Many thanks to Dave Allen for supplying these notes in advance of the album's release; 'The Clutter Of Pop' is released by World Domination Records in early 1996. I would like to personally encourage everyone to take the time to read these notes, as a lot of thought has clearly gone into them, and in many ways they provide a better insight into Dave Allen's life and music than any biography could ever do.
A review of 'The Clutter Of Pop', written by Fred Mills, is also included.
Music is all things to some people and nothing to many, as the end of the millennium approaches, I have to ask; where is music going? This is not meant to be a trick question: technology is broadening music's horizons so rapidly that it is often hard to keep track of the possibilities open to us. Artists and musicians are going to have to adopt a different learning curve to be able to grapple with these possibilities and this in turn will require breaking through the current intellectual ceiling. Recently I have begun assessing my own role in "rock" music whilst attempting to understand its future role as an art form in mass media. Given that there is more and more information available to me now, I have to admit that my thinking can get a little cloudy. At times, the cloud lifts and I can see clearly, and therefore understand fully what I am personally attempting to achieve. This album coincides with just such an increase in visibility; paradoxically the album also serves to cloud the issue further.
Surely, the album as art form and retail prospect must be judged as in decline, in danger of becoming a disengaged and almost worthless endeavor. Sales of cds in real terms are rising, but only amongst a select set of artists who supply the supposed "needs" of a certain demographic, a demand that has been skillfully exploited by the artists and/or their record company's marketing staff. Sales of cds from artists who produce more challenging music appear to be flat. Outlets for these works are shrinking, be it because of labels who are unwilling to release the work, or because retail locations (mainly the large chains) are unwilling to stock it. The beating heart of experiment and adventure, in the genre of popular music we know as "rock" is in danger of becoming stilled.
Labeling has contributed to the decline. To compartmentalize music is as idiotic as caging a young calf to create veal. Same result perhaps: by fighting the natural impulse of creating music and allowing the process to be sidetracked into compartments and ultimately homogenization, you will end up with a weaker, milky, lighter version of what it could have been. There is nothing remotely useful in calling music "alternative" or "hard rock". I believe labeling causes greater hardship for those artists, myself included, who want to release a work purely because it exists. In other words, for no other reason than that the work, conceived and developed, has reached fruition.
This album began to take shape in late 1994 during a tour of the western states that took me from Tucson, Arizona, through to Whistler, British Columbia. I was touring in support of my first solo album, The Elastic Purejoy, an album that to my surprise was received well by the "rock press." Sitting for hours in a moving vehicle turned out to be fairly fertile ground for song writing and the overall concept for a new Elastic Purejoy album seemed clear to me: a less dense album than the first one, making use of simple song structures with lyrics that reflected the world around me (including a liberal dose of auto-biography) recorded live with a band consisting of friends and like-minded musicians. And then the cloud layer lowered.
Most of us at some time, when eating a meal in a restaurant, must have noticed that whenever we have had to leave the table for a few minutes, how insular we have become at the table; your attention has been drawn to the food and your companions. On your return to that table, you will notice your surroundings in a very different way, most importantly you will notice your table's position in the restaurant. Your table is no longer the center of your world, it is merely just another table in the room. On returning to your seat you now have a choice, to return to insularity or remain fully aware of your vista.
Recording an album has become just such an awareness problem for me. The whole act of recording music with hand-picked musicians, in a special room full of electronic equipment, can be as insular as eating a meal in a restaurant; or not. Obviously there is no golden rule, different restaurants create different atmospheres, and the diner then creates an atmosphere within that atmosphere. A simple goal then, would be to make the act of recording (and the environment it takes place in) as diverse and as eclectic as our favorite imagined restaurant. An obvious question is raised here: do not most artists first of all, consciously or unconsciously, create the space or forum they wish to work in? Obviously they do.
I entered the process of recording this album with eyes wide open. The musicians were selected and the material, in the form of song ideas, had been collated. My budget was limited therefore juggling payments for musicians and studio time was paramount. A local producer, Michael Blum, who owns Titan Studios, gave me very favorable terms for recording time as did my co-producer/engineer Tracy Chisolm. Unknown to me at the onset of recording, the album was to be completed in three distinct stages. The first period of recording began on April 3rd 1995 and ended on April 28th 1995.
