(Man writing this got faaar too long so I´m splitting this into two sections I’ll get the second part out in a week. I do have a life you know….)
Hey remember a while back how I noted that one day someone will write an in depth piece about the history of Krútt music in general?
Well guess what. Fellow music scribe and man about town scribe Atli Bollason is doing just that! AND he’s getting a grant from the state to do it! Nice work if you can get it I suppose.
I would be very interested in seeing the outcome of this. Recently this news and reading the short but illuminating interview of Icelandic band Múm by ex-member Ólöf Arnalds (As well as hearing a few unconnected stories about the band and such great people they are) has me think about my own feelings towards music that is considered “Krútt” (Or Twee in English). Granted I’ve always been attracted to music where the beauty was to be in the dirt and the filth (Industrial music, noise, techno, etc), but the idea of people who are doing music where the only concern is to make music that’s an aggregation of something innocent, naive and pure, that is not forced or affected should be something to applaud, even love.
Of course that’s easier said than done, and it’s been one of the main criticisms of Krútt – that’s it’s often trite and insincere, made by bourgeois people who are juvenile and clueless as to the realities of the real world. And of course (Just as with fans of other music genres), it can lead to a certain smugness from its followers. That If I listen to this type of music, then that makes me a better person, with soooo much better taste than you (A great example of this was the encounter Sindri Eldon described with an Amiina fan in a review of Sigur Rós at Miklatún several years ago). We’ve all had that experience at one time or another. I know I have.
But I wonder how far Atli will go back in his research into the roots of Krútt music? I mean, Krútt didn’t just spring out from nothing back in the ’90s did it? There’s got have been sources of twee music that go further back in mind. So, for no other reason that I was laid up in bed sick for the last few days listening to pastoral folk music from 1969 on youtube, I thought I put together a bit of a guide. (Disclaimer: This is no way a complete, guide. Otherwise that would mean that I would have to write a book as well!)
THE CHILDREN OF AQUARIUS SING SONGS ABOUT WEE….
For me, if you want to get to the roots of innocence and naivety in modern music, you need to go back quite a few decades, back to the 1960s. Obviously there wasn’t a “twee” scene that sprung up out of nowhere, but rather a confluence of many different, discrete events, styles and movements happening at the same time, from the rising political counterculture, to new age “flower power,” and eastern mysticism, to the explosion and exploration of new musical styles and directions. All these things seemed to meet together at the same place in space and time causing a fair few ripples in the culture around it.
In the UK for example, many musicians, especially those who came form a folk background, found themselves going back to nature to draw inspiration for their music, while also seeking to withdraw from modern living, to live off the land and return to the old ways. Think Vashti Bunyan and her boyfriend travelling with a horse and cart, to a commune on the Hebrides, The Incredible String Band setting up a base in some abandoned cottages in the lowlands of Scotland (No heating or running water? EEK!). Even ol’ twinkle eyes himself Paul McCartney had his Mull Of Kintyre croft as a bolthole from the pressures he was under.
On TV meanwhile, there were dramas adapted from children’s literature reworking them through the prism of adult eyes. The BBC transmitted Jonatham Miller’s interpretation of ‘Alice In Wonderland,’ with the characters being played by adult actors and the film sharing some stylistic flourishes with European expressionist cinema (Who would later release their own cult hit in the form of ‘Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders’). Along with dramas such as ‘The Owl Service,’ you were dropped into a world that at once seemed real but fantastical at the same time, a drama that was an allegory that showed the innocence of youth on the cusp of puberty against the absurdity and bureaucracy of adulthood.
At the same time a lot of modern culture was undergoing a playful “Carnivalesque” explosion of colour, sound and energy. The main album event of the time was of course The Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper,’ full of mind bending tracks as “Strawberry Fields” that displayed a very British, playful form of Psychedelia. But you also had the likes of early Pink Floyd performing a “Festival Of Light” at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the massive “Technicolor Dream” event at Alexandra Palace which attracted over 10,000 people. ut you also had a big explosion of colour and excitement, that affected all around it. Even the rolling Stones got involved with their TV extravaganza ‘The Rock And Roll Circus.’ Meanwhile, During the social unrest in France in 1968 there was the Situationalist International, arguing that modern life and capitalist culture had completely divorced people from the realities of life and freedom, blinded by consumerism, urban planning, and the “Spectacle” of modern entertainment. As well as using violence, they proposed people break their societal shackles by seeing the world around them as a playground, to infuse their lives with play and fun. To smash the system through play of course….
