Monday, September 24, 2007

Someone Must Have Left It Underneath The Carpet

What do the critics know? A Certain Ratio, often dismissed as Joy Division copyists, as perennial under-achievers, were something far more rich and strange than that.

Well, anyway, there is a good case to be made for ACR both sounding and looking (what is the more important, I wonder? I mean, in the ripe old context of pop? Paul Morley once congratulated Edwyn Collins for apprehending the significance of Simon Topping's haircuts) like Joy Division before Joy Division did (or, at the very least, developing an early sound contemporary to and independent of Joy Division, a sound that operated in similar areas.). The grey and black palette (both aurally and visually), the demob clothes and hair-cuts, the post-punk drone and buzz, the mono/baritone vocals, the lyrics wittily dripping ennui and despair? ACR looked and sounded like the uber-Factory act while Joy Division were still sporting leather trousers and 'taches. ACR got there first ...

(Actually, they got to New York and into the clubs before New Order did too ... and isn't it the case that David Byrne first picked up a taste for funk when ACR supported Talking Heads over here? See? They got there first).

The earliest incarnation, one sadly unrecorded - a duo featuring Simon 'Dream' Topping and Peter Terrell on guitars and noise generator. Eno (obviously), Kraftwerk and Wire are mentioned as influences. By the time of the first single , the mighty 'All Night Party'/ 'The Thin Boys', the band is a four piece - Topping on vocals, Terrell and Martin Moscrop on guitars (used as rhythmic rather than melodic elements) and electronics and Jeremy Kerr on bass. That's right, no drums. And they didn't need them - listen to 'All Night Party' and you can hear, already, the skeletal funk influence they would develop, carried by the fiercely scratched and pummelled guitars. Wonderful stuff.

And they found their spiritual home in Factory ... even catching Tony Wilson as manager (it was down to A Certain Ratio's good offices that he got himself a halfway decent haircut). He, for a while, loved them very much. Is the myth about him rubbing fake tan into their thighs true? "But best of all I liked the white shirts. The Thin Boys. Even profoundly heterosexual managers have love affairs with their charges", he wrote. They coulda been, they shoulda been ... up there with Joy Division. Treated like royalty.

And then they asked Wilson to find them a drummer, a real life funk drummer. Enter Donald Johnson and, for a while, ACR had it all. A perfect collision of pop and Krautrock and post-punk and funk and anything else they fancied. Precision and discipline and wit and sex and style. Fucking perfect. Before the dread spectre of 'musicianship' threw a spanner in the works they were, I insist, perfect. For a while, just a moment gone as quickly as you like. Then technique set in, the desire to get real, get authentic. It's been the death of many a great pop band, and it did for ACR.

Of course, any Ratioer is more than entitled to tell me to keep my opinions to myself ... they did what they did and, I assume, made the music they wanted to make. And made some music I love along the way. Who could ask for anything more?
(And, having said that, there is some wonderful music on every subsequent ACR release ... their Latin grooves, for instance ... stick some of their stuff on an anonymous white label 12" and give it to some trend-setting DJs and they would be raving about the wonderful rare grooves they'd just discovered).

Where does the first album proper, To Each ... , stand now? Generally regarded as a missed opportunity, by the band as much as anyone else. I love it, actually. Recorded in New Jersey and brought to perfection by Martin Hannett only for his settings to be zeroed by a hapless studio engineer (described by Tony Wilson as "that fucking six foot five hippy") just before the final mix, it is now a critical commonplace that the spark was lost then and there ... hmmm, not sure about that. The Twilight Zone funk of 'Felch' and 'Forced Laugh', the percussion epic that is 'Winter Hill' ... they all stand up today.

Of course, with the arrogance and assurance of youth, they'd already released some of their best material on a series of singles - the aforementioned 'All Night Party'/'The Thin Boys' 7"and 'Shack Up', the 'Flight' and 'Do The Du(casse)' 12"s. Who cares? They were young and talent is for burning.

'Flight', perhaps ACR's finest achievement (one of Factory's finest, too and a perfect argument for just how necessary it all was)... six minutes of transcendental hypnotic funk as James Nice called it .

Well, they looked so perfect. That means a lot - the Hungry Thirties Factory chic, the military look (all WWII khaki shorts, camouflage gear and fake tan ... it went with the trumpets, see?) that was appropriated double quick by Echo and The Bunnymen ... (if memory serves, the music press went overboard for the Bunnymen then, everyone thought it so witty), the sports gear. Trend setters every time.

