Thursday, May 30, 2013

How the fanzine refused to die
The Guardian, February 2nd 2009
by Simon Reynolds

Fanzines AppleJack and Woofah 
I'd been writing a blog for a few years when I opened my mailbox and was gobsmacked by a CD package addressed to "Simon Reynolds c/o Blissblog". It wasn't so much the fact that I was being of thought of as music blogger (as opposed to a professional journalist who'd written for the Observer since forever). It was more that it took me right back to receiving my first freebie as the co-editor of a fanzine, Monitor, some 20 years earlier.

A canny indie music publicist had realised that not only did band buzz typically start with the fanzines, but many zine writers went on to join the music press, making it a shrewd move to develop relationships early on. The arrival of a free LP certainly had an instantly corrupting effect on Monitor, which we'd founded on a strict policy of "no reviews, no interviews, just thinkpieces". From then on we instituted a review section in hopes of encouraging the promo flow.

These days blogs are where most aspiring music journalists train for the big league and in the interim release their pent-up geyser of opinionated-ness. Blogs have enormous advantages over fanzines: they cost nothing and are vastly easier to produce, their distribution reach is potentially infinite, and instead of long gaps between irregular issues they can be updated constantly. They are also more interactive than fanzines, which often felt like they were thrown out into the void: you get links from peer blogs or reactions in the comments box, exciting conversations and spats develop, particular corners of the blogosphere can feel like a community (albeit with the problems of real-world villages: idiots, busybodies, know-it-alls, creeps and stalkers). It makes sense that today's mouthy-git critics serve their apprenticeship on blogs, often graduating to intermediary webzines like The Quietus, Pitchfork or the late lamented US outlet Stylus: online publications that tend not to pay much (or anything) but compensate by conveying cool status, access to a large readership and relative freedom in terms of word count and style.

In the age of Blogger, Live Journal and other online formats for non-professional music commentary, the fanzine ought be on its last legs, a relic of another era, as antiquated as an electric typewriter. Yet strangely zines are holding their ground. People still make them. And it's not just die-hard veterans from the golden age of the fanzine (approximately 1977 to 1994, punk rock to riot grrl) but younger people who've never known a world without email and the web. Although it's hard to quantify, it feels like the fanzine is making a resurgence in the face of digital culture, just like that other analogue format, vinyl.

Take Elodie Amandine Roy, a 22 year old French girl who lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Her zine, Applejack, is now on its fourth issue and is a defiantly old-school affair made from photocopied and folded sheets that are illustrated with hand-drawn black-and-white graphics and held together by a sort of belt of ribbon (Elodie doesn't own a stapler). Applejack's sole concession to digital modernity is having a free CD-R instead of a flexidisc, which is what all self-respecting 80s zines had (even Monitor did one). Roy describes her motivations for doing it the old-fashioned way as "romantic … I wanted to make something that would be visible and material and touchable. I wanted people to be able to read them and keep them somewhere in their house." She says she carries issues of Applejack around with her in her schoolbag and gives them away to "people with friendly faces. I actually like to know who my readers are. I'm not interested in having one million people reading my writing online, because then they're just a faceless, fleshless, distant audience. I like to feel in touch."

Roy belongs to a kind of retro-vanguard within the youth of today who increasingly disenchanted with Web 2.0 reality, seeing its limitlessness and hyper-linked pseudo-connectivity as the problem, something working against the intimacy of a real, grounded community. "Fanzines say 'hello it's me, I'm here'. The internet is a bit scary to me – it is bigger than us, beyond our control." There's a groundswell of revived interest into analogue formats like vinyl (especially seven-inch singles) and cassettes (often encased in elaborate, hand-decorated packaging), that's strongest in scenes like noise, drone and free folk, where it parallels the emphasis on live performance and improvisation (the unmediated presence of the unrepeatable event). Roy aligns herself with the "anti-folk scene", labels like Olive Juice, and says she never buys digital music but instead prefers vinyl and mixtapes. "Music is associated with tangible artefacts to me. A MP3 is a file – it can be erased in one click. Collection makes recollection possible. The albums you've listened to, the books you've read, they sit on your shelves, and it is memory made visible. There is no romance involved with MP3s."

Although Roy says she doesn't "deliberately choose vintage formats over new ones", Applejack does have an arts-and-crafts air to it: the first two issues were "hand-sewn". This interest in the limited edition and hand-customised is a common thread within the new zine scene. Music journalist Jon Dale operates a long-running zine called Astronauts and has extravagant plans for the next issue: "I want to do it as beautiful old wooden box, with each page as loose leaf vellum and every image screen-printed. I figure if everyone's gonna harp on about fetish objects, you may as well make a good one!" As a contributor to Signal To Noise and similar esoteric music magazines, Dale is an expert on underground sounds like free folk and noise, where cassette labels are all the rage. In these circles, you often hear anti-digital sentiments expressed. Sounds of analogue provenance, whether it's acoustic instruments or antiquated synthesisers, are preferred. Free folker Joanna Newsom reputedly won't even allow digital music-playback devices in her own home, although such principled squeamishness hasn't stopped her from selling her album Ys in both CD and MP3 form (via the online independent retailer eMusic).

Not every zine operator is so zealous about the superiority of analogue over digital. Take John Eden, a veteran of fanzine culture since the 80s who recently returned to the hard-copy format after a period of blogging. The music covered in Woofah – grime, dubstep, digidub – depends on computer technology. Hardly a Luddite, Eden was drawn back to fanzines for both sentimental reasons and for their practical advantages. "I missed that feeling of holding something in your hands, really. Something that impressionable people might read over and over again and get obsessed with like I did in the 80s with anarcho-punk and industrial zines. But I'm also not sure people absorb material properly when it's read fleetingly on a website – and the boss might be looking over your shoulder. I also felt it would open some doors – artists still like the idea of being interviewed for a magazine rather than something online." As you can tell from its title, Woofah celebrates the bass-booming tradition of "UK soundsystem culture". Eden says the magazine's ethos is to "make it critical and to have articles that engage deeply with the culture – either people involved with it like producers or MCs, or with issues like the police shutting down grime raves in London". Unlike blogs, which thanks to their rapid-response format tend to comment on a mixture of ultra-obscure stuff and mainstream things everybody's aware of, Woofah sticks to the original remit of the fanzine: in-depth coverage of underground sounds neglected by the mainstream media.

Simon Reynolds's Monitor fanzine 

The era of the music fanzine really began with punk. Zines before then had either been done by science-fiction fans, or they took the form of newsletters and heavily pictorial, mail-order-only periodicals produced by fan clubs and dedicated to specific movie or pop idols. Punk's DIY ideology unleashed a tidal wave of samizdat publishing. But the zine revolution would never have happened without certain technological breakthroughs, says Joly McFie, a veteran of the 60s underground press who would play a crucial role in fostering the UK post-punk zine culture with his famously idealistic "print now/pay later" scheme. "Around 1975 the price of duplication went down dramatically," he says, noting that Xerox went from approximately 50p a sheet to 10p. "Copy shops started to spring up all over Britain. At the same time Kodak introduced instant printing. The combined effect of these two things was dramatic, really on a par with the arrival of the internet." Sixties underground magazines like Oz and International Times (where McFie worked as the music editor) were irreverent and radical but their actual mode of operation was far closer to a newspaper than a fanzine: they were still part of the top-down transmission of news and opinion, says McFie, whereas fanzines involved a shift to a more bottom-up, anti-hierarchical set up that eroded "the distinction between producer and consumer. You could be part of the process now."

Despite these democratising technological breakthroughs, there remained a host of limitations to the fanzine's means of production. Punkzines often turned these constraints into an aesthetic of anti-professionalism. If Letraset was one-use only and expensive, they'd cut letters out of newspapers, blackmail-style. If photo-size reduction was too pricey (it required a process camera, which cost £1 per shot), they'd just run their pictures giant-size. Strips of typewritten and typo-riddled text would be glued at skewiff angles, with pencil-scribbled addenda in the margins. Other zines did their best to look like "proper" magazines but, falling short, often looked a bit drab.

