Get You Back Home

The Punk Paper: A Dialogue

Esther Leslie and Ben Watson


B: When formulating his ideas about money and capital - sketches for the great work Capital which were eventually published under the name Grundrisse - Karl Marx developed a critique of conventional ways of writing history. When people relate history as a succession of events unfolding in time, they distort reality by assuming that concepts that were actually the product of historical developments were always in existence. He complained that people project back concepts like human equality, money-making and commercial calculation into the mists of time, when these are actually only possible once there is an infrastructure of trade, roads and manufacture. If Punk is approached retrospectively as a successful pop phenomenon, a fashion wave, a raft of new celebrities, our understanding is coloured by a similar kind of back projection. Commercialised anger didn't exist before punk - rap would have been impossible without it - and situationist ideas now accepted as commonplace were inaccessible to anyone but intellectuals. At the time, Punk felt like risk and truth, not scam, celebrity and money.

Of course, Marx isn’t stupid enough to announce - in the approved Deleuzian manner - that all we need to do is to simply rid ourselves of concepts. He began The German Ideology by accusing the Young Hegelians of plotting a revolt against the rule of concepts [Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, 1846, first published 1932; translated W. Lough (pp. 19-92), Clemens Dutt (pp. 94-451) and C.P. Magill (pp. 453-540), London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976, p. 23], and pointed out that ‘all relations can be expressed in language only in the form of concepts’ [Ibid, p. 363]. There is no non-conceptual access to the meaning of the past. In order to understand the past without hypostatising current concepts as eternal fixtures, we need to determine the sequence of conceptual categories in modern bourgeois society, which is ‘precisely the opposite of that which seems to be their natural order or that which corresponds to historical development’ [Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1857, first published in Russia 1939/41, in Germany 1953; translated Martin Nicolaus, London: Penguin, 1973, p. 107]. The Sex Pistols were not an innocent teenage band who were sucked into the endeavours of capital, they were a destructive consciousness which applied the most advanced critical ideas of their time.

They would not accept the postponement latent to capital's wagers on the productivity of future labour. These principles were misinterpreted in the mass media throughout the 80s and 90s. Only now, with the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement, can Punk's anti-commodity populism be properly understood.

E: A century before Punk emerged as latest rebel youth subculture, the word itself meant something else: it meant something worthless, foolish, rubbish, empty talk, nonsense: such that Carlyle could speak of ‘phosphorescent punk and nothingness’ However when it came to future dreams for colour schemes punk preferred fluorescence’s immediate shock of the intensified glow to phosphorescence’s postponed illumination of its self in the darkness. Fluorescence holds nothing back for later - like punk, its mode is the mode of anti-interiority, denial of romantic self, a cheap trick, a cheap trip without innerness, an upfront, slap in the face of public taste.

B: The reason that Marxism has a poor reputation in cultural analysis is to do with confusion over the necessary granularity required to grapple with specific experiences. Simple statements about capital, proletariat and commodification are in danger of sounding true for all time - or at least, true from the late eighteenth-century through to the twenty-first, which from the point of view of one’s personal relationship to musical fashion, can look like the same thing. In order to look at Punk, the Marxist needs to build on the substantive categories of capital and class, but beyond that, must denature the categories specific to pop music under capitalism. In other words, Punk cannot be understood by simply narrating its events in chronological order, as Jon Savage did in England’s Dreaming. Its determinations can only be unpicked by examining the latest developments in the contradictions it exploited, which means understanding the current relationship of capital and commodification to musical truth. The current marketing of The Strokes as "the most shaggable band in Britain", the issue of the black blocks in Genoa last July and the challenge to the radicalism of rock guitar-sound introduced by Derek Bailey are all more relevant to understanding the politics of the Sex Pistols than anecdotes about the Jubilee boat trip. That is why Jon Savage’s narrative betrays and tames the very movement it sought to explain: it projects back the success of Punk into its history, and therefore presents yet another cosy and positive tale of rags-to-riches. Since this is also the story of Jon Savage, now a successful member of the Popsicle Academy, we are really reading autobiography in drag.

