The eternal search for the aural unholy texts that will save our damned, rotten souls can lead to psycho-geographic trawls through the diluvial stench of the city, down through the years, just in case you missed some golden moment, some brief supernova. In the same way that groups like the Velvet Underground and Big Star were once like buried, Gnostic, mysteries, kiddies, you did miss something — a scene that never was — SULPHATEADELIA. Amphetamine, post-punk kids discovering sixties psych and crazed pop took to splattering red guitars on a bunch of low-fi/hi-octane 45s and LPs, before all was lost to the ether to be replaced by the jingle jangle fey wimparoons of C86, whose dubious legacy continues today in the bungalows of bop in Sweden/Japan, etc. Let me explain…
Origins Thatcher’s dark-hearted England and the useless anger it inhaled; the period 1983-7 or so. Musically inert — cheap sulphate wraps being the thing — explosions of paranoid winter energy; squats and bedsits; a bunch of acne fuck-ups on bad acid in paisley shirts down Kensington Market. Chelsea boots, thin black spider legs and striped T-shirts, nodding dumbly to the new projected sound of pretend psychedelia — a previously lost tribe dismissed by the punk crew. Soul stomp and sixties radio pop — as underground as you can be — no MySpace, just a handful of fanzines and smoky rooms above pubs in Chalk Farm/ Dartford/Archway, etc. Thus a new spastic-limbed naive and dumb tribe emerged, in empathy with renewed interest in obscure/lost arcane mythological sixties sounds like the 13th Floor Elevators and Syd Barrett. It all mixed with punk-socialist anger, already received parental sixties pop, kitchen sink and French New Wave imagery, northern-soul bash and the melancholic anxiety and bedsit beauty of Postcard Records/Jonathan Richman, etc — and red-purple mod scratch soft-bomb…
Bam Bam There were three key labels at that time, which spearheaded the then newly burgeoning reissue thing: Edsel, with a cool mix of soul/country rock and psych, the beautiful Kent label, which issued a series of northern-soul comps, and, best of all, Bam Caruso, set up by sleeve designer Phil Smee — all incredibly packaged. They specialised in unearthing completely obscure lost English psych/pop/garage — inventing a retrospective ‘scene’ in the process. Phil Smee certainly invented the term ‘freakbeat’, where the sixties pop R’n’B groups got tough and raw. The ‘Rubble’ series of comps (twenty in all) are masterpieces of this demented pop and have just been re-released as two box sets, which I heartily recommend. These warmed up and ‘psychedelic-ised’ many a young aimless urchin whose grey Mark E. Smith stumble suddenly exploded into cheap Technicolor!
Creation A label started by drugged-up Glaswegian mods living in London, in thrall to the new thang. They were the label of the sulphate mods — cheaply made 45s, usually ‘produced’ by ex-Television Personality nut job ‘Slaughter’ Joe Foster. In fact, a key to those records was that tinny, knife-sharp-but-ramshackle reverb production — everything sounds too fast as though time was running out. All the early Creation records are mod/punk/folk-rock/psych POP SONGS, jagged and angry and full of romance. Eight miles high and down in the Tube station at midnight..
Biff Bang Pow! Two albums: Pass the Paintbrush, Honey and The Girl Who Runs the Beat Hotel—Paintbrush rushes by in an amphetamine roar of too fast Roger McGuinn jangle and Paul Weller windmills. Beat Hotel is the classic: mournful, simple ballads, backwards guitar freak-outs, pure Monkees/Manfreds boy—girl POP-groovy, go-go instrumentals, and, in ‘He Don’t Need That Girl’, white-boy, Paisley-shirted Motown genius.
The Dentists, Some People Are on the Pitch. From the English musical Memphis that is Chatham comes this bullet-train rush of hooks, jagged riffs and Tom Courtney/ Julie Christie reverie. The supreme ‘I had an Excellent Dream’ is the scene’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ — never a dull moment, and as pop-punk as it is sixties.
Jasmine Minks, All Good Preachers Go to Heaven. Another of Creation’s mini-LPs; which is how they all should be — too short to be bad, too fast to breathe. Farfisa organs and moves like The Who; defiant hope and yearning. ‘Ghost of a Young Man’ is one of the greatest mod ballads.
Television Personalities, Mummy You’re Not Watching Me. The godfathers of this punk/mod/psych scene, with the same glorious, beautiful despair of Syd Barrett in the gutter. The Charles Manson dementia of ‘A Day in Heaven’ and the drone-a-delic, unsettling ‘David Hockney’s Diary’, and that perfect hymn to the broken daydreamer ‘Magnificent Dreams’, all of it wrapped in the paranoid, murky production that sounds like a nervous breakdown. A classic London bedsit record.
The Shamen, Drop. A better production value here (i.e. there is one) from skinhead/dressed-in-black Scottish mental-home workers; great, fuzzed-up songs of politics, drugs and social observation. A mix of angry Electric Prunes/Love/West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band/The Seeds/early Pink Floyd — dreamy and concise and full of swirls — from the anti-Thatcher ‘Happy Days; to the fuzz-buzz explosion of ‘Young ‘Till Yesterday’. Then they went all danced up and lost their freak flag.