This remained the state of the art well into the 80s, indubitably the boom era of zine culture, thanks to the enduring impact of punk, which had split into squabbling tribes (Goth, anarcho, Oi!, US hardcore) and spawned offshoots like industrial and the cutie-pop/shambling/C86 strains of indie. What I remember about Monitor was the sheer struggle involved in making and selling the thing. In those pre-desktop publishing days, production was protracted and painstaking. That was kind of the attraction, in a way: although we were all ex-students on the dole, we weren't slackers. We were looking for collective purpose, in a sense looking for a job. And we made it harder on ourselves by having pretensions to being different from other zines (indeed the debut issue included a critique of fanzine culture, penned by yours truly). Monitor styled itself as a pop culture journal (hence the essays-only policy – no rambling verbatim Q&A interviews in tiny print for us) and aimed for an elegant, verging-on-slick presentation: high quality paper stock, stark typefaces, striking design. That this was achieved owing everything to editor-in-chief Paul Oldfield. I recall him poring through books of fonts for hours and rigging up a substitute for a designer's light table using a pane of glass, an anglepoise and a wooden chair frame from which he'd removed the cushioned seat. The laying-out of a Monitor issue took many nights of small-hours toil, although I confess my contribution was mainly moral support and making endless cups of heavily-sugared instant coffee. Where I did come into my own was the other problematic area: distribution. Being the least socially unskilled, it fell upon me to trudge around to record stores and newsagents in Oxford and plead with them to take copies. I took trips to London to deliver copies to the ICA bookstore, the Rough Trade record shop, and the late, great Compendium, Camden's radical bookseller and clearing house for underground publications and pamphlets of every kind.

Fanzine editors in those days would traditionally rail against the weekly music papers for their out-of-touch uselessness and corruption. Yet at the first whiff of an opportunity of writing for them, they'd jump at it. When I joined Melody Maker in 1986 I was following a well-trodden route. Just before punk kicked off, broadcaster/critic-to-be Paul Morley did one issue of Out There, an attractively designed zine that was attacked by Sniffin' Glue's Mark P for "looking like fuckin' Vogue", then received the proverbial telegram from NME. Everett True went from doing rebarbative indie zine The Legend to becoming Melody Maker's champion of grunge and is currently the publisher/editor of independent music magazine Plan B. Most meteoric of all was the ascent of James Brown – in the 80s he was the mouthy git behind Attack on Bzag! before he became the creator of Loaded and a magazine-publishing magnate-about-town.

Fanzines in the UK mostly affiliated themselves to punk (and spent the bulk of their energy debating what the spirit of that movement had been and fighting over who had followed the true path). But in lots of ways their vibe reminded me more of hip-hop. The writer-editors were like MCs, all swollen ego and competitive hostility, unacknowledged legislators of the music world who were totally convinced of the righteousness of their taste. Just as every rapper wants to be where Jay-Z is, it makes perfect sense that zine editors lunged for the chance of a bigger audience. But it's different nowadays: blogs offer an easier route to notoriety for loudmouthed megalomaniacs, while the impulse to do a fanzine is much more about abstention from the mainstream, reaching a select and compact audience of like-minds. So Elodie Roy's Applejack is a freezine ("gratuit", it says on the front). "I generally take my zines to record stores directly and leave a few copies." John Eden says Woofah is "only interested in attracting the hardcore, wherever they may be. Someone who ordered issue one lived down my road, the next order in the pile was to someone in Russia! We have no plans to increase the print run of 1,000." Jon Dale's next issue of Astronauts – the one in the wooden box – is necessarily going to be a small run. "I do like making limited editions of things, it feels like you've hand-blessed each thing individually."

Doing a fanzine in the Noughties is all about the process of making it, and having that direct impact on an individual, who will (hopefully) cherish the object you've lavished effort on. Mike McGonigal, who did the legendary American zine Chemical Imbalance in the 90s and now publishes Yeti, a hard-spined zine dedicated to all kinds of outsider music and art, says that he sees a boom in zines "of a very particular kind. It's all from the art/literary side". The web and music blogging has freed zines from the need to provide news or even be "a form of communication", so "now you have far more little zines with silkscreen covers. Maybe made by someone in a band but there are 40 made and half of them got sold probably."

In parallel with this artisanal approach to creating magazines to treasure, vintage zines have emerged as a burgeoning market. Although nowhere near the level of rare records, there is a bustling trade in collectable zines, which generally means those that have a talismanic connection to legendary eras of music like punk rock or the 80s underground noise rock. Beneath its vinyl-crammed racks my local record store in New York's East Village has cardboard boxes full of old magazines in dust-protective plastic sleeves: "proper" ones like Creem and New York Rocker but also zines like Forced Exposure and NO, with certain issues priced as high as $20. John Eden says he's "shed a load of my archive via eBay – the cost of keeping that stuff, especially the industrial music zines I'm no longer interested in, was far outweighed by the money they go for". Joly McFie recalls picking up via eBay a copy of a zine that he'd helped to produce on his printing press back in the late 70s, paying a tidy sum while being acutely aware of the irony of having had at one point hundreds of unsold copies lying around his Ladbroke Grove premises. And Mike McGonigal recalls seeing "an issue of Sniffin' Glue in a glass case for several thousand dollars, in this ridiculous ephemera/art/book shop on the Upper East Side of New York".

What's going on here is what academics describe as "slippage of the auratic". Walter Benjamin theorised about the "aura" possessed by the singular artwork, the painting or sculpture, in the age of mechanical reproduction. Yet as digital culture takes over, "aura" is being conferred on things that not long ago would once have been considered mass produced and characterless. In the age of the webzine and MP3, it is solid-form cultural artifacts – vinyl records, vintage DJ mixtapes, yellowing magazines – that become attractive in the face of the infinite dissemination and seeming ephemerality of web culture.

In this respect, fanzines have a significant edge over even a golden-era copy of NME or Rolling Stone, in so far as they're limited-run and thus closer to being a one-off. Fanzines are dripping with "aura". They're special too because they're typically the singular expression of an individual, who often appears to be deranged with enthusiasm or frustration. And in addition to evoking the fanatical intensity of particular moments in music history, they tend to contain amateur photography of bands or gigs: images that haven't been widely disseminated or officially approved. So it makes total sense that collectors are hunting rare zines down.

All I wish is that Paul had not taken the several hundred copies of Monitor that languished under his bed for years after we called it a day and chucked them in a skip.
The Wire, 2008

by Simon Reynolds

One of my favorite British expressions is "gutted". Crude vernacular for emotionally devastated,  "absolutely gutted, mate" is what you say when your team loses 4: nil or your spouse runs off with your best friend."  Thinking about the ever-escalating output of reissue culture, it struck me there's scope for a variant.  "Absolutely glutted, mate" would be the plaintive admission of the chronic music fan overwhelmed by the torrential output of new-old recordings. "Glutted" perfectly captures that over-sated sensation, the aural equivalent to chronic fatigue syndrome, where the auditory-pleasure centre of the brain is fried after years of trying to process, absorb, feel, too much music in too little time.

Reissue-mania --conceived in the largest sense to encompass both official rereleases/compilations/box sets and the sharity blog bonanza of out-of-print arcana--would appear, on the face of it, to be an unqualified boon.  Surely it's churlish to complain when so many remarkable treasures have been unearthed?  How easily we forget how ridiculously hard it was to get hold of legendary obscurities in the bad old days when records actually went out of print,  compared to today when everything under the sun gets reissued while the Internet/Ebay/et al makes finding recondite weirdnesses infinitely easier. 

