Archive for January, 2011

18
Jan
11

Haunted by its Future: Burning Blue Soul(1981)

Post-punk; the cycle of reappraisal and revival appears to have come to a close: the canon consolidated. Crucial in this process has been Renyolds’ Rip it up and Start Again which is likely to stand as the definitive assessment of the era, retroactively transforming post-punk from a period of time to a coherent sensibility. In such a process there are winners and losers, elect and preterite; those who appeared amongst the chosen find themselves demoted by posterity, others enjoy confirmation of their enduring possession, or find themselves the subject of a long awaited reversal.

Beyond these lie the doubly dishonoured–ignored both at the time and in its revaluation. Matt Johnson’s Burning Blue Soul (1981) is  such a work. Indeed,  its  further orphaned, since not only is it excluded from the roll call of respectable post-punk, but even from Johnson’s own corpus given that  most of  what the Rough Guide to Rock calls its ‘small but devoted audience’  are, like myself, otherwise indifferent to The The. This problematic status probably explains its history of re-releases, especially with respect to sleeve design. The original artwork, with its deliberate allusion to the Elevators day glo eye and the distended graphics of West Coast poster art, articulated an untimely psychedelia .


Within months of its release, and in the wake of poor sales, Johnson (barely out of his teens), expressed reservations of the wisdom of this choice. Noting its convergence with the short lived psychedelic revival ‘already dying a death’ ( endless reincarnations would follow) he reflected that  ‘perhaps in retrospect it may have been the wrong projection for the music’. [That particular revival is now almost entirely forgotten, centred around a few bands and clubs in London lasted for a few months in the spring of 198,  its most enduring artefact being WEA’s  A Splash of Colour compilation whose artwork evokes the secret persistence of a headier spirit in the brumal mise-en-scene of the early years of Thatcherism].


 Neutralizing this gesture, the 1983 edition (issued on the back of a comment by Ralph Steadman that the record was one of the best things he ever heard) was accompanied by an image of Johnson looking like a minor character in Scum


while the 1993 version integrated the album with the visual style of The The‘s back catalogue (a revisionism that extended to the album’s production,  leading to ‘the original 1981 release [being] highly sought after by collectors as the mixes are thought to be far superior than the latter 1993’ reissue– at least according to Wikipedia). One of Rip it Up‘s strengths is to remind us of a psychedelic strain in the music of the period. BBS first reviewers noted this dimension: NME judging it ‘One of the few truly psychedelic records made in recent years. An acid stew of remarkable proporitions. A minor hours masterpiece’  Sounds  saw in it ‘ A brand new surrealistic world of neo psychedelica… [the] music dissolves and flows out. Just like looking into a convex mirror’.  Yet this upgraded trippiness is only part of what makes so unique:  the album is also clearly an expression of its moment. Witness the ponderous bass lines that anchor the shifting soundscapes, the ‘cold swirl’ of phlanged guitar,  the sense of political instability (a ‘country gripped by social ills and aches’) that bleed into its reveries, and above all its participation in what Bracewell describes as generation’s wandering in ‘the ruins of punk’ in the hope of  ‘styling a collective de profoundis‘. If the desideratum found its purest expression in the somber genius of Unknown Pleasures, then it must be said that BBS is  closer to Bracewell’s acerbic characterisation of The Cure  who ‘with the chill mist of Crawley still damp on their pullovers’  fashioned a music wherein  ‘the soul was not so much bared as reduced to wandering around in its dressing ground’. But whatever the limitations of its lyrics,  the album casts its sonic nets as wide as any of its contemporaries with the aid of Gilbert and Lewis (whose presence must partly explain the distance of this work form Johnson later output), accessing something of a European avant garde (c.f.The Faust Tapes). Here Johnson’s own melodic sensibility is crucial since it gestures both back and forward (in the interviews accompanying its release he spoke of absorbing the sounds of the sixities through the floor of his parents’ pub, an image that captures the rather distorted, deformed way in which the presence of Lennon, Barratt Floyd etc are registered). The result is an brooding vortex of sound that passes through the dark evening of the soul, looking at the sort of sodium lit urban environment captured in films such as Frear’s Bloody Kids through a fish eye lens, a cauldron of  processed and filtered vocals, Delia Derbyshire refrains, that at times melts into shameless dissolves of multi-tracked backward guitar loops, at others delivering abrasive textures. Accompanying this is organic fluidity, a sense of melody that sets the album apart from the controlled, mineral rigour of its era.

Why then does BBS remain outside the charmed circle of post-punk? Johnson’s later successes no doubt have a part in this—while albums such as Infected sold well there appeal will always have been commercial rather than critical–and constitute a stain that even the participation of post-punk royalty like Lewis and Gilbert cannot expunge. Indeed, while their contribution is ostensibly limited to a number of tracks, they seem to be a central element in the record’s singularity, Reynolds speaks of Harvest’s hope that they would mature into a neo-psychedelia, and here they contribute to a project whose hybridity results in rather different vision of what such a term might entail. They also seem to have contributed to the ethereal, spectral quality of the album, which both sounds provisional, like a demo, and also dense and highly wrought. Thus the fact that Johnson provides most of the music imparts brittle or thin tonality, while the production immerses the listener in rich soundscape. The net result might be likened to a more recent 4AD artist, Ariel Pink whose ‘hauntological’  sensibility  commemorates the the poignancy of sound salvaged from the noise and decay of obsolete storage media.

Thirty years on since its release, and in the aftermath of reevaluation of its era, it seems unlikely that Burning Blue Soul will suddenly be revived; posterity’s judgement seems final. [There is a certain irony to this, given that in discussion with Johnny Marr in 2002 Johnson would lament the fact that while the 60’s, punk, and more latterly Krautrock, had all been granted the status of key moments,’ that particular little era has really been neglected in the mediathere was that secret little pocket of post-punk British underground music. And that’s really my roots.’] . In this it would seem that its sense of bedsit epiphany, solitary illumination suggest a work always, already destined to fall between, to be passed over; haunted as much by its future as its past