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Whither the Experimental and the Popular?

“The Conventional is now Experimental” as the late, great Mark E. Smith put it in 1980, early in The Fall’s long career, on Grotesque’s ‘Stop Mithering’ to be precise, a Smith apercu that continues to be regularly quoted. It’s a typical ambiguously snappy quote from the man (whose head eventually diminished), that can mean anything the critic wants it to, really. In this case, it could mean that the self-consciously avant garde often merely masks an essentially conservative product ‘(miserable songs synthesised’, ‘circles with ‘A’ in the middle’, ‘on-stage false histrionics’  are examples that Smith gives us on ‘Mithering’). Grotesque was released slap bang in the middle of the favourite musical period of another greatly lionised cult figure, the critic Mark Fisher, whose collected essays and blogs, ‘K-Punk’; the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016)’, I am currently ploughing through, and which has occasioned this blog. 

I’m not as big a fan of Fisher’s shtick as many, but there is much to enjoy within the 770 pages of his often abstruse theorising. As with so many cultural studies writers, fairly straightforward ideas tend to be put forward in off-putting neologistic meta-speak, but Fishers best work, for example on mental health and neo-liberalism, is, for me, contained in his more direct reportage. This in itself should come as no surprise, as Fisher suffered from serious mental health ‘issues’ himself,and committed suicide in early 2017, a blunt tool of a fact which gives added heft to work such as ‘Why Mental Health is a Political Issue’ and ‘The Privatisation of Stress’. This collection will be an essential purchase for Fisher’s many devotees, and is also recommended for those, like me, who may find his writing somewhat of a curate’s egg. The argument about ‘straight-speaking’ itself harks back, of course, to the post-punk days of the late 70s/early 80s,, and to the excoriation of Paul Morley and Ian Penman in the pages of the ‘rockist’ NME (the latter was, not coincidentally, a big mate of Fisher’s). It seems bizarre now to remember how important we all thought the writings of Derrida and Foucault were, even though we didn’t understand a word of them. Mark Fisher, on the other hand, did, and went on to co-form an opaque group of academics at my own alma mater, the University of Warwick.

As mentioned, Fisher loved the period of circa 1978-84 (which could also, perhaps,be cast as the ‘Morley and Penman years’?), the era very ably delineated in depth by his fellow-critic and friend, Simon Reynolds, in ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’. This was a period that I considered writing about myself, but Reynolds decisively put that idea to bed - ‘Rip It Up…’ remains as definitive about it’s period as Jon Savage’s ‘England’s Burning’ does of his (i,e, that of ‘punk’ itself). In one interesting essay, which originally came out in Wire 335, Fisher asks (January 2012, page 388) “What has been lost in the transit between experimental and popular culture which characterised earlier eras?” - he clearly though that 1978-84 was a period in which the conventional and the experimental inhabited the same world. I, for one, will never forget PiL performing ‘Death Disco’ on Top of the Pops in July 1979. It seems inconceivable that such a clash of formats could occur in our current times, or that our ‘Tungsten-coated’ (a favourite Fisher term) palates could find anything as radical to digest while casually surfing the net. Fisher was 13 years younger than me, so even his undoubted love for the period was surely retrospective? I ran a record shop for the 1978-81 period, and remember it equally fondly, but it gives me pause to think that this now-forty years old brief time span is still seen as perhaps the ‘golden age’ for the meeting of avant and commercial minds.

Fisher has much, much to say about  his idea of ‘capitalist realism’, i’e.  that, after the Thatcherera and the subsequent triumph of neo-liberalism, people are no longer able to think of an alternative to the capitalist model; and the effect that this might have had had on experimentalism in popular culture. He holds up examples such as the EDM genre as a whole, and the work of individual pioneers like Burial, as witnesses for the defence of experimental populism (in the broadest possible sense), but it seems like the times are basically no longer conducive to artistic risk-talking. This is surely ironic in the extreme, given that Fisher’s essays were written before our neo-liberal masters decided to embark on the greatest risk-taking project of them all, Brexit, and the eventual appointment of Boris the Spider as MC and mischief-maker-in-chief for the whole monster rave organised by the real loony party..

The Harvest label ‘crop’

The cultural theorist Bernard Gendron posits that by the late sixties “the idea of a permanent underground began to seep in - a rock avant-garde permanently sequestered on the sidelines, and permanently in revolt against the mainstream”. Harvest Records was a self-conscious attempt by the corporation that owned The Beatles to tap into this ‘market’. The hope was to make this ‘underground’ overground. The cynical reality was that the maxim ‘throw enough shit against the wall and some of it is bound to stick’ seems more likely to have been the overarching idea at work here.

