Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Sex Revolts interview 2020

The Sex Revolts
has just come out in French (trans. Samuel Roux) on Éditions La Découverte and was this very week described as "irritating but stimulating" by Le Monde - which I think is a fair description of both the intention and the outcome, actually!  

(I thought the French subtitle was an error for a moment there - but "gender" in French = "genre". Which is interesting if you think about it, being a genreologist and all.)

A bit more than a year ago the book came out in Germany, also for the first time, on Ventil Verlag. And here is an in-depth interview about the book and its I did with Julian Weber for Taz.

 In the introduction to your  2020 edition, you tell us the first motivation, to write a book about genderroles, rebellion and rock music, and a sort of prevailing misogynistic attitude towards women not only in the rock biz in general but also in the lyrics of songs. There’s an anecdote from a dinner with somebody from the noise rock scene who cracked a sick joke about child molesting. That sounds very 1990s. There was a general attitude of shock tactics, citing true crime as an influence, acting dumb onstage, being mean. You could hear it in the music of bands like Killdozer, or the Cows, in fanzines like „Your Flesh“ . Also on Record covers from labels like Amphetamine Reptile, there were displays of abject art, stills from horror movies and porn. Bands like Drunks with Guns posing with snuff movie images and weapons. But also stuff like Survival Research Laboratories from San Francisco, staging a sort of apocalyptic last day on earth show with debris and industrial trash. Reenacting war. Some of it I experienced as an ironic take on life at the end of the 20th century. What was the dark side of it, the gendertrouble, can you elaborate?

It came from different sources and with different inflections. But there was a general interest in the shocking, the abject, the dark side of human psychology. Some of it came out of industrial culture, the evolution from Throbbing Gristle to power electronics outfits like Whitehouse, Ramleh, and Sutcliffe Jugend. In the latter case, it’s a band name inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer. At the same time, as a development out of hardcore punk and noise rock in America, you had groups like Killdozer or Butthole Surfers who had songs about grotesque or upsetting things. Live there might be video projections of horrible accidents or surgery. Big Black were major figures on this scene and when they broke up Steve Albini formed a group called Rapeman – a name that got a lot of negative responses, in the U.K. certainly.  Songs about the killing of women were almost a stock theme for a certain kind of alternative rock band.  On the fringe of the alternative music culture, selling in the same kind of fanzine shops or records shops, there were also zines dedicated to murder or other forms of extreme human behaviour. ANSWER ME! was one in the early Nineties – they did issues themed around on suicide, murder, rape. You had publishers that specialized in this kind of thing, like Feral House.

Now, the horrible side of life and the bizarre freaky evil things humans do are fascinating, there’s no denying that. And some of these groups were really powerful as sonic experiences.  And you could argue that this kind of subject matter is a legitimate subject for artistic exploration, confronting the ‘dark side of human nature’ or the extremes of desire. You might defend the early work of Nick Cave in the Birthday Party or with the Bad Seeds on that level and place it in a tradition of decadent and surrealist writing, Lautreamont, etc.

Nonetheless, there did seem to be something oddly fixated about the interest in the murder of women. It was noticeable that the songwriters almost always wrote from the point of view of the man doing the killing, rather than from the point of view of the victim.

There were a lot of things going on with this culture  - a desire to shock, to push further than had been gone before, a cynical and nihilistic worldview, and a sort of hunger for stimulation, which leads to developing a tolerance for horrible images, so you need to keep upping the extremism.

But there was also an impulse to goad bourgeois liberals and upset sensitive people –  rooted in the same psychology and - in some cases the same politics -  as the current alt-right drive to trigger “snowflakes” and to reject political correctness. So for instance, the guy behind ANSWER ME! – Jim Goad – went on to write the book The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America's Scapegoats. Most recently he published a book called The New Church Ladies: The Extremely Uptight World of "Social Justice."   “Church Ladies” is a reference to powerful older women involved in the social life of churches, organizing events and fundraisers etc – and by implication it references a entire matriarchal tradition in America that goes back to the temperance movement – basically the idea is that these women are priggish do-gooders trying to stop men having fun, whether it’s drinking alcohol or watching porn or telling offensive jokes. Goad was been cited as an influence on Gavin McInnes, formerly of Vice and founder of the Proud Boys movement.

In my memory female bands like Babes in Toyland (who are mentioned in your book later on), Frightwig, and many more were active in that very same scene. I didn’t take notice of any hate against them, (but perhaps from todays perspective, there was).

