It’s fackin’ Lucifer!

So, this, obviously…

 

(and yes, even though it’s been said, possibly the most effective guitar break anywhere – although I’m very partial to Jan Savage’s clunky solo on Pushin’ Too Hard…)

Sad stuff, clearly, and it’s a shame that a chap’s passing makes you realise what a great talent he was. Great songwriter, beguiling frontman and by all accounts an all-round good bloke. It got me ruminating loosely on the idea that the good too often die young (although a genuinely younger feller would presumably spit out his pint in comedy fashion at the notion that 63 is anything like “young” – but, well, these days…)

In truth the idea had been bouncing around the hamster wheel that passes for my mind for a couple of weeks.

Jah Wobble came to the Guildhall a few weeks ago and yours truly was in attendance. I’ve not bothered posting about it because (well… do I have to do this?) but also in truth pretty much everything I said here when I saw him at the Fleece was pretty much how it was this time too. Wobble was witty, self-effacing and mischievous, with a number of laugh out loud moments (“It’s fackin’ Lucifer!”), and is of course one hell of a bass player – still the only guy I know, currently playing lead bass. It was another great evening and I was glad that the springy-floored splendour of the Guildhall and the gawping masses of my hometown had been witness to the Wobble grandeur.

I’ve been reading Nick Kent’s memoirs, “Apathy for the Devil” and have enjoyed it immensely, and as chance would have it a couple of days later I came to his account of the infamous chain-whipping he received at the 100 Club at the hands of Sid Vicious. I’m not sure Kent is the most reliable of witnesses for all sorts of reasons, but it is perhaps surprising that he doesn’t really seem to bare any grudge against Vicious (indeed he went on to share a good few mattresses and needles with him over the next year or so). He saves most of his anger for Malcolm Maclaren (whom he claims directed the attack) and for Jah Wobble:

“He held an open penknife and was waving it no more than two inches from my eyes. There was dried blood on the blade and a look of pure sadistic delight in his piggy eyes… Then he stepped back allowing Sid dead aim at my skull.”

It’s an unpleasant image, and it made me remember a couple of passages in Wobble’s own book which paint him in a pretty unflattering light. I remember reading the passage where he stands on top of an old and priceless recording desk and urinates all over it for a laugh, and thinking “this isn’t great, or funny – it’s just boorish …” And it all makes you realise that for all his older, more mature affability and humility, at one point in his wilder years, Wobble was actually a pretty abrasive character. I’m not sure, you’d have felt very comfortable around him (and in fairness, he’s said this himself).

And then you think, for all the fun and dexterity of later period Wobble (his term, not mine), has he done anything better than this?

 

How good do you have to be?

Seaweed tangled in our home from home…

A couple of days last week, tucked neatly away in a provincial coaching house, was sound-tracked by a return to what I now see is one of my very favourite records (although weirdly I have not always done so). At this point, regular readers may want to pass on to the next item on their “to read” list, I’m banging on about Robert Wyatt again…

Rock Bottom

I don’t need to say anything about the opening track (there’s a good Blog post about it, not mine, here) – everyone’s favourite Wyatt track, much coveted, much covered and the lucky subject of a certain Blog (although to be more fair than is strictly necessary, the choice was deliberately random – I’d listened to it the morning I started off on this long, strange pilgrimage, a spotted handkerchief of favourite lyrics bundled up and slung rakishly over my shoulder…). In fact, for a good time, I overlooked much of the rest of the album, such was my fascination and love of its lead song.

Soft and daft really, there’s so much other stuff to dwell on, so many other high water marks and beguiling shallows to settle on and spend an afternoon paddling aimlessly around in.

