Vaneigem and Bubblegum

Last week, when I was uninspired whilst reviewing my running list of blog topics, YouTube operated as a sort of Oblique Strategies, the deck of cards initially developed by musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt independently in the late 1960s and early ’70s. (Eno included four of Schmidt’s prints in his 1977 album Before and After Science.) The cards’ suggestions and comments can act as disinterested—oblique—prods for artists when they encounter roadblocks during the creative process. And so YouTube essentially did the same for me, but not obliquely—rather, evidently, based on my past searches and pointing-and-clicking. “Recommended for you” last week was an obscure track from The Zulu Compilation (1984), an album I happen to have in my collection. Zulu Records was formed by Jayne Casey and Ambrose Reynolds (both of whom also worked in the band Pink Industry, which issued lovely minimalist and melancholic music in the ’80s). The compilation is perhaps most collectible for its inclusion of a pre-Trevor Horn version of “Love Has Got a Gun” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

I hadn’t listened to that compilation LP in years and had completely forgotten the track YouTube selected for me: “The Kremlin in Flame [sic]” by S.T.F.O.T.P.A. It sounds like something from the 1976 Art & Language-Red Crayola collaboration, Corrected Slogans (discussed in my post I Found That Essence Rare). After some searching I found the identity of the track’s creators in a 2010 interview by Arthur McDonald of The Royal Family and the Poor fame. Except that I’d never heard of the band. Or, rather, when coming across their LPs, two of which were issued by Factory Records, I’d passed them by.

The interview (at Mute magazine), and its “intrudiction” by writer Flint Michigan, speak for themselves. Yet several things interest me enough to comment here. Michigan calls The Royal Family and the Poor “the only explicitly situationist band on the Factory label” even as “Factory records was one of the foremost popularisers of the Situationist International.” But Liverpudlians Arthur McDonald and Mike Keane, who would collaborate on the band’s “stringent proto-punk-funk tracks,” initially met by way of Guru Maharaj Ji’s Divine Light Mission, perhaps an unlikely venue. Or was it?

Divine Light and Dark and Light

In 1981, three years before The Royal Family and the Poor would release its first LP, a group from Nottingham, Medium Medium, issued The Glitterhouse, including the track “Guru Maharaj Ji,” which can be read as either a snide putdown, or a pedestrian description, of the teacher-student dynamic. The New York Times‘ Robert Palmer writes that the song “manages to be understanding and wryly humorous.”1 And it references “divine light.” Sonically the song (and the LP) were called to mind this week when listening to The Royal Family and the Poor’s debut album The Project Phase 1: The Temple of the 13th Tribe. There are echoes of Medium Medium’s funk and especially their sax. That sax sound was in the air at the time, having been employed by The Pop Group on Y in 1979. And Adrian Sherwood, who produced Medium Medium’s “Hungry, So Angry” from Glitterhouse, would go on to work with Pop Group’s Mark Stewart in several incarnations.2

In early 1984, Normil Hawaiians released its second LP, What’s Going On?, the cover of which features band member James Lusted meditating in front of a verdant hillside in Powys, Wales, two jets-and-contrails in the sky. The album jacket’s verso includes the very recognizable Om symbol Om Symbol, and its B-side diptych, “Going Down/Market Place,” includes a sequence that sounds like a bhajan, a devotional song.

Both these albums, by Medium Medium and Normil Hawaiians, were recorded at Foel Studio, in Powys, site of the Tony Harrison’s photographs for What’s Going On? and they both feature the participation of engineer, producer, and bassist Dave Anderson, who also worked with The Pop Group.3 I heard echoes of Normil Hawaiians when listening to The Royal Family and the Poor’s first LP, particularly in the reading of a text atop a rhythm track.

Let’s not forget that Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex and Lora Logic of Essential Logic both were initiated into the Hare Krishna fold in 1983, having spent time at Bhaktivedanta Manor, the estate donated by George Harrison. And several academics have studied the intersection between pop music and Hinduism, including James Andrew “Jimi” Wilson’s 2008 MFA dissertation by the (short) title of “Punk Rock Puja.”4

I should mention that in 1981 I met and worked briefly with Edward Stapleton and his band Nervous Gender.5 Edward, Irish by birth, had received Maharaj Ji’s “knowledge” in 1971 at age 15 while still living in England, plugging into the guru’s network when he and his family relocated to Los Angeles. But he found that culture confining. (Years later I would attend Maharaj Ji’s videotaped talks and one live appearance.) Nervous Gender’s music is as challenging as The Royal Family and the Poor. It is scathing, but I think it also can be called “wryly humorous.” (Let’s just say I had rather, mm, catholic tastes.6)

Edward shares my interest in Kali. I’d been introduced to her charms by my friend and musical collaborator Rob Berg. These days Kali strikes me more and more as Destroyer of Illusions, in particular the blindness engendered by white privilege, mine included. Who can countenance her without being stirred? My primary impression is that Kali Ma, as mother, is both creator and destroyer: each mother brings into the world a being who, at whatever point, will perish. And so she compares with Mary, Mother of God, who must have realized she was doing the same. Who can countenance God on a cross (or a gurney for that matter) without being stirred?

