Category Archives: Music

music doesn’t matter so much (and that’s ok)

[ Editorial note: this is an essay I wrote in 2014 for the last weeks of sadly defunct rock’n’metal blog Demon Pigeon. I’m repubbing it here today in response to this piece at Louder Than War, which not unreasonably laments the disappearance of a sort of music fandom which, even in my own personal golden age of the 1990s, was already starting to slip away.

I have not edited this afresh after digging it out of the archive, and I would almost certainly write it in a much less Extremely Online tone were I to try to tackle the same questions today. Note also that circa 2014, Sp*tify and its ilk were still comparatively small beer, and I had yet to lose my entire digitised collection of albums to the mechanical failure of a HDD that I stupidly hadn’t backed up. But the basic argument still holds, I think… and at some point, said argument will hopefully become a thread in the long rebuttal I’ve been planning to write ever since I read this Frank Geels paper, which distills everything wrong about the man’s theory of sociotechnical change, and combines it with the unmistakable spoor of someone arrogant enough to wander into a field where his usual superficial historical bluffing just can’t save him.

Anyway, yeah—it’s a long one. I hope you enjoy it. ]

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Over the last five years or so, I’ve come to the conclusion that music doesn’t matter like it used to, and that it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter.

The image that drove it home was a poster for some student shin-dig, an “iPod disco” – a night out where everyone goes to club with their own music player, and dances to their own beat as heard on their headphones. How utterly neoliberal is that? You couldn’t make a better metaphor for individualist consumerism if you tried. Music as wallpaper, a domesticated and utterly internal experience, rather than the communal channel of experience and story that even two hours of cheesy hard house in a backstreet Sheffield flea-pit manages to convey… despite seeming to privilege how much music matters to the attendee, the iPod disco does exactly the opposite: it privileges how much the attendee matters to themselves. And I consider this to be emblematic of a more general (if less extreme) decline in the importance of music as a central plank of youth cultural identity, at least in the UK.

On one level, that sounds ridiculous: you’re saying music doesn’t matter anymore? Now, with music more ubiquitous, accessible and diverse than it ever has been before in the history of humankind? How could it not matter?!

And sure, music still matters; it’s a crucial layer of cultural topography. But it’s not the dominant channel of subcultural ideas any more; it’s just one channel among many, all of which are busily being subsumed into the metachannel, otherwise known as these here internets upon which I am writing to you.

But before the internet, music was the internet.

Allow me to explain.

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First of all you, need to think of “the recording industry” as a system, as a medium; step back from the actual components of the machine – the radio stations, record companies, recording studios and record stores – and think purely in terms of function. Alongside magazines, pop records were the first medium explicitly marketed at the then newly-minted demographic of The Teenager; recordings had been sold before then, of course, but they were a less ephemeral sort of cultural product; albums that curated serious art by serious artists were marketed to collectors and connoisseurs. The 7 inch single was a way to make a fast buck out of the fleeting tastes of these strange new Teenager creatures. As history shows, this market expanded incredibly fast, and sideband channels of marketing and publicity sprung up around it; the business learned how to shape the tastes of its audience by carefully curating the novelty to which it was exposed. At the same time, the business became increasingly infrastructural as it expanded. This is unavoidable, because it is functionally similar to a telecoms company: it’s in the business of delivering messages to paying subscribers, and once the volume of messages becomes significant, it’s all you can do to keep on top of the logistics. Worrying about exactly which messages the subscribers want becomes mere detail; so long as the demand is there, you’re happy and making bank, but you’ve gotta keep those pipes flowing. A corporation is an economic entity, remember; it doesn’t have (or need) the capacity to care what it’s selling, so long as it’s selling it and making money.

But the machine doesn’t run without that demand, so the infrastructure had to be fed with novelty by the “creative” side of the business, the managers and A&R people, promoters and pluggers and hustlers of every stripe. Meanwhile, the first generations of pop listeners reached an age where they’d started their own bands; these are the first bands to have grown up believing that there could be music aimed specifically at them, at young people in their world. No surprise, then, that when they picked up their instruments they found they had things they wanted to say – things that no one would let them say anywhere else, on the radio, on television, in the newspapers. It was a generational backchannel, if you like; a peer-to-peer medium where youth could speak to youth. At no time in your life are you ever more hungry for new stories and new ideas than when you’re a teenager; outside of books and magazines (the latter of which were increasingly aligned with the music business anyway), music was the most likely place you’d hear the shibboleths of your generation spoken aloud. Rebellion, lust, desire, frustration, and the sheer shattering thrill and terror of being young and alive – to know someone else felt the same must have been an incredible liberation after the bland suits’n’boots orgman conformity of the post-war years. And while there was some money to be made from peddling saccharine conformity, the market turned out to be hungry for the forbidden topics – which was just fine for the recording industry: the forbidden could flow just as smoothly through the pipes as the wholesome. Hell, sometimes the forbidden flowed better, especially when someone outside the system tried to impede it; then as now, nothing heightens demand like a banning.

