I attended a really fantastic conference last week on Progressive Rock at Edinburgh University. It was a great opportunity to spend three days listening and thinking about the various factors that make up this genre of music. Here is the paper that I presented at the end of the conference on Matching Mole.
This paper combines fragments of two forthcoming journal articles on Robert Wyatt’s Matching Mole. After providing a brief analysis of selected tracks from the band’s two official albums, the paper will consider how their creative output resonates with genre, stylistic labelling and protest narratives. This short-lived band were formed during the last couple of months of 1971, after Robert Wyatt had completed his five-year tenure in Soft Machine, with the name simply being a sarcastic pun on the French translation of his old band – Machine Molle. In addition to Wyatt, the band consisted of Phil Miller on guitar, Dave Sinclair and Dave MacRea on keys and Bill MacCormick on bass. I had the opportunity to interview three of the five members when putting together this paper.
Recorded through December 71 to February 72 and released in April 72, the first album by Matching Mole (1972), ranges stylistically from ‘O’ Caroline’, which is lyrically a sentimental first person ode to Wyatt’s ex girlfriend, artist Caroline Coon, to ‘Signed Curtain’, a song which appears to critique the predictability of popular song format. With the hesitant delivery of the melody suggesting that Wyatt is thinking through the song in real time, it begins as follows
Performed solely on piano and vocals, the track has the impact of sarcastically and humorously involving the listener in the hermeneutics of the listening experience: what is going to happen next and what does it mean? One of musicologist Leonard Mayer’s (1961) main concerns was how a listener experiences the unfolding of successive events in a piece of music, and how these events evoke what he describes as ‘hypothetical meanings’. When listening, the musical events that we expect to happen are seen to either occur (resulting in our expectations being fulfilled), be delayed (resulting in our expectations being suspended) or not occur – making the event ‘unexpected’ and leaving our expectations unfulfilled. In this song, Wyatt seems to be not only informing us what his creative processes may have been when composing the song, but is also asking us to question the formulaic structures in popular music – the allusion of choice that Adorno described as pseudo individualism (2011).
Phil Miller’s ‘Part of the Dance’, is the first track on the album to contain one of the hallmarks of Canterbury scene progressive rock – an overt leaning toward jazz influences. However, although jazz-fusion type unison passages begin and end the track, the ‘solos’ mainly consist of group improvisation, with all instruments having an equal hierarchy, with no instrument dominating. This is a stylistic trait Matching Mole were to continue to exploit on other tracks across both of their albums. Indeed this free group improvisation is continued on the last three tracks of their first album. These tracks appear to tie in with the later work of Soft Machine, which are in turn influenced by early jazz-rock albums by Miles Davis, in addition to free-jazz improvisers such as Albert Ayler. Here is a brief snippet of the final track on the album ‘Immediate Curtain’.
Although critiqued by some for its lack of coherence, for me, the first album appears to gradually and deliberately become more avant-garde as it progresses, with the functional harmony of the early tracks, gradually giving way to the aforementioned free form improvisations.
Before discussing some music from the 2nd album, the cover of Matching Mole’s Little Red Record deserves particular attention first. Recorded between July and August 1972, the title of the album directly references Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, once again incorporating the use of a pun, a device so common in Wyatt’s album and song titles. However, the album artwork is also overtly based on Chinese propaganda images of the time, baring a clear resemblance to a poster produced around 1971 by the Red Eagle Corps of the Air Force, Nanjing.
Considering Zedong’s reputation as a war criminal, this was a controversial image for an album cover that in retrospect could be regarded as an ill thought out gesture by Wyatt and the record company. Indeed when I asked Dave MacRea about this, he confirmed
“It was certainly not my creation and I was astounded to find myself with a machine gun in my hand”.
In addition to Zedong’s Little Red Book, it is possible that Wyatt’s thinking was influenced by the socialist collection of songs entitled The Little Red Songbook, SLIDE first published in 1909 and containing the song ‘Red Flag’, that Wyatt recorded on his Nothing Can Stop Us (1982) album. More recent appropriations of the Little Red Book range from The Little Red Book of Obamunism to a House of Commons episode in November 2015, when the Shadow Chancellor John MacDonell was heavily criticised for jokingly quoting Zedong when attempting to make a point about the UK government selling off state assets to the Chinese.