To fill in, Wyatt had disbanded Matching Mole in September 1973, after a tour supporting Soft Machine, and began writing material for the record that would become his second solo album. All of which was thrown into confusion when he broke his back falling from the 4th floor window of a Maida Vale flat during a party. An enthusiastic drinker and a spinning top of creative energy and self-destructive behaviour, friends had felt a metaphoric if not literal fall had long been on the cards. The accident obliged Wyatt to re-evaluate his lifestyle and forced him to change the direction and the outlets for his furious inventiveness. He has famously said that the accident saved his life.

Friends and musicians rallied around – Warren Beatty offered to pay his hospital bills; Julie Christie bought a flat for him and Alfie to live in (Alfie was Nicolas Roeg’s assistant on Don’t Look Now, and Wyatt apparently spent a fair amount of time bumming around the set); Pink Floyd and Soft Machine played benefit gigs for him. Rather charmingly, John Peel announced the news and exhorted all his listeners to write him cards and messages of good will.

 

The record that came out just a few months after his release from hospital, featured old chums from his Soft Machine days, including Hugh Hopper and Mike Oldfield, and also contributions from Fred Frith, Nick Mason, former “Wilde Flower” Richard Sinclair, and, of course, Ivor Cutler.

I’ve just spent a fond few moments buffeted and braced by the chaotic frenzy of “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road” with its promenading bass and piano lines, its angry swirling trumpets and musical hall confusion – “Oh blimey, mercy me, woe are we!”. I love the forwards-backwards-forwards vocals, I love Cutler’s soft intrusive nonsense (“I want it, I want it, give it to me. I give it you back when I finish the lunchtea…”), I love Wyatt’s desperate incoherence. I think I read that the song was composed before the accident but it’s impossible not to hear the overwhelming turmoil of a hospital bed in the arrangement of it. It’s powerful and disturbing…

Equally strange and equally wondrous is second track, “A Last Straw”, meandering along at its own pace, deliberate and confidential, a product of time stretching lazily out in front of Wyatt at the prospect of his new world, and something of a contrast to the furious pace of both the “Little Red Riding Hood” tracks. I love the way he plays around with words and relishing the sounds they make; and I especially love the way the track fades out with a solemn procession of notes up and down the keyboard, trudging off in turn.

I think I’ve said before, how much I admire folk who are prepared to be as out-and-out weird as they feel they should, regardless of ridicule and common sense. And there’s certainly something craftily ridiculous he’s doing in these songs (I’m just too dull-witted to figure it properly). It features throughout his records from the “Concise British Alphabet” tracks on Soft Machine Volume 2, through pretty much all of the Matching Mole stuff on to the backwards and absurdist lyrics on this record. I gather it’s linked to the idea of “pataphysics” that Wyatt filched from his time in Paris. French philosopher Alfred Jarry called it “the science of imaginary solutions” and it’s something about playing with different words, notes and letters, rejigging sequences and meaning, re-cutting and rearranging sense into nonsense, looking for obscure meanings, codes, jokes.

I’m also very keen on the two Alfie tracks. Again, they amble along at their own restrained pace, (the first opens with a refrain of “Alife” which manages to sound like both a metaphorical and a literal life support machine); again there’s linguistic foreplay, jazzy wordlessness and Goonish nonsense; again there’s an almost uncomfortable intimacy in its devotion; and once again both tracks mooch off into strange directions. They’re  heart-felt and heart-breakingly touching.

Just imagine if there was footage from French TV, recorded in, say, 1975, with the man on a grand piano, maybe with a few garish balloons tossed around for no apparent reason, maybe with a few clips of Alfie walking him the park, and an interview with the man discussing Rock Bottom and playing “Sea Song” and “Alife”…

Wouldn’t that be something special?

 

My admiration remains boundless…

Corre el río al mar

Ah.

That thing’s happened again.

That thing where I scuttle around, earn a few pennies and generally take care of business and, bugger me, after a bit I find that the thing I like doing most, and do actually take some pride in, I’ve not actually been doing. The annoying thing is, I’ve genuinely got some good things to write about. Saw some fine stuff at Sea Change and had a generally swell time, brought a load of great records recently and overall have listened to a lot of top music (Oh, and rediscovered a shoe-in for my still nebulous All-Time Top Ten… Rock Bottom, as you’re asking… what a gorgeously unconventional and languid affair it is…)

So anyway, something else.

