Thursday, 15 December 2016

ENIGMA: MCMXC a.D.





(#419: 26 January 1991, 1 week)

Track listing: The Voice Of Enigma/Principles Of Lust: a) Sadeness; b) Find Love; (c) Sadeness (Reprise)/Callas Went Away/Mea Culpa/The Voice And The Snake/Knocking On Forbidden Doors/Back To The Rivers Of Belief: a) Way To Eternity; (b) Hallelujah; (c) The Rivers Of Belief

(Author’s Note: I used the November 1991 “Limited Edition” which includes four extra remixes – “Sadeness (Meditation),” “Mea Culpa (Fading Shades),” “Principles Of Lust (Everlasting Lust)” and “The Rivers Of Belief (The Returning Silence.” These are segued from the end of the original album so cannot be avoided or skipped over. Don’t you just love “deluxe” editions?)

One question I sometimes get asked by correspondents is: why not write a book on how to listen to music? I don’t know whether such a thing is possible. There is a compilation of old writing for newspapers and music magazines which impertinently calls itself Ways Of Seeing but is anything but. Furthermore, there is a digest from the 33⅓ people optimistically or pompously subtitled How To Listen To Music.

Listening to music – as opposed to hearing it – is actually one of the most difficult tasks there is, probably because only one of our five senses, that of hearing, is required to engage in it. As Derek Bailey rhetorically asked Ben Watson in the late nineties, what do people do when they’re listening to a record (as opposed to watching a musician perform live, with its own quantity of distractions, including ones which may involve all five senses) – read a book? Make a cup of tea? In that case, all you have is wallpaper.

Instructing, or guiding, people on how to listen to music is also fraught with difficulties because music is not cinema or television, where at least two senses are required, and that of vision is always the primary one. Hence it is quite easy to write manuals like David Thomson’s How To Watch A Movie if you know your stuff, since, as Thomson points out, the attentive film viewer has to spend quite a lot of time looking at people looking at other people (this is also true, to a lesser extent, with live theatre).

But how to indicate that when listening to music, you should be listening to people listening to other people? It certainly isn’t impossible. Jazz, for instance, is primarily constructed of people listening and reacting to other people – and, if you’re a careful listener, so are such musics as folk, devotional raga and gospel. But that is one of the reasons why in the end I think jazz the best form of music, namely that it is a true people’s music insofar as you are witnessing something being constructed from a very basic foundation and put together in such a way that it becomes its own ekphrasis. When you listen to a piece of improvised jazz music, you are listening to people listening to each other. You are listening to a society forming itself, to suggest a way in which humanity might better coexist.

There are other theories, of course. Fear Of Music (Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen) by David Stubbs is a fascinating book which, when not serving as a whistle-stop tour of/rough guide to subversive art and music throughout the twentieth century, tries to find answers to the question of why people can generally assimilate modern art but seem to have insurmountable difficulties with modern music. Stubbs comes up with a number of possible explanations, including the “Original” theory, the thrill engendered by owning something unique and non-reproducible; but my kneejerk response to the question would be that, for better or worse, humans respond far more quickly and readily to visual than aural stimuli. It’s the way we’re programmed and extends into all areas of life. Always it comes down to what somebody or something looks like. Furthermore, painting, cinema and theatre demand sensory engagement – the visual focus is far more overpowering than the aural one. We can’t walk away from a film – but we can vacate the room if a piece of music annoys us. Even when it comes down to the business of music “appreciation” the visuals are of primary importance; look at your music collection and see how it is organised, how careful the colours of the sleeves you chose, consciously or subconsciously. I myself have not admitted several very worthwhile records into the house on the grounds of their atrocious cover design.

None of this, however, gets us any closer to a notion of how to listen to music (never mind “why listen to music?”). Perhaps we were better off in the days when records came with a simple cover photograph or design, track listing and (occasionally) credits. When we didn’t know – indeed, were not expected to know – the history of a record or the person or people who recorded it. One had to create one’s own mythology out of what one heard, find one’s own interpretation. My CD copy of the “Limited Edition” of the first Enigma album certainly carries little other than that – the Play School Caspar David Friedrich of Johann Zambrysk’s cover drawing, three distended quotes (one of which may have been made up) and no credits whatsoever.

Therefore, if my intention were to make sense out of this strange record, I would have little to go on apart from outside research. I would have to trust my own ears and my own experience, and listen to the music. But it’s easier said than done. So much of what surrounds the act of listening to music succeeds in shrouding or otherwise obscuring the act. We come to a piece of music with prejudices and preconceptions which we cannot unlearn or untrain ourselves not to have.


