This is who I was. This is the boy I was, instinctively, but also under the tutelage of John Peel. Who – listening on headphones in the dark of a small bedroom which used to be a pantry – thrilled to hear Beefheart himself put through a blender, and fiery personal-is-political, political-is-personal words which resisted espousing the tenets of any discernable ideology (though of course they leaned heavily to the left).
The music to which we respond shows us the multiplicities within ourselves. Where once I might have argued (and did, and lost, to someone who understood this at an earlier age than me) that I loved music because it was authentic, and spoke to the authenticity in me, now I would say, I am all the people who listen to the music I do. The apparent authenticity of, for example, Mark Eitzel, connected with the me I was at that point in my life. I’m no longer that person, but I still carry that Mark Eitzelness within me. That desperation, that mix of wry and black humour. Likewise, Big Flame. That anger, that hair-raising excitement and joy. I am multiple, plural, shifting, indefinite, and (unless you map directly on to me) essentially unknowable, as a whole. Even back then, I was becoming multiple. Being single-minded and dead-set on authenticity will get you so far; but being open to the world and all that makes it up will take you a long way further. Just ask Bob Dylan.
So the boy who liked Big Flame is one of my multiplicities. The boy who at the same time swooned to Prefab Sprout and the Pale Fountains, another. And from between those nominal ends of a spectrum came so many other kinds of music, so many other ways of being, all enlarging a boy’s sense of what it meant to be alive (though at times that expansion may have plateaued as I fixated on one thing or another: jangling guitars, or later, drum and bass). But if your ears were open to Big Flame, then they might equally well be open to Archie Shepp or Public Enemy. From the elegant song-craft of Prefab Sprout to the inveterate wordplay of Dylan isn’t such a leap; still less so, from the Paleys to Love and the whole world of psychedelia. But one thing leads to another and before too much water has passed under Waterloo Bridge, you are a long way from home.
I loved the exhilarating rawness and obtuseness of ‘Man of few syllables’, and of ‘Debra’ and ‘Sargasso’ on the flipside. Though I am no longer that boy, I still do. The single-minded vision of a trio who called their EPs Rigour, Tough! and Cubist pop manifesto and were only ever going to do and play things their way, or not at all. If you liked it, so what? If you didn’t, so what?
When I came to London to study, one of the acts put on during freshers’ week at my college was, amazingly, Big Flame. Came to London to study? I came to London to immerse myself in music. Even at my notoriously left-wing institution, students not raised on a Peel-heavy diet must have been bewildered by the raucous attack of Big Flame. My recollection of that night is that I was one of the few to show them appreciation. It’s hardly surprising. Big Flame were explosive. They were never going to last. After five sevens, four Peel sessions, and a ten inch EP – bang! – they were gone.
As we head into the time of year at which the Festive Fifty was unveiled, thoughts turn to our old Uncle John. Actually he’s never far from my thoughts – all sorts of associations trigger his memory. The thread of Peel’s influence is stitched throughout five decades of popular music’s development, after all. In all the emotion surrounding Terry Wogan’s semi-retirement this week – as far as I have heard or seen – no-one has thought to make the connection between two of the Corporation’s greatest broadcasters, especially in terms of the connection with listening publics. I imagine Terry spent a fair portion of time responding off-air to letters from listeners. John certainly did. The letter I received from him in about 1985 is a treasured possession. It’s the one I mention it in this piece, written shortly after his death in 2004.
The two groups whose contact details I was after were Sudden Sway and the Popticians. I was intending to interview them for my first fanzine. It never happened, because – possibly even before I received a reply from John – Creation Records had become the centre of my musical world. Having grown up in NHGs – National Health Glasses – I was a sucker for John Hegley’s poems and songs about spectacles and bullying. He would have been easy to interview. Heaven knows what I would have asked Sudden Sway, whose conceptual approach to music remains unique. I think I understood what they were up to, but I seriously doubt that at the time I could have elucidated it in the form of questions.
