In memory of MCR and their ‘over-emotional pomp’. This is how they disappear.

The recent announcement that one-time spokespeople for the Emo generation My Chemical Romance were calling it a day brought many shades of eyeliner smudged tears to a lot of people I know. Quite why I’ll probably never understand… but in an effort to explain why I won’t be weeping, here’s an MCR live review I wrote for The Independent back in 2007.

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My Chemical Romance, Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle

Weds, 14 November 2007

A little more than a year ago, My Chemical Romance hoodwinked a capacity crowd at London’s Hammersmith Palais into believing that they had cancelled. In their place, a band called The Black Parade were to perform. Little by little, however, a hostile crowd recognised the true identities of the band on stage. From the second song, the New Jersey rockers had 1,800 punters eating out of their hands.

No such playful humour was on show tonight, however. Instead, fans witnessed a display of petulant goading and showboating pyrotechnics. The petulance is a sign of the predicament the band now find themselves in. Like many acts that have emerged from the underground, only to be embraced by the mainstream, they find the need to make petty challenges to the system to underline their punk-rock “authenticity”.

Yet MCR – pitched somewhere between Foo Fighters and Sum 41 – are as mainstream as alternative rock gets. Their songs move between the punk-by-numbers of “House of Wolves” and the grandiose stadium posturing of their biggest hit to date, “Welcome to the Black Parade”, met here with the raising of a sea of cameraphones.

The band’s rebellious edge comes largely from their singer, Gerard Way, a man who spent much of this gig berating the audience for not being loud enough or feigning a lack of interest in whether or not they were enjoying themselves – all this while launching into crowd-pleasing oldies such as the raunchy “I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love”.

But for all of Way’s sneering belligerence, his showmanship most resembles Freddie Mercury’s fist-in-the-air, call-and-response style. Way is a great but traditional frontman who inadvertently gives the band deep roots in the Establishment.

It is for this reason that MCR have been embraced by teenagers. Their rebellion is not unlike a Topshop street-style fashion line – safe, affordable and weird enough to make the wearer feel individual. The songs resonate because of their burdensome emotionalism. Songs such as “This is How I Disappear” embrace teen angst in a flurry of over-emotional pomp.

On songs such as the reggae-tinged, carnivalesque “Mama”, however, MCR seem able to move beyond this. Yet despite such moments of flair, their repertoire, like bad teenage poetry, continually brings you down to earth with a mournful bump.

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BOWIE’S BACK… AFTER REALITY THERE’S SILENCE

 

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First of all I’d like to make something clear, I am a David Bowie addict. Not in recovery, not in denial, but an addict through and through. I can’t ignore him. I have to buy everything he does, in every format available. I have to find a way to like everything. Even albums like Tonight and Tin Machine 1 & 2 find me arguing for their collective ‘misunderstood’ status.

I’m a Bowie obsessive. It’s a disease. I’ve had it since I was young. I make no apologies.

A former girlfriend once complained that I talked about Bowie so much she thought it was him I was really going out with (in retrospect her profile was quite Bowie-esque). This complaint was soon after I’d plastered the sixth form common room of my school with loads of Bowie posters, regardless of what my other classmates thought about the great man. I’ve forced my love of Bowie on every relationship I’ve been in since. In fact, after 20 years of being forced to listen to Bowie, my wife has succumbed to some of his music. My eldest daughter wears a Bowie t-shirt, my youngest loves the Labyrinth film and some of his music. Only my son remains untouched by Bowie’s music – but I’m working on him.

An aspect of this OCBD (Obsessive Compulsive Bowiephile Disorder) is marked by a constant scouring of news pages for information. Any information will do. With the advent of the Internet this scouring took shape as a daily Google news search. So much searching for so little news.

Like many Bowiephiles I like to consider myself an expert on Bowie. So, like so many Bowiephiles I was stunned by the silent return of the former Thin White Duke on his 66th birthday. It was a huge event. And like all huge events I will probably always remember where I was when I heard the news. It was 6.30am and I was driving to the local shop to buy milk. Radio 4 was on and experts were waxing lyrical about the genius of Bowie. ‘Shit’, I thought, ‘he must have died’. I pulled over… the pit of my stomach knotted, the welling from deep inside started to rush to the surface and then… then they played ‘Where Are We Now?’. Shock turned to elation. He sang about Berlin and that elation turned to nostalgic celebration. Bowie was back. The world was suddenly a happier place.

