full Q/A transcript of the interview with Anindya "Bat" Bhattacharyya for Socialist Worker
BAT: Okay - just to start with (and on a somewhat tangential note), later
this month is the 20th anniversary of the release of God Save The
Queen... which of course I'm sure was ever so exciting at time, but
has perhaps more curiously since been mythologised as a high point of
Rebel Pop - getting to number one but being banned (GSTQ is an
Unofficial Number One, which is surely like being a Square Circle), a
singular fusion of revolutionary cultural energy, taking on the
establishment (in all senses), and representing a movement of sorts
"on the ground". What's your take on its significance Then and its
significance Now (perhaps as an "event" that is always harked back to
but can by definition never be repeated)?
SIMON REYNOLDS: It’s hard for me to think objectively about the Sex Pistols music because it meant so much to me at the time--or rather slightly after the time, I got into it in 1978, but it was really my entry in the whole world of rock and taking music seriously. And the music still to me has this incredible power. I know there are younger people who are like, “it’s just trad guitar rock!”. And the line that the Pistols music is fairly staidly produced hard rock is something I took in Rip It Up and Start Again because that was a common stance in postpunk bands and also it's kinda my rhetorical set-up. But what a fantastic sound the Pistols had, and within its context, quite original. Beyond that, there’s a virulence to songs like “Anarchy in the UK” and “Bodies” that still scalds me. How did they reach that place? Rotten is a monster on those songs, yet in reality he is not a violent person, quite the opposite--he shrinks from physical conflict.
“God Save the Queen” is great but it’s not my favourite Sex Pistols tune, there is something almost too perfectly anthemic about it. The lyrics are fantastic, though--“god save your mad parade”, “flowers in the dustbin,” “there’s no future in England’s dreaming”.
The myth of the song seems to be the truth about it, actually--it was one of the last times, possibly THE last time, that a song could send shockwaves through an entire society. The force of that gesture, at a time when rock’s sense of its own political power was ailing in the mid-Seventies lull, dramatically reinflated rock culture’s belief in itself. It was an injection of energy and conviction that took almost a decade to dissipate, and even after that you still had figures like, say, Manic Street Preachers who took their bearings from that. Or even the way that Public Enemy was embraced by a lot of British people (and white Americans) as the black punk, the nearest equivalent to Pistols in terms of convulsing the culture.
Especially in those five to ten years after its release, the degree of impact that “God Saves the Queen” had became the benchmark by which everything that followed was measured. You were either aspiring to that or somehow failing that. Things like Frankie Goes To Hollywood were an attempt to create an Event on that scale and with that degree of controversy and polarization. And all the seriousness of postpunk, the moral urgency of the debates about what path to follow, how best to apply our good intentions, it really comes from that moment. It’s almost a burden: how do we live up to this? And ultimately it became an unhelpful thing, because as you say, it’s unrepeatable, it’s a waste of energy. During my early years at Melody Maker, something me and David Stubbs used to write about was the urgent need to un-punk UK music culture, get rid of the albatross. It was partly a musical initiative, shedding the lingering prog-phobia and embrace more expansive sonics. But it was also about abandoning the idea of music as shock and threat, all those ideas of subversion and bastardized Situationism that were still hanging around like stale air in the late Eighties.
following on from that... I was wondering how you saw the
relationship between Bring The Noise and Rip It Up - in terms of the
(perhaps arbitrary) periodisation that the two books cover. What (in
general terms, obviously) was the relationship between the
1986-present period that BTN covers and the more obviously glorious
years of punk & postpunk covered in RIU?
Well one of the things I hope that BtN shows is that in the post-1986 period a hell of a lot of interesting stuff happened. The late Eighties and really the whole of the Nineties, I always felt like there was at any given point a bunch of new directions being pursued, I never felt short of stuff worth championing or simply talking about. And that should come across I hope, even though the book doesn’t have that much on my main passion of the Nineties, rave culture and electronic music (on the grounds that it’s thoroughly covered in Energy Flash, I wanted to avoid overlap).
