Tagged: the Velvet Underground

The Bats: same as it ever was

Robert Scott has just knocked off work, “down at the local kids’ school” in Port Chalmers just outside of Dunedin, the university town near the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island that, from the late 1970s, was the birthplace of punk across the Tasman. Now, he says, he’s home to do some interviews: a reflection of the permanent double life of a musician in his home country.

Scott was, and remains, one-third of the Clean, probably the most influential of all the bands to be released on the famed Flying Nun label. He is also the leader of the Bats, who have just released their seventh album, The Deep Set, in a career spanning over 30 years. Both bands have proven extremely influential, especially in American college rock circles, and still record and tour internationally.

But unless you’re a Finn brother, making a living off music in the Shaky Isles remains a near impossibility (another New Zealand band, the 3Ds, once turned down an offer to tour with Nirvana on the grounds that it would have cost them their day jobs).

The result for Scott is an ordinary, domestic life punctuated by bursts of artistic activity. “It’s a wee bit strange, because when you tell people you’ve got a day job, they can’t quite believe it – they figure I should be relaxing and living off royalties,” Scott says. “But unless you have a really big seller, it doesn’t actually generate enough money to live off … You’d need to be touring a heck of a lot, and I’ve still got an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old to still help look after as well, so I need to be around for them.”

The Bats and the Clean occupy separate niches. In reductive terms, one could say the Clean took the drone-rock of the Velvet Underground’s Foggy Notion as a starting point and turned it into an entire career. The Bats are a gentler proposition: jangling, often pastoral, closer to the folk-pop of Byrds.

But there isn’t a band on earth now that sounds remotely like the Bats, and Scott has cheerfully admitted that much of their music sounds more or less the same. “For a band that’s got, not a formula, but maybe a sound and way of approaching songs, they’ll do variations on the theme and it can still sound good,” he says.

“But then, having said that, I think that a lot of my favourite bands and a lot of their songs sound the same too, whether it’s the Velvets or Can or Kraftwerk … If we tried to do a reggae or a ska record, it would sound terrible.”

The trick, he says, is keeping the songwriting on par within the confines of the very familiar Bats house style. “Even though obviously it is us and sounds like us, I’d hate to think I’d put out a record that sounded like Bats by numbers, or that it was harping back to previous songs.”

There have been long breaks between recordings: it’s been six years since the band’s last album Free All The Monsters, and there was a full decade between 1995’s Couchmaster and 2005’s At The National Grid, during which time various band members started families.

But those breaks, imposed in part by the necessity to earn a living, perhaps help account for the remarkable longevity of both of Scott’s bands. The Clean were formed in 1978; the Bats in 1982: nearly 80 years of making music between them. “They’ll be giving us an award soon, I’m sure.”

Scott says it’s something that he’s taken for granted, at least until it’s pointed out to him. “Everything’s relative. It’s only when other people comment on the longevity that you realise it is quite a point of difference, if you think of other bands that have shone brightly for 10 years or five years and then stopped for whatever reason.”

Minds and bodies permitting, Scott sees no reason why both bands shouldn’t continue indefinitely. “If one enjoys it, if one is coming up with relevant stuff, that’s not demeaning the band’s name by putting out rubbish that doesn’t stand up to the other stuff you’ve done, then I can’t see any reason why to stop.

“I don’t really think about it that deeply, but I respect and admire I guess musicians who can keep producing good stuff, whatever their age, whether it’s 60, 70, 80, whatever.”

First published in Shortlist (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 12 January 2017

Kim Gordon at Bigsound: “This is not an essay”

At the end of her opening keynote address to Brisbane music industry conference Bigsound, former Sonic Youth bass player Kim Gordon told a packed theatre of a calamitous acoustic show the band performed in 1991 for Neil Young’s The Bridge School, a non-profit education organisation for children with severe disabilities.

The band, which relied on the fiery interplay between guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, had never played acoustically and was performing for a mainstream audience. Fearing disaster, Gordon brought a guitar ready-made to destroy: “I had a feeling things were doomed to fail.”

Halfway through a cover of the New York Dolls’ Personality Crisis, with the band unable to hear themselves onstage, a frustrated Gordon swore into the microphone, smashed the waiting guitar, and walked off. Then she saw the kids in wheelchairs backstage looking horrified, and felt awful. Neil Young’s then-teenaged son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, rolled up to her.

“Everyone has a bad day sometimes,” he said.

Gordon repeatedly told the audience that her address was a poem or incantation, not an essay, and it was: a series of vignettes that interrogated the co-dependent relationship between the artist and the audience, based on a premise by critic Greil Marcus: that artists who submit to the whims of their fans by only giving them more of what they have already accepted are only able to confirm, not to create.

