I just challenge anyone to listen to them and not cry
This touches again upon the enduring theme of time and tricks that it plays upon artists and their works as fortune and favour flicker hither and thither, seemingly by chance. The subjects and objects here may seem disparate, but as ever there are threads to follow and connections to make.
Whatever happened to the music press indeed! Yet, like many I'm sure, it's difficult to make a clean break, and I guess many of us in spite of our disgust have copies of publications such as Mojo, The Wire, , whatever, lying around for fear of missing out on that something...
The days, however, of scanning reviews and articles for the name of a special writer seem to have gone. Except perhaps for avoiding anything by David Keenan. No, I tell a lie, for I always sift through the reviews in Mojo, looking for anything by Lois Wilson. She is perhaps the most important writer right now, quietly creating her own space by focusing on essential records etc often of a loose modernist nature. Thus she provides a valuable balance to the dreary male fixations and all round predictably reverential features which re-enforce rock reputations in Mojo. So, in the current issue she rightly enthuses about the superb double CD Honey Cone set, released on Sanctuary. As you can, if you shop around, get change from a ten pound note, this set should simply be front page news in every music related publication. Yet, even in Mojo, despite Lois' plea on behalf of the Honey Cone and the fact that their songs were put together by some of the greatest songwriter teams of their generation and delivered in such a sassy femme-soul way, we still get so much more of the Grateful Dead and Ryan Adams and his new conservative country cronies.
Coincidentally, while the Honey Cone wait for favour and fortune to shine their way again, Brigitte Fontaine is perhaps sensing the occasional flicker coming her way. Over the past ten years interest has grown in French pop, as people worked their way from Serge and France Gall to Francoise Hardy to Jacques Dutronc and Michel Polnareff to Les Garcons and Lizzie Mercier Descloux. Any observers of French affairs recently would have picked up on the increasing numbers of references to Brigitte Fontaine, with endorsements from Sonic Youth and Stereolab. Clearly, she was way cooler and more uncompromising than her contemporaries, and a lot of people are going to have fun working through her back catalogue.
Inevitably, one record which will appeal to people's curiosity is 1970s Comme À La Radio, which features the Art Ensemble of Chicago, among others, moonlighting during their Paris sojourn with BYG as the '60s became the '70s. I'm sorry, people in the UK and USA may think they are cool, but it takes some beating to outdo this notion of the hungry French hosts urging all these avant garde jazz fire raisers on to new extremities. And somewhere in there is the ineffably cool Brigitte Fontaine, as extreme as anyone, with the idea that her new way out pop record will sound better with the Art Ensemble of Chicago blasting away in the studio, but in case that's all a little too prosaic why not get in some weird folk cats to add an extra strange dimension to what was happening. It's hard to come up with anything so nonchalantly cool. What have we got to hold a candle to that? Well, yes maybe still Nico's Chelsea Girl and maybe the way Julie Driscoll became Julie Tippetts and veered away from straight pop towards the difficult, for which she deserves much more credit, which is what this is all about.
One of the lower profile reissues of recent years was Camden's equally low-budget/low-price Pigbag set, Dr Heckle and Mr Jive. With the big hit, 'Papa's got a brand new Pigbag' still blaring out across the nation as a many a football side takes to the pitch on a Saturday afternoon, it is a little unfair that their other recordings receive so little credit. It is actually a useful LP which balances some truly adventurous rhythmic excursions taking in all sorts of flavours, with some more forgettable faux jazz/Latin workouts which are very much of their time.
The interesting thing is the jewel case where they reproduce a 'independent long players' chart from 1982 with Dr Heckle and Mr Jive at Number One. Also in the top ten are 23 Skidoo's Seven Songs, the Associates' Fourth Drawer Down, The Fall's Hex Enduction Hour, ACR's Sextet and New Order's Movement. It's easy to see why I could not afford to buy all the great records there were in 1982.
Then just outside the top ten is Thomas Leer's Contradictions, which is a striking thought, for time has not been doing too many tricks for that particular young electronic pioneer. With the resurgence of interest, ironic or not, in the new pop of the early '80s (Human League, Soft Cell, ABC, OMD, Depeche Mode etc, and the Soul Jazz fuelled fascination with the outer limits of the punk age (Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, This Heat etc) it seems Thomas Leer and his contradictions are destined to be left out in the cold once more.
Yet, perhaps more than anyone, Thomas Leer with his DIY electronica defined punk independence in 1978 when he released his home recorded 7" 'Private Plane' / 'International' on his own Oblique label. It still sounds like a fabulous slant on pop, and outstrips its more celebrated contemporaries like the Human League's 'Being Boiled', the Normal's 'Warm Leatherette' and the Cab's 'Do The Mussolini'. Now we know enough about Krautrock and electronica to be able to put the noise in context, but them to a teenage punk it seemed to come from outer space, and the idea of some kid in his bedroom creating by himself such strange pop seemed the shape of things to come. It was!
