Sunday, October 15, 2017

HAUNTOLOGY: the GHOST BOX label (Frieze, 2005)

HAUNTOLOGY: the GHOST BOX label (original title)
(published under the Frieze-chosen title of "Spirit of Preservation")
Frieze, October 2005

By Simon Reynolds

In music, coming up with a name for your band or your label is half the battle. Ideally, it should work as a kind of condensed manifesto, or distil an entire sensibility into a miniature poem. “Ghost Box” does this almost too perfectly. The label’s founders Julian House and Jim Jupp-- who launched it initially as an outlet for the eldritch electronica they make as, respectively, The Focus Group and Belbury Poly--thought of “ghost box” primarily as a metaphor for the television. But it could  plausibly be a historically real, if scientifically fraudulent, contraption invented by 19th Century spiritualists. It could also be an ancient nickname for the gramophone, evoking as it does the sheer uncanniness of “phonography,” Evan Eisenberg’s term for the art of recording. Edison, after all, originally conceived of records as a way of preserving the voices of loved ones after their death.

 The Focus Group’s music brings out the latent and intrinsic séance-like aspect of sampling. Raiding vintage soundtracks and collections of incidental music, House leaves some snippets recognizable as orchestral playing but processes others to the point where they resemble ectoplasm or some supernatural luminescence  out of a H.P. Lovecraft story. House deliberately prevents the Focus Group tracks, as heard on this year’s two CDs Sketches and Spells and Hey Let Loose Your Love, from sounding too digital, by purposefully interfering with the CGI-style seamlessness that today’s sequencing and music editing software enables and enforces. House prefers “bad looping” because “the shifting loop points of the samples mean that it’s difficult to discern which sample is which,” or even to recognize an element of the music as a sample at all. This helps to create a disconcerting sense of the music as organic rather than assembled, something heightened by House’s attraction to woodwind samples: sibilant curlicues that slither like triffids or sentient ivy, a sound of tendrils and twilight. The Focus Group’s music feels “alive”. Or more accurately, “undead.”

Jupp’s work as Belbury Poly is closer to “normal” music, featuring fewer samples and more hands-on playing: lots of vintage analog synths, along with recorders, melodicas and zithers. “Farmer’s Angle,” the title track of Jupp’s debut EP, has a jazzy-Muzak feel (it’s the theme to an imaginary local radio show that provides “the latest agricultural news and weather” plus “a new look at ancient rites”).  The snazzy bombast of “Insect Prospectus” could almost work in a dance club. 

Yet on the astonishing “Caermaen, ”Belbury Poly summons a genuinely spectral presence. The track’s plaintive vocal comes from a 1908 cylinder recording of a Lincolnshire folk singer, Joseph Taylor. Sampling the whole tune, Jupp altered its speed and pitch, then restructured the melody entirely, effectively making a dead man sing a brand new song.  That’s a little eerie when you think about it. Someone with a superstitious streak might well hesitate before taking such a liberty, for fear of “repercussions”. 

Ghost Box releases are shaped by an integrated audio-visual aesthetic that reflects the pair’s professions (House is a member of the record-design collective Intro, while Jupp works as an  architectural technician). Each CD looks like part of a set, a format modeled on university course books and the classic front cover “grid” of Penguin paperbacks.  These are seriously covetable objects (especially the Farmer’s Angle three-inch CD) that are literally designed to make you want to own the lot of them.

 The idea of having this uniform and faintly institutional-looking packaging also came from “library music”, a key influence and sampling resource for the Ghost Box roster, which now includes kindred spirit musicians The Advisory Circle and Eric Zann. Produced by labels such as KPM and Boosey & Hawkes, the library genre consisted of numbered volumes of atmospheric interludes and brief background motifs, intended for use on radio, in commercials and
industrial films, etc. 

Sample-hunters prize library recordings for their high-calibre musicianship (often involving top jazz players or classical musicians earning a few bob on the side). But where hip hop producers are searching for crisply funky breakbeats or stirring string flourishes, Ghost Box’s library fetish has a more rarified aspect. Jupp and House love the “science of mood” that informed the genre (tracks come with helpful descriptions such "light relaxed swingalong", "industrious activity",  "neutral abstract underscore"),  and the aura of “craft and anonymity” enveloping both music and packaging

“It’s like the musicians and designer are working from the same brief,” says House, describing how the covers’ clunky-yet-eerie photo collages seem to mirror the music’s “angular, disjointed” moods. When making their own music, the pair start by putting together “mood boards of relevant images and words,” says Jupp. “The design work for any Ghost Box release always runs parallel to recording.”