Basically, it’s a melee of ‘progressive’ (this was well before the notion of ‘prog rock’, remember) and early heavy metal. The material is equal parts canonical (Pink Floyd, for example) and justifiably obscure (to anybody under sixty years of age),  Names that are still remembered today are, most with some fondness: Mike Chapman, Deep Purple, Kevin Ayers, Shirley Collins, Roy Harper, Syd Barrett, The Move, Barclay James Harvest, Electric Light Orchestra and Be Bop Deluxe. Names that have been swallowed up by history, but still remain un-regurgitated, include (and these are just a few from a long list); Panama Jug Band, Tea & Sympathy. Forest (briefly given CPR by the ‘free folk’ trend of a few years back), Quatermass, Bakerloo, Climax Chicago Blues Band, Babe Ruth, Strapps, Bombadil, Unicorn, Gryphon,

And then, on the final disc, you have a few 1976-7 oddities such as The Saints (including the fantastic ‘This Perfect Day’, one of the undoubted highlights of the whole shebang), The Banned (a one-hit wonder, with a nod to the mid-sixties ‘Nuggets’ punk era, ‘Little Girl’), The Shirts (sounding a bit like The Strokes, or should that be vice versa?) and good old Wire. Sadly, punk and new wave spelled the end of the Harvest adventure.

In a funny way, the revelation here, for me, is how well The Edgar Broughton Band stand up! People of a certain age will have indelible free festival memories associated with this scruffty trio, a kind of then-ubiquitous anarcho-hippy Oasis, which also contained two brothers. Tracks like ‘Out Demons Out’ (magick was a theme of the time, see also Black Sabbath and Black Widow) and ‘Apache Drop Out’ ( a neat melding of Hank Marvin and Captain Beefheart) have stood the test of time far better than any of  us would have then considered possible. Their sound is not that far away from ‘I Am the Fly’, to be honest, however unlikely that may sound.

The Harvest Label - the 70s ‘Underground’ in one box

My generous friend, who had previously lent me the Elektra box set, also provided me with another absolute monster, a five-CD collection of recordings from the Harvest label. This was an EMI subsidiary, formed to capitalise on the ‘progressive’ or ‘underground’ scene that had developed in the late sixties, and which lasted from 1969 to 1979, by which time punk and new wave had rendered it completely passe and out of step. But any Baby Boomer born between 1950 and 1964 should have some memory of the music released on Harvest, with its distinctive green and yellow logo. It lasted for a decade, one that was perhaps the most notable of all, in terms of experimentation within the form. A dip into this box releases the madeleine aroma of the times in my own memory banks, and of years sat in front to my dansette listening to ‘the sounds of the seventies’.

It’s impossible for someone of my age and background to be objective about this kind of stuff, and it is a fascinating process to sift through material that was considered to be cutting-edge in its time, but has since had fifty or so years to be assessed and reassessed. Some it has been found room, perhaps reluctantly, in the Hall of Fame/Infamy, others consigned to the Hall of Antiques & Curios. Some just belong in a freak show. It is still a joyous exercise to listen to, however, and the set is packaged in the usual sumptuous and Alexandrian manner by the EMI Art Department. The huge retrospectives always make Memory Lane a most pleasant byway to wander along, as compared to a ‘stream’ or a USB stick. Or even a cloud..

Scorsese’s ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ - Part Two

The ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ tour of 1975 was a prototype for the so-called ‘Never Ending Tour’ (NET), which is itemised in all of its extensive glory throughout  the closing credits, and made me think that I will never ever begrudge Bob Dylan his millions, as his work rate appears to be superhuman. It was, at the beginning, a tour of relatively small dates, which put me in mind of  Spinal Tap’s own downsized live venture (as did many aspects of this film, especially the scene with the chauffeur!!) Dylan himself was hoping for a “musical extension of the Italian commedia dell’ arte (which, c’mon, most of us haven’t really got a clue about, right?); playwright Sam Shepard described it, probably more accurately, as a “circus atmosphere… a dog and pony show”. Someone else come sup with “the court of Henry VIII’.

Some of the hangers-on were far from wasters, though - the film features Horses -era Patti Smith (looking archetypal), Joni Mitchell (performing the then-unreleased ‘Coyote’ from Hejira-, backed by Dylan himself and Roger McGuinn, a highlight) of the film), Shepard, Ronnie Hawkins (who is clearly a mensch), Rambling Jack Elliott, Joan Baez (seemingly always the bridesmaid, never the bride), Allen Ginsberg (ever the Holy Fool, clearly a vital figure, but whose appeal has always completely escaped me, especially his awful poetry) and even Mick Ronson (who claims that Dylan completely ignored him throughout the whole tour).

