Category Archives: vision

Eastern Europe history: the Puzzle of Königsberg

m46Königsberg’s Berliner Schloss, 1945, shortly after the Red Army took the city from the Germans.

Then

Few images remain of decimated Königsberg (the castle ruins, in fact, stayed up untiol the late sixties), but I was recently intrigued to discover* that the Soviet’s first town planner in the city renamed Kaliningrad, Arsenij V Maksimov, spent his leisure time painting watercolours of the Königsberg‘s ruins, including remnants of the Berliner Schloss which remained standing till the late sixties.

Now

In the castle’s stead, from 1970 onwards, construction began on this infamous building, the House of Soviets:

 

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*Thanks to Slovenian artist & architect Marjetica Potrč part of who’s work ‘The Puzzle of Königsberg‘ I saw on display at Melbourne’s NGV.

 

 

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synthpop art: gentlemen take polaroids

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Before Depeche Mode’s fruitful partnership with Dutch artist and filmmaker Anton Corbijn, the Mute Records band’s visual identity was partly shaped by photographer Brian Griffin who shot the series of high-concept images which adorn five album releases spanning 1981-1986.

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The influence Russian social realist art is strikingly seen in Griffin’s work for Depeche, though apparently the picture taken for A Broken Frame was inspired by German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.

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For 1983’s Construction Time Again the photographer again references the socialist figure of the worker; this time via the political statement of construction worker-wielding-sledgehammer in a otherwise pristine Alpine location.

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Some Great Reward’s industrial backdrop ties in nicely with the album’s love-hate themes and sonic embrace of harsh found-sound as showcased on tracks like People are People, Master and Servant and Blasphemous Rumours.

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1986’s transitional Black Celebration followed in the wake of songwriter Martin L Gore’s relocation to Berlin. Depeche Mode’s darkest album to date drew heavily on the technological innovation of Alan Wilder, Daniel Miller and Gareth Jones, and was suitably cloaked inside shadowy Blade Runner-esque imagery.

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photographic

“I would call what we’re into now a kind of experimental pop that reflects what goes on around us – industry, the electronic age, war – but we don’t want to lecture people about it, just tell them that it’s there.”

Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr, Record Mirror, January 1980

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The imagery employed to market post-punk and contemporaneous electronic records owes much to design and architectural philosophy, especially the distinct Supremacist and Constructivist art movements which sprung out of Russian Futurism during the 1910s. Most strikingly, the dominant aesthetic of synthpop fetishised a visual language with connotations of state control; under Bolshevism such art work was actually produced under repressive conditions, only permissible for its usefulness to propaganda.

According to Philip Brophy:

‘In many ways, just as the decade from the mid-’10s to the mid-’20s contained the seeds for many of the forceful projections of 20th Century modernism in art and design, that same decade worked as a melting pot of inspiration and influence for punk and post-punk design. This is a harsh generalization, but all the punk and post-punk art and design students were superficially attracted to the `general’ revolutionary feel of this period which encompassed WWI and The Russian Revolution, which in turn spiked many artistic developments that punk and post-punk aped and echoed : Dada’s social anarchy; Futurism’s implosive politicization; the dynamic abstraction of Supremativism and Constructivism ; the functional harmony of De Stijl; and the Bauhaus’ centralisation of all of the above. Furthermore, the resultant differences in post-punk design can largely be attributed to whichever art movement a designer would be more attracted to, as there were many conflicts between and within the aforementioned movements.’

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The likes of El Lissitzky, a key influence on Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine (1978), and German typographer Jan Tschichold (denounced by National Socialists as a ‘cultural Bolshevik’) were key sources of inspiration for designers commissioned by British record labels in the post-punk era to produce their acts’ sleeves and often their broader visual identities.

As Simon Reynolds puts it, “The record cover artwork of the period matched the neo-modernist aspirations of the words and music, with such graphic designers as Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville, and labels like Factory and Fast Product, drawing from Constructivism, De Stijl, Bauhaus, John Heartfield and Die Neue Typographie.”

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Saville and Garrett – along with fellow designers like Neville Brody and Barney Bubbles – enjoyed much creative freedom in the late seventies. Saville, who studied graphic design at Manchester Polytechnic from 1975-78, went on to become a partner and founder of Manchester’s iconic Factory Records and also served as art director for London’s Dindisc label from 1981-1983. He was driven by the belief that the visual language of new wave music needed to be distinctive, and made his name designing art work for the likes of Joy Division, New Order, Ultravox! and OMD, drawing from established movements.

