Volume Control


Book Reviews

Original position in magazine: pp 67-70

Contents: Timothy d’Arch Smith, Ian Shirley, Krautrocksampler, Julian Cope Head-On, David Toop

Timothy d’Arch Smith
Peepin’ in A Seafood Store: Some Pleasures of Rock Music
Norwich, Michael Russell, 183pp, ISBN 0859551776, £8.95
A true curiosity – Mr d’Arch Smith is like no other rock writer you have ever read. In this collection he sweeps the spectrum of popular music in the USA and the UK, carrying us from vintage R’n’B to Punk Rock, via Heavy Metal Giants, classic singer-songwriters and oddities like Blue Öyster Cult. Each essay starts life as a review of one specific record, but pulls in historical references so that each artist or band is situated in the correct perspective, clarifying the strands of development that lead up to the album under discussion. Tim makes deft, acerbic remarks on anything from the less-obvious shortcomings of Pink Floyd to the ‘discovery’ of Gary US Bonds by Bruce Springsteen.

d’Arch Smith’s secret weapon is his ability to make astonishing connections between these disparate musics and a host of unexpected outside sources. These are chiefly gleaned from obscure literary works (Tim is a London bookseller by trade) and they turn your ideas about music upside down. A tradition of paedophilia-centred lyrics in rock is discussed, with dozens of cited examples. The Rolling Stones studio work for Exile on Main Street, with their army of underground musicians, is likened in one extended conceit to the degenerate activities of the Marquis de Sade and his cohorts’ unholy quest for sinful pleasure. The fantastic world of Blue Öyster Cult’s Imaginos LP is opened up and illuminated with esoteric references that Sandy Pearlman himself probably never dreamed of.

The author seems to have read every seminal and important book written on rock, quoting from them judiciously like an academic scholar, citing provenance and page numbers. Visual materials are also analysed: matching the semiologists at their own game, he refers the reader to published photographs of rock stars, teasing out their hidden meanings, illustrating precisely how a particular photograph of Jimmy Page enhances the mythology of Led Zeppelin. So is d’Arch Smith a non-participator, does he get it all from books? I personally find his armchair-ish attitude a refreshing change from the usual rock journalism approach, the tiresome ‘I was there from the start’ proclamations so beloved of many fourth-division rock critics. There’s no denying Tim’s real affection for the music here, a feeling reinforced by the touching exposition of his awkward youth and what music meant to him through difficult years. Even if his writing style is sometimes characterised by labyrinthine sentence construction and use of occasional archaic words to throw you off-balance, this too is part of the charm.

This book contains the most striking quote about Rock music to be uttered by mankind. It was said by Warren Zevon, and you can find it on the very last page. Recommended reading, especially to those who find the work of Greil Marcus intellectually unsatisfying!

Ian Shirley
Meet The Residents: America’s Most Eccentric Band
UK SAF Publishing 1993, 184pp, plates, ISBN 0 946719 128, £11.95
Certainly not the easiest subject in the world to write about. As the world knows the Residents and their work is shrouded in mystery and anonymity. In fact, that’s the first stumbling-block for most journalists – the second being the fundamental strangeness of their music. Happily, Ian Shirley negotiates those obstacles quite well, but what does he offer by way of new insights?

The facts are here. He’s interviewed the right people, read all the articles and accessed private collections. Dates and sequences of events are all correct. He throws in the odd snippet of trivia for fact fetishists. Of course, as nothing is guaranteed authenticity, the patient reader must piece together a picture in broken images. For example, there are brief descriptive glimpses of the Residents at work recording, yet the image is shadowy and out of focus, like some grainy footage. The subject recedes from your intelligence, the more you try to find out about it. By collating a compendium of samples from articles and interviews, Shirley acts as a kind of seismograph – picking up approximations of the activities of some unseen, powerful force on the other side of the world.

That obscurity suits me fine and is highly apt for the Residents. Shirley doesn’t offer many new insights or opinions; there’s a promising start when he gives us his shopping list of influences on the first LP Meet the Residents, which include Stan Kenton and Prado Perez (but not Yma Sumac, strangely). And like most true believers, he tends towards scepticism of the later, Midi-based electronic music. With his presentation of the known facts both here and in the USA, he stands on the brink of making some statement about the importance and meaning of the Residents’ work, but he doesn’t quite deliver. His knowledge of the West Coast 1970s scene is sketchy. He’s on safer ground charting the ‘discovery’ of the Residents in the UK around 1978, but even here he tells us more about the state of UK rock journalism than about the Residents.

However, I guess attempts at interpretation can be problematic. Chris Cutler, in his File Under Popular, offered an excellent appraisal of their radical approach to the use of instruments and recording studio, something Shirley doesn’t even consider; the nearest he gets is a photo of their early facilities. Cutler was coming at it from a musician’s viewpoint. But Cutler also tried to make their subversiveness fit his narrow, oppositional Marxist strait-jacket; conversely, Ian Shirley quite rightly stresses the Residents’ humour and playfulness.