I never routinely voted for my three favourite tracks of the year, but here’s one I do remember voting for in 1985, alongside ‘What’s happening’ by the Jasmine Minks and a third now forgotten song. Big Flame’s ‘Debra’ remains a favourite, its conjunction of world and personal politics, wild abandon, tight structure and lo-fi hiss rarely if ever surpassed. Of course as a flipside it failed to make the Festive Fifty, though the lead song from the Rigour EP, ‘Man of few syllables’ was an unbroadcasted number 62 and the group’s subsequent A side ‘All the Irish (must go to heaven)’ pushed to 58. Minority tastes even then.
Attentive readers with long memories will recall that I had embarked on a series of scans of pages from my 1980s fanzines. The undertaking got derailed by a mixture of an antiquated scanner finally meeting its match in the form of Windows Vista, and my depression at the awfulness of the majority of the contents with which I was faced. Now that I have a twenty-first century scanner, I’m beginning again – keeping in mind this note made by William Empson: ‘Sir Max Beerbohm has a fine reflection on revising one of his early works [Zuleika Dobson]; he said he tried to remember how angry he would have been when he wrote it if an elderly pedant had made corrections, and how certain he would have felt that the man was wrong.’
The back cover star of Too Much Hanky Pantry was Mervyn Peake, a somewhat unfashionable writer in 1987, and hardly any less so now. But it’s still a pleasure to be borne slowly along by his marshalling of the sensitive grotesques that people the three parts of the Gormenghast trilogy; and Peake’s doorstop has the distinct advantage over Tolkien’s of a much greater need to understand the human condition.
Though there were East Anglian folk of whom it might have been formed, the Sugar Beat Collective sadly remained a figment of my imagination. The editor of Gobstopper would have been a member; in this issue, instead of reviewing fanzines, I quoted best lines, and his were: ‘Camp! Everybody get camp!’ and ‘I’ve changed from a miserable sod pretending to be happy to a happy sod pretending to be miserable.’
From the first issue of Caff (editors Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs) I quoted part of ‘The Vod Duck story’: ‘[Walt Disney’s] version of Vod was called Daffy and – minus the big red star on the neckband – Daffy Duck was a big success.’
Coca Cola Cowboy #2: ‘I never met a banana I didn’t like.’ Within the same issue, Juniper Beri-Beri (Stephen Pastel) wrote: ‘If you prefer your food straight off your girlfriend’s stomach rather than on a plate, then the Vaselines are probably the group you’ve been waiting for.’
When Saturday Comes #6: ‘When you’re bored with Arsenal, you’re bored with life’ – attributed to Bob Wilson!
Are you scared to get happy? #3: ‘WE’RE COMING TO GET YOU who are just far too lost to understand the magic of a pure bright light in a darkened room or like JUST TOO FUCKING OLD in simple terms.’
Frolik # 1 on the Soup Dragons: ‘This music makes me want to pour custard into someone’s underpants.’
Pure Popcorn #4: ‘We, the sweet melodies of youth, invite you suckle our collective breast (figuratively speaking of course) and elevate your tawdry existence (YOU SUCK!) to a higher plane of being.’
I should mention the geographical spread of eighties fanzine production. It was a nationwide phenomenon, with outposts in every town and city, and a fair few of the villages and hamlets too. You could, of course, listen to John Peel anywhere, taking inspiration from the music and making postal connection with the fanzines whose contact details he read out on air. As he used to say, ‘Where do they get these names from?’
A Peel listener with archival tendencies, I was always going to be a sucker for The Peel sessions, Ken Garner’s updated version of his earlier book In session tonight. The story of how the sessions developed within the BBC is fascinating, and producers like Peel’s first at Radio One, Bernie Andrews, emerge from the background as stubborn, innovative heroes without whom Peel could not have had the impact he did. It also makes you fully understand why, despite the protection afforded him by Andrews and John Walters, Peel always feared for his airtime at Radio One, his standing balanced against any new controller’s desire to make their mark by tinkering with schedules in which Peel stood out like a sore thumb.
It takes a little over a hundred pages to list the 4,400-odd sessions, personnel and track listing and all. Your eye alights at every turn on great ones. Laugh’s two very different sessions recorded less than eighteen months apart, before and after their Sensation number one reinvention. The second Last Party, the one with ‘The full English breakfast’ and ‘Purple Hazel’. The first P.J. Harvey. Sudden Sway’s inventive non-musical interventions. You cannot put a price on the oddities that Peel presented to formative minds.
