Title: State of the art
Author: Lynden Barber
Source: Melody Maker
Publish date: May 19, 1984
STATE OF THE ART
Zang! Zang! Zang! go Lynden Barber’s art-strings as he meets pop cryptographers ART OF NOISE. Loud photography by Tony Barratt
QUESTION: If Horn is the heart of the Art Of Noise, who are the nose, ears, brain, neck, elbows, legs and big toes?
Answer: J. J. Jeczalik, Gary Langan and Ann Dudley, the production team who worked with Trevor Horn on Malcolm McLaren’s “Duck Rock”.
The Art Of Noise were responsible for the opening shot in the Zang Tumb Tuum label’s campaign of action: a voluptuous and frequently vociferous offering that simultaneously (a) avoided the single/12 inch single/album format, (b) instituted a re-ordering of sound quite unlike any other, and (c) reached number one in the US dance charts.
In England some would call it a crock of crap, but me, I liked it. Several months after its inception, “Into Battle” and its recent sibling “Beatbox” stand as two of the most appealing visionary records of the past six months. A bom-bom dance beat fabricated from the human voice, car ignition motors performing paradiddles, blownacross milk bottles (a sonata of sour cream?) and the scarcely-noticed incidents of domestic life became part of pop, the fabric of a new rock ‘n’ roll… or you could point to the funk and say it was soul.
Who cares? What the music is doesn’t matter so much as what the music isn’t. There is always a joy to be had from the uncovering of the new, the glimpse of the unseen, and while the Art Of Noise, like most developments in popular music, do not spring from nothing, it’s their fresh way of dealing with materials, ideas and even cliches we already know backwards from some other context that gives them their dynamic thrust.
AoN toy with sounds, toss them back and forth across the studio, indulge themselves in the wonders of studio technology for the pure sake of discovery. It’s a music that takes itself seriously and wears a smile at the same time, wandering through the blurred border regions between parody and tribute to throw forward an intriguing sense of ambiguity.
Albert Goldman had an astute insight into the workings of innovation in pop culture when he wrote the following about the early Sun-period Elvis Presley: “During these years he used his talent to create a music that was essentially playful and parodistic. Approaching the pop song in this spirit, he established the basic aesthetic for rock ‘n’ roll. Rock is not simply an amalgam of blues, country pop, etc. This is to define it by its sources and substances instead of its soul. The music’s essence lies in its attitude.
“The attitude first comes to expression in Elvis, then in Little Richard, and then in the Beatles. All of these singers are at bottom parodists. They assume the identity provided by a particular style; then, working behind this mask, they achieve the exhilarating freedom of the ventriloquist talking through his zany dummy. Inevitably they tend towards falsetto and caricature… The important thing is to recognise that the root of rock is the put-on and the take-off.”
In Sarm West, the West London recording studio owned by Trevor Horn and his wife/business partner Jill Sinclair, appointed press handler Paul Morley leans forward to consider the words. To ensure objectively he hasn’t been told who wrote them or who they are about. He’s simply been asked if they could fruitfully be applied to the AoN.
“Yeah, I’d certainly agree with the put-on and the take-off bit. That’s been a very important element of what we do in this blue building. Parody… you see, people always accuse what we do of being serious. This is a distinction I try to make, I never quite pull it off, but those people who accuse you of being serious simply because you try and do it with an attention to detail and try to do it well, they’re usually people that do things so seriously, they’re so inhibited and rigid.
“The people who accuse you of being intellectual are usually the ones who are taking you seriously and don’t see what you’re trying to do is put-on and take-off. And there’s a certain thing opposed to the word ‘art’ or the word ‘intelligent’. It’s strange, actually, because from intelligence surely will come all the radicalism and all the discovery and innovation people always seem to be thirsting for in their whining about blandness.”
THIS is not to be the usual “band interview”, as the presence of Morley obviously signifies. Jeczalik turns up towards the end but by then the most interesting ground’s already been covered. Far from reflecting some awkwardness or casual perversity, the AoN’s “anonymous” image is a deliberately planned style of presentation. The style of their photographs (no faces shown, often no bodies shown) mirrors a profile kept carefully in the shadows.
Morley, former pet enfant terrible on the NME and now a member of the ZTT board, assumes the role of thinker, schemer. If Horn is the heart of the Art Of Noise, Morley’s the dreamer. As a writer whose prose finally degenerated into a tediously’ obscure form of self-indulgence, it’s interesting to find that in person he’s lucid and direct. He virtually interviews himself, gabbling through his ideas at a furious number of words per minute.
The Art of Noise came together during the time when McLaren wasn’t in the studio for the recording of “Duck Rock”, he explains. Horn, Fairlight operator Jeczalik, engineer Langan and classically trained musician Dudley would mess around in the studio, come up with odd combinations of sound.
