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Demos podcast: Edinburgh messthetics - click opera
February 2010
 
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Thu, Aug. 23rd, 2007 12:00 am
Demos podcast: Edinburgh messthetics

This is where it all started for me, musically speaking. Here's the ten-song demo I handed Josef K guitarist Malcolm Ross in 1981, the one that persuaded him to form a group with me. The tape was marked, rather confidently, "Pre-demo demo: Germs of Gems". The artist name was "Group of 1" (a reference to a line on Bowie's song "Teenage Wildlife" -- "I feel like a group of one") and, since the tape's purpose was to get me signed to Postcard Records, I added, cheekily, the motto: "The sound of young bourgeois Scotland". Postcard's motto was "The sound of young Scotland", but the "bourgeois" bit was because on the tape I'd written my embarrassingly posh address: 7 Ainslie Place, where I was living in a Kafkaesque mezzanine between my father's flat and the practice of two old lady psychoanalysts.



What strikes me now about this material is how avant and experimental it sounds. Influenced by reggae dub, by the scratchy-funky "messthetics" of early Scritti Politti, by Eno and Talking Heads and ethnic music, recording lo-fi on cassettes and two track machines intended for my dad's language college, I ended up with a homemade quality which I now find texturally a lot more interesting -- despite the muffled audio quality -- either than the sound of the band the tape led to, or the more folksy-trad acoustic guitar sound I embraced on my first solo album. Closer to what I do now when I record, in fact.

Back in 1980, though, the sound was partly a case of necessity mothering invention -- the guitar I had at the time was a battered acoustic with one string -- the fourth -- missing. That divided the instrument into a two-stringed acoustic bass and a 3-stringed top guitar, which I recorded in separate takes to the little two track cassette machine. It also led to much more interesting arrangements than chordal strumming on a "healthy" guitar. The top guitar, with no fixed tuning, dances or slides glassily about while the bass chugs and improvises below.

My lack of an amp also forced me to invent interesting recording techniques, so there are twanging strings with the mic wedged directly under them, cemented into place with wads of tissue paper, or close-mic'ed harmonics above the bridge. There are reverse-decaying backwards guitars or even rhythm guitars recorded without reference to the rest of the song, and laid in at random in the mix, swaying in and out of time and setting up some interesting polyrhythms. The percussion isn't carried by a drumkit, but by all the instruments playing their own frantic, scratchy, eccentric rhythms, with the occasional cowbell or kick drum mimicked by cups, cardboard boxes, and an anglepoise lamp spring for a cymbal. This is a sound I could happily return to, a kind of funky communist avant pop.

The communist bit is in the lyrics, which pay tribute above all to Brecht ("Antigone" takes its entire lyric from a Brecht poem), but also to The Passage (a highly underrated, innovative electronic band on Cherry Red, with committed leftist lyrics), celebrate the Spartacists, decry puritanism and commerce and demand that "lullabies by liberals for sordid sorts by swimming pools" be stuffed full of cotton wool and fed to the dog. Revolution... but not as we know it, Jim. There's also a strain of Josef K-like "nervousness romanticism", and some Dostoyevsky by way of Magazine ("Its tricks drive me furious when they add insult to injury... Why can't my double learn a little decency?" goes one song, sounding an awful lot like "My Tulpa"-period Howard Devoto).

It's interesting that so little of this material got recorded later. Of the ten songs, only three made it onto Happy Family records. So I guess the tape is almost like a "lost album". For something recorded (Christ!) twenty-six years ago, it sounds quite fresh.

Germs of Gems: Pre-demo demo (12.7MB mono mp3 file, 27 mins 41secs)

Deny It
Spartacus
So They Say
Puritans
My Double
Innermost Thoughts
Antigone
The Salesman
Catalogues
For You

Since I was "blogging" back then too -- well, keeping a diary -- I can give you the context for one of the tracks. Here's my entry for the day I wrote and recorded "Catalogues":

"Tuesday, January 1st 1980

The day's first engagement, Kenny Everett at 3.35, presented David Bowie in a padded cell (Kafka's metaphor for the world) and a kitchen with exploding appliances and windows, singing "Space Oddity". His expression was of bewilderment, fear, his little boy lost manner, used to uneasy effect.

Meanwhile the media paraded predictions, people projecting their own psyches onto the future.

Soon I returned to my two-track machine to regain the purposeful & creative element so necessary. The chief achievement was 'Catalogues', starting as a rhythm track with tin, bottle and shoebox percussion, then gathering layers. Finally it had a stereo vocal, an alliterative, nonsense-cum-critical lyric with stuttering rhythm. I worked some time on different versions, very tensed and eager. Listened to it on the stereo while Father and Chris Garner (colleague in Athens) talked shop; predictions again. Some very bitter coffee compounded the effects of my nervous mood, and I continued my bizarre habits regarding sleeping hours.

