Monday, May 28, 2012

Chapter 7:  TURN BACK TIME: Revival Cults and Timewarp Tribes 


The Action's "Shadows and Reflections"

imagine the exact midpoint between The Righteous Brothers's "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and The Yardbirds' "For Your Love"


Ghostworld and Terry Zwigoff and Robert Crumb 

For Zwigoff, the world through which Enid, the quirky, sardonic heroine, and her friend drift  -- the strip mall's endless loop of multiplex movie-theaters peddling Hollywood blockbusters and supersized popcorn buckets,  Starbucks outlets and name-brand chain stores --- is the real ghostworld: rootless and insubstantial and utterly disenchanted.  And it takes a true ghost--the harrowing dead man's voice of Skip James singing "Devil Got My Woman"--to cut through the unreality, piercing the soul of Enid, who picked up the record at Seymour's yard sale.

Menopausal male fantasy, or what?

timewarp cults -- an artistic statement

downtown NYC artists David McDermott and Peter McGough were a sort of steampunk Gilbert & George -- from 1980 to 1995, they "dressed, lived, and worked as artists and "men about town", circa 1900-1928: they wore top hats and detachable collars, and converted a townhouse on Avenue C in New York City's East Village, which was lit only by candlelight, to its authentic mid-19th century ideal. " that's like performance art that never stops or that subsumes one's entire existence


trad jazz

For years I've used "trad jazz" as a short-hand pejorative, a quick and easy way to put down things I considered reactionary. I'd always assumed that trad was the ultimate example of boarding the wrong train of History, a fate sealed by the arrival of Beatlemania in 1962. Trad was sad, dad. So, for instance, when comparing Britpop to the Nineties genres I believed were actually forward-looking, I compared Oasis/Blur and the rest to trad jazz while arguing that jungle and trip hop were equivalent to the mods. 

But reading up on the subject -- Max Jones profile of Humphrey Lyttleton, Hilary Moore's excellent Inside British Jazz, George Melly's awesome Revolt Into Style etc -- I started to have a lot of sympathy for trad jazz - it seems like it was the best thing on offer before rock'n'roll hit the UK, in terms of an exuberant, dance-crazy sound. 

 In the Picture Post article, legendary jazz critic Max Jones notes "the dangerous vigour"  of the "350 zealots" crammed into a London basement to see Lyttleton's band,  comparing it favorably with the "polite shuffling that passes for dancing at the Palais." Another contrast with mainstream fare was trad jazz's informality, its "freedom to wear what you like and to do almost what steps you like."

 Britain's New Orleans jazz resurgence was also a complex and rather interesting phenomenon. Strangely although it was a throwback sound, alternately sentimentally nostalgic and dogmatically purist vis-a-vis New Orleans jazz, as a movement it was aligned with the political forces and cultural forces that represented change (CND, socialism, the Goons). Jeff Nuttall makes a  good case in Bomb Culture that trad was one of the sources for the British wing of the counter culture. 

And of course I was tickled pink to discover that tradders used the word 'raver' and 'rave'... and that the 100 Club, future home of punk, was one of trad's prime locations... 


Trad: the beginnings of revival jazz in Britain 

What jazz singer and critic George Melly called "the mysterious enthusiasm" for New Orleans germinated toward the end of World War Two, with a band called the George Webb Dixielanders who modeled themselves on King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and Louis Armstrong;  Humphrey Lyttleton joined them as trumpeter, and ended up taking over the band.

Books also played a role, especially Frederic Ramsey Jr and Charles Edward Smith's  1939 history Jazzmen: The Story of Hot Jazz Told in the Lives of the Men Who Created It, which sparked the trad's scene penchant for naming bands things like Ken Colyer's Jazzmen or Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen.


trad jazz and the generation gap

Melly concludes that although in its liveliness and informality trad prefigured  certain aspects of Fifties rock'n'roll and the 1960s beat group explosion, it was never really indexed to youth culture and lacked the working-class delinquent aura that made rock'n'roll so threateningIt was not a teenage sound, it was a student sound.

 trad jazz versus modernist jazz

 Talking to Max Jones for Picture Post, Humphrey Lyttleto argued that "the musician should be the pilot rather than the engine….  The apostles of Bebop… are careering ahead at full throttle. But they've thrown the map out of the window".

