Richard Johnson Top Ten
This weeks Top Ten we have Richard Johnson from Fourth Dimension Records! As well as running Fourth Dimension Richo also found time to be in Splintered, Playground, Husk, Slugbait, Theme as well as writing Grim Humour fanzine. Theres a Grim Humour book coming out soon – I highly recommend you buy one from Fourth Dimension!
TOP TEN ALBUMS FOR RECKLESS
In no particular order and often susceptible to changes, but largely consistent for the most part for many years now. I am only listing the details of the original release. All have been reissued and can still be found easily enough. Of course, I love loads of newer artists and releases, too, but I’ve selected those which have already been with me for a considerable while and continue to move me with every return listen, or that I have been listening to repeatedly in more recent years. I’ve also aimed for a diverse selection that hasn’t even touched on other areas of music I love (no room for Leonard Cohen, Whitehouse, John Coltrane, Can, Smog, Sun City Girls or Ranaldo & the Loaf here!). I should also add that I really enjoy the work of each and every artist I now often work with, including Alternative TV, Kleistwahr, Richard Youngs, Hand & Leg, Gad Whip, Ramleh, Sion Orgon, Map 71, JFK, Micromelancolie and, of course, my own groups, Splintered and Theme.
WIRE 154 LP (Harvest, 1979) Still have my now well-worn copy from when I first bought it in about 1982 as a teenager searching through music that came out of the punk hinterland yet went beyond it. Wire never especially fitted with ‘punk’ anyway, but 154 is where they especially compound just how far removed they were from the increasingly narrow confines afforded by many of its main protagonists. This album is one of moods buoyed along by sliding greyscale textures, incandescent melodies, occasionally tempered and distorted rhythmic surges and the kind of lyrical bite that bridges the gap between experience and a sense of otherness the music complements perfectly. I love Wire pretty much all the way through, really, though. Their various other projects and some of the solo endeavours, too. It’s this album I continue to turn to the most (outside the Dome ones), however, simply because even though I already owned a copy of both Pink Flag and Chairs Missing beforehand it was this that emphasised the group’s possibilities the most. Hard to pick any one song from this as a standout, but ‘A Touching Display’ is as mighty a choice as the others. Like the album itself, the group are in a class of their own.
CROMAGNON Orgasm LP (ESP Disk, 1969) I first stumbled on this through Stefan Jaworzyn’s much missed Scum List of secondhand and rare records, which I used to get printed for him at an old workplace when I lived in the UK. I started out with a CD reissue called Cave Rock, although interestingly it’s an earlier version than the 2009 one noted on Discogs (I ceased printing Scum Lists in 2005, when I moved to Poland), but there’s no date to be found on it. I have an idea I got it in about 2001 and that the disc itself is from the ‘90s. Whatever, a phenomenal album I’ve subsequently also bought a vinyl reissue of. The very first time I heard it I was unaware of anything concerning the two main guys responsible, Austin Grasmere and Brian Elliot, who’ve both unfortunately long gone and can no longer espouse on the work of utter genuius that constitutes Orgasm. The opener, ‘Caledonia’, with its battering ram underpinning, manic vocals, walls of hiss and wailing bagpipes is enough in and of itself to prove the likes of Butthole Surfers weren’t that novel. And that’s after a smattering of detuned radio shit forming part of the intro. From this point on, things get even more bizarre as the group build songs from what sounds like playing around with whatever junk they could lay their hands on in the studio. I used to play ‘Crow of the Black Tree’ regularly when I used to DJ in Krakow with my friend Mark. People would only jerk around to it on the dancefloor if completely hammered and not one of them ever asked me what the song was. Little wonder Crogmagnon remain something of a very much hidden gem.
ALTERNATIVE TV Vibing Up the Senile Man (Part One) LP (Deptford Fun City Records, 1979) Like Wire in the sense that Mark Perry’s forever fantastic and amorphous group started out as a more regular punk assault (releasing some stunning singles during this phase, too, such as ‘How Much Longer’ and ‘Life’) but, disillusioned with where punk was heading, transmogrified into a far more ambitious concern. The eight songs that constitute Alternative TV’s fourth album, although second studio recorded one, sound like the group, having already toured with Here & Now, really wanted to not only turn ‘punk’ on its head, but piss off just about everybody who’d thus far supported the group in the process. For me, that’s even more ‘punk’ than punk. The music itself trawls through basement clatter, a piano serving as drums, a flute that appears like its being ‘played’ after having been shoved into a windy infant’s arse, fucked up electronic splurge, subterranean water swirls and a brooding sensibility that sometimes falls into a whirlpool of anxieties. On top of all this are Perry’s ravaged poetry vocals, which often seem like they’re forged from cut-ups or merely sketched ideas then improvised from. As much as I love AMM, I always hoped they’d sound more like this when I first heard them. Vibing… more than compensates, though. Perry could have easily have played the accessibility card at the time and elevated his group to the point they could have made a greater stamp on the public consciousness. Thankfully, he chose the more uncompromising path instead. In more recent years I’ve been working with him myself. The man is something of an inspiration so I can’t underline enough just how much of an honour this is. His work in Alternative TV continues to go wherever the hell he wants it to as well. Exactly as it should be.
