1978: Pere Ubu - Dub Housing
“That has been our one significant success to this date: we are the longest-lasting, most disastrous commercial outfit to ever appear in rock ‘n’ roll. No one can come close to matching our loss to longevity ratio.” – David Thomas
It’s a fun exercise when listening to a band to put oneself in the context of its time, but try as I might I still can’t picture what the hell people must of thought when Dub Housing came out in 1978. It was punk, but everything was skewed. The synthesizers were too dancey to be cool, the music was too weird and aggressive to be pop, and beyond anything was the absolutely booming presence of David Thomas who comes off as more opera singer than punk rocker.
That quote from Thomas above is particularly poignant, because even if it may be true, Pere Ubu are disastrous in the most grandiose way. That spirit still rings true from their peers (especially Talking Heads) in the 70s to bands now like of Montreal who make theatricality their business. That was what they did best and it reminds me every single time I put “Navvy” on and hear Thomas shouting (with a voice big enough to match his formidable size) “I HAVE DESIRE.” They embrace the disaster to the point of transcending it. Boy! That sounds swell.
2007: Planes Mistaken For Stars - We Ride To Fight! (The First Four Years)
In their time, Planes Mistaken For Stars were considered a second rate act, neither innovators nor pioneers. Nowadays, they still aren’t recognized for changing the rules of the game; in fact, I’m not sure you can qualify them as revolutionary. At the very least, they were a band that clearly marked a transition for certain artists and sounds.
Taking their cues from Rites of Spring, Heroin, and Still Life, PMFS were a frenetic, inspired bunch. Later, they would become a little heavier and straighter, but their first four years – outlined by their self titled mini-album, three EPs, and some comp tracks – are what gave them their place in the nebulous “midwestern emo” scene of the late 90s. Back then, their music was propelled by punk rock energy like they didn’t give a crap, yet had moments of vulnerability and nostalgia, voiced by the hoarse throat of Gared O’Donnell over arpeggiated chords. Take, for example, the song “The Part You Left Out,” which bangs straight ahead until the break, a calming part where the tempo remains steady, yet things get sensible without losing aggression, ready to assault the ears and nerves again. Other songs like “Somewhere in September” take the sentimentally gentler approach similar to when Rites of Spring would slow down to really hang their feelings and poetry books for everyone to see and feel along with them.
Planes Mistaken For Stars might not have had a large cult following or mainstream recognition, but they inadvertently pioneered a method of expression put to wider use by bands like Thursday, Thrice and, most recently, Touché Amoré and Pianos Become the Teeth. They plainly rocked and screamed their throats raw with powerful feelings that still resonate on the grooves of their records and those by their descendants.
2003: V/A - It’s Only Rock’N’Roll (But We Like It): A Tribute to The Rolling Stones
At some point in my life I was listening to too much Japanese pop music, and the reason I have this compilation is because it included a track by Zazen Boys, who I was obsessed with and still rep for having one of the best rhythm sections in music period. The Zazen Boys covered “Emotional Rescue,” a fitting choice as it’s one of the Stones’ sexiest hits. The rhythm section of the original is pretty damn great, but the Zazen Boys update it with a fucked up slide guitar panned hard-left and plenty of amazing drum fills.
Listening to the rest of the album is always an adventure though. Sometimes I think the initial concept for the compilation was just a dub/reggae Stones tribute. Maybe they ditched it halfway through and decided to mix in the Reggae tracks with the other ones. Maybe not. Either way, the genres are varied. Miyuki Hatakeyama opens the album with a Bossa Nova take on “Satisfaction” that still sort-of scares me, and Double Famous’ jazzy, hand-drum-flavored take on “Sympathy for the Devil” is enchanting. Choro Azul has a barebones take on “Paint It Black” with a Spanish-guitar and some light hand percussion. That’s not the only version of “Paint It Black” though. The dub version by Kazufumi is in the middle of the album and fulfills an apparent “every other song must be reggae” rule.
There are certain albums that always have a special place within your collection. This is one of mine. I hope you can find the whole thing on some filesharing site or soulseek or Amazon Japan. Sure it’s an oddly compiled collection of bizarre Japanese Stones covers, but that’s part of the allure. More importantly, there are some really great songs on this thing. It’s a perfect summertime record to accompany your light reading and Bud Light Limes.
