Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Bring the Noise era interview (2007)

Q/A with Jonathan Gharraie of the Cherwell

JONATHAN GHARRAIE: I suppose I want to start by asking a general question about why you started writing – where there any particular pieces of music that made
you think this was something you wanted to engage with, to decipher
for your readers or alternately to provoke them? And how was your
approach shaped by the critical climate of the time? I have the
impression there was a much greater creative dialogue between music
and music writing. Was this the case?

SIMON REYNOLDS: I wanted to be a music journalist from about the age of sixteen or seventeen, which would have been around 1979. Soon after getting into music seriously in 1978, with the Sex Pistols and Ian Dury and then the postpunk stuff like Slits, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, etc, I hooked into the UK weekly music press, in particular the NME, which was going through a golden age in terms of adventurous writing. And I realized that was what I wanted to do in life. Music was the most exciting, most forward-thinking and fast-moving area in culture, and the music journalists at that particular moment in history played a big role in terms of championing certain bands or scenes, pushing certain directions for music, making certain values attractive and a certain kind of language or way of thinking about music seem “sexy’. Not all rock writers had such an exalted notion of what they did, but the ones I gravitated towards as a reader certainly were in that Lester Bangs mode of rock writer as prophet/catalyst--the writer as someone who set challenges for the music as much as they simply documented what was going on. During postpunk there was a synergy, or even a symbiosis, between the criticism and the artistic practice--people in bands, or at least the most interesting bands, thought like critics, indeed often were writers as much as musicians, and the writers often crossed the line into making music or getting involved in the business. I never had any interest in that, having no actual music-making impulses, but I liked the idea of the activist critic who makes things happen and shakes things up.

More specifically, I'd like to know why you and David Stubbs set up Margin
was it a response to the do-it-yourself attitude that was infiltrating
the music scene at the time and was Oxford the right place to set up
something like that?

I don’t think it was particularly a do-it-yourself thing, it was more in the tradition of people at university starting magazines. Paul Oldfield, who was the instigator of Margin really, had done a couple of arts magazines before, White Room and Radical Review, and I contributed something to the latter, that’s how I got to know him. Then Paul wanted to do something more “pop” and fun, so he and a bunch of us (including David Stubbs) started doing Margin, which looked more like a zine and had articles about pop music, fashion, polemics (I did a defence of pretentiousness, having been dismayed by how many students at Oxford used the word “pseud” and struck anti-intellectual attitudes), pieces on leisure (Paul did one critiquing student parties and imagining how to revolutionise the party!) It was a proper stapled together fanzine at first, but we soon tired of walking up all those steps trying to flog it to reluctant students (who were never in their rooms most of the time anyway) so we hit upon the idea of doing it as a poster magazine. The idea was half copying that Daily listing wall sheet thing (I forgot the title, Daily Information? the guy who founded it died recently -- is it still going?), and half influenced by the Situationists, the idea of the revolutionary screed pinned to a wall. We figured the outright financial loss of printing these things and giving them away for free would be compensated for by not having to slog around all the colleges, plus we’d get a much wider readership. So we stuck it on notice boards, laundry walls, all over the place. It made a few waves.

Margin the wallposter got more and more polemical and philosophical, as the influence of reading post-structuralist and other critical theory kicked in, and less to do with pop culture. By the end we were doing these manifestos, espousing this radical nihilistic creed of withdrawal and apathy, and the posters were very striking looking. We did a mini version of one issue, about the size of postcard and virtually illegible at that size, and we went around sticking them inside toilet rolls and under toilet lids. Inside people’s loaves of sliced bread, in between the slices... The idea was kinda “Margin--we’re everywhere! insidiously eroding your ability to carry on!”.

Then when the bulk of us graduated in 1984, we were on the dole, hanging around in Oxford, and we decided to do a proper magazine that was dedicated to pop culture,. That was Monitor. By the third issues, we got funding from an unexpected source and the magazine became very high production values and beautifully designed, on glossy paper. So again nothing to do with the postpunk do-it-yourself ethos really, or at least, we were doing it ourselves, but the idea was not to look amateurish or anti-professional, which is what most indie fanzines made a fetish of. We wanted to be the opposite of a fanzine -- we would be all think-pieces and no reviews or interviews (which is what most zines consisted of - word for word Q + A transcripts in tiny print, every last cough or giggle noted down), on this very clearly printed, stark design, quality paper.

I'd like to understand why you decided to compile the book now. I
particularly liked that opening piece from 'Monitor', which sets the
tone for much of the book with its discussion of the faltering
dialogue between black and white musical cultures. How important to
your understanding of pop music has this dialogue been? And what has
happened to it recently?

It was weird rereading the 1985 piece from Monitor because a lot of what I was complaining about could be applied to the present. If you removed the period-specific band-names like Membranes and the Mary Chain, it could have been a description of now.

The white-on-black thing is something I have been trying to work out, about whether it has actually gone into abeyance and if so, why is that? Obviously historically the entire story of rock and pop would not exist without this white-on-black syndrome, the white romance with black music, and that is especially pronounced in terms of British pop, from the Beatles and the Stones onwards. The whole postpunk period is all about white bohemia catching up with the rhythmic and production innovations of funk, disco, dub, and not just sonic innovations but in terms of expression and mood too. But just because historically this white-on-black mutation has been the motor of change in music doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be like that. At the moment, there seems to be a kind of go-your-own-way impulse, you have things like freak-folk which is really interesting but it has no relationship to black music, it’s totally white-bread in its sources. Now, is that even a problem? I don’t know, I suppose I am questioning my own ingrained impulse to feel that this is not healthy. Perhaps that is an archaic attitude. But then why is it that the people who make up the freak-folk scene, who are classic bohemian types, are not feeling any inspiration from modern black music, which is what white bohemians traditionally always did, whether it was jazz or blues or reggae. Perhaps the experiential gulf between street rap and white indie-rock types has grown so big that it’s discouraging people from trying to take on ideas from hip hop or grime. But back in the Sixties that didn’t stop all these middle class British boys from sheltered backgrounds feeling the pull of the blues, which was really from and about a totally different world than the one they inhabited. So… I have no answers as such, I am just intrigued, and concerned, by the possibility that this relationship between black music and white music has become unglued somehow.