They were  probably considered cool hard-rocking girls. And some of the groups, like Babes and early Hole, were exploring similar zones of abjection or body-horror, but from a different angle. Courtney Love was a big fan of Big Black – and the early Hole records were very noisy, quite different from the more focused, anthemic sound of Live Through This. She said something along the lines that Big Black, underneath all the nastiness of the lyrics, were just sad, sensitive, lonely boys – she could sense a pathos underneath all the vicious noise that seemed to want to hurt your ears. And there’s probably something to that. There is a phase that boys in their early teens go through where they are interested in all things dark and horrible – it might lead them to read books on serial murderers, or the concentration camps. Or an interest in horror movies.  It’s kind of an attempt to harden the character armor and be cynical and cold, with a dark view of the world. Alice Cooper said that his fanbase was 13 to 15 year old boys!

 Back when Rock’n’Roll started to become a mass phenomenon in the 1950s, it was accompanied by a moral panic in the media, from evangelists and politicians to psychoanalists, who made comments on the new lifestyle, what they had seen in R&R was the youth on the verge of chaos, music made by „animals“, a mix of racism and cultural pessimism, a danger for the kids. So lots of police and medical personal in white being deployed at the shows. Can you comment on the popular psychoanalytic reading of R&R in the 1950s? There was „gender, rebellion and Rock’nRoll“, but maybe in a different way, than 15 years onwards?

The “race”-based fears and the fears about an unleashing of sexuality were linked at this point.   You had the fear of these “jungle” rhythms and the wild dancing they encouraged – a loosening of inhibitions.  Instead of the romantic pop and slower dance modes of the Fifties, this was music that incited young people to move in more abandoned and overtly sexual ways. The fear was that girls would become sexually awakened by this intensely rhythmic music that appealed to the body very directly, and also by these charismatic, disreputable singers – who had derived their vocal and performance style from black music. There is a Cramps poster that is based on an early anti-rock’n’roll leaflet: the slogan is something like “Does Rock and Roll lead to Sin and Disease?” It’s trying to scare both parents and kids with the idea that this music leads to sex before marriage, promiscuity, and venereal disease.

 It was only a short time after the slaughterhouse of WWII and the singular mass murder of Holocaust, when young people could invent themselves in a peaceful way through music. Is there a phase of pop music, before you set in with your book at the dawn of Hippie culture, where young people actually could get rid of the shadows of fascism and use R&R as an opposing force to the square culture of the Cold war years? 

Yes, absolutely, our book is not denying the liberating energies of rock’n’roll or the various youth cultures that sprang out of it, or the idealism involved in the counter-culture.  The desire to break away from domesticity and the traps of a conventional bourgeois life is both understandable and gives the music a power and energy that is compelling to this day. It’s just that it was often inflected with a misogynist aspect, with women and “the feminine” associated with everything that is holding the young man back from a life of freedom and heroic adventure.  Of course, domesticity is just as much, or even more, a trap for young women  - indeed at the same time as rock is busting loose, the anomie and boredom of suburbia inspires to Betty Friedan to write her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which kickstarts the second wave of feminism. Although the counterculture wanted to transform life radically in a lot of respects, often the attitudes to women and the roles they were assigned were very traditional. Even the idealized images of women in psychedelia tended to make them into the ethereal dream-women, seen as healing and caring companions, rather than active figures embarking on adventures of their own.

 You set in with your book in the mid 1960s, when Beatlemania starts to explode in the US, legions of Garage bands try to mimick the music and images from „the british invasion“. Can you describe the popular male gender role from that time? It was the exact moment of the Vietnam war, the draft, but there were loads of young men with long hair, not looking and acting like soldiers. At the same time they acted out traditional male roles in their songs, and hang out in „homosocial“ habitat, excluding women. Can you discuss this contradiction between fear of the draft and traditional sexual role play?

It's hard to reconstruct how subversive growing your hair even a little longer than the norm was in those days.  In their early days, The Beatles hair barely reached their collars but it was considered a huge transgression – very daring and, for their female fans, exciting.  To have your ears covered up by hair, if you were a man was almost an outrage! As a publicity gimmick to get his career going, David Bowie started a pretend movement called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. He managed to get on BBC television and talked with a straight face about the kind of insults that young men with long hair like himself used to get. Which was doubtless true and based on real abuse said to him in the street, even if the movement he created was a kind of media prank. People were very unsettled by blurring of gender boundaries. As well as being seen as effeminate, long hair was considered a mark of  bohemia – having it would disqualify you from any kind of normal job in an office or public service. You had to be pretty brave and uncompromising to go through life with long hair – meaning, just down to your shoulders.

