Thursday, February 15, 2018

Politics and Pop - a personal journey

A personal journey through politics and pop
director's cut version of Pitchfork Review essay, fall 2016

by Simon Reynolds

SEX PISTOLS, “Anarchy in the U.K.”; “God Save the Queen” (1977)

I first heard the Sex Pistols in mid-1978, a full year after “God Save the Queen” convulsed the United Kingdom in the summer of ’77. Living in a small English town far from the action, my 14-year-old head was elsewhere all through ‘77, sideways glimpsing punk’s existence only in photo spreads of outrageous haircuts in Sunday newspaper magazines. When I finally heard Never Mind the Bollocks, the Pistols story affected me as a rock-myth fait accompli, rather than unfolding as a real-time historical sequence with an uncertain outcome.

It was my brother Tim—a few years younger, far better endowed in street cred because he went to a state school—who brought home a cassette of songs by the Pistols and Ian Dury & The Blockheads and who later bought Bollocks. Because I wasn’t going to gigs yet, or reading the music press, and only rarely seeing groups like these on TV, punk’s power manifested itself to me almost entirely as sheer sonic force: I’d never heard anything so domineering, never even imagined that “pop” could be this unbridled, such an attack.

The record covers were thrilling too, thanks to punk’s aggressively innovative graphic language (Bollocks's ransom-note newsprint lettering, for instance). When the Pistols’ The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle came out in 1979, me and Tim and our younger brother Jez pored over the double album’s gatefold sleeve with its stills from the forthcoming movie (then still a long way from completion and release). But most of all, it was the voices in punk, a kind never heard before in pop: tones of jubilant bitterness; a sense of malevolent power conjured up from with the singer’s body through sheer will and blasted out at the listener. The voice, above all of Johnny Rotten. That, and the things he sang about. Like anarchy, an intoxicating and unfamiliar concept.

It’s moot whether “Anarchy in the U.K.” should be taken as a Political Statement; it’s more like prophecy or poetry. If the song corresponds to any ideology, the closest thing is the 19th century stripe of anarchism associated with German philosopher Max Stirner, who imagined the state being dissolved in favor of a “union of egoists.” Anarchy, in this worldview, means absolute sovereignty for each individual, who would no longer be subject to higher authority or constraints to the free exercise of desire. Anarchism, in other words, that has nothing to do with the placid, orderly decision-making of communes or workers’ councils; rather, it’s an apocalyptic unleashing, a chaos of wills, with each individual ruling his or her life like a tyrant.  That’s how I hear the chorus “I wanna be/Anarchy,” which Rotten drags out like a triumphant jeer.

As a vision for how society should organize itself, “Anarchy in the U.K.” is literally puerile, the sort of thoughts entertained by adolescents with no inkling of how challenging life is. But I was 15 when I heard the song, just the right age. The Pistols spoke most intoxicatingly to boys between 13 and 17: a period in life when you have an innate flair for recklessness, an awesome ability to disregard consequences. Boredom—and something darker too, an appetite for destruction—drove the brothers Reynolds and our peers towards vandalism, risk-taking (“dares”), and pranks. It’s the nastiness of punk—the “I wanna destroy” side, the (Sid) Vicious-ness—that gets written out of the validating histories, which invariably accentuate punk’s idealism, the empowering and constructive do-it-yourself ideas. But in our suburban bedroom, we thrilled to the tales of the Pistols puking at airports, Sid slashing his chest onstage, and the seductively cynical notion that it had always been a swindle, a Malcolm McLaren cash-from-chaos masterplan.

Age 20 when he recorded “Anarchy,” Rotten was already a bit old for this kind of thing—and in truth, he wasn’t a “Smash It Up” punk at heart, but a book-reading, record-collecting hipster who shrank from real-life violence.  McLaren, at 30, should have been well past this way of thinking. But the Pistols manager idealized, venerated—and also envied—teenagers as the only really revolutionary class. Existing in a liminal limbo between childhood and duty-bound adulthood, emboldened by the dawning sense of their own physical and mental independence, the Kids were the only ones who could ever change things, because they had no stakes in the status quo.

Where “Anarchy” is timeless Gnostic-Romantic poetry, “God Save the Queen” diminishes itself slightly by being topical, as well as having the shape of a Classic Rock Anthem. The historical peg was the Royal Jubilee celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 25 years on the throne, “a mad parade” of imperial nostalgia that covered every town in Britain with bunting and Union Jacks. The Pistols’ single was such an affront – the lyric described the monarchy as a “fascist regime” -  the song led not just to a BBC ban, but to enraged patriots violently assaulting members of the band. Despite the embargo, the single reached #2 on the UK chart; some believe that devious conniving by the authorities kept “Anarchy” off the top spot to save further embarrassment to the Establishment.

The scandal of “God Save the Queen” set up impossible expectations for what politics in pop could achieve. It restored a belief in rock’s power to incite and to threaten that had waned steadily since the heyday of the Stones and the Who. But it was “Anarchy in the U.K.”—and other Bollocks songs like “Bodies”—a foaming fulmination, explosive with expletives, against the horror of human biological existencethat set the true challenge for rock going forward: How to equal the expressive force of a voice, and a sound, that felt so corrosive it would surely shake the world? The Sex Pistols songs were rock’s equivalent to the theses nailed by Luther on the Wittenberg church door: They made a decisive break with the Old Wave, while also—like the Reformation before it—opening the way for further schisms, the proliferation of sects pursuing different ideas of what punk now meant and how that dramatically revivified power should be deployed most righteously.

TOM ROBINSON BAND -  Power In the Darkness, TRB 2   (1978-9)

The only fan of Tom Robinson Band I ever knew was a boy in my lower-sixth class (equivalent to the eleventh grade) called Sandbrook, who had daubed TRB’s clenched-fist stencil-style logo onto his satchel. Although my own tastes already leaned towards post punk groups like Public Image Ltd and the Slits, Sandbrook’s passion for TRB and protest-oriented Ulster punks Stiff Little Fingers was close enough for us to feel like we were on the same side, at a school where most boys were still drawing perfectly executed Genesis, Yes, and Pink Floyd logos on the desks. His satchel also bore the insignias for Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, other indicators of simpatico values that stood out at a school where: 1) the Conservatives always won the mock elections; and 2) where the parents of one of my friends could declare that the world should quit meddling in South Africa’s affairs, because the system there worked well for everybody—and they weren’t hounded out of polite society.  

Talking of sides, one of TRB’s anthems was titled “Better Decide Which Side You’re On.” Tom Robinson conceived of his band’s constituency as a rainbow coalition of the disadvantaged and marginalized: the unemployed, racial minorities, gays, squatters, feminists, drug users. In reality, TRB’s following was largely composed of progressive-minded white middle-class youth, very much in the mold of Robinson himself—a clean-cut, well-spoken, smiley chap who came over as earnest, unthreatening, and “straight” (although actually openly and vocally gay). Those who’d been energized by punk but wanted something constructive and more clearly aligned in its Left allegiances rallied to TRB’s banner.

Robinson’s approach to music was means-to-an-end: he wanted to bring his message to as wide an audience as possible.   Accordingly TRB’s rousing sound was rooted in the Old Wave more than the New Wave, finding a stomping, if stiff-hipped, groove midway between Free and Mott the Hoople. Well-played and cleanly produced, the road song “2-4-6-8 Motorway” was commercial enough to crack the Top 5.  But the group’s single and album covers were plastered with contacts for every imaginable pressure group and activist organisation.


TRB were huge in 1978: Critics hailed them a positive realization of punk’s promise, there was an hour-long TV documentary devoted to the band, the tours took in ever larger concert halls. But almost instantly the music press turned on them for “preaching to the converted” and for being too straight in their angle of address (lyrically and musically). Reaching the unconverted became a crucial concern going forward. But equally important for those looking to both live up to and extend punk was the idea of challenging and unsettling the converted. Musicians and critics began to explore the idea that politics was not about the transmission and reception of messages but the initiation of a thought-process. In the next stage, “Question everything” and “personal politics” became key buzz concepts.

