Monthly Archives: February 2017
“Memorial Device were the greatest group ever to come out of Lanarkshire (Scotland) and for three brief years — 1983/84/85 — nothing else mattered. They sounded like an unholy amalgam of Pärson Sound and Joy Division, with a frontman who has been compared to Ian Curtis.”
—David Keenan, This Is Memorial Device
You thought you were paying attention to music in the 1980s, so how did you ever miss the legendary experimental rock group Memorial Device? Indeed, how did you miss the whole Lanarkshirescene? There the scene was, percolating in “empty and echoing” small towns like Airdrie and Coatbridge — rising up splendid and green from Scotland’s rich euphonious soil, alongside some of your most beloved and essential groups, (the dreamy Cocteau Twins, the poetic Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, and the jangly Aztec Camera.)
You never knew the music of MemorialDevice, nor the proto-industrial duo GlassSarcophagus. You didn’t know the mod group The Clarkston Parks. How about punk no-counts The Whinhall Starvers, or the wasteland-edge proponents Cold Stars? You didn’t know them either, did you? Why not?
What if some of your favorite bands of the 1980s never existed? What if they were, rather, pure inventions of author David Keenan in his new novel, This Is Memorial Device: An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986 (2017 Faber & Faber). A wonderful promotional Web site is clickable above. The Web site looks and feels like an old 1980s fanzine, and I encourage any lover of fanzines, experimental fiction, modern British literature, post-punk, or what we now loosely call indie/experimental music, to click the link, too.
Within the Web site there are colorful “interviews” with the fictional band members from the Lanarkshire scene, recounting their formative days and early gigs, proudly spouting their musical influences. From the
cover page: “Keenan conjures a cast of misfits, artists, drop-outs, small town visionaries and musicians in a time where anything seemed possible. A moment where art and the demands it made were as serious as your life.” There are articles about the region’s filmmakers and its artists of the post-punk era. There are also additional links within the page to access music attributed to the bands.
A highly detailed and weird world begins to form. Through the fanzine’s use of images of actual (Airdrie/Coatbridge) locales, the attributed music, and the made up interviews and the articles, a realistic and magical vision appears of Lanarkshire and its people between the late-1970s and the mid-1980s. It is a “scorched earth, post-industrial, auraless” county that lies just east of Glasgow. And it turns out to be extremely fertile landscape for a post-punk art scene.
It reads like a miniature testimonial to the power of inspiration. These are people who feel that their own isolation and the bleakness of their surroundings could never lead to artistic vision. They forge on anyway. That should be familiar thematic territory to any fans of post-punk, and it is well done here. Checking out this site is like a form of time travel. Many thanks are due to Guy Reynolds, post-punk encyclopedia, defender of the outré, and great lover of literature, for hipping me to Keenan’s project.
Based upon checking out the Web site, Keenan’s greatest tricks are manifold. First, he is distilling and preserving this beautiful moment in time — a bountiful artistic and cultural moment. It is a moment that the involved players could not have identified as beautiful or important at the time they were living it. But remember, the involved players were not real. It is hard to believe this is fiction — it is all so reliably conceived. To give context and points of reference, he weaves in actual history, citing real bands and plunking down real artists’ names. This makes it all seem like a true series of fascinating episodes in British music that we simply missed learning about until now, and not at all like an invention.
In a recent interview the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson made an observation that, “We are collapsing under the weight of our stories,” she said. She noted that the sheer volume of information we take in at such speed (checking our phones 150 times per day!) leaves us unable to function because reference points are confused or impossible to find. We simply seek out too much information to be able to analyze so quickly.
Things are moving fast. “What’s next?!” In our devotion to “next,” we are often blinded to the precious past, and to the now. We leave ourselves room for no vision whatsoever. In such a world, it is a pleasure to come across a story like This Is Memorial Device. Here we are given documents that create a whole picture of a community, a wide-ranging series of interconnected stories and people. These stories drill down and fabricate such believable minutia that they fulfill their purpose of preserving a beautiful period of time in an important place. (Beautiful and important, even if, maybe especially if, it never existed.)
Here are some actual songs from some actual bands. Each of these would have been right at home spinning on a Lanarkshire turntable. This is a mix of Scottish acts, acts that might have influenced the Lanarkshire music scene, and a couple that the bands of Airdrie, Coatbridge, and environs may have inspired, had they existed at all.
Vitamin C by Can from Ege Bamyasi (1972 United Artists).
I Am Damo Suzuki by The Fall from This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985 PVC Records).
Beachy Head by Throbbing Gristle from 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979 The Gray Area).
Head On by Loop from Heaven’s End (1986 Reactor).
Taste the Floor by The Jesus and Mary Chain from Psychocandy (1985 Rhino).
Shallow Then Halo by Cocteau Twins from Garlands (1982 4 AD).
Static Gravity by Chrome from Red Exposure (1980 Cleopatra).
20th Century Promised Land by Simple Minds from Sister Feelings Call (1981 Virgin).
Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. the title track by Einstürzende Neubauten (1983 Some Bizarre).
Leaders of Men by Joy Division from the EP An Ideal For Living (1978 Enigma).
