Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas' solo albums 1981-87

'New Atom Mine'

I think David Thomas has made an extraordinary contribution to art rock, and in some respects also to the progress of western music. There are some aspects of his output though which are primarily unique to himself.

‘The New Atom Mine’ is credited to Thomas, Thompson, Fier and Greaves. It is the fifth and final song on side one of Sound of the Sand in the original vinyl release, where we find the following explanation of the song: ‘This song does not toast The Physicist as an individual or a class. Rather, it’s an expression of appreciation for the publishing of exciting information.’ (There’s another song with an explanation – ‘Man’s Best Friend’ – which I’ll get to in a few weeks).

No doubt there was a bit of hair-tearing at Rough Trade when this song was put forward for inclusion on the album, for the song does appear somewhat in praise of the ‘physicist/Working in the Fermi Lab,’ although some might have been assured that the description of the physicist humming ‘like a jolly (or ‘merry’) loon’ is not exactly an endorsement of his mental state.

The dangers of nuclear research and the weapons that may be developed from them were on everyone’s mind at this time. 1981 was the year of the infamous Greenham Common protests – though the activities surrounding Greenham Common did not begin until September, after recording on Sound of the Sand had concluded.

The Fermilab (the album’s sleeve notes present it as two words, which is fair since it named for physicist Enrico Fermi, but as far as I can tell, also wrong) was established in the late 1960s for the study of particle physics. It is six hours’ drive west of Thomas’ hometown of Cleveland, OH, and just outside Chicago. By some accounts, a town called Weston voted itself out of existence – just as a developer was poised to create a new suburban landscape there – to make way for the new complex (http://www.wbez.org/bey/2010/07/weston-il-how-nuclear-research-and-the-mob-stopped-a-suburb-from-getting-built/31190). I mention this only as background for anyone who might wish to contemplate why Thomas chose ‘the Fermi Lab’ as the place to set his song. The song itself gives limited detail. Instead, it talks about odd concepts such as the ‘Atom Mine’ (what it is about the lab that makes it a ‘mine’?).

The music on this track is rambling and linear; it is almost certainly an example of a jammed backing created more for the sake of Richard Thompson’s guitar improvisation than anything else, with Thomas no doubt writing his part to suit later in the piece. Presumably the participants were all surprised by the song’s subject matter and focus – probably when they got their copy of the album. Thompson’s guitar has a slightly ‘oriental’ feel (I lack the musical smarts to know exactly what that constitutes, but I know it when I hear it) which nevertheless has no bearing on the song’s subject matter.

One element of this track which resonates with Thomas’ next album (Winter Comes Home) is the portion, towards the end, when he obfuscates about ending the song and leaving the physicist alone in his lab. He suggests it’s late and time to go, asks the physicist if there’s anything he needs, and then encourages two children (surely, Thomas’ voice sped up?) to also say goodbye. This is absurdist comedy, and it is another example of the way in which the song hints at the notion of addressing an unpalatable issue, such as nuclear physics, and then discombobulates it – as do Thomas’ nutty professor noises, also at the close of the track. Thomas was 28 in 1981 time; he was already well into playing the part of someone much older.

‘New Atom Mine’ is a slippery piece of work. It seems to be saying something about work and human endeavor. It sidesteps any concerns about the use and abuse of such endeavor, and in that sense it could almost be considered a rather cowardly poke at an issue that many felt was the single most important issue of the day and a matter of life and death. Then again, I generally feel that Thomas is probably smarter than that, and perhaps it is inappropriate to use a word like ‘cowardly’ here. After all, he is discussing a world of research removed from the everyday, in which the scientist is both hard-working and in pursuit of a knowledge the outcomes of which neither he nor anyone can control.

In 1978 Thomas told Jon Savage, speaking of Pere Ubu, that ‘Our job is to make music as a steelmaker’s is to…whatever his particular function is. What’s the difference? We just happen to deal with different media, with a different sort of raw material.’ (in Sounds 20 May 1978 and reprinted in Savage, Time Travel Random House London 1997, p. 75). There may be a reading in which Thomas himself is the scientist and/or worker at the heart of the song and the construction of the song – true, the music does sound somewhat laboriously mechanistic – is an example of his process. That’s pretty reflexive. It makes sense, though. And while there is not much to be said about the idea of a ‘New Atom Mine’, particularly as there is nothing said in the lyrics about its ‘newness,’ it’s surely worth drawing some conclusions from the similarity to the title New Picnic Time; to the unpalatability, for some, of the final track on that album (‘Jehovah’s Kingdom Come’, later retitled as ‘Hand a Face a Feeling’) and the overall weirdness of both new picnics and atoms.

