Category: Memory

“Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot…”

or NOTES ON A NOBLE IDEAL UNDONE BY ITS OWN WARRING FLAWS…

(I wrote this up to place somewhere grown-up and get some traction, but no joy for one reason or another — the Camelot theme not entirely inapposite, esp.if you’ve read The Once and Future King. Kickstarter is still here and closes Wednesday 27 July at 4.26pm UK time.)

We have an idea of the UK music press in the 70s — a notion of great names engaged in earthy debate about rock and pop, of fearless mockery of foolish or pretentious stars, of a generation of self-taught giants walking the earth in those golden black-and-white days. We can list names: Murray and Kent, Parsons and Burchill, Penman and Morley, Danny Baker, Garry Bushell, Jon Savage… With satisfaction (or amusement), we note that some of them have clambered up to the sustainably rewarded end of public chatter — which if nothing else suggests that their first professional gigs must have been an effective proving ground.

joustIt’s a picture distorted with hindsight, though. At the time, it was for the most part a much wider, quieter, almost invisible world. A cluster of titles that you engaged with as an intense subcultural doorway away from the routines of life: yes, there’d be a pop-star on the cover, major or rising or weird, but inside… well, inside you found all kinds of things. It reached a lot of people — sometimes as many as a million a week — and, unlike official culture, it didn’t shut them out. As writer-agitator and one-time label boss Liz Naylor puts it on one of the promo vids, “It was very difficult to access information in the 70s! The music press was my education…”

lantern bearersThe four weeklies were NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and Record Mirror. Echoes (sometimes Black Echoes) was a bi-weekly for black music — especially good on soul and reggae. There were several monthlies: Zigzag and Let It Rock and the superb, short-lived, much-lamented Street Life: precursors of Q or Mojo, you could say, but much much more than just this. Because — aside from the endless underfelt of free and alt.listings magazines — the music press had been where the spirit of the underground press had ended up: the brief strange countercultural spark of Oz, IT, Frendz, Ink, when late 60s youth had revolted against war and the technocracy, against racism, against timidity and prudishness, and for unfettered (yes chaotic, yes naive) expression. Writers and editors and designers — some extremely talented, but without a hope of rising far in the then-mainstream media — had crossed over out of this fervid, para-political subculture into the music press, partly because rock was the soundtrack of the counterculture, so that to make sense of rock you had to grasp the language and ideals and utopias of this teenage revolt, if only to wrangle with them, to rescue the good from the bad. And as a consequence this was a world full of curiosity about comics and cult films, liminal and radical politics, about musics and activities of communities and undergrounds from all over the world, America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa — about everything in the world you couldn’t routinely access, which television skimped and normal newspapers didn’t remotely understand.

3 swordsLast year I ran a conference at Birkbeck, to explore some of this crossover and how it turned out, called Underground Overground: The Changing Politics of UK Music-Writing 1968-85 (scroll down for more). This year I’m running a kickstarter for a book called A Hidden Landscape Once a Week (subtitle “How UK music-writing became a space for unruly curiosity, in the words of those who made it happen”), which will anthologise extracts from last year’s panels with critical essays exploring issues raised — including the day-to-day practical backroom aspect of putting such a paper together. Panellists and contributors include Charles Shaar Murray, Val Wilmer, Richard Williams, Paul Gilroy, Paul Morley, Simon Frith, David Toop, Cynthia Rose and Penny Reel — people from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives and obsessions, which bohemian mix was key to the sensibility in question; “a conversation,” to quote the kickstarter blurb, “that musician, writer and reading fan all joined… a cheerful collective wrangling that echoes the crackles of dissent and tension in the songs it explores: the disputatiousness as well as the joy.” Alongside the hype and silliness, there was always a care and a fascination with possibility, with portals into all manner of other spaces hinted at in the music, and beyond it. For a decade and more, in a wider culture of stifled parochialism, this was a world of serendipity and surprise encounter. This will be a book that explores this world’s values and flaws, how it was established and maintained, and where its echoes can be found today — or rebuilt, in a very different, noisier, information-saturated context.

[ADDING: the “warring flaws” sub-head wasn’t on the piece I submitted — it didn’t have a heading at all — and only popped into my mind as I was fiddling with a framing to go here. What exactly do I mean by it (since it probably changes the tone and even the meaning of what follows)? Something like this: that what I think became dispersed — by all kinds of pressures, some extremely hard to fight — was a cast of mind in editing, which was, for a while, able to corral the impatience and rivalry and cattiness and worse that you always find among talented writers, into something unexpectedly collectively rich and generous. The mystery of where this came from — whose the design was, if design there was, and what the accident was, if it was accident — is one of the mysteries that brings me back to the subject. The Arthurian image implies that its virtues and its flaws are intextricably tangled: but I don’t know that this is actually so… ]

