Get This!, Kraut-y

Rock Goes To Collage

The Beta Band will forever be defined by Dry The Rain, the first track on their first EP that most-famously soundtracks one of the most memorable scenes in High Fidelity. That EP, Champion Versions, introduced the band’s music at a time when dumbed-down indie rock was ubiquitous, predictable and in need of a good kick square in the haw maws. The big bang of Brit Pop had long-since fizzled to a watery fart and the Big Two led the lethargic charge towards mediocrity and meaningless. Oasis was a bloated beast, cocksure with misplaced arrogance merely by being super-popular. Their music, once a glorious melding of rabid snarl and Mersey melodies – the Sex Beatles, if y’will, was now bloated, irrelevant and plain old rubbish. Blur was midway to nowhere, somewhere between slumbering, opiate-enhanced recording sessions and making cheese whilst living in actual very big houses in the country. Others limped on to ever decreasing returns; Supergrass, Gene and Elastica, for example, who’d eventually disappear down the same black hole that had claimed Marion, Menswear and Mansun before them (although some would find their way back out now and again for one last hurrah. Watch Supergrass go in 2020.)

In 1997, music was ripe for interesting change. Radiohead led the way and The Beta Band followed close behind. Dry The Rain may well be the band’s signature tune, but it’s their second EP, The Patty Patty Sound, that does it for me. Across the four tracks that constitute The Patty Patty Sound you’ll find enough weird ‘n wonky, dubbed out, clubbed up soundscapes to sate your more out-there moods. With knowing nods towards aural sculptors Can, the greats of dub reggae, the rhythms of the Stone Roses and the folky introspection of John Martyn, it’s quite something. Given its time and place, the EP really was the in-sound from way out.

It’s the opener that does it for me.

Beta BandInner Meet Me

Inner Meet Me is a solid piece of sampled and looped acoustic beat music, a cut ‘n paste sonic collage of odds ‘n sods ‘n found sounds designed to astonish and astound. It begins simply enough, with some electric bleepery and studio static before a repeating vocal plays just behind the sound of a lone pigeon cooing its way into the mix. As you might know, The Beta Band was originally going to be called The Pigeons, and after a year or so, founding member Gordon Anderson left the band soon after they relocated to London and began recording as Lone Pigeon. In a nod to their early roots, the pigeon sample is something of a band in-joke.

When it really gets going, Inner Meet Me positively swings. Acoustic guitars are played throughout with the same sort of focused gusto normally reserved for the poor soul whose job it is is to work a Brillo pad into burnt-on mince in a two day old pot. As the chord changes, the song moves into gear. The drums kick in, accompanied by percussive shakers and what sounds like a decent set of Le Creuset pots and pans being clattered on the off-beat. As you settle into it, arcade machine electro bloops and whooshes colour the mix, a reminder that Beta Band are forward-thinking retro revisionists. No-one else was doing this kinda thing in 1998 and 20-odd years later, I still think it/they sound brand new.

The EP continues with two epic sound collages – the self-descriptive House Song that, once it’s going, kicks like a mule, carried by a really great bassline and sounding like DIY lo-fi indie house, and The Monolith, a near-16 minute folktronica jam that incorporates backwards samples from their own Dry The Rain, African chanting, chiming, cascading, waterfalling guitars and plenty of birdsong. It’s not Be Here Now, that’s for sure.

Beta Band She’s The One

Closer She’s The One is closest in sound and spirit to the opener. A scrubbed acoustic jam replete with random bursts of noise and a twangin’ Jews’ harp, it’s indie hoedown relocated from a creaky porch in the deep south to a cramped St Andrews student flat. It’s all about the layers and the rhythms. Vocals and vocals, multitracked to the max create a circular, hypnotic groove, ever propulsive, ever moving forward.

Their next EP, Los Amigos Del Beta Banditos featured more of the same, a document of a peerless band ahead of their time, out of their minds and out of this world. It’s The Patty Patty Sound though that marks The Beta Band as more than just the ‘Dry the Rain‘ band.