It was an idea very much in the air at the time - white musicians who had been inspired by (or borrowed an impetus from) Punk bending an ear to various black musics, dub and funk and what have you and giving it a special twist. The individual stamp that comes from not playing the music in the 'right' way. ACR were among the best ... The Pop Group tried too hard, The Slits not hard enough, P.i.L. were too lazy, The Gang of Four too macho. ACR were separate ... unlike many of their contemporaries, they had a vital dash of sex, they were young and sharp, they had spunk in their funk ( I mean, they always looked clean, whereas The Slits ... they more often than not looked as if their knickers would be soiled (which, admittedly, has its own attractions)). They, also, lacked the smugness prevalent in the scenes around The Slits (The Pop Group or New Age Steppers or what have you) ... ofays sporting dreads and talking in cod Ja accents. What did Mark E. Smith say? "The grim reefer ... The Kensington white rastas run for cabs/This I have seen."

In Topping they had the perfect frontman. Why did it have to end? The same damaged choir boy looks as Barney Sumner, for a start, the wonderfully baritone vocals, an interesting lyrical stance ("My heart was just an open sore/Which you picked at 'till it was sore" ... it's a love song!), the anarchic trumpet technique, that little noise box he wielded, just the two settings, on and off. Brilliance in every moment.

But something had a hold of Simon Topping, and maybe he knew exactly what it was. Topping's gradual self-effacement from his own band, his long slow retreat into obscurity ... a power struggle with Johnson for the soul of the band? ("He retreated behind the trumpet and then behind the timbales and then behind a girl singer called Tilly" wrote Wilson). Actually, Wilson had a Romantic notion that Topping never quite recovered from the death of Ian Curtis. Who knows? Were Topping and Curtis as close as Wilson asserts? They certainly played a lot of gigs together. In any case, Topping, in his own style, wrote himself out of the picture just as surely as did Curtis, if in less dramatic fashion.

He later played with Quando Quango, appeared on a Durutti Column album and released a good (though not, perhaps, essential) Latin tinged single 'Prospect Park' ... he moved to New York, he turned up at the soundcheck for a New Order concert there (causing Barney to exclaim:"fucking hell, Simon, great haircut or what!") and then ... what? Where did he go? What does he do now? Anyone know? (Rumours, rumours ... he started a degree at Loughborough University, he became a piano tuner, he did this, he did that). I'm looking for a certain Simon Topping.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Day In, Day Out *

*or 'oh no, not another bloody piece about Joy Division'
It is always a fairly dubious experience when one's obsessions, particularly those most internalised, most personal, become public property; become, my God, spread all over the newspapers. I am happy, in the main, pottering along with a little set of interests few others care about - or, certainly, no one in my immediate enviroment, in my (God help me) peer group. As a young man, being very taken with Louis-Ferdinand Celine or, say, Kenneth Anger wasn't the best way to make friends - it wasn't, let me tell you, the quickest route to getting the girls interested.
I recall the release of Cronenberg's provocative but very flawed adaptation of Naked Lunch - suddenly you had poorly informed articles about William S. Burroughs appearing in the mainstream press ... shocking, that was, to me. I had thought I was on pretty safe ground with Uncle Bill, here was an interest of mine, surely, never designed for overground consumption.

Now here we go again - a sudden flurry (I originally wrote, parapraxis-wise, slurry) of Joy Division related activity; the imminent release of the Ian Curtis biopic Closer, a documentary about the band currently picking up awards at international film festivals, the repackaging (again!) of the back catalogue, the recent , very sad, death of Tony (that's Anthony H. to you and me) Wilson - all these conspire to push the lads back under the beady eye of Grub Street ... the one place Joy Division doesn't belong. Jesus, I even picked up a copy of The Observer yesterday to be confronted by another lengthy article about the film and the group - the second in a month or so (albeit one penned by Paul Morley and featured in the Observer Music Monthly glossy magazine ... still, it sits awkwardly between the adverts for booze, expensive sound systems and James Blunt's new album). The mainstream media, it seems to me, is particularly ill-suited to dealing with pop music - one glance over the album reviews in The Guardian, say, is enough to convince one of the futility of (in the main) Oxbridge-educated snobs struggling to get to grip with the gnarly soul of pop music - an art form both too trivial and far, far too important to be left to the mainstream.

