Friday, June 22, 2007

Pussy Galore!

If 1991 was “the year punk finally broke in America,” it wasn’t for a lack of trying. From the CBGB’s crowd in the mid to late-70s, to No New York, to SST, hardcore, the class of ’84, Steve Albini and Touch & Go, Ian Mackaye and Dischord… punk had been bubbling under the surface up and down the East Coast, out West and back to Middle America for most of the 1980s. Just what defined punk was a slippery beast, pretty much summed up by statements like, “No, we’re more punk than you because we’re more ____ than you!” (Fill in the blank with words like “hardcore,” “abrasive,” “mean,” “political” or “fucked.”) In 1991, Nirvana’s Nevermind brought “punk” to the masses, dressed up as something called “Grunge” and made into a slick pop record.

“Grunge,” Seattle-style, was more of a fashion statement than a musical style, but the genre tag had been around for a while. In the 1980s, the name was applied to bands whose music could be described as such (in the adverb sense), and no band fit the name better than Pussy Galore (although another label for the genre was “pigfucker,” which I think is the best genre name ever). Somewhat forgotten in the lead-up to the American punk explosion (or firecracker), Pussy Galore made some of the filthiest rock imaginable. It was positively diseased. Originally part of the DC hardcore (or, harDCore, if you’re nasty stupid) scene, PG was so reviled there that they pretty much had to move to NYC. They never held a steady line-up, their live shows were a mess, they never sold all that well and there is some doubt as to whether or not they knew how to tune their guitars.

Common subject matter for a typical Pussy Galore song included sex, teenagers, Jews, pussy, beatings and/or some combination of the afore mentioned. I’m sure there is a Pussy Galore song that is about Jewish teenage lesbians fucking and beating each other up. Song titles (as well as the only-occasionally decipherable lyrics) took on racism, sexism and prudes head on, unflinchingly shoving the grotesque bits of human nature in the audience’s face. The music was all out of tune guitar mass (up to four of them, paying no attention to the others), no bass and a drum kit decorated with metal pipes, bits of sheet metal and a trash can lid or two, over which singers Jon Spencer and Christina Martinez called people names and told each other they wanted to fuck but just weren’t all that good at fucking. Talent was not an issue with this band—pure attitude was enough.

The Pussy Galore family tree, if you will, stretches far and wide, and includes much more popular bands like Boss Hog, Royal Trux, Howling Hex and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, but none approached PG’s absolutely nasty take on 1980s American punk. In honor of the 20 year anniversary of Pussy Galore’s first foray into the LP game with Right Now!, I’m going to write a fake (fake!) interview with singer/spokesman Jon Spencer circa 1987. You’re not going to learn much, (but I think that’s in keeping with the spirit,) as I’ve never met the man. I was eight when this “interview” even could have happened. I think I owned a couple of tapes at that point. My favorite song was “Rebel Rebel” (the Bay City Rollers version).

So, here it is. Enjoy!

