Rest well, David Berman. Thanks for keeping it real and for the sad elegance of your songs. All my favourite singers couldn't sing.
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times (Brecht)
Since I first listened in awestruck reverence to The Ideal Copy and A Bell Is a Cup in the late 1980s, I have regarded Wire as that most embarrassing object of white male obsession: 'my favourite band'. As a teenager growing up in Thatcher's Britain, Wire spoke to my sense of living in a pretty debased society in which everything was for sale. And while the country's political, social and moral degradation persists, so too do Wire, thank God.
The post-punk cinq glorieuses of 1977-1982 saw new wave, art rock bands like The Cure (Three Imaginary Boys, Seventeen Seconds, Pornography) and Talking Heads (More Songs About Building and Food, Fear of Music, Remain in Light) make incredible artistic progress - progress that in most cases was not continued thereafter. Wire were part of this movement but unlike many of their fellow travellers, they did not lose their forward momentum, despite artistic hiatuses for solo projects in the 80s and 90s. After forty-years of development, Wire's music - as many reviewers of their new, self-titled album observe - still sounds fresh. Yet the new album keeps to the essential Wire formula: a tight, pulsating musical minimalism that is portentous and playful at the same time.
And then there's the words. Edvard Graham Lewis may be the most talented lyricist of his generation. What drew me to Wire more than a quarter of a century ago was the angry irony, alliterations and twisted idioms, all placed in the service of social criticism. In 'The Queen of Ur and the King of Um', yuppies are described as 'crack-head mirrors licking the soiled mint'. In 'Life in the Manscape', the contemporary popular music industry is summed up with the withering line: 'The pope of pop drives a church of steel'. I don't know of any other rock lyricists operating at Lewis's level of sophistication. There's a Shakespearian quality to these pentameters and their pugnacious poetics recall the righteous fulminations of a Langland.
This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Wire songs often contemplate contemporary society through motifs borrowed from medieval literature and art, resulting in strange, angular visions of a 'world turned upside down' ('What Do You See'?) with lyrics that reference the folly paintings of Bosch ('Madman's Honey') and Bruegel ('Silk Skin Paws'). The songs trade in coded messages and enigmatic reportage. They don't so much conjure new, fantastical worlds as defamiliarize the one we are living in now, highlighting its absurdities through wordplay, condensed metaphor, ostranenie and mythological allusion. For example, the first track on the new album, 'Blogging', imagines the biblical magi arranging to attend the birth of Christ via the Internet; its take on social media is equalled in cleverness only by St. Vincent's recent track 'Digital Witness'. The ironic irruption of the mythical into a degraded and banal present recalls the poetry of Christopher Hill (with its descriptions of King Offa as 'overlord of the M5', and so on).
An intriguing facet of Wire songs is that lots of them consist entirely of questions, usually delivered by Colin Newman in a tone that mixes aggression, amusement and accusation. Along with their atmosphere of menace, the interrogative questioning of Wire's songs capture the psychological and ontological insecurity of our times, the constant liquefaction and reconstitution of identities and roles in today's society. It's just one of the elements that makes Wire such a distinctive and contemporary band, despite their advanced years. Few post-punk groups were as innovative as Wire, and they remain sui generis. They are still the flies in the ointment, the buzz in the drum of the ear, and the foremost British exponents of what Mark Fisher calls 'popular modernism' in music.
"Remember the good old days when university professors could look down on unsophisticated folks because those hillbillies naïvely believed in church, motherhood, and apple pie? Things have changed a lot, at least in my village. I am now the one who naïvely believes in some facts because I am educated, while the other guys are too unsophisticated to be gullible: “Where have you been? Don’t you know that Mossad and the CIA did it?” (Latour, 'Why has critique run out of steam?')
These days, as Bruno Latour implies, 'conspiracy theory' has gone mainstream. I've recently spoken to several students who have become interested in supposedly 'subliminal' occult imagery in television advertisements or music videos.