One way of blowing apart the dead inevitability of history written with hindsight - its placid affirmation of the status quo - is Walter Benjamin’s method of seizing on a significant detail. This was actually a development of Benjamin’s reading of Marx’s Capital. Benjamin’s hallucinogenic focus on a single detail jolts a moment from its place in a preordained sequence of events, and lets in the multivalent possibility inherent in human action. As Hegel said in the smaller Logic, para. 143, ‘Viewed as an identity in general, Actuality is first of all Possibility.’ [G.W.F. Hegel, Logic, 1817/1827, translated William Wallace, 1873, Oxford: OUP, 1975, p. 202]. This is an insight that Savage never dreamed of. The Punk story told in terms of chart placements and fame immediately puts Punk back in the pop logic it was a protest against, whereas reveries about shopping schemes, council tenancies, bondage and Day-Glo can take us back into the first moments of Punk’s immediacy, its shock and exhilaration - the heretical idea of living historically instead of at the behest of the needs of capital accumulation. No past, no future, no capital, no mortgage payments.

E: Day-Glo was the colour of choice for punk. Day-Glo had been around for some time when punk appropriated it. In the 1930s, after one of them received a bonk on the head and a spell of recuperative treatment under ultra-violet light, Bob and Joe Switzer, eager young experimenters, were mucking around with dyes and resins to make colours that were brighter than normal and glowed under u.v. light. They used these new fluorescent colours in their hokey little magic shows. The colours were eye-catching, because they shone brighter than other colours. It was as if a new part of the spectrum had been discovered. Day-Glo colours are composed of fluorescent materials. Colour arises in ordinary objects through selective absorption. Ordinary paint absorbs some of the spectrum from white light and reflects the rest. Red paint absorbs blue and yellow, resulting in the scattering back of only red. Day-Glo paints do not simply scatter back light from the visible part of the spectrum. They can also take shorter wavelengths (usually ultraviolet) that are invisible to our eyes and they re-emit the energy by converting it into photons of longer wavelength. Thus, ultraviolet light goes in and its energy is converted into visible light emitted by the chemicals in the paint, creating the bright fluorescent quality. Fluorescent materials emit more red light for example, than ordinary red objects because they take some of the ultraviolet light that is invisible to our eyes and emit it as visible light. Day-Glo lets more be seen - it shines brighter. In 1936 the Switzer brothers set up a firm in Cleveland. War came and the colours found military application in bright signal panels used by the army, but peace put them back into civilian use on billboards, in safety signage and promotional publicity, and soap powder boxes. Outside the military context, Day-Glo was associated with vulgarity - the too obvious - the screamingly evident. In the 1950s the name Day-Glo was trademarked and in the late 1960s the company formally changed its name from Switzer Bros Inc to Day-Glo Colour Corp. In their names one can hear the poetry of science, industry and space exploration. The full trademarked pigment set comprises Neon Red, Rocket Red, Fire Orange, Blaze Orange, Arc Yellow, Saturn Yellow, Signal Green, Horizon Blue, Aurora Pink, Corona Magenta, Strong Corona Magenta, Strong Saturn Yellow. Day-Glo first infiltrated the American landscape as entertainment then as an alert to danger and later as commodity shriek. A fan of Ultraviolet light, who runs a website dedicated to its discussion, writes of a trip to Disneyland in the Summer of 1961. There he rode through psychedelic landscapes - such as the Alice in Wonderland ride - made of Day-Glo scenes extra-illuminated under u.v. light. Day-Glo fluorescent paint was fairly easy to get hold of in the 1960s - it became a household word through Tom Wolfe’s book on Ken Kesey and the Pranksters. It remained a bad taste product, acceptable only to commercial art, where Psychedelia found a use for it in posters and it found its way into film. In the entry on the word Day-Glo the OED quotes an article from the Listener, from 1968, which condemns the use of flashing Day-Glo colours as vulgar signal of an orgasm in a film by Jack Cardiff. The hippies used Day-Glo in their cultural artefacts, and even on their bodies, but theirs was an attempt to paint over the world in the colours of their hallucinogenic trips. Day-Glo was being taken into the student bedroom, the kids’ blacklit den where individual mediation could hinge on the wonders of a perceptual trick that disappeared when normal electricity resumed.It took punk to fully assimilate Day-Glo without transforming it - that is vulgarity and all - in fact because of its bargain-basement, eye-catching impudence. Jamie Reid’s cover for Never Mind the Bollocks modelled itself on a crude supermarket display. This was consumer society staring itself in the face. Art, as ever, was behind the times when Peter Halley began to use Day-Glo paints in his abstractions in the 1980s. Punk had already camouflaged itself in the colours of the antagonist.

