PRINT April 2012


DOME and Groovy Records

DOME, London, 1981. From left: Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis. Photo: The Douglas Brothers.

ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON in 1966, when Pink Floyd and the improvised-music group AMM were sharing a bill at the Marquee Club in London, AMM’s Keith Rowe laid his guitar flat on a table and dropped various objects onto it, eliciting an array of radically dissociated sounds. The Pollock-inspired technique fascinated Syd Barrett, Floyd’s guitarist. An early example of rock communing with true experimentalism, this episode may have just been a case of one former art student relating to another—even though at the time British art schools tended to attract aspiring rock musicians rather than insurrection-minded instrumentalists.

All that changed when Roxy Music’s commercially viable symbiosis of pop and avant-garde redefined art school rock in the early 1970s, and a new generation was swept up in the subsequent punk revolution, armed with Brian Eno’s promise of the nonmusician as the rock star of the future. By the end of the decade, some who had signed to major labels were trying to reconcile an abiding interest in experimental music with the vagaries of pop success (or semisuccess). Two recent box sets reissue little-known avant endeavors taken up by members of Wire and the Buzzcocks, respectively, at this precise juncture in the UK post-punk time line—a moment heralded by Rowe and Barrett’s prescient encounter. DOME 1–4+5 collects four albums released by DOME—a project started just after the 1980 dissolution of Wire by the band’s guitarist Bruce Gilbert and bassist Graham Lewis—as well as a fifth LP of later material, made after Wire reunited; The Total Groovy bundles three LPs of electronic exploration and general ruckus raising by the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley and various accomplices, plus a disc of hitherto unheard recordings. Both sets show not only punk’s often obscured roots in progressive musics but how several of its prime movers retained the DIY mentality after punk’s fleeting moment in the pop limelight.

By music-industry standards, Gilbert and Lewis’s maneuvers after Wire split up were decidedly downwardly mobile. They moved from a major label to one of their own (though it was aligned with Rough Trade, the leading independent distributor at the time) and abandoned any idea of touring, committing to a studio-based duo configuration akin to a Bizarro-World Steely Dan. Convening in an eight-track studio called Blackwing, Gilbert and Lewis would either rework tapes made at home or walk into a session with no preordained material and create on the spot. With tape editing and outboard effects at their core, DOME’s songs were more built than written.

Although DOME has traditionally been credited with making a sharp left turn from Wire’s pop path into forbidding, avant-garde territory, the story is not quite so simple. Before Wire formed, Gilbert was an abstract painter meddling with tape loops and electronics in his spare time, and he met Colin Newman, Wire’s singer-guitarist, when Newman was an illustration student at Watford Art College. Once inaugurated, Wire quickly signed to Harvest—an EMI imprint founded in 1969 to accommodate the label’s more vanguard rock offerings (including Pink Floyd)—but eventually alienated EMI with forward-looking ideas for music videos and an approach to concerts that verged on performance art (with inflatable airplanes, newspaper headgear, a gas stove, and a trolley among their stage props). Seen in this light, Gilbert and Lewis’s rare live appearances as DOME—in which they donned suits and placed towering stovepipe cylinders over their heads, evoking both Hugo Ball and Gilbert & George—were a logical extension of Wire’s latter days, their already arty, punk style of subversion.

Though Mike Thorne, Wire’s producer, and Advision—the storied, high-priced studio where the band recorded—were both out of the picture, the production values of the first two DOME albums are essentially a lower-grade preservation of the icy, heavily processed veneer of Wire’s third album, 154 (1979). And while Newman’s melodic touch may be missing, the LPs are still dominated by songs, rather than sound collages. What DOME did discontinue was the group gestalt of Wire along with the drive to find a niche, however idiosyncratic, within the mainstream-rock framework.

DOME 1 and 2 are clearly transitional efforts, and include several tracks predating Wire’s split. Here Gilbert and Lewis intensify and develop their former band’s deconstructionist take on pop forms. One of DOME 1’s more conventionally catchy sequences appears in “Rolling upon My Day,” rising out of a bristling, lengthy electronic introduction. Similarly, DOME 2’s “The Red Tent 1” falls into a groove at the point where most pop songs are ending (the three-minute mark) after leading off with a series of billowing synthesizer chords and discordant, watery guitar lines. These tracks lay the groundwork for the more dramatic shifts that come to the fore on their third album.

Begun less than a year into the group’s existence, DOME 3 is notably more hermetic. The album’s original sleeve omitted the band name in favor of a visual pun on the title (three mounded “domes”); the tracks’ gibberish nomenclature, apparently an onomatopoeic response to the stuttering tendencies of a particular drum machine, recalls Futurist poetry. The vocals on DOME 3 are muffled and undermixed; every sound feels like it’s in the background, despite the album’s diverse range of textures and dynamics. In this sense, the album could be likened to the nonhierarchical bearing, if not the tranquility, of Eno’s ambient work. But DOME 3 is anything but soothing. “AR-GU” keeps a metallic, grinding loop going for most of its five-and-a-half-minute duration until it’s abruptly cut off and supplanted with an arpeggiated synthesizer waltz; the following track, “AN-AN-AN-D-D-D,” inverts this idea, prematurely suspending an initial loop in favor of an insistent pulse and Steve Reich/Philip Glass–style syllabic vocals, only to reinstate the loop four minutes later. The final cut, “ROOS-AN,” begins with vaporous guitar chords and plainchant-like singing before a full-on dance beat intrudes.

The sudden changeups in DOME’s music call to mind Captain Beefheart’s penchant for introducing and then discarding motifs multiple times in the course of a song. They also bespeak the influence of dub reggae, where instruments are dropped in and out of an otherwise tranced-out mix at will. Finally, they underscore Gilbert and Lewis’s continual desire for listeners to keep their wits about them—Wire, after all, had opened one of their first concerts by announcing, “Pay attention: We’re Wire.”

Wire, Watford, UK, 1978. From left: Graham Lewis, Colin Newman, Bruce Gilbert, Robert Grey. Photo: Annette Green.

UP IN MANCHESTER, during the same months in 1980 that Gilbert and Lewis were launching DOME, Pete Shelley teamed with friend Francis Cookson to form Groovy Records. The label was intended as an outlet for their interest in experimentalism, inspired by previous enterprises undertaken by the Beatles (Zapple, the subsidiary label to Apple Records, in 1969 released John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s notorious Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions and George Harrison’s little-known album of side-long solo synthesizer excursions, Electronic Sound) and Eno (whose Obscure Records was home to his own 1975 tape-delay masterwork Discreet Music and debut efforts by Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars). The Buzzcocks were still a going concern at the time (unlike Wire), so Shelley and his friends’ more outré musical endeavors, as documented on the three Groovy LPs issued that year, were relegated to off-hours at home.

Groovy’s first release, the Free Agents’ £3.33 (titled for its asking price), combines electronics dubbed on Shelley’s own four-track Portastudio with fragments of a live recording of the Tiller Boys (an anarchic side project of Shelley, Cookson, and Eric Random). Its reference points are old-school rock esoterica: Echoes of Kraftwerk and Neu! are readily audible in the electro beats that open the album and the throbbing one-note jam that closes it, while the “Free Form Freakouts” of the Red Crayola’s 1967 Parable of Arable Land resound in the tribal cacophony elsewhere. Next, Groovy brought out the archival Sky Yen, a blustery synthesizer piece recorded by Shelley back in 1974, when he was still a student at Bolton Institute of Technology. The prickly timbres could hastily be ascribed to a budding punk sensibility, but they’re really not much more feral than those on the Harrison LP (which it strikingly resembles in spots). Shelley would go on to embrace synth pop in his later solo career, but in 1980, he obviously regarded his electronic music as an entity separate from his songwriting—a key difference between him and the founders of DOME.

Hangahar was Groovy’s third and final release (seeing as a proposed album featuring the sound of someone spray-painting a Ford Fiesta brown unfortunately never came to pass). Credited to Sally Smmit and Her Musicians (in reality Sally Timms, then a teenage Buzzcocks fan and later a vocalist in the Mekons), the album came about when Timms and her cousin Lindsay Lee were demonstrating a made-up language to Shelley and his cohorts, who jumped in on various oscillators and pots-and-pans percussion to accompany the girls’ mock-operatic vocalese. In a 1995 interview, Timms remembered the album as a “drug record, basically, a punk drug record”—a characterization that could probably be applied to the whole Groovy catalogue. Whether or not the participants were high during their making, these albums essentially operate as trip books, culling late-night sonic doodles by enthusiasts of wigged-out sounds. This is borne out by The Total Groovy’s loopy bonus disc, Strange Men in Sheds with Spanners, comprising odds-and-ends snippets recorded at Shelley’s apartment after the pubs closed (and “because TV used to finish up around midnight,” as he puts it in an interview included in the box).

But Timms’s comment also brings to mind experimental music’s lurking presence in late-’60s acid rock (e.g., the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Tom Constanten’s studies with Luciano Berio, Spooky Tooth’s album with Pierre Henry, or Yasunao Tone’s collaboration with Japanese band the Mops). Note, too, the musique concrète/ psychedelic/punk/Dada genre blurring of England’s ’70s industrial bands such as Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and Nurse with Wound, who shared the DIY methodology and an abrasive experimental electronic approach with both the Groovy crowd and DOME. Though hardly anyone recognized it, by the dawn of the ’80s, when the shimmering “new psychedelia” of pop groups Echo & the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes was being trumpeted in the British music press, the true inheritors of the original psychedelic era’s mingling of rock and avant-garde had already taken up residence in one dark corner of the punk diaspora.

Alan Licht is a musician, writer, and curator based in New York.