Heavenly guitar pop and cosmic scuzziness are among Stewart Lee’s celestial choices. Plus reanimated Brummies, maverick maestros and some fine fiddling
A year pre-Covid, outside Islington’s Hope & Anchor on a summer evening to see mod punk classicists The Fallen Leaves, the board unexpectedly promises “support from Cult Figures”. Not the Birmingham band that made two singles in 1979 then disappeared? Yes! Released in 2018, The 166 Ploughs A Lonely Furrow was the album Cult Figures should have made in 1980, but 2021’s Deritend is a slick sixties-suffused punk pop set of Keith Moon tubthumping and Carnaby Street crooning. “Silver Blades” mythologises the titular ice rink of Midland memory. “Concrete And Glass” laments the textural changes of Cult Figures’ hometown in an affecting Brummie burr.
Vapour Theories are a splinter duo of Philadelphia’s celestial drone monks Bardo Pond. Twin guitars weave echoing trails through feedback gas giants. The vaults of heaven are glimpsed through an amniotic-fluid-smeared lens, as if the early analogue Tangerine Dream had tried to play the blues, one foot in the delta dirt, the other in the Milky Way. Folksy back porch American primitivism is amplified into deep space through a broken football stadium speaker system. Dust motes are indistinguishable from dying suns. Last week I read Louis MacNeice’s Star Gazer aloud outside his former front door and thought of Celestial Scuzz.
The impish Damo Suzuki was 63 when this linocut-enveloped album, Live At The Green Door Store, was recorded in Brighton in 2013, and the release is a fundraiser for the Covid-fucked venue. The fearless Echo Ensemble, their metronomic pulse gilded by mellifluous flutters of cornet, keyboards and guitar, swell behind Suzuki’s ursine Baloo incantations into a spontaneous hour, channelling the exploratory spirit, but not the theoretically rigorous letter, of the German ensemble Can, whom Suzuki’s clown-shaman shenanigans once energised. Constantly on tour since 1997, improvising new music with new musicians nightly, Suzuki must feel particularly poleaxed by lockdown. Altogether now! He is Damo Suzuki!
I must declare an interest in Nick Pynn, who played violin on my 2009 stand-up tour, after I had delighted in years of his solo Edinburgh Fringe shows, Pynn as a steampunk luthier looping home-made acoustic instruments in a candle-lit attic above a language school. A Fiddle Album finds Pynn playing it straight, on 13 traditional tunes, with an impossible purity of tone to rival the Irish grand master Martin Hayes, Pynn backing himself on a dozen other instruments. “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance Tune” is starkly and sharply defined, antlers silhouetted against the sky; the French “Bransle de Bourgogne” whirled me away from lockdown London, and Brexit Britain, for all too brief a moment.
In 1986 Oxford’s Talulah Gosh pioneered an abrasively sugar-coated sour candy pop punk that inspired imitators worldwide. Vocalist Amelia Fletcher became a feminist DIY icon, and would later receive an OBE as an economist. Key players reconvened in the 1990s as Heavenly, choosing their name to spite writers who called them twee, their clever kitchen sink guitar pop ill-suited to the incoming beery Britpop era. Eternally effervescent singles are collected on A Bout De Heavenly. “Trophy Girlfriend” is The Ramones fronted by a flick-knife-wielding Joyce Grenfell, and a cover of The Flamin’ Groovies’ plangent proto-punk nugget “You Tore Me Down” finds its Brill Building heart.
Martin Stone was an idealised idler. As sixties north London soul mods The Action became Seventies hippy rockers Mighty Baby, his liquid guitar bled all over Egyptian Tomb, a crowning moment of British psychedelia. But Stone, who died in 2016, was afflicted with a bibliomania that pulled him in new directions, and the dissolute book dealer was even fictionalised by Iain Sinclair as “Nicholas Lane” in White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings. A cache of four CDs of unreleased recordings are lavishly boxed as Down But Not Out In Paris And London – The Mad Dog Chronicles. Starting in 1992, the pungently Parisienne Almost Presley play a fiddle-driven set of pleasant hot-jazz-flavoured blues rock; disc two’s 1993 offcuts show Stone’s limpid electric licks equal any that dripped from San Francisco sixties stages, and a 1996 session suggests a comeback that never came back; disc three features lengthy noughties recordings with the ubiquitous British sidesman Matt Deighton, including an unexpectedly experimental exploration of John Coltrane’s “India”, rediscovering that distinctive Mighty Baby sound, while the sole shimmering remnant of an aborted session with sympatico acid-folk-rock revivalists Wolf People is a tantalising hint of treasures undelivered, a fantastic archaeological find; disc four sees Stone sitting in on lap steel in 2012 with the French blues punk Stéphane Guichard, yet another potential avenue untravelled. Shagrat’s erratically gem-studded box set provides Martin Stone’s musical capstone.
The percussionist, pianist and painter Terry Day has made his personal archive available to download through the website of Dalston’s invaluable Café Oto. Russell & Day is a recording of Day and John Russell rehearsing at the guitarist’s Finsbury Park flat in the late 1970s. Russell left his grandparents, who raised him in rural Kent, as a teenager in 1970 and persuaded guitar guru Derek Bailey to school him in the ways of non-idiomatic improvisation, selflessly dedicating his life to being a lynchpin of London’s liminal experimental music scene. In the mid-1990s I found myself living, by chance, in the flat opposite the one documented here, Russell still resident in the ungentrified locale and practising monastically daily in my direct eyeline as I sat writing stand-up. Already a fan, it was an odd situation for me, but one which we laughed about when acquainted years later. I write this review a few hours after hearing of John’s death, kaleidoscoped back to the view from the bedroom of my failed near-marriage, as I hear his spittle-dabbed fingers smudging impossible sounds out the body of his patient acoustic, and wringing strange singing from its neck, while Day rattles a mandolin rhythmically, the notes cracking like limestone pavement, and both laugh joyously at their audacious creation. My last email from John concerned that road we used to live in, where he once saw Donovan’s face grinning down at him through a window. “I was trying like crazy to get people interested in improvised music,” he remembered, “but I think they thought it was a step too far.”
Cult Figures, Deritend (Gare du Nord)
Vapour Theories, Celestial Scuzz (Fire)
Damo Suzuki & Echo Ensemble, Live At The Green Door Store 01.03.13 (Willkommen)
Nick Pynn, A Fiddle Album (nickpynn.bandcamp.com)
Heavenly, A Bout De Heavenly (Damaged Goods)
Martin Stone, Down But Not Out In Paris And London (Shagrat)
John Russell & Terry Day, Russell & Day (cafeoto.co.uk)