Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: Z

And now we face the final curtain...

Z is for …

… Frank Zappa (Pete)

Much like The Fall, I've always admired Frank Zappa, but only from a safe distance. Like Mark E Smith, he was a prolific songwriter who wrote well over 50 albums, although a great deal of his material is hit or miss, if not frankly bizarre (think of an electric prog-jazz band falling down several flights of stairs). But then you'd expect nothing less from someone who called his children Moon Unit, Diva Muffin and Dweezil.

So perhaps this post is not so much of a recommendation, but more of an exercise in awareness. After all, Zappa lurked in the background of rock music history from the very beginning. His equipment going up in smoke at the Montreux Casino was the story behind Deep Purple's 'Smoke On The Water', while it's alleged that he gave Don Van Vliet his more recognisable name of Captain Beefheart. As far as I know he's never been cited by subsequent artists as a source of inspiration, but I've always liked to think that his music showed that weird can also be good and opened the doors of experimentation.

True, I've only heard a small portion of all the music he produced, but what I've heard I've liked, although I admit, I definitely have to be in the right frame of mind to listen to Frank. Then again, sometimes you just need something completely and refreshingly different. If there's anyone to blame for this particularly vague interest, it's my dad, who's had a couple of Zappa albums kicking around for years. After borrowing his copy of Cheap Thrills for far too long, I thought I should invest in my own.

I played it again recently to remind myself before I started writing this. 'Catholic Girls' (along with quite a few others) still leaves me smirking, but it's fair to point out that he should be remembered for more than just his risqué lyrics (his band, The Mothers Of Invention, were banned from the Royal Albert Hall for "obscenity") and that he was a serious classic composer too. Well, at least when he wasn't trying to wind up his numerous critics.

Given that this is the last A-Z post (for now?), I think I'll finish with his perceptive remark about rock journalists as "people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read". Fitting, no?

… Frank Zappa (Caskared)

Despite being early, the heavy grey metal door was already hot to touch from the inside after the morning sun had been baking it for hours already. I unlocked the door and stepped out. Across the dusty driveway polka-dotted with pot-holes was a wall. The wall stood around three metres high, brick but skimmed with a pinky-grey plaster topped with roof tiles. Z-Clan had tagged it, as has BG and UWC. An orange-afroed female face glared out above a psychedelic snail, apparently she represented Margaret Thatcher, and to her right where her shoulder would have been – if the graffiti artist had finished the portrait – was a stencil of a moustachioed rock legend. Frank Zappa. I turned the corner to find the stencil once again, only this time Zappa has friends: George Bush and Osama. Each sports a red nose added freehand, presumably at a later date.

I made my way through the cobbled baroque streets, turning first right, then left, Zappa stared out again and again. By my favourite café, on the way to the music library, near the supermarket, Zappa’s face again and again. The stencils were not all identical, they dated from different times. Sometimes where there was more wall available the facial hair dominated a little more. From time to time a smoking joint was added to the long face. Occasionally there was no face, but the name “Zappa” instead.

Moving through the old town to the Western edge the visage of Frank continued to appear staring out at me, then all of a sudden I was agog. Atop a pole was a brass cast of Frank Zappa. I was standing in a crumbling courtyard near a bus lane and chemists that was nothing special, except it seemed to be an official shrine to Zappa. The backdrop was a graffitied mural more impressive than elsewhere in the city, thought I, especially in the hazy sunshine. A large phizog of Zappa with a Zen-like gaze merged with a concert scene and various other psychedelic imagery. I found a plaque; the likeness was commissioned by a student and sculpted by Konstantinas Bogdanas, who was famous in Soviet times for producing statues of Lenin, Marx and other heroes of the day. By the time he made Zappa he was over 70 years old and the Soviets no longer ruled his home, a new icon with facial hair was in.

Welcome to Vilnius, Lithuania.