It was a portal into the approach of Sonic Youth who, after emerging from New York’s No Wave scene, slowly built their own bridges to pop through the 1980s. The classic video for Kool Thing saw them flirting with mainstream acceptance, while subverting it. It was a song that had them on the brink of stardom, but which they refused to build on as bands they encouraged and inspired, like Nirvana, rushed past them.

Gordon’s address began in the hippie dream of the ’60s, describing how the communal relationship between artists and audiences was punctured by race riots, the Rolling Stones’ disaster at Altamont, and the Manson murders. The concurrent emergence of a more challenging generation of performers including the Doors, the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges, she said, effectively deconstructed the idea of popular music as entertainment.

“[Iggy Pop] walking out onto the audience, breaking glass, smearing peanut butter on himself – was this a stage show? Was this rock music or real life? His estrangement of the audience’s expectations created something new. He gave people something they had never seen.”

She later spoke of an infamous Public Image, Ltd concert she attended at New York venue the Ritz in 1981. There, the band played behind a screen, onto which images were projected, obscuring the “stars” as shadowy figures. The audience rioted, throwing chairs at the screen and forcing the band to flee. “For whatever reason, PiL fucked with our heads,” she said. “We were there because of their audacity, but then couldn’t accept what they were offering: it was [either] too much, or too little.”

Her point was that that an audience’s need to be entertained was an artistic dead end. “What is a star? Suspended adulthood? A place beyond good and evil? Someone who you want to believe in? A daredevil? A risk-taker, going to the edge and not falling off – for you?” Was a performance, she added, “transcendence, or just a distraction from daily life, humdrum, pain, humdrum, boredom, humdrum, aloneness? A nice transition that doesn’t end? A day at the beach, a trip to the mountains? An unending kiss, leading to nowhere – or somewhere you never dreamed of?

“That’s what I want to feel when I go see someone play,” she said. “Something fall apart – until it becomes something else.”

First published in The Guardian, 7 September 2016

 

Robert Forster: Songs To Play

A new album by Robert Forster is almost always a challenge before it becomes a pleasure. For a start, there’s that voice, which hits fewer notes than Lou Reed on a less than perfect day. So there isn’t a great deal of melody, unlike the songs of Forster’s former songwriting partner in the Go-Betweens, the late Grant McLennan, who wrote the majority of that band’s better-known, poppier material.

But, as Forster admonishes on Songs To Play’s brisk opener, Learn To Burn, “You can miss details when you’re in a hurry.” Forster rarely writes obvious songs; the type that get your foot tapping and rattle around your head for days. Instead he writes songs, and records, that creep up and throttle you from behind. And he almost never writes duds.

My first feeling upon listening to Songs To Play was of disappointment, especially coming after The Evangelist, the masterpiece Forster had to make following McLennan’s premature death in 2006. This is his first album in seven years, and though far more upbeat, I found myself waiting for it to finish, which didn’t take long. Then, as soon as it did, I played it again.

Forster’s albums are like that. You think there’s not much going on, only to find the songs growing upon you as inexorably as vines around an abandoned building. The music is lean and understated; the lyrics, as ever, are penetrating and compelling. Imagine Reed narrating a Talking Heads album (it could be ’77 or True Stories) and you’re getting close to the feeling of Songs To Play.

For this album, Forster has moved on from long-serving collaborators Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson and instead used members of Brisbane’s John Steel Singers, as well as his wife Karin Bäumler (who plays some sumptuous violin) and his 17-year-old son Louis. There are bits of glockenspiel, Mariachi horns on A Poet Walks, and lots of backing vocals throughout. Songs turn on the lightest of touches.

The band is tight and it’s versatile, whether it’s playing the sly bossa nova of Love Is Where It Is, or the final track Disaster In Motion, which recalls the Velvet Underground’s The Murder Mystery with its churning organ and insistent percussion. A final shriek of unexpected feedback reveals the hidden menace beneath the song’s surface.

Let Me Imagine You is a plea for the preservation of mystique in an exhibitionist age: “Please don’t twitter / I find it sweeter.” As always, what Forster lacks in melodic variation he makes up for with deft phrasing and droll humour: “Wild mountain sound!” he remarks over the fast country picking at the end of I Love Myself And I Always Have (the album was recorded at Mt Nebo, outside Brisbane).

Lyrically, that song is a kind of postmodern update of Skyhooks’ Ego Is Not A Dirty Word, but it’s also a return to the earliest years of the Go-Betweens, when the influence of Jonathan Richman loomed large. “I hold myself in high regard / And loving yourself shouldn’t be so hard,” Forster says, completely matter-of-fact. The humour in this song shouldn’t mask its deadly serious intent.