This first period was not a happy time. My vision was buffeted on a daily basis as the dynamic of the ever changing group shifted. Tracy and I were holding the reins, but often we were unsure as to how we should continue (Brian Eno's pack of cards known as Oblique Strategies proved useful on many occasions) and after all, a team of dogs hauling a sled has a lead dog regardless of who is steering the sled. After a few weeks of laying down the basic backing tracks I called a halt to recording. Tracy and I then set about wading through the master tapes to see what we had that could be completed. Six songs were judged as finished and therefore we started the second period of the album by mixing these six songs at Master Control Studios in Burbank, California. This period was from May 1st to May 6th. I then took a long break and did not listen to the master tapes or the mixes of the six songs for six months so as to clear my mind of all the memories, good and bad, that I had about the recording and the results we had achieved.
On October 30th 1995 I decided that the album should be completed. I also decided that it should be completed by someone who had not been involved in the album's conception, someone that I could trust to bring a new perspective to the recordings. This person turned out to be Rick Boston of the band Low Pop Suicide. I had still not listened to the master tapes and so I could not guide Rick in any way as to how the album should be finished. Rick had not heard the six songs that Tracy and I had mixed and did not get to hear them until he was over half way through his portion of the recording period. I considered this a plus.
Rick collected the multi-track tapes and took them back to Michael Blum's studio to listen to everything on tape except the songs that I had already mixed. He figured that there were six more songs that he could see a way to finish without too much of a struggle. I told him that the project was now firmly in his hands and to do whatever he thought fit with the songs. He then enlisted the help of producer/engineer Hein Hoven to mix the songs at Hein's home studio. My only worry throughout this final process was that Rick and Hein would create a six song body of work that was unrelated to the existing six songs. As it turned out, these worries were unfounded. On every day that they felt they were in a position to do a final mix of a song I was called in to the studio to add last minute input. This was when I heard the songs for the first time since the end of the second period. Two things struck me immediately; the integrity of the initial recordings had been strong enough to guide Rick and Hein into doing only what was perceived by them as artistically and technically "correct;" and secondly, I unexpectedly found myself listening to the songs in a completely new light. I realized that my original concept for the album had held firm. Regardless of all the different input from various musicians and engineers, the album had turned out as close to my original vision as I could have hoped to expect. The album was finished on November 6th 1995.
The album had been completed without me being constantly enmeshed in the process (which had allowed me to pursue other goals) and by sharing the load I had allowed Tracy, Rick and Hein a greater degree of responsibility in their respective portions of the album. I consider it a small victory along the road toward my idea of recording happiness.
It would be fair to say that this album was the easiest album to complete compared to all my previous work, yet it entailed a certain amount of opting out on my part. The goal would be to repeat the process but with my full involvement, in a style that tasks me in a challenging way and does not allow me to fall into insularity or despair. Dismantling the process ( deconstructing may be a better word ) will not be easy. Not many of us have the available resources, such as our own space to record in, or the necessary equipment. A bigger problem will be the entrenched work ethics of most existing studio engineers with their rules of how a record should be made. Hope rests in home recording and the fact that records can be made on many varied pieces of equipment that can be purchased cheaply, and which can supply very acceptable results. In other words the space for recording can be created anywhere. (I know this is achieved all of the time, my point is that the available recording equipment is cheap and much improved.)
This will be the last album that I will release under the moniker The Elastic Purejoy. After two decades, in which I have released over 18 albums with various ensembles, I feel it is time for me to recreate my role in music. On December 23rd 1995 I turned forty so as I enter my fifth decade I have decided to create a ten year goal. The goal is to record and release twenty albums between 1996 and 2005 by utilizing any means necessary. Any means necessary these days includes, vinyl, cassette, cd, mini-disc, dat and web downloads. The Harvest (a movie soundtrack released on World Domination Records in January 1996) and The Clutter of Pop are releases 1 & 2 under this plan. I am currently working on a live installation, the premise of which is to envision a live show and then create the music for that vision, which in turn can be released as an album. I envision music as secondary in my future projects. As Brian Eno said recently, "...the record as a thing, as a cultural space, is no longer as exciting as it used to be.....". I agree.
