29 May 2009

White Lines: Don't Do It (Yourself)

Someone has already beaten Simon to the idea of reimagining/reversioning the 'You're gonna wake up one morning and know which side of the bed you've been lying on' t-shirt designed by McLaren/Westwood/Rhodes in '74. They even printed them up and sold them.

It was some amateur retrograde curatorial outfit called Sonic Yo–, sorry, The British Library* – though the actual content, the new names on each side of the line, were apparently produced by someone with Clash 'associations'. Photographic evidence (click on the pic for maximum legibility):

As you can see the passage of time has blurred this Clash associate's vision... 'White trainers' beyond the pale. Class fear alert! Bet donk would've been on there if they were putting it together in '09 instead of spring '08. And DIY is a BAD THING too? Right... 'Home improvement' or 'Adding value' maybe... I guess no DIY means no more homemade 'I Hate [insert anyone but Pink Floyd here]' t-shirts. Oh, and Peter Doherty on the side of good? Peter Ackroyd? Trilbys? Nice to see The Clash made the cut though. Must've been close.

* Wow, I was going to put this (presumably non-existent) URL in as a joke, but it's real! Someone sign them up.

The Fear Factory

K-Punk, in full-on concept-factory mode, taking down Tim Abrahams on blogs as 'nostalgic', and then later (he can't help it!) giving the weary limbs of Sonic Youth one more kick... Killer quote:
simply comparing the present unfavourably with the past is not nostalgic in any culpable way. It is the tendency to falsely overestimate the past that makes nostalgia egregious: [...] Conversely, we are induced - by ubiquitous PR, whose blank, joyless positivity has a crushingly depressing effect, even though (or rather precisely because) no-one believes it at the level of content - into falsely overestimating the present.
This is true – but (and this is something I often forget myself), nostalgia needs to be separated from sentimentality. Nostalgia is the longing for home (nostos = returning home, algos = pain). Nostalgia is a sickness – it haunts you despite your best efforts. Nostalgia has a long tradition: Joyce and Dublin. Wordsworth and his spots of time. Ulysses and Ithaca. Adam and Eve evicted from Eden. Sentimentalizing the past is the sin, the deliberate wallowing in a kitsch-en sink of schmaltz. When Mark writes about a 'false overestimate' of the past, what is a false overestimate but an idealization? What is an idealization if not a fantasy? And what does a fantasy do but comfort and sedate? (I've got a post planned on this subject in relation to Ashes to Ashes). This distinction still works for Mark's defence of hauntology though, because what is (an unsentimental) nostalgia for one's youth if not a mourning for lost futures?

Mark describes a culture industry which produces complacency, another false overestimate, but this time a false estimate of the present, something like a version of the 'end of history' for consumers, in which nothing will ever be at stake anymore, because we have reached the finish line and history can go away now. This is the trivializing blather of the complicitariat, in which reviews sound like press releases which sound like ad copy (...which try to sound like something someone cool would say (...in a world where the cool person works out they ought to like Grizzly Bear because the right reviews website tells them it's ok (which sounds like…)))))). This is the perpetually 'light, upbeat, irreverent' tone – that haunts colour supplements, culture sections, arts TV, radio. E4ification. The eroticization of shallow insincerity. The eroticization of glib. It's glibidinal!

But for me this misses something, or at least puts the accent in the wrong place. 'Light, upbeat, irreverent'. Permanent irreverence is not the same as complacency – it's a pose, a parrotting of the rhetoric of the complacent or confident. The mass media's perpetual irreverence is pure defense mechanism. There's an aggression in that kind of humour: gags that trivialize and belittle, that preserve the joker from commitment, deferring honesty and engagement by enabling an arms-length smirk (which should not be lazily equated with irony – irony is a weapon and a warning).

The irreverence encrypts pure fear. It's The Fear. Lily Allen is the pop star this country deserves, with her piss-poor strings of one-liners parading as lyrics, and her shabby facsimiles of whatever genre her producer thinks is timely that month. But Allen is right here. The real contemporary sickness is not complacency but fear and anxiety. The logic of the news bulletin is wholesale fear production. People crave and idealize the past partly because the present is (and always has been) confusing, overwhelming, uncertain – while the past can be demarcated, read and rationalized. So the past is consumed as an antidote to the present. But while Mark complains about the compulsive, cancerous commodification of the past, isn’t the selling of the future a bigger, more prevalent problem – the infinitely repeated promise that if you buy X you will become New You, Better You.

