Remembrance of electronic angst past

A little under eighteen years ago, I was standing in about this same place with the same view below. It was a little earlier in the day, the sun was out more and all, but the stage was still filled with fog and at the center of it was an individual wearing black, on tour with his band on a multi-act bill, playing the song “Terrible Lie” just like was the case when I took this photo last night at what was Irvine Meadows Ampitheatre and is now called Verizon Ampitheatre or something similar.

Hi there, Trent Reznor, leader of Nine Inch Nails. Glad to have you back again and all.

I hadn’t been planning on attending this tour, actually. The announcement of a Nine Inch Nails/Jane’s Addiction co-headlining tour earlier this year — named, with a strained logic, NINJA — caused a flicker of interest, certainly. As I hope has been made clear enough via a variety of past posts, I am quite the fan of Mr. Reznor and have been for years, and have seen him enough times to know he puts on a show and all.

Meantime, Jane’s Addiction has been through enough revivals and the like that I admit my eyes long since glazed over about anything involving Perry Farrell running out of money again (or whatever drives him to reassemble the band every so often). But the fact that this time around the one member who had actually been my hero for never participating in the reunions ever since the original breakup back in 1991 decided to come on board this time — bassist Eric A., whose majestic work, simple but devastatingly effective, on songs like “Up the Beach,” “Summertime Rolls,” “Mountain Song” and “Three Days,” says it all (note how he starts each song, how that bass is at once warm, inviting and powerful, setting the entire tone of each performance that follows).

Still I was kinda unsure. Then my friend Tom picked up an extra ticket in payback for the Depeche tickets I’d scored for us and a mutual friend earlier this year and I figured, “Well, why not?” At the same time, having learned that they were playing at this particular, my own back and forth again qualms about reunion and retrospective shows came roaring back. It’s not that this was planned by the bands per se — this is a venue that acts regularly play and all, that’s the whole point of it to start with. But inevitably I could only flashback.

1991 was the year of the first Lollapalooza, Perry Farrell’s attempt to translate the spirit of the Reading Festival in the UK to the US, only via a collective tour instead of a fixed location. No need for me to go into detail about it but the smash success of said tour and its immediate successors, combined with that of similar tours covering other general styles, helped lay the eventual groundwork for that kind of fixed-festival location approach that now dominates summer shows, with Coachella being the obvious forebear there in turn. Whatever else one may think about the two related models, their impact on assumptions of how music is packaged, seen and appreciated is now simply a baseline commonplace.

And there I was, twenty years old, going to enjoy the show. Some acts I’d already seen, others I was finally seeing for the first time. That included NIN and Jane’s both, who I’d actually seen earlier that year together in LA, NIN being the opener there of course. They’d only just started to fully catch fire over the previous year, where Jane’s at that point were legitimate hometown heroes — only Guns’n’Roses were bigger as a rock act when it came to LA and they were already in a stratosphere all their own, where Jane’s were rapidly rising but still just enough of a personal secret of sorts, a classic example of being able to catch a band still arcing upward.

What I remember of both Lollapalooza sets was that they were pretty good — Trent’s aggressive/artistic approach to performing and staging was already well set, and if everything since then has been little but refinement, it’s because he’s always been able to throw poses and shapes with the rest of them, if not better. A friend once said that he destroyed industrial music in order to save it, and while that’s an exaggeration it does sum up the endgame approach he ended up playing — the logical product of a previous decade’s music wrapping up everything in a ball of wax and figuring out how to sell it back to America. What matter if he looked a little goofy playing Pretty Hate Machine songs in almost total daylight when darkness and bright lights suited things better, really?

And Jane’s were Jane’s — one of those acts that was always better live than in studio, much as I love the studio work. I regret not seeing them more at the time than I did — there’s a Palladium show from late 1990 in particular I wish I could have seen, with the Pixies opening; happily that show is included in the new Jane’s box set. But like Radiohead, for instance, everything great about Jane’s in studio kicked up so much more live — the versions of “Three Days” I saw them do at those shows remain jawdropping moments of absolute perfection, willful self-rock-god deification that worked.

Last night Tom, his friend Sue and I made it into the parking lot and discovered that Trent was opening this night, and in fact was about to play. I admit nothing was going to stop me at that point and as soon as I could I found myself at the point where I took the photo, sitting back against a barrier and letting it all happen. A great set, certainly — I’d been told to keep an eye out for Ilan Rubin, the drummer (thanks Brad for the trip!) and he was a monster but also knew how to do things subtly — not bad for someone who was only a year old when Pretty Hate Machine came out. Meantime plenty of people in the crowd were younger than that too, emphasizing the weird time-warp feature that was running in my head during the entirety of the show.

