The Buzzcocks – Time’s Up (The Grey Area album, 2000)

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“No-remix demos, all recorded live, no overdubs … October 1976, 4 track, cost about £45.”

For many, the Buzzcocks story starts (and perhaps ends) with their crossover single ‘Ever Fallen In Love With Someone’, a distilled pop-punk gem that was a deserved hit for the band. However, to focus on this single three minutes or so ignores the immense body of work that the band, largely fronted by seminal guitarist and singer Pete Shelley, who died yesterday, have accumulated over the years.

On the surface, Mute‘s decision to release this much-bootlegged collection of early Buzzcocks demos and studio sessions seems ill-advised – except that it really does make a degree of sense. The Grey Area sub-label originally developed as an outlet for re-releases of material that was held to have had a devastating influence on counter-commercial music styles; to this end, re-releasing tracks that influenced a generation of punks and launched the career of Howard Devoto (née Trafford, singer and chief songwriter with the band at this point, later frontman of Magazine and responsible for introducing Barry Adamson to the world) – is every bit as understandable as their re-releases of post-punk pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, Wire and Throbbing Gristle.

I never held much of an opinion in my early years on the perceived greatness of the Sex Pistols, although after watching The Filth And The Fury, I’m prepared to change my mind. Not so my opinion of Buzzcocks, especially on this collection. Their sound, even at this early stage, was less prone to excess, and the songs are delivered with a precision and exactness that carried forward into live (documentary) evidence from the period – just check out the classic post-Devoto Live At The Roxy compilation. These are very much well-executed, catchy underground pop tunes, with only Shelley’s fuzzy guitar work and Devoto’s sneering vocals planting the band in the punk firmament. Other members at the time were John Maher and Steve Diggle.

Social comment is not prevalent here, Howard Devoto’s lyrics preferring to deal with the more pressing post-teenage issues – sex and lust (‘Orgasm Addict’ and ‘Love Battery’ being two of the more crudely obvious examples) and frustration (‘You’re Messing Me Around’, and the classics ‘Breakdown’ and ‘Boredom’). Devoto’s lyrical take is pretty raw here, unlike his studied poetry-like work with Magazine, while still hinting at his future greatness. Knowing his future direction helps understand why a song like the cover of Captain Beefheart’s ‘I Love You Big Dummy’ fits here so damn well.

Eleven historic tracks are presented here, bolstered by a collage of video footage of the first Buzzcocks gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976 – the scene of the Sex Pistols entrance into the Manchester punk movement. What’s worth the entry price alone is the inlay booklet, which is so fat with pages that you can hardly close the case. The content is an obsessive collector’s dream – photos, scribbles, concert setlists etc, as well as the original press release for the seminal Spiral Scratch EP, liner notes from Greil Marcus and a 1977 interview with Devoto. Overall, Mute have done an excellent job on this reissue, marking this out as the most comprehensive, definitive and hopefully final version to date.

Originally posted 2003; re-posted 2018 following the sad death of Pete Shelley at 63 years old.

(c) 2018 Documentary Evidence

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Klara Lewis & Simon Fisher Turner – Care (Editions Mego album, 2018)

Pairing two esteemed sound artists together, Care found Klara Lewis working in collaboration with Simon Fisher Turner across four long, painstakingly-created atmospheric pieces for Editions Mego.

These are pieces built from discrete sonic movements, never quite following any sort of predictable path or settling into formulaic ambient / soundscape familiarity. Opening piece ‘8’ is a case in point – 15 minutes in length and consisting of noisy interruptions interlaced with quieter found sound – conversation, birds, whispering near-silence – each gyration from one passage to another catches you off guard, typically just as you think the track has settled into itself. Electronics are processed into grainy distortion and rhythmic gestures are compressed into harsher shapes, often for the briefest of moments before being harshly cut into silence at seemingly randomised points.

It’s a conceit that Lewis and Turner use across Care without ever once feeling like they’ve settled into some sort of cosy familiarity, either with one another as collaborators, or with the material they’re working with. Far from it – these four pieces are alive with a continual tension and drama, never quite betraying where they might evolve to next, or for how long, or which section might suddenly re-emerge.

