I wouldn’t normally write a paean to the glories of a record label. In this, as in so many other things, 4 AD is different. Who remembers imports? In the pre-digital age it might be that you’d hear of a new record coming out, but just couldn’t find it anywhere. Turns out it wasn’t being sold in the U.S.–it was a special EP made only in Britain, or a promotional compilation for the Far East market, or a small pressing run used to help promote the European tour. If you wanted that album you’d have to find it as an import, through mail order or a very knowledgeable local shopowner with foreign contacts or the import section at Tower Records. And you’d always pay through the nose–those imported albums and cassettes cost at least $20 in mid-1980s dollars. The imports I longed for, the ones I kept being excited to find, came out on the 4AD label from the UK.
Founded by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent in 1979, 4AD hit the ground running. They gave us the very first releases from Bauhaus and Nick Cave’s first outfit, the Birthday Party. Think about that–they could have closed up shop after two years and we’d still remember this label as changing the musical landscape. Instead they went on to further define the goth sound with the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil; helped jump-start American indie rock by signing the Pixies and Throwing Muses; and made vital contributions to shoegaze with Lush and Unrest. They just keep pushing music in bold new directions to this day, promoting acts like Grimes, TV On the Radio, Mountain Goats, and St. Vincent in the past ten years. So I hope you enjoy the compilation below of some of the best music from 4AD.
It’s not what you think.
I’ve never heard anything quite like Dysnomia, the new album from Dawn of Midi. The band’s structured as a class jazz trio: piano, stand-up bass, and trap kit. But the sound . . . it’s like trance, a minimalist acoustic take on contemporary electronic dance club music. That sounds like it’d be boring as shit but it ABSOLUTELY isn’t; there are constant subtle shifts in the rhythms, little additions and subtractions to the sound in the best tradition of Steve Reich. On one level I wonder “Exactly what combinations of drugs is this music FOR?”, but that sounds like an insult that I don’t want to convey. It’s mesmerizing stuff and I’m looking forward to hearing more of it.
John Barry was one of the greatest British composers of the last century. There, I said it and I’m sticking to it. Barry’s soundtrack scores don’t just evoke their subject, they’ve shaped the way we all perceive those genres. Medieval epic? Listen to his score for The Lion In Winter or Mary, Queen of Scots. Swinging , mod England in the 60s? Barry’s very first credit was for a juvenile delinquency film called Beat Girl and it sets the stage for a decade of groove, baby. Spy movies? Oh, just the theme for Agent 007 of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. We literally cannot imagine what those genres would sound like without John Barry. This is important music, as expressive and ingenious as the works of Britten, Walton, or Vaughan Williams. Have a listen to the small sampler below from John Barry.
Some of the most lasting music in our culture isn’t made by lone composers at a piano, or singer-songwriters who just need to share how they feel, or garage bands with a dream. It comes from people given an assignment at their day job. “We need music for this. Make it happen.” Delia Derbyshire was one of them.
So if you haven’t heard of Delia Derbyshire let’s get this out of the way: you probably at least know this piece.
In the early 1960s Derbyshire worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. A lot of the group’s job was creating themes, sounds, and background music for the BBC’s many radio and television programs, and Derbyshire specialized in science fiction programs and the out-there avant-garde. If you’re interested in electronic music, whether that’s art music like Stockhausen or modern techno (or house, EDM, what have you), listen to some of An Electric Storm, an album Derbyshire and compatriots recorded in 1968 under the name White Noise. This is as far-out as music got at the time; Frank Zappa or Terry Riley would have sat up and taken notice, and modern-day acts like Amon Tobin or Autechre could take a page from the deep, textured production. In many ways Derbyshire was at an advantage in the Radiophonic workshop, free to experiment (at least at first) as long as the work got done.
She did eventually chafe at the restrictions the BBC placed on her work and went on to do other soundtrack work, recording with a shifting group of like-minded colleagues; check out 1972′s Electrosonic for an example. Sadly, it seems she just burned out not long afterward, retiring from music to work in bookshops and galleries. The burgeoning electronica scene of the 1990s rekindled Derbyshire’s interest, but she died aged 64, just poised on the brink of a comeback.
