This coming May Radiohead’s 3rd studio album Ok Computer turns 20.
I’ll begin bluntly: its either the greatest record to come into my life, or the most important. If a certain cluster of Pink Floyd albums are normally seen within a similar light, aided by their shared university-town beginnings, then it is with OK Computer’s connection to our 21st century world that the hairs on the back of my neck are raised that little bit higher. I guess this is the loose reason I’m writing about OK Computer and not Oasis’s Be Here Now, for example – which is also 20.
But first of all, back to the future of 1997. The last future…
My first time with OK Computer was on a holiday journey by car taken in a wet July in 1997. Well, I say album; it was one of my sister’s travel tapes, a cassette which featured a mixture of OK Computer and The Prodigy’s The Fat of The Land, released a month after OK Computer. I was 13 at the time. Radiohead’s Karma Police and Lucky, and The Prodigy’s Climatize were truly new things to my ears.
This holiday journey, listening to this tape, and travelling by motorway past the Birmingham sprawl, was my final experience of what I would call a future moment. This was the final of a series of childhood moments where I envisaged a future substantially different from the present tense I was in.
The 21st century and ‘the slow cancellation of the future’
Somewhere between July 1997 and January 2000 that future disappeared into an inability to imagine anything but an eversame set of interchangeable circumstances, initially encapsulated by a pre-millennial malaise that seemed most evident in the bland music that saw out the 1990s, reflective of that wide open vulnerability to a reality waiting to arise in the dust of the Twin Towers.
Both an incorporation of the decade’s electronica revolution in their own right, The Fat of the Land and OK Computer were being seen as the major albums of the year by the culture media. In hindsight, ‘major’ is not the word: they were the last ‘landmark’ albums of popular music – or so everybody with who I speculate on this to seems to agree. There’s certainly been great music since, but could you name a truly landmark album post 1997? We are still reaping the outcome of the computer world, but one effect is the demise of cultural shifts.
The album as an artform belongs to the 20th century (walking around the remaining record shops will tell you this). The problem is the networked technology we now have to share and download music doesn’t seem an adequate progression from the CD, when much of the cultural product we share, even if only in musical style, seems to belong to previous century.
The recently late writer Mark Fisher never spoke about Radiohead in his brilliant essays on pop music that simultaneously diagnosed the wider predicament of life under what he called ‘Capitalist Realism’. However, the line “the slow cancellation of the the future” attributed to both him and theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi, could well explain how despite the process of the ‘waning of historicity’ being well under way by 1997, there was still residual space for the imagining of a world significantly different from the present tense. Whilst we anticipated the millennium with an almost evangelical fervour in a world glad to see the back of the 20th, it has felt that the 21st century, to paraphrase Fisher, never arrived.
OK Computer, even whilst relying on a deeply mid-twentieth century 4/5 piece guitar band formation, seems to be about life in the time after it was made; a world gripped by the logic of “capitalist realism” (a diagnosis by Mark Fisher), which, mediated through a computer world, envelopes us in a ‘liquid anxiety’ (referring to another the recently-late thinker, Zygmunt Bauman), and as a highly atomisating society that doesn’t even believe in itself, persists under an umbrella title of ‘The Control Society’ (Guilles Deleuze).
In (Cyber)space nobody can hear you scream
Deleuze’s 1992 Postscript on Societies of Control describes a structure of “ultrarapid modes of free-floating control” replacing the older social structures of Discipline and Punishment in the late 20th century. Defined by Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment societies are territorial and entail “the organisation of vast spaces of enclosure” such as factories, schools, hospitals and prisons. Control societies are the evolution of a later stage of capitalism, enabled by network technology, where the social structures that formed around the old spaces of enclosure disintegrate into the ‘gaseous’ quality of the corporation, where community never existed, and “the brashest rivalry [is] presented as an healthy form of emulation…and runs through each, dividing each within”.
Although the older structure never died but became a substructure to deal those who’s ‘lumpen’ existence denies them access into the networked society, I’d argue that Pink Floyd’s iconic The Wall is the quintessential work of art on a Discipline and Punishment society, whilst Radiohead’s OK Computer is about control. I’d define OK Computer as the struggles of the human animal who’s behavioral patterns are encased in the binary systems of computers – something we can all relate to in 2017.
This is why I want to speak of OK Computer for its emotional reach, and how although it is wrongly defined as being ‘depressing’, is actually is a work of art that encourages us to fight off a pervading sense of hopelessness. And I think this message is so important today.
1999, and the pre-millennial malaise
I had to wait until spring 1999 to come back into contact with Ok Computer, when I bought the album from a retail chain now forgotten in time. I mention above about a pre-millennial malaise: it’s arguable that the buzz of the early to mid 1990’s was built on false promises of a liberal capitalist utopia (which is impossible, if not totalitarian in hindsight), but, comewhatmay it had blatantly been exhausted by the final year of the decade, wearily waiting for something else. It was the first year I can look back and honestly say I was experiencing anxiety and depression. Where that began and a wider cultural mood ends is arguable, but it is true that I bought Ok Computer at roughly the same time.
I was blown away by the album, but it also severely spooked me. It was too close to the bone for somebody young/naive enough to imagine that the future wouldn’t roll out smoothly like an album of Stone Roses riffs. I wasn’t prepared or equipped for what it had to say – I even remember taking the line “spend five minutes in the mirror each morning saying to yourself ‘each day in every way I am getting better and better'” from artist Stanley Donwood’s album sleeve artwork on face value as self-help to cull the first sprouting of anxiety, rather than realising its dark irony about life in a control society.
“I’m amazed that I survived, an Airbag saved my life”
We are awoken to the nightmare with Airbag. “I am born again” sings Thom Yorke as machine saves protagonist from machine – saved by an Airbag as he crashes his “fine East German car”. The words could easily be taken from an headline in a local newspaper; but whilst these words are so everyday, they exist within a science fiction soundscape that evokes a world where computers take over the means of control whilst the corporate zombies just sit back in ‘paradise’, only to be awoken by machine error.
“I am born again”
This existential ‘rebirth’ sounds very much like the heaps of ‘self-help’ language that provided the background noise that naturalised the ‘new’ capitalism in the 1990’s, where history ‘was over’, and all we could improve was our own standing in the world (a world which was, after all, subjective, and defined by what frame of mind we ‘chose’). Yet in a sea of sunshine music, perhaps Ok Computer was one of few popular records that sounded the warning bell in paradise at the end of history. And thus this ‘rebirth’ is possibly double edged: is Thom Yorke singing about finding oneself within this ‘paradise’ of the new capitalism, or has he just stared into its void, and is willing for a rebirth of the human spirit in resistance to its sirens of consumerism and career improvement, that lure us into a perpetually decentred self-hood – a life as a node in a network until the end of time?