Frank Zappa never played in Lithuania, he was not of Lithuanian descent, he had never been to Lithuania, but he represented the freedom denied by Soviet rule for a group of artists called The Frank Zappa Fan Club. In the early 1990s they created exhibitions of mementos from their icon: letters, pens, clothes, only they originated from a flat in Vilnius rather than having any bona fide link. The heritage of pagan tales and the radical political upheavals lead to the exhibition ‘Memorial Objects Of Frank Zappa’ being a success and creating a new mythos for the new times. The fans petitioned the municipality wanting the monument and raised $3000 to cover the costs, the business that erected it accepted a bottle of liquor as payment. At the opening ceremony a military band played Zappa classics.

For more information on Frank Zappa, go here and here.

… Thalia Zedek (Ben)

“Who?”, you might well ask.

In the fairly unlikely case that you have heard of Thalia Zedek, you’re most likely to have come across her indirectly, almost without knowing it. Her initials are scrawled on the T-shirt on the cover of Sonic Youth’s 1995 album Washing Machine, and she provided backing vocals on Dinosaur Jr’s Without A Sound the previous year. But she’s something of an alternative icon in her own right.

The daughter of a German mother and Lithuanian father, Zedek was born in Washington DC in 1961 and at the age of 15 was inspired by Patti Smith to pick up a guitar. Her first two bands were called White Women and The Dangerous Birds, with whom she first came to prominence when their single ‘Smile On Your Face’ received significant radio play on college stations, ultimately appearing on the legendary Sub Pop 100 compilation of 1986 alongside tracks by Sonic Youth and Cobain faves Scratch Acid and Wipers.

But Zedek left The Dangerous Birds in 1983 because they were “too poppy, not violent enough” (can you tell why I like her yet?), vowing to make music with men instead. The uncompromising and pioneering outfit Uzi were next for Zedek, and when they split in 1986 she joined the already-existing New York experimentalists Live Skull as a frontwoman. Like Uzi, they had a strong cult following but were often seen as a pale imitation of fellow Big Applers Sonic Youth, and they too split in acrimonious circumstances in 1989, by which time Zedek’s personal life had gone into something of a nosedive and she was hooked on heroin.

Thankfully both for the sake of her health and mental wellbeing and for the sake of those who valued her talent, she moved back to Boston and hooked up with Codeine drummer Chris Brokaw to form Come. (This is the “Chris” whose name also features on the Washing Machine T-shirt.)

1992’s Eleven: Eleven was the first full-length fruit of what was to prove a perfect partnership, a predictably dark record featuring a track called ‘Brand New Vein’ in which Zedek confronted her demons head on, and closing with a dead-eyed cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘I Got The Blues’.

But Come’s best was yet to come. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was released in 1994, the year that Cobain killed himself and at a time when grunge was sliding further and further into grotesque self-parody. Named after a recently implemented policy on homosexuality in the US Armed Forces, it’s a gem. Not a brightly sparkling perfectly cut gem, of course, but rough-edged and scratched. The CD itself sets the tone, bearing an image of an abandoned pair of stilettos lying on a city street taken by Brokaw’s replacement in Codeine Doug Scharin. Lyrically Zedek continues to dredge her mind for words laced with menace, bitterness and disillusionment to sing in her characteristically deep-voiced bruised rasp; musically, with Codeine producer Mike McMackin on board, it’s a slower, more lugubrious and more experimental collection of songs, though still prone to bursts of lacerating violence. Seven-minute-long closer ‘Arrive’ is the highlight, ugliness distilled into something approaching beauty.

Two more Come albums followed – 1996’s brilliantly titled Near Life Experience (which saw Brokaw venturing into vocal duties on ‘Secret Number’ and ‘Shoot Me First’) and 1998’s longer and marginally more sedate Gently Down The Stream – but neither record quite matches up to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Unfortunately, neither did sales ever remotely match up to critical acclaim, and when Come went into permanent hiatus their status as a cult band of the post-grunge era was cemented. Zedek has since released solo material – as has Brokaw, whom I saw supporting J Mascis in Nottingham four years ago, when he played his song ‘Recidivist’ from Gently Down The Stream to (in essence) an audience of one: moi - but the real recognition she so richly deserves still seems elusive.

