This week’s Lazy Sunday is brought to you by Frank Key, and you’re either going to love it or hate it…

There is a small number of musicians we might categorise as “polarisers”, those who provoke the passions. Those who like them really like them, love them to the point of fanaticism, hail them as geniuses. But those who dislike them do not merely shrug with indifference. Their detractors tend to be every bit as passionate, dismissing their music as an unlistenable horror.

Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, is perhaps the polariser par excellence. For everyone who claims his 1969 album Trout Mask Replica is the one true timeless work of art ever spawned by rock music, there is a counterpart who covers their ears and begs for the suffering to end. Most aficionados will admit that on their first few listens, they thought it was rubbish, only for enlightenment to dawn. The sound quality on this old TV clip is abysmal, but it captures the demented glory of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band in their heyday, and the track – “When Big Joan Sets Up” – is from the Trout Mask masterpiece.

For some of us, Henry Cow were the essential band of the 1970s. Young persons today, if they have heard of them, probably lump them in with prog, but they fit very uneasily if at all into that much-maligned category. Their music ranged from fiendishly complicated jazz-rock workouts to Weimar cabaret-style songs to pure improvisation. Oh, and they were hardline Marxist-Leninists, and ran a correspondingly tight ideological ship. (Peter Blegvad was fired from the band for the crime of “flippancy”.) There is no such thing as a typical Henry Cow track, so here they are at their most uncompromising, with “Linguaphonie”, from the second album Unrest.

Scritti Politti are an interesting case of a band who provoke both positive and negative reactions from the same people. They would be the showcase band for a Lazy Sunday post entitled “Where did it all go so horribly wrong?” Their first three EPs, released in 1978 and 1979, were shining jewels in the post-punk firmament. After that, Paul Strohmeyer-Gartside, aka “Green”, got the terrible idea that he could be a pop star, with dire results. So, if all you have ever heard is the glossy soulful wittering of 1980s Scritti Politti, the tracks collected on the Early CD will come as a revelation. Here is Green with his aptly-named “Messthetics” manifesto.

“Anyone who gets up on stage and does that should be locked in a mental institution.” Thus The Dabbler’s very own Rita Byrne Tull, when I drew her attention to this clip of Joanna Newsome performing “Sawdust And Diamonds” from her album Ys. What is it about Ms Newsome that provokes such animus? (My brother said simply, “Unlistenable”.) Well, I know the answer, and it is her voice. But it seems to me a voice perfectly matched to the singularity of her work. Lengthy songs, a torrent of – often remarkable – words, accompanied by the harp! Like our other polarisers, Joanna Newsome is a one-off. That is what they all have in common.

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About Author Profile: Frank Key

Frank Key is a London-based writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his Hooting Yard blog, short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. By Aerostat to Hooting Yard - A Frank Key Reader, an ideal introduction to his fiction, is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives was published in October 2015 by Constable and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

17 thoughts on “Polarisers

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    October 7, 2012 at 11:46

    Henry Cow sounds like Plastic Bertrand’s Ça plane pour moi in slomo, as in recorded on a 78, played at 45.

    Ça plane pour moi
    Ça plane pour moi
    Ça plane pour moi, moi, moi, moi, moi
    Ça plane pour moi
    Hou! Hou! Hou! Hou!
    Ça plane pour moi

    Unfortunately, it did not go well for me.

    You could have bunged Morrissey in there somewhere Frank, my father once growled that if he ever met the twerp in the street he would annihilate him.

    Younger listeners NB, the figures 78 and 45 refer to a means of recording and playback utilising shellac saucers with a hole in the middle and things called needles.

    Sitting in the restaurant of one of the those Scottish Victorian shambles of a hotel when a burd walked in dragging a harp behind her, dear god, I thought, she’s not, is she. She did and it curdled the brown Windsor soup.

  2. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    October 7, 2012 at 13:44

    I think Joanna Newsome is great (I used ‘This Side of the Blue’ on a previous Lazy Sunday). She’s obviously one of those girls who was obsessed with Swedish folk tales about woodland spirits, had a dandyish male alter-ego called something like Prince Llewellyn, and spent hours drawing Jabberwockies.