Certainly there's plenty of fantastic bygone sounds encountered for the first time this year  I wouldn't wish to have foregone.  Postpunk's seam ought to have been mined beyond exhaustion after six years of  steady excavation, but gems are still coming through.  The Acute label provided some genuinely unknown pleasures with Memory Span and Flood Bank, their two 2008 reissues of music by The Lines (imagine A Certain Ratio with tunes) while  LTM launched their  "Auteur Label" series with fine anthologies of  Factory Benelux, Les Disques du Crepuscule and New Hormones (how wonderful to hear the hooligan-Neu! stampede of "Big Noise From the Jungle" by Pete Shelley's side project The Tiller Boys  approximately 27 years after it fell off John Peel's playlist).  Another great lost Manchester independent, Object, also received the LTM treatment with a label overview plus albums by Spherical Objects and Grow Up. At the other end of postpunk's timespan, ZTT followed its Andrew Poppy box set and deluxe double-disc 808 State reisues with a lavishly appointed box containing three discs of the label's monster-hits, oddities, and latterday twilight-matter, a DVD of ZTT's arty promo videos, a Paul Morley mini-memoir essay, but--frustratingly--not a complete set of his heroically pretentious sleeve notes.  Another area of personal passion, post-WW2 electronics/concrete/text-sound, was well-served this year by labels like Paradigm (Trevor Wishart's Machine, Lily Greenham's Lingual Music), Melon Expander (Warner Jepson's Totentanz and Other Electronic Works 1958-1973 ), Trunk (two CD's of attic tapes from Radiophonic Workshopper John Baker) and Creel Pone (too many to mention).  And there's always the threat of new obsessions budding, like the raw yet somehow unearthly funkadelic hypno-grooves of West Africa, a dense zone of hard-to-find magic surveyed by Richard Henderson in The Wire 298 and now dilettante-friendly thanks to splendid 2008 compilations from the Strut, Analog Africa and Soundway labels.

Did I say "threat"?  There is something vaguely menacing--to your wallet, hard drive capacity, spare-time reserves and musical digestive system--about the way that reissue-mania is constantly pushing back barriers, both geographically and in terms of that "foreign country", the past. Curator-compiler types like Bob Stanley, having run out of ways to remap the relatively recent pop past through the retroactive invention of genres (wyrd folk, baroque pop, junkshop glam, etc) are now moving steadily into the pre-WW2 era, discovering music hall or early gospel recordings.  Yet the horizon of the historical past--as something ready to be reappraised and repackaged--is also creeping up on our very heels. I was startled to realise that "retro" now encompasses not just music from my teenage/student years (as with postpunk) but the late twenties of my early days as a professional critic: Loop's 1987 debut Heaven's End was reissued last month, World Domination Enterprises and Disco Inferno reissues are in the pipeline, while Soul Jazz this year edged outside their "good taste" comfort zone with a Ragga Twins retrospective and An England Story, an overview of the Jamaica-into-UK tradition of toasters and mic chatters from dancehall through jungle to grime.  Archive fever's tentancles even reached the later Nineties this year with an overdose of heroin house: Gas's Nah und Fern box (reissue of the year?), a remastered rerelease of Monolake's HongKong, Basic Channel's BCD-2.  What next,  the double-disc Deluxe Edition of Oval's 94 Diskont?!?

Reissue-mania appeals to the best and worst in music-fan psychology. Worst first: sheer greed for sound-stimulus,  a ravenous, insatiable appetite for novelty combined with a neurotic anxiety about missing out on anything.  But there's also a call to the better angels of our nature:  a self-edifying impulse to become the most fully-rounded listener you can be combined with a drive towards redressing historical injustices,  genres like Italodisco, Freestyle or Eighties dancehall that suffered from critical condescension in their own heyday.  And yet for all that, speaking purely from a punter's point of view, doesn't it feel like it's all gotten a little out of hand?   I can't be the only one who visits UbuWeb's immensely laudable, ever-growing archive of experimental sound, text and film and almost faints at the prospect of all that (thoroughly deserving) creativity's claims on my attention. Surely I'm not alone in feeling oddly heart-stick upon reading about Honest Jon's access to EMI's  gargantuan treasury of 78 rpm recordings from across the globe made by roving sound-collector Fred  Gaisberg in the first decade of 20th Century, which has already resulted in the compilation Give Me Love: The Brokenhearted of Baghdad 1925-1929, with others soon-to-come documenting Turkey, the Caucasus, Iran, and the Belgian Congo? Even a Radiophonic fiend like myself felt a shiver of queasy ambivalence at the ostensibly joyous news about the monster cache of Delia Derbyshire material discovered this year, or the announcement that  Goldsmiths University is establishing an online archive of Daphne Oram's complete soundworks (which runs to over 200 tape reels). Queasy, because, to be perfectly honest,  my life isn't… that…. empty.

There's another downside to reissue-mania, affecting production as opposed to consumption. As young musicians develop in a climate where the musical past is accessible and available to an inundating degree, more and more you encounter artists whose work is a constellation of exquisite and "surprising" taste, a lattice-work of reference points and sources that spans the decades and the oceans but never quite manages to invent for itself a reason to exist.  This syndrome, which has been building for years, rose to the surface of critical consciousness in the Soundcheck section of  this very magazine last month. Celebrating Neil Landstrumm, Joe Mugsg had to do some fancy footwork to sidestep the counter-case that this sort of "wonky" eclectronica is mere post-rave pastiche. A  few pages later, Matthew Wuethrich, reviewing albums by Valerio Cosi, asked a salient question: "where amid all this din" of  influence-daubed, transglobally hybridized musicking could you locate the artist himself?  Glutted musicians make clotted music, it stands to reason.  But short of a rigorous, self-blinkering regime of privation and seclusion, it's hard to see a way out of that.

sharity blogs Wire piece

The Wire, 2008

By Simon Reynolds

Some call them "sharity" blogs, a three-way pun on "share" + "rarity" + "charity".  An inevitable evolution from the single-track-oriented  mp3 blog, these whole-album music blogs have undergone a population explosion over the last three years, enabled by filesharing services like Megaupload and Rapidshare, along with mediators like Sharebee which automatically distribute a blog's upload to an array of services, thereby increasing  audience reach.  In this grand give-away bonanza, barely a genre seems unrepresented, from the most readily-available mainstream fare (fancy the complete discography of Iron Maiden? Every last Pink Floyd bootleg demo?) to the most inaccessible arcana (West African guitarpop cassettes,  100-edition Eighties power electronics tapes, complete catalogues of library music labels…).   

What makes sharity blogs different from the peer-to-peer filesharing communities that have come and gone over the last decade is that their activities are more exposed. Indeed there is an exhibitionistic quality, an aspect of taste display, to these blogs, while some bloggers have become cult figures,  "faces" on the scene even though their  real-world identity remains shrouded.

One of the big names on the circuit these last couple of years is Mutant Sounds,  justly celebrated for its prolific output of esoterica, most of which is out-of-print and extremely hard to find.  Founded in January 2007 by a guy called Jim, the blog soon expanded into a collective, enabling Mutant to sustain its ferocious rate of posts and expand its weirdo-music range.  That remit encompasses the more recondite recesses of postpunk DIY, Euro-prog/Rock In Opposition, Neue Deutsche Welle, American freak music in a zone roughly  bounded by Zappa, the Residents and the LAFMS, minimal synth, acid folk, analog-synth space rock, second-wave industrial cassette compilations,  and much, much more.  Eric Lumbleau--who contributes to Mutant under the alias vdoandsound but unusually for a sharity blogger is comfortable revealing his real identity--says a key motivation is to "help demolish once and for all that hoary old line of critical discourse developed in the wake of punk's Year Zero that any meaningful discussion of radical musical thought first entails jettisoning prog outright."

The Mutant collective are a prime example of a drastic transformation that's taken place in record collector culture. The impetus used to be "I have something that no one else has". But with the advent of sharity blogging that's shifted to "I've just got hold of something no one else's got, so I'm immediately going to make it available to EVERYBODY." While definitely a giant evolutionary step in terms of emotional health, on the level of subcultural capital and the gamesmanship of hip it's kinda self-subverting. Or perhaps, not since there is still an element of ego involved, a kind of competitive generosity contest between the blogs. Lumbleau sees it as based in "self aggrandizing altruism, with blog authors anointing themselves as gurus and presiding over their own little kingdoms of cool and in the process, throwing open the floodgates to decades worth of occult knowledge for casual perusal, a mass unleashing that's surely causing fantastic intellectual ruptures across every strata of adventurous music making." 

Jim Mutantsounds, for his part, likes to distinguish between the record collector and the music enthusiast: the former is driven by "vanity of having something that no one  has or knows…   I would call him a sleeve art collector,"  whereas the music fanatic has an evangelical drive to turn on other people.  He notes wryly that "Mutant Sounds" has already become shorthand term used by record dealers, "especially on Ebay… trying to sell their items for higher prices" and says he'd "consider the blog a disaster" if it contributed to the inflationary spirals of over-pricing and over-rating that characterize collector culture.  The rise of "appeared on Mutant Sounds" as a sales pitch shows that the blog has become an updated, vastly-expanded, work-in-process version of the famous Nurse With Wound List, a list of  "out-there" artists that appeared on NWW's debut album.  Indeed in the late Nineties Lumbleau actually  wrote a "reply" to the NWW List in tandem with Matt Castille his band-mate in Vas Deferens Organization, while some of the early sharity blogs were attempts to locate and upload every last one of Steven Stapleton's recommendations.