Jones, for his part, cautioned that the trad audience's orientation towards "rhythmic urge and surface excitement" could lead the music to degenerate. Which is what actually happened a decade later: by the end of the Fifties, when trad blew up into a huge pop craze, it became mad stomping music for inebriate revellers. 
Lyttleton himself would point out this kind of degeneration via his weekly column for New Musical Express, e.g.

"Of all the contemporary jazz sounds which qualify for the title of Tomorrow’s Corn. “boot” tenor playing is hottest favourite with me. I mean the sort of rabble-rousing stuff which relies for its effect on single-note honking and frenetic riffs, relieved by an occasional rude noise from one or other of the instrument’s extremities. Illinois Jacquet can claim distinction as the father of this style, although it is really in effect a debasement of several earlier styles, notably those of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Ben Webster. In recent years there has been something of a vogue for “boot” tenor playing, until now, a position has been reached where a player of very little improvisational talent can achieve instant success with the mob by playing three or four successive choruses on one note. Provided, of course, that he heightens the impression of inspirational fervor by blowing himself blue in the face and marking time like an epileptic sergeant major. "
 trad jazz and race / Ken Colyer's obsession with Bunk Johnson

Another important  trad jazz figure, Cy Laurie, went even further down this path, claiming to be the reincarnation of clarinetist Johnny Dodds--even though Dodds was still alive up until Laurie was fourteen years of age!

Hilary Moore calls this type of devout identification with black music by white performers and fans a form of "self-othering," which creates something similar to "double consciousness," W. E. B. Du Bois's famous term for the black experience of being both African and American. But there's an important difference:  the white devotee of black music embraces this identity confusion voluntarily.  


purism and pedagogy

"Revivals almost always have a strong pedagogical component," Tamara E. Livingston observes. They are typically focused around one or two few guru/prophet figures (like Ken Colyer),  "revival informants" who school initiates in the correct way of going about things.  Deference to tradition leads to artistic self-effacement: the safest course to follow is to stick to covers, whether established standards or obscure songs, because writing something new risks inadvertently changing the style.  But this preservation model effectively kills what was once a living, evolving form (fixing it, like a creature preserved in formaldehyde).  Conversely, the non-purist approach, which aspires to broaden the audience for the music, lets in the very forces of modernity and commercialism that the timewarp cult originally opposed.  

trad and punk pre-echoes

In his profile of Humphrey Lyttleton, Max Jones likewise highlighted the "semi-professional status" of the bands, playing tunes "old enough to be new, that no publisher is plugging…  in a spirited and spontaneous manner".  

 This pre-echo of punk's anti-professionalism is heightened by the fact that the venue Lyttleton and his band are playing in Jones's profile was the 100 Club on Oxford Street:  in 1949, the home of the London Jazz Club, but nearly thirty years later, where the Sex Pistols, the Clash and six other bands would participate in Britain's first punk festival.    

Another punk pre-echo is the DIY aspect of skiffle, initially a component of trad jazz before breaking away on its own. Ken Colyer introduced a skiffle segment in his shows, during which banjo player Lonnie Donegan switched to guitar and sang Leadbelly songs.  When Chris Barber left Colyer's band and formed his own group, he took Donegan with him.  The skiffle spots became even more popular and  Donegan broke away as a solo star, scoring hits with tunes like "Rock Island Line" (#1 in 1956).  Skiffle bands and skiffle clubs formed by the thousand across the UK (one such group,  The Quarrymen, would evolve into The Beatles).  Seeking to understand its mysterious popularity,  George Melly points to skiffle's "'Anyone Can Do It' side… a few chords on a guitar and you were away" and to its aura of roughness, which seems polite in hindsight but in the saccharine pop context of Fifties Britain must have had the realness impact of  grime or gangsta rap.


The Beaulieu Festival 1960  

39 people received minor injuries,  there were a prosecutions for assaulting a police officer, and coverage in the newspapers spluttered with outrage


 trad jazz and "ravers"

Almost forty years before acid house and Ecstasy stormed the UK, "rave" was already being used as a verb ("to live it up"), a noun ("a party where you raved"), and the basis for tribal identity (a "raver" being  someone "who raved as much as possible").  According to George Melly, the word went back to the early days of the scene and entered the parlance thanks to two scenesters, Mick Mulligan and Jim Godbolt. Melly and Mick Mulligan were the first jazz revivalists to throw All Night Raves.  Originally the All-Nighters were cramped, sweaty affairs in Soho cellars hosted by the likes of Cy Laurie.