A case in my point are the Eagles (yes, I know they are strictly speaking called just “Eagles” but I suspect nobody omits the indefinite article now). For decades I couldn’t get them, having been endlessly bombarded by four or five of their songs on oldies radio during those same decades, which do distort the full picture of what the group had to offer. Hence it was with some surprise that I learned of “Journey Of The Sorcerer.”

It appears at the end of the first side of the group’s 1975 album One Of These Nights, much of which still sounds to me like a careful gallimaufry of half-decent songs and ideas buried beneath an avalanche of green triangular Quality Street chocolates. “Sorcerer” was composed by Bernie Leadon, who had joined the Eagles from the Flying Burrito Brothers – he is the umbilical link between the two, and would angrily quit the group before 1975 was out – and is a long and patient instrumental with three clear peaks, none of which is exactly identical and all of which are reached by different routes. Essentially a concerto for prepared banjo and string ensemble, very much harking back at psychedelia, “Sorcerer” is a rueful wave of farewell to any elements of country or bluegrass in the Eagles’ music, and its coda, featuring the fiddles of David Bromberg, is testament to this box being closed forever.

Whichever way the music reaches those peaks, however, the peaks become immediately familiar once they come into view for they form something very familiar indeed to people of a certain age – the music was used as the theme to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and continues to strike me as the band’s most coherent and affecting statement, perhaps doubly so when you consider that it bears no words.

Indeed, listening to the steady build-up of notes, effects and instruments, with Jim Ed Norman and the Royal Martian Orchestra sweeping into sight like a grand, benign mountain range eroding doubt, sixties and seventies finding a common cause and language, I don’t just wonder how well this would have fitted into SMiLE, but also think: isn’t this the Great Cosmic American Music that Gram Parsons once promised in its fullest realisation?

But Leadon left and was replaced by Joe Walsh, and the band proceeded towards a bombastic rock dead-end (Hotel California is Steely Dan if they had stuck to watching The Beverly Hillbillies). Nevertheless, this “Sorcerer” compelled me, even if only for a shade under seven minutes, to reconfigure their art in my mind and to do so by listening.

To this end I have attempted to give MCMXC a.D. a fair hearing. In truth I would hitherto have considered the record fortunate to have been given one paragraph of TPL. However, I was encouraged to give complacency the body swerve by what Mark Sinker wrote about the record on Freaky Trigger. As with all music writers worthy of the name, Mark made me think about the album anew, forced me to come to terms with my own prejudices. Hence this piece.

And hence also, perhaps, one of the many reasons why I was unimpressed with the record at first listen over a quarter of a century ago. Did Michael Cretu really think nobody in 1991 would have bought, let alone heard, track two, side one, of the 1976 album Paschale Mysterium by Capella Antiqua München (conducted by Konrad Ruhland)? I myself had bought a copy many years beforehand to give my then nascent assemblage of records a touch of the “exotic” – every student did that, and if it wasn’t Gregorian chanting it was the songs of the humpbacked sperm whale or Hildegard of Bingen – and so when I heard “Sadeness” (prissily re-spelt “Sadness” for the buttoned-up British market) I shrugged my shoulders and turned my attention elsewhere. The sacred and the secular; the chaste and the proscribed, two sides of the same coin, etc.; I’d been there (musically and artistically) before.

This is what I originally wrote on Popular about “Sadeness Part 1 (everything starts with an ‘e’)”:

The irony to note here is that New Age muzak, and other New Age paraphernalia, are principally, if not exclusively, consumed by the kind of person for whom spare time is an ample luxury, namely, amply rich people. Those who really need stress relief tend to find it in other, more destructive ways. “Sadness” indicates the benign, vacant tabula rasa which would become, in spurious and gratuitous misreading of the KLF, “chillout” music, the equivalent of an ice cube being gently lowered into a less pink Martini. Enigma was Romanian synth musician Michael Cretu, who had been around since the seventies, and “Sadeness” sets it all up – the soon-to-be-obligatory Gregorian chants and whalesong, the polite Soul II Soul beat (though who would dance to it?), the prettiness which could only arise from a profound misunderstanding of “Moments In Love,” and a modest attempt to “subvert” expectations as a Dire Straits guitar revs up, synthesiser chords pile up in a “threatening” manager and a Stars In Your Eyes Gainsbourg wannabe (N.B.: Cretu says only that this was “a good friend” but he does sound like Cretu himself, or, ahem, “Curly MC”) mumbles “Sade, dit moi…pourquoi le sang pour le plaisir…le plaisir sans l’amour?…/Sade, es-tu diabolique ou divin?” “Sade-ness,” you see – and the triple deep breaths which the female singer takes immediately after that question answer it…this is shag pile music masquerading as enlightenment, and about as enigmatic as Ernest Saves Christmas.

