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."
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.
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.
"This odd museum merely documents, juxtaposes,
relativizes – a perverse collection."
– James Clifford, "On Ethnographic Surrealism"
In the Unofficial Channels column of the February issue of The Wire, I write about Flokimotheque, a YouTube playlist that revives the perverse poetics of ethnographic surrealism. The playlist contains more than 100 posts that each juxtapose a single still image with a single piece of music. Check it out here to see how prolonged immersion in such a seemingly prosaic process can reconfigure the senses and send ripples across the surface of the Real.
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.
Consensus is mendacious. A composite of multiple, often conflicting individual realities, consensual reality projects an image that doesn’t exist. Which is another way of saying that all democratic processes are predicated on the paradox that they will produce a result that few of its individual participants will recognise, in terms of it being an accurate reflection of their own reality, but which most will agree to collectively believe in, or at the very least, to live with(in) its fabricated image.
And with that thought I commend to you The Wire’s Top 50 Releases of the Year for 2011, which arrives as a consequence of a democratic process in which an electorate made up of the magazine’s staff and contributors were franchised to vote for their top ten individual releases of the year across all known forms of sound and music activity, votes which were then collated into the chart that is enshrined in the annual Rewind feature in the new January issue.
(By the way, that's 'Releases of the Year' as opposed to 'Records of the Year', as with previous Rewind features, a release being classified here as any self-contained audio entity, be it a vinyl LP, 12" EP, cassette, CD, download, mixtape, etc. We made the change in a spirit of 'all formats acknowledged' democracy, but while a few up-to-speed contributors took us at our word and ran with it, submitting Web 2.0-driven charts containing YouTube uploads and tracks given away via Twitter, the bulk of the electorate continued to cast their votes for old fashioned albums, records or otherwise. And as a footnote to this aside, we ourselves obviously forgot that spirit when we were writing the cover lines for the January issue itself, which still bears the legend, 'Records of the Year'. LOL.)
Anyway, sitting conspicuously at the top of The Wire’s Releases of the Year chart for 2011 is James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual, by dint of the simple and maybe even bleedingly obvious fact that more staff and contributors voted for it than any other release issued this year. But what does that mean exactly? Because when you look closely, the individual wills that gave rise to such an outcome (The Wire's contributors say James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual is the best thing released this year) start to appear rather peculiar in relation to it, ie: out of an electorate of 60 voters, only seven actually voted for Far Side Virtual in their individual top tens - that's less than 12 per cent of the total electorate; and none of those electors who did vote for it actually had it as their individual top release of the year. Yet all are now implicated in a process that fetes a release that almost 90 per cent of them didn’t vote for, and who knows, wouldn't even give storage space to. Because Far Side Virtual is that kind of release: you either swoon over the conceptual audacity of its deadpan appropriation of late capitalist-era corporate mood Muzak, or you think it's the worst record Dave Grusin never made.
But that's democracy for you.
Now you could say that the triumph of such a potentially divisive release (which is playing now via my laptop's internal speakers and sounding like the kind of background noise your Second Life avatar might screen out as it moves through a simulacrum of the 21st century mediascape) is entirely appropriate in a year in which the abundance of choice brought on by digital technology reached such a tipping point as to make genuine consensus impossible. (That or the fact that there was no single 'flagship' release issued this year that cut across aesthetic divisions sufficiently to unite large portions of our cussedly diverse electorate, although admittedly this usually only happens in a year in which Robert Wyatt has put out some new music.) But what kind of authority does it bestow, when something can achieve such (ahem) high office on the back of such a miserly mandate? A highly compromised one you might think. (Is any of this sounding familiar?) But how was such an outcome arrived at? Well, brushing ethical issues aside, but in a spirit of transparency, though at the risk of dishing out too much information...