CRASS -  Stations of the Crass, “Bloody Revolutions”, “Our Wedding” (1979-81)

Crass, a collective of former hippies and new punks who lived in a communal farm cottage called Dial House, took the “anarchy” in “Anarchy In the U.K.” literally. Punk, for them, was about self-rule. Crass opposed all forms of hierarchy: State, Army, Church. They brandished slogans like “Fight War Not Wars. Destroy Power Not People” and “You can’t vote anarchist, you can only be one.” Politics was “politricks” and a power game (another black-flag slogan was “Whoever you vote for, the government wins”). For Crass, the Left was just as bad as the Right: Stations’ “White Punks On Hope” equated socialist violence and fascist violence as “just the same old game.”

My brothers were Crass fans and one single they played a great deal, “Bloody Revolutions,” picked up this theme, criticizing macho hard-left militancy in much the same way that John Lennon, in The Beatles’ “Revolution,” jeered at dogma-indoctrinated radicals with their Chairman Mao placards. At university in the early Eighties I encountered this divide within the anarchist community itself: gentle hippie-ish types largely concerned with getting their minds right (feminist consciousness raising groups for both women and men) versus the hot-head street guerrilla types happy to leave the chicks and the wimps to their navel-gazing and get down to serious business like brick-hurling confrontations with the Pigs.

Although later their music got more sophisticated and experimental, early on Crass treated sound as a mere delivery system for the messages. That was one reason the British music press initially scorned the group and the anarcho-punk movement they spawned; Crass were also accused of puritanism and sloganeering.

Yet Crass had a mischievous side, a McLaren-like delight in the publicity stunt as a form of subversive media theatre. Most famous of their pranks was the Thatchergate hoax: a 1982  record purporting to be a telephone conversation between the British Prime Minister and Ronald Reagan, during which were revealed dirty secrets about the Falklands War and the President’s plan for a showdown with the Soviets using Europe as the  arena of conflict.  The intelligence services got in a right flap about it, with the U.S. State Department initially identifying the record as a KGB ruse. 

But the one that really tickled me was in 1981, when—in the guise of Creative Recording and Sound Services, which acronyms as C.R.A.S.S.—they persuaded Loving, a mushy romantic magazine aimed at young women, to run a special offer for the free flexi-single “Our Wedding.” Sung by Joy De Vivre, the band’s second female singer, to the accompaniment of strings, church organ and wedding bells, this supposed celebration of marriage was really a sardonic poker-faced expose of matrimony as mutual bondage: “Listen to those wedding bells/Say goodbye to other girls”; “Never look at anyone/Must be all you see.” Hundreds wrote in for the flexi before the prank was revealed in a newspaper article. Talking to NME in June 1981, the band’s Penny Rimbaud railed at Loving-type magazines as “obscene and despicable rags” peddling “teenage pornography” that “trivialized love and relationships.”  “Our Wedding” later appeared on their 1981 No. 1 indie-chart album Penis Envy.

Virtually all of Crass singles and LPs topped the UK’s independent releases chart: their following was huge, especially out in the provinces where punk achieved its greatest and most lingering impact a few years after the big cities like London and Manchester had moved on musically and sartorially. You saw the Crass stencil all over the UK: on walls, on paving stones, and on the leather jackets of the punx mooching in clutches around bus shelters and the fountains outside town halls. For most of the fans—including my brothers—Crass’s appeal was as much to do with the visuals as the rather rudimentary sonics. The records came in elaborate packaging that folded out to form posters featuring Gee Vaucher’s beautifully drawn photo-realist counter-propaganda, dream-like tableaus in which Maggie Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth were leather-clad punkettes, the Statue of Liberty had a Mohawk, and Pope John Paul II wore a “Destroy” T-shirt.

