July 06, 2006

Glebe

Tactics second album Glebe has inhabited me for twenty-five years, and news that David Studdert is working on releasing a remixed version prompted me to finally say a few words about it here. As always, a warning: I knew most of the people involved fairly well at the time, so this isn't an objective review. And some of the specific remarks below are based on the remixed version, which has a few significant production changes from the original (but in most other ways is pretty close to the original).

* * *

Glebe was recorded and released in 1981, less than a year after the first album, My Houdini. As with My Houdini, most of the songs on Glebe had been written and honed live before going into the studio, and, with a few exceptions (Garry Manley on bass, Nic. B. on additional vocals and percussion) the core musicians remained pretty much the same as on the earlier album.

The musicians may have been pretty much the same, but the results were quite different. Glebe typically gets overlooked or disliked in ways that My Houdini doesn't — reactions seem to vary from indifference or condescension through active hostility; I don't think I've ever read anyone praising Glebe except in faintly-damning terms.

The problem seems to be that Glebe isn't My Houdini MKII, and was never intended to be, despite the expectations of almost everyone except Tactics. My Houdini was a Statement; Glebe was an exploration. Glebe's a pretty obvious product of Studdert's circumstances and state of mind then: sardonic, reflective, intimate, slightly bitter, tentatively hectoring, thoughtful. For the most part Glebe strikes me as being about unease, about the things that might keep you awake at 3am, about the little dead ends and false starts beneath the surface of any real life, of the tremors and shifts, about the shimmering complexities of depth, of the shallowness of those depths for a lot of people.

And that comes through in the music itself: a lighter more tentative tone, airier, more mysterious, more subtly-textured, lots of stops and starts that mirror the explorations. My Houdini was busy; Glebe can be intricate. Listen to the alternately turbulent, lyrical, and exuberant horn lines on Running Downhill, for example, or the interplay between David's and Nic's very different voices, layering the vocals and images in interesting ways (there should have been more of it). But it's rarely delicate: the familiar driving Tactics rhythms can push things along just as relentlessly as with My Houdini. Listen to the way Garry's loping bass line works with Robert's drumming on something like "Gold Watch", or the stop-start rhythms on "The Noise Upstairs" (now there's a metaphor…). But there's no denying that the production on the original album was often poor, with an attenuated and unimaginative sound; unlike My Houdini, Glebe was recorded in a rush, in a studio in Paddington that never seemed to quite understand (let alone care) what Tactics was all about.

Lyrically, Glebe's not about the Big Issues (at least not directly), but it touches on the issues that often seem big in any real life, and that form your responses to the Big Issues. It's full of evocative, intimate, small-scale observations — "cloudless sky / simple as the sky in religious painting", "factory girl passes by / her ears have just been pierced / two drops of blood…", a character who feels he's bouncing through events like a chair through several sets of hands — that (for me, at least) are suggestive without grabbing you by the collar. The imagery and narratives are usually less overt and more subtle, fractured, and complex than on My Houdini, with the result that they tend to stay with you longer. And the singing's often more subdued, sometimes nearly whispered, which adds to the atmosphere.

* * *

So what happened when Glebe was released? Not much. People really were looking for a My Houdini MkII, I think, or another Great Statement, a Grand Gesture, something that would serve as an unambiguous banner for Inner City Oz (or Sydney) Rock — more of the same, dammit — and what they really got was something elusive, something more thoughtful, something that definitely wasn't intended to become the icon or symbol for any movement or genre, something not so tied to the particulars of its time and place, either lyrically or musically. For some of us at the time, increasingly tired of being bashed over the heads with hectoring simplistic nationalist or musical party lines, or surrounded by a sort of slacker culture before its time that seemed to feel that seriousness of intent was faintly embarrassing or distasteful, it felt like a breath of fresh air. And while it was absolutely never intended to be The Great Australian Album, it's definitely got an unforced, unremarkable, more complex Australianness than was common at the time. For me it's Australian in the way it's outward-looking and engaged, unafraid to make easy and unselfconscious use of both local and international referents, but without drawing attention to the effort. It's definitely not a product of the Little Oz of so much imagination of the time, both musically and politically.

The result is that — for me at least — Glebe's aged very well; it sounds less dated than almost any other release from that time and place, including My Houdini. And that's a real achievement….

