1995: Pink Industry - New Naked Technology
Putting aside the machine/human merging theories, one intuitive explanation for our embrace of the early 80s era of electronic impressionism is that many musicians making electronic music these days emerged out of that womb and are retreating into nostalgia as their third decade approaches (or disappears).
But for a compilation of their 80s electronica that is musically fuzzy around the edges, Pink Industry’s New Naked Technology deals with pain rather than some sort of womblike pleasure. You don’t have to listen to many of the lyrics to figure out that this is an S&M album from the point of view of the masochist. It makes me wonder if our nostalgia for this era is a little misguided. Are our musical memories as self-centred as all children’s are? We want to know that everything was ‘Okay’ when we were brought into the world; so 80s electronic music is often wrapped in a veil of mystic sentimentality.
That makes it difficult to truly measure the worth of the 80s output of Pink Industry. Part of me finds it easy to get lost in the seven veils of synths, but I also wonder if I’m reveling in a sound that I only understand through the lens of nostalgia. Rather than vibing on the seediness as Nite Jewel might do, this really is seedy. The murky keyboards and industrial beats are not present because we liked the sound of them, but because Pink Industry seemed to be advertising themselves as frequenters of ugly decadent goth scenes.
Then along comes a song like “What I Wouldn’t Give”, a bleak, yet comforting mantra painted in obscured woodwind sounds and other textures pleasing to the this-wave/that-wave inclined ear. “That’s more like it,” you think, lulled by its similarity to the sophisticated nostalgia of today. The presence of these familiar signifiers of detachment and chill makes Jayne Casey’s awkwardly expressed anguish fade into the amniotic, soothing background.
Pink Industry was a big departure in sound from Jayne Casey’s earlier punkier bands – Pink Military and Big in Japan – and the decision to make a veiled, shapeless sort of music speaks volumes. At the heart of the album is a sense of the disintegration of the will – the dissolution of personality that occurs when we place ourselves in someone else’s power, or succumb to addiction. It’s also one of those 80s albums that seemed to be made for the velvety speakers of the future, optimistically looking to technology to enhance the intimacy between the listener and musician. So it ends up being another one of those not brilliant, but oddly compelling albums that our past underground scenes have left us for posterity. But whatever Casey is intimately confessing about those heady nights, it’s much more like the zitty, grainy 80s of the past than the pleasant soft-focus 80s of the present.
1988: Steve Reich - Different Trains
Dan Deacon’s recent album America ended with the lengthy title suite, reportedly inspired by his experiences travelling cross country on trains. Back in the late 80s Steve Reich also drew inspiration from cross country trips on trains, to create a fascinating piece of music constructed mainly from samples of people speaking. The original version, done in 1988, featured The Kronos Quartet playing along with the sampled voices.
The piece is often described as having been inspired by Reich’s youth, traveling the long cross country distance between his two separated parents, and the realization that during the same period Jewish kids his own age were being shipped in Holocaust trains. It is split into three sections that represent Pre-war America, war-torn Europe, and finally a post-war Earth. It’s a heavy concept, but one that Reich delivers on with a tremendous amount of care and innovation when you consider his use of sampling. Different Trains went on to win a Grammy, though I doubt anyone, especially Reich, really cared about that.
1989 - 2012: Suzanne Langille & Loren Connors - “Blue Ghost Blues” (“Haunted House”)
By any measure, I’m no blues scholar. I’m no connoisseur of the blues. When I first picked up a guitar, my dad taught me the scales. It’s only been in the last month or two, about two decades later, that I’ve started running through them again. So maybe I’m not the best person to write about the blues. But I can’t shake this song, “Haunted House,” and its recent transformation(s) by Suzanne Langille and Loren Connors.
The available information surrounding “Haunted House” is scant. The song is, at least in part, an amalgam of verses from “Blue Ghost Blues” (1927, 1938) and “Lonesome Ghost Blues” (1927), both songs pre-dating “Haunted House” by decades. Regarding the biography of the songwriter, Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson, I kindly direct you elsewhere. Without going too far off course, suffice it to say that his influence is still felt. “[His] early recordings are the first guitar recordings that display a single-note soloing style with use of string bending and vibrato,” that is, he originated the guitar solo.
One can make guesses as to the origins of the content of songs, but sometimes one is left, simply, to drift through them, and know the song as it gives itself – again and again, listen after listen. In my opinion, “Haunted House,” in the hands of Langille and Connors, is a gorgeous, and yes, haunting song in all of its recorded iterations. In an email, Suzanne Langille wrote, “I think Lonnie Johnson’s ‘Blue Ghost Blues’ is the greatest love song ever written. It’s about a love – and a need to protect – that transcends death. I believe in it.” She continued, “Loren introduced me to the song, which had been introduced to him by our good friend Robert Crotty, a blues musician from Hamden who passed away not too long ago. It was the truest thing I had ever heard. No other song comes close.” She concluded, “When our band was first coming together, after a couple performances of it, we decided to call our band Haunted House and the song ‘Blue Ghost Blues.’”