In terms of why do the book, partly it was having been around so long—20 years—it felt like a good moment to take stock both of the development of my writing and the journey taken by music during that time. The fact that Rip It Up ends in 1985, which is when I started being a professional writer, at the end of that year, almost seemed to set up the question: what happened next? So this collection is kind of my answer to that. I put commentaries after each piece partly because they often needed some kind of contextualization, but also to tilt the collection towards the present, the question of ‘where are we now?’.

Your writing reflects a commitment not only to aesthetic principles
but to a sense of aesthetic community as well. This is particularly
evident in your writing on rave culture but on things like post-rock
and grime too, both of which were subcultures where the music's sonic
distinctiveness reflected something of the unusual conditions in which
they were produced/disseminated/listened to.

More recently however, on blissblog, you've been writing about
commitment - particularly in relation to metal and the return to
rockist values though I think that this also informs 'Rip It Up' which
at times reads like a memorial to the pop innovation inspired by the
post-punk movements. I wonder whether that's because you think that
the kind of dedication which music used to inspire has been somehow
lost. What has happened to commitment/community in music and how has
this affected rock criticism? Is this why you took up blogging – does
this mode of publication help to recover the synergy between criticism
and practice that you mentioned earlier?

This is something that relates mostly to the area of being a consumer and the circumstances in which you become an active consumer. You’re not supposed to talk about passive consumption these days, that’s an outmoded, Adorno-esque notion. But I can’t help but think the higher mode of engagement with music is when it mobilizes you in some way. Skimming through loads of downloads on your computer in a desultory fashion doesn’t seem as impressive as being a participant in a subculture, where’s there an element of strenuousness, whether it’s going a rave and having an adventure—sometimes a misadventure, when the rave is busted. Or being a fanatical metal fan and going to cramped, sweatpit gigs, and doing things like moshing and crowd surfing. The problem with music now is that it is too easy. It’s plentiful and available to an almost pernicious degree, because this creates a relationship with music that’s on the level of cable TV—that sort of distracted, skimming mode where you’re skipping through the channels. Obviously you can have profound aesthetic experiences with TV, there’s television where certain programmes are an Event, but a lot of the time we sit down to watch television rather than a specific program, the experience is much more ambient and vegetative. And music is getting like that. It’s like the music beams in from somewhere and we don’t get too bothered about who made it or what its context is, it diverts us and ultimately it’s kinda disposable. Ordinary consumers are now in the position that critics have always been in with the inundation of freebies they get, having to process so much music they can’t get inside it or let it get inside them because they’re always moving on the next thing. I think the scarcity model we had before with music, when there was a finite amount you could hear, and actual intervals between reading about something or hearing it was going to be released and then actually getting to hear it -- that created certain kinds of intensity that have been eroded. In a context of chronic abundance, it’s quite hard to maintain any passion or even appetite for music. This is one of the curses of the professional, long-haul critic, but now it’s everybody’s affliction!

I’ve strayed from your question, but I think in the age of overload and consumer inconstancy, the process whereby community forms around a scene or a particular band necessarily gets weakened. Abundance encourages dilettantism, a sort of noncommittal eclecticism. It’s a vicious circle, because the more noncommittal and ephemeral our modes of engagement with music, the less it becomes possible for critics to claim stuff for music, because it’s not motivating people to do anything beyond consume it, it’s not catalyzing interesting behaviour or social energy. So you get this creeping inconsequentiality. And in a context where everything seems inconsequential, no one wants to look silly or get carried away, so you get this predominant style of music writing, where the tone is light, amused, slightly distanced. The prose never gets too heated, it avoids the kind of cadences that create an atmosphere of momentousness. Because it’s only music. Blogs seemed to be a place for that kind of messianic writing, also for hyper-theoretical speculations about music, for whimsical and surreal fancies, for savage humour. That’s why I jumped in myself—it seemed like a total space of freedom for all the critical modes that there’s no place for in respectable publications. For a large moment back there, blogland was that space. Now and again it’s still like that, but only in flashes. The back-and-forth between the blogs has diminished a lot, it’s become more like solitary obsessives prattling into the void.

At one point, you describe how 'the future has become a minority
interest'. What has happened to innovation in pop music?

Like the white-on-black issue, this is another thing I’m trying to work out. Is it just that innovation has been driven out of or denied entrance to pop culture? I’m not sure it is because I don’t sense that amazing, unprecedented breakthroughs are taking place on the margins either. The kind of experimental fringes covered by a magazine like the Wire, they seem fairly set in their ways too. They tick along creating a reasonable harvest of pretty interesting stuff every year, but I don’t get the sense that there are giant strides into the unknown being made.

There’s a definite feeling that pop music is stalled, on the innovation or sonic surprises front. The last time a real burst of startling sounds came from pop was the end of the 90s and the first few years of this decade when you had this surge of rhythmic invention and freakadelic production in hip hop and R&B. You had highpoints of commercially massive yet pretty bizarre-sounding music like Missy’s “Get UR Freak On”, Neptunes’ productions like the Clipse stuff and Kelis’ “Milkshake”, the early Destiny’s Child hits, too many things to mention. And these ideas filtered into pure pop leading to exciting records like Britney’s “Toxic” and “Slave 4 U”. Some of the ideas in hip hop and R&B seemed to involve reworking techno and house and jungle innovations, but that might have been an illusion, maybe the producers were just using the same technology. And then for me the next stage after that was grime, where the producers were doing their twist on all the sick-sounding street rap coming out of America, tracks from people like Ludacris. The grime producers were melding all those Dirty South, crunky ideas with noises and rhythms from the rave tradition, from hardcore techno and jungle. But grime was pretty much barred from entry into pop. And while electronic music as a whole seems to me to have been pretty stagnant for most of this decade, there are really innovative people working within it like Ricardo Villalobos. But they are operating a long distance from pop music. The only Euro-electronic fad to have any influence on pop in the last few years has regrettably been its most reactionary trend, schaffel, the fad for T-Rexy glam rock and glitterstomp type rhythms. That was picked up by people like Girls Aloud and Goldfrapp.