But to the nub of your question, it is an arbitrary break to a certain degree. I made the break in Rip It Up and Start Again at 1984-85 partly because I had to end the book somewhere. But also because at the time it did feel like the ideas and energies of postpunk/new pop had run their course. Really, what happened around then was that postpunk turned into indie-rock: the defining groups of the time, Jesus and Mary Chain and The Smiths and REM, were sonically largely based around the Sixties and they were drawing almost entirely on white rock sources, whereas postpunk and new pop had always been about engaging with contemporary black music. So indie-rock consolidated itself circa 1983-5 as a retro-leaning culture and something that had this impotent and exiled relationship to mainstream pop, which was dominated by black musical values of soulfulness and danceability. Obviously there are no such things as clean breaks, and many bands carried on with postpunk and New Pop ideas. Cabaret Voltaire and Mark Stewart carried on making music based in postpunk ideas, and there was the whole industrial genre. And you can see Madonna and Pet Shop Boys as “late period New Pop” in a way: modern dance + literate lyrics + glam-style games with image. But in terms of what had hitherto been the vanguard of white bohemian rock, the vast majority of new bands emerging were rejecting synths, drum machines and modern music technology for the trad line-up of guitars and increasingly they were looking to the archives for inspiration, and more than that, the exclusively white areas of the archives--psychedelia, folk, country.
The other thing that happens in 1986 that seemed like a break is that hip hop really takes off. Obviously rap had existed for a while, there were some big hit records, including some songs like “The Message” that showed it could be more than just party music. There was the whole electro boom, and bubbling as an underground force on both sides of the Atlantic there’s breakdancing and graffiti and the whole subcultural aspect of hip hop. But rap--and I distinctly remember this from the time--still had something of an aspect of a fad as far as most people were concerned. Then suddenly in 1986 it resurges. It’s the Def Jam crew--LL Cool J, Run DMC, Beastie Boys--who really make it a mainstream phenomenon. But lots of other figures also come forward around this time and get a lot of attention: Mantronix, Schooly D, Eric B & Rakim, Salt N Pepa, Marley Marl. The music was also evolving from its early days as first a band-based, live musician sound and then a drum machine based sound to being an artform defined by sampling and looped breakbeats. So 1986, that’s really when I think it becomes clear that this rap thing is going to stay and is actually going to be the most sonically crucial sound of the Eighties.
So the two main subjects of Bring the Noise--indie-rock and hip hop--really achieve definition and momentum in 1985/1986, which just so happened to be when I started out being a professional music writer. Convenient, eh?
When you say "The myth of the song seems to be the truth about it, actually--it was
one of the last times, possibly THE last time, that a song could send shockwaves through an entire society." ---this leads on to what strikes me as a common theme running through both Bring The Noise and Rip It Up - you have a "manifesto" so to
speak - music should ideally be (a) politically radical (b) musically
avant-garde (c) have mass popular appeal. Now I agree - but the
curious thing is we only ever seem to get TWO of the three at the same
time - eg Stereolab is (a) & (b) but not (c), The Clash are (a) & (c)
but not (b), gangsta hiphop is (b) & (c) but certainly not (a)... I
picked up a sense in your book of an always unrequited and thwarted
search for a "holy grail" that would combine these three... to what
extent do you think this is the case? and could you care to speculate
on why you don't seem to get all three together - is it a structural
I guess you are right, that would be ultimate ideal, but it’s one that’s virtually non-existent in the history of music! There would be Public Enemy, a group that was sonically radical, politically provocative, and really popular, but who else has there been? So in practice I will settle for just a/ or b/ or c/ on their own. And even sometimes none of those things. I honestly don’t have a programme or agenda when I listen to things, it’s not like I’m measuring if they come up to scratch. It’s more that stuff will excite me and then I try to work out why, and how those reasons relate to the larger field of music and music’s history, and to what’s going on in the culture. Inevitably you notice patterns in your taste, and recurrent syndromes in the way music achieves impact, what works and what doesn’t. But it’s a constantly revised outlook rather than a worked-out manifesto. Really, it’s much more like a messy set of biases and preoccupations. And in a lot of ways what I’m always looking for is something I can’t account for or slot into my systems, something that gives me new thoughts or challenges my existing theories.
I’ve never quite worked out where I stand on the vexed question of politics and pop. Instances of politicized pop that actually work as pop--as good music and as something that’s popular, in the pop charts--seem quite rare. In a certain harsh light, Rip It Up and Start Again could be seen as the story of a bunch of different bands who tried to make politics and pop work together but failed. From Gang of Four to Scritti, it’s a litany of failure! But the failure doesn’t matter to me, it’s more that they tried; the ideas and the idealism they had served a purpose in the sense of creating a kind of cultural quickening. You had these lively minds grappling with this stuff and it was a mind-rush to follow their trajectory. The argumentativeness of postpunk culture and the striving of these groups was what inspired me--that and the amazing music.
