Wednesday, February 27, 2013

TALES OF TOOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS: an intellectual profile of David Toop
director's cut version, The Wire, March 2012

by Simon Reynolds

The names Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari barely feature in David Toop’s writing, and then only late in the day (a few mentions in 2004’s Haunted Weather). But in many ways the philosopher duo’s concepts and coinages—deterritorialisation, “lines of flight”, nomadology, the rhizome—are the perfect way into Toop’s remarkable body of thought, as manifested across several decades of music-making, music criticism, and music-curation.  D&G and DT are shaped by the multiple, interrelated radicalisms of the Sixties, from the anti-psychiatry movement to psychedelia (music figures prominently in D&G’s A Thousand Plateaus), from anarchism and androgyny to Eastern philosophy and mysticism.  What you could term the “cultural libido” of these three men is very close: they’re turned on by the same things.

Flux and mutability are the utopian keywords of a materialist-idealism wherein forms, structures, genres,  emotional/psychological rigidities, all dissolve in the flows of desire, energy and sensation. The non-fascist life, D&G propose, involves a perpetual unmaking of the mind and softening of the character-armour. Territorialisation, which in music equates with what Toop deplores as “taste tribalism” (purism, genre-patriotism, etc) is war psychology: fortified, locked into defensive-aggressive modes.

Exoticism is a strategy of deterritorialising, a line of flight outside the familiar life-world into otherness.  As part of The Wire’s Adventures in Sound and Musicseries, Toop talked recently on Resonance FM about his lifelong fascination for “a kind of distant music” in terms of deconditioning: a 1960s buzz concept put into practice by figures such as R.D. Laing and David Cooper (both involved, like Guattari, in the anti-psychiatry movement). In Toop’s case, it’s aesthetics and taste that undergo a willed dismantling.  Similar impulses impelled the trans-disciplinary work Toop tried to explore at art college in the 1960s: “multi media, projections and sound– radically adapting existing instruments or inventing new ones – rather than stay[ing] within limits of what’s available”.

In parallel with the instrument-building that informed his 1974 booklet  New/Rediscovered Musical Instruments and debut album of the same name, Toop made several radio programs in the early Seventies for the BBC series Crossthreads. These were woven out of field recordings--Korean Confucuian music, aboriginal Australian mortuary ceremonies, Inuit eskimo vocal games—presented without contextualization or indeed any voice-over commentary whatsoever bar a few enigmatic sentences.   Granted access to the BBC’s archives (“to me it was paradise”),  Toop spirited the 10 inch discs home and taped them for private delectation.   This personal collection of fabulously esoteric exotica became a “wellspring”, something he’d return to whenever his capacity for musical awe dried up.   

Xenomania was not uncommon among that breed of hungry Seventies souls who would become post-punk prime movers.  Blixa Bargeld trawled the “Obscurities Departments” of Berlin record shops;  This Heat listened to Nonesuch Explorer LPs of Balinese gamelan;
No Wavers Arto Lindsay and Mark Cunningham tripped out to tribal trance music from Africa.  

Toop went further, though, starting his own label Quartz in 1977 and releasing LPs of sacred flute music from New Guinea . He went literally further, journeying to the Venezuelan Amazonian jungle to record the Yanomami tribe’s  shamanic rituals.  This too was released on Quartz alongside improvisation LPs made by outfits in which Toop played. One of these albums, Whirled Music punned on what was then just an arcane term in ethnomusicology circles, not the record industry marketing buzzword it became in the Eighties.

Toop and Whirled collaborators like Steve Beresford and Paul Burwell were key catalysts in the 1975 formation of London Musicians Collective and its magazine Musics.  The plural discreetly announces a guiding ethic of deterritorialism:  totalizing conceptions of “what music is, what it’s for” are rejected in favour of discrete practices and histories.   LMC founded itself on the principle of non-exclusion: its meetings were open to all, and accordingly rather fractious affairs. The same applied to Musics, a “squabblezine” full of angry correspondence from readers,  “open letters” from the writers to critics at other publications, and ideological  disputes within the editorial team that were ventilated publicly.  

The Deleuzo-Guattarian concept of rhizomatic (derived from rhizomes, laterally connected plants like ferns and bamboo) fits the LMC milieu’s endlessly shifting line-ups and temporary alliances.  Interviewed in Melody Maker as a member of Flying Lizards, Toop celebrated “the flexibility and unpredictability of improvisation” over “the hierarchical writing set-ups and the eternal marriages of groups." When I spoke to him for Rip It Up and Start Again, Toop pinpointed the influence of R.D. Laing’s critique of the nuclear family as an emotional hothouse breeding neurosis and mental illness. “The whole idea of the band as a family had to be destroyed.”   Once again this paralleled Deleuze & Guattari’s anti-Oedipal politics and opposition to “arborescent” hierarchies (top-down, tree-like command structures like the state, patriarchy, the super-ego).  All this in turn intersected with hot Sixties concepts like polymorphous perversity and play-power.

As a player, Toop was certainly putting it about a bit in those days. Along with Flying Lizards, he participated in a plethora of duos and ensembles drawn from the LMC pool, including Rain in the Face, 49 Americans, General Strike, and Alterations. For the latter, he contributed sounds generated using animal decoys, fire buckets, water, various flutes, whistles, plucked and bowed strings, music box, as well as electric guitar and bass. Some kind of pinnacle was Circadian Rhythms, an octet convened for a single July 1978 performance that lasted  thirteen hours, with Toop’s unusual sound-palette for once out-done by Annabel Nicolson’s charcoal, sparks, branches, twigs, fire, pine needles, draughts, and smoke. The concert was originally intended to run for an entire day but ran into what Toop described as “a wall of exhaustion and an overwhelming feeling that there was nothing more to add... There were too many distractions and too many players."

The always-schismatic Musics fell apart a few years later, and not long after Toop quit the LMC, where he’d fallen into the de facto and unenviable role of organizer. “That’s the trouble with collectivism, it’s too exhausting”, he told me.  During the Eighties, “sick of playing in bands, sick of playing with human beings,” he embraced the solitary empowerment of music technology.  However the LMC’s all-gates-open ethos did reflower in evolved form with the magazine Collusion, an unofficial successor to Musics, co-founded by Toop, his then- girlfriend Sue Stewart,  Peter Cusack, and Steve Beresford. The latter described the editorial philosophy to me as “trying to make more connections” and treating “the music we were involved in” (i.e. improv-meets-postpunk DIY) as just “another relevant genre” among many others, which included everything from Bollywood soundtracks and tango to Western Swing and calypso.  

