Andy Martin’s current band is Unit, a unique multi cultural project that blends punk attitude with humor, unusual instrumentation and a style all their own.
Below, some album covers from The Apostles which Andy was in and featured Dave Fanning.
read more about Andy’s projects here
Right then – as promised: one essay on the dubious delights of cassette culture.
Analogue = Crap / Digital = Groovy.
In 2001 UNIT released their first proper album – Sons Of The Dragon – and thanks to modern technology I was able to transfer onto CD the last remaining early tracks from the 1990s by a formative version of our group. This meant at last I could hurl down the rubbish chute those dreadful wads of plastic on which our primitive attempts at pop music had been stored and thus I celebrated the glorious absence from my room of that curse of the 1980s – the audio cassette.
Oh yes, I don’t deny it – I recorded music onto those disgusting little tapes throughout the 1980s and even into the early 1990s because, like Saul prior to his conversion on the way to Damascas, I knew no better. I was born to be a bastard, despite the presence (so to speak) of my absent father. Being poor, I couldn’t afford to record my music in fancy pants studios. Being a spastic, I wasn’t able to play musical instruments properly. Being extremely physically ugly, no self respecting capitalist pig record company would ever sign me up for a contract – they could hardly try to market my coupon in Tesco or Wallmart – no profits to be gained from frightening away the customers etc – so I learnt (and fast) that to be a creative artist in the field of music (my favoured medium) I was obliged to adopt a rather more eccentric means by which to record and release my works to the general public, bless their pointy heads.
Now this austerity, imposed upon me as a result of factors beyond my control, generated a significant increase in my creative imagination because I believed it was my duty to compensate for the absence of high fidelity full gloss studio produced sound by making music that was unusual, interesting and avant garde – in other words, music that did not necessarily require the services of Abbey Road Studio. This in turn caused me to investigate what I could and could not do with the instruments and sound devices I had at my disposal. I could not afford to pay for pressing plants to manufacture circular discs of my noise – and I never liked those cumbersome reel to reel tape recorders, despite their decent sound quality. That implied either silence or the audio cassette. For better or worse (usually worse) I opted for the audio cassette combined with one of those ominous little Teak Portastudio devices that fool the consumer into believing that they, too, can do the Mike Oldfield routine in the comfort of their own bedsits.
In 1983 I joined this frankly bizarre little group called The Apostles. A trio of wealthy, middle class teenagers (they were 15 at the time) wanted something to do during the summer holidays and in those days you didn’t spend 11 hours a day in front of a computer screen or a Play Station – no, you joined or formed a band if you believed yourself to be in any way artistic. The complete story of the insertion of a thoroughly inept Scottish folk singer into a potential punk rock group who couldn’t help writing pop songs is related elsewhere, most eloquently in my half of a book on how and how not to form a pop group which appears in the UNIT website. The other half is written by Malcolm Lewty, known for his work with Hellbastard although that is currently still unfinished at the time of writing. Go to www.unit-united.co.uk. The Apostles did release a plethora of records, eventually; they also released 17 audio cassettes. Oh all right, the band were generally dreadful and I think we all secretly knew it but we kept quiet about the fact and thus we were able to convince each other that our dubious foray into the world of Bedroom Band fame not only merited attention but deserved to be recorded for posterity. Ye Gods, Caligula himself would have been mightily impressed by our youthful arrogance.
We played our racket live in the attic of my flat (a housing co-operative dwelling – oh for the days when there were such gloriously practical answers to homelessness as squats and housing co-ops) and recorded it directly onto a chrome cassette previously shoved into a high faluting recorder that was merely a plastic rectangle that dared to masquerade as a device for the promotion of music. Anyway, I never questioned this mode of recording our music – that was what we all did, wasn’t it? You see it never occurred to me that there could be any other means by which to record our music. I associated the term ‘recording studio’ with the record industry and I assumed such facilities to be directly under the purview of the music business. At the time I’d never encountered anyone who had ever been inside a recording studio – in my naive ignorance I didn’t even realise it was possible for ordinary people (if they had access to considerable funds) to use such facilities.
Andy Martin’s current band is Unit, a unique multi cultural project that blends punk attitude with humor, unusual instrumentation and a style all their own.
