After The Sugar Rush (2016, mixed media on paper)
My last drawing of 2016. Literally finished at 11:20pm on December 31st.
It’s pretty unlikely I’ll get anything else done this year now, as I’ve hit my New Year-period wall prematurely, from which I can never imagine the possibility of making anything new again – until I make something new again. Perhaps I do my own yearly roundups because I somehow feel that I’m unjustifiably forgotten about. When I regain my bearings from the egotistical gravel pit, I recognise that it’s likely over 90% of us feel this way. But all the same, no choice but to play The Game.
So here’s a list, in a more or chronological order, of the best bits of what I have done in 2015; and believe me, there’s a lot of bits I’d rather regret. Regarding the visual works, I feel THE LONG NIGHT OF A NEEDLESS STORM is my strongest piece, both in visuals and title, it’s the best attempt I’ve made all year of interlinking all the problems of today indirectly back to the dominant political agenda.
Not Humanly Possible (A4, ink on paper)
A Cognitive Austerity (A4, ink on paper)
Five MORE Years… (A4, ink on paper)
“Hardworking Tax-payers, Inconvenienced” (A4, ink on paper)
Pain is Barred an Outlet (A4, ink on paper)
“Sad, LONELY, Frightened” (A4, ink on paper)
Everybody’s Fracking (95X130cm, mixed media on paper)
The Self [ie] Under Siege (A4, mixed media on paper)
“Can We Stop Now, Please?” (A4, mixed media on paper)
Debtland (2015, 110X77cm, mixed media on paper)
Artwork for Wear Your Band T-shirt to Work Day (explanation here)
Sounds that made up my year…
“the rotten soil of nowhere land”
Zomby – Where Were U in 92′
Real McCoy – Runaway (Tory election victory-sting-soother)
The Fall – Frightened
New Order – The Village
Goat – Let it Bleed/Gathering of Ancient Tribes
Sleaford Mods – Double Diamond
Wu Tang Clan – C.R.E.A.M
Sleaford Mods – Mcflurry
Sleaford Mods – Jobseeker
Sleaford Mods – Tied up in Notts
DMS – vengeance
Sleaford Mods – Teacher Faces Porn Charges
Rufige Kru – Menace
Congress – 40 Miles
Chumbawumba – Tubthumping
Sonz of a Loop Da Loop Era – Far Out
The Chameleons – Don’t Fall/Second Skin – (again)
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.
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.”
And I don’t mind the horror that surrounds me” 4st. 7lbs, Manic Street Preachers (The Holy Bible, 1994)
With the last day of 2015 coming to its midway point, I felt like I was momentarily occupying space on that final day of the twentieth century, due to their likeness in the way I’ve been behaving; a general inability to move, and to leave the house, until the late afternoon. I finally manajged to leave the house, and went for a run (that daily substitute-for-a-greater-purpose-to-life that I have been so-bitterly-reliant on since some kind of deadlock gripped my 15 year old self in the said year, 1999). Whilst running I became gripped by the emotions I had on that day 16 years back.
I’d decided to go running one hour prior to this, but had forgotten to charge my Ipod (relative issues and all that). And, due to the dark night already beginning to close in, the day began to echo that day at end of 1999. I had this urge to listen to The Stone Roses’ self-titled album on my Ipod. For more than a decade my relationship with the Stone Roses has been a strange one: the heavier days of my early twenties required a sound that fit that place, which the melody making mastery of The Stone Roses wasn’t, whereas Joy Division was; secondly, the whole essence of many bands seems to be have been re-modified into one specific generic trait by the comeback culture of this eternal blow-back of the digital age.
It will sound masssively ill-considered to those ten years older than myself, who remembered the band before any returns/renuions/rebrandings, but the comeback culture in the 90’s was tiny in comparison to its dominance from early 2000’s onwards, and it really did feel like it was just me and a couple of mates who could care less about them in the dying days of the 1990’s. The Stone Roses became eclipsed by a Lad Culture brand they only mildly belonged to in their hey day. Lad culture itself has been narrowed down to a macho, beer-swilling, swagger, which is largely unjustified.
With the aid of Youtube videos of VHS recordings of 1999 TV adverts (which are actually very interesting – if you’re interested in comparing the climate of certain near pasts to the dis-spirit of the present), I have half- transported myself back to 1999, to make a half-fiction; the hardest part being able to forget today’s mood of utter disbelief rather than the look and feel of it, convinced as I am that it isn’t just myself lost in a depressed CGI-like version of those times.
Waiting for ‘The Universe to align’ in ’99
It’s the final day of a decade that doesn’t seem as colourful as it did a few years back. But ‘Blair’s Britain’ still believes in itself. And we still believe in it, with the adverts still emitting a sense that everyone was welcome at the extended-middle-class-dinner party. “History’s over! And everyone’s welcome to the party!” – but in just under 2 years from now this illusion will be smashed to pieces.
But things aren’t good as they’re ‘supposed to be’ – for reasons I don’t yet understand, wrapped up in high-schooled thinking and all that. Within the space of a few weeks in spring 1999, I’d stopped being a full-of-beans young teenager, and became whom I’d still be trying to not be 16 years later. I’m 15 going on 16 and hoping things will realign themselves to how I’ve come to believe they’re ‘supposed to be’.
I’ve become gripped by a routine, built up to prevent myself becoming lazy and fat. But I’m too young to realise it was far more than that: a way of managing the hell of empty time; too young to realise I was abound by a lack of real purpose and meaning to my waking hours.
