John Duncan “First Recordings 1978-1985” 3 x LP + DVD box (2006)

box set coverI have to admit that the concept of this box set had me very excited.  There are several horribly rare early cassettes by John Duncan that I have been wanting to hear for decades.  Sadly this set doesn’t include a lot of those things.  One side of “No” is here, which is exciting to hear finally (coincidentally that piece has just been published online at part of the Close Radio archives).  But there is no sign of “Two Solos” or the unreleased soundtracks for “Hurts So Good” and “Uberfall”, nor the early unreleased C.V Massage recordings.  With that in mind I was disappointed that the first disc of this box is taken up by “Dark Market Broadcast”, a later cassette which has already been reissued on CD by Staalplaat some years ago.  And the second disc is taken up by BDR Ensemble’s “Station Event”, which is one of the few early cassettes that I do own, and which was also reissued in the artist edition of the “Lowest Form of Music” CD box set.  But it is hard to begrudge that, as this wonderful recording still remains little heard until this box.  The big draw for me was side 5 with “No” and “Probe”, two tracks which I had never heard before.  Side 6 meanwhile is one of side of the “Gain” cassette released by AQM in Japan, a scarce cassette, but also one I have and much easier to track down than the other above mentioned early tapes.  The bonus DVD includes less than 30 minutes of material with “Prayer” and “Phantom”, both sold on videos by RRRecords in the States back in the 1980’s, and unfortunately has no sign of the early tapes “Right”, “Free”, “Out” or “Human Choir”, let alone the films “Hurts So Good” or “Move Forward”.  So some of my disappointment comes trying to actually track down a lot of Duncan’s early material over the decades.  It wasn’t the box I had in mind, especially as the last LP is more bits and pieces than reissuing complete releases.

That said, I have made my peace with the set as being a good collection of music.  “Dark Market Broadcast” certainly is a good slice of the sound that most people with associate with John Duncan – a mixture of beautiful shortwave noises and voices which Duncan seems to have a magic touch for.  I have spent time exploring the other bands of the radio outside AM and FM and never found such wonderful sounds, and find that Duncan seems to be better at utilizing them than most out there.  With him there are waves of undulating static noise ranging from harsh to subtle as well as distinctly pulsing sound.  Recorded in 1985 this first LP actually represents the latter end of the chronological spectrum represented in this set.

Quite a contrast is the second disc with the 1978 recording of BDR Ensemble on Close Radio.  Here the music is by Michael LeDonne-Bhennet and Tom Recchion on woodwinds and percussion respectively and reflects the sound of the Los Angeles Free Music Society which Recchion was a very active member of at the that time.  Through Duncan’s career there has been a strong presence of the ‘event’ which the music is often a part.  “Dark Market Broadcast” was in addition to be a piece of music specifically composed for airing on pirate radio.  “Station Event” reaches back earlier into John’s involvement with radio when he was a regular host of KPFK’s Close Radio with Paul McCarthy.  With Close Radio, John was often a conduit for presenting other’s work, but on this night became more directly involved.  “Station Event” was an exploration of both separation and connection.  The three performers were separated from each other in separate studios, the two musicians not even being able to hear each other.  Despite this, LeDonne-Bhennet and Recchion create startlingly beautiful, haunting, quiet sounds which flow beautifully.  In the control room John Duncan took calls on the air which range from mundane comments to poetry, dream recollection, and impressions on the music and the thoughts it inspired as well as spontaneous sounds.  Surprisingly the only disapproving call coming in disparaged the Ensemble as commie homos, but one wonders whether the caller was even serious in that.  Most of the callers were anonymous, though some were obviously from friends such as Juan (probably Gomez) and Pat who asks John to convey a message to Michael.  One of the very nice moments in this is a dream recalled by a woman who sounds a little like Amy DeWolfe a.k.a. Amazon Bambi (though I wonder if she hadn’t already moved to Portland with Smegma by this time), which John responds to by describing one of his own dreams.  The calls and music play off each wonderfully, which is impressive for an unedited spontaneous performance.  This LP does only contain about half of the original performance as included on the original cassette release, but is probably the best section.

“No” is from the same year [however I have seen it referred to earlier as having been done in 1977] and also recorded on Close Radio with the assistance of Michael LeDonne-Bhennet and Tom Recchion.  However, instead of playing music, this time Mike and Tom were blocking the entrance to the performance area while Duncan performed solo.  The central sound here is heavy breathing – a Reichian Event as John calls it.  Wilhelm Reich was a pioneer of psychology who dealt with the depths of sexual energy in such books as “The Function of the Orgasm” (1942).  Here John reaches deeply into this tradition while interjecting short prerecorded sentences.  Again this is an event that connects with the performance aspect not heard on Duncan’s recent recordings and is more directly confrontational in its subject matter as it cannot easily be dismissed as simply sound.  Following “No” on this side with the later shortwave solo “Probe” makes the latter seem less intense, though no less an enjoyable piece.  “Probe” was originally released on the cassette compilation “Assemblée Générale No°5” by Ptôse Production in a unique package which emulated a shrinkwrapped cut of meat as one might find in a supermarket.  A further extended exploration of the shortwave musical aesthetic can be found on the final side which is taken up by “Gain”, recorded in collaboration with Australian Paul Hurst, a member of Produktion.  Both contribute shortwave recordings supplemented by Paul Hurst’s field recordings of prostitutes.  Speaking about the collaboration with Hurst some years ago, Duncan recalled that he was at first excited by the connection with Hurst, but later disappointed to find him a shallow personality with the typical mass murderer fetish of Industrial musicians of the mid-1980’s.

The DVD is less exciting for me, and honestly contains works that I didn’t hang onto the first time around.  “Prayer” is a collaboration with a porn actors group and explores extreme bondage with some video effects.  Though rarely seen in 1982, this type of material has gained a lot of more exposure in the west since then, and I guess most importantly never did much of anything for me.  “Phantom” was originally included on one of RRRecords’ “Testament” videos along some nice Smegma footage, a Stan Brakhage film, and several other things which are quite honestly forgettable.  I seemed to remember “Phantom” standing out on the video, but I think now that had a lot to do with the context, as on its own it seems a rough and unfinished in the wrong way combining porn and NASA footage in a collage.  Given the other contents of the box, I think it would have been better to include “Tribe” or portions of the “TVC1” anthology, both of which deal with pirate broadcasts in Tokyo.  Those these two are not entirely the work of Duncan alone, it would seem to fit the themes presented on the vinyl and the collaborations presented there.

All is all, this is a great set of music and does present a wealth of otherwise difficult to obtain sounds.  There still remains a good deal of John Duncan’s early material which can be reissued.  To fully cover the years 1978-1984 could probably fill a ten LP box, and Vinyl on Demand has just provided the second five LP box documenting this period of his work.  Amazingly that still leaves some gaps but does include a lot of very rare material which might well be better than those things which remain uncollected.  But I am still left wondering about “Two Solos”, the second side of the “No” cassette, “Actual Echo, Natural Echo”, and a handful of never released recordings mentioned in the booklet with “Pleasure-Escape”.  Quite possibly John thinks they are crap.

Vinyl on Demand  VOD33