Q/A with Jonathan Gharraie of the Cherwell
JONATHAN GHARRAIE: I suppose I want to start by asking a general question about why you started writing – where there any particular pieces of music that made
you think this was something you wanted to engage with, to decipher
for your readers or alternately to provoke them? And how was your
approach shaped by the critical climate of the time? I have the
impression there was a much greater creative dialogue between music
and music writing. Was this the case?
SIMON REYNOLDS: I wanted to be a music journalist from about the age of sixteen or seventeen, which would have been around 1979. Soon after getting into music seriously in 1978, with the Sex Pistols and Ian Dury and then the postpunk stuff like Slits, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, etc, I hooked into the UK weekly music press, in particular the NME, which was going through a golden age in terms of adventurous writing. And I realized that was what I wanted to do in life. Music was the most exciting, most forward-thinking and fast-moving area in culture, and the music journalists at that particular moment in history played a big role in terms of championing certain bands or scenes, pushing certain directions for music, making certain values attractive and a certain kind of language or way of thinking about music seem “sexy’. Not all rock writers had such an exalted notion of what they did, but the ones I gravitated towards as a reader certainly were in that Lester Bangs mode of rock writer as prophet/catalyst--the writer as someone who set challenges for the music as much as they simply documented what was going on. During postpunk there was a synergy, or even a symbiosis, between the criticism and the artistic practice--people in bands, or at least the most interesting bands, thought like critics, indeed often were writers as much as musicians, and the writers often crossed the line into making music or getting involved in the business. I never had any interest in that, having no actual music-making impulses, but I liked the idea of the activist critic who makes things happen and shakes things up.
More specifically, I'd like to know why you and David Stubbs set up Margin –
was it a response to the do-it-yourself attitude that was infiltrating
the music scene at the time and was Oxford the right place to set up
something like that?
I don’t think it was particularly a do-it-yourself thing, it was more in the tradition of people at university starting magazines. Paul Oldfield, who was the instigator of Margin really, had done a couple of arts magazines before, White Room and Radical Review, and I contributed something to the latter, that’s how I got to know him. Then Paul wanted to do something more “pop” and fun, so he and a bunch of us (including David Stubbs) started doing Margin, which looked more like a zine and had articles about pop music, fashion, polemics (I did a defence of pretentiousness, having been dismayed by how many students at Oxford used the word “pseud” and struck anti-intellectual attitudes), pieces on leisure (Paul did one critiquing student parties and imagining how to revolutionise the party!) It was a proper stapled together fanzine at first, but we soon tired of walking up all those steps trying to flog it to reluctant students (who were never in their rooms most of the time anyway) so we hit upon the idea of doing it as a poster magazine. The idea was half copying that Daily listing wall sheet thing (I forgot the title, Daily Information? the guy who founded it died recently -- is it still going?), and half influenced by the Situationists, the idea of the revolutionary screed pinned to a wall. We figured the outright financial loss of printing these things and giving them away for free would be compensated for by not having to slog around all the colleges, plus we’d get a much wider readership. So we stuck it on notice boards, laundry walls, all over the place. It made a few waves.
Margin the wallposter got more and more polemical and philosophical, as the influence of reading post-structuralist and other critical theory kicked in, and less to do with pop culture. By the end we were doing these manifestos, espousing this radical nihilistic creed of withdrawal and apathy, and the posters were very striking looking. We did a mini version of one issue, about the size of postcard and virtually illegible at that size, and we went around sticking them inside toilet rolls and under toilet lids. Inside people’s loaves of sliced bread, in between the slices... The idea was kinda “Margin--we’re everywhere! insidiously eroding your ability to carry on!”.
Then when the bulk of us graduated in 1984, we were on the dole, hanging around in Oxford, and we decided to do a proper magazine that was dedicated to pop culture,. That was Monitor. By the third issues, we got funding from an unexpected source and the magazine became very high production values and beautifully designed, on glossy paper. So again nothing to do with the postpunk do-it-yourself ethos really, or at least, we were doing it ourselves, but the idea was not to look amateurish or anti-professional, which is what most indie fanzines made a fetish of. We wanted to be the opposite of a fanzine -- we would be all think-pieces and no reviews or interviews (which is what most zines consisted of - word for word Q + A transcripts in tiny print, every last cough or giggle noted down), on this very clearly printed, stark design, quality paper.
I'd like to understand why you decided to compile the book now. I
particularly liked that opening piece from 'Monitor', which sets the
tone for much of the book with its discussion of the faltering
dialogue between black and white musical cultures. How important to
your understanding of pop music has this dialogue been? And what has
happened to it recently?
It was weird rereading the 1985 piece from Monitor because a lot of what I was complaining about could be applied to the present. If you removed the period-specific band-names like Membranes and the Mary Chain, it could have been a description of now.
