During a recent visit to Kiev as part of a selection panel for a call for sound and art works made by the ECAS network, I visited the Ukranian capital's World War Two memorial. I made my way through the Soviet era metro and out to the hills overlooking the wide Dnieper River, with clusters of imposing looking tower blocks beyond its opposite banks. After passing through a park, the gold-domed Pechersk Lavra and Memorial To The Holodomor Victims (the Ukrainian “terror-famine” in the early 1930s) I enter a pedestrian boulevard. At the head of it sit kiosks and cafes, with small groups of visitors escaping from the hot weather, sipping beer in the shade of umbrellas.
The broad boulevard stretches out under the hot sun for nearly a kilometre. I hear the muffled sounds of distant music being played. Suddenly, a loud and mournful male voice starts singing in contrabass right next to me. The entire boulevard is lined with speakers, blasting out a loop of emotionally piqued funereal songs, the sound crackling and warbling from disintegrating speaker cones and what could be poor MP3 compression. In the distance is a giant sculpture of a steel-plated woman warrior.
Further down, I come up to a large, covered section, partly made of poured concrete, shafts radiating out in rhythmic echoes from a Soviet star, embedded crater-like on a monolithic pillar to the left as you enter. There are several grottos, with the tinny sound of mournful singing reverberating around the cool space and bouncing off its hard walls. A roughly hewn socialist-realist frieze depicting rows of super-sized soldiers, workers and peasants, sits against the hard edged abstraction of the concrete. The march of figures lead through the grotto, and out to the other side, guns, farming tools and reinforcement bars pointing towards the warrior woman “Mother Motherland” (intentionally built just taller than the Statue Of Liberty).
Onwards, past another large cluster of gargantuan soldiers frozen in the midst of battle, two tanks face each other with their gun barrels crossed, both bizarrely painted in bright blue and orange, and covered in dots.
The elegiac songs continue, and from this position the guttural stops and warped, soaring vowels puncture the airspace with delayed echoes around the figure, the multitude of speakers sounding out the vastness of the space; a journey from the everyday to cosmic-scaled history at the foot of Mother Motherland.
Here she is, gleaming in the light, a sword thrusting skywards in one hand, in the other a shield emblazoned with Soviet hammer and sickle.
Inside the bunker-like pedestal supporting the Mother is the National Museum Of The History Of The Great Patriotic War (Of 1941–1945), that tells the history of World War Two and the Eastern Front from the Ukrainian, and Kievian perspective. Finished in 1981, the building and its collection are a time capsule from the late Soviet era. The figure was designed by the socialist-realist artist Yevgeny Vuchetich, famous for his grandiose sculptures glorifying Soviet heroism.
The two floors of exhibits take in much of the horror of that time, and aims to convey war through feeling, creating dramatic displays. Like how a title sequence of a movie sets up a tone for the following feature, music acts as a lead-in, preparing visitors for the main event ahead and helping define the emotional parameters of the experience.
The objects on show create a bleak impression: many are simply bits of detritus left over from battles, rusting shards of metal, decomposed boots. There’s the wreckage of an airplane, photos of unnamed victims hanging on its torn wing. Panoramas of fiery battle scenes are framed by soldiers’ heads cast in heavy bronze. A cluster of old speaker cones emit a painfully high pitched static tone (appropriate, though I imagine they were meant to be broadcasting something different). Elsewhere a vitrine containing a child’s jumper dangles off some barbed wire, tiny shoes sitting next to a pair of shackles.
In one section, if any visitors might have missed the point, a barrel of a cannon points at an old hessian textile, dotted with pictures of victims, a flower pot at its base.
In the last room are thousands of photographs of people, surrounding a banquet table lined with the canteens of the dead, phonographs placed intermittently along its length. Different brass instruments are suspended in the air, a swarm of disembodied horns mutely signalling victory.
The materials used emit feeling: cold concrete, lofty marble and austere granite, proud brass, melancholy bronze and energetic steel. All of them strong and hard wearing, each resonating at their own sensorial register.
The whole impression is one of overdriven, screeching emotion. It's so bombastic that my first reaction is how pushy and crass it is. My mind muddles the Soviet kitsch and atrophied, dramatised feeling with the caricatures of the former Eastern Bloc. And now updated to include cruel nouveau riche oligarchs with their tacky gold enamelled Louis XIV furniture, rudimentary capitalism and unrestrained ambition next to abject poverty – and other myths help to reinforce old assumptions about the East as depraved and barbaric.
Contrast the above experience with another type of remembrance: the British Commonwealth’s various iterations of Remembrance Day. They’re all based around a main event of two minutes of silent observance by attendees – performed by veterans and active members of national armed forces – and most usually organised around a cenotaph (empty tomb, in Greek). Communal silence rendered into a monumental sculpture. This silence is followed by a poignant, yet sometimes incongruously peppy tune called "The Last Post", a bugle call signalling the end of the day's duties, widely used in remembrance ceremonies.
Compared to a ten hectare complex of reverberating elegies and up-the-ante monumental sculpture, two minutes of silence seems a stoically restrained and tasteful method of remembrance. But crassness and refinement are to taste as politeness and rudeness are to manners. They are spectrums in which public performances of adherence to a social order take place. And both these examples don’t tolerate much deviation from obedient behaviour. If the National Museum Of The History Of The Great Patriotic War (Of 1941–1945) is a platform for individuals to play out a type of reverential melodramatics, the two minutes of silence reach just as authoritatively into the psyche.
Below is a video from the Australian Army Headquarters's YouTube channel showing a lone soldier playing "The Last Post". They've decided that it's more effective to have the bugler alone in the posh architecture, with dramatic worm's eye views of him and close up shots on blood red poppies and lists of the fallen on stone. It plays off of ideas of restraint and stoic poise, but it also overflows with a kind of melodrama.
As the distance from World War Two increases, its horrors slowly disintegrate in the mausoleum worlds of mediated myth and pomo relativism. The two World War's were proof of how we are always precariously close to tearing ourselves apart. Remembrance Day was started in 1919 and repeated so as to never forget World War One as the war to end all wars – but memorisation by rote learning hasn’t worked and never will.
Historian and broadcaster David Hendy once told me that “ultimately when people want silence, or when people complain about noise, there's a power struggle going on”. This links the above examples of ritual and memory, showing the role that power has in repeating these spaces and rituals – and being the cause of this ongoing misery. It’s clear that rituals of silence and melodramatic reverence are preventative measures against noisily active remembrance, something that at this moment can only be understood by the powers that be as an unpatriotic, violent attack on memory. But of course this noise would be a protest against hollow traditions, empty things used to perpetuate war-mongering, and the greed that usually drives it.
