And then my mind split open.
It’s difficult to go back, after hearing a record like this. You’ll know pretty quickly whether it turns you on or not, but either way you’ll know that things like this exist. Things that demand your attention for good or ill, things that don’t even pretend to be perfect, things that will decentralise how you think about things. How the hell did they get this out on a major record label? It was the ‘60s, I guess, but at least it means that it’s still in print.
I’ve come to realise that, if you’re in a creative field, it’s important to read/watch/listen/look widely not just because it will undoubtedly teach you something about your art, but it will show you what you can get away with. I’ve talked about my own experiences with Naked Lunch before, and the same idea holds true here. When I first heard this record I was about 15 and more interested in music than I was literature (this quickly reversed when I realised I was better at writing than I was playing guitar), and it had a considerable effect on how I felt about music and art as a whole. It was difficult for me to get hold of records. I hadn’t figured out torrenting and for various reasons couldn’t just order stuff online. Youtube hadn’t taken off, Spotify didn’t exist. What I could find in HMV that was in one of the lists in Kurt Cobain’s journals is what I got. There were The Velvet Underground, right next to The Verve. Anything was possible, nothing was forbidden. Iron Maiden seemed awfully boring afterwards. Why, you could even write a 16 minute long song about a drug fuelled orgy that rested entirely on three chords, if you wanted to.
It was dangerous the same way The Stooges or The Ramones seemed dangerous the first time you heard them. People are actually allowed to do this? Yes they are, and you can, too. Not that that in itself wasn’t also dangerous; Sister Ray strays awfully close to self-indulgence (Reed would later get so close as to hop the fence entirely with Metal Machine Music. Performance art? Maybe. Masturbatory? Definitely.) Sister Ray killed any chance I had at the time of properly teaching myself guitar. I was more interested in noise. It was more fun than the circle of fifths.
Not that the musicianship on White Light/White Heat is at all lacking. The title track is a great, hot take, two and a bit minute rock and roll number that immediately drags you along with them out of a dark New York loft on to baking pavement, and despite the harsh edges still manages to feature a fantastic vocal harmony and piano backing that doesn’t really belong there but would severely weaken the song if it wasn’t. This is probably the most normal song on the record. There’s a reason this was on Reed’s setlists during the Rock N Roll Animal era.
The piano is worth mentioning again. To a kid like me who worked his way backwards from the ‘90s, through ‘80s hair metal to early ‘80/late ‘70s punk to Hendrix/Zeppelin/Sabbath and the ‘60s weirdness that begat them, piano, prepared or otherwise, or electric viola, or organ, on a rock and roll song, was pretty fucking weird and new. White Light/White Heat got to me before I ever heard any Jerry Lee Lewis, or really appreciated any of the slower, lusher stuff that Led Zeppelin did, and it was an incredible revelation to find that rock and roll was whatever instruments you happened to have and a certain way of using them. It would have been hard for me to appreciate Sonic Youth without The Velvet Underground preparing me for the noise and the weird tunings and odd instrumentation (one of Reed’s pet tunings was the Ostrich, DDDDDD, try it yourself, it’s pretty fun.)
Weird and new is definitely the name of the game. The Gift is my favourite audiobook masquerading as rock song. You can get away with doing this? Sure The Beatles separated the guitars and the bass in the stereo image, but narrating a story in one headphone while the guitar, bass and drums grind out a deceptively beautiful melody in the other? I had never heard anything like it and I immediately attempted to copy it myself, badly. Still, to me, this was fresh, and gave me an impetus to create/imitate in a far healthier manner than learning to play Smells Like Teen Spirit ever did. I wanted to write grim, weird short stories with shocking endings like that. I wanted to play droning, screeching melodies laced with feedback, like that.