 

Get This!, Kraut-y

Whole Lotta Rossi

Chugga chugga chugga goes the 12 bar space age (bachelor pad) blues. In the same way a pot of your granny’s soup comes to be more than the sum of its secretive parts, the far-out music bubbles and squelches and fizzes and farts in all the right places, all gnarly, knotted wood Fender fuzz bass and pigshit-thick hairshakin’ drums. The lost half-sister of the Super Furry’s Guacamole, Stereolab‘s Heavy Denim is a heads down, no nonsense, rumbling, tumbling, Moog boogie….. and utterly fantastic.

StereloabHeavy Denim

Surfing the crest of this noo wave nonsense is an ever-spiralling Marxist call to arms, a 25 year-old lyric that could’ve been written very much for these times….

We’re not here to get bored
We are here to disrupt
To disrupt, to disrupt, to disrupt, to disrupt
To have the time of our lives

….but by the time you get to the kiss-off line you’ll very much realise that Stereolab, uber cool Anglo-French upstarts with a fascination for library music and the more outre elements of Brian Wilson’s back catalogue have ripped off Status Quo’s Caroline, lock, stock and double denimed barrel. Which makes the whole thing even more fantastic, of course.

It’s there in the 12 bar boogie…..and the gear change as the chord drops midway through the verse….and the ‘Come on sweet Caroline/Have the time of our lives‘ high melodic chorus. Status Quo’s Caroline runs through Heavy Denim like the lettering on a stick of Blackpool rock and Stereolab are guilty as charged, m’lud.

Originally released on the b-side of 1994’s Wow And Flutter EP – a ridiculously elusive 10″ to track down, and one that would have you parting with serious cash should you find a copy – Heavy Denim – surely another head-nod to the originators – has since appeared on the Oscillons From The Anti-Sun compilation, bang in the middle of disc 3 and as under-the-radar as the band might’ve hoped for. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. And everyone knows that the early Quo is where it’s at – not the really early hippy shit Quo, but the heads down, no nonsense mid 70’s three chord boogie Quo.

Francis Rossi! Parfitt Estate! If you’re reading, I’d be contacting a lawyer tout de suite.

I jest, Stereloab. When the world went lad rock and Beatles-bore crazy, you turned your attentions to the kosmische sounds of mid 70’s East Germany, and for that I owe you. Through your music I discovered the other-worldly meanderings of Can and Neu! I was made aware of the high majesty of the High Llamas and I marvelled as you rocked The Word playing a single that had already been deleted by the time I’d ping-ponged my way down to Our Price the very next day. Pretentious and obtuse, you plough a distinctly groovy furrow. Long may you run (and continue to lift from the unlikeliest of sources.)

 

Get This!, Kraut-y, New! Now!

Symmetry Gates

It’s not quite Hallowe’en yet, Brexit has been given some sort of stay of execution and the tapers have yet to be lit at arm’s length on yer roman candles and squibs and firecrackers, yet magazine feature editors employed by the more switched-on music publications will already be compiling their Best Of 2019 lists. While it’s far too early for me to think of such things, a prime contender will surely be Incidental Music by camera-shy Mancunians W.H. Lung.

I’ve written about the band a couple of times before, from their debut offering being whizzed in the direction of Plain Or Pan via email, to the debut album released without fanfare or fuss in April. Back then I was taken by its clattering juxtaposition of LCD Soundsystem mid-paced grooviness and clean, chiming Public Service Broadcasting guitars. These days, it still sounds fantastic…even better, to be truthful. Best heard as a whole, Incidental Music ebbs and flows and dives and soars in the way all great albums do. That it was hatched in Manchester will only cement its status as a future classic. It sits perfectly well in a lineage that includes Unknown Pleasures, Power, Corruption And Lies and Bummed, a trio of electronically-treated albums that rocked at the core. If it fails to make the upper echelons of those much pored-over lists come Christmas time, I’ll eat my original copy of PC&L in protest. You can hold me to that.