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“Punk itself, as a look, was really only a moment’s aberration,” Saville told Eye Magazine, “For six months, Punk was like the parting of the Red Sea and anybody who was fit and ready enough could run through. By association with certain people in Manchester I got pulled through the gap. But the look of Punk didn’t offer much hope for a fresh graphic language.

“Malcolm [Garrett] had a copy of Herbert Spencer’s Pioneers of Modern Typography. The one chapter that he hadn’t reinterpreted in his own work was the cool, disciplined “New Typography” of Tschichold and its subtlety appealed to me. I found a parallel in it for the New Wave that was evolving out of Punk. In this, as it seemed at the time, obscure byway of graphic design history, I saw a look for the new, cold mood of 1977-78.”

© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2014.

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paranoid android

“Walking, they were walking / Through the rainy days, looking at all the faces

/ But no-one ever noticed them”

Ultravox!, Quiet Men, 1978

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Late seventies’ television series like The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic WomanBattlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7 and Logan’s Run, as well as films such as Star Wars, Alien and The Black Hole, variously embedded robots, androids and cyborgs within public consciousness.

But while Kraftwerk’s influential The Man-Machine (1978) came off the production line during a period when screen content was dominated by commercial fantasies set in outer space, it’s an LP which owes its inspiration to earlier sci-fi works. Shiny and accessible – and arguably presenting a less cohesive concept than its predecessor Trans-Europe Express – the ideas behind The Man-Machine were heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s seminal 1927 film Metropolis (featuring the gynoid Maria) as well as the four band members’ own mannequin-esque on-stage personas.

David Buckley writes that, “Against the backdrop of technology advancement, US-Soviet space-race rivalry, and the liberation of popular culture by countercultural progressives, Kraftwerk began making music during a time when the future of mankind seemed to be being radically re-directed.”

“Expressionless and statuesque, Kraftwerk initiated a completely new performance idiom, and building on ‘Showroom Dummies’ from the previous album, their reinvention as robots was logical,” he adds. “It paved the way for a new wave of pop performers who would affect an air of emotional dislocation, staring blankly out on an audience to be neither greeted nor even acknowledged.”

we are the robots

Already David Bowie had rejuvenated experimental rock and pop by making synths, together with recognisable sci-fi themes and characterisations, intrinsic to his creative process (for instance, 1974’s Diamond Dogs included the Orwell-inspired tracks Big Brother and 1984, while three years later Low‘s cover art was sourced straight from the artist’s turn as an alien in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth). Now the Dűsseldorfers’ measured stillness, perfected for The Man-Machine, became a blueprint for UK synthpop acts seeking to distinguish themselves from the conventions of guitar rock.

With the release of The Man-Machine Kraftwerk drew sci-fi and technology in close to our world as they set out to create the sound of past and imagined global cities; in so doing they helped establish a sonic and aesthetic language for a sci-fi fetish of communist states.

In England is Mine Michael Bracewell traces the key precursors of a robot aesthetic which “provided metaphors for individualism within a bland society”, emphasising the historical position of the robot as both a physical and political threat:

“Imported from Germany and Eastern Europe, there was a mythology of robots both as sinister (in the Gothic, Frankensteinian sense of the self-awakening monster) and political, in terms of allegories of Fordism, Communism and Bolshevism. The female robot in Metropolis had raised new notions of sexuality, combining eroticism with political allegory to make a Goth-Futurist morality tale that was equally concerned with emotional and sexual relationships. There was also Karel Ĉapek’s ‘Robot Play’ of 1920, Rossum’s Universal Robots, which not only provided the word ‘robot’ but told the story of an army of robots who unite to destroy mankind, thus becoming a critique of totalitarian communism. Peter Wollen, in his essay on ‘Robot Kultur’, has linked the robot eroticism in the latter half of Metropolis with Gramsci’s notion of industrialization prompting a sexual crisis: the libido is placed at odds with the need for efficiency in the factory.”

The term ‘robota’ (meaning ‘serf labour’) was coined by Czech writer Karel Čapek’s brother Josef, as detailed in the memoir of author and architect Ivan Margolius:

‘“Apparently, [Josef] Čapek had the idea for the artificial beings not through the famous Prague automaton, the Golem, supposedly created by Rabbi Yehuda Löw ben Becalel at the end of the 16th century, but while riding on an overcrowded Prague tram. Suddenly it struck him how modern conditions made people uncaring about the usual comforts of life. They stood squashed in the tram, not like sheep but like machines. He started to think of people not as individuals but as machines, and during the journey he reflected on an expression which would indicate a being able to work but not think.’” (Vítězslav Margolius in Ivan Margolius, Reflections of Prague)

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A 1921 review of R.U.R. from The Observer.

