“…indifferent to the future…”
After consuming a Ritz cracker, two Valiums, half a can of Tab, and one weak, vodka-based cocktail, a girl named Karen slips into a coma one Friday night in 1979.
Seventeen years later she wakes up and the world has changed. The novel, Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland, from 1998, shares its basic outline with the classic tale of Rip Van Winkle – or, for that matter, a great deal of the nineteenth century’s futurist literature: L’an 2440, Looking Backwards, The News from Nowhere, and countless others. But Karen doesn’t wake up in utopia. The contradictions of capitalism have not resolved themselves in her sleep. If anything, they have got worse.
“I’m not sure I completely like the new world,” she confesses to her friend Hamilton. “The whole world is only about work: work work work get get get … racing ahead … getting sacked from work … going online … knowing computer languages … winning contracts. I mean, it’s just not what I would have imagined the world might be if you’d asked me seventeen years ago. People are frazzled and angry, desperate about money, and, at best, indifferent to the future.” In the seventeen years she spent asleep, something disappeared from the world as she sees it, “‘meaning’ had vanished”.
When I was at university, in the first years of the twenty-first century, it was considered practically a given that music could have no intrinsic meanings. A piece of music may be meaningful to you, or to specific social groups, in certain contexts, under certain conditions, but it does not in itself bear meaning. This notion, of music as mere “form moving in sound,” was not original when the critic Eduard Hanslick so phrased it in the midst of the 19th century’s war of the romantics. In fact, we can trace the idea at least as far back as Adam Smith’s essay, ‘Of the Nature of that Imitation which takes place in what are called the Imitative Arts’, first thrashed out in the years immediately after the publication of The Wealth of Nations made him the prophet of free market capitalism.
“Melody and harmony,” wrote Smith, “signify and suggest nothing.” Without the anchorage of poetry or pantomime, instrumental music was suitable only for a sort of contemplation “not unlike that which derives from the contemplation of a great system in any other science.” And even in the case of a piece of music – such as a song, dance, or opera – which did seem to have specific meanings attached by the association of another art form, the music itself could act only “like a transparent mantle,” which might lend a “more enlivening lustre” to the meanings and sentiments already expressed.[ii]
As the musicologist Lawrence Kramer suggests, the “problem of meaning” is a symptom of music’s modern separation from ritual. Today, he argues, “No ideas about music are more conventional than that music has no meaning, at least in the sense that words do, and that this lack is something to be treasured, something that helps make music special.”[iii] But even as Kramer wrote those words, the question of meaning was raising its head once more.
Just a few years earlier, another American musicologist named Leo Treitler had noticed a sudden avalanche of books about musical meaning. Treitler tells a story in which he is reading a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the New Yorker and is suddenly struck by the line, “Inside the lights burned in the middle of the day and the string quartet was playing a piece by Mozart, full of foreboding.” So alien is such a characterisation – of a music unambiguously “full of foreboding” –to the formal discourse of musicology, that Treitler found himself “sucked into a fantasy in which Marquez is reading the story aloud and has just come to that sentence himself. A squad of young men and women rush up to him, outfitted in black leather boots, breeches, and vests. Their hair is close-cropped or slicked back. Their leader hands Marquez a summons.”[iv]
“…an outbreak of meaninglessness…”
The hyperbolic nature of Treitler’s little tale implies an awareness on the part of the distinguished professor that while most of us will merrily ascribe any number of meanings to all kinds of music without too much thought, the kind of vigilance represented by his squad of bovver-booted young musicologists remained largely internal to the confines of the academy. And there they might well have stayed. But in the last few years, signs of a kind of creeping panic over meaning have started to seep out of the ivory tower and into the world outside.
In 2013, the music journalist Sophie Heawood wrote a piece for The Guardian in which she confessed that since throwing out a record collection which once “drew out the short sharp words of feelings and turned them into illustrated sentences”, the music she listens to via internet streaming services on her laptop now sounds “about as deep as an oatcake”.[v] It is telling that Heawood relates the new depthlessness she finds in music to a change in the technology through which she experiences it. It was in a pit of depression induced by the years he spent embedded in the Palo Alto dot com bubble, writing Microserfs, that Douglas Coupland conceived Girlfriend in a Coma. The malaise was spreading.
As well as being a composer with a penchant for unusual wind instruments, Jaron Lanier was a pioneer of virtual reality who spent the eighties and nineties in the Silicon Valley thick of it, hobnobbing with the heads of Apple, Microsoft, and Google. So it came as little surprise when in 1999 he wrote an essay entitled ‘Piracy is Your Friend’. In this New York Times piece, Lanier insisted that the free distribution of MP3s was “an opportunity, not a problem.”[vi]
But in 2002, writing an open letter to the producer and theorist Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Lanier began to worry that something had gone awry with mainstream pop music in the last decade or so. It was not so much that all the new music was bad; but that there was no new music. Not so much that the content was schlocky; but that there was no content at all. Still he insisted then that file-sharing could not be blamed, that the music industry’s obsession with Napster and the like was “such a crock” and that perhaps, had Napster been given the chance to develop, it could have been just the impetus music needed: a “new electric guitar”.[vii]
Except of course file-sharing has indeed developed, somewhat voraciously. And by 2007 Lanier was admitting, “I was wrong. We were all wrong.”[viii] In a book called You Are Not a Gadget, first published three years after this mea culpa, Lanier wrote extensively about his disappointment with the digital world he had helped to create. He worried that under the influence of social networks and software protocols like MIDI, people are “beginning to design themselves,” – and the art that they create – “to suit digital models” of themselves, and that consequently the ongoing “process of the reinvention of life through music appears to have stopped.” Perhaps, he mused, the ultimate consequence of the seemingly infinite abundance of words and melodies available on the cloud, is to be “an outbreak of meaninglessness.”[ix]
“…if all music had disappeared…”
In 2002, Bill Drummond had already come to a similar conclusion. One day in the spring of that year, the author and former member of arch-pop provocateurs The KLF, stepped through the doors of an HMV megastore in central London and felt a peculiar dread overtake him. Faced with “aisle upon aisle of CDs, rack upon rack in every genre possible,” Drummond thought to himself, “I know whatever I get here, when I get it home, it’s not going to be real. It’s not going to open another door in my head.”
That night, back at home working on his laptop, the feeling got worse. “It was as if every piece of recorded music from the whole history of recorded music – the past hundred and ten years or whatever that it has existed – is behind that screen laughing at me. It was saying, go on, download us!”
Drummond proposed a radical solution, “We’ve got to start all music again. I got into this fantasy in the end: wouldn’t it be great if all music had disappeared? We knew music had existed, but the CDs were blank. You’d go to the piano and you can’t do anything. Drum kits don’t work. It’s all gone. We’ve still got the emotional need to make music, but it cannot be done on any instrument.”
Drummond’s reverie tapped into a strain of hitherto dormant cultural catastrophism that had reared its head in the run-up to the millennium and never quite lain down since. To people still in the midst of the last century, it was pretty much a given that their leaders might capriciously elect to end all life on earth at the push of a button. However, from the phantom Y2K computer bug to the various Mayan apocalypses and ecological disasters (whether ultimately man-made or otherwise) favoured by post-millennial Hollywood film-makers, there lingers a decided whiff of Biblical chiliasm, of Nature’s angry vengeance wrought upon the folly of man. The bomb, at least, maintained a certain deliberate decisionism. It was an apocalypse with agency – no matter now madcap and divorced from the majority of actual people that agency may have been.