In the final analysis my feeling is that this song is not entirely successful as a piece of music; it’s altogether shambolic and Thomas’ repetitive and obtuse lyric doesn’t quite pull the thing together as anyone might have hoped. The reference to nuclear technology doesn’t help. That said, it’s another example of a Thomas song I can instantly summon to mind at any time; it is, almost despite itself, catchy and its quirks are value-adds.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Nature prance: David Thomas' solo albums 1981-1987

Sound of the Sand

Having already made much of the lack of commerciality of The Sound of the Sand it seems appropriate to announce that, four tracks in, the album does actually hit what could almost be a pop ballad – albeit one with a rather obtuse subject matter. But Thomas is singing in the most accessible manner he can; Eddie Thornton (multitracked) is skillfully accentuating the ebb and flow of the melody with verve; Philip Moxham is similarly attuned.

It might be fair to suggest that this track and ‘Happy to See You’ are the heart of each side of The Sound of the Sand. They are closer to conventional songs – to the degree that you could imagine them performed by other artists to some acclaim from people who otherwise had no interest in David Thomas or Pere Ubu.

At the same time as this may be true (I have a bad habit of lacking the imagination to understand why others don’t like everything I like) it’s also useful to look at the context in which The Sound of the Sand was released. This was the period at Rough Trade records during which focus switched very strongly towards commercial concerns, notably the Scritti Politti phenomenon, whereby Rough Trade which had been the leading (?) independent label and distributor in the UK for some years ramped up its operations in a bid to become a player in the pop market. The most unusual bit of this story – which otherwise has very little to do with the David Thomas oeuvre – is that Scritti Politti had, until very recently, been the absolute nadir of scratchy, indie, scrappy music; at a certain point, they changed direction to try and cut it with the slickest, smoothest of contemporary pop. When I say ‘try’, they not only tried but actually succeeded. It didn’t hurt that the main (soon to be only) member of Scritti Politti, Green Gartside, was a handsome man with a great voice. David Thomas was an overweight, odd-looking man with a voice that, while distinctive, was absolutely an acquired taste. However, one might imagine that at RT there was something of a change of focus, based on economic and even political (‘change the system from within’) reality. It may also be important to note that Adam Kidron produced both Scritti Politti’s first album Songs to Remember and Sound of the Sand.

The changes may also have been about identifying a demographic for the label per se. Charles Hayward, an exceptional drummer with origins in British art rock who then went on to be a part of a group considered more postpunk than anything, This Heat, recalls in Neil Taylor’s great Rough Trade history, Document and Eyewitness:

After This Heat finished, I became associated with Rough Trade… I remember one night working with Stuart Moxham from Young Marble Giants and Geoff came over to me and enthused about Stuart’s songs. He said to me that a lot of people who had listened to This Heat’s music had now paired off, bought flats, and they wanted music to reflect that.
 Neil Taylor Document and Eyewitness Orion, 2010 p. 196

Note also that Philip Moxham, Stuart’s brother, plays on six of the tracks on Sound of the Sand, and note too that I have no idea what to make of that fact beyond that it is a fact.

Mayo Thompson (who I admit I am a bit obsessed with) might have had some major input into this scenario. He worked at Rough Trade, produced a lot of the label’s records, and even ‘looked after’ The Smiths when they came to be RT’s main commercial hope after Scritti Politti moved on to a major label. Thompson plays on one track on Sound of the Sand and was a member of Pere Ubu for the last two albums of the original iteration, both released on RT. Additionally, David Thomas (and most of Pere Ubu) also appear on the remarkable 1979 Soldier Talk LP performed by Thompson and Jesse Chamberlain, at that time the two members of the Red Krayola. The peculiarity of this relationship, however, is that Thompson – possibly one of the most ‘art rock’ of guitarists to have ever sustained a fifty year career primarily in music – was on some level part and parcel of this shift to commercial music. Thompson was not Thomas’ ‘label boss’, and it’s hard to imagine him talking strategy with Thomas about marketing much less about the content of his records. Nevertheless, he has a presence at this time: perhaps that’s all we can say with certainty.

