Saturday, 30 November 2019

GIS: Unmaking 'The Spectacle'

Photo by Bea Dewhurst.
One of the key ideas of the Situationists was of ‘the spectacle’(1), which included the concept that subjects within an industrialised capitalist society are immersed, via the state, corporations and media, in a seamless representation of reality that serves the interests of those in power. This representation is so all pervasive that the economics, politics and social organisation of late capitalism are experienced as natural rather than construct. The Situationist’s ‘spectacle’ tied in with Gramsci’s theory of ‘cultural hegemony’(2) and with Althusser’s idea of Ideological State Apparatus (3).

Recently this train of thought was explored by Mark Fisher in his excellent 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There Really No Alternative (4) where he explores the comment by either Jameson or Zizek that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism. Psychiatrist Frantz Fanon pointed out that colonisation was not just the occupation of a territory and the reordering of that society/economy to the interests of the coloniser but also involved the colonisation of the oppressed subject’s minds (5). The colonised adopted the cultural views, values and attitudes of the dominant colonial power including it’s view of the colonised. According to the concept of ‘the spectacle’ the working class has been colonised by neoliberal capitalism’s view of the world, it has internalised a world view that serves the interests of a hostile class.

The Situationists suggested that one of the ways to free ourselves of the mesmeric effect of the  ‘the spectacle’ is through direct participation in situations, to break free from passively consumed mediated experience and to become co participants in situations experienced directly, situations that disrupt and challenge the top down narrative. That internalised narrative is of an individualised, disempowered, fractured working class struggling because of its own poor choices. Its a narrative that pits the working class against each other through scapegoating and by convincing us that our problems of financial insecurity, anxiety, precarity, poor mental health are individual not structural. It tells you the problems lie within the working class and are not the result of policies and governance by the powerful for the powerful.   

Wonderfully described by Ged Babey as looking ‘more like a terror cell than a rock group’(6) Girls In Synthesis’ music and practice is an effective and positive site of resistance to this top down narrative.By dealing lyrically with working class experience of fragile mental health, social immobility, a sense of powerlessness, precarity, anxiety and the corrosive effects of a hostile society GIS enable us to join the dots and realise that the framing of these experiences as individualised dysfuctionality is false and that these are shared experiences that are often far more to do with politically constructed conditions and structures of oppression. There is a relief in that; to hear someone singing  ‘Living in a world that wants to destroy you’ (Internal Politics) is strangely heartening, encouraging, empowering. ‘So it's not just me then? Well fuck ‘em. I won’t give them the satisfaction!’

Musically GIS have found a sound that simultaneously conveys both a sense of nervous anxiety, of tension and of adrenaline fuelled exhilaration. If you were looking for an antecedent maybe The Ruts would be the obvious one, another band who were (and are) able to transpose social tension and the intensity of urban life into music.

Relational aesthetics is a term used to describe art that enables collaboration and is completed by the participation of both the initiating artist and those who would often be seen as the ‘audience’. It is an art form that extends the opportunity for direct participation and the construction of, at least temporary, community. In other words it’s an art form that ticks all the Situationist boxes for breaking out of passive consumption of spectacle and moving into direct involvement and contribution to the moment. GIS live is relational aesthetics, an ongoing art experiment that draws the would be viewer into the creative act. They relinquish a degree of control in the belief that those present have something worth contributing, that the net effect will be a plus and it’s something that GIS have become expert at, their live shows are a celebration of solidarity, community and, interestingly, responsibility. 

Girls In Synthesis are of course, primarily, a rock band but by fulfilling the Situationist’s ideal of disrupting the top down discourse of individualised dysfunctionality, breaking the spell of ‘the spectacle’ and deliberately creating environments of participation they may be one of the few bands that have come close to fulfilling punk’s potential.

(1) Debord, G. (1968) ‘The Society of the Spectacle’. Black and Red, USA.
(2) Thomas, M. (ed)(2012) ‘Antonio Gramsci: Working-Class Revolutionary’, Workers’ Liberty, London.
(3)D’Alleva, A. (2012) ‘Methods and Theories of Art History’, Laurence King Publishing, London.
(4) Fisher, M. (2009) ‘Capitalist Realism: Is There Really No Alternative?’, O Books, Winchester UK and Washington USA.
(5) Mesch, C. (2014) ‘Post Colonial Identity and the Civil-Rights Movement’ Art and Politics; a small history of art for social change since 1945′, I. B. Tauris, London & New York.
(6) Babey, G. (2018) Girls In Synthesis: Fan the Flames EP review, Louder Than War,

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Girls In Synthesis. Old Blue Last. 14/11/19.

6pm. Made it! I'm in London, not an easy trip from rain soaked Suffolk, flooding meant all trains on the Lowestoft to Ipswich line were cancelled. First casualty was the William Blake exhibition, as my train's delay turned into cancellation I realise that no way am I going to get there! In fact Girls In Synthesis is looking far from certain. Some friends decide to drive to Ipswich, they have tickets for the England match, 'Do I want a lift?' I certainly do! Ipswich had real moving trains!

7pm. And eventually I meet up with a couple of friends at Liverpool Street, we set off down Bishopsgate towards Great Eastern Street and the Old Blue Last. A Pole, a Spaniard and a Brit. One of them puts on DIY punk gigs, the other has played in three bands I know of. You can't measure the grass roots cultural positives of being in the EU, the re-energising effects of fresh enthusiasms, new styles, the hybridities that come with the movement of people. I have far more in common with these two than I have with Boris Johnson.

7.30. The Old Blue Last. Never been here before, nice place. Toilets? Easily spotted. The Great Escape Festival has put on a series of gigs to showcase some of the bands they have next May, Girls in Synthesis are on with The Cool Greenhouse and Do Nothing. It's sold out. I spot someone I recognise from previous GIS gigs, very nice guy, the four of us stand chatting about music. New and old. We all mention bands the others haven't heard of. How much good music is there out there?