Sharity blogs often see an almost utopian dimension to what they do, redolent of that early Nineties cyberculture/Mondo 2000 maxim "information wants to be free". Lumbleau enjoys fucking with the hoarders of knowledge and "rare sound", admitting "there's a certain perverse side to me that just enjoys the reversal of polarities for the hell of it, the rarest stuff now becoming the most commonplace." Yet there remain lingering ethical doubts, to put it mildly, concerning the practice of "freeing" music without the permission of the artist.  Because Mutant sticks mostly to out-of-print or never-officially-released recordings by ultra-marginal musicians, the blog has received few adverse reactions from artists, who---one assumes--are probably pleased by the attention.  Of the small number of complaints so far, most, says Jim,  have been "polite, asking kindly for us to remove the links."

Perhaps the real danger represented by the sharity scene is actually to music fans!  The whole-album blogs--like the web in general, with its vast array of net radio stations, DJ mixes,  official give-aways, etc--drastically exacerbates the condition known as collector-itis, whose symptoms were recently identified by Johan Kugelberg as "constipation, indigestion, flatulence." Writing in Old Rare New, an anthology of elegiac paeans to the  record store, he described how the music fan succumbs to "Falstaffian gluttony", "eating at the biggest buffet, heaping and piling exotic foodstuffs not only from all around the globe but spanning history, on your plate" and coating the intestines of one's hard drive with  "noxious build-up."

The mp3-fiend's bingeing is an inverse mirror image of the compulsion to disgorge displayed by many sharity bloggers. One of the most torrential blogs around is Sickness-Abounds. Its operator \m/etal\m/inx admits, "I've received comments like 'slow down!!!' or 'you're going too fast!'…  but I have to blog my way." She discovered the sharity scene in late 2007 and "after a few weeks of maxing out my downloading band with as much as possible", decided it was time to give back  and founded Sickness-Abounds, a blog dedicated to every kind of extreme music: noise, isolationism, black metal, power electronics, Goth, Electronic Body Music,  et al

 \m/etal\m/inx brings up a couple of intriguing analogies for the sharity scene. The first is college radio, which in the Eighties "changed my life forever.  That's what the music blogs of today recreated for me. It was College Radio x 100!" (Meanwhile, the college radio network in America seems to have dwindled in importance in parallel with the rise of the web and with the increasingly post-geographical nature of music culture). Her other comparison is with the tape-trading networks of the early Eighties. "I'd buy Metal Forces, Maximumrocknroll, and any other zines I could find and attack the 'pen-pal' sections something fierce! I really worked at it as if it was a full-time job. I had over 200 traders from around 30 countries by the time I was 16. We all referred to it as 'The Underground.' It was our P2P network, but without computers."  \m/etal\m/inx also mounts a provocative case in defence of the music-blog's disregard for copyright, comparing sharity favourably with second-hand record retail. "Neither the label nor the artist benefits," she notes, when a second-hand copy is sold. "I like used record stores, but I feel music blogs offer a wider promotional benefit for the artists than shops do." Mutant's Lumbleau likewise argues that exposure via blogs like Mutant Sounds has re-ignited "interest in the work of the long overlooked" and in some cases even led to official reissues.  What's left moot, though, is whether people will really go to the bother and expense of buying them if they've already downloaded the music free of charge.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013



Earlier this week a literary colossus made his exit, after a long struggle with cancer. The ovation that accompanied J.G. Ballard’s departure was fully deserved. He was a visionary, one of the few fiction writers of our era with an imagination so singular that he was granted the suffix treatment: the attachment of an – esque or -ian to their surname, à la Kafka-esque or Dickensian.

But in death as in life, Ballard never quite got his full due as a thinker as well as a storyteller; he was a penetrating and endlessly provocative theorist about the intersections between culture and technology, media and desire. This tendency to think of him only as a fabulist is understandable to an extent, given that he never wrote a full-length book of nonfiction that condensed and focused his ideas. Instead his insights, speculations and polemical barbs are scattered across a panoply of reviews, columns, memoiristic essays, think pieces and single-topic commentaries written for or spoken to newspapers looking for the Ballardian take on some current event, issue or innovation. (Thankfully, a decent-size heap of J.G.’s wit and wisdom has been shoveled into a single spot by the esoteric San Francisco publisher RE/Search: The 2004 “JG Ballard: Quotes” is a pocket-portable collection of mind-bomb aphorisms and pithy observations. “A User’s Guide to the Millennium,” a scrappy but absorbing anthology of essays and reviews, is currently out of print.)

Of course Ballard’s ideas are also present in his novels and short stories, and arguably at their most potent there. He was drawn to science fiction as the preeminent literature of ideas of our time, the only form of fiction that could take the measure of the 20th century. At his most full-on, Ballard transformed SF into a kind of theory-fiction, his short stories and novels functioning in a manner similar to Marshall McLuhan’s “probes,” the latter’s term for speculative aphorisms as opposed to fully developed theories backed up by research and empirical data. McLuhan is an apt comparison because his primary concern — mass communications and man’s increasingly symbiotic relationship with technology and media — overlapped with one of Ballard’s key zones of obsessive investigation: the post-WW2 culture of media overload, what he called “our perverse entertainment landscape.” In a 1983 interview he characterized it as “a completely new thing, a parallel world which we inhabit,” presciently anticipating the virtual and post-geographical realm of Web culture.

Operating as a fabulist, Ballard was less tethered than even McLuhan by the restraints of academia or journalism. But even his most disturbed and hallucinatory stories generally started with reality, extrapolating from its emerging tendencies to create extreme but plausible scenarios in a near-future more often than not located just past the present’s horizon. Classic science fiction methodology, in other words. There’s an impulse among some Ballard fans, especially those who are “proper” literati themselves, to elevate Ballard and argue that his work transcends the ghetto of genre fiction. Although Ballard occasionally expressed frustration with SF’s pulpy aura, and later in his career wrote novels that fell outside its parameters, he generally was content to situate himself in the genre and loudly championed its potential. “I believe that if it were possible to scrap the whole of existing literature,” he once declared, “… all writers would find themselves inevitably producing something very close to SF … No other form of fiction has the vocabulary of ideas and images to deal with the present, let alone the future.”

The work on which Ballard’s reputation is based — his novels and short stories of the 1960s and ’70s — is either science fiction or based on speculative techniques very close to SF. The only real exception is 1970′s “The Atrocity Exhibition,” whose delirium of experimental prose has more in common with William S. Burroughs than Robert A. Heinlein. An unstructured collation of 15 micro-novels written during the late ’60s and bearing titles such as “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” “You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe” and ”The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,” “The Atrocity Exhibition” reads like an infinitely perverse cross between “The Golden Bough” and a forensic science textbook. Ballard described his approach as gathering “the materials of an autopsy” and treating reality “almost as if it were a cadaver.” (As a young man he’d briefly studied medicine.) But his true interest wasn’t everyday life but media hyperreality. He clinically probed the grotesque (de)formations of desire created by media overload and celebrity worship, a new psychomythology in which the deities were movie stars, politicians and murderers. Doubleday was all set to publish “Atrocity” in the USA but lost its nerve and pulped the entire print run; three years later it belatedly saw American release courtesy of Grove Press under the title “Love & Napalm: Export U.S.A.”

“Crash,” the infamous 1973 novel that developed from “Atrocity’s” coldly seething matrix of obsession, is ostensibly set in the present but it feels like a form of SF — if only because its cast of auto accident survivors turned flesh-on-metal perverts are presented as a kind of erotic avant garde, heralds of a future sexuality. Ballard had become interested in the role of car crashes in Hollywood movies and the emergence of an appetite on the part of a mass audience for a voluptuous and highly stylized violence. He diagnosed this carnographic entertainment culture as a symptom of suburbanization and anomie, the loss of meaning and community in people’s lives, and a corresponding hunger for sensation. “‘Crash’ is an attempt to follow these trends off the edge of the graph paper to the point where they meet, ” he explained some years after the novel was published. As a kind of research experiment, in 1970 he presented an exhibition at a London art gallery that involved the display of wrecked automobiles, and was gratified by the extreme emotional responses of the attendees. For Ballard this was the “green light” to start writing “Crash.”

