Monday, May 28, 2012

Chapter 4: GOOD CITATIONS: The Rise of the Curator in Rock 


"curation"'s drift into music-world discourse

A perfect example just popped into my inbox: a publicity email for a Brooklyn techno club that starts "When The Treehouse was first raised, the guest DJ curation (outside residents) was always meant to be fluid…"


the rise of the curator

an article in Frieze magazine from 2005, in which Robert Storr identifies the rise of the curator as related to the death of the author  - the author's death causes the role of the reader to rise in status, to be seen as active and creative  - a form of co-authorship in fact. 

Storr:  ‘No I do not think curators are artists. And if they insist, then they will ultimately be judged bad curators as well as bad artists.’ 

in the follow up article, Storr points to "Joseph Beuys’ dictum that everyone was an artist in their own sphere of activity... It is the dovetailing of Beuys’ cultural populism with perverse variants of Roland Barthes ‘Death of the Author’ discourse that has given rise to the present schizophrenic situation, where, it is said, art engenders itself within its sign system through the ‘agency’ of ‘producers’, but critics and curators increasingly expect to be acknowledged as unique creative thinkers, and honoured with appropriate billing."

He calls for a more modest conception of the curator, not as a creator but as an editor: 

"The things to which I am drawn as a curator are those that I did not make and could not have conceived. Nor have I ever thought of those things as being raw materials for my private enterprise, tools of my intellectual trade, terms of my critical discourse or facets of my professional self-portrait. Rather than ruthlessly bending the work of others to my intention, as an artist would his or her medium, I’ve seen my responsibility as being akin to that of a good literary editor, who may justly take pride in spotting ability and fostering accomplishment but who is otherwise content to function as the probing but respectful ‘first reader’ of the work/manuscript"

in other words, he reasserts the primacy - and primary-ness -- of the artist, and the secondary role of the curator / editor - and i would add, DJ.

But like DJs eclipsing producers in terms of earning power and star power, so curators have been
"crowned kings of the art world", with "artists relegated to also-rans in power list," as Andy McSmith wrote in the The Independent, 15 October 2009.  Noting that Damien Hirst had been knocked off the #1 pole position in the art world's Power 100 List as annually done by Art Review mag, and replaced by "Hans Ulrich Obrist, a Swiss-born art critic and co-director of Exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery", and that furthermore "second place goes to Glenn D. Lowry, director of  New York's Museum of  Modern Art (MoMA)" while "third is Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate" McSmith concludes that "curators rather than artists...are now regarded as the real movers and shakers of the art world..... If you want clout in the art world in these recessionary times, you are better off putting pen to paper as a curator than paintbrush to canvas as a jobbing artist." 

Here's a commentary by super-curator  Hans-Ulrich Obriston the rise of the curator:

"Lately, the word “curate” seems to be used in an greater variety of contexts than ever before, in reference to everything from a exhibitions of prints by Old Masters to the contents of a concept store. The risk, of course, is that the definition may expand beyond functional usability. But I believe ‘curate’ finds ever-wider application because of a feature of modern life that is impossible to ignore: the incredible proliferation of ideas, information, images, disciplinary knowledge, and material products that we all witnessing today. Such proliferation makes the activities of filtering, enabling, synthesizing, framing, and remembering more and more important as basic navigational tools for 21st century life. These are the tasks of the curator, who is no longer understood as simply the person who fills a space with objects but as the person who brings different cultural spheres into contact, invents new display features, and makes junctions that allow unexpected encounters and results.
"To curate, in this sense, is to refuse static arrangements and permanent alignments and instead to enable conversations and relations. Generating these kinds of links is an essential part of what it means to curate, as is disseminating new knowledge, new thinking, and new artworks in a way that can seed future cross-disciplinary inspirations. But there is another case for curating as a vanguard activity for the 21st century.