Zingzing: Good afternoon, Mr. Spencer.
Jon Spencer: Jon, please, Zing.
ZZ: Much appreciated, but it’s “ZingZING.”
JS: No problem.
ZZ: Thank you for that.
JS: Yes, sir.
ZZ: No need for the “sir!”
JS: All right, you fuckin’ prick, get on with it…
ZZ: OK… You were originally from the D.C. area, but quickly moved to NYC—why?
JS: New York’s dirty.
ZZ: …
JS: What? You want more? D.C. had Dischord. That whole scene sucks. No sense of humor.
ZZ: Why do you assume they have no sense of humor?
JS: Well, when you make fun of someone, and they don’t laugh… they have no sense of humor… do you understand?
ZZ: You publicly declared your hatred for Ian Mackaye and Dischord Records.
JS: Mmhmm?
ZZ: Mmhmm. Would you consider your song titles “funny” then?
JS: What’s not funny about “Teen Pussy Power,” “Groovy Hate Fuck” or “Cunt Tease?”
ZZ: Well, they aren’t very funny, but they are a little… gross…
JS: Pussy!
ZZ: …I’m not offended by the word.
JS: No, I’m saying “YOU ARE A PUSSY.”
ZZ: Well, you seem to like saying it.
JS: Ooohhh, testy…
ZZ: Let’s move on. So you moved to NYC in 1986 and released a full album cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street…”
JS: Yes, yes I did. All me.
ZZ: Stop it.
JS: Whatever. Move on.
ZZ: Later that year, Bob Bert, formerly of Sonic Youth, joined on percussion. It seems that he uses mostly scrap metal for percussion…
JS: …
ZZ: …is that true?
JS: That’s what you were getting to? For fuck’s sake, learn to do your job! Yes! Everything’s trash! Our drums: trash! Our guitars: trash! Our studio: trash! Our songs: trash! Our women: trash! At least according to our mothers, who are all trash!
ZZ: You project an image…
JS: That’s it! I’m getting naked!
ZZ: Please don’t.
JS: [Gets naked.]
ZZ: …okay…
JS: You want to walk away?
ZZ: Yes and no.
JS: Do what you think the situation demands.
ZZ: Does it demand something?
JS: Everything demands some sort of reaction. What will yours be, I wonder…
ZZ: Ahem. You project an image—dirty, confrontational, almost pornographic…
JS: Naked, at least…
ZZ: Sexy, in a way…
JS: Are you hitting on me?
ZZ: No! No!
JS: You look like a Jew.
ZZ: [Stunned.] What? You’re just pushing my buttons.
JS: Whatever.
ZZ: Was that racism?
JS: What, to go along with all that misogyny earlier?
ZZ: Well, yes…
JS: Is that what you think?
ZZ: I have to wonder.
JS: I’m glad. I’m right here in front of you… in all my naked glory… what do you see?
ZZ: …
JS: What’s that look? You wanna get pussy stomped?
ZZ: How much of this is a joke to you?
JS: Depends.
ZZ: On…
JS: Is it funny to you?
ZZ: Sometimes.
JS: There you go.
ZZ: But what about you?
JS: I take this very seriously.
ZZ: But the music is so over the top… so… repulsive. Would you stop doing that with your nipples?
JS: Then why listen? And, no!
ZZ: Well, after a while, you do figure out that you guys CAN play your instruments… it’s not all accidental…
JS: Well, I can play. I don’t know about anyone else. They might be faking it.
ZZ: There’s a slippery funk underneath it all…
JS: “Funk?” As in George Clinton?
ZZ: I was thinking James Brown.
JS: I like him. Okay.
ZZ: Your vocals resemble his, in that they seem to be used more to conduct than…
JS: Have you even listened to my lyrics?
ZZ: They are really hard to understand…
JS: Fuck you.
ZZ: But…
JS: Fuck off.
ZZ: Please…
JS: OK. Magic word. Go on.
ZZ: Thank you…
JS: Think nothing of it.
ZZ: Why did you cover Einsturzende Neubauten’s “Yu-Gung?”
JS: I like German things.
ZZ: Like what?
JS: Like Einsturzende.
ZZ: Anything else?
JS: Schnitzel, burley women, Nazis, facial warts…
ZZ: Nazis?
JS: Oh yeah, I forgot you were a Jew…
ZZ: I’m not! For fuck’s sake! What is wrong with you?!

And so, I learned what a “Pussy Stomp” really is. It’s a dance, I suppose. It’s very painful to witness first hand. Even in my fantasies, I take a beating…

And so must you!

Pussy Galore-Alright

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Other Listening Room: Phil

If you haven’t gathered by now, I really love production. Pure sound intrigues me; songwriting is important, of course, but if you can combine production and songwriting, you are an artist, not just some college student fumbling across a couple of lovely chord progressions and your fucking innermost fears and desires. Fuck your fears and desires—gimme something I don’t already have.

Many auteur producers have floated through recorded music history: Phil Spector (innocent!?), Brian Wilson (sane!), Brian Eno (bald!), the Bomb Squad (black!), Kevin Shields (sane?)… Every decade seems to have its main man (and they are mostly men, except for Kate Bush,) and this decade that man is Phil Elverum. Phil has a way with taking acoustic melancholy and putting it through the gauntlet of his seemingly limitless understanding of acoustic space to create an amazing lo-fi/hi-fi hybrid that dashes all your expectations of where a song can go.