8pm. The Cool Greenhouse are on and I'm starting to relax with the help of a couple of drinks. Intriguing band, a bit Bodega maybe? Art Rock perhaps? Their bandcamp page describes them as 'lo-fi, repetitive post-punk with a social conscience'. They've had three releases since June '18 and to me they seemed pretty good, which is mild praise compared to The Quietus who commented about EP Crap Cardboard Pet, 'enthralling', 'oozes delight and is so very infectious in its charm' (1).

8.45pm. Time to start positioning ourselves, it will probably get more difficult to move freely quite soon. What's the word for a lot of photographers? Whatever it is, there are. Which shows good taste in my opinion.

8.55pm. I think it may have been Mark Fisher who commented that late capitalism is like an ever open, moribund, shopping mall, devoid of purpose and community. Alienation, isolation, lack of meaning, anxiety, the individualisation of mental health issues-as though they happen in a vacuum. One of the hallmarks of post modernity is meant to be the death of the meta-narrative, stories we told about where we are and where we are going. Marxism has one, capitalism used to have one. Now all neoliberal capitalism can offer you is precarity, anxiety and the assurance that things could be worse.

9pm. Girls In Synthesis take to the stage. The atmosphere changes to electric expectancy, we're teetering on the edge of the rush! And then it happens, 'Arterial Movements', 'Pressure, 'Tainted'. John and Jim have long since given up the stage, positioning themselves and their mics within the audience, it's a deeply sophisticated move that carries within it a symbol of solidarity, the praxis of intentional community, the preparedness to divest themselves of architectural power and to trust the crowd. This is the realisation of relational aesthetics, art as an ongoing collaboration with all the attendant risks. The whole area in front of the stage is now a wild celebration of solidarity, of community, of life. In the middle of it all, like astronauts in constant communication with base, John, Jim and Nicole - who somehow holds it all together -  periodically catch each other's eye, nod, synchronise watches. I don't know what effective protest looks like at the moment, (Extinction Rebellion?) but this feels like part of it because it's an affirmation of what makes us human, reminds us of what life is meant to be about. Community, trust, hope. In these fucking awful times of brutal top down class war those three things enable us to keep going and Girls In Synthesis help us to remember that and to invest in them. This band is important. They remind us that neoliberalism is construct not nature, it's corrosive effects can be resisted.

9.35pm. They've finished! What do you do now? Watch the last band? I can't, I need to get a train, if it's running! I talk, to my friends, to someone from a previous gig, to the band. I dance around to something on the PA then leave.

10.30pm. I spend the journey home smiling.       

Cashin, C. (2019) 'The Cool Greenhouse: Crap Cardboard Pet', The Quietus,      

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Track Not Found, The Sumac, 1 Nov 2019.

An afternoon off work, three trains in and I'm reading Hatt and Klonk on Hegelian art theory, interesting but ultimately a load of speculative semi teleological bollocks really. I'm on my way to Nottingham, to the Sumac Centre to see Echoes and Dust favourites Track Not Found who are playing as part of a benefit gig for homeless girls in Sierra Leone, ‘getting them off the streets, away from the pimps, and into school’ as someone put it on the night. Twisted East/P4TH had put on Track Not Found’s first UK gig in July ‘18 and I was looking forward to catching then again.

It’s a fair walk from Nottingham rail station to the Sumac and as I wandered past an art gallery a painting caught my eye, the person closing up turns out to be the artist as well, Lauren Paige. Good strong body of work, diverse, some of it autobiographical, all of it interesting. I took her card. Away from the flagship retrospectives there seems to a thriving, vibrant grass roots art scene which is often more interesting than a lot of the big gallery stuff. If you live in the Nottingham area her stuff, on Mansfield Road, is well worth a look.

The Sumac is as wonderful as ever, a DIY anarchist social centre that revives my hope in humanity ever time I go there.‘The Sumac Centre promotes co-operation, non-hierarchy and grassroots groups promoting social and environmental justice. We are not-for-profit and run by volunteers’.Tonights gig is an interesting mix of spoken word and music and kicks off with Pixie Styx, now I hadn’t heard of her before so didn’t really know what to expect, she turned out to be a singer songwriter of unusual sensitivity and honesty. Normally singer songwritery stuff isn’t really my thing but here was a depth, a vulnerability, and an engaging self deprecating humour that meant the often sobering subject matter was sensitivity presented.  Somehow she balanced the different elements of her set effectively. Really good!

Next up was a local poet Jesse Eden Freeman, spoken word and powerful with it she set about racist hetronormative patriarchal capitalism and gave it a good going over. (Com)passionate and articulate I would guess her poetry is the distillation of a lot of reading and studying. She returned later in the evening with a piece about the lived experience of being a woman in a sexist society, living with a constant sense of tension. More men need to hear her. Grass roots DIY progressive politics as poetry; as punk as it gets!

She was followed by Jo and Dickon, doing an accompanied spoken word set, a compilation of other poets work, really good arrangements and quite emotional.

I’ve seen Nieviem a few times now and every time they deliver, the quality control for their gigs is bang on, doesn’t matter where they are, or that they have a new drummer, or how much preparation time they get Nieviem are always good! And they were particularly good tonight, whether it was the mix or just me but they sounded the best I've heard them. Think melodic hardcore, think Rise Against with female vocals. Bart Stanczyk’s guitar playing was prominent tonight as he alternated between quintessential punk riffs and more complex, intricate playing over pulsing bass and drums while Hope’s vocals were bang on as always. Quality band, everytime I see them they’re impressive.

Activistas have continued to evolve and develop into a really interesting thing, from a four piece into a six piece and into a really tight band with looser dual vocals over the top. For some reason I can't really explain or work out I kept thinking The Fall even though there is very little in common musically. Political and bothered with songs like ‘Chip Shop Fascist’ and ‘Boris is a Twat’ they make a terrific 'patchwork punk' racket! I saw them a while ago and they've moved on hugely, it will be interesting to see where they go next! 

