the secret best album of the 90s

I heard it again for the first time yesterday – How To Operate With A Blown Mind by the Lo-Fidelity Allstars.

You don’t know the Lo-Fidelity Allstars, I guess; at least, you don’t know them any more than you might know Bizet or Wagner. You’d probably recognize the highlights of the music from films and TV, but you wouldn’t know what it was or who wrote it.

But you should.

I know I don’t usually write about music, but on this occasion I just feel I’ve got to. Because, since it came out in 1998, I’ve become more and more convinced that How To Operate With A Blown Mind was – and I say this with no trace of exaggeration or hyperbole – the best and the most creatively brilliant and the most confused and the most passionate and the most exciting record of the 1990s.

There are some records, like Sgt. Pepper or Bringing It All Back Home or London Calling or Disintegration, that encapsulate a mood and a time while somehow transcending it; that are completely of their moment and are still somehow timeless because they have their own journey and tell their own story. Looking back, while we were foolishly debating whether any of Oasis’ interminable pub rock might make it into this category (of course they didn’t), Blown Mind quietly, but certainly, did. This record, a heaving opus of technological confusion and funky, squelchy bass and fin de siecle panic and art poetry and a massive drug overdose and filthy sex and deep, passionate love – this album is the real deal; it’s an electronic dance-rock record that is one of the most human records I have ever heard.61aaaM+TgzL._SS500_

So who were the Lo-Fidelity Allstars? They were just a bunch of guys making what sounds, at first, like electronic dance music. And I didn’t even like electronic dance music until I heard them. Annoyingly, they got tagged with the horrible ‘big beat’ label, though none of the other big beaters were on their level artistically or emotionally. They were different because they weren’t just two nerds fiddling with a synthesizer; they were a real band – a really amazing band, with a proper drummer and the funkiest bass player ever and two keyboardists and a DJ, and a vocalist, a proper vocalist, who wasn’t quite a singer and wasn’t quite a rapper either, but was absolutely a poet as well as being the coolest frontman a band ever had.

And they had crazy names – the singer/rapper/poet had called himself ‘The Wrekked Train’, and given the rest of them equally bonkers pseudonyms like ‘Albino Priest’ (the DJ, whose real name was actually ‘Phil’) and ‘The Slammer’ and ‘A One Man Crowd Called Gentile’. They were phenomenal musicians, and they were batshit crazy.

And they played dance music live.

I saw them once, in Northampton, the week How To Operate With A Blown Mind came out. I was 18. They basically played the album, but the crazy feel of the record seemed even crazier when they were doing it all right in front of us. As I remember, they used to start their performance the same way as the album – with ‘Warming Up The Brain Farm’. It’s a subtle and understated start, with a dischordant, out of time synth loop and a feeling of impending weirdness. And then the Wrekked Train arrives, wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses (and getting away with it indoors because he’s so fucking cool), takes a breath and starts into a bizarre self-reflexive poem in his far away, almost-cockney coked-out sneer: “Dear God…the patient’s best intentions have sadly faltered…” And it gets more and more surreal and tense, until an ominous piano riff starts up behind him and you think the tension can’t mount any more and the Wrekked Train blasts out, “Allsssstaaarrrs takin’ OOOOOVVEERRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!”, and then a funky percussive vocal loop kicks in for a few bars, there’s a pause, and then the band explodes into about a minute and a half of the kind of beat-scratch-sample-bass chaos on a scale that Norman Cook always wanted to make but couldn’t in a million years and everyone who hears it starts jumping up and down and dancing and doesn’t stop…

But even though the beats are huge, the record isn’t just about that – ‘Will I Get Out Of Jail’ is properly soulful and even has a properly-sung chorus; on ‘I Used To Fall In Love’, there’s a piano ballad in amongst the explosions and noise, and a lead guitar part that carries so much screaming, squealing beauty and pain that it’s almost unbearable. And then you check the sleeve notes because you have to find out what kind of genius session musician they got to play that guitar part – and it turns out it was the band’s manager. And his name is ‘The Disco Bison’.

So the record has its emotional ups and downs – but it’s the ups that make it really great: the political fury of ‘Battleflag’, and the epic ‘Vision Incision’ that closes the album with its heavenly vocal samples and a bass part that is, without doubt, one of the most disciplined, patiently built-up crescendos of soul and groove that I think any bass player has accomplished since Visions of Johanna.

And the biggest up is the climax of ‘Blisters On My Brain’. That’s the song that turned me from a person who didn’t like house music, didn’t really get it, to being, well, someone who loves this kind of house music. House music that takes you, without any drugs even being necessary, to what feels like the next level up… To hear the climax – the release – at the end of ‘Blisters On My Brain’, in a room of 1,000 people who feel the same way; this is to understand the point of dance music, not just contemporary electronic dance music but the dance music that existed since even before the tribal dances of early man, before the Ancient Greek Orgia, before the hysterical dances of religious ecstasy in the Middle Ages, before Schopenhauer, before Hesse wrote Steppenwolf. It is to be at once completely within yourself while, simultaneously, everyone else becomes completely within you too and you are completely within them, the principium individuationis is shattered, nothing exists except everything, and everything exists in just one note and one exploding, primal, pounding beat…

It was never going to last, of course. ‘Battleflag’ went top 20 in the US but The Wrekked Train decided that that he didn’t want to tour and left the band. And then Albino Priest decided that he wanted to just be called ‘Phil’, and the band have staggered on, admittedly with no dishonour, though as a far more pedestrian outfit. They brought out another album, Don’t Be Afraid Of Love, a few years later; it had a beautiful piece of disco fun on it called ‘Feel What I Feel’, which is worth buying the album for alone. But there was never any chance of recreating what had been – the art had gone.

