March 30, 2006

Making My Houdini

Tactics' first album "My Houdini" was recorded at Basilisk Studios in Hurstville (Sydney) over a roughly six month period in 1980 by the band itself (David, Angus, Ingrid, Geoff, Robert) with several other musicians in the Green / Doublethink stable. It was basically engineered and produced by Martin Bishop and Stephen Hocking, with funding and oversight from the omniscient (and very patient) Roger Grierson from his Paddington aerie for what was becoming Green Records.

That doesn't really give much away, does it? In reality, it was a six-month mess of intrigue, tension, fights, endless retakes, sometimes great music, fruitful musical experiments and accidents, relationships gone bad, edgy cameraderie, grinding poverty, stifling cigarette smoke, bad food, and all-day sessions followed by all-night gigs. That's how I remember it, anyway, as a minor participant on the sidelines, not part of the band itself, but (accidentally) a small part of the whole Tactics Thing by then.

Following Tactics tradition, although the idea was to just go into the studio and quickly lay down a bunch of well-rehearsed songs and put it all out as soon as possible, there wasn't actually any coherent plan for making this happen. The resulting six months of negotiating some sort of path between two abrasive egos (David and Martin), and fiddling with (and arguing over) every single note and sound as many times as possible became something of an unmusical trial for many of us, but the results seem worth it twenty-five years later.

While virtually all of the actual songs on My Houdini had been written well before recording started, large parts of it — especially the production and effects — are still accidents or the result of experiments in the studio; a lot of stuff was made up as the recording went along. Some obvious bits are outright mistakes: every time I hear Bob's drums coming in at the start of Buried Country I have to smile — that was left in because we'd all got so used to it by then it sounded "right"; when I listen to Angus's guitar playing on something like "My Line" I remember the agonies we went though to get him playing at least plausibly in tune (he had a natural ear for what was in tune and what wasn't, it's just that his guitar had intonation problems), and how much had to be just left as-was in order to get something done…. The horn lines in Come To My Senses and No More Talking were, I think, some of the very few little bits of My Houdini that weren't agonised over or re-written or re-recorded in slightly different ways a dozen times in as many weeks (mostly, in the case of the horns, because the players actually wanted to be paid for their work by the hour…). Bob's drumming and Geoff's bass playing were also pretty much left alone after the initial laying down, but due to the the limited number of tracks at Basilisk, even these were sometimes affected by (or accidentally erased during) bounce operations.

My Houdini would have sounded rather different if it had been recorded somewhere else in different conditions — it wasn't just about Tactics and the triumph of Studdert's creative Will; it's also about Martin Bishop and Stephen Hocking, and their willingness to experiment and play around at great length with stuff (gear, sounds, drugs, etc.), no one ever quite understood. Much of the sound and production of My Houdini was possible because Martin was (initially, at least) hungry for a success with a project like this, and was prepared to do a lot of the work for nothing or very cheaply. Even though in private (to me, at least) Martin was absolutely scornful and derisive about Tactics and their music, I think he was deeply attracted to David's sense of certainty and destiny, and figured he could hitch a ride to better things.

Basilisk Studios itself was actually just a typical inner-suburban Sydney house, a short walk from Hurstville railway station, that Martin had converted into a working studio. In some mysterious way (presumably due to his fairly rich father), Martin actually owned (or not — it was always hard to tell) the place, and had slowly over time built up an odd collection of studio gear and instruments in what used to be one of the larger rooms (someone-who-was-there just told me it was the main lounge room plus the little "sunroom" that was attached to it). Never mind that his neighbours hated the noise (Martin didn't bother that much with sound-proofing, and I can remember Martin insinuating several times that he was going to beat up a neighbour who'd tearfully asked him to stop so her kid could sleep), or that Martin's manner usually pissed off or scared potential clients — My Houdini and Basilisk were going to be the springboard for Martin's success, ground zero for his eventual (and, in his mind, absolutely inevitable) ascension to the Greats of music and studio production.

Martin's predictably dead now (a fatal combination of drugs and increasing paranoia, I suspect), but at the time he'd been a sort of friend of mine since high school (Martin, Angus, and I all went to the same school in Canberra), an increasingly mercurial, tyranical, and paranoid character usually strung out on one hard drug or another (mixed with great quantities of softer drugs, and even greater parts of denial). Or maybe he wasn't strung out at all — a large part of the image he wanted to present was about just hinting at some tortured mysterious menacing darkness in there somewhere and keeping people guessing about the truth. I never saw him again after we had to steal the master tapes back from him to remix elsewhere, and there were serious issues with putting his name on the album's credits.

If you look at the record label itself, it says "Produced by TACTICS and Stephen Hocking", which is pleasing: Stephen's still a good friend of mine, an unsung part of the early Tactics story, somewhat written out of the plot by later revisionist (or just forgetful) memoires and histories. Stephen was then (and still is) a photographer and musician, and was just as central to My Houdini as Martin; Stephen's also the (uncredited) photographer behind some of the more interesting and lasting images from this part of the Tactics story.

