Inside the Whale
Mega Dodo (CD/LP)
Live in London
Mega Dodo (CD)
Mega Dodo (single)
If there’s such a thing as a supergroup in these dark and dismal times, the Honey Pot is probably it. Helmed by the scintillating voice of Crystal Jacqueline and the wizard guitar of Icarus Peel… whose own union, of course, is familiar from Jacqueline’s own stellar albums… abetted by Simon Fear, John Wyatt and Wayne Fraquet, the Honey Pot take its lead from the sounds which that pair have made their own, but expands them further, into realms most easily allied with the best of sixties psych, but traveling way beyond that, as well.
’Tis easy, after all, to simply crack open a copy of My First Psychedelic Reference Book, and rattle off highlights of the index, and yes, there is indeed a hint of an Airplaney Barrety Madman Running Through Grantchester Meadows at work. But far more fascinating than the group’s influences are the moments that render the Honey Pot so unique – aspects that, hitherto, were probably most apparent when they turned their hands to a cover version, but which come screaming out of Inside the Whale, as though the members had never even dreamed of bathing at Baxter’s.
Jacqueline’s voice, so precise and well-mannered in both tone and delivery, is instantly, exquisitely, recognizable… a comparison with Judy Dyble would not go amiss, but it’s the Dyble of recent albums, more than her days with Fairport Convention, whose echo you’re hearing – that sense of timeless beauty seen through the prism of paradoxically passing time, defying you to put your finger precisely upon which quality rings loudest in your heart, knowing only that it touches you deeply.
Which is where Peel steps into the spotlight, the author, producer and arranger of the magic that first unfolds, and then embeds itself around vocals and lyrics, buoyed upon an imagination which likewise refuses to be locked into any particular musical “moment.”
That the psych comparisons are so easy is, in a way, his doing – but only because (and this is the important point) psych remains the blueprint for any musical endeavors that refuse to take the easy way out of a song. Guitars butterfly, organs hum, echoes echo, melodies dissolve into passionate passages of effects and emptiness, and whatever the last instrument you expect to hear might be, you can bet it’ll have a starring role somewhere. In any other art form, we’d call it an esoteric vision that leads you places you never dreamed of. In music, we blame Auntie Peculiar’s Dislocated Budgerigar.
Nine tracks consume the album; four more devour the single, the first release in Mega Dodo’s mega-packaged Singles Club, with the insanely catchy “Lisa Dreams’ hopping and bopping along on a melody that simply cannot stand still. If you remember Fatal Charm, a post-electro duo whose solitary album was among the brightest spots of 1986-or-so, you might spot a few familial (as opposed to familiar) flourishes, but the diving. driving “Into The Deep” chases them out of sight, before the sweet “Poppy Surfing” and the foreboding “Three Sisters’ wrap things up with a couple of other faces to this most remarkable of bands.
Remarkable because not only are they a whizz in the studio, they can also carry off the same effects in concert. Live in London is a ten track trawl through past Honey Pot highs, with their so-unique vision of “White Rabbit,” a blueswailing “Hush” and a positively incendiary crash through “Hey Joe” the most obvious points of entry for anyone lured in by reputation. But again, it’s the originals that stand tallest… and the originals that chase pop’s past back into the shadows where it belongs.
Fleischerei – Music from Max Fleischer Cartoons
You’ll have to go a long way to find another album this delightful, this delirious and this all-round “oh my goodness, I must play it every day until all my neighbors beg for mercy.” Which, believe me, will not take long.
The last we heard of former Beefheart (etc etc etc) guitarist Lucas was a couple of years ago, and his spellbinding collaboration with Peter Hammill, Other World. So it makes sense, given the musical contrariness that has floated through the remainder of his career, that Fleischerei should be the polar opposite. And how!
The brief was simple. To recreate the sound and soundtracks of all those killer cartoons that dominated popular culture through cartoonist Max Fleischer’s years of greatest omnipotence… which began in the 1930s, when he rivaled Walt Disney for cartooning gold, but was still thrilling TV audiences three decades later.
