Ziggy Played Guitar

Jason Heller – Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-fi Exploded (Melville House, 2018)

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, which is to say that when it’s done well it is a rare and captivating thing. Who wouldn’t want to see a jitterbug about Vetruvius?

Jason Heller’s new book Strange Stars is a work of thrilling scale and intricacy. A study of science fiction’s influence on 1970s music, it is rammed with fascinating details while still being thoroughly readable. A ballet about Gaudi, if you will.

The study is bookended by Bowie songs. It opens with the first appearance of Major Tom. 1969’s “Space Oddity”, written coincide with the moon landings is a critical moment in the creation of space sound. It ends with Major Tom’s drug-addled return in 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes”. Bowie is the thread that ties to whole together.

But Bowie is only part of the story. His gender-bending spaceman Ziggy may have popularized the sci-fi song but it was already well on its way to chart recognition in the works of the Byrds, Joe Meek, Jefferson Airplane and even Jimi Hendrix.

“Purple Haze,” as Heller describes in a fascinating first chapter, began its life as a long poem. Hendrix wrote it after being inspired by a 1957 novel, Night of Light, by Philip José Farmer. The former paratrooper and guitar maestro was, like many of his generation, a total sci-fi nut.

The list of sci-fi influenced artists is long and crosses multiple genres and styles. From the jazz of Sun Ra came the funk of George Clinton and late 1970s Afrofuturist electro hits like “Freak-a-zoid”. The sci-fi silliness of the psychedelic 1960s inspired prog (Yes, King Crimson, Rush), hard rock (Deep Purple, Hawkwind), heavy metal (Motorhead, Black Sabbath), and even soft rock in the form of crooner Gary Wright’s catchy pop ballad “Dream Weaver”.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be had reading this book, lying on the sofa with YouTube open on your phone, listening to tracks that you thought you knew off by heart only to discover that they were about space ships and moon men all along.

Many of these songs can be written off as 1970s era silliness (especially the many naff disco records made to cash in off Star Wars), but as Heller makes clear, all this stargazing does make a lasting impact on music.

The influence is undeniable when it comes to synths and the progression towards a more electronic sound. Many early synth bands drew inspiration from space and starships (I highly recommend the French band Droid and their single “Do You Have the Force?”). The legacy of New Wave sci-fi is critical here, however.

Michael Moorcock, himself an honorary member of Hawkwind, turned New Worlds into an unusual thing: a sci-fi magazine uninterested in space. Writers like J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and John M Harrison gave birth to a new sci-fi, one focused on contemporary visions of apocalypse. Humanity will be unlikely to reach space, they implied. We will destroy ourselves before then.

The most hopeful future for humans in this bleak techno-wasteland comes from posthumanism; the merging of flesh and circuitry. Kraftwerk, electronic pioneers, adopted the posthuman look wholeheartedly, although it was also flirted with by Joy Division and donned in a playful manner by Devo.

Heller makes the convincing case that the development of synths as instruments in their own right is tied inextricably to the rise of sci-fi music. These artists didn’t want to sound like electric versions of existing instruments, they wanted to sound like the future.

In fact, the only musical genre in the 1970s not to feature its own array of space cadets and starship troopers was punk. Even then, the occasional single like the Only One’s “Another Girl, Another Planet” couldn’t help but feature a few rocket ships and supernovas.

Interestingly, for sci-fi fans, musicians seemed disinterested in the civil war that was being fought within the genre at this time. By the late sixties the hard sci-fi of Asimov and Heinlein was displaced by the New Wave. By the end of the next decade, however, shows like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos had made hard science cool again and the works of Robert L Forward and, once again, Robert A Heinlein, were back on top.

David Bowie didn’t take sides. He’d quote Heinlein and Ballard in the same sentence, Burroughs and Orwell in the same song. Where Bowie led, the rest followed, and sci-fi music is all the richer for it.

More than anything, Strange Stars is great fun. Brilliantly written and comprehensive in its scope. With Christmas coming up it’s a perfect present for Dad as well!

Forget dancing about architecture, singing about sci-fi is my new jam.

– Joe Darlington

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Ode to Sussex

Shirley Collins – All in the Downs: Reflections on Life, Landscape and Song (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)

The 2017 documentary the Ballad of Shirley Collins followed the cult English folk singer as she recorded Lodestar, her first album in nearly four decades. Filmed largely around her home in Lewes in East Sussex, and the surrounding area, the film told the remarkable and poignant story of how Collins lost her voice – leading from her withdrawing both from performance and recording for many years – and unexpectedly found it again.

All in the Downs acts as a thoughtful companion piece to the film, with Collins drawing out her experiences in greater depth, writing from her own, opinionated perspective. It follows a previous volume of autobiography, America Over the Water, published in 2004, which told the story of Collins’ travels across United States with the musicologist (and her then partner) Alan Lomax. All in the Downs, by contrast, remains closer to home to focus on Collins’ career in her own right, and the way in which it was informed by her early years in the working-class seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex and later in her retreat from the town and city back to a rediscovery of the rolling countryside of the Sussex downs.

All in the Downs shares with the film a strong sense of loss and absence; it begins with a chapter on the breakdown of Collins’ second marriage, as a major contributory factor in the loss of her voice, before detailing her relationship with her father, who returned from the Second World War only to leave again, and the premature death of her sister and artistic collaborator, Dolly.

As well as sharing her personal and professional memories, All in the Downs offers a rich glimpse into the shared experiences of mid-twentieth century Britain, from the freedom of a semi-rural childhood, to post-war culture and politics, to the sometimes difficult personalities of the British folk scene, to work and motherhood. Looking back, Collins can’t help but reflect, sometimes caustically, on how places, lifestyles and entertainment have changed (not to mention what passes as ‘folk music’ these days!).