For all its antecedents, though, Songs To Play (the allusion to Leonard Cohen in the title, surely, is deliberate) is Robert Forster at his most singular. Perhaps most of all, one feels the absence of McLennan here, but not in the painful way he overshadowed The Evangelist, which featured three of his unfinished songs. It’s the sound of Forster starting anew, and the spring in his step is welcome.

First published in The Guardian, 18 September 2015

The Feelies vs Lou Reed

I have two records sitting at the base of my stereo at the moment, both purchased last week. One is the Feelies’ new album Here Before, which I have been giving a severe flogging. The other is a lovely, near-mint original American pressing of Lou Reed’s Berlin, which so far I have been too scared to play.

Here Before is the first Feelies record for close to 20 years, and it’s as though they’ve never been away. There’s no great advance on the last three albums that the band recorded in the late ’80s and early ’90s, all of which are more relaxed, pastoral affairs than the band’s brilliant but twitchy 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms. (That record opened with a song called The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness, which was a pretty apt description of the four of them, and the music they made together.)

Looking around for some information about Here Before, I came across this review, and I was struck by the following quote by writer Jordan Cronk, which sums up the record and my feelings towards it perfectly: “Here Before could have come out in 1987 or 2027 and my feelings about it would be more or less the same: this is a good album with a lot of easy-going songs that sound pretty much the same.”

I love this. Rock critics are like peacocks at the best of times, so it’s refreshing to read a review that eschews preening and instead gets right to the nub of things in a plain manner. He’s right: Here Before is a very easy listen, and many of the songs do sound, frankly, interchangeable. They do, however, consistently tingle the nerve endings in a pleasing manner. But when did I start becoming so satisfied with that?

Lou Reed is one of the Feelies’ obvious heroes – many of their songs recall the more mellow moments of the Velvet Underground, such as Some Kinda Love, or when they’re in a more energetic mood What Goes On (which they’ve covered).

I suspect, though, they never spent much time with Berlin, which is quite possibly the most depressing album ever made. It’s even more depressing than Joy Division’s awesomely bleak Closer, a reissue of which I also bought recently. Closer is an incredibly moving, magisterial piece of work, but it’s in no danger of being overplayed, because I never fail to end up feeling worse after listening to it. (As opposed to, say, the Ramones, who always leave me feeling better, regardless of how up or down I’m feeling on any given day.)

Berlin, though, leaves Closer for dead. It hits its peak of emotional devastation on The Kids, in which authorities are sent to remove the children of their speed-freak mother Caroline, the album’s central character. The song plays out – for several, awful minutes – to what sounds like a live recording of their screams and wails: “Mommy!” It’s so primal and genuinely upsetting that, on hearing this song playing in a record store a while back, I actually had to flee.

So, anyway, it’s been sitting in front of my stereo, daring me to play it. I will get around to it, perhaps after Christmas, but before the New Year. Who would want to kick off 2012 in such a fashion? Um, I probably won’t play it while my fiancée is around, either.

And after I’ve played it, it will be filed where it belongs, right after Transformer, Reed’s peppy, bitchy, completely wonderful take on New York’s ’70s drag scene. I’ll probably play that record, which is one of my favourites, another 20 times or more before returning to Berlin.

About eight years ago, I read Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs. I hated it. I hated its smug, tossed-off nature; the conceit that 31 examples of Nick Hornby’s self-absorption made for a meaningful exercise in criticism. But most of all, I hated it for an essay comparing Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop to Teenage Fanclub’s Ain’t That Enough.

In Hornby’s view, rock critics are a pretty sheltered lot. It is, he points out, a young person’s game, and young people tend not to have had a lot of life experience. Fancying themselves as romantic poets, they’re drawn to the dark side, and thus prone to over-excitement when art is calculated to shock and awe, as Frankie Teardrop (and Berlin) undoubtedly is.

I might have accepted this if Hornby had been honest or at least self-deprecating enough to have included a younger version of himself in this monstrous over-generalisation. Instead he proclaimed to need no convincing that life could be scary. He was 44; his son had been diagnosed with autism; his friends were starting to die; and he never knew when a terrorist might invade his own home and blow up his whole family.

“It is important that we are occasionally, perhaps even frequently, depressed by books, challenged by films, shocked by paintings, maybe even disturbed by music,” he writes in conclusion. “But do they have to do these things all the time? Can’t we let them console, uplift, inspire, move, cheer? Please? Just every now and then, when we’ve had a really shitty day? I need somewhere to run to, now more than ever, and songs like Ain’t That Enough is where I run.”

I mean, please, my 32-year-old self thought. Cry me a river, why don’t you, or just have a good hot cup of HTFU.

Now I’m 40. I have a mother with Alzheimer’s Disease. But also (and this is perhaps more important) I’m engaged, in love, my heart is completely full; it’s no longer nine parts water, one part sand. And Berlin’s still sitting there, unplayed. I’m starting to understand how Hornby felt.