The last words of that first record were a sample that went, “I had no idea it was going to end in such tragedy.” But it always was going to. As a band, their talent was just too explosively chaotic to hold together for long…

Anyway. If you’ve never heard How To Operate With A Blown Mind, you have to hear it. If you like electronica and rock, and want to know what the future felt like in 1998, you have to hear it immediately. If you don’t: well, as soon as you’re feeling open-minded and artistic enough, then you know where to start.

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the turning point…

“Have an absolutely phenomenal week,” wished Andy Zaltzman at the end of last week’s Bugle. “It could be the big one…this could be the turning point. So, don’t fuck it up.”

And for once, I didn’t.

I don’t want to get too hubristic at this stage, but…it just might have been the big one.

On Tuesday, I arranged with the very brilliant new Deputy Head at the school I work in that my timetable from September will involve me starting each day’s teaching at 11am. So I can keep up my commitment to stand-up, while still getting enough sleep to function properly. I’ll take a massive pay cut but I won’t be tired all the time.

This, on it’s own, would have made for a pretty important week.

But then there was Wednesday, when on the advice of Loz and Joel Dommett (see previous blog), I went ballistic at Scurvy Wednesdays and came offstage feeling like I might have just stumbled across something…

But then I did it twice more: on Thursday at Downstairs At The Kings Head and on Friday at the Bath House Comedy Club.

And both times it went really surprisingly well – particularly at Downstairs, when the self-loathing bit was really helped by a really drunk man in the front row who, at the psychologically lowest point in the act, asked me if I got my clothes from a charity shop. I just repeated the question back to him, walked slowly over to the other side of the stage, sunk to my knees and buried my head in my hands and the audience laughed out loud without me having to say anything. It was great.

After I’d been on at the Bath House, Tony – who I was sure would hate the new act – told me it seemed to be going well. And last night when I stopped in at Joel Dommett‘s birthday in Islington, Joel told me that he had heard I had been good at Downstairs, which means my act must have been good enough to be talked about. And then I felt fleetingly good.

Only fleetingly good, of course, because now is when the real work has to begin. I’ve actually GOT an act to work on now, which means a real responsibility to work on it and get it really good. And of course, I will have a lot of terrible gigs where I will scream and shout and self-flagillate myself at a silent room. And that will really hurt.

But at the moment, I’m just pleased to finally know what it is I want to do – it’s a stand-up act that’s really more like a short play, a story about a frustrated and angry stand-up who hates his stupid jokes; in which the audience goes, almost without noticing, from laughing at the silly frivolous puns to being scared for the sanity of the poor guy on stage but being unable to prevent themselves from still laughing…

Incidentally, it’s particularly nice that it was Zaltzman who so presciently wished that this week should be phenomenal, because I am finally in a position to say he’s one of ‘my influences’ – and this new act certainly does have influences.

I’d never known who my influences are when I’ve been asked before. Because I didn’t actually have an act. Now I can watch my act back on video and go, ah – there’s a bit of Zaltzman (in the addiction to stupid puns), perhaps a bit of Nick Helm and Robert White (in the volume, and the principle that shouting a stupid joke makes it funnier); a lot of Stewart Lee (the repetition and the sense of theatre) and even more of Ian Cognito and Dave Gorman (in the anger and fear and loss of control and the self-loathing)…

I know where I’m coming from now, and what I’m trying to do; I’m learning how to do what I always wanted to do, which is to make a serious piece of theatre happen in a comedy club and get away with it because it’s ABOUT comedy and it’s funny; to use Brecht properly, like all stand-ups should, to tell a story while never letting the audience forget the exact conditions under which the performance is happening – and the fourth wall, which stand-up already destroys, is completely demolished when the conditions for it’s destruction (ie the necessity of a constant stream of laughs) are suspended and transcended by something even more HUMAN. It’s something that I’ve only ever seen done in the very, very best, most artistic stand-up shows (Lee’s 90’s Comedian; Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure) – and I want to do it.

Anyway. I’m a very long way from there. So, self-congratulatory theorising over. Now the work begins. I’ve got to get this thing consistent, and then expand it from a 7-minute idea to a 20-minute set.

Bloody hell, this is going to take an awful lot of work…

I like big rants and I cannot lie

Something happened tonight.

I was onstage at Scurvy Wednesdays and something happened, and I don’t know who else in the room noticed it but there was a moment, just a moment, when I thought I might just have found a voice.

