Saturday, February 22, 2020

Où sont les blogs d'antan?

Here's the first installment of a three-part conversation convened by Anwen Crawford and hosted by Sydney Review of Books about Mark Fisher and K-Punk and the blogging circuit of the 2000s.
It was a stimulating and fun discussion, for all the sadness of the reason we -- Owen Hatherley, Carl Neville, Rhian E. Jones, Ivor Southwood, Anwen, and myself - were gathered, remotely, to remember and reassess.

Friday, February 07, 2020

some things in Italy

I really enjoyed writing the companion essay to Sandro Moiso's vintage interview with J.G. Ballard, as reproduced in All That Mattered Was Sensation, out now on Krisis Publishing. This attractive and portably petite volume contains the text in both Italian and English.

"Prophet of the Present," the title of my essay, comes out as "Profeta del presente" in Italian - nicely preserving the alliteration.

If you are wondering about the "James Ballard" bit - it seems that J.G.'s books were published under that name in Italy, or even as James G. Ballard. When I saw that, I thought I'd possibly stumbled upon a national quirk of Italian publishing - an aversion to the old-school Anglo-American style of impersonal initials in literary nomenclature, as in E.M. Forster or G.K. Chesterton. But as far as I can tell, D.H. Lawrence is D.H. Lawrence in Italy, not David Herbert Lawrence or Dave Lawrence.


Something else in Italy -  out in May, on Minimum Fax, a collection of my electronic music writings:

"Sogni Elettronici," in case you were wondering, means "Electronic Dreams"

German and Japanese editions - slightly different contents - due 2021.

Anglosphere versions - probably not. I have other plans for some of the material. But who knows...

Now I think about it, there's a third thing in Italy happening on the books front. Minimum Fax are publishing the massive Mark FisheK-Punk anthology in translation. Because texts typically get longer in Italian, they are breaking up the colossus into two volumes. The first installmentIl nostro desiderio è senza nome - which translates as Our Desire is Nameless - has just come out.  This first chunk of the collection also contains my prefazione from the Repeater edition - and this foreword is shortly to be extracted in the newspaper Il Tascabile.

How cool - and circular - that the subtitle of Il Nostro Desiderio is Scritti Polittici.

"Something in Italy" indeed...  in this case it's helping keep Mark's ideas alive


Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Look Back in Clangor - the Jagged Genius of Andy Gill

Here's my Pitchfork tribute to Andy Gill
Below are some Gang of Four related graphics (the greatness of which I didn't have space to go into in the eulogy) interspersed with off-cuts from the piece + sundry informational nuggets. 

[pic by Christopher Tomond]

Gill's stage persona - always stern and unsmiling - in his later years started to resemble Alan Rickmansworth armed with a Stratocaster. 


Gang of Four rearranged the structural grammar of rock as music while  reinventing the way that lyrics could process and probe political reality.  

“There’s almost nothing in Gang of Four that relates to anything a purist would describe as ‘punk’. Most punk rock was slightly faster and slightly worse-played heavy metal. Whereas Gang of Four is stripped down, it’s funky, there’s no power-chords.There’s very little about it that’s punky”  - Andy Gill, 2001.


Several years before G04, while still at Sevenoaks School, the teenage Andy Gill and Jon King had dabbled with being a band. They called themselves the Bourgeois Brothers! 

Waiting for the Great Leap Forward... 

Although it's taken from the ruling cabal in Mao's China - and would later be applied to the leadership of the SDP – the name "Gang of Four" is like a demystified version of "the band". It takes the piss out of the adolescent romanticism and male-bonding camaraderie of rock 'n' roll - the idea of the group heading out on an adventure together - while hinting that those very energies could be channeled for higher purposes, a true mission-quest. 


The Wilko influence: Johnson didn't exactly "slap" the strings, he sort of cuffed them - flicked at them with the tops of his fingernails (as opposed to picking with his fingertips) while muting the strings with his other hand, to get that choppy percussive sound.  Gill himself used a plectrum, I believe, but built from Wilko's jagged rhythm style. 



The emergence of the Leeds Sound. With Gang of Four, it’s angular and spartan; with Delta 5, it’s loping and bouncy; with The Mekons, it’s loose and blurting... but there are similar riff-structures and approaches to the guitar as a primarily rhythmic instrument; there are textural affinities in terms of scrawny abrasiveness; vocally there’s a shared deployment of catchy but unmelodic chants, a gruff flatness of address, and a general departure from rock’n’roll norms of singing and emoting.

Gill’s first great guitarist crush had been Jimi Hendrix. On the day of his death in September 1970, the teenage Gill wore a black armband to school. But in Gang of Four, the volcanically cascading solos of Hendrix and other guitar-heroes of the pre-punk era were strictly forbidden.

 “Andrew was… I was about to say he was a ‘master baiter’! But he would bait you” - Hugo Burnham


The title track of their 1978 debut EP, Damaged Goods, used the language of commerce to present a startlingly unsentimental anatomy of desire and frustration.

