29 April 2009

Chthonic Use

Mark Fisher on the abominable tribute compilation Brand Neu! in this month's issue of The Wire (303):

Foals, Holy Fuck and LCD Soundsystem [. . .] only establish that there is no 'today' for rock. They are secondhand vampires, skulking round graves that were robbed long before any of them picked up a plectrum or clicked on a drum machine.
. . .
Sonic Youth, Primal Scream and Oasis all played their part in making this kind of retro-necro acceptable. As the most ostensibly credible of the bunch, Sonic Youth should arguably bear the most blame (indeed, if one were to locate the point at which rock modernism lapsed into curatorial postmodern pastiche, you could do worse than cite something like Bad Moon Rising.)

The elision of Sonic Youth with Primal Scream and Oasis is both boldly counter-intuitive and funny – though coming from Mark, undoubtedly no joke. It's unfair of course. I don't want to enumerate all the ways in which Sonic Youth are not Primal Scream or Oasis. But put it this way: if Bobby Gillespie's ultimate and explicit aspiration is to be some kind of golem made out of assorted body parts from Jagger/Richards, and Noel Gallagher's is to be the same but using the corpse of Lennon/Noddy Holder, you'd have to say Thurston Moore, if anything, aspires to being Patti Smith, which is at least more forward-thinking - not to mention transgendered.

I think Mark's accusation has some traction, but the time and topos aren't quite accurate. If Sonic Youth are guilty of postmodern curatorial pastiche, it's not from '85 onwards with 'rock' history as their palette, it's over the last decade, and the palette is their own back catalogue. The trajectory from the debut EP to Confusion is Sex, Bad Moon Rising, Evol, Sister and Daydream Nation is astonishingly inventive. From that point on the boundaries of their sound are largely fixed, and from Goo to A Thousand Leaves, they're essentially combining and recombining previously-deployed moves into technically 'new' but very familiar shapes. All these albums have high points which match the late 80s output, but also plenty of rote filler, Youth-by-numbers. At this stage in their careers (2009), they are afflicted by a kind of irrelevance which any band of their age and standing can hardly transcend – like The Fall, the unconscious operations of the PR machine sees every album willed into a return to form, only to be retrospectively nailed as mediocre by the time of the next album's review cycle. Sonic Youth in 2009 seems to be more of a side-project for its members than the nominal side-projects, a costume into which all four climb when it's time to pay the bills. (I think as well – and this is perhaps another post – that Thurston Moore has a definite idea about song-writing as a mode - one that declares allegiance to the impulse, and a fidelity to the instant, informed by improv and automatic writing, and as such, would probably disavow any concept of 'progress' or development, or duty to anything other than sounding like Sonic Youth has always sounded.)

But what I really want to talk about is this idea that from Bad Moon Rising on, Sonic Youth might be 'curatorial postmodern pastiche' . . . Presumably Mark has the referential/reverential aspect of the band in mind here. Because they certainly don't sound like nostalgic pastiche at that stage. In fact they sound extraordinarily new. BMR is the point at which their tunings, atonal and droning, blossom into dazzling synaesthetic iridescences. They sound, literally, uncanny – with strings tuned to the same note but fractionally apart, they create their own doubles, an unheimlich shadow sound, like a transparent overlay just out of position. Playing Stoogoid riffery in a harmonic template borrowed from free jazz and serialism, one that smashes the overdetermined limits of the pentatonic, they make discord sensual in previously unheard ways. Alex Ross may take issue with this, but I think BMR is the point where Sonic Youth in effect reconnect discord with the body, restoring to it a libidinal force which you hear in The Rites of Spring, but which the cold geometries of Schoenberg and Webern subsequently evacuated.

As for the re(v/f)erential fandom. It's too easy to cite 'Kill Yr Idols' (released shortly before BMR) as a reproof to Mark's accusation. So I won't – not least because it can probably be counter-cited as a subconscious act of projection, read against the grain so that Thurston Moore is lambasting not his hidebound retro peers but himself.

I'd guess that Mark would point to the band's fascination with pop culture and its operations, rules, secret dynamics as evidence for pomo pap churn: Bad Moon Rising is a title borrowed from Creedence Clearwater Revival; 'Death Valley '69' dwells on the Manson Family mythology; by EVOL the following year there's 'Starpower' and its meditations on Joan Jett, 'Expressway to Yr Skull' (also titled as 'Madonna, Sean and Me' or 'The Crucifixion of Sean Penn') and the disposable kitsch of the Kim Fowley cover, 'Bubblegum'. The Ciccone Youth side project repeats the deadpan Madonna adoration with 'Into the Groove(y)'.