To give you some idea of what I'm talking about, the peculiar Baphomet-like pose above is a frame - barely perceptible on casual viewing - from Rihanna's 'Umbrella' video. Those interested in discussing these weird images in Rihanna's oeuvre can enjoy a myriad of breathlessly inventive websites linking the pop diva to witchcraft, devil worship or the Illuminati. The creators of these occult conspiracy websites (e.g. Vigilant Citizen) often present themselves as concerned 'netizens' providing a vital public service by raising awareness about the celebrity demons in our midst. Many, too, seem to share conservative Christian values and their analyses are often grossly misogynistic where female celebrities are concerned; Rihanna, for example, is an 'Illuminati Whore of Death', according to one rather unforgiving website. Indeed, these elite-hating 'truthers' typically assume that the celebrity stars of these videos are 'pulling the strings' and are responsible for the 'subliminal' images in their videos; but weirdly, these inquisitive souls almost never discuss how this process might actually work, how contemporary music videos are produced or circulated, or who gains from the incorporation of occult iconography. To my mind, these are the more interesting questions to ask about occult imagery: what is the significance of these images for contemporary media audiences? Who is responsible for producing them - and why (even if the answer is that they serve simply to generate some profitable ersatz controversy)?
In attempting to answer such questions, it's necessary to get beyond the widespread academic mockery of the belief in 'subliminal' messages. Charles Acland's book Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence argues that we ought to take seriously the widespread popular belief in the existence and power of subliminal media messages. Acland proposes that while there is precious little evidence that subliminal messages, in the strict sense of the term, have actually been much used in film or media production, it is nonetheless interesting to consider why the subliminal thesis holds popular appeal. (Acland also notes that this thesis 'curiously exists side by side with the view that the media have little or no impact upon an individual’s thinking', a paradox that puts me in mind of Mike Wayne's contention, in Marxism and Media Studies, that contemporary capitalist subjectivity is typically 'split', manifesting both credulity and cynicism about the world at one and the same time).
Psychoanalysis perhaps offers some answers here. Psychotic delusion is characterized not so much by incoherence as by a kind of crazy, 'excessive' coherence and certainty: here we might think of David Icke, who often makes some solid points about real conspiracies - more on that below - but who also asserts the truth of highly speculative and downright irrational ideas with fascistic conviction. Lacan reads the paranoid position as one of total certainty in which the subject experiences an unbearable proximity to a malevolent other that exercises a total grip over the subject's inner life but which nevertheless remains opaque and enigmatic. This explains the frustrating refusal in many conspiracy websites to name the producers, directors, technicians or other creative personnel involved in producing the symbols and images with which they are concerned; they are fixated solely on the text. Writing about conspiracy theories and paranoia in her 2009 book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, Jodie Dean writes:
"Lacan refers to a 'captivating image'. The psychotic fastens on this image, positioning himself in relation to it. Insofar as this relation remains at the level of the imaginary, it is not a symbolic relation capable of anchoring meaning or offering a clear degree of separation between the subject and the other. On the contrary, precisely because the relationship is on the imaginary plane, it is characterized by fear, rivalry and aggression"
But what, in political terms, does the fascination with Satanist and Illuminati-related symbolism betoken? Acland's book suggests that public interest in subliminal messages presupposes a basic critical orientation towards media communications that is at least potentially progressive. This is consistent with Jodi Dean's work on contemporary conspiracy theories (Aliens in America), which argues that conspiracism and political consciousness are intimately related. From this point of view, we can speculate that the interest in occult messages and symbols is a placeholder for class consciousness. Most poor and working-class people are well aware of their own powerlessness; but for those without a materialist, class analysis of capitalism, this powerlessness can be explained as an effect of manipulation by the aliens, lizard people or Jews who are supposedly pulling our strings. Perhaps, in all their naivety, such irrational explanations are an expression of a repressed desire for world-historical meaning at a time when, we are told, all of the ideological battles have been fought and there is no longer anything in which to believe beyond work, money and markets. If Alain Badiou is correct, contemporary capitalism is 'worldless', that is, it fails to provide us with any 'cognitive mapping' of our reality. Irrational conspiracy theories seem to offer a form of escape from this disorientation into meaning and significance - or what Jameson calls 'the poor person's cognitive mapping in the postmodern age'. However one theorizes this phenomenon, I'd be interested to know more - from people who are not actual lunatics and misogynists - about how and why certain artists and producers are flirting with occult imagery.
And finally, we should add that the tout court rejection of all so-called 'conspiracy theories' is just as wrong-headed as the wide-eyed belief in hollow moons, little green men or shape-shifting reptilian overlords. While some conspiracies are clearly irrational, we do nevertheless live in a world shaped by the plotting of the capitalist class, which is, after all, Machiavellian to the core. The list of known ruling class 'false flag' operations, for example - Gleiwitz, Northwoods, the Gulf of Tonkin, Gladio, to mention just a few high-profile cases - is extensive. And it is a matter of record that governments conduct secret experiments on their populations (the Tuskegee study), covertly sell arms (Irangate), or lie about the threat posed by their enemies (Iraq's WMDs). The self-satisfied politicians and journalists who proudly proclaim that they do not 'believe' in conspiracies are simply parading their historical ignorance; what do they imagine the secret services do all day? We should not let our justifiable scepticism about outlandish and irrational conspiracy theories blind us to the reality of ruling class deception.
The other day I finally managed to see Lawrence of Belgravia, Paul Kelly's documentary film about Lawrence Hayward, the frontman of the criminally under-appreciated groups Felt, Denim and Go Kart Mozart. I've always liked Lawrence's music and - even more - his deadpan and perverse take on modernity ('I knew it was crap, the Internet', he opines at one point in the film). Along with Mark E. Smith and Jarvis Cocker, Lawrence is one of British indie music's most endearing curmudgeons.
Using a long-take visual style that recalls the work of Patrick Keiller, Kelly's film meditates on the injustice of Lawrence's lack of commercial success. It is funny and moving, so go to see it now if you can. But since the film assumes knowledge of Lawrence's musical background, it would be a good idea first to familiarise yourself with the man's oeuvre. I recommend the following, very beautiful, song by Felt:
Also check out this comic gem by Denim:
And this from Go Kart Mozart, which I always think of as a neat rejoinder to news media stereotypes of the lazy working class - a masterpiece of 'reverse discourse':
Plan B's new track is a jolly good response to the mainstream media reporting of last summer's disturbances. I like it. And the fact that spiked's knee-jerk contrarian Brendan O'Neill doesn't only confirms me in my opinion.
As the thirtieth anniversary of his death approaches, I’ve been thinking about the English composer Cornelius Cardew recently. Cardew’s musical career took an unusual turn in the 1970s along with his discovery of Marxism. After a stellar early career as an assistant to Stockhausen and a co-founder of the anarchic Scratch Orchestra, Cardew rejected and abandoned the avant-garde music scene and began to write populist political songs which drew inspiration from Mao's Yan'an talks on literature and art and resonated with the tradition of musical agit-prop from Brecht and Weill to John McGrath. By 1981, he had also become a relatively high-profile political organiser, going to jail on more than one occasion for his activities; this has led some to speculate that his death at the hands of a hit-and-run driver in December of that year was a political assassination effected by MI5.
Listening to Cardew’s political songs today, it is hard not to scoff at the crude objectivism, didacticism and Leninist langue de bois of lines like ‘In the 1840s Marx and Engels on our shores / organised and hammered out the objective laws’ and 'Persisting in the face of every difficulty / In 1979 was formed our new party / A glorious victory'. And yet, risible as such bombast is, you have to acknowledge the power of its unadorned sincerity. These songs now stand out not so much for their originality – a virtue which, by the late 1970s, Cardew had come to regard as trivial and bourgeois – as for their urgency, energy and commitment, however glutinous their Maoist rhetoric.