Admittedly not all of the music that came out from cultural pool of play you could call “Krútt.” Despite it being psychedelic, a lot of it was still based on rock, noise, and a very adult form of hedonism. But there were definitely many songs that embraced the idea of having a playful, innocent, kaleidoscopic feel. Obviously you’ve got the likes of “Yelllow Submarine,” “Puff The Magic Dragon,” but much of the folk music at the time embraced a simple beauty that mirrored the world they created for themselves. If you check out the music Vashti Bunyan, Sallyangie or Anne Briggs, then you can hear a definite lack of cynicism.
But in terms of pure innocence, the main lightning rod at the time was Donovan. In the late ’60s he had dispensed with the ideas of being the British Dylan, and instead became a man-child avatar for the psychedelic scene, living out his own private, glittering playground fantasy. Although his commune in the Scottish Hebrides didn’t work out, he remained incredibly busy, releasing a collection of albums with the purpose of connecting with your inner child. There was ‘Mellow Yellow’ and the double album ‘A Gift from a Flower to a Garden,’ of which the section “For Little Ones” was specifically a collection of children’s songs. This was followed by ‘H.M.S. Donovan,’ a double album, stuffed with songs reworked from classic children’s stories and poems. “The Star” for example was a reworking of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” while classic children’s stories such as “Jabberwocky,” and “The Owl And The Pussycat,” were given new arrangements.
And then there was This song….
To cap it all off he played the lead role in Jacques Demy’s 1972 film adaptation of ‘The Pied Piper.’ As a mysterious man whose seductive music could charm children, it seemed a role that was specially made for Donovan’s whimsical, puck-like personality. And when you do watch the film, he certainly acquits himself against quite a few leading light at the time, such as John Hurt and Donald Pleasance, as he weaves his playful, yet slightly sinister magic on the towns children.
Of course much of the music and the culture of that time is now laughed at and has been parodied at a lot of “hippie bollocks,” but what needs to be remembered is that this was in many ways a reaction to the never-ending onslaught of brutalist modernism that had arisen our the rubble and chaos of WWII. The prevailing mantra of society was onwards with progress, no matter the costs. In a world where much of society valued sex, power, respectability, and money/stability as what was important to them, for a group within society to try to break away and suggest a different way of life, a completely way of thinking was revolutionary, almost seditionary.
The Beauty Of The Bedroom Romance….
Of course it didn’t last, as the ’60 gave way to the ’70s, bright-eyed optimism gave way to cynicism and nihilistic hedonism as many involved in the peace and love movement crashed and burned, some never coming back. The music of the time mirrored the society around it – bloated, hedonistic, self-satisfied, empty. The world around grew more troubled, violent and paranoid as chaos, strikes, oil rationing, and economic stagnation became the norm. the UK even came within a hairs breadth from succumbing to a military backed coup. It was the world of ‘Punishment Park,’ and David Peace´s ‘1974,’ and ‘1977,’ where Innocence and sweetness were in short supply.
In the end it took the nihilistic slash and burn of Punk to effectively reset the clock culturally speaking, to break away from the stench of the ’70s. Although the setting of a “Year Zero” in culture threw much good music out with the bad, it was almost certainly needed. As punk gave way to the outward experimentalism of post-punk and it’s many off shoots, people could now think in different ways of making and producing music.
From this new independent melting pot of music arose the quasi genre that first took the name “Indie pop.” although it had many names – C86, jangle pop, and in the first naming of music as “Krutt,” twee music. Arising from the exploits of post-punk bands such as Subway Sect, the Postcard Records label (Orange Juice, Josef K) and These Marble Giants, as well as female post-punk groups such as The Raincoats and Marine Girls (Tracy Thorn’s old band before she formed Everything But The Girl), these bands were the antitheses of the forward-looking, aspirational, strident, bustling new music of synth pop, hip hop, metal and US inspired indie rock of Sonic Youth and butthole Surfers. Artists such as The Monochrome Set, The Pastels, The Television Personalities, to Talullah Gosh, the entire output of Sarah Records, and very early Primal Scream, played guitar music that was lo-fi and trebly in sound, rickety and shambling in execution and rather shy and retiring lyrically.