An early reader of the novel at one publisher advised: “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish!” (Ironically, Ballard was living a stable domestic existence of responsibility and respectability in Shepperton, near London Airport, bringing up his three children as a single parent — his wife having died tragically young — and squeezing in writing between escorting the kids to school and helping with their homework.) Many reviewers rejected “Crash” as pornography. It isn’t actually a titillating read (for most people, anyway), but where it does resemble porn is in its clinically graphic language and extreme repetitiveness, with certain buzz phrases (“bloody geometry,” “perverse logic”) and tableaux (angles of conjunction between genitalia and instrument binnacles, semen emptying across luminescent dials, and so forth) recurring in a manner finely balanced between the incantatory and the numbing.

“Crash” is generally considered by Ballard buffs to be the first installment of a loose trilogy of novels set in a recognizable present-day (i.e., mid-’70s) London. But “Concrete Island” (1974) and “High-Rise” (1975) could equally be seen as a reversion to the narrative-driven approach of Ballard’s first four novels, “The Wind From Nowhere,” “The Drowned World,” “The Drought” and “The Crystal World.” This tetralogy, published between 1961 and 1966, firmly belonged in the science fiction camp, and specifically the SF sub-genre of the cataclysm story, where some kind of natural or man-made environmental catastrophe causes the breakdown of society. “High-Rise” simply localizes the post-apocalyptic scenario to a more confined area, a giant apartment building in the Docklands area of East London, whose warehouses and harbors would actually be redeveloped and gentrified in the 1990s. But Ballard’s inspiration was the urban redevelopment boom of the 1960s that razed the old Victorian slums of urban Britain and replaced them with skyscrapers and gigantic housing projects linked by concrete walkways and tunnels. Built in a spirit of neo-Corbusian idealism, these massive complexes rapidly deteriorated into behaviorist social laboratories blighted by vandalism, crime and drugs. “High-Rise” takes the fraying of the social fabric several steps further than anything actually going on in ’70s Britain, hooking the reader from the opening sentence: “As he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

“Concrete Island,” a slim and deceptively slight novel published the previous year, focused the cataclysm/collapse scenario down to the level of an individual. Losing control of his car, a man crashes into an area of overgrown scrubland circumscribed on all sides by highways and overpasses. Injured and unable to climb up the steep embankments, he’s forced to survive as a modern-day Crusoe surrounded by the endless streams of traffic, whose drivers steadfastly fail to see, or actively ignore, his plight.

“High-Rise” and “Concrete Island” share with the earlier, more overtly SF-oriented catastrophe novels a similar psychological narrative: the protagonist who finds himself perversely attracted to the cataclysm, feels at home in the drastically altered landscape it’s created. “The Drowned World” — easily the best of the disaster tetralogy, although I’m biased perhaps because it was my initiating dose of Ballard — takes place in what now seems like an uncomfortably possible near-future where sea levels have risen in sync with temperature. The setting is a London half-submerged by water and encroached by tropical jungle. While the surviving remnants of humanity are gradually migrating to the Arctic Circle, Ballard’s protagonist is last seen heading in the opposite direction, toward the uninhabitable Equatorial zones.

Ballard has argued that the devastated but dreamlike landscapes of these four ’60s novels are “far from being pessimistic” but are actually “stories of psychological fulfilment. The characters at last find themselves.” In a 1977 essay on the catastrophe subgenre written for an SF encyclopedia, Ballard ventured that SF was just a “minor offshoot of the cataclysmic tale” that had existed for millennia. He claimed that these fictions spoke to primal and antisocial urges, citing both the rattle smashing of the infant child and “psychiatric studies of the fantasies and dream life of the insane” that ” show that ideas of world destruction are latent in the unconscious mind.” But he also argued that doomsday novels were positive expressions. On the one hand, they involved a form of imaginative adaptation (he cited Conrad’s dictum “immerse yourself in the most destructive element — and swim!”) in preparation for the worst the 20th century had up its sleeve. On the other hand, they used the imagination to create “alternatives to reality” and thus represented a legitimately angry and subversive response to “the inflexibility of this huge reductive machine we call reality.”

Seeing them as “transformation stories rather than disaster stories” makes sense, if only because it helps to explain what the reader gets out of them — which is less to do with dread and more a kind of twisted utopianism or sublimated revolutionary impulse: a hunger to see the world turned upside down. The appetite for doomsday scenarios in fiction could also have something to do with the longing for an emptier world, a response to our overcrowded, stimuli-saturated civilization. J.G. Ballard didn’t have to daydream about cataclysm, though; as a teenager he lived through conditions of total collapse. Born in Shanghai in 1930, his childhood began in fairly idyllic quasi-colonial circumstances (Dad worked as managing director of a textile factory, they lived in a fancy house, had lots of servants). But with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, Shanghai was occupied in 1937. When Japan joined with the Axis powers against the Allies,  all “enemy civilians” were herded into internment camps. Ballard’s experiences of post-invasion chaos and prison camp life lead to 1984′s best-selling and prize-winning novel “Empire of the Sun,” the book that took Ballard from culthood to the middlebrow mainstream (helped, of course, by Spielberg’s 1987 movie version, with the young Christian Bale playing the J.G. character, Jim).

For many of Ballard’s original fans, though, there was some disappointment in discovering there was a biographical source, however exotic and dramatic, for his trademark imagery of drained swimming pools, deserted roads, abandoned airfields and empty hotels. All of a sudden we had a pat psychoanalytic explanation (trauma on a young psyche, the aesthetic equivalent of abused children re-creating similar psychosexual arrangements for themselves as adults) for Ballard’s sensibility, all his talk about “the magic and poetry one feels when looking at a junkyard filled with old washing machines, or wrecked cars, or old ships rotting in some disused harbor.” It all felt somehow reductive and demystifying — which is one reason I’ve never been drawn to actually read “Empire of the Sun.”

The fans’ misgivings were lent some credence by Ballard’s post-”Empire” fiction, which seemed to lose its spark, as though confronting his childhood experiences had defused some crucial mechanism of creativity. While his novels of the late ’80s and thereafter such as “Cocaine Nights” and “Super-Cannes” have admirers, few would argue they’ve contributed a jot to his enduring cult, based solidly on the early cataclysm fiction, on “Atrocity” and the urban trilogy of “Crash”/”High-Rise”/”Concrete Island,” and above all on the distilled, magisterial economy of his short stories, which regularly appeared through the ’60s and ’70s in collections with titles like “The Terminal Beach” and “Low Flying Aircraft.” Happily, W.W. Norton will be publishing ” The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard” this fall, a massive compendium that ran to 1,200 pages in its U.K. incarnation.

Stylistically what connects the avant-porn of Ballard’s experimental phase with the perverted adventure yarns of his cataclysm and urban-collapse novels is his inattention to traditional fiction virtues like character or dialogue. But more than plot, his books are about atmosphere, defined as a physical space colored by or charged with a psychological mood. Really the Ballard narrative is a machinery for delivering up landscapes and tableaux that linger in the reader’s mind’s eye. In the ’50s, before turning to writing, he tried his hand at painting, then gave up when he realized he had no flair for it. “I would love to have been a painter in the tradition of the surrealist painters who I admire so much,” he once confessed. In his fiction, vision reigns supreme over all the other senses, from touch (sex in “Crash” is about the arrangement of limbs and objects in compelling patterns, about geometry rather than sensuality) to sound (Ballard professed to have minimal interest in or feeling for music, although he did write a couple of very good short stories involving music of the future).

All through his career, he maintained a connection to visual artists, drawing inspiration from and befriending the British division of pop art (Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, et al.), whose infatuation with American advertising and pop iconography had obvious affinities with Ballard’s mass cult obsessions. But the surrealists remained his first and greatest love . He passionately defended Dalí from fashionable detractors, while the critic Chris Hall has noted the parallels between the dreamscape-like vistas that teem through his writing and Yves Tanguy’s “strange beaches,” Max Ernst’s “silent forests and swamplands, weathered scenery and gnarled post-apocalyptic detritus.” Ballard, again, could connect it to his own teenage experiences, describing “prewar and wartime Shanghai” as “a huge Surrealist landscape … There was a complete transformation of everything, complete unpredictability, while formal life went on, just as in Bunuel’s films or Delvaux’s paintings — a bizarre external landscape propelled by large psychic forces.”

A problem for anyone who wants to write about Ballard is that the author is his own best critic. You’ll come up with a perception, spot a pattern, then have the smile wiped off your face as trawling through his interviews or essay you’ll find it preempted by some remark of his own — expressed more sharply, taken further. These ideas about what he’s trying to do, or what fiction can be, are also embedded in the stories, which means that they sometimes verge on metafiction (but without being tediously postmodern — indeed, Ballard may well have been the last great literary modernist). At his height, every image is an idea and every idea is embodied as an image, sensation, mood.
Ballard’s achievement relates to the adjectivization of his name: the fact that “Ballardian” has become a glib descriptor for certain landscapes and cultural phenomena is a measure of his impact.

For some of us, Ballard has imposed his way of seeing between us and reality. For this sort of hardcore fan, it was impossible not to think of J.G. within seconds of hearing about Princess Diana’s crash (for added Ballardianism, she and Dodi were harried to an early grave by the image-vampires of the paparazzi, whose wages are paid by the general public’s voyeurism). Katrina and New Orleans, too — the flooded wards, the refugees clustered on partially submerged highway overpasses, the chaos and squalor of the overcrowded dromes, seemed to come straight from his pages. Perhaps reality caught up with his imagination, outstripped it. That might have been his message all along: that truth was already becoming stranger than fiction, something he’d glimpsed in occupied China in the 1940s.

Strangely, although we live in an ever more Ballardian reality, I can’t really see a Ballardian school of writing out there, even within science fiction. Perhaps J.G. is easier to parody than to be positively influenced by. Instead, his direct impact is most evident in music, particularly late ’70s and ’80s postpunk. Ironically, the art he had the least feeling for was the one that responded most fervently and productively to his vision. Probably his most famous fanboys were Joy Division. Their final studio album, “Closer,” featured an aural abbatoir of a track titled “Atrocity Exhibition,” with Ian Curtis playing the role of freakshow barker, luring voyeurs with the chorus “this is the way, step inside” and pointing to the twisted bodies on display. The band’s debut album, “Unknown Pleasures,” pulled a Ballardian maneuver by aestheticizing the postindustrial desolation of late ’70s Manchester, finding a somber glamour in its derelict factories and baleful motorways.

Industrial groups like Joy Division’s friends Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire venerated the two Bs: Ballard and Burroughs (the latter a major influence on J.G., who read “The Naked Lunch” in the early ’60s and drew huge impetus from Burroughs’ “severity” and unblinking, nonjudgmental gaze, a reprieve from the naturalistic and moralizing fiction that still ruled literary England). The Normal’s 1978 synth-punk classic “Warm Leatherette” was a three-minute precis of “Crash”: the catchiest couplet goes “The hand brake penetrates your thigh/ Quick — Let’s make love, before you die.” Gary Numan’s “Cars” and David Bowie’s  “Always Crashing in the Same Car” bear slightly smaller debts.

Another group of Ballard fans was the Human League. Founding member Ian Craig Marsh, later part of Heaven 17, raved to me about “The Atrocity Exhibition” and “High-Rise” (“the proles sending piles of human excrement up in the express penthouse elevators, the documentary maker who still carries his camera on his shoulder like it’s some symbolic totem, even after the lens is all smashed to fuck!”). But the Human League also made fun of the alienation chic of postpunk’s Ballard casualties in their 1980 song “Blind Youth,” singing “high-rise living’s not so bad” and “dehumanization is such a big word.” Elsewhere in ’80s mainstream pop, the Buggles, those MTV-inaugurating one-hit-wonders, loosely based “Video Killed the Radio Star” on the Ballard short “The Sound Sweep.”

During the grunge years, Ballard’s influence dipped away, but more recently it’s crept back, from Radiohead to the Klaxons (who named their Mercury Prize-winning “Myths of the Near-Future” after one of his short story collections) to numerous electronic musicians, most notably another Mercury nominee, Burial, whose debut LP was framed as a concept album about South London being flooded. And would you believe it, as I’m writing this feature, a publicist’s e-mail pings into my in box touting a new band named Empire of the Sun. Just as each new generation of angsty and imaginative youth discovers the music of bands like Joy Division for itself, it seems likely that half-lives of the Ballardian vision will keep reverberating through pop culture for a long time to come.

A fairy tale view of Britain: The Royal Wedding and American television

Los Angeles Times, April 25 2011

 by Simon Reynolds

Strange but true: The British public is simply not that excited about the royal wedding. According to the Economist, only a third of the population is definitely going to watch the nuptials on TV, while close to half are actively uninterested. My own secret source on the English streets (OK, it's my mum, who lives in a small town called Tring) reports that "people seem much less bothered" about Will and Kate than about Charles and Di in 1981.

Here in the U.S., the situation is quite different — at least if television mirrors the mood of the nation. Judging by the blanket coverage of the wedding lined up for this week, nearly every network is banking on the belief that average Americans are enthralled by all things royal. The other side of this fascination for the quaint old Britain of pageantry and aristocracy is a lack of awareness about the gritty reality of contemporary U.K. pop culture. This is the country that pioneered reality TV, invented soccer hooliganism and whose most widely read newspapers are tabloids featuring whole-page nude pin-ups.

From the tourist trade to romantic comedies such as "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Love Actually," the British themselves have often pandered to American Anglophiles' out-of-date impression of what the U.K is like. A perfect example of this syndrome is "Royally Mad," BBC America's two-part special about five Americans competing in a contest of obsessive knowledge concerning the Windsor family. Flown to London, they're put up in an old-fashioned hotel where they're served full English breakfast in bed by a portly butler and get to stand on the very aisle in Westminster Abbey down which the royal groom and bride will soon "process." Apparently, that's the verb form of "procession."

The explanation for the American love affair with this upper-crust view of England might have something to do with the phrase "like a fairy tale," which trips off lips frequently during "Royally Mad" as the contestants describe the enchantment of gadding about London to visit palaces and cathedrals. Anglophilia is all about the romance of history. Despite having several centuries of colorful, dramatic and just plain weird history to boast of, America seems to feel the absence of castles and ceremony from its physical and cultural landscape.

Looking at the output of mainstream TV and cinema, it can sometimes feel like Britain owns the past. Britishness and the idea of "the olden days" are totally entwined. Go back to the swashbuckling premodern past and you'll find, curiously, that everybody speaks with an English accent. OK, it makes sense that historical or legend-based dramas such as "The Tudors" or "Camelot" based in old Albion would have all-British casts.

But "Game of Thrones" is set in a medieval fantasy kingdom that never existed, so there's no earthly reason why American actors can't play the parts and speak in their own voices. Of course, its cast is almost entirely British. One of the only exceptions is Peter Dinklage, wonderful as the licentious and caustically witty dwarf Tyrion Lannister, and he's obliged to put on an affected, flowery English accent. And then there are such series as "Rome" and "The Borgias," both of which are set during different eras of the country that would later become Italy but whose credits are crammed with U.K. thespians. There's something about the English voice that simply fits dramatic situations involving armor, sword fights, banquets, scheming courtiers and power-corrupted bishops and the rest.

Perhaps it all stems from America's self-conception as the upstart that's outstripped its past-its-prime ancestor. The Old Country has to be kept firmly in the past. America wants England to be antiquated and charming. Hence the popularity of "The King's Speech" and costume dramas such as "Downton Abbey" and "Upstairs, Downstairs" (a revival of the Masterpiece Theatre favorite of the 1970s recently aired on PBS). These transatlantic coproductions are bonanzas for the actors of Great Britain. Who else can they get to play all those stock characters like the stern butler, the snooty dowager, the flinty cook, the plain but good-hearted scullery maid? Period dramas such as these and the endless Austen and Brontë adaptations have practically saved the U.K.'s theatrical class from destitution. (That and Hollywood's bizarre typecasting of bad guys as Brits.)

