Agit Disco 19 by Stefan Szczelkun
This selection was put together because I took up the challenge of doing a Sunday morning show on Resonance Fm as part of the weekend long 40th anniversary radio event. It was a mixture of looking back to Scratch Orchestra times and wanting to play political stuff that I had heard more recently. The show playlist is re-edited here to include things I couldn’t play on air and to leave out a couple of items that were not Agit Disco enough to be of interest here.
My shortlist seemed to fall into four themes:
The ‘problem’ of hipsters
and finally how the political effects of music can be independent of the content of lyrics.
- The problem of hipsters.
Mark Holborn was an Portsmouth Polytechnic ultra hipster whose partner was Denise Evans, who I went to secondary school with… In brief the idea was that Bob Dylan had been devalued by his commercial success. He wasn’t that committed politically at the end of the day. Richard Farina on the other hand couldn’t sell out because he died when he was young and in searing good form. He also wrote a novel ‘Been Down So Long it seems like up to Me.’ Mark told me about him and I went out and did something untypical of me with my shoestring lifestyle – I bought some American import LPs.
“Richard Farina was born at sea and has been traveling ever since. Of Irish-Cuban parentage, Dick was caught up in the Irish Republican Army’s movement for the liberation of the six counties still under English rule. At the age of 16 he was arrested and at eighteen finally deported from Ireland for his activities. Farina returned to America, attended Cornell, was dismissed after leading a demonstration, acted professionally, married twice, and has been publlished in the establishment press, The Atlantic, Mademoiselle, and the other press, Broadside.
The death of four sunday school children compelled his first song, ‘Birmingham Sunday’, which received wide attention at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival when sung by Joan Baez.” Josh Dunson (from sleeve notes on LP)
So what is the problem with hipsters? It is about lure of elitism with its holier than thou and superior pose. The first mods seemed to manage to be hipsters with an egalitarian message! They were in-the-know but only to spread the word. But hipsterism can also hide the old worlds ideology of the superiority of the supposedly more knowledgeable.
I started the programme with two versions of his first hit song.
track 1. Richard Farina – ‘Birmingham Sunday‘
- first as sung by Joan Baez (a version which brought the song and its author fame) – ( from a CDR) followed by Farina singing the same song from the LP ‘Singer Songwriter Project’ on Elektra 1965
This was a song to commemorate the racist bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four children on Sunday, 15th September, 1963. I was 15 that year and three of the children killed were 14.
Then another another track by Farina which is a great record of a side of America which we didn’t hear about in the early Sixties.
track 2. Richard Farina – ‘House Un-American Blues Activity Dream‘
from the same Elektra LP.
To bring this up-to -date I was thinking of all those bankers that just lost their jobs and, who knows, might fall on hard times.
track 3. Scrapper Blackwell – ‘Life of a Millionaire’
This was really a stand-in for a Sonny Boy Williamson the 2nd track. When I looked it was no longer in my 45s box. (cue the blues…)
Sonny Boy Williamson II – Why is swallowing your harp in a Chertsey pub a political experience for a seventeen year old local white boy? Something about a visceral connection to an already almost mythical past in which oppression was real and expressed. Something also aesthetic about the power of his presence and performance a power I had not seen around me from the people I grew up amongst who were mostly placid. He died soon after returning to the USA in 1965 after the European trip on which I saw him.
“On the folk blues tours, Sonny Boy would be very dignified and laidback. But in the beat club setting, with young, White bands playing on eleven behind him he’d pull out every juke-joint trick he used with the King Biscuit Entertainers and drive the kids nuts.” Cub Koda in All Music Guide to the Blues – 2nd edition (1999) Miller Freeman Books.
Mods were about taking ownership of our identity from the big clothing corporations and the commodity machine. but they were also about being superior than the straights, more in the know. We felt aloof from what we saw as the stupidity of the previous generation, going about their nine to five lives, and selling their souls for commodity comfort.
When I discovered the SBW EP was missing, just before the radio show, I rushed out and bought an LP by the wrong Sonny Boy Williamson – the first one. I didn’t ever get a chance to hear him live because he was murdered… coming back from The Plantation Club in Chicago, at the young age of just 34 – a few months after I was born, .
