Songs Without Music #1 (John Peel)

I am far away.

Months back, when I last wrote, I was exhausted, living in Brooklyn. Broken by a brutal 9-5. The day came when I couldn’t find the strength to scratch out another word. The Hum gathered dust.. and so did I.

I’m on a boat somewhere north of London. My records are on another boat in the middle of the Atlantic. None of us have plans to return. It’s been a week, resting, reading, keeping company with dear friends and existing in the silence of the English countryside. I’m beginning to flicker again. The old restlessness returning.

Let’s blow back some dust..

The week, reading in silence, has reminded me of my lifelong love affair with the written word. In my youth it bordered on obsession. So much so, as a child, I was nearly banned from my local library for taking out too many books and thus limiting other children’s ability to read them. Released in shame, and carrying a new found phobia of libraries, I spend the next decade crippling my mother’s salary with trips to the bookstore. Though that veracity of youth has reduced to an even simmer, books remain my constant companion, a means for escape, to grow, and continue learning. To find others. Holding this place in my life, it makes sense to dedicate some time, to this forum’s logical counterpart- books about the life of music. Recommended reading to accompany recommended listening. Ironically, unlike my parents, I cannot read and listen to music simultaneously. My love for books about music is probably, at least in part, based on this sad shortcoming. If I cannot listen to music while I read, I may as well read about music. Books, like all the arts, are born of the simple desire to explore ourselves and to share what we find. To commune. To give. We should be grateful for what their authors offer. They offer themselves.

My original conceit for an article was to approach books in a similar form to my writings on records. A group tied together by theme. I was interested in establishing an associative narrative between text and sound, and pointedly wanted to offer them the same treatment. I was also looking for a vehicle to break the temporal limitations of a book review, being that my writing is in no way timed with their initial release, and thus does not embrace the standard mode of forced relevance. As I began to write, I realized that each book required considerable thought and subsequent text. Grouped together as a single piece of writing, it was bound to become a significant undertaking for the reader, something I push to the limit under normal circumstances. And then there were the  records. They flooded into my mind, prompted by the memory of each book. I was clearly missing an opportunity. I’ve decided to change tack and let intuition have its way. Rather than a grouping of books about the disparate life of music, I have decided to begin a series focusing on a single book and accompany it with a grouping of records that are its logical counterpart. Recommended listening for this recommended reading. These are books I have taken great pleasure from, found valuable and think the readers of this site might also enjoy. I hope you do. Each group of albums is limited by parameters set by the author’s theme, but have been equally important in my life as a listener.

 

peel

John Peel, Margrave of the Marshes – John Peel

I begin here, because this book reminded me to write again. John Peel has been with me since adolescence. Not in voice, but in action. In my early teens, overtaken by an obsession with Punk, and held at bay by my meager allowance, I discovered a simple economy that would change me forever. As I began haunting record stores, I noticed albums by Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Fall, and countless others, bands I longed to hear, that were considerably cheaper than their counterparts. Serialized in silver and black, they were labeled Peel Sessions. I had no idea what they were, or where they came from, but the price caught my eye. I might have wanted Unknown Pleasures, Kaleidoscope, and Live at the Witch Trials. I doubt I knew better. I was hungry, and had very little money. I took a gamble, bought cheap, and hoped for a bang. I won big. The great effect of this gesture wasn’t economic. It’s a lesson that’s never left me. The record industry destroys records.  It was different before the internet. Nothing outside of the mainstream was easily available. I was flying blind. Sometimes I had heard the bands or records I longed for, often I was going on a name and a recommendation. I was obsessed with Punk, but knew very little about it. Each encounter with its amorphous members, and disparate sounds, struck a profound chord. I was desperate for more. Even when I didn’t like what I heard, I knew I should, and tried harder. Punk was the beginning of my life as an active listener. In the case of the three bands mentioned, I was in the dark, running on recommendations and off handed comments. These Peel Sessions were their first utterances I heard. I was faced with something raw and powerful. The beginning of lifelong love affairs. They hit everything I could hope for. I wanted more.

I’ll never forget the crushing disappointment when I bought The Scream by Siouxsie and the Banshees, recorded in the year following their 1977 Peel Session. Out of context, it is a great document of the first wave of British Punk. To my ears, someone had let the life out of the band and warped its flaccid remains. It was the same members. The songs overlapped, but there was something wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it. This phenomenon repeated with every band whose Peel Session I encountered (The Fall being the only exception). I desperately tried to figure out what was different, what I was and wasn’t hearing. To account for the veil of shit dropped between me and the bands Peel had brought to my ears. Production!  From my first encounter with a Peel Session, production, or more accurately, the lack of it, has dictated the degree to which I’m drawn to a recording. Almost without fail, from Blues recorded in hotel rooms or field recordings to Rudy Van Gelder, from Commune-Folk to DIY Punk, from bedroom 4-track tapes to Steve Albini, beyond and between, my favorite records impose the least between my ear and the source. Records made by those wise enough to get the hell out of the way. John Peel was simply a great engineer, and had a remarkable ear. He loved the music as it came, presumed nothing, stepped back, and then pushed it out into the world.

