With one of the most influential albums of the 80s heads towards it’s 30th Birthday, now 30 years old, Banjo looks at its story and its impact
Some bands release album after album of similar sounding songs and some release albums where there is sign of a steady forward movement or slow progression.
There are other bands however who are capable of taking gigantic, mighty strides from one album to the next. My Bloody Valentine are such an outfit.
My Bloody Valentine’s early recorded work consisted of two mini albums, the post punk sound of This Is Your Bloody Valentine in 1985 and the indie pop of Ecstasy in 1987. Both albums were, in truth, fairly forgettable and caused little fuss amongst critics or record buyers and contained nothing to prepare us for what would come next.
By the time it came to record their debut album proper, My Bloody Valentine had progressed light years beyond their humble beginnings and created a blueprint that indie bands would follow for the next ten years.
Opening track Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside) features guitars that strain not to sound like guitars and seem somehow out of focus and almost but not quite out of time. It was to be a sound they would take further.
Legend has it that the band were existing on an average of two hours sleep a night during the recording. Something that guitarist and vocalist Bilinda Butcher says contributed to the album’s languid, dream-like sounds and the almost there quality of the vocals .
Interestingly, reviews of the album feature a host of non-musical terms, as if traditional rock critic clichés were suddenly insufficient for the task at hand. Melody Maker described it as an ‘out-of-body experience’, while Uncut said ‘in rock algebra you might deduce that they’d worked out some new equation’ while, a few years later, About.com described it as ‘a cubist take on the Jesus and Mary Chain.’
Isn’t Anything soon went to No 1 in the UK Indie Chart and a whole host of bands took notice. Bands such as Curve, Ride and Chapterhouse picked up their cues from the guitar effect overload and a new genre was born. Shoegazing took its name from the fact that the musicians eyes were mostly directed downwards at the array of effects pedals it took to create their own brand of noise.
On a personal note, I came late to the My Bloody Valentine party, having travelled down the Spacemen 3 – Spiritualized route to Shoegazing. The above mentioned bands, together with the likes of Lush and Slowdive made up a short lived but very inventive scene. Traditional sounds and structures were largely ignored in favour of unearthly washes of sound and vocals that were buried under swathes of noise; guitar solos were replaced with huge free-form noise whiteouts.
Journeying back to Isn’t Anything, it was instantly apparent where the scene looked for its inspiration. The effect must have been similar to a fan of 3rd or 4th generation punk bands who suddenly came across a copy of The Ramones’ Leave Home – here was much of the source of what came after.
Nowadays, in a time where Lush, Slowdive and Ride have reformed due to an increasing demand for their records and a rise in their popularity, My Bloody Valentine can be seen as founding fathers of a category of music that has stood the test of time.
Following all this, after legions of indie bands had caught up with My Bloody Valentine, it was already too late. The band had taken another quantum leap forward and created the extraordinary Loveless, setting the bar unreachably high and nearly bankrupting Creation records in the process.
But that, of course, is another story.
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Some records do not stand the passing of time in a dignified manner. They can be so tied to a particular era that, without the attendant cultural baggage they find themselves adrift without an anchor.
Primal Scream‘s incredible 3rd album, Screamadelica, has no such moorings. It manages to pull off the difficult trick of capturing the feel and atmosphere of its time and yet still sounds fresh and exciting when played today.
Screamadelica arrived at a time when dance music’s influence was spreading out from the clubs and taking root across the world, infecting even the increasingly trad guitar based world of indie music.
The term ‘indie dance’ has been much used since the late 80s, but it was a huge cultural shift when indie finally stopped moping about and got its groove on. Following the acid house explosion and the second summer of love the musical landscape moved and bands were forced to respond.
The Happy Mondays and Stone Roses were symbolic of this cross-pollination, seamlessly and joyfully integrating grooves and dancefloor appeal into their guitar/bass/drums music. And once the floodgates were open, there was no shortage of hopefuls trying to force their way in and follow in more successful footsteps.
