There were several predictable bones to pick with this piece in which former editors of the New Musical Express select their most noteworthy covers. The feature leaves out a lot of the former Accordion Weekly’s history, notably anything prior to the late 1970s, but what struck me most about the covers chosen was the disparity between the first one and the last. Pennie Smith’s 1979 cover shot of the Slits, then a relatively obscure and resolutely uncommercial dub-punk girl-gang, mudlarking in the grounds of their Surrey recording studio, was part of a set which became a defining image of the band, notably through being used on the cover of their debut album Cut. This article looks briefly at the controversy generated by the images themselves, and how it relates to subsequent and current presentation of women in the UK music press. Continue reading
My resolutely unromantic Valentines Day playlist this year consists of:
– Robots in Disguise, ‘Chains’
– Einstürzende Neubauten, ‘Jet’M’
– The Bush Tetras, ‘Too Many Creeps’
– The Slits, ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’
– Amy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’
– Pulp, ‘Bad Cover Version’
– Magazine, ‘Permafrost'(apocalyptic version off one of their Peel sessions)
– Super Furry Animals, ‘Juxtapozed With U’
It can be listened to here on 8tracks, if you like.
Speaking of boredom, let’s start with Tony Wilson’s gloriously earnest and nonchalantly pretentious Buzzcocks/Magazine documentary from 1978. In many ways it seems far longer ago than that, what with girls who work in Woolworths and all that quaint smoking indoors. Don’t make ’em like this anymore, eh? Continue reading
Whenever I listen to a lot of Lupen Crook songs I can’t help (affectionately) picturing Poor Tom, the displaced nobleman in the guise of a beggar capering upon the blasted heath in King Lear. I realise this is unfair to Mr Crook aesthetically and stylistically, and in any case has hardly happened at all while listening to his latest. Home-produced and recorded in the months just before spring, Waiting for the Postman is a still and contemplative record of domestic claustrophobia, comedown and loss and their ultimate transcendence.
‘The Domestic’, low and lugubrious, starts things on a bitter and hard-bitten note, but the album’s darkly groovy self-laceration – heartbreak and paranoid withdrawal on ‘Cold Alone’, fame anticipated as soul-sucking pull on ‘Tale of an Everyman’ – is leavened with rippling rainy-afternoon melancholy and gently melodic reflections on friendship, love and their loss. ‘Chasing Dragons’, heartfelt and warm, is straightforwardly gorgeous. So is ‘Where the Crow Flies’, so is ‘Arts and Crafts’, and so is the intricately self-referential ‘A Little More Blood on the Tracks’ (and the chutzpah of giving it that title, unusually, didn’t even tickle my Dylanist gag reflex). ‘Hard Times’ is some kind of madly gleaming apocalyptic eurodisco that’s worth the price of admission by itself.
Just an all-round awesome album. This record sounds like a long-held breath let out, like the aftermath of trauma, and it feels like balm applied to wounds.
Lupen Crook, Waiting for the Postman is available here.
Jesus, it’s been a bad week. 53 is no age.
This is my favourite X-Ray Spex song:
Without wishing to damn with faint praise, Des Ark are very good at titles. Despite the rule about not judging a book by its cover, Don’t Rock The Boat, Sink The Fucker is a statement of militant intent which almost inevitably leads to expectations of a harder-edged musical style. Frontwoman Aimee Argote has long been steering an inconsistent course between post-punk, Appalachian folk and blistering blues-rock, and likes to keep the listener guessing. But any hopes or fears for a more aggressive direction get neatly overturned as soon as opening track ‘My Saddle Is Waitin’ (C’mon Jump On It)’ announces itself with tremulous chimes and a delicate shimmer of strings.
‘Sexuality in Rock’n’roll is one more area weighed down heavily by its history and language. While none could or should deny the aspects of sexual interest and thrill inherent in live music, the performance space is problematically male-dominated.’ – Ian Penman, NME, 1979
‘I really wish that I’d been born a boy; it’s easy then ’cause you don’t have to keep trying to be one all the time.’ – Gaye Advert, 1977
Women in bands, when under the media spotlight, often find themselves swindled out of due credit by virtue of their gender. If they’re not being accused of clinging to the coattails of their backing boys to disguise their own lack of musical ability, they’re being judged on their aesthetic appeal to the exclusion of anything more relevant. It’s disappointing to observe how ubiquitously this principle applies. Even in the midst of punk, as girls picked up guitars, bass, and drumsticks, taking the stage alongside boys as more than cooing vocalists or backing dancers, they attracted that lethal combination of critical suspicion and prurient interest.
