Category Archives: Music

Kate Bush

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Tickets for Kate Bush’s first live concert in 35 years went on sale this morning and within fifteen minutes all 80,000 had gone. The fact she hasn’t toured for so long (and this isn’t really a tour as it’s just one London venue) only partly explains the frenzy. For some reason she has created a hugely loyal fan base over the years which is far out of sync with her fairly modest output (10 studio albums and one tour), including a whopping great 12-year gap in the middle.

When she first turned up on Top of the Pops in 1978 the reasons for a lot of her appeal were immediately obvious – stunning doe-eyed, big-eared teenager in a leotard gyrating in peculiar Lyndsey Kemp inspired dance routines. She had a voice that could shatter glass (Johnny Rotten’s mum called it ‘a bag of cats’) and she sang about Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, that classic tale of tempestuous passion gone wrong. Gered Mankowitz’s photo of her in a skimpy top and no bra on a cold day ended up plastered on the back of London buses and added to the notion it was all about sex – fuelling the rumour that she’d posed nude for Penthouse when that magazine did a photo shoot of someone called ‘Kate’ who looked remarkably similar (the model Kate Simmons).

katebushasabat

In the age of Lady Gaga (and before her, Madonna), Kate Bush seems less remarkable now but at the time she was part of a ground-breaking emergence of women artists taking centre stage in the rock world. Before Punk in the mid 1970s female singers in the UK tended to be winsome folk guitarists and/or Eurovision fodder like Marianne Faithful or The Nolans. Apart from Suzy Quatro, who dressed, acted and sang like a Rocker bloke, women in bands stood at the back, rattled tambourines à la Linda McCartney and looked cute. Punk changed that. On the back of the indie-based shake up of the UK record industry a group of female artists appeared in an explosion of demented music, all going for the same mad stare, letter-box mouth, Miss Haversham couture and weird jerky arm-waving dance routines – Lene Lovich, Hazel O’Connor, Nina Hagen and Kate Bush. Instead of crooning about flowers, puppets on strings and falling autumn leaves they sang about sex and death, and what a bunch of arseholes most blokes were.

Kate Bush was different from the rest. Although she appeared on the back of punk she, by rights, shouldn’t have been as successful as she was. Anything that smacked of pretentious progressive rock or hippy music was roundly sneered at, yet here she was a woman from a resolutely bohemian artist family singing songs about Gurdjieff, Peter Pan and ‘England My Lionheart’. Johnny Rotten, one of the most articulate of the punk musicians, loved her stuff, and not just because at the time her voice was a falsetto wail that took some getting used to.

So why is Kate Bush so popular? I can only articulate my own reasons for being completely in love with her but I think there are a number of things that have led to her accruing a following whose interest and loyalty continually baffles her.

1. She does her own stuff when she feels like it, full stop. Apart from the second album Lionheart which she was pressurised into bringing out on the back of her initial success, and is filled with the songs she didn’t think good enough to put on the debut LP The Kick Inside, she cheerfully follows her own interests and instincts without paying the slightest interest to any other trends. In this she’s a lot like David Bowie, who is a clear influence on her own music. For this reason she’s a role model for anyone who wants to do their own thing artistically and turn left, regardless of whether critics, listeners and the world in general think she ought to go right.

Channelling Eisenstein

Channelling Eisenstein

2. She’s bonkers – often producing stuff that is utterly insane, and yet she rarely misses a step. She has a magpie mind that picks out ideas and images and then bangs them together in weird and wonderful combinations. She’ll sing about sex with snowmen, failed bank robberies in the strangest faux cockney accent, incorporate Bulgarian folk wailing in a song about fireworks and write an ode to the Easy-Care cycle on a washing machine as a metaphor for something or other. She wanted to put Molly Bloom’s monologue to music but the estate of James Joyce said no, so she wrote her own version The Sensual World. They relented in 2011 and let her use the original on her album Director’s Cut, but I honestly prefer her lyrics.

3. She’s surprisingly down to earth. Like Enya her resolute refusal to engage in any self-promotion, and her 12 year disappearing act to look after her son, has led to speculation that she is a weird recluse, somewhere between Miss Haversham and Miss Whiplash as one biographer put it. Either that or she really had gone bonkers and lurked in her mansion terrified of emerging and ballooning on Snickers. In reality she comes across as totally straightforward in the rare interviews she grants (as does Enya) and talks about her own music in a completely unpretentious manner that sometimes borders on the dismissive – famously calling her film based around the album The Red Shoes ‘a load of bollocks’.

