Revolution is fun, revolution at last: Interview with The Action Time
by Anna Battista
"…I could have said: I'm perfectly aware that I'm tall, that I'm skinny, that I need a shave … or that I would like to put on a pair of bib overalls and become a Snicker, or that I'd like to leap the whole last mile and grow a beard and don whatever threads the local nationalism might require and comrade with Che Guevara, and share his fate, blazing a new pathfinder's trail through the stymied upbeat brain of the New Left, or how I'd just love to be in Berkeley right now, to roll in that mud, frolic in that sty of funky revolution, to breathe in its heady fumes, and look with roving eyes for a new John Brown, Eugene Debs, a blacker-meaner-keener Malcolm X, a Robert Franklin Williams with less rabbit in his hot blood, an American Lenin, Fidel, a Mao-Mao, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO…" Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice
Revolution is a perkily contradictory concept: it's easy to say, "let's make a revolution," but it's difficult to put it in practice and succeed in making it happen. Besides, it's easy to start a revolution but it's arduous to avoid a sect of people becoming a vanguard and monopolising your supposedly fight-for-freedom mass movement. Every day something happens which disgusts you: you don't like the political situation, you don't like who's in power, usually rich bastards who make laws for rich bastards, you don't like the polluted air you breathe, you don't like what comes out of the radio. In a word, you don't like your life, or rather you don't like how conventions, laws and institutions regulate it. You feel like a rebel, you feel like a revolutionary and "The task of a revolutionary - is to make revolution," you keep on repeating in your head reminding yourself George Jackson's words. So you go around in a sulk, it's you versus the whole world and you only smile when you think that one day, after starting your revolt, things will change. But where does a revolution start from? Well, you might start with writing down all your ideas and collecting them in a book. Too long a task? Hmmm, perhaps you're right, revolution must be done as soon as possible, with a quick manifesto and a quick action. What about starting a band then and trying to be different from the rest of the other people in the music brotherhood? Imagine trying to be a weird combo, playing punk, soul, rock all rolled into one and interspersed with angry lyrics? Indeed it sounds like a good idea and it would be even fun, but it has already been done by someone.
The band in question is called The Action Time and they play an explosive mixture of sounds. "I was feeling restless and disenfranchised, wandering down a lonely rain-lashed London street, when I heard the most magical yet strangely familiar music emanating from a basement club," The Action Time's Billy Nameless recounts, "I went inside and the incessant beat of the midnight hour made me start to move. I saw the other members of what would become The Action Time on the dancefloor, and recognised in the fervent fire of their dance stance the necessary determination, spirit and style to create a group who could go on a doomed but heroic trajectory of aural annihilation of the corporate death sound. Ms C C Rider beats the traps, E B Rockets cranks out the riffs, Miss Spent Youth preaches the truth, Jack Duvall provides the low-end rumble, S K Sparkles shouts from the top and Billy Nameless, that's me, shakes, hollers and bangs the keys."
The Action Time have been playing for two years before releasing their first three singles "Don't Sell Your Soul/Burn Warehouse Burn", a double 'A' side 7" single on Speedway Sounds, "Comedown Blues" and "Rock And Roll" and their first album Versus The World all on Southern Records. And if you are wondering how they chose their name, well, Billy provides us with an answer, "It's taken from the Alternative TV single 'Action Time Vision'," Billy explains, adding that they don't have a particular influence on their band, but many and not only musical ones "…the music of Tamla Motown, Sex Pistols, the Last Poets, Kraftwerk, Subway Sect, Curtis Mayfield, MC5, Roland Kirk, James Brown, Suicide, Public Enemy, Nation of Ulysses, the Clash, Huggy Bear, JAMS, the Stooges, Studio One, Fugazi, Rolling Stones; the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Nicholas Ray, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jem Cohen, Wong Kar Wai, Vincent Gallo, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese; the writings of Valerie Solanas, Noam Chomsky, Greil Marcus, Malcolm X, Nelson Algren; the expression on the face of the Buddhist monk who set himself on fire; the style of Jimmy Cliff…" Ms C C Rider seems to be less keen to make any name, but summarises Billy's list in a simple and efficacious sentence stating that their biggest influence is "Chaos and big bang theories!", though she cherishes her personal all time hero incarnated in "Lee Hazlewood," as she underlines.
