Saturday, 23 July 2022

No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk. Interview with Gavin Butt.

In the Intro to Simon Reynolds’ 2005
Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 he observes ‘There are scores of books on punk rock and the events of 1976-77, but virtually nothing on what happened next’ (1), that was echoed as late as 2014 by Gavin Butt’s comment that ‘there is relatively little scholarship on the period’ (2). Over the last few years that situation has improved with a number of books on post-punk published, for instance Matthew Worley’s 2017 No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture 1976-84,  David Wlikinson’s 2016 Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain, Mimi Haddon’s 2020 What is Post-Punk? Genre and Identity in Avant-Garde Popular Music 1977-82 and Post Punk Then and Now published in 2016, a collection of ‘talks, lectures and discussions’ (2) on post-punk edited by Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher. The fascinating chapter by Gavin Butt, ‘Being in a Band: Art-school Experiment and the Post-Punk Commons’, focuses on the Leeds post-punk scene which included Gang of Four, Delta 5, the Three Johns and the Mekons. The chapter contextualises the Leeds scene both culturally and institutionally recognising the importance of Leeds art schools and drawing attention to the fact that for some being in a band was seen as a prefigurative activity, opening up new possibilities of being and doing. Butt comments ‘People created bands because they wanted to change the world’ (2).

In the chapter Gavin says that he hopes his interviews and research will result in a book on the subject AND IT HAS!! No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk comes out in October on Duke University Press with the Intro free to read now (link below)! As you can probably tell I’m pretty excited about this book and so contacted Gavin to find out more.

Post Punk in Leeds is very specific, how did your interest in that time and place develop?

I had begun to reflect upon the history of art school post-punk around the time that the ConDem government tripled university fees in England and Wales in 2012. I got to thinking about the changing circumstances of an art education, and of university-level education in the UK, as we were moved quite abruptly by the then government from the remnants of a state-funded system to the turbocharged neoliberal one we have today.

I began to think quite specifically about what the old system made possible that the new one made difficult, even impossible. Chief amongst these things was how the new commodified reality of university education made it more difficult for students from working-class backgrounds to go to university, and certainly made it more difficult for them to study creative arts subjects – chiefly, for fear of accruing high levels of individual debt. I come from a debt-averse working-class family in the English East Midlands and yet I still went to art college in the 1980s: mainly because I was enabled to do so by the provision of a “free” education: no fees to pay, maintenance grants to be had, and even the availability of housing benefit to cover my student rent. What, I wondered, was being lost culturally as this older system of state-funded education was consigned to history, and “free” study and working-class participation in art school began to wither on the vine?

This is what got me to thinking about Leeds specifically. I’d originally wanted to go to Leeds to study Fine Art in the mid-1980s because I was a fan of The Three Johns. And I knew that two of the Johns went to art college in Leeds. Leeds was also home to two exceptional art departments in the 1970s: a libertarian one specialising largely in performance art at Leeds Polytechnic, and a radical one at the University where Marxist, feminist and critical theory were being taught from 1976 onwards. I was struck by just how many art school bands came out of these places after punk (in addition to the Three Johns: Gang of Four, Scritti Politti, Delta 5, Fad Gadget, Soft Cell, The Mekons, Household Name and many others…). I was struck doubly so because nobody had written about any of this. I wanted to know how an art education, and the state-funded system in which it was offered, conspired to help make all this possible in the first place.

What were the particular ‘historical conditions’ (3) in Leeds at that time that created the environment for the emergence of so many significant post punk artists? Was there a unique convergence of various factors?

Yes there was. I’ve already begun to lay this out to some degree I guess. I would say it was a particular conjuncture (as Gramsci would say) of these two exceptional art departments and the mixing of students from different social classes therein - alongside student disillusionment with the avant-garde and the counterculture. All of this was then then detonated by the testy example of punk rock which came to Leeds in the shape of the Anarchy in the UK tour in December 1976. Punk seemed to many Leeds art students at this time to offer an answer, a sense of possibility, to the elitist dead-ends of the art world.

In Christina Kiaer’s wonderful book Imagine no Possessions: the Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism she quotes Rodchenko and explores the question ‘What would the qualities of a socialist (non capitalist) object be in contrast to the object under capitalism?’ The idea of objects as promoting ‘egalitarian socialist culture’ rather than capitalist values (4). Do we see something of that same discussion going on in the Leeds post punk scene regarding music?

This is a super interesting connection. Yes, in a way, is the answer. I write about how music-making by art students in the mid-seventies emerged in part from the collapse of earlier egalitarian hopes for what we might call anti-object work – the conceptual and performance art of the early 1970s. In chapter 1 of No Machos I trace the beginnings of both Mekons and Gang of Four to a collective piece of performance art made by members of both bands whilst students at Leeds University. Performance art was, however, quickly viewed by all involved to be an anti-capitalist object form whose cultural power was dissipating on the eve of punk and was quickly abandoned as an artistic “dead-end”. Conceptual art – that other immaterial or anti-object practice - was important to people like Green Gartside and the early incarnation of Scritti Politti. Gartside found a way of carrying a practice of intellectual contestation birthed in conceptual art’s challenges to bourgeois art discourse into music culture. In the book I chart how Scritti Politti shifted the terrain of this practice of questioning away from Art & Language toward Music & Language, precisely in order to sustain it as a politically efficacious, viable practice in the wake of punk.