In truth, the dance explosion of the late 80s proved a difficult thing to ignore; bands either moved with the times or were left looking outdated and obsolete almost overnight. Even dyed in the wool twee indie darlings Everything But The Girl were swept up in the tide and released an album of dancefloor influenced tunes, the title of which summed the situation up nicely: Adapt or Die.
In this environment, Primal Scream were initially on the wrong side of the fence – a bastion of none-more-indie attitude and in thrall to the Rolling Stones and MC5. Their two albums up to this point had been quite traditional and were met with a lukewarm critical and commercial reaction. However, enlightenment, change and something of an epiphany were on the horizon in the form of the burgeoning Acid House scene.
The Scream’s record label boss, Alan McGee chronicles his own road-to-Damascus conversion to dance music in his excellent book Creation Stories. In one memorable chapter, he recalled taking a cynical and resistant Bobby Gillespie to his first rave and supplying him with Ecstasy for the first time. The effect was instant and unalterable – Bobby Gillespie fell in love with Acid House culture. “Gillespie got it,” McGee later said. “By about June, [he thought] he’d invented acid house!”
The band’s own journey from jangly 60s fetishists to lysergic pioneers began when Shoom resident Andrew Weatherall asked to remix I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have, from their self-titled 2nd album. To Gillespie’s delight, Weatherall removed almost all traces of the band, adding looped beats and film dialogue, leaving only the ghost of the original song. Weatherall rechristened the song Loaded and a classic was born.
Loaded was so loved by Gillespie that Primal Scream had found a whole new direction. Weatherall was invited back to sit in the producer’s chair for their next album, along with The Orb and programmer Hugo Nicholson.
But far from being freely accepted into the world of dance music, Primal Scream were initially the subject of much bemusement and suspicion. They were accused of being bandwagon jumpers of the worst sort, the type of band who were prepared to jettison their past and their ideals in order to climb aboard the groovy train, just for the sake of having a few hits.
This attitude was not uncommon at the time and the music press regularly poked fun at bands who claimed that they had always had a ‘dance element’ to their music, as they released supposed House remixes of their dreadful, lumpen offerings. You fill in the names, I cry too easily.
Further criticism was aimed their way, claiming that the band didn’t even play on their own records anymore. Weatherall himself said “The Scream never were and never will be careerists. Who ended up on the records didn’t matter, because Bob still wrote the tunes and it was still the Scream.”
What the press initially missed out on was the fact that the Scream team meant it maan. Most of the band, particularly Gillespie and guitarist Andrew Innes immersed themselves in the new scene enthusiastically. Unlike some of their peers, this was not a careerist move – Primal Scream talked the talk and walked the walk.
Screamadelica was the result of this mindset, a drug fuelled, opiated, comedown ridden masterpiece that the band still try to live up to and, in this writer’s opinion, have yet to equal.
Further classic singles followed: the groove of Come Together and the otherworldly Higher Then the Sun, perhaps the band’s high watermark.
By the time Screamadelica was released, the tide of opinion had turned in the Scream‘s favour and it was acknowledged that what the band were creating was way beyond any bandwagon jumping cursory remix nonsense.
The tracklisting of the album tells its own story of the altered states the band occupied during the writing and recording, Movin’ On Up. Don’t Fight it, Feel it, Higher Than the Sun, Loaded, Damaged and I’m Comin’ Down trace the narcotic journey with well rehearsed accuracy.
They also reveal a lifestyle that suited the times, one of excess and where taking drugs was to fit in with the zeitgeist. No matter what the initial reaction was to the Scream going dance, there was to be no doubt that they embraced it all with open arms, mouths and nostrils.
As the album developed, guitarist Throb wondered where he fitted into the band’s new direction. It is easy to see his point, Throb was born to be a guitar god, but his band had all but abandoned conventional instrumentation and were now seemingly part of a revolution that was consigning guitarists to the scrapheap.
Only the late addition of Moving On Up gave him something to work with and stopped him from leaving Primal Scream before they became the stars they always believed themselves to be.
The fact that this post-acid masterpiece was followed up with the disappointing Stones tribute album Give Out But Don’t Give Up has led many to question just how much of Screamadelica’s iridescent majesty was down to the efforts of Weatherall et al.