In a pre-echo of rave and ardkore, there was a bingeing, get-wrecked aspect to trad madness. 

In Time magazine's 1961 report on Britain's "Trad Hatters", one teenage fan  clutched a container full of a horrid-sounding mixture of cider, gin and whiskey and declared "if it really comes to it, I prefer jazz to sex".  Another pre-echo of all those comments like "clubbing is better than sex"


stylized shabbiness 

Seemingly dramatizing itself against the inscrutable cool and elegance of  modernist jazz, trad embraced daftness and scruffiness.  Jeff Nuttall recalled "a great cult of dirt… straggly hair, unkempt".


Trad Mad book

whose author, radio deejay Brian Matthew, confidently declared that the Forties "saw the emergence of Swing, the Fifties gave us Rock, and the way things are at the moment it looks as though the Sixties may well come to be labelled the ten years of Trad.” 

Here's a piece about the book, featuring its cover.

The dude made a record, too, in tribute to Trad. 


what makes actual young people stop chasing tomorrow's music today and start pursuing yesterday's music?

The proportion of  youth who opt to be refuseniks indifferent to the lure of the new and the now  has steadily increased over the decades. As pop history advances it accumulates more and more dead styles, crevices for the esoteric-minded to explore.   This kind of secret knowledge can be as attractive to adolescents engaged in identity-formation and setting themselves apart  as chasing one of the cutting edges of contemporary music.  So from the early Seventies onwards, significant numbers of the youth population would defect from "the country of 'Now'" and dedicate themselves to some region or other of the past.   

While some are overtly retro, others belong to a syndrome I call the Mystery of Subcultural Persistence.  At any given moment ninety percent of listeners are not "in the place to be" as decreed by style magazines and the hipster vanguard. Scenes and subcultures do not promptly wither away when the media spotlight flits off to something new; they carry on, in some cases get even bigger, spreading from their original fickle base of early adopter support to form more lasting bonds in the hearts of kids who live in the untrendy suburbs  and provinces.  The Mystery of Subcultural Persistence  is why drum'n'bass is still popular a dozen years after it was last the epitome of cool;  it's why there's always going to be Goths,  even if many of them call themselves emos nowadays; it's why there's teenagers mooching around the East Village of New York with gel-spiked, luridly dyed hair and T-Shirts for GBH, Chron-Gen, Discharge and Crass (bands that were active when I was teenager!).  These abiding scenes have a double appeal, both for their intrinsic set of values (what they stood and stand for) and for their resistance to fashionable transience. 

You also have the phenomenon of the re-revivals, like the late 90s resurgence of ska bands in America, which didn't go straight to the source but was inspired by Britain's 2-Tone movement.  Perhaps the Sixties soul night I ended up at 1988 had something of this aspect: a doubled homage that paid tribute to the original black American sound and to the legend-enshrouded heyday of Northern Soul in the Seventies ("let's keep faith with the keep-the-faith spirit of Northern soul)".   


Northern Soul and overproduction of Motown and its imitators

The vast majority of these singles entered an overcrowded market and flopped.  Motown itself put out a lot of commercially unsuccessful singles (and recorded even more that was never released). Motown imitators like GoldenWorld, Wheelsville, and Tay-Ster also pressed up small batches, as low as 300 copies, to see if radio or nightclub deejays would bite. 

Out of this monstrous glut of music, there were a fair number of fabulous should-have-beens--a testament to the reservoir of black talent in large towns across America, and the strength of  the black church tradition of gospel singing.  Another reason so much music was made during this period was that production costs were lower in the Sixties. 


Motown as the template for Northern Soul  /

"If it sounded like The Isley Brothers "This Old Heart Of Mine" or The Supremes  "Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart",  we wanted records that sounded like that," says Ian Levine, one of the leading Northern deejays. "People would find records that sounded like that:  storming dance beats, four on the floor,  and dramatic, with big sweeping strings and sweet melodic chords. " 

Northern Soul wasn't like the Stax and Atlantic Sound of Otis Redding and Aretha, Levine explains. " Mods looked down our noses at "Respect",  that kind of thing was being lapped up by student hippies with long hair. All that Sam & Dave, Booker T and the MGs, Memphis type stuff is very raw and unsophicated.  The Northern soul style is doowoop with a beat, these sad, sweet harmonies."