Phil is most famous for his work with the Microphones and Mt. Eerie, but he is also responsible for a huge amount of work outside his main outlets. He’s worked with nearly everyone in the K Records stable, as well as almost anyone in his Anacortes, WA hometown. He’s done huge (the Microphones’ Glow, pt. 2), he’s done small (his acoustic live performances, Mt. Eerie’s 11 Old Songs), the complex (the Microphones’ Mt. Eerie is a concept album that takes him through the earth, up into the sky to the sun, to meet with Death and God and finding himself there) and the simple (his latest single decries the internet and smoking). On some of his production work, he lets the artist maintain control and he only appears in the details; at other times, his production voice looms so large that it reduces the artist to a guest on their own song (and the song is all the better for it). At the height of his fame, (Pitchfork album of the year in 2001, tours of Asia, the aforementioned Mt. Eerie album,) Phil ditched his record company, started his own mail order business, changed the name of his band and moved home.

The key to Phil Elverum’s genius is most certainly his use of editing, stereo and the abuse of your own expectations. Guitars bounce back and forth between speakers, ghost voices circulate, harmonies are shattered and put back together. Simplicity caves in to mountainous overdubbing which sounds more simple than the deceiving complexity of the simplicity that preceded it. What? I’m trying to say that in Phil’s hands, simplicity becomes complex and complexities mesh so completely that they become simple again. Put on a track by Phil and you may find yourself scrambling for the volume knob. Just fair warning.

The Pull,” from the Microphones’ It Was Hot, So We Stayed in the Water is a perfect example of his technique. Predominantly acoustic and minimalist, it begins with about a minute of two sloppy-yet-kempt guitars jumping left and right and into each other. There is a steady bassnote hum in the middle, but these guitars are recorded like others might record drums, with certain chords playing the parts of snares and cymbals on either side. Phil’s voice comes in on the right side, the acoustic goes down to strumming on the left and a huge space opens in the middle. The guitars reenter briefly, only to be shunted aside again by Phil, now stretching his voice out while slowing the strums down to almost nothing, and a double-Phil and 3-part harmony backing enters and seems to vibrate the guitars across the audio spectrum and on into… just some single guitar notes. Just when you think it’s all building towards something, Phil strips it down to almost nothing at all. Aah, but he’s just fuckin’ with you. Now that he’s got you paying attention… huge drums (free-stylin’ all Keith Moon-like) and 5 or 6 guitars flay your mind with white noise and washes of melody, so deep, so complex… you start to hear bells in the back and as the guitars fade, you realize that you are listening to rolling glass. It’s quite something.

Mirah is a friend and ex-label-mate at K Records, the Olympia, Washington label that gave us Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Soundsystem, Mecca Normal and The Blow. Her Advisory Committee features many contributions from Phil, including album centerpiece “Cold, Cold Water,” which may just be Phil’s greatest single song. The CD single features the song itself and seven tracks that separate the various elements of the song, so that you can edit/mix it yourself… or maybe just admire the insane amount of artistry involved.

A strummed Mexican guitar and Mirah’s “I saddled up my pony right and rode into the ghostly light” sets up a Western feeling, sparse and desolate—only to be shattered by martial drums, swelling strings and choruses and a belted “It was wide, wide open, wide, wide open,” the grandeur becoming almost too much to bear. Breaking down to church organs, the song becomes intensely personal, an interior monologue about love and a certain relationship. The organs fade and sweet guitar chords switch between stereo sides and all is happy. That’s the first 45 seconds or so.

A muted electric plays some chords and Mirah wonders and asks, “Is it not enough to be complete? Please? Let me give you everything you need, please?” Those same strings swell again, this time with a cello anchor and an amazing percussion device like trotting horses showing just how vast the heart and desire can be. The monologue gets darker, ruminating on the loneliness that comes part-and-parcel with love over percussive plucked guitar notes and a forlorn violin. The cello then dominates, mounting tension and expectation towards some huge blowout that never quite comes as the relationship falters under a man’s “hungry eye.” As she threatens to leave him (over a more strident Mexican acoustic), Phil goes whole-hog for the “Good Vibrations” reference: a beautiful, melting, multi-part harmony chorus of Mirahs lap over each other like ocean waves, only to fade into aggressive electric guitars and mounting drums and a wail of regret. All the tension of building and collapsing sections come to a head and everything rises together, the Mexicans guitars, the strings, the horses, the violins, the martial drums… and as she leaves him in the dust, Phil leaves “Good Vibrations” a “get better soon” hallmark card.

