Thursday, August 22, 2013

drum and bass circa 1999

Planet V

LTJ BUKEM featuring  MC CONRAD and DRS
Progression Sessons
Good Looking

Spin, 1999?

by Simon Reynolds

        For  half-a-decade there, jungle was the fastest moving music on the planet--and I'm not just talking about the ever-accelerating breakbeats. Sucking in a dizzying succession of influences (hip hop, dancehall,  jazz,  industrial), the scene ran through a half-dozen distinct stylistic phases. But two years ago, jungle's mutational onrush  stalled.  Producers progressively banished the elements that had given the music "vibe" (hip hop, reggae) leaving behind a techno-influenced, dark-but-clinical sound motored by the trudging two-step beat.
     Planet V is probably the best compilation the scene could muster right about now; it's a superb survey of  a sonic stasis quo. Adam F's "Brand New Funk" and Ed Rush and Optical's "Funktion (Remix)" indicate two  facets of drum and bass's current, desperate
reinvocation of "funk". The On The Corner-ish "Funktion" trailblazed the more frantic polyrhythms that are now thankfully superceding two-step [2013 note: not meaning the UK garage 2step but the jacknife-at-the-waist plodfunk that took over D'n'B from 1997 onwards, aka neurofunk], while Adam F's tune should really be titled "Kitschy Retro Funk"--its blacksploitation  brass stabs  make me think of  Jackie Brown in silhouette brandishing a gun. Long associated with V Recordings, the Reprazent posse are well, er, reprazented, with solid efforts from DJ Die, Scorpio, DJ Suv and Krust,  plus album highlights from Roni Size like "Strictly Social"--a peculiar mesh of Cantonese gongs,  brittle Sonic Youth guitarchords and  Glitterbeat stomp. Such incongruous combinations are one of the few avenues of  aesthetic rejuvenation still open for drum abd bass.
        Stuck in his pleasant rut of  wispy  synth-washes and simulated sax'n' strings sounds,  LTJ Bukem ought to be a sad figure. Instead, he's achieved a strange dignity, simply by sticking to his aesthetic guns instead of going "dark" when it was fashionable. Bukem's latest mix-CD, featuring tracks by his Looking Good roster of acolytes/clones and languid MC-ing from Conrad, will keep his fans  happy until the arrival of the  maestro's long-awaited solo debut. One of the ironies of  ambient drum and bass--supposedly meant for home listening-- is that it  sounds much better over a huge club sound system, where the extra volume realizes the music's oceanic aspirations. These days  I'd rather hear this softcore jazzy jungle played out than the hard stuff:  Looking Good's clip-clopping breaks have more of   jungle's bygone frisky exuberance than two-step's dirgefunk, and its heart-murmur basslines impact your ribcage without harshing your ear.  Influenced more by house's smooth, seamless mixing than jungle's chop 'n' slash, Bukem's forte is weaving a sensurround wall of soothing goo. Which is why all Looking Good artists sound samey--they're designed as compatible components for the Bukem mix-scape. Not radical music by any means, then, but  Bukem-style aquafunk remains a valid segment of what junglists  call the "full circumference".

Further reading: my December 1997 piece on Neurofunk for the Wire

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


published as 'The Life and Rhymes of Ian Dury 1942 — 2000'

Uncut, June 2000

by Simon Reynolds

At the peak of his late '70s success, Ian Dury was one of this country’s most beloved entertainers. He kept busy in his post-stardom years — movie acting, working for UNICEF, squeezing out albums intermittently. But despite a recent resurgence of affection and interest, Dury never quite recovered his place in the public eye.

Bands like Madness and Blur picked up a few tips from his character sketch-style of songwriting, closer to "three-minute scripts" (as he put it) than pop ditties. But Dury was ultimately too much of an inspired one-off to become an inspirational "genre," a la your Lou Reeds or Bowies with their legions of mostly mediocre imitators. No, they broke the proverbial mold when they made Ian Dury.

His charismatic soul-clash of salt-of-the-earth Cockney ("Mockney", Dury confessed, since he’d actually grown up in Essex) and arty weirdo came from his parents — the unsuccessful and shortlived marriage of bus driver/chauffeur Dad (beautifully immortalized in Dury’s poignant 'My Old Man') and posh, bohemian mother. The polio he contracted in 1949 at age seven left Dury with a withered left leg and a personality that mixed adversity-hardened toughness with the classic comedian’s craving for acceptance. (The perfect blend of menace and cuddly charm for a post-punk pop star, in other words).

Like so many in the Britrock pantheon, Dury was a product of '60s art schools. Attracted as much by the long-haired boho lifestyle and opportunities to draw nude models as by art-as-vocation, he studied at Walthamstow Art School, where he was taught by Peter Blake, the Pop Art painter responsible for the cover of Sgt Pepper. Dury then made it into the Royal College Of Art (something he rated as the greatest achievement of his life), but eventually decided he was never going to be as great as his painter heroes, and focused his attention on rock’n’roll, figuring that the competition (especially lyrically) wasn’t as hot.