So in a sense Northern soul, as well as being popular in the North of England was Northern because it came from the Northern states of the USA, not the South


 Northern soul and hostility to "commercial" music / elitism

One of the ironies of Northern Soul was that although Tamla-Motown was the foundation of the style--"if it sounded like The Isley Brothers's "This Old Heart of Mine" or The Supremes's "Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart", we wanted it," says leading Northern deejay Ian Levine-- the actual output of Gordy's label was deemed to be "commercial."   That meant "common knowledge", the hits you could hear at any local nightclub or youth hall.  The irony here, of course, is that Northern fans danced to tunes made by Motown copyists who were striving their damnedest to be commercial, make the charts, get played in big nightclubs.

As Dave Godin put it, the scene saw itself an "aware and elite minority" who weren't "content with the lifeless pulp that constitutes the bulk of the manipulated 'hit' parade." 


Dobie Gray, "Out On The Floor" / The 'In' Crowd

The lyrics to 'Out of The Floor'--" I'm really on tonight/Everything's swinging… When I'm out on the floor/ It makes me feel like a king"--may not be inspired by pills but they certainly fit amphetamine's sensations of crisp perception, bodily fluency, boundless energy.... and the in-command egomania, the superiority complex.

 nearly as divine:

pure elitism

I´m in with the "In" crowd
I go where the "In" crowd goes
I´m in with the "In" crowd
And I know what the "In" crowd knows (How to have fun!)
Any time of the year, don´t you hear? (How to have fun!)
Dressin´ fine, makin´ time
We breeze up and down the street
We get respect from people we meet
They make way day or night
They know the "In" crowd is out of sight
I´m in with the "In" crowd
I know ev´ry latest dance
When you´re in with "In" crowd
It´s easy to find romance (And we work out!)
At a spot where the beat´s really hot (And we work out!)
If it´s square we ain´t there
We make ev´ry minute count
Our share is always the biggest amount
Other guys imitate us
But the original's still the greatest
We got our own way of walkin'
We got our way of talkin´ (Gotta have fun!)
Any time of the year, don´t you hear (Gotta have fun!)
Spendin´ cash, talkin´ trash
Girl, I´ll show you a real good time
Come on with me and leave your troubles behind
I don´t care where you´ve been
You ain´t been nowhere till you been in with "In" crowd

black is mod is glam

strangely the first version of 'in crowd' i can remember is this one, it was on the radio quite a bit when i was growing up, as i recall


Northern Soul dance moves / the Wigan Casino

Look at documentary footage of Wigan on YouTube and the wood-sprung dancefloor seems not to be packed. But the swathes of space around each dancer are because they needed plenty of room for their fey and fastidious flips, spins, and twirls. 


Northern Soul and drugs / Northern Soul as a prototype for rave culture

Northern anthems like Rocq-e Harrell's 'My Heart Keeps Beating Faster", written to evoke the butterflies-in-the-stomach sensations of love came to take on an amphetamine-rush subtext: "I'm feeling restless/ I can't eat and I can't sleep," "It's so fast", "the electricity we feel.'   

According to Northern Soul deejay Ian Dewhirst, fans read drug meanings into songs like "Blowing My Mind To Pieces" and "Ten Miles High", or would fasten onto innocuous lyrics like "gotta get my gear out/ready for winter's near" in The Invitations's "Skiing In The Snow".  I

n a pre-echo of rave culture (where samples from love songs were turned into Ecstasy innuendos) Northern fiends would amuse themselves by rewriting the lyrics "to be something to do with drugs," says Ian Levine. "They used to sit in the pub at Sunday lunchtime, when they'd been up all night on speed, coming up with them. So "I've got to have your love" would be "I've got to have some drugs", and "The next in line" became "am-phet-a-mine. "   

Some Northern veterans would go on to be prime movers in the rave scene: Neil Rushton brought Detroit techno to the U.K. via his Network label, while Hacienda deejay Mike Pickering would lead the house group M-People and title their debut album Northern Soul.


