Thursday 22 December 2011

When I was a kid, about seven or eight, so around 1977 or 1978, I asked my Dad what the future would be like.

I remember his answer clearly as just after he’d finished telling me we had an accident.

We were driving out of Barrow-in-Furness and into the Lake District at the time, along what’s known as the Coast Road. This must have been in August because it was a beautiful day and because the shipyard had a fixed holiday in August every year known as “Vickers' Fortnight”, two weeks when the Yard closed down. The car we were in was rented, we never owned one, my parents perceiving them as a waste of money. Why would anyone really need a car in a town the size of Barrow-in-Furness?

I don’t know why I chose this particular moment to ask, certainly I had lots of questions about the future I was growing up into and, even as a child, a sort of melancholy that there were all kinds of things I wouldn’t live long enough to see, life on other planets, immortality, robots, space travel. Though now, as an adult, it feels as though these things are really possible within my lifetime. On reflection, this confluence, my father’s optimistic description of the future everyone believed to be over the horizon, our little working class family in its rented car going off on a day trip and the car that came swinging round the far bend, windshield glittering in the mid-day sun, and onto our side of the road seems too perfect to have been real. Nonetheless, it happened.

The future, my dad explained to me, would be The Leisure Society. We currently lived in what was called The Affluent Society and this would be the next stage in the forward progress of mankind. As technology and automation reduced the need for people to work and as things became more efficient and durable, so we would shift to being primarily consumers of goods and services: we would work less because we would have fewer needs in some ways. His example was the light bulb. In the future you would have light-bulbs that lasted indefinitely, meaning that you would buy one in a lifetime and that built-in-disposability would become a thing of the past. Freed from onerous work we would concentrate on the higher things, no doubt, poetry, love, the cultivation of interpersonal relationships and so on. You may well say, on reflection, that my father was naive, but this was a broadly held notion at the time, that technology was liberating and fundamentally, would liberate us from work. The machines would suffer for us, they would produce vastly more than we could manage to and we would live on the fruit of their labour.

I was thrilled to hear this of course, as a seven year old who had been past the Shipyard that seemed to be most people in the town’s destiny numerous times and seen the men coming in and out, heard the whistle in the morning that meant that work had started, the whistles at dinner time and at the end of the day, who lived and went to school near the vast, noisy sheds that dominated the road into the town. My dad didn’t like work, no-one liked it as far as I could tell and to be told that it might slowly evaporate as I grew toward it, minimising and reducing year on year until I was free of it all together lifted a lid off the future. The sun was streaming in through the car windows, the sky was vast and turquoise blue, we were on holiday and I was sitting on the edge of the back seat, straight-backed, bolt upright with attention. My dad was perhaps as caught up in this vision of what was to come as I was and this is why, perhaps, he didn’t see the oncoming car until it was almost too late.

Suddenly we were swerving wildly to the left as the other vehicle cut across the white line and into a potential head-on collision, the hedgerow came whipping in through the open window, the tyres bumping and rattling, there was a tremendous thud as the other car went into the left side of us, sent the moulded plastic ashtray that they used to fix into car doors in the Seventies leaping across the backseat and into my lap.

The other car pulled back to the right and then accelerated away. My dad made a U-turn after a few moments of recovering from the impact and checking we were all OK, then, much to my  excitement, set off in pursuit. but the car eventually disappeared among the back roads and in the end, after protests from my mum, he gave up.

What happened on the rest of the day I can’t remember, probably we drove out somewhere in the Lakes and had a picnic, I swam, or threw a Frisbee around with my sister, or read a comic in the sun.

 But despite the unprecedented shock of the accident and the drama of the chase, still, it wasn’t quite enough to wipe away that image of the future my father gave me.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Robert Altman's 3 Women, Peter Weir's The Last Wave, Francis Bacon's Landscape and a conversation in a hotel in 1978

“See the cliffs again, be again between the cliffs and the sea, reeling shrinking with your hands over your ears, headlong, innocent, suspect, noxious” - Beckett

Concierge: Good evening sir, how was tonight’s event?

Screenwriter: …

Concierge: Sir?

Screenwriter: I had the worst conversation with a woman at a party. Just the worst. The kind of conversation where things slip out of your control before you’ve even opened you mouth. You watch the words skip down out of reach like goats on a hillside. Your self so exposed and yet strange. Just the worst.

Concierge: I’m sorry to hear that sir, but I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as you’ve described, these things always sound worse to ourselves than to the other party.

Screenwriter: Yes sure, but this is different, this is important, this was at an industry party and things have a tendency to get around. No, things just do get around, you say something or do something at one of those things and it's like piss in the swimming pool, it’s everywhere, and you can’t get it back in the tube. The worst thing is, that wasn’t me last night. I don’t know what happened. I’m a writer, I control language and yet there I was talking to this girl and everything was totally, totally out of my control.

Concierge: I’m sorry to hear that sir, would you like to talk about it?

Screenwriter: Maybe. I said some stupid stuff though, I was trying to impress her, talk about the projects I was doing but then I realised that no one cares about these stupid little gigs, a scene here and a scene there on some useless studio-built production so I tried to bulk it out a bit, bring it somewhere unexpected and told her I was working on a radio play that I’m also directing.

Concierge: Well done sir that sounds like a fascinating project.

