Ian Preece reviews a new self-released album by Kate Carr, comprised of the electronically augmented found sounds of Thamesmead.
My reoccurring nightmares – usually involving being trapped in a former workplace sales conference; or internment in a holiday camp during wartime – have become even more freaky of late, since watching the 1974 semi-docu-drama, semi-propaganda exercise Living at Thamesmead on YouTube. It’s true, the London Metropolitan Archive footage features a feast of concrete brutalism: all freshly laid shopping precincts, elevated walkways, lunar module housing, a million unsupervised kids on bikes, eating ice creams and splashing about in angular concrete pools beneath a blue sky . . . but as the young do-good couple give us a guided tour of south-east London’s new town, the capital’s very own Cumbernauld, what started out as a utopian vision comes to feel semi-deranged and, frankly, a little patronising. Never mind A Clockwork Orange – famously Stanley Kubrick filmed part of it in Thamesmead, depressingly prophetically so (cf. Trevor Phillips’ film for London Tonight in 1991 on racist gangs controlling the various estates) – Living at Thamesmead comes to feel more like Fahrenheit 451; the longer it plays on the more you expect Montag and the Firemen to race round a corner in their fire lorry to extinguish someone reading Darkness at Noon by the fountain and water feature on Southmere Lake.
In Living at Thamesmead Tom, he of the bad hair and even worse acting, leaves school to work at an onsite furniture-making factory (‘school taught me a lot about wood and how to handle it’). Sal, his girlfriend in a yellow ‘Love Is’ t-shirt, wants to be a journalist, which maybe hints at some kind of escape, but we hear little more of that – it gets buried in all the real-life footage of a tenants’ meeting and the town fair: a parachute jump into the lake, a champagne wheel and a kind of guinea-pig roulette. (Maybe Sal could have written for the Guardian, or the music press, because, let’s face it, how many writers come from . . . there’s a half-remembered astonishing figure in Lynsey Hanley’s book, Estates, along the lines of 47% of people in the UK having lived in council housing before Thatcher came to power; that figure is probably now something like 5% or less.) The film finishes with Sal and Tom putting their name down for one of the new-builds across the lake. Hopefully the 26,000 real-life Sals and Toms and their families were happy enough with all their mod-cons, indoor toilets and gas central heating – for a while at least. And it looks like the Barge Pole in Thamesmead – one of those windowless 1960s pubs built into the side of the estate like a concrete bunker – saw some good nights too.
What happened next is the story of Britain over the last quarter of a century. Thatcher abolished the GLC; Thamesmead fell into the hands of a private property company; Thamesmead’s factories closed down; the transport links to the metropolis were never built; Stratford rather than nearby Abbey Wood won the Jubilee line extension; the ‘town of the 21st century’ soon sank to real sink-estate status, the end of the line for everyone evicted from every other troubled council estate in London. Oh, and then there was the dog urinating on the broken TV and the freakish schoolgirl apparition of Richard D. James emptying that dustbin over his/her head in the video of Aphex Twin’s ‘Come to Daddy’.
Anyhow, it’s always something of a liberty anticipating an artist’s/musician’s intentions, but my guess is plenty of this swirl of history must have formed at least part of Kate Carr’s thinking as she traversed the semi-derelict Thamesmead locale, microphone in hand, picking up found sounds, patching them together and treating them electronically for her latest LP Splinters – a record that originally was experienced as you walked around Carr’s exhibition Under Construction in the TACO gallery, a kind of artist-cum-community space in Thamesmead (which is also home to the excellent RTM, Radio Thamesmead), early last year. And, in truth, I’m not risking too many ‘intimate moments of miscommunication’ here (in the sampled words of a piece of TACO artwork included on Splinters) as Kate Carr has written that her new LP is ‘in a way kind of specific, but hopefully it can also be appreciated as a celebration of sound itself, and its role in community building, place-making and resistance’.
Like Chris Watson and Simon Scott (who mastered Splinters), Kate Carr is a prolific field-recording artist with a rich back catalogue of found sounds and beautifully quiet, musical treatments. Her earlier releases, cassettes like The Story Surrounds Us and It Was a Time of Laboured Metaphors, were lovely sound collages of swaying bells, oceans of static, creaking doors and boats, heavy rain, someone’s radio playing on a bus in Sicily, kids voices amplified in a swimming pool or beneath a subway underpass – and beautiful drifting ambient tones with wafts of Eno or Emuul on the breeze – but by no means overloaded with Sunday afternoon pastoral bliss. There’s eerie darkness at the edges of Fabulations too; and it’s possible to trace a thread through a darkening sky from tracks like ‘Flicker, Flow’ and ‘The Darkness of Riverbeds’ on I Had Myself a Nuclear Spring through to the beautiful sadness of 16-minute piece ‘On Every Stair Another Stairway is Set in Negative’ (‘instrument recordings taken in my bathroom, with an old reel-to-reel tape which was playing what seemed to be hymns backwards on one channel’) and on to ‘Abraded’ from Splinters. The crackles and susurrations of field recordings from Nuclear Spring were recorded in an abandoned goose farm, a disused quarry and the inundated muddy landscape around a nuclear power plant in the Burgundy countryside, all fizzing electricity pylons and a growing electrical thrum. In the local town, Marnay, the National Front had just deposed the socialist mayor.