Each piece here is subtly different – ‘Drone’, despite its name, isn’t some sort of elaborate, dense dronescape but a piece filled with haunting textures and minimalist piano passages, along with an interruption from what sounds like a mediaeval folk ritual; ‘Tank’ utilises glitchy electronics that seem like they’re writhing out of control, fleeting voices and a processed jazz epilogue that feels skewed toward the point of Lynchian nausea.

The final track, ‘Mend’ starts out with genteel synth chords before becoming elaborately distorted over its full length, though it’s imperceptible at what point the piece lurches from nice to nasty. I was listening to this while descending through the clouds on the way into New York’s JFK. Its evolution from serene drift to noisy texture seemed the perfect soundtrack to the change in vista from uncluttered blue sky to the chaotic sprawl of Queens and Manhattan beyond.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Mick Harvey & Christopher Richard Barker – The Fall And Rise Of Edgar Bourchier And The Horrors Of War (Mute album, 2018)

“With each year that passes there are fewer and fewer of us who have a direct connection to those who lived through the two world wars.” Those were the words of our town mayor at this year’s Remembrance service in Woburn Sands, before he solemnly read out the names of those from here who had lost their lives, leaving an indelible mark on this small community with whole generations of family members eliminated.

Over the years their short lives and contributions are reduced to an etching on a war memorial that few of us even notice other than at the annual Remembrance service. Upon the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Great War, the sacrifice of over a million British service personnel is – rightly – prominently back in focus, serving as a salutary reminder of war’s devastating consequences.

Edgar Bourchier didn’t serve his country in the First World War, at least not outside the imagination of author Christopher Richard Barker anyway. The poet and soldier Bourchier is a fictional character that Barker first created for his 2012 novella The Melancholy Haunting Of Nicholas Parkes, fabricating his Warwickshire birth and Passchendaele death and a vivid backstory of how his poetry took on an entire life of its own following his demise. That include a never-realised Weimar cabaret show, the re-discovery of his words during the turbulent Parisian revolution of the Sixties to ‘new’ realisations his (Barker’s) poetry with Mick Harvey. The Fall And Rise Of Edgar Bourchier And The Horrors Of War is thus a conceptual tribute to the endeavours of an Unknown Soldier that never actually existed, but whom speaks for a whole generation of conscripted boys.

Harvey’s experience as a producer, vocalist and a multi-instrumentalist lends these songs the requisite sensitivity, drama and horror to evoke the realities of life in the trenches, all seen from the first-hand vantage point of a contemporary observer. Veering from wistful, mournful folk on tracks like ‘Listen In The Twilight Breeze’ to distorted, feisty rock on ‘The Last Bastard Son Of War’, this is an album inevitably loaded with dramatic, thought-provoking moments. Harvey leads an ensemble cast including his long-time collaborator JP Shilo, vocalists Jade Imagine, Alain Johannes and Simon Breed across fifteen stirring tracks written collaboratively with Barker. Through these songs we hear the hatred of the footsoldiers toward their stiff upper-lipped superiors and their natural reluctance at finding themselves defending their country in spite of the hollow promises of glory and prosperity.

‘Softly Spoken Bill’ observes a callow young soldier thrust into the role of unwilling cannon fodder, losing the plot as he legs it toward the enemy and ultimately getting sent back to Blighty suffering from an early, undiagnosed, wilfully ignored form of PTSD. That effect on these young men can be heard again on ‘The Expressionist Tell #1’ and ‘#2’, describing the numbing, hollowed-out impact that barrages of mustard gas and incessant mortar fire would have on even the most resolute of individuals, reducing them to ghostly human shields in the name of a greater peace.

To call this harrowing would be a pointless understatement, even as Bourchier’s narrative moves from a sort of forced jingoism to the terrifying, cloying sound art of ‘The Messenger’, in which we hear of the falsehoods of life on the frontline that were forbidden from being reported back home.

