Music Matters
Back in the nineties I created a lot of essays all loosely joined by A being about music B memoir related and C pertaining to how place affects creating music and how one listens. A mixed memoir called "Music Matters". Much of it I would heartily disown now , but not all - and who am I to judge now that the work is done, anyway? So I am resolved to dripping out the essays over the next few months, often without comment, sometimes with.
Geoffrey Armes
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Jah Wobble
Geoffrey Armes - 2023-05-30T11:30:40-07:00

Facts: Jah Wobble is a bass player, and now also a vocalist, bandleader and songwriter. Over the years he has worked with various permutations of a small group of musicians, the ‘Invaders Of The Heart’, often augmented by others, such as Baaba Maal, and Jaki Leibezeit (the drummer from Can), ‘name’ musicians in their own right. He has also catalysed recording careers for others. The Arabic/Belgian/Jewish singer Natacha Atlas, and the Algerian Abdel Ali Sliman, both recorded solo albums after working with him. His bass playing has remained surprisingly consistent over the years: a lumpen and muscular pinning of the pulse with more than a passing nod to the reggae of the seventies. A sound from the street.

The sun on the Upper West Side of Manhattan: at the end of the day, bleary, but with the dinning drums still in my ears I leave the recording studio and fall into a taxi, headphones on, obsessively taking a final listen to the work of the day. I am struggling to become a mature artist, yet still come to the work with the clear-vision of the child that I was, and the fresh swagger of the streets where that child grew up. It may be that it was that swagger that obscured the vision, I don’t know, but, see, thing is, ‘your swagger has gone’, someone tells me, and when I hear that I shit a brick, because, take the swagger out and it’s like taking the lament out of Celtic sounds. It leaves everything vapid, empty, sweet perhaps, but meaningless. I didn’t go through all that, then, to throw it away in vacuous New Age dreaming. I owe, or am owed, that much respect for where it all came from...

Then it’s Jah Wobble’s work that I turn to, as both, inspiration and restitution, for my musical world.

This music successfully synthesises a lot of the things that have interested me in my own music making. The successful grafting of a dreaming, spiritual head, onto a very alive and kicking gritty ‘street’ fueled body. The fusion of Middle Eastern, African, and English pop mores. The turning of ostensibly ‘bad’ singing into ‘good’ vocalising, while at the same time importing extremely good singers to share the lyric delivering platform; in languages quite other than mid-Atlantic accented English.

Wobble sprang from the head that punk clove, almost fully formed. It’s a straight path from the amphetamine addled punk twilight of PIL to streetwise songs with Zen themes. One senses a study on ideas of human development. Even in early work, like Betrayal(1981) or Snake Charmer(1983) the stance isn’t that of the pop entertainer. It’s about reaching back into some original motivations--excitement, hunger, purity,--for music making, and utilising that energy in a search for inner-meaning.

However, there is a maturity and a sense of culmination in the work of the nineties, perhaps as a result of the process of syncreting so many differing cultures together. Rising above Bedlam(1991), is a music that feels like a medieval Moorish landscape. Down a dry farm track in the midday sun bicycles a belligerent Wobble with a transistor radio that belts out a very English interpretation of Arabic FM broadcasts. He rides from North Africa to the West Coast of America, and back via Ireland and Puerto Rico. Frame drums, hand drums, beaten drums, coruscating voices, plucked and struck and sustaining strings all tumble from the pannier bags as he goes, but he never stops, just picks up more from where he’s going...

‘ You’re crazy... but I’m calm’ teases Natacha Atlas, in Arab inflected Spanish during the song ‘Bomba’, a lyric that otherwise celebrates the African/Puerto Rican dance form of the same name. Andrew Weatherall made a nicely over-blown, over-kill mix, full of depth charges, radar blips and sirens for a 12” that my Puerto Rico born wife prefers, but I’ll stick with the spacious version on the album.

Take Me To God(1994) is the impressive one, the top of the triangle, the apex. The band here is tasteful, inventive, inflected with a thousand influences and instantly recognizable as itself. Total groove harnessed with a total control of sentiment. Religious really, pulling the street into church, only church here is an all-embracing catholicity of worship. Serious, heavy, but he’s having fun at being earnest. It is almost a ‘concept’ album; the topic being music as an aspect of religion in modern life... via ‘breakdown’, via choired vocals, via the sorrow and the glamour of North Africa, at the musical intersection of the Islamic and Christian worlds.

Heaven and Earth(1996): Which is a side-step, swaggering into... fun. An exposure of the process of music making--’dub by numbers’--loose jams--all left where they fell on the recording tape--and the joy in that, because it’s as if Wobble is in MIDI heaven here, staying up nights in his home studio slabbing music together like a bricklayer earning a productivity bonus. Dub by numbers. Layer those parts! Play ‘em on cheap synths and samples! Pull ‘em in and out! Loose jams? Everywhere!! A long time ago I was in Stoke Newington, going to work, a builder’s labourer. School holidays, a Christmas job, I was fifteen years old. To maintain momentum on the long walk from the Tube station I invented a music I played in my head: ’walking’ music. Extracted from the air between my footsteps, my brain, and the grey terraced houses, it was a peculiar half-time, loping, reggae tinged, repetitious groove; one foot in front of the other, one foot in front....

