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

FITTED – First Fits

FITTED is a spontaneously-established quartet of Graham Lewis and Matthew Simms from the current Wire line-up, Minutemen’s Mike Watt and Bob Lee from Fearless Leader. The group came together during the LA date at The Echo on Wire’s DRILL 2017 festival tour, rehearsed just once and then took to the stage for a blistering performance loosely based on Dome’s ‘Jasz’, which, after several iterations in the studio, emerges on the group’s debut album as the biographical ‘The Legend Of Lydmar Lucia’.

That track acts as a logical centrepoint to a collection of six tracks that operate on a unique pathway between spacey, acid-fried grooves, the upstart urgency of punk and art-rock. ‘The Legend Of Lydmar Lucia’ finds Lewis intoning a diaristic spoken-word recollection of a particularly vivid art happening at Santa Lucia’s Lydmar Gallery, his delivery carrying the kind of oblique, unfathomable wordplay that is highly familiar from his occasional lead vocals with Wire. The unfamiliar aspect of this track is the swirling, turgid, many-layered bed of sound upon which his vocal rests; murky, impenetrable, thrilling and restless, the sonic stew created by the four musician’s is a breathtakingly complex listen, and a perfect foil for Lewis’s intonation.

Something similar happens on the ultimately incendiary and boisterous opening track, ‘Plug In The Jug’, with lead vocals from Mike Watt. ‘Plug In The Jug’ starts out in tentative, atmospheric territory, sound washing in and out but building, building, building toward something initially unclear but finally coalescing into a groove somewhere between The Doors at their most focussed and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley at his Krautrocking, cyclical drumming best.

Elsewhere, ‘The Chunk That Got Chewed’ is a sprawling, beautiful mess of a track with Watt sounding a lot like Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, while closing track ‘The First Fit’ is a mesmerisingly deep piece led by an especially emotional Lewis augmented by wandering, languid jazz rock fluidity buried under treacly reverb.

It’s not clear yet whether FITTED is a one-off project or the start of something that the group will return to whenever schedules allow. What’s immediately clear from the symbiosis of these four talented minds on the six tracks here is that their capacity to produce interesting, engaging, surprising music is probably limitless.

First Fits by FITTED is released November 8 2019 by ORG Music.

Catref: ORGM-2147
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

Bruce Gilbert – Monad (Touch single, 2011)

brucegilbert_monad

I was really looking forward to this release, I have to say. There is something about deeply experimental music being released on a 7” single that for some reason really appeals. I think it’s because the 7″ is so ordinarily suited to the ‘pop’ track that to hear anything other than pop music on a 7″ is quite exciting. Touch‘s Sevens series has included short releases by the likes of ex-Cabaret Voltaire sound recordist Chris Watson and Pan Sonic‘s sorely missed Mika Vainio. Bruce Gilbert‘s association with the label goes back many years, with albums like The Haring getting released on Touch (it was subsequently re-released by WMO). More recently the ex-Wire guitarist – as part of the group Souls On Board – took the B-side of a live split album with Savage Pencil, released on Touch sub-label Ash International. Monad is housed in a sleeve designed by Jon Wozencroft (as are most Touch releases) and lists out the instruments and tools Gilbert used boldly on the front (Korg Monotron Analogue Ribbon synth, Zoom RFX-200, Korg Kaos Pad 2, Apple GarageBand); there’s also a diagram by Gilbert himself on the back.

I looked up the definition of the word ‘monad’ and its meanings vary from being a small, single-celled organism, to – according to Leibniz’s metaphysics no less – an indestructible entity that is the ultimate fabric of the universe. This confusing word has little bearing on the two tracks included on the single, unless they refer to the songs as being solid and reasonably impenetrable soundscapes or their short duration (at 45rpm both are around two-and-a-half minutes long apiece).

‘Ingress’ is a dense drone whose layers are not immediately obvious unless you really concentrate; if you listen deeply you will pick out the various shifts in sound across the piece’s length, the changes in tone and the rich tug of the bass drone. The best way to describe ‘Ingress’ would be as an approximation of what loading tapes into a ZX Spectrum used to sound like, only this is more measured, more deliberate and more ostensibly ‘composed’ than that noise.

Over on the B-side, ‘Re-Exit’ is less constant, consisting of a throbbing, echoing bass loop offset by buzzing noises and a phasing, quiet drone out in the background. The bass loop provides a rhythm of sorts, but in essence its more of a thick pulse. It’s a style that Gilbert has deployed a number of times, both in his solo work and also with Graham Lewis as Dome. In it’s own, pretty sinister way, it’s beautiful.

First posted 2011; edited 2018.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / 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