Cultural Amnesia - Press My Hungry ButtonBetween 1979 and 1983 Ben Norland, Gerard Greenway, and John Peacock recorded as Cultural Amnesia. They appeared during the post-punk period and the nascent beginnings of synth-pop. The trio closely identified with the industrial / post-industrial music and the then burgeoning cassette culture. That connection resulted in three cassette albums - Video Rideo, Sinclair's Luck, The Uncle of the Boot - being released on Con Tapes / Datenverarbeitung, Hearsay and Heresy and Datenverarbeitung respectively with tracks appearing on numerous cassette compilations. Cultural Amnesia appeared alongside Chris and Cosey, Attrition, Lustmord on the legendary Third Mind release Rising From The Red Sands and beside Bauhaus, Death In June, Nico in the third volume of Pleasantly Surprised's tape compilations. The more astute reader may be aware that Hearsay and Heresy was the label operated by Geff Rushton, before he became John Balance and joined Psychic TV and before he established Coil as his own musical project. Geff Rushton played a significant role in Cultural Amnesia - supplying lyrics, arranging releases, providing contacts and recording on one or two occasions. There's more to Cultural Amnesia than the passing involvement of an adolescent John Balance. Cultural Amnesia were prolific composers, in the three years of their existence over 130 tracks were recorded. Most remained unreleased while the others remained hard to locate. Last year saw the release of Enormous Savages, a limited vinyl release on Anna Logue Records showcasing the first fruits of the digitisation of the Cultural Amnesia archive. A vivid concoction of primitive electronic rhythms with jolts of abrasive guitar, is how we reviewed it.
And now we have Press My Hungry Button a second selection culled from the archives - with a whopping 30 tracks spread over four sides of vinyl. Press My Hungry Button illustrates a far broader scope of sounds and influence than the group I termed a synth pop post-punk outfit. Press My Hungry Button appears to cover all the bases that were being investigated in the wake of punk, pushing their electronics and whatever other instruments they could lay their hands upon into unique and inventive territories, with idiosyncratic vocals offering lengthy, cynical and often oblique visions.
But what of the music: The Media Funk' and 'Shiny Guitar Music' tap into that punk-funk thang. The wordy delivery of 'The Media Funk' is primitive electro dance, with 'Shiny Guitar Music' offering one of Cultural Amnesia finer forays into melodic synth pop. The pulsing electro-throb, guitar shredding effects and careering vocals of 'Repetition For This World' captures the energy of post-punk filtered through electronics. Likewise, 'Fingerprint Testing' is another strong entry with its bubbling electronics, buzzsaw guitar and deadpan vocals. It's wonderfully structured, incorporating moments of frantic rapid-fire vocal delivery over incessant beats to pared down acoustic strum capturing the essence of post-punk where anything was possible.
Cultural Amnesia's dalliance with synth-pop arrives fully formed on their version of the Human League's 'Being Boiled', a curiously twisted English take with added guitar roughage. Curiouser still, is the deconstruction of the Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction', reduced to a motorik rhythm while a distorted bass hammers out the riff, amongst guitar shrieks and clipped vocals. Elsewhere, with its wandering bassline and brushed snare sound 'Secrets of the Passive Margin' reminds of Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats, while 'Uncle of the Boot' with its electro throb, bursts of feedback and distorted vocals is pure industrial music bolstered by some clinical riffing. 'For All Your Needs' is a prime slice of rock'n'roll electro-punk; like Suicide if they were from an English countryside village. There's a similar pulse to 'Man About Town' but here it's augmented by some detuned (or maybe just out of tune) guitar stylings and a cheap casio melody while referencing the mythical Michael figure who features in numerous Cultural Amnesia tracks.