Above all, All in the Downs is an ode to the south eastern English landscape, showing what we can learn and pass on about the places around us by paying attention to working people’s voices. It’s written with the passion and in-depth expertise of someone who has dedicated her life and career to understanding, interpreting and transmitting traditional song, the words of which run through the book entwined with her own.

– Natalie Bradbury

The Folk folk

Peggy Seeger – First Time Ever: A Memoir (Faber & Faber)

A doe-eyed child holds a harmonica to their lips with two pudgy hands. A sombre looking man sits stiffly on a chair situated behind the child. He appears to be mid-strum of the guitar that he grasps. A lady clutching a dulcimer reclines on a couch positioned to the left of the man. The final figure in the black and white photograph is a mischievous looking boy wearing a beret. He is perched atop a wooden cabinet set at the centre-back of the gathering. His fingers are pressed to his lips. Perhaps they conceal a tiny instrument. Or perhaps he is biting his nails.

The doe-eyed child depicted in the image is celebrated folk singer and songwriter Peggy Seeger, aged two years old. The photograph, dated circa 1937, is the first photograph on the inserts of Seeger’s memoir First Time Ever.

Seeger’s childhood, she writes, was ‘steeped in music’.

The lady reclining in the image is Seeger’s mother, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. The sombre looking man is Seeger’s father, the ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. The little boy is Mike Seeger who will grow up to be a folk musician.

Section one of First Time Ever consists of Seeger’s whimsical, entertaining reminiscences of her early years in Chevy Chase, New York.

She describes one spring afternoon during which she was instructed by visitor Jackson Pollock to run across a canvas laid out on her front lawn. Her bare feet were first dipped in paint.

The canvas, Seeger believes, was later discarded.

Seeger writes in the foreword to ‘First Time Ever’ that her memoir is intended as a record of ‘what I think I was, what I believe I am’. Are such musings of interest to the reader?

Indeed they are.

Seeger, labelled ‘voice of experience’ in a profile by The Guardian writer Colin Irwin, is an excellent raconteur.

She recalls, for instance, her seasickness on a steamship voyage across the Atlantic, ‘There was a symphony of misery: tuba squawks of wood scraping wood, drum-drone of the engine, cello pizzicatos as dropped water bottles hit walls…’

Seeger describes milling about a theatre backroom shortly after moving to London in 1956. She spies, for the first time, her future musical and romantic partner the folk singer and songwriter Ewan Macoll. She remembers ‘his hairy, fat, naked belly poking out… The filthy lid of a stovepipe hat aslant like a garbage can’.

Seeger and Macoll’s romantic partnership is the source of much emotional turmoil detailed by Seeger in the memoir.

Their musical partnership was very productive. They wrote and recorded music prodigiously. Together with producer Charles Parker they created the acclaimed BBC radio series The Radio Ballads in the late 1950s.

Through the late 1950s and early 1960s they were regular players at The Ballad and Blues Club in London. Partly at the behest of an exasperated Seeger, a musical policy named The Policy was instituted at the venue. Performers were only permitted to play songs which came from their own cultural background.

Writer Rob Young refers to the Club as a ‘petty dictatorship, a microcosm of imagined musical purity and authenticity’’ in an article on English folk clubs published on The Guardian website.

Seeger makes an impassioned and heavily italicised defence of The Policy against accusations of snobbery in ‘First Time Ever’. She begins, ‘East London vowels don’t really fit with Lead Belly’.

Seeger was aged 83 the year the memoir was published. In a string of ominously titled closing chapters (‘Slow Express to Eternity’, ‘Last Time Ever’) she describes in a jovial tone the illnesses that have beset her in recent years.

‘Frequent, lengthy, audible, malodorous and dense beyond belief,’ she writes of her ‘gaseous emanations’.

Seeger presently lives in Oxford. She is married to folk singer Irene Pyper-Scott. She continues to perform music and she is a passionate social activist.

The most recently dated video of Seeger on Youtube is a clip from the January 2017 edition of the current affairs television programme ‘That’s Oxfordshire’.

Under stark studio lighting Seeger does battle with Oxford City Councillor Bob Price on the subject of a recently demolished Oxford swimming pool.

Seeger gives a formidable performance.

– Abby Kearney

A London Sumtin’ Rasta

Todd Dedman – Purists and Peripherals, Hip-Hop and Grime Subcultures (the Tufnell Press, 2017)

This book will mainly be of interest to academics in cultural studies, cultural geography, cultural anthropology, sociology and music, but it will also provide a great deal for the keener grime and British hip hop fan.

For a long time there has been nowhere to go for me, except British hip hop and dubstep. There are a few bands, Selfish Cunt, the Sleaford Mods – the latter arguably are British hip hop – but beyond them nothing contemporary is really worth a look, the exception being British hip hop, grime and dubstep.

I came through, as a fan, jungle and drum’n’bass in the 1990s – like many of the people involved in the music – after being immersed in Acid Jazz and dance music, and I was flung there from psychedelia and jazz. So the new scenes make perfect sense.

This book makes a very welcome and refreshing addition to the British cultural studies canon. It is scholarly but also lean, knowledgeable and rooted in empiricism and sociological practice.

The key dimension of this work that recommends it to posterity is the way it resists the idea that subcultures can now only really be ‘post-subcultures’, that somehow we have moved into a situation where culture is only ever consumed – even rebellious culture – and that the very concept of subcultural tribalism, resistance and subculture, to hijack Raymond Williams, as ‘a whole way of life’, has been swallowed by consumerism and the Fukuyama vision of the End of History.

Of course, even Fukuyama no longer believes that, but the other aspect of this book which will make it a classic in the field is the rooting of relative quantities of ‘resistance’ in different groups: The ‘purists’ and ‘peripherals’ of the title.

