Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Peter Hook, "Substance" (book)

Peter Hook's lengthy recollection of his twenty seven years in New Order is far from a traditional biography.  It's more of a "conversations with Peter Hook" serial than a thorough retelling of the New Order story.  The closest comparison in my library would be Chris Heath's "Feel".  It's the only other bio I can think of that contains so many bizarre road stories and random minutiae, and almost completely ignores the usual meat and potatoes explanations of the creative process and the how's and why's of the band's popularity growth.  In both cases, the book isn't really about the man, but about the man and his entourage of colourful characters.  Everyone and everything seems real and tangible, as if the laughter and debauchery is happening right in front of your face.  Often you're left wondering how this bunch of misfits ever got around to making such brilliant music.  

Hook wanders off script a lot, but in a good way.  He'll flash back to an older story to provide context, and offer a preview of events to come (sometimes years later).  Stories about time spent in the studio are punctuated by "geek alerts" with detailed yet accessible descriptions of the recording process and the then state of the art equipment New Order were using.  He'll provide an overview of a tour, mostly filled with tales of excess you're used to hearing from hair metal bands rather than the famously reclusive New Order.  After covering one calendar year of their goings on (or longer once you reach the 90's and the band's activities become less structured and more volatile), there's a timeline that includes nearly every setlist from every gig they played, and additional commentary from Hook for many entries, peeling back additional layers "behind the music".  

Eventually I'll likely buy his Hacienda and Joy Division books as well, but for now I need a break from the world of Peter Hook.  Did I mention how long this book is?  Then again, twenty seven years should cover a lot of ground, and you the fan probably want the journey to feel long.  Hook even says so in the book, and trashes Barney Sumner for ripping off his fans by devoting only 100 pages to New Order in his book (among the many, many, MANY shots taken at Sumner liberally from the start of the book until the end).  

Even though New Order were famously private in interviews, and almost always left their personal and professional lives shrouded in mystery, in a way there's nothing surprising in Hook's book.  Factory were hellaciously bad with money, most of it earned by New Order.  We knew that.  The band somehow stuck with the label until the bitter end for reasons that were never entirely clear.  And they're still not clear, even to Hook, today!  One theme of the book is how important issues were almost always swept under the rug. Critical decisions were postponed or avoided again and again.  Everyone involved only has themselves to blame.  Even at their peak, the band members kind of hated each other and formed three distinct camps -- Hook, Sumner, and The Other Two.  The best example of this is in the 1993 documentary "Neworderstory", which is sadly almost impossible to find on the usual streaming sites (I can't remember what I did with my old VHS copy).  It is kind of shocking how little is said about Steve Morris and Gillian Gilbert, particularly Gillian, who Hook hardly ever interacted with. 

Hook wears his heart on his sleeve, when the subject matter is inspiring, the writing is inspiring.  He doesn't go through with a track-by-track review of "Republic" (unlike every other New Order album) because the recording process was too frustrating and painful and he finds he just can't go through with it (i.e. the track by track review).  Toward the end of the book, the apathy and frustration comes across in his writing.  In the early 80's recording was a pleasure and Hook found his niche behind the soundboard, hence the frequent "geek alerts" and other cool little details.  By the end of the book, recording is a costly chore that alienated the band members from each other even more.  Hook's alcoholism didn't help (caused by the problems in the band or a symptom of them?) and it's clear that the creative spark is gone.  The fact that "Waiting For the Sirens Call" was so strong looks now like a minor miracle.          

Saturday, June 24, 2017

First thoughts on Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk"

Like many casual fans of Fleetwood Mac, there was a time when I hadn't the slightest clue what the band had been doing between "Rumours" and "Mirage".   Then I bought the famous "Unknown Pleasures" edition of Melody Maker in 1995 (I still have the book, of course).  In his chapter on "Tusk", Simon Reynolds deviated from the style of the rest of the book and didn't really try to make a strong case for the album as a whole.  He mostly wrote about how blindingly great "Sara" is.  

Since that time, "Tusk" has gone on to become one of the most successfully critically rehabilitated albums of all time (has anyone put together a top ten list of those?).  But I'd never heard any of it, outside of "Sara" and the title track, until I bought the 2004 remastered and expanded edition at Scout Records in Vienna.  

When an album goes from being a curiosity for superfans and completists to minor classic in such a relatively short time (especially for a band as well known as FM), you need to be particularly careful in weighing out the hyperbole surrounding it.  Unfortunately, I haven't tried digging through interviews from the time to find out what Lindsey Buckingham was really striving for with his contributions to this album.  I can believe that he was influenced by punk and new wave, and was determined to challenge himself and not play it safe by writing a "Rumours II". I can't believe, as the liner notes imply, that he was struggling with his own sense of relevance and was worried about being swept aside by the new generation.  As Reynolds wrote in "Unknown Pleasures", "Rumours" was what happened in the US in place of punk.  It had minimal cultural and commercial relevance in 1979, when "Tusk" was released.  It strains the imagination to think that Buckingham was having a crisis of confidence while bathing in cocaine in his LA megamansion, thinking about whether the kids dying their hair pink in far away cities thought he was washed up or not.  