"Life perishes, millions of dead are buried every year, but our own home, the earth, is a star which goes forward on its silent, inevitable course" - Nordahl Grieg; The ship sails on.
An underlying current running throughout this album is death, the inevitability of which we all face. Most of us, having avoided murder, disease and accident will live long and prosper, as the cliche goes, but the incurable disease we know as aging, will overtake our intellectual arrogance and mercilessly finish us off. The artist Damien Hirst addresses this fear of death in his work (works that include rotting cows heads and insect zappers) because, as he says, most of us have a "blanket refusal to accept decay".
During the writing of these songs two very close friends, Collette Grant and Ellen McCaffrey, died. I cannot deny that Collette's death, the result of an accident, disturbed me deeply. Ellen's death, the result of disease, was expected but was no less disturbing. As an agnostic I had no recourse but to confront my own feelings of loss head on. Part of this process consisted of throwing myself into writing more lyrics and essays and I also began to read voraciously. The books that gave me the most comfort were; Pilgermann, a novel by Russell Hoban and, The man with night sweats, a recent collection of poems by Thom Gunn.
Thom Gunn's collection of poems is set against the background of his life in San Francisco as he watches his friends, lovers and acquaintances all succumb to the plague that we know as AIDS. He moves like a nonchalant reporter amongst these people, his friends, men whose lives are slowly being enveloped and finally suffocated by this terrible disease. That he can do this and manage to convey such passion and grace in the face of such horror and still have the strength to impart to us his sense of hope, is nothing short of a miracle. This book lifted my spirits.
Pilgermann is the story of a Jew who was murdered by anti-Semites in the year 1096, or the year 4856 in the Jewish calender, and he narrates his story now, not as history, but in the here and now. Pilgermann has been reduced to waves and particles and he now transcends this space called time: as he himself says; "I am only the waves and particles of such as I was but I have a covenant with the Lord, the terms of it are simple: everything is required of me, for ever". Pilgermann lives on.
Hoban says that Pilgermann, as an idea, was precipitated into being one night as he camped under the ruins of the ancient stronghold of Montfort in Galilee. The songs on this album were precipitated in similar fashion but under more mundane circumstances, such as, "Our heads are round", which came to me in its entirety whilst waiting for an airplane at ABE airport in Pennsylvania. More often than not, these songs woke me between the hours of 3 and 5am, a time when I have been most prolific. Although these lyrics were completed during a period of mourning on reflection I can find very little that is depressing amongst them, in fact, in some cases the opposite is true, some of the songs came out downright happy which I construe as an unconscious injection of hope on my part.
The death of someone close to you causes introspection on a grand scale. The quest for healing under such circumstances becomes a sham, a suspension of the truth, we just want to look away and not accept the truth, especially a truth that includes our own mortality. Ellen and Collette were denied any choice over their respective fates but its not as if the rest of us are off the hook. I came to terms with these two women's deaths but I am now left with a razor-sharp awareness of the inevitability of my own demise. A quote from a recent article in The New Republic by Alan Wolfe, sums things up for me; "Every moment, even those of great joy, counts against us, for it is one more tick off a clock that cannot be reversed. Aging mocks our intellectuality, our sense that we can make rational meaning out of life". And from Jean Amery, "In aging, finally, we have to live with dying, a scandalous imposition, a humiliation without compare, that we put up with, not in humility, but as the humiliated".
As you can see, there is more to these songs than meets the eye. As for the topics raised in this essay, they are obviously subject to debate, but they are also an honest appraisal of my experience during the writing and recording of this particular set of songs.
I dedicate these songs to the memory of Ellen McCaffrey and Collette Grant.