This was the only time I heard this sound, until years later, on Wobbles work it reappeared. To some extent an aural ‘ghost’ of what we all were listening to then: Dub, Kraftwerk...

and the badly pruned trees and clumsily pointed brickwork of multi-culti East London. A harder breed of skinhead glimpsed across a crowded street in Hackney when walking a Jewish friend home one afternoon. The East London ‘Posse’: fists in the air at Notting Hill Carnival carnival, ‘steaming’ through the Tube train carriages on the Metropolitan line. Quawali pouring from the greengrocer’s window, his radio tuned to the sound of Karachi. Hanging out in Sammy Lee’s (at least that was what we all called it) ‘Chinese’ music shop on Cambridge Circus fingering gongs and drums and strange string instruments. Later the store moved to Neal Street, and it never carried the same ambience. We’ve all walked into the late nineties, carrying our not so unique memories... The thing that this music does for me best, is make me feel comfortable with who I am, or rather the varied and peculiar set of tendencies and influences that have been brought to bear on me; and that I bring back to the world. Shared experience. The recordings are a compendium or assemblage of different sounds, a kind of ethnic pillaging, mix and match, topped with an always idiosyncratic, and increasingly religious world view, smartly imbued with the spirit of London. There’s a unique sense of entitlement that Londoners have, and Wobble has it in scuds. Cocky, some might say. Self-assured if it’s delivered with the right accent though. Part of what that means is that someone is aware of just how far they can push before the real limit (not the first deployment) is reached. The shadow side of this is epitomised in all the plaintive protests that accompanied my first exit from the capital, all that ‘wotcha wanna leave London for mate--you’ve got everyfink ‘ere innit’ type of rhetoric. I guess in a way these speakers, utterly confident of themselves in London, knew they could get everything London offers people like them, and felt that the possibility of getting something more somewhere else was not in existence. The kind of dreams I had (have) are just a fearful pretension.

Where Wobble fits within this paradigm is not clear, and not particularly important. Running with his gang something (enough) happened to propel him up and out, and into another place entirely, and enough of a place to give him the strength to go one more step again. Nuff respect brethren!

A good example of how he exploits English working class life is how he uses his North London wideboy voice in conjunction with flamenco guitars, and the quavering lilt of Natacha Atlas’s Spanish vocals on the track ‘Relight the Flame’ (on Rising above Bedlam). This is Wobble using ‘exotica’ like a London lad, evoking the post-war fascination of working class London with holidaying on the Costa Del Sol. This is music trying to resolve the old background with the new life. It is firmly based in London, you can almost hear the old white washer-women gossip in the bass, but the sound fully embraces everything that has come into the city during the post war years, it enters into the houses of the various communities, and flies out the back window, magpie like, clutching treasures. One is led to wonder if it doesn’t in fact make little pilgrimages with the occupants, back to earlier homes. Every aspect of Wobble’s eclectic taste is allowed to roam in this writing, and it’s his cocksure mien that has it all hitched to the will of the music. Wobble is a Londoner and one who took on board the world, but he knows his roots, and refuses to be cowed by them. Involved with the forces of Islamic and Buddhist feeling, he still manages to say ‘here is my story, and this is where I fit with you and where you fit with me’. That’s very robust, and very necessary. Outside of the work itself the most revealing source of his attitude is the sleeve note to Rising above Bedlam where he sees music as a ‘force in itself’ and the player having a duty to ‘tune into’ this higher power, a universal force that exists largely outside the constraints of time or space. The musician’s job is to translate that force into a vocabulary that is pertinent to the space and time in which it will exist, the point at which it is being externalized. This is done ‘by way of imagination’. The note is topped with pithy comments about ‘making a few bob‘ and ‘giving up my day job’.

There’s this other Wobble recording: ‘Presents the Inspiration of William Blake’(1997). Jah declaims a loving exposition of the poetry, but you can choose whether to lose yourself in the lyric, or the pleasure of a music that soars as it walks through the London that has always permeated Wobble’s stuff. In the sleeve notes to the Eno/Wobble CD spinner(1995) Eno describes Wobble as ‘walking by the Union Canal’ with ‘this music’ in his headphones. It transpires that Wobble noted that ‘it’--both the music and the water?--was a ‘thoroughly acceptable companion’. This murky sliver of dark water runs through North London, passing from the suburbs of the Western reaches of the city to the Docklands. London threads through Wobble’s music in the same way as that canal intersects the city.

There’s a moment of Laddish humour on ‘Blake’ of course: Abdel-Ali-Slimani vocalising ‘Bob and Harry’! Watch out earnest listener, the piss is being taken again!

