What did they think of “Talk Talk” in 1966? In 2023 it uncoils from your speakers like a cobra: alive and evil and glaring with death. It’s just 1:56 in length – short, even for the time. The tempo is punishing. The instrumentation is just lunges and stabs of fuzz; flames leaping from a barely-existent structure, as though the song’s burning down while still half-unwritten.
The lyrics are fragments. Ugly, mean thoughts, articulated with the stumbling self-seriousness of a teenager who’s drunk for the first time. “My social life’s a dud! My name is really mud!” Far from poetry…but people have thoughts like that. I used to. Sometimes eloquent phrasing doesn’t capture stupid, sullen emotions, “Talk Talk” may have been the first song they’d heard that truly sounded like the inside of their own mind.
The band was a five-piece called The Music Machine. One year earlier, they’d been playing folk rock.
They were fronted by Sean Bonniwell, a restless self-reinventor who never found a home. “Talk Talk”‘s success (#15 on the Billboard charts in 1966) proved a fluke. They had no followup hit. They were driven first aground and then apart by royalty fights, label disputes, and internal discord.
Bonniwell tried to regroup, but the window he’d exploited was now gone and his moment had passed. The Music Machine’s legacy is 1:56 of brutal noise and an unfulfilled promise. From the outside looking in, it was as though they’d come from nowhere and then gone back into nowhere. They did not become a Great Band.
But in a weird way, that helps me appreciate Music Machine more. There’s a long list of “classic” Rolling Stone approved acts (The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen) that I either can’t appreciate or appreciate in an academic thinking-things-through way. Part of it is their critical reception: they’re so adored and revered that it triggers suspicion in me. And it distances me from the music, I feel like I’m listening to it from across a GREAT BAND cordon line. The immediacy is gone.
Rock music was never supposed to be a canon, or an establishment. It was supposed to shake your bones. So I enjoy listening to bands like The Music Machine, that doesn’t have a Rolling Stone-appointed crown weighing it down.
If The Music Machine is remembered, it’s for either their heaviness, their earlyness, their subtle influence on other bands, or their rapid collapse. The entire band left soon after their first LP, aside from frontman Sean Bonniwell. He changed the band’s name, changed their style, and then left the music business altogether. It was as though the Music Machine had packed a thirty-year career into one minute and fifty-six seconds.
In other words, they were the Sex Pistols, ten years before. Which brings up the p-word.
Music journalism as we know it barely existed in the mid sixties: as a result, some history is barely-written and misremembered. A lot of people seem to think that punk rock was a seventies phenomenon. That was actually the second wave of punk. The first wave happened ten years earlier, with US “garage rock” bands like The Sonics and MC5, as well as UK acts such as The Downliners Sect and the Kinks. This was raw, aggressive, cheap-sounding music, driven by jangling guitars, powerful drums, and farfisa organs. Much of it was retroactively classified as “punk” in the early 70s – the first recorded reference to the genre is in the March 22, 1970 issue of The Chicago Tribune.
Unlike the second wave of punk (conspiracy theories about “God Save The Queen”‘s UK #2 aside), garage rock actually got some singles to number one. “”(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Stones and “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians both reached #1, among others. It’s disputable to what extent these songs are punk. The lines between a garage rock band and, say, The Troggs or The Beatles could be pretty blurry. And their 1960s mod and greaser fashions have left less of an impression in the popular memory than the edgier styles pushed by Malcolm Mclaren and Vivienne Westwood.
The Music Machine were among the heavier of the 60s garage rock set, but soon psychedelic rock and heavy metal left them behind in sonic firepower, and Bonniwell proved unable to keep the band on the charts on the strength of his songs.
He was a clever and inventive songwriter, pulling inspiration out of the air, but maybe not actually a good one. “Talk Talk” is sonically impressive but soon wears thin. “Trouble” and “Wrong” are the best songs, particularly “Trouble”, with its dense and rubby rhythms and melodic complexity. “Masculine Intuition” has a really awkward chorus that doesn’t fit the verse. And it’s too short to develop its ideas much: all of these songs are sonic mayflys, dying before they can progress or go anywhere.
The album was recorded quickly to capitalize on a hit single. Most of the tracks were laid down at RCA Studios at three in the morning (on a hand-built ten-track machine built by engineer Paul Buff) after the band had been touring for thirty days, back to back, which explains Bonniwell’s hoarse, ragged voice. A surprising amount of punk aesthetic comes from what is ultimately accident and circumstance. Only in the aftermath does anything seem planned.