It wasn’t just the controlled paroxysm of Gill’s playing on songs like “Natural’s Not In It” that was so bracingly abrasive. It was the sound too. Clipped and clean, it came from using transistor amps rather than the valve amps that most guitarists then and now prize for their “warmth” and “fat” richness of tone. “It’s more brittle,” Gill said of his beloved transistorized  sound. “And it's not warm – Gang of Four were against warmth.” 

“The production has got to bring out the material incidents in a perfectly sober and matter-of-fact way. Nowadays the play’s meaning is usually blurred by the fact that the actor plays to the audience’s hearts…. They ought to be presented quite coldly… objectively. For they are not a matter for empathy; they are there to be understood.” - Bertolt Brecht, 1926, prophesying "Love Like Anthrax" 

The scouring power of dour. 

“People value themselves in terms of their labour yet leisure time brings an uncomfortable void” was how the group paraphrased the topic in a brief statement on the B-side label of “At Home He's A Tourist”. The flipside itself “It’s Her Factory” was straightforward feminist critique of housewives’ and home-makers’ unpaid labour, inspired by an newspaper article about housewives as ‘the Unsung Heroines of Britain’.


“Generally there is felt to be a very sharp distinction between learning and amusing oneself…. So we have to defend [radical theatre] against the suspicion that is it a highly disagreeable, humourless, indeed strenuous affair” ---Bertolt Brecht, from “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre For Instruction?”

Entertainment! was the party soundtrack  in Athens, Georgia for a season or two, influencing art-school bands from that town from Pylon to Method Actors to R.E.M. B-52s's first two albums were essentially Entertainment! if it's lyrical content and stage presentation was had been derived from mass entertainment - in this case post-WW2 American B-movies, TV, mainstream fads, etc - and emotionally based around amused fascination rather than disdain and distaste.  No, really - look beneath the camp chassis of Fred + Kate + Cindy's lyrics, voices, and clothes, you'll find an undercarriage of sinewy dance-rock rhythm, as spare and pared as the spray paint job was garish. 

The verse in "I Found That Essence Rare" about the girl dressed in a bikini not knowing the name comes from the Pacific Ocean nuclear test site Bikini Atoll is the exact point where the Go4 and the B's meet. 

“No escape from society” - a Gramscian aside in a song ("Natural's Not In It") that otherwise offers a fractured-vision panorama of a consumerist paradise, a “heaven” that “gives me migraine”, as King’s protagonist sings it. 

Key line: “coercion of the senses”, referring to the bullying bombardment of libidinally-charged imagery from media and advertising -  what Marcuse called “repressive desublimation” i.e. sex and desire put in service of capital.

The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
Ideal of a new purchase
A market of the senses
Dream of the perfect life
Economic circumstances
The body is good business
Sell out, maintain the interest

This heaven gives me migraine

The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
Coercion of the senses
We are not so gullible
Our great expectations
A future for the good
Fornication makes you happy
No escape from society
Natural is not in it
Your relations are of power
We all have good intentions
But all with strings attached

Repackaged sex keeps your interest

Like the earlier Damaged Goods EP tune “Armalite Rifle”, “Ether” addressed the troubles in Northern Ireland, its lyrical tail-sting hinting that the British authorities's interest in keeping a foothold in Ulster might be economic as much as geo-strategic: "there may be oil / under Rockall" - i.e. the granite islet and surrounding sea 263 miles northwest of Ireland.


“Guns Before Butter” took its inspiration from John Heartfield’s 1934 anti-fascist photomontage “Hurrah, The Butter Is All Gone” – a riposte to Nazi leader Hermann Goering’s remark that “iron always make a country strong, butter and lard only make people fat.”  

For 1981’s Solid Gold, the group recruited Jimmy Douglass, a sound engineer who'd worked for funk band Slave and for AC/DC among others and would later be Timbaland right-hand man, in order to help them achieve a “live” sound with more bass bottom. The resulting sound on Solid Gold contrasted markedly with the compellingly arid and anti-naturalistic (no room ambience, no reverb) production style of Entertainment! 

Gill supplied the most striking sounding and emotionally compelling tune on the album in the desolate faltering funk of “Paralysed”, which he wrote and recited: seemingly the blues of a victim of the mass unemployment induced by Thatcher-Reagan, the character knows “history’s the reason / I’m washed up” but can’t help feel humiliatingly shamed by his own fate.


And how sadly weird / weirdly sad that Andy Gill's namesake - the other postpunk-associated Andy Gill - should have died less than a year ago. 


Me on Gang of Four's 2005 reformation for the classics-rerecorded project Return The Gift

Here's me and Jon King talking about Gill + the Gang on Life Elsewhere Music, a radio show hosted by Norman B

Postpunk scholar David Wilkinson's Tribune tribute

Jim Dooley, who wrote a whole book on Gang of Four for Repeater, chips in at the Repeater blog. 

The Leeds / Athens connection