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Bring the Noise weaves together interviews, reviews, essays, and features to create a critical history of the last twenty years of pop culture, juxtaposing the voices of many of rock and hip hop’s most provocative artists—Morrissey, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, The Stone Roses, P.J. Harvey, Radiohead—with Reynolds’s own passionate analysis. With all the energy and insight you would expect from the author of Rip It Up and Start Again, Bring the Noise tracks the alternately fraught and fertile relationship between white bohemia and black street music. The selections transmit the immediacy of their moment while offering a running commentary on the broader enduring questions of race and resistance, multiculturalism, and division. From grunge to grime, from Madchester to the Dirty South, Bring the Noise chronicles hip hop and alternative rock’s competing claims to be the cutting edge of innovation and the voice of opposition in an era of conservative backlash. Alert to both the vivid detail and the big picture, Simon Reynolds has shaped a compelling narrative that cuts across a thrillingly turbulent two-decade period of pop music.
Soft Skull Press
448 / 465
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Weaving together interviews, reviews, essays, and features to create a critical

Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, The Stone Roses, P.J. Harvey, Radiohead—
with Reynolds’ own passionate analysis. With all the energy and insight you
would expect from the author of Rip It Up and Start Again, Bring the Noise
tracks the alternately fraught and fertile relationship between white bohemia
and black street music.
These selections transmit the immediacy of their moment while offering a
running commentary on the broader enduring questions of race and resistance,
multiculturalism, and division. From grunge to grime, from Manchester to
the Dirty South, Bring the Noise chronicles hip hop and alternative rock’s
competing claims to be the cutting edge of innovation and the voice of
opposition in an era of conservative backlash.
Alert to both the vivid detail and the big picture, Simon Reynolds has shaped a
compelling narrative that cuts across a thrillingly turbulent two-decade period
of pop music.

“Reynolds’ writing [is] a perfect alchemy of lightly worn erudition
and focused enthusiasm.” —The Vill age Voice
C o v e r d e si g n b y J a s o n S n y d e r

ISBN 978-1-59376-401-2

Soft Skull Press
Distributed by Publishers Group West

9 781593 764012


“If I had to choose just one commentator to guide me through the last
quarter-century of popular (and not so popular) music it would have
to be—on the basis of depth of knowledge, range of reference, soundness
of judgment, and fluency of style—Simon Reynolds.” —Geoff Dyer

bring the noise:

voices of many of rock and hip-hop’s most provocative artists—Morrissey,

20 Years of Writing About Hip Rock and Hip-Hop

history of the last twenty years of pop culture, Bring the Noise juxtaposes the

bring the noise:
20 Years of Writing About
Hip Rock and Hip-Hop


S o ft
P ress

Simon Reynolds
Author of Rip It Up and Start Again

Bring the Noise_[FIN]:bring the noise 3/28/11 11:16 AM Page i


Bring the Noise_[FIN]:bring the noise 3/28/11 11:16 AM Page ii

by the same author
Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock
The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock ’n’ Roll (with Joy Press)
Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture
Rip It Up And Start Again: Post-punk 1974–84

Bring the Noise_[FIN]:bring the noise 3/28/11 11:16 AM Page iii


20 Years of Writing About Hip
Rock and Hip Hop

Soft Skull Press
an imprint of



Bring the Noise_[FIN]:bring the noise 3/28/11 11:16 AM Page iv

First published in the U.K. in 2009 by Faber and Faber Limited
First American edition, 2011
Copyright © 2009 by Simon Reynolds.
Except “The Blasting Concept,” which originally appeared in a slightly different
version in the U.K. edition of Rip It Up and Start Again, copyright © 2005 by
Simon Reynolds
American edition copyright © 2011 by Simon Reynolds
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Reynolds, Simon.
Bring the noise : 20 years of writing about hip rock and hip hop / Simon
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-59376-286-5
1. Rock musicians—Interviews. 2. Rock music—History and criticism. I.
ML385.R49 2010
Cover design by Jason Snyder
Interior design by Faber and Faber Limited
Printed in the United States of America
Soft Skull Press
An Imprint of Counterpoint LLC
1919 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Distributed by Publishers Group West
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Bring the Noise_[FIN]:bring the noise 3/28/11 11:16 AM Page v