The band’s limited stock of originals is padded with covers, which are sometimes great (“Hey Joe” rivals Jimi Hendrix’s version. Bonniwell would later lament that his label wouldn’t release it as a single), sometimes pointless (“Taxman”), sometimes really stupid (“See See Rider”). The cover of “96 Tears” is pretty ironic, as ? and the Mysterians also failed to follow up their one hit.
The Music Machine is a fascinating curio, but they were riven by image and identity conflicts that they never figured out. Were they art, or yeah-yeah-yeah teenage music? They were initially presented as mods, but Bonniwell soon got into transcendental meditation and eastern mysticism. There was little sense of musical history to the Machine. You couldn’t obviously pick out their influences, the way you could for the Beatles or the Stones. This made them seem fresh, but also a little disconnected in time, as though they were visiting aliens. There wasn’t an easy “story” you could apply to the band, which made it easy for music history to not give them a story at all.
Some electronic music is supposed to be danced to. Tangerine Dream’s 1970s albums are supposed to be anti-danced to. Moving at all feels wrong to these monoliths of sound: you imagine Edgar Froese’s ghost staring in disapproval at your breath, and your heartbeat.
1976’s Stratosfear (their third major-label release on Virgin) sees the band changing. The first Tangerine Dreams were formless abyssic oceans of synthesiser noise with unusual sonic lifeforms flickering under the water (Alpha Centauri, from 1971, is the only ambient record I can think of that contains a drum solo). Once they signed to Virgin, their sound focused and tightened: Stratosfear, near the end of their classic period, has more overt melodies and rhythms. And unusually for early Dream, if you divide the running time by the number of tracks, you get a single-digit number.
“Stratosfear” is a forceful, climbing driving mini-epic, with a fun suspended/Egyptian pentatonic II melodic hook. It’s the most Vangelis-sounding track on the album. “The Big Sleep in Search of Hades” has less going on inside it, although there’s a fair amount of acoustic guitar for the prog rock fans. “3AM” has a slow-building intro that looks back to their earliest releases, though the tempo picks up soon after.
“Invisible Limits” is the longest track: 11 minutes of Pink Floyd worship with electric guitar and drumming, and a recurring pan flute motif. Tangerine Dream were the spacey, ambient wing of the German style of “krautrock”, and while some of this stuff is funky (Neu! Can, and certain Bowie songs circa 1977), Tangerine Dream is not. It cannot be emphasized enough that this music consists of bubbling 16th notes locked to a grid amid huge tidal waves of sound, and although it has some progressive rock influence (there are live examples of Edgar Froese attempting guitar solos, to dismal results), it has no groove at all. It’s what rock music would sound like if it hadn’t been influenced by jazz and RnB. The music is so white it’s #FFFFFF.
“Kosmische musik” (a term Froese coined) might seem very far removed from 80s hip hop, but they are both styles based upon a single piece of gear. For hip hop, it was the E-MU SP-12/SP-1200 sampler. For kosmische music, it was the modular synthesizer. Whether it was the Moog or the more portable EMS VCS, these synths and their sounds were everywhere in 70s rock. The sonic possibilities seemed endless. It’s not surprising that Tangerine Dream would adopt spacey-themes: synthesisers indeed seemed like a space-race breakthrough for music.
But this brought danger: were bands relying too much on (soon to be dated) technological wizardry? And yeah, a lot of early synth-powered music now provokes a reaction of “okay, there’s a delay effect on your notes. Is there anything here aside from that one trick, which can now be produced in 2 seconds with a VST and which I’ve heard a million times?” Like prog rock, it became a bloated scene, too in love with itself.
In the 80s, krautrock faded from prominence, and its ambient wing became a hundred fluttering feathers, all of them hoping to land in new markets. By the 80s, Jean-Michel Jarre was making synthpop, Vangelis was more famous for his movie soundtracks than his original albums, and Tangerine Dream were kind of playing it both ways. They toured heavily, in unconventional places. A 1974 performance at Reims cathedral (with Nico) ended in disaster. 6,000 tickets were sold for a 2,000-head venue, and hundreds of stoned hippies pissed against the historic stonework. I don’t think it’s normal for ambient musicians to get excommunicated by the Pope, but Edgar Froese managed it.
“Saintly man that he was, Father Bernard Goureau intoned more or less as follows: “It is true that the youth smoked marijuana in order to better enter into communication with Tangerine Dream’s sound and the spectacle at large; it is also true that others, to satisfy a natural obligation, urinated against the columns of the cathedral; and finally, it is again true that to combat the cold, couples were seen in kissing embraces. But it is equally true that some 6,000 young people, remaining sat upon the floor for three hours in the dark, had enjoyed the music and could have caused much more serious damage, with far less decorum.” Amen.”