Scraps: dinnertime conversation touched the possibilities for my future (Father thinks missionary work!) and the over-exuberance of [name removed] last night, lifting his kilt to his guests, insulting his wife.

The hamster grates his teeth up and down the bars of his cage, widening the furrow in his jaw, as if his life depended on it."

It might be fun to transcribe more of these 1980 diaries... They could have their own blog somewhere! Meanwhile, the only photo of myself at 20 I have to hand is this fuzzy one of me listening to Joseph Beuys.

There's just one more demos podcast I want to release after this, a tape called "Innermost Thoughts" which compiles all my experiments pre-1981. I'm still searching for that one in the cellar. In the meantime, if you want to make donations in exchange for these podcasts, there's a button here.

49CommentReply

electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 12:38 pm (UTC)

"The sound of young bourgeois Scotland"

Oh, you are such a card. I daresay I haven´t laughed this much since last night when I started rereading Cold Comfort Farm.


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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 12:50 pm (UTC)

Do The Bastinado!

I have longed for a reference to The Passage for so long now. One could hear a Pindrop all the way from Anderton's Hall. What happened to bands whose album sides HAD to be 23 mins long AND people would NOTICE that?

"Are you ready, get ready..."

The Passage's Dick Witts is now a Music lecturer at Edinburgh University

We used to play them full blast on ghetto blasters we would take into some of the first Safeways, especially the one out at East Craigs by the dump. The Number 12 bus from there to Prestonpans was one of the longest bus journeys in Edinburgh.

Speaking of busses I spotted a Number 47 in one of those pics. A friends proto New Romantic outfit were struggling for lyrics and I gave them a scribbled poem called "47 home". All broken mirrors and cracked faces. Those were the days!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 01:01 pm (UTC)

We're all cracked facets of the same jewel, Raymond! Or do I mean cranked fawcets?

Somewhere I have a photo of me and Dick Witts posing together in the Gardening section of Borders on Oxford Street.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 12:53 pm (UTC)

Hats off to those recordings, Momus! Have you seen many japanese movies by the way? I have these small memories of a japanese movie I saw several years ago:

When I was younger I saw a Japanese movie about a woman who enjoyed painting poetry on peoples bare naked bodies. She soon had an affair with a western young man who knew a publisher. They start working together and the woman in question writes poetry on the mans body and delivers it to the publisher. Soon though she realise that the publisher and her lover are having an affair as well. She breaks up (I think) with her former lover and start painting poetry on other peoples bare naked bodies. To her publishers own wrath though she has started to paint her poetry more secretively. Her publisher even throws out a man who got her poetry painted on the tounge... Well, there my memory stops.

If you happen know what movie it is, I would be very grateful if you could tell me!


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purplerabbits
purplerabbits
Purple Rabbits
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 03:50 pm (UTC)

It sounds like The Pillow Book which is my sexiest film of all time...


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 12:57 pm (UTC)

You called your Dad "Father"? How Edwardian! I'd totally read a blog of your 1980 diaries. Were you still a virgin when you did these demos?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 01:02 pm (UTC)

I lost my virginity in May 1981, so possibly right between "My Double" and "Innermost Thoughts". Can you hear it?


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 01:04 pm (UTC)

The precise moment it all went wrong for you, Momus. You were seduced into a world for which you're eminently ill-equipped. If Ross had turned you down, you'd probably now be lecturing about design at some trendy art school, and much the better for it.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 01:07 pm (UTC)

Yes, but then we´d all be missing out on posturing and being clever in his journal, and what a loss that would be.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 02:07 pm (UTC)

Apart from Bowie and The Passage, what music would you have been listening to back in 1980? Were you a Joy Division fan? Were you into disco at all? What did you think of all the New Romantic stuff that was going on then? Is there stuff that you hated then and like now, or vice versa? 1979-81 seems like a bit of a mythical time to me, the zenith of post-punk - did it feel like that at the time?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 02:39 pm (UTC)

what music would you have been listening to back in 1980

The other side of the demos cassette goes some way to answering that: it's stuff I taped off Peel.

New Order, Fire Engines, Ludus, The Associates, Rip Rig and Panic and a touch of NDW in the form of Die Partie (a "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" rip called "Die Freiheit des Geistes").