This soundscape of distress within a seemingly mundane paradise should leave us rethinking where the future visions of science fiction went – are we within them? Ok Computer could never have imagined the Pandora’s Box effect that internet dependency has brought into everyday experience, but as we lead onto the epic track Paranoid Android, the feel of the album seems sufficiently contemporary to today’s disturbed running of human emotion through the ‘man machine matrix’ (a term used by Will Self).
“The emptiness of feelings, Dissapointed people, clinging onto bottles”
Unofficially the 21st century began not on January 1st 2000, but in September 11 2001. The fall out, for me at least, seemed to bring a regained occupation with the music of Radiohead. By this time they has released 2 more albums: Kid A and Amnesiac. The albums continued the conceptual experimentation with electronica as computer technology slowly became more present in our lives. They were of an even darker nature, yet contained a mood of defiance to a new century that was beginning shape itself into Orwellian ghosts from the past that had plugged themselves into a Brave New World evangelically promised by the 1990s. But perhaps until their 2007 In Rainbows, there was never a hint of acceptance about the ‘way of the world’.
I think this is important because Radiohead are all too often labelled as ‘depressing’. The two songs I want to predominantly focus on to finish this piece are songs that are joyous moments of defiance against despair.
“One day I am gonner grow wings, a chemical reaction, hysterical and useless.”
OK Computer plays out like an undulating journey of emotional breakdown and spirit resistance within a computer generated graph. There are a series of emotional powersurges that threaten to bring down the computer system. The first supermassive climax of emotional willing against the machine is Let Down. Thom Yorke’s words remind us not to get sentimental and be led astray into eternal disappointment by false promises of freedom and salvation. The lyrics seem to encourage deep cynicism, of the likes many of us cling onto like “bottles” after the initial horror of finding ourselves staring into the abyss. Yet why deliver such a message? As in Airbag, the words seem in conflict with the emotions trying to break through; like a forerunner for the struggles for help many of us see, or even act out, within our networked lives, as we become subsumed by the nihilising spirit of the age, feeling locked in painful misunderstandings in the confines of the binary code.
This is why this song is one of the few that can bring water into my normally bone dry eyes; its spirit resistance momentarily threatens to break the code, and to reach out into the lonely cyberspace of node-trapped-souls, creating (for me) one the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. And it is here where we sense the refusal of giving in to the ‘depressed spirit of the times’.
Mark Fisher wrote a collection of essays (featured in his 2014 Zero Book ‘Ghosts of My Life’) on one very important band from the late 1970’s in an attempt to look at the pervading nihilism of our times. Joy Division, or specifically the singer (or unfortunate and incidental protagonist) Ian Curtis, was trapped in a world of banal suffering. Fisher wrote “If Joy Division matter now more than ever, it’s because they capture the depressed spirit of our times. Listening to JD now, you have the inescapable impression that the group were catatonically channelling our present, their future.”
Joy Division remain the perfect painkiller for the present. Few works of pop music engage with the cloud of the nuclear winter of the soul that harangues the anxious contemporary human like the dead souls in Joy Division’s music still do. Ok Computer arguably never truly reaches the wastelands of Joy Division’s second and final studio album Closer. However, it is more structured on the pivot of existential struggle in a world that can often give one the feeling of drowning, rather than in depths of the oceans themselves.
Let Down is brought down slowly by the rainy singalong of Karma Police – arguably the album’s most radio-friendly. The next ‘build up’ begins with the chilling humanness that slowly oozes out of the computer-generated voice of Fitter Happier, which seems to crack under the strain of endorsing a perfectly balanced lifestyle. In the UK in 1997 such a health-freak, body-perfect, corporate lifestyle still seemed wholly Californian. But in 2017 it is arguable that many here in the UK find our voices being fed into the health-freak-machine as if against our will.
But the stage for the next build up is set by a song I’ve often heard described as the weakest on the album.
Electioneeting tells of the deep cynicism in political campaigns in a ‘post-history’ world where all major decisions have already been made – where politics feels more like a popularity contest. Often referred to as the soft underbelly of OK Computer, I see it as actually laying the foundations for what the human animal ‘born again’ into a ‘post-history’ control society is made to endure. Electioneering is the true point of nihilism in Ok Computer. Surely nothing evokes a dead horizon as much its last few bars, which are in anticipation of the second major powersurge: Climbing up The Walls.
Climbing up the walls is the end point of a seismic nervous breakdown, that conjures visuals of ripping the wires from out of ones flesh in some frenzied attempt at escape. It enacts upon us the catharsis of a moment many of us not only anticipate in some forever-delayed moment but possibly secretly long for.
“I’ll take a quiet life, a handshake with carbon monoxide”
If the album was to end with No Surprises – the deep point of depressive acceptance on OK Computer [brilliantly depicted in the music video that uses analogue technology to depict Thom Yorke slowly drowning in a tank] – then the album could be classed a pessimistic work of art. But, as in the video where Thom Yorke finally emerges for air, OK Computer shows itself to be too intelligent to be led astray by the false comforts of nihilism. The longing for that nervous breakdown, and the ‘quiet life’ with ‘no surprises’ that Climbing up Walls becomes a dark fantasy for, turns out to be an impossible dream.
“This is my final fight, my final bellyache with…”
“it’s gonner be a glorious day. I feel my luck could change”
Lucky – one of the most uplifting tracks ever…
After No Surprises you could think that there was no more horizons. The protagonist has been defeated, and will proceed to his physical death a numb depressive. Yet it doesn’t feel quite over…
An early version of Lucky was released on the 1995 charity compilation record ‘Help’, instigated as a way of raising funds for children caught up in the then-ongoing war in Bosnia. Now, it would be crude to make a direct comparison between depressive humans in a highly advanced capitalist economy and the horrors that went on in that war, yet when Yorke sings about being “pulled out of the plane crash, coz I’m your super hero” it’s connotations couldn’t be closer to Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘answer to the last humans’ caught in the abyss of meaning and morality.
