The Big Lookback: Spring Heel Jack
From "The Village Voice," Oct. 22, 1996: "Prog Jungle"
“Prog Jungle” is one of two Voice dance-music pieces that I deemed insufficiently artist-focused to slip into my 1998 Harvard artist-profile collection Grown Up All Wrong and that unlike 1995’s Tricky-M People-Moby “Postclassic Disco” didn’t suit 2017’s more ecumenical Is It Still Good to Ya? either. Because I’m basically a song guy even though Bill Doggett’s 1955 instrumental “Honky Tonk” converted me to rock and roll every bit as fundamentally as “Maybellene”—and also because I’m not much of a dancer—dance music can be problematic for me. This is true even though I respond readily to African grooves without understanding the words, and also even though the old jazz fan in me responds to plenty of instrumental music with rather different grooves. Nor need dance pop be nonverbal—I enjoyed a lot of disco because it was hung off catchy songs even if they didn’t maintain for a whole album, as they seldom did. But as a rave aesthetic a quantum or two more environmental than disco germinated in the U.K. circa 1988 or so, meaningful vocals and indeed tunes became secondary if that.
Still, I considered it my duty to occasionally turn my Rock & Roll & column to what was obviously becoming a big deal. My favorite such column praised the first Utah Saints album and NASA, a huge downtown space commandeered by U.K. DJ DB where I had the pleasure of telling the wiseass teen who asked whether I was the father of the nice teen I was interviewing that in fact I was her grandfather. But the piece I thought worth a lookback germinated of its own accord when I junketed to London to cover the Sex Pisols’ 1996 reunion in Finsbury Park, after which I had an extra day and visited with Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, who I’d first met in England in 1978—and three years later watched try to convince the goniff who ran West End Records on 57th Street to give Rough Trade U.K. distribution on Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat,” an offer the goniff declined, costing himself an honest windfall.
The 12-inches Geoff inspired me to buy at the Rough Trade shop in 1996 didn’t stick with me. But his Trade 2 label’s 68 Million Shades did, leading the charge of Spring Heel Jack albums that joined and indeed headed a tiny cohort of non-jazz instrumentalists—others include We, Tin Hat Trio, and hands-down runners-up Big Lazy, a Brooklyn trio led by guitarist Stephen Ulrich whose 2002 New Everything is a big favorite of my chief musical advisor—we play almost as if they were if not Monk or Miles then at least the Jazz Passengers. But Spring Heel Jack—especially 68 Million Shades, the Consumer Guide review of which was cannibalized from “Prog Jungle,” but also Busy Curious Thirsty—gets played like Hassell & Eno around here, valued in part because unlike jazz it doesn’t swing, leaving us free to home in on its texture play and unpredictable sound effects. It’s on my iPod—and unlike most things on my iPod, has more than once actually gotten car play when we were driving into the middle distance.
Spring Heel Jack continued to record into the mid-’00s, often collaborating with avant-jazz names and modern-classical stalwarts seeking some sort of groove. Those records sound fine to me in their way. But 68 Million Shades fills a hole like no other music can except Busy Curious Thirsty. I’m so glad I paid that visit to Geoff, who I last saw when he rang our doorbell unannounced one morning in 2018. As I recall we were both crazy about Noname’s Room 25. But Geoff was delighted to meet Tierra Whack’s Whack World.
I took one of my periodic vows to get serious about U.K. dance music in London this past June, after my old friend Geoff Travis told me he bought every 12-inch on Goldie’s Metalheadz label. “It’s like 1977 all over again,” the enthusiast who brought the world the Smiths, the Raincoats, Cabaret Voltaire, and Shelleyan Orphan swore, sanely but with that telltale gleam. And so I trekked from the storefront digs of his new Trade 2 label to the latest location of his long-divested Rough Trade shop and laid down 20 quid on four pieces of 45-rpm vinyl, including the out-of-print Alex Reece “Pulp Fiction” Geoff loved so. I also went home with a Trade 2 CD by Spring Heel Jack that he thought I might try. 68 Million Shades . . ., it was called.
But getting serious about U.K. dance music is not a time-efficient undertaking for those still moved to use their ears, life, or line of credit for anything else. Not only is there too damn much of it, there’s no way to keep track, especially in the U.S., which is not its native land no matter where the mixing board is located. Having stopped following Billboard’s dance charts after too many American divas failed to justify their cult status in the early ‘80s, I was doubly skeptical when the bloodless electrodisco purveyed by such flimsy U.K. legends as 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald turned the dance 12-inch into the young British aesthete’s songform of choice during that nation’s acid house boom of 1989. Nor am I especially encouraged that not all disco discs, as they used to be called, are as candidly functional as “Get Up and Boogie” or “Acid Tracks.” Although people do still move their bodies to acid house’s grandchildren and second cousins thrice removed, I can’t be the first to call the current slosh of ambient/jazzbo/jungle pseudogenres “postdance.” Yet the fad hasn’t just hung in there—it has thrived, at least on its own terms, which (as Sarah Thornton establishes in her fact-filled treatise Club Cultures) are inchoate on principle, to discourage squares. The October 2 Melody Maker and NME, for instance, each featured top 10s in what is now usually called drum-and-bass to avoid the racial indecorousness of “jungle.” Not a single record appeared on both lists. Nor was there one duplication between the 10 new releases reviewed in Melody Maker and the 15 in NME. What’s a dabbler to do?