Popeye and Betty Boop rule the roost, and Lucas has traveled these paths before, with a medley of their songs back on 1998’s Busy Being Born; he titled it “Fleischerei” then (it’s German for “butcher’s shop”) and the name stuck when he was moved to repeat the exercise over an entire CD.
Sarah Stiles voices Mae Questel’s original impression of those ultimate flappers, Betty Boop and Olive Oyl, but it’s not just the voices and intonations that she recaptures, it’s the sheer goofy good time energy of the girls, and also, though this scarcely registered with the cartoons’ intended audiences, the musical prowess that surrounded them.
This is period pop at its apex (Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway both guested on the original soundtracks), and behind Stiles’s show stopping frontline, Lucas and band recapture the sheer mayhem that was Fleischer’s vision of the music – “a crazy askew world,” say Lucas’s liners, made up of “low-down Harlem jungle jazz, Yiddish music hall turns, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway show tunes.”
Slinking trombones, brash’n’bright bass, percussion that brushes like footsteps across a darkened boudoir, and above it all,that maddeningly distinctive voice, half squeak, half slur, half giggle, half purr.
Eleven tracks take us through the highlights of the canon, from the obsessively contagious “The Music Goes Round and Round” to the maddening “Don’t Take My Boop-Oop-A-Doop Away” (and up there with “a wop bop a loo bop” and “gabba gabba hey,” has there ever been a more spot-on one-line summation of the sheer ecstatic energy of music?); the twelfth, “Beware of Barnacle Bill,” then packs us off with nothing less than a full recreation of the original 1935 Popeye cartoon, music, sound effects and dialogue included.
Which leaves you with no alternative but to go back to the beginning and play the whole thing again. And again and again and again.
Live at the Half Moon
Mega Dodo (CD/LP)
Of all the “oh my God, not another” reformations and revivications that have pocked the last decade like teenaged acne, a handful step forth to send all your cynicism sailing away, and Tír na nÓg are certainly one of them.
Rising and falling in the early 1970s, and only sporadically revived since then, the duo of Leo O’Kelly and Sonny Condell reunited for an astonishing Fruits de Mer single in 2014; followed through with an equally laudable album last year; and now cement their return with a live set that allows old and new to stand together, and the intervening decades just tumble away.
Now as then, they have a very full sound for a simple duo, a wash of instrumentation that hangs behind the lyrics like a third voice. Kicking off with the now-aptly titled “Time Is Like A Promise,” the opening cut from their debut LP back in 1971 (“Looking Up,” from the same album, appears later) the set delivers a strong snapshot of past glories, but an economical one as well – “The Lady I Love” and the CD bonus track “Two White Horses” represent their sophomore set; 1973’s Strong in the Sun delivers just the propulsive “Free Ride”; and“Eyelids into Snow” dates from Condell’s solo doings during one of the band’s longer lay-offs.
The remainder is otherwise predicated around last year’s The Dark Dance – but this is no repeat performance. Live, songs that the album set in stone shrug off past trappings and begin again… the show stopping “Ricochet,” the lovely “You In Yellow,” the wry “I Pick Up Birds at Funerals” and, most impressively of all, the somber “I Have Known Love” hang like gentle incantations over an audience whose silence feels like a collective holding-of-the-breath.
That is the kind of album this is; an evening in with a handful of friends who know secrets that you have never guessed before. And, once again, one of the most welcome returns of recent years.
McGough & McGear
Mark Powell’s liner notes hit the nail on the head: McGough & McGear is “arguably one of the most original albums to be released at a time when the creative arts and popular culture in Britain was thriving… defin[ing] the era in which it was created as much as… Sgt Pepper… or… Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
Its makers, of course, are less well-known – okay, so McGear was Paul McCartney’s brother, and the pair had been haunting the charts for a couple of years as two-thirds of the comedy-poetry-fueled Scaffold.
But McGough & McGear was a … not far cry, but a distant one all the same… from the family favorites fun of “Thank U Very Much” and “2 Day’s Monday”; a glorious blend of above-average period madness, biting poetic interludes, silly voices and full-bore psych. The opening “So Much” and the closing “Ex-Art Student” bookend that latter scene, and are responsible for whatever immortality this album has mustered, via the very audible presence of Jimi Hendrix on guitar, howling wah wah while the likes of Graham Nash, Dave Mason and Paul McCartrney throw their lot in as well.