Below, some album covers from The Apostles which Andy was in and featured Dave Fanning.
read more about Andy’s projects here
These 3 lads (guitarist Pete Bynghall, bass guitarist Julian Portinari and drummer Dan McKintyre) were fans of punk rock, a genre to which I have always been allergic. I couldn’t understand this because Pete, Ju and Dan were actually highly competent musicians who, it seemed to me, wasted their talent on this noisome sonic garbage. Punk bands signed to Polydor and CBS and they recorded their noise in the same studios used by Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Wham, for crying out loud. Sod that! I wanted to know if there were any interesting, original, innovative groups out there.
Well, it transpired that Pete had an older brother, Andrew, who had played drums for a group called Exhibit A and now played drums for a pop sextet called Twelve Cubic Feet. In order to become acquainted with their work, I wrote to Andrew who telephoned Fred (vocalist Freda Durrell) and Platypus (guitarist Paul Rosen), each of whom sent me cassettes of recent rehearsal room recordings of the group. That I found their work absolutely splendid is not especially relevant here – what matters is that I was not immediately irritated by the absence of high fidelity glossy studio sound. In fact, as I recall, the thought didn’t even occur to me. I could hear the 4 vocals, 2 keyboards, 2 guitars, bass guitar and drums clearly enough to discern what was being played and that sufficed at the time. In fact, I realised as I ventured further into straight-to-tape recorded music that much of my dissatisfaction with commercial rock and roll was its reliance on the recording productions for its effect, a reliance which promoted the studio into the status of spin doctor meets public relations hack in spades – all that high faluting machinery with its compressors, noise gates, bells and whistles stood between me and the music such that it contrived to prevent me hearing what the group actually played. I wanted to listen to the band, not the bloody studio.
Because I was interested in their music, they took the bold step of trying to interest me in the music of other groups that they valued. They sent me a cassette compilation that included tracks by The Fall, The Lemon Kittens, Eyeless In Gaza, Five Or Six and 23 Skidoo. I’d heard of The Fall and found their work generally rather tedious but the others were all new names to me and they were either at least fairly interesting (Eyeless In Gaza, 23 Skidoo) or utterly brilliant (The Lemon Kittens, Five Or Six). Commercial phonograph records at this time often featured a skull and crossbones logo adorned with the epithet ‘home taping is killing music’. The skull was actually a stylised audio cassette! However, as a result of those cassettes sent to me by Twelve Cubic Feet personnel of music by The Lemon Kittens et al, I went to HMV and bought their records – so far from killing music, home taping actually aided and abetted the profits made by the record companies who released those records. In 2011 we have to endure similarly ridiculous warnings about video piracy funding terrorism (which is a total fallacy in any case) every time we purchase a commercial DVD – thus the industry fails to learn from its previous errors.
I sent cassettes back of tracks by The Pop Group and Throbbing Gristle along with excerpts from various free jazz records I possessed at the time (Peter Brötzmann, Günter Hampel, Han Benninck etc), interspersed with snatches of speech and greetings from myself. In other words, the cassette took the form of an audio letter illustrated with musical examples. By the late 1980s I had instigated ‘the cassette letter’ i.e. a C60 of me speaking what I’d normally write in a letter. While I invented this in my bedroom, I suspect other people had also done so independently elsewhere and I doubt I was the first person to utilise the cassette in this manner. The advantage here was that the cassette could be erased and used again whereas more orthodox letters could only be thrown away or used to light fires (in the days when people still used paper as kindling to build coal or log fires).
The only genuine advantage of the humble audio cassette was also its most damning indictment: it enabled anyone to record anything onto it, regardless of recording quality, technical proficiency or content. I received my first cassette of tracks by Exhibit A and Twelve Cubic Feet in 1983. I started to write to people to tell them not to send me unsolicited audio cassettes in 1986. So it took less than 3 years for me to become utterly sick and tired of the odious racket that any old buffoon with a Woolworths guitar or a Casio keyboard could concoct and send to unsuspecting members of the public in the name of art or, worse still, self expression, that umbrella term used to justify all manner of disgusting crimes against evolution.