The selling of the future overlaps with the selling of fear. One of the most depressing aspects of New Labour (and the Bush/neocon era) has been government by management consultancy, and with it a whole new approach to managing voter expectations. Managing expectation is an art. You keep people 'happy' with your performance through constant alarmism, so that any small success acquires disproportionate cachet. Imagine you're a government responding to a terrorist incident or a flu epidemic. Rather than (as seemed to be the response in every disaster movie I ever watched as a child) appealing for calm, you do everything you can to scare the shit out of people. (My mother, a district nurse, was solemnly informed by a senior PCT exec last month that she would unquestionably lose friends and family to swine flu). It's a win-win. Disaster? Told you so. No disaster? We saved you!


My final thoughts on Sonic Youth. I still find Mark's SY critique inconsistent, or at least incomplete. Its the temporality that's awry for me. In an earlier post Swans are used as a stick to beat SY with, to break their collective arm presumably. But Swans v Sonic Youth: Whose Year is Zero-er? is a disaster for Mark's argument. Swans repeated themselves over and over as if Year Zero meant annual recording-studio amnesia: terminal stasis. Swans' leader Michael Gira then gave up, gave up the very post-human severity which Mark lauds (and ended up by '04 putting out… Devendra fucking Banhart. Oh how the mighty, etc.) In the same period of the '80s, SY put out six very different records: from the debut EP to Daydream Nation. They moved on (...and this is why their current stasis is disappointing). It was SY, not Swans, who restlessly moved forward into new futures. But this is the crux of Year Zero. How can you make it look like Year Zero without summoning by negation whatever history you want to shed? Put another way, if you want to escape repeating history, you must define yourself by what you are not, and your negative aesthetic space ends up describing Year Minus One. You can only reject it by holding it very clearly in your mind. As Modernist battle-crys, don't 'make it new' and 'remake/remodel' avoid this trap? How does one go about being a good Modernist, erasing the traces and declaring Year Zero, while digging hauntology? Lots of traces there... traces all the way down...

[NB - I've edited out a para here which I didn't really agree with – but might return to]

One final thought: referring to Starbucks' SY comp, for me, is a palpable hit by Mark. I was shocked they did it... But isn't K-Punk against ideology's shifting of the ethical burden onto the subject away from social structure, the dogmatic insistence on the individual as the dutiful citizen-recycler, as the ethical shopper? If it's missing the point to refuse to drink Starbucks, because you thereby acquiesce in ideology's passing of the buck onto the subject, then why shouldn't Sonic Youth accept the offer of a compilation CD? You could insist they live to a higher standard than their fans, but isn't that, like... rockist? Artist as heroic Romantic martyr?


next up (maybe): the unbearable quantity of the past, post-human cultural memory, generational disconnect, the Struldbruggs, natural resources

How far does it go back in here?

Tim Abrahams has had plenty of responses already, at Sit Down Man and Infinite Thought for example. My take is this: Abrahams is simply lost in space; it's online agoraphobia. He's suffering from the strange formless depth of the internet. That is, as a discursive space, the internet is not only vastly too large to ever fully absorb, it lacks the familiar topology of the bookshop or library. He has no compass of preconceptions, no tangible printed certainty. In WHSmiths you walk in, you see a discrete, delimited collection of magazines or periodicals. You make your choice, you buy it and leave, confident in what you have bought based on your past experience. He's like a man in one of those restaurants where people eat in the dark, stumbling around worried about knocking into people he might not like, and even if he likes their conversation, how does he know he'd like them in real life, and how can he even tell whether he *does* like them, without all those reliable reassuring things like logos, back issues, names and reputations (it must be good it's in the fucking New Yorker). Whereas online, until you've swallowed this anxiety down and actually plunged in to read in quantity, you have to exercise your own judgement (I don't know if it's good... if it's good why isn't it in The New Yorker?)

Perhaps I'm being unfair – Abrahams drops hints that he reads a lot of blogs. But when he talks vaguely of how blogging's link-structure creates a "search for consensus" and "a general atmosphere of nostalgia" you wonder exactly how many he's checked out. Consensus? If the defacialization of the internet has unleashed only two things, they are 1) a colossal appetite for pornography, and 2) an even greater enthusiasm for ignoring the decorous rules of Enlightenment debate in the form of the flame and the troll.

He also makes a glaring category error. "The internet isn’t the real world." I suppose not, in empirical terms, it's "virtual". But he's not comparing online criticism to the real world, he's meant to be comparing it to print criticism. So, how is the discourse of print journalism any more "in the real world"? It isn't. It takes place in print, in small-run journals, magazines, academic departments – exactly the kind of places that middlebrows like to castigate for not being part of "the real world." Online criticism is no less "real" intellectually for being dematerialized.

