Way off license

Pic borrowed from the linked article - Mikey Hamer/Lucien Alperstein

A cool piece in Cyclic Defrost about the temporary, nomadic venues of Sydney’s out music. One of the places mentioned is a few blocks from my house, it was awesome to stumble upon it one night. You could buy beer and red wine at more-or-less cost price and bands and audience sat around on the same concrete floor. A good proportion of the audience would be on the line-up at some point. Following the links from flyer to flyer, I took my visiting brother to another place in Newtown, which turned out to be someone’s flat. “It’s like they forgot everything that makes music good,” he said, “but it’s interesting to see the kind of people that get into it.” Actually a lot of the music is pretty good, and although Sydney has a reputation as a musical wasteland it seems to me like the good swampy kind of wasteland and no longer a desert.

Published in: on 19 September, 2010 at 8:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

nobody here

Published in: on 8 August, 2010 at 9:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ah, civilisation

A great essay by Alex Ross provides a counterpoint to Scruton, who is the kind of guy Ross is talking about when he says: “I don’t identify with the listener who responds to the “Eroica” by saying, ‘Ah, civilisation.’”

As it happens, I’ve been reading Ross’s book The Rest is Noise: listening to the twentieth century, very slowly, because it’s unfamiliar territory so I’m tracking down the recommended listening as I go along (and then listening to it). From this essay it turns out I’m exactly the kind of reader Ross was writing for, having got into Terry Riley and Steve Reich backwards, not as the culmination of avant garde classical, but as forerunners of electronica, and having first heard Stockhausen and John Cage via Sonic Youth.

Anyway, check out the essay. Ross is my kind of music critic – sociologist and historian, he tries to explain what happened to music in the culture over the century, classical vs. jazz vs. rock:

The twenties saw a huge change in music’s social function. Classical music had given the middle class aristocratic airs; now popular music helped the middle class to feel down and dirty. There is American musical history in one brutally simplistic sentence. I recently watched a silly 1934 movie entitled “Murder at the Vanities,” which seemed to sum up the genre wars of the era. It is set behind the scenes of a Ziegfeld-style variety show, one of whose numbers features a performer, dressed vaguely as Franz Liszt, who plays the Second Hungarian Rhapsody. Duke Ellington and his band keep popping up behind the scenes, throwing in insolent riffs. Eventually, they drive away the effete classical musicians and play a takeoff called “Ebony Rhapsody”: “It’s got those licks, it’s got those tricks / That Mr. Liszt would never recognize.” Liszt comes back with a submachine gun and mows down the band. The metaphor wasn’t so far off the mark. Although many in the classical world were fulsome in their praise of jazz—Ernest Ansermet lobbed the word “genius” at Sidney Bechet—others fired verbal machine guns in an effort to slay the upstart. Daniel Gregory Mason, the man who wanted more throwing of mats, was one of the worst offenders, calling jazz a “sick moment in the progress of the human soul.”

The contempt flowed both ways. The culture of jazz, at least in its white precincts, was much affected by that inverse snobbery which endlessly congratulates itself on escaping the élite. (The singer in “Murder at the Vanities” brags of finding a rhythm that Liszt, of all people, could never comprehend: what a snob.) Classical music became a foil against which popular musicians could assert their earthy cool. Composers, in turn, were irritated by the suggestion that they constituted some sort of moneyed behemoth. They were the ones who were feeling bulldozed by the power of cash. Such was the complaint made by Lawrence Gilman, of the Tribune, after Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra played “Rhapsody in Blue” at Aeolian Hall. Gilman didn’t like the “Rhapsody,” but what really incensed him was Whiteman’s suggestion that jazz was an underdog fighting against symphony snobs. “It is the Palais Royalists who represent the conservative, reactionary, respectable elements in the music of today,” Gilman wrote. “They are the aristocrats, the Top Dogs, of contemporary music. They are the Shining Ones, the commanders of huge salaries, the friends of Royalty.” The facts back Gilman up. By the late twenties, Gershwin was making at least a hundred thousand dollars a year. In 1938, Copland, the best-regarded composer of American concert music, had $6.93 in his checking account.