His first band, Kilburn And the High Roads, was a theatrical outfit that achieved some popularity on the nascent pub rock circuit in the early Seventies (John Lydon was often in the audience and reputedly learned some things from Dury when it came to baleful stage presentation) but only released on a posthumous and little-bought LP. Towards the end of the band’s life, pianist Chas Jankel joined. Cleancut Jankel and Dury (then looking like a glam bovver boy, with sepulchral eyeliner, Doc Martens, skinhead crop, and straight leg rolled-up jeans) formed a classic chalk-and-cheese songwriting partnership — Chas’ melodic flair and neat-freak talent for arrangement strangely yet perfectly complementing Ian’s scabrous yarns and lyrical Method acting. Hooking up with Loving Awareness, a band of seriously seasoned musicians (bassist Norman Watt-Roy had been on the road since he was 13) who were swiftly and thankfully renamed the Blockheads, Dury finally found the fluent funk and vivid instrumental colours he’d never got from the High Roads.

The result was New Boots And Panties!!!, recorded on a £4,000 loan with Jankel as "musical director", then sold to Stiff Records. An incongruous mix of funk, rockabilly and music-hall influences like Wee Willie Harris, plus Dury’s coarse vernacular poetics, New Boots became a word-of-mouth hit, finding its place in every suburban new-waver’s hi-fi cabinet, and ultimately selling a million copies worldwide. Balancing the punk shock appeal of rude words (the infamous "arseholes bastards fucking cunts and pricks" swearfest that kickstarts 'Plaistow Patricia') with satirical wit, shit-hot musicianship and indelible tunes, New Boots was the perfect crossover record for its time, without ever seeming compromised or calculated.

Although punk provided the climate for Dury’s success (without it, he’d probably have remained an Alex Harvey-like cult), in many ways he did not fit at all. At 37, Dury was more than twice the age of punk’s archetypal 17-year-old kid on the street. The Blockheads were also borderline musos, slick funkateers who’d probably have been an Average White Band without Dury’s prickly persona.
More enamoured of the Meters than the New York Dolls, Dury regarded himself as a non-musician who "knows a lot about rhythm — I work my lyrics with rhythm". He even half-seriously claimed that 'Reasons To Be Cheerful (Pt 3)' was "the first rapping record", having been released three months before 'Rapper’s Delight'. Do It Yourself, the long awaited sequel to New Boots, was glossy, full-on disco — "because if you can’t dance to it, there’s a lot of other things you can’t do to it", Dury told Radio One with a nudge-nudge leer in his voice. Ironically, the best songs on the album were about not getting laid — the are-we-just-friends-or-something-more tentativeness of 'Inbetweenies', the desperate chat-up merchant of 'Do Not Ask Me', the marital warfare scenario of 'Sink My Boats', and, above all, the discotheque hellzone of 'Dance Of The Screamers', with its lost lonely losers and socially unskilled inadequates searching hopelessly for love, and Dury’s chorus howls of hoarse, wordless agony sparring with Davey Payne’s blasts of freedom sax.

The other big difference between Dury and punk was that for all his lyrics’ occasional grotesquerie and his own life’s pain, his vision was ultimately heartwarming and humane, a celebration of life, love, and "the jolly-up". Following the Blockheads’ Number One smash, 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick', with its risque double-entendres and panoramic shimmerfunk, Dury’s chirpy Cockney chappy side came to the fore. Now superstars, Dury and The Blockheads did a 100-date tour of the UK that climaxed with a week at the Hammersmith Odeon, and scored another huge hit in late 1980 with 'Reasons To Be Cheerful'.

Dury, by his own later admission, lost it, spiralling off into self-loathing confusion while simultaneously vigorously enjoying the fruits of stardom. His first marriage was one casualty; his partnership with Jankel another. Apparently finding Dury’s potent personality "threatening" and "oppressive" to his own sense of self, Jankel quit to do a solo album.

Dury and The Blockheads recruited ex-Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson and pulled together the self-produced and scrawny-sounding Laughter, ("A miserable record", as Ian admitted later. "I called it Laughter to cheer myself up"), which went down with the public like a cup of cold sick. Dury collaborated again with Jankel for 1981’s Lord Upminster, recorded in Nassau with Sly’n’Robbie. Negatively inspired by the UN’s Year of the Disabled, the single, 'Spasticus Autisticus' (a "war cry" and an "anti-charity song," said Ian), got banned by the Beeb. Its commercial failure effectively ended Dury’s pop stardom.

Over the next 19 years, there were other albums: 1984’s 4000 Weeks Holiday, 1989’s Apples (which became a musical). Dury wrote the theme song for The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, acted in films like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover and The Crow: Part Two, globetrotted in support of polio immunisation for UNICEF, did a bit of TV hosting, married sculptor Sophy Tilson and had two sons. He did not seem overly bothered about extricating himself from the "Where Are They Now?" file. But partly in response to his struggles with cancer and partly triggered by his status as Britpop reference point, a surge of public fondness dragged him out of semi-retirement, resulting in gigging with a reformed Blockheads and last year’s well-received Mr Love Pants. On March 27 he died aged 57, finally succumbing after a five-year long battle with cancer.

