‘Children’ of the Revolution
By Keeley Moss
Now that the show is over
And we have jointly exercised our constitutional rights
We would like to leave you with one very important thought
Sometime in the future
You may have the opportunity to serve as a juror
In a so-called obscenity case
It would be wise to remember that the same people
Who would stop you from listening to Boards of Canada
May be back next year to complain about a book or even a TV programme
If you can be told what you can see or read
Then it follows that you can be told what to say or think
Defend your constitutionally protected rights
No one else will do it for you
Boards of Canada – ‘One Very Important Thought’
“Rock/Indie” says the description on the rack in the photo above. But this album, and Boards of Canada, the duo responsible for it, are about as far from rock or indie (in the bog-standard guitar-band sense of those terms) as it is possible to get. Music Has the Right to Children was, most unusually for a debut album, a sprawling 70-minute colossus that even more unusually was released simultaneously by two different record labels in the UK (Warp Records and Manchester’s Skam Records) and in the United States by a third label (Matador Records). A major influence on Radiohead’s twin millennial masterpieces Kid A and Amnesiac as well as on countless other electronic and post-rock artists in the two decades since its release, with Music Has the Right to Children, Boards of Canada would boldly go where no man or woman had gone before.
The spoken sample which appears on penultimate track ‘One Very Important Thought’, a public information broadcast warning of the dangers of authoritarianism and censorship, is the only thing even approaching a lyric on the record, and even then it is spoken rather than sung. There are only a handful of other words scattered throughout the 70 minutes of the record’s duration. “Orange” and “Yeah, that’s right!” are others, recurring with hypnotic frequency alongside a looped child’s giggle in ‘Aquarius’. “I…love…youuuuuuuu!” is one other sampled snippet (from the 1970’s American children’s TV show Sesame Street) that appears in a freeform section of the eerie ‘The Color of the Fire’ (American spelling and all – although neither of the members of Boards of Canada hail from the USA, or Canada for that matter).
But that is pretty much it as far as the spoken word is concerned. Conventional lyrics have no place on Music Has the Right to Children and what words there are are utilised in a purely impressionistic way, as one of a number of different colours on the canvas, and no more significant than any of the instrumentation on the record, in a striking volte face from one of the tediously typical trends in music, namely the tendency to whack the listener over the head with vocals so boringly audible and lyrics so transparently clear that it requires no mental work whatsoever to decipher whatever is being sung or spoken, let alone what it means if anything. It is presumably for this reason that Boards of Canada singled out My Bloody Valentine as a key influence on their approach to making music, something that may be difficult to recognise when playing the molten guitar terrorism of Loveless back-to-back with the ambient electronica of Music Has the Right to Children, but that would be to overlook a clear common thread in how the Scottish duo apply Kevin Shields’ modus operandi of deploying words (and in MBV’s case, singing) as a purely textural element, with whatever meaning those words might have carrying considerably less importance, if any.
Another sample taken from an episode of Sesame Street, the duo distorted and time-stretched the sample so that whatever innocence it once had was turned inside out to become something sinister, all the more so with it juxtaposed alongside as dark and unsettling a piece of music as ‘The Color of the Fire’. But might it be simultaneously innocent and sinister? Polar opposites vying for eminence are at the heart of a creative conundrum Boards of Canada seemingly do not want to solve, something their music is all the more interesting for.
Those few isolated words aside, Music Has the Right to Children is an instrumental record. There’s no singing on it whatsoever. No guitars on it either. What’s more, in a further departure from standard music biz protocol, there were precisely zero gigs let alone any tours undertaken to promote it upon release (or ever since for that matter – Boards of Canada have never toured, nor do they do one-off concerts and aside from a couple of live appearances early in the 2000s, they haven’t played live). There was only one single taken from the record, ‘Aquarius’, which in typically contrary/creative BoC fashion was a different recording to the version on the LP, so it’s a moot point as to whether the only single on the record is even on the record! Best of all, the album version of ‘Aquarius’ runs to 5 minutes 58 seconds long – almost any other band planning to release it as a single would edit this down for bitesize radio consumption. Boards of Canada? They made the single version even longer, with the re-recording running to 6.15. Six minutes fifteen seconds of languid liquid loveliness to swim in and swoon to.
