BLOG

The NME

There is a trait in all of us, likely since the arrival of a post industrial world, to venerate our youth, to think that things were far better when we were young, and some of the things from our youth disappear for good (with progress) and we mourn their passing, thinking that nothing could ever match it. I’m sure my parents said it, harking back to things when they were young that proved life was better back then, or music was better, or the world was a safer place. I’m sure in 30 years time, if our species has not been destroyed by greed, religion, and right-wing ideology, there will be 20 year olds hitting 50 saying Billie Eilish (who is an amazing artist), Kanye, (who isn’t), Frank Ocean (who is), etc. etc. including tons of teen loved artists who I have no idea about, were “much better in their day than the rubbish around now in 2050!” It’s just how it is, youth is amazing, and it should always stay amazing, if I can’t understand why a young person is having fun “doing that”, it’s not because I know better, it’s because I’m not young anymore, youth is the best part of life, let everyone who can enjoy it enjoy it because after that there is not a lot left to love, just the dark, cold, facts of reality.

There is an exception to the first half of the last paragraph, and that is the New Musical Express, the NME, (from before my time in the 70’s to when I was young). I am putting a caveat on this point because it can only be coincidence, or wonderful serendipity, that I was able to experience the pre-internet days of physical objects. The NME in those days was like a revolutionary marxist art manifesto, an educator, a musical pioneer, a brash, brazen, trail blazing, thing of fucking beauty, it still exists as an on-line magazine and a free hand out version, either of these two present day versions are utter shit, poorly written, and an utter travesty. Back in the past, every Wednesday, and if you were really lucky Tuesday, I would get the NME, I got Melody Maker and Sounds too, but NME was the bible. It’s writers and editors, such as Paul Morley, Ian Pennman, Nick Kent, Julie Birchill, Dele Fadele, Lucy O’Brien, Barney Hoskyns, Neil Spencer, and so many more who were great writers, brought us insightful, necessarily verbose, and exciting articles and interviews. These pieces were not the fatuous, and facile ‘promo’ interviews of before, these were incredible insights into another world, another realm. It was not just music, they covered politics, youth issues (a famous issue on youth suicide by Lucy O’Brien), literature, and aspects of art and culture. I felt empowered to learn, not just more about music but by reading more, it introduced me to many great books and authors, art began to fascinate me in a way I never even thought I could appreciate. The NME was a call to arms, it began a cultural ripple effect in many who were heeding its call, an embrace of art, love, socialism, and curiosity that they (we?) would take as a creed for life. It made being smart ‘sexy’ to use a rather trite term, actually I think appealing sounds so much better. England is cursed by a class system, there’s the ruling class who hold all the power, who control everything and breed prime ministers, spies, and decision makers, in their public school system. There’s the middle class, the privileged ones that get to choose their career, politician, Musician, Artist, yoga guru, architect, etc. and then there’s the working class, cannon fodder, foot soldiers, those who should know their place, who are generally robbed of a education, if you were working class and read the NME and had curiosity, there was much to learn. It celebrated intelligence and made dreams seem possible. i wanted to be a musician and dreamed of one day being in the NME, sadly that didn’t happen, and all these great tomes went extinct, Sounds, Melody Maker are long gone. The NME was the first to out the muslim hating, fascist political party supporting, Morrissey, and even with new writers it still seemed to survive and limp on into the late 90s, at some stage it became a glossy magazine, seemingly aimed at simpletons, and then it ended publication, becoming online only, then also a giveaway magazine, I almost wish the NME ended along with Sounds and Melody Maker, it’s as far away as it could get from it’s hey day that extinction would be a blessing.

Why Hawkwind Matter

Well, that’s a bold title isn’t it? Even if the only two songs they did were Assault and Battery & The Golden Void, the first two tracks on their 1975 album, Warrior on the Edge of Time, I would argue those two tracks alone warrant genius status. Hawkwind are about as far from a band I thought I’d end up liking as you get. All I knew about them was they looked like hippies and Lemmy was in them once. I was watching the brilliant Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, and one episode ended with a track that mesmerized me, I did a little digging and it turned out to be Assault and Battery by Hawkwind, shit!

I downloaded the album it was on and played those first two tracks every day for maybe a year, it was the most magical, evocative thing I had possibly ever heard. Playing the rest of the album, the first thing i heard on track 3 was a spoken word piece about wizards, damn, are these two tracks a one off? There were more good tracks on this album though, it sounded really good. Listening to a few more albums, the hypnotic, ‘krautrock’, motorik beat, almost trance like grooves, made me ask how much more have i missed by being so blinkered about music.