B:Apart from his absurd tease that the Sex Pistols were not a punk band, Stewart Home's analysis of punk - because it has some relation to dialectical non-affirmative concepts - has been the most helpful. In maintaining that its root politics were either anarchist or fascist - by which he means irretrievably petit bourgeois and individualist - he breaks out of the narrow view that pop may only be discussed in its own terms: a stupid and inert reflection of the economic categories of its primary distribution. If music is not real unless it reaches the charts, if there is no everyday life outside practices which allow capital to realise surplus value, then there is no escape from ideology, everything is a sequence of deracinated images, and when I take a shit, I don't exist.

This is not the consciousness addressed by Punk. Indeed, Punk refurbished chart music and mass celebrity as potential sites for critique, bringing back into social dialogue drives and ambitions which would otherwise have been driven underground into daydreams, classical revolutionary politics or backwater academia. In Home's analysis, Punk is seen as a radical art practice, and it is made to stand or fall by reference to the most advanced ideas of that milieu, which means those of the Situationists.

However, in performing his ideological critique of Punk, Home steers dangerously close to an idealism which underestimates the intelligence of the real, and only pays attention tthose who treated Punk as a soapbox for political broadcast. Situationist rhetoric was dependent on the particular situation of artistic radicals in post-war Paris: an artistic world capital that was losing hegemony to New York, a left establishment which had made a historic compromise with Communist state-capitalism in Russia, and a surrealism deaf to the claims of music as a truth-testing of social repression. Once transplanted to London, situationist ideas entered into a completely different relation to the establishment. There was no question of organising advanced artists to take seriously a surrealist objection to bourgeois social relations, since modern art in Britain - Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and Frank Auerbach - was a parochial parody of the movements which had swept Rome, Moscow, Paris and Berlin, utterly uncomprehending of the continental avantgarde’s anti-art dynamic.

E: The problem of English art is a long-standing one. The seeds of English visual radicalism have been few and far between, and generally imported.

B: To those fifty readers addressed by Guy Debord’s newsletter Potlatch, the next technical step for modern art beyond Lettrisme and Cobra was absolutely clear: on the basis of Jorn’s comparative vandalism and a historical-materialist understanding of disorder and chance, artist organisation and collective resistance to American museums and collectors seemed both possible and necessary.

In Britain, John Berger saluted the Situationists from the pages of New Society, but the idea of modern artists resisting the commercial or establishment recuperation of their art was simply ridiculous. The establishment didn’t ‘recuperate’ the technically-advanced art of J.H. Prynne and Bob Cobbing and Tom Raworth, it simply ignored it, let it rot on the vine. Only Britain could have incubated a sorry development like Art & Language, who found they had to commodify critical concepts themselves in order to unfurl their phony denunciation of such commodification (and whose most recent edicts take the radical step of quoting Adam Ant). When London situationists fly-posted a comic denouncing the hippies on the office door of the International Times, the paper responded by printing it on their cover: critiques which had Parisian bigwigs resorting to the lawcourts and the cops were simply grist to London’s early-70s counter-culture farrago of revolution and commerce. The most alert British receiver of situationist ideas was Tim Clark, who promptly parlayed Debord’s historical-materialist insights into a novel brand of pseudo-Marxist, anarcho-liberal academia called the New Art History.