Screenwriter: But it isn’t! I mean, I’m not working on one! That’s really just the start of the problem too, I don’t know anything about these sorts of things either but this talking at the party was  just got out of hand. It continued to roll away from me down the hill and the words were coming from god knows where, but I started pitching this whole thing to this girl right then and there.

Concierge: Pitching the radio play which you haven’t written?

Screenwriter: Yes! It was about two characters from films last year, Altman’s 3 Women and The Last Wave directed by some Australian guy. I told her about how both of these films finished with the ending of the world in some manner, and some sort of direct transformation and obliteration of the characters.

Concierge: Obliteration sir?

Screenwriter: Yeah, they go up and out and change completely. There’s a guy in one and a girl in the other and the end of each film is a merging of the world around them into something alien and unearthly and they ascend to a higher plane but that wasn’t really the concern of my radio play, it was more like the run up. In my play these people, Chris and Willie are now in a place together, like everything else has merged together and it’s just them that bob up above it, like they both came up from a sinking ship or country and here they are, in this new space.

Concierge: In the water sir? In the sea?

Screenwriter: No, in a bar, like this one in this hotel and they’re here in a booth drinking whatever, drinking cokes and above them they realise is a painting and they have a conversation about this dumb painting and what it means to them and where they’re from and where they’ve been. That’s my radio play. Sounds utterly amazing and a money in the bank right! This aboriginal rock star and this lady that does sand paintings and hardly talks having a conversation about a painting!I’m probably ruined already!

Concierge: I’m sure its… oh… What was the painting of sir?

Screenwriter: It’s a painting I saw in a magazine the other day by Francis Bacon, it was shown in France. Usually, I don’t like his stuff, it’s so incredibly drab, but this I liked because its was really blue and looked modern, it was just called Landscape which is a really modern title so I put it in the story. I think. I’m not sure, it just wound up in the story, perhaps its the first painting I thought of, I should have put something better in but this was what came out. Like I said, those goats were frolicking and bounding down the hillside, I don’t know what was going on with my mouth. I just kept talking and this stuff kept coming and the girl, well the girl to her credit didn’t look as bored as she had every right to be. I mean, two stolen characters talking about a painting on the radio? That’s what I’m going to be know for, everyone’s going to think this is hilarious, utterly hilarious. The guys are going to get a lot of mileage out of that little story when its gets around, and it will get around soon if it hasn’t already, stories like that always do, with a few extra additions I imagine, everyone’s going to want to put their little flourish on my eulogy.

Concierge: What were they talking about?

Screenwriter: What? They’re talk about how I was trying to impress some girl in a bar with a pitch for an imaginary Swedish coffee advert that’s what they’ll say!

Concierge: No sir, I meant the two in the hotel bar drinking cokes, what did they say about the painting? You said they were talking about the painting, what did they say about it?

Screenwriter: What? Oh. Yes, I can’t remember. Something about space. No I remember now. I started with a discussion about the blue in the painting. The painting is mostly blue like I said, which is one of the reasons I like it, that guy’s paintings a normally a dirty yellow which I hate. Coincidentally, that is actually one of the reasons I didn’t like 3 Women very much either, I remember telling someone that about a month ago. I thought is looked like “a piss in the prairie”. The Last Wave though, I did like the cinematography on that. It was a bit more regular and looked a bit cheap, but there were some nice moments, and I loved the underwater shot at the end, all the rushing water and bubbles like a 60s surf movie. It made me think about how when a camera films under water it is enveloped. The camera doesn’t just look at something, it’s surrounded and it has this stuff all over it, not just the lens. It is effected. Held.

Concierge: Is this what the characters talked about sir?

Screenwriter: Yeah, no, a bit I think. No, really they were talking about the blue of the painting, how the blue is neither a solid depicted space or the empty space of the surface of the canvas, how it was both at once and something else entirely. I say they, but the way I pitched it to the girl, it was the girl in my story, Willie, that was saying all of this. She’s an artist in the Altman picture so it made sense to have her riff on Francis Bacon. Also I think I wanted to make her, the girl in the bar, aware that I’m all for strong intelligent female characters in my stories! Modern women! More modern than Altman’s women anyway! So she talks about this plane being a third space, neither the language of the painting ground nor the language of a pictorial space, another dimension. Then she starts talking about how this is like the film The Last Wave, which as you remember is the film that the other guy is from! I don’t know what happened there, I must have gotten confused or something but that’s where the story starting running so I just ran along side it trying desperately to keep the legs moving as fast as my body! Willie says this is like The Last Wave, that the “tribal space” of the aboriginal people in Sydney, that’s denied by the white population, is “just such a third space”.

Concierge: What does the other gentleman say about this sir?

Screenwriter: Good question! Well this guy agrees with her, he says that the whites can only comprehend there being two spaces, either the space of representation using of language of ideas, and a space of stuff, which he said was also a space of language anyway but that white people ignored that part too. I remember that at this point I nearly had him getting all righteous about the damage done to his people by the whites but I cooled it in time, I’m getting wary enough about that stuff, how it can come off ridiculous trying to write that sort of character. People are getting tired of it you know? So Chris, this aboriginal character, agrees that this third space is hidden, his explanation is that it is too large to be seen and regardless of this the whites have constructed a system for looking at the world that doesn't include it so they don’t see its there. He says they must know its there but they have an expression they use that sort of acknowledges something but then simultaneously negates it, puts it in a box to be dealt with… well the way I had this character say it in really calm tone it was as if this thing was never to be dealt with. The girl, the girl Willie that is, in my story, she pipes up here and starts talking again about the The Last Wave again. She says that this is just like the court room scene in the film. She says that the whites acknowledge the aborigine people, how they feel this guilt about displacing and killing them,but not enough to actually do anything different for them, so they make these verbal concessions that box up the problem, appearing to address it but effectively putting it into a void. She talks about how the whites can’t be seen to refute the aboriginal people’s beliefs publicly so they say that aboriginal law only applies to a certain kind of aboriginal person which they call “Tribal” and how this means an uncivilised exotic sort of person.

Concierge: Are the aborigines in that film not all “tribal” then?

Screenwriter: Not in the film no, and I had the character talk about this a bit more actually. In the film the whites can’t declare out and out that what the aborigines believe in is untrue so they have it only apply to these “Tribals”. What’s really important about the definition of a “Tribal” is that they are not here. The film takes place in Sydney and the story makes it clear that “Tribals” are always “other”, of rather, “doubly other” they are firstly not white and they are also not here. “There are no tribals in the city” is something that’s said a few times in The Last Wave, the tribal people live somewhere else. The aborigines are therefore something else and beholden to the rules that the whites put to them.

Concierge: Why is that important sir?

Screenwriter: Well this is a good bit! I’m pretty impressed with this myself, the girl Willie says something like “this is important because the aboriginal spirituality is not just a belief system but a metaphysics”. She goes on to explain that tribal people believe not just in abstracts but in physical, actual manifestations of things. They believe not just in a different ideology but in a different physical orchestration of the world. Willie talks us through a scene in the film where Chris describes how his family is able to contact him when they need his help by affecting his body. He gets asked by someone how this happens, and in response he pulls at the skin on his forearm and says it is like that.

Concierge: Like a pinch?

Screenwriter: more like a tic in the muscle. I liked that scene in the film so I had Willie talk about it some more, and so she elaborates. She says that this is like the blue space in the painting, its neither the language of representation or the language of the physical thing. Its something else entirely which isn’t language, it is the Real. She goes on a bit about The Last Wave, how it’s a development of Lovecraft’s stories but better, and how the power underneath everything, the power that’s indescribable is always this immense things beyond language of all kinds, how its too big for the words to wrap around it so they just can’t. She says we just walk around what she describes as a “huge sleeping tiger” oblivious because it’s too big for us to acknowledge it, we can’t find it’s edges. It is really quite a monologue that she launches into here, I think with the right actress it could be real award material. At one point she sticks her fingers in her Coke and dribbles the liquid on the table top and it’s a really visceral scene. Willie talks about water surface tension in order to describe the blue plane in Bacon’s painting, how it it pulls tight to the edges of everything else, rather then existing behind or in front of it. Willie says that it is a plane which can’t be broken and that actions at one point directly affect all the other edges. She says this is just like the plane which exists between Chris and his family. She says this is just like the plane that exists between all things past and future and how they all meet now.

Concierge: You don’t have the other chap talk very much in this script do you sir?

Screenwriter: No, you’re right, he doesn’t talk much. I liked the idea of this girl who doesn’t say word one in her own film, having all this stuff to say after the film’s over, I mean after 3 Women is over. It's like she spent that Robert Altman movie in the margins of the story as an object working something out that had nothing much to do with the other characters, and then in my radio play it’s ready to be articulated, with this other guy and with the Francis Bacon painting. One point of the triangle of 3 Women also forms another triangle in a different dimension, like a repeating pattern. That’s quite nice actually, I’ll remember that.

Concierge: So was that the end of your pitch sir?

Screenwriter: Yes. No actually, there’s a sort of coda at the end. They sit slulping their cokes for a bit longer. They play a Jimi Hendrix cover of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say on the jukebox and talk about its importance in the history of Rock and Roll along with some other things I can't remember. Old jokes mainly, they laugh a lot and it’s cozy. Then after a pause the Chris character looks at the painting again and says the pampas grass looking landscape in the centre is a figure, but not a representation of a figure made out of the land, he says it is a figure as a gesture, an “ever changing roster of forces in a state of hyper-chaos”. He says this is a bit like the instability of character in 3 Women, how no one character is able to keep their “self” constant and how they all begin to collapse and grow and merge in a non-linear manner both through misleading stories told about one character by another but also through the film’s direction which fragments the identities of the characters, leaving them uncertain by exploiting the cracks in the medium itself. He says this is what makes that film great. He finishes by saying that the use and merging of the crack in the medium and cracks within the narrative are what make Robert Altman such an important director. He says the same could be said for Bacon, and probably sometimes for the Australian guy that did The Last Wave too.


Screenwriter: …

Concierge: Is there anything I can get you sir?

Screenwriter: No, nothing thanks, I’ll go up to my room now I think. Good night.

Concierge: See you in the morning sir, sleep well.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Life’s A Cabaret

"I set out to be a winner. I don't want to lose. I spent four years in a hospital but I never expected favours from anyone. I don't give sympathy because I don't expect it. Nice guys don't make it."

