Tuesday, 22 September 2015

A Musical Journey

I thought it was time that I wrote another blog about music but I was stuck as to what to write about. All these blogs of mine, pretty much like everything else I either say or write, are moments of inspiration blurted out - often without filter. But the one necessary factor in this case is to have the inspiration in the first place. But I was struggling to find something to write about as I had lots of little ideas which didn't seem to flesh out into a full blog. And so I've had to try and find a way to bring in whatever is floating around in my headspace and make a coherent whole from it. People always take you more seriously if you seem to know what you are talking about. If you can bluff that you will go far!

So my device for the shaping of my thoughts today is the subject of a musical journey. Specifically here I'm thinking of my own which starts with the records my mum had in her 1970s Radiogram, a contraption which was a combination of a radio, a record player and a sideboard. In it were, amongst other things, Pat Boone's single "Speedy Gonzales", The Greatest Hits of Englebert Humperdinck, "You're My World" by Cilla Black, numerous Jim Reeves albums and The Greatest Hits of Abba. Not the hippest catalogue of records you are ever likely to find. But that was my introduction to music along with the radio of the 1970s with its Alvin Stardusts, Bay City Rollers and Bee Gees. I bought my own first record in 1980. It was "Baggy Trousers" by Madness. The first music I had expressly liked for myself was the late 1970s Ska revival bands in England. Primarily this was Madness, The Specials, Bad Manners, The Selecter and The Beat.

The early 1980s changed things though. It was a time of new sounds. Specifically, it was a time of synthesizers emerging into popular music. Of course, in more arty or progressive circles synths had been employed soon after their invention throughout the 1970s. But as a boy I was not aware of Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream or Jean-Michel Jarre. However, when I heard The Human League or OMD or Depeche Mode on the radio I was introduced to synthesizers. Two acts especially prominent for me at the time were The Thompson Twins and Howard Jones. I cringe slightly about this now. Just regard this blog as my confessional for past sins. I was not a child of rich parents but I did somehow manage to go to two concerts in the 80s. One was the aforementioned Thompson Twins. The other was Midge Ure vintage Ultravox.

More important than the bands which caught my ear though was the febrile state of music in the 80s which wrestles in my consciousness for the title of best music decade in my memory. It would only be in later life that I had the wisdom and maturity to see that nothing stands alone or comes from nothing. Everything has a precursor and is inspired by something that came before it. And so the 80s cannot stand musically without the 70s. This is especially true of perhaps one of the major creative forces of the 80s - new forms of dance music - whether that be House, Techno, Electro or Rap. All of these had roots in 70s Disco as well as Soul and Funk but they somehow got paired with a German electronic sensibility. Often this is accredited - lazily so - to just Kraftwerk. But you have to see the environment Kraftwerk were working in to see that they weren't the only ones doing what they did. Or even the first. Listen to the album "Zuckerzeit" by Kluster, for example. It came out before "Autobahn" even existed.

The late 80s in the UK was when the "Acid House" scene began to arrive. Besides the musical forbears that gave birth to this music there was also a necessary technological component - new musical instruments. The 80s was a time when the big, lumbering, analogue synth beasts of the 70s were finally miniaturized or, in many cases, digitized to produce smaller and more affordable boxes which kids with the appropriate aptitude could start using to make beats. And you didn't need to be a player to use them either. It was the start of music that was programmed rather than played, a controversial shift of emphasis in some quarters. Earlier in the 80s the turntable had been turned into an instrument by the likes of Grandmaster Flash. But later the drum machine, primarily in the guise of the TR-808, the synth, often the TB-303, or the sampler, paradigmatically the SP1200, were used to make dance music. It was around the mid 80s that I first played a synth. Actually it was two synths, the SH-101 and the Juno 106. They weren't mine. I never could have afforded one of either. They were my friend's and I made sure I went there as often as I could to have another chance to play around with them.

At this point my historical tale takes a detour. I want to ask in what way our journeys influence us. Or even if they do in ways we can describe. Of course, we can all make up stories of how we think things have influenced us. For some people those stories are very important if not foundational to what they do. But if you read of the things I listened to and liked in my first 20 years then none of them are really important to any music I have subsequently made. In fact, its very much about face as far as I'm concerned. Its the things I missed that I only found out about out years or even decades later that have come to influence me. There are reasons for this. Primarily these are reasons of opportunity. At that time I had no means to make any music of my own and it was also a traumatic time for me personally. I would really only come to grips with things a decade later for the first time when those memories had long faded. If things had been different it could have been Aphex Twin, Autechre and me. But it wasn't.

