The Pleasure Principle

Music is like drugs – if you have a relationship with it at all it tends to be at its most intense when you’re young. But in common with most people of my age, I suppose I’ve drifted away from music as a passion to it being merely an occasional pastime. A CD on a Sunday afternoon, some backing music to a kids party… I feel this does most of what I like a huge injustice (and Axel’s friends must be amongst very few toddlers who have played pass the parcel to Killing Joke’s Democracy). I certainly don’t play music any more (well, I was a drummer that couldn’t drive and didn’t own a van – my days in bands were numbered). And in the past five years, it’s all fallen victim to the Three Hour Tyranny.

But that doesn’t prevent music occasionally bursting through the fog like a sabre-toothed flying saucer. The way the Internet facilitates this gives it all a wonderful new dimension. Tonight I decided to listen to The Pleasure Principle. This is an album I’ve not heard properly for perhaps ten years. I know the cliché is that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but I was very young when I first bought this album after having it played to me by my godfather’s sexy teenage daughter, so I would beg your indulgence when I describe what happened from there.

I’ve always been more interested in sound and rhythm than I have in composition or melody. The record has sounds that I can only describe as “grounded.” What hooked me was the drums. Acoustic drums: the drums that Ced Sharpley played. They sounded plain enough but somehow beautifully complimented the synth-based mesh they were surrounded by. I found out later that Numan had self-produced the album to save money and that despite feeling like rock, it had no guitars – just synths fed through guitar effects. This made me want to know more about the making of these sounds: the recording of them, their artistic production and manipulation as well as the way they were played. Like Japan with Steve Jansen later on, Ced Sharpley was more important to me than Numan or Sylvian. While I’ve not heard from the drummers recently, I like to think that the fact that both of their musical partners are still composing and performing up a storm over twenty years later means something. It certainly can’t be said for many of their contemporaries, save for the god-like Jaz Coleman with Big Paul, who both formed another path on my musical adventures during my teenage years via Sly and Robbie (minus their solo efforts, obviously) and later the likes of Ozric Tentacles.

It’s not until now that I realise the hidden catnip for me was timing. The drums drift across click-track in a way that just didn’t happen after the Stalinist imposition of sequencers, MIDI and the obsession with accuracy that I first (sub-consciously) noticed with Tears for Fears, and later with other rhythmically hygenic artists like Depeche Mode. I know it’s odd in the context of what most people regard as electronica, but Numan and Sharpley were soulful.

Take “Metal” for instance (1Mb Ogg). Do so with headphones turned up as loud as you can stand and imagine you’re hearing this on the front front row at the Blue Note in Derby with a girl called Liz Wilcox (don’t worry it’s only a short clip). Listen to the syndrum on the intro. That’s not sequenced – there’s a drumstick in somebody’s hand and they’re just behind the beat in about the fourteenth bar. The bass drum that does a gentle double-flip with the bass when they come in after that – it too is just off enough to be perfectly imperfect… Why the hell is that good? I have no idea really, but it gripped me by the throat and never let go.

By the way, over in America a couple of years later, David Byrne and Brian Eno made My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. This has been re-mastered and re-issued this month, and is another incredibly good soundscape that held my attention utterly from the moment I bought it for completely different reasons. It’s a pity I can’t see the website though because Flash 8 isn’t out for Linux yet.