Whether or not this was the fallout of giving up on my interests and artistic side for the sake of being ‘normal’ at ‘Big’ school is all academic now – I think it would’ve happened anyway, being who I am and growing up the decade when the UK finally became coerced into becoming a full blown US-like consumer society; which isn’t worth going into right now.
The 6 week school holidays seemed to last an age (even though they’re supposed to fly by like a 3 minute pop song) – 40+ days filled with staring out of windows, deciding I ought to do some exercise, not really wanting to, staring out the window again, then finally exercising after wasting most the morning. Back to school, and amidst the laddish environment of 15/16 year boys, I clearly couldn’t hide the sheer loss of life in my face, as much as a school friend who bluntly asked “what’s up wi’ thee, Ledge?” couldn’t articulate some likely genuine concern within that type of environment.
I looked to the autumn, and especially to the Xmas/New year for a way out, and I’d still be clinging to the husk of sentimentality years from now. Sixteen years from now a psychotherapist will point out a deep sense of aimlessness to my life that I haven’t yet known how to transcend, and that I thus become dependent on ‘the universe aligning’ to show me the way. Today on the last day of 1999, that seems to be cipher for more than the end of a century, I’m captivated by the anticipation of the universe aligning, towards that ‘better world’ we all unknowingly expect to come about as the 20th century ends.
My friends and I have recently been dumped on a construction course at Barnsley College due to our lack of desire to comply with the boring stupidity of DT lessons. And we are playing the part of the under-performers perfectly. But we were always turning up late after lunch-break not just because we were so obviously dumped on course like human waste , but because we were captivated by the ‘happy new millennium’ merchandise being sold in the BHS store in town, which seemed to emit a sense that we are moving into a far better age now the twentieth century is nearly over, to the extent that in a superficial level I don’t think we’d be shocked if we saw flying cars in the sky on Jan 1st 2000. My emphasis on the universes aligning is utmost. God knows how disillusioned I’d be now if my 31 year old self would tell me that he’d still be somewhat stuck in the same Inertia.
I was given the Tenth Anniversary edition of The Stone Roses’ self-titled album 6 days earlier on Christmas day, a gift from a cousin who was of adult age when it was first released. It was my last Christmas holiday at High School, and my last one in the Twentieth century. I’d only heard the first 3 tracks of the album on a home-made cassette tape before, but now, over these 6 days, this album has become one of the biggest things in my life. And the last part of the album, which is still referred to as a ‘the B side’, has electrified my sense that change is about to happen. But will it?
The morning has become afternoon as a wish for the ‘big day’, (that indirectly promised that total-war and grandparent-poverty was behind us) has failed to shove my need for a daily exercise routine (to counter that aforementioned hell of aimlessness) into the cupboard like other unimportant things. We watch the TV as the countries coming into the January 1st celebrations before the UK blow their millennial fireworks into the sky. In enters Russia for the inauguration. My dad says “by God those people won’t regret leaving the 20th century, after all the horrors they have endured”, and this mildly sentimental statement will ingrain itself on me to the extent that when next summer arrives and news comes in of over 100 Russians being left to suffocate on a stuck submarine at the bottom of sea, I will feel a sense of disappointment with the world that only mildly prepared me for the profound disillusion that 9/11 will cause one year furthermore down the line. “These things aren’t supposed to happen now…?”
It is be becoming one of those days when you walk to and fro past the TV screen, with each advert interval serving as a ticking clock towards a ‘failed’ day. Blondie’s ‘One Way or Another’ was being used to sell Baileys Irish Cream, and it seemed like the tempo increased every time the advert came on at yet another interval – staring out of the window waiting for something to show the way, towards where it’s all supposed to go…(?) I thought it’d have ended by now, feeling incapable of doing it myself, and relying on a magic wand…
The aimlessness abounds. And I get in the family car with my mother as she runs last minute twentieth century errands just to ignore the feeling of no arrival a little longer. On the radio they are playing some variant on the greatest songs of the twentieth century, from where I hear the Smiths’ How Soon is Now? – a song that will help aide the supersession other bands over The Stone Roses in my life 2 years from now.
I now end up at a News Years’ party I don’t really feel at home at. A house laden with all the late 90’s deco that will feel further and further away as I come of age in the 21st century. The saving grace being that my friend who turns off the Celine Dion CD playing in the corner of a room, to play the latest album by Ian Brown (the former lead singer of a the Stone Roses – until the Stone Roses stop being former, in the age of comeback) reimburses the centrality of the Stone Roses album to my last day in this century.
The house where the party is being held looks down over the M1 motorway. A lone car driving up it as the 20th century ends surprises us all. From that point onwards I don’t think I’ll ever see the M1 empty again, nor will I find a sky full of fireworks at the end of year a anomaly to be treasured. But tonight I am searching for things to make sense of a wish for this day to really be a day when we leave all the shit behind. This Is The One, the second last song on the Stone Roses’s album, with it’s punch-drunk melody-euphoria takes centre stage in this sense-making? why here? and why now? I think. It really does seem to align to universe.
That, personally speaking, 1999 will prove to be the beginning and not the ending of what I wanted (will want) to end from this point onward, is irrelevant to the fact that this album, and in particular This is The One, is momentarily rearranging the fireworks over the Barnsley skyline on this eve into something that resembles a better future. The din of it will last in my ears well into January 2000.