For me there's no sense that that's all there is – secondhand, end-of-history, arms-length sifting through pop-junk detritus, the position of the aesthete ever ready to cry 'but I don't really mean it', believing that the glib smirking mask of nihilist irony can be passed off as the silver laugh of wisdom. As a title, Bad Moon Rising alludes to the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, but without depending on it for content – anymore than do Joy Division with the Ballard-borrowed 'The Atrocity Exhibition'. The point is not to tick a box for discerning record collectors or critics, nor to demonstrate good meta-aesthetic judgement by suggesting that perhaps, like all revolutions, the Year Zero of American hardcore has ultimately impoverished itself (by ruling out as untouchable any music predating firstwave punk, or indeed the first Bad Brains record). Instead it uses John Fogerty's title as a conduit through which to signpost and channel a version of American gothic, a means to reimagine, rewrite and make strange the surface environment of American life, unafraid of referencing pulp forms like horror and SF to tell a psychic truth glossed over by the smooth sedations of mass media, built over by the glossy tiles and sparkling water of the mall, the pulverizing singularity of the freeway. 'Ghost Bitch' -- which it's hard to foresee Primal Scream or Oasis covering any time soon -- is an uncanny revenant voicing, a spectral banshee wail which, like Stephen King's Indian-burial-ground devices, stages an encounter between massacred (Native American) and massacring (colonist). 'I'm Insane', 'Society is a Hole', 'Justice is Might'; these are postcards from the urban apocalypse of the Lower Eastside, a zone abandoned by local government and police alike.

Which brings me to David Peace... (whom Mark is certainly a fan of). Peace presents the Red Riding quartet as a kind of psychopathology of place -- not so much psychogeography as geographic psychosis, articulated through pulp modernism. The books map a site-specific horror, an internalized sickness unique to the books' Yorkshire setting. For Peace, Peter Sutcliffe is, could only be, the Yorkshire Ripper.

Mid-80s Sonic Youth does something very similar, but for California. They tend to be labelled as an archetypally 'New York' band, but from BMR through to Sister ('PCH' = Pacific Coast Highway, 'Hotwire My Heart' is a cover of a Bay Area punk band, Crime; 'Schizophrenia' and 'Stereo Sanctity' both reference Philip K. Dick), the West Coast exerts a weird fascination for them, as a terminal place, a utopia turned dystopia, spatially, temporally, psychically, culturally the End of the West, in which hippie eloi are feasted upon by Manson Family morlocks, and Laurel Canyon acoustic bliss-out is defaced by the return of the repressed (punk) and the unmasking of its own sexual logic (read Atomized and watch the documentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip in which Kim Fowley, svengali of The Runaways, features and reveals himself as a shameless sexual predator). 'Death Valley '69' is the obvious example of this kind of oneiric horror manifesting itself, but it's present too in 'Expressway to Yr Skull' - in which The Beach Boys are evoked lyrically ('We're going to kill the California girls...') before being detourned, reimagined as a death-drive sex-cult ('...We're going to fire the exploding load in the milkmaid maidenhead'), over an oceanic roll of a rhythm, which explodes into an orgiastic apocalypse before once more subsiding into waves of bass and underwater guitar. There are material connections too: the 'Halloween' 12" was recorded in Venice Beach, the band recorded a soundtrack for the film Made in America in LA in 1986, and from 86-87 were signed to Long Beach label SST, with Mike Watt (from San Pedro) making a cameo on EVOL and forming part of Ciccone Youth.

Ballard could perhaps be brought in here, to discuss the car-crash in 'In the Kingdom #19', as well as LA as a terminal site and the psychosexual dynamics of celebrity iconography – but I think he's more relevant to the persistent charge that's hung around Sonic Youth for not being junkie fuck-ups. Isn't it the case (not thinking of Mark here) that a wider critical subtext exists in which Sonic Youth are considered somehow inauthentic, for making weird, out-there music while not being weird or out-there in person? It seems like a lot of music writers assume that the biography betrays the music, that there's an obligation to live up to the sublime savagery of the music and be suicidally chemically dependent. Again, not ascribing this position to Mark, but there's an implication that because they aren't complete headcases, they don't mean it, man . . . And must therefore be idle dilettantes. But this is as absurd as objecting to Ballard's quiet domestic set-up in Shepperton; like Ballard, Sonic Youth are following the Flaubertian injunction to be serious and bourgeois in life, in order to be violently radical in your art.


Jason said...

Fact-heavy fluent writing undermined by a lack of any original ideas.

"believing that the glib smirking mask of nihilist irony can be passed off as the silver laugh of wisdom."

You will burn in hell if you write any more like that. Oh, wait...

Hmm. You will burn in hell.

Sam Davies said...

Sorry Jason, I'll try harder in future.