"As the artist Tino Sehgal has pointed out, modern human societies find themselves today in an unprecedented situation: the problem of lack, or scarcity, which has been the primary factor motivating scientific and technological innovation, is now being joined and even superseded by the problem of the global effects of overproduction and resource use. Thus moving beyond the object as the locus of meaning has a further relevance. Selection, presentation, and conversation are ways for human beings to create and exchange real value, without dependence on older, unsustainable processes. Curating can take the lead in pointing us towards this crucial importance of choosing.”


portrait of the artist as a consumer / rock musicians as portals

Paul Weller placed clues for Jam fans with All Mod Cons' inner-sleeve tableau of mod fetishes and returned to this mod ethos of hyper-discerning consumerism with the cover of the Style Council's Our Favourite Shop

One of the things that made the Manic Street Preachers such renegades against the "new lad" Nineties was their throwback-to-postpunk compulsion to display their autodidact learning through their lyrics, record artwork, and interviews.

An early example of this syndrome was the famous Nurse with Wound List, which came with their 1979 debut album Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella. Prefaced with the declaration "categories strain, crack, and sometimes break, under their burden-- step out of the space provided," the NWW List was a sort of textual graphic composed of the names of the 292 hyper-obscure groups whose "electric experimental music" (Krautrock/Euro-prog/improv/musique concrete, etc) that inspired the group. Here, rendered visually, was the tissue of influences that composed Nurse With Wound.

To me the NWW List makes an interesting contrast with a contemporary example of artist-as-consumer self-display influence-portfolio curatoriailsm:  Panda Bear's Person Pitch, where Noah Lennox actually lists his influences across one page of  the CD booklet - a cloud cluster of aesthetic coordinates, which are bizarrely wide-ranging, stretching from the already-audible like Beach Boys to less blatant ones like Fela Kuti....  But as well as "cool" and esoteric ones, there's supermainstream, unhip reference points like Duran Duran.
 Panda Bear's is much more 2000s in its spirit: open-hearted, not snobbish or exclusionary. It's a sharing with the fans and captures the mentality of the filesharing/Shuffle/Spotify/Youtube/etc generation. It fits the aura of boyish innocence in the music and overall Animal Collective cult of childhood as a pure state of being.
Nurse With Wound, in contrast, is cooler-than-thou, the mindset adolescent rather than child-like (so into the sophisticatedly dark/twist/disturbing as well the obscure).  The sheer array of experimental, freakadelic, and outsider musicians presented is meant to be a challenge to the listener: chase these down, if you can.  A blend of evangelism and oneupmanship. Fans have been trying to track all the groups down for decades and there were even some blogs, in the early sharity days, dedicated entirely to making their way methodically through the NWW List.

Another difference is that Panda Bear's list is all-over-the-place in a post-iPod/Spotify/netsharing way such that it is quite hard to imagine the artistic sensibility that could comprehend and digest and synthesise such a disparate array of inputs. The NwW List has more coherence, a unifying slant (weird, extreme, surreal, "out" etc) that connects its choices and also points to the commonality between pre-punk progressive and post-punk noise-industrial (the Mutant Sounds argument, in fact, and before Mutant Sounds, Eric Lumbleau had been involved in a NWW List track-them-all-down project).  

Another example of this, actually enacted in the music, is Daft Punk's song "Teachers",  a play on the album title Homework.

The lyric consists of a list of ancestors and hallowed influences:

Paul Jonson
DJ Funk
DJ Sneak
DJ Rush
Jammin Gerald
Bryan Wilson
George Clinton
Lil Louis
Ashley Beadle
Neil Landstruum
Kenny Dope
DJ Hell
Louis Vega
Dr. Dre is in the house yeah
Omega in the house
Gemini is in the house
Jeff Mills is in the house
DJ Deya
DJ Milton
DJ Slugo
DJs on the low
Green Velvet
Joey Beltram
DJ Else
Roy Davis
Boo Williams
DJ Tonka
DJ Snow
DJ Pierre
Mark Dana in the house
Tom Allen's in the house
Romanthony's in the house
Ceevea in the house
Luke Slater
Jerry Carter
Robbert Hood
Paris Mitchel
Dave Carter
Van Helden in the house
Amanda in the house
Sir Jordan's in the house, yeah

On the CD booklet there's a tableau of a teenager's bedroom desk, covered with school stuff, pens, stationery, a globe, but also formative musical influences -- a Kiss poster, a Beach Boys logo, a Chic single sleeve, Led Zeppelin sticker, and a Dansette-style record player with a 7 inch single on it.  The credits feature the usual thanks but also a huge section titled "Respect to" listing all their musical heroes, ranging much further afield than the house/disco/techno  namechecks on "Teachers"

Early on - before they were DP but were the band Darlin' - Bangalter and de Homem-Christo were very taken with Primal Scream circa Screamadelica -- Primal Scream being the ultimate librarians of rock / curator-of-influences type band.  

