Big Black: Songs About Fucking


Blast First! 1987.  BFFP19


More hateful bile from Steve Albini today, but what wonderful bile this is.  No subject is taboo which makes for uncomfortable listening – I’m not going to list them here, you’ll just have to listen out for the nasties yourself.  Musically it’s equally uncomfortable, with an aggressive, almost tinny sound but with monstrous guitar work which is like nothing else.  I’ve said before that I never really liked their drum machine, but on this, their last album, it seems to fit better with the band than it ever had before.

It is amazing that this is unavailable.  Where is the deluxe expanded version and the 180g vinyl re-issue?  I guess Mr Albini isn’t into such things and I can’t imagine he either needs or wants the money.

Big Black: Il Duce


Homestead Records 1985.  HMS042


More from the mighty Steve Albini – a slightly perplexing homage to Benito Mussolini which I assume is tongue-in-cheek.

I’ve always thought this was an odd choice for a single.  It’s better than most bands manage in a career, but it doesn’t really stand out against the other stuff they did that year.

The B side is from the Atomizer LP which I think is their best.  It sounds like the same version to me, but haven’t bothered to check.

I never quite came to terms with the drum machine Big Black use.  Of course it was a big part of the revered Big Black sound, but really I prefer Shellac with their human drummer.  Criticising Big Black for that is unfair though – they produced some of the best guitar based music of the 80s which I played to death.

Apparently Steve Albini had one of his customary hissy fits when Homestead issued this as a 12″ against his wishes.  They left the label as a result.  This however is the common as muck 7″.

I may add to this tomorrow – been to the pub and am struggling to string anything meaningful together.

Shellac: The Rude Gesture (A Pictorial History)


Touch & Go 1993.  TG123.  Also Shellac Record #1


I don’t really go in for having favourites of anything musical, but Steve Albini is an exception.  His guitar playing is, by a big margin, my favourite, and slightly controversially I think it works better with Shellac than it did with Big Black.  Maybe that was because by then he didn’t have to worry about selling records because of his day job as producer/engineer to the stars.  Certainly I’m convinced that that’s the reason for the  consistent quality of Shellac’s releases – they only put something out when they’ve got something worth listening to.

Steve Albini’s also a vinyl nut, so it’s no coincidence that the band’s first releases were all vinyl only.  He bowed to the inevitable and made all the albums available on CD, but that never happened with the singles, all of which are deleted and never had a digital release of any sort.  If you’ve read some of my rants on here you’ll know that I’m not entirely convinced by the vinyl thing, but Mr Albini is one of the few people whose opinion on the subject I respect…  Certainly most of the vinyl I have bearing his name (which is quite a lot) sounds good.  So it is in a way a bit perverse digitising this material, but I don’t think it loses anything in the process.  Once it’s been through the vinyl reproduction system it has the vinyl sound whether or not you then digitally record it.

So this single, their debut, is as you’d expect a bit of a monster.  The guitar playing is of course amazing and instantly recognisable, but the rest of the band, especially the drummer, Todd Trainer are equally inventive.  It’s chaotic, loud, aggressive, utterly original and yet at the same time beautifully crafted.   They went on to become more experimental than this – these three tracks have something approaching conventional song structures, but they’re twisted out of shape in a way that the band has made its own.  The subject matter hasn’t moved on at all from Big Black – it’s mostly about really hateful men doing really hateful things.  Bleak stuff.  I tried to figure out which is the stand-out track, but every one is a contender.  I can’t make my mind up.

I have to mention the packaging.  It’s a hand assembled, cardboard wraparound sleeve, with the word Shellac printed with what I guess is invisible ink.  There’s a smear of what is supposed to be Shellac (but is actually root beer concentrate) which reveals the print underneath.  The title is stamped on.  My copy doesn’t look much like the image above – they’re all different, but I couldn’t be bothered to scan mine.  Sorry.

I’ll be posting all their other singles here at some point apart from the really rare stuff, none of which I have.  I found a rip of all that I don’t have years ago in reasonable quality called Extraneous Material which a bit of googling might still turn up.

Further listening?  Well their most recent album, Excellent Italian Greyhound is still available, and I think, their best.  Really though, you need all four.  All essential listening.  They occasionally tour – and I have to say that the gigs I’ve been to have been some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Various Artists: The Devil’s Jukebox


Blast First! 1989. BFDJ 1 – 10


Ripping this boxed set of 10 7″ singles was a job for a rainy day, and since it rained yesterday, it got done at last.  It’s a compilation from the heyday of Paul Smith’s consistently excellent Blast First! label, containing mostly exclusive tracks from bands which are too important to ignore.  Detailed info is hard to come by, but there’s only one track here (by Sun Ra) which I know is definately available elsewhere.  To add to the confusion, this also came out on CD, cassette and LP as Nothing Short Of Total War with a different tracklisting on each format.