“And then, because we wanted to develop the unit, the fifth part became… not necessarily me, but the record label, in a way, they became the frame so that the AoN didn’t become an anonymous, nonsensical thing. Instead of McLaren it was ZTT who gave it shape and content.
“I hated the stereotypical notion of the pop group, and what we’ve tried to do with everything we’ve signed - though it wasn’t so obvious with Frankie - was a unit of communication that wasn’t ‘the pop group’ or ‘the rock group’, because it seemed the very format was stifling the amount of creativity or invention that could come through. So the AoN was set up as a kind of innovative idea to the group.
“At the moment there’s a demand for the instant hit - Nik Kershaw, Sade, Fiction Factory, it’s all ‘Gotta have a hit’ - and we put them on a thing called ‘The Incidental Series’, as opposed to our ‘Action Series’, which was mainstream to compete in the charts with the Spandaus and Nik Kershaws, because we wanted to try and generate the kind of patience there used to be once upon a time where a record label was interested enough in the music of the group as banal as that sounds - to encourage them to find out themselves. So we wanted to see how patient we could be, how far we could take it without people actually knowing what was going on. In England, especially, people got very self-conscious about that.”
Is this because people have been conditioned to be spoon-fed?
“They are being spoon-fed, and that’s why they respond with complete bafflement to AoN, if at all. The response in England was classic indifference. That was quite enjoyable to one extent, because it was a very interesting music and people who’d been decrying the blandness of last year, when something did come along that was trying to experiment in an accessible sense - as opposed to a nonsensical German messing around with noise - there was complete indifference to it.”
Was it any great surprise that the record had been so well-received in America?
“No, in a way it was inevitable, simply because there’s a naturalness there that we don’t have here any more, ie they didn’t wonder why it was done, what label it was on, what it meant, for them it was just a noise, and they responded to it naturally. In America, New York especially, AoN are thought of as being a black group, and that’s interesting as well. Whereas over here the Face/ID trendsetters were actually responding to sub-standard AoN music, but that was trendy.”
Morley speaks of “dredging up” the European tradition and applying it to “a pop context”. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising; the style of ZTT’s press handouts and sleeve notes is obviously inspired by the Italian Futurist manifestos, and I’ve always suspected he’d defend the more outrageous excesses of his pickled prose with references to the absurdism and desire to shock of the Dada-ists. An inkling that turns out to be not so far from the truth.
The European-ness of ZTT’s Propaganda is obvious, the Teutonic flavour of their “Dr Mabuse” underlined by the echoes of German Expressionism in the video. But what about AoN?
“In a way, they are raiding the 20th Century, in terms of it being an incredible century in terms of what’s happened, in terms of discovery, and combat, the fury of the century, the tension of it. Rock groups just seem to borrow from within a very specific era for their stuff, so it gets weaker and weaker until it just disappears into a puff of Howard Jones.
“What I wanted to do was to reconstruct to that time in the 1910s and the 1920s of Surrealism and Dada-ism and Futurism that just seemed to be completely lost - the war just destroyed it. To me, there was a great sense of play going on there, and also provocation, and I felt that rock in its known types of provocation had died a death. Punk was the last kick of provocation within rock. So I wanted to dredge up some of this idea of play and apply it to this context.
“So that’s the European tradition I’m talking about, that sense of classic ideals and very much a sense of comedy, in fact, ZTT is a very funny label. Not many people get the joke but in fact it is, it’s meant to be hilarious. Those that do get the Joke have a good laff, because it’s meant to be funny, Trevor Horn is a master comedian, y’know.
“Because of certain aspects of our post-Factory presentation, or whatever you want to call it, people think it’s over-intellectual, too serious; ‘Art Attack’ as some teenybop mags have called it. What it usually is is simple intelligence, simple creative energy. It’s always misinterpreted as something as dull as art.”
I’d go beyond characterising the AoN as European to see them as part of a current process of internationalism of music that transcends not just statelines but also crosses the Atlantic, a blurring of boundaries to form a music that owes allegiance to no single nation or narrowly defined cultural tradition.
That in New York “Into Battle” is seen as part of Electrofunk is instructive, for the electro/hip-hop scene is a ship adrift on international waters. Recorded mostly in New York, its sources are primarily black American vocal traditions and German electronic music. But Kraftwerk draw on funk rhythms from black America and repetitive patterns inspired by the systems composers, themselves fired by the music of the Third World.
It’s not at all surprising that New Order should record with Arthur Baker or that the most belly-rumbling electro record around should be a collaboration between German punks Die Töten Hosen and New York rapper Freddy Love. Neither should it come as a shock that a British record should provide the model for the latest Bill Laswell project. “Matrix” is essentially Laswell’s answer to the AoN, even borrowing the 12 inch/45 rpm format of “Into Battle”. Maybe the only surprising thing is that, given the extent of the internationalisation of the world’s economy, music scenes have previously been so parochial.