The white-on-black thing is something I have been trying to work out, about whether it has actually gone into abeyance and if so, why is that? Obviously historically the entire story of rock and pop would not exist without this white-on-black syndrome, the white romance with black music, and that is especially pronounced in terms of British pop, from the Beatles and the Stones onwards. The whole postpunk period is all about white bohemia catching up with the rhythmic and production innovations of funk, disco, dub, and not just sonic innovations but in terms of expression and mood too. But just because historically this white-on-black mutation has been the motor of change in music doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be like that. At the moment, there seems to be a kind of go-your-own-way impulse, you have things like freak-folk which is really interesting but it has no relationship to black music, it’s totally white-bread in its sources. Now, is that even a problem? I don’t know, I suppose I am questioning my own ingrained impulse to feel that this is not healthy. Perhaps that is an archaic attitude. But then why is it that the people who make up the freak-folk scene, who are classic bohemian types, are not feeling any inspiration from modern black music, which is what white bohemians traditionally always did, whether it was jazz or blues or reggae. Perhaps the experiential gulf between street rap and white indie-rock types has grown so big that it’s discouraging people from trying to take on ideas from hip hop or grime. But back in the Sixties that didn’t stop all these middle class British boys from sheltered backgrounds feeling the pull of the blues, which was really from and about a totally different world than the one they inhabited. So… I have no answers as such, I am just intrigued, and concerned, by the possibility that this relationship between black music and white music has become unglued somehow.
In terms of why do the book, partly it was having been around so long—20 years—it felt like a good moment to take stock both of the development of my writing and the journey taken by music during that time. The fact that Rip It Up ends in 1985, which is when I started being a professional writer, at the end of that year, almost seemed to set up the question: what happened next? So this collection is kind of my answer to that. I put commentaries after each piece partly because they often needed some kind of contextualization, but also to tilt the collection towards the present, the question of ‘where are we now?’.
Your writing reflects a commitment not only to aesthetic principles
but to a sense of aesthetic community as well. This is particularly
evident in your writing on rave culture but on things like post-rock
and grime too, both of which were subcultures where the music's sonic
distinctiveness reflected something of the unusual conditions in which
they were produced/disseminated/listened to.
More recently however, on blissblog, you've been writing about
commitment - particularly in relation to metal and the return to
rockist values though I think that this also informs 'Rip It Up' which
at times reads like a memorial to the pop innovation inspired by the
post-punk movements. I wonder whether that's because you think that
the kind of dedication which music used to inspire has been somehow
lost. What has happened to commitment/community in music and how has
this affected rock criticism? Is this why you took up blogging – does
this mode of publication help to recover the synergy between criticism
and practice that you mentioned earlier?
This is something that relates mostly to the area of being a consumer and the circumstances in which you become an active consumer. You’re not supposed to talk about passive consumption these days, that’s an outmoded, Adorno-esque notion. But I can’t help but think the higher mode of engagement with music is when it mobilizes you in some way. Skimming through loads of downloads on your computer in a desultory fashion doesn’t seem as impressive as being a participant in a subculture, where’s there an element of strenuousness, whether it’s going a rave and having an adventure—sometimes a misadventure, when the rave is busted. Or being a fanatical metal fan and going to cramped, sweatpit gigs, and doing things like moshing and crowd surfing. The problem with music now is that it is too easy. It’s plentiful and available to an almost pernicious degree, because this creates a relationship with music that’s on the level of cable TV—that sort of distracted, skimming mode where you’re skipping through the channels. Obviously you can have profound aesthetic experiences with TV, there’s television where certain programmes are an Event, but a lot of the time we sit down to watch television rather than a specific program, the experience is much more ambient and vegetative. And music is getting like that. It’s like the music beams in from somewhere and we don’t get too bothered about who made it or what its context is, it diverts us and ultimately it’s kinda disposable. Ordinary consumers are now in the position that critics have always been in with the inundation of freebies they get, having to process so much music they can’t get inside it or let it get inside them because they’re always moving on the next thing. I think the scarcity model we had before with music, when there was a finite amount you could hear, and actual intervals between reading about something or hearing it was going to be released and then actually getting to hear it -- that created certain kinds of intensity that have been eroded. In a context of chronic abundance, it’s quite hard to maintain any passion or even appetite for music. This is one of the curses of the professional, long-haul critic, but now it’s everybody’s affliction!
