Wednesday, January 29, 2020
Text-Sound - Snowflakes
Sham-Repro. SR-001. CDR
Chicory Tip’s 1972 number one hit ‘Son of my Father’ sounded good even through the shitty little speaker of my three band Hitachi transistor radio/cassette player with built in condenser mic and carrying strap. That synth riff did it for me. It was the song that introduced me to synthesizers, even though I’d no idea that it was a synthesizer I was listening to. The song was co-written by Giorgio Moroder and the synth was a Mini Moog. Moroder released his own version of it a year earlier where it did nothing to trouble the charts and would have probably died a death until Chicory Tip’s manager suggested they do a cover version of it. On such moments careers are built. You should check out the primitive video of Moroder singing his version in a barely disguised ‘lets get this all over and done with as quick as possible’ fashion, all while sporting the most enormous and unruly black mustache seen in pop history until the emergence of the Village People. Something to aim for there. Then you can go and look at Chicory Tips version as filmed on the seafront in Southsea. Did synth pop begin this far back? It probably did.
Three years later Japanese synth wizard Isao Tomita released his album of haunting Debussy covers, ‘Snowflakes Are Dancing’. Which at the time cropped up regularly as incidental music on Radio 1. I seem to remember Dave Lee Travis having a liking for it, though this would probably have been a few years further down the line. When I eventually got my own copy of ‘Snowflakes ...’ it not only piqued my interests in synths further but in Debussy too and then on to piano music itself. Wins all round. Thank you Tomita and DLT, or as he’s know around these parts, the man who got a three month sentence [suspended for two years] for indecent assault during Operation Yew Tree.
So imagine my surprise to receive in the post, totally anonymously, without a word of warning the above CD with the Tomita’s fizog on the cover. I recognized him immediately as the image is taken from the back of the Snowflakes LP. The person taking in applause on the flip I didn’t recognise at all, but a reverse image search came back with Sten Hanson, an obscure Swedish experimental poet and composer. Sten Hanson released an album called Text-Sound and what you see is its cover minus some of the wording.
The CD lasts for twenty minutes and is the first side of Snowflakes with various sounds layered over it. These sounds range from irritating animal squeaks to vocalisations to electronic burbles. After listening to some Sten Hanson via YouTube, including a live performance recorded in Essen in 2004 where sounds such as these exist, I’m making the assumption that this CD is Hanson and Tomita layered over each other. The result is that rare thing, something virtually unlistenable. I really struggled to finish it and all the while kept asking myself, why? Who would do such a thing? I’ve tried searching online for this release but have come up with nothing. Then I realised that the word ‘snowflake’ has more than one meaning these days and that this may be a wind-up. I really don’t care. This may be a complete waste of resources and twenty minutes of my time, but it introduced me to Sten Hanson and got me listening to Chicory Tip again. So all together now SON OF MY FATHER dee dee dee di di di di dee.
Friday, January 24, 2020
Mlehst - More Punishment
Welcome to the Outrageous Packaging Programme where today we’ll talk about whats on the outside of a release in far more detail than whats inside it. In a feature packed, special hour long episode, we’ll take you back in time to a pre-Internet world where record labels tried to outdo each other in the outrageous packaging department by releasing musics in ever more bizarre and unwieldy fashions. We’ll be talking to the man who sealed a permanently playing Merzbow CD inside a Mercedes Benz motor car, Phil Todd and his sponges and from beyond the grave, Nigel Joseph who proposed sewing a hundred Noise cassettes into the insides of an eviscerated dog.
But wait, whats this? Mlehst? Surely not? Thee Mlehst? All Brentall’s Mlehst? The very same Mlehst that soundtracked the 1990’s with a continuous supply of eerie experimental noise cum dark ambient electronics? Can it be? Could it be? Lawksamussy, if my eyes don’t deceive me it is indeed. Like a Whitehouse album that you play for the first time in donkey’s years the memories immediately come flooding back; all those Japanese noise CD’s, the poorly attended noise gigs in parts of London that you’d never otherwise visit, the one sided LP’s that came out on Brentall’s Bandaged Hand Produce label, the many beers, the camaraderie and above all, the outrageous packaging.
