The Semiotic of Resistance: Blossom Toes in Czechoslovakia

On September 14, 1969, London’s Observer ran an article written by Colin Smith, who later became well known for his coverage of the conflicts in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Kuwait. Unlike his later reportage from war zones, this article dealt with the pop music scene in Prague. In September 1969, Czechoslovakia had recently endured—celebrated is not the right word—the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion. After what began as a popularly supported liberalization and democratization of the country, Prague was entering its second year of what would turn out to be two decades of disillusionment.

When Smith visited the country in September 1969, however, he found that a vibrant youth culture had survived despite recent events. The young people of Prague, in contrast to “young East German tourists in their baggy grey suits,” “would not have looked out of place up the West End on a Saturday night.” The Prague version of King’s Road chic involved cheaper imitations of London fashion: “gaily colored nylon battle blouses and heavy mod shoes made in Yugoslavia.” Many of them also wore small lapel badges bearing pictures of Alexander Dubček, the recently deposed First Secretary of the Communist Party who was largely responsible for launching the previous year’s reforms.

b143323ca023b6b4f54b65c240849792

Blossom Toes: If Only for a Moment LP, July 1969.

The occasion for Smith’s article was the rare tour of a British psychedelic rock group in the country. Blossom Toes arrived in Czechoslovakia around the first of the month for a 16-day tour of the nation. It appears the group likely played a number of shows in provincial towns, but research so far only turns up confirmation of two gigs in the country. Some time early in the month, the band played an outdoor show in Jihlava, about 80 miles southeast of Prague. In recounting this event Smith describes Blossom Toes’ music as “a strange hybrid of beat and electric guitar Asian jazz.” He adds that the “teeny-bopper audience threw coins and lighted cigarettes on the stage” because the band wouldn’t play rock and roll. From our point of view in history both the description of the band’s music and the audience reaction might seem rather curious. But in September 1969 Blossom Toes were touring on their second album, If Only for a Moment, released the previous July. Whereas the songs on the group’s first album still contained more or less identifiable pop music structures despite a heavy dose of lysergic fuzz, a few tracks on the second album showed the group moving in a more fluid, psych-blues direction. Although the concept of rock music deconstructing itself into bluesy psychedelic soundscapes was already becoming familiar to cosmopolitan American audiences, it was still a very new thing in the backwaters of the Iron Curtain where most familiarity with Western music came from the big capitalist pop stations: Radio Luxembourg, VOA, and the BBC. Interestingly, the song the Jihlava teens most wanted to hear was “Back in the USSR.” Smith found this a curious choice in that the song was basically “a panegyric to Russian womanhood,” until he realized most of the audience only understood the title. “The emphasis was on back,” he says.

In Prague, fans were more familiar with Blossom Toes’ current direction, and were more tuned into the UK scene in general. The band originally had a number of concerts scheduled in Prague, but they were all cancelled “for political reasons.” Somehow, late in the tour, “ a chance meeting with some Czech beat musicians in a basement night club” led to a hurriedly arranged show at Prague’s illustrious Smetana Hall. To put this into context, this would be as if a European band arrived in New York City to find that its club dates had been cancelled, only to soon find itself booked at Carnegie Hall through a chance meeting.

DCF 1.0

Prague’s Smetana Hall

The main point of Smith’s piece in the Observer was to illustrate how the western trappings of pop music functioned as symbols of resistance in Czechoslovakia. Long hair on men, “battle blouses,” and cheap Yugoslavian “mod shoes” transmitted a message as clearly as did more overt gestures like wearing a Dubček lapel badge. Smith stated it clearly, “Among young people, even the educated young, Western pop music seems to be synonymous with the resistance.” Acts of resistance could be as simple as illegally putting up fliers to advertise the Smetana Hall show, or walking past the Russian commandant’s office in Bratislava with tiny transistor radios tuned to Radio Luxembourg.

