Saturday, May 18, 2013

Monitor issue 2, early 1985


1985, and a gaggle of groups plough a well-furrowed, increasingly barren field. Its perimeters are staked out by Cabaret Voltaire, Shriekback, Clock DVA, 23 Skidoo, A Certain Ratio, and somewhere beneath it all lurks the notion that there is something radical about black dance music, that it is the appropriate base for experiments and polemic. 1985, and with Chakk’s lazy talk of a “spirit of funk”, perhaps it’s time to delive into the history of this new orthodoxy.

Gradually, late in the 70s, funk was valorized, it became a positive term, somehow more progressive than rock. Part of the reason for this minor revolution is bound up with the “cultural economy” of youth music--the structural requirement for new input; not simply, simplistically, in order to maintain profits and preserve careers, but because the self-respect of musicians and journalists depends on their self-conception as, respectively, innovators and discoverers. And because youth culture, and all the hopes invested in its myths, depends on a constancy of rhetorical efflorescence, of a sense of happening(s), of revolution(s). With punk dying, there was a sense that rock was archaic and debased. At similar moments of entropy, black music has functioned as an alluring Outside for white bohemian youth--the old notions of the Black as Other, the incarnation of sexuality, the forbidden. Alienated white youth has traditionally aspired to “white negro" status, desiring both the oppression/exclusion blacks suffer, and their symbolic resolution of their problems, their victory over environment, in style and music. But whereas previously identification with geographically proximate black subcultures was the influence, in the late 70s there was a dissemination of certain ideas of “blackness” through the media, a borrowing from the files of pop history. Rhythm/roots/radicalism--this cluster’s perceived identity, was what lay behind the post-punk drive for a reinfusion of blackness. ‘Funk’ became a cipher, something to be cited or claimed; but crucially, it was an empty term in to which varying kinds of power were read (as a remedy for rock’s impotence).

For an element in the postpunk vanguard--overtly political groups like Gang of Four, Au Pairs, Pop Group--the clenched feel of funk, its tightness, was the appropriate rhythmic base for militancy and commitment and rigour of thought. This idea of funk as menace probably stemmed from the idea of bad-ass as personified by Sly Stone, George Clinton, James Brown, et al. Brown’s music, in particular, has functioned as a crucial bridge between trad white rock culture and 80s disco--he weaned white ears onto other, softer, blacker music. Brown’s peculiar appeal and influences lies in his exaggeration of R&B into a pure, precise pulse of male assertion/sexuality, a surface music of arid, cold textures, fleshless and soulless. (Which was why JB’s collaboration with Afrika Bambataa and electro was so appropriate and so dreary). Really, the funk of the agit-prop groups was no more than an acceptable form of masculine hardness and aggression (where rock as such was now considered embarrassing). Generally, they reduced funk to riffing, to guitars, bass and drums, unaware of the role of voices and production in black music.

Others groups “found” different properties in funk. A genre developed based on a profound perversion of funk’s sexual tension into a different sort of het-up charge, one of unease and dread. The disco backbeat became the given, the “natural” springboard for these experimentalists with their collages of industrial decay and social fragmentation. One reason was the neutrality of disco--it wasn’t loaded with associations that rock was, it was outside pop history, so it could be used as an element in futurist music. The idea was simple--marry technology and savagery, control and madness, the cerebral and “feel”. Music embodying both the system of industrial society and the breaking free (into violence, debauchery, excess) of instincts suppressed by the system. The musicians’ ambivalent feelings towards Control and Collapse (attracted to both) is bound up with the old egghead problem/project--how to think yourself past thought, or as Talking Heads’ put it--“help us lose our minds”, “stop making sense”. Jam Science, the Shriekback LP title, is the most succinct and distressingly pat expression of the goal. Blackness was read as wildness, or unrepression, and so the “spirit of funk” was basically invested with a danger it does not really possess.