The Wire's Top 50 Releases of the Year chart is collated, or assembled into consensual reality, by way of a two-tier process. The number of individual voters voting for a particular release is the most significant factor: the more voters that vote for a release the higher up the final collective chart it will appear. In addition to this, a basic points system is used to allocate a value to each individual vote in each individual chart. So if a voter votes for ten releases, the tenth placed release in that chart receives 1 point, the ninth 2 points, the eighth 3 points and so on up to ten points for their number one choice. If a voter only votes for, say, five releases rather than ten (as some of our contributors did, obviously becoming paralyzed part way through the patently absurd process of having to isolate just ten individual releases from the mass of new music issued over the past 12 months), their top vote only receives five points, their second four and so on. These points are then applied to any release which two or more voters vote for. So if two voters vote for Release A, with one putting it at number one out of ten, the second at number ten out of ten, that release will have a total score of 2/11, ie two votes and 11 points. Likewise, if two voters vote for Release B, both putting it at, say, number six out of ten, that release will have a score of 2/12. So Release B will be higher up the final chart than Release A. However, at the end of the count, if Release A and Release B have the same number of votes and points, then a third tier comes into play: whichever release receives the highest placing in any of the individual charts that included it, then that will prevail. If even after this process both Release A and Release B have the same score, the returning officer can toss a coin and to hell with democracy.
And that's it.
More or less.
At such a level, the example given above seems a reasonable outcome or compromise, but it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which such a system starts to break down catastrophically. For instance, say 59 out of 60 voters all vote for Release A as the number one release in their individual top tens, that would give it a score of 59/590. But if in those same individual charts all 60 voters voted for Release B as their tenth release of the year, it would receive a score of 60/60. In other words a release that all the electorate thought was the tenth best release of the year would trump a release that all but one of them (there's always one) thought was the best release of the year.
In such a situation, there might be a case for moving the electoral system over to a wholly points based system, in which case Release A would trump Release B by the massive margin of 530 points. But then so to would a release that only seven out of 60 voters voted for, rather than 60 out of 60, if say, all seven voted for it as their number one in their individual top tens, thus giving it a total points score of 70.
The triumph of Far Side Virtual on such a low mandate is unusual in the history of The Wire's Rewind charts, with past Releases (or Records) of the Year usually having to garner votes from at least 25 per cent of the electorate. But even in years of low consensus we have tended to sideline any ethical concerns over the fairness of what is a mutated form of first-past-the-post as opposed to an alternative system that is possibly closer in spirit to a crude form of proportional representation. But for the sake of argument, if a purely points based system had been used to calculate this year's chart, the top ten would look like this:
1. The Beach Boys The SMILE Sessions 2. James Ferraro Far Side Virtual 3. Michael Chapman The Resurrection And Revenge Of The Clayton Peacock 4. DJ Rashad Just A Taste 5. Rustie Glass Swords 6. Laurel Halo Hour Logic 7. Lou Reed & Metallica Lulu 8. Eliane Radigue Transamorem - Transmortem 9. John Wall & Alex Rodgers Works 2006-2011 10. Hype Williams One Nation
As opposed to the actual Top Ten, which looks like this:
1. James Ferraro Far Side Virtual 2. Rustie Glass Swords 3. Eliane Radigue Transamorem - Transmortem 4. Hype Williams One Nation 5. The Beach Boys The SMILE Sessions 6. Michael Chapman The Resurrection And Revenge Of The Clayton Peacock 7. DJ Rashad Just A Taste 8. Laurel Halo Hour Logic 9. Lou Reed & Metallica Lulu 10. John Wall & Alex Rodgers Works 2006-2011
So the same ten releases would still appear in both charts (albeit in a wholly different order), which means, for instance, that a points based system wouldn't necessarily allow any of the lower placed entries in the Top 50 to suddenly storm the top tier (although it might in another year).
The collating of our 2011 charts was potentially further complicated by the fact that this year we asked the electorate to vote in a second chart, their personal Top Ten Archive Releases of the Year (replacing the previous A-Z lists of reissues and compilations, which, as remains the case with the annual genre charts, were compiled from the individual nominations of certain contributors, rather than a universal hierarchical voting system, which is why they were presented alphabetically, and why the genre charts still are).