1992: John Oswald - Plexure
Perhaps the greatest part of reading John Dos Passos’ famous U.S.A. trilogy are his sections of “Newsreel.” The author chopped printed clippings of newspaper headlines and song lyrics apart and put them back together to paint an accurate picture of a nation on the verge of collapse. The technique may have been ahead of its time, but the message was not; the 1930s were a time to be scared and the headlines carried a double meaning once rearranged. Dos Passos’ vision of a doomed world was made all the more powerful by his use of other people’s writings and lyrics. The spirit of plunderphonics, at its purest, began here.
John Oswald, who would invent that term nearly half a century after Dos Passos’ masterpiece, performed a similar technical feat in the early 90s. 1993’s Plexure, in a nutshell, consists of about 1000 artists weaved together into a piece of music that clocks in under 20 minutes; dense does not even begin to describe this exercise in speed-of-light editing.
Plexure existed outside any of the reference points expected from sample based music, in fact it doesn’t even compare that well to the earlier plunderphonic experiments. The original plunderphonics were generally treatments of a single song, and never obscured the origin of the source material. When Oswald manipulated tape in the Dolly Parton track “Pretender” in order to recreate her as a man the effect was dependent on the audience recognizing the original pop tune. From the start you can tell it’s Dolly, and that recognition makes the transformative effect all the more powerful.
Here Oswald prevented any chance of recognition by splicing these hundreds of songs into samples that rarely last more than a fraction of a second. In a 1994 interview he explained how Plexure rejects some of the basic principals of plunderphonics; the samples are not manipulated in anyway, the transmutation comes entirely by the recontextualization within the greater piece.
“If you compare with your audio microscope a small part of a second of one layer of the composition with its comparable source it sounds exactly the same. There is no distortion or noise, or electronic obfuscation. It is an electroquote.” - John Oswald
These electroquotes, when combined into the overall piece, don’t create a major conceptual thesis. Despite the massive influence Oswald has over artists such as Matmos and Oneohtrix Point Never, he never attempts to create something with the conceptual crispness of Replica or The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast. Plexure works more like Dos Passos’ books, or (if you’re looking for something a little more lowbrow) I would actually compare it to EverythingIsTerrible’s DoggieWoggiez PoochieWoochiez* in its attempt to catalog a specific point in time through its pop culture. Oswald said Plexure was inspired by the CD era that began in 1982, and pulled samples from that moment up until the year he was living in, and the patchwork he expertly sewed together expresses the incredible speed in which things began to move as the 90s began not just culturally, but technologically. Kids can do some of the things Oswald was doing in ‘92 on their fucking iPhones now – of course that wouldn’t make up for the vision with which he formed this psychotic bricolage that feels as relevant today if not more so.
* An incomprehensible 55 minutes that deserves every bit of over-the-top praise it gets. This movie takes what “Newsreel” and William S. Burroughs started with cut-up exercise, which Oswald converted into sound collage, and moves it into the realm of cinema, with stunning success. Oswald’s 1000 CDs in 20 minutes became EIT’s 1500 VHS tapes in 60.
1962: Ed Canby on Tod Dockstader
There aren’t many things stranger than hearing a recording of a dead relative’s voice. And if that recording is interspersed with peals of loony laughter weaving in between gurgles and twitters of electronic music, as absurdly preoccupied and innocent sounding as a small child… and if the voice veers between dry professorial and outright goofy, you have a strange listening experience indeed.
My Great Uncle Ed Canby presented a show on WNYC for nearly 25 years. He was also one of the core group who helped to launch the Elektra/Nonesuch label. He was dedicated to classical music, but he was also a sound fanatic, early tape music advocate, and folk-music anthropologist.
A lot of people made valuable contributions to music in the same era as Ed Canby, and they have been forgotten. The broadcast that I happened to run across is relevant to the tape music being made today though, and I found it fascinating, even without the freaky crispness of my lost uncle’s voice – hence the sharing.
So much of what fascinates Ed Canby about the way in which Tod Dockstader makes music has come to define the arch-producer and sound-geek of today. Canby sees it as a novelty that Dockstader considers himself an engineer rather than a composer. He lovingly describes the functional beauty of the boxes in which Dockstader presents his tapes. There was a particular irony in this for me in this, as Ed Canby’s house was the messiest house I’d ever seen. He would scotch tape ancient or valuable items to walls and tables. It was always comforting to know that if a thief broke in, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between junk and loot.
Another great thing about this clip is Canby’s commentary on the swells of Luna Park’s movements. For me, it really does tread the right line between learnedness and music’s more emotional and colloquial associations. It’s interesting to hear Canby responding to Dockstader’s piece as someone who remembers the old amusement park in Brooklyn – Luna Park – associating this with the music, and the strange bubbly feeling of a ‘loony’ or spontaneous emotion that it conveys. Before moving onto his theoretical deconstruction of why the music works, he makes sure to emphasize that he just plain likes it, because it gives him a thrill – like riding a rollercoaster.