Freda Durrell, Sally Andrews, Glenna Bett, Paul Rosen, Matthew Vosburgh and Andrew Bynghall thus all deserve to have their names appear here because they introduced me to exciting new music that either subverted or actually ignored the tenets of conventional rock music. Matthew is the brother of actress Tilly Vosburgh; he now runs a highly successful website thingie in America. Glenna joined the Monday Club (so I am informed), the right wing think tank of the Conservative Party. Paul became a doctor of something or other at Durham University. Anyway, it is no accident that none of their music is commercially available in any format anywhere in the world. I remastered into digital format all the tracks from their 10” album and from their second (unreleased) studio album for private release by BBP Records but their continued obscurity is indicative of the fate awarded to most of the groups caught by the cassette craze – as the tapes deteriorated (the oxide particles glued to the tape become unstable over time), their contents became distorted and, ultimately, beyond rescue.
Another initial advantage of cassette culture was that we attempted to avoid emulating pop stars or rock groups. After the demise of Joy Division in 1980, it seemed as if every other group in existence tried to sound like ‘The New Joy Division’ and adopt their curious sound – a sound that was actually invented, usually against the desire of the band members, by record producer Steve Hannet. We stuck our fingers up at such idolatry and forged our own paths, regardless of form, style, content or quality control. We rejoiced in our desire to satirise all the sacred cows of the era from Boy George to Crass. Bands from the ‘oi’ genre like The Exploited and The 4 Skins were so ridiculous already, verging on self parody, that any attempt to poke fun at them was virtually futile since they were so adept at making of fools of themselves without any assistance from us. Nothing was forbidden and everything was permitted – do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law – and it was, too!
In an early issue of the comic 2000 AD there was a cartoon strip about a teenage boy who was whisked into the future, armed only with the clothes in which he stood and a Sony Walkman in which was inserted a cassette by The Smiths. I’m not sure who I’d like to physically assault with greater asperity, The Moody Blues or The Smiths – both groups are odious and thoroughly risible. Yet here we have the audio cassette portrayed as a fashion accessory by a mainstream comic for children; the congruence between that and the ubiquitous I-pod is uncanny.
‘DHSS inspector comes around – Moody Blues cassette on the dashboard.’ That line is snapped out by Mark E Smith on the album that followed Hex Enduction Hour, whatever that was called. Besides offering an epigrammatic portrayal of the archetypal nasty, petty minded snooper on poor people who desperately tries to be cool, windswept and interesting, it reveals another important advantage audio cassettes enjoyed over records – you could play them in car stereos – although the self indulgent, self satisfied and ineffably otiose LSD drenched meanderings of the spoiled, middle class brats mentioned by Mr Smith would not be my own personal choice of music. Besides, we never associated cassettes with sonic garbage like The Moody Blues or Deep Purple – for us, cassettes meant The Boiled Eggs, Cold War, Twelve Cubic Feet or that odd boy next door who records birds and then subjects them to flangers, fuzz boxes and delay pedals etc.
Note: you could write to such groups as Eyeless In Gaza, Five Or Six, The Lemon Kittens and be confident they would reply. The proliferation of cassette culture encouraged everyone to be a pop star with the corollary that ultimately nobody was a pop star. On a social level this was laudable of course but on an artistic level it was perturbing. The implication here is that we encouraged ourselves, perhaps unintentionally, to wallow in a celebration of mass mediocrity. Remember: when everybody is somebody then nobody is anybody. (Punk bands, like the commercial pop groups they claimed to despise, adopted the rock star attitude and regarded themselves as far too important to be bothered with oiks like you and I. Mind you, why would anyone want to write to a punk band anyway unless, perhaps, they were engaged in medical or military research designed to test the levels of ability possessed by the human brain to endure prolonged exposure to sonic torture?)
BBP Records commenced operations in 1981, primarily to promote the do-it-yourself ethic that was such a prevalent aspect of the burgeoning anarcho-punk scene in Britain at the time. Obviously that was utterly irrelevant to me but, as a result of joining The Apostles when I was barely 17, I came into contact with Stephen Parsons, the instigator of the firm. He sold virtually every available recording (primarily live concerts and rehearsal demos) of many of the obscure, unknown groups associated with the scene at the time but, unlike his peers, he was sufficiently curious and open minded to include cassettes of groups I recommended so that among all the punk dross are a few sparkling gems of interesting music, some of which have stood the test of time despite the primitive recording technology utilised by most of the artists concerned.