Discovery  is studded with texture-quotes that have a citational effect -- like the delicious Supertramp piano refrain in "Digital Love", and another song that clearly references 10CC "I'm not in Love"


 cover versions as a gesture of allegiance, or artistic repositioning

The use and the choice of songs to cover, in the Sixties, was usually fairly insignificant decisions. They were done to fill up an album, or a live set, without the dip in quality that might result if they relied entirely on their own writing.  They might be contemporary hits, or traditional folk or blues songs, their original authors often unknown.

But by the early Seventies, with the self-consciousness of glam, the cover version became an artistic gesture.  Both in terms of the choice, and in terms of the very act of doing a cover (progressive groups were supposed to generate their own material; singer-songwriters were supposed to only be capable of authentically singing songs they'd written themselves - Joan Armatrading, I believe, has never recorded a cover version). 

Bryan Ferry regarded These Foolish Things as effectively Roxy's third album and it influenced his writing for Stranded (the group's real #3) with a shift towards "craftsmanship…  conventional but very strong, classy songs."  These Foolish Things also aimed to demonstrate Ferry's sensitivity as an interpretive singer.

During punk and postpunk, cover versions declined somewhat, with a few exceptions (the desecratory cover - Flying Lizards; the punk-is-now cover - the Dickies; the we-like-black-music cover -- Talking Heads's version of Al Green's "Take Me To the River"). But by New Pop, cover versions were semiotically freighted. Soft Cell nodded to Northern Soul and Motown with a 12 inch segue between "Tainted Love" and "Where Did Our Love Go?". Elvis Costello & the Attractions's cover of Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" was the first single off Get Happy! and heralded the album's drastic stylistic departure: as renovation of  the Stax/Booker T & the MGs sound.
This carried on into the indie Eighties. E.g. "Alex Chilton" was Paul Westerberg mixing gushing admiration ("I'm in love/With that song"), debt-repayment, and an attempt to turn his fans on to the former Big Star frontman's music, while "The Beatles and the Stones" was more like reflected glory mixed with some "that's the level we want to be at" over-confidence on the part of Guy Chadwick.

By the 2000s, artistic rationalisations of their covers and cover albums could be as abstruse as financial instruments and derivatives on Wall Street: here's Dirty Projectors Dave Longstreth on the Black Flag covers album Rise Above: "Writing a song is pulling a shape out of the air, but I didn’t want to write just any song — I wanted to write a song that has already existed…". Longstreths also described the record, obliquely, as a kind of essay about the Eighties--a time when he would have been barely conscious of pop culture, since he was born in 1982-- but rooted in "the desire to force a synthesis of antagonistic strains…. like how in 1981 you could be listening to Black Flag or Cyndi Lauper, this African-influenced pop music. I think we wanted to bring those feelings closer together."


the double cover

I  met a young film-maker who specialized in “double cover versions”, e.g. a version of Spiderman, but done in the style of Wes Anderson.   

Are there any examples of this in music?

There is also a different kind of double cover: covering someone else's cover of someone's song. David Bowie's version of Jacques Brel's "My Death" is obviously mediated by Scott Walker's version of it from several years earlier.  The avant-shoegaze group Belong say that they covered The Cleaners from Venus's  cover of the Syd Barrett song "Late Night"



Spacemen 3, Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream

Bobby Gillespie came up with quite a sharp defence of Primal Scream's historical bent when I interviewed him in 1987. "I don't think it's a question of going back. I think music should be like books – you go in to a library and there's thousands of books and you can choose any of them. Great pop records should be timeless


parody hard rockers and meta-metal

From Zodiac Mindwarp and Gaye Bikers On Acid through to Monster Magnet and Raging Slab through to Noughties metal-renovators like Andrew WK and The Darkness, with conceptualist heavy outfits like The Melvins and Boris falling somewhere in between. 