To wit…

[prologue to Kali]

On a corpse
dread
laughing
four arms
a sword
a severed head
removing fear
giving
wearing skulls
black
naked

— Gary Snyder, 19687

The Mother of God

The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

— William Butler Yeats, 1932

The Royal Family and the Poor’s interest in such things would eventually be revealed explicitly in song titles on The Genetic Terrorists cassette in 1986 (“Kali #1” and “Kali #2”) and its 2001 reworking of those songs for Children of Baphomet (“Hymn to Kali,” “Hymn to the Goddess,” and “Govinda”). And there’s “Light and Dark” from the debut LP with its chorus, “I’ve seen the light,” which can be read both polemically and, well, divinely.

Factory’s House Band vs. Gang of Four Bubblegum

The Royal Family and the Poor formed in 1978. Two years later Factory Records released six tracks by the band on the double LP A Factory Quartet (with The Durutti Column, Kevin Hewick, and Blurt). The songs consist of three percussion pieces titled “Dirge” interspersed with three text-and-music tracks. The first of the latter tracks is what caught the ear of Factory founder Tony Wilson: “Vaneigem Mix,” a reading by Arthur McDonald of writing by Raoul Veneigem,8 an important figure in the Situationist International, over a brisk drums-and-bass backed by treble, circular guitar reminiscent of Keith Levene’s work with Public Image Ltd and Vicki Aspinall’s violin on Vivien Goldman’s Dirty Washing EP.9

Lest I were to associate this track, too, with Art & Language’s Corrected Slogans album, McDonald states in the Mute interview that “Art & Language had an aversion to anything Situationist International and the other conceptual artists and their curator/art journalist friends gave the situationists little credit.” And so it’s curious that The Royal Family and the Poor, by contrast, did not eschew Art & Language’s format of reading texts over rock music tracks, as they did on the Factory Quartet D-side.

A second “Dirge” is followed by “Death Factory” (a title appropriated from Throbbing Gristle, whose members included Genesis P-Orridge), which features McDonald’s diatribe regarding consumerism and work.10 The third and final “Dirge” precedes “Rackets,” a designation McDonald applies to all enterprises great and small.

These tracks were examined in detail—“exactly as described” according to McDonald in his Mute interview—by Howard Slater in his 1998 essay Graveyard and Ballroom: A Factory Records Scrapbook (scroll to Vaniegem Mix 2).

In a similar vein to the Gang of Four’s Damaged Goods on Fast [Records], but more communicative of disgust and a need for revolutionary violence, the Royal Family produce one of the most blistering indictment [sic] of capitalism heard during the punk and post-punk period.

McDonald himself distilled this notion further in his Mute interview.

The Buzzcocks manager, Richard Boone, described our first demo as ‘makes the Gang of Four sound like the bubblegum band we always knew they were’.

The Arthur McDonald-Mike Keane team made one more record together on Factory, “Art on 45,”11 a three-track single that involved A Certain Ratio’s Donald Johnson (producing and drumming) and New Order’s Peter Hook (producing and bass-ing) as well as Factory’s ever present Tony Wilson.

Parting and Project

And what of that S.T.F.O.T.P.A. track from The Zulu Compilation? As McDonald told Mute,

Tony [Wilson] once said something like nobody else will let you record, but Jayne Casey contradicted him, and me and Teresa and another friend recorded ‘The Kremlin in Flames’ as S.T.F.O.T.P.A. for her 1984 Zulu compilation.12

But by this time McDonald appears to have left The Royal Family and the Poor, not by choice, but because Teresa became ill.

We moved back to Newcastle and I mistakenly thought that Teresa would be ok in a month or two. Mike [Keane] came to see us and we agreed he could take The Royal Family & The Poor on any Darwinian Survival path he saw fit. We’d sort out any problematics later; if indeed there was to be any ‘later’!

According to James Nice’s 2003 bio of the band, Keane remembers the split differently.13

We did some gigs and then [McDonald] decided he wanted The Royal Family to be the most obscure band in the world. He just said he wasn’t going to do anything else. He moved to Newcastle, I think. And I think he realised we were never going to make any money. I had really enjoyed what we had done, so I carried on with backing tapes, called myself the Legend Agency and did a tour of Britain with China Crisis.

