Tag: Iggy Pop

My tribute to Mark E Smith

By Daniel Margrain

  • CAKE POLICE: WHY <b>MARK</b> <b>E</b>. <b>SMITH</b> IS COOLER THAN KURT COBAIN

Yesterday (January 24, 2018) the music world lost one of it’s most prolific, inimitable, distinctive and impenetrable characters. I first saw The Fall at Totnes Civic Hall in 1981. It was one of the greatest gigs I have ever seen – the best stay with you. Uncompromising to the last, the bands front man, Mark E Smith, was a much maligned and misunderstood artist and poet who maintained an aura that exuded menace combined with a characteristic dry and dark acerbic wit.

The Fall created a musical language that echoed the anti-conformism of the punks but was far more radical and authentic rooted in England’s northern suburban streets and smoke-filled pubs. The bands raw sound, and Smiths maniacal, unorthodox delivery and scowling on-stage presence, was indicative of the alienation felt by suburban youth of the period.

The Fall re-invented the anti-establishment language of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band for a post-industrial generation of music fans who had grown up with the likes of Roxy Music, Lou Reed and the Stooges. Unlike many of their respective contemporaries, both Beefheart and Smith were genuine outsiders.

Whereas the musical aesthetic of the former closely resembled the marginal aspects of Freak Culture, The Fall faithfully expressed the anxieties of the punks. Both had a desecrating vision of the world, and both were not averse to intellectualism. Smith’s adoption of the famous Albert Camus novel, for example, was a deliberate invocation to something more profound than just music intended for estranged kids.

Smith emphasized that the underlying philosophy of the groups music was far closer to the aesthetic of the garage bands of the 1960s than it was to the simplistic profanity of the ’70s punks. Mark E Smith’s art can essentially be construed as a cryptic game imbued with pathos and humour but at the same time, darkly sinister.

Audience and band members alike were rarely able to relax during a Fall performance. As with Zappa and Beefheart – his key mentors – Smith had a clear artistic vision that required a musical discipline and devotion to the craft necessary to pull off the level of sustained musical repetition often associated with The Fall.

A self-confessed non-musician, Smith would sometimes berate his band when he felt the vision slipping. He knew what he wanted musically, and artistically, and pushed the band hard because he felt he had a certain responsibility to the public. He almost certainly wasn’t the kind of pathological dictator many have claimed.

Luke Turner on Twitter put it well when he said, “Smith didn’t rule The Fall, he wasn’t the dictator of cliché. He saw it as an entity outside of himself, of which he was the curator, the caretaker, the hip priest.”

Smith’s ability to play tricks on the public and his band is what kept both on their toes. His playful characteristic cackle and biting wit often underpinned a more serious side. He seemed to have an incredible ability to be able to tap into the psyche of people and displayed an innate sense of when he felt they were going too far, reining them in with apparent consummate ease. He appeared to understand what passes for human nature more than most people. If he hadn’t succeeded as a “musician”, Smith could of been a professional street hustler.

Indeed, the sound of the early Fall has more in common with the rambling street lo-fi music of David Peel than it does with any of the music trends of the period. Smith’s often deadpan and ironic lyrics were delivered in a manner that merged Iggy Pop with William Burroughs. The result was often primitive and tribal, but also Swiftian in terms of its intellectual endeavor.

The real critical successes of this early period, were the albums ‘Live at the Witch Trials’ (1979), the humorous singles, ‘Totally Wired’ (1980), ‘Elastic Man’ (1981) and the EP ‘Slates’ (1981). It was slightly later when the band first grabbed my attention.

The groups third session for the John Peel show – recorded on September 16, 1980 (first broadcast on the 24 September 1980) – was when the band really began to leave their mark. With the classic line up of Smith on vocals, Marc Riley (guitar), Craig Scanlon (guitar), Steve Hanley (bass) and Paul Hanley (drums), the band excelled with rockabilly infused tracks like ‘New Puritan’ and ‘New Face in Hell’.

But it wasn’t until March 21, 1983 that Smith and the group would produce their tour de force session for Peel – a cacophonous tribal rock masterpiece. The seminal ‘Smile’ from the session, later to appear on ‘Perverted By Language’ (1983), was performed live on Channel 4s ‘Tube’ show and to this day remains one of the greatest  performances by any British group seen on TV.

Other outstanding works include ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ (1982) and ‘This Nations Saving Grace’ (1985). The latter contains the muscular ‘Gut of the Quantifier’, the voodoobilly infused ‘Cruisers Creek’ and ‘Spoilt Victorian Child’. Of the bands later works, ‘The Real New Fall LP’ (2003) and ‘Your Future, Our Clutter’ (2010) stand out. The latter contains three Fall classics – ‘OFYC Showcase’, ‘Cowboy George’ and ‘YFOC Slippy Floor’.