Dockstader’s notes on the piece match the tone of the broadcast. He doesn’t describe his ambitions as technical and stylistic; he just says he wanted Luna Park to be “silly and sad and simple.” It’s a coincidence that the piece was named for the moon – who was actually a Miss Luna from Des Moines – a sister of the park’s founder.
I wonder what Ed Canby would make of the tape resurgence today. I had never heard of Tod Dockstader but I agreed with Ed Canby’s assessment about Luna Park. If you read Dockstader’s composer’s notes he credits the original sounds he uses on Luna Park – “laughter;” “little bells” – as if they were instruments or players on the piece. The approach doesn’t sound like the often looped or electronically finished recordings heard today – more like an arrangement for parts modeled on a traditional classical set-up. Yet the actual recordings sound completely new as if they were made yesterday. It doesn’t get more ‘Delorean’ than being awakened to music that’s forty years old but sounds new – via a relative from beyond the grave. And it says a lot that electronic music of today has rediscovered its ‘roots’ in tape music and musique concrète – music that was, unlike the song-orientated folk, the natural successor to instrumental classical music.
1989: N.Y. House’n Authority - APT.
It is generally agreed that brothers Reginald (“Rheji”) and Ronald (“Rhano”) Burrell were almost singlehandedly responsible for creating the genre known as deep house. Considering the relatively poor critical reputation of the genre today, this might seem about as interesting as noting the pioneers of happy hardcore or psytrance. However, unlike other disreputable dance genres, deep house is overdue for a critical reappraisal. It is true that the genre very quickly evolved into slick, homogenized lifestyle music of the kind that filled yuppie lounges and upmarket clothing boutiques throughout the 90s. It is true that deep house was eventually indistinguishable from other outmoded buzz-genres such as acid jazz and tribal house. In spite of all unpleasant associations, deep house in its infancy was quietly revolutionary. It was a forward-thinking minimal dance music with decentered grooves, lackadaisical jazz solos, and deeply psychedelic production. And it was Rheji and Rhano — Jersey boys with a strong background in gospel music — who defined the deep house sound with a string of releases under various guises for NYC’s legendary Nu Groove label.
Nu Groove is best known for launching the careers of Bobby Konders and Joey Beltram, but the work of the Burrell brothers accounted for the bulk of the label’s releases between 1988 and 1992. Releasing a string of 12” cuts under a variety of project names including Tech Trax Inc, Metro, Houz’Neegroz, and Avant Garde, the sound of the Burrell brothers is defined by eclecticism and experimentation, ideas that often outstripped talent and technology, but never failed to make an impression. A press release by reissue label Rush Hour defines the sound as “house music with a sepia tint,” referring to the clunky, analog instrumentation and generous quotient of tape hiss that characterize the early Burrell records.
Perhaps the finest single document of the period is a concept EP by short-lived Rheji Burrell project N.Y. House’n Authority, entitled APT. Over the course of six tracks, Burrell constructs an imaginary three-story NYC walk-up, depicting the private lives of various residents. Each track is named for an apartment number (“APT. 1A,” “APT. 3B,” etc.), titles which cleverly mirror the naming conventions of vinyl tracks. The EP both embodies and makes literal the inner-city origins of house music, evoking cramped urban spaces in which public and private spheres overlap and interact.
The EP opens with the upbeat “APT. 1A,” a hard-driving minimal groove populated by a series of sequenced moans sampled from a porno. After catching the couple in 1A in flagranti, the EP shifts into a dark, melancholic territory where it will remain. The sampled strings of “APT. 2A” give way to the tense acid of “APT. 3A” and the spooky vocal stabs of “APT. 1B.” The detuned, lopsided jazz soloing of “APT. 2B” signals the final shift toward the quintessential deep house formula, a formula which would be further perfected by Burrell labelmate Bobby Konders on classic tracks such as “The Poem.” This prototypical deep house style reaches an early apex on the EP’s gorgeous, moody finale “APT. 3B,” featuring an ersatz flute solo that should be unbearably corny, but somehow manages to transcend.
Viewed as text, APT. is a fascinating intervention in the history of art that takes The City as its subject, not as metaphor, but as disunity. This complex of competing interests only becomes The City by virtue of a geographical continuity, just as the body only becomes The Body with reference to the space in which a collection of systems interact. In practice, both The Body and The City are random assemblages of competing desires capable of spontaneously producing moments of profound self-organization: the rhythm of everyday life.