It’s an absolutely devastating song on so many levels, with musical invention trumping emotional breadth (there’s a whole relationship, beginning to end, here), while leaving room for both. “Cold, Cold Water” is a complete masterpiece of a song. The damn thing brings a tear to my eye. Music’s the greatest thing, isn’t it?

Monday, May 21, 2007

For Pico.

Say these words aloud: “You boy--What's it like to wet your foot in a cold swimming pool?--What does your voice sound like underwater?--At night?--Can you do the chickenskin swim?--Can you do the chlorine gargoyle?--Can you wriggle like an eel?”

Ahh, strong emotion… it’s what music conveys like no other medium. If you really were saying those words, or--heaven forbid--hearing them, there’s bound to be a murder going on. Subtle displays of emotion certainly have their place in music, but it’s screaming hatred, blinding love or intense desire that really makes music the art that it is.

Whitehouse (formed 1980) is a British band that specialize in something called “power electronics.” At first glance, that sounds like a redundancy, but it does make some sense. If early-80s British synthpop used synthesizers to approximate a full band (including strings and horn sections) under the total control of the producer, Whitehouse perverts this purpose… maybe “molest” is a better word… if molestation included a lot more blood. Whitehouse rewire synths into pile-driving instruments of torture wrapped up in insults, which seems to be the basic gist of their lyrical matter (and has gotten them into quite a lot of trouble in their native England, where censorship of violent content and accusations of misogyny have kept their name in the papers). Further proof is in that name: “Whitehouse” has nothing to do with our president’s home, but is a reference to both a British porn mag and the deceased anti-porn crusader Mary Whitehouse. Live, Whitehouse is said to make Wolf Eyes (the current kings of noise) look like frightened little girls.

Wriggle like a Fucking Eel,” which was released on 12” in 2002, is both representative in its typical Whitehouse sound and something different for the band, as the structure is unconventionally (for Whitehouse) conventional. A sound like a broken air raid siren blares before someone yells out the quoted threats and some contraption starts spitting out bass tones, which sometimes sound like fucked up tribal drums, sometimes like a slowly dying digital fart. The “singer” then gets angry, eventually giving such a scream so as to drown out the air raid sirens, which by this time are beginning to sound like buzzing saws and Sonic Youth blended into a goo. Structurally, “Wriggle” is pretty damn Nirvanaesque, with a loud-soft-LOUD progression that heightens the drama and allows you the pleasure of getting your ass kicked twice.

Download the song, give it a listen. Turn it up loud enough that some child under the age of 12 will be warped by it. I guarantee that you probably won’t hear anything else so visceral today. Sometimes, people listen to music with too much of their brain. I’m just suggesting you give your skull some attention.

Throbbing Gristle also confront listeners with the brutal side of human life. These granddaddies were making audiences vomit (literally) 30 years ago, using visual stimuli (like band member Cosey Fanni Tutti cutting herself from throat to crotch,) or deafening aural tones that turned guts inside out. Their lyrics concerned the blight [sic] of the poor, burn victims and bird shit (I think, although it could be about jerking off). Lead singer/spokesman Genesis P-Orridge started cults, baited the media with Nazi imagery, and is now partially female. Their music was deceptively simple, almost minimalist in execution, but open-ended enough that their “songs” could stretch out upwards of half an hour or more.

Discipline” is Throbbing Gristle’s last single (released 1981) and was never recorded in the studio. Genesis was always at his best before a bemused audience, but this performance gets downright weird, with audience participation bordering on cult-like uniformity. Witness the frightened looks from the boys and girls when Genesis gets in their faces or hits himself repeatedly during his tantrum, witness the girl holding her head as if it might explode, witness the strangely sedate dance the audience spontaneously participates in. What starts as “I want discipline” slowly turns into “What do WE want?” over crude rhythms and noise generators, and while the music doesn’t really progress, it’s on a death march of repetition that drains the mind and helps you remember that we’re all animals.

