Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Secret Librarians’ Afterhours Music Scene

Fan # 1: “This was the first year out of university. I was in a launderette in Earl’s Court. This guy walked in, a Canadian, and he sees my T-shirt. I’d actually screenprinted it myself a few years before, because I liked the artwork, and the band were way obscure, so it slightly blew my mind that he said ‘D’you like that band, or d’you just like the T-shirt?’ So we got talking, and he invited me around to his flat for a smoke – you know, for a joint; I don’t smoke-smoke – and after a while he puts on this record I’d never heard. The sound was incredible for something this old; I mean, the acoustics. I asked him how he got a hold of it, and if they used some kind of, like, analogue reverb unit – the way George Martin used a microphone inside a rotating cylinder – and he said, No… and he took a long slow draw on the joint, like he was choosing whether to tell me what he told me next, or maybe like he was just in awe of this music that took you right into the dripping caves of the unconscious, before he said They recorded it in one take, late one night… inside the blue whale. You know? There’s this lifesize, fibreglass model of a whale, hanging from the ceiling in the mammal section of the Natural History Museum. It’s like no other room sound there is: the echoes have this weird phasing effect, because the whole thing’s rocking slightly, and the walls are never in the same position by the time the soundwaves come back. Can you imagine that? They got congas, a harmonium, two guitarists, a bassist, and a guy operating the reel-to-reel. All inside the whale…’

Lou Reed: “Fact. After the Velvets split, there’s nothing else I wanted more than to get into the Afterhours Music Scene. Mainly to fuck off Cale, because they wouldn’t let him join, back in ’64, ’65 – but y’know, there’s nothing better than being in a room with a bunch of guys firing off ideas. No-one wants to be a solo artist, not really, even if you’re the biggest ego on the planet – and believe me, I know all about this – you have to have people you respect, so you can see it in their eyes when you come up with a better idea than them. That’s what I could dig about the Secret Librarians, the SLAMS, whatever you choose to call them. The French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, he said, The reading of great literature is like a conversation with the great minds of history. Maybe he should have said, it’s like a great jam session…”

Lester Bangs (archive footage): “…pillaging the shelves, sticking a pin into the heart of culture, and pulling out the next line, whether it made sense or not; freaking out to the unholy beats rolling off those leatherbound shelves, rocking their leatherbound bodies in sweaty abandon, the same bodies hunched over issue desks in beige cardigans the next day, insomniac eye-circles rhymed with coffee-circles on covers of clothbound books, they sigh and take back from you, no clue to the way they hunched over monitors in the witching hour of the night before, shaking notes from the neck of a Gibson; a world away, a lifetime away, in the secret world of the stacks never seen by those who come to these places of Silence Please, to read but not to learn, to see but not to feel. Could these people be a myth? If they were before my time, their legend was enough, to know they once were, but please Gods of Noise, please let them not be a stoner’s dream. This was the prayer I sent up, going in search of the Secret Librarians’ Afterhours Music Scene…

Greil Marcus: “Honestly? No-one knows which came first. The Museum Scene, or the Library Scene. Lester gave them their names: SLAMS and SCAMS – the Secret Curators Scene. I did some research, though, and it turns out the British Library used to be based in the British Museum, until the 1970s. That explains a lot…

Lester Bangs: “…the Museum Underground, the MU, the Zen ‘mu’ – the unknown, the nothing, the never was; the unseen museum. The place they played, the place they gigged, the original of the originals, suggesting to the perma-stoned mind an endless regression of original scenes, each more obscure than the last, leaving no trace but the fact of influence…”

Malcolm MacLaren: “…which is b*ll*cks, of course, because any Londoner knows the Science Museum is a stone’s throw from the V&A. That’s where all the fabulous costumes came from. Imagine that: they didn’t have to make history, because all their stagewear, all their instruments, all their sets, were already in a museum. Rather takes off the pressure to be great, doesn’t it? Frees you up to do anything, to be anything. That’s where the idea for Sex came from – clothes that were already out of date, for people who knew they were meant to be remembered. All the ideology came later: the Scream in a Museum, the Situationist pranks; the SLAMS didn’t want anyone to know about it. My ideals were higher: if you can scream in a library after dark, or in the V&A, why not scream in Buckingham Palace? Naturally, it followed to have our own gang of sexy young highwaymen, playing music that sounded so out of date it was practically primitive. That’s where The Sex Pistols came from.”

