Friday 19 September 2014

Poem: 'Page 24' - based on a Vietnam War photo

PAGE 24 

 – Nick Ut’s picture of naked Vietnamese girl 
 running from Trang Bang Napalm strike 
 8th June 1972, in photo-journalism retrospective 

she dies 
in full color 
between the Sanyo 
and the Nissan ads, 
the fine fire of her hair 
caught by gravure, delicate patterns 
scream across imitation glossy paper, 
taken spontaneously in bad light, 
toning the anger with shadow, 
the slight over-exposure blur 
freezes motion, adds the 
authentic immediacy of 
committed directness 
to her eternalised 

readers with its 
radical chic dissent, 
its validity of stance, no 
longer the stuff of awards, 
ten years ago perhaps, 
but good copy 

there’s always 
the chess 

 Earlier version published in:
‘GRAPESHOT no.3’ (Australia - Sept 1975)

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Music From Sheffield: THE BOX remembered (1983 interviews)


You know this scene from television…

Concrete and glass hung mountain-high right out into space. Fashion-lepers pacing the crosswalks. Others slink under perimeter-wire and track across mud-slick flowerbeds into this anaemic white strip-light apron. Plate glass doors, corridors and staircases going on down to this planet’s core. I’m plea-bargaining with Official Heavies with the great barrier riff jack-hammering through the wall…

Then into the hygienic cold cavern of learning beyond.

Box on stage at the Sheffield University Students Union on accumulating momentum.

Unannounced, Charlie Collins, shock-bearded as a Russian anarchist, shrapnel bomb in alto, black face-fungus foaming luxuriously deep over black bib-‘n’-brace overalls and striped red-‘n’-black blazer, bayonets the mike with the bell of his sax and feeds a metallic patchwork wind-up into the air. A technique of tuning in, catching the rabble unprepared – off balance, that he used in his prior lifetime with Clock DVA. Then guitarist Paul Widger whips in, a red and orange Gibson, a chaotic autowreck of jaggedy-splinters fragmenting into abrupt chopped-up spat out staccato bursts of electricity wrapped around Terry Todd’s depth-charge Fender bass. A vague Jona Lewie lookalike, Todd spins and dips, to a sound to put your spine on the line, make your backbone flip.

Vocalist Peter Hope wears gold-rim reactalight spectacles and red braces, clings to the mike-stand in a double hand-lock like a man on fire. He ditches his red knitted skullcap and is stark bald beneath but for a single full-frontal quiff. He brays cut-ups of phrases in a voice of sand and glue with a kickback like he’s biting concrete, a voice that goes suddenly geometrical and continues out beyond point ‘x’. Language twists around his tongue like a live thing following a zigzag wandering course that recedes further and further from literal meaning until it’s hanging right over the edge – then jumps back into time. Copping its definitive position between the double-key control of horn and guitar, between outset and finale. Words like ‘atonal’, and ‘extreme’ suggest themselves, with comparisons yet more elusive, though Beefheart is possibly in there. Quotes come unbidden – like Arthur Miller’s ‘Art is made of conflict. It is not made of what we call pleasure.’ Yet in print it all melts down tarnished and devalued, before the sheer non-linear intensity of short antagonistic two-to-two-and-a-half-minute numbers ragged out with lacerations of adrenalin. A Satan’s laboratory in flame-out, no coasting in neutral, tripping out all tricked out in primal assaults so brief they hurt.

Remember ‘if it’s square, we ain’t there’?

Now forget it. With a chart EP – ‘No Time For Talk’ (Go! Discs VFM1, January 1983), due to be followed this month by their first album – ‘Secrets Out’ (Go! Discs VFM4, May 1983), squares they ain’t. Box is shaping up to be what 1983 sounds like.

‘Somebody wrote that Box ‘is for Rock fans only’ which I thought was terrible, a really diabolical comment’ growls Hope, voice like acid burns. (Slumped back heavy in the upholstery, slow, languorous, white-flesh of some recumbent Buddha. White shirt, tie held in place by gold clip.)

‘Yeah. It was a review we got. A really silly thing to write. We don’t mind good constructive criticism, but something as misleading as that, you just think ‘JESUS WEPT. HE’S WRONG! HE’S WRONG!’ Our music can appeal on a very basic level,’ Winged-Eel Widger rationalises. He’s the most verbal Box (short disciplined brushed-back blonde hair, denim jacket). ‘Some people like our music because it’s intricate and they find that interesting. Other people like our music just because they like the beat and the general noise of it. Which is fair enough.’

He shrugs, spears me with cautionary accusation. ‘This is the problem with interviews – it can present us as rather arty, when in fact the way we view it is…’ Suitably chastened I await the approved Party Line, the correct attitude I’m to assume. ‘The individual bits that we put into it aren’t that important, it’s the overall effect. You can listen to it on – not a superficial level, but you can just GET INTO IT if you like without ripping it open and saying ‘what’s he doing here?’.’

‘It’s just something that can appeal to the primitive’ offers Roger Quail, who eases gradually into the conversation as barriers come down. (Sheffield-steel bright, incisive, dark hair razored back at the temples. He produces the stable pulse-drumbeat to Box gems such as “Unstable” or “Limpopo”.)

All classic Rock has been intuitive, inspired accident, I agree. A distillation of the moment, rather than the technique behind it. but Rock is now near thirty years old, and it can’t escape self-awareness. It has technique as well… ‘We are not interested in technique’ rebukes Widger. ‘Talking about technique is a bit silly really. It’s irrelevant. Some things we play are very easy. Other things are difficult. It doesn’t MATTER. Personally I like to play things that are easy as possible. The simpler it is, the better. Simple ideas are usually the best. Our music is not really over-the-top or over-complicated. Some…’ he admits, ‘would disagree…’

--- 0 --- 

Argument, disagreement, don’t come into it. Consciously or not there IS depth in Box – though it’s not necessary to overdose on it to appreciate the sound. The depth is both in the music, and the genealogy. At one point Paul Widger recalls the first time I wrote him up for ‘Hot Press’, ‘there was only a handful of local groups then, now there’s loads.’ And as that might indicate, it’s difficult to write about Sheffield without coming up against some cross-references. Stretching back as far as 1976, that initial handful of groups can be pared down to Cabaret Voltaire, and Future. After taping an innovative, bizarre and as-yet unissued album, Future bifurcated down the centre spawning Human League and Clock DVA (‘The Golden Hour Of The Future’, including “Blank Clocks”, “Dada Dada Duchamp Vortex”, “4JG” and others, eventually appeared on Black Melody Records, October 2002). Clock DVA consisting of ex-Futurians Adi Newton and Steven James ‘Judd’ Turner, plus the Box nucleus of Paul, Roger, and Charlie (Collins, already a veteran of ‘loads of local Soul, R&B and Jazz bands…’).

But ‘I think these connections you keep referring to are a bit misleading’ insists Paul. ‘That is going back a hell of a long time!’ But Clock DVA DID record with Cabaret Voltaire ‘on a four-track machine when Western Works wasn’t quite as sophisticated a studio as it is now,’ resulting in a slice of dense psychotic aural terrorism called “Brigade” – issued on ABC’s Neutron label. Following the critically successful album ‘Thirst’ (Fetish, January 1981), and ‘Judd’ Turner’s death from a heroin habit, the band imploded. Some previously unreleased material from this time survived, to be included on ‘The Last Testament’, a multi-artist compilation from Rod Pearle’s Fetish label (FR2011, live versions of “The Opening” and “Remain-Remain”, April 1983). But in the meantime, Adi retained the name for a new more Funk-orientated line-up, while simultaneously Box came into being, Terry Todd reinforcing the initial trio from a band called the Chants. You with me so far…?

‘We’re more interested in your writing about the Box as a new group, rather than relying on what we used to be in Clock DVA’ – from Roger Quail. ‘It’s history now. We’re pointing forwards.’ But (for the same of symmetry) I can’t resist a final poke. Talking to ABC recently there’d been gossip about the current DVA, inked to Polydor as their ‘token weirdo band’ – existing in a limbo position, with the label at a loss about how to market them. Widger won’t be drawn. ‘Possibly. That’s their concern, they’re really nothing to do with us now. They’re happy with Polydor, and we’re happy with Go! Discs, so everybody’s happy. That’s alright. Isn’t it?’

--- 0 --- 

The first Box gig in its current, and probably permanent incarnation, was October 1982 at Sheffield’s ‘Leadmill’ co-op centre, followed by dates at the Brixton ‘Fridge’, and a scattering of gigs in Holland. Box was named by Charlie Collins, the original ‘white soul in a black suit’. But prior to finding Peter Hope they led an unstable germination period, including a brief vocalist hook-up with Ken Bingley, and another that brought the Cab’s Stephen Mallinder into Box. ‘We were never really a four-piece’ recalls Widger. ‘We were always looking for a singer. We wouldn’t have performed without a vocalist, but Mal (Mallinder) was only temporary. It was understood between us. He did – what was it? two gigs with us. I think he’d have liked to do more but it wasn’t possible with his other commitments’ (he sings “Something Beginning With ‘L’” on the ‘Secrets Out’ album).

How did that instability affect the evolution of the Box sound? Was there a basic set flexible enough to accommodate the changes? ‘Well, when Pete came in, some of the numbers were the same as what we’d done with Mal. He just put his own vocals over it. He wasn’t copying what Mal did at all – it was different. None of us – the original four, consider ourselves talented lyricists, so rather than make a bad job of what we could do, we thought it was better to wait until we found a lyricist who was happy to do it. It wasn’t so much a problem, we just had to find the right person. It took us a long time, but eventually… we found – Peter!’

Hope’s contribution is startlingly effective, selecting words with lethal economy. The stark stripped-down brutalism of the charting “No Time For Talk”, clear through to the hot-wired surrealism of “Water Grows Teeth” and “No Sly Moon” on ‘Secrets Out’ (as the first name-artists to be signed to ex-Stiff records conspirator Andy MacDonald’s Go! Discs). Quail explains that within Box there’s no writing axis, writing ‘is all done together.’ And – to Hope, the lyric method is ‘just getting the right feel. When you’ve rehearsed a song a lot of times you get to understand what’s going on – and I fit things in according to the music they make. Some songs don’t need much, vocal-wise. The voice is basically just another instrument.’

But then, the lyrics he’s written are mixed so far down it’s often difficult to decipher them, like you need subtitles in Ceefax. ‘That doesn’t frustrate me. Our songs aren’t – like, words and music. Separate. It’s everything together. It’s not very useful to split them apart. A lot of the words are used as a sound anyway, more than as a direct message. I structure lyrics to complement, or echo what else is going on. I’m not trying to say anything blatant with an obvious message. If we ever wrote anything with a deep message then we’d maybe do it in a different way. But at the moment, that’s the way I like to work.’ A wall-of-sound strategy with words infiltrated for their phonetic qualities? ‘Yeah. But it’s not like just saying ‘I’m writing a total load of crap just because the words sound good’. It DOES have meaning, but at the same time it’s equally important to make sure it sounds right. It’s expressing the situation that’s around you.’

‘The positive statement comes out of our music’ agrees Widger. ‘People say our music is very modern, very 1983, and in that sense it’s up to date. Being political is not just singing about Margaret Thatcher. You can express it musically through the tension and the general feel of it. The Jam’s approach was completely different, for example, it was a ‘writing on the wall’ thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but our way is different.’

When John Peel played Box sessions he said they ‘worked from familiar reference points’. To me, that suggests Captain Beefheart. ‘That’s what he probably meant. Whether you agree with him, or we agree with him, is another question.’ So let’s ask that question. What reference points WOULD you admit to? DOES Beefheart figure in there? ‘Partly. We like Captain Beefheart. But we don’t make any deliberate attempts to copy…’

Quail rescues the drift. ‘It’s never been, like you see in a paper – MUSICIAN: and a list of influences. Because we happen to like certain people we never formed with the intention of trying to sound like them. You just bring along your own things, and they get – tangled around. And everything gets strained out into the sound we produce now.’

Which encapsulates it. Box ARE what 1983 sounds like. Not the artificial sound-footage you get when you tune into your Top Forty station. The airwaves still operate on the 99% is crap consensus principle. The lowest common aural denominator. Box don’t, and probably never will make good daytime programming material. In this sacrilegious era of mass plagiarism, they’re too extreme for that. Too hard and demanding.

Neither are they a fad tinsel band to get splashed across glossy fan-mag covers for the month’s duration of their fashionable currency value. I can’t ever see THEM making a complete three-minute promo-video episode of ‘The Professionals’ (replete with car chases and thefted ‘Blow Up’ motif) – and yet neglect to make a decent single to go with it. Box are concerned with sound. Sound so puritan-strict that on a scale of 0-to-10 Bo Derek would get around three. Bo Diddley might get more. A sound that is the near-perfect distillation of what 1983 is REALLY like. The tension screwed down on compression, the adrenalin overload, the subversive burn of frustration, the sadistic energy, the harsh complexity and the complex harshness all dismembered and reconstructed in white-heat anger. They define it non-verbally, yet so accurately, so intuitively, you only recognise it through the catalyst of their sound.

Also, despite their denials – I contend that Box retain the most elemental and vital fragments of Rock’s central nervous system. Although Rock is now too old and well-used for naivety, Box absorb the much-abused skeleton of its haunted past and furiously wig it out into the only zones possible thus far into the decade. They are the essence of 1983 in the way that ‘Blonde On Blonde’ is 1966, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ is 1972, or ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ is 1977.