So maybe you can see what I mean now if I say that the early pop recording industry was like a very asymmetrical internet for youth, where a limited few (by the good graces of the infrastructural side of the business, who could make a buck from it) got the chance to publish new ideas and stories, and the majority could access and (to a limited extent) share those messages around. This is the era of the newly electrified Dylan, the early Beatles and Stones, the British invasion, all that stuff. The system is biased against certain sorts of message, of course, and in some cases very strongly; it’s far from an ideologically flat marketplace. But nonetheless, there’s more levity here than elsewhere, and the very narrowness of this much-desired channel makes it very lucrative indeed, especially as the wider world of business begins to recognise the power of the Teenaged pound, and the utility of an established hot-line to its most active and willing consumers. However, with a firm hold over access to the means of (re)production, the industry could maintain a broadly conservative control over the general tone: when the pipes are flowing fast, you want to avoid riling the regulators excessively. Only trouble being, the more successful your artists become, the more likely they seem to be to start cocking a snook at the establishment… and you don’t want to entirely stamp on that, because it’s so bloody lucrative, wot?

Around this time, the capabilities of recording equipment and studios were also expanding rapidly, and the costs of getting records out into the market were falling, lowering the barriers to new contenders for the still small but ever-expanding roster of artists with access to the medium, plus new, smaller players among the record companies, piggybacking on the now predominantly infrastructural distribution side of the business. Music mutated its way through a myriad of forms, but the real Cambrian explosions come with the arrival, from the late 70s onwards, of affordable electronic instruments and home recording equipment, and the arrival of consumer-grade home duplication systems – the miniMoog and the cassette recorder, in other words, which had a significant part to play in the emergence of (post-)punk and electronica, and paved the way for the synthesiser-drenched 80s, the rave explosion, 90s grunge and alt-rock and everything else.

But it’s the ability to record and duplicate at home that’s important if we’re thinking about music as being a medium, because this is the point where the asymmetricality of access starts to trend toward the symmetrical: all of a sudden, true peer-to-peer transmission is possible (albeit slowly, with considerable loss of quality, and at not insignificant opportunity cost), as is cheaply obtaining and sharing the messages of “official” artists without recourse to the official channels. I reckon this technological shift has as much to do with the expansion of forms and styles of the late 70s and beyond as the sociopolitics of the time; it’s not just that there was so much more experimentation going on, it’s also that the experimenters could create work and disseminate it cheaply, as well as being increasingly able to bypass the gatekeepers of the medium and connect directly with audiences.

[ Editorial note: I had linked here to a page on the since vanished or otherwise moved website of some consultancy or other, using the anchor text “Does this rhetoric sound at all familiar?”. So please just imagine I’ve linked to some example of cynical corporate techno-optimism that fully supports and deepens my argument, OK? ]

So the industry lost some of its control, but gained from yet more growth in the overall market; so what if there were more bad messages in the pipe, so long as there were more messages? And while it got increasingly cheaper and easier for consumers to record and duplicate, the business still had the lion’s share of the power when it came to high bandwidth distribution, which allowed it to co-opt smaller channels once they reached a point where they need to scale their business up and onto the established infrastructures to keep their margins viable. Sure, there’s pirate radio, mail-order 7”-single clubs from marginal labels run out of someone’s shed, pirate radio stations, but that’s all little league shit; if you want the big reach, you need the big pipes, and if you wanna use the pipes, you gotta deal with the big boys… and when you do, they’ll take up your niche and commercialise it quicker than you can say “UK grime was once a viable and genuinely interesting music scene”. It happened to punk, to synth-pop, New Romo, C90 indie, to every successive sub-wave of the rave explosion, to grunge, Britpop, everything; as soon as a new message or idea hits the infrastructure, it’s everywhere, it’s ubiquitous, it’s over. This is why we talk about “selling out”, but it happens at a much higher level than individual artists, and it’s a two-way process. The infrastructural core of the business has to suck in novelty from the outer edges in order to fuel the machine and keep the pipes flowing; it’s like a black hole, in a way. Or maybe a sarlacc pit.

But the bigger the black hole, the greater the surface area of its event horizon, meaning the marginal ecosystem of independent artists clinging onto the edges of the infrastructure; so many voices out there, so many new stories! I remember being a teenager in the early 90s, with music being the only way I could gain access to any view of the world that wasn’t seen from what I now recognise as a white British middle-class perspective; it was the only place I could hear about the sort of politics that mattered to me, the only place I heard the truths that elsewhere went unspoken, the only place where lives that felt like my own were narrated. (Well, there were novels, too, but who reads those anymore, amiritez?) It was a crazy time – though I suppose the period during which you become an adult always looks like that, whenever you’re born.

The 90s also threw up the internet, the metamedium which would go on to subsume all other mediums, but it would be a long time before enough people had it that anyone could guess what it’d be good for. So it kinda bubbled along as a rather obscure channel-of-subcultural-backchannels until bandwidth and baud rates and processor speeds got to the point where Napster could happen.

