Reissues & Rarities
, February 13th, 2009 14:40
Antonin Artaud wrote his essay No More Masterpieces nearly a century ago. Or, to speak through Elvis: it's now or never. We're sliding into a wholesale reissue culture, drowning in the unheard of, the obscure, the forgotten or the once unappreciated. Simon Reynolds has recently posed the question of what kind of impact this avalanche of old will have on the demand for, and investment in, new music. This is especially relevant as we wallow in a recession, for the past is always going to be a safer financial bet than the future. Artaud demanded that anything of irrelevance, no matter how classic, anything that is not NOW, that does not energise in this moment should be consigned to history, thrown in the bin.
23 Skidoo are seldom spoken about, even less heard. The name is American slang for getting out of somewhere, but the phrase enjoys a more arcane usage amongst figures like Crowley and, most famously, William Burroughs. Skidoo spent their anti-career bewildering champions and fans alike with their cut up methodology; sometimes deliberately, often unintentionally. Their albums were re-released at the turn of the century only to drop out of sight immediately afterwards, scuppered by label bankruptcy. But the superb LTM label have just re-released the albums Seven Songs, Urban Gamelan and Just Like Everybody complete with singles, remixes and obscurities. Skidoo's second album, The Culling is Coming is still available on the Boutique label (also through LTM). The sleeve notes by James Nice are superb, expertly detailing the band's complex narrative and frequent line-up and stylistic changes. The extras are wholly necessary, seeing as how Skidoo often released singles outside of albums and then reworked them into bizarre new shapes. While sailing effortlessly across genres they remained forever themselves.
Seven Songs was their debut release, a mini-album released in 1982. It was co-produced by Throbbing Gristle's Genesis P-Orridge and Sleazy, and Ken Thomas from the Fetish label that originally released it. They had previously worked with Stephen Mallinder from Cabaret Voltaire, and these three bands formed one of the greatest assaults on mass media that this country has ever known. The influence of CV and TG can be discerned but there is much much more at play here. There has never been such a devastating opening salvo as 'Kundalini'. A wave of ferocious noise, a processed whiteout siren clarion-call, screaming and shocking before it falls unexpectedly into a percussive groove - a reverbed kit and a variety of hand-drums. On top, ambiguous chants and shouting, field recordings, shards of noise jump in from all over the place – 'Kundalini' is fucking furiously angry. 'Vegas El Bandito' follows, a blast of solid funk-chopped rhythm guitar, bass on a groove with a drifting trumpet providing melodic interludes. It is inherently danceable, but there's a definite air of violence. And then 'Mary's Operation', a beatless creepy soundscape - more field recordings, mournful ripples of guitar, lonesome trumpet lost on an arid desert. It continues in this vein, entirely unclassifiable despite the band's industrial affiliations.
You could prattle on about seminal, influential blah blah. All you need to know is that it is entirely unique. It lives and breathes now – its voodoo spirit is so strange, its energy so passionate and ferocious, its composition and looseness so idiosyncratic, that it seems to have just fallen from the sky. Amongst the extras is the staggering 10-minute groove of 'The Gospel Comes to New Guinea', a platform for all manner of cut-ups to ride over a stark groove.
One of the reasons for Skidoo's unique sound and world-view, their global concerns and pan-cultural energy, was their diffuse membership. Formed in North London, the two Turnbull brothers were of Singapore-Chinese descent. The whole band's lack of interest in Western music other than their collaborative friends further precipitated their essential difference. Rhythm and noise, tradition and technology fell together more coherently than it did for their peers, creating a supreme and exceptional hybrid.
Things were looking hopeful for Skidoo in terms of the music press' definition of career, which seemingly meant nothing to the band. Over the space of two years or more, they shed their singer and guitarist (both of whom employed their talents wholly out of standard definitions of those things anyway) pulled off a unearthly and confrontational performance at WOMAD and then released the commercial and critical disaster that was The Culling is Coming.
Like Artaud again, the Turnbull Brothers and Caitlin fell wholly in love with Indonesian Gamelan and Burundi drumming. They started constructing their own instruments and this led to Urban Gamelan.
Released in 1984, the album mystified critics and audiences at the time. If you accept Skidoo as a post-punk band then it's easy to see why. Urban Gamelan certainly starts percussively enough, but field recordings and samples are still there, along with loose flurries of low-strung bass. These eventually metamorphosised into the bassline for the Chemical Brothers' 'Block Rocking Beats'. 'Fuck You G.I.' is stark and scary, a howl of vocal protest slamming imperialism. This was a reworked version of 'Coup', a single that had wholly re-ignited the world's excitement in the band. The album version seemingly angered everybody, turning everybody off as quickly as 'Coup' had excited them only months earlier. As Urban Gamelan progresses gradually everything disappears until we are left with just percussion. A music press unable to account for rhythm-based sound (surely not?) had no linguistic tools to decipher the last two thirds of the album. Gamelan: it peaks and it troughs and that is simply all that was going on with 23 Skidoo. The movement of one track to the next is sublime, terrifying, exciting and meditational. It anticipates jungle by over a decade. Urban Gamelan sits at a unique intersection between two cultures, completely defining its own space.
Finally we come to Just Like Everybody which compiles singles, versions and rarities across two breathless discs. I'm not sure that this is the best programmed compilation of all time, as it jumps from 1981 to 2002 and back again. There are flirtations with hip hop, reggae and electronic dancefloors that sometimes sound of their time but never dated. The anger seems less obvious and more buried in the groove and most of it is entirely essential.
27 years down the line, I still don't understand 23 Skidoo. They can't be assimilated and they sound beyond relevant. This isn't classic, this is... now.