Yes, they are THAT good…

Album review of: 
(Native NTV28, 1987) 

For those who lost hope when Capt Beefheart went absent-without-brain into abstracts, and for those who can’t decode the electro-pulse of passing Cabs, here’s two new Hoodoo Guru’s. Here’s a crash-course in creative dementia with rhythms chattering the language of chaos in meltdowns of awesome power – ‘hear the frame shake and groan, here the floor BENDS’ (“Numb Skulls”). Peter ‘The Voice’ Hope – formerly the bellow of Box, has a vocal styleé so over the top it’s out somewhere beyond Saturn, spanning octaves with an abruptness that hurts, low exhaust-trail rumblings accelerating through vast black wind-tunnel howls, with a surreal word-scramble targeted to irradiate the nerve-ends – ‘put your head in a noose, hang loose! …one vein to a drip, and one vein to a tap’.

And it’s all sound-tracked with a hyper-stimulus of seize-the-instant sequenced shocks programmed by Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard H Kirk who takes modern musics AND GUTS IT until each beat-per-minute strikes like surface-to-airwave missiles. A scattered debris of sonic architecture well-wired to weirdness, and even when Beefheartian analogies surface through the mix there’s some destabilising vox-tricks that even ‘Trout Mask Replica’ can’t replicate. He sings ‘sand drums on hot eyes’ (“Fifty Tears”), then he sings ‘it’s your face in my mirror, and it’s your comb in my hair’ (“Cop Out”), he sings of “Leather Hands” and “Surgeons”. Some’ll dismiss it all as ‘specialist’ music, but there’d be a lot more specialists attuned to its uniqueness if they’d give it a chance.


Those who watch foreign movies on ‘Channel 4’ for the right reasons will recall the student party scene in the French ‘Lacemaker’ (1977, Dir: Claude Goretta). An attempted intellectual lectures at inordinate length expounding the apparently obvious idea that we live our lives in a series of ‘boxes’ – schoolroom, flat, car, office, coffin. His rapt and enraptured audience, all long black hair and existential dark shades, then debate the political and sociological significance of this boringly mundane concept of Cubism. Perhaps something got lost in the subtitles…?

Us in the know have been aware for some time that Box is important.

‘It was just a name that was short, punchy, easy to remember,’ explains guitarist and main policy spokesman Paul Widger. ‘Because at the time we chose it there was a trend to longer, more involved names. We wanted something short and snappy. I don’t think we could’ve done much better than Box. It’s got a different interpretation for everybody.’

‘The overtones start to come in’ agrees Roger Quail, the dark, deceptively slight drummer. ‘It’s television. It’s inner space. It’s things like that. But that was never the intention when we christened us-selves. It was just something very very simple. There aren’t many three-letter words that end in ‘X’…’

I offer ‘Hex’? But Poison Girls got a pre-emptive strike with that one.

Box is the Sheffield five-piece who first broached the Indie lists with a garishly Peter Care red ‘n’ silver-sleeved five-track EP. Its titles hinting at its ingredients – “Hazard”, “Unstable”, “Burn Down That Village”, a dense morass of rabid rhythms collectively called ‘No Time For Talk’ (Go! Discs VFM1, January 1983). A furiously wigged-out jarringly stop-start sound shot full of dark hordes of jazz. A fast-forward sound that kicks the door down, lambasts eardrums and rearranges brain-cells. A sound so intense it derailed some reviewers, but the to-critical-mass-and-beyond approach now flared wide-screen on their first album should make converts. Box defy category, compartment, pigeon-hole, or geometrical preconceptions.

Their sound symmetrically counter-balances the taped disco soundtrack casting its stupid wrap-around glow over the licensed lounge where I meet the group. ‘No Time For Talk’ perhaps, but we cram in plenty of backchat prior to their onstage set.

Vocalist Peter Hope, who’s sat wall-eyed through most of the conversation, leans forward, his single gold cross earring exploding the light beneath the turn-up of his tight red knitted skullcap. He offers some sign-posts. ‘There’s been reference to us, trying to lump us in with people like Sex Gang Children and Southern Death Cult – which is pretty well off the mark. Seems like a need to categorise bands into their own little box.’ No added overtones intended. The ferocity and attack is ‘just the way we play, and how we’ve always played. It’s natural, not something we work on.’

But other critic’s analogies with the Rip Rig & Panic New Jazz thing are just as emphatically booted. ‘In various songs there’s room for improvisation, or different expression. But it’s not like wild free-form or anything. Most of it’s written. It’s pretty tight.’

‘A lot of crap goes under the banner of improvisation these days. Idiots with trumpets. We find it more interesting playing to a strict discipline,’ expands Widger. And for good measure ‘we don’t like to consider ourselves part of a ‘scene’ in Sheffield either. It’s not that we’re snobby, but we like to remain totally independent from that. I don’t think we’re like any band in this area at the moment. There isn’t one that’s vaguely similar to us.’ Geographically that’s true, but last time I saw Quail, Widger, and bearded saxist Charlie Collins, they were components in the magnificent and hugely underrated Clock DVA. Some of the fanatical commitment of that group seems to spill over into their second coming with Box. ‘Partly, yes, there are slight similarities’ agrees Widger grudgingly. ‘Some of the basic ideals are the same, we haven’t compromised or anything. But that’s history now. We’re pointing forward. We think of Box as a completely new thing.’

There is, however, one further link between the two lifetimes – Psychic TV producer Ken Thomas. He was responsible for DVA’s first album, the neglected classic ‘Thirst’ (Fetish, January 1981). ‘Yes, that’s how we got to know him. We’ve no longer got any links at all with Fetish 9the label run by Rod Pearle, which issued early DVA and Throbbing Gristle tracks), but when we wanted to record as Box we thought we’d like to use Ken again. One of the good things about using him this time around is that studio time is extremely tight. We didn’t have long to work on it, and it helps if you’ve got a working relationship already established. It means you can go straight in and get on with it rather than getting to know each other first.’

‘As a result’ says Quail, ‘our album was recorded at Jacob’s Studios in Farnham over just nine days (from 15 October 1982). And it’s called ‘Secrets Out’ (Go! Discs VFM4, May 1983). The track extracted for the ‘NME’ compilation ‘Racket Packet’ – “Out”, is one of the songs we recorded then, put out as a bit of a taster, y’know…’

‘It’s different for us as well if you think about it – having short songs, if you’re gonna do an LP, you’ve got to have a lot more of them. You can’t just stick down four basic riffs and develop an album out of it. It takes a long time because we take a lot of care over what we write, and we reject a hell of a lot of stuff. So coming up with twelve songs is a tall order.’

‘…We actually recorded thirteen tracks with the intention that – just prior to the LP coming out, one of the tracks (“Old Style Drop Down”), would be remixed and released as a single with a different ‘B’-side which isn’t on the album. I think we’re all happy with the sessions. It was pretty much different to the ‘No Time For Talk’ five-track we did. The sound’s different.’