4. She simply has no comprehension of the effect she has on other people, often to an absurd degree. Perhaps it’s a symptom of distancing yourself from the music world between albums, but she comes across as genuinely shocked by the response she gets whenever she sticks her head above the parapet. She releases a song in a manner that suggests ‘here you go, let me know if you think it’s crap or not’ and then is baffled when the world goes into meltdown. “It’s all very flattering, but have you all gone completely mad?” she asked, somewhat ingenuously, in one radio interview when Director’s Cut appeared to the inevitable response. Apparently her reaction when hearing of the frenzy around the announcement of her upcoming concerts was a similar WTF?

katebushlion5. She’s very English in her content and treatment – which is why she’s never really taken off in the US. Listening to her music over the ten albums is like dragging a garden rake through an old second hand bookshop with a particularly large children’s section, tucked away in some sleepy market town. One of her biggest influences is Monty Python – which explains the constant strain of comedy surrealism in her songs.

I saw Kate Bush live in 1979 at the Manchester Apollo. She spent two hours singing and dancing her way through what was then her entire catalogue, changing costume for nearly every song. It was incredible and the audience sat open-mouthed in stunned silence till the end, when they went completely berserk. She didn’t tour again, though she put in a few one-off appearances at various shows. She’s performing live again at the end of the year – by some colossal fluke I managed to get a couple of tickets so it’ll be interesting to compare the two. These days her songs run between 7 and 12 minutes and are perhaps even more deranged than before. My mind is boggling already.

Dead Can Dance

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Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard from the early days of Dead Can Dance

Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard from the early days of Dead Can Dance

I was introduced to Dead Can Dance by some very cool French friends in Tokyo, and was immediately sold. Their combination of what can only be described as Medieval wailing, Renaissance dance music and Frank Sinatra does Kurt Weill sent shivers down my spine and I immediately bought all their albums, and the DVD of their concert Toward the Within. At that time they were with the label 4AD, who specialised in Dark Wave, a genre that combines poetic lyrics with floaty ethereal music. Essentially New Age music for absinthe drinkers and despairing poets.

Dead Can Dance is an Australian band consisting of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, along with a number of backing musicians who have changed over the years. Lisa Gerrard is known to most for her film soundtrack work. Her big break came with the movie Gladiator (2000) in which she sang over the closing credits. Since then her phenomenal contralto voice has appeared on the soundtrack to many films and she released a series of successful solo albums. Brendan Perry is less famous. His musical style centres around guitar-backed folk ballads. When Dead Can Dance split up in 1998 (before reforming in 2005) he released an album called Eye of the Hunter, and then faded into the background before getting back together with Lisa Gerrard. His second album, Ark, finally came out in 2010.

Their latest album, Anastasis (2012)

Their latest album, Anastasis (2012)

The two singers have wildly different styles, and approaches to music, and nowhere does this come across more starkly than in the interviews on the live DVD. Lisa Gerrard is clearly as mad as a sack of badgers, has an incredible classical contralto voice, and sings most of her music in a made-up language with her eyes rolled up in her head and her bottom lip aquiver. Apparently the language is known as idioglossia – the invented talk kids use to communicate with their invisible friends and to annoy their parents and everyone else. So don’t bother trying to figure out the words to ‘Now We Are Free’ or the majority of her other songs, it’ll send you mad. Her analysis of her own art also places her firmly on the other side of the barrier that separates Elfland from the Fields We Know, – “People are desperately trying to find a way of releasing themselves from this fleshy prison, you know, and they turn to you and see you escaping momentarily and ask ‘How did you get out?’ and, you know, it’s very easy.” A Yorkshireman’s immediate response to this is ‘Speak for yourself, love,’ but my God her songs are among the most beautiful I have ever heard. If you want to know what the angels in Dante’s Paradiso sound like, listen to ‘Sanvean’, which she sang on the Toward the Within tour and later released on her first solo album, The Mirror Pool.

Here’s another example of the power of Dead Can Dance‘s music and Gerrard’s voice in particular. This is the opening sequence of the 1992 film Baraka set to their song ‘Yulunga’.