There’s a unique feel to Jaki Leibezeit’s drumming. It’s not funky, in fact it’s stiff, Leibezeit tends to layer rhythm in a manner ‘felt’ from a place very different from the usual groove of rock. With him it’s the heart of Europe, the dreaming forest of Germany. This is despite all that talk in the (former) Can camp about ‘secret ‘ rhythms’ learnt in Cuba. There’s a mysterious tale of intrepid percussionists venturing into the interior of santeria (an African derived religion similar to Voodoo) to obtain the grooves, and later suffering assassination for revealing them to the ‘wrong’ people, i.e. Can. The last time I was in Puerto Rico I enjoyed a similar, but milder version of this story. One night in ‘La Rhumba’, a club featuring performances of traditional drum driven music, I was approached by a man with a very concerned look on his face. Over the barrage of congas and chant he yelled questions I could barely understand. My wife translated. Was I the German who had recently bought the bata drums? When I told him I wasn’t, he looked relieved, and then seriously explained that this particular set had been doing the rounds of San Juan for a while and was rather sacred; all kinds of problems would befall the unwary user. I never did learn how they got loose in the first place... Suddenly, at the end of ‘98, there is a bewildering selection of new material... Umbra Sumus and the last of the Celtic poets. Wobble has decided to release two albums a year, he wants to share all his home studio doodles... I am not sure I can keep up.

Hearing all this home-made music where the main protagonist plays most of the instruments gets me to ponder creativity and facility. If Wobble improved his keyboard technique, would it ruin his unique harmonic sense? I refer to my own experience, when I first played piano, struggling with lack of expertise, but needing solutions, and music. As my hands faltered, landing in unexpected and accidental places, I found beautiful and unexpected sound.

These days I am playing guitar a lot, but in altered tunings, and I find a wealth of creative stimulants in the fresh harmonies that fall beneath my fingers. There is something about learning a new instrument, searching for a voice, that brings out compositional vitality. In this instance I have the best of both worlds, my fingers are used to the physical action and I will not suffer soreness or calluses, but the way things are voiced, the way harmonic relations are structured, is different.

One can, of course call a rota of new singers and players to fuel the muse, and this Wobble does with commendable aplomb. Even so, I applaud what seems to be a deliberate ineptness of technique at times. Further to this is what feels like a conscious exposure of the process of music creation, there is no smoothing over the rougher edges with production here. Tracks are fully rendered, but nothing is over-polished, you can feel the craft, and the joy, that has gone into the making of them. Wobble taps a clear time line that runs back to the first years of playing, to the first years of listening, perhaps even to the first years of life. There’s a manifesto hidden here: make the individual feel the glow of early childhood, that which is a kind of afterglow or residue from the life that came before birth, and use it to animate work. As time passes use the wisdom gained with years, because to not do so means one becomes a travesty of youth: all the incompetence with none of the vigour.

NYC 1996

Clubs and Ragga - mid eighties
Geoffrey Armes - 2021-06-27 23:49:44+02:00

At the North end of Portobello Road there was a mad club; not the relatively well-known ‘Tabernacle’, that in itself was the strangest mix of Yardie dealers and Roughnecks from All Saints Road (West London’s ‘Front Line’), local Sloanie types and Trustafarians; but ‘The Shop’: hardcore, dark, cramped, and a potential deathtrap with its one small entrance to the squatted house. Packed with intense bodies pulsing to Hip Hop downstairs and feverish ‘acid’ house upstairs; it was a dark box that raved without distraction. Eventually, the heat and sound and the utter absence of any light except the bewildering effects on the dance-floor would overpower you, and you would leave, that is fight your way through the mass of bodies in the old entrance-passage, (that had the same wallpaper design as that of the abandoned cottages by the old factory I worked in) until squeezed tight by the crush of both exiting and entering punters you would suddenly pop out the front door, expelled like a cork from a champagne bottle. The crowd outside was usually huge, and a fist fight would often ensue with an irate youth who was convinced that you had lurched into his face on purpose as you staggered down the short flight of steps; he would cuff and shout, you would extricate yourself into the middle of street, mutter ‘fucking idiot’ under your breath, and decide whether to walk or cab to your next destination.

A few turnings further on, past Goldhawk Road, past the limits of Notting Hill, of ‘Trend’ and ‘Scene’ and ‘Cosmopolitan Glamour’; past the market, past the small café where the emigres from some nation I could never quite identify played dominoes into the small hours, in North Kensington was the ‘Avenues Youth Centre’, located in a single storied concrete building on a corner of the Harrow Road, at the end of a line of shops selling West Indian foods, an off licence, and some shuttered supermarkets. It was to this outpost of the borough council’s efforts to ‘serve’ the community, that I came, as the ‘music worker’, teaching guitar, organising a ‘girl’s rap’ workshop (ten fourteen year old girls sharing a mic while I programmed a drum machine and played some bass, the triumph being the twenty minute version of Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s ‘Push it’) and generally ‘facilitating’ aural mayhem. All the while looking out for some new rhythms and people to work with on my own stuff, because I was convinced by then that ragga was going to be the wave of the future, after House of course. House was perceived in this setting as a purely white-people thing; vainly I told them of the parties in Brooklyn where the beats kept pulsing four on the floor all night long.

The Avenues was a rough place; the music workshops, the chess, the pool, the table tennis, were only a side show to the real business in hand, that of dealing. When I first arrived the product of choice was weed, but by the time I left it was crack-cocaine. This of course reflected the trend everywhere; check the manic and sharp beats that increasingly found favour with the roughneck as time rolled on. Music bounced around the room nightly, and youth did too, handshaking, chatting, squabbling, and as the highs grew more hyper, so did the rhythms.