Revolving Paint Dream, ‘Flowers in the Sky’/’In the Afternoon’. This is a perfect, psyched-up, pilled-up, acid-pop 45. They went on to make two mysterious LPs, full of raga drones and Velvets-like ballads.
Slaughter Joe Foster and the Modern Folk Quartet, ‘Around the Hobby Horse’s Head’. The cover features a shot of Joe sitting with a bunch of arcane LPs and a sitar, with green splatters on the photo. The record is a demented Stanley knife sound of GUITARS, with covers of 13th Floor Elevators, etc. All in all, a tangerine glockenspiel, helter-skelter, sulphate-pop masterpiece.
Len Bright Combo. The artiste formerly known as Wreckless Eric moves to Chatham, hangs out with some ex-Milkshakes and makes a chaotic, falling-down-the-stairs, feedback-drenched sweet mess, with added ga rage pop.
The Stingrays, Cryptic and Coffee Time on Joe Foster’s Kaleidoscope Sound label. These previously rockabilly-tinged garage-niks decided to end their career with a lo-fi, psych-folk-rock burst of London sunset angst.
Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Voxx. With the help of Television Personalities’ Dan Treacy, a collection of girl-sung psychedelia and sad guitar jangle.
See also, early singles by The Jackals, Primal Scream, Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3, Optical Sewers, Freightrain, Snapper, The Clean, Look Blue Go Purple…
United States of Existence
While all this brittle, small club fervour was imploding, it begat, over in the USA, a similar trove of psychedelic music, played out mainly in LA. Bands like Rain Parade and The Dream Syndicate released debut albums of pure, timeless genius; the former being like a perfect mix of Syd, Floyd and the Byrds, the latter a more brutal Velvets-type scratch. Other bands like Camper van Beethoven, Green on Red, Opal, Green Pajama, etc., combined this eighties savagery with sixties trippiness.
Also important were The Chills, from New Zealand. Their singles compilation, Heavenly Pop Hits on the Flying Nun label, is all Seeds organs and Barrier Reef garage sound.
Of course, this crazy candle burned out before the music papers even got to notice — not that they would care. The British psychedelic triangle of Glasgow-London-Liverpool (the last were originators The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen started the whole punk-though-psych trip) fell into the cleaner, sweeter sound of the C86 scene, which was delightful and awful in it own way. It had none of that original sinned demon rage of these SULPHATEADELIA records, however — records that were DIY, lo-fi, quick and inventive. Like the sulphate we all consumed, it was cheap, coarse and an IMMEDIATE PLEASURE. It’s a truly lost text; its influence almost null and void apart from the odd group like America’s Lilys and our own wonderful Clinic. The passion of these sacraments is still viable — partly due to its disappearance. Revola (Joe Foster’s superior reissue label) have released some of these records to no fanfare and, really, this is practically now an ‘imaginary scene’ — though it DID exist. And these nuggets of defiant daydreaming are out there, waiting for you…
The Kills, Koko, 23 April
Yes, I am going to mention her, because the band kept us waiting a nice long spell and she was all I had to look at. Just above stage right she appears, hair neatly tied up, with the rest of the Kills entourage. Some of us down-fronters exchange grins and waves with her. You could say it’s a good atmosphere. Five minutes later it’s show time and all eyes are elsewhere.
It feels, unquestionably, like the Kills’ time has come. The audience at a sold-out Koko would surely concur. The taut, economical style of the band’s newest songs suit their live purposes well: recent single ‘URA Fever’ is almost nonchalantly tossed away, and after that, a few pleasingly T-Rex-esque boogie breaks aside, the pace never dips below frenetic.
Alison Mosshart’s stage presence is vital. She prowls, stretches, crouches and leaps her way through the set. Doubtless, there’s some element of stagecraft here, but it never feels contrived. It all looks too spontaneous and excitable for that; like an hour-long release of some huge nervous tension. She doesn’t have it all to herself, mind. Jamie Hinch begins the set looking like a haunted man. By midway he’s become possessed. By the encore, as Mosshart lies flat out on the stage floor and Hinch beats his guitar with a beer bottle, he’s positively demonic. Call me sadistic, but I especially enjoyed the little series of head butts the pair gave each other — a cute manoeuvre that leaves one or other of them about an inch from hospitalisation each time it’s performed.
Hinch’s quality as a guitarist shouldn’t be underestimated. In a two-piece line up, a lot falls on his shoulders, but as the show progresses, he cleverly and continually ups the ante, his guitar picking up revs like an accelerating motorbike. It seems absurd that The Kills were ever dismissed as wannabes. This is a band that, if cut, would simply bleed their music.
