It’s A Wonderful Serious Of Snakes

Every Christmas I sit down to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, normally accompanied by two sleeping cats and usually while my family is off doing something else. I’ve tried to encourage them to watch it with me, but Freya just insists that it’s “boring” and Seren says she’ll happily watch it but makes that teenage face that basically says “I’d rather be doing anything”.

For the first hour or so I find myself offering an alternative soundtrack to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score with the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds track ‘Wonderful Life’ that opens 2002’s Nocturama. You can probably see why. As far as I can tell, Cave’s song takes no inspiration whatsoever from Frank Capra’s classic movie, instead being a rumination on some sort of love affair taking place in secret and its uncertain chorus suggesting that life isn’t necessarily wonderful unless you’ve found a way to locate its meaning. But that doesn’t stop me humming that song to myself on repeat while the film’s George Bailey, like Job in the Old Testament, seems to be continually deviated away from his intended path through life while his brother Harry gets all the breaks.

This year, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I found myself paying more attention to the script than I have in previous years. In the scene where Harry arrived back in Bedford Falls from college, bringing with him his wife Ruth, I caught a snatch of dialogue that seemed vaguely familiar.

RUTH: Harry’s a genius at research. My father fell in love with him.

– It’s A Wonderful Life by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra & Jo Swerling, 1946

It took me a while to figure out where I’d heard the last two lines before. After a bit of maddening rewinding, replaying and memory bank scouring, I finally twigged the similarity to a pairing from Wire’s ‘A Serious Of Snakes’, whose seemingly nonsensical lyrics I once asked Colin Newman about only to be told with a shrug, “I dunno – ask Graham Lewis.”

He’s a genius in research / I simply fell in love.

– A Serious Of Snakes by Wire from Snakedrill (1986). Lyrics by Graham Lewis.

Surely this was no coincidence?

Taking Colin’s advice from over twenty years ago, I asked Graham if the key to unlocking the secrets held in that song’s lyrics required you to scour through black and white films, and at first that seemed to be the case – he told me that the line about losing a ship at the very end of the song was derived from the Jack Hawkins film The Cruel Sea (1953) – but elsewhere in the song you hear a raft of insults offered by barman Tony ‘Skibb O’D’Oak’ from Lewis’ local boozer, The Royal Oak, in Vauxhall with the lines “you tulip, you pea-brained earwig, you punk, you silver tongued snake”. “It’s a classic Gysin-esque cut-up collage,” offered Lewis, matter-of-factly.

Just as it seemed the song’s meaning – if there indeed was one – was going to elude me further, Graham unexpectedly brought it back round to the time of year with which It’s A Wonderful Life is synonymous. “‘A Serious Of Snakes’ was my stab at a Christmas lyric,” he volunteers, suddenly making the lines “baby returns, baby kills Mary and Joseph” make a whole lot more sense.

Look closely and you can see references to Joseph’s carpentry, the Christmas Eve tradition of midnight mass, various other familiar (though obfuscated) subjects from the New Testament, along with other tangential topics like the creation of Israel. The Snakedrill EP was released in November 1986, right on cue for the clamour to grab the coveted number one chart slot, only to be thwarted that year by a re-release of Jackie Wikson’s ‘Reet Petite’ – which isn’t even remotely festive.

And so there you have it – ‘A Serious Of Snakes’, the unlikeliest of Christmas songs, buried deep within an artsy, obliquely crafted series of seemingly inconsequential non sequiturs and riddle-like lyrics. It really is a wonderful life.

The full lyrics from ‘A Serious Of Snakes’ are available at pinkflag.com

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

Minimal Compact – Creation Is Perfect

Not exactly a Best Of Minimal Compact album in the truest sense of the word, Creation Is Perfect contains seven tracks from the catalogue of this enduring post-punk quintet, each one updated and re-recorded with shiny new production nous from Wire’s Colin Newman.

