Sunday, May 22, 2005

We are the messengers of music

Blogger arriviste Steve Ayers aka Confablog mused on the role of the dj . As my reply kept growing I thought I’d post it here.

The professional DJ is someone with more interest in music than anyone else, who thinks (s)he can offer a better soundtrack for drinking/drugging/dancing and has the determination to carry that out, through developing the best contacts, knowing where to shop, developing a style, etc. The true DJ is obsessed with music, and can bore even the likes of us with more than our fair share of fascination, but then (s)he’ll spin a knock-out tune at 4am and you can only nod in approval. The best DJ takes you on a trip for an hour then brings you back with a classic. (S)he joins the dots.

At its best it’s about being on the frontline of a developing culture – the Jamaican sound systems, the 80s warehouse boys, enlightening others. It’s about bringing other people’s culture to your own, mutating possibilities. It’s about religion, with you as the divine messenger. It’s also about “programming” – ie, tune selection, tailoring the sound. All the new york greats said as much. Larry Levan was known to play a tune seven or eight times a night if it worked. It’s about technique – beatmixing is a requisite but the specialists take it far further. It’s about being in tune with your audience. It’s about having a gimmick – three decks, scratching with your arse, I dunno. The disc jockey as mediator of music is so grounded in today's cut-and-paste popular culture that its central tenets are so established/assimilated that we part-timers know the basics to get by. Mama, mama, we’re all djs now. The Mecca is Hard to Find Records in Birmingham, thousand of square feet of pure wax. Bring your tissues, trainspotters.

The experience/journey the dj offers is not going to be replaced but rather augmented by MP3s and other aspects. Many jocks already use far more than the basic kit to express themselves – ie, loop and sequencing machines, samplers, fx boxes, the VJ. Some of the best djs can achieve the value-added 'wow' factor without the extra bells and whistles. So the new generation may be able to choose from a selection of 5,000 tunes and 10,000 loops ripped onto a couple of cds but the mainstream of even the rave culture is still going to want some kind of narrative/text. That ohmygosh sound has to have a context other than a series of fuck-me noises.

The chief problem with dj culture as I see it is segmentation, the vast majority of djs serving niche industries, protecting their own genre and then propagating it through producing their own facsimile output. Where are the pantheist pioneers like Francis Grasso, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash who saw no barriers, only opportunity? Now the mix and match culture is frequently served up as a gimmick like 2 Many DJs. And is ‘breaks’, for example, really that special that it deserves its own room, its own magazine, its own annual awards? DIY culture allows you entrance to the industry, but the small scale you operate on and the diminishing returns it offers means you must be identified for one area. Jumpin Jack Frost used to talltale about playing the ‘circumference’ but this was disingenuous, referring only to the full spectrum of d&b.
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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Indieworld savours stalwart’s return

The wait is almost over – after weeks of brouhaha about the about-turns in the studio, hype about the seminal influences informing their latest opus and hints of its greatness, Coldplay’s third album is nearly with us. And if the single Speed of Sound is any indicator then their “bedwetting” constituency of fans can look forward to sixty minutes of insipid vacuity from Twisted Logic (a dreadful term). Never a fan but almost able to appreciate the melodies of some of their older tunes, I simply do not accept that anything about this single is any good. The kings of stadium indie merely highlight their moribund genre, on its knees creatively and commercially (genuflecting to the man).

Though they can ‘reclaim’ the ‘crown’ usurped by the other indie wets – Keane, Snow Patrol (the least ambitious band in history?), two more salient points raise themselves. In less commercially minded areas it wasn’t always the case that the NME – which has an effective monopoly of weekly music print media – would praise any act willy-nilly. News of an album’s progress would be charted without sensationalism and then an experienced hack would deliver the verdict. Nothing was precious/sacred.

But with the hegemony of the ‘neemy’ (my clued-down mum pronounced it that way) has been a narrowing of its sights along with its audience/market so it is now almost solely serving the indie student stereotype. It wasn’t always thus – take a look at any 80s cover and you’ll see how broader its palate was, while it recently ran a 1994 ‘classic’ cover that showed that nearly all the acts were of a post-rave/ambient techno nature. Any IPC media whore worth his refined bath salts will see the logic in bigging up the ‘indie’ scene, its main bands, its leading lights (return to form for Oasis, honest!), to keep an anachronistic culture alive. [Granted Chantelle Fiddy had a little piece in this week's issue.] The heroes in King’s Reach Tower these days are the designers, who somehow make semiotic virtue out of all the meaningless non-pieces filed by writers unable to match either the glory days of rock prose or the insights available in cyber space.

So the Coldplay long player is almost obliged to come in at nine out of 10 in indie-tinted glasses. Which brings us to point deux. Chris Martin will continue to loom large in the public eye, but he’ll soon realise that his role will become that of a Bono-esque statesman. His far-more-worthwhile-than-his-‘worthy’-music roles in raising awareness of fair trade and acting as a sponsor of abstinence in these voracious times will keep him busy as the musical quest runs out of juice.

