Expansive Gigography: Graham Duff’s Foreground Music

Aug Stone reviews TV writer Graham Duff’s Foreground Music: A Life in 15 Gigs, followed by an exclusive extract from the book, recalling the start of Duff’s friendship with The Fall's Mark E. Smith

Foreground Music is a delight. Not just for music lovers, who will find themselves resonating with much within every page, every paragraph. But also for anyone whose passion for something ignites the desire to consume and experience everything about it, and in doing so, enrich one’s own life and the lives of others through the sharing of the subject’s vitality. There’s something wonderful about the way someone who is so knowledgeable and effusive about a subject dear to them – so much so that it seems a component of their very being – can inspire another to want to come into contact with this curiosity themselves, despite not previously possessing the slightest bit of interest.

What I’m trying to say is that as an American only familiar with, and for decades now confused by the success of, ‘Ebeneezer Goode’, Foreground Music had me chomping at the bit to explore the early records of The Shamen.

And so much more. Be sure to keep an ongoing list handy whilst reading, to record everything Duff amps you up to revisit or experience for the first time as he consistently throws out asides that may well turn out to be goldmines. Or at least velvet tin mines, which are of course often worth hearing. Duff himself admits during The Strokes chapter that he still tries to see the support act because doing so “frequently pays big dividends”. During the course of reading, I was inspired to throw on The Fall’s The Unutterable and marvel at its dark glory, search YouTube for 2.3’s only 7” single and then buy it, and later add Domestic4’s Bungalow Ranch Style to my Discogs wishlist. To name but three instances out of many.

Foreground Music nominally takes us through writer Graham Duff’s fifty years on Earth via fifteen gigs he’s attended. Such are the chapter headings. But these concerts are just the top-line melody. For underneath, providing harmony, production technique, and echoes for future cover versions, are Duff’s musings on music and life – if one can indeed separate the two. And the mix is perfect. The text is a journey through an intelligent and articulate music obsessive’s memories and reflections on not just the form but how it interacts with your very self. A strong case for the idea that your love is your life. Along the way we hear of romantic relationships, long-standing friendships, his own coming to grips with the idea of fatherhood – on his son Misha’s seventeenth birthday, Duff took him to a Nurse With Wound gig – and Duff’s relationship with his own father and dealing with his passing. All told with an economy that maximises the feeling while keeping the needle swiftly flowing along the groove. Such packed conciseness almost reminds one of a pop single. But within the book’s opening pages Duff states he is “a staunch opponent of pop”.

Duff’s love is for music with chance elements. Bands who excel at “confounding expectations”, who are evolving, forward-thinking and -moving, even if they may momentarily be looking backwards. And so we are taken through gigs by Cliff Richard, The Jam, The Specials, Madness & The Selecter, Joy Division, Psychic TV, The Shamen, Primal Scream, The Velvet Underground, Sleater-Kinney, The Strokes, The Fall, David Bowie, Throbbing Gristle, Massive Attack Vs Adam Curtis, and Wire. While The Fall may give them a run for their money, it is this last band that are Duff’s favourites.

The Wire chapter, ostensibly about their gig for Duff’s fiftieth birthday, contains accounts of eight other Wire gigs plus other group-related events. And even though he would join his favourite band onstage at this milestone bash, Duff claims to not know how to play music himself. But he certainly knows a lot about its inner workings.

This is evident from the very first chapter, in his detailing of how the James Bond themes evoked for him a world more vibrant than what most pop – bar Bowie – was depicting. This continues throughout the book, a keen awareness and appreciation of what each player and instrument are doing in their section of the sonic spectrum and how this contributes to the overall sound. And spotting well when these components are taken from other band’s recordings, such as with Screamadelica, where Duff takes us through the heritage of its make-up, particularly the elements that made ‘Loaded’ so special.

And let us not forget that although music is auditory, it may very well be a visual aspect that initially draws us in – the enigmatic allure of a record sleeve, for example. These are discussed as well as each performer’s sartorial choices, the suits of The Jam and 2Tone acts, Peter Hook and Mark E. Smith’s grey slacks, etc.

Duff is best known for his comedy scripts and while there isn’t anything particularly humorous about any of these acts – except for perhaps the showbiz goofiness of Madness – occasionally Duff would pull out a description that is downright hilarious. One of my favourites being from the Psychic TV chapter. “Like the New Romantics, Goths first manifested themselves at the dawn of the 1980s. A time when the line between rock music and hairdressing became strangely blurred”.