Dave Brock, the only consistent member of Hawkwind, has a great voice, seems humble, has a great guitar style, AND is the writer of the two tracks that ‘blew my mind’, is a really interesting character, forming Hawkwind when he was 29, today an age considered ‘past it’. He never seems to slow down, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Hawkwind in this the year of the plague, 2020, that’s some drive.

The early albums are the best, the debut is good, starting with the incongruous, yet brilliant, Hurry on Sundown, a goodbye to the 60s if nothing else before the spacier Hawkwind sound kicks in. The 2nd album, In Search of Space, is a trippy, beautifully repetitive, weed smokers flight into space, it is musically fascinating to hear this when so much shite was massive at this time. I like those early albums they are zen inducing, transcendental, an ode to pure joy.

I read a great book about them called Hawkwind – Days of the Underground written by Joe Banks which I would very much recommend if you know very little OR a lot about Hawkwind, it’s a really well written, brilliant book

It’s a shit business

The fantastic line uttered in The League of Gentleman by Les McQueen, the guitarist from Creme Brûlée, summing up the saddening thought that the only thing you ever wanted to do was make a living from being a musician, and it didn’t happen, real life happened instead.

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” So said Nabokov, and all logic would say that he was 100% correct. Whether you are a King or a pauper, when your time comes, you’ll never know you even existed, you will return to the nothingness you were in prior to life being foisted upon you. In pondering this bleak existential thought, this most probable eventuality, it does make you think about what you do with the time you have, even though logically you’ll be none the wiser when it happens as you won’t exist anymore. I, for instance, want to make albums and release them, I have no money to promote them, I have no insider friends, no rich parents to finance me, no network to tap into, so I just do it anyway. I feel a failed musician is one who quits, I don’t care if i’m THE most obscure artist on the planet, I will still try and create art because it gives me a modicum of purpose in the absurdity of sentience, and all its cruelty.

The music business really started to thrive after The Beatles, the cultural and societal revolutionairies who changed the modern world until the arrival of the internet. Record companies reigned supreme as the 60s groaned into the 70s, the 70s brought subdued coloured clothes and monoliths of rock (not a good thing) that stagnated the Beatles revolution, it watered it down, made it dull and all about yawn inspiring virtuosity, Punk came and offered a new revolution that created a 4 to 5 year golden period of incredible music. The 80s had multicoloured awfulness in the shallow vacuity of the new-romantics, the first Thatcher inspired music movement, a movement that put greed as god. Across the pond in the USA, artless, dumb, lowest common denominator, shite, like ‘hair’ bands started making it big, the nadir of music. The 80s weren’t all bad of course, first there was Hip Hop, another musical revolution that started out so great until its most popular latter day artists devolved into misogyny, homophobia, and the shallow worship of money and things. There was also a widespread movement of underground music around the world, bands that tried to fly in the face of the seemingly awful decade, of which there are happily too many to mention. The last run for the record labels was the 90s, Brit Pop, Nirvana, Grunge, etc, etc, some of it still sounds good, some sounds ludicrously dated. Then came Napster, stealing artists music was justified by saying the greedy record companies were making too much money, they were of course, and they never knew what to do with the emerging technology but, this was not David V Goliath, this was just the beginning of making it extremely hard to make a living out of being a musician, nigh on impossible in fact. Popular music has been the respite for the working class for decades, if there had been a way to steal “high-brow” art from artists, it’s likely something would have been done about it but, it wasn’t the record companies to blame this time for artists not being paid, it was the music fans, why pay for it when I can get it for free? The internet killed the industry, and music, but you can’t relive the past, and so mourn it and move on.

The internet also democratized the ability to release music, technology came and destroyed something that was deemed eternal, the music industry, that is now history, all that has gone before is sealed in a museum and for as long as there are those who cherish that extinct reality, those physical objects, that museum will be a place to visit and dream of things that are dead and gone. Now is all new, it’s not worse and it’s not better, it’s just what is now and so that is how you accept reality. Technology put the ability to create music and record it into the hands of anyone who could afford a DAW, some form of instrument/beat generator, and a willingness to do so, for EDM you don’t even have to go to the trouble of learning an instrument or being a musician, everyone can make music. The Internet meant you could share that music with anyone who would bother to listen, there are musical geniuses out there that will die unheard, there are remarkable chancers who made it through, there is real talent that got heard, and of course there are the many utter travesties that make it through too, all very similar to before, but all without the suits involved, all without the intrinsic judgement of art in capitalism, will it make a shit ton of money? That’s the key, money, in Capitalism it is the only thing that matters, that’s why Taylor Swift is ubiquitous with her safe, dull, committee produced output, where artists like Wire, This Heat, Akala, just as small sample, are not necessary household names, but their art is so far superior in every facet. if someone tells you with a prolonged (i.e. expensive) ad campaign, that something is good, then you buy into it, or if a couple of reviews say it, then even your friends will believe it, otherwise you exist in the unknown, throwing your drop of water into a massive ocean and expecting someone to notice it.

