Tuesday, April 29, 2014

BRITPOP DISSECTED #3 - the Britpress

Request, May 1996

by Simon Reynolds

Right now, the British weekly music press--New Musical Express (NME) and Melody Maker (MM)--is going through one of its periodic phases of feeling self-important. The reason, of course, is Britpop. The weeklies didn't create the movement, but they did name it, and for two years now they've given Britpop their unconditional support. The official line is that 'we've never had it so good' (an echo of a famous political slogan from the '60s); that Britpop is a golden age for UK music, and that if you want to keep tabs on this fast-moving scene, you've got to buy the weeklies.

Grunge wasn't a bad time for the UK music press (in fact Melody Maker
was way ahead of American publications in picking up on what was happening in
Seattle). But the Brit-press is happiest when it can cover stuff happening
on its own doorstep, on a week-by-week basis. If a band is local, it's so much easier to kickstart the hype-cycle that so appals Americans: the group's discovery at a live gig by a cub reporter ('I have seen the future'), its endorsement by a more established writer, the granting of 'Single of the Week' honors, the pricking of major label A&R interest, the full-page debut album rave, the front cover, and so forth. So accelerated is the hype-cycle these days that stages are often
skipped; buzz bands sometimes make the front cover before they've even released a

Being so USA-based, grunge interfered with this process. NME  and MM rely on record companies to pay for trips outside the UK, which means that most American bands are already signed by the time the press write about it. Grunge also goaded the Britpress' patriotic pride, triggering its reflex-resentment towards America's domination of pop culture. After an initial anti-grunge backlash in '93 (Suede's defiantly Anglophile blend of glam Bowie and glum Morrissey),Britpop really got rollin' in '94. There was the neo-Merseybeat swagger of Oasis, Blur's unexpected self-resurrection out of the 'has been/never-was' dumpster, and Pulp's strange and wonderful ascent to cult popularity, after 15 years in the wilderness. In '95, Britpop went into overdrive: Elastica, Supergrass, Bluetones, Cast, Gene, Shed Seven, Menswear, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

The Britpress will seize on any excuse for a fit of chest-swelling, tub-thumping jingoism. Britpop was ideal, since its aesthetic base--the mid-60's, filtered through its late '70s echo, New Wave--had hitherto been strictly an indie style, and thus the province of the weeklies. At the same time, Britpop bands are overtly anti-experimental and pre-psychedelic; they combine a playsafe 1966-meets-1978, three minute pop aesthetic with a doctrine of stardom-at-all-costs, making them highly desirable to record companies and extremely radio-friendly. Because the bands it deals with now hit the charts,
the prestige and morale of the Britpress has been boosted; for the first time in 15 years, people turn to them as tipsheets on future stars. For instance, this January a grubby little gang of sub-Oasis oiks called Northern Uproar appeared on MM's cover one week, and on Top Of the Pops the next (TOTP being the UK's premiere pop TV show, based around that week's new chart entries). Furthermore, Britpoppers behave like pop stars; they make strenuous efforts to give good face and good quote, all of which makes the music papers' job much easier.

That job is basically to convince the readers that stuff is happening. Now, you might think that ain't so hard, given the plethora of scenes and sounds  generated by the merry postmodern tumult of the 1990's. But the Britpress readership is deeply conservative, and its idea of what's relevant
is decidedly narrow. Look at the NME and MM annual readers polls in the last 15years and you'll invariably find the Best Band position occupied by a white, all-male, British guitar band: the Jam, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Smiths, the Stone Roses, Suede, Blur, Oasis. The Top 10 Band, Album and Single categories usually feature no women, no blacks, no dance music, and rarely any Yanks (although REM and Nirvana did briefly challenge the Anglocentric bias).

The Britpress has to give its readers what they want, i.e as many pieces as possible on the 10 or so Big Brits (pegged around the single, the album, the tour, any excuse whatsoever basically), plus features on Brit-pop 'contenders'--younger bands waiting in the wings for fame and fortune to take its toll on the established Brit biggies. That still leaves a fair number of pages which have to be be filled by token coverage of 'minority' interests like techno, hip hop, weird guitar experimentalism, American rock, and other stuff which market research shows the readers are simply not interested in.

The big problem for the weekly music papers right now is that the very commercial success that's vindicated their Britpop boosterism is also making their own role redundant. A few years ago, NME started its Brat Awards as a sort of parody-cum-riposte to the Brit Awards (the UK record industry's official, Grammy-like honors). In the beginning, NME could justifiably argue that the truly vibrant pop of the day was being ignored by the Brits, in favor of MOR artistes like Elton John and Phil Collins, whose awards were basically rewards for their contribution, via international sales, towards rectifying Britain's trade deficit. These days, both Brits and Brats are alarmingly similar in their fixation on the triumvirate of Blur/Oasis/Pulp; yesterday's alternative has become today's mainstream.

Because of this, everybody is writing about Britpop--from the newspapers and tabloids to glossy teenybop mags like Smash Hits. With their traditional turf usurped by other mags and by TV, the weeklies don't know where to go next, how to reclaim their unique role. Do they carry on
scrabbling to find the next Blur or Oasis ahead of the slower-moving monthly magazines, a strategy which is already dredging up lame xeroxes and runts-of-the-litter like Northern Uproar? Or do they dare to drift left-field, and discover/dream up a new alternative?

Another reason why the weekly papers have been obliged to narrow their focus is the vast range of music media now available in the U.K., from specialist publications (dance mags like Mixmag and Muzik, metal mags like Kerrang, cutting edge eclectics like The Wire) to the 'general interest' music monthlies like Select, Q and Mojo. The last three are owned by the publishing group EMAP, and are designed to take the reader from cradle to grave: Select is targetted at indie-loving teens and colledge kids, Q is for late twenty-to early thirtysomethings who buy maybe ten CD's a year, while Mojo is
a largely retro-oriented magazine aimed at the 30-plus market who've given up on 'modern music' but are still passionately interested in the graying rock'n'rollers who soundtracked their youth.

NME and Melody Maker are deadly rivals, which is odd because they're owned by the same media conglomerate, IPC, and are situated just one floor apart inside IPC's King's Reach Tower.
Once upon a time, this emnity was based on ideological differences. Today,  the rivalry is sustained out of habit more than anything; Britpop unites all in its engulfing mediocrity. In truth, the papers have a complementary relationship. Since the late '80s, MM has been ensconced in the role of discovering new bands first; the bigger-selling NME bides its time and usually reaps the benefits of timing its coverage closer to the point at which bands break into the mainstream.

Writing for a weekly music paper offers writers cachet and power, but little financial reward or career prospects. There's a constant influx of firebrands who arrive, make their mark (usually by crusading on behalf of a particular scene or genre) and then burn out. There's a definite type that's attracted to the weekly music press: almost always male, almost always middle class, over-educated, a bit emotionally retarded. (I speak as someone who's written for Melody Maker for ten years, and certainly don't exempt myself from this description!). The Fall's Mark E. Smith tagged this breed with his phrase 'hip priest'. Throbbing with will-to-belief and gifted in the arts of messianic
rhetoric, these angsty young men gravitate towards the music press, where in previous generations they might have chosen revolutionary politics, poetry or evangelism.

See, thriving (as opposed to eking out a living) in the Britpress requires a weird sort of doublethink: the knack of participating in the conscious construction of a 'happening scene', while simultaneously believing in the reality and righteousness of the figment you've created. A good example of this syndrome is Romo, the pipe-dream of two of Melody Maker's brightest journos,Simon Price and Taylor Parkes. Short for 'Romantic Modernism', Romo is not, the duo stress, merely a revival of early '80s New Romantic synth-and-eyeliner pop, but "a renaissance" of the quintessentially English aptitude for artifice and androgny. No matter that the one Romo band I've seen so far, Viva, were quite dreadful, a cut-price Roxy Music; Price & Taylor's manifesto-mongering and sheer will to hallucinate into being an alternative to the increasingly prosaic Britpop are admirable. It's what the English music press does best, and doesn't do often enough these days.

British music hacks engage in this kind of scene-making partly for glory, partly out of dissatisfaction with pop's stasis quo, and partly in a purely generous attempt to make things seem more exciting than they actually are. Ideas are thrown down, as a challenge and a reproach, and in the hope that someone will pick up the baton. There's no profit to be had from these crusades; only the bands who get signed by majors thanks to the hacks's efforts, and the A&R scouts who do the signing, make any money out of the hype-cycle.

The weekly nature of the Britpress, the sheer number of pages that require filling, and the swarm of young egos hungry to make their mark--all this contributes to the infamous "hothouse atmosphere" of the UK music scene: the rapid turnover of scenes and styles, the histrionics and overheated prose.
The readers don't particularly like these qualities, but they kinda expect them; they're locked in a peculiar love/hate relationship with the weeklies, and tend both to overestimate and underestimate their power. NME and MM can't break bands on their own, without radio play, nor can they significantly damage successful bands. But the papers do have a huge influence on the record companies' A&R policy (several Romo combos have already been signed!),
and a more subliminal effect on British music culture itself. By creating a critical climate in which certain ideas and attributes become highly charged, sexy, de rigeur, the music papers shape the aesthetic universe in which a young band develops; by the time they're getting written about, the bands are spouting the buzzwords, dropping the references, reciting the litany. Dreampop, the post-My Bloody Valentine wave of Lush, Slowdive, Ride, etc, is a good example of this syndrome.

In the end, the Britpress's virtues are the same as its vices. It is volatile, venomous, fickle, pretentious, lacking in perspective, frothy with premature exaltations and disproportionate fervour, absurdly polarised in its judgements, prey to the most pernicious kinds of boosterism, and an utter stranger to fact-checking. Wholly un-American, in other words.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

BRITPOP DISSECTED #2 - 1995 and the Battle of Britains

Frieze, December 1995

By Simon Reynolds

'Britpop'--just in case you've been in a coma for the last year--is the music papers' buzzterm for an alleged rejuvenation of the charts, with the likes of Oasis, Blur, Elastica, Pulp and Supergrass displacing American grunge/faceless rave/super-annuated AOR in the higher reaches
of the Hit Parade. 'Britpop' has become a rallying cry, an excuse for chests to swell with patriotic pride. It's even made the tabloids and the News At Ten. Back in August a cabbie told me he'd only ever bought four records in his entire life, then--unprompted--brought up Blur and Oasis.
Even he'd heard about their big battle over whose single would enter the charts at Number One.