To the song itself. Though David Thomas is insistent that his solo work should be regarded as separate from Pere Ubu, he’s wrong to do so. Even on the most superficial level, this is a peculiar suggestion; lyrically the connections are numerous (as per ‘Yiki Tiki’). The third Pere Ubu album New Picnic Time has a track called ‘Voice of the Sand’; the words are by Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) from his book The Daniel Jazz.

There may be other ‘sand’ reference songs in the Pere Ubu oeuvre; I can’t think of any off the top of my head but if I do I’ll come back here and add them in. However, the connection is undeniable. The main thrust of Lindsay’s poem fragment – which Thomas hiss-whispers – is that there is far more sea than sand. The sand’s ‘sound’ is a lot less distinctive in Thomas’ own song, which conjures up various words – relating to quietness and contemplation. The sand is vocal here too: it says ‘hush do not cry’, strange but true.

The ensemble playing here could be bracketed stylistically with the last two songs on the album, ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘Man’s Best Friend’, as having a particular ‘sea shanty’ lilt, true particularly of ‘Sound of the Sand’ in the concluding section.

It does have a certain sadness, true, but ‘Sound of the Sand’ is an uplifting and captivating piece of work, which I endorse.

cold morning

You know that thing when you wake up and think, 'oh I can get into work super early' and then you think 'how depressing is that, that I would want to get into work super early.' So you just potter around trying to read the newspaper online (this is actually something I find almost impossible). 

I am amused to find that my series of reviews of David Thomas music from thirty plus years ago has got this blog a lot of traffic. Who are these people? I mean, 'hi'. Plenty more where that came from.

Just to keep you updated on the boring things: yes, still going to the gym. Yes, still have the beard though I am less excited about it every day. Hoping to go to Canberra soon. Um... 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas’ solo albums 1981-1987

The Crickets in the Flats

The third song on The Sound of the Sand and as long as the first two put together (4:59 following from 1:55 and 2:13) ‘The Crickets in the Flats’ is the only song on the David Thomas solo oeuvre that I’m aware of that actually doesn’t include David Thomas. The Sound of the Sand album is credited to ‘David Thomas and The Pedestrians,’ so one might grant a concession to the possibility that this is the moment where ‘The Pedestrians’ shine. However the sleevenotes on the original vinyl album (not the CD box set) indicate that this track (and another, ‘Confuse Did’) is actually by The Golden Palominos (other tracks are variously by The Eggs and The Trees). The Golden Palominos is the name that Anton Fier would very soon take on for his full-time concern, a group producing a series of collaborative albums throughout the 1980s and into the 90s, to some acclaim and success (in 2012 The Village Voice described the band, on their brief return, as ‘a loose collective of A-list players who combined stunning chops with sensitive accompanist skills’ (http://www.villagevoice.com/2012-12-26/voice-choices/wild-horses/). As far as I can tell, this is the first time he used the name (although on p. 295 of Viv Albertine's memoir Albertine claims to have seen the band in 1979). The songwriting credit for ‘Crickets in the Flats’ is Fier’s alone – and it seems also to have been the first time he had a solo composition released. The Golden Palominos in this incarnation were Fier with Richard Thompson and fomer Henry Cow bassist John Greaves. Both Thomas and Allen Ravenstine are listed as a members of this band but they ‘did not play on The Crickets in the Flats’.

The scrambled nature of Sound of the Sand is evident everywhere, and the two tracks prior to this one on the album are hiding their own internal scrambledness in plain sight. ‘The Crickets in the Flats’ doesn’t belong here because it is so un-scrambled; it’s a robust, powerful rhythmic piece in which the drums and percussion alone account for most of the musical content.

In one of the few interviews with Fier I’ve been able to uncover, he says that:

before I started studying drums and percussion and rhythm, I studied piano for about five years. I mean, I'm terrible; I quit playing as soon as I was able because it's not what I do, and I knew that at a very early age as well. But I did gain a knowledge of music theory because of that, which helps me with songwriting and arranging and things of that nature. http://www.melvinmagazine.com/Issue_8/PopCulture/Features/fier_interview.html
The cymbals and bells particularly in the latter part of the track are most definitely ‘piano-like’, and it’s easy to see where Fier used this early experience. Greaves and Thompson take a textural role, and it is presumably one or both of them who contribute the animalistic noises throughout (it’s hard to tell whether these are vocal or something else).

