As the son of a farmer in Butterwick, Lincolnshire, there was no music in the house where I grew up. In 1967 Radio One started, and the TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set. In 1966 a school friend of mine had said, ‘Watch out for the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, they’ll be big next year,’ and there they were, on DNAYS. I went out and bought Gorilla, which presented lots of styles of music I’d never heard before, and I always like comedy in music. The Bonzos were at the heart of pop, even though they were opposite to the guitar music at the time – they were art, they were Dada. I’m always sad when I meet someone who hasn’t heard them yet.
I became a bit of a music snob quite early on. I didn’t give a shit about who was on Top Of The Pops. I heard most things on the John Peel show. I had a bunch of friends, including Robert Carrington, a composer, and Dave Harwood, who I drew comics and fanzines with in ’68. We’d compete to find the most far-out, rare music, and go to London to shop at Musicland in Berwick Street, where they had imports.
I was drawn to American music – British bands seemed too homely for me. I bought Country Joe And The Fish’s I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die, then I read a review in the NME for Frank Zappa’s We’re Only In It For The Money, and even the titles of the tracks seemed pretty amazing. I ordered it from WH Smith. Listening to it was a mind-blowing experience – all the cut ’em up stuff, new sounds and subjects I didn’t know about, such as the Watts riots. Ever since that record, I’ve searched for that seismic shift from what I knew already to something else.
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Robert went to sixth-form college in Boston, and his record collection expanded. He said, ‘I’ve got a band here and they do really mean-spirited songs!’ That was Silver Apples and the album Contact. I immediately liked that minimal music, the sine wave generation – it was hypnotic. My favourite is A Pox On You where you have two frequencies playing simultaneously and one of them shifts fractionally to create a moiré effect. Robert also played me United States Of America. The follow-up was [founder] Joe Bird’s The American Metaphysical Circus. The final track, The Southwestern Geriatrics Arts and Crafts Festival, is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever heard, as if recorded in an old people’s home with someone in the last stages of dementia.
The first Captain Beefheart album I bought was Strictly Personal, then Safe As Milk. Robert brought round Trout Mask Replica and it sounded like a bunch of musicians trying and failing to play their instruments for an hour and a half. I didn’t get it. But I persevered. What sealed the deal was seeing them live, note-for-note, in the De Montfort Hall in Leicester, and at The Venue in London in 1979.
I was always attracted by silly costumes. Even Country Joe And The Fish looked like wizards. Our music was full of gnomes, pixies and space hymns. It was new, a fantasy escape route thanks to the radio – I’d take mine to bed, to listen under the covers. That’s how I heard Steve Reich, listening to RTF, a French radio station. One day they played It’s Gonna Rain, and that was extraordinary.
I used to like Kevin Ayers, Soft Machine and Egg. I saw Egg play where I studied at Norwich School Of Art and at the Gliderdrome in Boston. Lots of bands came from art school – the Bonzos were alumni of where I studied next, Central St Martins in London. Back then, art schools had no idea about the world of comics. I did graphic design with no plan for the future, and in my final year I produced my own one-off comic book. Living in London, I got to know Nick Landau, who started Forbidden Planet and Titan Books, and Dave Gibbons, who went on to do Watchmen. Dave recommended me to his agent and I got work with him. We didn’t match musically, though. Dave was a mod. I used to have long hair. A decade earlier, he’d have beaten me up!
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The next step for me was the Germans. I bought Monster Movie by Can in 1969. Another shift – how can you repeat the same thing over and over and it would sound so good? Then Faust, thanks to Virgin Records, which was above a shoe shop in Oxford Street. We’d walk in and all these ladies selling shoes would be hoping for a sale. You’d head up the stairs and their faces would fall.
Around the seventh year in every decade, something big happens. In ’76 I found the Residents through the track Constantinople. It was one of those jolts. Their songs were jagged but catchy, not quite electronica but something so different again. I’ve got dozens of their records. Duck Stab! is my favourite, two EPs made into an album. Then there’s the costume element again, of top hats on eyeballs, and nobody knows who they are… although I did meet them when I contributed artwork to their album Freakshow, along with Dave McKean and Savage Pencil.
After discovering them, I found the British version, Renaldo And The Loaf. Two guys from Portsmouth who were über Resident fans, they sent them letters and songs and eventually the Residents took them under their wing and they did a joint album, Title In Limbo. There’s a medieval influence amid their funny, clunky stuff. They recorded four albums in the 70s and 80s, then stopped. Now there’s something new coming.
The big thing that happened to me in the 80s was Negativland. Peel played Yellow, Black And Rectangular from Escape From Noise. Every track is samples, patched together in odd ways, taking me back to We’re Only In It For The Money. They’re kind of part of a sound collage scene with The Evolution Control Committee, John Oswald’s Plunderphonics and Vicki Bennett’s People Like Us. Conceptual, political, issue-driven stuff.
Something desolate and masochistic drew me to Swans. I saw them at the Mean Fiddler in 1988 and it broke me, I was the oldest person there, and the only one not dressed in black. The music pinned us against the wall – it was painful. Some of the tracks from To Be Kind are really scary. You do not put Swans on for fun.
Nurse With Wound are similar – abstract, textural. Thunder Perfect Mind is dark ambience, the sound of machines and engines turning on and off. It’s very clever.
Although I’ve been taken by Fuck Buttons and Blanck Mass lately, you can’t keep getting weirder and weirder. Influenced by Robert Crumb, I’m listening to rootsy, 20s string-band stuff now, but I’m waiting for something new to come along in 2017…