Excellent and important piece by Adam Harper at the Fader putting some of the most exciting artists currently making music into political context:
It’s no wonder that African and Afrodiasporic artists are choosing to disseminate music in solidarity. In many cases, this creative decision is a strategy for dealing with the alienation that is so often a part of Afrodiasporic experience. As the London-based writer Kodwo Eshun puts it in his 2003 essay Further Considerations on Afrofuturism: “the condition of alienation, understood in its most general sense, is a psychosocial inevitability that all Afrodiasporic art uses to its own advantage by creating contexts that encourage a process of disalienation.” And yet in the continuing environment of white supremacy, this creativity is routinely either erased, appropriated, or confined to narrow and fetishized aesthetic areas. The music in this article—which is all linked by the multifarious connective tissues of underground culture (labels, releases, mixes, remixes, songs etc)—is not necessarily of the same belief or aesthetic, but can all be seen as resisting the supremacist paradigm in its many different ways and contexts. Often, it can be seen as exploring the way in which race intersects with gender, sexuality and/or queerness too.
This is an edited extract from JD Taylor‘s forthcoming book, Island Story: Journeying Through Unfamiliar Britain
By the local estate parade, where I’d been warned of ‘dodgy people’ who might despoil a traveller of their possessions, Gary’s out with his young son. ‘Yer fucken mad, you are’, he says, laughing at my alibi for asking. He flicks his head up proudly. ‘It’s marvellous. Some bits are good round ere, some bits are bad, like everywhere’. His mum and sister live round the corner. It’s a community, he presses. Like Jan, surrounded by her sisters in the nearby streets, in spite of Middlesbrough’s decline it’s still kept together families and communities, and this is what people love about it, something impossible in most growing English towns.
But how does one live? Within the 19th century, Middlesbrough exploded from a dozy hamlet to an ‘infant Hercules’ town of a hundred thousand, producing ships, metals and chemicals. Its Teesside docks and port were live-wired into global trade. But all this was another history lesson, and the last of those industries, ICI’s chemical works at Wilton and Billingham, had been wiped out in the 90s, with a rump of smaller firms operating in its place. Middlesbrough’s population has been plummeting, but there was no serious discussion about a responsible shrinking or ungrowing. Instead there were more retail parks, malls and call-centres promised, and receding memories of a future that had failed to arrive.
The sentiment wasn’t merely melancholic. Riding through Billingham among its belching chimneys and swerving juggernauts, air funked with astringent fumes, the Brunner Mond chemical-works later taken over by ICI had inspired Aldous Huxley to imagine his Brave New World. Likewise, the neon-lit towers and flares I’d passed last night at Wilton had inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Both dystopic visions of the future, tagged to the Tees. A ‘space age coated in pigeon shit’ is how Owen Hatherley describes its town centre today, a 60s New Town built by ICI, now marked by its dereliction, a description given with a hint of deserving affection.
Bewley and Seaton Carew follow, disorientatingly bland suburbs, all cul-de-sacs, palisade gates and paved driveways, Sky dishes and CCTV pointed out to the world. Places one could fake one’s death and live untroubled in… as John Darwin almost proved. This was the future that had taken its place, one which, despite its ugliness, had succeeded in offering what more people wanted most, instead of needed. I press on into Hartlepool. Beside the deserted marina and ‘historic quay’, site of ye goodly ol’ HMS Trincomalee, is a binge of retail parks, fast-food drive-thrus, bingo halls and budget hotel chains. The effect is truly bizarre, compounded by its New York-style yellow taxis and the sheer emptiness of the place, as if a millenarian religious cult had massed in the town, built these totems and trophies to the consumer gods, then quietly disbanded after the Credit Crunch apocalypse failed to arrive.
An older couple drift by in the distance. Yvonne and Eddie struggle to explain the town’s present condition. A massive steelworks and harbour have closed, leaving behind a ‘lot of poor’ and unemployment. The retail-glut reflected the magical thinking of the Blair era, that wealth could be simply be magicked into creation, ex nihilo, just as if one could ‘create’ energy into being, rather than harness or redistribute it from elsewhere. One needed credit for these places, now that the jobs were gone, but even that was harder to come by. Eddie points to the empty but modern-looking marina opposite, now owned by the council. There are no plans to use it. ‘I’d turn it into a big sports centre, with football, tennis, badminton’. ‘Kids today sit at home in their rooms on the computer’, Yvonne adds, describing their grandchildren. ‘It’s just the age’.