Groups from Ashford and Canterbury, Brighton and Rochester were interviewed, and the latter two showed themselves as relatively passive consumers of grime and hip hop culture, and the former two resistant and active.

This is where the history of cultural studies becomes very relevant. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham (CCCS) set up by Stuart Hall, attended by the now-iconic Dick Hebdige, Angela McRobbie and John Storey, set the bar high for the future with a Marxist and Gramscian approach to popular culture.

Dedman, then, has not only arrived with a classic post-CCCS set of binaries, the lineage of which contains upwardly and downwardly mobile subcultures – mod and hippie for instance – but he has rooted this, also like the classic CCCS studies, in empirical research. He argues for a revival of the CCCS tradition, itself updated, and I know that others are doing this, David Wilkinson for instance.

He also makes good use of Paul Hodkinson’s work on ‘subcultural substance’ from 2002. The analysis is nuanced, the binaries are poles between which Dedman scales his readings of the cultural conversations, they are not drawers in which he files people. The core concepts are worked through in chapters, for instance the very tricky hip hop terminology around being ‘real’ as opposed to fake, meaning authentic, of the streets, tough, experienced. Of course, logic begins to bend once one asks ‘who’s really the realest?’ and the anthropological relativism that follows is not too excessive and the interpretation not too stifling.

It’s great to read the material on postcodes and subcultural zones in the interviews. London looms large too, and the ways in which the ‘London Sumtin’ of Jungle, from a Code 071 record, has continued through grime and dubstep. As Wiley explained in his biography, the first time English accents could be MC’d en masse was when Jungle exploded in the 1990s. Children of Zeus discussed how rapping with a Mancunian or northern accent has only recently become acceptable.

One resistance, then, is Americanisation, although American rap features strongly in respondent conversations. London has its ‘manors’ and British hip hop has its regions. It is, in many ways, the authentic folk culture of our times, even if the bucolic visions and acoustic guitars the word conjures may seem utterly inappropriate. It is globalised folk music, present tense. It is folk as a verb, not as a dusty old repertoire, although of course global history and repertoire are also important.

There is promise for the future here, too: Dedman ends, very topically, arguing for a study of the ‘gyaldem’ (girl them) female rappers and MCs in the UK. The conversation about the unsung females of grime recently went live among the chattering classes on Twitter. Dedman was there before them.

A great book.

– Steve Hanson

Terse Wisdom

Wiley – Eskiboy (Heinemann/Penguin)

This book looks like a biography. A big, Christmas or birthday present biography. It is solid, it has the name of a star written across the front of its glossy dust jacket in Helvetica bold and a striking, masculine portrait. It could be the ghost written biography of a footballer.

It couldn’t be further from one. The first thing Wiley says is that he hates biographies.

The writing is terse. Matter-of-fact statements which belie a great deal of depth and understanding. You can hear him speaking, like you can hear Miles speaking in his autobiography, but Wiley is rooted, and there is warmth.

This book has two poles. At one pole it is straightforward, ‘keeping it real’, or whatever label you want to put on that from the culture. At the other pole, the book structure works like a prism. We see key figures in the story of Wiley’s life move from Kent to London and back, but we see them do this through different eyes. Producers, family, friends, crew members. Wiley himself is at least three different people, Richard Cowie, Kylea, Wiley…

Hackney, Shoreditch, Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlets and Bow. Rinse FM and other pirates, mandem, Roll Deep Crew, Dizzee Rascal. These are all faces of the prism. But it is the story that could be about anyone that is the most honestly told and vital:

‘In my generation no-one knows what they’re doing. Our parents parents were different – they came from the West Indies to England to work. They just had to be on point.’

In some ways, then, this is everyone’s story, the big story Zygmunt Bauman writes about: The hell of choice. But this is also just the story of some. Estate kids. Black kids. Those with the odds stacked high against them. Wiley cites crack cocaine in the 80s as a big breaker of communities: ‘All kinds of fuckeries’, he says, and he doesn’t need to say more than that. Four words. See how much he shifts by not messing around with it.

Wiley’s mum’s brother was murdered in an argument and they all moved to Kent. In Kent, they experienced racism. His sister came home from school having been called a ‘Paki’ by an Indian boy. We somehow get all the geographical relations of white flight and the strange disorientation of moving from city to country, London to Kent, in just a couple of pages.

The book covers early days early on, and recent times later on, but aside from this generalism it is essentially non-linear. There are interludes in interview form. As though this bloke Richard Cowie has asked people he knows about this character Wiley, becoming a journalist in his own life.

There are poetical interludes. As Linton Kwesi Johnson says, this is where poetry is in Britain, UK hip hop, grime, dubstep. This is also where the prophetic tradition that the first wave of incomers brought with them has gone. It was always a partly colonial prophetic tradition. Is it a coincidence that Roots Manuva – Rodney Smith – was brought up by a poor tailor and preacher? No. There is a tangible line across generations:

‘The hardships and struggles at that time were the usual struggles: money, the streets. Even then, not really being safe. People hustling. There were still people trying to lean on you for whatever reason.’

It could be Curtis Mayfield, it could be Eldridge Cleaver or Bobby Seale, it has their directness and hard won wisdom. Like them, Wiley understands the old ways of channelling different impulses:

‘Back then, I realised quickly that a loss is sometimes just a loss. If you’re caught up in any violence or drama, you think that if you take a loss, you have to go out and get a win. That’s the way the world is. But sometimes you have to let it go. Use the energy you have for revenge and channel it into something you enjoy doing. That energy can be cold like ice, and people can get hurt. You just say, “No I am not having it”, and people go to jail, or people get killed. Or the energy can be hot, and you can succeed. That energy can take you all the way to the top. Don’t move backwards, move forwards. Get on with life. Literally I found a way to use the energy I had productively.’