At which point all bets were off.

As we now know with hindsight, the recording industry either hadn’t seen this coming or had chosen to ignore it; indeed, there are big sections of the industry only now slipping out of the denial stage and adapting to the new landscape. But everything changed once the opportunity cost for finding and duplicating a song and sharing it with someone became effectively zero; suddenly those messages were multiplying like gremlins in a swimming pool, pouring through a whole new set of pipes, under a whole new set of rules, beyond reach or control. Owning the recording industry’s manufacture and distribution infrastructure was suddenly an expensive liability… and the nature of the new distro channels was that it made your product laughably easy to duplicate infinitely, with no significant loss in quality.

I think this is where our relationship with music really began to pivot, because suddenly access to the music you wanted needn’t be a matter of expense: you could just have it, whether streamed or torrented or ripped or whatever. Music – not just contemporary music, mind, but increasingly the entire corpus of recorded music, everything that’s still capable of playback and redigitisation – became a resource, a commodity, an ocean of sound that our access to the internet allowed us to draw from effortlessly, without friction, and over a wider selection than was even conceivable beforehand. Yes, you still choose your music – but you choose it lightly, spoiled by choice. It’s not a hoarded pocket-money purchase, a long-anticipated mail-order CD of some obscure album that your local HMV didn’t have on its database; it’s a coat plucked on a whim from an infinite coat-rack. What do you want to wear today?

And hey, why not – this is not a bad thing. It’s just the way things are… and as many bad things as there are about the world and about the internet, I don’t think this is one of them. Nor is this one of those “OMFG music is DEAD these modern bands SUCK and you should all get the hell off my LAWN” sorta essays, either; music’s definitely not dead, it’s alive like kudzu, soundtracking our workdays as much as our playdays, thanks to tiny technology and better batteries. Music and musicians aren’t disappearing anytime soon; sure, it may be harder to secure the sort of mid-list careers that album bands could have in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but that’s because the labels can’t play the old “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” approach to A&R any more; they don’t have the monopoly over distribution or promotional channels any more, so they can’t stack the deck so easily in their own favour. They were gamblers in the golden age, taking a chance on dozens of bands in the hope that one would be the new Beatles, Led Zep, whoever; it was a poor method, but it was the best one they had. (And if the rock biogs are to be believed, it could be quite a fun process, provided you didn’t let it kill you.)

But don’t believe the hype about the music industry being in decline. Far from it; it’s just abandoned the old infrastructural business model and merged with the TV and Hollywood conglomerates, getting into the “content” game, which is a game of stories within stories within stories, of which music is only one type among many. But selling music itself is a dead scene for anyone operating outside the Long Tail; soon as something’s in sufficient demand, piracy takes care of the supply problem for you, and leaves you out of pocket. You only avoid this by being obscure… and if you’re obscure, you’re not expecting to make any money from selling records, anyway, except as exactly the sort of connoisseur’s collection-piece that recorded music first got sold as: high-weight vinyl albums of obscure Williamsburg drone-pop quartets. These are artefacts, treasures; their value does not lie purely in the music that they encode. This is the last bastion of music really mattering to people like it used to: obsession, the expense of time and money. Try rewatching High Fidelity; it was always a little satirical, but now it looks like a send-up of the doomed relics of a by-gone era, twisted man-children angsting over their grown-up Pokemon collections. Defining yourself by the physical albums you own – how limited an idea that seems now! (If only because, well, shit – who can afford a spare room for the vinyl now the bedroom tax is in, eh?)

You want the proof that music doesn’t matter? Look at the charts. Sure, they were always topped off with obvious pop puppets, but now even they are carefully groomed and manufactured – in public, and at great length, as part and parcel of the whole spectacle – long before they ever release any actual tunes one can buy. And when they are released, they’re a sideshow, a vestigial legacy-mechanism by which you get the act to chart, and thus to be talked about more. The money in pop music nowadays is all in using it as the honey coating on bigger and more easily monetised media spectacles like television or cinema, or as a demographic shorthand in advertising material. Simon Cowell’s exploitative franchises have made him many fortunes, but hardly any of that came from record sales: it comes from the ad slots that appear around his programs, from the licenses to reuse his formulae in other territories; he’s not selling music, he selling the idea of selling.. Music’s just the scent of fresh-baked bread piped out from the front door of his underground-railway-themed sandwich shop, so to speak; its job is to get you in through the door.

(This, in fact, is not that far away from the old Tin Pan Alley model of the early 60s, or Pete Waterman’s “hit factory” model of the 80s; the only difference is that now it’s easier to monetise the artist selection and development process than the resulting musical product.)

However, there’s masses of other stuff going on, little subsubgenres and scenes of all sorts popping up all over, outside the dominant channels of promotion; how can I say music doesn’t matter when more people are making it or going to listen to it than ever before? But at the same time, there’s a sense that everything’s been done before, everything’s been said already. Caught in the atemporality of postmodernism’s end-game, all that’s left to us is quotation, pastiche, mash-ups and covers and remixes. The possibility of newness is nowhere to be seen.

