Death Row: A View from the Cheap Seats

Simon Warner

. . .when you personally pass Jimi's age or John's, or Buddy's or Elvis', you realise just how fleetingly they basked in the limelight, and how briefly the candle of your own existence flairs then flickers.

Kurt Cobain

Witnessed Blakey's final drum roll and Miles' curtain call
Heard the last words of Ian Curtis
Saw Keith Moon before the fall
Gave the last rites to Tim Buckley as he wailed his final breath
Caught Jaco's fading rhythms
On the precipice of death

1; from "Nothing Prepared Me for You"

Death has been not so much a motif in the rock 'n' roll concerto as a fully blown theme; recurring through most, if not all, of its movements. But I must qualify that. I am talking about early death: artists snatched from the land of the living by excess, by the bullet, by the crumpling of crippled steel in speeding motor cars or burning airplanes. Mortality — life's far from imaginary friend — stalks the hallways of popular song in a curious reversal of the Faustian myth: you make a deal with the devil's music and then stand an even chance of shortening your time on the planet.

These thoughts come to mind when another significant figure joins the pantheon of the missing. Joe Strummer, dead at 50, outlived Holly and Hendrix, Sam Cooke and Jim Morrison, Marvin Gaye and Ian Curtis, Cobain and Michael Hutchence. But still, the Clash frontman's demise came as a bolt from the blue.

I suppose, as the rock generations expand to include grandfathers and great grandmothers, as we all get older, the very notion of old age itself changes. Once regarded as the ephemeral music of adolescence, pop, in all its many forms, now forms the soundtrack to lives both young and old. Rock and soul, country and reggae, disco and rap, are all utilised to remind us of our youth and also psychologically slow down the processes that may condemn us to the retirement home or the walled community.

When we're young, life appears to have an almost eternal quality — and there's a definite down-side to that. Nothing ever happens quickly enough. Everything means waiting: for alcohol, for sex, for love, for money, for liberty, for self-fulfilment. Youth employs rock and pop to crystallize those as-yet-thwarted, aspirations. The singers we cling to embody and express the very frustrations we are experiencing. Then we accelerate to adulthood and quickly realise that the scenery around us is flying by all too rapidly.

Then there is time's other trick. There won't be many nu metal adolescents who caught the news about Strummer and don't think he'd enjoyed an innings of near Methuselah proportions. Their feelings about the late Clash man were probably as distant as mine were when I first read about young casualties like Robert Johnson and George Gershwin from the pre-war years. They might all be giants, but they are extinct giants, lost in the Jurassic mist.

I recall when Lennon fell, I was in my mid-20s and thought that he'd not actually had a bad run, an outstanding life over a whole four decades. However, when you personally pass Jimi's age or John's, or Buddy's or Elvis', you realise just how fleetingly they basked in the limelight, and how briefly the candle of your own existence flairs then flickers.

In 1997 when my mother died — and losing a parent is as fierce a reminder of your own temporary state as you require — I wrote a song which, in part, reflected on a number of the late, great music-makers whose paths had crossed with mine over a quarter of a century. Recorded in 2001, "Nothing Prepared Me for You"* gathers fragments of memory, and few are more potent than recollections of great live performances.

Strummer's passing raised those spectres once more. It brought back my first ever concert — the Who at the Odeon Cinema in Manchester in 1971 with Moon — in full fury. It raised an image of Richard Manuel on a Wembley Stadium stage in 1974 with the Band, supporting Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I thought of Tim Buckley at Knebworth in 1975. It made me think of Joy Division's Ian Curtis at the Band on the Wall or the Factory in Manchester in 1979, and of Marvin Gaye at the Apollo Theatre in the same city in 1980. I remembered Jaco Pastorius at the Palace Theatre in 1981, Art Blakey at the International in 1987 and Miles Davis at the same Apollo in 1989.

Such wallowing, though, may be too morbid, too maudlin. Death comes to us all and to turn it into the only illuminating beacon of rock history is perhaps a mistake. After all, rock is also about survival. For every Eddie Cochran there is an Iggy Pop, for every Phil Ochs there is a Bob Dylan, for every Sid Vicious there is a Lou Reed, for every Patsy Cline there is a Johnny Cash, for every Janis Joplin there is a Joni Mitchell, for every Tupac Shakur there is a Snoop Dogg, for every Layne Staley there is a Chris Cornell.

For as bright an illustration as any of rock's drive in life, we need go no further than that enduring quintet of David Bowie, Elton John, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart and Ozzy Osbourne. They're still striving, still thriving — reminding us all that even over-indulgence — in wine, women and worse, doesn't necessarily ensure that the Grim Reaper has made an early appointment for all the best rock 'n' roll stars in his diary of the damned.

*Note to our readers: "Nothing Prepared Me for You" is part of a four song CD, entitled The Loft Space Demos, written and recorded by Simon Warner. The Loft Space Demos was available in a limited run. The song has been performed probably a dozen times in venues from Yorkshire to Scotland, and once during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.