- Local Musics
The local issue is, in my mind, closely related to my experience of self-publishing. The local and self-published is below the treacherous radar of the media. A lot of brilliant music never makes it out of its own area and a small crowd of live audiences, and this is often because it is unashamedly vulgar or political, but also because people don’t recognise its importance and give it support it needs. Clubs like Andy Allan’s EasyCome have an open mic for local acoustic music and can sometimes surprise a visitor with a blaze of raw talent.
track 4. The 1926 Committee – ‘Attitude Problem’. My best example of an unsung local artist hero is Steve Cope. I have a cassette tape of his group ‘The 1926 Committee’ with the title: ‘More of the Same’ (1996). He used to play around Kennington, the area of South London I lived in. and his material would always impress me with its clarity and power. I didn’t play this track on Resonance due to lack of time to cue the tape up… Attitude Problem’ concerns a certain ‘embarassing’ identity problem that often dare not speak its name! Simply being working class! In this song he lists just about every menial job there is and then the chorus says: “…well I thought it was the working class, but it was just me with my attitude problem, I thought it was the working class, but it was only you and me. because there is no working class, so you better get to bed , you’re up early in the morning…”.
track 5. ‘Southeast’ by a young woman rapper called ExCentral Tempest. From the ‘Save the Spike’ CD. which I heard & bought at Spike Island in Peckam in 2008. The Spike was an oasis of sanity and alternative experimentation that was unnecessarily shut down at the end of last year. She rymes about South London in a way that makes me love where I come from, and be aware of where I am in the fresh and powerful way that music is capable of. This resurgent pride is contrary to the slow ebb of self-dignity that comes from an impoverished environment that is amplified in the media images.
- Music /book cross-overs
I’ve come across some books with CDs or CDs with booklets, recently. These are often quite odd objects that lose the ‘authority’ of academic books. What I like is how they introduce sound into the literary object. Agit Disco was about verbalising the organic discourse of murmur and gesture that accompanies record playing and track sharing. Something quite outside the literary world and its pretentions. These books for a kind of bridge… They present a informal discursive reference point on the provenance and contexts of music in the course what here amounts to histories of aspects of Black music.
I dedicated this section to Kennington Park Cricket coach extra-ordinary – Tony Moody – The home-made compilation CD he gave me of ‘Music to Think by’ or ‘reggae music in the key of ‘C’ was a nudge on the way to the Agit disco project.
And whilst we’re on poor old Long suffering Kennington Common a toast to the Rastafarian Temple which once looked out over the community cricket ground but was evicted and demolished in 2007 – “May it rise from the ashes, I can see a red, green and gold temple shimmering through the Plane and Horse Chestnut trees of the common early on hot summer morning – soon come!”
First we have some selections from: Young Gifted and Black: The story of Trojan. by Michael de Koningh and Laurence Cane-Honeysett, Sanctuary Publishing 2003 – which includes a ’12-track CD of rare grooves’
track 6. The Ethiopians ‘Everything Crash’ 1968
“Over a heartbest rythmn produced by Sir JJ Johnson , lead singer Leonard Dillon recounts the strife caused by industrial strikes throughout Kingston in 1968. Everything did indeed crash back then, as he observes, ‘Firemen strike, watermen strike, telephone compay too…”
track 7. Joe the Boss – ‘Skinhead Revolt’ – 1970
“A heavy UK production from Joe Monsano with DJ Dice, The Boss and trombone player Rico Rodriguez combining to great effect. Not a well-known record at the time, but since has become highly saught after and is certainly one of the best ‘made for skinheads’ records.” Now I live in Thornton Heath which was, until his death in 2006, the home of Desmond Dekker, another Skinhead favorite.
track 8. Bob Andy – ‘You Don’t Know’ – 1973 (re-release)
“A chilling observation of the effects of cocaine, incisively written and sung by Bob Andy, who is undoubtedly one of the foremost singer/songwriters ever to emerge from Jamaica.”
At a time when several people close to me have recently suffered serious setbacks in their life due to the odious glamour of cocaine – it rings a bell.
