Monday, February 19, 2018

Post-Punk: Lubricate Your Living Room (Uncut, 2001)

Lubricate Your Living Room: Postpunk
(a.k.a the acorn out of which Rip It Up and Start Again grew)
Uncut, December 2001

by Simon Reynolds

This is the version that ran in the pages of Uncut, for which it was, ha ha, cut down a lot. There is a much longer version, about 19 thousand words, that I deluded myself the magazine would publish in in its entirety. I did put that version on my Blissout website for a few years, and at some point I may post it up here. A surprisingly large amount of the writing and quotes don't overlap with Rip It Up

For five years now, people have been trying to kickstart 'the Eighties revival'. And what 'Eighties' refers to, of course, is eyeliner-boys playing one-finger synth, daft haircuts, etc. All stuff that's easy to look back on with amused affection: safe. But what about the moment just before this 'Eighties' – the post-punk years of 1981, 1980, 1979? Who's really up to confronting the intellectual ardour and uncompromising militancy of this earlier Eighties: The Pop Group, Gang Of Four, This Heat, Cabaret Voltaire, early Scritti? Our irony-enfeebled constitutions would surely collapse on contact with the sheer solemn seriousness of it all.

Perhaps this earnest revolutionary zeal is why post-punk has suffered serious neglect from retro culture, which has pillaged damn-near everything else. But there are signs of a resurgence: Chicks On Speed covering songs by Delta 5 and The Normal; avant-funk compilations like Weatherall's Nine O'Clock Drop; 23 Skidoo reissues; this year's Rough Trade Shops – 25 Years, a celebration of the record store that spawned the independent label/distribution empire; Messthetics, a CD compilation series of long-lost DIY singles; new post-punk-influenced bands like Life Without Buildings; rumours of Primal Scream pursuing a Throbbing Gristle/DAF direction...Maybe the time is ripe to reopen the memory banks.

Punk seemed to be 'over' almost before it began. For many early participants, the death knell came in late 1977 with Never Mind The Bollocks – however incendiary its contents, ultimately just a hard rock album. If you wanted to locate the beginnings of post-punk, you could go back even earlier than Bollocks, though – to Johnny Rotten's show on Capital Radio in the summer of 1977, during which he played records by Beefheart, Peter Hammill, Can, plus contemporary roots reggae artists. This was the lead Pistol blowing the carefully constructed thug monster image. Malcolm McLaren was horrified, Rotten recalled, because it showed that "I couldn't be half as...moronic, violent, destructive...as they wanted to promote me."

Capital Radio began the process of persona-demolition that culminated in 'Public Image' the song and Public Image Limited the band. A repudiation of Bollocks' mod/NY Dolls/glam rock'n'roll, PiL was what Lydon had always wanted the Pistols to be: a studio-oriented non-band influenced by dub and Krautrock.

Lydon's hipster checklist on Capital Radio effectively offered a programme for the completion of punk's failed musical revolution. At the close of 1977, defunct music weekly Sounds' two-part feature, titled "New Musick", heralded the first wave of post-punk bands that used Lydon-style influences as a springboard into the future: dub, Krautrock, The Velvet Underground, Eno/Bowie, electronics, disco rhythms. "Punk had become a cliche and we wanted to continue that sense of discovery and total science-fiction alienation," says Jon Savage, one of the New Musick writers.

The two UK groups whose response was swiftest to the post-punk challenge were Alternative TV and The Pop Group. "Punk had brought in the DIY ethos but it didn't take the musical progress far enough," says Mark Perry, lead singer of ATV. Their-second album, Vibing Up The Senile Man, released early 1979, seriously upped the stakes. "It still shocks me how we had the bollocks to do Vibing...," Perry laughs. "There's free jazz influences – I was into the Art Ensemble of Chicago."

The modus operandi was like PiL's Flowers Of Romance two years early: untutored musicians using all kinds of non-rock acoustic instruments, creating raw sonic material to mess with, using the studio as an instrument.

The Pop Group approached this kind of sonic action-painting, but their funk base gave listeners something to grip onto. "Just before punk, we were like the Bristol funk army," says singer Mark Stewart. "We'd go dancing to import records by T-Connection, Fatback Band – heavy bassline funk. Later I discovered that all across the UK, there'd been similar kids who were into funk and wearing Fifties clothes as a reaction against prog rock."

As well as funk's groove power, The Pop Group brought in dub's disorienting FX and out-jazz's freeform pyrotechnique. Intellectual influences included Wilhelm Reich's creed of libido liberation, Situationism's revolt against boredom, and Beat poets like Ginsberg. The result, on songs like 'Thief Of Fire', was Dionysian protest, a conflagration of sound and imagery that dissolved divisions between politics, poetry, mysticism and desire.

Signing with major label offshoot Radar, The Pop Group debuted with the single 'She Is Beyond Good And Evil', an exhilarating mess of disco-style walking bass, slashing punk-funk guitar and Stewart's love-stricken caterwaul. It was about "love as a revolutionary force", says Stewart: desire as a catalyst for Utopian hope. The line "Western values mean nothing to her" – like the images of savages in war paint on the cover of the debut album Y – expressed The Pop Group's cult of all things primal, their yearning for a lost instinctual power enfeebled by civilisation.

Sensing a kindred wild spirit in Mark Perry, The Pop Group invited ATV to tour the UK with them. "We practised what we preached on Vibing...," says Perry. "No rehearsing, just this freeform spontaneous thing." Expectations frustrated, audiences reacted violently.

Total freedom meant dealing with another aspect of punk's stillborn revolution: the need for artist-driven independent labels and an alternative distribution network. Mark Perry ran Step Forward, the indie that put out The Fall's early records. "Just think what powerful repercussions there'd have been if The Clash had gone the indie route, rather than signed to CBS," Perry sighs wistfully. "Instead, punk just ended up rejuvenating the record industry."

"The disappointing thing for me was the Pistols and Clash signing to majors," concurs Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade. Like many indie labels then and now, Rough Trade began as a record shop. Located in Ladbroke Grove, the original Rough Trade opened in February 1976 and became a magnet for the local punk community. In many ways, though, Rough Trade bridged the gap between the old hippie culture and punk. The business was run as a cooperative: everyone had equal say and equal pay. These sort of communal values were still part of mid-Seventies radical culture: Time Out, for instance, operated as a collective. "Growing up Jewish, I'd also had first-hand experience of kibbutz in Israel," says Travis.

Like other shops-turned-labels, Rough Trade's retail sense of what was selling developed into an A&R instinct. The label debuted in early 1978 with Metal Urbain's 'Paris Marquis'. But it was ROUGH 3 that really tapped the post-punk Zeitgeist: Cabaret Voltaire's Extended Play EP. The same egalitarianism that informed the running of Rough Trade governed deals with artists: contracts were for one record at a time, profits split 50/50 after studio and promotional costs (fronted by Rough Trade) were made back.

Rough Trade was just one of the first wave of post-punk indies, alongside New Hormones, Industrial, Small Wonder, Fast Product and Cherry Red. But it became the movement's unofficial leader, enabling other people to set up labels by advancing them money, even providing them with a base of operations. "I was really close to Rough Trade," says Daniel Miller, founder of Mute. "I didn't have an office, so they let me do my record mail-outs from their premises."

Even more vital was Rough Trade's efforts to build an independent distribution network in alliance with regional retail/label/distribution outfits like Probe, Revolver and Red Rhino. Without effective distribution, the do-it-yourself ethos was just shouting into the void. Nationwide independent distribution held out the possibility of genuine communication: reaching a scattered audience of like-minds, recouping your costs, carrying on.