I suppose I would make a distinction between politicized music and political music. And there’s a sense in which all music is political, there’s stuff going on in it by which you can tell the times; pop music that is conservative in its values or escapist is just as much a political statement as overtly radical music. It’s a force for anti-change! And the most interesting stuff of all is the stuff full of contradictions, stuff that leaves you conflicted. Which is why hip hop is endlessly fascinating to think about politically, for what it tells you about society and culture. It’s just that what you find there may be quite depressing, or confusing. It might not necessarily lead you to positive, uplifting conclusions.
Picking up on your point "The other thing that happens in 1986 that seemed like a break is that hip hop really takes off... that's really when I think it becomes clear that this rap thing is going to stay and is actually going to be the most sonically crucial sound of the Eighties" -- now you were working as a journalist on the "inkie" rock press at this time - what was your impression of how the rock industry reacted to this? I remember being a teenager at the time, there was a de facto "alliance" on the ground between indie kids and those into hiphop
(which later morphed into rave culture) - yet the reaction of the
industry was more ambivalent. I remember horrendous rows over Public
Enemy, plus you spilling the beans about the racism in the music press
(black star on cover = less sales). This kinda suggests that the black
v white musical division is "imposed from above", while on the ground
you get all sorts of cross fertilisations in both directions.
Hip hop was really hot in 1986-87, and it made for good copy--people like Schoolly D and Public Enemy--so, as I recall, it was enthusiastically embraced by the UK music press. In a sense, rap at that point was quite rockist, it was bad-boys with big egos, it was rebellious and then there was PE’s radical chic, so it was all an easy fit with the rock press. At NME there was a split between the indie rock fans who were into the C86 shambling bands and things like the Go Betweens, and the soul boy who wanted to push R&B and hip hop. It was a war between factions. But I think it was more that the aggression came from the soul boys, they had an agenda where they wanted NME to drop its indie guitar band coverage. They wanted to be more like The Face. At Melody Maker, we were scrambling to make the paper as exciting as possible and get to the new music first, cos we were underdogs trying to beat the NME. So at MM, rap was embraced on an equal level with the new guitar noiseniks like Sonic Youth. We had Run DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy on the cover before the NME did, big features on Schoolly D, Salt N Pepa, Eric B and Rakim, everyone that counted at that point. And as for the record industry--well, these rappers were mostly on major labels, right?
In terms of grass roots stuff, perhaps you hung out with more progressive types, cos I recall that indie-fans in those days were very sniffy about dance music and chart pop, and rap was kinda lumped in with that to an extent. An example is this group the Age of Chance, a noisy shambling guitar band who made a career out of being the indie group who embraced rap and pop. They did a cover of Prince’s “Kiss” and this was a big gesture, they were rejecting indie crypto-racist Luddite parochialism! Today no one would blink an eyelash but in 1986 it was considered a big deal that an indie band would do this. That said, I think rap cos of its rebellious credentials had more credence in the indie world, so you got things like World Domination Entreprises, who had this strong reggae dub input anyway, doing a cover of LL’s “Radio”, and even horrible grebo bands like Gaye Bikers on Acid dabbled with rap. The Def Jam rap-meets-rock sound was a gateway for a lot of people into hip hop.
I don’t honestly think indie people are racist--in a live review of the Smiths playing a Rock Against Racism benefit in late 86 that I nearly put in Bring the Noise, I noted that indie fans were probably more likely to be anti-racist in their political beliefs that your average R&B loving prole--it’s more that they had and often still have a limited idea of what ‘proper’ music is. And a lot of black music was seen as machine-music or not having much lyrical content or for having straight aspirations. But white soul was disliked for those reasons just as much.
You’re right though about the fact that market research showed that music press readers tend to not to buy issues with black faces on the cover. Whenever Melody Maker would put people like Public Enemy or Cameo or Bobby Brown on the cover, it wouldn’t be a great selling issue.
Related to this is perhaps one of the more startling theses you put
forward in BTN - that there is a peculiar elective affinity between
working class street culture (coded black) and middle class art
culture (coded white). You see this very starkly in grime, which has a
street following and an arthouse following but *nothing* else!
Now it struck me that this thesis of an affinity is only peculiar if
you assume a "sociological" understanding of class (and therefore a
bourgeois-ideological one), one that categorises people according to
their habits - while a more rigorous Marxist definition of class - one
based on relationship to the means of production and strictly
indifferent to questions of "culture" leads to a very different
picture - and one which could be seen as class solidarity cutting
across cultural differences...