I seem to recall 'Private Plane' was included (with Throbbing Gristle's elector pop gem 'United') on the ZigZag compilation Business Unusual, which collected all sorts of strange small label singles together with little rhyme or reason. I certainly remember The Outcasts were included, before the Undertones and Rudi cruelly stole their crowns as Irish punk pocket pop symphony specialists. ZigZag did do some important work in putting together Small Label Catalogues, which is anyone has access to now should prove valuable documents to highlight how much was happening. Be warned, the 1981 version features some made-up Postcard entries from the likes of the Bluebells and Secret Goldfish to make them look prolific, as if that mattered. And no, there is no connection with any later outfits which chose to use the name Secret Goldfish. It was just a big part of the whole Salinger thing.
Should anyone be interested in hearing 'Private Plane' and more by Thomas Leer, there should still be copies around of a Cherry Red compilation which collects most of his work between 1978 and 1982, and veers between abstract warp-ed electronica, full blown fusion and synthetic soul sophistication such as Scritti could only dream of. There is also a 1979 collaboration with fellow young pioneer Robert Rental, which was released in Throbbing Gristle's Industrial label, and was later reissued on CD by Mute's Grey Area. That, however, is another story as Mute's back catalogue seems to have fallen into a sorry state of neglect, and one can no longer just walk into a high street shop and buy an Ut title or a vital Cabs or DAF early work.
Cherry Red's enduring public profile will never inspire great waves of enthusiasm, but in 2001 the label deserves some credit for at least two great releases. One is the Nightingales compilation, and the other is the Best of the Free Design CD, each of which are right up there with the Liliput compilation as vital cultural collections.
The Free Design set features one song, '2002 A Hit Song', which, probably strangely stands its best chance of coming true. With 20 songs from the Free Design's 1967-1972 period of activity, this is an astonishingly lovely compilation of pure harmony, melody and imagination, which will appeal enormously to anyone who has lost themselves in the beauty of Surf's Up, Sunflower, Fifth Dimension, The Left Banke, Mamas and Papas, Carpenters, Nancy and Lee and the Association. What is frightening is the way 30 years on we the people are just catching on. And the story goes this has much to do with some of the West's favourite pop stars being introduced to the Free Design via mad fanatics in Japan, for which we must be eternally grateful and eternally hopeful that there remains much more to be discovered.
For now, though, the Cherry Red Free Design compilation is a lovely introduction to some gorgeous and invigorating music. And yet, when for once Cherry Red deserves love and kisses, little seems to be coming their way.
It is now the time of year when the air is filled with predictions and bargains. The media tries to guess what is going to happen over the year ahead, and the shops are busy with sales. It's hard to resist joining in. I have seen the suggestions about what is going to be big in 2002. and while there is the perennial suggestion that eclecticism is going to be thee thing, there remains little to suggest pop will become all that arcane, thus it will remain more Arthur Kane than A.R. Kane sadly.
So, if the tips for the top may prove easy to resist, sales are harder to ignore. Shopping around, I have found The In Crowd northern soul compilation for £6.99, and Miles' Big Fun at the same price, and even better Don Cherry's Mu at £3.99. yet, inevitably, in sales you end up with something cheap you would never ordinarily consider buying, and money wasted is money wasted, as any day of the year there are bargains to be had of you can seek them out in the right places. Like, the two LPs A.R. Kane recorded for Rough Trade at the end of the '80s, i and Sixty Nine, are often available at £6.99, and we should be going all out to encourage pop fans to discover the strange, uplifting sounds to be found on these records.
I don't want to come on too much like Max Clifford here, but we are talking about a real PR / image issue here. If people persist in talking about A.R. Kane in terms of some blessed out sonic sea of shimmering dream soundscapes, then of course pop fans are going to avoid their records for fear of finding something like the Cocteau Twins jamming with the Spacemen 3. Yikes! Even the A.R. Kane gang themselves, Rudi Tambala and Alex Ayuli describe their music as psychedelic dream rock, for heaven's sake!
For all our sakes, let's start celebrating A.R. Kane in terms of their singular, spiritual pop vision, which occupies a special place somewhere between Sonic Youth and Ten City, Galaxie 500 and A Man Called Adam, and if they opened doors then not too many dared to follow, but I guess Massive Attack's Mezzanine comes closest. It's all to do with those tricks that time plays, I like to think, and you never know which way the dice will fall or when the clock will stop. So, what about some Rip, Rig and Panic reissues then?
© Kevin Pearce 2002