Next up was Headstone Horrors from Nottingham, now I’d seen their name about but never heard anything by them till tonight, and they were good. Tight catchy horror punk, with an energy and panache about them that made them well worth a watch. Apparently they formed in 2012 and have been playing live since ‘13, it showed, they really are very good indeed. The east Midlands and Lincolnshire seems to have more than its fair share of quality punk bands and Headstone Horrors are one of the best. 

Last up were Track Not Found and I was wondering how they would do after Headstone Horrors performance, stupid of me of course because TNF are nothing like conventional punk, they’re out there somewhere doing their own thing, sometimes it overlaps with punk, sometimes with grunge, sometimes blues rock, although you might occasionally recognise a passing resembance to some style you’ve heard before, they take it all and reconfigure, realighn it. All those component parts you think you know have been customised, synthesised with intelligence, wit and bravery to create something new and exciting. Think Kate Bush with a punk sensibility, imagine she grew up listening to Nirvana and Riot Grrrl hooked up with Natasha Khan and started a band. You remember that phrase about ‘the future of Rock ‘n’ Roll’? Well it’s here and it sounds very exciting indeed (sorry, Bruce)! They start with the atmospheric ‘Luna’ before they go into ‘Fuck, Fuck, Fuck’, ‘Oxygen’, ‘Run Me Down’, their set is made up of a string of inventive, intelligent nimble tracks that, judging by the response of the people around me, grab the listener and demand their attention. A few tracks later they finished with new single ‘Everybody Hates Track Not Found’, or at least they would have finished if the guy next to me hadn't muttered ‘That’s next level stuff’ and started the calls for an encore, we got ‘Code Red’ off their 2017 EP, excellent end to a stunning set. A year on from their first tour in the UK TNF have a new drummer, Toby, and have developed musically and visually, Grace was on the newly vacated tables within two songs, finished the set on top of the drum kit, while Maisie wandered into the audience wearing a surreal pair of feathered angel wings. Catch them live as soon as you can.

Great evening for a good cause, don't let people tell you punk is dead, it's alive and well and thriving in a multitude of forms.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Arterial Movements EP: Girls In Synthesis.

Image courtesy of GIS.
With Pre/Post: A Collection 2016-18 Girls In Synthesis released an extraordinarily  insightful, incisive documentation of neoliberal Britain, a compilation of their four previous releases the music has an abrasive, anxious intensity that somehow manages to transpose the lived experience of alienated precarity into musical form. Where Wassily Kandinsky experimented with ideas of transposing music and spirituality into visual form Pre/Post collects together explorations of the psychological, emotional and material effects of late capitalism on the individual and the social. It’s an album of extreme importance as it makes the hidden experiences of working class Britain visible. The media’s propaganda caricature of working class Britain as disempowered, individualised consumers suffering the ill effects of their own poor choices is shattered by GIS, recorded and live, as they reassert the truth that even in the midst of brutal top down class war the working class still has a solidarity based on the shared experience of oppression, resilience and resistance. GIS remind us that the mocking phrase ‘We’re all in this together’ can be appropriated and detoured as a resource in our collective struggle against a sociopathic government.

Which kind of brings us to the second track on Girls In Synthesis new EP, Arterial Movements. Released on X-Mist/In A Car, the EP is comprised of three tracks ‘Arterial Movements’, ‘Smarting’ and ‘It’s Over, Forget It’ and comes out on 11 October. ‘Smarting’ is a disconcerting flipping of the coin as GIS adopt a first person narration of the attitudes of those who have inflicted such immense suffering on those least able to cope, evidenced by rising poverty, homelessness, inequality and 120,000 excess deaths over eight years. The cold hearted ruthlessness of those constructing misery and deprivation is exposed in ‘Smarting’.

“The only way I can enjoy life is through the toil of others struggles, 
the only way I can engulf you is to have the upper hand on, 
I reduce you down to a spec, insignificant, worthless, nothing, 
watch you writhe and starve to death makes me feel I’m worth something

Everything you need and want
Everything you’ve worked so hard on.

My thoughts are not thoughts at all, they’re vapid, streaking hate,
when we reach the end there will be nothing left to blame,
If you find hope I’ll destroy it over and over again,
A vicious loop to keep you contained within your pen.

I’m done with playing games
I only want to inflict pain”.

To be honest it’s pretty disturbing just typing that up! As GIS commented on this track ‘One of the other songs on the EP, ‘Smarting’, is a dark and disturbing view on the total mental control and obliteration that some people feel is their right to inflict on other people. Make of that what you will…’ 

Before ‘Smarting’ the title track ‘Arterial Movements’ literally pulses intensity at you!! It’s like an adrenalised heartbeat of music, coming at you, dropping back, like being able to hear your own blood pulsing through your body, the transposition of life into music. In contrast to ‘Smarting’ this track is an expression of empathy, of care, of solidarity. GIS again, “‘Arterial’ deals with the process of helping someone through their mental struggles, while being wholly aware of your own issues at the same time, the lyrics are more revealing and stark, which is something we were developing on ‘Howling’ and ‘Internal Politics’”.

“Walk along the roads that we create,
Travelling the distance that we need,
To take away the pain you feel inside,
Hard when no progress can be seen.

I’ve tried it once so now I won’t try again

We progress, progress in arterial movements,
We define, define in arterial movements.

Opening the door to somewhere else,
Managing the contents there within,
Well, I’m not qualified to suggest it’s a feeling that’s causing this.

We progress, progress in arterial movements,
We define, define in arterial movements”.

‘Victories don’t always look like other people think they should’ said an old man in the film Good Vibrations (1). Empathy, solidarity, care are bordering on revolutionary at the moment, GIS encapsulate them all in this song.