Like Jarvis Cocker, an artist with whom he has some things in common, and unlike virtually everybody else, Dury managed to pull off two precarious marriages — rock’n’roll and Englishness; rock’n’roll and comedy. Personally, Ian and the Blockheads turned my 16-year-old self onto punk and funk; it was New Boots that led me both to Never Mind The Bollocks and to Off The Wall. Until I heard 'Wake Up And Make Love With Me', I’d no idea pop music could be so casually adult. Until I heard 'If I Was With A Woman', I never knew that lyrics could have things going on between the lines, that the message of a song could really be the total opposite of what its persona (the spiteful, scared-shitless misogynist) was apparently saying.

Along with Billy MacKenzie, Dury is one of the few pop heroes I really regret never having met; as with MacKenzie, I sometimes wonder what might have happened if he’d only been able to maintain the chemistry between himself and his most fruitful collaborator (Jankel/Rankine), then immediately realise the stupidity of such speculations, when he’d given us so much already. As Dury quipped not long before his death, when you make a great record, you should have the right to milk it for the rest of your life. Ian Dury made at least two.

All the best, mate, from your fan.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Severe Exposure
Sub Pop
Melody Maker, 1995 

by Simon Reynolds

            'Humanity' and 'honesty' are two of the most overrated things in rock.  So hats off to Sub Pop for bringing us Six Finger Satellite, a band whose coldblooded conceptualism and contrivance makes them exiles in their own land.  Heartless and arty where their compatriots are heartfelt and artless, SFS are the best Sub Pop band since you-know-who.

     With their Kraftwerk-style uniforms (whitecoated lab technicians circa last year's fab mini-LP "Machine Cuisine") and strict-time robo-rhythms, SFS are rock reptiles in the tradition of Devo or Tubeway Army. This time round there's less of  "Cuisine"'s dirty electronica, and instead a slight return to the guitar-centric sound of the debut LP. SFS exhiliratingly join the dots between various forgotten moments in post-punk. And so  "Bad Comrade" begins as a grim processional through the bleak urban wastes of 'Red Mecca' era Cabaret Voltaire, then explodes into the caustic agit-funk paroxysms of Gang of  Four; "Parlour Games" and "Simian Fever" recall the art-metal clangour of Chrome and  Bowie's "Lodger"; "White Queen to Black Knight"  virtually rewrites  "Annalisa" from PiL's underrated debut. As for "Cock Fight": forget Nine Inch Nails et al, this is the real industrial rock, a swarf-spitting, steelworks scree.

            Thematically, we're talking grotesquerie-a-gogo, the kind of perverse, puerile  preoccupations that characterised Throbbing Gristle, Big Black and Devo. "Rabies (Baby's Got The)"  gives the game away in the title, while "Where Humans Go" appears to be a 'Soylent Green'-style sci-fi fantasy of people being rendered down into meat for cannibal consumption, with machinic beats and effluent-like synth-slime conjuring the abattoir's grisly ambience. The ultimate destination of this particular rock strain of  impulse-to-outrage and morbid fascination with abjection is always the Final Solution, and so the last track "Board The Bus" revives the scenario of "Machine Cuisine"'s  "The Magic Bus"  (with its cyborg gauleiter grunts of "work equals freedom" and "fire at will, commandant").

            Dodgy flirtations with the Teutonic/technocratic aside, Six Finger's rigour and frigidity are strangely refreshing at a time when so much US rock is basically 70s singer-songwriter angst with a fuzz-box.  Expose yourself to their severity.        

Melody Maker,  1995
by Simon Reynolds

                It was actually a mistake that first got me intrigued by Six Finger
Satellite. At the end of the 1993 Sub Pop compilation "Curtis W.  Pitts", there's
a devastating diatribe against Sebadoh that basically accuses them of pimping
their own neurosis; as Six Finger are the last act credited on the sleeve, I
assumed they'd authored it.  Turns out it's actually a self-critique that Barlow
& Co cobbled together to play over the PA prior to Sebadoh hitting the stage. An
error, then, but a strangely appropriate one, since Six Finger---with their
almost English flair for concept, image, packaging and manifesto, their creed of
discipline and unitary vision--are nothing if not anti-slacker.

    "This is a time of slacker rock," says singer John MacLean with a pained
grimace. "Regular guys stepping onstage in T-shirt and jeans, complaining about
their personal problems.  And we're definitely a reaction against that, rock as psychotherapy session. A lot of these bands seem amazed that they're
confused by life."

     Six Finger have no truck with the spiritual weaklings of  lo-fi, which is basically punk degenerated into an ersatz folk music (Sebadoh = James Taylor with a fuzzbox). Six Finger descend from an altogether less meek-and-mild strand of punk, that runs from the Stooges' raw power through the Pistols' virulent nihilism to Big Black's ear-scalding severity.