Is this even music? The British government labeled Throbbing Gristle as the “wreckers of civilization” after their first live shows and Genesis is quoted as having said something like about changing the very nature of music. Shows included blood enemas and Cosey’s pornography, and the censor baiting got to the point that Genesis had to leave England before they took his children away. TG is now making a comeback with an album called Part Two: The Endless Not, but some of the old aggression (and even some of the humor) is missing. Maybe 25 years just mellows a man (woman). Who knows, in 25 years, I could be listening to some limp-ass Fusion records. Enjoy while you can.


Thursday, March 1, 2007


Disco may be the most pervasive form of music on this planet. There is no strict definition of what makes disco disco: a 4/4 beat is all you really need. People claim to despise disco, although admitting to liking some disco singles has become acceptable. Listen, fuckers, you always liked it, you only “hated” it because everyone else “hated” it and now you, flippantly, want to admit that you like a few singles? You know what? YOU LIKE DISCO. Don’t bother denying it. Sigh… it’s getting old.

Okay. Here’s the history of disco: Disco bubbled up in the early-70s’ Philly Soul sound, floated over to Europe, came back to NYC fucked up and electro, got all over everything, was loved, hated, died, was reborn a few years later, and has quietly roamed the Earth ever since, sometimes showing itself, sometimes hiding behind such words as “post-punk,” “new wave,” “techno,” “house” or “dance-rock.” Disco wasn’t destroyed in a Chicago baseball stadium. Disco never went underground. Disco got punched in the face, that’s for sure, but disco has no face, so what does it matter?

This week, I want to present you with a few modern-day versions of that glorious, classic disco sound. Some will fit your idea of disco, some may not.

Chromatics’ "In the City" begins with a simple 4/4 bass drum, a sampled, chiming keyboard loop and a two-note ice-pick synth stab. Deadened guitar notes are added with the snare beat, an equally dead female vocal picks up and a squelchy synth cuts through like a lazy razor. The bass is as uncomplicated, both as rhythm and harmony, just adding occasional weight. Chromatics use disco as a foundation, then empty out the space around it until the strength of 4/4 time seems barely enough to hold the song upright. An errant or unnecessary note could topple the construction. From the sound, it is obviously nighttime, and the atmosphere is not euphoric, but paranoid and frightened. Violence and suicide are implied but never confirmed within the lyric. This is disco on ice, and everybody has bare, wet feet.

Like Chromatics, Glass Candy are from Portland, feature a hottie singer, and are produced by Johnny Jewel. Jewel has a way with drum programming, investing bones—if not flesh—into his machines, lending the whole thing a slightly inhuman swing. Unlike Chromatics’ black vision, Glass Candy are all color and emoting. On their cover of Belle Epoque’s 1977 "Miss Broadway", strings, sequenced and echoed synths, pianos, saxes and Siouxsie Sioux battle six or seven minutes for your attention. Glass Candy started as a garage rock band, Chromatics as punk rock, but both have slipped more and more towards disco as they have developed. Chromatics stole Glass Candy’s producer and Glass Candy has stolen some of Chromatics’ cold air, and each have emerged as flipsides of the same tarnished coin, coming off like some coked-out 1979 loft party on the 6 AM down-slope.

(In searching for Glass Candy mp3s, I found another Johnny Jewel production, this time by a Texas native named Farah, who’s bare bones and darkness rivals Chromatics’ stripped corpse of a sound. The “Law of Life” remix [found at the link above] has the patience of a saint, sitting on its bass drum for almost six minutes before developing a backbeat. Chromatics, Glass Candy and Farah are all hard at work on new albums and singles, which should be available soon on the Italians Do It Better label, distributed by Troubleman Unlimited.)