In that same year approximately 30 other independent do-it-yourself cassette sellers / distributors arose throughout the country, most of whom released around a dozen different cassettes whose maximum sales rarely exceeded 100 of each item. By 1983 this figure had quadrupled – everyone and their mother was releasing cassettes by grotty little punk bands, strange pop groups, bizarre performance artists, industrial noise merchants, poets and sound artists. However, the general absence of recording quality in combo with the advent of the compact disc inevitably generated the eventual demise of this industry and by the end of the decade, virtually all such DIY cassette firms had become obsolete.
To become a purveyor of DIY cassette culture, really all you required were a stack of blank audio cassettes – ideally good quality chrome cassettes – a decent quality cassette copier, a stack of paper or card and access to a photocopier. You advertised your items for sale by sending the details to various fanzines that existed – these were independent publications, often printed (or photocopied) in runs of less than 100 copies. While each fanzine may have only had a tiny print run, there were so many of these publications that if you sent copies of your cassettes to 30 different fanzines you could be fairly certain that 3,000 people would read the review of your cassettes. These fanzines were legion in the 1980s, possibly more than 200 different ones devoted not only to music but to art, to politics and even football – When Saturday Comes is the most celebrated example.
The first 2 such fanzines appeared as a consequence of the punk rock wave in 1976. These were Sniffing Glue by Mark Perry from London and Ripped & Torn by Tony Drayton from Edinburgh. Perry formed his band Alternative TV shortly before the final issue, No.12, hit the streets. Drayton abandoned the narrow confines of monochrome punkdom and replaced it with a new publication called Kill Your Pet Puppy. This was the first punk fanzine to appear in colour and it featured politics, fashion and philosophy in addition to music features. Whereas other fanzines merely repeated the same old cliché ridden formula, KYPP stridently engaged with all manner of interesting and intriguing ideas, occasionally to the detriment of its content quality (7 pages on how to apply punk cosmetics provide the most notorious example) but its desire to explore new areas and challenge the conception of what constituted a ‘punk fanzine’ meant that it endured over time and to this day the KYPP website remains the most popular and factually reliable account of the whole punk rock phenomenon written by the people who were directly involved at the time.
In 1984 a major innovation occurred, courtesy of Phillips in Holland: the first compact discs became commercially available. As an enthusiast of modern classical music, I welcomed this evolution in recorded sound since it meant that at last I could listen to my favourite music produced in the fidelity it deserved. However, this development was ultimately to generate the demise of the DIY cassette scene. Well before the end of the decade, the humble cassette had become passé, its limitations exposed and its constrictions no longer acceptable in a world that had entered the digital age. Of all those DIY cassette firms, BBP is the sole survivor – he now stocks records and compact discs but these are only in addition to, not instead of the hundreds of audio cassettes he keeps in his house. Go to www.bbprecords.co.uk. Every cassette item on his catalogue has remained available since 1981 whereas the records and compact discs have had to be deleted from it once they sold out. Mr Parsons published his latest catalogue in 2011 to celebrate the promotion of independent music on cassette for 3 decades.
The advent of audio cassettes therefore encouraged ordinary people to record their own music in clear daylight, unadorned by glossy productions and uncluttered by studio effects and gizmos. To me, any musician required to hide behind a battery of black boxes manned by a team of record company approved studio technicians is to be regarded with intense suspicion – or, better still, simply ignored as a shameless charlatan. However, the perennial question of quality control became a continual matter for conjecture as an increasing cascade of cassettes clattered through my letter box as ever more part time musicians assailed my abode with their incessant noise, racket and row. Therefore it was a virtual revelation when, every now and then, my cassette player revealed a decent quality recording that contained interesting music.
