Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I've been writing a lot over the last few days. Almost all the time, actually - day and night. This kind of thing doesn't happen very often - about once every couple of years. Today I arrived at work late, but planned on making up for it with another burst of writing in the evening. I was relieved that office hours were over and the risk of things like people just walking into my office were therefore virtually eliminated. I use the adverb "virtually" advisedly.

At just after 7pm, a security guard entered my building, doing his rounds. I sort of know him - and sort of know that he sort of plays the guitar. Yesterday I took my own acoustic guitar in to the office to provide me with a safe and easy diversion: I write "funny" songs on it when I want a break from my "serious" work. He saw it.

"Guitar? You brought your guitar in?"

He didn't actually ask if he could play it. We smiled and exchanged guitarist's nods, which effectively gave him the go ahead. He stopped momentarily and apologised for one of his fingernails. It had been hanging off, getting caught on clothing. He cut it today; it might affect his playing, though.

"I'm sure you'll be fine."

He picked up the guitar and sat down.

"What kind of guitar is this?"
"It's a Maton."
"What model?" he inquired.

"I don't know, it's um..."
"Where's the pickup?"
"I'm not sure."
"Oh, it's on the bridge."
"Oh yeah, that's right."
"Hang on, no it isn't. It's inside somewhere."

He strums it, then winces.

"It needs a bit of a tune."
"Yeah, I know. [And let me just say again how sorry I was to hear about your nail.]"

He started playing. For the next twenty-five minutes he played almost non-stop, each segue invariably punctuated with a question, asked by him of both of us: "What's the name of that one?"

Me: I don't know.
Him: Oh yeah, that's right, it's My Funny Valentine.
Me: Right, of course.

Only at one point did I know what he was playing. I actually joined in and quietly sang Honey Pie. I kept singing it a little after he'd stopped to make my point.

Him: What's that you're singing?
Me: Honey Pie. You were playing Honey Pie, right?
Him: No, Blue Moon. They sound similar, though, don't they? Honey Pie actually goes like this...

He played Honey Pie, The Boy from Ipanema, and Caravan - and gave scary impersonations of Scotty Moore and Merle Travis. In short, he was spectacular - a shockingly good musician. The problem was that he couldn't stop. At the start I was smiling at him and the guitar as he played; by the end I was staring morbidly at the wall, motionless. He kept going. I announced that I needed to eat some dinner, took a tin of salmon and two slices of bread from my cupboard. I went to the staff kitchen, made a sandwich, put it on a plate and returned. I then ate the sandwich. Still he played.

Him: What's that one called again?
Me: Khe Sahn.
Him: No...what is it?
Me: [Silence]
Him: I can't remember.
Me: [Silence]
Him: Oh, that's right, All the Things You Are.

Great tune - beautifully played. Robert, I hate to say it, but all good parties have to come to an end. I've got to do some work.
Yeah, I've got to go too - I'm late.

He went to hand me my guitar, but I motioned for him to put it on the other side of the room -to lean it against one of my "consultation" chairs. I wasn't going to play after that. Or perhaps ever.

Chris, we'll have to have a jam.
Yes we must.
I'll bring my guitar in to work and we can jam in your office.

I'll announce it here if we do.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Where Were They Then?

On Tuesday this week I sat in a coffee shop and picked up a magazine and read a thoughtful, extended retrospective on a band called Captain Beyond. By the time I got to a discussion of their seemingly limitless number of former drummers (one improbably named "Brian Glasscock") I couldn't shake the feeling that the whole thing was being made up by the writer: Captain Beyond never existed and neither did the 847 former members of the band. Later I investigated and found out that they did indeed exist. Even the 1999 (Swedish-release) tribute album to the band, Thousand Days of Yesterday, existed.

I thought it might be a good opportunity here to construct a series of retrospectives on bands that never existed but could have (unlike Captain Beyond, who did exist but probably didn't need to):

Retrospective: Pax Dukey
Until his 1972 song “I Hate My Father, Even Though He’s Dead” came out, most people hadn’t heard of Pax Dukey. Most people still haven't.

Retrospective: Exploding Cock
Seminal punk band Exploding Cock proved to be hugely influential on bands that were to follow them, but not on those bands that immediately followed them. Indeed, post-Cock bands like The Ballbags and Pubic Tube had nothing but contempt for Cock and the band’s many hangers-on. (The Tube’s vocalist Grotto Capri remarking that Exploding Cock were “unique in music history for their staunch advocacy of the shittest music yet made.” Cock-heads were undeterred – and later Pre-and Post-Slag bands (see ELECTRIC SLAG) often cited the Cock as an important influence on their music.

Even now, Exploding Cock tends to polarise people. Advocates of the band have long argued that the French nationality of their lead singer (Michéle LeCoq) have always put the band in a precarious state. When the Cock were hot, LeCoq was crowned “British Punk Queen,” but just like Marie Antoinette, when feeling for the band waned, one always suspected that LeCoq might be hauled off to the Revolutionary Tribunal. In the end, however, it was LeCoq herself who was charged with lopping off someone else’s head – her mother’s.