Although three of the four recordings of “Haunted House” are performed by the full band, the very first and most “simple” rendition is by Langille and Connors alone, together, at the end of Connor’s 1989 album In Pittsburgh. It may take a few listens to hear the ways in which the voice and guitar sing to each other. The song is slow like a crawl, and is as lonesome as it is lovely. One guitar plays a simple rhythm throughout, as though creating a space in which Langille and Connors can inhabit and explore, both as ghosts, both as lovers. There are moments in this rendition more convincing, and moving, than in most songs I’ve heard: the drawl of time, I’ve been in this haunted house/ six long months today; the solo after the black cat’s sympathy; when Langille sings the grip of the ghost around her, and the spoken words of the dead lover, the whispered “I love you”; the way Connor’s guitar drops, and drops, throughout the song until, by the end, it’s nothing but a pick scratching against the strings.
The next recording of “Haunted House” (hereafter, “Blue Ghost Blues”) would come one decade later, in 1999, on Haunted House’s live album, Up In Flames. The crawl had been stretched out from 6 and a half minutes to 23 minutes. The voice isn’t first heard until well after the eight-minute mark; in the meantime, throughout the opening minutes (if the voice’s entrance can be said to initiate the song) were experimental electric guitar improvisations typical of Connor’s work during the 90’s: minor and foreboding. At the nine-minute mark, nearly everything drops out but Langille’s voice. An underlying, low, discordant, and distorted thump carries it forward, and Connor’s guitar wanders, strangely, around the words being spoken and sung. More forcefully than before, Langille almost yells that the “blue ghost got [her] house surrounded/and [she] can’t get away,” and that’s exactly what this version sounds like: the storm surrounding the house, the house surrounding the storm, the ghost and the lover intertwining in the terror and promise of their mutual alienation and affection. This time around, Connor’s guitar drops into a fury of noise, and the song is carried out, held captive, within it.
The next year, Haunted House would release an EP (collected on Night Through) containing a second live recording of “Blue Ghost Blues.” Although it is much shorter than the version on Up In Flames, it is nonetheless quite similar, only distinguishing itself in intensity: between loud and quiet, between fury and silence, between body and specter. The house-shape is more clearly articulated in the almost empty space Langille’s voice inhabits, and Connor’s guitar soars and swirls around the body, bringing to mind Mr. Lockwood’s encounter in Wuthering Heights: “I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in – let me in!’”
In 2011, over two decades after the first recording, Haunted House released Blue Ghost Blues, containing their fourth, and latest, recording of “Blue Ghost Blues.” If I may let my own voice fade away for a bit so that you might finally listen for yourself…
Suzanne concluded her email: “We did yet another version and vibe of it at the Haunted House performance at Roulette this year. I don’t know if the recording came out okay. I’ll find out this weekend.”
1972: Deep Purple - “Space Truckin’”
Deep Purple were so much more than “Smoke on the Water.” They were a hard rock band with an organ that often was heavier than the guitar, they incorporated classical music motifs while singing about racing cars in space, and their drummer owed more to Buddy Rich than anyone else. They were so much of their time that, in theory, they should sound like the most dated band in the world. This is not the case at all.
The genius of Deep Purple relies on their pomposity, although not in the way most people have assumed. Yes, they were overblown and quite pretentious; but what makes them amazing is that they were all that while remaining true to rock n’ roll in terms of excitement. They could make a ten minute song sound as incendiary as a two and a half minute punk song.
Take something like the live version of “Space Truckin’.” It’s filled with complicated passages and arrangements but it’s never less than a bulldozer blazing down the highway. They used their musicianship to make music of the most intense order. Stretching the song past ten minutes, it eventually seem like the Earth is being ripped in half while you keep headbanging.
It’s the essence of metal: challenging music played in a brutal way that makes your body react. That’s why they, along with Black Sabbath, are the undisputed fathers of the form. Deep Purple went a step ahead and made low cultured baroque music as exciting as the most sophisticated and avant garde styles in rock, and they still feel timeless nowadays.
1983: Virginia Astley - From Gardens Where We Feel Secure
Virginia Astley was born into a musical family, the daughter of a commercial composer who had written the memorable theme songs to British television shows The Saint and Dangerman. She began studying piano at the age of six, and flute at the age of 14. As a young music school student, she joined post-punk group Victims of Pleasure as keyboardist, and performed as session player on more than a few albums of the period. As a solo artist, she contributed background music to the epochal Les Disques Du Crépuscule compilation The Fruit Of The Original Sin. She eventually formed her own group, The Ravishing Beauties, who were tapped for a highly prized opening slot for The Teardrop Explodes.
Astley’s first solo release was a beguilingly strange 10” EP entitled A Bao A Qu (named in tribute to a mythical creature invented by Borges), released on the tiny Why Fi imprint in 1982. Songs such as “We Will Meet Them Again” and “Sanctus” are early indications of Astley’s unique aesthetic, an application of traditional English pastoral and liturgical motifs to minimal wave chamber pop. An atmosphere of wistfulness and nostalgia permeates all of Virginia Astley’s early recordings, a complex longing for a particular way of life now irretrievably lost. This isn’t quite the pagan royalism of mythical Albion that became a focal point for the Wicker Man-era 1960s British folk revival (and the subsequent re-revival in the form of apocalyptic folk), but something far more parochial, abstract, and personal.