Occasionally small groups from the Avenues would be seen down at The Shop, or The Tabernacle, or even at Heaven, the club under the railway arches at Charing Cross in London proper, but they were never in attendance for pleasure, or edification (although they were students of human nature in a way I suppose), only business, supplying whatever the drug of the moment was to the punters. For these people this was the possibility offered by London’s centre.

Down at the Avenues we would have visitors, specifically the ‘Posse’, usually to conduct the quiet business of supplying the men and boys who worked the clubs directly, but sometimes looking for those they felt had wronged them in some way; those who had got greedy or reneged on a promise. I didn’t know much about this, and although perhaps I should have, I didn’t care. I just wanted to teach my bit, or hang out with those who wanted to speak with me, keep my nose clean, and leave early enough to catch a meal at the Pollo restaurant on Old Compton Street, thereby completely changing the feel in my body before going home. I found the scene mentally exhausting, but strangely easy to put behind me. Once home I would listen to sounds, or go up to the studio to work until the morning.

One evening the posse came in particularly ‘vex’, a group of them, sudden and fast, blades drawn. I was deep in conversation with Tony the drummer, and hadn’t really registered the situation when I saw a group of guys pushing at the toilet door, where they had holed up their intended target. Dibs, one of ‘our’ lot, was arguing animatedly with them. Feeling I should take the responsibility commensurate with my job-status stepped forward to aid Dibs. It was lucky for me that I was talking with Tony at the time. He grabbed me by the arm and said with an authority I had never heard from him before (I was used to directing him and believed I was the more experienced individual), ‘No-not now. This ain’t our business’. I stopped and looked at him, and around the room again, and then I spotted them all: the boy roaming with the long knife unsheathed and the sweaty look of fear and battle on his face, the man with the shooter sat at the only exit, and the posse staring down Dibs at the toilet door. The atmosphere was hysterical and tense. I had been incredibly stupid; wrapped in myself as only a conversation about music can lead me to be. Tony saved my life, or certainly saved me from hospitalisation, and Dibs saved whoever it was was holed up in the toilet, because it was the time that he bought with his protests that eventually drove them from the building, with the deed undone. They had come expecting to do it quickly and without witnesses and instead the club had stopped still to watch. I learned later that by a complex family lineage Dibs was related to both, the intended victim, and a member of the Posse, hence his ability to withstand them.

There was also an idea mooted that because there was a white guy - me - present, that it was not a good moment for internecine murder.

Some nights were good though. The music was rough and rugged and kicked where it should: so leaping in the dark, close, sweaty, came an embrace; physically separate spirits joined, intertwined through the beat. An electric energy of union coursed around the room. For a moment the coruscating bodies would take on a synergy that was almost an inner, and collective, stillness.

I was proud of my new job, in the thick of things, where it mattered and thought that Jenny could hardly fail to approve. Here I was, back in London amongst our/her people. ‘It’s off the West End loop, yes...,’ I admitted, (this seemed to bother her), ‘but it’s the voice of the street, you watch, this is where the next wave of music will come from’.

She smiled and drained her mineral water and sidestepped my enthusiasm, saying,’come on, we’ll miss the last tube, and then it’ll have to be a taxi. Besides, I said I’d ring Randy tonight, we have to go over some stuff in the old flat this week; before he goes on tour again...’

Jenny and the American singer had separated about the time he acquired permanent working papers and the heroin habit. I’m not sure what happened to the social-worker, but I knew he wasn’t around anymore. She always parried my inquiries with a resounding ‘No!’, and a quick return to the subject-matter of my life, a ploy I could never resist. She was not impressed by the Avenues though, that much was clear. ‘Roughnecks,’ she grumbled.

It amused her that I could deliver the latest lyrics and dance-steps from whatever ’slack’ dancehall track was happening that week, but otherwise she stayed well clear of the place.

Instead she told me about auditions. ‘Say there are over sixty girls and six places open. At best they’re only going to take one black girl, so you just look around at who else is there and then decide if it’s worth staying. I always stay of course, but you know what I mean...’ ‘Well maybe that’s why the Avenues is as it is... ...that is a pretty hopeless ration of places isn’t it?’ ‘Maybe....’ she considered for a minute. ‘But no, I don’t see it, no. There’s no need...’ Then she went on to talk about curtains, or furniture.

Hammersmith 1987
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-12-13 21:25:39+01:00

Hammersmith 1987.

In situ dream?

…..overlooking the train tracks that carriages rattle away on, the night rains on gleaming flooded lines flowing behind an Old White Schoolhouse. This house glowers, a little anonymous perhaps, or more accurately described it is secretive whilst hiding those tracks. It is secretive in the space before the road, peering over the large black fence. It is secretive in that it has a ramshackle elegance (a hint of an older and in some aspects more leisurely paced time?) not revealed so easily to the hasty morning commuters or drunk night revellers of the Shepard's Bush Road the other side of that black fence.