Ambient synth-based music existed in a cultural blind spot in the 1980s: it was seemingly everywhere, but nobody listened to it. Or rather, they watched it instead of listening to it: it was deemed worthless unless accompanied by a laser light show or Blade Runner. Few people valued it as music, in and of itself. Tangerine Dream had journeyed out into space and found it to be a lightless dead end.
Ten years later, ambient would undergo a commercial resurgence (both Enigma’s “Sadeness: Part I” and The Orb’s U.F.Orb topped their respective UK charts at the start of the 90s), but it was a hip, modern ambient based on house music and samples, not long hair and synthesizer solos. Soon the world-crushing success of Enya sucked all the air out of that scene anyway. It’s possible that A Day Without Rain shifted more units than every Tangerine Dream album combined.
Tangerine Dream now seems old and quaint, like those probes we sent out in the seventies. Nothing ages as rapidly as the future. But in a weird way, their best music has a strangeness that stands outside age. They never wanted to be the mainstream, and even when they were () it seemed like a happy accident.
They were a German, and their English song titles – like their music – is bafflingly correct yet very odd. Stratosfear continues this tradition. “The Big Sleep in Search of Hades” suggests Raymond Chandler in the Greek underworld (does Philip Marlowe get paid two drachmas a day, plus expenses?), and “3 A.M. at the Border of the Marsh From Okefenokee”…shouldn’t from be to? All the words are spelled correctly, but it’s not English.
Tangerine Dream were never a band from Earth. I don’t know where they’re actually from, but their attempts to connect with the customs of our planet have the air of a mistake-filled travel guide written by aliens. They always had at least one foot in some alien world or another. Stratosfear is an excellent example of where they were, and charts some of the places they had still to visit.
There’s an inaccessible, inhuman quality to a lot of this music. But it also challenges you to rise above your biological limits. Bigbrained people sometimes talk about “anthropomorphism”, or giving huge and mysterious concepts a human face. God is a bearded man. GPT-3 is the Terminator. The effect always diminishes whatever’s being spoken about: making the numinous and grand small and ugly. Humans are limited creatures in the end (which may be coming soon), and our horizons are very small. Tangerine Dream swaps the signified and the signifier. They dehumanize music, dehumanize space. They invite us to ponder a glowing, diaphanous eternity in which we never were.
It often takes time to “get” a band. Imagine you’re at a petrol station, waiting for petrol to flow through the pipe. You can’t rush it. You have to wait for that lovely moment we all enjoy, when cool, delicious petrol goes squirting like pee into your mouth, nose, and eyes.
When I started listening to The Fall, I had my reaction planned out in advance like a chemotherapy plan: I’d hate them at first, slowly hack away at their thirty-one-album discography, and then they’d become one of my favorite bands. Instead, the opposite thing happened. I loved them on first listen, and then gradually didn’t like them.
The Infostainment Scam (or whatever it’s called) proved to be an excellent first choice. It has several good or great songs, including the disco apocalypse of “Lost in Music”, the psychotic noir prison-bar rattling of “It’s a Curse”, and the brightly Gary-Glittering stomp of “Glam-Racket”. The album’s aesthetic of barely-marshalled noise was exhilerating, and although Mark E Smith’s vocals sounded like a drunk co-worker overconfidently singing karaoke, surely this would be another acquired taste.
Then I listened to more The Fall albums, which either left no impression or were memorable for bad reasons.
Hip Priest and the Kamerads sounds like slam poetry delivered over noise rock. The title track was eight minutes of blues rock choogling: annoying and borderline unlistenable. Bend Sinister is more of the same: songs that make their point after a minute and then continue for another six. Their cover of “Victoria” is one of the most unnecessary I’ve ever heard. They changed nothing. Is this where post punk was at in 1988? Reverential, straightfaced covers of boomer rock anthems?
Soon I was losing interest in The Fall. They seemed to be all vibes and no substance. But maybe the problem was me. After all “Lost in Music” was proof they could write great music….
…then I checked The Infotainment Scan’s songwriting credits, and said “ok then.”
Then there’s Mark E Smith, the band’s alleged singer.
He’s the kind of guy journalists love writing about. He’s not a man, he’s rock cliches tangled and obvoluted around into a man-shaped object. Just switch your brain off, arrange “consummate perfectionist”, “complex personality”, “troubled genius”, “enfant terrible”, “provocateur”, “outsider artist”, “incendiary maverick”, “Janus-faced,” “checkered career” in some order like fridge magnets, and you’ve written your own MES bio.
But here‘s guitarist Ben Pritchard, who got to know the “troubled genius” real well.
