There’s a myth about music critics that says we are frustrated, wannabe performers. Evidence to the contrary: Vivien Goldman. Ever since she migrated from pitching editors on the little-known music of Robert Nesta Marley to becoming one of the foremost chroniclers of the perfect storm of reggae, punk, hiphop and Afro-Beat, the London-born, New York-based Goldman has made documenting music her primary life work. But between 1979-82, Goldman was also a working musician, creating songs that, years later, would be sampled by The Roots and Madlib. These rare girl grooves are now collected for the first time on Resolutionary, courtesy of Staubgold Records.
Resolutionary takes us through Vivien’s first three musical formations: first as a member of experimental British New Wavers The Flying Lizards; next as a solo artist, with her single “Launderette,” featuring postpunk luminaries; and then as half of the Parisian duo Chantage, with Afro-Parisian chanteuse Eve Blouin. Goldman’s synthesis of post-colonial rhythms and experimental sounds are threaded together by her canary vocal tones and womanist themes. Her eclectic musical crew included PiL’s John Lydon, Keith Levene and Bruce Smith; avant- gardists Steve Beresford and David Toop; The Raincoats’ Vicky Aspinall; the mighty Robert Wyatt; Zaire’s Jerry Malekani; Manu Dibango’s guitarist; and Viv Albertine, then of her good friends, the Slits. The majority of the tracks were produced by dubmaster Adrian Sherwood, and Resolutionary channels the history of a time when the bon-vivant voice of music was in the air, and Vivien Goldman was its eyes, ears, and mouth.
When she wasn’t writing, broadcasting or filming - or even when she was - Vivien always sang. She sang in a lilting, clear-toned soprano honed during childhood, when she and her two sisters would harmonize with their violinist father. Spend even a little time with Vivien, and she is likely to burst into song. “People knew I sang if they were around me, because I was always doing it,” she says cheerfully. “It’s just inside you. I hadn’t thought of singing as a career; I was always doing it as family.” Goldman’s talent did not go unnoticed by the many musicians with whom she was surrounded, particularly in the late 1970s bohemian enclave of Ladbroke Grove, where punk had loosened tongues and dub was freeing body and soul.
“The Punk Professor” began her singing career in the late ‘70s, doing backup with Neneh Cherry and Ari-Up (the Slits) on Sherwood records by reggae artists, including Prince Far I. It was a time of musical fermentation, collaboration, and experimentation - and of post-punk boundary breaking. An American ex-pat music writer for NME could also become a rock legend, crashing at her colleague’s pad along the way: Goldman has a gorgeous cameo in Chrissie Hynde’s 2015 memoir Reckless.
“At the time there were no barriers between journalist and artist,” Goldman recalls. “Everyone used to knock around together. Ladbroke Grove was a real musical community, of which I was a part, with big players like The Clash and Aswad as our neighbours.” David Cunningham was one artist who drew people together. Goldman joined his free-floating collective of improvisers, the Flying Lizards, when she first began recording music instead of just writing about it “We had an extremely experimental, loose and communal feeling,” she says. “We were very playful. The musicians were always doing unexpected things, like treated piano, like throwing things on the piano strings. It was postpunk touched by jazz in our heads.”
Punk’s eruption changed not just music, but social roles, as well. Goldman was particularly inspired by all the woman musicians in bands during that first-wave of punk, which cleverly morphed into post-punk. “I was a product of the first wave of self-identified female musicians,” she says of that era. “They inspired me to do in public what I did in private. There was a new energy that had not been experienced before that propelled me.”
Punk wasn’t the only sound animating the London demi-monde. In illegal shebeens (Jamaican after-hours clubs), Goldman grooved to the innovations of dub - its bass-heavy ambient, non-stop throb, its proto-digital play. “I was very impacted by reggae,” she says. “I was mad about dub, the music of deconstruction, of a new society trying to put it all together. Social and cultural turmoil, so of course my music would be dub-by.” The contrast between Vivien’s high, lilting tones and the deep rumble of the bass is a hallmark of all Goldman’s work, giving a haunting frisson of sex and alienation to songs like “The Window,” the eerie acapella track by the Flying Lizards, and “Launderette,” which was produced with PiL’s John Lydon and Keith Levene. Vivien knew John as a fellow reggae fanatic, and he let her use PiL’s studio down time to cut “Launderette,” a song she had improvised over a bass line by Aswad’s George “Levi” Oban. Bass is also the foundation of the angry anthem “Private Armies,” a favourite of Rock Against Racism, and its thunderous Adrian Sherwood dub. “Girls love bass,” she says. “It’s the yang to our yin. Women really respond to the depth and grounding of bass.”
“Launderette” tells the story of a chance unromantic encounter. Like the other tracks on Resolutionary, “Lauderette” captures Goldman’s modern sensibility - a woman who’s not about to throw herself off a cliff for romance. That cynicism, typical of post-punk love, also permeates the twisted mutant disco of her Lizards track “Her Story.” “Even when the songs sound soft, they’re mostly about hard things,” says Goldman. “People didn’t want to do mushy songs. They wanted to be experimental and avant garde.”
In the early 1980s, Goldman moved to Paris where she formed the duo Chantage with Eve Blouin. Reggae had been her London soundtrack; but in France, she absorbed music from Africa judiciously. “People in Paris were digging fusion; it was very much a two-way street. There were lots of African musicians and experimentations with synthesizers. It was a time of exchange, of new technology finding its balance with traditional instrumentation.” That interplay is audible in Chantage’s exultant, wholly original mash-ups, like the post-nationalism of “It’s Only Money,” a mix of steel pan, African soukous guitar and sobbing gypsy violin riding ferocious funk.
Post-Chantage, though, new media drew Goldman home. “Suddenly there was work for independent filmmakers,” she says. “I was asked to work in television. And I like telling stories. My lyrics are usually stories, too.” Along with co-initiating the 1980s global music TV series Big World Café, Goldman co-directed videos like Eric B. and Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke,” which was exhibited at NY’s Museum of the Moving Image.
As the 1990s began, she moved to Manhattan and became New York University’s “Punk Professor,” teaching original courses on Punk, Bob Marley, David Bowie and Fela Kuti. And as always, she writes and broadcasts prodigiously about music generally. Goldman’s five books include the “Book of Bob Marley’s Exodus.” And equally, she has never stopped singing and writing songs. Chicks on Speed released a later cut, “7 Days,” with singer Andy Caine and Manasseh Sound System, on their 2009 Girl Monster compilation. Her house 12” records with singer Andy Caine and producers Alex Marsh’s Grasshopper and Berlin’s Moritz von Oswald, are compiled on LP’s. Goldman has also co-written tracks with Massive Attack, Coldcut, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Luscious Jackson. Early in 2016, she performed dub readings onstage with Boston’s Berklee Marley Ensemble. Her multi-media beat goes on.
“Music is something inside people, it does not always need to be dictated or funneled through the business,” she says. “I knew nothing could stop me carrying on making music. I still intend to do more. It’s strong in me. When I get together with musical friends, some combustion will occur whether we record it or release it or not. Music is a human birthright.”
(by Evelyn McDonnell)
1 Launderette 03:48
2 Private Armies 06:17
3 P.A. Dub 04:36
4 The Flying Lizards-Her Story 04:42
5 The Flying Lizards-The Window 05:34
6 Chantage-Same Thing Twice 03:40
7 Chantage-It's Only Money 05:51
8 Chantage-Tu m'fais rire 01:23
9 Interview With Vivien Goldman 06:13