It’s Been Done Before

For the past few months I have been slowly wending my way through Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge (Picador, 2017), Daniel Rachel’s oral history of the Red Wedge, Rock Against Racisim (RAR), and 2 Tone youth music and cultural movements that arose to oppose Thatcherism, nationalism, racism, and fascism in the UK of the 1970s and ’80s. Blame moves and other unpleasantries for the extra time taken to read such an engaging book. What is so wonderful and important about this book chronicling the social movement that galvanized, in part, after a racist speech Eric Clapton delivered, is that it succeeds in establishing the political power and the importance of cultural movements undertaken by ordinary, ethically motivated individuals off the street, and it also in clarifies the possibility and real efficacy such grassroots cultural movements can bring to bear on the constant struggle against fascism, nationalism, and alienation advanced by late neoliberal capitalism.

Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge by Daniel Rachel

The book follows the format famously employed by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in their oral history of New York-centric Punk, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Grove/Atlantic 1996/2016). In Rachel’s book, interviews with a pantheon of scene personages, demiurges, and provocateurs of the British Punk and social progressive scenes are edited together thematically and chronologically to tell a cohesive story, wherein a Socialist Workers Party operative’s narrative thread will be woven into the tale spun by musicians from bands like Steel Pulse or Stiff Little Fingers, then patched back into into firsthand testimony from Rock Against Racism event organizers and spearheads. In McNeil and McCain’s book, however, the political background of and impetus

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

for the American musical and cultural history that was being made by the American punk-rockers whose scene Please Kill Me chronicles only seldom manages to emerge, and then only incidentally. An example of this is Dennis Thompson’s short description of the MC5’s experience fleeing the police violence at the concert held at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago:

“When I saw all those cops, the only thing I could think was, Jesus Christ, if this is the revolution, we lost…Chicago was supposed to be a show of solidarity, goddamn it. This is the alternative culture? Come on. Where were the other bands? No one showed up but us. That’s what pissed me off. I knew the revolution was over at that moment—I looked over my shoulder, and no one else was there. We were the ones who were gonna get hanged. I said, “This is it. There ain’t no revolution. It doesn’t exist. It’s bullshit. The movement is dead”1

And perhaps the reason that even this minor irruption of the actually political made it onto the pages of McNeil and McCain’s book is that it carried such a nihilist, even cynical tone; As filmmaker Adam Curtis points out in his film Hypernormalisation, a documentary history of our amnesiac era of neoliberalism, the portion of the American Punk scene featured in Please Kill Me is the same arts scene he critiques for embracing a radical, apolitical individualism that includes artists and hipsters such as Patti Smith admiring the decay of society as though from afar.

In contrast, despite the fact that Rachel may have availed himself of the same device for organizing and presenting the story of punk in the UK as did McNeil and McCain in their book about punk in the U.S., Rachel’s is an overtly political, socially and politically engaged, and hopeful undertaking. The weight of the verisimilitude imparted by the documentary collage style of the book isn’t used merely to give the reader a titillating thrill at being on hand as spectator to the anarchic excesses of rock ‘n roll lifestyles, but instead to clearly make the point that there was another time and place where the right wing, fueled and encouraged by the policies of neoliberalism, made a public push to normalize xenophobia, homophobia, racism, reactionary violence, and institutionally imposed inequality, and this wave was pushed back by the persevering application of simple, if staunch, humanity. It is a book that shows that the destabilization of society on the cultural and institutional levels such as we are witnessing in the United States today has happened before in Western societies within very recent living memory, and that there is the real possibility that such debasement of the public sphere can be definitively repulsed through cultural engagement. As visionary songwriter and firebrand Billy Bragg, speaking about his experience of the Anti-Nazi League/RAR-organized Victoria Park Carnival concert of April 30, 1978, puts it:

We were standing under a banner that said ‘Gays Against the Nazis’ and when Tom sang Sing if You’re Glad to be Gay, all these blokes around us started kissing each other on the lips. I’d never seen an out gay man before. My immediate thought was, ‘What are they doing here? This is about black people.’ And literally in the course of that afternoon I came to realize that actually the fascists were against anybody who was in any way different and just liking black music and being a punk rocker was sufficiently different for the National Front to be the enemy. I realized this was how my generation were going to define themselves, in opposition to discrimination of all kinds. This was our Vietnam; our Ban the Bomb. It had a very powerful effect on me.2