E: The problem of this, of course, was that it still believed art history was worth doing. That, at least, was marginally better than believing art was worth doing.

In 1914, a member of the Rebel Art Centre, Wyndham Lewis launched a Vorticist magazine. Lewis’ Blast was supposed to be a celebration of the blast furnaces of the industrialized Midlands and North. Blast also suggests a hygienic gale from the North. The emblematic representation of the vortex on the first pages of Blast is a figuration of a storm-cone with the apex up: a signal used by coastguards to represent strong winds from the north. Blast lends perhaps the visual and polemical aesthetic of the punk fanzines. Blast – with its glorious outrageously luridly pink cover and heavy anonymous blockish black typography and polemical rants – was just as shocking as the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks LP cover.

Designed in 1913, printed in 1914, Blast was designed to be a verbal expression that could be adequate to the ‘stark radicalism of the visuals’ that Lewis had been developing in the previous years. (Letter to Partisan Review, from Lewis, 1949, quoted in Richard Cork, Vorticism, I, p260.) The Pall Mall Gazette, describing the cover as the colour of 'chill flannelette pink' added that the colour 'recalls the catalogue of some East End draper, and its contents are of the shoddy sort that constitutes the East End draper's stock'.

Blast was written by self-styled ‘Primitive Mercenaries’ (p30), savage artists mingling in the ‘enormous, jangling, journalistic fairy desert of modern life’ (p33). In the glorious pink volume of Blast no.1 (of only 2) Ezra Pound presents some condensed Imagist poems on colour, artifice and chemicality.

Women Before a Shop

The gewgaws of false amber and false turquoise attract them,

Like to like nature. These agglutinous yellows.


Green arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth,

Crushed strawberries! Come let us feast our eyes.

The New Cake of Soap

Lo, how it gleams and glistens in the sun

Like the cheek of a Chesterton.

(all in Blast 1, 49)

These slogan poems cough up the major concerns of London Vorticism. In the first poem, consuming women are attracted to baubles, to the fakery of the commercial, a cheap trick to pull in the punters. They are attracted because they themselves no different, like eyes up like, each as artificial, false and hideous as the other. The second poem vituperates against art – in the modish French sense – as a mélange of poisonous tint and damaged nature on canvas. A feast for the eyes indeed bitterly evokes a deadly mess, of faked and ruined nature for those who know no better. The third poem parodies formal appreciation on the part of art lovers, by conceiving the aesthetic pleasures of bar of soap, cleanliness being its aim, just like the good clean English middle-class fun of G.K. Chesterton.

For direct influence between the old guard punk and the purveyors of English Vorticism, see the following: Mark E. Smith, "Heroes, part I: His Influences"
Melody Maker, Sept. 27, 1986, p. 33

'He was a funny old stick, Wyndham Lewis, the most underrated writer this century. I can't believe how good his stuff is when I'm reading it. He was a much better writer than he was a painter. People always say that Paul Morley ripped off Lewis, which is bollocks. WE ripped off Lewis, and Morley stole his ideas from us! The thing that pissed me off is that ZTT uses his ideas and then put them into a context that Lewis would have hated. He loathed the futurists. His stories are great; things like 'The Crowd Master' in Blast. What a great title for a story. Wyndham Lewis is so real and so now. He wrote a book about Hitler in 1934 saying that this is maybe the way forward and was condemned during and after the war for being a Nazi. Yet in another book, 'Rotting Hill', he says he wrote an essay in 1938 to say that he was completely wrong and that Hitler had to be stopped. The critics made sure he was only remembered one way - the wrong way. He was a real man though. He'd always be the first to condemn himself if he got something wrong. He went for the critics before they went ever got to him. I like people than can admit to their mistakes. When people ask me about The Fall back in '77 and the whole punk thing I say it was shit. Everyone hated us. Punk bands hated us. Even we hated us! I'm not going to lie about it. It's hard, but I like people that are real and tell the truth. His books are hard to read but if you stick with them they're great. "Rude Assignment' - what a title! 'Rotting Hill' is the greatest phrase I've heard in my life. It's so simple you'd never think of it. The things he was talking about in 1911, people are just beginning to talk about now. A man years ahead of his time.'

