Tuesday 30 November 2010

Men Of Money, Women Of Steel

"But titanic, too, is the onslaught of money upon this intellectual force. Industry too, is earthbound like the yeoman. It has its station, and its materials stream up out of the earth. Only high finance is wholly free, wholly intangible. Since 1789 the banks, and with them the bourses, have developed themselves on the credit-needs of an industry growing ever more enormous, as a power on their own account, and they will (as money wills in every Civilisation) to be the only power. The ancient wrestle between the productive and the acquisitive economies intensifies now into a giant gigantomachy of intellects, fought out in the lists of the world-cities. This battle is the despairing struggle of technical thought to maintain its liberty from money-thought.

The dictature of money marches on, tending to its material peak, in the Faustian Civilisation as in every other. And now something happens that is intelligible only to one who has penetrated to the essence of money. If it were anything tangible, then its existence would be forever - but, as it is a form of thought, it fades out as soon as it has thought its economic world to finality, and has no more material upon which to feed. It thrust into the life of the yeoman’s countryside and set the earth moving; its thought transformed every sort of handicraft; today it presses victoriously upon industry to make the productive work of entrepreneur and engineer and labourer alike its spoil. The machine with its human retinue, the real queen of this century, is in danger of succumbing to a stronger power. Money, also, is beginning to lose its authority, and the last conflict is at hand in which Civilisation receives its conclusive form - the conflict between money and blood."

Oswald Spengler "The Decline Of The West"

"The dictature of money" and "material peak" are obviously the Spenglerian terms for "neoliberalism" and "late capitalism" respectively. Curiously, the birth and death of these phenomena can be dated from visits to the British Isles by teams from the Washington-based International Monetary Fund, the first to the United Kingdom in 1976, and the second to the Republic of Ireland in 2010.

The original IMF bailout to the UK, negotiated by Labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey, has always been something of a historical curiosity, following on as it did attacks on Sterling on the international markets based on Treasury deficit statistics that have subsequently been found to have been unduly bleak. Even the original pessimistic estimates could have been ameliorated if Britain had included her newly discovered oil reserves within her potential earnings, as Tony Benn had recommended. Although the IMF loan was rapidly paid back within three years, the monetarist incomes policies insisted on by the IMF were the first victory for finance capitalism over industrial capitalism, and the harbinger for the neoliberal decades that were to follow. I leave it to others as to outline Healey’s membership of certain elite global plutocratic groupings and to speculate as to what extent these events were genuinely accidental.

Certainly in the years since 1979 when the IMF loan was originally paid back, money in its neoliberal capitalist guise has "thought its economic world to finality" in a way that would have been beyond even Spengler’s fertile imagination. Not for nothing did Spengler call Western civilisation "Faustian", as he believed that Western man’s attempt at "expansion into infinity" via abstraction piled upon abstraction was always doomed to failure, but the inventive excesses of the money men eclipsed the achievements of the engineers and scientists many times over. Although, remarkably, the glass and steel temples to mammon are still being constructed in the City Of London, much like the last Mayan temples that were being decorated as the people starved in the fields, the deeper insolvency of the system is presenting finance capitalism with an unenviable predicament: the only way to save the system is to cancel the debts and wipe out the bondholders, and yet it is the bondholders who primarily run and benefit from the system.

In the last few weeks, the IMF have visited Dublin as part of the EU/IMF "team" who have been offering Ireland "bailout" loans of up to €85 billion on its sovereign and bank debts. Although this has been largely viewed as an archetypal neoliberal problem/reaction/solution "shock doctrine" wealth transfer from the working population to the financiers, there are unusual factors involved that give cause for consideration. Most notable is that the IMF portion of the loan is charging interest at 3.12 to 4%, as opposed to the contribution from the European Union’s European Financial Stability Facility which is reportedly being charged at 6.7%+.

The nation that has provided the greatest portion of funds to the EFSF is Germany, at 27%, and who may have requested the punitive interest rate in response to the Irish tempting the German Depfa bank to relocate to Dublin’s International Financial Services Centre, in which a special law was passed in Ireland (S.I. 470/2002) allowing it to operate as it wished. Depfa was sold to the German Hypo Real Estate bank in 2007, and subsequently brought its parent down (at a cost of €50 billion to the German taxpayer) thanks to its exposure to American municipal bonds conducted under lax Irish banking regulation. That the bailout also effectively marks the end of the Irish banking sector is a forewarning of what will happen to the Anglo-Saxon banking system as a whole, for which Ireland was an outpost.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the first international leader who has talked of punishing bondholders of both bank and sovereign debt instead of allowing the debts to be passed onto citizens in the form of tax rises or cuts to services. That she was persuaded not to by the European Central Bank with regards to Ireland, has merely resulted in an interest rate that will ensure that Ireland has to default. The certainty that Ireland cannot in practice tolerate the terms of this bailout effectively ends the era of neoliberalism, the era of money. Where Merkel leads, sooner or later, all other world leaders will have to follow.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Tethered Balls

Back in 1978, Dunlop had a vision. If we'd listened to them and installed twenty million of these fuckers on every green space in Britain we'd have a country free of obesity, heart disease, social exclusion, class distinctions, boredom, health clubs and kettling, instead of this mouldering shithole of unfairness, juddering bellies and ignorance.