Celebrated by Richard Cook at the time as “a magazine of connections and interzones”, Collusion’s post-everything eclecticism anticipated the omnivorousness of  our bloggy present.  What’s really prophetic about the magazine isn’t just its globe-roaming diversity but the way it unshackled itself from release schedules and embraced the emergent “atemporality” of music fandom enabled by the rise of reissue labels and the discographical efforts of specialists.  Toop himself talks of a “Mojo-like aspect” to Collusion.  Contemporary sounds are present, as with the Steven Harvey’s celebrated survey of New York’s post-disco underground. But most of the content concerned the past. Unlike Mojo, the magazine’s retrospective gaze isn’t confined to rock history, though. Indeed, rock barely features at all in Collusion’s six issues, apart from an article on heavy metal that treats the scene ethnographically: just another (sub)culture with rituals to decode. 

Many of Toop’s later preoccupations  are already present:  a piece on Les Baxter-style exotica, another featuring the phrase “the mediumship of the listener” that 25 years later resurfaces as  the subtitle of Sinister Resonance. After Collusion’s demise, Toop continued this after-rock pluralism as a working journalist, notably in a monthly column for The Face: most forms of black pop, Eighties club sounds, and world-y sounds were covered, but electric guitar music, whether marginal or mainstream, was cold-shouldered.

Toop’s first proper book was The Rap Attack (1985), a richly researched but relatively straightforward hip hop history. Ocean of Sound, published ten years later, implements deterritorialisation at the level of the text itself.  As he wrote for more magazines and newspapers,  Toop found himself increasingly constrained by the strictures of mainstream journalism: clear argument, intro/conclusion, and so forth.  As Ocean of Sound was to be a meditation on music’s “alternately disorientating and inspiring openness”, the  first thing to do, he recalled later, “was to abandon linear chronology, that boring and false sense of logical progression through which one development follows its precursor as if culture was designed in advance by an art historian.” In its place, a musicated writing (leitmotifs, samples) and “making connection sideways”: a  rhizomatization of the text, in other words.  Ocean of Sound doesn't proceed by argument but by through filaments of observations, anecdotes, quotations and insights.  Inferences and implications spread out in ever-widening ripples. Even individual sentences often unfurl as a chain of supplementary clauses (freefloating ideas, imagistic metaphors) that gradually recede into the horizon.  

“It’s a way I have that expresses the way my mind works,” is how Toop described it. “Constantly branching off in different directions”. That image suggests dendrites in the brain and dream logic, but it also anticipates the hyperlinks of the net, whose criss-crossing lines defy the limits of space and time. What had been realized at Collusion at the level of editorial policy (genre pluralism, atemporality, the global village) now inhabits the individual writer’s style of thought.   
There is a proto-blog aspect to Ocean of Sound.  Alan Kirby argues that digiculture involves a distinctive form of textuality characterized by “onwardness and endlessness”. The blog format encourages meander and fragmentary comment; inconclusive arguments resumed or revised in subsequent posts; the stringing together of barely-related thoughts and observations, illustrated by audio or video.  And Toop has talked of consciously aiming with Ocean and subsequent books for a “hypertextual approach” that makes “overlay and displacement into a coherent, compelling (non) narrative.”

If the methodology seems ahead of its time, so are many of Ocean’s insights, such as the thought (more leitmotif than thesis) that “music—fluid, quick... outreaching... immersive and intangible...  has anticipated the aether talk of the information ocean”.  Rereading recently the written-in-1994 observation that “music floats around in the aether of the WorldWide Web, waiting to be downloaded, hoping to talk to somebody”, I did a double-take: mildly surprised that sound-files were getting shared so early, but really startled by the understated pathos of “hoping to talk to somebody”. It seemed a prophetic intimation of the isolation and anomie that the Internet purportedly eradicates yet really and merely rearranges.  

A year after publication, Ocean of Sound became a compilation as well as a book. The selection mirrored the time-and-space vaulting logic of the text, sliding from King Tubby to Herbie Hancock,  the Vancouver Soundscape to Howler Monkeys, the tracks mixed without gaps, so that their outer edges brushed. Although individuals had privately compiled crazily eclectic mix-tapes, as far as  know this is the first compilation of its kind to be commercially released.  

Other Toop-curated collections for Virgin followed: some (Crooning on Venus, Guitars On Mars) more deterritorialized than others (Booming on Pluto tracked the electro diaspora, Sugar and Poison celebrated R&B slow jams as psychedelic erotica). There was a wild moment at Virgin in the mid-Nineties, when a sector of the company, overseen by Simon Hopkins, flashbacked to the label’s pre-punk spirit of experimental eccentricity (Faust, Gong, Lol Coxhill, et al). Alongside Toop’s Ocean of Sound series were equally all-over-the-map surveys by Kevin Martin of “isolationism”, “electric jazz” and dub’s viral influence, plus single-artist CDs from Paul Schutze, Techno Animal, and DT himself.

Spirit World, one of Toop’s two Virgin albums, betrayed some contemporary influence from drum-and-bass but sounded like jungle made by someone who’d actually been inside one, absorbing sense-impressions of its perpetual roil of growth and decomposition.  Spirit World and its predecessor Pink Noir previewed the preoccupations of Exotica, the sort-of-follow-up to Ocean of Sound.  Deterritorialisation of the text is taken even further here: fact and fiction, memoir and fantasy, coexist and blur, with sections that vaguely recall Conrad and Ballard and a hilarious dialogue with canine movie-star Lassie about recordings of animal-and-bird sounds.

Lassie alludes wryly and slyly to the notion of “the armchair traveler”. What emerges as a subtext of Exotica is the idea of the collection--a public or private archive of recordings, texts, images—as a decontextualisation machine.   When a collection achieves a certain density and duration, the proximity of things of far-flung provenance allows for the remapping of cultural fields: strange connections cutting across time and space and genre become almost unavoidable. Ownership and location of cultural forms gets displaced from its proper setting. The Internet-- a vast collective collection, a non-space of absolute proximity between everything-- is just the nth-degree fruition of tendencies inherent to the archive.

