texture like sun, setting: on the passing of The Stranglers’ Dave Greenfield

Ray

Early May brought the sombre news of the death of Dave Greenfield, keyboardist with The Stranglers, from Covid19.  

Greenfield was a master of his art; indeed, I don’t think it’s stretching definitions to consider that he was exercising some genius.  Year on year, disc after disc, he made everything he played fit perfectly, in terms of melody, texture and tone, with the surrounding sounds and spaces; I can’t think of anything I’ve heard by the band on which I can imagine that his contribution should, or could, have been different.  

A look back over The Stranglers’ earlier canon – the ten LPs up to the departure of original guitarist/co-vocalist Hugh Cornwell in 1990, with which I am most familiar – confirms the rich variety and remarkable versatility of Greenfield’s playing.  He balanced this expansive range with a meticulous economy; whilst evidently flush with sonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas which flowed well beyond the strictures of the generic, Greenfield never unduly flooded anything – what he added never amounted to too much, nor too little.

I’ve been taking another listen.  Greenfield’s deft energy abounds in the dizzying arpeggiated swirls which significantly characterise the band’s earliest discs of leering, veering punk, classics that still shine and stomp like well-kept boots.  However, his scope is conspicuous here, too: consider, for instance, 1978’s Peasant In The Big Shitty, founded on a slanted, nasty-bastard synth riff over which Greenfield himself sings with an exaggerated ghoulishness hovering uneasily between cartoon and menace, the scene further illustrated by keyboard splashes seemingly depicting the piss-puddles of the gutter.

As The Stranglers’ sound expanded thereon through their darker, deeper, fascinating and sometimes forbidding late 70s/early 80s albums, Greenfield’s reach became yet more apparent.  It was during this period that the original incarnation of the band was arguably at its most inventive; indeed, Greenfield’s development surely must have spurred by being amongst bandmates who were also curious, intellectually and existentially as well as musically.  His contributions on 1978’s Black And White include, notably, the libidinal pinball of Nice ‘n’ Sleazy, and the violent dose of electric shock treatment he administers to Enough Time; then there’s the spread-winged soaring, diving and thermal-riding of his playing on the title track of the following The Raven, which also features the sublime Baroque Bordello, on which Greenfield’s classical stylings effectively conjure the sweet unease of yearning Amongst the myriad soundscapes he creates on The Gospel According To The Meninblack are the comedy swampery and single-finger tech-pop gesticulation of Just Like Nothing On Earth, and the subterranean bubbling of the loopy Manna Machine. 

There are some stellar examples of his craft on 1981’s La Folie, not least Golden Brown; throughout, he’s beautifully in tune with the story of the song.  Consider, for example, the cheeky nudge ‘n’ wink of his bip-bippery on Pin Up; and the evocative characterisation of shallow conventional serenity in the melody, perfectly offset against Cornwell’s laconic vocal, with which he adorns Non Stop.  The band’s later releases feature further examples of his finery: the Aural Sculpture LP arguably finds him on particularly colourful form.  

One can, of course, find one’s own favourites.  But what I have found worth exploring of late, just as much as Greenfield’s musical legacy, is how I found myself feeling about his passing: it has saddened me to an extent that has left me surprised.  I never knew, nor even met, him, yet I register his loss at a level which goes beyond my appreciation of his work.  Why should this be?

I can see several reasons.  Some, of course, will pertain to my own experiences of loss – perhaps particularly, to a sense of possibilities which I associate with my youth beginning to recede.  However, I think the well of sadness is more broadly sourced.

Firstly, there’s also something that has to do with the passing of someone who worked in harmony with machines to distinctive effect, who used the technology to write his humanity large as a painter would their palette – a rich, gloopy blob here, a lean brushstroke there, pointillism, washes – in times when we’re told that ‘progress’ is represented by machines taking control, doing more and more for us; to us.