The common hallmark of these groups is that a sincere "we just wanna rock" impulse (often rooted in hipster fatigue after having been through the indie experimental mill) coexists uneasily, and queasily, with a sense of the absurdity of hard 'n' heavy rock.
 Raging Slab, a New York band infatuated with the 70s Southern boogie-rock sound, debuted with Assmaster on a tiny New Jersey indie label but had difficulties transitioning to the major labelarena-rock circuit. Promoting their Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert  LP with a press kit containing everything you'd need to watch a Seventies arena show (Thunderbird wine, brown paper bag and tube of glue, hideous T-shirt, lighter to hold up during the power ballad) played well with rock critics like myself, while Beavis of MTV's Butthead and Beavis even described their video as "like Skynyrd, but cool". But coolness of this knowing kind--the residue of their alternativeindie background--is an obstacle to acceptance with the mass metal audience. In the Nineties, it was okay for bands to sound old-fashioned, even anachronistic (Guns N'Roses, Black Crowes) but only so long as they're totally earnest about it. It's the difference between "traditional" and "retro", perhaps.

The desire to really-really-rock, albeit trammeled by involuntary and unsheddable air quotes, could also be a desire to reach a mainstream, less self-conscious audience. Urge Overkill were a classic example of this syndrome.  Born out of the Chicago noise-rock scene, the group formed after an intense session of staring at album covers and listening to records in order to formulate their idea of the ultimate band.  The motivation was not nostalgia but dissatisfaction with what was on offer in the present, specifically the un-rockingness of late Eighties/early Nineties indie music. "The Kids Are Insane", the lead track off their 1991 album The Supersonic Storybook (released on the legendary Chicago independent Touch & Go) typifies the group's approach to assembling its identity: the title and scything rifferama are on loan from The Who, the is-it-a-guitar-or-is-it-a-voice effect on the title chorus pays double-homage to Sly Stone's "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" and Pete Frampton, and the mid-song roll-call of North American cities is lifted straight from a James Brown song.  But despite moving to major label Geffen for 1993's Saturation and getting a high-gloss finish to their sound from name producers, Urge Overkill couldn't sell their Cheap Trick-style popped rock to the mainstream.  Just like Saint Etienne (who made increasingly strident efforts to render their music commercial, but would never really become a pop group because their aesthetic of pop was too rarefied, too much of a historically-distilled quintessence) Urge Overkill's would always be too idiosyncratic and clever to write an anthem that the kids, insane or otherwise, would fall for.  Their sole hit wasn't penned by them but by Neil Diamond, their cover of  "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon",  which reached #59 in Billboard and made the French Top Ten off the back of its prominent appearance in Pulp Fiction. That movie was actually a perfect fit for Urge Overkill's retro-pastiche aesthetic. Just like all those many alt-rockers whose day-job was being a record shop assistant, director Quentin Tarantino had worked in a video-rental store and graduated to making film-about-film.


Head Heritage as Net-era update of specialist rock-antiquinarian zines like Strange Things, Bucketful of Brains, Ptolemaic Terrascope, Bam Balam
all of these were oriented around discographies, factually dense chronicles of obscure bands, and reviews of reissues or deeply obscure albums that deserved to be reissued. Ptolemaic Terrascope was the closest counterpart: just as Cope crusaded for the cause on two fronts simultaneously (as historianscholar and music-maker), likewise Terrascope co-founder Nick Saloman put out a number of neo-psychedelic albums under the name Bevis Frond. Cornucopia, JC's festival, was also not unlike Ptolemaic Terrascope's Terrastock festivals, which debuted in 1997