Today, though the internationally recognised Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists still stands at five minutes to midnight (closer, in fact, than it did for most of the sixties and seventies), we seem to worry little about the bomb.[xi] And yet in a strange sort of way, we live our lives as though the nuclear holocaust had already happened. Culture increasingly resembles not the gleaming fantasia of utopian dreams but the jury-rigged bricolage of post-apocalyptic nightmares.
“…every mark, blotch, and stain…”
An order of monks in a desolate wasteland, patiently copying and illuminating the shopping lists and trivial memoranda of a long-dead electrical engineer onto treated lambskin. The scenario is from a post-apocalyptic fable by Walter M. Miller called A Canticle for Leibowitz, set six hundred years after an atomic catastrophe. But it speaks just as eloquently about our own culture of reissues, remasters, reformations, and gatefold audiophile 180-gram vinyl editions of the long lost demos of some supposedly pivotal rock legend or other. As I read about the desire of Brother Francis (Miller’s protagonist) to duplicate precisely “every mark, blotch, and stain” on the holy relic (an old engineering blueprint) he had discovered in an abandoned shelter, I couldn’t help but think of the discussion between the singer Billy Childish and critic Simon Reynolds in the latter’s book, Retromania, about the fortunes spent on valve studio equipment, the fetishism of antiquated recording equipment and ‘stripped back’ production styles (mono, analogue, live, untreated, etc.).[xii] Reynolds’s book is all about pop music’s hopes for the future being crowded out by a series of compulsions to repeat the past. “Instead of being about itself,” he notes elsewhere in the text, “the 2000s has been about every previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.”[xiii] It’s as though music has been gobbled up by one of the “time prolapses” in Brian Aldiss’s novel from the mid-seventies, The Eighty Minute Hour.
A weird, sprawling ‘space opera’ in which characters spontaneously break into arias set in verse form, the narrative of this novel is set at the very end of the twentieth century, several years after another world war. It seems as though the pollution from so many nuclear explosions has ruptured the very fabric of space-time, creating pockets of the past in odd places throughout the solar system, and leaving various characters lost and stranded in former centuries. “But suppose your references are all wrong!” speculates one of the characters at one point. “Suppose nothing has happened to us and we’re sitting comfortably back home on earth, 1999 A.D., only we’ve all spiralled round the twonk and are so ego-sick of progress that we’re sunk in a mass-hallucination about it?”[xiv] Our situation is more severe. Rather than hallucinating the time distortion effects of a real thermonuclear war; we have hallucinated the war. The fallout, however, is real.
[ii] Smith, A. The Works of Adam Smith, vol.V, London: T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1811, pp.278-302
[iii] Kramer, L. Musical Meaning: Towards a Critical History,Vol. I, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002, p.1, p.11
[iv] Treitler, L. ‘Language and the Interpretation of Meaning’ in Music and Meaning, Robinson, J. (ed.), New York: Cornell University Press, 1997, p.23-4
[v] Heawood, S. ‘Music has died now I’ve thrown away my CDs and only listen on my laptop’, The Guardian, Tuesday 4 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/04/music-died-cds-listen-laptop
[vi] Lanier, J. ‘Piracy Is Your Friend’, New York Times, May 9 1999
[vii] Lanier, J. ‘Where Did the Music Go?’ in Sound Unbound, Miller, P. D. (ed.)
[viii] Laneier, J. ‘Pay Me For My Content’ New York Times, November 20 2007
[ix] Lanier, J. You Are Not A Gadget, London: Penguin, 2011, pp.39, 128, 174
All quotes from interview with the author conducted in July 2006, parts of which subsequently became an article for Plan B Magazine and Drummond went on to write many of the same things in his book 17, published in 2008 by Beautiful Books, London.
[xi] A timeline of the Doomsday Clock may be viewed online at the Bulletin’s website, http://thebulletin.org/timeline
[xii] Miller, W. M. A Canticle for Leibowitz, New York: Bantam, 1961, pp.60-70; Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to It’s Own Past, New York: Faber, 2011, p.270
[xiii] Reynolds, 2011, op. cit. pp.x-xi
[xiv] Aldiss, B. The Eighty Minute Hour, New York: Leisure, 1975, p.75
Listen to Jam City’s NTS mix [mixcloud https://www.mixcloud.com/NTSRadio/jam-city-1st-june-2015/ width=660 height=208 hide_cover=1 hide_tracklist=1]
I have zero time for the common refrain of middle-aged music journalists, “why is there no political music nowadays?”. It’s a question that’s lazy at best and disingenuous at worst. But, if I was going to bother to reply to someone asking that this week, I’d just ping them a link to any of Jam City’s recent interviews (if examples from rock were needed, see also Algiers or Perfect Pussy). Here’s a couple of recent excerpts:
From Complex magazine, in April:
Dream A Garden is a statement album, telling stories about emotional fallouts in the neoliberal world, the same world depicted by Classical Curves with its glossy images of luxury possessions. Is Classical Curves, Dream A Garden—but with a certain cynicism?
Yes, absolutely. In the past, I’ve been fascinated and repulsed by the glossy surface of neoliberal capitalism: luxury products, useless electronic. But after a while, you realise that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Dream A Garden is about learning to situate those luxury images within a larger context of violence, exploitation, and depression….
I hate this line of, “No politics on the dancefloor.” Dance music has never NOT been political! It’s always been transgressive, from disco to dub-reggae to grime. It’s only in the last few years that “the underground” has got further and further away from those agendas. We need to ask why this is.
“To Latham, the inherent politics of dancing, raving, clubbing – whatever you call it – are blindingly obvious. “If you take a long view of history, there’s always been a kind of transgressive politics to dance music – disco, dub, reggae, rave, grime – but it’s funny, someone said to me in an interview the other day, ‘People don’t normally associate club music with politics.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ It’s never not been political! But somehow, in the last five years or something, in correlation to a lot of political things that have been going on, specifically in this country, it has kind of become an island, a little bit.” So you’re not concerned by the cultural gatekeepers who keep saying political music isn’t what it was in the 80s? He laughs. “It’s not! It’s not the 80s! The 80s are done and dusted.”
“People say about this generation that it’s the apathetic generation or whatever, but I think we’re probably more educated about a lot of things than ever, people are plugged in, and they know what’s going on. But the exhaustion is still there. It’s hard to know how to find a language to talk about these things. I don’t understand mainstream party politics, I never have, it doesn’t speak a language to me that I’ve ever felt I could relate to, and I’m sure it’s probably the same for most people.” And yet he has found a language, and as a political lyricist he is refreshingly natural and unconventional, his heavily filtered voice plaintively singing short lines about riots, body image, the sadness and solipsism of consumer culture, “porn and Adderall”, and the yearning to reconnect, and to feel again.