Full marks to Mark, however, for having a deeper go at the perhaps not very enigmatic Enigma. What about his proposal that 1991 marked “THE YEAR OF THE RETURN OF THE REPRESSED” – you could certainly categorise 2016 as such, and by no means in a good way; if any lesson has been taught to us over the last quarter-century, it is that it would be best for humanity if a lot of things were repressed - ?

The problem with this theory from the perspective of the album charts is that the latter more often than not seem to be the default domain of the otherwise “repressed.” Most, if not all, of the acts Mark mentions as returning to the top in 1991 as though from forced exile were actually TPL regulars in the eighties and in some cases even the seventies. But the fabric of the market differed from even two years before. For the several mega-acts who survived and prospered despite the earthquakes which rumbled beneath them, they were to find that the nineties weren’t quite the playground that the eighties had been for them. Now they had a reduced share of the market, had to plead their case in steadily more confining spaces.

But Michael Cretu had returned from the late seventies, where he had been a bit player in TPL – we’ll get back to them in this piece soon enough – and a lot of what Mark says about the resurgence of what he calls “Eurotica” is, I can vouch, absolutely true, including – or especially including – the best bits, such as Aphrodite’s Child’s 666, which is sampled at several key stages throughout this album, including on “Sadeness” and the Book of Revelations/end of the world stuff in the “Rivers Of Belief” section. By the mid-seventies these roads had diverged but it’s probable that Vangelis’ Heaven And Hell LP and Demis’ The Roussos Phenomenon E.P. were used for not dissimilar purposes. Nonetheless, the use of Irene Papas’ expectant voice on “Sadeness” – in its original setting (the track “∞”) she intones the refrain “I was, I am, I am to come” and everything is as spelled out as, though far more thrillingly than, the average Judge Dread single of the period.


One might say that such as veteran entertainers and legitimate actors were compelled in seventies Britain to appear in sub-Carry On pornographic movies in order to make a living, there was no way forward for “progressive” musicians once the dream was over except by making the apposite soundtracks. But the lines in progrotica (as I messily call it) are less defined; listening to some of the period’s more fanciful, less elusive music, one does feel that the musicians want to get a leg over the universe as well as surf it.

To the album itself, then. It begins with a Charlotte Rampling impersonator – actually one Louisa Stanley, then an executive at Cretu’s label, Virgin Records* -

*and isn’t this actually spelling it out, from the totally not ambiguous original label design inwards? Like, we did Tubular Bells a generation ago – and indeed TPL is not finished with that – when we were “all” eating cold baked beans straight from the tin in unheated squats in Notting Hill…

…but now, when all these people have prospered, in great part because they saw the Thatcher wagon coming at the end of that decade and thought it was THE SAME THING as Branson – as, indeed, did Branson (in 1973 he would never have entertained the tacky and seemingly numberless photoshoots of later times)  – the gaily-coloured NEW THING coming to change and shake up dusty old toffs (people are still being fooled by that in 2016) – who jumped on the self-loving eighties and exclaimed THIS IS ME!, who were smart or poor enough to buy houses or flats cheap in areas which would in the future become desirable, who are now rich and secure in newly-gated “communities” which they would have found unaffordable a generation before, and from which the generation following them would be priced out altogether – well, for you SAME people, here’s a Tubular Bells for the NINETIES! All smoothed out, all the disagreeable discrepancies ironed away…no barrow-spilling Windo discordant reed honks to derail you**

**(and it is notable that Gary Windo himself passed away in 1992, younger than I am now, of an asthma attack. It was as if the world had told him they didn’t want him any more.)

- and, as Mark says, this sounds like the introduction to a yoga tape, or perhaps something more sinister. “Good evening. This is the Voice of Enigma.” You almost expect her to be intoning “This is an Emergency Broadcast from the BBC. Confirmation of a nuclear attack on this country has been received…” “In the next hour,” the voice goes on, “we will take you with us into another world…”

“This is a promise. For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.”
(Orson Welles, F For Fake, 1973)

The voice does its best to hypnotise us – “Start to move slowly…VERY slowly…” – and then we are into “The Principles Of Lust,” incorporating The Hit. As for the alleged “panpipes” – which I initially thought might have been sampled whalesong –they actually turn out to be sampled shakuhachi flutes, the Japanese instrument which evolved from the Chinese bamboo flute of the sixth century, popular with the Fuke sect (yes, I know) of Buddhist monks, who used them not so much as musical instruments but as meditational tools. This section also includes stock breakbeats, noises from wildlife and the aforementioned hot apocalypse action of Irene Papas’ deep breathing.

