What We Could Play

Lars Iyer, Nietzsche and the Burbs (2020)

Art, turning the amplifiers up. Listen, man, just listen, he says.
A kind of buzzing. A hum, almost sublminal. Hissing and crackling. Popping. The feeling of forces gathering. Of something about to begin …
Doesn’t it sound cool? Art asks. Have you ever heard anything more exciting?
We’re only going to ruin it by actually playing something, I say.
We should play this, Art says, pressing his ear to the speaker cone. Play all this potential … Like, what we could play, rather than anything we actually play.

[See Peter Markus.]

No Language

Linder Sterling, “Linder Sterling: ‘Lady Gaga Didn’t Acknowledge I Wore a Meat Dress First’ by Sean O’Hagan, The Observer [The New Review, p. 5] 12 January 2014


You attended the now famous Sex Pistols performance at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in June 1976. Was it as exciting and galvanising as received wisdom has it?

Oh yes. It was a docking station. The first time I could plug into something new and exciting in its confusion. You just knew something was going on just because it was so different to anything else. There was no attempt at professionalism or entertainment. Things were always on the verge of disintegration onstage and yet there was also this incredible energy emanating from these very glamorous urchins. It was a radical change of gear. I remember thinking, “Oh, I have not been here before and I don’t even have the language to describe what it is.” It really was the last great British underground.

Invisible Tradition

Simon Reynolds, “Greil Marcus: A Life in Writing,” The Guardian Saturday 18 February 2012 (Guardian Review p. 12)

At once epic and fragmentary, the book [Lipstick Traces] argues for the Sex Pistols as the culmination of ‘an unheard, invisible tradition’ of apocalyptic protest-poetry stretching back via Situationism and Dada all the way to medieval millenarian sects like the Brethren of the Free Spirit. ‘Johnny Rotten is speaking for himself but all those other voices are in there speaking with him too. All kind of demands on society, on life, on ontology, on epistemology are present in the noise of punk and in that vocal sound, boiled down on to a little 7-inch piece of plastic’.

The Disintegration Loops

On William Basinski‘s The Disintegration Loops (2001-03), Haunted Ink:

It’s impossible: no one could create a script this contrived. Yet, apparently, it happened. William Basinski’s four-disk epic, The Disintegration Loops, was created out of tape loops Basinski made back in the early 1980s. These loops held some personal significance to Basinski, a significance he only touches on in the liner notes and we can only guess at. Originally, he just wanted to transfer the loops from analog reel-to-reel tape to digital hard disk. However, once he started the transfer, he discovered something: the tapes were old and they were disintegrating as they played and as he recorded. As he notes in the liner notes, “The music was dying.” But he kept recording, documenting the death of these loops.

These recordings were made in August and September of 2001. Now, this is where the story gets impossible. William Basinski lives in Brooklyn, less than a nautical mile from the World Trade Centers. On September 11, 2001, as he was completing The Disintegration Loops, he watched these towers disintegrate. He and his friends went on the roof of his building and played the Loops over and over, all day long, watching the slow death of one New York and the slow rise of another, all the while listening to the death of one music and the creation of another. […] What’s he created here is a living document: a field recording of orchestrated decay. […]

[E]ach of the six works employs a different, repeating loop that slowly deteriorates into oblivion. […] What we hear on The Disintegration Loops are not poetic images of nature or beauty but nature and beauty as they truly exist in this world: always fleeting, slowly dying. What makes these works so memorable is not the fact that the loops are slowly disintegrating but the fact that we get to hear their deaths. In a very real way, we experience the muddled, ugly, brutal realities of life. What’s more, these muddled, ugly, brutal realities of life are, in their own way, incredibly beautiful, perhaps more beautiful than the original, pristine loops ever could have been.

[…] This is the sound of entropy, the sound of life as it decays and dies before our ears. And like all living things, these sounds struggle and claw for life with their last, dying breaths. Their deaths are a memorial to Basinski’s past. That he dedicates these works to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is fitting. I can think of no better tribute, no better response to a tragedy of that magnitude than a work as beautiful and as fragile as this one.