To repeat: music still matters, but it matters in the abstract, as one aspect of the sensorial tapestry that is our cultural lives. It’s not a lifeline like it once was; there other channels where youth can speak to itself, even if they’re increasingly clogged with the detritus of capital and commerce. It doesn’t have to carry all the weight of our hopes and fears any more, or our politics, our dreams of futurity; there are other ways to make the world hear us, and while they may not be much more effective, they’re surely no less so.

(And maybe I’m wrong, and a few miles away there’s some urgent new musical subculture coalescing in some grotty little venue, the first true Next Big Thing of the Internet Era, set to blow people’s minds and give them a star to steer by. I wouldn’t be sad to see it; hell, I’ve spent years watching hungrily for it. Put me out of my misery, y’know?)

But ultimately it doesn’t matter that music doesn’t matter so much, because the internet subsumed the recording industry, absorbed that systemic function into itself, perfected it, balanced the asymmetry (a bit). Oh, it’s no utopia, no matter what Silicon Valley and its boosters may claim to the contrary, and there’s a lot of work to be done before we’ve shaped the internet into something that serves us all instead of just a few. But even so, the messages are still getting through, whatever the platform, whatever the medium… and it’s never been easier to send your own message back out there and see what happens.

And that’s what always mattered about music in the first place.

(self)creation stories

It’s probably just a function of my age, and the associated movement of my generational cohort into what it is no longer possible to depict to ourselves as anything other than the latter half of our likely time on the planet, but damn, I seem to be doing a lot of thinking about the Nineties at the moment.

Assorted media synchronicities are encouraging this to happen, of course. As already noted, reading books from the Bold As Love cycle—despite their being written in the Noughties, and heavily referencing the Sixties—has provoked something of a contact high with the end-of-history hedonism of the Nineties. But we’re also at the point when the figures of the firmament of that time are being fitted into their slots in the historical canon, whether by their own hands or those of others. It’s far from being an original observation, but I keep being reminded that 1994 is as long ago from the present moment as 1968 was from 1994… and that to me, from the vantage of 1994, 1968 seemed almost contiguous with the stone age. 1968 was history, grainy monochrome footage spliced into nostalgic TV like The Wonder Years, hippie beads and peace signs and naivete, the sanitisation and bowdlerisation of a period of genuine (if perhaps always destined-to-fail) social-revolutionary aspirations; the making-safe of a rebellion in which few participated, but many would later lay claim to, as soon as it was made safe to do so.

And now, it is the turn of the period which I think of as “my time” to be sealed into the amber of representation… a process that I understand to be inevitable, irresistible, and far beyond my control. (Though I am reminded, over and again, that I can at least try to put my own account out into the world… which would of course mean making the time for creative work outside the bandwidth expenditure required for the creative work of my actual job, and frankly I’m still struggling to meet that latter demand to a level that feels fair and effective. But that’s a topic for another day.)

The latest reminder—which was very much invited across the threshold, so to speak—came in the form of the movie Creation Stories, a biopic of Creation Records impresario Alan McGee directed by Nick Moran (an actor whose breakthrough role was in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, who has directed a handful of films including Telstar: The Joe Meek Story) and (partly) scripted by Irvine Welsh. I’m not a cineaste, so I will refrain from saying much about it as cinema beyond suggesting that I doubt it will ever be celebrated as an example of the form, but remarking also that its limitations—which might be said to be the extent to which it deliberately resurrects the visual and narrative style of mid-Nineties cinema; the hand of Welsh in the storytelling is fairly easily discerned—are in some respects also its advantage in evoking the appropriate sense of time in the intended audience, which we can safely assume to be middle-aged alternative-culture wash-ups and nostalgics such as myself.

But there’s a sort of double anachronism at work: Creation Stories feels rather out of place as a movie of 2021, but its treatment of the Long Nineties would also be out of place if situated in the Long Nineties itself; sure, it has that ironic and aware-of-its-own-fictionality thing going on which was very much a cinematic trope of the time, but it clings to that knowingness not as a veneer laid atop a stratum of what is presented as a deeper metaphorical truth, but rather as the deeper truth atop which the narrative bricolage is assembled. Or, more simply: if Nineties cinema was saying, in essence, “self-referentiality is the subjectivity of our current cultural moment”, Creation Stories doubles down with an argument to the effect that “it’s the turtles of self-referentiality all the way down!” (Though now, having phrased it like that, I suppose it’s more 2021 a film than the aesthetic and subject matter might initially make it appear… and, again, I’m horribly aware that I am not a cineaste, and should probably stop writing about films as theoretically legible entities for that reason. But, on the flipside: my blog, my rules.)

