Friday, August 5, 2022

seeds of retromania pt 432 - "smash retro"

It was an intermittent anxiety from before I even started writing for Melody Maker - it crops up first in Monitor - and it would surface in various pieces over subsequent years. But the first concerted spate of fretting about retro as a crisis occurred in 1990. One prompt or pretext for airing the angst was the group Cop Shoot Cop, whose line of patter - "Smash Retro" - caught my eye when reading the NYC zine Chemical Imbalance. Their album Consumer Revolt didn't quite live up to the fiery spiel, but that didn't deter me from running with it, oh good Lord no. (Sometimes the primary value of a group - see also D-Generation, Consolidated, Manics for half-a-second -  is the way it injects ideas into the discourse, rather than fleshes those ideas out musically. ). 

Here's the first review I did of Cop Shoot Cop for Melody Maker in November 24 1990, followed by a full-blown piece for Village Voice early the following year. 

Cop Shoot Cop

Village Voice, February 19th, 1991 

'BURN YOUR BRIDGES' is where Cop Shoot Cop proclaim their oblique intentions most plainly – their "anthem," if you will. "Know what you like/Like what you know," singer Tod A. intones with bleary, bilious disgust, before rearing up for the chorus: "Bite the hand that feeds you/Burn your bridges behind you." Gather your Byrds’ remastered CD box sets, your Big Star and Beach Boys reissues, and all the other fetishes that hold you in subservience to yesteryear, build a giant pyre and ignite the fucker. If you want to "live now," that is.

Faced by the oppressive sedimentation of rock history, by the mire of eclecticism and the musty odor of the anal retentive collector mentality, Cop Shoot Cop see themselves as a purgative agent, a rigorous diuretic or emetic – their LP title Consumer Revolt (Circuit, Box 67, Merrick, NY 11566), is, says Tod, "revolt as in your stomach revolting, spewing back all the media garbage shoved down your throat." Cop Shoot Cop’s dream is that it we raze the archives, the phoenix of the new might rise from the smoking ruins.

Cop Shoot Cop stand in stark contrast to the epigonic tone of ‘90s indie-rock (epigone: the lament of those who believe they live in a less distinguished, somehow "fallen" era in comparison with a preceding golden age). The (ad)vantage point of being able to draw from the treasure of 30 years of rock history becomes a paralyzing predicament; how to rival the incandescence of those who were able to make history rather than simply refer to it? An autumnal glow suffuses rock ‘n’ roll, from Galaxie 500 and the Replacements to REM and Teenage Fanclub: as "great" as these groups have been, all seem to bask in the glory of rock’s sunset, pine in its shadow. Even those bands who’ve reinvented rock rather than relieving us by proving that it can be as good as it used to be – the Sonic Youth of Daydream Nation, the Spacemen 3 of Playing With Fire – can produce a weird ambivalence: exhilaration at the vivid flashes of innovation, gloom that "our" music is condemned to volatilizing an established vocabulary.

So the hope then is that ‘90s rock can confront or at least apprehend the times we live in: an age characterized by media overload; by the inner city usurping Nature as the "dark continent" that inspires fear; above all, by a lack of the sense of a "time," "era," "zeitgest." Cop Shoot Cop’s determination to seize the time is declared by their instrumentation (where their peers follow J. Mascis in the search for arcane, outmoded effects pedals, CSC are almost alone in abandoning the guitar for the sampler) and in their aura (no wistful Jeffersonian longings for an idyllic pastoral America, rather an attempt to thrive on the wired energy of urban life).

Whether their music will live up to their ambitions isn’t yet clear. Although 10 times more forceful live than on the murky Consumer Revolt LP, they’re still in the preparatory stages, the awkward initial stirrings of a corrosive novelty. Jim Coleman uses his sampler as an armory of unidentifiable detonations and swathes of locust-swarming amorphousness, but still lags behind the tumultuous effects of the Young Gods (the only other group who’ve grasped the sampler’s potential as crucible of the new rather than as a "quote machine"). Cop Shoot Cop’s most original ideas are rhythmic. Phil Puleo’s scrap metal percussion frame provides a pulse of brittle insurgency; Tod and Natz’s twin basses agitate like rats sewn into your colon gnawing their way to freedom. At times, Cop Shoot Cop seem to be playing an avant-garde cousin of funk-metal; not slap-bass-happy and sinuous, but a metallurgical orgy of torques and vectors. Rather than being woven into a seamless piece of organic/harmonic fabric, Cop Shoot Cop songs are like intricate clockwork devices constructed from riffs and rifts that mesh with varying degrees of precision. "Noise" here is the friction that no mechanical system can eliminate. The stop-start, staccato dynamics deny the listener the forgetful bliss offered by the consensus rock of the day, creating instead the painfully awake and hair-trigger alert mind frame of the survivalist or urban guerrilla.