    Where this vision of punk (brutalism, will-to-power, appetite for destruction) inevitably seems to end up is Germany.  And so The Stooges' Ron Asheton performed in SS regalia, while as a solo artist Iggy had "visions of swastikas" reeling in his head; Johnny Rotten sang about the Berlin Wall and Belsen; Big Black covered Kraftwerk's misogynist ditty "The Model".  Punk-prophet and Kraftwerk-fan Lester Bangs pointed out that Germany had invented speed (amphetamine and the autobahn) and argued that rock's future lay with the German bands' man-machine interface and motorik rhythms.  It's on this aesthetic freeway connecting Detroit and Berlin, where guitar-blitzkrieg meets synth-precision, that you'll find Six Finger Satellite.

     On the cover of their first Sub Pop single, 'The Declaration of
Techno-Colonialism', the band wore space suits and Gary Numan make-up; inside,
there's a manifesto about the need for "a pact between man and machinery".

    "We had all this was stuff about showing up at the studio on time, being physically fit, because you have to earn the machines' respect," says John. "We keep to a strict regimen of getting up at 9 0'clock, meeting at the coffee shop, doing some callisthenic exercises before repairing to the studio, then winding up at the disco at night."

    In between the guitar-centric debut "The Pigeon Is The Most Popular Bird"
and the Gang of Four/Tubeway Army amalgam of their new album "Severe Exposure",
Six Finger made a full-on foray into electronica with last year's fab
mini-LP "Machine Cuisine".  Here, they made extravagant use of the slimy
inorganic textures generated by their vast collection of outmoded analogue synths. Like
the boffins of UK art-tekno, Six Finger prefer quaint '70s instruments to
modern digital technology, partly because of the extreme, unsubtle artificiality
of the sounds they generate, and partly because the old synths are played in a
strenuous, hands-on way that feels more rock'n'roll. Onstage, singer J. Ryan
wields his portable synth like an axe, strapped around his neck.

   "Modern computer music like techno is the perfect example of the machines
playing the people," frowns John, when I question their strange lo-fi approach to
futurism.  "Analog has this warmth that's closer to human.  When it's heated up
to optimum operational temperature, analogue gear has the same temperature as the
human body."

     Like Elastica, Six Finger play rock purged of hippy indulgence ("when I
heard about Jerry Garcia's death, I felt a great weight lifted off my shoulders,"
quips bassist James Apt) and severed from its pre-1976 blues roots.  Their
compulsive but unswinging, strict-time rhythms lie somewhere between New Wave's
raunch-free twitch'n'jerk and disco's metronomic pulse.  Drummer Rick Pelletier
even incorporates a disco-style crashing hi-hat into his playing.

    Six Finger are veritable scholars of post-punk. Earlier, during the
soundcheck for their gig at CBGB's, James namechecks This Heat's "Deceit" and
ATV's "Vibing Up The Senile Man", the Stranglers, Suicide and PiL.  Later, during
the interview, the band cite Gary Numan, Devo, DAF, Kraftwerk, plus San Francisco
post-punk/art-metal bands MX-80 and Chrome, whose "acidic but potent"
guitar-clangour is a big influence on John's playing.  They hint that their
future output may bear the imprint of Eno & Bowie's Berlin-based trilogy
"Low"/"Heroes"/ "Lodger".  As for contemporary kindred spirits, they give the big-up to Hydrogen Terrorists, from their own locale of Providence, Rhode Island; James describes them approvingly as "the soundtrack to a seal clubbing".

    "We're interesting in anything that involves two opposing forces,"
elucidates James, when quizzed about their 'beauty is cruelty' aesthetic and
Devo-esque interest in the superhuman/subhuman interface. "Whether it's in
personal relations or the structure of the Nazi empire. A study of the oppressor
and the oppressed."

    So which do you sympathise with?

   "That depends. Whoever has the guts to carry something through. People who
don't recant on their ideal.  Perverted genius, scary figures from history like
Rasputin the Mad Monk."

     In their groovy press pack, each member of Six Finger lists their favorite
dictators (Ngo Dinh Diem, Idi Amin, Genghis Khan and Steve Albini).  For some
reason, there seems to be an innate tendency for rebel rock to drift toward a
fascination with fascism.  Perhaps it's not so odd when you consider that the
Nazis were Romantics, Nietzche buffs and neo-pagans (all tendencies shared by
arty rock'n'rollers).  And so Iggy talked of being a fuehrer without followers,
the ubermensch that Nietzche could only write about; Bowie spent much of his
coked-out mid-70s flirting with Nazism and Aleister Crowley.  Following in this
well-trod path, Six Finger attempted to rival the Pistols' "Belsen Was A Gas" for
sheer tastelessness with "The Magic Bus" on "Machine Cuisine", in which a
vocoderised J.  Ryan plays the role of a sort of robot commandant ushering
passengers on board their way to the Final Solution.  And on the new LP, "Board The
Bus" revisits this most dubious of scenarios. So what gives?

