Tracey Moberly's "Text me up" is one of the most interesting books I've read in a while. To begin with I was intrigued when a friend told me about an artist who'd kept all her text messages for a decade and then edited them down into a book. I can't see a similar project with my phone being of much interest - there's a limit to how often you'd want to read "ok c u l8r. Dx" Luckily Tracey's a multidisciplinary artist who knows lots of cool people, and has been involved in all kinds of interesting stuff, first in Manchester and then in London.
After a while, it feels like the text-collection is just one element of the book, and is mainly a kind of framing device - a convenient way of telling the story of her arts centre, the Foundry in Hackney, and catches the immediacy of events and the feel of a fast moving, rapidly evolving scene.
She started out lecturing on art at Manchester Metropolitan University (around the time of Madchester), where her activities included teaching a course with Tony Wilson, and a kids' art project in Hulme at the Zion Arts Centre. Moving to London, she became co-owner of the Foundry: a space that operated as a bizarre mix of the Hacienda, Warhol's Factory, a 60's "arts lab", and yer local pub. This was all long before areas like Hoxton, Hackney, Islington and Shoreditch had been colonised by the Britart gang - with a resultant huge hike in property prices. This would eventually be the end for the Foundry, which closed in May 2010 and has been converted into a hotel and shopping mall. Gentrification won again, but for a while Tracey Moberly, her colleagues and mates succeeded in creating a bit of the Berlin atmosphere in the East End.
The book really makes the case for the need for cheap, rough'n'ready spaces for artists and musicians to develop their craft, show what they do, and have a simpatico place to hang out with mates. Is that really too much to ask? There are so many fascinating frozen moments here - like a tantalising chapter concerned with "Pretty Pete" Doherty organising Poetry Nights in '99/2000, around the same time the Libertines were starting up.
It's a really-well produced book, each chapter overflowing with photos and other visual links, and the text-stream running alongside the main body of the story (in different colour ink). If I was being picky, I'd ask for a few bigger pictures and maybe a caption or two more - though after a while I was able to recognise most of the people and places involved. All this provides a suitable backdrop for a constantly shifting process of events, shows and journeys, taking in places from Moscow to Haiti, and a cast including Howard Marks, Bill Drummond, Johny Brown, and Irvine Welsh among others. The Foundry showed how it could be done - a space for non-commercial art, music and cultural events and initiatives, ranging from in-house arts installations to live music gigs.
Some chapters are made up entirely of text and msg’s - 17 at the beginning, 17 at the end, though I haven't counted - selected at random (apparently there are enough left for another 40 books!). What comes across most is the variety and versatility of Tracey Moberly as an artist and instigator. The first Text-Me-Up shows (around 2000) involved an alternative balloon race, with the finders asked to text back their thoughts. This was reprised in another event based around the Band of Holy Joy’s “Love's Dirty Habit” song cycle - although the title was asking for trouble, leading to a deluge of dogging-related replies! Since then, Text-Me-Up shows have shape-shifted thru print, poetry, embroidery, radio and film ...... and music, of course. Normally we're concerned here with books that are more music-centric, but Tracey's book and work really show that specialisation is so last-millennium, and ultimately limiting. So let's conclude with a quote from Tracey that says it just right: "I think most [creative] things follow the same simple structure in creating from the spinning and dyeing of thread to knitting a jumper, to using clay and pigments to make a brick and building a wall. I think the same thing follows in more general creative art terms when you cross and collate different aspects of music, art and performance"
I hope I've been able to convey just how stimulating this book is. It’s a treat to look out too, with loads of illustrations, and a great lay-out with the text messages scattered like footprints or diary entries throughout the book. Thanks for bearing with me - I promise the rest of the books will remain in the musical comfort zone...
Luke Haines - Post Everything (Heinemann)
Humour's a strange and very personal thing, I guess - it depends on so many variables. When does side-splitting turn to "That Joke Isn't Funny Any More?" I laughed along with everyone else back in the day at Monty Python - but it seems excruciating now ("Oh, let's have two cleaning ladies discussing Jean Paul Sartre...") and as dated as the ITMA/Goons stuff I loathed as a teenager. I loved Luke Haines' first book, "Bad Vibes" when it came out a couple of years back and insisted you all bought it instantly (see Mudkiss, Jan '09). It was a great reminder how good the Auteurs were and a fascinating insider's view on a really exciting period in music, where shoegaze mingled with grunge and all manner of other indie factions, before the Britpop tsunami swept all aside. It was also one of the funniest books I'd read in ages, with some irresistible Laugh-Out-Loud passages (e.g. touring with Oasis, or a disastrous Scandinavian festival) and some recurring targets, like the Creation clique, Suede, Primal Scream, Blur and Chris Evans.
So, I was delighted when I saw he'd written a follow-up to that book, “Post Everything”. But by the time I'd finished, my main reaction is disappointment. It’s a perfectly serviceable read, and is again really good on the inner workings of the music biz - where a group can find themselves bought, sold, and dropped at random as companies change hands - but alas, no 'LOL' moments this time. This is partly down to the changing times. Where the first book had a mass of larger-than-life characters and big stories to choose from, the territory covered here is a whole lot less promising. The Auteurs achieved the rare peak of commercial success and critical approval, and were for a while one of the hottest acts around and essential listening. The tail-end of Britpop, yielding to the dominance of plastic soul/r'n'b, formula hip-hop, and X-Factor dominated pop just isn't as interesting, and in the same way, Black Box Recorder's music, although skillfully put together, just doesn't hold the same cachet as the Auteurs’ work.
