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.