Post-punks at the BBC and random Africans on 78 R.P.M. shout to be heard on two new compilations
Some varieties of hard-to-find music are easier to access than others. Take the Peel Sessions—the BBC’s catalog of more than 3,800 in-studio performances (typically, four songs each) by more than 2,000 artists summoned to the radio station’s recording studio by Radio 1 D.J. John Peel.
Bands have released E.P.s and albums of their Peel Sessions for decades. In the case of two Peel favorites, the Fall and the Wedding Present, it took six C.D.s apiece to house all their sessions. And our dear friend the Internet has a longstanding habit of unearthing even Peel’s long-out-of-print (or never in print) sessions.
But even in a post-physical age there’s something assuring about the existence of Movement: BBC Radio 1 Peel Sessions, 1977-1979, a meaty two-C.D. chronicle that concentrates on the era’s British punk and post-punk.
Movement is the first of a new series from EMI of Peel recordings “that both parties commonly control.” Meaning only EMI artists. Hence, no Fall, no X-Ray Spex (two Peel Sessions), no Raincoats (two), and no Vibrators (three), to stick with acts that (a) recorded Peel Sessions (which, incidentally, the Sex Pistols and Clash did not) and (b) whose catalogs aren’t under the EMI umbrella.
So yes, Movement could have ranged a little further, but there’s still a whole lot here to be happy about.
Some of it will likely rankle punk purists. A friend of mine was startled by the degree of enmity punk historian Jon Savage displayed toward the Jam in the Britpop documentary Live Forever, and here they are, leading off the package, with the similarly disparaged-at-the-time likes of Generation X and the Stranglers coming soon after.
But Peel’s own brand of snobbery wasn’t scene-based. He came to punk as an outsider, a fan. He may have been too old to adopt it as a subculture—and his public hippie past may not have allowed him full membership anyway—but not too old to adopt it as his new soundtrack, and to champion everyone making exciting noise. He trusted his ears, and if he netted some poseurs in the bargain, then history could sort it out. The compilation doesn't quite sort it out, but that's actually something of an asset; it feels in-the-moment as much as of-the-moment.
Movement doesn’t play all that much like a historical document, even though that’s central to its appeal. Its definition of “punk” is suitably catholic, from arty D.I.Y. types like John Cooper-Clarke and the Monochrome Set to oi! from the Angelic Upstarts (notably, an anti-fascist band in a mini-scene riddled with far-right fantasies). The final seven tracks make a handy summary of late-’70s reggae (Steel Pulse, Aswad, UB40) and ska (the Special A.K.A., Madness, the Selecter, the Beat) in England.
The Peel Session’s inherent attraction is its position halfway between live show and studio recording—acts typically had three hours, enough time to fix false starts and add basic overdubs, but not enough to dawdle. The most affecting performances come from bands that sound as if they can’t believe what they’re doing.
The crucial difference between the studio version of the Buzzcocks’ “What Do I Get?” and the one they recorded for Peel on Sept. 9, 1977, is Pete Shelley’s vocal. On the single he’s grounded, disappointed; on the Peel version, he sings a step higher, the band plays a hair faster, and the result is ethereal—the suspended moment between receiving the bad news and having it land with a thud. The backing vocals are saved till the very end, and Shelley’s naked voice carries it like a tough hummingbird, especially on the bridge (“I only get sleepless niiiights ...”), where his voice goes slightly faint, as if to underline his predicament.
Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster” (April 13, 1978) has a similar go-for-it rawness, with Jake Burns’ yowl merely the most pointed of its scrawny parts. Joy Division’s Ian Curtis starts “Transmission” (Jan. 31, 1979) jittery, then revs so hard he overpowers everything else.
Public Image Ltd.’s “Poptones” (Dec. 10, 1979) is one of the most unnerving songs ever written: lines like “It’s wet, and I’m losing my body heat” set to droning guitar and bashed cymbals. It becomes even more unnerving to hear John Lydon singing those lines like they belong to a normal rock song—until the very end, when he looses a quick, high, loud scream that’s a shock even when you think you’re ready, a gesture that throws the whole edifice into question.