Some of that newly-vinylised material was unleashed live at the ‘ICA Press Gang Week’, when Box mugged the audience with a shock set sandwiched between a cliquishly diverse circus of performers – and the upwardly mobile JoBoxers. Peter – as a Londoner, the only non-Sheffield accent in Box, found that audience ‘stand-offish, a bit unsure. It was a very strange night.’

‘We were invited to do it, to kick the evening off to a good start’ relates Quail. ‘To make an impact, because the rest of the evening was taken up with Poets, Skiffle groups, that sort of thing. We went on at some ridiculous time, I think it was about eight-o’-clock when the people had just come in off the street and hadn’t warmed to it all…’

‘…And we just played a very very intense set,’ from Peter.

‘We played it very straight, in from the top. No mercy at all,’ from Roger.

‘It was a bit much for some people, they were expecting a hip-type Funk outfit or something. And they got us instead! That’s quite funny. But I thought it was great myself.’

Is that high-energy, short-number, pressure-cooking technique a deliberate strategy? ‘No. they just turn out like that. We don’t flog things to death. We cram a lot of ideas into a short song, so there’s no reason to drag it out to ten minutes.’

On the ‘back to the Ramones’ principle? A disintegration into laughter. But isn’t it more satisfying to allow a song to evolve, to explore and develop it? ‘That’s a very traditional point of view’ Widger rebukes. ‘There’s no ‘getting into’ a song – you’re into it from the word GO! We know what we’re doing. It’s not like two-minute improvised pieces most of the time. It’s written pieces.’

‘There’s a lot in every song’ agrees Hope in a slow drawl that’s rusted around the edges. But the method of song construction ‘varies’.’

‘Usually we start either from a drumbeat or a guitar part – usually, but not always.’ Paul Widger. ‘Sometimes it’ll be (Terry Todd’s) bass or Charlie’s saxophone. Then everyone will think about it and sit around it, see how it grows. Everyone is very actively involved in the writing process. That’s the only way it works for us. It wouldn’t work if one person was writing apart.’

‘We’re still not working at us full capacity’ opines Quail. ‘We’re only warming up in a way…’

Widger closes emphatically. ‘There’s loads of things we can do. And we will do…’

Boxes – whether social, political, or journalistic, only dominate lives if people allow them to. Box bust out beyond all such restraint. Box defy the process, they draw up their own rules, and MAKE them work. That’s what makes them so unpredictably exciting. It may be only halfway into the year, but already their kind of cubism is the shape for 1983 hereabouts.

(Published - in Italian, in ‘Rockerilla’)


Box were formed in 1981 in Sheffield out of the ashes of Clock DVA. DVA members Paul Widger (guitar, vibraphone), Roger Quail (drums) and Charlie Collins (saxophone, flute, piccolo flute) recruited new member Terry Todd (bass) and tried several vocalists including Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire before deciding on Peter Hope. Widger had also recorded as part of They Must Be Russians as ‘Paul Russian’, on the January 1979 EP ‘Nellie The Elephant’ (Not On Label RVS001) recorded at Western Works

January 1983 – THE BOX: NO TIME FOR TALK (Go! Discs VFM1, 12” vinyl EP) with “No Time For Talk”, “Burn Down That Village”, “Unstable”, “Hazard”, “Limpopo” cover art by Peter Care, Producer Ken Thomas. Reaches no.12 in ‘NME’ Indie chart after entry 29 January, and staying four weeks.

 May 1983 – OLD STYLE DROP DOWN (Go! Discs VFM2) 7” vinyl “Old Style Drop Down (Remix)” c/w “Momentum”, with 12” vinyl (VFM3) “Old Style Drop Down (Extended Remix)” c/w “Old Style Drop Down” + “Momentum”, cover-art Peter Care, producer Ken Thomas. Enters ‘NME’ Indie chart 28 May, reaches no.22 the following week

17 June 1983 – SECRETS OUT (Go! Discs VFM4) with “Water Grows Teeth”, “Skin, Sweat And Rain”, “Something Beginning With ‘L’” (vocals by Stephen Mallinder), “Strike”, “The Hub”, “Hang Your Hat On That!”, “I Give Protection”, “No Sly Moon”, “Slip And Slant”, “Old Style Drop Down”, “Swing”, “Out”, cover-art by Peter Care, recorded at Jacobs Studios 19-23 January with producer Ken Thomas. ‘Melody Maker’ says ‘this is a music free of sentiment, a music of action shot through with nervous energy, channeled belligerence and extravagant ambition’. Box play ‘Brixton Ace’ supporting X-Mal Deutschland (23 June) and the Fall (15 July). Then Newcastle ‘Dingwalls’ (20), Leeds ‘Warehouse’ (21), and Hull ‘Dingwalls’ (22), followed by European dates through August

June 1984 – GREAT MOMENTS IN BIG SLAM (Go! Discs VFM5, also cassette ZVFM5) with “Walls Come Down”, “The Flatstone”, “Big Slam”, “Stop”, “Low Line”, “Breaking Strain”, “Small Blue Car”, “Still In The Woodwork”. Scratchy cover cave-drawing by Pete Care. Produced by Dick O’Dell. ‘Melody Maker’ says ‘Stop Press: BEST BOX YET. A fast whirlpool of spittle, grit and polished madness’

1984 – MUSCLE MIX (Doublevision DVR P1, 12” vinyl) after two albums on Go Discs Box link up with Cabaret Voltaire’s Doublevision label where they release some EPs in a more electronic style. “Crow Bar (Muscle Mix)” c/w “Low Commotion (Muscle Mix)”, remix by Richard H Kirk

November 1984 – MUSCLE IN (Doublevision DVR10, 12” vinyl EP) With “Low Commotion”, “Curfew”, “Crow Bar”, “Spade Work”, recorded at Western Works with producers Mark Estdale and Richard H Kirk. “Crow Bar” later issued as limited edition 12” single

1985 – MUSCLE OUT: THE BOX LIVE (Doublevision DVR P3) with “Bottle Drips Dry”, “Big Slam”, “Jaw Clamp Sunshine”, “Pawn Walk”, “Rose High”, “The Hub”, “Breaking Strain”, “Deeper Blue”, “Stop”, “Momentum”, “Old Style Drop Down”, “No Time For Talk”

‘NME’ (26 January) announce final Box gig at ‘The Leadmill’ on the 29th. Following the break-up Charlie Collins joins Bass Tone Trap, collaborates with Sonny Simmons, Ted Daniel, Beatrix Ward-Fernandez (‘View From The East’, 2009), Eun-Jung Kim, The Bone Orchestra and Hunter Gracchus. He appeared on ‘Top Of The Pops’ with Moloko, and works with Derek Bailey’s experimental Jazz Company. Collins and Peter Hope are reunited with Paul Widger on Bone Orchard album ‘When Will The Blues Leave?’ (1987, BACON 404) and the Flex 13 CD ‘Candy’ (1999, Liquid LIQ022CDL). Terry Todd plays with the reunited Comsat Angels in 2009. Roger Quail drums with Cabaret Voltaire (including 1984 LP ‘Micro-Phonies’)