To my girls, Joy and Tasmin

Bring the Noise_[FIN]:bring the noise 3/28/11 11:16 AM Page vi

Bring the Noise_[FIN]:bring the noise 3/28/11 11:16 AM Page vii

Introduction x
Author’s Note xiv
What’s Missing? The State of Pop (1985) 1
The Redskins, live (1985) 9
Zapp, live (1986) 11
Younger than Yesterday: Indie-pop’s Cult of Innocence (1986) 13
Nasty Boys: Rap (1986) 20
Beat Happening: Beat Happening (1986) 24
Backs to the Future: The Folk and Country Resurgence in Alternative
Rock (1986) 27
Hip Hop and House Singles Reviews (1987) 31
Husker Du: Warehouse: Songs and Stories (1987) 36
Mantronix, interview (1987) 38
The Smiths: A Eulogy (1987) 42
Public Enemy, interview (1987) 47
LL Cool J, interview (1987) 57
Dinosaur Jr, interview (1987) 63
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, live (1988) 69
Morrissey, interview (1988) 71
The Pixies, interview (1988) 90
Living Colour, interview (1988) 97
Various Artists: Sub Pop 200 (1989) 102
The Stone Roses, interview (1989) 104
The Caring Colonialists: A Critique of ‘World Music’ (1989) 108
Positivity: De La Soul, Soul II Soul, Deee-lite and New Age House
(1990) 112
Rap’s Reformation: Gangsta Rap versus Conscious Rap (1990) 116
Madchester versus Dreampop: Happy Mondays and Ride
(1990) 120
Manic Street Preachers, interview (1991) 124


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Pavement, live (1991) 132
Nirvana, live (1991) 134
N-Joi/K-Klass/Bassheads/M-People, live (1991) 137
RRRRRRush!: Hardcore Rave and London Pirate Radio
(1992) 139
Wasted Youth: Grunge and the Return of ‘Heavy’ (1992) 142
Welcome to the Jungle? (1993) 145
Let the Boys be Boys: Onyx interview/Gangsta Rap as Oi!
(1993) 148
State of Interdependence: Britain, America, and the ‘Special
Relationship’ in Pop Music (1993) 152
MTV: The Revolution Will Not be Televised (1993) 157
PJ Harvey, interview (1993) 162
It’s a Dogg’s Life: Dr Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg (1993) 168
Against the Grain: Thinking about the Voice in Pop (1993) 171
Pearl Jam vs Nirvana (1993) 174
The Beastie Boys, interview (1994) 178
Post-Rock (1994) 186
Swingbeat and the New R&B (1994) 194
Ragga (1994) 197
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, live (1995) 200
Blur versus Oasis (1995) 203
Pulp: Different Class (1995) 206
R&B: The Sound of 1997 (1997) 209
Roni Size/Reprazent: New Forms (1997) 212
Feminine Pressure: 2-Step and UK Garage (1999) 215
King and Queen of the Beats: Timbaland and Missy Elliott
(1999) 226
Hate Me Now: Puff Daddy and the Player Hater Syndrome
(1999) 231
For the Love of Money: Lil Wayne, Cash Money and New Orleans
Rap (1999) 236
Street Rap (1999) 240
We Are Family: The Rise of the Rap Clan and the Hip Hop Dynasty
(2000) 243
Roots ’n’ Future: The Disappearing Voice of Reggae (2000) 248
Euro: Trance Music and the People-Pleasing Power of ‘Cheese’
(2000) 264
Miles Davis: Live-Evil/Black Beauty/In Concert/Dark Magus
(1997) 268
Pure Fusion: Multiculture versus Monoculture (2000) 272
Radiohead versus Brit-rock/Thom Yorke, interview (2000/2001) 282

Bring the Noise_[FIN]:bring the noise 3/28/11 11:16 AM Page ix

Bonus Material 403
M.I.A.: Piracy Funds What? 405
Notes on the Noughties: Is M.I.A Artist of the Decade?
The People vs. Vampire Weekend 411
Notes on the Noughties #2:
When Will Hip Hop Hurry Up And Die? 414
Bring the Noise: A Listening List
Acknowledgements 431
Index 433



For deleted scenes, out-takes, news and other related material, visit the
Bring the Noise blog at



2-Step and R&B Critiqued (2000) 301
Faves of 2000: Dancehall (2000) 306
Historia Electronica: The Case for Electronic Dance Music Culture
(2001) 312
B-Boys on E: Hip Hop Discovers Ecstasy (2001) 330
So Solid Crew: They Don’t Know (2002) 336
The Streets: Original Pirate Material (2002) 339
Who Says the British Can’t Rap? The UK’s New Wave of MCs
confront American Hip Hop Isolationism (2002) 342
Rave-Punk: The Genre Soon-to-be-Known-as Grime Emerges
(2002) 347
Rap Videos and the ‘One White Dude’ (2003) 352
Dizzee Rascal: Boy in Da Corner (2003) 355
Kanye West (2004) 358
Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz: Crunk Juice (2005) 362
Mother Nature’s Sons: Animal Collective and Ariel Pink (2005) 365
Against All Odds: 2005, Grime’s Make-Or-Break Year (2005) 377
2005: The Year Black Pop and White Pop Stopped Talking
(2006) 387
Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
(2006) 390
Green-Eyed Soul: Hot Chip and Scritti Politti (2006) 398