In the unassuming way that W.H. Lung do, I arrived home from work today to an email from the band. Would I make a feature of their new track, they wanted to know. Before I had my jacket off, the familiar whooshing, metallic guitars and linear groove were spilling their tiny, tinny guts from my phone. Music on a phone sounds totally rubbish, as you know already, so it was soon booming from the speakers wired up to my PC; a fantastic, skyscraping and soaring metallic clatter totally in keeping with the album material but, more importantly for Lung-watchers, a new track.

Snippets of lyrics sung by a falsetto voice with a social conscience unravelled and revealed themselves over repeated plays in the troughs between the peaks in the propulsive soundtrack. “A body curled around a lamp-post like a cigarette in light rain….Daddy, why is there a man asleep there? Should I wake him?” And was that something too about Alan Turing, WWII code cracker and thorn in the government’s side? Turns out it was.

As singer Joseph E explains, “There’s a statue of Alan Turing in a small park just off canal street in Manchester city centre. The statue has always struck me as odd, the face is quite childishly done and Turing seems to be offering his fruit to passers-by. People often sit with him and take pictures. The park is also regularly attended by the homeless community of Manchester, as visible a presence on the streets now as the statues of the great and famous.”

In a nod to the city’s homelessness problem, the band will donate all profits from the sale of the single to Mustard Tree and Booth Centre, two local charities dedicated to the issue of homelessness in the city.

If you like the track above, use it as your gateway to the wonder of W.H. Lung. Buy the track and help the homeless. Buy the album and help the band. Go and see them on tour in November. And look out for Incidental Music topping those Best Of The Year polls come Christmas time. Amazingly, you read it here first.

 

Tour Dates:
22/11 – Riverside, Newcastle
23/11 – Moles, Bath
24/11 – Patterns, Brighton
25/11 – Rich Mix, London
26/11 – Academy 3, Manchester

Get This!, Kraut-y

Electra Glide In Blue

Back in the mid 70s I was kept awake by the sound of the machinery that was thumping and bumping together the bypass that, 40 years later, continues to act as an artery between north and south Ayrshire. Despite my shut windows and curtains, I could hear the rumbles of heavy plant, as loud as it might have been had they been digging up our front garden and, if I lifted my head from the pillow, I could see between the gaps and swirls in the curtains a faint orange glow from half a mile in the distance, on the other side of the River Annick, beyond the field where the helicopter would land in a couple of years time in its vain search for the still-missing Sandy Davidson. They were building something  – a new road, my Dad had told me – and it was keeping me awake. The work seemed to last forever and, given the pace of work wherever roadworks and the likes are concerned, it probably did, but I can also remember hearing the distant whoosh of traffic afterwards, when the road was complete and commuters went about their business in a faster and straighter fashion than before. We lived on the outskirts of the town. The sound of speeding traffic was a new thing, but you got used to it fairly quickly.

At the same time, somewhere beyond Ayrshire, far beyond the musical and literal backwaters of the UK, a brave new world was opening up. In West Germany’s Dusseldorf, Kraftwerk was barely 4 years old yet they were pioneering the sort of music that would influence a whole raft of acts in the way The Beatles had a decade previously. Embracing the future with Minimoogs, ARP synths and home-made electronic drums, they set about reconstructing their sound. Their fourth album, 1974’s Autobahn, album was the result. A five track LP that featured the 22 minute title track on the entirety of the first side, it was quite unlike anything that had come before it. Listening to it currently, you can hear where Bowie nicked ideas for the second side of Low. You can ‘feel’ the embryonic glow of Joy Division’s glacial isolation. And you can begin to appreciate the unique importance of it.

Autobahn, the title track, is terrific; futuristic and ground-breaking and happy and sad all at once. Opening with the clunk of a closing door, a revving engine and a parping keyboard, its modus operandi is to replicate the monotony of a long car journey on the motorway.