Conventional rehearsal and recording denied her, LeCoq embarked upon an intense period of spoken word performances, which her once cellmate Sharon Lukes described as “always sounding very intelligent.” Others thought it rubbish. But it was then Lukes’ turn to kill – this time, LeCoq’s father. Although appearing distraught, LeCoq was soon after charged with organising a homicide herself. Although the evidence against this former punk star looks, by most standards, very clear-cut, a movement has begun to protest her innocence. If the campaign to free her is successful, LeCoq promises to make another album, although not with former bandmates, as she says they’re “all stupid arseholes and bullshit artists.” Spoken like royalty.

Retrospective: O/S
O/S claim to be the first band in the world to have had a website. A heady mix of synth programming and a vision of the future that could be drawn straight from the pixellated poetry of Space Invaders and Pac Man, O/S claimed a lot of other things about themselves: that they were the “first techno band” (which they later modified to the “first real techno band”); the first to have a video-clip (which, presumably, was a joke); and the first to do a cover of a piece of classical music and have a big hit with it. (The flimsy basis of the last claim is O/S head-man Finbar Burke’s early involvement in a Dino-Music release of “Modern Pop Christmas Carols,” a TV-advertised family album that precedes Burke meeting Robbie Rengger, O/S programmer and co-founder.) Of all the claims, the one about being the first to have a website is probably the one closest to the truth – O/S are arguably the third Australian band to have their own website. This is, of course, still a considerable achievement.

O/S always proved themselves to be early adopters of technology. Before it was even released in Australia, Burke got his parents to order him an IntelliVision computer games console and the steering wheel for the Indy500 racing game. Critics said that the band were highly immature – themselves trapped in their own pre-pubescent techno-science fantasies and game-scenarios. Burke and Rengger responded to the charges in different ways. Burke was fond of saying to such critics “I know you are. But what am I?” and Rengger warned them that “such statements” didn’t “put them in the most advantageous position when the Machine Uprising comes.”

But O/S’s detailed visions are more mature than the simple fantasies of pimply boys. The liner notes to O/S’s albums contain precise, almost angular, proclamations about man-machine hybrids and the redundancy of all “interface technology.” At the height of their powers, drawing on a sceptical – but increasingly intrigued – American public, O/S released Burn the Interface in 1992. Released to a capacity crowd at the Three Level Kitchen in New York, O/S were forced to stop their performance after only eleven minutes because of persistent mouse problems. Afterwards, a belligerent Burke said the failure “just proved his point” and “that none of this would have happened if I could have controlled the sequencer with my brain.”

Burke and Rengger haven’t made music together since 1996 and haven’t released an album since 1993. Burke has led the life of a recluse since. Of independent wealth before becoming involved in music, he has been spotted working for his living – driving cabs in the Sydney metropolitan area. After a brief return to high school teaching, Rengger soon took a job as a policy advisor in Creative Industries in Farklin’s state Labour Government. Asked about his former colleague, Rengger says “I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that Robbie has lost his strategic direction, and desperately needs to clarify his values, moving forward.” Asked whether Burke’s silence distressed him, Rengger simply said “I manage.” The book is not closed on this one. Or let’s hope not.

Retrospective: Euphoria
As huge as they were at their peak, Euphoria weren’t widely-known outside Europe, although that situation is starting to change. Euphoria were arguably the most influential German soft metal band of their generation, a brilliant and blinding flash of hair and latex that, amongst other things, shared the stage with Saxon and The Scorpions at the now-infamous 1983 Donnington Monsters of Rock festival in 1983. They also had an international hit with the song “(Now Is) Time for the Birds of Freedom” – a surprise hit in Eastern Germany. Indeed, this song was itself arguably the biggest single factor contributing to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But it would take more than a single song for state socialism as a whole to collapse. The demise of the communist states in East Europe was the result of a handful of the band’s songs, including a number of tracks from their seminal album “Euphoria: Live at the Gdansk People’s Arena.” Some now think that it is this album alone that precipitated wholesale political change in soviet Hungary and Romania.

However, for reasons still unclear, the band’s lead singer, Hans Schrift, fled his hometown of Duisburg and became – it is now confirmed – a mercenary fighting for the highest bidder in numerous civil wars and bloody internecine conflicts in sub-saharan Africa. He was killed, strangely, not by enemy hands, but his own: Schrift, we have learned, inadvertently decapitated himself with a machete while preparing a local staple called “Tjinywe” (authentic pronunciation demands that a popping sound precede the “T”). Local militia reported at the time that the death was “not suspicious in the least” and “had nothing to do with the police.”

But that is small comfort in the end. Corruption or not, world metal lost one of its great leaders on that day in 1993. Flawed, of course – but what geniuses aren’t? Schrift once said in an interview on Top of the Pops that he “loved democracy and the memory of his mother’s breasts” (he explained later that his poor English expression didn’t capture his point, which was about being nurtured and “washed in the dirt” of his “mummy country”). But is this proclamation – however awkward – consistent with both the champion of democratic reform and the actions of a Soldier of Fortune? Who can say? Perhaps the thing is not to attempt to resolve the contradictions inherent in the person, but simply to let them be there, and let his art speak for itself:

“I’m like an eagle coming home again,
With lots of food to eat.
I love our babies – and the way that we made them.
You’re a horny animal,
Desperate for me – like the world is for
 - Hans Schrift, lyrics to “Make Children, Not War.”