For Latham, hope lies in other people, strangers meeting (or not meeting) in some of the cultural spaces that are themselves falling victim to contemporary capitalism; he cites a spate of club closures in London, the gentrification of others, and also, in light of the cost of tuition fees, “being able to afford to study; and meeting people, and forming a band, or starting a club night. It’s like the internet’s all we have, and none of us really have any money, so of course that’s the way that we organise and seek comfort from other people. But the doors to do that in real life, that historically have made other movements possible, just seem quite closed to our generation. We need those places and spaces where we can celebrate, because it’s a coping mechanism.”
“We have to deal with the complete privatisation of every aspect of our lives, and I just really believe there should be a physical space where we can go for six or seven hours to reorientate ourselves, actually be fucking humans again, and dance, and hear things that make us feel good inside.”
While dance music’s historical role as a site of possibility and transgression is inarguable, there can be an assumption that dance music today, and, by extension, the people involved in it, are inherently left-wing. Which, as anyone saw Boddika’s tweet and the response to it last week will know, is far from the case. He tweeted:
Many industry figures leapt to defend him, to say it must have been taken out of context, that anyone with a jot of sense would know he didn’t really mean it like that. But several also immediately called out his racism, with Jam City (in a now deleted tweet) and Night Slugs boss Bok Bok amongst the most outspoken.
Granted, few currently big electronic artists are quite as outspokenly political as Jam City (at least, ones that get interviewed in the Guardian). And, equally, there are plenty of politically engaged DJs/producers/performers and always have been. It would be OTT to proclaim that Jam City heralds a new era of politically engaged dance music. Dream A Garden probably won’t end up as the soundtrack to a summer of riots, 2015. But it feels like there may be a slight shift towards a somewhat more politically engaged, diverse electronic music scene, and Jam City’s recent output is an encouraging sign.
Jam City plays the ICA tonight, 5th June.
We co-hosted an event with Pluto Press – Music, Curationism and the End of the Avant-Garde – at Brilliant Corners on 2nd May 2015. Audio is now available to stream via NTS Radio on their Mixcloud
The event marked the launch of David Balzer’s excellent new book, Curationism. The other participants were: Frances Morgan, deputy editor of The Wire; artist, writer and academic Salomé Voegelin; and music critic and musicologist Adam Harper.[mixcloud https://www.mixcloud.com/NTSRadio/music-curationism-the-end-of-the-avant-garde-2nd-may-2015/ width=660 height=208 hide_cover=1 hide_tracklist=1]
Huge thanks to Brilliant Corners for hosting the event, Tabitha Thorlu-Bangura + NTS Radio for recording and making the audio available, and also to Artists and Engineers, Ben Lyford, Jake Williams, Jose Ortega and Dan Griffis for last minute loans of mics, mixers etc and tech support that allowed us to record the talk at short notice after the enormous response to the Facebook event!
A new mix and a new tumblr, Base Consciousness from kpunk/Mark Fisher.
Quick mix to explore some of the moods in the wake of the election defeat: initial shock then renewed militancy and sense of purpose ….
The Austin Psych Fest was last weekend, but in the UK we were fully focused on the elections and associated depression/stoicism/recriminations/reinvigoration (delete as appropriate). So in belated celebration of the festival and the 13th Floor Elevators 50th anniversary reunion show (review/photos/video here), here’s an extract from Ben Graham’s new book on Texan psych, A Gathering of Promises (out in June from Zer0). There’s also an interview with Ben about writing the book on the Brighton Noise blog. – TS
On an outdoor stage on the banks of the Colorado River, a 63-year-old man is leading his band through a set of churning, rhythmic, hard-edged blues rock. His grey hair cut short and neat, George Emerson Kinney looks every inch the respectable Texas rancher, dressed smart but casual in pressed blue jeans and white shirt. Yet something in the intensity of his performance gives him away. With the sun starting to set behind him, he lets his electric guitar swing round onto his hip and clutches the microphone stand fiercely with both hands. “There comes a time of starvation, and it is true,” he howls. “If you believe in elevation it will happen to you.”
George Kinney has endured the time of starvation, in terms of appreciation and recognition at least. He wrote and first sang this song, Starvation, with his band the Golden Dawn some 47 years ago, long before many in the audience at this, the 2014 Austin Psych Fest, had even been born. Yet it is also true to say that Kinney never stopped believing in elevation; that is, the potential of the entire human race to ascend to a higher level of psychic understanding and spiritual evolution, a belief that inspired both the name and the songs of the Golden Dawn when they formed in Austin in 1967. It was a belief that the Golden Dawn shared with their close comrades, the 13th Floor Elevators (who Kinney is of course also acknowledging in the lyric), and it would appear that in the 21st Century, long after the original incarnations of both bands disintegrated under pressure and recrimination, things are indeed finally happening, both for them and for many of their psychedelic Texan contemporaries.
The seventh annual Austin Psych Fest is the largest yet, with over 6000 people from all over the world filling the campsite and attending the three day event, as well as enjoying pre-festival warm-up events in Austin’s clubs and bars. The music line-up is as international as the audience, with a broad definition of psychedelic music taking in acts from across North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia and Japan. In 2014, the festival’s superlative reputation attracted the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Dandy Warhols, Acid Mothers Temple, Loop, the Horrors, Lorelle Meets The Obsolete, Jacco Gardner, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Terakraft and more than 80 other artists including co-organizers the Black Angels, who more than any other band revived Austin’s reputation as a center for psychedelic rock in the 21st Century. The festival also drew music journalists from all over the globe, and reportedly Hedi Slimane, creative director of fashion house Saint Laurent, diligently photographing audience and bands alike while researching his firm’s latest line, 2014’s ‘Psych Rock’ collection.
On the surface it might seem surprising that the upsurge in interest in psychedelic music, new and old, should be focused not on San Francisco or London or even Berlin (with the concurrent and related krautrock revival), but Austin, Texas. Yet the location of the world’s premiere psych festival is no accident, and the organizers, the bands and the audience are all well aware of the city’s rich and noble psychedelic history. What some may be less aware of is the extent to which the Austin establishment of the 1960s despised and persecuted pioneering psychedelic bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Golden Dawn, and how by the beginning of the 1970s the Texan psychedelic scene was considered dead and buried, an embarrassment to those who were a part of it, and a flash in the pan misfire before the era of progressive outlaw country that first put Austin on the map, and established its reputation as “the live music capital of the world.” For decades it was Willy Nelson, not Roky Erickson, who was the beloved face of the Austin music scene.
“If the Black Angels could go back in time, they couldn’t get a gig to save their lives!” laughs Billy Miller, a 13th Floor Elevators fan from the mid-sixties on. “They’d probably get run out of town on a rail by the music scene itself. So things have really changed; they are the music scene there now, and I’m glad to see it.”
Though all native Texans, the Black Angels deliberately moved to Austin in order to start a psychedelic rock band, attracted as much by the city’s heritage as by its reputation as a major contemporary music center. “When we first started there weren’t tons of people doing that kind of sound,” recalls singer Alex Maas. “You can’t really touch the 13th Floor Elevators. You can get close; I hear a lot of bands now that I’m like, man, that really sounds like the 13th Floor Elevators, it’s really good. But it’s like saying someone’s as good as the Beatles, you know, it’s not ever going to happen.”
