Previously unpublished essay commissioned for The Wire's online 300th issue celebrations
Experience is the product of story-telling, and shared experiences are what we use to constitute cultural traditions. It is in the light of this fundamental social truth that I consider The Wire on the occasion of its 300th issue. What has been the fate of our shared traditions of experience in music and sound since The Wire first rolled off the press in 1982? In a word – decay. And as traditions decay, what do they leave us with? Ruins. And what do we do with these ruins? We build. If this seems unduly pessimistic, this is not my intention at all.
Human history is the province of change as one thing replaces another, musical traditions included, as noted by Tony Herrington in his editorial in The Wire 300. And modernity, the most recent era for which we have an agreed name, may be defined as the final dissolution of a set of pre-capitalist traditions which were inherited from the feudal period - like putting a body into weak acid. Simultaneously new traditions were given rise by the conditions of modern life: for instance, the novel, photography and film, jazz and rock music. These new traditions themselves began to break down as modernity itself began to decay, driven by the gradual post-war change from a society organised for production, to one organised for consumption – a Spectacle, to use the technical term. The essential mark of this process is of course the internet.
Since, as I said, traditions are maintained by the story-telling that builds common experience within a group, this is a process that The Wire has participated in to some degree on a global scale. In 1982, when I was discovering many of the artists who were to become touchstones of my later career, such as The Fall, we had no reliable sources of information other than record covers and hearsay. We told each other these stories, in order to make connections between records and genres that seemed significant to us. This process occurred in many tiny communities of shared cultural practice around the world: so it was strong, and built traditions that seemed permanent, from Dunedin to Havana. We knew, or thought we knew, that Stockhausen wasn’t doing the same thing as Cabaret Voltaire, or Suicide, or Lee Perry. Yet even then, the separation of traditions was to some degree an illusion.
In a way, the career and posthumous adventures of Joy Division exemplified some of these emerging cultural trends at their outset. The original group expressed the most perfect realisation imaginable of rock as the soundtrack to modernity. The lyrical debts of Ian Curtis to writers from Kafka and Conrad to Ballard and Burroughs reinforced this, while Martin Hannett’s unprecedented yet glacially prescient production virtually assured their ascent to the pantheon on the untimely termination of their career. And what happened next? New Order became the first rock group to cross over to the then new electronic dance music which was starting to develop in the underground clubs of New York and Chicago. And off the back of this audacious generic miscegenation they became massively successful. Given that House music itself grew from a trans-Atlantic hybridising impulse of breathtaking improbability, all bets were off from the time of this magazine’s inception that music would for long remain tidily Bantustan-ised.
In fact, the advance of Spectacular society - with its
ubiquitous cyber-media, the replacement of social solidarity as the
glue of society with tradeable commodities, and the near-universal
conversion of time into money - has made the ongoing maintenance of
traditions increasingly untenable. And the differences between them
seem less palpable, as the big guns of the commodity economy (in
Marx’s famous phrase) batter down all Chinese walls.
Today, genuinely autonomous cultural traditions can arise only in marginal social spaces, in the gaps between the commercial enterprises which define and control most social relations. They are built from rubbish, tended by marginal people, and communicated by unofficial channels that remain occult to the mass market. Characteristic of this process are the developing genres given priority by The Wire, such as Grime, New Weird America, Noise.
The Wire’s position in this is of course equivocal. Its attentions are like many other drugs: exhilarating in small doses, fatal in large. Where The Wire succeeds it is through its direct communal relation with the traditions it espouses, by allowing the participants (who characteristically often number among the writers themselves) the chance to communicate their word of mouth beyond their immediate scenes. In this of course, the magazine’s independence of ownership is crucial. This creates at least the potential to uncouple editorial policy from the strictly plantation hierarchy that governs the relationship of the music business to other so-called music media (in reality, business media). And thereby it has a chance to avoid over-exposing these developing traditions to the slow death of mass commodification.
So what is it that characterises these nascent traditions, built of rubbish amongst ruins, the ones that so often occupy our attention in the pages of The Wire? They are distinguished above all by provisionality.
Provisionality applies to materials and methods. They have a magpie tendency to take ideas, techniques and stances from other traditions, reconfigure them, and reflect them back in a funhouse cornucopia of culture. Sonic Youth and Beck are ‘above the radar’ examples of this, but no more nor less than NNCK, the MV/EE axis, Burial or cLOUDEAD. Provisionality also extends to the cultural duration of these hybrid traditions, as we increasingly expect genres to develop rapidly and assume new forms in the ceaseless parade of novelty which characterises any economy driven by the need to generate value. And of course, if they are to avoid recuperation into the dominant discourse of ‘the business’ they need to assume protean forms.
Maverick prophets like Henry Flynt or Rudolph Grey have been practicing this kind of hybridity for decades, with minimal effect on culture as a whole. Now the health of the separate traditions has – by even the most optimistic readings – declined, and the magpies peck the eyes from the healthiest of genres. The potential for cultural hybridity is consequently far greater. Hiphop, for instance, has quickly risen and fallen as a commercially dominant cultural force combining elements of traditional Afro-American culture, various black traditions of popular song, white electronic and electroacoustic music, rock, sundry World Musics and others besides. As a result, ‘hillbilly tape music’ now seems like an obvious and sensible concept.
I would argue that the survival of anything resembling genuine human culture, in what Tony Herrington in his 300th issue editorial called “the current climate [of] sustained pressure”, is a cause for celebration. And perhaps the more things change, the more they seem the same. As Tony also pointed out in a personal communication – the audible difference between the Sun Ra Arkestra, Varese’s Ionisation, and a monastery of Gyoto Buddhist monks may not really be of any cultural consequence. As Guy Debord put it, our ideas are in everyone’s heads after all.