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Vinyl Staircase: Tough On Collecting - Tough On The Cause Of Collecting
John Doran , December 30th, 2017 16:23

Lists? RUBBISH! Record collecting? RUBBISH! Record labels closing? RUBBISH! What's not rubbish, asks John Doran? Why, GNOD, alt.vinyl (R.I.P.) and Fela Kuti of course...

I don’t like end of year lists. They are an unsatisfactory way of summing up one’s musical experience of the previous 12 months.

Search your heart. Does your carefully curated EOY album list give an honest appraisal of your year?

Mine doesn't by and large. It is faulty at best.

I don’t like record collectors. They suck the atmosphere out of the musical conversation quicker than a meteorite breaching the hull of a space station.

Search your heart. Did any of your top musical moments of 2017 actually involve either buying or receiving a piece of vinyl?

Mine categorically didn’t.

Not paying any attention to whether this is self-aggrandising/ virtue signalling/ making myself look like an idiot or whatever my clear musical highlights of 2017 - presented in as unmediated a way as I can manage - mainly consist of the following: co-authoring a piece of spoken word about factory work in Hull with Cosey Fanni Tutti and performing it live with Simon Fisher Turner; dancing with a bunch of six year olds dressed as robots to DJ Casper’s ‘Cha Cha Slide’ at my son’s birthday party; watching Guttersnipe tear a hole in the space time continuum in a cold and damp warehouse in Salford for Fat Out festival; having an MRI for a brain injury and experiencing a hyper-compressed, horizontal, sedentary version of rave euphoria; that Perc set in the basement of the Waterfront nightclub in Hull; listening to Justin Walter’s Unseen Forces in the blistering heat of Gozo; playing ‘Get Ready For Love’ by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds at Glen and Joanna’s wedding; hearing Thin Black Duke by Oxbow for the first time and having my expectations met square on; being in the front row for Richard Dawson’s set at Green Man; playing a load of jungle and acid warming up for Sleaford Mods; listening to ‘Subaru Nights’ by Insecure Men about 30 times in a row after first hearing it; first exposure to Nicole Mitchell; (as with every year) listening to Slayer’s Reign In Blood on a good stereo; DJing as part of Julie Lonelady’s Shutters Down night in the Deadhouse crypt space under Somerset House in support of Vanishing; watching Zimpel/Ziołek play live in Krakow; beholding Ghold create a ziggurat of heavy rock at the Garage; playing a three hour mahraganat, Afrobeat & dabke set to a heaving Red Kite tent on the Saturday night at Supernormal; Nic Bullen as noise Elvis at Supersonic; (as with every year) listening to Why Do They Call Me Mr Happy? by NOMEANSNO loud on a car stereo; watching The Fall at the 100 Club - I hope it wasn’t the last time but if it was, I went out the way I first came in 33 years earlier, confused, outraged, exhilarated; watching Senyawa play live at St Thomas The Martyr in Bristol and then listening to Dopethrone by Electric Wizard and Ole by John Coltrane in the car on the way back to London the next day; getting to do live vocals for GNOD in their R&D guise at Corsica studios; watching Michael Chapman entertain the congregation at the Church Of Saint Mary, Totnes, Devon as part of Sea Change; the UKAEA animist rave in a barn at Supernormal; each and every Lone Taxidermist show; having an air guitar contest with my son to Iron Maiden’s ‘The Trooper’; looking round at the end of GNOD/fAUst in portugal and seeing the number of people in tears; surfing the hypnagogic wave all the way through GAS in Krakow; Shabaka Hutchings; listening to ‘Born In The USA’ by Bruce Springsteen while hammering lengths on modafinil and instant coffee at Boundary Road baths St Helens, wondering at the marvel of the concluding drum fills; listening to Magma’s Üdü Ẁüdü on a tiny bluetooth speaker during a BBQ in my best mate’s back garden in Newquay this August; sprinting across Brazier’s Park to catch the end of VÄLVĒ just in time to hear ‘Lights’; OHMNS refusal to stop playing diesel-powered thug rock at the end of their allotted time at the GIT awards Liverpool and the subsequent street brawl this escalated into; getting to play NOMEANSNO on Radio 3; all Aja shows; listening to the James Holden And The Animal Spirits album unfurl slowly with each successive listen; recuperating on the couch in the company of box sets by Kamasi Washington and Nurse With Wound; LCD Soundsystem playing ‘Get Innocuous’ at Alexandra Palace’; luxuriating in the noise made by the expanded ranks of Ex-Easter Island Head live at Supersonic; Self-Help’s debut show with Michael York of Coil and Sam Barton of Teeth Of The Sea, joining Mark and I; each and every Eric Chenaux show; every time I played ‘Fuck You Folk Singers’ or ‘That’s Enough’ by $hit & $hine in a DJ set; either playing or hearing ‘Search.Reveal.’ by M.E.S.H. during a DJ set; ditto ‘Theme From Q’ by Objekt; Teleplasmiste live; watching a Thai covers band by the beach in Hua Hin absolutely ace ‘The Man Who Sold The World’; dueting ‘Under Pressure’ with my mate Martin with the same band supporting us - he was Bowie, I was Mercury… well, it was his wedding day; getting my dance on to Boycey’s set at Spatchcock after all the commotion…