It was through cassettes I encountered – for example – The Replaceable Heads, a band of students whose jazz inflected funk and pristine pop featured a flute player instead of a guitarist. So – there was life after Jethro Tull if you were a flautist. I was sent a sextet of tracks by Alien Kulture, the first (and probably still the only) Pakistani pop group in Britain – so UNIT are only the second group to feature 3 Asians and a white chap in their personnel, not the first as some magazines claim. They also released a 7” single, Asian Youth, but it was the cassette that contained their best songs. Then there were The Bizarre Stakes who released their cassette in a curious manner. First they copied 500 in advance. Then they travelled all around Britain and left copies in train station waiting rooms, libraries, cafes and pubs, indeed anywhere people tended to congregate. Contact details were printed on the cover should anyone be motivated to investigate the purveyors of the strangely mutated post-punk music trapped like sonic flies in amber reels. This procedure became more common in the 1990s as members of the London Musicians Collective (who eventually set up Resonance, the first national art radio station in Britain in 2004) adopted it as an alternative means by which to distribute to the public not only music but also weird sounds and conversations in general.
The trouble is, I never liked records much, either. You see, as one of the earliest members of Class War, an anarchist group whose newspaper of the same name achieved considerable notoriety in Britain, I had found a team of educated working class people who were able to articulate my own fury at a nation apparently designed to prevent people of my class being able to have access to all the services and facilities taken for granted by those who were wealthy and privileged. To make music that sounded as professional as The Jam (for example) you had to possess instruments that cost thousands of pounds and, if you weren’t contracted to a record company, you had to spend more thousands of pounds promoting your group and then yet more thousands of pounds to pay to have your music released on records. Cassettes were never taken seriously by the establishment but for the wrong and most offensive reason. Had they been dismissed because the sound quality was crap, I could have accepted that – but they were dismissed because anyone could afford to release their music on a cassette, as if that reason alone warranted the odium heaped upon their existence.
The media bag (by which I refer to the music business, the record industry, pop music journalism, mainstream newspapers, commercial and government sponsored radio and television stations) despises any people who elect to create films, art, music or literature outside the previously demarcated channels for such endeavours. The process has been made as expensive as possible combined with the use of arcane jargon and esoteric terminology in order to deter the likes of us from participation in our own creativity on terms amenable to ourselves. In the 1980s the audio cassette was perceived as a potential threat to the mass hegemony of the media bag since it allowed ordinary people (i.e. those not governed and owned by its own representatives) to engage in their own creativity and by-pass the traditional paraphernalia of the industry. A&R men, promoters, the music press, record producers, managers and the whole hoi polloi of ineffable cultural squalor that is the media bag suddenly became (so they believed) unnecessary or at least irrelevant. The media bag had to believe that what we produced was third rate, laughable and fit only for contempt and derision – its own peace of mind was dependant on that belief.
Unfortunately, much of what we produced was indeed third rate and even laughable but rarely, if ever, merited contempt and derision. The audio cassette simply could not compete with phonograph records and videos in terms of fidelity, durability or sound quality. However, the humble audio cassette was highly efficient (particularly when coupled with professional quality recording equipment) as a means by which to document live events that may never be repeated. There are a few decent live recordings of The Apostles, Twelve Cubic Feet, The Nocturnal Emissions, The Pop Group and Throbbing Gristle that were made on audio cassette which, when manipulated and tweaked by contemporary digital technology, can sound quite impressive. Tapes of poetry recitals, book readings, seminars and lectures were all captured on audio cassette during the 1980s and these were shared, often in the absence of any financial transaction: pecunia non grata indeed! Cassettes would be swapped for other cassettes rather than purchased with money.
We could also use Dictaphones where recording quality was not essential; these days we might utilise mini-disc recorders. However, in the 1980s there were poets and musicians who only released their work via audio cassettes. With the introduction of the Sony Walkman, our music could be truly portable – this Japanese device was the analogue precursor to the I-pod of today. In some quarters it was considered acceptable to issue your work on audio cassette as a viable alternative to the phonograph record. I never liked cassettes but I was in a minority at this time – they were cheap, they were compact and they were accessible.
People started to take far more care and consideration into how best to package their work when issued in this format. To me, cassettes always look cheap and nasty – artwork suffers even more than it does on compact disc. Indeed, the only advantage of the long playing phonograph record was that it was possible to create genuinely beautiful or visually impressive artwork as a primary adjunct to the audio content. Whatever you may think of progressive rock, the early 1970s witnessed some of the most astounding record covers ever released as groups and record companies formed an often uneasy alliance with graphic designers and artists to create works able to hold their own in any modern art gallery in the land. With 7” records this was less often the case although an anarchist group from Holland called The Ex released a set of 2 singles encased as the hardback covers of a book about the Spanish revolution of 1936 which was most effective. (Sadly the music itself was abysmal but this was before they abandoned their absurd punk rock roots and ventured into free jazz and avant garde territory where they created interesting music.)