Last track up is ‘It’s Over. Forget It’ which careers along at 100mph, a tumultuous maelstrom of a track that somehow reminds me of early Buzzcocks! It clocks in at 1:16 apparently but it’s really 3 mins of great songwriting distilled down and played at breakneck speed. (OK, I’ve just read that back, not sure it makes sense but you know what I mean!). Lyrically it seems to be  someone looking back at a toxic relationship but then the last line makes me wonder if it could be about the baleful effects of mass media in a time of scapegoating and nationalism?

“On hindsight, it seemed fine
But then I was blind
To the paranoia
That you placed in my mind…

Let the dog off the lead and it’s sure to fucking bite”.

Arterial Movements is another chapter is the unfolding story of an important band, it doesn’t just reproduce what’s gone before but subtlety moves things along, as the band commented.  

“‘Arterial Movements’ is down the more traditional route of GIS material, but maybe has a slightly more melodic edge to the vocals, I think that the newer material is slightly more complex than some of the previous releases. We’re currently finishing off new material for a long player, and there will be some nice surprises for people on it”. 

And has the sense of what GIS is, who GIS is, the band’s identity, changed and metamorphosised over time? If so, is that a shifting around a stable core or is the band continually reconfiguring and reconstructing itself as a process of discovery and exploration?

“It’s hard to say, really, as when you’re in it the changes come from us as people, a band, a creative entity... it’s not really something you tend to notice or discuss very much. 
I feel we’re becoming more and more confident experimenting with our sound now, whilst retaining the edge and directness that is our calling card. I think we are trying to push ourselves further, not only musically, but also as a unit. Attempting to become of one mind, which in itself can be a very intense and confusing process.
As things are starting to get busier and other avenues are opening up for us, it’s very important for us to keep our focus and retain who we are as well as developing, to keep ourselves, and the audience, on our toes”.

Arterial Movements is out on 11 October and the band are touring this November /December.
Buy this and see them as soon as you can!

Pre-order link:
Release date: 11/10/19
Released by X-Mist/In A Car [Germany]

Tour dates:
14/11- London - The Old Blue Last [The Great Escape FIRST FIFTY show]
21/11- Hull - The New Adelphi
22/11- Manchester - The Castle Hotel
23/11- Leeds - Wharf Chambers [Interior/Alphaville all-dayer]
06/12- Brighton - The Pipeline
08/12- Bristol - Exchange [Harbinger Sound all-dayer]

  1. Good Vibrations (2013), Revolution Films/Canderblinks Film and Music Ltd.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Henry Cow: An Interview With Chris Cutler.

One of the most innovative and visionary bands of the 70s Henry Cow are almost as renowned for their politics and practice as their extraordinary music! Henry Cow pushed the boundaries of what was possible within a European musical framework between ‘68 and ‘79 with a collection of albums that experimented with form and sound. Their Marxist informed, truly progressive, process of egalitarian, democratic musical production still stands as a benchmark for bands seeking to break free of the myth of neoliberal individualism.

The embryonic Henry Cow emerged from Cambridge University life in 1968 around founding members Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson. After various personnel changes a settled line up took shape when bass guitarist John Greaves joined in 1969, with drummer Chris Cutler joining a couple of years later. In ‘72 they recruited Geoff Leigh on woodwind and in 1973 released their first album Legend on Virgin. In 1974 Lindsay Cooper replaced the departed Leigh and they started work on Unrest. The same year Henry Cow and Slapp Happy started work together on Slapp Happy’s second album (Desperate Straights) and the following year on Henry Cow’s third, In Praise of Learning, which featured the Slapp Happy-soon to be Henry Cow-vocalist Dagmar Krause. 

Too complex for Britain and not commercial enough to sustain Virgin’s interest, Henry Cow found their musical home in Europe where their music and politics found an enthusiastic response. With similar bands they went on to form Rock In Opposition, a collaboration of groups who operated outside the mainstream music industry. In 1976 they released live album Concerts, and were joined by cellist Georgie Born who replaced Greaves on bass. Their final album Western Culture was released in 1979, the band having announced their decision to bring things to a close the previous year.

With a belief that ’radical politics demand radical music’ and that ‘Art is not a mirror-It is a hammer’(John Grierson quote on the cover of In Praise of Learning), forty years later Henry Cow’s music still sounds like messages from another place; reminding us what could be, what should be, of lost futures and still existent possibilities.

Post Henry Cow the various members have gone on to have long and respected careers as musicians working with a variety of bands and other musicians and in new configurations of erstwhile Henry Cow members. In addition, Georgie Born, Tim Hodgkinson and Chris Cutler have also authored books, with Chris Cutler also running Recommended Records.

In 2014 members of Henry Cow regrouped for several concerts to celebrate the life of Lindsay Cooper, who had died the previous year.

This September sees the release of The World is a Problem a book on Henry Cow by Benjamin Piekut with a book launch at Cafe Oto, London on October 13th. To accompany the book release ReR is releasing the complete works of Henry Cow: 18 CDs, a DVD and 250 pages of recollections, commentaries, documentation, unpublished photographs and substantial notes written by members of the band (due Oct). 

I can still recall the first time I heard Henry Cow as a teenager, when a friend put on Concerts, and can still remember the realisation that I had never heard anything like it before, and very little like it since! So I was extremely excited when Henry Cow's drummer Chris Cutler agreed to an interview for Echoes and Dust on all things Henry Cow! 

In the book Future Days it comments that the German bands that became collectively known as Krautrock were unable to draw on their cultural history, unwilling to draw on American musical history and therefore had to innovate and experiment to find new forms and styles (1). Was that something that Henry Cow very much related to at the time?
Well, I’m not sure I agree with David Stubbs about that. After the nazi period of course German folk music had to be avoided, but still, the so-called Krautrock bands took as their jumping-off point something equally ‘German’: electronic music, which they fused with the vocabulary of… American rock. What we related to most, I think, was this bricolage of different musical languages; that and the casual disregard for distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art – which I’d say, all the rock experimentalists at this time held in common.