GANG OF FOUR -  Entertainment!, “Why Theory?”  (1979-81)

Aged 17, I believed two things about Gang of Four—that their music was funky as hell and that if these songs got on the radio and onto Top of the Pops, they would be subversively consciousness-raising in a simple cause-and-effect way, at the point of contact with the listener’s brain.  Go4’s funk, though, is quite some distance from Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall or Chic: not a release but a girding of the loins for the struggle ahead, a stark and staunch sound clenched with commitment. As for the lyrics, they are certainly a big step forward from the soapbox screeds of Crass and Tom Robinson, designed to unpick the threads of ideology that stitch together our sense of the world as “a natural fact” (a line from “Why Theory?” on Go4’s 1981 album Solid Gold).

Still, each song is making a statement, which the listener has to work to uncover. Go4 are not preaching to the converted; they’re critiquing on behalf of the predisposed. For example, on the 1979 debut Entertainment!, “Natural’s Not In It” can easily be deciphered as an analysis of the way capitalism ensnares desire via advertising’s “coercion of the senses”; “Contract” is clearly a structural diagram of marriage that reveals its fault-lines and contradictions. “At Home He’s A Tourist,” Go4’s near-hit single, is more opaque, ranging from commodified sexuality to bourgeois culture-binging as a way of filling the void. 

Gang of Four signed to EMI, the same label as TRB, for similar reasons: To get their ideas across to a mass audience. They agonized over whether to appear on Top of the Pops to perform “Tourist” to the show’s 10-million-plus viewers, because the price of admittance was censoring the word “rubbers,” a slang term for condoms, in a lyric. Torn between integrity and crossover, Gang of Four decided to opt for the former and torpedoed the evangelising raison d’etre that had led them to EMI in the first place.  This principled refusal alienated the record company and as the moment of potential breakthrough passed, the group’s career never really recovered.

SCRITTI POLITTI - Peel Sessions EP, 4 A-Sides EP (1979)

Born out of the same Leeds art school scene, Scritti Politti took the next step forward from Go4. Catalysed by the Anarchy Tour of 1977, Scritti began as a straightforward punk group, The Against. But almost immediately, things got a lot less straightforward:  punk’s negative drive (its against-ness) turned on itself, with the launch of a potentially interminable project of undermining one’s own ideological assumptions.  From the start that made the Scritti sound far less staunch and stable than Go4’s: wracked with uncertainty (“Doubt Beat” is one song's title) to the point where the music feels  on the brink of nervous collapse. In singer/lyricist Green Gartside we encounter a mind so sharp it lacerates itself, thought that ties itself up in immobilizing knots.  “OPEC-Immac,” for instance, makes oblique connections between the cartel of oil producing nations and a beauty product, before dissolving into a lacuna of impotent confusion: “how much do you ever stand to know?” The word “stand” suggests both a limit to how much you are ever likely to understand the workings of the world, but also how much knowledge – how much disabused lucidity – can an individual bear before succumbing to despair.  Inverting the Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s maxim, pessimism of the intellect defeats optimism of the will.

Aged seventeen I found Scritti Politti – whose name, taken from a collection of texts by Gramsci, translates roughly as “political writings” – genuinely enlightening. They introduced my young brain to a large, confounding idea:  the notion that, rather than being a transparently useful tool for radical thought, language itself might be a mechanism of oppression. In “PAs”, it’s “the language” that “shuts down” in 1920s Italy and again in 1930s Germany – and that might yet collapse in a fascist U.K. of the coming Eighties. “Bibbly-O-Tek” argues that language, wrapped around clothing, creates fashion, which then creates money.  In the song, phrases like “secondary pickets” and “Eastern Bloc” are recited in a pointed, withering tone, leaving the listener to work out the ideological freight with which they’re loaded.  “Secondary” implies that workers in one unionized industry have no business striking in solidarity with workers from another (as with dockers cutting off the supply of imported coal to help miners during an industrial dispute);  “Eastern Bloc,” as a menacing term for a  Soviet Empire, obscures the fact that NATO nations are satellites too, a Western Bloc of vassal states twitching to the tune of a different superpower.