Though subsequent usage of the term ‘robot’ suggests otherwise, in Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.) the artificial beings are actually biological entities assembled by humans, as serf labour, from a variety of components, rather than actual mechanical devices. Karel Čapek’s play, which was successfully exported to the UK and US during the twenties, centres on non-human factory workers who, fed up with their lot, turn the tables on their bosses through drastic industrial action which ultimately leads to the extinction of the human race.

The science-fictional portrayal of non-humans has since varied greatly; be that in comics and mangaliterature and radio or television and cinema, as well as within the realm of pop music.

electric dreaming

Prior to Kraftwerk’s re-released single The Model surging to the top of the UK charts in February 1981, the door to the mainstream for synthpop was emphatically kicked in by Gary Numan when, firstly as the frontperson of Tubeway Army and then flying solo, he scored #1 hits in both June and September 1979. A mixture of sinister androgyny and fragile otherness Numan seemingly appeared out of nowhere to perform live on the BBC’s Top of the Pops program, posing a grammatically specific question.

Are ‘Friends’ Electric? was the lead single from Tubeway Army’s second LP Replicas, a concept record which uses the written and visual language of sci-fi to communicate a human race alienated in their own near-future world.

These days a trained pilot, Numan (nee Webb) grew up near London’s Heathrow, not far from long-time Shepparton resident JG Ballard. It was while working on the self-titled debut of his then-punk/glam band when, so the story goes, he experienced an epiphany of sorts after stumbling across a Minimoog in the recording studio. Attracted to the possibilities of electronic sound Numan began to introduce such elements into his milieu, complementing existing other-wordly influences (Philip K Dick is quoted in Tubeway Army’s opening track Listen to the Sirens).

Inspired by an unfinished Numan sci-fi novel, Replicas soars. Whereas Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire applied sci-fi themes and electronic sound to post-industrial Manchester and Sheffield respectively, and John Foxx to a past-its-prime London metropolis, the less-political Numan reinterpreted such reference points to create a futuristic fantasy world. Alongside ‘Friends’ sit concept-laden gems like Praying to the Aliens, The Machman, Me! I Disconnect From You and Down in the Park, alongside the straighter glam rock of You Are in My Vision and It Must Have Been Years.

Like Foxx, Numan shed his band in 1980 and embarked on a solo career, soon returning to No.1 with Cars; easily dismissed as a parody of Kraftwerk’s man-machine aesthetic, Numan became synthpop’s first bona fide pop star. Subsequently, Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes topped the charts in August 1980, followed by Soft Cell’s Tainted Love (September 1981) and The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me? (December 1981).

By 1980, having released two solo albums, The Pleasure Principal and Telekon, Numan had retired from playing live and took an 18-month hiatus from music, after which his popularity waned. Having since made a resurgence with Nine Inch Nails-style industrial rock, the artist has sought to downplay the influence of sci-fi on his early career:

“To be honest I only ever wrote a handful of songs that were remotely connected to Science Fiction and they were all nearly 20 years ago,”  he tells Electronicmusic.com. “The ‘Replicas’ album, or bits of it, one or two things on ‘The Pleasure Principle’ and one or two things on ‘Telekon’. I would say about 15 songs, maybe 20, out of a total of well over 300 to date have anything to do with Sci Fi. I think because I became successful with electronic music, a newish thing 20 years ago, and a song called ‘Are Friends Electric’ (it was that song that launched me in the UK anyway) I was given a Sci Fi label that stuck long after I’d moved on to other things. 
I do love technology though. I’m fascinated by all things techy. I do enjoy science fiction movies and TV shows as well but it honestly doesn’t cross over into my music or the way I see the world.”

identity

Reflective, synth-driven music exploring concepts of identity proliferated in the early eighties, and an inordinate amount of tracks delve into the inner psyche of the troubled, dislocated or manipulated individual; for example, Visage’s Fade to Grey, Blancmange’s Running Thin, OMD’s The New Stone Age, Talk Talk’s Mirror Man, Depeche Mode’s Puppets, Yazoo’s Happy People, Tears for Fears’ Start of the Breakdown, Soft Cell’s Metro MRX and Japan’s Ghosts.

 

After the glam guitar pop of two 1978 albums (containing tracks titled European Son, Communist China and Suburban Berlin), south Londoners Japan moved in a more electronic direction for Quiet Life (1979), Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) and, finally, Tin Drum (1981). The memorable single Ghosts featured on this latter communist China-themed album across which David Sylvian’s vocals delicately complement intricate programming and voice samples, fetishising all things red; “We’re young and strong in this Party / We’re building our visions of China,” Sylvian proudly asserts on Visions of China.

