Asphixiation

"What is this thing called 'Disco'?"

Background

The Asphixiation project was a major set of integrated works devised by Philip Brophy for the group → ↑ → in 1980. Subtitled "What is this thing called 'Disco'?", its premiere manifestation was comprised of an installation, a performance, and a catalogue essay. Following the work's premiere, a record was released of the music from the performance, and a music-video was produced for the record.

Credits

Music composition, arrangement & production - Philip Brophy
Lyrics - Ralph Traviato
Vocals – Philip Brophy, Maria Kozic, Leigh Parkhill, Jane Stevenson, Ralph Traviato
Guitars – Leigh Parkhill
Sax – Ralph Traviato
Drums & keyboards – Philip Brophy
Engineering - David Chesworth & Chris Wyatt

2017

LP & 12" 45 reissued by Chapter Music, Melbourne
"L'Acrostique D'Amour" included on the compilation CLOSED CIRCUITS Vol.1 by Warner Music Australia

1982

Performance - Angus Hotel, Adelaide
Performance - BIENNALE OF SYDNEY, Sydney Conservatorium, Sydney
Performance - Stranded, Sydney
Performance - POPISM opening, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Music-video Aural/Oral Risk - produced for Innocent Records

1981

12" 45 release - through Missing Link Records distribution
LP release - through Innocent Records & Missing Link Records distribution
Performance - San Remo Ballroom, Melbourne
Performance - Jump Club, Melbourne

1980

Exhibition - George Paton Gallery, Melbourne
Performances - George Paton Gallery, Melbourne

Jump Club, Melbourne © 1981

Overview

"What is this thing called 'Disco'?"

Original press release

What is this thing called 'Disco'? Why, just the latest, most exciting musical language of the 20th Century, that's all. Who are Asphixiation? Just one of the first truly intelligent bands to get hip to the new lingo. What is this thing called "What Is This Thing Called 'Disco'?"? It's Asphixiation's first album - a package that includes a free 12" re-release of their earlier cult classics "L'Acrostique D'Amour" and "The Crush", as well as 10 new greats that make up the album. Listen to it closely. Witness the style, sophistication and subtle dislocation with which Asphixiation speak not only Disco but its many dialects too: Moroder-esque, Hayes-ian, L'Ecole de Chic and more! But trends like this don't just spring up overnight, of course not! Asphixiation is, if you didn't know, a →↑→ production. →↑→ - the band that bravely spans the void between Art and Pop. → ↑ → - the band that's loved and hated with equal vehemence in both the gallery and the pub - has now, through Asphixiation, hit the discos too! You must hear the album and, if you get the opportunity, see the show.

Poster - installation & performances © 1980

From the liner notes to the 2017 re-issue

Disco had already figured in another →↑→ project, Nice Noise, starting in 1978 and ending in 1981. The live set featured bass synth, guitar, drums and sax, all instrumental. One of the songs covered and transformed into our minimalist rock-hewn sound was Lipps Inc’s “Funky Town”—a fantastic uber-minimal disco hit from 1980. (We also covered Yoko Ono’s “Why”, Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle” and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”.) Early in 1980, Judy Annear and Alecs Danko — curators at the George Paton Gallery in Melbourne University — approached me to present something in their space. As with these type of invitations, I would pretty much look around at what was interesting me at that moment, then propose something that allowed me to produce something aligned to that interest. It was always immediate, and always fun. I had no idea how, but I thought it would be good to put Disco in an art gallery.

The show at the George Paton Gallery featured 6 cubicles, each with a large pop-style painting of a man or woman lifted from Italian Vogue, lit by a single fluorescent tube. On a plinth was a single instrument (sax, guitar, microphone, etc.) with a tape loop playing a minimalist ambient wash. A gilded picture frame covered in see-through plastic was positioned in front of the instrument, sardonically presenting is as an art object. Throughout the space, a synthesizer pulsed a loud kick thump. The effect was like wandering through clinical rooms, each a dissection of a fragment of disco sound and image, all the while being massaged by an omnipotent disco throb. I also thought of creating a ‘fake’ disco band, which to me seemed perverse because the beauty of Disco was its utter artificiality. It sounded a universe away from anything acoustic, it was bludgeoningly minimalist, it flaunted its brash technological veneer, and it seemed to attract the ire of anyone seriously interested in music. The idea was to do a mimed performance on stage with the reel-to-reel tape visibly playing—just like Disco was being presented at the time. Pulling this all together was the show’s title, placed in quotes as if Asphixiation the band is asking the question—right down to the word ‘Disco’ being placed in single quotes, as if it is an unclassifiable aberration of music. Which, of course, it is.

Jump Club, Melbourne © 1981

Technical

"What is this thing called 'Disco'?"

