11 January 2006
My Musical Education: A Book of Idiot Dreams
The West Country is musically dead and needs to be. Very few bands come this far down and no one expects them to. Music remains as exotic a function here now as it was then and I can't help but think this is a good thing. I don't want music to get too close; it can't be good for you.
It's taken a year and a half but I'm finally beginning to understand why this blog has it's name: the underkill of sound here in the sticks is what An Idiot's Guide To Dreams is all about.
The Psychogeographers ( I imagine a coherent UNIT, with a Lethbridge-Stewart at the helm, wearing safari jackets with specially designed logos, appliqued by their Mums and Wives) have swarmed into the cities and pulled them apart; digging out Lost Rivers of London, tracing imagined substance abuse routes and compulsions, dragging up history from mis-spellings and bad cartography... but they've mostly ignored the Country, letting it slip somewhere behind suburbia (the term sprawl says it all...) in the scheme of things.
No one's interested, maybe because no one's here.
Country life in general is given TV Sunday prime-time as a non-mysterious current, a Last of the Summer Wine, a Heartbeat... but that is all it's worth; an balm for the town dwellers, a dream of an escape to a softer, calmer, pastoral, feudal life where everyone knows their place...
As a teenager living in a reclaimed village on the outer edges of a 100% employment West Country town you don't have urban decay, you don't have a multi-cultural stew to chew on, you don't have the red shift in sound of police sirens, you don't have the ebb and flow of life at all as it's commonly described i.e. city life, bustle, hustle, frantic murmurings, dead folk in canals....
Even Suburbia seems impossibly exotic.
So, for me (and I suspect fellow village Idiots; we'll see) Music was never an escape from drudgery, it wasn't one of those dreams.
It was very important that the music was about nothing. It was a functionless tool, something to be manipulated and transformed into whatever shape was needed. We became rabidly eclectic in our tastes not because we wanted to buck the trends but because we weren't really aware there were any trends. The trends seemed very far away, so far that they were necessarily unnoticed.
We didn't want to feel inferior to our city dwelling cousins but we had no theory to work on. No context at all. So all that was left was to cleanse, fold and manipulate.
For this reason, I doubt very much if I'm atypical in this area of the country for failing spectacularly to have a scene. No music was mine which meant all music was mine. The nearest I guess anyone ever got was to the vaguely Ozric tentacles of the early Rave scene, even if this was always more about half nakedness in Woods and digeridoos and Traveller Buses and Crusty children and mushroom soup and fire than the M25 dangling and E deaths of Acid House history...
For most of my friends, Phorward era Shamen were the defining band of Acid House (they'll lie about collections of white labels now but still...). I can remember that even the idea of Chicago House sent chills through me. There was no way I could ever understand such smoothness. Still can't.
I've previously alluded to a lack of a defining musical moment via Steve Ovett and The Mekons and the only other even vaguely Damascan moment came with my final embrace of hippie crap through Kevin Ayers so that leaves me with....
Well, it leaves me with why I'm still hopelessly unfocused in my musical tastes. I feel embarassed by my lack of grasping hold of something, feel ashamed somehow that I still haven't really settled into a groove I can call my own.
(okay, there's Coil but I'm ignoring them for once)
So, partly inspired by the likes of this and that I've started to come to terms with my own musical education...
In Somerset, we listened to music which, shorn of context, was always used to soundtrack experience, rarely as an end in itself. We were trainspotters of sound, itching not to own but to hear and so C90s were passed around to invade each others space and as aide memoires to startling other discoveries...
I heard someone say once: 'I'm mostly into obscure 60s soundtracks...' and it made no sense at all to me. All music is an obscure soundtrack...
Clubs were hardly a lifestyle, the few gigs a social necessity rather than an exploration. Most of the time I listened to music it was outside, in buckshot fields, around fires, at the dead of night. It was on knackered portable tape players (we could never call them ghetto blasters, not even ironically) - the very idea of Bose or Bang and Olufsen still leaves me utterly deflated - "why would I want more fidelity; I like it like this..."
The music soundtracked fire jumping and hanging around Victorian follies and curious horses looking towards the tannery and local kids entering late-night cow punching competitions and the shards of left over Donkeys after the Derby. It documented the feeling you get when you're hopelessly disorientated in the middle of a large corn field, full of homebrew and fly agaric after having spun around a hundred times and you have to follow the sound of whatever's playing in the next field, just to have a hope of getting home that night...
Weirdly, I can remember what was playing that night... for some reason someone was playing that Rick Wakeman Knights of the Round Table album at a distortion level which made it sound like an ambient Merzbow... it became a beacon and I still can't bring myself to hate it anything like I should.
We did out fair share of driving but it was always dead slow - the cars we had at our disposal worked best at very slow speeds, often they would only travel backwards and we'd have to negotiate miles of country roads with only reverse gear - and it was always to somewhere. Driving for driving's sake just didn't seem to exist in this time and cars were looked on as a necessarily evil, a weak attempt to defeat hypothermia on frosty nights.
Music was listened to because without it the silence of the country was terrifying. I can remember someone switching off the stereo in the middle of a three mile hike across the fields around East Coker via the sunken drainage ditches and the sudden rush of 3 AM animal sounds freaking everyone out...
We searched out weirder and weirder sounds because they fit our environment, even if they weren't meant to. Cabaret Voltaire's first few albums say more to me about hanging around overgrown and abandoned Naval bases than they evoke the clang of steel mills. Psychic TV seemed much more about soundtracking the dead of night in the Larkhill woods than they did about sad-skin Temple activities in east London. Even things like S-Express or Altern8 remind me more of stinging nettles and smoken bracken than anything remotely urban.
And anyway, through those stereos and in that wind and with those echoes in those caves at that time in the morning everything sounded weird. Unaccompanied Bach cello concertos sounded like Pauline Oliveros nightmares, Cure b-sides drifted up like Osman Spare warblings... we digested every kind of music because every kind of person was there - our group was far too small to be of likemind - and because everything was digested, by the elements.... you try and work out the rhythmical structures and Amen-breaking of a junglist track while trying not to roll down an ancient hillfort.
Everything was assimilated and everything sounded a little like the wind.
I can remember the first time I heard Big Black I was two or three other at daybreak watching badgers when someone flicked an on button and The Power of Independent Trucking blasted out, sending them and us into sqealing rabid flusters... it's still comical music, even now.
On the other hand, the first time I heard Whitehouse was 'Right to Kill' heard from an Evil Dead hut in the middle of the woods - and it still sends shivers down my spine, no matter how much I look at the Whitehouse boys and see that they're playing it for laughs.
Mel and Kim's 'Respectable' still sounds impossibly cinematic because it documented a mini clubman being pulled from a drainage ditch after a party.
Back then, there seemed no music that evoked the countryside; nothing that deliberately played with Nature - Nature played with it, used it for it's own ends but I guess it's no real surprise that now, as a parent, when my forays into the woods in the middle of the night are reduced to the odd sojourn to freak out the kids that I find myself attracted to the likes of The Jewelled Antler Collective and the Finnish Free Folk scene... musical memes that seem to embrace the ungovernable force better than most.
Back then, everything sounded like Kemialliset Ystavat.
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