Could you direct me to where SY have been conceived of as an LA/Cali band as opposed to the archetypal NY band of myth? And the stuff about their West Coast obsessions being a psychopathology of place-type exercise, along the lines of David Peace? These may be old-hat notions to you, but they occurred to me only recently... I'd be interested to see earlier articulations of these ideas. (Actually, I recently remembered an article that ingeniously makes a parallel point to one of mine, about a different group, but I won't give away the references just yet... would be fascinating if you had read the same thing.)

The quote you take exception to... can you explain exactly what you object to about it? I just have a feeling there's a misunderstanding to clear up... could be wrong. I hope it's clear that I'm *defending* SY from being characterized in that way...?

robotsdancingalone said...

Hi Zone, great post, sorry to come in on this (extremely) late.

I have no problems with your analysis, and contra to Jase think it very original! I just had one quibble on the Stravinsky point though, which, since Alex Ross doesn't seem to be around, the taking of issue with will have to be mine.

Briefly, to say that Sonic Youth, in 1985, 'reconnect discord with the body, restoring to it a libidinal force', is to ignore decades of the same in other music. Composers and artists like La Monte Young (and his many disciples) pioneered such an approach, whilst other drone musicians who, like SY (in this respect), use psychoacoustics as prime affectual resource - such as Niblock, Palestine, Radigue, Branca(!) - are plentiful. The spectralists (explicit intent: to mobilise the perceptual apparatus through the inseperate articulation of harmony/timbre), such as Radulescu, Grisey, Coates, Dufourt, even Sciarrino and Lachenmann (timbre-as-discord), come readily to mind too, though they don't predate the given marker by much, admittedly.

I would also take issue with your characterisation of both the Rite, and Webern and Schoenberg; it is rather, to me, its rhythm and dynamisms which gives the ninths and seconds in the former piece their force. And those harmonies came from early Schoenberg anyway! Later Schoenberg can get a little clinical, but Moses has at least as much libidinal impact as Stravinsky's ROS.

Webern I think almost transcends the body/mind dialectic, being too busy making an art of unprececedented subtraction, as ontologically revolutionary as White on White, but his tone-colours, closely related to the harmonies but not identical to them, have a sort of spectral libidinal force, making penumbral Stravinsky's pile drive, but maintaining, all the same, the latter's initial bodily intensity (though that body is disintegrating as it listens in Webern).

Sorry to go on a bit, and sorry if I seem overly negative - I really liked the post, and always enjoy your blog (and other writing) very much.

Sam Davies said...

Robots! what an amazing response - I've only just spotted it... My short answer would be that I agree with you.

I generally (try to) avoid crude opposed binaries like mind-body... it's very easy to collapse the two into each other, and usually when the distinction is applied there's a not-so-subtle agenda attached...

Nonetheless I think conceits like that can serve a purpose, just as throwaway lenses through which to make a particular point, and I would stand by the notion that SY took a spectrum of dissonance unfamiliar to rock and applied it to (or to it) the kind of taschiste violence of riff-rhythm you get from The Stooges. And I think that was new.

The RoS/Webern/Schoenberg comparison is clearly overblown - arguing with Kpunk I find you tend to reach for the exorbitant, and as a historical arc, sure, it's not really one begun by RoS and closed by SY, there was a lot happening in between. I guess to put it more cautiously, you can imagine people slamdancing to SY but not Branca's Symphonies. And equally, it makes sense that RoS was a ballet, while later Wbern (though I know there have been plenty of avant dance interpetations) it is less intuitively danceable. But I find Webern highly sensuous nonetheless - the term braindance comes to mind, pinching from Rephlex. There's a great para in Youth by Coetzee where he describes the pleasure in Webern, albeit resorting a little readily to the 'coldness' characterization.

Not clear what you're saying abt my view of RoS - I totally agree that its the rhythms that give the harmonic aspects its force... that should have been made clearer in the post.

Finally - Grisey, Coates, Dufourt - I don't even know these names, so am looking forward to checking them all out.

Robots Dancing Alone said...

Hi again Zone, thanks for the response. I take what your saying about SY's audience and the reception of those types of discords; you're right, different context, different reactions. I like your characterisation of arguing with k-punk!!! I must check Youth out, I've loved the other Coetzees I've read.

Grisey was a truly wonderful composer. Most famous amongst his pieces, justly, are Vortex Temporum and the monumental, world-inventing, Les Espaces Acoustiques. Here's a link to my friend Liam's review of the first performance of the latter work, in case you're interested.

Tristan Murail is another great spectral composer, often in fact seen as being at the practice's head along with Grisey...

Robots Dancing Alone said...

Sorry, first line should have you're, not your!!