Prog-Fusion would be a good means of categorising this music. Like that damnable genre, it turns out to be all promise and no deliverance, all expectations and no fulfilment. The tropes are set up – and nothing is done with them, in order not to upset the newly rich neighbours. I imagine Malcolm McLaren must have smiled at “Callas Went Away” and at how much better he’d done this sort of thing (and helped popularise vogueing!) on Waltz Darling in 1989, an enterprise involving Actual Musicians who were Around At The Time Of That Prog Dawn (Jeff Beck, Bootsy Collins, even David A Stewart). Here we hear the great Maria singing what sounds like something from Massenet’s opera Werther – the aria “Ces Lettres! Ces Lettres!” to be specific, while German pop star (and Mrs Cretu) Sandra indulges in more deep breathing. The conflict between what is deemed right to want and what is forbidden, perhaps? But it goes nowhere – the keyboards do not sing, there is no reaction, no listening (thus the notion that this is the first “major” album to be based around samples alone. But on something like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing you are given the notion that everybody is listening, or at least Josh Davis is listening to everybody).


It goes on. If the rainstorm at the beginning of “Mea Culpa” sounds familiar, it’s because it has been sampled from the opening of the song “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath – but, crucially, stripped of its shock, otherness and, yes, punctum, as though the seventies were a crime for which we must all pay in one or another way (the final nail in that socioaesthetic coffin is not the passing of Greg Lake – if only Cretu were able to improvise, to genuinely create [note the rhetorically-justified split infinitive], then he might understand a bit of what Tarkus strove to be about, which was the oddly logical juxtaposition of apocalypse and comedy; hence it is entirely fitting that ELP should wind up writing songs for Jim Davidson pantomimes, and if only poor Keith Emerson had better understood the ramifications of his own juxtaposition he might have been persuaded to stick around – but Kelly Osbourne asking the gay community to give Trump a chance. That, more so than an overpriced repressing [omission of hyphen intentional] of Never Mind The Bollocks crowding up the window of a discount gift shop/chainstore on the King’s Road, is the terminal cementing of Deadhead sticker onto Cadillac bumper). Instead of Iommi’s crashing chords and Ward’s stumbling-out-of-the-apocalypse drumming – or even the threatening bells – we get “Kyrie Eleison” and flutes.

The best track is “The Voice And The Snake,” 99 agreeable seconds of dislocated non-tonality and non-rhythm; or, as I better know it, “Seven Bowls” by Aphrodite’s Child. The breaking bowl leads to “Knocking On Forbidden Doors” but instead of Peter Wyngarde making sick jokes in a variety of comedy foreign accents, we are encountered with…yet more Gregorian chanting; “Salve Regina,” without any acknowledgement of the crying children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this land of exile.

Finally we get back to “Back To The Rivers Of Belief” and catharsis comes apparently in the guise of…the Close Encounters theme, said in some quarters to have been inspired by the philosophy (such as it was) of Sun Ra. But you will search in vain here for a Marshall Allen or John Gilmore to blow the complacent temple down. As with Escalator Over The Hill, earlier themes and motifs return for a final bow, though to underwhelming effect. Instead of the genuine catharsis of a Jack Bruce, we get a dreadful Renta-RockVoice hack blurting out clichés with some even more dreadful Rock Guitar. Then the inevitable Revelations stuff about the seventh seal and so forth (yet again sampled from Aphrodite’s Child, I’m afraid) – and what, as the music blandly dies in our underfed ears, have we learned? Without the remixes the record does not even last an hour, nor do we hear the returning Louisa Stanley, like the voice of Lowell Thomas surging through the finale of This Is Cinerama, telling us to switch off and hoping that we have enjoyed our “journey.”

“I did promise that for one hour, I'd tell you only the truth. That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over. For the past seventeen minutes, I've been lying my head off.”
(Welles, op. cit.)

The project appears to have been one where, quite apart from confirming everybody as equals, all art has been confirmed as constituting elements of the same beige broth.

The sleeve of the album contains three quotes; one from Freud, another from one “Father X, Exorcist, Church of Notre Dame, Paris” (who I’m not convinced actually exists) – and a misquote from Blake, demonstrating how little Cretu has understood (if he has even read) The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell.

But perhaps in the sampled elisions of 1991 music, there are more intriguing roads for Blakeisms to travel. That thing Mark said about “cheeky sonic pseudo-magick” for example.




Love’s Secret Domain appeared a little later in 1991 than Enigma, and to – at the time – little or no notice, the mainstream music press already busying itself with prioritising a refreshing return to basic, raw, honest, indie guitar rock. Its reputation steadily grew in time, however, long after it had vanished from disinterested record racks, and although it remains available as a download from Coil’s website, the CD or cassette editions now command prices liable to cause your bank manager to shudder. I don’t know where all these people were when dozens of copies, priced at £1.99 each, were sitting in the cheapo section of Selectadisc in Berwick Street for the best part of a year but there you go (the only time I have ever seen it in a second-hand record store was in Toronto in 2007, where it was retailing for a mere forty dollars).


