Posts from August 1999

20
Aug 99

97. BEATS INTERNATIONAL – “Dub Be Good To Me”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles of the 90s 

“When they kick on your front door, how you gonna come?” – The Clash’s most palatable, punch-drunk track, Guns Of Brixton, still full of absurd backs-against-the-wallisms but slung along on an insistently rolling bassline. And after all, those were bad times – 1979, a new Tory government, racism and poverty and paranoia. Ten years or so later times were barely better and the same bassline sidles back into the charts, but now surrounded by pastiche radio chatter, a heatstruck diva vocal, bouncing house piano chords and the woozy sound of spinning turntables. Altered state, indeed.

Listening to Norman Cook’s first dancefloor breakthrough hit, it’s a wonder Fatboy Slim didn’t happen sooner. Put simply, Dub Be Good To Me is the Wild Bunch/Massive Attack dub-dance Bristol sound, commercialised before it had even come close to breaking through. The record shuffles the nineties in, sweating atmosphere and hooks – Cook knows how to keep a still pop-oriented mass audience happy by doing something different every half minute while holding the beat rocksteady (the langourous trumpet break is predictable, but what sounds like a duck imitating scratching is classic Cook). And once you hear it, it never quite leaves your head – ten years on, Dub Be Good To Me comes onto a jukebox and the bass still hushes people, nodding their heads for them. In one way it is very dated, though – try leaving that bassline uncredited today and you’d be making Paul Simenon’s lawyer a disgracefully rich man..

18
Aug 99

98. FLYING SAUCER ATTACK – “Sally Free And Easy”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles of the 90s 

A cover of a forgotten fifties folk tune, “Sally Free And Easy” is the track that makes explicit Flying Saucer Attack’s romantic purpose, tightly drawing the strings together which connect their dignified feedback thrum to earlier English art traditions. What results is a record which has slipped out of time: its committment to noise and blur would have barely qualified it as music in 1958, but it somehow belongs more to then than to now, even so.

Maybe it’s because, unlike most covers, this sounds absolutely freed from cynicism. I’ve nothing against cynicism, it’s served me well as a first line of defense against cant and bogusness, but it’s undeniable that this decade has been perhaps a bit too knowing and hard-faced. One way to get away from that is to get off your face on chemicals or noise or both, and to the very casual observer Flying Saucer Attack probably come over as another neo-psychedelic crew, blasted on some West Country heath, a more ruralist Spacemen 3.

Far from the truth. Flying Saucer Attack’s most plainly enjoyable songs remain their brace of fuzzed-up indie covers, which took songs by Suede and Wire and showed that turning up the noise just made them more pop. Though those tracks are far from typical, they point up how FSA at their best used feedback not to get out of it but to get further into whatever was there in the song-skeleton in the first place. In the case of Sally Free And Easy, that means skin upon skin of expressionist noise-gauze which wring every last drop of wistfulness from the song, leaving this listener feeling cleansed.

17
Aug 99

99. THE INVISIBL SKRATCH PIKLZ vs Da Klamz Uv Deth

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

What you hear is not a test – the Invisibl Skratch Piklz are junkyard jazz, the perfectly po-mo sound of pop culture in meltdown. One of the great ear-boggling pop statements, Vs Da Klamz Uv Deth is an absolute triumph of technique, the band having won the World DJ Championships so often they were banned from competing and had nothing to do but head for the studio (where they remain – the drooled-over album still uncompleted).

The turntable workouts of the 80s (by Grandmaster Flash, Steinski, etc.) were tricksy enough, but their main focus was on the soundbite-galleries which unfolded in real-time before gasping listeners. The Invisibl Skratch Piklz know that that particular game is up with the coming of the sampler – their weapon of choice is the scratch, refined and developed to an esoteric degree. In a Grand Royal interview, the DJs making up the Piklz demonstrate their special crabs and flares like an arcane gymnastics: on record the sound is compelling, swatches of abused record noise twisting and angling out of your speakers at headwrecking speeds, but it’s also utterly uncommunicative. The little space-skits at the start and end of the record, the content of the sampled discs, are as goofily irrelevant to the Piklz experience as the ‘atmospheric’ decor in the queue of a spacey rollercoaster ride.

