Friday, August 31, 2007

Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthin' To Fuck With

And, as a little bonus:

The Fraud Is Exposed

For the benefit of S. Reynolds: yes, I am 18. I haven't had the privilege of reading Maurice Blanchot at proper length yet, primarily because of continuing (unofficial) unemployment (lot of fuckin' good 3 As have done me), and the fact that they don't have any books of his in the local library, even though it's bizarrely well-stocked on every other topic (not least the music section, which boasts copies of Rip It Up, England's Dreaming and Lipstick Traces.) If he'd be so good as to wangle me a job at the Village Voice, the situation could be easily rectified.

'Let's Let The Voices Through'

Monday, August 27, 2007

Dead Souls

An interesting mop-up post from K-Punk and the essays in the ‘Spectral Spaces’ issue of Perforations have been cause of some contemplation around here, not least regarding the remarks by K-Punk and Ian Mathers on Joy Division. I’m beginning to fear that the balancing act between ‘the Joy Division of Pure Art’ and ‘the Joy Division of "just a laff"' that both writers warned must be kept up is starting to go off-balance, in favour of ‘aesthetic-Romantic’ views of JD. I myself have been, in the past, more than susceptible to such tendencies, and know better than most the need to keep them at bay; I know that hauntology, at least in the hands of K-Punk et al., has more than an element of hyperstitional poeticisation – imbuing theory with the qualities of fiction and transforming fiction into reality – but talking about Curtis’ death as something seemingly inevitable, with Curtis singing "as if he was already dead", even if it’s true that’s how we all experienced Closer – the contemporary fans like Mark Sinker just as much as those listening intently to their transmissions today, like me – seems almost callous, frankly. Not to mention, it betrays what seems to be the true significance of Joy Division, which is undoubtedly what K-Punk/Mathers/Morley et al. are getting at: the tension between the quotidian facts of Ian Curtis’ and the band’s brief lifespan – Northern, working-class, "lads out for a laugh" (with the stories from the Buzzcocks tour of looting a hotel bar in Cardiff; "removing the striplights from the gents’ toilets and smearing the taps and light switches with excrement" in Guildford; Ian getting drunk and pissing in a free-standing metal ashtray in Brussels; the band taking advantage of what Steve Morris called "fantastic copping potential"; Tony Wilson, the man who would later mythologize Curtis within an inch of his death, saying he "was loads of fun… Their major pastime was japing") – and the astonishing, uncanny (as if that term weren’t loaded enough) power of the music itself, a power going very precisely beyond the quotidian and empirical without succumbing to the recuperations of mysticism, mythology and the organised ‘spiritual’ – a divide best illustrated by the photos in the only magazine feature I have on JD (thank God), an article by Pat Gilbert (from which the above quotes were take), of IC flailing onstage at the Paris Bains Douche, his shirt drenched in sweat, eyes and face skeletal and rigid, with, inset, a snapshot from home with Deborah and little Natalie, smiling politely and wearing the exact same shirt.

Even beyond the extraordinary power of the two Hannett LPs – which I must admit Mathers evoked with real vividness and nail-on-the-head accuracy – and numerous singles, there was something otherworldly about JD: in the live footage from Wilson’s ‘So It Goes’ and Factory’s Here Are The Young Men VHS they seem both to possess and be possessed by the stage, the static awkwardness of Hook and Morris, complemented by Curtis’ spastic shimmying, undermined by the sheer primal frenzy the speakers pour forth, Curtis energetic command of the viewers’ attention. One is forced to wonder, again and again, How the fuck did this come out of them? And whilst the glacial torrent of the Hannett-produced recordings has definite value for sonic hauntology, the distancing effects of digital production doubling and highlighting the immaterial nature of sound, the near-metaphysical nature of phonomancy, we shouldn’t forget these facts about them, and the fact that a man took his own life, for fuck sake.


Incidentally, regarding the hauntology pieces, reading K-Punk’s remarks about the centrality of Curtis' voice to JD's hauntological importance reminded me of Derrida again, but particularly of his critique of phonocentrism in the metaphysics of presence (a nice loop if ever I saw one, and maybe one Jacques (initials JD – weird coincidence) would have appreciated): if, as we seem to feel, the voice is taken to be more of a guarantor of presence than writing, then what the hell do you do with a recording of a voice whose, um, ‘author’ (anyone got a better term? Answers on a postcard, please) is no longer there? It doesn’t actually seem much of a problem with most singers – you can listen to Sinatra, for example, without even thinking of the fact that he’s dead – and you can even listen to most of the first side of Closer without IC’s non-existence passing through your head. But when, as critics from Reynolds to Mathers point out, music appears that seems to call attention to that very fact – Closer from ‘A Means To An End’ to ‘Decades’, or, say, Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ (whose desperate tone was apparently the inspiration for Curtis’ doomed croon on ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’) – the effect is, frankly, frightening. That is partly a result of the way we normally experience, and write about, music, i.e. ontologically: the voice, the recognisable sounds of the instruments, all serve to reassure the listener of the presence of the musicians and singer, linking back to the live, communal nature of music before aural recording (the same with the rock-band need to capture ‘the live sound’). Hannett’s studio interjections sever that link, making Curtis sound as if he’s singing from the Other Side (a medium being both someone who ‘communicates’ with the dead and the means of artistic production, the means by which the singer ‘communicates’ with the listener) and the band as if they’re playing from behind a safety curtain (Hannett’s preoccupation with making the band sound as synthetic as possible extending to the replacement of Sumner’s live drums with syn-drums, the processing of Morris’ and Hook’s instruments, and the introduction of unheimlich electronics at every opportunity). If, as Mathers and K-Punk contend, Curtis sounds "already dead" – and, I’ll admit, he certainly doesn’t sound ‘live’ – then logically he can’t sing; the entire band, Curtis especially, sounds caught in the interzone between life and death, a Derridean undecidable (and after all, while the dead don’t make noise, ghosts certainly do – banshees, and those involved in Electronic Voice Phenomena, to name but a couple.)

These distancings are added to by the nature of the recording itself: we may know exactly where and when Curtis’ vocals were recorded, we may even have witnesses to the fact; but because a record can be played again and again, unfolding the exact same experience each time, they separated from their origins, so that, as K-Punk puts it in his piece on The Shining, they "insist… but never exist". Hence, the question "What do you do with a voice without a speaker?" becomes one of the central questions about Joy Division, and makes clear their importance as a case study for sonic hauntology. Maurice Blanchot, whose work extends Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence in literature (and who takes the now-clichéd notion of ‘the death of the author’ completely seriously and literally) sheds even more light on this:

“Like sacred language, what is written comes from no recognisable source, is without author or origin, and thereby always refers back to something more original than itself. Behind the words of the written work, nobody is present; but language gives voice to this absence, just as in the oracle, when divinity speaks, the god himself is never present in his words, and it is the absence of god which then speaks.”

The process of recording, matched by the process of writing, thus becomes paradoxically trivial - unable to speak of truth and presence in the way we want it to - and utterly serious, in a way that transcends the mere material act:

"These pages can end here, and nothing that follows what I have just written will make me add anything to it or take anything away from it. This remains, this will remain until the very end. Whoever would obliterate it from me, in exchange for that end which I am searching for in vain, would himself become the beginning of my own story, and he would be my victim. In darkness, he would see me: my word would be his silence, and he would think he was holding sway over the world, but that sovereignity would still be mine, his nothingness mine, and he too would know that there is no end for a man who wants to end alone.

"This should therefore be impressed upon anyone who might read these pages thinking they are infused with the thought of unhappiness. And what is more, let him try to imagine the hand that is writing them: if he saw it, then perhaps reading would become a serious task for him." -- From Death Sentence.


One of the less-acknowledged sides to hauntology, but which, as far as I’m concerned, is really of central importance, is the nature of human (and machine) memory – partly because many of the most prominent writers on hauntology are men reaching their mid-to-late 30s/early 40s, the period generously referred to as the ‘midlife crisis’, in which memory plays a more and more vital role (because there’s more life behind than before you). It’s also partly due to the fact that recorded material has come to form such a massive part of human life and human memory; as I’ve pointed out before, the connection between photography and our sensory memories of events is deeply intimate for those born in the twentieth century, with both the inevitably fading and fragmenting pictures of memory and the cracked doppelgangers of lived experience that result from the process of recording. It often seems, both looking at photographs and remembering scenes from earlier days, that they don’t depict you, but some unknown figure closely resembling you, but faded, distorted: in ontological terms, neither the self nor any ostensible Other, but somewhere in between, hovering on the threshold between, suspended between existence and non-.