The Screamers

Jon Savage, “Jon Savage on Song: The Screamers – 122 Hours of Fear,” Guardian Music Blog 27 July 2010

Thanks to YouTube, this 70s synth-punk band who never released a record have finally found an audience

The clip begins with a frontal shot of a helicopter: the sound of its take-off bleeds into descending synthesiser notes. A caption comes up: “Screamers.” The second image to be seen is out of focus, a pink/brown blur against a sea green background. The ominous notes continue, with an abrasive synthesiser counter melody. Live drums come in, upping the tempo to manic punk.

The blur comes into focus: it’s the back of a spiky-haired head, jerking to the manic tempo then resting stock-still. The camera pans out while the music churns. Suddenly, it stops and the figure turns round: “Be quiet or be killed,” it screams, and you see the close up of a face contorted with fury and frustration. Ninety seconds in, the tension is broken and the song starts.

Taken from a headline in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner about the hijacking of Luftansa flight 181 in 1977, 122 Hours of Fear is sung from the point of view of a hostage; a similar theme to R.A.F by Brian Eno and Snatch. This was, after all, the era of the famous shoot-outs at Entebbe and Mogadishu, where the hi-jackings of an Air France and a Lufthansa flight respectively made global news.

The Screamers’ singer, Tomata du Plenty, takes you right into the chilling scenario. His background in performance art gives him total control: his sculpted, swept-up 50s psycho hustler face keeps firmly within the camera position, lapsing from anger into stillness in the space of seconds. He is simultaneously within and outside the song: this is not arch, but conversely even more involving.

At 2:15 minutes, the camera pans out further, and you see the band. KK Barrett, a blond-haired drummer in a striped T-shirt, provides the visceral element, while two synthesiser players — Paul Roessler and Tommy Gear — encompass the stage moves that lie between willingness to please and total hostility. The camera pans back as du Plenty jack-knifes on to one knee.

There are several seconds of silence: “You’d better shut up and listen,” du Plenty yells and the furore starts again. The rest of the clip is more like a standard live run-through, with the musicians bobbing along with the rhythm, but at the end the camera returns to the singer, who stares at the lens with a gaze that runs from gurning speed psychosis to a certain, pained vulnerability.

This remarkable promo was shot at San Francisco’s Target Video in September 1978. Although they were inner circle members of the Los Angeles punk scene, the Screamers — like all of their peers — did not have a record deal. In fact, they never would, despite a heavily defined image, the vaunting ambition that they exhibited in interviews and the acres of press they attracted.

The Screamers were at the absolute cutting-edge of their time and place. There were other synth-punk groups, such as Suicide, Throbbing Gristle and the Normal, but they were based in New York and Europe, and were moving towards making slightly smoother, electro-pop records. Their nearest equivalent were the fabulously abrasive Metal Urbain from Paris.

There were other reasons for the lack of music industry interest. The era of mass synth success, of Soft Cell and the Human League, was at least three years away, and the confrontational nature of 122 Hours of Fear, (If I Can’t Have What I Want, I Don’t Want) Anything and Punish Or Be Damned was not likely to get punk-hostile record companies flocking.

Plenty of other Californian punk groups, such as the Germs, the Avengers and the Dils, were in the same boat, and they released classic independent 45s. But when I talked to the Screamers right after the Target video shoot, Tommy Gear summarily dismissed the whole idea: “What’s having a record? If I had a couple of thousand I could go out and make a record, what’s that? It’s nothing.”

The interview was strange. Consumed with the power of his concepts, Gear was extremely sarcastic, before deciding to relent just enough to show flickers of charm. Tomata du Plenty was dreamy and light, prone to gnomic epithets such as: “I think advertising is more exciting than the product most of the time.” KK Barrett was the voice of reason; well, somebody had to be.

I didn’t mind the barrage too much, having gone through far worse with Devo. It was expected then. But I thought that they were getting a little over-determined, especially when Gear started talking about the group in terms of the Monkees: “One thing we might want to do is to project ourselves as a video-projection instead of doing a performance. So we can get the money without having to be there.”