So everybody--industry, media, 'the kids'--is frothing with excitement about Britpop. Why? The music biz, which was having trouble building long-selling careers off the back
of dance music and had lost ground to the post-rave indie labels, is thrilled because the Britpopsters are guitar-based bands who willingly constrain themselves within the 3-minute
pop single format and radio-friendly, trebley production. The music press is buzzing 'cos Britpop's aesthetic base-- the mid-Sixties, filtered through its late '70s echo, New  Wave--had hitherto been strictly an indie style, and thus the inkies' province. At the same time, the bands are overtly
anti-experimental and pre-psychedelic; they combine playsafe 1966-meets-1978 aesthetics with an almost doctrinal ethos of ambition and stardom-at-all-costs. Because the bands it
discovers now hit the charts, the music press' prestige and morale has been boosted; for the first time in years, people turn to the inkies as tipsheets! Moreover, Britpopsters behave like stars, make
an effort to give good face and good copy, and this makes the journos' job easier. And 'the kids'? Even the youngest surely sense, on some subliminal level, that the sound of
Britpop harks back to the days when Britannia ruled the pop waves, while the attitude evokes an era when being young was a real cool time. The glory-lust of Oasis' "Champagne Supernova",
the insouciance of Supergrass' "Alright", seem mighty appealing, even as they fly flagrantly in the face of the socio-economic facts.

As it happens, I think Britain IS the place to be, pop-wise; it's just that this state-of-affairs has NOTHING to do with Britpop. Relatively unheralded by the media, another
generation of Britons are waiving the rules. There's the post-rock experimentalism of Laika, Pram, Techno-Animal etc; the trip hop of Tricky, Wagon Christ and the Mo'Wax label;
the 'artcore' jungle of 4 Hero, Dillinja, Droppin' Science, the Moving Shadow label; the art-tekno weirdness of Aphex Twin, Bedouin Ascent, et al. All these strands of UK activity are either offshoots of, or deeply influenced by, club music and sound-system culture; sonically, they're informed
by the rhythm-science and studio-magick of dub reggae, hip hop and techno. And all speak eloquently if non-verbally of the emergence of a new hyrid British identity, a mongrel,
mutational mix of black and white.

Britpop is an evasion of the multiracial, technology-mediated nature of UK pop culture in the '90s. If it started a few years ago as a revolt against American grunge (Suede's fey fusion of glam Bowie and glum Morrissey), now it's extended itself into the symbolic erasure of Black Britain,
as manifested in jungle and trip hop. For Britpopsters, the Sixties figure as a 'lost golden age' in a way that's alarmingly analogous to the mythic stature of the Empire vis-a-vis football hooligans and the BNP. Even more than the insularity of Britpop's quintessentially English canon (Kinks, Jam, Small
Faces, Buzzcocks, Beatles, Smiths, Madness), it's the sheer WHITENESS of its sound that is staggering. Take Elastica, whose singer Justine Frischmann confessed that she could only
think of one form of black music she liked: ska (the jerkiest, most New Wavey form of black pop ever!). And take Blur, whose homage to the U.K's music-hall pop tradition
manages to sever The Kinks from R&B, Madness from ska, and Ian Dury from the Blockheads' fluency in funk and disco.

Damon Albarn's pseudo-yob accent testifies to a nostalgia for a lost white ethnicity, one that's fast eroding under the triple attrition of America, Europe and this nation's indigenous non-white population. Like his hero Martin Amis, Albarn fetishises London's vestigial remnants of
authentic white trash as "the last truly English people you will ever know" (to borrow a lyric from Morrissey, another feller with a dubious penchant for skinheads and villains).
Mozzer is right, this is a dying breed, already displaced by a new generation of London youth who speak an alloy of Cockney/Jamaican patois/B-boy slang, watch American sci-fi
movies, grapple with Japanese computer games, and listen to sampler-based music like jungle.

It's these kids--the kind you'll find at drum & bass hang-outs like Speed and AWOL--who are today's mods, not the  sorry-ass mod revivalists at Camden's Blow Up club. Mod
originally meant 'modernist', meant having utterly contemporary tastes in music, clothes, everything. Today's junglists, trip-hoppers and techno-heads share their '60s ancestors obsession with records (the obscurest track, the freshest import) as opposed to bands; the same orientation
towards Black America and Jamaica; the same anticipation for the future. Camden is supposed to have brought back the idea of Swinging London, but for five years now pirate radio has
been making a clandestine cartography of the metropolis, bringing the scent of enchantment to forsaken places like Peckham and Dalston, as MC's chant out the listeners' paged-
in "big shouts" and "'nuff respects".

Perhaps even more than race, it's covert class struggle that underpins the Britpop phenom: the fetishising by mostly middle class bands and fans of a British working class
culture that's already largely disappeared, is really a means of evading the real nature of modern prole leisure, which remains overwhelmingly shaped by rave. Blow Up's avowed anti-Ecstasy stance symbolises this perfectly. Not only did E usher in a new and still unfolding era of psychedelic music
based around the drugs/technology interface, but the drug also permanently altered the mentality of vast tranches of da youth, blasting away reserve, inhibition, emotional
constipation, everything in the English character that holds us back. E and rave transformed the UK into one funky nation, but you wouldn't be able to tell that from Britpop. From Blur's rickety arrangements to the raunch-less turgidity of Oasis, Britpop is rhythmically retarded, to say the least.
Partly, it's the result of cultural inbreeding, of a white pop tradition that's long since distanced itself from the R&B roots that made the Beatles and Stones dance bands; partly, it's a
deliberate avoidance of anything that smacks of lumpen rave.

Thanks to rave, the most vital sectors of '90's UK subculture are all about mixing it up: socially, racially, and musically (DJ cut'n'mix, remixology's deconstructive assault on the song). Returning to the 3 minute pop tune that the milkman can whistle, reinvoking a parochial England
with no black people, Britpop has turned its back defiantly to the future. Here's hoping the future will respond in kind, and remember Britpop only as an aberrant, anachronistic fad--like trad jazz, the early '60s student craze that resurrected the Dixieland sound of 30 years earlier. Perhaps
Oasis will one day seem as inexplicable as Humphrey Lyttleton!

Where Blur's The Great Escape and Oasis' What's The Story) Morning Glory bask in the setting sun of England's bygone pop glory, Tricky's Maxinquaye and Goldie's Timeless gaze into the future. Both Tricky and Goldie are black British B-boys mindwarped by the drugs/technology
interface; both share a strikingly similar set of miscegenated influences ranging from art-rock (David Sylvian, Kate Bush) to ambient (Eno) to the black avant-garde (Public Enemy, Miles Davis); both made the Top 5 of the Album Chart. Reflecting what is really going on in Britain in 1995,
Maxinquaye and Timeless offer two versions of a modern  inner city blues. Dark, discomfiting, devoid of the callow cheer of yer Blurs and yer Supergrasses, yet it's these records (and, believe me, a horde of other trip hop, jungle and post-rock releases) that are the real reasons to be
cheerful about British popular music in 1995.

Thursday, April 24, 2014



The Brit Box: UK Indie, Shoegaze, And Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millenium

Directors Cut version, Salon.com December 8th, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

The Brit Box comes cutely packaged. Exploiting the long rectangular cardboard case, the front shows a red telephone box of the kind you’ve seen in countless old movies set in England. Flitch a little switch on the box’s backside (which depicts an old fashioned rotary phone) and a light goes on in the phone box on the front, just like real ones do at dusk. But this one flashes like a lightshow at a rock gig.

Of course, in the UK, the classic public phone box--sombre scarlet paint, eight glass window panels on three sides, Her Majesty’s crown insignia at the top--was long ago replaced with a sleeker, modern-looking model. Rather than the garish stickers for Britpop groups that plaster Rhino’s phone box, you’ll find equally lurid cards from hookers advertising all manner of kinky services. Besides which, everybody in the UK uses cellphones now. But the out-of-date packaging suits The Brit Box’s sales pitch to a tee. The idea here is that Great Britain is quaint but classy. Just as Fortnum & Mason continues to offer afternoon tea even though that scones-and-cucumber-sandwiches custom has completely died out among the populace at large, British bands can always be relied on to serve up the country’s traditional pop values-- wordsmith wit, shapely tunes, English charm--just like they did back in those fab gear 1960s.

In America, this shtick appeals to the same sort of Anglophiles who fasten on Masterpiece Theater and PBS’s other imported programming as the seal of quality (even though the dowdy costume dramas, lame sitcoms and sleuth shows about crime-solving antique dealers and spinsters barely qualify as middlebrow in their homeland). It’s the exact same demographic (college-educated upper middle class), just a younger subset, and an identical syndrome: the equation of England with a superior level of refinement and literacy.

Being into music from the UK has long been a way for a certain kind of young American to express their sense of being different from everybody else. The seeds of this dissident taste might germinate with hearing Depeche Mode or Morrissey on a modern rock station, then bloom through discovering of college radio and being initiated in Anglo esoterica like XTC or Robyn Hitchcock, and finally blossom when the budding Anglophile starts picking up pricey import copies of British pop papers. The English weekly music papers--nowadays there’s only NME left, but in the Eighties and Nineties there was also Melody Maker and Sounds--have long inducted Anglophile neophytes into a fabulous world where bands talk better (reared on the music papers, they know how to give good interview) and look better (UK groups often have a pulled-together, collective image) than their American indie equivalents. Just as they manage to be glamorous without being glitzy in a mainstream Billboard way, the music of the Brit-bands likewise offers a winning combination of ‘alternative’ and pure pop appeal. The guitar/bass/drums sound connotes indie and “real music”, but English bands tend to have a sharper knack for concision and melodic punch, perhaps because their singles actually have a shot at making the UK Top Forty.

There’s a sexual component to rock Anglophilia too. The British groups usually contain at least one or two pretty boys--pale, thin, with really good hair; some will even use eyeliner. Anglo androgyny appeals to young women who like their pop fantasy object to be sensitive and delicate--unmanly, as opposed to a buff hunk. But this willowy, tousled look also appeals to a certain kind of gay taste. Over the years I’ve noticed that even UK frontmen who are considered macho louts in their homeland seem to have an aura of androgyny by association. There’s a sense in which England as a whole codes “gay”--too complex a syndrome to explore here, but it has something to do with Oscar Wilde, Britain’s private boarding school system, and the glam tradition that encompasses everyone from Bowie to Boy George to Morrissey.

Targeted at this country’s niche audience of Anglophiles, The Brit Box’s timespan--it starts in 1984, ends in 1999--seems somewhat arbitrary. What actually distinguishes those sixteen year as a separate period from the epoch of British guitar-based music that preceded it? Perhaps it’s simply the fact that, notwithstanding its appeal to a compact cult following in this country, almost all of the music on this box failed commercially in America. From the early Sixties to the early Eighties, what was big in Britain was, with a precious few exceptions, equally big in America: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, Cream, Sabbath, Zeppelin, Rod Stewart, David Bowie… The Trans-Atlantic traffic faltered slightly circa punk, but resumed in force with The Police and The Clash. Then came all the synth-wielding, MTV-friendly androgynes of the early 80s, the so-called Second British Invasion. Conversely, with a few exceptions like The Cure and Oasis, what this Rhino box documents is the British Non-Invasion.