Bohemianism, though, was about scruffiness. There was another kind of long hair that came out of flamboyance and an interest in style. That kind of long hair for men coded as a kind of dandy-ish vanity and self-preoccupation that was considered unmanly and decadent. Men weren’t supposed to pay much attention to their appearance. That was a feminine domain. And if you did show signs of overt care with your hair or clothing, people might assume you were gay. 

What happened in the Sixties was this approach to self-adornment or grooming  drifted from the margins into the mainstream. Things that only certain daring people at art school or in subcultures like mod had done become much more common, such that by the early Seventies your average clerical office worker has hair down to their collar and covering their ears, and might wear a pink shirt or a brightly colored tie. 

But men taking an interest in “feminine” things like style or grooming doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to change their attitudes about women. You can be a dandy and a misogynist – and also not want to go fight for your country.

With the hippies in America, the long hair was a form of soft protest against the draft, you were making yourself look as far from a soldier with cropped hair as possible. Remember in America, they had the call up, but the UK didn’t participate in the Vietnam War, and compulsory national service had ended in 1961 – there was a whole generation of young British men coming through who didn’t have to toughen up with two years in the Army.

In America, the “I’m not fit to fight” aspect was one of multiple meanings of long hair – another was kind of “natural”, wilderness look, that carried over into growing beards and so forth. So in that sense, very different from the dandy, mod sensibility.

 To work out „Rock’s psychosexual underpinnings“ you dig deep and bring in Klaus Theweleits’s „Male Fantasies“, for example, a classic, we keep coming back to, because it shows the pychological effects on german male gender at the end of the Great War which then made way for brutal violence against the council revolution of 1918/19 and then led directly to teutonic fascism. The pressure of being masculine: What is similar between the Freikorps-soldiers and rock icons (like Morrison, Pop and Bowie) on a self-destructive path, and what is different?

Of those three, Iggy Pop is the one where his libido is mixed up with militarism. The Stooges’s music feels ballistic, like it’s on the warpath. On “Search and Destroy”, Iggy’s describing himself in terms of a commando squad on a mission, or a guided missile. He sings “I’m a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm”. So he’s a fast-moving killing machine of a feline predator, and instead of love or even blood, his heart is full of napalm, the incendiary weapon. This is an image he’s using while the Vietnam War is still going on, when just about the most shocking image of that era is the girl running screaming down a road having torn her napalm-soaked clothes off. It’s the complete opposite of hippiedom, it’s already the beginnings of punk – hate and war replace love and peace.  In songs like that and “Death Trip” and “Raw Power”, Iggy’s about summoning up within himself of the will to power, and going into the dark zone where self-aggrandisement and self-destruction become the same thing. The power of the music is undeniable, but you have to confront that it is tapping into dark energies.

Iggy carried on using militaristic imagery – he did the album Soldier in 1980 (which includes a song titled “I’m a Conservative”) and in the early Nineties he did a record called American Caesar. The title comes from a book about General MacArthur, who was a military genius who also entertained ideas about running for President. “Caesarism” – the exaltation of military prowess and seeing it as a qualification for political leadership – is on the edges of fascism. Trump has that bizarre, pathetic obsession with having generals in his cabinet and wanting to throw huge military parades.

Bowie doesn’t really go in for war imagery much, but he did of course have his “strong leader” phase, when cocaine and half-understood Nietzsche and his readings of the occult all combined in his addled head, and he started going on about how he’d like to rule the world. At that time in the mid-Seventies, he would talk about how liberalism and permissiveness had gone too far and that it all needed to be “cleaned up” – which is similar to the line of talk that Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver was making, also in the mid-Seventies, when he goes on about a “rain coming to wash all the filth and scum off the streets” of New York. Bowie was probably inspired by some of the depravity and decadence that he’d seen – and possibly participated in – while living in Los Angeles.  So this preoccupation with filth is similar to the Freikorps imagery of swamps and threatening floods (again, very Trump and resonant with imagery used by a lot of xenophobic, authoritarian, ‘strongman’ aspiring politicians around the world).

At different points in the Seventies, Bowie identifies himself (and Lou Reed, his ally) with decadence, and then later on, he imagines being the strong leader who’ll end the decadence. He’s also picked up a vibe at huge arena concerts where it gets to feel like he’s like a messiah or dictator, and that he could tell the audience to do anything. He’s aware of the manipulative power of stage gestures, huge volume, and lights.  