THE CURE Pornography LP (Fiction, 1982) I first heard of The Cure in 1979, when one of my friends at school managed to see them at the Odeon in Canterbury. Unfortunately, my especially strict stepdad prevented me from going to any ‘punk’ gigs at the time, so I missed out on several such gigs I’d have happily gone along with my school pals to given the chance. Said friend gave me a Three Imaginary Boys album cover badge I almost immediately adorned my blazer lapel with after confirming the group were ‘punk’. I was 13- years-old so think I can excuse this! I’m not sure how long that badge was worn, alongside my PIL, Skids and Blondie ones, but the image always intrigued me. It’s been subsequently dismissed by Robert Smith as a cheap cash-in on the group’s then adhering to the notion of an ‘anti-image’, but the photograph of innocuous household objects/appliances seemed, at the time, to serve as some kind of statement against domesticity or everyday blandness. Of course, like so many others around this period, The Cure were being initially marketed as a regular punk group, despite their music already displaying clear signs of going beyond that. Although marked by the exact same attitude it was a little too articulate, or smart, to be generally seen as part of the main batch. Then, between this and the album I’ve selected, simply because I’ve loved its raw and gnashing charm since I first bought it as a 17-year-old, the group refined their sound and, apparently inspired by Mahler, Eno and Wire, began focusing on painting songs in deeper tones, rich in atmosphere and existential dread. Pornography, their fourth album, then witnessed these textures violently torn apart. The group had begun taking so many drugs that mental collapse seemed the only way out. This is what’s captured perfectly on Pornography. An amalgam of anger, frustration and despair, the music is both violent and claustrophobic, with little to help claw it towards any semblance of accessibility. The guitars are played bloodily and the simplistic drums sound like Swans testing their kit. All the while, organs gasp and drone at the same time the tormented lyrics, flecked with snarling contempt, spiral headlong into a deep black hole of their own making. Once again, it’s an uncompromising listen that never once attempted to appease anybody too readily. It feels insular or, more to the point, like being caught in the sea next to a broken ship as it goes down. Unlike so much music that does more or less the same thing (early Swans, again, being a prime example), there’s little light, or hope, here. It seems to embody the absolute futility, and fragility, of existence. To deem it ‘goth’, as so many lazy bastards do, goes against it completely. I always saw Smith and co. as having more in common with that, again, early punk attitude of doing whatever the fuck they felt like at that given time. There’s no possible way The Cure could have bettered where they went on Pornography, though. This is a place best visited only once, at least artistically. The album achieves more than most dumbfuck ‘noise’ artists could ever aspire to with its crushing intensity, and I’d contend it’s a component of The Cure that’s been in their convoluted mix ever since.
RAMLEH A Grudge For Life LP (Vis-a-Vis Audio Arts, Japan, 1989) This comes from a time when my fanzine, Grim Humour, was pretty popular and in addition to this I’d have my label, mail order and, indeed, own group. Living in Herne Bay meant you had to quite literally do everything yourself if one wanted something ‘happening’. I was already familiar with Ramleh before I received a copy of this LP in either a trade or amongst some stock for my mail order, anyway. At the time, I’d have been starting to crave music which could replace the diet of Swans, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, The Jesus Lizard, Killdozer, Big Black or whoever I’d mostly been listening to the previous few years and which, by this time, was beginning to seem rather flat. I’d been introduced to new worlds via Japanese noise artists, old free jazz records, a smattering of techno and New Zealand improvised noise-rock, amongst others. I was also paying attention to some homegrown artists, such as Loop and Head Of David on the one hand and, on the other, far less popular one, Richard Youngs. When I first heard Grudge For Life I drew almost instant parallels with some of the work of the latter and Simon Wickham-Smith. There were similarly anguished vocals, keyboard stabs where drums should be, brooding textures and washes of sound suggesting things were never going to be quite the same again. I loved it. It sounded like the work of two young men, Gary Mundy and Philip Best, who’d long derailed and never especially wanted to return to the tracks. The fact that the LP sleeve didn’t shed much light on them only added to the music’s allure, too. This was another of those records that instantly grabbed me. A rare thing. Since then, I’ve gone on to organise a gig by Ramleh in Poland and, indeed, work with them both as Ramleh and with Gary and Anthony Di Franco’s solo endeavours. The mystery may have diminished, but it’s revealed them, and their close affiliates, to be sterling individuals. Ramleh continue to produce wonderful work, too. The paradoxical testament to their greatness is their relative obscurity, although quite rightly they’re not as hard to find as they once were.