You comment in Post Punk Then and Now that for some ‘being in a band…became a way of living, a mode of existing even, through which an alternative future could be glimpsed’ (2). Being in a band as a prefigurative practice, allowing other ways of working, the opening up of new possibilities, and even seeing it as ‘prefigurative of alternative ways of organising society’ (2, 5). Could you expand on this for us?

This goes right to the heart of what No Machos or Pop Stars is about. Perhaps above all, this is what ends up being most significant about art students making popular music: that they take the formal inventiveness of making art objects to what I call the “band-work,” to experimenting with e.g. non-hierarchized and egalitarian forms of group connectedness as ground for their music. This is instanced variously in the book. For example, I look at how Soft Cell reimagine the strategy of avant-garde aesthetic juxtaposition in the hybrid “electro soul” of tracks like Tainted Love and in themselves as an oddball music duo (by 1970s rock standards at least: Marc Almond gay, gregarious and emotional; Dave Ball straight, quiet and technical). I also look at how this gets played out on the dance floor at the Leeds Warehouse in the early eighties, where members of different sub-cultural tribes came together as a crowd and moved to Almond’s “mutant” DJ-mix of musical genres on the decks. Relatedly, I look at how Delta 5 send up the strictures surrounding female participation in seventies rock music by having two women bassists rather than the customary lone female bass player, and how Gang of Four aimed to create the sound of a democratic, disputatious collective - as if it might be possible to hear the different “views” of individual band members as music.

In Post Punk Then and Now you also commented on how a particular musician alluded to the idea of the artist as collectivist worker or artisan simultaneously locating himself outside of the individualism of neoliberalism and in opposition to the lone, (often male) genius of post Renaissance art (2) Did Leeds post punk more generally explore these questions of art practice, modes of art production, the gendered figure of the artist?

Yes. I think Leeds post-punk was really trying to create forms of coming together in bands which eschewed the machos theatrics of both cock rock and the transgressive individual male artist. Importantly I think a lot of the energy driving this stemmed from well beyond the art college context in DIY punk rock but also in the practices and politics of the alternative left in Leeds, which was particularly strong in cooperativism and feminism in the 1970s (with the founding of SUMA, the wholefood collective, and the emergence of strong strands of both socialist- and revolutionary forms of feminism in the city). Mekons, Delta 5 and Gang of Four in their earliest incarnation tried to frustrate the hierarchies and identities of individual bands and band members by performing in various different formations, sometimes switching instruments amongst themselves as they did. The Mekons also initially tried to take on the music press by refusing posed images of the collective and only giving individual names of band members in the manner of e.g. Mary Mekon or Kevin Mekon.

You comment in the Intro to No Machos or Pop Stars that the aim of some of the Leeds post punk bands was to encourage fans to ‘become self conscious about the larger societal structures in which they were caught’...‘while dancing to a Situationist beat’ (5). What were the main cultural/political influences on post-punk? Art history, left politics, feminism, preceding counterculture, punk, working class experience?

All of these things in complex conjunction. They were variously influenced by the virtues of pop music and punk rock production, situationism, collectivism and cooperativism, Marxism, feminism, critical theory, Rock Against Racism, performance art and queer theatre (Fad Gadget owed a debt to Lyndsay Kemp’s mime) and emerging club-culture – all during a heightened period of politicisation in the city.

In Networks of Sound, Style and Subversion, Nick Crossley writes about the importance of the density of networks in the emergence and sustainability of a ‘music scene’ (6). Was that something you identified in Leeds, clusters of people and institutions that sustained the post punk scene?

Yes. Towards the end of the book I acknowledge all of the work that’s been done recently by other scholars of UK popular music, including Crossley and Matthew Worley, in providing accounts of punk and post-punk scenes beyond London. Worley in particular lists elements of regional infrastructure that made punk and post-punk music scenes both possible and sustainable and includes things like record shops and clubs, local record labels and recording studios, fanzines and music venues. What I add to this list in Leeds is an account of how the city’s unique cluster of radical and avant-garde art schools fed into this infrastructural mix. I focus on how the policy of state-funded education provided many on the Leeds scene with the resources of intellectual and cultural capital, but perhaps above all, with the time to be able to make music in bands freed from the yoke of employment. Of course, these particular elements of the scene were hardly sustainable, as the post-war educational settlement was already being unpicked even before Thatcher achieved office in 1979, and such forms of educational freedom have now largely vanished today in the contemporary UK academy, especially for students who have to work while they study to pay their way.

