backing towards the reverse, part two: a review

March 20, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Posted in musings | Leave a comment
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David Keenan – England’s Hidden Reverse (revised and expanded edition, 464 pages, Strange Attractor Press)

ehr

[Editor’s note: in order to make full sense of the below, the reader is advised to consult part one here before proceeding.]

…so the hefty tome arrives and an unexpected cross-country train journey affords me the time to give it a close reading.

The new forward, as advertised, is a written version of the lecture ‘Crime Calls For Night’ which I discussed in part one.  Fixing it to the page does it no favours, unfortunately, and there is little point discussing it further for two reasons.  Firstly, what was good in it before remains so, as does what was questionable.  Secondly, its argument is largely unsupported by the text that follows (the book’s hook is ‘England’s lunatic tradition’ (page 284), the lecture’s is ‘night time imagery’ (page VII) – they ain’t the same).  It’s post-hoc, tacked on.

That said, it might surprise you that I was hoping for more of this in the book itself.  I have been largely negative in my account so far, true, but stuff like this on Whitehouse:

Let’s attempt to look this thing in the face, as much as we can, without any filter of ideology or explanation or ‘understanding’. (page XIII)

is pretty invigorating.  I was hoping for something polemical but deeply personal, impressionistic but rigorous, something that might have me hurling the book across the room in fury or welling up with tears of recognition.  Something inspiring that would leave me fizzing with ideas of my own.  Tall order, maybe, but given Keenan’s chops and unbeatable subject matter – the unnatural histories of Coil, Nurse With Wound and Current 93 – it was entirely possible.

But nope.  Instead what we get is A Very Long List Of All The Things That Happened.  For fuck’s sake, I thought with rising dismay, this is just another bloody music book: 400 pages of painstakingly researched explanation and ‘understanding’.

Do any of these beats sound familiar?  Guy grows up a misfit, moves away, finds a crowd/purpose, fierce early work, arguments about money/credits/romantic entanglements, drink and drugs, artistic development and lengthy accounts of the ‘mature’ work (with scholarly asides on influences and collaborators), happy accidents in the studio, fortuitous meetings and so on.  All these gongs are bonged in the usual order determined by the ritual, like a bored gamelan orchestra calling the court in for lunch.  You’ll be amazed to learn that this time was unique and that things will never be the same again too, of course.

On one level, I understand that this is a daft criticism to make.  It’s like moaning that you’ve seen it all before whenever an artist daubs pigment onto a canvas using a brush to depict a figure – Gah!  It’s just a painting – but Keenan’s trad fan/critic ‘definitive’ approach robs the subject of its enviable magic.

For example, Keenan largely keeps himself out of it and, as such, a lot of total bollocks passes without any editorial comment aside from the mildest, bathetic rebuke.  When, at one point, Coil decide to only start recording on equinoxes and solstices Keenan dares to describe this nonsense as ‘arbitrary’ – ooh!  Meow, eh?  Absenting yourself might be journalistic best practice (I dunno, is it?) but this wasn’t advertised as an oral history.  Frequent, spirited challenges would have been illuminating, entertaining – inspiring even (see Bangs vs. Reed).  I was expecting to disagree at points, but I was genuinely shocked at it being a grind.

Finishing the book I found I’d made a couple of pages of notes towards this review, a short list of artists and releases to check out and one or two triggered memories (apologies to anyone else who was at the 1991 Current 93/Death in June/Sol Invictus show in New Cross that gets mentioned – I was the kid front left who coughed all the way through it.  I even climbed up onto the stage at one point so I could sit down).  Not much, is it?  Keenan isn’t a bad writer, the topic is important and clearly a huge amount of work has been done.  I was up for it, despite reservations – I am regularly inspired by music writing, that’s the reason I do it myself.  So what went wrong here?

Part of the answer is summed up in this quote about David Tibet by the horror writer Thomas Ligotti (pages 383-384):

To talk about Tibet’s work in aesthetic terms is relevant only to a limited extent.  Like other artists whose work is in an expressionist vein … you can take or leave him, but he absolutely stands above criticism because he is completely true to his visions, beliefs, obsessions, whatever you want to call the substance of his songs … It’s simply that Tibet is working in another realm entirely.  He’s alone in what he does, and that makes any evaluation of him in the conventional terms of music or literature beside the point.