Further, now that we are in a time wherein much political and cultural discourse seems governed by spectacle and presentation, I think it matters to me that Greenfield made great work without dependence upon hype or affectation; the sense of loss is made stronger by our having lost a man, rather than the heavy dose of artifice and emptiness that tends to constitute ‘personality’ (a phenomenon of which we must surely weary if we are to save ourselves as a species).  There is no cult, false God, or thin myth being stoked or invoked as Dave plays: as I listen, I rather imagine someone in the flow of work loved for its own sake – figuring out how to get that sound, getting to know every nook and cranny of his instruments, tending the keys and switches; going home to take care of the everyday, letting the work speak for itself.  

Also resonant in my reaction to Greenfield’s demise is my regard for his apparent willingness always to let the fruits of his creativity rest in their appropriate place within the collective effort, so as to create room for, and shine light upon, others’ contributions.  If you’ve ever been involved in any kind of shared enterprise, you may well have learned that ideas and talents are not always co-operatively offered; however, you might also have been lucky enough to experience the irreplaceable joy of those times wherein the whole magically becomes greater than the sum of everyone’s individual offerings …  One never knows when those moments are coming and, having experienced them, we never know when – or whether – they are coming again.

It is true, too, that The Stranglers have long been a ‘family’ band, very forthcoming in communication with their fanbase through regular publications, conventions, and correspondence.  I interviewed bassist and co-vocalist JJ Burnel as a callow youth many years ago, and he personified a genuine readiness to engage on a level; despite my arriving flustered and sweating almost an hour late, he put me at my ease, and was plentifully generous with his time and resources – and all for a whippersnapper interviewer from a home-printed fanzine with a humble circulation.  The music industry is notorious for having more than its fair share of self-aggrandising shysters: it is thus to be appreciated when a band makes themselves so open to being connected with – and consequently, when one of their number passes, the sense of loss seems heavier.

Indeed, the passing of a Stranglers founder member might be symbolic for me of a current cultural quelling of a certain attitude. Whether one likes them or not, it is hard to deny that The Stranglers are a band who have stayed true to who they have been at any time; they have always refused to do the done thing, run with the herd, parrot the word or keep people sweet.  They’ve been willing to see another view, and to change: this must be one of the most human things we can do, and seems increasingly valuable.

Bravo, Dave.  Thanks for all the great sounds …  with my mind they run. 

the sky, the sea and the dead: Norfolk, music and the late 80s

Ray (with John)

What we find transcendent in music requires no explanation, just as the heavens do not need us to explore them.  There are moments, however, wherein the mysteries unravel themselves for us, as on those nights when the galaxy lays itself across the sky, presenting as both map and territory unto our eyes.  

We had been remarking upon The Fall’s most primally attuned and supralingually uncanny of latter-day albums – Your Future Our Clutter, The Real New Fall LP (Country On The Click), and the aptly titled Levitate – pointing, as astronomers agog at the action painting of Andromeda, to their sense of being elemental yet steeped in spirit, of hailing from both within and afar.  Talk turned to the gigs we’d attended in our more formative years, in the late 80s in Norwich.  John ventured that, similarly, there had been something more going on in those sounds, those times; something in the very notes and chords, perhaps, the beats and voices.  What was it?

We took ourselves back to those nights, and they opened themselves up for us.  It became clear that this impression was not explained simply by the fact that, back then, we had been young, cluttered with conviction and confusion, on the cusp of doing our own thing, out over the water on a fraying ropeswing.  No, it was also that music seemed culturally to matter more then, to have a more evident underbelly, naked and unashamed; it had, indeed, the guts to recognise, at least tacitly, the presence of all manner of conflict, and to insist thereon that life didn’t have to be as it was, in those days before the collapse into consensus into which so much music became increasingly co-opted, subsumed.  This sense of openness to possibility – hence, to unease – was amplified in the relative intensity, intimacy and murkiness of vinyl, the foremost format of the time before music became so routinely, and brusquely, glossed up through digital processing.