1985 – LEATHER HANDS by Richard H Kirk and Peter Hope (Doublevision DVR15, 12” vinyl EP) with “Leather Hands (Master Mix)”, “Leather Hands (Radio Mix)”, “Leather Hands (Crash Mix)” recorded at Western Works drum programming and producer Richard H Kirk. The duo also collaborated on October 1987 album ‘Hoodoo Talk’ (Native Records NTVCD28) with “Intro”, “Numb Skull”, “N.O.”, “Cop Out”, “Surgeons”, “Fifty Tears”, “Leather Hands”, “Fifty Tears (Reprise)”

August 2014 – THE BOX @ DOUBLEVISION CD album in a limited edition of 300 copies. | gg189 Klanggalerie now proudly presents the collected Doublevision works by this phenomenal group, including several remixes by Richard H. Kirk - two of which remained unpublished until this CD collection. In the unlikely case of you not knowing what The Box sound like: imagine a Sheffield funk band with elements of jazz & sax, a Cab Volt meets Miles Davis kind of music with a vocalist that could also be Captain Beefheart.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Interview: KURT VONNEGUT in Leeds (1983)


 ‘One requirement is that the opening of a book be seductive. 
 If he’s smart a writer will begin a little archly, a little cutely, 
 a little too forward. A stranger is going to open this book and 
 either decide to read it, to give it the next few hours – or not. 
 And so, if I’m a little cute, or a little too glitzy in the beginning, 
 this is to hook the stranger. This person will not read the 
 damn book if you do not seduce them. It’s… prostitution, yes. 
 It’s ‘I’ll give you the best night you ever had if you give me $7’ 
                                                 – Kurt Vonnegut (March 1983) 

It was then my biro snapped.

Sat alone in the swish ritz of the ‘Queens Hotel’ reception feeling vaguely displaced and disapproved of, with the nib in one hand bleeding blood-blue bile and the open-mouth plastic tube in the other, drip-feeding my fingers a steady pulse of ink.

Then the vinegar-corpse receptionist starched-smiles at me. ‘You can go up now, Mr Darlington.’

Manoeuvring splintered plastic bits down between my shoes and soft-shuffling them back out of sight, streaking rich pile, I head out for the elevator (chintzy inner décor of Yorkshire Moors) and angle down a corridor of doors, carefully not smear-touching anything. What if Vonnegut wants to shake hands and I fingerprint him… biro ink him? Cosmic confrontation time with the author of ‘Player Piano’ (1952), ‘The Sirens Of Titan’ (1959), ‘Breakfast Of Champions’ (1973), ‘Slapstick’ (1976), and more, and I’m sticky-fingering blue goo…

First floor. Room 116. A room with window gawping out across City Square where cars revolve in endless train and some armoured King in equestrian statue is fenced in behind a scaffold-cage having pigeon-shit surgically sandblasted. Two chairs over-low slung are drawn too close to a gas fire ratcheted too high and in cherry-red intensity. Vonnegut in short red scarf is hunkered down there miserly slurping up a surplus capacity of heat. He gets up, draws me in, his guileless smile plastered aslant. But thankfully, he doesn’t offer his hand…

He’s about my height, but slouched, defensively drawn in slightly, despite the openness of his manner. His moustache is a couple of shades greyer than his hair, which is as tight-curled as clusters of cartoon thought-bubbles, like on the book-covers but a little more disciplined, not as raggedy-tousled – as if he’s made an effort to smarten up his act for this tour. His brown close-check jacket doesn’t match his pants, and there’s a tiredness in his eyes that you pick up on lurking just behind the homely courtesy.

Formalities disposed of, tape-machine positioned between us, I confess I’m writing this up for a Rock-orientated paper (‘Hot Press’), and – priorities up front, ask his views on the state of the art of music journalism After all, didn’t the Grateful Dead name their music publishing company after his ‘Ice Nine’ invention? Didn’t Al Stewart tag a track off his ‘Modern Times’ (1983) album for Vonnegut’s ‘Sirens Of Titan’? and isn’t there, even now out the window and across the square, a band in Leeds called Slaughterhouse Five?

He grins hugely. ‘To be honest, I don’t understand a single word of Rock criticism’ he confides.

Is it true that certain of his books are banned in certain American States? ‘Well, they try to ban them.’ The fact seems not to faze him. ‘It’s illegal, but we have to sue these people again and again. Periodically remind them of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Somebody circulated a list of supposedly bad books and this list has never been upgraded. It just keeps floating round and floating round, and it’s twelve, thirteen years old now, but school boards and parents in small towns lift this list and wonder if these bad books – which they’ve never read! are in their libraries. And they are. And they throw them out!’

Banned or no, his Science Fiction travelogue of the Dresden apocalypse – ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ (1969), was translated into an incandescent film by George Roy Hill (1972) of ‘Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid’ notoriety. Around the same time, Vonnegut’s play ‘Happy Birthday, Wanda June’ (1971) – ‘a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing, and those who don’t’, less successfully became a TV-movie starring Rod Steiger and Susannah York. Then 1975 saw a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of various elements from the Vonnegut canon whipped up into a low-budget fly-past for American cable and BBC biopic slots called ‘Between Time And Timbuktu’ (13 March 1972) with Vonnegut himself as ‘advisor and contributor to the script’. Since then, Robert (‘M.A.S.H.’) Altman reportedly tried for the stillborn rights to his 1973 ‘Breakfast Of Champions’ novel – and was outbid. It eventually surfaced in a 1999 version with Bruce Willis and Albert Finney, directed by Alan Rudolph. While John Cale even more recently announced he’d completed the score for a short movie based on Vonnegut’s vignette “Who Am I This Time?”. Broadcast as part of PBS’ ‘American Playhouse’ series (2 February 1982) – with Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon, it was directed by Jonathan Demme of ‘Caged Heat’.

Are there other stories he’d like to see filmed? ‘No. I don’t want to push my luck. I don’t think my books make good movies. It’s just the way I write. I don’t praise myself for this, but I am a presence in my own stories. So anybody who tries to make a movie out of a story of mine is gonna wind up a character short. Because I am, in fact, in it. And I can’t act a sour apple.’

He was quoted as disliking ‘Happy Birthday, Wanda June’. Is that true? ‘That was the worst movie I ever saw. There was a big depression in Hollywood when that was made, and when ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ was made. There were only two movies being made in Hollywood at that time – and they were both mine! One was the best movie ever made, and the other was the worst movie ever made.’