Hmmm... your musical highlights from 2017 bear a curious resemblance to your musical highlights from all other years...

The connection between the above list and my end of year ballots for albums and tracks exists (while remaining fairly sketchy) but its connection to my Discogs account/ purchases with Norman/ Juno/ Phonica/ Flashback/ Boomkat etc. is somewhere in the tangential-at-best zone. I’m not going to pretend that finding a factory sealed M/M copy of an old Boris LP, a hens teeth rare Northern soul 7” or the purchase of some trophy jazz LP, remarkable for its price tag and rarity alone, could compare to any of these very personal, very hard to qualify personal highlights from 2017 - even if none of the things that I have listed will mean that much to that many other people. Over the last decade I’ve grown to see the ambition of having a large, perfectly curated record collection (like wanting to have ripped abs or perfect teeth) as an admission of fear of dying. There are only a certain amount of records I will ever be able to listen to, so I operate strictly on a one in one out basis, getting rid of everything that I’ve heard enough, making room for odd new music that I’m yet to get my head round. This is why the last of the vinyl records I had by the Beatles, The Clash, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones now resides in Flashback Records, Essex Road, London. (Well, I tell a lie - I still have a 12” copy of ‘Miss You’ on bright pink vinyl which I refuse to part with.) It’s liberating and exciting. It'll be The Smiths next. In ten years time perhaps all of the DIY vinyl I am currently buying off merch stalls at gigs and disco 12”s I’m picking up for DJing purposes will end up on the same shelves making room for… who knows what. It makes sense to get shut of (some of) your records. It’s perhaps unfair to pick on him but has Fatboy Slim’s gigantic record collection that needs to be stored in a separate building to his house with reinforced floors (or whatever) actually done him any favours? Has it made him a happier person or a better musician?

End Of Year Lists are important in a quotidian way simply because they provide us with a buyer’s guide and financial support is what underground and independent music needs more than anything at the moment. Buying new vinyl direct from bands at gigs, straight from independent record shops, from clued up online retailers and direct from small labels is one of the main ways small scenes (your scene, my scene, our scene) struggle onwards. Selling second hand vinyl (specifically because it doesn’t necessarily lose its value and running a second hand record shop remains, just about, a viable business in a way that a second CD store will never be) is a actually a way of trading information and education as well as a bit of cash - even if this practice has been dealt body blows by file sharing. There's no joy to be had for anyone else when you eventually delete those MP3s or the hard drive corrupts, let alone any education. For those who know, the practice of chewing the fat in record shops or at merch stalls at gigs remains paramount to what they do and I hear this time and time again from successful DJs, musicians and record label owners alike. There is an unquantifiable social aspect to this custom that I, for one, don't want us to lose.

So buying music isn't the main joy but it's a necessary client industry that allows the main event to happen. I bought a cassette at that Guttersnipe show; I had to buy a vinyl reissue of that Magma LP to get the DL of the WAVS, I'd be happy to put 50p in a collection box of every municipal swimming pool in the land that blasted out 'Born In The USA' as I attempt my daily 70 lengths...