I will mention in passing that I felt the film lacked female characters with agency (with the arguable exception of “Gemma”, the journo to whom the film’s version of McGee is recounting his adventures, whose success is later implied to have been at least in part to McGee’s advice and generosity as an interviewee), and that the only two black characters with (a few) lines felt very uncomfortably stereotyped, but what I’m really interested here is the meta-mechanics of the narrative. Creation Stories makes no bones about its role as a hagiography, an elevation of a person whose claim to fame is rooted in his elevation of others to success—and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a hagiography. But it would be very interesting to know the extent of McGee’s own input to the piece, because—as the film makes plain, if not exactly clear—McGee, like his idol Malcolm McLaren, was a sort of instinctive master of the irresistible story of inevitable success, that rare category of the self-trained salesperson whose confidence in the merchandise eventually melds with their confidence in themselves.

Which is to say: this telling of McGee’s story uses light and shade and shock and pathos (and to some extent the sheer weight of momentum) to portray him as simultaneously predestined for success and a relentless hustler willing to endure any privations (not all of which fell on him personally) in order to Make It Happen. And to be fair, the contradictions do come out in the script, with (for example) McGee in the late Creation-at-Sony days recapitulating the self-deluding lines of a mulleted A&R guy from earlier in the film… and those contradictions are held in tension (though not resolved) in the character of McGee, because (like McLaren before him) he recognises (and indeed to some extent celebrates) the fact that the industry is both a sham and a game, while deciding to play it anyway.

The film doesn’t exactly nice-ify McGee either, but it does try to celebrate “rebellion” as an abstract principle in a way that feels, frankly, rather childish. And while it doesn’t exactly shy away from McGee describing himself as a destructive terror of sorts, it does rather portray all of those destructive means as being justified by the ends, or simply by merit of circumstance, or even just handwaving them away so quickly you wonder why them were included at all—as with the very short and hard to parse scene in which his former partner tells him she’s pregnant but, despite having left him due to frustration with his career and lifestyle and lack of prospects, nonetheless tries to trap him into a husband/father role which she believes him to be categorically unsuited for. And, y’know, maybe that really happened, people do weird shit in relationships… but something felt very odd to me in what was clearly meant to be a sort of exculpatory moment in the story, but seemed more like a score-settling.

Because there’s a bunch of score-settling in here, the most notable example being a punch upward, but the others seeming more sidewise. The omissions are perhaps the most effective of these latter, whether they were intended as such or not: the inescapable presence of Teenage Fanclub in the Creation story couldn’t be entirely avoided, and so there are posters of the Bandwagonesque album artwork at the appropriate moments, but the band are (to my memory) entirely absent from both the story and the soundtrack otherwise. Whether this is a snub or just necessarily reductive storytelling is unclear to me, but I guess it may be the latter—because let’s be honest, while Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine are still big respected names with mainstream recognition, I doubt anyone under forty knows who the Fannies are. MBV, meanwhile, play a much bigger role in the film’s story, but it’s not an entirely flattering portrait, with Loveless-era Kevin Shields barring a furious McGee from accessing the studio in which MBV are busily bankrupting Creation with their obsessive overworking of that masterpiece of an album.

But even here, there may be more going on than meets the camera’s eye, given the off-screen participation of both McGee and various Creation artists in the film. As already noted, McGee understands the power of legend and myth, and it might be that the MBV studio scene is less a skewering of Shields than a respectful reinforcing nudge of the man’s own myth: Shields’s management of My Bloody Valentine as a story (I hesitate to say “brand”, because there’s too much substance there for that) has been astute, a crafty mix of self-deprecating deflation on the one hand and a refusal to deflate the stories told by others on the other hand. And perhaps that mythmaking was learned from the grand master McGee? The film depicts the latter as being inspired by Aleister Crowley as much as Malcolm McLaren, which is a pretty bold move these days; even the chaos magick mob seem cautious of mentioning the Great Beast without some accompanying trigger warnings and disclaimers.

But the champion hatchet job is of course reserved for the “political period” after McGee got himself cleaned up and rehabbed after the inevitable excess-in-LA period. And it’s here that I feel the film works hardest to exculpate and justify McGee’s choices—quite understandably, and perhaps not at all untruthfully. The portrayal of the New Labour mob is deeply unflattering, with Mandy and Campbell as effete poshos, the party machinery woefully out of touch and foolish, their only skill or advantage being the recognition of the opportunity at hand, and the spinning of a story that might fill the gap… and while the film really doesn’t labour (sorry) the comparison, I think it worth noting the way in which at this moment like was drawn to like: McGee’s brand of mythmaking and that of New Labour were very different in character, but they were both based on a blend of pragmatism and hunger for success at any price.

Or, to put it another way, I wonder whether what’s being glossed (or spun?) here is a sense of McGee recognising a kinship with the monsters, a kinship of method if not of teleology or principle. But the use of the folk devil of Jimmy Saville, now completely beyond the pale in a way he somehow wasn’t at the time, to tar the New Labour project by association is devastatingly efficient, even if extraordinarily reductive; no amount of well-intended stuff about policy (e.g. McGee’s claim to have influenced the New Deal for musicians, which in my admittedly hazy memory was not much of a gift by comparison to the Thatcherite EAS which he proudly admits kept Creation afloat when the banks would not) could ever make anyone still on the fence about the politics of the period leap to a damning judgement as could the implication of association with Saville. It allows the film’s McGee a way to both own and then almost instantly to disown his involvement with New Labour—and also to draw a line between his brand of narrative magic and the dark arts of Campbell and company, as well as the vampiric version that kept Saville in the system for so long, at such a horrific cost.