Black music by and large is the engine of pop culture, in terms of innovation, but the engine seems stalled at the moment. Which means that pop is running on empty.

Related to these last two questions, I was surprised at the absence
of your long piece on Ghostbox, who fittingly haunt some of the later
pieces even though they're neither hip-hop nor hip-rock. What
attracted you to hauntology? Does it have any bearing on the
historical orientation of this book and 'Rip It Up'?

The interest in the hauntology groups does have a relationship to Rip It Up, in so far as researching the postpunk era definitely gave me an appreciation and appetite for groups that had tons of ideas and a conceptual bent. Ghost Box and Mordant Music in particular are incredibly thoughtful and erudite types; they are as much researchers and cultural historians as they are musicians, really. Another postpunky aspect is the audio-visual thing both those groups have, the fact that the music is inseparable from its packaging. Julian House being a designer by profession is kinda redolent of the art school input into postpunk. Although postpunk doesn’t seem to be particularly a point of reference for either group musically. Ghost Box’s immediate ancestors are people like Stereolab, Broadcast, Saint Etienne, again groups where there’s a great deal of attention paid to the visual presentation of the music, where the music is one element in an entire aesthetic sensibility, a worldview even.

Rip It Up also led me to an interest in retro culture, the question of why was there this turn to retro that took place at the end of the postpunk era, circa 1984? Why, after such an intense and prolonged surge-phase of forward-looking music, did left-field rock succumb to nostalgia for the Sixties? Retro culture and hauntology are like two sides of the same coin. Some of the Ghost Box stuff is a hair’s breadth away from period pastiche. But the best of it is genuinely… ‘haunting’ is the only word, whereas retro-pastiche is just nullifying.

Actually there’s another connection which is that one of the groups that got me thinking about postpunk again, this obscure outfit called Position Normal, were also a really crucial precursor for Ghost Box. Their 1999 album Stop Your Nonsense had this John Peel, quirky postpunk quality, but also the Englishness thing that you get in Ghost Box and Mordant, the use of found voices, like school children and Cockney fruit market stall-holders.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


A proposal by me and Paul Oldfield to write a profile of ECM Records and its chamber-jazz  on the occasion of its 20th birthday in 1989.  At least I think it's a proposal - length-wise it's the size that an actual article would have been! 

It would have been the third in a trilogy of pieces we co-wrote for the Guardian, including a moderately infamous critique of world music and a defense of hyper-masculine music like rap, metal and Electronic Body Music (for the deconstruction of male identity it afforded). 

We were really pushing it with this one though and I'm not surprised it was not given the green light. Shame, though.

Big up to David Stubbs (whose copy of Jan Garbarek's Paths, Prints I taped back in the day and thereby got turned onto the ECM thing in the first place) and to ECM-head Jonathan Bowen (who turned me on some more in that odd lacuna-like year of 1989).


This year Germany's ECM record label celebrates its
twentieth anniversary. Because it doesn't promote itself, ECM
has always had a low profile: this despite its commercial
success in the Seventies with artists like Pat Metheny, Keith
Jarrett and Chick Corea, and a current roster that ranges
from acclaimed improviser Jan Garbarek to the Estonian
composer Arvo Part. This relative obscurity stems from the
label's founder, Manfred Eicher, who has zealously preserved
his vision of ECM as an island apart from the modishness and
market-consciousness of the music industry, whose output he
characterises as "environmental pollution".

But it's this very "apartness" that has proved so
attractive to the increasing number of pop musicians who have
fallen under ECM's spell during the Eighties.  David Sylvian
left behind his glam icon past as lead singer of Japan in
order to pursue a solo career in 'ambient pop', and has
recorded several albums with musicians from the ECM stable.
'Dreampop' experimentalists A.R. Kane have explicitly cited
ECM as an influence, and other groups (Cocteau Twins, Talk
Talk, Durutti Column, Hugo Largo) have much in common with
ECM's quest for "the most beautiful sound next to silence".

As well as it's influence on the pop avant-garde, ECM is
important because of the way it illustrates what both "New
Age" music and "world music" (those buzz concepts of the
Eighties) could and should have been like. New Age music
tends to be the aural equivalent of a Radox bath: it's
therapeutic, a palliative that helps sustain the listener
against, but also within the demands of modern, capitalist
life. Like vitamin supplements or homeopathic remedies, New
Age records are little capsules of pastoralism that enable
the stressed-out executive to cope with urban life. New Age's
soothing emulsions of sound, like Transcendental Meditation
for businessmen, are a tranquiliser rather than a path to
enlightenment. But ECM's "tranquility" is debilitating rather
than restorative: it's about fixing your consciousness on
something until you lose all sense of yourself and your
separateness.  The crystalline, open structures of John
Abercrombie's or Ralph Towner's music suggest not so much
withdrawal as a hyper-alert state of suspension, heightened

This "meditational" aspect of ECM music is close to
the Eastern idea of nirvana: the serenity that comes with the
cessation of desire. In his later years, Freud came to
believe in the existence of a "nirvana principle" or "death
instinct" inherent in all organic life: a drive that seeks to
return to the lowest possible point of tension. Freud
believed that human anxiety was caused by the repression of
this natural 'death instinct', resulting in a futile pursuit
of immortality through wordly achievement. 'Nirvana' is the
state-of-grace that comes with the recovery of contact with
the 'death instinct': a sublime inertia where you're wide
open to the world rather than restlessly engaged in leaving
your mark upon it.

