Sounds - November 9, 1985
Crime & The City Solution
Crime & the City Solution don't wear black, are not goths and display deep contempt for those who label them miseries. Jack Barron develops the positive from the negative.>
"I know the worst joke I've heard all week, " begins Harry Howard, cheerfully. Crime's bass player is about to provide me with a solution to a serious puzzle. "Three pieces of string went into a pub, you see…
"The first one goes up to the bar and asks, Can I have a pint of bitter, please? The barman looks at him and says, You're a piece of string, aren't you? The string is bemused and says yes. Well get out of here, we don't serve your type, orders the barman.
"Then the second piece of string has a go and meets the same fate. The third one though is very old and very wise. He hobbles up to the bar and requests a pint. You're a piece of string, aren't you? accuses the publican. No I'm a-frayed-knot, denies the ancient rope."
A frayed knot is what the convicted man preys for when he steps up to the gallows: the terminal spark of hope at the end of a long drop. There are parallels in the music of Crime & the City Solution. You shouldn't have to break your neck to hear the humour involved.
Today, which started with a turbulent baptism by thunderstorm and ended with a startling discovery, has been distinctly odd. On this cold afternoon at Mute Records, Crime are caught by the journalist in mid-air. The vinyl trapdoor of their 'Dangling Man EP' has just creaked open with an echo … of maybe The Birthday Party.
"I think our past track records cut both ways," explains Mick Harvey. The band's charg d'affaires, the former Birthday Party member and sometime Bad Seed is a praying mantis of a man whose with bites like a million small teeth. Above all, though, he's a realist who knows that at this juncture Crime haven't quite clicked.
"Our past reputation's helped insofar as getting a few feet in the door and being able to record immediately," continues Mick. "But at the same time, because of what we've achieved as individuals in the past, people expect us to get up on stage and that the necessary chemistry all great bands have will just be there. That isn't the case at all. That sort of special chemistry takes time to develop. At the moment we need room to evolve."
Yeah, this has been an odd day. Crime - the name was originally the moniker of vocalist Simon Bonney's group which flickered briefly in Australia in the late '70s - are too seasoned to make any claims for their music. They're also too wily to trip over the pratfalls the journalist is laying through frustration.
I take it there's nothing as straightforward as a Crime manifesto? "No, of course not," scolds Mick. "I've never gone in for that sort of thing, I don't think any of us have. I've always considered that if anyone says they know what they're doing then they are really in trouble."
"If you know everything it implies you haven't any more to learn, and that's certainly not true of this band at the moment," interjects Epic Soundtracks, an ex-Swell Map who plays drums with the finesse of a jewel thief.
"We prefer to surprise ourselves," reckons Harry. Unsurprisingly, his brother, Rowland S, Crime's spider-fingered guitarist, is not present. Since the messy hara-kiri of The Birthday Party, Rowland has preferred to stay in the twilight as opposed to limelight.
"I have a rough idea of the affect that I'd like Crime's music to have," elaborates Mick, "but it's impossible to describe. Someone in the band will have to go and write that music. If I could put it into words, I'd just say it now and retire on the proceeds. Mesmeric or hypnotic, I guess, is the kind of atmosphere I'm after."
Hey! I've just noticed I'm the only person wearing black today … "Mmmmm, well isn't that astonishing," jibes Mick.
"We're not a very black or dark band, you see," offers Epic by way of consolation.
"I usually wear black, I'm sorry about that," sneers Harvey … sarcastic Australian dingo.
We've obviously gone as far as we can. While I'm stowing my gear, Simon reaches for the telephone. A tall, pin-thin man with ravaged eyes and a lift-shaft voice, he rumoured to have been the prototype singer upon which Nick Cave styled himself when The Boys Next Door metamorphosed into The Birthday Party.
"The point has been taken completely out of context," denies Bonney. "You have to understand the atmosphere that was prevailing in Melbourne in 1979. Everyone was very young and developing, so it was inevitable that everyone would be influenced by each other. It was an infant stage of development for both of us. Now this is 1985 and Nick and myself have gone on to do different things.
"Going back to my lyrics, I don't think they're doomy at all. I never see things as ultimately hopeless, I see things as potentially good, " corrects Simon before he dials. "I don't like to make comparisons but there are songs that, say, the Velvet Underground did that captured a feeling I could understand. Songs like 'I'm Beginning To See The Light", optimistic but realistically optimistic.
"It would be ridiculous for me to sing songs about driving around in a Masarati, picking up my long-blonde-haired girlfriend with her incredibly long legs, and motoring off to whatever restaurant it is that you're supposed to go to. My life isn't like that, I don think most people's are. Excuse me …" The bars are about to open.
"Hello Jack," grins Mick Harvey, about to wind me up. "As you can see none of us is wearing black again … except you of course." Now is the November of malcontents, and a Crime deputation are sipping in a West London pub.
There are no pieces of string in sight, which is a good thing. Simon, you see, is in a hyper mood, on a verge of "a big bender," and would probably use the rope to strangle any passing music journalist.
Between our meetings, Crime have perpetrated the 'mesmeric' or 'hypnotic' arrangements of sonic spheres Mick had in mind a few months back. It's scratched like fingernail lesions in the grooves of the band's newly released mini-album, 'Just South of Heaven."
