The Playback Room, centrepiece of the current Wolfgang Tillmans’ exhibition at London’s Tate Modern features a high-end stereo system that includes a pair of 800 D3 speakers. Conceived as a place to specifically listen to recorded music, over the past four weeks it
has hosted an intimate series of listening sessions with special guests. Monday night saw Turner Prize-winning artist and filmmaker Jeremy Deller in conversation and playing records with Guardian journalist Laura Snapes.
Music has long been central to Deller’s work, from Acid Brass through 24 Rock Show to his Iggy Pop life class. He and Laura Snapes did the interview seated on the ground in front of the loudspeakers prompting Deller to point out that it felt like “gigs from the ‘60s when everyone sat down, I wanted to turn the lights down too but that meant they would have to be turned down throughout the whole gallery so we couldn’t do that!”
His first choice was the evocative Elvis On The Radio, Steel Guitar In My Soul from the KLF’s extraordinary Chillout album – an album full of samples that were never cleared. The band recorded a train journey through the US and then recorded the album as a ‘live jam’ in their studio over three days. A magical recording that still sounds timeless.
Deller has grouped the first three tracks, “very romantic songs about travel,” together for a number of reasons:
“They are all songs I play at home and they are all indebted to one another. Kraftwerk were huge fans of the Beach Boys – you can hear that in Autobahn’s ‘fun, fun, fun’ refrain and all three artists are beautifully produced.”
The Beach Boys’ song-writing and production have been a huge influence on pop music and Deller points to America’s “great tradition of recording big production numbers over the years from Hollywood onwards, they are so great at recording vocals.”
He reveals he first heard Kraftwerk when he was 8:
“A kid at a party my parents took me to said, ‘listen to this, you have to lie down and put the speakers either side of your head.’ It was a really significant moment for me and I remember going out and buying the record and a pair of headphones soon after.”
Deller got into the Beach Boys around the same time as Kraftwerk and Laura asks him whether, as a kid, he could hear the tragedy in the music:
“Well, I remember really liking the Beach Boys and having a book about them when I was about 10 and realising, when it got to the pictures of them looking all hairy and messed-up, that something had gone wrong.”
‘Til I die is one of the very few Beach Boys tracks that had both music and lyrics written by Brian Wilson; the lyrics clearly deal with depression and death and are deeply autobiographical. Laura mentions that fellow Beach Boy Mike Love’s alleged reaction to the track at the time was ‘what a fucking downer.’ “Mike Love is a fascist Buddhist”, Deller remarks.
Deller chose Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay and The Freedom Singers’ We shall overcome next. The first was chosen for the clarity of the recording and the purity of Denny’s vocals. It’s a true hi-fi recording and sounded stunning through the system. The second is a very different thing. Recorded live, it’s the last track on Smithsonian Folkways compilation ‘Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960 – 1966. With an impassioned spoken introduction clearly taking place in a church or hall, it’s a hugely evocative and powerful recording:
“It’s just such a great record and one I really wanted to hear through these speakers. It’s definitely a Desert Island Discs choice. People in the US thought they’d put away that song away forever but I think they are having to pull it out again.”
The next pairing is a classic King Tubby track with Grace Jones’ Walking in the Rain. Both tracks share the same bassist, Robbie Shakespeare, and are only five years apart but sounding so much more. The King Tubby album was recorded at the legendary Studio One and Grace Jones at Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point. Surprisingly maybe, Jones’ record was, in fact, the more improvised recording, looser than might be expected and using the studio itself almost like an electronic instrument.
“The sound is very bright and present,” points out Deller, “it’s only 2 and half minutes long but it has a spaciness that goes on forever. It’s an interesting track, so ahead of its time and points to a direction that ‘80s pop music could have gone, but didn’t. You can’t mistake her voice either, she made so many cover-versions her own just through the quality of her voice.”
Grace Jones is followed by a truncated version of Led Zeppelin’s The Ocean from classic album, Houses of the Holy: “I hate the last minute and a half this, it’s like someone accidentally sat on the remote control at the end”.
Deller goes on to comment on the immaculate production:
“It’s very clear, almost painful to listen to, it’s that crystalline coked-up sound. That’s the reason all these records are so great to sample, they are so precise and clear. Led Zeppelin’s albums all had that sound, right from the start. I was going to play some Fleetwood Mac – they are made for these speakers – but John Bonham does a tiny poem-thing at the beginning of this and I really wanted to hear it through them.
“I got into them pretty late. I was wandering around in goth, dance and hip-hop and then heard this album and it was just the production – it was so incredible – such a highly-controlled studio sound. The sharpness of Robert Plant’s vocal makes it sound almost malevolent and he had incredible range. He is a pre-cursor to Prince and also all those 80’s rock vocals.”
The penultimate track of the evening is electronic uber-producer Giorgio Moroder’s Utopia:
“It sounds incredible on this system. Imagine this playing in Studio 54 while on poppers and imagine what the sound would do to your mind! This makes I Feel Love sound boring, it’s like Moroder took what Kraftwerk were doing and multiplied it by 1000. It’s got everything going on and you can really hear that through a great system. It’s only a short track, just under 3 and a half minutes but it makes you feel like it couldn’t sustain itself for any longer or it would blow up!”
Jon Hopkins remix of Disclosure’s Magnets closes the evening.
“The best remixes are where people almost destroy the original and start again. That’s what [Andy] Weatherall did with Primal Scream’s Screamadelica 25 years ago, he rebuilt the songs. This reminds me of early ‘90s dance tracks that build and build. They could be quite manipulative in the way they took audiences to places. This definitely has Acid House flourishes but it’s also quite similar to the Beach Boys in its lush sound.”
Reflecting back on his choices of music for the evening, Deller notes he only picked one rock track:
“I surprised myself as I’m mostly a rock fan and now I’ve realised my true love might be something else!”
You can visit Wolfgang Tillmans’ Playback Room at the Tate Modern until June 11 2017.