Brendan Perry is definitely the more nuts and bolts of the duo – his interviews tend to be along the lines of ‘this drum makes this sound if you hit it here, and different one if you hit it here.” The most bizarre aspect of his music is that he sounds like Frank Sinatra, not surprising considering he counts him as one of his greatest influences. Having said that, he then matches that voice to songs that are distinctly different from, say, ‘Send in the Clowns’ or ‘Fly Me to the Moon’. A lot of them have strong Brechtian undertones, or conjure up elegiac images of forlorn love set among the tattered playbills of departing circuses, or odd Catalan style folk songs. One of my favourites is ‘Fortune Presents Gifts Not According to the Book’ from the album Aion. To hear what sounds like Sinatra sing

What various paths are followed
In distributing honours and possessions
She gives awards to some
And penitent’s cloaks to others

When you expect whistles it’s flutes
When you expect flutes it’s whistles

is disorienting to say the least.

When you put Brendan Perry’s surreal take on post-Swing crooning next to Lisa Gerrard’s spaced-out wailing the effect can only be described as stunning. My favourite song of theirs is ‘Rakim’, an astonishing piece that opens the live part of the Toward the Within DVD. It moves from Lisa Gerrard in full Pre-Raphaelite garb playing a Chinese zither to Brendan Perry giving us his Sinatra in what sounds like faux-Persian, then back to Gerrard for a bit of contralto idioglossia at full belt, ending with Perry singing a poem in English.

Dead Can Dance reformed in 2005 and recently toured again. Sadly I couldn’t make it, but I snapped up their new album Anastasis. While not as stunning as their earlier work, the opening song ‘Children of the Sun’ is as good as much that has come before. For people unfamiliar with their music (except perhaps Lisa Gerrard’s film work) then I’d definitely recommend Aion or The Serpent’s Egg. The live album of Toward the Within is also wonderful.

Here’s the official video of ‘Children of the Sun’, which pretty much sums up the whole Dead Can Dance aesthetic.

Tangerine Dream – Phaedra

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phaedra_cover

I started reading science fiction round about the same time I got into music, and so being a fairly literal minded so-and-so I immediately embarked on a quest to find albums I could read Asimov, Heinlein, and Moorcock, to. Of course there were a few attempts to write directly SF-inspired music. Who can forget The Carpenter’s Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, which I have on my iPod running playlist at the very end? This is because it always inspires me with a last burst of speed so I don’t have to listen to too much of it.

Science Fiction Monthly helped out with an article on SF-inspired rock in one of its early issues, though in retrospect this was more of a trawl through the writers’ record collection. Jefferson Starship’s Blows Against the Empire left me cold. It just sounded like hippy folk rock and even now I have difficulty separating it in my head from Benson Arizona, the theme song to Dark Star. Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets was completely ruined by the Kazoo riff in Corporal Clegg despite the vaguely spacey noises in the rest of the album. Hawkwind, on the other hand, became one of my favourite bands of all time (though only up until their Moorcock-inspired album Warriors on the Edge of Time).  I was still several years away from appreciating just how much SF, and particularly New Wave SF, soaked through David Bowie’s work.

Tangerine Dream

Tangerine Dream

What the article didn’t really touch on was Progressive Rock, and particularly the soundscapes of Mike Oldfield, Yes and Tangerine Dream. I’ll talk about Oldfield another time, but it’s enough to say here that listening to Ommadawn for the first time was my Keats On looking into Chapman’s Homer moment.

This post is about Tangerine Dream, and in particular their album Phaedra which is perhaps their purest work. At this time the band consisted of Edgar Froese, Chris Frank and Peter Baumann. They produced soundscapes by programming enormous analog sequencers and oscillators. They found out that temperature changes caused the music itself to shift, producing what became a characteristic signature of their music.

Tangerine Dream‘s early works build up hypnotic layers of sound over repeated phrases. It’s hard to put into words, but a typical live concert in the mid 1970s consisted of an initial ten minutes of Wubba Wubba Wubba Wubba Wubba Wubba Wubba Wubba laid over a sweeping synth background. After a while a valve would go pop or a coil would overheat and expand and the music would go Wubba Wubba Wubba WOBBA WOBBA WOBBA – at which point the audience, stoned and lying on their backs  on the floor of whatever cathedral the band were performing in, would erupt in applause, shrieks and whistles of delight.