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Trying to pull together a ‘representative’ collection out of twenty years’
writing and several million words was a huge challenge. So I did something else. Bring the Noise doesn’t corral all of my favourite pieces of
writing, or cover all my favourite artists; many personal touchstones,
among them Aphex Twin, Royal Trux, Saint Etienne, World of Twist,
Position Normal and A.R. Kane slipped the net. Instead I’ve woven a
kind of history of the last twenty years in popular music. Bring the
Noise picks up where Rip it Up and Start Again left off, which
happened to be more or less when I started writing for a living (the last
months of 1985). Sifting through two decades of interviews, reviews,
features and essays, I’ve traced a thread involving the interplay
between white music and black music – specifically, the alternately
fraught and fertile relationship between ‘hip’ rock and hip hop. Bring
the Noise presents the competing claims of black street music and the
white underground to be both the cutting edge of innovation and a
voice of resistance. And it tracks the way that periods of cross-town
traffic and musical miscegenation have alternated with periods where
rock and rap have seemingly chosen to go separate ways.
Many of those who came of age in the period covered by Bring the
Noise have felt an equally powerful attraction to alternative rock and
to hip hop. That’s how I felt in 1986 as a music journalist just embarking on my career: unable and unwilling to choose between The Smiths
and Public Enemy, Husker Du and LL Cool J. You don’t have to
choose, of course, and it’s striking how so many people have grown up
with a sense of double allegiance (even triple, with the arrival of rave
and the nineties electronic dance culture) as the natural state of things.
But it’s equally remarkable how many people did pick sides (and still
do). Some white fans invested all their belief and passion in hip hop,
seeing it as the vanguard, the sole bastion of culturally dissident energy
– and as a result have had to grapple with all the complex issues related
to being a white acolyte of a music still largely made by and for black

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kids. Others, whether through simple sonic inclination or a subconscious desire to avoid the contradictions of being a ‘wigga’, stuck
with indie-rock, regarding its distorted guitars and alternately angstracked and ironic lyrics as the true expression of the modern bohemian
From its title on down, Bring the Noise is unabashedly rockist,
enthralled by notions of subversion and ‘underground’, dissent and
disruption. But isn’t it blindingly obvious that rap is riddled right
through to its hard-as-hell core with the same values? Without ideals of
authenticity, ‘realness’, integrity, street credibility, the genre would
barely exist; likewise, metaphors of music as war/crusade/cause/movement pretty much underwrite the entire hip hop project. Yet Bring the
Noise is also a book about pop, in a particular sense – true, the artists
covered don’t often sound ‘poppy’, but their music is both popular
and, more often than not, populist. The focus is on bands that
mattered to me but also meant something to multitudes of people out
there in ‘the real world’, and who moreover wanted to have that kind
of mass impact, who felt the pull of ambition and the drive of will-topower. Nothing against esoteric and hermetic sounds (our home is
crammed to the rafters with that kind of thing), but the music that
consistently excites me most as a writer as well as a listener is the stuff
that reverberates beyond the purely sonic.
Bring the Noise is about pop in a very particular sense – music that’s
entered the pop arena from ‘outside’. I’m hooked on that moment of
splintery impact when something unpop ram-raids its way into the
charts. It could be that the kind of formative experiences that were
common to my generation – being ambushed by an unfamiliar sound
via Top of the Pops (now deceased, of course) or Radio 1 – are
becoming scarcer in our data-saturated environment of pop ubiquity
and hyper-knowingness. Still, for me these have always been the most
exciting moments, those breakthroughs when the underground goes
overground . . . The Smiths on Top of the Pops doing ‘This Charming
Man’, the surprise of hearing a Fall song on daytime radio, Nirvana’s
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ going into monster-heavy rotation on MTV
or, most recently More Fire Crew bringing grime into ten million living
rooms with the rowdy jabber and battering beats of their Top 10 hit
‘Oi!’ . . .
This obsession with the aesthetic ambush is why Bring the Noise
actually has nothing to do with the ‘noise’ genre: all those overlapping
sub-styles of squall and atonal abstraction that come out of industrial
music, free jazz, musique concrete and sound art. The concept of
‘noise’ has made a big comeback in recent years, and the abstract


