Annette Peacock has the name of a rock star. (It’s not an assumed name, but not her given one, either—she married the jazz bassist Gary Peacock and kept the excellent moniker after they split.) What’s more, when I meet her, she talks like a rock star: “Mick Ronson told me the air was good in Woodstock, so I moved there.” And, as all her album covers from the nineteen-seventies to the present make clear, she has the look of one, too. Even so, when I interview this elusive singer-songwriter after one of her rare concerts, she says, “I lack confidence.” I point out that her career—a series of big swerves made up of innumerable small ones—indicates the opposite. “Oh I’m brave,” she says. “I always have been. But confidence and bravery are distinct.” And what all the stars she’s known have, she continues, is “confidence.” “Sometimes that’s all they have?” I suggest, but Peacock has already moved on to another thought, just as she does in her songs.
I was introduced to Peacock’s music by a guitarist friend in Spain, Ibon Errazkin, who said to me, “It sounds like a person thinking. The way the songs unfold reminds me of the way our inner thoughts develop inside our heads, and perhaps that’s what makes them sound so intimate and personal—almost like something that is prior to making oneself heard.” My wife, Naomi, and I were having lunch at Ibon’s apartment, in Madrid, on a day off during a tour, and he was playing us Peacock’s albums from the eighties. “I go through periods when the only music that makes sense is hers—any other music just sounds frivolous,” he said. Ibon is a marvellous d.j. and guitarist, and he had selected this music for our lunch with care. “What records can I play them that they probably don’t know but might really, really love?” he had asked himself. He was right on both counts. It wasn’t surprising that he could divine our taste; he has done that many times before. But how was it that we had never heard these records?
When we got home from the tour, I quickly learned that a big reason was lack of availability. None of Peacock’s albums from the eighties are in print on any physical format, nor are they available on the major streaming platforms. If you look up Annette Peacock on Spotify, you’ll find three albums from the seventies and one from 2000, but nothing in between. There are very real gaps in the streaming catalogue, and Annette Peacock’s brave records from the eighties have been swallowed by one.
Her seventies work, on the other hand, has been catching fresh attention of late: an LP reissue of “I’m the One,” from 1972, which sports an eye-popping psychedelic portrait of the artist in metallic colors, is on display in many hipster record stores owing to the cover art alone. And the influence of the album’s free-form, freak-out, synth-infused jazz—Peacock was an early experimenter with the Moog, running her voice through it to alien effect—can be heard in some of the most interesting singer-songwriters working today, such as Julia Holter and Haley Fohr, who performs as Circuit des Yeux.
But even fans of that wiggy early period of Peacock tend to be ignorant of her records from the eighties. Perhaps it’s because what she was doing in the eighties was entirely D.I.Y.—self-produced and self-released. By contrast, her albums from the seventies that are now streaming were released by R.C.A. (“a major who paid an advance and had the clout to promote but not the vision,” she tells me) and Aura (“an indie that didn’t have the money to properly promote but had the temerity to exploit me”).
2018 in Review
New Yorker writers reflect on the year’s best.
I ask Peacock why she chose to start her own label in the eighties, though I have a pretty good hunch from the name she chose: Ironic Records. “I decided that taking responsibility for everything had to be more fulfilling than placing my trust in that which is beyond my control,” she answers, an evergreen response for all of us in music with a D.I.Y. mind-set. Ironic Records was distributed by Rough Trade, the U.K. socialist-anarchist-punk collective turned record label that directed most of my and my friends’ listening at the time. Which only makes it more bewildering that Naomi and I had never heard these albums before. Geoff Travis at Rough Trade, who signed our first band, Galaxie 500, to his label, in 1988, had a hand in Peacock’s eighties releases! (Albeit in his inimitable, D.I.Y.-preserving way; “Geoff liked what he heard and distributed it, but he left what I wished to release entirely to me,” Peacock told me.)
