“Who are the translators?”:
Continuity and the resistance to interpretation in ‘And This Day’ Andrew Renton, 2020
Can you mourn for a lost object you never knew? A shadow of itself; you’ll never know what it was. For all its excess, it could have, should have, been longer. It was longer. There’s an absent version of itself that few have witnessed. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. And perverse, perhaps, to worry about a lack when you have so much of it anyway. After all, it was never about gradual exposition. It’s more a case of cutting into the object. Anywhere. Everywhere. The layers of a slice of cake look similar wherever you cut.
It even opens with a misstep. It doesn’t fade in, but rather cuts into an accidental variant on the riff – a couple of extra notes offsetting the beat – rather than what will soon become the established mode. Rock music often defaults to fading out, as a way of making sense of the accrued jumble. But few songs fade in, because to do so would rupture the promise of coherent narrative and progression. As receptive as the son needs to be, it needs to unfold over time. ‘And This Day’ cuts in almost arbitrarily. Not even a fade up. It reminds you of those days when you would wait for an age for a song to come on the radio, with your finger on the pause button of the cassette player set to record, only to miss the first moment as you released your finger.
Meanwhile, you spend a great deal of time listening for variants and digressions, with the hope of constructing an exegesis of difference. But they are almost beside the point. So which version to work from? Probably the least satisfactory is the chopped up version which closes Hex Induction Hour. It’s 10’19” long, because it enables the Hour to last an hour to the second. It yields itself up for the sake of a bigger concept. It helps with the framing; an insider joke that leaves out more than it includes. Paul Hanley says the original recording lasted twenty-five minutes. You’d give a great deal to hear that version, but would it add to the sum of your understanding of the thing?
For those ten plus minutes, it’s obvious that there have been edits. So it begins in the middle of the thing, and reaches no conclusion. There are more song-like iterations that come in around the five or six minute mark. And for completists, the longest extant version, recorded live at Hammersmith, 25 March 1982, clocks in at over fifteen minutes. Length is qualification enough. Moreover, the performance has a beginning and an end, and the mix is better. It should be your first resort to immerse yourself in the spirit of it. But there’s a value in sticking with the Hex version as reference point, mainly because of what it doesn’t do, according to any conventions of making a song.
That disruption of narrative is important if you are to make any sense of what MES is saying. There’s some evidence that the text was less occluded and it took a turn. Gaps cut into the narrative, so the disconnectedness is part of what’s going on. The slice of cake theory again. You could cut into it anywhere.
You piece together impressions picking through twin strategies of association and disassociation. There’s a tone to it, moving from epic catastrophe (“The whole earth shudders”) to intimacies of the body’s sickness (“Medical thingy” in the “glandule area”) and more anxiety than MES usually unloads (“The old feelings came back”, “You even mistrust your own feelings”). But it’s buried in the mix.
A wilful mix, which hardly helps the riff keep it all together. It’s hardly a riff at all, but has to work really hard as if it is. Must be hard on the fingers. No variants to alleviate the cramp. MES doesn’t expect more of a riff than a chug towards continuity. But that continuity is hugely significant. The beautiful paradox of something which takes much less time to ‘compose’ than to perform. It’s not about the drama or subjectivity of the thing. It doesn’t illustrate, but establishes a space in which to operate, while cutting into and across it at unpredictable intervals. No progression.
For all the racket, curiously still.
There is a notion that riffs are always already historicised. Part of the canon. There’s a foundness to them. Riff as readymade. Democratically at your disposal. Off the shelf. For MES it’s something to do with doing less to it. It is what it is. In this way we might understand that he adopts rather than composes a riff as an ideological template. A kind of backdrop. If MES were a painter, the riff would be a primer, laid on with a stubby brush left overnight from a previous bout of painting.
Performance can be challenging. It can’t not drop out of sync, fall out of tune, drift away. Feedback, for example, never goes where you want it to. Those two drum kits were to have locked into a motorik meets Glitter Band thing, but can’t be expected to keep it up. Do you listen for the rare moments when things go according to plan? Or for the dissonances and syncopations which no-one could have anticipated at the outset?
Sometimes just being long is more than enough.
There are precedents, but none as wilful as this. Maybe a dozen tracks by Can. And “Sister Ray” as the big sister; the one which comes closest, resisting the draw of improv, when there was too much improv in the air. John Cale was all about the drones; he knew about staying in one place. Resistance to progression, when the temptation is to go all over the place. Heroism, here, is about keeping going, but not going anywhere.
Or everywhere. Everywhere.
You imagine that MES wants a song that he can walk away from. And come back to. Whenever he fancies. Or not. Just leave the building, like Elvis. In the old days this might have afforded an opportunity for an outfit change, but you know that’s not going to happen, and it’s more likely a break for a pint and a fag.
There’s more work to be done on MES’s presence-in-absence. He’s there even when he’s not there. For example, in the Hammersmith recording, Alan Pillay takes over the vocals and seems to improvise around the theme. Did MES hand over the lyrical variants, or do they improvise off the cuff? (“Who are the transistors? Who are the numerical leeches?”) Or did he just give them enough rope?
A set of conditions put into play by MES, so it’s still The Fall even if you can’t hear him, don’t even know if he’s in the room. Is he even listening?
“Who are the translators?” Where are the translators when you need them? There are variants all over the place, and as much as you trawl differences and misreadings for clues, nothing is stable for long enough. Even that riff.
‘And This Day’ resists interpretation. It’s even immune to nostalgia. And you’d assume it’s all but uncoverable. Untranslatable. Unutterable, as he once said.
And absolutely not long enough.
London, August 2020
Riso zine, 24 pages, 21 x 29,7 cm, edition of 150, loose leaf, Risograph, ISBN 9789492486042 – collaboration with David Powell and Andrew Renton. Essay: ‘“Who are the translators?”: Continuity and the resistance to interpretation in ‘And This Day’’, by Andrew Renton.