Of course, the Brit Box doesn’t attempt to encompass all the music that came out of the UK between 1984 and 1999. Plenty of English acts enjoyed substantial success in the United States. Tellingly, though, almost all of them--from George Michael to Soul II Soul, Simply Red to Stereo MCs and EMF--were deeply steeped in Black American music. Essentially, they represented the continuation of what the British Invaders of the Sixties started, the great English love affair with cutting edge black music: back then, blues and soul; by the Eighties and Nineties, funk, disco, hip hop, house. However much they expanded and mutated their black sources, every major group of the British Sixties was at heart a dance band, with years of hard graft under their collective belt, playing in sweaty clubs to teenagers looking to shake their stuff. Fetishising the guitar sound of the Sixties rather than its rhythmic base, British indie rockers ignored the processes and practices that actually made the British beat group boom happen--its rhythmic base and impulse toward sonic hybridity. If you're going to be retro, you might as well at least take everything that's good about the vintage style you're pillaging, surely? But not only did most British indie rockers of the 80s and 90s fail to adequately replicate the rhythmic dynamism of their Sixties sources,which was grounded in rhythm-and-blues, they also shied away from infusing their music with the energy and innovation of contemporary black music. If “UK indie, Shoegaze, Britpop”, as Rhino’s box characterizes its contents in the subtitle, proved unable to match in America its chart success at home, could that be precisely because of its divorce from black music and the dance imperative? That seems more plausible than the Anglophile fan argument that would attribute it to defective popular taste or the conservatism of American radio.

The Smiths, who kick off The Brit Box with their 1984 song “How Soon Is Now”, were a critical force in the drift away from the dance floor and black influences. Morrissey’s voice sounded “pale” and “pure” in a way that was almost but not quite folky; Johnny Marr’s guitar harked back to Byrdsy jangle rather than Chic’s choppy funk. In 1986, The Smiths spelled out their opposition to mainstream dance-pop with their single “Panic”, whose chorus demanded “burn down the disco/hang the blessed deejay.” In Morrissey’s fantasy tribunal of popular justice, the crime was lyrical vapidity and complacent hedonism: “the music that they constantly play/says nothing to me about my life”.. Morrissey’s interview comments of the time--he described hip hop’s presence in the charts as “a stench”, dismissed reggae as “vile” and derided R&B’s gross caricature of sexuality--prompted some critical supporters of soul music and club culture to argue that his remarks exposed a subtle form of racism in the indie music scene. Bizarrely, this ancient controversy flared back into life last month when Morrissey, interviewed by NME, blamed the erosion and erasure of the England he knew and loved as a child in the Sixties on immigration, even using the classic nativist metaphor of a culture being “swamped”. During the resulting furore, which included a follow-up interview and lawyer’s letters, Morrissey
insisted on his opposition to racism, which he described as “silly”.

This apparent contradiction of being anti-racist but steadfastedly avoiding any contact with black music culture is integral to indie rock. The Smiths did in fact
play a Rock Against Racism benefit in 1986 not long after “Panic” was released. Indeed it could be that indie-rock fans, with their high quotient of college students, are more likely to have progressive political opinions than regular folks. But those liberal values do not stretch to a form of affirmative action when it comes to their music consumption. There is a blinkered parochialism and sluggish conservatism to indie rock taste whose net result ends up looking an awful lot like self-segregation. One of the dirty secrets of the UK music press was the fact that sales figures and market research both showed that issues featuring black artists on the cover sold poorly. The charitable interpretation of this is that the regular readership assumed that these were performers in hip hop or R&B, i.e. genres they either had no curiosity about or actively despised.

During much of the period covered by The Brit Box, I worked at Melody Maker, as a staff writer and later as a freelance contributor. I witnessed the rise of most of the bands featured herein, watched them progress from live review buzzes to Singles of the Week, from one page features to cover stories. More often than not, though, I saw it out of the corner of my eye. With a handful exceptions--the epoch-defining Smiths and Stone Roses, the dizzyingly innovative My Bloody Valentine, the witty, charismatic Pulp, a few others-- my attention was focused on all the other stuff going on during this period: UK rock’s experimental fringe, hip hop, dance culture and electronic music. When it came to guitars, I found the stuff coming out of America far more appealing, on the whole: wilder-sounding, better played, often coupled with a deranged and scabrous sense of humor. For my contingent at Melody Maker, the rock bands that really mattered were mostly from the States: Husker Du, Big Black, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jnr, Butthole Surfers, Pixies, Mercury Rev, Royal Trux…. Indeed in our crowd, it became a fashionable attitude to be ashamed of the homegrown indie for its sonic feebleness and for being hidebound by self-consciousness. Ironically (given our profession) we blamed this on the malign influence of the music press itself, which tended to favour bands that were hot on manifesto and rhetoric, because it made for a good story and an easy life for the journalist. For some reason, in those days I believed that American bands were more intuitive and less contrived--an idea that now seems absurd (what could be more arty and thought-out-in-advance than Sonic Youth, more irony-clad than Pavement?). Nonetheless there was a palpable difference in quality and substance between American and British rock, audible on the basic level of rocking, something which few UK guitar bands seemed able to pull off during the Eighties. (Things improved somewhat in the 90s thanks to the rock refresher course that was grunge. But only very slightly).

That’s one reason why the bands corralled on The Brit Box stumbled when they reached the shores of America. Time and again, bands used to playing in huge venues to fervent, pre-converted crowds would arrive to face the humiliation of starting all over again from near the bottom: small clubs and audiences with a high proportion of skeptics waiting to see if the group could deliver live. Having risen so effortlessly in their homeland, the English groups would flinch from the prospect of slogging around the United States, putting in the work required to make it here. As time went by and the failure stories accumulated, their attempts to break America grew ever more desultory.

There was a sound reason for not making a serious bid to conquer the American market, though. Being abroad for long stints entailed neglecting their fanbase. In the high turnover, hothouse atmosphere of the UK scene, out of sight means out of mind; hungry new pretenders are always coming through to seize the throne. British music fans and British music papers love the idea of the local: fans want bands they can go and see regularly, groups they can root for and support almost like a soccer team. What the music press readership in the UK has always wanted is a band that resembles itself, which means it’s got to be white, male, British. The band also needs to stick to the traditional format of songs plus electric guitars, and to lyrically offer a slightly heroicised version of the fanbase’s dreams and fears. If you look at what the readerships of NME and Melody Maker voted for as Best Band over the last 30 years, each year’s #1 has rarely been an American group (REM and Nirvana were brief exceptions). It’s been a straight line running from The Jam, Joy Division and Echo & The Bunnymen, through The Smiths, Stone Roses, Oasis and Blur, right up to today’s Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys. Not an American accent, black face, or pair of ovaries in the lot of them. And apart from Oasis and Franz, not a full-blown American success story among them either.

* * * *
Open The Brit Box and you’ll find two CD cases containing four discs in total. Each one is designed to look like an ashtray, with the number of cigarette stubs corresponding to the disc’s number. (Smoking seems to be a crucial element of Britpop’s semiotics, from Oasis’s “Cigarettes and Alchohol” to Arctic Monkeys’s debut album with its cover photo of a lad smoking a “fag” down to its nub and the disc’s image of an ashtray choked with stubbed-out butts). The phone box theme of fusty English charm resumes on the CD inserts, which depict baked beans, licorice allsorts, used teabags and a Beefeater Doll.

Pop Disc One into the CD-player and what soon becomes apparent is how, circa 1984,
British indie rock averted its face from the pop present and looked to the Sixties. Alongside The Smiths, the prime instigators of this drastic shift were The Jesus and Mary Chain. By the time of 1987’s “April Skies,” Jim Reid and his brother William had removed their trademark wall-of-noise (as heard on classic 1985 singles like “Upside Down” and “Never Understand”) to reveal classically contoured songs constructed in homage to a canon of renegade rock: The Stones, the Stooges, The Velvets, The Beach Boys. Stripping away their sole claim to radicalism, that blistering sandstorm of feedback, left them exposed as pasticheurs.

Starting out at roughly the same time as J&MC but slower to achieve renown, Spacemen 3 engaged in a similar retreat to rock’s archives. Their “Walkin’ With Jesus” is little more than a guided tour of their record collection (more or less identical to the Reid Bros, but with some MC5 and gospel added to the mix). Spacemen 3 consciously saw their music as a gesture of defiance against the Eighties. In the box set’s booklet, the band’s Jason Pierce (later to break away to form the more expansive outfit Spiritualized) declares: “we sat the ‘80s out, really. We weren’t in tune with what was going on musically or politically at all…. We mined a world of music that wasn’t mainstream--taking from ‘50s and ‘60s music--then just sat on it and made it our own.”

Spacemen 3’s mission statement was “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to”. But on a popular level, the true chemical-generation revolution in late Eighties Britain didn’t take the form of Detroit 1969 revivalism. It was rave culture, fueled by Ecstasy and soundtracked by the alien electronic tonalities and machine beats of house and techno, a music movement oriented around looking-to-the-Nineties futurism rather than pining-for-the-Sixties nostalgia. Some of the J&MC and Spacemen’s 3 fellow-travelers in retro realized this and tried to board the rave train. The Stone Roses already had one of the few really groovy British drummers around in Reni, something audible in the spring-heeled bounce of the otherwise Sixties-sounding “She Bangs The Drum” (their contribution to The Brit Box). But as their hometown Manchester became the North of England’s dance mecca, the Roses made a concerted attempt to assimilate house music’s hypno-feel with their biggest hit “Fool’s Gold”. Happy Mondays, also from “Madchester”, had started out resembling a funked-up Velvet Underground (John Cale produced their debut album), then hooked up with UK house producers for songs like the box set’s “Step On”. But their lumpen groove generally sounded more club-footed than club-friendly. On “Only One I Know”, The Charlatans’s drummer imitates a looped breakbeat, but their milky Hammond organ sound leaves them stuck in the Sixties. Just about the funkiest track on all four discs of The Brit Box is “Loaded” by Primal Scream, the group fronted and led by Jesus and Mary Chain’s drummer Bobby Gillespie. But that’s because it’s a sampled and beat-looped remix of another Primal Scream song, with deejay-producer Andy Weatherall transforming what was originally a bluesy ballad into something like a house music update of “Sympathy for the Devil.”.