Peel taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life. Why some records sing in my ears, and others do not, and in so doing, honed my abilities as a listener.  Of course I came to love the studio recordings by all the bands recorded by Peel in these years, but for my money, very few capture the power of a respective band’s sessions with him.

I’m not particularly interested in autobiographies, which is, at least in part, what Margrave of the Marshes is. Despite my profound debt to Peel, I probably wouldn’t have read it under normal circumstances. Boredom got the best of me. Its red spine kept prodding at me from Jamie and Lucy’s boat shelves last week, and I figured what the hell…why not?  Read it or not, Peel didn’t seem like he wanted to write it. There are references throughout, of his being prodded to write this book, and his procrastination and dragging heels. In all probability, Peel wrote it for the same reason I tend to avoid autobiographies, a publisher got in touch, and he needed the money.. but who knows. Whatever the motive, this book is a pleasure, and an encounter with the inner life of one of the most important figures in 20th century music. I’m glad I gave it the time I did.

The first half is Peel’s voice. His own wry self. The one we all know so well. He spins a great tale. Pointedly, his story- the actual narrative, is not important. It is the message that lies beneath his words. His sensitivity and concern. Peel was someone who had a profound love and faith in music. Who always gave it the benefit of the doubt, welcomed change and always put the art of another before himself. This is incredibly rare, and made more remarkable by the position and influence he had. He made a life of risking everything, so the neglected might be heard. Culture at large owes him a huge debt. Peel’s voice is incredibly inspiring. He was a tireless worker, a believer in the importance of music and always, to his last, its stalwart facilitator. The true lesson of this book, is its great tragedy, when his narrative abruptly stops. Peel passed away, after a lifetime supporting others, without being able to finish his own tale. I doubt he would have minded about the book, but I’m sure there was a great deal more he wanted to do and hear. Peel never wasted a day. He never let himself off the hook. He worked and worked, listened and listened, and played and played. Yet, despite all that he accomplished, there wasn’t enough time. Of all the words laid down in between these covers, I took with me the ones that were not there. Those that were never written. This site, in its own small way, is inspired by Peel and those like him, who love music, who want it to be heard, explored, and taken for all its worth, on its own terms. For every day I lost, I was letting something down, a journey begun by others and far greater than myself. And so I sit, and here I write.

Despite Peels death, the book did find some completion through his wife Shelia’s efforts and voice. The remaining half of the book covers the years not touched by Peel himself, and is her biography of his life, as well as a memoir of her life with Peel. She did a wonderful job. In many ways, you feel as though you can trust her voice, honesty and position, far more than her husbands. That is, if you’re looking for the facts. It’s always useful to have the perspective of another, not to mention a little distance. I can’t say I’ve come away from this book with any profound insight, but it did what I love in so many books. It reminded me to raise the bar and never stop listening.

Of the books I’ll write about in this series, Margrave of the Marshes will be the most challenging from which to create a list of associated recordings. This is because of Peel himself. There is no one who is bound to more records across such a broad territory. How can you cull through the mass? What floats to the top? It’s frankly impossible. Whatever I choose, I’ll be missing nearly everything, and that is probably the point. It’s also difficult to rationalize, because Peel did such a great job as a tireless promoter. Because of his efforts, these albums exist in a far more public sphere than those I normally explore. The luxury I do have is that Peel and I share much of the same taste, and many of the things he loved dearly have stood the test of time. For these reasons, I have chosen albums by artists Peel held especially close to his heart, and I hold to mine.

