JEFF KEEN: NOISE ART
Jeff Keen. Artists, poet, film maker, all round extremely excellent creator of unique stuff. Born 26 November 1923; died 21 June 2012.
When I first saw some of the Jeff Keen films I didn’t know quite what had hit me. He seemed to be the missing like between pop art, surrealism, abstract expressionism, Cocteau, Warhol, Jack Kirby, Picasso, and loads of other well known artists all at the same time. I started to discuss the idea of issuing some of his soundtrack recordings with the BFI. And when the BFI issued their remarkable 4 DVD set of Jeff Keen films called GAZWRX there was even an insert stating that his film music will be coming out on Trunk Records. Slowly we crawled towards this mighty goal, but after Jeff died I started meeting with his daughter and talking about the possibilities of an interesting Jeff Keen album. On a visit to her home she revealed a box of cassettes that Jeff had produced in the 1980s using the equipment in his studio; a mic, tape recorder, Atari computer, ZX Spectrum computer, a Binson echo unit and some home made instruments. The sounds on these cassettes could only have been made by Jeff Keen and seemed to explode out of nowhere, just like his art.
The recordings from these cassettes are what are on this album. The sleevenotes have an essay by David Toop and a piece by William Fowler (who, with Jeff Keen, put together the incredible BFI box set).
The album is also on CD with a MASSIVE 20 Page booklet.
Seven sleeves were created in the end with six different vinyl colourways. There was also a limited CD issued. And a download. Find them now in Ye Olde Trunk Shoppe…
Blatzwurds of Deepwar Plasma: the Noise of Jeff Keen
Words fail me, not because these cassette recordings by Jeff Keen (1923-2012) are exasperating or impenetrable, but because they resist analysis or explanation. They are important, not least because they were created for his expanded cinema shows, yet how exactly were they made? I can guess but to be truthful, I can’t exactly tell you. All that can be said is that they have a primitive power and integrity that is consistent with the way Jeff made his films and other artworks, a labour of love in which he persevered no matter whether the world showed interest or not.
But words fail me because they are meant to. My first encounter with Jeff’s work came in 1966. I visited the ICA when it was still in Dover Street, in London’s Mayfair. Whatever was on show there that day is forgotten but I came away with a Jeff Keen poster in murky black and white - Amazing Rayday, Secret Comic Number 4 - for the cost of 9d (there were 240 pennies to the pound, so for a schoolboy like me, it was affordable). Dated June 1966, a Future City production, with Jeff’s Brighton home address given in full, the poster’s grubby newsprint style was populated by a mix of comic book imagery (Popeye is recognisable in silhouette), Batman-style sound-effects onomatopoeia, old scientific drawings, typewritten texts, graffiti and pen scribbles. None of these elements were formally organised: words were obscured, overlaid, run vertically, obliterated. It was as if a box of ideas had exploded on the page to leave a messy, noisy residue.
Look closer at the details and clues to Jeff’s intentions, particularly his approach to sound work, begin to appear. The poster introduces Dr Gaz, wordkiller, clearly a descendent of fictional villains such as Dr. Fu Manchu or Fantômas. Dr. Gaz has a mission to wipe out the rationality of language. Like an alien whose limited vocabulary is compensated by the potent barbarism of its ray-gun violence, he speaks in harsh, staccato blatz wurdz and shatturd wurdfrgmtz: “gluc-c, glucuronic, graaaaaak, zap, kakakakaka, zoop zoop zoop.” According to Gaz, “blatz is deepwar ryth-u-m of parallel worldsystems.” The poster tells us that he was right to assassinate the poet; his techniques of sound warfare include showing films by hardman Hollywood star Alan Ladd with a variety of replacement soundtracks: the soft dance band songs of Guy Lombardo who claimed his sound to be the “sweetest music this side of heaven”, Bela Lugosi’s ghost whispers and “mr artode”. The latter was, of course, Antonin Artaud, whose 1948 radio work, Pour en Finir Avec le Jugement de Dieu, was banned from transmission for its extreme vocal and musical sounds, its anti-American politics and ‘blasphemy’. In his manifesto for a new theatre of signs, gestures, unearthly sounds and images, The Theatre and its Double, Artaud wrote about breaking “the intellectual subjugation of language, by providing meaning with a new and more profound intellectuality, hidden beneath gestures and signs, and raised to the dignity of particular exorcisms.”