If a haunting is the return of a past that we cannot access, cannot know the presence of, then memory is the perfect analogue. And it seems no coincidence that the great investigations of the nature of memory – the psychoanalytic project, Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu – began at the same time as photography, film and sound reproduction really began to take off. The progress of the twentieth century was not just a progress towards spectrality, but towards a more primitive, metaphysical, theological texture to life: the liberal believers in science-conquers-all/The-Unstoppable-March-Of-Progress/lumpen-materialism were proved wrong; at every stage technological and scientific progression brought a greater primitivism and fragmentation to existence, in the First World War, the spate of revolutions that rocked Europe, the Great Depression, the rise of European Fascism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, etc., etc. The March Of Progress brought not greater life but barer; not an increase in life but mass extermination; not a smoother, more material existence but one increasingly disrupted and unsure.

Reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, a meditation on the legacy of exile and loss that haunts European Jewry – particularly the ‘account’ of the painter Max Ferber, who left Munich for Manchester in 1938, and whose parents were exterminated somewhere in Eastern Europe – amply decorated with black-and-white chemical photos, I couldn’t help but think of the shared characteristics of so many of the Holocaust poets – Paul Celan, the Hungarians Miklos Radnoti and Janos Pilinszky, Tadeusz Borowski (who stuck his head in a gas oven 6 years after leaving Auschwitz, and whose impassive prose accounts read like the second side of Closer sounds), Tadeusz Rosewicz, Geoffrey Hill, the American Jew Randall Jarrell: the feeling occurs again and again that what occurred in the concentration camps was utterly beyond human contemplation, beyond material existence in a way that does not merely ‘compensate’ for the suffering with the fruits of the spiritual (something Jewish culture has very little truck with). The experiences of modernity demanded the narratives of primitive theology: not to make what happened, the overwhelming weight of suffering, from the all-consuming fact itself down to the most intimate and sordid texture of existence, in any way comprehensible, understandable, merely to allow it to exist in all its horror at all, and not be forgotten with the ages. This ‘spiritual’ – although ‘extra-material’ would be a better term – treatment of the Holocaust stems not just from its theological implications (outlined in Dan Cohn-Sherbok’s anthology Holocaust Theology), or the fact that it has come to form one of the major events in the history of a newly-radicalised Judaism, but the fact that it was captured on the twentieth century’s new, spectral media, and was so beyond comprehension it couldn’t have happened on this world.

To this day the entire thing is so shocking that the images and accounts seem not so much material facts as transmissions from another, barren, alien world. The first time I entered the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, I found it literally impossible to take in, only occasional facts battering their way into my head; those fleeting impressions remain irremovably burned into my mind. The atrocities depicted in the grainy black-and-white photos – and this applies equally to those of the First World War – looked like nothing any human being would do to another. The closest approximation I ever found to these, years later, were the gruesome crucifixions and Pietas of Rubens and Grunewald, or the early medieval icons depicting the Passion, in which Christ’s body is horribly deformed and twisted. The progress of the twentieth century from its beginnings in the capitalism of the Industrial Revolution didn’t founder in wartime Flanders or Nazi Germany, but find its truest expression (as demonstrated by the post-war shift into consumer capitalism, which relied more than ever on theological means to maintain the spectral pseudoworld of the spectacle). It’s no wonder that those theorists and writers who followed – excepting the existentialists, who merely recuperated the entire business (again, Camus excepted, though he was never an ‘existentialist’ as such) – should re-adopt the medieval and Shakespearean language of death, ghosts, and exorcisms; or that both Blanchot and Ian Curtis were haunted (extra resonances intended) by the disasters of the twentieth century, and especially the concentration camps.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rubbing The Impossible To Burst

Solid Air Fem Vox
Portman Green Room, Bournemouth

"This is happening without your permission!"
--Huggy Bear, ‘Her Jazz’

"Even now female voices are heard which – holy Aristophanes! – are frightening: they threaten with medical explicitness what woman wants from man, first and last."
--Friedrich Nietzsche

Whatever did happen to Riot Grrrl? I’m sitting in this pub backroom, waiting to hear acoustic pop-rock confections, in the best manner of the Industry, played, and I’m wondering: how did we get from Huggy Bear’s ‘Her Jazz’ – still, after nearly a decade-and-a-half, one of the most exciting, liberating pieces of music ever recorded, Riot Grrrl’s ‘God Save The Queen’ – to Kate ‘Great White Hope’ Nash beating Grace Jones-inheritor Rihanna from the No. 1 spot? Why are these women standing up and brandishing acoustic guitars, like they have something to be afraid of from an electric? Why are K.T. Tunstall records not being burnt by girl punks like the scriptures of some small-time medieval heretic? Didn’t you hear, there was a fucking revolution; the Seventies are, you know, kind of over now.

I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t have just had another quiet night in (like every other fucking night). But I suppose it’s my own fault as usual: what was so exciting about Riot Grrrl if not its reclamation of punk, a theoretically male bonehead music? And why is it OK for, say, Jandek, or Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart to do the acoustic strumming thing, and not women? Is it because women can’t be trusted to pick good music, because only play pansy-wansy pop-rock shite…? Oh, grow the fuck up. Just enjoy yourself, you dick.

So first of all Antonia Edgely-Long takes the stage, strumming at a fair pace, singing in that clear, faintly vulnerable voice, reminding me of Joni Mitchell. Damnation, I have no idea how to judge this kind of stuff, because I never knowingly listen to it. I suppose the only criteria I can bring to it is: ‘Is it better than Katie Melua?’ Thankfully, the answer in this case is an undoubted ‘Yes’: Antonia knows when to keep her accompaniment sparse (as on the beautiful little number ‘Cry’), how to construct lovely, winding melodies, how to deftly avoid the syrupy mire that acoustic pop-rock tends to wallow in with judicious and restrained emoting, and some strong, darker-than-most lyrics about the difficulties of love and death.

Acoustic and bass duo Anta quickly follow, ripping into a short set with vigour and verve. The interplay between the two guitars provide a flexible spine for Antonia (the singer – they’re both Antonia) to work her magic, goofing with the audience between captivating, mantric numbers, a thread of nicotine-blackened words winding between choruses that, in their flat, restrained malice, menace as much any nonsense Birthday Party-era Nick Cave might come up with. "I’ll smoke another smoke/Drink another drink" rings round and round the final number, before threatening to take the glass and "shove it up his ass." Cue peals of laughter.

Much technical faffing-around precedes the entrance of the ever-excellent Frances Donnelly, a.k.a. Animal Magic Tricks. Her Fisher Price tinkle-pulses and beautiful, scarred words are present and correct… but… something’s not right. It might be the sound, but her voice, possessed of a purity of tone and wooziness of timbre to match dream-pop all-time greats like Galaxie 500’s Naomi Yang or Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, feels leashed, unable to devastate the audience as it did the last time I saw her. This, combined with the frequent technical hitches (she was trying new material) and some unfortunate audience chatter shatter the disarming, oneiric atmosphere she conjures up at her best.

Of course, she rallies as best she can: there’s the usual clutch of minimalist toytown electronic melodies, adorned with Frances’ utterly endearing vocals, shattered, tiny and pure like freshly-made glass. She plugs in and plays ripped Scout Niblett guitar, including a bunch of new material, some with "my friend Dom", who contributes (after a little cajoling) suitably gruff vocals, ghosting Frances like the shadow of some feral double. It’s at this point you realise how complex and subtle her act is: the starkly-sketched words access the same primal archetypes as fairy tales, skewing the assumptions that trail ‘naïf ‘ female performers, exploring the axes of desire, love, violence and darkness, near-whispering lyrics about something "you want to kiss/But you want your mother to save you". Their guitars and vocals intertwine like acrobatic jet-exhaust trails. After Dom departs, Conrad tries to shuffle her off prematurely, but she stays on for two more numbers, ending with the song that’s haunted me since the first time I heard it: tide-noises, the reedy breath of a Casio, her tiny, strong voice intoning, again and again, "How many have envisioned pure love/Then found out their heart’s just filled up with blood?" like the recurrence of some primal psychic trauma.

Jennie Venus, meanwhile, strums like a Sixties wild-child: she flits through her performance at double speed, reminding me a little of Life Without Buildings’ Sue Tompkins – one of the all-time great chanteuses, alongside Emmy Hennings, Billie Holiday and Bjork – or maybe Joni Mitchell on uppers, obviously revelling in the liberation that being on stage affords, caught up in the sheer joy of having a voice and an opportunity to use it. On the final number she tries to cajole the audience into singing "Peace, love and harmony" along with her, and half of them really do, as she circles round and round the same over-excited melody on her guitar.

Finally, One City Girl, composed mostly of guys: an odd cross-breeding of acoustic guitars, blues strumming, box percussion, white funk (including at one point, a wah-wah effect on one acoustic(!)) and the most full-on raunchy vocals I’ve heard since The Gossip (though lacking the subtlety you get with Beth Ditto, e.g. slow-burning ballad ‘Coal To Diamonds’. Oh well, no problem.) No, I can’t make out a word, but it sounds damned good: this is the kind of music that makes me lament for the days when I could listen to Led Zeppelin unmolested, without needing to conjure up worthy justifications. Not least because Robert Plant sounded distinctly female; singer Jemma belts them out, one after another; the players are nicely laid-back and proficient, except for the drummer, who breaks into what sounds like acoustic jungle at the end of one song. There’s an air of frivolity and cheerful amateurism: Jemma gets asked whether she wants a Cornish pasty; with room for one number left, and only one left on the setlist, they end up playing an extra song, an extended (and extremely dextrous) guitar solo from Andy.