It’s not clear how Blossom Toes’ 1969 tour of Czechoslovakia transpired. Who booked it? What forces behind the Iron Curtain approved it only to cancel many of the shows once the band was in the country? What is clear is that Blossom Toes were an unlikely symbol of resistance. While their second album opens with “Peace Loving Man,” probably the closest thing to a political song they ever recorded, much of their repertoire was made up of tunes like “I’ll Be Late for Tea” or “Mrs. Murphy’s Budgerigar,” hardly the stuff to encourage Molotov cocktails in the streets. The resistance, it seems, was in the form, not the content. Perhaps this absence of an overtly political posture was a factor in allowing them into the country in the first place. There’s little evidence that the band was considered particularly radical in the UK or in Western Europe. But because they briefly entered a space with its own prevailing semiotic—where symbols meant different things than at home—for a couple of weeks in 1969, Blossom Toes were revolutionary.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Blossom Toes: Peace Loving Man

Review: An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels

In the introduction to his An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels, author Josh MacPhee says that the book is the result of his “semi-obsessive need to organize things” along with a rediscovery of his love for music, something he had temporarily shelved by the early 2000s, “both by a disillusionment with the potentials of political punk and the seeming end of the vinyl record.” In 2014, while helping feminist activist and theorist Silvia Federici sort out her apartment, MacPhee discovered a stack of 7” singles put out by Italian political groups in the 1960s and 70s. These were not punk records, of course, but political folk music, a creative space he had not previous explored. His fascination with what he heard on these discs led to the 2015 political music exhibition, If a Song Could Be Freedom, at Brooklyn’s Interference Archive, of which MacPhee is a co-founder. After a couple more years of research into political music on vinyl, specifically records released by labels with a political agenda as opposed to those that just happened to carry political content, he published An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels in June 2017 in an edition of 100. The initial run sold out almost as quickly as it was released. MacPhee then immediately set out to expand and revise the booklet, releasing a second edition a few months later. The new edition has entries for an additional 90 or so labels and has corrected many errors.

PTP16_cover1500

The Encyclopedia is arranged alphabetically by label name, and most entries bear an illustration of the label’s logo along with a brief description. Reading the work from start to finish, from A to Z, the reader will jump between various political points of view, from decade to decade, and from continent to continent. By about halfway through, however, themes begin to emerge. It quickly becomes apparent how much influence the Chilean coup of September 1973 had on the politically conscious sector of the music world. This is evidenced by the large number of reissues by labels around the world of the music of Victor Jara, the Parra family, and Inti-Illimani, as well as by the number of records released in solidarity with these strong voices of resistance to Chile’s subsequent right-wing junta. Other streams of political activity that inspired musical production also reveal themselves: Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, the various African independence movements, and of course anti-Apartheid groups.

The book also reveals clusters of genre. Besides political punk, there are the recordings of an earlier leftist avant-garde scene in the 1970s, particularly in Italy. There is also “progg,” a Scandinavian sub-genre that was progressive in both the musical and political senses. Though the bulk of these labels released some variety of folk music, it quickly becomes clear that “folk” is far too broad a term. While what could be called Anglo-American protest folk—the stereotype most of us are probably used to when we think of political folk music—does appear, there is also nueva canción, nueva trova, and even field recordings of African musicians using traditional forms to express their political hopes.

PTP16_inside05

Despite its claim to be a compendium of political record labels, MacPhee’s booklet is clearly focused on the leftist and progressive end of the political spectrum. While many of the more abhorrent ultra-right labels emerged after the book’s 1990 cut off date, other labels that were clearly political, but right wing, are glaringly absent. J. D. Miller’s Reb Rebel label, founded in 1966, is an example. It’s understandable why MacPhee would not want to include a label whose output included records that literally celebrated the torture of African-Americans by the Klan, but it seems that, given its focus, a more apt title for the work might be something like An Encyclopedia of Progressive Political Record Labels.

It is works like this one that provide a refreshingly different lens through which to view cultural production in its vinyl form. This is a very valuable thing, as it is often from these sorts of books that previously undocumented micro-histories begin to emerge. MacPhee’s long-term plan is to eventually publish “a compendium of political record covers.” If his research on this project continues, hopefully we will see future editions of the Encyclopedia, with discoveries of even more little-known labels and more information on how those already discovered were interconnected.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Ordering Info from Justseeds

Tragedy Protecting: A Louisville Tale

Like many cultural artifacts, 45 rpm singles often act as narrative lightning rods. Stories seem to cluster around them, especially the smaller, independent releases. It often feels like this catalytic quality is directly proportional to how far from the main channel of the music industry the disc emerged. In moving from obscurity to being noticed, on however small a scale, a record will pull threads of narrative into the light along with it.