the Owl was the mascot of the Northern Soul fans because they are nocturnal creatures -- owl = code for we take speed and we don't sleep

interesting 'owls', so i'm told, is a term used by Electric Daisy Carnival EDM new ravers in America to describe themselves


soul singers whose careers went nowhere in the USA become cult stars in Northern England

Another singer didn't even know her record, "Time Will Pass You By", had ever been released at all, let alone become an anthem overseas: she had recorded what she thought was just a demo, only for it to be released without her knowledge and under a pseudonym she was unware of, Tobi Legend

Northern Soul: "it won't change, it won't stop, it's incessant"

Writing about his concept of the "invented tradition", the historian Eric Hobsbawm declared that "the object and characteristic of 'traditions', including invented ones, is invariance."


 the contradictions of a mod revival 

Pathos draped itself all over flatly self-contradictory anthems like The Chords's "Maybe Tomorrow" or Secret Affair's  "My World" ("this is my world today" goes the chorus) and "Shake and Shout" ( "young and proud/Of a brand new sound.") 
It seemed premature too: Peter York, writing about the resurgence in the autumn of '79,  mused that "to revive Mod was to revive what was barely history at all."   

The Who and The Jam

Townsend's  powerchords, Entwhistle's oddly-angled bass runs, and the epic flail of Moon's cymbal crashes and tom rolls meshed to create a sound expressive not of sexual desire but an unrest at once social and existential.  This pent-up frustration required explosive release: the orgasm of instrument-smashing at gig's end.

 Paul Weller and the Jam inherited The Who's subject matter, youth, and much of Towsend's neurotic anxiety.  Their live sets and LPs invariably included covers of soul standards by the likes of Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave  and Martha and the Vandellas, but these stiff gestures towards Mod-ness  stood out like  sore thumbs amidst original songs that were all  jerky, jolting drama: youth anthems, not  dance grooves

 In 1979, he declared "I can't write any more kids' anthems now, 'cos I'm 20 years old and you can't go on doin' that….   Once you're over 20… you've had it…  I felt the change, you know. I just felt so much older. You're not a kid any more. "

As Barney Hoskyns observed in an acutely penetrating live review of the Jam in 1982,  "‘pinching’ the ‘60s and its endless memories" had enabled The Jam to attract "vast legions of the disaffected, the non-aligned, and the nobodies."  The Sixties, as myth and as reality, represented the idea of youth as a class -- one that cut across existing class divisions, transcended them.  A class whose political interests lay in pushing for change for change's sake... desires for pleasure, action, mobility, thrills,  that pushed against all constraints and all paternalisms (whether of the Left or the Right). 


Rolling Stones as the mod's antithesis / Performance as inspiration for Secret Affair's glory boys

Mods loathed the Stones, regarding them as archetypal art-school bohemians: the very things that made Jagger, Jones and Richards anti-heroic role models for bourgeois students the world over (the way the band would, as one rock critic put it, “glower out hirsute and tieless from the Sunday entertainment pages”) was what made the mods detest them as middle class kids slumming it.  The antipathy endured:  echoing Pete Meaden’s definition of mod as “clean living under difficult circumstances”, Paul Weller once declared his belief in “clean culture" and contempot for "elegantly wasted wankers, like Keith Richards.”  
So there's a marvellously apt clash  of sensibilities in the Movie Performance when Chas Devlin, the mod-like gangster, has to hole up with burned-out, dissolute hippy rock star Turner, played by Mick Jagger, but actually modeled on the Rolling Stones’s Brian Jones. The latter's real-life girlfriend Anita Pallenberg is in the movie, playing Ferber, one of Turner's menage-a-trois in Labroke Grove.

Played by James Fox, Chas is an enforcer for an East London “firm” or a criminal syndicate: he’s a virtuoso “performer” who collects protection money and puts the squeeze on “flash little twerps”.  Chas is very mod, what with his short hair, thin ties and sharply suits. In one scene, we see Chas in his  bachelor pad in a fancy apartment complex, dressing with great care. In a shot that seems to look ahead to Richard Gere in American Gigolo, Chas selects gold cuff links from a drawer that contains about a dozen sets.  Then he obsessively fusses over the placement of the magazines on his coffee table, making millimeter adjustments so that they are square with the edges of the table.   