... Zero B - 'Lock Up' (Del)

A beat nicked from a 70s funk record. And sped up. A lot. A bassline that's completely out of tune with the rest of the record. Bleepy bits. Cow bells. Whistles. A hands-in-the-air synth breakdown. Ah, that'd be "Old Skool Hardcore" for you then. And this is one of the all-time greats.

One of those dance tunes that does just enough, keeps it devilishly simple and hits the spot. You can see the fields full of ravers going bonkers to this one. I wasn't of course. I was 12, and most probably tucked up in bed worrying about my maths homework. Still, the fact that it still sounded great to me several years later when I discovered it on the FFRR Classics compilation shows just how ace it is.

It's also the soundtrack to the last time a youth movement dared to stand up to the establishment. A time when people really did believe that everything was going to change. It did, naturally, thanks to the Criminal Justice Act, and the banning of congregations and "repetitive beats". The rave scene had to go legit or be wiped out. And wonderfully daft records like this began to fade away, as the scene splintered, with hardcore going either cartoon ridiculous (happy hardcore) or chin-stroking trainspotter serious (drum 'n' bass). To say "they don't make em like this any more" wouldn't be strictly true, because some people still do (usually in Germany, for some reason), but no-one takes any notice. Which is a bit of shame really.

… ‘Ziggy Stardust’ by Bauhaus (and other superior cover versions) (James)

Oddly, I think I heard the Bauhaus version first. As much as I think that Bowie – especially during the 70s – was nothing less than a genius; and furthermore, as much as I think that Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was monumental both as a song and as an album, I still think that Bauhaus’s version is better. Just in case you think it is just me: many Bowie fans (read: obsessives) that I have met have concurred (and that includes my wife).

Bauhaus’ version is simply more muscular, and contains more hubris than the original. It captures the excess of the song – the sheer rock ‘n’ roll-ness of it. In comparison, Bowie’s version is just a little tame. Play them back to back – I think that the conclusion is inescapable.

But this got me trying to think of other superior cover versions, and what it is about them that gives them that extra push over the original. The first conclusion I came to is that they are quite thin on the ground. Bad covers are a dime-a-dozen; decent ones are not that uncommon; but covers that leap over the inspiration of the original are as rare as hen’s teeth.

Covers that are better than the originals seem to add some specific quality. It could a quality already present in the original – such as with ‘Ziggy Stardust’; or it could be a whole new quality. An example of this could be ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklyn. Aretha took a damn good song, and gave it a whole new dimension by shifting the gender. Suddenly, a great soul song that had vaguely misogynist tendencies became a feminist anthem with such power that the original became almost forgotten. Another example would be Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ covered by Jimi Hendrix. The original, whilst lyrically very strong is musically hopelessly weak, but Hendrix’s version on Electric Ladyland sears into the consciousness with all the fire of the apocalypse.

In recent years, Johnny Cash, has proved himself a master at creating the superior cover version. In these, he has both taken away from the originals and added something that is very difficult to create – perspective. Two obvious examples will suffice: ‘In My Life’ spars the original to the bone, but for the rawness, it sounds so much more authentic. When Cash sings the lines “All these places have their moments / With lovers and friends I still can recall / Some are dead and some are living / In my life I’ve loved them all”, it sounds painfully real to him in away that it never could to Lennon in his twenties. Similarly, ‘Hurt’ outstrips Trent Reznor’s original in so many ways it is hardly worth discussing.

There are lessons here to the compilers of the manifold tribute CDs that seem to be appealing. I have several in my collection, but with the exception of one or two, most gather dust. The principle fault is that they treat the originals like Gus Van Sant; following step by step, but forgetting that music is a living, breathing thing. Songs need fresh inspiration to bring them to life again – otherwise they simply remain a thin reminder of what was so good about them in the first place.