 

prophets

 Tyrannosaurus Rex ‎– Prophets, Seers & Sages The Angels Of The Ages (1968)

In the early 2000’s, after finishing graduate school and spending nearly a year living and traveling in Europe, I followed my childish heart and moved to NY. As I arrived, the dubious musical excursion of Electroclash was in the grips of its death. Everyone talked about how much fun it had been. I was grateful to be spared. In this brief moment, when Bedford Avenue actually was the center of the universe, and nearly everyone I knew lived on, or within a stone’s throw of it, there seemed to be an antidote brewing. Drifting from windows above, came the warbling sound of Tyrannosaurus Rex. This album, and its two counterparts, seemed to be part of the soundtrack of a new underground, turning away from all the glitz and pretension of its predecessor. Then again, the band might have just been prescient foreshadowing. New York was once defined by the music born there. Today the city’s will has grown strong. It bends vast swaths of music, to its own capitalist image. For a moment there was a new music that seemed great. Stripped down, raw and honest.  Filled with experiment and promise. Like T-Rex, none of the bands that sprang up in the wake of Electroclash, were protected by their holistic approaches. The lure of money and fame left few unscathed. Unlike Marc Bolan, who managed to produce four beautiful albums before shifting his eyes to the stars, their places in my record collection trail off after promising first efforts.

Despite being embedded in the quagmire of youth, and my early years in NY, I love this record. I still pull it from the shelves from time to time. I wonder if John Peel was able to do the same. If Tyrannosaurus Rex ever had a #1 fan, it was Peel. He was a tireless and devoted supporter. He put them on every bill he could manage, gave their records endless play on his radio show, and granted them numerous early Peel Sessions. No one did more for the band than he did. He was a great friend, personally and professionally. What I loved about Peel was his heart. He was incorruptible. Despite being devoted to the band, both musically and socially, when Bolan started to drift down the road of glamour, and sculpt his music for more pop appeal, Peel called him out. His sin was never forgiven. His friendship, or any appreciation for him, was promptly dropped by the band. It is something that Peel never fully got over. The sting lasted the rest of his life. He had trouble trusting and becoming friends with musicians ever again.

All that said, Peel loved the band we find on this record, and so do I. It’s a beautiful stripped down document of late 60’s English Hippie folk. There’s almost no production to speak of (standing in stark contrast to their later efforts as T-Rex). It’s one of the great documents of the era. Two men, one instrument each- acoustic guitar and hand percussion, accompanied by voice. It sounds like the recording engineer stuck a single microphone in the room, pressed record and walked away. My kind of record. Nothing between the band and my ear. Honesty, raw emotion and talent. Despite being firmly of its era, it is like nothing else from it. No band sounds like anything close. It is apart and alone, brought forth by Bolan’s very unique and powerful vocal delivery, and a willingness to let the songs be what they are. They did what they could and stepped away. No nitpicking. It’s hard to divorce Tyrannosaurus Rex from the band they become. All the glamour. Pop. Personally, like Peel, I’ve never been a  fan of Electric Warrior or the albums that followed it, but for an all too brief few years, there existed a band that wore stars in their hair. I encourage you to dig deep and find the sounds that Peel held so close to his heart.

 

bsj

Bridget St. John ‎– Thank You For… (1972)

I expect, if you had held a gun to John Peels head and forced him to pick a favorite folk singer, his answer would have been Bridget St. John. If you held a gun to my head, and asked me, I might say the same. This woman is a marvel. One of the greatest and most neglected voices of her generation. She was a reluctant star and had to be poked and prodded into the spotlight. A likely explanation for her place in the shadows. When Peel started Dandelion Records, she was the first artist he signed, a sure indication of his love for and faith in her music. In the early years of his Peel sessions, she appeared again and again, and over the course of his life, was a faithful friend. This is the third and final of her absolutely essential records for the label, the penultimate in her discography and possibly my favorite. This album has spent so many hours on my turntable, I worry for its safety. I’ve often found that my favorite albums in an artist’s discography are not consistent with other fans. This album is no exception. Of St. John’s output for Dandelion, it is spoken of the least. I habitually root for the underdog, often search it out, but neither is the case here. Of the three, it was the last to arrive in my collection, well beyond a time when my love for St. John might be questioned. One of the distinct characteristics of her first two albums is a fragile delicacy. It is almost as though she whispered them into existence. They are rare things of intricate beauty. Thank You For… shares all intricacy and delicacy, but it is accompanied by a different kind of confidence in delivery. With it, St. John takes us from a whisper to a scream. There is a power in her voice that was formerly held at bay. It’s remarkable to hear unfold. It goes beyond her voice, this album brought her guitar playing racing into my consciousness. When I went back and listened, it was there all along, but something about this record made it impossible to miss. She is frankly incredible. In a generation of remarkable finger pickers, St. John was clearly one of the best. Combine that with her writing, near impossible vocal phrasing and range. Suffice it to say, she brings tears to my eyes. This is also one of the few albums where I own the both CD and LP, and will recommend you spend time with each. This is because the second half of the CD is dedicated to a live performance in France (yes.. on top of everything else, she speaks fluent French), which is amazing and shows her true power as a performer despite her reluctance to be one. I hope that one day someone does it the justice it deserves by pressing it up on vinyl.  St. John is one of those musicians that I struggle to recommend just one album, in fact I can’t imagine being forced to choose if I had to give away all but one, but for the sake of this article I give you Thank You For… for the sake of yourself, don’t forget to listen to the rest.