(Part of both A History Of The Sky and Punk (and Later)).

8 Comments:

At 7/10/2006 2:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Jimmy, you`ve captured my sentiments of what I always thought was an unfairly maligned work (especially when it first came out -although there were the odd estatic review). I was a huge Tactics zealot and still am in a way. (Hey, I suffered and survived some horror cheapo bus trips from Melbourne to Sydney just to see them play, for crying out loud!)

When I expectantly listened to `Glebe` for the first time (long ago, long ago!) I was a little perplexed at first, but even way back then I thought it had `something`. That `something` has been slowly revealing itself over the years, and nearly everytime I play the thing (once a month or so even to this day) I continue to discover a nuance or `charge` or something new that surprises me and keeps it fresh. It took a few careful listens but I now regard it as a mighty achievement. Full of inventiveness, slips of melody, subtle touches,space,interesting textures and an overall sence of exhuberance and adventure.Longevity in a recording that (I think) is not only related to a sense of nostalgia for the time.More remarkable given that the final product was only a rough mix!

Its interesting to note that there`s a sprinkling of people and writers (some of whom dismissed it when it came out)who now refer to it as some sort of `classic`. I`d love to get my hands on a remixed copy so lets hope it gets some sort of re-release?

Anyway, thanks `Jimmy`for the personal historically Tactics related stuff especially, me being removed from all the action/drama in Melbourne at the time. A geographical outsider who still feels privileged to have heard and seen such an inspiring band. Looking forward to any further instalments in your histort of the sky!

 
At 7/10/2006 8:59 PM, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

"Anonymous" -- thanks for the comments (I usually know who the various "anonymous's" behind the tag are, but not this time). I'm glad someone else likes the bloody thing -- and a Melbournite, at that :-). Reading your note makes me realise I never had a "first listen" to Glebe at all -- I heard it in various stages over the days and weeks as it came together. Then for a while -- living in London in the mid-1980's -- I lost it and didn't hear it for a long while, then heard it all again anew while visiting Sydney. Still that spark...

 
At 8/03/2006 6:56 AM, Anonymous A Squared said...

G’day Mr Little, you are an interesting reed.

Finding myself involved in the collation of bonus tracks for the My Houdini/Glebe reissue has thrown me back to those times. Allow me to put in my bits.

Indeed, Glebe was very rushed in the end. I’d forgotten how rushed till I reread the liner notes and was reminded of the time frame it was recorded in and remembered that we did run out of the filthy lucre to mix it properly. I think we mixed the whole lot in two long sessions.

I became unhappy with the final sound on the vinyl and hope that the reissue corrects our mastering errors. To give Alasdair his due, while his studio was used to doing film scores rather than bands like Tactics, he made two suggestions that we tossed off as him being uncool, when we should have listened. We put a daggy effect on the “lost ball” line in Noise Upstairs, and it always makes me cringe whenever I hear it on vinyl, spoiling my favourite song on the album. I clearly remember him pleading with us not to do this and saying that we would soon come to hate it and he was right. He also told us not to let the mastering engineer muck around with the warmth on the bottom end or go crazy on the compressor, as Alasdair knew the guy would want to do this and he did and we acquiesced. The result was an album that wasn’t as warm as it should have been and didn’t have as much space and dynamics as it should have. The remixes done for History Of The Sky have the warmth, space and dynamics put back in them as well as having the “lost ball” effect removed.

For these reasons, I haven’t listened to Glebe all that often and when I do, I find it sounds much better played loud.

On the other hand, over the years, I have regularly listened to the four track demos we made for Glebe in the studio we would put together in an old office in a warehouse in White Bay in between gigs.

I prefer the sound and playing on these demos which were recorded with the time and atmosphere that the Glebe sessions didn’t have. Ensconced in our jumble of instruments, amps and cables all over the floors, out of the rain of that cold wet winter and wallowing in clouds of smoke when we could, we spent an enjoyable and productive time making those demos. To top it off, I was even living in Glebe during this period. The version of Twice Remembered on Bones Of Barry Harrison came from these sessions.

When CD burning technology came along, I remixed them onto CD as my cassette copy was starting to get a bit worn and noisy.