I was also listening to a lot of Wire, and Wire offshoots like Dome, Cupol, ACMariasAC, etc. I was a Joy Division fan, but not enough to bother seeing them live (I remember listening to them through the door of the Aberdeen Capitol, just hearing the throbbing noise, but not bothering to go in). I did like "Closer" a lot, though. Side 2, anyway. I was into Sylvester and Donna Summer, as far as disco went. I was a bit snooty about Gary Numan, but loved John Foxx's "Underpass" single. I liked Simple Minds until they went Thatcherite with all that "big gold dream" rhetoric. I followed Paul Haig's solo career, but found that he never lived up to the greatness of Josef K. We were all impressed, in Edinburgh, by Heaven 17 and the Human League -- that idea of intelligent chart-enterism. (Plus Jo Callis was one of ours.) I also liked people like Thomas Leer, home recording mavericks. And Scritti, and Vic Godard. Orange Juice veered a wee bit too much into the trad, the twee and the sentimental for my tastes. Aztec Camera were too precious and narcissistic. I loved The Birthday Party too. And PiL.

I'd say that period really was -- from the perspective of now and from the perspective of then -- a zenith, a time when independent music really was the most exciting thing happening. The UK music press -- the NME in particular -- was also better than it would ever be again. An incredibly sharp and intelligent paper back then, constantly talking about Nietzsche and Barthes and Camus and Bataille and even Beuys...


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mandyrose
mandyrose
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 03:35 pm (UTC)

Dude, the Joseph Beuys pic caused an oxytocin surge.


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stjamesdawson
James Dawson
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 04:18 pm (UTC)
Awaiting CD Box Set...

Yet another set of songs that those of us who still buy CDs would buy on CD. (Having a dial-up connection is hell...) Throw everything you've uploaded together, make it a box set, thrill the Luddites like me who are in your readership. (And don't forget to include "I Killed a Little Bansai Tree"...)


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microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 07:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Awaiting CD Box Set...

If you want, I could always split up the songs and email them to you one by one. I sympathize with you, up until June I had dial-up, and it was most certainly hell.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 04:22 pm (UTC)

You absolutely MUST blog your 80s diary.


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 04:37 pm (UTC)

this was wonderful. thank you


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microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 07:57 pm (UTC)

Damn it Nick, because of you I had a dream about Brecht! It drove me crazy in my dream trying to pronounce his name!


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 08:13 pm (UTC)
http://www.davidbowie.com/ $64.95

Listened to it while I watched "Women in Uniform" with Nina Mercedes with the sound off. I swear there is some B. Dylan in there. Just add a harmonica. Sort of "MoMUS" unplugged album. Domo


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eustaceplimsoll
Eustace Plimsoll
Wed, Aug. 22nd, 2007 09:04 pm (UTC)

That's fucking great! Why don't you send it to Paw Tracks or something, just for fun?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 23rd, 2007 12:01 am (UTC)

Awesome!
Almost like a lost Captain Beefheart album in parts!
I dig the lo-finess for sure


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 23rd, 2007 06:22 am (UTC)

Excerpt from a Pitchfork interview with Daryl Hall:

"He's enthusiastic about the "anything goes" attitude of the 00s, where pop, punk and soul rub elbows and nobody's too cool to dig "Rich Girl". "What's happening now is the best thing that's happened to music in 40 years," says Hall. "And it's great for people like me, because I am not easy to categorize."

Pitchfork: You've been talking about how the business is more indie, and you have control over your career, and you've got the fanbase, the website, and the history. And I've talked to a lot of artists at a lot of different strata who have that opportunity, who can run their careers that way, and it's really great to see it.

DH: I look at myself as a bit of a pioneer about that too. In the mid-90s, that's when I went indie. We started making indie records out of necessity, and we were trying to figure out how to deal with it. And we've been doing it now since the mid-90s. And I think that our contemporaries are catching up to us. I mean, everybody I know, if they're not indie, they're suffering. You can be Rod Stewart, and be Clive Davis' dog, and have a career at the expense of your artistic soul. I have nothing but negative things to say about that, because I respect him as a singer, and I hate what he does. He sold his soul. And I take that personally.

But if you're not going to do that, and you're not going to scramble around, then you are really out of necessity forced these days-- and luckily, we had the jump on it-- to think out of the box. Even if you don't want to, you've got to. And that's what we've always done. I just say, "Okay, here's a wall, let me go around that wall." And we have ten years of experience on everybody else about that. And we've learned how to do it, we're still learning because it's changing constantly.

I'm into the change, I love it. I love the fact that the record companies are all going down. This is a personal triumph for me. I beat the record companies. Sony Music may go out of business, but I'm not going out of business. And Tower Records, I walked down the street six months ago and saw the boards on the walls, and I went, "I'm still here, and they're gone."

http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/feature/44913-interview-daryl-hall


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Aug. 23rd, 2007 07:38 am (UTC)

I once had nextdoor neighbours who used to play a lot of Hall and Oates. I'm still here, and they're gone.


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