All music becomes classical music in the end. Reading the histories of other genres, I often get a warm sense of déjà vu. The story of jazz, for example, seems to recapitulate classical history at high speed. First, the youth-rebellion period: Satchmo and the Duke and Bix and Jelly Roll teach a generation to lose itself in the music. Second, the era of bourgeois grandeur: the high-class swing band parallels the Romantic orchestra. Stage 3: artists rebel against the bourgeois image, echoing the classical modernist revolution, sometimes by direct citation (Charlie Parker works the opening notes of “The Rite of Spring” into “Salt Peanuts”). Stage 4: free jazz marks the point at which the vanguard loses touch with the mass and becomes a self-contained avant-garde. Stage 5: a period of retrenchment. Wynton Marsalis’s attempt to launch a traditionalist jazz revival parallels the neo-Romantic music of many late-twentieth-century composers. But this effort comes too late to restore the art to the popular mainstream. Jazz recordings sell about the same as classical recordings, three per cent of the market.

The same progression worms its way through rock and roll. What were my hyper-educated punk-rock friends but Stage 3 high modernists, rebelling against the bloated Romanticism of Stage 2 stadium rock? Right now, there seems to be a lot of Stage 5 classicism going on in what remains of rock and roll. The Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, the Stills, the Thrills, and so on hark back to some lost pure moment of the sixties or seventies. Their names are all variations on the Kinks. Many of them use old instruments, old amplifiers, old soundboards. One rocker was recently quoted as saying, “I intentionally won’t use something I haven’t heard before.”Macht Neues, kids! So far, hip-hop has proved resistant to this kind of classicizing cycle, but you never know. It is just a short step from old school to the Second Viennese School.

Published in: on 1 May, 2009 at 10:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Bad taste

Is it exaggerating to say that the European classical music canon is now an almost entirely low-brow enthusiasm? At any rate I’ve always suspected people for whom it is the only real music of Philistinism. Now their organic intellectual, Roger Scruton, confirms. He’s been listening to ‘popular music’ and has found a modern group with some redeeming features:

I have actually been listening to quite a bit of heavy metal lately, and Metallica, I think, is genuinely talented. ‘Master of Puppets’ I think has got something genuinely both poetic – violently poetic – and musical. Every now and then something like that stands out and you can see that people have got no other repertoire and have a very narrow range of expression, but they’ve hit on something where they are saying something which is not just about themselves.

PS. What’s the deal with Adorno and music by the way?

Published in: on 24 April, 2009 at 2:41 pm  Comments (3)  


So despite my long absence from these parts Nate has tagged me with this very fun meme about music counterfactuals. Who would I like to have another album from? and who would I like to see live? with time machines available so they don’t have to reform and splutter out again tragically. And most fun of all, who would I like to see get together in a supergroup? Here is an interim report on the last question, breaking Nate’s rule about conciseness but picking up where he left off with the inspired Fugazi vs. Massive Attack.

Jimi Hendrix, Can and Brian Eno

Eno’s not exactly a guitar hero, but he is a great curator of the guitar solo. See Roxy Music’s ‘In Every Dream Home…’ and ‘Bogus Man’, his own ‘Baby’s on Fire’ and ‘Third Uncle’, and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. Here’s how it happens: in 1971 Jimi and the Can boys jam for three days and four nights as house band in a GI coffeeshop in Berlin. Three weeks later Jimi’s found dead in a London bathtub and Damo Suzuki is a Jehovah’s Witness. Meanwhile, back in Vietnam, the frag rate starts to climb… A few years later Eno visits Bowie and Iggy Pop in Berlin. Their dealer says, ‘hey, I have some tapes you might be interested in’. Eno retires to the studio for four days and three nights with Suzuki’s discarded I Ching and a deck of Oblique Strategies. The rest is history.

Tom Waits, his wife Kathleen Brennan, and Einsturzende Neubauten

With found percussion, naturally. Lyrical themes include the collapsing, rebuilding and slow decay of various vintages of architecture; late 1940s letters written home by GIs stationed in Berlin to their wives; the last days of Weimar. Some covers of Brecht/Weill classics, including ‘Mack the Knife’.

Patti Smith and Television

This one kind of really happened since Tom Verlaine hooked up with Smith and played on and co-wrote some of Horses. But I love that guitar and those lyrics and want more, about a thousand dances under a marquee moon on Redondo Beach with that chick Gloria.