KraftwerkAutobahn (single eversion)

Elastic bass vies with vocodered vocal. Fahren, Fahren, Fahren auf der Autobahn, it goes, in a knowing, sarcastic nod to the sun, sun , sun, fun, fun, fun Beach Boys. Drive, drive, drive on the autobahn. There’s nothing fun about driving in a straight line for hours on end though, and Kraftwerk knows it. Propulsive, linear and never-ending, the entire 22 minutes (or 3 and a bit above) is driven purposefully by a pulsing electro bass and the same steam-powered drums that Stephen Morris would go on to replicate to great effect a few short years later on Unknown PleasuresShe’s Lost Control. Stop for a moment and consider just how influential Stephen Morris’s band was. Without Kraftwerk, it’s arguable whether Joy Division would’ve sounded quite as they did. No Kraftwerk, no JD, no post-punk discipline as we know it. Autobahn is, then, an important record.

That chiming keyboard motif, melodic yet melancholic, synthesised yet soulful is the tune that quietly worms its way into your head. Driving Kraftwerk forward into a new future where they’d eventually be considered kings, Autobahn endures to this day. Those unexpected airy whooshes – motorcars by Moog – that punctuate the repetitiveness transport me straight back to that bedroom in the mid 70s, the unforgiving sounds of Vauxhall Victors and Ford Cortinas keeping me half awake for hours at a time.

Get This!, Kraut-y

Travel Agents

I met Charlie Burchill once. Tiny and comically round, he looked like a pantomime pirate who was missing his beard; the tight black jeans, pointy boots and dazzling white blousy shirt that probably cost more than my monthly mortgage repayment brought to mind Captain Pugwash on shore leave. While my 5ft 8″ towered over him I was instantly enlightened as to why that white Gretsch Falcon he was fond of playing in those Simple Minds videos always looked ridiculously over-sized on him.

I’m being a wee bit cruel though; Charlie was very smiley, extremely chatty and, in the same way that he and Jim Kerr had moments earlier been gushing over the Roxy and Bowie 7″s that filled the Wurlitzer we happened to be leaning against, he listened enthusiastically to my stories of how Simple Minds had played a major part in my formative years.

I came to Simple Minds around the time of Glittering Prize and Promised You A Miracle – the New Gold Dream album is an incredibly-produced LP – stick it on at some point and lose yourself in the textures – and while it was Don’t You Forget About Me that brought them to the attention of my mum and the rest of the world, it was I Travel that melted my mind to the possibilities of music.

By the time I’d first heard I Travel, the band had just played Live Aid and were chronologically closer to Belfast Child, Mandela Day, Biko and the posturing, political pap that disenfranchised an entire generation of fans who’d been by the band’s side since the days of the Mars Bar in Glasgow, the knowing Chelsea Girl single and the Empires And Dance album. The New Gold Dream album though had me scampering backwards to see what else the band had done, and it was on a scratched copy of Empires And Dance from Irvine library that I first encountered I Travel. Listening to it as I type, I’m still waiting on a skip that doesn’t happen. Europe has a lang….oblem. It’s funny how music lodges in your head like that, eh?

I Travel was the first track on that album and signalled a brave new direction for the band. Its clattering, steam-powered industrial funk is propulsive, futuristic (still) and highly infectious. It’s the sound of industrial Victorian Glasgow breaking free of its chains, the sound of the shipyard welders’ blow torches set to scorch, the sound of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love as played by art punks from the south side of Glasgow.

Simple Minds I Travel (extended)

I have two copies of I Travel. There’s the original, 12″ version, bought on a rare outing to the Virgin Megastore on Union Street, back in the days when folk still smoked behind the counter and you darenae go up the stairs to the second floor on account of all the scary-looking punks and their brothel creepers blocking the way. I also have a reissued 7″ found whilst rummaging through a box of Gene Pitney and Sonia 7″s in a Lake District charity shop. I was scared to leave it there, unsure of what fate would befall it should I put it back. The 12″ is a well-played piece of vinyl. It was often the soundtrack to drunken teenage stupidity, stuck on at filling-loosening volume as soon as someone’s parents had reversed out the drive for a week in Wales. It’s a great record.