Music questions power and authority as much as it reinforces it. Kiev's memorial complex made me try to think of different types of music and remembrance that act against this mind erasing monumentalism. Enter that other ritual of self-forgetting, nationalistic memory and feeling control: the national anthem. Specifically, Albert Ayler's "Spirits Rejoice", a free jazz call and response riffing off the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise". Without irony it transforms all the hollow rompitypomp of a national anthem and makes it distinctly noisy and present. Its power lying in the fact that it has a very real object that it is ecstatically freeing up, rather than trying to escape from:
The listening session, where writers are herded into a company office to get the first spin of a new album, is now an everyday – yet still clandestine – event. Big independents and major labels are paranoid about their precious new albums leaking through journalists (anecdotally, most leaks happen before it even goes out to the media) so they operate an odd nannying operation whereby you can come along and hear the album... but there's no chance of getting it into your own hands.
There’s two types of listening session. The first and the most excruciating is where a PR is detailed to sit in with you, giving tedious behind-the-scenes gossip on how the artists got their shit together, all the while trying to keep a sneaky eye on your response to the music. It's like a waiter in a posh restaurant painstakingly explaining all the ingredients to you, constantly checking whether you enjoyed it, and asking if there's anything you need, when all you want to do is tuck in.
But the other type, where the label leaves you alone with the music on a kick-ass stereo and some space to think, can be a privilege. There's still an uncomfortable sense of being temporarily admitted onto foreign terrain – you're ushered into a bustling office, where a label rep politely but firmly asks you to hand over your phone and laptop; they swiftly whip out some legal papers for you to sign to stop you talking about the record online. You're given a room with a stereo and tastefully dimmed lights, the label rep presses play and discretely exits, and you're left to sprawl on a beautiful sofa and soak up the sounds.
The one I went to most recently was loud. You felt the change in the air pressure as the basslines kicked in (so the album quite literally made an impact on writers). Drums become huge, acoustic instruments become monolithic. You get completely lost in the sound, which is fun as hell, but the exact opposite of what you're trying to do when you're critically assessing a new album. The problem is even worse if you've just chugged one of their complimentary beers.
Sitting there, in an empty room with a big pair of speakers facing you, and nothing to do but stare back at them, questions start flying through your mind. Why did they choose this sound rather than that sound? Do they make music with a listener in mind, or just for their personal amusement? No doubt these kind of crises have already been faced by the musicians themselves, day after day in the studio, especially in the case of electronic music. Alone in the room, electronic music starts to sound a little like modern composition, where the arrangement and the detail is amazing, but you're lost for reference points as to what all this stuff is for.
The listening session is a gentle form of mind control. Sat in an office for nearly an hour, you get a touch of Stockholm syndrome: you develop an affection for your jailers, and the music you're stuck listening to. With time on your hands, you rationalise. There must be a reason they've gone in this new direction. Hey, maybe these corny celestial choirs and expensive brass sections make a kind of weird sense! You've already made the long journey down to the label offices on a weekday afternoon, so you don't want the time to feel wasted. The travel, booking your slot, the logistics, already confer a legitimacy on the album. It feels like an event; the album physically exists, and is ready to hear. These are hard facts, and they make you hear the music differently, and more deferentially, than if it were just some MP3 files sent via email. With the whole promotional apparatus in full swing, the question of whether the album is any good or not gets lost in the buzz.
That said, I revel in these occasions, not because you get to hear an album a couple of weeks before everyone else (or because of those complimentary beers) but because it's such a rare opportunity to take an hour to think, to listen, and to ponder music itself. Wouldn't it be better, you wonder, if we didn't all rely on beats so much? What effect does this weird discord have on my nervous system? And as an experience in pure sound it's impressive, unless you happen to have a particularly astonishing stereo at home. The separation between the sounds is vertiginous. The bassline is over here – but the melody is way over there. How the hell do you process that? It’s thrilling but anxiety inducing. This is music with all the reference points gone, a free-float through tonal realms which, like an acid trip, is an experience that’s hard to properly relate to acquaintances afterwards.
As a critical exercise it can be almost useless. You walk away, head swimming with vague sense impressions, but as any good journalist knows, it's the follow-up questions that are the crucial ones, and you can't take a second listen to triangulate the music, the lyrics, the songs titles, and who played what. But for a record company, the propaganda work is already done – the listening session is a marker in the sand, a sign that this album is a serious proposition, and that you better think twice about treating it flippantly.
Sounds that weren't meant to be recorded have an uncanny quality. It's these that superimpose scenes of animated yet soulless bodies on Oscar Powell's recent 12"s, Body Music (Diagonal), and an untitled 12" (on Boomkat's Death Of Rave). Sounds taken from live bootlegs of New York No Wave groups – like chickens jerkily strutting around the yard with no heads – pure motor movements minus autonomy and intention.
Talking to Powell for the March issue of the magazine got me thinking about these bits in between live sets. In Powell's music they are what makes his sound so uncomfortable – that which separates it, in terms of its construction, crowbarring apart beats and guitar twangs, and on a macro level, lifting it above the dense forests of hi-fidelity frequencies currently populating dancefloors. A trail of hyperlinks led inevitably to a series of live supercuts.
The first, a year of The Grateful Dead warming up: every single tune up on from 1977 spliced together in chronological order, in one hour and a half supercut. Far from being utterly unlistenable, (even for a non-Deadhead like myself) it's charged with audience anticipation, a giddy anticipation audible behind the endless meanderings, recast awkwardly as one long improvisation, scattered with rogue hi-hats and dribbling riffs.
A hyperlinked wormhole led to this, a shorter 15 minute supercut of sections in between live tracks by The Doors (by @JS_666). This is a different beast – a psychedelic wormhole of unhinged madness, false starts and MC Escher-like beginnings and endings, woven into the frayed ends of tassled carpets.
There's also this, 37 solid minutes of Neil Young & Crazy Horse descending into and ascending from a vortex of riffage. Here, the in-between bits are sonic manfestations of trains of thought, threads followed, and how long is a piece of string when you're talking Neil Young & Crazy Horse? They lose the thread, take it up again, follow tangents, but always loop back, to riffs on riffs on riffs. Arc was released on a major in 1991, bundled as a double pack with Weld.
These supercuts have an entirely different atmosphere than a) listening to any of these groups live or recorded, and b) listening to most other recorded music. You could compare these edits to improvisations, but that's not fair. The stuff here is a step before improvisation – these are run downs, shake 'em offs, and tune ups, the endless wind/whine down by groups that get lost – the sound of being in The Zone (or not).
As a signing off note: the difficult matter of stage banter. Joni Mitchell is rubbish at it. Fugazi were feral. And then there's this, a supercut of Geordie Venom frontman Cronos introducing tracks, squawking hoarsely about Newcastle Brown while an audience member screams "I WANT A DRINK!".
Flying Lotus stares moodily from the cover of The Wire's October issue, his third eye caught in a blur as it materialises in the region of his right temple. A neat/corny camera trick by photographer Jake Walters, you might think. But either way it feels like an appropriate representation – after all, FlyLo is a producer-DJ whose ancestors were cosmic visionaries.
As interviewer Britt Brown points out, but as all you Generation Bass cadets will already know full well, FlyLo's great aunt was Alice Coltrane, that divine messenger who appeared to us in the guise of a jazz musician – although Britt doesn't go on to state the next obvious but still rather mindnumbing fact that this meant his great uncle would have been John Coltrane himself, had he lived long enough to anoint baby Steven Ellison's head once he'd come into the world in October 1983.
Another of FlyLo's great uncles (a blood relative rather than in-law – he was Alice's half-brother) was the somewhat lesser known Ernie Farrow, a double bassist who was another family fixture on Detroit’s vibrant post-war jazz scene. He might not be up there in the pantheon of black music mystics alongside John and Alice, but in the late 50s Ernie was a core member of the group led by Yusef Lateef, who definitely is. Lateef was one of the first jazz musicians to reject his given identity (William Emanuel Hudddleston – a slave name if ever there was one) and convert to Islam. A multi-instrumentalist who introduced strange new instruments and scales to hard bop, he was a significant influence on John and Alice's emerging concept of Universal Consciousness. Great Uncle Ernie's basslines and rebab playing were core components of Lateef's late 50s/early 60s jazz-exotica albums such as Before Dawn, Jazz And The Sounds Of Nature, Prayer To The East and Eastern Sounds. These were records which mixed modal jazz and Hollywood kitsch with pan-Africanisms and proto-New Age spirituality in a way that ensured they would become foundation stones of the fusion aesthetic that would underpin much of the advanced black music to emerge in the subsequent two decades – which is to say the traditon which lends FlyLo's Web 2.0 cosmogrammatic beat science the kind of historical weight that is both real and deep but also mediated and synthetic, predicated on a very conscious process of fabrication.
FlyLo is an industry player too, of course – recording for Warp, pulling down all those headliner DJ slots, mentoring the next generation of downtempo beatnutz via his Brainfeeder label. And as Britt also points out, he has some family precedents for these rather more pragmatic aspects of his operation too.
Even closer on the bloodline than Alice or Ernie is their half-sister Marilyn McLeod, aka FlyLo's granny, who in the 1970s was a songwriter for Tamla Motown. And if Marilyn wasn't exactly a one-woman Holland-Dozier-Holland, a handful of her songs found their way into the repertoires of some of the label’s headline acts, as both they and Motown attempted to adjust to the seismic changes in black R&B precipitated by the rise of disco.
(There's a nice family photo on the site of photographer Theo Jemison which has FlyLo holding up a copy of Great Aunty Alice's A Monastic Trio LP, while behind him granny sits playing an upright piano).
In his article, Britt singles out Marilyn's big moment, Diana Ross's recording of "Love Hangover", which was co-written in 1976 by Marilyn and regular collaborator Pam Sawyer. This was the track that reignited the solo career of Motown's hottest property by propelling her into the realm of the glitter ball (literally almost, as during the recording sessions producer Hal Davis rigged the studio with a glitter ball substitute in the form of a strobe light to get Ross the Boss, initially something of a reluctant disco diva, into the appropriate mood of hedonistic abandon). Despite being issued six years into the disco decade, by which time the music had established an irresistible style and momentum that was all its own, "Love Hangover" is one of those cuts whose structure carries a trace-echo of disco's debt to Bronx salsa: watch out for the vertiginous moment around 2:50 minutes in when dreamy bliss turns to urgent desire as the sickly-sweet sentiments and structure of the song suddenly shift into a mantric bass-drums coda that builds and builds but never peaks.
Four years before "Love Hangover" yoked itself to the disco juggernaut to hit serious paydirt, Marilyn co-wrote "Walk In The Night" for veteran R&B saxophonist Jnr Walker. This was a proto-disco-cum-Easy Listening instrumental phantasia that predated by a year the records most commonly cited as the ones that ushered in disco as a musical genre in its own right, namely The Temptations' "Law Of The Land" and Eddie Kendricks's "Girl You Need A Change Of Mind" (both also issued by Motown). As well as having a melody that was somehow both ethereal and indelible (a classic Easy Listening strategy), "Walk In The Night" had the kind of propulsive mid-tempo backbeat that would ensure it would become a Northern Soul staple.
The same year she wrote "Walk In The Night", another of Marilyn's compositions (this one co-written with Berry Gordy Jr himself no less) was given to Marvin Gaye, who recorded it in the fraught interregnum between the post-civil rights laments of What's Going On and the carnal entreaties of its eventual follow up Let's Get It On. "The World Is Rated X" was originally slated for inclusion on the abandoned You're The Man album and has had something of a peripatetic existence ever since (it was included on the Got To Give It Up anthology and the expanded edition of Let's Get it On). So it's one of the lesser known tracks from the most feted period of one of the most conflicted artists of all. But it's an amazing performance by the singer, in terms of the timing and the flow, and the way he invests the rather parochial protest lyric with urgent beseeching drama. As the track progresses the arrangement thickens to add the kind of epic backdrop of strings and horns that would become a disco archetype. You can still hear it all percolating away beneath the rebarbative drum programming and EQing on this typical mid-80s remix (the original is nowhere to be found on YouTube's increasingly compromised archive).
In 1979, Marylin finally got to record and sing one of her own songs, though not for Motown. "(I Don't Wanna Dance Tonight) I Got Love On My Mind" was originally released as a Fantasy 12". The A side was reissued earlier this year on the American Hot volume of the Disco Discharge series. But whatever her talents, Marilyn was no Loleatta Holloway, and it's the instrumental B side that you need, a 144 bpm disco flyer in the style of Azymuth’s "Jazz Carnival". The track has never been reissued, and its 'record spinning on a turntable' YouTube post has been wiped from the archive by the copyright lawyers (although you can hear it here courtesy of the Disco Delivery blog). Which is a double disservice, because while such posts are vilified by the record industry as pure piracy, their comments pages can serve as channels for the dissemination of some illuminating local history.
As an example, on that now deleted YouTube post someone called Charles had commented: "I had the pleasure of working with [Marilyn] on my group's first album Rare Gems Odyssey." This turns out to be Charles E Givings, an LA session drummer who, in the mid-70s, worked regularly with Marilyn when she was demoing her songs for Motown (the organisation relocated from Detroit to LA in the early 70s taking Marilyn with it – which I guess might be the reason FlyLo grew up in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley rather than inner city Detroit: what would his tracks have sounded like if Motown and granny had stayed put, I wonder?). The record Charles is referring to is the 1977 debut by his fabulously obscure Cali-funk troupe Rare Gems Odyssey. The album, which contained a number of Marilyn McLeod writing credits, disappeared without trace (although it seems the group is still a going concern). But a decade after its release, two of its tracks had a brief second life in the UK's Rare Groove underground, one of the incubator club scenes for the generation of Brit-hop producers and label runners who would emerge in the 90s to help define the jazzy downtempo loops 'n' beats aesthetic that would become one of the (unacknowledged) templates for FlyLo's jazzy downtempo hiphop-electronica fusions (if FlyLo doesn't owe props to Mo'Wax, then my name's James Lavelle).
Fast forward two decades to 1998, when time folded in on itself, and Marilyn and Pam Sawyer got paid twice over, by writing the cookie cutter R&B of Monica's "The First Night", which pivoted on a sample of "Long Hangover" (cute).
"The First Night" is one of those tracks which became a YouTube meme, generating multiple webcam karoake versions. I'm not saying it pre-echoes FlyLo's own cyber-soul productions with Erykah Badu on the new Until The Quiet Comes album, but I can't help flashing on one serendipitous correspondence. In his interview with Britt, FlyLo refers to the album as "a children's record, a record for kids to dream to". Meanwhile, one of the comments on that YouTube post states: "My mum used to sing this to me as a Lullaby... and I'm planning to do the same for my kids."
In April 2002 Jake Walters photographed Alice Coltrane at her home in Santa Barbara for the cover of The Wire 218. One of the extended family members hanging out at the shoot was Alice's teenage nephew, Steven Ellison. Ten years on, and Ellison is now better known as Flying Lotus, patron saint of downtempo beat makers, and now Jake has photographed him for the cover of the forthcoming October 2012 issue of the magazine.
So we couldn't resist a pose with a copy of that issue graced by the numinous presence of his late, great Aunty Alice, and here it is. The October issue, complete with more images from Jake’s shoot, will be on sale from next week and on its way to subscribers from the end of this week. The digital edition will be dropping in from the ether on Tuesday.
Since 2008 Jan Jelinek has been releasing recordings from the archives of an electronic ‘outsider’ musician, Ursula Bogner. Born in 1949 and employed as a pharmacist for Schering, she devoted her leisure time to exploring electronic sound, constructing a home studio, attending workshops and building up a body of tape and synthesiser pieces that reverberate with a ghostly, eerie intimacy.
Except, of course, she probably didn’t – Bogner is widely believed to be one of Jelinek’s various musical personae, despite his carefully constructed story of a chance meeting with her son followed by the donation of an archive of reel-to-reel recordings, photos and writings. After the first Bogner release in 2008 – a compilation of fragmentary works dated ‘1969-88’ – another, more fully realised album, Sonne = Blackbox, followed in 2011. This release took the tale further, coming with extensive documentation of Bogner’s research into esoteric areas such as space travel and Wilhelm Reich’s theories of ‘orgonomy’. More recently, Jelinek has taken his discovery out live, with performances in which he and Andrew Pekler interpret Bogner’s compositions.
‘Andrew Pekler & Jan Jelinek play Ursula Bogner’ was on my list of must-sees at Mutek festival in Montreal a few weeks ago. Sonically, the Bogner releases, with their gently unearthly analogue miniatures, ticked many of my boxes, whoever the man or woman making the music was. I’d no problem with being Jelinek’s target audience conceptually, either. It seemed pretty clear that he intended to comment on the ongoing fascination with unearthing marginal figures from electronic music’s past, an archival itch that, four years after the first Bogner release, seems no closer to being scratched. That he chose a female musician was significant. Composers like Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel, Eliane Radigue and Ruth White are not only outliers because of their obscurity; their gender puts them even more intriguingly on the margins (although, as more musicians/engineers of all genders come to light, perhaps the well-meaning but slightly fetishy edge to this strain of archive fever will die down a little). The Reichian ideas about libidinal orgone energy that Jelinek added to the mix could even be seen as a gentle dig at the essentialist ideas of tactility, mysticism and sensuality that often linger around descriptions of electronic music made by women. Jelinek's take on sound and gender seemed sharp, funny and on point, and if women’s roles in shaping electronic music are finally coming into the light, what’s a little irony along the way? On the flight over to Canada I'd been reading about science fiction writer Alice Sheldon, whose stories published under the name James Tiptree Jr were praised for being “ineluctably masculine”; electronic sound, like science fiction, offers a space to play with identity, subvert stereotypes.
My misgivings start to take shape in the dark, hushed space of the Monument-National theatre, where it is harder to ignore who is turning the dials. On stage, Jelinek and Pekler manipulate tape machines and oscillators. Their actions are projected on one half of a screen above them, the rest of which plays out a slideshow of Bogner ephemera: schematics and diagrams; linocuts of planets; photographs of Bogner’s home-built orgone accumulator. And, of course, photos of someone purporting to be the woman herself – at home, at work, at play. High, delicate and disembodied voices echo out from whimsically named ‘Sombrero Galaxies’ into the ornate domed room, and Jelinek pitchshifts his own voice up to an androgynous tone to narrate a text. The mixture of pure analogue abstraction and the vocal-based ‘emotive register’ spoken of in the sleevenotes to Sonne entices me to drift off into a fluid, utopian post-gender future space, like the calm galaxies depicted in Bogner’s planet prints; something it's easy to do when listening to the records.
But in this three-dimensional setting, the physical facts keep asserting themselves. At an electronic music festival whose performers are for the most part male, the Ursula Bogner project doesn’t feel so different from anything else on show. I find myself asking, as a static image of Bogner hovers over the stage, whether it's OK for male musicians to co-opt a history that isn't theirs. Does Jelinek's ironic objectification of a woman who probably never existed edge real women’s art even closer to the margins, trivialise it for those of us who think rediscovering it is less a subject for satire and more an urgent political project? Is the endpoint of this playful exercise in gender-bending postmodernism just a theatre full of people staring at a photo of a woman, listening to music made by men? The sounds that come from this configuration of Jelinek, Pekler and the hypothetical Ursula Bogner are inviting, but their live presence alienates, leaves me thinking that this collaboration is better left in the disembodied realm of recording, where one isn't so easily reminded of the still-skewed realities of who actually gets to make, perform and benefit from music.
Is the term remix redundant? Music has been begging, borrowing and stealing since day one. But does a remix denote more about the working process than the actual nature of the track? When so much is on long term loan, where's the dividing line between say, a prodigiously used sample and a remix? Is 'remix' just a label that's used top-down, from label to listener, to make sure you're accessing an audience efficiently?