In the Intro you also mention how by post punk a false dichotomy was being propagated around punk that authentic working class identity excluded higher education (5). Was this the start of the reductive idea of working class identity as excluding education and politicisation? Do you think this story supported the neoliberal dismantling of working class political organisation and the move to construction of identity around consumption?

Interesting. There is so much to say on this issue, more than I can say here.

I guess punk might have been responsible for emboldening an already circulating idea of the working-class as essentially, and authentically, uneducated. But, put more positively, this might better be understood as youth culture beginning to find ways of valuing working-class culture, especially subculture, on its own terms rather than see it only through the eyes of establishment institutions (like universities) and (often outraged) middle-class society. That is why so many art students were skeptical of institutionalised forms of education I think in the punk era – because universities and Polytechnics were seen as organs of the ruling elites of the technocratic state. Working class youth culture, on the other hand, offered possibilities of self-organisation, and forms of protest music and dissident forms of identity and appearance, that opened up the possibilities of gender, race and sexual expression beyond the available identities in traditional class cultures and in traditional forms of politics.

Punk and post-punk, therefore, certainly didn’t suggest a lumpen working-class. Quite the contrary. They could be seen instead as expressions of what the late Mark Fisher used to call “popular modernism”: forms of experiment and resources of transformational political possibility located within popular, rather than elite, culture.

But I did also want to tell the important story of working-class participation in education, within 1970s institutions, and how education itself was being transformed as a result of this in some instances. Emboldened by the Worker’s Education Authority and perspectives from the burgeoning field of Cultural Studies, working-class participation in higher education had the effect of reimagining its purpose beyond it being simply as a route into the egg head middle-class in favour of making it into a space for imagining genuine forms of alternative world-making and of social and cultural transformation.

The legacy of all this clearly shouldn’t be that reductive image of the working class as politically regressive and as under- or un-educated (which perhaps has flashed up particularly vividly in recent years in media reporting around Brexit). I like to think my book might modestly resist this image hardening into what we think we “know” of working-class culture and working-class people by providing an historical image of cross-class artistic and musical experiment that contradicts it.

There has been a revival of the post punk sound since the early 2000s but it has often been less overtly political. In Inventing the Future (7) Srnicek and Williams make the point that cultural change often precedes political change. Have you come across many contemporary bands that have the concerns you identify in the book, that take the process of production and musical form seriously?

What springs most immediately to mind is the work that is being done / has been done over the past ten years by people who are in bands but who are also involved in collectively organizing and running social spaces and art and music venues in increasingly capitalised city spaces. This is perhaps where the impetus of a kind of “neo-post-punk” persists most strongly, with the need being acute for self-organized spaces and forms of mutual aid for contemporary music artists beset by neoliberal austerity and the post-pandemic downturn. From Chunk in Leeds to the Rose Hill in Brighton, to the recently defunct DIY Space for London and the Old Police Station in Gateshead, these spaces are as vulnerable to gentrification and closure as they are needed by those who populate them. Such spaces resonate with the sounds that run the gamut of contemporary musical expression - from neo-punk, noise, turntablism, experimental and electronica, to contemporary gospel, funk, alt-country, improvisation and folk – and, as such, they might provide us with the closest thing we have right now to the cross-genre experimentation of the post-punk days. But art education no longer seems to play the pivotal role it once did in shaping all of this. Perhaps we have Nick Clegg to thank – or blame – for this. At least we might start the process of our reckoning with him.


Many thanks to Gavin for his time, the link to No Machos Or Pop Stars Intro is here

And you can preorder the book here or here 



(1) Reynolds, Simon (2005). ‘Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984’ (London: Faber and Faber).

(2)  Butt, G. (2016) Preface, Introduction and Being in a Band: Art-school Experiment and the Post-Punk Commons - a Lecture by Gavin Butt (16/10/14) in Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher, eds, ‘Post-Punk: Then and Now’, Repeater Books, London.

(3)  Wilkinson, D. (2016) ‘Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain’, Palgrave Macmillan, London, p. 11.

(4)  Kiaer, C. (2005) ‘Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism’, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, p. 1.

(5)  Butt, G. (2022) ‘No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk’, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, USA. Preface and Introduction

(6)  Crossley, N. (2015) ‘Networks of Sound, Style and Subversion: The Punk and Post-Punk Worlds of Manchester, London, Liverpool and Sheffield, 1975-80’, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

(7)  Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) ‘Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work’, Verso. London UK and Brooklyn, NY, USA.

Sunday, 13 March 2022

Tangerine Dream. Cambridge Corn Exchange. 12 March 2022.