But as you can see this isn’t some indulgent journey of self-creation, not for the people from those estates. This is survive and thrive or die. The usual routes out are here for black youth: football; music; it’s the same story that goes back to the thirties, to America, boxing and other activities, or selling drugs. School is explained as a stark binary, exams, university, or ‘other’, and there’s a heaviness about taking the path to ‘other’:

‘Every boy when he goes into the world has to find his own path. People show you stuff, both good and bad, and you need to decide what to do and what not to do. I was very lucky not to go to prison. I knew what drugs were before I got into the game. There is a lot of money in drugs. Anyone who goes into it will find it hard to come out, because of the money. That’s why people end up in prison. The risks go up as the money goes up. But drugs are not good, and that’s it. Don’t take drugs. Trust me.’

These are things that people who haven’t lived it only know – if we’re really honest – because they happen to have watched The Wire:

‘Streets are crazy. No matter how bad you are, you can’t avoid it. There are no rules. There is no ring, no boxing gloves. It’s more dangerous than anything. You can get shot, stabbed, hit with a hammer. Anything. Not just London, either. Anywhere.’

There is a moment, where the future could be drugs, and he surges into music. You can’t do both, he says. He talks of his dad, a stable presence, of good parenting, being surrounded by great music. The roots in jazz are chatted through – and punk actually – through to Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie, through to Jungle in 1995 and 1996 and he’s waking up.

Wiley minutes the realisation – a delicious moment – that with Jungle their accents were now allowed, ‘a London someting rasta’, and on it goes, Bashment, Grime, Dubstep:

‘When it started Grime was a young black man’s punk rock’ Wiley explains. ‘The grime nationality is rude boy, now. And anyone can be a rude boy, you get me. It’s not just for black kids any more. It’s for everyone: black kids, white kids, Indian kids, Turkish kids, Moroccan kids. It’s a release.’

On one level, this book does everything those who arrive at it with expectations will want: Rinse and the pirates; clashes and dissing Kano; Dizzee.

But it has many other layers, it does such a lot more, and it never breaks with its straightforward style while doing it. It combines the most economical talk with a non-linear, prismatic structure.

It isn’t Ulysses, but it doesn’t have the clichéd symphonic rise and triumphant end section of the usual biographies. Towards the end, we find Wiley in a panic as a motorcyclist looks as though he’s going to shoot him, a vignette that shows fame doesn’t bring serenity. But we also find him creating in real time, every day, spitting into his iPhone, hundreds of recordings, sketchbooks becoming bigger things.

This book is a snapshot of the early twenty-first century. It tells you what it is to live precariously. Everyone lives precariously now, but some, as Orwell might have said, more so than others. It is about not being risk averse, although in a context where you either make yourself buoyant or you drown. It moves from poverty to excess. It is the story of a journey through everyday multiculture, generational cliffs and British class. But it is also about London black history, the river and the routes back to the Indies, to the Caribbean.

Everyone should read this – and it arrives right at the moment we need it most – just when the island appears to be turning inwards and moving backwards, this book shows you how to turn your heart outwards and move forwards.

– Steve Hanson

The Lost City of Punk

John Doe with Tom DeSavia and Friends – Under the Big Black Sun, a Personal History of L.A. Punk (Da Capo Press 2016)

This is a wonderful multi-authored book not just about what turned out to be a key time in this music scene but with much wider resonance about invention, community and eventual dispersion and recuperation.

The recounting here, which can touch any music fan, is concerted by John Doe of X who pointedly dismisses some stereotypes, starting with three chords.

I have remained an admirer of X since I bought their second LP, Wild Gift, partly sold to me by its cover. I later bought the first, Los Angeles, which includes the track ‘The World’s a Mess It’s In My Kiss’, with Ray Manzarek of The Doors on keyboard.

Thanks to this book – and Discogs – I now have a copy of The Plugz and The Minutemen albums.

From the Foreword by Billie Joe Armstrong and onwards we get the awareness that something special was taking place, that some of the songs ‘don’t have expiration dates. And that’s at a time when the entire decade of the eighties WAS a giant expiration date.’

The contributions tell us about the diversity of the music groups, solidarities forming and distressing desperation, including what music was on offer whether live or on the radio.

For the people here one thing that happens is finding out, via an independent record shop, where popular American music came from and making their use of it.

This could produce homage: X did a version of ‘Dancing With Tears in my Eyes’ but also, as The Knitters, ‘Rock Island Line’.

It was also a renewal, an example for me being the music of Los Lobos. There was no dress code and I was very impressed to see Exene fronting X at the Town and Country Club in London wearing a demure Chanel-like suit (or maybe it was one).

Several contributors mourn the seeming take-over of the scene’s diversity and venues by a hard-core music and aggressive male audiences. The last two pieces in the book have a particularly valedictory tone. Kristine McKenna:

‘So many members of this community are dead now […] Time is a brutal, devouring force, and until it’s begun to do its handiwork, it’s impossible to comprehend how very beautiful it is to be young, how privileged and innocent it is.’

This straightaway reminded me of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Poet Laureate address in 2001 (City Lights) talking about his adopted San Francisco’s diversity and its poetry scene, here quoting Daniel Zoll in the Guardian:

‘Now it’s become almost impossible for a lot of the people who have made this such a world-class city […] from the fishers and pasta makers and blue-collar workers to the jazz musicians to the beat poets to the hippies to the punks and so many others – to exist here anymore. And when you’ve lost that part of the city, you’ve lost San Francisco.’

But to return to Kristine McKenna, ‘The music continues to mean something to those who need it, and those who need it will continue to find it.’