Between their formation in in Amsterdam in 1980 and their cessation of activities in 1988, Minimal Compact released five albums and a live document, their approach to what issued forth from punk’s messy entrails being highly individualist, fusing the solid rhythm section of bassist / vocalist Malka Spigel and drummer Max Franken with Middle Eastern melodies and the purring vocal of Samy Birnbach. Augmented by Berry Sakharof and Rami Fortis’s guitars and electronics, Minimal Compact was a stylistic force to be reckoned with, even among an era that produced far more important groups than punk ever could.

Colin Newman is no stranger to Minimal Compact. He produced their 1985 commercially successful album Raging Souls, which yielded two of the songs included here, the emphatic and insistent title track of their third album and the hypnotic and wistful ‘My Will’. He’s also toured as a jobbing member of the group, and his marriage to Malka Spigel has also yielded many collaborations between two like-minded creatives, including the recently-reactived Immersion and the group Githead, which also included Max Franken on drums.

The genesis behind Creation Is Perfect is not dissimilar to the thought process behind Wire’s IBTABA, namely that their recorded output lacked the same sort of visceral impact as their live shows. Less about updating the back catalogue pieces for today’s ear, this album is about capturing that live energy, beginning with the urgent, gleeful and spiky punk-funk of ‘Statik Dancing’ and carrying on through other stellar moments like the chiming guitars and menacing motorik foundations of ‘Nada’. The result is an evenness, a precisely-executed delivery encased within rich, layered studio smoothness but also a certain rawness as the five musicians collide and overlap along paths which are uniquely their own.

The collection concludes with a new track,’Holy Roller’. Beginning with fairground melodies, the track characteristically progresses along a grubby, low-slung bassline offset by layers of whining synths, shimmering melodies and an emphatic, detached vocal. Slow-building and dramatic, the track is the summation of everything that Minimal Compact ever set out to achieve, its skeletal, rattling guitar interplay sounding as beautifully nihilistic as it did at the start of the 1980s.

Creation Is Perfect by Minimal Compact is released October 25 2019 by Minimal Compact.

Catref: mc01
Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

Electronic Sound Issue 43

Issue 43 of Electronic Sound is now available, and this month’s magazine & 7″ bundle includes exclusive tracks from the Radiophonic Workshop, the beneficiaries of a major in-depth feature this month.

For this issue I wrote a short introduction to the music of Ratgrave, whose jazz / hip-hop / electro / funk debut I mentioned in The Electricity Club interview, and who I expect I’m going to be banging on about for several months to come. Their self-titled album is released at the end of this month and it is a wild, untameable beast of a fusion record. I also interviewed Norwich’s Let’s Eat Grandma for this issue about their second album, which sees childhood friends Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton taking their curiously idiosyncratic music in a squarely electronic pop direction, complete with analogue synths and production nous from Faris Badwan and SOPHIE. We also had a god natter about the merits of rich tea biscuits.

In the review section I covered Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Brian Chase‘s mesmerising Drums & Drones collection, three discs of processed percussion inspired by time spent at La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House; a hard-hitting gem of an album by 1i2c which I described as ‘therapeutic music for anxious robots’; the new album from 4AD’s Gang Gang Dance; another brilliant collaboration tape on the Front & Follow label by Jodie Lowther and ARC Soundtracks; the brilliant second album by Geniuser, one half of which is Mick Allen from The Models, Rema-Rema, MASS and The Wolfgang Press.

Finally, I reviewed albums by two projects by current members of WireColin Newman and Malka Spigel‘s second Immersion album since they reactivated the band in the last couple of years, and the third album from Wire guitarist Matthew Simms as Slows. Simms is a highly inventive musical polymath, as comfortable with a guitar in his hand as he is using analogue synths, found sound or pretty much anything he can lay his hands on. A Great Big Smile From Venus consists of two long tracks covering an incredible breadth of ideas, continually moving out in directions that are both unexpected and yet entirely expected when you’re familiar with Simms’s vision.