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sound dronologists and improv guys are fine by me, actually. No, the
irritating end of it is all those artists aiming for ye olde ‘shock effect’,
their pure noise laden with content of tediously ‘transgressive’ nature
(all the old clichéd faves of vileness and violation: serial murder, neoNazis, yawn, zzzzzz . . .). The blindingly obvious fact is that no one
shockable is within earshot; there’s no real disruption or challenge in
these scenes, because they’re screeching to the converted. ‘Noise’ is all
about context, so when I say the groups in this book ‘bring the noise’
I’m talking more about a noise-effect – music that disturbs the peace of
pop, shakes its status quo – than about distortion or atonality.
The noise-effect often occurs in the absence of ‘noise’ in the earsare-wounds sense: the ‘cultural noise’ of Morrissey’s fey flamboyance
and gauche misery; the idiot-shaman Shaun Ryder’s drug-damaged
drivel; Snoop Dogg’s serpentile nonchalance and murderous panache.
That said, a lot of the music in Bring the Noise is fairly noisy in the
commonly understood sense of the word: Husker Du’s blasting blizzards of open-tuned guitar; the bass-booming, metal-riffing, scratchedto-fuck rap of the mid-eighties; nineties hardcore techno with its
blaring mid-frequencies and hard-angled stabs; Nirvana’s loud–quiet
dynamics and grungy guitar tone; the alien vocal grain and rude
slanguage of dancehall MCs; the disjointed, clunky beats and gruff
bombast of crunk and grime. All were typically greeted upon their
arrival with protests of ‘that’s not music, that’s noise!’. These popular
but unpop sounds have echoed the trajectory of twentieth-century
avant-garde classical music, which advanced through incorporating
non-musical sounds, aestheticizing mistakes, deploying randomness,
and asserting the percussive and textural over the melodic and
harmonic. Whenever I hear complaints that a new sound is ‘soulless’,
‘unemotional’, ‘dark, empty, inhuman’ or ‘just not music’, my ears
prick up. These spasms of disgust and horror, and the pining for a lost
warmth or funk that generally accompany them, are often early signals
that the New Thing has emerged.
As much as this serial reinvention of ‘noise’ resembles the avantgarde, it’s also totally rock in spirit. The original rock ’n’ roll, it’s worth
remembering, was an invader, bruising its way into the mid-fifties
charts of sickly sedative pop. ‘That’s not music, that’s noise’ was how
many greeted rock ’n’ roll, aghast at its loudness and vulgarity, its rawthroated screaming and hysterical delirium of non-sense (Little
Richard’s ‘Awopbopaloobop’), and above all the stridently percussive
insistence of a sound that to many seemed to be ‘all beat’ and no
melody. ‘Jungle music’, they called it, recoiling in loathing and fear; as
it happens, my absolute favourite music of the nineties named itself

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‘jungle’ and initially provoked similar revulsion from the guardians of
taste and musicality.
All this is why Bring the Noise struck me as the right title. It also
appealed because of Public Enemy’s pivotal role during the early part
of the book’s time span. And the group’s producers, Hank Shocklee
and the Bomb Squad, were nothing if not inspired noise-makers,
looping and superimposing samples of squealing jazz trumpets and
shrieking soul singers on tracks like ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ and ‘Bring
the Noise’, to create nagging riffs as urgent and provoking as the
group’s lyrical content. As Shocklee put it: ‘We don’t like musicians.
We don’t respect musicians . . . We have a better sense of music, a
better concept of music, of where it’s going, of what it can do.’ As
attitudes go, that’s pretty punk rock.
Following the dance between white and black music over two
decades, Bring the Noise addresses the ways in which these encounters,
especially the white-on-black transactions, have served as the motor of
change in pop history. Time and again, whites have embraced black
music but ‘got it wrong’ when they moved beyond simple emulation
and tried to come up with their own take; more often than not, such
‘bastardizations’ have been more exciting than when whites successfully imitated the black source with timidly conscientious fidelity.
‘Getting it wrong’ doesn’t just apply to musical creativity, though, but
to the roles of listener and critic too. No one can think seriously about
pop music without contemplating the issue of race; equally, it’s impossible to think for long about those issues without getting tied up in
knots. So a good chunk of this book could be seen as the collation of
my mis-understandings and mis-recognitions of black music. Across
twenty years of thinking about things in the heat of the journalistic
moment, you’ll find flip-flops, contradictions, blind-spots and deafspots galore . . . but also, I hope, a steady progress towards that
unreachable horizon, enlightenment.
‘Getting it wrong’ is an inherent aspect of all cross-cultural traffic.
Even in a one-on-one conversation, no one can grasp the full content of
another’s utterance, register or absorb all of its submerged resonances.
So how much more is this so when entire cultures tune in to each
other’s transmissions? Then again, if pure signal and zero distortion
was possible, there’d be no friction and no sparks; confusion is the
prima materia, the alchemical mulch, for creativity and change. So
bring the noise.

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Most of the pieces selected here are reprinted exactly as they appeared
originally. In a handful of cases, though, some extreme infelicities have
been rectified, and generally, errors on my part and screw-ups created
by others during the copy-inputting process have been changed to how
they were intended to appear. The exceptions to the above are the
pieces identified as ‘director’s cuts’: these are the articles as originally
submitted by me, before being cut down, resequenced and adapted to
the magazine in question’s house style during the editing process.
It’s not that these changes weren’t appropriate, or indeed often an
improvement, but in certain cases I have opted to revert to a style
closer to my own ‘voice’ and versions that are longer than what
actually ran in print.


Bring the Noise_[FIN]:bring the noise 3/28/11 11:16 AM Page 1

The State of Pop in 1985

Something’s wrong. Everyone knows this, acknowledges it, but it’s still
hard to point out, precisely, what’s supposed to have slipped into
abeyance, eluded us in pop. It isn’t faith in music as threat – even the
purveyors of overtly oppositional rock no longer believe in rock’s
missionary power. Nor can we constitute the problem as one of
poverty of ideas and change in music – there are still records to buy,
‘progress’ is pretty much at a constant, at least as strong as it’s ever
John Peel caught the shape of the lack well when he said: ‘I don’t
even like the records I like.’ Direction and meaning seem to have
seeped away. What’s gone into a coma is not so much music as writing
about music. The last great rhetorical efflorescence was the ‘new pop
explosion’ – which now seems a purely arbitrary binding of disparate
initiatives, heroes and charlatans. People seem to have lost the will to
construct chimeras like New Pop that get people excited. Groups and
writers just seem to be plugging away. Writing, in music papers and
fanzines alike, is almost all at the level of relentless specificity – this
record, that gig – rather than what it all amounts to. The flood of reissues has abetted this eclecticism, and obscured the issue of current
poverty. Fanzines, far from being an alternative, are worst offenders,
terminally biographical – at any moment you can take your pick of
twelve or twenty interviews with the Membranes or Billy Bragg.
Paradoxically, it is precisely the fecundity of activity, documentation,
debate, even – to an extent – of quality, that prevents a unity of alienation occurring; if a period of enforced silence, dearth, boredom,
prevailed – then maybe something as sensational as punk would
emerge. As it is, a pernicious adequacy keeps us muddling on . . . just

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vaguely aware that all the motion and meaning may be going nowhere
and meaning . . . less.
Independent music is torn between a kind of constructive abstention
(let pop die on its dancing feet) and seeing the problem as simply
one of access – give ‘real music’ airplay. Few indie groups manage to
turn their backs completely on pop – most of their energy going into
self-conscious distancing from chart sound.
Our listening is bound up in oppositions – our very hearing, understanding, of these groups is tied to what they’re not – not ‘bland’, ‘soft’,
‘inane’ – but ‘raw’, ‘hard’, ‘powerful’, thus ‘real’ and ‘honest’. These
terms aren’t eternal musical values but a way of positioning the record
and the listener vis-à-vis one another – we read the record to see where
it fits in ‘the struggle’. These groups – Membranes, Jesus and Mary
Chain, Yeah Yeah Yeah Noh, New Model Army, Red Lorry Yellow
Lorry – see themselves as a continuous flow of resistance – Big Flame
talk of ‘ugly noise undercurrents . . . a facelift . . . a new way of cleaning your teeth’ – and that’s it: music as a harsh scouring force, a
purging agent (of ‘luxury’, hi-tech sound), a war of attrition. As Jesus
and Mary Chain put it: ‘smashing the state of pop’. The trouble
is nearly all these groups have nothing more to say to us but a selfrighteous declaration of non-complicity in the state of pop. They are
bound to (the) opposition, fail to make their own significance. Their
alternative textures – abrasiveness, uncooked production – are familiar, merge into a grey wall, skirt around the listener’s consciousness. It’s
a different sort of blandness – for me there’s more disruption in a
single trail of Morrissey’s falsetto. These hallmarks of indie sound, all
copied from a few really innovative groups (Siouxsie, Fall, Joy
Division, Birthday Party), are like the key elements of progressive rock
(musicianship, solos, sheer length of tracks, FM-radio mixing), just
ciphers to indicate allegiance, superiority/opposition to teenybop glam.
We are confirmed by them. Where’s the ‘danger’?
Indie music, perhaps unconsciously, is in opposition to two other
chart trends. It is almost entirely in revolt against the all-pervasive
influence of black music. Funk and soul have followed a similar trajectory of influence in the eighties as R&B did in the sixties – first taken
up by innovators as radical (PiL/Talking Heads/Gang of Four/Heaven
17/Scritti/ABC) – then working its way down to become the base
matter of all pop. Wham!, Thompson Twins, Spandau, Annie Lennox,
Phil Collins – the same vocal inflections, mannerisms and beat. (When
whites took up and vulgarized R&B, blacks left it en masse – perhaps
the appropriation of soul will drive blacks to something new.) Indie
groups – and this applies to US hardcore and country-punk too – have