I Ended out Moving to Brixton saw Carr swerve back into a rich sonic tapestry teeming with human life – her Gesamtkunstwerk, . . . Brixton is a vast cinematic dreamscape full of preachers and protesters; melancholic fragments of R&B picked up from shops, bars and passing cars; the rumble of traffic, overhead trains and tube announcements; car washes and fireworks; bass frequencies, revival congregations and people ordering sandwiches in a deli – it’s incredibly moving, like a slightly abstruse, bleached-out Untrue or ‘South London Boroughs’. I’ve taken to listening to it late at night; it brings back city life, the past, being young and hopeful and up for it and catching the 159 up Brixton Hill to get home in the snow and the rain in the nineties. I’m skipping a few records but, broadly speaking, next stop: Thamesmead.
The 12-inch vinyl of Splinters is a fine package – red vinyl in a soft transparent polyvinyl sleeve. There’s something very 1980s pop art about it, like a Blancmange or A Flock of Seagulls picture disc remixed by Andy Warhol with primary colours and funkily geometric intent. Unfortunately, wrestling with the cardboard mailer, my disc fell straight out of the package onto the kitchen floor and I now have extra scuff marks, divots and surface noise to complement the ambient drift of opening track ‘Detritus Clouds’ and, appropriately enough, the clicks, glitches, skips and scrapes of ‘Abraded’. In between those tracks come the brief punishing techno stabs, ominous clouds and penetrating tone of ‘It’s a Steep Climb to the Freeway Underpass’. Carr’s ever-excellent titles aside, side A feels slightly harsher, colder, less accommodating – more abraded – than anything I’ve heard by her before. In some ways, Splinters feels like Carr’s most abstract work yet. Or, rather, it’s somehow, at first, a little harder to get with the lack of easily identifiable sound sources, the vast spaces, the absence of beats, the floating detritus – as a listener you’re like a parkour runner, desperately seeking a grip on the edge of a gnarly concrete walkway. So the sudden lolloping bar-room piano of ‘A Single Turnstyle Moment’ – which sounds like it could have been lifted straight from a knees-up at the Barge Pole circa 1970 – pulls you up short. A creeping dubbiness begins to seep in too: snatches of almost Philip Jeck-like trapped loops beneath a foggy drone; a deep musical stream of floating tones flickering away beneath the watery static. It’s all fantastically engrossing. The rumbling, hovering bass tones are present throughout the calmer second side. There are occasional sonic echoes of early Pole, minus the dancefloor rhythms (‘Inevitably it Eventually Involved Wading Through Mud’), Burial without the rainy night-time beats; and I love the crackle and dubby pulse of ‘Vegan Hotdogs and Windemere Park’, the depth-charge bleeps, lengthy pauses and birdsong of the closing ‘Time Out’.
By the summer of 2019 the bulldozers were moving into Binsey Walk, and if the Barge Pole pub hasn’t yet bitten the dust it will do so soon. On the one hand the Peabody trust taking over the majority of housing in Thamesmead in 2014 seemed to offer a glimmer of hope, and perhaps still does. On the other, it’s always the case the artists arrive before the property developers. For now just blast the life-affirming Afrotrap and Gqom of Chooc Ly Tan or the folk/roots/reggae/jazz and minimal ambient beauty of Black Tower Broadcasts on Radio Thamesmead into your kitchen of an evening. And perhaps Covid-19 has stuck a rusty pipe in the spokes of the never-ending overspill from London – the Queen Elizabeth Line may be coming to Abbey Wood but does anyone really need to live in a refurbished airless pod in the sky within commuting distance of the metropolis any more? It’s time to rethink life, like great music and art always rethinks everything/is always rethought. It’s true you might want to stick the needle on Al Green or the Chi-Lites after Splinters, but this lp is so right for these plague times.
I Ended out Moving to Brixton and Splinters are kind of urban cousins to releases from the likes of Jana Winderen, Simon Scott, Chris Watson and Thomas Köner, Touch artists with their recordings of Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone, rising floodwaters, disappearing natural habitats and splintering ice shelves, the last fragments of a vanishing natural wilderness. Splinters could be a heard as a poignant elegy to Thamesmead as well as a kind of utopian planning; it’s definitely a brilliant, immersive, startling soundtrack to the eeriness of this year.
‘Splinters’ is out now and available here, both physically and digitally.
Ian Preece is the author of ‘Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels’. We’ve previously published extracts on the Clay Pipe Music, Sahel Sounds and Analog Africa labels. You can order a copy of the book here. Ian will be discussing the book at an event at The Wanstead Tap on 4th November. Buy a ticket here.