The live footage is excellent, especially of him playing “Ballad of Ira Hughes” at an Indian Reservation, circumventing the dining tables with his guitar held and strummed high, looking like a true troubadour. There are some deja vue moments from ‘Don’t Look Back’, in particular the backstage stuff with the various flotsam and jetsom getting out of their heads, and Dylan trying to keep his, By the end, Ginsberg and the Beat poet Peter Orlovsky have been demoted to mere tour gophers and crypto-roadies, which is a sad moment, whatever I feel about them as artists, The lunatics taking over the asylum, etc.

I could say much more about this interesting film, but didn’t find it as ultimately engrossing as ‘No Direction Home’ or as era-defining as ‘Don’t Look Back’. However, it did bring me to realise something that I haven’t really considered before - that of Dylan’s importance as a bandleader, This becomes evident throughout the various numbers (mostly culled from the contemporaneous Desire), where the viewer can see that he takes on a similar role to that of Miles Davis with his various groups; it is nearly imperceptible, but the musicians are taking, and always looking for, their cues from Dylan. This may seem obvious, but Dylan has never been a great instrumentalist, and he always uses highly skilled and adaptable players. But he is always at the epicentre of the music, and guides his team though what at times amount to'improvisations around a ‘well-known’  theme. The vicissitudes that he puts his famous songs through are notorious, and yet he often manages to get the bands to produce fantastic reinventions, even of songs as famous as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Just Like a Woman’. And countless others over the years of the NET.

Often seen as principally as being the ur-solo singer/songwriter, we can easily forget that he is also a very skilled ‘leader of men and women’. And still the oldest survivor of the counter culture’s great originators - ‘Roll Over McCartney and Give Jagger the News’?

Scorsese’s ‘Rolling Thunder’, Part One

I consider myself a fairly normal bloke (or ‘bleeerk’, as the man himself would have it in ‘Don’t Look Back’), but I appear to have at least ten books on Bob Dylan, very many of his albums in various formats, and three DVDs about him, ‘Don’t Look Back’ itself, Martin Scorsese’s wonderful ‘No Direction Home’ from 2005, and  Murray Lemer’s account of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, ‘The Other Side of the Mirror’. This is a lot of Dylan, but hardly excessive, given the adulation his fans how shown over the nearly six decades since his first CBS album of 1962.

So, onto Scorsese’s latest Dylan adventure, ‘Rolling Thunder Review: a Bob Dylan Story’, which I managed to catch up with last night, and feel obliged to comment on, given the attention that I have given his Bob-ness over the years. The first thing to mention/warn people about is that the title is a slight give-away to the fact that the film is not as cinema verite as the earlier films mentioned. As with other Dylan films, most notoriously his own ‘Renaldo and Clara’, there are fictional characters (’masks’), convincingly extrapolated figures from the bard’s past, who could quite possibly existed in different avatars, who appear regularly in the narrative. The live in concert Dylan is here seen performing in ‘white face’ paint, looking like he’s put on sun protective cream, but which is apparently either an influence from the American band Kiss (one of whose members was allegedly ‘going out at the time with’ Dylan’s violinist Scarlet Rivera) or from kibuki, the Japanese ritual dance-drama) The extremes of Gene Simmons and Noh Theatre seem to represent this film well, consisting as it does of extensive footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue American tour of 1975..

This film could be subtitled ‘Bi-Centennial Blues’ as the film seems to trying to make a point about the USA at the time of its two-hundredth birthday, but that would be inaccurate. It’s basically another film about the charisma of Bob Dylan, and everything else is secondary. Scorsese has proved to be enamoured of rock performance excess - see previous work like ‘The Last Waltz’ (possibly best remembered for its shot of a huge cocaine rock up Neil Young’s nostril) and the Rolling Stones own ‘revue-type’ shows from 2006, ‘Shine A Light’. The latter band were surely immortalised by the shots of Robert de Niro entering a night club to the strains of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ in the director’s 1973 ‘Mean Streets’?

Here, he explores, or just sets up for examination, Dylan the Enigma, oblique and opaque as in 1975, just as he was in 65/66, but, by the time of the filming of 2018(?), the ‘manigma’ is much more forthcoming and literal, less guarded and defended by non-sequitors and loose associations and such like. It’s not hard to see why he was like this in the past, surrounded as he was by wall-to-wall sycophants  and hanger-on, in ‘Rolling Thunder’ just as he was in ‘Don;t Look Back’, with the Bobby Neuwirth of 1965 being replaced by the Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman of exactly ten years later. Staying sane with some sort of realistic self-awareness must be next-to-impossible in those sort of circumstances.

More to come

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby