The Rock’s Backpages podcast

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In this week’s episode of the Rock’s Backpages podcast, Mark Pringle (left) and myself are joined by special guest and good friend Keith Altham (centre) to pay tribute to the late Scott Walker, an artist he interviewed many times for New Musical Express. They consider Scott’s early years as a teen idol and as a Walker Brother, followed by his bold ’60s solo albums and his radical re-emergence in the ’80s. Keith talks about touring with Scott and Jimi Hendrix – and about introducing the NME to the concept of “humour”.

The three of them listen to a clip from an interview with Martin Fry and Mark White of ’80s icons ABC about Trevor Horn’s production of debut album The Lexicon of Love. Mark then introduces selections from the week’s new additions to the RBP library, including Mick Jagger talking to Dawn James in 1965, folk siren Anne Briggs “zooming down a whirlpool to annihilation”, David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust album, My Bloody Valentine live at London’s Clarendon, John Mellencamp‘s self-confessed status as a rock cliché and Salt-n-Pepa being denied their rightful place in hip-hop’s history. Barney rounds it all off with tributes to writers Steven Wells and Mick Farren.

The Prodigy’s Fat: Keith Flint R.I.P.

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I can’t pretend I adored the Prodge, but when Rolling Stone asked me to review The Fat Of The Land I declared it was “a thrilling, intoxicating nightmare of a record”. I think it still is. And poor Keith Flint was undoubtedly one of the most disturbingly exciting front men the world has ever seen. Here’s the review, published 7th August, 1997…

RARELY HAS a pop trend been so shamelessly spoon-fed to America as the hold-all genre dubbed “electronica”. Rarely, indeed, has the music industry tried so hard to convince us that the Next Big Thing is in fact a done deal – that another wave of English boys holds the future in its hands and we’d better get used to it.

Lately, dissenting voices have questioned the wisdom of the electronica hype. Geeky boys with keyboards may find in-crowd success in the country’s hipper conurbations, they argue, but the Chemical Brothers will never rock Cleveland. Enter the Prodigy, four manic street ravers from working-class Essex, with their bullishly-titled third album The Fat Of The Land. To say that the Prodigy are anything but self-effacing synth nerds would be a comical understatement. To suggest that they are the Sex Pistols of techno would not be such an exaggeration. What the Prodigy have done, quite simply, is to drag techno out of the communal nirvana of the rave and turn it into outlandish punk theater. And they’ve done it brilliantly.

The group’s chief weapon, of course, is not their menacing cyber-yobbo frontman Keith Flint, or their leering dancer-rappers Maxim and Leeroy Thornhill, but their one-man engine-room Liam Howlett. A loopy genius of the µ-Ziq or Aphex Twin variety he may not be, but on The Fat Of The Land Howlett has gone boldly where no techno maestro has gone before, easily surpassing the band’s 1994 opus Music For A Jilted Generation and fashioning some of the most ferociously exciting music of the year so far.

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The point about The Fat Of The Land is that it packs all the visceral punch of rock at its incendiary best – not least on the frantic, panic-inducing ‘Firestarter’. There is nothing genially Kraftwerkish about Howlett’s seismic bass grooves or skittering drum programs. There’s no soothing cosmic-prog balm about his shrieking machines. Nor is he exactly shy about his rock references. Crunching guitars abound on the album, and a moshworthy cover of L7’s ‘Fuel My Fire’ rounds it out. ‘Climbatize’ all but steals the pulsing pre-climax keyboard riff of the Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, and the savage ‘Serial Thrilla’ (sampling Skunk Anansie’s ‘Selling Jesus’) is as rabid as any Rage Against The Machine track. The debt to the Pistols, meanwhile, is only too explicit in the chorus of ‘Breathe’, a thrilling paean to drug psychosis which has already topped the charts in eight countries.

Howlett laboured on The Fat Of The Land for the better part of two years, and the results speak for themselves. His grasp of rhythm and texture – and of basic song structure, come to that – has matured immeasurably from the days when the Prodigy were churning out frenetic rave novelties like ‘Charly’. He may reject the cerebral world of ambient, but he has also left behind the hyperventilated hardcore techno of old. Squelching synths bounce round each other on ‘Mindfields’, creating a mesmerising funk force-field. On ‘Breathe’, everything drops out for eight bars to make way for a mournful, Joy Division-ish guitar riff. Voices from India and North Africa, alternately seductive and sinister, seep into ‘Narayan’ (a collaboration with Kula Shaker’s Crispian Mills) and the furious opening track ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. Only when Howlett opts for more conventional formulae – the old-school hyper-rave of ‘Funky Shit’ or the pounding hip hop of ‘Diesel Power’ (featuring the formidable Dr. Octagon) – does The Fat Of The Land lose its rollercoaster momentum.

The Prodigy are greeting the dystopian future with a crazed kind of glee: there is no pre-millenial tension on this, their third album. Nor do they appear to be very interested in the Sixties. Where the Chemical Brothers cast a fan’s eye back to the psychedelic past of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and Lothar and the Hand People, the Prodigy are crafting futurist soundtracks for disenfranchised youth, populist electro-punk that serves as a perfect Brit counterpart to the industrial noir of Trent Reznor and the jittery soundscapes of Wu Tang’s RZA.

The Fat Of The Land is a thrilling, intoxicating nightmare of a record, an energy flash of supernova proportions. “This is dangerous,” spits Maxim on ‘Mindfields’; “Open up your head, feel the shell shock!” If America can accept Keith Flint as a psycho frontman – and accept the Prodigy’s essential in-your-face hooliganism while they’re about it – there’s no telling how far the band’s marriage of man and machine could take them.

The RBP podcast with Martin Colyer

IMG_4485.jpgIn this week’s RBP podcast, Mark Pringle and Barney Hoskyns consider the enduring influence of soul giant Curtis Mayfield with special guest (and RBP co-founder) Martin Colyer (in the middle, with a framed Mario Testino shot of Princess Di, part of Martin’s “rider” for appearing on the podcast… don’t ask).

The trio also hear a snippet of Julian Henry’s 1985 audio interview with the absurd Sigue Sigue Sputnik – and talk about how Tony James and co. crashed down to earth despite their stratospheric ambitions. There’s a brief discussion of pieces by featured writer Mac Randall on Robert Wyatt & Bill Nelson, Linda Thompson and Beck, leading on to a rundown of what’s new in the archive for the subscribers, led by chief archivist Mark Pringle: specifically, articles on Del Shannon, Diana Ross, Keith Richards, Vivian Stanshall, Andrew Weatherall and Missy Elliot, as well as a lengthy feature on the drug Ketamine from 1976.

Martin, Mark and Barney then take a journey back in time to the origins of Rock’s Backpages itself, explaining how the idea for the archive originated… and what steps they took together to make it a reality.

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Get Out

“I knew my deepest dread had not been of getting robbed or even shot. I’d been afraid of blackness itself.” Nik Cohn, Tricksta

 

Haunted by the trickle of the blood,

the tears that coursed along the skin –

the scenes I watched in horror as I flew –

I never felt as white as I feel now.

 

Around me sit black men and women:

descendants all of men and women

bound and shackled on the ships,

bought and sold five hundred yards from here.

 

How deep the rage must run, how much I’d hate

the pallid man sat here.

How vile the colours of his skin,

how smooth and smart the darkness of their cheeks.

 

There is no end to this, no change is gonna come:

there’s war and more. And even Dan Penn voted

for the blotchy pig, the vicious troll who sports

the honeycomb that’s spun of lies.

 

Get out! Get out!

For even in our blandishments,

our Jazz Age negrophilia,

we’re rotten to the core.

 

Charlestown, Nevis, January 2019

Against Narrativity

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(with apologies to Galen Strawson)

 

Bruce on Broadway, born to run and run,

the burr of Everyman whose tales of bars and father

constitute the story of a life well done.

So why does life for me instead feel like a murky mess,

disjointed, pointless, scattered, inconclusive,

never like the lives in songs and films?

For only there is our existence tragic, glorious

or merely meaningful; only there is life a valiant lie

delivered by a righteous standup guy.