“Swing” and “feel” are in short supply across all four discs of The Brit Box. This rhythmic deficiency is partly due to the lingering influence of punk, which made virtuosity nothing to aspire to--or something to conceal, if you already had it. British rock once boasted many of the finest drummers in the world--Keith Moon, John Bonham, Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr, Mitch Mitchell from the Experience, Ginger Baker, Bill Ward, Bill Bruford…. the list goes on. But it’s hard to imagine anyone but diehard fans being able to even name the drummers in the vast majority of bands on The Brit Box. Likewise, if you took the songs and stripped away the other instrumentation, you’d be unable to identify these tunes from their beats, something you can actually do with many songs by The Stones or Led Zeppelin. Rarely contributing anything to the music beyond marking time, the drummers mostly seem to be there because that’s what rock bands are supposed to have. In Britain, this most crucial of functions in any band has become the profession of plodders, people who want to be in a rock group for the lifestyle, not because they have musical instincts. Anybody in Britain who really cares about beats and has a feel for the construction of that commonplace miracle, a groove, has long since gone to work in dance music or hip hop.

In the absence of rhythmic verve and invention, Britpop’s saving grace is melody. Perhaps the traditions of Tin Pan Alley, music hall and light musics of all sorts have always been stronger in the United Kingdom. After all, we got rhythm second-hand, as an American import, starting with jazz. Rock’n’roll and rhythm-and-blues impacted the UK so hard in the Fifties and Sixties that the result was a perfect balance between beat and song. But with some of the lesser output of Sixties England--all those Merseybeat groups like Freddie & The Dreamers, bands like Herman’s Hermits and the Hollies--you can hear a native proclivity for over-melodiousness, the musical equivalent to the national sweet tooth. You can hear the same weakness--an eager-to-please mellifluousness of tone and tune--in a lot of the Britpop on this box.

That said, there are melodic jewels scattered across these four discs, like The La’s “There She Goes” (so blatantly a love song to heroin it’s amazing they got away it), or “Here’s Where The Story Ends” by The Sundays, whose singer Harriet Wheeler fused Morrissey’s plaintiveness with enraptured grace of Liz Frazer of the Cocteau Twins. Frazer appears twice in succession on the first disc, first with the Cocteaus’s slightly frou-frou “Lorelei”, and then as the backing vocalist on Felt’s “Primitive Painters”. Her cosmic powerhouse of a voice compensates for the one-note-range of Felt frontman Lawrence, lending majesty to his passive-aggressive anthem of defiant apathy--"I wish my life could be as strange/As a conspiracy/I hold out hope but there's no way/To be what I wanna be"--and transforming his “trail of disgrace” into a heroic refusal.

Lawrence’s “defeatist attitude” was an advance glimpse of the next phase of UK guitarpop, the shoegaze scene, which was essentially the South of England’s riposte to the Manchester indie-dance sound. The term “shoegazer” originated from these bands’s immobility and withdrawn aura onstage, the way they hid behind their long hair. Guitarists, especially, seemed to spend the whole gig staring at the floor. There was a prosaic reason for this: the billowing amorphousness of shoegaze’s guitar sound relied heavily on foot-controlled pedal effects. But the shoegaze bands’ seeming inability to meet their audience’s gaze captured the essence of this neo-psychedelic genre, which involved escaping from a troubled world into a narcoleptic dream-state. (Dreampop, in fact, was another contender for the genre’s name).

The sound was pioneered by My Bloody Valentine (who only last month announced their return to activity after 15 years hibernation), and their string of classic EPs and two masterpiece albums Isn’t Anything (1988) and Loveless (1991) dwarfed the efforts of their progeny. But the most successful shoegaze band was Ride, regular visitors to the UK Top 20 who prospered seemingly for their very mediocrity. Where MBV’s “Only Shallow” (included here) actively engulfs you in its swoon, Ride’s “Vapourtrail” casts a pall of lethargy with its grey-haze guitar and vocal performance closer to a sustained sigh than singing.

I enjoyed shoegaze quite a bit at the time, especially early tracks by Slowdive (not included here) and Moose (present with their country-influenced later style, in the form of “This River Never Will Run Dry”). But fifteen years on, listening to this stuff again felt less like bliss-out and more like being lost in a listless mist. Rather than dreampop, Lush’s “For Love” resembles a song the band dreamed but could only faintly recall upon waking: bass inaudible, drums soft as snowflakes, voice partially erased, guitars like a watercolor with too much water in it. Bleach, similarly, sound bleached--bleached bland. The anemia deepens with the sickly Chapterhouse, the nondescript Catherine Wheel, the perfectly formulaic Curve. Around this time grunge happened and a comparison between the two genres is instructive. The roots were similar (blizzard-guitar groups like Husker Du and Dinosaur Jnr) but grunge’s roar of rage and cathartic release is much punkier and energized than shoegaze. “Anemia” is all too apt: there’s a haemorrhaging away of will and agency in this music. Hardly forceful presences to begin with, shoegaze vocalists were further subsumed by the genre’s standard production style, which buried their beneath the layered guitars (typically fast-strummed and fed through effects so they swirled in the listener’s face like a wind-born flurry of snowflakes).

From the band’s attempt to overwhelm the audience live with a deluging density of sound to the songs’s Romantic imagery of ravishment and rapture, shoegaze was based in an aesthetic of surrender. Its dream-your-life-away resignation mapped neatly onto the political situation, the long era of Conservative rule in Britain, a period when the Labour Party seemed unelectable and the Tories, under Thatcher and Major, pursued youth-unfriendly policies: phasing out grants to university students, introducing the council tax (an unpopular form of local taxation that shifted the burden from property owners to young renters--unless they wanted to drop off the electoral roll, which meant they’d
literally become disenfranchised youth). There’s a curious aptness too the way that so many young people during the Eighties and early Nineties went into a kind of cultural exile by hiding in “the Sixties” (the music of Byrds, Velvets, et al) just as Thatcher and her allies were steadily abolishing the gains of that decade.

The shoegaze sound was going nowhere (the title of one of Ride’s albums, as it happens) and soon the UK scene snapped out of the dream-haze with a concerted move towards punchy tunes, clarity of production, and singers who reveled in the spotlight. First came the punk recyclers (amphetamine-gobblers These Animal Men, protest poets The Manic Street Preachers). Next up was the glam redux of Suede, massive for a couple of years and deservingly so, although “Metal Mickey,” their offering here, is one of their flimsier singles. All this was just preparing the way for Oasis, though. When “Live Forever” rips out the speakers half-way through Disc Three, you can see why they had such an instantly massive impact: what a relief to hear a voice that snarls, that takes the tune by the scruff of its neck. Oasis understood rock as a matter of attitude and vocal timbre (Liam Gallagher’s blend of Lennon’s insolence with the insouciance of Stone Roses singer Ian Brown) combined with guitar sound (brother Noel’s distorted tone, gnarly enough to sound classically rock but stopping well short of shoegazey miasma). The idea of rock as a rhythmically dynamic music was simply forgotten. Oasis’s no-mark drummer never did much more than trundle unobstrusively beneath the singalong; Liam’s voice dominated the mix.

The British scene let out a massive sigh of relief: after the half-measures of shoegaze (its ineffectual mix of almost-pop and semi-experimentalism, expressed through an obsession with guitar textures), Oasis had redirected indie rock back to the eternal verities of songs. Thrilling as “Live Forever” and the group’s five or six other killer tunes are, though, one shouldn’t lose sight of the Gallagher Bros as culture criminals, the guys who nearly killed for good the idea of rock as a genre that was forward-looking and experimental. (That notion made a slight recovery with Radiohead, a band who the Gallaghers, revealingly, find an almost personal affront, and who are oddly absent from The Brit Box). Oasis paved the way for a grim phase of UK pop dominated by what some wag nicknamed “Dadrock”--bands like Ocean Colour Scene, Cast, Kula Shaker, Dodgy. It was Dadrock because it could be (and was) enjoyed equally by kids in their teens and twenties and by their parents (teens or twentysomethings back in the Sixties, whence these groups derived all their ideas). Kula Shaker even brought back 1967-style Eastern spirituality with their execrable hit “Tattva”.

When you compared Britpop with its Sixties source, though, what was striking was how plain and uninspired the substance of its sound was. Britrockers in the Sixties uniformly strove to grow and develop, both as artists and instrumentalists. Amid the sustained adequacy of the playing on Disc Three and Disc Four, it’s a shock when genuine ability and flair leaps out of the speakers in the form of “The Riverboat Song” by Ocean Colour Scene. The groove is supple and agile; the singer has the rich white-blues timbre of Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker or Traffic’s Stevie Winwood. Too bad “Riverboat Song” sounds like it actually arrived straight from 1968in a time capsule.

There are diamonds in the dungheap: “Stutter”, Elastica’s own time capsule, from 1978, the year of Buzzcocks and Wire; Supergrass’s T-Rexy youth anthem “Alright”, the Roxy-gone-shabby tumult of Pulp’s “Common People”. The prime period Britpop of 1994-96 also captures the optimism and confidence of that moment when everyone in Britain sensed that the Conservatives were going to get kicked out by Tony Blair’s New Labour at the next general election. Blair courted the leading Britpop bands both before and after that May 1997 victory, making the revitalized UK pop scene a central part of his “Cool Britannia” push to rebrand the nation as modern and vibrant. He praised Alan McGee of Creation, Oasis’ record label, as a shining example of New Labour-style entrepreneurialism and famously invited McGee and Noel Gallagher to a reception at 10 Downing Street (the singer of Oasis’ great rivals Blur, Damon Albarn, was also invited but declined to attend). “Cool Britannia” was a replay of the Sixties “London Swings” scenario, with Oasis as the Beatles to Blair’s Harold Wilson (the last actually popular Labour PM). Egos inflated by their importance in the scheme of things (and by vast quantities of cocaine) Oasis then made the bloated Be Here Now, whose lead single--“D’you Know What I Mean”--attempted to capture the weightiness of the historical moment with its incoherent chorus “all my people right here right now/you know what I mean.”

There were much more interesting things going on in the UK during this period, which The Brit Box acknowledges with tracks from Saint Etienne, Stereolab and Cornershop. Saint Etienne present a far more attractive version of pop Englishness than the rehashed Kinks/Beatles/Jam of most Britpop. In their hands, this was a national identity open to outside influences: house music from Chicago and Rimini; soft ‘lover’s rock’ reggae from Kingston by way of Brixton; French pop of the 60s. Even the group’s name came from a French soccer team. A similar cool, esoteric mix informed Stereolab’s music, but unlike the sampler-and-sequencer wielding Saint Etienne, this South London group stuck with guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards. Unlike Saint Etienne, they also had an actual French singer, the dulcet-toned Laetitia Sadier, as opposed to a collection of Fran├žoise Hardy singles. Sourced in the trance-inducing pulse rhythms of Krautrock outfits like Kraftwerk and Neu!, Stereolab’s songs came with incongruously non-lulling lyrics. On “Wow and Flutter” (included here) Sadier coos of capitalism, “it’s not imperishable, it’s not eternal/Oh yes it will fall”. Cornershop were another politically aware bunch of smartypants, whose line-up includes two of the handful of non-white musicians on The Brit Box, in the form of the Asian British brothers Tjinder and Avtar Singh. The band are represented here by “Brimful of Asha,” an oblique paean to Bollywood singer Asha Bosle. But the compilers opted for the late period Velvet Underground shimmy of the original rather than the boisterous dance remix by Fatboy Slim, which actually reached #1 in the UK charts.