Bands self-releasing their own records was the next stage in the movement's evolution. The Desperate Bicycles were the earliest evangelists for do-it-yourself/release-it-yourself, chanting "it was easy, it was cheap – go and do it" at the end of their 1977 debut single 'Smokescreen'. A scrappy legion of groups responded to their call-to-amps.

Another post-punk player inspired by The Desperate Bicycles was Daniel Miller. "I don't know if I ever heard their records, I just got infected by the energy they put across in this Melody Maker article about how easy it was to make a record." Buying a second-hand synth, Miller recorded 'T.V.O.D.' and 'Warm Leatherette', the two sides of his debut single as The Normal. With its JG Ballard-influenced lyrics and harsh all-electronic sounds, the single upped the stakes in post-punk's assault on trad rock.

"Back then people hated synths with a vengeance," recalls Miller. Non-reliance on past rock traditions became Mute's A&R hallmark. The label began almost unintentionally, with demo tapes turning up unsolicited. "Before I knew it I was running a record company, with no business grounding whatsoever. Punk encouraged people like me, Geoff Travis, Tony Wilson – not obvious record company people – to make their dreams come true."

"The idea of the independent movement was so new and exciting then," says Travis. "People would rush out and buy anything that was part of it. This is what people forget: the records used to sell. Anything halfway decent shifted from 6,000 to 10,000." The Normal's single sold over 30,000.

Demystification was the slogan of the day. "It was self-empowerment through not letting yourself be bamboozled any more," says Travis. "People exert control through mystification. Engineers can be like that in the studio. I'd got no studio experience at all, but I produced 'Nag Nag Nag' by Cabaret Voltaire and co-produced stuff by The Raincoats, The Fall. I didn't really know what I was doing, but at that point in history, you had the confidence to just go ahead."

'Leave The Capitol', exhorted a track on Slates, The Fall's 198110-inch mini LP. Fellow Mancunians The Passage sneered "too many peacocks...they must be very dull in London". Post-punk was a time when the provinces rose up against the metropolitan monopoly over music. Any week back then the independent chart would invariably feature a couple of regional compilations: the Manchester Music Collective's Unzipping The Abstract, Rockburgh's Hicks From The Sticks, Sheffield's Bouquet Of Steel...

In Sounds' "New Musick" feature, Jon Savage had heralded "fresh energy from regional centres". "I was very excited going around the UK, unearthing all these weirdo bedroom cases. If I want to hark back to that time, Cabaret Voltaire's 'The Set Up' really does it. Don't forget how awful the urban landscape was then – Sheffield seemed like a bombsite, 30 years after the War's end."

Cabaret Voltaire were pure DIY: no manager, their own eight-track studio. The group started as a pre-punk experimental trio using tape loops. Their 1975 debut gig, at a Sheffield University disco, triggered a riot. Ironically, their sound gradually got more disco-like, while never exactly amounting to party fuel. Richard H Kirk's harshly-treated guitars sounded wraith-like and Stephen Mallinder's bass lurked like an abject, pulsing thing. Dub permeated the mix but the echo was curiously dry and hollow: Rasta's dread without Zion's redemption. The mood of clammy-palmed, Control-Is-Watching paranoia was straight out of Burroughs, Ballard and Alan Pakula movies like The Parallax View.

Along with fellow Sheffield outfit Clock DVA, Cabaret Voltaire created the stereotype of post-punk as bleak and grey – qualities that seemed to seep into the records from the city's post-industrial landscape. Manchester gave Steel City a run for its money in the 'grim 'oop North' stakes. Joy Division's story is thrice-told, but there was more to Manchester than Ian Curtis' band of merry men. There-was The Fall, with a coruscating sound that Mark E Smith dubbed "country'n'Northern": rockabilly sluiced through White Light, White Heat, sulphate-snarled lyrics as vivid and impenetrable as hieroglyphs, the singer's objects of scorn usually remaining unclear.

Seemingly permanently ensconced in the independent charts with albums like Pindrop, The Passage was a vehicle for classically-trained Dick Witts' doomily grandiose arrangements and lofty polemics about religion and other weighty themes. Other Manc post-punk notables included Ludus, Manicured Noise, Section 25 and The Blue Orchids – an offshoot of The Fall whose classic The Greatest Hit LP was an acid-mystic protest against Thatcherite money worship.

Of all the era's Manchester groups, perhaps the most intriguing was A Certain Ratio – as much for the idea of ACR as for the music itself, which was only realized in flashes. The concept was disco noir; even more than The Pop Group and The Cabs, ACR inspired the avant-funk genre of 23 Skidoo, 400 Blows et al. In ACR's case, the concept was given flesh and force by the febrile fatback drumming of Donald Johnson. "ACR were part of what I always think of as a dope and Red Stripe crowd, shebeen heads," says Dave Haslam, author of Manchester; England – The Story Of The Pop Cult City. "They had a bizarre sense of fashion – close-cropped hair, baggy khaki shorts an extreme reaction against hippy untidiness or punk anarchy, going instead for a neat, mod sensibility."

Up in Scotland, another bunch of post-punk groups deployed discipline to fight rockist slackness. Josef K wore sharp monochrome Oxfam suits. "We were quite puritanical." guitarist Malcolm Ross said. "We didn't like sexism or laddishness. I was interested in the original mod movement and that was one of the influences in wearing suits...I wanted some kind of dignity."

Following the Subway Sect model of guitar pop stripped of rock'n'roll cliche. Josef K refused to indulge the audience with stage banter, encores, or autographs. "The whole anti-rock thing was a reaction to the mouldy old shoe." says singer Paul Haig, who cites Tom Verlaine. Lou Reed and David Byrne as influences on Josef K's spiky guitar sound.

North of the border, anti-rockism was very much in the air: The Associates' Billy Mackenzie declared that he'd "always hated the rock thing" and pledged his allegiance to disco and film soundtracks. The Fire Engines played 15-minute sets and released a mini album of "background music for action people" called Lubricate Your Living Room. Orange Juice fused The Velvet Underground with Chic and projected an image of fey naivete ("Worldliness must keep apart from me" sang Edwyn Collins). "Alan Horne [founder of the Postcard label] had a vision for Orange Juice all along, to turn them into a great pop band." says Haig. "He never liked Josef K. We were far too abrasive and dark."

The concept of "rockism" was coined by Pete Wylie, which was ironic because Wah! Heat were one of the most traditionally rockin' outfits of the, era. This was typical of Liverpool's post-punk scene: with the exception of the dub-and-disco-influenced Pink Military, there was little experimentalism. Wah!, Echo And The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes shared a taste for the epic and their retro leanings prompted journalists to reach tentatively for the word psychedelic': still a dubious concept, given its proximity to hippiedom. Wylie, Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope were also the most brazenly rock-star in demeanour, not concealing their ambition. Yet in many ways the Bunnymen were an exemplary post-punk band – their sound, monochrome and minimal on the first two albums, was rooted in Television's blues-less blueprint. The Bunnymen were also synonymous with the same sombre audience mobilised by Joy Division: overcoat-clad and angst-wracked young men.

All through 1979-81 the weekly music papers competed to discover new city-based scenes – the next Manchester or Sheffield. Strange and wonderful records were emerging from all over the country, though. "You'd get records sent in by these stroppy lads from tiny towns in Lincolnshire, places you had to look up on the map," says John Peel, whose late-night Radio One show gave national exposure to DIY culture's inspired one-offs. "One thing I liked was that a lot of these bands were almost entirely without ambition. Their goal was often just to put out the one single."

'John Peel band' was almost the name of a genre back then – home studio eccentrics who caught the DJ's ear and, in a brief reign of glory, got late night Radio One's equivalent of being plavlisted: groups like Family Fodder. Fatal Microbes. (And The) Native Hipsters (whose 1980 single 'There Goes Concorde Again', a captivating collision of twee whimsy and genuinely alien eeriness, like a Scunthorpe Residents, got to No 5 in the indie charts thanks to Peel).