When they co-founded the Reverberation Appreciation Society, the Black Angels began their transition to arguably the most important, powerful and influential band on the Austin scene. Set up to promote shows and release records by like-minded acts, the Society organizes not only the Austin Psych Fest but similar events around the world.
“The Reverberation Appreciation Society is me, Rob Fitzpatrick, Christian Bland and Oswald James,” says Maas. “We started this organization and gave it this weird long name to do stuff like the festival, and we wanted to be able to help our friends if they didn’t have an outlet for their music. We’ve met tons of great musicians over the course of our career, and tons that just don’t have an outlet, and that was kind of why the society was created. It was to keep the music going, the music that we believed in. So we’ll help them find outlets, whether it be stores that will sell their music or a presence online, or just developing the sound of a band.”
This helping hand would also soon extend to the older bands that influenced the Black Angels, like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Golden Dawn. “It only makes sense and it’s only fair to give back to that community and that ball of energy that we were inspired from originally. Whether that be Roky Erickson or the Seeds or the Moving Sidewalks or Simeon from the Silver Apples.”
Maas also has his own theories about why Texas was such a nexus for first generation psychedelic rock music. “It seems like with any action there’s always an equal and opposite reaction,” he says. “So if you have a conservative culture you will have a very liberal underground, whether it’s powerful or whether it’s modest in its approach to how it wants to grow. Austin’s always been a kind of liberal town, and I think the conservative culture in Texas has naturally bred this interesting art escape, this opposite effect to escape from that.”
Initially however the establishment response to the appearance of drugs, long hair, youth rebellion and talk of peace and love in Austin was far from liberal. The psychedelic freaks in Texas had to fight much harder just to survive than their brethren in California, London or New York, and this is perhaps what gives Texan psychedelia its distinctive punk edge. Unlike many of the Californian bands to whom the term was first applied, like the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane, psychedelic rock out of Texas is characterized by an aggressive urgency and desperation that has actually helped it to age far better than its more mellow West Coast equivalent.
Christian conservatism and repressive drug laws were countered by a strong belief in the freedom of the individual and a frontier spirit that could apply to mind expansion as much as lighting out for open land. There is much to be said though for the big skies and the sense of space to be found in the Texan desert and hill country, not to mention the visionary qualities of the native peyote plant, used as a shamanic sacrament by generations of native tribes and curious adepts. The active compound in peyote is mescaline, referred to as “Texas Medicine” by Bob Dylan; mescaline was also the drug taken by Aldous Huxley in his celebrated account The Doors of Perception, and was used by notorious occultist Aleister Crowley in his proto-psychedelic Rites of Eleusis performance of 1910. Though LSD became as popular in Texas as anywhere else, an initial grounding in natural psychedelics like peyote helped distinguish the Texan scene from its Californian equivalent, as George Kinney points out.
“LSD can be a very helpful psychedelic experience, but when all is said and done it is an artificial substance,” he says. “When one starts to really get ‘high’ in the psychedelic sense, one begins to distrust such contrived substances. Psilocybin mushrooms and peyote are natural plants and have a long tradition of being used to enhance the awareness of humans. There is a sense of authority and security in ingesting these medicinal plants that is absent from taking LSD. The result is an experience that is both transcendent and natural simultaneously. One can experience the divine aspects of one’s nature and still remained meaningfully connected to Mother Nature. The outlook and behavior, especially the music, expressed this distinction. That’s why even the most psychedelic voyagers from Texas remained so down home. The main benefit, to me, of psychedelic music was to combine the transcendent elements of intellectual thought with a very physically moving rhythm and sound.
“Texas itself is a very powerful geographic location. The land and the history there is very unique. Texas used to be its own nation and the fierce independence of the citizens is a tangible ambience that pervades all areas of social and community life.”
That “fierce independence” is crucial. Despite the often draconian enforcement of law and order, Texan mythology has also always idealized the rebel, the outlaw and the hard-bitten underdog fighting against the greater power. Nowhere is this last case more obviously exemplified than in the Battle of the Alamo, surely the most powerful archetype and central myth in the collective Texan psyche. Perhaps the brave heroes of the Texas Revolution, who died defending the Alamo Mission in San Antonio against impossible odds, set a precedent that Texas’s 1960s psychedelic revolutionaries were already unconsciously following. And if Lubbock’s martyred icon of early rock n’ roll, Buddy Holly, had already captured the essence of the psychedelic experience in his song Slippin’ and Slidin’ (as Jason Pierce of Spiritualized has suggested), then perhaps his El Paso contemporary Bobby Fuller had already written the whole story of Texan rock, psychedelic or otherwise, when he penned his classic I Fought The Law (And The Law Won), shortly before his own premature and still-mysterious demise.
Certainly, Texas’s outlaw tradition and proximity to the Mexican border gave it a certain primacy in the American marijuana trade, which in turn meant that Texans had a greater connection and interaction with their fellow heads on both coasts that did any other southern state. Unlike in New York and San Francisco though, Texan psychedelia developed from first principles, and in this sense was truly gnostic, stemming from direct personal experience of acid and peyote rather than being filtered through the media or fashion. Also, Texan psychedelic bands were under far less pressure to temper their vision and make it commercial; being so far from the major centers of the music industry, chances are they were never going to make it anyway. Almost all of the records discussed in this book were released on small local independent labels, that didn’t have a clue about this strange new music, but the kids seemed to dig it so what the hell, they thought, let’s put it out anyway and hope it will sell.
And ultimately perhaps, the simple truth is that Texans just don’t do things by half measures. If they’re going to rock, they’re going to rock hard; if they’re going to drop acid, they might just take enough acid to kill a buffalo. And if they’re going to make weird and freaky music, then it’s going to be the weirdest and freakiest music you ever heard in your life. Enjoy.
When 18-year-old Rayward Powell St John arrived in Austin in the fall of 1959 as a freshman at the University of Texas, the city was almost unrecognizable as the high-tech metropolis it would one day become. The computing and dot com boom that would transform Austin’s fortunes during the eighties and nineties was still the stuff of pulp science fiction, and the city that would come to describe itself as “the live music capital of the world” was still a relatively quiet, conservative community with a population of roughly 180,000; 20,000 of which were students.
“Austin was a beautiful city, a big town,” Powell remembers. “And I was right in the middle of it, enrolled in a major university and living on my own. The living on my own part was the best part of all.”
Powell St John had been born in nearby Houston in 1940, but had grown up in Laredo, close to the Mexican border. His father had owned a farm, and his earliest memories were of exploring the territory, roaming in the desert and along the banks of the Rio Grande River. When Powell was ten years old his father sold the farm and returned to his original career of teaching; the family moved to town, and Powell began attending Laredo’s Martin High School, where his father now taught English and Algebra.
While some high schools gain prestige for their academic scores and others are known for the success of their sports teams, Martin’s claim to fame was its first-rate school band, and potential players were recruited early. Although he had no experience as a musician, and didn’t come from a particularly musical family, Powell had grown up avidly listening to the country music played constantly on the radio in rural Texas during the 1940s; Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, whose 78 single Jambalaya was the first record he owned. Once he’d got used to living in town the idea of playing music himself began to appeal, and when the Martin band director came to his grade school with a selection of instruments for the kids to try out on, Powell immediately put himself forward, settling on the flute. After about a year in the Martin school band however, Powell was forced to give up his first instrument when he began to suffer from horrendous ear infections that left him writhing on the floor, screaming in agony. It was discovered that he had unusually large Eustachian tubes, and doctors theorized that playing the flute was actually blasting the infection out of his throat and up into his ears. Powell quit the school band and the flute, but he was determined to keep on playing music.