County Durham. The relatively flat scene is akin to the Cleveland towns, gelded by the closure of the mines. The takeaway and off-licence constitute communal life. After Blackhall, I pull over in Horden for clues. A woman old enough to have been a miner’s wife during the Strike struggles to articulate its story. ‘They’re all gone, shut in 85’. What happened to the people here? She shrugs. ‘Nothing’. Another man of similar age repeats the same. ‘They went out six miles to sea. They reckoned it cost too much money’. He hurries off.
At (another) Easington, the village’s school and council offices are boarded up, their windows smashed through. The pubs are closed, even the neat red-brick miners’ terraces barricaded in places. One might expect this in Detroit or Chernobyl, but on our doorstep? The damage done is plain to see. An old boy pushes a broken lawn-mower down a back-terrace, and we chat. When Thatcher died, he recalls, people came from miles around to party. Some hadn’t returned for at least a decade. When the collieries closed, some miners were sent on computer courses, for certificates ‘not worth’t paper printed on’.
The terrain begins to steepen, then at Sherburn it collapses down again. Durham appears almost from nowhere, secluded from sight in a deep valley. The town is remarkably affluent in contrast to its neighbours, populated by aspirational student bars and luxury homeware shops, its cobbled lanes threading over a gushing river and up a hillock towards its vast, austerely-adorned Norman cathedral and castle. Young Americans babble loudly, and someone busks with a violin.
I pedal on to Langley Moor, an ex-mining village on its outskirts. Clarissa, a friend of my partner’s, lives out here. As we drink beer and wine in her back garden, surrounded by light industrial warehouses and a sports centre, she reflects.
‘There used to be a slag heap there, a colliery down there, even a little railway bringing the coal’. The pits and two-up two-down terraces have almost all been pulled down and eradicated, unlike Easington. ‘I do think it is as bad now as the 80s’ she adds. I wonder how, still struggling to mentally connect up these scenes, past and present. ‘Lots of unemployment’, her late-teen daughter says, her and her mate joining us. Lads join the army. The suicide rate is particularly high.
Perhaps it’s in the collapsing infrastructure, the true, hidden extent of poverty and unemployment. But as they talk, this sense of 80s-scale defeat is in something else. It’s at the level of desire and feeling. Since York, the towns have all been deserted. There are no pricks to kick against, just the stony silence and shame that comes with robbing Peter to pay Paul, of heavy drinking and anti-depressants to salve the pain. The local miners’ gala is now a formalised piss-up, as sheer hedonism blunts the boredom with special occasions for off-the-leash Saturnalia. We hear the radio news from the other room, distant headlines of London and a political elite rattling on about economic growth and employment, but it made no sense out here.[…]
I’d been told that Ashington had been the biggest pit village in the world, a century ago, employing ten thousand miners in five collieries. Then Thatcher waged war on the organised miners, and the productive mines were closed. The town’s other product, aluminium, had also recently ceased, leaving Ashington cut adrift. A young man’s tip in a newsagent directs me to the Woodhorn Colliery, the last of the mines still standing, open as a museum to this lost way of life.
‘Close the door on past dreariness’. ‘The will to work is the way to prosperity’. ‘Nationalisation 1947. The New Era: Welfare Education Mechanisation’. Queen blue and claret banners hang inside, produced by local branches of the NUM, like Ellington, Seghill and Sleekburn A, all nearby. They are defined by their headline fonts, their sentimental and often heraldry-like use of borders and scrolls, and their emotive depictions of grey and miserable slum terraces, like those of Middlesbrough and Gateshead, a past they wished to put behind.
Their progressive, mechanised future is that which failed to arrive, but there is a specifically working class English modernism to these banners which I hadn’t anticipated. Rather than seeking to defend an unproductive and dangerous form of work, they sought to improve it. The banners were produced in the late 40s, at a time when much still felt possible. Rather than appearing as things back in time, they seem like the artefacts of ghosts of the future. What would demands for welfare, mechanisation, education or nationalisation look like today?
The scenes of the ‘Pitmen Painters’ collected here present a way of life gone, perhaps mercifully too. There are blinkered pit ponies, wandering underground; a Friday fish supper; a Labour man addressing a packed-out pub of menfolk; a woman alone, the drudgery of domestic work before the era of cheap appliances; the death of a wife by tuberculosis. One image captures in cartoon-format the life of a 14 year old miner, who wakes up at two each morning to put in a long shift on an unproductive seam, often where new miners would start until an older relative could negotiate something better. Returning home, he’s too tired to bathe, eat, or see his friends. He falls asleep as soon as he gets in, only to be woken by his mam to go back to the pit. ‘Slept it through’ is the title.
But the paintings are intriguing also in how they were produced. The group began meeting through a branch of the WEA in 1927 in an old hut, and by 1934 they worked with Robert Lyon to develop their paintings, which were then exhibited to the world. Harry Wilson was one miner involved. ‘Here I found an outlet for other things than earning my living’, he said. ‘There is a feeling of being my own boss for a change and with it comes a sense of freedom’.