– Robert Galeta

Burgess beyond Burgess

Anthony Burgess, Life, Work, Reputation, Centenary Conference – International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester

One thing marked this conference out from the start, a simple rule: No Clockwork Orange. That slim work has become so swollen that it has eclipsed the burning star of Burgess’s talent. It definitely needs to orbit away somewhat.

But can you imagine another conference or arts festival doing that, at this point in history? Or even a university event? There would be Alex mugs and bowler hats for sale with expensive ironic vitamin milk during the breaks.

Not here. There was a straightforward dignity about this event. The idea of Burgess scholars relaying the dark side of The Burgess World for three days might sound off-putting to the more casual reader. But the papers were all accessible, as well as high quality. There was a generous intellectual atmosphere on both sides, that of the presenters and the audience. People enquired in the spirit of wanting to know, there was no needling. There was an early start each day – lots of papers were got through – and the atmosphere was unpretentious and non-combative, at the same time as it was never dumbed-down. All of these things are possible, they can exist in one space. PhD students can give papers without feeling they are about to be torn apart by horrible grey wolf professors.

One of the main pleasures over the three days was this: To take a slice of Burgess is to take a slice of the entire twentieth century. Earthly Powers is perhaps the concentrated form of this, but Burgess is clearly a world-historical writer, and many of the papers spoke to that theme. The papers were skilfully grouped to speak to the larger dimensions of Burgess’s work, Empire, for instance.

According to Nicholas Rankin on ‘Burgess in Gibraltar’, the ‘comic dimension’ of Burgess’s take on Empire was ‘well-meaningness gone wrong’. Siti Saridah Adenan followed this with a paper on ‘Lethargic Empire’ and ‘Boredom in Burgess’s Malayan Novels’. She discussed empire and detachment, in the Burgess character Fenella Crabbe, who sees her new Malayan surroundings as a ‘shabby version of Europe’. Here we got Malaya as boring, as opposed to London, the thrilling centre of Empire.

Crabbe also described the north of England as provincial. Crabbe believed civilisation only happens in temperate climates, ‘where sweat starts, nothing starts’, she explained. There are echoes of this in the current although fundamentally broken London-centric attitudes that have recently been cracked by the vote to leave the EU in 2016. The start of the Cold War in Gibraltar, said Burgess, will also ‘be the end of it’, and perhaps only now can we see how truly prophetic that was.

Matthew Whittle explained how Matthew Arnold was important to Burgess. He took up the quest of the middle class guide for the masses. For Burgess the TV was static and the music hall was social. Television, for Burgess, was the ‘brutal hypnotic eye’. Great points were made here about Burgess’s theme of the little individual versus the imposition of the state, in his novel The Doctor Is Sick, Clockwork Orange and elsewhere. The paper on the The Doctor Is Sick, actually, by Jess Roberts was enthralling.

Burgess’s Toryism must surely be a part of his attitude, but elsewhere we heard how in Italy ‘Burgess rooted for the anarchists and communists’. Burgess was one of those truly independent liberal intellectuals, in the strong sense of that, a permanent dissident and a man who knew his own mind seemingly instinctively, then put that opinion forward no matter who it offended.

Burgess, uncovered by the obscuring bulk of Clockwork Orange, is essentially a rich archive curated by Andrew Biswell and his colleagues, novels, non-fiction, poetry and music. We went to the Bridgewater Hall on Tuesday night for the premiere of a Burgess symphony. The book reviews of Burgess, as with Orwell, are a whole other historical dimension. Joe Darlington’s paper on these was magnificent.

In a break, Manchester Review of Books writers discussed the Burgess reviews and blurbs they had encountered: As novel readers, in their student days; they were all over, including one on the dust jacket of a single-volume dictionary which simply said ‘this is a fine dictionary’. Burgess perhaps over-reviewed, but he was a staunch advocate of the less successful writers he admired, as well as those he considered to have potential.

There are very large archives beyond not only Clockwork Orange, but beyond all the published work. This said, the ‘No Clockwork’ rule was actually broken three times (let’s call it a rule of thumb) for a paper on performing and re-performing the work for theatre in different countries, translating it into French, and a keynote presentation by Jonathon Green, the slang expert who has been described as the ‘greatest Lexicographer since Johnson’.

Green was there to talk about the recently discovered Nadsat Dictionary fragments. And they are really fragments. But the other thing this conference had was a sense of humour. Green and others addressed this aborted project with an endearing mix of reverence and gentle laughter. Andrew Biswell put up a slide ‘of Burgess getting pissed’, how he would like us to remember him, and Burgess was well remembered throughout.

In fact it felt like he was strangely present, as his piano and other bits of furniture were in the room with us. Many of the discussions ended up talking of ‘Anthony Burgess’ – after all, only a pen name for a bloke called John Wilson – as a shifting series of layers, rather than a solid core. Taken this way, Burgess was in fact present, as the archive holds many of those layers, some of which are still being discovered. Burgess had not, as the saying goes, ‘left the building’. I think John Wilson would have loved this.

We took a coach ride to see No End To Enderby at The Whitworth, which is definitely worth a visit. Then we went on to Xaverian College, Burgess’s old school, then to a drinks reception. Some have claimed that Manchester and Burgess have little real connection, International Anthony Burgess Foundation is changing that erroneous perception.

But they are doing so much more: Here, actually, is the model for the new arts festival, the new conference, and perhaps even the new university. The idiocy of student tuition fees is only just being declared by the politicians who originally advised them. The conference was clearly subsidised, there were no berserk, excluding fees. In fact it was probably cheaper to go to this conference than to sit at home and eat your own supplies. There were no patronising, infantile stage dressings or speeches. The usual galaxy of alibis on a double page spread at the back of the guide was entirely absent. There was no feedback form with a marketing intern standing over you waiting to collect.