The main Rewind chart commemorates music issued for the first time in 2011, whether it was 'new' music or 'old' music (which accounts for the #3 slot being occupied by an Eliane Radigue synthesizer piece that was realised in 1973 but only released this year). The Archive chart commemorates music that had been previously issued in one format or another prior to 2011, and that had then been reissued at some point in the past 12 months, whether as a straight like-for-like re-release of an original document, or as part of a single-artist anthology, or a generic or curated compilation, etc, etc. To complicate matters further, music or releases that had previously appeared only as bootlegs were not counted as having been previously issued, and so if they were put out in 2011 in some kind of 'official' or sanctioned capacity were considered as being issued for the first time, which accounts for the placing of The Beach Boys’ 1966 SMILE Sessions, one of the most bootlegged 'records' ever but only issued officially for the first time in 2011, at #5 in the main Releases of the Year chart. Again, if you scrutinise both charts closely (and no doubt plenty of you will) you can identify examples that don’t easily slot into this rationale, such as our top two Archive Releases of the Year themselves, Dust-To-Digital’s box set of John Fahey's early recordings and Albert Ayler's Stockholm, Berlin 1966. Neither of these is a straight reissue of an earlier document, and both are split more or less evenly between previously unheard and previously issued material. So why are they in the Archive chart? Because it felt right that's why. And because all democratic voting systems are full of holes, so what you gonna do?
Despite directions on how to 'correctly' vote in both charts, many of our contributors, being for the most part a bunch of unclubbable mavericks (which is just the way we like them), ignored all such entreaties and voted for first time releases of old music in their Archive charts, and vice versa. At which point, the chart return officer (yours truly) consulted the electoral reform society (whoever was in the Wire office at the time) and a decision was arrived at: if a voter voted for a release in their main chart, but whose status meant it should actually have been voted for in their Archive chart, that vote was moved across to the correct chart, and vice versa.
But if you are of the opinion that such distinctions are completely arbitrary and that all the year's releases should be judged against each other, then if you combine the votes cast, and points applied, in both the main and Archive charts to get 2011's ultimate Releases of the Year according to The Wire, you would get a top ten that looked like this:
1. John Fahey Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You: The Fontone Years (1958-1965) 2. Albert Ayler Stockholm, Berlin 1966 3. James Ferraro Far Side Virtual 4. Bill Dixon Intents And Purposes 5. Rustie Glass Swords 6. Theo Parrish Ugly Edits 7. Eliane Radigue Transamorem - Transmortem 8. Hype Williams One Nation 9. The Beach Boys The SMILE Sessions 10. Michael Chapman The Resurrection And Revenge Of The Clayton Peacock
I have it on good authority that many alt.music operations out there, from high-profile independent retailers to print and online magazines, compile their end of year charts via a form of tyranny, imposing the corporate will on their respective electorates via repressive dictats and vote rigging (at least The Wire doesn't actually tell anyone what they can or can't vote for).
But in light of all of the above, can you blame them?
As a short British post-punk film noir, Johnny Yesno is in a category all on its own.
Filmed in and around Manchester and Sheffield, and released in 1983, the film disappeared almost immediately and has remained off the radar ever since, the only evidence of its actual existence being Cabaret Voltaire's original soundtrack album.
CV were also responsible for issuing the now ultra-rare VHS of the film, back in 83, on their short lived video label, Doublevision.
But now news breaks that Mute Films are finally due to issue Johnny Yesno on DVD this summer, as part of a box set that will also include additional footage, a new edition of that original soundtrack album, plus notes by author and Wire contributor Ken Hollings (who introduced a rare screening of the film in April 2010 at the Sensoria festival in Sheffield).
The film was directed by Peter Care, who would go on to make videos for Depeche Mode, REM and Bruce Springsteen, as well as oversee a pair of workout tapes fronted by Cindy Crawford (huh?) and film an episode of the Gothic-lite US TV series Six Feet Under. In 2002 Care broke into the Hollywood big time by directing Jodie Foster in the innocuous 'black comedy' The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys.
But Johnny Yesno is something else again, a post-punk morality tale, equal parts Ballard and Burroughs (with trace elements of the Northern post-Industrial kitchen sink realism of Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz), that spirals cryptically through some s(l)ick set pieces full of deviant sex routines and much junkie business. The titles of the cues on the soundtrack album give an idea of the mood of dread paranoia: “Hallucination Sequence”, “DTs", "Cold Turkey”. And sure enough, all the classic noir tropes are present and correct: the psychotically conflicted male protagonist; the catalytic femme fatale; an urban mise en scène of rain-soaked, neon-lit nightscapes (actually, Manchester city centre) and blank interiors (hotel rooms, bars, nightclubs).