Pound had been requested to submit some ‘nasty’ poems to Blast. (see Cork, Vorticism). The nastier the poems the better. But in what does their nastiness lie: in the reference to the modern age’s fakery and chemical inauthenticity. This acerbic squeal found an echo 60 years later in Polystyrene’s lyrical rejection of germ-free adolescence and postwar plastics, engine of a new economy, in ‘The Day the World Turned Dayglo’ – a chemical retort to the internalized hippy-trip of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’:

I clambered over mounds and mounds

Of polystyrene foam

Then fell into a swimming pool

Filled with fairy snow

And watched the world turn

Day-glo you know you know

The world turned day-glo you know

I wrenched the nylon curtains back

As far as they would go

Then peered through Perspex window panes

At the acrylic road

I drove my polypropylene car

On wheels of sponge

Then pulled into a Wimpy bar

To have a rubber bun

The x-rays were penetrating

Through the Latex breeze

Synthetic fibre see-thru leaves

Fell from the rayon trees

Polystyrene woke up in a world that was synthetic, just as the Vorticists had woken up in a world that was machinic. While Lewis publicly scorned Marinetti’s ‘Futurist gush over machines, aeroplanes, etc.’ he was impressed by Marinetti’s idea that humans are changed by living in cities with communications and transport at their disposal, and affirms a dada manifesto from 1918 which describes the dada sound poem as the sheer noise of urban existence, the screech of tram brakes, which wipe out traces of old-style individuality. In Vorticist stylisation the denial of the human form is executed in a heightening of the flat surface of the image, and in a paring down of the elements involved. Lewis presents the human form like girders and industrial shapes. He writes: THE ACTUAL HUMAN BODY BECOMES OF LESS IMPORTANCE EVERY DAY. It now literally EXISTS much less. Lewis headed towards a sort of masculinized androgynousness. Interiority is expelled like dust by a sharp gust of Blastish air.‘Never trust a hippy’ cautioned a Jamie Reid poster in lurid yellow - its exhortation was against nature. It is irresistible. Lewis in ‘The London Group’ insisted on ‘LIFE not ‘Old Masters’ and the rejection of art which is dead with heavy woodness or stone, instead - 'here flashing and eager flesh, shiny metal.' (Blast p77) Shiny metal, chrome had paled as the 50s Americana dream was tarnished, but plastics were the new flexible friend of global economies. Punk’s postwar version of Lewis’ material desideratum forwarded not the machinic society but the plastic consumer society. Polystyrene again:

I know I’m artificial

But don’t put the blame on me

I was reared with appliances

In a consumer society

My existence is illusive

The kind that is supported

By mechanical resources

I wanna be instamatic

I wanna be a frozen pea

I wanna be dehydrated

In a consumer society

Despite its lurid appearance, The cover of Never Mind the Bollocks was no cheap thrown together item – it relied on modern painterly technologies. The printing process was difficult, because yellow is a ‘notoriously bad colour to print as it shows up any impurities in the process very clearly. And, although the sleeve gives the impression of being simple, it uses a series of complex overlays. Fluorescent colours are hard to print as well, which doubled the difficulty.’ (from The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid p79). Reid also says: ‘It was a feature of the finished sleeve that it deteriorated very quickly: if left out in the sunlight, the yellow and the pink faded, just leaving the black of the overlays.’ (p79)

Evanescence and the mystique of fleeting intensity was arguably a core modernist theme, and Lewis had affirmed it already in a comment of his in the essay ‘Futurism, Magic and Life’ (Blast 1, p134) where he notes how the most perishable colours in painting (such as Veronese green, Prussian Blue, Alizarin Crimson) are the most brilliant. So that which burns brightest burns most briefly, and in true modernist fashion brilliance must be but fleeting, timely, not eternal, a coincidence of moment, viewer and object. Lewis proclaims of this: ‘This is as it should be: we should hate other ages, and don’t want to fetch £40,000 like a horse" – asserting the desire not to be commodified and not to become a part of the archive.