- Steve Harley

In many ways the 1970’s, with their energy crises and industrial and social unrest, were an exclusive preview of what I call The Crap Future - the slow, grinding, irreversible economic decline that we are currently in the early stages of. What marks the Seventies as different was that, absent a 30-year bombardment of Neoliberal growth-propaganda and 24-7 media dis-infotainment, there was a greater willingness to entertain the notion that Western culture was living through its End Times. One way this acceptance was expressed was through that most decadent of art forms, the cabaret, which exuded a kind of cadaverous frivolity, a need to eat, drink and be merry, in the face of decline.

Two bands in particular embraced the cabaret form, both based around charismatic front men who clearly saw the wreckage that surrounded them, and yet whose responses were significantly different. Cockney Rebel were fronted by the cynical, shark-like Steve Harley. Harley had contracted polio as a child, which had necessitated years of hospital treatment, and his slow, isolated recovery had helped to instill a steely, individualist streak in his character. Always an enthusiastic Tory, his proto-Thatcherite take on his bohemian surroundings, "The Human Menagerie", was pitiless and irredeemable - a world populated by the addicted, the weak, and those that prey on them. The band’s most famous hit, "Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)", is typical Harley, a poison-pen letter to his former band mates dressed up in an irresistibly catchy melody. It was this cold individualism that correctly identified Cockney Rebel as forerunners of punk, but Harley’s Game Theory attitude to the music business proved to be no more a successful strategy than any other; as the decade progressed his career entered the same ignominious decline as the majority of his peers.

Alex Harvey’s vision was often as bleak and hopeless as Harley’s, but with one important exception - Harvey did want redemption, both for himself and the world around him. Coming from a tough Glaswegian background that allegedly included a stint as a lion tamer, like many Seventies glam rock stars he had orbited around the fringes of the Sixties music scene until he hit on a flamboyant, theatrical style that was perfectly suited to the introduction of colour television at the turn of the decade (the day the world turned day-glo). Equally at home covering Jacques Brel and Tom Jones, and finding the absurdity and profundity in both, Harvey the Faith Healer was like a musical R.D. Laing, responding to the violent, traumatic death throes of a dying system with the shamanistic fervour of the Last Believer. The energetic excess of his stage shows was too much for Harvey himself, and he prematurely retired from the music business in 1976, before returning a couple of years later only to die of a heart attack in 1982, too early to see the false rebirth of a world that would think the anxieties that informed both his and Steve Harley’s work banished forever.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Please Stand By, Pt. 2 - An Inventory of Effects


Here we have the American artist Chris Burden, looking like a professional and presenting himself to the world. The above photos come from his 1971 performance art piece I Became a Secret Hippy. It was one of Burden's earliest works, executed about the time he was completing his graduate studies at the University of California, Irvine. For the piece, Burden stripped naked and laid down on the floor while a friend hammered a star-shaped stud into his chest. He then sat in a chair while another friend shaved his head with electric shears. Burden then donned the suit of an FBI agent and presented himself to the event's few attendees.

The real-world incidents that inspired I Became a Secret Hippy are so obvious that they don't warrant an explanation. In that respect, it was far from being a subtle work. But considering that it was done at the time that Burden was leaving the cloistered confines of academia and making his transition into the world of professional artmaking, no doubt its ritualistic, rite-of-passage mimicry held some ironic personal meaning for the artist.

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By many accounts, the early Seventies were considered turbulent years -- a time of political, social, and economic upheaval. Most Americans had entered the 1960s with an optimistic vision of the future that awaited them. But a decade later, it all looked uncertain and many people were getting anxious and doubtful, not daring to guess what might happen next. A common, knee-jerk opinion on the street had it that the world was going to hell. "Shootin' rockets to the moon / Kids growing up too soon… Ball of confusion!"

Soldiers returning home after numerous tours of Vietnam reputedly experienced something akin to culture shock, finding things at home much different from when they'd departed. The rapid pace of technological change, and the societal shifts that resulted, had some in the pop-sociology realm talking of "future shock."

So when people read that somewhere a young man had someone shoot him with a rifle and then called the whole thing art, a number of people were shocked, but probably not all that surprised. This is what passes for art these days. The way things were heading, why not?

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The incident in question -- the one that would become Burden's notorious "greatest hit" -- was Shoot, which followed I Became a Secret Hippy by a mere three weeks. On the evening of November 19, 1971, Burden and a few associates and a small number of attendees met in a low-rent art space in Santa Ana. It was, by most accounts, a pretty modest and casual affair, up to the point when -- at an "Okay, let's do this" moment in the evening -- Burden positioned himself against one of the gallery walls. A friend then raised a .22-calibre rifle, took aim at Burden, and fired a single shot.

The plan was a have a handful of spectators witness a William Tell-styled act of trust, with the designated shooter aiming at the wall just to the left of Burden's shoulder. At the most, Burden later claimed, the rifle slug was only supposed to graze him. But due to poor marksmanship the bullet instead hit Burden in the bicep of his left arm. Not having anticipating such an outcome, no one had thought to bring a first-aid kit, so a bandage had to be improvised.

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Before we go any further, a brief overview might be in order...

Selected Works, 1971 - 1976

Chris crams himself into a small metal locker for five days.
Chris gets shot.
Chris lies in a bed for 22 days.
Chris lies down under a tarp in traffic along a busy boulevard.
Chris nearly immolates himself.
Chris dangles naked tied by a rope around his ankles.
Chris crawls over broken glass.
Chris pushes live electrical wires into his bare chest.
Chris has people use him as a human pin cushion.
Chris runs the risk of immolating himself again.
Chris gets crucified to a Volkswagen.
Chris nearly drowns himself.
Chris gets kicked down two flights of stairs.
Chris nearly sets himself on fire. (Yes, again.)
Chris lies on a shelf, just out of sight, for 22 days.
Chris lies, unmoving, under a sheet of glass for 45 hours straight.
Chris bicycles through Death Valley.