Meanwhile, Leeds duo Soft Cell’s early recordings, later compiled as The Bedsit Tapes, are heightened modernist fantasies which stack up squarely in the kitchen sink of Thatcher’s Britain. Metro MRX’s  “favourite mutant”  is variously described by singer Marc Almond as “a cog in the machinery”,
 “impersonal and straight-faced”, “not a clone but a look-alike” and, more worryingly, “the city’s full of him”.

Cold War themes were by now de rigueur within the synthpop strain of post-punk, and increasingly the protagonist tended to be the grey suited-man of communism – Party and secret police operatives,  cunning and dangerous – alien to the West but everyday elsewhere*.

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As Bracewell notes, “Grey was also the shade of film noir and pre-War Europe (on the style index) as well as the eerie hue of half-life, after-life and indecision”.

“The ghostly non-colour of urban mist, had popped up in Gary Numan’s founding vocabulary in reference to the ‘friend’ of ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’, who was ‘dressed in a long coat, grey hat, smoking a cigarette’.”

Drawing on the political legacy of the robot as dissenting figure, the pervading electro-pop aesthetic plugged into a fetishised, unknown, communist East. Inevitably artists of this era coveted new meaning or identity, their own seemingly blunted amidst the dehumanisation of right-wing politics. The banality of daily existence was salved with creative imaginings of mythical characters inhabiting an idealised urban environment.

#####

*Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic has first-hand experience of living in an individual-less society, which she describes thus in Cafe Europa: Life After Communism:

“I grew up with ‘we’ and ‘us’ in kindergarten, at school, in the pioneer and youth organisations, in the community, at work.

“I grew up listening to the speeches of the politicians saying, ‘Comrades, we must…’ and with these comrades, we did what we were told, because we did not exist in any other grammatical form.

“As a consequence of this ‘us’, no civic society developed. The little there was, in the form of small, isolated and marginalised groups, was soon swallowed up by the national homogenisation that did not permit any differences, any individualism.”

New Life indeed.

© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2013.

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voice of america

“The wrecking balls and bulldozers began to systematically destroy the homes of 10,000 Bunker Hill residents. After a generation of corporate machination, including a successful 1953 campaign (directed by the Los Angeles Times) to prevent the construction of public housing on the Hill, there was finally a green light for ‘urban renewal’. A few Victorian landmarks, like Angel’s Flight, were carted away as architectural nostalgia, but otherwise an extraordinary history was promptly razed to the dirt, and the shell-shocked inhabitants, mostly old and indigent, pushed across the moat of the Harbor Freeway to die in the tenements of Crown Hill, Bunker Hill’s threadbare twin sister. Irrigated by almost a billion dollars of diverted public taxes, bank towers, law offices, museums, and hotels eventually sprouted from its naked scars, and Bunker Hill was reincarnated as a glitzy command center of the booming Pacific Rim economy. Where hard men and their molls once plotted to rob banks, banks now plotted to rob the world.”

– Mike Davis, ‘Hollywood’s Dark Shadow’, Dead Cities

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science-fiction stories

“Science fiction has been hijacked by people who aren’t really interested in the subject. Most SF writers are writing fantasy – all these future-earth sagas and planet eons, these tales  of galactic empires, this sort of medieval futurism. It’s the world of Robin Hood dressed up in space suits. It has nothing to do with science as we see it emerging around us today,  infiltrating our lives, changing the psychology of the world in which we live…”

– JG Ballard

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Motivated by Kraftwerk’s past-futurist lyrical themes and imagery, early purveyors of synthpop duly saw fit to take their creative cues from sci-fi literature and cinema as much as from any established approach to musicianship, relishing the opportunity to apply an art school aesthetic to their respective acts’ visual identities. The influence of sci-fi extended beyond lyric-writing and programming of not-of-this-world sounds to encompass art work and on-stage personas; one suspects more than one bulky VCR over-heated from viewings of Metropolis and, say, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

It’s equally likely second-hand copies of Orwell, Wells and other literary sci-fi works increasingly became hot property in the late seventies. Indeed, a brand of sci-fi which struck closer to home also made its mark, following on from the impact made by the near-contemporary novels and subsequent adaptations of Fahrenheit 451 and A Clockwork Orange.