Then there are those I might have heard but cannot recollect, like the second Autechre, for which the entry states that Peel, presented with an untitled session sheet, made up the titles himself: ‘Gelk’, ‘Blifil’, ‘Gaekwad’ and ‘19 headaches’.
Of particular interest are the mythic times before I became a Peel listener. What are the sessions recorded by the Kinks in 1967, ’68, ’72 and ’74 like? Also in 1968, the first of a succession of Bridget St. John sessions went before the fearsomely crusty and anachronistic institution of the BBC’s audition panel, who commented that it was ‘pretentious rubbish… her guitar playing is inaccurate and uninspired and her voice dull.’ Despite this, Bridget got a ‘borderline pass’ and so her session was broadcast. From the early eighties, the first James session, and a subsequent and evidently much less well-known Fire Engines session in contrast to the much lauded and traded first. ‘Young tongues need taste’, ‘Qualitamatic’, ‘Produced to seduce to’ and ‘The big wrong time’ were first broadcast on 23 November 1981. On titles alone, it ought to be as renowned as the first, but interviewed by Innes Reekie in 2005 for a great but never formally published article, Davy Henderson said, ‘Around the time of the second John Peel session, we were shit… Our compass was a fake… We should have trusted our internal magnets… We should have trusted our inability.’
So is Davy right, or does the music deliver on the promise of the titles?
As per usual, I’m turning up for the match just as everyone is streaming away from the ground. In fact I am almost certainly the night watchman, employed to keep an eye on the stadium when no-one else is around. Nevertheless, I should capture my responses to these questions now, more or less at the outset of my blogging life, particularly as the answers have a bearing on this blog’s chronological reproduction of pages from my fanzines of twenty years ago. I’m keen to map the common impulse which led to both forms of activity. In terms of blogging per se, I’m answering without having read in detail the responses of others or subsequent commentary – that I’ll do when I’ve finished, and maybe signal which thoughts most and least accord with my own.
These questions appeared on rockcritics.com as a sort of a symposium. I have never thought of myself as a rock critic, even during the brief spell that I could realistically have been described myself. Both words in the term are limiting. I prefer to think of myself as a music writer, or rather a writer about music. Or perhaps to refine further, I’m a writer who happens to spend a fair amount of time on the subject of music, often more time than I think I ought.
1. Talk about your blog and how it has evolved over time. Why did you start to blog? What sorts of things do you do on your blog?
Evolution is obviously a question for the future. I started to blog in anticipation of the end of Tangents, specifically to continue my Backed with series but also guessing that I’d need a space to let loose whatever seemed to have some letting-loose merit and potential. Having written for Tangents since it was a paper-based entity, I had come to depend on it as a means of writing about the music I loved, but increasingly I was taking that means for granted and not being moved to file copy. I very quickly came to feel liberated by Alistair’s decision to burn Tangents down, and would admit to having felt a little hemmed in there by the voracious tastes of the prodigious talents more regularly pouring forth their words. I thank him both for the ten plus years of web space and for giving me the (unintentional) gentle shunt / kick up the arse.
I definitely need a space in which to express myself. I’ve more or less always had one. I would have felt lost and defeated without my three blogs, whose inception coincides with a surge of creative energy that for personal reasons had gone astray for two or three years.What I seem to be doing both with A jumped-up pantry boy and B/w is capturing the musical past and looking at it from the perspective of now. Allied to this are the scans from my fanzines, which inevitably set me thinking about how I was then and what I think today. My eighteen or nineteen year old self would be aghast at some of the things I’m saying about him.
With three blogs, I worry about not spending enough time on each, and losing momentum with one or other of them. But each has a different purpose, and keeping each plate spinning prevents any of them from becoming boring (at least to their writer).
Here at A jumped-up pantry boy, I would like to be spending more time writing about contemporary music (of as many persuasions as I can muster, certainly beyond the independent guitar pop I major in) than I currently do, and increasingly I hope that I will, though it’s so easy to be nostalgically seduced by a reissue from twenty years ago. But I like to think that it’s not impossible for a new group to better the songs of, say, the Go-Betweens and the pleasure they have given me. In this I may be deluding myself, because of the crust that taste and age build up around you. It is no longer possible for me to empathise completely with the worldview of twenty-somethings, but it is only (on an ongoing basis) this yet-to-be-jaded generation who stand a chance of besting Forster and McLennan. Yet to be jaded, yet to be set in stone, yet to allow reality to diminish their creative ambition and belief.