A band whose influences go from Subway Sect to Nelson Algren might only go against the whole world and indeed on their album, there is a track entitled "The World is Against Us" that, Billy Nameless and Ms CC Rider reveal being their fave track. But on Versus The World there is also a track entitled "Soul On Ice," and I easily suspect it is taken from Eldridge Cleaver's book. "Yeah, and the opening lines are actually paraphrasing part of the chapter 'Soul On Ice' where Eldridge is dreaming from his prison cell of a revolutionary figure who would be capable of real change," Billy confirms my suggestion, "I liked a lot of parts in the book and found him very eloquent when talking about certain subjects but found some of the stuff he wrote quite abhorrent, particularly when talking about women and homosexuals. The book was written in part in response to the more liberal, middle-class stuff written by James Baldwin, and I like some aspects of James Baldwin's stuff like The Fire Next Time so the two titles bookmark the album almost like a riposte to each other."
Using Eldridge Cleaver and James Baldwin as the inspirations to open and close your album might only hint to The Action Time's quite riotous sound. Their sound is indeed different from the average British band and from what the British music scene sounds like at present, "Unfortunately on the whole it's poo!", Ms C C Rider mocks the music scene and Billy seems to agree with her, stating "Apart from one or two pockets of resistance it's moribund to the point of total artistic drought at the moment," he comments, "The big thing at the moment is the 'New Acoustic Movement' which is nice music for nice people who wear nice jumpers and expensive trainers and live in nice middle-class loft conversions. It says absolutely nothing to me about my life or anyone I know." But don't worry, both Billy and Ms C C Rider have their fave bands: the former suggests At The Drive-In: "It's a pity they've had to do it on the back of the Beastie Boys corporate empire but At the Drive-In at least provide some musical and intellectual food for thought for all the rock kids. The Le Tigre album is great and I went to see an amazing band from New York last week called the Strokes. In the UK, there's hardly anything at all." Ms C C Rider seems to have a longer but somehow similar list of faves "…The Country Teasers, Life Without Buildings, Wesley Willis, Ladytron, Les Savy Fav (old but in a new way), Makeup, Reverend Pike, Le Tigre and Peaches," the latter having released what Ms CC Rider considers best album of the year 2000, Teaches of Peaches, and if, you haven't, you should check it out because it's sensual, mad, angry, obscene and revengefully brilliant.
But let's go back to The Action Time's album: if you listen to it you will be impressed as it sounds like a manifesto to start a revolution. Who knows, perhaps as a band they have a proper manifesto: "There's nothing as specific as a manifesto," Billy suggests, explaining "But there's certainly particular political themes running through the lyrics and single sleevenotes - a rallying cry against the corporatisation of life, being alone in a capitalist and godless universe, work constriction of inspiration, social ostracisation of the poor, racial and political civil war…" Ms C C Rider convenes that "There's not a band manifesto, but as individuals we have them and hopefully they are similar enough to each others so that we have a workable theme."
When I ask them if they would define themselves as sonic terrorists, average musicians, Ms C C Rider goes "Average terrorists and sonic musicians…", but Billy underlines "It's more about applying interesting ideas to the tools that are available. There are only so many chords or notes available to you so it's imperative that you approach music in a more angular way than you're traditionally taught, even if you are an accomplished musician. A lot of my favourite singers and musicians are people who aren't 'good' in an accepted musical way at what they do but have a character that a million classically-trained musicians lack, e.g. Moe Tucker, Gil-Scott Heron, early Modern Lovers…" Hence attempting to describe The Action Time's music would be rather difficult, but both Billy and Ms C C Rider apply at this difficult task. "Dressed-Up, Messed-Up, Fuzzed-Up, Fucked-Up and Strung-Out…", the former states; "Rhythm + Melody + Spirit + Frustration + Celebration" adds the latter, underling that a good track materialises in "Something you can dance to, something you can sing to, something that makes you happy, something that makes you sad, something that's unexplainable."
Billy is also largely responsible for The Action Time's lyrics: "Generally speaking I write the lyrics and me and Eddie the guitarist come with a musical idea, which is then fucked around with and re-arranged by the band." Often the success of a band is designed by the positive reviews bestowed upon them by the music press which, apparently, has lately become less and less important, perhaps also because nothing original has lately come out of many music journalists' pens. "Music journalism usually either recycles the press releases or asks questions that are on the press release already," Ms C C Rider states, "Not many journalists read the press release and then ask questions leading further on than that. Every thing is getting faster and more superficial."