'Nirvana' is, in fact, a kind of living death or 'life-
in-death'. So it's interesting that Manfred Eicher describes
ECM music in terms of entombment, of sound that is "burying
itself in a crypt of its own making". It's a metaphor that
connects with the very funereal/Egyptian images of 'cool
jazz' found in Miles Davis or Sun Ra. Other sources of this
meditational/monastical condition are the pervasive
Mediaevalism of ECM (its interest in liturgical, devotional
music) and also its attraction to the Romantics, with their
awe before the "sublime" and "terrible". (ECM's Russian
pianist Valery Afannasiev talks about music that should be
fatal in its beauty, such as Gesualdo's madrigals).

ECM suggest this blurring of boundaries, this blissful
oneness with the world, by their recurrent use of LP cover
images and titles that suggest immense, undifferentiated
spaces - polar landscapes, tundra, deserts, barren cliffs -
expanses that are unchanging over the millenia.  ECM's
artists never seem to have any referents, no locus in time or
space.  This nomadism, exemplifed by titles like "Wayfarer"
and "Paths, Prints", is based in the intuition that true
bliss is to be nowhere, bewildered in the wilderness.  (It's
revealing that the root meaning of "utopia" is nowhere).

This placelessness distinguishes ECM from the "world
music" that it has supposed to have prefigured by a decade or
more.  ECM do draw on ethnic music, but this is world music
without any of the Western, liberal ideologies attached to
it: there's nothing rootsy, convivial or feistily "authentic"
about it.  Different cultures are crossed at will. An artist
like Stephen Micus uses instruments from every conceivable
time and place, and even invents his own. These ethnic or
ancient musics are often "inauthentic" too: where music
hasn't been written down (e.g. for the albums of Mediaeval
songs) new music is composed, or music from completely
different times and places borrowed for the accompaniment.

Nor is there world music's dogged adherence to Third World
or folk sources. ECM musicians also borrow from elitist,
court cultures, as in Paul Hillier's troubador courtly-love
songs from 12th Century Provence, or Micus' use of
instruments from early European orchestras. Or there's Arvo
Part, who gave up writing serial music, and turned to a
minimalist, neo-Mediaeval partsong. Or the improviser Keith
Jarrett playing a Bach stripped of baroque mannerism or
modern musicianly interpretation and "feeling".  Unlike world
music, ECM doesn't try to rediscover pop's Dionysiac values
elsewhere; unlike "authentic" classical performers, it
doesn't try to recreate music as it was.

ECM music, then, is a quest for nirvana through the
transcending of time and place. ECM music offers the listener
a gentle apocalypse (an "end of history" and an "end of
geography"): a tiny foretaste of eternity. Perhaps this
timelessness is actually the most timely phenomenon today:
perfect rest at the heart of the pop world's hyper-active
clatter, an "endless end" to pop's relentless turnover of
the new. 


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

pop in the sixties

A proposal by me and Paul Oldfield, to write something - a contribution to a volume of essays? a thinkpiece in Melody Maker or somewhere else? an actual book? - I really can't remember, which is slightly terrifying - on the music of the Sixties. 

This would have been penned in the late Eighties, when the absence of serious study of psychedelia-as-music was actually a genuine deficit. (Not sure if this is the case nowadays - given books like Rob Chapman's Psychedelia and Other Colours - although I sense that in academia, psychedelia is not taken seriously in itself, apart from being the soundtrack to the era of counterculture). 

Although written up by me, a lot of the ideas here are from Paul, who was at this time finding strange echoes of this era (or his vision of this era) in contemporary groups as diverse as Das Damen and Apple Mosaic. 

Some of what is proposed in this, er, proposal ended up being dealt with in part two of The Sex Revolts, which looks at psychedelia, cosmic rock, and ambient through the lens of gender.

The music of the psychedelic era has not been given much
serious consideration. At best it is denigrated as
apolitical, at worst as regressive, solipsistic, nonsensical.
Traditional rock criticism, whether social realist or
humanist lit-crit in orientation, privileges authenticity,
commitment, relevance.  Hardly surprising, then, that it can
find little "worthwhile" or "valid" in psychedelia: a music
that's neither overtly confrontational nor contestatory, and
that doesn't seem to make a clearcut contribution to the
social struggles of its time.

Our reappraisal of psychedelia will start from the
premise that what's valuable about psychedelia is precisely
its "nonsense". We will focus on the very opacity,
indeterminacy, and chaotic contradictions that prove such
intractable material for a rock criticism whose preferred
mode of operation is elucidation and validation.

Our contention is that what happens in the psychedelia
of the mid to late Sixties is a deconstruction of the
subject, of gender; a collapse of identity and a crisis of
signification, that is the source of both bliss and terror.
As such it prefigures the schizophrenic tendencies of post-
modernism as extensively documented this decade.

Through a survey of the imagery of the counter culture,
in its various stages, and in its various forms (lyrics,
record sleeves, gestures in performance, critical language),
we hope to uncover the utopian aspirations and impossible
desires encoded therein.  At the same time we will attend to
what lay behind trends and innovations in vocal style,
production, arrangements, new instruments, inputs and
influences etc.

What were the the impulses behind the obsessions with
with Mediaevalism, pastoralism, Edwardian and Victorian
imagery, mystical/oceanic/fantastical imagery etc.?

Paul was particularly fascinated by the cover of this late-psych album by Nirvana - the nullity, the blankness, the immobility. 