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Friday, May 06, 2005

Time and place

Morley on the return of an avatar of New Labour vacuity. And if the Gallaghers’ obtrusion of media space isn’t bad enough now there’s up and coming Manc act Young Offenders Institute. No they’re no joke, these proud Collyhurst boys are cunts for real, just like all those who only saw the hedonic side of rave (where drugs are simply reassigned into the weekender programme), just like those who make going to football such a pleasurable experience, just like those who gave Keighley a 9 per cent BNP vote. The music is cringeworthy time-stopped pub punk rock, replete with lumpen chord changes and, on their single’s chorus, a one louder reprise of Liam’s nudge-nudge coke lines. Anthony H Wilson has been making increasingly clichéd statements about “this is what the scene needs right now” (YOI are signed on to Wilson’s new F4 label) – ignorance and bad attitude just like bands used to be, or something.

Letting these scrotes through is a great example of where the BBC’s omnivorous ‘anything goes’ policy lets it down. It’s also a sign of the ongoing reterritorialisation of music, where the milieu they were puked from is the main driver, because selling it on that puts it into a niche that is big enough to prosper in today’s endlessly diversified market. They are sold as brain dead scallies for the brain dead scallies market (pop as authentic statement again) – a market big enough to allow Oasis to still play stadium gigs and hit number one in the album chart. Any lines of flight or developmental potential for the band, the image, the music are strictly a no-no, just like the entropic dead-end job. These boys could do four or five albums of this, giving their captive audience more tools with which to stay dumb. This is what is most depressing – that consumer culture unquestioningly allows this stuff in – one more product to add to the diverting noise. Hopefully, their fanbase will eventually get the feeling they’ve been cheated.

Grime in some ways suffers from the obsession with location, location – though in a more ambivalent way, not exactly vibing up a sink estate existence as something to be proud of than to get through and escape from. Raw-T – Manc rappers on Wilson’s F4 label – likewise rely on the axis of place. (BTW, I enjoyed Pearsall’s article on weed carriers in grime). I had a freebie for scouse beat act The Stands on Monday – lovely 60s stuff and all that – but here was something that was fixed by that other great co-ordinate, time.

Both overcooked reps of place and obsessions with bygone eras are allowed to prosper. What it all adds up to is an unhealthy allegiance to territory/turf and taste – all in all helping to bring back up the barriers that 40-odd years of sonic multiculturalism have been trying to break down. Of course people can and will choose for themselves, but sometimes you feel the posturing needs regulating.

Attempting to be a true vector will be our imminent club night, tentatively titled Extropia. Music will be across the board, out of time, faceless, stateless, adhering to nothing other than its own potential. Saturday 25 June, Islington. I’m bigging it up because if we’re to join Entertainments Inc the proposition had better be good. Check here, Research and Cull for further details.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Reflections on the Rip it Up book launch

Up to Boogaloo, ex-Highgate pub now fashionable events venue getting a reputation for itself (Nina Infinite and Mark K-Punk were sitting on the exact couch that two Libertines made up on a week or so earlier). I arrived not late but too tardy for a decent perch; not for the first time I would have to go to the periphery to get an angle on the main proceedings. The air was thick with expectation as well as cigarette smoke, with journos and music biz young and old (a Bill Brewster here, a Simon Price there) eager to hear the words on music.

Though the evening lacked any structure – Simon Reynolds seemed to ask questions as they occurred to him and Paul Morley, Gina Raincoat, Richard Boon the Buzzcock and John King of Gang of Four answered them just as informally – this was no great problem. Morley went off on welcome tangents, revealing that he had got to the stage in the 90s where he felt he could no longer write about music. But then he realised everyone else was at it, so why not him? Gina Birch rightly emphasised the female experience of the era; King how the band still own the rights to each of their songs.

The theme of the book and thus the launch was the possibility of the era – ie, rip up the pop rulebook and start again, please. Literary and philosophical theories, political ideas and arthouse posturings were woven into the verse and chorus, marketing concepts manipulated, music for music’s sake was not tolerated (and much of it got into the charts, where TOTP was another element to be fucked with). But as he half-admitted, Morley and co with their subsequent situationist treatment of music contributed to the loss of such ambition, leading eventually to a music that is valued merely on its terms. With pop having ate itself, we ended up with indie like JAMC (their noise signalled the end of meaningful experimentation, they like their adherents would just look back through musical past), the pure pop of the corporatised Scritti and, later, websites that can go on for ever about one song.

Here, not surprisingly reference was made to the new brand of imitators – your Killers and Franz Ferdinands. For me it’s not that their music is so bad it’s that there is nothing in it to talk about other than their music – where is the context, the ideas? (their referencing of the early 80s is merely cyclical – new bands now are of the age where they will look to that period as that’s just beyond their adultescent listening experience). All I can say about Bloc Party is that their drummer is good. She’s Hearing Voices could be a canny treatise on bipolarity but I can’t make out hardly any of the words.

A few hours in and things were brought to a halt after they fielded questions from the audience, just as well really considering most people’s attention span had snapped; back to their in-crowds and in-jokes. My knowledge and appreciation of many of the hallmark bands of 79-84 is still limited (Stickboy from Leeds has been ably filling me in these past few years), but when I hear something like Go4’s Damaged Goods, that seems me to have the same energy as a jungle tune. This is simpatico with some of the night’s final thoughts, that looking back over the era is no nostalgic trip if the referrers are looking for clues, inspiration and tools to tackle our current corporate miasma. Someone recently scrawled “The Specials/2-Tone” on an alleyway near my flat. Perhaps the uth are finally seeing value in the era’s high-minded urgency.
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