... your heart out
... out of this
offshoot of Les Disques du Crépuscule that released records by Antena, Pale Fountains, 23 Skidoo, and Paul Haig which retain the lifechanging, ineffable, impossibly strange glamour and mystery that those of Philip’s generation ascribe to a David Bowie or Roxy Music appearance on Top of the Pops. Philip captures something of that time in his notes for the elegantly put-together Pale Fountains compilation which Marina released in 1998. He concludes the story by stating: “Digging up the past is unsettling; perhaps the dust, as Quentin Crisp advises, should be left to lie. But it can be an instructive, illuminating process; it can help us to understand why we are where are now.” “Keep me out of this!” It’s sound advice. But personal experiences and environments do colour responses to art so sometimes it’s hard to heed those wise words when exploring pop music. Nevertheless there is so much writing around that mixes serious scholarly research with personal accounts and anecdotal abstractions. It’s a style Craig Brown has gently mocked by labelling it ‘Corbettian, “meaning an enjoyable ramble through disparate subjects”. He was referring explicitly to Ronnie Corbett’s solo spots on The Two Ronnies where he would sit in an armchair and deliver a meandering monologue. It is these, Brown suggests, that have arguably “exerted the greatest influence on contemporary British writing”. He adds: “Of course, most of these writers, being serious, would probably prefer to be compared with the gloomy German rambler W.G. Sebald”. These comments came at the start of a pretty complimentary review of Philip Hoare’s book The Sea Inside. I am a great fan of the books by Philip which I’ve read, particularly Spike Island and Leviathan. And there is an additional thrill because of his involvement with the postpunk/early 1980s independent music milieu which turned my life inside out and upside down. At that time he was known as Patrick Moore, ‘worked’ at Rough Trade, designed the cover for Robert Wyatt’s Nothing Can Stop Us and for Dites Moi by Life (the French language version of the perfect pop classic Tell Me, recorded for Factory Benelux), managed the Pale Fountains, and ran the Operation Twilight label which was briefly and beautifully the UK
That seems to provide a clue to where Philip’s work would head next, which was Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital. This wonderful, thoroughly researched book is threaded with fine detail about Philip’s upbringing and family and his own relationship with the hospital’s location. In a 2005 profile of Philip for The Telegraph Michael Bracewell wrote: “For Hoare, reading WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn provided the intellectual authorisation to pursue the ghosts of himself through his writing – to translate his ‘inner text’ more openly.” I mentally link Philip Hoare, Michael Bracewell and Geoff Dyer together as writers. This may be unfair, lazy even, but it would not prove at all difficult to detail connections. I have even done so, briefly, in an earlier edition of YHO which was about loosely about Sextet by A Certain Ratio, which as a piece of writing took some unexpected but necessary diversions. Dyer’s 1994 work, The Missing of the Somme, was as he wryly acknowledges an example of Sebaldry, rambling ruminations on a particular theme with assorted photos, before the genre even existed. He’s good at sending himself up in that sort of way. In an article for The Guardian in 2005 Dyer came up with one of my all-time favourite quotes: “When I meet specialists I am always conscious of all the things they don't know and are not interested in, all the things that lie beyond their particular area of expertise.” The Caught By The River site is a big supporter of the ‘wander and ponder’ school of writing,
celebrating a lineage that takes in Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane (whose work I cannot seem to warm to, oddly) which is more about natural history than the ‘creative nonfiction’ cultural history I associate with Hoare/Dyer. There’s even been a CBTR release, The Sea-Road, which features a live Macfarlane reading with sound accompaniment by Chris Watson whom I still immediately think of in connection with Cabaret Voltaire but who has made quite a name for himself independently for his field recordings and compositional work. In January 2013 the Caught By The River site featured a photo of the Blackwater Estuary, Essex, taken by Ian Cooper, with a link to a (Survey East) Tumblr site featuring more shots of the landscape. This caught my eye partly on account of Ian being a member of Ultramarine whose music has at various times played a large part in my life. There was mention of a forthcoming Ultramarine LP, which would be their first for 15-odd years. Beyond the photo’s appeal, it seems an appropriate project for Ian to undertake as there has often been a sense of place in Ultramarine’s music, and that part of Essex is something I associate with Ultramarine’s roots. There would be a further example of Ian’s photographs of the Blackwater Estuary featured on the CBTR site in May 2013. Coincidentally, around that same time, I picked up a cheap CD edition (the mid-‘90s Offshore reissue) of Ultramarine’s first LP, Folk, which came out in 1990. Oddly I had not heard this before, and I confess that having bought it I left it lying around for a while, having for quite some while a vague idea of returning to it and writing something about Ultramarine. When I did finally get around to playing Folk it was a revelation. I was aware of it, sensed it was a sort of ‘transitional’ LP, but never anticipated quite how vividly it set the scene for Ultramarine’s most celebrated work Every Man and Woman is a Star. I didn’t even realise it had originally been released on Les Disques du Crépuscule, a label I lost track of in the early ‘80s after adoring some of its early releases (ACR, Josef K, Marine, etc.). Looking now at a detailed discography of Crépuscule from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s it is fascinating to see so many releases I had no idea even existed, from Wim Martens, Isabelle Antena, Anna Domino, Jane Kelly Williams,
Gabriel Yared, Mark Kamins, Cathy Claret. Their Devine & Statton releases at least I caught up with when reissued by the LTM label. Coincidentally one of the very first CDs I bought was a Crépuscule expanded edition of the Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth. Fittingly, when finally playing Folk, while looking for something else, I came across an old copy of Underground magazine from October 1987 which featured a small article on A Primary Industry, the group Ultramarine metamorphosed from. Underground was a short-lived monthly title, widely distributed, that was part of the Spotlight Publications group along with Sounds, Record Mirror, Music Week, etc. It featured in a very broad sense ‘independent’ music, though curiously (given people’s received perception of that sector) the cover strapline ran “punk electro, psyche-surf, quiphobilly, death disco, metal beat, hardcore”. The mini-feature on A Primary Industry is wonderfully entertaining. It followed on from their cover of Blondie’s Heart of Glass on the Sweatbox label, which preceded The Associates’ version (and outfoxes and outboxes Colourbox), and mentions that “API are turning their attentions to poetry, and one Wyndham Lewis”, by releasing “an EP with three songs – two using Lewis’ poems as lyrics, an instrumental, and three readings, recorded in 1940 by Lewis himself”. This would eventually be released in 1989 as a 12” on Les Disques du Crépuscule. By that time the name of the group had changed to Ultramarine, which had been the title of an LP that A Primary Industry released on the Sweatbox label.
I have always assumed the title/name Ultramarine came from the Malcolm Lowry novel. The name Malcolm Lowry doesn’t seem to get mentioned much nowadays (Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson by Jonathan Coe was the last place I remember seeing a mention of Lowry and Ultramarine), but his books were very influential in the 1980s when I was a teenager. I used to have this thing about The Wild Swans’ song No Bleeding where Paul Simpson sings about his courage melting like the ice in his glass seeming so much like a scene from Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano. The very name Malcolm Lowry suggests a time of buying up old paperback copies of Picador and Penguin Modern Classics from charity shops for next to nothing. This was a time when it was considered somehow a sexy thing still to be literary. Or as A Primary Industry put it in Underground: “Being intellectual is better than being a moronic shambling band”. The other quotes and sentiments attributed to API in Underground are wonderful. It’s mentioned how they “detest Talulah Gosh and even go so far as to challenge them to a ‘scrap’. They think Sonic Youth ‘sound like a bloody hippy band,’ and add, ‘what’s so anti-establishment about getting out of your head anyway?’”