Perhaps the trouble is that remixes are often half-baked, passed around on short deadlines to every Tom, Dick and Harry with a URL, touted as 'exclusive', when it's one from a bag of ten or more quick-fix mixes that add a lazy beat or beefed up production to give a track a longer shelf life. (The plague of bad blog-House mixes that were recycling Pitchfork-hits for desperate music bloggers got so bad The Hype Machine built in a 'no remixes' functionality.) It's the churnalism of music production.
Of course it's not always like that, but it can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. The good ones often catch you off guard by changing everything about a track, a drastic restoration or rebuild that changes how you thought and felt about something, a sweet vocal line looped into a frightening verbal tic, a tiny synth line scrubbed clean and brought to the fore, massive and shining.
From these thoughts I'm led to the entry-level philosophical puzzle of Theseus's ship. It asks: if you change every plank in Theseus's ship from oak to teak one by one, then at the end, is it still the same ship? Applied: if you replace or change every element of a track, is it still the same track? (...And if Theseus asks Wiley to change the planks, who owns the ship when the job's done? Theseus? Or Wiley? – Leaving aside the fact that Wiley would probably take the credit for it floating.)
From Ancient Greek puzzles there's only one small step to Mark E Smith, naturally: If you change every member of The Fall – is it still The Fall?
Talking to Nik Void for a feature in this month's magazine, I was struck by the way she talks about how Factory Floor pass on their records for remixing so readily (to Chris Carter and Stephen Morris, among others). For her it's about a continuation of ideas, giving someone what you've done and seeing what they will do with it – orphaning your own work so it might see something of the world, if you like.
Void said: "We like giving our stuff to other people to see how they develop it further, just letting it go."
"Just letting it go" – is this the nub of the issue? When you slap a bunch of names on something, notions of authorship, ownership, rights, and the ego of the creator all come into a power play. An artist gives someone a track and asks them to remix it. Is the track, as Nik Void suggests, a collection of ideas passed from one person to the next? Or (philosophically speaking not – God forbid – legally) does the original work belong to one person, passed on to someone else to be reworked (but not re-authored)?
And what about Tom Moulton mixes, Theo Parrish's Ugly Edits, and the rest? The waters are muddied, and in certain areas (the stuff that would once be tagged Ambient Techno for example), there can be a disjunct between what's called a remix and how a track has been constructed and reconstructed. Music is so tied up in ideas, concepts, and the sonic properties of equipment, that it might often be more correct to talk about something's continuing life cycle than it is to call it X's remix of Y by Z.
The term remix isn't really doing its job. In the same way that genre tags are in many ways redundant, maybe the term remix is limp and ineffective too. Genre tags act as vague signposts, but they can't draw a map. A remix can tell you who's been on the buttons, but won't give up the story of what really happened behind the desk.
The Loft staff Thanksgiving party, 1979. Photo: Don Lynn
A number of disco revivals around at the moment – a four CD box set of Tom Moulton's remixes of tracks issued in the early-mid-70s by Philadelphia International; four new volumes in the Disco Discharge archive series; a ruffneck mix of vintage disco obscurities posted online by Chicago Footwork producer du jour Traxman – all serving to remind us that the more the world sinks into the mire of capitalist folly the more prominent disco becomes. As the breathless press release accompanying those Disco Discharge releases puts it: "The new installment couldn't have come at a better time as history repeats itself, when the going gets tough, disco gets going!"
But buried in that sentiment is the main reason disco is still derided by so many so-called serious music types. When the going gets tough, disco gets going – yes, but in the wrong direction. The wisdom (if we can call it that) on disco that prevails in multiple subcultural nooks and crannies from Noise to alt.rock to Improv is that it is suffocating escapist froth, a retreat from the frontline of the Real into a dressed up, dumbed down, perpetual denial state of corny, showbizzy razzle-dazzle, all flaunt and flirt, oblivious to everything other than the solipsistic desire to go bang with all your friends at once, night in, night out. (Is it necessary to point out that such judgments rarely seem based on close encounters with disco's actual milieu, let alone a close analysis of the actual music, which in its original state melted a complex of Afro rhythms – Bronx salsa, gospel and R&B, samba and Afrobeat – into a mix that was insouciant enough to suck up Broadway showtunes, Hollywood musicals, early synth experiments, jazz, minimalism and exotica? But then disco is the ultimate example of a genre whose complex reality and backstory has been obscured by its subsequent global commodity status, as the music that taste forgot, the sound that sucks.)
But as those revisionist disco historians Peter Shapiro and Tim Lawrence have already demonstrated, disco's detractors should consider a couple of other angles on its supposedly head-in-the-stars refusal to grapple with the issues, its decadent insistence on fun and frivolity in the face of all the urgent evidence to the contrary (and is it necessary to reiterate the WASP-ish dimension to so much anti-disco rhetoric?)
For instance, rather than 'speaking truth to power' in the nominally engaged manner of protest songs of all stripes (rock, folk, R&B) – songs whose visceral platitudes and patinas seduced their audiences into thinking they were right there on the barricades, fed their sense of moral superiority in the taxonomy of cultural consumers – what if in its original incarnation, disco's inclusive dancing-in-the-ruins vibe actively turned its back to the cynical machinations of prevailing elites and hierarchies? Consider the climate and conditions in which disco emerged, which is to say the dog days of the early 70s in the necropolis of Manhattan, when America was freezing in the chill winds of global economic meltdown and rampant political conservatism, and the pitiless systemic response to Vietnam protests, civil rights and the rise of identity politics. Now consider the possibility that, instead of knuckling under to this harsh 70s reality, disco proudly and defiantly resisted it by having the nous and the nerve to walk away, disappearing into a polymorphously perverse autonomous zone where none of it mattered, and where divisions of class, race, gender and sexuality were allowed to dissolve in a cavalcade of esoteric rituals that suspended time for as long as the night allowed.
Many of disco's pioneers (New York DJs-cum-club runners such as David Mancuso and Francis Grasso) had come of age during long strange trips through the 60s counterculture, and in quasi-legal private-public spaces like The Church and The Loft the prone hippie credo of turning on, tuning in and dropping out took on a whole other meaning, transmuted for harder times into a more complex mantra of silence, exile and cunning. In these and other out of the way places at the centre of it all, disco revolted in style by creating a series of occult enclaves where the young and the damned, the bad and the beautiful, the perverse and the perverted could congregate in mutually assured communion, away from workaday existence and the (hetero)normative scheme of things with all its persecutions and privations. What disco's detractors perceived as reckless hedonism, its initiates (and let's not forget who those early denizens of the disco night actually were: blacks, Latins, gays, women; the socially marginalised and maligned) understood to be a far more subversive process of self-determination and community solidarity.