A few 'John Peel records' even trickled down, via Mike Read and Kid Jensen's evening shows, into daytime Radio One and became pop hits: Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman' (No 2, winter 1981), Pigbag's 'Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag', (No 2, spring 1982).

Peel's unflagging support of post-punk's uncommercial vanguard was all the more crucial because it was the only way many people had access to this music. Radio had not been deregulated yet; pop programming on TV was scarce and staid. Apart from Peel, the only other nationally accessible media by which you could find out about post-punk was the weekly music press.

As with Peel, it's hard to grasp the crucial role played by the music papers in the years following punk. For most of the 1978-81 period, the NME sold over 200,000 copies; the combined circulation of NME, Sounds and Melody Maker was in excess of 500,000. There were hardly any rival sources of information – no monthlies, scant coverage in newspapers. Punk had mobilised a huge audience looking for the way forward and ready to be guided by the inkies.

In another sense, bands and journalists were in the same business. Post-punk was nothing if not a critique of rock'n'roll, a meta-music. Songs were often mini-manifestos addressing punk's failure or music's purpose: TV Personalities' 'Part Time Punks', Scritti Politti's 'Messthetics', The Prefects' 'Going Through The Motions'. On Subway Sect's 'Rock and Roll, Even', Vic Godard sang, "We oppose all rock'n'roll/It's held you for so long...Afraid to take the stroll/Off the course of 20 years/And out of rock and roll."

The Leeds scene – Gang Of Four, The Mekons, Delta 5 and its Birmingham satellite, The Au Pairs – took this self-reflexively critical approach to rock furthest. Gang Of Four's debut single, 'Love like Anthrax', challenged the pop institution of the love song, while Entertainment!, the title of their debut LP, was an implicit question and spur-to-thought.

A big influence on this demystificatory approach to pop culture and emotional life was feminism and the concept of 'personal politics'. "Its easy to forget just how militantly pre-Loaded this culture was," recalls Ian Penman, one of NME's main post-punk writers. "You went out with girls who wore little scissors-insignia earrings" – signifying castration – "and they meant it!" In post-punk terms, this translated into lopping off the cock in cock-rock. Although it had encouraged un-typical girls like The Slits to get up and do it, punk had quickly, in the words of Jon Savage, "become very blokeish".

Post-punk's belief that 'the personal is political' led to an intense scrutiny of private conduct and public discourse alike for ideological soundness – the kind of vigilance about lifestyle politics widely denigrated today as 'political correctness'. Rough Trade refused to distribute the first Nurse With Wound album because they felt the cover's S&M imagery was degrading to women. "Rough Trade would actually tell fanzine editors, 'We will read your zine and if there's anything racist or sexist in there, we'll return it,'" recalls Tony Fletcher, editor of Jamming.

"There was an element of politicisation to relationships," recalls Gang Of Four drummer Hugo Burnham. "The women in our social circle were much healthier in terms of the male/female power dynamic. At the same time, it didn't mean we didn't try to get laid at every opportunity. There was nothing puritanical about Gang Of Four!"

Gang Of Four created the template for a new rock that was aggressive but not macho. "It was bringing together guitar rock's hardness with the groove of black music," says guitarist Andy Gill. One bond that united the group's members was, surprisingly, a love of Free's supple, stripped-down blues-rock. "I loved Free but you were completely aware of the idiocy of the lyrics. It was a question of taking the bits you loved and leaving the rest. Or deliberately taking those rock'n'roll cliches and turning them inside out."

Some cliches were sonic. "Instead of guitar solos, we had anti-solos – gaps," says Gill. Certain traditional guitar effects (wah-wah, fuzz-tone, distortion) were eliminated. The band's very sound was abrasively different: Gill favoured the brittle, clean sound of transistor amplifiers rather than the 'warm' sound of valve amps (which every guitarist today prefers).

Entertainment! was cold emotionally, too, the Marx-influenced lyrics slicing through the mystifications of love, 'capitalist democracy' and rock'n'roll itself. 'Damaged Goods' and 'Contract' used the language of commerce to analyse affairs of the heart. 'Love Like Anthrax' shocked with the unsentimental imagery of heartbreak as feeling "like a beetle on its back". While Jon King sang the lover's blues through one speaker, Gill recited a statement through the other channel that questioned why love was a privileged subject in rock: a stereophonic Brecht effect.

What made the consciousness-raising efforts of agit-funkers like Gang Of Four more than merely academic was the surrounding political context. An economically depressed industrial town, Leeds was a stronghold for resurgent far right politics: the National Front, the British Movement, the League of St George, were all active there. Friction between the post-punk vanguard and the Oi!-punk-loving skinheads was aggravated by typical town-versus-gown hostility. "Skinheads would turn up to the gigs and start fights," says Gill. "Our favourite pub, The Fenton, was where all the lefties, artists and fags hung out, and one night about 20 NF thugs came in and smashed the place up. It was like a Wild West saloon fight."

In the art department of Leeds Polytechnic, an embryonic version of Scritti Politti was gestating. By the time they moved down to London, Scritti had developed Gang Of Four's critique of rock into an ultra-rigorous interrogation of every aspect of the music's form, content and procedures.

Along with Marxist philosophers like Gramsci (Scritti singer/guitarist Green Gartside had been a young communist), a key influence was the American journal Art/Language, whose texts were 'signed' as a collective. Scritti similarly styled themselves as a sort of music/theory commune. Surrounding the group's musical core – Green, drummer Tom Morley and bassist Nial Jinks – was a floating pool of associates numbering anywhere from 15 to 40. Ian Penman was a member of what Green dubbed the "odd conglomerate", hanging out at their Camden squat, composing a Scritti Politti communiqué, sometimes performing onstage with them. "Occasionally with Scritti I would get up and, well, rap, I guess you would have to call it these days," Penman recalls. "Cut up a Lenin text and cross-reference it with Lee Perry's 'Bafflin' Smoke Signals'...You have to understand, we took a LOT of speed back then!"

There's a photo of the Carol Street squat's filthy front room on the cover of Scritti's 1979 EP, 4 A Sides: every available surface strewn with books, pamphlets, overflowing ashtrays, beer bottles. You can almost smell the lifestyle-theory-addled, sulphate-fuelled conversations going on 'til the crack of dawn, punctuated by visits to 'blues' (illegal reggae parties) or five-groups-on-the-same-bill post-punk gigs at the Lyceum.

Named after a Gramsci book, Scritti were heavily influenced by his concept of 'hegemony': the notion that the ruling class maintains its thrall over the rest of society through propagating 'common sense' ideas of what is natural, crystallised in notions like 'a fair profit'. 'Question everything' was already a mantra/motto for post-punk groups; Scritti took this to the limit. Even the word 'rock' was ideologically suspect: Green preferred the term "beat music". Musically, the result was brittle, self-deconstructing songs like 'OPEC-Imac' and 'Bibbly-O-Tek', whose fractures couldn't conceal Green's melodic genius and the sweet plaintiveness of his high, Robert Wyatt-like voice. Live, Scritti would make up songs on the spot as part of their commitment to breaking with rock's stale routines.

At the extreme, this impulse to question all aspects of 'the rock process' and of everyday social existence could resemble a Maoist self-criticism tribunal, where party members accused themselves of counter-revolutionary tendencies. "It was all tunnelled through Green's absolutely monomaniacal insistence on what was correct" says Penman. "I remember having a serious confrontation with Green about tidiness...I couldn't understand how anyone could conceive, let alone organise, a new society from the squalor that was 1 Carol St...And he mounted a massive ideological justification for untidiness: 'Cleanliness is next to bourgeois hegemony'."