The fact that recordings then came physically constituted in sizeable slabs, rather than immediately available down a series of cables, also markedly influenced our relationship with music: it necessitated our dedicating forethought and effort to the process of getting hold of it.  Get a sweat on cycling into town to pick up the music press – when’s the album coming out?  are they touring?; the muck of ink on one’s fingers.  Ring the shop: have they got it in yet?  Forego the haircut, save the money for bus fare – or cadge a lift, take the trip from the village to the city, a full day spoken for: all this activity serving as physiological and psychic detritus to be dragged in by the stylus, so composing the surface noise behind the sounds.  And of course, gigs in those days were not full of people present largely in absentia, lost in the scrolling of devices: one went all in.  One had, then, to maintain a deeper and more enduring connection with music so as to access it; perhaps it was partly this need for committed observation of the contingencies of music’s time and place which encouraged our enmeshment in and abandon unto it, exacerbated the magic.

Indeed, it wasn’t just when, but where it occurred, that mattered.  I’m sure that similar vibrations were chiming everywhere and anywhere throughout the land around then; I hope they were.  I can only point to the particularities of the experiences I, and those around me then, shared.  This was Norfolk, an entity of itself, out of the way and aspiring to nothing else: small settlements spaciously set in open land, distances rolling away between them; by night, clear skies were arrayed with stars, resplendent in the relative absence of light pollution.  It mattered, too, that we experienced music with the sea close by; that we had those songs in our minds whilst lingering on quaysides, or watching light flit between the pines.  A ripe environment for curiosity, for wonder; it made a world of difference, inexpressible in verbal language, to the ways in which we related to sound.  

And the gigs took place in Norwich, a city in the midst of this expanse of space, with its own distinct, discernible but indescribable character.  I have scarcely been back there since, but then it always struck me, atmospherically, as if a vestige of some other, contentedly adrift, continent – the paradoxical air of gentle unease, of accommodation with the sinister; narrow passages offering glimmers of mystery, river breathing unto the sea.  I don’t know whether any of the bands who came by to play felt any such sense of it being different – this notion may be fanciful: but one could sometimes perceive that perhaps they, too, had imbibed the space, communed with something on the journey through the sticks, and consequently felt released to cut loose in ways that may have been less accessible to them in places more clogged with industry, stifled by competing conurbation.  I recall Callahan, fronting the Wolfhounds – perhaps the best live band I saw in that period – murmuring between songs, with half a smile, “Norwich, a fine city”, the slogan featured on the signs one passes when entering its territory.  It seemed, at that moment, merely a throwaway remark: however, hearing them then swoop and screech with the savage majesty of other-worldly dangerbirds whirling and plunging, his comment seemed as if it might have had more to it …  and for me, they never soared quite as high elsewhere.

An oft-visited venue was the Arts Centre, now rather done-up but back then an imposingly bleak converted church, accessed via the portal of a slender alley.  In the hall where the bands played, we stood upon the flattened gravestones: so there we were, among and the dead, awakening them with the dance of our lives, going out of our bodyminds to Blown Away.

The future unfurling; distances and contestation; the sky, the sea; the dead.  Part of me is still back there, in that time, shoving my dole quids into the slot of the village phone box under a midnight full moon, on the line to California, trying to ascertain the truth of a whisper that Neil Young would be coming over.  I recollect, too, driving in the small hours through abandoned East Anglian undulations, fields flush with snow; pulling over to step out and wonder at the sheer size and starkness of the sky, the brilliance and subtle pulsing of constellations, as tunes continued to ebb gently from the stereo.

I realise I may be accused of being a look-back bore.  That’s OK: all of this is nonetheless still true for me.  Much magic persists, yes.  But a lot is being lost.  

There was, certainly, something more going on.  John forgot that he’d left Rob’s sacredly-held copy of Pet Sounds on the roof of his van; we all clambered in and drove the half hour or so along the dry road to Wells, where Rob lived.  When we arrived, the LP was somehow still there: in a seemingly impossible feat, the slightest corner of its sleeve had caught in the shallow rim running around the roof, and The Beach Boys had clung on, waving tremulously to the sunny skies, all the way to the coast.  Those days keep hold.

Simon Morris

Ray

In late December the news arrived that Simon Morris, erstwhile singer and leader of The Ceramic Hobs among many other things, had died.

Writing about someone in the aftermath of their passing seems a silly thing to do.  Words fail us: they just don’t have the gravity, they float away.  Best just kiss: keep it simple, stupefied.  However, once our words have settled from their flailing, they can help to point towards things that matter.