As the subtitle Fabricated Soundscapes in A Real World hints, exotica involves misrecognition and falsification:  Les Baxter’s layering of “layered dislocated fantasy on dislocated fantasy”, the cosmopolitan confections of   Hosono, Sakomoto, Van Dyke Parks.  The book points also to a deeper impossibility at the heart of the exoticising impulse.  “Exotic” is not an intrinsic property of the object but entirely relational.  In its native context, the Northern Dahomey funeral ceremony played by Toop on Resonance FM last year is not alien or disorienting; it is homely, music tethered to a socially cohesive occasion,  and a coherent cosmology. In its original setting, it’s probably as conservative as an Anglican church service. The very musical attributes whose embrace makes us brave, exploratory, risk-taking, for its proper audience signify  obedience and conformism. My favourite example of this paradox is Ofra Haza, briefly almost-famous in the West after being sampled by Coldcut on their remix of Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid In Full”. But Haza turned out to be an MOR superstar in her native Yemen, the equivalent of Barbara Streisand. 

There’s another paradox to “rootless cosmopolitanism”: its dependence on cultural forms that evolved over a long period in rooted, inwardly-focused cultures.  Like marsupials in Australia, the more cut-off the culture, the more alien is the music. Case in point: the Yanomami, who had barely experienced any  contact with the outside world when Toop recorded them in the Seventies  But the syndrome can be seen in popular music too, from hip hop’s emergence from the South Bronx (which Toop attributed partly to “the ghettoisation that took place in American cities.... that lack of mixing and fluidity”) to the relative insularity of Chicago’s footwork scene. Within the bourgeois-bohemians context of art-pop, “taste tribalism” is considered regressive; curiosity and the open-mind are virtues. But tribes, ethnological or subcultural, are not cosmopolitan: from food to music, they are governed by a defined and inflexible set of attractions and aversions.  Closure is strength, and exposure to the outside (anthropological, economic, media) is generally cataclysmic.


“At home he feels like a tourist/He fills his head with culture/He gives himself an ulcer”—Gang of Four, 1979

One rationale for this piece is that musically-speaking, it’s a Toop-y time. What I’ve taken to calling the Zones of Alteration (after the blog Altered Zones, RIP) is a post-geographical network of artists who make porous the membranes between genres. Oceanic and cosmic imagery abounds in the Zones, both echoing and extending the aspirations of earlier phases in which Toop was active:  ambient and space music in the 70s, post-rave  electronica in the 90s.  Exotica as a concept is prevalent and relevant like it’s not been since the mid-90s:   a blog-world cult for vintage ethnological recordings and environmental soundscapes is matched by releases from new artists with titles like Cambodian Field Recordings or Pacific Fog Dreams.  One of my favourite denizens of the Zones, Dolphins Into The Future, a/k/a Lieven Martens, makes fictitious field recordings and litters his work with references to cetaceans and Polynesia.  He cites Ocean of Sound as a major influence. Exotica shows us how the various exoticisms (Orientalism, Pacific-ism, Africa-as-heart-of-darkness-ism) were the other side of imperialism, a response to the “glut of new stimuli” (spices, fabrics, curiosities, et al) pouring into the colonial homelands.  Equally it’s clear that today’s xenomania is entwined with globalization and the distance-abolishing effects of the Internet.

In truth, though, the idea for this essay came to me in a flash, as a fully-formed sentence: We Are All David Toop Now. Unpacked, what that slogan says is that any kid with a broadband connection can access the sort of of dizzying diversity of listening experience that took Toop a lifetime of obsessive dedication to accumulate. One drawback of reading Ocean of Sound and Exotica when they originally came out in the Nineties was the discographies at the back: how on earth to get hold of all this often out-of- print esoterica?  Today almost of it is online, as blog-shared albums, or excerpted on YouTube.

The nagging question that followed the initial thought-flash was whether all this knowledge and “experience” has anything like the same value when it’s achieved effortlessly. On Resonance FM, playing the precious ethno-treasure he taped from the BBC archive or hunted down in record shops, Toop recalled those Seventies days  when he spent so much time writing to people in distant leads beseeching them to send him LPs.  At the extreme his hunger for “unknown worlds”  took him to the Amazon.  Few of us would ever go that (literally) far. But when “discovery” is completely divorced from a sense of quest, isn’t it depleted of much of its libidinal energy? 

There’s another drawback to the Internet as portal to myriad elsewheres and elsewhens. Because analogue-world collecting involved physical exertion and travel, distance and delay structured music-consumption according to a rhythm of hunt and capture, ingestion and digestion.  Those vital gaps are insidiously filled in by the Internet, whose  always-there plenitude incites restlessness, the audio equivalent of checklist tourism.   Before file-sharing, the only people who experienced this kind of frenetic overload (of choice and sheer volume) were the rich and those who got sent shitloads of freebies, i.e. critics and deejays. Now this unearned “wealth” has become the generalized condition of music fandom.  Toop, in his work, has wisdom to offer concerning this predicament.

After several years penning a monthly column for The Wire, in December 1997 Toop handed in “a letter of public resignation”: the culmination of a mounting “indifference to contemporary music” and the fatiguing chore of finding things to say about it. Only old Takemitsu soundtracks and memory-rush ambushes (hearing the O-Jays in Pizza Express) provided solace during this chronic state of sonic anhedonia. “I’m outta here, if not forever, then for a long lie down in a metaphorical dark room lacking in music transmission technology.” 1997 seemed like a pretty exciting time to me, musically, in the pop mainstream as much as the margins, so at the time I was puzzled by the column. Yet I recognised from my own experience the  occupational hazards of the critic obliged to process too much “pretty good” music in too short a time.  Rereading it recently, I was struck by its courage and candor, coming from someone who made much of their living writing about music.

The crisis seems to have lasted a while: in an Invisible Jukebox from March 2003, Toop discussed the attraction of Japanese musical minimalism as a reprieve from  an “overload of information”.  “A  lot of people feel there’s too much stuff out there, too much music.... I feel it myself, I love silence, but music as a whole I don’t like anymore....  I don’t like listening to it on the radio, seeing music on television. I don’t like having it on in the house...  That love of music as a generalized experience, I’ve come to the end of that.” A few years later, recalling the dry spell, he talked about how “it became a real problem for me. I wondered how I was going to carry on writing about music. Now I’m much more ruthless. I don’t listen to anything unless it’s really good.” But then how do you determine what’s “really good” without checking out lots of contenders? Every first-time play competes with something else’s second or third listen. Two aquatic metaphors go to war here: surfing versus immersion.