I’ve strayed from your question, but I think in the age of overload and consumer inconstancy, the process whereby community forms around a scene or a particular band necessarily gets weakened. Abundance encourages dilettantism, a sort of noncommittal eclecticism. It’s a vicious circle, because the more noncommittal and ephemeral our modes of engagement with music, the less it becomes possible for critics to claim stuff for music, because it’s not motivating people to do anything beyond consume it, it’s not catalyzing interesting behaviour or social energy. So you get this creeping inconsequentiality. And in a context where everything seems inconsequential, no one wants to look silly or get carried away, so you get this predominant style of music writing, where the tone is light, amused, slightly distanced. The prose never gets too heated, it avoids the kind of cadences that create an atmosphere of momentousness. Because it’s only music. Blogs seemed to be a place for that kind of messianic writing, also for hyper-theoretical speculations about music, for whimsical and surreal fancies, for savage humour. That’s why I jumped in myself—it seemed like a total space of freedom for all the critical modes that there’s no place for in respectable publications. For a large moment back there, blogland was that space. Now and again it’s still like that, but only in flashes. The back-and-forth between the blogs has diminished a lot, it’s become more like solitary obsessives prattling into the void.
At one point, you describe how 'the future has become a minority
interest'. What has happened to innovation in pop music?
Like the white-on-black issue, this is another thing I’m trying to work out. Is it just that innovation has been driven out of or denied entrance to pop culture? I’m not sure it is because I don’t sense that amazing, unprecedented breakthroughs are taking place on the margins either. The kind of experimental fringes covered by a magazine like the Wire, they seem fairly set in their ways too. They tick along creating a reasonable harvest of pretty interesting stuff every year, but I don’t get the sense that there are giant strides into the unknown being made.
There’s a definite feeling that pop music is stalled, on the innovation or sonic surprises front. The last time a real burst of startling sounds came from pop was the end of the 90s and the first few years of this decade when you had this surge of rhythmic invention and freakadelic production in hip hop and R&B. You had highpoints of commercially massive yet pretty bizarre-sounding music like Missy’s “Get UR Freak On”, Neptunes’ productions like the Clipse stuff and Kelis’ “Milkshake”, the early Destiny’s Child hits, too many things to mention. And these ideas filtered into pure pop leading to exciting records like Britney’s “Toxic” and “Slave 4 U”. Some of the ideas in hip hop and R&B seemed to involve reworking techno and house and jungle innovations, but that might have been an illusion, maybe the producers were just using the same technology. And then for me the next stage after that was grime, where the producers were doing their twist on all the sick-sounding street rap coming out of America, tracks from people like Ludacris. The grime producers were melding all those Dirty South, crunky ideas with noises and rhythms from the rave tradition, from hardcore techno and jungle. But grime was pretty much barred from entry into pop. And while electronic music as a whole seems to me to have been pretty stagnant for most of this decade, there are really innovative people working within it like Ricardo Villalobos. But they are operating a long distance from pop music. The only Euro-electronic fad to have any influence on pop in the last few years has regrettably been its most reactionary trend, schaffel, the fad for T-Rexy glam rock and glitterstomp type rhythms. That was picked up by people like Girls Aloud and Goldfrapp.
Black music by and large is the engine of pop culture, in terms of innovation, but the engine seems stalled at the moment. Which means that pop is running on empty.
Related to these last two questions, I was surprised at the absence
of your long piece on Ghostbox, who fittingly haunt some of the later
pieces even though they're neither hip-hop nor hip-rock. What
attracted you to hauntology? Does it have any bearing on the
historical orientation of this book and 'Rip It Up'?
The interest in the hauntology groups does have a relationship to Rip It Up, in so far as researching the postpunk era definitely gave me an appreciation and appetite for groups that had tons of ideas and a conceptual bent. Ghost Box and Mordant Music in particular are incredibly thoughtful and erudite types; they are as much researchers and cultural historians as they are musicians, really. Another postpunky aspect is the audio-visual thing both those groups have, the fact that the music is inseparable from its packaging. Julian House being a designer by profession is kinda redolent of the art school input into postpunk. Although postpunk doesn’t seem to be particularly a point of reference for either group musically. Ghost Box’s immediate ancestors are people like Stereolab, Broadcast, Saint Etienne, again groups where there’s a great deal of attention paid to the visual presentation of the music, where the music is one element in an entire aesthetic sensibility, a worldview even.
Rip It Up also led me to an interest in retro culture, the question of why was there this turn to retro that took place at the end of the postpunk era, circa 1984? Why, after such an intense and prolonged surge-phase of forward-looking music, did left-field rock succumb to nostalgia for the Sixties? Retro culture and hauntology are like two sides of the same coin. Some of the Ghost Box stuff is a hair’s breadth away from period pastiche. But the best of it is genuinely… ‘haunting’ is the only word, whereas retro-pastiche is just nullifying.
Actually there’s another connection which is that one of the groups that got me thinking about postpunk again, this obscure outfit called Position Normal, were also a really crucial precursor for Ghost Box. Their 1999 album Stop Your Nonsense had this John Peel, quirky postpunk quality, but also the Englishness thing that you get in Ghost Box and Mordant, the use of found voices, like school children and Cockney fruit market stall-holders.