There are other, less interesting, strings to CSC’s bow. 'Suck City' is redolent of late-Birthday Party (with the concrete jungle as Nick Cave’s Faulknerian swampland), and the barrel-chested melodrama of 'If Tomorrow Never Comes' brings to mind the Doors’ morose version of 'Alabama Song'. But ultimately, Cop Shoot Cop partake of the very "purgative innovation" from which postmodernism was supposed to have provided both reprieve and escape route. Suddenly, we’re "back to the future." And herein lies the major problem for Cop Shoot cop: the simple fact that their discourse of Total Break and Absolute Renewal, shock of the new and shock of the now, has its own history. Ironically, they’re in a similar position to the postmodernists and retro-maniacs: they’ve an embarrassment of Futurist options and year Zeros from which to pick-and-mix – No Wave, or the 1979 British postpunk vanguard, or Einsturzende Neubauten, or early Swans/Sonic Youth.

Cop Shoot Cop are fully aware that every grand gesture of severance and repudiation has been preempted, every manifesto of cultural patricide already unfurled. At CBGB last Friday night, they found themselves agitating for change in an age and a scene that’s seen way too much and is way too cool to be mobilized. Their response oscillated violently, from desperation (Natz prefaced 'Smash Retro' by haranguing the impassive Lower East Siders sitting quietly at tables: "This is not your living room, I am not your TV set") to self-mockery (Tod: "How to become your own self-parody in 10 easy lessons"). I can share their anguished awareness of the pathos of living in a "late" period; perhaps "nostalgia for the future" is the least dishonorable option these days. And Cop Shoot Cop deserve credit for putting the problem of boredom – the specter that lurks beneath all our pleasures and plenty – back on the agenda.


Oh and a little before, another live review for Melody Maker, rehearsing some of the same lines and ideas:

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Tonks for the memory

Like other BBC Radiophonic Workshop fiends, I first came across the name Rosemary Tonks in connection with "Sono-Montage": a 1965 collaboration between the experimental poet and Delia Derbyshire + other Workshoppers. The program tantalizes in large part because it's not easy to hear -  you'd have to visit the British Library to order it up. Some say it can be found on the internet, if you really dig around - but I've had no luck. 

"Sono-Montage" is discussed, but not played, in this Lunar Poetry podcast,  also available in transcript form here.  Host David Turner says, paraphrasing Tonks's introduction to the program: : 

"Sono-Montage is an experiment to combine poetry with electronic sound. Its aim is to put a dramatic edge on poetry read aloud and that edge is sound. What you hear in the recordings are sound collages or sound illuminations." 

Sound illuminations!

Here at the unofficial BBC archive Genome is what the Radio Times said about "Sono-Montage" the week of its eventual broadcast on  June 21st 1966: 

A experiment in combining spoken poetry with electronically produced sounds

Arranged, directed, and introduced by Rosemary Tonks in conjunction with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

The programme is based on the following nine poems:

Speechhouse and Steeple-jock by Michael Baldwin

Mediterranean and A Silent Man by Peter Redgrove

Midsummer Thames and Fisherman of Alaedras by Paul Roche

Poet as Gambler, Badly-chosen Lover and Orpheus in Soho by Rosemary Tonks

Produced by George MacBeth

The original effects on which the orchestrations in this programme were based were recorded by 'Stagesound' for a public performance of sono-montage in Hampstead followed by an interlude at 18.50.

Tantalising, eh?

There is some confusion in the archives, with "Sono-Montage" seemingly appearing later on in combination with a similar radiophonics-meets-poetry work by Bob Cobbing, under the name "Permutated Poems". 