Given his condition and the doctors’ diagnosis, it’s perhaps unusual that Powell selected another wind instrument to replace the flute, but it was one that would remain his axe of choice throughout his life; the harmonica. He bought his first harp from the Laredo Woolworth’s, having spotted it in the shop window on the way back from the Saturday morning picture show. On the back seat of the bus home, he mastered the Stephen Foster tune Uncle Ned, and with no apparent aggravation to his ears either, although those of the other passengers may not have been so lucky.
Powell soon convinced his parents to upgrade his dime store mouth organ for a chromatic harmonica that had all the notes on it, and set to learning his chops with a vengeance. But there were few accessible influences or inspirations for a lonely young harmonica player to turn to; on the radio, his role models were more or less limited to ensemble players the Harmonicats, or the likes of John Sebastian (father of the future folk-rocker and singer-songwriter of the same name, himself no mean blues harpist) and Larry Adler, who played backed by a full symphony orchestra. Powell turned instead to jazz musicians for ideas, gamely attempting to apply to his harmonica the innovations that players like Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins were bringing to the saxophone. Unaware at the time of pioneering blues harmonica players like Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter, Powell mostly resigned himself to simply wandering around his backyard, blowing Ruby to accompany his dreams.
Powell had no thought of becoming a musician when he first arrived in Austin; enrolled in the Art Department and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, he had vague hopes of becoming a painter or of pursuing a career in the army. But although Austin was still relatively small, compared to Laredo it seemed like the big city, and Powell soon found that his horizons were being widened by life at the University of Texas, generally known as UT.
“Laredo was a border town of about 6500, known as the Gateway to Mexico,” he says. “Coming from that environment I was very callow and clueless. Austin seemed big to me then.”
Austin of course was also the state capital, and as such was a hotbed of lawyers, politicians and campaigners, best captured in local author Billy Lee Brammer’s classic 1961 novel, The Gay Place. One of the first radicalizing influences on Powell was the student Civil Rights movement, or more specifically, the staunch resistance it encountered from the authorities and the establishment.
“For my part I was very naïve, and coming from a community where I was a member of a minority group the correctness of the Civil Rights Movement seemed like a no-brainer,” he says. “Therefore I was taken aback by the controversy swirling around the issue. That was my introduction to Austin conservatism, and it was an eye opener.”
Although UT was one of the first southern universities to admit blacks, albeit as recently as 1956, in 1960 its dorms were still segregated, and its 200 African-American students were excluded from varsity athletics, drama productions, student employment and the University Long Horn Band, among other activities. Powell would soon realize that this casually institutionalized racism was typical of a pervading atmosphere of repressive conservatism and paranoia.
“While I felt free and liberated, the town was a very conservative place,” he says. “The University tried to make up for the lack of parental control by providing a strongly paternal atmosphere and closely monitoring the activities of the student body.” According to Powell, the University’s conservatism was at least partly down to its reliance on certain Dallas billionaires for endowments. “They were very concerned about the Civil Rights Movement for one thing, lest it be a destabilizing influence. And when drugs came to Austin the reaction of the authorities was nothing short of hysterical, and the tension ratcheted up dramatically.”
Nevertheless, Austin’s reputation as a beacon of free-thinking liberalism compared to the rest of Texas was already in existence, though at this stage it was based on a small minority of left-wing students, artists, folk musicians and bohemian holdovers from a previous era. “UT was a major university and there were forward thinking individuals and cutting edge work going on there,” Powell admits. “It seemed to me that there was a tension between new attitudes, social movements and outside ideas, and the conventional and conservative ideas of the establishment.”
Powell’s introduction to Austin’s limited counter-culture came via Ramsey Wiggins, his roommate when he was finally able to live off campus at the beginning of his second year. Up to this point Powell had been working hard and trying to fit in, but had remained socially isolated; Ramsey was an equally scholarly young man, but also a member of the Austin Unitarian Youth Group. He began inviting Powell to some of the group’s social functions and parties.
Unlikely as it may seem, Austin’s Unitarian Youth Group were considered by some to be the hip kids in town. They were young intellectuals and aesthetes with strongly held left-wing beliefs, the sons and daughters of liberal Democrats and veterans of the Labor Movement who had been brought up to believe in peace, social justice and equality. They also held a passion for art and music, and folk music in particular.
At the very beginning of the 1960s the folk music revival, which would soon claim Bob Dylan as its Messiah and then its Judas, was in full hootenanny swing. It had yet to really penetrate the mainstream however, and remained largely the preserve of the socially-concerned, college-educated elite. While their younger brothers and sisters were listening to Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, these liberal folkniks upheld a sometimes spurious but always well-meant cult of authenticity, and sought out the unsung originators of the blues and folk music the more celebrated rock n’ rollers expanded upon, or commercially exploited and diluted, depending on your point of view. The more committed and thoughtful would also risk their educations, careers and in many cases their lives to support the African-American struggle for equal rights, as well as workers’ rights and the peace movement. They spoke out against the spiraling nuclear arms race, were environmentally concerned, and were generally the originators of what would become known as the 1960s counter-culture. For these young people folk music was inextricably bound up with notions of political struggle and the voices of oppressed people around the world, and Texas and the other southern states were on the front-line of the battle for Civil Rights. Though already an instinctive egalitarian, Powell was relieved of much of his small-town naivety by the Unitarians and their liberal allies.
“These people showed me a lot about life, and the way things work in the real world,” he recalled to the website It’s Psychedelic Baby in 2011. “Whereas a year before I had been a spit and polish ROTC cadet passing in review every Thursday, I was now marching in a protest line trying to bring racial integration to the movie houses just across the street from the UT campus.” As a result of the protests, the State and Paramount movie theaters both agreed to integrate in September 1961, and University housing was finally integrated in 1964. However, as late as the fall of 1963 Austin’s 24,413 African-American residents were still barred from over half of the city’s white-owned restaurants, hotels, motels, business schools and bowling alleys, and discrimination in housing and employment was sadly commonplace.
Simultaneous with Powell’s political awakening was his introduction to folk music. Ramsey Wiggins’ teenage younger brother, Lanny, was an accomplished singer, guitarist and banjo player, who scoffed when Powell told him that he didn’t know any folk songs. “Do you know The Ballad of Jesse James?” he asked, almost rhetorically as the song was a part of most every Texan childhood. “Sure,” said Powell, for whom it also held a special personal resonance, as he was brought up with the cherished and oft-repeated legend that his family was actually related to the famous outlaw. “Well, that’s folk music,” Lanny replied, and began playing the song, encouraging Powell to join in on harmonica. Powell had found his métier, and the two became a folk duo: the Waller Creek Boys.