The review section also features Ben Murphy’s fantastically detailed review of the new Reed & Caroline album, Hello Science, released earlier this month on Vince Clarke‘s VeryRecords.

The magazine and 7″ bundle is available exclusively from the Electronic Sound website here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

Start To Move: A Short History Of 1970s Wire (Clash feature, 2018)

On the occasion of last week’s release of deluxe hardback reissues of Wire’s three 1970s albums, I was asked by Clash to contribute a short piece reflecting on the (perhaps overlooked) importance of those albums. Sections of the piece appeared originally on the first version of the Documentary Evidence website about ten years ago and haven’t ever gone back online; the original piece formed part of a longer bio covering the three chapters in the Wire story.

The Clash feature can be found here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith for Clash

Wire – Nocturnal Koreans (Pink Flag album, 2016)

It’s hard to believe that it’s forty years since Wire began playing their highly individual approach to music. Nocturnal Koreans finds the band sounding as energised and vital as ever.

I reviewed the album for Clash. My review can be found here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Electronic Sound Issue 19

  
Issue 19 of Electronic Sound is available now, either at electroni sound.co.uk or the iTunes App Store. Appropriately, this issue focuses on the electronic legacy of the sorely-missed David Bowie.

I interviewed Colin Newman and Malka Spigel (aka Immersion) for this issue on the occasion of the duo dusting off their electronic project for the first time since performing at the Royal Festival Hall for Wire‘s spectacularly artsy comeback in 2000. I was there that night, as you can probably tell from my interview. Elsewhere in this issue, I wrote a short piece about a thrilling band called HÆLOS, and reviewed albums by The Choir Of Young Believers, Public Memory and my new favourite band LNZNDRF.

(c) Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Immersion – Analogue Creatures (Swim~ single, 2016)

  
‘Analogue Creatures’ is the first material by ImmersionMalka Spigel from Minimal Compact and Colin Newman from Wire – since a fabled performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 2000 which marked the reformation of Newman’s group. The next decade and a half would see Swim~, the electronica label that Spigel and Newman had established, put on the backburner while the duo variously worked on the resurgence of Wire, live shows by Minimal Compact and the Githead group they formed with Robin ‘Scanner’ Rimbaud and Minimal Compact’s Max Franken.

Named for the organic quality of the synths deployed rather than suggesting that this new 10” EP is a product of the analogue renaissance that gets Big Bang Theory-esque synth nerds all hot under the collar, ‘Analogue Creatures’ is at once deeply ambient, while simultaneously Krautrock in its dimensions. ‘Always The Sea’ and ‘Shapeshifters’ blend together choppy guitar lines with slowly ebbing and flowing synth backdrops, it often being unclear when the synths stop and the guitars start. Despite the absence of any discernible rhythm, there is nevertheless a pulse – of sorts – running throughout the record, evoking the chugging motorik grove that characterised much of Krautrock; Newman sees ‘Analogue Creatures’ as being in the territory of a ‘beatless Neu!’ and it’s easy to see why he’d come to that conclusion.

The EP pivots on the track ‘Organic Cities’. That track saw the duo collaborating with local Brighton synth geek Guy Schneerson, and the track demonstrates a more harmonically full suite of arpeggios, plucked guitar lines and evocative texture. It sits somewhere between the churning linear lines of a Githead melody and a previously-unheard outtake from Vangelis’s Bladerunner soundtrack.

‘Analogue Creatures’ is a slick return to the drifting, expansive electronica that occupied Spigel and Newman in the Nineties, but it’s also yet another evolution of this stop-start-stop collaboration. It doesn’t necessary signal a return to the prominence that the duo gave Immersion in the formative Swim~ days, but despite a long period of absence during which they focussed on the classic guitar-bass-drums formation, the pair are showing that they’re every bit as intrigued by synth music as they ever were.

A full interview I held with Malka Spigel and Colin Newman about the new Immersion record will appear in the next issue of Electronic Sound. Electronic Sound is available at the App Store or electronicsound.co.uk.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence