22 February 2012

This is Entertainment, Pt. I

(Or, A Few Casual Glances in the Rearview Mirror of Production)

Right, so sometime back I dashed off some remarks about the 'New Black', intrigued by what appeared to be a new and unexpected wrinkle the recent musicscape. Philip Sherburne and a few others had spotted a nascent subtrend on the horizon, some darkness starting to seep in around the edges. Whether of not it -- as a few asserted -- was a response by the younger set to the current conditions and their own diminished futures is arguable, if only because it seems like an over-reaching, overly-pat conclusion. At the very least, what I heard in some of the "new doom" stuff was a return to certain developments in electronic music from back in the mid-to-late nineties; developments which had –as with so much else about electronic music at that point – had either languished or been completely abandoned for the better part of the noughties.

Looking back, all I can do is shrug, because the trend has yet to lead to anyplace all that interesting. Lately, it seems there's been a glut of by-the-numbers "atmospheric" material bearing overwrought titles ("Burning Torches of Despair," anyone?) like those you usually find in the second-tier Black Metal canon.1  If that weren't tiresome enough, more recently it's pointing in the direction of a return of Power Electronics version three-point-oh.

At any rate, only reason I raise the matter again is in relation to a couple of Tihm Gabriele's recent columns over at Pop Matters. The most recent of which involves a discussion of the music of Throbbing Gristle in light of the latest round of reissues. In the opening paragraphs, Tihm gets to something I'd long wondered: What's likely to be your response to the music of TG if you've worked your to it through the reverse genealogy – after a long, latter-period steeping in the music of NIN, Ministry, Skinny Puppy and other such 2nd-gen industrial acts? Context is everything, of course, and while recounting his original back-when impressions, Tihm confirms what I'd always suspected -- that your reaction is (initially, at least) quite likely to be one of disappointment, if not confusion. That the music of TG -- so utterly bereft of many of the conventional rock/pop/dance structure and accessorizing niceties of later industrial acts -- is likely to strike such a listener as too rudimentary, too sonically crude and anemic.2

I'll admit that my original exposure -- back in the days that were closer to that in-situ context -- to the "first-wave" source of such stuff wasn't any resounding epiphany or a hugely rewarding experience, either. Scrounging around in the early eighties, I first came up with a copy of their soundtrack to Jarman's In The Shadow of the Sun. I was a little taken aback and intrigued by the alinear nature of the thing -- its buzzing and its occasional swells to abstract densities; with those noisy bits interlaced with long stretches of sparse, lulling near-inactivity; all of the above being filtered through some deliciously muddied subaquatic reverb. Intrigued, mind you, but hardly what I'd expected in light of what I'd read about them, had been poised to expect. (I was still a couple years shy of exposure to anything of the avant-jazz stripe like Art Ensemble's Paris Sessions, so it was new territory for me at the time.)

Greatest Hits soon followed and wound up making little sense to me at the time -- with its schizophrenic mixture of their more ironic pop-satire moments like "Hot on the Heels of Love" and "United" interlaced a smattering of noisier, more abrasive tunes (studio versions, mind you) from the less listener-friendly end of their catalog. A back-and-forth beween two opposite poles, perhaps; poles that (to my ears) fell on either side of The Normal's "Warm Leatherette," but still nothing that suggested anything aesthetically coherent, that pointed the way to larger gestalt. Maybe "Six Six Sixties" and "Blood on the Floor" suggested that TG warranted further investigation, or would I only wind up with more ironically faux-"sensual" Moroderesque disco thumpers? No idea -- too many mixed signals and I was lacking a copy of the codebook. Maybe, I suspected, it wasn't worth the bother.3

It wasn't until, shortly thereafter, I came across live recordings like Thee Psychick Sacrifice and Mission of Dead Souls that it all suddenly -- and very heavily -- fell into place. The loud, distorted electronics squealing through the hubbub; the frayed and viscerally thick bass tones; the improvisational approach to how any given "song" built (whether off of formless amusical meanderings or rifting around or off of some plodding or pummeling minimal rhythm) into a delirious density; all of it often interlaced with borderline unintelligible incantations and alingual howling.