I really am no expert on Tangerine Dream I’ve acquired
Rubycon (1975) and Phaedra (1974) over the last 10 years or so and been periodically intrigued by the complexity and shifting patterns on the two albums, the evoking of the mysterious and the eerie, the sheer peculiarity of early Tangerine Dream’s music. When I saw they were playing Cambridge Corn Exchange I was interested to see if they could still do it, I bought a couple of tickets and also thought I should get up to speed on the last 45 years or so! I got hold of Quantum Gate (2017) and was seriously impressed. According to Tangerine Dream’s website ‘In late summer 2014, Edgar Froese, Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane began to work on what was planned to be the first album of Tangerine Dream’s Quantum Years – a new phase of the band that Edgar wanted to use to introduce a couple of substantial changes. Consisting of himself, long term collaborator Thorsten Quaeschning (synths & musical director), violinist Hoshiko Yamane and new member Ulrich Schnauss (synths), the Quantum Years promised an updated, contemporary take on the band’s trademark sound of the 70s and 80s: sequencer-driven electronica covering a wide range of moods and atmospheres from ambient soundscapes to energetic, upbeat moments. Non-musical ideas relating to the field of quantum physics and philosophy had inspired Edgar to attempt a translation of these concepts into music’ (1). In 2015 Froese, the last remaining original member of the band died, but Quaeschning, Yamane and Schnauss pushed on to realise this vision (1). The result is an album that’s the equal of those early records. 

On 25 February this year Tangerine Dream, now Quaeschning, Yamane and Paul Frick, released the new album Raum (the German word for ‘space).

We get to the Corn Exchange early, the demographic of the crowd is pretty much as expected, predominantly post 50 which is fine by me, nice to not feel old at a gig now and then, but a good smattering of 20/30 somethings. For at least 45 minutes before the band come on stage there is a ferocious storm projected onto a back screen which seems to grow in intensity over time (though I’m pretty sure it was looped). My partner, who’s from Barrow-in-Furness, felt instantly at home!  

 At 8 pm Tangerine Dream, looking relaxed and amiable, dressed all in black stroll on stage. Thorsten Quaeschning says ‘Good evening, Cambridge’ and we’re off. Now this is where you want me to identify songs, provide a setlist, tell you about instruments. I can’t. I think they played ‘You’re Always on Time’ and ‘Raum’ from the new album as I recognised the accompanying videos.There were computers and keyboards and a violin. Throughout the set both the lighting and projections were extraordinary, sometimes abstract shapes, sometimes video footage the visuals perfectly complimented the music. But despite the visuals I found myself returning to the gently swaying figures, the charismatic Quaeschning is center stage, looking like an amiable, benevolent version of Snape. He’s flanked by Yamane and Frick, the former on violin and electronics, the latter on keyboards.

But more interesting, more important is what a Tangerine Dream concert does. 

The two hours were a lot more rhythmic and uptempo than I was expecting, drawing on techno beats (I think) to propel the evening along. About three songs in I realised I was listening to something special (and this is where it all gets a bit subjective), I have rarely, if ever, heard music so kind, so generous, so gracious. At points in the evening it was an encounter with the sublime. I actually felt a sense of hope as I listened to their music, that despite war and climate change and perpetual inequality and oppression maybe, just maybe, the human race could have a positive future after all. (Writing this the day after it sounds a bit odd, but that was what it did.) There is a biography of Dorothy Day called The World Will be Saved By Beauty, for two hours I believed there was truth in that. I don’t think it was a particularly ’spiritual’ experience as much as an encounter with the best aspects of the human ‘soul’. An important reminder as a global pandemic segues into additional war.

 At 9.55pm Tangerine Dream went off, and then back on for an encore. We caught the first 15 minutes before having to leave for the train back to Norwich.

 The Virgin to Quantum Years tour should be made available on prescription, an evening of mesmerising beauty.




      (2)  Hennessy, Kate. (2017) Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved By Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of my Grandmother, (Scribner). 

Saturday, 11 December 2021

Psychogeographic Autoeroticism II

In the book 'The System of Objects' Jean Baudrillard comments that 'The erotic significance of the object (a car) here plays the same role as the image (real or mental) in masturbation' (1).

In the book 'Imagined Communities' Benedict Anderson described the nation as an 'imagined community (2)', a socially constructed imagination.
Nationalism and masturbation seem to have similar characteristics as they both involve the subject exciting themselves over an image or imagination. In this piece the bottle is obviously phallic but overall it attempts to capture the similarity between nationalism and masturbation without being too overt.
The four bottles stand for the four nations of the UK, the fallen bottle representing England which, mesmerised by nationalism and xenophobia, in 2019 elected another Tory government despite 10 years of top down class war known, euphemistically as austerity. The coke bottles can also be taken to represent the historical and contemporary influence of USA in British culture and economics.

(1) Baudrillard, J. (1996) 'The System of Objects', Verso, London and Brooklyn. p.73 
(2) Anderson, B. (1991) 'Imagined Communities; Reflections on The Origins and Spread of Nationalism' Verso, London and New York.

Sunday, 7 March 2021

ElectrAcoustiC Volume One: Ruts DC.