Great Britain witnessed a crisis in the music press: a few magazines closed down and the Melody Maker merged with the NME, music journalism being developed more on the net than on paper. "I think we're going through quite an interesting phase with rock journalism at the moment, because it used to be that certain titles sold so well they could dictate to their readers what to listen to or what was cool," Billy claims, "At the moment we're going through a period where rock music is in total recession and being superseded by the internet/computer games/dance music, so a lot of titles have folded or their sales have dropped dramatically. This has led to a lot more of the press having to praise whatever it is that people are buying rather than maybe what they like themselves - I've spoken to people who work at these places and know this is a fact. I don't think this necessarily means the situation is now any worse or better: in the past you'd get some journalists generally rotten taste foisted upon you and now you get journalists having to say Coldplay are brilliant because their album's sold so many copies and they can't afford the loss in sales of criticising it. I haven't read a piece of music journalism in a long time that I thought was a genuinely good piece of writing. Maybe it's a naive thing to say but I think the whole thing has got really cynical and nasty - all these publications are run by middle-class ex-university kids who sneer at everything, even their own favourite bands."
Which leads to the charts problem, always depressing and never mirroring our personal tastes or expectations. "I don't think charts have had much effect on The Action Time yet!" Ms C C Rider exclaims, while Billy enlightens us on the record labels issue. "On a wider political level it's true to say that you're better off being with an indie because you don't automatically run the risk that your album recording costs are being funded by some car advert, bank investment in third world exploitation etc," he claims, "However, on a personal level I've heard just as many stories of bands being fucked around or exploited by indies as they have been by majors. There's pros and cons to both. If you're on a major you never get to speak to the person that actually deals with your band but on an indie you can't ever afford to do anything you want. Despite my cynicism I still believe in the DIY punk ethic, for what it's worth." Ms C C Rider remembers that, somehow, there were some kind of restrictions their record label tried to impose upon them, but, as she funnily remarks, "The only restrictions we had were financial which is fair enough! They were very generous but not stupidly so!"
If any of you wants to catch The Action Time playing, well you'd better go to London which is the place were they are playing mostly, as Ms C C Rider remembers "We played a few days ago with Les Savy Fav who were great! And also with 90 Day Men who were excellent, but we don't play with any particular band I'm afraid." Unfortunately, the band isn't touring a lot, as Billy explains: "Not as much as we'd like, due to the drone slave work commitments of certain members of the band. We're hoping to prevail despite the man's intervention in the future though." For Ms C C Rider the strangest thing that ever happened to the band while touring is "People paying to see us!"
Apparently The Action Time's audience is a mixed one: "Most of our audiences are very like us already or we get frustrated trying to excite them or communicate with them. Their response is positive or incredulous…" Ms C C Rider states, but her words are confirmed by Billy, "The audience's response to our music is varied, from people pogoing up and down at the front mouthing all the words to the songs to having a fist fight with people who are trying to assault you while you play," he explains, "I realise it's a total cliché, but I like the idea of getting some kind of reaction from the audience, even if they hate you. We played a show to a packed crowd who demonstrated total blank apathy last week and I ended up punching two members of the audience to try and get a response, but they just stared at their feet. I'm still learning my art in terms of connecting with an audience as I think it's a really difficult thing to do - it should be natural and I don't want to just be up on stage saying bland witticisms in between songs like some bad stand-up comedian because that's what you're supposed to do."
Both Billy Nameless and Ms C C Rider seem to offer ironical alternatives to their career in music, I wonder what they would be doing if they weren't in a band. "Carving the words 'HATE' and 'FUCK' into my skin," Billy answers. "Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals," Ms C C Rider adds. Billy seems to have a plan for the band, "To inspire other people to form bands, write stuff, make films…" whereas Ms C C Rider's ambition seems to be slightly more selfish but reveals a positive passion for music, "To be able to have a job just being in a band, being able to concentrate all my time and energy in my own music."
At present The Action Time are working on some good stuff, "We've been playing a few shows in the UK to support the release of the LP and we're recording an e.p. for release on the Spanish label Elefant Records," Billy confirms, "We did a live radio session last weekend on BBC Radio London which resulted in 3 complaints in the first minute of being on air." For the moment there isn't any plan to play any festival in UK or Europe, but Ms C C Rider doesn't exclude it, "If they ask us maybe!!!!!!!!", she beams, adding that she would like to play in Canada, whereas Billy Nameless seems to have a more internationalist view, "I want to go everywhere," he states, "I've hardly travelled at all in my sheltered little life so I want to take this action time vision to the whole wide world."
Comrades in music more than in arms, The Action Time have just started their career and their musical life; their revolution is still at an early stage, but they have all the qualities and ideas to carve a niche in the music scene and they'll do it with their angry guitars and sharp lyrics, watch out 'cos they've just at the beginning, or, to remember George Jackson paraphrasing Castro on trial after Moncada, "I warn you gentlemen, I have only begun!"
Thanks to Billy Nameless and Ms C C Rider for kindly answering my questions and of course to James Batty @ Southern Records for The Action Time picture.
Southern Records site: www.southern.net
The Action Time site: www.theactiontime.com