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Punk/Noise Panel 3A

Text & Context
Robert Boyle Lecture Theatre, Armstrong Building

Kevin Quinn (Central Saint Martins, UAL)
The New Musical Express: Reporting the Southall Riot (1981)’

In 1981, two years into ‘Thatcherism’, unemployment continued to rise, Cold war paranoia and the imminent threat of the bomb lingered, and there were several eruptions of ‘race’ and ‘class’ riots across England (Brixton, Toxteth and Southall).

The New Musical Express (NME), which had long perceived itself as ‘more than a music paper’, and which sold circa. 250,000 copies a week, tackled such issues in a way that acted as a riposte to the reportage of the daily press.

This presentation will examine the paper’s attitude to the S0uthall riot, which was sparked by a planned gig by ‘Oi’ bands (who tended to attract a skinhead audience) in an area of London with a large South Asian population.

What did its coverage say about its attitude to race? To the mainstream media? To less ‘hip’ musical forms such as ‘Oi’ and ‘street punk’? To its rivalry with Sounds, a music paper which championed ‘Oi’?

These questions point to larger ones about taste distinctions, political divides, and class prejudice. They also indicate how the serial nature of publications could be used as a debating tool (the NME interviewed one of the bands prior to events, but ran the piece afterwards).

 Drawing on the historical research of Matt Worley, and on close readings of NME articles, I will suggest a fresh viewpoint on what the NME’s ‘post-punk’ politics and criticism entailed.

Arin Keeble (Edinburgh Napier University)
‘Jawbreaker: Literary Punk and Authenticity’

“Boxcar,” perhaps the most well-known song from Jawbreaker’s 1994 LP, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, simultaneously celebrates the aesthetics of the 90s Bay Area punk scene the band emerged in, while critiquing that scene’s limitations and subcultural “rules.” This critique comes partly through a reference to the ostensibly un-punk activity of “reading Kerouac,” in the song’s opening verse; an allusion which is juxtaposed with the conventional punk aesthetic of “Boxcar.” This juxtaposition is further complicated by the album’s centrepiece, “Condition Oakland,” which features a long sequence of audio clips of Jack Kerouac reading “October and the Railroad Earth.” This essay identifies an uneasy but productive relationship between punk philosophies and aesthetics and ideas of “the literary,” in this album and in other musical works by Jawbreaker’s singer and songwriter, Blake Schwarzenbach. I note the ways in which literary allusion both challenges scene politics and rigid subcultural rules while also commenting on literary pretension with equal force. I trace this tension in order to make a specific claim about Jawbreaker as well as a wider, but related claim about the potential synergies between punk and literary cultures. I argue that Jawbreaker’s literariness is an important but ignored factor in the infamous story of their “selling out,” amidst the fraught authenticity wars of the 1990s. More broadly – and cutting against this narrative of selling out – I argue that in certain moments, Jawbreaker and Schwarzenbach’s literary allusions illuminate the transgressive potential of literary punk in specific relation to neoliberal capital.

Pete Dale (Manchester Metropolitan University)
‘Indie Noise’ and Industry Incorporation: Fuzz and Feedback in the 1980s’

The Jesus and Mary Chain stick out a bit awkwardly in UK music history: were they an ‘indie’ band or did all that fuzz and feedback put them closer to the ‘industrial’ field? This paper argues that JAMC were a bit of both: although retaining melodies and distinct song structures, and thus not going as ‘far out’ as most industrial acts, the group were certainly perceived as being at least on the margins of the ‘noise’ side of post-punk music. That said, the management style of Alan McGee placed JAMC in a surprisingly successful (in industry terms) situation by the mid-1980s and the group would eventually become a Top of the Pops-friendly act around 1987 – but with the noisy edges shaved off.

Despite this trajectory, which many will suggest was simply a classic repetition of the incorporation process by which the music industry had neutralised perceived-to-be-dangerous punk and post-punk music for nearly a decade by the time JAMC put out its first single, JAMC did manage to inspire something of a ‘pop noise’ scene in the second half of the 1980s. Groups like Meat Whiplash and the early My Bloody Valentine failed to get much beyond the JAMC blueprint, but the version of MBV which emerged in 1988 inspired a wave of so-called ‘shoegazing’ groups which became a distinct field of indie-associated music in the 1990s. Shoegazing was also essentially incorporated into the industry, yet a key question remains: is there a noise music which can always escape incorporation?

Gary Charles (University of Birmingham)
‘Skillz 2.0: Anyone Can Play AI’

This move towards “democratisation” of music making has accelerated through the digital era. Cheaper instruments, free software, sample packs, Youtube tutorials – all enabling a DIY ethic less dependent on traditional Western conceptions of musical training and skill. Georgina Born highlights the paradox inherent in the commodification of music and its digital protocols being the same process that has encouraged and enabled the ‘flourishing of noncommodified and amateur musical practices’1. In drawing examples from Doom, Punk, Grime and Gqom my research illustrates these developments while zoning in on a particular contemporary area of this landscape – tools created under the guise of Artificial Intelligence. In particular, I work with software that seeks to digest past music (through neural networks) in order to generate constant streams of replicant musical data. The user is notionally liberated from the labour of composition, or rule abiding. Considered within the brief history of music technology, this hyper-democratisation has the potential to render notions of musical skill obsolete, while simultaneously entrenching the very protocols and conventions that underpin the space. Through my research, I encourage a practice of destructive rebellion, where these tools are misused, mistreated and repurposed in order to create new sonic backdrops to a foreground of texture and attitude based performance that itself is resistant to the algorithmic gaze. During my discussion I will present this research along with examples and noise from my own practice.