You’ll have to guide me through this one: what is the affinity in terms of their relationship to the means of production between music bloggers (tending I’d say to be products of higher education, probably working in the media or some kind of language-based profession like education) and grime youth (less likely I’d assume to have gone into higher education or be destined for careers in the professions)? Cos I’d have thought it was actually an example of how culture--a taste for edgy, futuristic sounds--cuts across class; how music is one of the places we go to transcend our class identity. Or maybe it’s a coincidence, two different groups who are invested in the idea of being a vanguard but who derive different sorts of cultural capital from it. Or maybe the same kind of cultural capital, but it’s applied in totally different contexts.
It’s a one-way romance/alliance, though. I do wonder if the grime kids are even aware of all the bloggoid discourse around their music or what it would mean to them if they were.
Okay, I didn't make myself particularly clear there. What I'm getting
at is that the "class identity" that's getting "transcended" or "cut
across" here is "class" in the ***sociological*** sense, "cultural
class" if you will, and not class in the strict politico-economic
sense, ie the Marxist sense of the term.
If you think of class as a relationship to the means of production
then much of our "common sense" about class turns out to be
mystified... For instance, teachers and university lecturers are part
of the working class these days, while say the "market trader"
characters you see on EastEnders are in fact middle class
(petit-bourgeois to be precise).
Now I'd argue that the only definition of class that makes sense
*politically* is the Marxist definition, which by definition draws
together a vast number of people across the world that have little or
nothing in common culturally speaking (an Argenitinian factory worker,
an Indian agricultural worker, a Norwegian engineer...) - so the very
notion of "class identity" is nonsense, class politics is not an
identity politics, it is not based on "who you are" but "what you do",
it is in a sense a universal solvent of identity, an anti-identity.
So from this point of view, the "taste for edgy, futuristic sounds" is
certainly cutting across (ideological) cultural divisions - but is it
really cutting across class ones? Or could it not (and I know this
sounds barmy) be seen as the "class for itself" in emergence, a coming
together of different skills and techniques from across the (by now
huge, global and connected) working class?
Hmmm, interesting. I like the idea. I think Fredric Jameson imagined
something like this happening in that fat book Postmodernism and the
Cultural Logic of Late capitalism, new forms of panglobal solidarity
Actually in my blog I did a thing ages ago that was like listing the
parallels between bloggers and grime MCs. I can't remember the details but
the gist was that there were structural affinities in terms of what they
did, the narrowcast nature of the medium. It had suddenly struck me that the pirate stations weren't mass media, just cos they were on the radio dial. in practice only a small number of people tuned in, probably equivalent to the larger blogs. and people were turning themselves into legends through persona construction -- bloggers just as much as MCs -- but it was as local legends not mass cult icons (even though in blogland the locale is non-geographic, a locale of sensiblity, whereas with grime it's the radio's broadcast range). it's basically Momus's "in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen people" idea
have you seen the bizarre video for Dizzee's new
single Sirens - it's on its website - what on EARTH is going on in the
final scenes? There's some very weird commentary on class and the
sexualisation of young black male bodies going on there... which
reminds me - what do you think has happened and will happen to grime?
it seems to be permanently stuck in a "might break thru" mode, but
never catches on a becomes the "next big thing"... any ideas why this
is? and is it a good or bad thing? and to what extent does the
demonising and stigmatising of grime, Channel U etc etc keep it
marginalised? (see this article by David Moynihan for some
background on this http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=9699 )
I haven't seen the video. It's terrible, my interest in hearing the dizzee album
is really low. Being such an adherent of scenius theory, i was quite
negatively affected when i saw Dizzee on one of those grime DVDs, risky roadz i think, being interviewed a few years ago and he said something like "i'm still part of grime, still part of the scene. it's just that these days, i don't do pirates and I don't do raves" i thought, 'pirates and raves, that IS the scene, you dolt!". Bit like goldie unplugging himself from the scenius, i can't imagine his muse prospering being cut off from the grime lifeforce, as exceptional an individual as he undoubtedly is.
Still you can see why he'd want to separate himself from the scene, it's now
a millstone rather than a launchpad isn't it? it's in this dismal post-hype stage where it never broke through and happened in a mass way, yet it's not longer fresh or hip. most of the bloggerati support has moved on. the mainstream media, what are they going to say, writing it up? 'grime --it's still there!'
There was a moment there in 2005 where it really looked like it was on the
verge. and then 'Pow' was a big hit but not as big as they thought it would
be, and Lady Sovereign didn't put out her album when the moment was ripe, and the Roll Deep lp was misconceived and Kano's was too midtempo and brit-rappy.