This disorienting - yet also darkly exhilarating -  idea of language as the prison-house of consciousness was pursued not just in the songs but in the photocopied text wrapped around the Peel Sessions EP, pages from an imaginary book titled Scritto’s Republic. “The rules of a society are embodied in the rules of its language,” wrote its unidentified author (Green obviously, although Scritti liked to present as a collective to the world). “It is through common sense speech that we are reproached and directed.... Language pre-exists our entry into it and defines what is normal and represses that which will not or cannot be covered or developed by its framework.” 

Green carried his “linguistic turn” through to Scritti’s next phase of pop crossover, with deconstructed love-songs like “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” (which vows to look behind “the strongest words in each belief”) and the huge UK hit single “The Word Girl.” But as with deconstruction in the academy, this abstruse close-work seems to have little to say about the world outside the text. Scritti’s domain became the politics of and inside pop, rather than bringing real-world politics into pop.  

DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS - Searching For the Young Rebels (1980)

Post punk hatched an ascetic streak latent in punk. Entertainment for its own sake was escapist, a narcotic: music needed to carry a higher purpose of consciousness-raising or critique. Sometimes accused of being didactic and dour, groups like Gang of Four, The Au Pairs, The Pop Group, and Scritti Politti were my kind of postpunk puritan, perfect for a young mind that was beginning to approach the world critically. But there was another kind of puritan around on the early Eighties British music scene: mod-influenced figures like The Jam’s Paul Weller and Dexy’s Midnight Runners’s Kevin Rowland. Both made great singles but for some reason I was never swayed into becoming a follower of either of these men. I think partly that’s precisely because they both so clearly wanted converts; each band became a cause in itself for their following.  

Dexys retained and intensified punk’s will-to-power—they are named after a brand of amphetamine, after all. Rowland’s first response to punk had been The Killjoys, the name itself indicating a puritanical zeal seemingly at odds with his Irish Catholic background. Depressed in the aftermath of punk, Rowland rallied his spirits with the horn-pumping, muscular soul of ‘60s performers like Geno Washington. This became the template for Dexys’ sound: brassy, uplifting, pugnacious, and, in its own retro way, as staunch as Gang of Four. Searching For the Young Rebels, the debut LP, starts with the sounds of a radio: Bursts of Sex Pistols and The Specials (another politics-in-pop byproduct of punk) are heard amid the hiss and crackle, before Rowland’s exasperated voice cries, “For God’s sake, burn it down.” Dexys set themselves up here as both the next in a series of insurgent renewals for British music and as the upstarts who will surpass their failed precursors. The LP title is an open call for recruits, an attempt to conjure a new youth movement out of nowhere.

The nature of “young soul rebellion” remained unclear, though. Political specifics figured here and there. “Dance Stance,” the debut single, took issue with derogatory stereotypes about the Irish, defiantly reeling off the nation’s list of illustrious literati. The LP cover featured a Catholic boy from Ulster being driven from his Belfast home during the sectarian clearances of 1971; one song concerned Rowland’s unsuccessful attempt to set up a union at his workplace. But the overriding emphasis was on the internal politics of the British music scene, on Dexys’ candidacy as a messianic force, and on Rowland’s belief in, well, belief.

“There There My Dear,” the follow-up hit to the #1 “Geno,” was a paranoid rejoinder to a journalist or musician who refused to “welcome the new soul vision.” Almost thrown away in the accusatory bluster was one of political-pop’s most provocative thought-bombs: “The only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things.” The implication is that music can only ever be incidental to the struggle. But given that Rowland and his Dexys would carry on being pop stars, recording another two more ‘80s albums before dispersing for a couple of decades, you might well draw a further inference: They are not really that interested in changing things. That raises the perturbing possibility: Is pop an arena in which those with the temperament of revolutionaries can experience all the self-aggrandizing excitement of leadership, without any of the unglamorous costs or consequences of actual struggle?

KATE BUSH, “Breathing”; YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS, “Final Day”; UB40, “The Earth Dies Screaming”; FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, “Two Tribes” (1980-1984).