Operating in a similar soundzone to early Scritti, This Heat started before punk. Initially influenced by the angry free jazz of the Sixties and the tape-loop sound collages of musique concrete, the group were way out on a limb, according to drummer/vocalist Charles Hayward, until punk arrived to provide a climate for their "desire to commit violence to accepted notions of music".

This Heat's motor-impulse was pure post-punk: a desire to wake up listeners to a painfully sharp consciousness of the world's evils. "That's why our music wasn't psychedelic and drifty, why it was so hard-edged and angular – we had no interest in making people stoned with our sounds," says Hayward. 'Sleep' from 1981's Deceit – virtually a concept album about nuclear destruction – imagines power lulling people into complacent apathy: "A life cocooned in a routine of food...Softness is a thing called comfort."

This fierce sobriety was projected through the group's image – Deceit's back cover shows the band looking almost pre-War with their ties, jackets, short haircuts and stern frowns. "We liked going to jumble sales – I got bus conductor jackets and handfuls of ties for 20p. It was a look related to the idea of pulling yourself together, fighting back against these bastards who were ruining the world."

It's hard to recapture the atmosphere in 1979/1980, that looming sense that something appalling was about to happen: Thatcher's election, the resurgence of fascist violence, mass unemployment, talk of a police state taking shape...The Cold War was at a renewed pitch of frostiness and Britain was increasingly perceived as little more than a launching pad for American missiles. Post-punk musicians fought back with protest songs and benefit gigs galore for CND and the various Rock Against...campaigns.

Roots reggae provided post-punk artists with a language of armagideon and sufferation to express their sense of internal exile in Babylon, UK. "Rasta offered a ready-made cosmology that meshed the political, the spiritual and the apocalyptic and it helped you define your enemies," says reggae journalist Vivien Goldman.

There were contradictions in being 'white Rasta'; the latter's Old Testament moralism clashed with Western liberalism. "With the roots worldview, the logic was often questionable, but the feeling of uplift was undeniable," says Mark Stewart of The Pop Group. "Going to sound systems and witnessing that yearning for a better world, that questioning of the system, it made my hairs stand up on end."

In the winter of 1979/80, post-punk was cresting at a peak of creativity with a series of classic albums that fused experimental reach with relative accessibility. In the NME's end-of-1979 writers' poll, the Top Five included Talking Heads' Fear Of Music, Public Image Limited's Metal Box, Unknown Pleasures and Entertainment!; albums by The Slits, Raincoats, Swell Maps, The Fall, Pere Ubu and Wire featured prominently further down. But, almost by definition, peaks precede plummets. Post-punk engineered its own downfall, with visionary albums like Unknown Pleasures and Metal Box inevitably inspiring a rash of copyists.

Released in November 1979, Metal Box was the realisation of PiL's big talk of anti-rockism – not just sonically, with its 'death disco' rhythms and radically anti-traditional guitarwork, but in terms of its packaging. A tin canister containing three 12-inch singles, Metal Box successfully deconstructed 'the Album' by encouraging the listener to listen to tracks in any order, while the 12 inches' superior sound quality plugged listeners into the spacious, bass-intensified aesthetics of dub and funk.

The problem of following up this landmark paralysed PiL. "Keith Levene had this thing of 'I'm not going to play anything that's ever been played before'," recalls Vivien Goldman. "Talk about hubris!" Metal Box had seen Levene dabbling increasingly with synths, and soon he was talking about abandoning guitar altogether. But 1980 was swallowed up with severe creative constipation. Paris Au Printemps – that most rockist of things, a live album – was released as a stopgap.

But although the yawning gap between what PiL preached (not being a band but a communications corporation, with grand plans to produce movie soundtracks, video albums, etc) and the fuck-all they actually achieved was becoming starkly apparent, they remained the media's sacred cow. So when Flowers Of Romance finally came out in April 1981, it was routinely hailed as another revolution.

Drugs played their part in PiL's downfall. "I spent a fair bit of time in the Lydon bunker at that time and it really was Last Days Of Berlin stuff," recalls Penman. "Shadowy unnamed geezers wrapping up parcels of speed the size of DeLillo's Underworld."

The great dissensions that convulsed UK rock culture all through the 1979-1981 period (post-punk vanguard versus Oi! versus ska/2 Tone) represented a struggle over punk's demographic spoils: the vast reservoirs of idealism and energy mobilised during 1976-77. In 1981, as the PiL-style vanguard got more abstruse, basic punk rock surged massively in several flavours: Oi!, anarcho, US hardcore. The indie charts were flooded with new names like Vice Squad, Zounds, GBH, Discharge, Anti-Pasti, Chron-Gen, Flux Of Pink Indians.

If the 'punk's not dead' resurgence horrified most music journalists, they were almost as dismayed by the emergence of a post-PiL/Joy Division/Banshees orthodoxy of doom'n'gloom: groups like Killing Joke, Bauhaus, The Cure. By 1980, Futurama, the Leeds two-day post-punk festival that had debuted in September 1979, was starting to be perceived as a sort of angst-rock Castle Donington, its flocks of overcoat-clad, grim-faced boys as uniform as the denim hordes that followed Iron Maiden.

In January 1981, Rough Trade and NME teamed up to celebrate the first five years of the indie revolution with the cassette compilation C81, an absolute snip at £1.50 for 24 tracks and a line-up including Pere Ubu, Cabaret Voltaire, Subway Sect, The Raincoats and Robert Wyatt. Thirty thousand people sent off for it.

Yet despite this success, C81 was in many ways post-punk's swansong. Several of the featured artists had already broken ranks and were talking up 'pop' as the way ahead. Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and Josef K represented Postcard, with founder Alan Horne ranting in NME about the defeatist "hippie attitude" of the "brown rice independents" and declared "music should always aim for the widest possible market". C81 opened with the gorgeous lover's rock of Scritti's 'The "Sweetest Girl"': Green trading in ultra-cerebral difficulty for the 'new pop' creed of accessibility, ambition and shiny surfaces.

By mid-1981, UK rock culture decisively shifted towards new pop's strategy of 'entryism' – using the major label system rather than building an alternative. This was one of the great trans-valuations in British rock history, in some ways even more drastic than the revolution of 1977 (which was at least partly couched as a return to lost rock'n'roll values). You can see the onset of the new value system by the words that crept into reviews and interviews, voiced by critics and musicians alike: "preaching to the converted", "dull and worthy", relentless imagery of stagnation and wallowing in misery. Sonic mannerisms that had seemed charmingly quirky or inspiringly amateur now indicated a deplorable dearth of ambition.

Scritti's Green presented his conversion to pop as a return to health. On tour with Gang Of Four, Green collapsed with what was either a heart problem or a massive anxiety attack Spending most of 1980 recuperating in Wales, he wrote a book's worth of notes to his band, theorising a new soul-funk direction for Scritti's music, and re-emerged bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with songs like 'Faithless'.

In the magazine interviews that followed, Green repudiated Scritti's collectivist ideals and disclosed that it was he who'd run the show musically all along. He publicly criticised his label Rough Trade for frittering their money on "silly music" (meaning Pere Ubu and Red Krayola) instead of focusing their-efforts on getting Scritti into the charts. And he scorned the idea of DIY and anyone-can-do-it.

Other artists and critics agreed with Green that it was time for a return to quality control, the hierarchy of gifted stars over talentless non-entities. If ambition was now a virtue, there was nothing to stop artists embracing the major label star system. Scritti, Cabaret Voltaire, DAF, even Throbbing Gristle (now called Psychic TV) all signed with majors.