Their hut was pulled down in 1983, and the last mine in the area shut in 2005, Howard tells me, one of the museum’s volunteers, as I quiz him on the legacy beyond the exhibits. ‘Coal not dole’, the striking miners demanded. Today even the latter’s hard to come by. Paul had spoken of the local foodbanks struggling to meet demand, as numbers of people too poor to even eat were soaring, victims of four-to-thirteen week benefit sanctions, some caused by DWP cruelty, others mere incompetence. That basic right to freedom, to live and to live well, are not expensive or unrealistic demands. Far more is spent on housing benefit to private landlords than on building new social housing; far more is lost in loose tax regulations and tax-breaks for the rich over benefit fraud.
People in London or the South might think that I’m being too negative, ‘playing politics’ over the veracity of the narrative. Come up to Easington and Ashington, if you dare, and spend some time here, seeing, listening, talking with locals. Take a look at just how needlessly ravaged these places are, and think about the past and present political events that are causing this. Consider whether it is morally right that a person should freeze or go without food, or be punished for the crime of being poor and having a spare bedroom, or that they should be coerced into working without a wage, in a country presently the fifth richest in the world. If that is fine with you, continue voting Conservative. You may wish to close the book here.
For those of you who feel, like me, wearied and stunned by it all, then a position of sceptical impartiality or knowing inaction’s no good either, for these things will continue, whether we choose to look elsewhere or not. Trading our grumbles won’t interrupt the processes that protect bankers and billionaires whilst consigning the vast majority of young and old to insecure, low-paid and drudgerous jobs. ‘Close the door on past dreariness’ said the Ellington miners back in 1950. What does a brighter future look like, and how will it work for us all?
Blair and company argue that the Tories crave a Corbyn win, but the trap has been set a move beyond that: Cameron and Osborne can rest confident that the terror of electoral wipe-out will have a neo-Blairite Labour party galloping towards their position anyway. Always fighting the last war, and on a badly-chosen battlefield. The Labour mainstream cannot adapt to new parameters, cannot think except in the abjection of the spectre of a hard left, even as they appoint themselves the true custodians of the world-to-come.
Having failed to stand up to claims that over-spending caused the financial crisis (it was the allocation decisions of deregulated market actors, since you ask), and having joined in the anti-immigration mood with some vigour (if also with occasional cognitive dissonance), the party is hardly placed to offer a local vision of political renewal, still less muster anything like internationalism or a novel settlement for the great questions of the age (stagnant economies, spreading inequalities, humanitarian crisis within and at the gates of Fortress Europe, a foreign policy that does not undermine itself even in the narrow range of national interest, a trajectory for expanded human freedom and comfort). They have only platitudes, and this explains in part the bile of the anti-Corbyn moment. Utterly unable to engage on the merits, theirs is also a retreat to a ‘comfort zone’, one of personality-engineering and fickle non-policies, desperate to catch the eye of the floating voter who hates them for their indecision and rightly perceives the abyss of their purpose.
As Paul Mason argued the morning after the election, this emptiness is the result of some longer-term trends:
[Labour] in its current form it has almost no ideological base, or coherence. Miliband’s innner team had almost no outriders in the press, no co-thinkers in academia; they had support among artists and film directors, but always half-hearted. Blairism, of course, has massive support among the now wrinkled and pensioned ex-ministers and former giants of 1990s journalism, but that’s not much use… It has failed to account for its defeat in 2010, failed to recognise the deep sources of its failure in Scotland, and failed to produce any kind of intellectual diversity and resilience from which answers might arise.
The failure goes on, and is only compounded by the shrill denunciations, as if Corbyn’s suggestion of opposing tax cuts for the rich in a time of austerity was the common sense definition of “hard left”. This is how the Overton Window works. To have Labour advisors ripping into mild social democracy as if it was the establishment of a command economy is to shrink the possibilities across the entire political spectrum. This is not reorientation to “the centre”. Nor is it moving past left and right. It is establishing the axioms of the right as the very horizon of politics, and then calling it objective reality. We live in a society in which something like re-nationalisation of the railways is a hugely popular policy, even (by a slimmer margin) amongst Conservative voters, and in which no one is able to seriously propose it. Mary Creagh thinks this is a sign of good sense (re-nationalisation apparently unworkable, a stone age notion). But – and here we must concede something to the ‘Mont Pelerin of the Left’ crowd – you have to contest political reality in order to create it. Arguments, organisation, persuasion. Not submission and mimicry (at least not at the scale of the Blairite panic). Or else they win even when you win.