The Waller Creek Boys were named after an urban watershed that meanders through downtown Austin and makes its way towards the university, becoming an area of shady, wooded parkland where students would traditionally gather to relax before or after classes. In 1969 it would be the scene of violent confrontation between student protesters and the authorities, when 40 trees were cut down to make way for an expansion of the University Football Stadium, and later fell into disrepair. In 1961 however the name still evoked a laid-back, urban-pastoral vibe, and associated the duo with a particular social scene among the students.
The Waller Creek Boys performed at student parties, summer picnics and anywhere that people were prepared to listen; one regular haunt was the weekly Folk Sing held every Wednesday evening in the UT Student Union, organized by Stephanie Chernikowski. Starting in early 1962, this was an informal gathering where anyone could get up and sing or play a song to their peers. Though small and unambitious to begin with, the Folk Sing would prove a vital cultural catalyst, and as the folk scene became increasingly hip and received attention in the mainstream press attendance snowballed. Starting with an initial group of a dozen or so amateur musicians, at its peak the Folk Sing would see nearly a hundred music fans and general non-conformists, including many younger kids who were members of the Folk Music Club at Austin High School, crammed into the student cafeteria, known as the Chuck Wagon. A more selective and low-key hangout was the backyard of a rundown apartment complex where a number of older artists, musicians and leftover beatniks lived, a building that Powell soon nicknamed the Ghetto.
The Ghetto was former officers’ quarters, built during World War II and, like many such buildings, sold to the public once the war was over. A two story structure that had been converted into apartments, it was located at the end of a gravel drive somewhat off the street and behind another house, hence its unconventional address: 2812 ½ Nueces Street. Through the late fifties and into the sixties, this building was home to a collection of poets, writers and artists who made up Austin’s somewhat belated Beat Generation.
“Let me stress, these were not sumptuous accommodations,” says Powell, who says that when he later moved into the building he paid sixty dollars a month, utilities included; cheap even for 1962 (other accounts put the monthly rent as low as thirty dollars). Because of both the low rent and the privacy afforded by being off the street, the building attracted individuals from throughout Austin’s small but active bohemian community, and a younger crowd soon moved in as the beats moved on. It also became a place where like-minded spirits knew they could hang out and socialize without being threatened or ostracized by the straight majority.
“It was an island of hipness in a sea of conformity,” Powell remembers. “Being poor and feeling marginalized and under-appreciated by the dominant paradigm, we tended to hang together, fearing that if we didn’t we would hang separately. For that reason the place was called the Ghetto, in reference to the Warsaw Ghetto where another group of people had been brutalized.”
Though the Austin authorities were convinced that the Ghetto was a viper’s nest of subversive intentions, in reality it was just a rundown party space, where individuals of a liberal and pacifist bent would gather to drink beer and play music. There were two apartments on the ground floor and three above, one of which was a small studio apartment over a garage. This was taken by the first of Powell’s circle to move into the building, long before he gave it its distinctive nickname; a musician named John Clay.
Though not widely known, Clay was a hugely influential figure in the early Austin music scene. A singer-songwriter and banjo player, he was often known as John the Dishwasher, from his job at a North Austin coffee house. Long and lean with close-cropped blonde hair, Clay was also a Linguistics student and a familiar sight around the UT campus, always dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt (before such a look became the unremarkable norm) and carrying a banjo.
“The first time I became aware of John was one day when I was in line at the cafeteria in the UT Student Union,” Powell recalls. “A rather unusual individual was in line behind me, pushing a food tray with one hand and clutching a banjo with the other. It was early for dinner and some of the dinner offerings had not yet emerged from the kitchen. As we approached the cashiers’ station and I was paying for my food this person leaned over and addressed the lady taking the money. Stabbing with his finger, gesticulating and struggling to form his question and get the words out he said, ‘How, how, how long for the hamburger?’ That was my first experience of John Clay.”
Clay’s stammer mirrored a corresponding lack of physical co-ordination, which hampered his banjo playing and made many see him as a gawky clown. The banjo was not taken seriously as an instrument anyway, unless one could play with showboating, rapid-fire dexterity like Earl Scruggs. “Many times when he would attempt to play a song he would get into it about halfway then make a mistake and stop,” Powell remembers of Clay. “He would then start the song again from the beginning. As one can imagine, this made it very frustrating for an audience to listen to John’s performances.”
Clay’s major gift though was as a narrative poet and songwriter, capable of crafting song lyrics that were by turns droll and amusing or thoughtful and sensitive. Many told long stories packed with historic and social detail. “I credit two individuals with giving me the idea that I could write songs,” Powell states; “John Clay and Bob Dylan.”
Dylan of course was in the ascendant nationally, his first few albums proving that it was possible to write new songs within the folk tradition, and with a unique individual voice that seemed both ancient and modern. But Clay was proof that one could be a songwriter closer to home too. “He was much further along in his study of traditional music than I was, and his study was more detailed,” Powell admits. But nevertheless, Clay’s songwriting was something that Powell could aspire to, and soon Powell’s own original compositions began appearing in the Waller Creek Boys’ sets, alongside Lanny Wiggins’ vast store of traditional material.
Alongside the Civil Rights crowd, the art students and the folk music aficionados, another group that contributed to the small but lively counter-culture in Austin at this time was centered on the alternative student magazine, the Texas Ranger. In stark contrast to the straight-laced official campus newspaper, The Daily Texan, the Texas Ranger was satirical and irreverent in its intent, and was renowned beyond the university campus, winning several national awards for best college humor magazine. The unpaid staff and hangers-on around the magazine were a hip and hard-drinking bunch who styled themselves ‘the Rangeroos,’ and included some of the future founders of the 1960s underground comix phenomenon. Artist Jack Jackson (AKA Jaxon) and writer Dave Moriarty shared an apartment above Powell St John at the Ghetto, and from 1962 the Texas Ranger was edited by a rangy 22-year-old graduate student and cartoonist named Gilbert Shelton. Shelton’s most important contribution to the magazine was the ground-breaking superhero parody Wonder Wart-Hog, which began that year and would soon gain fame and notoriety around the world. The strip’s vicious parodies and deconstructions of everything crew-cut America held to be right and true, along with its visceral, grungy and apparently careless art style, set the tone not only for the tiny Austin underground but for the wave of street hippy and even punk culture to come.
These people were the natural audience for the Waller Creek Boys, an anti-establishment, post- beatnik social circle that valued honesty and authenticity above all else, and were quick to ridicule anything that reeked of humbug, pretension or hypocrisy. They were angry about injustice, in love with art and music, and in unqualified revolt against the bland, status-seeking conformity they’d been all but smothered by all their lives. But although they had the attitude down, the Waller Creek Boys were nothing particularly special musically, as Powell would be the first to admit. All this would change however when they recruited a new singer; a first year UT student by the name of Janis Joplin.
As a big fan of both Bowie and Chris O’Leary, it was as hard to select an extract from Rebel Rebel as it is to choose a favourite Bowie song; each song is covered in a self-contained entry, and they’re all fascinating.
In the end I chose a series of 3 posts which make chronological/conceptual sense, and shed entertaining light on Bowie’s complicated relationship with late ‘60s hippy culture. Also contains The Prettiest Star, which is far from his best track but which, for sentimental reasons, remains one of my all-time favourites.
Rebel Rebel (Zer0, 2015) is out on March 27th, there’s a list of stockists here.
