Sunday, October 21, 2018

On One of These Bends

In December On One of These Bends a new LP on Séance Centre (a label run by Brandon Hocura) will be released. The LP pulls together for the first time a number of recordings made during the 1980s mostly intended for the soundtracks of various short experimental film & video projects. 

By 1981 the first wave of DIY cassette culture was winding down; the weekly music papers Sounds and the NME stopped their columns listing tape releases and though cassettes continued to be put out it quickly became more of an underground movement focussing on noise music. It had been four years since Snatch Tapes had had its first cassette release and with the simple arrogance that comes with youth I felt that Storm Bugs had done the DIY noise thing. It was time for a change.

Arguably the first seeds of a different approach had been the Bright Waves track credited to the fictitious duo Claire Thomas & Susan Vezey and released on the 1980 Reprint cassette and then on the Cherry Red Perspectives and Distortion LP.  Reworking through a Revox tape delay system a few choral phrases sung by Nancy Slessenger at the Paddington Snatch Tapes HQ, Bright Waves is a floating wall of breathless vocal sound that threatens to fall apart at any moment. The track was part homage, part pastiche of sections of Eno’s Music for Airports; the title intended as an irreverent nod to how ambient can so easily become easy listening. 

This element of pastiche was to be developed in the music recorded from 1981 onwards. Fellow Storm Bug Steven Ball was studying Film Video and Sound at Maidstone College of Art and through him I met another student Michael Denton. Having heard that I had some facility with sound he asked for help recording music for his videos. Visually and sonically the frame of reference was less photocopied black and white grainy industrial, and more 1950s jazz LPs with their use of vibraphones and bright block colour sleeves.  

Both the Goldsmiths and the West Square electronic music studios I used had alongside their VCS3 synthesizers and tape machine set-ups vibraphones. Quite why they had vibes was unclear as nobody ever seemed to play them, but nonetheless once plugged in the motors started whirring and out came that classic tremolo tinkling, a sound like shimmering glass. In the summer of 1981 Michael and I recorded Viewfinder, which combines an analogue 32 step sequencer driven VCS3 pattern with a simple vibes part and clipped guitar rhythm, somewhere between Storm Bugs and cocktail music. The authenticity of the industrial mixed with a dollop of pastiche.

I began recording some new songs at West Square. The lyrics referenced a tongue in cheek celebration of 1950s jet set life style “mixing drinks and aeroplanes”, open top car drives in the Alps and “khaki trips to Egypt”, all somewhat at odds with a life of grime on the dole in South London.  By 1982 I had worked up about four songs in this vein but my own voice seemed ill suited to the new material. A frequent visitor to West Square was a young American woman called Naomi. One day I asked her if she could sing and indeed she could, and so she was quickly drafted in to record the tracks, lending them a quality somewhere between Streisand and the Shangri-Las. The studio was in an old school building outside of which was a playground, and in the quieter passages in Love in a Cold Climate you can hear the playtime primary school laughter.

I spent some time trying to promote these new numbers, even wangling an audience with the head of A & R at EMI. I had sold him the project over the phone on the basis that it was a cross between Kraftwerk and ABBA, which of course it wasn’t. The interview lasted a few minutes before he began fast forwarding the tape to the next track commenting nicely, if disapproving that it sounded like the more experimental end of Kate Bush’s output (Bush was on EMI at the time). Fifteen minutes later I was back on the street with my cassette. I tried with other labels including Rough Trade where Geoff Travis kindly listened to the whole tape on headphones in front of me, but politely said no.  My svengali impresario career seemingly not making much progress I put the reel to reel tapes in the cupboard and moved on to the next project. 

Michael Denton had received a small film development grant from the Arts Council and was working on a short 16MM film to be shot in around Dungeness, a bleak windswept part of the south coast occupied by small shacks, a lighthouse, narrow gauge railway and oh a nuclear power station. The area has subsequently become rather fashionable, a development triggered partly by the filmmaker Derek Jarman buying a cottage there in 1986, and then planting a garden and making a film shot in and around the cottage.  Watertight as Michael’s film was called preceded Jarman’s move by a year or so. He asked me to record some music for the film. By this point I was using a Yamaha DX7 and a Roland SH101 and put together a number of variations on a simple musical sequence. As with all the film music I recorded there was more than a nod to Laurie Johnson (who had composed the Avengers theme and incidental music), John Barry, and of course Ennio Morricone and François de Roubaix. There was over 30 minutes of ‘cues’ and this spawned the main theme Watertight to be found on the LP as well as Everything He is Not.