All in all, it’s an incredibly partial story which, to its credit, makes no claims to be anything else, and indeed celebrates the power of determined self-creation to change oneself and the world, even as it celebrates a man whose efforts unarguably left a mark on British culture that contributed to history, even if not quite to the extent the film (and its narrator/hero) might like to have us believe. As a man who identifies with alchemists and sorcerers, he presumably knows that the secret to those arts is less your own power than the skillful channelling and shaping of powers external to you.

And again, I don’t think it’s great cinema—but then it probably doesn’t need to be, given its audience is surely people of a similar age and demography to myself, whose preoccupations have always been more with magnetic tape than with celluloid. It’s not even a particularly brilliant examination of the Svengali archetype, or of confidence as the key to magick and/or artistic manifestation… but it’s perhaps the only examination of those things that also features a Creation Records soundtrack. And at the end of the day, that soundtrack is the only reason we know his name.

Not a bad trick, if you know how to do it.

gastric culture / mundane noise horror

There are lots of reminiscent reflections (and some predictable bafflement) in this MeFi FPP-thread responding to the recent un-deletion of the KLF’s back-catalogue, almost thirty years after the event… but this one was an interesting enough image that I wanted to clip it for posterity (if only my own):

I sometimes wonder whether pop isn’t a kind of digestive fluid, which makes challenging lumps embedded in popular culture more easily ingestible by capitalism.

comment by Grangrusier [MeFi user]

Should be digestible, really, but the point is well made nonetheless. Also in that thread are links to various bits of online KLF and Discordian lore (including at least one OCR’d samizdat version of the infamous Manual, which I would have killed for a copy of back in the day), and to a recent interview with Bill Drummond that suggests the un-deletion may have been a matter of financial necessity, as the guy’s developing early-onset dementia.

(I presume that pretending that to be the case might be a prank too far even for Drummond, but I suppose we’d all be fools to totally rule it out, on the basis of prior activities.)

This was a timely but not entirely unexpected trip down memory lane for me. It’s not unexpected because, as both reader and writer, I’m well aware of the anniversary-driven nature of pop-culture reflection content, and been thinking for a few years that we were soon to hit a seam of retro content that coincides with my own cultural coming-to-awareness, namely the early 1990s. The KLF are a fine synecdoche for that, being that they were both highly visible to my peers at the time, and almost universally loathed by them in a way that was not the case with much of the supposedly more “alternative” or obscure stuff I started to listen to around the same time. (Admittedly that lack of contempt may have been born of literal ignorance, but still: the point is, I loved the KLF, my peers thought me an idiot and a naif for doing so, and I didn’t understand why, given that my love for, say, Daisy Chainsaw was blithely priced into what was perceived as my baseline cultural maladaptation.)

And it’s timely because I’ve been thinking for a while that I want to start writing about the music that shaped me—though less because I think I have anything to add to the critical consensus on the music itself, and more because I want to make sense of the person I became (or began to become?) during those years, as soundtracked by that music. Growing up in a household where music, or at least an engagement with music as something more than audio wallpaper, was not really A Thing, I started my proper journey into music rather late in life; I recognise the sense of blindly stumbling into something epochal going on in 1991, much like the author of this bit at Louder Than War, but he was eleven, and I was thirteen. Furthermore, I have come to realise in recent years that while music was hugely important to me in my adolescence, my engagement with it was a bit weird and different to that of my peers, for an assortment of reasons—predominantly economic, geographical and psychosocial, but coalescing around the central fact that I was “educated” in British public schools*—that I want to think and write my way into (and thus out of).

Of course, the one thing the world needs even less than my Very Clever Thoughts about Siamese Dream or the Judgement Night soundtrack is a self-indulgent and introspective memoir-through-music by a middle-aged minor academic trying to figure out the singularity of his likely-much-less-weird-than-he-thought-at-the-time cultural formation… and the one thing I need even less is yet another project that involves cranking out a word-count to a self-imposed deadline. But that is the pathology of the writer, right there… and what else is a blog for but to write for that small audience of maybe-no-more-than-one about the things that seem to need to be written about?

So, yeah—keep ’em peeled, because there may well be some autobiographical essays in the RSS pipeline in the weeks and months ahead. Not sure whether that’s a threat or a promise, to you or to me…

[ * – Note for non-British readers: in a classic case of British class divisions having markers which make little sense outside of said system of class, “public school” in Britain means the same as what “private school” means in most other places; meanwhile, what you might describe as “public schools” would instead be referred to as “state school”, or—if you were of a similar class strata to my parent—as “the local comprehensive”, a phrase to be freighted with a careful combination of contempt and condescension. ]

Prayers for the damned: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace

There’s something strange, to me, about modern cinemas—the architectural interiority of them, I mean. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been to them so infrequently over the course of my life, leaving my experience of them to be a series of lurching momentary mutations rather than a steady evolution of form; I don’t know. But it feels like theatrical opulence—already ersatz by the time I first got taken to the movies as a child—has given way to something more like the Star Trek holodeck, the theatres themselves designed to provide as little distraction from the spectacle of the screen as possible.