Post-punk's demystification and agit-prop was suddenly out of fashion. The Pop Group approach – 1979's 'We Are All Prostitutes' single and 1980's For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? album – was panned as a self-flagellating guilt-trip, a new puritanism. Perhaps people had just got tired of hearing the bad news. There was an inevitable swing back to glamour, escapism, fun.

Both 'new pop' and the proto-goth tendency of groups like Bauhaus represented a return to mystique, romance, the irrational. The "overwhelming sobriety" (Greil Marcus) of bands like Gang Of Four – "a sobriety that excludes not laughter but romanticism" – had been a necessary purge of cliché-encrusted rock tradition. But demystification kinda took the mystery out of everything. And whether it was ABC's ambivalent embrace of love's lexicon, or goth's patchouli'n'Crowley, 1982 saw the return of that old (black) magic again.

Post-punk, says Penman, was "post-everything, really...except, oddly, sincerity. Everyone was brittle with it." New pop and goth abandoned this core quest for the authentic and revived glam's dream of self-reinvention. Along with the belief in authenticity, another casualty was post-punk's modernist confidence that you could make an absolute break with the past. With huge swathes of potential influence strictly off-limits (almost all of the Sixties and early Seventies), post-punk groups constructed distinctive sounds for themselves out of what was left: Velvets, Beefheart, Krautrock, contemporary sounds like disco and dub.

By contrast, new pop was properly postmodern, jumbling up Sixties Motown, Seventies glam, Eighties synth-pop; goth mashed up The Doors, T-Rex, Alice Cooper's guignol shock-rock. Soon came the deluge of retro culture and 'record collection rock' that holds sway to this day, with its cancers of irony and reference points.

When trying to pinpoint what was so painfully exciting about this three-year phase of British music, 1979/80/81, I always circle back to the idea that, as great as the music sounded, what really counted was that pop wasn't a compartmentalised category set off from the rest of reality; music was about more than other music. For instance, knowing that PiL loved Can doesn't really tell you much about Metal Box. Is this because the post-punkers had so much else on their minds – inputs and obsessions from politics to film to literature?

Sometimes, inevitably, this meant the intensity was embedded less in the music itself than the surrounding conversation. This might be post-punk's cardinal flaw, the reason for its 'failure' – the 'all mouth, no trousers' syndrome echoed by such inheritors of post-punk's excessive ambition as Huggy Bear and the Manic Street Preachers.

Nowadays, you have the opposite problem: bands where the sonic substance might be undeniable, but there's no Great Idea behind the enterprise (so what is it really worth?). In the post-punk period, there was so much cultural electricity in the air that even the era's unrealised experiments and failed pretentiousness seem more suggestive, more cherishable, than today's perfected product.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Politics and Pop - a personal journey

A personal journey through politics and pop
director's cut version of Pitchfork Review essay, fall 2016

by Simon Reynolds


SEX PISTOLS, “Anarchy in the U.K.”; “God Save the Queen” (1977)

I first heard the Sex Pistols in mid-1978, a full year after “God Save the Queen” convulsed the United Kingdom in the summer of ’77. Living in a small English town far from the action, my 14-year-old head was elsewhere all through ‘77, sideways glimpsing punk’s existence only in photo spreads of outrageous haircuts in Sunday newspaper magazines. When I finally heard Never Mind the Bollocks, the Pistols story affected me as a rock-myth fait accompli, rather than unfolding as a real-time historical sequence with an uncertain outcome.

It was my brother Tim—a few years younger, far better endowed in street cred because he went to a state school—who brought home a cassette of songs by the Pistols and Ian Dury & The Blockheads and who later bought Bollocks. Because I wasn’t going to gigs yet, or reading the music press, and only rarely seeing groups like these on TV, punk’s power manifested itself to me almost entirely as sheer sonic force: I’d never heard anything so domineering, never even imagined that “pop” could be this unbridled, such an attack.

The record covers were thrilling too, thanks to punk’s aggressively innovative graphic language (Bollocks’s ransom-note newsprint lettering, for instance). When the Pistols’ The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle came out in 1979, me and Tim and our younger brother Jez pored over the double album’s gatefold sleeve with its stills from the forthcoming movie (then still a long way from completion and release). But most of all, it was the voices in punk, a kind never heard before in pop: tones of jubilant bitterness; a sense of malevolent power conjured up from with the singer’s body through sheer will and blasted out at the listener. The voice, above all of Johnny Rotten. That, and the things he sang about. Like anarchy, an intoxicating and unfamiliar concept.



It’s moot whether “Anarchy in the U.K.” should be taken as a Political Statement; it’s more like prophecy or poetry. If the song corresponds to any ideology, the closest thing is the 19th century stripe of anarchism associated with German philosopher Max Stirner, who imagined the state being dissolved in favor of a “union of egoists.” Anarchy, in this worldview, means absolute sovereignty for each individual, who would no longer be subject to higher authority or constraints to the free exercise of desire. Anarchism, in other words, that has nothing to do with the placid, orderly decision-making of communes or workers’ councils; rather, it’s an apocalyptic unleashing, a chaos of wills, with each individual ruling his or her life like a tyrant.  That’s how I hear the chorus “I wanna be/Anarchy,” which Rotten drags out like a triumphant jeer.

As a vision for how society should organize itself, “Anarchy in the U.K.” is literally puerile, the sort of thoughts entertained by adolescents with no inkling of how challenging life is. But I was 15 when I heard the song, just the right age. The Pistols spoke most intoxicatingly to boys between 13 and 17: a period in life when you have an innate flair for recklessness, an awesome ability to disregard consequences. Boredom—and something darker too, an appetite for destruction—drove the brothers Reynolds and our peers towards vandalism, risk-taking (“dares”), and pranks. It’s the nastiness of punk—the “I wanna destroy” side, the (Sid) Vicious-ness—that gets written out of the validating histories, which invariably accentuate punk’s idealism, the empowering and constructive do-it-yourself ideas. But in our suburban bedroom, we thrilled to the tales of the Pistols puking at airports, Sid slashing his chest onstage, and the seductively cynical notion that it had always been a swindle, a Malcolm McLaren cash-from-chaos masterplan.

Age 20 when he recorded “Anarchy,” Rotten was already a bit old for this kind of thing—and in truth, he wasn’t a “Smash It Up” punk at heart, but a book-reading, record-collecting hipster who shrank from real-life violence.  McLaren, at 30, should have been well past this way of thinking. But the Pistols manager idealized, venerated—and also envied—teenagers as the only really revolutionary class. Existing in a liminal limbo between childhood and duty-bound adulthood, emboldened by the dawning sense of their own physical and mental independence, the Kids were the only ones who could ever change things, because they had no stakes in the status quo.

Where “Anarchy” is timeless Gnostic-Romantic poetry, “God Save the Queen” diminishes itself slightly by being topical, as well as having the shape of a Classic Rock Anthem. The historical peg was the Royal Jubilee celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 25 years on the throne, “a mad parade” of imperial nostalgia that covered every town in Britain with bunting and Union Jacks. The Pistols’ single was such an affront – the lyric described the monarchy as a “fascist regime” -  the song led not just to a BBC ban, but to enraged patriots violently assaulting members of the band. Despite the embargo, the single reached #2 on the UK chart; some believe that devious conniving by the authorities kept “Anarchy” off the top spot to save further embarrassment to the Establishment.