ROBERT ASHLEY Automatic Writing LP (Lovely Music, 1979, USA) I seem to be selecting a few albums released in 1979. Purely coincidental, though. Robert Ashley’s third album, Automatic Writing, is every bit as good as other records of his released during this same period. I can’t comment on much beyond that because I only have a handful of his albums, with the last one I own being the equally engaging Yellow Man With Heart With Wings CD from 1990. I have no idea where I first picked his records up from, either. Maybe These Records’ mail order or the Scum List once again? All I know is that when I first heard Automatic Writing in particular I couldn’t stop listening to it and ever since then I turn to it regularly. Caught somewhere between a relaxing listen of tempered abstract music with sound poetry and something more unsettled and full of disquiet, the three pieces that constitute the CD version I have (replete with the bonus short piece, ‘She Was A Visitor’, originally directed by Alvin Lucier) are utterly entrancing and beguiling. I cannot recall if this album was ever on the Nurse With Wound list, but it certainly deserves a place there. Of the two lengthy and eponymous pieces that forged the original release, I can only say their magic worked its way into me instantly. Ravaged and hushed voices are buoyed along by grizzled electronics that are at once uneasy and atmospheric yet kept to a subdued level which only adds to their bruised charm. The way the voices work served as a huge inspiration for me in my own work in Theme, actually. Not that anybody is paying any attention!
PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED Flowers of Romance LP (Virgin, 1981) Where to start? Firstly, the debut PIL single, which I first heard at a local Friday night disco in late 1978 (then bought as soon as I could after) was, more so than the Pistols, something of an epiphany for me. I then picked up the subsequent singles because they were all I could afford at the time with money pooled from a paper round and whatever wasn’t spent on disgusting school dinners. I was too young to really understand them completely, but they appealed to me regardless of my inability to articulate why. Of course, Johnny Rotten/Lydon remained a captivating frontman, but everything about the music his group created both confounded and energised me. Then came the ‘Flowers of Romance’ single, which I first saw on Top of the Pops and, like the debut, pulled me in completely. I bought it and then, finally beginning to find money enough to pick up LPs, bought the album and couldn’t stop playing it. The tribal drums were immediate enough on most of the songs, but it was the violin and weird keyboard stabs that I really liked. Besides Lydon’s contorted howls and sneer-flecked chants, no less. It’s not so often that every track on an album proves to be a winner, but that’s how each and every one here is for me, from the opener, ‘Four Enclosed Walls’, through the title track and the staggering ‘Under the House’, to the closing ‘Francis Massacre’. I realise that most go for PIL’s second album, Metal Box, which is absolutely deserving of its status as a triumphant record anybody with an interest in genuinely exploratory music should own, but Flowers of Romance always struck a deeper chord with me for its simply being amongst the very first albums I ever bought. I got Metal Box a while later and, like several others from this period in music, proceeded to keep up with everything beyond Flowers…, despite often being disappointed (although I feel This Is What You Want…This Is What You Get, from 1984, is underrated even if it is patchy, plus remains threaded with some avant-garde touches I tend to appreciate in music that can reach a wider audience). Flowers of Romance is, however, another avant-garde winner. Hard to imagine how such music could have made it to the UK charts now, too.