So Santa brought me some Mlehst. I couldn’t have been happier. Oh, hang on, its a rather large jiffy bag. Inside it there’s a seven inch square wooden plaque with a cassette and a miniature leather whip nailed to it. The craftsmanship and skill involved has to be admired for it could not have been easy to knock those nails in without cracking the cassette case. Or maybe a jig was made and the cassette inserted afterwards? The leather whip is held in place by nails that have been bent over. The plaque itself appears to be made from a light, softish wood thats had a decorative chamfer applied to all four edges before being stained a light coffee brown. It is rough hewn and it is as daft, and as pointless a piece of outrageous packaging that you will see, and the likes of which I haven’t set eyes on since the Hungarian label Unsigned sent me something similar last year. Apparently 44 of them exist. In a hour that will be 43 for I have anywhere to put the such things, so I will de-nail it, keep the cassette, burn the wood for fuel and leave the whip in the gents toilet of The Duncan in Leeds with a suggestive note and the phone number of my ex-gaffer. If you think this is excessive, imagine you are the owner of one of the fourty-three left. Yours have just become that bit rarer.
I could have got the download of course or the stand alone cassette version and then all of this could have been avoided, but All sent me the the Big Kahoona, the mothership, the Mount Rushmore version so whats a man to do? Ignore it? I’m more than happy with the sounds that lie buried within and the fact that the dust-sheets have been taken off Mlehst, which when you get down to is the crux of the matter.
More Punishment is two, fourty-five minutes sides of unsettling vibes, buried voices, all out noise and looped rhythms formed from grisly electronics, reversed tape muck and butchered gadgets that are kept from falling apart with solder and Sellotape. Some tracks unfold from their dark, minimalist beginnings and gain depth as they progress, others are just plain noisy. Voices appear through the grime, the speaking clock maybe, the business end of a powerful suction pump. One sprawling noise fest is the attack of the killer electronic termites. A serious amount of tape wobble on one outing had me wondering whether it was intentional or whether the tape was actually stretching, either way I enjoyed the experience. There are soaring drones and rattled steel pipes and the judder of jackhammers and always the feeling that this is the mid 90’s. Its no bad place to be.
Those rusty old nails. The black and white imagery. Illinois label Oxidation is home to such things. If you missed the Experimental Industrial Noise 1990’s and have room in your home for such as this, here is where you need to be.
Friday, January 17, 2020
The last time I got in the car and drove to Blackpool on my own was six years ago. It was the fag end of 2013, the last Sunday before Christmas, and it couldn’t have been any more cold, wet, windy, shit and miserable than it actually was. At around three in the afternoon I looked out at the trees and rain-lashed bushes bending in the wind and then I looked at my comfy armchair, felt the heat from the radiators and then I put my coat on. It’s only about a ninety minute drive to Blackpool after all, and the Sleaford Mods were playing a charity gig that got shifted from its original venue to some scummy Dickensian-themed pub in a less than salubrious part of town. When the gig was announced I had the grand idea of booking a room for the night and making something of it, but at the last minute I thought who wants to spend a soggy night in out of season Blackpool? Who wants to wake up in a crappy Blackpool boarding house on a miserable Monday morning in December with a hangover and have to drive back over those windy, winding moors with the windscreen wipers lashing away and a pounding head? Bloody Blackpool.
I forget what the charity whip-round was about, but fivers and pound coins were dropped into a hat. I don’t think they made much for whoever it was. The pub was up some stairs as I recall and had little rooms with words like ‘hum-bugs’ written above them. There was no stage just a small space on the floor. The venue had a ‘no drums’ policy so the Ceramic Hobs couldn’t play and instead a side project of theirs filled the gap. I’m not sure if Simon sang but he was certainly there soaking up the surreal atmosphere. The Sleaford Mods were just getting into their stride and the music press were beginning to sniff a story, so some journalist from London had turned up buying everybody drinks on his expense account. He was pissed out of his head and spent the entire set waving his iPhone about and repeatedly dropping it. Dr Steg turned up with pockets full of brightly coloured stickers and was drunkenly covering tables, chairs and walls with them. He had a Dictaphone with him into which he shouted nothing but the word ‘cunt’. About twenty-five people turned up, plus a few bored locals who took absolutely no notice of what was going on and carried on watching darts or football on the television. I’m glad I went. It was one of the best nights out that year. Ever, maybe.
On Wednesday the 15th of January this year I once again got in the car to drive to Bloody Blackpool, only this time it was for Simon’s funeral.
Simon’s legacy will grow with the coming years. Of that there is no doubt. He left behind him a body of work that he can be immensely proud of and which will delight, baffle and intrigue future listeners for generations to come. We can read his books and watch the countless YouTube videos, remember the drunken nights, the crap pubs, his deep love of literature and music, and how he instantly became the centre of attention in any conversation. People who knew him are already beginning to tell their Morris-related stories. About how they first met him, or the bizarre Hobs gigs they attended and the time someone tried to shove something up his backside at that Smell & Quim gig in Manchester. The Smell & Quim days may need a whole new chapter in itself, yet for now this will have to do. This is my bit.