Anti-Corbynites will at this stage justly complain that all of the above misses the central, inescapable, terrifying point: a party leader must be able to win nationwide parliamentary elections, and winning is predicated on capturing new voters, who will mostly be swing electors of no particular ideology and not some shy gaggle of hardcore Bennites in hiding since 1997. And it is winning that requires a range of skills in coalition-building, in political manoeuvrability, and in crafting a narrative which is both suitably empty (so that all positions can be contained within it) and robust (so that there is a narrative identity to hawk). Principles, a strong voting record, repeatedly being proven right in the face of prevailing credulity, loyalty to the historic role of the party, a refreshing honesty, basic decency in talking about opponents…all of that is secondary, or worse. Denying the need for these competencies is thus an infantile leftism, a retreat, a fantasy, a comfort-eating binge (as if there was anything comfortable about being set upon so within Labour’s putative broad church).
Although it can obviously not say so explicitly, such advice counsels that the electorate are idiots, and should be treated as such. Grow up, and realise that this is a game of manipulation in the pursuit of power, not open debate in the service of public good. In the intricacies of political advertising, vapid talk is a feature, not a bug, and yes, it too reflects the alliances made with interest groups in the market and the media. For now, there can only be charisma-void candidates, who can at least be relied on not to actively repulse in the marginals. What else did you expect? As so many have noted for so long, the consequence is an endless dilution of ideas (of what might once have been haughtily thought of as political theory) in which power is its own reward, and a light balm the best the body politic might hope for even in the event of a grand Labour victory. This is, you will notice, the opposite of how the Tories have carried on. They use their position to remould the state, and in ways that are pretty obviously “right wing”. It is hard to imagine that anyone but Corbyn has the political courage to do the same for the left, but then they are not expected to, and no positive case exists to be put for them (apart from that Burnham believes in the NHS, which is, I guess, some kind of comfort). What, say, is the identifiable meaning of Yvette Cooper?
This is an extract from a longer piece, originally posted on the excellent blog, The Disorder of Things – read the full post here.
Jeremy Corbyn has today taken the lead in the Labour leadership race – something that seemed unlikely even a few weeks ago. Whatever your views on Labour (even amongst the Repeater team, they are conflicted), it’s great to see an overtly radical candidate doing so well. Whatever the outcome, his candidacy seems to be pushing Labour and political discourse to the left, which can only be a good thing.
Here’s some words from writer and musician Bob Stanley on why he’s supporting Corbyn:
I’ve been thinking about the Labour leadership campaign, and in turn the future of the Labour Party, and so the future of the country. I’ve always liked Jeremy Corbyn. When I heard that he was standing I was relieved that somebody at least to the left of Tony Blair would contest the leadership.
Then yesterday I heard Harriet Harman say that she’s supporting the Tory budget, offering no opposition to policies that hit the poorest, punishing any family with more than two children. What the hell does she think the Labour Party is there for? It’s embarrassing and depressing.
I don’t believe that Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall or Andy Burnham will provide any stronger opposition than she has – which means going along with Tory policies because they’re scared not to, pandering to the electorate’s worst instincts, kicking anyone who’s on a lower rung.
…Jeremy’s campaign has the most momentum. This doesn’t surprise me because Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist! He knows what the Labour Party should be about. Yesterday, reacting to Harriet Harman’s interview, he said “I am not willing to vote for policies that will push more children into poverty. Families are suffering enough… we shouldn’t play the government’s political games with the welfare if children are at stake.”
I don’t think people realise how easy it is to vote for Jeremy. All the campaign are asking people to do is send a text; it’ll only cost £3 to have a proper say on the future of British politics.The cut-off date for registering is August 12th, so there’s a whole month to raise Jeremy’s profile and show the Labour Party which direction we want them to move in.
Bob Stanley is a member of St Etienne and author of Yeah Yeah Yeah: The History of Modern Pop (Faber, 2013).
In the May 7th issue of the LRB, Dawn Foster demolished the arguments in favour of free schools. In particular, she highlighted how huge amounts of public money has, in some cases, been spent setting up free schools in areas where there is no lack of school places:
“There is no requirement that free school founders have experience of running a school, and no assessment is made as to whether the prospective founders will be able to meet the legally required standards of school governance.
