Relatively recent BBC4 documentaries regarding popular music from the 1970’s to the early 1980’s have once again got me fixated on that I would call the pivotal moment in leaving a world that believed in the future into becoming one that is incredibly despondent, yet whilst being lit-up with an end-of-the-world-selfishness to paper over the melancholia and sickness that prevails. If this sounds like an over-dramatic interpretation of our current predicament, I’ll try my best to explain why I increasingly feel this way, especially in my blog I’m writing regarding the recent showing of the Joy Division documentary on BBC4. However, this blog deals with Kraftwerk, specifically the 5 landmark albums they released in a row from 1974 to 1981 (Autobahn, Radioactivity, Trans Europe Express, The Man Machine and Computer World).
One really interesting thing I find about Kraftwerk, something talked about in David Cunningham‘s essay Kraftwerk and The Image of the Modern, (featured in Kraftwerk: Music Non Stop) is that they, along with many other German musicians/artists growing up in post-war Germany (I should say, West Germany), sought out something that was their own cultural identity, not the the Anglo-Saxon rock ‘n roll scene at the time of their inception. And in doing so, looked ‘back to the future‘, bypassing the black hole of Nazism to look back to the modernism of early 20th century Germany (such as the Bauhaus movement and the early Frankfurt School). But rather than looking back in a retro-fetish sense, a tendency dominating contemporary music, Cunningham writes that “[T]hey [Kraftwerk] gain their meaning as modern from their dynamic relation to past works [my own italics], through a determinate negation of what precedes them…” and whilst their immediate past was “…the increasingly stagnant conventions of a dominantly Anglo-rock or popular music of the late 1960’s … Kraftwerk’s own articulation of  modernity, at the level of its accompanying image…is more often the than not dependent upon a certain non-synchronous reactivation of those stranded [by the horrors of Nazism?] objects made up of past visual and conceptual motifs drawn from a specifically 1920’s European Culture.” (2011)
Regardless of its quirks, I’ve never really been interested in listening to very early Kraftwerk, when they had long hair, and played guitar, because somehow it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t conjure the futuristic, the grand modernist impulse that their 74-81 group of albums do – an aura that simultaneously remains exciting to this day to anyone still ‘accidentally’ infected with the desires of a modernism, whilst gut-wrenchingly melancholic due to the conspicuous absence of that aura in our current (non)times.
Why Does the Future Still Feel Analogue?
The first 4 of these aforementioned albums were all released in the 70’s, in an era that I’d argue was still modernist in nature (if we are to talk about the idea of it being an uneven, disjointed, yet somehow still collective grand project looking forwards). And I’d argue that all 4 of these albums, even when they deal with the dark issues looming over the post-war period (Radioactivity, etc), have a real Utopianist essence to them – certainly taking from the early 20th century spirit. But I believe the reason Kraftwerk worked is because it was still possible to be Utopianist in the mid 70’s.
If you listen to Autobahn or Trans-Europe Express on a bright midday moment, when the private-profit social-infrastructure (especially in the UK) is functioning as it is supposed to, you can almost momentarily shirk the gut feeling that the future has disappeared, stolen maybe. Whereas the machines-are-singing-back-to-us Ohm Sweet Ohm, the final moment on 1975’s Radioactivity, can almost be emotionally overwhelming in the way that it conjures the feeling of an almost magical aura, mainly due to its conspicuous absence in these (non)times. (If magical seems like an overly powerful world, I mean that beyond the fog of the aspirational hyperbole of contemporary life, the emptiness seems so engulfing that the likes of me, born halfway into what Franco Berardi called ‘the slow cancellation of the future’, become convinced that the void within contemporary life wasn’t always so hard to avoid.)
The 5th album, however, Computer World, has a crucially different feel to it. Basically it is the end of the modern: Computer World is a postmodern world. I associate the beginnings of postmodernity, with the incoming Margaret Thatcher/Ronald Reagan(1979/81) agenda of “there is no alternative (to capitalism)” (aka ‘no future’), and the increasing individuation which, if anything allowed the creeping digitisation/computerisation of life a much easier penetration of our (increasingly) personal affairs. This only really started to kick in the at the end of the 1970’s and the beginning of the 1980’s, a point when we began to see ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ to (quote both Franco Berardi and Mark Fisher). Computer world was released in 1981, within the crucible of this seismic change, but at which point The New in culture was still possible and still felt “to be infinitely available. [Whilst now] the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion” (Fisher, 2014).
Mark Fisher puts arguments forward at the beginning of his book Ghosts of My Life as to why theorist Fredric Jameson‘s argument that “the postmodern ‘waning of historicity’ is synonymous with “the cultural logic of late capitalism” is a truth. For me it is already a given. And although I’m leaving this as a given with in this blog, I’m saying so as much as I feel that Computer World documents their synonymous relationship, which is why the album sounds more like contemporary life every day, whilst the previous 4 albums both sound like the before and after of this ‘eternal present’ of a computerised quagmire.
Is Computer World the first postmodern album? Maybe not exactly. Many people would say mid-70’s punk, even the Velvet Underground in the late 60’s, were postmodern in their deconstruction of pop music. But for me, Kraftwerk, with these 5 albums really showed that they had their radars fully tuned to the seismic cultural shifts, and, whilst they showed that modernism was still very much a living thing in 70’s, I’d argue that Computer World was the first album to document the postmodern world we’d all come to recognise – more than anything due to the way that we still see the previous 4 Kraftwerk albums as futuristic.
“Business, money, numbers, people”
The words on the tracks Computer World and Numbers are spoken in a very punctuated manner that evokes the pressing of buttons. It all sounds so eerily familiar when we feel lost, powerless, lonely, and insignificant in a post-millennial broadband world, where the information overload fills us with disbelief and a desensitisation to the world, whilst addicting us to the pursuit of contact with others. The loneliness is crucial here; one song on the album evokes the human being sinking further into a cyberspacial abyss, but desperate to be pulled back out of it ...by someone.
“I don’t know what to do, I need a rendezvous”
The track Computer Love is a tragic track in our sad times where it rings so true. It isn’t a song you’d instantly think of when thinking of tear-jerking tracks, but it really does depict our escalating epidemic of loneliness, so movingly written about in 2014 in an article by George Monbiot. A friend once argued that Computer Love was an upbeat track, but for me, hearing it at the back end of 2008, it is a ode to the fate that would fall befall our species. Computer Love not only sounds more relevant today, it seems to depict a potential descent that knows no end. The omnipresence of computerisation enables corporate state interference and profit-motive social media platforms to make us increasingly slave-like to behavioural patterns the increase physical isolation.
Computer Love is far sadder than even Nick Drake’s (for example) odes to the pain of loneliness, because music such as Nick Drake’s evokes a idyll that cyberspacial communications may as well have obliterated due to the way to it disconnects us from each other whilst purporting to do the opposite (who could anymore imagine the world described by Drake existing, without the constant interruptions from cyberspace or our itching desires to be reconnected to it?). Despite people I know finding true companionship via Online Dating, for me it is a symptom of ‘Our Age of Loneliness‘ (Monbiot) and is, like all social media platforms, saturated with the imperatives of a marketised form of individualism, with the obnoxiously elitist dating sites being at the extreme end of this. Online Dating seems to me to now be a ‘When in Rome’ situation: although people do find love/happiness etc, the reason people go onto it is because we’ve become so lonely as a species that meeting people in any other way can seem impossible.
Kraftwerk – After the Future
After The Future is the title of a Franco Berardi book that examines how this slow cancellation of the future from the late 70’s onwards occurred. With Autobahn (1974), Radioactivity (1975), Trans Europe Exrpess (1977), The Man Machine (1978), Kraftwerk entice us with visions of ‘tomorrow’s world’. However, once they had produced Computer World (1981), which “might well be Kraftwerk’s greatest achievement…” with “…its turn to the increasingly abstract spaces of the global rather than the European…” (Cunningham), was there a future left for Kraftwerk to articulate? David Cunningham seems to suggest that the group lost their way after this album, with in a air of inevitability due to the wider context, with “the return of vague invocations of a European avante garde coffee-shop culture on Electric Cafe (1986), seeming unconvincing and unfocused.”