I think this is bang on, indeed I’ve said similar things myself about the limits of criticism when it comes to those driven to create within what I call the no-audience underground, and that ‘pffft’ sound you can hear is the shrivelling of Keenan’s project, irreparably punctured by Ligotti’s point.  It’s so damaging I’m surprised he put it in, to be honest.  Tibet and friends may not be judged on their musicianship or material success (though both are mentioned) but the very form of the book itself could not be more conventional.  If your subject matter is working in another realm a ‘then they did this’ music bio approach is never going to capture what is special about them.

The other, larger, part of the answer occurred to me as I was laughing at a throwaway joke from Steven Stapleton, deadpanned as he explains his fixation on Perez Prado (page 344):

I don’t dance – my hat would fall off.

Despite Keenan’s silly whining in The Wire magazine, in between the original publication of the book and its reissue it is not the underground that has died – it thrives – but the critic.  The human centipede three-way of ‘artist – critic/gatekeeper – fan’ has been irrevocably unstitched by the internet and social media.  No one needs to eat that shit anymore.  New relationships, new, flexible ways of looking are available.  Yet the critic doesn’t want to dance because their hat would fall off.  That hat means a lot – wearing it allows them to publish books, write columns for magazines and appear on panels at prestigious industry events no matter how stilted or inappropriate these strategies appear to those really engaging with what is happening.

I have a colleague here at RFM who can barely keep a hat on his head – plenty have been trampled under his almost perpetual footwork.  Commenting on a draft of part one he said:

For my money Keenan’s voice (along with others… there’s loads of them) has grown tired. The whole meta-rock critic thing is dead, dead, dead.

then, pausing only to pinch my cheek and grab a bunch of tapes from the review pile, he shimmied back onto the dance floor.  Ha, I thought – fug lifting, head starting to nod again – couldn’t agree more.

—ooOoo—

Strange Attractor Press

backing towards the reverse, part one: not a review

February 29, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Posted in musings | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,

David Keenan – England’s Hidden Reverse (revised and expanded edition, 464 pages, Strange Attractor Press)

ehr

I almost didn’t bother with (any of) this. A coffee table reissue of a book about the good old days, the original edition of which is a sought after collectors’ item. It’s hardly of burning relevance is it? Might as well have released it on Record Store Day.

That said, two things had me ‘continue to checkout’. Firstly, I was caught by the insta-meta-nostalgia on social media surrounding its re-release. The vibe seemed to be: ‘hey remember the good old days when you couldn’t get Keenan’s book about the good old days for love nor money? Well now you can!’ I remember The Small Note, short-lived indie CD shop in Leeds, tried to order a copy for me, to be paid for with the proceeds of fencing flatworm CD-rs they kindly stocked, but their line of credit was stepped on by the supplier because they were going out of business and I missed out. Good times, eh? Now I could finally have it! It’s the same urge that has the middle aged buying childhood toys on eBay, or giant King Crimson box sets. Secondly, I have become morbidly fascinated with a few examples of Keenan’s work that have come my way over the last couple of years. I shall mention three.

To begin: ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, a short piece that appeared in The Wire magazine issue 371, dated January 2015. In this piece Keenan declared the underground dead and it was much discussed at the time of publication. The scamp that forwarded me a copy expected me to blow a fuse and issue a withering line-by-line rebuttal. I was tempted – it would certainly have been deserved – but the more I thought about it, the more disheartening the prospect became. Why engage with the flatulent grumblings of a confused old uncle who, apparently quite literally, had no idea what he was talking about? Or maybe Keenan was self-aware enough to feel guilty that his vision of the underground had been gentrified, codified, canonized and calcified partly due to people like him writing books about it – and silly articles in publications like The Wire. Either way: fuck it.

offend

Next up: ‘Perspective: The Right to Offend‘, published on the Crack magazine website, dated 3rd November 2015. Crack give the context as follows:

London-based label Berceuse Heroique was recently subject to criticism following a tweet from the label’s founder that led to a wide rebuke of the label’s use of extreme imagery.

…and Keenan uses that reaction to kick off an article castigating trends in social media and musing on the nature and purpose of ‘offence’ in popular music. Whilst this is considerably less daft than the above there are several eyebrow raising ‘citation needed’ moments and some seriously muddy argument. Take this, clipped from a section comparing ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ by Sex Pistols to ‘Buchenwald’ by Whitehouse:

An album like Buchenwald by Whitehouse has no chords, no lyrics, no rhythms, no graphics. There is nothing to hold onto, nothing to align yourself with. It’s not ambiguous; it is very deliberately and precisely put together, but it does force you back on your own response without signposting exactly how you are supposed to react. Crucially, though, it does not attempt to aestheticise horror or mass murder or the holocaust. It’s not fun. The music is irreducibly tied up with the subject matter. It sounds as horrifying, as distressing, as barbaric as the scenario it attempts to evoke. No poetry after Buchenwald? Well, there’s no poetry here. In this, Whitehouse dare to take a stand.

First, some pedantry: it is unclear whether Keenan is referring to the track ‘Buchenwald’ or the whole four track album of the same name. This may be important as the other tracks reference incest, the Boston Strangler and the work of the Marquis de Sade so whether or not Whitehouse are aestheticizing horror isn’t as clear cut if the whole record is taken into account. To keep it simple, I’ll assume he’s talking about just the track.

(Aside: the track title referencing the Boston Strangler is ‘Dedicated to Albert de Salvo – Sadist and Mass Slayer’. Songs, books, park benches etc. are usually dedicated out of love, respect or gratitude. ‘Mass Slayer’ is an unnecessarily salacious use of tabloid vocabulary. Is this a parody of sentimentalism or are Whitehouse, as could easily be argued just using the tone and usual meaning of these words, celebrating a monster? Following Keenan’s argument, why isn’t the track simply called ‘Albert de Salvo’?)

Keenan is also ambiguous about the meaning of ‘ambiguous’. At first he claims the track is not ambiguous, offering a very peculiar definition of the notion (a Donald Judd box is ‘deliberately and precisely put together’, does that make it unambiguous?) but at the end of the same sentence he says it does not signpost exactly how you are supposed to react – which is pretty much the dictionary meaning of the word. Likewise, the idea that the music is irreducibly tied up with the subject matter doesn’t hold water. Anyone with a passing interest in the genre could imagine this track retitled and appearing on another Whitehouse album or slotting into any number of industrial/noise releases. Titling it ‘Buchenwald’ isn’t enough – the kind of essentialism Keenan needs to make the point doesn’t exist.

I thought for a fair while about the final part of that paragraph. What does ‘It sounds as horrifying … as the scenario it attempts to evoke’ mean? Is Keenan saying that this track is literally as harrowing as the actual Buchenwald concentration camp and the horror that occurred there? Presumably not because that claim (that a 12 minute noise track was as upsetting as the machinery of genocide) would be preposterous to the point of obscenity. So what are we comparing? Is the track documentary – like, say, a book of photographs? Again presumably not because, despite the mood it successfully and unbearably evokes, there is nothing essential linking this particular track to this particular atrocity. What are Whitehouse taking a stand on? That genocide is bad and that evil exists in the world? Mate, we didn’t need to be told. Or is it something like the spiel on the cover of Whitehouse’s 2001 album Cruise:

cruise

That art created with anything less than unflinching engagement with reality is pathetic decadence? Who knows? As rhetoric Keenan’s account is exciting stuff, as an argument it’s gibberish. The article finishes with this call to arms:

But there is a right to offend just as there is a right to be offended. Rights exist to protect what ordinarily could never survive, what is most offensive, what is most off-message, most non-mainstream. There is also, crucially, a right to be irresponsible, a right to say no, to refuse pieties about the sanctity of life and the beauty of love and the achievements of democracy and the reputation of Boris Johnson, to scribble all over them with crayons, if you feel like it. Take that away and we lose some of the greatest art of the 20th Century, from Life Stinks by Pere Ubu through Suicide and Blaise Cendrars. What are we left with? Billy Bragg, Sting and The Lightning Seeds.