‘I, Billy Pilgrim, will die, have died, and always 
will die on February thirteenth, 1976’ 

Of course, he’s absolutely right. Like Billy Pilgrim’s first glimpse of the Dresden skyline ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ is ‘intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd.’ It gives the impression of being spontaneously episodic, thrown together casually like a series of anecdotes. Yet the tone of its vast, absurd sadness is exactly right. ‘There are almost no characters in this story’ writes Vonnegut, ‘and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.’

But with nothing else volunteered, I go for the wide-angle lens. Kurt Vonnegut – destroyer of worlds, black humourist, existential absurdist, are you an optimist? ‘As regards human nature –sure.’ An expansive shrug, a dismissive gesture with his hands. ‘But I think what our culture requires us to do is extremely dangerous. And so ‘the culture’ is a leading character in my books again and again. And the culture is a very stoo-pid taskmaster. It makes these bizarre demands on us – and THERE IS, IN FACT, NOBODY THERE! There’s an actual lack of personality in culture – although television is coming close to being such a person in our lives now.’ A pause. ‘But there have been these acts of mercy on battlefields where someone has declined to kill. THAT’S what they’re there to do! ‘Why on Earth are you here? Why on Earth were you ever born? – in order to KILL this person before you!’ And yet people have declined to do this, and managed to survive themselves.’ Vonnegut talks slowly, humorously, when he talks he focuses his whole concentration on you, eyes at pinpoint attentiveness. When he talks, he talks for you and no-one else.

So he sees social pressures stuck in absurd ruts, while individual acts provide an escape clause? ‘Yes. There’s a great campaign in the United States by people who have guns and ammunition to sell, that every household should own a gun. And of course, it’s very American to have a gun, supposedly. But I mean, this is all just advertising. So much of this culture has been ‘created’. How Americans act has been ‘created’. No American should go out with his shoes un-shined. When you go out a-night, you should get dressed up. These are ideas derived from people with something to sell you. They would love to sell you a tuxedo. And they would love to sell you shoe polish. They would love to sell you razor blades, and look at you with your beard!

‘The culture is so absurd. Most people can’t even imagine stepping outside their culture and criticising it. They assume it’s utterly given, just like the chemical make-up of the atmosphere. And yet it’s clearly an invention that can be added to all the time by vested interests. Look at what Hitler added to German culture! Children came up through the Hitler youth, or whatever, and accepted it. None of it is criticised. But it’s not fear that makes them unwilling to criticise, they just don’t realise, just don’t understand that it CAN be criticised. That it IS arbitrary.’ An odd, quirky smile. A long deep-furrowed fourth-generation German-American face. A man who lived through the fire-bombing of Dresden by sitting out the storm in the ‘natural living rock’ bunker of an abattoir numbered ‘Slaughterhouse Five’. That was 13/14 February 1945. Now he homes in for the punch-line. ‘I mean – we’ve gotten in enough trouble trying to imagine what god wants. We’re in worse trouble giving our sole respect to our culture…!’

It’s odd. Vonnegut is on a promotional tour for his current novel, ‘Deadeye Dick’ (1982), the story of Rudy Waltz who accidentally kills a pregnant woman while she’s vacuuming, and who lives the rest of his life feeling guilt and remorse while seeking forgiveness. The tour is a tight round of appearances, cities, press and radio calls, some TV, world-in-a-trunk repetition chaperoned by the brisk knife-edge-crease efficiency of smart upwardly-mobile PR men. But in this impersonal hotel room, slotted in sixty-minute interview segments, he unwinds the whole automatic-pilot pre-programmed rigidly schedule-bound cat’s cradle routine down to a relaxing interlude with an old friend. A neat trick it seems comes natural to him. A calm, slightly-fuddled eye to the promo storm.

The ink on my fingers suddenly not so outta place after all…

‘I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how 
everything worked and then make it work better. 
I fully expected that by the time I was twenty-one, 
some scientist would have taken a color photograph 
of god almighty – and sold it to ‘Popular Mechanics’ 
magazine. Scientific truth was going to make us so 
happy and comfortable… what actually happened 
when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific 
truth on Hiroshima. We killed everyone there’ 
                              (‘Breakfast Of Champions’

‘To be is to do’ – Socrates 
‘To do is to be’ – Jean Paul Sartre 
‘Do be do be do’ – Frank Sinatra 
 (‘Deadeye Dick’

Chicks. Sausages. Antlers. Pennants. A clothesline. A Pawn-shop sign. A ‘very poorly cleaned’ chalkboard. Last time I was here at ‘Leeds Playhouse’ it was Ian Carr’s Nucleus a-stage, not this Props Dept detrition of pantomime oddities. Carr blew a stunning set – possibly causally connected to a large chunk of the theatre’s roof coming adrift in subsequent gales, but even then the place wasn’t this full or this abuzz with electric expectancy. The foyer is awash with refugees hunting cancellation-seats or camping out to catch His Master’s Voice relayed on wire through tannoy amplification as a management concession to the punters they’re either shoe-horning in or having to turn away. Press immunity has its advantages. I’ve seen much here from Brecht’s ‘Chalk Circle’ to Mike Westbrook’s magnificent ‘Cortege’, but I’ve never witnessed owt like this. And this night is for a sixty-one-year-old writer who shuffles out in blue two-piece suit, round-toe black shoes, red tie, sleepy eyed. To deliver a rambling idiosyncratic talk (very) loosely pegged out around a thematic clothesline of his life achievements. ‘I want credit as the man responsible for (a) the Kilgore Trout story, (b) the Neuter story, etc etc’ (the latter a reference to Rudy Waltz, who is so traumatised by his accidental manslaughter that he lives the rest of his life as an asexual ‘neuter’).

His humorous, sometimes comic performance is received as holy writ by the sycophantic assembled. Each anecdote rapturously revelled-in, each in-reference smugly responded to, each hint of near-profundity applauded to death. From ‘if you want to hurt your parents and you don’t have nerve enough to become a homosexual, least you can do is go into the arts,’ to ‘I was raised a pacifist. I’m a pacifist now.’ Hi Ho, so it goes.

Courteous Vonnegut – who ‘doesn’t understand a single word of Rock criticism,’ says that ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine gifted him the sixties. They opened up the counter-culture for him. And looking around, I’d guess this is something very like a videofit fake-up of what your statistically average ‘Rolling Stone’ readership might look like in 1983. Still hairy, but also rather threadbare. Brightly crosspatch and fringed in attempted suburban bohemia, but in strict monogamous couples, or student clusters, arty manuscripts is closets, piles of poems in manila folders in drawers filed in with their relevant rejection slips. Low-culture literate. With Vonnegut books programmed in alongside Tolkien, DM Thomas, Mervyn Peake, and ‘Watership Down’

And Vonnegut plays to expectations. Extends the woolly eccentricity of his novels across the stage for around forty-five highly entertaining minutes. A hectically assembled ramshackle self-indulgence of inner mumblings, slapstick monologues and muddle-headed throw-away whimsy. He taps it out with chalk on the blackboard and peppers it richly with ‘Wampeters, Foma and Granfallons’. Random notes? ‘It’s ALL random notes!’

