheon of travel, inasmuch, probably, as they seem to encourage a morality of effort and solitude."
Barthes detects a bias against landscapes that are cultivated and or otherwise linked to production (agriculture, trade, etc).
**** More on Thomas Mann and culture versus civilization, from the web, source unknown:
"His ‘Thoughts in War’, his praise of Frederick the Great as a man of action, his Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, are definitions of the German genius which, he asserts, is concerned with Nature, not Mind, with Culture as opposed to Civilization, with military organization and soldierly virtues. Culture is compatible with all kinds of horrors — oracles, magic, pederasty, human sacrifice, orgiastic cults, inquisition, witch-trials etc. — by which civilization would be repelled; for civilization is Reason, Enlightenment, moderation, manners, scepticism, disintegration — Mind (Geist). Culture is German. Civilization is predominantly French. Mann opposes Frederick the Great and Voltaire as archetypes of the opposition. Voltaire is a man of thought; Frederick, a greater hero, is a man of action. What Mann was arguing was very much what most German artists and writers were arguing — the ‘decadent’ took strength from a sudden nationalist identification."
***** For more on Germany and the forest, see, "The Forest in German Consciousness" by M. R. Mulford
From reading the execrable Human Smoke by the odious Nicolson Baker, I glean that during WW2 at Churchill insistence a lot of energy was put into dropping large tonnages of incendiary bombs on the Black Forest and similar Wald-y regions of Germany, partly because there were caches of munitions concealed within them that would explode in the resulting forest fire, but doubtless also because they were such a powerful symbol of German national identity.
****** The analogy would be with a chic fashion outlet, high-end furniture store, or artisanal foods store.
******* The shift here is from an aesthetic of the sublime to an aesthetic of the exquisite; from exterior grandeur to interior design. The Button Down Mind of Daniel Bell, an exceedingly pleasant 2000 mix-CD made by one of the former doyens of mid-90s minimal techno at its most hairshirt and emaciated for the German label Tresor, captures this shift to hedonism tempered by taste. (It's also a play on The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, a 1960 live comedy album).
******** An opposition that further maps onto Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: the "organic" cohesion of tribal community versus the exchange-based relations of market society. Rave's pursuit of collective singlemindedness, its tribal "massives", would then figure as a quasi-nationalism flying in the face of Fukuyama's "end of history". And Voigt really would be techno's Wagner.
(That in turn, would make modern microhouse producers equivalent perhaps to Les Six in post-WW1 France -- above all Erik Satie with his musique d'ameublement. As he put it, "there's a need to create Furniture music. That is to say, music that would be a part of the surrounding noise, that would take it in to account. I see it as melodious, as masking the clatter of knives & forks without drowning them completely, without imposing itself. It would fill up the awkward silences that occasionally descend on guests, it would spare them the usual banalities, moreover it would neutralize the street noises that indiscreetly force themselves in to the picture." Well, I've said it before on a number of occasions: microhouse, I always found, was the ideal thing to put on when we had guests round for dinner. Unobstrusive but without being anodyne.)
********* Tangentially the idea of the battle-weary army going home to disband made me think of how arguably the late Nineties--1996-1997-1998--was the last point at which techno could see itself and present itself in heroic terms; that was the peak, and falling away, of a moment, a movement. Zauberberg and Konigsforst's cousins then aren't so much Basic Channel/Chain Reaction or other German minimal things of that time, but certain key twilight anthems releases across the genrescape, all of which have a submerged militaristic pulse: in drum'n'bass, "Shadowboxing" and "Metropolis" and No U Turn monstertunes like "Squadron"; in gabba, the Mover and his cohorts consummate "final" statements like Pilldriver's "Apocalypse Never" and Renegade Legion's "Torsion" and perhaps the ultimate twilight-of-rave anthem, Reign's "Hall". The hall doubtless refers to some grim Flemish hangar full of E-zombies, but it always made me think of a big Viking hall with a long oak tables, shields on the walls, tankards, a blazing fire. In this elegiac light I'm now proposing, the track's mise en scene would in fact be Valhalla (or Valholl in Old Norse), Odin's hall, where dead warriors gather to wassail for eternity. Valiant heroes slain in battle are escorted to Valhalla by the Valkyries, c.f. the Wagner piece "Ride of the Valkyries", famously used in Apocalypse Now's "smell of napalm at dawn/Charlie don't surf" helicopter raid.