   "I guess I've just read a lot of war books and had my share of Third Reich
fantasies, so I'm acting them out", J.  says sheepishly.

    "It's only because they were such a remarkable organisation," continues
James. "It has nothing to do with the acts themselves, just the way they were
structured.  It's how most people wish they could live their lives: hyper-regimented. Get up, slaughter 50 thousand people, then have lunch.  They were striving for a kind of efficiency that's beyond the attainable. We've come close, on this tour."

     "At one of our shows, we used to have a Six Finger black arm-band, and a
local newspaper accused us of being Nazis," adds John. "But I've always thought
of the whole performance aspect of rock as being related to fascism, the cult of

    James: "The confusion our generation feels is from not being able to live up
to the highly edited lifestyles we see on TV. And so being able to go see a
really focused, committed performance, means something.  We try to present a
unified front so people can fixate on the band."

     John: "There's a whole fascist side to it where it's not background music,
it's a love/hate thing.  People come up and say 'that show was offensive to me'.
They could have just left the club but the fact that they stayed and watched all
the way through, hating it, is cool.  To me that's like someone saying they really liked it."

    We appear to have reached another of those stagnant lulls in rock
history when barbarism seems better than banality, when the frisson of the
monstrous seems preferable to ennui.   "If you can bring out a violent response in someone, that's good," says James. "People are so dissassociated from their own being these days, they need to be jolted.".   

"Severe Exposure" is out now on Sub Pop.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

slacker America / squatters travelers ravers versus Criminal Justice Bill / the Nineties

unpublished (?) end-of-year essay, for Melody Maker? 1992? 1993?

by Simon Reynolds

There were "slackers" long before anyone gave them a name. For decades, every college town and major city in the Western world has had its bohemian sector of n'er do wells and time-wasters busily engaged in trying to stave off the Real World for as long as possible.  Rejecting the career ladder, these drop-outs prolong adolescence and mess about - for a few years, for decades, sometimes forever.  Financial insecurity seems a fair trade for more time to devote to creativity, questioning and self-discovery. It was this bohemian milieu that birthed the hippy and punk movements, and it remains the perennial breeding ground for indie bands.

     The UK equivalent of slackerdom used to be "dole culture", before signing on became an increasingly untenable lifestyle after Thatcher's assault on the Welfare State.  In the USA, middle class kids try to drag out their college education as long as possible; after college, some live off private incomes (as with the notorious "Grandma's trust fund" that subsidises every Lower East Side hardcore band's recording costs and drug habits), others eke out a living with temporary jobs (waiting, working in record stores, etc).

     But in the late Eighties, a particular rock aesthetic and worldview emerged that was eventually christened "slacker".  It combined elements from earlier boho-movements: slacker = the stoned dreaminess of hippy + the faithless vacancy of punk. But perhaps more significant was what it left out of the fusion: slackers were hippies without the world-changing idealism, punks without the speed-fuelled uptightness and will-to-power. The defining quality of slacker is limp: as Mercury Rev put it on their second album, "Boces" - "if there's one thing I can't stand, it's up".  The slacker is apolitical, a Rebel against Causes, against Movements (and movement).

    Perhaps the archetypal slacker in rock is J. Mascis. On the early Dinosaur Jr's albums "You're Living All Over Me" and "Bug" (1987/88), he came over as a pampered, housebound, spiritual invertebrate. Mascis' ragged, frazzled guitar-sound, torn-and-frayed drawl-whine of a voice, and fatigued lyrics, all aspired to that early Seventies Neil Young feeling of burn-out, that stemmed from the bitter comedown after the late Sixties high.  Another early classic of slacker rock was Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation" (1988), which imagined New York as a psychedelic labyrinth, "a wondertown" for the dazed-and-confused wanderer.  Songs like "The Sprawl", "Eric's Trip" and "Hyperstation" took unmoored drifting to the brink of psychosis.  Then there was the nouveau acid rock of the Butthole Surfers, whose Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary chucked in careers in accountancy for a life of making mess (on stage, on record) and getting wasted.

     In the US, there's another strand of maladjusted, unmotivated youth, who have less choice about wasting their lives: they don't have any opportunities to squander in the first place. These kids, known as "burn-outs" or "stoners", drop out while still at school.Despised by their teachers and by their more aspirational peers,burn-outs wear long-hair, smoke pot by the bike shed, and listen to heavy metal (classics like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, contemporary thrash like Metallica and Slayer).  They hang out in car lots and abandoned buildings, get harassed by the cops,sometimes graduate to harder drugs like heroin.  The British equivalent of burn-outs are probably the kind of delinquents that made up Happy Mondays or todays' hardcore techno youth. But rave culture hasn't impacted suburban America yet, so burn-outs don't get hyper and happy, they numb the pain as best they can.