Devon Lougheed relates Radiohead’s music directly to the philosopher most commonly understood (and misunderstood) in relation to the scourge of nihilism in industrial, and specifically post-industrial societies. His essay ‘Nietzsche, Nihilism and “Hail to the Thief”‘ features in ‘Radiohead and Philosophy’ (2009). Here he uses the words of a thinker most unfortunately caught up in the excuses for Nazi and extreme Social Darwinist ideologies in a way that neatly sits with the conditions that prompted Nietzsche to search for such answers in the early industrial times in which he wrote.
“The protagonist of “Lucky” foreshadows Nietzsche’s answer to the Last Humans… The ubermensch or ‘Over human’ stands on the edge of conventional morality, ready to pull the Last Humans out of the aircraft and refashion them into free beings with a new moral code”
Like Nietzsche’s answer, Lucky is about overcoming the despair that seeps in through the social conditions of this super-industrialised age. It easy to see how history has made such ideas dangerous, used in Nazi and Randian philosophies etc, but his ‘answer’ is only to find a new moral code, and that remains a crucial task as the codes that bound our civilisation get chewn into smaller and smaller bits in the mouth of the money machine.
I class Lucky as one of the all-time most important songs for my punch drunk idealism. For a soul weighed down by nightfall’s foul smell of depression-remedy-seeking, the morning bell of Lucky is not the beginnings of another dead day in the rat race but a potential ‘glorious day’ of new horizons, no matter how I succumb to the day in hand.
In 1992 Deleuze told us not to hope nor fear, “But only to look for new weapons”. However, the latent sentiment in the writings of Marxists (in the loosest use of the term Marxist) in the face of what then seemed like a terminal defeat to capitalism, was hopelessness – in fact many succumbed to the nihilist endgame. OK Computer is this ‘undulating journey of emotional breakdown and spirit resistance’ before it is anything else, but within the scream of the human trapped within the machine is an unwillingness to give up and allow oneself to be nihilized. Even in the computer-generated voice of Fitter Happier is an emotional rejection of the death of the human in a world ruled by computers, corporatism, and consumerism. To will against this is a small, but nonetheless real, resistance to the ‘ways of the world’. Only in Radiohead’s more recent albums do you get a sense that there’s ‘nothing you can do’.
Radiohead were perhaps the very end of the line of a succession of Postwar pop groups who were given time to experiment and develop. Around the time of the unofficial start of the 21st century (9/11) a band from apt-origin came to the fore with their debut Album Is This It? But The Strokes’ debut was almost their end point. They began as the final product, and like many bands that followed, simply fed back into the machine as a prepackaged musical style. I mean, this is why I liked the album so much at the time; the hits were already there, there was no need (or maybe even patience, from consumer and producer alike) to go through the trials and errors of finding something new. OK Computer, as one a few final landmark albums, was probably part of the end point of such a notion of musical development.
Perhaps this strand of lineage to the Postwar age is why the band’s critical response to our late capitalist world shouldn’t be dismissed from a classist perspective. Ok Computer is absent of the atrocious inequalities and injustices that have proven to accompany the reality of the nightmare world it depicts, but can we reasonably demand a pop group from a leafy upbringing in a university town to deal with class injuries? Is it not more reasonable to argue that in the Dystopian imaginaries of Radiohead rests the Utopian impulses of much post war art? Perhaps there was a benevolent pedagogy laced into the dreamings of Postwar bands, even as they actively rejected all pedagogy?
There’s a huge difference between a band such as Radiohead and much of the music made by the middle class in the past 30 years, even whilst Radiohead’s reaches into this period. Many bands since this point have existed in an environmental vacuum, where politics is seen as merely another career choice – thus the plight of the world has become irrelevant to there music.
The emphasis on environmental is perhaps more important than we think – or it at least deserves much appreciation: a university town band like Radiohead could’ve never recorded an album the likes of Joy Division’s brilliant Unknown Pleasures; but likewise, Ok Computer could never have been conceived within the confines of ‘Cottonopolis’.
But right now it is irrelevant whether this connection of sound to surface has died off in the 21st century: I finish this blog in arms of the record that makes me believe in the good in the ‘human animal’.
“…Show me the world as I love to see it”
Life under late capitalism is essentially one of managing the nihilizing comedowns that guide you towards dead-end pleasure seeking as the sun goes down. That’s if you can’t/ won’t/don’t know how to (delete as applicable) buy into a lifestyle bubble, and have no buffer from the pain of the vacuum that it allows the wealth of life to rive and tear in agony within.
The working day is now so seamlessly wrapped up with leisure time, that pockets of contemplation about what lies beyond the here and now are often nowhere to be seen.
But they do exist.
I have a selection of songs that I’ve been listening to for over a decade now, the raise my Utopianist impulses out of the mud, and prop them up in defiance. They are songs that speak about the world, the people, a lost communist ideal. At least, they do for me.
“You think too much” and “you are a very negative person” are the two things that have been said to me on occasion over my adult life that make me feel as alone, and that my doings even no purpose, as if somebody had literally just said to me “nobody gets you, you’re on your own with this, and it’s shit all the same”. And they would never say the latter, as these two quips are well-meaning. What they fail to miss isn’t that intense overthinking isn’t only compulsive, that I’m also not very good at it.
I have often felt lumbered with concerns that are well above my means of digesting and then acting on in a decent way. I have always struggled to read. I had a spell of furious burn-out reading in my 20’s which equipped me with the reasonable writing ability that I ought to have picked up in HE prior to that. But, largely thanks to increased Internet dependency, I’ve almost stopped reading intelligently altogether.
This is beginning to become apparent to my friends, who have come to expect an opinion on all current affairs from me. What can I say, I’m a charlatan? Sometimes I would genuinely rather talk “who’s better looking than who”, than the dead end of capitalist realism, that transfers this Incapacity into Incapacitated, as a turn to the pub to soften the noise as the night draws in.
Overthinking isn’t a pursuit, it’s a burden around the wrong man’s neck. I think this is why I wanted to tie up a few loose ends from my music making days, when the burden felt have slackened off slightly (the above song is the last I wrote before I fucked it off in 2008).
I’d love to go back to this,one day, rather than have these things wrapped around my neck. Good political journalists, thinkers, activist artists etc aren’t beaten down by this shit because they’re equipped. They are strong because they can switch off and focus on pastimes of their choice, as they have been assigned to a task they’re equipped for. I come across as negative because I’ve ended up forgetting what I actually enjoy in life, tied to things I’m not built for dealing with.
This is a rarity when it comes to my way of making work, but T-shirts are up for grabs featuring a piece of work Ive made for this Friday’s (27th November) gig at The Underground, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, as part of Wear Your Band T-shirt to Work Day.
Gig info below…
“This Friday live @ The Underground we have The Kitson Trio, a rock & blues band who recently reformed after a six year hiatus. Fronted by popular local singer-songwriter Richard Kitson, the trio will play their last live date of 2015 at The Underground with support from The Rolling Down Hills &New Road Kings, SPLND BSTRDS an acoustic duo that usually make up half of The Black Vines – Indiemand Barnsley
Making art about bands isn’t something I have done since college, so I thought it was due time to take this challenge in a town where music has a bigger place in peoples’ hearts than visual arts. I tried to make a work that looked at how music has been a back bone to my art making life, whilst also looking at music in relation to the experiences of contemporary life that my art deals with. Hence the usage of The Stones’ song title Gimme Shelter (although I am not a huge Stones fan) and the Smiths’ song title Rubber Ring (i.e “The songs that saved your life”). The drawing features a patchwork of both recognisable albums, and albums that have meant a lot to me.
“WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?”
I’m no Party person, no loyal group member; as much as wish I could be sometimes, I am a lone rider, and probably always will be. But even if I wasn’t working for a low wage, fortunately aided by my family, I’d still see that I have an investment in a common cause. And if I see something that looks like it could work to give the common cause a much needed helping hand, I’ll support it. Thus I’ve shown support for Jeremy Corbyn, and will continually show support for Labour if they do genuinely now stick to a commitment to social change. I’m not averse to any methods for socio-political change in aim of a greater good, but right now in the UK I think this is something all shades of the left should back (even if they dispute the term ‘left’).
That is, as long as it doesn’t get trampled on, and replaced by Blairites….
Primal Scream’s Exterminator – released 2000
Coming to voting age under New Labour was powerfully disillusioning; flashbacks of taxi rank fights, accidental conversation-killers (“is that not a topic we discuss?!”), the emergence of rolling news, Bush and Blair, Osama Bin Laden; their faces always present in the background.
[Please excuse my local dialect] “…Nowt tha can do, pal. May as well just get pissed-up” was probably the rallying call of the disenfranchised decade, and was the response you’d most likely get when talking politics.
But for me the album that best epitomises becoming an adult during the years of Blair was Primal Scream’s Exterminator; the unintended-flipside reality of their ‘end of history’, peace ‘n’ love, rave-age, work of art, Screamadelica, released ten years prior. Exterminator embodied the undoing of all the fresh-eyed, naively optimistic horizons at the dawn of the 90’s, and the end of the Eastern Block. The depressive-pleasure-seeking residue left of it for the disenfranchised masses, whilst the political elite-corporate alliance just did what the hell it wanted.
Now I would no way insinuate that what came after Blair/Brown was any better!! But the very idea of returning to that place, after all we’ve been through, makes me feel genuinely nauseous.
“They keep calling me”
Amidst the pretty stark turbulence I experienced as 2015 began I became obsessed with trying to write something about Joy Division’s eternal-presence in my life. But I never got anywhere, convincing myself it needed to be a project of a sizable, I-know-everything-about-Joy-Division, quality due to the task of writing about one of those bands guarded with pitchforked-opinions by musos. But it felt crucial for me to write something both for myself, and for the reason brilliantly articulated in Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life: “If Joy Division matter now more than ever, it’s because they capture the depressed spirit of our times. Listen to Joy Division now and you have the inescapable impression that the group were catatonically channeling our present, their future. From the start their work was overshadowed by a deep foreboding , a sense of a future foreclosed, all certainties dissolved , only growing gloom ahead.” (Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life, 2014).
Ben Hewitt’s article Joy Division: 10 of The Best, in the guardian this week, gave me an motivational template: I’d use a selection their songs to expand on all this stuff about the band that I have been driven to tell people in pubs for the past 3 years. But I don’t have any desire to write about a fave song list per se: the album tracks I reference gain a great deal of their significance when listened to within the context of the entire album (this should seem obvious, but in the Ipod age, the ‘shuffle’ features heavily in the way we listen to music). I also wanted to use individual tracks to explain how the din of their resonance seems to get louder and louder the further we (in UK terms) descend further into the Thatcherite experiment that may finally be coming to end… “this dream it takes too long”. And although I found only managed to write about 7 songs, they were more than sufficient. Thus I have proceeded in writing the blog I’ve been wishing to write all these years.
In the past few years it seems overwhelmingly the case that we are looking back to a certain time for answers to a present day inertia. Yet we don’t seem to realise that this is what we’re doing, and so just continue doing it blindly. Cultural artifacts from the 70’s into the early eighties seem to be constantly at hand for reference on all media platforms. For example, Ben Hewitt’s article: although I think it’s brilliantly written in its own right (far more imaginative use of language than I could ever achieve), and it creatively touches upon material that relates to their ‘channeling of the present’, it also seems oblivious to it. When he writes of Dead Souls that “…Curtis sounds like he’s being pulled by ghostly apparitions, trapped in a place “where figures from the past stand tall / And mocking voices ring the halls”…” isn’t the most ghostly aspect of all in how this perfectly describes our relationship to Joy Division in the 21st century? Such articles and documentaries don’t seem to understand the motive behind their accumulative coming-into-being 35 years after Ian Curtis killed himself. Of the 7 Joy Division songs I have picked, I have tried, when possible to introduce them in relation to personal experiences, 1. Disorder
“Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man?”
It must have been 2010; in that murky moment between something bad (New Labour) and something worse (all-out-Tory Class War-disguised as ‘the coalition’). Up until now Joy Division had been off my succession of cheap mp3 players for a few years – having told myself that the obsession I had with them in my early 20’s, some five years back into the thick of Blair’s Britain, had been a sign of immaturity, and that they’re subsequent increasing popularity was no more than a Topshop accessory. As the fall of 2010 arrived with the threat of immobilising snow storms entrenching a deeper existential inertia, it all reversed, and I found myself hurtling back towards some kind of early 20’s point.
We were drinking at a friend’s flat in the back-end of Barnsley- one of those new-build apartment complexes, squeezed in amidst unhappy-looking Victorian terraces still stained by the soot of a vanquished industry. A few cans downed and then it was time to head into town, myself regrettably still hooked the mirages of fulfilled hopes and dreams that coated the shell of the so-called Blair-year Party-times. But this was now descending into its zombie stage.
