Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Friday, 27 April 2012

Thomas Leer and Robert Rental - The Bridge

The classic theme of the story of electronic music in Britain is told is one of an amazing synchronicity. In different cities, different people, with different influences, were playing with machines that could make music.
Bravely, these pioneers were turning their backs on the macho posturing of guitars and drums, and were diving headfirst into the world of noises that owed nothing to the acoustic world.
Taking the DIY aesthetics of punk, so the story goes, and melding it to avant garde machines, these trail blazers took their strange noises and made them public and accessible. It was, so it seemed, only a hop skip and a jump from The Normal's Warm Leatherette to The Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams.
Of course, in any history, there are always more continuities than clean breaks. Things always, whether you want them to or not, have antecedents, influences, forebears. Punk didn't rid the world of pompous rock stars, and it certainly didn't invent rebellion or independence. It just seemed like it.
This wonderful, emotive and captivating record has elements of Brian Eno and Bowie, of the electronic side of Krautrock such as Tangerine Dream or Manuel Gottsching, of the Radiophonic Workshop but also of early PiL, of the dark brooding proto-goth of early Bauhaus and of course of Throbbing Gristle. It an amazing concoction.
Thomas Leer and Robert Rental were both from Edinburgh and came down to London to pursue their musical ambitions.
Releasing Private Plane (Leer's first single) and Paralysis (Rental's first single) on their own labels they found that they were in the company of other electronic musicians such as Cabaret Voltaire, the Human League and Daniel Miller's The Normal. Listen to some of them here.

 Leer would go on to attack the pop world, producing some lovely, but largely overlooked music. Rental, unfortunately died in 2000 having only released two singles, a one sided live album recorded with Daniel Miller and this collaboration.

On one level it is possible to enjoy this record simply for the variety of unusual sounds and noises it contains. Although synthesisers played a pivotal role in the music, they were much less sophisticated than current ones. Sounds were harder to produce and harder to reproduce. To my ears, these limitations can be heard on The Bridge, as can the efforts of Rental and Leer to overcome them. The first track on side 2, Interferon, starts with a noise that sounds like the wind whipping against a tall tower block, or an electronic machine gone wrong, or the half-heard noise of a massive city. I find that very exciting.

Added to these electronically produced noises, the pair provided pecussion by hitting objects to produce drum sounds they liked, and, as the sleeve notes say, "All blips, clicks & unseemly noises were generated by refrigerators & other domestic appliances & are intrinsic to the music". This was the soundscape of Eno's Ambient records taken to its logical conclusion. Not only were 'normal' objects used to make music but 'normal' noises became music. Leer and Renal were acting as 'the bridge' between the sounds of the everyday and the sounds of music. In effect making the everyday into the unusual.

Unlike many of Eno's ambient records of this period, the everyday sounds used by Leer and Rental were defiantly urban sounds. They aren't pretty or sweet but are hard edged and utilitarian. One might say they are industrial, although that might make you think that the music is hard and abrasive and meant to shock in the way of label mates (and the people who lent them the equipment) Throbbing Gristle. Although, at times, The Bridge does feel as though it might be a Chris and Cosey record there is something defiantly different in its sound and approach.

The use of strange noises, and of found sounds, has some pretty clear antecedents in the world of pop. The 1950's particularly saw the exploration of the boundaries of sound as musicians used everyday tools to create sounds, such as on Jack Fascinato's Music From A Surplus Store, which uses only builders tools to create a 'now sound' record, or Joe Meek's famous studio trickery, heard to the best effect in his I Hear A New World (which is just a crazy, crazy record and I can't recommend it enough to people who like strange sounds).

What makes this record different, and indeed, The Normal and Throbbing Gristle,
is that they are very serious. There are no frivolous or throw-away aspects to The Bridge. To me, this record reflects a very monochrome, hard, decaying, faded, city, not a New World, or even an amusing way to reconfigure the existing world, It is a reflection of the realities of the urban experience. Unlike music made with the traditional guitar, bass, drums, singer configuration, Rental and Leer, were able to conjure up not just the emotions that they felt through being in the city but the very sounds of the city itself.

The cover shows a dark brooding picture of the Thames looking from Chelsea across to Battersea. Battersea Bridge, a late Victorian structure that looks as through it was designed by a cake maker, is lit up giving it a further unreal quality. Ironically, it was designed by Sir  Joseph Bazalgette who also created London's sewerage network - a case of both low and high architecture!

Indeed the record itself is split, with Side 1 being more song-based, with guitars and vocals, and Side 2 being more filmic, with washes of sounds, atmospheric pauses, tension and drama. I can't help thinking that in its construction it is very like Bowie's Low in this regard - and Heroes as well in its use of noise and sound.

The whole record needs to be listened to in one sitting, rather than taken as individual tracks. Only in this way can the full emotional impact of the music properly be felt. I'm not sure if listening to it on CD would be the same experience. For me, getting up and turning the record over, perfectly marks the two sides, the dichotomy, the duality of the music. Two sides that are spanned by a bridge.


  1. The Bridge is one of the absolute zeniths of the genre and very possibly the greatest album released on Industrial Records (knowing full well it also spans the entire Throbbing Gristle œuvre). I remember sitting on an upturned milk crate once under a flickering dying bulb outside a destitute all-night gas station listening to Connotations while waiting for a friend that never arrived....you couldn't osmose more atmosphere with an IV

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