Published by Gustav Thomas

Claws & Tongues was started in order to provide a visible yet fluid platform with which to try out ideas for writings by Gustav Thomas that may or may not lead elsewhere, as in articles, chapters, essays, papers zines or books. Gustav Thomas is my real name in so far as it comprises the two middle names included on my birth certificate, which, as a bona fide part of my ‘real’ name makes it only a half-alias. I’m not ashamed, especially, of what one would normally consider my ‘real name,’ but I don’t intend to use it on this blog or announce it here, in this ‘about’ text, or anywhere else on this blog. That’s not because I wish to keep it somehow hidden or secret – to find out what my framing monikers are would be very easy since I’ve never sought to keep them separate from Gustav Thomas. Rather it’s because that ‘real’ name is the one that teachers, headmasters, employers, medical receptionists, the Inland Revenue, medical staff, authorities of any kind, and so on, and on, has been so thoroughly used by, and thus inextricably tied to, such institutional protocols, that it leaves me, as an individual who, like any individual has the capacity to access their own agency, very little space or scope for developing the potential power and effectiveness of that agency. Gustav Thomas happens to also be my facebook name and as a musician I also chose it (actually the first time I used it) as the pseudonym I use whenever I produced 8-bit Techno on a Gameboy (I haven’t ruled out extending that use to any beat-based project should I pursue any in the future, in preference to either Virginia Pipe or Copydex, the latter being, for obvious reasons, a strictly plunderphonic collage vehicle, anyway). Gustav Thomas also conveniently encapsulates my two ethnic provenances as half Slovene and half Welsh; they are also the first names of both my grandfathers, one a fairly well known (in his time) Slovene writer, novelist and educationalist, the other a WW2 colonel among officers who led the Normandy landings, for whatever significance that, or any other part of their own rich histories, can have, here, or in anything else that I do. Above all, I have started this blog because in my professional life, which is academic, I have made the decision, officially, to have my research assessed (by the various state bodies that do that, through the RAE, REF etc.) as much through my thinking and writing as through my art practice, which it has been exclusively so far. The kind of writing I intend to do is the kind of writing I’ve always done, over the past 15 years mostly on internal departmental blogs meant as teaching support, and will almost completely draw on things I’ve been thinking and saying within an academic context during that time. My first extended pieces, then (those that are 10,000 words or more), are being extracted from my brain as a matter of almost pathological necessity, freeing up space before I can move on and at least learn new ideas, if not make them and articulate them formally. Given the context, and my stage in life (a 50-year-old whose two kids have left home), I fully intend not to start teaching myself to write in a recognizably formal-academic style; nor do I intend for my writing to be considered as such, albeit there are inevitable traces of academia in what I’m writing due to my having earned my living as an academic for – already - too long. Instead my intention is to improve, develop and extend the style I already have which will have probably begun somewhere in early childhood when I first scrawled some short stories with the vague idea that I wanted to be a ‘writer’ and, above all which has evolved through at least three decades of learning, loving to know about, talking about, and teaching about music, art and the ideas, impulses and inherent discourses that inhabit and surround them. I am aware that I have a propensity to criticize certain other artists and commentators harshly, often with extreme formulations, in a manner easily identifiable as arrogance or some such self-interested tendency. I’m not sure exactly where that emerged from; it could be the years of being fully committed (because I knew it was right) to a mode of expressive practice that operates very consciously, and critically, beyond the reductive ring-fencing of ordained culture, what most people think of as Music and Art - Culture; it may well be, though, that I learned such an approach from certain writers I’ve read over the years – it’s in Dostoyevsky, Bukowski and DeLillo in ways I can see in my own mannerisms, but also in someone like Ben Watson/Out To Lunch, whose writing on music and ideas not only had a big impact on me but certainly also encouraged me to be bold and direct about what I knew needed saying, not least because – and this is central to everything – the way in which music, popular music, popular arts and cultures are dealt with on the day-to-day ordinary level, as in what people consume, accept and ingest, how/why they do it, manages to circumscribe completely the immeasurable seriousness regarding how politically and ideologically penetrating all art is (and was always meant to be), but especially (and this is embarrassingly tautological in a way that’s generally ignored) that which is thrust upon a people at great expense by its state and the (almost entirely) corporate (read: oligarchal) interests the State serves. I’ve been accused by colleagues of being too polemical and by Ben Watson as not being a polemicist at all, in both cases meant as identifying a weakness; I would say that to consider anything I write as polemical would be to negate any capacity it may have to say something useful – too much is being said and done by modern humanity that is unfathomably (self-)destructive. My drive in all this comes from a need not necessarily to oppose and take up the position on any opposite pole; rather I just feel that someone (as many someones as possible, starting anywhere at all, including just ‘me’) needs to be engaging in a tendency to question, starting with the very simple interruption, ‘Hang on a second… that can’t be right.’ There are tens of thousands of writers and artists already doing that very well, of course. This blog is merely a workshop from which to start making my own contribution more discernible and, just possibly, useful.

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