… Zine-writing (and the degrees of separation from ZZ Top) (Skif)

Considering our subjective perspectives during this series, I have no qualms (but perhaps should) in supplying an autobiographical timeline highlighting what I consider my most vivid musical milestones.

When I was a nipper, the first band I really loved was the Pet Shop Boys, which I take some pride in still, but I had to rely on Santa for their records. I was also very fond of Queen, and I still think their ability to score huge hits with ambitious songs that rarely sounded the same (if you ignore Brian May’s guitar solos) is easy to forget, but same theory about Father Christmas’s whims. I remember writing into the evening local radio DJ to play ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ because I’d heard it as an entry theme for one of the performers at a night of professional wrestling at Portsmouth Guildhall. Klondyke Kate, I believe it was. 25 stone of toned athlete, and evil to the core. Booo.

However, the first band that I remember actively going out and buying myself, the band that tipped me into the world of active musical consumerism, was ZZ Top. It is my great regret that it is now 14 years later, half a lifetime, and I still can’t grow a good quality beard. I dug their blues that had been brought roaring into the plush 80s. Where it stayed, bless ‘em.

This got me into guitars and the influence of friends brought me to Metallica! Kerrang! And denim jackets covered in vaguely satanic patches! Oh and one blue ZZ one that soon got laughed at and hastily unstitched. Perhaps it was then, during my college days, that I sought to perhaps expand my mind a little, and used to spend all my money shovelling £1 CD and 7” singles into my HMV basket just to check bands out. Found some good ‘uns that way, The Fall and Compulsion making the biggest impression in the long run. The influence of Mark Radcliffe and Lard’s late night Radio One show also pushed me away from metal and closer to the big expanse we call “alternative”, and would eventually take in the country and western music that I had originally rebelled against and despised ‘cos my parents liked it, as well as folk, electronica, “world” music, and pretty much anything, really.

This explorative thirst got me hooked up with the student mag once I ended up at Pompey Uni and links being forged with the Portsmouth music scene. Chance meetings and svengali figures convinced me to release some music via our rag Pugwash, but this eventually morphed into an entirely separate record label, Elastic Fiction, run from home and entirely for the benefit of acts from the Portsmouth and South Hampshire area, oh and possibly my ego. The nature of this post suggests so.

There is only so successful a “local” label can be and eventually it had to be killed off, particularly when I realised that I wasn’t cut out for the business world, and particularly not within the record industry, and also that the label was a bit shit, in truth. It was clear that I was happiest involving myself in music as an observer and a writer, and doing the label thing had brought me into contact with many fanzine writers. Their supportiveness made me think they really were the best people in the world and, being an approval junkie, I fancied being thought of in the same way. God gave me tuneless hands, but at least I can hold a pen straight. Thusly, Vanity Project ‘zine was born, because if I take an interest in something, it can’t just be passive. I know that everyone reading this will understand how it feels to be hooked by music, to be excited about hearing something new and feeling that need to participate.

I, personally, would be fascinated to know what YOU consider your musical milestones. Similarly self-obsessed essays in the comments box please!

The next leap from zine review-writing has clearly been to be involved in something like this A-Z, an opportunity for which I have been grateful. Thanks to the organisers of this site and my fellow contributors. Oh, and to three hirsute Texan bluesmen for unwittingly setting me off in this direction.

… Zissou (Swiss Toni)

‘The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou’ to be exact, the 2004 film starring the incomparable Bill Murray and a stellar supporting cast including Willem Defoe, Anjelica Houston, Owen Wilson and Jeff Goldblum. The film tells the story of an oceanographer on the trail of the mythical shark that killed his partner… It’s a good film, but it’s not really the film that I want to talk to you about. Well, not entirely. This being the A-Z Of Music, I suppose you’ll be expecting me to write about the soundtrack. It’s a perfectly reasonable assumption, and I suppose that’s exactly what I am going to do. Sort of.