But McGough & McGear is worth far more than that, as it marches on through the apocalyptic spoken-word of “Little Bit of Heaven”; the oddball chant of “Basement Flat”; the touching poetry of “Summer with Monika”; the silliness of “Mr Tickle”; and a spectrally-styled prototype for Scaffold’s next hit, “Do You Remember.” Recorded by McGear and a piano-pounding McCartney alone, McGear prefers this version to the more familiar hit, and he’s probably right.
It’s not a concept album, but it hangs together as though it were one, with songs and poetry blending around a sound and production that could not have been created at any other time (and would not have wanted to be, either). Powell’s opening panegyrics are correct, then – if you haven’t heard this album, your understanding of that entire era is hideously flawed; and, if you have, you owe it to yourself to pick up this reissue.
Typically thoughtful Esoteric packaging and liners are wrapped around both the mono and stereo mixes of the album, and while there’s no bonus tracks, for once we probably don’t need them. Like Pepper and Piper, McGough & McGear is perfect as it is.
The Last of the Teenage idols
Universal (box set – 14 CDs)
Fourteen CDs and you can probably hear the gnashing from miles off. Fourteen CDs remembering the immortal, sensational, Alex Harvey… a beautifully designed package, ten-inch square with the discs across two folders and a hardback book jammed with some fabulous photos… an entire career lovingly laid out via expanded editions of the key LPs, out-takes, live cuts, unreleased goodies… and isn’t it just like a collector to bemoan the tracks that didn’t make the cut?
An out-take from the Considering the Situation anthology. Great chunks of the last two albums Harvey released before his death. Swathes more of his starring roles in the Hair Band and Rock Workshop. The “lost” (but then found) Shel Talmy tapes. One solitary live cut from his first BBC In Concert. In and of themselves, nothing that really matters too much.
But for the sake of what would probably not have amounted to more than one additional disc (two if you add the Loch Ness Monster album that he curated in 1977), what could have been the complete Alex Harvey instead winds up as the almost-complete Alex Harvey, and you have to wonder why. And then you have to quit whining and marvel at what is included.
Fourteen CDs, and twenty years to cram into them. We begin with Harvey’s Hamburg years, a couple of albums recorded with his Soul Band, and a blues set taped with his brother Les. There’s all the singles Harvey cut through the sixties, a storming version of “Agent 00 Soul,” and a freaky collaboration with a new band, Giant Moth. 1969’s Roman Wall Blues is here in its entirety, and so is The Joker is Wild, an album’s worth of turn-of-the-decade demos and out-takes that made it out in the Netherlands around the same time as the world agreed that Alex was Sensational.
And they agreed because he told them so.
The opening words on 1975’s Live album preserve the boast, but he’d honed it to knowing, leering, perfection four years before that. From the first time he ever set foot on stage with hard rockers Tear Gas conscripted as his co-conspirators, Harvey knew exactly what he had behind him. And the Sensational Alex Harvey Band never let him down.
Never let us down either.
We’re five discs into the box, and so far, so good. The sixties are over and Harvey is still struggling to make an impression. A member of the pit band at the London production of Hair, he dominated an album of one of that band’s rave-ups. He joined Ray Russell’s jazz fusion Rock Workshop, and is all over their output as well. He even formed a band with Mike Oldfield on guitar but it was already going nowhere… and then he met Tear Gas.
Eight of the remaining nine discs tell the story of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band in almost forensic detail. Almost. There’s a few live recordings knocking around that didn’t make the grade (but a few that did, as well), and the aborted album that SAHB taped with Shel Talmy (released a few years back as Hot City (the 1974 Unreleased Album) barely even scrapes a mention in the liners, let alone a berth aboard the box.
But all eight of SAHB’s official releases are here in their entirety, each one laden with additional material – concert recordings, BBC tapings, a spoken word promo, b-sides, rarities. “Satchel and the Scalp Hunter,” one of Harvey’s most underrated flashes of storytelling brilliance, makes its CD debut here, and so does “No Complaints Department,” the last song SAHB ever recorded together, and when you hear it, you might understand why.