For Reid and the Sex Pistols, the painstaking work on the cover paid off, for the sleeve caused a fuss when it came out – mainly because it appeared to be the opposite of what it was – shoddy, cheap and nasty – and also because it had an anonymity as its theme – not only the cut out blockish – Blast-ish or newspaper headline lettering – but also the lack of stars’ on the cover. No phosphorescent stars sending back their celebrity light to illuminate the gloom of adolescent fantasy – as The Clash, getting it so wrong would do with their first LP. The Sex Pistols, of course, did enstage themselves, not on the covers but elsewhere – however this self-display refused interiority, turning their selves into mannequins, for Westwood’s clothes, McLaren’s game.

B:Interiority is the last refuge of the petit bourgeois, as any reader of Ian Penman knows. What Home objects to as the ‘anarcho-fascist’ politics of Punk is actually the ideology of individualists and careerists - music journalists, record-company men and petty academics - who refused to accept that Punk begged questions about the wider class struggle. At the time, Rock Against Racism was not an option anyone could refuse who was attendant to confusions created by McLaren’s use of the swastika. Of course, it is now common knowledge in Cultural Studies that Rock Against Racism was manipulative, racist and oppressive to minorities, a historical revision which could only be undertaken by people who never found themselves in a punk club ordering drinks at the bar next to a British Movement organiser who is wearing a union-jack-plus-swastika sticker, and harassing the Sikh behind the bar. Home is these days gleefully separating himself from anarchism and calling himself a council communist, but his situationist-derived fear of Leninism - a misconstruction, since Guy Debord’s polemics were directed against the French Communist Party, not the SWP - meant that he could not endorse Rock Against Racism at the time. Having argued himself out of the swamps of anarchism, Home faces a stark political choice between Leninism and liberalism (in the absence of any contemporary current, his claim to be a "council communist" amounts to political abstentionf).

Historically, "radicals" like Crass who refused to take sides soon revealed themselves as petit-bourgeois parasites eager to finance their own lives of "individual freedom" in Ongar, Epping Forest - and, in the case of the Poison Girls, the Sierra Nevada - through the proceeds of their musical activities. Unlike subsequent imitations such as Red Wedge and Live Aid, Rock Against Racism was not organised in order to promote stars and sell records. It used the generalised impact of Punk - the formation of countless bands looking for places to play - and struck bargains where a band’s desire for exposure was exchanged for an explicit stand against racism. Of course, there was much confusion and debate about race and class and integrity in these bargains, but the emergence of Two Tone proved that the idea of punky-reggae parties - usually a couple of punk bands and a sound system - resulted from real social interaction rather than marketable imagery. A comparison of the revolutionary politics of Two Tone and On-U Sound - labels dedicated to racial miscegenation - and, say, Factory or Creation Records, demonstrates how even tacit racism holds back political consciousness in popular music.

Why is the radical working-class politics of Two Tone and On-U Sound not reflected in the species of mixed-race cybermusic - house, acid, rave - celebrated by Kodwo Eshun? The answer is that mystification about the source of music via the commodity of the recorded format suppresses the singularity of event that is required for political consciousness and historical action. Disco and rave force consciousness inward and merely facilitate mass drug-taking: individual solipsism and public idiocy. Hip Hop, on the other hand, by making rhythmic interruption a source of pleasure and continuity, is a revenge of the particular situation upon the generality of the commodity. When the DJ scratches the record, all the preordained momentum of a commodified music is suspended, allowing for the tabula rasa immediacy which is the moment of authentic modern art - from the theatre of the absurd through to Free Improvisation, a matter of creating pertinent situations.