Many people knew Simon much better than I, and for longer, but – his having left his fascinating imprint upon my window – here is my take.

When I needed somewhere to store a stack of stuff after I had pulled the rug from beneath my own domestic circumstances, Simon was the first to step up and offer his spare room and garage.  At that time, though we had a musical association, it wasn’t as if we knew each other particularly well.  He thus accommodated my clutter with never a chunter, for as long as this was needed (it turned out to be several years).  This was emblematic of his generosity with his space and time: the arrangement of visits to him would tend to be accompanied by his promise to take us on a maraud somewhere scenic – and it was on those jaunts that his delicate attunement to nature, and sense of curiosity, even a quiet awe at everything he noticed, really came to the fore.  These were the times when Simon’s being-himself came across to me most fully and clearly: he seemed to be there as man and boy all at once, fully in the moment, enthralled yet serene, very much in touch.  Messages he sent from, or following, holidays to wilder places likewise sang with the music of the creatures he’d seen, the climate and the way he’d felt it; he spoke with great enchantment about that area of woodland visible across the fields from his front window, where he and friends would go after nightfall to make music together.  His sense of joy at recounting an unplanned walk which took him away, alone and anonymous, from a foreign city and into woodland is particularly memorable.  His essential tenderness likewise came across in his tales of late-night waltzes with his loved ones to particular songs that we shared a high regard for.

Discussions with Simon could cover any ground; he was among the most open minded of people one could ever hope to know, his perception and appreciation expansive.   I’ll always remember with affection, too, his ready sense of irreverence, his keeness to lark and laugh: a serious sense of fun.  Simon was a most creative dramatist of human absurdity, of the lunacy underpinning mundanity, adept at subverting darkness with his own beams of light and heat.  I see him chuckling through his vape as we discussed shared experiences of certain intimate medical procedures; and bandying around favourite jazz and rap lyrics, spontaneously spoof-reading his way through the drama of disintegtration that is “The Message” over a rudimentary drumbeat.  There was the afternoon we tittered ourselves as silly as a pair of tipsy tweens listening to an Oi LP; an evening wedged up at the front with him and another friend, a bunch of sweaty moshing ageing fanboys romping and jumping, pointing and shouting, at one of the last performances I saw The Fall do.  And his basking in a golden afternoon in Hoylake, delightfully infusing his roaring and screeching with the bliss and tranquility of the day, channeling the sun.

I’ll remember Simon with great fondness, and a sense of thanks that he invited me in for a time; there’s an accompanying strain of sadness regarding the sense he sometimes exuded of being distant and inaccessible – and, pluming from this, a plaintive sense of helpless bewilderment about …  it all.  Inevitably, the sunshine has its shadow. 

The last time I saw Simon was early in 2019: he seemed happy and hopeful, was apparently well settled into writing his unsettling work and spoke of it with evident pride, and talked about some opportunities that were about to open out to him.  “Our paths will cross again” was just about the last thing he said to me: my life lacks some significant dashes of colour as a consequence of a fact that this now can’t happen. 

wilderness, weather and the function of tape hiss: Fergus McCreadie Trio at the Pianodrome, Edinburgh August 2019

Jasmine Ames

This year’s Edinburgh Fringe saw Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie’s Trio perform at the Pianodrome, a hexagonal amphitheatre fabricated entirely from old pianos.  It made for a space of somewhat spellbound homeliness: soles creaked across lushly veneered wood panels, the glow of standard lamps lending a brooding lustre to the grain, and rows of ivory and ebony teeth grinned from all sides.

It’s as if the arena in which the Trio performed, in being assembled from old instruments, itself embodied the close relationship between music and landscape (and the way that one can become the other); this connection was further acknowledged by the Trio in that their set was comprised of pieces inspired by aspects of Scotland’s natural environment. 

Indeed, McCreadie and his band soon transported us outside, beyond our interior, urban setting.  The whirling, flailing-then-settling air of their sound, and the physicality of McCreadie’s playing, each conjured thoughts of wilder environs.  McCreadie himself appeared to be engaged in an elementally turbulent relationship with his instrument, at times so tender as one almost too reverent to address the keys, whilst at others stabbing at it in sustained, shuddering spasms.  Perhaps he is, in part, under the spell of the increasingly extreme manifestations of weather we have been experiencing.

