Hard News by Russell Brown

24

Friday Music: True love works in funny ways

Next Wednesday, the winner of the 2014 Taite Music Prize is announced at a ceremony in Auckland. As always seems to be the case, the list of finalists is all-killer-no-filler:

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II (Rhythmethod)
Beastwars – Blood Becomes Fire (Destroy Records)
Sheep Dog & Wolf – Egospect (Lil’ Chief Records)
The Phoenix Foundation – Fandango (The Phoenix Foundation/Universal)
David Dallas – Falling Into Place (Frequency Media Group/Universal)
@peace – Girl Songs (Frequency Media Group/Universal)
Lorde – Pure Heroine (Universal Music New Zealand)
Jonathan Bree – The Primrose Path (Lil’ Chief Records)

Past Taite judging panels have shown they're not shy about serving up a surprise. But one winner on the night is already known. This year's Independent Music NZ Classic Record is the legendary Ripper Records punk compilation AK79. And I'm delighted to say that you can find out everything you need to know about that album, in both its incarnations, in Simon Grigg's new feature article for Audioculture.

In keeping with the Audioculture style, the article is illustrated with some great photographs, including more from the amazing archive of Sara Leigh Lewis. But it's a Murray Cammick shot from 1978 that really makes me happy. The Scavengers, outside the Windsor Castle in 1978:

Aw.

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I wrote recently that major music companies and other copyright holders seemed to have struck a balance in their approach to Soundcloud between policing and permissiveness, allowing what is an increasingly important channel for them to maintain its vitality. (Lorde, recall, first reached the word via Soundcloud.) Turns out I have have spoken too soon.

There are reports that the UK record industry group the BPI intends to increase the pressure on Soundcloud and, if necessary, flood the site with takedown requests. I'm unsure what they think they're doing here: Souncloud has tightened up considerably in the past year. There are relatively few original master recordings there without permission now and if the BPI intends to crack down on re-edits, remixes and other derivative works, it will be scoring the biggest own goal imaginable.

The DJ Dimitri Paris posted this on his Facebook page this week:

Everyday, there is more of you visiting my Soundcloud page and that of other music people, from small to big.

Finding there a wider variety of music, than what the more mainstream media, have to offer.

Major labels (Universal Music Group, Sony-BMG, Warner-EMI) constantly remove content from Soundcloud, automatically taking tracks down without notice. That content their robots remove, legally belongs to them, even though some real people at their head offices decide they don't care to make it available to you. 

Content that is most times spontaneously reinterpreted and curated by music loving people (edits, mixes, mashups etc) to share with others alike, adding to its value in the process.

Content the "Soundclouders" make no money from, whether streaming it or giving it away to download.

Content from artists whose repertoire is owned by majors, which they don't care to exploit.

Content that you can choose to listen and share, and that at this time cannot be made available in other (legal) way. 

Ultimately content that spreads the music, and legacy of the original artist beyond financial motives. 

While this system is indeed not retributing the original artists, it can benefit both them and the "Soundclouders" by boosting their notoriety, something the majors typically don't make hard cash from. 

So rather than set out to get income for themselves AND the artist by exploiting the music they own, Major labels take the YouTube - If I Can't Have It I'll Break It - approach so that eventually no music can't be heard unless they say so. 

Sweet?

Sigh. Please don't break this thing. Please.

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Peter McLennan rounds up the heartbreaking losses from the Kilbirnie self-storage fire.

SJD's first album, 3, is now on Bandcamp, at a price of your choosing. Excellent.

It's probably entirely fanciful, but Prince to play Glastonbury as a supergroup with members of Led Zeppelin has to be the musical rumour of the year.

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New on TheAudience: Valere, whose 'IKTL' is a sparse, measured, interesting soul tune. 

In quite a different vein -- that vein being a cool, accomplished indie rock vibe -- Brendan Lott out of Blenheim:

The strange and mysterious Jordan Reyne is back. This is, in her words, "a song made of vocal loops that tells the tale of a mysterious town where people are taken to become something they are not." You can pre-order the EP it's from (the first in a trilogy) at her Bandcamp, where she also explains what her new recordings are about.

I heard great things about Estere's opening set for Erykah Badu this week. If she got you interested, there's plenty like this for download from her Soundcloud:

I mentioned Dimitri from Paris above. He has an amazing playlist of his remixes on Soundcloud, and most of them are available for download. They include this official remix of Danny Hathaway's 'The Ghetto':

Go get!