I dunno, maybe this was what it was all about: if punk (and Riot Grrrl) was a musical acting-out of political potentialities, an attempt to transform everyday life, with the stage becoming, as Ian Penman put it, "a Pandora's Box rather than a Pan's People cage, somewhere to start a ruckus from rather than silently go-go to", then this is, perhaps, a little bit of the legacy it should have had: allowing anybody to do what the fuck they want, and enjoy doing it.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

"the science of music is accorded a greater esteem than that of nature, but... has never penetrated so deeply into the life of my people. I myself felt less attracted to the science of music than to any other until I heard that voice in the forest.... Nor is it by any means easy to come to grips with that science; it is regarded as very esoteric and politely excludes the crowd." --Franz Kafka, 'Investigations of a Dog'.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Death And The Maiden

"When the rich die last/Like the rabbits running/From a lucky past/Full of shadow cunning/And the world lights up/For the final day/We will all be poor/Having had our say."
--Young Marble Giants, ‘Final Day’

Is it possible to be nostalgic for something you never experienced yourself? And especially for something that those who experienced would have preferred to not to have lived through? I was born in 1988, the year after Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen – the last great classic of Cold War literature – was published, and the year before the Berlin Wall fell, a transition in the history of the Cold War. Quite frankly, I find it almost impossible to believe that for the first three years of my life, the Soviet Union was still in existence, given that most people of my age have embraced the Kapitalist opiate with such fervour; in fact, if you look at kids born after 1989, that hedonic streak is even stronger – kids are being snared into work at younger and younger ages, and, indeed, into the hipster ‘counterculture’ (scoff), which is becoming simultaneously increasingly commercialised, increasingly hedonic and increasingly young. Even between my friends born in 1988 and 1989, there’s a difference; we exist either side of an impassable divide – the ‘End Of History’, the ‘Victory of Capitalism’. Most of my 1988-and-older friends have a undoubtedly ambivalent relationship with capitalism – counting among their ranks not a few socialists, visionary freaks in DIY bands, melancholics, and a few with somewhat unsavoury drink habits and dead-end jobs; the Soviet project was still alive, and socialism still a living possibility when we were born – whereas my 1989 friends tend to be yuppies through and through. For us, the end of history is a nightmare from which we’re trying to wake; the others have never known anything else.

Not that we can remember anything much of it: my earliest memory, from when I was less than a year old, is only a fragment from a period totally unremembered. It’s at this point that we begin to wonder about some kind of collective unconscious; well, if Greil Marcus could get away with it in Lipstick Traces, I don’t see why I can’t.

Far more happened in that period – the decade-and-a-bit between punk’s first flourishing and Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – than in the preceding or following decades; in retrospect, it seems like the very final flourishing of the modernist impulse: both punk and post-punk were part of a cultural heritage derived from the early modernists, and funnelled through the Lettrist and Situationist Internationals, which in turn aligned itself with the early Soviet Union, which the Bolsheviks envisaged as the first truly modern civilisation, free from the feudal and capitalist barbarisms of the Industrial Revolution.

The occasion for all this rambling is the reissue of Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth, my copy of which arrived Monday morning. I first came across the band in the list of Kurt Cobain’s 50 favourite LPs – at No. 22, just behind The Raincoats and Kleenex/LiLiPut – and it seems appropriate, really: the minimal Nirvana of ‘Dumb’, ‘Polly’ and ‘About A Girl’ didn’t come from nowhere, or, I suspect, even from the early Beatles, another of Kurt’s major supposed influences. The same eavesdropping metaphor he used to describe listening to The Raincoats (mentors to YMG, "feisty feminist aunties") – "We’re together in the same old house and I have to be completely still or they will hear me spying from above" – applies perfectly to YMG: Colossal Youth is like some clandestine midnight radio station, the restrained instruments coming out of the dark silence (I seem to think of it as dark only because of the iconic cover photo, but it fits very nicely) like dulled points of light, like in the work of late-period Morton Feldman or Scott Walker. Simon Reynolds’ comments about "geometric clarity and starkness of form", and the comparison to sculpture in the sleevenotes is very astute: not merely because of the beautiful concision and preciseness of the LP itself (beautifully sequenced, less than 40 minutes long) but the songs, which are notoriously minimalist, but just right: never outstaying their welcome, never too verbose, never trying to cram too many instruments or ideas into less than three minutes, never acting out like petulant punk, rock, soul and pop. Whilst I love the mad genre-mashing energy of much post-punk (Essential Logic, The Pop Group, PIL, The Cravats, Gang Of Four, Talking Heads, ATV, Kleenex), the rush to jam so many ideas into a single song, to push the band beyond their musical limits produces stuff that’s just too… busy, too… hectic. YMG works with the exact opposite approach: subtracting, and then emphasising the few elements left.

There’s more than a question of resemblances or non- here, though: there’s something deeply disquieting about a lot the whole of Colossal Youth and the ‘Final Day’ EP. Neil Kulkarni was astute enough to pick it up in his review for
Plan B, in which he described it as being one of the "recorded totems from the Iron Lady’s anschluss that first nailed the curious silent scream of the dispossessed", alongside Metal Box, More Specials, The Raincoats’ Odyshape and The Slits’ Cut. In a sense he’s right, but I wouldn’t it put this with all of those (certainly not Cut) – in its glacial starkness, it’s more of a piece with Unknown Pleasures. One thing the album most certainly isn’t is naïve: it’s served as an inspiration to generations of naïf-pop bands, from the weedier end of C86 to the K Records crowd (especially Beat Happening), but there’s a massive sense of fatality and disillusionment running throughout the album – the resignation and blocked romance of ‘Searching For Mr Right’, ‘Include Me Out’s attack on those "Dying of boredom in your plastic home" (by her tone, Alison Statton is trapped by those same walls), the vanitas word-painting of ‘Eating Noddemix’, the Edward Albee suburban spite of ‘Music For Evenings’, ‘N.I.T.A.’’s cryptic break-up lament. The fact that it’s funnelled through a restrained, almost affectless presentation – Alison Statton’s quiet, conversational voice, the choppy, muted guitars and a drum machine that sounds as if possessed of a clockwork mechanism – mutates the sentiments into something altogether other: the tales of a world that could expect no better.

Colossal Youth was released in March 1980, in the first quarter of a year blackened by death, dread and existential entrapment: the sense of total possibility that had persisted since the nationwide breakout of punk in 1977, that had bred and spread in the End Times atmosphere of the Winter of Discontent, would soon gutter to almost nothing; the petit-bourgeois right-wing backlash had made its first blow with the election of Thatcher the previous year (a real blow for Red Wales, which would be further marginalized by Tory Westminster), and was now ossifying the political climate into one based on ‘common-sense’ mediocrity and a terrifying contempt for human life; the second wave of post-punk bands, basing themselves on the great artefacts like Unknown Pleasures and Metal Box had begun to turn the independent subculture into a swamp; two months later, the last great British post-punk record (except for Grotesque, Slates and Hex Enduction Hour by The Fall, who have always been immune to changes in the cultural climate) Closer, would be finished, and Ian Curtis would be dead. The beginnings of the counter-revolution had started the year before, with The Specials’ populist first album; by the second half of the year New Romanticism would be in full swing. Most frightening of all was the nuclear threat hanging over the Western world: "The Cold War… had plunged back below freezing point, the election of sabre-rattling conservative leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan matched by a renewed hard line from the Soviet Politburo" (Simon Reynolds), a tension stacked further by the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

It’s difficult to listen, as Neil Kulkarni does, to Colossal Youth as just "pop music in response, as some kind of magic wardrobe retreat to finer times" (except on the serene, muted disco of ‘Wurlitzer Jukebox’), not least for the fact that its minimalist construction defies the post-Spector pop tactics of sonic carpet bombing; it’s a much odder beast than that. What is so affecting about the record is the muted sense of sadness running through it, the feeling that these sensitive souls are recoiling from the sheer shittiness of their times, into a nocturnal realm from which they can gain a little control (never enough), and talk to themselves of past pains – it’s that radiophonic quality that Stuart Moxham apparently wanted from the record: "like a radio that’s between stations, listening to it under the bedclothes at 4am", something accentuated by the band’s apparent love of television music (they recorded an entire EP inspired by testcard music): ‘The Taxi’ and closer ‘Wind In The Riggings’ burble with ultra-primitive Delia Derbyshire synths and anonymous crackle, like a Belbury Poly record more than twenty years in advance. The cover captures the barest contours of their faces beaming out of the dark, suggesting a broadcast out of some private realm (and Sam Beckett’s remark about his own radio plays, "It’s all coming out of the dark."), a feeling accentuated by the use of reverb on many of the guitar and bass riffs, and very occasionally Alison’s singing itself, as if you’re hearing them down a tunnel.