The fact that The BBC broadcast the Kraftwerk, Joy Division, and Synth Britannia documentaries all within the space of a month inevitability touched upon something. They had an air of difference from music documentaries focusing on the 60’s or post-89 music documentaries. But what made them different, and why show them all now? Although all documentaries were intelligible and sensitive to the changes to how we live, and lived in the 70’s/80’s, they were finally frustrating in how they failed to recognise why (I believe) they were even being shown now; not just the high demand for nostalgia for (a time that believed in) the future, but melancholia that constitutes the hipster-less moments of wanting a future again. The Joy Division documentary (for example) articulated the creeping social, political and existential misery that the band channeled with uncanny brilliance, but then completely failed to pick up on/or even acknowledge that the reason such documentaries are being made now is due to the undead presence of these feelings, oozing from the cracks between the hyperbolic lies of the late capitalist pleasure sphere; I am convinced that the reason Joy Division T-shirts are being worn by people born after 1990’s ‘Britpop’ isn’t down to the fashionable nature of ‘dark things’, but is actually because they speak a truth, denied mainstream articulation, that an increasing majority of us connect with.
The Kraftwerk documentary used the Utopianist track Neon Lights to soundtrack a sped-up drive through central London, with no sense of irony. Yes, on a superficial level Postmodern London gels with the essence of Neon Lights, but having spent hours on end aimlessly strolling the totalised-urban-space of the centre, I am left feeling tomorrow’s world was hijacked, gutted, and yet left as a undead body in which to inhabit. I experience elements of Kraftwerk’s post-millennium tours, upon which this documentary rested, and focussed on as its foreground, like I would a much-liked device that has now been unplugged from the mains that initially supplied it with so much inventiveness. With the accompanying blocky computerised imagery inaccessable as anything but 80’s-computer-pastiche to anyone living now, I experience the comeback tours as Kraftwerk being subsumed into commodity fetish. Yet the documentary seems as oblivious to this as the Joy Division documentary seemed oblivious to the ridged-persistence of the pain the band evoked.
To me, their post-millennial comeback tours seem as tragic as the initially-intuitive documentaries uncritical response the usage of the Computer Love melody by post-millennial consumer-emotions-band Coldplay. Now, as far as sugary enjoyment goes, there’s a couple of tracks from the early Coldplay albums I do like; but an uncritical response to a band like Coldplay borrowing a melody from something-much-more-than-a-band that helped us imagine another type of world seems mildly criminal to the likes of someone who, no matter what, can never come to terms with the narrowed idea of life and civilisation that we’re sold every day. This is an entrenched feeling, borne out of daily reactions to life today, and I won’t suddenly envisage a better future by someone telling me “there’s decent contemporary [musical] artists out there...if only you’d try to look for them.”
Stories From Forgotten Space builds on 2014 Mapmaking with the aim of taking the most prominent features of the project a little further.
The previous section of Stories from Forgotten Space can be found here: https://johnledger.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/stories-from-forgotten-space-january/
6 March 2015
“Passing through the Thornes area of Wakefield. Leafy, inner-city suburbia, with sun shining on rooftops. Like many things from a surface level inspection, it should all feel right/OK. But it just doesn’t.”
“Sat in a cafe made almost entirely of windows, in the 4 year old, yet seemingly still brand new, Trinity Walk shopping Complex [Wakefield]. A shopping plaza that after all this time still prompts the gut-reaction-word ‘Americanized’ within a UK citizen. The windows help give perspective, pause for contemplation. Sat here I can see as clear as possible the contradictions of the current state of affairs (and my own immobility within it), yet I am as perplexed as ever as to how this state of affairs could be transcended. Two women from the Baby Boomer generation chatter away on the table behind me. For all us 35 years and younger, largely services workers, locked into communicative capitalism, we are probably the most articulate, linguistically-competent generation ever. Yet we were sold down the line, by the ‘Blairites’ more than anyone else. We now perpetually fight the feeling of being ‘surplus to requirements’.”
“With my guard down more than usual, within a fleeting hope within a sunny midday point, I create a fleeting fondness for the young woman shop attendant giving me assistance with the damaged phone I possess. But how can it be anything more than a fleeting dream? For an emotionally-detached person, who lacks the ability to find ‘tastes’, ‘preferences’ and ‘hobbies’ to fill those in-between points in life, I’m more up against it than ever in a lonelier, more cynical world, where Internet dating takes precedence.”