From the liner notes to the 2017 re-issue

I wrote the 12 songs for Asphixiation in 5 days in early June 1980. I was 20 at the time. Probably across a similar time frame, Ralph Traviato worked on the lyrics for 7 of those tracks. They’re cool, smarmy and perfectly pretentious. I still can’t believe I wrote the music so quickly. I do recall that I was trying out a different sub-genre of disco for each track. The recording was done in the music department of Latrobe University. I no longer had access to the studio, and David Chesworth and Chris Wyatt engineered the recording sessions. At that stage I had no real experience working seriously in studios, and had only performed live. With predictable naivety, I arranged and produced the tracks, jumping onto the grand piano, tympani and marimbas among other things. Influenced by Eno’s first three solo albums and his work on the Bowie trilogy of Low/Heroes/Lodger, the studio was viewed by us all as an exciting playground for sculpting sound.

The recording was done over 7 graveyard sessions in June and mixed in 2 sessions at the start of July. Ralph played sax, Leigh Parkhill did the guitars, and I think I did everything else. There was no click track and no sequencing. For example, all the synths on the track “Tradition Europe” were played manually, hand-triggering the LFO filtering to simulate a Giorgio Moroder pulse. Along with Maria Kozic and Jayne Stevenson, we all shared vocals. The first performance at the gallery was on July 8th. All → ↑ → projects worked on tight high-pressure schedules, but there was always enough energy and adrenaline to keep everyone going. And no, drugs were never involved. People keep rewriting the history of any musical era as if drugs shape everything, but that was never the case with us. Truth be told, we were so naïve that we thought art made everything happen, not drugs. I’d rather hold to that view.

Jump Club, Melbourne © 1981

Asphixiation marked the first time lyrics had been produced for a →↑→ project. Long time supporter of → ↑ → Bruce Milne of Au-go-go Records had commenced working at Missing Link Records in Melbourne, started up by Keith Glass. He suggested to Keith that they release the Asphixiation ‘soundtrack’ as a record. I had already amassed an impressive collection of ‘generic’ Disco 12” sleeves, all of which featured hysterically sexist imagery just this side of porn. For the Asphixiation LP cover, I thought I’d simply reverse the gender image. Chris Koller took the photo and it was printed in duotone in bottle green and cool mint. Very non-hedonistic. It’s weird how now so much revisioning of Australian punk and post-punk is aligned to championing rock and noise and electronics. Asphixiation was full-on disco, albeit not as well produced and crafted as the sounds I wished to emulate. But at the time, Disco was infiltrating lots of places where it didn’t belong.

For the gallery exhibition, I wrote a catalogue essay about the phenomenon of Disco and its dislocation from validated musical styles which specifically queried: “What constitutes Disco as such a widespread phenomenon, and why has it been appropriated by avant-garedism while being condemned by the commonsensibility?” While punk and indie strains of music were heading down hollowed rock pathways in 1980, I was more interested in the collapse of those predictable traditions. Disco presented an aural deluge, turning sound into electrified currents and hyper-plastic imagery. I was following Bowie, Sparks, The Pop Group, Telex, Magazine, Gang of Four, Little Nell, Human League, Kraftwerk, YMO, Brian Ferry, Robert Fripp, Talking Heads, Flying Lizards, James White and Visage—all of whom had released tracks with clear Disco referencing between 1977 and 1980. I’d be very happy if Asphixiation occupied a tiny obscure footnote amongst them.

Poster - Sydney © 1982

Complete credits

Writing

1980 May 30th, June 1st, 5th, 7th, 8th

Recording

1980 June 9th, 10th, 13th, 14th, 24th, 26th, 27th

Mixing

1980 June 30th, July 2nd

Actual credits

Recorded by David Chesworth and Chris Wyatt at Latrobe University Music Department studio
Music by Philip Brophy and lyrics by Ralph Traviato
Vocals – Philip Brophy, Maria Kozic, Leigh Parkhill, Jane Stevenson, Ralph Traviato
Guitars – Leigh Parkhill
Sax – Ralph Traviato
Drums & keyboards – Philip Brophy

Fake credits

Recorded at Gabinetto (Milan)
Mixed at Abwasserkanal Studios (Frankfurt)

Tracks

12” single
A: “L’Acrostique D’Amour” (for AM Radio)
B: “The Crush" (for Discotheques)

LP – side 1
“The Beat Aesthetic”
“Feelings”
“Asphixiation”
“Blurred Movement”
“Hunger – Food – Nausea” LP – side 2
“Innocent Rhythms”
“Aural/Oral Risk”
Tradition Europe”
“Self-Denial (Is A Beautiful Thing)”
“African Disco Queen”

Publicity photos © 1981