The album sags a bit, in the middle. Lady Godiva’s Operation is an oddity made even odder by Lou’s constant interjection. I still don’t know if John Cale forgot his lines or if Lou was getting impatient, but it works, somehow. It certainly snaps your attention to (again, you can do that? I never heard that on my Iron Maiden records), but it doesn’t burn with quite the same almost malevolent energy as the first two tracks. Here She Comes Now is gorgeous but doesn’t quite feel like it fits. It’s short, it’s sweet, you won’t have any problems sitting through it, but thematically and texturally it would work much better on the third album, I imagine. And yet I don’t return to the self-titled third album very often, not because I don’t like it, but because it doesn’t have that same kind of sense of widening possibilities present on the first two albums.
Speaking of widening possibilities, having covered (various) drugs, addiction, prostitution, BDSM and Sunday mornings, the penultimate track is (most likely) about necrophilia. And it features an incredible guitar solo, not something you’d go to the Velvets for. Of course it’s done with their own sensibility. Listened to with the assumed logic of the rock guitar solo it sounds like a tangled mess of feedback and tremolo picking, but it makes much more sense when you remember that Reed was a big fan of Ornette Coleman. I didn’t know who Ornette Coleman was until I was looking up The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. If he made music that sounded anything like that then I definitely wanted to listen to him. Lou’s guitar playing (and Gregg Ginn’s), was what obliquely got me in to Jazz. I Heard Her Call My Name is weird, wonderful, worth listening to again and again for the solo alone, but you’d be missing Lou’s great frentic falsetto and some of his best rhythm playing on any record if you skipped to the good bit.
Sister Ray is of course the capstone. The epic. The monstrosity. The one that made the recording engineers walk out. It’s another story, like The Gift and Lady Godvia’s Operation, one that belies a literary sensibility that makes VU records relistenable like good books can be reread. You return to the stories you enjoy. I happen to enjoy this story of a murder at a brothel where some sailors are taking part in a drug fuelled orgy. It’s the little details that make it. A 16 minute long song would get boring otherwise, but it’s hard to be bored with Cale’s organ acrobatics, or Reed seeing how long he can hammer on and off a barre chord, while shouting about a ding dong. It’s easy to forget the VU had a sense of humour, but it’s hard not to laugh when, in the middle of an orgy, where a murder has just taken place, and the cops are on their way, someone is worried about the carpet getting stained. Reed was a gifted storyteller and it shows here, way before anything like Street Hassle, and it’s these stories that pushed boundaries and opened eyes just as much as the experimental musicianship.
I find White Light/White Heat worth coming back to again and again because of these grim, funny stories that are still funny on repeated listening. If you don’t get it, it’s self-indulgence. If you do get it, like I did, nearly a decade ago now, it’s very comforting to know that are people out there as weird as you, who make weird music and write weird stories like you want to hear, and not only did they get away with it, but people tried to rip them off wholesale. When I discovered there really was more than Led Zeppelin, my mind split open.
I keep coming back to Daydream Nation because it’s the best Sonic Youth album. It’s also the most “Sonic Youth” album they ever recorded. Sure there were darker, noisier, more aggressive ones, and sure there were poppier, more melodious, more upbeat ones, but Daydream Nation is the one that has just about all of their facets in just about equal (and equally strong in terms of writing and performance, even the weird Musique Concrete shit) measure. I like Confusion Is Sex, I like Sister, I even like Bad Moon Rising even though it features one of the worst performances by Lydia Lunch ever put on record, but Daydream Nation is the one I keep returning to, having been familiar with most of their body of work for the last decade.
As those weird Barclays adverts keep reminding me, first impressions matter. How strange, then, that this album should come on, as it does, like that guy you know who shows up to parties, stoned already, with a pair of bongos and very much ready to start spreading the very, very “relaxed” vibes, and still be one of the strongest openings to an album you’ll find in the ‘80s, and maybe ever? It kicks in like drugs kick in, faint whisperings, and then there is no denying what is happening. It stands perfectly in the middle of driven riff rock, the more melody driven side of Television and chords you won’t have heard before this side of a Swans record to pretty much perfectly encapsulate the album as a whole, as well as what would be their aesthetic for some time, though they would never do it better than this.