Other references to the sources of Jeff’s word murdering inclinations can be found buried in Amazing Rayday. There is, for example, “sir ill”, or surreal, which suggests that Dr. Gaz’s wurdblatz was descended from Andre Breton’s belief that automatism released a radically new form of poetry from the unconscious. Dr Gaz is also reminiscent of Dr Wilhelm Reich, whose controversial theories of energy and the electrical discharge of orgasm was intricately embedded within the novels of William Burroughs. A habitué of the Dover Street ICA, Burroughs also repurposed disposable pop culture such as pulp sci fi and comics, treated language as a virus and propagated the idea of mashing up incompatible cultural manifestations into delirious assaults on rational sense.
Burroughsian characters like Dr Gaz and Kamikaze Kid emerge as shadow beings out of the repetition of Jeff’s sound pieces, basic delay creating entrancing loops of distorted wordsounds accumulating, decaying and exploding in the tidal surges and repeated bursts of overload that characterise films such as Flik Flak, Marvo Movie, Rayday Film, White Lite and Meatdaze. Every sound is saturated by the aftermath of World War II: the madness and dread born of bomb culture; cold war folk terrors such as brainwashing; the growing media attack of the 1950s with all its accompanying fears of hidden persuaders and social disintegration. In among the cheap as chips noise of modern microelectronics swarm EVP traces of air raid sirens, aircraft engines, machine gun fire and broken transmissions from the front, or many fronts: word wars, chemical wars, propaganda wars, information wars, memory wars, comedy wars, subliminal wars, psychology wars. They remind me of the found images, halftone dots and cut-up texts of Eduardo Paolozzi, whose Abba-Zaba book, produced at Watford College of Art in 1970, sloshed around in the fertile mud of weird news, creature features and postwar paranoia. At the same time as echoing the pugnacious Futurism of Marinetti’s Free Words, they also anticipate the lo-fi mind control aesthetic of Throbbing Gristle and all the tapes that flowed out of industrial, homemade electro-pop, loop and drone music in the 1980s. Such comparisons can be useful as context but also unhelpful, since these are deeply personal recordings, Jeff himself as the voice of Dr Gaz, using a WASP synth, an Atari PC, a ZX Spectrum, Casio keyboards, children’s toys, a microphone and simple effects to persuade his listeners with the cheap promises of 1950s sales techniques: “Men, women, boys, girls, you too can create deadly power-packed blatz-poems or your brains refunded. Amaze your friends, destroy your enemies with well-directed blatzwurds.”
Although Richard Hamilton made a convincing early case for British pop art, the seductive surfaces and icons of America always threatened to derail any artist looking across the Atlantic for inspiration. Jeff Keen’s work drew from many American influences yet seemed anti-American in its rawness, its intimacy, its deep connections with the derangement of comic anarchy and anger in postwar Britain. He collaborated with Bob Cobbing and Annea Lockwood for the sound to Marvo Movie, a montage of texts that included Jack Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight (a Cobbing favourite), the daily newspaper and a scientific article; the three of them, in Cobbing’s words, “read simultaneously – words tending towards abstract sound.”
Then there was Brighton, and a fascination with seaside futurism and nostalgia. According to his daughter, Stella: “He would go out and record live sounds both in the cinema (he loved the hollow echoey sound of the recordings from this) and in amusement arcades. He would record the sound effects of the games being played. And in the movies he was invariably recording screams and explosions, gunfire and laser battles. What he loved was the disintegration of the sound - the fuzzier/messier it sounded the better - he wasn't going for a clean finish here!” All of these cassette recordings would be meticulously archived and labeled for future use, then copied and spliced together on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, sometimes mixed with commercially released film soundtracks or carefully overlaid with electronic effects and voices.
“He also made his own 'art brut' style instruments, like the Orpheus Lyre made from rough bits of wood and plastic,” writes Stella, “and customized others, such as the electric violin with doll’s body and legs included he called Orpheo Blatzo. The violin's bow is made from dolls’ legs and a guitar string. Genius!” Like other UK-based artists who worked with a postwar noise aesthetic – John Latham or Gustav Metzger – the ideas were more important than the medium. For Jeff, the growing influx of American pulp combined with English parochialism to make a body of work that was unique; its range, whether film, sound, graphics or constructions, was consistent – a uniquely strange collision that could jump in a heartbeat from sinister to silly, frenzied to gracefully beautiful, personal to universal. In another life he might have been Yellow Magic Orchestra or Kraftwerk (or more likely The Normal) but for a dogged individualism, a compulsion to stay faithful to the ideas that sustained him throughout his life. Thus far he has not been considered as a sound artist nor has he been acknowledged in surveys of electronic and experimental music; the publication of these recordings as sound works in their own right should shift history in his direction.