Friday, 27 June 2014

While My Castanets Gently Weep

'So, tell me a little bit about the Chekists.'

We were in some pub off Charing Cross Road and I had my little black notebook with me. It was open on the table and I was ready with my pen. This wasn't an interview or anything quite so glamorous, and I was never a journalist by any description. Both Joe and myself were members of a group called Konstruktivists, formed back in the early 1980s by our mutual friend, Glenn Wallis - minorly famed as the fifth member of Throbbing Gristle, depending on who you ask; and also a founder of Whitehouse, arguably the original power electronics outfit. Glenn wasn't with us, but I'd agreed to put together a short, occasional newsletter about the group as I was the one with some sort of fanzine credentials. It was to be published as Konsort in keeping with our imperious leader's love of words beginning with the letter K, and his nibs had suggested I pump Joe for information.

'What do you want to know?' As ever, Joe seemed to have an angle here, some understanding I could not quite follow. He was probably basking in what he'd mistaken for admiration, which truthfully hardly even ranked as curiosity. I had yet to hear a minute of his own music which didn't sound like the work of someone else, and I was still to be impressed by the famous names he would drop into conversation as casual acquaintances.

'It's just a little four page thing,' I tried to explain. 'Just tell me something about what other music you've done.'

I recalled that before joining Konstruktivists, Joe had recorded under the name Batra, which I still can't help but associate with Godzilla films as it sounds like the name of one of the monsters. Presently I knew he was working with some other guy as the Chekists. I mentioned this, and Joe somehow heard me preface the question with what our readers will be interested in hearing is...

'Well, of course there was Public Safety Unit.' He smiled as though caught out, like he was Michael Winner and yes it was true, he had been at that restaurant on a date with Raquel Welch. I guessed it made him feel a little bit famous to be asked for this sort of detail.

'Public Safety Unit?' I somehow managed not to groan out loud. I felt almost certain that Public Safety Unit would be characterised by militaristic electronic beats and barking snippets of Generals ordering bombs to be dropped, insurgents to be pacified, and seabases to be monitored. This was the sort of thing Joe liked, and which inspired his music. It was fine in itself, I suppose, but not terribly original. I had, some months before, sat in a different pub listening to him and the bloke out of Lustmord comparing notes on footage of tanks and related military activity they'd both recently taped off the telly for use in live shows. It was one of the dullest conversations I'd ever heard.

'That's interesting.'

Far beyond our crazy world of showbiz, the Public Safety Unit had been the means by which President Idi Amin had rooted out enemies of the Ugandan state. Again Joe smirked like Michael Winner and explained how he always named any band of which he was founder after an authoritarian secret police force. Similarly the Chekists had once been a Soviet organisation responsible for executing dissidents. This was, I guessed, one of those details Joe imagined his many, many fans would appreciate, nudging each other with knowing smiles.

So the Chekists were Soviet secret police! Ha ha! Oh that Joe!

I rolled the revelation around in my head. I had assumed Chekists was simply a lame name. It sounded like a group of people who went around checking things. Did this new information really make any difference? I decided not, and that it wasn't worth writing any of this down. It just wasn't that interesting.

'We have a track on a seven inch compilation coming out soon, just something a local label are getting together.'

'Really?' This sounded more like it.

'Our track is called Filing Down Your Teeth!'

Of course it is, I thought, and Joe smiled happily as his many imaginary fans rolled their eyes indulgently. Oh that Joe!

Somehow, I just didn't have it in me to be impressed, which is probably why I always had the impression he just didn't like me that much. He would phone quite often, but mainly, so it seemed, in order that I might ask him questions about his work. Through Glenn he had come to know Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, formerly of Throbbing Gristle, and I always got the impression that he really wanted to make sure that I knew this.

As I was saying to Cosey the other day...

We liked some of the same music, but it always felt as though I was talking to an aunt who had bought me a Shoot! annual for Christmas because I was male, and regardless of the facts of my being forty years old and without any real interest in football; and somehow we were in a band together, the Philthy Animal and Fast Eddie to Glenn's Lemmy, except Joe seemed to regard me as our Ringo, the bloke Glenn had met in the pub and who would from now on be playing the castanets whilst siphoning off a third of both the royalties and the credit.

Possibly my impression was wrong, and I certainly wanted it to be wrong, but nevertheless it has remained as it is.

Later, we recorded an album called Forbidden at a studio in Harlow, Essex. I was a postman at the time and unable to take leave at short notice, so for three days I raced around my walk in Catford, south-east London in the mornings, raced home to Lewisham for a bath and a change of clothes, then spent an hour and a half on trains and buses getting to Harlow to find that the album had been more or less recorded in my absence, and all I had to do was to add guitar parts to tracks I had never before heard to prove that I'd been there. This wasn't in itself an inconvenience as I'm all for a bit of spontaneity, but it was annoying to find that in at least one case my improvised doodling as I tried to work out what I would play had been recorded and was to be considered my finished contribution due to time restrictions.

The album turned out okay, but it never exactly felt like something of which I should be proud, and ultimately I couldn't see the point in either my having played on it, or the considerable effort expended on my daily sixty miles round trip to a studio in a town made of Lego bricks. The material that Glenn and I had done on his portastudio in his spare bedroom sounded better to me.

I put together the cover artwork for Forbidden, aided greatly by my friend Carl, a professional designer. Although heavily distorted, the images on the cover are of myself, Glenn, and Glenn's young daughter. I asked Joe to send some photographs of himself for inclusion, and I asked him each time he phoned to tell me that Chris and Cosey were thinking of buying a new sofa or whatever; but he never got around to it, and seemed to have lost interest in the album since our label had started making noises about putting out Chekists material.

The album came out, and people bought it, and we got paid, albeit not in sufficient quantities to have anyone thinking about buying a yacht; but it did it's job, whatever that was. Joe didn't seem too happy about the cover artwork, now disgruntled that I had neither consulted him nor even asked for a picture by which it might be shown that Konstruktivists comprised persons other than just Glenn and myself, somehow having failed to notice that I had done both of these things, and several times; but beyond this, he didn't really seem to care that much. Neither did I.

Years later, I took out the compact disc for a listen, hoping it may have improved with age. It hadn't, in so much as the disc was now an off-putting bronze hue, having degraded due to a chemical reaction with the ink by which the label design had been printed. So whatever qualities the music may once have had were lost to an unreadable digital mush of degraded zeros and ones. The signal had become noise, and none of it really seemed to matter so much as it had once done, at least not to me.

Oh well.

1 comment:

  1. Most amusing; quite the Joe I remember - though you could've had a shot at a phonetic transliteration of the Harlow accent... Sat through some fairly tedious (if unintelligible) chats with Brian as well...