I love punk partly for the number and variety of women it involved and the freedom of expression it offered them. I loved X-Ray Spex – a Somali-British teenage feminist demagogue whose vocal screech swooped like a bird of prey over twisting vistas of saxophone. I loved the Slits and their slippery, shuddering dub-punk hymns to the tedium of sex and the joys of shoplifting. And I loved Gaye Black, bassist for The Adverts and widely regarded as punk’s first female star.
While the 1990s weren’t the greatest decade for feminist comings of age, as a small-town girl who loved her music, I didn’t do too badly. I’d grown up on the leftovers of punk, awed and enthralled by women like Poly Styrene, Patti Smith, Ari Up and Gaye Advert. Closer to home, I had Shampoo’s deadpan, dead-eyed bubblegum-punk and Kenickie’s bracing uber-proletarian blend of grit and glitter.
Inspiration can spring from the strangest of places. Kenickie were three girls with guitars and an unassuming boy drummer, a band preoccupied with glitter, Grease and Gary Numan. They began in the north-east lo-fi scene of the early 90s before kicking over the traces and high-tailing it to London in a blur of lipstick and leopardprint, attaining industry fame around the time I was sitting my GCSEs. Two albums and a trail of metropolitan mayhem later, Kenickie split up live onstage with the parting shot ‘We were Kenickie… a bunch of fuckwits’. In this piece, I’ll be speaking against the motion.
Most of my favourite bands are in some way preposterous, with an awareness of their own absurdity as their biggest saving grace. One of the best things about Magazine is the fact that a band of such glacial heights and dour, majestic melodrama were also perfectly capable of keeping a straight face and playing for laughs. There are productions and performances too at odds with expectation and image to be taken entirely seriously, while at the same time constituting serious brilliance.
Take Magazine’s Peel Session of 1978, which includes a version of ‘Boredom’, the song written a year earlier for Howard Devoto’s only official, trailblazing recording with the Buzzcocks. The original goes like this.
Although boredom found a natural home in punk neurosis, it is a concept that belongs to an earlier generation of existentialist philosophy. The Buzzcocks’ original took the 50s-rooted sense of isolation and imprisonment in spectacle and distilled it in subversive, snapped and snappy couplets, undercutting its pale and intense intellectualism with that gleefully amateur two-note guitar solo as sharp as an ironically raised eyebrow. Magazine’s cover sees this subversion break the surface, spilling over in an obnoxious psychedelic froth of keys and manic drum fills that swirl around a dry but sugar-high vocal burlesque. Giddy and exquisitely piss-taking, the song of a bubblegum pop trio composed of Sartrettes in white gloves and ponytails smoking candied clove cigarettes, it abandons both punk’s blank-eyed minimalism and philosophy’s aching po-face to twirl its black beret around one finger, kick up its circle skirt and turn cartwheels across genre boundaries.
Like all good covers, this makes no sense until the moment you hear it and afterwards makes all the sense in the world.
Last week I went to the Barbican Centre to see the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Rarely has a film-showing had a more appropriate environment: the Barbican is stunningly early-70s, a symphony in brown and orange inside its concrete Brutalist exoskeleton. By the time the opening credits rolled, my hair had developed a Farrah Fawcett flick and I was fully expecting to be served a prawn cocktail by someone complaining about the three-day-week. Anyway: I enjoyed the film. It’s an accomplished pinch-of-salt portrait of Dury as child, father, husband, bandmate and musician, peacock-strutting his way from a semi-Dickensian institutionalised childhood to an adulthood spent in raucous and truculent self-actualisation. Andy Serkis is immense, as are the quietly cool portrayals of Dury’s long-suffering first wife and his largely unsung girlfriend, jobbing bassist and general muse Denise Roudette.
How punk was Ian Dury? Speaking musically: less so than his ubiquity on punk retrospectives might suggest. His closest association is with the big-band sound of an earlier generation. Into this mix his band stirred sinuous, sinewy funk, jazz and reggae in a brew that anticipates much of 2-Tone and later white-boy ska. The Blockheads’ sound has the confrontational physicality of early rock n roll, too, dextrous and muscular and thuggishly full-on. The opening verse of ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’ is a rare gem of moonlit delicacy in a barrowload of brutalising rhythms, terrace-chant choruses and that glorious, swaggering, leering, brandished clenched fist of a voice.
Dury’s other big influence is music-hall, traceable in his arch delivery, left-field rhymes and the maudlin lost-world sentiment of ‘My Old Man’, and peaking in the posturing of his Essex swell Billericay Dickie. The chancers and romancers who populate his songs are sometimes indistinguishable from his stage persona, but Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll efficiently unravels the layers of performance inherent in this: Dury’s wideboy geezerisms are adopted, transposed on a background of art-school bohemia which he memorably describes onscreen as ‘[not posh;] we’re arts-and-crafts’.