 Imagery and sonics, in turn, plug into a network of cultural references and allusions that together conjure a phantasmagoria of bygone Britishness. Talking to Jupp and House, it seems like any given track could easily be accompanied by footnotes or a swarm of hyperlinks whisking you to different nodes in this nation’s collective unconscious. The pair are serious scholars of arcana, capable of writing an auteurist monograph on Oliver Postgate (creator of the animated children’s shows Bagpuss, Pogle’s Wood, and The Clangers) or a sprawling polymath opus that traces the hidden connections between C.S. Lewis, Hammer House of Horror, The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Spike Milligan, Jonathon Miller's Alice in Wonderland, and The Wickerman.

One key zone of obsession involves the tales of cosmic horror and pastoral uncanny penned by gentleman occultists like Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. Inspired by a Blackwood story, the title track of Belbury Poly’s debut album The Willows marvellously conjures the weird energy that sometimes emanates from certain places--flooded meadows, deserted heaths--in the English countryside. And “Caermaen” gets its name from Arthur Machen’s fictionalized version of the Welsh town of Caerlon, which just so happens to be where Jupp and House grew up, spending many a happy boyhood hour roaming the banks of the River Usk or hanging out in the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre.

Yet as much as they feel the pull of old Albion, Jupp and House are equally drawn to another Britain: the bright, positivist post-WW2 United Kingdom that seemed to herald the triumph of reason, efficiency, and planning. Think of Lord Reith’s vision for the BBC, of the spirit of democratization of education that lay behind the Open University and the polytechnics, of the idealism that originally fueled  the New Town and Garden City movements along with the much-maligned Brutalist school of architecture pioneered by Alison and Peter Smithson. Think also of that largely disappeared genre of paperback non-fiction that could be termed “popular thought,” as purveyed by autodidacts like  Colin Wilson or by academics, such as M.B. Devot, keen to speak plainly in the language of the common man.

The inner sleeve of Hey Let Loose Your Love distils this clash of seeming incompatibles with its description of The Focus Group offering listeners “a varied program of musical activities for educational and ritual use.”  What exactly is the connection between pedagogy and paganism? House and Jupp don’t exactly know, but they feel it’s there. Perhaps it’s simply that both these Britains--heathen heritage, modernizing socialism----have faded away, eroded by the remorseless march of history.  Ghost Box’s “memory work” isn’t exactly therapeutic, though, a salve for homesickness (the root meaning of nostalgia). Their music is too disorienting for that kind of simple comfort. What is returned to you (assuming, perhaps, that you’re British and grew up in the Sixties and Seventies) is a sense of this country as a stranger, more fantastical place than you’d ever realized. Homeland becomes unheimlich. 


Saturday, September 30, 2017

Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983, by Tim Lawrence

Tim Lawrence

 Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983

(Duke University Press)

director's cut version, Bookforum, Sept / Oct / Nov 2016 issue

by Simon Reynolds

The title of the new book by disco scholar Tim Lawrence has taken on an unintended ominous overtone following the massacre at the Orlando nightclub Pulse. Of course, the grim reaper alluded to in Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor is not a homophobic terrorist, but a disease: AIDS, which ultimately scythed a deadly swathe across the cast of characters in this absorbing history of early Eighties Manhattan: performers, artists and promoters such as Klaus Nomi, Keith Haring and Bruce Mailman, to name only a few casualties.  Less literally, Lawrence identifies club culture with a vitalist spirit of Eros, celebrating the ways in which desire, communality and improvisation dissolves boundaries. Conversely, the opposed puritanical and purist principles - segregation, regulation, etc - are implicitly marked down as forces of Thanatos.

Life and Death is the sequel to Lawrence’s 2004 book Love Saves the Day, which chronicled disco’s emergence in the 1970s. But the British academic has already taken a first pass across Eighties New  York with 2009’s Hold On To Your Dreams, albeit using a single, if widely networked, artist – Arthur Russell - as a prism.  Originally a minimalist composer in the 1970s “New Music” mold, Russell explored a dizzying range of absurdist disco directions via numerous artistic aliases. For Lawrence, this flux and mutability made Russell (another AIDS casualty) an exemplar of the fully deterritorialized artistic life. This new  book looks at the larger subcultural landscape through which Russell moved and finds many other figures informed by that same spirit of flux and mutability. Operators like Michael Zilkha, whose ZE label was the home of “mutant disco”: genre-bending collisions of rock, funk, jazz and Latin music perpetrated by outfits like Was (Not Was), Material, and Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

One of the valuable things about Lawrence’s book is the way it focuses attention on a period that’s usually considered an intermediary phase, a mere gap between the classic disco era and the house explosion. For want of a better term, some have come to call it post-disco; at the time, people just talked about club music. Disco’s official demise in terms of its mainstream profile occurred circa 1979, the year of the “disco sucks” backlash, radio stations dropping the format as swiftly as they’d embraced it, and major labels closing down their disco departments. But dancing as a leisure activity did not fade away, obviously, and nor did music made purely for dancing.  Its consumption and production became more concentrated in certain cities – New York paramount among them – and it became the preserve of independent labels like West End, Prelude, and Sleeping Bag (co-founded by Russell).