As a working definition ‘A grass roots DIY artistic expression of progressive politics’ seems to sum up all that is good about punk. Does that make Henry Cow the first punk band?!
These are troublesome definitions. Some punk bands did-it-themselves, and some were politically progressive - but all were musically mono-cultural, rejecting not only jazz, classical and contemporary music, but also the catholic experiments of their immediate predecessors; such as us. Punk was arguably more about attitude than culture - in which it differed markedly from the more ambiguous New Wave bands that rode in on its coat-tails. So I think it would be a hard sell to pitch Henry Cow as proto-punks. While Punk rejected mainstream culture - until it became mainstream itself - Henry Cow embraced capital C culture with both hands and tried to integrate its fringes into a new mainstream. We didn’t just want to speak to our peers or our own generation. We were inclusive and directed our music at anyone prepared to listen; Punk, on the other hand, was culturally very tunnel-visioned.

There were five studio albums between 1973 and ‘79, one a collaboration with Slapp Happy, looking back is there a sense of the releases having a continuity, being a body of work or are they more a series of stand alone artefacts, documenting your responses to certain sets of circumstances?
Continuity. Our musical language evolved in a pretty linear way. The snapshots taken on that road – the studio albums – were different from one another because we constantly found new problems to solve or new questions to ask (and sometimes, new technologies to explore). But you are right, our circumstances changed, global politics changed and the problems we faced - both artistic and professional – changed; we were just trying to keep up. So, where Legend was cheery and Dadaistic, Unrest was pessimistic, dark and deliberately experimental. In Praise of Learning was optimistic - and in-your-face political, while Western Culture swayed between precision and organicism, and was steeped in narrative. I think it would be easy to make the case that they track the political events of their time - as well as the evolution of our own aesthetic thinking. Desperate Straights and Hopes and Fears, in their different ways, explored our roots in pop, and short song form, which was, in a way, our natural language. But, of course, everything we did precipitated out of the interplay of our world and the world, and I don’t think it’s hard to follow the threads that bind them. It’s the story of a time, and a collective mind at work.

I’ve read a couple of books recently about the Russian Constructivists (2) and Post-Punk (3) and both groups explored cultural production and form around the question of ‘What does a socialist process of production look like?’ Egalitarian democracy? The evidencing of production as a socially dynamic process? What did the process of production look like in Henry Cow?
We weren’t messing about and we did operate collectively. That is to say, there was no leader or main composer: Henry Cow wasn’t somebody’s group. In addition, we controlled our own affairs: we had no management or concert agency to answer to and we were wholly self-sufficient, with our own lorry, bus, PA system and lights - usually around 10 of us on the road: 6 in the band and four road-crew. Gender balance was pretty equal; we had female drivers, sound engineers and technicians as well as musicians. And all decisions were made at minuted weekly meetings at which a no-majority rule was imposed: that is to say, nothing could be done until everyone agreed to it. A majority couldn’t override a dissident voice. So we talked until we found a better solution. That could be grueling, but we did that all the way through. It’s why we ended so positively.

The associated question was/is ‘What form and content does the object/cultural product that is a comrade in the struggle for socialism look/sound like and how should it affect the individual and society? Was that a question you were exploring with Henry Cow’s music?
Well, top line; we were musicians. We were concerned with the music. But, as political people working in a highly politicized environment we could hardly - nor did we wish to - separate our musical lives from their social and political contexts. Mostly, our politics were practical: for example, as I said, all the other bands we knew were dependent on managers, concert agents and record companies; we controlled all these functions ourselves – as well as how, where, for whom and in what context, we played. That gave us a freedom more or less none of our peers had. Overt politics only came into the music after Dagmar joined and we had to write texts.

Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain (3), Resilience and Melancholy (4) and File Under Popular (5) all explore the importance of musical form and the concept that certain musical forms can convey particular ideologies (values and worldviews) due to either the structure mirroring political values or via socialised associations. Did those sorts of ideas feed into Henry Cow’s practice at the time?
We constantly discussed these sorts of issues but I don’t think we believed that certain musical forms could convey particular ideologies. Plato believed that; we were more Aristotelian - more of the opinion that ‘progressive’ meant things like stimulating thought, not acting in bad faith, addressing our public honestly, trying not to propagate oppressive social relations, discouraging the unquestioned acceptance of dominant narratives....

And did you therefore seek to create music that would disrupt and challenge that hegemonic representation of society, be an artform that gives dissident expression, pointed to what could be rather than reproducing what ‘was’?
Yes, I think we would have agreed with that.

In 1977 you set up Music for Socialism (6), could you tell us a little more about that, what it involved, what it’s aims were?
We were partners in the setting up; it wasn’t our project. Its aims were, like R.I.O.’s, to put up a flag and bring the question of the relation between music and socialist politics into a public forum; to share proposals about what a Socialist music might sound like in the form of debates and concerts. We didn’t come to any conclusions, but we did manage to instantiate a climate of comradely tolerance, more or less. Some experiments - the women-only music room, for instance – were more interesting: that was a room full of instruments and amplifiers closed to men. That caused controversy. But, in the end, like the festival as a whole, although it made a brave attempt to face up to a difficult question, it came to no useful conclusion; probably because the premiss itself – that there might be some kind of music that is intrinsically Socialistic - was just wrong.

You were also involved with the Italian Communist Party for a while (6), did the members of the band have a similar politics at the time?
We worked a lot in Italy when it was hard for outside bands to go there - largely because the PCI adopted us as comrades. After our free concert in Rome with Robert Wyatt and Gong, we parked our bus in the Piazza Farnese and just hung around. After a day or so, someone from the PCI found us and asked if we were free to play the next day at one of their Festa d‘Unita - huge free fairs they ran all over Italy throughout the Summer. That concert led to five or six more and by the end of the week we had become politically persona grata in Italy. We were invited back every year after that; not only by the PCI but also by the Partito Radicale and other left groups. I can say we felt very at home in the Italian left of that time.