He does his ‘farting tap-dancer’ routine from ‘Breakfast Of Champions’ to illustrate the ‘Kilgore Trout’ technique (Trout is the fictional hack-writer he created who took on a life of his own). The story concerns the ‘alien Zog from Margo, a planet where the natives converse by means of farts and tap-dancing. He lands at night in Connecticut. He’s no sooner touched down than he sees a house on fire. He rushes into the house, farting and tap-dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they’re in. The head of the house brains Zog with a golf club. An example of a tragic failure to communicate.’ He feeds an ad for ‘Deadeye Dick’ – ‘my new book, my wonderful new book’ in off-hand send-up, which still gets the message across to the satisfaction of his PR chaperones.

Then, in what appears to be a less ambiguous vein, he speaks out against writers who ‘present their credentials as educated people. Showing some familiarity with Latin and Greek, and Greek mythology. They – having travelled in Europe some, seen the important Cathedrals, the important paintings. I,’ he protests, ‘make no such allusions. I offer no credentials to prove that I am indeed an educated person.’ Instead, he declares ‘I am educated as an anthropologist, and what impressed me is what the anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss said at the end of his career. That he thought all cultures were equally rich and complex. That there is no-one with a deprived culture.’

Elitist academics and writers scorn ‘the sort of population we have in New York today – Hispanics and Blacks,’ but ‘I’m sure the Hispanics and Blacks have myths and a culture as rich as mine, or as rich as those elitist academics and writers, or as rich as anyone’s. What used to be standards for style or literacy – or evidence that you are a good writer, are becoming obsolete. Most critics believe in those standards – that a person SHOULD have a little Latin, a little Greek, and should know the myths of the Minotaur and so forth. This has made it very hard for us to create an American literature. I’m from Indianapolis, Indiana, and when I express that culture, or do honour to that culture, it is scorned by some critics as simply being beneath notice. This is a cultural matter and should be acknowledged as a cultural matter. The cultural standards for judging literature should be abandoned, and everyone should be credited with having a rich culture to begin with. And let’s begin from there, and see what a person can do with his own – rather than the critic’s culture.’

The audience goes ape-shit. Like he’s delivered a personal exoneration on the sanctity of their taste. But it makes me a little uneasy. It comes just a whit too cutesy, a bit like telling the people what they wanna hear. A pat on the head for the collective ego. I mean, I don’t know Indianapolis, but I’d guess that it’s dominant popular mythologies aren’t that different to those of Dublin, Leeds, or pretty much anywhere else in the West-World… TV, Rock and Sports stars, Comic-book heroes and movies. Sure – I’d agree that if a writer wants to reach anything other than a micro-elite then they’ve got to engage with that culture. But to eulogise it on this podium seems slightly over the top. Vonnegut infects this audience with an awe at their own profundity. Rubber-stamps their smug complacency rather than stimulating them to s-t-r-e-t-c-h. Isn’t there just the merest whiff of condescension? And – with security as tight as a drum, there’s no chance to explore the theme, yet. There’s no time-squeeze between his set’s completion and the PR men hijacking him for book autographing chores in the lobby.

But I determine to find time…

‘He walked out into the night with his flashlight. 
He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight 
beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. 
He put his hand on my head, and do you know 
what that marvellous man said to me?... ‘Son’ my 
father said to me, ‘someday this will all be yours’.’ 
                                                (‘Cat’s Cradle’

The intense heat from the keyed-up gas fire, and his insistence on poring directly over it to scoop up as much as possible, gets uncomfortable. I want to put to him the question of his condescending to his audience but can’t find a way to do it without running the risk of interview-time being abruptly terminated and winding up back in reception with the vinegar-corpse receptionist and the bits of my broken biro. So I bide my time, with droplets of sweat running down the inside of my shirt. And we talk around his career as an SF writer, through the highpoint books, ‘Cat’s Cradle’ (1963), ‘Sirens Of Titan’ and ‘Slaughterhouse Five’. Then his apparent decline into a clutch of self-referential books content to serve the by-then massive Vonnegut industry. Does this new book break from this sequence?

He capsule-reviews the ‘neuter novel’, ‘Deadeye Dick’ – ‘Rudy Waltz, the hero, has no interest in sex whatsoever’ he relates amiably, ‘because he accidentally shot a pregnant woman when he was twelve years old. He has no interest in anything actually. But he foresees, and I foresee the next big parade up Fifth Avenue is going to surprise American civilisation. Of course, the homosexuals suddenly poured into Fifth Avenue and marched, revealing how numerous they were, how proud they were, and how many votes they had.’ ‘The next flurry up Fifth Avenue is going to be the Neuters. And it’s going to be the biggest parade that New York City has ever seen! There’s going to be women who look like Marilyn Monroe out on the street carrying signs – ‘DID IT TWICE: NEEDED IT BOTH TIMES’. There’s going to be professional athletes, perhaps American Football Players stripped to the waist, holding placards saying – ‘HAVEN’T DONE IT FOR TWO YEARS: NEVER FELT BETTER’. And that sort of thing. This may turn out to be three-quarters of the population of New York City. We have no idea how many neuters there are around, because they send off no sex signals. They’re not signalling to other people to ‘come to me, look at me’ and all that. So you simply don’t notice them. Rudy Waltz – the hero of my novel, this neuter, looks like Gary Cooper! He’s that big and that handsome. And in Greenwich Village, the sex capital of the world, nobody sees him when he walks down the street. He’ll walk into a coffee shop and sit down and not get waited on, because he is a neuter…’

The phone rings. A persistent reminder from the lobby that my time’s up. With nothing to lose I make my play for extra time. One of the things that struck me last night, I offer, was your put-down of ‘high culture’ (knowledge of Latin, Greek etc), in favour of ‘folk culture’ (television and street culture?). It seemed to me rather condescending, I mean, YOU obviously relate to literary precedents as well as Pop influences…?

‘No. But I didn’t – you mentioned television, I didn’t. But these people have…’

Was it just ethnic cultures you were referring to then? ‘Well, whatever. You can get bizarre combinations in a city like New York, where there is a lot of intermarriage and all that. But then, I believe that everyone has myths, which are ways of discussing life. In the same way that the Bible parables say ‘here’s a story, we can talk around that.’ And the Hispanics and the Blacks, for example, or the Eastern European Jews or whoever is in New York, have parables already. You and I don’t know them, or perhaps I do know them. They also have rich music traditions. A lot of Hispanics are part-Indian, and presumably know old legends from pre-Columbian times. Every culture, every person has a parable.’

You mean a common currency of ideas to which people relate. But must that only apply to ethnic groups?