Cope versus Drummond
Cope is a former associate and semi-estranged friend of Bill Drummond (who managed The Teardrop Explodes). But where Drummond's response to hyper-knowingness and music overload has been polemical gestures like his annual No Music Day campaign, Cope's solution is to blast right through "irony and reference points" with a politicized passion that aims to reunite music and history, the sonic and the social. His "white male fuck-up" worshipping days long behind him, his personal pantheon of heroes and models has expanded to include militant-rockers such as Joe Strummer and non-musicians like Carl Jung, Che Guevera, Emily Pankhurt, the Basque revolutionary La Pasionara, the antiquinarian T.C. Lethbridge, and White Panther ideologue/MC5 manage  John Sinclair. Currently Cope is dedicated to "a musical exploration of what it is to be an outsider in modern Western Culture" with the collaborative ensemble, Black Sheep, a primitivist protest band modeled on the MC5. Far from incompatible, cherishing the past and direct action in the present are mutually reinforcing for Cope.
Sonic Youth's radical retro-chic / The Eternal

"Anti-Orgasm", on The Eternal, was inspired by Uschi Obermeier, a German counterculture icon who first lived in Amon Düül's Munich commune, then joined Berlin's supremely nonconformist  Kommune 1. 

Listening to "Anti-Orgasm"  I wondered what the story of Uschi Obermeier and a late 60s Berlin kommune that didn't believe in the nuclear family could possibly mean to Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon as a happily married, middle-aged couple whose daughter Coco is a couple of years from considering which universities to apply to.  It seemed like a curious act of radical retro-chic. 

 But perhaps this is no different than Gerhard Richter's paintings about the Baadher-Meinhof. Or from Sherrie Levine's 1917 exhibition, which coupled works by the Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele and the Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich to explore her ambivalent feelings about Modernism. "I was thinking about my relationship to the Utopian ideas expressed by the Modernists," she said in one interview. "We no longer have the naive optimism in art's capacity to change political systems…   As Post-Modernists we find that simple faith very moving, but our relationship to that simplicity is necessarily complex."

Other songs on The Eternal contained sonic echoes of or riff-citations from the Dead C, Neu!, Kevin Ayers, Sonic's Rendezvous Band and the Wipers

The title The Eternal could refer to the idea of inspiration that is imperishable, or to a spirit of creative dissent that pops up all across history 


Sonic Youth's The Eternal c.f Matmos's The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast

The Eternal is the most full-on expression of the "portrait of the artist as a consumer" syndrome I can think of.  Its only rival is The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast, the 2006 album by "conceptronica" Matmos's 2006. Here each track is a “sound biography” of a dead gay icon.  "Semen Song for James Bidgood,”for instance,  pays tribute to the photographer/film-maker behind cult erotic movie Pink Narcissus. Oddly paralleling The Eternal's "Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn",  “Germs Burns for Darby Crash” samples the sound of Matmos's Drew Daniel having his flesh singed by a former member of the Germs (not Crash, though, as he died a long time ago)

 Of course my favorite song of the 2000s, pretty much, is "The Ballad of Bobby Pyn", by Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti.

Sherrie Levine's glum, grim view of the belated artist's predicament

quotes from 'Statement'

"The world is filled to suffocating. Man has placed his token on every stone. Every word, every image, is leased and mortgaged. And we note that the picture is but a space in which a variety of images, not of them original, blend and clash. A picture is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture. Similar to those eternal copyists Bouvard and Pechuchet, we indicate the profound ridiculousness that is precisely the truth of painting. We can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. Succeeding the painter, plagiarist no longer bears within him passions, humors, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense encyclopedia from which he draws. The viewer is the tablet on which all quotations that make a painting are inscribed without any of them being lost. A painting's meaning lies not in its origin, but in its destination. The birth of the viewer must be at the cost of the painter." 

a similar artist's statement I saw in a museum


Pussy Galore's cover of Exile on Main Street

 Kathy Acker's sample-texts

She  described her interest in "plagiarism" as the extension of an obsession with "schizophrenia and identity". The latter were standard-issue obsessions of the New York noise-rock scene, traceable back from Sonic Youth and Swan to No Wave forebears  like Mars. Acker had been a No Wave scenester alongside her friend Sylvere Lotringer, who as founder of Semiotext(e) had imported French theory to the States with the hip, sleekly stylish Foreign Agents series of short works by Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, et al

 Plagiarism-as-schizophrenia in turn resonates with Sherrie Levine's idea of art as "a tissue of quotations". That, in turn connects to Baudrillard's notion of the postmodern, media-saturated self as "a pure screen… a switching center for all the networks of influence". 

