The Ascension: Interview with Don Mclean of Fortissimo records and Action Beat
For how much it gets bandied about as a reference point No-Wave is actually pretty hard to get into. Bleeding out of 80’s New York’s post-punk and into its nascent dance scene, the genre, in its physical form, mainly exists in the formats common to those genres: hard to find 7inches and 12inches. With no easy long-playing reference point, save for a few James Chance albums, you could choose between compilations, a smattering of reissued 12inches and, more recently, DVDs. When a genre’s this physically fragmented how do you even go about investigating it? How do you know if the No-Wave that you cherish is but a tip of the iceberg? In it’s physical form then it’s difficult. Its sound doesn’t exactly help either. How do you bring together the ecstatic rhythms of Pulsallama and the alienated wail of Rosa Yemen under the same umbrella? Once you’ve found the dots, how do you join them together? While for some this is part of the pleasure of the ‘genre’, I’ve personally always found it a problem. Typically I’ll go through a compilation, tease out a gem or two and then play them to death. Months later, I’ll dip back in and find something else with a completely different sound. What I’ll never do is play a No-Wave compilation from start to finish. If I’m ever having a little No-Wave moment then it’s only going to last three or so minutes.
While this always bothered me, others had no problem because they were listening to Glenn Branca’s The Ascension, or, in the case of Action Beat’s Don Mclean, because they were running off to New York to reissue the thing. It’s an LP from the scene and an LP I should have known about earlier. Here’s what Don has to say about it.
Tell us a bit about your personal background in music and why you started your label.
I started playing in bands when I was about 15. I organised a show at the local youth club whilst I was at school, and never looked back. I put on tons of gigs in Bletchley, and Milton Keynes, a culturally starved suburban town of London, simply because I wanted something to happen there. Releasing records seemed to go with the territory, and I always loved the history of SST, Dischord, Touch and Go, you know, great labels, formed around cities, heavily involved in the scene, and honest, good natured people.
I brought bands like the EX, ZU, Do make say think, the Oxes, dalek and hundreds more to this quiet little town, and made it feel as if some kind of scene, or creative energy was growing. I booked the first UK tours for bands like Neptune, parts and Labour, Don Vito and Fordamage.
In about 2004, me and my friend started the band Action Beat, which was primarily influenced by Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth, Boredoms, the Ex, and we have toured Europe regularly since about 2006. We have played more than 500 shows since we started.
Why did you want to put out The Ascension? When did you discover it? Why do you think it’s important to put out this kind of music now.
Well, I wasn’t even born when Branca recorded this record, I was a year short, so in a way, it’s kind of strange that I released it, but I believe that this is an extremely important record, which should be readily available in the greatest musical format, vinyl. I couldn’t find the vinyl record anywhere, and I just wanted to own a copy of it on 12inch, no matter who manufactured it. That Robert Long artwork deserves to be on a 12inch sleeve.
When I first heard the Ascension, I thought it was the most spectacular sounding record I had ever heard, or would ever hear. I can’t imagine what it must have sounded like to someone listening to it in 1981. You can see what it did for Sonic Youth.
Lightfield (In Consonance) is probably my favourite track, the guitars sound almost like violins chiming together in perfect synchronisation, the drums are just so rhythmical, you can’t help to dance to the groove. The guitars on this record are clean and bright, but they sound so violent when the strings are tuned in unison and played with sheer ferocity. It just creates this brutal drone unlike anything you will ever hear.
The Ascension is a revolutionary piece of art, which to this day sounds completely innovative, visionary, pioneering, and absolutely ingenious.
On your website you say –‘The Ascension was one of those rare records that managed to change things. Maybe not right away, but as time has passed, its importance and influence has become more and more clear.’ Would you say it’s a record that influences your own band?
I would certainly say that this record is highly undervalued, not underrated, because it is extremely well rated by journalists, but undervalued in the sense that not many people will think of it as a historically pioneering piece of music.
The record paved the way for sonic youth, and you can hear the Ascension in any of their recordings. They used his ideas of octave tunings throughout their career, and even Steve Shelly’s drums sound like Wischerth’s. Think of the bands sonic youth have influenced, and then think about the fact that these bands wouldn’t have had that initial influence if it wasn’t for this record.
Action Beat certainly wouldn’t have a clue!!!
Could you tell us a bit about the process of reissuing it? Did it involve remastering and did you have to work with Glenn Branca in any way?
I basically asked Glenn if he would be willing to allow me to reissue the vinyl, and after about 4 weeks, he finally replied saying he was prepared to do this but only if I paid a substantial advance. I can’t go into figures because that is unfair, but let’s just say the advance cost as much as the record did to press, and if any of you know about pressing 180g white vinyl, with full colour artwork, you will know it isn’t cheap. Rightly so, Glenn deserves every penny he gets, and after having some pretty bad experiences, it’s only right that he gets what he deserves. For all he knew, I could be some twat that pressed the records, sold them all, and fucked off with the money!
