It Ain't Necessarily So

I dithered about buying Not Necessarily "English Music". The fact David Toop had curated the double CD was in its favour; against was that it was it was part of the academic-sounding Leonardo Music Journal along with the possible music contents. The subtitle 'a collection of experimental music from Great Britain, 1960-1977' didn't help much, but after a good Wire review, and upon finding out that you could order the CD alone and that just about all the music was previously unreleased, I eventually gave in. Well, one has to do these things...

And what a great compilation it is. Mixing names I know (Max Eastley, AMM, John Stevens, Steve Beresford, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker) with both those simply heard of but never listened to (The Scratch Orchestra, Cornelius Cardew, Mike Cooper) and some brand new names (Ranulph Glanville, The People Band, abAna, Intermodulation) it's a fascinating sonic trawl. I was expecting lots of plinky-plonky improvisation, a bit of big band freakout, and some early electronics. I was wrong (well, I was right, but they're all good examples of each genre and much more complex than my cynical categorising). If there's one overall concern here it's careful manipulation of and exploration of sound, be it the ghostly 'Four Aspects' by Daphne Oram with its gentle swirls and echoes, the relentless Derek Bailey guitar attack (which I'm only starting to understand or be able to listen to 20 years on), AMM's live group discourse or the more tribal dynamics of The People Band.

This double CD works so well as a set, each track seems to prepare you for the next, the effect is additive and delightful, each of the 27 tracks offers something new and interesting. I hope there's plenty more of this kind of music to be heard before too long; I even fancy getting hold of the magazine now and seeing what they make of it all. As Toop says in the liner notes: 'I hope this has formed itself into a valuable record [in all senses] of a previously poorly documented yet endlessly fascinating era in twentieth-century musical history.' It has, it has. Full marks.

After the aural fireworks and surprises of Not Necessarily "English Music", the double CD & book package Changing Platforms: 30 years of the Contemporary Music Network seems a little tame. Tastefully bound in a tall slim hardback by Unknown Public magazine, it does what it says in the subtitle: documents music from 30 years of CMN, who have bravely arranged and financed tours by all sorts of music to all sorts of places.

There are two problems with the CDs for me: firstly too many big names from the classical world and secondly that nearly all this music is simply anthologised from commercially available recordings. That is, very few of these pieces were recorded on the tours concerned, or are even live. I'm not sure any of the composers gain from the juxtaposition of tracks, nor why the anthologisers have gone for such obvious names in both the classical [Xenakis, Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies, Messiaen, Adams, Glass and Scelsi] and jazz/experimental field [Tony Oxley, Carla Bley, Mike Westbrook, Bill Frisell, John McLaughlin, Don Byron] when they have toured far more interesting and unknown projects - which the various essays and interviews document. Where are David Bedford and Lol Coxhill, Anthony Braxton, Cornelius Cardew, Evan Parker and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble? Graham Collier, John Taylor, Howard Riley or Henry Cow? Ian Carr, Elton Dean or Mike Osborne? Loose Tubes? Kronos Quartet? Oregon? Who made this safe and sanitised selection?

In fact the texts of this project are far more interesting than the two CDs. Here, there's a spark and drive, outspoken comments, argument and discourse; it's clear that the people who set up CMN really cared about music and wanted it to visit places far removed from normal tour itineraries. And they succeeded. And they deserve a bit of chest-thumping and attention, a celebration - something better, in fact, than this earnest package, which briefly flares up for a live extract from Stockhausen's 'Mantra' and - my favourite - the superbly titled 'The Transistor Radio of St, Narcissus', a track from an 'Electronic Music Now' tour in 1983.

It's not only music that is being reassessed and re-evaluated these days, the music press itself has got in on the act, as have record labels. Paul Gorman has put together In Their Own Write: Adventures in the Music Press (Sanctuary, @12.99), and we all know about the film 24 Hour Party People, don't we? Well Tony Wilson has put his name to the book of the film, too (Channel 4 Books, 9.99).

In Their Own Write is fascinating stuff, as it charts - by compiling quotes from both new (undertaken for this book) and old interviews - the rise and fall of the music press in Britain and to some extent the USA. Most interesting is the start-up period and on into the 60s and the classic weekly music period of 70s' NME, Sounds and Melody Maker.

The 60s stuff is pretty much what cynics like me would expect, a mixture of hedonism and well-meaning chaos, which limped along long enough for its main publishers to abandon ship and start to make money from publishing their own titles, and its main writers to get poached by these new commercial outlets. It's this dynamic between the growing publishing empires and the old guard rock'n'rollers like Nick Kent and the new deconstructionists like Paul Morley that made the 70s music weeklies the great papers they at times were, and here we get some of the inside stories about who, what, where, why and when.

Of course, there's some self-mythologising going on and some petty old feuds revisited; more of a problem for me is that by this time in the book there's a lack of a wider view of what was happening: there's no mention of punk (or any other) zines, nor, for instance, even the late version of International Times you could still buy in 1978, let alone strange hybrids like Sniffing Flowers, a great magazine around at the same time that tried to combine hippy politics with the new music of the time. So in some ways this is a blinkered and limited volume, but what it does cover it covers well, though as the music press declines in importance and circulation, the book struggles too; like Melody Maker and Select you know it's only a matter of time before it ends...

But, it's not as self-important, dumbed-down or inane as Fac 424, the book of the film of the pratt Tony Wilson. This book doesn't even hold together as a ghostwritten book, half the time it is in the third person about the supposed author! Clearly a cash in, if even half of this book is true it's amazing that Factory records ever got anywhere at all, even with the success of some of their acts. Wilson - or whoever actually wrote 24 Hour Party People - manages to make most of the journalists in In Their Own Write seem like intellectual giants of the highest order; which might not be difficult when you only have half-baked stories and opinions about New Order and the Stone Roses to re-tell for the nth time, but quite an achievement when you used to run one of the hippest nightclubs and labels in the country. Anyway, I haven't seen the film and don't intend to; I suggest you leave the book well alone too.

© Rupert Loydell 2002