You also cite Nietzsche’s aphorism: „Under conditions of peace the warlike man attacks himself“ to describe the self destruction but also the „soldier like“ orchestration of bands like Radio Birdman and the Stooges: How much of the Stooges‘ music is playful provocation and how much is a subconscious rapport about troubles with their soldier fathers? Obviously it went out of hand, xxx

“Playful” doesn’t seem like what’s going on here – it’s pretty earnest, pretty serious, pretty heartfelt. There’s a real identification with the military. And it’s a lot to do with wanting to live a heroic life, a life of adventure. What are the avenues for that in life? Well, you could join the army, or you could join a rock’n’roll band. (There are others, obviously). But the parallel between being in a band and being in a military unit have struck many performers. Patti Smith went through a phase of wearing aviator’s goggles and seeing her group as a sort of roaming squadron. In the metal world, this sort of parallelism between military and music is really common. You come to town, make a huge noise that sounds like explosions, strike all these heroic postures, and then like a band of Vikings, you wassail and frolic with the local women, before moving on to raid another town. A tour is like a tour of duty.

The late 1960s are widely assumed as to being the Golden Age of Rock. The album format, radio airplay, tv-appearances would help promoting major rockstars to the mainstream, the velocity of touring would transport (mostly male) stars like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix to world wide fame in just a few years. „Too much too soon“, the excessive lifestyle, the sex, the drugs: Did the myth-making-machine of Rock actually promote sexual liberation, drug use and antisocial behavior? And what happened when it collided with the traditional values and gender roles of the mainstream?

Over the long run, rock music -and then later rave culture – has normalized and banalised what once used to be bohemian behavior. Ordinary people get up to incredible debauches in terms of chemical intake in an average weekend.  But it’s probably overstating it to say that rock is entirely responsible for this. After all, people have drunk enormous amounts for centuries, when the occasion calls for it. It’s not like people before rock’n’roll were living pure, restrained lives necessarily. They were getting absolutely off their heads on Martinis or beer or whatever. I think rock just helped to add a few more intoxicants to the menu.

It probably contributed to the sexual revolution, but more significant would be the invention of the pill and the legalization of abortion. People in the pre-rock’n’roll era wanted to have sex before marriage just as much, it’s just that they had to be more discreet and they were more afraid of the consequences.

 You also research the orchestration of the male loner in 1980s popstars like Nick Cave and Morrissey, two figures who are still around today. Many of Nick Cave‘s songs are like a modern version of the 19th century dark romance, with violent relationships, biblical scenery and imagination from the world of Americana. What does this eternal past say about the artists‘ present? In what way is Cave’s image close to that of a traditional male rockstar, and what is different? In the case of Morrissey, his antipathy to women you have illustrated with many examples, him playing a neurotic dandy. In the light of Morrisseys recent reincarnation as a right wing (who reminds me on the character of Oswald Mosley in the BBC tv show „Peaky Blinders“). Can you trace his recent reactionary atttitude in his artist past? Or, is there any rational explanation for his move from the twee pop romantic to the culture pessimist and isolationist of today?

Nick Cave probably sees himself as a writer as much as stage performer – and he’s addressing the kind of themes and scenarios that inspire him, extremes of human emotion, desires taken to the limit. And a lot of what he’s exploring is part of a much longer history – the human condition, the kind of passions and failings and dark drives that fuel the tragedies or myths or legends. It’s not that topical or tied to the contemporary scene.

Morrissey was such a provocative and dissident figure in the Eighties, that his current politics is confusing and upsetting to fans. In the Eighties, the Smiths seemed like part of the opposition to Thatcherism and the values of consumerism, materialism, yuppiedom. Morrissey was promoting a radically fluid idea of sexual desire and sexual identity with his love songs that had no defined gender object. At the same time there was a delicious camp and playful vein of homo-eroticism running through many of the songs and the imagery on the record covers. Although there were nostalgic aspects to the Smiths and his comments about black music seemed blinkered, overall you felt like he was a progressive figure – and certainly a great original and a poet. You tended to give him the benefit of the doubt and think that a song like “Bengalis in Platforms” was an aberration, a misjudgment. Morrissey seemed to be the enemy of all kinds of bullying and to be on the side of the excluded, the persecuted, every minority or outcast group. But it is possible now to see that the nostalgic fixation on the English past that was always there has led him down a troubling path.  It’s very sad to see him supporting Brexit and the For Britain party and complaining about left-wingers. 

 Your book not only tries to explain male gender in rock music, but also it has a chapter (Flow motion“) about the „motherly“ oceanic side of rock music, citing the sound of Can as an archetype, a music in flux, where the male gender of the musicians is not in the foreground of the band’s outlook.  As you finished „The Sex Revolts“ in 1995, from a present perspective, are there any similarities in the electronic dancefloor way to produce with that of the non-macho mode of production of Can?     

