Monday, April 25, 2011

Cover versions - Claude François versus the world

Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry famously described cover versions as the “found objects” of recording art, ready-mades as it were, for the musician(s) to attach their name like Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal sculpture. Sadly, many cover versions end up also as filler or as lazy statements of hero worship.

There is also another curious aspect to cover versions which is when they cross borders and enter into another culture or language. This can often be amusing as well as insightful, especially when the song “belongs” so closely to a particular artist or country.

One man who should know more than any other about cover versions is Frenchman Claude François. Born in Egypt to Italian and French parents he has the sad notoriety of having died in his bathtub at the age of 39 trying to straighten a loose light bulb. In 1967 François and Jacques Revaux penned a hit called "Comme d’habitude" (“As usual”). However, it took a re-write from Paul Anker, in English, to transform the song into “My way” immortalised by Frank Sinatra, but apparently the most covered song of all time (my bet would have gone for the Beatles “Yesterday”). Famous interpreters include Elvis, Shirley Bassey, U2 and Robbie Williams and more. The most infamous version is perhaps Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols, although the loudest (available) version is by French death metal group Mütiilation.

Claude François:

Frank Sinatra:

Elvis Presley:

Shirley Bassey

Robbie Williams:

Sid Vicious:


But Claude François is no stranger to covering songs himself, having filled his albums and sets with a vast array of “ready made” tracks throughout his short carrer. Perhaps one of the most unusual of all of these is his 1977 hit “Je vais a Rio” (“I go to Rio”) which was a cover of the hit originally penned by Peter Allen and Adrienne Anderson, which became the former’s signature song. The two videos are also fascinating, with the lonely Allen nonetheless enjoying himself while performing a striptease, whereas the plucky François lives the Fench stereotype by wooing a bevy of beautiful and busty women. Importantly here, François also sports a lovely mullet haircut not far away from that worn by Johnny Farnham (see below).

Claude François:

Peter Allen:

And speaking of covering famous Australian hits, I am reminded of a bus journey I had many years ago in the centre of Greece. Something on the radio caught my ear. At first I didn’t recognise it for the language, but once the chorus broke it became clear what it was: a Greek cover version of John Farnham’s “You’re the voice”, originally penned by Andy Qunta, Keith Reid (of Procol Harum fame), Maggie Ryder and Chris Thompson (ex Manfred Mann) in 1986 and released on John Farnham’s massive “Whispering Jack” album. The original video does nothing to dispel the myth that all Australian men had mullets during the 80s and that there is a reason why bag pipe solos aren´t often used in popular music.

Greece (X factor) version (starts around 1 minute)

John Farnham original:

Tommy Four Seven

2011 is shaping up to be a landmark year for experimental techno. January opened with Sandwell District’s “Feed forward” which was a masterful blend of crystalline minimalism and hopeless, shadowy moods. February saw Italian Luca Mortellaro aka Lucy release “Wordplay for working bees” on his own Stroboscopic Artefcats imprint, probably the most “in” techno label now and subject to a showcase at this year’s Sónar. Perhaps less techno and more IDM than Sandwell District, Lucy’s album nonetheless reinforced the dancefloor side of the label while demonstrating Mortellaro’s extensive skills at blending political messages with ambient industrial sounds. More recently in March, Tommy Four Seven released his debut album “Primate” on Chris Liebing’s CLR imprint. Rugged, dirty and fascinatingly mixed almost without high hats.Tommy Four Seven has also been busy making a number of promotional videos for the album release, including the most recent "G" as well as the two earlier singles "Armed 3" and "Track 5". The crossover between CLR and Stroboscopic Artefacts has also been productive with several remixes recently released or upcoming.

Cover art - Will Bankhead

All the fuss last week was about Lady Gaga. Not her falling over (again) during a performance, but the rather insipid cover art that she has so eagerly received for her forthcoming album. The said artwork features her face like a blow up doll blended into the front of a motorbike with Photoshop, complete with cheesey light sheens and hyper-real textures that has “service station CD bin” written all over it. One wonders if the hidden message here is “ride me” or “treat me like an object” whereas one caption I read had “Born to be riled”.

As appalling as it is, my personal retort would be “who gives a fuck?” in first place hardly anyone will see the album cover anyway, since most of their listening will be done on the radio and via MTV one presumes. Secondly, most people who do see this travesty will never see it any bigger than a box of matches on their iPod or the latest mobile device (who will need to or dare to show it full screen on an iPad or tablet?). This brings up the point of cover art in the digital age. Where does the future for music graphic design lie?

I recently raised this idea with the editors of Resident Advisor we will see if there is any response as it seems time now more than ever to start acknowledging a bit more the graphic artists making cover art and also those involved in video making.

One of my favourite designers/artists at the moment is Will Bankhead who has been responsible for the large majority of the recent covers coming out of Honest Jon’s Records.