As with Delia Derbyshire‘s 1963 electronic Doctor Who theme for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the synthesised orchestral score composed for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film by Wendy Carlos was hugely influential in the spheres of both music and film/television production alike. (And by the eighties filmmakers working across many genres were regularly enlisting electronic musicians and composers to bring a touch of synth to their creations*.) As for the images, well, they showcased a psycho-physical milieu similar to that which would soon be most consistently inhabited by JG Ballard.

Meanwhile, Simon Reynolds notes that both the Anthony Burgess novel and Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange each “capture the desolate psychogeography of the new Britain created by the ‘visionary’ town planners and fashionably Brutalist architects of the 1960s – all high-rise blocks, shadowy underpasses, concrete pedestrian bridges and walkways.”

patron saint

That British artists drew inspiration from contemporary political, social and physical environments owes plenty to both Burgess and Ballard. Run through the latter’s near-future sci-fi, synthpop as proposed by Kraftwerk, became the soundtrack to experienced and imagined cities as the dominant, futurist aesthetic evolved from the application of Ballard’s prose to sonic contexts. From Trevor Horn’s appropriation of short story The Sound Sweep for Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star to Ian Curtis naming a Joy Division track after novel The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard’s influence permeates this musical era, infusing the literate end of post-punk and most obviously seen in the work of John Foxx and The Normal.

John Foxx sees Ballard as “the first radical and relevant novelist of this technological age in Britain”.

“You had Burroughs and Philip K Dick in America but they were connected to the beat movement, using drugs as a lens, reflecting an American landscape. I always enjoyed JGB’s Englishness, living in a middle-class suburb writing about a new landscape we’d only just come to live in…”

In 1989 Ballard told Spin magazine his seventies novels were about “the effects on human psychology of the changes brought about by science and technology, the modern urban landscape, the freeways and motorways, the peculiar psychology of life in vast high-rise condominiums.”

As such, his work differed from the mainstream presentation of sci-fi, as seen in Silent RunningLogan’s Run, The Black HoleMoonraker and Flash Gordon, as well as Star Wars and its myriad of rip-offs and parodies. Though much of Ballard’s writing is sci-fi in tone his dystopias are grounded in contemporary or near-future living. His three seventies novels, Crash, High Rise and Concrete Island, suitably reflect the grim reality of that decade, featuring characters who are variously alienated, disorientated, enslaved or stimulated by all-dominating concrete and steel.

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Reynolds notes that: “This same traumatised urban landscape served as the backdrop – but also, the main character – in JG Ballard’s classic seventies trilogy of Crash, Concrete Island and High-Rise. Likewise, Ballard’s earlier short stories and cataclysm novels obsessively conjure an eerie, inhuman beauty from vistas of dereliction – abandoned airfields, disused weapons ranges, drained reservoirs, deserted cities.”

In 1978 The Normal (ostensibly synth experimentalist Daniel Miller, the founder of Mute Records) recorded and self-released the single T.V.O.D.a self-narrative of a man who plugs a television antenna directly into his body. The B-side was Crash-inspired Warm Leatherette, which picked up from where Ballard’s novel left off with lyrics like “The handbrake breaks your thigh / Quick, let’s make love before you die”.

The literary representation of a near-future sixties and seventies inspired post-punk music sonically and thematically. At times Ballard’s stories resonate with an innate Englishness; at others they evoke an international spirit of adventure (though he probably should not be blamed for this).

Ballard proposed often-bleak repercussions of an urban existence where technology comes to the fore and citizens psychically re-wire to this altered course, and the term ‘Ballardian’ was subsequently coined to describe work exploring similar tropes and motifs of a post-industrial world that shapes human identities. Ben Whalley, director of the BBC documentary Synth Brittania, uses it as he notes a distinction between the German and UK music scenes:

“Whilst the Germans used electronics to articulate a sonic utopia, many of the Brits saw electronic music as a way to interrogate reality. Arguably their music soundtracked great industrial cities in economic decline, rent asunder by brutal, Ballardian skyscapes.”

While influenced by Kraftwerk, Joy Division’s music is probably most comparable to the work of Liverpool’s Echo & The Bunnymen, Sheffield’s The Comsat Angels and Artery, Glaswegians Josef K or, at a pinch, Leeds groups like Delta 5 and The Au Pairs. However, back in the late seventies, in realising their interpretation of their home city’s post-industrial decline (with the help of maverick producer Martin Hannett), the influence of electronic rhythms and the prose of JG Ballard were clear. Most obviously he was appropriated for Closer‘s eerie opening track The Atrocity Exhibition but for Reynolds, guitarist Bernard Sumner’s axe-wielding also “evokes the wounded, penetrable metal of Crash – twisted, buckled, splayed, torn”.