Don't blame me, though, I've still got mine and I feel fit, classless and very popular indeed.


Sunday 21 November 2010

Heart Breaker

There were few more important bands in the 1970’s than Free, and even fewer whose significance has been so underestimated or misunderstood by posterity. Lyrically utterly conventional, sonically they were revolutionary. An acknowledged influence on Gang Of Four and U2, their clean, plangent dynamics can be heard all over post-punk. Not only were they the first modern band, they were also the first truly European one. Starting at a remarkably young age, they would complete their first two albums while still in their teens, evolving a sound that was unlike anything that had come before.

The key to Free’s sound is their innovative conception of space. The early beat groups had followed the rock’n’roll template of layering their instruments on top of one another to create an incoherent adrenalin rush. Later innovators like Hendrix and The Who would create a more dynamic sense of space by weaving instruments in and out of the mix, provoking a giddy feeling in the listener of the sound arriving and disappearing at oblique angles. The spaciousness in Free’s music was of an altogether different conception. It is almost as if the four players (Rodgers’ voice was very much an instrument) occupy a separate corner of the studio, as though at the apexes of a rectangle. Each one then democratically adds their playing to the mix, without either dominating or surrendering to the others. At all times in the music, each instrument can be clearly picked out in a patient give-and-take that is the antithesis of the frenetic American rock’n’roll that originally inspired it.

The result is a music of clean, clear, angular surfaces, in which Simon Kirke’s unfussy, metronomic drumming provides the deep-piled foundations for Andy Fraser’s sensitive, tentative bass and Rodgers’ misty vocals. Most remarkable is the guitar playing of Paul Kossoff, which, forever weighing the balance between restraint and cathartic release, is at times almost impossibly piquant. A tragic character even by the desperate standards of rock music, Kossoff was an utterly broken man even before he had left his twenties. By the time of the band’s last coherent album, 1970’s "Highway", he had started playing on a different page from the rest of the group. A perfect example is on the opening "Highway Song", in which he interrupts a wry, jaunty exercise in nostalgia with a brief solo of almost cosmic grief. The effect is like stepping out of a caravan and finding that it’s been parked in a cathedral.

Free would struggle on for three more years, recording and touring as best they could between Kossoff’s illnesses, but their career was effectively over. Even so, there would be further moments of greatness that rewarded their doggedness. Never having quite fulfilled their vast potential, they split in 1973, with the tough professionals Rodgers and Kirke forming the kernel of the slicker Bad Company, while Kossoff and Fraser were left to make their own tragic and (in Fraser’s case) ultimately heroic journeys.

In Bad Company

There can't have been a more critically loathed band of the 1970's than Bad Company. Put together by Peter Grant along the same Humble Pie/Led Zeppelin formula of gathering a disparate group of experienced British music industry lags into a neat clean package to siphon American teenagers' discretionary income via extended stadium tours, they were disdainfully considered by the gatekeepers of taste to be a coarsened, dumbed-down derivative of their parent band Free.

I have to say that I'd bought into this myth myself, but, on recently checking them out, I've had to come to the contrary conclusion that they were absolutely fugging brilliant. Why is the consensus always wrong?

Saturday 20 November 2010

Not a dawn is greeted with a bird song

It's 1971, and Cliff Richard hasn't had a big hit for ages, despite trying to keep up with the hairy zeitgeist by releasing a series of singles that nibble at the edges of the counter culture. Eager to appear on 'Top Of The Pops' again he calls up Hank Marvin and secures 'Silvery Rain', a big song with a big message: indiscriminate use of pesticides is killing the countryside. It only reaches number 27 and the furry back bees are doomed.

Not content with being both ten years ahead of his time and five years out of date, Cliff is also road testing the 'thinking about every word whilst employing elaborate story telling hand gestures' performance style that would later reach a pinnacle with 'the young wear their freedom like cheap perfume' line from 'Carrie Doesn't Live Here Anymore'.


Friday 19 November 2010

The Management

"One of the few genuinely funny bits of research in recent years was Liam Hudson’s correlation of the social origin of British doctors with the parts of the body on which they later specialised. What he discovered was a statistically valid correlation between social background and U and non-U specialisms. Those from English public schools showed a significant tendency to specialise in work on the head as opposed to the body below the waist, the surface of the body as opposed to its innards, the living body as opposed to the dead body and the male body as opposed to the female body. This fact bore little relation to professional status - it goes deeper than that; into subconscious perceptions of cleanliness and dirtiness. (Clearly, the boardroom is the head and the factory the bowels of British industry.) Of course all doctors belong on the clean side vis-a-vis industry, but some are cleaner than others; they have their own aristocracy."