It would be wrong to suggest I was anything of an API fan back in the 1980s. I was aware of them, and know my friend Keith (who put together most of the first fanzine I was ever involved with, in 1983) was a fan, which makes sense as he tended to be ‘progressive’ in his tastes while I was always more of a ‘roots enthusiast’. I’ve checked and Keith does still have a copy of the first A Primary Industry single, which came out as an early release on James Nice’s Les Temps Modernes (LTM) label in 1984, and he has even kept a copy of the accompanying press release. It’s easy enough to listen to both sides of this single, At Gunpoint/Perversion, on YouTube, and realise that this was a late and enthusiastic variation on the A Certain Ratio/23 Skidoo fierce funk approach with elements of Clock DVA and Pigbag thrown in. I have vague memories of Keith corresponding with James and exchanging tapes, official and otherwise. I have no idea why that should stick in my mind, but there was something quaint about swapping Crispy Ambulance cassettes that I approved of. The memory plays tricks, so I may be wrong, but it was with some surprise that I seemed to next encounter the name James Nice, as James Neiss, writing sleevenotes for the él records compilation London Pavilion. Given how the underground music scene worked in those days, that makes sense. This was a lovely collection of elegant and enchantingly eccentric early él tracks, featuring the likes of Marden Hill, Anthony Adverse, Bid, Momus, Klaxon 5, Louis Philippe, Rosemary’s Children, and Simon Turner/King of Luxembourg. There were certainly longestablished links between James and Momus/Nicholas Currie, and some él artists featured on LTM collections, so I may be right. My copy seems to have vanished though. James next seemed to re-emerge in Belgium where, I understand now, he worked for Crépuscule. From there, right at the start of the 1990s, he put out on LTM, much to my chagrin at the time, a couple of Josef K CDs, effectively on import. One of these, Young and Stupid, collected together the exceptional Josef K singles and the remarkable John Peel session from June 1981. The other CD paired the Postcard LP, The Only Fun In Town, with Sorry For Laughing, the earlier ‘abandoned’ set. This was it seemed to me at the time a kind of
blasphemy in that The Only Fun In Town was a perfect pop statement, complete in itself. It had been released for very specific, if perverse, reasons, and its mix of clatter and groove remains unique. And in its original artwork The Only Fun In Town presented the group in a singularly European context, as Momus has noted, which is at odds with the way Scottish pop has looked to the States for inspiration. Fundamentally I suspect part of my irritation, beyond the puritanism of the long-time fan, had to do with not having a compact disc player. It would not be until the end of the ‘90s that I got to enjoy the sound of Josef K on CD when Marina put out the beautifully packaged if slightly random compilation Endless Soul. This featured liner notes from the group’s former manager Allan Campbell who also ran the excellent Rational label which released superb singles by The Visitors, Delmontes, Article 58 and Rhythm of Life right at the start of the ‘80s. I was delighted to note in the CD booklet that Josef K’s guitarist Malcolm Ross spoke about being forward looking and having an interest in the original mod movement. He also referred to Sartre’s Nausea where the narrator is moved to tears by a recording of a female blues singer. The Josef K catalogue has continued to be recycled, in different permutations, not least by LTM. It was in the very late ‘90s that James’ LTM label became particularly active within the ‘salvage’ industry, initially focusing on Factory Records’ minor characters: Section 25, Crispy Ambulance, The Wake, Stockholm Monsters, Miaow/Cath Carroll, Swamp Children, Kalima, The Names, etc. In many ways, LTM issued a direct challenge to accepted musical history, forcing us to re-evaluate overlooked or rejected parts of Factory’s output. LTM’s discography now goes way beyond Factory’s walls, and I must have 40-plus titles that James has put out, though intriguingly he has not as far as I know reissued any A Primary Industry material or Ultramarine’s Folk. In Underground API claimed to like “hip hop, Nitzer Ebb and Front 242”. The article itself was written by Christopher Mellor, presumably Chris Coco of Coco Steel and Lovebomb fame who around that time were taking their first steps with the samples ‘n’ electro beats collage format of Love Puppy, several years before releasing It! their great LP on the Warp label which includes
thanks for Paul/Ian Ultramarine. There was a lot happening around that time, in the late ‘80s, as groups experimented with new technology and techniques, mixing up elements of hip-hop and electro, dub and industrial-strength funk, just as the house sound was seeping in.
Another example of this can be found in an earlier issue of Underground from June 1987 which features a Paul Howard on Screaming Trees. This was not the American rock outfit (whom I have never heard, as far as I know), but a Doncaster duo who at this time had just released their Stephen Stapleton-produced 12” single Iron Guru. It is described as having “a Banbarra Shack Up-style guitar line dropped into a New Orderish bass line over a very New York sounding drum program that they insist is a 707, (although I am convinced that the classic pinging cowbell would only have come off an 808). In places, the digging bass drum achieves the classic gated Linn II sound favoured by the Rubins & Simmons of this world; mind you the vocals are like nothing I have heard in any warehouse.” The duo claimed their sound is “heading more towards Mantronix or even Tackhead”. Again, I couldn’t profess to have been a close observer of what happened to Screaming Trees (Mark Swancott and Sean Maloney), and their records seem to have so far evaded being salvaged. But interestingly they did become enthusiastically involved in the North East techno/bleep revolution, recording as Count Zero and as Success for the Sheffield label Ozone Recordings whose output includes the classic Voices of Energy 12”s by Panic. Richard H. Kirk was involved with the production of Count Zero/Success, and the duo’s output on the label was collected on an LP which is still available digitally, featuring fantastic tracks like
Deep Base (dub), Tripwire 808, and Craftwurk which still sound stunningly vigorous. I love that whole start of the ‘90s North East bleep/techno sound, but it is really intriguing how seasoned campaigners like Richard H. Kirk and the duo from Screaming Trees when producing records at this time played it so straight, making music that is in many ways indistinguishable from that made by kids entering studios for the very first time. Ultramarine’s response to the challenges set by the import of house and techno was never that straightforward. And that’s part of the reason why I (belatedly) find Folk to be such a fascinating record. Folk was recorded in Belgium in May 1989, and in terms of, transitional, works it can be included with other ‘in flux’ LPs of that time like A.R. Kane’s i, Sudden Sway’s Ko-Opera, (former Sweatbox label mates) Meat Beat Manifesto’s Storm The Studio, and Renegade Soundwave’s Soundclash. But Folk really is far stranger than these and incredibly beautiful too. Indeed it comes with a lovely Benoit Hennebert front cover collage which immediately gives it a certain gravitas. Benoit’s artwork for Crépuscule is such an important part of the label’s enduring appeal. There is a lovely part in the Patrick Moore/Philip Hoare liner notes for the Pale Fountains compilation on Marina where he mentions an idyllic moment at the end of the summer of 1982: “We drove into the country to Benoit Hennebert’s farmhouse. Hennebert, the gentle genius of Crepescule design, showed us his beautiful artwork and huge record collection, and the band cycled off down country lanes, looking rural and happy and free from the cares of London.”