Although still slightly redolent of noises past, 'South …' is a staggeringly dynamic work, the clear expression of a group who've found their own killing ground upon which to torture pop. Each element is acutely focused, be it Rowland's bayonet guitaring or Epic's panoramic drumscape. Crime are now a band instead of talented individuals. Inevitably, some of the music press disagree …
'For people who've considered suicide but abandoned the idea because they can't bear not being around to see how guilty they've made everybody feel about it' … A review of 'The Dangling Man' EP, under the amusing sub-title Some Miserable Bastards, by Charles Shaar Murray in the NME. In the same column he gave 'My Toot Toot' single of the week, obviously a masterpiece.
'Much of the time he (Bonney) overdoes it and so ends up sounding like Tom Waits throwing up into an egg sandwich" … A review of 'South' … by Mat Snow in NME.
'Simon Bonney's voice is just grisly and gothic enough' … Chris Roberts' essentially correct four-star summation of 'South …' in Sounds.
Step into the parlour and receive some medicine my scribbling compatriots.
"I told you during our last interview that I didn't think the carbon-copy Hollywood idea of how the world works was believed by most people," seethes Simon. "Yet in parts of the music press that seems to be the prevailing notion, the idea of let's be happy and rock out guys. Let's got toot, toot, toot and be Charles Shaar Murray."
"And in England that's a bit of a sick joke considering the state of most individuals," adds Mick with withering bile.
"Simon gets a bit upset by bad reviews," explains Mick to account for the singer's manic state.
What about comparison that has been made between you and Tom Waits, Simon? "Well, he seems like a nice man and is a great singer," admits Bonney.
I guess you should be flattered then? "Except that the comparison was one of Tom Waits vomiting into a fried egg sandwich," points out Mick.
"I think that the natural ease and power Simon sings with does sometimes float a little bit close to that gravely sound. But as much as I like Tom Waits, Simon is a very different singer and different lyric writer. And I'm certainly not sure about that fried egg sandwich bit."
"I'd have at least eaten the sandwich first," comments Bonney a bit lamely. "Mat (Snow) is a very simplistic character, you have to give him credit for that. He takes a simplistic attitude towards things, it probably hurts his brain otherwise." The singer launches into a tirade enumerating Mr Snow's icy misinterpretations of Crime's songs.
Meanwhile, Mick Harvey is insisting the vocalist will have to learn to abide people misunderstanding the group's work. Bonney takes no notice and starts pouring invective on some type-with-a-pen called The Legend.
Come on, what the hell is wrong with The Legend!? He seems harmless enough to me. "The legend is an animal and deserves to be put down," shouts Simon.
"He once lumped us in with Bone Orchard and Skeletal Family, you know, goths," illuminates Epic, nursing a snowball.
"God this is great," chuckles Mick. "I'm as angry now as I was when I got to England with The Birthday Party and saw Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran on Top of the Pops. It's great being in Britain and having so many crap groups around for competition.
"I don't see that our group has anything to do with any goth group, that's just another journalistic tool, a bad reference point. People tried to plaster The Birthday Party with the same tag and it didn't stick. It won't with Crime either.
"You see, I've never been interested in being in a band which is part of a movement, I'm interested in developing a band which has its own character. I've told you that takes time, but I think we're almost there.
'South …' seems to have been labelled a blues record.
"That's pretty predictable, isn't it?" moans Harvey. "There are elements of that in it, but it's bloody weird blues and nothing to do with the term as it's traditionally meant."
"There's this strange situation with the blues," states Simon, in a brief moment of clam before the oncoming pit of depression. "A black artist can exude certain emotions about a situation and be accepted as having a great deal of soul. And yet if you turn this into a white band like us it's termed miserable."
"Yeah, we're all real miserable bastards," laughs Mick. "Especially Rowland who, on our trip to Switzerland, lost his famous cool for 12 hours at a stretch and ended up doing cockney knees-up songs."
"Where does the line occur between somebody who has a lot of soul and someone who doesn't?" asks Simon in earnest. "The line occurs between the right and left halves of the journalist's brain," quips Mick.
Does the fact that you're a manic-depressive affect the lyrics you write, Simon?
"It has nothing to do with it," denies the vocalist, in some agitation. "There's only one song about hospitals and that's 'Five Stone Walls.' That's about having been in a place and having gone through experiences. If Epic were stuck in a hospital for seven months he'd no doubt write a similar song.
"Manic depression is about as interesting as gout or diabetes. It's on a par with trying to make heroin addiction charismatic. When I went to the first meeting of the manic-depressives society, they gave me a list of famous manic-depressives. Like there was Byron, the Bronte sister and others. But I'm sure the majority of manic-depressives are boring, average human beings with a disease.
"The only thing I'm really concerned about is if you make a big deal out of my illness you immediately put me into a category separate from other human beings, and so my observations will be seen as mad as opposed to normal. The truth is I think my lyrics are closed to what many people feel than banal pop lyrics. There is no copy value in an illness like manic depression, I want my work to stand on its own legs."
"There's a lot of people walking around who're supposed to be sane and in fact they're wacko," sympathises Mick. "Simon knows what's going on, he's just a very … sensitive guy, that's all."
Everyone, including Bonney, breaks into fits of laughter at Harvey's defusing of the situation. Shortly after, Simon left mumbling about "The Wildebeests."
In the jungle of modern music, it'd be a mistake to view Crime with the contempt that the Inca Babies and other drones deserve. "I'm not big on gimmicks," concludes Mick. "It will take a while for people to discover what we actually sound like without being enticed by the media. The only thing that gives you longevity is your own depth of emotion.
If you need an aphorism to understand Crime's music, call it deep soul. And be a-frayed-know to swing.
- Jack Barron
(transcribed by Cat)