Alistair Mant "The Rise And Fall Of The British Manager"

Alistair Mant was an Australian social scientist who by 1977 had spent his career studying the role of management in British industry. His experiences led him to publish "The Rise And Fall Of The British Manager", nominally an excoriating attack on British management theory and practice, but also an extremely perceptive and funny dissection of the British national psyche.

By the 1970’s, Britain had, depending upon how you measured it, experienced well over a century of gentle but significant industrial decline, but it was in this new decade that this decline appeared to take on a critical mass and vertiginously accelerate. Its industries succumbed to a number of crises arising from internal labour disputes, external competition, supply shocks and product quality issues. Mant was convinced that all these issues were somehow related, and that the problem went deeper than simply how British business went about its business.

Mant identified the kernel of the problems in two key psychological patterns. Firstly, Britain had become a nation that was hooked on dependency. Like the stereotypical welfare-dependent family, it depended on "benevolent" others (the USA, the international money markets) and projected its fights inward, in industrial strife. In comparison, nations such as Germany and Japan behaved like the stereotypical middle-class family, with tightly established internal dependencies (Daddy as breadwinner) and projected their fights outward (in all-conquering export drives). Secondly, there was the national habit that he christened British Binary Thought - the tendency of the British to divide the world into clean/dirty dualisms, between the "clean" professions and "dirty" industry, between "clean" white collar work and "dirty" blue collar work, between "pure" science and "applied" science. Even the country itself could be divided between the "dirty" north where industry was located and the "clean" south, where its profits were spent.

There is nowadays a conceit, propounded mainly by the Left, that Britain was a country whose basic values were inherently opposed to Neoliberalism; that the Neoliberals only succeeded through an almost Trotskyite strategy of manipulation and entryism. Reading Mant’s observations from the Seventies themselves, this can be shown to be not the case - it is only too clear that the British couldn’t wait to rid themselves of their dirty, polluting industries, with their albatross-like histories of failure. If anything the Neoliberals were knocking on an open door, their Machiavellian exploits only delaying their ascendancy. Neoliberalism can ultimately be seen not to be an injection of hard-nosed business pragmatism, but as a flight from reality. Buoyed up with the new North Sea oil revenues, and with casino finance waiting eagerly in the wings, Neoliberalism offered the British what they had always secretly yearned for - a way of earning a living without having to make anything; that is without having to actually do any proper work. As Mant puts it:

"The British, with a genius for advertising, take marketing to mean the creation of favourable impressions about probably indifferent artefacts. To a Swede, for example, marketing is more like telling it like it is (and attending meticulously to every little detail till the customer has it working). Telling it like it is works so long as the end product can be relied upon to sell itself in the end. With such marketing skills, marginal improvement in British design and production would work wonders. Why has production slipped so in Britain? I can think of no explanation so convincing as that production is associated, in the national subconscious, with factories, and factories with satanism."

There was only one significant individual in British public life who was to offer any serious resistance to Neoliberalism, and that was the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill. The Miners' Strike is generally considered to be a class conflict in which the forces of Thatcherism deliberately sought to break the back of organised labour. However deeper reflection gives pause to reconsider, as a simple class-based narrative doesn’t explain the sheer irrationality of the dispute. For a start, Thatcher wasn’t simply trying to destroy the NUM - she was trying to destroy the mining industry itself, regardless of its union representation. This is why the Miners’ Strike is so baffling to foreign observers - where else in Europe has a government deliberately set out to prematurely destroy the main source of the nation’s wealth? Has this ever happened on any other occasion in the entirety of history? Also, if this was primarily a class struggle, why was the rest of the Labour movement so lukewarm, indeed occasionally hostile, to the miners’ cause? Significant also was the fact that the useful idiots of the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers saw their pits eviscerated just as comprehensively as those of the NUM.

It is difficult to resist the observation that mining is probably the dirtiest industry of them all, with its blackened men descending to the bowels of the earth, its long history of exploitation and disasters, its daunting winding wheels, and its blasted landscapes peppered with slag heaps. It is also difficult to resist speculating that the destruction of the mining industry was ultimately, at the subconscious level, an exercise in socio-cultural hygiene, enacted by the Right, but passively abetted by the broad Left. It is worth noting that a few short years later, the Cornish tin miners, no political threat to anybody, also saw their industry wiped off the map. Scargill had been shrewd enough to realise that it was the entire mining industry that was meant to be destroyed, rather than just his union. What he didn’t realise was that he wasn’t just fighting Thatcher - he was also fighting the ghost of William Blake.

The idea that Britain could replace productive industry with the reckless exploitation of North Sea oil, and the even more reckless financial "innovations" that the Big Bang opened up for the City of London, survived the Thatcher years and entered the political philosophy of New Labour. Prior to the 1997 election victory that put Labour into office, Gordon Brown had toyed with the idea of a German-style industrial bank that would lend investment money to British firms at low rates of interest. Like all his good intentions, this idea drifted into the ether, and the New Labour era was marked by an almost total absence of any kind of industrial policy - the huge pools of unemployment left by the Tories were instead hoovered up into an expanded public sector. Note again, that these were on the whole "clean" jobs. New Labour also strengthened the dependency culture with their prolific use of management consultants, the classic "absent fathers" who removed from managers the need to make painful, dirty decisions themselves.

The extended fantasy of Neoliberalism has only recently hit the rocks, and the full reckoning has yet to manifest itself. Nevertheless, the deep delusions inherent in British political discourse continue to manifest themselves in true Binary Thinking style, with the Left/Right debates about whether the City of London or the Public Sector shoulder the burden of the costs, as though they are two scales on a balance. Both in reality are dependent for their existence on the income from manufacturing production, and yet the main political parties offer only the vaguest bromides with regard to a new emphasis on manufacturing. The continuing refusal to be serious, even at this late hour, will have further deeply painful ramifications. The consequences for both the City and the State sector are likely to be catastrophic.

When the cussing has to stop

Help me, for I have become obsessed with 'Indoor League'.

Everything about the show mesmerises me: the fear behind Fred Trueman's oh so casual introductions, the Quaker Oats coloured faces, the Dickensian names, the couldn't care less hair, the relentless Yorkshire-ness, the fat beer glasses, dense knits and thick lenses, the intense concentration.

This is serious stuff, with cash prizes, which may be why everyone gives these pub pursuits the gravitas of the Heraclean games, insisting that they require superhuman skill and a degree in physics. Listen to the darts commentary with its emphasis on the uncanny, otherworldly accuracy / sheer monotony of two fairly average darts players as they take an eon to get down from 501, and the commentator's odd obsession with the physique of contender Colin Minton ("he's a heavy boy...").

So, here's a long clip, but one that deserves to be watched in its entirety. It tells you more about Northern life in the seventies than any sociological study, and more about table football than you thought there was to know.

If you're wondering about the dart board, it is, of course, a Yorkshire dartboard - no nonsense, no trebles and no bullshit outer bull. I'll see thee...


Sunday 14 November 2010

Wall Of Voodoo

"Magic persists. Repeatedly driven underground, it repeatedly surfaces to become part of events - in the early modern witch-mania, in the magnetism-spiritualism-theosophy of the 19th century. It is dismissed as superstition, anachronism, survival, subcultural idiosyncrasy, deviance and lag. But today magic flares up so insistently that it commands attention from a surprised intelligentsia which had not noticed that the occult underground has been seething for 150 years….Magic is probably more than cultural lag. It even goes beyond persistence of occult elements in the person category and the ego……Perhaps the occult is the natural expression of a society in which we live surrounded by machines, bureaucracies, technologies and planning systems made by human rationality but unfathomable to us personally."

Daniel O’Keefe "Stolen Lightning"

One of the interesting aspects of that strain of popular music that can be broadly called counter-cultural rock, by which I mean the left-field popular musics that stretched from the beat groups of the mid-60’s to the New Pop of the early-80’s, is that there has never been an attempt to really understand what kind of collective project it really was. Although it is usually seen as a kind of generational relief-valve, or as an attempt at escapism through the formation of subcultures, these explanations don’t really explain its most striking phenomena, which are its depravity and its appalling rates of death and mental illness.

But in what previous historical milieu would we find male-bonding, internecine power struggles, reckless drug-taking, excessive horseplay, ritualistic ecstasies and bouts of madness? Uncomfortably enough, there is only one: the province of magic. However, in the mature magics of well-established contemporary tribal groups, magic is surrounded by numerous taboos to protect the tribal members. Magic is restricted to an appointed shaman or witchdoctor; consciousness-altering drugs are reserved for special, infrequent ceremonies; magical "appeal" structures are created to ensure magical disputes are settled without disrupting tribal harmony. Conversely, counter-cultural rock groups, with their retinues of roadies, dealers, favoured engineers and producers, and assorted hangers-on, recall the earlier, more dangerous stages of experimental magic, especially that of the all-male initiation lodges of the Neolithic period, when ambitious young men rejected the mechanical solidarity of the clan system and withdrew from the tribe in order to expropriate the sacred for themselves and their own self-empowerment.

In addressing the idea of rock music being primarily a magical phenomenon, we must first define the concept of "mana". The term originates in the studies of the Melanesian Islanders of the South Pacific conducted by the anthropologist Robert Codrington in the 19th century. "Mana" was the term the islanders themselves gave to that curious frisson that manifests itself when humans enact with one another socially. Nowadays we have any number of terms for it - "charisma", "spirit", "empathy" etc., but Codrington’s insight was that when it is first noticed, it is given a general term. The French sociologists of the early 20th century used the "mana" concept to construct a theory that posited that the realisation of mana was the origin of religion, in that primitive man realises that mana is increased through ritualised, sacred ceremonies, and these in themselves give birth to both his conception of society, and that the efficacy of that society’s actions are increased by increased codification of the mana rituals. "Magic" is then a secondary phenomenon that appropriates the resulting sacred rituals, objects and texts for personal or group efficacy i.e. it is an expropriation of the sacred.