Along with the experimental poetry, Tonks had a sideline in writing novels. She saw them as her more commercial front of operation and they were reviewed at the time as comic fiction, satires of Sixties London. In recent years, a coterie of Tonks-converts have been agitating for these long out of print, incredibly hard-to-find-secondhand / prohibitively-expensive-if-you-do novels as lost classics of the decade.  You can hear two of these enthusiasts - Jennifer Hodgson and Stewart Leeenthusing on this podcast Backlisted. Where at approximately 56 minutes in you can in fact hear a small snippet of  Radiophonic Tonks.  

The campaign seems to have led, directly or indirectly, to the reissue of  The Bloater - originally published by The Bodley Head in 1968  earlier this year as a Vintage Classic. Hodgson's review for New Left Review got me intrigued enough to pick up the mauve paperback while in London last month. I read most of it while holed up in our Islington AirB'n'B while recovering from a nasty bout of food poisoning, while the beautiful weather streamed through the huge windows. That seemed appropriate as The Bloater is a London novel that takes place in the summer. My gastric distress fit the unsettled feeling of the prose, with its heightened sensitivity to all things bodily and gastronomic.  The title of the book comes from a cured herring with a pungent odour - but is also the main character's nickname for one of her would-be paramours, whose strong aroma lingers after his visits.    

Part of the interest of The Bloater for the Radiophonic fiend is that there's a character based on Delia Derbyshire in it.  Jenny is a colleague and a confidante to the protagonist, a musician / radio producer called Min. A couple of scenes take place in "The Electronic Sound Workshop". 


Those nine and a half pages are not really reason enough to buy the book, though. What is? 

Well, at first, I really wasn't sure. It took me a while to get on with Tonks's style, to get the hang of it. The writing initially feels frightfully mannered. "Brittle" is a word that reviewers often use. "Arch" also fits. The prose feels like - or even smells like - an emanation of the personality of Min, who's magnetic but not exactly likeable. Every interaction with an Other has a kind of pettish, catty quality, a flip flirtatiousness that feels (with her various male love interests) mildly sadistic.  The writing also has a  elliptical quality that reminds me a little of Wyndham Lewis's disjointed modernism but suffused with the personality of Oscar Wilde or a Wilde character (same difference).  It can often feel like bits of information that would make a smoother read have been rubbed out with a capricious eraser. I kept trying to think who  and what it reminded me of and suddenly it hit me: Morrissey and Autobiography. That quippy tone, wilful indirection, and contorted syntax. There's the same (very Wildean) inversion of seriousness: tiny defects in others, trivial inconveniences or setbacks, are monstrously inflated and absurdly bemoaned; the actual tragic is danced past blithely.  Min is not unlike the demanding, impossible, amuse-me-NOW heroine in that early  Smiths B-side "Wonderful Woman." 

The book's demented gaiety eventually becomes compelling, though. You also begin to sense that the determined superficiality might be papering over damage deep below the surface.  Apart from the BBC scenes, the milieu is posh - fancy restaurants, nights at the opera. But even though it doesn't overtly reference much that is specific to the decade, the mood is "British Sixties" in a way that vaguely reminds me of films like Accident, The Servant, and Blow-Up. The old standards and inhibitions are eroding, but archetypally English qualities of detachment and clipped coldness carry through into the new less-repressed era.  

Tonks's life story is fascinating - and oddly parallels Derbyshire's. There's the  burst of creativity (six novels between 1963 and 1972), the trendiness and immersion in the adventure of the Sixties... then  retreat, the drying up of productivity, and disappearance. In Tonks's case,  her withdrawal was into extreme conservatism. She became a fundamentalist Christian, renouncing all things worldly, and a recluse. She is believed to have gone round the country taking her books out of libraries and destroying them. She went by the name Rosemary Lightband - but amazingly this wasn't some born-again invention, just a reversion to using the name of her former husband. 

More on Rosemary Tonks and the Radiophonic Workshop in this blogpost at Superintendent Idle Tiger

And more about her poetry, novels and life in this long piece at The Paris Review by Lucy Scholes. 

