I’m buried in Simon Reynolds “Rip It Up And Start Again” at the moment. It’s a history of the post-punk movement from (about) 78-84, and it’s very good. By “very good”, what I mean is “it’s making me think”.
Some of what follows will almost certainly be blinding obvious. I’m thinking, and frankly, there’s not a lot of functioning grey matter in here to do that with. I need to start with the obvious, or I just go round in lots of little circles.
I like post-punk. (See, I told you I needed to start simple. For god’s sake, no-one show me a shiny thing, or I’ll never finish.) Post-punk is a bit of a misnomer, as Reynolds makes clear – a lot of post-punk bands predate the punk era by a couple of years, it’s just that they kept going, but I suppose the best way to describe it (overly simplistically) might be that if the point of punk was tearing everything down, creating a new year zero, the point of post-punk was building something afterward.
What the two movements have in common, apart from people like John Lydon and all the others who were involved in both scenes (and they bled into one another a lot, as you’d expect), is a DIY ethic. The sense that anyone could pick up an instrument and get on with the job. But where a lot of the punk bands wound up signed to majors, in that first white-hot publicity rush, many of the post-punk outfits stayed independent, and went with people like the fledgling Rough Trade (as an aside: I work for the people that own the Rough Trade label these days, and oh, how the mighty have fallen), or similar outfits.
The other thing that I get the sense that the post-punks had that perhaps many punks lacked was cross-media ambition. Music was only part of the art – it was the whole band/entertainment/art experience that was the thing – they had something to say, a point to make, and they were going to use every means they had to reinforce it. It’s evident in things ranging from The Residents elaborate media games with “The Cryptic Corporation” to the design sense applied to the records covers of bands like Gang of Four, or Joy Division, (or hell, almost anyone on Factory). And let’s not go even near Genesis P-Orridge’s collection of mad bastard industrial progenitors, OK?
I’ll just pause a moment to note the existence of of post- punk-psychedelia in the shape of The Teardrop Explodes and the like, or even stuff like U2 (who were contemporary with a lot of these acts, and for all they’re a much more mainstream thing), and just set them on one side for now. I like ‘em, but they’re not relevant to what I’m getting to here. I’m interested in the more “fringe” stuff, here.
Post-punk, especially in Britain, was often social/political thing – it was probably quite hard for it not to be, at that time, at the end of the Labour government, and the beginning of Thatcher’s Britain (yes, yes, people’s brains shat themselves, politics of self-interest, evil cow, other lefty crap here) – if you were remotely informed about the social climate around you, it was going to be very hard not to form fair strong opinions on it.
So, that’s the history bit.
We’ve just had a couple of basically shit elections – one in the US which was y’know, just fucking disgusting, and one in the UK, which was basically fucking dull. And reading this book about this very culturally engaged musical/art movement (which, let’s not forget, also enjoyed pretty serious chart success – even those bands I’m talking about as “fringe” had one or more top 20 hits), and what’s going through my head is that fuck, but something’s gone wrong.
It seems to me that the conscience has gone out of The Young People’s Music. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m finding less and less recently-released music that I want to buy – while I do listen to bubblegum pop, frankly, the likes of Garbage is about as bubblegum as I can be arsed to spend money on. I tend to demand music that has something more to say than “Look mammy, I’m shagging/having relationship problems!”. (Not, perhaps a lot more. I like Songs About Fucking as much as anyone…)
And yes, it’d be terribly easy to go on about how it’s all mass produced, and big labels, and homogenisation of the market, and Who Wants To Be A Pop Idol, and all the rest of that, but that’s dull. And ultimately, irrelevant.
What’s got me thinking, is again, the blindingly obvious: how much easier we’ve got it now. If I was suddenly seized by the urge to put together some kind of multi-media art installation (no don’t panic, I haven’t been), then the only real problem I’m going to have is finding a space (by no means insurmountable) and getting people to come look (and I’ve got friends I can probably hit up to help me promote it).
Economics and distribution are much, much smaller problems now, with the advent of print-on-demand services, and general internet communication. Yes, you’re never likely to beat someone exchanging cash money for a CD/book/magazine in a shop in terms of perceived value, and thus, cultural impact, but it’s better than nothing.
The obvious buzzword to hit is “Viral Campaign”. I know that the very first thing I’d do, if I had something I really wanted to promote, is stick a mention of it on They Fight Crime! It does the rounds every so often, and there are lots of places that link to it. But then, that one was a complete accident. It’s very, very bloody hard to create a viral campaign that works, on purpose. I’ve worked for enough places that’ve tried. None of them have managed it so far. But then, they’ve all tried to do it for Big Brands, and are therefore fucked. The best ones are small things, done for fun, that happen almost by accident.
But all this is actually dragging away from what I want to say – the point is just to establish: it can be done. Everyone’s got the tools for DIY culture, these days. The Internet is the great leveller. Etc.
(Those last three paragraphs, by the way, has just replaced about 800 words on the mechanics and economics of production and distribution in an internet-connected society. Be grateful that I’m not boring the tits off you with any more tedious internet evangelist rhetoric than I absolutely have to.)
What I’m wondering about now, though, is why no-one but mad bastards or fame-seekers seem to want to use them. Where’s the modern equivalent of Gang of Four? Politically active students (or y’know, anyone) with a grasp of art theory and an understanding of media culture, using all these things they’ve learned to communicate with people, to start debate, and generally spell out an agenda?
I think it’s blindingly obvious that we’re becoming a post-political society. We had fuck-all turnout at the last election, to the point that politicians are talking seriously about electoral reform, to some for of PR. Anything to make people, and particularly young people feel re-enfranchised.
The sense of disenfranchisement is the problem, I think. If you’ll permit me to speculate wildly, and with no real basis in anything concrete: the young right wing feels disenfranchised, because what they’ve got are the Tories, who remain unelectable, and the young left wing feels disenfranchised because what they’ve got is, what, the Lib Dems?
Those on the left that can be arsed to vote settle on the centre-right compromise of Labour, on the basis that they’re better than the Tories. And if settling for “what we can get” or “better than the alternative” isn’t the most soul-destroying sort of disenfranchisement, I don’t know what is.
So I’m left wondering what it’d take to get a modern equivalent to post-punk moving. If it’s even possible to get youth to re-engage. You’ve got to beat the inertia of chav culture (and it’s no use excluding them – you’ve got to engage the masses with this), as well as find a way to make them even notice in the first place. But how would you go about developing on informed, holistic art movement that could engage with modern society?
Or have we now got to the point, with our tiny taste-tribes, and a proliferation of media and channels by which we can control our information intake, that no one single trend can ever engage us as a society again? Have we fragmented to far?
I think I need to stop reading things that make me think. Or y’know, work out what to do with all this crap in my head.