Life in the late twentieth century western world, with the organic solidarity of its social structures, buttressed with the solid ego protectors of the civic institutions, was frequently bereft of mana. Capitalism, with its obsession with individualism is particularly mana-repellant, but even Socialism with its Marxist distrust of religious opium, sees the mana-affect of collective action as at best merely coincidental. In many ways contemporary western man’s position is unenviable, because if his social structures collapse, he has almost no personal magics with which to combat social super-ego pressures. This is why Emile Durkheim considered that modern "anomic" suicide was closely linked to the group-induced "voodoo death" of primitive man.

We can then see that what truly attracted post-war English musicians to black American musics, was not pre-eminently their rhythmic innovations or "soulful" emotional frankness (although these were important), but rather that they crackled with magical mana. The soul of Sam Cooke or Ray Charles or Motown still radiated the spiritual aura of Gospel. The Blues, with its hellhound-on-my-tail fatalism, still had its spidery roots dug firmly into voodoo. It is easy to understand how such hedonistic depressives as Eric Clapton, John Lennon and Brian Jones could become obsessed with them. The beat groups’ adoption and promulgation of this mana was so successful that their ambitions turned to the most daring project of all - to assault the objective social frame of reality and de-rationalise western society. This change in purpose can be accurately dated - it was the moment that John Lennon pronounced that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Jesus Christ was, of course, the greatest magician in history.

As the Sixties progressed, the leading rock groups almost entered into an arms race with each other in adopting ever more exotic and far-flung magics. The Beatles and The Who adopted eastern mysticism and had their own gurus. The Doors adopted Native American shamanism. Hendrix invoked voodoo. The Rolling Stones dabbled with the occultism of Aleister Crowley, whereas Led Zeppelin immersed themselves in it. Drug ingestion became epidemic, with the trend being to harder and harder substances. Even the appearance of the bands became more wizard-like, with ever-longer hair, flowing robes, and even the occasional adoption of face paint. To become the biggest band in the world meant becoming the most magical band in the world.

Another focus of the original initiation lodges’ work was in the crafts, such as pottery, woodwork, and smithing (swordsmithing was the original "black art") which were mired in sacred lore. Similarly, soundsmiths like Page, Hendrix, Townshend, Gilmour and Blackmore spent enormous effort not only on the mastery of their instruments, but also eventually in their mastery of the studio. This was not (as is commonly understood) an attempt at proficiency for proficiency’s sake, but simply an attempt to (literally) cover their tracks, to mystify and obscure how they did it - to amplify the sense that what they did was truly magical.

By the mid-70’s the counter-culture had pretty much burnt itself out through an inevitable wave of death, madness and exhaustion. The original viziers, mostly semi-retired to home counties mansions or extended tax exile, only emerged infrequently for bloated stadium tours with accompanying live albums. The sense of magical insurrection was only kept vaguely alive by the simulacra musics of glam and glitter, until the next generation’s magical wave, intensely jealous of the "achievements" of those who came before them, had their chance to assault the objective social frame.

Punk, or more specifically the "post-punk" that was to follow in its wake, resumed the magical project, resurrecting Crowley-esque occultism (via the Industrial Records stable), Primitivism (The Pop Group, The Slits), Spiritualism (The Fall), death-cult voodoo-ism (Siouxsie, most Goth) and Eastern mysticism (Cabaret Voltaire’s mantras). Post-punk even had its own esoteric/occultist generalists in Killing Joke and Joy Division, very much the equivalents of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. In coining these new musics, post-punk also had the magical new black musics of funk and reggae to plunder. Dub reggae was particularly irresistible for two reasons; firstly it embodied the kind of Spenglerian depth-space effects that are so vital to Western man’s sense of himself. Secondly, being essentially the Rastafarian religious music, it was drenched in mana.

In socio-cultural terms, Joy Division have always been an enigma. Why are they so perplexing? Why are they so compelling? In magical terms, however, they make perfect sense. Ian Curtis was, like Jim Morrison before him, basically a failed shaman. The original shamen of northern Europe and trans-Russia were frequently chosen for their odd appearance, and epilepsy was seen as an advantage for the head start it gave into altered states of consciousness (remarkably Curtis seems to have induced himself into gaining such a condition). The initiation of the shaman was the ritual of death and rebirth. Entering a state of trance-possession, he would ritually "die" before his audience, and then travel to the chthonic underworld and commune with the darkest spirits, then rise to the heavens to meet the angels. Finally, his broken spirit would be put back together and be "reborn" in his physical body, his spiritual immortality a ward against psychic death. What Curtis was attempting was almost unbelievably reckless and dangerous, but it wasn’t suicidal. Quite the opposite in fact - it was an attempt to achieve psychic invulnerability. His mistake was perhaps to attempt it outside a properly constituted order. As a secondary effect, Joy Division left behind perhaps the most magical music of them all, a mesmerising record of the psychic battles that mark the first stage of the shamanic initiate’s journey. Following his death, the re-membering of the cultural body had to be attempted by the bands that were left behind, and hence the inevitable, necessary vitality of New Pop. The likes of "New Gold Dream" are an attempt to create a "wholeness" to fill the void opened by "Closer".

