Dick’s Pick: Glenn Branca ‘Lesson No.1’ – Top US Avant/Post Punk/No-Wave 12″ Vinyl on the Cult 99 Records Imprint

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Dick’s Picks: For this week’s pick Dick has been waxing lyrical about this cult 1981 US avant-post-punk-no-wave 12″, “where classical and punk collide” he was heard to mutter….

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GLENN BRANCA Lesson No.1 (1980 US 2-track 12″ EP on 99 Records, full sales info here

Lesson No. 1

This strange and (at times) unsettling slice of 12” vinyl was in fact the début release on Ed Bahlman’s hugely influential ’99 Records’.

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Why influential?

Although the label only operated between 1980-1984 it left behind a small (but perfectly formed) catalogue with seminal releases from ESG, a funky sibling-based ensemble who supported the Clash, were produced by Martin Hannet (Factory Records/Joy Division) and whose brand of stripped back punk/funk has subsequently been sampled to death – pheww! Throw in some Liquid Liquid who formulated a brand of punk/funk that was equal parts James Brown, Fela Kuti, Can, Dub and PIL (the UKs A Certain Ratio were ploughing a similar musical furrow), their key cuts, ‘Optimo’ and ‘Cavern’ had huge crossover appeal, played in all the hip Downtown clubs like ‘Hurrahs’ and ‘The Roxy’ as well as being ‘re-appropriated’ by a certain Grandmaster Flash….actually this ‘re-appropriation’ resulted in a lawsuit and the end of the label but that’s a different (and altogether much sadder) story…

So – Glenn Branca ‘Lesson No. 1’ – what’s it like?

Well a dance album it ain’t! After releasing only one 7″ single with his previous punk/no-wave band ‘Theoretical Girls’ Branca jumped ship and went all out with this self-styled ‘symphony for guitars’. Featuring just two side-long tracks the music lives up to its symphonic ambition – the chiming two-note riff that begins the piece is gradually fleshed out as other players join the mix (rumoured to be future Sonic Youther’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo), it’s circuitous, continuously-evolving and very much in debt to the ever-shifting repetitive motifs used by minimalist classical composer Steve Reich, supporting one of Branca’s stated aims; to explore the “sounds that naturally arrived from repetition”. At the two minute mark the guitar crescendo is muddied as a distorted, fuzz-laden accompaniment emerges seemingly out of the ether, fast forward another 60 seconds, a bass and kick drum add momentum and…hang on, are you sure we’re not listening to Godspeed You Black Emperor, My Bloody Valentine or Explosions In The Sky?……….

Strap Yourself in we’re off to side two…

The eleven minute ‘Dissonance’ – is, as you might imagine, another challenging listen, but not without its own reward. This time opening with some scraped, ringing guitar tones which add an almost oriental flavour, before a selection of seemingly random hisses, crashes and all manner of audio jetsam appear, before arriving at a pulsing one-note bass motif that gives the opening some shape and direction. Fast forward to the two minute mark and all hell breaks loose, gradually rising in intensity until around 3.30 you’re left with a cacophonous dust-up between Crass, Captain Beefheart and Steve Reich….

What happened next?

99 Records sadly went under in 1984 as a result of protracted legal proceedings brought about after Grandmaster Flash/Sugarhill Records used huge chunks of ‘Cavern’ by Liquid Liquid (99 Records) for their hit ‘White Lines’. Since that time Glenn Branca has continued to operate within the modern art/avant-classical worlds, composing a piece for 100 Guitars that was performed at the site of the World Trade Centre alongside regular commissions for his work by art institutions throughout the world, in fact 2015 saw Branca’s second 100 electric guitars piece, “Symphony No. 16 (Orgasm)”, premiered at Cite de la Musique in Paris, suffice to say then that he’s lost none of his willingness to create music and art that “operates outside of the mainstream”. As for the record itself, not only can its influence be heard all over what we now term (ahem) ‘post-rock’, it’s still at turns unsettling with passages of real beauty located amongst its angular surface – no mean feat 36 years on!

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