Anyway, the initial obligatory shrug of “another Coil album, yawn” should be overcome because the record – its acronym should be obvious – is a lot of things that the Enigma album isn’t; celebratory, humorous, striking, provocative, consciousness-preserving, adventurous and at times very affecting. It begins with a slow stutter of backwards effects, like a dormant stomach reluctantly coming to life, before moving into an aural speed-read of quickfire untraceable samples and functional jazz/New Jack Swing-lite beats (“Disco Hospital”) before leading, via rocket launch noises and post-Tin Drum ritual gongs, into the first “Teenage Lightning,” actually the first of three different readings on the album of the same basic piece. This version is elementally the most basic of the three – you do get the feeling of a younger and happier Joe Meek in the Holloway Road knocking this up out of sheer Gloucester chutzpah – although I also note the extremely familiar bassline, from Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” (via “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”), a piece of music inspired by a trip made by its author to Brazil. Later on in the record, the second version (“Teenage Lightning 2”) is perhaps the most “complete” of the three, while the third (“Lorca Not Orca”) adds some Ibiza-friendly flamenco guitar- that reading represents a crawl out of the tunnel of suppression into bright freedom, all the more cherished for having been harder-earned.

It is probably reasonable to note that, although the album was systematically praised at and after the time for coming to terms with Acid House, the two core members of Coil had a keener ear on dance music trends of the time, and in many ways help anticipate some here, most noticeably in “The Snow” – like Enigma, it uses Gregorian chants, but unlike Enigma it has purpose and punctum. Some familiar-sounding piano work comes from Mike McEvoy – who once appeared on Scritti Politti’s Songs To Remember – which is a major relief following Cretu’s minimalist-to-the-point-of-inertia piano “work” (Much of the Enigma album suggests what Serge Gainsbourg, who died a couple of months after it came out, might have sounded like minus all the Serge Gainsbourg elements).

Better still is the majestically patient “Dark River” which three-dimensionalises ambient music to the point where it becomes its own omnipotent, but living, statue or monument. Like Whistler’s Chelsea riverscapes there are differing but related details in the far distance, in the middleground and close up, and all are captivating and transcendent. As with later masterpieces from its decade such as Aphex Twin’s “Stone In Focus” and μ-zik’s “sick porter,” it transfixes its listener with modest imposition, and could be as old and timeless as the song of the gods.

Other highlights include “Titan Arch” which guest singer Marc Almond holds together through sheer strength of character as the music collapses loudly around him (“Under shivering stars/The sickness is gliding” – it was probably the most avant-garde Almond had been since Psychic TV’s “Guiltless”; Peter Christopherson evidently understood him the way so many other musicians and producers didn’t). “Windowpane,” sung by Jhon Balance himself, suggests the Moody Blues outlook escorted towards a further dimension (“If you want to touch the sky/Just put a window in your eye”), but his mainly monotone-with-brushes-of-exclamatory-revelation vocal style actually points a finger directly to what Karl Hyde would be getting up to with Underworld just a couple of years later. “Chaostrophy,” despite its terrible title, is an absorbing passage from slowly-decaying elements of what might once have been described as “music” to a peaceful, oboe-led pastorale, as though the light had finally been reached and attained.

But even this music is not free of its own clichés. Little Annie (a.k.a. Annie Anxiety Bandez./etc. – her 1987 Adrian Sherwood-produced album Jackamo, currently available as credited to “Little Annie,” is ridiculously yet merrily ahead of its Björk/Goldfrapp time) turns up for “Things Happen” and has a nice time in the standard Grace Jones/Marianne Faithfull role of the woman of vague European origin caught in an exodus, or a riot, or is it just her backyard, last helicopter out of the embassy etc. (despite somebody – Balance? – uttering a desperate cry of “Kill the Creator! Send them the Bomb!” right at the beginning) chit-chatting semi-drunkenly with an old friend in Ohio (not Scott Walker or Chrissie Hynde) but there is definitely a 1983 heard-this-all-before feel about the piece. “Where Even The Darkness Is Something To See” is three or so minutes of pointless didgeridoo ambience (and not a patch on Aphex Twin’s “Digeridoo”). The listener’s ears strain to identify the dialogue at the beginning of “Further Back And Faster” but sadly it turns out to be from that old Video City indie standby Performance, and once we get to the HATE and LOVE tattoos on the knuckles it is definitely Saturday all-nighter at the Scala time.