The clothes and the drugs, the roleplaying and the rituals may appear poles apart, but really, when you get right down to it, is what was happening at a socio-psychological level at the dawn of disco any different to what now occurs in those subcultural scenes which emerged partly in opposition to everything that disco apparently promoted (irony rather than authenticity, the anonymity and mutability of the DJ mix rather than the fixed co-ordinates of authorial identity, music used and abused as instant hit and disposable commodity)? The rhetoric that surrounds supposedly uncompromising avant garde scenes such as Noise, Improv, DIY makes claims for them that weirdly echo the imperatives that gave rise to disco: a revolt against deleterious systems – social, cultural and political – which took the form of a retreat underground and the creation of new ways of being based on new sets of shared values. Whether you choose to frequent loft parties or basement jamz or Improv workshops has everything to do with where you as an individual feel warm and secure, cocooned by likeminds and familiar faces, free to go bang with all your friends at once, night in, night out. The differences can be measured in degrees, are mere semantics, surface details.
Undergrounds are formed out of necessity by individuals and communities that have historically been on the wrong end of economic and cultural isolation, fear and loathing, cynicism and ignorance, snide jokes and sneering asides – the deviants, the aberrations, the exiles, the dispossessed. As David Mancuso told Tim Lawrence in Love Saves The Day: "The underground was where it was safe. It was where you wanted to be." He's referring to the milieu of the lofts and warehouses of disco's first blush, but he might as well be talking from the perspective of the occupants of the basements and backrooms of contemporary Noise and Improv: the underground, and underground status, as an end in itself; not an interim step to aboveground integration, but a defence mechanism against it (as if integration was ever possible on anything other than their terms). Aboveground is mendacious, censorious. Of course it is where you have to return, and you negotiate its treacherous terrain as best you can, like a fugitive, ducking into doorways and shadows, lurking in cracks and crevices, detouring down back streets, keeping your head down, hiding away in the cold light of day. But it's the last place on earth you want to be, and you remove yourself from it at every opportunity, night in, night out.
Disco fermented far underground, but through a number of insidious processes became the embodiment of everything that, in the eyes of other subterranean enclaves, was abhorrent about what happened aboveground. But this was merely another example of the process in which countercultures are co-opted by capital and distorted into grotesque parodies denuded of their original vernacular power to suspend one reality and replace it with another (disco is no more, no less an escape from reality than, say, Noise; instead, both are the endorsement, the validation of anOther). Punk becomes New Wave, Metal becomes AOR, revolutionary gestures become stadium grandstanding, the disco mix becomes cheesy opportunistic chart pop. And what remains of the underground responds by burrowing deeper, until its vibrations are barely discernible on the surface.
Essentially (as in: this is their true essence), undergrounds such as Noise, Improv and DIY, or Bassline and UK funky (or whatever they are calling the latest troglodyte modifications of disco DNA this week) all serve the same purpose, providing a psychic and physical refuge for those looking for other modes of existence, a context in which to intensify marginal ideas and esoteric experience, ones that might carry them up and above and beyond all the bright lies and dull routines, the banal facts of a world on the brink, if only for a night.
A month ago a DJ set by Hieroglyphic Being (aka Jamal Moss) set my world on fire. It was in Berlin, at the CTM festival, and I can't stop going over it in my head, rerunning the maths to find the multiplying factor. It was the first time I'd seen Moss DJ. It started at 3am, following an impeccable set of tessellated Techno by Kassem Mosse. But Jamal Moss's set was a different beast entirely: loose, sloppy and incredibly ugly in some parts, but always giddy, impatient and unpredictable. It ran through pitched up and pitched down tracks, and too many genres and styles to count on one hand. At one point it got into a call and response dialogue between New York disco and Krautrock. The mixing was at times slick, incredible (an air raid siren threaded through three tracks, sewing them together). In other places it was a dirty hack made with a blunt instrument.
The constantly changing pace sent me nuts, for Hieroglyphic Being's disregard for the conventions of what constitutes 'good' DJing. In fact the performance capsized all the cliches that have built up around our idea of what makes a 'good' DJ set, ie that good mixing is a smooth segue between two tracks; that a set should move through styles in a gradual progression; that bpms shouldn't ramp up, plummet and shoot up again in the space of three minutes. Moss moved between sections full of sudden schizophrenic cuts from one track to another, and passages where he would let one groove run unmolested for almost ten minutes. Tracks were pulled after one chorus, played backwards, rewound. They were sped up to 170 bpm, then slammed up next to slow 80 bpm funk.
I laughed my way through it, half the time shaking my head in disbelief, frowning, puzzled. Admittedly, it pushed my buttons, that New York disco stuff always does. But it was done with such confident swagger – with Moss resplendent in Battlefield Earth leather chic – that it worked.
Some friends said they were finding it "very challenging". Why? Because what was expected (even given Hieroglyphic Being's diverse output) was not being adhered to. Descriptions of the mood in clubs and on dancefloors often resort to religious analogies, and this set required you to make a leap of faith, or find yourself at an impasse with regard to the sheer iconoclasm of it. CDJs are frowned on in some circles, but central to Moss's set was the way it foregrounded the sound of these tools – the fake scratching sound of the CDJs, the speed shifting (sometimes without pitch control), and brutal use of the fader.
Whereas Kassem Mosse's set felt like a perfectly calibrated clockwork model (not conventional, but certainly neat and tidy), Hieroglyphic Being's was the boss-eyed Frankenstein's monster you fall in love with precisely for his scars and club foot.
Mike Kelley photographed by Robert Gallagher for The Wire 235 September 2003
[This post was written following a conversation in The Wire office about the effects of the influence of the art of the late Mike Kelley, mainly as an attempt to clarify my own thoughts, and maybe confront some of my own prejudices. Many of my colleagues and associates at The Wire were longterm admirers of Kelley's work; indeed, some of them were friends of the artist – all have been shocked by the recent news of his death, reportedly by his own hand, aged just 57. In the circumstances, I doubt this post will be greeted in a spirit of critical debate. But as far as I can ascertain, Kelley himself never bothered much with matters of 'good' taste, let alone observed petty bourgeois notions of proper etiquette or knowing when to hold his tongue, so for what it's worth, I post it in a similar spirit.]
In the days following his death the tributes to Mike Kelley flooded in from the art press, broadsheets and online alt.rock sites, many proclaiming him the greatest American artist of his generation. That Kelley was a significant figure is not in doubt, which is part of the problem.