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The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:

theaudience

163

To be expected

"Labour has taken another step to distance itself from the Greens," intoned Guyon Espiner on Morning Report, before he went on to identify "early signs of trouble in a pre-election relationship". Last night One News declared that "[t]raditional alliances between Labour and the Greens are under severe strain."

Really?

I completely understand why the Green Party would have confidentially proposed to Labour that the two parties campaign as a formal coalition this year, to the extent of allocating Cabinet posts in advance. I understand equally why Labour would have said, thanks but no thanks.

If it is to have any chance of forming a goverment later this year, Labour will need to win two to three times as many votes as the Greens. It's entitled to seek to maximise its vote, and I don't see it attracting many, if any, more votes through a joint campaign. It would be more likely to help National, which is already terribly keen to depict Labour as in thrall to the looney Greens.

It's also very likely that any possible centre-left government will require the support of New Zealand First. Is Winston Peters more likely to be wooed into a prospective government that includes the Greens, or one in which he is the wedding guest to a formal Labour-Green coalition? I think the answer is clearly the former.

Espiner went on to muse that perhaps the Greens were facing a situation like that in 2005, where they weren't part of a formal coalition. This doesn't seem terribly valid either. In 2005, Labour was faced with two coaliton partners to its right, who could deliver it a governing majority but would not work with the Greens, and the Greens, who (and it was close) were short of being able to deliver a majority on their own.

That won't happen this time, because there is simply no possibility of a centre-left goverment that does not include the Greens. There is no other option. It's almost as unlikely that such a government would not include New Zealand First.  So it doesn't make much sense for Labour to embark on a course that reduces the likelihood of co-operation from New Zealand First.

They might as well declare that they are prepared to work together and get on with their respective campaigns. That is, to do what they were doing last week, when no one seemed to think it was a problem, let alone a crisis.

121

The perilous birth of the Psychoactive Substances Act

With the news yesterday of the attempted arson of a legal highs store in Invercargill, it's reasonable to ask whether we're on the verge of public hysteria about synthetic cannabis. The next question would be why it's happening now, when 95% of retail outlets for such products have been either shut down or forbidden to to sell the products -- and those remaining are closely monitored and, for the first time, required to be strictly R18 premises.

The Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority, which administers the fledgling regime established under the Psychoactive Substances Act, has also not been shy about banning products deemed unsafe under its assessment guidelines. The entire JWH group of synthetic cannabinoids, which provided the psychoactive ingredients of most of the products that, before the Act, could be sold to kids from corner dairies, is now gone.

The list of products deemed low-risk and granted interim approval is a fraction of the nearly 300 legal highs sold in the past few years, before the new Act. It includes half a dozen fairly harmless pill products containing caffeine, guarana, kava, green tea and amino acids, and the rest is synthetic pot. When the full approval process gets underway, all of these will be banned subject to the Authority being satisfied that they present a low risk. It is quite possible that no products administered by smoking will meet the standard.

So, why now? Why now, when the prevalence of acute cases is reportedly beginning to fall? My guess is that we're reaping the harm of the years when the goverment was playing whack-a-mole, banning one substance after another without attempting to deal with the problem in the whole through regulation.

That certainly seems to be the case with 17 year-old Jesse Murray, whose tragic story has unfolded in the past week in The Press and other Fairfax papers. He and his mother say he has been smoking synthetic cannabis since he was 14 and he is now clearly addicted. But here's the thing I just can't process about that story:

His days are dictated by the opening and closing hours of the nearest legal high shop.

If he has the money, he will hand over anything between $25 and $80 a day - money he has begged for.

Despite it being illegal for him to purchase the drug because of his age, sometimes, out of sympathy, the storekeepers give it to him for free.

Let's be very clear here: whether they are selling Jesse synthetic pot or giving it to him for free, these storekeepers are breaking the law. The police should be informed and the owners' licence to trade revoked forthwith. Why on earth has The Press published three stories about Jesse but not identified the shops supplying him? Why is The Press sheltering criminals?

I'm not sure by what mechanism the currently available products might be directly causing the stomach bleeding reported by Jesse, but the Authority has already banned products found to be associated with "nausea and vomiting, insomnia, acute psychotic reaction, and prolonged withdrawal". If there are still products on sale that cause such harm, they need to be reported.