The scandal of “God Save the Queen” set up impossible expectations for what politics in pop could achieve. It restored a belief in rock’s power to incite and to threaten that had waned steadily since the heyday of the Stones and the Who. But it was “Anarchy in the U.K.”—and other Bollocks songs like “Bodies”—a foaming fulmination, explosive with expletives, against the horror of human biological existencethat set the true challenge for rock going forward: How to equal the expressive force of a voice, and a sound, that felt so corrosive it would surely shake the world? The Sex Pistols songs were rock’s equivalent to the theses nailed by Luther on the Wittenberg church door: They made a decisive break with the Old Wave, while also—like the Reformation before it—opening the way for further schisms, the proliferation of sects pursuing different ideas of what punk now meant and how that dramatically revivified power should be deployed most righteously.



TOM ROBINSON BAND -  Power In the Darkness, TRB 2   (1978-9)

The only fan of Tom Robinson Band I ever knew was a boy in my lower-sixth class (equivalent to the eleventh grade) called Sandbrook, who had daubed TRB’s clenched-fist stencil-style logo onto his satchel. Although my own tastes already leaned towards post punk groups like Public Image Ltd and the Slits, Sandbrook’s passion for TRB and protest-oriented Ulster punks Stiff Little Fingers was close enough for us to feel like we were on the same side, at a school where most boys were still drawing perfectly executed Genesis, Yes, and Pink Floyd logos on the desks. His satchel also bore the insignias for Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, other indicators of simpatico values that stood out at a school where: 1) the Conservatives always won the mock elections; and 2) where the parents of one of my friends could declare that the world should quit meddling in South Africa’s affairs, because the system there worked well for everybody—and they weren’t hounded out of polite society.  

Talking of sides, one of TRB’s anthems was titled “Better Decide Which Side You’re On.” Tom Robinson conceived of his band’s constituency as a rainbow coalition of the disadvantaged and marginalized: the unemployed, racial minorities, gays, squatters, feminists, drug users. In reality, TRB’s following was largely composed of progressive-minded white middle-class youth, very much in the mold of Robinson himself—a clean-cut, well-spoken, smiley chap who came over as earnest, unthreatening, and “straight” (although actually openly and vocally gay). Those who’d been energized by punk but wanted something constructive and more clearly aligned in its Left allegiances rallied to TRB’s banner.




Robinson’s approach to music was means-to-an-end: he wanted to bring his message to as wide an audience as possible.   Accordingly TRB’s rousing sound was rooted in the Old Wave more than the New Wave, finding a stomping, if stiff-hipped, groove midway between Free and Mott the Hoople. Well-played and cleanly produced, the road song “2-4-6-8 Motorway” was commercial enough to crack the Top 5.  But the group’s single and album covers were plastered with contacts for every imaginable pressure group and activist organisation.


                                         

TRB were huge in 1978: Critics hailed them a positive realization of punk’s promise, there was an hour-long TV documentary devoted to the band, the tours took in ever larger concert halls. But almost instantly the music press turned on them for “preaching to the converted” and for being too straight in their angle of address (lyrically and musically). Reaching the unconverted became a crucial concern going forward. But equally important for those looking to both live up to and extend punk was the idea of challenging and unsettling the converted. Musicians and critics began to explore the idea that politics was not about the transmission and reception of messages but the initiation of a thought-process. In the next stage, “Question everything” and “personal politics” became key buzz concepts.




CRASS -  Stations of the Crass, “Bloody Revolutions”, “Our Wedding” (1979-81)

Crass, a collective of former hippies and new punks who lived in a communal farm cottage called Dial House, took the “anarchy” in “Anarchy In the U.K.” literally. Punk, for them, was about self-rule. Crass opposed all forms of hierarchy: State, Army, Church. They brandished slogans like “Fight War Not Wars. Destroy Power Not People” and “You can’t vote anarchist, you can only be one.” Politics was “politricks” and a power game (another black-flag slogan was “Whoever you vote for, the government wins”). For Crass, the Left was just as bad as the Right: Stations’ “White Punks On Hope” equated socialist violence and fascist violence as “just the same old game.”



My brothers were Crass fans and one single they played a great deal, “Bloody Revolutions,” picked up this theme, criticizing macho hard-left militancy in much the same way that John Lennon, in The Beatles’ “Revolution,” jeered at dogma-indoctrinated radicals with their Chairman Mao placards. At university in the early Eighties I encountered this divide within the anarchist community itself: gentle hippie-ish types largely concerned with getting their minds right (feminist consciousness raising groups for both women and men) versus the hot-head street guerrilla types happy to leave the chicks and the wimps to their navel-gazing and get down to serious business like brick-hurling confrontations with the Pigs.

Although later their music got more sophisticated and experimental, early on Crass treated sound as a mere delivery system for the messages. That was one reason the British music press initially scorned the group and the anarcho-punk movement they spawned; Crass were also accused of puritanism and sloganeering.

Yet Crass had a mischievous side, a McLaren-like delight in the publicity stunt as a form of subversive media theatre. Most famous of their pranks was the Thatchergate hoax: a 1982  record purporting to be a telephone conversation between the British Prime Minister and Ronald Reagan, during which were revealed dirty secrets about the Falklands War and the President’s plan for a showdown with the Soviets using Europe as the  arena of conflict.  The intelligence services got in a right flap about it, with the U.S. State Department initially identifying the record as a KGB ruse. 



But the one that really tickled me was in 1981, when—in the guise of Creative Recording and Sound Services, which acronyms as C.R.A.S.S.—they persuaded Loving, a mushy romantic magazine aimed at young women, to run a special offer for the free flexi-single “Our Wedding.” Sung by Joy De Vivre, the band’s second female singer, to the accompaniment of strings, church organ and wedding bells, this supposed celebration of marriage was really a sardonic poker-faced expose of matrimony as mutual bondage: “Listen to those wedding bells/Say goodbye to other girls”; “Never look at anyone/Must be all you see.” Hundreds wrote in for the flexi before the prank was revealed in a newspaper article. Talking to NME in June 1981, the band’s Penny Rimbaud railed at Loving-type magazines as “obscene and despicable rags” peddling “teenage pornography” that “trivialized love and relationships.”  “Our Wedding” later appeared on their 1981 No. 1 indie-chart album Penis Envy.

Virtually all of Crass singles and LPs topped the UK’s independent releases chart: their following was huge, especially out in the provinces where punk achieved its greatest and most lingering impact a few years after the big cities like London and Manchester had moved on musically and sartorially. You saw the Crass stencil all over the UK: on walls, on paving stones, and on the leather jackets of the punx mooching in clutches around bus shelters and the fountains outside town halls. For most of the fans—including my brothers—Crass’s appeal was as much to do with the visuals as the rather rudimentary sonics. The records came in elaborate packaging that folded out to form posters featuring Gee Vaucher’s beautifully drawn photo-realist counter-propaganda, dream-like tableaus in which Maggie Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth were leather-clad punkettes, the Statue of Liberty had a Mohawk, and Pope John Paul II wore a “Destroy” T-shirt.



GANG OF FOUR -  Entertainment!, “Why Theory?”  (1979-81)

Aged 17, I believed two things about Gang of Four—that their music was funky as hell and that if these songs got on the radio and onto Top of the Pops, they would be subversively consciousness-raising in a simple cause-and-effect way, at the point of contact with the listener’s brain.  Go4’s funk, though, is quite some distance from Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall or Chic: not a release but a girding of the loins for the struggle ahead, a stark and staunch sound clenched with commitment. As for the lyrics, they are certainly a big step forward from the soapbox screeds of Crass and Tom Robinson, designed to unpick the threads of ideology that stitch together our sense of the world as “a natural fact” (a line from “Why Theory?” on Go4’s 1981 album Solid Gold).