Our study will look at the work of both  commercially
successful groups (The Kinks, The Stones, Cream, Pink Floyd,
Tyrannosaurus Rex, Pretty Things) and more obscure, but often more extreme groups (John's Children, The Eyes, The Creation, Art, Tomorrow, Nirvana, Incredible String Band).  The investigation will necessarily link up at various points with what was happening in America (particularly West Coast acid rock like Love, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, The Byrds). But it's primary focus will be the English scene as it developed from the "freakbeat" groups of 66/67 (Mods on LSD) through flower power, to the cosmic rock of late Sixties.

Paul was obsessed with this song

Hopefully, where this investigation will link up with the
wider subject of 'cultural revolution' is in its location of
two distinct and contradictory tendencies within psychedelia:
on the one hand, a longing for a lost Golden Age or Eden (an
Apollonian, pastoral tendency); on the other hand, a lust for
apocalypse (a Dionysiac, carnivalesque tendency).

Monday, June 11, 2018

Bring the Noise-era interview about politics and pop, white and black musics

full Q/A transcript of the interview with Anindya "Bat" Bhattacharyya for Socialist Worker

BAT: Okay - just to start with (and on a somewhat tangential note), later
this month is the 20th anniversary of the release of God Save The
Queen... which of course I'm sure was ever so exciting at time, but
has perhaps more curiously since been mythologised as a high point of
Rebel Pop - getting to number one but being banned (GSTQ is an
Unofficial Number One, which is surely like being a Square Circle), a
singular fusion of revolutionary cultural energy, taking on the
establishment (in all senses), and representing a movement of sorts
"on the ground". What's your take on its significance Then and its
significance Now (perhaps as an "event" that is always harked back to
but can by definition never be repeated)?

SIMON REYNOLDS: It’s hard for me to think objectively about the Sex Pistols music because it meant so much to me at the time--or rather slightly after the time, I got into it in 1978, but it was really my entry in the whole world of rock and taking music seriously. And the music still to me has this incredible power. I know there are younger people who are like, “it’s just trad guitar rock!”. And the line that the Pistols music is fairly staidly produced hard rock is something I took in Rip It Up and Start Again because that was a common stance in postpunk bands and also it's kinda my rhetorical set-up. But what a fantastic sound the Pistols had, and within its context, quite original. Beyond that, there’s a virulence to songs like “Anarchy in the UK” and “Bodies” that still scalds me. How did they reach that place? Rotten is a monster on those songs, yet in reality he is not a violent person, quite the opposite--he shrinks from physical conflict.

“God Save the Queen” is great but it’s not my favourite Sex Pistols tune, there is something almost too perfectly anthemic about it. The lyrics are fantastic, though--“god save your mad parade”, “flowers in the dustbin,” “there’s no future in England’s dreaming”.

The myth of the song seems to be the truth about it, actually--it was one of the last times, possibly THE last time, that a song could send shockwaves through an entire society. The force of that gesture, at a time when rock’s sense of its own political power was ailing in the mid-Seventies lull, dramatically reinflated rock culture’s belief in itself. It was an injection of energy and conviction that took almost a decade to dissipate, and even after that you still had figures like, say, Manic Street Preachers who took their bearings from that. Or even the way that Public Enemy was embraced by a lot of British people (and white Americans) as the black punk, the nearest equivalent to Pistols in terms of convulsing the culture.

Especially in those five to ten years after its release, the degree of impact that “God Saves the Queen” had became the benchmark by which everything that followed was measured. You were either aspiring to that or somehow failing that. Things like Frankie Goes To Hollywood were an attempt to create an Event on that scale and with that degree of controversy and polarization. And all the seriousness of postpunk, the moral urgency of the debates about what path to follow, how best to apply our good intentions, it really comes from that moment. It’s almost a burden: how do we live up to this? And ultimately it became an unhelpful thing, because as you say, it’s unrepeatable, it’s a waste of energy. During my early years at Melody Maker, something me and David Stubbs used to write about was the urgent need to un-punk UK music culture, get rid of the albatross. It was partly a musical initiative, shedding the lingering prog-phobia and embrace more expansive sonics. But it was also about abandoning the idea of music as shock and threat, all those ideas of subversion and bastardized Situationism that were still hanging around like stale air in the late Eighties.

following on from that... I was wondering how you saw the
relationship between Bring The Noise and Rip It Up - in terms of the
(perhaps arbitrary) periodisation that the two books cover. What (in
general terms, obviously) was the relationship between the
1986-present period that BTN covers and the more obviously glorious
years of punk & postpunk covered in RIU?

Well one of the things I hope that BtN shows is that in the post-1986 period a hell of a lot of interesting stuff happened. The late Eighties and really the whole of the Nineties, I always felt like there was at any given point a bunch of new directions being pursued, I never felt short of stuff worth championing or simply talking about. And that should come across I hope, even though the book doesn’t have that much on my main passion of the Nineties, rave culture and electronic music (on the grounds that it’s thoroughly covered in Energy Flash, I wanted to avoid overlap).

But to the nub of your question, it is an arbitrary break to a certain degree. I made the break in Rip It Up and Start Again at 1984-85 partly because I had to end the book somewhere. But also because at the time it did feel like the ideas and energies of postpunk/new pop had run their course. Really, what happened around then was that postpunk turned into indie-rock: the defining groups of the time, Jesus and Mary Chain and The Smiths and REM, were sonically largely based around the Sixties and they were drawing almost entirely on white rock sources, whereas postpunk and new pop had always been about engaging with contemporary black music. So indie-rock consolidated itself circa 1983-5 as a retro-leaning culture and something that had this impotent and exiled relationship to mainstream pop, which was dominated by black musical values of soulfulness and danceability. Obviously there are no such things as clean breaks, and many bands carried on with postpunk and New Pop ideas. Cabaret Voltaire and Mark Stewart carried on making music based in postpunk ideas, and there was the whole industrial genre. And you can see Madonna and Pet Shop Boys as “late period New Pop” in a way: modern dance + literate lyrics + glam-style games with image. But in terms of what had hitherto been the vanguard of white bohemian rock, the vast majority of new bands emerging were rejecting synths, drum machines and modern music technology for the trad line-up of guitars and increasingly they were looking to the archives for inspiration, and more than that, the exclusively white areas of the archives--psychedelia, folk, country.