The Buckingham songs don't sound like "Rumours II".  The hallmarks of classic LB are still there -- gossamer guitars, intricate picking, cryptic and impassioned lyrics about dysfunctional relationships -- but have been warped through a Feelies-lite type of rhythmic lens.  But in Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie's, songs, I do hear fairly clear attempts to produce a "Rumours" sequel.  The songs are good, maybe even great, but they're not "Rumours"-level great, which isn't a fair comparison because nothing could be.  Even with LB's production polish, nobody in 1979 would have been even close to satisfied with them as the most expensive follow-up album to the then biggest selling album ever.  So in that sense, Mick Fleetwood's (paraphrased) comment about how "Tusk" saved them as a band may be true.  Without the Buckingham songs and oddities, "Tusk" is a "Waterworld"-sized waste of money and effort.  Maybe the fallout from that failure, piled onto the band breakups and mistrust, makes them go from kings and queens of music to oblivion in record time, like ABBA did. With them, it's at worst the hugely ambitious and slightly misunderstood epic double album.   

I also have to mention the oodles of weirdness to be found on the second disc, including the sprawling nine minute take on "Sara".  Much of this disc reminds me of the sloppy but enthralling takes on the second disc of the expanded Velvet Underground's "Loaded".  

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Music in Austria(n vacation 2017)

1.  We alternated between Radio Salzburg and Hitradio O3 (broadcasting out of Vienna) during the multi-day scenic drive from the former to the latter.  O3 features mostly international (i.e. American) top 40 pop hits and German language songs done in the same style, whereas Radio Salzburg has more of a local, Austrian feel.

2.  At one point, David Hasselhoff appeared in a pre-taped segment to recommend a song, urging listeners to pay attention to it's powerful, emotional lyrics.  I am not making this up.  It's hard to believe this was an isolated incident either, i.e. we can conclude that an endorsement from David Hasselhoff is meaningful in the contemporary Austrian music scene. Speaking of stuff I couldn't possibly make up:

This was on display in a downtown Vienna subway station.

3.  It didn't take long for "Rock Me Amadeus" to come on the radio while I was in the car.  Falco is back in a big way, although in reality he probably left really left (much like Tupac Shakur in American culture, his post-death career has probably outshone the career he had while living, and he has the multiple greatest hits/live/rarities collections to prove it).  The latest is the Falco 60 compilation, released earlier this year to commemorate what would have been his 60th birthday.  There's also Falco: The Musical, with posters all over Vienna (even in the hipster neighborhoods) reminding you to buy tickets for 2018.

4.  Speaking of Amadeus, Salzburg is more or less a big Mozart shrine.  You have the Mozarteum (an academy of Mozart studies).  There's the Mozart museum housed in the former Mozart family residence (which we toured).  There's Mozart's birthplace (which we started at from outside).  You can attend Mozart concerts staged several times per week in churches, castles, and concert halls.  However, the displays in the Mozart museum reminded me of how miserable he was living in Salzburg, trying to eke out a living in the Salzburg court before finally bailing and heading to Vienna for considerably greater fame and fortune (the latter of which he squandered of course).  But technically Salzburg is his hometown and these days they're thrilled to claim him as such, even if he wasn't properly appreciated there while he was alive (a narrative that remains true of many young talents who flame out early even today).

5.  While music shopping in Vienna, I managed to keep my "Fennesz streak" alive (I think I've bought a Fennesz CD each time I've been in Vienna, which is all of three times, but I'll still call it a streak) by getting the Ozmotic/Fennesz collab from the always wonderful Substance store.  I also picked up La Dusseldorff's "Viva" at Scout Records, my second favourite music shop in the city.  They're so old school they don't even have a web page, just an unofficial Facebook fan page.  Is "Viva" better than any of the three NEU! albums?  I think it's close.

New to me on this trip was Moses Records, which has a collection of used CD's that would have seemed quaint and esoteric even in the late 90's at the peak of the used (and new) CD industry.  I was repeatedly flabbergasted seeing CD's that I never knew existed or hadn't seen anywhere in years.  For example:

Did you know that you could buy the final (pre-comeback) studio album from Saskatchewan's The Northern Pikes for two euros in Vienna?  Did you know that Senser recorded an album with Arthur Baker in 1998?  (bonus points for even remembering who they are).  Moses records was a fascinating trip back in time.  It's mostly a store for rock and jazz vinyl, but there are plenty of deals to be had on CD as well.  Such as:

This was a Germany-only release.  I haven't  a clue what the connection is to Alf, but before you laugh, check out the tracklist.  I didn't buy this, but that's about as good of a commercial 1990 compilation as you'll find.

5. The best thing happening in Austria while we were there was the Heart of Noise Festival, which we didn't attend but oh man, if it wouldn't have required a complete redesign of our route and significant flight rescheduling, I would have loved to be there for even one day.  Gas. Fennesz. Monolake.  Psychic TV.  Samuel Kerridge.  William Basinski.  


How disappointing ...