Monday, 28 October 2013

The past keeps knock-knock-knocking on my door, and I don't want to hear it anymore.

Here I am, back writing about dead people again.

One day during the summer holiday of 1974, about six or seven of us convened around a friend's house, having brought with us a variety of crappy instruments to entertain ourselves. We had the run of house for the week, so we could make as much noise as we liked for as long as it suited us. The eventual outcome of all this aimless pissing around was that we formed a band, despite only one of us being capable of finding their way around an instrument and a couple of the others barely able to play at all. We weren't exactly taking it seriously, and besides, what could a bunch of near-incompetents realistically play anyway? At this stage it was safe to say Heart Of The Sunrise was pretty much out.

Someone had brought along a copy of Transformer and a copy of Live At Max's Kansas City, and I think we attempted Vicious (successfully) and I'm So Free (less so) from the former. We took a run at just about everything on Max's at some point, before finally settling on Sweet Jane and Sunday Morning. By the end of the week, we could vaguely hammer out the odd song by Sabbath, Free and the Stones as well, but initially it was probably the combination of simplicity and ready-made cool that made Lou Reed's songs so attractive. By the time we first performed in public, at a school dance several months later, almost half our set was Reed/Velvets covers.

A couple of years earlier, Walk On The Wild Side had introduced a world largely unfamiliar with his work to Reed's fascination with what might be called "transgressional" lifestyle choices; the Bowie co-sign representing the perfect entry-point-slash-endorsement for greenhorn teenagers like me. When I found out this morning that he'd died, I was much more shocked than I expected to be. Not because Lou Reed had managed to hold out until the ripe old age of 71, beating odds that, at the peak of his 70s excesses, were tipping him to keel over mid-performance. Nor was it to do with the Velvets' canonical status - "hardly anyone bought the records, but everyone who did formed a band", etc - or with any sadness at the death of a great and ambitious artist (and he was certainly that). No, this is more like that feeling you get when you pay a return visit to somewhere you grew up, only to find that yet another old landmark has disappeared. Suddenly, there's one less thing helping you to make sense of the world and figure out your place in it, even if, truthfully, you don't really need it anymore.

There's probably plenty of stuff being written elsewhere about Reed's notorious curmudgeonliness, his combative relationship with the critical community, and his long-lasting resentment over the mauling that some of his best and most influential work received upon release, so I'm not going to bother with that, nor with the deathless influence of the Velvets. In any case, the contrarians will probably be along soon, holding up efforts like Reed's recent, supposedly ill-judged collaboration with Metallica as irrefutable proof that he wasn't all that. The work, however, says otherwise. Reed made no secret of wanting to create (and leave behind) a body of work that stood comparison not with the rock musicians who it seemed were his obvious peers, but with the likes of Dostoyevsky and Burroughs and Ornette Coleman. Whether or not it manages to do so remains to be seen, but even if it doesn't, he's still responsible for some of the greatest rock music ever made.

Lou Reed wrote Heroin nearly 50 years ago in 1964, a couple of years before the Velvets recorded it for their debut album. It's that rare beast amongst drug songs, in that it avoids taking any sort of moral position and instead just tells you what it's like. I should add at this point that I've never used the stuff, but I'm assured by people who have that Heroin the song is a fairly faithful description of heroin the drug's effects. It's also the song which, more than anything else, was responsible for the Velvets becoming the unofficial poster children for the decadent, anti-hippy nihilism that eventually gave birth to punk. There's a scene in Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting - another landmark example of non-judgemental junkie art - where Mark Renton describes choosing the 13-minute Rock 'N' Roll Animal version of the song over the original as "breaking the junkie's golden rule". This probably explains why it's my favourite version.

Rock 'N' Roll Animal is, in my humble opinion, the greatest heavy metal album ever made. Alice Cooper seemed to agree at one point; not long after its release, he stole the entire band for his Welcome To My Nightmare album. But regardless of that (and the opinion of Mark Renton), Heroin is the record's glorious high-point. Here, the Bowery scuzz of the original has been replaced by a chromium-plated, proto-stadium-rock imperiousness that seems utterly at odds with the subject matter until that last verse, where the band steadily raises the tempo until the song is roaring along, and Reed harangues a New York audience still numb from Vietnam and Watergate, and with Spahn Ranch and Altamont fresh in the collective memory;

"'Cause when the smack begins to flow,
  I don't really care anymore,
  About all you Jim-Jim's in this town,
  And everybody puttin' everybody else down,
  And all the politicians makin' crazy sounds,
  And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds...yeah!"

I mean, why the fuck wouldn't you shoot up?

And then, and then...Steve Hunter's death-from-above guitar solo swoops in like one of Travis Bickle's internal monologues set to music, and the dreamy narco-fatalism of the original is blasted to fuck, supplanted by a seething rage at all that's wretched and hateful in the world, with Reed snarling over the top of it. I've played it over and over this morning, and it's still every bit as thrilling and full of anger and joy and desire and love and hate and confusion as it was when the teenage me became slightly, unhealthily obsessed with it. Whether intentionally or not, Lou Reed always represented one of the most truthful, if not the most comforting, of signposts through all that uncertainty, and it makes me sad to think he'll never surprise us that way again.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Cocaine 80s are the best band in the world (this month).

Nowhere in the 2012 best-of round-ups could you have found even the mildest suggestion that the universal acclaim heaped upon Channel Orange may have been just a little bit for the backstory as for the music. I liked it, although not as much as some people, and possibly not even as much as I liked 2011's Nostalgia, Ultra. In any event, it was frustrating for me personally to observe the way that black pop music which was at least as interesting, if not more so, than Frank (or the equally effusively-praised Abel Tesfaye p/k/a The Weeknd) was being largely ignored amidst an apparent rush amongst commentators eager to assert their impeccable liberal credentials by endorsing a black r&b singer who might or might not be gay. Speaking of which, you'd think it might have occurred to a few more people to ask Rahsaan Patterson what he thought of all this?

