The idea? Every day in May, to mark NZ Music Month and 38 years of his own rancid opining and reportage, Gary Steel will present something from his considerable behind. Personal archive, that is. This review appeared in the Sunday Star Times on October 31, 1999.
Sexless As Concrete
THE DEAD C – DR503C (FLYING NUN)
GENESIS – TURN IT ON AGAIN: THE HITS (VIRGIN)
THE DEAD C are the Dunedin group who were just too cool: too cool even for Flying Nun, too cool for New Zealand. Hence their relative anonymity here and their iconic underground status in the UK and the US. Lauded by critics, championed by “important alt rock” bands like Sonic Youth, they are applauded from afar, unknown at home.
Most of their albums are available only as high-priced imports here in Godzone. So what’s all the fuss about? Having witnessed them in concert and examined several of their numerous recordings, this reviewer admits to finding the Dead C intermittently intriguing, but resolutely fails to understand the source of wonderment. Virtually synonymous with the lo-fi phenomenon, The Dead C currently make music that verges on rock-based free improvisation, but without any semblance of instrumental virtuosity and a total disregard for sound quality or the theatre of performance.
Some of the most heart-rending music released in the last 30 years has taken full advantage of the strange and beguiling qualities which eventuate from the skilled manipulation and degradation of sound signals. Holgar Czukay’s shortwave radio recordings of Vietnamese singers, transposed on to an odd, off-kilter ambient backdrop, alchemised a result that showed up Deep Forest’s hi-fi colonialist appropriation of pygmy voices for what it was.
English post-punk adventurers This Heat made phenomenally effective sound collages which degraded with the layering, but retained all the integrity of sonic emissions above the beautiful tape hiss. Unfortunately, The Dead C just don’t seem to care to maintain any semblance of audio expression.
In any case, DR503C is an odd and irregular release, and a strange choice for Flying Nun to decide to flog. This is a collection of the very earliest recorded material, dating from 1987 and ’88 and they really would have been better left rotting under someone’s student flat. You’d have to be an ardent fan to want this relic from a time The Dead C were still attempting songs, complete with embarrassing narrations and headache-inducing distortion. It’s sad how accurately their success recognises how desperate the search for authenticity has become.
Genesis are the antithesis, musically and philosophically, of The Dead C. Truly a rock dinosaur, they began as one of the more noodling, fey English progressive rock groups of the early ’70s, featuring the theatrical tendencies of Peter Gabriel.
This compilation charts the group’s Virgin label years of the 1980s, after Gabriel’s departure when stickman Phil Collins stepped up to the vocal podium. This version turned into a pop-anthem machine, rolling out more consecutive top 10 American singles than any other groups before or since.
It’s not for nothing the star of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho was a massive Genesis/Phil Collins fan: even though their English background is evident in symmetrically clinking, anally retentive, totally unfunky four-square white bread rhythms and sound constructions, many of the overt tendencies were from that peculiarly noxious genre espoused by Jefferson Starship, Huey Lewis and the News, and others too dire to mention. Hyper-successful but never hip, this music is as empty as the corporate culture which spawned it, sponsored it and used it as a soundtrack to their vacuous lives.
Contrasting the rogue spunk tendencies of Prince and the Material Girl, Genesis were as sexless as a slab of concrete. How odd, two extremities in awfulness: The Dead C’s irrefutably unquantifiable, unqualified cool vs. Genesis’ template built on mundane, plodding proficiency. Whatever. GARY STEEL
Notes: I still laugh when I picture The Dead C and Genesis next to each other. Silly, I know, but you’ve got to laugh.