The generosity of the Burgess estate is clear: Burgess was a tax exile and criticised for it; he put his money into properties when the tax rate for his income bracket – under Wilson – was 90%, but his estate has now put that money back into Manchester with a faith in the city even Burgess couldn’t quite match some days.

If you swap the patrician capitalism of International Anthony Burgess Foundation for a return to state funding, you have a very good model, in this conference, of how to do things. Formally, the ‘less-is-more’ approach of concentrating on the things that matter and doing them with style, humour, generosity and a fuss-free seriousness should be adopted all over the arts and humanities.

International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester Review of Books salutes you, and all who sail in you.

Branches and Routes

Billy Bragg – Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World (Faber & Faber)

A great deal of research has gone into this book, and also a great commitment to set out the social and political contexts of how and why this music happened and its contributions to what happened next.

The book ends where many others have started: the R’n’B boom and its derivative pop.

One strand in the phenomenon of the rapidly developing music scenes here is the – at first – delayed response in their mediation, whether in photography or graphics. Among the photos, politely staged or caught live, Bragg tellingly reproduces Music Revue posters, basically names of acts, with the headliner at the top. They seem already obsolete in conveying the different aims and energy of this new music.

He takes us through the challenges to the music business of handling money-making opportunities and the awkward attitudes and politics of some key players: Communists? CND? ‘Stars’ were by and by found, sort of in the mould of what was happening.

In the pre-blurb to the 1967 Pan paperback of Quant by Quant, we read about her first shop and business: ‘It all snowballed fantastically’. Quant by Quant has all the headlong pace, the outrageous nerve and delirious gaiety…’ ‘Mediation‘, in other words, took only a few years to catch up.

We see the same change of pace of packaging in Michael Braun’s book Love me Do, the Beatles’ Progress (Penguin 1964) where Brian Epstein, at a posh Hotel supper, suggests that he requires a new look for the group.

Yet another example of contradiction and what would be called recuperation is the demonising tone of newspaper headlines about hooligans and jiving in the street quoted by Bragg here, and the selling of rebels we see in the moody LP and EP photo-covers of the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Them and others around 1964.

Bragg is unhurried and extremely engaging in his tracing of developments and connections. In the chapter The Highbrow of Swing, he introduces us to Denis Preston. I went to look through some 78s left to me by a dear friend of this generation and read on the London American recordings label of Josh White’s ‘T.B.Blues’, rhythm accompaniment supervised by Denis Preston.

Bragg also tells us the background of another, better known producer, Joe Meek. As well as such in-depth information and assessment, there are some good one-liners. One is a David Bowie lyric perhaps incubated from a certain concert the nine-year old David Jones attended.

What this meticulous study is especially valuable for in terms of musical change is exemplified in the chapter Lonnie Opens the Door. There are three key elements combining to make a change: the guitar coming to the front of a band rather than being at the back as part of the rhythm section; there appearing no bar to playing because you can’t read music; and readily available, home-made or cheap instruments.

Because of its insights into post-war British class and the opening up of new affinities and possibilities, this book sits for me alongside these: George Melly’s Revolt Into Style (1972); Ray Gosling’s Personal Copy (1980); Jonathan Green’s Days in the Life (1988); and Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles (2005).

– Robert Galeta

The Geeks Inherit the Earth

Clare Nina Norelli – Soundtrack from Twin Peaks (33.3, Bloomsbury Academic)
Eliot Wilder – Endtroducing (33.3, Bloomsbury Academic)
Sean L. Maloney – The Modern Lovers (33.3, Bloomsbury Academic)
Paula Mejia – Psychocandy (33.3, Bloomsbury Academic)

This series surely could not exist without Revolution in the Head, the song-by-song book about the Beatles back catalogue by Ian MacDonald.

Each book in the series focuses on one iconic album, exploring its music, its cultural and historical context, its production and the biographies of the key players and its sleeve art.

Some of the books will be great for music students, rather than just culture vultures like me. I tend to zone out when the ‘G-C-F Sharp sequence’ is explained, but the level of detail is admirable.

The Soundtrack from Twin Peaks book is thoroughly enjoyable. It is music I know backwards, but it gives me all kinds of new trajectories and connections.

By 1985, Elizabeth Fraser was David Lynch’s favourite living singer. Lynch wanted her version of ‘Song To The Siren’, the Tim Buckley track, recorded with the studio collective This Mortal Coil, for Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. He wanted Fraser and her partner Robin Guthrie to mime on stage in the prom scene. I had no idea this was the case.

The problem was that Tim Buckley’s estate demanded $20,000 for the rights. The director then asked composer Angelo Badalamenti to create ‘Mysteries Of Love’, eventually sung by Julee Cruise. As Martin Aston describes it, in his excellent history of the 4AD label, Facing the Other Way:

‘Starting with Blue Velvet, and most famously on his TV series Twin Peaks, Lynch fashioned a world that appeared seamless, unruffled and presentable on the surface, but scarred and disturbed underneath, foaming with a barely controllable darkness.’

There has always been a coalseam of lush melancholia running underneath the 1980s recordings of the Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, Julee Cruise and even Chris Isaak. Reading Nina Norelli’s Twin Peaks book shows me that the connections are not merely incidental.

Again, Martin Aston explains that This Mortal Coil’s ‘Song To The Siren’ became a cult from the day of its release. Annie Lennox of Eurythmics and Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran named it their singles of the year.

Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons calls it ‘the best recording of the Eighties’. For years, he says, he was also ‘spellbound by the Julee Cruise catalogue’, but ‘didn’t know why.’ ‘It was so beautiful and yet so horribly cryptic’ and ‘there seemed to be something terrible lurking beneath the breathy sheen.’ Years later, he fully understood when he heard ‘that Lynch had originally wanted to license “Song To The Siren.”’