Certainly, he shaped and reshaped the songs, ruthlessly removing contributions by the band and replacing them with bleeps, beats and samples, but Screamadelica could only be a collaboration between band and producer and, in truth, could not have existed without all parties working together to define a decade.
Screamadelica proved a difficult album to follow, and it was to be many years before Primal Scream again found their mojo. 25 years later, they have risen to the challenge they presented to themselves and have created one of the most intriguing and idiosyncratic back catalogues in modern music.
Always capable of surprising, Primal Scream remain a difficult band to pigeonhole, but an easy band to love.
As the debut album from post punk pioneers Magazine turns 40, Banjo looks back at the start of an incredible story.
Back in the heady days of 1978, schisms and splits had already started happening in punk.
As a new movement, it is often said that there were no rules when punk first started, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that the rules were still being written. As such, some of its earliest protagonists were making shifts and leaps away from the basic noise that would come to define punk as a music.
One of the first to rail against perceived confines of punk was one Howard Devoto. His first forays into music was with Buzzcocks, who were a vital part of punk as perhaps the first punk band to form outside of London, the first to release an independent record and as organisers of Sex Pistols hugely influential gigs at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. They were also a brilliant band.
Famed for their perfect singles and for naturally adding an impeccable pop slant into punk, Buzzcocks’ early material was spiky, edgy and rough around the edges. Devoto stood out as a front man, avoiding a confrontational stance and singing about his own observations on the world around him. If you want to hear a record that completely sums up the sound and spirit of 1977, listen to the band’s Spiral Scratch EP.
Devoto however, had ambition and vision that stretched beyond Buzzcocks’ brief and left the band in early 1977, refusing to be hemmed in by the rules he saw being written for punk. His next step was to form Magazine, a band who operated to no such barriers. Much of 1977 was spent recruiting new band members and writing new songs. And what a band Devoto put together.
Guitarist John McGeogh was a real find. Undoubtedly one of the best and most influential guitarists of his generation, McGeoch would go on to play for Siouxsie and the Banshees, PiL and Visage. Another find was bass player Barry Adamson, who muscular funk basslines added much depth and difference to Magazine. Adamson would go on to an idiosyncratic solo career, as well as playing with Nick Cave following the Birthday Party’s split.
The first sight of new material from Devoto’s new band was the single Shot by Both Sides. It was an instant classic and immediately a hip record to admit to liking. Magazine came off the starting blocks with instant credibility and cool. Shot by Both Sides was a startling declaration of intent for a new band and gave Magazine their first appearance on Top of the Pops.
It was also deceptively punk and straightforward, the rest of Magazine’s set was less conformist and had artier ideas.
Released in June 1978, the music press were practically salivating when the album was released. Opening track Definitive Gaze set out the album’s stall well; a keyboard led song with a funk feel, already Magazine were presaging much of what was to come. Much of what became known as the New Romantic scene can be found here. The loose grooves, the futuristic sounds and art house sensibilities here were laying foundations for a future, which one can imagine is what Devoto had in mind when he left Buzzcocks.
Second track My Tulpa followed this further, guitars and keyboards blending to create a music that developed and built on the dislocation that punk had engendered. Adamson’s bass particularly deliberately looks to be creating something outside of the rock or punk arena.
By the fifth track, Burst, Magazine had become epic. Perhaps articulating his reasons for leaving punk behind, Devoto sings ‘Once you had this promise on the tip of your tongue. But it went without saying, it went on too long’. The repeated closing line of ‘Keep your silence to yourself, you will forget yourself’ gave post punk its first anthem.
The next track, Motorcade, gave it its second. A tale of an important figure driven around in cars while people turn their heads to stare, but who is unable to even choose ‘between coffee and tea’.
For all their epic leanings, the band were not without a sense of humour however, as the ending to throwaway track Recoil demonstrates.
Perhaps the most lasting classic on this astonishing debut is The Light Pours Out of Me. A slow burning, brooding examination of ennui, here Devoto’s literary leanings also came to the fore. In interviews, Devoto referenced Camus and Dostoyevsky, where other bands were slinging political slogans around.