Chakk and Hula are two current outfits who reveal both the extent and the limits of what can be achieved within this genre. The obvious musical strands--found voices; distorted, FX-ridden vocals; trails of discordant sax; somber swathes of synth; filched ethnic noises; basslines and drum patterns that bear a formal resemblance to funk but are fatally drained of sex and soul--are strung around the familiar concepts and content: cut-up theory; the ambivalent obsession with religious/jingoist fanaticism, atrocity, psychosis (via J.G. Ballard); totalitarianism (via William Burroughs’ Control). Even the titles instill a sense of deja vu--“Delirium”, “Cut the Dust”, “Tear up”, “Out of the Flesh”, “Pleasure Hates Language”. Hula’s Murmur and Chakk’s recent Peel session contain music that can emote and excite, but both groups make worthy additions to a pre-existing field, rather than enlargements or developments to it. The rhetoric of provocation, the claims to be “disturbing”, seem misplaced. What strikes is the inarticulacy of the music, despite its sensual surface and the intelligence that goes into the play with sound; nothing is imparted, nothing resolved. It exists as entertainment, not challenge, for a converted, stable audience--all those withdrawn young men who “groove” on this angst-funk and disco noir.

Direct imitation of black music rather than mutation or bricolage seems to dominate today’s music scene. Late in ’83, X Moore [aka Chris Dean] wrote in Harper’s and Queen (!) that 1984 would see a new “revolt into style”, an “upful” music, “brassy" and full of defiant hope, by groups steeped in Stax, Atlantic, Wilson Pickett, etc. Apart from being a slightly embarrassing fantasy of future success for his own group, the Redskins, it was quite an accurate prognosis. Groups like the Style Council, Kane Gang, Special AKA and Redskins suscribe to the current orthodoxy that black music alone is the legitimate base for protest. Allied with the sort of journalists whose every other word is “pride” and “dignity”, they have invested black music--60s and 70s soul, rap, African music, jazz--with qualities like “realism”, a certain out-going “health”, and a positivism of a specifically political slant. Hence the Redskins’ crusade against “miserabilism” (introspective rock groups like Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, Cocteau Twins, the Smiths) a/k/a “Reds Against the Blues”, with its underlying notion that unemployment and oppression are more fitting subjects for pop than love, loss and the more existensial forms of alienation.

Hence also the Style Council/Respond strategy of clean, smart clothes, sunny videos, freshness, beatnik sleevenotes, French flirtations--the idea of optimism as resistance, of Style and Youth as some sort of weapon or victory in itself. Paul Weller has dropped the Who as model for political songs, in preference for early 70s disco (Curtis Mayfields’ “We’ve Got To Have Peace” and “Move On Up”, O’Jays “Love Train”, etc); likewise the Kane Gang’s ideal in agit-pop is the Staple Singers. In the Style Council/Redskins musical universe, funky tightness (“Soul-Deep”, “Money-Go-Round”), brassiness (“Keep On Keepin’ On”), even strings (the fake Philly “Shout it To the Top”) have become ciphers for rebellion, just as powerchord guitar and vocal snarl were for another generation. The soul preacher has merely taken the exact place of the rebel rocker. Relly, the summit of it all, the last word (let’s hope) is “Shout It to the Top”, with its sleevenotes:

Yes! to the thrill of the romp
Yes! to the Bengali Workers Assocation
Yes! to a nuclear free world
Yes! to all involved in animal rights
Yes! to fanzines
Yes! to belief

What use or interest is this hope, pride and joy? Why has so much threat been claimed for this affirmation?

What drives them all into the dead end that is the “return to blackness”? The path of imitation is littered with failures (ABC, Dexy’s, The Questions). Leave black music to the visionaries and the naturals--Womack, Jackson, Chaka--who can turn the banal into the paradisical. What seems more productive now is a rereading of white rock heritage--groups who commit violence to the texts of such as the Doors, Byrds, Velvets, Birthday Party, garage punk and psychedelia. We’re talking about music at third or fourth remove from the R&B source, perversions of perversions. It’s music that chafes at the tenet that black music alone has a hold on desire or rhythm; music ignorant of questions of responsibility, social conscience and the imperative of “upfulness” (a very narrow understanding of what black music “is all about” anyway), made by goups who see themselves as artists rather than propagandists, who deal in poetry rather than reportage.

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