Much as I admired John Peel and his never diminishing appetite for the new, I always had the sense that it was possible for him to continue as he did because he never became emotionally or intellectually attached to the vast majority of the music he played on the radio. Had I ever become as thorough a DJ as John, I’m sure I would have given up in the face of the weight of it all and in the blink of a broadcasting eye, in comparison with his longevity.
So although I spend a lot of time listening to the new, it takes something really special to tear me away from the past and write about the present – The Clientele, Rachael Dadd and the Wraiths convince me to do so, while, for example, Battles, Burial, Cold War Kids and Candie Payne do not quite.
2. Is your blogging voice or the material you cover in your blog different than the voice you use or the material you cover in your professional music writing? If so, how?
I can’t describe myself as a professional for the reasons given in the preamble. If we stretched the notion of professional writing to include what I did for Tangents, then as yet the voice and material has altered only slightly and not significantly.
On the other hand the blogging form does not seem to me to sit easily with the kind of in-depth writing I’m undertaking over at B/w and in particular the competing distraction provided by seductive links off to other more glamorous, entertaining or provocative worldviews. I think I am still working my way to a finished blogging style. I hope my posts will become more judiciously concise and frequent.
3. What are your thoughts on comments boxes in blogs? Do you or don’t you allow them, and why?
I positively welcome them, and at this early stage they are sufficient to create little flurries of excitement. It doesn’t happen here yet – possibly because stylistically I close posts and argument off too readily – but the refinement that can be arrived at when comments don’t simply comprise of winks and in-jokes (fair enough in itself if the blog acts as a place to have pub-banter when not in the pub) is often impressive. I wish I had more time to respond to what I read on the blogs of others – so much of it merits engagement, encouragement, hair-splitting, stand-taking.
4. Is your blog a forum to converse with or critique other writers? If so, please recount one (or some) of your more memorable blog dialogs or critiques.
It may become so. More conversation than critique, I guess, although I welcomed the linking nod I got from Simon Reynolds having appraised Rip it up and start again. Because I also write fiction, I don’t spend my whole creative life celebrating or dissecting music, and I think I would tend to bow to those that do on matters of critical principle. I mostly want to share thoughts about great music and would agree with anyone who suggests that is a problematic endeavour in a world packed to the gills with music-makers, listeners and writers. No-one should care that I have anything to say, but I aspire to saying it in a way which for the reader contains elements of idiosyncrasy, recognition, empathy, neurone-sparking potential.
5. Would you agree that the back and forth conversational aspect of the music blogosphere has died down somewhat in the last few years? Any theories as to why?
I don’t think I can answer the first part of the question having only followed it sufficiently closely since so recently becoming a music blogger myself. Can anyone keep track of everything that’s going on? At every moment a new young, middle- or old-aged blogger is starting out on their monologues or conversations. Like most things, there will surely be waves of activity – some spurred by creative developments, others by technological advances – with certain relative constants. I suppose for me Freaky trigger and the ILX boards provide a sense of those constants, even though I have never participated in either and rarely have a moment to look beyond the FT blogs to the boards.
6. A lot of music bloggers tend to start out with a lot of energy, then drop out altogether. You have kept at this for a while–what keeps you going, and are you ever tempted to just throw in the towel?
Obviously six months is not long, but when I start something I tend to want to see it through to the end of its natural life. And as music has no end, and nor does writing about it, I reckon on keeping on keeping on, subject to occasional bouts of futility-induced depression.
I am definitely also subject to the (obsessive-) compulsive quality of blogging but my life aside from writing is sufficiently forceful that I’m obliged to do less than I otherwise might. The addiction contains in it both noble and ignoble cravings (rather like fanzine writing, hence the reproductions) – you just have to try to obey the noble drive and resist as far as possible the ignoble. So I don’t envisage needing to wean myself off of it anytime soon. If I can keep blogs and life in balance, I think I’m here to stay. The only thing I can see outside of war or apocalypse that that would make me reappraise the worth of continuing would be if the stats dropped to zero. I need to do it, but I also need to feel that I am not simply speaking to myself, a straightjacketed madman in a white cell. I take on board the risk that how I express myself may be turned by the existence of an audience greater than one. I still have some small belief that writing ultimately attains the readership it deserves.