This is perhaps where Magazine’s strength lay, in their ability to marry together punk roots, a vision of the future and a keen literary mind. This can be a fine line to walk without falling off to one side or the other, but Magazine walked it superbly.
Closing track Parade finds Devoto surprisingly singing a love song. Of course, there are twists in the tale and examinations of love, but there are also genuinely touching moments, such as when Devoto sings ‘Now that I’m out of touch with anger, now I’ve nothing left to live up to, I don’t know when to stop joking, when I stop I hope I am with you’. The music itself is almost in ballad territory, but with a haunting futuristic keyboard riff that again led to a lot of music that was yet to come.
Real Life is a classic album and still regularly turns up in Best Album lists, with Uncut ranking it as the 37th best album of all time in 2006. It is also a record that offered a way out of the cul de sac that punk could to easily find itself trapped in, a pointer to the future and a source of inspiration for generations to come.
Magazine’s next album Secondhand Daylight was to bring keyboards even further to the front and again gathered rave reviews. Sales were disappointing however and it seemed that Magazine had peaked commercially. Commercial or not, Magazine left behind them a mighty back catalogue that sounds as interesting and inspiring now as it did then.
The Slits were not a band who were prepared to compromise.
From their formation to their demise, they were determined to be in control of their own destiny and to make their own choices. This they did with a huge amount of both determination and style.
In fact, The Slits were much more than this. Even in the rebellious, shock filled early days of punk, The Slits were fucking mental.
The Slits formed in the white hot heat of punk’s first flowering. Lead singer Ari Up’s mother Nora was something of a free spirit herself; she was a friend of Jimi Hendrix, had dated guitarist Chris Spedding and had appointed Jon Anderson from Yes as one of Ari’s godparents. She would also later go on to marry John Lydon.
Nora welcomed the fledgling punk musicians into her home and, as a result, the 14 year old was surrounded by punk influence at a particularly important time in her life. The upshot was that Ari soon decided to form a band of her own.
This she did, with Palmolive on drums, Kate Korus on guitar and Suzy Gutsy on bass. Even before 1976 was out though, the band members had shifted into the classic Slits lineup of Ari Up, Palmolive, Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollit.
The band were still learning their instruments, as was common at the time, and they did this in public. Their early recordings capture what John Peel succinctly described as ‘where an inability to play meets a determination to play’.
The noise they made was a little out of time and a little out of tune. It was also some of the most exhilarating and wonderful music to emerge from the whole punk movement.
The band quickly won admirers and were well placed enough to support The Clash on their 1977 White Riot tour along with Buzzcocks, The Prefects and Subway Sect.
In her excellent and highly recommended autobiography, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, Viv Albertine remembered that The Slits were often refused entry to hotels on the tour, as the punk image was barely tolerated for boys at the time, but not for girls. This is the arena in which The Slits operated.
In the fusty late 70s, merely being an all female rock group instantly set The Slits in a radical position.
The Slits’, and in particular Ari Up’s, behaviour was that of an innate, natural rebellion. They were simply being themselves and not conforming to anybody’s view of how young girls should behave.
At one show, Ari Up squatted and pissed on stage, which she thought was totally acceptable because she was on stage and she happened to need a piss.
The Slits quickly became a gang. Looking back at photos of the band from this time, they do not look hugely punky or shocking, but we need to remember that this was the late 70s, when it was still possible to shock people by the width of your trouser leg. It was also a time when women were denied a voice and an equal role in society.
I can remember in the 70s in the Banjo household when my mum was given a tax rebate. Because she was a married woman, the tax rebate was made out to my dad, an idea that relates to when wives were considered to be nothing more than property.
The hangovers from these ideals were still prevalent in the late 70s when The Slits were quite rightly and very bravely refusing to abide by this kind of archaic oppression.
Not that this helped them get a record deal. At a time when even the shittest of punk bands were being signed, The Slits’ wild reputation and their refusal to compromise frightened away the major labels and independents alike.
The sound of the band at this time is perfectly captured in their first two Peel sessions, which are to this writer’s ears the two finest Peel sessions ever recorded.
However, the fact remains that the band remained unsigned for far too long, which is why we are celebrating the anniversary of their debut album now and not in 2017. As good as Cut is, and it unreservedly is, the world missed out on their early sound being properly captured.