The early history of The Ruts has been well documented, one of the outstanding bands of that period their first single ‘In a Rut’ came out in 1979 on People Unite followed by ‘Babylon’s Burning’, ‘Something That I Said’ and ‘Jah Wars’, the latter three appearing on their debut album The Crack. The album was an insightful look at urban Britain, the tracks ‘Babylon’s Burning’, ‘Jah Wars’ and ‘S.U.S.’ especially incisive in their use of social commentary as resistance. The Crack showed that, with an eclectic musical knowledge and exceptional musical ability, the original promising synergy of punk could still be a potent force with short sharp songs like ‘You’re Just A’… alongside ‘Jah War’ and ‘It Was Cold’, both coming in at over 6 minutes long. Running through the album is a sense of tension and social commentary that reflected urban Britain in the late 70s but (unfortunately) is also extremely relevant to 2021 as the UK continues to be plagued by racism, scapegoating and class war under a far right Tory government. In March 1980 the band released their fifth single ‘Staring At The Rude Boys’ but then in July, following a struggle with heroin addiction, lead singer Malcolm Owen was found dead. A sixth single ‘West One (Shine On Me)’ was released in August. In two years The Ruts had released six singles and an album that set a new standard in punk for musicianship and lyricism that has rarely been equalled since. Virgin put out another album Grin and Bear It, a mix of live tracks, B Sides and the last two singles.

The remaining three members of the band, Paul Fox, 'Segs' Jennings and Dave Ruffy felt they should continue and became Ruts DC releasing Animal Now in ‘81  and Rhythm Collision in ‘82 before calling it a day in 1983. And that appeared to be that until 2007 when the three members reconvened for a one off benefit gig for Paul Fox (who had been diagnosed with cancer) with Henry Rollins as lead vocalist.

However things evolved, Segs Jennings and Dave Ruffy worked on some tracks together which eventually became Rhythm Collision Vol. 2, in 2014 a live album followed. And then in 2016, with Leigh Heggarty on guitar, Ruts DC released Music Must Destroy, a rock album of such extraordinary quality that Viva Le Rock made it their Album of the Year.

In early 2014 Ruts DC started playing acoustic gigs, stress testing and evolving the concept at Rebellion Festival over the next few years. The gig grew in popularity and in 2019 it was moved to a bigger venue. 

And maybe that’s why the album, ElectrAcoustiC Volume One, works so well, it’s a documenting of something the band were already doing. It’s the sound of a band revisiting their past as more mature people, bringing the skills and wisdom accumulated in the intervening years to a fresh presentation of that material. It’s also a reminder that the power of the Ruts/Ruts DC songs has never relied on volume but on good songwriting/musicianship, incisive observation and laser sharp lyrics.

If anyone was worried that ElectrAcoustiC Volume One was going to be the sound of old punks settling down and mellowing out they can rest assured the songs on here are just as taut, tense and relevant as they have always been. This isn’t some laid back rehash for nostalgic old punks to listen to while they clean the car on a sunday morning, this album means it. No lazy escapism or nostalgia here. That’s the thing about the Ruts/Ruts DC, they don’t let you forget that punk, at its best, had always been about social commentary, about protest, about believing another world is possible before that was even a phrase. Punk has always been a multi voiced genre, a musical movement marked by contestation, and in the talking heads history of punk its antecedents are often cited as New York Dolls, MC5, The Stooges, however this album highlights the roots of one stream of punk as being in the tradition of (often) acoustic protest music like Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan, Segs commenting that the ‘(a)coustic Punk ethos goes back to Woody Guthrie and, of course, the blues men before him’.

The semi unplugged format of ElectrAcoustiC Volume One puts the lyrics at the front with nowhere to hide, a situation they cope with easily, the stripped back format really emphasising what good wordsmiths they’ve always been.

OK so what’s on the album? A collection of tracks taken from The Crack, Grin and Bear It, Animal Now and Music Must Destroy.

Tracks 1 and 3 are the title track from Music Must Destroy which really should have us out on the streets, lyrically skewers late capitalism and ‘Kill the Pain’, every time I hear this it resonates; brilliant song. Sandwiched between the two is ‘Dangerous Minds’, still tense, fraught, relevant. After ‘Kill the Pain’ there is a string of great earlier songs ‘In a Rut’ ‘West One’ ‘Something That I Said’ and then fast forward to ‘Psychic Attack’ (MMD) and then ‘Walk or Run’ (Animal Now) and ‘Soft City Lights’ (MMD) before they finish with ‘H Eyes’ and ‘Babylon’s Burning’. Despite the personnel changes and 37 year gap between ‘In a Rut’ and MMD the album has a sense of coherence and continuity of belief and values, it feels like a coherent body of work rather than a collection of stand alone tracks. So, basically the headline is, ElectrAcoustiC Volume One, 11 amazing tracks that, while being re presented, retain all of their original energy, tension and urgency. Made me think again just how important The Ruts/Ruts DC are. 