Chris does a bunch of other things during these years, but it's the more violent and alarming and supposedly masochistic things he does that everyone talks about. Thereby making him a bit infamous in the process, saddling him a reputation as the "Evel Knievel of the art world" that he grew to resent.

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Chris Burden didn't consider himself a "performance artist," nor did he ever aspire to be one. He'd originally set out to be a sculptor. In the latter years of his studies, he became preoccupied with the task of creating interactive sculptures -- works that invited the audience to become a part of the piece, that were meant to be engaged and manipulated by the viewer. But he quickly became frustrated and deemed many of his works to be unsuccessful, because each time the audience balked at the invitation, choosing instead to maintain the role of distant and passive spectators.

To remedy this impasse, Burden decided to physically make himself a part of the "sculpture," if not the primary component of the work itself. He did this for his senior thesis project, which involved cramming himself into a 2' x 2' x 3' steel locker for the duration of five days. As word of the Burden's project circulated around campus, the curiosity factor brought a steady flow of visitors. People sat outside the locker, inquiring into his well-being and asking him why he was doing what he was doing. A few people sat for extended periods and -- perhaps confused by the dynamic -- treated him like a Father Confessor and divulged all sorts of personal details about themselves. During the final day of the piece, university administration were debating whether to have the locker cut open, fearing for their own liability in connection with Burden's project.

So, problem solved. But noted for future reference: How to calculate for the vagaries of interpersonal psychology? 1

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Performance art was, of course, something of a big deal in the artworld of the 1970s, and Chris Burden was regarded as one of its leading and most controversial pioneers. But performance art wasn't such an entirely new thing. It'd first been kicked around by the Futurists and the Dadaists in the early part of the century, then gone dormant for many years before being reanimated in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily by way of the "happenings" staged by John Cage and his disciples in the Fluxus movement.

If there was any recent historical precedence for the type of work Chris Burden was executing in the early '70s, it was probably Yoko Ono's 1962 Cut Piece, which involved the artist sitting silently on a stage and inviting the audience to cut of here clothing piece by piece with a pair of communal scissors. On the three occasions that Ono staged Cut Piece during the mid-1960s, the audience obliged her each time, in the end leaving the artist sitting on stage wearing little more than scraps and tatters.

Cut Piece is an often-cited work in its own right. Critics often speak of how the piece addresses gender dynamics and how these dynamics play out in terms of social power and status. But in a broader context, one could argue that it ultimately points to an interrogation of the codes of conduct in a supposedly polite society, one which eventually (or hopefully) leads to a critique of the nature of socialization itself. 2

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On the morning of January 5, 1973, Chris Burden walked out onto a beach near the runways of LAX and fired several shots from a revolver at a 747 as it flew overheard. Burden later explained that the piece was about "impotence," since he knew in advance that the bullets would fall short of their target. Impotence in this case meaning bold but futile gestures, the inadequacy of human agency in the face of the grander scheme of things.

Still, unsurprising to learn that the FBI showed up on his doorstep with some questions about the incident a few days afterwards.

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Wednesday 2 November 2011

Please Stand By, Pt. 1 - An American Folktale (Rough Draft)

Originally he hailed from the "Cradle of Liberty," that echo of the cradle rocked out of, Boston. Historic and colonial, an Atlantic capitol of Old World once-wasness. A lovely "walking city," everyone says.

But a fucking nightmare to drive in.

Home to the reputed Worst Drivers in the Nation. Unsurprising, seeing how successful navigation requires the quickest and most aggressive reflexes -- the sort that never fail to confound and frighten non-natives. It's what's required if you' aim to get anywhere. Of bettering the illogic of the city's narrow streets, those streets that weren't designed with the idea of this sort of traffic in mind, ages removed from any modern idea of enabling vehicular progress.

And you know how progress means a lot of things. For over a century it'd meant heading west, to the land's nether shore. West over terrain once crossed by horse and by wagon, then by telegraph and railway. Much of it, thank god, now much more easily and more often flown over. All part of expansion, of a fated and manifest destiny. So westward he went. To where everything, as they said, was presently at. The whereall to which everything led, the telos of all pioneering and frontiering. To the ascendant domain of the Now, the cultural seat of powers-having-shifted, of late modernity itself. Last stop, final destination. Built for cars, for maximum traffic. To fully accommodate its flow and—the theory had it -- avoid the snarls and tangles and perpetual arterial clusterfuckage. Its skies and sun having waited all those ages to be finally tinged peripherally pink by a brume of ozone.

He found plenty of things to do in L.A., though. Like playing in traffic. Lying down on a bustling blacktop amid flares (but only to get arrested once the cops arrived). Or staging lurid roadside distractions for random passersby. Getting shot, or tortured, or dangled from on high. Or having himself nailed to one of the road-clogging four-wheeled beasts, while the beast screaming beneath him in the morning sun. All of it a means, perhaps, of becoming one with the city, of becoming part of its circulatory system.