Sometime after that, Keane had his own personal crisis and left Liverpool for Winchester. While walking the six-score-mile path of the Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury he decided to quit music. But upon his return to Liverpool he was tracked down by Factory and offered an album deal. The resulting LP reflects where he’d been, beginning with the title, The Project, the tag he’d used when appearing after the China Crisis tour. (The Project appears as the third track on The Zulu Compilation.) The album’s subtitle tells more: The Temple of the 13th Tribe. According to McDonald,

[Keane] actually met Genesis P. Orridge [sic] later and did some magic rituals with him. Very interestingly Ian Curtis [of Joy Division] was hoping to form a new band with Genesis P. So this is where the magic and occult interests are expressed. It feeds the musician in Mike so I just accept it as such. He’s become an ace musician and balladeer.

That LP’s sessions employed engineer Mike Johnson, who had cut his teeth as an assistant on Joy Division’s Closer, and Peter Hook again was producer and bassist (whose touches can be heard). It features the most tender ballads, including a remnant of polemical work in “Power of Will,” the setting of which is not bubblegum, but definitely is not “Death Factory,” and so is subversively incisive, beguiling by beauty.

The Royal Family and the Poor would continue to release product through the 1980s, beginning again in the 2000s, but Keane and McDonald did so independently rather than collaboratively.

Coda

A curious twist to all of this is that the profile in the Zulu Records logo resembles that of Thomas McNeice, Gang of Four’s current bassist.

Zulu Records Logo and Thomas McNeice composite

Header image:
gatefold interior of

The Zulu Compilation

Notes
  1. “Psychedelia and Originality From a New White-Funk Group,” New York Times, 02 Dec 1981, C26.
  2. New Age Steppers, Mark Stewart and the Maffia, and Stewart’s solo releases.
  3. Anderson coproduced The Pop Group’s single “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way” (1980).
  4. Wilson. 2008. Punk rock puja : (mis)appropriation, (re)interpretation, and dissemination of Hindu religious traditions in the North American and European underground music scene(s) (MFA diss., University of Florida). See also the list of papers related to Wilson’s at Academia.edu.
  5. In 1981 I invited Nervous Gender to participate in a music and performance series at Traction Gallery in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district. They responded by creating an opera, abbreviated only by the limitations of time. Backing tracks were recorded on my reel-to-reel in my bedroom. The results are memorialized on the B(eelelzebub Youth)-side of their LP Music From Hell (1981, Subterranean Records).
  6. This past February I recalled Nervous Gender’s song “Cardinal Newman” (issued on Music From Hell) after reading an article on Salon.com titled “I Was Groped by a Man Called ‘Mary’: The World Changes But Not the Catholic Church” by Lucian K. Truscott IV. By chance, Truscott, on 27 Jun 1969, then a recent graduate of West Point on summer leave, had witnessed the Stonewall Inn riot and so “covered” the pivotal incident for The Village Voice. See, e.g., his “The Real Mob at Stonewall,” New York Times, 26 Jun 2009, A25. He explains how gay bars could not obtain liquor licenses and thus were beholden to organized crime and its arrangement with NYPD. Thank Goddess those days are done…
  7. This is the prologue to the Kali section of Snyder’s The Back Country. New York: New Directions, 1968, 71.
  8. Discogs notes that two texts are read: Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life and also Some Clarifications, a section from Trouble Is My Business (Bureau of Public Secrets No. 1 [January 1976]), by Ken Knabb, editor of the famous Situationist International Anthology (1981, 2006). I should mention that the first action Knabb memorializes on his website is his 1970 rebuke of poet Gary Snyder, whom I quote above, for his part in the “prevailing social spectacle.”
  9. Levene also contributed to Goldman’s EP.
  10. Discogs notes that this track also features guitar by Ambrose Reynolds, of Zulu Records, who appeared on other Royal Family and the Poor tracks over the years as well.
  11. The title is a play on Stars on 45, a Dutch studio group that strung together faithful tribute renditions of hit songs to the meter of a drum track. But the title also can interpreted as a response to Art & Language.
  12. McDonald omits Teresa’s surname throughout the Mute interview, identifying her as “my art student girlfriend,” but a Teresa Kelly collaborated with McDonald-as-RF&TP on two final albums, The Pope’s Daughter (2010) and Haunted (2012). She appears in this post’s header image, second from lower left.
  13. In the Mute interview McDonald calls Nice’s bio of RF&TP “potted” due to Nice’s claim that it was Tony Wilson who came up with the band’s name. Nice also is the author of Shadowplayers: The Rise and Fall of Factory Records, Aurum Press, 2010.

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