More than any other institution, PBS is responsible for maintaining the illusion that Britain is a country where everybody takes afternoon tea. Watching its period potboilers like "Cranford" with its cast of bonnet-clad gentlewomen, its mysteries involving sleuthing spinsters and its dated Britcoms that were often made back in the '80s or '70s, you'd never guess that contemporary Britain is a rather lively and dangerous place, a country with as many ghettos as stately homes.

True, most police constables still don't carry firearms, and yes, we still have those old red phone boxes. But gun crime is rising, and because Britain was one of the first countries to embrace cellphones and texting, the phone boxes now mostly serve as urinals for desperate drunks and places where prostitutes leave "call this number" stickers.
Contrary to the archaic stereotype of refinement and restraint, contemporary Britain is rowdy and coarse. Binge drinking and early pub closing times mean that on Friday and Saturday nights, the country's high streets transform into pageants of violence and vomit. The public broadcasting that was once admired across the world seems to plumb lows every year, with chat shows doused with gratuitous cuss words and "documentaries" with titles such as "My Big Breasts and Me" and "Britain's Worst Teeth."

If you look hard enough you can find glimpses of this other Britain on American TV, in shows such as the classic "Prime Suspect" or in the youth-oriented series "Skins" and "The Inbetweeners." Excessively hyper and often toppling over into implausibility, "Skins" did nonetheless capture many aspects of young Britain in the 2000s, from the routine and almost unremarkable drug use to the obsessions with clothes, gadgets and sex. The more humdrum and bathetic "Inbetweeners" follows the misadventures of four hapless, sex-starved teenage boys as they traipse through the modern-look suburbia (not a thatched roof or duck pond in sight) that covers much of the U.K. To get a shot at the U.S. mainstream, they've both had to be remade (by MTV) with American settings and characters.

And so televised Britain remains how Americans seem to like it: a fantasy land of castles and cucumber sandwiches, trusty valets and well-spoken villains, and a valiant prince marrying his fairy tale princess.

Staring out of my window in Manhattan’s East Village the other day, it struck me suddenly that the street scene below did not differ in any significant way from how it would have looked in 1967. Maybe even 1947. Oh, the design of automobiles has changed a bit, but combustion-engine-propelled ground-level vehicles are still how we get around, as opposed to flying cars or teleportation. Pedestrians trudge along sidewalks rather than swooshing along high-speed moving travelators. And even in hipster-friendly New York, most people’s clothes and hair don’t look especially outlandish. From the trusty traffic meters and sturdy blue mailboxes to the iconic yellow taxis and occasional cop on horseback, 21st century New York looks distressingly nonfuturistic. For a former science science fiction fanatic like me, this is brutally disappointing.

I’m not the only one who yearns for the future that never showed up. The frustration is widely felt and has been mounting for some time, gathering serious speed in the late ’90s when the really-ought-to-be-momentous new millennium loomed. Dates like “1999,” “2000″ and “2001″ set off special reverberations — not just for the science fiction fans among us but for plenty of regular folk too. Even now, when we should have grown blasé about living in the 21st century, the dates still have a faint futuroid tang, a poignant trace of what should have been. The obvious landmarks of tomorrow’s world never materialized: vacations to the moon, 900 miles per hour transatlantic trains hurtling through vacuum tunnels. But the absence is felt equally in the fabric of daily life, the way that the experience of cooking an egg or taking a shower hasn’t changed in our lifetime.

Nostalgia for the future, neostalgia — whatever you wanna call this peculiar unrequited feeling — is widespread enough to constitute a market. Enter Daniel H. Wilson’s “Where’s My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived.” This paperback sometimes strikes a melancholy note: A passage on moon colonies, which the New York Times in 1969 predicted were a mere 20 years away, notes that “the centerpiece of Disney’s Tomorrowland attraction was the luxurious Moonliner spaceship. But a future that included giant glass moon domes never appeared. Tomorrowland was torn down.” Mostly, though, the book’s tone is petulant and impatient. The title itself, “Where’s My Jetpack?” makes you picture a science fiction nerd stamping his feet in a tantrum. Wilson strives to speak directly to your inner 12-year-old: hence the high-fructose corn-syrup-laced prose (“crazy-ass mad science” and, in a section on an underwater city, “sea-tastic”), the groan-inducing puns (in the chapter on lighter-than-air transport, “blimpin’ ain’t easy”), the puerile fantasy of using an invisibility suit to sneak into the women’s changing room.

A glib and flippant tone dominates “Where’s My Jetpack?” but I get the feeling a more serious book is struggling to extricate itself from Wilson’s arch and camp approach (something compounded by Richard Horne’s kitschy retrofuturist illustrations). The research is top-notch and fascinating. Some of the best material here entails a sort of archaeology of stillborn or prematurely abandoned futures. In the 1960s, for instance, concerted attempts were made to build living environments at the bottom of the ocean, in the form of the U.S. Navy’s Sealab program. But instead of aquadome cities nestling on the ocean floor and a massive exodus of pioneers emigrating to settle the briny depths, all that remains today of the dream is a solitary subaquatic hotel, the Jules Undersea Lodge, located just off Key Largo, Fla. Other science fiction staples that made a tantalizingly brief appearance decades ago but never caught on, for reasons either practical or cultural, include the jetpack (the energy required for blast-off generates dangerous levels of heat) and Smell-O-Vision. The latter idea was mooted fictionally in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, “Brave New World,” in which the “feelies” stimulated one’s tactile and olfactory sense as well as sight and sound. The idea was actually attempted a couple of times in the early ’60s, but both times tanked in the marketplace.

Another classic futuristic idea made real is “cultured meat,” i.e., animal protein grown in the laboratory, where, Wilson reports, it is repeatedly stretched as a surrogate for physical exercise, in order to give it the texture of a living, active organism. This grotesque technology was memorably anticipated in Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s 1952 novel “The Space Merchants,” a corporate dystopia of the 21st century in which peon workers hack slices off a gigantic blob of animate but nonsentient poultry breast called Chicken Little. But in our nonfictional 21st century, the idea languishes in the laboratory thanks to consumer resistance. Our cultural biases reject cultured meat as gross, unnatural, an abomination. Indeed, popular taste is trending the opposite way, toward the organic, the uncaged, the nonprocessed.

In “Where’s My Jetpack?” Wilson frequently adopts a reassuring tone when examining a particular promised breakthrough that failed to materialize. Everything from the robot butler to 3-D television to the dinner-in-a-pill is presented as reasonably imminent (albeit likely to be way out of most folks’ price range). Coming down the pipeline real soon is the anti-sleeping pill: not a central nervous system stimulant like amphetamine, and therefore avoiding all the associated problems to do with abuse and paranoia, modafinil simply turns off the need for sleep (although you can bet that in itself this will generate side effects and mental disorders). Also on the horizon is the smart home, as imagined in another Pohl and Kornbluth novel, “Gladiator-at-Law” (1955). Disappointingly, though, rather than anticipating your moods with décor changes and keeping the fridge stocked with all your favorite delicacies, the intelligent domiciles of the near future will be extensions of the assisted-living facility: apartments kitted out with movement sensors that develop a feeling for their elderly inhabitants’ routines and send out alarm signals when, say, that regular hourly visit to the toilet isn’t made.

According to Wilson, NASA is working toward establishing a moon colony (though a rather minuscule one) within the next 13 years. Better still, the classic science fiction fantasy of the space elevator that carries us from the Earth’s surface 300 miles up to the threshold of outer space is already perfectly feasible, just prohibitively expensive. I would imagine the billion-dollar price tag for the miraculously strong cable the elevator glides up and down would pay for itself rather quickly, given that journeying into space (and as result the commercial exploitation of nonterrestrial mineral resources) would become approximately 100 times cheaper than the existing alternative, the space shuttle.

Wilson’s talk of space elevators and other grandiose inventions like solar mirrors or the fully enclosed city indicates how our expectations of the “futuristic” have undergone an insidious scaling down in recent decades. Mostly, “the future” seems to infiltrate our lives in a low-key, subtle fashion. In their own way, the miniaturization of communications technology (cellphones, BlackBerrys, etc.) and the compression of information (iPods, MP3s, YouTube, downloadable movies, etc.) are just as mind-blowing as the space stations and robots once pictured as the everyday scenery of 21st century life. Macro simply looks way more impressive than micro.