Compared to the childlike innocence and naivety of the music from the ’60s, the music of ’80s Indie pop was more insular, awkward and introspective. Instead of the meadows and forests, the playground of the Indiepop fan was the provincial town, with the postered bedroom as sanctuary. Indeed a recent boxset of ’80s Indiepop from the Cherry Red label is titled, rather sneakily, ‘Scared To Get Happy.’ Indeed the idea of having a full on good time was not really on the cards here.
Because ’80s indiepop was less testosterone driven and boisterous compared to other music genres, it was seen as a place were female performers and musicians could play without fear of being objectified or looked down because of their gender. Indeed the politics of ’80s indiepop, was aligned to that of the music press of the time – socialist (with a small S), anti-racist and sexist and against the neoliberal Tory government of Margaret Thatcher. But in terms of dealing with the opposite sex, platonic romance instead of carnal knowledge was the order of the day. As Simon Reynolds explains:
The style element was the most fascinating thing for me: “anoraksia nervosa,” I dubbed it, because most cuties seemed to be skinny and small, and the scene’s signature garment was an anorak of the sort a child might have worn in 1961. Cutie fashion was so stridently virginal, it had to be some kind of statement. Noting how love songs on the scene were romantic rather than carnal, and that the white-only sources for shambling music (Velvets, Byrds, Buzzocks, the scratchy-racket postpunkers like Swell Maps) suggested an aversion to the earthy sexuality of funk and soul, I concluded that these kids were staging a revolt against Eighties values. Rejecting hypersexual chartpop and aspirational adulthood alike, the cutie shamblers harked back to both their own lost innocence and to pop’s childhood (the Sixties), creating a new bohemia based around purity rather than debauchery.
Again like much of ’60s innocence, a lot of ’80s indiepop was derided by many as wet, lacking balls, as reactionary music of people who were unable to face the changing face of modern music. As Sukhdev Sandhu mentioned in a review of ‘Scared To Get Happy’ in The Wire, it was music “made for and by white people.” And when you listened to such artists as The Pooh Sticks, who really did sound rather weak and anemic, you begin to think that they indeed did have a point.
But despite such apparent shortcomings, it did not die. In fact because it had a wider aesthetic net than its detractors thought, it was able to provide a springboard for many acts to achieve considerable success in the ’80s/ early ’90s such as the Smiths, Felt, James, The Pastels, The Boo Radleys, BMX Bandits, and yes, Primal Scream. Simon Reynolds again.
Yet C86 did go on to have more of legacy than doubters like myself imagined. Galvanised by Ecstasy culture and genius producer Andy Weatherall, Primal Scream shook off the malaise of Sixties retro and made Screamadelica. Shambling-era zine writer Bob Stanley formed Saint Etienne, who merged the holding-hands chasteness of C86 with house, dub and Northern Soul to create some of the most enduringly enchanting music of our time. The American branch of cutie clustered around K Records and Beat Happening would influence Kurt Cobain (a big fan of the Pastels and the Vaselines) and spawn the Riot Grrl movement. You can track C86genes in bands as diverse as Stereolab, Teenage Fan Club, My Bloody Valentine, and Belle & Sebastian… So it was a significant period, but more in terms of what spun out of it than the actual recorded legacy. Even the scene itself was more about creating a lovely sense of community in defiance of prevailing Eighties values, than of earth-shattering music.
It wasn’t just the UK as well. As mention in the last quote, thanks to a distribution, fanzine and communications network that rivaled that of the US Hardcore, Indiepop ended up having a far reach across the world. As well as the aforementioned K Records, you had the might Flying Nun label in New Zealand which released some of the most wonderful Indiepop music of the ’80s, including one of my personal favourite band from that neck of the woods, The Jean-Paul Satre Experience.
As we leave the ’80s towards ’90s and the modern day, Krutt music was to feel the change of society just as much as the rest of us…. But that’s for part 2…..