It is almost impossible to convey to young people today what it was like to grow up during the ‘60s, ‘70s and (first half of) the ‘80s, with the awareness that nuclear annihilation was a real prospect constantly hanging over you. One of my high-school projects was a paper on the effects of a ten megaton bomb dropped on London. Our hometown was about 35 miles from the capital’s center – the bull’s eye in the target for Soviet bombs - and so it would escape the fireball and direct blast, but receive some very fierce winds, following by radioactive fallout. Around this time, I joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which was then resurging after the government’s consent to base U.S.-controlled cruise missiles on British soil, a decision that would turn the UK into a launch-pad and thus a prime target for Soviet retaliation—or a preemptive strike.

Pop picked up on these currents of anxiety with a string of songs about nuclear war. Kate Bush’s disturbing, if overwrought, 1980 single “Breathing” described “chips of plutonium” penetrating the bloodstream shared by a pregnant mother and her unborn child. Young Marble Giants’ “Final Day” was a hauntingly still and soft vignette—somehow more terrifying for its brevity—about our compliance and complicity in the madness of mutual deterrence. Despite the melodramatic title, UB40’s hit “The Earth Dies Screaming” was even more chillingly subdued: its dread bass and funereal pace turned the atmosphere ashen in the Top of the Pops studio.


A few years later came what was intended as the ultimate protest record: Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s single “Two Tribes,” a follow-up to “Relax,” released by the arty-provocateur label ZTT. Lyrically inane and emotionally ambiguous (at times it seemed almost to exult in Armageddon, the excitement of living in a world “where sex and horror are the new gods”),  “Two Tribes” nonetheless brought the issue to the biggest possible audience, colonizing the No. 1 spot on the UK singles chart for nine weeks during the summer of 1984. 


The sleeves of its numerous 12-inch mixes resembled my school project, caked in data and diagrams about what a superpower showdown would entail for short-term lethality and long-term species-extinction. (A graphically stylish chart totted up the death toll in categories ranging from nuclear winter and famine to disease and psychological trauma.) Yet as ZTT’s conceptualist Paul Morley noted wryly, “Two Tribes” was replaced, after two months atop the charts, by George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” Nothing changed, not even in pop, let alone in the outside world.


THE STYLE COUNCIL -  “Shout To The Top”;  THE REDSKINS -  “Keep On Keepin On!” b/w ”Reds Strike the Blues!”; THE SMITHS - “Still Ill”; WORLD DOMINATION ENTERPRISES—“Asbestos Lead Asbestos”; THE MEKONS - “Darkness and Doubt” (1984-85)


During the 1983 general election, while still a student, I did some canvassing for the Labour Party: a door-to-door, unswayable voter to unswayable voter trudge so discouraging it permanently soured me on the front-line grunt-work that’s the dreary, but indispensable, essence of political involvement. In the years between Labour’s resounding defeat and the next election in 1987, a cluster of prominent left-wing musicians—Billy Bragg, Paul Weller of The Style Council, Jimmy Somerville of the Communards—formed an organization to mobilise the youth vote: Red Wedge. That name made aesthetes like me recoil. (Although the phrase’s provenance turned out to be supercool—the title of a 1919 propaganda poster by Soviet modernist El Lissitzky—it probably sounded a lot better in Russian). 


Me and my kind were also turned off by the overall aura of well-meaning worthiness that clung to the Red Wedge project, the demeaning use of music as a mere vehicle. But by this point – I’d started writing for the UK weekly paper Melody Maker -  I had become persuaded that politics in pop was a busted flush anyway. To me, the only artistically potent expressions of the political in late ‘80s music were expressions of impotence: the flailing rage of World Domination Enterprises; the dissident defiance of The Smiths; the despondency of The Mekons. (Well, there’s also Public Enemy, but that’s a whole other knotty story).
Despite Red Wedge’s efforts, the 1987 election was another resounding defeat for Labour. This served to propel me even further into blissed-out anti-politics: the most adventurous music then being made, it seemed to me, hid from the world in gorgeous clouds of noise. Today, grown-up and worried, I feel retrospective sympathy for Red Wedge and the soul-influenced, militantly optimistic groups of that time, like The Redskins (aligned with the Socialist Workers Party rather than Labour). Why was I so down on the idea of preaching to the converted? When History is against them, the converted need to have their morale maintained, their spirits kept stalwart.

