Category Archives: Music

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.

as events evaporate (material virtuality / virtual materiality)

Harbingers of middle-agedness, #836: your journey around/along the dialectical Möbius strip of culture brings you to points when echoes of multiple previous moments thereupon reflect back at you at the same time. Point in case: Kieran Press-Reynolds on the phenomenon of the virtual rave [via Reynolds Senior].

I’m old enough to not only recall the earlier (though admittedly far clunkier) precedent of partying in Second Life, plus the rather lower bandwidth but nonetheless plausible possibilities of a PHPBBS party tied to a streaming radio station… but also the mid-Nineties commodification of rave, to which I arrived too late to realise just how tawdry an imitation it was of its seed culture. I suspect it’s my now-more-informed awareness of the latter that allows me to feel myself wanting to do the standard middle-aged Kids These Days routine, and to catch myself before doing it. What was once authentic and vital and NOW to me was always-already a copy of a copy of a copy. Virtual raving isn’t meant for me, and nor should it be; it’s for young folk in a world that lacks the space—cultural, economic, physical—for them to go wild in the Actual. More power to them.

But man, the echoes… and the indicators, perhaps, of the pendulum’s backswings yet to come.

… can computer-mediated events ever live up to real-life ones? One of the obvious downsides to virtual raving is the lack of secondary experiences. You can’t meet up with friends and journey to the venue. You can’t mosh, you don’t get that delicious after-feeling of dizzy bliss, and you can’t grab a post-show 2AM pink-frosted donut from Dunkin. It almost feels too easy: You plop in front of a screen and click on an app or type in a URL. Even though going to clubs requires effort and discomfort, there’s seemingly more payoff for that investment of energy.

I vaguely recall someone—I want to say Irvine Welsh, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t him?—observing that a significant percentage of the thrill of drug-based subcultural activity came not from the drugs themselves, but rather from the obstacles overcome in the adventure of acquiring them, distributing them, getting them into the venue, sharing them at the afterparty in the basement of a crumbling four-storey terrace… you get the picture. Point being, it was an embodied experience—collectively embodied. Your McKennas and your Shulgins (and, IIRC, commentators like Reynolds Senior) pointed out the long paleohistory of the party as a shared and (sha)manic letting-down-of-the-hair, and I suspect the urge for that meatspace shindiggery will be harder to kill off than many are assuming right now… just as I suspect that the much-discussed and purportedly permanent upending of sociality due to the pandemic will be a far more temporary thing than is commonly claimed.

Perhaps I am just letting my nostalgia cloud my judgement? More than possible. But how’s this for an echo of post-rave clubland:

The culture surrounding an event is practically as important as the event itself. Club Q, for example, is one of the largest queer clubs on Zoom. Creatively misusing the videoconferencing app, Club Q has devised its own set of freaky features. One of these is what co-founder Andres Sierra calls “the jumbotron,” a sort of virtual rave equivalent to a sports stadium screen. Zoom allows the host of the room to choose which webcam to stream in the middle of the screen, making it both the biggest visible image and literally the center of everyone’s attention. When a club participant’s webcam gets selected, they become a momentary celebrity and freak out — just like with the blown-up shots of surprised spectators at a baseball match.

“It’s less about the celebrity who’s playing, and more a whole entire experience. The hierarchy between performer and audience is gone, and now the audience is part of the show,” Sierra says. “You have to see it in a different way from a real-life club… people come in and say, ‘I didn’t think it was going to be like that!’ Or, ‘Oh, this is way better than reading about it.’”

It was already a hollow fiction by then, of course, but the clubland mags of the mid-Nineties still regularly recited the catechism that contrasted DJ culture to the hoary hero-worship of rockism: The audience was the star! The hierarchy had been defeated! All this even as Cream and others were spearheading a return to the hierarchy, just with a new pantheon installed, their sticker-strewn flightcases now cradling rare vinyl instead of vintage Fenders and Gibsons.

That said, scenes such as Gatecrasher sustained a sense that the audience were a big part of the show. But you could say exactly the same of rockist culture at various points in its history. To pick just a few obvious examples: UK punk, 1976-77 (and arguably beyond); the Blitz Kids and New Romo; even 1990s Britpop and Britrock, to some extent (which I recall as being very dressy and performative things, at both gigs and clubs alike). That tension between the hero on the stage and the hero on the dancefloor will likely oscillate for as long as there’s a music culture to pluck at it… and each new generation will believe that it’s invented the latest inversion, just as it should.