There is something of that same feeling on Folk. Maybe that’s part of the reason I’ve become quietly obsessed with the record. It features such odd gorgeous music, which seems to have next-to-nothing in common with the sounds of Chicago, Detroit or even the New Beat of the lowlands. There is sampling and programming, but at this point Ultramarine were seemingly still an ensemble, with live drums and guitars very much in the mix. And in some ways this was the final thrust of the post-punk revolutionary spirit and very much in the tradition of ACR, 23 Skidoo, Jah Wobble, The Pop Group’s tributaries, On-U Sound etc. while at the exact same time feeling like the start of something new. Folk is mostly an instrumental record, with occasional singing from Jemma Mellerio. Indeed it is Jemma who steals the show on the record with her clarinet playing to the fore on most tracks. This is not in the honk wildly industrial abstractions sense, instead she plays in a serpentine, snake-like charming way which gives a curiously Augustus Pablo flow motion feel to proceedings, especially when offset against ambling bass lines and rhythmically funky acoustic guitar colouration. Mentally I associate the woodwind instrument with that Clock DVA line about a clarinet playing in the distance, which makes sense here. Another instrument unexpectedly featured heavily on Folk is the accordion, played by Staf Verbeek, which combined with the clarinet does give a ‘bastard folk’ feel (to borrow one of the song titles) though this is in a more jazzy sense than an ‘electric eden’ one, closer to the earliest work of the Penguin Café Orchestra than to the Incredible String Band. As with the clarinet, I have a soft spot for the accordion in pop music as befits anyone whose life was changed by Vic Godard’s Stop That Girl single at the start of 1981. Folk is surprisingly subtle. It really is not the harsh, hard, sensory-assault industrial-strength electrofunk which its vintage might suggest. Essentially it follows two paths: the melodic, meandering, clarinet-led numinous numbers, which are interspersed with the slightly more frantic and funkier numbers featuring what aspire to be Clyde Stubblefield or Jaki Liebezeit-style breakbeats suggesting more than a passing interest in the hip-hop sounds of the time. I wonder to what extent though the Crépuscule
connection influenced the sound of Folk with the label’s close connection to film soundtrack composers and modern composition? The Offshore CD edition of Folk features bonus tracks, two versions of Stella, recorded in April 1990 and issued as a 12” which is where Ultramarine as we know it really starts. In the context of Folk the swish and sashay of Stella seems oddly out of place, but reprised as part of the classic Every Man and Woman is a Star set a short time later it makes perfect sense. Well, Every Man and Woman is a Star itself makes perfect sense, still. It is one of those records that seem to both capture a particular period in time and transcend its own era effortlessly. It’s how I first became aware of Ultramarine, and the work of Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond, but I don’t remember how I first heard the record. I do know I had the Rough Trade double-LP vinyl edition, and played it to death in I guess late 1992 and throughout 1993, along with A Man Called Adam’s The Apple. Every Man itself was originally recorded for Crépuscule, and leased to the London electronica label Brainiak. This was an imprint connected to the Soho club night, The Brain Club, which was associated with ‘progressive’ house/techno sounds and attracted some ‘starry’ types. One of the founders was (Mark) Wigan (Williams), who I think was the illustrator whose work appeared in the NME in the 1980s. I seem to recall a clergyman in a cassock covered in Northern Soul patches clutching an Adidas-style holdall, holding a placard saying Keep The Faith which was his work. Another of the Brain Club founders was Sean McLusky of the Club Left/swing-era Subway Sect, and later JoBoxers and then If? of Saturday’s Angels and English Boys on the Loveranch ‘fame’. Brainiak as a label would be behind the development of the Journeys By DJ (JDJ) series which led the way in the emergence of the ‘branded’ mix CDs which would become so ubiquitous. While the shelves of charity shops may be packed with discarded Ministry of Sound mix CDs the format itself has given us many enlightening sets, particularly as part of series like DJKicks and the Fabric live ones in the mock Chain Reaction metal tins. As for the JDJ series, well, the Justin Robertson CD Scape set is a fantastic snapshot of the mid-‘90s, with the sound shooting off in all sorts of different
directions, featuring a whole host of names now long-since forgotten but preserved on this twoCD set for those that kept copies or who stumble across it among the abandoned jewel cases. Inside there may still be a guide to the available JDJ branded merchandise: MA1 jackets, record bags, woollen hats, t-shirts, etc. Every Man was then picked up by Rough Trade, which had been recalled to life (with a little help from One Little Indian), and the new double LP edition featured two additional tracks (Saratoga and Nova Scotia) which had been released as part of the Rough Trade Singles Club, though if the copies that came my way are anything to go by there was something really awry with the pressing. The Rough Trade Singles Club was also significant for putting out Vic Godard’s tribute to Johnny Thunders, which was the first new product from Vic in several years and was the first link in a chain that led to the End of the Surrey People LP, which was initially recorded for Heavenly but appropriately found a home at Postcard, and a performance at the Town & Country Club by Vic with an all-star cast of Edwyn Collins, Segs from The Ruts, Martin Duffy from Felt, and Paul Cook which was broadcast on regional TV.
Every Man is different from Folk in the sense that it is predominantly programming and sampled sounds, augmented by ‘live’ instrumentation. It didn’t ‘really’ fit in with anything else around at that time, but its broad appeal has a lot to do with just that, and attempts to shoehorn it in with pretty much everything and anything were simultaneously successful and futile: the Megadog-on-a-string scene and the new age
travellers; the progressive techno types like Future Sound of London, R&S, Warp, Sabres, Infonet, Boy’s Own, Guerrila, etc.; the ambient dub/ ambient techno chill out people; the new pop pioneers like Bjork, Saint Etienne, Orbital, Primal Scream, KLF, Leftfield; and the Talkin’ Loud crowd. Critically Ultramarine were appealing to theorists and careerists, from The Wire to Select, but more importantly Every Man was accessible to the music generalist, people who liked Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, for example, and wanted something else ‘a bit different’ to get stuck in to.
The record is predominantly instrumental, with occasional sampled snatches of dialogue, but there is a real structure to the tracks, which combined with the general jauntiness distances it from the work of, say, The Orb and any earlier Eno-related ambient works. At times it feels closer to the type of disco (virtually) instrumentals that occasionally made the charts in the late ‘70s, made by almost anonymous collectives, which would have Legs & Co. jigging and jiggling around, playing an imaginary clarinet and doing mock owl hoots: “We are all Pan’s People now”. For some reason the Michael Zager Band’s Let’s All Chant springs to mind, though Every Man is one of the records that sets the imagination running off in all sorts of strange directions. For example, the intermittent use of harmonica makes me think of Morricone’s Spaghetti Western soundtracks, there are intimations of The Liquidator and The Hustle, and suggestions of the Old Grey Whistle Test theme tune which is perhaps not that daft as it was Stone Fox Chase by Area Code 615, and another of their tracks turned up much more recently on Prins Thomas’ Cosmo Galactic Prism collection.
As a conceptual work Every Man makes perfect sense, with an intended or implied theme of travel through the backwoods or along the minor roads/rivers of America. Only a short time before hearing it for the first time I’d become obsessed with an old Picador paperback of William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, where he abandons his past life and sets off in his van, Ghost Dancing, to travel through rural America, the small towns with old ways. There was that, and a real love for Richard Brautigan’s writing, and discovering Jim Dodge’s Not Fade Away, which all seemed to fit in with Every Man, with its eerie owl’s calls and sense of space and motion and reflection and escape.