Being a home made studio using our live mixer and mics and my 4 track reel to reel, without any effects except reverb, they are simpler and not as technically clean recordings as the Glebe ones, but they have that Basement Tapes energy and never fail to entertain me. And they sound pretty good considering the simple set up. I’m still rather proud of them. And just like Glebe, they haven’t dated at all. One of those tracks, Centrepoint, should find its way onto the reissue.

I’m a great fan of the CD rerelease with the bonus tracks that is all the rage now. I think this reissue will be of real interest to the younger ones too, just like we used to pour over the likes of Syd Barrett and Love. As Pete Townshend said, we may be old farts but we’re not boring. I’ve still got and listen to my Syd albums, they haven’t dated either, but they’re pretty scratchy these days, a legacy of the repeated playing they used to get in our band houses. Angus was particularly partial to Syd. Perhaps I should get around to getting Syd’s reissues.

Speaking of Townshend, the webcasting of their current Europe tour is rather amazing. I know you used to claim that Whos Next was a lot of filler leading up to WGFA, but as it was all about the internet, or the grid as Townshend called it then, he’s finally doing what he tried to do back then but couldn’t as the net hadn’t been invented but this webcasting will be the way to go in future. Live at the wireless will morph into live at the web.

 
At 8/04/2006 1:21 PM, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

"a squared" -- thanks for the excellent comments...

Not sure Townshend really prefigured the net (I remain a skeptical curmudgeon...), but hey, now that both Arthur Lee and Syd Barret are dead, I feel the urge to relisten to both of *them*, at least, after all this time and at this distance. Yes, Angus had his Syd Thing, and some of the rest of us our Arthur Lee Thing, and for a while it was hard to escape either of them...

 
At 8/05/2006 2:22 AM, Anonymous A Squared said...

Now there’s a coincidence, talking about two subjects and the second one dies as well. My wife Cate came home from work today and told me Arthur had died. And after I’d read your post I was thinking that I’d missed an important bit of news sometime in the last year. Well, we’d been long used to the idea that we’d never see any more material from Syd but Arthur seemed to be getting it back together again. Cate and I were listening to Forever Changes tonight and it still sounds fantastic and a benchmark.

 
At 8/06/2006 7:52 PM, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

Jeez, I'd better not mention the obsession Angus and I had for (the hopefully still-alive) Toots Hibbert. This could get dangerous…

 
At 8/15/2006 12:28 AM, Anonymous A Squared said...

G'day Mr Jim

While researching for the reissue of My Houdini and Glebe, I trawled through my collection of mags and found this review.


Glebe reviewed by Ed St John - The Record December 1981

Glebe, to begin with, is a far less cluttered and ponderous work than this band’s debut, My Houdini. Tactics are the sort of distinctive, challenging band that some love and some can’t stand, but that’s hardly a criticism. Suffice to say that if you like David Studdert’s singing – strongly reminiscent of American singer par excellence David Byrne and Pere Ubu’s David Thomas and this band’s penchant for complex here-one-minute-there-the-next dynamics, then Glebe’s a winner.

For the patient listener, Tactics provide, and demand, a lot. Over a precision rhythm section, layers are placed of piano doodles, melodic guitar lines, sharp guitar chops and David Studdert’s vocals and all of it is used to excellent effect. If there is a criticism of Tactics musical style it is that the songs are rarely allowed to find their own groove; just when something interesting begins, it slows down, speeds up, inverts itself or just stops to let something else begin. While this is no doubt intentional – indeed the band are masters of the art of gentle alienation – it is also sometimes frustrating.

The tracks on Glebe tend to segue into each other to form an effective melodic and rhythmic pastiche of style, and this almost defeats the purpose of picking out good tracks. “Warning Number One” is good and so is the moody “Domino Theory” and “Centrepoint”, a celebration of Sydney’s favourite phallic symbol. At the very least it is stimulating to hear a band sing songs about their own environment, which are actually analytical rather than purely descriptive or celebratory, and which capture the essence of what they’re saying in their musical style.

 
At 8/15/2006 8:28 PM, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

Thanks again (again), Dr "a squared". I don't remember that review at all -- it seems way too thoughtful and measured for the Tactice mileu :-). It took a while to work out what the hell “Warning Number One” referred to, but that's what stored-away vinyl's for, I guess, even if I haven't had a record player for a decade or more.

 

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