The other thing that happens in 1986 that seemed like a break is that hip hop really takes off. Obviously rap had existed for a while, there were some big hit records, including some songs like “The Message” that showed it could be more than just party music. There was the whole electro boom, and bubbling as an underground force on both sides of the Atlantic there’s breakdancing and graffiti and the whole subcultural aspect of hip hop. But rap--and I distinctly remember this from the time--still had something of an aspect of a fad as far as most people were concerned. Then suddenly in 1986 it resurges. It’s the Def Jam crew--LL Cool J, Run DMC, Beastie Boys--who really make it a mainstream phenomenon. But lots of other figures also come forward around this time and get a lot of attention: Mantronix, Schooly D, Eric B & Rakim, Salt N Pepa, Marley Marl. The music was also evolving from its early days as first a band-based, live musician sound and then a drum machine based sound to being an artform defined by sampling and looped breakbeats. So 1986, that’s really when I think it becomes clear that this rap thing is going to stay and is actually going to be the most sonically crucial sound of the Eighties.

So the two main subjects of Bring the Noise--indie-rock and hip hop--really achieve definition and momentum in 1985/1986, which just so happened to be when I started out being a professional music writer. Convenient, eh?

When you say "The myth of the song seems to be the truth about it, actually--it was
one of the last times, possibly THE last time, that a song could send shockwaves through an entire society." ---this leads on to what strikes me as a common theme running through both Bring The Noise and Rip It Up - you have a "manifesto" so to
speak - music should ideally be (a) politically radical (b) musically
avant-garde (c) have mass popular appeal. Now I agree - but the
curious thing is we only ever seem to get TWO of the three at the same
time - eg Stereolab is (a) & (b) but not (c), The Clash are (a) & (c)
but not (b), gangsta hiphop is (b) & (c) but certainly not (a)... I
picked up a sense in your book of an always unrequited and thwarted
search for a "holy grail" that would combine these three... to what
extent do you think this is the case? and could you care to speculate
on why you don't seem to get all three together - is it a structural

I guess you are right, that would be ultimate ideal, but it’s one that’s virtually non-existent in the history of music! There would be Public Enemy, a group that was sonically radical, politically provocative, and really popular, but who else has there been? So in practice I will settle for just a/ or b/ or c/ on their own. And even sometimes none of those things. I honestly don’t have a programme or agenda when I listen to things, it’s not like I’m measuring if they come up to scratch. It’s more that stuff will excite me and then I try to work out why, and how those reasons relate to the larger field of music and music’s history, and to what’s going on in the culture. Inevitably you notice patterns in your taste, and recurrent syndromes in the way music achieves impact, what works and what doesn’t. But it’s a constantly revised outlook rather than a worked-out manifesto. Really, it’s much more like a messy set of biases and preoccupations. And in a lot of ways what I’m always looking for is something I can’t account for or slot into my systems, something that gives me new thoughts or challenges my existing theories.

I’ve never quite worked out where I stand on the vexed question of politics and pop. Instances of politicized pop that actually work as pop--as good music and as something that’s popular, in the pop charts--seem quite rare. In a certain harsh light, Rip It Up and Start Again could be seen as the story of a bunch of different bands who tried to make politics and pop work together but failed. From Gang of Four to Scritti, it’s a litany of failure! But the failure doesn’t matter to me, it’s more that they tried; the ideas and the idealism they had served a purpose in the sense of creating a kind of cultural quickening. You had these lively minds grappling with this stuff and it was a mind-rush to follow their trajectory. The argumentativeness of postpunk culture and the striving of these groups was what inspired me--that and the amazing music.

I suppose I would make a distinction between politicized music and political music. And there’s a sense in which all music is political, there’s stuff going on in  it by which you can tell the times; pop music that is conservative in its values or escapist is just as much a political statement as overtly radical music. It’s a force for anti-change! And the most interesting stuff of all is the stuff full of contradictions, stuff that leaves you conflicted. Which is why hip hop is endlessly fascinating to think about politically, for what it tells you about society and culture. It’s just that what you find there may be quite depressing, or confusing. It might not necessarily lead you to positive, uplifting conclusions.

Picking up on your point "The other thing that happens in 1986 that seemed like a break is that hip hop really takes off... that's really when I think it becomes clear that this rap thing is going to stay and is actually going to be the most sonically crucial sound of the Eighties" -- now you were working as a journalist on the "inkie" rock press at this time - what was your impression of how the rock industry reacted to this? I remember being a teenager at the time, there was a de facto "alliance" on the ground between indie kids and those into hiphop
(which later morphed into rave culture) - yet the reaction of the
industry was more ambivalent. I remember horrendous rows over Public
Enemy, plus you spilling the beans about the racism in the music press
(black star on cover = less sales). This kinda suggests that the black
v white musical division is "imposed from above", while on the ground
you get all sorts of cross fertilisations in both directions.