It’s easy to not pay particular attention to the sounds on these albums; many pieces could be background to the Doctor and Sarah Jane sneaking around an unfamiliar space station or just a nervous Londoner wondering whether that person behind him is a KGB agent. But if you listen to this stuff it’s really rewarding; highly recommended for anyone interested in electronica.
I’ve been thinking a lot about soundtracks, background music, movie hits, and other music that was written expressly for different forms of media than the concert hall or the recording studio. I’ll be sharing those thoughts in a series of posts starting this week–audio plays, Bollywood, old-time radio, the curated soundtrack album, and whatever else strikes my fancy. For now, enjoy some groovy, swinging music from Jolly Olde Englande.
The Reigning Monarchs
There’s a new album out that should be getting more love. The Regining Monarchs play 60s-style instrumental rock at its most fun and confident on their debut album Black Sweater Massacre. The dominant sound is frenetic surf guitar à la Dick Dale, but strains of ska, exotica, and rockabilly make their way in as well. “Tanya Donnelly” sounds like the alt-rock goddess herself jamming with an invigorated Herb Alpert; the ska-flecked single “Murder Your Summer” deserves to be the titular song of a grindhouse movie; and the slow-burning “Steakhouse” is a slow-burning dreampop noir tune that makes great use of tension and unexpected turns. The band’s pedigree is interesting. One guitarist, Greg Behrendt, is a successful stand-up comedian; the other, Michael Eisenstein, was in archetypal 90s rock band Letters to Cleo. The L.A. band funded the album through Indie Go Go and hasn’t been together that long; you’d never know it to listen. Very solid stuff and I think I’ll be turning to it a lot in the coming months. Listen to the whole album for free here.
First off I’d like to acknowledge that this post was inspired by the amazing work over at The 120 Minutes Archive. The contributors there lovingly went through every recorded episodes of 120 Minutes, created tracklists, and–with very few exceptions–linked to online copies of the music videos. So–wait a minute, what was that sonny? Come closer. “What was 120 Minutes, you ask?” Well, pull up a chair while your grandpappy tells you the story.
Mojo Nixon, 120 Minutes
By the mid-1980s MTV was flying high. They’d made a cultural impact out of all scale with their budget and the station was the impetus for a lot of kids to beg their parents for cable. But most of the time the stuff they showed was, frankly, repetitive and eye-rollingly dull. The ratio was something like 1/3 hair metal (Ratt, Twisted Sister), 1/3 commercial R&B (Bobby Brown, Janet Jackson), and 1/3 pop (Madonna, Mr. Mister). To round things out MTV aired specialty shows like Headbangers’ Ball for metalheads and Yo! MTV Raps for hip hop kids. For fans of progressive, punk, new wave, the music that would later be known as alternative, there was 120 Minutes. It aired quite late once a week on Saturdays–11 at night until 1 in the morning IIRC. Sometimes it would be hosted by a veejay, but sometimes it’d be an alternative artist just starting out–I remember episodes hosted by the Sugarcubes, Mojo Nixon, They Might Be Giants, and the singer from the Stone Roses.
The show was revived a few years back but as of now it’s canceled again. It’s not suprising; MTV has just been a youth programming channel for more than 20 years now, with music videos an occasional afterthought. But it’s hard to overstate how formative 120 Minutes was to me growing up in the rural south. It was a link to a wider world of culture, a reminder that all over the world there were kids like me who loved Siouxsie Sioux, the Dead Kennedys, New Model Army.
All this to say that I miss the chance to sit down every so often and just watch good alternative music videos. In case any of you feel that way too I put together a YouTube playlist of some great music videos from this year. Note that if you have a modern gaming console you can probably view these right on your television. Sit back with a friend or two, watch some videos. Skip the ones you don’t like, talk about the ones you do. Enjoy.