Overall, the ocean as a resource of utopian metaphor is looking kinda tarnished these days, from over-fishing desertifying the seas to the Pacific Trash Vortex, that gyre of plastic litter.  The ocean even suffers from noise pollution: gas drilling, cable-laying, freighter propellers, and military tests have turned it into a deafening nightclub, in which sea mammals are unable to communicate and their equilibrium is shattered.  If the ocean-of-sound prefigured the ocean-of-data, it’s hard not to see parallels with the Internet: not the clean, smoothly functioning expanse for communication that the obsolete term “cyberspace” once evoked but a crowded, cluttered “junkspace” (Rem Koolhaas), a place where we didn’t transcend ourselves but inevitably brought along all our petty crap. 

Haunted Weather, the third volume in a loose trilogy that started with Ocean of Sound, seems like it’s anticipating the hauntology discourse of recent years.  Actually, this 2004 book surveys of an array of sound art and environmental music practices, at time resembling the travelogue of Toop and his peers on a global circuit of festivals and exhibitions.  The title has a discernibly ominous tinge, though, mirrored in the text by  flickers of anxiety about digital technology’s dematerialization and disembodiment of sound and an overall sense of  overload: “how to maintain poise in a world gone crazy with... informational delirium”, “the hysterical onslaught of information, mediation and consumerism”, “data pipes spurting  information of massively variable content [in]  unprecedented, oceanic volumes...”.  Aqua-utopian imagery shifts decisively to the darkside, and the source of the switch is traceable to that late Nineties moment when flood-became-drought: “In the past, trying to listen to everything has almost destroyed my desire to listen to anything.”  Cultivating a Japanese dry garden at the back of his London house becomes a form of therapy, its seclusion and focus returning him to analogue time and earthy materiality.  The sounds of birds passing through help Toop find ““a way back into music after a period in which my feelings about sound seemed to be deadened.”

Although Haunted Weather is generally optimistic about laptoptronica sour notes are sounded concering  digi-tech too. “I love this aspect of digital composition,” Toop writes in reference to the myriad options that empower the solo artist. “And at the same time regret it.” Digital audio workstations “can take away the space, or the air, from music production”.  During one compositional process, he impulsively throws open the window to “let a random chunk of the world outside” into the work.  Reflecting on the illusory wealth of having at his disposal “six different computer software programs” and numerous plug-ins, Toop echoes Brian Eno and Holger Czukay when he argues that “omission is a virtue. Without limitations there is only confusion, vulgarity, the loss of meaning. I can’t truly live by it but I bear it in mind.”’

By 2010’s Sinister Resonance, there’s a shift towards a wholly negative conception of sound as uncanny and threatening: no longer protean but formless, not so much wombing as “enveloping, intrusive”. What’s striking about the book is the near-complete avoidance of music in favour of representations of listening in literature and painting.  The sonic affect previously provided by music can seemingly now only be achieved through other art forms, and as a negative intensity: the inverted-bliss of the disturbing noise, the pregnant silence. In interviews, Toop spoke of sound in terms of  “uncertainty” and ambiguity of location, “extreme psychic states,” “dread and fear”. He recalled primordial experiences with sound as a small child, imagining hearing intruders in the house or in his room.  Xenophilia flips into xenophobia, fear of the stranger. The exotic (in Greek, literally “from the outside”) becomes invasive. 

“I wanted to state another case for sound, to move the discourse slightly away from utopian conceptions,” Toop declared in one interview. Certainly we’re long way from the Nineties, when flows-of-sound and flows-of-data were celebrated by such as Sadie Plant and DJ Spooky in an libidinized jargon of  mutation and motility that derived largely from Deleuze & Guattari.  Others favored metaphors derived not from fluid mechanics but virology.  Kevin Martin, a/k/a The Bug, titled his Virgin compilations Macro Dub Infection. This exaltation of the virus in certain circles (see also the Plant-associated CCRU) always amused me:  I’d wonder if these folk modified their views when they came down with stinking colds or lost a hard drive’s contents.  Viruses, biological and computing alike, are nothing if not deterritorialising agents. But then as the critic Judith Williamson points out, many “flows” are “deeply pernicious”: the flightiness of capital in a globally integrated market, traffic in narcotics and weapons, the spread of diseases and non-indigenous species. Like a strong immune system, boundaries and border patrols can be necessary protections.

So many debates, in politics, economic, and culture, revolve around the ambivalent status of “flow” / “flux” / “flexibility”. In the 90s, a decade that echoed the 60s, we viewed these qualities and tendencies as inherently progressive.  Eno, in a 1992 magazine essay on perfume quoted in Ocean of Sound, celebrated our “increasingly un-centered, un-moored” lives, in which values were provisional, subject to constant revision.  The sociologist-philosopher Zygmunt Bauman calls this “liquid modernity”, a postmodern/post-Internet update of Marx’s “all that’s solid melts into air”.  As social norms weaken, as migration for work becomes more common, as individuals adjust to the possibility of mid-life career changes, existence takes on an ad hoc quality. Character itself becomes fluid. Bauman sees the possibilities as well as downsides of this existential instability. But in recent years, academia has been rife with buzzwords like “precarity”.  “Flexibility” has increasingly negative connotations, suggestive of the “flexible work patterns” imposed on a labour force vulnerable to outsourcing and the alarming fluctuations of global capitalism.  It also  suggests management consultancy speak: the ideological slipperiness of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has been traced by some to his profession, which entailed an endless chameleonic adjustment to his clients’s needs, a perpetual modification of thinking “in a world that’s constantly changing.”

Perhaps the very idea of change itself has lost its utopian lustre. “The versatility of the space of flows” could describe the anarcho-utopian procedures of the 1970s LMC, or the electronic milieu of the 90s with its remixological back-and-forth. But it’s actually Manuel Castells’s description of the lightning-fast movements of capital within the “informational city” that connects the world’s financial districts.  In “solid modernity” (the era of Fordism and strong unions),  stability and permanence were seen as obstructing the free-flow of energy and desire. But in postmodernity’s  liquid flux, the solid, and its close conceptual cousin solidarity, start to seem like essential bulwarks, a vital “drag” on the mercurial tendencies of hyper-capitalism.  This applies at the level of the state, the family (children flourish in conditions of structure and routine), and the individual psyche.  It’s possible that in the near-future, as we’re buffeted hither-and-thither by data and fashion, psychological characteristics such as rigour and rigidity will lose their pejorative connotation.  The ability to make your mind up, to not see all the sides of everything, might become prized like it was in the olden days.  Certainly it’s true that any long-term collective project requires a degree of territorialisation: in gardens where we feel secure, things come to fruition. 

Although a fellow-traveler with the Nineties technotopians, Toop has always been attuned to ambivalence and reversibility.  In Ocean of Sound, he writes about a "sensation of non-specific dread that many people now feel when they think about life, the world, the future", but argues this is the other side of the coin to “a sensation of non-specific bliss.” In one of his most recent writings, he achieves a perfect poise of neutrality. It’s the foreword for Jean-Yves Leloup’s Digital Magma, a book that offers a Toopian reading of electronic dance culture in terms of “flux and network.”. Right there in the title there’s a geological pun that implicitly contrasts the molten flows of digital music with the solidity and stasis of rock.  But think about it: magma is uninhabitable, you can’t build anything on it, its liquidity liquidates all it touches.

In his foreword, Toop presents the effects of electricity on music in the 20th and 21st Centuries as an alternating current flipping back and forth between liberation and control.  Energy, flowing from fossil fuels or hydroelectric dams, passes through cables and airwaves and wirelessly into the info-sphere;  the current and the culture are a single force, “all flooded through” the “fields of economy, the symbolic and memory”. But every positive reference (astronauts gazing down at Earth) is counterbalanced by a negative (intercontinental ballistic missiles).  Then the final flourish: “With digital audio, the objects of music begin to disappear into an aether of intangible properties, a mist that enshrouds and disintegrates established structures with no regard for their traditions or values. Like the dizzying rise and fall of a financial system based on intangible commodities these new conditions plunge us into instability and uncertainty yet as cultural formations they also possess great potential for value and meaning”. The sentence trails off tentatively, an obligatory expression of faint hope  upstaged by the awesome, awful drama of recent cataclysm: currencies and assets in freefall, value voided, millions of live stalled still in limbo.


 “One must take care not to deterritorialize too quickly”-- Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. 1980

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere”—Seneca, circa 64 AD.

Where now for David Toop? The subject of his book-in-progress is improvisation.  I can only speculate, but it seems that a circle is being completed: returning Toop to where he started, if not as a fan of music then as a practitioner-conceptualist.  Back to music that exists outside mediation, entirely in the moment of its creation; music that in its truest form is never recorded, archived, distributed.  Music inseparable from the bodies of its composer-performers, from their presence in a shared present.  Concrete yet cosmic; ephemeral and eternal. 


a version of this article was delivered at the Off the Page festival in Whitstable, February 2012

bonus material at the Wire website - a Toopographical portal to  various related articles by Toop and others (and also me) plus a radio dialogue with music between Toop and Derek Walmsley . (There was a second instalment of this, Music From the Lost Worlds II, broadcast by Resonance FM in December, but it doesn't appear to be online yet).

also check out Toop's essay - "Sounding the Object: a Timebase Archive" which concerns "a proposition for a hypothetical environment in which intangible multi-sensory events can be experienced as if in a museum. This museum of the imagination displays various sounding devices and listening events, all of which are footnoted by ancillary theoretical, conceptual and anecdotal material from the author’s sound work practice and research between 1971 and the present.". And also mentions Toop's concept of "biosonics"

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Boys' Own Adventures: Critical Bias
missing chapter from The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock 'n' Roll, 1995

by Simon Reynolds and Joy Press

Note:  originally planned to come right after the chapter on Malcolm McLaren / The Stranglers / misogyny in punk, but was cut out for space reasons and also because it felt more like a survey of existing ideas rather than a contribution. Still as an introduction to the rock vs pop dichotomy as figured in music criticism it has relevance in the light of debates this past decade about rockism versus popism

Although The Stranglers were marginalised by the music press's political-correctness police for their blatant sexism, in a sense they were only amplifying and exposing what were unspoken assumptions about rock as a boy's own domain. Malcolm McLaren, too, was so deeply entrenched in this thinking he couldn't conceive of a place for women in his masterplan--except as clothes designer (Vivienne Westwood) or clothes mannequin (Jordan).

Although punk opened many opportunities for women, it also had the effect
of broadening and intensifying the long established great divide between rock
(for boys) and pop (for girls). Punk rejected the love song, attacked disco for its
"mindless escapism", and, by expunging the raunchy, syncopated, blues-derived
elements from rock'n'roll, made it anti-sexual, thus eliminating women even
as subject matter. Punk's definition of valid music as loud, aggressive, confrontational, and anti-sentimental, was the latest turn on a long-standing snobbery that dated back to the Beatles v.Stones dichotomy. The rock/pop divide went through many evolutions: afficianados
of acid rock and white blues looked down on Motown and bubblegum
pop; connoisseurs of progressive and heavy rock sneered at glitter and early Seventies soul; partisans of punk and New Wave derided disco; indie/college rock despised the 'fake soul' and 'plastic', machine-made dance music of the Eighties. But the underlying, gender-based structure remained a constant: a largely male connoiseurship considered themselves superior to a mass audience seen as essentially female. The rock listener brought a critical awareness to the music,
it was felt, whereas "pop" fans were undiscriminating dupes of capitalism,
suckered by image, hype and sugary melodies. Active participation (in a
counter-culture or a rock critical discourse) was set in opposition to passive
consumption of product; the authenticity of the rock artist was contrasted with
the inauthenticity of the pop artefact. While the rock artist's self-expression
came from the soul, the pop star deemed little more than a robot manufactured and
manipulated by a manager/producer/puppeteer.

There have, of course, been a number of groups and artists who've straddled
the divide, winning rockcrit kudos and girly fandemonium - The Beatles, The
Stones, The Doors, Prince, Madonna. And there have been attempts to bridge the
gap, or even to collapse the pop/rock distinction altogether: most notably, the
self-consciously arty wing of glam rock (Roxy Music, David Bowie, Marc Bolan)
and its early Eighties successor, New Pop (ABC, Culture Club, Scritti Politti, Human
League, Adam and the Ants). More recently there've even been those who've gotten
a camp, postmodern frisson out of crossing the great divide, trespassing into
the forbidden zone of girly-teeny taste, and boasting of a passion for some
previously denigrated artiste or style: the girl groups of the Sixties, disco,
the MOR of The Carpenters and Abba, the Eighties conveyor-belt starlets
churned out by Stock Aitken Waterman, and even contemporaneous
teen sensations like Aha and Take That.

But the rock/pop, masculine/feminine distinction has endured, and has even enjoyed a new lease on life with the rise of "alternative" music in the Nineties. A gamut of 'hard' sub-genres--funk-metal, industrial, grunge, thrash-metal--have re-established blunt aggression,
belligerent blare, and an aesthetic based around muscular, sweaty live
performance (rather than the studio-concocted idioms like records and videos) as
the benchmarks of validity in a resurgent rock.

* * * *
Surprisingly, there have been few attempts to formulate a coherent theory that
validates the unspoken assumptions about rock and gender that lie behind the
valorisation of "hardness", and the elision between concepts like "hardcore",
"underground" and "youthful rebellion". Only with the gradual weakening of the
left-liberal consensus that has hitherto informed rock criticism have people
emerged who've dared to argued the case for rock'n'roll as intrinsically
masculine. The cultural critic Camille Paglia has extended her general theory
that almost all great art is male to cover rock'n'roll. In an interview
with Spin magazine in 1991, she cites lack of testosterone as the reason "why women have done [little] in terms of great lead guitar work, because to do great solo guitar work you have this egotistical, aggressive attitude. One of the bitterest disappointments of my life has been the failure of women to contribute anything important to rock'n'roll. They have done many interesting things in
pop, but not in rock. There is not one great female lead guitar player. When
the femininsts talk about men keeping women back, I say bullshit. And here's an
example in our time, in the last 20 year years; nothing is stopping a woman from
picking up a guitar. I think it has to do with hormones

There is a circular logic here, much the same as that which sees great art
as consisting of huge canvases or gigantic sculptures, as grand statements, thus
excluding from consideration the more modestly scaled, intimate work that women
have excelled at. If great guitar work is defined as over-arching feats of
phallocratic pyrotechnics, as the guitar-hero's solo (rather than the more co-operative,
mutual guitar interplay of a mostly female group like Throwing Muses, which by
no means lacks aggression or visceral impact) then certainly, it's true that
women haven't contributed that much. If what is valorized is a masculine aesthetic
of self-aggrandisement, the musical equivalent of the tragic soliloquy, then females will necessarily be at a disadvantage. If Luce Irigray is right, and women don't have subjectivity in the male sense, then the equivalent of the solo in female rock is the gaps, fragments and breakages.

Over the decades, a critical lexicon has congealed in which music is
celebrated for its punishing properties, its hardness, heaviness and
abrasiveness. The mass success of "grunge" in the early Nineties was, in some
sense, the final washing up in the mainstream of an ethos and aesthetic
originally trailblazed by gonzo writers like Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches, the so-called Noise Boys. This masochistic, masculinist sensibility has evolved through the Seventies and Eighties, marginalised but hugely popular in the form of heavy metal, and marginalised and not very popular in the lineage that includes proto-punk, US hardcore and noise-rock. Then it triumphed in the early Nineties with grunge - a style which re-integrated punk and metal as nouveau hard rock, complete with sado-masochistic forms of audience participation like moshing and stage-diving (which are gender divisive in the extreme).

In the interim, the Bangsian discourse was honed into a fine, if myopic, art by fanzines like Forced Exposure, where music was appraised in terms of ability to induce a kind of pleasurable agony (contributors to the zine included Big Black's Steve Albini). The subtext of a lot of this writing is "are you man enough to withstand" a ferocious dose of "ear-gouging agresso-hoot without surcease" or "squirrel-blasting entertainment" (to quote Forced Exposure's Byron Coley). For the most part, the terms of this sensibility are never probed or unpacked, but are taken for granted, as the Way, the Light, and the Truth (in the gospel according to Lester). Not that female artists are entirely excluded, at least so long as they are tomboys, exhibitionistic self-abusers, or scarifying extremists. But a female sensibility, male fragility - get outta here.

The closest anyone has come to a critical formulation of the post-Bangs
aesthetic is Rock and The Pop Narcotic by Joe Carducci. This aggressive but
closely reasoned polemic explicitly defines rock as a male activity. As he writes, "It is no use pretending that if we could just technologically relieve females of the
burden of reproduction and then rear them to be little leaguers, that they would
be as interested in careers in baseball and rock and roll as boys are. Boys are
generally mechanically, physically inclined and if society no longer demands of
them that they hunt for food by age 14 and mate as soon as they hunt well enough
to feed a family, then they are going to have to find something to do with that
energy from that genetic program. Drugs are definitely capable of obliterating
that unusable energy and rock concerts are a conveninent combination of
catharsis and catalyst. Both at the same time are, like, the ultimate (I'm told).

Carducci's biologically determinist convictions about rock's essential
masculinity dovetail with his materialist and reductionist definition of rock.
Rock is rock'n'roll "made conscious of itself as small band music". The essence
of rock is rhythmic, based in the interaction of drums, bass, and rhythm guitar,
which interlock to create "multidimensional simulataneity" (the illusion, at
once visceral and spiritual, of three players becoming one). Good songs are a nice
bonus, but worth nothing (in rock terms) without the friction of riff, bassline
and beat. This drummer-centred formalism leads Carducci to dismiss as irrelevant
elements like image, lyrics, attitude, the vocalist's charisma and/or neurosis,
vocal harmony, and arthouse/highbrow conceptual trappings. All of these, he
says,adulterate rock purism with pop appeal or cerebral baggage, and are thus only of interest to male wimps and to girls. Neither group understands rock because
they're alienated from their own physicality (in the case of egghead males) or, argues Carducci, they don't have the hormonal set-up to really feel rock in their guts (girls).

For Carducci, rock is strenuous, an art form that is honed by assiduous
gigging and rehearsing. Rock is corrupted (i.e. turned into pop) when it
panders to feminine sensibilities, emphasising the lead vocalist, glossy production,
image, sensitivity, and downgrading rhythmic heat and grit. Effeminate and gay
influences are also inimical, according to Carducci. The British art-school and New Pop sensibilities
were deeply pernicious, in Carducci's nativist, anti-Anglophile reading of rock
history. Finally, rock is corrupted when its muscular work ethic is allowed to
go flaccid in the delicate hands of eggheads who think conceptual leaps can
replace the hard slog of paying your dues. The result is ethereal, rarefied
music that appeals to the contemplative brain rather than the viscera.

Against the graduates who have weakened rock (either as performers, or as
critics whouniformly project their irrelevant left-liberal politics onto the
music), Carducci heralds a New Redneck ethos as the salvation of rock. New
Redneckism was trailblazed by SST (a label Carducci had been closely involved with) in the early Eighties with image-less, hardworking neo-punk bands like Black Flag, The Minutemen and Husker Du. New Redneck is a return to rock's origins in the "Born
To Lose" worldview of the American South (as expressed in blues and hillbilly
music); this worldview struck a chord with blue collar and lower middle class
youth throughout white America. The born-to-lose attitude remained a constant as rock evolved through the sludge of Black Sabbath-style metal, the frustration of punk, the toiling catharsis of Eighties hardcore, right up to today's grunge. This music connects, viscerally, with young men's sense of the world as made up of struggle and impedance: heavy music fits heavy themes.

Of course, heavy metal also has a heroic side, most notably in the
operatic vocals and strutting machismo of the lead singer, and the grandiosity of the lead guitarist. For Carducci, the phallic triumphalism of the guitar solo
"symbolizes masturbation rather than fucking, or power/rape, as the lib-politicos might have it. The teen male metal audience then is celebrating the rock stars ability to dramatise and enculture masturbation ballets so well that they attract females (groupies) and therefore get to proxy fuck for all of their teenage charges".Carducci admits this doesn't seem like a very healthy arrangement, but its pent-up frustration seems preferable to wimpy non-rock of The Smiths or REM's

In fact, he rejects wholesale, as heretical, fraudulent non-rock
off-shoots, "college rock" or "indie" - partly because they are largely rooted
in the non-blues, folk-derived styles of groups like The Byrds and The Velvet
Underground, and partly, one suspects, because they appeal more to girls and
non-macho boys. College/indie, he argues, is a misguided sensibility because
it's overly concerned with songcraft; more perniciously, it is culpably
Anglophile; worst of all, it fetishises incompetence (as Carducci puts it, if
Led Zeppelin had a good rhythm section, these groups don't want one).

Ironically, the college rock milieu whose taste Carducci derides as
emasculated is just as much a boy's own world as the world of hard rock. Here,
male cameraderie is expressed not through sports or motor maintenance but
through collecting music, debating music, curating rock culture. To lapse into
Carducci's thinking, this is a homosocial fraternity of nerds, rather than of
brawny, brawling regular guys. In the UK, this sensibility is generally
known by the shorthand term "trainspotter" (derived from a particularly
anal-retentive, futile pastime of collecting the numbers from locomotives). Its
origins, according to Simon Frith and Howard Horne in Art Into Pop, lie in the jazz clubs of the late Forties and Fifties. These were "rooms above pubs,
people's bedrooms even, where serious young men (and a few young women) gathered
to play and discuss records". The peculiarity of jazz in Britain was that
"something understood as a folk form, live music for dancing and community
entertainment, became a recording cult, music for collectors, for an elite of
jazz students, musicologists and discographers. Solemnity not excitement defined
true jazz fans, who self-consciously distanced themselves from the general
public and were suspicious when anyone like Louis Armstrong became popular." Music was seen in terms of authenticity versus commercialism - an opposition which has
endured to this day, and with the same male v. female subtext. Jazz appealed
because of its propensity for being taking seriously, for being more than mere
fun. As Francis Newton observed in 1959, "the quintessential location of the
fan is not the dance hall, the night club, or even the jazz concert or club, but the
private room in which a group of young men play one another's records, repeating
crucial passages until they are worn out, and then endlessly discussing their
comparative merits".

As Frith and Horne note, this milieu is still recognisable as the
readership of the British weekly music papers, New Musical Express and Melody Maker: "the lower-middle-class, young, predominantly male, suburban, self-educated, would-be cultured, self-defined musical connoisseurs". Jazz, like blues, acid rock, punk and indie after it, was a way of imagining yourself as an individual, of marking yourself out as different from the pack with their mass-produced pleasures, as somehow more elevated than a mere consumer. It's
notable, however, that just as they are unlikely to amass sports data or tinker
endlessly under the hoods of cars, women seldom seem to build up huge record
collections or obsess about hi-fi equipment. They tend to have small,
well-played collections and rudimentary music centres or even just a cassette
player and masses of tapes (given by trainspotter male friends).

* * * *

The idea that popular culture is somehow female, that it is designed for a
female mode of consumption (allegedly superficial, distracted, fickle) rather than for the
considered appreciation associated with male high culture, has a long history.
"Escapist", "corny", "manipulative", "sentimental" are all supposed attributes of
mainstream pop culture that carry a taint of the female, whereas modernist,
avant-garde, confrontational or "serious" art tends to evoke a stern sobriety
that definitely possesses a male aura.

We've already seen how Philip Wylie's 1942 tract Generation Of Vipers
railed against the de-virilising effect on American society of a (feminine)
popular culture. Nearly fifty years later, militant rappers Public Enemy made
much the same complaint about black moms in "She Watch Channel Zero", which
criticised women for being TV junkies addicted to soaps and Oprah Winfrey-style
counselling programmes, and thus neglecting their children (black women's
contribution to the struggle being rearing strong warriors) while being
encouraged to have unreal expectations of life/black men.

In rock discourse, the "correct" response to music (considered, critical)
has long been contrasted with the degraded involvement of fandom, seen
simulataneously as blindly loyal, undiscriminating, clouded by emotion, AND
fickle, superficial. Once again, it's the female teenager who is construed as the model of all
that's unseemly, easily manipulated. The 19th century notion of hysteria - as a
specifically female disorder, in which morbid over-excitement of the emotions
was attributed to disturbances of the womb - was revived to describe the outbreaks
of teenybopper fandemonium. Rock has always admired groups for inciting such
excessive, out-of-control responses, while despising those caught up in them. A
good example: Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham would, in their early days of
pop success, start girls screaming in the audience by shrieking and squealing
himself. He would also employ male youths to push violently through the crowd
in order to escalate fandemonium.

Fred and Judy Vermorel have attempted to formulate a revisionist treatment
of fandom in their books Starlust and Fandemonium. Instead of the
traditional view of fans as deluded dupes of capitalism, they celebrate the excess and hysteria of fan worship as an intensity that transcends and trangresses
consumerism. They see fandom as consumer mysticism, an investment of passion and
obsession that is empowering, particularly for young girls. Stars become
vehicles for the exploration of fantasies. The Vermorels emphasise the extent to which pop stars are used (as a spur to imagination and ingenuity), and are used up
voraciously, callously disposed of in an endless turnover of new idols. By a
cunning sleight of thought, they turn girl-fans' fickleness into a mark of
superiority, elevating them beyond the earnest, slavish loyalty of the male band
follower. Camille Paglia has also identified a mystical proto-type for fandom
in the orgiastic religious seizures to which women and effeminate men in Ancient
Greece were prone. She sees a similarly idol-atrous and excessive quality in
teenybopper crazes and the gay worship of icons like Judy Garland.

* *

The ability to go "wild in the streets" (as The Stooges' song has it), to
explore the wilderness or roam the urban jungle, has always been a male
privilege. And manifestations of male wildness, in the form of youth
subcultures, have been privileged as the focus of study. The seminal work in
this field - spawned by Birmingham University's Centre For Contemporary Studies
in the Seventies and including the Resistance Through Rituals collection and Dick Hebdiges' Subculture: The Meaning Of Style - focuses on the ways that tribal youth movements like mods, skinheads, punks, etc, create an oppositional identity for themselves by taking stylistic elements from the mainstream culture and subverting their meanings - sometimes in a conscious
process of bricolage, other times more instinctively.

For the most part, these deviant subcultures are male-dominated, offering
women only the most peripheral roles. In her 1980 essay "Settling Accounts With
Subcultures: A Feminist Critique", Angela McRobbie pointed out subcultural
theory's blindspot when it came to women: its romanticisation of male adventurism and neglect of female forms of pleasure and fantasy. The homosocial cameraderie of the gang is seen,by left-wing sociologists, as a brief blaze of glory before the ignominy of settling down to marriage and responsibility. This brief interim of wildness (before being tamed and socialised) was regarded by the CCS' neo-Marxist academics as a sort of proto-political protest against the dead ends faced by
working class male youth. But as McRobbie points out, it's much harder for
girls to participate in these symbolic flights than it is for boys, since "girls are
allowed little more than the back seat on a drafty motorbike".

Extreme homosociality has generally been the rule in subcultures (it's a
truism that the mods dressed to impress other boy mods); the male bonding of
deviant subcultures mirrors the homosociality of "respectable" men-only forms of
leisure (sports,working men's clubs etc). Subcultures seize on style - a domain conventionally denigrated as female - and turn it into "a male but never unambiguously masculine prerogative". The narcissism and excess of subcultural style has long managed to trangress conventional notions of proper masculinity, while steadfastly marginalising women. We're back with the effeminate thuggery and androgynous misogny of The Stones.

Overall, McRobbie argues that "the signs and codes subverted and reassembled in the 'semiotic guerrila warfare' conducted through style don't really speak to women at all"... "The attractions of a subculture - its fluidity, the shifts in the minutia of its styles, the details of its combative
bricolage" are off-set by its monolithic and conformist attitude to women. Male
dandyism and effeminacy is privileged as transgressive, while the female
equivalent (tomboyism) is considered unglamorous. Similarly, male drunkeness
and drugginess is cool, while women who get wasted are considered undignified
and unfeminine. It's difficult to imagine how a female equivalent to Lester
Bangs or Jim Morrison - perpetually out of it, reeking because of an aversion to
baths - could be tolerated or conceived of as impressive. Similarly the
rowdiness of the gig or the wildness of the streets carry risks for women
(physical harm, rape) that seriously diminish their allure. At gigs, women are
often unable even to see the band, let alone barge their way into the fray at
the front of the stage.

Boyish irresponsibility is just not an option for that many women, who are
often expected to spend more time at home, helping mother look after younger
children or performing a disproportionate fraction of the household chores. Pete
Townsend spoke in Rolling Stone about how rock was a "force that threatens a lot of the crap which is around at the moment in the middle class... [it's like]
mother has just fallen down the stairs, Dad's lost all his money at the dog
track, the baby's got TB. In comes the kid, man, with his transistor radio,
grooving to Chuck Berry. He doesn't give a shit about mum falling down the
stairs. He's with rock'n'roll."

The site for teenage girls' leisure is interior, the bedroom, rather than
the streets. Here girls explore fantasies, individually or in groups, experiment
with dress and make-up, prepare for their infrequent forays into social spaces like
a dance or nightclub. When it comes to "semiotic guerrila warfare" or
subcultural tribal conflicts, girls are non-combatants; they keep the home fires

Some female artists have attempted to write about the intensity of interior life
- The Raincoats' "Adventures Close To Home", Throwing Muses' "House Tornado" -
re-imagining domesticity as a site for conflict and self-exploration. But home
life doesn't lend itself to the romantic imagery that is the staple of

Another domain for female cameraderie and self-expression is shopping
(especially in the USA, with the rise of mall culture). Writing about the Pet
Shop Boys' "Shopping", Simon Frith and Howard Horne celebrate the female and gay
sensibility of pick'n'mix self-expression through consumer choice, and suggest
that shopping around is the female equivalent to hanging around, as valid and as
deserving of being romanticised as the delinquent adventures of male gang
roaming wild in the streets. Consumption is "the fantastic site where our most intense experience of ourselves as ourselves (active and special) is lived out". But it's hard to see the gregarious jollity of browsing through the racks as on a par with the adrenalin buzz and outsider postures of rock'n'roll. In rock'n'roll, consumerism (no matter how "passionate") is seen as the antithesis of the wild
life, the "life fit for heroes". We need to ask whether shopping is denigrated
because it's associated with women, and whether the appeal of the heroic life,
of combat and crusade, is precisely that it is situated on terrain that's empty of