In that period I had found some rock steady records (mainly Giant label) but my full contact with Carribean music only occured at the end of the Seventies when I was introduced to Big Youth’s dub sound by Andy Allan. I can leave Big Youth for another time.
The next CD/book I found was the female rap double CD ‘Fly Girls!’ celebrating 30 years of female rap recordings. A 2009 publication from Soul Jazz Records in Berwick street, Soho, near to my workplace. This compilation and history lesson led me back into my Sixtes/Seventies experiences. These works, and others like them, suffused the period and evoke it for me now.
track 9. Nikki Giovanni ‘Ego Tripping’ CD 1 Trk 5 1971. The white British working class could still learn a thing or two from the Black Pride strategies and contradicting the oppression that tells you that you are inferior.
In 1971 Giovanni was active in the radical Black Arts movement in 2009 she is Professor of English at Virginia Tech.
“The radical grammy nominated poet famously has a tattoo on her body with the words ‘Thug Life’ honouring Tupac Shakur, whom she greatly admired. Her book ‘Love Poems’ (1997) was written in memory of him, and she has stated that she would ‘rather be with the thugs than the people who are complaining about them“.p.11
track 10. Sarah Webster Fabio ‘Glimpses’ CD 2 trk 8 1972.
“Sarah Webster Fabio was a poet, educator and leading figure and pioneer in the Black Studies and Black Arts movements” After bringing up five children she taught creative writing at Merrit College in Oakland from 1965 when it was a ‘hot-bed for the emerging black power movement’. “‘Glimpses’ is a linguistical history lesson inthe African diaspora. The minimal naive punk-like music gives the track an almost proto punk/funk sound.” p.7 Fabio died in 1979.
Finally the third publication I recently found remaindered is The Message: the story of Sugarhill Records, Sanctuary 2006 – 4 CDs + 48pp book.
In 1979 no-one could forsee the upcoming and massive global success of rap. “Across the world from Paris to Havana, countless people now live their lives according to hip hop.” p.4.
“Hip Hop (9n the 1970s) had been a strictly live culture since its birth and mixtapes of live sessions were the accepted currency as far as physical recordings were concerned.” p.15
“Female MCs had played an important part in many of the key crews in the mid-70s – Liza Lee with the Zulu Nation, Sha Rock, one of the earliest and best female MCs with the Breakout Crew and Funky Four Plus One, Mercedes Ladies and The Sequence, featuring a young Angie B, now recording as Angie Stone.” p.20
track 11. Treacherous Three ‘Yes We Can-Can’ 1982. In the light of Mr Barack Obama freshly augurated I looked at some of the background in music. Obama got the main slogan wrong = it is not “Yes – we – can!” it is yes we can-can! Note “Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans bassline.” p. 35
track 12. Sugarhill All Stars ‘Malcolm X – No Sell Out’ 1983/4 This is the hardcore. All artist to hear this message. Keep it angry! Keep it real! Keep it on the street! Art must get out! No sell out! “Keith LeBlanc’s celebrated electro classic was one of the first to use new sampling technology.” p.37
track 13. Grandemaster & Melle Mel ‘Jesse’ 1984. Maybe not such great music but we have to give it up for this support for Jesse Jackson’s attempt at the Democratic candidacy – How things change! This was “The first solo track for Melle Mel on the label featuring Mirda Rock Reggie Griffin on vocoder.” p.37
- Political effects of music outside of lyrics
In the show I referred to another Agit Disco selection and played Duke Ellington’s ‘Money Jungle’ from Agit Disco 8 by Howard Slater. I won’t repeat that here.
My teenage music was really all about Rythmn and Blues. I’ve mentioned Sonny Boy Williamson the second in the riverside pub next to Chertsey Bridge. Another moment of enlightenment was seeing one of the ‘devastating’ first performances by the Cream at the RickyTick club at Windsor. It was the music that ‘blew my mind’, even though they had the poet Pete Brown writing lyrics for some of their early songs.