Mr Balance brings the proceedings to an end with the title song. He cites Blake again (“O Rose thou art sick” although we get an agonised “URGH!” from the vocalist rather than invisible worms flying in the night) as well as, very predictably, Orbison’s “In Dreams” (not scary). It’s quite enjoyable in a tittering-to-onself way but overall, I would say, ends the record rather flatly. There has to be another solution.


Beyond its cover – and the subtextual notion that, with at least some Pink Floyd, musicians in the nineties were knocking on still-forbidden doors – Chill Out doesn’t really have much to do with entry #83, even though it appeared in the context of a similar period for music and art, one that KLF biographer John Higgs has termed the “liminal” period, where nothing and nobody really is in charge or setting the pace, and hence where anything and anybody can really happen and have some degree of an impact.

For the KLF this was the interregnum between Acid House and Britpop – a point at which some claimed proof that evolution was reversible – and the fact that throughout the early nineties, and during the year 1991 in particular, they were in commercial dominance. The moot point, they might have observed, is whether things were so up in the air that a couple of merry art chancers like Drummond and Cauty could be permitted to have their way.

Yet Chill Out – the KLF’s first non-compilation album under that name – can’t squarely be placed in any tidy “tapestry” or “canon” of pop or rock or even dance music history. In an interview at the time, Drummond explained that the purpose of the record was to act as a soundtrack to the day after a rave – when everyone and everything had packed up and gone and all that was left was the countryside. Remember what I said about Our Favourite Shop being music for the day after defeat – and let us not even think of the 1983 American telefilm drama The Day After, starring Jason Robards – and consider that these forty-four minutes of music might signify the day after a victory (albeit possibly a temporary, pyrrhic one).

There isn’t much to Chill Out, and yet there is everything to it – enough, at least, to convince me that this music avoids the traps in which both Enigma and Coil encase themselves. Superficially, it is the aural soundtrack to a journey, one made across the Deep South of the USA, specifically along the Gulf Coast – but, as Drummond later admitted, he and Cauty had never been anywhere near Louisiana or the Tex-Mex border (at the time) and the names and descriptions were picked randomly from an atlas, the whole being allegedly recorded in two days on anything that wasn’t nailed down in the basement of Cauty’s squat in Stockwell.

However, as Dolphy once astutely noted, once the notes are in the air, released, they are for us to breathe, and this Chill Out still seems to me to answer a lot of questions about ways of hearing which both Enigma and Coil avoid (intentionally and unintentionally, in that order and in my opinion). On the face of it, nothing much happens during the record; we hear the sounds of the outdoors, trains whistling by, automobile engines on the road, the distant noises of nature, the transient random noise bursts – or, to put it more precisely, drifts, like the continental drift – with announcements. Songs and radio broadcasts loom, shift into momentary focus and disperse into space.

From the point of view of an American journey, and given the multiple voices and references to other songs within its structure, Chill Out may even be compared with Brian Wilson’s SMiLE insofar as this may be the soundtrack to the journey of the electronic bicycle rider. There are long and languid passages of pedal steel, courtesy of “Evil” Graham Lee of the great Perth band The Triffids – and consider what we heard on the very first song on their album The Black Swan from the previous year:

“And from this window, I can see the street below
I can hear the hit parade on the radio
There's dirty dishes piling up in the sink
But it's too hot to move, and it's too hot to think.”

A similar feeling pervades Chill Out. Not until we reach the second half does anything approximating a beat appear, and then only relatively momentarily. There are separate reasons for that. But all is not as it might seem. On the radio we hear a growling man yelling to someone unspecified about the kingdom of God and money (“You have so much money, you’re gonna get scared”). There is a news report of a fatal and bloody drag racing accident (“His body was pulled from the car by a passing motorist after which the car, in flames…destroying stores...” – it sounds like the last broadcast). We get a Bible quote (“Be of good courage and be of good comfort,” inevitably making me think of Welles’ “Be of good heart, cry the dead artists out of the living past” in F For Fake), a DJ voiceover and that growling man again, who now reveals himself to be a rather ominous-sounding preacher (“Bronx New York! Get on the telephone! Call 50 of your friends! Tell all your friends who need some help! Doctor Williams comin' to the Bronx New York…I’m talkin’ to you, baby, I’m talkin’ to you, sucker…”). We also hear broadcasts from Russia and Britain.

Another layer of Chill Out is disclosed with some hindsight. At the time of its release in February 1990, the KLF had had no hit singles - if you discount “Doctorin’ The Tardis” – but the music here subtly signals to us what is to come. There are references to, amongst others, “3 A.M. Eternal” – the bathysphere bleep becomes a moving siren to lost drifters everywhere – “Last Train To Trancentral” and “Justified And Ancient.” It is a disguised greatest hits compilation before the hits had even happened or existed. Had anybody done this with pop before?