There is something about the perkiness and friskiness of Ultramarine’s songs (because they are very much that) on Every Man which still makes me think of the summer of 1977 and the French revolution: Cerrone, Jean-Michel Jarre, Space, records which had so much to do with nurturing a love of electronic sounds , and this started with Pepper Box by The Peppers in 1974 which itself has so many exciting connections to later French disko and production music, Voyage, Arpadys, etc. And it was a very short and peculiarly logical step to what happened next, as encapsulated by the sequence of tracks that ran Thomas Leer’s Private Plane, Robert Rental’s A.C.C., Throbbing Gristle’s United and Cabaret Voltaire’s Do The Mussolini (Headkick) on the 1979 Business Unusual LP put out by Cherry Red in conjunction with Kris Needs’ Zigzag magazine as an overview of “independent small labels” output. In the development of popular music Every Man is significant for reawakening an interest in new full-length LPs, and around that time there was a definite drift towards exploiting the potential of CDs by coming up with 70-odd minutes of music (or the length of double LPs which were so
much a part of the ‘progressive’ rock era). After Every Man I gravitated towards the Warp ‘home listening’ electronica series, with fantastic titles by Polygon Window, The Black Dog, B12, Autechre, Sabres of Paradise, Seefeel, and further afield CDs by the likes of Bandulu, Reload/Global Communications, Biosphere, etc. In terms of value for money there was no contest when considering the price of a new 12” single, and anyway the chances of actually seeing a copy of some of the riotously revolutionary ‘hardcore’ or early jungle tracks played on the pirate stations seemed remote. I have to confess I am rubbish at recognising samples. And when I first heard it I certainly was not clever enough to understand the Canterbury connections made by Every Man. It’s unavoidable now: if you look Ultramarine up on the internet you will almost certainly come across a reference to the duo’s interest in the Canterbury music scene, and a lot of sites even describe Ultramarine as a Canterbury duo. Being aware of the ‘ingredients’ certainly doesn’t really make difference to enjoyment, and it can be daft to read too much into the source of samples I definitely didn’t realise until much later that the second Soft Machine LP was the origin of the Every Man shtick about how “there is music for the body and there is music for the mind. Music for the body picks you off the floor and hurls you into physical activity. Music for the mind floats you gently downstream, through pleasurable twists and turns, ups and downs, rapids and calm waters.” And I didn’t know, back then, that Weird Gear was based on Kevin Ayers’ There Is Loving Among Us There Is Loving. Oddly I suspect I did fall in love with the work of Kevin Ayers in the very early ‘90s having picked up a copy of Joy of a Toy at a boot sale, but I didn’t hear Whatevershebringswesing, the record that apparently stimulated the Ultramarine guys’ interest in Canterbury related music, until many years later. I think I first came across the name of Kevin Ayers in a Vic Godard interview that was featured in the short-lived music weekly New Music News, which was around for a while in 1980 when the NME was on strike. This Vic Godard feature if I remember rightly referred to him as an English eccentric in the tradition of Kevin Ayers, and had a photo of Vic lathered up, ready to shave. I seem to recall a Kevin Ayers feature too, possibly in the same issue,
where he is waving two mini Union Jacks, though I may be making that up, and he looked like Julian Cope at the time and I guess Julian does have more in common with Kevin than with Scott Walker whom he was campaigning on behalf of. I don’t even remember who wrote the Vic feature, but later Paul Morley in Words and Music returned to the same theme.
Oddly, as part of preserved research for an abandoned project, I do have some transcribed extracts from a review of Vic Godard’s What’s The Matter Boy? LP, which was published in New Music News. It seems this was by one Bill Lee, and it’s too well-written to be a moonlighting Morley, so the clues are there about who wrote it for anyone familiar with lifechanging Subway Sect/Pop Group features: “Veterans of early punk remember Vic Godard as the precursor of all perversity ... nonchalantly chewing peanuts onstage, sprawled in armchairs, dressing in grey looking awkward ... At the time all this shambling eccentricity was interpreted as some new slant on Dadaism, but hindsight has since proved us wrong. Subway Sect were roots enthusiasts all along ... all those twangy Ventures guitars, all that restraint and neuroses. Godard the ascetic responds to the impulse of music that’s simple and uncluttered by remnants of ‘civilisation’ and polish while his lyrics reflect urbane wit and a startling complexity. His toying with the sacred elements of pop, meanwhile, is for aesthetic reasons rather than commercial. Someone who believes that music has been going progressively downhill since 1962, Godard looks over his shoulder to an idealised notion of clarity and simplicity. The dream doesn’t entirely elude him ... The last of the great unknowns.” There is also on Every Man a sample of Robert Wyatt singing "I've got lights in my brain, we'll have fights in the rain" from Lullabye Letter off of the first Soft Machine LP. Again I never got that connection until later, though it has been great
to catch up with some of the often beautiful and maybe more than occasionally irritating music made by Gong, Matching Mole, Henry Cow, Caravan, Carol Grimes & Delivery, and Hatfield & The North, for many reasons, and Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club played a big part on realising where the title came from and why it was chosen. Jonathan as he puts it ‘outed’ himself as a Canterbury aficionado. He is also the only writer I’ve come across that has mentioned Subway Sect in one of his novels. I certainly knew more about Robert Wyatt’s activities, though oddly I still tend to think of him as a post-punk person rather than as a survivor of an earlier era. For people like Scritti’s Green Robert was a major influence as he grew up, but it was the Rough Trade recordings that were my introduction to Robert’s work, particularly his beautiful interpretation of Chic’s At Last I Am Free, and so on through associations with Scritti, his collaboration with Ben Watt on the Summer Into Winter 12” which features the precociously exquisite Walter and John, the links to the Raincoats’ Odyshape, his version of Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding, his appearance with Tracey Thorn on Working Week’s Venceremos. I think Robert is an artist that almost uniquely has got better with age.
Ultramarine’s 1993 LP United Kingdoms shifted its suggested setting from rural America to the English countryside. It features the singing of Robert Wyatt on two songs and has Instant Kitten, an instrumental composed by Robert which could easily have featured on his own Dondestan LP of that time though presumably there is a connection to the Matching Mole song. Robert was a label mate of Ultramarine’s on Rough Trade, so there were sensible and practical reasons why the collaboration could take place, though for this LP Ultramarine were
‘promoted’ to Geoff Travis’ Blanco y Negro label which was backed by Warners. In July 1993 Ultramarine had their biggest hit with the wonderfully catchy Kingdom, one of the songs which Robert sings. The accompanying video features Robert dressed up splendidly as a king of yore and the group itself traipses around the countryside like wandering minstrels, albeit looking like they would rather be watching Millwall play away. Kingdom itself was a reinvention of the Ernest Jones poem Song of the Lower Classes or The Song of the Low. This was originally written in support of the Chartist movement which Jones was heavily involved with, despite coming from a privileged background. I hadn’t realised until recently that (another Scritti Green favourite) Martin Carthy also recorded a version of Song of the Lower Classes on his Out of the Cut LP of 1982. I seem to remember reading that Ultramarine found The Song of the Lower Classes and Happy Land (the other song which Robert sings on, though elsewhere on the record there are snatches of scat singing and mumblings like someone out walking idly amusing themselves) while exploring the archives of the English Folk Dance & Song Society. Happy Land itself is based on a parody of a Victorian patriotic song and the new version features some updated lines like: “A passport we shall soon require, which by them must be scanned, if we to take a walk desire”. It feels more like a sardonic music hall number rather than a traditional folk song, along the lines of Billy Bennett’s She Was Poor But She Was Honest which itself is lyrically very much like something Malcolm Eden might have written for McCarthy, or to look at it another way very much in the spirit of the Theatre Workshop’s Oh What A Lovely War. Writing a little later Jonathan Coe refers to Robert “radicalising the dance scene by cropping up on Ultramarine's wonderful album United Kingdoms to produce the most unlikely but exhilarating fusion of nineties drum patterns with forgotten Victorian protest songs.” In a contemporaneous political sense these two songs could be seen as fitting in with a growth in ecological activism/awareness, campaigns for the right to roam, environmental protests and direct action against road building, animal research, fox hunting. New age travellers and the free party collectives had become the new