Some of this can be glimpsed in a four minute redux mix of the film that was posted on YouTube last October but which to date has racked up less than 300 views.
The redux features a new mix by CV's Richard H Kirk and is a reminder that, in “Taxi Music” and its dub, the original soundtrack contained two of CV’s best moments, a brace of tense urban electro-mantras that are the real night-drive-thru-Babylon deal.
The Wire sez: check it out.
After that last post I got into an extensive email correspondence with Amanda Brown during which she made some clarifications regarding her 'sex and sexiness' comment and which it seems to me are worth noting here, if only to fill in the picture a little more.
In one mail Amanda states: "I guess when I told Simon I wanted to be sexy and invest in sexiness, I said it because I feel like women are so afraid of that now in the underground. It's like, don't look at me like I'm sexy, look at me like I'm a man. Which we aren't, obviously..." In another mail she writes: "I think it is time for women who don't dress sexy or don't sing about sex or project themselves as sexy to reclaim sexiness, as soulfulness and sensualness."
The message here seems pretty clear: attitudes towards female sexuality that prevail in the underground are as oppressive and distorted (which is a point I made in my previous post) as those that dominate in corporate pop (which I didn't mention at all, as the fact of its industrialised and fascistic porno-projections of what constitutes a desirable female sexual identity should be obvious to anyone who has ever seen a Pussycat Dolls vid), and both need replacing by less uptight, more inclusive attitudes and representations, and that this is the real nature of Amanda's 'investment'. So for her it is political, a consistent polemic that runs underneath all the donning and discarding of stylistic masks and poses that define the shifts in the NNF/100% Silk aesthetic, and I'm talking visually here as much as sonically, from Noise to drones to psych to dub to synth pop to disco to House and so on.
Maybe confusion, or ambiguity, regarding the political dimension of Amanda's artistic project stems partly from the fact she is also heavily invested in this type of conceptual or stylistic mutability, that has fast become the norm in the lo-fi underground of course, and which makes all these musical forms equivalent, invests them all with the same weight, so effectively reducing them to the level of camp or kitsch, ironicizing the fact that once they were not only mutually exclusive but mutually antagonistic, freighted with opposing political, social and cultural meanings and associations (that have now all been screened out). Perhaps it is hard to reconcile a consistent political agenda with an aesthetic that seems so relativistic and post-historical. Or perhaps both myself and Simon (who raises similar caveats in his article) are suffering from a form of generational myopia, two fortysomething critics applying the values of earlier, more ideologically-determined pop epochs, yearning for the old boundaries and binaries around which we used to rally, and which appear to have been so thoroughly dismantled, collapsed by pop culture's own acquiescence to the illusion of neo-liberal 'end of history' propaganda.
In his article Simon invokes the tense conditions that prevailed in American pop culture in the mid-80s, when the Hardcore underground existed in direct and violent opposition to corporate pop, and compares them to the laissez-faire attitudes in effect today, typified by Amanda's comment that she has no issue with the existence of Justin Bieber. (In their interview, and to her great credit, Amanda meets all of Simon's caveats head on, responds to them with extreme good grace, but this comment still feels a bit like Siouxsie Sioux saying she has nothing against Rick Astley. Or Lydia Lunch announcing she is very relaxed about Luke Goss! There's an irony in invoking Lydia here, as she had links to the art world project, and that is definitely the right way to describe it, that I would argue was the moment that US Hardcore went from being a form of active and antagonistic combat rock to being a branch of inert and laissez faire conceptual pop art, ie the release of Ciccone/Sonic Youth's The White(y) Album. It is no coincidence that in Kim Gordon SY included at least one member who had previously worked as both an art world critic and conceptual artist. And as Simon points out, Amanda is typical of the post-SY generation of underground musicians in that she seems to think and act like an ultra-smart but hyper-detached theorist-cum-'audio artist'.)