The aforementioned Live album is expanded beyond the miserly seven songs that graced the original vinyl, doubled in length with the remainder of the show, and maybe perfectionists could complain that three of the extra tracks turn up on the previous disc, rather than flowing in the form of the original show. But we move on.
Hidden gems abound. “Amos Moses,” SAHB’s wired rewiring of the Jerry Reed oldie. “The Mafia Stole My Guitar” – classic SAHB dressed in the solo Alex’s stripy shirt. “Big Tree (Small Axe),” a late-in-the-day appropriation of the old Bob Marley & the Wailers classic. A reading of “Next” on the Old Grey Whistle Test that still leaves first-time listeners reeling, shocked and awed. A live take on Lieber and Stoller’s “Framed,” with Harvey hilariously rewriting the plot around Adolf Hitler. The unutterably moving “Anthem.” “Tomahawak Kid” – Robert Louis Stevenson meets the greatest rock band of the age, and the sound of 2,000+ onlookers singing “yo ho ho” along with the band.
And “I Love Monsters Too.” Harvey was one of the greatest rock songwriters who ever walked this earth. But he could write magnificent nursery rhymes, as well.
And so on and so forth. Fourteen discs, 271 tracks, fifty-nine making their official CD debut, twenty-one previously unreleased. A sixty-four page hardback book packed with photos. And a remastering job that will have you burying all your old Harvey CDs in the garden, because they sound like pesh (Google it) alongside this.
Well, I say bury them, but you will need to hang onto a few. So come on, let’s all gnash together….
Post Pop Depression
Loma Vista (LP/CD)
It’s been a rough few years for Iggy Pop fans.
A few years? The man responsible for five of the most immolating albums in rock (the first three Stooges, The Idiot and Lust For Life, plus a sixth in the live TV Eye) paused to admire the view with his next pair (New Values and Soldier), and then hit the downward slope. Party was poor despite “Pumping For Jill” and “Bang Bang”; Zombie Birdhouse simply plunged into the abyss, and it’s been blah blah blah all the way since then.
It’s not been relentlessly grim – you could probably make one great Iggy album from the best of the albums that have fallen thereafter… usually by taking the last (or thereabouts) track from each successive album, because traditionally, that’s what he saves his best for. The song that “nobody’s going to like,” as he puts it. “We Will Fall” on the first Stooges album, “African Man” on New Values, “Caesar” on American Caesar, “VIP” on Beat ‘Em Up. As he said himself, “come on, it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t do that.”
This time around, it’s… ah, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Advance word on Post-Pop Depression insisted it was the comeback we’ve been waiting for. With Josh Homme stepping into the “key collaborator” role that only James Williamson and David Bowie have truly made their own, it was evident from the outset that the vista would shift considerably from the metallic autopilot that best distinguishes Iggy’s worst records. And, from the moment the swaggering pop of “Break Into Your Heart” kicks into its stride, its clear that the promise will be vindicated. It’s not the best song Iggy’s ever written. But it’s the best he’s sounded in a long time, and things only get better from there.
“Gardenia” is a choppy rocker that doesn’t really do much, but has a lot of fun while it’s doing it; but Post Pop Depression breaks into a sprint with “American Valhalla,” a creeping bassy blurge which conjures up memories of the tour Iggy undertook with Sonic Smith in ’78 – in between albums and even record deals, he was at his most uncompromisingly improvisational throughout, conjuring songs like “Set ‘Em Up Joe” and “One For My Baby” out of the ether, and really not giving a damn for reputation. The lurching funk of “American Valhalla” fills the same kind of void.
“In The Lobby” maintains the mood, and throws a malevolent chant into the mix, while side one’s closing “Sunday” clashes slashing guitars with war drum anxiety, Iggy’s darkness with backing vocal chirpiness, and if there’s not yet been anything that you know will live as long as, say, “TV Eye” or “Mass Production,” still it can stand in the same room as them, without being thrown out of the window by the big boys.