Safe music has always sold in droves, whether it be the podunk, dumbest genre, that is most Country music, or the Corporate, committee written and produced musical equivalent of Pepsi/Coke, Taylor Swift, Adele, Ed Sheeran, or the seemingly cutting edge (but really egregiously over-rated) Kanye West, not to mention his Trumpian narcissism. Those few will always be okay. Inoffensive, unchallenging, safe music, is likely the most popular “umbrella” of music world wide, and that’s true of all art, I’m sure more people you meet have read Dan Brown, Clive Cussler, etc, airport novel, etc, than say Hesse, Joyce, Camus, Mirbeau, Plath, Nin, Miller, etc, etc. or more people like art that is easy to digest rather than the likes of Basquiat, Rothko, Hilma Af Klint, Malevich, Hirst, etc. etc. that’s the way the world is. You can educate yourself to culture way easier now thanks to the Internet (there’s good and bad things about everything, right?) but it still may be easier to like things that do not challenge the comfort of ignorance. Maybe ignorant was the best way to be? Be entertained and amused in life by the simplistic things, be comforted in believing bronze age nonsense about deities, or new age nonsense stolen from equally absurd older religions, breezing through your brief crack of light, oblivious to it’s inevitable conclusion and without any anxiety about the world. Maybe that’s the way to go, maybe that’s a happier life but, look at all you would miss, the art that makes you think, makes you cry, fall in love, dance, hurt, be in pure joy, you would miss all that in your brief crack of light. If I sound pretentious, so be it, I was poor, my parents could not afford to send me to higher eduction, and even if they could, I was too dumb at school leaving age to be worthy of going to college.

So the point of this rambling diatribe? Do what you can to enjoy your brief crack of light, and tell the ephemeral crew that tell you you’re too old, ugly, short, fat, tall, poor, whatever it may be, to fuck right off.

Punk

What’s in a name? What is Punk Rock? I guess it doesn’t really matter, but Punk was a catchall term that has exponentially grown into something very, very different from the inchoate rumblings of 1975/1976 in the UK.

Punk started suffering a personality crisis very soon after it’s birth, a crisis that manifested itself in awful London postcards, a swath of awful “punk” bands in the early 80s, The Exploited, GBH, UK Subs, Discharge, Anti-Nowhere League, the kind of shitty, pointless bands that were in a Guardian article (April 21st 2020) saying “they made the Sex Pistols look like Take That”, no they didn’t, they were ALL shit. Then there’s an entire Country (namely America) that reduced punk to something like “huh huh, then I got my cock out and threw my own shit at people”…”Huh Huh, That’s punk rock.” How did this happen?

It may have started with the Bill Grundy incident, a drunken old Tory, goading young men into swearing on TV. Outrage ensued and media bullshit made it all about swearing, puking up, etc. The Americans loved this of course. Then there was Malcolm Mclaren, a talentless, middle class spiv, who with his solipsism, and the execrable Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle, lied and bullshitted punk into the cesspit it’s dwelt in ever since. Then there was the ultra talentless Sid Vicious, an apparently “nice guy” who was dead at 21 from the most boring and pointless Rock ‘n Roll cliche, Heroin. Dumb cunt. There’s a poor quality movie/footage of the last Sex Pistols tour, the Americans on that video are embarrassing, it’s obvious they just have it all wrong. They haven’t got a fucking clue.

An alternative to mainstream music grew with the experimentation of bands like The Beatles, their innovation pioneered the experimental. The Velvet Underground’s debut album was so unlike anything before it, The Stooges were also a breath of fresh air in what was becoming a very staid 70s music scene, in Germany the need to be different led to Can, Popol Vuh, Neu! and Kraftwerk, to name but a few, and of course there was Bowie who was always the polar opposite of most 70s music. As the music of the 70s got so complacent there were rumblings of resistance, in New York there was The New York Dolls and The Ramones, the latter released a great debut (but unfortunately stuck with a formula after that for evermore.) In England, young men and women were trying something different inspired by the Sex Pistols. With the aid of the late, great, John Peel, these new bands could be heard. At that point it was not “Hey, copy us!”, it was “you can do anything you want”, you don’t have to be a classically trained musician like those awful wankers in, what must rival Queen as the worst band of all time, Yes.