Tsunamis

Tsunamis are a band from Santiago, Chile that I’d not heard of until very recently, who’ve just released their fifth record, Trans Express Sudamericane, the first coming out in the early 2000s. By your fifth record, universally established conventions require you to have mellowed a little and found your groove somewhat. This appears not to have been accepted in the more psyche-y barrios of Santiago (or maybe they were positively feral back in the day…) as this is a pretty noisy affair, all trashy guitars, X-Ray-Spex saxophones and over-eager tub-thumping.

Actually, I know they were pretty out-there, back in the day… (I think this is the same band, although, I gather there have been some changes – I can’t see the blond-haired guy in the second clip…)

 

And all in Spanish too! I’m totally there…

Well, sort of…

I’ve stumbled through this review of TES in Sonidos Ocultos, over-reaching my uncomplicated Spanish somewhat, and to be honest I’m not a whole lot wiser – feels a bit like picking your way through a Paul Morley NME piece circa 1980 in moon language (or indeed English) – but I have gleaned a couple of things from it.

  1. Goli Gaete, singer and guitarist, reckons Chile has taken over from Argentina as the vanguard of popular and underground music (cue a Scooby Doo-style “uh?” at this point)
  2. Sonidos Ocultos reckon Tsunamis are “Nuevo-nuevo-nuevo canción” – for those of us with only the passing-est of acquaintances with the original Nueva Canción, I’m guessing this is the equivalent of post-postpunk (or maybe they’re just really, really, really new songs…)
  3. And this might do it for you, Tsunamis are on BYM records, the home of the only other Chilean band you’ve heard of – the colossal Follakzoid. It’s a stand-up reference.

Best songs on the record are the loopy “Patina en Agua” and the sweaty garage punk of “Corre El Río”, a performance of which I’ll finish off with here…

More importantly, do people like you?

You’ll have gathered I’m on a bit of a roll at the moment.

A combination of being out in the wilds and not having any marking/planning/other nonsense to attend to has meant that I’ve been able to loll about and roll around in all manner of vices and playful indulgences – I’ve read, eaten, drunk and walked to a degree that frankly no sane doctor would advise.  It has also meant that I’ve got both the time and the disposition to behave like a proper Blogger (although I suspect this may just be encouraging me to go further and sillier than has previously been the case. So, anyway…

Krar Music

Having plugged the Likembe Blog a couple of days ago, I felt like I wanted to talk about a record I downloaded there which is something of a burner. It’s by an Eritrean musician called Bereket Mengisteab, released in the 1980s, of whom I know nothing. The version made available on Likembe is from a cassette copy which is a bit ropey in places (including a charming Mark E Smith- style two second interlude, where some clumsy ninny has pressed the Record button by mistake) but which I’m certain has long since disappeared from shelves.

Bereket Mengisteab apparently has a long and respected career behind him and is I believe still with us. There is a decent interview / life story of him available here which forms the basis of everything I know about the man (the part about him putting his recording career to one side and fighting for the Eritrean Liberation Front in the war of independence was an eyebrow raiser…).

I wanted to write about the record itself, Lebey, but aside from enjoying his exotic runs up and down the …er… fretboard (almost certainly not right) I realised I simply don’t have the vocabulary or the understanding of the music to make a decent stab at describing it.

The issue is that non-Western music uses a whole different bunch of fundamentals that non-musicians and general record-buying saps simply don’t understand. Much too difficult for the likes of me… But what I can say is that it’s a weird, colourful sound that has me snared and which you’d be well advised to go and download yourself (here, as you’re asking, it’s an old post but the links are still active).