Here's another, even earlier historical parallel. When the UK's post-punk agitators made the move from DIY messthetix to chart pop aesthetics (a trajectory traced in outline by NNF/100% Silk's recent releases), it was proposed and discussed as a political as much as a stylistic shift, and depending on which side of the divide you were on, was seen as either a retreat from the frontline of the culture wars, or a subversive attempt to plant an entryist cell behind enemy lines. Either way, the argument goes, it had implications beyond the simple question of making aesthetic choices. Now, when a musician like Amanda makes the shift from Noise to dub to disco it feels, as she admits, more like a random stylistic shuffle, a conceptual flick of the wrist, more a consequence of waking up in the morning and thinking, who do l feel like today, Ari Up or Sade? Do I feel like making some animal Noise, or do I want to make some slinky grooves? On one level you could say this is a more liberated, less dogmatic process, a more 'natural' and instinctive way for an artist to go about things. But at the same time you could argue, as Simon does, that it is one that is devoid of any real or wider consequence because it strips music of any meaning or context beyond itself, as it no longer involves the negotiation of any underlying social or cultural tensions, no longer requires any political alignment or engagement, which is maybe why it is easy to miss the political dimension Amanda claims for her project, why that "How Would U Know" vid still feels more like a carelessly provocative 'whatever' moment than a subversive feminist statement.
In another email Amanda refers to the response (or lack of it) to the image of her on the cover of the Psychic Reality/LA Vampires split LP: "When I was topless on the record with Psychic Reality no one said a word - it was the most silence I've experienced - but that shower scene in the video (in which I'm OBVIOUSLY not topless or naked at all) has got a lot of comments, mainly because I'm joking or mocking. On the record cover I'm serious and I think people hate that, or at least don't want to talk about it because it's odd or frightening."
But unlike the shower scene in the "How Would U Know" vid, which flirts, in a very conceptual pop art kind of a way, with a typical and titillating contemporary soft porn scenario, that cover feels more like an atavistic throwback, an anthropological relic, that is undoubtedly powerful and self-determining (rather than odd or frightening - unless those qualities amount to the same thing when it comes to women taking ownership of their own images) but only limns female sexuality on its way to implying another kind of archaic experience (which is something it shares in common with the cover of The Slits' Cut, which is one obvious precedent). As Iggy Pop put it in The Wire 189, talking about what he learned from studying anthropology at the University of Michigan in the 1960s: "In Stone Age or primitive societies when people get out there or get musical they also get naked." Which is the other reason I didn't mention it, because it already feels more like an archived historical artefact than a part of Amanda's present reality, ie a visualisation of the raw, primal, red in tooth and claw vibe of Pocahaunted and the early LA Vampires sides, and so not an image that would sit too well with the music on a record like So Unreal, which as Simon suggests feels lush and groovy, more mid-80s Compass Point than late 70s Cold Storage, and whose cover, appropriately enough, features Amanda dressed up like Madonna circa Desperately Seeking Susan.
Maybe if she had switched those two covers, so Amanda-as-Madonna was wrapping the feral distorto Goth-dub of her side of that split LP, and Amanda-as-Ari Up was wrapping the seductive 'n' sensual metropolitan synth pop of So Unreal, then that would have set up more of a dialectical dynamic, ruptured the conceptual consistency to allow us old timers to glimpse, if only for a moment, the political agenda beneath the vertigo-inducing aesthetic shifts.
"I don't know how it comes across when I say this, but I am deeply invested in sex and sexiness," Amanda Brown tells Simon Reynolds in the May issue of The Wire. Even though it is expressed in that peculiarly American way that makes Amanda sound like she regards the very fact of her being in the world as a business venture to be injected with regular shots of cultural capital, what she is actually talking about is her vision for the kind of artists and music now being issued by Not Not Fun, the label she runs with husband Britt out of their home in Eagle Rock, LA, and in particular its hot little sister imprint, 100% Silk.
As Simon points out, both Amanda's and Not Not Fun's roots lie deep in America's post-Riot Grrrl Noise/lo-fi DIY underground. This is a realm where sex exists purely as metaphor, something to be invoked or mobilised only in order to expose the brutality of power relations, or to subvert the oppression of normative social relations by flaunting its most taboo, transgressive manifestations. In contrast, almost all the music now being issued by NNF and 100% Silk reflects Amanda's lust for 70s and 90s dance music experiences, her desire to luxuriate in the sensual inclusiveness (or inclusive sensuality) of dub, disco and downtempo beatz, and the way these bass-centred musics work to eroticise the entire body (in contrast to the way Noise targets it as a conflict zone in a Total War, or the way Goth/Emo is convulsed by its base functions and desires, or the way alt.rock puts all the emphasis back on the same old erogenous zones as trad.rawk).
