Friday, November 24, 2006


If you've ever said to yourself "Damn, what I really want to hear right now is some avant-garde music constructed from the sounds of old arcade machines," (and, let's face it, who hasn't said that at some time in their life?) , then today's your lucky day.

Most people know the Belgian composer Wim Mertens, if at all, for his soundtrack to the Peter Greenaway film Belly Of An Architect, starring Brian Dennehey and Chloe Webb (whatever happened to her, incidentally?). Besides his occasional forays into film soundtracks, though, he's also responsible for some 50 albums, both as a solo composer and as a member of the ensemble Soft Verdict, as well as being the author of one of the first academic publications about systems music. Entitled American Minimal Music, the book, published in 1980, was an in-depth look at modern classical music in the US from John Cage to Steve Reich via LaMonte Young and Terry Riley. The foreword was written by a then-largely-unknown Michael Nyman. A friend who met Nyman some12 years later was astonished, then, to hear Nyman refer to Mertens as a "poor man's Philip Glass". I think the fact that Mertens got the nod to score Belly... rather than Nyman, Greenaway's usual musical choice, may have contributed to the slur. Despite this, I think Mertens holds his own, especially on albums such as Educes Me.

For Amusement Only, Mertens' first solo album, was made almost entirely from the sounds of pinballs and other arcade games; the sound sources are rather given away by the titles of each piece (e.g. Gorf, Fireball, Mystik). An acquired taste, perhaps, but the album found a niche audience among those who (a.) appreciated New York minimalism and (b.) misspent their youth in seaside amusement arcades. People like me in other words. Sadly, no other composers took up the gauntlet of creating music for, say, Frogger or Defender in subsequent years, though other musicians in other genres did use similar inspirations to Mertens in their work. These included Tilt's Arcade Funk and The Aphex Twin's early PacMan homage. In fact, PacMan has been the greatest inspiration for musicians over the years; the best example of which is arguably I'm The PacMan by the imaginatively monickered The PacMan. It appeared on the first Street Sounds Electro compilation, which has just been reissued on bootleg vinyl, so you've no excuse for not owning it.

Mertens' efforts, however, predate PacMan by a year or so, and two of the tracks from For Amusement Only are presented here for your edification. Enjoy, and wallow in nostalgia for the time when you nicked ten pence pieces from your mum's purse.

Download 8Ball

Download Invader ( both deleted Feb 2007--sorry!)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Flash. Ahh, ahhh.

Something in the Observer caught my eye recently. Software that analyses music and can determine its hit potential is reportedly being used by labels to determine where they should put their promotional budgets, and may even lead to the demise of the poor A&R man (a nation weeps). Many of the objections to this sort of reductive analysis are neatly summarised by the article…but the main one, from a music fan’s point of view, seems to have been overlooked. Namely the difference between a hit and a good song that is culturally important. They’re not usually the same thing. For example, compare The Blobby Song by Mr. Blobby and The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel by the aforementioned Grandmaster Flash and his Furious Five. One of these songs was a huge hit, reaching the No. 1 position in the UK on two separate occasions. The other didn’t get within sniffing distance of the top 40, but changed the whole course of musical history. I’m guessing that you don’t need The Guinness Book of Hit Singles to tell which is which. I’d be interested, then, to see where Flash figures on the musical analysis spectrum; presumably, he’d be off the chart, uncategorisable, indefinable. Definitely not hit material.

The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash… represents a sort of year zero for those of us a little too young to have fully appreciated the icy blast of punk. At my primary school, we were vaguely aware that the Sex Pistols were not appreciated by our parents or the BBC, and so were, ipso facto, A GOOD THING; however, we only latched on to them around the time of Pretty Vacant, by which time Glen Matlock was gone and they were already becoming pantomime dames. Flash, on the other hand, came like a bolt from the blue four years later, and I can still picture the moment; lying on my bed, homework in hand, radio tuned to Kid Jensen’s show (he was on before Peel from 8pm to 10pm, in the days when Radio 1 was AM only), and BLAM. The world changed irreversibly. Even though pioneers like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa had laid the groundwork (and I highly recommend David Toop’s The Rap Attack and/or Bill Brewster’s Last Night A DJ Saved My Life for the full gen), it was Flash who pointed the way forward. Not quite the first hip-hop record, but definitely the first that sounded like a Bronx block party and the one that presaged sampling, cutting, bricolage, remixing and Jive Bunny. This is the record that changed my life. One of my Desert Island Discs, if Kirsty Young ever gets round to interviewing museum educators.

The purist in me would definitely acknowledge Flash’s primacy as a hip-hop progenitor. But hold up. Wait a minute. Just in case you thought you were going to get a free download of Adventures, remember this is Irk The Purists. It’s one of life’s great ironies that the record that really brought hip-hop to the masses was not Wheels of Steel, which, as stated above, had barely any impact in the UK, except for those lucky few who caught it on Peel’s and Jensen’s shows. No, the record before which LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Eminem and 50 Cent should be genuflecting every day, was made by five of the least funky, most white people on the planet. Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals (in case you hadn’t guessed) was even more strange than Wheels of Steel, and is usually overlooked when hip-hop histories are written, but DJ Greg Wilson restores it to its rightful place in a masterful article here.