We came to an agreement that we needed a ‘going out song’, and we chose Disorder. The throbbing beat of the bass drum kicked in, and the trance-like state took over for the first time in years. This wasn’t a flashback, as I was back there again. The way my slightly inebriated friends were moving around the room, getting seduced into the whirlpool-like nature of Disorder when played at volume, made me realise that this wasn’t some “Lets all dance to Joy Division” indie-cool trend: this was real. My early twenties-daily dependency on Unknown Pleasures didn’t seem so weird any more. My friends may or may not have been depressed, but they existed, like me, in secretly-depressed times. At that point, despite differences in opinion of the severity the global and social issues outside the window, Joy Division felt like understanding of life that we all shared.
The insightful left-wing group Plan C convincingly argue, in their essay We are all Very Anxious that anxiety is the dominant ‘public secret’ of this current stage of capitalism (which doesn’t mean to say that other negative emotions have disappeared, just that this is the definitive one of our age). By ‘public secret‘ it is meant that it is “…something that everyone knows, but nobody admits, or talks about. …[W]hen discussed at all, they are understood as individual psychological problems, often blamed on faulty thought patterns or poor adaptation”.
I would add that there are two public secrets; the anxiety we endure being the first, and the second being that we exist in ‘depressed times’, and many of us spend much of our lives rocking painfully back and forth from anxiety to depression. But what is incredibly important here is that Joy Division share the public secret with us, ‘catatonically channeling our present’ as Mark Fisher says. What makes Disorder so [Unknown]pleasurable is that it shares that publicly hidden anxiety with us. It speaks about something we normally have to hide. The guitar riff between verses is so riddled with panic it is intoxicating, it recognises the pain that is otherwise barred an outlet.
From 2010 onwards I remembered what this music did for me. How it’s darkness was often a life-saver. Perhaps a necessity as I stared down the barrel of a nastier, more Tory reality. As the drums continue to smash out in a death-drive whilst the rest of song exhausts itself into finitude, Disorder becomes an introduction to a record that makes no emotional compromises; doesn’t pretend things are OK; makes no effort to pretend it sees a bright side to life. And this is why from this point onwards it resumed it’s place as a make-shift prescription tablet ‘day in day out’, from 2010 onwards.
“I’ve lost the will to want more, but I remember when were young”
The mid years of New Labour were a weird time for those of us in our late teens and early twenties. So many people I thought were sorted were actually in a real mess, trapped between small-town college courses they had no interest in and bleak job prospects, propped up by bi-weekly drug or drink intake. I never put 2 and 2 together at the time. One friend from back then spoke of his recent depressive spell: “It’s like somebody flicks a switch, and I’m gone for days on end.” The minute-long opening to the track Insight has something of the uncanny about it. The soundscape of lift-shafts moving and doors locking is so close to epitomising the nausea-like continual-return of depression it’s almost an unreal sensation as the shivers go down your back and you think “fuck me, that’s exactly how it is!”.
I was pleased Ben Hewitt included it in his list of songs, although it’s with tracks like Insight that I come to realise that listing album songs merely for their individual qualities is somewhat lacking. Insight’s intro is the seminal moment in Unknown Pleasures. Even after the self-destruction of Disorder, and building terror in The Day of Lords, there is still potentially room for another world, another way. But Unknown Pleasures is the world of the depressive; once that door locks the depression sufferer knows all-too-wll what world we’re in; he/she knows that feeling of that ‘locked door’, once you’re inside “gone for days on end”. Insight plays the pivotal role in signifying that this is no ordinary record; you’re entering a specific world, at which point sufferers of repetitive bouts of depression have a moment of strength due to being able to invite others into it. It has much the same relationship as Heart and Soul does on their second album ‘Closer’ – the position of the sorcerer’s hand, dictating the overall direction of the record. Their producer Martin Hannett was clearly quite unique, his ability to conjure the soundscape around Joy Division’s tracks is so fitting the only word you could use in hindsight of what Joy Division became is ‘perfection’. It now almost seems like he was electronically connected to Ian Curtis’s emotional state, forcing him to be the cypher for our present day cyberspacially-fucked subjectivities.
Insight makes sense of what has been and what is to come from the viewpoint of clinical depression. But if we are to conclude that we live in a secretly-depressed time, then that sense seems far more wide-spread than merely being down to personal shortcomings. Insight really does channel something. The world they and their post-punk contemporaries saw/foresaw, one where social democracy was crumbling under a return of more powerful and relentless capitalism, where industry no longer needed them, no longer of value to society, well all that never went away. All that happened was that it was buried under the incessant command to be positive and proactive in the market fundamentalist economy that requires us to be market individuals, where opting out of the game is all but impossible without dying as it seeps into all potential waking (sleeping) moments due to computer technologies. This sense of having “no future” actually intensified, but was barred an expressive outlet amidst an intensifying downpour of aspirational dogma. I think this is why these days we so often find ourselves praising certain artists from the Post-Punk-New Wave crossover of the late 70’s to early 80’s, because that period seemed to be a ‘breathing space’ for raw emotional response to the early days of the Thatcherite transformation, before it became so entrenched that raw expression became so much harder to articulate; a ‘reflexive impotence’ (Fisher) that not only affects our ability for political engagement but also our emotional expression – “smile or die”.
I have previously written about this uncanny-like-relationship music from this period has with our contemporary situation. It’s like what happened from then onwards was some sort of icing over, and that we now stare at these voices as if they have been frozen in time, floating underneath the ice. I wrote previously of Kate Bush and Joy Division in particular. I think of the music video to Kate Bush’s Breathing (based on nuclear war – another issue that, although as relevant today, seems frozen into a 70’s/80’s time-pocket), and the images of her trapped behind the see-through skin of the bubble she is encased in seems to pretty-much visualise what I mean here. Perhaps the drive towards retrospection in this current moment is due to a slow-awaking to the horrifying future-less reality we actually exist in, finding ourselves with no choice but to push away all the hyperbole that disguised this truth to us from its onset there-on-after? 3. Novelty
“You’re on your own now, don’t you think that is a shame, but you’re the only one responsible to take the blame…so what you gonner do when the novelty is gone, ?”
A sense of loss. Novelty was actually one of the first Joy Division songs I ever listened to. Aged 18 (2002), it was a cassette featuring a Joy Division compilation on the one side, and Television’s Marquee Moon on the other. It signaled the end of teenage life. I was experiencing my first ‘They Live’ moment (where he puts on the sunglasses and sees the Real), when the comforts and sugary surface of the social construction fell away, leaving me shit-scared of a world my nervous system has no way of coming to terms with. It resurfaced into 2012 when my messy inability to adjust to a Masters course in 21st century London made me face the truth that I my youth had now come to an end, with no progression to another stage of life on the horizon.
I reference these two points because I think it is arguably most tragic of their songs, because it seems to document the point of loss – that point where a little something of you dies inside, from which ‘New Life’ proves impossible for many. Mark Fisher in his 2005 Kpunk blog The Nihil Rebound (published in Ghosts of My Life, and probably the strongest piece on Joy Division I know of) writes that “what separated Joy Division from any of their predecessors” was that their “bleakness was without any specific cause… …crossed the line from the blue of sadness into the black of depression, passing into the ‘desert and wastelands’ where nothing brings either joy or sorrow…Curtis sang ‘I’ve lost the will to want more’ on ‘Insight’ but there was no sense that there had been any such will in the first place”.
Yet I don’t think Novelty does this: it is even more tragic in that it evokes the act of loss. For me Novelty shares the same emotional space as The Smiths’ This Night Has Opened My Eyes (“and I will never sleep again”), the result of which Morissey sang he neither “happy or sad”, just numb. The songs evokes a point of departure. The Smiths, hailing from the same city, would (in my opinion) not make a song that came as close to the point of bleakness as this, whilst for Joy Division it signals the point of departure to “a bleakness without any cause”. 4. Digital
“Feel it closing in. Day in Day out”
As 2005 got messier and messier, I briefly entered a wider social group including of a group of lads from the incredibly-deprived former pit villages of the Dearne Valley (Thurnscoe to be exact), and a group from former mining communities straggling between Wakefield, Barnsley and Hemsworth. All of the places somewhat left abandoned after the pit closures, and which saw our area of South/West Yorks (Darton) as posh – a consequence of us getting the M1, and it becoming a split community of tepidly-affluent commuter houses at one side and council houses built for coal miners at the other.
Sections of this wider group would end up fighting and momentarily-despising each other (mainly over women), and each constituting a more-or-less ‘with it’ group leader and many emotional or physical wrecks. The Dearne Valley lot had no time for Joy Division’s near-death finale Closer, but were obsessed with Unknown Pleasures (and the album tracks most akin the Unknown Pleasures sound), even wearing the album-sleeve t-shirt. I would’ve thought it a fashion accessory back then, until I realised how much of a ‘fucked up’ generation I belonged to, and why such music may just appeal to these people.
“Let’s All Dance to Joy Division” was a track by a then in-vogue indie-cool outfit The Wombats (to which you WON’T find a link on here). It seemed to treat their surging popularity as something with a comical tint to it, as if we were all easy-come easy-go hipsters unaffected by REAL shit. But I saw no joke in what these tracks meant to me, at a very turbulent point, and even 25 years after they ceased to be. Before the death of small town student nights, the customary dingy indie night club would play non-album-track Digital for us every Wednesday, demanded as necessity and eventually granted.
If it weren’t so minimal the message would be lost. The song is like a drill piece, which, like the outro solo to Shadowplay, is violently unwilling to divert from it’s acceleration towards a dead end. It is 3 minutes of medicinal joy, an energy-release from the general continuity of mild-distress. “I feel it closing in”. If one sensation is necessarily put to the back of the minds of those who hit their twenties in the post 9/11/post Iraq invasion world of increasing cyberspace-interpenetration, it is one of being on borrowed time; where the future has imploded and is hurtling back towards us. ‘Stay young – what else is there anyway?’. With our hands perpetually hovering over our panic buttons, and our feet walking a tightrope above depressive dysfunction, Joy Division’s chaotic hell begins to arrange the look of the world in a way we can deal with. A way we could deal with, back then, when I for one most certainly relied on their music for survival at the most unstable of points. And yes, we did dance to Joy Division. 5. Decades
“Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders”
Decades, the final song on their second (and last album) begins with a soundscape the feels like entering some sort of bone-yard-remnant of unquantifiable suffering- but a suffering being undertaken with total indifference. Again, Hannet’s soundscaping seems, in hindsight, so close to a putting the seal of inevitability over Curtis’s then-imminent suicide, that you often wonder if he truly was a man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time: a tortured pop artist, radical to the cause, caught in the crusher of one huge transformation paving the way for the a much worse world: one lacking a future. The chilling intro conjures to mind a scenario similar to the raising of the skeletal dead from a parched graveyard on one of the most unnerving of Ray Harryhausen‘s stop-frame-motion scenes in the 1962 film production of Jason and the Argonauts.
Decades doesn’t just seem to drag behind it the weight on the shoulders of the punk/post-punk generation, it seems to drag the ghosts of all previous proletarian generations, embodying the destruction of all that the working classes had worked for/fought for. Not only do Curtis’s vocals sound like the voices of the dead accidentally picked up on a tape recorder, but it is as if our forefathers are raised, bent and buckled by two centuries of exploitation, to see the future they believed they were building for their grandchildren crumbling into wasteland.
“I guessed they died some time ago” (Interzone, Unknown Pleasures)
Joy Division were beyond a cause, and weren’t political, even when Curtis sang of the worst excesses of unaccountable power. But without meaning to or not, they remain a cypher for the collapse of a humanist future, the swansong of a post-punk movement that woke up to the depressive reality of the no-such-thing-as society-nihilism that was Punk’s rallying call; the ‘spirit of ’45’ had been buried and a new nastier phase was on the cards. Curtis’s own political leanings and obsessions were more collateral damage than anything, conveying a sense of despondency with the course being taken by humanity, who seemed too far gone to be able to threat any longer over rights and wrongs. As I said before, this despondency articulated by post-punk never went away, but has been largely denied a contemporary articulation due to appropriation of any idea of individual expression into ‘market individualism’. Consequently their legacy grows larger and larger. Collateral damage indeed.
Ten years later The La’s, a Liverpudlian band, fronted by Lee Mavers, who was hell-bent in trying to make the best pop album in years, closed their only album with two tracks that seem to be living through Post-Punk’s anticipated breakdown in a city smashed by the Tories, Failure and Looking Glass. After the defeat of working class solidarity by Thatcherism in the 80’s, The La’s’ self-titled album now seems to make more sense in 2015 than it’s more lauded ‘Madchester’ contemporaries whose energies were far more easily subsumed into a more omnipotent capitalism’s demand that we enjoy our servitude. Although stylistically following the late ’80’s guitar-band tendency of looking back to the 60’s for solace, the lyrics to the La’s’ Failure “So you open the door with the look on your face. Your hands in your pocket and your family to face, and you go down stairs and you sit in your place” could easily have found a fitting place within Decades. But the incessant demand to ‘dance, dance, dance to our servitude‘ of neoliberal capitalism is wearing thinner and thinner by the day. I think the increasing popularity of Joy Division with young people is a sign of this, even if there little self awareness of the motive.
“there’s a taste in my mouth as desperation takes hold/heaven knows it’s got to be this time …..avenues all lined with trees.”
It’s early 2002. I’m a anti-social 18 year old, plugged into his cassette tapes, still capable of day-dreaming in the learning centre of a now-demolished college. A tune comes back into my head from some early childhood point. This was a few years before the days where a tune could be found in just a matter of seconds after remembering it. If this could be classed as memory at all: as memories for me seem more akin to the pre-digital-tech cassette player, in how the original pitch of a track always seems to be lost in translation; a memory/cassette-tape error that allows for a unique relationship with a tune. This only really became apparent after I recently re-watched the film Donni Darko; Love Will Tear us Apart features on the film, and I am convinced that it plays at an higher pitch, which incidentally makes it sound like a cassette tape version.
The tune I remembered in 2002 was Love Will Tear us Apart. But it took me until the summer to actually manage to listen to it again. Thereon-after, as my teenage inertia was superseded by a young-adult inertia (based around what I would come to see as ‘Depressive Pleasure-seeking‘.), Love Will Tear Us Apart became an staple in The Retro Bar at The End of Universe; former bars would be replaced by future former bars, with their only continuity being the ‘stuck record’ of the ‘Indie Disco’. The hair-raising synth and drum outro feels like it could stretch out into eternity, due to perpetual dependency placed upon music that was new when capitalism’s ‘slow cancellation of the future’ was only just beginning. The ‘eternal present’ of our capitalist reality has to come to an end, in some form. But the end cannot be seen from within. But, my god, it is longed for.
As with Atmosphere and These days (written at a similar point) Love Will Tear us Apart and Ceremony (although properly recorded as New Order, after Curtis had died) share the same sense of painful longing for something that never materialises – “this dream it takes too long” as Curtis sings in 24 Hours. Ian Curtis’s lyrics may have been most directly attributable to the specificities of his collapsing personal life, but it is clear that there’s a longing here for something that stretches far beyond these confines, towards a promised world, perhaps? the dreams of postwar optimism, now falling into tatters in front of the atomised, lonely type of Utopia offered by Thatcherism. It is inconsequential whether Curtis voted rightward or not, he was caught in the headlights of a pivotal moment in history and expressed an anguish an increasing proportion of us identify with.
I listen to Love Will Tear us Apart and Ceremony with that sense of longing that other Joy Division’s songs do not allow for: the social world I long for, not the one being blown into atomized, lonely pieces by the end-game of neoliberal (market fundamentalist) political economy. It’s an in-the-making conclusion that I never thought I’d come close to making when listening to Joy Division; that there is a longing in some of their final songs that looks for an escape route from certain-demise, a last gasp of life. Ceremony’s “Heaven knows it’s got to be this time”, is a plea: that ‘I want another chance to live!’. “Avenues all lined with trees”, a social world of vitality, for our families, that we once saw as a guarantee. For me, in this past year, these lyrics have served as a mute wish I carry around with me to supersede this awful stage in something I have no embarrassment in calling ‘the human project’. You see, with all these documentaries, and articles, we are looking back to Joy Division to trace our steps back towards a future that was stolen. We want it back.
“It [ ] can’t be old can it? surely?” – nearly everybody
Due to the family home, a home that used to feel like the eternal return-to-base (for good and for worse), no longer being so, I have stumbled upon old photographs from the 1990’s. They are old. They’re as old as photographs of the previous generation of family members enjoying the then-blossoming popular culture of the mid 20th century looked when the 1990’s felt all new and shiny.
The 1990’s still feel new and shiny, but they aren’t. The VHS’s and TV in this photograph look archaic – they look as close to the 70’s as they were. Yet the 70’s do feel old, the 90’s don’t. 1990’s shopping centres, like the nearby Meadowhall shopping complex, still seem like intrusions of a new brash consumerism onto UK shores, but they look as knackered as cheaply-veneered 25 year old buildings should do.
I’d feel less certain that there wasn’t something unique at play here, if it was just my own attachment to that age, due to feeling like I lost an important part of myself in the last year of that decade that prevents me from developing as an adult. But even people born in the 1990’s keep on looking at me gobsmacked when I put a date on a well-known film like Jurassic Park .
This photograph was taken in January 1995; 4 years before the hyperbole of the 90’s seemed to simmer into millennial malaise, a slow let down by the smoke and mirrors of Britpop, New Labour and ‘end of history’ jubilance. Two technological shifts (I think it’s disputable to see them as advances) seem to have made time feel so out of joint, not merely for their existence, but due to their creeping dominance. Digitalisation of sound and vision, and the Broadband takeover of communication.
Digitalisation seemed to creep in around 1999, to the extent that when I am subjected to music videos from that point through the ever-same visual of contemporary television [She’s The One, Robbie Williams – an unfortunate subjection to say the least) it looks like it was made yesterday. Television, before this point, seems far easier to date; it seems like there’s a difference to image quality from 1998 to 1992 for example. But thereon after it gets harder and harder to spot the difference.
I noticed the impact of Broadband in late 2004 (which seems symonious with the rise and rise of addicting social media sites). As every year passed, especially after the financial crash, social life seemed more and more orientated (and bogged-down) in cyberspace. It makes the ‘telepresent’ of the media-penetration of our lives in the late 20th century seem blissfully un-interfering.
Time no longer seems to move forward. And this is evident in our culture; nothing truly new seems imaginable and what stands as culture has become even more commercialised, consumerist in response to former counter cultural styles that no longer put up any opposition to commercial forces increasingly pulping them into a ‘shop-a-day’ reality. The market-driven imperative on ‘the new’ in a time where nothing is given enough breathing-space to create it means that we’re left scraping the barrel for novelty, dis-invested and in disbelief. Would space technologies really be harnessed merely to make the first sexual encounter in space happen for a porn movie in any other period than this one?