But, paradoxically, this is also Cut’s greatest strength; by the time the band were signed to Island and allowed into a proper recording studio, they had grown up a little and the punk of their Peel sessions was replaced with a more considered, intricate approach. The intervening time had also allowed them to master the more difficult musical disciplines of the reggae that they loved so much. The resulting fusion of post punk and reggae has never been bettered that on Cut.
The Slits belatedly signed a record deal in 1979, with Island having the vision to take them on. The first fruits of this partnership was the Typical Girls single. It was instantly apparent that The Slits had moved on and the song familiar to us from the Peel session was almost unrecognisable.
Gone were the sound of musicians learning how to play, gone also were the rough edges that seemed so important to their sound. In their place was a new sound that proved that The Slits were now as important to post punk as their younger selves were to punk.
By this time, drummer Palmolive (so named because this is how a drunk/stoned Sid Vicious pronounced Paloma, her real name) had left the band and Liverpool musician Budgie was drafted in for the album.
Budgie is, of course, one of the best drummers of his generation and with him in the band, The Slits could now expand beyond the use of traditional rock rhythms.
From the off, Cut lays out the future vision for The Slits.
First track Instant Hit is a glorious fusion of scratchy post punk guitars, reggae rhythms and Ari Up’s multi layered vocals.
By delaying the recording of the debut album they may have missed creating a punk classic, but instead they came up with something much longer lasting. There is none of the punk baggage that would have nailed their songs to a specific time. Instead it would be harder for a new listener to pinpoint exactly when Cut was recorded.
It’s influence spread through the 80s so that it is an album ahead of its time.
The songs that made up The Slits set are mostly still here, but in such altered versions that they are, to all intents and purposes, new songs. The album fairly buzzes with the band’s delight at finally being able to release their music ionto the world.
Much of the credit for this new sound goes to legendary dub producer Dennis Bovell and to The Slits’ canny intuition in getting him to produce their first recordings.
Bovell is a Barbados born multi instrumentalist who based himself in Britain, where he played in reggae band Matumbi, wrote and produced Silly Games for Janet Kaye and produced classic albums for Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Getting him to produce Cut was perhaps a gamble, but one that paid off handsomely.
Slits’ classics Newtown, Shoplifting and Love & Romance are all present and correct and wearing their new clothes proudly. There is a sense of joy that runs through Cut that makes it an irresistible joy, even 40 years down the line.
Ari Up’s lyrics concern the world that she grew up in. Typical Girls is perhaps the best example of how she saw the world, or perhaps more accurately how the world saw her.
Starting off with ‘Don’t create, Don’t rebel’, Ari Up goes on to say ‘Typical girls buy magazines, Typical girls feel like hell, Typical girls worry about spots, fat And natural smells.’
The Slits focus was always more on personal politics than the sloganeering of their peers, which is another reason Cut stands up so well today.
Unfortunately and perhaps predictably, The Slits flame burned bright but brief. Second album Return of the Giant Slits came two years later, a long gap in an age where, for example, The Jam released their first four albums in three years.
As part of their rejection of the rock rule book, The Slits looked elsewhere for inspiration and Return developed their affection for what would later become known as World Music.
A few months after its release, The Slits split up.
Unsure how to cope with the aftermath of being an integral part of a music revolution that changed the world, Ari Up retreated to Indonesia and Belize with her husband and twin boys, where they lived with the indigenous populations.
The Slits reformed in 2005 and toured to great acclaim, the affection for them seeming to have multiplied in their absence.
Sadly, Ari Up developed breast cancer in 2008 and passed away in 2010. Her uncompromising attitude also applied to her battle with cancer as she refused conventional treatment,.
Step father John Lydon said ‘who refuses chemo because they don’t want their Rasta locks cut off? Ariane was just not sensible. She thought she could cure herself with witch doctors. We spent hundreds of thousands trying to save her, but it was too late.’
The legacy of The Slits can be seen writ large in many of the female bands that have come after them. They were trailblazers and the music world is vastly improved as a result of what they left behind.
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