King Biscuit Time
teve Mason recorded Black Gold on his own at home in a cottage in a remote Scottish fishing village. Steve Mason recorded Black Gold under a cloud.
People listen to The Beta Band or King Biscuit time and they hear an array of swirling, cooler-than-cool musical references, a magpie eclecticism, “wacky” ideas, and a holistic web of sounds that stretches from folk to dub to R&B to psychedelia to a house tune played live by a four-piece “indie” band and christened “The House Song,” and they think, “oh, what fun!”, and talk about “lysergic madness” and “shuffling, accidental genius” as if the only reason he has made this music is because he is out of his mind on hallucinogens, because he doesn’t know what he is doing. It’s the same as renaissance art (any art) being written-off as the result of “divine inspiration” rather than human endeavour and talent. It demeans both art and artist, but it demeans the audience who makes this assumption even more.
There’s a precision and determination to Steve Mason’s music that is so seldom recognised as to make me wonder if there is some kind of conspiracy to try and deny him the respect and status he actually deserves. As if, perhaps, there are people jealous enough of his talent and skill that they would paint it as serendipity, as fluke. From the moment I first heard “Push It Out” it was apparent to me that I was not listening to some bumbling, happenstance idiot-savant, that what he did was not accidental or playful or “wacky” or eclectic for the sake of eclecticism. Every song Steve Mason has ever sung has been laced, beneath all the alleged frivolity, with an interminable, unbearable, near-terminal sadness. He is far closer to Nick Drake than to Beck or even Syd Barrett.
Steve Mason suffers from depression. He describes himself as “a reclusive depressive maniac” with “a self-destruct tendency.” I think about Steve Mason, I try to understand how he might feel, and I want to cry. I am loathe to suggest that art validates suffering and suffering validates art, mainly because I don’t really feel that I have suffered particularly, and thus to demand suffering from my musical heroes would burden me with guilt, but also because I don’t think it’s necessary to suffer in order to produce great art… I think. But then I listen to Who is This America? by Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra and think “could this have existed without struggle?” Likewise Mason’s music perhaps would not exist without the clamorous discord of his mind and emotions. I wish it weren’t so. I wish he could make this music and be happy too.
Black Gold was largely written during the break-up of Mason’s nine-year relationship, which followed the dissolution after seven years of his much-acclaimed, much-copied, seldom successful band. Shortly before Black Gold’s release Mason posted a short message on his website announcing his… retirement? Resignation? “Peace to you all, I'm out of here. It's been amazing, but I've had enough. Over and out. Steve xxxx.”
It took a while for Black Gold to fit in my mind, but it’s there now and not leaving soon. The songs almost seem secondary given the prospect of there not being any more, but they are as wonderful, as creative, as exquisitely saddening as ever. “Impossible Ride” is proof that a forlorn, echoed melodica is the most melancholy sound in the world, and that Mason’s slightly flat, almost tranquilised voice comes a close second. “Paperhead” takes part of the melody from Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” and transforms it from consummate AOR into uncouchably regretful space-folk. Even the singles “C I Am 15” and “Kwangchow” belie their superficial energy, the former a bitter, riddim-lead indictment of George Bush featuring MC Topcat (Mason once urged the audience at a US gig to buy him a rifle with which to shoot Bush—several of the audience then petitioned to have him deported), while the latter masks unutterable loneliness behind its incongruous title, guitars, and groove. “Metal Biscuit” closes the album on a brief, Aphex-like note, while “Rising Son” is so exceptionally beautiful that it makes Cocteau Twins sound ugly.
Steve Mason just wants to make music. I just want him to make music. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be possible. The music industry in 2006 is a dirty, filthy, greedy industry. The date is probably inconsequential. Good money after bad is thrown at templates whether the recurrences work or not. Independent labels exploit cash cows and make disastrous decisions based on misguided commercial paranoia as much as major labels. Did The Beta Band ever fulfil their potential? Will Steve Mason ever fulfil his? Potential is a dirty word. Appreciate what we have, because what we have is plenty good enough.