The pace slows somewhat on the appropriately titled 'Beautiful Song'. Its tranquil melody and slight stuttering electronic pulse creating a strong atmospheric piece. Who knows what someone like Martin Hannett could have done with these? 'Magic Theatre' stretches their atmospheric music further splicing in primitive rhythms, repetitious guitars, little sax solos to the unfolding gliding electronics. Dark synth pop appears to be the order of the day on 'Where Has All The Difference Gone?' and 'Shallow Water', with the former offering cold, detached vocals with haunting effects in a cynical love song touching upon nursery rhymes.
Nursery rhymes and childhood feature in the contributions penned by John Balance. The haunting electro of 'Spoilt Children' is awash with references to nursery rhymes, children's television and Christian imagery. Themes that would later appear in Psychic TV appear on 'Scars For E' and 'Hot In the House'. Blood, scars, stains and the obvious lyrical nod to Genesis P. Orridge in the title appear amidst the hammering beats and buzzing tones of 'Scars For E' while the piercing guitar lines and minimal electro beats of 'Hot In The House' adds a smattering of Burroughs and Gysin influence to the post-punk edginess. It's a great track, and another fine example of Cultural Amnesia's inventive and infectious skewed take on synth-pop.
The release of Enormous Savages and Press My Hungry Button dovetails nicely with the renewed interest in all things post-punk and particularly the more obscure ends of now being rexamined by the Messthetics label, and in the electronic sphere by the labels Anna Logue Records and Vinyl-on-Demand. The work of Cultural Amnesia is awaiting (re)discovery, what are you waiting for?
The trio are now active again after a lengthy hiatus stretching some 15 years. We met up with Ben Norland and Gerard Greenway to shed some light on this curiously enigmatic and highly prolific outfit.
i) Who are / were Cultural Amnesia? Do you remember how you formed? And why?
Cultural Amnesia, were and are; Gerard Greenway, Ben Norland, and John Peacock (in fact we tend to regard any two of us recording together as a valid instance of the band). Very roughly, John plays guitar most of the time, Gerard sings a lot and plays keyboards and several musical oddities (berimbau, theremin, stylophone and so on), and Ben sings a bit and plays instruments a bit, but has always done most of the programming, production and post-production. Early on in their friendship Gerard and Ben had began exploring sound-recording and then music making but it it was Geff Rushton (later John Balance) who suggested that this music might find release in the then developing UK tape scene.
ii) Both Enormous Savages and Press My Hungry Button are filled with home-recorded electro, guitar and post-punk? Where did Cultural Amnesia fit and what were your influences at the time?
We fitted directly into the British tape scene, somewhere between post punk and industrial music. At that time our listed influences would have reflected that; Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division, PIL and so on. This was music that was self-consciously avant-garde and extreme and we enjoyed and emulated that. But there was other input - we were excited by disco; Chic, Georgio Moroder and cheezier dance floor material aswell. Also if you listen to the way our output developed, it becomes obvious that we were in fact influenced by parts of the progressive rock scene - Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, and early Pink Floyd for example. Lyrically, Cultural Amnesia had a lot more in common with the long narratives of prog rock, that the band might have liked to have admitted.
iii) Cultural Amnesia output was confined to cassette and Cultural Amnesia were part of the "cassette culture". Did you have an affinity for the cassette format? Or the cassette culture? What do you remember about the period?
Creatively it was a tremendously exciting time. A lot of home taped industrial music sounded like it was being pushed up against the limit of what was possible or acceptable. Cultural Amnesia didn't have any especial affinity to the cassette format though. It was just the only readily available format for home production and distribution. But we enjoyed the neo-dadaist graphics and photostatted documentation that went with it all. Visually and physically it felt and looked like "proper" counter cultural material - created in opposition to any commercial or populist instincts.
iv) There was talk years ago of releasing vinyl, what was that and whatever happened?
Yes, there was a possibility with Datenverabeitung, who released most of our cassette work. But at the critical moment the band and label lost contact with each other.
v) Synthesizers, electric organs, guitars, stylophone, kazoo... are listed amongst your instruments and 2-track recorders, 4-track recorders and "ghetto blasters" in your recording gear. Could you elaborate on the composing and recording techniques employed by Cultural Amnesia?