“A young woman, clearly a victim of Anorexia, is caught in a moment of indecision over what food products to buy in central Wakefield’s 2nd Sainsburys superstore. Personal memory prompts me to envisage the anorexic subject as a perpetual prisoner to these palaces of excess choice. “Trapped between life and death” by paraphrase a Manic Street Preachers song on the same subject.”
“The train stops in the hinterland of Holbeck/Wortley whilst waiting for room in Leeds train station. Sun light in the window creates a false wall on the landscape. I think about this thing I just don’t seem to be able to get around: an invisible wall that, in turn, makes all alternatives to the place I’m stuck in invisible. But they must be there; I’ve seen glimmers of them throughout my life.”
“Leaving the Waterstones bookstore, the eyes of Audrey Hepburn gleam back at me from a photograph calendar. ‘The Dead won’t go away’. At the other side of the room, the smiling faces of celebrity chefs rebound back from production-line lifestyle cookery books. To me, this all wishes to end itself now.”
“Staring up the river [Aire] at a now gentrified landscape, yet consisting of appealing redbrick buildings all the same. However, the Bridgewater tower, hangs over the buildings like a giant upturned N64 or Internet hub system. It is a monstrous imposition, mainly because of the Dubai-like world it suggests. Serving as a constant reminder of the criminally-unequal logic of neoliberal capitalism that potentially still lays in store for this country. I run out of words whilst staring at the reflections on the night-time river; trying to look for clues – a way out.”
7 March 2015
“Haigh. On one side of the road there remains a slightly derelict red brick wall, which must have been something to do with the mine that once stood here. On the other side of the road, two bungalows are being built on waste ground. Private property – the only thing that seems to be built these days.”
“The adrenalin from running, mixed with that fact that I’m now within my most consistently melancholic period I can recall, makes everything from here on this vantage point ridge-way over South and West Yorks somewhat tragically symbolic. This sense of loss, of dysfunction feels so environing that it cannot simply be specific to my own subjectivity. And even if it is, my current inability to get out if this predicament, necessitates my need to write about the external as if it is so. There is a great view of the dark grey figure of Emley Moor Mast from here. It specifically seems symbolic of something missing, as if their aura can only be felt in a melancholic sense.”
“On Wilthorpe Road a middle aged man is clearly struggling with the weight of his rucksack. Regardless of his actual circumstances, thoughts on the forced-acceptance of low pay work, and general country-wide hardship abounds. Low pay enslaves us to work, making us more obedient, and leaving the top down conservative attitude towards work ringing in our ears all day.”
“In the sunlight of a midday that promises springtime, the town [Barnsley] suddenly feels rich with promise. Expansive. It is as perplexing as it is dispiriting how this changes into its opposite as the day drags on and the streets are slowly engulfed under a desperate search for some kind of stimulus/titillation before the new day.”
“As I stare at a poster advertising for male models, for an establishment specialising in styling male facial hair, in a ‘retro/vintage’ fashion. I realise that whatever it is I’m looking for, I won’t find it within this ‘cultural centre’ situated around Division Street. I’m generalising when I begin to wonder of in today’s world there is only space for two subjects: the hipster and the melancholic.”
“Especially in cities like Sheffield, I seem to be in an endless quest for something. But it never materialises. Or it is forever displaced. I walk over the hill, from West Street down to Solly Street.”
“5 years-worth of fading anti-austerity posters cling to boards covering up disused land next to Sheffield bus station.”
“As the train heads into the tunnel at Chapletown, the text on my laptop screen doubles up, reflected into the dark outside. I am reading George Monbiot’s 2014 article on our Age of Loneliness, which seems to me one of the most relevant pieces of writing around at the moment.”
12 March 2015
“From the bus window I can see into a living room in a mid 20th century, endless-suburbia-style, semi-detached house. There is a large abstract painting hung in the space, the kind you’d expect in a ‘homely’ environment that is used to build a future for your family. Expansion rather than contraction.”
“I almost choke on the smell of Ammonia emanating from the floor next to what was once the Royal Hotel [ central Barnsley]. I initially mistake it for the smell of vomit, but nothing so strong and un-shifting could emanate from a single person. I wonder, wildly, whether it is actually an ‘anti-social-behaviour’ deterrent tactic. The town centre has an incredibly high concentration of youths in a perpetually aimless state, which the authorities are always trying to disperse. The ammonia smell is still in my nostrils as I enter into the turquoise-coloured transport interchange; they go awfully together.”