They botched it, but then again I can criticise the cross-over bland-out/tone-down moves but there's no guarantee that pure uncut in your face grime would have prospered any better.
That reminds me - I couldn't help but smile at the vignettes in BTN
where you buy some obscure record and rave about it for ages then
realise to your horror that the lyrics are completely reprehensible
etc... I was curious that you (a) admitted this (b) admitted that you
avoided buying or listening to stuff that OTT in terms of
sexism/homophobia etc... now many people in these permissive anything
goes isssalllmoosicinnit times would see your stance as almost
laughably old-fashioned and "PC", a throwback to a time when Politics
Mattered Maaan... what would your response be? and how do you deal
with the contradiction of Great Music Whose Politics Suck?
I must have in my collection so much music that has reprehensible attitudes or offensive lyrics -- especially in terms of misogyny and sexism -- so I'm not sure exactly why this one example got to me. I mentioned my misgivings in the column on Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, but I think the main thing you're talking about is the TOK record, the dancehall one about setting the chi-chi man on fire. It was something about loving it so intensely for such a long period on this Massive B radio show in New York before finding out what 'chi chi man, we go bun dem' or whatever the chorus is, actually meant, and really being taken aback. Also the song is so exuberant and joyous that to find out how
the exuberance was targeted and what actually animated the glee and joie de
vivre in the song was horrible, as it was one of those tunes and rhythms
that really get under your skin and follow you around in your life.
But that's a pretty rare occurrence, short of outright 'hate rock'/nazi Oi!
there's not much much I would deny myself. that's if something arrived
through the mail, of course. Wen you're actually in a record store and
poised to hand over your credit card you might stop and think 'Do i really
want to line these people's pockets?'. that's how it was with TOK, i was in
the dancehall section of Virgin in New York and i thought 'naah'.
I dream and hope of a day not too far off when the "anti-PC" stance seems
laughably old-fashioned and a throwback to the days when no one cared and
nothing mattered. I thought i could see it on the horizon as far back as
1998, i remember telling a Spin colleague when I worked at the mag that the
New Earnestness was coming --but it hasn't arrived, not really, not yet.
And how do you deal with the contradiction of Great Music Whose Politics Suck?
Well i'm not sure there is a contradiction... the most interesting music, like the greatest art, comes out of contradictions, split impulses, confusion.
Some of my favourite writers have really conservative or dodgy or just
confused politics. not just the obvious ones like Celine or Wyndham Lewis,
but people like EM Cioran who had some kind of flirtation with Romanian fascism
in his youth and remained a conservative, anti-revolutionary sort all his
life. Or Nabokov with his aristocratic nostalgia for pre-Soviet Russia, his
strange loathing for Freud.
I'm really interested in the idea that reactionary, curmudgeonly,
jaundiced-eye type writers (or artists -- Francis Bacon) have access to
certain powers artistically through their misanthropy, their sense of abjection. Often the funniest writers have a poisonous sense of self-loathing and disgust for humanity. Also these grouchy, everything's-gone-to-shit types start out as radical, clear-eyed idealists--like Kingsley Amis who was a total Moscow-line following Communist until Hungary.
Probably on a certain level most great music sucks politically - if you could somehow translate what it proposes into politics - because great music is about impossible desires.
And then there's another story to do with pop music which is that a lot of its energies are capitalistic. and by that I don't mean, "they're a product of capitalistic conditioning and if only we could end capitalism then a pure pop music would emerge". what i mean is that the energies that pulse inside pop at the deepest core level are the same as those that animate capitalism and they help to explain why capitalism exists and why it is so hard to eradicate. Because it is seductive, the idea of individualism, competition, the fantasy of being self-made, your own master -- these are fantasies that have an appeal that shouldn't be underestimated. that's why the American ideology is so popular,
cos so many think 'I'll play the game and I'll win'.
A lot of what animates pop is ego, lust for glory, the drive for dominance, prestige, wealth. There's a lot of violence in pop music, rock music. Appetite for destruction. I think a Bataillean view of pop, to do with the will to glory, expenditure-without-return, wasting of energy and resources, might be a largely correct one. I actually thought this before I even read Bataille - me and David Stubbs did a thinkpiece in 1986 on Indecency in pop - one of the ideas was that Pop was the antithesis of Green values, it was wasteful and selfish and destructive.
I think we ended with the line "pop or a better world, the choice is yours!"