People who compile end of year lists because they have a pathological need to delineate their musical times - to prove they have understood the cultural significance of what has just happened - and people who strive after the perfectly constructed vinyl collection that has all of the canonical releases from all of the significant genres… I don’t know… I’m not going to call them idiots just because I’ve got a different viewpoint to them but it doesn’t resonate with me at all. The way they see the very function of music is alien to how I see it.

Earlier this year I wrote a news story about the GNOD X box set which they released in order to raise funds for the repair of the roof of Islington Mill in Salford. The band lived in the converted cotton mill for eight years of their existence and obviously feel very strongly about its continued survival even though they are no longer based there. The recycled/ upcycled package, limited to a run of ten copies, contains a lathe-cut vinyl album of exclusive studio material recorded in 2016, a CDR of unreleased archive material, a CDR of a 50-minute long version of 'Vatican' and a cassette of rehearsal jams, not to mention several prints, stencilled cards and pieces of bespoke artwork created by members of the band. This news story immediately attracted the spittle-flecked ire of a couple of tender-hooped keyboard warriors who dismissed the band as “elitist poseurs” appealing to a wealthy collectors market, with one even demanding that I not review the release.

Ok, fair enough, I won’t. But putting my money where my mouth is, I’d like to give the box set away. Not just yet - I’m listening to it and enjoying it as we speak - but I think I should be done with it in a couple of years. It could be yours… within certain parameters. I need to be certain it won’t get into the hands of someone who is a list maker or cataloguer, because then I fear it would just end up sitting on some sterile shelf, arranged by some ingenious filing system and not end up with someone who’s going to listen to the thing. There’s only one way of improving the chances of it going to a good home - to a music fan with open ears - and that’s by ensuring that it goes to a woman. (Apologies to all men who don’t pathologically list and collect and a sardonic apology to women who do.) So, put a notification into Google Calendar and email me in exactly two years time on, offer to make a reasonable donation to Islington Mill and it’s yours.

Label Of The Year

Graham Thrower of alt.vinyl in Newcastle was sanguine when he emailed me in May to tell me that he was putting his record label on ice. He talked of the natural cycle or lifespan of these projects and said it was simply time for his label to come to an end (but he admitted that the failure of the festival he was involved in managing, Safe As Milk, had clarified the decision in his mind). After 13 years and over 70 releases, Short Fuse by Akatombo and a 12” by Lichens/Air Cushion Finish were its farewell issues. Well, it’s not my job to be sanguine and I’m pretty pissed off about this state of affairs. Whether or not the well of public trust in extremely adventurous UK festivals has been permanently poisoned by the well-documented failure of other festivals is open for discussion but everyone interested in DIY culture should be alarmed by the passing of the alt.vinyl label. So while there will be some reading this going, ‘What’s the point of going on about this label now that it’s gone?’, I know true heads will know what I’m actually saying is, 'Hopefully we'll have less of this in 2018.’ Anyhow you can still pick up much of their back catalogue online for very reasonable prices. The aforementioned Short Fuse, a collection of meditative ambient industrial drones from Hiroshima, Japan, was one of our LPs of the year; Näköpiirin Rajoilla by Kiila is some extremely beguiling Finish psychedelic, experimental folk music; also covered elsewhere on this site is the excellent Bronze by Hen Ogledd, the partially improvising experimental group featuring Richard Dawson, Dawn Bothwell and Rhodri Davies; the hypnotic and misty pulsations of Honey Ant Dreaming by Luminance Ratio; the textural guitar and synthesizer experiments of Alberto Boccardi and Maurizio Abate on Superficie etc. RIP alt.vinyl.

Fela - Vinyl Box Set 4 Compiled By Erykah Badu

It’s something of a necessary corrective to get a very prominent black female perspective on Fela Kuti. Despite living in unusually trying circumstances that most Westerners would struggle to understand this revolutionary musician was undoubtedly, at times, a terrible misogynist. The evidence is all over tracks such as the sardonic ‘Lady’ and the appallingly grim ‘Mattress’; you only have to read the saxophonist’s own, officially sanctioned biography This Bitch Of A Life for confirmation that he saw women as being inferior to men and in need of domination. He grew to see violence as a legitimate educational strategy after being beaten viciously by both parents (but significantly worse by his mother) and eventually instituted a codified form of domestic violence (open palmed slaps) to sort out quarrels between his many wives as an adult. It should be said that this view of him being a misogynist, generally speaking, doesn’t chime with what his wives have said; many of them citing their chance to pursue artistic ambitions and enjoy freedoms as part of the Kalakuta Republic that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. It is important to question why these women (often powerful, well-read, ambitious, talented etc.) stayed loyal to him for years despite numerous vicious attacks by police and soldiers - with many suffering broken limbs, fractured skulls, gang rape and sexual assault by gun barrel and bottle at their hands.