Physical violent attacks are not we should have to deal with on a daily basis. […] We shouldn’t have to be worried that the singer’s going to attack us again before the gig because we’ve stopped off for a hotdog at the service station. Like we’re wasting time… fucking hell we can’t do anything. You can’t eat, if you went for a meal even on your day off, you’d come back and he’d be waiting for you ‘What you fucking doing? What you fucking doing, eating? Fucking useless cunts.’ What? I’ve gotta eat, me. He puts you down for getting hungry!
[…] when we went to America it just got worse. […] we can only rely on each other to get ourselves out of the shit. Cos Mark could fucking leave us – and he did on the tour in America with the broken leg, he left us with no fucking money, no flight tickets home, he just fucking left us. We had to start getting deposits back for the hire vehicles, we had to get money together for our flights to Chicago. Our flight to Chicago was a non-refundable ticket that wasn’t due for two weeks. He didn’t care, he had all the money from all the gigs. He had Ed Blaney with him, he had his wife, they got home fine, no problem.
It’s clear that the UK music press will excuse obnoxious or abusive behavior if it makes a good story. The sneaky part is that they set the definition of “good story” to begin with. Read anything about MES, you’ll see his abhorrent behavior reimagined so it’s something romantic: a striving toward perfection, marred by silly foolish humans, the sand in MES’s gears.
“Talented asshole” is a more fitting descriptor, particularly when you remember the sarcastic subtext. Many such assholes aren’t talented, we just pretend they are, because how else to justify the position we’ve given them in our culture? The hardest person to talk out of a scam is the person who’s just been rooked by one, and few people have scammed so many for so long as MES.
You see the aftereffects all over the UK press. Quoting Wikipedia: “Smith’s approach to music was unconventional and he did not have high regard for musicianship, stating that ‘rock & roll isn’t even music really. It’s a mistreating of instruments to get feelings over’.” That sounds like a clever defense for not understanding music. But it gets recontextualized as “unconventional”.
Or witness this desperate attempt by Spin to recast MES as a modern Oscar Wilde, full of cutting put-downs and scathing one-liners. He thought Telly Savalas was “a twat”! He thought new bands were a bunch of “ass lickers”! Oh, and wait until you hear what he did to Mumford & Sons. Ready? He threw a bottle at them, the absolute lunatic! This is so lame that if a civilian did it they’d be on r/madlads.
Ben Pritchard’s interview goes on and on, just listing all kinds of grubby, exploitative nonsense. But even that could be excusable if MES was a brilliant talent. After all, David Bowie was occasionally given to sharp business practices.
But here’s the part that made be decide to not to bother with Mark E Smith or his music.
I’d only been playing the guitar for about two years. It was the day after I’d bought my Stratocaster that was. So that was like the first time I put it on and played it properly and plugged it in was in front of [Mark] in the studio, listening to the backing track of Dr Buck’s Letter. He says, “Go on, cock. Just fookin play something, I’m going to the pub.” And that was it…
“Just fookin play something, I’m going to the pub.” That seems to be the Rosetta stone of MES: a casual sneer of disinterest. Yeah, who cares. Just play something. Rock music is for idiots. Have contempt for your bandmates, and contempt for your fans.
MES wasn’t a consummate perfectionist, slaving to reach some Promethean ideal. He was throwing together careless, slapdash music with whoever was willing to tolerate him. That’s how it seems to me. Sometimes The Fall could be good. Perhaps they were often good – there are big parts of their discography I haven’t touched. But I am sure that while they were being good, MES was getting drunk at the pub.
MES could write some obtuse and weird lyrics, and I enjoy his song titles. They’re kind of broken and not-quite-right, like a cracked plate. “Paranoia Man in Cheap Sh*t Room”. That’s a great title.
But it’s all just alcohol-inspired brilliance: random, loose puns, joined together in disorder by misfiring dendrites. I was once at a Tab in Sydney, and heard a man order a Sprite. When asked to justify himself by his mates (who were all several pints in on VB and Carlton Dry), he sagely said “Sprite makes right.” That man could write The Fall songs. MES is not a treasured national resource for supplying us with beermat philosophy. You can find people who think and act like him down at the local pub. They exist in huge quantities.
I can see not one sign that MES had any worthwhile qualities. Occasionally, he could be nice to his bandmates. So what? You are not “complex” for occasionally being nice to people who make you money, and who would otherwise abandon you. That’s just all a bully is.
MES didn’t write music, couldn’t play an instrument, “sang” only in the loosest of terms, and he didn’t have a pretty face, fuck knows. What, pray, is this violent, alcoholic retard good for?