Side two kicks off with “Vulture,” and now we’re into the hard stuff. An acoustic answer to the metallic Pop’s most irritating excesses, the backing vocals this time match the foreboding in the Iggy vox; and drive you straight for the shattered soundscapes of “German Days” – which might not be directly concerned with Iggy’s own time in Berlin, but could certainly have been conjured during the same rush of energy that he experienced back then.
Even his vocals sound younger, and he keeps that up across “Chocolate Drops,” an uplifting ballad of self-affirmation that feels more like a Bob Dylan song than a son of Iggy Stooge… at the same time as it gleefully coarsens all the old canards about snatching triumph from adversity with a hook that insists “shit turns into chocolate drops.” Yeah, thank you for that image. And for the song.
And all of this leads up to the biggie. The monster. The song that “nobody’s going to like.”
“Paraguay” starts out innocuously enough, an ode to heading off to the country of that same name, to escape all the hassles of modern life: “I just thought ‘well, fuck it man, I’m gonna pack my soul and scram.”
The lyrics make you smile, the backing is bright and cheerful. There’s even a “tralalala” or two, to keep everything buoyant and busy.
And then it turns nasty. A staccato guitar slows the momentum to a grind; the backing singers switch to declamatory mode; and Iggy … okay, there’s a lot of talk, from Iggy and elsewhere… that Post Pop Depression will be his last album. Time will tell, but if it is, “Paraguay” is devoured by his valedictory recitation, and it doesn’t make comfortable listening.
Railing against critics and fans, pressure and power games, industry and insanity, against all the things that have turned the simple process of living your life into a disease-ridden obstacle course filled with self-obsessed witch hunts and a refusal to listen, “Paraguay” wraps up with one of the most powerful adieus in recent recorded history… a withering, incinerating stream of targeted abuse that makes the closing moments of Metallic KO sound like a nice night at the opera.
About what you can do with your laptop. About what he’d like to do with you. And who else he’d like to see doing things, too. It’s brutal, it’s rude, it’s laden with obscenities. And he has never sounded so honest in his life.
And at the end? At the end, he concludes, “I’m sick and it’s your fault. I’m gonna go heal myself now.”
If this is Iggy’s final album, somebody is definitely going to be suffering post-pop depression in the years to come. But it probably won’t be James Newell Osterberg, Jr.
A Curious Feeling
Esoteric (both CD/DVD)
Broach the theme of solo Genesis spin-offs, and the headlines inevitably flock to the hits… Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Mike & The Mechanics.
Absorb the music itself, though, and the true spirit of the band lurks within the output of those other crewmen – Anthony Phillips, who might have left in 1970, but followed a parallel course of entirely his own design; Steve Hackett, whose output has sailed close to the mothership in terms of crowd-pleasing covers, but who never lost sight of why that mattered in the first place; Mike Rutherford, whose Smallcreep’s Day remains an unsung hero of the entire band story; and Tony Banks, whose melodic genius was perhaps the most crucial aspect of that tale throughout its telling.
Banks’s solo career received a wholly unaccustomed glimpse of the spotlight with last year’s A Chord Too Far box set, a round-up of the finest moments from each of his own-name albums. Now Esoteric plunge into those albums themselves, beginning with a pair of double pack offerings that restate Banks’ first two albums as CDs and Surround mix DVDs. And they are every bit the masterpieces they always used to be.
Of the two, the debut A Curious Feeling is the finest, and not only because it opens with what might almost be termed a Genesis out-take… “From The Undertow” was Banks’s original intro to the main attraction’s “Undertow,” dismissed as “superfluous” by his band mates, but in fact a piece of music that would have graced, in all its foreboding glory, almost any one of their albums so far.
Not especially surprisingly, A Curious Feeling is a concept album of sorts, a suite of songs based around Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon short story. But knowing that is irrelevant to enjoying the album.
Banks’s liners refer back to another Genesis oldie, “One for the Vine,” “in which I explored a variety of my musical ideas in a ten minute framework.” A Curious Feeling took that self-same notion and spread it across the entire length of the album,.
With Banks playing every instrument bar drums (Genesis’s Chester Thompson filled the space) and vocals (by sometimes Hackett collaborator Kim Beacon), and with his so distinctive keyboards the most dominant sound, of course there are moments when it feels like a long lost Genesis album has resurfaced. Particularly during the instrumental passages.