So picture yourself now, - early winter morning say – stood in the back bathroom on the second floor landing hearing that wind and watching the waters fall and flow in the tracks in this lamplight. Shivering though you are, you are arrested momentarily to stare at the stark bleakness of the landscape unfurled beneath. The flitting of shadows and the calling of the wind to the traffic stirs your mind down less well traveled avenues. A tube train, beaming yellow windows in the dark morning gloom departs north.

Down less travelled avenues – this phrase reverberates in your mind with implications of perhaps say, surrealistic fantasy or turgid narrative yet it strikes you that the strangeness, the truly ridiculous reality is that which you have lived for the last few months. Ever since you left NYC for the first time in a year those few short months ago (May to today's October) life has not stopped storming through you like a writhing river of joys griefs passions altercations and loves whilst looming ahead always some nameless, formless, but so very present destination. A purposeful blind drive.

Back now in the front bedroom of the house she still sleeps. Unusual for her, brought up as she was in less indolent mores than you hold. Perhaps indeed you have just risen to pee in the middle of the night and will climb back in bed beside her once this strange mood has forsaken you. But isn't that the dawn that cracks the sky open across the road in the green opposite?

London 1987

Guitar Improvisation
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-10-30 12:37:01+01:00

I need to see you again

like yesterday

it's like you are the lifebuoy

in all this turmoil of troubled water

I cling to you

you are the guide

I need the ocean to wash over me

as I grasp for where you stand

I will pour out for you

but I'm lost away in muddy sand

clarify the sensations

please reach for me with your hand

October 2015 Berlin

2011 On Registering as a Berlin Resident
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-10-15 01:42:27+02:00

so this is some act of faith a little death again before a death

this discarding of possession place casting off what is hopefully extraneous to requirements

watching myself

in an office wait after the waiting room of that hotel I wait again

is this courage or foolishness we leave stagnancy for sure step into the flow looking for the paddle still

nearer home for sure

and maybe that is the most important thing of all

and I don't have anything really relevant to say to you even as I expect you to afford me into your daily expectations

there's a sign that tells me or asks rather, do I know that there are more nightingales in Berlin than in the whole of Bayern?

Berlin March 2011

African Brother on the U Bahn
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-10-15 00:18:47+02:00

I think of you my African brother

On the train lost from home

Exiled in five languages

And you

Spanish speaker man in the rain

Asking for the airport home

I can tell you

I have lived far from home

Far from love

I hear your song

I know you belong

There and everywhere

But "not here," they cry

You cry

"Where is my heart to rest then?"

Human brothers

I sigh

Wend my way

Little left to say

Berlin 2014

Jenny, Muhtar, Flip
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-10-13 23:27:00+02:00

At the end of the summer I went to London, alone. V’s rent had become an agony, as had the heat and the arguments: C.and I, T and C, T and I.

Once back in the city I stayed at my fathers house, as his second marriage disintegrated, and he roared and grumbled at all and everything around him. ‘Why is it all my boys are such wasters and my daughters not?’ he cried, pounding the table with a wine bottle, until I, the oldest, and not the child of the woman who grumbled back at him that day, pointed out that all his elder daughters had ever managed to do was marry, and his youngest, both sons and daughters were still in school. “You get back to New York and do your music’ he growled back, ‘and stop wasting time here’. In this of course, he was right.

Rather than take action I sought solace. I went to Covent Garden, to look for Jenny. Whenever not on the road working, she was auditioning at the Pineapple Dance centre. As I turned the corner at Langley street she came bustling round. Easy. We hugged and kissed, and hugged again, like the almost lovers we were, and ate together and then she told me something of her life. She was married to an American singer who needed working papers, and living in Chelsea. At least, that was how she told it, despite the softness in her eye when she said his name.

“O yeh?” I said, peeved.

“ Yeh, “ she answered, striking a boxers pose, pummelling my biceps. “Gonna make something of it?“

I squared up too, but then squeezed her leg, remembering my American singer, faraway in every sense, envying the closeness I believed her to have with hers. She smiled and put her hand on mine, and wriggled in her chair, lazy and thoughtful.

I pushed on, flattering her, “He does realise how special you are, though?“ “Well do you, and did you--ever?” she countered, flaring for a moment, but then she softened, eyes dreaming again.

“Come on, let’s go, my place” she said. “And we’ll go clubbing later...”

Jenny felt like both a lover and a family member that day, as integral to my life as I was:

You’ve taken this boy far from home under your wing. This is my city, come, run with me a little; is this what you told him? You who are all drive and a simple push to be what and who you are, I see none of the complication that I bring to my life in you, just your tight and sometimes inflexible body, and middling voice, not bad, not exceptional, and none of it stops you, and I remember you barely past your childhood, becoming you, searching out your own madness; yes you remember too: all those crazy parties and that effervescent kissing under the stairs in the big manor house you squatted in Bromley, those long and intimate embraces, and now I see you again at last, grown, older, loosed back into the cruelty of London’s night that you negotiate so well; fly free angel, but let me caress your brown and wondrous hands and remember, before you leave... and you do, you take me with you once again and warm me, as before, now I am calm, now I know what I am feeling....