I want to talk about Seu Jorge.

Seu Jorge is the Brazilian musician and actor who appears in the film as one of the crew on board Steve Zissou’s boat. I’m not sure if he actually has any lines, but his contribution to the film is absolutely immense. Why? Because the film is interspersed throughout with shots of Seu Jorge lounging onboard the boat gently strumming an acoustic guitar and quietly singing Portuguese cover versions of classic David Bowie songs.

It sounds distinctly unpromising on paper, but somehow it works. There are no sacred cows here: ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Starman’, ‘Five Years’, ‘Lady Stardust’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘When I Live My Dream’, ‘Changes’, ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ - all come in for the Seu Jorge treatment. All are performed by this slightly shambolic looking guy with a sailor’s cap, an acoustic guitar and a fag hanging from the corner of his lips. All work remarkably well.

It’s one of those perfect synchronicities between film and soundtrack, and I can’t quite decide if it’s the film that makes the songs, or the songs that make the film. On the one hand, the film definitely wouldn’t be the same without the songs, but on the other hand, several of the songs appear on the soundtrack, but they sound a bit odd away from the context of the film.

That’s not to say that the soundtrack isn’t worth a look though - as well as those Seu Jorge covers, it does have some wicked instrumentals by Sven Libaek to offer, as well as ‘Search And Destroy’ by Iggy & The Stooges AND –as if that wasn’t enough – it has a Scott Walker song. Then, right at the end, as if to show us what we’ve been missing, we get original Bowie version of ‘Queen Bitch’, and it brings the house down.

I ask you: what more could you want?

It’s a pretty decent film too.

Is that it? Are we done now? Can I go home?

Ladies and gentlemen – it’s been an honour and a pleasure from start to finish. Are we back to A next week…?

… ‘Zorba The Greek’ (Paul)

As the curtain falls on this 26 (or thereabouts) week journey through music it's time to go out with a bang, and what better way for us all to finish than dancing arm in arm to the theme music to ‘Zorba The Greek’?

The song itself used to form a glorious curtain call to the Student Night at Rock City in partnership with the theme from ‘The A-Team’ (although I'm a few months too late to nominate that.)

So without further ado I give us ‘Zorba The Greek’ to see us charge into the night.

The burger van awaits...

… The Zutons podcast (drmigs)

In this last post on the A-Z Of Music it feels fitting to make a nod to the future. Or at least the future of podcasting. I like podcasts; they're a simple way to listen to media when you want to, rather then when it is available. For the uninitiated, think of podcasts as a listen again facility that you can download. However, it is also more than that; short programmes are being made solely for podcasting. Amongst such podcasters are The Zutons.

The Zuton podcasts are five to ten minute short documentaries on specific subjects. Four have been made to date on the subjects of 'Track By Track', 'Recording The Album', 'Making The Video' and 'The Story So Far'. Cynics will immediately say that these podcasts are just a clever marketing trick, which may well be true. But hands up, who doesn't like Guinness adds? So following that argument, not all marketing is necessarily bad.

The good thing about these four podcasts is that they don't assume prior in-depth knowledge about The Zutons, just a little interest in the band. Personally, I liked their first album without being an ardent fan. I thought the saxophone brought liveliness to the modish sound to which they aspire. Also, the vocalist has a nice curiosity to his voice (which always helps). So, to their credit, they do manage to bring some of their personality to their sound.

The four podcasts explore the inspirations behind the music, and the genesis of their sound. This, like the extraordinary Old Surber Station podcast, does add something to the appreciation of the music. For the anoraks, there's also the usual biog and “this is how we met” stories. But in the main they concentrate on the music and the events surrounding its recording.

It helps that the Zuton podcast is professionally produced. So many podcasts fall down due to their poor production. This finished edge to them certainly makes them stand out from much of the dross that is available. And whilst the band members aren't naturally charismatic, there's enough to sustain interest.