And its Autechre I want to talk about now. Groups like this, along with Boards of Canada and a whole swathe of experimental German acts such as Can, Popol Vuh, Amon Düül II and Faust are music I only heard FOR THE FIRST TIME in the last 5 years. Some readers might find that statement quite hard to believe but I must say that its true. And this is one thing about musical journeys: they are very personal. There is so much music in the world. You cannot listen to all of it and so you make choices. I firmly believe, however, that there is, as one book of the bible says, "a time for everything". And everything in its time. You may have got the vibe above that my mum did not like very cool music. Maybe the genes have been passed down. But then again I have a very individualist character. I'm happy to walk the road I walk even if it be alone and with few companions or passersby.  The point, I think, as both a listener and maker of music, is to learn something from the journey. And these last 5 years have been a very intensive learning period for me. I see, for example, how so much electronic music of today (the good and the very, very bad) could not be without much of the German electronic music of the 70s. It just was a necessary precursor. 

And so to Autechre, a northern English electronic duo and purveyors of what is sometimes called IDM or "Intelligent" dance music. The music has come to be known for its erraticism, its irregular beats and freneticism made possible by use of computers and software (although they are officially machine agnostic and use a range of equipment). Indeed, Sean Booth, one member of the band, once answered the question "What instrument would you keep if you could only keep one?" with "The computer because of its flexibility". Here we don't have instrumental purists who value a beloved keyboard. Post 80s makers of electronic music, people who don't play and never could, value the new tools of the trade, digital tools which some might say aren't even instruments at all. They are production devices. It is easy to say why many kids who are musically interested today regard the computer as natural, normal and uncontroversial in a musical context and why they take acts like Autechre, programmers and coders working with machines, as their musical heroes. It was not always so! But the Autechre guys grew up making mixes on tape machines and so to them a computer is probably just a digital version of the same thing. It shows that the journey plays a part in the path ahead as well.

Sean Booth, in a very interesting and quite long set of answers to fan questions online, seems to agree with this kind of thinking. He doesn't think of Autechre as having the very singular sound that many people think they do. He talks of "a web of connections and us linked to a few of them" which acknowledges that he sees links to others. This is both true and false for I think they have developed an identity all their own. But Booth, in answering questions, is happy to acknowledge that factors such as sense of place, "the water" and even "all that grey" (of the sky in the north of England) go into making the sound that Autechre have. As I'm from a similar area close by to their roots I can very well understand that. However, even from their first album, Incunabula, it seems to me that there has always been an added twist to the Electro influences they often reference and pay homage too. This accounts for the beats whereas the factors Booth mentions account for the solemnity in the melodies. What in them turns them to the frenetic almost noise abstraction their tracks sometimes become - who knows?! The thing is, when you listen to early Kluster from 1970s Germany you hear a very similar mentality. But no explanatory link is known.

So my own musical journey stopped, in a mainstream sense, sometime in the late 90s. Ever since then, bar one or two Keane and Scissor Sisters shaped detours, I have gone back to music made 20 or 30 or even 40 years before, the music that all the cool people of the time probably liked from day one. But I must admit that I cannot claim to have been there at the time, in at the start of the phenomenon. Mostly I had never heard of these people! This is stuff I missed. I can now see why mums and dads never have any idea about what's in the charts. You reach a point where you stop caring and you get settled with "what you like". In the 90s I had liked guitar bands. Now that's all so much "meh" to me - although I retain an abiding admiration for Iron Maiden. This doesn't square with avant garde electronics you are thinking. But it does square with a sensibility for liking things that are not cool. Because Iron Maiden never were and never tried to be. Another link is that I like music that carves out its own niche - that can only be one act. Iron Maiden fulfill that criterion - as do Autechre.

And this is the lesson of my story - such as it is. I like music that is confident in its own skin, not overly concerned with the whims of fashion or the vacuum of popularity. I like acts that carve out their own sonic terrain and that is why now I listen to German Kosmische Musik or Berlin School. The people who made that made something different guided by their own values and choices. Their heirs were people like Autechre (via Americans who turned the German music into Electro and Techno) who had a sonic interest rather than an interest in a 3 minute song for a chart. As Sean Booth relates it, they wanted to "just plug the gear in and see what comes out rather than playing a song, we thought it would be more fun to store a ton of patterns and then manipulate the gear to create the arrangement on the spot". Put that in the mouth of the Germans at the start of the 70s and it would ring equally true. And its a mentality that I have come to have in my own, much more humble, musical offerings. It took me over 40 years to work it out.

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