It’s only a theory, but when Banks bemoans the album’s commercial failure, one wonders whether it was the simple dislocation of hearing someone else singing for Genesis that turned so many people away… and before you object, remember this.
Even before Phil Collins took over from Gabriel, his was the voice that sounded in the backgrounds, stealthily accustoming us to his tones long ‘ere he took the lead. Beacon (like Ray Wilson in years to come) did not have that advantage. For all his formidable talents, he just sounded wrong.
But, whatever the world’s misgivings may have been, he was right for this album, just as Banks himself was right for his second solo set, 1983’s The Fugitive.
Genesis themselves were firmly into synthi-pomp-pop mode by now, and The Fugitive doesn’t disappoint anyone who might fancy more of the same. The sound is indisputably early-mid eighties production heavy, alive with all the noises that seemed so up-to-date at the time, but were dated before the records were even pressed; “This is Love,” the album’s first single, even sounds a bit like Howard Jones, albeit with a herd of gorillas on drums, and a Daryl Stuermer guitar that positively flares.
Matters do calm down elsewhere, but The Fugitive remains a highly strung collection of songs, so much so that when it does lapse into retrospection (the frail “Say You’ll Never Leave Me,” the moody “Thirty Threes”), the effect is almost jarring… in a good way. but a noticeable one all the same.
Add that to the album’s overall avoidance of the worst of the excesses that marked (or marred) his day job’s activities, and The Fugitive ultimately emerges at least the equal to its better-known peers, and occasionally their superior. Genesis lore still wonders how Rutherford and Banks could have rejected Phil Collins’s original offering of “In The Air Tonight,” and forced him to go off and record it alone. It should also feel the same about “By You” and “And the Wheels Keep Turning” here.
As always with Esoteric, the packaging (a double jewel case for Feeling, a digipack for Fugitive) is superlative, with Banks’s liners telling both stories well. The 5.1 mixes are as dramatic as you could wish, and whether or not your appetite was whetted by the box set, these individual offerings should send you off to investigate immediately.
The Machine Stops
Cherry Red (CD)
Time was, a new Hawkwind album would have seen the ticker tape flying from upstairs windows, while cheering crowds gathered at the record store door, awaiting release date with ill-concealed impatience.
Too many years and, perhaps, too many less-than-stellar albums and line-ups, have seen those crowds decrease to little more than a handful. But Hawkwind march on regardless and, with the band having certainly regained a lot of vintage power across the last three or four new releases, The Machine Stops steps forward and demands the return of the masses.
Their first new release since 2012’s Onward brings Hawkwind back to the sci-fi concept territory that… yes, you’ve heard that so often since days of yore that you’re probably yawning already. But remember when the notion was fresh, and the likes of Zelazny, Ballard and Clarke combined with the band’s own in-house denizens, Michael Moorcock and the late Robert Calvert, and take fresh hope from the memories. For The Machine Stops’s take on the EM Forster novel leaps to life as vivaciously as almost any past glory.
“The Machine” even feels right, a rabid rush through riff and rhythm, with flourishes like starbursts erupting all around it. No, it’s not “Born To Go.” But it was born to go regardless.
There’s not an ounce of fat in sight, nothing to disturb the glorious roar of the spaceship Hawkwind in full and fiery flight. The last few years have not been especially kind for the band, for sundry offstage reasons as opposed to on-, but they also grasped the opportunity to take stock of their most magnificent past, and the template to which one’s ears keep returning here is an album that they themselves revisited for a recent tour, 1975’s Warrior on the Edge of Time.
There’s the same immaculate sense of continuity, the same grasp of light and dark, the same moments of brutal warp drive propulsion shocked by oases of anticipatory calm.
Nor, like Warrior, is it an album that you can play favorites with. The Machine Stops is a journey to be taken as a whole, and though one might occasionally hanker for a track that lasts more than the four to six minutes that is the norm here, the pacing and power of the fourteen songs blend imperviously into one. Yes, even the minute or so of spoken word which wraps up with a chorus of “Yum yum yum, in my tum” Words that you probably never expected to hear on a Hawkwind album.