Reynolds, who calls Ballard (as well as Brian Eno) a patron saint of post-punk, actually describes Manchester in Ballardian terms: “Venture outside the town centre and the city’s past as the world capital of cotton manufacture becomes more evident: railway viaducts, canals the colour of lead, converted warehouses and factories, and cleared lots littered with masonry shards and refuse.”

On Joy Division, he adds that, “The band’s debut album, “Unknown Pleasures,” pulled a Ballardian maneuver by aestheticizing the postindustrial desolation of late ’70s Manchester, finding a somber glamour in its derelict factories and baleful motorways.”

Appearing in Grant Gee’s 2007 documentary Joy Division, Paul Morley describes the music as “almost like a science-fiction interpretation of Manchester”.

“You could recognize the landscape and the mindscape and the soundscape as being Manchester. It was extraordinary that they managed to make Manchester international, if you like – make Manchester cosmic.”

utopia/dystopia

In her early eighties book The Scientific World View in Dystopia, Alexandra Aldridge discusses a distinction between ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’. Whereas utopia represents a scientifically restructured society, dystopia is rather a critique of said utopia for its emphasis on collective as opposed to individual values.

As such it would be easy to position an Eastern Bloc fetish as one framed by utopian thought, creating a vision of a rigid communist framework where all citizens are equals, at least on paper. On the other hand it could be argued a sci-fi inspired fetish also carries dystopian weight in that the sidelined individual often comes to the fore.

“In outlook, the dystopian novel also dramatises individualist, modernist themes – isolation, spiritual and emotional emptiness, alienation,” Aldridge says. “What distinguishes it from the mainstream is its specific concentration on the alienating effects of science and technology.”

1984-screencap

To illustrate this distinction further Aldridge uses the example of Orwell’s 1984, which is not utopian for it cannot hold up any scientific drivers in the construction – only a state lust for control and power.

“The essential point about 1984 is it makes no pretence of being a utopian conception and therefore cannot be precisely defined as a dystopia. We cannot talk, for example, about a scientific or scientistic ethos forming the (corrupted) motive power of society. There is no ethos as such in 1984 – no desire, however wrong-headed or perverse to construct – only sadistically and maliciously control… the real subject of 1984 is the abuse of power or more explicitly, ‘the mind of totalitarianism’.”

Among industrial and synth artists of the post-punk era were individuals rebelling against Thatcherism and, through the fetish, arguably created an alternate world based on Central and Eastern Europe. The dystopian fetish is therefore a largely (and unavoidably) uninformed critique of the Eastern Bloc while also naïve utopian promotion of either an inter-war ‘Europe lost’ or a communist Europe juxtaposed to Western neoliberalism.

Thus in the sci-fi fetish of communism, aspects of utopia and dystopia are combined. The Eastern Bloc/Cold War fetish was borne out of grass-is-greener, domestic discontent. Feeding into this unrest stood the the grim, post-industrial environment, which electronic groups were able to express either through an immersion in the very anti-qualities they heard and observed in everyday life or through the creation of a sci-fi inspired, alternate reality, heightening Ballard’s world.

*****

*Berlin group Tangerine Dream’s transition from the underground into soundtrack specialists took in projects such as Sorcerer (1977), Thief (1981), The Keep (1983), Risky Business (1983) and Firestarter (1984). Vangelis scored the likes of Chariots of Fire (1981), Blade Runner (1982) and The Bounty (1984).

For his part Giorgio Moroder worked on Midnight Express (1978), American Gigolo (1980), Cat People (1982), Electric Dreams (1983), Flashdance  (1983), Scarface (1983) and The Never-Ending Story (1984)Francis Monkman’s score for The Long Good Friday (1980) was also notable for its use of synths. Meanwhile, Wendy Carlos would collaborate once more with Kubrick on The Shining (1980) before adding Tron (1982) to her list of credits.

© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2013.

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the landscape is changing

“The world of today is a bare, hungry, dilapidated place compared with the world that existed before 1914, and still more so if compared with the imaginary future to which the people of that period looked forward. In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly and efficient – a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete – was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person.”

– George Orwell, 1984.

bladerunner-full

Together, advances in sound technology and the adoption of sci-fi themes served as an effective vehicle to express disaffection for Western democracy and to fetishise unknown socialist Eastern Europe or those places which sat on its frontier; namely Austria and Germany. Imbued with themes and imagery evoking Berlin and beyond synth-driven acts either tended to be immersed in the notion of an alternative to way of life or be grounded in actual, unromanticised existence, decrying the state of the nation.