London’s mire crept and throttled: one afternoon sat on a suburban train as the summer wore on, between homes, I could feel the brown and grey comfort of England harassing me, ‘stay’ whispered the golden leaves on the trees at Clapham, and the shining wet slate roof of the junior school by Lavender hill that looked as innocent as mine must have all those years ago. I had cried when my plane landed at Gatwick, circling the farmhouses and fallow fiefs of England; glinting up from the lakes came sunlight, why should I not remain here? ‘Stay,’ cried the Pen ponds in Richmond park where I walked searching out respite from my father’s hassles, the dogs crazily chasing the sticks and geese and reindeer, but no, I was lonely and ambitious, no squat-life for me. Young and hungry, I despised the cold welcome I had been given (all and everyone too wrapped in angst to welcome the prodigal home), only Flip had asked me to stay. ‘You can stay here as long as you like,’ he pleaded, but I knew how desperately he wanted to leave his home at the end of a shit-smeared council estate walkway, where only the young and virulent were comfortable...

We, the remaining band members had built a studio in Flip’s flat. Finn obtained the eight track via various dubious runnins in North London. This treasure he brought down to Stockwell and I uncovered some old speakers in my father’s attic and Flip a mixer. So we assembled, and the old magic was at hand, or so it seemed for a moment, but Finn still all pop star dreams in his projects in Camden wasn’t going to stick it, and I was slipping too deeply back....

Hence, a surreptitious phone call in the night to my friend Muhtar, in Manhattan, who knew the game and the trap too well. We shared certain antecedents, Muhtar and I: paternal roots in the Durham mines, fathers who had explored alternative spiritual ways, including work with JGBennett, and a need to wander. Finally, we had both (independently of each other) opted to follow the spiritual practice of Subud, a ‘way’ that had come to the West in the late fifties. It was through this that we had met.

He sent the ticket and then I was gone, rising above the English West country. When I came down Newfoundland way hours later, I saw a single road appear in tundra, and then slide through trees and around rivers, and then fork, two roads curling away, one towards the sea, the other through a ribboned village and more clearings, and more roads (a tee junction this time). A maze grew out of the land and towns appeared and then, at last, against the glimmering ocean horizon, came the city of Boston, and then I knew the descent was to begin, back into the never relenting city of New York, which I would now call home.

Flip phoned a few weeks later to say that the studio had been ransacked, and the eight track stolen, with our master tapes on it. This, despite the fact that the window of the room in which he kept the gear overlooked the police station...

Cedric 1978
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-10-04 00:25:36+02:00


Cedric was a guitarist and singer, who during the late seventies turned up at my house to jam whenever he felt like it, and then always played with spontaneous and inspired abandonment. He never left a phone-number or address, so our get-togethers were dependent on chance meetings and messages relayed through mutual friends.

’I am not Jamaican, my parents are from Antigua, and anyway I’m English,’ he proclaimed, all in the one breathless sentence, in answer to some observation of mine about his taste in music. He disdained reggae for years, preferring rock or jazz or funk or soul. Punk never entered his lexicon of style. Cedric and I would go and hear bands at the Half Moon pub in Herne Hill, which brought back memories for us of the earlier part of the decade.

‘Remember that crew of freaks who were starting an ‘art gallery’ on the corner of Railton road? By the alley behind the station where Maltese Ray was stabbed chasing down the trilby hat they took off him at the fair in Brockwell Park? They nicked it off his head and legged it down the passage? He took off after them (he always had a lot of guts) but then he saw the blades...

...anyway, this art gallery: someone had got this shop space and because I was chasing some girl who was having it off with one of these guys I started to show my face. They never showed any art at all, this lot, all they did was lie around listening to Pink Floyd, except when there was no smoke and then they would go to the Half Moon. Long before it became the ‘pub-rock venue’ we was there drinking bitter and checking out the trio that had the weekend residency. This trio you ask? Oh, the instruments? It was an ‘organist’, the double bass, and swishy swinging ride cymbals. They went from one old tune to another and all the old people nodded along, quite funny really. But the beer was good and sometimes one of our lot, ‘Little Rick’ would get up and blow ‘Traintime’ with them, on his harmonica. Yeah him, the one what looks like a hunch-back when he plays, you know him? Yeh, very coarse sound, plays fast though. Always looks like a boxer trying to win the last round. But the way it felt when he played was like the future was, like, well, ours, instead of all that other....

Remember the black out? Them power cuts and three day weeks? It was scary going home at night, kids whistling to each other through the dark dark. Street-gangs, or so they said. By the time I got home I would realise just how piss-drunk I was, and then I had to creep up the stairs that creaked like crazy, and I always felt like I was going to fall over and wake everyone. Once in bed I’d get the earphones in place and travel until sleep swept me away....’

It was strange to be back only a couple of years later and see the dank old room full of trendies grooving to jazz-funk, and down the end, lent up against the stage-left speaker column: the guitarist. His fingers stroke a Gibson semi-solid, the notes are golden and warm, they burst from under his hand and spray the listeners, he stands back to appraise the impact as he straddles the bass and drum. Other players come and go--this is a ‘jam’ session--but he is constant, always on hand to catch the faltering chord change or the enervated solo and set it right and send the music on its way. Eventually he too tires, and then the band must break, and sit at their table, nurse drinks through the smoke and clutter of talk until re-energised they clamber back, carried on the approving yelps of the crowd. Little Rick walked up on the stand one of the nights that Cedric and I were there. We wanted to be up there with him.