 

rw

 Robert Wyatt ‎– Rock Bottom (1974)

Recently, someone asked me if I have a favorite psych record. I’m not a big fan of these questions, partially because I don’t like to pick, when faced with them- my mind tends to go inexplicably blank, and because they’re impossibly hard to answer. My record collection has a sizable investment in this era. Where to begin. Surprisingly, “Soft Machine Onesprang instantly from my lips. I’m not comfortable denying countless equally deserving albums the slot, but I certainly don’t feel bad about giving it to this one. For now (and in this case publicly) I’ll stick by my answer. I love the first two Soft Machine albums passionately, the band in this era was an unstoppable grinding and complex sea of energy. They were completely engrossing. Unfortunately the band doesn’t hold my interest past these two releases. I know I picked up copies of Third and Fourth in dollar bins many years ago. I’m not sure I kept them. Like most great albums, what makes Soft Machine’s first release special is hard to discern. There’s always something lingering just away from the reach of your fingers. Magic that comes when a band completely locks together as a single unit. Despite this cohesiveness, one element consistently separates from the pack and forces itself into my consciousness. A man I return to, again and again. Robert Wyatt. I’ve resigned myself to being a fan of everything he touches. He is an English national treasure. He is the sparkle that draws me to, and into those Soft Machine albums, as well as so many others, and holds me there.

I’m pretty sure John Peel felt the same way about Robert Wyatt as I do. The recurrent Peel Sessions are a fair indication. What I do know is that they were very close friends for many years, and it is for that reason I introduce him here.

Rock Bottom is Wyatt’s third full length release after his departure from Soft Machine, his second solo outing, and the first after his tragic fall from a balcony that left him paralyzed from the waste down. Despite loving this record for all that it is musically, I can’t fully divorce it from being a triumph of will. A scream into the world by one my favorite musicians, presumed damned to silence following his accident. Wyatt is a singular musician. He has created a body of work that stands on its own, almost completely divorced from time or relational experience. It is impossible to confuse him with anyone, and he is impossible to imitate. Like Wyatt himself, and the rest of his body of work, this album defies category and genre. You can’t even work out when it was recorded. It’s a wonky, melancholy droning serenade. Meditative songs wrapping in winding improvisation. Complex, while elegantly simple and completely off kilter. It is a true a thing of beauty. A phoenix from the ashes. Few voices move me like Wyatt’s. Like Peel, you get the sense that Wyatt loves music above all else, and is willing to risk everything in its name. That it has place to stretch, learn and grow. That it should be a challenge and make us rethink everything we know. Despite knowing nothing of the details of their personal relationship, in my heart, they will forever live together in spirit.

 

WITCH

 The Fall ‎– Live At The Witch Trials (1979)

By his wife’s admission, John Peel had a favorite band. The Fall. She describes in Margrave of the Marshes how he reserved a singular honor for his albums by the band, by keeping them in their own section, separate from all the rest. I can understand this completely, both in his affection for the band, but also in my need to keep certain albums always close at hand. The Fall is a band that came to me through my initial interest in Punk, but somehow defies the genre. “Punk” doesn’t seem big enough, or even appropriate. The Fall is greater than anything that could try to contain it. Which is maybe why they are the only Punk band that was punk. They are a band that could never have been without it, refuse to be it, and in so doing, are it.

When it was first released on DVD, I became enamored with Nick Bloomfield’s 1974 documentary Behind the Rent Strike. I was living in England at the time and was acutely aware of the tightly wired balance of class politics that exist in this country. In America there is a long standing belief that one can (and should) transcend the class of their birth. We are taught that the most efficient way to enact this obligation to the “American Dream” is through education. Some of us learn, often too late, that this truth is riddled with fallacy. A ploy of late-capitalism. That educational debt, no matter how smart you are, will likely nail you back down to the class from which you came, or sink you beneath it. England is an entirely different beast. No one believes (except that fantasizing self-serving end of the middle classes) that class can ever be transcended. You’re stuck where you’re born. I’m not sure which is better. Both are brutal unnecessary truths. Britain, like America, in the post war years, built an infrastructure in which the entire population gained access to quality public education. Looking at the state of things today, you could argue that the social upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s lead to the conservative attack on this institution that has gripped both nations. For the Right-wing, an educated public is a dangerous proposition. They’ll tell you it’s about keeping your taxes low, in truth it’s about control and the containment of wealth. Behind the Rent Strike depicts a strong, self-assured, extremely well educated working class in Britain, who are willing to fight back. Something that has nearly disappeared. This is the world of the Fall. Mark E. Smith, who in many ways is the band, is the brilliant, angry, unapologetic voice of the working classes, rising up. As a public personality, I adore him. He is the incarnation of something the world needs more of. A critic from the other side. The underdog, speaking for all the underdogs, with the tools and faculties to make a fool of those who would pull the wool over our eyes.