Also made around 1998-99 was The Horrorist and Miro's SuperPower anthem "Move (Don’t Stop)" with its lyrical references to "the future crusade" and its retro-tekno redeployment of classic hard house/techno-rave vamps in the Todd Terry style. Microhouse is built around the removal and absenting of those kind of rave signal riffs with their in-built "rally call" effect. Likewise the stomping march beat aspect dissolves in most microhouse (you could see schaeffel as a key moment in this demilitarization of techno). Increasingly there was a depletion of propulsiveness itself. I wish I could remember the guy's name (Ravi? Reza? Razi?) but there was a once-touted DJ/producer who was on Kompakt or Perlon or Playhouse who I saw play in New York in 2004 and really for the first time was struck by this curious quality of not-moving-forward to the music, a thrustlessness to the rhythm, to the point where its axis seemed to tilt toward the vertical rather than horizontal; detail and layers rather than development through time. The ultimate exponent of all this is of course Ricardo Villalobos: the winding-down vibe of "Easy Lee," the K-hole/screwed-like catatonia of "Dexter", above all The Au Harem D’Archimede. Here the electronic tone-colors are so thickly, humidly daubed, so pendulously gloopy, they virtually overpower the music’s forward drive completely, dragging it to a standstill. Interesting, too, that this mood of sensuous stasis would then conjure up a title evocative not just of domesticity but of a cloistered and Orientalised femininity, narcotic decadance.
To me, there is a homology between the micro level of individual tracks and the genre/culture as a whole: the tracks don't "go" (not like early 90s techno did, anyway) becauuse the genre/culture isn't going (anywhere) either. It's a movement that has ceased to move.
INTERVIEW WITH WOLFGANG VOIGT
You've had an extraordinary number of alter-egos and artist names that you've operated under. I get the sense that they each have quite defined identities sonically and in terms of concepts and non-musical ideas, and the sense that this was particularly the case with Gas. Why did you pick that name, Gas? And embarking on the project, what was on your mind in terms of intentions, preoccupations, methodology?
One reason for the number of pseudonyms I used in the glorious 1990s certainly was that I needed a system to organize my complex, and excessive ideas. A lot was going on at that time, many things were extremely revolutionary and inspiringly new. In fact, each pseudonym/project title represented a different version of minimal electronic music. Another reason was that I liked the anonymity in production methods at that time, the artist could chose to stay anonymous. The project title GAS resulted from my feeling that this seemingly beginning- and endless, elegiac sounds, their intoxicatingly smooth, almost amorphous structure reminded of evaporating gas.
You talked, in the very interesting interview with DE:BUG that is online (and thankfully,from my point of view, in English!)
about putting German cultural history and music "under the microscope" (schlager, wagner, volksmusic, etc ) to find some kind of cultural DNA. And I understand Zauberberg and Konigsforst are built out of string sounds from German classical music (a development from the earlier project Blei, which used brass band sounds, horns, polka etc). Can you elaborate on both of these things?
Growing up in the pop subculture of the 1970s and 1980s, I am - like the rest of my generation - deeply influenced by Anglo-American music. In terms of quality and the many possible ways of expression, it seemed to be superior to any other music and German music in particular. But as adolescent music producer, I could neither identify with German rock music nor with the German attempts to "copy" the Anglo-American pop music. I was young and more excited about the idea to create a unique, genuine pop music style by extracting certain references from German classic, Schlager, volksmusik and brass music. And it should fit in with the subculture. And since the 1980s, under the fictitious project title BLEI, I have constantly been working on many different versions in innumerable lab tests. In a certain way, I "deliberately started from the wrong cultural premises": I processed this sound material by using different zoom, loop and alienation techniques thus releasing it from its original meaning. The major part of the results of this creative "lab testing" referring to pop and dance music disappeared in the drawer. But the work that referred to the "serious" part – GAS – which deals with sounds from Schönberg or Wagner, was released. Today my focus is not on this superstructure anymore. The most interesting thing about GAS is GAS itself, and not Wagner.
"Bringing the forest into the disco"--what an amazing idea! And you actually manage to do it. Can you tell me something about the significance of the forest in German culture and history? (In Britain there is a strong tradition of pastoralism but it is related to farmland, meadows, the idea of England as a garden. There isn't much wilderness or mountainous areas in the UK.)
Since the first time I had a distant bass drum marching through free-floating string loops, this naturalistic impression of a dark, nebulous forest was intermixing with the play of light and shadows of a stroboscope and fog in the dim darkness of the techno club.
In literature and history, there is this romantic myth of the German forest. And in fact, I feel as strongly associated with the forest as red little riding hood and the wolf. However, my work is not about referring to the original references in music or literature or to the forest itself. As I mentioned earlier, my focus is on reducing the "material" to its basic aesthetic basic structure in order to liberate it by using different processing techniques (microscope/zoom/detail). My intention is to create a kind of aesthetic essence, a cave from focussing on one single detail where you can get lost in.