“What I find interesting about AoN,” says Morley, “is that it fulfills a certain plan - that in Europe they’re acknowledged as an avant-garde group, like King Crimson maybe, and in New York they’re acknowledged as a dance group. I mean the only area where they’re completely ignored is England. But I find it interesting that the Europeans have responded to a certain part of it - maybe the cut-up technique of Faust, or something, or the sheer bombastic-ness of Van De Graaf Generator that occasionally creeps in and in New York people just respond to the dance feel.”
WHAT I find interesting and, curiously, paradoxical about Morley’s despair at the self-consciousness of response in Britain is the very selfconsciousness with which he speaks of AoN and its place within ZTT, the self-consciousness of its presentation and style. He admits that part of his motivation is to get people “puzzled”, to present “a challenge”. Given Morley’s imaginatively thought out propaganda offensive it’s easy to assume that a similar self-consciousness was at work in the studio. But when I comment that “Beatbox” seemed to have added quite deliberate references to rock ‘n’ roll, as if they were slyly giving their own rebirth, of the form, he shatters an illusion.
“No, that’s simply how it came. I mean Guy Langan is a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player, Ann Dudley is a great classically trained pianist. They’re not young people making pop music, to appeal to a Smash Hits market, they’re just old-fashioned blowers they just go into a studio and blow, they get on with it. Naturally. They don’t care about what it means or what it is or any trend or anything, so that introduces an interesting freshness to it.”
What comes across with great strength from the AoN is the sense of breeziness, of curiosity. Some of the greatest music arises not from a preplanned scheme or genius-like vision but from the natural instinct of inquisitiveness. I say “natural”, but frequently wonder if everybody possesses this quality, often get disappointed and annoyed when people are given the resources to produce a brain-teasing music and then fail to use them or even begin to explore what their equipment can do.
Modern studio technology possesses a mind-boggling capacity for creation if put into the hands of those who hunger for exploration, invention and just simple fun. Anyone who’s ever tinkered around on a synthesizer knows that it’s capable of throwing up fascinating sounds.
So why are synthesizers so frequently under-used?
“That’s the point,” says Morley, “There’s no need to go in with any plan, it just comes up. It’s an accidental music. I agree with you. I can’t understand how when you review the singles you get 90 singles, why 89 are so awful… because that beautiful room in there” (he points towards the studio) “is gorgeous.
“Anyone who has any dedication to what they do, any creative energy, can not go into a room like that and come out with some awful record. I don’t know what happens. AoN records sound like they’ve been made in that kind of room, whereas you hear Howard Jones or Nik Kershaw or the Thompson Twins, it sounds like it was made in a mental hospital or something. It’s almost as if they’re scared of that room.”
Hearing such wonderfully wicked vitriol, I could almost forgive Morley for making Haircut 100 respectable. I’ve always felt that Morley’s sloppily defined new-pop ethnic helped pave the way for the new-MOR, in the same way that Callaghan’s social-service-cutting Labour Government softened people up for the Tory onslaught. Those who sow should reap, you might say.
Me? Okay, I forgive. Bitching between writers is like a couple arguing over who didn’t put the cat out in front of their friends. And quite frankly, that was then but this is now. The subject of this feature is: The Art Of Noise.
Let us hear what JJ has to say. “The only thing the Art Of Noise has is life, joy, fun. That’s what we’re all doing it for, we’re having a good time. Hopefully other people can buy the records and enjoy some of the lunacy.”
Does it take very long to construct an AoN track?
“It varies. Some are very immediate. ‘The Army Now’ was half an hour’s work. We left it because it had something that reworking would have lost. ‘Beatbox’ has been reworked several times, so there are no hard and fast rules.”
Much music seems to have lost a sense of dialectic, a sense of struggling against something. Do you think there are other musics, maybe very different to AoN, that will encourage a healthier climate that will enable you to flourish or do you have an essentially pessimistic view?
“No, it can only get better, because I see the AoN as not really ridiculing the situation at the moment but challenging it.”
Tell me about the relationship between AoN and ZTT.
“Their view of AoN is contrary to the way conventional record companies sign bands these days. It’s like Paul said, artists nowadays do records and the turnover rate of bands is frightening and there are very few bands who actually have a long-term plan. Record companies are not prepared for something that may start to turn over a profit in X months or Y years, it’s generally singles deals and ‘If we make a bit of money on this we’ll do an album’.
“It’s a unique situation… it can only get better.”
The final word goes to Morley: “It’s a jazz music,” (though JJ disagrees), “and 90 per cent of it is improvised. And it’s going back to a very old-fashioned idea of enjoying music for the sake of it. Now you’re not allowed to do that these days very often. So we incorporate a certain kind of calculation, the kind you need to compete with biggies like EMI and CBS. Our idea is that we want to calculate and manipulate but based on inspiration, based on something with imagination and delight for people. I don’t know why. “The Seventies was dominated by ageing hippies, maybe I’m just an ageing punk.”