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David Bowie: sound, not vision

By Daniel Margrain

The eulogizing in the media of David Bowie since his death last week has predictably been widespread. The consensus view is that Bowie was a trailblazer of musical trends and pop fashion, an innovator and visionary, an artist of unparalleled significance within the musical landscape of rock and roll and electronic music. Adam Sweeting in the Guardian, said of Bowie: “His capacity for mixing brilliant changes of sound and image underpinned by a genuine intellectual curiosity is rivalled by few in pop history.”

The obituary section of the Telegraph, described Bowie as “a rock musician of rare originality and talent”, while Jon Pareles in the New York Times claimed that “Mr.Bowie was his generation’s standard-bearer for rock as theater: something constructed and inflated yet sincere in its artifice, saying more than naturalism could”.…According to Pareles, “He also pushed the limits of “Fashion” and “Fame,”

Mark Beaumont of the NME appeared to go one further by claiming that Bowie’s influence on popular culture:

“simply cannot be overstated. From psychedelic folk rock to glam rock, plastic soul, avant garde experimentalism and beyond, Bowie’s relentless innovation and reinvention was one of the great driving forces of modern music and his impact reached into fashion, performance art, film and sexual politics. While his songs, consistently accessible no matter how difficult the style he explored, inspired countless musicians across a vast tapestry of rock music which he helped weave as he went.”

On the morning following Bowie’s death, and in echoing the kinds of platitudes of superficial pop stars like Madonna and Lady Ga Ga, LBC host James O’Brien devoted half of his three hour programme eulogizing about the alleged innovator and genius, inviting fans to phone in and reminisce about the pop star. With an apparent straight face, O’Brien, a former music critic, stated that Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory was “probably the greatest rock album of all-time.”

These kinds of comments have been the excepted wisdom in mainstream critical circles since Bowie hit super stardom in 1972 with the album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a work that in many ways came to define him. Under the tag line, David Bowie: Visionary singer and songwriter who for five decades exerted a huge influence on pop and rock, Chris Salewicz reminded his readers of the historical continuum that underpinned the iron clad critical consensus:  “The man is a stone genius,” effused New York’s Village Voice, in the parlance of the times, “and for those who have been waiting for a new Dylan, Bowie fits the bill. He is a prophet, a poet – and a vaudevillian. Like Dylan, his breadth of vision and sheer talent could also exercise a profound effect on a generation’s attitudes.”

In Britain, the critical acclaim bestowed on Bowie is arguably only second to the Beatles. But in the cold light of day, to what extent does the man and his work stand up to proper investigative critical scrutiny? The independent music critic, Piero Scaruffi, whose words I transcribed and edited below, offers some invaluable (and corrective) insights into the mythology that surrounds the man, his music and his art. This is Scaruffi’s critique of Bowie. It’s a critique that I share:

“David Bowie turned marketing into the essence of his art. All great phenomena of popular music, from Elvis Presley to the Beatles, had been, first and foremost, marketing phenomena (just like Coca Cola and Barbie before them); However, Bowie  turned it into an art of its own. Bowie with the science of marketing becomes art; art and marketing had become one.

There were intellectuals who had proclaimed this theory in terms rebelliousness. Bowie was, in many ways, the heir, no matter how perverted, of Andy Warhol’s pop art and of the underground culture of the 1960s. He adopted some of the most blasphemous issues and turned them upside down to make them precisely what they had been designed to fight: a commodity.

Bowie was a protagonist of his times [who] embodied the quintessence of artificial art, raising futility to paradigm, focusing on the phenomenon rather than the content, and who made irrelevant the relevant, and, thus, was is the epitome of everything that is wrong with rock music.

Each element of his art was the emblem of a true artistic movement; However, the ensemble of these emblems constituted no more than a puzzle of symbols, no matter how intriguing, a dictionary of terms rather than a poem, and, at best, a documentary of the cultural trends of his time. As a chronicler, the cause of the sensation was the show, not the music.

In fusing theatre, mime, film, visual art, literature and music, the showman Bowie was undoubtedly in sync with the avant-garde. However, Bowie merely recycled what had been going on for years in the British underground, in what in particular had been popularized by the psychedelic bands of 1967. And he turned it into a commodity: whichever way you look at his oeuvre, this is the real merit of it.

Arguably, his most famous album, Ziggy Stardust (1972) represented a relative quantum leap forward from what went before. The culmination of a behind the scenes refining of his image by a new manager, his signing to a new and more powerful label, the utilization of a much more sophisticated production and, with the talents of Rick Wakeman on keyboards and Mick Ronson on guitar at his disposal, Bowie’s “art” represented the peak of the fad for rock operas.

The album is nevertheless a cartoonish melodrama that recycles cliches of decadent and sci-fi literature. Its popularity was due as much to the choreographic staging as it was to the music. The latter relies on magniloquent pop ballads (such as Five Years , the piano-heavy Lady Stardust , almost a send-up of Warren Zevon, the shrill gospel hymn Ziggy Stardust, Moonage Daydream (with a folkish sax solo reminiscent of the Hollywood Argyles and a shower of strings), arranged in such a manner to make the baroque ‘Tommy’ by the Who sound amateurish.