There’s something else about these eighties albums of Annette Peacock that hid them from our post-punk view, however: they belong to no particular genre. I can’t imagine where record stores filed them when they did stock them. Indeed, Peacock made four albums in the eighties, and each could easily have ended up in a different part of the store. Which might be why, when I ask knowledgeable music friends now what impression they have of her eighties records, they give wildly different responses. “Weren’t they Kate Bush-like, sort of New Age?” one says. “You mean those fusion albums?” another says. “What, her rock LPs that were always in the cut-out bin?” says the owner of my local used record store, going straight to the bottom line. But it’s this particular resistance of Annette Peacock’s records—to classification—that is, I think, a source of their power, as well as their obscurity.
All of which points to their odd status in today’s saturated world of music information, where her eighties records have somehow retained both the ability to surprise and to disappear. Could anything be less digital than that? Streaming playlists are built on precisely the opposite qualities: predictability and ubiquity. Play an Annette Peacock album from the eighties at your local coffee shop, and I guarantee that you’ll upend all current expectations of music. They are simply too unclassifiable for any playlist, suited instead to an anti-compilation mood that my friend Ibon described as “When the only music that makes sense is hers.”
Can I describe this music, strange enough that you’ll never hear it pop up on a playlist? For me, its appeal is largely in the melodies—teetering, careening melodies that follow their own logic as they unfold. But the truth is that each listener of this music would describe it very differently. And, ultimately, that is, I believe, its most defining characteristic. This is music that doesn’t traffic in cliché, not even a bit. And what’s a rock writer to do without at least a bit of cliché?
Annette Peacock herself has rarely commented on this D.I.Y. period of her work. So, given the chance, I asked for some of her own words about each of these four Ironic albums.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
[“Sky-skating” is from 1982, and, together with a 1981 seven-inch single of the title track, launched the label. It’s undoubtedly the record that led one of my friends to think of the eighties Annette Peacock as “Kate Bush-like.”]
“Sky-skating” is truly a solo album, in that you not only wrote but played everything yourself. This seems unique in your catalogue; what led you to that practice?
Yes, and certainly unique then in the marketplace as well. After “I’m the One,” “X-Dreams” and “The Perfect Release,” [her seventies albums, all available on streaming services] which involved quite a lot of musicians working within the confines, for me, of fairly traditional chord patterns, beats, and grooves, I thought there’d be more freedom if I travelled alone. I felt compelled to make a pure, autonomous album for these reasons—to hear outside of me an unadulterated representation of a music that I hear inside of me. I always need to be on the frontier where the freedom is, and that can be a lonely place.
What brought the set of songs on “Sky-skating” together? Were you writing in this vein all along but not using the material with other groups in the seventies?
Yes, exactly! “Sky-skating” is a love story I lived. I knew the music environment in which the story was going to be set would be a somewhat abstract territory. Which is why I launched the album and the record company first with “Sky-skating” as a single, because it was the only immediately accessible track.
[“Been in the Streets Too Long” was released in 1983 and is probably why another friend remembers these albums as “fusion.”]
“Been in the Streets Too Long” collects songs from an earlier period, and the recordings span a stretch of time. Can you tell me about the context for these recordings, and what led you to put them together?
“Been in the Streets Too Long” is a compilation of selections comprised of recordings from New York, Copenhagen, and London of live radio shows, performances, and demos made with free studio time from a publisher and Island Records. Steve Lake, a British music journalist I respected, said to me that he thought it was a shame there had been nothing released during the six years between “I’m The One”  and “X-Dreams” , and that was the impetus. I recorded a new track, “1/2 Broken,” for the release.
[The third in the sequence, “I Have No Feelings” (1986), is my personal favorite. The cover is a painting of Peacock by Alfreda Benge, the wife of singer-drummer-keyboardist Robert Wyatt and the artist responsible for all of his album covers. I’m not sure if it’s the power of visual suggestion, but this record is the closest in spirit that I’ve found to the highly personal albums in Wyatt’s catalogue, like “Rock Bottom” (1974) and “Shleep” (1997). Still, I wouldn’t put them side by side on a playlist—just give them their own space.]