These groups are exceptions to the post-Oasis rule. As we enter the last three years of the Nineties with disc Four, it seems like every band is competing for the attention of buskers across the land. The musical backing is just that… a mere backdrop for the voices, which are clear, soaring, often in high register and prominently exposed in a mix that kicks everything else out of the spotlight. One reason for this is that for indie rock fans on both sides of the Atlantic, the raison d’etre of the genre is clever words. You can, of course, find them all over the place in pop, not least in hip hop. In indie, though, “clever” often seems to equate with arch turns of phrases or droll allusions to popular culture. Hence the X Files-referencing love song “Sculder and Mully” by Catatonia, a Welsh band whose 1998 album International Velvet (ha, another pop culture reference) went triple platinum in the UK. Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews was once unkindly but indelibly and accurately described as sounding like "a chicken laying an egg." by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, whose own droller-than-thou Brit Box contribution, “Something For the Weekend” was inspired by the face of actress Kate Beckinsale.

Flourishes of “wit” such as these were scant compensation for Britpop’s sheer mundanity of sound as the decade’s end approached. Ash, Sleeper, Bluetones, Hurricane #1, Rialto, Gay Dad… there’s a reason you’ve never heard of these bands. For reasons unclear, The Brit Box stops short of venturing into the new millennium, when things simultaneously got even worse and improved slightly. On the down side, there was a post-Radiohead shower of mild misery, bands like Coldplay, Razorlight, Starsailor. But there was also a new crop of spiky vigour in the form of Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines, Arctic Monkeys, Art Brut, Bloc Party, The Klaxons, groups who drew on sharper influences from the postpunk and New Wave era. Fans of well-honed, observational words and lyrical intellect didn’t need to deny themselves fully-contemporary beats either, thanks to a new breed of British singer-rappers like Mike Skinner of The Streets, Lily Allen, Hot Chip, and Lady Sovereign. Influenced by the rhythms and vocal stylings of ska, reggae, lover’s rock and dancehall, these performers showed how fertile and enduring the contribution of Jamaican music has been to British pop across the decades.

Racists in Britain used to chant “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”. Draping themselves in the flag, Britpop artists inadvertently sealed themselves off from the invigorating stream of new ideas coming from black music in the Eighties and Nineties, a good proportion of them spawned on Britpop’s own doorstep--sounds like jungle and 2step. Cultivating their quintessential quaintness, clinging tightly to a glorious and storied past, the British groups protected their appeal to patriots at home and Anglophiles abroad. But in the process they lost the world.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Renegade Academia - the CCRU

RENEGADE ACADEMIA: THE Cybernetic Culture Research Unit
director's cut of unpublished feature for Lingua Franca, 1999; short remix appeared in Springerin, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Smack in the middle of the United Kingdom, Leamington Spa is like a less picturesque Bath--genteel, sedate, irredeemably English in a Masterpiece Theater sort of way. But the town has darker undercurrents: Aleister Crowley was born here in 1875, and today it's home to a mysterious entity called Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. Now in its third year of existence, CCRU's institutional status is, to say the least, disputed. Which is why its membership is currently holed up in an office on The Parade (Leamington's main street), rather than working c/o the Philosophy Department of Warwick University a few miles away, as was the case the last academic year.

Since my knowledge of CCRU stems from its disorientating textual output--the journal Abstract Culture--plus a few wilfully opaque email communiques, I've scant idea what I'll encounter after pressing the button marked 'Central Computer'. Inside CCRU's top-floor HQ above The Body Shop, I find three women and four men in their mid to late twenties, who all look reassuringly normal. The walls, though, are covered with peculiar diagrams and charts that hint at the breadth and bizareness of the unit's research.

But before I can enquire further, I'm entreated to sit in the middle of three ghettoblasters. CCRU have prepared a re-enactment of a performance-cum-reading given at their Virotechnics conference in October 1997. The first cassette-player issues a looped cycle of words that resembles an incantation or spell. From the second machine comes a text recited in a baleful deadpan by a female American voice--not a presentation but a sort of prose-poem, full of imagery of "swarmachines" and "strobing centipede flutters". The third ghettoblaster emits what could either be Stockhausen-style electroacoustic composition or the pizzicato, mandible-clicking music of the insect world. Later, I find out it's a human voice that's been synthetically processed, with all the vowels removed to leave just consonants and fricatives.

Even without the back-projected video-imagery that usually accompanies CCRU audio, the piece is an impressively mesmeric example of what the unit are aiming for--an ultra-vivid amalgam of text, sound, and visuals designed to "libidinise" that most juiceless of academic events, the lecture. CCRU try to pull off the same trick on the printed page. Their "theory-fiction" is studded with neologisms, delirious with dystopian cyberpunk imagery, and boasts an extravagantly high concentration of ideas per sentence. Bearing the same distillate relation to its sources (Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Paul Virilio,William Gibson) that crack does to cocaine, CCRU-text offers an almighty theory-rush.

What CCRU are striving to achieve is a kind of nomadic thought that--to use the Deleuzian term-- "deterritorializes" itself every which way: theory melded with fiction, philosophy cross-contaminated by natural sciences (neurology, bacteriology, thermodynamics, metallurgy, chaos and complexity theory, connectionism). It's a project of monstrous ambition. And that's before you take into account the the most daring deterritorialisation of all--crossing the thin line between reason and unreason. But as they say, later for that.

Founded in the 1960s, Warwick rapidly became the epitome of a modern university.
Through the early to mid Seventies, the university was rife with militancy--not just student unrest, but discontent amongst the staff (70 percent of whom at one point gave a vote of no confidence in the Vice Chancellor). Socialist historian E.P.Thompson was a "thorn in the side of the adminstiration", recalls one Warwick veteran, and eventually left because he wasn't given the Labour History Unit he was promised. At the same time, Warwick was ahead of its time in terms of seeking corporate funding, such that by the mid-Eighties Margaret Thatcher could describe it as her favourite university. "Warwick University Inc." (as E.P. Thompson titled a book) is financially buoyant compared with other British universities, and well prepared for any future withdrawal of government funding that may be up the current Labour administration's sleeve.

Warwick also has a very modern Philosophy Department. It is Britain's largest graduate school in philosophy outside Oxford, with about 120 postgraduate and masters students, and a similar number of undergraduates. The majority are lured by the department's reputation as the country's leading center for Continental Philosophy. Events like the October 1997 "DeleuzeGuattari and Matter" seminar and "Going Australian", a February 1988 conference devoted to the new school of Australian feminist philosophy, indicate the kind of work going on at Warwick. It is to this cutting edge Philosophy Department to which CCRU was linked in a fatally ambigous fashion.

In a typically gnomic e-mail, CCRU outlined its history. "Ccru retrochronically triggers itself from October 1995, where it uses Sadie Plant as a screen and Warwick University as a temporary habitat. ...Ccru feeds on graduate students + malfunctioning academic (Nick Land) + independent researchers +.... At degree-O Ccru is the name of a door in the Warwick University Philosphy Department. Here it is now officially said that Ccru does not, has not, and will never exist'. " CCRU sees itself as the academic equivalent of Kurtz, the general in Apocalypse Now who used unorthodox methods to achieve superior results than the tradition-bound US military. CCRU claim that its frenzied interdisciplinary activity embarrassed the Philosphy Dept, resulting in the termination of the unit. Just as Kurtz disappeared "up river" into the Vietnamese jungle, the CCRU have strategically withdrawn to their operational base above the Body Shop.

"There is no conspiracy, it's so pedestrian," insists Professor Andrew Benjamin, Director of Graduate Studies at Warwick's Philosophy Department. Benjamin is a well-respected post-structuralist scholar with numerous books to his name. As editor of the Warwick Studies in Philosophy (the best-selling Continental Philosophy series in the English language), he's responsible for anthologies like The Difference Engineer: Deleuze & Philosophy Audibly beaming with pride, the Australia-born Benjamin talks up Warwick as "an incredibly fabulous philosphy dept where Deleuzians lie down with Derrideans, and even lie down with analytic philosphers. Basically, there isn't any postmodern crap done here, it's quite rigorous stuff."

According to Benjamin, CCRU was originally set up for Dr Sadie Plant, freshly recruited from Birmingham University to be a Research Fellow attached to Warwick's Faculty of Social Science. But the unit--organised around her interests in cyber-theory and involving a number of postgraduate students she'd brought over from Birmingham--was initially tied to the Philosophy Department, owing to Plant's particular interests, like Deleuze & Guattari. The plan was for the unit to become an independent, freestanding entity, with the postgrads registered as CCRU rather than philosophy students. But Dr Plant unexpectedly quit her job March 1997, before the paperwork was completed. The university decided to wind CCRU down, with Plant's main ally at Warwick, Nick Land, taking over her role as Director for the unit's final year of official existence.

But when Benjamin elaborates on the procedural intricacies, it's easy to empathise with CCRU's paranoia. "See, there isn't such a thing as the CCRU," he insists. "Within the university system you can set up a thing called a center for research, then you take the planned center to various committees and put it through this system in whose terms that center would be legitimised, have an external committee overseeing standards, et cetera. Because Sadie left early, that procedure didn't happen. Officially, you would then have to say that CCRU didn't ever exist. There is, however, an office about 50 metres down the corridor from me with CCRU on the door, there's a group of students who meet there to have seminars, and to that extent, it it is a thriving entity. Informally, it did exist, still does, lots of things go on under its aegis. But that office will disappear at the end of the year. A number of students thought there was a conspiracy, there's a lot of gossip and carry-on, but the fact is--had Sadie decided to pursue an academic career, CCRU would have been a viable, ongoing entity."

Thin as rake in her brown leather jacket, dragging on a Camel Light, Sadie Plant looks every bit the cyberpunkette. Currently, she's the most famous "media academic" in Britain--writing for quality newspapers, pontificating on the famous BBC Radio programme "Start The Week" (a sort of highbrow Howard Stern) alongside Gore Vidal and Martin Amis. Plant's elevation to intellectual celebrity status began well before the late 1997 publication of her acclaimed Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + The New Technoculture. Although she's far from happy with the marketing of Zeros as a Nineties cyberfeminist equivalent to The Female Eunuch, there are striking parallels between Plant and Germaine Greer (who taught at Warwick's English department before quitting to write Eunuch). "When I went to see the Vice Chancellor about leaving, he said 'I don't believe it, Germaine Greer pulled this on us as well'", says Plant, flashing her buck-toothed smile.