  3. russellworks@gmail.com'
    ian russell
    October 7, 2012 at 16:50

    Can’t see the problem with Joanna Newsome either. I’m guessing the two critics are Radio 2 fans.

    Good picks, Mr. Key. I have, somewhere in my electronic collection, a record of an egg frying which sounds more musical than some musicians’ efforts.

    • ritatull@comcast.net'
      Rita Byrne Tull
      October 8, 2012 at 02:34

      I live in the U.S. so I have absolutely no idea what kind of music is played on Radio 2 – however I suspect that it must be something despised by the cognicenti since it is used as a slur. I reject the notion that someone who finds Ms. Newsome’s squawks repellant is ipso facto a musical ignoramus. I think she should stick to playing the harp.

      • Brit
        October 8, 2012 at 07:25

        Also, I often listen to Radio 2 and I like Joanna Newsome.

        • Worm
          October 8, 2012 at 08:42

          I listen to Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs

          • russellworks@gmail.com'
            ian russell
            October 8, 2012 at 16:06

            On purpose?

          • Brit
            October 8, 2012 at 20:28

            Radio 2 is a very broad church, containing as it does such contrasting things as Chris Evans’ Unlistenably Cheerful Morning Shoutings, and Mike Harding’s Obscure Bearded Folk Show.

      • russellworks@gmail.com'
        ian russell
        October 8, 2012 at 16:26

        I apologise for causing offence.

    • hooting.yard@googlemail.com'
      October 8, 2012 at 06:56

      The egg frying record reminds me of the magnificent Bohman Brothers, a pair of improv performers whose concerts usually involve amplified cheese graters and the recital of takeaway pizza leaflets. Highly recommended.

      • russellworks@gmail.com'
        ian russell
        October 8, 2012 at 15:48

        No performers on this egg, Mr. Key. Just a contact mic attached to a frying pan.

  4. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    October 7, 2012 at 16:57

    What a marvellous sunday treat – thank you Frank. I think ‘masterpiece’ is a word that should be used sparingly – and hardly ever when modern popular music is being discussed, but the Captain came close with Trout – and even though the sound is poor, it is the energy that bursts out from that Big Joan piece, no? The spooky experimentalism (I found myself thinking of John Cage) of the left-wing Henry Cow left a strong impression too – I must go back to them as, years ago, I put them aside too quickly I feel. I could find no sympathy with Scritti the first time around and Messthetics didn’t pull my chain either – Marxism and music go together about as well as ice-cream and sardines. But you saved the best ’til last. Ms Tull and your brother should get out more – little Joanna has the X-Factor for you and me both and, as you say Frank, delivers great poetry while plucking a harp! I mean, have you ever tried playing a harp?

  5. Worm
    October 7, 2012 at 17:01

    Captain Beefheart is my kryptonite I’m afraid, it is just horrible noise to me, but I thought all the others were great. Bjork would be another good polariser I suppose

  6. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    October 7, 2012 at 23:39

    Re the crazy atonal jazz of Captain Beefheart requiring a few listens, it’s interesting how one can force oneself into appreciating such unholy dins.

    I thought Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew was a dreadful racket the first time I heard it, but I use it as background music now. On the Corner has also become listenable and even enjoyable.

    I like it to be used sparingly in rock though, so it packs a real punch. Radiohead have used bursts of free jazz to very good effect (notably ‘The National Anthem’ on Kid A) and the recent Fleet Foxes album has a thrilling, completely unexpected outbreak near the end.

  7. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    October 8, 2012 at 20:28

    One must never forget that Capt Beefheart was the nom de blog of one of our most eminent historians. Michael’s crooning skills are of an unknown quantity. His works on the mid twentieth centuries big stooshie are all time greats.

  8. mikewzim@gmail.com'
    Mike, Ohio
    October 19, 2012 at 19:35

    I’ll be listening to several of these artists more often. A tip of the hat to you.

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