The crux of the sound is that he uses an Ethiopian (or Eritrean, I’m not 100% clear of the nuances) instrument called a Krar, which is a bit like a lyre but more adaptable and has a crisp clear sound that just about survives being electrified. It sounds psychedelic.

Did a bit more googling and came across this wonderful bunch of London exiles, calling themselves the Krar Collective and doing a session for KEXP. Not only does it involve a krar being played lustily through speakers, but also (rather wonderfully) through a wah-wah pedal. Watch all of this but especially the first two songs:

 

(The costumes and in particular the truly cosmic capes deserve a mention. I’m also rather taken by stand-in singer Beli Nigussie, partly by her bird-like vocals but also by her mysterious, exuberantly erotic dancing…)

Now, go pay a visit to Likembe…

Over an ocean away…

My pal, Coleser, has recently hatched a plan for myself and a couple of other like-minded souls to go to the Sea Change festival in Totnes. He’s chosen well as he knows that of recent I’ve come to the conclusion that my days accompanying him to Green Man and End of the Road may well be over. Much too old and too soft these days. The lure of the damp sod, the open air stage and the beer tent no longer sufficient recompense for the dubious pleasures of uncomfortable nights, listening to the rain lashing the canvas and the sound of drunken oafs stumbling over guy ropes. Sea Change is a town festival, however, and as such provides simple luxuries like beds, roofs and comfy pubs. This pleases me immensely and I’m beginning to look forward to the weekend.

Headliners for Sea Change include Jane Weaver, Hookworms and the mythical Damo Suzuki. I’m also becoming quite keen to see this pair:

Group Listening

Paul Jones I do not know but he is apparently a long term, college friend of Stephen Black, whom as Sweet Baboo, I’ve followed for a while and indeed written about him, (here in fact). Over the course of a few years, I’ve seen Black playing bass behind Gruff Rhys, Euros Childs, Cate le Bon and H Hawkline more times than I care to remember (including a good few at Green Man) and also doing his own Sweet Baboo set at the Prince Albert in Stroud.

This Group Listening record that came out earlier this year is different again, though. Clarinet and Piano: Selected Works, Vol 1 sounds like the discouraging title of a John Cage or Brian Eno record, doesn’t it? Not that far off, to be honest. It is indeed a collection of ambient pieces, mostly covers, played in bewitchingly straight fashion on said clarinet and piano.

Something about this title and description made every fibre of my body scream Can’t Be Arsed when I came across it, but a little common sense and open-mindedness has yielded to me a light and beautiful treat that I could easily have missed. I am not clear how many of the tracks are originals and how many are covers, but a brief scan yields songs by Eno, Euros Childs, Dieter Roedelius and a gorgeous cover of Maryan which I really think you should hear

 

I’ve spoken before (at length) about my love of Robert Wyatt and I’m not generally keen on people piggy-backing on the great man’s genius, but here I’m willing to give them a pass. The pair manage to take a meandering, joy-filled, free-spirited original and give me something new. They constrain it a little, painting it in bluer, more directionless tones. Black talks in this interview about “a deep yearning… a positive sadness” about the interpretations and you can hear it here. Childs’ “The Dog” is another uneven triumph.

There’s also something very refreshing about dense, industrial, abstract krautrock compositions transcribed into lighter, more human tones by Jones and Black. You hear this very clearly in the Eno track, “Julie With”, not a song I knew previously. There’s a beautiful video released to go with it too, all bridges and channels, mundane blues and greys:

 

The richness of a slow summer…

I want you to know, we just had to grow

We’re currently tightly clasped to the fleshy bosom of the Welsh countryside, taking a summer sabbatical – walking, chatting, quaffing cider (and a liberal selection from the Roger Stirling book of ill-advised cocktails) and generally getting our shit together in the country. I’m reminded of last summer when we did pretty much the same thing (without the Gibsons) and I spent the week listening to Dr Strangely Strange (you can recap here). Well this year, here we are again, same remote cottage, same liberal intentions, but now I find myself a year on and venturing still further afield on the CD player – pretty much cutting myself adrift to be honest.