This sense of privacy and removal lends a weirdly untimely feel to the music that’s upset by the disturbed texture of emotion: grounded in classic pop, but stripped back to almost nothing, alienated from pop’s traditional role as opiate to the people, stimulator of the young, propagator of soothing fake emotion (the ventriloquist act of Alison and Stuart producing an almost flat singing style; on ‘Include Me Out’ she even refuses to do the "Oh-whoah-woah"s with any rock/soul histrionics), and visibly rejecting the silliness of rock heroics and pop stardom (like the endearing fact that Stuart brought his dog Nixon to their first London gig); taking in the pure simplicity of school hymns, nursery rhymes, theme tunes for pedagogic TV, and early instrumental rock ‘n’ roll (think Duane Eddy, or an unamplified Bo Diddley), but underlaid, incongruously, by the woody beat of the drum machine, and articulating, in the most tiny and serene of voices, the substance of a world poisoned by dread, terror and greed, in which even relationships are impossible, the air simmering "with damped-down rage, jitter[ing] with imploded violence" (S. Reynolds on ‘Music For Evenings’). The band, in the last period where radicalism was possible outside of the deep underground, closed in on themselves in the face of dwindling possibility, terror and nuclear annihilation, and made, in the only appropriate voice, the only protest worth making: a document of life, not Tom Robinson finger-pointing, outside and inside time; an abstention from the vulgarities of an adult life not worth living, but not enough of one to ever really comfort.

It all reaches an apex on the ‘Final Day’ EP, released after Colossal Youth: the almost-funk of ‘Radio Silents’, half a conversation from a Pinter play; ‘Cakewalking’, which morphs from almost psychedelic phasing into an ethereal groove, Alison exploring the axes of ennui, nostalgia and regret; and the precious miniature of ‘Final Day’. The low drone and bubbling arpeggio of synth create a sci-fi atmosphere, the restraint now claustrophobic, like they’re playing in a fallout shelter; suddenly, Alison’s voice opens up the space of the song; like a Marxist-Christian school hymn combined with a minimalist apocalyptic ditty; the three different versions of The End Of History meet in three forlorn verses, before disappearing off the map. In a world where extermination is the only alternative to a life paralysed by boredom, fear, economic entrapment and lovelessness, fatalism is the only option. The terminal nature of 'Final Day' is all in the time: the shortest song on the 3-CD set, with Alison's unbearably sweet-sad voice (one made more poignant by the fact that it's emotionally restrained, leaving all the anguish bubbling under the surface of the words) singing for just over half that time. Just as Colossal Youth seems to be both trapped and free of its time, both a racked document and an escape attempt, so 'Final Day' hovers outside pop history like the catastrophe it catalogues: conflating sci-fi modernism and pop classicism; documenting something that never happened, but a possibility looming on the horizon, a potential terminus that, as K-Punk notes (writing about Nigel Kneale) "haunts the unconscious, not as a spectre from the past, but as a virtual future so terrible its shockwaves echo back through time." Nostalgia, then, for something never experienced, is just the same as the description of something that never occurred. It can only ever be bitter-sweet.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"Which reminds me, there's no escape."
--Scritti Politti, 'Bibbly-O-Tek'.

A-Level results today. 3 A's. Was it worth it? Was it fuck.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Messthetics, Lesson #423

Reckno 05
Portman Green Room, Bournemouth
Damn. It doesn't get any more DIY than this: CD-Rs sold off a table; people crammed into a pub backroom, in various states of soberness; two tables in front of a stage, alive with wires and magic electronic boxes. Robotdog, two men (one looking suspiciously like Vini Reilly), a laptop, and a bass guitar summon up dream-drenched electronica amid the audience chatter. Hunched over their instruments, channelling the spirit of Selected Ambient Works-era Aphex Twin, fed through their own filter of soporific bleep-noise, they segue from one song to the next, the audience only clapping in the sporadic lulls. Hmm, they’re not that animated, are they? But we never listened to shoegaze for animation: closing your eyes, letting the sound wash over like an opium haze, bopping gently along to the tidal patterns of beats, bass and cymbals, it’s just right. But then, a change: a slow build of speed, honeyed noise crackling through the speakers like a far-off maelstrom in this submarine world, growing into the transfixing, howling death-throes of some monstrous creature, finally lapsing into a wistful silence.

Rasmus Clausen take to the stage now, five men playing about twenty instruments (including a djembe!) between them: constructing songs from languid acoustic lines, synth-work switching between melody and noise, understated percussion, Miles Davis-esque trumpet and scraping laptop interjections (concréte blocks, clouds of spectral feedback, deadpan ghost-voices, including what I’m sure were the noble tones of William Burroughs). Their stage presence matched the hypnotising swirl of the music, the two percussionist/guitarists sucked into the liquid, drifting sway of the music; their trumpeter, who also makes noise tracks under the marvellous name of Sadistician, was a spectacle on his own: 6-foot-something, mohawked, in a Sunn O))) t-shirt, breathing out some of the most quietly powerful trumpet I’ve ever heard. Whilst, admittedly, the separate parts avoided coherence on occasion, there were more than enough moments when the sound became more than the sum of its components, a continually-flowing swirl of abstract beauty, bristling with tension.

A whole host of new equipment is dragged on, and the crowd really stand up for local heroes True Swamp Neglect. Guitarist/singer Chris, who runs the Reckno nights, mutters "I think we’re ready", as the band blast into the bracing sludge-metal intro to ‘Dry Eyed Riot’. The band seem to have shaken off the slight sheepishness of the last time I saw them, and deliver the most shameless, satisfying rock-out I’ve heard all year: caught in the middle of a loving home crowd, trying not to get in people’s view, I’m reduced to my usual spastic thrashing as they power through the song’s epic vistas, the staccato riffs and chant-along lyrics of ‘Foam Strut’, a subdued and abstract ballad ("If I had a hook in my mouth/Would you/Take it out?" – I heart that lyric so badly) and what I think was a cover of The Hold Steady’s ‘Stuck Between Stations’ (conducted with a fine swing, I have to say). By this point Steve Potatoes and one of the indie girls down the front are chanting "One more" at the end of each number. The band begin another Pavement-wayward indie-rocker, slowly developing until, when the lyrics run out, it alchemises into a rave-up of Sonic Youth (circa-Daydream Nation) proportions: Chris with his back to the crowd, throttling his guitar into submission; guitarist number 2 crouching in front of the amp, my shouts of "Violate the fucker!" unheard in the onrushing wind of feedback, the crowd going wild at the front, the drummer doing what looked like his best Animal (of Muppets fame) impression, everything balancing on the knife-edge of total chaos, finally collapsing into feedback and an ongoing drumbeat. They’re not getting off without an encore: they finish with a slow, mantric number, the chiming guitars picking their way delicately through the rubble.
"Germlin will be on in 5-10 minutes!" Chris tells us, as they step off stage. Will he, now? After a short break in which Steve Potatoes tried to sell me Skitanja’s shoes and I struggle to order a coke, Joe Germlin is, sure enough, limbering up; his equipment sits on a table just to one side of the room, laptop, mikes and effects boxes giving him enough sound-warping ability to kill your average pachyderm. He normally performs as one half of Gay Against You, infamously described by Terrorizer as ‘A council estate Butthole Surfers.’ That’s the kind of recommendation worth repeating. He beckons "you guys, standing in the door" to come around, the purpose of the evening’s entertainment being, after all to "have fun". That’s when the screaming starts.

Skull-cracking gabba beats and alarm-siren rave stabs rain down like a storm of nails. Germlin thrashes like a sugar-saturated three-year-old, bouncing around the circle of maddened bodies. By the end of the second song he’s on his back, heaving into a contact mic, raising up clouds of sucking noise. As he gets up, I pray that the pool of liquid on the floor is water, rather than sweat. Songs shoot by, seemingly hundreds of shots of ADD destruction, juddering cut-and-paste blurts of noise and incomprehensible howling, like an Amiga soundtrack reprogrammed by Whitehouse; Germlin crawls across the floor, mike-in-mouth, an 8-bit sorcerer conducting a ceremony of FUN; the other mike is passed around the sweating audience, who shout for all they’re worth; a "house remix" of a German band (no, not the fucking Klaxons, who we collectively take the piss out of) turns out to be another clamorous banger; Steve urges me to put away the camera and dance; the other two photographers are getting sucked into it, twitching rhythmically with the best of them. It’s like doing a marathon at sprinting speed: "This shit hurts", as Germlin says. By the time we seem to be nearing the end, we’re past the exhaustion point, moving on adrenaline alone. The final number, another triple-time rapid-fire blast of noise, lapses into silence. Then starts again, at double speed. He closes the laptop lid. I feel half-dead, sweat dripping from every pore. So this is what fun feels like. I should really do this more often.

And, just to make sure things don't get too serious around here...