And then one night arriving at an elevated and narrow stretch of coastal highway, and there placing twin monuments. Two cruxes soaked in the very stuff that made all such things possible. Planting them in the paths of the road's to and fro, to ignite and then vacate into the night, leaving behind a pair of blazing glyphs. Flaming totems, emblems for the name and number of the century in which all of this came to be. Dual sentinels, their limbs splayed to alert, or forewarn, or deliver reckoning. Left there for the latenight traveler who, finding his route obstructed, could only stand in the torchlit road and wonder what on earth this could possibly mean.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Update Your Browsers, and shit

Because I've got my own blog now. I'll be cross-posting stuff I put on the decade blogs, and adding other stuff that doesn't belong on here. I don't know if my blog will be serious or trivial, because I never wanted to be a blogger, and I don't even like writing. So it'll be a kind of scrapbook-cum-diary thing probably. If I update it that much. Also I need to tweak the design, add more links etc.

Anyway, as we're now starting to get to the big beasts of the Seventies, such as the Sabs and Floyd, here's some AC/DC. Objectively speaking, the best band of all time, of course.

Friday 21 October 2011


"When I first saw [The Exorcist] I was pissed off because I saw it as a return to the ancient views about the Devil and the Catholic Church: part of the nostalgic disease of the 1970s, and a reactionary one at that. When I saw it a second time it was with a San Francisco clinical psychologist...who immediately saw the movie as an allegory. And that enlightened me. People flock to the movie because it is a therapeutic experience. We are all possessed -- by our addictions, our loves, our attachments, our habits, our unconscious, our guilts, our needs, our possessions, our social roles -- and they talk through us. We vomit out our bullshit. We all want to be exorcised."
-- Jerry Rubin, "I am Regan, you are Regan,"
Village Voice, May 2, 1974

"...We weren't so much the Lords of Darkness as the Lords of Chickenshit when it came to that kind of thing. I remember when we went to see The Exorcist that Christmas in Philadelphia: we were so freaked out, we had to go watch The Sting afterwards to take our minds off it. Even then, we all ended up sleeping in the same hotel room, because we were scared out of our minds. It's funny, because years later Linda Blair -- who played the satanic kid in that movie -- ended up dating my mate Glenn Hughes from Deep Purple. She definitely liked musicians, it turned out. She even went out with Ted Nugent once. But she wouldn't go near me.
Not a fucking chance."
-- Ozzy Osbourne, I Am Ozzy

"They just wouldn't fuck off, those satanists. I'd walk out of my hotel room in the morning, and they'd be right outside my door, sitting in a circle on the carpet, all dressed in black hooded capes, surrounded by candles. Eventually I couldn't take it anymore. So one morning, instead of brushing past them as I usually did, I went up to them, sat down, took a deep breath, blew out their candles, and sang 'Happy Birthday.'
They weren't too fucking happy about that, believe me."
-- Ibid.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Some people are on the pitch

One of the great contrasts between 1970s and contemporary sport is the pitch invasion. Now a fairly rare sight, they were once a common ritual to celebrate an act of giant killing or particularly sweet victory. Many of the decade’s classic matches feature pitch invasions: Scotland defeating England at Wembley, Hereford knocking Newcastle out of the FA Cup, the West Indies destroying England at the Oval.

cropped with SnipSnip

It was something of craze at the time and it’s revealing how many children are involved. Not only are they allowed to gather together without adult supervision, but they can actually afford to attend international cricket matches. Perhaps the most striking difference is the TV commentary. Now any unofficial public intervention has to be met with po-faced condemnation: ‘Idiots, not real fans, spoiling it for the rest of us etc.’ There has been a policy for some years now of not showing streakers, leading to a kind of hyper-Stalinism where events are airbrushed from the record as they happen. Nothing must be allowed to interrupt the Sky Sports Continuum. This fear of unscripted public behaviour makes a mockery of TV Sport’s appalling sentimentality towards ‘the fans’ and to ‘the passion of the FA Cup/The Ashes etc’.

70s TV seems more relaxed, even prepared to have a chuckle over youthful exuberance. John Motson is surprisingly mild in his criticism of the Scottish fans breaking the goal at Wembley and then switches to explaining it away in terms of the importance of the fixture.

Compare and contrast:

cropped with SnipSnip

The decline of the pitch invasion is partly put down to the rise of the all-seater stadium, modern security practices and so on. But it must be a change within us as well, with how we think we should behave in crowds. The 70s were a period of assertive working class collective action. Mass picketing at Saltley Gate and Grunwick, the UCS work-in. It was also the time of the folk club circuit, where divisions between audiences and performers were loose.

Now we are ‘alone together’ – not just on the internet but in offline crowds too. Even worse, we self-police crowd behaviour on behalf of TV and advertisers: too many people filming live music instead of dancing; the censoriousness about talking in the cinema. There is whole genre on YouTube of hecklers getting ‘owned’ by comedians. Many hecklers may be unfunny drunks, but there is something creepy about members of the public joining in the pretentious defence of the ‘craft’ of stand up. The nadir is flash mobbing: pointless, self-referential and unthreatening.

A request.

Can anyone suggest any good books on the American 70s, similar to "When the lights went out" etc

Why I don't hate Pink Floyd.

I grew up on Barrow Island, in Barrow-in-Furness. I was born in 1970 and so had a 1970’s Northern Industrial town type childhood. We didn’t have any money, my Dad was a plumber, my mum was a housewife: the house didn’t exactly overflow with entertainment, in fact for any modern-day child in the developed world the 1970s would have been an unimaginable prison house of boredom and isolation. I read books and comics, played in the backstreet, rode my bike around, invented stories, and, of course, speculated widely about the future I would grow up into. Time moved at a glacial pace, the world was barren, bereft of objects and even though I knew no other world I still felt that emptiness, that lack, the imagination alone was not enough to fill it, to transform it. Imagination might mask it for a while perhaps, but eventually it faltered and the world in all its dreary, Spartan enormity crashed in, setting you a-throb with boredom, almost panicked by it. I sat at the centre of all this, I suppose: a child, not unhappy but aware of all the levels on which I was oppressed and suppressed, still growing, my body struggling for mastery of certain basic acts, language and the social world still far beyond my grasp, subject to all the kinds of painful early shocks and buffets of being among other people. Unformed, but, still, aware of my unformedness. I understood that I was a child, and I understood other things too, I understood that we were working class and at the bottom of a three-tier system, I understood that we lived in a small town in the North and that not everyone’s life was like ours, even within that town. I understood that we were socially, economically, geographically and temporally located. I understood these things in abstract ways I couldn’t quite name or visualize, huge, invisible force fields, akin probably to those crystalline rings on which the planets were supposed to sit in a pre-Copernican universe, whose overlapping and interlocking determined the ambit of my existence, where and what I was.
Sensory, sensual stimulation was thin on the ground in that town, at that time, for people in our situation, though I am of course prepared to concede that it was much the same for everyone. Interminable stretches of waiting for the few bright spots in the week, the seemingly eternal Saturday afternoons waiting for World of Sport or Grandstand to finish and the cartoons to start or Doctor Who to begin: the magic of Saturday night, staying up late to watch the Hammer Double bill and then the great yawning chasm of Sunday, more time in the backstreet, or the Docks or on the swings, or if the weather was too bad, playing with a few toys and staring again at the same old comics. The situation was made worse in our house by the fact that my Mum and Dad were saving money to move to the outskirts of town, out of Barrow Island: they wanted a house with a garden (we moved in 1981, they still live in the same place). We weren’t keeping up with the Joneses and so we had a black and white TV for years, lino on the floor, no radio that I can remember, no record player, or rather we did have one, but it was hardly used: it was for us, the kids, but we had very few records.
This wasn’t true of one of my friends, however, who lived just up the road. In his house they had both a colour TV and a few years later, miraculously a video-player, as well as a stereo with four wall-mounted speakers. My friend was called Stuart and Stuart’s older brother, probably about fourteen at the time, when we were nine or ten years old, had started buying records. The distinction between Mods and Rockers still existed to some extent in my backward town at that time. He defined himself as a rocker, was a fan of Status Quo and Nazareth, had shoulder length hair, a cut off denim jacket and a precocious wispy moustache to prove it. He also owned a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
On Saturday night Stuart’s parents went out to the local Labour club and we had the house to ourselves. Ritually, we turned down the lights in the living room and put The Wall on. The Wall had several advantages and levels of appeal over listening to Quo or Nazareth or the Ram Jam Band, but most immediately because it was cinematically rich and complex, filled with studio tricks and techniques, narrative, literary, dark and frightening, suffused with the cruelty of all the institutions we probably felt we were already suffering under to some small degree, school, the family, or were due to suffer under, work, the State, relationships, the adult world. From the moment it started, with the sheer bombast of “In the Flesh?” resolving into the sound of a dive-bombing Stukka and the cry of a new-born child we were transfixed. Here was an enormous multiform richness that promised to both fill the world and deepen it. TV was small and cold and linear but the stereo effects and the phasing back and forth between the speakers, the found sounds, snatches of dialogue, the different characters, the Operatic pomp, the cryptic lyrics and symbolism, the references to things we could only guess at, the sheer beauty of some songs and the desolation of others seemed not just to come at us from another world, but overtake and overwhelm our own world. The speakers were above the bevelled, smoke glass sliding doors that separated the dining room and living room and there was no limit on the volume we could play the record at, sitting in the semi-dark, silently sunk, rapt, in all its mysteries. If we’d been five years older we might well have abjured it, been punks, but we were children still, waiting to go onto Comprehensive School and had nowhere else to go, no nightlife, no peer group as such, no  attitude toward anything, no stance. We needed to be entertained more than anything, but not in a frivolous way, we wanted access to all the dimensions of experience that were still beyond us, we wanted something as inexhaustible as our desire to grow, something as varied, fulsome and dense as our own worlds were monotonous and bare. And so we listened to it again and again, in a kind of stupefied amazement, luxuriating in its pyrotechnics, aghast at its scale and drama. This is what music promised us and gave us in a way that no other forms seemed capable of, a multivalent wealth of detail, a shared, concentrated rapture, relief.  Outwardly you might be hedged, circumscribed, caged by class, geography, discourse, experience, connections, but that there was a world within the world, an always open door through which you could slip and on the other side, somehow, all these constraints melted away.
I haven’t heard that album actually since I was a child, or early teens at least. Probably the last time I heard it was when I went to see the film, sometime back in the early eighties. I got self-conscious about what was and wasn’t fashionable for people who wanted to be seen as, to feel themselves to be, smart. You know how it is.
 Nonetheless, if you were to play it to me today, I’d know every word.     