91e4dc9cda9d82c00e3ef971b182eb19--retail-signs-louisville-kentucky

A winter scene in Louisville, Kentucky, 1960s

On the afternoon of December 30, 1969, police responded to a call of suspicious activity at Greenwell’s Market at the corner of 25th and Osage in Louisville’s Parkland neighborhood. By the end of the day, due to a botched robbery attempt, two of the responding officers were dead and another two were clinging to life in a local hospital.

Sergeant Edgar N. Kelley, a police officer in nearby Jeffersontown, had long fancied himself a poet. It wasn’t long after hearing of the deaths of Detective James Ratliff and Patrolman Donald Gaskin that he composed a pair of poems to memorialize the two dead men. The first, “Tragedy Protecting,” was a straightforward recounting of the events of December 30. The second, “He’ll Never See the Springtime,” looked at the tragedy through the eyes of the widow of one of the fallen officers. Kelley took the poems into the police station and circulated them among his friends there. “Everybody kept telling me to put them to music,” he later told the Louisville Courier-Journal. So he went off in search of musicians who were up to the task.

Throughout most of the 1960s, the independent rock scene in Louisville was dominated by an organization that curiously called itself SAMBO, Inc. SAMBO was formed in 1959 by a pair of local musicians—Hardy Martin and Floyd Lewellyn, who would soon change his name to Ray Allen—who had proven themselves very successful at self-promotion. Seeing their success, other musicians began approaching them for help, and before long they found themselves something of a local music powerhouse. SAMBO stood for Sanders, Allen, & Martin Booking Office, Jack Sanders being a local DJ who helped the duo by providing airplay for their acts in their early days. Soon, the enterprise consisted of a booking agency called Triangle Talent, at least three publishing companies, a number of record labels, and a recording studio located in a converted house at 9912 Taylorsville Road, just on the edge of Jeffersontown. During the heyday of the post-Beatles 1960s rock boom, Allen and Martin were responsible for booking, recording, and promoting most any rock act of note in the greater Louisville area. This dominance extended even outside the city limits, as Triangle Talent booked gigs as far away as Mitchell and Jasper, Indiana, and Lebanon, Kentucky. In August 1966 the partners told Billboard magazine that their little enterprise was grossing $250,000 in annual revenue, a huge sum in those days.

TriangleTalent1967

Triangle Talent ad, 1967

By early 1970 when Kelley set off in search of someone to record his poems, SAMBO had become Allen-Martin Productions. Asking around the local scene, it is likely that anyone in the know would have pointed Kelley in the direction of Allen and Martin to find local musicians to work with.

Evidence suggests that it was indeed Allen and Martin who put Kelley in touch with a local band, The Opposite Reaction. Little is known about this group except that they “played in Louisville-area nightclubs” and had broken up by July of 1970. The group donated its services to the project, recording both of Kelley’s poems in May, almost certainly in the Allen-Martin studio on Taylorsville Road. The record was quickly pressed by Precision Record Pressing in Nashville, and appeared on the unfortunately-named Trump label, one of many label names used by Allen and Martin. The disc was offered for sale at the traffic bureau of the Louisville Police Department by the end of the month, and later at the Jeffersontown town hall. Although it’s unlikely that Kelley actually set the poems to music himself, both sides are credited solely to him, with Allen and Martin’s Falls City Music—which shows up on the label as “Fall City,” an apparent typo—listed as publisher.

According to a June 1970 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Kelley was worried about being accused of capitalizing on the deaths of the officers. “Everything above the $450 I spent getting the records made will go to the Louisville Police Officers’ Association,” he told the paper. A follow-up article in late July stated that the initial pressing of 1,000 copies had sold out very quickly, and that Kelley had ordered another 2,000 pressed. Reportedly, the record had been sent to five local radio stations but had not yet received airplay, although one local station told Kelley that the disc was “under review.”

opposite-reaction-he-will-never-see-the-springtime-trump-kentucky

Listening to a copy of the disc, it becomes clear why local radio would be hesitant to play it. Despite the best of intentions, Kelley’s creation sounds like exactly what it is: a song poem record. In the 1960s and 1970s companies ran ads in magazines offering to set aspiring songwriters’ lyrics to music. As long as the fee was included, these outfits would record a musical arrangement of the lyrics and press a short run of a disc, no matter the quality. The thousands of discs that resulted from this practice are known as song poem records. Many of them are hilariously bad. Most of them are just bad. Even though Kelley managed the release on his own, the result was still very similar to the output from the song poem houses.

