The Road To Red

redsquare

Red Square
Rare And Lost 70s Recordings
SPAIN MENTAL EXPERIENCE MENT003 LP (2016)

Here’s another excellent item from Mental Experience, the sub-label of Guerssen who also brought us the two reissues of Circle, the lesser-known 1980s post-Krautrock band. Red Square were an English art-rock free-jazz combo who were first active in the 1970s, and had a serious political edge to boot. The name Red Square refers not to the plaza in Moscow, but to the work of the Constructivists painters (especially El Lissitzky), but I’m sure these Marxists found it was a good way to signal their intentions to promoters and organisers alike. Nothing like booking a commie pinko band to play to the radical young students of the day, who wanted some light relief after a hard day occupying the University faculty with their sit-ins and strikes. They also made a grand old racket, as is evidenced by Rare And Lost 70s Recordings, an album which salvages a studio session from 1978 where they played live to create four blistering cuts, and another three recordings from a gig at Lindisfarne Hall the same year.

It’s fairly clear Red Square had at least one foot planted in the rock music enclave, as the guitarist Ian Staples heaves out a delicious heavily-amped swirl of noise, proving he fears neither loud amplifiers nor feedback effects, and makes few concessions to conventions of free jazz (or rock, for that matter). In fine, by 1978 Staples had already evolved himself into an English Sonny Sharrock, which isn’t bad going if you consider that Monkie Pockie-Boo was only 8 years old at this time, and I sincerely doubt if many people in England had even heard that record. Then you’ve got the drummer Roger Telford, who has a fairly relentless attack…I usually don’t care for drumming that attempts to fill in every available space with unnecessary rattles, bangs and triple-notes, but for some reason this maximalism is just perfect here. Manic, excessive drumming appears to be a big part of the Red Square sound. One might even say it’s the lifeblood. If nothing else, Telford’s bass skins do give the band their “bottom end”.

Then there’s the woodwind player, Jon Seagroatt, also a member of Comus and sometime performer with Current 93, who plays bass clarinet and saxophone and may at times seem to be in danger of being wiped out by the guitar noise, but retaliates with everything he’s got in his lungs, heart and liver. While he too may have picked up some of hell-for-leather sensibilities of the all-out free blowing such as you find on the 1969 BYG records, Seagroatt has also somehow evolved his own English take on the genre. There may be anger and fury bubbling under the surface, but whereas Archie Shepp and Clifford Thornton directed their anger against white racism in America, here it’s channelled into an audible Marxist dialectic, laying out a sustained critical argument against the iniquities of society in 1970s UK. At any rate, that’s my take on the matter. I invite the listener to hear for themselves and see if they agree.

All of Red Square’s music carries this particular directed energy, so the music is not just an exercise in “free blowing” or “extended technique”; they were probably young idealists itching for change, and I would suggest they intended to pass on their restless state of mind to the listener, and thereby activate the brains of the audience towards critique, towards questioning. I have often expressed the same view regarding certain Post Punk bands, most notably This Heat. It’ll come as no surprise when you learn Red Square played with Henry Cow, and were part of a movement called Music For Socialism. On the other hand, while I can imagine Chris Cutler personally welcoming Red Square as fellow Marxists, I’m not sure how far they went with participating in the Rock In Opposition thing. For balance, we should also point out they shared bills with other jazz and jazz-rock combos with no discernible political agenda, such as National Health and Lol Coxhill. There’s also some vague allusion in the press notes here to general conflicts which arose in the band’s lifetime: “their extreme sound and attitude were too much for both audience and record companies”, an evasive remark if ever there was. “Too much”? What happened? Were there audience riots? And could you be more specific about why they didn’t get a record deal?

Even if you’ve no interest in politics, which can be a jolly boring subject, the music will energise and amaze you. At their best Red Square created a kind of fierce tidal wave of sound, which was absolutely untrammelled by any tedious conventions such as rhythm, metre, structure, chord changes, or any of that stuff that gets in the way and restricts movement. Yet they did not simply spew out a hideous, self-indulgent racket, and the internal dynamics of this trio must, I assume, be something that these three men alone were capable of creating together. The press notes blither on about how Red Square were pioneers of things that “have become common practice today”, and doing this before Sonic Youth, Last Exit, and contemporary noise combos like The Thing, as though these “common practices” were fixed values and fixed goals, and “getting there first” was the important thing. I take issue with such lazy thinking. Such thinking also assumes that all these bands and musicians are all trying to do the same thing, which might not be correct. I realise we all need these labels like “noise” and “avant jazz” to help us get our bearings, but we shouldn’t trust them to the extent that we fail to listen to the music itself, and appreciate the real differences between things. Music is a living culture, not a map pointing to things we already know. And while I’m prepared to grant pioneer status to any brave musician in history who took risks and followed their instincts, I don’t think it’s helpful to see musical evolution as some sort of race to the finish line or a competition to invent something “new” before everyone else. But there I am criticising the press release, which is a bad way to write.

Red Square existed from 1974 to 1978; apparently they created two private press cassettes at this time, probably for selling at gigs, and as far as we know no “official” records from this period exist until now. However, they reformed in 2008, and albums were released on FMR Records and Fo Fum from this date, including a document of s gig at the Vortex released in 2010. Very happy to hear these fragments of buried treasure from 1978 and this record is highly recommended. From 18th April 2016.

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