Time seems in a loop. For many older than I am, it seems like the 1990’s already felt like the ‘end of the future’. But growing up then, it didn’t feel that way, certainly in light what it has felt like for the last decade and half [my final true futuristic vision that springs to mind was conjured listening to ‘climatize’ by the Prodigy, from one of the last true popular-yet-landmark albums ‘The Fat of The Land’, whilst driving past the outer-high-rises of Birmingham on the Motorway in the family car in summer 1997) To quote a friend (who I’m working on projects with) the experience of Now is akin to a Tyre spinning furiously in mud, but getting nowhere. It seems likely that this experience has obliterated continuity in the past decade or so, and so the 1990’s remain as yesterday. Even as the smoke and mirrors of that naively optimist age are proven to be what they are, they remain seductive (I still smile and sing a long to moronic Britpop when drunk). I feel this ‘yesterday’ will seem more and more appealing until some sort of closure is sought on the ‘stuck record’ experience of contemporary life. Fundamentally, it requires an unanimous acceptance that the elephant smashing up the room we’re in is capitalism. I can’t see away around this elephant. We need to agree on this point before anything else.
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.”
Thoughts on the proposal to remove the ‘ugly’ electricity pylons from the Dunford Bridge landscape
I am disappointed to hear of plans to demolish the giant electricity pylons stretching from just beyond Penistone across the Pennines to Tintwistle. The BBC article states that the “50m (164ft) tall structures are set to disappear… as part of National Grid plans to remove ugly overhead lines” and “could be buried underground as part of a £500m scheme.”
The structures come into their own within an area known as Dunford Bridge, just within the South Yorkshire side of the hills; a post industrial gateway, not so much to the Peak District, but to the industrial/urban centres on either side of the hills; where there was once a freight railway line you now find a bicycle trail.
I will put my opinion on this proposal straight out there with saying how I place a high value on the presence of these pylons within this landscape. Additionally, I’d find it easier to accept their fate if there were clearly laid-out practical reasons for the National Grid plans to demolish them; for example, if the placing of the power-lines under the ground was more energy and environmentally efficient. But there’s no indication that this would be the case, and as my friend was saying to me; it will mean digging up so much of that landscape in order to place the power-lines underground. Also, the scheme is being funded by Ofgem, meaning the public (or ‘customer’) will foot the bill, something the BBC article only vaguely touches on. But none of this is getting to reasons I’m about to make as to why I like these structures; however, it at least refutes the anticipated-responses demanding me to see the practicalities behind such a plan.
The article quotes Anne Robinson from Friends of The Peak District, who says “There’s no doubt that customers are willing to pay and have a very small sum added to their electricity bills a year to make sure these landscapes are enhanced.”, and although I find a general consensus on increased electricity bills in our current situation hard to believe anyway, my main response to this is just how does such a plan ‘enhance’ this landscape anyway? And referring to other words used in the BBC article, just what is ‘ugly’ , and what is this ‘character’ of the Peak District?
The Peak District is a landscape totally molded by thousands of years of human activity. Moreover, like much of this national park, the Dunford Bridge to Tintwistle stretch is, at least in terms of what is likely was before human interference, a barren desert-scape, a bleak ominous-looking landscape. In fact desert-scape is too soft a description; it is more Martian-scape – there’s something other-worldly about it. And So be it. As they stand, they are ecologically unsound. But as places of intrigue they have enormous stature, laden with symbolic meaning. They contain a beautiful emptiness; a ‘climb-to-the-moon’ feel due to their roof-top-like place within the hearts of all those settled in the post-industrial cities that nestle in the beginnings of these dark dark hills.
What are we looking for from this landscape? What is this character, this non-ugliness we wish upon this place? Dunford Bridge itself is a graveyard for industrial transportation between two mass urban areas that still contain more industrial graveyard sites than they’d like to admit. It is now a bleak lost world, hidden within the huge huge hills – and this is what makes it such a fascinating place (it is also the location of the only large-scale project I’d sanction upon these hills: the re-opening of the railway line as a direct connection between southern Yorkshire and Greater Manchester). Is postcard-picturesque all we want in a country so quick to forget any unrevised past? The Dunford Bridge landscape is far more powerful as it stands precisely because of how dark, unsettling, and unworldly it is in comparison with the more pasteurised landscape further down the hills.
I’ve always argued that structures within this ‘beautiful emptiness’ take on a monolithic presence, and would certainly attribute this to the pylons which only really begin to reveal their alien-like nature in such a barren landscape. They can’t be ignored up here, that’s for sure. Yet this is what makes them so appealing, rather than something to be got rid of. They have a presence of prehistoric sleeping giants nestled as they are within these huge barren inclines. And they are so well webbed into the symbolic nature of the hills, as the pylons aren’t just a (East Pennines) practical connection to the lost-world-metropolis of Manchester, they act as symbolic carriers of cultural exchange – as if the chilling and dislodging grooves of The Smiths’ How Soon is Now, and the haunting synths of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear us Apart were being channeled through these make-shift obelisks to Modernism, sending Pulp’s abandoned steel workshop sound-scape backdrop back in return. All Jean Baudrillard says in how the essence of America is to found in its vanishing-point-deserts, can be said of these barren hilltops in relation to the industrial north (all-be-it on a very British toyland scale).
This landscape is the incidental outcome of human activity; and no less so than the wastelands of former warehouses in surrounding urban settlements such as Sheffield – in fact they compliment each greatly. The pylons, I would argue, now play an important part within this incidental human landscape, which shouldn’t be disguised as anything other than. Both ‘beauty’ and ‘ugliness’ are subjective, and the ‘default beauty’ we desire of our misleadingly-termed ‘natural’ habitats is an environmental and cultural dead-end. The promise that the underground power-line plans are aimed at enhancing the Peak District ‘character’, as stated in the article, is seriously misguided as to what this character actually is – in my opinion, of course.
The whole emphasis on ‘ugliness’ and ‘character’ renders the functionality of the pylons an irrelevant issue. Thus leaving us purely with a debate around whether we like them in the landscape or not. Like the now famous cooling towers (formerly) next to Meadowhall, Sheffield, many people protested against their demolition (although this didn’t stop them being demolished), recognising just how powerful a feature they were on that landscape, no less intrinsic than the features we foolishly perceive as eternal/of original essence to a place. I personally think all arguments made against these pylons are oxymoronic, because what they are claimed to be in their essence, is also what Dunford Bridge is in essence. They are all one, in the dark, unsettling beauty that is this area,