Modern Shit: Will Make You Ill (Alga Marghen)
Two pseudonymous British gentlemen lurk behind the “band” name Modern Shit. The first has used various vaguely absurd monikers over the years, including Amos, L. Voag, and Xentos “Fray” Bentos; the other has stuck with one improbable handle: Lepke Buchwater (no doubt meant to echo the name of legendary U.S. crime kingpin Lepke Buchalter). Currently, they comprise two-thirds of the excellent Die Trip Computer Die; in the late ’70s/early ’80s Amos was in the Homosexuals, the Just Measurers, Amos and Sara, and a host of other obscure bands, while Lepke was the brains behind the group Milk from Cheltenham (whose 1983 LP Triptych of Poisoners was reissued by Alga Marghen in 2005).
Despite the fact that all these outfits produced wildly creative music, absolutely some of the best from the post-punk era, chances are (with the possible the exception of the Homosexuals) you haven’t heard of any of them. In the case of most of these recordings, their low profile was due to a deliberate obscurantism stemming from a DIY/anti-capitalist rejection of the Music Business. As for the Modern Shit project, originally released in the early ’80s on Amos’s cassette label It’s War Boys, there was another reason for keeping things at an almost subterranean level. At the time, Amos and Lepke supported themselves by running a small recording studio, where they recorded all kinds of crappy local bands. Sometimes, after the bands had left, they would muck about with the session tapes—and a lot of that muckery/mockery found its way into this project.
Amos and Lepke’s plundered material got worked into two absurdist “mega-mixes” that were intended as their reaction to/surrealistic parody of ’70s “non-stop” disco mixes produced by the likes of Cerrone (of Love in C Minor and Supernature fame). Each produced their own continuous half-hour mix, Amos’s appearing on the first side of the original cassette version (indexed as tracks 1 to 19 on the CD), and Lepke’s on the flip (now tracks 20 to 37). (For the record, I should say that I’m relying on my ears to decide who did what—the CD liner notes don’t actually say.)
Amos and Lepke worked with the same collection of resources, principally drum machines, keyboards, their own vocals, and all manner of “found” recordings—taken from records, TV, and the hapless local bands mentioned above (from whom they mostly lifted vocal tracks).
In terms of methodology, Amos’s mix bears less resemblance to an actual disco “non-stop” than Lepke’s, but it is nonetheless more impressive as a piece of music. In place of a disco’s steady rhythmic base, Amos uses recurring fragments or loops to create linkages between parts. (These bits and pieces can’t really be called “samples,” as it’s very unlikely either Amos or Lepke used samplers, which had barely been introduced at that point. Their dense collages were done the old-fashioned way, with tape manipulation, splicing, turntables, and loops.) Rhythmically, the last thing Amos lays down is a groove—rather, his rhythms are deliberately ridiculous and deranged. The mix’s wacked-out surrealism, however, is tempered by sections that are strangely beautiful, brooding, and mysterious. After a barrage of bizarrely collaged fragments, Amos’s side ends with a five-minute song that could almost seem normal if you weren’t really listening. A lifted vocal lead is rendered completely absurd through strange keyboard colorings and subtly off-kilter backing vocals.
Amos’s own lyrics (that is, when he himself is singing) are both comically ridiculous and somewhat menacing. They are also interrelated with the lyrics in Lepke’s mix: while nothing remotely like a coherent narrative emerges, both reference World War II, Nazis, and political repression. Underneath the surrealistic humor, one senses a kind of serious oppositional stance—but the words’ meaning is beyond parsing at a literal level.
Lepke’s mix is “funkier” than Amos’s—you can tap your foot to much of it, and an actual bona fide disco beat even crops up briefly (on track 34). But it’s still a complete piss-take, and full of wildly demented humor. For me, though, it doesn’t quite measure up to Amos’s piece. In part, this is because some of Lepke’s borrowed material seems both too long and too little modified. For example, he uses a fairly extended chunk of Pierre Henry and Michel Colombier’s Messe pour le Temps Présent (track 22), and while his superimposed singing is definitely entertaining, the results seem a bit lazy compared to Amos’s more meticulous restructurings. Similarly, track 35 employs a longish snippet from Holger Czukay and Rolf Dammers’s Canaxis that retains too much of its original form and character to be entirely impressive. That gripe aside, Lepke’s mix is still frequently inspired.
Indeed, both mixes are fascinating and fun. They will easily appeal to adventurous listeners, especially fans of the plunderphonic/cut-up work produced by Nurse with Wound, John Oswald, Stock, Hausen & Walkman, and People Like Us.
(Available from Forced Exposure at http://www.forcedexposure.com, or from Mimaroglu Music Sales at http://mimaroglumusicsales.com.)
TONY COULTER was on various radio stations in the New York City area for 25 years, and is also a longtime, if occasional, music writer. Currently he is contributing a biweekly blogpost to WFMU's Beware of the Blog.