I have my suspicions that the concept for Cocaine 80s may have arisen from, of all things, No ID's production gig on ex-Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft's most recent solo album United Nations of Sound, a couple of years back. As hook-ups go, it wasn't an obvious one; the man Kanye West has described as a mentor, responsible for a bunch of the most notable hip-hop tunes of the last two decades, and rock's leading Cosmic Woolyback. Despite the album being Ashcroft's least successful to date, it does seem to have had the side benefit of encouraging No ID's more experimental instincts. Certainly, both projects appear to involve a number of the same musicians, with guitarist Steve Wyreman's contribution being particularly outstanding. Otherwise it's multi-platinum singer-songwriter James Fauntleroy doing the singing and songwriting instead of Mad Richard, with vocal support from Makeba Riddick and, on their latest The Flower Of Life, the excellent Jhene Aiko. It's been spun as a Common project in some quarters, but it really isn't. If anything, Com seems unusually content just to play his position here (as does Nas on Chainglow), and his contributions are probably the most vital he's made to anything in quite some time.

It seems to me that the original five-word pitch might have been indie-rock/r&b/rap fusion, which admittedly sounds horrifying on paper. Yet, instead of the usual Mr. Potatohead shit you often get with things of this nature, everything's actually in the right proportion for a change. The writing's imaginative and a bit unpredictable, instead of the tedious four-chord looping Coldplay knock-offs that many rap/r&b acts fall into when they want to invoke a stadium rock vibe. Even the standard lyrical tropes sound fresher simply for being placed in a different musical context. I've actually been wanting someone to do something like this for a few years now - at least since Lewis Taylor went off the grid.

Cocaine 80s debuted with zero fuss whatsoever somewhere around June 2011 with The Pursuit EP, thus making them roughly contemporaneous to Frank Ocean's emergence with Nostalgia, Ultra, give or take a few months. Three EPs and plenty of accumulated word-of-mouth later, there's a little more weight lent to my belief that they're representative of how black artists have begun to draw upon a much broader palette than they might perhaps have done a decade ago. Back in the early 00s, performers like Anthony Hamilton appeared to be the ones swimming against the tide and the prevailing trends, even if they were still essentially traditionalists. Now there's suddenly more artists coming from a loosely similar angle, where the song is still central, but who along the way are drawing in strands from Radiohead, Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, Cocteau Twins, Elliott Smith and all kinds of strange textural shit that people wouldn't normally expect to hear referenced in black pop. And it works.

You can download all four EPs here, and you should.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Female rap beef is outta control

Rap beef has always possessed a kind of WWE quality by definition, but there's something rather dispiriting about the way in which dis wars between female performers tend to get hyped up that little bit more, as if the likes of beef-seeking-missile Azealia Banks and net-celeb femcee Angel Haze are only really interesting when they're pulling each other's metaphorical weaves out. Even supposedly liberal, left-leaning publications like the Guardian can't resist a good old-fashioned cat fight, it seems.

Of all the female rappers to have emerged over the last couple of years, Azealia Banks is one of the most intriguing. Unlike certain of her peers, who've sought validation via co-signs from established male performers or somewhat unreliable internet buzz, she's blessed with a strongly individualistic streak. She seems determined that she'll be the one to dictate the terms upon which she'll stand or fall, whether that be via all the “Little Mermaid in the hood” imagery or by choosing to rhyme on tracky house beats or over twitchy, Warp-inspired electronics, rather than voguish Lex Luger knock-offs or the obligatory Mike Will beat. All of which makes her propensity towards bouts of public bickering with the (often inferior) competition seem that much more bewildering.

But perhaps a more worthwhile question might be; in the already hyper-competitive world of hip-hop, how come female rappers generally exhibit a more alarming level of open aggression towards their peers than even their male counterparts? Never mind that it plays up to every lazy stereotype you've ever heard about some women being more anti-woman than even the most avowed misogynist. It sometimes seems as if there's a compulsion to view all other female emcees as threats to be torn down at every opportunity. I say “sometimes”, because it's worth pointing out that this applies much more readily to US performers than their British equivalents, who are models of virtuous, supportive sisterhood in comparison.

Perhaps it's because they've noticed that the industry at large only seems prepared to accommodate one successful female rapper at any one time. It's a little like the one-in,one-out situation with reggae acts. After all, how many people can name more than one currently active, internationally successful reggae act with widespread name recognition? I'll give you Sean Paul as a starter, but after that I'll bet that anyone else you name either isn't really that big, is in decline or is dead. But I digress.

There's a widely-held perception that, rightly or wrongly, rap's core audience simply isn't interested in female rappers. Consequently the industry will only seriously invest in either the most extraordinarily talented (Missy) or the ones with a strong image, preferably one which is highly sexualised (Lil' Kim). Occasionally, there's a striking confluence of both skills and image (Nicki and Azealia), but for the rest of the pack all that remains is a frantic scramble to get through the door before it slams shut. A big part of that scramble involves a ruthless trashing of the competition along the way, and so we end up perpetually witnessing something like the closing scene of Blue Collar, only with Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor replaced by a parade of rappers with two X chromosomes. Which, at its worst and most spiteful, manifests itself in the kind of smack-talk that involves a black woman making sideways remarks about another black woman's skintone. In the words of Jeru, ain't the devil happy.