You can tell from my backhanded complements that I'm not massively taken by these Zuton podcasts. They're good, without necessarily being great. What I applaud about them though is their eagerness to embrace new avenues of media. Undoubtedly this will boost their sales, but it also makes their music available to new audiences, and provides a means for the interested to get more out of their music. Hopefully more bands will follow this trend. Bands have long since embraced the internet to great effect, with Gorillaz, The Flaming Lips and The Raconteurs being particular favourites of mine. It'd be nice to think that podcasting will take off in a similar way to band websites. Then it'd be as easy to get to know the people and inspirations behind the music as it is to get hold of the music.

… zzzzz (Jez)

Although in many respects I was a late starter, I rarely went to bed alone in my formative years. To the surprise of my folks my initial reluctance to go to bed transformed to eagerness one Christmas night. I’d received my first radio. It was a tiny MW affair with an all-important earplug allowing me unlimited forbidden listening during the hours of darkness.

LED illuminated my undercover world, and when I discovered some of the stations were broadcasting illegally offshore the illegitimacy of my actions was enhanced. For the first time I was experiencing feelings of independence.

My nocturnal activities taught me about the intimacy of music. I could imagine the weird and wonderful places receiving the BBC’s World Service when I’d only been to the end of the road. Nighttime was the right time for the creeps to crawl out of my radio’s speaker. The sounds bore little relation to the rigid daytime playlists. Most young boys experience mind expansion under their bedsheets, and in many respects I was the same, but I had DJs with me. Although, thankfully, Jonathon King stayed away.

I’ve upgraded from my original radio to one with a “sleep” setting, causing it to fade gradually. My partner and I have different sleep patterns. She’s an early bird, I’m a night owl. She sleeps heavily enough for me to be able to sneak into bed, hit the “sleep” button, close my eyes and listen to the soporific tunes my late night friends play. Maybe it’s The Blue Nile, or Miles Davis, or Kings Of Convenience lulling me off to sleep, but when half an hour is up the music slowly quietens to be replaced by my partner softly breathing, as I finish my shift and the early birds prepare to take over with their altogether different listening matter.


* * * * *

A perfect conclusion, don't you think?

Thanks to Pete, Caskared, Del, James, Skif, Swiss Toni, Paul, drmigs and Jez for their contributions this week and over the course of the A-Z, and to Del, Phill, Jonathan S, Jonathan B, Damo, Steve, RussL and Alison (to whom we owe special thanks as the person who came up with the concept).

Hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed receiving contributions and taking part myself.

So, that's the A-Z done with - but never fear, there will be a new collaborative feature appearing here sometime in the not-too-distant future. Just got to take a well-earned break and figure out what it will be...

(Incidentally, if you're a fan of football as well as music and don't think you'll be able to do without a regular dose of alphabetical action, our very own Swiss Toni and his accomplice Lord Bargain have just started an A-Z Of Football on their site Cheer Up Alan Shearer. The first installment can be found here. Drop them an email if you'd like to join in.)


Blogger Ben said...

Caskared: The Lithuanian worship of Frank Zappa is bizarre - and fascinating.

James: Might I nominate The Dismemberment Plan's cover of Jennifer Paige's 80s hit 'Crush'? Just put it forward for a CD project over on Swiss Toni's site. It's beloved of both myself and Jez because of what they've done with it - slowed it down to make it a torch song that really brings out a sense of desolation and disillusionment buried within the lyrics.

I'm also currently loving the Giant Drag cover of Chris Isaak's 'Wicked Game', but then that's a fairly standard "play it very loud" type of cover (though no less great for it).

Paul: 'Zorba The Greek' - ah those were the days etc etc.

2:05 am  
Blogger swisslet said...

Well done everyone. We made it!

.... and thanks for the plug Ben. You should have seen the look I gave Lord B when he suggested another A-Z before I'd got to the end of this one.


7:20 am  

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