28 May 2009


When Imperial Records shut it was the best record shop in Bristol. Now – what recession? – they're re-opening... in Inverness(!?)

Thanks to Ralph Cumbers for the tip-off.

27 May 2009

Genres of the Future (1)

Ten-tone. What you get when you subtract the ska element from the Vienna school.

24 May 2009

The Shopping News

Alex James from Blur writes a regular column called 'Foodie Boy' in the Observer Food Monthly, and this is how it concludes today.
But you don't have to be a rock star to have it all [...] The exhilaration of being able to afford anything in the supermarket is not something we ever get over. It's true. Very exciting. Anyone can afford to eat well. In fact you can have absolutely whatever you want. Remember that next time you're getting the groceries in.
Yeah, remember that.

Anyone can afford to eat well.

You can have absolutely whatever you want.

Remember that.

21 May 2009

No Eno Wave

Over at Blissblog, Simon has flagged up a few new posts on the Sonic Youth debate (the unexpected good news being that Matt Ingram, having detached Woebot from the blogosphere to launch it into the sphere of the blogged-about, has made a quiet return to blogging here).

Picking up on a comment at Airport Through the Trees, Simon mentions John Lydon's notoriously detourned Pink Floyd t-shirt, the one on which he scrawled 'I hate...' (perhaps the definitive punk gesture in the way it hijacks a readymade, defacing and desecrating a complacently commodified consensus?) . . . the challenge being, what would you graffiti 'I hate' onto in 2009?

I considered free jazz. As much as I love and listen to Ayler, Shepp, Silva, the whole BYG catalogue, some terrible things are done in its name / its honour by swathes of the free/weird/folk/noise/drone spectrum who know how to ape the sound of chaos, but not actually create any. Not barefoot in the head, even if they're barefoot on the analog delay pedal. And hiphop was another candidate. I used to love H.E.R. as Common put it, but it's getting harder every year to recuperate what was once so radical and intoxicating about it. Perversely I think this long decline has made me think about hiphop more than I ever used to, when its vitality could be taken for granted. But the winner:

'I HATE . . .'
Brian Eno. Again, I don't hate the historic Eno, the Eno of Roxy Music, the '70s solo records, the Ambient series, No New York, Talking Heads, is practically peerless, and even after that there are plenty of fascinating ideas at work. But isn't there something very odd about the perception of Eno, whereby he gets a free pass for his last 20-odd years spent producing U2, James (!) and now Coldplay. (And James!) The strangest thing about this period (JAMES!) is that in theory it really could be good. You would think that if you applied the oblique strategies of Another Green World, Taking Tiger Mountain etc to music as boldly unadventurous, as warm-water-bottle, as Coldplay, you might end up with that rare thing, a mainstream pop record articulated through genuinely forward-thinking sonics; that Coldplay might come up with, if not a Kid A, then something close. But instead it's like those U2 and Coldplay records inadvertently became the unacknowledged apotheoses of the (failed) Music for Airports project: rock windtunnelled into a frictionless form of non-denominational spiritual succour (to be pronounced sucker), emotional affirmation to be taken like travel sickness pills, packaged with a smooth pharmaceutical blandness. One day I'd like to listen through all those productions and write a long post about them from the perspective of Eno's earlier art-experiment incarnation – round up these big critical blindspots in the Eno discography into a kind of secret history (albeit of course it's a secret history hidden in plain sight, 'hidden' only from the point of view of say, a Wire subscriber).

19 May 2009

'He's just trying to tell a vision'

This post is about David Peace, and offers a kind of (patchwork) secret history of secret history.

Secret or occult history is how Peace often describes his work. The Red Riding series discloses a sickness at the heart of Yorkshire between 1974–1983, Tokyo Year Zero attempts a pathology of postwar Japan. 'It is time to reveal the true essence of the nation.' . . . The essence, not the contingent, messy, pedantic, historically-verifiable particularity. 'I want to read fictions torn from facts that use those fictions to illuminate the truth,' Peace writes. Setting aside the ethical/epistemological debate for the moment, we have another example of Borges's theory of retroactively created precursors.* In this case, Peace's precursors include Werner Herzog, William Godwin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
I've always postulated, not just in documentaries but in my feature films as well, that reality is a superficial layer and what we should be looking out for is a deep strata of truth. I've always been after what I call an ecstatic truth.
. . . Werner Herzog in this interview . . . in which the interviewer at one point asks 'Can you think of a moment that is ecstatic truth? Is it like seeing your favourite football team score a goal?' – bathetic, but nicely synchronous for a discussion of David Peace.