Acker's 1988 novel Empire of the Senseless was less overtly plagiaristic than the earlier work but it was even more sampladelic,  being derived almost entirely from other texts (Genet, Freud, William Gibson's Neuromancer, de Sade, Mark Twain) with some steals as miniscule as a phrase. c.f the shift from Justified Ancients of Mu Mu/John Oswald  sampling to ... The Avalanches, or Wagon Christ, maybe.

Empire of the Senseless came out the same year as Daydream Nation, and there are certain parallels: the titles obviously, but also to influences from cyberpunk (Daydream's "The Sprawl" and "Hey Joni" both allude to William Gibson) and an overall mood of hallucinatory delirium punctuated by irruptions of violence. The difference is that Daydream Nation manages to transcend its sources: the group perfect their "reinvention of the guitar" approach to create a gorgeously abrasive haze that mingles No Wave's stringent modernism with numinous psychedelia (but one that barely references anything in the vocabulary of Sixties rock). Perhaps Sonic Youth had been purging their curator-fanboy tendency with all the contributions to tribute albums (Beatles, Neil Young, Captain Beefheart) they did in this period, along with the "appropriation pop" pieces on Ciccone Youth.


where the name Stereolab comes from -- a stereophonic demonstration disc series put out by Vanguard


Stereolab / Tim Gane

The first time I interviewed Stereolab, in 1994, at the couple's South London home, , Gane talked about one of his pipe-dream notions for Stereolab's future, "ambient boogie," which entailed gene-splicing   Popol Vuh chords to Canned Heat bass lines. He played me "On the Road Again" to demonstrate how the hypnotic blues riff was compatible with the motorik pulse of Neu! and Kraftwerk. (This was back when knowing about Neu! wasn't virtually middlebrow like it is today, when the records were still out of print). Once again the strategy was to combine aspects of the past to create something unforeheard

During that first interview (1994) (you can find it in this ReynoldsRetro deposit of all my Stereolab writings) Gane seemed put out by the fact that Muzak listening had gotten trendy, thanks in large part to the two Incredibly Strange Music volumes put out by Re:Search Books, which consisted of interviews with musicians and record collectors, some of who were obsessed with the same areas as Stereolab.  In 1994 there was even a "space age bachelor pad" scene germinating on both sides of the Atlantic, with regular "hip easy listening" oriented nightclubs in London and New York springing up and new bands ranging from suave Rat Pack-obsessed Yanks like Combustible Edison and  Friends Of Dean Martin to  dulcet MOR Brits like The  Mike Flowers Pops Orchestra and The Gentle People.  Gane was at some pains to indicate that he'd been investigating this area of music a long, long time ago: as back as his early Eighties adolescence as an industrial fan (and musician),  when he'd read Genesis P.Orridge namechecking "exotica" god Les Baxter.


retroactivel yinvented genres / minimal  synth

a contemporary club for minimal synth and 'cosmic' (the latter not invented but barely known at the time outside northern italy where the scene was based around a lakeside club called Cosmic where Daniel Baldelli played a mix of eurodisco and late period Krautrock - Sky label etc - plus Afro beats and other oddities, and dancers took acid and tranced out)

Soul Jazz, Honest Jon's and the British black music connoisseur milieu

By the early years of the new millennium, whether out of necessity or evolving interest, Baker's label diversified beyond the typical British soul-boy zones of funk, Latin and the more groove-oriented kinds of Seventies jazz and started putting out groundbreaking (in salvage label terms) compilations of postpunk. Soul Jazz began with the more funk/disco/dub influenced end, as with the influential In the Beginning There Was Rhythm collection, but quickly moved into more more atonal and assaultive No Wave with the New York Noise series. They also started to push against the taste barricades that soul-boys have traditionally erected around the lumpen rave culture, with anthologies of jungle and The Ragga Twins. Baker also launched the rather straitlaced-sounding sub-label World Audio Foundation, which debuted with Polyphonic Voices Of Georgia: The Anchiskhati Choir. Soul Jazz has expanded even further into the educational zone with books and documentaries, with the launch of Soul Jazz Films, whose first release is e the Baker-directed Mirror to the Soul: British Pathé Films in the Caribbean 1922-1970.

