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."
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.
Last week at East London’s Cafe Oto the new season of The Wire Salon got off to a futurological start with a talk by Adam Harper based on his book Infinte Music: Imagining The Next Millennium Of Human Music-making. In the talk, Adam repeated the book's citing of the music of the nomadic Aka Pygmies of the Central African rainforest as one example of an 'alien genre’ that can point the way towards an infinity of musical possibilities.
(Of course, referring to any indigenous non-Western music as an 'alien genre' is somewhat problematic, as Adam readily admitted, but in this case he seems to be using it to identify highly complex musical forms that arise out of normative social activity – an actually existing practice in many parts of the world, but in post-industrial societies, one which has been annexed from the public sphere by the deleterious forces of the culture industry and therefore rendered alien. Or, as Richard Henderson put it in his Field Recordings Primer in The Wire 168: "What Steve Reich accomplished with elliptical tape loops in concurrent motion on "It's Gonna Rain", the Aka manage to do while walking to work in the morning.")
Towards the end of the subsequent panel discussion, which brought Mira Calix and Nightwave into the debate, Adam took issue with one famous attempt to use this primordial polyphonic sound as a launch pad to the outer limits, dissing Herbie Hancock’s appropriation of it on the remake of "Watermelon Man" on the 1973 Headhunters album.
I was moderating the panel, and over the years have also happened to have spent God knows how many hours traveling the spaceways signposted by Herbie's 70s music. So while such a public diss would usually have had me banging the offending speaker upside the head with my chairman's gavel, on the night I let it pass, as it was an aside at most, and to take issue with it would have carried us way off message. But in the cold light of day such an assessment demands some kind of analysis or response, so...
Where Adam experiences "Watermelon Man" as an inert distillation of an ancient and complex and living communal music, I hear an integrated musical performance riven with tension and currents that run fast and deep. (And if Adam really wanted to make a point about how such an alien genre can be killed stone dead by careless sampling, then citing Deep Forest would have rammed the point home more thoroughly, not to say conclusively.)
Adam wasn't impressed with that album title either (“It's called Headhunters for God's sake!"), but I've always read it as a sly deployment of the kind of militant semiotics that would be mobilised to fuller effect by P-funk and the Hiphop Nation – as in: Headhunters as proselytizers for a new tribal aesthetix, mind expansion for headz, etc.
Like the music on Herbie's previous Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant albums, Headhunters and "Watermelon Man" were the results of a fusion experiment that was itself the product of a unifying Afrocentricism that on the cusp of the 70s was an imperative for many black American musicians emerging from a decade marked by an integrationist civil rights movement on the one side, and the separatist Black Nationalist and Black Arts movements on the other.
Still, Adam's ethnomusicological disgust hits a nerve in one respect, because Headhunters and "Watermelon Man" were also a stark indication of how Africa was an alien zone even for conscious jazzers like Herbie and his group (an indication of how thoroughly slavery had worked its nihilistic designs on the folk memory of an entire people). Admittedly, Headhunters was a step back from the advances of its predecessor Sextant, which, pace Infinite Music, contains a multiverse of sonic variables and alien timbres which has yet to be fully explored and colonised. But the quantum funk was still going on, and the whole thang was just one component in a wider programme to cauterize some of the psychic vandalism inflicted during the Middle Passage, one which asserted an ancient-to-the-future black identity by getting explicit about the African component of a sound that was mapping the pathways to new worlds.
Maybe it's a generational thing. Adam is half my age, and from the perspective of a twentysomething 21st century musicologist it might all sound a bit lumpen and prosaic. But to dismiss it as crass, or even exploitative, is to ignore the music's own temporal-spatial reality and its position within a complex sociopolitical process, one which was further complicated by the fact it was taking place in the context of the mass culture industry. Herbie was signed to Columbia, one of the largest entertainment conglomerates on the planet, with ambitions to follow his labelmate and former employer Miles Davis in breaking out of the jazz ghetto. But following the commercial failure of Sextant, he was under pressure to deliver product that would recoup his label’s investment - which he did: Headhunters shifted more than a million units, which means it landed an alien genre deep inside the collective consciousness of mainstream America with genuine force.