The lines upon which McCreadie’s Trio expand are earthy, rather than ornate, a simplicity which speaks of open, unpopulated and uncultivated expanses.  However, the dynamics of their playing supply the finer, shifting details of the scene.  The pulses and grooves into which they lock are never left to set, but are built up then stripped down and away, then reappear in morphed form; drums clatter, whisper and stumble, always just loose enough to complement the windsweptness of the sound; the bass is a bough bending and dipping in a gale, in the face of which McCreadie grimaces and flails.

And yet when, back at home, I listen to the trio’s debut LP Turas I find that, though it features the same tunes, it does not convey the same sense of living landscape.  On CD, the spaces the trio leave seem comprised only of the antimatter of digital zeroes; no cross-breeze corrupts them, and in this emptiness the players’ expressions are left sounding somewhat abashed.  Reflect upon other listening experiences, what strikes me is that pretty much any music which utilises space as an instrument in itself seems, when digitally rendered, partly nullified as a consequence of its blank representation of those ‘silences’ amidst and around sound.  The dimensions of pauses are constrained and flattened, made like exhibits behind glass, with only the straight outlines of hollow shapes left behind; those lingering indistinctions which would inhabit the space, and which provide music with much of its mystery, are eradicated.  It’s a bit like the censorship of questions, or having one’s subconscious switched off.  This is, for me, why a fair chunk of hip-hop, jazz or reggae on CD sounds much inferior when compared with the vinyl versions.

Perhaps the isolative acoustic treatment of many recording studios creates dead zones; or maybe it is largely the digital process which causes these quelling effects – when the CD was first launched, one selling point claimed for it was its lack of ‘surface noise’.  However, the world which is home for humanity and its music evidently has a surface; we can’t stand without the land (and as aforementioned, Turas is compositionally inspired by it …  “life has surface noise”, as John Peel said once, “it’s alright by me”).  The capacity to ‘feel the dirt’ of a recording in our listening can be a way for us to feel our feet on the ground; thus, the warmth of analogue equipment may be required to provide some recordings with, at least, that sense of movement lent by the audible sound of electricity.  What we often mistakenly refer to as ‘silence’ is, of course, in fact full of particles of sonic soot and grot: as John Cage acknowledged in composing 4’33”, the absences within music need to be empowered for a perfomance to be real – a key aspect of any landscape is space, after all.  If we can’t have McCreadie and co recorded out on a moorland somewhere, then let’s at least sense the heat from those tubes.

I’m unsure as to what process was used for recording Turas; I can only register its effect upon me.  There’s a second LP on the way, apparently, and one hopes that captures more of their glint, gust and shudder.  In the meantime, they are worth witnessing wherever they can be found out here in the wild world: their music is landscape, rather than postcard – and, just as a tree needs muck for its roots and a breeze to twitch its limbs, this landscape is best apprehended when one is surrounded by and contained within it, feeling its forces ripple and shiver the skin, fully inhabiting its space.

a sardonic anthem to cliquery: on The Great Unwashed’s ‘Born in the Wrong Time’

Ray

The Great Unwashed’s ‘Born in the Wrong Time’ made a strong impression on me from the first time I heard it …  I found myself craving its rustic, unassuming push-and-jolt (it seems to me a kind of uncanny waltz-in-4/4); I loop-listened, ushering it under my skin, to the point whereby I was bound to ask myself why I was doing so.  Only when scrutinising it beat by beat whilst talking it over with a friend did the reasons become clear.

It’s the lyric, I think: it sketches the attitude of the in-crowd to an outsider whom they consider hapless and helpless, and perfectly depicts it in the la-la-la of a breezy 140 seconds.  As the song progresses, this effetely jaunty singalong takes on a more acidic irony as we increasingly sense the true flavour of the narrator’s disposition towards the ‘different’ – as the song says, those whose “form of socialising is a bit too strong” …  Yes, s/he is alright but they, y’know, express themselves too keenly, evidently care about things, maybe a bit too much (for them?  for us?)  … perhaps they bring up things that we find difficult to answer or explain, aspects of ourselves or our worlds which we would rather ignore …  you know the type … . 