folk devils prompting moral panics and the drafting of a Criminal Justice Bill clamping down on ‘repetitive beats’. In a wider context the John Major government had been re-elected in 1992, and Rupert Murdoch and The Sun who had conducted a vicious anti-Labour campaign claimed they were the ones what won it. Ultramarine certainly were not the only people around who had a political dimension to their work: the Tyrrel Corporation’s North East of Eden is as packed with songs of a social realism nature as any made during the punk era, and Marxman took the themes of wife-beating and Irish nationalism into the singles charts. It is tempting to cast United Kingdoms in a sort of William Morris/Utopian idyll and dissenters’ tradition, linking the then-recent riots against the Poll Tax to the Peasants’ Revolt which had roots in the part of Essex Ultramarine came from, and maybe that’s a lot to do with the LP’s context: disappearing ways, urban blight, the threat to rural livelihoods and natural wildlife, the need for escape and to find sanctuary, the inspiration the unspoilt countryside and remote coastal parts can provide. Thankfully Ultramarine do not ram any of this down our throats, so plenty is left to the imagination. In terms of the ‘bastard folk’ influences at work on United Kingdoms these would recur again and again as the years passed in other people’s work, and was even codified as folktronica with reference to recordings by people such as Colleen, Four Tet, the Fence Collective. The influence of Ultramarine and United Kingdoms seems to be there too in the work of the Ghost Box label and artists associated with that ‘scene’ such as Jon Brooks, though it is disorientating to note that none of this really got going until around 2005 and onwards. When United Kingdoms was released it made sense in that there was a growing interest in old folk rock sounds. I can remember the thrill of discovering strange and beautiful LPs at boot sales by the likes of C.O.B., Trees, Mr Fox, and being enchanted, and other people were making similar discoveries, setting in motion a chain of events which would lead to the publication of Rob Young’s Electric Eden. The credits on United Kingdoms feature a nod to the psychedelic publication Ptolemaic Telescope, associated with Nick Saloman/Bevis Frond. Richard Norris of The Grid had been involved
with the UK psychedelic salvage operation, Bam Caruso. Lawrence was making links between Phuture and Fotheringay. The butterfly collectors like Saint Etienne, Stereolab and Broadcast would be getting into their flight. Paul Weller was momentarily, brilliantly, lost in the Wildwood with dreams of getting it together in the country with Traffic and Pentangle, and Current 93’s David Tibet would be travelling similar but more remote roads, reissuing lost gems on his Durtro label. Other labels like Spinney and Richard Morton Jack’s Sunbeam would unearth strange folk masterpieces. The Transatlantic label would open up its vaults. Boot sales and charity shops would help fill the gaps, and so on. And folk has always been there hasn’t it? In the post-punk times in which Ultramarine came of age there was the early Scritti, Patrik Fitzgerald, This Heat and Camberwell Now, the Blue Orchids and The Fates with their dalliances with Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, Sudden Sway’s ‘hey nonny nonny’ on Traffic Tax Scheme’s Sir Savoir Her Valoir (humhear) and Me Says Conscience (humsing), the early Strawberry Switchblade, James’ Factory output, The Dancing Did, Blyth Power, Band of Holy Joy, Frank Tovey, the Rough Trade-era Pere Ubu and David Thomas’s solo LPs, Kendra Smith, and so on and so on.
There is also, in a way related to folk music, the work of Virginia Astley, initially as part of the Ravishing Beauties who recorded a setting of Wilfred Owen’s Futility for an NME cassette and then under her own name with the remarkable From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. I tend to think of that LP as the perfect soundtrack for A Month in the Country, the beautiful and desperately moving book by J.L. Carr set in the period just after the First World War. I’ve not been able to watch the Kenith Trodd film adaptation, for fear that what is lightly suggested in the book is made too blatant on screen. And Virginia’s record has the same special magic: the hint of sinister occurences, painful recollections, something lost, something kept at bay even. It is not ambient in the sense of Eno’s works as it is so oddly emotionally involving despite its affected airs of idyllic tranquillity, with snatches of folk and classical melody. Eventually issued on Rough Trade, originally this record was planned to be released on Operation Twilight, and there is a sense too that it could be an eerily effective accompaniment to part of Philip Hoare’s Spike Island where the hospital is used for those suffering from shellshock and so affected by what went on in the First World War. Michael Bracewell wrote beautifully, briefly, unexpectedly, about Virginia Astley’s From Gardens Where We Feel Secure in his survey of Pop Albion, England is Mine. The shock of this book has to do with being able to get away with a work lovingly filled with odd things linked together to create a narrative: Powell & Pressburger, Ralph Vaughan Williams, E.M. Forster, Rosamond Lehmann, Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Robert Graves, Wyndham Lewis, W.H. Auden, Pet Shop Boys, Derek Jarman, Benjamin Britten, Lindsay Anderson, Gurney Slade, Billy Liar, Sham 69’s Tell Us The Truth, Television Personalities, Shena Mackay, Stevie Smith, Carry On films, Reggie Perrin, Pauline Boty, Siouxsie Sioux, Dexys, The Pop Group, the Brontës, John Cooper Clarke, The Fall, Bowie, Roxy Music, Morrissey and hardly any Marr thankfully, ending awkwardly, endearingly so, with Goldie, Dillinja, Photek, Omni Trio and “a musical form which expresses, with deliberate resistance to to quantification, the soundscape of ‘post-postmodern’ Britain as a clandestine cartography beneath the official map.”
This was published in 1997. The idea now seems absurd. Which major publishing house would let him get away with it now? Such a jumbled lineage would be anathema to publishers depressingly obsessed with easily-marketed neat categorisation: punk here, post-punk there, electric folk sounds over there, rave music and dance culture over here. Bracewell followed England is Mine with a novel, Perfect Tense, in 2001 which is along with Nicholson Baker's Mezzanine one of the great ‘clerical work’ novels. It’s also a book that was when I first read it unnervingly close to home, dealing with the theme of surviving office life in London, and juggling adopted anonymity, the retreat into invisibility and hidden private passions, at least until it all comes tumbling down, and it does, oh it always does, eventually. In September 2003 as a coda to these two books Bracewell wrote a lovely essay on Dexys for the Evening Standard, referring to Don’t Stand Me Down and how “the idea, of course, was to use ‘ordinariness’ as an act of anti-fashion antagonism within the arena of pop.”
The strength of England is Mine is its irregularity, so to argue about odd omissions and brusque dismissals really is not the point, but it would be easy to imagine Eyeless in Gaza being featured for the implied literary associations and more particularly for the way they seemed to combine a very English folk and choral tradition, the avant-garde tendency, and new pop without seeming absurd or affected. Their music could be incredibly intense and truly spiritual, but twist the ingredients slightly and they would
have been scoring hits like Blancmange if they had really wanted to. Their music unusually reveals more and more as time passes, as though the listener is only just beginning to understand what they were doing. Eyeless in Gaza’s early run of LPs on Cherry Red were produced by John Rivers in Leamington Spa, who also worked on the important early Felt titles. Coincidentally or not, Ultramarine recorded much of United Kingdoms with John at Woodbine Studios in Leamington. It is easy enough for the romantically inclined to trace connections between early Eyeless in Gaza titles and United Kingdoms. But really the whole ‘bastard folk’ thing is a bit of a red herring. For, if anything, the dominant musical theme is more based in jazz-funk fusion, with Brazilian/Latin elements, which was for a long time pretty much the official soundtrack of Essex, with Expansions by Lonnie Liston Smith as the county’s anthem, as part of an ingrained English heritage that ran from the Lacy Lady in Ilford to the Goldmine on Canvey Island, at the end of the world. And for those with backgrounds like the Ultramarine lads there is the A Certain Ratio connection to this strain of music. Much of United Kingdoms is made up of that peculiar electronic take on fusion with trademark Ultramarine burbling, babbling synths and percolating percussion; sounds which would become more prevalent towards the end of the ‘90s with the likes of B12, Plaid, Stasis, As One and Ian O’Brien, as well as on some releases from Detroit by Carl Craig and Urban Tribe. Elements of fusion would also become a significant feature of drum ‘n’ bass productions, particularly on certain releases from the Moving Shadow label and some Photek titles, perhaps including Rings Around Saturn which now seems such a strangely Sebaldic and familiar title and maybe they, Sebald and Photek, were looking at the same Suffolk sky in the dog days of the summer of 1992. Photek’s source was Pharoah Sanders’ Astral Travelling which was written and later recorded again by Lonnie Liston Smith with Cecil McBee and his bass at work in the eye of the storm as on Expansions. Ultramarine around the time of United Kingdoms were a little unusual in being able to transpose their sound to the live stage, touring with Bjork, performing at Glastonbury, and so on. I seem to recall hoping to see Ultramarine at I think the
Anti-Nazi League carnival in Brockwell Park, Brixton, in May 1994. I do oddly recall wearing a Postcard Records t-shirt that day.