Neoliberalism in practice is profoundly stupid. It cannot abide nuance or difference. In the neoliberal vision, society is supplanted by a brutally simplified field of self-interested competitors, all bent on maximizing their own returns. A liberal society is a technology based on the awareness and minimization of the possibility of individuals’ suffering, which is the basis of rights. Therefore, liberal societies manifest a regulatory government whose primary mission is to limit the harm that self-interested competitors and their market logic can do to real people who, unlike simple competitors, are defined by unquantifiable factors such as desires, friends, family, and the social context these provide. Neoliberalism turns the tables. Under neoliberalism, it is instead the market that regulates the newly limited realms within which government is allowed to function. Naturally, or rather unnaturally, the protective, conservationist functions of the state that formerly ensured the well-being of individuals, such as education, health care, or environmental protection, are whittled away. The market, taking all social authority unto itself, leaves open to the government only the peripheral functions separating people who are favored and those who are not— the policing, military, and penal functions. What is left of the government is all borders and punishment and the free labor that generates, with stakeholder profit on the back end. The individual with all its rights becomes an inadmissible category in public discourse,3 and the gambling competitor, the player, slave-like,4 who is without identity because the neoliberal subject is absolutely anyone whoever playing a zero-sum game, is the only assumed denizen of the razed public sphere. Here the state no longer curries the favor of the governed with the classical contract to protect its citizens in exchange for legitimizing its reign, and it instead cooperates to widen social divisions. And here is where neoliberalism is actually, lacking any better word, stupid. In bypassing appeal to any type of intelligence or sensible argument, its aim is to mechanically force individuals by circumstance to become competitors through lack, fear, and suspicion. It engineers the famine that makes markets real. In a positive feedback reaction loop, the further right vested forces push discourse and policy, the further right the ever more alienated and bereft populace tends to believe it must move to survive. Mere survival forces the transformation of individuals into competitors.

Taken in this context, Daniel Rachel’s book is so very important because it does not depict a youth cultural scene obsessed with aesthetics or fashion or music alone; it does not depict the actions of political idealists, ideologues, or candidates succeeding on their merit or purity alone; it does not reduce the period and its struggles to the circumstances’ applicability to the identity just one or another alienated and disenfranchised group affected by Thatcherite, corporatist, or right-wing policies alone. It depicts a moment in living memory when several groups of concerned human beings eschewed the reduction of their own politics to aesthetic competition amongst themselves, and instead worked together in the common cause of humanity to reject the right-wing attempt to dismantle culture. They did this with the gravitas and common cause of an anti-reductionist ethical social context behind them. They did this by clearly articulating their unifying principles at all of their events, by organizing politically, by fielding candidates, by demonstrating, and by organizing to protect one another when the very real physical threats from the right were imminent. The fascist, neoliberal right, after all, adheres to the letter of market stupidity, and admits no nuance. In such a reductionist view of society, wherein there is only one acceptable interpretation of reality, everything is flattened and made aesthetic, competitive, and material. To zealots of reductionist competition whose worldview is limited to the existence of ruthlessly self-interested actors alone, all perceived threats, whether conceptual, rhetorical, or physical, are categorically identical. There is no room for empathy or understanding when, like those on the right, you stand on sides. However you relate, haters are only gonna hate.

Although Walls Come Tumbling Down is, in part, about the fun of music and rock stars and youth joyfully coming together, at this frightening moment in U.S. history, saturated with police violence, an atmosphere of militarism that spawns a gun and policing culture that is out of control, and emboldened fascist elements, this book gives readers more than a playful romp through a bygone hipster scene of detached and politically demobilized cool. This is not a portrait of outsiders in competition for the crown of alterity. The thorough picture of the political climate it instead provides does even more than provide mere hope for our troubled times. It provides a blueprint on which, once again, a solidarity can be built to push back on the awful state of American politics and society today. It must be done, and, importantly, it can be done. After all, as Daniel Rachel has so rousingly and meticulously illustrated in Walls Come Tumbling Down, it has been done before.