Duff perfectly captures the tone of each stage of gig-going development. Where at one’s first few concerts, thrown into this exciting and vast new world, despite being enraptured by it all, you haven’t a clue what’s going on or what to do. Age fourteen in the queue to see The Jam, he’s questioning his right to be a punk, reinforced by Paul Weller walking by and Duff not knowing who he is. And how a few years later, you’re even more in love with it all, this still new world pulsing with so much energy and excitement, seeing as many bands as you can. Though encountering them offstage, such as a fortuitous meeting with Peter Hook before the infamous Bury gig in 1980, can still prove otherworldly. Duff would even write his dissertation on Psychic TV, a proposition complicated by taking acid before interviewing frontperson Genesis P. Orridge. And on and on, fitting live music in to the stages of life, through work and family, new beings entering and beloved ones leaving.

Foreground Music is as much a history as it is a memoir. A history of the changing forms of these bands as well as their songs. Dismiss any notion that each chapter is simply a gig review. Duff’s appreciative analysis permeates the pages, presenting a moment in time – captured through lenses personal, cultural, even ethereal – with an astonishing amount of attention paid to the forces that led up to this particular event and where these energies will flow afterwards.

Take Psychic TV’s various incarnations, here centred in context around where they’re at this one night at The Haçienda in Manchester November 1984. And we’ll meet Genesis again in the Throbbing Gristle chapter, performing at London’s Heaven twenty-five years later. It may be 2009 but we’re given full details on not only the group and their experiments since the 70s but also insightful accounts of the fluidity of the material they’re performing that night.

This applies in spades to Duff’s beloved Wire. He has been mesmerised by their beat for nearly forty years, and while he waxes eloquently on all that has made up their sound for decades, Duff delights in them even more when the band confound his expectations. Which they do frequently.

Wire seem tailor-made for what Duff wants out of a musical experience. Even if they weren’t his favourite, they would be the perfect band for this book. And I would love to have witnessed the 2013 live version of ‘Map Ref. 41°N 93°W’ he describes.

Casting your mind back through the vast volume of information, thoughts, and perceptions we’ve been given, the gigs from the early chapters seem as far away as they actually are in real time and not just the few hours it has been since reading them. It’s the sign of a great book that you miss it once you’ve finished, and upon closing Foreground Music’s pages one wishes that there was still more to read, that the alternate fifteen gigs he mentions might one day be written up.

It’s been like listening to an exceptionally knowledgeable acquaintance tell you their most meaningful experiences, the way that a conversation with obsessives who are pure of heart will enchant you, working up a great desire to form your own connections, whatever they may be, with these profound works of art. A conversation that will stick with you long after you’ve made your way home and are flipping inspiredly through your own stacks of vinyl and scores of memories.

The following is an exclusive extract from Foreground Music by Graham Duff, recalling the start of his friendship with The Fall’s Mark E. Smith when he asked the singer to make a cameo appearance in the sitcom Ideal playing Jesus in a hallucination sequence

At the BBC TV building on Manchester’s Oxford Road, I knock with trepidation on the dressing room door of Mark E. Smith. “Yeah? Come in.” I push the door open. Mark is standing at the dressing table in a crisp white shirt and black slacks. He turns and gives me a broad smile. We shake hands. We’ve actually met several times over the years at Fall gigs and a couple of times when I was working for IKON the video department of Factory Records. But I know he won’t remember me.

Graham: “Hi, I’m Graham, I’m the writer. I’m really glad you agreed to do this.”

MES: “No problem pal. So, what do you think of this script then?”

Graham: “Well… I wrote it, so obviously I’m reasonably happy with it.”

MES: “I’ve had a few thoughts. I’ve made some notes for stuff we could do.”

Mark picks up his script. It’s covered in handwritten notes for additional lines. His handwriting is loose and spidery, frequently alternating between capitals and lower case. It’s difficult to make out on first look. You have to concentrate to fully understand both the content and the form. Like The Fall’s music.

What he seems to be proposing, is a virtual deconstruction of the scene with references to the fact it’s actually a TV show and so on. I love it. It fits in with both Mark’s world view, his observation of the process of creating an alternate world in the realm of TV, and it also chimes with the Ideal aesthetic, whereby the show frequently peels back different layers of reality. The thing is, we can’t jettison the original script altogether. If we do, the episode won’t make sense.

Graham: “I think that’s really interesting. I think the way to go, is to shoot a version of the script as is, then if you’re up for it, to try a few runs with you using your ideas.”

MES: “Whatever you think cock. It’s up to you.”