Returning to the music, the first thing one notices is that the 2nd album is far more democratic when it comes to songwriting credits, with Wyatt not writing any songs on his own, but involved in co-writing five of the nine tracks with all band members. Indeed it is Dave MacRea who dominates the songwriting credits on the album. However, discussing the co-composed opening track, ‘Starting in the Middle of the Day We Can Drink Our Politics Away’, MacRea brushed away any thoughts of meaningful collaboration or lyrical content, commenting
“The song obviously had little meaning. I wrote the melody and Wyatt would have dumped some lyric over the top”
As we will hear later, this song is delivered in a mock operatic voice, making the words difficult to decipher. Although the title does allude to some deeper political conviction, taking MacRea’s earlier comment into consideration, it would be fruitless to second-guess what this is.
‘Righteous Rhumba’ contains the only track on the album that has some sort of link to the album cover, with the lyrics seemingly criticizing Britain joining the European Economic Community in 1972, so it has great resonance today. After outlining how European countries ‘come down the right hand lane’ on the roads, the lyric proceeds to state how Wyatt would, and I quote, “rather have the Chinese here than Europe on me thrust”, a clear reference to his emerging interest in communism. We will listen to a track from this album later.
So, taking these two albums into consideration, where do Matching Mole fit in to genre and stylistic classification of progressive rock? In 1997, John Covach asserted that Close to the Edge (1972) by Yes “challenges the listeners sense of stylistic boundary”, and it proposed the two albums by Matching Mole do the same – with the added complexity that, unlike the music of Yes, the stylistic boundaries on these albums were not embraced in any meaningful way by the music industries classification of the style (if we can call it that), or indeed by many of the musicians, who subsequently performed within the stylistic boundaries that were established. It is this that what I find most interesting about the music of Matching Mole – it rock music with minimal commercial imperative.
Chris Anderton (2010) outlines how the stylistic constituents of the major symphonic rock bands are often mistakenly used as a measure to grade the ‘progressiveness’ of a given act. Considering the academic and journalistic articles that align the label ‘progressive rock’ exclusively with symphonic rock bands to be “too narrow in their scope” (418), Anderton argues that the tag of “Meta-Genre” is more appropriate, a term that avoids “conflating ‘symphonic progressive rock’ with progressive rock in general” (ibid).
Edward Macan however positions the Canterbury style of Matching Mole to be one of a number of ‘related styles’, that includes English jazz-fusion, English folk-rock, English heavy metal, minimalism and avant-garde electronic music. Macan then discusses how the stylistic boundaries of some of the aforementioned ‘related styles’ share commonalities with progressive rock, with indicative examples including the similarities between jazz-rock fusion bands like Brand X and Colosseum II and Canterbury sound bands such as Soft Machine and Gilgamesh. As already discussed at the conference, these boundaries are often blurred.
Discussing the Canterbury style directly, Andy Bennett (2002) regards it as an example of a sub-genre closely associated with the formation of place, in a similar vein to Detroit (Motown), Philadelphia (the Philadelphia Sound) and Seattle (Grunge). Bennett introduces the term ‘mythscape’ to facilitate a way of considering how music associated with Canterbury has played its part in establishing romanticised myths about the region, effectively forging a sense of community through the collective construction of the city in musicalized terms. When I interviewed the ex members of Matching Mole, both Bill MacCormack and Dave Sinclair told many stories that would comply with this narrative. Indeed it also resonates strongly with what Chris Atton was saying regarding Foucault’s notion of our discourse forming the objects we talk about.
Where as a meta-genre considers all of its components as equal constituents of progressive rock, the sub-genre considers a band such as Matching Mole more a ‘lower subdivision’, where as the ‘related styles’ outlined by Macan would deem the band as part of a group of styles, entitled the Canterbury sound, that has some similarities, but are distinct from what became the music industry’s categorization of the style.