There is definitely a relationship between some elements in the German kosmiche music like Can, or Manuel Gottsching’s late Seventies records and E2:E4 in particular, with the way that house music and others kind of electronic dance music works. Structurally, with the circular patterns, the pulsations and caressing textures, and also in terms of how it affects the listener: hypnotic trance, a feeling of being wombed or floating in a benign space like the ocean or the cosmos. There is a line you can trace from psychedelia, through German kosmiche, to ambient music, to people like the avant-disco producer Arthur Russell, through to outfits like Basic Channel / Chain Reaction, or the Gas records, or Seefeel. It’s a radically androgynous music.

 You also have a chapter on the then nascent scene of Riot Grrrls, „there’s a riot goin‘ on“. US-female Punkbands, who started with the promotion of feminist DiY as a raison d’etre. While some of the protagonists are still around, fe „Portlandia“ the tv show by Carrie Brownstein, is the movement of Riot Grrrls more than an early example of intersectional fragmentarisation of pop culture? From today why do you think it was different from earlier feminist punk artists like the Slits?

Riot Grrrl was very interesting as a cultural eruption, an explosion of zines and stances and provocations. As music, probably the more interesting stuff came later, with groups like Le Tigre and Sleater-Kinney (and the wonderful Portlandia could be considered an offshoot, in a way). For its immediate purposes of evangelizing and inciting young women, Riot Grrrl turned to the basic template of punk rock, for its directness and expressive power in terms of rage or defiance.  Riot Grrrl tended to subordinate music to message, whereas the postpunk figures like the Slits and the Raincoats were also trying to experiment with form. 

What I like about the introduction of your original version, you declare, you like the Stooges nevertheless. Meaning you work out their dark side, their problems, but you still like to get down to „I wanna be your dog“. In the light of #me too, this attitude has come under attack. There’s now a shame culture. If we have a review of Iggy’s new album „Free“, somebody will post a comment about him, having treated women in a bad way. What do you make out of that development?

A lot of the rockers – however inspiring or thrilling their music might be – got away with terrible stuff. Acknowledging the bad conduct – and the questionable or offensive or just out-dated attitudes in the lyrics – is possibly a way of keeping the other aspects of their music, that dynamic energy so that you can use it in your life, as a positive impetus. But maybe that’s too hard to do in many cases. With rock music or popular music generally, the music makes a direct, visceral appeal for the listener to commit to it totally; the artist or the song  wants the listener to go along with its energy absolutely. Trying to do that while also retaining your ambivalence or moral detachment from it  - that’s very difficult.   It’s easier just to reject the work or the artist completely.  And what do you do when the music itself is fueled by hostility or hatred?

It’s a tricky one  - there isn’t an easy answer, an easy solution, to this question of what do we do with great art made by bad people.  Or great art, that has some ugly or disturbing emotions or ideas in it. Each person has to make their own decision, about what they can make allowances for.  It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect artists to be perfect beings in their private conduct, or have ideas and values that are in line with what we currently think is valid or righteous. You have to historicise and contextualize to some degree. But when artists are discovered to have done genuinely reprehensible things, it’s understandable if someone decides “I can’t have this in my life”. You can feel that the work is stained permanently.

In recent years, documentaries, autobiographies by/about Wayne Kramer and Klaus Dinger, to name just two, were published. And basically, that can be said about many artists, what came to light were stories of being victims: In the case of Kramer he was abused by his stepfather, in the case of Dinger, he suffered a romantic love relationship with a woman from Sweden). It might be much too essential, too monothematical, to combine a broken family life, a scattered life story with the artistic outcome, in what way, psychoanalysises can help to explain those factors?

It can be illuminating, but it’s also reductive – it limits the meaning of a song or album or an artist for the listener. A classic example of this is what happened with Joy Division. At the time of the release of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Closer, almost nobody knew why Ian Curtis had killed himself. Only a few people around Factory Records knew about the marriage break up, the affair, the epilepsy and the depressive medication he was taking to deal with – the real-life factors that shaped the mood and the lyrics of those records and also his decision to end his life.  But since the publication of his widow’s memoir, and the two films 24 Hour Party People and Control, this life-story of Curtis’s struggles has become the meaning of the songs, fixing them to a biography and a set of problems. It illuminates the songs to some extent but it also confines them.

There are cases where an artist is very public about this kind of thing – as with John Lennon on his first solo album, doing songs like “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead” and “Working Class Hero”. But generally it can only ever be a speculative thing, trying to psychoanalyse an artist by their songs or even their public statements. And it does run the risk of being reductive. It’s better to psychoanalyse the song, ask what the song “wants” or “fears”.  That’s often what we’re trying to do with The Sex Revolts.