Mark is playing a vision of Jesus. I’m not sure whether it’s a good omen or not, but when the clapper board is lifted into shot for the first take of his scene, miraculously it turns out to be slate number 666. This elicits a wave of uncertain laughter from the crew. Mark is clearly out of his comfort zone and initially struggles with running though the material. He’s a man who famously doesn’t like to do exactly the same thing twice. So repeating the same lines over and over is something of a battle. Peter Slater, the actor playing opposite him, has his work cut out to keep the scene moving as Mark’s delivery becomes increasingly fragmentary.

At one point, the producer Jane Berthoud sidles over and whispers in my ear “What do you think? Time for a recast?” I shake my head. “It might take a while, but I think we’ll get it.” We do. In the end, director Ben Gregor manages to tease out a subtle and funny performance. The final on-screen result – Mark bathed in a golden glow, giving foul mouthed godly instructions, soundtracked by the strange celestial music of Coil – is the highlight of the third series. And it’s definitely my proudest TV achievement.

After the recording, I ask Mark if he’s ever thought about writing narratives for TV. He recalls a few years ago he’d developed some horror ideas for a Welsh TV company. “Nothing came of it in the end. I think they lost them or summat.” I say that if he’s interested in resurrecting them I’d be keen to help him pitch them to TV companies. “Definitely.” He replies. “I’d like to do something that’s really weird and properly frightening.”

Three weeks later, I’m back home in Brighton and Mark calls up, asking if I’d like to meet up soon and talk about writing some scripts together. I feel like I’ve just been asked if I’d like to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition that I never knew I had.

Over the next year and a half, we meet up every couple of months, either in Manchester bars or London hotels and start mapping out stories for a Twilight Zone-esque anthology series for TV entitled ‘Inexplicable’. As we sit together, he steadily makes his way through a few bottles of pilsner and a couple of glasses of whisky. Yet he never seems to get drunk. Drink has never really been my thing and I usually never drink whilst writing, so I don’t even try to keep up. Mark is never short of ideas and frequently refers to historical or literary examples to illustrate what he’s talking about. His knowledge of history is impressive and, perhaps surprisingly, his memory is pin sharp.

At first, I’m uncertain as to how the working relationship will operate. But it actually flows pretty well. The meetings tend to consist of free wheeling brain storming sessions, during which I frequently find myself dissolving into fits of giggles at Mark’s unexpected flights of humour. I record these sessions on my phone, take notes, write up the ideas later, then send hard copies to Mark. We bat the stories back and forth.

Sometimes Mark’s enthusiasm for the project takes me by surprise. On one occasion my landline rings at 2:30 in the morning. I wake up and answer it, expecting the worst. Expecting to be told that a loved one is ill and that I need to go directly to some hospital or other. However, it’s Mark. He’s just flown back from doing some gigs in Portugal and whilst on the plane has had “some pretty good ideas for the show”. I grab my notebook and pen and wipe the sleep from my eyes.

We put together what we think is a solid pitch. I have meetings with a few TV executives about the idea, but it seems no one wants to pick it up. Some are deterred by what they perceive as Mark’s unpredictable personality. But the main thing I hear is “It’s too weird for me”.

After Ideal comes to an end, I continue spending big chunks of time in Manchester, working on the BBC2 sit-com Hebburn starring Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves). And so, one night I go out on a pub-crawl with Mark E. Smith and Vic Reeves. The problem is, when it comes to alcohol, I am an unseeded amateur, whilst the two of them are operating at an Olympic level.

At the end of a day’s filming, Jim and I catch a cab to the ‘Kro-Bar’, one of a number of large, stylish but anodyne bars that have sprung up in the city centre over recent years. Mark is already here, standing at the bar ordering a drink. As Jim and I approach, he turns and his face cracks into a wide smile. “Alright pal.” He says as we hug. He greets Jim with similar enthusiasm. Yet, as we sit at a table, the mood is initially awkward with Jim and Mark seeming somewhat guarded with each other. But as the drink kicks in, the conversation begins to flow and soon I’m creased up with laughter. Jim tells the story of buying Tom Baker’s house and Mark goes into a daft routine about how the health service is determined to wipe out the working class male.

After a couple of pints, we wander off in search of somewhere better. We pass a bar that has a beer garden with several large mosaics of Manchester icons on its walls, including one of Mark himself. “You see that place?” Says Mark, pointing at his mosaic. “I’m actually banned from there.”

Foreground Music: A Life in 15 Gigs by Graham Duff is available now from Strange Attractor Press, with an audio book version due next month

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