And then there’s the video, sadly missing the ethereal opening, which functions almost as a how to list to what was the (largely white) punk inspired DIY counterculture that developed in the USA during the ‘80s and saw its apotheosis in the release of Nevermind. Functionally it’s similar to the front cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; a collage of faces that the band either wanted to namecheck or acknowledge. For a boy of 14 who didn’t know a thing about music, these faces, cut together without much insistence on structure, in much the same way that one of the faces featured in the video, William S. Burroughs, would recommend, functioned as an excellent shopping list, and together with Kurt Cobain’s Journals began to greatly shape my taste. Not mention the allure of watching a strange video set to exciting new music, while I was up far past my bedtime watching MTV2, back when it played things that weren’t Razorlight. Back before I had a permanent internet connection, and shortly after I did and was hovering up all the information I could, it was loci of culture like this video, or the cover to Sgt. Pepper’s, or Cobain’s Journals that were guiding me. And permanently alienating me from my peers, but that’s another story.
Daydream Nation is by far the most varied Sonic Youth album, thematically and sonically, and yet it doesn’t feel unfocused, probably because the central core of most of Sonic Youth’s output, that half playful (come on, last night’s dream was a talking baby lizard?), half aggressive (kids dressed up for basketball beat me in my head) kind of joy is so solidly present throughout. There isn’t any filler, not even the aforementioned weirdo Musique Concrete shit, which is perfectly in tune with the Gerhard Richter painting on the cover, evoking as it does loss, distance, having mistakenly thrown away something valuable. This is how you do a double album, something that Sonic Youth managed to far better effect than another double album that Sonic Youth were at one point planning on covering in its entirety.
The variety demands your attention, always giving you something else to chew on before you’re barely finished digesting the last noise freakout. There are songs about William Gibson novels, about acid trips, about candles, rain, love, teenage kicks (Teenage Riot is way better than Teenage Kicks, I said it, shoot me), a combo Dinosaur Jr./ZZ Top send up that perfectly closes both the album and the gorgeous, Queenesque suite that makes up the last track. And that’s not even to talk about how it all works sonically.
Lee, Kim and Thurston are all well represented and present themselves well. Lee gets a story song that is perfectly suited for his voice and for the wild, yet introspective, attitude he’s always represented. Kim gets the harder, rockier stuff that she is [so fucking good] at. Thurston gets the weird, impressionistic shit because I can only assume he’s fucking weird. They all handle themselves so well that no themes or ideas feel wasted or underdeveloped. This is the kind of album a band makes when the stars align and they perfectly present themselves on record.
N.B. I wasn’t going to mention Steve Shelley’s great drumming, but a friend who read this through for me mentioned the extended drumroll in the noise section of Silver Rocket. Pay attention to the drumming, too, damn it. It’s an excellent part of an excellent whole.
To talk of variation and not mention the gorgeous guitar interplay and exploration, though, would be criminal. There are clean, gorgeous arpeggios, nasty atonalities, ring modulated fuzz tones, never gratuitous wah wah, tough riff rock, fast Ramones style chords, drones, drones, drones, and plenty of noise breakdowns and bridges. There’s a song that needs to be played with a prepared guitar, even. Everything that had been present in their toolkit up to this point is seen here perfected, melded perfectly with the interlocking arpeggiated guitar loveliness that would become their trademark in their later career. It’s a masterclass on what you can do with a couple of guitars in a rock setting and it’s just, frankly, bloody lovely to listen to. I admit I am a sucker when it comes to guitar based music. I’ve loved albums/bands/songs that were otherwise very weak, but had a guitar tone or style that I found novel or pleasing. It’s the same feeling that makes me like Led Zeppelin even though, let’s be honest, they really didn’t write all that many great songs. Up to the point where I heard Daydream Nation for the first time I’d mostly consisted on a diet of Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and so on, your standard heteronormative 14 year old boy’s record collection. Daydream Nation affected me the same way Naked Lunch affected me when I first read it. I just didn’t know that you could do that, or that you were even allowed to do it. I come back to it to hear what still sound like fresh ideas, both raw and already perfect, to hear something that was released two years before I was born, and that I first heard a decade ago, and still sounds new. It was one of the records that made me want to pick up a guitar and deliberately not play it properly, just to see what I could come up with on my own, and to see what sounded cool to me. I still don’t know my way around the circle of fifths.
