Category: Words as Weapons

“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… ]

… a kingdom called not, which although it is, yet is not…

Sun RaIn 1989, I was flown to Germantown in Phildelphia to interview Sun Ra (for The Face). Ra is long gone now, and so’s The Face: and while a couple of longish quotes of the interview ended up in the piece about Black Science Fiction I wrote in The Wire just before I became editor, there was a lot of the (quite one-sided!) conversation that ended up on the cutting-room floor. A while back, Conor Gillies of WBUR in Boston, MA, got in touch to tell me about a new series he was helping work on — it sounded my kind of thing but I was super-busy and the only thing I could think might fit one of their projects was to send them the audio for the Sun Ra interview. I’ve been lamentably slow to publicise this — still super-busy is my only excuse — but the series, Stylus, has already started: you can hear Ra towards the end of this ep.

you can never go back back BAACK!

In which I take a break from organising a quasi-historical not-very-academic (but very exciting) conference (at Birkbeck, 15-16 May) and reflect on the ways your personal backpages as a hack begin to intersect with the public record etc etc.

COVER034-35A few weeks back, Marcello asked if I had any thoughts on this TPL post (about, among other things, Johnny Hates Jazz and The Wire as it was in 1986/87). Well, I did and I didn’t: I did because this era of my mentor Richard Cook’s project is very much the making of me, and I absorbed an enormous amount of his sensibility and thought a lot how to advance it best (whether or not I did is for others to judge; sadly he’s no longer with us for his perspective). But I didn’t (at least tactically, for now) because I have for most of this year been organising a conference on UK music-writing in the 60s, 70s and early 80s, trying to focus on how things had evolved from roughly 1968 (and the discussion of rock in the underground press) through to maybe 1985, when (in my judgment) Live Aid hit the inkies hard sideways, and changed their political ecology for good (Geldof’s revenge, you could call it). The serious social potential of pop began to be more and more of a topic for the tabloids and the broadsheets: the inkies began more and more to fold in into their own niche, exploring less and less. In this they were reflecting changes in the world, to be sure — but they were also amplifying and accepting these changes. Continue reading

straight girls who identify as “rotten women” (腐女)

the meat of the story is a bit grim, but this fact^^^ isn’t: “”Irony is the glory of slaves” is the quotation Seth likes. See also Nüshu, the same story from a very different angle

via jamie kenny, yr go-to source for the chinese underbelly

schoolroom vs hallway vs hallway

or, Maybe this is the best place for my mean little joke about why they called their fanzine “monitor” hoho

Little essay for FT on art, class and autodidacts: featuring Oasis, Joseph Beuys, Arthur Scargill and Richard Jobson, among others. Tom Ewing and Frank Kogan are already arrived in the comments on excellent form: my fantasy thread would eventually also include Mark E. Smith, Robin Carmody and Robert Christgau duking it out with Liam and Noel Gallagher and maybe even one of the Appleton sisters…

“shtick fur-balls revisited” (= proposed titles in my head so far)

virtual space issue zeroIt was called Virtual Space and there was just one issue, “issue zero: place-kicks”. We made less than 20 copies, mostly by hunting round town for a photocopier with an A2 bed. It was an experiment, a mockup for a magazine, and it had no date appearing anywhere on its pages. (But it was early 1989, I’d just quit NME and wasn’t on-staff yet at The Wire.) We were serious: we went looking for funding. The other of the two being designer Paul Elliman, who’d just left The Wire. (Note to self: I haven’t seen Paul in an age and must call him up.) Continue reading

arma virumque

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).

huh-JEMM-uh-ni

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…)