It sometimes feels that early punk has been explored and analysed to exhaustion but with this album the band have shed a different light on the songs, giving us a slightly different angle, a new appreciation, the different format a reminder of what great songwriters the band have always been both musically and lyrically.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

A is for Activistas.

are a collection of Nottingham based musicians, activists and punk facilitators, I got to see them at the Sumac Centre at the end of ‘19 when there was a thing called ‘live music’. They were playing a benefit gig for an orphanage in Sierra Leone alongside spoken word artists and a few other bands, most notably the now sadly defunct Track Not Found. Reviewing the gig I seem to have writtenActivistas 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 of 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!’. 

Well, where they went next was to a couple of recording studios to emerge with an album, A is for Activistas, out 24/10/20.

‘Patchwork punk’ was an odd term which in retrospect, it doesn't really do them justice as it suggests a random discontinuity of styles when actually, although they’re all over the place musically, there is a coherence to the album. Listening to A is for Activistas I almost thought of about a thousand bands but couldn't quite remember any of them. Imagine Chas and Dave became anarcho-communists, got together with The Slits and recorded an album with Dave Greenfield guesting on keyboards! 

Ramshackle, music hall, East End knees up punk, is that a thing? 

The subject matter is similarly diverse although in some ways it isn’t that far off being a concept album in the sense that it expresses a compassionate, anarchist world view from below. And in some ways that sums it up; paradoxical. Whimsical and angry, humorous and serious. Eclectic yet with a sense of continuity. Scattergun and coherent.

Nine tracks covering mental health, animal rights, corporate malpractice, poverty, political frustration, the character of the current incumbent of No. 10. Rhythmically tight with looser vocals over the top its engaging, humorous, angry.  Track 5 is a bit of a surprise, like someone wandered into the knees up with a song they’d written at home the night before; part protest song, part whimsical melodic homage to Bowie, reality and hope. Next track is an excellent take on the environmental crisis, ‘Mother Earth is dying, dance upon her grave, lets lift a glass to the fuck we never gave’...take the piss out of Greta for speaking truth to power, will we still be laughing in the final hour?... Mother Earth is dying, dance upon her grave, lets lift a glass to the fuck we never gave’. Track 8, ‘Take My Hand’ has an ace keyboard thing going on. Track 9 is an alternative take on history, applying its lessons to the present.

If you’re missing live music, camaraderie, music that's bothered and a laugh and fancy an anarcho communist knees up, give it a listen!

It’s here:

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Now Here's An Echo From Your Future. Girls In Synthesis.

Photo by Bea Dewhurst.
"The most basic tenet of the Bauhaus was form follows function. ... Because of the Bauhaus belief in the oneness of the artist and the craftsman, their courses taught students to eliminate the ideas of the individual and instead focus on the productivity of design" (1).

Truly revolutionary music isn’t just about lyrical content it is also about form, structure, texture. Dada, Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism wrestled with the question of form as well as content, if forms and structures can reproduce bourgeois values as James claims (2) then they can also produce and communicate alternative narratives, contestation of the (neoliberal) status quo. It was an idea that was pursued by several of the post punk bands including The Raincoats; can you create music that is a transposition of counter cultural concepts and practice into both the creative process and musical form? Truly revolutionary music moves away from the (inspired) lone artistic genius towards collaboration, collectivity, an artisanal sensibility in the process of production as well as revolutionary form and content. 

Which brings us to Girls In Synthesis who, taking their cues from the early DIY punk and post-punk pioneers, keep everything in-house, their artwork, videos, performances and recordings created entirely by the band (art collective?) and their handful of trusted collaborators. So far GIS have operated as a DIY collective, part of a network of resistance. There have been antecedents; Test Dept, Henry Cow, Gnod, bands that have followed a similar path of both inter and independence.

The results of this model were compiled in the 2019 release Pre/Post: A Collection 2016-2018, a compilation of their previous EP releases, a jarring, exhilarating, intense expression of urban working class experience in 21st century Britain. Both musically and lyrically Pre/Post was a perfect representation of the stressful, anxious, precarious alienation so many of us cope with but at the same time they reminded us through their live shows of the cultural and social resources available; the importance of egalitarian community, trust, mutual respect, hope.

So where do you go when your creative model, musical form, lyrical content and live practice are all that could be reasonably hoped for in a band? How do you move from phase 1 to phase 2? How do you follow up Pre/Post?

You release Now Here’s An Echo From Your Future.

Ten tracks, 31 minutes that both reflect and interrogate the individual and social experience in contemporary Britain with searing, brutal insight, honesty and vulnerability. You will understand more about modern life in 31 minutes of NHAEFYF than you would from 31 years of tabloid newspapers and state/capitalist broadcasters.

On first listen NHAEFYF was like being bludgeoned with a very loud stick (?), a wall of ferocity with a disconcerting break in the middle. But on the second listen you start to experience the contours, shades, multiple textures, extra instrumentation as the songs take shape, emerge as defined, separate entities ( initially i was going to write ‘hear’ not ‘experience’ but it is more than aural).