If anything, the punks had been even more reckless than the hippies, and had burnt themselves out even sooner. If the death of Curtis seems like a milestone, it is because there was a subconscious recognition that this kind of behaviour could not go on any more. Certainly there would be excessive behaviour and tragic deaths after post-punk, but these would be outliers, ultra-narcissists too self-absorbed to realise that the game was over, rather than being connected to any musical-historical thread. Mirroring the great ethical religions like Christianity and Islam which marginalise magic, rock music was to enter its managerial, bureaucratic stage, in which innovation was to give way to the patternwork of the endless repetition of approved forms or "genres". What little magic that was still practiced in rock was the coarsest of all - the black magic of Death Metal and its sub-genres, often coming from lands outside the Anglo-American rock mainstream.

In hindsight it is no surprise that the "best" music, the most vital, the most mana-infused, is that made in the crucial periods 1966-1971, and 1977-1981, as these were the most magical periods, the moments when the counter-culture most threatened to tear the objective social frame of reality asunder. However, that threat always appeared more promising to those making the threat than the "threatened", who, witnessing a mainstream culture that had barely changed, largely didn’t even deign to notice the threat at all. For the neolithic magicians, the enormous risks of playing with the fire of raw magic were worth it because the result could be the opportunity to overthrow the tribal order, and remake the world in their own image. Although a few counter-cultural musicians could accumulate enormous personal wealth and prestige, ultimately the strong, defensible egos of modern man ensured that they were to some extent always confined to the margins. Dangerous and reckless, the great project of counter-cultural rock was always destined to end in failure.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Incompatible, Errant Parents of Hip Hop

From left to right: The crumbling New York Transit system of the 70s, schoolyard skipping chants, Muhammad Ali, Michael Manley (the austere subversion of DJ/MC culture), Milton Friedman, porn, Sesame Street, the Black Panther Party, Marvel superheroes, Governor Nelson Rockefeller (also Vice-President to Gerald "drop dead" Ford), wrestling feuds and tags, Redd FoxxBlaxploitation cinema, and TV remote control (hand-held 'sampling' in every home). 

Monday 8 November 2010

Breaking Away (1979)

All the kids in my street worshipped this film, and we never seemed to tire of it, even though we’d all sometimes watch it together three or four times in the same week. It chokes me up even now just thinking about it.

Mercifully free of the psychopathology that seems to infect most ‘70’s cinema, it blended a tender portrait of the drift of adolescence with a clear view of the under-examined American class system. Anyway I’m not going to subject it to a long exposition, because it doesn’t need one.

It’s magic. Pure and simple.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Rolling Thunder

The Vietnam War, like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in our own era, is often mistaken for being an imperialist war. However, historically, true imperialist wars tend to be won quickly by the ruthless, dedicated imperialists, instead of resulting in interminable, humiliating defeats. What wars like Vietnam actually are is intellectual wars, in that their ultimate rationale derives from theories generated by small cabals of intellectuals in politically-motivated think-tanks, that are themselves dedicated to the maintenance and furtherance of the works of earlier politico-economic philosophers or philosophical schools.

These theories, usually derived from misdiagnosed, exaggerated or even invented threats, are packaged into narratives that derive plausibility by working backwards from the perceived "vulnerabilities" that are usually generated from status anxieties ("they hate our way of life") and are presented to politicians through avenues of influence previously established by corporate or military-industrial bodies that in turn stand to derive secondary benefit from any resulting conflict. Finally they are sold to the public in a series of soundbites ("The Domino Theory", "The Axis Of Evil", "The War On Terror" etc.) that turn what were originally obscure and/or marginal theories into self-evident Manichean inevitabilities.

In world history (as opposed to Western history) this kind of behaviour is a reliable indicator of civilisational decline, as it marks the moment where a society has reached a stage of wealth and comfort where it is unwilling to recognise or act on the principle that war, or any other sustained effort, requires sacrifice. The society therefore adopts the magical axiom that sacrifice can be replaced by intellect, as enacted in finessed strategy and/or technology. Only a nation in the intellectual stage in which belief in the efficacy of brainpower and technology is paramount could contemplate involvement in such wars, and indeed one of the principle self-deceptions involved in them is the belief that the enemy can quickly be overcome with either shock-and-awe firepower (technology), or by inserting small numbers of troops in advisory or policing roles to advance the cause of native allies (brainpower). In short, every effort is made to create and sustain the illusion that no serious sacrifice will be necessary.