Sometimes it feels as if progress itself has actually slowed down, with the 1960s as the climax of a 20th century surge of innovation, and the decades that followed consisting of a weird mix of consolidation, stagnation and rollback. Certainly change in the first half of the 20th century seemed to manifest itself in the most dramatic and hubristic manner. It was an era of massive feats of centralized planning and public investment: huge dams; five-year plans of accelerated industrialization; gigantic state-administered projects of rural electrification, freeway construction and poverty banishment. Science fiction writers who grew up with this kind of thing (including the darker side of “public works” — the mobilization of entire populations and economies for war, the Soviet collectivization of peasant farms that resulted in massive famine, genocide) naturally imagined that change would continue to unfold in this dynamic and grandiose fashion. So they foresaw things like the emergence of cities enclosed inside giant skyscrapers and grain harvested by combines the size of small ships voyaging across vast prairies.

It’s no coincidence, too, that sci-fi’s nonfiction cousin, futurology — or future studies, as it is now more commonly known — emerged as a discipline during this era of the activist nation-state. World War II ratcheted up popular belief and trust in the exercise of judiciously applied might by centralized government, and the post-1946 world offered plenty of opportunities for benevolent state power to be flexed, from the challenges of postwar reconstruction to the development of the newly independent third-world nations that emerged out of the British Empire.

The 1950s and 1960s were characterized by future-mindedness, an ethos of foresight that attempted not just to identify probable outcomes but to steer reality toward preferred ones. It’s no coincidence that those decades were the boom years for both sci-fi and a spirit of neophilia in the culture generally — the streamlined and shiny aesthetic of modernity that embraced plastics, man-made fabrics and glistening chrome as the true materials of the New Frontier. It’s the era that produced “The Jetsons,” probably the single prime source of many of the tomorrowland clichés that haunt the collective memory — personal rocket cars parked in the front drive, food pills, videophones, robo-dogs — and that subsequently became a cue for retrofuturist camp.

Today we seem to have trouble picturing the future, except in cataclysmic terms or as the present gone worse (“Children of Men”). Our inability to generate positive and alluring images of tomorrow’s world has been accompanied by the fading prominence of futurology as a form of popular nonfiction. It carries on as an academic discipline, as research and speculation conducted by think tanks and government-funded bodies. But there are no modern equivalents of Buckminster Fuller or Alvin Toffler. The latter, probably still the most famous futurologist in the world, warned in his 1970 bestseller “Future Shock” that change was moving too fast for ordinary citizens’ nervous systems and adaptive mechanisms to cope with; 1980′s “The Third Wave” sounded a more positive note about the democratic possibilities of technology. But Toffler was just the most visible exponent of a bustling paperback subgenre of “popular thought.” I recall getting one such fat paperback for my 16th birthday, a book predicting all kinds of marvels, such as the resurgence of lighter-than-air travel, which would fill the skies with giant freight-carrying balloons and the aerial equivalent of ocean cruise liners transporting people across the seas and continents in leisurely fashion.

Some of the 1950s and 1960s anticipation and confidence in the future had worn off by the ’70s: Ecological anxieties manifested in everything from Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush” to the movie “Silent Running,” while science fiction writers like John Brunner and Harry Harrison imagined grim and gritty realistic early 21st century scenarios of overpopulation, pollution and fuel crises in novels like “Stand on Zanzibar” and “Make Room! Make Room!” (the latter adapted into the far inferior movie “Soylent Green”). But the 1970s still contained a strong current of popular futurism, reflected in the success of magazines like Omni and in the popular music of the day, the pioneering electronic sounds of Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre and Donna Summer producer Giorgio Moroder. It was a conflicted decade, though, with nostalgia gradually becoming a more dominant force (“Happy Days,” “Grease,” ’20s chic). Even science fiction itself began to regress, following the lead of “Star Wars” by abandoning the sophistication of the 1960s “New Wave” of sci-fi (with its explorations of “inner space”) and reverting to the swashbuckling space fantasies of the genre’s pulpy early days.

In the ’80s, thinking about the future in nonnegative terms seemed to become almost impossible.
Yesteryear seemed more attractive: Postmodernism and retro recycling ruled popular culture, while politically the presiding spirits of the era, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, were dedicated to restoration of an older order, to rolling back the gains of the abhorred ’60s. Futurology’s profile waned (can you name anything Toffler wrote after 1980?) and the bestsellers in the “popular thought” tended to be jeremiads and “Where did we go wrong?” investigations like Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985) and Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987).

The ’90s, however, saw a slight resurgence of futurism, driven by the information technology boom, theorized by magazines like Wired and Mondo 2000, soundtracked by another wave of electronic music (the techno-tronica rave-olution). While some of the new breed of futurologists were classic gee-whiz technology types like Kevin Kelly, others were “zippies,” hippies sans any Luddite technophobia or back-to-the-land nostalgia, people like Jaron Lanier and Ray Kurzweil. All panaceas and marvels, the talk could get pretty wacky: nanotechnology, virtual reality, trans-humanism. Kurzweil preached the notion that the law of accelerating returns was propelling us at breakneck speed toward a singularity: Fueled by cross-catalyzing innovations, the exponential curve of progress will inevitably, sooner rather than later, hit vertical, resulting in a rupture in human history, most likely entailing sentient machines, the dis-incarnation of human intelligence, immortality. Basically the rapture, with technological accouterments. Some of Kurzweil’s predictions were more prosaic: By the middle of the 21st century he imagined computers becoming so intelligent they could be genuinely musical, which for him translated as being able to jam with human guitarists, Jerry Garcia/Carlos Santana-style.

After the info-tech boom’s bust and 9/11, we haven’t heard as much from these digi-prophets. All that Dow Jones-indexed mania has sagged to a sour calm. Futurology as a popular nonfiction genre has been largely reduced to short-term trend watching, cool hunting in the service of marketing people and brand makers. Take the recently published “The Next Now: Trends for the Future” by Marian Salzman and Ira Matathia. Even taking into consideration the authors’ modest ambition to look a mere five years ahead, this book’s bundle of predictions is frankly feeble. Almost without exception, everything Salzman and Matathia “prophesy” is already a highly visible and well-established trend: wikis, blogging, celebrity chefs, gastro-porn, branding, the privatization of space, overwork/sleep deprivation, the prolongation of adolescence into the ’30s and beyond, online dating, an aging population … The near future, apparently, will just consist of more of the exact same.

Then again, perhaps sociocultural and political prediction is simply a mug’s game. In the 1970s, no one would or could have imagined that the dominant form of pop music of the last two decades of the 20th century would be rhythmatized boasts and threats delivered over beats; few would have foreseen the emergence of reality TV as the most popular entertainment format. On the political front, the annals of sci-fi are littered with dystopian soothsayings that now look laughably off-base, from Anthony Burgess’ “1985,” a 1978 novel about a trade-union-dominated U.K. of the near future in which the country is brought to a standstill on a weekly basis by general strikes, to Kingsley Amis’ 1980 novel “Russian Hide-and-Seek,” a vision of Britain 50 years after its conquest by the Soviets.

“Where’s My Jetpack?” shrewdly sticks to science and technology. But this relentless focus on machines, gadgets and life-enhancing innovations means that Wilson never touches on that whole other aspect of the “unrequited future” — the dismay and disbelief felt by many who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s only to witness a drastic deceleration in the rate of social and cultural progress.
Perhaps the expectations of the 1960s, that era of rampant radicalisms, were hopelessly unrealistic. Still, if you grew up, like me, reading radical feminists like Shulamith Firestone (who argued in “The Dialectic of Sex” that female liberation would come only with the invention of an artificial womb that could unshackle women from the procreative function) or New Wave of science fiction authors like Thomas M. Disch (who in his novel “334″ imagined men being able to get mammary implants and breast-feed their offspring), scanning contemporary popular culture with its supermodel competitions, desperate housewives and scantily clad pop divas is acutely disheartening. And these are about gender, just one zone of stalled progress or outright regression. Race, gay rights, drugs, socioeconomic equality, religion — on just about every front, things either are not nearly as advanced as we’d have once expected or have actually gone into reverse. Forget the goddamn jetpack: It’s the sociocultural version of the “amazing future that never arrived” that really warrants our anguish.