There's also personal thing with Konigsforst being where you roamed as a youth, and your childhood family trips to the Alps… Was Gas related to the desires we all feel on reaching a certain age where we want to reconnect with our personal roots, "remind myself who I am"…. In your case, I imagine, after spending a long period totally immersed in a very urban style of music, techno, and a form of music that at that point was typically considered post-geographical, global, universal.
In psychology, there is this approach according to which we all want to go back into the womb if we do not like the world. Königsforst is a forest in the nearby of Cologne and in my youth, it often served as a place of spiritual refuge and place of inspiration. An aspect that is reflected both in the music of GAS and in the images and which goes back to certain intoxicating, psychedelic experiences I made at Königsforst. Haensel and Gretel on acid.
A German friend told me that Konigsforst was where Baader Meinhof buried their weapons! I told him I doubted that this was on your mind, but that I'd ask you anyway.
You know, in the 1970s, all kind of myths were spooking around at Königsforst, from Baader/Meinhof to the fascinating music from T.Rex, Kraftwerk Miles Davis, Bach.
Why did you pick the title Zauberberg? That's the name of a Thomas Mann novel, right. But with that title, was Mann himself referring to an earlier archetype to do with mountain mysticism?
Zauberberg in fact is one of the most outstanding works from Thomas Mann. And the title represents both: it pays homage to Mann and at the same time it refers to big cinema with Alps panorama.
What prompted you to want to bring the music out again at this time, in this format? Obviously it is great music that has stood the test of time remarkably well, whereas a lot of electronic music is very much tied to its moment, dancefloor fads or the state of technology at a particular time (and there is nothing wrong with that). But it's interesting that you are putting it together as a single bloc of creative work, with the visual aspect that most people weren't aware of now highlighted by the book, and the bonus CD (both excellent, I should say).
Time was ripe again for this re-release or let's say for picking up the vision of GAS again. After almost a decade of "abstinence", I found the GAS vision in good shape and even more urging to be released than ever before. One aspect certainly was, as you suggest, the growing ephemerality of the major part of today's electronic dance music. The once liberating, international minimal techno is threatened to degenerate into an unglamourous DJ kit and conformity due to a massive quantity overkill, by loss of values and arbitrariness. For me as an artist, it was important to continue my work on a higher (spiritual) level. And a vital part plays the growing need and necessity to create an everlasting value.
Because I had to expose the music part of my artistic work to the public opinion machine, I was able to protect the visual part against the "public". But the images have always been as important as the music. They originate from the same source and vision. In a certain way, the images represent the fraternal twin of the music brother who protects the silent, creative reserve of the soul.
In that DE:BUG interview you talk about how "long before Acid and a few other far-reaching incidents turned my cultural self-image upside down, my artistic zeal was mainly determined by one motive, namely to create something like a "genuinely German pop music". And further add that it felt imperative "not to imitate the international charts in a painfully bad way or to steal from black music, but rather to articulate yourself from what's available here."Was that a common experience for your generation of musicians --the struggle to find a true German musical identity in face of the Anglo-American pop hegemony?
It was not at all common for my generation of musicians. After the fall of the Neue Deutsche Welle movement in the early 1980s, you could choose between BAP (Cologne dialect rock) and Modern Talking if you wanted to listen to German "pop music". At that time, I rather had my very own personal vision of creating German-speaking pop music that could bear the comparison with the Pet Shop Boys' standard. Today, some of which I was dreaming of in the 1980s does exist today, but it is "different". There is a lot of pop music with German texts that cannot be defined neither as Schlager nor province rock. Any much of it is as dumb as it used to be. But it is not dumb anymore because it is in German, but because it is dumb itself. German language has become more common in pop music, even if it is often unbearably deformed or twisted.
Would you say these issues have subsequently been resolved with the success of microhouse/minimal and the way that Germany has become the spiritual homeland of electronic dance music in the last decade (with DJs from America and the U.K. actually emigrating there, etc)?
It is true: International minimal techno has conquered the world for quite a while now. Which is fine and I am glad to have been part of it. Techno still is and remains the the world's best dance-as-weapon music. Techno has made the boundaries between underground and mainstream irrevocably redundant. But at the moment, it has to be careful not to be swallowed by itself or the world wide web.
With Kompakt you have played a massive role in the rise of minimal (even though that is not an adequate word to describe the range of stuff on the label or in German techno in the last decade), so you are well placed to talk about how things have changed….