“The influence we had on each other was mutual, and soon I was listening to John Martyn while he was borrowing my Postcard singles. The Vic Godard record we had in common was his brilliant album What’s The Matter Boy?, and it became a starting point for us.” Those lines from Tracey Thorn’s autobiography, Bedsit Disco Queen, may well be the most important and the most romantic words in literature. In less than 50 words that passage captures a very specific time. And while we may not all have been as lucky as Tracey and Ben Watt a mutual love of Vic Godard’s LP would for many be the basis of long-standing friendships. And it was a starting point, it really was. There are many reasons to love Tracey’s book. It seems reasonable to suggest and at least hope that she specifically wanted it to be published by Virago. In 2012 Tracey wrote a smart piece on the author Elizabeth Taylor for New Statesman: “It was Virago Modern Classics that introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor, just as Virago had introduced me to so many other women writers years earlier. At Hull University in the early 1980s, I’d had a shelf-ful of greenspined books and they marked me out as a ‘rad fem’ student just as surely as did my side-shaved haircut and big, clumpy boots. My education up to that point hadn’t fully alerted me to the existence of something called ‘the canon’, but a year or so in to my degree course, I was happily challenging it at every turn, thumbing my nose and waving my Virago paperbacks in the face of the literary patriarchy.”
revolutionary era of Rough Trade, Postcard Records, etc. then it seemed ridiculous in so many ways that in the early to mid-‘90s you would NOT be listening to techno, jungle, hiphop, etc.
There are some incredibly important things Tracey captures in her book which have not been covered elsewhere in accounts of punk and beyond. She is right to refer to the spectre of violence that seemed to be ever-present, and the irreversible inculcation of ideals and morals that were so hard to shake off. And, yes, What’s The Matter Boy? was a starting point for Vic’s children, the only possible revolution, the idea of subversively inventive-M.O.R. music that would be played on daytime Radio 2, the fumbling influence of jazz, torch songs, bossa nova and Latin sounds. There was Vic Godard and the swing-era Subway Sect, Postcard’s next generation (Aztec Camera, Jazzateers with Alison on vocals), Weekend, Carmel, Pale Fountains, ACR’s Sextet, The Pop Group’s offshoots, etc. But specifically there was the music Tracey and Ben were making: the Marine Girls’ On My Mind, Tracey’s A Distant Shore, Ben’s Some Things Don’t Matter, together doing Night and Day and English Rose, performing with Paul Weller, appearing on the Style Council’s Paris Match, and so on to Eden. The other fascinating part of Tracey’s book is the early ‘90s, where I guess I have to confess that for several years I had lost track of Everything But The Girl up until that point. But there was the invitation to sing with Massive Attack, which seemed such a perfect idea, but Tracey pinpoints too unexpected inspiration from Fairport Convention’s ‘circle of friends’ and the self-sufficiency they had developed, allowing them control over their own activities, effectively creating a functioning independent enclave in a way the punk generation seemed to have forgotten about. That working example, together with fresh impetus provided by an awakening interest in electronic music and beats gave Tracey and Ben a new lease of life. And it made sense. If you had lived through the
The first record Tracey and Ben made in that new era, Amplified Heart, is quite beautiful. Dave Mattacks, Danny Thompson and Richard Thompson play on it, giving it a very real connection to that earlier folk rock era. Kate St. John of the Ravishing Beauties plays on one song. But I think it’s really Tracey’s record. As with her solo Out of the Woods LP, rediscovering her special voice is such a wonderful thing. And it’s noticeable how on Amplified Heart she sounds comfortably adult, like one of those glorious 1970s Janis Ian records. Apparently Tracey almost covered Janis’ In The Winter for her recent Christmas record, but realised it was perhaps a little too emotionally raw for the occasion: “The days are okay. I watch the TV in the afternoon. If I get lonely the sound of other voices, other rooms, are near to me. I’m not afraid”. Amplified Heart has a beautiful red Fender guitar on its inner sleeve. Is it a Jaguar? I like to think so. It’s an appropriate symbol. But it is on this record that the first suggestions appear of EBTG using the beats in their music which would be much more pronounced on the next LP, Walking Wounded. John Coxon co-produced three of the tracks on Amplified Heart, including the original of what would become the oddly successful hit single, Missing. This was before Spring Heel Jack really got going with their twist on drum ‘n’ bass, so at the time John was known for his work on fantastic era-defining records by Definition of Sound, Betty Boo, and Bomb The Bass. Ultramarine, label mates of EBTG at Blanco y Negro, did a great remix of Missing. And rightly or wrongly I tend to link Ultramarine and Spring Heel Jack together, though it is possible they may never have met and may not approve of one another. Who knows? I made that mistake once with two groups Everything But The Girl asked to support them in the early days, that is Felt and Hurrah! One thing Spring Heel Jack do have in common with Ultramarine is an interesting past. Apart from John Coxon’s activities, his partner Ashley Wales had been involved in some intriguing things pre-Spring Heel Jack. Indeed, in her book
Tracey mentions that Ashley and Ben Watt had once both been in the same post-punk band, Crazy About Love. Ben and Ashley both graduated from the mini-scene Mike Alway conjured up in south west London, and which he drew on when he became the A&R man at Cherry Red. Ashley was for a while a member of Five or Six, who are best remembered for the song Portrait which opened the Pillows & Prayers compilation. Five or Six were a distinctly curious outfit, who suffered perhaps as a result of antiCherry Red snobbery, in the same way that Factory’s minor characters like Section 25 did. The release of a fairly random compilation in 2008, Acting on Impulse, did reveal how adventurous Five or Six could be, though it appeared the group was heading in several different directions simultaneously which is both appealing and a distraction. While some of his fellow Five or Sixers went on to become media big-hitters Ashley went on to be part of Karl Blake’s Shock Headed Peters, whose earliest releases were issued by Mike Alway’s Él (Benelux) label, which at that stage was distributed by Crépuscule. Other releases in this series were by Klaxon 5, Momus, and Vic Godard. Karl Blake genuinely has to be one of the most perplexing characters in pop music, but the Shock Headed Peters’ I, Bloodbrother Be is a work of true genius, and Karl should also be applauded for his liaisons with Mark Perry in The Reflections and the mid-‘80s Alternative TV lineup that recorded the under-valued Peep Show LP. Another person who was briefly part of Five or Six was Julia Gilbert, who later beautifully played the part of Anthony Adverse during the fantasy phase of Mike Alway’s colourful caper when back as part of Cherry Red él attempted, with oodles of wit and flair, to forge some sort of bond between Terry-Thomas and Huysmans even if few people were paying attention at the time.