It's possible that the real damage was done to Jesse before the new regime, but that doesn't help with his withdrawal problems. Most people use these products without significant problems, but it does appear that some of them more than others cause addiction and other problems. The Wikipedia article on synthetic cannabis notes that the synthetic cannabinoids are full agonists to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, by contrast with THC, the chief active ingredient in marijuana, which is only a partial agonist -- and the belief that this is the key to severe adverse effects, including toxicity. The absence of cannibdiol (CBD), another cannabinoid found in marijuana, which has demonstrated anti-psychotic effects, may also be a factor.

You might think in light of that, that we're regulating the wrong thing -- that cannabis itself should be subject to the same strict regulation in the place of these new substances. You may well be right, and you might be surprised to find how many MPs are thinking the same thing, but the politics are such that it simply was not possible to apply the new Act to any drug currently illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

I do think that will happen, and that it might not be that long coming, but it won't be until after the Psychoactive Substances Act is fully up and running and has proved its fitness.

Meanwhile, in the illicit sector, we're seeing the same problems that prompted the pasage of the Act. LSD has been made too difficult to manufacture or supply -- so its place in the market has been taken by the NBOMe class of drugs, which are being sold in New Zealand as "liquid LSD". Users don't know what they're getting and, more importantly, how much. The NBOMe drugs have a scary dose-response curve, doses are almost microscopic and some toxic overdoses are being recorded. This keeps happening. That's why we're trying a different approach.

We're at an awkward stage with a legislative approach that is being watched around the world. This is something worth doing. And I hope that the news media can take a balanced approach to what's happening, and that local authorities do what is required of them under the law. Because failure would take us right back to square one.

263

The Language of Climate

In this month's New York Review of Books, the British author Zadie Smith commences an insightful essay headed Elegy for a Country's Seasons with the observation that "There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words."

Instead, she says, Britons use "the new normal" as a euphemism when:

... a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.

It's an interesting thought. So much of our art and literature is based in the archetypes of the seasons (and this is true in still-Anglophile New Zealand, where we have affixed British ceremonies to our own cycles, so the fertility rite of Easter means that winter is coming). She notes that society's understanding of the seasons has been transcribed in the works of Dickens and others. How long till someone writes a poem about climate change?

It may well happen first in Britain, where it is now plausible to attribute new, extreme weather events to a changing global climate. 

She continues:

The weather has changed, is changing, and with it so many seemingly small things—quite apart from train tracks and houses, livelihoods and actual lives—are being lost. It was easy to assume, for example, that we would always be able to easily find a hedgehog in some corner of a London garden, pick it up in cupped hands, and unfurl it for our children—or go on a picnic and watch fat bumblebees crawling over the mouth of an open jam jar. Every country has its own version of this local sadness.

But Smith also makes a deeper point about the barrenness of the rhetoric of the climate change debate. She tells the story of how she, in New York for Superstorm Sandy:

...  climbed down fifteen floors, several months pregnant, in the darkness, just so I could get a Wi-Fi signal and e-mail a climate-change-denying acquaintance with this fresh evidence of his idiocy.

I've been pondering this same to-and-fro, where "alarmists" and "deniers" swap epithets in a ritual that seems designed mostly to perpetuate itself. It's a difficult dance to leave. How else can you respond to Mike Hosking's risible pronouncements on climate change but with the kind of scorn Steven Price delivers here?

Sadly, Hosking's thoughts were not even his own. By some means I'm not entirely clear on, the new talking point of the doubters has become "We can't predict what's going to happen, because who can predict anything anyway?" Or as my friend Josh Drummond put it, when all else fails, demand "What is truth?"

I retweeted Josh, but I did not convince anyone who was not already convinced. The rhetorical dance shows no sign of ending. Is there are better way of talking about this? There must be.

As I wrote in my first blog post of the year, the global insurance industry has already left the dance and is acting on, as one industry risk expert put it, the reality that "the activity today is not simply the average of history." Things are changing, and the people with real money to lose (rather than just a media soapbox to stand on) are taking account of those changes.

Again, the cultural change is likely to take place first in those countries where unprecedented weather is a new reality. Christchurch has had a taste of things to come, with the land itself falling even before a predicted rise in the sea level. But in Britain, which sits adjacent to ocean systems that have a significant bearing on climate and are changing, the weirdness seems more evident.