We are now in the mid 1980s and a former Maidstone student Andrew Fitzpatrick who was working on a project with funding from Eastern Arts commissioned some soundtrack music for his video Tale Chase loosely concerned with assignations in a Paris park and a French poodle.  I recorded the tracks at IPS studios in Shepherd’s Bush, one of the few studios in London where the engineer would not blink if you said you wanted to record a bowed hubcap and a bag of nails, indeed Organum and many other similar luminaries worked there. It was around £25 per hour which whilst cheap for studios at the time focussed the brain. Armed with an old acoustic guitar I recorded three or four pieces using the studio’s digital reverb and primitive sampling to the full. The result was E For Echo, and Echo Complex (both on the LP). The tracks were made without first seeing the moving images, and though Andrew declared himself very happy with the results they clearly didn’t fit the pacing of the video and so an outake from the Watertight sessions was reworked and found to match much better.

Meanwhile Steven Ball and I had been discussing making a film together based on a story much heard in the Medway towns (where we had spent our teens) of repeated ghost sightings of a hitchhiker on Blue Bell Hill in Rochester. The legend went that following a car crash in 1965 that motorists travelling alone up the hill at night would see a woman hitching at the side of the road. The drivers would stop and offer her a lift. The woman would insist on sitting in the back of the car, but as they neared the bottom of the hill the drivers would turn round only to find that the woman had disappeared. The area around the hill is the location for Neolithic burial sites and is criss-crossed by ley lines. A somewhat complex scenario was worked up, a trilogy no less of short pieces which involved not only the ghost sightings, but also a journey across nearby Cliffe Marshes by the ‘ghost’ played by Angela Staples. The approach was to treat the landscape as a kind of shifting palimpsest on which the memory of events that had taken place were in some way recorded, and which could be subsequently activated or played back. 
With funding from South East Arts we embarked on part one of the trilogy Green on TheHorizon. I had a very simple melody picked out on an acoustic guitar, which can be heard about 9 minutes and 30 seconds in on the Storm Bugs LP Up The Middleand Down The Sides. We went into Creekside studios in Deptford and using whatever keyboards they had on offer recorded variations on the theme. Mixed with the voices of Tony Raven and Patricia Hosking plus a drone from an IPS session this forms the basis for the opening theme This is Not a Game. “This is not a game or a competition there are no prizes to be won times to be beaten or rules to follow, you are on your own”.

Following the completion of Green on The Horizon Steven slightly unexpectedly moved to Australia, no reflection on the film, which was well received, touring extensively as part of the Electric Eyes programme. I embarked on the second part of the trilogy Hangway Turning, again with funding from South East Arts. This time the film featured not only the ghost but a psychic investigator called Thomas Cubitt played by Alien Brain Nigel Jacklin. The West Square studio was now located next to Morley College and had acquired new digital equipment including a Yamaha soundbank synthesizer. In an afternoon session a few basic tracks were recorded using the soundbank fed through a VCS3 for added reverb and ring modulation treatments. Three of these pieces from the session, namely Scene of the Crash, Looking Back, and the title track On One of These Bends are included on the new LP.  

There was still part three of the trilogy to complete, though it had never really been established what exactly that might entail, and the project morphed into Shadowman. This coincided with a move to run down flat in New Eltham, a somewhat nothing place on the very fringes of London (you could literally walk down the dual carriageway past the sign that said you are now entering Kent). Feeling somewhat exiled from everything, Shadowman has the filmmaker’s shadow as the only character. The E for Echo vocal loop features as the main music in the film.

Shadowman completed in 1991 was to be the last single screen piece I was to make for ten years, spending the 1990s working on sound and light installations.  Listening back to the two sides of the LP without the moving images its nostalgic musical sequences and feeling of displacement and loss turns it into something of a memento mori for the films, and maybe the decade itself.