Deepening this dilemma is the great paradox of dance-music ideology. Disco was called disco because it adored discs, rejecting the myth that true music must be forged in the interactive human space of live performance. But as DJs evolved into cult artists, adepts began to argue that these pieces of plastic could only be truly heard in the interactive human space of the disco itself, with its site-specific sound system, ritualistic vibe, and resident beat geniuses bending moods, sequencing songs, and, before long, crosscutting records into improvised energy fields and sound tapestries. I’ve believed this line since the heyday of the Paradise Garage, and experienced it firsthand when I attended a couple of NASA nights at the Shelter the last time I decided to get serious about dance music, back in 1993. But I decided long ago that—as with, for instance, jazz—my particular life couldn’t fully accommodate this particular musical truth. So I was encouraged when Geoff Travis, who still goes out to hear prodigious amounts of live music, told me that family and work came before the mad all-nighters of whatever raves are called these days. For him the pieces of plastic themselves sufficed.
But Geoff, as noted, is an enthusiast, and while I never expected 1977, Alex Reece’s “Pulp Fiction” proved much less. At best it’s a touch weirder than the “Pulp Friction” remix on Reece’s new So Far (Quango), which although it’s grown on me is still too reminiscent of the proudly exhumed cocktail-fusion effects acid jazzbos think sound so sophisticated. Anyway, when it comes to pieces of plastic, I do enjoy my creature comforts, which means that these days I prefer mine digitally encoded. Given a scene that hypes rarity as quality and obscurity as authenticity while churning out singles that yoke phony futurism to vinyl fetishism, this is yet another reason not to get too serious. Dance music’s natural longform is the compilation, which rarely transcends corporate self-interest and/or subcultural self-regard, and if any of the slew of albums that purport to re-create the excitement of a live DJ mix has succeeded, no one in the outside world has noticed (although a related crop of new trip hop efforts is getting respect). As for individual artists, I note with a shudder that A Guy Called Gerald is on the cover of this month’s Wire. It’s like alt-rock only worse—with airplay nonexistent and what clubs there are inchoate on principle, young American aesthetes are forced to pick and choose with little to guide them beyond gossip and guesswork. So except for adepts most don’t bother.
Which would be fine with me if the adepts weren’t exceptionally fervent and intelligent despite their overabundance of bohemian vices—their obscurantist snobbery, their uncontrolled craving for the next convolution, their tendency to take drugs literally. Which would be fine with me if hip hop wasn’t getting almost as arcane. Which would be fine with me if anybody else was so attuned to postmodernity’s infinite sonic palette. Which would be fine with me if my favorite album of 1995 wasn’t by an individual artist named Tricky. But as it stands, it behooves the eclecticist to dabble seriously. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Geoff Travis’s latest professional passion, Spring Heel Jack. Not the Smiths or Liliput, I don’t think. But not Shelleyan Orphan either.
They call it drum-and-bass because it foregrounds electronic simulations of those instruments in a groove that owes more of its densely frenetic stop-and-go-go to Jamaican dancehall than to European techno. It’s a groove music, but not an automatic groove music—there are more body rhythms in it, especially if your body has been acculturated in the right interactive human space. Perhaps because mine hasn’t been, I find it content-free when it’s pure and kitschy when it reaches, with a weakness for soundtrack sweep and the plusher strains of soul jazz. Spring Heel Jack—Betty Boo producer and Spiritualized guitarist John Coxon plus contemporary-classical buff cum hardcore raver Ashley Wales—inhabits and stretches the borders of this sound. Its first album is evoked all too well by the title There Are Strings. And in fact, synthesized violins underlie some of 68 Million Shades . . . as well. But they’re subsumed in what I take for a witting synthesis of contemporary-classical guys my life has never accommodated and another of Wales’s passions, On the Corner-era Miles Davis. Just what the world needed—prog jungle.
Well, in principle I don’t approve either, but it’s music you dislike in theory and get off on in fact that keeps you growing—everything else is spiritual maintenance. What this album does for me is recontextualize jungle’s now redolent aural lingo—its triple-time superdrum clatter, its impossible deep tremblors that seem to modulate whole power plants in repose. Partly it’s that the tracks seem like fully realized compositions—“simple structures arranged to sound complex,” as Wales puts it. Most jungle grooves roll on into a theoretical African-style eternity; Spring Heel Jack’s begin and end even when they stutter or fade. The keyb scale that IDs “Take 1,” the sax riff that leads into the brief keyb-and-sax tune of “60 Seconds,” the sidelong three-note guitar hook that makes you stop what you’re doing every time the 75-minute CD reaches “Bar” midway through its 12 tracks—all recur thematically enough to lend a sense of cohesion, closure, even content. And if this be illusion, then the accompanying sensation alone will do. I’ve been poking fun at rock musicians’ fear of vocals since “postrock” was declared a genre. But that doesn't stop me from loving Barry Black, or Booker T., or the 1980 Hassell-Eno collaboration that eclipses every ambient techno record on earth—or from getting churned up every time the tense ostinato climax of the 8:38-minute “Suspensions” moves past 6:00 on my readout.
Since this is U.K. dance music, U.S. Island won’t release 68 Million Shades . . . until February. But there’s a Spring Heel Jack section—including the debut, lotsa CD-singles, and a new dub/remix collection that beats most such excesses—over at Other Music. It’s your ears, life, and 25 bucks. I’m real glad I put in mine.