THE CONGOS Heart of the Congos LP (Black Art, 1977, Jamaica) My interest in roots reggae, rocksteady and original ska, etc. has grown out of a deeper one in dub music that itself has broadened over the last couple of decades and was possibly initially instigated by groups like PIL, The Ruts, Killing Joke, Basement 5, The Pop Group and others dabbling in it. I’m far from an expert in this area, but can say I love the music of groups/artists such as Steel Pulse, The Aggrovators, Augustus Pablo, The Skatalites, Scientist, Max Romeo, Horace Andy and countless others. When I can, I keep adding to my collection of such music, too. It is unquestionably obvious, but so much of this music simply makes me feel good, no matter how understandably politicised a lot of it can be. The Congos are no exception in this respect, often singing about real life topics anybody around the globe who has to give up their time, blood, sweat and tears to earn a crust can relate to. It’s the juxtaposition of this with their extraordinary voices and the incredible, lilting yet weighty basslines that renders everything so wholly magical. That word again. This truly deserves to be described as ‘magical’, though. I understand it’s not for everybody, like all music, but when I’ve been going through a low period, such music is guaranteed to get me firmly and fully hotwired to feeling motivated again. Simple as that. I don’t have the original LP as it costs a fortune now, but I have the slightly expanded Blood & Fire 2LP reissue from 1996 (not itself easy to find cheap these days, either!). Blood & Fire is a great label and possibly the one thing we can say in Mick Hucknall’s defense, since he co-founded it. I have quite a number of records on this great label.
SCOTT WALKER Scott 4 LP (Philips, 1969) Another album I actually only have a CD reissue of, but it’s one that gets played often in my home as my fiancee, Iwona, likewise enjoys it and hearing it now makes me think of our drinking wine on a lazy, sun-baked Sunday afternoon and discussing its countless merits. Listening to obscure post-punk or whatever in our home is a more solitary pursuit for me, but early Scott Walker can be blasted loud from the main system and used to annoy the neighbours with. Not that there’s anything at all annoying about this beautiful music and its being driven by perhaps one of the best voices ever to have emanated from a man whose very name conjures images of the kind of broken and battered romanticism usually reserved for poets. There is poetry here, however. This music, with its tender string arrangements sometimes dovetailing with more bombastic rhythms and backing choruses, is as poetic as Walker’s smart lyrics. Some of the songs have an Ennio Morricone-esque feel to them, but ultimately this is out on its own. A few years ago, I’d have claimed Tilt to be my favourite album of his and whilst there’s a ring of truth to that, the warmth, immediacy and depth of the early works are what I turn to most often now. Scott 4 exemplifies this appeal perfectly as it both roots one to the moment it occupies and feels transportative. Like all of my favourite albums (and there are far too many to snag on a simple top ten list of them!), this one pulls me to that same fantastic place every time, with ‘The Old Man’s Back Again’ getting repeat-played the most often. Wonderful stuff.
DAVID BOWIE Heathen CD (Columbia, 2002) This might seem an unlikely choice given just how many amazing albums Bowie produced, but I’m including it because it’s the one I listen to the most these days. Of course, like many others, I first heard Bowie a few decades ago. His music never stamped on my conciousness really until I saw the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video on Top of the Pops at an old friend’s house. This friend then bought the Scary Monsters… LP and I recall our listening to this heavily in between fixes of The Stranglers, Blondie, X-Ray Spex, Skids, the Pistols and so on. However, the first LP I picked up was Ziggy Stardust a couple of years or so later when, once again, I was finally in a position to afford more than just singles. Because punk led me to exploring Bowie, the Velvets, Captain Beefheart, Throbbing Gristle, the Stooges and others around the same time, I feel this period represented the real beginning of my opening up to different types of music, even if initially ‘punk approved’. I never delved deep into Bowie’s back catalogue until a number of years later, however, when I could find many LPs sold cheap at a secondhand place in Canterbury or reissued on CD. Even then, I only picked away at certain releases over the subsequent years until his untimely death at the start of 2016. Blackstar then became a firm favourite for a while until I realised I ought to address the problem I had with some missing albums. Heathen was amongst those I duly picked up and have been addicted to ever since. Typical for Bowie, it might seem quite ordinary or pedestrian on the surface, but there’s a depth to it that spirals into a sense of otherworldliness which then bursts with the sound of hope on the triumphant yet somewhat melancholy ’Slow Burn’ – another of those songs that snags me for at least a few listens before I can move on to the next track. It’s Bowie’s traversing between his melancholic sensibilities, tiny flecks of avant-garde undercurrents and a songwriting craft that can art-rock with the best of them that especially comes out on Heathen. Naturally, it’s hard for me to choose between Low, Scary Monsters…, Station to Station, (Blackstar) and a few other albums, really, but this is both the album of his I most play these days and want to draw attention to for its not being one of the more typical ones. A perfect listen and, like Scott Walker himself, buoyed by another amazing voice I’m glad he left with us on these stunning records.
Fourth Dimension Records & Friends event in London, November 29/30:
Recent and upcoming releases: https://fourthdimensionrecords.bigcartel.com/products