But is totally removing image from music the answer? Yes it would lend greater focus to what is important (the music) but would it not also detract from it somehow? Would the Sex Pistols have had such a big effect if you couldn’t see Johnny Rotten’s sneering face? Would Elvis have had such an impact if you didn’t see his hips? There is an argument to be made that Iggy Pop’s destructive, wild and uninhibited onstage exuberance is just as powerful and as vital as any track on Funhouse or Raw Power. There are of course some bands that would be just as powerful if you never saw the performers. The Grateful dead for example were not the most beautiful looking of rock groups but even they have developed an image through various logos and symbols that are instantly recognisable as theirs.
The fact of the matter is that image gives context to the music. Whilst the music of many artists can easily speak for itself, the fact that you can see the band on the album art or performing on TV means that you develop a way of processing what you’re hearing. It’s the same with album covers. They say you should never judge a book by it’s cover, but it’s hard to say that the same applies to records. A good album cover will fit perfectly with the music contained within it and will even influence the visual images that your mind creates when you hear the songs. The image of an artist or a record is a huge asset in helping a listener understand what they’re hearing, especially if they have no background information on the artist.
The cover of Ambitious Lover’s 1988 album Greed is pretty helpful in understanding what is a pretty strange and layered album. Would a record of samba influenced pop music coupled with dissonant guitar noise make much sense if you couldn’t see the two arty, almost nerdy looking guys responsible peering out from the front cover of the LP? Does it make any sense even if you can see them?
On the one hand, Greed is pure pop music. Catchy, melodic, and driven by funky rhythms , the album could have been an 80’s chart success if it wasn’t for, well, many things. It was released on a major label, though it was the band’s only album for EMI/Virgin. Still the label get points for effort. There is a strong Brazilian influence to the record too, with a lot of different percussion being used throughout, as well as the standard drum kit. Admittedly the production is somewhat dated sounding now, the result of artists being let loose on brand new and still developing technology. But on top of this South American tinged synth pop, is the band’s wild card, Arto Lindsay. A prominent member of New York’s late 70’s No Wave scene and a contemporary of Sonic Youth (at least in the early days of both their careers), Lindsay is a noise maker extrodinaire. His guitar playing throughout this record is at once calculated and chaotic. At times it sounds as if he has dropped the guitar into the bowels of an unturned piano, but he is always careful as to exactly where he drops it, making sure to hit the right strings on the way down. The guitar sounds broken, strangled and fantastic. Whilst always rhythmically exact, his style doesn’t seem to incorporate the idea that there are particular notes to be hit, just the knowledge of where to hit the guitar to produce specific sounds. Its noise, sure, but it soars and crashes and screams in such a beautiful way that it is by far the most beguiling instrument on the record. In this somewhat awkward clip of a rare TV performance by the band, the show’s host, Jools Holland, has an almost childlike fascination with the obscure tuning that Lindsay uses, describing it as “real modernism”. Whatever that means.
Greed peaks early on with the abstract funk pop of Copy Me. With it’s slap bass and sound effect synths, to the uninitiated, this could be a dated pop hit of a decade that is now looked upon with ironic humour. Then suddenly there is that majestic, car crash clang of the guitar. At once sounding like feedback, a calculated Van Halen style dive bomb and all the strings snapping in unison. The lyrics also match the anxious and twisted guitar sound with descriptions of neurotic imperfections and awkwardness. It’s this joyous combination of the tight, controlled, 80’s funk and chaos that Lindsay infuses with his guitar and increasingly panicky vocals that make this track such a standout. Despite the time specific production choices, this song holds up as a genuinely clever piece of song writing and a great performance, delivered with a knowing wink that can be appreciated without any need for sneering irony.
Peter Scherer and Arto Lindsay were both artistic and experimental musicians exploring a new direction by incorporating modern pop elements into their music. The thing is, what was modern in 1988 can easily sound dated now and one major downside to being introduced to this record 24 years later is that you have to look past the synth sounds of the era to the songs underneath and the experimental, noise elements of each track. But then there are tracks Like Steel Wool that are almost free-jazz, with squealing saxophones and more odd guitar noise. These are juxtapositioned against soft, gentle, songs like Para Nao Contraria Voce, which is one of a handful of tracks sung in Portuguese. It’s not brainless pop. It’s not manufactured. Also, the more upbeat tracks seem to be delivered with a subversive intent. They are pop songs but they’re composed and performed by two men who are obviously not pop stars and who have little interest in trying to be. The band’s image is just another example of the ideas on the record. If you watch that video again you’ll see that the musicians that make up the majority of the band look like members of any touring act of the era. It’s Lindsay and Scherer that look out of place, slightly askew with the rest of them, yet they are the main focus. The band's image is a great metaphor for the songs. Slick, easily accessible and commercial but topped off with strange, interesting and dissonant ideas that easily subvert any pop influences.
Somehow I doubt this record will be getting the reissue it deserves anytime soon. There are versions of it out there to be found though. I picked mine up in the 50p bin of a long gone second hand record store in north London. If you can't find a well loved copy on vinyl though, then spotify has the answer!