The origin of Herzog's 'ecstatic truth' meme can be found in his 'Minnesota Declaration' from 1999:
4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.

5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.
'Ecstacy', with all its connotations of bliss in anglophone usage, may seem out of place applied to Peace's writing, but ecstacy is simply an experience so powerful that you feel out of your head, your body, taken beyond yourself, literally 'ex stasis', out of place. So the kind of delirious horror which Peace achieves is just as much an experience of ecstacy as one of Stephen Daedalus's epiphanies.

An older forebear: William Godwin. In his 'Essay of History and Romance', Godwin argues that history can be studied in two ways: by looking at mankind en masse, or at the lives of individuals. The first is dauntingly abstract, a question of statistical quantification; the second is 'of highest importance.' Godwin then sets up his paradox: the empirical documentary history of facts and dates is 'nearest the truth', but this is 'in reality, no history'. It is lifeless without the vigour imparted by biographical study. The best history uses facts merely as raw material for an inventive tapestry that Godwin chooses to call 'historical romance.' So novels (Godwin's historical romances) in fact are really a branch of history-writing, and not only that, a 'nobler species of composition' than plain history. They are the subset that transcends the set itself, the subgenre that supersedes the master-genre to achieve its apotheosis.

It is deluded after all, he argues, to simply assume that history conveys factual truth. It is a form of fiction. So: 'Dismiss me from the falsehood and impossibility of history, and deliver me over to the reality of romance.' Furthermore: 'The writer of romance then is to be considered as the writer of real history.' Historians are simply romance writers 'without the sublime licence of imagination.'

Godwin wrote the piece in 1797 while his essay collection The Enquirer was going to press, anticipating the possibility of a sequel. But the demand never materialized, and the essay was not published in his lifetime (which suggests a crisis of confidence in the argument on Godwin's part).

One more. The following description of Rousseau from Isaiah Berlin isn't quite a perfect match for the kind of fiction-as-transcendent-history that Peace, Herzog and Godwin advocate, but it's close, and if the procedures are different the effect - or affect - is the same:
In theory Rousseau speaks like any other eighteenth-century philosophe, and says: 'We must employ our reason.' He uses deductive reasoning, sometimes very cogent, very lucid and extremely well-expressed, for reaching his conclusions. But in reality what happens is that this deductive reasoning is like a strait-jacket of logic which he claps upon the inner, burning, almost lunatic vision within the cold, rigorous strait-jacket of a kind of Calvinistic logic which really gives his prose its powerful enchantment and its hypnotic effect. You appear to be reading logical argument which distinguishes between concepts and draws conclusions in a valid manner from premisses, when all the time something very violent is being said to you. A vision is being imposed upon you; somebody is trying to dominate you by means of a very coherent, although often very deranged vision of life, to bind a spell, not to argue, despite the cool and collected way in which he appears to be talking.
in Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Liberty (London: Pimlico, 2003), p. 43.

Like Rousseau, Godwin was raised as a devout Calvinist; makes you wonder what denomination were those 'religious books' belonging to his mother that Peace read growing up.

* Three critiques of Peace's version of historical truth, of history understood as an unmasking of ecstatic horrors, can be read here, here, and here. Another post.

15 May 2009

Die Terroristen, Der Regisseur: Die Hard


Not many people would have Die Hard down as a cinematic roman à clef. But how else to explain its arch-villains? And their peculiar resemblances to certain figures in German cinema?

Two Germans: one is tall with hangdog features. Cerebral, organizing, hands-off, the director of events, rather than a performer. The other is shorter with long wispy blonde hair and carries out the orders of the other (though with a distinct undertone of insubordination). Effectively the id to the senior partner's ego, he exists on the physical level of performance, action, electricity, violence, consummation, death.

So here we see, on the set of Die Hard, Alan Rickman, as 'Hans', the German mastermind of an audacious terrorist strike at the corporate heart of downtown LA:

And here, Alexander Godunov, resting between takes at Fox Plaza, who plays Hans' righthand man and enforcer, 'Karl':

And here we see Werner Herzog, German director with radical associations:

And his favourite familiar, favourite fiend, collaborator-in-chief, the actor who brings physical form to his imaginings, Klaus Kinski:

The vast seething ideological unconscious of the Hollywood 'dream' factory, channelling through the conduits of director John McTiernan or casting director Jackie Burch, has dreamt into a being a world in which Herzog and Kinski are recast as terrorist mastermind and terrorist goon.