Bandcamp Updates

I’ve been putting more music up on Bandcamp for those who prefer that platform. There’s still more stuff on Soundcloud for the time being, but I’ll keep both updated as I finish more music from now on.

Music of 2017 – Over the Cataract

If you’re like me, 2017 turned on you like bad milk. How to tease out the salvageable, unscorched threads from such a forest fire of a year? Here’s one attempt. This is simply music I clung to over the cataract, not necessarily new.

Boy Harsher – Country Girl

Boy Harsher roll as a panther languidly, inexorably, resignedly, hungrily from the sheets in the dimly lit delta between Art of Noise, Pet Shop Boys, and Skinny Puppy. Less is more. And you will do with less.

Gap Dream – Shine Your Light

In the temples of neo-psychedelia there rings a pure “aum.” It eludes, impish, a pursuing army of faithful axemen and bedroom producers who only ever manage to catch audible doses of it as it dashes behind pillars of amplifier whine or crouches just beyond altars of fuzz. Gap Dream cups this “aum” in his hand, in stillness, and draws it reverent to your ear.

Lo Tom – Lo Tom

David Bazan and TW Walsh, the team who brought us Headphones, reunite as a full band to put the force of a guitar steam hammer behind the plaintive insight of some of the best songwriting Bazan has composed to date. How can a coupling meet its end? Let Lo Tom count the ways.

John Maus – Screen Memories

Weird, sparse, darkly wry atmospheric synthetic pop teasing at the grimier edges of nostalgia. Hot and muddy all at once. Kitsch poorly remembered and botched in its resurrection to live again as art- a fundamental misrepresentation of its awful zombie self.

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

This is a raw slab of love and pain. There is nothing here but ecstasy and mortal communion.

(This video is from the previous album, “Cupid Deluxe,” but it was just too rad to leave out.)

Iron Chic – You Can’t Stay Here

2017 was that kind of year, and this was a panacea. As the song “My Best Friend (Is a Nihilist)” contends, “It’s hard to be a human being,” indeed. Where humanity is defined by an ethical liberty, the ability to act with love for others and not out of compulsive self-serving competition, this year has shown us all how desperately empty people are in danger of becoming in pursuit of winning.

Cheveu & Group Doueh – Dakhla Sahara Session

French experimental synth punk rockers collaborate with western Saharan fusion band Group Doueh to create a propulsive, off-kilter driver of a record that only seems to pick up speed and inventiveness as the black circle spins.

Trans Am – California Hotel

Trans Am never missteps, but this is still their best in years. Timely, fragile, paranoid, whimsical, and suffused with dread by turns. Still masters of the vocoder, still their own best session musicians, still their own best producers, and still planting the stoic flag of warning for what’s left of our humanity.

Dutch Uncles – Big Balloon

By SecApx - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Uncles are inheritors of the legacies of the likes of Thomas Dolby, XTC, Prefab Sprout, and Icicle Works with the rhythmic backbone of a contemporary band like Mew. They have traits of all of these, but at an octane several rounds of distillation higher, faster, and more frenetic. It’s clean, controlled chaos, and it’s absolutely terrific.

Peter Baumann – Transharmonic Nights

The late-seventies solo work of this one-time member of Tangerine Dream is among the sparsest, most hauntingly beautiful German electronic rock ever made. Listening to this record, you are poised perpetually at the exact moment when day crosses over into night, when the streets greet you empty of passers-by. The stage is set forever for a chance meeting with a sudden change in fate. It is trivial, but I should mention that, of all the bands of this ilk being emulated with the aesthetic of the Stranger Things series, the font for the title sequence of that show seems to have been most directly based on that used on the cover of this record.