Wednesday 12 October 2011

On The Corner

It’s hard to imagine now that Third World War ever existed. They are a singular proposition, Communist (or at least communist-leaning) insurrectionary Yobo Pub-rock as tough, sparse and scathing, as funky and rhythmically driven as anything produced in post-punk, or America’s mid- eighties Hardcore scene, yet their two albums were first released in 1971 and 1972.
There’s plenty of punk-before-punk theorizing and cataloguing going on, but you’d be hard pressed to find a punk band, or indeed any band that doesn’t sound anaemic next to Third World War, the only other band of roughly the era that sound as authentically dangerous are The Sex Pistols and even they can’t quite boast Third World War’s invigorating class-war rhetoric and sheer, driving groove. A large part of their propulsion derives from Third World War’s being unashamedly sunk in the blues and rock and roll while at the same time rejecting heavy rock or prog in favour of an amped up, wired, spit and sawdust, goodtime boogie. The guitar sound, serrated, bright and sharp, the nagging, sinuous bass, the rolling piano and the caustic vocals all tell you one thing: this is a speed band, a pub band, a band that feeds on negative energies, invokes them and uses them to sharpen and hone its already formidable edge, a band that wants to needle, that thrives on confrontation and anti-social energies.
In some sense Third World War feel quintessentially British in their remorseless focus on violence, class and politics. Few bands can have engaged so fundamentally with the underlying tensions of their times as Third World War, few bands feel as though they documented an era as concisely or anticipated the strife to come in the mid-seventies more presciently: it’s hard not to think of Third World War as the real voice of the early Seventies, unfashionable, aggrieved, up for a good Saturday night out (fighting/ drinking/ heads down, no-nonsense mindless boogie) but even more up for the revolution they see just around the corner. In their celebration of politicised, boot-boy thugishness they might also be said to anticipate OI, but there’s a control of tension and dynamics, a muscular, musical intelligence that grants Third World War’s work a kind of cinematic scope: these boys can play and the records seethe with a barely restrained power that occasionally erupts into flailing white-noise jams or clenched, coruscating solos. Few bands have ever swaggered or been so adept at poised violence as Third World War, feeding on the eternal, and endlessly replenished manna of British life, class antagonism. Listening to Third World War almost forty years later, the question as to just why the past fifteen years (with the exception of Grime) has been so dull in British music can partly be ascribed to this, not enough hate, not enough politics, too pretty, too vapid, too keen to make friends. For a moment, under the spell The Great Moderation we forgot who and where we are. Ugly, unsophisticated, angry, pitted against each other, trapped on a lopsided, dank little island.

For Third World War the revolution is inseparable from the power of Unions and the revolt against work, it’s also impossible to achieve by peaceful means. In contrast to many of the overtly polemical Left-leaning bands of the Eighties (The Redskins etc) Third World War’s message is less one of amelioratory, earnest positivity (“go get organized!”) than a revelling in a death-or-glory violent overthrow of the class system (“Load your magazine clip! I’ll be loading mine”). In this sense Third World War understand class relations as a war, and one in which decisive resistance can only take place through fighting fire with fire, that as committed they are to our destruction, so, equally must we be committed to theirs' (“Pull your hand grenade pin/I’ll be pulling mine”). This is of course the “fanatical” character of the 70’s working class that Neo-Liberalism sort to redress. Appeasing it by enfranchising (some of) the working class as part of a share-owning, popular capitalist, property-owning pseudo-middle class on the one hand while also more aggressively attacking the UK industrial base. Anti-union legislation, de-industrializing in the progressive shifts toward becoming a “knowledge economy”, applying downward pressure on wages through reforms in Labour laws and high unemployment. 
A large part of what makes Third World War so valuable in a documentarian sense are Terry Stamp's lyrics, which articulate not just all the suppressed anger, the glowering resentments and unhealthy lusts of the age, but pay a singular and specific attention to the political character of the time. At his best Stamp is a superb lyricist, mordantly funny, balefully ironic, sharply focused on the (sometimes indistinguishable) miseries and pleasures of 70’s working-class life, revealing of it’s prejudices as well as its progressive character. The aim is to provoke, sometimes it’s fatuous, “Coshing Old Lady Blues” (which contains the hilarious line, “Hey grandma/hide your money in your shoe/ I’ve got those/ coshing old lady blues) sometimes both intoxicatingly polemical and wryly hilarious, as in the wonderfully titled “I’d rather cut cane for Castro” (Working in the fields/Fidel’s my neighbour/I’m genuine U.K/Semi-skilled labour.) Perhaps best of all is “Factory canteen blues” (you don’t sit near/ the management’s table/so educated, mathematically able/with their figures on graphs /and Hoi Polloi chatter/you’ll work 5% harder/and they’ll grow 5% fatter) a long tale of industrial discontent that threatens to boil over into “factory burning”. This is social realism from the ground up, in which it’s necks, not hands that are being wrung. Social realism as a mailed fist, exhortatory, lunatic, uncompromised, a report from the Seventies of the Angry Brigade, Saltley Gate, the industrial relations bill and Who Governs Britain?
“I’ve got just the thing for you/ a real cop beater/a sawn off twelve gauge/5 shot repeater.”
This is a band far too good, far too important, to be sidelined as proto anything.
Youtube playlist here.