Not possible to see at the digital level is his excellent use of mixed media. The two Shackleton covers, for instance feature the grainy textures of enlarged photographs and either added oil paints (on "Deadman") or embossed glossy textures on the surface (on "Fireworks"). His use of colour mismatching and games of repetition on the circular vinyl stickers is also commendable to complete the package, in particular on Actress’ now seminal album“Splazsh”.

Bankhead is an English artist based in London, and although in the limelight now for his work with Honest Jon’s (as well as the James Blake and Darkstar covers), he has in fact been designing for the better part of two decades and was one of the artists responsible for some of the most important covers on Mo’ Wax from the mid 90s.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Black Swan 3

Meanwhile it seems that everything is the Black Swan. Firstly, the group Black Swan about to release their follow up album on Experimedia, called "The Quiet Divide". Following in a similar vein to the first album, it nonethless incorporates greater use of voices and classical musical fragments.

Somewhat serendipitously, a Berlin techno label called Freund der Familie just sent me a 12" to review where the A side is a track called "Cygnus astratus" by Phidias. Cygnus astratus is of course, the scientific name for the black swan. Curiously, the gothic and tones and dark atmospheres make it seem almost a remix of the Experimedia project.

Bathetic Records

Here is an interesting label I came across recently called Bathetic Records, who release all their stuff on 7”s and casettes. The style of the label is difficult to pin down, but varies from folk to the more low fi semi-electronic elements of some modern strains of indie, noticeably the Not Not Fun crew who’s roster has crossed over with Bathetic on the odd occasion.

The first video is from Angel Olsen singing a folk piece that is surprisingly haunting and recorded in an interesting homage to 60s psych-folk. The vocal is fragile and delivered with a hint of pain or longing and has received many positive reviews on the web.

Second up is High Wolf, a Frenchman, who apparently lives in exotic locations such as Brazil and Jakarta, who makes low fi analogue tracks with a kind of faux New Age bent that recalls the tongue in cheek “dubious eroticism” of Father Moo and the Black Sheep.

Somewhere in between all these styles and ideas, and with a similar video to Angel Olsen, is the curious group The Wreathes with their debut release.

Wreathes - The Reigns from Death Coast Entertainment on Vimeo.

Though shalt not worship false idols

Here is a tale of two cities and two statues and how easy it is to worship false gods. Firstly, several weeks ago the chairman of Fulham Football Club, the Egyptian Mohammed Al Fayed erected a statue of Michael Jackson in front of the ground much to the chagrin of many (most) of the fans.

The question is: what has Michael Jackson got to do with football? Michael had visited the ground on one occasion back in 1999 to see an apparently uninspiring match against Wigan Athletic and yet was apparently in love with football.

However, the sadder truth is that the statue was apparently intended for the Harrod’s Department Store which was previously owned by Al Fayed and was deemed surplus to requirements by the new owners. It now takes pride of place next to the statue of the late midfielder Johnny Haynes a genuine idol for the club.

On the other side of the world in Detroit, there has been the bizarre proposal to erect a statue of Robocop, a fictitious cyborg from Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi action movie who fights crime and saves the city from drug smuggling gangsters.

Perhaps the ironies are in this case that (i) Robocop is essentially an anti-capitalist film with apparently clear messages against privatisation and competition based business practices (who doesn´t remember the line from the sleazy tv show “I´d buy that for a dollar…” amongst others)

(ii) Detroit is of course a city famous for a myriad of musicians from jazz, to Motown to techno. Rather than honouring these people, the citizens prefer a Rocky-style statue to a violent figment of the imagination. In the following “comic” video, the actor Peter Weller who played Robocop perhaps inadvertently m akes the same point, listing some of the artists who have put Detroit on the map.

I also came across this scultpure recently in an exhibition. It is a giant Corned Beef can eerected in Sarajevo by the artist Nebojsa Seric Shoba as a "Monument to the International Community" for supplying the said brand of unpopular food as part of their humanitarian aid during the Balkans conflict. In this case, however, the wrong statue gives the right idea.

But while still on (or close) to Detroit, Carl Craig’s seminal Planet E label has just published a 20th anniversary cretrospective and embarked on an extensive promotional tour. One of the highlights of this set was a Craig penned track under his Tres Demented moniker called “Shez Satan”.

Craig’s delivery here is truly comic while the electro styled techno only adds to the light heartedness. Lyrically, it is stupid and almost a joke, but the manner in which Craig projects himself into the delivery is special.

“You think the girl is dead
The cops charge you with her death
But she’s alive
And getting high on loads of coke and meth!
She’s Satan!

Your heart is broken
Torn up inside
Your lawyer tells you that bitch is still alive
She tried to rob a bank with her lover
Now you’re on the street
And that bitch better run for cover!
She’s Satan!”