"Rolling Thunder" was the name given to the United States’ air offensive against North Vietnam that commenced in 1965, and rolled along under various appellations ("Menu", "Linebacker", "Linebacker II") until 1972. From the start, the policy contained a striking contradiction in that though it was magically believed that sustained aerial bombing of infrastructure would persuade the North Vietnamese to capitulate, it was also considered that certain infrastructural facilities and defensive systems (primarily airfields) should be excluded from targeting for humanitarian or diplomatic reasons. This had two notable results. The first was that American bomber pilots had to fly to their targets at low-level and in clear conditions to accurately hit their targets, making themselves vulnerable to the Vietnamese defences. The second was that the policy clearly set itself up for expansion and compromise on the event that it’s initial targetting conventions failed to gain results.

Within a year of the beginning of "Rolling Thunder", the North Vietnamese had started to collect large numbers of downed American pilots, and this presented them with an opportunity for a propaganda coup, which they initiated by inviting the world’s media to Ho Chi Minh City, nominally to confirm that their prisoners were being well-treated, but with the real motive of re-framing the conflict in sympathy with their viewpoint.

What amazed (and even to some extent appalled) Western journalists was the enormous confidence the North Vietnamese had in their eventual victory. At first this was suspected of being some kind of bluff, but as the sheer ebullience of their hosts persisted, through every rank of official they came across, for the entire duration of their time in the capital, the realisation dawned that the Communists meant it. They really expected to win. And the basis for their confidence was simple - they knew that they were prepared to sacrifice more, to endure more, than the Americans and their allies.

The U.S. could never match the levels of sacrifice of their enemies, even though they had committed themselves far more than they had originally intended. The only way they could escalate their effort was through moral compromise; firstly by loosening their definition of what constituted an acceptable target (by taking in civilian areas), then by increasing the amount of ordnance dropped (by engaging heavy B-52 bombers) and finally by secretly breaking international law (by bombing neighbouring Cambodia). Even today, footage of the destruction wreaked by the American bombing of the Indochinese countryside provokes a kind of hypnotic awe. Like Hollywood, the United States military had become addicted to pointless pyrotechnics.

The lesson, which still hasn’t been learned, and perhaps for many deeply embedded cultural reasons, cannot be learned by Westerners, is that technology has the potential to be utterly degrading, in that it offers both diversions from, and false solutions to, problems that require true personal sacrifice to overcome. The cycle of identifying a problem, attempting to utilise an intellectual or technological method to overcome it, failing, and then blaming oneself is, I suspect, perhaps the underlying source of the terrible levels of depression that underpin technologically advanced societies. Perversely, every failure of technology only increases the almost mystical belief that modern society has in it, to the point where people even expect to be raptured away in Singularity with it.

Nevertheless, somewhere far up a river, deep in the Vietnamese jungle, one United States Army officer truly understood the latent power of self-sacrifice and the Human Will. A heretic to contemporary Western principles, he himself had to be exterminated.

Disorganised Sport #4

Disorganised Sport #3

Saturday 6 November 2010

Quatermass Vs. The Me Generation


The last - and least celebrated - of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass serials gains resonance in terms of the surrounding decades. Already heralding the tyranny of reality TV with 1968's Year of The Sex Olympics, in 1979 Kneale concluded Quatermass (A.K.A. Quatermass Conclusion) to low viewing figures and a tepid critical response. Even after Kubrick, Spielberg and Star Wars, it refused to pander to sci-fi's young audience. It was received as the dour grumble of an angry old man, perplexed by the aftermath of the 60s, with a foreboding glance at the ascending Thatcher revolution. Not only was Kneale unhappy with the state of British society, he also publicly expressed disappointment with the production itself, not least its casting.  Highly personal but deeply flawed, this dimly remembered serial is difficult to find on DVD even now.

As with every Quatermass serial, a mysterious alien menace threatens human life. Yet here the herd-like cult of the Planet People welcomes its mind-altering influence, congregating at various neolithic sites in anticipation of transportation to another world. They are actually 'harvested' (vapourised) in such numbers that their gaseous remains turn the sky green. Terroristic street gangs and accelerating social decay conspire to frustrate Quatermass' search for his granddaughter, whose membership of the cult contributes to his heart attack. Only the skepticism, values and expertise of older characters provides a frail path to sanity. The young remain in thrall to trend-following, malign influence, and the nihilism of easy answers. Their natural vitality (protein) is the substance valued by the aliens; whose targeting of youth with visual spectacle and mass persuasion is redolent of the aggressive but 'concealed' methods of advertising; not least in reshaping social relations.

Quatermass is also prescient on the darker urges that would spring from the Age of Aquarius. The Planet People, hippies in the final production, were at one point intended to be punks. To an an ageing iconoclast like Kneale, the youthful rush towards the 'new' was but another aspect of a declining west; in thrall to consumerism, individualist lifestyle politics and social breakdown. The uglier aspects of youth were an ongoing concern for Kneale. In 1965 he wrote the censored, unproduced screenplay The Big, Big Giggle, about a teenage suicide cult; and Biff! Pow! Zap! (1969), which dealt with that most ancient of grumbles: juvenile deliquency. In the 70s, apocalypse tended towards the youthful, or at least fetishised the virility of its struggles. Quatermass views collapse from a rare elderly perspective. 