     In her book "Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids",Donna Gaines pinpoints the predicament that faces the burn-outs. With the decline of traditional manufacturing employment, the only options for these kids are ignominious service sector jobs, devoid of union protection or prospects for advancement.  Hence their low self-esteem, the feeling that there's no future, and the commonly expressed sentiment: "no job is worth cutting your hair for".  The gap between the expectations fostered by the dream factory of Hollywood and MTV, and what they can reasonably expect from life, is huge.  The escape routes from this dead end include the anaesthetic/amnesiac coma of drugs, and the one-way ticket "outa here" of suicide. The more optimistic imagine joining the army or forming a successful rock band: both ways of seeing the world and learning a trade.  Even after Clinton, the outlook is still bleak for American youth: paying off the deficit will depress the US economy for years. There's literally "No Future": the babyboom generation have already spent it.

     In the late Eighties, after years of "lite-metal" (all those poodle-perm groups like Bon Jovi), metal got heavier again,musically and thematically. Bands like Metallica took on punk's attitude, cutting down the musical flab and addressing grim reality in their lyrics.  Meanwhile, the post-hardcore bands were getting heavier, fusing the turgid ponderousness of early Seventies blues rock with the belligerence of punk. And so grunge was born. And out of its birthplace, Seattle, Nirvana exploded into the mainstream with "Smells Like Teen Spirit", a record that briefly forged middle-class slackers and blue-collar burn-outs into a unity of disaffected youth. Only Nirvana could do this, because of their unique combination of intelligence (Cobain and Novoselic are art-school drop outs, politically sussed) and raw, simplistic aggression. 

Today, the grunge spectrum extends from arty absurdism to bludgeoning, brain-dead bombast. At the slackerdaisical end of the spectrum, there's Pavement, with their surreal wit and mild disillusionment: at the other end, pure burn-out, you'll find Alice In Chain, who are devoid of irony and totally mired in despondency.

     Pavement exemplify the brighter side of the slacker condition: namely, that all that freedom from responsiblity gives you time to bliss out on the weirdness and wondrousness of everyday life, time to acquire an obsessive knowlege of music. But there's a downside even here: you can tell that Steven Malkmus' inordinately large record collection hasn't made him happy, that in fact he feels dwarfed and unworthy when faced by the achievements of previous rock eras. And like true slackers, Pavement disguise this by terminal irony. 

 The dark side of slackerdom comes through more plainly with bands like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Rollins Band, Nirvana: feelings of impotence, entropy, entrapment.  I reckon grunge is 'castration blues', and if you think that's fanciful, consider the fact that Alice In Chains actually have a song called "Slow Castration", that there's a line in "Smell Like Teen Spirit" about
being "neutered and spayed".

     In that one song, Nirvana captured all the anguish and the cruel irony of the slacker condition.  Nirvana want to rebel, they want to believe that music can change the world, but their insurrectionary spirit is crippled in advance because they know that resistance is futile: the music industry routinely turns rebellion into money. Teen spirit is bottled, shrinkwrapped and sold over the counter.  And so Cobain's rage chokes in his throat, festers and turns to bitter bile.

     *         *         *         *         *

    As well as Nirvana's breakthrough, 1991 also saw the cult success of the movie "Slacker". Directed by 28 year old Richard Linklater, it was a low-budget snapshot of the shiftless, decentred life of the twentysomething hangers-on who inhabit the fringes of the University of Austin, Texas.  Drifting through Austin's summer streets, Linklater's camera bumps into a hundred of these ne'er-do- wells, eavesdropping on their bizarre monologues and debates
(usually concerning conspiracy theory or elaborate validations of their own apathy), and observing their peculiar rites. Funny, touching, but implicitly sad, "Slacker" steadfastly refuses to judge the slackers. For Linklater the film was neither diatribe nor celebration, just a document.

    One of the things "Slacker" captured so well was the way that slackers, while passive and weak-willed, envy those capable of action. They have a voyeuristic, vicarious fascination with assassins and mass murderers, perhaps because they offer a mesmering spectacle of pure will.  "Slackers spend their whole lives in their own heads," says Linklater.  "Making that leap of faith into action is hard.  So when they hear of one person who did make a difference, they're impressed, even if it's a mass murderer."

     Slacker's main activities (or passivities, more accurately) are "daydreaming as productive activity" and trawling the detritus of decades of pop culture.  The result is a slacker aesthetic, a weird mix of kitsch and mysticism, that has obvious parallels in music (Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Bongwater) but also in modern art. Artforum magazine identified a slacker school of artists, whose installations involve random accretions of found objects, trashy knick-nacks and personal souvenirs. In slackerdom, wrote Jack Bankowsky, "everyone worships at their own jerry-built altar".

     1991 also saw the publication of Doug Coupland's 'novel' "Generation X", an amusing but lightweight dissection of the twentysomething malaise. Seeing no hope for advancement on the career ladder, Coupland's X-ers are into "lateral mobility", moving from one unsatisfactory "McJob" to another.  After the success of their debut efforts, both Linklater and Coupland turned their attention to teenagers: Coupland wrote "Shampoo Planet" (about today's global teens) and Linklater filmed "Dazed and Confused" (about Seventies high school burn-outs). Meanwhile, Hollywood detected a market in the twentysomething demographic, and started churning out slacker-sploitation pics, like Cameron Crowe's cute but slight "Singles" and Michael Steinberg's stylish but pseudo-profound "Bodies, Rest and Motion".