When it comes to the lofty end of the salvage market, Soul Jazz's only UK peers are Honest Jon's.   Born out of a legendary Portobello Road record shop that fed the goateed jazz-bo and Latin funk tastes of  West London,  Honest Jon's  was founded by Mark Ainley, with the involvement of Blur's Damon Albarn, a Ladbroke Grove resident eager to expand his musical horizons to the wide world beyond Britpop. 

The label's remit might be pegged as Black Atlantic, to use Paul Gilroy's term for the criss-crossing web of musical influences that run between Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, the American South, and the U.K. (Gilroy, as it happens, introduced Mirror to the Soul's premiere at the BFI’s monthly African Odysseys programme in the autumn on 2012). Hence Honest Jon's compilations like the London Is the Place For Me series (reggae and calypso made by West Indian immigrants shortly after their arrival in Fifties Britain) or Africa Boogaloo, which explores "the Latinization of West Africa".

Numero Group and reissuing as edification and preservation 

Like Soul Jazz, Numero have moved into doing actual books,  like Light On The South Side, a 132 page hardback full of photographs of mid-Seventies Chicago nightlife (clubs with names like Perv's House!) plus two vinyl platters of music.  Ken Shipley describes it as "a reference work"

 Paralleling the activities of labels like Strut, Analog Africa, and Soundway, the Numero Group series Cult Cargo looks at what happened when American pop impacted foreign cultures:  "the collision of native styles, especially Caribbean ones, with the influence of soul or funk or psychedelia.  James Brown landed on every shore and Motown was everywhere, and this seeded local versions all over the world." Wayfaring Strangers is defined both in terms of genre (its remit is folky Americana: "John Fahey apostles , singer-songwriters inspired by Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen") and means-of-production, scooping up the outstanding songs from "privately pressed albums that came out in editions anywhere from one hundred to five hundred copies." 


Numero Group's Eccentric Soul series
When I listen to Eccentric Soul volumes like Smart's Palace, the passion, professionalism and sheer quality assert a claim on my attention. At the same time I can't help wondering if it makes sense for someone like me to spend time on historically marginal music when I've yet to "do" Ray Charles or Sam Cooke, i.e. incontestably epochal artists in the history of  American music. Talking about the ever-expanding Eccentric Soul series, even Shipley acknowledges feeling "a bit of fatigue…   they do become variations on a theme. It's the same story: black musicians facing the same problems." The inexhaustible wellspring of black musical creativity can be…  well, exhausting.   The six hours worth of material on the Downriver Special DVD starts to feel like an imposition, or worse, a duty



The concept -- gathering up the best tracks from artists whose albums were too patchy to warrant reissue individually-- was redolent of Jaz Holzman's original concept for Nuggets--the mix-tape that has the one or two good tracks from all the patchy albums. Appropriate then, that  Rhino would later do a massive expansion of Nuggets, turning Lenny Kaye's original double LP into a 4CD box (equivalent to eight LPs), which was soon followed by a 4CD box of U.K./British Commonwealth/rest of Earth garage punk and freakbeat, and then a 4CD box of garage revivalists from the Eighties onwards.

Forming a partnership with Warner Bros (which ultimately led to them being swallowed up and the departure of both Foos and Bronson), Rhino became the market leader when it came to box sets and back catalogue repackaging, influencing other independent labels like Rykodisc to get in the game and waking up other major labels to the potential of exploiting their archives


reissue overload

One of my favorite British expressions is "gutted". Crude vernacular for emotionally devastated, "absolutely gutted, mate" is what you say when your team loses 4: nil or your spouse runs off with your best friend."  Reissue-mania made me think there's scope for a variant.  "Absolutely glutted, mate" would be the plaintive admission of the chronic music fan overwhelmed by the torrential output of new-old recordings. "


No comments:

Post a Comment