All this gives rise to the worrying thought that the Piklz’ music is off-the-wrist in more ways than one, virtuosity winning out completely over content. That’s maybe why no turntablist album I’ve heard yet has really satisfied. But then listen again to the scorching velocities the scratching achieves towards the end of the 12″, listen for the uncanny newness of the textures the Piklz unleash, and compare it to the smug, limpid nonsense that passes for ‘content’ in most music, and you’ll start scratching your head over why we keep privileging meaning over wonder in the first place.

16
Aug 99

100. METALHEADZ – “Terminator”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles of the 90s

“You’re talking about things I haven’t done yet!” You and anybody else. Terminator is a record that gets ahead of itself, hurled back from some pure-war future to explode into 1992, a musical-fragmentation grenade whose rhythmic splinters change everything. The very word, timestretch, given to the ear-baffling sampling process Terminator inaugurated speaks of something new and uneasy in recordmaking. It sounds almost psychedelic, but there’s little or nothing lysergic about Terminator‘s militarization of the dancefloor.

The facts are as follows: this and its million hardcore brothers represented something fresh, unbearably exciting, incandescently inventive, something that burned across the first half of this decade and briefly knocked Britain reeling. For anyone who noticed, even Johnny-come-latelies like myself, hardcore was and is the nineties’ defining mythic moment, and I could with a clear conscience fill this list entirely with one hundred rave, jungle or drum and bass twelves, and be confident that it had earned its title ‘Greatest’. Why don’t I? Because, although hardcore at its unbelievable peak was everything Freaky Trigger would want a record to be – jaw-dislocatingly futuristic music which is also absolutely, giddily pop – that peak was passed long ago. The records remain, urgent and unarguable, but celebrating hardcore at the expense of all else would feel too much like a wake.

But here’s Terminator, anyway, at the list’s opening, as brutal as ever: its paranoid rhythmic slitherings, its freaked samples, its urgent chirrups, its sickened metalloid wheezings a slap in the face to any dancefloor utopia you might have wanted to name. But unlike the crasser darkness manifest in late 90s drum’n’bass, Terminator (and its fellows) is too alive to ever bring you down, too busy flexing on the power-surge of its own inventiveness and self-sufficiency. The bass pulses like a heart, scared and excited to the point of spasm, and over the top somebody mutters “Terminator is out there”. Damn right.

10
Aug 99

Not A Pope Factory Review: The Critic As Neurotic

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Ingratitude: a key critical quality I’d not much previously thought about, until I got the new CD by Toronto’s Pope Factory through the post. Standing dressing-gowned and bleary-eyed in the hallway of my parents’ house, slimly ominous promo package in hand, the self-inflicted responsibilities of the rock critic weigh heavy on my surly soul. Here we have a nice person called Kim who has personally e-mailed me to ask if I would review said CD and has now paid good money to send “Tom Ewing, Freaky Trigger” this object, gratis. It was at the e-mail stage that my pretensions to rock’n’roll snottiness fell away and I became Hugh Grant, pop critic, all fringe-tossing burbling self-effacement. Why, um, uh, yes, of course, I’d love to review your CD, I mean, are you sure it’s the kind of thing….?

There is after all every chance this new CD by P.F. will turn out to be generically quirksome or blustery alternastodge by people who’ve spent so long up on stage payin’ their doos live that any notions of critical distance or ability to judge their own work have long since vanished out the Transit Van window. In which case I will be duty bound to traduce Kim’s faith in me and my humble site by trashing it in favour of Billie. And yet this prospect fills me with unease and guilt.

(Sidenote: My reluctance to displease Kim is only partly caused by natural Hughness and partly by my inner chauvinist re-imagining this person as a bubbly, yet kinda alternative, PR girl who, like, really believes in this check-shirted atrocity. My pathetic desire to be liked by this vision was dampened by the sudden remembrance that one of the hairier members of Soundgarden was also called Kim, ditto a karate expert at school reputedly able to break an iron bar with his forearm.)

