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Archive for September, 2011

Art of Noise: Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise? (ZTT)

In a decade in which the term oblique could have referred to a myriad of bands, the Art of Noise were the masters of subversion and experimentation. They spliced and diced, made bizarre videos and went as far as dissecting the concept of The Band As Four Lads Playing Traditional Instruments. In the Art of Noise’s peak, about 83-85, it wasn’t a case of either liking or hating them: you could quite rightly possess both feelings at the same time. They could be dazzlingly original, a bright spot in a time where the mainstream was the upstream, and/or they could be too damn clever for their boots. Songs, if they could be described as such, were a mesmerising symphony of beatboxes, mangled words and bustling melodies complimented by groundbreaking videos, that almost featured the band themselves. Close (To The Edit) – a Top 20 in the UK in 1984 no less – is a pop classic that is very much not a pop song. If that makes sense.
ZTT’s reissued packages give light to delights that have largely remained hidden in cardboard boxes in people’s attics. This is the first CD issue of the debut album and includes the original work- of course – and two live Radio One sessions, that permitted AoN the opportunity to experiment ever more.
The Art of Noise were as much of a visual feast with their part-animated videos and, fittingly, this package comes with an extra disk of footage. This means Close (To the Edit) appears four times, once as a cinematic version, while there’s a strange collaboration with Carry On star Kenneth Williams for that particular single in which he lovingly describes the song as “soooo cuddly”. Babs Windsor would wet her panties at hearing that line. 


 

Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Liverpool (ZTT)

This double-disk re-release comes with stacks of extras from a band that ruled the world in the mid-1980s. No exaggeration, they had three successive number ones in the UK at a time when chart positions mattered. Better still, the first of those hits, Relax, was banned by the BBC and their videos were a trifle controversial.
The title was obviously a reference to their home city, but while you can applaud their parochial pride, it was never going to help boost sales in the States, or Australia. Or even Manchester.
The debut album was, and always will, remain Frankie’s diamond, despite some poor cover versions, lapses into instrumentalism and orgasmic sound affects befitting a soft-porn movie. Matching that monster success would be almost impossible and so it proved. The public had moved on, more than 18 months after their last release, but their edgier, stadium rock sound proved too much for most.
Liverpool bypassed the sty, and, listening to it a quarter of a century on, I can determine why. But we can also hear elements of this that make it an album that’s not nearly as bad as some of those critical reviews of the time made out.
The first single, Rage Hard, is a fist-pumping, paen to positivity, a gift to a city hit hard by Margaret Thatcher’s anti-worker attacks with little subtelty. Warriors of the Wasteland – a provisional album title – was the second single and the album opener, whereby Frankie vent their spleen against the divide-and-rule class society. It was too obvious, too blunt and resembled some of the mock-metal of the time. It was the first ‘flop’ single, if a top 20 single can be regarded as failure and the third, Watching the Wildlife, fared even worse.
One of the standouts, Lunar Bay, dispenses with the guitar and rock swagger in favour of synths and harmonies a plenty.
The extras, and there’s hectares of them, include indifferent covers of Suffragette City and the Doors’ Roadhouse Blues but their version of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction brilliantly turns the Stones’ original completely on its head. There’s also various remixes, and unreleased material. 


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RIP REM. You were one of the stars of the 80s, and while every alternate album over the past 15 years was stodgy, every other was right on the button.
REM formed in 1980 and first came to Porky’s attention in 1986 with Life’s Rich Pageant, their fourth disk, and by far their best. That was a move away from the twee, folky-rocky sound of Murmur, Reckoning Fables of the Reconstruction, three albums of beauty and substance. But by 1985 their modus operandi had run its course and the then four-piece needed a new direction. That was supplied by two classics, Document (1987) and Green (1988) that pushed them to the edge of the mainstream.

REM at the University of Virginia, in 1986.

In just four years they had gone global, every radio station in the western world was now unafraid to play them, and 1991’s Out of Time, had launched a sparkling new era. A year later came Automatic For the People with a near equal amount of success. A comedown of sorts came in the form of the bruising, glam-rock influenced Monster with a mountain of distorted guitars. I have not come across an REM fan yet who truly loves this, but for Porky this represents the band’s peak. Thereafter, they released good albums, moderate albums and plain stinkers (1998’s Up) and never matched their pre-94 glory, though Reveal, from 2001, and Accelerate (2008) came pretty close.
This year’s Collapse Into Now came into the moderate quality category and it was clear the impetus that drove the three-piece for many years had waned. Their split today is timely and, while they will be much missed, the risk of becoming a rock cliche was apparent.
For Porky a defining memory will be of their gig in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2005. They were so sharp it was intimidating, and they finished off with I’m Gonna DJ, a crashing, vibrant tune that became ensconced in my head until it finally appeared on an album three years later.
So, to messrs Stipe, Buck, Mills and Berry, Porky says thanks for some fantastic songs over the past thirty years, and while It’s The End of The world As We Know It for some, Porky will forever remain Near Wild Heaven.