The exact date is lost in the mists of time of time, but when I started putting zines together back in the late 90’s, Ceramic Hobs tapes started dropping through the door and then flexi-discs, seven inch singles, and one day the gloriously incomprehensible first Ceramic Hobs album proper: ‘Psychiatric Underground’. A twenty-eight track, seventy-three minute giant splodge of indecipherable multi-tracked vocal madness, full of insane voices, noise, West Coast psychedelic riffs, Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday Mr. President, synth blurt, samples taken from local radio and total silence that nobody working a regular 9 till 5 job could have ever put together if they’d stuck at it for fifty years. The sheer madness of it all. The lunacy. The total bonkers of it. It was the total bonkers bit that slowly drew me in. And Simon’s singing voice. Anybody who had the balls to write a song called ‘Islam Uber Alles’ was somebody I wanted to get to know. Which is what slowly happened. And then the voice. A thing of magnificent, raw beauty. At times a stomach-deep howl barking out ELO’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ at the end of Ceramic Hobs sets [that always got a few smiles and scratched heads], at times a soft Lancashire spoken-word drawl, and then the feeling that I never quite knew what was going on. Not just beneath the surface, but there, on it. There are depths to Ceramic Hobs releases that defy explanation. You could dive in there and never come out, and if you did you’d never be the same person. People have tried. They have the scars to prove it. Not just physical, but mental. That lunacy was all part of the appeal to me: the conspiracy theories regarding the Illuminati, the Freemasons, obscure religious cults, Guns N’ Roses, Queen, the rivalry between Preston North End and Blackpool Rovers fans, this was all one glorious, big, jumbled world of craziness that I wholly embraced, yet which at the same time left me more than a little baffled and intrigued. It was no bad place to be. This was not R.E.M.’s Greatest Hits I was playing. There’s not many bands that can grip you like that.
In the late 1990’s Simon invited me over to Blackpool with the idea that I could interview him for the zine. I got the train over one Saturday morning and we spent most of the day on a pub crawl with Nigel Joseph, who at that time was playing the guitar and the Hoover for the Hobs. After many nondescript backstreet pubs and pints, we ended up back at Simon’s house on Condor Grove, where the only thing to eat was a bag of frozen roast potatoes. While they cooked in the oven, it was Joseph that I interviewed. The answers to all my questions seemed to involve the amount of frighteningly strong painkillers he was taking. Drugs which would eventually take his life. The audio from the inquest into his death making it onto the Hobs single, ‘33 Trapped Chilean Miners’. Well, why not.
In 2003 I booked the Mead Hall for my 40th birthday and asked my two favourite bands if they’d do me the honour of playing. They both said yes, and so it was that Dieter Müh and the Ceramic Hobs both played Cleckheaton one Friday night in 2003. The Hobs turned up in a transit van driven by the ginger-haired Stan Batcow, who at that time wore brightly coloured striped tights and mismatched beetle crushers. Mingling with those who had come to see the bands were my family and friends from outside this Hobs/Dieter Müh world most of whom were rather confused. The Hobs sound-checked with a Neu! track and ‘Raven’. The latter written with Smell & Quim’s Srdenovic, a song that includes the sing-a-long chorus ‘I’m gonna fuck you up the ass tonight’. What happened next I remember very clearly. The Mead Hall was a function room above the George pub, which at that time was being run by a former second-rower for the Bradford Bulls. This was a man with shoulders like bridge supports who had no need of bouncers in his raucous full- of-drunks pub. As Simon Morris let rip with that bloodcurdling chorus, this bull of a man burst into the room like he was looking for the man who’d raped his wife. He made a beeline for me, and when he found me he looked me directly in the eye and said ‘Is this your party?’ I think I may have nodded slightly while trying to keep eye contact and answered with something that might have sounded like a whimpering ‘yes’. My mind reeled at the thought of me having to tell two bands and around 50 people that they weren’t welcome and that they’d all come a long way for nothing. ‘Oh thank fuck for that’ he said, and with that he left. When I later asked what had caused him such consternation it emerged that he’d been expecting a double-deck DJ, some flashing lights and and four hours of Black Lace, and it was with some relief that I realised he’d been paying no close attention to what it was that Simon was singing and was just glad that the venue hadn’t been double-booked. I took some photos, but none of the Hobs or Dieter Müh. I have no idea why. Just people sitting with drinks, looking happy. The Hobs played a blinder and for one song were joined by Srdenovic. Dieter Müh were joined by Steve Underwood on bass who in nonchalant rock star fashion played with his back to the audience. It was one of the best nights of my life.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I saw the Ceramic Hobs play over the years. Sometimes they were a complete shambles and sometimes they reached levels of greatness that didn’t seem possible from the the loose collection of misfits who were stood on the stage. The ever-changing structure of the band meant that you were never quite sure who was going to turn up, and if they did turn up you were never quite certain as to what they were going to get up to. They were in a constant flux, mainly due to members either being sectioned, committing suicide or leaving due to circumstances that must seem seem mundane by comparison. At the Wharf Chambers in Leeds I remember talking to Simon as the rest of the band humped their gear from the van. ‘Aren’t you going to help them?’ I asked, to which he laughed and replied ‘I’m the singer’. I saw them play shitty rooms above pubs and later when Harbinger Sound found success with Sleaford Mods, support slots with them at bigger venues. Me and Campbell drove to Liverpool to see them play in front of some bemused Sleaford Mods fans at a time when the Hobs had a dog in the band.