As time passes and collective memories fade, we need such honest, unflinching descriptions of the manmade hell-on-earth of war to lead us not into the temptations of conflict as our only means of resolving differences. At a time when ugly, incendiary rhetoric between nations is at an all-time high, as peacetime defence spending is increasing, and as Cold War treaties and agreements are unilaterally scrapped, we need the likes of Bourchier’s posthumous words more than ever – irrespective of their false providence – lest we forget.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Art Brut – Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s Rock Out! (Alcopop! Records album, 2018)

“We’ve got a lead singer. Doesn’t really sing. Lives off his paintings. Got a flat in Berlin.”
– Art Brut, ‘Kultfigur’

Some seven years on from their last LP, much has changed for Art Brut. Two members from the original line-up, Jasper Future and Mike Breyer, have left, while enigmatic frontman Eddie Argos has various taken on the mantle of playwright, comic book writer, death’s door hospital patient, father and painter-for-hire.

Some seven years on from their last LP, much has stayed the same for Art Brut. Honestly, it’s like they never really went away. New drummer Charlie Layton, lately from The Wedding Present, and new guitarist Toby MacFarlaine have slotted so neatly into the Art Brut fold alongside original members Freddy Feedback (bass), Ian Catskilkin (guitar) and Argos that it’s like they always belonged here. The album was faithfully produced with Jim Moray, who also worked with Argos on his musical The Islanders, which was performed at Edinburgh’s Fringe in 2013.

Wham! Bang! Pop! Let’s Rock Out! is everything you want from an Art Brut record – the spiky, punk-informed, joyful guitar pop, the erudite non-sequitur-laden spoken observations of Eddie Argos, cheekily assimilated reference points (Lionel Richie, Phil Spector) and an ethos that’s simultaneously meticulously polished and chaotic by equal terms. In all of those many essential ways, the LP picks up precisely where Brilliant! Tragic! left off and that is a truly fantastic thing; sometimes you don’t realise you’ve missed something until it comes back, and that’s part of what this album charmingly represents, a continuation of something that should never have ever been allowed to fizzle out.

And yet, it also finds Art Brut somewhat changed. This is inevitable. We’re all seven years older, seven years wiser (whatever that is), seven years more experienced and probably seven years poorer. A lot can happen in seven years, and the turbulent upheaval of Argos’s personal life is unavoidably present in these songs. The album seems to pivot on the epic ‘Good Morning Berlin’. Here you find a Blur-ry swagger with antediluvian whistling and jangly ‘Country House’ guitar; it all sounds perfectly cheerful until there’s a slightly melancholy, wistful chord change on the bridge that coalesces into a concluding passage laden with regret, mournfulness and a sense of abject disbelief at the state that Argos finds himself in.

That sharp change in direction seems to reveal the catharsis at work on this album. The songs might sound as full of unbridled joy as they ever did, but here you find Argos working through everything from separation, coming to terms with sobriety, staring at hospital ceilings, watching someone you’ve spent intimate moments together shack up with someone else, and that heart-racing, sweaty-palmed excitement of falling in love all over again after years of comfortable coupledom. Yes, the delivery is unchanged, the wry humour is undiminished, but the content is infinitely more personal.

How you approach Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s Rock Out! depends on whether you want to spend too long thinking through the sentiment of Argos’s words; if you don’t, tracks like ‘Hooray’ or ‘She Kissed Me (And It Felt Like A Hit)’ or ‘Hospital’ just sound like fantastically refreshing power-pop tracks, replete with overamped guitars, glam handclaps, occasional Theremin-like synths, horns and dizzying levels of unstoppable energy. Spend a bit of time in their company and what you find is a band that’s quietly, subtly matured, but still capable of rocking out as if time stood still.

There’s a fire in my soul / I can’t put it out.” shouts Argos on the album’s irrepressible title track, and that says it all.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Berlin Blondes – The Complete Recordings (1980 – 81) (Strike Force Entertainment album, 2018)

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“Like most musical scenes, early synth-pop was littered with groups that didn’t quite make it; bands who should have been more successful than they were but who ultimately watched groups perceived as more deserving of acclaim have huge success and marketing energy bestowed upon them, while they were relegated to the role of mere footnotes – at best.

