a shit-kickin’ band from blackpool: pete coward on ceramic hobsNovember 12, 2016 at 10:30 pm | Posted in musings, no audience underground | Leave a comment
Tags: ceramic hobs, pete coward
(Mountford Hall, Liverpool, 28th October 2016, photo courtesy of @salfordelectron)
[Editor’s note: Inspired by the announcement of their final tour, Pete Coward asked if I’d be interested in publishing a guest post by him about Ceramic Hobs. I bit his hand off.
Pete has long been a presence in underground music as a bootlegger, scene historian and writer for indispensable zines such as Turbulent Times. He is one of four ‘superfans’ called on by Phil Todd to help compile the forthcoming best of Ashtray Navigations set (the others being me, Neil Campbell and, would you believe, Henry Rollins) and his selections are, as expected, as superb as they are obscure. Recently he has been producing booklets of his own poetry which is poignant, darkly humorous and depicts a park-bench view of the world a lot of us Ceramic Hobs fans will recognise. If I were you I’d email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and get yourself on his list.
Oh, and he also wanted me to mention that he dreamed about Borbetomagus the other night but the band were reduced to a duo, which made him quite sad.]
Writing about Ceramic Hobs is a tricky exercise. The band has just called time on their thirty years of music making so it seemed timely, if foolish, to pose the question to myself,
so what was all that about?
After a few weeks of considering that question and of re-listening I have no clearer answers than before and my thoughts seem scattered ever further. I can only offer attempts to rein in some of those thoughts, to see if tracing my confusion results in any kind of useable map to the terrain explored by Ceramic Hobs.
To start on what solid ground there is, Ceramic Hobs formed in Blackpool in the mid-80s. Their line-up has constantly shifted since, with founder Simon Morris being the one constant. The sound coalesced at a fairly early stage, into a distinctive mix of heavy lo-fi psychedelia and prankster musique concrète, driven by a truculent punk core. In high concept terms, they sound like a band that never really came down from that lysergic rush received on first listen to Locust Abortion Technician in the late ‘80s. They share Butthole Surfers’ love of excess. Their records are a potlatch of cultural and musical detritus. If there is a discernible linear progression in their sound, it is a thickening of that excess, a process of musical and thematic accretion. Tracks get longer over time (up to 35 minutes in the case of the title track to Oz Oz Alice, 2010), the sound becomes more layered and densely compacted, the sprawl of the music more suffocating.
Later albums like Oz Oz Alice and Spirit World Circle Jerk (2013) represent an apex of this Tetsuo-like approach, one that threatens to collapse under its own mass. This development was possibly unsustainable in other respects; Simon said in an interview shortly after Oz Oz Alice,
I can’t do anything as dangerous as that again if I am to physically survive.
This sense of genuine danger and personal threat (to band and listener) comes in large part from the topics explored by Ceramic Hobs. These themes have been part of their music and lyrics from the beginning and could be outlined as a fascination with, a dwelling upon, the marginal, the abject and objectified, and particularly those areas of it shadowed by mental illness.
The foregrounding of the latter subject has been such that Ceramic Hobs have been frequently cast as a Psychiatric Survivor band, or as a Mad Pride band, referring to the international radical mental health campaigning movement (for which Ceramic Hobs have played a number of benefit gigs). The band has described themselves as functioning like a therapeutic community. They have spoken with pride of the numbers of members, current and past, who have been psychiatric in-patients. Those statistics have more recently been superseded by numbers of ex-members who have died; I’m unsure of the correlation, if any, between those two sets of figures.
I am wary of focussing too narrowly on this undeniably significant aspect of the work. To do so runs the risk of reductionism and ghettoization. Ceramic Hobs are about mental illness in the same way Grateful Dead are about acid or drum ‘n bass about E. It’s an influence, part of the culture and politics of the music (and a big part of what makes it political music), but just as one factor among many. Also that influence has been creatively assimilated and refracted in ways that we call art (which is why I’d also counter that talk of the band as a therapeutic community is an unhelpful misrepresentation). You do not have to be tripping to recognise the greatness of Europe ‘72, neither does the listener require a mental health diagnosis to appreciate the music of Ceramic Hobs. Their lyrics may reference terms such as largactyl and dual diagnosis but if you are fortunate enough not to have learned the meaning of those, the context still leaves you in no doubt about the unpleasantness of both. You could make a perfectly good case for Ceramic Hobs being a great band without any reference to mental illness, and you certainly don’t need to “have” mental illness to “get them.”