Another time warp thing was more unfortunate, but reflected the last time I saw the band in 2007 in London — a set list that relied heavily, too heavily really, on The Downward Spiral. A great album then and now, but also not an album I need to hear again, it’s pretty much inculcated in my memory. Frankly it’s the newer stuff I keep wanting to hear from Trent and company, as well as the interesting oddities like (as played last night but this link is from a few days ago) his cover of Gary Numan’s “Metal,” first done in studio about fifteen years back. But that was relegated to the side for the most part — only about four songs or so were even from the whole of this decade, doubly frustrating given that this has been his most productive yet, releasing more albums in the past five years than he had done in the previous fifteen. And to be sure, the killer conclusion of “The Hand That Feeds” and “Head Like a Hole,” (the latter from an earlier show but anyway) a smart combination of then and now, was worth it.

Still, it fed into the whole sense of grinding my wheels a bit — I understand why he takes this approach, and maybe I just keep catching him on the wrong nights (more than most he varies up his set lists). Of course, if I was eighteen instead of thirty-eight and this was my first time seeing him I’d be feeling a LOT different. And on balance it was a fine show, no regrets.

But after that, as we were waiting for Jane’s, Tom, Sue and I talked and we all agreed — we didn’t need to stay. Home sounded pretty inviting and Jane’s, well, even for me and even with Eric A. on board, Jane’s just wasn’t thrilling me as an idea this time around. I would have been happy to see them if they were opening for NIN but that was not the case this night, and I’d already literally been there and done that with both bands, NIN opening for Jane’s, twice before. I didn’t need a third time — and NIN, at least, had always kept going, a one-man band of course but still, working, touring, releasing, being busier than ever, resting on past laurels to an extent but never actually stopping. Not the story of Jane’s by a long shot, where the jokes about their inevitable reunion were being made back in 1991 even before their final shows then.

So we left, and as we did so we heard the opening notes of “Three Days” begin, Eric A.’s basslines prompting the crowd into a huge roar. I hope they all had a great time. I already had.

RIP Plan B

The word’s been spreading a bit since an initial e-mail a short while ago but Plan B has announced its forthcoming issue on June 1 will be its last.

Plan B was the last of three magazines that were intimately intertwined — Loose Lips Sink Ships was its sister publication of sorts and both were spawned by Careless Talk Costs Lives, founded in the early part of this decade by Everett True and Steve Gullick, who I first knew about as, respectively, a writer and photographer for Melody Maker in the early nineties. As someone who devoured nearly every issue from mid-1991 to late 1994 — getting out right before Britpop-as-such was codified, probably a smart move on my part — both figures were very familiar names, Gullick’s photography being tied up in my head as almost the color equivalent of Charles Peterson’s work (helped by the fact that they photographed many of the same bands thanks to Seattle’s domination of the rock media universe at the time) and True being, well, himself, an intentionally infuriating figure whose aesthetic read as contrarian when it was more accurately just him being himself, more open to admitting his own biases and preferences than most.

Back in 2001 or so True ended up on ILX and somewhere along the way — I forget which thread or where — he noted that he and Gullick were starting a new project, the aforementioned Careless Talk Costs Lives, and were interested in contributors. Taking the ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ approach, I dropped him a line expressing interest and as a result — to my continued surprise — I found myself becoming a regular columnist for the magazine, with a feature piece near the start of the magazine appearing in all but one of the twelve issues. It never had a title, this column, but it was a chance to talk about musical matters and thoughts at the time in a broader sense than simply reviewing an album or the like — each piece had a different theme, from talking about the joys of hearing music from passing cars to how I associated certain songs or pieces of music with the various moves in my life from place to place.

But that’s to talk about my own contributions — CTCL itself was founded as a response to what True and Gullick feared (correctly, as it turned out) was an irrevocable change in music journalism, more specifically from a UK context but with broader implications. The demise of Melody Maker shortly beforehand resulted in the NME taking up the fairly tattered brand of weekly music journalism in the UK from there on in as sole provider — keep in mind twenty years previously there had been four weeklies — and Napster’s explosion in use was just the further harbringer of what’s been the key concern for music writers since: relevance in a world when you don’t have to take a writer’s word for how something sounds, you can just go ahead and hear it, and not pay anything for it if you choose.