But how the hell hadn’t I picked up on this? The hints were surely there. The photo of Bowie walking through New York with a copy of Q under his arm, allegedly disappearing into a studio in the NoLita area of Manhatten. The sighting of Bowie with assorted musicians in an Italian restaurant near a studio in the same area, as reported in the Julio Exclusive – a mouthful of pennies blog post . Then the licensing of the Bowie logo to a series of Primark retro t-shirts in December 2012 and the announcement of the Bowie exhibition at the V&A both offered huge hints that a marketing campaign was kicking into action.

But all of these signposts were dismissed as mere rumours created by a public willing their hero to return.  Bowie biographers wrote authoritative articles in newspapers and magazines declaring Bowie’s life in music to be over. So we believed them.

And all the while Bowie simply told the world he was compiling a book of photos of everyday objects. Which is a pretty good Twitter review of The Next Day. But more of this later. What really interests me is the nature of his return… the silent voice in a world of media noise.

The silent voice in a world of media noise

The lack of tangible mediated signposts is probably the most notable thing about Bowie’s return. Bowie’s work has, since the success of Ziggy Stardust been accompanied by a huge, unmistakable and brilliantly loud concept. Whether the death of Ziggy or the birth of The Thin White Duke, the electronic music pioneer or the new media alchemist, Bowie’s each and every move has been supported by a look, a style, a quote, an image, a sound… NOISE.

The noise that surrounds The Next Day however hasn’t come from Bowie himself. His producer Tony Visconti has spoken. The critics have spoken. Even Angie Bowie has had her say. It’s just like old times, except Bowie, one of art’s great communicators is saying nothing. He’s set to radio silence.

The entire project is an obliteration of Bowie the myth. The album’s cover art features a blank white square placed over the iconic Heroes image. Stylised text graphics are replaced by basic, functional font. The single ‘Where are We Now?’ features an inverted image of Bowie in Thin White Duke pose as its cover. The video for second single ‘The Stars are Out Tonight’ features Tilda Swinton playing an Angie Bowie type character and Norwegian model Iselin Steiro playing Man Who Fell to Earth period David. The video’s narrative recalls that film in numerous ways. Only this time the alien isn’t Thomas Jerome Newton, but Bowie the youngster… observed from the outside by an older and distant Bowie before becoming ravaged by his celebrity self. It’s all about dislocation… and immersion. To uncover the truth you have to challenge the myth.

But the myths that Bowie challenges here aren’t just the numerous versions of himself over the years, but also the myth of information access in this age of media saturation. The noise of silence represented by the latest comeback could only have worked in the twenty-four-seven-wired-for-info environment of V2.0 media.

Social media has placed us at the centre of our own media universes. The subsequent ‘mediaverse’ has enabled us to become our own brands to be consumed through the click of a ‘like’, ‘following’, ‘friend’, etc. Our comments become brand statements. The footprint of our media habits and key word behaviours enable advertisers to locate us in our own ‘mediaverse’ and join our communities. We choose to connect, or not.

At the core of our ‘mediaverse’ is a constant personal reinvention of the past and present. Live discussions follow their own trajectories, oblivious to the original comment, but connected through tenuous link, or the need to add to the commentary. Unconnected statements and stories become connected through conversational chains. Images old and new are uploaded. A square hovers over faces waiting to be tagged.  Comments provide new backstories, change histories and provide alternative but temporary frames. It’s a fluid environment where truth travels as fast as untruth with no clear filters signposting anything real beyond the event and the product. And at the very centre of the ‘mediaverse’ is the individual made both event and product. An empty, silent noise in the chaos of it’s trivia. Is there any better representation of the career of David Bowie than social media?

The Next Day suffocated the flames of gossip by denying the fuel of information until, at the optimum moment, the actual second of release, the information was introduced. When the message emerged it sat at the eye of its own storm, mimicking the social media process.

As viral memes go Bowie’s return was of epidemic proportions and The Next Day subsequently became a Bowie image being tagged by its own histories and looking for ‘likes’ to provide new meanings. Bowie has become the ghost in his machine, his music a valueless piece of information.

A point made all the more evident by the free stream of the album on iTunes a week prior to its release. Effectively doing the opposite to the initial information flame suffocation and providing enough fuel to burn the fire out. All information must be free and music is just information… but who controls the information flow? At the core of this hugely political message is of course David Bowie, The Next Day is simply a way of addressing questions of information control.

Which brings me to the album itself and its challenge to the myths of Bowie’s music.

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It’s a return to his old stuff…

With Bowie in total silence and therefore no quotes to hang onto all we had was the gossip about the new album (fitting in the Twitter age). And as soon as Tony Visconti likened the new album to Lodger it seemed the Bowiephiles were immediately satisfied. Lodger, the last of the Berlin albums, the one where Bowie and Eno indulged in their obsession with Talking Heads and tried out a few oblique strategies, some interesting sonic experiments and one or two enjoyable pop shapes. Of the much-lauded Berlin trilogy it’s the least enjoyable, but it’s also the album that pointed to his next stage, the art meets pop masterpiece of Scary Monsters and Super Creeps.

Visconti’s authenticating nod to Lodger proved to be a reference to the broad range of musical styles played on The Next Day rather than a comment on the actual sound, production or theme of the album. Yet it does hold a very strong connection to Lodger in that both albums were heralded by singles that bore little relation to the rest of the albums that followed. And both albums were trumpeted as ‘a return to classic Bowie’. In the case of Lodger lead off single ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ and its B-side, the stunning ‘Fantastic Voyage’, the latter especially had Bowiephiles salivating at the hope of a return to the songs and melodies of Hunky Dory. News stories and reviews even supported this mythical desire. But Lodger was nothing like Hunky Dory. And ‘Fantastic Voyage’ was nothing like Lodger. Lodger was more interested in moving forward.

‘Where Are We Now?’ was met with a similar reaction. A nostalgic, plaintive melody that marries the frailty of Robert Wyatt with a longing hookline. Lyrics talk of Bowie’s psyche during that most mythologized of all Bowie’s backstory, the Berlin era. It’s a thing of beauty, which indulged hopes of a return to those almost forgotten days of Ziggy. Simpler tunes from simpler times when pop stars only needed to challenge taboos of gender and sexuality to become the centre of a storm of noise. But ‘Where Are We Now?’ isn’t Ziggy. And neither is it The Next Day. In fact it’s an orphan of a song that’s lost in a community of chattering New York muso-muscle.

The album’s only real moment of lyrical nostalgia, ‘Where are we Now?’ is simply a fleeting status update. The rest of the album is a very different affair with its teeth-gnashing anger at the Catholic Church, politicians and war-mongers among many other targets. Lyrically The Next Day is the most direct album of his career. No cut-ups or pseudo-poetic metaphors, no starmen or astronauts here, instead he goes for numerous jugulars of the here and now. Ironically, despite his apparent silence, his disappearing from view, his seeming distance from the present, this is his most ‘present’ album ever. Lyrically at least.

But it’s not Bowie’s lyrics that people hook into first, it’s the actual songs. And here we can hear all of his favoured tricks.  Which seems like an odd thing to say about an artist who has become known as pop’s greatest chameleon, an artist whose career has been defined by ch-ch-ch-changes. Surely he has no regulat ‘tricks’?

Which brings us to another Bowie myth, this one about time and movement forward.

Time, he flexes like a whore…

Bowie has been sold as an artist who at his best is future focused, moving relentlessly forward into new territories. Always the original and the best, ‘Often copied never quite equaled’ read the copy to his 1980s singles reissue series. In truth Bowie was never the modernist of that future focused drive, but a post-modern artist seizing from history to create a revisionist’s history. So his early albums were awash with musical and lyrical references to Dylan, The Stones, The Beatles, The Velvets, Iggy, in fact any and all of his heroes feature in the soundscape of Bowie in the London years.

By London years I mean his time living in London rather than the defunct record label. But this geographical reference is worth briefly looking at. Bowie’s career has become defined as much by musical styles as geographical locations of key recording studios, eg the Bromley, London, Berlin, Switzerland and New York eras. None of which hold up to investigation of course. The Berlin era for example would be better defined as the Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin and New York era as Bowie’s time spent in Berlin was actually relatively minimal. Furthermore Berlin is often discussed as a trilogy, but it also includes two Iggy Pop albums (The Idiot and Lust for Life) and arguably could also encompass Station to Station (but this is another discussion).

In fact the city that has most defined Bowie’s output since Ziggy Stardust has been New York. It’s this city that been the geographical spectre at the core of all of his work. The Berlin era may have sounded very different without his experience of Studio 54.

But, for ease of discussion, let’s say there is a clearly defined New York-era of Bowie albums, in the same way that there is a Berlin-era of albums linked through the geography of ideology rather than the geography of physical space. The New York-era includes four albums: Heathen, Reality, The Next Day, and the album that would have immediately pre-dated them had it not been withdrawn, Toy.