First track up is ‘Arterial Movement’, released as part of a 3 track EP in October last year it’s a track that 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,
“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…We progress, progress in arterial movements. We define, define in arterial movements… Opening the door to somewhere else. Managing the contents there within…”
An expression of empathy, of care, of solidarity, the song deals with the process of helping someone through their mental struggles, while simultaneously being wholly aware of your own issues.
“Victories don’t always look like other people think they should” said an old man in the film Good Vibrations (4).

‘Pressure’ The video for this when released in November was of the band live, black and white, hand held, interspersed with the band on a rooftop, boiler suits and boots, utilitarian clothing for cultural workers.  Watching it again made me re-realise how much I’m missing live music
“I won’t cooperate with anyone who doesn't play their part”.

‘The Images Agree’ is the most recent single and another storming track that comes at you in a barrage of sound and images, on first listen it seemed like several things going on at once that happened to be in sync, but only just! The press release put it better “The song features the trademark driving bass and drums, which now forms part of the signature GIS sound. But, on top of this, is unusually dissonant guitar that pulls the listeners focus away from the main melodic and rhythmic elements and towards what could pass as another song altogether”. John commented on the song’s subject matter “Media manipulation has become an art and a tool for people with the wrong intentions to control or mislead the public, as this becomes more and more acceptable (or undetectable...) it's important to question and not blindly accept. As we have seen with the government’s recent lack of clarity and transparency during the current pandemic, a headswim of confusion is created to stop people seeking the truth, no matter how despairing it may be.”

‘Human Frailty’ is a tender look at the process of aging and eventual death
“Wish I could halt time that lays waste to your body, Stop the clock on ageing that makes your bones brittle, the minutes speed through, the hours do too, Against any reasoning my time spent with you. Relent human frailty, relent human frailty.”
Towards the end the introduction of brass adds a different, poignant texture to the song.

'They’re Not Listening’ is an important reminder to working class people who have somehow ended up believing that Boris Johnson is their mate, that the right wing of the Tory party always have their own best interests at heart! To quote the press release again ‘They’re Not Listening’ reflects on the fact that “the time-old tradition of the right wing accosting desperate working class people has returned.” The lyrics seem to express the disempowering, reductive experience of being ignored, overlooked, of no consequence in an instrumentalist system where all that was wanted was your vote.

‘Cause For Concern’ “Constant cause for clash. Pointed, surging, crash. Can’t escape or learn. Constant cause for concern….We can’t go on this way, NO!

I think at the moment the next two tracks are my favourites on the album.‘Coming Up For Air’. “I’m coming up for air, suffocation, suffocation”. Dense and intense!

‘Set Up To Fail’ “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”. 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’. Again they use discordant brass to give the prolonged driving outro a superb feel.

‘Tirades of Hate and Fear’ explores the rise of provincial, reactionary xenophobic 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 centres (5). Suburban Hell? “I hear too much noise, and not enough thought, insecure people are easily bought...Screaming from your lungs, looking for more fools, using fear and hate as your recruitment tools”.

The outdated idea of continual social progress is gone, after 40 years of neoliberal governance, 10 years of top down class war masquerading as austerity, with a far right government and print media well versed in the strategies of propaganda and bullshit any one who has been paying attention knows that culture can go either way; a more egalitarian future or a slide into increasing dystopia; ‘transition to socialism or regression into barbarism’ to steal Engels/Rosa Luxemburg’s phrase (3). Now could be an echo from our future...of increasingly authoritarian capitalism and environmental melt down but there is still hope, the chance of an egalitarian, progressive society. With NHAEFYF Girls In Synthesis present us with these two options and implicitly ask us to decide whose side we’re on.

GIS: this generation's Clash?


(1) Lekach, M. (2016) ‘Know your design history:the Bauhaus movement’,an%20institution%20taught%20by%20masters.

(2) James, R. (2014) ‘Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism’, Zero Books, Winchester UK and Washington, USA

(3) Socialism or Barbarism (disambiguation)

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

(5)Temelkuran, E. (2019) How To Lose a Country; The Seven Steps From Democracy To Dictatorship, 4th Estate, London.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Las Ratapunks!

Already involved in various ways in the Peruvian punk scene Irma (drums), Kiara (guitar), YK (vocals) and Wendi (bass) got together as Las Ratapunks in 2014. They released the 6 track Ratas de Ciudad in 2017 and earlier this year put out the excellent Fracaso, Ano de la Rata 2020, 6 tracks of exciting, energised, rip roaring, modern punk! Dealing with social issues including corruption, femicide and sexual harassment the 6 tracks are an important reminder of the potency of punk to challenge political and cultural injustice and militate for change. Although only released in March Fracaso, Ano de la Rata 2020 has already caught the attention of those with their ears to the ground with tracks being played by Just Some Punk Songs and The Noise Merchant in the UK.

The band had a short tour of Europe, playing France, Germany and Spain, planned for this summer but like many things it has had to be rescheduled to 2021 due to the global Covid 19 pandemic. However,  putting their money where their lyrics are, the band will give all money made through album sales on Bandcamp to organisations helping to mitigate the effects of Covid 19 in Peru.