The clubbing industry that had emerged during the disco boom didn’t wither away either: it adapted and in some instances even escalated in ambition.   One of the most interesting barely-told stories here concerns the lavishly designed gay club The Saint, with its planetarium-style ceiling. Owner Bruce Mailman engineered a total environmental experience for dancers, using disorienting lighting and engulfing sound to create sensations of transcendence and absolute removal from reality.

 “Post-disco” also fits what happened to the music, which mutated and fragmented into substyles: the slower, blacker grooves of what some DJs nowadays call “boogie”; the bouncy, diva-dominated Hi-NRG that eventually took over gay clubs like the Saint; a brash, crashing style known as freestyle that was particularly popular with Latino kids.  In all these subgenres, electronic textures and programmed elements  – thick synth bass, sequencer pulses, drum machine beats, early sampling effects – gradually took over,  as heard on classic tracks like Peech Boys’s “Don’t Make Me Wait” and Man Parrish’s “Hip Hop Be Bop.”

There are other  terms featuring “post-“  as prefix that apply to the four year period Lawrence examines here.  Postpunk, for instance, fits the way that No Wave groups like the Contortions strove to be more extreme than  the CBGBs bands like Ramones, only for their assaultive approach to be itself eclipsed by more groovy sounds from outfits like Liquid Liquid.  “Postfunk” pinpoints  the way that hip hop isolated the percussive quintessence (the breakbeats, the half-spoken half-sung chants) of James Brown style R&B.  And then there’s that old reliable “postmodern”: the early Eighties was when  retro first became a term in hip parlance, with revivalisms galore and camp parody infusing nightspots like the Mudd Club and Club 57. Staging themed parties based around concepts like  blacksploitation movies or dead rock stars, these clubs were more like arts laboratories than discos – Lawrence terms them “envirotheques”- although deejays remained key and dancing was always a fixture.

Life and Death provides the most intensive mapping of this relatively brief era of New York subculture we’ve yet seen. The book’s strength is its depth of research, drawing on the real-time journalism of the era and a huge number of new interviews. The detail is fascinating, Lawrence salvaging from the fog of faded memory such ephemeral brilliances as the deejay Anita Sarko’s Cold War themed party at Danceteria, during which she played  Soviet-banned music such as ABBA alongside state-sanctioned music like socialist men’s choirs, while the club’s co-founder Rudolf Piper, dressed as a commandant, periodically entered the room and pretended to arrest dancers. But strengths can become weaknesses, and Life and Death sometimes gets too list-y: there’s rather too many passages where, say, 21 bands are lined up to indicate a venue’s booking policy without anything much substantive conveyed.  Part of the art of a book of this nature is knowing what to leave out.

Writing about an era so roiling with overlapping and simultaneous action presents formidable structural challenges.  Dividing by theme or genre loses the narrative dimension. Focusing chapters on individual artists, labels, or clubs means that you keep the sense of storyline, but have to double-back to the era’s start for each new narrative. Lawrence opts for chronology, dividing his book up into year-long sections: 1980, 1982, 1982, 1983. That has its own downside, though:  the reader feels like the story is constantly flitting across to another figure or scene, to catch up with where they’ve gotten to by this point. The same places and persons crop up repeatedly: clubs like Better Days, Pyramid, Hurrah, Negril, Funhouse, Paradise Garage....  movers-and-shakers like Anya Philips, Ann Magnuson, Steve Maas, Jim Fourratt, Diego Cortez, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ruza Blue....  There simply isn’t a perfect solution to this tricky task – writing the collective biography of an epoch – and Lawrence’s approach does at least retain the sense of forward propulsion through time.

By the end of 1982, the processes that Lawrence valorizes – cross-fertilisation, eclecticism, hybridity – are peaking. “The melting pot city was entering its hyper-whisk phase”, he writes. Ideas travel back and forth between disco, rap, postpunk, avant-garde composition, and more.  Nor was the border-crossing limited to music: this was an era of polymath dilettantes, a time when most people in bands were also poets, actors, film-makers or visual artists, while a club maven might found a Lower East Side gallery as readily as organize a themed party.   