Whilst largely in agreement with this sentiment, the temptation is to remind the author that we are no longer in the 20th Century. An article about the right to offend in an age of identity politics, ideological puritanism and public shaming via social media might have been fascinating but Keenan only mentions this stuff to dismiss it (entertainingly, I admit) and crack on with the history lesson. The ‘what are we left with?’ examples are hilarious. I mean, there are literally hundreds of acts pushing things forward in brilliant, innovative ways without being bulb-ends like Gizmo (yes, really) of Berceuse Heroique. It’s been a long while since blokes in three quarter length leather coats were the vanguard and, quite rightly, plenty of them are amongst those being challenged now.

Heh, heh – The fucking Lightning Seeds.  One for the kids there.

crime

Finally: ‘Crime Calls For Night‘, an audio/visual talk presented at Off The Page, Bristol Arnolfini, September 2014. This lecture, given at The Wire magazine’s ‘literary festival for sound and music’ and subtitled ‘A phenomenology of transgression in industrial music’ (for those playing hackademia bingo: ‘house!’), is another order of magnitude less daft than the articles above.

Over 50ish minutes Keenan has some space to flesh out ideas and some of what I called gibberish above starts to make more sense (The Lightning Seeds are replaced by Joanna Newsom too, which made me laugh).  The section about the adolescent nature of Paleolithic art is great and had me nosing around the internet hoping to find a cheap edition of the book he mentions (R. Dale Guthrie – The Nature of Paleolithic Art, no such luck – might have to try inter-library loans). The bits on industrial music as ritual gave me pause too – reminding me of reading things like Rapid Eye and the Industrial Culture Handbook, having my nipples pierced by Mr. Sebastian shortly after my 18th birthday and warily climbing the stairs above the photocopiers to Wildcat, the Brighton based piercing supplies shop, only to find Genesis P. Orridge there holding forth:

A day without a Prince Albert is a day lost!

Sage advice.

Anyway, two Whitehouse tracks get an airing this time. Firstly, ‘Ripper Territory’ which is an easier sell than ‘Buchenwald’ as it contains audio from news reports of Peter Sutcliffe’s arrest so the piece is tied to the subject matter in a straightforward way. Keenan’s analysis of this is compelling – the news reports are at once banal and sensational, at odds with the band’s stomach-churning accompaniment which needs do nothing but hold up a cold mirror to reality. That Keenan finishes this section by leaving the question ‘where is Ripper territory?’ hanging unanswered (the implied answer being ‘in us’) is very smart indeed. I was less convinced, again, by the account of ‘Buchenwald’ but it certainly seemed more persuasive than the cribbed version in the ‘Right to Offend’ article. What I really need, I thought, as I rewound it for the third time, is a definitive written account of this argument…

Wait, what? I’m sorry what did you say?

Long out of print and with the first edition demanding serious money from collectors, this much-anticipated expanded edition comes completely redesigned, with many new and previously unseen photographs and ephemera. It also comes with two new chapters, a final summing up of how the Reverse has changed gear since the book was first published and a new Chapter Zero entitled Crime Calls For Night where Keenan presents a daring argument that traces the transgressive urge that animates industrial culture all the way from Palaeolithic cave art through rock n roll and punk rock and up to contemporary noise music.

Ah, OK, let me get my credit card…

—ooOoo—

In part two: ‘Crime Calls For Night’ revisited, including more on the ‘no poetry…’ idea if I can get my head around the source of the notion (Adorno: ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’), some ‘Lester Bangs died for his own sins, not mine’ stuff about the erosion of the artist/critic divide and the redundancy of critics in general and maybe even an account of the contents of the book.

Don’t hold your breath though – it only arrived on Saturday and is a right doorstep.

—ooOoo—

Strange Attractor Press

 

 

 

 

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