 Last question: Fascism is in full swing and it is also apparent in pop culture phenomenons like „Nazi Rap“ and the antisocial orchestration Angela Nagle writes about in „Kill all Normies“. Maybe fascism never fully disappeared, but, can you please explain examples of fascism in todays male gender that can be traced to that misogyne rock attitude from the 1970s?

It’s probably most detectable in the migration of “punk” as an attitude, from the cultural left to the far right, as traced by Angela Nagle in her book.  And some of the people already mentioned like Jim Goad (funnily enough “goad” in English mean to “poke” or “provoke” or “bait”) or Gavin McInnes are examples of how that punk impulse to trample on liberal pieties and desecrate sacred cows can so easily switch towards the reactionary.

Some of the figures involved in formulating punk as a sensibility, like Legs McNeil of Punk magazine, already went in for this liberal-baiting thing – deliberately using offensive words in order to trigger the righteous and right-on progressive. You had the side of punk (especially in the UK) that was earnestly left-wing and idealistic, aligned with things like Rock Against Racism. But there was another side that was cynical, nihilistic, anti-sentimental… and it’s easy to see how that sensibility could get captured by the right. Because it’s all about being callous, hard-hearted, not caring.

Not fascist, but certainly Social Darwinist and ruthlessly hyper-capitalistic, would be the value set of trap music.  When Cardi B says “I'm a boss /You a worker, bitch” or Rae Sremmurd, early in their career, do a song like 2015’s “Up With Trump” (complete with a video in which someone wearing a Donald mask parties with them), you can see an identification with the ruling class – a desire to be an overlord, not an underdog; an intention to join the few and leave behind the many (an inversion of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party slogan ‘for the many, not the few’, itself derived from the poet Shelley).  To be fair to Cardi B, she has campaigned in various anti-Trump causes. But even after he became President, Rae Sremmurd still cited Trump as a model because he represents “owning businesses, being bossed up”.

Yet trap is irresistible as music, so what do you? It’s the same dilemma as with the Rolling Stones and The Stooges. It’s also potent African-American expression with a prominent place in mass culture, so you have to see something valuable there. Perhaps we can take trap as a diagram of capitalist desire while also dancing to it. 

Friday, June 11, 2021

The A to Z of the Eighties - A Definitive Guide to the Decade (SR contributions only) - Melody Maker, December 23-30, 1989

This was great fun to do but arduous - as a staff writer, you had to do your Herculean bit for these big package features -  there's about 40 or so micro-essays from me here, super-distilled little takes on phenomena, figures, fads of the '80s - some of my favoritest scenes and sounds, and some of my least favoritest scenes and sounds. 

I'm not sure if any research as such was done - where could you go to do it in those days? There was no internet, there might have been some old magazines lying round the house, but no reference works on the '80s as such. So it mostly was all pulled from my memory, sharper then, and dealing with quite recent stuff - but still,  no doubt some errors crept in there on the factual front.  

Talking of errors - as they're non-bylined, and this is over thirty years ago, I'm like 97% certain these are all by me, but apologies if I've accidentally trawled in something by Stubbsy or the Studs. 

Of course other writers got to do things I would have liked to cover, so it's not a total Zeitgeist-scan according to Moi, but .... not that far off, actually.  

It's how I saw things precisely then - the winter of '89 - and  not always necessarily how I see them today, or indeed how I saw them within a year or two of writing.


Tuesday, June 8, 2021

all praise Vibert

or rather, all of my praise (pretty much) 


Tally Ho!


Spin 1998

In America, Luke Vibert is best known for the topsy-turvy tomfoolery of his hyperkinetic drum'n'bass alter ego Plug. But back in '95, operating as Wagon Christ, he createdThrobbing Pouch, an album that easily rivals DJ Shadow's Endtroducing  as a masterpiece of emotive, downtempo sampladelia. Tracks  such as "Scrapes" and "Phase Everyday" were labyrinthine mood-mosaics, enchanted audiomazes whose honeycomb chambers and chinese-whispery corridors teemed with scrofulous detail.

If Tally Ho! isn't quite the equal of Pouch  (on the right day, my favorite electronic long-player of the '90s), its first half displays Vibert's abilities in full, earboggling effect: his voluptuously textured

and intricately multi-tiered beats, his alchemist's flair for morphing cheesy sample-sources into bittersweet gold.  "Fly Swat" weaves  what was once probably sub-Mantovani hackwork--piano trills and easy-listening strings-- into a tremulous tapestry of fleeting poignancy. On "Crazy Disco Party,"  reverbed breakbeats sound simultaneously crisp and hazy, and snatches of vocal are fed through the digital mangler until they resemble a virtuoso performance on some yet-to-be-invented stringed instrument of the 23rd Century, or the burbling babytalk babble of a creche on an alien planet.  As the title suggests, the net effect is like the final few headspinning minutes before passing out on the dancefloor under a disco glitterball.