E: In Punk hi and lo clash – they do not meld in a postmodern paradise. If the Situationists are victory, punk is the tragedy, and postmodernism the farce. With punk died truly righteous anger, the righteous anger that can say, as did Mark P. in a 1977 issue of Sniffin Glue (now quoted in the OED): ‘The sickest thing is the Zandra Rhodes "punk chic" look.’. That can say, as Sid Vicious did, "All Hollywood films are complete bollocks, the actors are only pretending."

B: General recognition of the artistic depth and instrumental effectiveness of the Sex Pistols and their records has led to many attempts to repeat their ‘moment’. Whatever Home says about them, the Pistols are the reason we’re having this conference. Without them, Punk would have been pub rock or American torn-tie bohemia. One strand of interpretation decided that scandal, riot and offense were the essence of Punk’s difference from rock music as normal. When Descension - a band of cacophonic free improvisors, including the guitarist from Whitehouse - supported Sonic Youth at The Forum, they caused a riot among the fans. Thurston Moore skipped up to the dressing room - ‘Gee, was that what the Sex Pistols were like?’. Actually, as Steve Jones said towards the end of their brief period of media exposure, ‘What everyone seems to have forgotten is that the Pistols are actually rather a fine dance band’. When I saw the Pistols at the Royal Links Pavilion in Cromer, Norfolk, on Christmas Eve 1977, they played an immaculate set, probably the best rehearsed rock band I’ve seen outside the Magic Band, Devo and Bow Wow Wow. When they named their album Never Mind The Bollocks, the Pistols meant that the media furore and their own shenanigans were to be ignored. The essence of their statement was sonic. The idea of them as merely a media event is a postmodernist evasion of musical materialism.


The Day-Glo coloured vinyl punk record is not a black hole or empty meaning, but a circular assertion of anti-nature, of synthetic actuality. The record, which had been forgotten as item, as disc, is brought back into visibility, by the coloured vinyl – of course in combination with the miniature artwork of the picture cover. This should not be confused with later attempts to stimulate collectability and sales with picture discs or limited editions. The coloured disc hoped to detonate a mini-shock, at least a surprise as it was slipped from the cover. The record stopped being natural, a hippy dream where the listener gazes at beautiful people photographed against shrubs and trees, the hippy dream of an unsullied life. Punk made pop music historical and artificial once more. It devastated the romantic idyll.

With punk the single came back into its own – famously ousting the concept album’s languor. It was an assertion of vinyl importance, before or beyond the concept. It understood itself as the short sharp shock, just as Wyndham Lewis before it had understood the end of painterly duration for producers and consumers in ‘Orchestra of Media’, which insisted on abandoning oil paint in favour of other instruments and media.

‘The surfaces of cheap manufactured goods, woods, shell, glass etc already appreciated for themselves and their possibilities realised, have finished the days of fine paint.’ (Blast p142)

Punk’s equivalent was plastic and formica. Though the point was not to represent it as such, but to appreciate it in itself.

B: This materialism extended to the sound. The musical power of the Sex Pistols was utterly shocking. Cook and Jones managed to reproduce the push’n’pull of adults fucking, the objective, mindless, ineluctable squelch of what Wilhelm Reich called ‘cosmic plasmatic sensation’ - a sound designed to terrify infants and fascinate adolescents.