Now, with this work by Nina Norelli, we can trace all of this even further back to Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti, who as the Anglicised ‘Andy Badale’ wrote songs for Della Reese and Nina Simone. ‘I Hold No Grudge’ by Nina Simone shows a peep of the dark, seductive sound of Lynch’s American Gothic Surrealism. There is a lineage here, a thread I didn’t know, despite being very aware of all the music, the Twin Peaks Soundtrack, the Julee Cruise record and This Mortal Coil. This is the strength of this series.

Equally, the book on DJ Shadow’s flawless masterpiece Endtroducing is a thing of joy, to sink into and emerge from, frantically searching for your copy of the record. The links between the suburban LA garage Shadow developed his sound in and the slick west coast jazz scene of Nat Adderley and David Axelrod are wonderful. The Modern Lovers’ album also gets the treatment it deserves, as does the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. The latter comes out of an East Kilbride downpour with total attitude.

If I have a problem it is that Beverley Craven and Abba Gold seem to be the only solidly non-hipster inclusions in the 33.3 series. The list is so self-consciously cool it hurts. I’d like to see totally random writers paid to review randomly selected albums. But until someone is brave enough to commit funds to such a project, the 33.3 series continues to develop very nicely indeed.

Real Sci-Fi Songs

Joanna Demers – Drone and the Apocalypse (Zero, 2015)

When I saw that this book existed, I had one of those moments that writers sometimes have. Someone had ticked one off, on the list of things I had hoped to do before I exit the world.

I have long thought that someone needs to write a serious book on drone. That Joanna Demers has now done it, and in such an exemplificatory spirit, is delightful. This is so very far from a dry academic autopsy. There are roots to drone, but Demers doesn’t give us a tedious timeline or teleology.

With music that never begins or ends, where time is irrelevant, why would you? Of course, drone has roots, and I have sketchily covered them as a music writer, over many years, hence my urge to collect my thoughts in a more systematic way. This book review had better do.

You cannot approach this topic straight on. If writing about music is like dancing to architecture, writing about drone is like trying to recreate Malevich’s black square using only the discarded bits that collect under your hole punch. So I am not going to directly restate what you can read in Demers’ book here, though I am urging you to read it.

When explaining drone to students – I am currently supervising a dissertation on noise in art – I usually look back to Yves Klein’s Monotone Symphony. Then to Tony Conrad, a member of La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music in the 60’s, The Dream Syndicate, who was way ahead of the pack. So were Faust, with the ur-industrial drone, and they came together with Conrad, providing that metronomic pulse defined by a Neu! one-beat, now globally franchised as ‘Krautrock’, as Conrad relentlessly droned his violin over the top. Pure music, it makes the hairs on your arms stand up.

So how does all this make meaning? That dangerous word, ‘pure’, means only that it is relatively untainted by genre. Here, in brief, is how I approach drone, particularly its flattened aesthetic. Its very particular temporality and duration. Drone often unfolds over time and does not, at the same time. It is one big moment. Movement and no movement in one. Listen to the last tracks on Eno’s Discreet Music for an example of this. Of course, some drone moves, some slightly, some drastically. But drone often invokes the constantly collapsing present moment of Heidegger, or buddhism. I could go into Bergson here, but this is a book review.

Drone can be utopian, the blank space we need to move to, mirroring Attali’s concern that sound travels before other mediums. It is literally avant-garde in form, as it is unburdened with the demands of, say, sculpture making. That said, you can make a work with the equivalent impact of a large bronze, with the same presence, in a space, with sound, using drone. You can fill a vast aircraft hangar with something as brutalising and permanent as concrete and metal, using only noise.

But still, how does it make meaning? There is a great deal to be gained here from writing about abstract painting. Drone often ‘hangs there’ like a painting. If you put a title on a very abstract, open piece, it tends to ground its meaning more, to narrow its range of possible significances. The same, for me, applies to drone. Adorno suggested that an effective modern piece will contain its own language. It will teach you how to read it as you take it in. They are monads, sealed units containing their own logic. But an effective modern piece will also contain a seed that can burst out and rupture itself, and all that lies around it. It is Revolutionary. Drone often teaches you how to read it. And drone can rupture. This is how I judge drone, qualitatively. It is how I read it.

But Demers also presents us with a fiction to read. A science fiction. Her book is in that tradition, in the best examples of Ballard, and… well, Ballard. Just as Robinson’s film cans appear in a caravan, in Keiller’s Robinson In Ruins, and the fictional academic Gang Lion, in Vertical Features Remake, by Peter Greenaway, Demers’ book comes to us via fictional, rediscovered academic notes.

For me, drone is both utopian and apocalyptic all at once. That requires you to look awry and take some deep breaths before writing. Demers does this and judges drone, through her fictional muse, on the apocalyptic side. She has written a dystopian sci-fi of noise.

Again, I have personal touchstones here. Godspeed You Black Emperor’s 1997 debut ‘f#a#∞’ asked if the end of the world was coming. To me, at the time, it was. I listened to this record on my way to work. Couldn’t stop. My job in a bank was turning me to drink. The tech people there, at that point, didn’t know if the mythical ‘Millenium Bug’ would wipe everything away. I watched the Seattle protests and Genoa. 9/11 wasn’t far away, which I watched live, in the HBOS headquarters. I watched a massive financial institution destroyed from within one, on a screen used to show banking adverts to marketing staff. A delegation from the Twin Towers had been in that very room, only a month before.

Godspeed were a scab I couldn’t stop picking, it hurt me. It bled more than it should, but it satisfied. The drone sections could go either way. They were blank spaces that flickered between the end of the world and the beginning of a new one. Between hope and its opposite. All that remains of them now is the Wagnerian apocalypse of Godspeed’s Yanqui U.X.O. The funeral drum and Orleans horns of ‘rocket falls on Rocket Falls’. Yanqui U.X.O is an elegy, a grand political wake. The cover artwork is typical of their approach, bombs fall on the front, we’re not sure who is dropping them or where, which gives the image great tension.