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When Crass’ debut album was released, on their own Crass Records, in October 1978, punk was moribund; the frenzied chords, the gobbing, the swastikas, the safety pins and most of the bands had become footnotes of history. It had died a horrible death in San Francisco at the Sex Pistols’ final gig in January of that year, but in reality it had long since been a movement of the dispossessed, taken over by charlatans, the greedy and the downright opportunistic.

This was something Crass were well aware and alluded to on one track, Punk Is Dead.

“Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be
And it ain’t got a thing to do with you or me.”

Singer Steve Ignorant was partly right, punk had become a fashion, but it hadn’t become “bubbelgum rock” as he proclaimed; punk had become something far bigger by 1978, partially experimental, and occasionally obtuse. It spawned PiL and the Gang of Four; the uber-DIY Desperate Bicycles, the confrontational Throbbing Gristle, and numerous others standing in left field. Punk had moved on, but Crass had faith in the original ideas and concept and weren’t for giving up on the idea of punk as a vehicle for radical change.

Crass are often regarded as an anarchist, shouty-shouty punk yob chant noise band. Uncompromising ‘we never sell out’ anti-capitalist, anti-Thatcher, anti-bloody everything actually. In some respects they were hard to stomach in 1978, and that remained largely so until their demise during the Miner’s Strike of 1984.

Feeding of the 5000 was a rallying call for the dispossessed, General Bacardi being a brutal assault on war and the album’s standout, Do They Owe Us A Living? was a bitter attack on class control. And then there were the attacks on religion, infamously on Asylum (later titled Reality Asylum) which was removed from the first pressing because the plant workers had problems with its ‘blasphemous lyrics’.

It is hardly surprising that repressed plant workers would have problems with the contents, with its juxtaposing of religion and Auschwitz.

I found this brilliant description from the Music, Musings and Miscellany blog, from a writer describing himself as someone who grew up attending Sunday school and a Church of England school, and who first heard Asylum as a 16-year-old.

“I considered myself a broad-minded young man, but this broke taboos by the score. Hell, in 1979 you got censured for saying “fuck” on the telly, and there had only just been a lengthy court case to determine whether the cover of Never Mind The Bollocks was obscene! But as I studied the lyrics, I understood the message. That the real obscenity was the notion that us mere mortals should seek forgiveness from a figure whose followers were responsible for 2,000 years of genocide, war, torture, rape, oppression and a never-ending crusade against knowledge, reason and enlightenment.”

http://dezji.wordpress.com/2007/10/22/song-of-the-day-crass-reality-asylum-1979/

There were more acerbic lyrics about faith, as Crass laid the boot into organised religion.

“So what if Jesus died on the cross/ So what about the fucker, I don’t give a toss/ So what if the master walked on water, I don’t see him trying to stop the slaughter.”

Religion has taken a hit in Britain, and in many western countries, over the past three decades, but back in the 1970s, there was still a reasonable attendance at Sunday school church and there remained a feeling that you had to be careful about what you said and thought about Christianity. Crass weren’t just taking risks, they were taking on the whole concept of religion and other sacred cows.

The lyrics were spat out fast and furiously and you need to be on your toes to catch it all. It was punk, but not as we know it. Even the ‘old wave’ of 1977 were caught out by this barrage of anti-conformity. While some people regard it as sacrilege to bash The Clash, Crass had no such reservations, accusing them of selling out by signing to CBS.

Listening to it now, with much time having passed, and societal changes haven taken an impact in the West, you can see Feeding of the 5000 as a testament of its time, a canon that launched the first offensive against an emerging monetarist, Thatcherite society that I explain in some detail in a previous blog:

https://craighaggis.wordpress.com/2010/12/04/redder-than-red/

But, even now, Feeding of the 5000 sounds as confronting, independent, radical and thought-provoking as it did then. In fact, it is easy to imagine that if a band, punk or rap, or whatever, took on board some of the same subjects today, and wrote about them with a similar viewpoint, they would be on the end of a critical and conservative backlash. Alas, there are few such acts around and the tendency for musicians in the 21st century is to make music that skirts controversial issues, sells lots and keeps the controversial elements aside.  No wonder there’s a revival in interest in Crass.

  • Two years ago I reviewed this album as part of the Attic Dweller series when the site was in its infancy. I wasn’t entirely happy with that review, as it was partially flippant, hence this fuller review.

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