In his recent A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982, author Nic Rombes makes a case for the American Midwest as a bedrock of early American punk -- specifically the "Rust Belt" network of steelworks and port cities that stretched fell along the East Coast and into the Midatlantic states before stretching far inland around the Great Lakes and into the central Plains. It is from these cities, he more or less argues, that the truest, noisiest, and most viscerally raw punk emerged; from the Motor City proto-punk of the Stooges, to the noise kicked up a few years later by the likes of Destroy All Monsters and Cleveland's The Electric Eels, the Pagans, and Rocket From The Tombs/Pere Ubu. In the entry "Cities, decay and beauty of," Rombes describes these parts of the American landscape through the lens of the mid-late 1970s:

"Cities of the American Midwest...approached postapocalyptic dimensions in your imagination. In downtown Toledo, the boarded up buildings offered a visual contradiction that verged on mystery: Here were beautiful building with ornate architectural details but whose windows were covered up with warped plywood. On one level you understood perfectly well what had happened: The perils of the economy were on the news every night. And yet, it still didn't make sense; you wanted to solve the contradiction of ruined beauty, either by restoring beauty or by pushing things further into ruin. Only later would it become clear that while disco had tried to push things back into decadent beauty, punk had tried to push them deeper into ruin. Whether you lived in these cities or not, you knew that what was happening there was a large-scale version of the same disaster that was playing out in small towns."

But a few pages later, the reader finds Rombes ventures in more nuanced territory. In the entry on "Class," Rombes draws a key distinction between American punk and the variety that hailed from the U.K.:

"There was a bit of Mad magazine in American punk from the mid-seventies, the kind of self-deprecating humor that comes from the confidence of empire. I should put my cards on the table now and say this: It comes down to nationalism. As bad as things were economically in the mid-seventies in New York...there was still a deeper assurance that the empire would not collapse."

Admittedly, the "industrial" moniker was a little problematic, or would become so as time wore on. I suspected as much early on. Industrial -- with its ironic echo of Futurism's celebration of technological prosthesis and the subsumption of nature into the modern culture of the machine age, as well as of Rusollo's "art of noises" in the form of mechanical rumblings and automated rhythms. But by some accounts, TG only adopted the term industrial as a cheeky referent to a preferred means of production and distribution of their work, and not as any sort of descriptive (let alone prescriptive) aesthetic.

But still, in a way it seemed appropriate enough at that particular moment in time, evoking as it did images of bleakness and "dehumanization" -- the blight brought about by the encroaching sprawl of manufacturing sector of certain cities, or the sociological decimation resulting when that same sector languished and dwindled in the transition to a post-Fordist economy. Whichever the case, the term was likely to paint a grim or foreboding picture in the listener's mind. But the matter of empire, of one's perception of the society in which one lives, brings something else into the picture -- something that falls between these two impressions, and perhaps connects them. Because whenever the word empire turns up, the concept of decline usually isn't far behind.

But like I said earlier, context (be it in-situ or deferred) plays a big part in the the matter of reception and interpretation -- be it in musical, cultural, or experiential terms. Where and how something fits (or doesn't) into one's frame of reference. About which, more in the next post.

{ end of part one }

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1.    If there was one thing that certain proto-/first-wave "goth" acts understood that seems to have been lost on a majority of its later mutations, it's that sense of glam-era camp -- some degree of ironic distanciation from its adopted clichés.
2.    For example, an enthusiasm for the "dub-house" output of the German Basic Channel/Chain Reaction imprint doesn't necessarily -- for some listeners, at least -- translate into an automatic appreciation or affinity for its "roots" (e.g., King Tubby et al.).
3.    I believe Chris & Cosey's Trance found its way onto my turntable around this time; which didn't help clarify matters by any degree.


David W. Kasper said...

You've reminded me of an 'decline of empire' theory I was gonna do on UK post-punk for the 80s blog - kind of to complement Owen H's 'post-punk as delayed response to post-war architecture' thesis he posted years ago (end of empire and its austere architectural response being closely related of course). Imperial anxiety and 'orientalism' is all over UK post-punk lyrics, especially the various subgenres like goth (hence its lack of irony). With US stuff, it was more about Cold War - Siouxsie's 'Hong Kong Garden' vs. Ubu's 'Chinese Radiation'.

I kind of agree that punk really came from the rust belt, especially since the 60s. It's humour and rough'n'tumble proleisms are much more Cleveland than New York or London.

Looking forward to part two of this...

Greyhoos said...

