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What You Could Not Visualise: Rema-Rema

Director: Marco Porsia

Features: Mark Cox, Mick Allen, Gary Asquith, Marco Pirroni and Dorothy ‘Max’ Prior, Steve Albini, Jim Thirwell, Stephen Mallinder

Forty-three year and twenty minutes of recorded music* later, four fifths of the enigmatic and short-lived post-punk band Rema-Rema reunite for this fascinating rockumentary meets cultural excavation from Italian-Canadian director Marco Porsia.

The band, composed of Mark Cox, Mick Allen, Gary Asquith, Marco Pirroni and Dorothy ‘Max’ Prior, formed in 1979 and played a mere eleven gigs before splitting, evidently because guitarist Marco Pirroni was lured away by Adam Ant to join his Ants. Nevertheless, shortly after the split, the then budding indie label 4AD released a four track EP ‘Wheel in the Roses’ in 1980. Indie record store habitués of a certain age may recall the striking black and white cover, a reproduction of British photographer George Rodger’s 1949 picture of the winner of a Sudanese wrestling match being paraded about his village. Boldly experimental and eclectic, ‘Wheel in the Roses’ consisted of four pieces: the prowling proto-Fall ‘Feedback Song’; the eponymous ‘Rema-Rema’,. ‘Louie Louie’ for the post-punk set; the feedback-ridden throbbing ‘Instrumental (not an instrumental); and the beautiful, taut ballad ‘Fond Affections’. It didn’t set the charts alight, but as the documentary attests, its influence stretched to Europe and across the Atlantic.

It’s likely that music fans may have encountered Rema-Rema’s music via cover versions: Steve Albini’s ‘Big Black covered and performed ‘Rema-Rema’ live a number of times, and 4AD collective This Mortal Coil did a typically ethereal and gorgeous cover of ‘Fond Affections’. Fans of the This Mortal Coil’s version may be surprised by the original, the wispy ambience replaced by a metallic thrum and Teutonic barking vocals.

While no footage of the band exists, only a handful of suitably moody photos, their music is ingeniously illustrated via shuffling, spooky paper cut-out figures, flashes of a modern-day Gary Asquith miming, even a Frank Sinatra lookalike.

Director Marco Porsia, whose last picture ‘Where Does a Body End?’ profiled Michael Gira, of American experimental rock band Swans, conjures up an evocative depiction of the post punk monochrome milieu, with archive footage, stills and retro-futurist clips from 1936 British Science fiction picture, ‘Thing to Come’, while claiming a place for the band in the new wave pantheon alongside such groups as Joy Division, Magazine and PiL.

While Pirroni declined to be interviewed for the project, Cox, Allen, Asquith, Max are happy, and probably surprised to be asked, to share their recollections. Alas, their insights aren’t particularly vivid or illuminating, perhaps understandable as they were only in the band for a short amount of time, it was a long time ago, and they all went on to other projects, including Renegade Soundwave and The Wolfgang Press. Bowie checked them out when were a support act for Siouxsie and the Banshees at The Rainbow apparently, and it’s clear that Pirroni’s departure still smarts.

Musician fans of the band are more engaging and effusive though, particularly Steve Albini who is great on how pop cultural items made their way in the pre-internet age and rippled across geographical borders and generations. It’s surprisingly stirring when Albini outlines how vinyl records by short-lived bands could become venerated artefacts. The last word should go to 4AD founder Watts-Russell who says of Rema-Rema ‘One of the great post punk bands was over before it had begun.

*an album of out-takes and live versions has subsequently been released, but print the legend and all that…

What You Could Not Visualise: Rema-Rema played at the Doc’n Roll Film Festival 2022. A release date is to be announced.

David Willoughby

Follow David on Twitter @DWill_Crackfilm

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