❉ A fearsome challenge to those with more adventurous ears than most, writes Daniel Marner.
We’re living in interesting times.
We’ve lived through them before, and we remember those days dimly through frosted glass, all muddy 16mm and stale cigarette breath and a smoggy, choking damp that hung over the land threateningly, shading us from heat and light.
We try to recall the decades of discontent we lived through by reducing them to short bursts of pop culture, snatches of sound and colour that mean something to us, that anchor us somewhere we recognise. An ad slogan or a billboard that persists as part of our experience even as whole friends and relatives we knew as people, who we touched and talked to, dissolve into ether. We remember the things that spoke our language and forget the ones that didn’t. We tried to stay warm under the smog of discontent, we pretended to like each other, or maybe we actually meant it, and we liked the things each other liked. And we were together. And we felt safe.
And some of us didn’t do any of that. Some of us felt we’d rather die than breathe a kind word to our fellow man about how it was all going to be OK. Some of us felt that damp discontent in our bones and cultivated a taste for it, thrived on it. Some of us wanted the world to know that nothing was that safe, nothing was that colourful. Some of us wanted to make a virtue of the discontent, twist a kind of sculpture out of the burned-out cars and prams and bedsteads that littered this imagined landscape.
The original Perspectives and Distortions album was released by then-fresh indie mavericks Cherry Red Records in 1981 and built, across 17 wildly varying tracks, an uneasy (VERY uneasy) truce between what had by that time become known as ‘post-punk’ and the more established but somehow even more outré British avant-garde of the 1970s. Short, sharp shocks from the likes of Matt Johnson, The Virgin Prunes and Thomas Leer co-existed in perfect disharmony with the proggy likes of Robert Fripp and the jazzy likes of Lol Coxhill to produce a unique State of the Art report on the lesser-wandered byways of UK music.
It isn’t remembered by many, but enough to prompt Cherry Red’s archivists to dig in their crates once more, and offer up another pristine slab of the purest cracked-concrete-and-broken-glass: a triple album this time, and a fearsome challenge to those with more adventurous ears than most. That it’s arrived now almost 40 years after its predecessor, and more than 40 years after a lot if it was produced, says something about the interesting times we find ourselves in at present. There’s always room for a bit of disquiet in unquiet times, it seems.
The programming of the three discs is, as pointed out by Mark Paytress in the superb liner notes, meant to be as arbitrary as possible: there’s no ease-in with something simple, no sense of a retrospective following a careful chronology. The tracks are sequenced alphabetically by artist and that’s that. “If it throws up some head-scratching juxtapositions” writes Paytress “that’s better still”.
It all starts as it means to on, with a squall of feedback and a flurry of scratchy guitar as Alterations (who included David Toop, Peter Cusack and Steve Beresford in their ranks) lead us into the hazard-strewn maze that is ‘Trail of Traps’, ten minutes of frenzied improv and doleful crooning that leaves us in no doubt of where we are. If we’re not up to this, it seems to be telling us, we’d better quit now.
Next up we have a different kind of tension as Alternative TV’s Force Is Blind comes on like a nightmarish lullaby being interrupted by a pub brawl as Mark Perry calls for calm. Improv monoliths AMM III conjure up a jittery, nervy little vignette of fluttery guitar and skittery drums, while …And The Native Hipsters want to ‘Hang Ten’ in a freezing sea, filtered electronic noise juxtaposed against beat poetry and multi-tracked sax. We have our first encounter with Dagmar Krause and Fred Frith of Henry Cow as their alter-ego The Art Bears rip through a psychotic little thing called Rats and Monkeys. Again, an almost nursery-rhyme sense of corrupted innocence, again a sense of frenzy.
Names that might be recognisable often crop up on these CDs, but you can guarantee that whatever popular conception you have of them in your head will be radically swerved: so it is with Blancmange, whose lo-fi, post-punk mumble Overspreading Art Genius is about as far from the plastic fantastic of New Romantic/Futurist synth-pop as it gets. Meanwhile Gavin Bryars of plangent, soulful orchestral heartbreakers like Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet and The Sinking of The Titanic gives us a jaunty Mendelsohn miniature on piano, and George Melly declaims with relish and abandon the Kurt Schwitters sound-poem he claims once saved him from a mugging down a dark alley one night.
As it does when confronted with most seemingly arbitrary arrangements, the listener’s brain seeks to impose some sort of order on proceedings even where order is absent. Patterns emerge: an overall sense of moral panic and horror at social discontent: a gallows humour: an almost cheerful nihilism and revelry in chaos. Above all there’s something that feels primitive about these recordings, something deliberately left rough-hewn and unvarnished, a tacit rejection of the presumably ‘inauthentic’ chart gloss that dominated the era, whether it be young men in suits with pencil moustaches pouting icily behind Roland synthesizers, or disco divas spinning around in an avalanche of glitter and cocaine. These things say nothing to us about our lives. But a Test Department collage/cut-up of homophobic Billy Graham speeches or Nico droning on with weary, wistful authority about the need for us to go insane just might.
Taken in a single sitting these three discs (weighing in at an appropriately monumental 70-plus minutes per disc) may prove overpowering to even the most self-consciously hardy and resourceful sonic explorer. The arbitrariness of the track sequencing lends the experience something of a ghost train quality, as jagged noise and blood-curdling screams are likely to assault you from the dry ice and the gloom at every juncture. There’s also a fair bit of ponderous noodling, it has to be said: the watchword of the whole project seems to be ‘indulgence’, and when that’s taken at face value we end up with less-than-thrilling entries, often from the usually reliable likes of Robert Fripp and Clock DVA. Experimentation is the game and experiments aren’t guaranteed to work every time.
But when they do, when the dice start to fall just right, the results can be as thrilling and touching as any music you’ve heard. The primal-scream therapy meets Suicide vibe of Eyeless In Gaza’s John Of Patmos urging us into the Book of Revelations with a manic intensity: the delightfully-named Stinky Wrinkles giving the most frenzied movement of Anton Webern’s Five Pieces For String Quartet the chamber jazz ensemble kicking we never knew it deserved: Nurse With Wound giving us an unnervingly precise but somehow still eerily vague nine-minute monologue in I Was No Longer His Dominant which could be about torture, or interrogation, or bondage sex: loosely based on a Harold Pinter play it certainly captures the haunting drabness and stillness of his world.
The ambitions of these discs and their commitment to investigating the more barbed, less friendly terrain of British music is a breath-taking thing to behold and experience, ultimately. Here is a deep vein of silver lying in wait for those with the curiosity and the stamina to mine it. Sometimes the rewards are sweeter when we have to work for them.
PS, if you’re a fan of the Stiff Records novelty release The Wit And Wisdom of Ronald Reagan from 1980, the same crew who made that have miraculously re-assembled to give us a nice surprise in the middle of Disc Two: an extract from the seemingly longer, grander work The Compassion and Humanity of Margaret Thatcher. It’s often said that John Cage was a big fan.
❉ ‘Further Perspectives & Distortion – An Encyclopedia Of British Experimental And Avante-Garde Music 1976-1984’ (CRCDBOX84) is out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £17.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.