Peter Baumann at the controls

Peter Baumann at the controls

You get the idea. Yet the music is genuinely hypnotic. Whether you have it on in the background when reading or not, it really does evoke alien, cosmic spaces. Of course the problem nowadays is that anyone with a £199 keyboard from Argos can create an entire Tangerine Dream album by pressing two buttons and leaving them on repeat for twenty minutes. Yet at the time Phaedra was released the musicians performed with temperamental machinery fifteen foot high and spent their time running back and forth between bakelite control panels like the desperate factory workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

The classic Tangerine Dream albums are, for me, Phaedra (1974), Rubycon (1975), Ricochet (a wonderfully dark live album from the same year),  Stratosfear (1976) and their magnificent live double-album Encore (1977). After that they changed direction, moving away from their abstract sweeping soundscapes to more easy-listening short-track electronic albums with (shock horror) singing. Listening to post Encore stuff is often painful, although to be fair they redeemed themselves with the wonderfully odd Madcap’s Flaming Duty (2007) which includes the German singer Chris Hausl singing the poetry of William Blake and mispronouncing half the words.

By modern standards, and compared to people like Blixa Bargeld and Alva Noto, Phaedra can sound a bit passé, but only because Tangerine Dream have influenced so many people since they started. I would recommend anyone to stick their headphones on, forget all bourgeois notions of melody and harmony, lie down under a starry sky, turn Phaedra up to 11 and let their brain gently sizzle away for forty minutes.

Nemesis the Warlock – Shriekback

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The anarchist demon alien Nemesis battles the fascist minions of Torquemada

In the mid 1980s England was ruled by a right wing conservative government under Margaret Thatcher. Like Cameron’s Tories and New Labour under Blair they espoused the values of liberty and justice while simultaneously suppressing free speech and clamping down on Trade Union rights and minorities. It was the first time in the 20th century that a British government had deliberately divided the population using ‘Them and Us’ rhetoric. In the wake of the Falklands War Thatcher famously referred to striking miners as ‘The Enemy Within’, an Orwellian divide and conquer strategy used by every oppressive government since the dawn of time. With the trade unions on the run, and traditional socialist opposition in tatters there emerged a new politics of dissidence. Essentially if you create a Them and Us mentality in society and label Them as ‘deviants’ and ‘outsiders’ they, more often than not, will respond with ‘Wahay’ and then set about exposing the cracks in the dominant world picture by making lots of noise. The new discourses of protest coalesced around feminism, LGBT movements and the politics of race, which moved in to fill the gap left by the disappearance of traditional union-based protest against Thatcherite capitalism and all its ills.

Nemesis the Warlock

At this time the comic 2000AD was at the height of its popularity. 2000AD grew out of an earlier comic called Action, which itself had created controversy with its brutal, anti-authoritarian story lines and sparked a brief moral outrage similar to the Horror Comics panic of the 1950s. The main character in 2000AD was Judge Dredd, but perhaps the strip that most closely captured the spirit of the times in Thatcher’s Britain was Nemesis the Warlock, written by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill. The first strip was based directly on the song ‘Going Underground‘ by The Jam, and described the anarchic alien rebel Nemesis being chased through a transit system on a future Earth ruled by the fascist overlord Torquemada and his hooded minions. Subsequent tales made it absolutely clear that the Grand Master Torquemada’s fascist state was the direct outcome of Thatcherism. In one episode the villain channels for previous rulers like himself, including the leader of a British right wing government in the late twentieth century. The essential creed of Torquemada’s state is one of racial and ideological purity, combined with eternal vigilance. His code is summed up by ‘Be Pure, Be Vigilant, Behave’. By definition all non-human aliens are deviants who must be expunged from the galaxy. Nemesis, the demonic alien, leads the resistance against the forces of Torquemada, a battle that played out through ever-increasingly complex story lines.

Kevin O’Neill’s artwork bordered on the hysterically surreal

The main difference between the comic strips in 2000AD and those of, say, Marvel, was the constant current of Pythonesque humour that ran through the stories. Nemesis the Warlock is often very funny, with constant in-jokes and references to the joys of living in 1980s Britain. “Here comes my nineteenth nervous breakdown” says one citizen staring out of the window in the giant planet city of Termight. The style of the series became more extreme and violent as it progressed. Kevin O’Neill really went to town on Torquemada himself, often illustrating him surreal, hysterical detail that added to the overall feverish quality of the strip. The series finished in 1989, with a sequel volume appearing in 1999.