I think back to the Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield, opened in 1920, and the way in which it was clearly designed to imitate (and, I believe, to act as) a theatre in the older, dramaturgical sense. That included, of course, a class hierarchy reproduced in the tiers and balconies of seating, but it also included a sense of the communal, a sense that the show on the stage or the screen was not the whole of the experience, that the setting (and the audience) were there to be seen and noticed as well.

This in comparison to the new Nordisk Film Bio cinema in Malmö’s Mobilia complex, a plaza of stuffed-animal hybrid architecture. Through the door to the lower lobby, there to meet the foot of an escalator long enough to look like a tongue-in-cheek pomo metaphor for the ascent to heaven, long enough to give you a sense of being lifted out of and/or above the world outside, which then deposits you in a garish and all-but-unpopulated lobby, with tacky-glossy plastic statuary depicting deities from various Extended Cinematic Universes, overstocked with snacks which are clearly never going to sell before going stale, but which the corporate three-ring binder doubtless insists must be fully stocked nonetheless. And then past the almost-over-helpful attendant, reduced to pointing a barcode scanner and explaining where the toilets might be found, and into the stark black cube of Salong Två with its overspec’d bassbins and Wall-E-esque robo-recliner couches, to join ten people sitting in a room designed for twenty times as many, all of whom have floated up the raked floor to the back row as if fearful of being sucked into the semantic gravity of the screen itself.

I have vague recollections of threadbare velveteen on little flipdown seats, knees pressed up against the back of the seat in front, sticky floors and cricked necks—none of which I’m exactly nostalgic for, but which seem nonetheless to say something about what it was that the cinema as an infrastructure had to say about itself as the frame in which a particular medium was delivered. The pack-’em-in privations of the fleapit did nothing to harm the popularity of cinema’s golden age creations. Indeed, I wonder if they didn’t actually enhance it, the screen offering an escape into the obvious but attractive artifice of story which was enhanced by the cramped immobility of the interior design; now, it seems as if all the sensorial overload of the lobby, all the overstuffed luxury of the theatre seating, plus the incredible hyperreal fidelity of image and sound, serves only to distract from the reduction of mainstream cinematic product—the stuff that actually makes box office, or at least did—to sheer spectacle. Where once people longed to step into the screen and escape, it now feels like the screen is a black hole to be escaped from, yet into which we cannot help but peer, even as we fear being inhaled by it.

Or perhaps I’m just overthinking it. (Hardly out of character, amirite?) I’m sure people for whom cinema has always been a vital medium of interest have a much better take on this than I do. But I still find the luxury isolating, almost enervating, somehow; it’s not that I want discomfort, exactly, but something about the concern shown for the lazy, plush and technologically-oversprung comfort of the space, far above any concern for its aesthetics as a space—which are more an aesthetics of non-space—makes me feel like cinemas are now temples that we’ve raised to ourselves as consumers, rather than to the art that we’re ostensibly consuming in them; that we can’t even imagine a decent god anymore, beyond the notion of ourselves reclining replete and supine in the dark, the circulation pooling in our elevated legs, the sugar pooling in our distended gullets… ah, but I am a curmudgeon, and dabbling here with an asceticism which marks me out with the arrogant inverted elitism which Nietzsche railed against, even if I don’t care to impose my preferences on others. These spaces are not designed with me in mind—and given how rarely I have gone to cinemas over the years, there’s no reason that they should have been.

But nonetheless, here I am, sitting down to watch Idiot Prayer, the screening of Nick Cave’s recent solo performance. It’s just Cave, some mics and cables and camera dollies, and a shiny black grand piano stood smack bang in the middle of an empty Alexandra Palace, back in the bright panic of the lockdown summer, which feels like an aeon ago, but also like it was just yesterday. And it is a performance, not a show—because a show implicitly has an audience in the room, and in particular the sort of show that Cave usually does; the mediations through which he’s working here, of technology and of time, are not his traditional territory.

And in contradiction to some of my misgivings mentioned above, I’m immediately glad that I’m seeing it here, rather than streaming in my living room (as I had meant to when it was first released, but was prevented from doing so by unexplained technical problems), on a screen so large and crisp that every pore and scar on the man’s face is visible, the sound system so good that every groan of the piano’s sustain pedal and squeak of his heel on the floor as he counts out funereal tempos—because the fidelity, applied to this material, makes of it a kind of antispectacle, and amplifies the void of the setting in which Cave is playing.