We organised our own jam, in a Nissan hut owned by the Council that was dedicated to ‘youth activities’. Marck came, glowering out from his black beard, coaxing endless melody from his horn and I marveled that he wasn’t already a star. When not blowing he was busy at the keyboard analysing, defining and rewriting everybody else’s parts. The ‘real’ keyboard player was a kid who was leaving for Berklee, the jazz school in North America. He and Marck talked in a rarefied zone as equals, whilst I fiddled with the tuning of my guitar. Then Cedric came, Cedric who knew the least of chords, extensions, odd metred time signatures and the like, but played sweet solos with his eyes screwed shut and his tongue lolling out, forcing notes into places they had no business being. He was very assertive too, stepping out as often as possible with flurries and clusters of sound, and I receded further in the face of him, and hated it.

‘Why can’t I just close my eyes and lay it all out as the only thing in the world worth doing--as he does?’ I wondered.

I didn’t see Cedric for a while after, although I did see Marck as he and I played on some demos together, down in Ashford at some ‘famous’ producer’s country house. At least, he was famous enough to have a swimming pool in the back garden in which I exhausted myself at lunch time, thereby ruining my performance on the later takes. Marck got drunk, but somehow as always, his playing remained steady.


The bass guitar in many ways defines the sound of the seventies, as the guitar did for the sixties. The instrument gathered reputation throughout the decade. Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius had fostered respectability for the instrument as a ‘real axe’; one worthy of the attention of a virtuoso. The influential Steel Pulse were able to bring a militant, ‘bottom-heavy’, ‘sound system’ sensibility into the wider public eye. Sting wielded the bass as a rock symbol in the way that only the guitar had been until then. Funk, and the slap of disco, were ubiquitous throughout the period.

Public Image Limited, grounded by the dub influenced sound of Jah Wobble, were big. From the first muezzin like cries and the dark rumbling bottom end of the eponymous debut single it was clear that out of the interactive ritual of abuse that typified any good Punk performance in the late seventies, music was beginning to appear, music that conveyed varied and complex emotions. Texture abounded, and although there was terrible power and aggression about the whole project, you were invited, even seduced in, rather than bludgeoned.

Not wishing to be left out, I picked up the bass again, the instrument I had started with at school, as well as continuing as a guitarist. Coincident with the arrival of recordings by the likes of Steel Pulse and Misty in Roots in my house (and the sound of the Police on the radio) Cedric began to visit more often, and now he was playing reggae. ’But this is “musical” reggae--major 7 chords, unison lines, chord breaks,’ he said, when I teased him about his earlier reluctance to draw on the genre. ‘British reggae’. It was a sensible choice really, the only viable alternative to Punk.

NYC 1997

Piano Dream
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-09-11 00:37:56+02:00

A couple of nights back I dreamt that an acquaintance (to whom in actuality I gave a fairly decent piece of recording equipment before leaving NYC the last time) came to visit, bringing a piano for me..... a piano with a couple of stuck keys, but an extraordinarily intimate and delicate touch, and a candlelight burning within. Before I sat and touched the piano I had thought not to keep it, but loving where it was placed in my room, and the feel of playing it I decided to keep it for deeply personal moments, away from work. Then my acquaintance asked me for advice about lyric writing, and I replied with three points. A good lyric had to one, be truthful, two, hone in in an exaggerated manner on some detail somewhere, and three at some point have a brilliant metaphor. In my dream I had concrete examples of all three, but of course I have forgotten now. The stuff of dreams…..

Berlin February 27, 2013

Kennington 2 - NYC to London
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-09-03 22:30:06+02:00

Outside my room, London has reverted into one of its New York phases. A few years ago, during the earlier part of the decade, the heyday of Thatcher and Reagan, the ‘hip’ section of the city was solidly determined in its English identity, and deeply anti-American in its imagery. American speech was rigorously eschewed in favour of newly acquired working class accents and polished rhyming slang. American music was ‘shit’, although to the chagrin of the hip and wannabes, Bruce Springsteen could sell out Wembley for nights on end. But it was to Dingwalls that I came in 1984 to hear Finn play, with a band called ‘Siberia’ or ‘Polar’ or somesuch, and Finn was good: warm, sweaty, and raucous, as indeed was Keith, the lead singer. Finn afterwards was opaque. ‘Performin is a job innit,’ was his flat retort, when I suggested that he had done it rather well. Keith however sat elsewhere, and when I commented on his obvious charisma, Finn suggested that I should tell him myself. ‘He’s been feeling a bit down about things lately’.

I approached, opened my mouth to speak, and tried to remember to purge any newly-acquired Americanisms from my language. But even so, I found myself saying it, not once but twice, the very word that I had promised myself not to say. Yeah, Keith maan, great maan, really, great.... Keith shuffled and awkwardly thanked me and somebody else laughed and I overheard one girl sneer to another, Didja hear that...? I had done it. I had uttered American Hippy speak.

