1966 and all that; Basil Kirchen & Henry Flynt

Kirchin, who lived in Hull for much of his life, was writing about the decline of the industrial north. He was observing ways of life that were vanishing.

 

 

1966 And All That

 

Basil Kirchin – Abstractions of the Industrial North

Henry Flynt and the Insurrections – I Don't Wanna

 

Every year of the mid to late-sixties was pivotal in the music world. Each year produced seminal albums that litter the best-of lists. The people that created these albums obsess historians of music and we are inundated with endless articles about the recording of this or that classic album. Sometimes these great stars also appear on, or influence, albums by lesser lights in the music business. For instance, Lou Reed and Jimmy Page are both connected to the above albums, both recorded in 1966 and re-released this year. These albums are not only great, they are also the product of two fascinating men who, as their intentions and ambitions show, could never have attained the fame that Reed and Page did. They will remain forever cult artists, but that should not stop you from seeking these albums out.

 

Well, if you've heard of Henry Flynt it might be through this august journal. His music from the 1970s was reviewed here in this very magazine (see album reviews ed) but on this album we find him belting out some very basic garage music. Flynt  (a philospher and artist as well as musician) left Havard University and settled in New York in the early 60s. By '63 he had become a Marxist and had decided that the kind of protest music made by Woody Guthrie was pointless. He wanted to write political rock and roll and an inability to play the guitar wasn't going to stop him. He found himself a guitar teacher but quickly realised that the lessons were too complicated. He needed someone who could just teach him the basics. Step forward Lou Reed. Once he had mastered the basics Flynt found himself a band. Walter de Maria (who would go on to be a famous sculptor and landscape artist) played drums. He had played with Reed when Lou was writing novelty rock songs. Henry Flynt even played with the Velvets once when John Cale was  unavailable.

 

OK, so much for the history, what about the music? Well, it is immediately clear that Reed was Flynt's teacher. Some of the guitar work on the album sounds very similar to that on Run Run Run and on European Son. The difference is that the guitar playing here is slower and more basic. Flynt said that Reed taught him just enough so that he could get up on stage. It might well be that Flynt's idea of what was required to get up on stage is different from most peoples'. Uncle Sam Do kicks the album off in a ramshackle fashion. The guitar playing is shaky, the drumming is basic and the recording makes Dragnet sound like it was produced by Rick Wakeman. Flynt sings a rant against the man in a weedy and nerdy voice. A basic rock and roll riff emerges until it appears that Flynt doesn't know what to do with it, and the song abruptly finishes. Goodby Wall Street (sic) features more sneering whilst Go Down starts off like a hayseed hoedown. Corona Del Mar is a simple and joyous piece of boogie-woogie featuring a musician on keyboards that appears to know what he is doing. On Missionary Stew de Maria appears to be hitting a bucket whilst a jangly guitar riff randomly wobbles about the room. Jumping appears to feature either a) a squalling saxophone b) a shrieking violin or c) a werewolf in severe pain. As none are listed on the sleeve notes I can only assume that Flynt is making these noises with his guitar. Sky Turned Red manages to mix boogie-woogie with hillbilly music and Flynt's voice becomes exaggeratedly mid-west in intonation. As his yee-haw yokel hollerin' begins to lose control so the track sadly ends. The title track is another rant against the government's policy in Vietnam whilst the final track resembles, in its freer, more expansive tones, Flynt's later minimalist/American ethnic music experiments.

 

So: po-faced Marxist smart alec and his arty chums (the photos for the album were taken by Fluxus founder George Maciunas) get together to knock out barely proficient garage rock protest songs. Well, it was hardly going to worry the man, but let's face it; it's a change from Pet Sounds.

 

As is Basil Kirchin's Abstractions of the Industrial North.

 

Kirchin started off in the big band jazz scene of the 1940s and 50s and was once voted jazz drummer of the year by the readers of Melody Maker. (If you want an idea of how the weekly music press has changed here is a snippet of Kirchin talking to Melody Maker in 1974 – 'There are two types of harmonics in the world, there are inanimate harmonics and chain reaction harmonics. If you play a chord...') By the late 50s his interest in big band music waned and he began writing scores to imaginary films. He eventually wrote actual film scores, usually for horror films such as The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). With Worlds Within Worlds 1&2 he merged animal recordings, the recordings of autistic children and an improvised jazz score. Brian Eno liked it so much that he wrote the sleeve notes for 1974s follow up Worlds Within Worlds 3&4. Kirchin just liked to make music – he wrote several albums of library music and he was even commissioned to write music for a psychiatry convention in 1968. Kirchin responded by writing tracks that reflected the various stages of mental collapse.

 

 

Abstractions... is one of Kirchin's imaginary soundtracks. Prelude and Dawn opens with a harpsichord. A mournful penny whistle joins in. Eventually dawn breaks and drums, bass, vibes and saxophones join in. The theme that was melancholy has now become life affirming and positive. Most of the album is made up of a similar interplay of instruments. It may be thought that these instruments would create a pastoral, pre-industrial feeling, and in a way they do. But Kirchin, who lived in Hull for much of his life, was writing about the decline of the industrial north. He was observing ways of life that were vanishing.

 

Having said that, the album is certainly not joyless. The Observer starts off just like one of the tracks from Passages by Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar. It mutates into something else though and gives the feeling of someone from the south (Kirchin) looking on as an outsider and approving of what he sees. Conclusion has a real beat to it whilst Neutral Background is ridiculously jaunty. The interplay of vibes and alto sax could be seen as kitsch but I think that this would be to do the album a real disservice. I suppose people might bracket it with the easy listening soundtracks of Roy Budd (who also produced a fair amount of library music if I recall) but the similarities are mostly superficial.

 

On this album anyway – included is some of the stuff that Kirchin produced for the de Wolfe library and it is here that any accusations (still misplaced, I reckon) might hold water. Incidentally it is here that the track Pageing Sullivan (sic) appears – Jimmy Page played on several works by Kirchin during this period. To return to Abstractions, Packing, Printing and Light Assembly (what a title!) has a real feeling of movement, of work and of life. Research Laboratory is quite the opposite – it sounds vaguely sinister and mysterious. Lunch Hour Pops is probably the best 1 minute pop song ever – it could have been rejected from the What's New Pussycat soundtrack for being too much fun.

 

No one is going to suggest that these two albums are essential. Nor could they ever be as popular as The Velvet Underground and Nico, say. But what the hell. They are fascinating works and testaments to people that made the music they had to make, irrespective of its financial / critical reception. Henry Flynt stopped making music in the mid-eighties to concentrate on his philosophy. Kirchin was still working away until a few months ago, despite losing both eyes to cancer. Sadly he died a couple of weeks ago. (Worlds Within Worlds was re-released last year as Quantum)

 

 

Words: Chris Dawson.