In effect, this means that any group of parents who believe there is a need for a new school can club together and apply to set it up. Successful applicants have argued that there is a local need for Steiner schools, German schools, and schools that follow Montessori or Maharishi principles. An application to set up a Scientology school was unsuccessful. The ‘need’ for a new school isn’t necessarily based on an assessment of the number of school places available in a given area, but on parental choice and a clamouring for individualism in state-funded education. Petitions often suffice. One academy chain putting forward an application to start a free school in Doncaster offered potential pupils £500 to sign up: other free schools have offered iPads and bicycles…
…In a report from May 2014, the Public Accounts Committee noted that £1.1 billion had been spent on free schools up to March 2014, of which £700 million was for land and buildings; £241 million had been spent in areas with no shortage of school places. While 87 per cent of primary places created were in places of need, only 19 per cent of secondary places were…
…As with the NHS, the slow creep of privatisation in education happens below the surface. ‘There is this group of people,’ Millar explains, ‘who think England will get for-profit schools, and they want to be there at the beginning of it, because it’s a lucrative business once you get chains of schools.’…
…When Ofsted finds that a local authority school is failing, the school is taken over by an academy chain. When a converted academy is found to be failing, it doesn’t return to local authority status: it is handed on to a different academy chain. It’s a one-way street: theoretically, if standards slip, every school in the country could become an academy.”
Unsurprisingly, free schools’ most high-profile advocate, Toby Young wasn’t a fan of the piece. In a letter to the LRB he took issue with with Foster’s interpretation of the statistics, making claims that were immediately demolished in letters from Michael Rosen, Melissa Benn & Janet Downs that are worth reading in full. He then went on to imply that, anyway, all this thoroughly researched analysis is irrelevant, because he knows Michael Gove and Andrew Adonis personally, and they’re decent chaps who with the best intentions. Thanks for clearing that up Toby.
“…More misleading than simply neglecting these subtleties was the overall thrust of the articles, which is that the reforms initiated by Michael Gove (and to a lesser extent Andrew Adonis) were masterminded by evil capitalists, intent on squeezing the last drop of profit out of state-funded education. That simply isn’t true. Having spoken at length to Andrew Adonis, and knowing Michael as I do, I can say with complete confidence that their sole motive was to improve England’s public education system – in particular, to improve outcomes for the least well-off, who fared very badly under the pre-2010 state-run Shangri-la favoured by both authors. For Andrew and Michael, education reform is and always has been a moral crusade, not an attempt to hand control of England’s public education system to billionaire robber barons.
West London Free School Academy Trust
Dawn Foster replied, explaining how Young had misrepresented her argument, before delivering a final blow:
“It’s hardly surprising, given his investment in the cause, that Toby Young ignores the main points in responding to my piece, and cherry-picks the data. As I wrote, only 19 per cent of secondary free schools are opened in areas with a shortage of places: a colossal waste of funds that justifiably drew the attention of the Public Accounts Committee. When free schools do open in deprived areas, the students they enrol are not the poorest; one of the problems people have with free schools is that they make it possible for sharp-elbowed parents to separate their children from the children of their more deprived neighbours. Of the first wave of 24 free schools, all but two have free school meals rates below the local average. An Institute of Education report on free schools in 2014 showed that 13.5 per cent of pupils attending primary free schools were eligible for free meals when the local average was 18.3 per cent; for secondary free schools, the corresponding figures were 17.5 per cent and 22.1 per cent. Creaming off the children of more affluent parents constitutes social segregation; so too does the existence of religious free schools.
Young seems to think he is held in high regard by free school advocates. When I mentioned his name in the course of interviewing a former Department for Education employee for the piece, my interviewee headbutted the restaurant table in exasperation. I have found the sentiment, if not the gesture, to be common among his ideological comrades.”
Dawn Foster is a writer and journalist. Her first book, Lean Out, a critique of corporate feminism, will be one of Repeater’s launch titles in early 2016.
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.
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.
So, the election results are in and it’s 1992 but with “Ed Sheeran and Rudimental rather than Rufige Kru”. Depressing? Yup. But where do we go now? Below is an extract from kpunk’s most recent post, outlining some potential strategies we can adopt in the face of the election results. Read the whole post here. – TS
I present below a number of strategies, practices and orientations, starting from the most immediate (something groups can do right now) and moving towards the more remotes. The list is of course not exhaustive; and I can’t claim credit for coming up with any of the strategies myself. The point is to share them, add to them, elaborate them.
The chief obstruction to all of these steps is what, in a trenchant and clear-eyed analysis, Ewa Jasiewicz calls “time poverty”:
Our time is under attack. Work will be intensified, worse paid, and more casualised – if we don’t have it, we’ll be working to have it; mandatory and supervised job searches and workfare will see people forced to spend their time locked into coerced, computerised distraction. A real, diverse, working class self-representative movement needs to include people facing and living these experiences, but how will that happen when we’re too tied up working?
Access to time and our own labour is key and will determine participation and the ability to organise. If we can’t have our own time to organise, we can’t organise, we can’t meet each other, we cannot find each other. Work and the benefits regime – which is work under different conditions and profit margins – are key sites of struggle. Solidarity will need to step up if we are to win workplace disputes and strikes, refusals of workfare and support for people getting sanctioned, so that people have more control over their time and labour.