7. Do you think music blogs have any serious impact on record sales, or on how music is covered in newsstand publications?
I suspect negative impact on record sales as far as the influence of this blog is concerned! I’m not sure I care about this as an issue, beyond wishing the groups that I write about well, in the sense that they make enough money both to support themselves and continue recording.
It must be next to impossible now to disentangle the various strands of increasingly viral marketing strategies, let alone distinguish between or even determine what is a genuine appreciative reaction and one which is tied to or compromised by the buzz. But in terms of coverage it would seem to be the case that the mainstream media has taken on board the self-publishing revolution, and encouraged a greater level of reader participation, at least in an online sense. You can see that with the music blog and Comment is free areas of the Guardian. But perhaps other newsstand publications have not been so enlightened – or prepared to adapt to the changing balance of power in the name of self-preservation and self-interest.
8. What would you like to see more of in the world of music blogs?
Allowing that I probably have an incomplete or distorted sense of what the world of music blogs is, I would wish to see more imaginative responses to music which not only accept the contexts in which songs or pieces are written and recorded, but that give them their head as works of art as well as cultural artefacts. I suppose I mean that everything is so heavily loaded; if it’s possible, I’d like writers to strip as much of that away as they can (or at least momentarily get past it) and look at the bones, the guts of the thing. If I am being overly Romantic and culturally naïve about anyone’s ability to do this in the 21st century, carrying the weight of critical baggage that we do, then I suppose that is deliberate.
9. What blogs, music or otherwise, do you most highly recommend?
In addition to the ones I link to on the left under what WordPress unfortunately insists on calling ‘blogroll’ (the ones that aren’t me in other guises are friends – though this shouldn’t discount how highly I rate what they do), I like An unreliable witness for prose which chases itself as might a plump dog following its strangely wiry tail, photography which blends idiosyncrasy with something you might find in a glossy product brochure, subversion of the post-it note, and all-round imaginative engagement with the blogging form. Skyberries and voidmelons or voidberries and skymelons for Squirmelia’s photographic eye and diary-like interrogation of the oddities of natural and urban worlds. The police diver’s notebook for Nick Talbot’s sharp political commentary on the state of the nation. And I like La terrasse for its old-school literary range and flâneur erudition.
Music features prominently in only the last of these. If the Guardian is right and there are now 4 million bloggers in Britain alone, then I suspect there are one or two more music blogs out there which I would wish to read on a post-by-post basis if I had the time to stumble across and stay with them. As it is, I aim to write the blog I would wish to read if I were me, but I don’t doubt that there are people out there doing what I do better and more intensively. They just don’t have my taste…
I admire those few blogs who don’t care to network the blogosphere by linking to a myriad of others in what can either be viewed as back-scratching or patting, or construction of a tapestry of interwoven concerns and cultural identification. The problem is, they are extremely difficult to trace. Perhaps there’s a Strange map of them to be found somewhere…
10. Anything else you care to add?
I have been struck at how much like starting a fanzine starting a blog has been. It’s been a process of learning on the job, finding out both in terms of design and content what works and what doesn’t, reawakening friendships with people whose friendship was awakened in the first place by the fact that we exchanged fanzines. There has been an element of what we might crudely term marketing with each; I’ve discovered that there really is a virtual equivalent of the (occasionally quite productive) madness of attempting to sell fanzines cold and off the cuff to people who attended the same gigs as me. Making links to people – I can see how this would lead to real-world friendships in the same way fanzine connections did, were I not the age I am. Those connections shot off in so many directions, and travelled so far from the initial musical meeting of minds, with letters as a testing ground for ideas, relationships, issues and ambitions. It would be stretching the truth to call my entry into the world of blogging a creative renaissance, but it’s not far off that, and not far off the creative act of discovery that producing fanzines was.
I have also re-learnt the art of completion; towards the end of the Tangents decade, my ideas were mouldering, and for every article I sent through to Alistair, another nine remained unfinished.