My role in all this? Not much beyond being good friends with many of the people mentioned here (especially Angus, Stephen, and David), and having to do things like getting Angus home after a gig or dragging him to Hurstville the next morning, or listening to opposing tirades from David or Martin on one subject or another, or making sure Angus didn't sell all his posessions for money. At one point Angus just, erm, "lost" his guitar for a while; I found it exactly where I expected to find it after a few days, in the old pawn shop up in King Street, and had to help buy it back. He ended up borrowing my old Ibanez Les Paul for a while — it's in the mix somewhere, as is my Fender Jazz bass (for rather different reasons). At another point Martin asked me to build him some more studio gear (I was an electrical engineering student at the time, so this was light relief), and we spent a few days on some byway or other exploring the effects this new gear had on some sound or other in a cloud of smoke somewhere around midnight.

I remember late one night Robert was sitting around quietly drinking a beer in my house in Abercrombie Street after a session at Basilisk. He looked over at me after a while and said something like how he thought he was going to kill Studdert if he made one more fucking change to the drum sounds on some song or other. Of course I'd had to listen to one of Studdert's quiet tirades earlier that day in the same room about the supposedly bad drum sound (Robert was always by far the straightest and most straightforward of Tactics people, and one of the few who nearly always got his playing and sound exactly right the first time).

And My Houdini itself? I'll have more to say about it later, but I can't separate the music from my experiences of the time or the circumstances (personal and otherwise) of its recording, so don't ask me for any sort of objective view. Phil T has a canny take on it all (inevitably rather different from mine), and a bunch of links to what other people say about Tactics and My Houdini, so you could do worse than start with his encyclopaedic No Night Sweats site and take it from there. Me? I still listen to My Houdini every month or two (it's on my iPod); I still get those shivers up my spine and a certain mixture of awe and anger every time I hear it.

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

March 28, 2006

Where Ya From?

I never know quite how to answer that one. Born in Hong Kong; one parent born in India, the other I'm-not-sure-where; grew up in Hong Kong, Britain, and Australia; lived as an adult in Sydney, London, bits of Europe, and California (at least); great-grandparents on my father's side lived in Meeker, Colorado for a while after living in India; have a not-quite-right Australian(ish) accent but a British passport; have lived in Northern California for longer than I've lived anywhere else in the world...

March 26, 2006

Buck's Dead

A Texas transplant; along with Merle Haggard, one of the Bakersfield boys behind the Bakersfield Sound I latched onto from a billion miles away in inner-city Sydney all those years ago; a celebrated sometime inhabitant of a city that's played an oddly significant part in my life over the last fifteen years (they even renamed one of my favourite scrappy Bakersfield streets "Buck Owens Boulevard" a few years back). I'm spoiled by never having heard of — let alone seen — "Hee Haw" until recently, so my vision's intact, along with the memories of the music playing in my mind across the swing-arm oil pumps and the bars off Chester.

March 25, 2006

The Rite Of Spring

Right about this time of year we start seeing happy-faced articles on TV or in newspapers celebrating the arrival of spring. Apart from the usual thoughtless assumption that it's spring everywhere in the world (something that really grates with this Southern Hemisphere boy, at least), out here on the edge of civilisation in sunny California we — like large parts of the rest of the world including much of Australia — just don't have spring. We have two seasons out here: the long dry season and the short wet season, and there's not much to tell them apart around here except for the rain ("summer" — whatever that means — in coastal Northern California isn't even usually the warmest time of the year). Watching a local TV newscaster go on about "the first day of spring" or seeing people put up posters celebrating spring with lots of spring blooms reminds me of the fake snow used to celebrate christmas in the Sydney of my childhood….

March 23, 2006

Way Out West

"On the [Western] frontier, there was no social status," he explained. "People were treated with equality, then you measured one's talents from there." — US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy speaking nostalgically of his "western roots", as reported recently in the San Jose Murky News.

Unless, of course, you were Chinese, or Native American, or Latino, or black, or … it's hard to believe people still say things like this with a straight face. It's also worth noting that Kennedy was one of three justices simultaneously serving in the same supreme court who had been to Stanford, not exactly known for its equality in the way it treated people with different backgrounds, ethnicities, gender, or skin colour, at least until fairly recently.

March 21, 2006

Soylent Green

A seventies artefact chock full of seventies artefacts (bad haircuts, bad actors, bad acting, a fabulous embryonic computer game in a groovy white plastic casing, seventies cars, hip plastic furniture, foxy chicks, Charlton Heston, dry melodrama... (and those clothes, of course)). It's easy to make fun of films that unwittingly populate the future with the visual and cultural vocabularies of their own times — it's another form of narcisism, or at best just a failure of imagination — but in this case it doesn't seem quite the lack of imagination it usually does. It somehow seems appropriate that a dystopia would be this way; for so many people, the seventies were a dystopia. And what is most science fiction if not — wittingly or not — a kind of navel-gazing dressed up as the present in drag?

(Part of Flix).