You can track NNFs aesthetic shift from pavement to Penthouse by comparing the messthetix that define the handmade packaging of the label's early cassette editions with the image on the generic sleeves of the 12"s released by 100% Silk, which looks like it has been lifted from a mid-80s Athena poster, all soft fleshy curves, hard angles and cool surfaces, a pre-Photoshop phantasy of aspirational erotica and glam aesthetix.
When it comes to her own LA Vampres project, Amanda's investment in sex and sexiness actually feels more cute than carnal, manifesting as a license to indulge in some slyly provocatve fun and games.
The 'two girls in the shower' sequence in the vid for the LA Vampires/Matrix Metals collaboration "How Would You Know?" might sound like a cynical media grabbing manoeuvre straight out of a Lady Gaga vid, but it feels more like an instance of adolescent juvenilia, a 'whatever' Chatroulette provocation, two twentysomething women getting back in touch with their insouciant teenage selves, deadpanning to the lens as they fake their way through a routine of getting ready for a big night out (and if you want to come over all Lacanian about it, flirting with the gaze they know is there, just out of sight, on the other side of the screen).
In the vid for "Make Me Over" Amanda regresses even further, into a pre-pubescent state of innocence eliding into self-consciousness (or self-awareness), rummaging in the dressing up box, pulling out a sequence of exotic costumes, posing, pouting and dancing in front of the camera, which in this case is a substitute for her pre-teen bedroom mirror, the first witness to vouchsafe an emerging sense of her own sexuality.
But judging from an interview recently posted on the 100% Silk blog, the NNF/100% Silk artist who Amanda seems to have most invested in when it comes to making flesh her new aesthetic is Maria Minerva, aka Estonian 'dream pop songstress'/'disco-not-disco diva' (and, it should be noted here, former intern at, and current contributor to, The Wire) Maria Juur.
During the interview Maria demurely deflects Amanda's line of questioning, insisting she feels more awkward and uptight than the potentially hot 'n' sexy "Eastern European supermodel goddess" (to quote an earlier 100% Silk blog post) that Amanda seems to want her to be. But a quick sweep through some of the evidence now archived out there on the www would seem to suggest that Maria's artistic project is about as deeply invested in playing around with notions of sex and sexiness as her label boss could wish for.
Originally taped at the back end of 2010, the vid for "Strange Things Happening In My Room", a track on Maria's recent NNF tape Tallinn At Dawn, feels like an ironic take on the Talk Talk idents that topped and tailed the ad breaks in the last series of The X Factor (which was still being broadcast at the time this vid was posted). Made to feel like the genuine article (groups of PJ-clad BFFs on a sleepover, having fun with the webcam, miming along to their current fave pop tunes), the idents were moments of pure media artifice, and Maria's vid feels like an ultra hip and knowing restaging, so a fabricated mass media event masquerading as a moment of tweenie jouissance becomes the site for an occluded adult drama, a solipsistic domestic episode veiled in mystery but heavily suggestive of auto-erotic experience.
The 'censored by YouTube' vid for the "So High" track by contrast makes everything explicit, appropriating scenes from what looks like a particularly sleazy slice of hi-brow Euro porn. Before YouTube censored it, this vid went most of the way.
Intriguingly, in the Info section of this post Maria quotes a couplet from Gang Of Four's "Natural's Not In It", "The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure?", sourced not from its original context, the 1979 Entertainment! LP, but from its inspired use on the soundtrack to Sophia Coppola's sumptuous 2006 soft porn period drama Marie Antionette.
"So High" is taken from Maria's forthcoming NNF LP Cabaret Cixous, whose title references the French feminist theorist/writer Hélène Cixous, the distaff Derrida, whose 1975 essay The Laugh Of The Medusa upped the ante on existing theories of non-normative sexuality such as polymorphous perversity and jouissance to instruct women thus: "Censor the body and you censor breath and speech... Your body must be heard." Which sounds like a permissive pre-echo of Maria writing (for France's Hartzine) about the effect on her teenage body of Roy Davis Jr's sublime 1997 Deep House track "Gabriel": "This track got me into House when I was 14. Made me go through changes in my body and I am not talking about puberty! "Gabriel" gave me an idea what a groove could do to you, and oh it felt good."