There are recurring electronic motifs, but also…the sound of pop music, the aura that it gifted on those listening in prefabricated post-war bedrooms, or tuning into pirate stations on their Walkmen. In many ways, Chill Out commemorates lost pop, and maybe some of its umbilical ties to what became progressive rock – there are Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, playing “Albatross,” that unassuming Santo and Johnny in Chess Studios tribute that needed so words and whose tom-toms sounded like the biggest possible heartbeat, which the Shadows wished they’d thought of first – they split not long after the record came out – which went to number one towards the end of a decade where everybody was beginning to feel lost, whether the crippled, dying Vietnam vet of “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town” or the plaintive, self-sacrificing father of “The Deal.”

In that latter chart – almost the last of the sixties – we also find “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac. A year after “Albatross” and Peter Green is clearly troubled. But the elements which turn up on Chill Out are those of the seldom-played “Part II” – the slow, patient guitar adagio with eventual Morricone-type orchestrations, from the album which helped give Then Play Long its name. As with some of Derek Raymond’s protagonists, one gets the feeling that Green is approaching his willed burnout, his end (and yet, at the time of writing, everybody involved in that record is still alive and well!).

But the aura here is increasingly troublesome. Also from 1969 we hear, in the distance, Elvis with “In The Ghetto,” and I am back in my orange sunlit bedroom, lying on my bed and listening to Fluff Freeman counting down that week’s charts, absorbing what is going on and attempting to make some kind of sense out of it before dinner is ready. The lost Elvis, or the Elvis who temporarily found himself before becoming lost again, singing a song of loss, about losing even by being born (Bobby Womack plays the guitar) – the lost past, coming back into focus. Other interjections, such as the repeated “After the love has gone,” come from a Boy George record (“After The Love” by Jesus Loves You), remind us that somewhere it is turning into the nineties.

There, however, unmistakeably coming into view, the source of all the pain – “Stranger On The Shore,” a hit record before I existed and one of the first pieces of music I learned to play. The tune was not specifically written for a children’s television series – it was initially called “Jenny” in honour of Acker Bilk’s daughter – but was used as the theme to one. Stranger On The Shore was actually about a young French au pair coming over to live and work in Brighton and having to deal with the striking cultural differences (one of its leading actors, Richard Vernon, would later appear in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) but the music far outlived the show’s premise and became a symbol of the wonderful new world that 1962 seemed to promise (prior to the brutal near-quietus in October), a future that promised to be better than the one which people got, and yet the record was also a connecting vessel to the past – the unexpected and ambiguous final chord change suggests “Sleep well, Britain” as surely and uncertainly as Mantovani’s “The Theme From Moulin Rouge” had done nine years before.

“Stranger” was also heard on the Apollo 10 lunar module and perhaps its reappearance on Chill Out signifies a marooned satellite, doomed to orbit around our sky forever. But this is largely a story of pop without the rock ‘n’ roll – until right at the end, when we hear a looped guitar figure which turns out to be a sample of “Eruption” from the first Van Halen album – Van fans will know that this segues straight into their “You Really Got Me” – which in 1978 was the nearest most of America got to “punk rock.” Above them we hear the reassuring tones of Tommy Vance – “Rock radio…into the nineties…and beyond…”

But wait! Tommy Vance? Out here on the Gulf Coast? And what are those Tuvan throat singers doing there…and when did we hear sheep in the Deep South? The cover betrays more than it thinks you know, for towards the end of the album, although we still hear interjections from, inter alia, Jerome Moross’ theme to The Big Country, we also hear the sound of a very un-American rain and windscreen wipers – and we realise that it has become dull and overcast and that we have been in grim-up-north-and-south Britain all the time. The incremental autumn is as unexpected and moving as the second side of New Gold Dream. The journey moves on, but at an increasing distance, as though the disappearing world were saying goodbye.


In retrospect, it is probably best to view Boney M as an art project. Here is a world where the base matter of pop music – be it “No Woman No Cry” or “Heart Of Gold” or “My Cherie Amour” or “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” or even “Dreadlock Holiday” – is treated as a catalyst for commentary on pop music. The concept probably rocked better than the reality, but from “Nightflight To Venus” onwards there was this obsession of escaping the world, the planet – and a few years later in the eighties something like “Exodus (Noah’s Ark 2001)” will reinforce this urge.

Boney M – a group whose backing musicians once included Michael Cretu – were, as far as Britain was concerned, on a dying fall in 1981. An album with the unwieldy title of Boonoonoonoos was recorded, but by the time of its release Bobby Farrell – effectively the mouthpiece of the group’s creator Frank Farian, in a Charlie McCarthy sense – had left or been fired (depending on whose story you believe) with no meaningful group left to promote the record.