It's the next three tracks, though, that really show off Vibert's unusual-in-electronica talent for tugging on the heartstrings.  With its swoony cascades of tingly keyboard notes and shimmervescent production, "Tally Ho!" sounds like Prefab Sprout gone drum'n'bass, then the track goes absolutely bonkers with a wheezing and sputtering jack-in-the-box bedlam of Hanna-Barbera jungle. "Memory Towel"'s perfumed fog of exotica manages to give that over-used sample--Malcolm McLaren's echo-chamber ululation at the start of "Buffalo Gals"--an alien gravitas, closer to muezzin prayer wail than doh-si-doh. And "Shimmering Haze" is a rhapsody in sky blue: a succulent squelch-synth motif, blossom-petal billows of flute, and a bassline as tender as the most forgiving dub reggae, mesh sublimely, instilling the kind of beatific calm that comes with counting your blessings.

Although the rest of Tally Ho!  contains plenty of tantalising textures, cunning beats and sonic sleights, it  sometimes crosses the thin line between  lightheaded and lighthearted, levitation and mere levity. Like his weirdy-beardy geektronica buddies Aphex Twin, Muziq, and Squarepusher, Vibert has a weakness for wackiness, exemplified here by sniggering song titles like "My Organ In Your Face" and the puerile porno ad skit "Juicy Luke Vibert". Occasionally, the quirked-out sonic antics suggest jazz jester Spike Jones retooled as one-man-and-his-machines rather than big band leader. But overall Tally Ho!  constitutes one of 1998's most potent arguments contra the tired notion that electronic music is intrinsically cold and emotionless. At his sentimental  and melodic best, Luke Vibert is simply one of the top song writers around, it's just that he's serenading us with beats and samples rather than his vocal chords.


Melody Maker, 1996 

     Cornwall born-and-bred and buddy of the Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert emerged in '95 as a major purveyor of barely classifiable, semi-danceable weird-shit.  After the glacial ambience of his Wagon Christ 1994 debut "Phat Lab Nightmare", Vibert veered off into cheesy-but-deranged trip hop with "Throbbing Pouch" and its attendant EP's "Rissalecki" and "Redone".  Better still are Vibert's mindboggling peculiar forays into drum & bass as Plug.  The two Plug EP's so far--"Visible Crater Funk" and "Rebuilt Kev"--take breakbeat-science and bass-mutation to levels of grotesque convolution rivalled only by artcore maestros like Droppin' Science. Warning: your limbs will get tied in knots if you're fool enough to dance. Needless to say, the reaction from the junglist community has been muted, to put it mildly.

    "One of my mates did try to play a Plug track in a club," says the well-spoken 22 year old Vibert. "He got into a huge row, this guy kept saying 'this ain't jungle'.  I think the guy was right, actually!"

     In Wagon Christ, Plug, and his numerous remixes, Vibert has an alchemist's approach to sampling. It's all about "getting good sounds out of absolute shit. I listen to piles of cheesy records. For some reason I tend to only sample stuff I don't like! One friend thought 'A Polished Solid', my EP on Mo Wax, was about that: me polishing up a turd!  Actually I got the title from a ripped up packet of Rizlas.  There was an offer for 'a polished solid brass lighter', but the only words left were 'a polished solid'."

     Wacky titles are one of the many charms of Vibert's output, from the saucy "Throbbing Pouch" to the daftly-monikered Plug EP's. "Visible Crater Funk", "Rebuilt Kev" and the forthcoming "Versatile Crib Funk"  are all anagrams of 'Luke Francis Vibert'.  "I'm running out of variations now," laments Luke. "There's some really rude ones, like Fuck Arse Brain, but nothing nice!"

     Vibert's ability to ooze his way through the barriers between genres is a prime example of the 'perimeter' theory of: an omni-genre where tekno, ambient, trip hop, jungle etc are all being jumbled up. Not being tied to a particular scene or community = freedom to drift.

     "All the people I know make music in their bedrooms, and it's more personal 'cos you're not thinking about clubs. When I go to a studio, at Rising High or Mo' Wax, I see people working with the specific intention to make people dance. But working in your bedroom, it's more like art."

     Out there on the perimeter, they're all stoned immaculate. Vibert once told an interviewer that drugs were his greatest influence: "they're my best mate, they changed the way I heard everything".