In the mid-90s I interviewed Herbie, when he was staying in the surreal opulence of the Park Lane Hotel overlooking Hyde Park in central London. I'd requested the meeting to talk specifically about that amazing sequence of records he'd produced in the lead up to Headhunters. I was eager to find out what had been going on in his head when he and his group of furthermuckers (© Greg Tate) had retrofitted their instruments with cyborg prosthetix and devised that technologised jazz-not-jazz-almost-funk that felt so harmonically expansive and rhythmically advanced, not to mention mythpoetically charged and quantum physically mysterious. Naturally he was affable and charming and fielded my questions with good grace, but it was ultimately a dispiriting experience. Basically, he wasn't interested, seemingly regarding the music as at best misguided exhuberance, at worst hubristic folly. (The transcript and that of a second interview conducted by phone a few months later were eventually folded into an article, all 7000 words of it, on what became known as the Mwandishi group that appeared in The Wire 174.)
As a musician, Herbie was living a weird dual existence by this point, pushing an airless heritage industry version of the kind of acoustic jazz which characterised his mid-60s breakthrough albums for the Blue Note label, as well as a form of hi-tech industry fuzak so sinisterly corporate that even now it makes James Ferarro's Far Side Virtual sound like Dock Boggs plucking a banjo in a sharecropper's shack (but I suppose that's all part of the conceptual smarts of Ferraro's guerilla hack of a record).
Appropriately for someone who could command such lofty accommodation, he was dressed like the CEO of a Dow Jones listed company just over for a weekend shopping trip to Harrods – his sports jacket, slacks and loafers combo probably cost more than I made in a month (but did he still have all those dashikis and kaftans he used to wear in the 70s, maybe hanging neglected at the back of a closet somewhere in his LA condo? I don't know, I neglected to ask). A friend of Sting, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, recipient of various Grammys and MTV Awards, his position in the upper echelons of Entertainment USA Inc was secure, and he wasn’t about to rise to the bait of an offay journo from some obscure UK music zine who wanted to know if he'd ever felt like an extraterrestrial (seriously). In the article, it was left to other members of Herbie’s group, trumpeter Eddie Henderson in particular, to articulate the music’s affective power, its alien heat and infinite potentiality.
All of this only encouraged a creeping and somewhat perplexing notion that Herbie had always been the most conservative member of every group he fronted, but had still somehow found himself at the controls of some of the most significant departures in post-war black music, and not just with regard to those early 70s records either
If you know Sunlight's boogie down productions, or the future shock electro of "Rockit", but are hazy on the backstory, check the playlist below.
And wonder what it must be like to be a musician who has this kind of history, but whose reality over the last two decades or more seems to necessitate the denial of a past in which any of it actually happened.
Sitting conspicuously at #9 in our 2011 Releases of the Year chart was Lou Reed and Metallica's Lulu, one of the most hated albums of the year. Reactions to its charting have ranged from noisy retching to charges of conspiracy. What's struck me, looking after The Wire's various digital channels, is the nature of these reactions - it's not the fact that hardly anyone likes Lulu that's unnerving, but that the response has been so over the top.
A few readers were bemused by the fact that James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual was our album of the year, but the reaction was rather more considered to say the least. As a result of Lulu's Top 10 placing, we have been accused of constructing the chart purely as a hyper-ironic statement, received an email (on Christmas day) that referred to it as a "piece of shit", and otherwise been variously slagged off. While every music magazine is used to receiving its fair share of beefs, the reaction to Lulu (and its appearance in our chart) has been uniquely venomous.
Interestingly, people seem to think the Loutallica album is objectively bad music; not just something that few people like, but something it is impossible for anyone to like, at all. It's a bizarre response to a record that is essentially a mix of overwrought beatnik poetry and overwrought Metal riffing, especially in the context The Wire - there's really nothing in it that's so shocking to modern ears it warrants the reception it's been getting. Why is it legitimate to react to it like this? What's the key difference between Lulu and other 2011 albums that people didn't like, the one ingredient that pushed everyone over the edge?
The obvious answer to that is Lou Reed himself, who has been (intentionally) whipping audiences into a hate-filled frenzy since at least the mid-1970s, and even once released a live double album, Take No Prisoners, full of obnoxious crowd baiting routines (sample line: "Give me an issue, I'll give you a tissue, and you can wipe my ass with it"). But that can't be the whole story. There's also the attitudes of Metallica fans to take into account. And of course, the ever present trolls.