(Via LaBlogotheque - Take-Away Shows)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

"In 24-Hour Party People Steve Coogan plays me as an affable clown, but missed out the twat. I very frequently talked to people in an unpleasant manner and behaved like a complete cunt."
--Tony Wilson.
The eulogy he would have wanted.

Friday, August 10, 2007

'Talk about/POP MUSIC!'

An extremely, uh, thorough post at K-Punk on Timbaland, Timberlake and Lynch: interesting to see that Timbaland’s been going through something of a renaissance, as my only proper familiarity with his work is through Missy Elliot’s ‘Get Yr Freak On’, on Rupture’s Gold Teeth Thief mix – a monstrously complex, metronomic collision of breakbeats, sitar, tablas and Missy’s lovably silly, boastful stop-start flow (complete with falsetto exhortations of "Niiigggaaa!") No doubt there’s quite a lot of interesting material I need to listen to. The only problem being that… it’s pop music.

I wanna make clear that I have no objection to ‘pop music’ as such: I’m fine with occasionally turning my ears toward pop songs for novelty value (as in Tiffany’s ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’) and there’s a lot of sugar-rush pleasure in some pop songs (I loved listening to John Eden’s ‘Christmas Party’ episode of Blogariddims, essentially a collection of some of the best diva-pop of the past twenty years – I’m quite a fan of prime Sixties girl-pop (Shangri-Las, The Crystals, Martha And The Vandellas, etc.)). What I object to is ‘mersh’ pop (to borrow from the Minutemen), and… well, anyone who likes ‘mersh’ pop.

But, let’s start at the beginning, shall we? It began with CSS’ ‘Let’s Make Love And Listen To Death From Above’, one of my singles of 2006: first heard on MTV2, swiftly ubiquitous; a fun, geeky, electropop bop-along, sheer catchiness. In October 2006, a magazine caught my eye: Issue #16 of Plan B, with CSS on the cover. I found it one of the strangest things I ever read: the writers discussed pop music openly and shamelessly – Kelis, Camille, Justin Timberlake – alongside Sutcliffe Jugend, Sunn O))), Coil and Merzbow, in terms polar to my usual total scorn. In the Playlist column, in the recommendation of Girl Talk’s ‘Night Ripper’, the gauntlet was thrown down: "serves to answer the question ‘What’s so great about pop music?’" In the next issue, Kieron Gillen, in one of the regular ‘I Hate…’ columns, wrote about anti-rockism: "I’ve become sick of seeing the same intrinsically poptimistic friends lacerating someone over dismissing mid-period Destiny’s Child for reasons of image" – ‘Wait a minute,’ my addled brain spurted out, ‘serious music fans actually like Destiny’s Child? Image isn’t a valid reason anymore? And what the hell is poptimism, anyway?’ This was news to me – the idea that music has to be judged separately from its means of production, that music could no longer be dismissed on the grounds that it was ‘mersh’. That, for example, it was OK to admit I liked CSS. I now had to start from square one.

You have to understand that my first ‘engaged’ contact with music, my first real taste of fandom, was through punk and metal – Sum 41 (shudder), Alien Ant Farm (argh), Green Day, Queen, Iron Maiden. It went from there – Deep Purple, U2, The Doors, Pink Floyd. I was, quite frankly, the most unrepentant rockist imaginable, unable to get beyond the ideas of presence and conviction – if it wasn’t obvious that they ‘meant it’, they weren’t good enough for me. Reading Mojo for years didn’t help: their necrophile hero-worship spread like a flesh-eating virus (although, to date, I have still only bought one Bob Dylan album, probably the optimum number.) It got worse as time went on: The Velvet Underground, Joy Division, The Fall, The Smiths, Godspeed You Emperor, In Utero-era Nirvana – if it wasn’t sardonic, tortured, or sonically painful it wasn’t to my tastes. My earnestness was, looking back, almost wishing-the-earth-would-swallow-me embarrassing, but there you go: rockism is an essentially adolescent attitude, and emotional engagement with recorded product – the illusion of emotional communication with a presence that, ultimately, isn’t there – is the most appropriate mode for a time of isolation, delusion and fantasy, of Sturm und Drang on a universal scale. Of course, I universally poured scorn on music that didn’t meet these criteria – especially manufactured pop, a genre that many will tell you reached its height in that year, 2005 (what with Girls Aloud, etc.) The whole process hit its apex with The Holy Bible, which, combined with one of the worst depressive episodes I ever had, resulted in… God, what tedium. Sorry if you’ve endured it this far: I hate talking about myself, and only bring forth the most boring material imaginable when it hits that subject. In a sense, only lying – or talking about other people (it amounts to the same thing) – ever produces anything vaguely interesting from me. Don’t worry, there’s some slightly interesting bits coming up: if you want to skip the next two or three paragraphs, I won’t be offended.


Anyway, fast forward to January 2007. I’ve been buying Plan B for three months, searching out a lot of the music it recommended, as well as albums I’d wanted for some time but had thought too experimental to get (Scott Walker’s Tilt, The Stooges’ Fun House, Scratch Acid’s The Greatest Gift, etc.) At the end of the month, I get my first job. Two months later, sick with apprehension, I travel up to London for a These New Puritans gig (cancelled at the last second), and my first ever visit to a nightclub (yes, I know, embarrassing.) Earlier that month I had bought a copy of Ed Rec Vol. 2, a CD I listened to, maybe twice, and never since. It was the breaking point for me: pop and me did not go together. I didn’t buy any music until after I quit my job and started studying for my exams, in May (Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, as it happens.)

Maybe I can get round to explaining now why I don’t, can’t, and refuse to discuss the possibility of like(ing) ‘mersh’ pop: the key word here is ‘poptimism’. And my first experience of the attitude came through Plan B: a now-infamous review of the Paris Hilton album on their website. Plan B have always had a sneaky vein of poptimism among their writers: kicking_k, Neil Kulkarni, Kieron Gillen, David McNamee, Lauren Strain, Emily Bick, Miss AMP, Hannah Gregory (and, to a certain extent, editor-in-chief Everett True, though he mostly prefers the Orange Juice/Sarah Records/The Concretes/Camera Obscura kind of indie-pop.) In this case, it posits itself (like New Labour) as an essentially egalitarian ethos (fitting in with Plan B’s democratic approach to genre): the anti-rockist ethos pioneered by John Savage, Ian Penman, Edwin Pouncey and most post-punk bands (and their subsequent fanzine editors) in the late 1970s taken to its logical conclusion – "it’s about an even-handed love and appreciation of the music" (Kieron Gillen). Against the rockist insistence on the artist’s authenticity – signified by the (false) emotional connection between listener and artist, matters of production (that the recorded artefact must be as close to ‘live’ as possible), and means of production (no ‘selling out’) – poptismism argues that, "All art is artifice. There’s no magic in the means of production. The thrill imparted by the music is all that matters. The pleasure principle trumps all." Thus, if you like it, you can listen to it without guilt: John Coltrane and Girls Aloud are both on the table. The codes of cool and snobbery, the misogynistic privileging of rock (the music of phallic energy, aggression, domination), the retrograde necessity of hailing a set canon, preventing musical advancement – nullified. Except that…


…it’s not. Poptimism, in practice, does not act in an egalitarian manner: it privileges pop music, and not merely pop but manufactured pop. This is partly because of a love of iconoclasm in poptimist writers (clearly developed by too much argument, too much of lying in a warm bath of rhetoric), partly an underlying ressentiment: the fact that rock, despite everything, still occupies a privileged position in popular music and conventional (i.e. Sunday supplement) music criticism simply riles them. I might also suggest here that poptimists tend to emerge from the intelligentsia, and hence occupy a lower position in the social world of music: the world of rock ‘n’ roll, with its Rousseauian ideals of untutored cool, anti-intellectualism, and fixation with sexuality and sexual aggression as barometers of social place, most probably does not work for them – hence, ressentiment and the need to circumvent the socio-ideological structures and sexual politics of rock ‘n’ roll, and the re-introduction into rock ‘n’ roll of the intellectual element, and the continual need to justify themselves.

This does not, immediately, discount poptimist arguments about the validity of pop music, even manufactured pop. But that is not the whole story: the very fact that ‘pop’ is, not a privileged term, but a term that is given credence at all, as one having inherent value, is endemic in certain underground music discourse. There are, of course, some writers who can apply it quite well: for example, Mr Kulkarni, who, in Bring The Noise wrote approvingly of Dr Dre that he made "the most immaculate pop music since Michael Jackson’s late Seventies/early Eighties run at the godhead" (I must profess a liking for ‘California Love’, ‘Ain’t Nothing But A G Thang’ and certain N.W.A. singles at this point, especially ‘Fuck Tha Police’), also wrote approvingly of Young Marble Giants' Colossal Youth in last month’s Plan B, "That YMG decided to make pop music in response [to Thatcherite Britain], as some kind of magic wardrobe escape to finer times, is touching still". But what we seem to find in a vast number of writers is the assumption that discussion of any music must actually be couched in terms of pop music. Of course, they could (and do) argue that pop music has been, and is, the central point of musical pop culture: that its economy is essentially that of pop music, with the single and artist album, purchased by the fan, is the central motor of music’s economy, and that populism is the ethos staying closest to musical culture’s roots. On which we must call bullshit: aside from the fact that there has always been a subterranean level of music (at the same time people were dancing in Deep Southern juke-joints to bluesmen with records out, musique concréte was being devised in Europe), populism has never produced musical advancement of any kind, and, moreover, tends to produce a downward spiral of quality as expectations diminish and diminish (which is exactly what happened to indie rock – the fact that, around 1984 (perhaps with the first Smiths album) it acquired an audience, and their expectations, to play to, meant less and less variety and quality, eventually ending with – (*groans*) – Oasis. No, Menswear, they were really vile.)