Later, on the run after murdering someone, Chas winds up hiding from the law in the Ladbroke Grove den of decadence that is Turner's Powis Square house.  Phoning an accomplice, Chas says he’s “on the left” (i.e. West London) and complains about the “long hair, beatniks, druggers, free love” atmosphere of his hideout. Chas is uptight, and as Performance unfolds Turner and  Ferber loosen up their sociopath guest by feeding him hallucinogens without his consent or knowledge, in order to break down his character armor and poke around inside his inner workings.

Secret Affair's look and notion of a "Glory Boys" subculture was inspired jointly by the firm in Performance and the Kray Twins, those sharp dressed mobsters who were its real-world model. 


Secret Affair, superciliousness, and style as revenge

There was a supercilious sourness to Secret Affair quite different to Weller's bitterness, which was rooted in compassion. It seeped out in peacock-proud lyrics like "I can cut you down by combing my hair/Nothing touches a Glory Boy", and in the the mission-statement Page penned for Sounds:  "a moment's intensity--young man, sharp look, street corner, a cold stare from old eyes in a young face. Pride/dignity--self respect."   The exaltation of youth was precarious,  the line "so scared of getting old" in "Glory Boys" marked the distance from the Sixties and the confident defiance of  "My Generation" by The Who.  Other songs resurrected  the mod dream of transcendence through style and dance, with sentiments to win the approval of a Northern Soul fan:   "looking good's the answer/and living by night," declared the group's big chart hit "Time For Action," invoking images of  "standing in the shadow/where the in-crowd meet." The music, too, was less Who/Jam than other mod revival bands, with trumpet flourishes and thin-vocaled approximations of Motown that actually it anticipated the later Jam of  "Town Called Malice" and "Absolute Beginners", all Tamla-beat and weedy, watery horn fanfares.

 Purple Hearts and "Frustation"

Robert Manton finds in pop music a metaphor for entrapment:  "Don't you feel like a long-playing record?… the needle's got stuck in the groove."


The Chords, "The British Way of Life"

revealing, i think, this fan video for 'The British Way of Life' that uses found footage of riots, strikes, street violence, soccer hooliganism etc -- taps into that "Angry Island" thing that A.A. Gill wrote about


 jazz-funk as the real successor to mod-ism - true Southern Soul

The real late Seventies equivalent of  modernism was the South of England jazz-funk scene: soul-boys dressing in name-brand casual wear, dancing at All-Dayers, and (the hallmark of true mod) obsessed with records not groups.  Like Northern Soul, the funk and soul scene was all about deejays; unlike Northern, the record chased were the latest import 12 inches from Black America


mod revival as taking punk's "no future" literally

You could argue that the mod revivalists were unconsciously responding to the fact that Britain hadn't, fundamentally, changed since the mid-Sixties: the possibilities that stretched before  a working class or lower middle class kid from the suburban South of England were no different than they were for the same sort of boys from the same sort of areas in the Sixties, except jobs were harder to come by and they had less money in their pockets to burn.   

Deadheads - a UK equivalent?

If you were looking for a direct parallel with the Deadhead culture in the UK, it would be the free festival scene, where neo-hippie travelers gathered all through the Seventies and Eighties to watch bands like Hawkwind, Here and Now and Magic Mushroom Band.


 Deadheads and taping

Deborah J. Baiano-Berman, whose husband was an obsessive Grateful Dead taper, describes the prestige that tapers enjoy within the culture: the tapes, which they never charge for, provide fans with a connection to the Grateful Dead during the often long gaps between concerts.  "Tapes are a means of holding onto the magic that we create, and, while they lose some of the immediacy and collective dimension of the experience, they re-ignite our sense of both. They are like landmarks or souvenirs which are precious reminders of community. They allow us to share the very experience of sharing…  Above all, they bind time, keeping the sense of community alive between shows."  But she also notes that taping can be chore (all that dubbing of copies) and a life-choking obsession: "As I sit here in my chair and look across the room, I am confronted with the tip of our iceberg of a tape collection. I often think to myself, 'how many tapes does one need anyway?' Apparently, the answer is, all that one can get.…" 

Another perspective on the archive fever of the Deadhead tape sharing culture is in this great piece on the afterlife of the Grateful Dead at the New Yorker by Nick Paumgarten, which examines  "the Dead’s transformation, over time, from living thing to library",  with all the paradoxes entailed in "something intended to be spontaneous and ephemeral" becoming "a curated body of work"