As I become more and more of a middle-aged eccentric I find myself listening to the Byrds and the Kinks less, and embracing stranger and more colourful things. If, as Mark Twain once said, a gentleman is someone who can play the Incredible String Band (but doesn’t) I’m finding myself less and less inclined to describe myself as such.

In short, I’m listening to the String Band again and, fuck it, I think I’m a fan.

The Incredible String Band

In the Strangely Strange post, I talked about shelling out a whole £4.99 (outrageous!) on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and the ensuing hysterical drive to convince myself that it wasn’t the stupidest record I’d ever heard. (Not entirely successful, it bears repeating…).

Having seen Joe Boyd talking about ISB at Green Man one year, though, and his going on to say that of all the artists he was involved with at the time (google the list, it’s impressive), the String Band were the ones he felt were the most talented and were going to make it biggest, well… it went some way towards rehabilitating Mike Heron and Robin Williamson.

(Robin Hitchcock’s accompanying version of “Chinese White” was also instrumental).

I’ve revisited them a whole bunch more in recent years, in particular the two records they released before HBD, the second of which (5000 Spirits or the Layers of an Onion – I know…) I’ve spent much of this last week imbibing, before being whisked away to the Welsh hills. A brief look through various reviews of all of their albums reveals that the String Band reputation still rests upon the third and fourth records, so I’ve obviously got some work to do. For the moment, however, I’ll stick with 5000 Spirits, (maybe next year’s getting-it-together-in-the-country post…)

Originally an Edinburgh threesome with Clive Palmer departing for Afghanistan after the eponymous first record, the remaining duo went on something of a hiatus as Williamson too took off for North Africa (Heron was apparently unaware of his plans until they walked out of the final recording sessions). Fortunately for fans of daft, fey folk, he returned a year later, arms laden with exotic stringed devices and a head full of Arabic chord changes, and reconnected with Heron.

Most of this I’m relaying from the first half of a book I’ve just finished called “You Know What You Could Be” jointly written by Mike Heron and a bloke called Andrew Greig, which is a lovely book. (The second half, written by Greig, tells of a young devotee of the String Band whose own band didn’t quite make it, although along the way they met Williamson and Heron; were bought breakfast by Joe Boyd and drank with Dr Strangely Strange. It’s a great read…)

The new duo’s second record is a more ambitious affair than the first. To be honest, “ambitious” is something of an understatement – “eccentric”, “weird” or even (a personal favourite) “bat-shit crazy” would be better. Williamson was keen to dip into his satchel of stringed things, incorporating Moroccan gimbris, Indian sitars, Arabic ouds and adapted mandolins into a bag of already idiosyncratic songs. The distinctive drone that opens first track “Chinese White”, for instance, is a bowed gimbri – a sound most record-buying Brits of the time would have been unfamiliar with and must have given it a genuinely strange timbre which endures even in these days of post-modern deviation. Heron had not been idle in the months that passed either, contributing some of the stronger, more focused efforts on the record – “Chinese White”, “Hedgehog Song” and “Painting Box” are all his.

I’m a great one for exotica, as you’ll have guessed by now, but I gather one of the String Band’s genuine achievements was to have gained something of a mastery over these odd things and used them to convey a woody legitimacy to their weirdness. In an age of hippies shamelessly dressing up their pop songs with sitars and Indian sounds, the String Band could actually play and when in doubt brought in others who could. (The “Soma” credited on the liner notes of 5000 Spirits was actually professor of South Asian music, Nazir Jairazbhoy. The ubiquitous Danny Thompson was another contributor.)

I guess the thing you have to get over to really enjoy this record is the inherent silliness of much of it – the lyrics are sometimes ridiculous, the vocals often innovative (alright, stupid), and let’s be honest their look has not aged that well, has it?