The last time I saw him to speak to was when the Ceramic Hobs played TUSK in Newcastle. After 35 years at the bottom end of showbiz [Simon’s words not mine] it had come down to this one final show, and they had a big crowd and a decent PA to see them out. As became the norm during later shows, Simon took to the stage in nothing but his underpants and sensible black shoes. His huge, and getting huger by the year, beer gut was there for all to see. Planting one foot firmly down on the stage in front of him he’d throw himself into the microphone and pull a sound out from somewhere that may have started in his colon. It made you wonder if it was humanly possible for someone to make such a sound. I firmly believe that he could have had an alternative career as a vocalist in a Death Metal band. After the gig I saw him wandering around the venue with a pint in one hand and a few of the latest Hobs albums in the other, all of which he was selling with no problem. ‘Black Pool Legacy’, a collection of Hobs material as curated by Philip Best, and released by Harbinger Sound, is the one you should seek out if you should wish to enter this crazy, most wonderful world of the Ceramic Hobs. I was more than happy to provide some words for the back cover, and in typical Hobs/Morris fashion he had them printed in a font and colour combo that made it virtually impossible to read. Its one of my proudest moments.
That he was creating all this while he was an integral part of Smell & Quim is remarkable. That he fitted into Walklett’s/Srdenovic’s perverted noise band with ease doesn’t surprise me one bit.
Once he told me that he’d started seeing a girl whose mother lived opposite this really rough pub, and when he told me where this pub was I told him that it was the pub I used to live in back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Blackpool and where I used to live are 80 miles apart. It just seemed one more insane bit of the Ceramic Hobs/Morris jig-saw puzzle that gave grist to his mill.
Then there’s the writing. ‘Bang Out of Order’, a fictional account of a Power Electronics band that has never been accredited to him, yet couldn’t have been written by anybody else. What began as a series of posts on Facebook, dismissing and praising the entire oeuvres of writers and bands with spectacular wit, erudition and nonchalance eventually morphed into writing of a much more personal nature. The man could write as well.
Over the last few years a group of us have been meeting up in the Royal Oak in Halifax for a drink and a chance to find out how people are getting on and what they’ve been up to. Simon always made the train journey from Blackpool and enthralled us with what seemed like an inexhaustible supply of gossip and outrageous stories. As the pints disappeared with increasing regularity he became ever more gregarious and the stories ever more salacious, and when he went outside for a quick smoke there was always a lull in the conversation and a feeling that a big part of the group was missing.
When his first book, Consumer Guide came out, I bought a copy from him and asked him to sign it for me. We were in the Royal Oak, or Dirty Dicks as it was known then. I virtually had to beg him to do this for me. I’ve just looked in that book and it says ‘Thanks for buying one, Mark - Dirty Dicks 2016’. Perfect.
Even though I knew him for all those years I didn’t know him that well. These are just anecdotes and memories. Yet during those beery afternoons in Halifax and Blackpool, at Ceramic Hobs and Smell & Quim gigs, and through his writing, I like to think I got to know him at least a little.
I’ll remember him for his humour, his intelligence and that gurgling laugh of his. His songwriting skills, his singing voice, his writing, his fearlessness on stage and his music. It goes without saying that I’ll miss him terribly.