Any way all that was kind of thrown into the maelstorm of moderneity when I came across the AMM playing in a room at The Place, near Euston. The room was completely blacked-out with no lights on. The roaring lack of conventions, the lack of individuality (compared with the Cream!), the utter improvisational path it took unwrapped the culture that had evolved around me. It was a complete and disorientating immersion that veered from sensitive exchanges to a tidal wave of noise. It seemed as if all my cultural preconceptions were were washed away and I had to listen for the first time with no banal framework but my own morphing and complex sensibility. There was no retreat to comfort or reassurance. It was liberating. It was important it was in the dark. Melody Maker of 18-12-71 described them as having “awesome power”.
We humans are attracted to comfort sometimes at the expense of a richer experience. Central heating over a wood stove and so it goes. Sometimes the harder experience is worth all inconveniences.
It led to me being part of the Scratch Orchestra, as a visual artist. It was wonderful to able to be part of the power of an orchestra, to be at the centre of collective musical expression without feeling my tune-less-ness as a force of exclusion.
I didn’t actually get to play AMM on the Resonance Radio show because I brought the CD case but left the disc in a computer at home! Instead I played park ambiences I had recorded in the late Nineties in Hyde Park. Which ends with the sounds of a 21 gun salute. I won’t include it here as it really stood-in for the AMM tracks I had mislaid in the radio studio but will include here.
track 14 AMM – ‘Ailantus Glanulosa’ 1967
track 15 AMM – ‘In the Realm of Nothing Whatever’ 1967
The original AMM LP which came out in 1967 (same cover graphic of a lorry used on the later CD) was a treasured possession of mine but got ‘borrowed’ in the St Agnes Place era (please return along with my Big Youth album). The CD reissue on ReR Megacorp and distributed by Chris Cutler’s Re Records in Thornton Heath (where I live). Chris has recently been playing with Daevid Allen which segues into my final selection. The CD also contains a booklet with a fascinating text by Eddie Prevost in which he responds to the aphorisms on the back of the original LP (First published in ReRecords Quarterly magazine Vol 2 No 2 November 1988)
On the critics he says “The driving force of (their) ideology is not (as one ought to expect) ‘perfection’ but measurement. The measurable qualities of AMMMusic lead for example to erroneous and simplistic assumptions about a reduction of measurable standards and a drive towards musical (read technical) virtuosity. The ability to make one simple sound have a devastating aural and emotional impact is undervalued (attacked) because ‘anyone could’ (in theory) do it. Thus it undervalues expertise.” p.16 (no actual page numbers shown).
” …there is a sense of revulsion confronted with empty excesses of inflated technique – especially from musicians who are so inescapably entrenched in the cash nexus. To make the kind of music that AMM valued ans wished to participate in made technique potentially a hindrance. Whereas attention, awareness and sensitivity were the real means and maybe the real ends of making music.” p. 13
“AMM was a means of heightened awareness. The sounds and combinations of sounds we produced generated a physical, almost tactile, sense of being at the point of creation. Part of this heightened awareness was expressed as being simply in terms of enquiry.” p. 11
track 16 Daevid Allen – ‘The Switch Doctor’ (Broadcast by BBC 1967 although it was commissioned by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and made in 1965) – 28.38 mins It was reissued in 2004 by an unauthorised Russian label on a compilation CD called: ‘The Death of Rock and Other Entrances’.
At about the same time I heard AMM I was staying with my Grandparents who had just retired to a bungalow in Bramcote, Nottingham, where my mum grew up. This was probably the first (and only!) time I had stayed with them without my parents. They went to bed early as they were accustomed to do. Looking for something to do I put on their giant valve radio and tuned it in to Radio Three. By chance a sound collage by Daevid Allen was announced…. The Switch Doctor. This was a revelation. A whole piece made with sound samples and sound manipulations. Its effect was heightened by the contrast with the environment I was it. The silent cottage with my living history sleeping their old clock chiming the hours. The old fashioned smells and colours and fabrics and objects. I was taken into a utopia of sound displacement that seemed to embody the promise of the cut-up counter culture. Allen had in fact performed with William Burroughs in Paris c 1963.
Thanks you Ed Baxter, Carole Chant, and engineer Sarah at Resonance Fm 104.4
This CDR image was taken from a ride on the steam fair in Battersea Park.