I have used the following books in different ways and I feel, that either
consciously or otherwise, they have permeated my work. I am grateful to
their authors and would like to acknowledge them:
Philip Larkin; A Writer's Life by Andrew Motion: Faber & Faber Ltd. 1993
The Moral Animal by Robert Wright: Pantheon Books 1994
The Man with Night Sweats by Thom Gunn: The Noonday Press 1993
Pilgermann by Russell Hoban: Jonathan Cape Ltd 1983
Winter Pollen; Occasional Prose by Ted Hughes: Faber & Faber Ltd. 1994
Pursued by Furies; A life of Malcolm Lowry by Gordon Bowker: Harper Collins 1993
The rock critic, when freed from the frequently tedious task of pogoing before all the assembled architectural detritus erected by the music industry, can be a rather pleasant creature to know. No longer forced to ruminate at length upon, say, the relevance of some new pop combo whose lead mouth simultaneously represents six minority groups and therefore must of course have something pressing to announce, said critic might opt to regale the listener with poignant tales of misspent youth or spin a series of off-color jokes no p.c.-minded editor or editrix would dare publish. He might even suggest something along the lines of, oh fuck it, why don't we ditch this crowd, grab a bottle, and go listen to some old records, hmmm?
It's a conversation I've had with myself on more occasions than my professional facade will allow me to reveal. I will say, however, that given the choice between thinking about a piece of music rather than having to pass judgment, only a fool (or someone working under deadline pressure) would choose the latter. In that respect, the critic who loses sight of the fact that artists were put here upon this earth in order to colorize an otherwise grey existence is no longer a critic. He's just another advertisement, and a poorly dressed one at that.
Music in particular is to be enjoyed. It's okay to analyze and intellectualize and compartmentalize music, to an extent; as an Arizona author recently said, "a critic's job is not to praise or condemn, but to understand". As long as he doesn't turn music into the equivalent of sports trading cards, with a musician's hirsute visage on one side and on the reverse a year-by-year roundup of all the previous bands and recordings with a batting average assigned to each. (And don't kid yourself: the recording industry would love nothing better than to make music the national pastime. If you don't believe that, you've never been herded down a backstage corridor to a pre-gig Meet 'N' Greet where the artist dutifully doles out signatures and handshakes one at a time. The only thing missing is Mickey Mantle and his ten-buck autograph fee.)
What, the head-scratching reader is now wondering, does all this have to do with Dave Allen's The Clutter Of Pop?
Mr. Allen called upon yours truly one brisk autumn afternoon to inquire whether I'd like to give a listen to some tunes he'd polished off. Yes, yes, of course, send it to my P.O. box at your convenience, was my cynical reply, already reacting in my mind to one of those publicist-type overtures.
At about the same instant that I was recalling having actually liked Allen's previous eponymously titled Elastic Purejoy record , Allen was telling me that he wasn't really looking for a review of the tape. "Just some thoughts, based on what you know about me already and from notes and lyrics I've written down that I can send you, and whatever your understanding of me happens to be," was how Allen summed up.
At the risk of imparting more about myself than about Allen, let me say that I hear a lot of music. 40 hours a week at a music store, and another 50 or so at home. Too much music. I'm easily jaded, dismayed even, by the cookie cutter (rhymes with "clutter") nature of pop. Consequently, and as a cynical optimist this is the upside of the equation, I'm quickly thrilled by the different, provoked by the obtuse, and massaged by the familiar.
Those three elements comprise the intersection of personal bias and intellectual stimulation: "enjoyment."
Dave Allen would seem to be in a highly unusual situation, at least compared to a lot of other artists. The Allen trading card does list numerous recordings and bands; his '79 card mentions a Rookie Of The Year award for his basswork and other contributions to Gang Of Four's epochal Entertainment! album, and there are subsequent Most Valuable Player entries in the Shriekback column.
Still, as Allen told me a couple of years ago in an interview for a rock magazine, "My distaste for nostalgia is based on other people's nostalgia." More recently, in an essay entitled "We live as we dream, alone" for Clutter zine, Allen was heard remarking, on the eve of the Entertainment! re-release, "For those of you who hold everything new up against the standards of some long lost period in musical history remember, Gang Of Four had it covered with a song, it's called 'History's Bunk!' "
So he's not afraid to bite the paw that theoretically signs his mortgage payment. All the more unusual when you consider that this is a gentleman who can change hats and switch sides of the desk several times a day, if need be: from label mogul to tortured artist to A&R weasel to itinerant journalist (uh-oh...). Symptoms of workaholism? Or simply that perverse desire to lift up the canvases in a museum to see if the painter scribbled an obscene cartoon on the back of his masterpiece?
