From Christian country duo the Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real in 1959, through Mick Jagger’s music for Kenneth Anger’s 1969 film Invocation Of My Demon Brother, to the darker fringes of death metal, Satan has long been a preoccupation in popular music. The blues, after all, is the Devil’s Music. PAUL ROONEY’s magnificent 16-minute opus Lucy Over Lancashire brought something entirely new to the genre, however, on its release ten years ago. Described as a “masterpiece” by BBC 6Music’s Marc Riley, the 12” red vinyl has become something of a cult classic, and would certainly be one of my eight Desert Island Discs choices.
Lucy… is a startlingly original combination of brooding dub and a maniacal verbal assault that takes you on a surreal journey through a Lancashire conceptualised as a locus for Lucifer to perform his evil deeds. Rooney’s historical sweep takes in the dark Satanic mills of a cotton industry fuelled by the Transatlantic slave trade, the witches of Pendle Hill, the Red Devils (Manchester United) and musical characters like The Fall, Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall and John Cooper Clarke; and there are similarities with the latter’s bitingly satirical wordplay in the record’s lyrical intensity. Commissioned by Radio Lancashire’s On The Wire reggae show, the record is underscored by Jamaican music’s biblical evocations and millenarian strangeness, but unlike Lee Perry’s devil being chased out of eart’, Rooney’s water sprite narrator remains locked in the record’s grooves, spinning for all of eternity.
If you missed Lucy… before, Owd Scrat Records, where all things Rooney are to be found, have just issued it as a remastered CD single/download. This accompanies another welcome release, a brand new LP, Futile Exorcise. The exorcising here is less disturbing than its predecessor, however the new record is arguably the Liverpool artist’s most accomplished collection to date. But, before describing its rich contents, perhaps an introduction to Paul Rooney, one of Merseyside’s best kept musical secrets who has been producing enigmatic and endearing work for the past 20 years. He cites influences as eclectic as Laurie Anderson, Ivor Cutler, The Boredoms and Melt Banana. Closer to home, he has huge respect for Half Man Half Biscuit’s DIY ethic and Nigel Blackwell’s surreal social commentary. Paul’s seemingly random use of sounds, and his lyrics’ unexpected imagery, recall Captain Beefheart, and there is a pop knowingness evident, especially of lo-fi indie. The music’s characteristics include melancholy, humour and the absurd; it can be elegiac and occasionally terrifying – but it does not fit neatly into any single genre. Its referents are as much in contemporary art and literature as they are in music.
Paul trained in fine art, graduating from Edinburgh School of Art, and visual art remains the core of his practice. Successful in the UK and internationally, he has exhibited widely in the UK, including at Tate Britain, National Galleries of Scotland, Baltic, Whitechapel and ICA, and in Mexico, China and Spain. He won the Northern Art Prize in 2008, has work in the Arts Council collection, and has been artist in residence at several venues including in Cuba and Australia. His base, however, has remained Liverpool, where he has exhibited consistently including at Bluecoat, from his early post-graduate paintings, to a video commission in 2009 based on the writing of Wirral-born novelist Malcolm Lowry.
Known primarily for his film works, narrative has always been at the heart of Paul’s work, and his prolific writing output, including Dust And Other Stories (2012), is equally acclaimed. He says that his sung and spoken pieces “deal with ordinary moments and familiar places that are made strange by music, by narrative daftness or by other kinds of artifice, stressing the complications and absurdities of our attempts to make meaning out of the world.” The Guardian described him as “master of urban myth”, and it was his stories of the everyday, seemingly deadpan yet structurally complex, that found expression as sound works, often arranged for choirs. It was natural that Paul, a fan of post-punk, grungey pop, would create a band – called Rooney – as a vehicle for these songs. Between 1998 and 2000, the trio (with Ian Jackson and Colin Cromer) managed to achieve success as a gigging and recording outfit, doing sessions for John Peel and appearing in his Festive Fifty, while at the same time being regarded as an art project, part of a circuit of ‘art bands’ like Die Kunst, the Ken Ardley Playboys and Turner Prize winner Martin Creed.