How did they write it? It’s not a guitar tune in the traditional sense. You won’t find the chords on your favourite tab site. Wee Charlie adds occasional textures here and there, and there’s a fantastic blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Nile Rodgers-esque flourish midway through, but the song’s genesis must lie somewhere between Derek Forbes’ groovy never-ending bass, the sequenced synths and that head-nodding, rattling rhythm. Imagine being there while the band jammed it, working all its nuances out?! Played live, it’s a cracker;

With the benefit of acquired musical knowledge, it’s clear that Simple Minds had been listening to the right sort of European records. Kerr’s baritone echoes the more esoteric moments from Bowie’s Berlin phase and he sings of culture; decadence and pleasure towns, tragedies, luxuries, statues, parks, galleries. He might even be singing of Glasgow – the lyric certainly ticks all of that subject matter.

Strip everything else away – the 8 note keyboard motif, Burchill’s splashes of colour and Jim Kerr’s vocal and you have a record that sounds like its made by machines with soul. A bit like Kraftwerk, I suppose. In fact, if it popped up vocal-free on 6 Music tomorrow, you could be forgiven for assuming its retro-futurism was the latest Underworld release.

Expertly glued together by John Leckie, I Travel hints at a group of musicians growing into themselves. Hindsight shows that Simple Minds went on something of an imperial run around this time. Imagine if I’d never looked back and instead fell for the stadium shows and the hey hey hey heys. There’s an axis-turning thought.

Gone but not forgotten, Kraut-y, Peel Sessions

Kurious-ah and Kurious-ah

Dead Beat Descendant by The Fall was the first track of theirs that really piqued my interest. Until then, I’d pegged Mark E Smith’s rattling racket as irritating and annoying, the atonal sound of Regal-stained fingers slowly scraping their way down a blackboard. When it popped up in the middle of an episode of Snub TV, Dead Beat Descendant had me hooked.

It wasn’t just the stinging garage band guitar riff, played on a Rickenbacker by a sulky, peroxide shock-wigged Brix that pulled me in, or the gnarly, relentless and repetitive Stray Cats meets Stooges bass, or the occasional daft parp of a one-fingered keyboard, or the metronomic tribal tub thumping that held the whole thing in place that got me – it was the group’s leader that grabbed me by the short ‘n curlies and demanded my attention. That, and the ballet dancer. I’d heard The Fall, but I’d never seen The Fall. And that was apparently important.

Lead singer Mark E Smith of English post-punk band The Fall photographed with Scottish dancer and choreographer Michael Clark during their “I Am Curious, Orange” collaboration, 1988.

Smith is hunched over his microphone and ready to spring, the German army-issued leather greatcoat he’s wearing letting all present know who’s in charge. “Come back here!” he demands with barely under the surface menace. The omnipresent smouldering fag, more ash than cigarette, is lodged at a downwards 30 degree angle between his fingers as he delivers the vocal, a lip-curled sneer the equal of a Mancunian Gene Vincent. Between lines he delivers terrific little off-beat Supreme handclaps and chews on an invisible glob of gum whilst staring his musicians down, lest they consider veering from his well-chosen path. Maybe that’s where the “Come back here!” line comes from. The band, as slick as the gears in a Victorian workhouse, are in tune with their leader and dutifully do what’s demanded of them.

Well, stone me! It turns out there was no German army greatcoat after all. Or a shock-wigged Brix. Or long-burning Regal King-Sized ‘tween the digits. It’s funny how your 30 year-old version of events turns fiction into reality. And it’s funny how, as it turns out, it’s the music that endures rather than the vision. Those hand claps, though… And the told-you-so smug grin on Mark’s face at the end. They were real.

It’s a great clip mind you. The ballet dancer (the awkward piece of the Mark/Brix split jigsaw, if you believe what you read online) pirouettes obliviously around the studio in the middle of the racket, in practise for her stint on stage with The Fall as they prepare to provide the musical backdrop to Michael Clark’s I Am Curious, Orange ballet at the Edinburgh Festival.