Idris Muhammad – Turn This Mutha Out

The sound of this record is as synaesthetically deep red and oversaturated as the photo on the sleeve. Heaven here is endlessly rhythmic, its vaults held aloft by millions of congas. The disco-funk presentation of virtuoso jazz percussion, replete with walking disco bass lines, makes what could be passed over by some as an everyday funk album in actuality a very deep, very sexy pop record. It sticks with you. I’ve played this over and over and over this year. If you need to get away, retreating into this record’s dense, crimson, nighttime sound is like returning to the precipice of love. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sylvester – Stars

I was tipped to this album when I heard the haunting, oddly contemporary closing track, “I Need Somebody to Love Tonight,” during the end credits of an episode of the second season of Master of None. The straightforward pathos and desire for the fulfilment of connection is only heightened by the austere, technological, Kraftwerk-esque chill of the synthetic bed atop which it lays. The record ranges from the life-affirming bombast of the best of nightclub disco to the brilliant aforementioned synthetic confessional. Sylvester was one of humanity’s own spotlights on the runway to love.

Destroyer – Ken

There is no one quite like Dan Bejar, the poet behind Destroyer. This album reaches like a response across the years to a mystical challenge he posed, seemingly to himself, on his 2006 record, the life-changing “Destroyer’s Rubies.” On that record, where one of his characters in the title track “took a room at the castle” that “paid for itself,” he experienced a “series of visions,” the content of which he assured us that he wouldn’t reveal:

Blessed doctor, do your worst.
Cut me open, remove this thirst.
Hidden, but near.
A series of visions, I won’t repeat them here.
I won’t repeat them here.

It’s the end of 2017, and the incurable sick among us draw us nearer to the end of us all, so why not reveal the dream now? And so he does, at the climax of “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood,” the third song on “Ken,” the new record that plays like something by a more a melancholic, atmospheric New Order.

What comes round is going round again
Now let me tell you about the dream:

I had no feeling, I had no past
I was the arctic, I was the vast
Spaces without reprieve

I was a dreamer
Watch me leave

And as 2017 goes, so might we just all. Love to you, peeps.


I think you should make art. I think you should keep truth alive.

Art defines our humanity. It is the synthesis of one’s knowledge, skill, emotion, and expression into dialog. As dialog, art is public. Being public, art is political. Being political, art engages with, critiques, and checks power. Being a check on power, art empowers the artist. Being critical, art helps power to become ethical. Being ethical, the person moved by art becomes more human.

The possibility of being human is precisely what this age of prevarication, gangsterism, kitsch, cynicism, corporatism, and fascism is engineered to eliminate. Human beings are individual. Being individual, human beings have rights founded in the pursuit and expression of their desires. Possessing rights, irreplaceable individuals are bound by ethics to acknowledge and reduce the suffering of other likewise irreplaceable beings striving for fulfillment. In exercising their will to work to ease the suffering of others, rather than for the maximization of their own interests, human beings are able to become free.

We need art now. Music is art. Here are three free tools with which to make it.

You don’t need very many good tools to make good art. Although these instruments I feature are free, I encourage you to peruse the developers’ paid options or consider a donation if they change your life and you can spare it.

The u-he Tyrell N6

The u-he Triple Cheese

Full Bucket Music’s Mono/Fury

Nick Lowe and Compassion

It’s past the holiday season, but what the hell. Since when is human decency seasonal? at about 36:00 in this holiday interview Terry Gross and Nick Lowe touch on the compassion that sets Lowe’s songwriting apart from the rest. It’s the thing that, for me, anyway, makes his music so appealing. It’s music written for human beings by a human being. It’s sometimes morbid (Marie Provost), sometimes bemused (So It Goes), sometimes heart-on-sleeve (What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding), but always true. It is always songwriting stood on a bedrock conviction that people have dignity and it is deserving of recognition.

I saw Nick Lowe’s Quality Holiday Revue with Los Straitjackets this year, and it was absolutely the best concert I’d ever attended. I’ve never seen a better performance, I’d never witnessed better musicians, I’d never heard familiar songs so imbued with their own inimitable and indelible character. There was an incontrovertible, nearly geologic factuality to the presence and musical mastery those musicians brought to the stage.