We're in a cafe in Birmingham, the industrial Midlands metroplis where Plant grew up and where she returned after quitting Warwick.The way Sadie tells it, she never really wanted to be an academic in the first place, but just fell into a university career. After transforming her Manchester University philosophy PhD on Situationism into The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International In A Postmodern Age, Plant accepted a Lecturer's position at Birmingham University's Department of Cultural Studies. Back in the Seventies, when it was called Centre For Contemporary Cultural Studies, the department was a vibrant place, home of the "resistance through rituals" school of neo-Gramscian subcultural theory (Paul Willis, Dick Hebdige, Stuart Hall, et al). But the CCCS spirit was long gone by the time Plant arrived. The only redeeming aspect was the undergraduate and graduate students, who shared Plant's enthusiasm for rave culture and digital technology.

Plant was on the verge of quitting academia for good, when the opportunity of a Research Fellowship at Warwick presented itself in 1995. Warwick was already a cyber-theory hotbed, what with its 1994 and '95 Virtual Futures conferences. There were strong alliances between like-minds at Birmingham and Warwick: the VF events had involved some of Plant's Birmingham proteges (who appeared at VF95 in their proto-CCRU incarnation Switch), while Plant and Nick Land had actually been creative-and-sexual partners for a couple of years and remained close. With the promise of her very own research center dangled before her, Plant decided to give academia one last shot, and brought many of her Birmingham students with her to form CCRU.

For the first year of its existence, 1995/1996, Cybernetic Culture Research Unit was characterised by "a frantic atmosphere" of interdisciplinary excitement, involving reading groups, lectures series, research-sharing sessions, seminars like 1996's Afro-Futures, and the confrontational journal ****Collapse. There was an exhilirating sense of being at the heart of something new. This first phase of the unit's life climaxed with Virtual Futures 96: Datableed, which was wholly organised by the CCRU (the first two VF's had been put together by postgraduates attached to Professor Benjamin's Centre for Research in Philosophy and Literature). Advertised as "an antidisciplinary event" aiming "to explore the smearing of previously discrete cultural spheres", VF96 alternated DJ sessions with sound-and-vision enhanced talks by a diverse range of guests--theorist Manuel De Landa, journalists Steve Beard and Mark Sinker, SF writer Pat Cadigan, and cyberfeminist Linda Dement, to name just a handful.

By the second year of its existence, tensions emerged between the CCRU-virus and its host, the Philosophy Department. Warwick had expected something closer to traditional notions of cyberculture: Internet studies, basically. But what actually took shape reflected Plant and Land's interest in hooking up cybernetics in the original Norbert Wiener sense (information flows, dissolving the difference between living and non-living systems) to compatible elements of Deleuze & Guattari (schizo-analysis, machinic desire, the biomechanical continuum of material reality), plus chaos, complexity and connection theory. "Cyber", as CCRU conceived it, also connoted "cyberpunk": the theory-fiction goal of academic writing that rivalled the hallucinatory rush you got from Neuromancer and Blade Runner.

Warwick clearly got more than it bargained for. Benjamin admits to having "mixed feelings about what Sadie and Nick do", professes to be mystified by "the meaningless term" that is cyber-theory, and keenly stresses the fact that CCRU and the Philosophy Department "are quite separate things". One of Benjamin's administrative colleagues notes drily that "very little" CCRU work "was published in philosophy journals." For her part, Sadie Plant emphasises the practical problems caused by the CCRU students' interdisciplinary approach, like "the need for external examiners.... It would have suited us to be able to just sweep all that away, but it's not so easy."

CCRU are less diplomatic, railing against "disciplinary templates" that obstruct "real research". "You're not allowed to follow these things where they want to go," says Mark Fisher, a cleancut young man who speaks with an evangelical urgency and agitated hand gestures. "You're not allowed to find anything out.... Because who would mark it?!". He cites the example of the PhD work of CCRU's Suzanne Livingston, which was challenged by one Philosophy Department member on the grounds--"what's neurology got to do with capitalism?".

After Plant left, CCRU embarked upon a second phase of trying "to occupy the university" and create a "non-disciplinary" atmosphere by forging links with postgraduates in the Mathematics and Science departments. But this petered out "with no real engagement". The final breaking point came with the Fall '97 Virotechnics conference, which CCRU decided to hold off campus at a media conference center in Wolverhampton, 35 miles from Warwick. According to CCRU, Nick Land effectively had to resign his lecturer's job in order to attend Virotechnics. "Nick had to cancel a simultaneously scheduled seminar at the university, hastily set up as an opportunity for him to explain the increasingly perplexing direction of CCRU's research", explains CCRU's Steve Goodman. Every couple of years, the staff of university departments make an assessment of the publications the department has produced. Since the kind of work Land and his proteges were producing was not considered philosophy, and therefore not counted in any departmental assessment, Land felt obliged to resign, effective the end of the academic year.

Virotechnics was the culmination of the unit's second-phase attempt "to rigorise a kind of diagrammatic study programme in the university," says Land, referring to CCRU's alloy of science and philosphy. "That was really not acceptable, it's fair to say, to the Philosophy Department. So the third phase is take that programme outside the university." While CCRU members continue to finish their PhD's and teach, they regard these activities as " lower-order intensity"; the real action takes place at the Leamington HQ. "There's nothing more unproductive than engaging in this lifelong struggle to get intensity into the academy," says an exasperated Fisher. "It's hopeless and thankless." He maintains that the Philosophy Dept's attitude to CCRU ranges from "outright hostile" to "embarassment", but the general strategy "is to wait for it to die rather than to actively kill it."

Nick Land is the kind of "vortical machine" (to use a fave CCRU trope) around which swirl all manner of outlandish and possibly apocryphal stories. Didya hear about the phase Nick went through only talking in numbers? Or the time he was taken over by three distinct entities? True or not, there's no deying the fact that, as Lecturer in Continental Philosophy, Dr Land has been a "strange attractor" luring students to Warwick purely through his personal reputation. A colleague who sat in on Land classes in the early Nineties remembers both his "impressive pedagogic commitment" and his charisma. "Despite his diffident, tentative way of suggesting things, Nick had a real presence.... It was conspicuous that his gang of groupies did fall apart during his sabbatical term."

The Thirst For Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism, Land's sole book-length publication to date, is a remarkable if deranged mix of prose-poem, spiritual autobiography and rigorous explication of the implications of Bataille's thought (if taken seriously, comparable to "syphilis of the mind"). Prefiguring CCRU's struggles with university bureaucracy, the book drips with anti-academic bile, occasionally spilling over into flagellating self-disgust. Philosophy itself is castigated as "the excruciation of libido". Thirst For Annihilation's polymathically perverse range of learning (thermodynamics, cyclone formation, the Menger sponge), and phrases like "vortex of vulvo-cosmic dissolution" that blend scientific language with darkside mysticism, anticipate the CCRU's work.

In the early Nineties, Land was wont to describe himself as a "professor of delirial engineering", recalls the colleague. He also went through a "glorious phase in which he offered millenial prophecies for the next global meltdown in world markets, a deduction based on past such cycles. It rather smacked of an infatuation with the power of numbers."

As much chaos magician as chaos theorist, Land is said to be thoroughly versed in the gamult of occult knowledge and parapsychology: the I Ching, Current 93 (Aleister Crowley's kundalini-like energy force), Kabbalist numerology, H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, and the eschatological cosmology of Terence McKenna (a neo-hippy evangelist for plant-based hallucinogens like psilocybin and DMT). Much of CCRU's thought seems to emanate from an uncanny interzone between science and superstition. (Both of which appeal to rigorous method, of course.)

After reading Thirst For Annihilation's valedictory salute to "the saints, shamans, werewolves, vampires, and lunatics with whom I have communed,", and his self-description in ***Collapse as "a palsied mantis constructed from black jumpers and secondhand Sega circuitry, stalking the crumbling corridors of academe systematically extirpating all humanism", I expected Land to be an emaciated and eldritch figure. Stick insect thin, he is. But Land's gentle voice and impishly twinkling eyes make him closer to a playgroup leader than a dark magus. He and the CCRU crew ply me with endless cups of tea while explaining the curious diagrams on the walls.

There's a chart that synthesises Kabbalah's Tree of Life with H.P. Lovecraft, and is related to a magickal system called tangential tantra. "Instead of summoning or invoking, you're setting up a magical event that will be cut across from the forces of the Outside, so unanticipated events will happen," explains Land. Another poster--influenced by J.G. Ballard's concept of "deep time" as outlined in his catastrophe novel The Drowned World--depicts a cross section of the human spine, with different vertebrae aligned to different phases of human prehistory. And there's a chart that divides human history into a series of periods--"the primitive socius, the despotic state, capitalism" --culminating in a post-human phase named "Unuttera", which I learn refers to "The Entity or polytendriled abomination" at the End of Time.

The most recent diagram represents the culmination of CCRU's forays into the occult numerological techniques of digital reduction and triangular numbering. A spiral bisected by a number scale that descends from 9 to one, the diagram looks rather ordinary. But as CCRU explain its implications to me at considerable length (something to do with allowing them to understand "concepts as number systems) it becomes clear they sincerely believe it contains something on a par with the secret of the universe. The 9-spiral mandala--the Barker Scale, they call it--is the end-product of CCRU's determination to abandon "the fuzziness of discursive articulation" (philosophy) and move into "a much crisper, more rigorous and productive diagrammatic style", says Land. ("Crisp and rigorous" is one of his favourite phrases, despite the stress it puts on his weak 'R').

The diagram was a gift from "Professor Barker". Inspired by Professor Challenger--the Conan-Doyle anti-hero reinvented by Deleuze & Guattari in "The Geology of Morals" section of A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia--Barker appears to be a sort of imaginary mentor who hips the CCRU to various cosmic secrets. "But we'd be a bit reluctant to say 'imaginary' now, wouldn't we?," cautions Land with a mischievous glint in his eye. "We've learned as much--well, vastly more from Professor Barker --than supposedly 'real' pedagogues!". As CCRU's "avatar", Barker has revealed the "Geo-Cosmic Theory of Trauma". Following the materialist lead of Deleuze & Guattari, human culture is analysed as just another set of strata on a geocosmic continuum. From the chemistry of metals to the non-linear dynamics of the ocean, from the cycles of capitalism to the hyper-syncopated breakbeat rhythms of jungle, the cosmos is an "unfolding traumascape" governed by self-similar patterns and fundamental processes that recur on every scale.