Allen himself seems to ask himself the "why" question. In an as-yet unreleased song called "A Night On Earth" he peels off a few layers of existential skin then arrives at the following lines;
"What is it that wakes me and makes me climb out from my bed/ To write down all these words these phrases that are spinning in my head/ I have followed my vocation it has been a rocky road/ I will never be placated until I shed this load/ But don't have me cremated until you're sure that I am dead."
Compare those thoughts to the following, again culled from my earlier interview with Allen:
"I'm just fully into doing my own thing. That was one of my frustrations with just being a bass player. I often thought I could be in the driver's seat and lead from the front. The role of the bass player is to lead from the back. If I thought things were slipping away or going wrong, I always felt I had the answer but I wasn't the front man so it wasn't my job to criticize. You have to be supportive, in other words -- and if you're supporting things that just aren't happening, eventually you're just driven to do your own thing. Which is pretty much where I find myself."
In the current milieu where independent thinking is typically rewarded by a door being slammed in the face, the term "self-expression" is a nasty epithet to be whispered through the keyhole. Benefits accrue in direct proportion to time spent studying the marketplace and replicating existing styles. What would happen, a musician mused to me over beers one night, if labels signed bands with the understanding that the group could not issue any music for a fixed period of time? Fewer bands, better records, was my conjecture. Aha, he shot back, and the bands that took up the challenge might be in a stronger position at the end of that interval to direct the flow of their "art" -- because there wouldn't be as many examples of spurious art out there in the marketplace to which they'd be unduly judged (and therefore commanded to resemble) by the labels.
Allen addresses this dilemma in his discussion of the making of The Clutter Of Pop. Referring to the advances in technology which have placed both the creation and delivery of music in a state of extreme flux, he suggests that in the race to adapt, artists may find "the beating heart of experiment and adventure" in rock 'n' roll to be stilled, replaced by the efficient but sterile cyber-hums of fiber optics and satellite transmissions.
As if in direct response, he chose recording circumstances that put him in a position of, not exactly discomfort -- more lack of cushion. Unpredictability, maybe, is a better word. Following the completion of the initial recording sessions, Allen stowed away his master tapes for a period of time. After the sediments settled to a depth that was to Allen's liking, he handed the vault keys to some friends, who in turn donned their alchemists' peaks and cast their attentions upon the tapes.
In short, the idea was to do an end run around the typical recording process: demo, pre-production, basic tracking, overdubs, mixdown, remixing. At each stage in the game, the original source of inspiration can get diluted; when you factor in the inevitable interference from A&R and label folks, it's a miracle of epic proportions that a record we the public acknowledge as "classic" ever gets recorded in the first place! The inevitable response to this has been the ascent of home recording in recent years -- the so-called "lo-fi" aesthetic -- but even that now has been coopted by the industry in the form of 48-track productions that are deliberately made to sound like shit. Allen decided to tweak the devil's nose by substituting the Artist's work ethic for the Puritan's, and also by creating an intermittent time table that corresponded to his emotional schedule for completion of his project.
Nice work if you can get it, eh, Dave?
"Regardless of all the different input from various musicians and engineers," says Allen upon reflection, "the album turned out as close to my original version as I could have hoped to expect."
Something that strikes me now, as I listen to The Clutter Of Pop and read Allen's notes, is what an optimistic recording it is. Certainly the man's personality comes through. A born cynic and practicing agnostic, he barbs his words at will. He also confesses to writing the album's songs partly as a response to personal grieving (the album is dedicated to two friends who passed away recently). Having shaken one's fist at the predictable vicissitudes and frustrating mediocrity of modern pop culture and weathered the harrowing introspection that mourning sets into motion, Allen could have simply reflected his surroundings and spit out a document of bile and angst. (How original that would have been!) Instead, he channeled it all through him and found reason to cheer at the end. What, after all by way of paraphrase, can a poor boy do, except to play in a rock 'n' roll band.