Written off as Bowie trawling through his old material for new inspiration what actually emerged from that album was the sound and structures that would define the albums that followed. Toy featured Bowie attempting to rediscover the essence of his own musical self. That initial spark that inspired him to write as opposed to those heroes he tried to emulate. As such it was his first album in which he overtly referenced himself as an influence.

Not that this was a new thing. He has always looked back to his own material for inspiration, but in a more covert way.  So the hummed chorus melody of his 1968 hippie ditty ‘Ching-A-Ling’ turned up again three years later as the guitar, keyboard and vocal hook on ‘Saviour Machine’ from The Man Who Sold the World, and the chorus melody to ‘I am a Lazer’, a track he wrote and produced for The Astronettes in 1973, returned as the chorus melody to ‘Scream Like a Baby’ in 1980 on Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. It’s a trick repeated over and again in the Bowie catalogue, with his personal past continually recast in the present, and presented as the future. While being bolstered by numerous nods to those ever-present heroes.

The interesting feature of the New York-era is those heroes apparently disappearing into the distance, with the main source of reference becoming Bowie himself. And where Toy makes direct connections to Bowie’s earliest London years as an R&B mod, the sound he subsequently discovers most often recalls his own back catalogue since 1980’s Scary Monsters…!

This is especially notable on The Next Day. Despite excitable observations that the outro drum beat of ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’ echoes  Ziggy’s ‘Rock’n’Roll  Suicide’, or that ‘Love is Lost’ features the heavily gated snare sound that featured so heavily on Low, and the growing claims of the Scary Monsters-feel to the title track (although it is also very reminiscent of ‘Repetition’ from Lodger – I keep singing ‘Johnny is a man, and he’s bigger than you… etc over the opening bars), the majority of Bowie’s latest album actually owes its greatest debt to Tin Machine’s studio albums, as well as Never Let Me Down, Tonight, Outside, Black Tie White Noise and Earthling’s non-breakbeat tracks.

What The Next Day forces you to do then is reconsider many of Bowie’s most critically loathed albums of the last two decades. What’s more he redefines his New York project to be the product of a weightier body of work than all of his work up to the end of the 70s. If all of that early work was about Bowie on a journey of discovery, the later work is Bowie discovered.

So when the 65-year-old Bowie sings about train rides on Berlin he’s talking about another Bowie entirely. A Bowie who placed artifice and quotation at the heart of his authenticity, a man who courted conversation and demanded attention. The older Bowie places himself at the very centre of his ‘mediaverse’ as a blank space where image used to hang. Conversations happen around him and attention is focused on understanding who he really is now as he puzzles out where we are now?

The Next Day then is an album of status updates from a disappearing Bowie. Passing notes, bitter observations and angry messages wrapped up in a sound that is unmistakably post-70s Bowie.

As a self confessed Bowiephile I am obviously enjoying something like a brief but full on romance with The Next Day. But it’s forced me to return to old loves like Outside and Earthling, and to fully indulge in the previous fleeting flames like Never Let Me Down. As a body of work the four albums that make up the New York-era may not sparkle with the wide-eyed wonderment of the 70s output but they show Bowie embracing himself and no longer lifting the sheen from his heroes.

And yet, worryingly for the Bowie-as-himself argument, the track on The Next Day that offers the most interesting side to the man in his 60s is the closing track ‘Heat’, which sounds like contemporary Scott Walker singing over an arrangement that echoes Walker’s 80s album Climate of the Hunter. It’s out of place with the rest of the album, and the trio that preceded it, but it’s one of his finest pieces ever – despite its derivative nature.

So will the the future Mr Bowie be about himself or a return to the grounds of his heroes? Maybe we’ll have to wait another ten years for the answer, but what is certain is that if he records another album it won’t emerge in deafening but empty silence like this one.

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Siouxsie Sioux – a teenage obsession

Just found this unpublished piece about following Siouxsie and the Banshees as a youth. Thought I’d share it… 

SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES

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From a scream to a whisper – an everyday story of teenage obsession

The date is May 5 1977. Britain is gearing up for a summer of Jubilee parties, Denise Williams is at number 1 with ‘Free’ and Star Wars is about to premiere to a generation of kids who have just started to feel the shock waves of punk rock which are reverberating through school yards everywhere.

In the crammed and airless upstairs room of the Nag’s Head, High Wycombe a fledgling Siouxsie and the Banshees battle against an inadequate PA system to win over a cynical crowd here for headliners Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers (if memory serves).

On the tiny stage Siouxsie Sioux, punishes us with a series of caterwauled demands to sit up and listen. Dressed in bondage gear and permanent snarl she twists herself up in a mic lead while howling barely audible lyrics. Meanwhile bleached blonde bassist Steve Havoc (later to be known as Severin), drummer Kenny Morris and guitarist Pete Fenton deliver an explosive set of uptight, angst ridden and slightly awkward punk statements; each one a taut and minimal exercise in rock annihilation.

This gig happened only three days after my fifteenth birthday. It was an event that not only saw the confirmation of my personal love affair with punk but also saw the start of an obsessive infatuation with Siouxsie Sioux that would last for the next two years – a lifetime for an adolescent boy.

Satisfying my love of punk was easy; the Nag’s Head regularly boasted punk’s elite bands thanks to the fact that promoter Ron Watts also put on the gigs at the infamous 100 Club in London.

Following my Siouxsie obsession however was a much more complicated thing. It would involve subterfuge, cunning and strategic lying as I attempted to ‘leave home’ and chase the band on the road without my parents noticing. It would also lead me into a life of wanton vandalism, introduce me to the crushing nature of unrequited love and ultimately leave me stranded in Scotland with no band left to follow.

In the months that followed that first Siouxsie gig I ‘left home’ a number of times for Banshees gigs. I even made an aborted attempt to follow The Clash, but the experience had only brought me face to face with the reality of having to share your band with other fans. I was attracted to The Clash and their last-gang-in-town stance, but I wanted to be a part of their gang, not one of the faceless mass of followers.

With The Banshees it was different though. For starters they hadn’t even been signed up yet so they still seemed like our property.  Despite cover features in music weekly Sounds and sessions for the John Peel Show they still had the underground air of a band in opposition with the status quo – which appealed to the fans’ elitism. To follow Siouxsie and the Banshees then was the sign of the true hardcore punk.

Over the course of the twelve months that followed that Nag’s Head gig I turned up to see them at some of the seediest dives the UK gig circuit could throw at the band. I took in venues like the long lost Vortex in London, Hitchin Technical College and Brighton Polytechnic. I witnessed original guitarist Pete Fenton being replaced by the floppy fringed John McKay who brought in a more angular and experimental aspect to the band’s sound.

My parents remained blissfully unaware throughout; thanks to my masterful use of that well used teen lie ‘I’m staying at my mates house’. In my young mind I was becoming a part of a new family, the Banshees clan.

Gradually the band started to notice me and my mates hanging around before and after the gigs. Their tour manager, the effervescent Les Mills even started smuggling me in to the over-18’s venues. I shared occasional conversations with the band (usually I would talk to Severin about David Bowie!), but whenever Siouxsie was close I was instantly dumb struck. Partly because of my own infatuation, but also because she seemed to want to create a distance between herself and her fans.

It was April 5 1978 at the Bones Club in Reading when we (my friends Nutty, Gerard and I) finally struck up the courage to talk to her. The rumour had gone round that she was actually only sixteen, suddenly I could see her as one of my peers. When they’d finished their soundcheck I asked her if it was true. The look she gave me was a cross between horror and disgust before she burst out laughing. I felt crushed.

Not that this stopped me from the greater cause that came with being a Banshees fan. Following the example set by Les Mills we all set about scribbling ‘Sign Siouxsie and the Banshees’ on any wall we happened to be near. In a more resourceful moment I made a ‘Sign Siouxsie’ stencil in art class and proceeded to spray the school walls. I denied being the vandal of course. Despite the evidence.

When The Banshees finally signed to Polydor the sense of achievement was quickly over shadowed by the knowledge that they would no longer be our property. Indeed as their first single ‘Hong Kong Garden’ went into the charts and all of the other kids in school became fans I took the ‘cooler than thou’ position and sold bootlegs albums of their demos and Peel sessions (the real debut album to the hardcore) to finance further adventures on the road.

There were moments of pure joy. Like ripping out the seats at The Rainbow in London and bringing the traffic to a standstill in Plymouth as loads of us lay down in the road in some adolescent show of pro-Banshees solidarity.

But the downside was already taking over. I saw skinheads at High Wycome Town Hall beat up support act Spizz Oil while he was still onstage. I watched punks heckle the Human League who, in their earliest form, toured as support. I even looked on in dismay as so-called punks attacked someone about my age to steal his leather jacket in Aylesbury. Punk was changing, the Banshees were no longer a part of it. And neither was I.

At the end of August 1979 I packed up my kit bag and vowed to follow the entire tour in support of their second album “Join Hands”.  Until this point the majority of my adventures had been limited to the Home Counties and the south coast. This way I could get back home as if nothing had ever happened.

I had spoken to manager Nils Stevenson who suggested I might be able to hitch a lift of the band’s tour bus for the Scottish dates. So, with hair newly grown out into a long fringe and straight-legged trousers replaced with voluminous Bowie bags I headed off to Bournemouth for the first date. The following night it was Aylesbury Friars where I sat backstage after the gig watching Siouxsie being swamped by a whole load of new fans. They were all getting autographs, something I’d never lowered myself to do. I was after all an idealistic youngster.

Suddenly, marker pen in hand Siouxsie grabbed my kit bag and signed her name alongside a cryptic Iggy Pop lyric ‘sweet sixteen in her leather boots’ (see photo above). I was elated. Siouxsie had volunteered the fact that she’d noticed me for the first time in almost two years. Not that I’d actually made any effort to talk to her again after that first attempt. Truth was I liked it this way. It kept the illusion alive.

With a renewed spring in my step I hitched my way to Aberdeen to see them again a week later. I’d got there just before they were due onstage. Almost an hour later Siouxsie and Steve appeared. But Kenny was no where to be seen and The Cure’s Robert Smith stood where John should have been. They launched into a venomous version of The Lord’s Prayer before storming off again. The band I loved had split. Leaving me stranded in Scotland in the process.

The love affair quickly followed. I was older, that dream had moved on and so had the music I loved. And anyway, I would always have Aylesbury and that brief moment in Siouxsie’s gaze.

MARTIN JAMES – 2013

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Understanding the Music Industries book – out now

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After what seems like an age the book I co-authored with Chris Anderton and Andrew Dubber is out now on Sage. What it’s about is pretty self explanatory really, but just in case  it’s not… here’s a bit from the blurb.

“This textbook presents a full overview of the many elements of the music industries, and offers a sustained focus on ‘understanding’ the processes that have driven and continue to drive the development of those industries. More than just an expose or ‘how to’ guide, this book gives students the tools to make sense of technological change, socio-cultural processes, and the constantly shifting music business environment.”
 
As with all books there is a back story to this one, some of which is best forgotten. Basically I was initially asked to be a part of the writing team as far back as my first day at Solent (July 2nd 2006) and over the course of the six years that have followed co-authors have either left the project to complete a PhD (nice), or to write a single authored version on a similar topic (frustrating); we even lost a publisher (it was a relief) and found another (much better suited) publisher in Sage.
 
Anyway, it’s out now… hope people enjoy it.
Click here to order a copy
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His story – but not the only story

This post has been temporarily taken down… a revised version will be posted soon. Which is fitting since the piece was about historical revisionism.

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Not quite John Cage…

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John Cage

A few months back author, academic and damn fine producer Sean Albiez posed the question ‘which experimental leftfield popular musicians have actually turned their backs on traditional songwriting and fully embraced the avant-garde?’.

Naturally the usual names were thrown around, before being rejected. David Bowie’s Berlin albums? No, the instrumentals were supported by very traditional pop songs and anyway, as instrumentals go they were hardly going to challenge John Cage in the ‘challenging’ category. Indeed, with tracks like ‘V2 Schneider’ lifting sax riffs from an old R&B songs and others borrowing heavily from Kraftwerk and Cluster these instrumentals didn’t stray too far from the experimental mainstream. And anyway, ever since these albums Bowie has stuck to the rock formula – despite flirting with avant-garde and electronica techniques.

Who else then? Surely Brian Eno and David Byrne? Again, not easy to place them in the heart of the experimental, let alone avant-garde. Eno’s ambient phase was intended as background sound. If it had politically challenged, or inspired beyond the act of scoring everyday routine it would have failed. No matter how ‘nice’ much of it was to listen to.

Since then his debt to David Byrne’s skewed world pop has been huge. Hardly challenging, but still preferable to his production work with U2 and Coldplay. Byrne himself is someone we might have expected to disappear down the road marked ‘difficult’ in the years following My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. But his love of festival camp and musical theatre has kept him comfortably in the pop-centric zone.

So which other former pop stars can be considered? Lou Reed? Yes, for Metal Machine Music, which the rock fraternity considered his RCA ‘contract get out’ album. RCA’s sister label RCA Red recognized its avant-garde qualities though. Not that he ever explored that musical terrain again. Radiohead perhaps? Fleetingly maybe, for a few minutes on Hail the Thief. How about Muse?  In their heads probably. But only in their heads.

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David Sylvian

After slinging endless names around we were only able to come up with two artists that can be truly be seen to have turned their backs on pop music and immersed themselves in the avant-garde; Scott Walker and David Sylvian.

Both Walker and Sylvian have rejected their pop star lives and slowly disappeared from view; reappearing every few years with another endlessly challenging, but consistently brilliant album. Sylvian’s recent albums have been especially powerful, with both Manafon (2009) and Died in the Wool – Manafon Variations (2011) finding the artist applying glitch techniques to random orchestration and counterpointing this with richly dark harmony.

Full time Dad and occasional artist David Bowie has suggested he’s tired of pop music and would rather take photos of everyday objects these days.  Other musicians often complain about being sick of playing the hits and lay claim to desires for a more experimental sound, something with more depth than pop music.

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Scott Walker

To these people I would suggest that they get acquainted with latter day Walker and Sylvian to discover what it is to be an artist who constantly attempts to push at the boundaries of their own ideas. Any other route would be lazy, and profoundly empty.

That we could only agree on two musicians was quite sad. In fact it was a process that forced me to challenge a lot of the pre-conceieved ideas I have about the so-called experimental artists I like.

So, who have we missed from this disappointingly short list? There’s got to be more!

Watch David Sylvian – Small Metal Gods (Manafon, 2009)

Watch Scott Walker – Track 09 (The Drift, 2006)

 

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A magazine about electronic music? Is the world ready?

ImageLast month Future Publishing launched a new title Electronic that promised to be ‘the ultimate electronic music magazine’. Given the fact that this launch followed the much publicized closure of ‘grown up’ rock monthly The Word, along with the continued decline in the music magazine market, it might be fair to say that Electronic represents a brave decision.

But is it? Launched initially as a one-off, with regular monthly editions if it sells enough, Electronic is a part of a list of niche magazines launched in recent times that cover Classic Rock, Blues Rock, Prog Rock and so on. It’s a move that seeks to emulate the Internet driven explosion in niche immersion.

The question now is whether Electronic can really be viewed as niche. Electronic music is over 100 years old and ranges from musique concrete tape-loop innovation to the latest permutation on the dub step kaleidoscope. Even for the most eclectic magazine it would be a tall order cover the true range of electronic musics.

What Electronic does so intelligently is draw parallels  between early innovators (Kraftwerk), the 1980’s emergence of the synth into the post-punk mainstream (Human League, Gary Numan, John Foxx) and 80s/90s dance music producers (Underworld, Detroit techno), subsequently linking this rich heritage to contemporary post-genre innovators (Purity Ring). In essence it’s the electronic music equivalent of Mojo, where thought provoking articles are offered across a range of genre developments but linked to a clearly defined rock canon (The Beatles, The Stones, Pink Floyd etc.)

The problem that faces Electronic magazine isn’t that it can’t claim a similar canon – the launch issue features cover stars Underworld in their only Olympics Interview, future editions could include cover artists ranging from Kraftwerk to Massive Attack, and New Order to The Prodigy. The main problem comes in the stylistic form that electronic music magazines have traditionally taken, i.e. slightly dumbed down, jargon-filled and superstar DJ obsessed. In short, mainstream dance magazines have been more closely aligned to lads mags like Front than serious music titles like  Mojo or indeed Rolling Stone.

Any magazine launch aiming to take electronic music seriously and in so doing capture a readership of 30-up armchair ravers with a love for syhthpop, acid house and drum & bass nostalgia, but with a continued interest in new musical developments would need to address the fact that the lads mag treatment won’t cut it. This readership is more enthralled by a well-written Simon Reynolds piece on the breakbeat continuum than a series of ‘avin’ it large in-jokes from the limited lexicon of DJ culture.

ImageThankfully Electronic comes courtesy of some of the first Muzik team (including original editor Push). As you might expect it features the same encyclopedic knowledge and lightness of touch that was a feature of Muzik in at least its first two years. It’s a publication written through obsession and delivered with passion with its readership community clearly in mind.

Push says: “The magazine is the first mainstream magazine to cover electronic music in all its different forms – from the early experimentalists of the 50s and 60s right through to the electronic artists of the present day. Along the way, we cover all kinds of electronic music – including sub-genres such as krautrock, synthpunk, synthpop, house, techno and ambient – and we approach each of them with equal enthusiasm!