Dissonant, complex, na├»ve, it’s difficult today to communicate just how radical and provocative the sound of this record was at the time. Much of its impact, I believe, was the result of two mismatched cultures clashing against each other, namely the New York jive of the World’s Famous Supreme Team (aka C Divine the Mastermind and Just Allah the Superstar) rubbing shoulders with the classically-trained, home counties boffins under the aegis of producer Trevor Horn. When Talking Heads recorded The Overload for their album Remain In Light, they reportedly tried to make a track that sounded like Joy Division, but, crucially, they’d never actually heard any Joy Division at the time. Instead, the sound they created was what they imagined Joy Division sounded like based on reports they’d read about the band. Buffalo Gals has a similar relationship to hip-hop. It’s as if someone had described a hip-hop record to the musicians involved (namely Anne Dudley, JJ Jeczalik and Gary Langan, later to metamorphose into the Art of Noise), and asked them to construct something similar. With possible additional references to square-dancing. The result owes as much to Stockhausen as it does to Spoonie Gee. That the participants had only a tenuous grasp of the mechanics of hip hop is illustrated by the record’s sleeve; on it someone (McLaren?) writes:

“The performance by the Supreme Team may require some explaining but suffice to
say they are DJs from New York City who have developed a technique using record
players like instruments, replacing the power chord of the guitar by the needle
of a gramophone, moving it manually backwards and forwards across the surface of
a record. We call it scratching.”

The writer imagined the scratching sound was made by moving the needle across the record, a move that guarantees a short life for your vinyl. As even my granny now knows, the needle stays perfectly still, and it’s the groove of the record that is manipulated back and forth.

As Greg Wilson, points out, though, it was the video as much as the sound that really brought hip-hop to a critical mass. I wasn’t in a club when I first saw it, sadly; I was in my pyjamas watching Top Of The Pops, but the impact was much the same. I was blown away. Grandmaster Flash had pulled the door ajar and allowed us a peek at a new world in 1981. But a year later Buffalo Gals kicked the door down and life was never going to be the same again. At the time, Trevor Horn claimed that making Buffalo Gals was the most fun he’d had in the record industry. After many soul-destroying years of twiddling the knobs on dreck by Seal, Rod Stewart and LeAnn Rimes, I imagine he looks back on the record with even greater fondness.

Watch Buffalo Gals

Anne Dudley (co-writer of Buffalo Gals!)

Talcy Malcy (does he still get called that, I wonder?)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Clearly, Borat's been taking dressing tips from Mrs. Ice T...

Queen bitch

BTW, is it just me, or is The Good, The Bad and The Queen absolutely the most contrived, awful name for a band ever? A shame, as they sound pretty good...

Column inches

More than one person has been asking after my well-being, seeing as it's a month since my last post. I'm touched. But it's all good; I've just been living real life rather than this simulacrum.

I've been goaded into action by the delightful Jude, whose blog I came across recently. Her homage to ACR has sent me scrabbling to the CD rack to a copy of The Durutti Column's The Guitar And Other Machines from 1987. Besides boasting one of the greatest sleeves ever (and all done in camera, in the days before Quark Xpress), the CD version that Factory released as facd 204 featured three extra tracks. As well as showcasing the talents of Durutti mainstay Vini Reilly, two of these bonus tracks, Dream Topping and You Won't Feel Out of Place, featured fellow Mancunains Jeremy Kerr and Simon Topping, A Certain Ratio alumni both. Simon had left ACR some four years previously, while Jeremy is still a member of the band today.

When London Records came to rerelease The Guitar And Other Machines on CD in the 1990s, they managed to retain Dream Topping, but, for reasons best known to themselves, contrived to lose You Won't Feel Out of Place; thus the track has been MIA for the past 14 years or so, ever since the spectacular demise of Tony Wilson's experiment in popular culture. However,you can now enjoy this one that (nearly) got away, thanks to the tireless efforts of the code-monkeys at Irk The Purists, and the ongoing generosity of Pat N., whose actually lent me the CD over a year ago and still hasn't asked for it back. Cheers, Pat.

The tune? Oh, since you ask....Though it's technically a Durutti Column song with a bit of help from ACR, it actually sounds like it's the other way round: ACR with a bit of help from Vini. Cut-ups, congas, DX7; Vini's occasional trademark guitar frills make him seem like a guest on his own track, along for the ride. Still, it's a bit of a rarity, so enjoy.

Download You Won't Feel Out of Place by The Durutti Column feat. J Kerr and S Topping
(deleted Feb 2007--sorry!)

Buy Durutti Column CDs