Such an alternative existed in the Eastern Bloc where the ice of communism had frozen nationalism, and democracy along with it. From the twenties, the spread of a dominant European culture meant minor cities in the region began to rival major centres, at least culturally and socially. According to John Lampe, in South-Eastern Europe this challenged the national integration to which these inter-war states aspired, advancing “the liberal, modernist, and urban version of that integration familiar from the short, unhappy but still promising life of Weimar Germany”.

However, despite Kraftwerk’s promotion of a Trans-Europe Express and their proclamations of Europe Endless, the lyrical focus of their largely UK-based spawn usually lay on the frontier between East and West; hence there tends to be lyrical references to Leipzig and Prague on synthpop records, rather than mutterings of, say, further-afield cities like Belgrade or Plovdiv.

High-Rise

Up until Central and Eastern Europe’s Soviet-backed regimes fell like dominoes in 1989, these respective states’ affairs remained largely concealed from the West behind Churchill’s Iron Curtain. Hitherto, a lack of credible information coming out of the East and the resultant paucity of understanding of life under communism, prompted a range of responses including bemusement, indifference and standoffishness. Communism, while looming large, remained frustrating distanced intellectually.

However, in some respects the lives of those less advantaged in the cities and towns of Britain would come to resemble Western perceptions of life in the Eastern Bloc; features common to both dystopias included social division and unrest borne out of political austerity and a visual, post-conflict legacy of urban centres filled with tower blocks filled with low-income occupants. (As explained here, one city in particular became a hub for musical experimentation at the same time as cynical and sometimes violent State co-option of modernisation was gnawing away at the futures of its citizens.)

Trellick Tower, the notorious (now gentrified) 1972-built, west London housing block (featured, incidentally, in Depeche Mode’s Little 15 video), once stood as the embodiment of the administrative neglect of mass housing, as profiled in The Guardian:

“Within months tenants were begging the council for emergency measures to deal with the vandalism, burglaries, muggings, caretakers’ strikes, rubbish and ankle-deep floods. A pensioner collapsed and died after broken lifts forced him to climb six flights… The rush to escape turned into a stampede. The waiting list jumped to six months, then 12, then 18, then two years. Trellick was sinking into decay, neglect and crime. It was said to have inspired JG Ballard’s novel, High Rise, in which residents collapse into anarchy and wage war on each other’s floors. A destiny of desolation and demolition seemed inevitable.”

Thatcher’s eleven years in power saw the number of UK citizens living below the poverty line double to twelve million, the income gap between the top and bottom fifths of the population grow to sixty percent and employment peak at three million. No less than former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone observed in Utopia London that, “Really, Mrs Thatcher’s mindset would have been more at home in Eastern Germany, you know, or Poland – dissent not tolerated.”

‘Red Ken’ makes a pertinent observation. Living in a climate of rising unemployment and privitisation, it made sense for some Brits to feel an affinity with actual and mythical oppressed workers of totalitarian regimes in isolated lands, whilst at the same time sparking comparisons between experienced capitalism and perceived socialism.

Under Eastern European communism, the working class hero is culturally viable at the same time as manufacturing in the West is failing. This produces a simulacra of Eastern Europe in much of the electronic music being produced in the west – music that presents the possibility of manufacturing sound and image. By the mid 1970s when Western politics had long since become irrevocably cloaked in Cold War consciousness, the profound East-West divide was lending inspiration to UK music at a time when that country’s neoliberal rot had set in. Urban centres as rich and layered as Berlin and Warsaw provoked both awe and empathy from musicians who had grown up in UK cities.

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Bernard Sumner, who grew up in Salford on the outskirts of Manchester during the seventies, experienced the life of the poor both in back-to-back houses and in the high-rises that replaced them, and attributes some of the darkness to Joy Division’s music his childhood environment.

“When I was very young I was living in Lower Broughton, Salford. We were right near the River Irwell which was disgusting, and there was a chemical factory at the end of the street with oil drums lying around all over the place. So it was pretty grim but there was always a strong sense of community… When it all came down we were shifted across the river to a tower block. In my young state I thought the new home was brilliant, but the loss would hit me later on. All my childhood memories were wiped away when they cleared out the old Salford.” (from Mick Middles, Joy Division to New Order)

Connecting the psychogeography of British cities with their Eastern Bloc counterparts were those concrete streets-in-the-sky. For Owen Hatherley, this sometimes, “led to a curious kind of bad faith, where, on the one hand, the dehumanising effect of these places was lamented, but, on the other, the vertiginous new landscape was fetishised and aestheticised. Although post-punk was always a great deal more aesthetically sophisticated, not bound by nostalgia for the old streets, this bad faith features here, too. Post-punk is usually represented in terms of concrete and piss, grim towers and blasted wastelands.”