Libidinising "flows" and investing them with an intrinsically subversive power,
Deleuze & Guattari have been criticised as incorrigible Romantics. CCRU develop this element of A Thousand Plateaus into a kind of mystic-materialism. Discussing what CCRU call "Gothic Materialism" ("ferro-vampiric" cultural activity which flirts with the inorganic and walks the "flatline" between life and death), Anna Greenspan talks about how "the core of the earth is made of iron, and blood contains iron", about how the goal is to "hook up with the Earth's metal plasma core, which is the Body-Without-Organs". Body-without-Organs (B-w-O) is the Deleuzian utopia, an inchoate flux of deterritorialised energy; Greenspan says they take the B-w-O as "an ethical injunction", a supreme goal.


O[rphan] D[frift>] also talk about "metal in the body" and seeking the B-w-O. Another Land-influenced theory-fiction collective, O[rphan] D[frift>] are CRRU's prime allies: they performed at VF96 and are staging an event in collaboration with CCRU/Switch at London's Beaconsfield Arts Centre, October of this year. Maggie Roberts and Ranu Mukherjee, the core of OD, originally met as Fine Art students at the prestigious-but-conservative Royal College, where their ideas about creating a form of multimedia-based synaesthetic terrorism oriented around "schizoid thinking", pre-linguistic autistic states and man-machine interfaces proved way too radical. Formed in late 1994, OD was shaped by two mindblowing experiences: "experimentation with drugs and techno", and a 1993 encounter with Nick Land.

"Before CCRU started at Warwick, Nick latched onto us very intensively for a while," says Roberts. "We fed him image experience, tactile readings of the stuff he was buried in theoretically. He wanted his writing to kick in a much more experiential way. For us, there was something wonderful about having a man you could ring up and ask: 'what's radiation?', 'what's a black hole?'".

OD's collective debut was a multimedia installation at London's Cabinet Gallery. What began as a catalogue for the show escalated into an astonishing 437 page book, Cyberpositive. Like Plant's Zeros + Ones, Cyberpositive is a swarm-text of sampled writings that aren't attributed in the text. But where Plant offers footnotes; OD merely list the "asked" and "un-asked" contributors at the end. Published in 1995, Cyberpositive serves as a sort of canon-defining primer for the CCRU intellectual universe, placing SF and cyberpunk writers on the same level as post-structuralist theorists. "We treat Burroughs as clearly as important a thinker as any notional theorist," says Nick Land, "At the same time, every great philosopher is producing an important fiction. Marx is obviously a science fiction writer." For her part, Sadie Plant regards the Eighties cyberpunk novelists like Gibson and Cadigan as "more reliable witnesses", precisely because, unlike theorists, "they don't have an axe to grind".

The most highly-charged passages in Cyberpositive are the hefty chunks of Plant/Land writing and Roberts's and Mukherjee's evocations of the techno-rave-Ecstasy-LSD experience. "I used to write a lot in clubs, which probably looked really pretentious," recalls Roberts. "Tracing what's happening in all the different sound channels and what they're doing spatially and physically to you". The language veers from masochistic mortification of the flesh ("deep hurting techno", "the meat is learning to know loss") to imagery influenced by voodoo and shamanic possession ("white darkness", "the fog of absolute proximity", "psyclone", "beautiful fear"). "It's trying to process the dissassembling of the self," says Roberts. "Maybe what you're calling abject, we'd call melting. The violence of the sounds in techno, it's like you're being turned inside out, smeared, penetrated."

Despite her facial piercing and techno-pagan accoutrements, Roberts has a sort of burned-out, aristocratic air that suggests Marianne Faithfull circa 1969. A half-smile flickering on her lips, as if she's privy to some kosmik joke, Roberts speaks in a faded falter--as though some unutterably alien zone of posthuman consciousness hasn't quite relinquished its hold. Which may be a pretty accurate description of the state of play. If CCRU have something of a cultic air about them, OD go a lot further. Combining Mayan cosmology with ideas about Artificial Intelligence, they sem to believe that humanity will soon abandon the "meat" of incarnate existence and become pure spirit. Throughout Cyberpositive there's the recurrent exhortation "we must change for the machines"; while the book ends with the declaration--"human viewpoint redundant."

Not only do OD reckon Charles Manson had some good ideas, their East London HQ contains several cages of snakes--proof of their determination to get really serious about voodoo rites. The obsession was sparked by Gibson's Count Zero, in which cyberspace has spontaneously generated entities equivalent to the loa (the spirit-gods of voudun cosmology). Throughout the interview, a shaven-headed OD member called Rich sits with baby boa constrictors wrapped around his body. His other contribution to the evening is to make some sandwiches--daintily quartered, but containing peanut butter mixed with sardines. "Too radical for me", I confess after one nibble. Rich's eyes light up triumphantly: Mind-Game Over.


"Cyberpositive" was originally the title of an essay by Sadie Plant and Nick Land. First aired at the 1992 drug culture symposium Pharmakon, "Cyberpositive" was a gauntlet thrown down at the Left-wing orthodoxies that still dominate British academia. The term "cyberpositive" was a twist on Norbert Wierner's ideas of "negative feedback" (homeostasis), and "positive feedback" (runaway tendencies, vicious circles). Where the conservative Wiener valorized "negative feedback", Plant/Land re-positivized positive feedback--specifically,: the tendency of market forces to generate disorder and destabilise control structures.

"It was pretty obvious that a theoretically Left-leaning critique could be maintained quite happily but it wasn't ever going to get anywhere," says Plant. "If there was going to be scope for any kind of....not 'resistance', but any kind of discrepancy in the global consensus, then it was going to have to come from somewhere else." That elsewhere was certain passages in A Thousand Plateaus where Deleuze & Guattari suggest that, in Plant's words, "you don't try and slow things down, you encourage them to go fast as possible. Which was interestingly connected to Marx's ideas about capitalism sweeping away the past. So we got into this stance of 'oh well, let it sweep away! Maybe it should sweep away faster'." Other crucial influences were neo-Deleuzian theorist Manuel De Landa's idea of "capitalism as the system of antimarkets", and, says Plant, historian-of-everyday-life Fernand Braudel's conception of capitalism as "an amalgam of would-be free market forces and state/ corporate/centralised control functions. So there isn't really any such thing called 'capitalism', it's just a coincidence of those two really extreme and opposed tendencies."

Plant and the CCRU enthuse about bottom-up, grass-roots, self-organising activity: street markets, "the frontier zones of capitalism", what De Landa calls "meshwork", as opposed to corporate, top-down capitalism. It all sounds quite jovial, the way they describe it now--a bustling bazaar culture of trade and "cutting deals". But "Cyberpositive" actually reads like a nihilistic paean to the "cyberpathology of markets", celebrating capitalism as "a viral contagion" and declaring "everything cyberpositive is an enemy of mankind". In Nick Land solo essays like "Machinic Desire" and "Meltdown", the tone of morbid glee is intensified to an apocalyptic pitch. There seems to be a perverse and literally anti-humanist identification with the "dark will" of capital and technology, as it "rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, dissolves subjectivities". In "Meltdown", Land declares: "Man is something for it to overcome: a problem, drag".

This gloating delight in capital's deterritorialising virulence is the CCRU's reaction to the stuffy complacency of Left-wing academic thought; a sort of rubbing salt in the wounds (as when Land jibes at the "senile spectre" of Socialism, an allusion to The Communist Manifesto). "There's definitely a strong alliance in the academy between anti-market ideas and completely schleroticised, institutionalised thought," says Mark Fisher. "Marx has been outdated by cybernetic theory. It's obvious that capitalism isn't going to be brought down by its contradictions. Nothing ever died of contradictions!". Exulting in capitalism's permanent "crisis mode", CCRU believe in the strategic application of pressure to accelerate the tendencies towards chaos. The real struggle, says Fisher in fluent Deleuzian, is within capitalism and between "homogenisation processes and nomadic distribution.".

What feels from any everyday human perspective like catastrophic change is really anastrophe: not the past coming apart, but "the future coming together". Where Land gives this idea a millenial spin (he's described capitalism as "an invasion from the future", a virus retrochronically triggered by some kind of artificial intelligence to create the conditions for its own assembling--an idea that reads like it was spawned by watching Terminator on acid), Plant's attitude is more humanely ambivalent. In the mid-Eighties, for instance, she supported the Coal Miner's strike, a revolt against Thatcherite modernising policies and an attempt to preserve a traditional working class culture. Since then, she has come to believe that the privatisation and anti-welfare policies pursued by the Conservative goverment in the 1980s really did constitute "a revolution". She talks approvingly of the end of "the dependency culture", arguing that this helped catalyse the Nineties upsurge of British pop culture, fashion and art.

"Obviously it is painful for any particular community that ends up on the scrapheap of history", Plant says, looking appropriately pained. "But I've got a far more evolutionary view of history these days. Just as particular species or ecosystems flourish and die, so do human cultures". In the face of this "reality", she argues, the British Left is comparable with the Church of England: "Every so often it comes out and makes some moral statement about how terrible things are, but what's it going to do about it? Nothing."

Many Left-wing theorists would retaliate by arguing that the Plant/Land/CCRU pro-market stance is merely an intellectual accomodation to "realities" imposed by top-down corporate forces; that by mapping techniques appropriate for natural phenonema (chaos theory, non-linear dynamics) onto capitalism, they've effectively naturalized the free market, resulting in a kind of post-Deleuzian version of Social Darwinism. Judith Williamson--Professor of Cultural History at Middlesex University, and writer for the left-leaning newspaper The Guardian--accuses the CCRU of "inevitabilism".

"All these excitingly eroticised ideas about the flows of capital absolve one from morality," she says. "Most of capitalism's flows are deeply pernicious." The trouble with inevitablism is that it removes human agency from the picture, complains Williamson. "But human will is not nothing -- there have been these huge acts of courage and altruism throughout history." As neo-Deleuzians devoutly committed to impersonality, agency is precisely what Plant and the CCRU demote. "Nothing takes the credit--or the blame--for either the runaway tendencies at work or the attempts to regulate them," argues Plant in Zeros + Ones. "Political struggles and ideologies have not been incidental to these shifts, but cultures and the changes they undergo are far too complex to be attributed to attempts to make them happen or hold them back".

Williamson is an old sparring partner with Plant, Land and CCRU, having had
several public fights with them at various academic events. The author of Consuming Passions: The Dynamics of Popular Culture, Williamson belongs to an earlier, Marx-influenced phase of British cultural theory, so the the clash between her and CCRU is partly generational. Recalling a famous spat in the bar of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, she recalls finding it "spooky that Nick Land and all these people spoke as one. You could not get 20 of my postgrad students in a room and have them agree with me. I find that scary--that messianic quality, like they've got the message"...A lot of what they say reminds me of tripping experiences, where you have that feeling that everything coheres and makes sense."