No doubt “We Kill The World (Don’t Kill The World),” released in November 1981, had its eye on a late Christmas number one, but it wasn’t to be – without promotion and with the single too long for regular radio airplay, it stalled at #39, and the group did not register another original single in our Top 40 thereafter. The song comes in two parts – the first begins with some odd, deep electronic thunderclaps, and then Farian’s voice of bass doom enters: “I see mushrooms. Atomic mushrooms. I see rockets. Missiles in the sky.” It could almost be Killing Joke.

The music builds up and then breaks into…an early Bucks Fizz trot. The singers bark out protests against the destruction of nature, etc. before a curiously uplifting-sounding chorus. This carries on for a bit before it stops dead, and then a child’s voice, having some problems with pitching, enters with a plaintive “Don’t kill the world” plea. He is joined by a children’s choir – actually it was just two singers, Brian Paul and Brian Sletten, plus lots of overdubbing and then we get into a “We Are The World”-anticipating handclap hymn song.

One understands what Farian is trying to achieve here, but the English-is-not-one’s-first-language trope is harder to overlook than Abba or Kraftwerk. “Do not destroy basic ground,” “Don’t just talk/Go on and do the one,” “Pollution robs air to breathe” – there is a fumbling sense to all of this which is quite touching but the production holds back too much, the rock guitar stays in the background and aesthetic salvation isn’t quite attained. “The Land Of Make Believe,” which Bucks Fizz released in the same month and which went to number one in the New Year, is much tougher, scarier (there is no real happy ending) and overall hipper. Nonetheless, this is one of the roads which leads to Enigma – an artefact whose religion isn’t holy, whose sex isn’t sexy, whose music is more wallpaper than music. Ultimately Enigma failed because its creator couldn’t keep his eyes off the mirror. Coil at least endeavour to trespass and question, and even have some worthwhile fun in the process. But if you want to know why the world shouldn’t be killed, in the last two seconds when you might only have time to notice the sirens sounding, then Chill Out – of all artefacts! – best maps out the reasons why it, and life, and progression and punctum, might still matter. We simply have to reach out – and find our ways of listening.

 

1 comment:

Stolen Guitar said...

Thanks, Marcello, for leading me to Aphrodite's Child and, perversely, an appreciation of Demis Roussos!Growing up in the Britain of the latter half of the 20th century, Demis had always, prior to this day, been an unwelcome and unwanted joke in my cultural development. Vangellis, of course, was acceptable because of his Blade Runner work and, to a lesser extent, Chariots of Fire, but Demis really was a no-go zone for a Bowiephile and nascent punk such as me.

I'm quite ashamed and embarrassed now, in hindsight, about my complete ignorance of Aphrodite's Child. I was familiar with the name but stupidly just assumed them to be some god-awful combination of Europop/prog/Munich Machine/Baccara, etc that seemed to exist purely to push Flick Colby and her lithe-limbed troops to achieve ever more desperate and tenuous links between the meaningless pap that our ears were hearing and the graceful and well timed but sexless pas de deux's that the girls were creating on screen.

And, yes, I guess I was throwing the baby out with the bath water a little back then, because Vangellis, Farian and co. did merit some attention and respect. Which is more than can be said of Enigma. At the time it was described as shagging music by people who may have known more about these things than I do, but to my ears it just sounded bland, generic and about as far away from a stiffy as you could possibly get, the Funky Gibbon notwithstanding. So, I'm glad you've revealed the uncredited and unacknowledged sources for Cretu's pilfering yuppie toss.

And I, too, have struggled with the Eagles. I think they're the Mars Bar to Parson's mango; one leaves us ultimately dissatisfied and feeling a little disappointed, if not unclean, while the other satisfies all our sensual, nutritional and virtuous wants. Crude, I know, and other fruits are available, but the gist is the same. But I love Lying Eyes; I don't know why and I know I probably shouldn't, but there you go.

Now, Forever and Ever is another question...!

PS Related but a little off-point; have you ever known a Pink Floyd fan that wasn't an ex-grammar or public school boy (and I do mean 'boy', as I've never encountered any women, thank goodness, that like them)? I only ask because of other critics'(Morley and others that I can't recall right now) observations about the 'class' distinctions in the pop world of 70s Britain. I, a comprehensive boy, was, alongside all my classmates, a devoted fan of the singles chart in the 70s and only became aware of the bizarre and inexplicable Floyd phenomenon once I started to socialise with more advantaged sections of society in 90s London. It's an interesting observation and, given that class is so intractably and stubbornly ingrained in the whole of British life, one that has not, to my knowledge, been fully explored. Any thoughts?

By the way, very glad that you're back. Found you through the Dame, which is coming to an end soon, so very happy that you're still writing. Thanks.