With KOMPAKT, the "Factory" idea has become true, to live and work under one roof. KOMPAKT is the bastion fighting against the deprivation of music. KOMPAKT is glam rock manifest in a company.
To me, contrasting Gas and other mid-to-late Nineties German music with more recent music from Germany, if I had to pinpoint the nature of the shift, I would look at a change in the meaning of 'minimal': The word 'minimal', at one point, seemed suggestive of austerity and spirituality… whereas today I see the music as essentially secular and hedonistic…. Probably the same level of drug-taking is going on now as then; but I think the dance culture had a sense of a quest of some kind, a journey to some kind of beyond or transcendent grandeur which expressed itself through the rampant drug consumption and the combination of that with music that was meant to be overwhelming.. Today I think the culture is much more about pure sensuous pleasure. Minimalism now suggests something closer to good design, taste, attention to detail... What do you think of this notion? And how would you characteristic the directions pursued in German music from 1998 to now--techno & rave's second decade, basically? It's a big question I suppose, so feel free to be very brief!
Although I consider myself an explicit supporter of frenzy, excessive music experience – even under the influence of drugs – I would advise to have a break sometimes and go home to have your batteries recharged in order to avoid any kind of "burn-out"-syndrome or stagnation. Each hangover will be followed by a new flush. If I listen to what is classified under the hackneyed notion of minimal today, it seems even clearer that what I released in the context of minimal techno in the 1990s under the most different project titles PROFAN/STUDIO1/FREILAND) was much more experimental art than pill's music for DJs. The project FREILAND in particular, which still is really important to me, is a really good example for the "high art of leaving out" I was striving for at that time. Loop music, both at the same time, stoically-cool and electrifyingly-ecstatic and reduced to its essentials seems to be able to hold on and transcend time.
GAS is the cosmic brocade coat from another world that will wrap the naked rhythms again in a cosy, smooth dress made of gold and silver. Sometimes, minimal is very maximal.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
µ-ZIQ / LUKE VIBERT & BJ COLE
Bowery Ballroom, New York
'Sound of the City' column, Village Voice, February 8th, 2000
by Simon Reynolds
Acolytes acronym it IDM, short for Intelligent Dance Music---a contentious
term for electronica that refuses the dancefloor's frenzy in favor of stay-at-home contemplation. Weird, then, to see the IDM massive at the Bowery Ballroom collectively shaking booty to their dream-team double bill of Mike 'µ-ziq' Paradinas and Luke 'Wagon Christ/Plug' Vibert.
It's a so-where-now? kind of moment for IDM's first wave. With Mike and Luke's mutual friends Richard James and Squarepusher missing in action, the genre's sole contender for "that next shit" is "glitch"--snap-crackle-popping noisescapes assembled from digital distortion. Taking the scene's anti-pop impulse to its logical extension, glitch dispenses not just with the groove but with melody too. And melody--chipper, wistful, glum--has always been IDM's saving grace, what seduced the Smog and GBV fans.
Luke Vibert doesn't seem too worried about IDM's impasse, though. Trading shy smiles with his new jam buddy B. J. Cole, toking on a long spliff and sporting a beard resinous enough to keep Cypress Hill happy for a weekend, Luke looks quite the mellow muso. Stop The Panic, the first fruit of their partnership, initially feels a bit diffuse, but rapidly reveals itself to be "different and holding" (copyright: New York Times TV Guide's anonymous movies-on-telly reviewer), achieving a mood of sacred whimsy not far behind Wagon Christ's sublime Throbbing Pouch. Live, it's even more enchanting. Alternately recalling King Sunny Ade and an Hawaian Jerry Garcia, Cole's plays his steel guitar like he's embroidering with light, deftly weaving its lustrous filigree through Vibert's it's-as-if-ambient-jungle-never-died breakbeats.
Like IDM itself, Mike Paradinas's gift and curse is melody. Unlike laidback Luke, though, he's reacted violently against the prettiness of his own back catalogue. Tonight there's a few excursions into densely orchestrated synth-symphonics, but mostly Mr. Muziq rampages thrillingly across the spectrum of hardcore barbarianism: acrid Ram Trilogy-style drum'n'bass, mash-ups of 1992-style rave and turntablism (slightly disconcerting to hear with no decks onstage), even 250 bpm gabber blitzkriegs. The crowd goes apeshit, goaded by Paradinas's exhortations "all my IDM niggas, wild out!" and "tear up tha club, thugz!". If it's a suspiciously well-made insanity, a marauding monster of sound without a hair or hi-hat out of place, well, you can hardly expect a doyen of IDM to fully jettison his head.