November 23, 2007
As a little kid I already wondered why the music I liked most - be it wild 50s rock 'n roll or mid-60s Kinks/Who-type stuff - seemed to have bloomed for a very short period, to be quickly discarded and replaced by more boring stuff. In contrast, the boring stuff (disco, barroom boogie rock) never ever seemed to go away. Later I found out this holds true for just about any musical genre I like: ska, psych, garage, rockabilly, bebop, even early New Orleans jazz: all disappeared after 1 or 2 years in the limelight. Why? Maybe these were all particularly combustible musical forms that appeared at moments of big social change so the music had to change with it.
But invariably, after some 15-20 years, these styles would all get "revived". Is that good, or bad? You can blame the revivalists for living in the past, but does that mean any boogie rock band playing music that never went away is better? The problem is, of course, that you can imitate what's on the surface but you can never duplicate the feelings and times that caused the music to sound like it did.
Somehow with Punk Rock there's a little twist in the tale. It never disappeared because it was never mainstream in the first place. Instead, it kept on mutating and branching off, all these little branches spawning their own little revivals every couple of years. One piece of bark off the punk tree didn't lend itself to reviving, though: those weird, squeaky, Beefheartian pieces of noise that labels like Rough Trade released around 1978-80. In New York they called it No Wave, though some critics preferred the word Skronk which I like too as it sounds like a blast from James Chance or Ted (Blurt) Milton's sax. These records, by bands like Essential Logic, Lemon Kittens, Slits, Blurt and many more, sounded like a bunch of kids were let loose in a toy shop; that's because these bands were kids let loose in a toy shop; DIY was in its infancy and for a while there were no rules. I guess that's why, after the little kids themselves grew up and learned to play properly, nobody could ever "revive" this kind of music.
The catchy named PragVEC, though very much part of that Rough Trade/Post Punk scene, were odd ducks in a way because on their EP you can hear they already knew how to play properly; the guitar squeaks and skronks with the best of them, but there's always this foundation of bluesy fluidity underneath. Susan Gogan's great vocals veer in all directions, from soft to loud to distorted, but always in control; guess that's why she got compared to Pauline Murray of Penetration a lot (Virgin passed them up using that as an excuse). Then there's the mock-French in "Existential", showing they knew their Beatnik roots. I don't know much more about PragVEC, except that their second 7 inch is pretty good too, though a bit more "poppy". Oh yeah, and the famous Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell played bass for them later on. An old NME piece on PragVEC says they rose from the ashes of "Trotskyite R&B combo the Derelicts". Trotskyite R&B? Now that explains it all!
(Actually, come to think of it, there actually was a revival of sorts of this type of music in the late 80s, with UK bands like Dog Faced Hermans, Badgewearer and Stretchheads, bands that I thought were much more exciting than their recycled-USHC peers of the time.)
November 07, 2007
In my earliest days as a punk rocker I had a pretty broad taste; I enjoyed bands like the Jam, Au Pairs, Comsat Angels as much as the more "hardknor" stuff. But then, around 1981 there wasn't a strict dividing line yet; in fact, some "new-wavey" records, like for instance the Jam's great Funeral Pyre, packed more punch than some of the standard-issue punk of the day. One year later, this had changed irreparably; while American Hardcore took over the fasterlouder camp, most of the cool bands on the other side either broke up (Jam), went disco (Gang of Four) or went Top 40 without really changing but were of course verboten from then on anyway (U2). The watershed moment for me was when I read about a new band some ex-Au Pairs members had formed, called Apple on the Drum. Apple on the Drum! You think I'm going to scribble that on my jacket? To make things worse, they said their music was "really funky". Really funky, eh? Well, have a nice life! It was this New Wimpiness that made my subsequent immersion into hardcore that more rewarding.
That said, in the middle of those hardcore days there were two bands around that I thought were brilliant even though they had nothing to do with HC: Morzelpronk and Zowiso. Morzelpronk was Dolf (of the famous Koeienverhuur studio) Planteydt's band, a strange mix of surf, exotica, Les Paul and Robert Fripp that couldn't have been more out of step with the times. I'll post their first EP as soon as I get that spare copy Mathijs (ex-Morzelpronk, now De Kift) promised me...!
Zowiso's 2 tracks on the Oorwormer LP showed a band that had great ideas, but not yet the chops to put them into practice. Two years later, they'd evolved into the thumping, throbbing, wailing monster you hear on the great Beat Per Minute EP. Singer John Hollander was one of the best around, throaty and soulful in that typical "right-on English socialist" way.
My band once played at some blockade in front of a judicial building; it was us, Frites Modern, Zowiso and Morzelpronk on top of a truck. It was a pretty grim situation; the riot squad was fending off the building while a bunch of local right-wing hooligans were rampaging left and right (excuse the pun). In the middle of this grimness and violence Morzelpronk started playing their first song, "Koeienwals" (Cow Waltz), the most beautiful melodic piece of twin-guitar exotica Calexico never made. Surely one of the most surrealistic moments in my life (on a par with the day I saw Steve Ignorant walking while holding 8 beer bottles between his fingers and one between his teeth!). I'd love to post that one, but it was only ever released on the super-obscure Support the Miners' Strike comp LP which I don't have (also featuring the Ex and some great tracks by Zowiso, by the way). Zowiso's drummer Aad lives in Zurich and is still playing in a rootsy band called Trio From Hell; John's an insurance agent these days.