All our commons are under attack. The condition of time poverty and its roots – intensification of labour, welfare repression, criminalisation and incarceration – have to be recognised as major obstacles to movement, diversity and power. These obstacles need to be tackled if we want to overcome the ideology of wage labour as a determinant of human value on a popular level.
The problem is that, in order to struggle against time poverty, the main resource we require is time – a nasty vicious circle that capital, with its malevolent genius, now has … This problem is absolutely immanent – writing this and the other posts I have completed this week has meant that I have fallen enormously behind on my work, which is storing up stress for the next week or so.
The first thing we must do in response to all this is to put into practice what I outlined above: try not to blame ourselves. #it’snotyourfault We must try to do everything we can to politicise time poverty rather than accept blame as individuals for failing to complete our work on time. The reason we feel overwhelmed is that we are overwhelmed – it isn’t an individual failing of ours; it isn’t because we haven’t “managed our time” properly. However, we can use the scarce resources we already have more effectively if we work together to codify practices of collective re-habituation (setting new rules for our engagement with social media and capitalist cyberspace in general for example).
Any way, here goes:
1. Talk to fellow workers about how we feel This will re-introduce care and affection into spaces where we are supposed to be competitive and isolated. It will also start to break down the difference between (paid) work and social reproduction on which capitalism depends.
2. Talk to opponents Most people who vote Tory and UKIP are not monsters, much as we might like to think they are. It’s important that we understand why they voted as they did. Also, they may not have been exposed to an alternative view. Remember that people are more likely to be persuaded if defensive character armour is not triggered.
3. Create knowledge exchange labs This follows from what I argued a few days ago. Lack of knowledge about economics seems to me an especially pressing problem to address, but we could also do with more of us knowing about law, I suspect.
4. Create social spaces Create times and spaces specifically dedicated to attending to one another: not (yet more) conferences, but sessions where people can share their feelings and ideas. I would suggest restricting use of handhelds in these spaces: not everything has to be live tweeted or archived! Those with access to educational or art spaces could open these up for this purpose.
5. Use social media pro-actively, not reactively Use social media to publicise, to spread memes, and to constitute a counter-media. Social media can provide emotional support during miserable events like Thursday. But we should try to use social media as resource rather than living inside it at all times. Facebook can be useful for discussions and trying out new ideas, but attempting to debate on Twitter is absurd and makes us feel more stressed. (He says, thinking of the time when, sitting on a National Express coach, perched over his handheld, he tried to intervene in an intricate discussion about Spinoza’s philosophy – all conducted in 140 characters.)
6. Generate new figures of loathing in our propaganda Again, this follows up from what I argued in the Communist Realism post. Capitalist realism was established by constituting the figure of the lazy, feckless scrounger as a populist scapegoat. We must float a new figure of the parasite: landlords milking the state through housing benefit, “entrepreneurs” exploring cheap labour, etc.
7. Engage in forms of activism aimed at logistical disruption Capital has to be seriously inconvenienced and to fear before it yields any territory or resources. It can just wait out most protests,but it will take notice when its logistical operations are threatened. We must be prepared for them cutting up very rough once we start doing this – using anti-terrorist legislation to justify practically any form of repression. They won’t play fair, but it’s not a game of cricket – they know it’s class war, and we should never forget it either.
8. Develop Hub struggles Some struggles will be more strategically and symbolically significant than others – for instance, the Miners’ Strike was a hub struggle for capitalist realism. We might not be able to identify in advance what these struggles are, but we must be ready to swarm in and intensify them when they do occur.
Summer is coming
The Lannisters won on Thursday, but their gold has already run out, and summer is coming. What we saw in the debates dominated by Nicola Sturgeon was not a mirage – it is a rising tide, an international movement, a movement of history, which has not yet reached an England sandbagged in misery and mediocrity. Comrades, I hope (ha!) for the sake of your mental health and your blood pressures that you didn’t see the right wing tabloids over the weekend (tw for class hatred): middle England crowing over its “humiliation” of “Red” Ed. Well if they think Ed was Red, wait until they see the coming Red Swarm. Outer England has been sedated, but it is waking from its long slumber, carrying new weapons ….
Flatford on Wednesday morning
Also, a request to anyone with Labour connections…
Can anyone who has any influence in the Labour Party please ensure that as many people as possible read the pamphlet Jeremy Gilbert and I wrote last year? It was specifically designed to counter the Blairite monopolisation of the rhetoric of modernisation, so it has many arguments that can be weaponised in the current struggle to stop Blairism coming back from the dead.