Although, what is behind this privileging of the populist but a privileging of the desire-economy of laissez-faire capitalism? The idea that economies should be based on delivering "what people really want" is exactly the basis of intellectual poptimism (and, indeed, its multiple antecedents). And any anti-capitalist cannot swallow uncritically the products of populist/popular music, and, certainly, any privileging of the term has to be questioned mercilessly. This may sound a rather adolescent assertion – think of the archetypal teenage metal fan/twee-pop fanatic complaining about commercial and manufactured pop with essentially no back-up – but it is true: as writers from Marx to Baudrillard have pointed out, capitalist economics operate at a psychological/psychic level; capitalism operates on an economy of desire, of addiction - like Burroughs’ extra-terrestrial virus of Control – and this elevation of the pleasure principle is imprinted directly into the pleasure/consumption matrix at the heart of poptimism. The insidious nature of the pleasure principle has assumed an increasingly important part in capitalist societies, as the capitalist worldview advances toward ontological status with the advent of universal hyperreality: I don’t simply mean the increasingly callous, materialistic greed of the British public, but the obsession with gratification that has taken hold with the increasing pace of life, dictated by a capitalist technology-complex; the increasingly frenzied (and not in the good way) attitude of people in clubs (except, of course, at dubstep raves); increasing levels of alcoholism and drub abuse; the sovereign place that the military-entertainment complex holds in technology, in which every innovation derives from the wish to make someone’s (i.e. yuppies’) lives ‘easier’. The depressives (and Schopenhauer) were correct from the very beginning: "Desire is the root of all suffering."

It is in light of this that poptimist objections to independent music become comprehensible: the usual allegation is that indie music of any colour and stripe is ‘boring’ (the problem being that, with the vast majority of chart indie, this is undoubtedly true); the prime quote that sticks in my mind (I think it was in the Playlouder Singles Review column), on Slow Down Tallahassee’s beautiful ‘So Much For Love’: "if you’re going to listen to pop, why would you want budget production, when you can have Timbaland?" The idea that production values carry ideological attributes, and that people might change to less-than-immaculate production values out of general principles is abhorrent to them (hence the usual assumptions that anarchists listen to nothing but decaying Discharge tapes, or that all visibly independent bands will have shit production values.) The movement of modern consumer capitalism is to increasing convenience, pleasure, ease, technological sophistication – exactly what poptimists want from music. This is also revealed, of course, in pop music’s attitude to sex: as pop becomes more and more ‘contemporary’ in a psychic sense, the sexual content becomes simultaneously more and more explicit and abstracted; every single song on the Justin Timberlake LP is about sex (whether or not it’s actually about sex: as the Plan B reviewer, Alex Macpherson, remarks, "Even the song about the dangers of crack sounds post-coital"), but the actual singing and production is completely blank, reminding one of Ballard in The Atrocity Exhibition: "relationships so lunar and abstract that people will become mere extensions of the geometries of situations." It’s useful to compare this to the sexual attitude of twee-pop: Sarah Records-style pop is essentially sexless, and what romance there is is extremely old-fashioned, chaste and emotionally-involved in its terms of endearment; early C86 is also noticeably left-wing (many early twee-pop groups played benefits for the miners; Simon Reynolds identified twee-pop as essentially a retreat from the harsh realities of Thatcherite Britain) and mainly released on independent labels (in a time when that still meant something, ideologically.)

Beyond this, there is something crucially wrong at the heart of poptimist criticism, and in the idea that pop music should be given critical credence. This piece begins to give you some idea of what it is:

"'Go along with what?' With the lyrics “Am I sexual? Ye-eah!”? But what’s wrong with that? And what’s wrong with pretty girls? What’s wrong with pretty girls dancing, and with pretty boy singers giving a voice to the emotions of that dance, and a couple of genius Swedish songwriters and musicians giving them beautiful melodies to sing and strong beats for the screaming sexual girls and their beautiful dance?"

Beyond the practical business of the social (no, dancing girls are not a bad thing) I would venture that, contrary to this writer's implications, there is something wrong with it - "'Nothing's wrong with it'... no other answer seems any good, either." The problem being that the experience of living in the postmodern West, the continuing experience of alienation and oppression, demands another answer. The problem is, at its root, psycho-economic - the distinction between, say, Kurt Cobain and the Backstreet Boys is not merely social; nor is it tied to a notion of 'authenticity' centring around the idea that "anguish is resistance". It is to do with the entire way that the self relates to the social and psychic structures that surround it. ("The only authenticity Joy Division craved was existential authenticity, which, far from being inimical to artificiality, finds expression in it" - K-Punk.) And the fact is that the experience of the alienated teaches that, to a certain extent, the "feeling that happiness is compliance and anguihs is resistance", is something utterly real. That idea is a base of psychic reality, an Awful Truth, to which we (or, rather, I) have to stay true in criticism. The fact that poptimists find it ridiculous that anyone would want to listen to music that is rooted in the darker side of the psychic realm - where, as Richard Ellman said of Samuel Beckett, "as metabolism lowers, amid God's paucity, not his plenty, can the core of the human condition be approached" - that "hurt kids" might prefer to listen to Nirvana than the Backstreet Boys precisely because of the cold abstraction of Kurt's melodies, shows that they have absolutely no idea the damage their economic system has caused. 'Mersh' pop, both in its content and provenance, violates that utterly. It is, to put it seriously, the sound of our humiliation at the hands of a culture and economy that generates itself from exploitation, suffering and psychic violence ("Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time... There has never been a document of culture that is not simultaneously one of barbarism" - Walter Benjamin.) The adolescent feeling of kinship with certain pop groups and musicians ("We know all the words as if we wrote them ourselves, we followed stray hints in the lyrics out to all sorts of darker chambers, and listening to the albums now is like putting on a comfortable and familiar set of clothes…. the last ‘we’ that a whole generation of not-quite-men could feel a part of"- K-Punk, again), that felt utterly real at the time, is something to which anyone willing to talk seriously about music (or, indeed, anyone who feels seriously about music) needs to maintain fealty to.

This is not, of course, for everyone. I am, quite frankly, shamelessly partisan on this subject: this is the way I criticise. Perhaps I'm merely acting as the Tom Ripley to the Dickie Greenleaf of the society that buys pop music - wishing to kill it, then take the spoils for myself. But fuck it. The idea that prioritising the pleasure principle in music choice delivers a view free from all obstructing 'prejudice' is balls - all music criticism is ultimately subjective, and this is mine. There will be no pop reviews (except incidentally) in this area. The backlash starts here.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Actually, scrap my objections in the last post: been reading P.J O'Rourke's Holidays From Hell, and anyone who challenges that (admittedly sometimes amusing) right-wing weasel (sample: "To extend civilisation, even with guns, isn't the worst thing in the world. War will exist as long as there's a food chain... The trouble in Lebanon, South Africa, Haiti and the occupied territories of Palestine should, simply, be stopped by the intervention of civilised nations.") is fine with me.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Strikes Against Geography

Another month, another Plan B: containing the usual tantalising but not-quite-penetrating-enough articles, this time on M.I.A., Tall Pony, Marnie Stern and Dirty Projectors. When I first started reading Plan B I was attracted by the range they covered, and the personal, almost improvised tone of the writing; since then I’ve found that the writers more or less skim over the surface, never actually trying to produce something from an article – the M.I.A. article promises to deal with her somewhat nebulous politics, but never quite gets there. I’m starting to prefer The Wire’s approach: it may take an extra 25000 words to get there, but they do actually get there.

Anyway, that’s beside the point. In the Reviews section is an interesting review from Louis Pattison of a batch of LPs from African musicians (and the newly Afro-percussive Whitehouse.) He begins with "a quick reminder of why you hate the term ‘world music’": either due to the "own rosy mental image of the ethnic other as a free-trade wonderland of happy natives" or its connotations of being "a sort of intellectual duty for the good liberal, a cultural transaction conducted in the currency of guilt." Um, not quite. The problem comes with the curatorial arrogance of the Western music industry: firstly, things like the Rough Guide To…series of CDs, which take the sounds of the continent as a homogenised mass (such as the African Hip-Hop volume), or screen out anything that does not fit their idea of what an area sounds like ("not sufficiently ethnic"). Secondly, the entire presentation of ‘world music’ as truly ‘authentic’ music: how exactly can we trust white, Western record executives to judge such things? This ‘authenticity’ usually comes in the form of some kind of connection to the cultural traditions of the indigenous people: an element of the exotic and communal, as opposed to the atomised and spiritually flat West (despite the fact that most of, say, World Circuit’s output, is coffee-table bland), perpetuating the racist discourse of ‘ethnology’ and ‘anthropology’, and continuing to turn human beings (whose societies, BTW, we continue to wreck) into mere microscope subjects.