The book’s last section, covering 1983, is titled “The Genesis of Division”. That begs the question: if “the drive to integration and synthesis” was so potent – and by ’82, so febrile and fecund - what went wrong?  Like an ecosystem, the polymorphous jungle of New York bohemia flourished thanks to biodiversity – the frictional intermingling of different ethnic groups, different sexualities, different character typologies, different artistic traditions, different income levels. But every tendency produces its counter-reaction. In some sense the sheer variedness of downtown culture encouraged a kind of re-tribalization, the emergence of music-based identity politics. By the mid-Eighties concepts like punk-funk and mutant disco had gone out of fashion:  rock became un-danceable noise with the rise of Swans and Sonic Youth; purist strands of club culture emerged; hip hop increasingly defined itself as its own movement and extended nationwide. 

Club culture has always evolved through a dialectic of open-ness and exclusivity. Its rhetoric leans towards inclusive populism, but in practice, when the Bridge and Tunnel types arrive, hip early adopters move on.  Achieving a “mixed crowd” is usually what promoters and DJs exalt as their ideal, but such a balance is hard to maintain. In Life Against Death, The Saint provides an example of a dynamic that goes against the boundary-crossing ethos that Lawrence prizes and praises. Both the owner and the membership decreed that the club’s peak night, Saturday, should be restricted to 98 percent male attendance.  According to deejay Robbie Leslie, owner Mailman believed “that gay men danced well together... had this body chemistry where they moved on the dance floor as a tribe, as one entity” and that furthermore   “women’s body movements were contradictory to this flow.... He didn’t even want gay women there.” This admission policy fed into an increasing uniformity of appearance (what one attendee described as “pectoral fascism”) and a taste conservatism that kept the deejays on a tight leash. But the whole point of the Saint was that it provided a sanctuary for a segment within the city’s population, a stronghold for a certain vibe.  And vibe, as a vernacular concept, could be defined as “collective singlemindedness”. 

Alongside the centrifugal force of self-segregation, other factors brought to an end the belle epoque. Far more than AIDs, the killer was finance capital and real-estate speculation.  In his conclusion, Lawrence ponders whether  downtown artists and musicians were not just on the cutting edge of their particular forms of expression but an unwitting vanguard serving the purposes of realtors, enabling them to rebrand run-down areas as cool-rich neighbourhoods.  Bohemia priced itself out of its own habitat. That raises a further question that Lawrence toys with but leaves unresolved.  Why are these culturally potent ferments so weak in the face of money and power? The Stonewall riots provide one example where an embattled site of pleasure, creativity and identity gives birth to forms of activism. But generally speaking the politics of partying are too diffuse and motile to translate into anything as permanent and disciplined as a political party.

Writing about club culture in Interview in the early Eighties, New York scenester Glenn O’Brien argued that dancing is the ideal form of cultural resistance against fascism, because its rhythmic fluidity worked to dissolve the rigidities of what Wilhelm Reich called character-armor.  A more skeptical take on dancefloor utopianism can be found in a 1993 Greil Marcus column for Artforum.  Discussing  Design After Dark, a history of UK dancefloor style, Marcus praised the book for capturing the vibrant, ever-changing creativity of  these “tribes of black and white Britons”, but ultimately found the book  “a little depressing. So much flair, so much energy, so many ideas, so many good smiles, and, finally, no power. Style changed but not society; no-future didn’t move an inch from where it stood in 1977”.  When I first read those words in ’93, as a convert to rave culture, I resented this dismissive verdict. But in 2016, with political darkness roiling turbidly on both sides of the Atlantic, I wonder about the Eros-aligned liberating energies of music and dance, their ability to withstand the forces of division and death.  The dance club as micro-utopia seems terribly circumscribed, terrifyingly defenseless.  How do you get the fascists to dance?

Thursday, September 28, 2017


Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis 
by Norman O. Brown
University Of California Press

Village Voice, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

 Jim Morrison dug him. Camille Paglia rates him as far superior to the French pomo pantheon of Lacan, Derrida, Foucault et al. Susan Sontag thought he was cool for putting "the eschatology of immanence" back on the intellectual agenda. Who is he? He's Norman O. Brown, the classical scholar whose mind was blown by psychoanalytical theory and whose 1957 masterwork "Life Against Death"  was a radical, disorientating re-interpretation of Freud. Brown took issue with the degraded version of Freud perpetrated by American psychoanalysis, and attempted to return to the heart of the Freudian problematic: how can human beings be healed and whole when human culture itself is neurotic?