Having been blown away by their new album and their concern for social justice it seemed like a good move to find out a bit more about Las Ratapunks       

Could you tell us about Las Ratapunks? Where in Peru are you based?  When did you get together? 
We’re a punk band from Cajamarca, northern Peru, we got together in 2014 with the intention of making noise and express ourselves, tell our experiences and what we think about certain situations.

How did you get together, were you friends who became a band or a band that became friends?!
Both; Irma, Kiara and YK met through concerts and mosh pits, one day we decided to rent a rehearsal space just to see what came out of it, by the time we were out we had a band. Wendi  came in as bass player a week after our first show and that’s the line up that we’ve kept to this day

Why did you get together? What were the main reasons that made you decide to form a band?
We got together because we wanted to have a band, sing about some experiences, let our voices be heard in regards to certain issues that we don’t agree with, and to give visibility to other issues that are still taboo. 

Did you have a clear idea of how you wanted to sound when you started?
We found our sound as we learned how to play, at some point we hoped we’d sound like the Distillers, then like 90’s Peruvian skatepunk , then we ended up sounding the way we do today: like the Ratapunks

How did you decide on the name, Las Ratapunks!?
Because our sound was really raw, pretty ratty at the beginning and also cause we’re the size of rats.

The video to 'Los Ladrones' off your 2017 album, Ratas de Ciudad, is really interesting, what issues are you singing about in that song?
Los Ladrones is about the political corruption in the country, we decided to use archived images in the video because to us it's important to put the current state of Peruvian Political corruption and injustice on display; also, near the date premiere of the video a politician who is connected to corruption scandals had a traffic cone thrown at his head, and we saw it as  representation of all the impotence that the people feel, that’s why we include the cones in the video, as a representation of the peoples revenge (it's part of the lyrics).

Watch here!

Earlier this year you released the 6 track Fracaso, Ano de la Rata 2020 (Failure,Year of the Rat 2020). Could you tell us what the different tracks are about?
We touch on subjects that we think are important to visualize such as corruption, exploitation, dehumanization, injustice, impunity, sexual harassment, feminicides, child pregnancy and resisting a corrupt system, and also the contradictions we face on a day to day as human beings.

Listen here!

You have a really exciting style, do you feel it has changed at all between the first and second album?
There is a better technique, but the same drive to say what we think and what we believe. The first EP was recorded live in a Cajamamarca Skatepark thanks to Sawá Sesiones, from which we got a reduced number of recordings on Princo CD’s, which we hand decorated. For the second EP we worked with friends who did the recording (Granizo Estudio), mixing(Nicolas Vair), mastering(Robin Rieuvernet) and artwork (Bto Prieto), and we’re planning on a limited a 7 inch vinyl release, and some cassettes through Entes Anomicos, a german-peruvian indie record label, though we’ve had to put everything on hold due to the pandemic.

Is there a big punk scene in Peru? Do you get a chance to play live often?
Peru has bands from the 90s/00s and even current date that are still playing and releasing DIY material; they organize gatherings and punk festivals annually and there is a chain of distribution and material though independent stores.
We usually play, up until now we’ve had the chance to play in Trujillo, Lima and Arequipa, we’ve organized some shows in Cajamarca where we live. But we’ve mainly had a steady amount of shows.

Do you think local cultural influences and histories mean there is a difference between European/N. American punk and South American/Peruvian punk in terms of musical styles or do you think punk is a global culture?
Punk is a world culture, although there are similarities between the subjects it tackles, we find differences in regards to specific characteristics about how these develop according to geographic location, for example, we can all talk about corruption but the political reality of a place that’s different to others in some regards, and every place place has its own sound, which is also fed by its history.

Were there any bands that inspired you musically, that you were influenced by?
Narcosis, Asmereir, Maria T-Ta, Metadona, G3, Diazepunk, Eutanasia, Unidad 4, Eterno, Shukakes, 70s punk from Spain, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Adolescents, Fugazi, etc.

How can people hear your music and buy any merchandise?
You can hear us on Bandcamp, Spotify, Youtube and you can contact us by sending a DM to Las Ratapunks on Facebook or Instagram.

What are your plans for 2020 and 2021? Any thoughts of playing Europe at all when the Covid 19/Coronavirus crisis has died down?
We were planning on going to Europe in august this year but now we’re just hoping to survive, we are going to reschedule the dates for when the current crisis is over seeing as how critical the situation has been here in Perú, the rain forest has been hit pretty hard due to the global pandemic, and it's not just the cities, the indigenous population is also suffering. We are going to donate the money we gain from album sales through Bandcamp during the entire month of June to some organizations that are collecting funds to help (the people of) the Peruvian rain forest.

Check out and buy Fracaso, Ano de la Rata 2020 here!

Big thanks to Alonso Saer for his translation work and assistance in this interview!!

Bibliography. referenced in Intro