Back Ground Music comes across as the inner soundtrack to a mind dressed all in black.
Like a more avant-garde Joy Division or PiL, BGM released its debut in 1980 smack in the middle of post-punk’s bleak if danceable moment. But Back Ground Music, however instantly recognizable as part of the European scene, emerged from a world away in Japan. Takayuki Shirashi, who would go on to be an electronic music producer, started his career with this brooding, spiky, Sprockets-like collection of new wave instrumentals that at this late date sound like an apt and universal definition of the era.
What makes this nearly 40-year old record so endearingly of its time? It’s the beat; the very kind that concurrently fueled the glaring eyes of disaffected youth around the Western world, a straight-ahead rhythm that invokes skinny ties and machine-like dances that then-modern youth adapted in response to a world that was growing ever more mechanical and robotic (if only the kids knew what was in store). What did BGM add to a template that was employed by a broad spectrum of bands from A Flock of Seagulls to XTC? An abstract, junkyard aesthetic that threatened to upend the martial rhythms with dissonance and anarchy.
You can hear all this in the seven-minute opener “Mix,” which begins with a rustling background noise before a pounding (a boot-stomping?) echoes on a solid floor, sending in a rhythm section that lays down a steady beat. Electric guitar fills respond to the clattering, which sounds like some kind of chaotic institution, hard floors and hard shoes providing a backdrop not for the kind of poetry that Jane Jacobs called the ballet of the street, but for sheer random noise. If “background music” suggests the soothing muzak of department stores, the reduction of the term to the sharp consonants of its initials conveys something completely different. BGM – chant the letters out one at a time – sound more like a revolutionary slogan, and that’s the sound that Shirashi creates.
Remember STOMP, the UK percussion group that performed to sold-out audiences worldwide with their episodic, rhythmic clanging? That’s not what BGM is. While the percussionists of STOMP encouraged audiences to make crowd-pleasing rhythms with their feet, BGM generates repetitive beats that sound like a car alarm gone to art school. Through its title, “Neo Dancer” brings in the human element, but musically, the relentless, staccato pulse, bass and guitars broken now and again with the pinging sound of a triangle, it sounds like the human struggle in a conformist, machine-driven world.
With its thudding hand-propelled beat, ‘Repeat” offers more of the same, a distorted voice providing something like vocals but essentially proving the difficulty of human communication in an electronic medium. This is where BGM uses the Joy Division template to make something even more pessimistic. It’s perfectly danceable, albeit in a head-jerking way that suggests a conga-line winding its way into oblivion.
For the most part, Back Ground Music comes across as the inner soundtrack to a mind dressed all in black. But finally, the brooding lets up, and the album ends up like an ‘80s coming-of-age movie. The martial beat that typifies the album drops out on the closer, “Recovery Room,” as if convalescence from the world’s drab marching orders requires one to move on without a rhythm section. This is the album’s most melodic track, occasional dissonance coming through oddly pitched notes that undercut the pretty tune. There’s light at the end of the droning repetition, and this instrumental album sees a way out of its nihilistic 1980 concept, moving forward to a planet where humanity wins out in the end after all.