“I Have No Feelings” is distinct from the previous two, in that it seems to have been written and recorded in the same period of time. Can you tell me a bit about how this album came together for you?
This recording is the result of an offer of free time from Pete Townshend’s studio Eel Pie. But it was unknown to me then that Pete was a fan. I only discovered that years later, when I was informed that, in the memorabilia exhibition of “Tommy,” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there is a letter to Ken Russell from Pete Townshend with Pete’s reasons and recommendations for his casting choices of the Acid Queen. And I was amazed, astonished, that my name is first on his list! I never met Pete, but it was a lovely, generous gesture to provide the opportunity to record “I Have No Feelings.” Benjamin Allen was the engineer at Eel Pie who contacted me and offered the studio. [Drummer] Roger Turner I had heard when I performed solo at a music festival in Pisa, Italy. I believe the government was communist then, and happy to support the arts. The opportunity to work with him came six years later, because I knew the music needed occasional bursts of drums.
How did you come to know Alfreda Benge? Were you in touch also with her husband, Robert Wyatt?
When Paul [Bley, her one-time romantic partner and her musical partner in the late sixties] and I were out and about in ’68 and ’69 performing with the synthesizer, Robert was in the Soft Machine playing drums and in N.Y.C. as well. A year later, Paul and I were booked to perform in London at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, and I pressed Paul to invite Robert to play drums, and that's when we actually met. It was ’74, at Nick Mason’s house in Hampstead, when I saw Robert again. We were in the lounge chatting when Robert and Alfie appeared with Julie Christie, who brought her sewing with her. That was when I met Alfie. During the eighties, Jeremy, my English husband, and I began to visit Robert and Alfie quite a lot in Twickenham. In fact, they were the godparents of our daughter. I was impressed with Alfie’s work, its innocence, the colors, her concept, and I asked her to do a portrait for the cover of “I Have No Feelings.” Alfie was apologetic for never having finished the hands. But all I saw was that glorious, blue, technicolor sky visible through my transparent eyes, and I didn’t care about the unfinished hands. Robert and Alfie are like Paris in the thirties, wonderful, and I fell in love with them both!
[The final record in the Ironic sequence, “Abstract-Contact” (1988), is the last that Peacock made in England and the last she made anywhere until the German label E.C.M. put a string quartet and a plush studio at her disposal for the elegant “an acrobat’s heart,” in 2000.]
“Abstract-Contact,” with its groove-oriented rhythm section, feels more like a work with a band than a singer-songwriter more or less on her own. In spirit, I hear it as more connected to releases of yours from the seventies, on labels other than Ironic. Did it feel that way to you at all?
I always write the scripts on my own. Afterwards, the other players’ parts are cast. I think “Abstract-Contact” is reminiscent of past releases because there are the traditional elements of bass and drums, and we’re back in the world of fairly traditional chord patterns, beats, and grooves. But there’s a kind of evolution about the Ironic studio albums. “Sky-skating” is the solo project. “I Have No Feelings” can be considered a duo, with the occasional appearance of another player. And “Abstract-Contact” is a trio recording. The next release, “an acrobat's heart,” twelve years later, was with a string quartet. . . .
Finally, could you tell me about your move away from England, and why you stopped releasing albums through Ironic in this manner?
My marriage was in the process of dissolution. I wished to relocate somewhere surrounded by woodland and fresh air but not a marathon away from a major marketplace. Before Mick Ronson died, he praised and proposed Woodstock, so that's where I went. I never stopped composing and playing, just recording and releasing. I'm only interested in releasing a music that’s appreciated at the time of its release, rather than forty years later, as has been my disappointing experience. But what can I do? I’m not ambitious and I don’t care about immortality. So I decided to live my life, observe the culture from a distance and patiently wait for it to catch up.
Annette Peacock will give a rare New York performance on Friday, December 7th, at the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn. The show is presented by Blank Forms and Artists Space.