Music Has the Right to Children crept out into an unsuspecting world on April 20th 1998, and said world clearly wasn’t ready for it – it charted no higher than #193 on the album charts in the UK and failed to trouble any other chart elsewhere on the planet. However, just as with the subject of the previous instalment of Power, Corruption and B-Sides (The Velvet Underground’s Loaded), the lack of commercial success and critical appreciation afforded to the album on release would in time be overhauled. It has since gone on to become widely acknowledged as one of the best albums of the 1990s, as well as one of the greatest electronic albums of all-time. As is so often the case with a landmark work, the flames of acclaim would initially only flicker before slowly spreading outwards towards the petrol of the people, after which its rising fire would go on to emit a lasting glow.
Recorded over a three-year period, the album took its own sweet time to develop, with the pair of Scottish brothers named Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin Sandison (who had begun creating music together as far back as 1981) setting the controls for the heart of their sound not in studios located in such cosmopolitan hotspots as London, New York or Los Angeles so favoured by the music biz cognoscenti, but rather in the Pentland Hills. The where?! I hear you say.
The Pentland Hills are a bunch of hills to the south-west of Edinburgh that run south west towards Biggar (a town in South Lanarkshire) and upper Clydesdale (by a river that flows into the Firth of Clyde) in Scotland. In other words, the middle of nowhere. But it is precisely that sense of nowhere that gives the album its wide-eyed wonder, its glorious otherness, its dreamy density, its unsettling edginess, it’s beautiful indifference to (and much-needed escape route from) the fast-paced rat race that severs the nerves and fries the minds of city dwellers in their droves.
“Space is the place”, Sun Ra said. And there is perhaps no more spacey a place than the listening landscape Music Has the Right to Children inhabits, but never inhibits – rather, this beautiful behemoth of a record provides a glistening vista to a fresher frontier. An aural journey in every sense, it has been variously categorised as ambient, electronica, psychedelia, downtempo and trip-hop and while it would be fair to say it dips its toes in all five of those genres, it is also clearly the work of two guys who couldn’t give a Castlemaine XXXX for standard music biz categorisations. Music… is music that doesn’t dwell in the ghetto of any one genre.
A dizzying sensory overload of vintage synthesisers, degraded analogue production, samples and field recordings, you’ll hear everything from seagulls to birdsong on there, audible evidence of the abundant nature alive and thriving in the duo’s studio surroundings. Its nocturnal ambience renders it a record best listened to late at night. It is among the best after-hours chill-out albums ever, although thankfully it was always too warped (ha!) and too steeped in sonic oddness to be damned by being deemed a dreaded “coffee-table record”. One listen to ‘The Color of the Fire’ or ‘Turquoise Hexagon Sun’ will blow any such notions to high heaven. For as blissed-out as sections of Music Has the Right to Children is, at no point is it ever a comfortable listen. On the contrary, it’s embedded with a sense that something’s not quite right. There is something rotten in the state of Denmark – and lurking in the gripping grooves of this album is the knowledge of what that something is.
Beautifully in tune with the flavour of night-time in the 90s it is a record of its time (released in 1998 but recorded between 1995 and 1997), however, so authentically ancient are its 1970s-era spoken samples, and so futuristic is its artistic architecture, it is essentially timeless, reaching backwards as it motors forwards, but never standing still.
Never mind the rigid ruts and mundane parameters signposted ‘rock’ and ‘indie’, this was a record that voyaged past ambient music, past psychedelia, past electronica and trip-hop, leaving definitions for dust to instead enter an advanced galaxy, a sound-world beyond the boundaries concocted by corporate suits whose moolah pursuits see them package aural wallpaper for the consumption of those immune to the truths of the tracks on the margins and the fringes of the record racks.