 In one of the best passages in this long, long feature,  Paumgarten gets escorted by the Dead's official archivist Dave Lemieux to visit the Dead's tape vault, now in the custody of Rhino and just one zone within the vast cenotaph of sound maintained by Warner Bros up in Burbank:
Are you ready to enter the holy portal?” [the Warner Bros archivist/guide] asked. We passed through a door into a vast climate-controlled hangar of shelves loaded with boxes containing the reel-to-reel multitrack recordings of studio sessions and concerts of hundreds of artists. There was a smell of vinegar—the disintegration of old magnetic audiotape. We wandered the aisles, tunnelling through music. Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Gene Autry, Yes, Coolio, Jean-Luc Ponty, Teddy Pendergrass, Winger. “Three-quarters of this place is unissued,” he said. He pointed to a rack of reel-to-reels: Otis Redding, live, 1967, never circulated. Another set of shelves contained hours and hours of Aretha Franklin songs that have never been released.

“Drool,” Lemieux said.

The Dead’s section was toward the back, surrounded by a chain-link fence. It was a vault within a vault—a Holy of Holies. The funny thing was that the Dead’s stash, sealed off from the rest, had long been by far the most porous of all. Every year, new old music gushes forth. “That’s what makes the Grateful Dead unique within this building,” the archivist said. “David is using it all.”

He opened a padlock. We stepped inside. There were two long aisles, with a line of bays on either side. There were fifty-four bays. Each bay was about four feet wide and nine shelves high, with as many as a hundred tapes per shelf. There were big reels and small ones, cassettes and digital audiotapes. The arrangement wasn’t strictly chronological. The system was arcane


Paumgarten on the auratic qualities of particular recordings that get copied and re-copied as they circulate among the community of fans...  

"Even the compromised sound quality became a perverse part of the appeal. Each tape seemed to have its own particular note of decay, like the taste of the barnyard in a wine or a cheese. You came to love each one, as you might a three-legged dog....

"Each had a character and odor of its own, a terroir. Some combination of the era, the lineup, the set list, the sound system, the recording apparatus, its positioning in the hall, the recorder’s sonic bias, the chain of custody, and, yes, the actual performance would render up a sonic aura that could be unique. Jerry Garcia claimed to be a synesthete—he said that he perceived sound as color. Somehow, I and others came to perceive various recordings, if not as colors, as having distinct odors or auras."


In Retromania, I speculate that the tapers are in some way missing the very thing they're so obsessed with capturing... they are not really fully present, because preoccupied with recording levels, microphone placement....   that sense is strengthened by the bit in Paumgarten's piece where he meets the taper responsible for a particular concert recording  [nicknamed the Fox after the Georgia venue in question] that he and his boarding school buddies were obsessed with in the Eighties...

"He sat throughout the set, holding a microphone in his hand. “I remember it being quite a pain. I can see the band and the house in my mind’s eye, from that spot,” he said. “The sound was so unique and wonderful. There was such wide stereo range on the P.A. It translated to the tape. You don’t usually get that on audience tapes. It’s Dan Healy who deserves the credit. Healy just went for it.” He was referring to the Dead’s soundman, and it occurred to me that his admiration for the Fox had more to do with the quality of sound than with the performance. Tapers listen differently."

Certainly the surviving members of the Dead do not understand the phenomenon at all, think the tapers and the tape-collectors (it's all on the Internet now, of course) have missed the point...

Phil Lesh, for instance, says, "recordings have always seemed to me, personally, to be kind of a fly in amber, which was contrary to the spirit of the Grateful Dead". Of the recent limited edition/sold out instantly box set of every single date on the Europe 72 tour (22 concerts, 73 discs, over 70 hours of music), Lesh says, "I have to admit, I have not listened to it"

Sensible fellow! He lived it, why would he want to relive it?

Also Retromania-resonant is the section on all the tribute bands that the Dead have spawned.  One of them, the Dark Star Orchestra, "perform specific concerts from the Grateful Dead's vast library of past gigs. They reproduce the set list, with the particular song arrangements and sonic configurations that the Dead employed that night...  They have thousands of units of existing material to choose from, and they have yet to repeat one. D.S.O. does not, as some mistakenly assume, replicate the concerts note for note; instead, in the spirit of their progenitors, and in the interest of their own enjoyment, and of performative plausibility, they improvise, within the context of the era they are drawing from. It is a peculiar form of repertory."