A valiant effort, though the discography’s a bit spartan (current CD reissues only) and the overall tone is sometimes marred by lapses into vulgar anglo-saxon argot.

Julian Cope
Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmische Music 1968 onwards
LONDON, KAK LTD, 139 + [iv] pages, plates, ISBN 0-9526719-1-3
With this and Head-On (reviewed next), it looks like Mr Cope is energetically extending his interests and talents farther afield. He is, I suggest, cultivating himself as the last of the English Eccentrics – a project underway since he first appeared under a turtle shell in 1985 for the cover of Fried. Copey was also spotted at the Trafalgar Square Poll-tax incident wearing an enormous frog head. Don’t forget The Modern Antiquarian, his ongoing survey of ancient hill monuments of this island, which recasts him as a peripatetic 18th-century gentleman gazetteer. Needless to say, he has always generated perversely twisted song lyrics that refuse common sense, along the lines of Syd Barrett.

I mention all these to suggest that English Eccentric Cope is also a great English Amateur. Take the fields described above – if we can dignify them with the appellations of performance art, political interventionism, archaeology, and dadaism. Cope is in not an ‘expert’ in any of them, nor I suspect would he purport so to be. His attitude to hill monuments, for example, veers away from scholarly research, little of which remains to be carried out anyway; and towards a highly personal take on the subject, of the Neo-Pagan earth-mother worshipping Erich von Daniken school of thought. If anyone is inclined to doubt this, let them bend an ear to a track on Skellington 2, ‘Wayland’s Smithy Has Wings’, his enthusiastic paean to a monument in Berkshire not far from the Uffington white horse figure. ‘It was a star car! It was a star car!’ he yells over a Neolithic drumbeat, following this exhortation with a fourth-form short story about a visitation from the stars.

The same enthusiastic amateurism applies to Krautrocksampler. Described modestly as ‘One Head’s Guide’ – that is to say, one possible view out of many others – this work is (I feel sure Mr Cope would agree) a fan’s-eye view of the records that came out of the scene, not a definitive, factual history of it. The production values of the book alone tip you off from the start – in essence, it’s a fanzine with glossy covers and plates. Taken as such, this book goes down very smoothly and is an interesting and entertaining read. The histories of these important bands, and their members, is covered as well as space allows, and given equal weight to the aspects of the subject that really get its author salivating – gatefold sleeves, the extreme rarity of the records on vinyl, and obscure photographs of German hippies with incredible hair. And the music, of course. His extravagant, wildly subjective means of describing the experience of listening to German rock has had a partial influence on The Sound Projector. Cope’s own personal history of exactly where, when and how he first heard music by Faust or Neu, for example, is as crucial and important to him as the history of those bands – and he deals with it accordingly. I’m all for it.

Just as Cope’s forthcoming book on hill monuments should surely be read within earshot of ‘Wayland’s Smithy Has Wings’, Krautrocksampler could be seen as an extension of ‘GrimReaper is a Krautrocker’, another track on Skellington 2. (Chapter 7 here repeats the phrase as a subtitle; it refers to an LP cover by Amon Düül II). On that track alone, Copey demonstrates audibly how Krautrock has radically mutated his sensory core. With the help of musicians Donald Ross and Shaun Harvey, JC turns in a spot-on Damo Suzuki impression over a cozmik drone worthy of…well, actually it sounds more like a toy version of ‘Only A Northern Song’, but never mind. Music speaks volumes. After I finished Head-On, I felt a profound disgust and ennui with the Teardrops and rock musicians generally; but one listen to Wilder and my heart soared again.

Contact KAK Ltd at PO Box 3823, London N8 8TQ
The Skellington Chronicles CD, MA-GOG2, (comprising Skellington 1 and 2) was a limited edition mail order only item, available from the same address, although copies have been spotted on the racks, second-hand.

Julian Cope
Head-On: Memories of the Liverpool Punk-Scene
and the story of The Teardrop Explodes 1976-82

UK Magog Books 1994
In the eyes of many Julian Cope is more famed for his screwball kookiness and instability than his music. Much of the blame lies with Copey himself – his lunacy often seems self-imposed, as if he once filled in a school careers-guidance form and chose the occupation ‘Acid Casulaty’. His psychedelic heroes, Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson, were too truly gone to ever self-advertise so profusely in the press (and now in this book) such microscopic details of addled excess and sociopathic barminess. Simply put the Arch-drude of Tamworth has long been saying ‘Look at me, I’m mad’. Either you slurp it all up, vicariously relishing the gourmet ingestion of hallucinogenics, the mock-Iggy torso-slicing breakdown or just feel frustrated that Cope’s musical output has veered so violently between unimpeachable psych-pop abandon, crystalline introspection and arrogant neo-hippy stodge.

This book reveals entertainingly how Cope achieved his ambition and maybe got more than he bargained for. It follows the heady up and down spiral from his later ’76 arrival in Liverpool as an angel-faced Teacher Training student, headlong plunge into ‘Eric’s’ era punk, brief pop stardom with The Teardrop Explodes, through to 1982’s ‘evil acid king’ burn-out. The account fizzles out as Cope jumps off the careering Teardrops roundabout and flees to the comfortable middle-class sanctuary of his parent’s Tamworth home.