According to Hatherley, “Council flats were always one of the emblems of punk, at least in its more socialist – realist variants. There was a sort of delayed cultural reaction to the cities of tower blocks and motorways built in the ’60s, to the point where their effect only really registered around ten years later, when a cultural movement defined itself as having come from those towers and walkways.”

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Early adopters

Affordable synthesisers and drum machines became available in the late seventies. With the depths of Thatcherism still to look forward to, emerging musicians in London, as well as those based in the northern industrial cities Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, looked to non-traditional instrumentation as a means to link music with the impending political doom and industrial decay.

Throbbing Gristle, a transgressive collective formed in Hull in 1975, used synth textures to push the boundaries of taste with twisted psycho-sexual tales. Subversion was important, and Throbbing Gristle certainly did not create an idealised version of the world around them, but beyond the shock value the group’s musical influence was profound. To quote an issue of Fetish magazine in 1980, the group’s “popularity through their adventurous elitism of electronic violence and bleakness has permitted other artists of similar focus to organise a new order of music”.

Prior to covering themes of child murder and paedophilia, Throbbing Gristle drew heavily on Nazi imagery for the cover art on debut single United / Zyklon B Zombie and subsequent releases such as Subhuman / Something Came Over Me and Adrenalin Distant Dream (Part Two)Moreover,  the band’s heavily-featured logo was based on the insignia of the British Union of Fascists.
Sheffield trio Cabaret Voltaire, formed in 1973, were inspired variously by politics and current affairs not only close to home but also in the US and the Middle East, as well as happenings in Europe (to the extent that like Visage, the group worked Moscow into a song title). Comprising the son of a communist and steel worker a History and Politics student and an GPO electronics engineer, the group pioneered the use of ‘found’ sounds, snippets from TV and radio and tape-loop recordings, mixing these elements together with squalling guitar noise.

Sourcing their name from the famous Zurich nightclub – itself named after a centre for the early Dadaist movement post-World War I – the ‘Cabs’ as they became colloquially known were heavily inspired by Williams S Burroughs’ cut-up literature, and drew on the decaying and failing social and physical environments around them to create paranoid sound textures from instrumental and non-instrumental sources.

“If punk has any roots, Dada is part of it,” the Cabs’ Stephen Mallinder explains. “And we saw ourselves as part of a kind of Dada tradition. This was in the sense that if Dada was reacting to the morality and aesthetics of pre-WWI, then we were very much a reaction to the pomposity of rock that existed within music at that time. I think we saw our reaction coming from Dada, but at the same time, it formed into punk, which was very much a reaction to the social conditions.”

Despite being early adopters of new technology these contemporaries of Kraftwerk were certainly not clean nor quaint in their delivery or musical content; rather, they represented the first wave of industrial music. According to Biba Kopf, “Britain’s industrial age was well over before TG and CV began operations. In effect, the pair bridged the gap between its end and the beginning of the computer age.” (from the introduction to Tape Delay: Confessions From the Eighties Underground)

Concrete Island

As explained by Laura Kaye in her production notes for the BBC’s Synth Brittania, “All of the early synth artists found themselves making music in urban areas from the run down, empty streets of East London to industrial Sheffield under the shadow of the massive concrete Park Hill Estate. By a fortuitous coincidence just at the moment that the world started looking like this, the affordable synthesizer arrived on the market and musicians looking for a way to express their feelings of alienation in this new concrete jungle found just the thing in its strange, eerie, inhuman sounds. The cityscapes of the ’70s posed a challenge to artists to write something that would fit there.”

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Hatherley takes up this theme in more detail:

“The bastard technologies and deadpan dystopianism of Cabaret Voltaire and the early Human League (declaring ‘high rise living’s not so bad’ in 1979, the year that the Tories declared an intention to ‘tear down the tower blocks’) are New Brutalism in Pop, much as the latter was Pop in architecture: the rough synth textures, the bastardised technologies and outlook caught between technological optimism and urban paranoia. Japan, straight out of Catford, sang of the romance of ‘concrete squares’ and ‘east Berlin’, John Foxx’s Ultravox declared that ‘my sex is invested in suburban photographs/skyscraper shadows on a car crash overpass…my sex is an image lost in faded films/a neon outline on a car crash overspill.’ For many post-punk currents, Brutalist imagery was not so much source for socialist realist critique as a spur to new conceptions of surface and space.”

© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2013.

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