Still, each song is making a statement, which the listener has to work to uncover. Go4 are not preaching to the converted; they’re critiquing on behalf of the predisposed. For example, on the 1979 debut Entertainment!, “Natural’s Not In It” can easily be deciphered as an analysis of the way capitalism ensnares desire via advertising’s “coercion of the senses”; “Contract” is clearly a structural diagram of marriage that reveals its fault-lines and contradictions. “At Home He’s A Tourist,” Go4’s near-hit single, is more opaque, ranging from commodified sexuality to bourgeois culture-binging as a way of filling the void. 




Gang of Four signed to EMI, the same label as TRB, for similar reasons: To get their ideas across to a mass audience. They agonized over whether to appear on Top of the Pops to perform “Tourist” to the show’s 10-million-plus viewers, because the price of admittance was censoring the word “rubbers,” a slang term for condoms, in a lyric. Torn between integrity and crossover, Gang of Four decided to opt for the former and torpedoed the evangelising raison d’etre that had led them to EMI in the first place.  This principled refusal alienated the record company and as the moment of potential breakthrough passed, the group’s career never really recovered.


SCRITTI POLITTI - Peel Sessions EP, 4 A-Sides EP (1979)

Born out of the same Leeds art school scene, Scritti Politti took the next step forward from Go4. Catalysed by the Anarchy Tour of 1977, Scritti began as a straightforward punk group, The Against. But almost immediately, things got a lot less straightforward:  punk’s negative drive (its against-ness) turned on itself, with the launch of a potentially interminable project of undermining one’s own ideological assumptions.  From the start that made the Scritti sound far less staunch and stable than Go4’s: wracked with uncertainty (“Doubt Beat” is one song's title) to the point where the music feels  on the brink of nervous collapse. In singer/lyricist Green Gartside we encounter a mind so sharp it lacerates itself, thought that ties itself up in immobilizing knots.  “OPEC-Immac,” for instance, makes oblique connections between the cartel of oil producing nations and a beauty product, before dissolving into a lacuna of impotent confusion: “how much do you ever stand to know?” The word “stand” suggests both a limit to how much you are ever likely to understand the workings of the world, but also how much knowledge – how much disabused lucidity – can an individual bear before succumbing to despair.  Inverting the Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s maxim, pessimism of the intellect defeats optimism of the will.




Aged seventeen I found Scritti Politti – whose name, taken from a collection of texts by Gramsci, translates roughly as “political writings” – genuinely enlightening. They introduced my young brain to a large, confounding idea:  the notion that, rather than being a transparently useful tool for radical thought, language itself might be a mechanism of oppression. In “PAs”, it’s “the language” that “shuts down” in 1920s Italy and again in 1930s Germany – and that might yet collapse in a fascist U.K. of the coming Eighties. “Bibbly-O-Tek” argues that language, wrapped around clothing, creates fashion, which then creates money.  In the song, phrases like “secondary pickets” and “Eastern Bloc” are recited in a pointed, withering tone, leaving the listener to work out the ideological freight with which they’re loaded.  “Secondary” implies that workers in one unionized industry have no business striking in solidarity with workers from another (as with dockers cutting off the supply of imported coal to help miners during an industrial dispute);  “Eastern Bloc,” as a menacing term for a  Soviet Empire, obscures the fact that NATO nations are satellites too, a Western Bloc of vassal states twitching to the tune of a different superpower.

This disorienting - yet also darkly exhilarating -  idea of language as the prison-house of consciousness was pursued not just in the songs but in the photocopied text wrapped around the Peel Sessions EP, pages from an imaginary book titled Scritto’s Republic. “The rules of a society are embodied in the rules of its language,” wrote its unidentified author (Green obviously, although Scritti liked to present as a collective to the world). “It is through common sense speech that we are reproached and directed.... Language pre-exists our entry into it and defines what is normal and represses that which will not or cannot be covered or developed by its framework.” 







Green carried his “linguistic turn” through to Scritti’s next phase of pop crossover, with deconstructed love-songs like “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” (which vows to look behind “the strongest words in each belief”) and the huge UK hit single “The Word Girl.” But as with deconstruction in the academy, this abstruse close-work seems to have little to say about the world outside the text. Scritti’s domain became the politics of and inside pop, rather than bringing real-world politics into pop.  




DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS - Searching For the Young Rebels (1980)

Post punk hatched an ascetic streak latent in punk. Entertainment for its own sake was escapist, a narcotic: music needed to carry a higher purpose of consciousness-raising or critique. Sometimes accused of being didactic and dour, groups like Gang of Four, The Au Pairs, The Pop Group, and Scritti Politti were my kind of postpunk puritan, perfect for a young mind that was beginning to approach the world critically. But there was another kind of puritan around on the early Eighties British music scene: mod-influenced figures like The Jam’s Paul Weller and Dexy’s Midnight Runners’s Kevin Rowland. Both made great singles but for some reason I was never swayed into become a follower of either of these men. I think partly that’s precisely because they both so clearly wanted converts; each band became a cause in itself for their following.  

Dexys retained and intensified punk’s will-to-power—they are named after a brand of amphetamine, after all. Rowland’s first response to punk had been The Killjoys, the name itself indicating a puritanical zeal seemingly at odds with his Irish Catholic background. Depressed in the aftermath of punk, Rowland rallied his spirits with the horn-pumping, muscular soul of ‘60s performers like Geno Washington. This became the template for Dexys’ sound: brassy, uplifting, pugnacious, and, in its own retro way, as staunch as Gang of Four. Searching For the Young Rebels, the debut LP, starts with the sounds of a radio: Bursts of Sex Pistols and The Specials (another politics-in-pop byproduct of punk) are heard amid the hiss and crackle, before Rowland’s exasperated voice cries, “For God’s sake, burn it down.” Dexys set themselves up here as both next in a series of insurgent renewals for British music and as the upstarts who will surpass their failed precursors. The LP title is an open call for recruits, an attempt to conjure a new youth movement out of nowhere.




The nature of “young soul rebellion” remained unclear, though. Political specifics figured here and there. “Dance Stance,” the debut single, took issue with derogatory stereotypes about the Irish, defiantly reeling off the nation’s list of illustrious literati. The LP cover featured a Catholic boy from Ulster being driven from his Belfast home during the sectarian clearances of 1971; one song concerned Rowland’s unsuccessful attempt to set up a union at his workplace. But the overriding emphasis was on the internal politics of the British music scene, on Dexys’ candidacy as a messianic force, and on Rowland’s belief in, well, belief.




“There There My Dear,” the follow-up hit to the #1 “Geno,” was a paranoid rejoinder to a journalist or musician who refused to “welcome the new soul vision.” Almost thrown away in the accusatory bluster was one of political-pop’s most provocative thought-bombs: “The only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things.” The implication is that music can only ever be incidental to the struggle. But given that Rowland and his Dexys would carry on being pop stars, recording another two more ‘80s albums before dispersing for a couple of decades, you might well draw a further inference: They are not really that interested in changing things. That raises the perturbing possibility: Is pop an arena in which those with the temperament of revolutionaries can experience all the self-aggrandizing excitement of leadership, without any of the unglamorous costs or consequences of actual struggle?





KATE BUSH, “Breathing”; YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS, “Final Day”; UB40, “The Earth Dies Screaming”; FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, “Two Tribes” (1980-1984).

It is almost impossible to convey to young people today what it was like to grow up during the ‘60s, ‘70s and (first half of) the ‘80s, with the awareness that nuclear annihilation was a real prospect constantly hanging over you. One of my high-school projects was a paper on the effects of a ten megaton bomb dropped on London. Our hometown was about 35 miles from the capital’s center – the bull’s eye in the target for Soviet bombs - and so it would escape the fireball and direct blast, but receive some very fierce winds, following by radioactive fallout. Around this time, I joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which was then resurging after the government’s consent to base U.S.-controlled cruise missiles on British soil, a decision that would turn the UK into a launch-pad and thus a prime target for Soviet retaliation—or a preemptive strike.