One other record John Coxon produced was the debut LP by Pooka (Sharon Lewis and Natasha Jones) which came out on Warners in 1993. In recent times there have been a whole host of artists exploring similar eccentric folk territory with a mixture of roots sounds and offbeat persona, but no-one as successfully as this debut which casts the two singers as mischievous sprites as at home performing stream-of-consciousness beat poetry as they would be traipsing home from an Ultramarine performance at some festival. This Pooka debut has such a very, very raw sound, so full marks to John Coxon for the lightness of his touch. How did they get away with that on a major label? Was the blend of Bjork bizarreness and Kate & Anna McGarrigle rootsiness allowed for the right reasons? Ironically it’s a record that’s now been lost, like the recordings of Sibylle Baier, Judy Roderick or Karen Dalton and other long-lost folk singers once were, and is yet to be reclaimed. Pooka appear on four songs on Ultramarine’s 1995 LP on Blanco y Negro, Bel Air, a wonderful record which shows the production team of Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond at their most perverse and contrary. After the ruralism of Every Man and United Kingdoms, which others were scrabbling to catch up with, suddenly they were creating a soundscape set in the heartland of luxury, but this was not so much to do with the coke and sports lifestyle, health and efficiency, and the pursuit of leisure, hanging out with Joni, Lindsay Buckingham and the guys from Steely Dan. Instead this was seemingly more about what goes on beneath the permatans: the sinister undercurrents of the gated communities, the murkiness of money, advances in technology, surveillance culture, the creeping influence of Silicon Valley, the mounting millennial dread also reflected in work by the likes of Tricky, Photek, T-Power, Mark Stewart. But Ultramarine chose not to make the insidious menace too obvious, so their approach is more subtly ominous, like the cover of Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats. The Ultramarine approach on Bel Air is to adopt a disguise of smooth sophistication, which is open to misinterpretation. Bel Air is like ACR’s I’d Like To See You Again and TNT by Tortoise in the sense of working with unostentatious musical forms. In this case it’s very much jazz funk,
fusion, Latin, Brazilian influences at work, though like the contemporaneous Universal Love by 4hero it’s informed by beats and electronics, hip-hop, house techno, swingbeat as much as the straining to catch the musical credits at the end of an old episode of Colombo. What were they listening to when preparing to make Bel Air? The sort of sounds Soul Jazz were including on their London Jazz Classics compilations? It may well have been the likes of Cesar Mariano, Airto, Flora Purim, Milton Nascimento, and all of the electric Miles tributaries (Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, Return To Forever, Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer, etc.), the fusion influenced end of the Canterbury scene, and so on. Maybe, but maybe not. With jazz-funk I have a certain ambivalence: a very real fascination with so much of the music, but a degree of repulsion with the gloss, smooth surfaces. I admire its functionality, not least as background music, admire its anonymity. I can go for considerable lengths of time when I completely ignore it but can then easily get caught up in a very real obsession with so many jazz-funk or fusion records.
What still seems so bizarre and wonderful is the very real popularity the music had with dancers, and it is undeniably part of the club culture soundtrack for soul boys, funkateers, and those involved with the jazz dance scene, the DJs from Chris Hill to Paul Murphy to Gilles Peterson who played these sounds, and for Ultramarine I guess of particular relevance would be the roles played by DJs like Colin Curtis and Hewan Clarke who played the music in Manchester which shaped the outlook of the ACR/Kalima extended circle:
There was presumably a certain practicality, again, to Pooka’s involvement, via the Warners connection, but the collaboration works perfectly. The folk vocals meet modern electronica thing was being explored elsewhere, such as on Evening at the Grange, the wonderful record made by Lida Husik with Beaumont Hannant and Richard Brown (a secret hero of the Warp records story), but the puckish Pooka vocals work perfectly on Bel Air, giving a sort of young Rickie Lee Jones feel to proceedings, which makes me think immediately of an Ian Penman meditation in the NME from 1982 (that summer again) which was truly Corbettian, ostensibly about contemplating the art of song but Rickie Lee really comes into it which is what I always remember when I listen to her first LP and Pirates.
In this piece Ian refers to RLJ’s Night Train as “an effortless purr of ephemerality, a chimera of a song apparently not stabilised by rhythm sections, but rather by an invisible rhythm-inabeyance provided by interlocking texture and harmonic points. It is classically trim and polished, to a degree that, heard in the wrong circumstantial current, it could elude, sound like sheer MOR artifice. Best heard blind, and it comes out a slippery nonsense of vocalese, a gurgle from spitty scat to breathy scherzo. I sleptwalked through its text(ure) for months before taking notice of any lyrical declaration, free-falling, cruising, dragging ...”. That time when Bel Air came out, well it made sense, alongside Massive Attack’s Protection, Portishead’s Dummy, the early stages of Mo’Wax where something strange and exciting started to take shape, though it is still amusing to note that Marden Hill were there, the group Mike Alway claims he invented as part of his élfish activity to create some ersatz Morricone
soundtrack style sounds. But Ultramarine never really made any attempt at infiltrating or capitalising on the Bristol blues and roots party or gatecrashing the Mo’Wax social scene. Rather delightfully Ultramarine seem to have been really quite determined never to fit in anywhere they might be warmly welcomed. And the smooth jazzy house and soothingly ambient instrumental hip-hop that would later provide the soundtrack in so many bars, cafés, shops and spas would not be produced by Ultramarine.
Instead? Well, finally, in the spring of 1996 they officially released their cover of Kevin Ayers’ Hymn, the gorgeous, succulently sane song from his great Bananmour LP. The modern version featured a beautiful performance from David McAlmont, and hidden away among the myriad remixes was the ‘big band’ version which wonderfully had Kevin himself singing on. Among those playing on this version was Lol Coxhill on saxophone, who would collaborate again with Ultramarine when they were invited to provide live musical accompaniment for a dance piece created by Charles Linehan’s company. Lol’s role was to respond to the dancers who would in turn react to what he was playing. I was fortunate enough to catch a performance, a free evening show, in the ballroom space of the Royal Festival Hall, as part of that year’s Dance Umbrella programme, though sometimes I wonder if I imagined it. Fortunately my friend Daniel Pantry confirms that we really were there, and can even provide a date: 14th August 1996. And that, I thought, was the end of this rather rambling story, until I chanced upon A User’s Guide, the strangest and in so many ways the greatest of Ultramarine records. I had no idea it even existed. Where did it get to? Where did it
come from? I suppose that the fact that James Nice and LTM reissued it seven-or-so years after its original release says volumes, because I can’t recall reading about it, choosing to ignore it, or anything. I could understand thinking it was a compilation, or a collection of remixes, but no, not even that which is distinctly odd. A User’s Guide came out originally in 1998 on the New Electronica label, part of the Beechwood group, which had previously put out releases by As One. And new electronica was exactly what A User’s Guide was, in a curiously concentrated form, while still being unmistakably Ultramarine. There seems to have been no great concept, though. There were no folk or fusion elements, no vocals, no smart-arse samples, no guests, no strings, no woodwind, no vibes. It was just very exposed electronic versions of Ultramarine compositions, like a circuit board, one of those shots you see of a radio or computer with its casing removed. It sounds stunning now, and I’ve listened to it a lot in recent years, but at the time would I have liked it? Very much so, maybe even more so, as that sort of abstract electronica was a massive part of what I was listening to, particularly when in motion, travelling on the train to and from work, as an active commuter and consumer, in a very Perfect Tense sense, indeed it could be the soundtrack to Michael Bracewell’s book. And thinking again about that novel’s theme a quote from J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country springs to mind: “Our jobs are our private fantasies, our disguises, the cloak we can creep inside to hide”. It was a real golden age, 1998-ish, for new electronica, not in the club-orientated commercial sense or the creeping chill-out blandness that was to become so pervasive, but the fascinating stuff with an experimental edge, careful construction, oozing with joyful melodic brilliance, rhythmic invention, but with a real heart of darkness. I could mention As One’s Planetary Folklore, Andrea Parker’s Kiss My Arp, Carl Craig’s More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art, Innerzone Orchestra’s Programmed, Urban Tribe’s The Collapse of Modern Culture, Leila’s Like Weather , David Morley’s Tilted, Stasis/Paul W. Teebrooke’s Connections, the output of the Chain Reaction label, Pole, and in particular the Warp activity of 2 Lone Swordsmen, Plaid and Autechre.