He’s shrugging his coat on. Thinking on his feet. ‘The telly was your invention, because I didn’t say they had a culture built on television.’ Actually he had hinted as much a few thousand words back when he’d accused television of ‘coming close to being’ the ‘personality in our culture.’ But instead I just suggest that the dominant contemporary mythologies would be TV, Rock and Sports personalities, Comic-book heroes and movies, that sort of thing.

‘Well, you can certainly discuss life around them, around those things’ he concedes. ‘That’s not a question of how bad that stuff is, or how good.’ He’s warming to the subject. ‘I wouldn’t mind having somebody be hit pretty hard by some drama on television – but certainly NOT a situation comedy, and choose to refer to it from time to time in the presence of other people who had seen it.’

Coat flapping, glasses now perched precariously on the end of his nose, a giant case bulging in all the wrong places, he turns on me unexpectedly, demanding ‘Now why did she DO that?’ Initially thrown off balance, it’s soon obvious to me he’s acting out possible Soap plot-dialogue. ‘Why was she drunk that night? Did she have to get drunk that night… or was she only pretending to be drunk…?’ He continues the argument, tested it, tasting it in different ways.

Then he pauses for a moment as we head out for the corridor. ‘It’s the same sort of thing as ‘was Hamlet crazy?’ One is reputable, and one isn’t. Ye-e-e-e-s…’ Perhaps that just occurred to him? Perhaps that’s what he meant all along? Perhaps to the ‘Yorkshire Playhouse’ audience it’s Vonnegut’s writing that has created their mythologies, not Shakespeare or TV?

Minutes later, sat alone in the swish ritz of the ‘Queens Hotel’ reception lobby playing back the interview-tape, I see Vonnegut, coat unfastened and dismally blowing, looking vaguely tired and harassed. He exits through the plate-glass doors to be swallowed up by a waiting taxi. En route for Manchester, another stream of interview games and impertinent questions. Another night, another $7!

‘About endings, people complain about the endings of my books. 
Endings do not matter. They don’t. I end ‘Cat’s Cradle’ with 
the end of the world. Somebody thought that was a comment of 
mine of some sort. It wasn’t. It was just a way to end the damn 
book. People imagine the ending is what we’ve been building 
up to the whole time. This is not what we’ve been building up to. 
What we have been building up to has occurred about two-thirds 
of the way through the book. Every message has gotten through, 
every scene has been played. The last part of the book is saying 
‘thank you for coming, really, that’s all there is, the food is gone, 
we’re out of ice-cubes, look what time it is, here’s your coat, 
let’s get together again real soon’. It’s goodbye…’ 
                                         – Kurt Vonnegut (March 1983) 

All quotes and novel extracts courtesy of Jonathan Cape Publishers.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Soul Giants: INEZ & CHARLIE FOXX 'Mockingbird'


 Retro Album Review of: 
(Stateside SSL 6000, 1986) 

The more I hear the likes of Atlantic Starr or Patti Labelle/ Michael McDonald the more I’m grateful for the techno-primitiv of boy-girl duo’s – Inez & Charlie Foxx from Greenboro NC. Stood out in stark relief against the schlock-digital AOR Radio Sweethearts, this stuff is raw, spontaneous, a jolt of sheer joy to the central nervous system. Although never a Tina T or an Aretha F, Inez was pure undiluted Soul of the lighter flash ‘n’ trash school – she could testify on “Hurt By Love” with a scalding scolding finger-pointing outrage plugged direct into Gospel tradition, with elder-brother Charlie’s vocal-sparring chant orbiting supportively, urging her on in much the same way as, live, he’d physically dance around her in the oddest long-leggy spider-bizzaro visual routine this side of James Brown. His elaborate pompadour and beanpole physique perfectly contrasting her sinuously guileless eroticism on the stand-out 1964 appearance I clearly recall on ITV’s ‘Scene At 6:30’

On ‘Mock-YEAH-ing-YEAH-bird-YEAH-yeah-YEAH’ – their highest chart flier, the two call-and-response voices juxtapose counter-harmonies, Inez’ top-line wail versus Charlie reciting hybrid bass. Lines twine and slide, complement and compete deliciously around a schoolyard jingle already oral history when Bo Diddley first plucked it out as HIS anthem, yet still shiny-newer than anything on this week’s playlist. An inspired studio accident – Charlie’s eccentric interjections originally intended as guide vocals for a backing group who bunked off, his phrasing stretches and warps the lyric (‘it’s gonna break this heart of my-yi-yi-yi-yine’) completely out of the realm of language and into pure bliss. “Mockingbird” still deguts all opposition (there IS no REAL opposition!).

A ‘Billboard’ no.7 in August 1963 – on the Symbol label, “Mockingbird” eventually charted here as high as no.33 on a United Artists reissue in March 1969. By then, “Hurt By Love” on the original Sue had already reached the UK no.40 in July 1964, promoted by tours with the Spencer Davis Group, and the Rolling Stones. But there are other blasts from R&B’s age of innocence here, sixteen tracks lovingly transcribed from Henry ‘Juggy Murray’ Jones’ antique ‘Sue’-label originals. There’s “La Dee Dah I Love You” – solid power from the Motown-charged handclap intro through its quirky staccato drum-breaks and honking sax, “Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush” – another nursery rhyme re-cast by Charlie (in cahoots with regular arranger Bert Keyes), and “Broken Hearted Fool”, showcasing Inez’ range spun out over a broken-backed rhythm-track thefted from “Mockingbird”. And more…

From what followed – a coupla minor gems for Musicor subsidiary Dynamo, including the excellent “Count The Days” and Northern Soul favourite “Tightrope”, an Inez solo stint with Stax subsidiary Volt, an early-seventies Inez solo scorcher “Circuits Overloaded” (1974), and writer-production credits on product as diverse as the Platters (Inez co-wrote their “I Love You 1000 Times”) and Gene Pitney (Charlie co-writing his final US hit, “She’s A Heartbreaker”) – there was nothing to quite recapture the primal power of what’s en-vinyl-ised in all its uniquely tacky grandeur here. Charlie died of leukemia 18 September 1998, aged just fifty-eight. But, although “Mockingbird” has never quite vanished over the intervening decades and years, it’s GREAT to have it back!

Side one: (1) “Mockingbird” (Charlie and Inez), (2) “Searching For My CC” (Charlie and Inez), (3) “Broken Hearted Fool”, (4) “My Momma Told Me” (Jimmy Oliver), (5) “Don’t Do It No More”, (6) “I Wanna See My Baby”, (7) “If I Need Anyone”, (8) “Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush”.
Side two: (1) “Hurt By Love”, (2) “Sitting Here”, (3) “La De Da I Love You” (Inez Foxx), (4) “I Fancy You”, (5) “Down By The Seashore”, (6) “Ask Me” (Windsor King), (7) “Confusion” (Charlie and Inez), (8) “Jaybirds” (Charlie and Inez)… all other tracks written by Charlie Foxx. Liner notes by Bob Fisher