This fine box set (it’s worth the cash if you don’t have the discs already - the cheapest you’re going to get even a NM reissue of Yellow Fever alone on vinyl is about £30…) is as good an introduction to some of the foundational works of Afrobeat as any other Fela comp. All of the Knitting Factory reissues sound a million dollars and my only complaint with them really is that the artwork always looks a little bit low resolution and never looks as good as the original (often) varnish finished sleeves. But shelve that pipe dream Rockerfeller! We can't afford a full set of M/M originals until we win the pools.

This is the fourth in a series of box sets with releases chosen by 'celebrity' fans, Brian Eno, Ginger Baker and ?uestlove. All of these males obviously know their Fela but input from a black female musician was a smart and necessary move. In the idiosyncratic liner notes Badu notes that the first disc with ‘Yellow Fever’ (a rail against “post-colonial skin bleaching”) and ‘Na Poi ‘75’ (a dirty "how-to sex guide”) are two sides to the same record in more ways than one. She draws a comparison to her own upbringing in the Bible Belt of the USA: “Sexuality is just too satanic to discuss openly and the darkest student in class keeps her mouth closed, while clutching a #7 light cream concealer. ‘Just don’t think too highly of your true self or be too liberal with your body and you’ll blend in here just fine.’” Next to the anthem of radical intransigence ‘No Agreement’ - arguably Fela’s finest moment - and a cracking live album, J.J.D. - there are wonders to spare.

Despite the childhood beatings, Fela’s mother - a respected feminist and human rights activist - Funmilayo was a hugely significant presence in his life, as is reflected by one of the songs he wrote following her death, the mournful but anthemic ‘Coffin For Head Of State’. His anti-military single ‘Zombie’ inspired a raid on his compound, Kalakuta, by the military, which was brutal even by normal standards. His 77-year-old mother was thrown from a third-floor window by drunken soldiers. She suffered a broken leg and later fell into a coma from which she never woke. The following year, on Nigerian Independence Day, October 1, 1979 – General Olusegun Obasanjo, the dictator who had made Fela’s existence such a misery, was about to end 13 years of military rule to an end by handing over power to Shehu Shagari. On Obasanjo’s last day in office, Fela and his wives carried a symbolic coffin to the gates of the Dodan Barracks, where Obasanjo lived. After shots were fired and following a tense stand-off at gunpoint, they were eventually allowed to leave the casket at the gates. It was a remarkable act of defiance, even in a life characterised by many such actions.

Rejecting the canonical narrative that Fela lost his talent at the same rate he began to lose his mental and physical health after the end of the 70s there is the inclusion of ‘Army Arrangement’ (the original version not the contemptuous Bill Laswell/ Sly and Robbie redo) and the last of his music to come out while he was still alive, Underground System.

Sometimes Badu’s notes are surprising (she describes a terrifying run in with the Nigerian military en route to meet Femi Kuti in Lagos) and sometimes her point is blunt (if not blunt-inspired as well). Speaking about V.I.P. Live In Berlin, she concludes: “Listen, all you need to know is… Fela Kuti is a Fucking Genius. Please listen to these tracks, preferably with a nice blunt… with a nice slow burn.” Plus you get to read Ms Badu relating with grace and humour how she came to think she was a member of Damon Albarn, Flea and Tony Allen’s band Rocket Juice And The Moon after a three day studio session only to have the bizarre looking Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bass goblin phone her up to tell her that she hadn’t made the cut. So that’s Flea telling Eryka Badu she hasn’t made the grade to be in Damon Albarn’s new band - proof, if it were ever needed, that we don’t live in the most perfect of all possible worlds.

I hope you have a happy and peaceful 2018.