There’s a case to be made against Sonic Youth for engendering the horror of Alternative Rock and all that entailed, the spectre of which we still live with, though it presently lays dying, awaiting the second (third, fourth) coming in the cycle of, well, I heard that your band sold their guitars and bought turntables. Yeah, well I heard that your band, sold their turntables, and bought guitars. Though the corpses of Silverchair and Stone Temple Pilots may make the water from the river undrinkable, the source is still very much fresh, and you wonder if everyone just missed the point. Or realised they could slightly tweak it and make a lot of money, I guess.
Sonic Youth never would (hopefully never will, in a sense, could they please get back together and keep making albums that are good but not as good as this one please?) never make an album as good as this again, but that doesn’t matter. They mastered their craft here and it stands as a perfect testament to a combination of experimental conservatory tendencies and straight up fun rock and roll. Sure their other albums are good, and I still listen to them, but they tend to be one or the other, experimental and noisy in a satisfying way, but standoffish, or fun and very likeable but not quite sticking, not quite making a point, quite like Daydream Nation does.
It’s 2015, which means I can no longer put things off by considering myself sorta-semi-on-hiatus after having done most of the work I wanted to do this (last) year, which was a few commissions and getting a book of poetry out the door while finishing a first draft of another project and mostly ignoring the blog you’re reading this on. So, I’m back, although if you followed me on my twitter, tumblr, facebook or instagram, I’d never left except to go bugger around in the backroom. First up this year is getting back in to the swing of things in terms of my own work that I do for myself, so I’ll be posting a few short pieces on albums that I really love and keep returning to. Largely they’ll be the one album a band has done that I think is their best, or at least is my favourite, for some reason. Look forward to me treading out some tired clichés (the phrase tired cliché is a tired cliché – ed) about Loveless. Meanwhile I’ll be attempting to put another book (you’re still allowed to buy my last one, I won’t mind) and starting on the one after that. Also, a quick reminder that if you want to get hold of me to ask me about proofreading/copyediting/copywriting for you, you can reach me using the social media listed above, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy New Year
Apologies for no “What My Problem Looked Like In July”. It was a slow month. Here’s August, all from a trip to London. I’ve already read I Am Legend, which was great, and I’d wanted a copy of Malcolm X’s autobiography for a while. Some of these were from Bookmarks, which is awesome! The rest were from the Oxfam bookshop opposite, apart from I Am Legend, which I got at a huge bookstall on the South Bank :)
PS the box pictured was a Christmas present from my sister that she made me herself by taking a regular old box and then covering with pages from a copy of Macbeth. It’s great.
Eye in the Sky is another early Philip K. Dick novel that is uneven, but uneven in a different way to his later writeitinaweekonspeed works. While it may be silly to just compare Dick’s efforts to each other in lieu of considering their merits individually, I’m pretty much a neophyte when it comes to SF. I like it, a lot, but mostly I read Dick (see my last essay) because I really like Dick, so I can’t really say how Dick’s early work fits in to the canon of 50’s/60’s SF. I can however, talk about the experience I’ve had with Dick so far and how much the less popular work lives or doesn’t live up to the Dick everybody’s read because they saw the movie.
So, Eye in the Sky. It seems at first to be very much Dick. An accident with a particle accelerator causes the minds of the people present at the accident to become trapped in an alternate universe, which is quickly revealed to be constructed along the lines of, and controlled by, the particular feelings and ideologies of one character at a time, a kind of revolving door of personal anxieties and pet peeves. A religious fundamentalist society, a world ridden of everything someone thinks is “nasty”, a world in which paranoia reigns and everything really is out to get you, including a house coming to life and trying to eat people just like in the movie Monster House, which is excellent and you should watch, by the way.