“Some of the artists we write about have been around for many years, but we’ve tried to make a magazine that isn’t a retro title. It’s forward-looking in terms of look and feel, and we talk about a lot of new artists and new music alongside classic names like Kraftwerk and The Human League. And even with artists that might be deemed ‘classic’, many of them are still making music that is still very much of the future.”

Whether or not Electronic becomes a regular feature on the newsagent shelves remains to be seen, but it’s an interesting indication of the fear of competition in the highly aggressive music magazine marketplace that Mojo chose the same month to produce their own electronic music special.

ImageMojo’s version was a very predictable ‘must hear’ list of electronic music tracks built around a disappointingly convoluted Jon Savage feature on David Bowie’s debt to electronic music through his Berlin era albums, and post-Tin Machine solo output.

The coup de grace of course came not in the magazine content but in the choice of cover artists. Mojo’s canonic Low-period David Bowie image is likely to have attracted more fans of the history of electronic music than Electronic’s Olympic Games-era Underworld shot. Which would be a shame as the latter is by far the more interesting, informed and enjoyable read. Even if it doesn’t quite fit the niche music model.

Click here to read a sample of Electronic

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Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip Hop DJ

Here’s a review of this excellent book that I wrote for Times Higher Education magazine.

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Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip Hop DJ

By Mark Katz. Oxford University Press

In its earliest form, the music and culture of hip hop boasted five key areas of activity: break-dance, graffiti, rap, DJ’ing and knowledge. Each of these so-called tenets of hip hop has come under varying degrees of scrutiny in the academy, with particular interest being shown – perhaps not surprisingly – in the area of knowledge. However, with the exception of generalised historical accounts, the hugely influential art and culture of the DJ has remained relatively unexplored. To say that Mark Katz’s extensive research into this understudied area is long overdue is an understatement.

This excellent book draws on 10 years of interviews with some of the key figures in hip hop’s emergence and development in order to explore the art, culture, geography and technology of the hip hop DJ, or turntablist. Katz presents a compelling account of the rise of turntablism from its roots in block parties in New York’s Bronx district in the 1970s to its entry into mainstream popular culture in the 1980s. Indeed, the DJ’s approach has become increasingly central to popular music, with its hybrid methods having a significant impact on the ways in which popular music of all contemporary styles and genres are constructed and produced.

Author Kodwo Eshun once described turntablism as “violence against vinyl”. By this he meant that the hip hop DJ’s approach to the record was diametrically opposed to that of his or her rock counterpart. Hip hop DJs elevate specific parts of a recording over the whole by singling out key sections, or “breaks” as they became known. Katz picks up on this notion and draws on a broad range of approaches to investigate the stories associated with the rise of the hip hop phenomenon.

Early hip hop DJs such as Kool Herc drew from an eclectic mix of vinyl histories to source and isolate rhythmic breaks in records. These breaks would be extended by switching between two turntables, thus creating a pioneering soundtrack for partying to and MC’ing, or rapping, over. The sources of these breakbeats were closely guarded secrets known as “battle weapons”, a term that linked the art of the DJ to the “battle”, where aspects of hip hop culture would be expressed through varying forms of public challenge, with the best known being between rappers, or MCs.

The hip hop DJ’s battle weapons eventually extended beyond breakbeats and into the entirely new realm of scratching. Here, the turntablist turned the turntable and vinyl into instruments, revealing a level of innovation and dexterity usually associated with traditional rock and pop instruments such as guitars and keyboards. As Katz notes, the resulting cacophony of looped breakbeats and montages of chirruping scratches offered the perfect sonic expression of the traffic noise that assaulted New Yorkers on a daily basis. Put simply, hip hop was the sound of life in the Bronx.

Katz explores in detail how, in the hip hop DJ’s hands, there can be no such thing as the finished article, only tools to be used in constructing a groove. Rock DJs, on the other hand, promote notions of the originating genius and the perfected craft of songwriting by playing entire songs exactly as the artists meant them to be heard. In effect, the hip hop DJ plays history, while the rock DJ archives it.

Turntablism’s contribution to hip hop and broader popular culture may have been largely ignored in favour of the academy’s continued obsession with the rock canon, but Katz’s exhaustive research and attention to detail have produced a gripping study that goes a long way towards filling the knowledge gap.Groove Music is strongly recommended to anyone with an interest in popular music and culture formations.

From Times Higher Education, 6 September 2012

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Martin James – author, academic, journalist, curator

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