Appropriately enough, the 'teaser' vid for "Disko Bliss", which was posted in advance of the release of Maria's 100% Silk 12", feels like it arrives as a consequence of the effect of both Cixous's theories and Davis Jr's practice, foregrounding the kind of sensual total body experience brought on by dancing to disco and Deep House. Although Maria can't resist inserting a little ironic touch to undercut the erotic effect: keep watching and the beads of sweat glistening suggestively on the torsos of the male and female dancers are revealed to be fake.
As with most of the images of her circulating on the blogosphere, in the photo on the cover of Tallinn At Dawn Maria returns your fascinated gaze with deadpan inscrutability (is she projecting satisfaction or disdain or just indifference?).
The image's grainy soft focus monochrome makes it feel like a relic from the mid-70s. But is it a promo shot of a Laurel Canyon songstress, or a still from yet another slice of 'sophisticated' Euro porn? Or both? Maria as a double exposure of Laura Nyro and Sylvia Kristel?
In his piece in the May issue, Simon refers to Maria's 100% Silk 12" as "delightfully quirky electro-bop", which feels about right for what is essentially a collection of LCD dance moves (one of Maria's own tags for these tracks is 'slutwave'). But his description of Tallinn At Dawn as "marvelously woozy", while texturally correct, feels too reductive for what is an unusually captivating body of work, one that feels like the product of a genuinely original sensibility.
Some of the arrangements here have a real sense of mystery about them: the way all the parts are shadowed and multiplied by their echo chamber doppelgangers, and the way the individual synth lines, samples and rudimentary drum machine patterns interlock or overlap in unexpected ways gives the songs a complex and seductive polyrhythmic vibe. Rather than the vacuous synth pop of Nite Jewel (the comparison drawn by most Altered Zones type bloggers out there), what it makes me think of most is Nico's The Marble Index (a judgement which I admit may well be clouded by the fact that I know that one of the first songs Maria learned to karaoke along to as a Tallinn tweenie was Nico's "Janitor Of Lunacy": maybe that's what happens when you grow up with a dad who is the one of your country's leading music critics, something like the Eesti equivalent of Paul Morley). Anyway, I make the comparison not because of any 'ice queen' parallels, or because the songs describe a devastating/devastated emotional and psychological landscape (the lyrics are mostly indecipherable, Maria's state of mind and being veiled behind diaphanous layers of echo, although the overall mood feels rather lost and lonely, and therefore suffused with desire and a certain melancholy ache), but due to the sense of disconnect between the sighing vocal lines and what is happening elsewhere in the tracks. Legend has it that John Cale recorded his parts on Index blind ie without hearing Nico's vocal and harmonium parts first. Then the two were slammed together and somehow made to cohere in the mix. This had the effect of suspending Nico in a state of temporal-spatial displacement, and there's something of that same feeling in some of these tracks too (Maria is currently based in London so maybe it's all a metaphor for the migrant experience of longing and not quite belonging).
In a famous essay on The Marble Index Lester Bangs quoted an ex-girlfriend (Lester invoked his exes like muses) who told him it sounded like Cale had built a cathedral in sound for a woman in hell. On Tallinn At Dawn it sounds like Maria has built herself a boudoir in sound, but the emotional and psychological state of the singer remains elusive; is she in ecstasy or in limbo, enraptured or indifferent?
The difference between this music and the tracks on that 100% Silk 12" feels the same as the difference between erotica and porn. The seductive power of the songs on Tallinn At Dawn is in direct proportion to how little of herself and the process Maria reveals. By comparison, the sluttishly explicit dance tracks on that 100% Silk 12" leave little to the imagination and so fascination is quickly spent, turns morbid, shifts its gaze elsewhere.
A memo to Amanda Brown: in order to maximise the return on this particular investment, keep it under wraps.
Thanks to everyone who entered our competition to win an Off The Page booklet. The question was: which of the Off The Page speakers selected John Cage's "Goal: New Music, New Dance" (from his book Silence) as their favourite piece of writing on music? The answer was: Matthew Herbert.
The first five names out of the hat with the correct answer were: George Hardy, Richard Moss, Suriano Rafael, Philip Rhoads and Lawrence Roberts.
Your prizes will be winging their way to you any day now.