The idea of multiple realities or things not being as they seem is so prevalent in Dick as to almost be a calling card, but in this case the idea is not explored as thoroughly (or as weirdly) as Dick would later do in novels like Ubik or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Instead of making points about the construction of reality itself, he is more using the fractured reality to discuss character quirks and ideologies themselves. The novel almost has a setup like a bottle episode in a TV series, or an episode in which every character has a kind of fantasy that is played out at length. Remember the episode of The Simpsons where Homer reads to the kids? Bart as Hamlet, Homer as Odysseus, that kind of thing. In Eye in the Sky all the character’s bodies remain in the place of the accident, it is their minds, their fantasies, that wander. You could almost argue it’s a series of cleverly disguised character sketches strung in to a plot. A plot, however, that doesn’t really fundamentally question anything, but instead elaborates the private fears and thoughts of a group of characters, all of which you get to know very well, although, yup, the women are still (rampantly misogynistic) caricatures.
The distinction people make (Kingsley Amis does, in New Maps of Hell, anyway) between SF and sci-fi tends to be that SF has a core idea or ideas that are used to shape the story, that are based on some kind of science, whether natural, chemical, electrical, sociological or whatever. Sci-fi on the other hand uses the trappings of science to tell a story that could be told just as well otherwise (the best example of this is probably that Star Wars is basically a western, but ~in space~). In Eye in the Sky, it’s a particle accelerator called the Bevatron, which to me sounds like some pornographic software for the matrix, but your mileage may vary (let me know in the comments). So, it’s not the hardest SF, or even “SF” at all, that Dick wrote, but you could consider it from the angle of New Wave SF, in which case it is SF. Confused yet? Despite the Bevatron basically being a magic plot device that allows Dick to elaborate on characters, he does use this magic plot device to chart out inner space, as opposed to outer space. After all, psychology is a science, as hard or soft as it might be. In this sense it’s SF the same way J.G. Ballard’s The Terminal Beach is SF. Still, the focus the plot takes is very uncharacteristic of Dick.
I don’t mention the sitcom plot structure/focus (I’m aware it’s anachronistic, but bear with me) just because of a vague resemblance, either. Because the largest part of the plot happens in a dream world, and as far as I can tell there isn’t any “if you die in the matrix, you die in real life” kind of thing, there’s no real sense of threat, or questioning of reality as a structure, or the paranoid vibe that is another calling card. The protagonist works for a defence company contracted to the military, and the plot begins with him essentially losing his job because his wife is a communist (a real world parallel the kind of which doesn’t often occur in Dick’s work), but this just serves as a bookend to the character sketches, really. It figures later in her dream world, sure, but apart from that it’s largely forgotten. The characters might face challenges and threats in the real world and the dream worlds, but the tone, in addition to the structure, can be so silly at times as to undermine it (see: aforementioned Very Hungry House).
And there’s a happy ending! A proper dénouement with everything tied up and everyone returning to their normal lives having become friends, overcome their challenges and learned something. It’s a nice ending. You do come to care for these characters and the bookend plot does get resolved, but it results in an uneven tone. Again, it reads like the end of a sitcom episode. Perhaps the simplest way to put it would be that it’s a Dick novel in which reality is bent and twisted, but in the end “true” reality returns and nothing is really questioned, no thoughts provoked, no lingering anxieties. Just things returning to normal. Normal is very, very strange in Philip K. Dick’s work.
For what is a mainstream novel with sci-fi trappings, Eye in the Sky is still plenty weird and plenty interesting if you’re in to Dick. If you liked Ubik, then you’ll probably like this too, just realise that it’s not quite as accomplished. As I said in the last review, Dick was always known as a spotty writer in terms of craftsmanship, and this is another example of a spotty writer in his even spottier youth. That said, there may be more to this than I’ve elaborated on. There’s probably a reading in Eye in the Sky about ideological conflict, or about how we all construct our own, more preferable versions of reality to try and shield ourselves from The Real. Or a story about the dangers at the extreme fringes of ideology. Or a parable of McCarthyism. Plenty here if you care to dig for it, just be aware that it’s not Dick at his ego death inducing best, and that, depending how you look at it, either it’s not SF or it’s SF in the truest sense of the word. It’s still pretty interesting for a bottle episode, though.