When Caroline Coon told Sniffin’ Glue’s editor Mark P about the Pistols, he thought they were about dyed hair, and wasn’t interested. However, when he saw them he couldn’t believe how arrogant they were, how exciting and powerful. Like everyone else who saw the Pistols, he had to go off and form his own band. Of course, the cyberwallflowers of the post-cyber Popsicle Academy are unimpressed by such events. Apparently being excited by loud guitars is simply a recipe for Britpop boy bands. In this regard, comparison between the rock texturation of Oasis and the Pistols is illuminating. The Pistols are a diabolical piston, an active reprimand to the Platonic discorporate Ideal, a sexuo-alchemical catalytic converter, a dialectical-materialist physical heave-ho; Oasis are a blinkered body, sullenly mired in a single inert power chord, unable to thrust either harmonically or rhythmically. Noel Gallagher learned from Kurt Cobain how to smother the collective dialectic of rock in a single individual's vocal suffering, restoring interiority and emotion, expression as private property. Of course, the industry prefers such music, it fits its ideology of possessive individualism, where award ceremonies look more and more like stock-exchange reports. However, as Marx said in The German Ideology, 'The difference between the individual as a person and whatever is extraneous to them is not a conceptual difference, but a historical fact.' [Marx, The German Ideology, Ed. Cit., p. 81]. Individualism is not a style option, it is a stance vis-a-vis the struggle of classes. As Johnny Rotten said, criticising music journalists: 'These writers have never been in bands, and they have never really committeed themselves to other people in such close quarters. They're more like solo performers, and there ain't no such thing as that in any band ... I don't care how big-headed the lead singer is, it all comes down to the fact that he must eat shit in a rehearsal room. The histrionics of the lead guitar, the excesses of the drummer and the stupidity of the bass player have to mix on an equal footing.' [John Lydon, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993, pp. 159-160].

When the Pistols played in Cromer, they did not provoke chaos or offend their audience. They played a sleek, strong, impressive set. Rotten relished every word of his lyrics, Sid Vicious managed to keep time. Before they came on, they played dub plates through the PA. Only the defiant proletarian militancy of dub could be adequate to the Pistols’ power-chord rhetoric. The ruin of the F-Club at Brannigans in Leeds was spelt out when the DJ played David Bowie and Blondie after the bands: petitbourgeois aspiration and showy individualism was built into the rightwing interpretation of Punk, and its connections to fascism were not hard to discern. In Leeds, Rock Against Racism was an aesthetic and political necessity.

The recuperation of the rock power-chord by radio-friendly corporate rock acts has currently reached an epitome of stupidity. Stewart Home's political critique of Punk requires an injection of musical criticism. The rock power-chord needs to be criticised immanently, from the inside, which means opening the ear to Derek Bailey's guitarism. Derek Bailey's guitar freedom could only have been developed by someone who rejects the narrow confines of the star system, by someone who sees musical potential in every situation, unhampered by commercial image and the requirements of investment capital. His investigation of the guitar as material sound source produces a depthless music of sonic effect, a proletarian, working-musicians's realism. Like punk, it denies romantic resonance or fraudulent evocations of exotic terrains - the exchange-value basis of commodified music. Like punk, the attempt to create stars out of its protagonists undermines its power and logic. When punks followed The Damned's saxophonist Lol Coxhill into the church halls and pub rooms of Free Improvisation, the listener was introduced to a completely different but equally powerful criticism of the commercial spectacle. Free Improvisation is music as listening use value, as touchable humanity. (How Free Improvisation will deal with its own recuperations and discontents - the respective lures of art money, yuppie ambient anaemia, traditional-instrument classicism and installation-art postmodernism - is still being worked out.) Just as the Lettrists and Situationists made Punk possible by their invisible work in the 1950s - understanding graffiti and vandalism as expressions of proletarian consciousness, unitary urbanism, the theory of the Spectacle - the anti-idiomatic 'non-music' of Free Improvisation will be crucial to criticism of musical commodification in the coming epoch. Bailey's restructuring of guitar sound upsets identity-thinking and denaturalises today's commonly-accepted 'sound of revolt'. It undermines the assumption that musical experience hinges on the purchase of pre-recorded sound. Free Improvisation is an eruption of naked use value in a system of prurient exchange. This revolt against mass-musical duplicity and commodification will resurface in the most unlikely circumstances, not least in the mass sphere itself. It will use every aspect of disrespect for the commodity - every technical denial of culture as a tissue of substitutions - which are currently being worked out on the invisible margins. The brute facticity of Blast and Punk and Derek Bailey are part of an active continuum that cannot be understood using non-revolutionary categories. You have been warned.


(B=Ben Watson; E=Esther Leslie)

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