On the 1st of January 1988 my family had a discussion about our new year’s resolutions.
Mine was that I wasn’t going to go to church any more because I didn’t believe in God.
I had, to all intents and purposes, been living something of a double life for at least the previous year. Immersing myself in all this counter-cultural stuff most of the week but then going to church regular as clockwork on a Sunday morning. Even taking the plate round for the collection with a Psychic TV t-shirt underneath my Sunday best.
It had all become untenable. Anglicanism was more central to my family life than politics, and there had been enough rows about that already. So I wasn’t looking forward to breaking the news of my heathenism. My initial plan had been to slope off to University and then slide quietly into a life of decadent secularism, but I’d cocked that up with the exam failures. I couldn’t face the pretense any more.
To be fair to my parents, they took it reasonably well. My Dad recognised I’d been thinking about it all for a long time. My Mum went very pale. They told me that they thought I might find life very lonely without God. Fortunately I have since found things to be the exact opposite.
For me this was all a huge relief and I have never looked back. But 18 years of the Church of England is hard to shake off and remains one of my major influences for good or ill.
Martin is bang on when he describes me as “resembling a vicar”. I used to enjoy the singing but was pretty bored for the most part by the doctrine. I guess I still have a drive to do good work and not to be hugely decadent. I’ve spent the second half of my life so far working for various charities.
Feeling that there was a subculture of people out there who had thrown off the shackles of religion was very useful in helping me to strike up the courage to do it myself. A lot of those anti-religious punk songs and comments in fanzine interviews seem pretty trite now, but they certainly played their part at the time.
So that was the context for the beginning of 1988…
17. Glenn Branca: Symphony no. 6 (Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven). Queen Elizabeth Hall, 30th January 1988.
I don’t think I told my parents what the title of the performance was, it just wouldn’t have helped. I probably played up the neo-classical aspects of the gig and the auspicious venue. Eighteen and off to a Glenn Branca gig: fucking cred or what?
Say what you like about eighties electronica and industrial but it was a fantastic “gateway drug” for all sorts of avant garde ideas, art, music and people.
I’ve written before about chasing names dropped oh-so casually in interviews, or sending SAEs away for fanzines, but it cannot be overstated how important that little information network was to me. It gave me an appreciation or an inkling of all sorts of stuff which I then rejected or sucked up like a sponge.
Some of it existed solely as ideas for me, untainted by actual experience. So my mind was blown by the idea that Stravinsky (or was it Stockhausen?) would be able to compose a “Symphony For Metal Hammer”, but I never managed to track a copy down in the eighties and I don’t really want to these days because I doubt that it would live up to my expectations. (The work was referenced by industrial journo Dave Henderson once and has stayed with me ever since).
Unlike today, opportunities to check stuff out were very rare. I remember being transfixed as a teenager by an edition of the South Bank Show dedicated to minimalist music one Sunday night. We didn’t have a video recorder, so I knew that I would never get a chance to see it unless I checked it out right then. It gave everything an extra urgency.
The local library’s NMEs and Melody Makers provided some other context and gave me my way in to the whole New York avant/noise scene.
The library also had a copy of Experimental Pop: Frontiers of the Rock Era by Billy Bergman and Richard Horn which I devoured. Loads of mad stuff in there about Laurie Anderson using a violin bow made of cassette tape (with a tapehead on the violin, natch) and bits on hip hop, Eno, Neubauten, etc etc. So Branca would have been referenced in some Sonic Youth piece in the NME or MM and then there’d be a bit more mention of him in Experimental Pop. Slowly but surely more pieces would be added to the jigsaw which became my personal mythology.
The library also had records by Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Run DMC, Neubauten and a host of others to borrow. People generally treated them well. I still have some C90 cassettes of things recorded from the library – it was my 1980s Google. Say what you like about the Manic Street Preachers, but that first line of “Design For Life” is bang on.
Glenn Branca did orchestral works with up to one hundred electric guitars and had some involvement with Sonic Youth. And he was coming to London.
My college mate Martin came along with a friend of his who commented sagely “Looks like there are two types of people here tonight. People who like art, and people who know this is going to be REALLY FUCKING LOUD”. Sure enough the audience was evenly divided between well dressed couples and scruffs like us in leather jackets.
We all sat respectfully in the QE2 while a bunch of people onstage tinkered with horizontally placed electric guitars and built up this unbelievable wall of sound. Events like the Test Dept gig and even SWANS had opened my ears to what I can only call the transcendental properties of noise, but this was on a completely different level – not least because there were nothing like “songs”. I remember it being quite ordered, not like a jam session or anything. I just zoned in and out of it, transported by sonics.
It was one of those performances which left you a bit speechless. They were selling posters in the foyer, but one wiley leather-jacketed punter noticed a load blu-tacked up near the exit and got his own souvenir. We followed suit along with a dozen co-conspirators – simultaneously bolstering the avant garde and sticking it to the man.
I had a lie-in the next morning, a further pleasant side-effect of coming out of the closet as an atheist. While my family were at church I stuck my stolen Glenn Branca poster up on my bedroom wall.