That clearly said, it is not closing down any possibilities to also state that listening to Europe ‘72 while blasted may be a particularly rewarding experience, just as Ceramic Hobs’ personal experience of mental illness channelled into their music may be hugely empowering for someone who is a psychiatric survivor and listens to them as such. Ceramic Hobs embody both, and other, dialectical positions and it’s this ability to do so and to reflect all of those in the music that I find particularly admirable. The music of Ceramic Hobs provides a rarely heard perspective on experiences and thoughts shared by many, a perspective that is uniquely positive and celebratory. They have earned their place in narratives of mental health resistance and activism. They have also earned their reputation as a shit-kickin’ band from Blackpool, and I think it is useful to see their personal and political fearlessness, the use of illness as a weapon, as a means to carve out the zone of free self-expression which enabled that to develop.
This multiplicity of meanings and possibilities is expressed synecdochally in the title to their 1998 debut album Psychiatric Underground. It could be seen as a statement of marginal reclamation and militancy, after Mad Pride and The Weather Underground; or as a social/political/cultural/economic designation for Ceramic Hobs as musicians and mental health service users. It could equally be seen as an existential stance akin to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, existing at the edges so as to pass judgement on the centre; Simon in the self-appointed role of “Last Of The Great Blasphemers.” The psychological effort that must be needed for Ceramic Hobs as artists to inhabit each and all of these positions must be significant. That casts light for me on Simon’s words quoted earlier about the danger of creating this music. He went on to say in that interview,
I do think that artists should be ready to put their work above all else in life and risk health and sanity for it, otherwise it is a fucking half-arsed hobby.
That intense level of commitment also raises thoughts about the role of authenticity in art and music, and how far Ceramic Hobs embody that.
This is not authenticity as lazy sincerity, as in “Ceramic Hobs mean it, man,” as Richey Edwards did. It is authenticity as expression of genuine truth within power structures that deny and invalidate that truth and in a society so culturally oversaturated that any expression appears within quotation marks. Sontag wrote in ‘Notes On Camp’ of a time and culture when
…sincerity is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness.
Sincerity is an infertile harmony of intention and effect, life and art. An alternate praxis she posits is
…overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and unresolvable, subject-matter.
Ceramic Hobs create with the knowledge that irony, satire, transgression, vulgarity, the carnivalesque are the few modes of expression left with genuine potential to turn the world upside down.
This is also the only authenticity that can be possible on the internet. Ceramic Hobs seamlessly entered into a fecund feedback loop with online culture, indeed seemed to have been anticipating it. The female-voiced narratives of despair on tracks such as ‘Remembrance for Nicole Simpson’, ‘My Judas Lover’, and ‘Crash And Burn’ disturbingly capture the tropes of countless ‘My struggle with …’ videos uploaded to YouTube by teenage girls. The vocals to those tracks are credited either to Jane or Kate Fear but the voices seem indistinguishable to me in their numbed, affectless and weightless monotony. Lyrics like
I just want to find some kind of peace / You just want me in pieces
wouldn’t be out of place as the tag-lines to further countless tumblrs. Simon’s most prolific project these days seems to be his blog, a diarrhetic overflow of contextless found images and words, possibly some kind of apophenia bait.
(Wharf Chambers, Leeds, 20th October 2016, photo courtesy of @zanntone)
The underside to online hyperreality in the world of Ceramic Hobs is the very tangible reality of Blackpool, Lancashire, the city that they call home and which features regularly in their lyrics, both as backdrop and central character. It’s a place that can be equally deadening in its excess, as wearying in its touting of ephemeral pleasures. “Socially engineered by Blackpool” reads the credits to Psychiatric Underground. There does seem to be a local civic pride in reckless alcohol-fuelled hedonism, hell-for-leather escapism and constructed unreality which is reflected in the music of Ceramic Hobs. The band’s own local pride seems as ambivalent as that of the eponymous ‘Glasgow Housewife’ from Spirit World Circle Jerk who belts out drunkenly
I belong to Glasgow, dear old Glasgow town, but there’s something the matter with Glasgow…
There is palpable resentment and frustration, such as the self-explanatory ‘This Sore And Broken Blackpool Legacy’, but that must be seen alongside more affectionate tributes such as ‘Blackpool Transport,’ which namechecks and samples a sizeable list of local bands, framed bathetically by a story of pursuing teenage kicks through cheap booze and solvent abuse while sheltering from the rain in a car park. The love/hate relationship with Blackpool is one of Ceramic Hobs’ least surprising and most reconcilable contrary positions.
Those others I’ve reflected on above go some way to explaining the fascination this band holds for me. These contradictions and obfuscations thread through their music as inexhaustibly as words through a stick of rock. Their retirement depletes even further those few bands prepared to challenge listeners and make that challenge worthwhile. An epitaph that they may appreciate, Ceramic Hobs left us more bewildered, paranoid and despairing for their presence these past few decades.