These eight tracks trailblazed much of what we take for granted now...
Dan Hill 2002-11-20
Now available for the first time in over a decade, Seven Songs is still as rare as hen's teeth in one sense - as an album which actually lives up to the claim of having been 'hugely influential'. These eight tracks trailblazed much of what we take for granted now: a cut'n'paste sample culture audibly eating itself; white boys playing global funk rhythms; liberal application of metallic white noise and industrial ambience; sophisticated media-savvy imagery and political consciousness - it's all here.
Recorded in two and a half days at the end of 1981, and produced (under a pseudonym) by Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle, this was 23 Skidoo's first album and arguably their best. In turn, the influence of that year's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts can be clearly heard. Eno and Byrne ploughed a futurist furrow of Asian/American culture though - this is as homegrown as a tatty roll-up discarded on the Old Kent Road.
That this album sounds as strikingly contemporary as Bush of Ghosts still does (and that Neville Brody's original cover art still arrests) is certainly testament to the fervent currents circulating in post-punk Britain at that time. It's also perhaps partly due to the recent reappraisal of the early 80s (ESG, PiL, Grandmaster Flash, The Raincoats) and also 23 Skidoo's use as sample fodder by the likes of Future Sound of London.(The Chemical Brothers also infamously 'appropriated' Skidoo's "Coup" for their "Block Rockin' Beats").
Yet what this "I Love the 1980s" approach glosses over, and what this album studiously wallows in (to its immense credit) is the sheer grime of this period in Britain's history, as Thatcherism began to bite ('Withnail and I' without the glamour, basically). It's a dark, brooding noise ... the sound of cities whose streets are blocked with uncollected rubbish; of doomed strikes, anti-nuclear rallies, squat parties, and inner-city riots fierce in the face of police brutality and mainstream complacency; an industrial heritage cruelly dismembered; a popular media mind-numbingly banal and all the more dangerous for that; grudgingly remembered skies unusually leaden. If anybody fancies filming Alan Moore's stunning graphic novel V for Vendetta, they've found their soundtrack right here.
The Fela Kuti-meets-Cabaret Voltaire percussion of kung-fu obsessed brothers Johnny & Alex Turnbull creates an irresistible junkyard funk; a dole-office gamelan, grooves loping all over the place. It sounds sampled, but the off-kilter propulsion betrays its more primitive origins. Likewise "Quiet Pillage" (oh-ho), which seems Bali-high on something, anyway.
Yet make no mistake, this is an angry album. The sampling of Rightwing moral crusader Unity Mitford on "Porno Bass" is the only overt political statement, but the sound itself is magnificently defiant in the face of incipient Reaganomics and 'the death of society'. The supreme middle section, as "Mary's Operation" proceeds through "Lock Groove" to "New Testament" is wordless, yet speaks eloquently of times a-changing, with Fritz Catlin's bass on the latter frighteningly foreboding and dread-ful, even at this distance.
So, whilst the sound of Kate Thornton 'remembering' how great Spangles were may be vaguely amusing for, oh, all of 4 nanoseconds, Seven Songs provides a necessary antidote to those who would try to rewrite history. I love the 1980s indeed.