SPIRAL TRIBE, “Breach the Peace”; “Forward The Revolution” (1992)

It’s May 1992 and almost by chance I’ve ended up at the largest public irruption of subcultural dissent the UK has seen since the concerts and rallies of the punk/Rock Against Racism era: Castlemorton, a  mega-rave that takes over an area of unspoiled and secluded countryside in West England for a full seven days and draws crowds estimated at around 40,000. Castlemorton is “Anarchy in the U.K.” for real, what ‘90s theoreticians call a “temporary autonomous zone”: an instant city formed through the tribal alliance of urban ravers and the post-hippie travelers who for decades now have driven back and forth across the UK in their caravans and trucks visiting a summer circuit of free festivals.

I’m only there for the first night—by the time I get back to London, still blissed and babbling to anyone who’ll listen, Castlemorton is a front page story in all the papers and the lead item on the TV news. Questions are asked in Parliament about what should be done to end the menace of nomadic ravers who could descend in hordes on any genteel village in the country, inflicting their noise and outlandish dress sense upon the powerless locals. Rumors abound of hairy, smelly travelers taking a dump in the front gardens of Castlemorton residents, or trying to sell drugs to local children.

Spiral Tribe, canny media operators and aspiring martyrs, take all the credit and all the blame. All 13 members of the techno party crew are prosecuted for conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, in a long drawn-out case that will cost the public 4 million pounds but end in acquittal.  For the truth is that there were no ring-leaders behind Castlemorton: its mass confluence was a viral happening, a swarming that anticipated the flash mobs of digital days to come and that spiraled way larger than the instigators had anticipated. 


In the immediate aftermath of Castlemorton, while other sound systems -- DiY, Bedlam, and Circus Warp - shrewdly keep a low profile, Spiral Tribe do loads of interviews, talking about their aim to create a “public new sense,” about how days and nights of nonstop drugged trance-dance can take you outside the limits of reality. The collective are given a record contract from a label convinced they are techno’s Sex Pistols. Actually, they’re closer to Genesis P-Orridge’s Psychic TV: literally a cult group, believers in conspiracy theories and magical-mystical forces, prophets for a new primitivism that has paradoxically been enabled by the do-it-yourself autonomy provided by digital technology. 


In addition to the ultimately unsuccessful Spiral Tribe prosecution, the British government extends the clampdown on illegal raves with the Criminal Justice and Order Act 1994, which vastly expands police powers to thwart rave organisers and to make life difficult for squatters and travelers. While the laws are still working their way through Parliament, their intended victims organize a protest movement,  the Advance Party. This alliance of  sound systems and civil liberties campaigners stages a couple of demonstrations in the summer and fall of 1994. The first, in July, is one of the few marches I’ve been on in my life. It winds up in Trafalgar Square, as is traditional for demos in the UK, but everything else about the protest—the garish, tatterdemalion clothes, the creatively designed placards—is a wildly different from the drab norms of Left activism.

I’m aware, though, with every step I take in the midst of this joyous cavalcade, that resistance is futile. Squatters, ravers, and travelers have few friends in the mainstream of British life: Ordinary folk are repelled by their appearance and talk, see them as parasitic layabouts, while figures of influence in politics and the media know that standing with “the crusties”—as they are popularly demonized—will do them no favours. The Criminal Justice Bill passes easily; Spiral Tribe splinter, with one faction moving to Europe to spread the “teknival” concept across the Continent.


Like the Sex Pistols, Castlemorton proved once again the extraordinary power of music to upset and disturb; how noise and words can shake reality, momentarily upturning common-sense ideas of what’s normal and proper and possible. But it also showed once again the limitations of that power in the face of the forces that control the world.  The idea of changing things through music is arguably a useful illusion, creating an urgent sense of mission and high stakes that again and again results in inspirational sounds and statements. But it could also be seen, more severely, as a diversion from the dirty, dreary work of struggle.

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