“On the express train to Sheffield. My attempts to hide the drawing I’m working on from the gaze of other passengers fails as a man who I’m sat across from, who looks to be in his 60’s, brings it up in an unending-paragraphs way of speaking, that quickly moves over to his admiration for the “one off” talent of street artist Banksy. My initial thoughts about pretending to exit the train a stop prematurely (at Meadowhall) and then sneaking to the other carriage fills me with guilt, as I’d just be spreading this ruthless (anti)social virus of loneliness, that each generation suffers from, but some just can’t adjust to. If I’d have been reared in a less individualistic atmosphere, I probably now wouldn’t feel physically seized with the urge to try to escape what feels like incarceration (communication). Perhaps it’s also the realisation that in 30 years I could be this man, socially-stranded, and desperate to speak to other human beings in an age that secretly wishes that old faces would just disappear and stopping getting in the way of the ‘bright young things’. In truth he has a decent well-verse life story which isn’t too hard on my work-tired brain.”
“The woman I notice sat talking as I walk past the window of a bar seems to possess an essence of the city [Sheffield] that now seems forever displaced on the actual streets; something about the way she carries off her leather jacket look, conjures a working class confidence, and an inventive popular culture that followed its lead. The city of The Human League an Pulp that now seems no longer present. At least not in the centre.”
‘He’s not setting out to hurt people. He’s got a lot of love in him …He actually, I think, wants to do the right thing. So its more a question of, will power and self discipline and circumstances.’ The sample from the track Etched Headplate by Burial (a song that literally haunted my dreaming in 2014) is so timely as it comes on my Ipod, in how it encapsulates my endless-evening struggle with keeping my frustration with these circumstances at bay. I want to do good. I want to be civil. But there’s a destructive element that sets in many a eve.”
“Semi-Surbuban streets of ex-mining settlements at night – walked them so many times. I feel so faded and old, as if the perfume of youth has finally worn off. Always thought I’d had found my own ground (so to speak) before this inevitable point found me.”
13 March 2015
“The train stops in the usual hinterland just outside Leeds railways station. The majority of the buildings still derelict, sort of waiting in line for the infrastructural developments (especially the southern entrance into Leeds station); for the channels that allow the flow of ‘sparkling financial dust’ to spread virally, and turn it into the late capitalist blend of unending work-consumption, that greets you just north of the river Aire. As I stare at the dirty old railways bridges I realise we have left behind the first hour of the afternoon. From 2pm onwards the looming anticipation of the evening’s depressive lassitude hangs over ever thought/action. The 1pm hour is usually the one I find easiest out of all 24, upon the pivot of the see-saw that each day is.”
“Walking up a pretty tiring steep incline into Burley Park. The hard faces, heavy brows, weight-on-shoulders-look of the poor, which is so so hard to disguise from a world that offers no leg up to those who cannot hide these scars.”
“Overly familiar style of suburbia, and redbrick terraces further down, that possible only remain used due to our characterless, placeless present holding on to character and place from times that have gone. For all that quintessential Leeds-feel, the row upon row of warren-like terraces are certainly not an environment I feel has many positive impacts on your state of mind. A labyrinth-like nature which I’m probably more sensitive to at present due to being drained-tired and stressed from taking the wrong turn from Headingley train station. I mistook the size of these parts of the city, they go and on – a Victorian metropolis.”
“Drained-tired, I decide to stop walking when seeing a young woman at a bus stop makes me trust in frequent buses back to the centre. As I wait, 2 men who have the appearance of one made hard by life, look drunk, punch-drunk and passively-frustrated as they attempt the road. I mistake one of the mens’ decision to return back to the pavement I’m on as him coming up to confront me due to him seeing me looking at him. Despite this not being the case, this gets me feeling aggressively self-defensive. My accent hardens due to this, making the young woman find me undecipherable when I ask her about the next bus.”
“Sitting over a coffee now, I can almost feel the violence, fear, schizophrenia of the city drain out of me and fall from my shoulders, helped by the soft white noise of machinery within the otherwise quiet cafe. My discontent has, for all my post-grad years, largely centred on having an un-fading desire to have the social freedoms of the city at my beckoning, and my repeated failure in being unable to cope in such an environment.”