Born in 1954 into a working class family in the suburbs of Detroit, Kelley was one of a number of American visual artists whose aesthetic was formed during the 70s comedown from the failure of the 60s counterculture to actually change anything. Like his fellow art students at Ann Arbor's University of Michigan with whom he formed the performance/Noise group Destroy All Monsters, he was a blue collar freak rather than a Progressive hippy, and maybe it was the harsh realities in effect on Michigan's city streets in the wake of civil rights, rapid industrialisation and the 70s economic and spiritual downturns which deepened his cynicism and meant he saw through the facade of the corporate Prog-hippy ideal, sensing how its supine cultural politics actually buttressed the status of middle America and its ruling elites, reinforcing by other means existing hierarchies of class, race, gender, sexuality and aesthetics. As with Frank Zappa's recordings with The Mothers Of Invention a decade earlier, Destroy All Monsters seemed designed to confront apathetic hippy delusions head on, as much as it was an assault on bourgeois values, goading them from the sidelines via a series of guerilla art pranks.
In 1976 Kelley quit DAM and the boho Ann Arbor freak scene to study at CalArts, where he parlayed all his cynicism and disgust at the way the underground had been co-opted into a branch of Corporate Entertainment USA into an art world career which bowdlerised pop culture to such an extent that ironically (a double irony here) made it palatable to America's cultural elite.
Art critics, museum curators, private gallerists and major institutions all promoted Kelley's work for the way they thought it anatomised (by dissecting and rewiring pop cultural detritus) the uptight schizophrenia that reigned in America's public, private and domestic spheres (an aesthetic which reinforced their own delusions of panoptican superiority because in their eyes it articulated a process which they thought they were above and beyond). That's the macro view. At a much lower level, he was a symbol for all that could, and usually does, go wrong whenever the visual art world moves in on rock 'n' roll.
Kelley's background may have been mid-West working class but his sensibilities became those of a sardonic West Coast conceptual artist. The first rule of conceptual art is that it should be universally understood, that everyone should be in on the joke. This imperative was recognised by both Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, conceptual art pioneers who also produced its two greatest works (perhaps its only great works), Fountain and 4'33". As with Duchamp, Kelley's art was full of references to vernacular culture, was in fact constructed entirely from them. He dissed Duchamp's readymades for being 'obscure' relative to his own art of cultural appropriation and regurgitation. But despite this assertion, compared to Duchamp's subversive celebrations of materials which to the art world of his time were abject and abhorrent, Kelley's art constituted a series of bitter in-jokes and twisted asides executed on a grand scale, an aesthetic which made personal disjecta out of pop culture tropes in a way that would appeal directly to the class-based prejudices of detached art world snobs, who bought up the work in their droves.
Kelley's admirers have claimed many things for his vast body of work, the most grandiose being that it performed a total psychoanalysis of the state of the human condition, its inner space and exterior landscapes, at the close of the American century. But ultimately it was too solipsistic to perform any function other than offering an explicit tour through the conflicted realms inside Kelley's own head. Kelley had been abused by his father as a child, was an outsider lower class artist operating in an elitist establishment milieu, and he mistook the trauma and conflicts of his own personal experience for universal truths, resulting in an art which was like a perverted form of sexual and identity politics for sociopathic sick fucks (as in the entertainment industry, the more edgy and sensational art gets, the more the art establishment likes it, because it gives them something they can package and sell). It was no accident that Kelley became part of the cultural capital of Los Angeles, the most solipsistic and sick city on the planet, as well as one whose stratified topographies most thoroughly embodied and enacted the corrosive reality of the American dream that he was now living.
Destroy All Monsters proclaimed themselves 'anti-rock', which the cultural elite correctly interpreted as 'pro-art'. Barely known during its mid-70s incarnation, the group has cast a long shadow across the last three decades of DIY underground rock, and has been indirectly instrumental in the process of its embourgeoisement, abetting the migration of its milieu from the basements and the clubs to artists' studios and private gallery spaces. A conceptualised art school project, rather than a vernacular rock 'n' roll unit, DAM spewed out enough knowing references to cool underground scenes (avant garde jazz, post-Cagean experimental music, alternative theatre) to reassure the same freaks who had earlier mistook Zappa for a radical, because he namechecked Varèse and Eric Dolphy, of their superior taste to both the lumpen proles who still went out and partied hard with vernacular forms like black R&B, and the hippies, or heads, who were still zoning out to The Grateful Dead's inert/inept appropriations of American folk musics. (Mid-70s heads were hippy intellectuals who had temporarily dropped out from the bourgeois culture they were born into with impunity because they knew they would eventually be able to return to it in order to fulfill their class destiny. Freaks were alienated lower class autodidacts who hated the vernacular culture they in turn were born into – the culture of their parents, essentially – but rather than attempting to change that culture from the inside à la punk, they denied class realities by enacting the illusion of social mobility. They identified with the likes of Kelley and Zappa for the same reason the cultural elites eventually bought into them, because the work presented a grotesque parody of the vernacular culture they hated, and then put it on a pedestal marked 'art'.)
In that original incarnation, DAM dished up self-consciously inept rock noise designed to épater the very same bourgeoisie that would later commission and patronise Kelley's massive installation works. It satirised the Total Rock 'N' Roll Theatre of Iggy Pop and The Stooges to such an extent that it made Alice Cooper's cartoon take on the same material look like a profound expansion of it.
Where The Stooges presented America's ruling elite with a defiant 'fuck you!' symbol of the trailer trash they so feared (because it confronted them with the reality their mendacious dealings made inevitable), Kelley and DAM reassured it that all was well with the world by offering them a curated version of revolutionary working class culture that one day they might safely invite into their white-walled galleries and empty loft spaces. The group rechannelled The Stooges's raw power, via an ironic restaging of the feral energies of Dada and Fluxus, so it became a trash commodity the cultural wing of the ruling elite could accept and get behind, because they could contain and sell it.
It is for this reason that Kelley's art has had the most ruinous effect on rock 'n' roll since Colonel Tom Parker first dressed Elvis up in a monkey suit.
DAM emerged at the same time as the first wave of New York punks, whose music expanded on the earlier breakthroughs of The Velvet Underground, Suicide and The New York Dolls, not to mention Johnny Burnette, Bo Diddley and The Shangri-Las. But Kelley rejected punk as being too 'retro', not realising it was part of a vital and ongoing continuum, the 'changing same' (to borrow Amiri Baraka's phrase) of vernacular experimentalism and resistance that fought the system from the inside and on its own terms, rather than trying to provoke it from the sidelines via a series of impotent provocations. For a savvy and ambitious art school educated freak like Kelley, punk was simultaneously too volatile and sure of itself to be of any interest; as raw material it was too conscious, too historically right and exact to be moulded and manipulated to serve the kind of mutable aesthetic he wanted to pursue. But when the grass roots agitprop of punk gave way to the metropolitan radical chic of No Wave (just compare the existential rage of Patti Smith and Richard Hell to the solipsistic nihilism of Lydia Lunch and James Chance) the die was cast. The group that most fully absorbed Kelley's and DAM's sardonic sensibilities, then regurgitated them as PoMo gestures, started out as a No Wave tribute band, and they would go on to become the most influential outfit in alt.rock. The moment Sonic Youth signed to Blast First was the moment rock 'n' roll's vanguard became fully annexed to a wing of the art world.