Hip hop was really hot in 1986-87, and it made for good copy--people like Schoolly D and Public Enemy--so, as I recall, it was enthusiastically embraced by the UK music press. In a sense, rap at that point was quite rockist, it was bad-boys with big egos, it was rebellious and then there was PE’s radical chic, so it was all an easy fit with the rock press. At NME there was a split between the indie rock fans who were into the C86 shambling bands and things like the Go Betweens, and the soul boy who wanted to push R&B and hip hop. It was a war between factions. But I think it was more that the aggression came from the soul boys, they had an agenda where they wanted NME to drop its indie guitar band coverage. They wanted to be more like The Face. At Melody Maker, we were scrambling to make the paper as exciting as possible and get to the new music first, cos we were underdogs trying to beat the NME. So at MM, rap was embraced on an equal level with the new guitar noiseniks like Sonic Youth. We had Run DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy on the cover before the NME did, big features on Schoolly D, Salt N Pepa, Eric B and Rakim, everyone that counted at that point. And as for the record industry--well, these rappers were mostly on major labels, right?

In terms of grass roots stuff, perhaps you hung out with more progressive types, cos I recall that indie-fans in those days were very sniffy about dance music and chart pop, and rap was kinda lumped in with that to an extent. An example is this group the Age of Chance, a noisy shambling guitar band who made a career out of being the indie group who embraced rap and pop. They did a cover of Prince’s “Kiss” and this was a big gesture, they were rejecting indie crypto-racist Luddite parochialism! Today no one would blink an eyelash but in 1986 it was considered a big deal that an indie band would do this. That said, I think rap cos of its rebellious credentials had more credence in the indie world, so you got things like World Domination Entreprises, who had this strong reggae dub input anyway, doing a cover of LL’s “Radio”, and even horrible grebo bands like Gaye Bikers on Acid dabbled with rap. The Def Jam rap-meets-rock sound was a gateway for a lot of people into hip hop.

I don’t honestly think indie people are racist--in a live review of the Smiths playing a Rock Against Racism benefit in late 86 that I nearly put in Bring the Noise, I noted that indie fans were probably more likely to be anti-racist in their political beliefs that your average R&B loving prole--it’s more that they had and often still have a limited idea of what ‘proper’ music is. And a lot of black music was seen as machine-music or not having much lyrical content or for having straight aspirations. But white soul was disliked for those reasons just as much.

You’re right though about the fact that market research showed that music press readers tend to not to buy issues with black faces on the cover. Whenever Melody Maker would put people like Public Enemy or Cameo or Bobby Brown on the cover, it wouldn’t be a great selling issue.

Related to this is perhaps one of the more startling theses you put
forward in BTN - that there is a peculiar elective affinity between
working class street culture (coded black) and middle class art
culture (coded white). You see this very starkly in grime, which has a
street following and an arthouse following but *nothing* else!

Now it struck me that this thesis of an affinity is only peculiar if
you assume a "sociological" understanding of class (and therefore a
bourgeois-ideological one), one that categorises people according to
their habits - while a more rigorous Marxist definition of class - one
based on relationship to the means of production and strictly
indifferent to questions of "culture" leads to a very different
picture - and one which could be seen as class solidarity cutting
across cultural differences...

You’ll have to guide me through this one: what is the affinity in terms of their relationship to the means of production between music bloggers (tending I’d say to be products of higher education, probably working in the media or some kind of language-based profession like education) and grime youth (less likely I’d assume to have gone into higher education or be destined for careers in the professions)? Cos I’d have thought it was actually an example of how culture--a taste for edgy, futuristic sounds--cuts across class; how music is one of the places we go to transcend our class identity. Or maybe it’s a coincidence, two different groups who are invested in the idea of being a vanguard but who derive different sorts of cultural capital from it. Or maybe the same kind of cultural capital, but it’s applied in totally different contexts.

It’s a one-way romance/alliance, though. I do wonder if the grime kids are even aware of all the bloggoid discourse around their music or what it would mean to them if they were.

Okay, I didn't make myself particularly clear there. What I'm getting
at is that the "class identity" that's getting "transcended" or "cut
across" here is "class" in the ***sociological*** sense, "cultural
class" if you will, and not class in the strict politico-economic
sense, ie the Marxist sense of the term.

If you think of class as a relationship to the means of production
then much of our "common sense" about class turns out to be
mystified... For instance, teachers and university lecturers are part
of the working class these days, while say the "market trader"
characters you see on EastEnders are in fact middle class
(petit-bourgeois to be precise).

Now I'd argue that the only definition of class that makes sense
*politically* is the Marxist definition, which by definition draws
together a vast number of people across the world that have little or
nothing in common culturally speaking (an Argenitinian factory worker,
an Indian agricultural worker, a Norwegian engineer...) - so the very
notion of "class identity" is nonsense, class politics is not an
identity politics, it is not based on "who you are" but "what you do",
it is in a sense a universal solvent of identity, an anti-identity.

So from this point of view, the "taste for edgy, futuristic sounds" is
certainly cutting across (ideological) cultural divisions - but is it
really cutting across class ones? Or could it not (and I know this
sounds barmy) be seen as the "class for itself" in emergence, a coming
together of different skills and techniques from across the (by now
huge, global and connected) working class?

Hmmm, interesting. I like the idea. I think Fredric Jameson imagined
something like this happening in that fat book Postmodernism and the
Cultural Logic of Late capitalism, new forms of panglobal solidarity

Actually in my blog I did a thing ages ago that was like listing the
parallels between bloggers and grime MCs. I can't remember the details but
the gist was that there were structural affinities in terms of what they
did, the narrowcast nature of the medium. It had suddenly struck me that the pirate stations weren't mass media, just cos they were on the radio dial. in practice only a small number of people tuned in, probably equivalent to the larger blogs. and people were turning themselves into legends through persona construction -- bloggers just as much as MCs -- but it was as local legends not mass cult icons (even though in blogland the locale is non-geographic, a locale of sensiblity, whereas with grime it's the radio's broadcast range). it's basically Momus's "in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen people" idea

have you seen the bizarre video for Dizzee's new
single Sirens - it's on its website - what on EARTH is going on in the
final scenes? There's some very weird commentary on class and the
sexualisation of young black male bodies going on there... which
reminds me - what do you think has happened and will happen to grime?
it seems to be permanently stuck in a "might break thru" mode, but
never catches on a becomes the "next big thing"... any ideas why this
is? and is it a good or bad thing? and to what extent does the
demonising and stigmatising of grime, Channel U etc etc keep it
marginalised? (see this article by David Moynihan for some
background on this )

I haven't seen the video. It's terrible, my interest in hearing the dizzee album
is really low. Being such an adherent of scenius theory, i was quite
negatively affected when i saw Dizzee on one of those grime DVDs, risky roadz i think, being interviewed a few years ago and he said something like "i'm still part of grime, still part of the scene. it's just that these days, i don't do pirates and I don't do raves" i thought, 'pirates and raves, that IS the scene, you dolt!". Bit like goldie unplugging himself from the scenius, i can't imagine his muse prospering being cut off from the grime lifeforce, as exceptional an individual as he undoubtedly is.