The Machine Stops is probably not an album that is going to make a sudden convert of someone who has never liked the band in the past, but of course it isn’t meant to. It should, however, and one dares say probably will, reconvert anyone who has strayed from the path since the halcyon seventies, while lifelong fans with the shelves already creaking beneath their Hawklord load will find The Machine Stops starting to haunt their dreams like nothing since… well, what was the last Hawkwind album you knew you couldn’t live without?
It’s up there alongside that.
Close to the Noise Floor
Cherry Red (box set – 4 CDs)
It was coincidence alone that saw the cost of synthesizers fall to affordable prices at the same time as punk rock took a hold on British youth – coincidence, bolstered by a healthy dose of irony. The synth, after all, was one of the instruments which encouraged punk to flourish in the first place, monstrous millionaire playthings whose sole practical purpose, or so it seemed, was to enable the most horseheaded princes of progressive rock nonsense to become even more horseheadedly nonsensical than ever before.
Then, suddenly, (almost) anyone could have one, and (almost) everyone did. And the length and breadth of the country, bedrooms and garages that once shook to three chords and a badly rendered stab at “Smoke on the Water” were filled instead with an ineffable pulsing, a beep and booping rhythm, and that rushing wind effect from Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine.”
Arguably, the next five years of what eventually emerged as synthipop started there. And so did the next forty years (and counting) of underground electronics.
Close to the Noise Floor is not the first compilation to round up the story of electronic rock. Even leaving aside those packages that investigate the movement’s precursors, in the shape of Tangerine Dream, Hawkwind and Gong, the early eighties saw several vinyl comps that showcased the efforts of sundry pioneers, and even turned up a few stars – Soft Cell and Depeche Mode were both first encountered in such surroundings, and other examples abound.
It is, however, the first to look back from an historical angle, and attempt to make some sense of all that transpired at the time.
There are few “stars” here, just a smattering of names that you might find familiar – British Electric Foundation, Thomas Leer, Voice of Authority, Chris & Cosey, Renaldo and the Loaf. Throbbing Gristle make an unavoidable appearance, but inclusions by John Foxx, the Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark utterly fail to predict their future omnipotence. From Sheffield to Shepton Mallet, from Bognor Regis to a bedsit in Bangor, this is the sound beyond the suburbs, a lonely shriek against the hegemony of three guitars and a chord, wordless anarchy in the UK’s decay and – at its best – the most exhilarating noise on earth.
That is an important caveat – at its best. As anyone who lived through those times will recall, a lot of pointless farting around was unleashed in the name of electronic music, particularly once the likes of Leer, and (absent from this collection) Robert Rental and Daniel Miller scored a degree of cultish fandom with their earliest releases.
Indeed, the absence of Miller’s “Warm Leatherette”/“TV OD” debut single is probably this album’s greatest failing… maybe even its only one. So massively influential was that single, and so violently opposed to anything else that had a chance of being played in the interval at gigs, that its impact is still apparent today.
Which might also be why it’s not included here. Why waste space with something that every potential purchaser must have heard, when you could introduce them to Malcolm Brown’s “Sedation Strokes,” all thudding footsteps and screaming panic; Gerry & the Hologram’s eponymous robot dance; or British Standard Authority’s positively demented stab at “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” – first heard on a gloriously peculiar little album titled Hybrid Kids, in which sundry “classic mutants” did awful things to famous rock hits. If you ever need to hear a pair of piggies singing the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant”….
Ah, but we digress. Arranged with seamless chronology between the mid 1970s and early 1980s, sourcing not only singles but also the homemade cassettes that were the most popular medium for the message, Close to the Noise Floor is not wall-to-wall brilliance. Not every experiment is successful, and the slow drift into composing “conventional” pop from unconventional instrumentation was not always as exhilarating in practice as it was in theory.
But still, four CDs serve up a grounding not only in one of the era’s most crucial musical developments, but also an (almost) all-seeing eye into its conception, birth and infancy. The result is as compulsive as some of the dances you’ll find yourself doing while it plays.