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what’s missing?

reacted by returning to anything white – Iggy, Jim Morrison, Cave,
Mark E. Smith, Beefheart, Lou Reed, country, folk. They are equally in
revolt against mongrelization in pop. In the early eighties the idea of
the melting pot of musics seemed progressive – 1981 was the year of
the cocktail. Again, innovators – ZE, Was (Not Was), Scritti, McLaren
– broke ground, but later groups reaped mass success – Culture Club
and Style Council, whose names embody the notion of a rainbow coalition of races, genres and eras. It’s interesting to note how Was (Not
Was)’s LPs, which seemed radical at the time, made a fusion of hard
rock and soul close to what is merely staple stuff in the charts now –
Prince, Go West, Power Station, Duran: rock disco, black HM. The
indies have set themselves against this pluralism – once called ‘breaking down barriers’ but really, as Paul Oldfield put it, crossover-asmaximum-market-penetration – against the dominant textures of
luxuriant sound, the impatience and greed that leads the likes of Paul
Young and Eurythmics to clot their records with pilfered source
musics. The search is for some kind of purity – either in noise/dirt or in
roots/folk. Polyglot equates with cosmopolitan, mass-produced,
commodity. Purism, again, codes authenticity.
The Americans have their own resistance to the homogenized charts
and it’s received a lot of attention over here – the phrase trad rock slipping, somewhat defensively, into reviews, allusions to a sort of movement. It’s true that in the American context even the slightest gesture
towards realism is tantamount to radicalism – most US pop taking its
textures, as Chris Scott has observed, from the high life, or fantasies of
success and glory, vinyl soft porn or ‘guys movie’ action and adventure.
But it’s sad that virtually all the new groups have turned to the past for
inspiration. The collective sensibility reminds me of the Populists, the
nineteenth-century American political movement that nearly halted
industrialism – the same nostalgia for a simpler world, rural values
(community and self-reliance), the same anti-urbanism. There’s a
similar patriotism too – whose nearest equivalent in Britain is Oi! – the
idea that true nationhood resides, not in the plutocrats, but in the
People, the underdogs. (This patriotism resurges in a musical antiAnglophilia – all that new pap shit of ours that chokes their charts – it
was our groups who first taught the US record biz the potential of
white soul crossover.) Springsteen, Fogerty, Los Lobos, Jason and the
Scorchers, Long Ryders, et al. . . . these are honest, likeable fellows,
and some of their records are fun enough. But after Sulk and Heaven
Up Here – futuristic music – it all seems . . . well, a bit of a comedown.
What can we learn from them? Husker Du are the only group making
sense of America today – their mangled psych-metal-punk is new

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music, its dynamic the lived contradiction between American ‘reoccurring dreams’ of space and freedom and purpose, and the claustrophobia and anomie of urban life. Other exceptions – the Replacements
let rip the cry ‘Unsatisfied’ with such vigour as to leave behind their
historical traces; R.E.M. and Meat Puppets – timeless psychedelia, the
beauty of bewilderment and awe.
Another movement has set itself against pop, but aims to supplant
it, to infiltrate. They too constitute the problem as a lack of authenticity – but locate the absence very specifically: what’s missing isn’t just
passion or soulfulness but the soul of the sixties and early seventies.
Their ‘realism’ is filtered through a discourse derived from gospel, the
Old Testament. But the born-again soul groups have co-opted black
music to a rock idea of the function of pop: propaganda and threat. In
its insistence on the Message and on street cred, the new soul is very
much cramped and shadowed by New Wave (with its emphasis on
lyrical relevance). Most of these soul-sters were mods or ska-ites, and
before that, punks. Ska was an attempt to keep the momentum of punk
going – shuffling the music a bit, aligning it with the racial issues of the
late seventies. Equally the New Soul just carries on the side of punk
that was least stimulating (slogans, youth rhetoric, documentary
reportage) rather than the more artistically interesting element (punk’s
theatre of rage, disgust and nihilism). The New Soul simply slots into
the British youth market’s built-in demand for Protest and is no real
departure. The shift to a commercial dance sound is justified by the
idea of ‘offensive optimism’ and the soulboy notion that working-class
kids have always preferred black dance music.
What strikes about the soul of the Style Council, Kane Gang, Faith
Brothers, Redskins, Fine Young Cannibals, is how male, how rockified,
it is. Weller’s voice is the eternal personification of white guilt. No
black artist would be so dour about it. Dexy’s Midnight Runners are a
useful paradigm – soul for them was a form of exertion – performance
what Barney Hoskyns called (in reference to the Jam, though) a
‘gymnasium of exhortation’. Dexy’s songs were a series of manifestos
and clarion calls for a new, pure music – always about to be born.
Dexy’s used to work out together, they abstained from alcohol and
drugs. Developing your body and your soul – exercise/suffering, both a
weird machismo. (Jamming on Big Sound Authority – ‘wait till you see
this man sweat’ – sweat as honesty, commitment.) Kevin Rowland’s
first band – a punk band – were called the Killjoys. That sums it up.
None of the ‘young soul rebel’ groups have yet provided a moment of
bliss – and as I’ve outlined, I think the reasons are structural and
historical rather than artistic.