Agreed. The Cold War climate is a whole 'nother contextual matter in itself -- something that undergirded the culture of the time, and permeated the punk/post-punk canon. (On these shores it wasn't so prominent during the Carter years, but it sharply intensified after Reagan took office and started badgering the Kremlin.) And it's a definitely a context that can't be accessed or resuscitated -- let alone understood -- via any sort of retromantic séancing. It's a cultural history in itself.

And I almost included a clip of "Chinese Radiation," but thought it'd amount to overkill.

As far as Rombe's Rust Belt/Midwest thesis goes, it was very clear to me when I read that book that he was very much speaking from a perspective of home-turf pride/chauvinism. But I wouldn't disagree with the argument, because there's a lot of evidence that backs it up.

Greyhoos said...

And a couple more thoughts:

On the Cold War/'end of empire' side of things -- I always thought the Stranglers' "Nuclear Device" had a good bit of that Mad magazine attitude about it. Which I think is why it was always one of my favorites.

As far as the goth/irony thing is concerned: Dunno, I had a sense that a few of its early pioneers went about it with a trace of the glam-era camp approach still intact. Bauhaus, for example (who were IMO little more than an overrated glam covers act to begin with). I also got the same impression -- inasmuch as I heard them at the time -- from early UK Decay.

David W. Kasper said...

The influence of Mad - and parody in general - has been underestimated in punk, and po-mo in general (consider the amount of pastiche & winking homage in US movies since the late 60s, or 'politics as its own satire' in industrial rock). It's in Jamie Reid's designs, Westwood's clothes, and McLaren behaved like a wannabe Alfred E. Neuman - lurking around the corner of the picture with an idiotic grin.

The Ramones were like a 60s Mad parody of 'rock band'. Ubu, Talking Heads, Dead Kennedys and Devo sound very Mad-influenced to me, especially lyrically. It was where Harvey Kurtzman or Mel Brooks joined hands with Alfred Jarry and Hugo Ball. I think when it comes to UK stuff, the influence is more late-Empire music hall, or parodic revues like Spike Milligan or Peter Cook (whose 'Derek and Clive' was very hip in the punk era) as the Empire was collapsing. 'God Save The Queen' was like a Goon Show song with the cute wordplay removed.

And yes, I'd include bands like Throbbing Gristle in this - the darkest parody of decline there was. "What the window-cleaner saw" being domestic violence and sex murders. P. Orridge played 'characters' - note the daft accents he puts on in so many tracks. And COUM's 'Pornography' was basically an elaborate sketch revue. If you 'outrage' MPs and tabloid newpapers in the UK, you've truly arrived as a satirist.

Greyhoos said...

Now that is a thesis worthy of it's own blog post. Or blog.

And before the Ramones, the Dictators -- who were a parody from start to finish.


"'What the window-cleaner saw...'/daft accents": The nuances of which are most often likely to be lost on someone (like myself) outside the UK. A coincidental TG/Peter Cook connection -- the former's use of Godley & Creme's "Gizmo," which the latter had used on their "concept" album Consequences?


David W. Kasper said...

Yeah - the Dictators. Didn't they have an album called "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke"? The very parodic style of P-funk needs noting too.

Note how utterly irrelevant Mad got by the 80s too (Holstrom's 'Punk' magazine was an updated 'Mad' really). With punk and its offshoots, parody got more abrasive, violent. Apart from The Simpsons, it hasn't been 'PG-rated' since, unless you consider how its become the basic fabric of kid's entertainment (Shrek etc).

Greyhoos said...

The more I think about your points above, the more I laugh. Following that line of logic, I guess one could argue that TG were more or less a U.K. equiv of how The Tubes started out (complete w/ the intent of the music being a secondary part of a larger "outrageous" and "tasteless" ironic theatrical production).

David W. Kasper said...

Well, I suspect most of us got familiar with that stuff because it was funny. I know me and my friends did. Similarly with hiphop - teen stoners getting the giggles over ridiculous threats, the titles, poses and all the 'extremes'. The punkier - or more violent - it got, the funnier. I'd include metal too - laughs could come thick'n'fast listening to that stuff (especially its post-80s variants - death, black etc.). Not so much a 'way of life' as a way of listening.

Of a piece with the kind of films/videos a certain generation grew up on. It's not like we were watching slasher movies, sex comedies and vigilante trash for their serious messages was it?

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