Brian Eno: “All of this is available now. At your fingertips. The material on cassette, the material on reel-to-reel, even the albums recorded straight to wax cylinder, using an original Edison Calliogram – it’s all been digitized. Someone out there will zip the whole lot for you, and fileshare it in minutes, which is the beauty of the World Wide Web. It’s an extraordinarily rapid democratization of music that only a few decades ago was distributed hand-to-hand, user-to-user, dub-by-dub. Arguably, its dissemination is more consistent with the original project: to electrify literature, to compose spontaneous cut-ups of the great poets and writers of the past. On the other hand, there’s a part of me that enjoys the obscurity of it; the fact that less than 5% of the entire output was ever recorded. Memories of the few shows I ever saw that only come back if I compose a melody that I realize, as I play it, isn’t actually my own. What the new generation of fans forget is, the costumes were amazing, too. Roxy Music were always indebted to the Afterhours Music Scene for that. You can listen to the Japanese bootlegs, and the official remasters, and the cleaned-up sessions, but there’s no film footage of what they actually looked like. Only a few posed photos of chaps in Samurai bamboo armour. It’s as if there’s one corner of twentieth century musical history that isn’t a part of the digital universe. I’m actually grateful for that –

Ralf Hutter, Kraftwerk: “Also, the book – the material object – is a percussion instrument, for so many bands in the scene. So innovative! You have a very dry sound it makes that you can build from, by successive modulations, without the – how you say? – cultural luggage. This is what we took from the SpaterNachtBibliothekScene, when I first started playing with Florian, and later mit Kraftwerk. The book as schlagspiel. I think they would say something else, of course! Drums are not so good to play late at night – some reason like that. Still, we like the sounds they make –

Paul McCartney, Beatle: “It’s not us. I’d remember! John and Yoko really dug that scene, but John was more Spike Milligan than Finnegans Wake, y’know? I mean, can you imagine him having the patience to rap James Joyce over free jazz? Laurie Anderson maybe, but not John…

Blixa Bargeld, Einsturzende Neubaten / The Bad Seeds: “The guy in full armour, with the contact microphones between the plates so that when he dances...? And the one in his codpiece – literally using it as a percussion instrument? Hilarious. We had to top that with Neubaten. That’s why the cement mixer, onstage, jah…

Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth / Ecstatic Yod: “Some people say Jandek works as a Janitor in a factory. Some people say he’s a mental patient. Some people say he used to be a Philosophy Major, but he got into heroin, and met his band in rehab. All we know is, he’s made 60 records since 1978, when he burned all his novels, and he would have been 33, then. I’m not saying anything for certain, but when we spoke before the gig, he sure seemed to know a lot about the Dewey Decimal System…”

Steve O’Malley, Sunn O))): “People think we’re just about extreme bass frequencies, long beards, and camping around in black robes? But I’ll let you in on a secret: you have to use the venue as an instrument, and you have to choose your text; that’s when you transcend music. That’s when you unlock the interdimensional gates. Not a lot of people know this, but the Secret Librarians Afterhours Music Scene? The reason no-one’s admitted to being part of it, years after it all ended: they’re not on this plane anymore. They found the exact resonant frequencies that, when coupled with a recital of the Necronomicon of Abdul Al-Alhazred, literally disintegrated the reality boundary. Maybe they got swallowed by something unimaginable – maybe they found a way out. Our next project, we’re creating music that when played by enough people at the same time… well, you’ll see.”

Fan # 2: “You know the King’s Library? It’s basically a three storey-high steel and glass cube, at the heart of the new British Library. Thousands of books on each side. It seemed like the perfect place for the revival. Anyhow, we got in there about 2am, set up our equipment, and started riffing on passages from the Diamond Sutra. Crazy stuff. Then, following the style of the Old Masters, we each picked a book off the shelf, so as to create spontaneous exquisite corpses by chanting alternate verses. True story: the book I picked up, a note fell out. It simply said: To anyone who finds this – Rock On.”

Lester Bangs (archive footage): “…How old is the scene? How far back does it go? Were the Nazi book-burnings an attempt to suppress those secret late-night readings, set to the wild, decadent sounds of negro jazz musicians… or was the crackle of a hundred million pages in vast torchlit processions their uniquely German contribution to the scene, with its own esoteric roots in Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, and necrobibliomancy – the raising of the dead through the sounding of their sacred words, in spaces designed by philosopher-architects for their magico-acoustic properties? Had I just had too much Robitussin and Benzedrine…?”

[December 2009]

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