If you’re going to do any reading in this heating-up season, already luciferous with excoriating bi-coastal sunshine, the texts must be on seductive topics and handled with maximum potential for kicks. The three recently published books on music below have kept me bouncing back and forth between their multi-voiced or richly unique narratives. From how technology encourages euphoric states of engagement and somewhat dements the way music and community are created and operate; to how reveling in bold statements of language and noise can defy authority and status quo thinking whilst dodging culturally cataleptic backlash; and by making music and creating a healthy scene while not letting the powers that be feed our addictive natures as we do what we are not told to do. So get the sun screen, lather on the skin cream, chill the iced tea, and crack open one of these thought-provoking editions: “1,2,3,4 — hey, ho! Let’s go!”
How To Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War ll To Hip-Hop by Dave Tompkins (Stop Smiling Books) is the prettiest (hardcover, lots of color), most fetishistic (if you get all excited looking at tons of photos of old electronic musical gear, obscure subculture PR, and super-obscure record labels and jackets!), funniest, and most deep-dish informative of the tome-batch I’m touting this time out. It is delicious, superbly scribing the history of how funk, visible speech, science fiction, “trying to barf out the universe,” “cool as long as nobody hears it,” “I feel like ewww,” Grandmasters Flash and D. St. (scratching the word “Fresh!” for the first time), Vincent Price on Oscar Wilde, Yellow Magic Orchestra and HP Lovecraft, Laurie Anderson and Holger Czukay, arcane techno, military surveillance deflection, and a thousand other cultural cross-references collide into “pop music” now. For the ‘heads, there’s KORGs, HY-2 vocoders, Gentges’ spectrum analyzers, Bell Labs’ vocoder exhibit in 1964, Sonovox jingles, etc. For Luddite civilians like me, Tompkins takes it slow and easy with massive detail on the swollen seminal 12 ” underground expressions of Garrett’s Crew (the history of the legendary “Nasty Rock” from 1983 is delightfully delineated), gym rats’ the Furious Five’s surprise “Scorpio” (“Sugarhill, this song was inspired by a Rick James stomach ache”), and the wicked origin story of the Vocoder itself. In 1928 it was brought to life by Bell, and was used to occlude eavesdroppers from listening in on phone calls in World War ll (cowardly Nazis! Let’s take your mind on a trip!). Bootsy and George Clinton harnessed it with their “Rammellzee is a special piece of magic galaxy dust,” funking ahead of the game. On the other side of the world (in many ways) Krautrock-spawned Kraftwerk found its primary voice with it, and it became a fluke hit way for cracker pop musicians from ELO to Neil Young to add an uncanny musical mirror to humans crooned hits or misses; and through the Ubik-domination of Timbaland and others, you sing, sleep, shop, and make sweet love to it. Who would have expected all these things to come together through just a wee bit of wires and mind manipulation? Hilarious and edifying, How To Wreck A Nice Beach is on my top shelf of music books (with Ego Trip Book of Rap Lists, which it plays DJ to the other’s MC).
From The Graveyard of The Arousal Industry by Justin Pearson (Soft Skull) is the kind of talking-serious-shit book fans of punishing groups like The Locust, Swing Kids, and Some Girls, could only dream of. Pearson was a primary catalyst (words, voice, bass) in all those noisy boys-adored basement and garage-damaging collectives from the dark side, an answered prayer for punks and outsiders sickened by 90s yarl-rock and sticky-sweet pop rubbish. His talent for excessive sonic cruelty doesn’t become some attempt at Sonic Youth style textual free-form here; this is not experimental writing, and not angry or melancholy rants from motel rooms while on tour (hello, Rollins). It’s perfectly captured by the titles of each of the terse, fiercely clear and detailed chapters, “Accidentally On Purpose,” “My Teachers Were Liars,” “The Great Big Megatoilet,” “I Put My Ass On Backwards,” “Compatible Crap, Like Abandoning Habits,” “I Fell Into The Asshole Of The Universe,” “Before My Spit Dried.” These couple hundred can’t-resist pages are lean and black with fighting inside bands and with audiences, burning down bridges to weaker souls on tour, and fusing the DIY scenes up and down the West Coast together with focused fatalism. The twisted joys of failure, the love of collaboration, the piles of impractical purchases of LPs and equipment, anyone who’s ever been in a band that’s been as loved and feared as Pearson’s will want to scan this fine dirt; and those who breathed easier knowing things could always get fucked up by insouciant young men in severe clothes when The Locust slammed into the world will consider this well-logged journey to the end of the “not” a timeless treasure. RIYL: Zines like Cometbus, and Burn Collector, but wished they had a little more pent-up sack and free fantastic action.
Sober Living For The Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics, edited by Gabriel Kuhn (PM Press) joins sweeping scene report “All Ages: Reflections on Straight Edge” from about a decade ago as an awesome oral history of music fans seriously questioning intoxication and corporate culture. If you’ve ever wondered why you need to drink when you go to see a great line-up at a venue, or thought about how much the government is involved in drug dealing (so how contrarian could becoming a hot mess possibly be?), Kuhn gives stacks of testimonies and manifestos from artists and individuals in communities looking for exciting, more real alternatives. The inspirations cited by Dennis Lyzen of The Refused and The International Noise Conspiracy for the groups chronicled in this is massive volume of study on the seeds planted in early 80s hardcore Washington D.C. will get you up to speed. Interviews with autodidactic avatars like Jenni Ramme of Emancypunx Records, who describes the mission and daily barf of founding and flourishing an anarcho-feminist label; Nick Riotfag on Radical Queer Critique of Intoxication Culture on sexuality and struggles with gender identity; Laura Synthesis, “Queen of the PC Police,” showing how the movement has a sense of humor; and even the unafraid-to-fuck-with-the-law Crimethinc, Inc. (always a strong presence in Seattle) on “Anarchy and Alcohol.” Appropriately, it begins with meditations on the original encouragement for this POV from Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye (who participated in a surprising and very satisfying chat here) and “flagship” band ManLiftingBanner. Smarty designed and unafraid to not only talk revolution but describe effective ways to bring it about, Sober Living is actually pretty intoxicating with information on a scene I’ve wanted to know more of. And for a guidebook, it’s deeply personal (dealing with issues like religion, and tried-out alternatives to addiction) and widely universal (from Poland to Portland).