American guitarist Brix Smith, of rock group The Fall, poses on a giant hamburger from the set of the ballet ‘I Am Kurious Oranj’, performed by Michael Clark and Company, with music by The Fall at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 20th August 1988. (Photo by Kevin Cummins/Getty Images)

A weird pairing, it’s certainly something that’d have been worth seeing, with Brix sitting cross-legged atop a giant hamburger while Mark prowls betwixt and between the ballet dancers, spitting venom about King Billy and barking out Cab It Up and Wrong Place, Right Time amongst others. I Am Kurious Oranj isn’t the top of the list of critics’ favourite Fall albums, but it’s right up there alongside Extricate on mine.

Here’s 2 contemporary Peel Sessions versions of future Kurious Oranj tracks.

The FallDead Beat Descendant (Peel Session, 31.10.88)

The FallKurious Oranj (Peel Session 31.10.88)

 

 

Gone but not forgotten, Kraut-y

Can Can

If anyone can do long, meandering self-indulgence, Can can. For a while there it was almost de rigeur for bands to name drop them ahead of a new release. The very mention of the Germans being an influence would appear to somehow validate that band’s own music, which is nonsense, of course. For what it’s worth, I can take them more than I can leave them. When they’re good, they’re great. They soar with a fluidity and ease that’s quite extraordinary; Mother Sky, Halleluhwah, Vitamin C, Dizzy Dizzy, Soup….all feature the classic Can trademarks of skittering drums, repetitiveness, whispered chanting and weird background effects.  

The problem for me starts when those background effects creep ever further forward into the foreground of the mix. Sometimes, they can be just a wee bit too out there, just a tad too hippy, just a bass solo short of full-on prog for my delicate palate. I like Can best when they’re fluid and groovy and forever on the verge of danceability…..

….Flow Motion for example.

CanFlow Motion

It’s classic, groovy, mid 70s Can. Beyond 10 minutes long, the groove slinks slower than a tranquilised slug traversing a large leaf. Indeed, tectonic plates have more go about them than the track. Yet somehow, somewhere around the 4 minute mark it starts to take effect.

Sneaking in on a cod reggae rhythm, Flow Motion is slow motion. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but when it’s finished you’ll realise that’s the whole point. Other bands might’ve used the same aimless wandering as incidental music, the perfect between-track filler on a concept album maybe, or the ideal opener before the wham of the real opening number. Can stick to the tune and streeeeeetch it out.

The whole thing is held together brilliantly by the rhythm section. Holger Czukay’s repetitive bassline is sparse, yet non-stop. Jaki Liebezeit’s propulsive drums skitter underneath, somewhere between a Studio 1 sessioneer and a jazz club veteran. Irmin Schmidt’s keyboards weave in and out, coming in waves before disappearing and reappearing at key points. Michael Karoli has free reign on his heavily wah-wah’d electric guitar, adding texture rather than tune, feedback instead of fretplay. He’s all over it, snaking between his bandmates like an avante garde Hendrix. Even a blind man could join the dots between this and Captain Beefheart’s Clear Spot album before arriving at PiL’s Albatross.

Flow Motion is the last track on the album of the same name. The album opener I Want More was an actual, bona fide chart hit for the band, Top Of The Pops appearance ‘n all.

CanI Want More

The young Johnny Marr recalls a time being in the back of the family car, driving to Wales for a holiday, listening to I Want More on the radio. When he was writing How Soon Is Now, the sticky fingered Johnny channelled the rhythm and feel of Can’s hit for his own means. I’m sure you knew that already though.

It’s a strange album, is Flow Motion. On release, fans hated the numerous nods to disco and reggae, lamenting the loss of the ambience that made albums such as Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days so special. Listening to it as I type, I’d suggest it’s better than it may have been given credit for. Of course, I was only 6 when it was released, so I come to the album from a different time and place. That last track though……s’a cracker. Everyone agrees on that.