Cigarette In Your Bed by My Bloody Valentine from You Made Me Realize (1987 Creation).
I keep thinking of this book, too: Please Kill Me:The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain (1996 Grove Press). This is an actual documentary oral history focusing more U.S. (especially NYC) punk, starting from the 1960s. It is definitely worth a look.
21 Feb 2017
Rebellion takes many forms, and the results vary wildly. For example, much of punk’s messy ethos, and its rebellious legacy, seem in hindsight to be meaningless – shambling, loud, fast, and out of control.
At its worst, that’s all “punk” was, a screeching distraction. But at its best it inspired kids to take up a savage lens and look through it at the world around them. For instance, the songs of The Dead Kennedys and X helped expose the bloated inner workings and sometimes demonic colonial influences of the U.S. during Reagan. Those songs still have power.
In hindsight, though, many, (and maybe even most,) rebellions that seemed potent at the time they occurred now seem relatively tame. There are some you can look back at and think to yourself, “I would have supported that.” Of course, there are causes worth fighting for — civil rights during the middle of the 20th century, women’s rights right now — and there are countless rebels to admire — but some rebellions are simply mystifying because of their pointlessness.
In The Wild One, a leathery biker gang movie from 1953 that was based on actual incidents, Marlon Brando plays Johnny, incendiary leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club. The club rides into a quiet community and with their abrasive attitudes and their loud, menacing engines, they disrupt the flow of life. Why do they do it? Because they can.
With jazz music playing in the background, a town girl asks Brando, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” Without hesitation, he famously responds, “Whaddaya got?” In ten seconds, a film snippet effectively dissects, inspects, and reports on 70+ years of American generation gaps: “It doesn’t much matter what I feel, as long as I get to feel Something.” That was pretty “punk.”
Viewed now, The Wild One seems toothless and kind of corny, but the story and the film caused real people to be terrified of agitators coming in and mucking up the rhythms of their small town lives.
Here’s a recent puzzler of a rebellion: This American Life featured a story after the 2017 presidential inauguration about young social media and Internet trolls. (Trolls are disrupters, [kind of like Brando’s motorcycle gang,] who post extraneous, off-topic, and usually inflammatory messages in an online community, mainly intending to provoke readers into an emotional response or of otherwise scuttling normal on-topic discussion.) Because they kept people distracted and off-balance, trolls were hugely influential in in creating the surprising result of the 2016 presidential election. The troll’s rebellion had teeth, but their “cause” was baffling – to stir up reactions by promoting ideas they didn’t even agree with.
Why do it? “Because we can.” It is not about getting a specific response, it is about provoking any response. It is about feeling Something. It doesn’t much matter what. “Waddaya got?” They thought it was funny. It wasn’t. It isn’t. Kind of like this cynical old joke:
Q: Why are you pounding your head against a wall?
A: Because it feels so good when I stop.
The climate is right for incendiaries — things are moving fast. Some of the results of current disruptions are surely meant to distract and confuse people. Many of the results may eventually come to seem benign or even be forgotten. Surely though, a great deal of real and lasting harm is being wrought. It will feel so good when it stops.
Welcome distractions, cont’d: Listening to Wax Idols, Priests, and No Joy.
The lasting power of punk is evident in several recent and upcoming releases. This is an artistic rebellion you can get behind: making beauty from chaos. Washington D.C. band Priests are currently doing just that – not satisfied to simply build graceful songs from the rubble of musical bedlam, they are also taking the next step by making their sound essential. This music has consequences – the band wants you to (for the love of god!) feel something.
They access an impressive array of tricks from their predecessors, shaking it up, and then delivering an original sound that evokes great punk. You will hear lots of musical influences from late-70s through the mid-80s from Sonic Youth to The B-52’s – there is even boogie-woogie piano and saxophone thrown in the mix. Bow down and kneel before the awesome power of Priests.
Nothing Feels Natural by Priests from Nothing Feels Natural (2017 Sister Polygon Records).
J.J. by Priests from Nothing Feels Natural (2017 Sister Polygon Records).
One of my favorite bands has a new release set for next w
eek. Loud and lovely, the Canadian outfit No Joy will release Creep on 24 February 2017, and here is a link to the first tune:
Califone by No Joy from Creep (2017 Grey Market).
No Joy have few peers when it comes to making beauty from chaos. Here is their latest EP from a few months ago. You will be glad you clicked:
Drool Sucker by No Joy (Mexican Summer 2016).
Hether Fortune is a time machine. She leads the Bay Area group Wax Idols, and while sounding exciting and new she also channels 70s/80s rock heroines Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, and Siouxsie Sioux. Check out the urgent, beautiful echoes of Tones on Tail, Banshees, and The Cure in this great tune:
Deborah by Wax Idols from American Tragic (2016 Collect Records /cassette reissue due 17 Mar 2017 Etruscan Gold Records).
Conflagrations leap out of every poor furnace. What is this world coming to?
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts by X from More Fun in the New World (1983 Elektra).
Confront the facts we hate. Try not to get distracted. Increase loveliness.
10 Feb 2017