This is not what I fondly imagined getting free CDs would be like, this mixture of worry, faint irritation, and puppydog desire not to offend. I would bet any money that Proper Rock Critics like Dave Marsh have never felt it. I also doubt that the people who fill their fanzines with teeming hundreds of three-liners about Stinkpony or Dumpster or The Warbs get this curmudgeonly or nervois. Mind you they have an advantage, in that they seem to like every last drizzly thing put in front of them and so micro-labels know they’re a ‘safe bet’ and everybody ends up happy.

I’m incredibly suspicious of zines, e- or otherwise, that review mad amounts of things, because it’s transparently obvious that they can’t listen to many of them more than once. (This would, though, explain why to a man their writers like nasty dystopically distorted drum’n’bass like 2nd Gen or Panacea, bad music designed to make its listener feel simultaneously cyborgian and modish and urban and squalid and deep, and also to be listened to precisely once ever.) I’m really just (slightly) envious of ‘zine editors’ firebrand belief in the power of Independent Music to change lives, culture, the world, and indeed their belief that so much of it is actually any cop. I’m also jealous of the way ‘zine editors always seem to live lives of passionate committment, spending long hours in scandalously cheap pubs with attractive yet sensitive members of the opposite sex talking intensely about Polak and the Gentle Waves.

I find myself wondering if Kim has actually read any of Freaky Trigger and witnessed my cosy dilettantish tastes before sending me the radical alternative represented by Pope Factory? Maybe she has and wants to shake me out of my ironized complacency? Maybe – shudder – she has, and knows that Pope Factory will fit right in with my middlebrow, decaffeinated pop outlook? Or maybe she hasn’t bothered to at all.

At the same time I do feel an out-of-proportion honour at being sent the thing in the first place (especially as it comes with a kewl window sticker!), despite grouchness viz. its presumed quality. I tell, separately, Isabel and Al and my mother that “Hey! I’ve been sent a free CD in the post!” All save my mother answer “Who by?” and I say “Pope Factory” and they say “Oh.”. My mother says “Are you sure it’s free?”

In a curious way, too, getting a promo CD in the post makes me feel like I’ve ‘arrived’ as a rock critic, because I’ll be writing about a band no-one else has heard of, and which to the best of my knowledge you can’t even buy (a train of thought which leads inexorably to making bands up completely, a practise more common than you probably think). But this, too, leads to critical dilemmas. Do I give it a fawning review in the hope that somehow this will help the band become ubiquitously huge and inflate the value (current: £0.10 if I know my Record & Tape Exchange) of my rare promo? Do I give it a strong review casually mentioning the names of several less obscure yet similar bands who Pope Factory are, naturally, much better than and who would be nothing if only the blind sheep who like them would think for themselves, i.e. just like me, for once?

The sad truth is that I only get motivated to roast something if I can envisage the £13.99 it’s cost me sitting mournfully in a Tower Records till: the second I start getting this stuff for free I have the horrible sensation of being thoroughly compromised. Probably the best thing to be said for amateur critics is that as actual paying customers they have something at stake in the music, even if it is just money. You could argue that even pro critics get their time wasted by bad music, but unless you’re terminally ill or a head of state, your time is likely to be 90% wasted anyway, so The Bluetones might as well be playing while it is. The downside of amateurism is that people who pay money for music spend a long time desperately trying to convince themselves that it’s good, so amateur rock criticism tends to gush (I actually spend the majority of my listening time trying to find fault in the CDs I buy, which probably explains why my end-of-year lists tend to run out of steam around No.15 and get all carpy thereafter).

The other downside of amateurism is that it means an inevitably narrowed perspective, unless you’re filthy rich. Compiling the (hem hem) long-awaited Top 100 Singles Of The 90s, I’m saddened by how many of them are having to stand in for entire subgenres of music I would probably love but just couldn’t afford to like to much. Whereas the pro critic, drowning in recorded sound, finds this much less of a problem. Is that a reason to believe paid pop critics over the likes of me? Possibly, if you believe that the point of the critic is to act as a guide through the vast slagheaps of accumulated pop, pointing out the few recoverables. But do you? It’s the question at the heart of Freaky Trigger: what is a pop critic for, exactly? And I’d be very interested in any of your replies.