One of the other standout tracks on the album is Martin Buttrich's track "Full clip" from 2006.

Recent gigs - Störung Festival

This weekend in Barcelona was the annual Störung Festival of experimental music and digital art held in La Farinera del Clot. A very low key affair compared to bigger cousins like Sónar, it is nonetheless always a good opportunity to hear some ambient and minimal music often in the context of specially created visual compositions and multimedia presentations.  This year all the concerts were held in a totally blackened and unlit theatre in the Farinera building, in one case even without the token gesture of a performer on the stage. The exception to the darkness was during the video interlude in the middle which worked especially well with eyes opening and adjusting to the light and trying to take in all the minute detail of the videos as they switched between rod and cone vision. In particular, two of the pieces shown here in the second half of the promotional video were spectacular.

Music wise, the Friday performance consisted of three musicians. The last to perform and generally the most venerable and well regarded was Asmus Tietchens a German musician with a pedigree that has seen collaborations with Thoma Köner, Merzbow, Tangerine Dream and Richard Chartier. Sadly, his performance was the least engaging of the three, albeit the most tranquil. Incongruous sounds often broke the resonating drones and the undulating sound fields and the overall evolution was often hurried.

Opening proceedings was American Kim Cascone who has a formidable reputation on avant garde electronic music circles. His piece “Dark atmospheres” was powerful and aggressive, described by himself as  
“A thirty minute immersion into a Lynchian hissing, sparking soundtrack for an irradiated wastelend…”

Sandwiched inbetween both these older artists was the younger Greek musician Thanasis Kaproulias working under the moniker Novi_sad. His work was arguably the most simple in idea, taking slowly pulsing and recognisable sounds and slowly building them over 15 minutes into (in)tense and over bearing  noise pieces before fading out. He performed four pieces in this manner, all somewhat similar with the most intriguing being the last which slowly modified sweeping cello lines into burning arcs of noise. However, the similar mechanisms to induce their patient unfolding coupled with their varied starting material meant each piece was reflected in the others of the set for comparison and contrast, creating a relative context that the other artists did not have, they being more intentionally amorphous and disorientating.

Always part of the festival is the ubiquitous Spanish producer Francisco Lopez. Here is an intriguing video from a previous edition of the festival in which his working method is shown, again with the emphasis on hearing by detaching any visual engagement with his “performance”. The video is in Spanish, but it nonetheless gives a clear picture without understanding the words.

In terms of the digital art, one of the highlights was a local Catalan design group called The Onionlab who had made some extremely subtle and psychedelic videos to accompany some music. This video is in Catalan and features a short interview describing the technology they use with excerpts of some of their work. More of their works are shown in excerpts in the second promotional video.

Some works of other visual artists and related musicians who performed or premiered pieces at the festival are:


Hugo Olim

Simon Whetham


Sunday, April 10, 2011

It was 20 years ago today - Part 2

While we have already seen that some of the periphery indie bands from the early 90s have been relegated to the budget price second hand bins, others are arriving at their 20th anniversary celebrations in style. Two of these bands are Primal Scream and Ride, who have seen deluxe reissues of their classic albums, “Screamadelica” and “Nowehere”, respectively. The Primals in particular have gone all out with a special tin box, whereas Ride have gone for a remastering and a bonus live CD thrown in.

It is a shame that the footage has been removed for copyright reasons, but there exists some amazing footage of Primal Scream performin “Loaded” on Top of the Pops in 1991. The footage is interesting for two reasons. One, it features a wired band falling all over the stage without even the vaguest intention of miming, while secondly, the nonplussed keyboard player is none other than Ride’s Mark Gardner, roped into the appearance by Creation Record bosses. He too makes no attempt to look authentic and merely stabs at his instrument with a frown.

Two of the standout tracks from the albums are the Primal’s immortal “Higher than sun” consistently praised as the greatest ecstasy song ever written and who could argue, even if Bobby Gillespie does look like Liv Tyler in the video.

… and Ride’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull-inspired opening track “Seagull” for which sadly there is no proper video.

Those keen for more nostalgia should look out for the recently released documentary about Creation Records called “Upsidedown” which is great on the big screen with a massive sound system, even if it is a bit linear. Sadly the story is a simple one, musicians and managers experimenting with music and dabbling in drugs, become drug addicts experimenting with drugs and dabbling in music, especially by the time Oasis come along. Nonethless, the story is interesting as it parallels the clash of guitar culture with the nascent acid house scene (cue Primal Scream again) and there are also many parallels with the Madchester scene and the Factory Records story told so well in “Control” and “24 Hour Party People”

Recent gigs - Eleh

Last week I had a last minute and rushed chance to catch the mysterious Eleh in action at a little gallery below a bank in Plaça Catalunya for a rather cheap €3.50. Not much is known about Eleh and he clearly wants it that way since he played the entire gig with back to the hundred-strong audience and lit from behind so he was only a silhouette. Perhaps more surprisingly, he finished the gig in a total and sudden rush, turning off the light then all his gear with a ruthless flicking of switches, before scurrying off into the wings.

