Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Two Records from the 80’s Uncovered

Deceit by This Heat

Proposing an alternative: where This Heat, Wire and Joy Division replace previously established groups of the “punk movement”, the “punk movement” being neither “punk” nor a “movement”. “Punk” was what people wanted to listen to other than disco and prog rock in the late seventies. This Heat, Wire and Joy Division were an alternative to the alternative. That’s why it’s taken thirty years for a listening audience to catch up with them.
This Heat was a band from Brixton, England, established sometime in 1975, progenies from a line of progressive rock circles. Drummer Charles Hayward had previously been in Daevid Allen’s Gong, and Quiet Sun with Phil Manzanera. This Heat set out to record and play live, inspired by everything which had come before them, with a mission to sound like The Who. They eventually complied songs for their first, self-titled album, played locally and fell into obscurity.

Deceit was the second and last record from This Heat. Aside from an EP, single and first album, their discography was miniscule. It has now been established that their sound was ahead of its time (some of it still is), sounding like some garage attempt at Harry Partch’s gamelan music and post-prog experimentalism. All three members—including Charles Bullen and the late Gareth Williams—played a variety of instruments but all had a hand at tape manipulation. This was a tool for them, both on record and live shows.
Deceit was released in 1981 and contained influences of “punk” (more attitude than “sound”), world music and rock. A lot of songs contained strange looped percussion, slowed down tapes, musique concrete and other experimental techniques. But if ever there was an album motivated by the fear of nuclear annihilation, it was Deceit. The band members were of the belief that it would all be over soon under a shower of nuclear warheads and that this would be their last recording. This album was recorded in the cold and cavernous Cold Storage studio (once a meat factory) and reflects some of the paranoia of its time.
This music points to the future, including Charles Hayward’s next band, The Camberwell Now. Having first heard Deceit as a bootleg back in 2000, I was aware of other bands who had been influenced it: Isotope 217, Tortoise (John McIntire was once asked what he considered a rock band, answering “This Heat”), Trans Am, Don Caballero, Mogwai and several other “post-rock” bands (groups who play rock instruments whose sound defies categorization).
Deceit spoke of deceit by policy makers and the failure of the Marxist dream. The lyrics of “Independence” recite the words written in the Declaration of Independence. “S.P.Q.R.” establishes a proclamation for manifest destiny:

We are all Romans unconscious collective, we are all Romans we live to regret it…we organise via property as power, slavehood and freedom imperial purple pax romana!”

“Sleep” emphasizes complacency:

“You are now in a deep sleep
In store promises endless possibilities a life of ease
A life cocooned in a routine of food stimulus and response
Softness is a thing called comfort doesn't cost much to keep in touch
We never forget you have a choice
Possibilities in store
A taste of Paradise
Success on a plate for you
Endless Promises
Sleep, sleep, sleep
Go to sleep you are now in a deep sleep…”

The clear and loud mix is up front and amazing. And it was recorded in a meat storage warehouse! (Even in its bootleg form it was a great mix). Those bells on “Sleep” and the low chorus reach deep into you upon listening.
Guitar and keyboards were often mixed lower in the recording. Percussion was prevalent and the forefront sound for this band (much like Tortoise). Drums were usually a mix of live and studio takes (as in “Makeshift”), layered on top or against tape loops of water drums, pipes, slowed down percussion and strange gongs. If ever there was a blueprint for a makeshift garage prog band, This Heat’s Deceit was it. Without assigning itself to a category this music arrives from a future past, having been buried in an avalanche of new decade superfluity.

Cheap at Half Price by Fred Frith

In 1979 former Henry Cow guitarist Fred Frith moved to New York City, immediately attaching himself to the burgeoning avant-garde scene. This group of musical elitists (some would say) consisted of Tom Cora, Zeena Parkins, Ikue Mori (of downtown no-wave unit DNA), Curlew and many more. In the period between 1974-1980 Frith had explored Eastern European folk and dance music, scrutinizing the complexities of different rhythm structures. He appeared to mix all of this gathered experience and information into his fifth solo record, Cheap at Half Price. In his years after Henry Cow dissolved he played with The Residents, formed Massacre with Bill Laswell and Fred Maher (who was later replaced by Charles Hayward); he’d recorded with Samla Mammas Manna and worked on several solo projects. Among his many solo records and collaborative output, this record had the structure of a pop album, proper. Well, a pop album that was mostly recorded in his apartment, with most instruments played by Frith, recorded on a portable 4-track. Cheap at Half Price collects tiny pop and avant-garde gems and finds Frith doing all the singing (where applicable).

Somewhere in here Ronald Reagan makes a cameo.

With its unconventional momentum you get pop music that is sometimes tumultuous and chaotic yet beautifully rendered. The album explodes with many kitschy ideas in its myriad musical styles. Aside from avant-rock and experimentalism (found sounds notwithstanding), you hear ska, polka, reggae, Prague rock (sic) and The Beatles. Although more accessible than any of his solo work up to that point in his career, Cheap at Half Price highlights Frith’s ceaseless exploration of the strange and beautiful.
Frith often cut a hilarious character (sitting barefooted on stage, playing guitar with dried beans and wires, etc.) and it shows on this record.

His sense of humor surfaces in every song even though this is a very personal and VERY political album. It explodes with the joy of an artist playing alone, playing to himself, but a small individual living with the fear of the “wise” and their “lies…lies”. At times its ragged pop songs come off as like Paul McCartney’s first album filtered through the avant-garage.

Listening to this album not only sends me reeling back towards a sweaty, gritty New York of 1983, but it puts me at the center of the fear and paranoia of this decade, as described in the Deceit review. It makes me imagine Frith hunched over his guitar playing and mixing this album while the world’s consensus was that it was all going to wash away in a blast of nuclear oblivion.

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