In 1984 you initiated a benefit EP, The Last Nightingale, involving several members of Henry Cow to raise money for the striking miners (7), which is a good example of the John Grierson quote on the back cover of In Praise of Learning ‘Art is not a mirror - it is a hammer’. How did that idea play out in Henry Cow and has it continued to inform your own practice?
Since I had a record company, releasing a record to raise money for the miners was just an obvious thing to do. Although Henry Cow had broken up four years earlier, we were all still in touch and most of us were still working together, on and off, in different combinations. The Grierson quote was something I added to the cover of In Praise of Learning to tie the whole thing together, though I think it’s a sentiment we all agreed with. It’s certainly what we tried to do in our lives: to be active not passive; positive not neutral.

In Lipstick Traces Marcus connects Dadaism, the Situationists and early Punk as movements that creatively disrupted and exposed society as construct (8). Would Henry Cow be happy with being included in that lineage?
I don’t think so. We weren’t alienated from ‘society as a construct’ and we weren’t trying to make any such point, although it was fashionable then. Marcus is someone, I think, constantly carried away by his own rhetoric. Of course, there’s a whisper of truth in his analyses - because he’s no fool - but he seems incapable of contextualizing. For him everything is hyperbolic. Yes, in a tiny fringe of punk - the bit run by poser Svengalis like Malcom McCLaren - a vulgar form of Situationism was played out. But on the ground…? Punk was a money-spinner for the record industry and for most of its constituency a way to avoid facing the problems of Thatcherism. Of course, there were genuine actors mixed in, but they were overwhelmed by the commercial machine and its consumer constituency - which was, as ever, the dominant constituency. Grassroots stayed at grassroots. Breaking things is easy but building something that can resist the power of a dominant ideology is hard. Punk totally failed on that score. So, no.

Towards the end of File Under Popular you run through the history of innovation and progressive practice in modern music. The book was written in the mid eighties I think, and I wondered if there have been any movements that you would now include in that history? Post-punk? Early Rave?
That’s a very interesting question. There was certainly innovation after 1978, some in the so-called New Wave, some in Techno, some in Hip Hop, mostly in the new category of bands that sprung up between the genres (like the Necks, Ground Zero, Biota, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, areas of metal, &c.), but I’m not sure any of that counts as a ’movement’? We’re still waiting for the next movement, going round in circles in a fog of revivals and imitations. One is coming. It always does, eventually. Rave was certainly political, but hardly musically innovative. There’s no space to develop this here, but there’s a very dangerous aspect to the replacement of human entrainment with machine entrainment that has characterized much of music in the last 40 years and which is the very opposite of politically progressive.

Henry Cow’s cultural legacy can be seen in the continual re-emergence of similarly independent, collectivist, politicised art practice in music with bands like Crass, Test Dept, Gnod. Have there been any bands post Henry Cow that have particularly excited you? Any contemporary bands?
That’s always a hard question, not least because I have a terrible memory and it doesn’t work that way. Also, much recent innovation hasn’t come from bands but composers, individuals, mavericks… but there are still bands I like and admire because, at a certain level, there are always great musicians around with great ideas. Sometimes they become visible and audible; sometimes they are lost in the noise and disappear. It’s a lottery, especially when nobody very much cares. Innovation was looked for and rewarded fifty years ago because music was important to my generation as an alternative mythology – more than just a commodity in a box. Now music is on tap and the industry is firmly in control, and what’s alternative is no longer mainstream but hidden on the internet or at small local concerts that are hard to find. The present climate is not conducive to innovation, which is neither recognized nor supported. But it exists. The way tigers exist, as an endangered species.

In 1978 Henry Cow set up Rock In Opposition which had its tenth festival in France a couple of years ago. Could you tell us some more about the organisation and the ideas behind it?
First. I should say that there were five Rock In Opposition festivals, run by members in the UK, Italy, Sweden, Belgium and France, which all took place in the first two years. After that RIO quietly ceased to operate. The new festivals that use the name have nothing to do with the original bands or their ideals.

As well as being perpetually relevant musically Henry Cow can also be a resource in contemporary political and cultural struggles. What specific aspects of Henry Cow do you think we should be re-examining and learning from?
Self sufficiency. That’s what protected us and enabled us to pursue the music that interested us. Eclecticism. That’s what made our music unusual: we mashed together whatever interested us from all available forms of music, thereby expanding the vocabulary and the range of possible hybrids. A dialectic of improvisation and through-composition. That’s what constantly pushed us into new ideas and the evolution of new techniques, radically altering our relations of production and expanding our available models of musical thinking.

Are there any Henry Cow plans for the future? There is a book out in September, isn’t there? Anything else planned at all?
There are no plans. Henry Cow broke up in 1978 and never reformed. Nor did it wish to - although we did all come together to organize a memorial concert for Lindsay Cooper, at the Barbican in 2014, where we played her compositions. Otherwise, ReR has kept the records in print and, in 2009, released a 9 CD and 1 DVD box of previously unreleased material. The book you mention is not a Henry Cow project, it’s the work of an American academic. Otherwise, we all keep in touch – and as individuals continue to work with one another. But there’s no desire to turn back the clock. Henry Cow belonged to its time and that time has passed. We moved on.

Watch Henry Cow here.

Much thanks to Chris for time and answers.


(1)Stubbs, D. (2014) ‘Future Days; Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany’, Faber and Faber, London. 

(2)Kiaer, C. (2005) ‘Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism’ The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.

(3)Wilkinson, D. (2016) ‘Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain’, Palgrave Macmillan, London.