In the same way, Luke Haines' progression from the Auteurs (and alter ego Baader Meinhof) to Black Box Recorder marks a similar downturn in the interest factor. Black Box Recorder made some good albums, but I find something a bit smug and too self-consciously clever about the group and their music (see also Pulp/Lloyd Cole). The book still contains some good passages about the vagaries of the music business, but a lot of the time it feels like Luke Haines is straining to come up with the goods, and the writing feels more like obligation than inspiration. There's a rather tenuous attempt thru chapter headings to connect the story to events in the wider world, and develop this into the 'post-everything' theme, which doesn't quite come off. But it's really the 'humorous' passages that illustrate the book's weakness. Ok, maybe I'm being a sour old grouch, but sorry, I like a laugh as much as anyone but there are certain things that just don't do it for me, such as: "Vee haff vays of making you laugh, ja?" phonetically-transcribed Funny Foreigner voices, extended running gags about deep and meaningful conversations with talking animals and dead hip-hop stars, or clever-clever quotes from non-existent books. There are some passages that feel like padding - there's an interminable account of an abortive attempt at putting on a musical at the National Theatre (where all the theatre protagonists are dubbed "Graham" to indicate their wussiness- oh stop man, my sides are hurting). As the show never came to anything, it really merits a couple of paragraphs rather than several chapters.
I'm really sorry to have to give 'Post Everything' such a kicking. I've deliberately held back a while from writing about it in the hope that it'd seem better on a second read, but 'fraid not. I'm sure Mr Haines would refute most of my criticisms in his elegant way. Maybe if 'Grumpy Old Men' is your favourite TV show, you‘ll get more out of this than I did. I'll be interested to see if Luke Haines does another book - I hope so - and what he writes about now he's told his story. Meanwhile, I'd just advise you to get that first book, pour a drink, put on some Auteurs or Baader Meinhof and you won't be sorry...
Byron Coley - C'est La Guerre: Early writings 1978-83 (L'Oie de Cravan)
These days Byron Coley writes about music for mags like “The Wire“, in a confident, precise style, showing an amazing breadth of musical knowledge and a sharp wit. So it's interesting to go back to his early writing - whether letters, frantic articles for US 'zines like 'Forced Exposure' during the post-punk hardcore phase and on to features and reviews for mega-cool mags like “New York Rocker“. The subject matter's flawless too - following an early Devo tour, catching the group at a time when it looked like they were the next step on from Bowie and Eno (and before they succumbed to MTV) as the start of Byron's journey. I've always liked the US hardcore scene, so it's great to read contemporary views on the Minutemen, Germs, Meat Puppets, Husker Du et al, all recounted in suitably breathless land-speed-record style. At this stage it's still very much a 'fan writing for fans' vibe, and the style owes a lot to the 70’s post-Hunter Thompson influenced Gonzo school of rock journalism, exemplified by guys like Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs (who were also a huge influence - not always acknowledged - on certain late 70’s NME writers). It's good fun and suits the material, but after a while the effect gets strained and it's cool to see how he develops the confidence to write in his own way. There's a very witty put-down of the "No-one Gets Out of Here Alive" Jim Morrison biography and a searingly spot-on demolition of David Bowie c. 1983 in his "Let's Dance"/Mr Showbiz phase. There's a wide range of topics in the other articles - Robert Fripp, Clash, Fred Frith and Lydia Lunch - that are guaranteed to set you rummaging thru your old sounds.
Also - for reasons I'm not entirely sure of - the book is dual-language, with French and English text on facing pages (well, it was published in Montreal...) However this is very cool, as you can let your gaze wander and find French expressions that go way beyond 'la plume de ma tante' . It’s a really nicely produced little book too - it might not be the easiest thing to find (though I've heard that “The Wire” have some stock), but it's well worth looking for.
Nik Cohn -Tryksta: Life and Death in New Orleans Rap
While I've been working through this lot, I read a couple of other things that aren't recent or especially relevant, but are worth mentioning. I've never been a big fan of Nik "Awopbopaloobop" Cohn's writing in the past - a bit smug and know-all - but a friend recommended “Tryksta” to me, and I'm really glad he did. I know hip hop isn't really Mudkiss territory, but bear with me... It's basically the story of how middle-aged English chap Nik Cohn goes down to sweltering New Orleans in the hope of discovering raw local talent, and deploying his own musical savvy and contacts to turn the 'product' into big hits and big bucks. When you're used to the cramped nature of UK life, it’s eye-opening to see how the US is such a big place that people can be major stars and make big money doing essentially localized regional styles, without having to go national. It's a familiar tale of hustlers and idealists, and how Nik Cohn gradually finds acceptance on the scene - and then Hurricane Katrina comes along and blows everything away, scattering all before it, and leading to a poignant coda as people try to put things together again in the mud and wreckage after the flood.
Peter Hook - The Hacienda: How not to run a club
On the other hand, I found “The Hacienda” a pretty dismal read, although there‘s some good period detail in the lists of who played at the club and DJ set-lists. I guess it depends a lot on how much you buy into author 'Hooky's" I'm-mad-for-it-me persona, and endless accounts of being 'twatted' with his crew. Personally I'm suspicious of anyone out of their teens who wants a nickname ending in 'y', but there you go. He's generally disparaging about anyone apart from a bunch of his local mates and New Order manager Rob Gretton, and he certainly displays no affection for the rest of the group. Often on the same page he’ll be wringing his hands about how violent gangsters ruined the club, and then name-dropping about which ones he was big pals with. What really irritated me was the way he dumps all the blame for the demise of both the Hacienda club and Factory records on someone who's no longer alive to answer his charges. Sure, Tony Wilson was never going to be a fastidious book-keeper and liberties were taken, but without him no-one would ever have heard of Joy Division and New Order, let alone 'Hooky'. End of...
Reviews by Den Browne 07/09/11