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what’s missing?

Is the problem with pop a lack of honesty or soul anyway? In a
literal sense, most modern pop is soul-derived. The usual complaint is
that it is synthetic, fake. But the charts have never been so clogged with
passion and sincerity – the truth is that Howard Jones and Paul Young
are baring their souls – it’s just that their souls are mediocre. The experiences they present are such a flattened-out approximation of real life,
so drained of real life’s singularity, as to be less than real, like a statistician’s case study. There are no stories in Howard Jones’s songs, no
snatches of plausible dialogue, no authentic tones or concrete detail –
but neither is there the cliché’s perfection or epic nonsense you get with
myth-making pop, the high unreality of sixties melodrama. Just lowest
common denominator humanist platitudes. The true horror of
Howard is not that he is bland synthpop but that people clutch at him
as a bastion of Meaning against Wham! and Duran – his is proper
music, it means something, he means it. Of course he is just one of a
host of adult pop stars – Eurythmics, Sade, Paul Young, Nik
Kershaw, Alison Moyet – whose sin is decorum. They have learned
from punk, they will never repeat the glaring abuses of an earlier rock
aristocracy, perhaps never be usurped. These new artists – New Pop’s
legacy, its attenuated remnant, the cleanliness and ambition without
the artfulness and androgyny – have integrity, they want to communicate as well as be stars. Unlike earlier pop stars, they have been careful
not to be ripped off – they handle the business side, share production,
invest their earnings. They aren’t puppets. Their anti-drugs stance is
less a strikingly austere rejection of trad rock ’n’ roll degeneracy than
the obverse of their solid business sense. these artists are
completely in control. The shallow spread of this ‘quality’ music,
its relentless taste and intelligence, makes me yearn for a bright blue
flash of brilliance . . . or some terrible breach, errors of vulgarity, epic
foolish gestures (all praise to Frankie). Genius or stupidity – anything
immoderate. The new breed make me nostalgic for duplicity and
excess, admire the few stars who appear to be deranged, sick fucks like
Prince or Michael Jackson. Michael singing about fish or socks is more
exciting than Annie Lennox’s Greatest Passion.
Call for escape routes? One is to supersede rock entirely, at least as
it is constituted as youth culture, to aspire to the status of art. So, Nick
Cave. The alienation articulated in Cave’s work is so abstract yet vivid,
so extended, that it can in no way be localized within the subcultural
frame . . . His approach is literary – unlike the majority of groups interested in ‘horror’ or ‘sleaze’, he doesn’t rely on simple effects of depiction (which often have an anti-pop motive) but works at language,
makes a poetry of the unthinkable. Primary emotions are taken, but