     *         *         *         *         *         *

     Since the Zeitgeist-defining moment that was "Smells Like Teen Spirit", the precarious alliance between slackers and burn-outs has disintegrated, in much the same way that punk dispersed into a myriad fragments after the Sex Pistols auto-destructed. The slacker contingent has gone off into the rarerified realm of noise-for-noise's sake. In the wake of Pavement, a burgeoning movement of lo-fi avant-garage bands has emerged: Unrest, Ween, Sebadoh, Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, Truman's Water, Royal Trux, God Is My Co-Pilot, Timber, Thinkin' Fellers Union Local 282, Smog, etc.  Like Pavement, these bands favour cryptic song-titles, surreal lyrics, arcane influences (The Fall, Krautrockers like Can, Faust, Neu), and a mess-thetic of loose ends and wilful dishevelment.  Meanwhile, the bulk of the audience that Nirvana created has stuck with the simpler fare of pure grunge: the brawn and bombast of punk-metal bands like Stone Temple Pilots, Kyuss, Flotsam and Jetsam, who all plough the narrow strip of terrain between Black Sabbath and Black Flag.  It's seems unlikely that this split between arty elitism (the slackers) and artless populism (the grungers) will be repaired.

     And what of Nirvana, the band who made the Slacker a public figure? Judging by the sequel to "Nevermind", with its ultra-grunge Steve Albini production, Cobain & Co seem deadset on alienating their audience and shortcircuiting their success. You only have to read the sleevenotes to "Incesticide", with Cobain's angst-wracked writhing about integrity and his almost pathetic namedrops of obscure bands, to realise that Nirvana want to go back to the indie womb. A slacker who's somehow landed himself with a millionaire career, Cobain is knocking on the underground's door, begging for readmission.  And ain't that pure slack?

Melody Maker, summer 1994

by Simon Reynolds

   The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is oozing its way through the parliamentary digestive tract and will be probably be passed into Law by a Commons majority in July.  It contains a host of pernicious extensions of police powers, but it's Part 5 that will affect your world most, with its devastating attack on the radical fringe of pop culture: illegal raves, free festivals,
squatting and travellers.

     Cutting through the Bill's legalistic nuances, the gist of Part 5's provisions is as follows.  First, it gives the police hugely expanded and highly discretionary powers to thwart raves.  Whilst a rave is defined by the Bill as a mere 100 people playing amplified music "characterised by the emission of a
succession of repetitive beats" , the most disturbing clause allows the police to harass gatherings as small as ten.  If an officer "reasonably believes" the ten are setting up a rave, or merely waiting for one to start, he can order them to disperse; if they fail to do so ASAP, they're committing a crime, punishable by a three month prison sentence or a œ2500 fine.  Moreover, the police are granted
the power to stop anyone who comes within a one mile radius of this 'rave' and direct them not to proceed. The leeway for local police to interpret events, and the scope for abuse, is enormous.

     Another bunch of provisions practically illegalise squatting. If an 'interim possession order' is granted against squatters, they have 24 hours to leave; failure to do so, or returning to the premises any time within a year, is punishable by a prison sentence of 6 months or a œ5000 fine.  Part 5 of the Bill also includes draconian measures to deal with trespass and unauthorised campers (i.e travellers) and against 'aggravated trespass' (aimed at hunt saboteurs, but these could be used to suppress, say, environmental protests against new motorways.)

     As a whole, the Criminal Justice Bill is a desperate attempt by a decrepit government to toughen up its image.  (Labour, chickenshit about opposing the Bill for fear of seeming "soft on crime", looks likely to abstain rather than vote against it.) The origins of Part 5 go back to the Castlemorton mega-rave of May '92, which created a new 'folk devil' in the crusty-raver/New Age traveller. The
ensuing media panic about this unfamiliar subculture convinced the public that hordes of unwashed, drug-crazed, outlandishly garbed anarcho-mystics were set to descend upon hitherto genteel neighbourhoods, whereupon they would blast deafening hardcore techno for 7 days solid, sell acid to children and shit on the shrubbery.

    Few people sympathise with travellers and squatters; fewer still are prepared to defend them. So it's been easy for the government to add them to the list of 'enemies of society' targetted by the Criminal Justice Bill.  It may be hard to believe, but Kenneth Baker once lumped squatters in with armed robbers and rapists as wrong-doers that the Tories vowed to "get tough" with.  Squatters!
who harm nobody but just help themselves by taking over abandoned, usually derelict buildings (90% of squats are empty public sector housing owned by local authorities).  Squatters!  who actually preserve the market value of these delapidated domiciles by fixing them up.  Of course, the Bill doesn't appeal to reason or statistical reality, but to bigotry and paranoia--the consternation
caused by those who look and live differently.  And it appeals to a secret resentment many feel towards those who repudiate 'straight' reality (suburban slow-death via the satellite dish and other forms of stupefaction).  Sort of: "I don't live today--so why should they?!"

