From Brussels With Love (Revisited)

40 years ago this month, an obscure record label in Belgium released a cassette-only compilation album, which became a reference point for many post-punk projects. “From Brussels With Love”, originally put out by Les Disques du Crepuscule, has just been re-issued, so during the recent lock-down, I thought I would exhume my original copy and remind myself of why this was such a landmark album, and why its influence continues to this day.

To add some context, Sony had launched the Walkman cassette player in 1979, the first truly portable device for pre-recorded music. This led to a renewed interest in the cassette format among independent artists and labels, as it was also a cheaper means of manufacture and distribution than vinyl records (and long before CDs, mp3 and streaming services). And in the wake of the DIY aesthetic promoted by punk, some new music was being released on cassette only, such as Bow Wow Wow’s “Your Cassette Pet” and BEF’s “Music for Stowaways” (the title referencing an early model of the Sony Walkman). Some of these cassette-only releases (especially by independent, lo-fi, DIY electronic artists such as Inertia) are now highly collectable.

What made “From Brussels With Love” so significant was not just the format. It was not even alone in combining music with interviews and fully illustrated booklets. Fast Forward in Melbourne also launched their first audio-magazine in November 1980, and other similar projects followed such as Edinburgh’s “Irrationale”, Manchester’s “Northern Lights”, and London’s “Touch” label which began life releasing a series of curated audio gazettes, including both spoken-word and musical contributions.

The importance of “From Brussels With Love” was the cross-section of artists it managed to bring together: mercurial musicians such as Bill Nelson, John Foxx and Vini Reilly; side projects from members of established post-punk bands from the UK (Wire, Joy Division/New Order, the Skids and Spizzenergi); a cluster of emerging European bands (Der Plan, The Names and Radio Romance); and several leading names in modern classical and ambient music (Harold Budd, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Phil Niblock, Brian Eno and Wim Mertens). Oh, and an interview with actor Jeanne Moreau.

This eclectic mix of contemporary artists (and this deliberate approach to curation) was no doubt highly influential on subsequent projects such as the NME/Rough Trade “C81” or Rorschach Testing’s “Discreet Campaigns” – these were not compilations reflecting a single musical style or even the usual label sampler, nor were they simply collections of what was new or current. Instead, they reveal an aesthetic attitude (curiosity combined with open-mindedness mixed with a high level of quality control and a hint of audience challenge) that is harder to find today. Now we have “recommender engines” and narrow-casting streaming services that would struggle to compile similarly diverse outcomes. And more’s the pity.

I know there are a number of on-line platforms and print publications that try to bring a similar approach to their curation, but for various reasons, and despite their best intentions, they generally suffer from being cliquey, self-referencing/self-identifying, and all driven by a need to capture eyeballs to attract advertising, so they quickly lose any claim to independence or even originality. Which is a shame because there is so much great music out there that we don’t get to hear, simply because it is not mainstream, or it doesn’t conform to a particular style, or it doesn’t meet “playlist criteria”, or it doesn’t have enough marketing dollars behind it.

Next week: Is the Party over?

Joy Division and 40+ years of Post-Punk

In the aftermath of its 1976-77 heyday, UK punk rock morphed into five main trends: new wave; goth; new romantics; synth-pop; and post-punk. The latter term was applied to a number of bands that had emerged during the punk era, but were not defined by its limitations. Although they were initially influenced by punk, and shared many of the same attitudes, they had quickly moved beyond the three chord thrash, frenetic pace and nihilism of punk to create music that was more cerebral, complex, challenging and enduring. They were not afraid to reference influences outside punk, such as literature, film and philosophy. Key among these bands were PiL, Gang of Four, The Fall, Wire, Magazine, Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire and Joy Division.

Although Joy Division only released two studio albums (one of which came out just after the band’s singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide), their influence has been long-lasting. Rather like the Velvet Underground in the late 1960s, many people who heard them early on were inspired to form their own bands.

Their first album, “Unknown Pleasures” emerged in June 1979. It was just after Margaret Thatcher had come to power following the strike-ridden “winter of discontent”. The sonic palette created by the band and their producer, Martin Hannett, revealed a post-industrial sound that could only have come from Manchester. At times it sounded nothing like their contemporaries, so strong was their unique musical identity. Reflecting the rugged local landscape surrounding the music’s urban setting, the gritty realism of “Unknown Pleasures” demonstrated that as with British society after Thatcher, music after Joy Division would never be the same again. I first saw them live a few weeks after the album’s release, and already the songs made an indelible impression.

The band was incredibly prolific during the next few months, touring constantly, and releasing a number of non-album tracks and singles. I saw them again in early 1980, by which time they were already playing songs from their next album, as well as their forthcoming single, “Love Will tear Us Apart” – one of the most iconic and frequently covered songs of its era.

The last time I saw Joy Division performing was on the second night of the “Factory By Moonlight” mini-residency at West Hampstead’s Moonlight Club (also artfully referencing Maximilien Luce’s late 19th century painting). I spoke briefly to Ian Curtis before the gig, which turned out to be one of the band’s last concerts. He was polite, and came across as rather shy, but probably he was just exhausted, given the band’s work rate and his own physical and emotional problems. Within a few weeks he was dead.

Soon after, the second and final studio album, “Closer” was released. Inevitably, it was seen as a sort of memorial for Curtis, especially given the sleeve’s funereal design (although the image had been selected months earlier). Apart from a couple of uptempo numbers (I am using the term relatively), the songs are melancholic, majestic, and yes, morbid. Whether intentional or not, side two of “Closer” has always reminded me of the mainly instrumental and proto-ambient songs on side two of David Bowie’s “Low” album. (Given that Joy Division’s previous name, Warsaw, owes something to the “Low” track, “Warszawa“, it seems possible that the similarity is deliberate.)

Much has been written about Joy Division over the past 40 years, and a number of commemorative activities are likely in 2020. The band’s presence has been perpetuated not just by the lasting influence of their slim studio output (since bulked out with compilations and live albums) but by the fact that the remaining band members morphed into New Order – one of the most successful bands of the 80s and early 90s who brought electronica to rock music, and rock music to the dance floor.

The other week, my next door neighbour mentioned he had only recently heard “Unknown Pleasures” for the first time – thanks to a playlist recommendation. He hadn’t realised the album was so old, and thought it was a newish release. Hopefully, by now, he has also heard “Closer”.

Next week: Stereolab at Melbourne Zoo