At this point I must put my hand up and admit that this is one of the reasons behind my enjoyment of certain African and Asian musics (qawwali, rai and Palestinian and Berber folk song are personal favourites). However, we should keep in mind that what is familiar is never interesting, especially not in my neck of the woods, and sonic strangeness is as good a barometer as anything: so, you can put hardcore ragga, dub, the more consciously avant end of post-punk (Essential Logic, Mars, DNA, The Flying Lizards, early Whitehouse, Throbbing Gristle) and 1920s blues records on the same sort of level.

Indeed, this kind of kinship through sound, furthered by the easy availability of most music through the internet, forms the core of what looks like a shift in approach in the appreciation of non-Western music: as Pattison calls it, "a freer sort of exchange, a melting of borders", not merely in the increasing recognition given to non-Western music as its own, valid entity rather than a novelty Other-music (he points to the critical acclaim given to Konono No 1), but the international mash-up sensibility pioneered by a number of musical editors including Canadian DJ Ghislain Poirier (whose short Grimeyland mix is well worth listening to), Brooklyn’s Team Shadetek (who mix up grime, ragga, dubstep and hip-hop in their sets), Diplo (most famous for his popularisation of funk carioca), Radioclit (who mix southern African, Moroccan and traditional Asian music, alongside grime and Dirty South hip-hop), M.I.A., and, particularly, DJ Rupture. His Gold Teeth Thief mix, which I’ve been listening to lately, is a quite remarkable thing: a mix of international hip-hop, crunk, hardcore ragga, dub, digital hardcore, electronic noise scree, jungle, proto-dubstep and traditional and popular music from Africa, the Middle East, Caribbean and Latin America. If the man was trying to do eclectic, he nailed it: textures are so mashed up, genres so interspliced and juxtaposed that it’s usually impossible to tell where a track comes from (without consulting the tracklist.) This approach – the filtration and channelling of the diverse signals of the world’s musical consciousness – certainly has its attractions: because the focus is on the enjoyment factor of the music, the visceral dancefloor bounce (as proven by the increasing popularity of internationally-minded club nights like Poirier’s now-defunct Bounce Le Gros), the attitude of curatorial preciousness adopted by the guardians of so-called ‘world music’, whilst keeping a certain respect for the music.

Indeed, there is an increasing tendency for feedback between the music of the global core and periphery – aside from the influence of non-Western music on Western musicians (see the new Whitehouse album and Philip Bennett’s new Afro-Noise project, African influences on New York’s ‘fractal noise’ and psych scenes, (including Excepter, Gang Gang Dance, Black Dice and Animal Collective), and Asian influences on dubstep and the Skull Disco sound), non-Western musical forms evolved from congress with Western technologies and sounds (funk carioca, African hip-hop and grime, electronic variations of bhangra, klezmer, Congolese trance music, and others) are increasingly being absorbed and championed by Western hipster-musicians. What has been dubbed ‘ghettopop’ – both non-Western music borrowing Western forms and vice versa – is becoming increasingly visible, with the lines increasingly blurred between the two (for example, M.I.A.: Western dilettante borrowing African musicians, or Sri Lankan working within the Western pop industry?)

Aside from the nasty side effects – the tendency of hipsters to treat non-Western music as fads (Angolan kuduro being the latest, after funk carioca), or a residual tendency to treat the world’s music as something to be curated and consumed rather than appreciated – this approach seems about right, treating non-Western cultures as individual, changing entities, which, of course, they are, as Nicholas Rhodes points out in Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives: "’authenticity’ derives not from stasis but because it bears witness to the continued development of its forms, reflecting dialogue with modernity".

So, it’s all good, right? Um, not quite. Whilst it always gladdens the heart to see people counteracting and confounding the stupidities of nationalism and cultural separation, and some very good music is, after all, coming to light and being produced, there’s something not quite right. There’s an implied politics at the heart of Rupture, M.I.A., etc.’s approach: a channelling of the music of the world’s dispossessed and disenfranchised – and any mix containing Dead Prez’ ‘Cop Shot’, Bounty Killer’s ‘Corrupt System’ and Welmo Romero and Splice’s ‘Si A Plomo Vives’ can’t be aiming at any other impression – presented as something inherently good. The problem is that whilst drawing lines between police brutality in Brixton, Kingston, Brooklyn and Nairobi is a valid (if a little naïve) approach, it comes up against the innate poptimism of the sonic internationalist approach. Most probably Rupture and M.I.A. care just as much as your correspondent about global injustice; but the politics of listening are, in this case, no more valid than those created by listening to manufactured pop. I'm not saying that being ignored is better, or that interbreeding with Western music is 'corrupting' non-Western, or that this feedback loop will lead to increasing homogenisation (although that is a scary possibility), or that the fun factor should be discounted from our listening decisions, or the production and distribution of music. But the End-of-Days-party musical culture of international hipsterism will never help advance the cause of the Third World. Conversely, the essential inequality between the Western and non-Western music industries will never be solved by capitalist globalisation - only by a decisive shift in world economics to create a level international playing field. Making the pleasure principle the guiding criterion of music ("Who cares as long as you can dance to it?") plays directly into the hands of international capital, the very mindless parasite keeping the Third World in its place. Internet internationalism, one of the few good spawns of globalisation, may begin to allow non-Western music to find new audiences, but it only strengthens Kapital.

It’s a great mix, sure. But don’t believe the hype.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


This is a lot of things: it grew out of an essay I tried to write on photography, taking my own experiments with digital and chemical (my own term – most refer to it as ‘classical’ photography) photography as a basis; as a new batch of these photo-experiments (classed in the ‘Artefacts’ section of my Flickr page) is being prepared as I write this, and I fear this may be the last opportunity I have for such work – or, indeed, for blogging about – I wanted to try and explain the ideas behind it, and try and exorcise some of my own theoretical obsessions about it. Anyway, this is it…

Ghost Hardware

The world can no longer evade our gaze. Every corner, every nook and cranny, is being documented, archived and explained. Through the internet anyone can find pictures of anywhere, from any angle, at any time of day or night; social gatherings, the entire mystery of codes, signs, gestures, gazes, expressions, is being taken into another, digital life, given solidity through ones and zeroes. Photo sites such as Flickr or Photobucket aspire to act as communities, with each ‘camera’ documenting certain aspects of life, in certain locations (Flickr now comes with a ‘Map’ feature that allows you to identify exactly where a photo was taken); lives, those previously inscrutable things that literary creators spent the last two centuries trying to crack, can now be reduced to a series of images (with captions of choice) of anything – pets, sunsets, food, faces (your own or others), buildings, artworks, landscapes, objects (shoes, keys, CDs or vinyl, books, cups, ovens, DVD players, whatever), people, music, etc. ad infinitum. This has, to a great extent, been something liberating – the idea of viral documentation, allowing anyone to take pictures, and giving anyone the access to yours, is marvellously attractive; indeed, I would never have done anything with the massive archive of pictures I’ve shoved from hard-drive to hard-drive over the last few years, nor started taking pictures of gigs if it hadn’t been for Flickr (some may argue that the latter would have been better not happening), but one can’t help the feeling that something has irrevocably changed, and in the process been lost.

It’s at least partly a function of the technology – the new movement is inextricably bound up with the change from chemical to digital photography. This isn’t merely a question of pedantry: there is a definite aesthetic difference between the two. In Lights Out For The Territory’s essay ‘Cinema Purgatorio’, Iain Sinclair notes that anyone can always tell the difference between film shot on real film stock and on video. "You can usually mutter something about ‘depth of focus’, but that’s avoiding the real point" – chemical film stock allows for a greater depth and richness of picture than, say, digital video, which, as Wheeler Winston Dixon notes, is a much harsher, more flat medium; it captures light in a different way, making photos much more bright than chemical photos in the same conditions, but also producing photos with less ‘depth’ to them: looking at chemical and digital photographs of landscapes, it is immediately apparent that the digital photograph was originally pixels on a flat screen. It’s very difficult to explain the actual effect, and I suspect it’s due to something not completely connected with the actual process, which is now sufficiently developed to allow most people access to a digital camera that can produce photos to equal chemical ones – call it a metaphysics of photography, or whatever you like. The problem is not, as some chemical photographers suggest, ‘authenticity’ – which they naturally claim as their own, dismissing digital photographs on the basis that they realise they suddenly have competition – as, frankly, such notions are quite ridiculous when it comes to photography; for one thing, chemical photography changes images just as much as digital; secondly, the idea that something’s age is an indicator of how ‘genuine’ it is was brushed aside long ago (and if it were true, all music would be recorded on wax cylinders). The problem probably more a personal one, lying in the application of the medium itself: digital light seems to have been taken up as the aesthetic of brightly-lit, well-documented, international, bland-as-fuck 2007; dawdling as I sometimes do around Flickr and international fashion blogs, I can’t help but notice how the world is adjusting itself to digi-vision – the emphasis on bright fabrics (and yes, that includes Nu-Rave dayglo), photogenic accessories and, most importantly, composition, in current fashion; the tendency of the MySpace generation to revel in vanity and artificiality, and to strike poses at the drop of a hat; the relentless blandness of corporate architecture, which now appear more like extended digital ‘Artist’s Impression’s than real buildings, in the same way that multiplex films are now nothing more than extended trailers, all add up to the impression that the world is adapting to its media, getting ready for its close-up. ("Too high a resolution and we enter the time of the ubiquitous icon, that which is all-too-familiar." - K-Punk.) Digital photography and its qualities of cheapness (you only need to press a few buttons to destroy a photo), immediacy and mediocrity are changing the way we see the world, and our cultural self-perception.