But it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t go all infrastructural on it, right? Right—and here’s the crux:

… but virtual fashion has one big thing going for it: sustainability. It proposes a pixel-sized alternative to the over 32 billion pounds of textiles generated every year, 22 billion of which end up in landfills, according to the EPA in 2017. “Virtual clothing is a product of information technology, which means it’s made out of data and uses no resources except the electricity to keep the machines running,” explains Florian Mecklenburg, co-founder of the design studio Goys & Birls. He recently formed NEW FORMAT, a digital group dedicated to exploring virtual fashion. “Once a piece is created, it can be multiplied—limitless. You can copy and paste the data, and everyone has access to it. If people accept digital clothing, they will rethink their consumer behavior.” Obviously, virtual clothing could never outright eliminate the need to wear fabric in real life, but it could help reduce the mammoth waste caused by empty, vacuous practices like fast fashion.

“[U]ses no resources except the electricity to keep the machines running”… that “except” is doing a whole lot of work, there, just like the server farms and power stations keeping the networks alive.

To be clear, this is not me making an old-man argument against virtual raving, but rather an argument against this shrugging away of the materiality of the virtual. Stuff happening on the internet is not inherently more sustainable than stuff happening elsewhere; in many cases, it’s quite the opposite. Likewise, I’m all for the end of fast fashion—but the connection between rapid and consequence-free swapping of digital outfits and the seductiveness of brands and image on the one hand, and the disposability and effaced consequences of fast fashion on the other, is being rather conveniently waved away here, in much the same way that the materiality of the virtual is waved away with the comment about electricity. All that is solid melts into hot air blown away from a processor chip, as someone didn’t quite say.

As long as humans fetishize commodities and care about appearances, a sizable portion of hypebeasts and shoe fiends won’t care if the items they buy exist in solid form. If a brand like Supreme or Saint Laurent creates enough mystique around an item, consumers will lap it up. The hallucination of cool that comes with owning a rare item from a chic brand has always been what these people were really purchasing — virtual fashion simply keeps the image and jettisons the solid product.

And I just don’t buy this argument at all. I’m reminded of the Gibson riff in (I think) Mona Lisa Overdrive, where a character observes that, in a world where idealised telegenic beauty via elective surgery is a commonplace, the uniqueness and cachet of an individual’s unaltered features ends up being amplified rather than muted, at least for those who can afford not to perform the signifiers of the center of the bellcurve.

Point being: if everyone can get that virtual Kanye-designed Supreme plaid bucket-hat (or whatever it is), the kudos in having the thing is erased immediately. Style (as opposed to fashion) is about scarcity, the search, the time and effort and money expended on the self-curation of the image—it’s about uniqueness, and the aspiration to such. Endlessly duplicable virtual threads, rather than killing off the desire for material threads, will serve only to increase demand for them—and where there is demand, there will be production, because capitalism. The virtual rave is thus not an alternative to fast fashion, but a new captive-market platform for marketing it. (I could probably do a side-bit on the low barriers to duplication and IP piracy here, but I’m supposed to be working…)

The closer:

The virtual rave isn’t a fad — it’s a point on a much larger, longer timeline, a timeline tracking humanity’s slow, hazy descent into becoming totally techno-human, where everything we do in real-life can be done online with equal efficiency and enjoyment level, and we never have to move or leave our bedrooms at all.

Well, we were always-already totally techno-human… but that’s a theoretical quibble (and personal hobby-horse) that this piece doesn’t really merit. The bit that matters here, and the bit that makes me feel old (and more than a bit sad), is the second half, which describes the retreat into a Matrix-esque existence of virtual thrills experienced from isolated pods in terms which, while not exactly utopian (notwithstanding the word “efficiency”), nonetheless suggest something more enthusiastic than mere acceptance.

Maybe it’s too much to expect a sense of dispossession from a generation who’ve never really known the access to public space and shared experience that mine was privileged enough to get? I dunno. But my hope, nonetheless, is that the virtual rave marks the peak of the pendulum’s swing in that direction, and that in a handful more years, the kids will come raging out of those bedrooms and find a way (and a space) to make noisy, colourful chaos in the Actual. Speaking only for myself, growing old in a world where that isn’t happening is perhaps the most depressing version of late adulthood I can imagine—a world where the forces of order have triumphed totally.