(4)James, R. (2014) ‘Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism’, Zero Books, Winchester UK and Washington, USA.
(5)Cutler, C. (1985)File Under Popular:Theoretical and Critical Writings on Music’, RER Megacorp, London and Semiotext(e)/Autonomedia, New York.

(6)‘Henry Cow’

(7)‘The Last Nightingale’

(8)Marcus, G. (2011) ‘Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century’, Faber and Faber, London.

’Henry Cow’,
‘Tim Hodgkinson’ and
Martens, M. (1996) ‘Henry Cow’ Perfect Sounds Forever at referenced for Intro.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Beyond The Noise 3: Girls In Synthesis.

Photo by Bea Dewhurst.
About 100 years ago the Russian Constructivists attempted to engage with the questions 'What attributes/characteristics should an object produced in a socialist economy include? What differentiates it from the object under capitalism? What form and content should the object/cultural product that is a comrade in the struggle for socialism have? (1) One of the answers was that embedded in the object should be evidence of the process of production, evidence of the exciting, empowering, socially dynamic process of human interaction and creativity. Objects under capitalism thrive on blackboxing and disconnection from the process of production so that they can be fetishised, filled with meanings that suit the interests of capital. That’s why the radical potential of the DIY (DIT-do it together) ethic of punk shouldn’t be underestimated, it includes within it possibilities of oppositional creativity and empowerment, the undermining of capitalism’s grip on the means of production and the loosening of its grip on the imagination of the individual or collective.

Beyond The Noise 3, the latest collection of lyrics and poems by Girls In Synthesis members Jim Cubitt and John Linger manages to answer those questions posed by the Russian Constructivists. ‘What form and content would the object/cultural product that is a comrade in the struggle for an egalitarian democratic society have? In this case, the form and content of Beyond The Noise 3! It answers that question because in a world of corporate, anodyne, anonymous objects whose productive processes are hidden Beyond The Noise 3 revels in its authenticity, its honesty, the painstaking labour intensive process that started with a blank piece of paper, people’s incisive literary creativity and an old school typewriter!

Beyond The Noise 3 turned up this morning, number 29/40, reading it is like listening to GIS with the sound turned down! You can hear them in your head, you know these are going to be awesome songs: those pounding drums, the core around which everything else is constructed; the bass played as lead, driving forward; the exhilarating guitar snaking its way in and out, sometimes leading, sometimes adding/interjecting texture and colour. Listen to ‘The Mound’, Nicole counts in, then an adrenalised shout as the song takes shape; ‘Solid Effect’ the request for a change of guitar sound, no attempt to hide the creation of an artefact. In fact like the French New Wave filmmaker Godard they draw attention to the form as construct- confronting you with reality in both form and content.

Beyond The Noise 3 starts and finishes with visuals of the band by Bea Dewhurst, the photos capture two of the most important aspects of GIS; the exhilarating, transcendent experience of their live shows where everything blurs into adrenalised immediacy and intentional community, forty minutes of communal hope and focussed solidarity that recalls being in the eye of a demo more that a gig! In contrast the collage on the inside back cover is a reminder that 2019 is a difficult, tiring, tense time for the working class that while our solidarity is built primarily on a shared economic position it is also built on a shared experience of insecurity, anxiety, precarity. The three band members are collaged into one knackered, composite figure; an articulate representation of the modern British experience for so many.

The poetry and lyrics in Beyond The Noise 3 continue the eloquent articulation of the neoliberal working class experience that GIS excel at. Poetry is always open to (mis)interpretation, 'the death of the author' as Barthes put it, but GIS are brave enough to risk it. The honesty and vulnerability (and therefore universality) of their writing is maybe more apparent in purely written form than it is in song as they engage with the disempowering, reductive experience of being ignored, overlooked, of no consequence in an instrumentalist system (My Request/They’re Not Listening). Lack of social mobility in Britain, that the socioeconomic strata you are born into you will probably die in (2) is addressed, ‘the state in which I’m born will be the state until the end...All I want is to be treated as an individual’ in ‘My Request’, as the next piece puts it ‘WE CAN’T GO ON THIS WAY...NO!’

‘Tirades of Hate and Fear’ explores the rise of provincial, reactionary politics and reminded me of How To Lose a Country by Ece Temelkuran, who writes that nationalist populism tends to emerge in the provincial towns away from the urban centers (3). Suburban Hell?

‘Bored of what scores of people still adore, holding up the ceiling whilst falling through the floor, Scraping down the walls until my nail beds rub raw, Settling for less, screaming out for more more, more’. (Set Up To Fail) Describe it as Utopian if you want to but that knowledge, that sense, that things can be, will be, better persists despite capitalism’s attempts to convince us otherwise, We can still imagine the end of capitalism, we can still envisage a better world, we cannot reconcile ourselves to the dreary shit of recycled culture and ‘just about getting by’.

‘We Reform’ seems to talk of how the new is, in part, constituted from elements of the past, that there is a continuity, that the future will include components already present. There are no Year Zeros, we draw on the glimmers of hope and the positive resources already present in any construction of the future. ‘So Called Home’  talks of a nation(al elite) unable to face its past, denying its history, repeating its mistakes, perpetuating the status quo. We need to start building better.

Last up is ‘Human Frailty’, and it's a poignant reminder of the importance and complexity of relationships and their embeddedness in time, ‘Relent human frailty’.

Beyond The Noise 3 is a collection of writings and photos that say more about modern life and politics in Britain than a thousand tabloid newspapers. It’s pissed off and angry but never self indulgently dark, its anger is a response to the deliberate construction of suffering and immiseration and as such its an important part of the move towards a more egalitarian, compassionate society. 
(1)Kiaer, C. (2005) ‘Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism’ The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.
(2)Britain’s Dying Dream Of Social Mobility (2018)
(3)Temelkuran, E. (2019) How To Lose a Country; The Seven Steps From Democracy To Dictatorship, 4th Estate, London.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Exiled: Bad Breeding.