1
Aug 99

HAPPY LIKE POP STARS: The Auteurs – How I Learned To Love The Bootboys

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England under the knife: the second great British pop album of 1999 is a sick and bruised twin of the first. XTC’s Apple Venus painted England as a rustic, mystic utopia, where lives find rest and satisfaction in changeless countryside ritual. How I Learned To Love The Bootboys is its twisted counterpoint, with thwarted ambitions, stillborn hopes and a thousand pointless personal defeats congregating sullenly in the sidestreets and alleyways of that perpetual suburb of pop culture, the Nineteen-Seventies.

Why the Seventies? It’s when Luke Haines grew up, obviously, but it’s also a particularly damp, dark time for British mass culture, when the illusion of national relevancy brought on by the Sixties boom had collapsed. What we, who never properly lived through it, remember from that time is political failure and cultural trivia – chopper bikes, top trumps, Posh Paws, Richard Allen, the three day week, Lieutenant Pigeon, The Rubettes….and this is where Haines comes in.

The minutiae of the Seventies are all that survives of the era in our perpetual, carnival present, and so Haines focusses on them, but he gets the mood right too. Haines’ curdled Britain is the same Britain you see in Gordon Burn’s book on Fred and Rose West, Happy Like Murderers, a country of joyless, pinched lives; the timid and the luckless stumbling about in the dark, then disappearing. sometimes suddenly. Violence, and violent crime, are always bubbling away under the Auteurs’ stark, simple music. Not any more the glam anarcho-violence of Ulrike Meinhof or the Red Army Faction, but a sadder, more rotten kind which the way Haines sings it is lodged in the culture like a splinter. Kids lured into cars and tied up in the boot; suburban kickings on a Saturday night; amateur hitmen hired outside concrete-walled pubs; garage suicides and unwanted gropes.

Where are these bootboys? ‘At tne end of the road / At the top of the charts’ : everything connects, pop music and everyday life most of all. Haines despises the mythology of pop but he can’t get away from it – for every ‘The Rubettes’, where ordinary kids find pop music mocking their attempts to get (it) on, there’s a ‘Future Generation’, which finds Luke hoping, grudgefully, for better times ahead. At times pop mystery and Haines’ repulsed vision blend: ‘Johnny And The Hurricanes’ is a feverish spell, a four minute curse in which Haines has visions of early deaths, black masses, and pop itself sinking back to the smug fifties bonhomie from whence it came. ‘The future’s 1955’ he sings, looking around himself at a sewn-up music business riddled with nostalgia bores, thinking back to the Meek/Parnes era.

Wild interpretation, of course: I should stick to the music, since the lyrics are so cryptic, personal and detailed. And the music is malnourished, in places queasy, but surprisingly varied. The title track resurrects PIL’s paranoid punk-dub lurch with impressive accuracy, ‘Some Changes’ is all over-the-top flourishing and keyboard power chords, ‘Sick Of Hare Krishna’ a spindly acoustic reverie. With five albums behind him, Haines has a tight grip on what exactly he wants from his sound, and knows his limitations. He works his below-average voice to good effect, too, turning its weakness into virulence. Most effective of all is ‘The Rubettes’ and its sickly, desperate reprise, ‘Lights Out’, warping a classically cheesy seventies pop chorus into a ghastly sneer, then surrounding it with taut, thin-sounding guitar pop.

It’s an excellent album, with a couple of caveats – minorly, it sags two-thirds of the way through, with the boring ‘The South Will Rise Again’, where Haines can’t cope with his own scansion, and with ‘Asti Spumante’, whose cut-up lyrics read like Cornershop doing Manics parodies. And more pointedly, there’s a danger in doing this kind of thing that you’ll end up sounding too aloof from the crapness you’re describing (like Bono or Thom Yorke) or that you’ll end up somehow glorifying your grimy subject matter. I think Haines gets away with it, just about, but he’s fallen into both these traps before, with Black Box Recorder and more forgiveably Baader Meinhof. His basic message remains undiluted: England was horrible in the seventies, and it’s scarcely less so now. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves otherwise.