     But why should you care about the rights and the plight of squatters, travellers and other n'er-do-well deviants?  Simply because Part 5 of the Bill threatens to extinguish some of the crucial spaces in which radical popular culture has survived and thrived over the last 25 years. Squat culture has been the breeding ground for bands as diverse as the Sex Pistols, My Bloody Valentine
and The Shamen.  Squatting enables bands to survive through those difficult, impecunious early days, especially if they're trying to do something innovative or uncommercial. Much the same applies to artists, film-makers, writers etc. Destroy squatting, and our pop culture will be depleted--not instantly, but insidiously and inevitably.

    Warehouse and squat parties, illegal raves, and the free festival circuit are also vital spaces for alternative culture. Ever since the 30,000 strong gathering of the tribes that was Castlemorton, the police have been determined to crush the sound-systems and the festival-bound convoys; the Criminal Justice Bill provides them with an embarassment of powers to abuse.  Local police forces are already collaborating in the use of computers to log data on 8000 travelers (including info on their vehicles, nicknames and associates).  Some county police forces are determined to ensure that even legal raves don't happen this summer.

    All these developments reinforce a general trend in British society over the last decade: the contraction of possibility. Dole culture (another breeding ground of bands) has been all but obliterated, via the harassment of claimants, compulsory Restart programmes etc.  Once students were able to use their time to explore ideas as well acquire marketable skills.  But the loan system and the removal of dole and housing benefits have plunged them into debt and into dread;
now they must scurry up the conformist career ladder in order to pay off loans and overdrafts. The impoverishment of students (who incidentally make up eight percent of the squatting population) and the bare subsistence offered by dole, have a knock-on effect on pop culture: there's a severely reduced market for interesting, risk-taking music, media and culture generally.  Only the most dedicated bands and labels perservere with innovation in the face of declining sales and meagre prospects.  The effects of all the above converge to create a palpable feeling of contraction in the culture, a withering away of possibility, daring and risk.

    All these effects on pop life may seem minor compared to the other sinister ramifications of the Criminal Justice Bill: the removal of the right to silence, arbitrary stop-and-search powers for the police, and a host of other measures that push this country closer towards what has been called "elective tyranny".  A decrease in the number of interesting rock bands may seem a negligible
side-effect of the illegalisation of squatting, given its more immediate result: another 50,000 added to the number of homeless sleeping rough on the streets.

    But since Melody Maker is a music magazine, in this 4 page special we focus on the ways in which our turf--rock and rave culture--is threatened; at the ways your world is being circumscribed and impoverished.


   Colm O 'Ciosig (drummer): "Originally, it was just a question of finding somewhere to live when Kevin Shields and I first came to London. We couldn't afford a deposit for a flat, so we squatted a house in Kentish Town.  It's more fun living in squatland anyway, outside the landlord system.  It raises your spirit, whereas bedsitland makes you apathetic.  You have to be quiet, it's
really oppressive.  If we hadn't squatted, we'd probably have got really depressed and left London.  We paid for our first records with dole.  If we'd also had to pay rent, we'd have had to get jobs, and doing something we didn't want to do would have destroyed our spirit. We sat around a lot, sure, but that's conducive to coming up with ideas. We wrote the 'You Made Me Realise' EP in a
rehearsal room in our squat."
     Bilinda Butcher (guitar/vocals): "I squatted for four years in the barrier block on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton.  Having a baby boy, I wouldn't have been able to be in a band without the squatting community, cos they ran creches. And MBV wouldn't have gotten anywhere if we hadn't been able to squat. You can't practise in a bedsit.  You need somewhere you feel free to make a noise. Plus, if we'd
been paying rent we'd never have had enough money to pay for rehearsal space and gear and guitar strings, which are always breaking.  If the Bill is passed I don't know how bands starting out will manage.  The whole music scene will suffer, there'll only be room for mainstream stuff."


     "I don't go along with the hippy baggage that surrounds the squat lifestyle, that whole heroic outsider thing," says singer/guitarist Graham Sutton, who squatted for several years with (now former) Bark bassist John Ling.  "For us, it was more a survival thing, surviving to make music. It made sense to dodge rent and poll tax.  There was kind of a punk, DIY ethic to it, too--fixing up the
place, doing your own decorating, electrics, plumbing.  Where we squatted (Claremont Road in Leyton, East London) was quite a scene: every other house was squatted, and everybody was doing creative things. There wasn't that wastoid culture element.  That scene got a name for itself, and for a couple of years it was really good--lots of parties, a real community feeling. Then they started
evicting people to make way for the M11.  I'd already left, for rented accomodation, 'cos the scene had become a bit of a bubble.
     "What I find weird about the 'crime' of squatting is that it doesn't make sense, even according to Tory logic.  Most squatters repair the places they live, cos it's horrible to live in a shit-hole. They're saving these places from deteriorating and losing their value."