That sort of context is easy enough to read into punk, largely because it’s so easy to read about. That’s less the case with another abundant new compilation, the four-C.D. Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM, from the Atlanta reissue experts Dust-to-Digital. There are books about African music, but the attraction of this box isn’t that it offers an alternate view of a well-known epoch but that it opens one up that few of the people listening to it will know.
Actually, “epoch” is the wrong word. Though the box’s 100 songs fall into a specified time range, that’s because of the one thing they all have in common: Having originally appeared on ten inches of shellac.
Jonathan Ward, who runs the website Excavated Shellac and transferred each track from his own shelves, organizes the material cleverly—basically, tracks run geographically, traveling roughly from north to south. Ward eschews chronology, though, and the result is less an attempt at a holistic overview of the continent’s music, a la Africa: 50 Years of Music, Discograph’s 18-C.D. monster from last year, than one collector sharing his prizes with the world.
Dust-to-Digital specializes in this sort of thing. In 2007, the label issued Victrola Favorites two C.D.s compiled by Seattle experimental-music duo Climax Golden Twins that ranged from Cantonese opera to American comedy routines to the sounds of London traffic.
Opika Pende is as far-flung as Victrola Favorites. It’s not simply the continent’s size or its staggering amount of musical activity that make it that way—it’s the nature of the tracks themselves. Few compilations mix folkloric and studio recordings quite so freely as this one. And rather than attempting to present the music in neat arrays (by time period, by style), Ward’s presentation prizes variety and contrast.
“These commercial recordings were published on shellac discs, a technology that was generally unavailable to musicologists, amateur or otherwise,” writes Ward in the box’s liner notes. “They were made to be sold to local populations rather than curious westerners.”
You can hear that especially well in one sequence on the second disc, from tracks 15 to 18: Ohue Sapey Band’s “Oblemo” is a bottle-percussion-backed choral piece that sounds old as earth, sung in a language, Adangbe, that today is only spoken by approximately 2,200 people. (It was recorded in either Ghana or Togo in the early ’50s.)
Pantanon’s “Djelouwei Wenike Ahlanon” is a folkloric, a cappella recording, made at a Paris exposition in 1931, of a traditional Togo song with an arresting rise-and-dip main melody and abrupt sidesteps into stuttered “d-d-d-d’s” and quick whistles. Paul Béhanzin et Son Ensemble’s “Cholie,” recorded in Benin sometime in the 1930s, is a tribal drum chant full of rough power (and echoes of traditional Native American music). And “High Life—Dagomba,” from Band of the Gold Coast Police (1947) is a sweetly swinging brass band playing a Ghanaian traditional song with a pronounced calypso lilt.
That tinge features repeatedly here. A clue to this comes from another set of liner notes, to the Senegalese musician Idrissa Diop’s recent collection Diamonoye Tiopité, which covers 1968 to 1976. Diop says, “[W]e formed our first group in 1965, when I was 13.... At that time, there was no Senegalese music like there is today. Here in Dakar there was traditional music and the Latin music.”
Imported Cuban records kick-started a lot of African musicians into action, a break as decisive in many of Africa’s major musical centers, like the Congo and Senegal, as rock and roll was in America. On disc three, O.S. Africa Jazz Onema Pascal’s “Furaha Ya Kanu,” from Kenya in the early ’60s, is a particularly transporting example of how Africa remade the rumba its own way, with gliding guitars leading the way.
But roughness is the rule here—just contrast “Furaha Ya Kanu” with Kabongo Bonkoli’s “Musungayi Nembwa Matumba,” also on disc three. Recorded in the Congo in the late ’40s, it’s a parched man and his parched accordion yowling together. It’s good-humored, overheard-sounding, and full of allure. He’s shouting to be heard, and now we can hear him again.