And more still from Thea Smith, who comments: 

"Sono-Montage, a critical intervention into sound and poetry was not unrecognised at the time, but apart from a single repeat on the BBC hasn’t been heard in public in nearly 50 years. A few segments – Rosemary’s own poems – were played at a recent event at Flat Time House, Peckham, due to the curator, Lucy Reynolds, being Rosemary’s great niece. She has also been able to give me some insight into Rosemary’s character and background, and her complex relationship with feminism. She was fun, but John Horder recalled, she ‘spoke with an intensity bordering on active aggression’. This opinion of her may have been mistaken for assertiveness; Tonks achieved so much in her short career that others could not.

"I managed to listen to Sono-Montage several times at the British Library, as well as being able to access her novels, after their forty-eight hour transit from the deepest darkest vaults of literature. I decided it was worth excavating; it is an interesting, and important, critical intervention in radio, coming quite early in terms of broadcast experiments into poetry and sound, alongside more famous broadcasts by Bob Cobbing & Barry Bermange. Accessing information about Sono-Montage was difficult, even Neil Astley hadn’t heard it, so to excavate it now, one year after her death, seems like a fitting tribute to her not inconsiderable efforts to make this thirty-minute recording. There are many links between the programme, her writing (both poetry and prose), and criticism, but also many contradictions: in style and attitude, if not tone. An unusual artefact, Sono-Montage is the invisible peak of Tonks’s personal epoch."

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

retrotalk2022 - Dylan Reenactment Special Edition

 1/ Cat Power to recreate / reenact the entirety of Bob Dylan's legendary 1966 concert at the Royal Albert Hall... at the actual Royal Albert Hall, this November

2/ The Guardian's Ben Beaumont-Thomas has a good old rant about the "Blowin' in the Wind" £1.5m fetish object auction: 

"For this sale at Christie’s auction house, Dylan rerecorded the song in the studio for the first time since its original take in 1962. The take was then etched into a lacquer-coated aluminium disc – only one will ever be made – and housed in a bespoke walnut and white oak cabinet with an etched titanium plaque. This new format, Ionic Original, is the lobotomised brainchild of producer T Bone Burnett [who] hails the format as the “pinnacle of recorded sound” in terms of sound fidelity.... Part of me thinks that if Burnett can hoodwink millionaires out of their wealth, more power to him....  [Yet it's] also the absurd pinnacle of vinyl fetishism....The Ionic Original format is the grotesque extremity of this malaise, and one which, in its high-profile financial success, deepens it....  The elitist endeavour runs counter to the very spirit of popular music. The cheapness and replicability of pop – which, ignoring its own financial inequalities for now, streaming takes to a frankly glorious scale – is what makes it such a defining cultural medium. To rerecord one of history’s greatest songs and let only one person hear it is a ghastly reversal of the very concept of “popular”.... a song isn’t an artefact: it blows in the wind. To trap it in a single white oak box – the same hoarding instinct that has destabilised so much culture over the years – dishonours music itself."

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

retrotalk1974 - "You Can't Go Home Again"


There's been a surprising uptick in retrotalk recently - hence the Retrotalk2021 and Retrotalk2022 series. I've also done "Pre-Echoes of Retromania" posts about prior spurts of retro-talk in the '90s, and the '80s. Moaning and groaning about nostalgia and revivals has an extensive and a long-established history. Anxiety about it seems to come in waves then fade back into the background (perhaps because of a surge of newness in the music culture).

 Well, here below is an example of vintage retrotalk - an excellent 1974 essay by Michael Wood that originally appeared in New Society. It's the first piece in a 1977 Fontana collection of articles from New Society . 

(Which magazine should really be archived on the internet - look at the lineup of contributors here: Reyner Banham, John Berger, Angela Carter, Dennis Potter, E.P. Thompson.... People like these and Simon Frith and so forth were writing on a weekly basis about arts and culture and social trends + issues all through the '60s, '70s and '80s, from a left-wing, Brit-centric perspective. What a trove of discourse, all inaccessible unless you have academic privileges at a UK university, I should imagine). 

(I have actually contributed to New Society in a certain sense, having written for the New Statesman around the time it absorbed New Society - for a while the amalgamated periodical went by the name New Statesman & Society, if I recall right). 

Michael Wood is a Brit-born professor at Columbia University in New York (then) and later at Princeton. At the time of the Fontana collection's publication he'd written a couple of books including one titled America in the Movies. Later came The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction among other titles. 

A couple of further examples of 1970s nostalgia discourse in the mass media