Mark Fisher blogs as/at kpunk. He is the author of Capitalist Realism & Ghosts of My Life (both Zer0). His next book will be published by Repeater.
A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
This was the front page of the Guardian on the day my son was born nearly five years ago. That year, my wife and I earned fifteen thousand pounds between us. I was working as an hourly paid lecturer in adult education and in a university, as well as doing some freelance writing and copy-editing. We were able to survive without living in penury because of the three hundred pounds a month in tax credits we received.
This was the way Brownism and Blairism worked: allowing low wages and precarity to proliferate with one hand, mitigating their effects with benefits on the other. By then, like most of the population, I loathed New Labour. Labour had become so capitalist realist that surely it couldn’t be much worse if the Tories got in? I shared the widespread view that elections don’t change much: all that’s on offer are minimally different versions of the same thing (neoliberalism).
It soon became very clear that this was not the case. Cameron and Osborne unleashed Capitalist Realism 2.0, the most audacious confidence trick in recent political history: make the poor and vulnerable pay for the bank crisis. Use the crisis as a pretext to destroy even more of the welfare state. Sigh their fake sighs, and tell us what “difficult choices” they had to make …
Today, if my wife and I earned what we did in 2010, we would receive only 50 pounds in tax credits a month.
Of course, for me, working like this was something of a bohemian lifestyle choice. If I’d wanted to, I could probably have got better paid work – after all, only a fool would expect to enjoy working for a living. But what of all those stuck in low paid precarious work forever? The disabled? The long-term sick and the chronically mentally ill, forced back to work?
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
I wasn’t very interested in this election a few weeks ago. To be honest, even though I had been commissioned to write a piece about the TV coverage of the election, I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to watch the first debate (I’ll watch it later) until Laura Oldfield Ford, excited by Niciola Sturgeon’s performance, texted me and asked what I thought. I switched on ITV+1, and the process of re-awakening that has occurred in the last few weeks began.
For reasons I will explore more fully in subsequent posts, I have spent the last year in a state of de-activation. I was thrown back into the privatised connectivity of the OedIpod, with its constant stream of low-level anxiety and compulsive micro-enjoyments. I couldn’t write, except in a mechanical way; what I produced seemed stillborn, stilted. My main mood altering drug of choice, music, didn’t work. I binged on box sets. I enjoyed time with my wife and son, but there was a fugitive quality to this enjoyment: my fingers always itched to reach for my smartphone. There was always something I should already have done that I hadn’t – the urgencies piling up, like a flashing red light constantly blinking in my peripheral vision, never letting me settle. Most of these urgencies were small things, they didn’t matter too much, but perhaps there would be some long-forgotten urgency was going to calamitously re-emerge, too late for me to do anything about it? I’ll just check …
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
The coldly terrifying thing about this state of dejection was that it was not a completely paralysing depression – more a kind of exhausting drudgery. It felt liveable; indeed, it felt like I could – perhaps would – live the rest of my life in it. Perhaps I have expected too much from life. Now I would have to adjust to misery, like everyone else does. Others were much, much worse off than me. It wasn’t like I was to chip ice off the windscreen in the morning. I had been precarious for years – now I was in well-paid secure employment. Why couldn’t I just be happy? OK, so I had to do marketing promotions, complete ‘quality’ paperwork, amend module proposal forms six times – but it was hardly coal mining, was it?
You see, you see:
I had become once again the compliant subject of capitalist realism.
“…isolated, cut off, surrounded by hostile space, you are suddenly without connections, without stability, with nothing to hold you upright or in place; a dizzying, sickening unreality takes possession of you; you are threatened by a complete loss of identity, a sense of utter fraudulence; you have no right to be here, now, inhabiting this body, dressed in this way; you are a nothing, and ‘nothing’ is quite literally what you feel you are about to become.”
Engines of dejection
Bifo is right. It wants us to be dejected: not so catatonically depressed that we can’t work, but not so confident and secure that we will refuse to do bullshit jobs. (What is this it that wants us to miserable? Why, the real management of the Overlook Hotel of course. Our misery is like nectar to it …) Capital needs people desperate, scrambling on the edge (watch Tory MPs laugh at starving families!), it needs people scrimping and saving and crossing off lists, it needs people to be grateful for any work, no matter how poorly paid, no matter how insecure, struggle after struggle, year after year …
In the last five years, after the initial euphoria of dissent in 2010 and 2011, an acrid fog of despair has slowly but ineluctably sunk over what Cameron, chillingly, calls “our country” …. choking the social energy out of institutions (no time to talk, sorry!) … reducing workers to automata issuing commands to one another … diminishing, at every level, our capacity to care …. no time, no time …. no money … don’t know, I’ve got to go mate …. looking over our shoulders, fearing the worst …. maybe it will be me next … better stay in line … accept the extra workload, I’m afraid that’s how things are now …
Pain now, more pain later ….