It’d slipped my mind just how teeny-bop BIG The Teardrop Explodes were in those brittle shiny days of Adam Ant and Bucks Fizz. A recent re-listen to Kilimanjaro reveals a pretty slick pop confection not as far from the Thatcher-pop of his Smash Hits compadres as you’d like to think. ‘Reward’ may nod to psychedelic quirkiness but is no less part of the early 80s zeitgeist than ‘Vienna’.

Head-On’s lovingly documented evocation of Liverpool Punk is the highlight: the thrilling moment the ‘White Riot’ tour came to town, the excitement of forming short-lived bands merely to try out daft ideas, the treasure trove that was the Probe Record Shop. Cope is very strong on what the discovery of buying records by Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart and Can meant to him but is tiresome in bitching about his (less-talented) co-scenesters. This is old news, surely we all know Ian MacCulloch is a narcissistic twerp and Pete Wylie was all mouth and little action?

Head-On’s latter half is less engaging, Cope’s world not as open to outside influences as he embroils himself in inter-band hatred and a mammoth drug intake. The ribald saga of The Teardrop’s 1981 U.S. tour is overlong but makes a lurid addition for fans of mythological rock-excess. I was interested, though, to read Americans regarded The Teardrop Explodes as an entirely psychedelic band, even meriting a large gift-package from the Grateful Dead of pure California Crystal LSD. Cope must have felt his Olympian pysch-status was fulfilled and naturally scoffed the lot.

Written in a breathless, sometimes infectious, style full of goofy hippyisms Head-On isn’t top-rank literature. But if you can plough through 249 pages of ‘heavy stuff’ and ‘bad one’ s it reveals a flawed star with enough wayward ideas to ensure long-term creativity and cult public interest. 17 years on from ‘Sleeping Gas’ I still have one ear open for Cope’s latest musical surprise and if you’re ever needful of punk-ear documentation this book does make a nicely enthused companion to the more scholarly and wide-ranging England’s Dreaming.

David Toop
Ocean of Sound
Ocean of Sound
Ocean of Sound 2: Crooners on Venus
It’s hard to think of any music that turns my stomach more than ambient dance. Bands like The Orb and The KLF with their Chill Out CD represent for many of their fans anti-authority behaviour and freedom of expression, partly by association with the marijuana which they are intended to be consumed with. All well and good, but the problem for me is that the music falls far short of these ideas.

Found material crops up a lot in ambient dance. The sounds of insects, sheep and dogs, trains and planes, guttural throat noises, chanting monks and African gospel choirs are superimposed crassly onto dance beats. Aside from the fact that these sources have been done to death, the artists seem to me to have an unimaginatively literal approach to bringing the outside world into music, as opposed to the abstract work in this field of, say, Holger Czukay, Adrian Sherwood and Kramer. Similarly the music itself has as its spiritually deficient heir Pink Floyd’s The Wall rather than Laaraji or Sonic Youth, who could make kicking a dustbin seem ambient and are expert at producing subtle shades of light and dark in their own brand of ambient music. Ambient dance is music with just one idea, that being to shove echo on absolutely everything! Even a supposedly straight ahead rock’n’roller like Link Wray came up with more interesting ways of making a song ‘atmospheric’.

Such a sweeping damnation of ambient dance is probably unfair. In theory it seems to me that it has plenty of possibilities and if you know of a whole host of wonderful records I’d be glad to hear them. But I think the aforementioned artistes could learn a lot from David Toop’s book Ocean of Sound. This collects together under somewhat dubious chapter headings twenty-five years’ worth of anecdotes about the experience of listening, from attending avant- garde concerts to sitting in the back garden listening to frogs, punctuated by discussion with interesting folk like Sun Ra and David Lynch. Toop takes a very wide view of what makes ambient music, drawing under its umbrella artists as diverse as Debussy, the Beach Boys and Les Baxter as well as music like improv and dub and in the process builds up something approaching an encyclopaedia of ambient experiments in music. The book does not present a linear chronology of important events and Toop often makes no qualitative judgements on the various music and approaches discussed. It is left up to the reader to make the connections.

Unfortunately you have to wade through Toop’s off-putting and often annoying arty/conceptual cyberbabble writing style, which delights in such phrases as ‘soundfields’ and ‘tonal spheres’. But look below the surface and you’ll see that this book is way more than the sum of its parts and is excellent food for thought for anyone interested in the possibilities of music beyond plain melody and rhythm.

Note: There are two double CDs available to accompany the book. These aren’t essential for your enjoyment of the book, but are intriguing, if nothing else for the sheer diversity of material. Ocean of Sound features instrumental tracks segued with bearded seals, wind chimes and the like so you can compare the human-made music to the stuff made by animals and the elements. Crooners on Venus is less interesting, the title being more apt than Toop probably intended, as it contacts on the whole what I’d call soulless cocktail music with quirky vocals, amongst which Portishead would sit happily if that gives you any idea of what to expect.