In a delicious, vicious twist of irony, the D.S.O. finds itself effectively in competition with a post-Dead band formed by Lesh and Bob Weir, a battle that gets pretty nasty.  Paumgarten drily, mordantly notes that the D.S.O.'s rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton "treats the band (or its remnants) that has given him a living, a body of work, a style, and some measure of transcendence as a kind of adversary. “If you want to get off, you come see us,” [Eaton] said. “We have a bigger repertoire than the Dead ever had, at any one time.” They have the whole career in rotation. “We’re showing the kids what it was like."


old skool hardcore - my personal fetish

The lack of preciousness made it all the more precious, somehow; the fact that it didn’t have one eye on posterity gives it the authentic like-there’s-no-tomorrow vibe of rave in its virgin prime.  Poring  over my vintage hardcore 12 inch singles, I get a buzz from the miss-spelt words, the off-the-cuff jokes, the cack-handed design, the wacky-verging-on-wack attempts at being cosmic or trippy or “dark”, the shout-outs to friends, allies, and minor scene legends, the blotchy ink stenciling of information on an ancient white label 12 inch. Even tiny details like the contact numbers having an early Nineties phone code--071 and 081 for inner and outer London--add what you might call affective value to the object.

nostalgia for four years earlier

in 1991, techno -- aka rave, aka bleep -- was the remorseless force of futurism, consigning rock to history with barbarian ruthlessness (viz this late 1991 NME cover with LFO, teenagers from Yorkshire, smashing the electric guitar to smithereens)

but by 1995 -- nineteen ninety fuckin FIVE --  rave was waxing nostalgik for its own golden age four years before



pirate radio tapes as sacred relics, date-stamped with historicity and period vibe

This is another that people got into trading, swapping, and eventually archiving on the web.

The same applies to just about every form of dance music, of course, going as far back to late disco and early house sets from the Eighties.  Non-dance music too; the Deadhead tape-trading networks have gone online.  Like a Dead taper, I used to record pirate radio shows obsessively, and these cassettes are easily the most precious sonic artifacts  I own.  They are literally irreplaceable: given the large number of stations active,  the tonnage of 24 hours/Friday-Saturday-Sunday broadcasting, and the druggy  non-professionalism of the DJ-and-MC crews of those days, it's likely that many of these tapes are the only documentation extant of any given show. If only I'd used higher quality cassettes, rather than taping off unwanted advance tapes sent to my record companies. But then I wasn't doing it out of some  preservationist impulse, just wanting to get hold of the music and play during the week when the pirates dropped off the airwaves.

These relics of UK rave's peak are editions-of-one because they're mutilated by spontaneous arbitrary editing decisions: switching between stations repeatedly when a pirate show's energy dimmed, or the DJ dropped a run of tracks I'd taped several times already; cutting off arbitrarily when I couldn't stay awake any longer;  dwindling into lameness because I'd left the tape running and went off to do something else.  I often  pressed  'pause' when the commercial breaks and station jingles came on, which I now regret because those that survived  are among my favourite bits.  These goofy, thrown-together ads contribute to the period vibe that make these tapes so nostalgia-inducing but also historically valuable: they are deposits of  raw subcultural data.   

 The pirate tapes also have life, something you don't get from the official DJ mix-tapes of the era:  the messiness of  deejays mixing on the fly with whatever tunes came out that week, of  MCs  randomizing further with their gritty 'n' witty patter.  

 For years I felt like I was almost alone in my obsession with these pirate radio relics. Most old skool fans preferred to trade the commercially sold DJ mix-tapes, some of which became highly collectable (an original Top Buzz mix-tape circa 1992 could fetch sixty pounds on Ebay).  But thanks to the web, the minority of pirate  fiends found each other.  There are hardcore and jungle sets archived at old skool sites or offered for trade or sale; you'll come across individuals sharing huge caches of  vintage transmissions via message board threads.


nostalgie de rave

rave nostalgia of a different kind  - a flyer for the Portland 'hipster house' scene, with graphics modelled on Hacienda and the Peter Saville interior design of the club

and here are some retro-styled videos by UK dance artists of recent years


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