It is also open to conjecture whether this track was offered to Thomas to add vocals, or whether indeed he attempted to do so and the experiment didn’t work (this only occurred to me this morning, having read precisely nothing about such a thing – though I do recall members of Pere Ubu suggesting in the early 80s that Thomas freely exercised his right not to sing on a track). It might be assumed that, if there was at one point a suggestion that Thomas provide a vocal here, once it was decided that the track be an instrumental then extra percussion (and perhaps the noises, perhaps even Greaves and Thompson) were dubbed on top, i.e. no-one, even David Thomas, could be heard in such dense cacophony as it stands. The vocal-attempt theory is bolstered, in my mind at least, by the similarity between this track and ‘The Rain’, on the second David Thomas and the Pedestrians album Variations on a Theme; which is to say that perhaps Thomas saw the value in a track like this one, but with more gaps. The fact that Lindsay Cooper plays a similar, if more complex, melody in ‘The Rain’ to that which Fier chimes towards the end of ‘The Cricket in the Flats’ bolsters this argument for me but it might just be me (Fier is absent from Variations on a Theme).

Fier was Pere Ubu’s drummer for one album (Song of the Bailing Man) and notoriously, and perhaps amusingly for some outsiders, the degree to which he and Mayo Thompson rubbed each other up the wrong way is plain. Ravenstine, in his interview with Perfect Sound Forever, discusses the dedication to which Fier gave to practice, and his strong belief in rehearsal; Thompson on the other hand was as resolutely uninterested in such activities. You could ask how two such strong minded and opposed characters could co-exist in one band, until you realise that the short-lived nature of that line up of Pere Ubu shows that, quite simply, they couldn’t, and indeed, Pere Ubu itself broke up for five or so years thereafter (or should I say, Thomas ceased trading under the name: could a record such as Sound of the Sand have been passed off as a Pere Ubu album? I actually suspect that the ins and outs of that reality come back to the intricacies of trading name rights, and the like. I certainly would love to know what Scott Krauss thought he was working towards when he recorded ‘Happy to See You’ with Thomas, Ralph Carney etc. 

This, then, is ‘The Crickets in the Flats’ (if meaningless minutiae is your game, let me just add that the CD omits the ‘The’). The monster noises, the hinted-at melody and the clattering syncopation presage much of the later Thomas (and post-Fier Pere Ubu) work, as does the obtuseness.

Close reading of the line-ups on tracks on Sound of the Sand also suggest that this was an album of many jams and overdubs.. This was surely (I’ve convinced myself) the one that neither Thomas nor Ravenstine saw an opportunity to add to.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

horse riding

Annabel and I went horse riding at Blackheath. My horse's name was Karachi. He was arguably more interested in eating hay than he was in going anywhere with me but I understood. He was very agreeable and fun to be with. 

Annabel feeding a goat.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas’ solo albums 1981-1987

Yiki TIki

If I was going to try and persuade someone to take an interest in the work of David Thomas in the 1980s, ‘Yiki Tiki’ is probably close to the last song I would choose to demonstrate Thomas’ value as an artist… and I’m of the opinion that he’s one of the most interesting musicians of the late 20th/early 21st centuries.

Like the symbiosis between ‘Crush This Horn pt. 2’ and ‘Confuse Did’ (possibly an attempt by Thomas to pen lyrics to bring some coherence to a fairly disparate group of tracks from different times and places) ‘Yiki Tiki’ is in many respects a part two to ‘I Think the Birds Are Good Ideas’, which precedes it on Sound of the Sand. It is a crib, or a critique perhaps, of that track, and also references much of Thomas’ previous Mundane-era work, beginning with the Garrison Keiloresque elements of New Picnic Time.

New Picnic Time begins with a song called ‘The Fabulous Sequel’, with the opening line ‘It’s me again!’ ‘Yiki Tiki’ is somewhat similar – not musically, but in the way it begins by urging the listener to regard the song as a new instalment in a series, and to remember earlier works: ‘Remember the birds?/Remember the shoes I wore?/Remember the things I said before?/I think ‘em again!’