Pop picked up on these currents of anxiety with a string of songs about nuclear war. Kate Bush’s disturbing, if overwrought, 1980 single “Breathing” described “chips of plutonium” penetrating the bloodstream shared by a pregnant mother and her unborn child. Young Marble Giants’ “Final Day” was a hauntingly still and soft vignette—somehow more terrifying for its brevity—about our compliance and complicity in the madness of mutual deterrence. Despite the melodramatic title, UB40’s hit “The Earth Dies Screaming” was even more chillingly subdued: its dread bass and funereal pace turned the atmosphere ashen in the Top of the Pops studio.


                                     

A few years later came what was intended as the ultimate protest record: Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s single “Two Tribes,” a follow-up to “Relax,” released by the arty-provocateur label ZTT. Lyrically inane and emotionally ambiguous (at times it seemed almost to exult in Armageddon, the excitement of living in a world “where sex and horror are the new gods”),  “Two Tribes” nonetheless brought the issue to the biggest possible audience, colonizing the No. 1 spot on the UK singles chart for nine weeks during the summer of 1984. 

                                        

The sleeves of its numerous 12-inch mixes resembled my school project, caked in data and diagrams about what a superpower showdown would entail for short-term lethality and long-term species-extinction. (A stylish chart totted up the death toll in categories ranging from nuclear winter and famine to disease and psychological trauma.) Yet as ZTT’s conceptualist Paul Morley noted wryly, “Two Tribes” was replaced, after two months atop the charts, by George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” Nothing changed, not even in pop, let alone in the outside world.



                                                

THE STYLE COUNCIL -  “Shout To The Top”;  THE REDSKINS -  “Keep On Keepin On!” b/w ”Reds Strike the Blues!”; THE SMITHS - “Still Ill”; WORLD DOMINATION ENTERPRISES—“Asbestos Lead Asbestos”; THE MEKONS - “Darkness and Doubt” (1984-85)

                                                    

During the 1983 general election, while still a student, I did some canvassing for the Labour Party: a door-to-door, unswayable voter to unswayable voter trudge so discouraging it permanently soured me on the front-line grunt-work that’s the dreary, but indispensable, essence of political involvement. In the years between Labour’s resounding defeat and the next election in 1987, a cluster of prominent left-wing musicians—Billy Bragg, Paul Weller of The Style Council, Jimmy Somerville of the Communards—formed an organization to mobilise the youth vote: Red Wedge. That name made aesthetes like me recoil. (Although the phrase’s provenance turned out to be supercool—the title of a 1919 propaganda poster by Soviet modernist El Lissitzky—it probably sounded a lot better in Russian). 

                                          
                                                   
Me and my kind were also turned off by the overall aura of well-meaning worthiness that clung to the Red Wedge project, the demeaning use of music as a mere vehicle. But by this point – I’d started writing for the UK weekly paper Melody Maker -  I had become persuaded that politics in pop was a busted flush anyway. To me, the only artistically potent expressions of the political in late ‘80s music were expressions of impotence: the flailing rage of World Domination Enterprises; the dissident defiance of The Smiths; the despondency of The Mekons. (Well, there’s also Public Enemy, but that’s a whole other knotty story).

                                           


Despite Red Wedge’s efforts, the 1987 election was another resounding defeat for Labour. This served to propel me even further into blissed-out anti-politics: the most adventurous music then being made, it seemed to me, hid from the world in gorgeous clouds of noise. Today, grown-up and worried, I feel retrospective sympathy for Red Wedge and the soul-influenced, militantly optimistic groups of that time, like The Redskins (aligned with the Socialist Workers Party rather than Labour). Why was I so down on the idea of preaching to the converted? When History is against them, the converted need to have their morale maintained, their spirits kept stalwart.



 



SPIRAL TRIBE, “Breach the Peace”; “Forward The Revolution” (1992)

It’s May 1992 and almost by chance I’ve ended up at the largest public irruption of subcultural dissent the UK has seen since the concerts and rallies of the punk/Rock Against Racism era: Castlemorton, a  mega-rave that takes over an area of unspoiled and secluded countryside in West England for a full seven days and draws crowds estimated at around 40,000. Castlemorton is “Anarchy in the U.K.” for real, what ‘90s theoreticians call a “temporary autonomous zone”: an instant city formed through the tribal alliance of urban ravers and the post-hippie travelers who for decades now have driven back and forth across the UK in their caravans and trucks visiting a summer circuit of free festivals.



I’m only there for the first night—by the time I get back to London, still blissed and babbling to anyone who’ll listen, Castlemorton is a front page story in all the papers and the lead item on the TV news. Questions are asked in Parliament about what should be done to end the menace of nomadic ravers who could descend in hordes on any genteel village in the country, inflicting their noise and outlandish dress sense upon the powerless locals. Rumors abound of hairy, smelly travelers taking a dump in the front gardens of Castlemorton residents, or trying to sell drugs to local children.



Spiral Tribe, canny media operators and aspiring martyrs, take all the credit and all the blame. All 13 members of the techno party crew are prosecuted for conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, in a long drawn-out case that will cost the public 4 million pounds but end in acquittal.  For the truth is that there were no ring-leaders behind Castlemorton: its mass confluence was a viral happening, a swarming that anticipated the flash mobs of digital days to come and that spiraled way larger than the instigators had anticipated. 


                                              

In the immediate aftermath of Castlemorton, while other sound systems -- DiY, Bedlam, and Circus Warp - shrewdly keep a low profile, Spiral Tribe do loads of interviews, talking about their aim to create a “public new sense,” about how days and nights of nonstop drugged trance-dance can take you outside the limits of reality. The collective are given a record contract from a label convinced they are techno’s Sex Pistols. Actually, they’re closer to Genesis P-Orridge’s Psychic TV: literally a cult group, believers in conspiracy theories and magical-mystical forces, prophets for a new primitivism that has paradoxically been enabled by the do-it-yourself autonomy provided by digital technology. 


                                            

In addition to the ultimately unsuccessful Spiral Tribe prosecution, the British government extends the clampdown on illegal raves with the Criminal Justice and Order Act 1994, which vastly expands police powers to thwart rave organisers and to make life difficult for squatters and travelers. While the laws are still working their way through Parliament, their intended victims organize a protest movement, the Advance Party. This alliance of  sound systems and civil liberties campaigners stages a couple of demonstrations in the summer and fall of 1994. The first, in July, is one of the few marches I’ve been on in my life. It winds up in Trafalgar Square, as is traditional for demos in the UK, but everything else about the protest—the garish, tatterdemalion clothes, the creatively designed placards—is a wildly different from the drab norms of Left activism.


I’m aware, though, with every step I take in the midst of this joyous cavalcade, that resistance is futile. Squatters, ravers, and travelers have few friends in the mainstream of British life: Ordinary folk are repelled by their appearance and talk, see them as parasitic layabouts, while figures of influence in politics and the media know that standing with “the crusties”—as they are popularly demonized—will do them no favours. The Criminal Justice Bill passes easily; Spiral Tribe splinter, with one faction moving to Europe to spread the “teknival” concept across the Continent.

                                                   

Like the Sex Pistols, Castlemorton proved once again the extraordinary power of music to upset and disturb; how noise and words can shake reality, momentarily upturning common-sense ideas of what’s normal and proper and possible. But it also showed once again the limitations of that power in the face of the forces that control the world.  The idea of changing things through music is arguably a useful illusion, creating an urgent sense of mission and high stakes that again and again results in inspirational sounds and statements. But it could also be seen, more severely, as a diversion from the dirty, dreary work of struggle.