Although it's less plausibly attributable to climate change,  London's toxic smog last week -- a collision of existing particulate pollution, strange winds from Europe and dust from the Sahara -- was certainly amply weird. I asked my London'based friend Jen Ferguson how people were feeling. She wrote:

When I made the decision to return to London two years ago, it wasn’t for the weather, but then I’ve never had any beef with the UK weather. It is what it is. Or was. The Great British Weather has always been variable, and this impacts on how people view climate change. Because it’s so unpredictable, extreme weather events don’t make the impact they should and folks don’t quite twig that we should be very, very alarmed at the state of things.

There’s an awareness that things are probably getting worse but it’s accompanied by a weird and dangerous inertia. Sadly it may take a disaster much worse than toxic smog or Somerset flooding to finally compel us to get our heads out of the sand and take action. We shake our heads and tut about things, while accepting the most palatable explanation.

David Cameron’s nonsense that the smog hurting our throat and making our eyes stream is simply “a naturally occurring weather phenomenon” is much easier to deal with than the reality - as John Vidal in the Guardian so eloquently outlined, a perfect storm of extreme levels of toxic particulates emitted by our own dirty diesel engines and untamed industry, combined with (here’s where Dave’s weather phenomenon comes in) pollution blown over from Europe and dust from the Sahara. But I don’t suspect the UK is alone in this inertia.

Over the past week, I've seen various social media posts from smug Kiwis along the lines of “Sitting on a pristine New Zealand beach, trying to imagine what level 10 air pollution would be like.” These are the same people who will probably vote John Key back in because they don’t like the look of that Cunliffe chap, and then wonder why their pristine beach has a rather nasty oily black coating...

That last, of course, is a different matter again, with different risks, although no less of a rhetorical dance in itself.

If climate change is about science, the "debate" is one of ideologies. "What are you, personally, doing about it?" the doubters ask us, "And how much quality of life are you prepared to give up?" Its a question to which most of us don't have a good personal answer, except to say, with every justification in the world, that the magnitude of the challenge is such that it can only be answered collectively; by nations, by the planet. It's an answer that anyone who places a philosophical premium on individual action may not even be able to hear.

We're currently at a point, in nearly every country, where governments essentially accept the evidence of risk, but where there is no public pressure for them to act on that risk. There aren't many votes in climate change, and even fewer for a centre-right government. The language of the apocalypse clearly doesn't work -- and sometimes, when things turn out to be not so bad, so soon, actually harms the cause.

So, again ... is there a better way of talking about this? There must be.

35

Friday Music: The Godfather of House Music

I got a little weepy on Tuesday. No, not for the departing  Geoff Robinson, much as I appreciate his fine service these past 40 years, but for Frankie Knuckles, who died suddenly at the age of 59 later that day. Although he's hardly a household name, people who felt it, felt it hard.

Twitter was flooded with tributes and even The Economist published a tribute to "the man most commonly credited as the godfather of house music". So exactly what is all the fuss about this Knuckles guy?

Some context: In 1979, in Chicago, 70,000 drunk dudes cheered as thousands of disco records (which effectively meant any records by black people) were blown up with explosives at a baseball stadium. The white folks got so out of hand that riot police had to clear the field. This is the environment in which Frankie was playing evolving forms of that marginalised music to equally marginalised communities -- black, gay or, like Frankie, both. The actual same city.

The term "house music" itself was coined by a local record store as shorthand for the music Frankie Knuckles was playing -- sometimes rearranged on reel-to-reel tape, or beefed up with an early drum machine -- at the Chicago club where he was the keynote DJ: The Warehouse.

The Warehouse didn't actually play house music, for the very good reason that it hadn't been invented yet. Proto-house music, harder and less musical, was the next step on at Ron Hardy's Music Box club, where Frankie also played. 

So what did it sound like at The Warehouse? Red Bull Music Academy put together a YouTube playlist based on the Warehouse Top 50 compiled by Bill Brewster with Frank Broughton for their book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. The tracklisting is here. It's brilliant. I'd go and dance at a club playing these tunes -- Chaka Khan, Roy Ayers, Gwen Guthrie -- any time.

A few years later, that music, now fully evolved into something new -- house music and in particular the heavy loops of acid house --  leapt the Atlantic and thence became a dominant force in popular music. These days, EDM fills American stadiums -- and two years ago the Chicago White Sox held their first annual House Music Night at the stadium where the disco records were destroyed in 1979. As Brewster notes in his concise obit for The Guardian, Frankie liked to refer to house music as "disco's revenge".

Frankie's passing terminates a great pop-cultural arc. But it also takes a chunk out of my own youth. I first heard Chicago house music in London in  1986 and two years later, house music, as the saying goes, changed my life. 

Among the records I bought then and still own is Frankie's 1987 production of an unusual track by a teenager called Jamie Principle that had been kicking around Chicago clubs on tapes for several years by the time it was released:

I still play 'Your Love'. It's beautiful and primitive and one of my favourite records. But it was a 1989 classic that most clearly set him apart from all the chancers with samplers. 'Tears' had what became the trademark Frankie Knuckles sound, with its soft, pulsing bassline and floating piano:

Unlike his founding contemporaries, Hardy and Larry Levan, Frankie didn't destroy himself with drugs. Diabetes eventually got him, but he was always a working DJ and was playing a gig at Ministry of Sound in London only last week. You can download the set he played late last year at London's Boiler Room:

Happily, you can also download the mix of Frankie's own music created and posted in tribute this week by Dimitri from Paris:

You can hear his more recent work on his Soundcloud page (I'm going to buy that Candi Staton track) and most of his many remixes are on YouTube -- often, like this one, originally the spacious b-side of the 12":

But for me, none of them demonstrates his artistry better than his beautiful interpretation of Michael Jackson's 'Rock With You':

Thanks for the beautiful music, Frankie. Thanks for heaven on the dancefloor.

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Feel free to post your own Frankie Knuckles  favourites in the comments for this post (YouTube and Vimeo videos auto-embed here if you just paste in the URL of the clip). You may also enjoy this short British documentary about him, in two parts:

And when you have some time, watch all 141 minutes of Pump Up the Volume: The History of House Music, which has pretty much everyone in it:

EDIT: WOAH HOLD THE DAMN PHONE.

I've just been pointed to this holyshitamazing short doco by Phil Ranstrom on the launch of the third of the triumvirate of Chicago house clubs, The Power Plant, in 1986. House, it is clear, was becoming the next big thing by that point. It includes a Frankie interview and a live performance by Steve Silk Hurley's JM Silk. Uploaded only this week (the day after Frankie died) and the nearest you'll get to actually being there ...

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So, kids, you may be asking "what were you doing while all this was going on, grandapa"? Oh, you, know, hanging out in Vulcan Lane watching art ...

It must be 1984. That's me by the red door, all wrapped up, and that's Ian Dalziel next to me. The performer is Gill Civil, who is best known here for her work in Marie and the Atom, the most delicate and unusual of early Flying Nun acts. On this day, she pitched up oddly decorated in the lane, roped off a space and played a solo work on voice and banjo. I remember at the time thinking how bold it was. Perhaps that's why I look so terribly concerned in the picture.

I was delighted to reconnect with Gill this week via Twitter. She now lives in Canada's Sunshine Coast and, among other things, makes piano recordings for ballet classes. And, of course, yes, she has an arrangement of 'Royals':

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A typically amusing James Milne press release heralds the news that Lawrence Arabia will be playing the three Lawrence Arabia albums in full across two night in Auckland and three nights in Wellington at the end of May. You can click through to buy season passes for each centre. I'm looking forward to this.

Also on the road next month, alt-country folkies Great North. They've released this lovely track from their forthcoming new album as a free download on Bandcamp:

And in the Sunday Star Times, Grant Smithies caught up with Flip Grater, who has just begun a national tour in support of the new album she recorded in Paris, Pigalle. It's an excellent read.

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Tracks ...

Breaking: it's deep in the night, She's So Rad have returned from the disco, made a nice cup of tea/whisky/ketamine and got on the back-to-mine indie groove. It's warm:

At TheAudience, this twinkling little hip-hop instrumental from someone called pxlx. (Why all these short tracks suddenly? Should we blame Lontalius?)

There's more of this mischief going on at his Soundcloud.

Wellington DJ duo Eastern Bloc (it's not just a name -- one's Polish, the other Ukranian) are also in TheAudience's chart with this twitchy thing:

And wowzers. Bobby Busnach has posted an epic 17-minute remix of Donna Summer's 'Love to Love You Baby'. Bobby does his best work with Donna -- and that's the bassline from the O'Jays' 'For the Love of Money', amirite? Get the big fat WAV file before it hits the download limit:

Leftside Wobble dubs up a lesser-known version of 'Cry Me a River' to magical groove effect:

And finally, I might not know much about jazz, but I do like this jazz/funk/breaks mix:

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The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:

theaudience