Kelley’s lyrics are basically doggerel. Forced rhymes, clunky meter, and saccharine sentiments place him firmly in the world of the amateur poet-lyricists the song poem companies so eagerly preyed upon:

It was a cold day with snow on the street
Police cars were answering a call, not knowing death they would meet

If the disc is representative of the group’s usual sound, Opposite Reaction seems to have been a lounge-rock band, a style that was very common in the late 60s and early 70s. Lounge rock combined pop-rock sensibilities with touches of jazz and folk. The result was usually an uninspired, inoffensive music that passed for hip to the traveling salesmen and adulterous couples who frequented the cocktail lounges in which this style briefly thrived. This is the musical space that Opposite Reaction apparently inhabited. The slightly nasal delivery of the female vocalist and the band’s overall sound are competent enough, but the performance has the lackluster feel of a local Holiday Inn act, which only adds to the amateur song poem vibe of the record.

A tragic local event, an earnest scribbler of doggerel, and the complex machinations of the regional music scene all intersect in the birth of this thin slice of vinyl. The pressing plant in Nashville, the members of Opposite Reaction, the music directors at the radio stations who politely ignored it, and anyone who bought the record (or found it while crate digging three decades later) all become part of the story. Had Kelley not decided to have his poems set to music, the threads of this tale would be disconnected from one another, lost in an infinite mire of possibilities. The creation of the record becomes an act of storytelling that far transcends Kelley’s original intent. The core event, the death of the police officers, is no longer the tale, but only its beginning.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Side A: He Will Never See the Springtime

Side B: Tragedy Protecting

The Lutenist and the Publisher: A Trucksploitation Tale

I can’t remember where I picked up my copy of Norman André’s 1966 single “Big Rig Man,” but I’m certain I didn’t pay more than a dollar for it. But when confronted with a picture sleeve showing a lutenist standing inside a semi trailer, apparently serenading the cab of an adjacent Mack, what sensible person would not be tempted to take the disc home?

oudef 2

In August 1966 Billboard magazine announced that a new label, Palomino Records, was “tying in with the trucking industry to promote its debut disc.” The release was Norman André’s “Big Rig Man” b/w “Gotta Keep on the Move.” The article named Michael Parkhurst as label president and also mentioned that the disc was the theme from the film Big Rig, “produced by the parent company, Hollywood Continental pictures [sic].” Billboard called the record a “public relations image builder for the trucking field, with heavy load vehicles reportedly carrying posters for the disc, and truck stops phoning local radio stations to request airplay and stocking it on their jukeboxes.” The article also mentioned that Overdrive magazine, a major trucking trade publication, was “running a DJ contest with the label, asking DJs to write and tape an editorial on the importance of trucking to their area.” First prize was a trip to Tahiti. What the article did not say was that Mike Parkhurst was also the founder and editor of Overdrive (as well as being a rabid opponent of the Teamsters union and fervent supporter of the independent trucker). So, in reality, the release was not a trucking industry tie-in, but something that emerged from inside the industry itself.

oudef_0001 2

Norman André was the pseudonym of songwriter and composer Norman Andre Anderson. The reason we remember his name today at all centers around his association with Parkhurst. The most striking thing about Anderson is that though he penned rather straightforward, mainstream country tunes, his instrument of choice—at least around 1966—was a modified lute. Pictures show him playing an instrument with a lute body, a shortened standard guitar neck, and a “straight” headstock (as opposed to the head being bent backwards as is standard on both the traditional lute and its middle eastern variations such as the oud.) The sound of the instrument on “Big Rig Man” is not ethnic or “folkloric” as one might guess, but more like a boxy, cheap acoustic guitar providing the competent chug and shuffle that drives the tune. Sonically it works, but it is a curious choice of instrument when planning to market a record to an audience of truck drivers in the mid-1960s.