Comparing filmmakers with terrorists isn't difficult: both tend to work in small cell-like units, going round shooting things. They both work to create the spectacular and are keen on pyrotechnics, shock, awe, the disruption of the everyday. But it is the idea of spectacle – Debord's Spectacle – which shows us how, fundamentally, they work to entirely opposing effect. The filmmaker, no matter how socially radical their intentions, faces perhaps the greatest struggle in any artistic field not to simply reproduce and reaffirm the dominant mainstream discourse. Everything about film's production process militates against: it's expensive to shoot, edit, print, distribute and advertise. No other aesthetic activity - writing, music, painting - requires that you must first convince Big Capital to invest in you in before you can even make the art; the filmmaker must become the client of cash-rich patrons (studios, producers, investors, wealthy dilettantes looking for a tax-break or some cultural kudos) who can afford to buy them a seat at the table. No other artform forces the auteur to submit to such a commercially-minded battery of ideological pre-approval. Filmmakers, with the possible exception of their TV counterparts, are the most deeply implicated in the social-financial-political web which constitutes Debord's 'spectacle'.

The terrorist - left, right, religious - wants to disrupt and destroy the Spectacle's matrix.

This animus against Herzog is encoded, unconscious, and doubly irrational because while his ultra-low budget techniques threaten to tell truths beyond the boundaries of the circumscribed ideological horizons of moneyed Hollywood, they represent little direct professional threat to Die Hard's makers as filmmakers. But then this smear-by-association, which aligns and elides German radical cinema with German leftwing radical terrorism works in two directions. It seems almost quaint now to imagine German terrorists but in 1988 Hans and Karl invoke for audiences real-life counterparts from the recent past such as the Red Army Faktion (the Baader-Meinhof Group). A minor plot 'twist' (more of a tweak) comes when hero cop John McLean discovers that the terrorists are in fact merely thieves, only there to steal a fortune in bearer bonds. McTiernan deliberately introduced this script change to (in theory) depoliticise the terrorist element and smooth the commercial passage of the film, but rather than ideologically neutralizing Hans, Karl et al, it simply creates a more damning (and politically desirable) implication, that terrorists at heart are secretly motivated only by raw greed rather than idealism (just as socialists don't really want a fairer society, but use this claim as a cover to steal from the deserving rich). The terrorists have to be foreign because in the history of America which Hollywood tells itself, domestic terrorism does not exist (pace Mark Pellington's Arlington Road in '93). This despite the fact that the Red Army Faktion's raids on banks were directly inspired by attacks on property in the 1965 Watts Riots -- and that the Symbionese Liberation Army (the captors of Patty Hearst) where busy robbing banks throughout the early '70s. But as part of this political neutering of the terrorists, the Hans-Herzog, Karl-Kinski pair-off finds its double meaning, as it implies that Hans and Karl, in their dollar-driven daze, are not the revolutionary radicals they pretend to be, but, like McTiernan, are mere traders in big bangs and colourful lights, distraction, display, prestidigitation, dazzle, smoke and flames: dealers in the bloody spectacular, not overturning its table in the marketplace, but complicit in its machinations.

in Part II: Citizen McClain vs McLean, VA; the Unabomber onscreen
in Part III: Kubrick, Stockhausen and Die Hard's demolitional sublime

11 May 2009

Strange Days Here We Come?

A reader writes:
"The Smiths were deeply retrograde"
in the sleeve art and Morrisey's rigid kitchen sink reference points...but How Soon Is Now retrograde?

come on.........

musically i don't think they were retrograde at all especially cf JAMC / C86......nearly all of their uk contemporaries.....bunnymen / jd / teadrop & also blancmange / culture club / duran ad nauseam

retro kicked in withe the first cds - 84 / 85 RETRO as we know it today kicked in wholesale withe the velvets's another view release & south bank show 85 i think

in both these streams the smiths were ahead in their own juniverse and wildly cutting edge in their own terms i.e. they wanted to be on and got on TOTP

morrissey daffs nhs glasses no mic bare chest was THE last totp intervention cf bowie starman everything else -- especially the turgid streams of one week only pisshappy appearances of sleeper bluetone britplop et al which the music papers gave as the sine qua non of britpop's success cf ringing up record companies asking 'what's your midweek?" -- is just marketing from the majors