March 19, 2006

Death In Oakland

Nearly thirty people have been killed (almost all by guns) in Oakland so far this year, at least two of them within a short walk of where I live. Let's put that in perspective: Oakland's population is a little over 400,000, meaning the murder rate so far extrapolates to an annual average of something (very roughly) like 30 murders per 100,000 people. This is still not quite as bad as it was in 1992 and 1993 when Oakland was one of the murder capitals of the US; but this rate is also at least ten times what it is in Sydney, a violent place by Australian standards, and it's at least double what it was here only a few years ago (and the rate's a bit deceptive — Oakland, like Sydney, has large areas that are almost devoid of crime, let alone murder, so where the murders do occur, the actual rate's a lot higher). Even Oaklanders are starting to worry. Again.

March 16, 2006

That Amen Break

Thank god for the Amen Break: six seconds, rhythm heaven, bedrock… (I used it for years without knowing its name, let alone where the hell it came from).

March 14, 2006

The New World

For the last month or two I've been working with a media company in The City (as San Francisco is almost universally known in these parts). No more stress-filled two-hour drives up and down Interstate 880 to get to work, just a pleasant 15 minute BART ride and a brisk 20 minutes' walk through downtown streets to a light-filled open-plan office in one of the City's more obscure inner districts just under Telegraph Hill, a small area of older brick buildings and warehouses full of media companies, advertising firms, and expensive apartment blocks. A world away from the soul-free streets of Silicon Valley.

I don't miss Silicon Valley at all. Did anyone think I would?

March 12, 2006

The Ends Of History

Francis Fukuyama recently wrote a weirdly clueless piece for the Grauniad where he tells us all why he feels that after (sic!) the Iraq war neoconservatism has evolved into something he can no longer support. What strikes me as clueless about it is his belief that neoconservatism was ever about much else than power for power's sake — has Fukuyama really made the beginner's mistake of taking neocon rhetoric and ideology (including his own) at face value? He believes that the Iraq war and the war on terrorism (sic) show that neoconservatism has lost its moral compass or direction, but the sort of mess Iraq is in is exactly the sort of predictable consequence of neoconservative ideology — and what could be more intoxicating than conspicuous hypocrisy and being able to promote destruction and death from afar without taking any responsibility for it or suffering the consequences? What could be more indicative of sheer power than that? Why else pick fights in Iraq, or over the environment, or against your own people, than for power's sake? Unless, of course, your ideology (and moral compass) was wrong right from the start… or that you were clueless to begin with.

March 10, 2006

The View From Above

We had a small fire in the main BART tunnel deep beneath San Francisco yesterday morning, resulting in a bit of smoke, one minor injury, and a lot of disruption on the BART system across the whole Bay Area. In the end, nothing terribly interesting, and above all, nothing much to see at ground level. Which didn't stop at least one of the local TV channels from sending its helicopter to hover over the scene, its camera trained continuously on the utterly invisible action happening tens of metres below the surface…

March 09, 2006

Short Shameful Confession

I've never quite been able to shake the feeling that Beethoven's Ninth is an overblown histrionic circus of a piece, almost kitsch.

March 05, 2006

Life In Industrial East Oakland

Life In Industrial East Oakland: there's a guy in a white space suit (complete with mirror-glassed helmet) walking gingerly around the weed- and garbage-strewn vacant lot just across the street from my studio. He's carefully poking and waving some sort of wand at selected bits of the ground; the wand's connected to a pack on his back which has some sort of antenna connected to it. There's a couple more space-suited guys standing a few metres away from him next to a truck, holding their helmets by their sides, watching him carefully. The sign on the side of the truck prominently mentions toxic waste surveying and disposal. I walk across this lot several times a week; kids play in it all the time.

March 03, 2006

Safe As Houses

We've had three fairly minor tremors in the East Bay over the past day or so, all of them just enough to make you wonder whether you should get up and head for safety even as they stop (as suddenly as they started). Just enough to make your heart thump as the adrenaline rushes….

As someone who experienced the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake here firsthand, I've never really forgotten the experience of a major quake. For years afterwards the phrase "safe as houses" feels like a mockery when you remember the sight of a sturdy brick wall disintegrating in a wave motion above your head or you remember the way the redwood beams creaked and groaned continuously as you stood on a bucking floor, crockery and glass shattering all around you, the door you're standing next to snapping free from its frame and hitting your legs. And there's a deep, very characteristic noise from the ground associated with quakes that you never forget, mixed in with the noise of your house trying not to go to pieces.

For years afterwards, every little house noise or shake in the night sets your heart racing, the deep rumble of every passing truck sets off those tremors in your mind….

(Part of California).

March 02, 2006

The Fate Of The Thoughtful

Watching Jimmy Carter recently on PBS's "Now": was there ever a better person in the Whitehouse? Can you imagine W. spending the rest of his life doing real charity work -- out of the limelight? It's difficult to get Americans here to understand just how much safer the world felt to UnAmericans like me when Carter was in the Whitehouse, how much less a beligerent bully the US seemed. His seems the obscure fate of the thoughtful...

(Jimmy Carter's three attributes of Fundamentalism: "rigidity, domination, and exclusion", from an old Grauniad Weekly review of one of his books).


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