For someone as obsessed as I am with the concept of the perfect album (I once spent nine years tinkering with the sleeve notes of an album I was making – the album took eight years to record and mix, the fucking sleeve notes took a year longer) the importance of having visuals that reflect the contents of a record cannot be overstated. And this is where these cats really showed their claws. The cover image of Music Has the Right to Children is perfect. The album title is perfect. Hell, even the goddamn font they used for the lettering is perfect. The result is an album you will long to fondle, have framed and placed upon your wall, hell, even go to sleep with it so that its front cover will be the first thing you set your eyes on upon waking.
Best of all, in a music industry notable for how frequently creative responsibility is out-sourced to art directors and all manner of other ‘consultants’ by ‘artists’ who often can’t be arsed enough let alone artsy enough to preside over all aspects of what ought to be their own complete self-expression, as it says on the inlay of Music Has the Right to Children, “all photography, design and artwork by michael sandison & marcus eoin” (BoC as always printing every word in a small-case with a soft font – the same attention-to-detail they apply to the music being very much replicated with their approach to their artwork and typography). Thus, we can attribute the quality of this most well-dressed sleeve not to some graphic designer churning out album covers from some ivory tower in London but rather to the duo themselves.
The album cover is a modified version of a family photo taken at Banff Springs in Alberta, Canada some time during the 1970s. Boards of Canada have only ever given a handful of interviews but in one of their most insightful disclosures, Michael Sandison would say, “If there’s sadness in the way we use memory, it’s because the time you’re focusing on has gone forever… It’s a theme we play on a lot, that bittersweet thing where you face up to the fact that certain chapters of your life are just Polaroids now.”
I still haven’t even mentioned what are arguably the two best tracks on the album – ‘Roygbiv’ and ‘Olson’. What does ‘Roygbib’ mean? I have no idea, and I hope I never find out. It’s sound has enough meaning in itself, something beyond the mundane chains of explanation.
And then there’s ‘Olson’. A scant slip of a song, with a running time of just 1.30. Again, it has no words and needs no words. It is beautiful, and truthful, in a way that lyrics would only get in the way of.
Much of the unique atmosphere of Music Has the Right to Children stems from the aforementioned Sesame Street samples that were woven into the record so that these vignettes would form a sort of running commentary informing the listening experience. And what an experience it is – for all the coldness traditionally associated with electronic music, Music Has the Right to Children is for the most part a warm and inviting record. For all the sinister snippets and glitchy, skittering rhythms on there, there’s a playful, artful and thrillingly experimental quality to it. This is the source of much of the record’s sense of uncertainty and mystery – nothing is ever stated overtly, rather you’re left to construct a narrative out of a load of shattered shards, sort of like stumbling upon the remnants of a wreckage, and you’re confronted with any number of possible permutations from which you could attempt to rebuild whatever it is that you’ve found the fractured fragments of.
Mystery is a quality missing from much of the god-awful garbage clogging the arteries of the charts. What does it mean? What does that matter? I can only elicit what it means to me, which might be something else entirely from what its creators intended. But in that space between is a wealth of wonder and a mountain of multiple interpretations. So what if we can’t make out every intention? Perhaps that was the intention. Maybe none of it means anything. Or perhaps all of it means everything. That in itself has got to be something.
Even if you’re left with more questions than answers afterwards, you can fall back in the flood, and wallow in the wash of the sweet and pure shower of sound, flowing from, and floating along, every inch of the river that is this riveting record.
Happy cycling everyone.
Copyright: Keeley Moss ℗&©2019. All rights reserved.
Acknowledgements for Part 3
All music written and produced by Marcus Eoin Sandison & Michael Sandison. Published by Warp Music Ltd. ©1998
Published under Fair Use policy