Like an inconvenient grandparent, this once-popular character was relocated, operated on (re-edited or shortened for foreign markets and repeats), and subject to disputes beyond his control. Ahead of imminent privatisations, the BBC (who found it too gloomy) passed its ailing Cold War icon to Thames TV, who boosted the budget and promoted it as a flagship summer 'event'. However continuity was broken by a three month ITV blackout due to industrial action. Ironic in that Kneale was partly inspired by the winter of discontent. Interrupted broadcast and audience indifference were perversely appropriate to its autumnal despair. Belated conclusion in a colder season only emphasised its most glaring theme: the fragile terrors of ageing, and how the culture of youth grows ever more alien with the passage of time. In Quatermass the elderly are immune to alien manipulation, yet besieged by alienation. 

Disorganised Sport #2

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Gumshoe (1971)

Stephen Frears' debut feature Gumshoe is something of an oddity in British cinema - caught somewhere between kitchen sink, 70s neo-noir and the genre reflexivity of the French New Wave. Albert Finney plays Eddie Ginley - mentally ill, unemployed, but playful and charismatic enough to live out his fantasy as a Chandleresque private eye. Against a backdrop of documentary-ish realism (rare that its Liverpool locations are actually what they say they are), he finds himself drawn deeper into the world of murder and drug trafficking. Through one character, we have glimpses of the following decades' epidemic levels of mental illness, the encroaching gun/drugs trade, welfare dependence, in-family class antagonism, racial conflict (its rarity on TV apparently due to Eddie's then-common racial insults), and the consolations of mass entertainment. It's as though Arthur Seaton, estranged from industry, community and family, has sunk into mental illness, and is now attempting to recover by switching genres. Or he may just be another deluded Scouse Quixote. 
As with many a disillusioned northern male, Eddie's main defence against mental illness is fantasy, largely manufactured by Hollywood. In his fractured, disappointed life, a sense of the cinematic gives him the continuity he craves. It's fitting that Eddie, when not acting as a private eye, moonlights as a nightclub entertainer at 'The Broadway'. Whether talking to the dole, his doctor, or sister-in-law (Beckett favourite Billie Whitelaw as a lost love), the mid-Atlantic showbiz schtick rarely lets up. Those who know him accept this as part of his illness. In the criminal underworld, it's regarded as serious (like entertainment, a world where bullshit is the highest truth). 'Thriller' music (composed by Andrew Llloyd Weber!) jarringly intrudes on the environment in a manner that would make Jean-Luc Godard proud. As with Godard's Paris, or the Newcastle of Get Carter, noir photography doesn't work too hard against the natural murk of the location. It's a film of wistful regret, but holds back from reassuring nostalgia. The uneasy blend of comedy, tragedy and thriller may be why this film usually gets short shrift in considerations of Frears' ouvre. If we were to apply any 'auteurism' to his films, it's the sense of disillusion and quiet desperation shared by almost all his lead characters, not least in their pursuit of a 'game' (from Bloody Kids to the bloody Queen!). He can bounce between genres, classes, nations and centuries with such ease because the discontents of 'playing the game' can be applied to almost all situations. As for Finney, it's notable how he swung from the post-war grime of Nottingham, to the mid-Atlantic technicolour of Tom Jones and Audrey Hepburn, and back down with a graceful bump to the mean streets of Toxteth. Never as graspingly ambitious as Caine or Connery - but far more talented - he has successfully avoided institutionalisation.  
What Gumshoe captures brilliantly is the distinct peculiarity of Liverpool. Even as '2nd City of Empire' it was hardly in line with the traditional industries of northern England. By the 70s, it occupied a space that was in many ways a foretaste of the north to come. Long before Billy Elliot and The Full Monty, Liverpool attempted to transcend declining industry and its miseries through sentiments of entertainment and pop success - the gloss on an insecure service economy. Eventually branded as 'culture', it was of a piece with the self-negating idolatory of Cool Britannia. As a once-thriving port, Liverpool's early proximity to American pop culture is widely documented. Less so is the strange sense of dislocation from mainstream England this arguably led to. In the 21st century this dislocation is far more mainstream. Following WW2, American pop culture promised escape, glamour and pizzazz to a restless working class. The 70s was when America led the way to social fracture, ideological confusion and neoliberal aggression. It wasn't that Liverpool 'fell behind'. Maybe it was just waiting for the rest of the country to catch up.

Monday 1 November 2010





Crisis? What Crisis?

Most people will tell you that we're a Capitalist Economy that runs on oil.

They're wrong.

We're actually an Oil Economy that's run by capitalists.

Because the end of oil will have more effect

On how we live

Than the end of Capitalism.