Various Artists - Zero, A Martin Hannett Story (1977-1991) [CDWIKD 270 UK 2006 FLAC]
Punk rock, circa 1977, was mostly regressive, backward-looking, and reactionary. Rock (said the punks) had gotten too pompous and expensive, and the best solution they could come up with was to rewind-- this is why they borrowed fashion tips from 1950s greasers, guitar licks from Chuck Berry, and three-chord song structures from back when all rock struck people as cheap and loud. Part of this weird Maoist purge involved a strict prohibition on ambitious production-- you know, any fancy plans for how music could actually sound. “Production aesthetics” were exactly the kind of crap Pink Floyd were interested in: Out the window it went.
Thing is, you can only glory in destruction for so long before it’s time to rebuild; you rip it up and start again. We always talk about how musicians started again with post-punk and new wave; we talk less about how their producers got to do the same. Plenty of the producers who cut their teeth on punk went on to share in that rebuilding, and these days it’s easy to miss the work they did; we take it for granted that what they built would be, well, the 1980s. But it’s worth singling out Martin “Zero” Hannett-- producer, musician, and co-founder of Factory Records-- as one of the more interesting architects of what rock could sound like next.
Zero is the third and longest compilation showcasing Hannett’s work, with 21 tracks stretching from 1977 to his death in 1991. For a sense of the guy’s signature aesthetic, though, skip straight to Joy Division’s “Transmission”, and listen very carefully. Hannett, like many post-punk producers, was influenced by dub and interested in space, and you can hear it in the first 15 seconds. There’s a soft synthesizer hum, just marking out the size of the room. When the drums come in, they pop crisp and clean, like machines, but each individual piece is given a system of echo and reverb; the floor toms thump ominously far to the left and right. By the song’s end, we feel like the band’s reaching incredible levels of nervy energy, but half of it is just Hannett: That synth hum has expanded to fill more and more space, it’s been joined by an insistent one-note plink, and the guitar chords have been stretched and blurred until the whole thing’s a drone. If Ian Curtis sounds trapped and paranoid, it’s because he has to bark harder and louder just to fight through the mix.
It’s that sound-- dark, full of space, clean to the point of sterility, vaguely mechanical-- that Hannett’s most remembered for, and we get plenty of it here: It’s in an early New Order track, where the synthesizers Hannett pushed on Joy Division find their payoff, and it hits a peak with Section 25’s bitter, insistent “Friendly Fires”. This is the Factory Records sound, and it’s part of what makes this anthology possible at all: Hannett’s as integral to the sound of post-punk as Phil Spector is to the sound of girl groups, and plenty of these songs make fine compilation-mates even without bringing Hannett into the picture.
Less often noted, though, is Hannett’s role in pushing new wave into existence. You can almost sense it in the first-wave punk that starts the disc: His treatment of the Buzzcocks’ “Boredom” leans toward clean, crisp, orderly pop, and he even finishes it off with a neat echoing flourish, as if he were itching all along to be allowed to do something interesting. He can’t make Slaughter and the Dogs sound good-- that would take a bigger genius than this world knows-- but the tracks that follow edge along toward new-wave’s shine and novelty: Jilted John’s bratty self-titled single, John Cooper Clarke’s oddball strut, or the sunny bounce of Hannett’s own band, Invisible Girls. That streak gets its payoff later, too, with a chart-smash new wave classic: the Psychedelic Furs’ “Pretty in Pink”.
Other acts seem to get particular benefit from Hannett’s treatment. Back when U2 were just scrappy contemporaries of Joy Division and the Bunnymen, the Edge made up for his guitar-playing deficiencies with excellent use of delay and echo; he and Hannett develop some of those trademark chiming tones while Bono goes on about hearing children cry. The Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly, another delay-pedal enthusiast, gets every drop of warmth eked out of his guitar. After pushing technology on punks who wanted the past, not the future, Hannett got to record OMD: “Electricity” comes from 1980, before synth-pop became “synth-pop,” and the guys-in-a-room-playing-keyboards presentation is so pure and spot-on that it’s aged better than almost anything else here. Just as canny is a 1990 pairing with Kitchens of Distinction, who would counter the boyish inarticulance of shoegazing with an eloquent, upscale maturity.
As a collection of Hannett’s work, it’s hard to ask for too much more here: These songs are full of lively sonics, and the liners give a good sense of Hannett’s own story. (He had all of the mad-genius qualities people love in producers; he was weird, fussy, difficult to work with; he did lots of drugs and one point weighed a staggering amount; he was played by Gollum in a major motion picture.) The truth, though, is that most of that brilliant production will be lost on today’s ears-- even when we don’t take it for granted, our sense of sonic possibilities, and the sounds we get from today’s high-tech auteurs, make Hannett’s advances seem indescribably subtle. (When punk has thrown production out the window, it’s a feat just to get it back in the room, let alone blow minds with it.) And for those without a particular interest in such things-- I do not kid myself that production techniques are foremost on that many people’s minds-- this will remain just a fair-to-middling collection of songs, as is probably the inevitable fate of any compilation featuring World of Twist.
All of the above was nicked from th'internet
01 Buzzcocks - Boredom
02 Slaughter And The Dogs - Cranked Up Really High
03 Jilted John - Jilted John
04 John Cooper Clarke - I Don't Want To Be Nice
05 Pauline Murray And The Invisible Girls - Dream Sequence 1
06 U2 - 11 O'Clock Tick Tock
07 Joy Division - Transmission
08 The Durutti Column - Conduct
09 Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark - Electricity
10 Magazine - The Light Pours Out Of Me
11 New Order - In A Lonely Place
12 The Only Ones - Oh Lucinda (Love Becomes A Habit)
13 The Names - Night Shift
14 Basement Five - The Last White Christmas
15 The Psychedelic Furs - Pretty In Pink
16 Section 25 - Friendly Fires
17 Wasted Youth - Rebecca's Room
18 Nico & The Invisible Girls - All Tomorrow's Parties
19 Kitchens Of Distinction - Quick As Rainbow
20 Happy Mondays - Wrote For Luck
21 World Of Twist - She's A Rainbow