Despite displaying palpable adoration, I was initially surprised that the audience didn’t go a little more. That said, for every half-crazed groover there were twice as many faces with rapt expressions (by the end she was also firmly in the rapt-expression camp). That’s perhaps the oddest thing about this band: for all their visceral nature, the Kills’ music has a strangely cerebral quality. For one thing, the songs are so oddly shaped; you have to keep your wits about you simply to follow them. Moreover, the duo never attempts to bludgeon the audience in the way that say, latter-day Primal Scream would. Their audience take the music very personally and, I suspect, the majority of them share the Kills’ essential cleverness. Which probably means the band are completely fucked as far as making it into stadium league is concerned. Somehow, I don’t think that’ll bother them…
Laurie Anderson, Homeland
‘Even though a country can invade another country and flatten it. And ruin it . . . If the experts say that it’s not a problem, and everyone agrees that they’re experts good at seeing problems, then invading that country is simply not a problem,’ performance artists Laurie Anderson wryly observes in the beginning of her latest show Homeland,a critical portrait of American comprising everything from the Iraq war to child obesity and the country’s obsession with security and control. Art and politics can sometimes make for an awkward mix, but while Anderson is certainly good at pointing out what’s wrong with her native country, she neither tries to force her message onto the audience nor does she offer any solutions. Cynical side-blows at the Bush administration may be high on the agenda, but Anderson’s charismatic performance is far from being an anti-Bush rally. It is an intimate evening of emotional stories, musical interludes and witty observations, which proves once again that, even at the age of sixty-one, this petite, spiky-haired avant-garde polymath has not lost the ability to captivate the audience’s attention — and to make them laugh.
From behind a speaker’s desk in the centre of the stage, Anderson evokes images of her homeland through her mesmerising storytelling, sometimes supported by ambient music or her haunting violin playing. Her clear voice goes from dark crescendo to soft whispers or melancholy chant, which makes it sometimes hard to believe that these different sounds come from one and he same woman, or a woman at all. A few times she actually uses an electric Vocoder which turns her voice into an eerie Darth Vader-esque drone. Apart from these sound effects, there are no high-tech devices used during the evening. For a multimedia pioneer who championed video projections, self-made tape-bows and other wacky inventions, the performance is surprisingly low key. Instead a circle of candles on the floor and simple lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling create an intimate atmosphere in the sold-out auditorium of the Barbican Theatre.
Anderson’s delivery brings to mind the shamanic spoken-word performances of New York punk-poet Patti Smith. But unlike Smith, Anderson’s presentation is still somewhat more polished, and there is something other-worldly, alien-like about her — after all, she used to be NASA’s first and only artist in residence.
Laurie Anderson’s Homeland ran from 30 April to 3 May 2008 at the Barbican Theatre.
Heiner Goebbels, Stifter’s Dinge
To describe Heiner Goebbels’s complex installation is not going to be easy, but here goes. Think of a play without actors, or an Einstürzende Neubauten gig without the band, and that explains the atmosphere. The sculptural components consisted of five stripped pianos, stacked on top of each other, interspersed with dead trees and musical gadgets, forming the orchestra to the back of the stage. Three twenty-foot-wide trays separated the audience from the orchestra, and each of these was connected to a beautifully lit septic tank. Speakers and homemade industrial instruments flanked the sides. That was the basic set up, but once the performance began everything started moving; the piano keys snaked over the register seemingly of their own accord, metal sheets got hammered and plastic tubes got boinged and amplified to maximum effect. The trays were lit in a luminous, Tron-like fashion before getting flooded with liquid. Screens went up and down, blocking the view of the orchestra, and at one point an enormous flash came through the screens that burnt the back of the retina nicely. When all the screens were lifted the orchestra was lit in a projection of a painting by Paolo Ucello depicting a hunting scene, and rain started to fall into the pool of water while the music was interspersed with spoken words from William S. Burroughs, Malcolm X and Claude Lévi-Strauss.
The eighty-minute performance concluded with the orchestra moving seamlessly forward on a moving track. The music got more frantic as the stage rolled effortlessly over the pools of water towards the audience, reaching the front in a climax of sound. The end. All that was missing was for the pianos to take a bow.
As the stage started to move back again, each pool of liquid revealed unusual dry-ice fog that evaporated by white bubbles bursting in a puff of smoke. As the last bubbles burst, a written text emerged projected on the still liquid. And that really was the end. This visually engrossing spectacle was executed to perfection, and you couldn’t help but be impressed with it as a technical masterpiece. The audience was invited to walk around the installation and view the machinery. The inspiration for the piece comes from a fragment of text by the nineteenth-century Austrian writer and painter Adalbert Stifter, who was obsessed with the notion of beauty and who exited his life in the romantic way of suicide. I would have almost preferred not to know how Heiner Goebbels came to compose Stifter’s Dinge; I felt compelled to look for an emotional element in this high-tech multimedia show and I failed to find it. Maybe it was in the music, but in the absence of musicians at a life show emotion can be hard to come by. Perhaps this was the point Goebbels was making?
Heiner Goebbels Stifter’s Dinge ran from 15-27 April 2008 at P3, Marylebone Road.