The 80s Indie band Shriekback were huge fans of 2000AD, especially Nemesis the Warlock. Their album Oil and Gold alternates between belting post-punk anthems to reptilian evolution, anarchy and decadence, and eerie ballads describing a post-apocalyptic wasteland. “Shameful and naked, out there in the great cold outdoors we have to learn these things again” are the lyrics to the haunting track ‘Faded Flowers’. The single ‘Nemesis’ is a direct tribute to Nemesis the Warlock, with its bizarre refrain “Big Black Nemesis, Parthenogenesis, no-one move a muscle as the dead come home.” In the video to the song you can see Nemesis the Warlock himself hovering in the shadows at the back.

Shriekback

You can view the video for Shriekback’s Nemesis on YouTube

The complete Nemesis the Warlock series is available from Rebellion in three volumes, though sadly the first one appears to be out of print.

Space Ritual

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In the mid 1970s New English Library published the magazine Science Fiction Monthly, a huge format magazine which reprinted book covers by the likes of Chris Foss and Bruce Pennington for teenage boys to stick on their bedroom walls. Interspersed with these were short stories and articles, including one about science fiction in music. This was just before punk and the UK music scene was dominated by Glam Rock and the tag end of Progressive Rock, mixed up with some of the most horrendous rubbish that has ever been pressed to vinyl.

Out of all the various bands and singers who occasionally nodded in the direction of SF (David BowieGongYes etc..) Hawkwindstood out as a band who, through their links with Michael Moorcock, deliberately set out to write music about their Acid-addled vision of a dystopian future. By this time the personal rot was well embedded and I was consuming anything to do with SF at a rate of knots. The article went on at great length about Hawkwind’s live album Space Ritual so I dutifully saved up the princely sum of £4.00 and toddled off to W.H. Smiths in Harrogate to buy the cassette.

Now up to this point my experience of modern music consisted of mainly Sérgio Mendes & Brasil 66The Beatles and singing along with my dad to 8-Track cartridges of Sinatra on the way to school. I was too young to be into bands like The Who, and it would be another four years before my brain would be irrevocably fried by the sight of Kate Bush rising vertically out of a bank of mist to screech Wuthering Heights at the nation, and the sound of The Clash hammering out Tommy Gun.

So the first time I put Space Ritual on it seemed like the most unholy din, especially as it begins with what sounds like a cat being forced down a toilet. However, being a persistent little so-and-so, I kept playing it in the background until one day something clicked and I realised just how brilliant the album is.

Space Ritual is essentially one massive heavy metal jamming session combining guitar, drums, synthesizer, saxaphone etc and interspersed with short pieces of poetry describing the experiences of a spaceship crew flying through the universe in a state of suspended animation. I’d heard nothing like it then, and nothing like it since. To my unprofessional ears it sounds like the strangest combination of hard rock and jazz, lacking in all of the stupid posturing that characterises most heavy metal, and without a lot of the pretentious artiness that plagued other Progressive Rock bands like Yes and Genesis. It’s interesting to note that Punk bands like the Sex Pistols, who were openly contemptuous of prog rock, liked Hawkwind, probably for their raw energy and anarchic delivery.

I regret never seeing Space Ritual live. According to the BBC 4 documentary the band were out of their heads most of the time, which helped their music no end, and were often accompanied by the dancer Stacia who one night climbed on stage, took all her clothes off, added her own interpretation of the band’s lyrics to the show, and thereafter became a semi-permanent fixture.

Hawkwind produced two more studio albums: Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974) and Warrior of the Edge of Time (1975) (in which Michael Moorcock reads poetry based on his Eternal Champion novels). In 1975 Lemmy was kicked out because he was wrongly arrested by Canadian border police for drug offences. (a bit of a hypocritical move given that the rest of the band relied on Acid for much of their inspiration). The departure of Lemmy, who later formed Motorhead, was, in my opinion, a musical disaster. Everything after 1975 seems tame compared to the sheer free-form energy of Space Ritual.

I realise that this kind of music’s not to everyone’s taste but for me Space Ritual is one of the very rare albums I’ve never tired of, even after 36 years.