Sonic Youth are at their chaotic best, mixing the fairly conventional rock sound they perfected on Daydream Nation with the more experimental material they were better known for back then.  They also appear as their bizarre Ciccone Youth alter ego.  For me though, Steve Albini’s contributions; 2 tracks as Big Black and another as, well, I can’t bring myself to type it, are the highlight here.  There’s an electrifying version of Kerosene, a truly depressing track about small town nihilism and a surprisingly laid back take on He’s A Whore.  Dutch Courage by the unmentionable band is a shockingly badly recorded live version, but oddly, all the better for it.  Big Stick contribute a version of their classic Drag Racing, which frankly is the only thing they did really worth hearing. UT, the all women New York noise monsters are here with a re-recording of Evangelist, the stand-out from their In Gut’s House album which I’ll post another time.  Dinosaur Jr. are reliable as always, and there’s a suitably unhinged live version of a track from Locust Abortion Technician by the Butthole Surfers, slightly ruined by being way too long to fit on a 7″.

Blast First! was known as a noise label, and so this boxed set is predictably noisy.  There was more to Paul Smith than that though, and like Alan McGee over at Creation, he used the label as a platform for his own musical interests.  That side of him appears on disc 9, which has a rare 60s recording from Sun Ra paired with a Glenn Branca piece from his orchestra of electric guitars project.

As you might imagine, the box is a bit inconsistent in places, but overall the quality of the music is remarkably high.  The essential tracks more than make up for the filler; this was a compilation the label made a real effort with, and it shows.

Big Black: Sound Of Impact


Not 1986.  Not 2 (But 1)


This is, without any doubt, the mighty Big Black’s finest hour.  Superb though their studio material is, this live album has a ferocious intensity which takes it to a whole new level.  Such is the quality of the musicianship, it doesn’t trade that intensity for a shambolic performance – this is as tight as anything they recorded.  The tracklisting is superb too – it works well as a career retrospective.

Big Black, in case you don’t know was Steve Albini’s first band, at least the first anyone took notice of.  He is, by some distance my favourite guitarist, and while he’s never an easy listen, he sounds like no-one else before or since.  He’s also known for some pretty offensive lyrics, but he always claimed they existed only out of necessity, and for me the band works better when the lyrics are downplayed and the words indecipherable as they (mostly) are here.  Shock is supposed to be a part of punk, but Albini’s lyrics often go way beyond that into the frankly unbearable.  In a way they fit with the full-on sonic assault of the music, but still…

The album itself has a somewhat curious history.  It was claimed to be a bootleg, but in fact was a disguised official release.  The “label” doesn’t really exist – it was in fact issued by Blast First!, their UK label, and it had normal distribution, although it was rather expensive.  There was an initial pressing of 1000, followed up by another of 500, all numbered.  Blast First! then put out another 500 without the band’s permission which caused a permanent rift.  Out there in internetland, it’s claimed Albini walked away from Blast First! because of it, but clearly he didn’t because his next band, whose name I’m not going to type here, was on the label.  My copy is one of the unauthorised 500.

There’s some attempt to make this look like a bootleg – there’s no mention of the band on the cover, the artwork is very cheap, and the printed track listing is fictitious.  However that’s where the shoddiness ends.  I’ve already described the quality of the performances, but it’s also a really well compiled album.  It derives from three separate soundboard recordings, and it’s obvious a lot of trouble was taken to pick the best from each.  It loses a little as a result – it’s not a continuous performance, but the sheer class of what there is more than makes up for it.

The sound quality is also interesting.  Big Black were never a band to flatter your hi-fi with, nor has Albini ever been in to messing with the sound to make it more palatable.  He sees himself more as an archivist, documenting what bands, including his own actually sound like, which is what he’s done here.  So this album is tiring to listen to, it jarrs, but that’s what the band sounded like…

The title of the album, Sound Of Impact refers to the last element in transcribed conversations of flight crews in the moments before plane crashes.  The back cover is entirely devoted to these conversations, which make for chilling reading.  You can read them here, alongside a typically angry Albini essay.

Further listening? I think the Atomizer LP was their best and is most easily available on the Rich Man’s Eight Track CD.  Songs About Fucking runs it a close second but is harder to find.  I might post a vinyl rip of it at some point if it really is as unavailable as it seems on the web site of everyone’s favourite tax dodgers.

Various Artists: Head Over Ears


Play Hard Records 1987.  DEC 7


This is a worthwhile compilation put together by Debris magazine with a surprising number of big names contributing exclusive tracks including The Fall, Big Black, King Of The Slums, The Railway Children and A House.

I particularly like The Fall’s contribution – often their live recordings are pointless, but this one sounds as though someone’s playing space invaders in the background which I quite like.  It’s always good to find more Big Black – there just aren’t enough Big Black records for my liking.  The studio version of this live track originally appeared on their debut Lungs EP.

Not surprisingly every artist here has produced better work on their own releases, but the stellar line-up makes it hard to resist.

The Auteurs: Back With The Killer


Hut Recordings 1995. HUTCD65


This is mostly of interest to me because it was produced by Steve Albini, although the man himself prefers the term “recorded”.  That aside, The Auteurs were an interesting outfit, rather darker than the usual guitar based indie stuff around at the time, as the title suggests.  Main man Luke Haines was always curiously uncomfortable with fronting such a band and was always at pains to distance himself from his peers.  It’s easy to dismiss that as wishful thinking on his part, but the discomfort comes across on this EP and makes it a pleasingly edgy listen.

The title track was taken from their album After Murder Park (see the theme emerging here) but the other three are exclusives.   Don’t think though that they’re rejects.  Well, maybe they were but it’s a consistently strong EP.  Maybe I should get the album…