These bombs are all bombs as much as they are American bombs. On the back, the words ‘Yanqui U.X.O’ sit in the centre of a spider diagram. ‘Yanqui’, they say, is corporate imperialism, ‘U.X.O’ is unexploded ordnance, landmines. These words are then linked to Sony, British Aerospace and AOL Time Warner.

This is how drone and noise is apocalyptic, it goes back to Hendrix and The Star Spangled Banner, a national anthem painted in napalm, with its roots in Chicago bar room amplification. Pure pragmatism, but those roots in turn reach further down, to slavery and Empire. So many records come on like easy listening versions of Klauz Schulze, Edgar Froese or Cluster. The ‘ambient compilation’, but there was little that was reassuringly cosy about the German pioneers. In this sense, I am wary of the zen comparisons to drone, although they can legitimately be made.

‘Bayreuth Return’ by Klauz Schulze signifies, it makes meaning. Think about it. Think about post-WW2 German culture. Think about how the word ‘Bayreuth’ inevitably resignifies after the holocaust.

But that’s an old recording to bring up. So let’s examine the subject through a more recent one. Angel’s ‘Terra Null’, for Editions Mego. Get the CD. Examine it. The initial signs seemed to indicate a record about 17th and 18th century emerging imperialism, with track titles such as ‘Naked Land’ and ’Colonialists’. Put the CD on.

‘Naked Land’, betrays an almost spaghetti western sound, which seems to further underline the frontiersmanship. A guitar twangs, detuning and retuning, but the electronic side of the drones betray the time we’re in, and via this, Angel collapse ancient into modern, as Marx did when he talked about ‘primitive’ accumulation and the commodity as a kind of anthropological fetish.

Somehow, this album by Angel puts us into that space, ‘Quake’ particularly, via slow drones, cello, oscillators, guitar and scree, it unfolds into what Dan Latimer called ‘a sublime appropriate for individual subjects fixed in some vast network of international business, blinking, clicking, whirring incessantly to transmit, like transistorized Jedi Knights, the power of the Force.’

The buzzing, low tones simultaneously describe this evil landscape, at the same time as they try to open a crack in it, and of course speed is important here, temporality is crucial to capitalism, and to drone. To slow it right down is to resist. To speed up is to acquiesce.

The antique etchings on the CD sleeve may be of ‘the new world’ of colonialism, but they become, simultaneously, dialectically, about the ‘new world’ we may be forced into, the place, as Jameson once told us, that we have no alternative but to go to. The past as the future. The two cancelled out by each other. This is ‘utopia’, terra null, a no-place, at least not yet. The last cut though, ‘Quake’, gets bible-apocalyptic, roaring like Sunn O))), or Merzbow. This is utopia and apocalypse as one. Hegel’s dialectic as two opposites in one whole, never combining, but bursting, absolutely seething with historical tension.

Oval, for me, are so important to this topic. Oval are drone as the End of History. They are the sound of vacuous mall music glitched out endlessly to swallow all of time. They are a formal translation of the flattening of our cultural landscapes into a substance so thin that it now covers everything. Their titles are also crucial to this, ‘Lens-Flared Capital’, for instance.

Faust hinted at what was to come when opening their first album. The radio sweeps over the scree of interference, as All You Need Is Love flashes up, and is then smashed to pieces by noise. That, they say, is what happened to all of that, as Baader-Meinhof rose. Their spectre has just returned. Here is the logical extension of Revolution 9 by The Beatles, with its reference to Beethoven’s last symphony. Gesamtkustwerk as smashed fragments. Noise as historical symphony, that ensures another Historical Symphony can never be written.

Beethoven was nearly deaf when the Ninth was premiered, and recording equipment did not exist. Since then, hundreds of recordings of it have been made. We have heard the Ninth more times, and better, than its writer. In this, Demers is absolutely correct to approach the topic through science fiction: Leif Inge’s Beet 9 Stretch slowed down Beethoven’s Ninth until it lasted for 24 hours, with no pitch distortions. This piece does many things, but one thing it has to do, before all the others, is flatten the Ninth into a millimetre thin surface, in order to squeeze the excess of signification out of it. This is one thing that drone can do well. Beethoven’s Ninth has become so overloaded with signification and connotation that it has imploded, in the way Faust made All You Need Is Love collapse. The Ode To Joy has a hundred meanings, the european anthem, film music, adverts.

This is the same thing as Demers’ opening reflections on ancient music that has been transcribed in detail and left to us, yet we will never know for certain how it sounded. The first performance of the Ninth was perhaps the last time this would be the case. With drone, transcription is often pointless, the space, medium and document is the music.

But once the Ninth has been flattened by Leif Inge, and the piece is being played on an endless loop, in a huge space, it becomes a new site of radical potential, which doesn’t completely erase its own suturing join with the historical, something the philosopher Catherine Malabou is very concerned about.

Drone gives you the space where utopia and dystopia, the tabula rasa and apocalypse are one. Where they fold into each other. Demers gives us this, in the form of a musicology as dystopian sci-fi. She explores what I have outlined here through Tim Hecker and Celer, via Boethius. She has taken risks, and they pay off. She was the right person to open a serious debate about drone in book form, not me.

Now it is up to us to carry on the conversation in the spirit of her annunciation. Here is my offering as an invocation. Snow, snow, snow come on snow, blast it all blind into a wiped, white VHS crackle. Lose the landscape and this sadness, in drifts no gritter can pass.

Your instructions. Get this book, put Oval on repeat. Think, reflect, think, write. Repeat.