The idea was, fuck the past, do something new, be original. For a while it seemed great, let’s take just 5 random bands, Buzzcocks, The Slits, Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Wire, even those 5 bands alone sounded very different to each other. Greater things were to come in what became the Post-Punk era, likely the most creative period in modern music history after the pioneering Beatles lit the fuse. In this period, the real fruits of ‘punk’ emerged, Joy Division, The Pop Group, The Fall, Gang of Four, PIL, Killing Joke, New Order, This Heat, The Cure, and so many more, so many that were never heard of again. They heard Johnny Rottens clarion call on So it Goes (presented by the late, great, Tony Wilson) “Get off your arse’ before launching into Anarchy in the UK. Bands were trying such great things, funk/jazz and madness with The Pop Group, Can influenced Dub with PIL, the sheer genius of The Fall, the dark brilliance of Joy Division, the use of synths with early Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, the funk, bass heavy sound of A Certain Ratio, or the not punk, avant/rock of This Heat. It wasn’t until the arrival of Hip Hop that music sounded so exciting.

Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Glen Matlock, and Johnny Rotten (nee Lydon) were the Sex Pistols, Sid Vicious is what was taken away, either by the godawful bands I mentioned earlier in the 2nd paragraph, or by the American “punk’ bands. The Pistols music was not actually too far from what had gone before, but they had John Lydon, to write those lyrics as such a young man is astounding, without his lyrics and that voice, it would not have happened. I have heard it more than once that “oh, Sex Pistols were the first boy band, put together by a svengali” NO. This is the bullshit version of the story some North Americans live with. It’s clearly not true, you cannot invent Johnny Rotten. Now, I should point out I’m taking of the Johnny Rotten back then, not the present day one who supports Trump and wears a Make America Great Again T-shirt, that Johnny Rotton is a hypocrite and a twat.

Punk, as a movement that did not need a name, was essentially a need to be original, a need to try and do something new, to stand out, to bring an edge back into music after the awful, complacent 70s, that’s why you can look at say, Buzzcocks, The Fall, and Joy Division, and see three unique bands, that each have something incredible about them, they were exciting and original, they had that spirit, and none of it was about puking up, mohicans, black leather, chains, and other such awful uniformity and cliche. To them punk meant ‘out with what was’, strive to be original, and they were better for it. It came to me, watching lots of American music documentaries, where people like Thurston Moore, Henry Rollins, or lesser luminaries of that scene would do vox pops about some band, and it would be “Oh he head butted a security guard and vomited on stage” and then they’d say “That’s so punk rock”, or “and then he shat in his hand and threw it at the audience”, “That’s so punk rock” NO it fucking isn’t, it’s trite and boring, deliberately trying to be ‘shocking’ is so transparent and obvious, trying to be original is more ‘punk’. Another aspect of American punk was/is the toxic masculinity, nicely addressed by San Francisco’s Dead Kennendy’s in ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’. Growing up in London and loving the indie scene that was birthed by post punk, I was always perplexed that every image of Black Flag in the NME/Melody Maker/Sounds was the same, a guy that looked like a gym freak always wearing only shorts, with veins bulging, painfully singing into the microphone, as violence seemed to swell in the crowd. Every single picture was like that, macho, male dominated, aggressive, and music that sounded like poor heavy metal. Don’t get me wrong, Henry Rollins seems like an amazing and very intelligent man, and I’m sure there’s a place for that music, a genre for it, but it has sullied what an original movement tried to do. People as utterly talentless as GG Allin are a good example of why America missed the point entirely, GG Allin was devoid of any talent and in a better society should have been looked after for the obvious mental illness he suffered from.

I guess every music genre gets sullied and watered down, and this entire blog is utterly irrelevant and simply the opinion of someone who thinks music is one of the most beautiful things you can discover, and music that challenges you is even more exciting. One thing that late 20th century music doesn’t get is the esteem that classical gets, I remember hearing a podcast by the transphobic, new poster boy for the alt-right, comedian Ricky Gervais, where he said Elgar had a chord that made him cry when he was away and made him miss England, and saying it was better than the rubbish they played on XFM. This is the kind of shit I hate, luckily I am comfortable enough with my own intelligence not to have to think liking classical music is a prerequisite for nous. Closer by Joy Division has all the gravitas and artistic genius of any classical piece of music, I’m sure anyone could argue that technically all classical is superior because it has more chords, notes, etc, but the power to move, the sheer artistry that a piece like Closer can evoke is up there.

After Post Punk, Hip Hop was the greatest new musical movement in years, and just like any genre, it has a broad and vastly different “musical tree” that has grown exponentially to become the most popular music in the world today, sadly with Country coming in a close second.

And now, to sound like an old man, while I was reading a book on John Peel, I came across a chapter that documented his shows in early 1976, just before punk, and the description of his abject boredom, apathy, and seeming lack of (once thriving) passion, seemed very prescient of today. The past is dead, nostalgia is sad, but there is no excuse to stop liking music and looking for something new.