As can be heard (but not seen!) from this piece, his music is immersive and microscopic, unfolding slowly and often using frequencies that have a physical presence: bowel churning bass and brain frying high frequency. I must confess, however, to being mildly disappointed with the show. The changes were a little clumsy at times and the trajectory of the music was often uneven as if he was in a state of anxiety or perhaps nervousness for the show. It was a shame as the gallery was bathed in slowly changing violet and magenta lights like La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's Dream House in New York and seemed an ideal place to relax, especially with the busy city reaching a Saturday afternoon climax above. One of the moving things about the gig was also seeing a few parents with their children ther which seems a nice way to educate them into different musical enviorments and sonic possibilities, though tsome of the more extreme frequencies might not be great for the developing auditory senses!

Towards a cosmic music

Here is a quote by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen about the nature and response of listening to music, taken from his book "Towards a cosmic music". I think the quote illuminates very well the many different emotional wellsprings with which music connects and asks very clear questions about why we might listen to music and different types of music.

"Music can take you downwards, upwards, sideways, lengthways - in any direction- Saying 'I love this music' doesnt mean anything at all. What do I love in myself when music pleases me? That is the decisive question. What part of me or what centre within myself, do I particularly love when I am listening to a piece of music? A single one, several, or all?"

It was 20 years ago today - Part 1

Some crate digging at a record fair on the weekend turned up many treasures amidst plenty of shit (as always). Three albums I bought for €2 each were quite intriguing as a snapshot of the indie scene from 20 years ago. All three of the bands have largely been forgotten which perhaps explains the price of the records, but going through them you can hear principally three different directions the indie scene was going and, more functionally, that many of the songs in between the singles aren’t so good which is perhaps why they haven’t quite stood the test of time.

First up and perhaps most primitive of all is Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Arising from the Midlands in the late 80’s the group was distinctive for having two bass players and being composed of very young members who likewise attracted a younger crowd, often skateboarders and other post-hardcore teenagers drifting into indie rock. Their sound was perhaps the most continuous with the then nascent grunge scene. Dating from 1990-1991, "Grey cell green" is the better track from the “Bite” album, but since there is no official video for it we will go for “Kill your television” which is always a sentiment I can support.

Next up is The Farm, a group from Liverpool who were typical of many other groups at the time being a straight up rock band heavily influenced by acid house and the summer of love. Retrospectively, their sound is like a poor man’s Happy Mondays, but without their excessive drug influence and chaos. I always loved the artwork for their 1991 "Spartacus" album although I still cannot stand the faux loved-up everyman vibe of their ubiquitous hit “All together now” which closes it off. “Groovy train” is perhaps better for bridging guitars with beats.

Last but not least we have Curve with a track from 1992. Mixing shoegazer sounds with more robust dancefloor intentions and gothic style was always going to be a success, especially if you can add the sex appeal of night queen Toni Halliday, but it’s a shame that only the singles were really good, “Coast is clear” especially, but here we have “Fait acompli” from the “Dopplegänger” album. Halliday does her best to break Anglo-Gaulic relationships by (deliberately) mispronouncing the French “Fait” as “Fate”.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Christian Marclay

One of my favourite artists, Christian Marclay, has an exhibition on at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank of London that finishes this weekend and has been receiving rave reviews.

The piece is essentially a 24 hour movie where each minute is composed of scenes of other movies depicting exactly that time of the clock and o real day in the scene. Already hailed as a masterpiece, it works as an installation, an extended collage and a critique of film.

A short piece by the BBC gives an overview

While some excerts from the installation are available here:

“The Clock” is not dissimilar to an earlier work of his called “Video quartet” which consists of four screens, or panels, each featuring scenes of movies in which the action centres on music making, singing or even patterns of sounds like explosions and screams. There is an abstract narrative to it, in that themes are clustered and designed to segue through a cycle of all the key emotions. However, the catch is that with four screens you tend to listen to the screen you are watching, thereby changing the sound every time you watch.

Another piece entitled ”Telephones” features a cut and post phone call through the history of cinema.

More musical based work by Marclay has also included sculptures of reassembled vinyl records and a piece called “Guitar drag”, which was a metaphore for the racial atrocities of the south of the US, in paticular where blacks had been dragged behind pick-up trucks in racial attacks. The piece also confronts the fetishism and sacredness of the instrument, especially a Fender guitar, by destroying it in an (a)musical climax.

Finally, here he is on television DJing with four turntables simultaneously. The difference here is he is playing modified records, where one piece of vinyl has literally been grafted onto another to make a chimeric disc.