It seems that when Parkhurst decided to enter the arena of trucksploitation cinema he knew that music would help sell his film. Low budget films require low budget composers, however, so he set out to find someone who could do the job without breaking the bank. It is not known how Parkhurst and Anderson first met, but Big Rig was evidently in the planning stages as early as 1965. A promo disc of “Big Rig Man,” credited to Norman André and mentioning the film, was released on the tiny Martay Records label that year. It is not clear why Parkhurst saw the need to re-release the disc on his own label the following year, but as the Martay disc seems to be pretty rare, it is likely that only a handful were pressed. Once he decided to unleash a big promotion campaign, it only made sense to go with a full release of the disc. As part of this promotion, the July 1966 issue of Overdrive carried a long article on the record and the film. The cover featured Norman André, lute in hand, superimposed over a shot of two rigs sitting in a truck stop parking lot. Given the context, this was a decidedly surreal image, and is quite likely the only time in history a lute has appeared on the cover of a major trucking magazine.

OverdriveJuly66

Later in 1966 Palomino released a second Norman André single, “I Don’t Like Women With Hairy Legs” b/w “I Don’t Like You,” but it’s not clear whether this disc was intended to have any link to the film. The somewhat elaborate promotional campaign would suggest that Big Rig was originally intended to be a feature film. Whatever the original intent, the film eventually surfaced (however briefly) as a 30-minute documentary “shot on location from California to Massachusetts.” It was not until a few years later that a Parkhurst-directed trucksploitation feature film—scored by André now using his real name, Norman A. Anderson—finally did appear.

Filmed in West Texas and around Tucson in 1969 and 1970, Moonfire, the feature film that Parkhurst eventually released, had its world premiere at the Cinema Theater in Columbiana, Ohio, on May 12, 1972, with some 250 truckers reportedly in attendance. According to an article in the previous day’s Salem News, the film was being debuted in Columbiana because Parkhurst got his start in the trucking business “twenty years ago” driving for a local farm bureau there. The “G-rated adventure film about truckers” starred Charles Napier, probably best remembered from his appearances in a number of Russ Meyer films, and boxing legend Sonny Liston, who died shortly after filming. While Anderson contributed the score to the film, the soundtrack was given star power by a pair of tunes also written by Anderson but performed by Marty Robbins. These tracks, “Wheel of Life” b/w “Get You Off My Mind,” were released as a promo-only 45 on Palomino in 1972.

Trucking songs already had a long history by the time “Big Rig Man” appeared. Although there are likely earlier examples, Terry Fell’s 1954 recording of his “Truck Drivin’ Man” provided a template for later artists to build upon. The sub-genre reached its apex by the mid-1960s, with big hits by artists such as Dave Dudley and Dick Curless, as well as the appearance of interesting low-budget compilation LPs like Starday’s 1963 Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves. Truck driving as a cinematic subject has an even longer history, Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940) and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 film version of Georges Arnaud’s novel Le salaire de la peur being a couple of classic examples. The 1970s saw something of an explosion of what would later be termed “trucksploitation cinema.” The release of these mostly low-budget films coincided with a popular obsession with both long-haul trucking and the citizen’s band radio, culminating in 1977 with the release of Smokey and the Bandit on one hand and Sorcerer (an updated take on Arnaud’s Le salaire de la peur) on the other.

Looking at these films chronologically, it becomes apparent that Parkhurst’s Moonfire was the first of this new wave of trucksploitation films. (Although some might include Spielberg’s 1971 TV movie, Duel, I would argue that despite the presence of a big rig in the film, it is much more a psychological thriller and has little in common with the low-brow “trucker buddy” films that followed it.) Although this may place Moonfire in an important position when studying the history of the sub-genre, artistically it was not a successful film. It opens promisingly enough with a long shot of trucks driving across an early evening desert landscape, with the voice of Marty Robbins singing the effective, Anderson-penned theme song “Wheel of Life.” The opening sequence has the gritty aesthetic of many low-budget movies of the era. But the moment the title sequence ends, the viewer is suddenly thrust into cheesy anachronism. This isn’t a trucker version of Two Lane Black Top. The best comparison I can make would be to James Landis’ 1964 The Nasty Rabbit, starring Arch Hall, Jr. The cinematography and location shots are interesting, but the film itself is one big cliché, filled with stereotypical (and somewhat offensive) Mexican villains, a missile plot, and even a renegade Nazi who must be defeated by our hero truckers. Overall the film plays like something that may have gotten mildly positive response from drive-in audiences in 1964, but not in 1972.