they refused to make videos during the mid 80s MTV anglocentric boom

but got derek jarman to make short polemic films instead

they are very much in my vanguard

I was thinking of their aversion to early-80s synth futurism and postpunk's dancefloor connections in particular. They're absolutely not avant-garde scorched-earthers; but no, 'deeply retrograde' isn't fair. There's a level of disenchantment, a fundamental setting of their faces against the world, that's akin to the maladjustment, the refusal of the reality principle, that k-punk blasts Sonic Youth for not having in his reply to this [may have one more brief response]. They haven't reformed for a start. Not so much a vision of the future as a new, polemic vision of the past. Their raw material is kitchen-sink familiar but Morrissey wants to take the quotidian and apply a turn which (subtly) defamiliarizes it, that sees it afresh: for a start, radically retuning the connotations of the superbland name Smith. 'It's time that the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces.' There's a modernist echo deep in there.

09 May 2009

too young to buy, too old to live

Above: a retirement home in Hollywood

A major contributing factor to what's happened over the last 4/5 years, with the grotesque blossoming of the rock-pop heritage industry, awash with reissues, reunions, nostalgia package tours, must be the fact that U-20s don't buy music. So if you want to make money out of music you have to pitch to an ageing demographic that grew up paying for music. Reselling that group its adolescence (especially the over-30s with money in their pockets) has always been a lucrative sideline (usually pursued through the invention of 'essential' new formats like CD); it's now one of the only available options for the bigger, risk-averse operators.

On the beach

Late thought on Sonic Youth as the great unacknowledged Californian group (as argued below): that characteristic technique of theirs, that intense micro-thrash on one or two strings that blurs into a drone – the other place you hear it is, of course, surf rock: Dick Dale et al.

You can read Marcello Carlin's take on SY here.

07 May 2009

Thurston Moore and his precursors

If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem, 'Fears and Scruples' by Browning foretells Kafka's work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics' vocabulary, the word 'precursor' is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.
This quote is from ‘Kafka and His Precursors’ by Jorge Luis Borges. The entire essay is less than a thousand words and can be read online here. The conceit is that while the idea of the ‘precursor’ conventionally suggests ‘progenitor’, suggests a lineage, a progression in which cultural ancestors beget new artists teleologically, the process is better understood in reverse. We read a writer, we listen to a band, we are reminded of disparate but similar work (Zeno, Kierkegaard, Browning say, … or Sun Ra, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, Glenn Branca) and then – only then – are these artists grouped together into a recognizable set: Kafka’s Precursors, Sonic Youth’s Precursors. The present creates it own past.

Now k-punk (in his response to my earlier post) is absolutely right about the current nostalgia circuit. (As Marx put it, rock history repeats itself first as deluxe CD reissues, then as inglorious reunion tours. Then as deluxe DVDs of the reunion tours.) And he’s right of course about the vacuousness of the allegedly ‘alternative’ music which prevails commercially; it’s unsurrectionary mallternative rock. But should Sonic Youth really have to carry the can for this stuff just because some elements within it hail them as precursors? Proverbially the sins of the father are visited upon the son. In cultural history though, the sins of the offspring are all too often visited upon the parents, as Nietzsche’s ghost would attest. The street finds its own use for things, and the same thing happens to music once it’s released; as Ian Curtis would no doubt realize were he around to suffer The Editors.

Sonic Youth may have ended up sounding terminally like themselves, but they are formally innovative, which even in the 80s is some achievement. And while they are unashamedly fans of other bands, writers and painters, as well as being musicians themselves, it’s not at all clear to me that they were the first to be so, nor the group who made it acceptable. They formed from the ashes of No Wave, an aggressively Year Zero project, but No Wave was such an extreme standpoint that it imploded almost as soon as it had begun – it was a scene that lasted barely months so stringent and un-livable was its own fragile logic. Punk, the real touchstone for SY (and No Wave), was rhetorically a tabula rasa, but surely everyone knows by now that punk was no Year Zero: it created its own precursors for you wholesale: Jonathan Richman, the VU, The Stooges, the mods whose drainpipe jeans and skinny ties Blondie would hunt down in thrift stores, The Who, covered by Patti Smith (in a b-side which pretty much invented, explored and foreclosed upon the entire musical ground of 90s riot grrl). And who compiled Nuggets? Patti Smith’s guitar player, Lenny Kaye. Now That’s What I Call Curatorial. I think SY’s undisguised fandom is something they carry over from punk, a demolition of the fourth wall of the stage of performance which is designed to have a liberatory, anti-hierarchical effect, putting the band down among the audience.