Misery is over (if we want it)
The last week or so, I have, each day, played with my son for a few hours, been out on long walks, enjoying extended time with my wife, and managed to write thousands of words. Why can’t life always be like this? Why indeed? It’s only been possible because I have decided to suspend all my bureaucratic obligations until after the election. (Back to “proper” work tomorrow: so expect another post in a year or so.) I have managed to do this, not by some heroic act of magical voluntarist will, but because of a lift in mood that is not just personal. Scotland, Syriza, Podemos … it’s taken a long while for the significance of these developments to filter through to me … but talking to comrades … attending, as a so far inactive member, to what Plan C are up to …. feeling the electricity that Russell Brand has generated …. All of this has gradually returned to consciousness during this election campaign. I don’t think I’m the only one. But have we awoken too late to stop the Tories? Has their smog of dejection de-activated enough people – people who were hardly likely to have been reactivated by Labour’s campaign?
The two most obvious parallels for this election would seem to be 1974 – a weak Labour government, propped up by smaller parties, or, ominously,1992, with Labour crushingly defeated by John Major’s Tories after they were expected to win. Shaun Lawson makes a strong and convincing case for why today might turn out to be a re-run of 1992. Much of this is to do with the unreliability of polls. Because of the so-called “shy Tory” phenomenon – voters not admitting to pollsters that they would vote Conservative – the polls were spectacularly wrong in 1992. Major didn’t only win, the Tories ended up with the largest amount of votes ever cast for a political party in Britain. Lawson argues that, despite polling being adjusted to factor in the shy Tory effect, current polling may still be inaccurate (because, for instance, it tends to be internet-based, which biases things towards a younger demographic).
I’m not sure how convinced I am by the parallels with 92, however, for two reasons.
1. Hyperstitional effects. As Baudrillard argued, we can’t treat opinion polls as neutral positivist descriptions since they might well affect the very thing they are claiming to predict. It seems likely that this might have happened in ’92.
The atmosphere leading up to the 92 election was very different to that preceding the current contest. There was the disastrous Sheffield Rally. Kinnock’s triumphalist shout of “We’re alright!”, still excruciatingly embarrassing to remember nearly twenty five years on, not only destroyed the “statesmanlike persona” he had confected, it gave the impression of a manic and jubilatory over-confidence. The premature celebration came off as unseemly, desperate – as if Kinnock himself, never mind the electorate, couldn’t quite believe that he would be Prime Minister. It also gave Murdoch’s press something to really stoke the fears of reluctant Tories with, especially when the polls were suggesting that Labour would win: look, they think they’ve won! If you’re thinking of staying at home, don’t – every vote is needed!
It isn’t really like that this time. Polls are predicting a hung parliament, not a Labour victory – there isn’t the same resource of fear to feed off. Victory for Labour is uncertain, not an imminent possibility that needs to be desperately averted. Furthermore, while the Tories have certainly tried to scaremonger, a Labour government now is not the terrifying prospect that it could be made to seem in 92. After Blairism, Labour is no longer the Other to neoliberal commonsense that it could be presented as then.
As I said in the last post, Miliband has kept his campaign emotionally subdued – no extravagant promises (“I want to under promise and over deliver”); no messianic fervour (this by contrast with Blair as much as Kinnock). It’s true, Miliband doesn’t seem to have Prime Minesterial gravitas, but, then again, neither did John Major, surely the least likely Prime Minister ever.
2. We’re in New Times
In 1992, we were still in the high pomp of capitalist realism. The crash had not yet happened. There was still something on offer to those who wanted to vote in their own interests and let everyone else go hang.
The Tories have nothing very much to bribe most of their supporters with this time. Without the false balm of the “Big Society”, they only have a negative message – it will be worse under Labour – and a muted promise: pain now, a little less pain later. Is this enough to motivate the wavering?
Neoliberalism is finished as a project, even if it lurches on, thrashing around like a decorticated terminator. We’re finally groping our way, blinking, out of capitalist realism. The psychic blockade that prevented us from thinking and acting is lifting. This has only registered in this campaign in some minor way with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens (the multi-party nature of British politics now is of course another way in which we are in new times by comparison with 74 and 92). If Labour manage to form a government, we will be celebrating a Tory defeat far more than we will be hailing a Tory victory.
But nothing is certain at the moment. I don’t think there will be much certainty tomorrow either. My feeling is that things will be very volatile over the next few weeks. One thing is for sure: we need to be prepared to mobilise if the Tories attempt a coup. And they surely will …