Anyhow, here’s that interview:

Life During Wartime: Ceci n’est pas une discothèque

A Doctors Without Borders hospital is cynically pummeled with ordnance in distant Afghanistan. There is another school shooting in nearby Oregon. Theorists call the state of modern life precarity, people like Bezos or Gates give it a sheen by jargonizing it as “disruption”.  In the total world terrorist state, violence, whether defined by constant threat of air-raid or mass shooting or the randomly-placed economic sword hanging above every corporate cube-dweller’s head, erupts without warning, from every direction, without predictable source or intended target. The apparent rule is lawlessness, the constant state of mind is suspicion, trauma, fear. This lawlessness, this norm wherein there is no basic stability, extends everywhere. It atomizes collective community action and nullifies the operation of politics in the rich world while simultaneously fundamentally erasing stability, memory, and history in every place geographically located outside the castle walls of the neoliberal project. The razing of a temple complex in Palmyra and the enforcement of reductionist binary rhetoric promoting ever-increasing militarization of civilian life in the heartland demonstrate the creep of the same mission: The end of history, memory, agency; in short, the end of life lived for any human purpose, and the start of one whose only permitted goods are its timeless, rote performance of servility to ideology that maintains the power of a very few.

In “Life in Wartime” (1979), the desperate voice of Dada is set to music.  Byrne sings, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.”  Where Magritte famously set up the surreal opposition of image and description in his “The Treachery of Images”, stating that what was illustrated was, in fact, not that which was illustrated (“This is not a pipe”),

The Treachery of Images

the Talking Heads similar statement, paraphrased “This is not a disco”, moved from a surrealist transgression of the order of signs and language to engagement with the dadaist dilemma: what does one do if there are no laws anymore?  How does one exist in the state of emergency and exception “during wartime” when all law has been suspended?  The video linked to above is from a live concert recording, itself repudiating proof that there was a party, that there was, so to speak, a disco. The effect produced by these statements is the same as that produced by Magritte’s painting, but with an edge. It made reference to the fact that everything seemed to be coming apart at the seams. New York in ’79 was in shambles and the banking system seemed as though it was on the edge of collapse as it starved major cities of cash. The country was still staggering after the real and moral defeat in Vietnam. The empty energy of hippie consumer hedonism had been overtaken in the culture, where any energy was still boiling, with its only possible progeny: anger and addiction. The song sets this problem for the viewer and listener: How does one acknowledge one’s fundamentally precarious position in a society that has gone off the rails while the trappings of celebration-as-usual march, undead, wildly on? The time was ripe for the contradictions this song manifested in 1979, but lamentably the song is even more relevant to our present moment than it was to its own.

The dadaist meets terror with an exacerbation of the same, an amplification that hopes to widen and make apparent the fissures of contradiction immanent in the organization of society. In this bizarre year 2015, 36 years after “Life During Wartime” was released on Fear of Music (Sire), a video of the band (still, obscenely, young) playing with abandon can be called up instantaneously from any device with a screen and access to the internet to provide an escapist shot of nostalgia or enjoyment. Meanwhile, one alternately reads news of the latest Joseph Heller-esque escapade of our military, our propagandists on the pre-campaign trail, or our spiteful fellow citizens while absentmindedly scrolling through pictures of celebrity cats. The song’s references to the Mudd Club and C.B.G.B. (“This ain’t no Mudd Club, no C.B.G.B., I ain’t got time for that now”) are now true in every respect; the venerable punk venue C.B.G.B., present at the level of reference and memory in the lyrics, in a reversal of its aura now houses high-end shopping on a former skid row. In the intervening years the song has become more true. The fissures have widened. It is more than not C.B.G.B. It is its own antithesis, a negation or forgetting of itself.

The difference between then and now collapses with the ease of accessing video of the performance. So does the perceptual distance between the siege of emergencies (real and constructed) that threaten us and our accelerating means of diversion and consumption. We are told “This ain’t no disco”, and this we by now should already know. Still, they tell us to keep dancing. For whatever reason, for now, we still do so without changing a step.

At least it’s natural to jitterbug when the bullets keep falling so close to your feet.

Some of this blog entry makes reference to Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency by Hal Foster

-Updated to provide a working link to another live performance of Life During Wartime, as the intervening years saw the other video go dark.