If there’s been one thing unsaid so far, it’s that none of the Jewel-produced disco is all that danceable. It certainly isn’t disco one is likely to hear at a techno club. Sweden’s Lindstrom, however, has been one of the hottest producers of club disco for a couple of years now. His "I Feel Space"(dig that Donna Summer title) is all about the beat, which is exceptionally smooth and deep, riding hi-hats, hand percussion and shakers over an oscillating bass loop and icicle synths. It all feels organic, yet electronic, tapping into the electro-acoustic production that early disco unveiled as possibility and perfection. Guitars and keyboards dash about in space above the beat for the first half, before the breakdown ups the percussive density, keeping the whole thing landed and spinning out of control. (You can find this song on the Smalltown Supersound/Feedelity CD, It's a Feedelity Affair.)

Striking a balance between all-out dance-rock and trad disco is !!!, a New York by way of California 8-piece that features more drums than any band traveling by van has any right to have. While !!! features heavy production on the back end, they tend to keep their instrumentation restricted to the standard guitar-bass-drums, with occasional horns and analog synths. !!! has gone from funk to disco-punk to clubbish stuff to a slick, yet muscular disco sound found on their latest single, "Heart of Hearts". You hear the beat being built brick by brick, the bass blares and—boom—a smooth swoosh of synth and sinewy guitars sound off over the syncopated cymbals and shit… sorry. Shouldn’t have started. Stop. Stank you. Anyway, this is certainly the most pop song !!! have ever released, and as it pulses and pushes its way towards some sort of climax, the whole thing breaks down and comes back as a rougher, spacier version of itself. The guitars take off, while the drums become more elemental and organic. Another breakdown follows, and when the drums reenter, they are grimier still, with cymbals becoming gong-like and the bass drum pummeling the earth in search of nothing but dirt to bury itself in. (“Heart of Hearts” is available on Myth Takes, out on March 6, 2007.)

There is no conclusion to this. Whether you know it or not, disco continues in its lovely ramble across popular culture. Disco is like an incurable STD, bubbling up when and where it wants to, consistently explained away as something else, all the while laughing at its ultimate power over your poor and deluded soul.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Alvin Lucier - I Am Sitting in a Room

What you are about to read is the complete score for Alvin Lucier’s 1969 vocal piece, I Am Sitting in a Room.

“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.”

Really, this isn’t just a vocal piece, although the human voice is the only true “source” of the sound that you hear. The real instrument, however, is the room where the piece is recorded. The acoustic qualities of the architecture decide what it is that you hear. In case it wasn’t made clear above, Lucier recorded his voice, saying exactly what is quoted above, played it into a room, recorded that, played the recording of that recording back into the same room, recorded that, and on and on, until his voice was slowly overtaken by pure musical tones.

Of course, just which musical tones develop completely depends upon the structure of the room into which the vocal recording is played back. The different resonances produced by recording the piece in a small room versus those created in a large concert hall are central to the idea. This recording, Lucier’s first attempt in the fall of 1969, is “harsh [and] strident,” according to the composer, while a spring 1970 recording is “beautiful.” Even in the 15-minute 1969 version, melodies and rhythms are quite apparent. At 45 minutes, the 1980 version has much more time to develop properly, if in an almost completely different manner. A 2005 version, made by a computer, is fully distinct again. This is true ambient music, dependant entirely upon the context in which it is created.

The most impressive thing here is the elegance of the idea, the simplistic but absolute creativity. One almost need not hear the actual music to appreciate its beauty. Yet, in hearing the recording, particularly a recording made by Lucier himself, the listener is treated to another surprise.

Before listening to the piece, I wondered what Lucier meant by “I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.” There is something of a clinical quality to almost any process music, as if the idea behind it is more important than what the idea actually produces. He handily escapes this when his intentions fold back in upon themselves.

Lucier created the recording, he says, “to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have,” but it is those irregularities that lend such a human quality to the piece. Lucier suffers from a pronounced stutter, particularly on the “R” sounds, but he also pauses uncomfortably at other times. It must have been a source of embarrassment for him, although one has to wonder if he could have produced this masterpiece of vocal/aural suicide without it. In destroying (and thereby perfecting,) his stutter, Lucier may have been escaping into a sonic debris of his own making, but the listener is witness to a man’s desire to correct his personal flaws.