The style reached its full expression on Virginia’s masterpiece From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, released in 1983 on Astley’s own Happy Valley Records imprint, a subsidiary of Rough Trade established specifically for the release of the album. Divided into two movements, “Morning” and “Afternoon,” Gardens broke decisively from the electronic pop of Astley’s early recordings, eschewing vocals and pop structure almost entirely in favor of abstractly decorative works of pastoral neoclassicism. At times Astley gestures towards the ambient drift of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, perhaps an unavoidable comparison for instrumental music of this period, but her command of melody and harmony keep one foot firmly grounded in tradition.
A series of looped field recordings — birdsong, village church bells, the gentle baaing of sheep, the squeaks and scrapes of gardening implements — lend the music an electroacoustic dimension, creating a uniquely mimetic counterpoint to the baroque sensibilities of Astley’s compositions. From The KLF’s Chill Out to Boards Of Canada’s In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country, British artists have often returned to this same wellspring of pastoral nostalgia, though Astley’s take has a certain ambiguity all its own.
Following the abstract detour of Gardens, Virginia Astley returned to making electronic pop and continued to record and release music throughout the 80s and 90s, but largely failed to find a discernible audience outside of an insular cult following based largely in Japan. She gently faded into quasi-obscurity over the ensuing decades. Gardens was reissued by Rough Trade in 2003, perhaps in a bid to focus critical attention upon an overlooked masterpiece, but the label may have been a few years too early to make the right kind of impact. A scant year later, Ghost Box began releasing music by a small group of artists focused on (re-)creating an imaginary collective past inexorably tied to British provincialism and a fraught relationship with nostalgia. The music of Belbury Poly in particular seems to slot in nicely with Virginia Astley’s hallucinatory waking dreams of an English village and the security promised by a benevolent social order.
Though it does not appear Astley had much interest in drawing explicit references to trad folk, library music, or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, her lightweight instrumentals have a certain appealing kind of neoclassical blandness that makes them feel hauntingly familiar, perhaps a residue of her background in commercial composing. Almost 30 years later, From Gardens Where We Feel Secure still manages to insinuate itself into the unconscious with an eerie congeniality, promising sepia-toned nostalgia but delivering something irrevocably strange and ambivalent, a nagging sensation in the corner of one’s memory, a perfect English garden disturbed by the presence of ghosts.
1979: The Pop Group - Y
“It had everything that I thought rock and roll should have. It was violent, paranoid music for a violent, paranoid time.” – Nick Cave on The Pop Group
Cough, the sophomore (and sadly, last) album by the DC outfit Black Eyes, was one of those albums that made all other music seem dopey — and while the effect is always temporary, in this case the feeling lasted for weeks. It was 2004 and dance-punk was riding a wave of popularity that was just reaching its crest. The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” was played at every party, often signaling the point where things got real. Though, despite how good that song is — and it is fantastic — Cough just made it seem thin and gaudy, like so much paper streamer.
It’s not even like the Rapture and co. and Black Eyes were shooting for the same target. The former were interested in packing dance floors while the latter was more on an art-damaged vision quest. Though here’s the thing: Black Eyes could focus on outré experimentation but still create high-energy, funky tracks that felt just as immediate and fun as anything on DFA. It made it seem, if only for a second, like everyone else was reaching for low-hanging fruit. I imagine this is what it was like to hear The Pop Group in 1979.
The group was headed up by Mark Stewart and Gareth Sager, both young students from the southern city of Bristol. Prodded by the same frustrations that stoked the fires of many of the era’s three-chord punk bands, The Pop Group had the same energy and anger as any of its colleagues. Though the group’s debut, a dub-infused, angular monster called Y, has a level of musical inventiveness and general chutzpah that makes it one of early post-punk’s finest moments.
You can hear it right from the first track. “She is Beyond Good an Evil” is built on liquid bass and a jagged guitar that stutters and explodes over and over. Each would be be engaging on their own, but their combination, along with Stewart’s atavistic howl, creates a song that keeps hinting at disco but intentionally holds such accessibility at a distance. The same goes for the following track “Thief of Fire” — there are moments where you can hear a glimmer of straight-forward angular post-punk, but instead of vamping on it, the band has the track melt into a free-jazz sax slog.
Elsewhere, the album delves more into the tropes of no-wave. Rather than delivering melodic aggression like fellow Bristol punk acts The Cortinas and The Agents, the band opts for long abstract dirges filled with aimless dissonance and skronk horns with tracks like “Don’t Call Me Pain.” The longest track, “We Are Time,” has more in common with the layered guitar work of Glenn Branca than anyone else.
What’s impressive about all of this isn’t so much The Pop Group’s decision to slouch toward deconstruction over delivering an overt message. Y isn’t just an album of angry anthems designed as red meat for the young and disaffected — though, through all the willful sonic antagonism it still works like one. And that’s what’s impressive.