Artwork by Nicky Rat.
I was alerted to Stevenage art activist collective Bad Breeding about a year ago by John of Girls In Synthesis, in an interview he commented ‘ I love Bad Breeding, they’re the best group I’ve heard in years. They’re a lot more hardline than us, both musically and lyrically, but I’m from a similar suburban area of Hertfordshire as them, so I identify with the way they project their frustrations’ (1). Obviously a man who knows his music! Bad Breeding released their first album, S/T, in 2016, then Divide the following year, an EP ‘Abandonment’ followed in 2018 and their eagerly awaited new album Exiled is out on 21 June. The band made three tracks available on Bandcamp pre-release, each track part of a statement of resistance, but more than than a statement of resistance, ‘a call to arms’ (2) in the continuing class war being waged by the rich against an already battered working class.Taking elements of hardcore punk and making it fit for purpose Bad Breeding are not about reproducing punk’s posturing; they know the difference between rebellious and revolutionary. Approach Bad Breeding as a radical art collective rather than conventional band, more in the line of Henry Cow, Crass, Gnod and the aforementioned GIS. Their releases are multidisciplinary art(efacts) not just albums, constructed and presented to facilitate the reader/viewer/listener in their political journey, a wakeup call to those lulled by the soporific effects of late capitalism’s ‘spectacle’. Neoliberalism’s greatest trick is its anonymity and its excluding of discussion of alternatives from the mainstream, to quote Mark Fisher (quoting Jameson/Zizek) ‘It’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism’ (3)...except Bad Breeding can! Their releases are structured to be both material for, and an avenue into, meaningful political conversation and action around radical left alternatives to ‘what is’.
Exiled lands in a UK that, to quote Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil, is in ‘interesting times’, I'd say ‘interesting’, is a euphemism for ‘shit’. Like Thatcher on speed the last nine years of Tory government has seen increases in poverty, inequality, homelessness, child poverty, the underfunding of public services and, according to the UN, systematic breaching of the human rights of the disabled (4). In a recent interview Chris Dodd, singer with the band, commented about the new album, “Exiled is very much a document of the impact of neoliberalism on a working-class community. It was written during a period in which calculated austerity measures have continued to bite with a prolonged intensity - you think of reaching a ‘breaking point’ but it never comes, we just keep hitting new lows of poverty and degradation and sucking it up...Our town (Stevenage) is a real victim of a global, systematic inequality - the rule not the exception. Lyrically it’s blunt in its description of material working-class concerns and is something that spells out the impact austerity has had on our community, as opposed to where the individual fits into the stifling mess of late capitalism” (2).
Exiled is 12 tracks of compassion fueled fury, anger at the deliberate construction of suffering and immiseration but it’s never black, there is always hope and optimism laced though, born of the bands involvement with grassroots activism, resistance and solidarity. Recorded by Ben Greenberg of Uniform (who Bad Breeding tour with in July) the album starts with ‘Exiled’, a ferocious hardcore track,

“Exiled, but choked for all to see
And I used to dread the thought of trauma, now it circles every day
Waiting in the wings, prowling like a stalking horse
See nature knows of hardship… at least it has its use
This is suffering as a construct - man’s longest-running gag”.

Next track up ‘Repossession’, chilling. Somehow the combination of music and vocals communicates the sense of fraught anxiety that pervades the lives of those pushed to the edges of precarity.

‘Raking Through the Screed’, is hardcore at it’s best as Dodd confronts the condescending pity of liberal poverty tourism;

“Shallow badges squeeze my plight
Preening tourists line the sides
Damp in the ceiling
mould spored and grey
Raking through the screed”.

OK, did I say ‘Raking Through the Screed’ was hardcore at it’s best? This is equally good! Good partner track to Test Dept’s ‘Landlord’ as Bad Breeding go for private landlords and their exploitation of those forced into the private rented sector in ‘Clear Blue Water’.

“It started with a shake down, one-up sport
Now I do my work with faux cross in hand
spend my nights laughing at the blighted flats
Shine ‘em up and flip ‘em around
A quarry blessed by blinkered fools,
our prize the labour of provincial scum
from stove, to mattress, to grave…
Swimming in the clear blue water”.

Next track up is one of the pre release tracks ‘Whose Cause?’. Chris Dodd commented that the track ‘explores political misdirection in the media and its role in sowing seeds of division, suspicion and distrust in our communities by using identity as a means of fear’ (2). The video is worth checking out too.

Precarious work, zero hours contracts, the devastation of war, homelessness, (with both ‘Theatre of Work’ and ‘A Rag Hung Between Two Trees’ shot through with intense unsettling saxophone from Lewis Evans), police brutality in 'Breaking Wheel';

“One more head to the pavement
Keeper of nothing but yourself
When pressure fails, call on the boot
Distrust cloaked by just pursuit
Approval in only the thin and blue
Keeper of nothing but yourself
Violence and intimidation
the only measures of your control”.

The album ends with ‘Tortured Reality’; intense, exhilarating, anxious.

“Thinning walls part sense and hysteria
The tired cling to the gloss of nostalgia
There is comfort in the spectre of nation
Gather the weary running blind
No war pure enough to peel the wool from their eyes
But for all your books built on blood
have you ever had to count the bodies?”.

If you can imagine G.L.O.S.S fronted by Paddy Shine with lyrics by Mark Fisher you won’t be too far out; Exiled is an extraordinary piece of work.

Exiled is out on One Little Indian Records on 21 June! 

(3)Fisher, M. (2009) ‘Capitalist Realism: Is There Really No Alternative?’ Zero Books, Winchester, UK and Washington, USA.
(4)Butler, P. (2016) ‘UK austerity policies’amount to violations of disabled people’s rights’
also referenced Division Promotions PR by Gardner, N.