Recorded: (demo, “Lover to the Dawn,” unreleased) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road. Bowie: 12-string acoustic guitar, harmony vocal; Hutchinson: lead vocal, acoustic guitar; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal; Christmas: 12-string acoustic guitar; Wayne: lead guitar; Renwick: rhythm guitar; Wakeman: electric harpsichord; Lodge: bass; Cambridge: drums. Produced: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft.
First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.
“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.
Extract from Phil Knight’s brilliant new book, Strangled: Identity, Status, Structure and The Stranglers, out now, investigating “the greatest punk band”, their overlooked mysticism, and their erasure from punk’s history.
Picture for a moment a world in which the most significant practitioners of every particular musical style were written out of the history of that movement. For example, imagine The Beatles being excluded from the story of the Sixties beat boom; or Charlie Parker being mysteriously passed over in retrospectives of bebop; or King Tubby being omitted from narratives on the evolution of dub reggae. Such acts of neglect might seem unthinkable, and yet there is one genre whose self-appointed custodians do ensure the marginalisation of its greatest exponents, and that genre is punk.
For The Stranglers were the greatest punk band, not just in terms of commercial success, but also artistically. Though their peers often affected to shun them, it is remarkable how the group’s bass-heavy sound and gnostic, alienated worldview percolated throughout the genre, until, a couple of years after the initial punk explosion, almost every other band had come to sound like them. The Stranglers were the eye of the hurricane, the black hole at the centre of the punk universe, a present absence without whom much of the history of punk seems inexplicable, yet is chronicled anyway.
So just why are The Stranglers marginalised in this way? The usual reasons given are the band’s predilection for violence and misogyny, their hostile attitude to writers and journalists, their age and prior existence to punk’s Year Zero, and their disinterest in attaining success in the USA. There is truth in all of these assertions, yet they only go so far. Go beyond the sexism’n’violence that marks out their early reputation and one finds that The Stranglers’ music explores a multitude of often bizarre and seemingly unrelated subjects, such as UFOs, Japanese ritual suicide, the Cold War, European integration, genetic engineering, religion, conspiracy theories, the Vikings, the automisation of production, and the prophecies of Nostradamus. What immediately becomes clear is that The Stranglers are a very difficult band to write about because they are very difficult to understand.
Some of the subject matter and issues uncovered by this investigation may prove unpalatable to some readers, especially those of a rationalist bent and/or a high social status (the two are of course related), and this will give an early clue as to why so many of our cultural guardians would like to pretend that The Stranglers had never existed.
On June 2 1973, the crypto-zoologist Frederick “Ted” Holiday partook in a strange ritual on the waters of Loch Ness. Holiday had long been interested in the folklore surrounding the monster that was alleged to reside in the depths of the Loch, and which had been increasingly sighted by both locals and tourists in the recent decades. His initial theory was that this “monster”, far from being the reptilian creature of popular imagination, was an overgrown form of tullimonstrum gregarium, a species of prehis- toric slug, but he had, during the late 1960s, become increasingly perplexed by the animal’s apparent camera-shyness.
As outlined in books such as The Dragon And The Disc, he slowly became convinced that the Loch Ness Monster, along with other denizens of what he called “the phantom menagerie” such as the Yeti, the mystery big cats of the English home counties, and extra-terrestrials, were not real creatures, but what he “thoughtforms” – manifestations of the human collective unconscious that have a tendency to form when certain highly charged locations are visited by particularly sensitive individuals. Holiday, who claimed to have seen the monster on several occasions, regarded these manifestations as being irretrievably evil, the product of the more grotesque aspect of whatever unknown power organises the universe.
Holiday enlisted a Presbyterian priest by the name of Donald Omand to accompany him out onto the water to exorcise the loch. Although the exorcism passed off without apparent incident, within a few days Holiday and his accomplices were to encounter a bewildering array of bizarre phenomena, including mysterious flashing lights and sudden tornados that would shake the walls of their homes before abating in seconds. Holiday himself would come across one of the notorious “men in black” while attempting to investigate an alleged UFO landing site nearby. It was to be a fateful meeting – he would suffer a heart attack at exactly the same spot a year later.
Holiday was to die of a second heart attack in 1979, still firmly convinced that he had been the victim of the malign synchronicity of what he had termed, in his last book, The Goblin Universe. But what was the true nature of this strange, paranormal power that he thought he had identified? And who were going to be its next victims?
The events surrounding the recording of The Stranglers’ fifth album, the conceptual The Gospel According To The Men In Black form one of the most extraordinary sagas in the history of popular music, and yet it is one that is little-known and rarely examined. It is a story that involves paradox, paranoia and the paranormal, and how these combined to derail the career of a band who, at the time, were considered to have the potential to be the most successful of their era. It is also a story of addiction, imprisonment, chronic misfortune, bizarre coincidences, and death. In order to gain some semblance of understanding of what happened, we will need to travel along some of the most neglected byways of Western thought and meet the most grotesque character in global folklore – The Trickster. Our primary guide will be the American author and parapsychologist George Hansen, who has done much to highlight how this unsavoury character, long thought to have disappeared as a primitive superstition, still operates in the margins of modern consciousness.
The Trickster archetype, whose very milieu is the marginal, the liminal, the disordered and the taboo, reveals much about the nature of The Stranglers, and particularly their singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell. Unlike peers such as Paul Weller, Joe Strummer, John Lydon and Elvis Costello, Cornwell is something of a neglected figure nowadays, rarely spoken of in the same hagiographic terms. This is strange, as The Stranglers’ frontman was once considered one of the most dangerous individuals in popular culture, being the only notable member of the punk scene that the British authorities considered worthy of imprisoning.
A similar taboo seems to surround The Stranglers themselves, who have been assiduously written out of the history of the punk and new wave movements. Thick historical volumes of the era barely reference them, except in the most curtly dismissive way. In 2013, a four-hour BBC television documentary on British punk didn’t even once mention them by name. This extreme marginalisation is usually explained “rationally” by the band’s misogyny, violence, and tendency to make influential enemies, but, in an exhausted contemporary culture that compulsively seeks to reassess and rehabilitate even the most derided music of the past, it seems reasonable to suspect something deeper amiss.
Indeed, there is something unclean about The Stranglers. Even now, to think about them conjures a certain ominous dread. Whereas the Sex Pistols and The Clash can be assimilated into healthy retrospectives of British pop, in which punk represents a mere burst of cultural vibrancy, there is something about The Stranglers that leaves the guardians of British popular culture feeling queasy. This pervasive aura of dread offers a clue both as to why they are so difficult to assimilate into accepted cultural narratives, and why they themselves became lured by the destructive chimera of the UFO phenomenon.
This is an edited extract from the forthcoming F.M.R.L: Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains + Leftovers of Writing Sound, by Daniela Cascella (author of the blog/book En Abime) –
“Ephemeral. F.M.R.L. (frenzy-madness-reverie-love), a fame really, ever merrily, Effie marry Lee: there are words that are mirrors, optical lakes toward which hands stretch out in vain. Prophetic syllables.” – Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant (1926)
Dark, the Dim Hear
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 13 February 2014
Magic and trial by ordeal. A hand. Cast brass amulet, against the evil eye. From Naples.