Despite his musical distance from it, there is an edge to Dury which aligns him squarely with punk and its particular anti-aesthetic. Not only did punk’s appreciation of the vulgar and iconoclastic dovetail with Dury’s own, but he also embodies empowerment through the owning and reclaiming of one’s own social marginalisation, which Lester Bangs identified thus:
… one of the things that makes the punk stance unique is how it seems to assume substance or at least style by the abdication of power.
Punk allows you, if you can’t emerge butterfly-pretty and slide smoothly away from your shell, to fight your way half-out and carry on, dragging the smashed and broken pieces with you as an integral part of yourself. An uncomfortable, uncompromising process made spectacular. Punk’s gifting of defiant and unapologetic visibility to the powerless, and to those socially excluded on economic or aesthetic grounds, swirls in the venom with which Dury injects his music. It found particular expression in his 1981 commercial swansong ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, a reclamatory refusenik anthem which achieves a dignity of its own through refusing to accept it in its patronising, socially-ordained form. The song’s conception and subsequent banning are explained in this clip:
‘Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll’, with its exhortations to reject the ordinary and take sartorial and aesthetic pride in oneself, is a manifesto that should be nailed up in every schoolroom and recording studio in the land. Dury was one of our last great originals, a genuine outsider resistant to external definition by background or ability, quintessentially punk and unmistakeably English, whose absence highlights the threadbare, barren and character-free state of contemporary music. As a national treasure, he gives every other contender an unsteady run for their money.
All the ink excitably spilled over the Spiral Scratch EP, its importance to the punk moment and its surrounding DIY culture, is for once entirely justified. It is the definitive work of a definitive band – the Shelley-Devoto era Buzzcocks, rather than the melodically lovelorn troubadours, still excellent but not extraordinary, which Buzzcocks became through their post-Devoto reshuffle. It is four songs in eleven minutes of jittery speedfreak punk and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Aptly titled, the music here is at once constrained and claustrophobic, panicky screeds of guitar and frantic drum fills hemming in breathlessly gabbled lyrics, and an irritatingly insistent, needle-like pricking at the hindbrain. The gleefully amateur (two notes, or three?) guitar solo that slices ‘Boredom’ in half is pure punk minimalism. Likewise, Devoto’s stab at capturing the sub-Rotten delivery, that uber-obnoxious yammering where the vocal cords appear to be entirely composed of snot and amphetamine, comes close to producing (or pre-emptively parodying?) the definitive punk vocal. It captures, more accurately, what you think Rotten’s going to sound like until you listen and realise how inimitable and curiously feline his voice actually is, but it still happily gobs in the eye of all other contenders.
The lyrics, again, form a litany of tactics and techniques that would come to define the genre. Beyond the obvious tenets of boredom, isolation and dysfunction, ‘Boredom’ mixes all-encompassing ennui with the knowingly self-absorbed self-abstraction of ‘you see I’m living in this movie / but it doesn’t move me’. The band are, as Devoto keeps reminding us, only acting dumb. The lyrics are, winningly, shot through with a sharp-edged wit which punk often singularly lacks, kicking off with ‘Breakdown’s laugh-out-loud understatement of ‘If I seem a little jittery…’, continuing with the dry ‘I can stand austerity but it gets a little much’, and running through Shelley and Devoto’s deadpan call-and-response dissection of relationship dissatisfaction in ‘Time’s Up’. Another of the many tensions more widely explored in punk but encapsulated here is that between an impulse towards glee in deviant pansexuality (cf also the still-astonishing ‘Orgasm Addict’), and a viscerally disgusted horror of intimacy (cf Devoto’s shriek in ‘Boredom’ of ‘who are you trying to arouse?! / get yer ‘and out of my trousers!’, like an outraged maiden aunt).
There is a sense here of there being too many words and notes for comfort or relaxation. Too many disparate thoughts and ambiguous intrigues are packed into a line like ‘I hear that two is company for me it’s plenty trouble / though my doublethoughts are clearer now that I am seeing double’ – is it discussing infidelity, alcoholism, mental disconnection or the intertwining of all three? – which neither the careering music nor the desperate vocal can stop to explain. Having too much to say in too little time is a function of punk’s peculiar certainty of built-in obsolescence and impending disaster, the impuse to throw all that you have at the world before both you and it are overwhelmed by anarchy in the UK. While ‘Boredom’ and ‘Breakdown’ write this large (‘I’m already a has-been’; ‘I just came up from nowhere / and I’m going straight back there’), the petty domestic reflection of a preoccupation with the future’s destructive ferment is nailed in the musical and lyrical impatience that has the protagonist of ‘Time’s Up’ chainsmoking and tapping his foot while his girlfriend deliberates. There is no time to waste before your time’s up. The product of a band that were over in this incarnation almost before they began, Spiral Scratch is both a document of and testament to a social and cultural moment where if you were going to do anything, you had to do it now. Everything that follows may as well be a footnote.