whalers on the moon: curious despatches from an old dream

It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

scribesQuite apart from anything else, the past — even the very recent past, maybe especially the very recent present — is a mass of detail that’s hard to take in and process (not least because you have to push away the immediate present to do so). My conference produced a little over 12 hours of conversation in one large (often quite hot, by the end quite airless) room, and the discussion has continued elsewhere, in nearby pubs or bars after the two days of debates; also here at ilm, here at Freaky Trigger, and here and here on tumblr. Resonance 104.4FM broadcast it nearly in full on 25 May and have put the eight extracts up on their mixcloud site here (I don’t know how long for). Continue reading

through less short passages of time

The Minotaur 1885 by George Frederic Watts 1817-1904There are days when passing through London feels like an immense, patient, intricate unwinding of the thread through the labyrinth laid down — without much forethought — years before. I’ve lived here 31 years: there’s a bus strike, I’m going to be walking down roads and clocking buildings I haven’t thought about for decades. More to say one day about this feeling as it applies to my mum, my dad and the town of my birth, but one way and another yesterday was a good day to be casting my mind back.

from the box labelled “Assorted Swell Things To Hit Dog On Head”

Thinking this through in the light of day, there’s probably a deeper reason I’ve been hunting for and posting all these various recent pix of little rubber monsters and plastic spacemen the past few evenings. Clearing and selling my late parents’ house was a BIG TASK, of course: and not undertaken solo — my sister was there with me, with her little daughter in the evenings — but the kind of thing you have to face in a kind of solitude all the same. And afterwards to mark a boundary and detoxify, we all went on family holiday together (the first such not w/mum and dad).

Holiday over and back in London (w/sister et al gone to their home), I have many many excellent friends, and more on-line, but the specific sense of solitude definitely welled up again this last week, especially in the evenings: because it’s not really about company as a cure, it’s about how you process your past — what’s gone and what remains.

One element of that past, when mum and dad were themselves young still, not yet dauntingly ill, not yet seriously disabled, was, basically, my army of monsters and spacemen, tirelessly gathered from toyshop cheapie shelves and gumball machines and (now and then) rescued off the pavement. Silly and small perhaps, but this is often where the intensity is concentrated.

Family notwithstanding — my sister in particular (we were close as kids and remain so now) — I was a pretty solitary kid: when I wasn’t reading I made my own amusement; fashioned and peopled my own worlds. There was an element here of compensatory activity and self-absorption: my dad was diagnosed with Parkinsons when I was 7; by 12, I was certainly actively/subconsciously distancing myself from committing to certain kinds of emotional bond — because I (half)knew and (semi)anticipated the pain of future loss that is always embedded in such bonds. Safer to stick with my wee rubber guys: at least until punk rock began to glint and beckon (I’m simplifying and cartooning, but not enormously).

So yes, this is a trivial indulgence; and yes, it’s something I evidently needed to do for a brief season — which brief season is probably not ended; and nor (I’m guessing) is this going to be the only manifestation.

(Crossposted at tumblr)

kerze

Over at Popular, Tom’s reached 1997 and Elton and Lady Di — his essay is of course excellent, and so are many of the (currently) 120+responses, especially Phil Sandifer’s, which is all about Blake and a haunted political unconcious. I’ve been superbusy all week, so my (very late, very long) comment is way down the pack; so I’m reposting it here also. Continue reading

ketchup 2013

Three things I wrote recently (a catalogue essay and two reviews). Silence is an Irish film, about sound and memory (and between the lines a reflection on the work of John Cage). Michael and Cornelius Cardew, father and son, were a potter and a composer respectively: this (PDF: scroll to p.5) was for the catalogue to the Crafts Council’s Sound Matters exhibition. And this is the teaser for the piece I wrote about post-war electronic music in Eastern Europe, though you’ll have to buy issue 86 of Eye magazine to read the whole thing. All three pieces somewhat hover round the tradition of the graphic score (pictured: Boguslaw Schaeffer’s PR I VIII), which has been all over the place recently: if I were a better journalist, I’d have got in early on this little flurry of trendiness, and then maybe some of the discussion would have been better also haha.

I was also Bob Stanley‘s editorial consultant for Yeah Yeah Yeah, which I loved working on and heartily recommend, even if I seem to have failed to convince him that Def Leppard are tremendous.

i’ve seen lots of pretty girls

All the talking heads in the Peter Green documentary were male heads, I believe; and — for all they’ve achieved a kind of artless wondering openness towards the discussion of what must have been very tricky passages of their long-ago past — none seemed especially wise heads. Green himself, hearteningly enough, has emerged as a cheerfully plump balding hobbit of a man, a long long way from the ethereal and curly-headed yearning elf-poet of yore: he has — for someone who’s been through the extended labyrinthine haze of mental breakdown, medication and ECT and long stays on wards — a strikingly exact memory of moments, artistic or chemical or inspirational, on the cusp of his breakdown. He’s vague enough about what he wanted, what drove him — a thing that wasn’t yet there, in his music and his playing — but he’s funny and practical about everything else. Continue reading