norman-andre-big-rig-man-palomino

The question lurking behind all of this is, why did the publisher of an industry trade magazine decide to launch a “public relations image builder for the trucking field”? Shouldn’t the companies that actually run the trucks be more concerned with how the industry is viewed by the public? Granted, the fascination with trucking that exploded in the mid-1970s may have increased the readership of Parkhurst’s magazine, but there was no way he could have foreseen this. With the previous success of trucker-themed country records, a trucking-related zeitgeist was already in the air by the mid-60s and it was only a matter of time before the film industry would respond. On one level Parkhurst’s early entry into this field can be interpreted as culturally savvy or even prescient. The cynical view, however, would be that he was simply interested in expanding his operations into film and music, fields that were seen as far “sexier” than magazine publishing, and used his industry connections to best possible advantage.

—Stephen Canner

 

The Liberation Support Movement

Josh MacPhee first encountered the Liberation Support Movement while working in a “lefty” print shop in the late 1990s. There, on top of a stack of other publications, he came across a copy of LSM’s interview with ANC leader Alfred Nzo, which was published in 1974 as part of its Interviews in Depth series. As an artist, what first struck MacPhee was the cover design. “It was all so simple, but somehow perfect,” he says. The contents were also striking, dealing with the ANC’s armed struggle against apartheid, a very different tale than the organization’s official line since becoming South Africa’s ruling party. Having discovered this first pamphlet, he began seeking out other examples of LSM’s printed output. Then, a couple of years ago, a mutual acquaintance put him in touch with several LSM members.

nzo

The Liberation Support Movement was founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1969 by anthropologist Don Barnett and several of his students at Simon Fraser University. Over time others joined, expanding the organization into a number of cells scattered across the North America, but eventually the group found a home in Oakland, California, where it consolidated. Members in other areas either moved to Oakland or left the group. The LSM was one of many emerging anti-imperialist organizations during the era whose focus had shifted away from Vietnam and towards other, lesser-known struggles in areas with active liberation movements: Southern Africa, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Eritrea, Oman, and Palestine. During its existence from 1969 to 1982, the LSM operated not only as a small press, issuing pamphlets and other material to publicize these struggles, but was also very active in a number of other areas. During its existence members of the group conducted information tours across North America, collected and sent tons of medical supplies and clothing to the MPLA in Angola, sent several teams to southern Africa to interview freedom fighters and to record music that was later released on a pair of LPs, produced a short film, and even trained a pair of SWAPO militants from Namibia in the fine art of offset printing.

ia_lsm_01

Josh MacPhee’s Liberation Support Movement: Building Solidarity with the African Liberation Struggle was published in 2016 by the Interference Archive, a Brooklyn-based organization of which he is a founding member. The pamphlet includes extracts from interviews he conducted with three members of the LSM—Ole Gjerstad, Steve Goldfield, and Rick Sterling—followed by a preliminary (but very thorough) checklist of the group’s output. The booklet’s bright colors and simple yet striking graphics echo the design aesthetic of many radical publications of the 1970s.

The history of small radical social movements in the US is tangled and complex. Individuals moved from one group to the next frequently and fluidly. Schisms were common, often resulting in the creation of new groups or the renaming of existing ones, and many seemed to pop up and disappear overnight leaving barely a trace. The traces that do survive are often in the form of the published output these organizations left behind. The discovery of a long-forgotten pamphlet or flier may be the first hint to a researcher that a previously undocumented group ever existed.

When researching small presses from this era, bibliographers are often frustrated by the lack of information available regarding the actual printing process. In the interview section, MacPhee helpfully includes a statement from Rick Sterling explaining that the LSM ran its own print shop, equipped with a Multilith 1250 offset press. The shop was originally located in Richmond, British Columbia, but was later moved to Oakland. Eventually the group formed a relationship with a politically sympathetic shop in Ithaca, New York, called Glad Day Press. Glad Day had larger presses and so printed posters and other jobs the group thought too large for its own shop. This sort of information might seem peripheral to the cultural historian, but is essential for the bibliographer.