Another Williamson accusation--that CCRU lift ideas from chaos and complexity that describe material process but "apply them in a metaphorical way... as if using a concrete thing for a metaphor makes it not be a metaphor"--would especiallly infuriate CCRU. Metaphor, figurative language, the whole realm of representation and ideology: these are the enemy, as far as CCRU are concerned. "Our analysis is materialist, rather than ideological," says Goodman, "Whether the scale is geological, oceanic, socio-cultural, there are parallels going on at every scale". Despite drawing a lot from post-structuralism's assault upon the sovereign ego, CCRU detest deconstruction, precisely because of its treatment of the text as a cosmology and everything as metaphor. "The only thing that's powerful about books--their ability to plug into other machines outside themselves-- is completely destroyed by treating them as this macro-interiority that spreads over everything," spits Fisher, co-author of the hilarious and coruscating Abstract Culture rant "Pomophobia".

Hungry for intellectual reasons-to-be-cheerful, CCRU simultaneously renounce postmodernism's wan fatalism (the idea that we're at the end of everything) and the guilt-wracked impotence of the Left (Fisher talks, cyborg-style, about the relief of having "the false memory-chip of Socialist authenticity" removed from his brain). In the process, they've jettisoned the concept of "alienation" in both its Marxist and Freudian senses. They speak approvingly of "surplus value", sublimation and commodity-fetishism as creative tendencies. Where "Cyberpositive" noted how how runaway capitalism had accessed "inconceivable alienations", CCRU's collective essay "Swarmachines" goes further and climaxes with the boast: "alienated and loving it".

The idea, says Fisher, comes from a mix-and-blend of Lyotard and Blade Runner--"the proletariat as this synthetic class, of a revolution that's on the side of the synthetic and artificial. The concept of 'alienation' depends on the notion that there's some authentic essence lost through the development of capitalism. But according to Barker's Geo-Cosmic theory of trauma, everything's already synthetic." If reality really is a bio-mechanical continuum, there's no reason to resist capitalism's escalating dynamic of anti-naturalism: addiction to hyper-stimulus, the creation of artificial desires.

Willamson condes that "if there's one thing that's quite endearing about CCRU, it's the search for a kind of optimism.... Today it's very hard to have those sort of Sixties feelings of 'oh God, things are exciting, things can get better, new things can happen'". The mania of CCRU's texts--a mood-blend of euphoric anticipatioin and dystopian dread that Mark Dery called "dysphoria"--is certainly contagious. "A lot of things are exciting, but is it true?," cautions Williamson. "Music is a good parallel--you don't think 'this music explains the universe' just because you finds it charges you up". Again, the CCRU would fervently disagree. "The musical model is really key to us," says Land. "It's absurd to say that music doesn't represent the real and therefore it's an empty metaphor. Every theorist who hasn't a real place for music ends up with one-dimensional melancholia."

Not only do the CCRU derive a lot of their energy from music--specifically, the British rave genre of jungle a/k/a drum & bass--but popular culture is where their ideas seem most persuasive. Right from its late Eighties beginnings, rave culture's motor has been anarcho-capitalist and entrepreneurial: from promoters throwing illegal parties in warehouses and fields, to drug dealing. Even after its co-optation by the record and clubbing industries, rave music's cutting edge comes from the grass-roots: small labels, cottage-industry producers with home studios, specialist record stores, pirate radio.

Sadie Plant attributes these bottom-up economic networks to the end of dependency culture, forcing people "to get real and find some ways of surviving" but also to invent "new forms of collectivity" (the micro-utopian communality of the rave).

As a postgraduate in Manchester, Plant was swept up in that city's legendary 1988-90 rave scene. Currently, she's co-running a jungle club in Birmingham called Kleptomania, for which she creates back-projections involving "video feedback", an "orgasmically beautiful" effect that makes "everything looks like it's come from another world". Plant is also writing about book about the interface between drugs and technology. CCRU has a musical sub-component, Ko-Labs, engaged in making jungle tracks. The unit's latest recruit is Jessica Edwards, a researcher who has no affiliation with Warwick University whatsoever, but who used to be a professional dancer at raves and recently completed an undergraduate thesis entitled "Mapping the Liminal- Pentecostalism, Shamanism and Drum & Bass".

Despite being rave theorists and "sub-bass materialists", CCRU are surprisingly cagey when the topic of drugs is introduced. Acknowledging the cyborgizing, viral usefulness of drugs--as anorganic elements that enter the nervous system and engineer precise changes in consciousness--Land nonetheless resists the "relapse into a biographical narrative". Anna Greenspan talks of the negative "crash-and-burn" syndrome caused by drug abuse, and says the CCRU are more interested in building sustained plateaus of intensity. One outcrop of this is Suzanne Livingston's research into "long term rewiring of perception"--techniques of flash and flicker that restructure the brain, as already used by advertising, MTV, and rave promoters (lights, lazers and strobes).

As well as being galvanised by music, the CCRU are also influenced by the theory-driven leading edge of music journalism. One of their associate members is Kodwo Eshun, contributor to magazines like iD and The Wire and author of the forthcoming More Brilliant Than The Sun, a study of "sonic fiction" in black music from Sun Ra to jungle. He was guest of honour at CCRU's Afro-Futures seminar and gave a talk at VF96. Eshun describes himself and the CCRU as "concept-engineers", as opposed to thinkers. Critique, he argues, is a rhetorical mode that puts the heavy burden of History on your shoulders, whereas the concept-engineer is into speculation. "Most theory contextualises, historicizes and cautions; the concept-engineer uses theory to excite and ignite," Eshun proclaims. Where "thinker" evokes an effete and impotent ivory-tower detachment, "engineer" suggests someone who gets down-and-dirty with the material word (in Deleuzian terms, someone who operates and maintains desiring machines). Like a DJ or jungle producer, the concept-engineer is "a sample-finder": s/he's free to suspend belief in the ultimate truth-value of a theory and simply use the bits that work, in the spirit of Deleuze & Guattari's offering up of A Thousand Plateaus as tool-kit rather than gospel.


"Concept-engineer" is a good tag for the outerzone of "independent researchers" and amateur autodidacts to which CCRU is connected. Renegade theorists like Howard Slater, a Deleuze-freak whose techno-zine Break/Flow brilliantly analyses rave music in terms of "nonconceptual thought" and "impulsional exchanges", and celebrates the techno underground as a rhizomatic, insubordinate, post-media economy. And like Matthew Fuller, a media theorist/activist with a background in anarchist politics and links to the hacker underground. Fuller's CV of cultural dissidence includes flypostering, pirate radio, a non-Internet bulletin board called Fast Breeder, the scabrous freesheet Underground, and a series of anarcho-seminars like "Seizing The Media" dedicated to the theory and praxis of media terrorism. Fuller also put out the anthology Unnatural: Techno-Theory For A Contaminated Culture, which included Plant/Land's "Cyberpositive" and an essay by CCRU member Steve Metcalf.

Discussing his own cyber-theory writings, Fuller talks about dismantling traditional "modes of political address" and developing a sort of post-ideological realpolitik of resistance. A true concept-engineer, he believes in ransacking theory texts for task-specific ideas. "Publishers like Autonomedia and Semiotexte produce material that you don't have to be an academic to get into, so it circulates outside those milieux. When I give presentations at academic events, it's easy to see I'm in a more powerful position than the academics--I can steal all the advantages of their discipline, plus do something else with it that fucks it up totally."

Noting that Deleuze & Guattari are already being institutionalised into "the most dreary, saintly area of discourse", Fuller says he's dedicated to "cracking open those texts again, thinkers who originally opened stuff up to delirium and the irrational. I mix up different linguistic registers and narrative strategies so that the text writhes in the hands of the reader, so to speak. In that respect, there's a lot more to be learned from fiction than theory." Here Fuller chimes in with Sadie Plant, whose work-in-progress, Writing On Drugs, includes a fictional component. Plant says she hopes that subsequent books will become "pure fiction".


"The most enjoyable aspect of CCRU is that they are a gang -- PhD students with attitude!," says Eshun. Loathing the "necrotic side of philosphy, the chewing-over of dead thinkers' entrails", and bored limp by the "delibidinising" atmosphere of seminars, CCRU used to attend academic events, claims Eshun, expressly "in order to disrupt, undermine and ridicule.... They'd get into pitched battles with Derrideans!". Enhancing this picture of intra-academic gang-warfare, two of CCRU's allies from another university once turned up to an event sporting "colors": they'd printed up T-Shirts that mimicked the logo of Dolce & Gabbana, but stood for Deleuze & Guattari!

Weary of such sports, Plant, Land and CCRU have all enthusiastically embraced the idea of escaping "institutional lockdown" by going freelance. In addition to her drugs book, Plant is working on a film screenplay and says she can't imagine ever returning to academia. The CCRU hope to become a kind of independent think-tank, selling "commodities" on the intellectual free market--like their strikingly designed Abstact Culture (each "swarm" consists of five separate monographs bundled together) and, in the future, CD's, CD-ROM's and books. "The whole saga of the first phase of the CCRU was to do with negotiating bureaucratic space," says Fisher. "But we quickly realised that the institution didn't depend on university space itself , but on the collectivity."

It seems unlikely, however, that Plant and her erstwhile cronies will rejoin forces once they're out in the freemarket wilderness. Some kind of ideological rift seems to have occurred. Plant says she couldn't really go along with the trip into numerical mysticism, not least because she didn't like finding herself "in the role of the sensible, conservative one --not a role I'm used to!". CCRU, for their part, seem to have resented her premature departure from Warwick. Perhaps CCRU's fervent emphasis on collectivity stems in part from what Kodwo Eshun characterises as "an adaption to this harsh feeling of abandonment by this person who they really admired and who they decided to devote three, four years of their lives around." Plant, meanwhile, says she felt uncomfortable with being a guru figure.

"Nick's hermetic, he wants acolytes", says Eshun. "Whereas Sadie's this total communicator. Zeros + Ones is the return of the grand narrative with a vengeance. I can't think of any other writer with the same ambition. Sadie wants the world and I think she'll get it. " CCRU, meanwhile, are toying with the idea of relocating wholesale to India.

For CCRU work, post-CCRU activity, and allied ‘renegade autodidacts’ check out these sites:

Cybernetic Culture Research Unit -- http://www.ccru.net/
K-Gothic -- http://www.k-gothic.net/
Datacomb -- http://www.k-punk.net/k-punk.net
K-Punk -- http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/
Hyperdub -- http://www.hyperdub.com/
Kode 9 -- http://www.ccru.net/kode9.htm
Abstract Machines -- http://www.ccru.net/abstractmachines.htm
Orphan Drift -- http://www.orphandrift.com/
Matthew Fuller -- http://www.autonomedia.org/behindtheblip/index.html