Contrast this with chemical photos – now the preserve of ‘enthusiasts’, those unlucky few with more money than sense, and the archives. Look at a chemical photograph, especially one that’s sat in a box for a few years, or taken with older models of camera and film, and the difference is immediate and obvious: the surface is more matte, the colours duller and more subdued, drained; there’s an unmistakable sense of depth you don’t get with digital photographs (at least not unprinted ones), and of distance – while digital wants to TRANSPORT YOU THERE, RIGHT NOW! WITH SPONTANEITY AND INSTANT TRANSMISSION AND BRIGHT SHINY COLOURS!!!!!, chemical photos suggest that what is in the image is unattainable, something from which we are irrevocably separated. (This explains why, when you see Polaroids scanned into Flickr, or forming part of an advert for example, it is such a shocking difference – digital photography seeks to assure of a presence, a moment in time that really occurred, that could be happening NOW, whereas Polaroids already look slightly old as soon as they are taken, making us remember that the moment is no longer there.) Chemical photography, by its very nature, carries melancholy; the distortion effect caused by the limited nature of the medium, invokes a sense of something lost, of moments of time (and, possibly, attendant smiles) preserved behind lack of correct focus, or tricks of the light, glitches in the way the lens and prism convert light, the intricacies of the silver bromide-coated film. We are presented with something we cannot get at, a ghost whose presence eludes us if we try and snatch at it. (It’s worth noting here the tradition of supernatural photography, in which ghosts supposedly show up on developed film as white shadows, clouds of distortion, presences that alter the process of images taking form on the physical film.) Digital photography establishes a continual present; it has no memory. Chemical photography has nothing but, and it is a memory that slips beyond corporeal pinning-down or sufficient recall.

The Viral Archive

The last black-and-white film factory closed several years ago. The production of film for certain models of camera – notably the early Polaroid models – ceased years ago, and fierce bidding wars rage on Ebay and with camera enthusiasts (selling these precious pieces of manna at extortionate prices.) Chemical photography is fading further and further into the past, the point at which it ceases to have a future getting closer and closer. Sooner, rather than later, the only thing that will be left of chemical photography will be the photos still left, the collective archive of our civilisation. Everybody has at least some, hidden in boxes and books; the state and benevolent institutions preserve archives of photographs. They function, in a way, like the collective memory of the last century – the twentieth century was defined by the way it documented itself, it was the century of the new technology directly capturing from life, the camera; the defining events of the century, those that shaped the collective consciousness of the West (the genesis of Hollywood, the Great Depression, the two World Wars, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the beginning of the Cold War, the Sixties, punk, Thatcher, etc.) were exposed by, and inextricably bound up with, film and photographs (think about anything of these things, and what comes to you but pictures, photos, sequences of film?)

Having now left the twentieth century, we will soon approach the point at which the cultural and documentary matrix of chemical photography will cease to be a living thing; it will pass cross to the Other Side, pass irrevocably into the past. The stocks of chemical photographs and negatives will be the only legacy of it left to us – memories detached from the head that thought them. Looking at chemical photographs from years gone by is at times a bewildering experience: the camera is a machine to ‘fix’ time, to separate fragments from the universal time-stream, to pin them down as objects outside the flux of time. One can’t shake the romantic notion that one is looking at the past itself. Mixed up with this is the knowledge that the time-stream does go on, that what one is looking at no longer is. And photographs themselves are subject to "the multiplying villainies of nature": photos and negatives bleach over time and with exposure to sunlight, become less vivid, more distant. Photographs, the ultimate Pharmakon for memory, fade just as memory does. The task of preservation pursued by official forces only slows down the process of disintegration, and does not extend to those photographs belonging to ‘ordinary’ people, a century’s worth of viral documentation slowly disappearing. (Some, admittedly, are trying to preserve these photos by digitising them, but this forgets the original relationship of the chemical photo to the event captured, producing a copy of a copy.) The viral nature of the chemical archive is what is most interesting about it: from the Fifties onwards, even working class families could afford cameras. They trusted implicitly in the nature of the photograph to document, with ontological clarity, the important events in life (holidays, birthdays, important public events) as well as day-to-day life (in my family’s own collection there are photographs of my father helping to rebuild the garage behind our house). When other recording technologies were out of reach, everyone could afford a camera. Poring over boxes of chemical photographs, one gets a feeling that the owners obviously never intended: that the jumbled, faded prints form something like a collective unconscious, a hive-mind filled with ghosts.

The Atrocity Exhibition

"’Lord, how heavy they are!’, he said impatiently, and in the same instant dropped them on to the stones, and the lens splintered and the barrel cracked: a little pool of liquid formed on the stone slab. It was inky black, and the odour that rose from it is not to be described. … ‘Don’t you see, my good man? Remember what he said to the doctor about looking through dead men’s eyes? Well, this was another way of it.’"
--M.R. James, A View From A Hill.

The relationship between the chemical photograph and the original event that it captured is difficult: the mind is conventionally unable to treat photographs as nothing more than conglomerations of ink on paper (which is what they are), but instead treats them as actual captures of moments in time. The actual nature of the medium (being just as distorting as digital, although in a different direction, so to speak), its own material transience, and the philosophical ramifications of the process itself (the transfer of certain arrangements of light existing in a certain moment to a two-dimensional material medium) prevent us from believing this is exactly so: there is an ontological disjuncture between the real event and the photographic representation; the photo both relates completely, and is completely separated from, the event. If we look at a photograph, we can see an event, can understand it, but we can get no closer to it. The chronological and ontological distortions implied by photography – bringing something both from another time, and another place, into the present time-space point – represent what K-Punk has called a "technological uncanny". Just as hearing ancient blues records through a layer of crackle provokes a sense of melancholy and distancing – "a recording surface which both refers to a (lost) presence and blocks us from attaining it" (K-Punk) – seeing chemical photographs causes a sense of orphanage, of helplessness; nostalgia (sometimes for a past we never had) is as much as anything a two-way sense of dispossession: the photos, fragments of a time past, are adrift in our own, and we ourselves are permanently separated from that foreign country called ‘the past’. This is exactly what I have tried to put across, and emphasise, in my photographs.

The photos were chosen from the family archive – a large shoebox kept in my parents’ closet, and several books of photos. The photos were deliberately chosen for their characteristics of enigma: I rejected any containing members of my family, or anyone else, I recognised, or any locations I recognised. The photographs in the box were not in chronological order, were jumbled up; the photos are completely orphaned from the time-space point where they were taken. Where possible, the original photos were faded by time and abuse. These attributes have been furthered by digitalisation: they have been pushed further from their original source by the distorting light of the digital scanner. The scans were imperfect, deliberately so: the sections of white captured around the edges of the image were kept, to emphasise the artificiality and materiality of the medium, the knowledge that they are, or were, objects. The application of digital distortion – a kind of visual static, a mediating crackle – and the occasional use of digital editing to change brightness and shading adds to this effect.

The only thing to add is that this project is explicitly hauntological: I don’t believe in it as some critics’ construct (no matter how good the critics – yes, Reynolds, Fisher, I’m looking at you – are). Hauntology is by no means just sonic – the possibilities in the visual and other fields are extremely under-investigated. (Incidentally, the visual side of the musical pop-culture matrix – a vital component, especially with regards to music before the Internet and digital photography, when music magazines and television were the main nodes of collective pop experience – is rather under-represented in their writings. One of the most interesting aspects of Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces was the role that photos and their reading – from the stacked bodies at Treblinka to the damaged photo of Debord from Ion – played in constructing the narrative and searching out the hidden currents of history.) Hauntology – emerging as it does from Derrida’s study of Marx after the ‘End Of History’ – is the most important means of exploring the nature of our culture in an age in which memory is being systematically replaced by archives no-one wants to visit.