I'm not sure why this is. Speaking personally again for a moment, I know that I've never found much satisfaction in expressing dismay over my situation, or ferreting out avenues of revenge, or simply inflicting a bad mood on a stranger. In that, I feel outside the mainstream, especially in these mean-spirited times. I once asked Allen what it was like being an expatriate, having grown up in England but choosing to relocate to Los Angeles. He described his own feelings of apartness and adjustment living here:
"I have a fascination [with America], like most Europeans. It's such a crass culture, superficially; but when you get to live here and delve, it's very fascinating to me. A very complex culture too. It's almost like you can see things going on -- like the matter of race, for instance, that we seem to have a better handle on Britain, London is cosmopolitan like L.A. but it has less of the problems of separation. I just find L.A. one big hotbed of unrest. I never know where I personally fit in. I'm cruising around with my radar on, just checking out what's going on. I don't feel like a native, but occasionally when I'm driving to work I realize how weird I would feel now driving to work in London; that would take me a while to re-adjust."
At any rate, a few brief thoughts on music are in order. This is not a review, dear readers, for I've implicitly promised just the opposite. And I'm sure you suffer deceitful fools with as much enthusiasm as you do dancing journalists. Still...
It's a remarkably engaging album, both for its immediacy and for its "replayability"; present are more hooks than stocked by a bait and tackle shop, but each time around the tunes offer a different pleasure-bytes. (Try listening in the car, then later in the evening over beers, then the next morning with the first coffee.)
Part of its initial appeal lies in its straightforward delivery. If, in fact, Pop is cluttered on structural grounds (and I certainly believe it is), then this record is surely a logical reaction; stripped-down, real basic rock 'n' roll, stuff you can sing along to and tap yer feet. None of those strangled moans and clenched-balls wails for Allen, just good singing on the melody -- and maybe a trademark half-spoken line here and there for good measure. No "difficult time signatures and inordinantly complex rhythm changes for all the students at Berklee to stay up late pondering the intricate natures of -- wasn't it Duke Ellington who said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing?" (In rock 'n' roll you MUST acknowledge Africa...) On this album one encounters a host of diverse styles, from catchy/New Wavey pop to traditional British folkrock to dark 'n' scruffy pop-psychedelia, even some electro-dub, but it's never obtuse or stylistically self-conscious for its own sake.
Everything happens for a reason, of course. In Allen's case, I suspect three motivating factors: (1) a desire, obviously, not to replicate the previous Elastic Purejoy, which was far denser, with a lot more going on in the arrangement and mixes; (2) a less-obvious (but no less compelling) need to inversely reflect his then-current circumstances, which by his own accounts were at turns depressed, complicated, confused, and emotionally wrung-out; and (3) a willingness to trust his lyrical muse and therefore frame his words with clear-cut, user-friendly musical arrangements.
This last element actually addresses the concept of the "clutter of pop" most directly. Let's face it, the "art" of making records these days has long since been reduced to questions of commerce and consumerism; a new album is no longer greeted by 10,000 word essays but by Midnight sales at the local chain store. There are so many bands and so many records and so many labels all clamoring for your attention that it's like a swarm of insects all buzzing at once. (If the airwaves were all jamming one another, would it all sound like static? If so, then a new record is the sound we hear between the static particles.) And how can anyone hope to hear what the musician is trying to say, when most bands are (to coin a phrase) talkin' loud and sayin' nothin'?
It's up to you to decide in which direction you'll aim your short attention span. Allen's clearly above the "I kissed her/ And I wet my pants" garden variety lyric-mongering stage, yet he's not quite ready to sculpt complex metaphors about how the rainforest deforestation impacts the forthcoming Russian revolution. (Hey Sting, the lab called and said that brain's not ready yet...) Somewhere in between you'll encounter moments of lucid questioning and self-confession, plus a solid dose of sardonic wit (and maybe a few fingers pointed). There's a little ditty about trust and understanding and another celebrating the perverse pleasures of talk radio; one about Gang Of Four and another that slyly references a Gang Of Four song (for the trainspotter out there no doubt); one about leaving and another about being left behind, and most certainly about all the emotional baggage that has to be carted off and stored away no matter who's doing the leaving.
And maybe even one about rising above all the mundane shit and the ongoing tragedies and self-loathing (you know, that that doesn't kill you makes you stronger) and resolving to stick around for another, oh, ten years or so.
Which, judging by his ambition to release 20 albums in the next decade, is what Allen plans to do.