The Screamers kept on talking, having these fabulous ideas, while the world passed them by. As the first wave of the Los Angeles punk scene disintegrated around them, they held out for that perfect deal that never came. They never released a record, and disappeared into yellowing fanzine pages, decaying handbills and old VHS copies, an example of what might have been.

Until the advent of YouTube, that is. Type “the Screamers” into the search option and you’ll find an array of live and studio footage, including 122 Hours of Fear. The total hits for the clips add up to more than 100,000, which is probably 95,000 people more than ever saw or heard the group throughout their career. In the 21st century, the Screamers have finally found their audience.

The Moors Murderers

The history of The Moors Murderers, the phantom punk band that included Chrissie Hynde and Steve Strange.

In June 1977, Soo Catwoman announced that she was starting a band called the Moors Muderers: “The Moors Murderers thing was a big joke to be honest. I was joking about getting a band together called the Moors Murderers and doing sleazy love songs, I had no idea he [Steve Strange] would actually go out and do it. …” Strange claimed to be part of a band called the Moors Murderers in order to do a photo shoot for German magazine Bravo. Catwoman says she was also present but left the shoot. Steve Strange may have played a gig with The Photons under the Moors Murderers monicker supporting The Slits at an NSPCC benefit concert at Ari Up’s school in Holland Park circa Christmas 1977. After the gig, Steve Strange asked Dave Goodman (who had worked with the Pistols and Eater) to produce their song “Free Hindley”. On 8 January 1978, The Sunday Mirror published a piece on the band (“Why Must They Be So Cruel?”) based on an interview which had taken place at Goodman’s office in Fulham. The four band members were wearing pillow cases on their heads. According to Goodman, they included Strange, Chrissie Hynde and Nick Holmes (Eater’s roadie who is believed to have played guitar on “Free Hindley”).

In mid-January 1978, the Moors Murderers featured in Sounds, wearing bin liners over their heads. They played a few songs for the journalist (“Free Hindley“, “Caviar and Chips”, “Mary Bell” and “The Streets of the East End”). Following the Sounds showcase, the band played the Roxy on 13 January 1978, supporting Open Sore. Steve Strange was on vocals (calling himself Steve Brady) and Hynde was on guitar. Bob Kylie (Open Sore): “They were terrible! Absolutely dreadful!” On 28 January 1978, Strange told Sounds that he had left the band.

The Moors Murderers probably never released a record, but some tracks seem to have been recorded.


Leaving Things Out

From Paul Morley, “On Gospel, Abba and the Death of the Record: an Audience with Brian Eno,” The Observer 17 January 2010 (Features section, p.10)

“A way to make new music is to imagine looking back at the past from a future and imagine music that could have existed but didn’t. […] One of the innovations of ambient music was leaving out the idea that there should be melody or words or a beat… so in a way that was music designed by leaving things out — that can be a form of innovation, knowing what to leave out.”

The Slits


Zoë Street Howe, Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits (London: Omnibus Press, 2009):

Keith Levene: “Viv [Albertine] was the one who made me aware of the Pistols when they were more a myth than an actual band…” (p. 4).

Ana Da Silva: “I remember very well this article that Vivien Goldman had written, she mentioned The Slits, which I thought was great, this band hadn’t done anything but it was there in the papers and everything” (p. 17).

Vivien Goldman: “Tessa was sitting on the bed with Budgie, who had this necklace with a pair of scissors because her group was called The Castrators. It was more of a conceptual thing. Put it this way — I don’t remember the music but I remember the scissors!” (p. 19).

Gina Birch: “…and that’s probably why Vivien Golman was able to write about them, because they’d envisaged what they were going to do before they did it” (p. 18).

Tessa Pollitt: “I started a group called The Castrators with two other girls called Budgie and Angie, but none of us could particularly play, it was just an idea. Suddenly the News of the World was knocking on the door — they wanted to do a sensational article about punkesses. There’s this classic line that says, ‘These girls make The Sex Pistols look like choirboys!'” (p. 18).