We composed in situ in the recording environment. Whatever tape machine we had was set on record most of the time. Composing and recording were more or less identical processes for the band. Generally we stretched our technical resources in order to try and produce as unusual and unnatural a collection of sounds as possible. So we stuck contact mics onto things, processed cheap instruments or non-instruments (metal-detector, toy keyboards, kazoos) recorded and re-recorded and re-re-re-recorded onto the cheapest of cassette tapes. Certainly we had little sense of trying to achieve a "good" or "proper" sound. At first we performed more or less directly to the tape machine, with secondary tape sources running "live" as we played, walking around the microphones in-order to change the stereo field! Later on we started using a 4-track portastudio, and got involved in (relatively) more sophisticated arrangements.
vi) Cultural Amnesia performed live. Could you tell us a bit about Cultural Amnesia live performances?
As you can probably tell from the previous answer, Cultural Amnesia focused on recording music rather than performing it. We have never spent time rehearsing and perfecting a performable repertory. Each time we got together we just wanted to record new material - once a decent version of a song was committed to tape, we tended to forget about it. As a result, our few performances we rather disorganised affairs. The pieces that worked best live were long open-ended improvisations in the first place. We certainly couldn't and didn't try to reproduce our "recorded" sound. On several occasions many of the audience walked out, but we would have been proud of that.
vii) How did you meet Geff Rushton, later to become John Balance of Coil? What role did he play in Cultural Amnesia? Did he ever record with Cultural Amnesia? What are your recurring memories of Geff Rushton?
We met Geff when he was the editor of Stabmental magazine, a DIY fanzine covering industrial and post-punk. He was 17 or 18, two or three years older than us, and very knowledgeable and connected. How he first got into it we never did ask him. He acted as a kind of manager to us, though he never had any kind of official role. He had the contacts to know who was putting together a compilation, who might be an appropriate person to release a Cultural Amnesia tape, etc. Even when he went off to join Psychic TV and then to start Coil, he was constantly in touch - urging us on, suggesting new projects. He was very driven in that way, always full of ideas, plans, new projects. He released our album Sinclair's Luck himself, and designed the package, and basically arranged all our releases. We have a lot to thank him for. In all this he never tried to muscle in on the band or impose any ideas of what we should be doing. He would always give us his frank opinion, but never tried to direct us or play the Svengali. He did record with us on one or two things, and as is known he wrote a number of songs for us, all of which can be found on Enormous Savages and Press My Hungry Button. 'YellowSong', a track from 1980 that he plays on, is down for release on our third archive LP (from VOD in 2009 or 2010).
viii) What rekindled the interest in Cultural Amnesia? What was the impetus behind releasing Enormous Savages and Press My Hungry Button?
Interest in Cultural Amnesia has resurfaced because of a recent revival of interest in the tape scene. It was also fortunate for us that the band's website went live at around the same time. A number of labels have emerged with a policy of re-releasing music from this period, and it was through two of them (Anna Logue Records and VOD-Records) that the material was released. We hope that there will be at least one more vinyl release of archive material in the near future.
ix) One thing that's puzzled me is why you chose not to reissue the cassette albums in their entirety but opted for varied collections?
The idea certainly crossed our minds, But there was (and still is) a lot of unreleased material; roughly two "complete" albums existed as unreleased material (much of it post dating our the released music) and a lot of miscellaneous material from all periods of our output. In the end it was better to release broader collections, both in respect of the whole Cultural Amnesia archive and in order to suit Anna Logue Records and VOD-records editorial policies. At the time, we regarded The Uncle of the Boot and Sinclair's Luck as kind of "filler" collections - it was the following two unreleased albums that we thought of as complete ensembles of songs. In retrospect the connections across the whole body of of our work are easier to see and different arrangements of the material seem equally valid.
x) I'm intrigued by the interpretation of the Rolling Stones''Satisfaction' and the cover version of the Human League's 'Being Boiled' that appear on Press My Hungry Button. Can you remember what prompted these recordings?