The most dramatic and immediately impressive example of a group who attempted to package audio cassettes with the same care and attention to detail as that devoted to phonograph records were the German outfit Doc Wor Mirran. Led by American guitarist Joe Raimond, this curious ensemble released a truly vast collection of audio cassettes, phonograph records and, later, compact discs from 1980 onwards. Their most recent CD was issued in 2008 and, to the best of my knowledge, they are still active with at least 3 of their original members involved in the group, namely Ralf Lexis and Peter Schuster. They are unlike any other group I have ever encountered with the possible exception of The Lemon Kittens. Certainly the pictures, drawings and paintings by Mr Raimond are occasionally similar in technique and subject matter to that of Danielle Dax. Doc Wor Mirran however could release a 7” EP of pure punk rock if they so desired (fortunately they rarely did so desire), a C90 of industrial noise, a folk inflected collection of songs and ballads…indeed it was virtually impossible to predict what they would perform and record next. Bizarrely, they have to date performed only 3 live concerts at the rate of one per decade.
When compact disc copiers became affordable in the late 1990s and CDRs were widely available, at last we were granted the digital equivalent of the audio cassette only now our CDs can sound just as professional as anything you can purchase in Tesco or Wallmart. The audio cassette was never going to offer a serious challenge to the phonograph record not only because of the snobbery associated with producers of the latter but also because of the crucial limitations inherent in the former as a medium. Besides, phonograph records soon become dusty, marked, scratched and ultimately unplayable. Audio cassettes soon become worn, warped and (a favourite device favoured by these infernal objects) they tend to wrap their tape around the playing heads of the machines in which they are inserted. Only compact discs provide a permanent medium on which music (or other media) may be safely stored for continual reproduction. Of course now we have available the ability to upload / download many gigabytes of data all over the world through the internet and store hours of music files on USB sticks, even the CD will soon be bludgeoned into humility if not obsolescence before 2050. Personally I favour this as another stride in the evolution of recorded media but only on the condition that the fidelity and quality of the recordings (aural or visual) is preserved.
From Boxing Day to New Year Day I endured a tedious head cold – fever, nausea, cough and weakness etc, real horrorshow dreams as I imagined England thrashed my beloved Aussies in the cricket only for me to wake up to find it to be true. I spent much of the time watching The Sky At Night which is a monthly astronomy programme broadcast by the BBC. Its first edition aired in 1957 and it has never been off air since then. It is still presented by Patrick Moore who, on 4th March 2011, will be 88 years old. Sir Patrick has lit up his pipe in a club in flagrant defiance of the smoking ban, brought down a mugger with a rugby tackle in London in the 1990s and played the xylophone on the same show as Napalm Death (honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried). If I live to be 80, I want to be like that!
The Sky At Night is in the Guinness Book Of World Records for being 1) the longest continuously running factual TV programme anywhere in the world; 2) the longest continuously running TV programme of any sort anywhere in the world with the same theme tune (At The Castle Gate by Jean Sibelius) and 3) the longest continuously running TV programme of any sort anywhere in the world with the same presenter. A science fiction drama for children was recorded in 1996 called Independence Day UK which featured Colin Baker and Toyah Wilcox with a guest appearance by Patrick Moore as himself. The company who released it decided the most commercially viable medium in which to issue it would be as an audio cassette.
In 1957 the recording used for the programme was taken directly from a 78rpm shellac disc. In the 1960s a phonograph record was adopted. For a brief period in the 1970s an audio cassette was utilised when the reel to reel tapes normally favoured by the BBC went wonky – the sound quality was actually worse than that of the old shellac disc! In the 1990s Auntie Beeb went digital and the original theme music was cleaned of all pops, clicks and crackles then lovingly restored to open the show each month. Audio cassettes were, like the 8 track cartridge and quadraphonic records, a cultural cul-de-sac that endured for longer than their erstwhile formats only by dint of their size and convenience. With the advent of internet downloads and the I-pod, they, along with all those horrible old records, can finally be melted down to make something useful instead.
Andy Martin © 2011 UNIT.