The dim here always struck me. It’s dark, the dim hear as I tentatively tune in voices and whispers from the past. The dim light in the museum, the amulets against the evil eye, the empty drawers under the glass cabinets prompt me to linger in the voids and in the gaps, to imagine and recollect gestures and rituals around them: they set up a scenario and make me step into a past, in the Seventies in Southern Italy, when in dimness of memory I hear, out of the hazy layers of my recollections I hear a grainy persistent breath, a fatigued whistlebreath emitted not as a sign of life, but as the last aural sign of a life about to expire, it is my great-grandmother in her bed, not because she is ill but because she is very old, slow, at the border of life yet clings to life, poisonous and persistent like ivy my grandmother would say, lying, breathing in a dark grey room at the end of a long Sunday afternoon, when dusk comes in, in my recollections I hear the dim, recall a persistent broken sigh in the shape of a breath and then a stop, a convulsive breath and a stop, as if a rusty hook had caught that breath to prevent it from expiring, and she lies in a tall bed, maybe tall because I was little, although I later learned that beds at the time were in fact taller, I hear that convulsive breath as coming from an underworld of hidden whispering galleries, it is my great-grandmother’s but to my hearing it sounds as if it is the whole room breathing, and I’m left there, I can barely see her but I hear my larvae-great-grandmother disappear into her broken sigh, sighing herself into the room.
Other voices are plotting next door. For some days I have been weighed down with a persistent headache and sickness. They bring her a small bowl full of water and a bottle of olive oil. She pours some drops of olive oil in the water and begins to hum, hums, a circling incantatory spell begins to coil around my hearing, then out of the bundle of bed sheets a tiny hand appears, withered and wiry, shadowed by wrinkles and by time, as she repeats small circular motions on my forehead with the tip of her thumb mumbles mumbles, I’m unsure if she really means anything or if she is just repeating a gesture passed on to her, soiled and half-broken, across who knows how many genera- tions, I’m unsure whether to laugh at all this or be very serious and solemn, I am here little I listen but I don’t know what’s going on and maybe I’m not supposed to. Why is everyone suddenly so serious and solemn. Many years later I learned, in a car at night, speeding past the streetlamps at the edges of town where rubbish heaps, half-built tower blocks, concrete walls taken over by ivy and nettle bushes hide another past and another layer underground, past one of the few surviving mythraeums that nobody ever stops to visit, the light and speed and summer air taking my breath and absorbing me in that uneven mix of ritual and disillusion, of life expiring and ritual dying, of spells persisting yet changing, it all came back to me in a flash, ferocious like the heads of pigs hanging in the windows of a butcher shop to point at its deathly sales, a glimpse of something recalled in a splinter of a moment in transit, ferocious because it was her last spell before her death, later I learned I’d been subjected to a spell against the evil eye.
F.M.R.L is published by Zer0 in April 2015
Among other things, including presenting a radio show (The Mystery Lesson) Daniel Spicer will be doing a book on Turkish Psychedelia for Repeater. This is his review of the Ambient House: The Compilation by DFC. — P.J.
How often does a compilation album change your life? It happened to me very early one morning in 1990 when I was a first-year undergraduate living in halls of residence in Manchester. Towards the end of an LSD trip, just as dawn was beginning to grey the sky, an LP I’d never heard before ended up on my friend’s cheap plastic turntable, squatting like an oracle on the carpet of his tiny box-like room. It stayed there for the rest of the trip and, as we played it over and over, it completely and irrevocably rewired everything I thought I understood about the potential form and function of music.
The album was – and remains – an enigma to me: Ambient House, a 10-track collection, compiled and released by a benignly anonymous pan-European body calling itself Dance Floor Corporation. The sleeve notes, in a cheerfully translated English, promised “a revolutionary new form of dance music that mixes moody atmospheric sounds of new age and ambient music with pulsating house beats.” This wasn’t what I was used to at all. I was a white teenager from suburban South East England, brought up on rock and folk, with a nascent interest in jazz. To me, the recent explosion in dance music meant flimsy radio fodder like S-Express and Black Box. It was something you heard in shopping centres and fast food outlets. I’d never even for a moment considered that anything to do with house music might be worthy of attention. But here, as the sleeve notes proclaimed, were audio concoctions designed to live “in your hearts, not the charts.” In the hours that followed, those sounds beamed new information directly into my brain, like the revealing purple light of Philip K. Dick’s toothache delirium.
The KLF’s “Last Train To Trancentral” collages field recordings of rumbling freight trains, clanging bells and bleating sheep with soaring, sci-fi synths; The Orb’s “A Huge Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules The World From The Centre Of The Ultra-World” swirls together wafting choral vocals, ascending heavenly chords and an impossibly incongruous sample of Minnie Ripperton singing “Loving You”, all somehow oblivious of and unconnected to the tough electro rhythm shoving it on like an unstoppable, intergalactic engine. These two tracks have since become well-known examples of the genre but, to these ears at least, still sound fresh and otherworldly. If some of the other selections have aged less well they were, at the time, equally mysterious. “Transparenza” by Extreme builds a humid exoticism around a circular three-note keyboard riff and repeated samples of a droplet of moisture plopping into a pool and a single, sensuous human exhalation. Sueño Latino’s self-titled track samples Manuel Göttsching’s minimal electro-kosmische prototype, E2-E4, adding rainforest canopy chatter and Balearic piano, as though soundtracking a lost afternoon in some mythical jungle cocktail bar.
But it was the timeless perfection of “NYC Smile On Me” by Aqua Regia that took me furthest away from any psycho-cerebral situation I’d ever encountered before: an endlessly repeating orchestral sample of unfolding sun-burst joy, riding a gentle acid thump and the quintessential, toe-curling 303 wibble. A female voice, squirming in distraught ecstasy, exclaims “Oh, God, please, oh God, I can’t stand it, 24 hours a day.” It felt like a slice of eternity, something that had been happening forever, something that was always happening, never-ending in some untroubled plane of existence, to which we were simply allowed access for a few minutes at a time by dropping the needle on the record. As the dawn strained through a milky, overcast sky back in 1990, my friends and I narrowed the album down to this one track, constantly repeated as we clung on to an inexorably evaporating high. Even now, almost a quarter of a century later, it still sounds like boundless optimism.
For me, this album did something that all great compilations should do: it provided a glimpse of a whole new world of sound and adventure, an alternate reality that was already there, fully-formed, ready to be passionately embraced, given over to, completely immersed in. I’m talking specifically about a special moment in the early 1990s when the counterculture seemed to be experiencing a surge of bright, fresh, optimistic momentum; when the present seemed about to collide with a glorious, inevitable utopian future of designer drugs, smart drinks, cybernetics, neuromancy and virtual reality. It’s absolutely right that the gatefold cover of Ambient House is bursting with lurid Madelbrot Set fractals. Scientific hedonism was going to blow our minds and there was nothing we could do to stop it. For me, this music was the sound of that future beginning to happen, of the great transformation made manifest, right there in that small room in Manchester. It encouraged me, invited me, compelled me to throw myself with utter conviction into the swiftly coalescing vectors of UK rave culture. I didn’t waste any time.