Mark E. Smith and Mouse on Mars

Wildman of the people post-punk extraodinaire with gentle German electronic twiddlers?? The Great MES belts out borderline schizophrenic rants and boasts about wandering the city and what he had for dinner, while the whimsical Westphalians ramp up the volume and the discordance and sometimes just let the machines take over. It would never happen… or would it?

Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney and Throbbing Gristle

Live at Disneyland. Heal the world.

Published in: on 12 September, 2008 at 10:13 am  Comments (2)  


I don’t know how you feel about electro-noise music; I go through phases. (Raych, for once I doubt you’ll regret not having a soundcard on the work computer!) But this is the best video I’ve seen in some time. It’s ‘Kokomo’ by Black Dice. It makes me nostalgic for the future time, which is surely not too far away, when all this archival TV and video detritus is dumped onto the net and bandwidth is cheap and easy enough for all the 20th century’s visuals to be searchable and browsable. It will be fun! But as this makes clear, also nauseating.

Published in: on 17 December, 2007 at 5:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Album of the hour


Sonic Youth was the band that turned me into a music collector. I first heard them when this guy Richard in my Classics class passed me his earphones and said I should listen to this song. It was a simple, driving, repetitive riff and a woman growling “now I wanna be your dog” over and over again. I asked who it was and he said “Sonic Youth” and I bought one of their albums right away to hear the song again.

That was Washing Machine, which had recently come out. That song wasn’t on it. As it happened, Richard’s family moved to England (I think) and I didn’t get a chance to ask him what album it was on. These were the days when you still had to buy albums, and my only income source was a $4/hour job I worked at after school two days a week. But one by one I bought every album they had ever released, working backwards. That song was on the last one I got – of course, it’s their Stooges cover on Confusion is Sex. (You couldn’t get their debut EP back then but eventually I found it on cassette, where the whole thing is repeated backwards on the B-side.)

Sonic Youth were a private obsession, my friends tended to be into hardcore, (we would drive into Wellington from the Hutt Valley for all-ages gigs at Thistle Hall) and my girlfriend was into other great 80s stuff like the Pixies. Neither of these were in any incompatible with Sonic Youth of course, but no-one else I knew listened to them. It set me off on a path where I generally got into music by myself, rather than socially, which the internet has only accentuated. At university I worked my way through bands that were in some way connected to Sonic Youth, tastes shifting with new discoveries until by 1999 I was listening mostly to electronic craziness like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Coil.

At that point the whole universe got dumped through the black whole of Napster and… at some point my tastes became ecumenical. I’ve developed a critic’s taste – I listen to everything, as long as it’s good, with a sense of how the scenes all fit together historically, and no deep attachment to any of them. How much this is personal and how much it’s of the epoch I’m not sure. I sure don’t regret getting access to all of recorded music history, but there are things I miss…

Tonight I played EVOL, from 1986, for the first time in several years I think. Despite having heard all too much music since I first got it, it still gets right into me. I see Pitchfork rates both Daydream Nation and Sister ahead of it in their “top 100 albums of the 1980s”. But EVOL is my favourite. It’s so damn dark, more melodic and slower than those other classics. (I’m afraid I haven’t developed a critic’s ability for actually writing about music.) But… it reminds me of a different kind of musical obsession, which is also a different time.

Published in: on 20 September, 2007 at 10:18 pm  Comments (2)  

Nerd + punk = postpunk



So I’m about a third of the way through Simon Reynolds’ history of postpunk, Rip it Up and Start Again, and it’s great. It is shot through with questions about the troubled relationship between bohemia, modernism and radical politics, and eventually I want to write a much bigger post about it. But for now, a few fun facts I never knew:

• That in 1978 John[ny Rotten] Lydon from the Sex Pistols was accompanying Richard Branson to Jamaica as an adviser on reggae. Branson flew the members of Devo over from Michigan, fed them lots of pot, and presented the proposition that Lydon front Devo. It never happened.

• That the last track on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light – ‘The Overload’ – was written by David Byrne as an attempt at a Joy Division impression. Byrne had never actually heard Joy Division but was intrigued by what he’d read and only had reviews to go on to recreate their sound. It does indeed sound impressively like one of Joy Division’s dirgier tracks.

• That Brian Eno was omnipresent and approaching omniscience. (I already knew he was pretty cool.)

Published in: on 30 July, 2007 at 9:45 pm  Comments (4)