Through collating the information he has collected over the years and publishing it in what is basically a very simple format, MacPhee has not only created a major resource for anyone interested in the LSM, but has also provided an excellent model that other researchers could use to present their own work. Very little bibliographical research has been done on the printed output of the huge number of radical leftist organizations of the 70s and 80s so MacPhee’s work fills a gap. I can envision this gap being further filled by a series of pamphlets (or their digital equivalents) on other imprints of the era using MacPhee’s model: a narrative of the organization’s history, wherever possible from the mouths of the people involved, followed by a checklist of all known output from the group. With each pamphlet detailing a single group or imprint, these publications could serve as entry points to wider and deeper studies. In the meantime, MacPhee’s pamphlet is essential for anyone interested in the topic (as well as for any institution collecting in this area.)

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Interference Archive: Publications

Liberation Support Movement from MSU’s African Activist Archive

 

This is Memorial Device: An Hallucinated Remembrance of Things Past

9780571330836-850x510

On the surface, David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device is a clever, offbeat novel about the underground music scene in a small Scottish town from the late 70s into the first half of the 80s. The scene is a swirling vortex with a very local, but hugely influential, band called Memorial Device at its center. Keenan writes as someone who was there, vividly detailing the subtleties of taste and fashion that informed the era. He has created something of a 21st century epistolary novel, with various participants of the scene recounting their memories via letters, transcribed interviews, or e-mails.

One can’t help being a bit suspicious, though, that the novel is also something of an hallucinated roman a clef. Just a few pages into the book Ross Raymond, a character who might just be Keenan’s alter ego, grounds us in the scene’s musical aesthetic, “Every Saturday I would meet Johnny and we would travel to Glasgow and buy two LPs each: the first Ramones album, The Sonics’ Boom, Easter Everywhere by The 13th Floor Elevators, which is still the greatest psychedelic record ever made, Can’s Tago Mago, Metal Box by Public Image Ltd, the first Roxy album, This Heat, Nurse With Wound, So Alone by Johnny Thunders—in fact anything by Johnny Thunders, everyone in Airdrie was obsessed with Johnny Thunders.” Other characters voice other influences, the Only Ones, Suicide, or Throbbing Gristle (and in fact this novel is likely one of the few ever published to carry a blurb from Cosey Fanni Tutti on its cover.)

This is a culture where the record geek is king. This idea is strengthened by a section in which the character Bobby Foster recounts his experiences with Teddy Ohm, an older, biker type who “looked like Johnny Winter crossed with Frank Zappa crossed with Cher in the 1970s, effeminate but tough and kind of scarier for it.” Besides being the local drug connection, Teddy was also a dealer of the rarest vinyl, specializing in “weirdo private-press” discs, “like the Fraction LP, Circuit Rider, D. R. Hooker, garage stuff like the Bachs and Index” as well as the folkier end of things like Relatively Clean Rivers and Hickory Wind. As the private-press label collecting scene was still in its infancy even in the later 1980s—and was a very American phenomenon in its earliest days—this section feels like a fantasy of how things should have been. But it’s exactly this sort of savvy anachronism that makes the book endearing. There’s a certain type of reader who won’t have to look up any of the obscure band names mentioned and for whom the adventures of Keenan’s motley cast of characters will bring back memories of his or her own local scene. It is this reader-as-insider who may just find This is Memorial Device a warm, fuzzy read despite the dysfunction it honestly portrays.

In recent years the theme of memory has been very influential in literature, film, and music. This is evidenced by the spike in interest in the works of W. G. Sebald over the last decade or so, as well as the emergence of the not-exactly-parody blog Scarfolk Council and the nostalgia-haunted sounds of the bands on the Ghost Box label. For me, if This is Memorial Device has an overarching theme it has to do with what and how we remember. Lucas, the singer in Memorial Device, has a vaguely defined condition in which he has no long- and very little short-term memory. Like the notebook he carries in order to keep his world in order, the very name of the band seems to imply that the group functions as a tool to help him remember. Perhaps the band took its name from this notebook in the same way that other bands in the scene took their names from unlikely, random objects, incidents, or ideas. The format of the novel in which each chapter of the book is told by a different individual recounting his or her personal memories helps emphasize this theme of slippery remembrance. Sometimes the voices contradict one another. Sometimes they recount the same incidents painted with a different brush. This is not an exploration of multiple realities a la Rashomon, but simply what happens when different people try to remember the events of several decades past. For me, This is Memorial Device demonstrates that there is no single narrative that constitutes an objective musical history. The history of a genre, a local scene, or an individual band can only be pulled from a field on which multiple narratives interplay, driven by the always subjective, ever-flawed engine of memory.

—Stephen Canner