 Brown's obsessions - polymorphous perversity, Dionysian madness, androgyny, the replacement of the work ethic by play - prefigured those of the counter culture and Sixties utopian sects like the Situationists. But, perhaps because of his age or his scholarly temperament, Brown's quest for an end to alienation led him neither to armed revolution nor drug-induced oblivion, but to mysticism. Freud showed that regression to animalism, the beasts' blissful ease with their own sexuality and mortality, was not an option. So Brown's search for "the way out" led him to an idiosyncratic creed of mystical materialism, a spirituality which revelled in the flesh instead of denying it. At the close of "Life Against Death", Brown called for "the resurrection of the body" - a perfect, polymorphous, androgynous body, as imagined in pagan beliefs and certain apocalyptic Christian heresies. "Love's Body" (1967) was a collection of aphorisms whose goal was to end the opposition "between mind and body, word and deed, speech and silence". Brown's renunciation of politics and conclusion that "there is only poetry" , prefigure post-structuralism's post-1968 retreat to the text.

  Nearly 25 years later, "Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis" is the final volume in Brown's trilogy. A motley collection of essays and speeches,  "Apocalypse" can't be said to complete Brown's life work so much as fine-tune and fill gaps. Many of these pieces are purely of academic interest, in both senses of the word. "Daphne, or Metamorphosis", "My Georgics: A Palinode In Praise Of Work", and "Metamorphoses II: Actaeon" find Brown entertaining himself, and quite possibly only himself, in elaborate, arcane games with etymology and mythology. The aphoristic style of "Love's Body" disintegrates into the barely written condition of lecture notes (which, in some cases, is exactly what the essays are). Brown's intellectual shorthand (lots of sentences without verbs) and punning mental shortcuts often seem like an overloaded brain shortcircuiting.

 "Revisioning Historical Identities" is Brown's "intertextual autobiography", the account of "a life made out of books" : a trajectory that takes him from Marxism and modernist poets like Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky in the Thirties, through the political disillusionment of Henry Wallace's failed Presidential campaign of 1948, to his discovery, via Freud, that the arid science of Marxism needed irrigating by the Power Of Love. Again, one suspects that, despite Brown's elegant, elliptical style, this tale of intellectual wanderings has a rather limited resonance;  Brown himself describes the essay as a "hermetic game of hide and seek with esoteric erudition". In the opening piece, "Apocalypse: The Place Of Mystery In The Life Of The Mind", Brown calls for a reinvention of the academy, imagining it transformed from the hidey-hole of bookish refugees from life into a forum for scholars drunk on the wisdom of antiquity, infused with enthusiasm (in its root meaning, "god-in-us"). But the atmosphere of too much of the writing in this volume is dusty rather than Dionysian.

  The other, redeeming side to Brown's learning is his fervent syncretism: he's continually on the look-out for kindred spirits in unlikely places. "The Apocalypse Of Islam" celebrates a mystical strain within Islam comparable to the utopian offshoots of that other monotheistic, repressive religion, Christianity. Brown compares the bewildering maze of interruptions, collisions, lapses in tone and ejaculations that is the Koran's "Sura 18" to "Finnegan's Wake": both are examples of human language shattering under the force of the Divine Word. Spinoza is hailed as the prototype for all those thinkers (Freud, Nietzche, Marx, and by implication, Brown) who tried to fuse the roles of philosopher and prophet. For Brown, Spinoza's proto-communist, mystical dream of world unity anticipates his own own ideas about "Love's Body," (a body politic without a head, a polymorphously perverse society).

 Brown is often eager to make out that all the revolutionary thought of the ages culminates in his own work. But he's also gracious enough to admit when he's been pre-empted. He ruefully hails "El Divino Narciso", a mystery play by the 17th Century Mexcian mystic Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, as a masterpiece that renders "my encyclopaedic scholarship superfluous" . He's also a recent convert to Bataille. In his closing essay, "Dionysus in 1990", Brown uses Bataille's theory of a fundamental human lust for excess and ruinous waste as the missing piece in his intellectual jigsaw. In a final fit of ragged, syncretic exuberance, Brown links Gerard Manley Hopkins, Goethe and the 14th Century Sufi master Hafiz of Shiraz as participants in a  continuum: mystics who longed to be consumed in the fire of Dionysian excess. His closing, distinctly woolly contention - that the 1990 revolutions in Eastern Europe were an upsurge of Dionysian consciousness, because the masses were demanding the right to consume as recklessly and extravagantly as the West - is silly but endearing. At the very least, it shows that Norman O. Brown is still capable of being carried away by his enthusiasm for new ideas.