So it is with wry amusement, as well as fear, that a couple of years later I step out of Flip’s house in Stockwell to be accosted by trendy teenagers calling, ‘Yo, wassup maan, lend me some bread for smokes, YO!’, their language an extreme parody of New York street talk. Their hats are backward, their sneakers are for basketball, and their jackets are baggy and imported. Ludicrous appearance not withstanding, this particular group can get nasty, and I think about legging it up the alleyway, but as I don’t have to come back there regularly and make a habit of it, I stop and give them a couple of pounds. They leer at me a minute and attempt to pat down my pockets for the wallet, but I spin away, and put a serious look on my face.

‘Yo, don’t back off from me man,’ the main guy threatens, a skinny-faced pale kid of about sixteen, but he doesn’t push it further. They sprint towards the shops. After they turn the corner I hurry in the other direction, past the tube station that beckons me into Central London, the London of Soho and Covent Garden, past the comprehensive school where other kids are milling outside kicking footballs and comparing knives and 12” record collections, back to Kennington. The shock hits me when I arrive, and I have to sit down for a few minutes before the shaking stops.

I am going to the nightclub RAW this evening, with Jenny. She wants to see what’s being done for dance steps these days. When we get there she says, ‘I feels old, these kids are so young’, but when the music is playing I feel timeless. Perhaps I look ridiculous, but she’s happy to be with me, and there is no way she looks out of place. But then for me, she is timeless.

RAW is a sweat box dance floor, the sound system crude and large with a rugged harsh pumping midrange, you feel the attack of the kick in your chest rather than the ooze of the bass in your whole torso, but it’s good, the floor is rammed and the vibe peaceful, and perhaps a little flirtatious. I get shivery when records name check Brooklyn or Manhattan locations, as in a peculiar way I feel far from home, away from the familiar. I am like an expatriate delving into a local scene that is attempting to construct a facsimile of something I know well. Part of me is away from home. RAW could never be in New York, details of body language and large plastic pint-glasses of brown beer create a different vibe. Also, I have never seen such a combination of, well, uptown and downtown, in New York. RAW is an apt name for this particular gathering of the tribes. Still, it is New York styled, so I am wearing bicycle shorts and braces, and, oh yeah, a pair of hi-top basketball sneakers. Over by the bar I spot a man who is obviously a body builder, and as our eyes meet we smile and nod, it seems congruent with the geniality of the night. A few years earlier, his kind of overly glowing health was unacceptable as a ‘look’ on the scene, better wan, gaunt even, certainly skinny and marginally unhealthy. He passes me later and pulls on my braces, letting them ping back on my chest, saying, ‘yeh, safe look man’ or some argot laden compliment I couldn’t quite catch. London and its fashions...

Later that evening, back in my rooms, Jenny puts the radio on and hears that King Tubby, the producer and dub mix-master has been shot to death in Jamaica. We are both quite crumbled by the news. It’s something to do with the era he represents for us, the memory of back in South London school or Laban days, before either of us had really done anything. I hadn’t thought about King Tubby for years, but when the station started playing the old dubs in tribute, I recognised the sounds immediately.

The August sun is peaking. and it's time for the Notting Hill Carnival, which is an opportunity to get reacquainted with the Sound-System, something I would very much like, given the events of earlier this year in Jamaica. When you leave the main parade route you’ll find them, DJ’s, dancers, technicians, assorted hanger’s on, all circling huge speakers. The sound of bass and drums competes for every crossroads, every venerable Victorian terrace. Most likely it is reggae, or some bastardised descendant, dub, ragga, or Hip-Hop perhaps, that pours from the stacked boxes. I wander and look for a corner of deep, bass-heavy dub, one that is a throwback, an echo full of back in the days.

The ‘Selector’ cues another disc and guitars fade in and out of focus, twisting and writhing under the torture of phase and slider effects. Voices disembody and float senseless in the reverb laden sky, soaring above mountains of drums, and the ricochet of sidestick on snare. The rhythm stops. The rhythm starts and dancers bounce and twist, while away on the side an ancient Rasta nods his head in calm agreement. There is comfort in the unsteady perspective and the steady rocking rhythm, as if hearing in some inchoate and blurred manner through amniotic fluid the measured step of the mother, and the song of the world that awaits. The ‘Selector’ grabs the mic and starts to declaim in the tones of black London some message or another; the voice is the cadence of a Jamaican waterfall, each word is light dancing a complex course on a mosaic pathway that winds between water, plants, and windows open to the Caribbean breeze... dusty roads in the midday sun... and now, back in the English gloaming, cloudy between dark terraces once white now dirty city grey I look up and, climbing from a window onto the already packed veranda above the milling procession she smiles her greeting to Carnival. I wave as the ‘one drop’ beat explodes into a smoky melee of voices and chants, until emerges a shout, trapped in an echo chamber; ‘conquer conquer conquer...’ until the rhythm lopes again, and I leave, pushing towards Powys Square where there will be other systems, stages, dancers, and... somosas, because I am suddenly very hungry.

NYC 1998