Joy Division, and this seems such an embarrassingly obvious thing to write, was always the obsession of the loner. Every performance of theirs I saw, I saw alone - playing a copy of 'Transmission' to some friends (doctrinaire punks, in the main) to complete incomprehension, watching them perform on the TV programme Something Else to a background rumble of guffaws and laughter ... these are moments designed to make you love them all the fiercer, but alone. Joy Division's music seems to inhabit a peculiar interzone between community and solitude ... they made the sort of records designed for hunching over the stereo, alone in your bedroom. Of course, at the gigs, it used to be a shock to see others dressed in the Factory style ... wasn't that just me?
Going home on the Tube after seeing them, for instance, at the Electric Ballroom (A Certain Ratio supporting ... is this the gig I saw Simon Topping take a Coke can full on the head? "Fuck off!" he said) , who could you tell what you had just seen? No one else I knew would have cared, and it would have been hard to put it into words in any case. Was it a great gig, by conventional rock standards? I don't know, I couldn't care less ... I do know that seeing Curtis perform in that way was nothing to do with entertainment.

Factory workers taking a break

Joy Division's music, it seems to me, always sounds so bloody archetypal ... the songs sound so right, so inevitable, almost as though they had always existed and were just waiting for someone to actually hear them, to pull them out of the air and give them form. Every song, every album seems carved in stone (not, I think, merely a response to the Factory predilection for tombstone imagery) - one can hardly imagine a note, a word changed now we have them in their final, their canonical forms. As they went on (during their sadly truncated lifetime) they, unlike my beloved A Certain Ratio, seem to become more and more like themselves. The music became more and more Joy Division. Every element of Joy Division seems absolutely integral to the overall design; not just the contribution made by Curtis' lyrics and performance style but Stephen Morris' drumming (surely one of the most under-rated musicians in pop music? Up there with Moe Tucker and Klaus Dinger), Hook's bass, Albrecht's/Rubble's/Dicken's/Sumner's angular guitar ... every element fits.

The young men in situ

(The whole Factory set-up, the ethos, appealed to me; it was exactly what I was looking for - serious young men in grey and black demob clothes and Hitler Jugend haircuts, the sly sense of humour, the unapologetic high-art gloss, the groups creating a way out of the morass music found itself in after the initial charge of Punk had burned itself out, leaving us with the ludicrous and lumpen likes of the U.K Subs.
Factory artifacts were so tactile, so beautiful; the heavy paper sleeve of A Certain Ratio's 'All Night Party'/'The Thin Boys' 7", Lenny Bruce dead on one side, Tony Perkins on the other; the plastic wallet and insert of ACR's tape release The Graveyard and the Ballroom; the mysterious image adorning the textured sleeve of Unknown Pleasures; the sandpaper sheathing The Return of The Durutti Column (designed to destroy your record collection!); even the embossed sleeve of the Crawling Chaos 7" 'Sex Machine';

(and I never think of Joy Division as morbid or death-obsessed, rather as life-affirming and uplifting. They made, for my money, the most human, the most vunerable music. Paradoxically, the more electronic, the more machine-like they became, the more human. They were, for me, the real Northen Soul. I believe Curtis genuinely meant it when he sang "love life, makes you feel higher." Even now, listening to their music (and that of New Order) makes me feel alive and responsive, makes me feel moved, engages my heart and guts and brain. Isn't that what art is supposed to do?);

(and I hate all those awful rock'n'roll cliches, "live fast, die young" and all that claptrap. Joy Division was so unrock'n'roll - it was so perfect that they looked like weird bank clerks from some science fiction 1930s that never existed. They struck me as four young men who worked hard and achieved something of real and lasting value. The admirable thing about Joy Division is the honesty; they just got on with the job - playing live, practicing, recording. So much 'entertainment' these days has palpable designs on you, on your money, on your attention, on your sense of worth ... Joy Division didn't clamour for your love, didn't bully or cajole, just got quietly down to work. Art, real art, stays with us, long after the people who made it or the conditions that obtained have disappeared - stays and exists on its own terms. That's art, that's music, that's life);

(and I love Barney's description of his response when he got the phone call telling him of Curtis' suicide - "I put the phone down and went and washed my face with cold water. Then I got back on the phone and took it like a man." I like that, they had real courage, the men of Joy Division, real spine. it makes me feel very proud of the lads);

(and it's none of my business why Curtis did what he did ... perhaps, at the end, he was too tired. What is enough, for me, is that he had a hand in creating something of definitive value and meaning, music that inspires and exorts. Something that had an impact on me in ways that I can only guess at. I grew up listening to the music of Joy Division and New Order, is it absurd to think it had a part in making me (for better or worse) the person I am today? Tony Wilson wouldn't have thought so. That's good enough for me)).