It is possible to see them as statements of course, but if they are they were not very calculated ones. ‘Satisfaction’ was recorded whilst we waited for John to turn up for a session, the feedback into which the track degenerates resulting when Ben put down the guitar to let him into the house. Savage anti-rockism or manic silliness? Perhaps a bit of both, but probably more of the latter. A few of our looser improvisations sprang up as parodies of classic rock tracks, 'Satisfaction' was the only one that turned out to be worth keeping.
Cultural Amnesia liked the Human League of Travelogue and Reproduction and we also had more than a sneaking admiration for Dare, which was a huge hit. We rather enjoyed The League’s move from the underground to the suburban disco. But our cover of 'Being Boiled' includes prominent guitar, something that neither the band behind the original track or Dare would have approved of.
xi) Response to Enormous Savages and Press My Hungry Button have been particularly favourable, do you ever wonder what might have been had it been released at the time? Do you think they have stood the test of time?
Much of Enormous Savages and Press My Hungry Button was released and was favourably received! Some material hasn't stood the test of time - but to be honest, that's the material that we're choosing not to release! The music is certainly "of it's time" both technically and aesthetically, but we all still enjoy listening to it.
xii) Whatever happened to Cultural Amnesia? Why did you stop?
The band stopped because we were no longer living in the same area. As readers will gather from the above, Cultural Amnesia were quite young. Higher education took us off to different places. Oddly there was no discussion of the future of the band. Perhaps the collapse of the LP project with Datenverarbeitung, which happened around this point, seemed to add a conclusive note to our changing circumstances. But given tendencies in Cultural Amnesia’s song writing and the sound qualities of 80s digital synthesisers, perhaps it’s a good thing we stopped when we did. Thinking about how we might have developed as the decade went on can be frightening.
xiii) The original members of Cultural Amnesia began recording again in 1998. Could you tell us about this?
We had rather lost touch a bit, but came together in the early nineties because of an unrelated publishing project. Because of the nature of the band, getting back together didn't mean practising or rehearsing together, but actively recording together - that's how the band functions. The technical problems of recording had always been a barrier, but by then computer recording solutions had become cheap and easy - which made working together far smoother.
xiv) How does the Cultural Amnesia of today differ to the Cultural Amnesia active between 1980 - 1983?
We're not so different as a creative unit. We're not so antagonistic in our decision making, and as result our musical output is probably a bit broader than before - though there's a lot of continuity there with the older work. We've also taken to using samples and loops from unfinished work in our archive, so several of our current songs feature performances from our past incarnations!
xv) What have the three of you been doing musically outside of Cultural Amnesia in the interim period?
John has remained active, playing solo and with bands and recording a number of albums for sale at gigs, etc. There’s a site at www.johnpeacock.com. Recently he has become very involved with Guitar Craft, the organisation set up by Robert Fripp. Ben released a couple of years ago a mini-CD of his solo project, The Milgram Obedience to Authority Experiment (Trail of Droplets, released by Entr’acte). Gerard occasionally makes industrial ambient pieces using broken toy keyboards, recorders and a loop box and uploaded a few things to MySpace recently.
xvi) There are tentative plans to release recordings of new material from Cultural Amnesia. Could you tell us about this? Anything else we should know about?
The band slowly resumed activities in the late 90s. We aren’t able to meet often, once or twice a year, but when we do we still work pretty quickly. There are twenty or more new tracks and we are keen to find a way of releasing them properly. Quite a number of them have been made available at the website. We are having some discussions at the moment which we hope will result in a CD. There will also be a third release of the early material from VOD-Records in late 2009 or early 2010.
Cultural Amnesia My Space
Gerard Greenway My Space
Ben Norland solo project, The Milgram Obedience to Authority Experiment
Anna Logue Records