It is of course perverse to ask the listener to ‘remember the birds’, since we’ve just heard a track on exactly that subject, opining that they are ‘good ideas’. This is all part and parcel of Thomas’ push, carried through on the Pere Ubu album Art of Walking, to toast ‘the small things’ (on ‘Go’) and to also insist, at every available opportunity that such things are stupendously important (‘the birdies are singing/the birdies are saying what I want to say… the foot goes up and the foot goes down’ and so on). The bird theme, Thomas says on the ubuprojex ‘FAQ’ page, ‘evolved out of perversity:

Somewhere along the line I wrote a song that had birds in it. And then by pure coincidence, another. Some critic asked, "Why all these songs about birds?" And I said to myself, "You think that's alot of songs about birds?!? I'll show you alot of songs about birds!" So, for awhile, I stuck birds in everywhere I could. (http://www.ubuprojex.com/faqs/boxfaq.html)

For reasons mentioned above, I think this is a little ingenuous of Thomas, but that’s probably our respective prerogatives. I personally feel that after two dark, almost histrionic albums (The Modern Dance and Dub Housing, of course) he decided to take, or found himself taking, a completely different direction into an area virtually untapped (Jonathan Richman is the only ‘new wave’ artist I can think of who took a lyrically comparable direction, though no doubt there were some others). Where could you go after such dark work but into the lite? And, as mentioned, there’s the religious angle; there’s every chance that someone in the Jehovah’s Witnesses suggested to Thomas, or he figured out himself, that the church wouldn’t look too fondly on such sinister stuff as was found on Dub Housing; better to be songs about nothing, or songs about the small things. ‘Yiki Tiki’ takes this to the limit; it relegates everything to Thomas’ ‘thoughts’ and cheeky actions; there’s no more to it than that. The band respond with similar comical hi jinx.

It’s hard to imagine that this calculated shallowness wasn’t a part of Thomas’ religious conversion; if it’s true (as Rick Moody reports) that Tom Herman quit the band after hearing what Thomas did to a tune of his, turning it into a religious hallelujah, then the religion was certainly decimating the band. The ways in which Pere Ubu slowly evolved from a genuine, five or more-piece band into what many regarded as a backing band for David Thomas are pretty standard (parallel universe Alice Cooper, really, except Thomas didn’t start insisting he was Pere Ubu). An interview with Scott Krauss about the period between the demise of the first incarnation of PU and the rise of David Thomas as a solo artist is quite informative, though also quite confusing. Krauss says:

[T]hings were starting to get really strange, and Rough Trade decided they wanted to make a solo career out of David…We were doing this tour of Europe, and we had 3 days off in London. I thought we were going to book some studio time and record some new material. The closer it got to London, though, the less talk there was about this happening. So when we were about 2 days out from London, I said, "So what's happening with this London recording thing?" Silence. I had just assumed we had it under control. I said, "Are we not doing this?" And Allen said, "Well, actually, Mayo has invited me out to his cottage and I'm going to go there and take a break for 3 days." Tony said he was going to go hang out with some friends. Then there was a message that somebody asked me to give to David, saying that his 8-Track machine was in his hotel room. And I said, "David, what 8-Track machine?" And he told me he was going to do some spoken word recording in his hotel room. So I said, "If Mayo and Allen are going to be gone, and you're going to be busy, what am I supposed to be doing here?"... And then when he did his first solo album, they didn't want anybody from Pere Ubu on it. It was pretty obvious that they wanted David to be a solo act without any Pere Ubu people. (http://www.nadir-novelties.net/ubu/krauss.htm)         

This is interesting, to say the least. Krauss plays on one track on Sound of the Sand, of which more later. Anton Fier was a member of Pere Ubu and he’s all over Sound of the Sand, but the album he’s on was presumably recorded after most of (or all of) Sound of the Sand. In short, I suppose the most we can say is that Sound of the Sand was recorded at different times, and quite possibly it bundles a few tracks from earlier times to augment the main recording session for this album.

What perplexes me is the notion that David Thomas as a solo artist is worth more financially or even artistically than Pere Ubu, or that Mayo Thompson (for instance) would be complicit in such a scenario (not because Mayo’s my hero, though he is, but because I can’t see a commercial advantage!). Could be that this was an elaborate plot to eject Krauss from the band, for reasons unclear (and reading his testimony is the worst way to figure this out)?  Certainly, he was the missing person from the last Pere Ubu album in the initial iteration…