It all happened like this: I realised a few days ago that there is something funny in the idea of a comedian who had a real love of silly jokes but recognized the silliness of the jokes, referenced it, explained it. Tim Vine does it incredibly well, though that’s not the point of his act. To an extent, it IS the point of Stewart Lee‘s act but in many ways he’s almost too clever to put that on the surface of the text because he wants the audience to laugh at his actual material as well…

Anyway, when I was at the Comedy Cafe last Wednesday, my silly jokes were, for the first time, not getting the laughs they had been getting the previous night. I had this idea of pretending to get angry, ironically taking it on the audience for the stupidness of the material. And I did a little bit along the lines of, “I’ve been doing stand-up for three years and until now I was doing hard-hitting topical comedy,” and they laughed. And afterwards, Joel Dommett – an act I really rate – said, “you’re really funny when you get angry.”

And I remembered, then, about a really interesting gig I did a few years ago, at the Bedford in Balham. While I was onstage, someone laughed at an odd time. A girl with her boyfriend. And I asked them what they’d laughed at, and they said, the way a beer mat had stuck to the bottom of the glass. And I good-naturedly and mock-hysterically abandoned my material and got angry, went off on a rant about how that was the most damning heckle ever because they were implying that a sticky beer mat was funnier than the comedian, and perhaps we should all just play with beer mats, and then I thought ‘fuck it’, and I ran with it and got a beer mat up on stage and put it behind the microphone and went, ‘is THIS what you want? IS IT? IS IT?’ And the audience laughed.

I don’t think everyone felt entirely comfortable that night, but it got very good laughs from most of the room, and I finished my set to a generally very good response. Afterwards, a very good and wise comedian called James Cann – who then went up and did a flawless set of brilliant prepared material – said to me, ‘you picked on someone who was laughing. That’s dangerous.’ It was a night where audience judges decided the best act of the night by marking them out of ten; I got a few 9/10s, but the couple I’d picked on, even though they told me afterwards they thought it was brilliant, had ‘ironically’ given me a 1/10. James had got solid 8/10s from pretty much all the judges, so – perhaps deservedly – got the highest average score and won the night. (He does mostly improv now. I like to think that’s because he got tired of doing the same consistently great stuff every night…)

Anyway, I had learned that night that not everyone likes an angry comedian, and I didn’t do it again for a while. But I had really enjoyed doing it.

So after Joel had reminded me about this, I thought to myself: I wonder what would happen if the act was a comedian who not only recognises the silliness of his silly jokes but is actually really angry at himself for doing them. Is there potentially something funny in that pathetic self-and-audience-loathing of a comic who thinks he’s somehow better than his material, even though really he isn’t? I suggested this idea to Loz over a lunchtime beer last week, and he seemed to think it was worth a try.

And it occurred to me that actually, there is an extent to which I can honestly identify with that idea; I did spend an incredibly long time at University studying philosophy for the end product to be nothing more than a serious of puns based around the phrase ‘I like big butts and I cannot lie’.

So when I was deciding what to do tonight, and I realised that hardly anyone there had seen this ‘big butts’ bit, I thought, I’ll do it but then I’ll play this anger at my own silliness up. I’ll go onstage and I’ll get really angry. And I’ll rant and shout and I’ll be pathetic and self-loathing.

And that’s what I did. At the start of the set there were not so many laughs for the actual joke. But then, the more shouty and pathetic I got, the bigger the laughs got, and there was one point when I almost lost my flow because I had to wait for at least one particularly big laugh to fade. And for a very brief moment, I genuinely lost myself in what I was doing, got lost in the moment, in trying to channel the raw emotion, of how painful and frustrating stand-up can be, of how much I want to be good at it…that so rarely happens…

Then, after about 5 or 6 minutes, the tide of the rant had peaked and dipped, and the room was left in a state of slightly awkward tension. What was needed then was to have written a really good punchline to break that tension and make it all okay.

I didn’t have that punchline. Instead, I tried to do a new bit about pie charts. It didn’t really work and the set fell flat towards the end. Which was probably a bit of a let-down (the bit about pie charts is quite good, but it wasn’t the place for it).

But I will find that punchline, and I will destroy rooms with it…

And besides, I felt pretty satisfied when I left the stage. I felt like I was getting close to something, that there was a glimpse of an act, a voice, there. 

At no point do I think that everybody in the room really enjoyed it. I know Tony didn’t. The phrase he used after the show was ‘car crash’, which hurt a bit because he’s such a good act and I value his opinion a lot. But I do know that I tried something new, that there was a section in the middle where I was getting good laughs from a fair chunk of the audience, plus Loz seemed to really enjoy it (at least before I did the pie charts), and the other acts smiled and shook my hand in a way that they don’t do when I actually do badly. (I know what that’s like, I’ve done it enough times now.) 

So perhaps it’s not to everyone’s taste, and I have no doubt at all that there will be nights where this new idea goes horribly, horribly wrong.

But I do think I may have found a kernel of an act to believe in and work at; and that is more than I’ve ever had since I started doing this whole ridiculous stand-up thing. More importantly, it’s a reason to look forward to the next gig.