Such was the case with Glasgow’s Berlin Blondes, who wound up on the sidelines of the 80s synth dawn, already mostly broken up before their solitary album was in the can…”

I reviewed The Complete Recordings 1980 – 81 by overlooked Glasgow synth-pop group Berlin Blondes for the Cold War Night Life website. The album was released on Barney Ashton’s Strike Force Entertainment sub-label of Cherry Red.

Ashton is also the author of the Torsten plays which feature Erasure‘s Andy Bell as the troubled Torsten character. A third installment of the Torsten series is imminently expected.

You can read my review here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Cold War Night Life

Irmin Schmidt – 5 Klavierstücke (Mute / Spoon album, 2018)

5 Klavierstücke is Can co-founder Irmin Schmidt’s first album since 2015’s career-spanning Electro Violet, and finds the composer – ably assisted by Gareth Jones – playing not just one, but two pianos on five spontaneous compositions.

Well, I say spontaneous; one of Schmidt’s pianos, a Pleyel, was prepared following the teachings of his onetime mentor John Cage, whose various prepared piano compositions over a roughly 25 year period are perhaps the best exemplars of adding nuts, bolts and all sorts of contraptions to piano wires to disrupt their typical sound. It is a painstaking approach that few have the energy and artistic vision to undertake, since one needs to almost surrender one’s compositional ideas to the piano before striking a single note; unprepared, a composer may, in their head, create an expectation of what a song might sound like – when prepared, the composer cannot make those assumptions, for the piano will never behave precisely the same each time unless the precise preparations are followed each and every time. It is one manifestation of Cage’s lifelong obsession with chance interventions into the composition process.

Alongside the prepared piano, Schmidt also used a Steinway, his instrument not that much older than the octogenarian composer himself, and the five tracks alternate between both instruments, the Steinway or the prepared Pleyel. Aside from natural studio ambience, no further gimmicky or sonic trickery was employed, even though at times it’s hard to convince your ears that could possibly be the case.

Though I’m generally not a fan of the track-by-track album dissection approach these days, the five pieces here seem to justify individual analysis on this occasion. These are songs that contain a quiet drama, a composer’s natural instinct for melody and the white space in which the notes can float, uninterrupted, unadorned or adorned depending on which piano is being used. They may be formed from complex treatments, but the results are surprisingly sparse, bringing to mind Chopin’s observation that “simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes, and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

I.

Delicate, filigree playing gives way to noisier, percussive sections from the prepared piano. At times, the repeated prepared bass note sounds like a very meditative jazz rhythm section that’s been asked to wait it out in the background, or notes that sound like the extended echoes of a gong.

II.

Rain-like sounds and insistent rumbling infiltrate the natural resonance of the sporadic unprepared piano notes. After a while, the piece opens out into a section that sounds like a clanking Hang pattern, one that is intensely melodic but unrecognisable from a piano.

III.

Percussive, low-register sketches are coupled with high-register sounds not unlike a cymbal. Loud shards of sound arrive without expectation, almost as if someone is driven to emphatically striking the side of the piano.

IV.

Beginning with churning, bass-heavy arpeggios reminiscent of some of Throbbing Gristle or Dome’s most regimented work, the addition of sprinkles of unaltered piano ends up making this sound like some sort of heavily-shrouded exotica or a spontaneous jazz cop theme. ‘IV’ accelerates toward the end into a thunderous, panic-inducing conclusion that leaves nothing but cavernous reverb in its wake.

V.

This is vaguely reminiscent of Jacques Louissier’s interpretations of Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes or a Sunday afternoon Bill Evans session, all gentle, delicate melody and harmonics. That’s the case until the very end, when a clangorous discordancy comes to the fore to bring this outstanding, understated album to a conclusion.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Jon Spencer – Spencer Sings The Hits! (In The Red album, 2018)

Jon Spencer‘s fantastic debut solo album is perhaps exactly what you’d expect from this purveyor of raucous goodtime rock ‘n’ roll, even if you’ve only taken the most cursory of listens to the Blues Explosion, Boss Hog or Pussy Galore.

I reviewed Spencer Sings The Hits! for Clash – click here to read my comments. Bellbottoms are optional.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash