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428 Alain Neffe and the Home-Taped Electronic Music Revolution
Alain Neffe launched his first tape label at home in Belgium in 1981. He called it Insane Music Contact and his first installment was called Insane Music for Insane People. Thus began a nearly thirty year foray into home-made, visionary and utterly unfashionable electronic music that has hardly made anyone involved a household name.
Insane Music released 55 titles in its most prolific years (1981-87). Five of these were vinyl records and the rest were cassettes tapes. Why cassettes tapes? Magnetic tape was the obvious solution to the problem facing many artists working without record contracts in those days. Cassettes could be recorded at home, produced at home, dubbed at home, and sold or traded by mail. No need for tasteless outside producers and marketing mojoâone needed only leave home to buy more tapes. Says Neffe, âI could copy the tapes on demand. Releasing an LP required that you print 500 copies and 1000 copies of the cover sleeve, and everything had to be paid up front âŠ if the buyer didnât like the music, he or she could wipe it out and record something else on it.â
Mr. Neffe was not the only one out there recording, selling and trading tapes by mail. On both sides of the Atlantic, home cassette technology was permitting the release of much groundbreaking and breathlessly beautiful work, as well as some noxious and otherwise self-indulgent wankingâthat coat of many colors we call the DIY (do-it-yourself) Revolution. As early as 1974, Albrecht/d. self-released a cassette entitled Amsterdam Op De Dam in Germany. In 1976, Throbbing Gristle was distributing tapes of their infamous live recordings, and in 1977, the French electro-industrial unit Die Form began releasing tapes on their own Bain Total label. 1980 saw the release of two monumental self-released cassettes, The Storm Bugsâ A Safe Substitute and Colin Potterâs The Ghost Office. In Japan, 1980 saw the release of Merzbowâs first two cassettes, Remblandt Assemblage and Fuckexercise. And in the USA, 1981 saw John Benderâs Plaster: The Prototypes, a laconic and mysterious series of tone and vocal poems. Home taping was not limited to electronic music. R. Stevie Moore, one of the elder living ancestors of the lo-fi rock aesthetic, began releasing distributing home-made tapes via the R. Stevie Moore Cassette Club sometime in the 1970s. And tapes of live punk shows from the era continue to trade hands.
Soon, cassettes were coming from everywhere: mysterious PO boxes in the Midwest, to which you sent a blank tape and three dollars and received the tape back with something on it. The Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine was a Fluxus-inspired subscription audio-journal dedicated to music as well as poetry and drama and other forms of audio-art. Zines like Factsheet Five and Unsound devoted entire columns to the material they received from bands on home-made cassette, and demo tapes began leaking to radio stations prior to official record release dates. It was a grassroots movement that marched in association with the self-publication of zines, comics, chapbooks, and other media. The medium had begun to become the message.
Insane Music for Insane People (which eventually reached 25 volumes) was a series compiling all home-made electronic music made by artists from across the globe. By including in the liner notes the contact address for each artist featured, Neffe helped pioneer a snail-mail network for those interested in more of what they heard. Artists from all over Europe and the USA, from Japan, New Zealand, and beyond contributed over the years. One could send a few dollars to Insane Music Contact, receive tapes in the mail, write to artists involved and receive more cassettes.
Insane Music Contact (now known as Insane Music) has always been a vehicle for Mr. Neffeâs own electronic music projects as well, many of which are periodically active to this day. Though he now makes liberal use of the CD format, Neffeâs artistic approach remains undiluted by years of underexposure. He expects very little acknowledgment of or remuneration for his efforts, which, for him, are emotional articulation, continued experimentation, and purity. It seems nothing but nothing could possibly catapult such heavily uncommercial sounds into the public consciousnessânot even this thirty-year retrospective box-set entitled The Insane Box released (ironically, on vinyl) by the venerable Frank Maier of Vinyl-on-Demand Records, an outfit devoted to preserving the precious gems of cassette culture before the evidence disintegrates.
For this retrospective (4 LPs + a 7â 45), Mr. Neffe has reached into dusty attic boxes, wherein lay unreleased (or hardly available) material by five projects of which he has been a part: BeNe GeSSeRiT, Human Flesh, Pseudo Code, I Scream and Subject. Each has a unique cerebral orientation and emotional vibe made possible by the combined efforts of invited guests; each runs the high fever of a man very much committed to a personal vision of artistic purity without virtuosity, and each is distinctly French.
BeNe GeSSeRiT was not the first of Mr. Neffeâs projects to be recorded and distributed, but is, to my understanding, the genesis of his approach to music as âtextsâ or âphotographsâ, or as he puts it, âpotlatch musicâ. On these early tracks we also detect a burgeoning interest in the endless expressive properties of the human voice, both explicitly human and as heavily-treated sound sculpture, both French and English At times, voices shout like besotted Celine parlor workers at each other from tenement windows; at other times a high-pitched female voice wails up and down like Catherine Ribeiro alone in her bathroom. In these tracks, one can also detect the half-digested influence of electro-rock luminaries Silver Apples, the avant-lashings a la Yoko Ono, and occasionally the thunder-beat of early Laibach. Primitive Casio electronics, stage whispers, delay echoes, tape loops, and a certain absurdist humor redolent of Erik Satie, neither dampen the fabric with melodrama, nor detract from the integrity of the grist, nor from the topical seriousness of the textâs subjects. BeNe GeSSeRiT is difficult music, even in the moments that risk elegy, yet it is still more accessible than some of the other Francophone avant-dada outfits of the day, such as DDAA and Ătant DonnĂ©s, or Nurse with Wound in the UK.
Human Flesh is decidedly more structurally cohesive and song-oriented than BeNe GeSSeRiT, and its predecessors and influences are less clear. Still there is a clear interest in the human voice, its textures and timbers when removed of sign value by backwards-masking, and the new textures that emerge when disassembled and reassembled. Even rock-oriented at times, Human Flesh chases a more delirious climax, for the hounds of the carnival are snapping at their heels as they run. This is also a project of varied angles and pursuits, sliding as it does into poetic electro-pop (the supple and Chicago-accented voice of the late Lydia Tomkiw, of Algebra Suicide, appears on two tracks), and moments of Half Japanese-style primitivism. The side-long track âLangsamâ is more reminiscent of Piper-era Pink Floyd and Brainticket, as well as other Krautrock, yet is still distinctly French. These early and rare tracks are, in contrast to the more ambitious Pseudo Code and the more intimate recordings by I Scream, more oblique for being a mix-down of materials sent to Neffe from artists around the globe. The track âSons of God?â is also notable for what is perhaps the first recorded sample of the American fire-and-brimstone preacher Ferrell Griswold, whose voice has appeared in music by Front 242, Phallus Dei, Pragha Khan, et cetera.
The cassette medium, for all its benefits to individual artistic expression and culture, is for the selfsame reasons impermanent. Magnetic tape has a thirty year lifespan if properly archived, which means both that preserving their contents in other formats is important, and that paying hundreds of dollars for the original artifacts is a questionable collectorsâ pursuit (nevertheless, you can watch it happen daily). With the advent of the mp3 and the efforts of Vinyl-on-Demand and other labels, Insane Musicâs CD-r reissue program included, some of this exquisite material has been rescued from oblivion.
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