Perhaps because there's been little consensus on what's definitively great this year, there's relief to be found in a consensus on what's terrible. In some ways that happens easier online – the balance of negative and positive in comments sections, YouTube and sometimes on Twitter tends towards the former. Add the objections of Metallica's more conservative fans to the group going way off message, stir it up via a YouTube preview and a set on Jools Holland, add some scathing reviews, and hey presto, Lulu's branded as safe to hate.
But not all zines, papers or sites thought Lulu was awful (although it garnered 1.0 ratings and "one of the worst albums ever made" type assessments). Ultimately, the reaction to it is a testament to Lou Reed's ability to still get up the noses and under the skin of even the most open-minded listeners. He's probably laughing his head off at it all this very minute.
(The above image comes courtesy of Rock Sound magazine, whose office is just across the corridor in the same building as The Wire's. They think Lulu is a joke too - obviously)
It might be a city built on sand but going underground in Berlin lands you between a rock and a hard place: on one side, the raw, existential rock-soul-noise drummed up by Einstürzende Neubauten and any number of unstable units permed from the small pool of artists, chancers and nay sayers they started out with in early 1980s West Berlin; on the other, the precisely calibrated monochrome Techno ricocheting off reinforced concrete walls in subterranean bunkers and abandoned industrial plants in the lawless grey zones opened up in the Eastern sector when the Berlin Wall was breached and brought down in 1989-1990.
Of course, much else has happened before and after and around these two black hole energy fields in the 30 years since Einstürzende Neubauten launched in 1980, especially after the Wall came down and made Berlin the default destination for outsider types from all over the world, among them former DDR artists like Carsten Nicolai and Rammstein, the latter conceivably being the biggest German group in the world. But none of it is so deeply rooted in the city and its ongoing endtime dramas of total war, destruction, occupation, cold war division and reunification as the music Neubauten hammered out on old West Berlin’s foundations, or the Techno scene that stealthily colonised wastelands of ruin after the collapse of the DDR.
With so much to tell about themselves and where they come from, these two grand narratives continue to overshadow all the city’s other smaller, yet no less revealing stories. The good news is you can find many of these untold stories in Danielle De Picciotto’s Berlin memoir The Beauty Of Transgression. An American artist who drifted into West Berlin via Cologne in 1987, she has been a shyly reluctant protagonist yo-yoing back and forth from the sidelines to the dead centres of all the great and small histories she has been actively involved in; and her diaristic accounts of them patchwork together an extraordinarily vivid and comprehensive portrait of Berlin city lives, her own and other creatives. These were frequently eked out in impoverished conditions, albeit ameliorated by a support network of scene bars and clubs and galleries either offering waitressing work or free drinks to artists on the other side of the counter.
De Picciotto is one of the very few people granted free passage between the city’s rock and a hard place. Shortly after her arrival in Berlin she became partner to Dr Motte, with whom she helped launch Berlin’s Love Parade. Another enduring friendship through the book is with Dimitri Hegemann, founder of the Tresor club; though Motte participated in The Untergang Show where Neubauten et al announced their existence, and Hegemann was the organiser of the early 1980s Industrial/Noise showcase Atonal festivals, the respective scenes gravitating around the city’s rock and a hard place rarely had anything to do with each other.
As an artist without a clearly defined portfolio, De Picciotto has worked for 30 plus years on both sides of the divide, only for her contributions to go largely unrecognised. She has acted as fashionista, dresser, stage designer, events organiser, exhibition curator, film maker, adviser, musician, vocalist and more; much of the time, her energies have been expended in the service of making others look good, or in creating costumes and backdrops for the memorable happenings that advance Berlin’s reputation as a laboratory for louche, decadent art experiment wherein the usual laws of gravity are suspended and hierarchies of high and low culture are turned upside down.