     "Actually, I said 'hash is my best mate'!", says Luke.  "That's not true anymore, but originally it did open my mind to different sorts of music. Cos I was a bit narrow-minded.  Smoking went hand in hand with getting into dub and funk".

     Dope is one reason Vibert's work is so disorientating.  Another is the queasy fluctuation of pitch he often employs, making the Wagon Christ stuff sound like a cross between Schoenberg and jazz-funk. Luke explains that there's a feature on his sampler that allows him to modulate pitch and explore fractions of a tone. This 'microtonality' is shared by lots of avant-garde composers and non-Western musics (e.g.  Indian ragas), which sound weird to our ears because they break with the clear pitch intervals that govern Western classical and pop alike.  Hip hop often has that dissonant quality too, because, Luke explains, "when you put samples together, they're usually not going to be in tune.  If you get them synched up time-wise, they're almost always off-key.  And that's a wicked effect--the samples sort of gnaw at each other!".


Visible Crater Funk


Rebuilt Kev

(both Rising High, import--no catalogue numbers!)

Alternative Press, 1996

    Nobody's s'posed to know, but Plug is Wagon Christ's Luke Vibert in junglistic mode. This pair of EP's confirms an emergent trend wherein the most daring drum & bass forays are being mounted by figures outside the jungle milieu, e.g. Boymerang (Bark Psychosis' Graham Sutton), Link (Reload/Global Communications), Mouse On Mars. "Visible Crater Funk" consists of the most grotesquely contorted and convoluted polyrhythms this side of art-core maestros Dillinja and Droppin' Science.  Over four untitled tracks, Plug 1's tumblin' breaks and w-w-w-wobbly bass make for a groove-science so topsy-turvy and torsion-inducing that your limbs will be tied in knots if you're fool enough to dance.

On Plug 2, "Military Jazz", "Pitch Bender" and "Cheesy" are tinged with the mellow fusion-flava of Wagon Christ's "Throbbing Pouch", but the breaks and B-lines skid and tremble underfoot as treacherously as the fiercest ragga-jungle.  Luke Vibert: jack of all trades, master of.... every last one of 'em!


Village Voice, 1999 i think

Acolytes acronym it IDM, short for Intelligent Dance Music---a contentious term for electronica that refuses the dancefloor's frenzy in favor of stay-at-home contemplation. Weird, then, to see the IDM massive at the Bowery Ballroom collectively shaking booty to their dream-team double bill of Mike 'μ-Ziq' Paradinas and Luke 'Wagon Christ/Plug' Vibert.

It's a so-where-now? kind of moment for IDM's first wave. With Mike and Luke's mutual friends Richard James and Squarepusher missing in action, the genre's sole contender for "that next shit" is "glitch"--snap-crackle-popping noisescapes assembled from digital distortion. Taking the scene's anti-pop impulse to its logical extension, glitch dispenses not just with the groove but with melody too. And melody--chipper, wistful, glum--has always been IDM's saving grace, what seduced the Smog and GBV fans.  Luke Vibert doesn't seem too worried about IDM's impasse, though. Trading shy smiles with his new jam buddy B. J. Cole, toking on a long spliff and sporting a beard resinous enough to keep Cypress Hill happy for a weekend, Luke looks quite the mellow muso. Stop The Panic, the first fruit of their partnership, initially feels a bit diffuse, but rapidly reveals itself to be "different and holding" (copyright: NYT's movies-on-TV reviewer), achieving a mood of sacred whimsy not far behind Wagon Christ's sublime Throbbing Pouch. Live, it's even more enchanting. Alternately recalling KingSunny Ade and an Hawaian Jerry Garcia, Cole's plays his steel guitar like he's embroidering with light, deftly weaving its lustrous filigree through Vibert's it's-as-if-ambient-jungle-never-died breakbeats.  

Like IDM itself, Mike Paradinas's gift and curse is melody. Unlike laidback Luke, though, he's reacted violently against the prettiness of his own back catalogue. Tonight there's a few excursions into densely orchestrated synth-symphonics, but mostly Mr. μ-Ziq rampages thrillingly across the spectrum of hardcore barbarianism: acrid Ram Trilogy-style drum'n'bass, mash-ups of 1992-style rave and turntablism (slightly disconcerting to hear with no decks onstage), even 250 bpm gabber blitzkriegs. The crowd goes apeshit, goaded by Paradinas's exhortations "tear up tha club, thugz!". If it's a suspiciously well-made insanity, a marauding monster of sound without a hair or hi-hat out of place, well, you can hardly expect a doyen of IDM to fully jettison his head.