Writing at that time I called all this something of an “electronic renaissance”, and interestingly cautioned that ‘familiarity is fatal’. This was with specific reference to Autechre’s still astonishing LP5 not attracting as much attention as their label mates (protégés even) Boards of Canada were getting for their (undeniably beautiful) Music has the Right to Children, which seemed in some ways to come out of nowhere, though in reality BoC had been around for a while, having recorded for the great Skam label who helpfully continued to make the beautiful Hi Scores CD available to prove the point. Skam was also home to the (Autechre-related) Gescom and to Bola whose gorgeous Soup CD was one of the most enduringly appealing and inventive full-length sets of electronic ‘listening’ music of that time.
emphasised specific elements which people could connect with, like the kids’ televisual nostalgia that would later be at the heart of the Ghost Box aesthetic and there was the remote Scottish origins which was a canny angle. In that sense it is ironic that Ultramarine’s own record of the same time in 1998 should focus purely on the music, and be devoid of any back-story. The only clues to context seem to come from an appealing list of ‘inspirations’: Goblin’s Dawn of the Dead soundtrack, George A. Romero, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Tony Williams, Dannie Richmond, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Eric Dolphy, Robert Wyatt, Carl Craig, Autechre, Lol Coxhill, Charles Linehan, Basic Channel, Green Velvet, Scientist, A Certain Ratio, 4hero, Wendingen, Further Details, Vorticists, Samuel Beckett, The Simpsons, Seinfield, Richard Brautigan, Shimizu. It is bad form to read too much into such lists, but if they are presented to us there is fun to be had. This particular list does evoke a certain time where one can share memories of investigating some of the items. This was when Blood and Fire were releasing exquisite archival reggae sets, Impulse! were opening up their vaults, it was shortly after Robert Wyatt’s beautiful Schleep had been released, and just as a fair few people were enthusiastically exploring the archives of Italian film soundtracks and French library music with helpful pointers from labels like Crippled Dick Hot Wax! with its Vampyros Lesbos, Shake Sauvage, Beretta 70, and Beat at Cinecittà titles.
While preparing to write this I realised that, unlike with a number of Autechre or Carl Craig records, I had not listened to Boards of Canada in a long, long time. Ironically, when I retrieved my copy of Music has the Right to Children I found that somehow the compact disc had snapped while in storage. I have no idea how that could have happened. And I guess if this were really written in the spirit of Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment there would be a photo here of the cracked CD. But I will let you imagine it while I consider the significance of this discovery. The ‘success’ of Music has the Right to Children is fascinating, and in many ways mirrors the way several years earlier Ultramarine’s Every Man connected with an audience beyond ‘club culture’. The Boards of Canada record also had something of an implicit ‘theme’ and
So at a time when people were being unusually expansive and open-minded in their listening habits, musically Ultramarine chose to be more specific in the sounds they were making. There is something incredibly fascinating about this. Indeed the same could be said of the Basic Channel guys who gradually retreated or withdrew behind the Rhythm & Sound identity, systematically perfecting their twist on the electronic reggae/dub blueprint. This kind of specialisation is a form of entrenchment, and it is easy enough to understand how such an approach could be misconstrued. But I think it often shows a peculiar fortitude, which is akin to putting down roots: “I like it here. I think I’ll make this the base from which I can concentrate on growing what I am interested in.” In a way this brings us back to the early ‘90s where Tracey Thorn was so impressed with the way the
Fairport Convention community was operating, having created their own space, without having to worry about ‘keeping up’. One of the ways in which pop music has evolved over the past 50-plus years is the creation of a process where residual performers have established their own particular niche once a specific storm has blown itself out. This is not the same as the ‘nostalgia’ circus where an artist trades repetitively on past glories. Instead it is about ‘entertainers’ who carry on creating, out of the spotlight. One of the dangers of this is that artists can disappear from view, and work carries on beneath the radar. Other artists simply choose to disappear, which is what I thought had happened with Ultramarine until those photos appeared on the Caught By The River site and I was prompted to investigate the duo’s present activities rather than simply (and, yes, as I have confessed, belatedly ...) savouring the delights of their past works while recognising definite Ultramarinated elements in some of the more appealing recent records such as Shackleton’s Draw Bar Organs. What I hadn’t realised was that there had been new Ultramarine releases in ‘modern times’, and that somehow, stupidly, I had missed out on the gorgeous 7” Find A Way with a good oldfashioned version on the flip, which seems to have been released in late 2011. Find A Way is tropical but not really tropicalia, and it’s easy to imagine Nelson Angelo involved with the treated guitar, the west coast harmonies, and suggestions of spiritual jazz, the Naná-esque African percussion, all of which is fragmented and dubby enough to keep it interesting. Why on earth wasn’t it headline news?
In a contemporary sense it reminds me of the work of Mo Kolours whose series of EPs on OneHanded Music (OHM) have been musical highlights of the past few years, with their mad mix of influences and uplifting sunshine-soaked collages of sound. OHM has been one of the bright spots creatively in recent years, though we have not heard enough work by some of their artists like Ahu. Again, appropriately with OHM I guess there is a certain amount of Ultramarination at work, with for example the excellent Bullion putting together a lovely Canterbury mix to coincide with the release of his Love Me Oh Please Love Me mini-LP. I hadn’t realised either that Ultramarine’s Paul Hammond had intermittently over the past 10plus years been running his own Real Soon label, specialising in the underground sounds of deep and experimental house-not-house music. It was Real Soon that put out the 7” of Find A Way, though another contemporaneous Ultramarine release appeared as a 10” on SE27’s home of bass and bleeps, West Norwood Cassette Library, which I had always assumed, clearly lazily, was one of those Ghost Box-like/light labels which are the playthings of former bloggers who probably had never really had to spend time in south London, but it’s always dangerous to make assumptions. The two tracks on the 10”, Acid and Butch, are more immediately recognisable in a uniquely, unmistakeably Ultramarine way (that melodic squelch sound) which prompts intriguing questions about which direction a new Ultramarine LP will take. There is, incidentally, a very nice West Norwood Cassette Library mix of tracks from the Real Soon label, available for download. Real Soon’s output includes a 12” featuring Carl Craig’s reinventions of Source and Hooter from United Kingdoms. I may be unique in this, but I always feel a little awkward seeming too reverential about a Carl Craig remix but it has to be said far more often than not the artefact in question is pretty special, and these Ultramarine reworkings are wonderful. There was a moment where Ultramarine and Carl were label mates at Blanco y Negro when the underrated Landcruising came out around 1995. There is also a Crépuscular connection through Sarah Gregory (née Osborne) who sang with Carl and who 10-or-so years earlier sang first with Repetition before jumping ship to join Marine. In
1981 the Belgian group Marine, pre-Sarah, had turned pop music on its head with the propulsive, exuberant funk of Life in Reverse, the third great single of Crépuscular origin after A Certain Ratio’s Shack Up and Josef K’s Sorry For Laughing.
A little after Sarah defected to Marine splits appeared in the camp, and a faction fronted by the singer became Allez Allez whose career trajectory traces the arc from Grace Jones/Ze exoticism to BEF new pop expansionism. And yet what once seemed far too polished (the Martyn Ware-produced Promises LP, complete with synthesized symphonics and Red Army Choir Volga Boatmen backing vocals) now seems increasingly delightful which is why an imminent LTM collection of Allez Allez recordings seems extraordinary welcome, and a perfect companion to the label’s earlier essential Marine anthology. Incidentally, at this point it would be smart to adopt a suitably Corbettian pose, if I may, in my Lyle & Scott sweater, slacks, and loafers (has anyone written a dissertation on the comedian’s influence on the soul boy/casual dress codes?), leaning forward on the edge of my armchair, while adjusting my glasses in a studiedly selfdeprecating way, to point out wryly the appropriateness of awaiting Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside and a new Ultramarine LP. ****
June into July 2013 With special thanks to Keith Hawkins and Daniel Williams.