I went for a meeting with Glenn in NYC, as I was out there anyway. I was completely nervous about meeting him, and didn’t know how to open the conversation. I didn’t want to come across like a nerd, or a super fan. Anyway, I was reading an Irvine Welsh book on the subway, and I finally get to the stop in the lower east side. I get to his apartment, and he comes out and first thing he says is “so, you’re Don. Where you from”? I go into the same old story about how I am from Scotland, but my parents moved me to England when I was young, hence the accent. He goes on, “Scotland aye, one of my favourite writers is from Scotland, Irvine Welsh”. “Oh wow, I am just reading ‘Acid House’. We then go on to talk about the last short story in the book, ‘a smart cunt’, which is a brilliant read, and then, like a smart cunt myself, I somewhat charm him with my impersonations of Scottish accents! After that, we hit a bar where you can smoke, which is quite unusual in NYC seeing as they have a majority ban on smoking in pubs. I have 4 beers, he has one rather large sambuca.
So yeah, I ‘worked’ with Glenn on that and my ideas for the art layout, but everything else, I pretty much did myself. I sorted out all the artwork with Robert Longo, making sure I had the correct print resolutions. I mailed Weasel Walter to see if he could do another re-master for the record, but he informed me that he only re-mastered the ascension for fun, and sent it to Glenn. The next thing he knows, it is being reissued on CD by acute. I wasn’t able to get the original tapes, as Glenn kept insisting that I use Weasel’s master, and nothing else. So, in the end I just had a CD to work with. It’s the same as the acute cd remaster, but hey, at it’s on wax.
I would love to do another re-master from the original tapes, but I am pleased with how it sounds. It was cut at Abbey Road, and pressed at EMI’s old plant, which is now the Vinyl Factory, London. They arguably have the best equipment for the job. If the white records go, which they will, the next repressing will be a re-master, and I will have that done in NYC. Watch this space.
What future plans do you have for the label? Is reissuing a record like The Ascension a one off or is it the kind of thing you might do again?
I am interested in doing Lesson Number 1, and The Ascension: The Sequel, but it’s not exactly cheap to reissue this stuff, and so I have to sell the first batch of records before I even think about the next project. Either that or the wife divorces me! Ha!
I have projects lined up. There is a great band and I want to release their record, but I’m not prepared to discuss them, because someone might steal my idea! Haha!
I want to do a long overdue Dalek/Zu split release, which was recorded 7 years ago, and never pressed. I would love to do Bilge Pump’s first record. Also, I will eventually release the first Action Beat record.
My friend said to me the other day, “Why don’t you ask Soul Jazz if you can release the Ethiopiques records on vinyl”. That would be an absolute dream come true!
Music from the period seems to have been (re-)released more on compilations rather than on full length reissues from the original No New York Compilation to Soul Jazz’s New York Noise. Obviously some of those bands released next to nothing while others released dozens of records. Do you think that there are many other long players from the period that deserve dusting off?
The theoretical girls, the static, Teenage Jesus, Mars, DNA, James Chance, Ad Hoc Rock, Intense Molecular Activity, Smoking Section, the Avant Squares, Mofungo, Red Decade, Chinese Puzzle, Avoidance Behaviour. Some of this stuff I have only heard on comps, and some of it I have only managed to find reissued CD’s. So much of that music isn’t readily available on vinyl, they just reissue it on CD because it is so cost effective. I hate CD’s. I refuse to buy them, unless it’s an album which isn’t coming out on vinyl – some ex records, zu records, for instance. Maybe it’s a good thing? I don’t know? Like, if you weren’t there to buy the vinyl at the time, tough shit! It’s history now!
That’s interesting what you said about how some things maybe shouldn’t be reissued. I guess that limiting the number of releases of a record keeps people on their toes to an extent, and encourages them to get involved and seek stuff out while it’s happening. Anyway, as a final question… can you suggest some records for us? Maybe a few things from the same era as The Ascension or in a similar vein and a few more current things.
The same era? Mmm… I love the ESG record which was also on 99 records. Damn that’s good. The Sonic Youth ‘Blue’ record, featuring burning spear is also brilliant. Better than their latest stuff for sure. That was put out by Glenn Branca, if you didn’t already know. Anything by DNA is absolutely fucking apeshit, and worth having! Mars are great, and as much as Lydia Lunch gets on my nerves, Teenage Jesus are arguably a fantastic band.
New bands. Well, it’s all about Bilge Pump, Don Vito, Divorce, Hired Muscle, and erm, Action Beat…. if I do say so myself.
Glenn Branca’s The Ascension is available to order from www.fortissimorecords.co.uk and is really a great great record.