The Fall sounds like a strike that never ended. The frustrated angst of being forced to sit down too long. The band is remarkable for its rigorously demanding expectations. There is no easy road. There is no off the hook. Yet somehow, unlike most bands with similar expectations, they’ve been shockingly prolific. Their discography boasts 77 full length releases. Granted, it holds a fair few live releases, but not enough to make you wonder if there is another band that has been as productive during the same period. I’ve been flipping back and forth through this endless stream of records, struggling at every turn to pick a favorite. I can’t. There too many personal epiphanies, tied up in their output, to do the band the credit they deserve. I’ve chosen Live At The Witch Trials for a couple of reasons. After their Peel Session, I’m pretty sure it was the first release I heard. It’s been with me for a long time. It is the embodiment of early lessons, gifts from the band, to my ears. I love it and had to pick something. This album brought me am important understanding of containment. My initial attraction to punk was through overt aggression and anger, a kicking out at the world, housed in clamoring speed and volume. This album, and the Fall in general, shifted my focus to a more developed understanding of the content of Punk. It made me step outside myself and realize what I was actually drawn to. Within the body of albums of this era, Live At The Witch Trials is incredibly slow. A kind of dirge. It drops speed, and makes sure you don’t miss a thing. It loses nothing in the process. If anything, it gains by it. With all its difference, it contains more anger and social isolation than its contemporaries. It is all the things that first drew me to Punk, and sounds nothing like it. It’s a tightly wound knot rather than a self destructive sprint into a brick wall. It’s clear that Smith knew what he was doing. That he got the point, and knew he had time. It’s a grinding journey of content and complex conflicting rhythms and tonalities. This album opened a door and showed me what Punk was, and allowed me to find it, hidden in all the diversity of my countless adventures in listening, along the way.

 

sab

 Siouxsie And The Banshees ‎– The Peel Sessions (1977 / 87)

As I described above, this is the album that introduced me to Peel, and to which I owe so many debts. I have no idea what Peel thought of it, or of the band. I expect he liked both. Beyond the obvious fact that he recorded it, and put his heart into it, this one is here for me and me alone. Siouxsie And The Banshees are a band, like so many others, that are grounded in, and remain with my youth. They are part of my development and my memory. In the years following their discovery, my tastes drifted toward Hardcore and then on to other genres. When I returned, my interests came to rest with Post-Punk, and sonically more adventurous bands like Wire and This Heat. I still own most of The Banshees’ LPs from the 70’s and 80’s, but with the exception of this, the album that first struck my heart, the remainder live undisturbed on my shelves. The band that resides in these grooves, carved out by Peel, is what I long to hear. Raw, potent and filled with an energy that gnaws at convention and apathy. It’s four songs and clocks in at just over 7 minutes, yet packs more punch than most full lengths. 7 minutes of the towering effect that changed my life. A pure display of the power of music. Of what Punk was before the rest of the world caught on and realized it was more than a clown show. Before the record industry turned it into one. It cuts through and continues to show the way. It’s been 25 years since it first reached my ears, and has lost none of its effect on me. This is music at its best and set the tone for all I’ve ever longed to hear.

Postscript:

Whatever anyone might tell you, writing is not like riding a bike. This piece has taken longer, and been more a struggle than any that proceeded it. Most of what I have written, is born in a single sitting. I’ve been chipping at this, more than a week. Grinding my teeth at my inability to find the words, or string together those I can. In some part, it has to do with the subject. What could be worse than a poorly written piece about writing? I hope you’ll forgive my failings, as I’ve bumbled my way through. The dust settled more thickly than I had thought. In the time that’s passed, we’ve been busy. Jenny and I have left the countryside and the boat behind. We’ve moved into a flat in Dalston, in London’s east end. The boat with all our belongings is still out to sea, but I’ve managed to find a few records to keep us company as we’ve wandered the city. I’d like to dedicate this to our friends Jamie and Lucy who saved us from ourselves, cocooned us in their beautiful boat and made our transition to England as warm and wonderful as it possibly could be. Without them I’m not sure what we would have done, and I’m sure none of this would be written.

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