“Find myself in a brief cocoon of comfort within the ‘retromaniac’, pop-cultural bar, Jam in Wakefield. Refuge feels like the right word – against the anxious and desperate landscape that envelopes you outside if you find yourself looking at it for too long. This artifice of yesteryear is comforting. Champagne Supernova is playing on the jukebox; a now-20 year old song by Oasis, who seem more spectrally present in ‘indie bars’ the further we move from 1995. Yet again, it is one of those moments that you can imagine being on repeat forever.”
“Far too drunk, forget all else…”
15 March 2015
“With the Starbucks drive-thru (next to junction 29 of the M1) opening into the evening on a Sunday, it really does stick out within a UK landscape where such a sight should actually be far normal to us than it is. Despite any ethical reservations towards chain cafe drive-thru’s, the sight of it feeds off the conversation I’m having in the car about the immiserating unacknowledged social constraints with, specifically, evening-time UK pleasure-pursuings. In contrast to Europe, where pubs (which always contain the potential for frustration to be acted out) aren’t the only places dominating the town centres in the evening.”
“Something close to a physical confrontation appears to be brewing outside this Premier Inn-incorporated pub/eatery [in Barnsley] on this dry Sunday evening. Due to its location (within a ‘commuterist’ inn) it is both a non-place and of non-place-people – which makes the territorial behaviour that comes with drunken confrontations all the more banal.”
“The feeling of being stuck. That – despite what I know, think, see – I feel embedded in a rut that surely encompasses more than myself (yet is left to be dealt with individually). It envelopes all conversation to the extent that I become fixed on the surrounding environment, which when I think about it makes sense; due to looking for ways out. I am currently staring out the windows of the Glasshouse chain pub/eatery, over the terraces the cluster around the south of Barnsley centre. From here. they look like a tightly-packed labyrinth, forcing your eyes to look for exits. the conversation follows suit, and sometimes the landscape helps me think about, and explain the wider predicament so clearly – but it never alters the [my] general scheme of things.”
“Large bungalow off Cockerham Lane [Barnsley] that has that far-off feel, in that it looks like the ever-dwindling American Dream realised. Albeit in the UK.”
“From the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of a middle aged man watching TV in the living room of a type of house that was initially deemed unfit to be anything more than emergency housing in the wake of WW11 and the consequential slum clearances. The TV has the sickly-coloured imagery for intro-credits to one of those X-Factor-style programs (The Voice…?). There is something almost porno-like about the colours and graphics of the presentation (one must be influencing the other, but not sure which way around). Regarding the whole picture I saw as I glanced over; the unsatisfactory quality of the dwellings and the unsatisfactory cultural products fuse to leave my feeling slightly disturbed.”
“Nearing central New Lodge/Athersley, just as the ‘peak-90’s’ club track Let Me be Your Fantasy [Baby D] comes onto my Ipod. This merges with the appearance of two lone males walking their dogs in front of me. Both look to be late 30’s-pushing 40’s. Both look disheveled from hardship, making the baseball caps they wear look like class scars rather than fashion items. Their drained look, prompts me to imagine their draining to have occurred somewhat in unison with the age of this club track, and its consequential genuine-feel-good alienness to the genuine-depression of our current period. That in the mid 90’s both these men and this track possessed a vitality that has since been slowly sucked out.”
“Kingsway, Mapplewell – largely a road consisting of post-war sheltered accommodation. I walk past a telephone box that now looks terribly stranded in an age of ubiquitous cell-phone communication. I remember in the mid 1990’s when an elderly man died of an heart attack in this phone box calling 999, due to being taunted by youths. I was half-shocked as a young teenager at the apparent joy in the malevolence shown to vulnerable adults in this particular conglomerate of villages. I have often wondered whether it was borne out of inescapable boredom, perhaps more acutely felt around this area due to nearly every space being swallowed up by property developers.”
“The bright light from a bus shelter I have probably frequented more than any other, which is probably personally a symbolic spot for all the failings, hopes. existential boredom and frustrations of my teenage-to-adult existence. Yet, in a couple of weeks I will likely rarely use it ever again.”