Bowie’s melodic skills shone in the grand soaring refrains of Starman and Rock And Roll Suicide, that were de facto tributes to the old tradition of Tin Pan Alley. The album displayed the half-hearted stylistic variety of latter-day Beatles albums, from the soul-jazz tune Soul Love to the martial folk-blues shuffle It Aint ‘Easy. Hang On To Yourself is a whirling boogie dance as is Suffragette City. The latter, in particular is a quintessentially hysterical breathless Who-style boogie and perhaps his career standout.

The track exudes the languid existentialism of the ballads, confronting Bowie’s erotic futuristic cabaret from the vantage point of teenage angst. Certainly the whole worked well as a postmodernist analysis of show business’ cliches. Credit for the production quality goes to Ken Scott (who Bowie defined as “my George Martin”) and new guitarist Mick Ronson: all the arrangements were designed from them (the string arrangements are all Ronson). Scott did all the mixing alone.

Bowie’s “heartbreaking” vocals were so exaggerated that they sounded like a parody of sorts. Ditto the kitschy arrangements. The concept was, first and foremost, a caricature. By fusing Scott Walker’s melodramatic style, Jacques Brel’s weltschmerz, Zen mysticism, McLuhan’s theory of the medium, Andy Warhol’s multimedia pop art and Oscar Wilde’s fin de siecle decadence, Bowie coined the ultimate revisionist and self-reflective act of the most revisionist and self-reflective decade.

For better and for worse, Ziggy marked the end of the myth of rock sincerity and spontaneity: the star was no longer a teenager among many, a “working-class everyman,” and, above all, the star was no longer “himself” but rather a calculating inventor of artificial stances and attitudes. His stance indirectly mocked and ridiculed the messianic aura of rock music.

Not much of a musical genius, but certainly a terrific showman, diligent student of Hollywood’s mythology, living impersonation of the Gothic iconography (Dorian Gray) and of the Parnassian iconography (Pierrot), Bowie owed ​​little to his frail and easy compositions: he owed ​​almost everything to the “image” that he had created and was nurturing with non-musical factors.

Although the music was almost always banal and embarrassing, the scene in which it played out was at least funny while at the same time solemn and murky. Bowie’s world was a frightening one, devastating and senseless, populated by outcasts and alienated human wrecks. Bowie’s vocal tone resembled an existential horror that could modulate detachment, cynicism and yearning.

Bowie had rediscovered the “crooning” of pop and soul singers of the ’50s, perhaps a less innovative style of singing that one could have imagined in 1975, that nevertheless also managed to combine a form of cabaret in the service of the theatre of Brecht. Mindful of the dramatic experience and clearly with Lou Reed in mind, Bowie consciously evoked “Brecht-ian” alienation that was fashionable in those years. The songs of Bowie deliberately calculated a striking contrast between music, text and image which would lead the public to think critically about “illusions” as presented.

Inspired by the alienated rock of Reed, the Dionysian like performance of Iggy Pop and the meticulous electronics of Brian Eno, Bowie forged a new type of ritual mass that paradoxically conceptually morphed into a kind of kitsch Hollywood entertainment. Skilled at riding fashions, as opposed to creating them, Bowie always arrived one or two years after someone else had invented the phenomenon (for example, decadent rock, soul-rock, electronics).

As with the Beatles before him, Bowie knew how to best present the phenomenon to the masses via the bourgeoisie media and turn it into an international “fashion”. Essentially, Bowie’s major contribution to the annals of rock music was his popularization of the notion of the eclectic and refined musician. Many other rock musicians have explored and referenced pop art, literature and painting in a more thorough and original way than Bowie but have not garnered the critical recognition that came his way.

Bowie was said to have written the first “space ballad” but space-rock had been invented a few years earlier. Before the release of Space Odyssey, the Rolling Stones had recorded 2000 Light Years and the inventors of space-rock, Pink Floyd had, in 1967, released Interstellar Overdrive and Anno Domini. Moreover, long before the media had coined Bowie as being the inventor of the ‘glam’ concept, Mick Jagger, and many other contemporaries of the period, had been sexually ambiguous and had worn make-up.

Also decadent rock had long preceded Bowie with the likes of the Velvet Underground and the Doors. Bowie’s “uniqueness” was that his antics were the first to be publicized by the media. As often happens with the pop star, Bowie has falsely been attributed with creating the merits of an entire population of musicians. One of the most overrated artists of his generation, Bowie’s sound was largely Visconti’s (or Eno’s). Without that Sound, Bowie was a second-rate pop vocalist singing for a second-rate audience. 

For more analysis and reviews, go to: http://www.scaruffi.com/