I remarked to a friend afterwards that Idiot Prayer will likely become one of the definitive art documents of this pandemic moment in the Global North, and not just (or at least not only) because there’s been so little else to even try to compete with it, so little else that’s had a chance to be an event in the mass-cultural sense; it’s also got to be due to the strange mirror it holds up to the times. And of all of the people who might have had and pulled off such an idea—a performance for a nation (and a world) in lockdown, with no charitable piety, no chin-up cheeriness, no market-ready right-on Bonoisms, just this man with a murderer’s face and a weight of guilt and grief and rage which is clearly visible in his every movement, despite the incredible rigour of his posture before that piano, unbowed by tragedies self-inflicted and otherwise, pouring out these twisted stories in glorious, echoing isolation. Comes the hour, comes the man… not as hero or saviour, but as a channel, a conduit, as someone who can with a strange legitimacy carry and direct a grief that most cannot put words to, let alone music, a grief that even someone who knows only a little about him will know to be dwarfed by his own. The setting, both intimate and isolated, apocalyptic and antiseptic, the emptiness of Ally Pally like the fancy box in which an empire was once delivered, long ago, a hall of memory now filled only with a fading forgetting… and it’s that emptiness that I feel echoed by the garish emptiness of the all-but-silent cinema as we leave afterwards.

But before that, Cave plays and sings, after first walking through an empty palace, his shoulders rolling beneath the jacket of his impeccable brimstone-preacher’s suit, that helmet of slicked-back hair swept shoulderwards from a high, unlined forehead. He’s far from conventionally handsome, but there’s a black magic, a magnetism there, a sense of a black electricity coiled in the set-square angles of this man sat so straight in front of the black-and-white truth of the keys, flipping through loose sheets and bound books of hand-written lyrics and chord changes, tossing the finished songs to the floor as if relieved of their weight, like parcels delivered on a long round which will never end, until the end.

I should note here that I hardly know Cave’s oeuvre at all, but for the few pieces that have become a commonplace on alternative radio and cinema over the last decade or so. For me Cave will likely always be that waxen-faced monster looming over Kylie in her Eliza Day guise, a wild rose pushing through the thicket of laddish swagger and lycra-clad pop excess that was mid-Nineties MTV. (And how wise of Kylie to realise that her pop persona had to die for her to escape its trap, and to to realise that for the murder to take, it had to be done by the right hand.) But to hear (and to see) his work this way, well, perhaps it’s been my best way in… though it might equally exhaust his other output for me, too, because while it will be something like this, it will never be anything like this. The exposure of it, the contradictory and paradoxical suspension of intimacy and isolation, the artifice of non-artifice… oh, I’m not so naive as all that, I can see the stitching-together of a whole day’s recording (and the use of the varying levels of light), edited for narrative structure and atmosphere; and I will always be a rockist, I suppose, always drawn to these antiheroes, antichrists, these monsters in the confessional mode. But nonetheless, the illusion is sustained at least in part because you want to believe—I want to believe—that this man is sat in the timeless void at the heart of the husk of a collapsed empire, of an emptied-out universe, of a film set yet to be fully dismantled; that he sat there outside of time and poured out this grief and anger and tenderness and relentless self-loathing, less an antichrist than an everted christ, offering no redmemption beyond the knowledge that there’s no redemption to be had from outside of us; that we’re all sat alone at that piano in the deserted palace, all pacing through dust motes a-dance in summer sunlight streaming through an open doorway, all carrying our hopes and fears and regrets and passions, carrying the knowledge of every wrong thing we ever did, even the ones we committed only in thought rather than deed.

Comes the hour, comes the man.

No one else could have done that, perhaps. Because no one else dared—and I think it notable that no one has yet dared to try to follow it, either. Because how could you, without it being obvious that that you were trying to imitate its perfect imperfection? How could you follow this oratory for our collective innocence? How could you follow something which somehow captures the essence of finality?

Oh, sure, you could put on a show, put on a spectacle; you could almost certainly put on something that more people would watch, by someone more people had heard of, playing something more accessible and uplifting. Get Coldplay in, dedicate it to the NHS, have a succession of guest appearances from the pop star pantheon, say worthy things between the songs while looking down the barrel of the camera… even with the need for social distance, it would be doable, and maybe even lucrative. But no one has, because anyone with a shred of instinct for this stuff cannot help but see (and hear) that while Idiot Prayer is a small thing with a smallish audience, it has mass, and mass has gravity. And not even art can escape gravity, particularly not in grave times.

At the end of the film—though clearly not at the end of the filming—Cave stands up from the piano, turns on his heel and strides into the sunlight streaming from a doorway at the far corner of the hall, his footsteps echoing in the emptiness… and I want nothing more than to follow him, out into the light, out into a summer which could be any summer, even though I know it is not just any summer. Instead, the light into which I am reborn from the technological womb of the theatre is the sickly artificial light of the lobby, with its reflective plastics and garish commercial colours, its air of sudden apocalyptic abandonment… which in turn gives way to the drizzle and darkness of a Nordic November evening.

No redemption tonight. Maybe not ever. But it’s always been that way.