Kelley objected to other people's subjective critical interpretations of his work so much that he attempted to control the debate around it by writing his own essays and critiques of it. Without irony he claimed this process was actually intended to advance discussion, and while Kelley was ferociously intelligent and a highly articulate writer, even for a conceptual artist, and knew his art history and critical theory as well as his pop culture, this was a classic piece of obfuscation. Subjective critical interpretations are the only ones human beings are able to make, and as Duchamp understood, it is via this process that art becomes universal, by bringing individual expression into dynamic contact with external reality. SY likewise shut down the discourse that had historically existed in rock 'n' roll by conceptualising the music in advance, rendering any further interpretation or discussion mute and moot.
Celebrated in the cosy ghettos of mid-80s indie thanks to their Blast First releases, SY only made a decent record after they signed to a major (one run by that ultimate corporate hippy-turned-head David Geffen). Suddenly, these Generation X pop artists were confronted with both the blue collar existentialism of Grunge, and the reality of the tensions that had historically animated vernacular culture's relationship with Capital (thus replicating the experience of The Stooges before them, who, as soon as they signed to Elektra, sussed that their original Psychedelic Stooges incarnation, a Cage/Coltrane inspired Noise unit that was like a proto-DAM, was indulgent playing-to-the-plukes that would never change anything). Goo, SY's first record for Geffen, immediately put a rocket under the oblique strategies of those Blast First albums, a niche UK indie with art world pretensions which instilled a smug slackness in the American groups that recorded for it and which they in turn mistook for punk rock insouciance. Suddenly, the songs were tauter, leaner, punchier, the sound more vivid, the arrangements more inventively compact, the delivery more direct and urgent. The exceptions were the contributions of Kim Gordon, a former conceptual artist herself and the SY member whose sensibility was most oriented towards the visual art world, as well as the cover, which was basically a Mike Kelley tribute trash-pop artwork.
Of course, SY's fans regarded their Geffen records as sell outs, and to some extent they were, though not in the sense that the fans thought. Goo and Dirty (hyper-ironically packaged in an actual Mike Kelley artwork this time) animated SY music by injecting some of the vernacular discipline and shake appeal The Stooges had developed on Funhouse (and which they had learned from listening to James Brown), but the fans had originally embraced the group precisely because it offered them a simulacrum of rock 'n' roll, a Minstrelsy-like parody which allowed them to edge close to a distorted version of vernacular culture but whose self-conscious detachment was guaranteed to protect them from the vulgar stench of the real deal. The fact that SY now seemed to be playing rock 'n' roll at its own game was just too much for the fans who yearned for the detached longueurs of Daydream Nation.
(As Eric Lott explained in Love And Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy And The American Working Class, Minstrelsy's practitioners enacted a double insult, embracing and appropriating a vernacular culture they loved but were distinct from then lampooning it by projecting a grotesque cartoon version of it. A similar process is in play right now in the realms of hipster House, many of whose practitioners came up through America's DAM-via-SY-educated DIY underground.)
During the Geffen years, to placate the fans and simultaneously court the attentions of the art elite with their chic-trash pop avant eclecticism, Kelley's and DAM's baleful influence persisted in the multiple side projects undertaken by SY's individual members, or which they issued on their own boutique label (whose releases were like a catalogue of historical avant garde gestures, all correctly labelled, framed and displayed, from New York School composition to structuralist film soundtracks), all of which paralleled the sardonic tone of SY's most Kelley-like project, The Whitey Album. Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label even curated a three CD box set of DAM material. In fact SY were now functioning like fully fledged art curators, rather than a vernacular rock 'n' roll outfit which produced work out of sheer necessity, assembling records as art projects and putting them on display as if they were items in a SoHo gallery space. And of course, eventually that is what they would become, touring the world as part of Sensation Fix, the multimedia retrospective that was effectively a restaging of the Poetics Project, the mid-90s international touring installation which 'represented' Kelley's 'experience' of being in a band, ie The Poetics, which he had formed at CalArts with Tony Oursler for the express purpose of generating new material for his work as a visual artist. Here the ironies twist around each other as if they were strapped to a Moebius strip: Sensation Fix was SY's most explict homage to Kelley's influence, and the ultimate expression of its art world pretensions; The Poetics were an SY-influenced pop art project, in which rock 'n' roll was subordinated to a conceptual art agenda, and the Poetics Project showed SY themselves exactly what they had to do in order to gain real art world credibility.
Compounding the example and affect of the Poetics Project, Sensation Fix once and for all pinned rock 'n' roll's primal scream, its raw vernacular power, under glass for detached contemplation by the same metropolitan art tourists who meandered numb through the world's major cultural institutions, staring blankly at the now inert relics of earlier avant garde movements with the same level of engagement they would display as they shopped for 'vintage' rock 'n' roll paraphernalia in the local branch of Urban Outfitters.
(The semiotic similarity between the title of that SY show and that of the exhibiton which launched the careers of a generation of solipsistic Brit Artists was surely no coincidence, and showed how SY had an insider's knowledge of the art world's junkie-like need for increasingly sensational, ie empty, pop cult gestures. And in yet another irony, the Poetics Project had initially been installed at Documenta, the international art show that would later make cultural capital out of the emerging 'politicised' art of globalisation and post-colonial theory, ie the very stuff that was supposed to sweep aside solipsistic Western-centric pop art but which merely restocked the world's art fairs with new goods for sale.)
Mike Kelley's sudden death is a tragedy for his colleagues and friends. His body of work is formidable, but his influence on the rock 'n' roll of the last 25 years via his impact on one of its most influential groups remains a pernicious one. Effectively, it helped to kill off rock 'n' roll as a vital force, compounding its cultural institutionalisation and social isolation. The only saving grace here is that this process paved the way for the emergence of other, less clubbable modes of opposition, hiphop, Jungle, Grime, to provide the context for vernacular culture's most dynamic future moments of resistance to elitist hierarchies.
No one should doubt Mike Kelley's sincerity. He wanted his art to expose and capsize established and oppressive value systems, to upend prevailing taxonomies and systems of classification, but ultimately, and just like the corporate hippies he hated back in the mid-70s, it ended up merely reinforcing them, by feeding the prejudices and sick appetites and desires of the privileged elite he had became a part of. Mike Kelley was not stupid nor complacent, and unlike his legions of laissez faire acolytes, couldn't settle for being so co-opted, or for making the increasingly empty gestures that inevitably go hand in glove with an international art world career. And that is the lesson here, as well as the real tragedy.