…  But no – it’s not just the lyric: it’s also the way in which the music illuminates its message that, sadly, the unfortunate subject of the piece is simply beyond help.  When zoned in upon, the mono-tonous peal of the arpeggiated guitar manifests the narrator’s shrug, carries the resonance of their impassive, dazed straight-ahead gaze; likewise, the plod of the drums, broken only by the flashing jab of snare at “but he’s … already taken”, models their failure to break stride, the walking-on-by.  There is, too, a non-committal, baleful tone to the narrator’s expression; their sympathy for the outcast seems infused by apathy, their energies primarily purposed with asserting that their marginalisation is no one’s fault – it’s arbitrarily inherent, a stroke of ill luck.  Y’know, s/he’s, like, “just one of those people born in the wrong time”.  That’s all.  Aaah.  Nothing we can do.  Indeed, their suffering is diagnosed as self-inflicted, nothing to do with others’ willingness or otherwise to reach out, and beyond their ken (thus futile to enquire into) – “he seems to like hurting himself”.  (It’s an apposite comment for our age, wherein ‘mental health’ issues are largely fetishised in the mainstream as biochemical accidents afflicting individuals.  Distress is still much less considered to be a more or less inevitable effect upon central nervous systems of psychically unwell societies – those broadly characterised by an individualism tending towards sociopathy; unhealthy imbalances of power within the family and beyond; the active fomenting of precarity, and undermining of community; similarly deliberate and sustained attacks on one’s ability to focus attention; and accelerating catastrophic decay of the natural world).

The folksy ho-hum of both the narrative message and its musical accompaniment  cannot effectively conceal an underlying cruelty, however: the sneer behind the narrator’s wan grin is progressively revealed in the insistent repetition of the in-group’s cold final solution to the problem of the troublesome wrong-timer.  The group don’t deign to speak to him: rather, they are “pushing his bags out the door” – indeed, it can be inferred that the unfortunate one isn’t actually present whilst their belongings are being symbolically exiled.  There’s perhaps a veiled threat of violence, too, in the narrator’s assertion that “I’d give him something … “.  

Lest we were in any doubt, the final syllable of the song, on its final beat – the slamming door of “pushing his bags, OUT” is snapped like a dictator’s command.  It is indeed the final word on the matter; there will be no further discussion, nothing to be considered or understood, no way back.  Get your stuff and fuck off: we just want to have our good time.  And you – YOU – are not in our time.  The protagonist is exiled not just from a certain space, but also from the moment in which they exist; effectively, the narrator’s intent is to annul their existence.

I know someone who lived in a large shared house, wherein the often brutal interpersonal culture made full participation too stressful for them.  Still, whilst keeping a lower profile, they created no problem for anybody and continued to be co-operative and considerate towards others.  After some months, they received a letter – signed not by any individual, but merely “The Household” – which explained that ‘they’ didn’t feel my acquaintance was a suitable housemate; therefore, when would they be moving out?  When my acquaintance (who understandably, having settled and made connections in the area, was loath to move) complained about this to the Housing Association, one of the clique of roost-ruling residents came forward to expound this reasoning: “I just want to hang out with my friends and have fun”.  Well, I don’t think the fleeting presences of an outsider was stopping you from doing so – was it?  Was banishment required?  Must a zone be purged, perceived as ‘pure’?

I think back to the sometimes brutal in-/out-group culture of playground days, and wonder whether those in-crowders I knew at school engaged in excluding others simply as a way of seeking to safely navigate their experience of being a kid – or whether some continued to cling to the ‘in’, and prohibit the ‘other’, as adults.  I recall all the occasions upon which I myself have spoken or acted to exclude, either because I didn’t (feel I) had the time for what the other was carrying – or because to do so seemed to elevate me, scored me a point.  And I think of all the folks, facts and factors that society “pushes out the door” in order that we can evade difficulties of feeling, decision and action.  

With a bitter drink, let us all toast our inner fascist.