Still you can see why he'd want to separate himself from the scene, it's now
a millstone rather than a launchpad isn't it? it's in this dismal post-hype stage where it never broke through and happened in a mass way, yet it's not longer fresh or hip. most of the bloggerati support has moved on. the mainstream media, what are they going to say, writing it up? 'grime --it's still there!'

There was a moment there in 2005 where it really looked like it was on the
verge. and then 'Pow' was a big hit but not as big as they thought it would
be, and Lady Sovereign didn't put out her album when the moment was ripe, and the Roll Deep lp was misconceived and Kano's was too midtempo and brit-rappy.

They botched it, but then again I can criticise the cross-over bland-out/tone-down moves but there's no guarantee that pure uncut in your face grime would have prospered any better.

That reminds me - I couldn't help but smile at the vignettes in BTN
where you buy some obscure record and rave about it for ages then
realise to your horror that the lyrics are completely reprehensible
etc... I was curious that you (a) admitted this (b) admitted that you
avoided buying or listening to stuff that OTT in terms of
sexism/homophobia etc... now many people in these permissive anything
goes isssalllmoosicinnit times would see your stance as almost
laughably old-fashioned and "PC", a throwback to a time when Politics
Mattered Maaan... what would your response be? and how do you deal
with the contradiction of Great Music Whose Politics Suck?

I must have in my collection so much music that has reprehensible attitudes or offensive lyrics -- especially in terms of misogyny and sexism -- so I'm not sure exactly why this one example got to me. I mentioned my misgivings in the column on Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, but I think the main thing you're talking about is the TOK record, the dancehall one about setting the chi-chi man on fire. It was something about loving it so intensely for such a long period on this Massive B radio show in New York before finding out what 'chi chi man, we go bun dem' or whatever the chorus is, actually meant, and really being taken aback. Also the song is so exuberant and joyous that to find out how
the exuberance was targeted and what actually animated the glee and joie de
vivre in the song was horrible, as it was one of those tunes and rhythms
that really get under your skin and follow you around in your life.

But that's a pretty rare occurrence, short of outright 'hate rock'/nazi Oi!
there's not much much I would deny myself. that's if something arrived
through the mail, of course. Wen you're actually in a record store and
poised to hand over your credit card you might stop and think 'Do i really
want to line these people's pockets?'. that's how it was with TOK, i was in
the dancehall section of Virgin in New York and i thought 'naah'.

I dream and hope of a day not too far off when the "anti-PC" stance seems
laughably old-fashioned and a throwback to the days when no one cared and
nothing mattered. I thought i could see it on the horizon as far back as
1998, i remember telling a Spin colleague when I worked at the mag that the
New Earnestness was coming --but it hasn't arrived, not really, not yet.

And how do you deal with the contradiction of Great Music Whose Politics Suck?

Well i'm not sure there is a contradiction... the most interesting music, like the greatest art, comes out of contradictions, split impulses, confusion.

Some of my favourite writers have really conservative or dodgy or just
confused politics. not just the obvious ones like Celine or Wyndham Lewis,
but people like EM Cioran who had some kind of flirtation with Romanian fascism
in his youth and remained a conservative, anti-revolutionary sort all his
life. Or Nabokov with his aristocratic nostalgia for pre-Soviet Russia, his
strange loathing for Freud.

I'm really interested in the idea that reactionary, curmudgeonly,
jaundiced-eye type writers (or artists -- Francis Bacon) have access to
certain powers artistically through their misanthropy, their sense of abjection. Often the funniest writers have a poisonous sense of self-loathing and disgust for humanity. Also these grouchy, everything's-gone-to-shit types start out as radical, clear-eyed idealists--like Kingsley Amis who was a total Moscow-line following Communist until Hungary.

Probably on a certain level most great music sucks politically  - if you could somehow translate what it proposes into politics -  because great music is about impossible desires.

And then there's another story to do with pop music which is that a lot of its energies are capitalistic. and by that I don't mean, "they're a product of capitalistic conditioning and if only we could end capitalism then a pure pop music would emerge". what i mean is that the energies that pulse inside pop at the deepest core level are the same as those that animate capitalism and they help to explain why capitalism exists and why it is so hard to eradicate. Because it is seductive, the idea of individualism, competition, the fantasy of being self-made, your own master -- these are fantasies that have an appeal that shouldn't be underestimated. that's why the American ideology is so popular,
cos so many think 'I'll play the game and I'll win'.

A lot of what animates pop is ego, lust for glory, the drive for dominance, prestige, wealth. There's a lot of violence in pop music, rock music. Appetite for destruction. I think a Bataillean view of pop, to do with the will to glory, expenditure-without-return, wasting of energy and resources, might be a largely correct one. I actually thought this before I even read Bataille -  me and David Stubbs did a thinkpiece in 1986 on Indecency in pop -  one of the ideas was that Pop was the antithesis of Green values, it was wasteful and selfish and destructive.

I think we ended with the line "pop or a better world, the choice is yours!"