As an act of archaeology, to dig back to Bad Moon Rising, to find that brief sonic mirage of The Stooges’ ‘Not Right’ – revenant, disembodied, distorted, not right – and make it the onlie begetter of the necromantic rock heritage culture which summoned up and put on The Stooges circa ’07, is hideously clever. It’s a stretch though, and I would argue it’s only available as a claim because SY kept going and in a winners-write-the-history way, can be credited with exerting a gravitational effect on the subsequent musical continuum. There are swathes of SY’s 80s contemporaries who fell by the wayside and thereby escape k-punk’s censure, their demise saving them from being on the scene of the heritage-industry’s crimes in ’09. As Simon Reynolds points out in his response to Mark, The Jesus and Mary Chain were far more retro-necro: they took the Velvet Underground, added an 80s drum sound and some hairspray. The Smiths were deeply retrograde, and Morissey’s lovelorn desolation is equal parts starstruck fandom as it is interpersonal angst. Unrequited love is unrequited love, whether it’s for the person sat next to you in a darkened underpass or for a sordidly glamorous dream of a band or Sandie Shaw. Fandom is written into rock at the deepest level, with The Stones as blues scholars, Dylan recycling lyrics from Harry Smith’s (profoundly curatorial) Anthology of American Folk Music, McGuinn copping moves from Africa/Brass and Lennon’s dreams of being Little Richard. (I point this out not to excuse subsequent retro idolatry, but to erase any simple assumptions that, it was All Better in the Sixties; ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive…’)

But let’s grant that Sonic Youth went too far when they ran that Stooges tape through their Marshall stacks. If that’s so, then what kind of crepuscular Pandora’s Box – forget Pandora, it’s Miss Havisham that’s needed here – has Burial opened, has Fennesz opened, has Joker opened? “Rock is necessarily tied up with a romanticism of youth (whereas electronic music isn't, in part because of its 'cerebral' nature, as Mike Banks observed when I interviewed him)” writes Mark. Up to the bracket, entirely accurate. Rock is the sound of teenage lust, teenage kicks, teenage riots, and the fact that the form is dominated by non-teenagers recalling the hormonal intensity of teenage experience only heightens the excruciating sense of elegiac belatedness. But what will the consequences be when hauntology’s second generation hits? Electronic music has been doomed to the same process ever since ’87 got branded as the second Summer of Love… ( ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,/but to be young was very heaven!’) And the current crisis over the ’nuum is simply the inevitable function of its age, as producers struggle to handle the ever-increasing weight of dancefloor history on their shoulders, to try and make sense of its proliferating off-shoots. Do they destroy in order to rebuild, declaring Year Zero and looking to build on scorched earth? Or do they remake/remodel and renovate? To return to taste, isn’t it the case that hauntology can be dangerously implicated here… doesn’t hauntology threaten to become an exercise in good taste, in the right kind of nostalgia?

A penultimate point. It’s interesting to me that Mark presents the band as essentially record-collecting dilettantes, who know good music when they hear it, and are handy enough musically to knock off a reasonable simulacrum for their own releases, because it implies a certain sympathy with their taste and sensibility. Good taste has many meanings. Sonic Youth are banished from ‘mainstream’ taste forever: Kim Gordon in growl mode, the abstract-expressionist noise breaks, performance artists Bob Flanagan and Sherry Rose wiping their arses with stuffed toys on Dirty's artwork … And Thurston Moore’s taste is distinctly unreliable: look at the dreadful bands he helped sign to Geffen. And the postpunk ‘crystalline ascesis’ Mark refers to, the ruling certain bands beyond the pale… SY have always been despised by many precisely for being elitist snobs who look down on those who like the wrong bands, bands insufficiently weird or difficult. It’s actually this aspect which I’d like to emphasize. Having tried to put their ‘retro’ in a different context, I’ve come dangerously close to describing a po-mo mise-en-abyme in which everyone is freefalling into perpetual referentiality. I’d rather insist on their similarity to some of the postpunk ideologues, in that while their personal canon might have been different, they were equally insistent upon policing its edges.

So ... we have k-punk and Sonic Youth, sharing an admiration for whole swathes of postpunk, pop, and modernism low and high (Burroughs, P. K. Dick, William Gibson, Joyce, The Carpenters etc), a k-punk who objects to Sonic Youth because they have good taste, a k-punk bored moreover by Sonic Youth because the band’s aesthetic manoeuvres are so ‘easily verbally explicable’ ... their every move almost precognitively understood and decodable by him … Could it be ... that k-punk is repelled from Sonic Youth, so instinctively against them, not because they’re so egregiously wrong, but because he understands them all too well? That some of it is too close to heim? Could it be … that stalking k-punk through the halls and corridors of musical history is a Manhattanite double he dare not acknowledge, a double named S---- Y----?