Interestingly, none of these classifications consider music such as Matching Mole’s as an ‘hybrid style. Joseph Stuessy, in his PhD dissertation ‘The Confluence of Jazz and Classical Music from 1950 – 1970’, presents an interesting model, outlining the following two categories (Stuessy, 1977, p. 6-7):
- The ‘Integrated Confluent Style’, in which elements of two [or more] styles are fused into a new style. Slide
- The ‘Adjacent Confluent Style’, in which elements of two [or more] styles are juxtaposed in the same composition. Slide
Regarding the ‘Adjacent Confluent Style’, Stuessy delineates two further paradigms of integration:
- The ‘Adjacent Vertical Style’ – where both styles sound alternatively (very common in bands such as Yes for example).
- The ‘Adjacent Horizontal Style’ – where both styles appear simultaneously.
Although it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the ‘adjacent confluence’ and ‘integrated confluence’ styles, I would argue this presents a useful way of considering the stylistic factors of a band such as Matching Mole. Taking the aforementioned ‘Starting in the Middle of the Day We Can Drink Our Politics Away’ as an indicative example, it is to my ears at least a clear example of the ‘Adjacent Horizontal Style’, with the piece being an overt mix of two parallel strands, minimalism influenced keyboards alongside the ‘mock operatic voice’ I mentioned earlier. Interestingly, this clear division also reflects the way the piece was composed, with the lyrics/vocals being ‘dumped over the top’ to paraphrase Dave MacRea.
In conclusion, regardless of if one defines Matching Mole as part of a meta-genre, a related style, a sub-genre, a hybrid style or part of a mythscape, it is important to point out that the shear stylistic breath of the Canterbury style alone is obviously a problem when attempting to specifically classify it, with the music of National Health, Soft Machine, Caravan, Hatfield and the North and Matching Mole having numerous stylistic tendencies that simply don’t overlap.
From speaking to the ex members of the band, it is clear that Matching Mole never intended to be part of the ‘progressive rock’ style or genre, in either its narrow or broader perspective. Their two official albums represent a snapshot of popular music history, when it was possible to get paid to produce music outside of the mainstream, and still get your product recorded and released by a record company. I doubt these conditions will ever be repeated again.
It seems to me that largely forgotten bands such as Matching Mole are a useful vehicle for further research, as they help provide an alternative history, which is understandably so often dominated with ensembles that have mass appeal. In the case of Matching Mole, this alterative history involves stories of shoestring rehearsals in the basement of Wyatt’s flat in Ladbroke Grove, how band members had to freelance with other groups, or even take up day jobs in order to make ends meet. It is also a history that includes musical equipment having to be returned once the band split up and touring schedules that had limited appeal in the UK. It even includes histories of ‘anti-virtuosity’, Bill MacCormack had only been playing the bass for around a year when Matching Mole formed.
Returning to politics, although Matching Mole were certainly not political in the sense of a band like Henry Cow, they were, I would argue, political in the more lateral sense as outlined by Wyatt. He commented
I don’t think of music as intrinsically political, but I think it’s quite pretentious to claim that you’re not trying to say anything when you sing. […].Personally I see the political role of music in a totally different light. “Memories Of You” for example (the B-side of ‘Shipbuilding’) may sound just like a nostalgia song but it’s political for me because Eubie Blake who wrote it and who was 100 in 1983 was writing before jazz and somehow represents a much used but amazingly uncredited strand of American popular music. That he gets some royalties for that song is the only genuinely quantifiable political act I can make: the transfer of resources. Beyond that I have no control over a song and how it affects anybody (Denselow, 1983).
I would argue that alongside the more overt clues in Robert Wyatt’s later catalogue, the avant-garde sections in Matching Mole’s music represent a band who are determined to adhere to a rock aesthetic, despite staying away from any blues influences or complying with any of the usual ‘genre rules’. This in itself is a political gesture. Additionally, Wyatt’s falsetto wordless vocals could be regarded as critiquing the English language hegemony of popular music, maybe this is one of the reasons they were more popular in territories such as France than in the UK?
As noted by the likes of Dick Hebdige (1995), the notion of borrowing accepted meanings and subverting them has a powerful impact not only on the creative processes of music, but also its reception, a term Hebdige famously described as ‘semiotic guerrilla warfare’ (1979). Matching Mole were clearly involved in this process via subverting political art, pop music, jazz, rock, minimalistic and avant-garde influences, using these to in turn not only reshape their largely middle class backgrounds, but also to contribute to this meta-genre we all love.