Here’s a clip of Williamson and Heron pretty much nailing all of the above on the Julie Felix show in 1968, playing “The Half-Remarkable Question” (no sniggering at the back) and “Painting Box”

 

If you managed all ten minutes of the video, you’ll have seen both the “stoned” and the “immaculate” of the String Band, by turns faintly ridiculous then elegantly brilliant, the daftness and the deftness of it all.

I’m a bit of a fool for the compulsive eclecticism and oddness of the String Band, but I also love the way the pair of them simply cannot help themselves, decorating their songs with more and more elaborate musical swirls, even to the point of an ill-advised obscuring of their original (often very simple) idea.

At my most florid, I like to think of the Incredible String Band as having something of the medieval acolyte about them – countless hours spent illuminating holy texts with impressive and at times reckless embellishments that few will ever see or appreciate. (But if Williamson and Heron have taught me anything, it’s that some ideas are best not actually expressed, or at least privately, after a couple of drinks…)

I do have a Lucky Seven collection of must have ISB recordings to enjoy, but being out in the wilds, this will have to wait… Enjoy the YouTube clips in the meantime…

Try it, play it secretly, pour yourself a drink (or whatever) and embrace a little daft/deft eccentricity. God knows we deserve it at times.

Summer’s here and oh, the time is right…

The summer hols are with us! It’s that time where habitually-beleaguered teachers can be seen strolling ostentatiously through town, whistling jaunty tunes and looking indecently chipper; appearing in bars, dusting off their cycling shorts and baking their own bread. In short, catching up on “life”…

And so it is over at PP Penthouse Suite too.

Although… you’d think there might be a little more activity over here – a web-based spring-clean, perhaps; a few more gig reviews; an in-depth Incredible String Band retrospective – but, well, no. What there is is a substantial stepping up of music consumption, but sadly possibly even less dodgy writing about it.

To be honest, my over-stretched car stereo has struggled to keep up with the pace this week, as I flutter from one thing to another. In the last few days, I reckon we’ve had a dose of each of the following:

  • some goofy seventies funk from Somalia
  • a fair bit of the Barr Brothers (after Thekla)
  • further Somali incursions
  • a Josephine Foster record sung in Spanish (mostly too hard for me)
  • the first Incredible String Band album (because I’m reading a Mike Heron book)
  • some disappointingly leaden psychedelia
  • Dragnet (because… well… c’mon I don’t have to do this, do I…?)

I’ll tell you, I’m struggling to keep up with myself. But anyway, here we go…

And now, I’m back on to this irresistible Somali collection obtained from the kind folk at eMusic and courtesy of New York label Ostinato Records:

 

The basic premise of the whole record is that during the seventies and eighties, there was a brief period of enormous musical fun (as testified above) which was eventually silenced as the regime became more and more repressive, and the artists were driven into exile (or far worse). This is, of course, a horribly familiar tale that I’ve made reference to before in posts about Ethiopia and Cambodia, and I’m sure there are more.

I’ve got nothing factual of my own to add about the record but there’s a pretty good article about the Sweet as Broken Dates collection from the BBC, here.

It’s a gorgeous record though, full of exotic r’n’b, led by squiggly organ lines, over-confident brass sections and unlikely bluebeat rhythm sections, that I really can’t recommend highly enough. Lyrics are of course completely unintelligible to most, but I read somewhere that a lot of songs of the time were necessarily sycophantic odes towards the Barre regime, and as such best swiftly passed over. I’d love to find out more about the Waaberi band, but I’m given to understand that it was something of an all-star collective of session players formed on the spot with the main purpose of performing current hits and singing the praises of President Barre.

LikembeBest thing of all, is that as a result of all this, I’ve come across a cracking Blog called Likembe that I heartily recommend you all visit. I’ve recently hooked a bunch of beautiful, energetic Somali and Ethiopian records that the good gentlefolk there have made available in the best spirit of the Blogosphere. God bless them!

Fill your boots and tell ‘em I sent you…

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