06 May 2009

the escape to work

There's a particular phenomenon that recurs in escapist literature – the tendency to reinscribe in the text whatever the writer would like to escape from. So Andrew Marvell's 'Upon Appleton House', ostensibly a pastoral revel in the arcadian delights of a country retreat, ends up deploying a figural language which refers to the civil war beyond the confines of the estate, drawing in all the civic strife that the genre of the country house poem would apparently seek to exclude. Virgil's Georgics are, on the surface, a guidebook to agricultural husbandry, a celebration of a simple life far from the vicissitudes of politics. But they end up articulating a political allegory which still eludes full interpretation today. The refuge only restages what the writer wants to suppress.

The Junior Boys latest album is called Begone Dull Care. As a title this immediately undercuts the music, which draws on electro, house, disco and various electronica patches that crosswire these zones. Begone Dull Care is like a self-defeating version of the hedonist's battle cry of Let's Have It. It sounds like hedonist escapism, but the title reinscribes exactly what it wants to escape (Dull Care), demanding Begone – get away from me (the opposite of Come Together). Put another way, while 'begone dull care' looks superficially like a phrase that's semantically the equivalent of 'be happy', isn't it in fact crucially different? It looks to negate, not posit: to confound dull care, not insist on and construct any kind of tangible pleasure. It says 'begone', and in doing so begins (or maintains) a conversation with that which it wants rid off.

If that seems like a lot to build on what is only a title, it is at least a claim borne out by the music, which takes those sonic templates of electro, house, disco etc only to reverse the polarities of their emotional charge, from ecstatic affirmation and positivity to negative chill factor.

But isn't there a sense in which all genres of club music reinscribe what they wish to escape from? . . . Or rather, what does the fundamental hedonism of club culture in its wider sense, reinscribe? If the rave, the club, the discotheque, the party, are all essentially the same form of escape from the 9-5 world of work, isn't it the case that that accursed world reappears, is re-performed? With the club as a place of work and physical exertion (...'Work It' ... 'Work it Out'...), a place where everyone co-ordinates to the same rigidly ordered beat-continuum, submitting to the direction of a line-manager DJ...

05 May 2009

sartor resartus

I didn't realize socks could be such a problem. Jeans I think are differently but equally problematic. There was a time when to wear jeans meant something, implied a kind of radicalism, a time when to wear jeans meant you read Kerouac, hitchhiked to Morocco, listened to folk, smoked kif etc etc . . . they carried a hint of blue-collar proletarian danger. But that was a long time ago. What happens next? The counterculture goes boom and as the dust settles, the commodification begins, the garden of forking consumer paths. As Zizek argues, late capital atomizes, consumer choice proliferating culture into a menu of increasingly fine distinctions.

Now that everyone wears jeans, what do they mean? When I'm on the tube, I sometimes do a quick tally of what people around me are wearing - 9 out of 10 times, if they're not in a suit, they're wearing jeans. The 'meaning' of jeans resides entirely in the subgenre - microgenre - of jeans you're wearing.

Bootcut, pre-distressed
- mainstream chain-pub Stella swilling 20s-30s male

- the emo, the art-student, the hipster

Stonewashed, straight leg, worn on the waist rather than the hips
- middle-aged man, Jeremy Clarkson

Selvedge raw denim, slim
- a kind of via media taken by those who don't want to look like they drink in Wetherspoons but do want some blood to reach their toes. And Japanese kids.

- twat

Bankers wear this stuff on their day off. Everyone wears this stuff. In that sense they have a restful anonymity. But wearing plain anonymous suits surely now carries more subversive potential. The business suit is ripe for detournement. Adopting suits as a sartorial rule can say, we have no illusions about an item of clothing whose semantic connotations have been emptied of all original meaning. Maybe it's time to dress not so that your clothes want to say 'I am not a straight, I am not a company man' but so that you threaten to blend in, invasion of the bodysnatchers-style. Maybe wearing suits says, we mean business too.

k-punk strikes back

How irritating/enjoyable to defend something and then, in response, get the most convincing prosecution you've yet read of what you're defending... I side with Mark against the false 'alternative' culture he attacks; but I'd like to separate Sonic Youth from some of the cultural uses to which their legacy has been put... more on this to follow

LA Plays Itself (II)

Los Angeles Plays Itself
is still unavailable on DVD, presumably due to the sheer weight of permissions needed to use the excerpts which constitute the film. The unillustrated essay can be read here though.