Recognising the limitations of this scene’s heavily ironic approach, Paul decided to move on. “I didn’t want to be part of that any more. In Rooney I was happy to play galleries, but now I am less concerned about using it as part of my art career. I have more respect for what it means to make a good record.” Which is what Futile Exorcise is. In discussing it with him, he describes the process, working from his home studio where his “best investment has been a good microphone – that and some new keyboards. The rest is guitar and bass. I’ve continued my lo-fi approach, but using Logic Pro has meant I can make the sound more sophisticated, and there are lots of beats, which is unusual for a lo-fi ‘indie’ record.” And the result is a richly layered sound that builds on the dubby spaciousness of Lucy… with a greater range of instrumentation, effects and, importantly, voices, both Paul’s own and guest vocalists.
Futile Exorcise is being promoted as ‘an album of revenant songs’ that ‘delves even further into the demonically possessed everyday’. And, indeed, we get a series of disembodied characters who have returned from the dead: or, in the case of final track, Spit Valve, a pool of spit inside a trumpet, whose miserable tale, accompanied by a hauntingly evocative looped trumpet played by Gary Abbot, is incredibly compelling. The songs on the album come from three principal sources that combine to create what Paul describes as “strange hybrids” – writing from some of his earlier projects, existing folk ballads and old-time music hall. Opening track, Sunday Best, is glorious 80s post-punk – drum machine, simple keyboards, driving bass, shouty chorus – a reworking of a music hall song by a ghost who returns to find his wife has broken her promise, remarried and – worst of all – the new husband is wearing the best Sunday clothes that the deceased left behind.
Paul’s collaborators include the duo Lutine, with an ethereal version of The Cruel Mother (a folk song also known as The Greenwood Sidey), while on Bay Of Biscay, Emily Dankworth sings another traditional song over a dense, increasingly oppressive backing track – both selections emphasising the dark roots of British folk. Mackenzie (Smell Of The Petrol) features the plummy narration of actor Gregory Cox, sounding like something between playwright Harold Pinter and Viv Stanshall’s Sir Henry Rawlinson creation. Recounting the tale of 19th Century railway contractor William Mackenzie, who is buried – allegedly sitting up playing cards in a pact with the Devil – in the pyramidal grave of local legend at the former Presbyterian church in Rodney Street, the song was created for a sound installation presented there during Sound City in 2010.
Paul’s two young sons make an appearance too. Scott contributes some enthusiastic singing of “you’re dead” on Father’s Grave, adapted from a music hall song, in which Squeeze seem to meet Kanye West, together with woozy stylophone and vigorous clapping. And in the poignant Black Ear, Sean’s whispering voice, occasionally interrupted by a squeaky toy and his Dad’s shouted instruction, is set against plangent piano interludes, alternating with a driving rhythm section. There is something disorientating going on here, both musically and in the narrative. We are never sure whose voice we are hearing, the living or the dead.
Paul’s voice throughout is synthesised, either slowed considerably or, as in Lost High Street, speeded up so he becomes comic Scouse, commenting on an open top bus tour of Edinburgh (check out the accompanying video online). Arguably the LP’s tour de force, the track cites, amongst others, the writers Defoe, Shelley and de Quincey’s Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater, actor Alastair Sim – “born in a cinema to the right” – and Mathias Rust, the German who sensationally landed a private plane in Moscow’s Red Square during the Cold War. Here the USSR is renamed EUR, and as the alleged spy emerges from the plane, the narrator recalls “‘Why is six scared of seven?’, the pilot asked the soldiers with fear in his voice as he is dragged away; ‘Because seven ate nine’”. Through atmospheric noises and crashing drums, the monotonous voice carries on, resignedly asking “Am I about to wake up?” Long pause. “No, still here”. In these absurd dream/undead states, and in the black comedy and tragicomic outlook on life that characterise Futile Exorcise, Paul acknowledges his debt to Irish avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett: “In his work, we see an abject, existential state – things are so extreme they become absurd. I think in a similar way I create quite masochistic characters in horrible situations.”
I ask if there is any prospect of Futile Exorcise being performed live, but Paul says it would be almost impossible. However, an album of all new material is in the pipeline: “It will be more coherent than this LP, which is very eclectic and has material I’ve written over a long time. The new record could potentially be performed live. I miss the band and the pleasure of doing it live, though the gigs can be scary but ultimately enjoyable.” But first Paul is hoping to revisit and rework his choral works from 2001-06, releasing these on CD. So, plenty to look forward to. And don’t forget to visit Owd Scrat, which is an old Lancashire term for the Devil.
Futile Exorcise is out now on Owd Scrat Records. The remastered version of Lucy Over Lancashire is out on 9th October.
Paul Rooney is showing a new video for the track Father’s Grave in the exhibition The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists At Croxteth Hall between 5th and 30th September.