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.
It’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…”
The 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.
Last 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… ]
As my friend
So I was toying with what I suppose has turned into a kind of riddle, along the following lines:
i: you embrace it — and build yr worldview round the fact of the embrace — bcz you believe it will deliver us from bother
ii: But then the bother arrives anyway, and is itself primarily fashioned around this fact of yr embrace
iii: And if you ever think to reach for it, to dispel this bother, you well know you simply affirm the logic of your foes and redouble their will to bother you…
iv: … which is the very model of an enraging positive-feedback pickle.
When I began, “it” was something like the “right to carry” or “gun culture”, and I was niggling idly away at the sheer baffling venom of the discussion in the US [edit: baffling as seen from anywhere else]. Except gradually it struck me that plenty of other “its” somewhat fit this bill: for example, “critical theory” engenders similarly over-reactive defensiveness when fingered as a symptom, as indeed does “rationalism”. But I don’t think the wars that bubble up out of such self-arming and the reactions against it are — at least straightforwardly — proxies for class politics as we ordinarily understand it (or indeed for religious or “philosophical” conflicts as we’d loosely sketch them).
Entirely unsurprisingly, the word ‘troll’ now has a politicised range of meanings—all the way from anonymous internet bully to subtly provocative dialectician, with a fractally wriggly continuum linking these extremes—and the comment this is a response to (a) made it reasonably clear which meaning one s/he had in mind* and thus (b) deserved a better (or at least more self-aware) answer than “By using the word X you can only be saying Y about me and I know myself well enough to say this is false.” Of course dsquared was trolling here — and it’s not as if Farrell is historically that good at identifying the motivations of the people he deems trolls by his own over-simplified (which is to say self-exculpatory) definition. The revealed fact of the faultline is an indication that people on both sides are uneasily (=angrily) aware that they too exist within contradiction: “just a lot less so than those OTHER deluded clowns,” the more twerpish partisans on both sides are busy telling themselves.
*And yes, s/he later disappointingly backed away from a good strong usage…
Is there not a point — of acclaim, respect, mainstream success, [stupid word alert] “influence” and simply being paid lots to do what you enjoy doing — where self-awareness should kick in, as you find yourself unleashing this take-down term at others? Own your power: you are not the embattled nobody you imagine.
(Am looking at self somewhat here, not that I use this specific word very often.)
(But not just at self…)