Unfortunately it’s not to easy to upturn or overthrow that other hierarchy, which seemingly only permits women to act in a supportive capacity to the more serious work of men; it’s unsurprising but no less shocking to see such a hierarchy repeatedly reasserting itself in the supposedly more enlightened Berlin underground circles De Picciotto passes through. And that’s despite the presence in these pages of so many extraordinary women, among them Gudrun Gut, who also moves freely between rock and Techno circles. Working with Gut and others, Picciotto grows optimistic about the changing status of women in the underground. But her relationship and eventual marriage with Einstürzende Neubauten’s Alexander Hacke quickly shattered any dream of sisterhood when she found herself the target of murderous envy from the more extreme female fans clammering for the group’s attention. Happily, their relationship has held true, with De Picciotto and Hacke now equal partners generating a series of mixed media projects incorporating literature, music and film, and pitched beyond the long shadows cast by Berlin’s rock and a hard place.
Danielle De Picciotto’s The Beauty Of Transgression: A Berlin Memoir is published by Gestalten. She’ll be reading from her book, with music supplied by Alexander Hacke, at the Idler Academy, London at 7pm, 2 December.
Indiana based label Auris Apothecary is only a record label in part. A package sent from them recently contained cassettes and CDs, but also a small spice mix, a tin full of dirt, and a small wax sealed scroll printed on acetate.
Sitar Outreach Ministry's Spring Of 1970, a two track cassette, is wrapped and bound in a dried sunflower leaf. Unwrapping it made a dirty mess on the floor of The Wire's meeting room, and coated my hands in a dusty organic scuzz. Wrapped like it was, once I'd starting tearing layers of green leaves away, I'd never be able to wrap it up neatly again. I had to tear it apart piece by piece, and now I've got a plastic bag full of crackly old leaves that smell like earth, and a cassette in cardboard case, and I'm not really sure whether to chuck out the leaves or not.
This packaging challenge is something that's been explored by other artists and labels: Entr'acte's vacuum packs, and Dreams Of Tall Buildings's plaster cast William Morris box. The packaging must be destroyed for you to access the music, forcing the listener/owner to choose between the physical artefact and the cultural artefact, between being a listener or a collector.
But there's more than that simple dichotomy at work in Auris Apothecary's releases. The packaging that I find most compelling is the one I find most crudely titled. Unholy Triforce's Sandin' Yr Vagina is an "anti-cassette" (Auris Apothecary makes a number of different "anti-cassettes", including one nailed into its plastic casing). It's filled with black sand, the holes plugged with Scotch tape, and bound in black emery board. Silly? A bit. But interesting too: the sand poses a direct risk to your cassette player - play this tape, and you'll almost definitely ruin your machine.
This is all part of the plan. Dante Augustus Scarlatti, Auris Apothecary founder says: "We spend countless hours perfecting each fold and drop of ink on our releases, part of the absurdity in what we do is that we also promote absolute destruction – sonically, physically, socially, spiritually and mentally. If that happens to entail destroying part of the package we worked so hard to make, it was all part of the greater plan and should be considered an acceptable casualty in the pursuit of understanding.
"Anti-cassettes are our extension of that idea, promoting physical alteration to a degree that it would appear unplayable or damaging to perform in its presented state... They are obstacles designed to provide tangible insight into otherwise abstract concepts, and we encourage the listener to perform whatever tasks are necessary to hear the audio. They also represent a basic test of logical reasoning, serving as a mental measure of common sense. If you believe it will damage your equipment, why would you play it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to solve whatever is preventing it from playing correctly?"
The cassette is given an agency it doesn't enjoy otherwise. Playing this tape, it's your machine that becomes the transient, finite thing in the equation, not the music. It's a direct opposite to the current discussion about the direction of music consumption. This cassette leaves reminders of itself everywhere – there are still grains of black sand on my desk.
"I imagine folks view [the cassette] too often externally and write it off, thinking it’s created as an art-object that holds no audio value. We present a challenge, and we hope people attempt a solution. But that's not to say that we don’t entirely condone people destroying equipment by shoving a sand-filled tape into their perfectly-functioning tape players."
The music lives on to destroy another machine, and will (presumably) change from one play to the next, depending on the dispersal of sand on the tape and in the reels, and the hardiness of the machine you've chosen to sacrifice next. This cassette is put together to be a mechanical aggressor (which probably explains the title), hell bent on ruining your listening for years to come, as you hoover grains of sand from your Walkman.