As such CTCL was, in many ways, about comfort and retrospection, a reverence for print over the digital world that, for instance, the also-UK based Freaky Trigger had already found itself fully established in from the start, intentionally. To say that CTCL was to an extent backwards looking sounds a touch harsh, but in its way it too was a predictor of future trends — the increasing worship of the ‘real,’ the idea that vinyl is the only way to hear music correctly, that earnestness rather than irony is a key factor. A broad brief and I don’t pretend that CTCL was somehow either codifying or intentionally pointing the way towards these now more commonplace conclusions, but even in things like the quality of the paper it was printed on, CTCL sought to preserve a certain historical moment into a new century, finding a new way to potentially inspire.

One thing I liked about CTCL was its planned obsolescence as well — it started with issue 12 and counted down, the idea being that True and Gullick were doing this as an experiment with a specific end date. When that was reached they announced that two new magazines would be the result. Gullick and my friend and fellow writer Stevie Chick founded Loose Lips Sink Ships, which I ended up writing more for at the start — done more irregularly than CTCL, it emphasized Gullick’s eye for design very well and I had a good time contributing some features and a couple of reviews to its short run, but it went on hiatus after a bit and that turned out to be that, as everyone involved concentrated on other work closer to hand.

Plan B (which, to correct my earlier and too-hasty assertion, both Joseph and Everett have rightly stated below in comments was ultimately the brainchild of the wonderful Frances Morgan, and she was with it from start to finish — more can be found at Everett’s own retrospective post) in contrast thrived — getting itself locked into a steady month by month publication schedule helped, and if not always as visually beautiful as Loose Lips (though many excellent photographers contributed and over time the magazine codified its own fine look and approach), every issue was crammed with detailed thoughts about music and more besides — artists, authors, filmmakers and more were often featured. After a while I was able to start adding bits and pieces here and there — never anything big, the largest story I ever did was a brief interview with Blonde Redhead — but it was always fun and I ended up establishing a new slew of contacts as a result, never a bad thing.

Plan B to a large extent was always a bit ad hoc, at least as seen from the outside — going up against established publications was always going to be part of the struggle, and like its forebear and counterpart it relied on the good graces of the contributors as much as anything else. Also, despite many excellent pieces on a wide range of musicians, by understandable default it presented life through an indie-rock lens to a large degree — by no means as limited as other publications have done (or continue to do), and with an eye to expand the possibilities of what ‘indie rock’ as such means, yet even so, that was the larger framework. But it did find and fill a niche devoted to it, and of the three magazines seemed the most comfortable with the Web in general, with a good site and discussion forum to its credit. This kind of balance remains essential, I think, and will do for anyone still interested in the primacy of print — simply shutting oneself off completely from the Net strikes me as ultimately limiting, but this ties in with my larger thought that the goal is to attract more readers and writers rather than less.

Plan B, RIP

There’s now a substantial section of my music bookshelf consisting of nothing but Plan B issues, a large amount of which I have very small appearances in, a review or two here and there, no more, but it’s about the totality of the issues rather than one’s own work as I mentioned, and like any publication it will be seen through the lens of retrospection with different eyes than at the time. Features on bands that never went anywhere will be puzzled over, ads listing acts and performers yet to be massively famous will be noted with ‘so that’s where they started!’ surprise, critical judgments will either be seen to be incredibly prescient or completely out of sync with future consensus — it’s a bit like Melody Maker, then, and I still have those issues from my time of regular reading as well. It will all make for thoughtful contemplation in the future.

But the future will contain something else in turn too. This isn’t the end of music writing or journalism by any means — it’s a product of time and place, the realities of this current economy and the nature of music and business all coming together once again. I’ve already seen one publication I wrote for disappear this year, Metal Edge, and now here’s another. One hopes for the best that others won’t go as well, but one also thinks of newer possibilities now in turn — and I’d be willing to bet one of the writers will be an Everett True of the future, looking at the state of things and thinking, “I wonder if we can do something like Plan B now, just to see what could happen?”

Also, in conclusion, it was fun to visit their offices during my last visit to London, my friend Hina and I wandering around a slightly nondescript parking lot/courtyard, wondering if we had missed it, stepping back out to the main road and having Louis Pattison chase me down saying, “Wait, we’re back here!,” directing us to the distant corner where the amazingly crammed offices were found. Everett was out that day, preparatory to his eventual move to Australia, but it was fun — after all those days years before wondering what the Melody Maker offices were actually like — seeing what Plan B‘s were like. About what I expected — publications and press kits and discs and little space. I loved it, of course.

Thanks for the opportunities and thanks to all involved from the start with CTCL and onward through Plan B and Loose Lips, particularly Everett, Steve, Stevie, Louis, Frances, Kick and Lauren, and all my fellow writers and participants. It was a blast.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32 other followers