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dramatized within a fantastical narrative edifice. Of course, this is to
turn one’s back on pop successfully (Cave looks set to become the postpunk Leonard Cohen, or Jim-Morrison-had-he-lived, struggling for
recognition as a poet, selling records to a fixed cult).
The other approach is to invade the pop citadel, subvert pop by a
greater glamour, expose its pallor, make it look cheap. So, The Smiths.
Not as a solution, something to imitate – but a proof that sensation can
still exist within the pop arena. The Smiths lie at the confluence of all
the felt needs – for something new but still accessible, for dissent and
poetry, for passion and thought. And their music . . . a sound impossible to identify either as ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ . . . seemingly implacable in its
crystalline drive, yet incredibly fragile . . . a gentle flurry of chords like
razor blades in your heart. For me The Smiths reinstate both the
strangeness of pop, its otherworldly elegance, and its connection with
Recent critical attempts to resuscitate The Smiths stress the
humour, Marr’s musicianship . . . but the point of The Smiths is
precisely their unseemly misery. They catapult into the charts – whose
dominant textures today are of Success, Potency, acceptance of normal
aspirations – a spectacle of dissatisfaction and doubt. For many The
Smiths are the only group making a connection between pop and
(their) reality – the experience of adolescents, the unemployed,
the fucked-up, are written out of pop’s script. Today pop, as never
since before rock ’n’ roll, consists of the celebration of adult life –
money, status, travel, chic lifestyles. The charts reek of selfmanagement, upward mobility, satisfaction – and so The Smiths speak
of obsession and devotion, advocate dissipation, resist brutalization
and the sense-dulling forces of materialism, fashion, cheap thrills.
Their enemies are those who laugh at the idea of sensitivity, who abet
what comes with the new conservatism – an entrenchment of normal
sex roles and sexuality.
Morrissey on Top of the Pops is deeply embarrassing. Only Ian
McCulloch has visited an equivalent outrage – both bared their
nipples, acted drunk or spastic, swooned. Were ‘prats’. Which means
only that they’ve tried to puncture for a few minutes the glacial cool
of pop, make a sort of divine grace out of awkwardness, get through.
The performance side of The Smiths is crucial. The standard scripted
pop moves let us know where we are – in the presence of ‘charisma’,
‘sexiness’, ‘stardom’. It is the ‘naturalness’ and inevitability of these
gestures, this unreflecting, incommunicative showbiz language, that
Morrissey tries to disrupt – an eloquent incoherence. He’s pop’s own
Micalef. The ‘opposition’ of The Smiths is vested not in slogans or

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what’s missing?

preaching, but in the body of their sound and the body of their
Perhaps their ideas are spent, but they’ve left a swathe of sombre
glamour across eighties pop. They’ve about twenty great songs, and
strange – although they’re described as dour or (snigger) angst-ridden
– they are more exultant and alive than almost anything I’ve heard.
The pop globe is straddled by soulboy music – the music of
the upwardly aspiring working class, the club soundtrack to having
a good time after a hard week’s work. Julie Burchill and Robert
Elms have celebrated the concomitant death of the idea of music as
art/transgression: Julie, ‘Sade embodies exactly how a sane, healthy
adult should view music – as an aural after-dinner mint’; Robert
declaring that working-class youth – who, as everybody knows,
are what pop is all about – prefer clothes to music, have always
preferred black dance music and find the downward aspirations of
middle-class bohemianism/dirty rock rebellion inexplicable and
pathetic. The opposition ‘music as entertainment versus music as art’
has been a constant from early on in pop’s history and is largely classbased. Psychedelia/progressive rock/punk/alternative music – this has
largely been the music of art schools, students and sixth-formers –
people with more leisure, who use music to define their personalities,
discuss it in terms of artists, oeuvre, or society. Black pop, on the other
hand, has little idea of ‘progress’: change comes about not through
debate, revolutions in rhetoric or criticism, borrowing from high art
or literature; black pop’s history is that of changes in production, of
what’s technically possible – not changing ideas about what music’s
for, what it means.
To put myself behind the idea of pop as art is accordingly to risk
being put down as middle class, somehow not part of pop, because
nothing to do with the ‘instinctual’ street; even to risk accusations of
racism (as Green has made of The Smiths). Still I’m suspicious of people
like Burchill and Elms’s insistence on a purely functional attitude to
music – they seem to have an inordinate joy in diminishment, reducing
the capacity of things for meaning (always in opposition to the inflation of meaning by pretentious people like myself). And I’m repelled by
the textures of modern pop – pseudo-sophistication, classy sounds,
nouveau riche chic, hygiene, polish – how they tie in with the new
conservatism, how they made perfectly straight demands from life, and
from sexuality and gender. The soul boom has led to an over-investment in passion, and devaluation of lyrical intelligence. That black
music can be the vehicle for the extreme and the excessive is undeniable
– unfortunately something structural about its usage means that its

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orbit is more often the banal and prosaic. That’s why it’s necessary to
herald a new white bohemianism.
Monitor issue 3, July 1985
Monitor was a ‘pop journal’ based In Oxford and started by me and some friends in 1984
shortly after we’d graduated. It really wasn’t your typical fanzine: glossy and well-designed,
it initially featured no interviews or reviews, just thinkpieces. (The review policy changed real
quick when free records started arriving through the mail, but we stuck to ‘no Interviews’ until
almost the end, the exception being a Sonic Youth profile nearly entirely devoid of quotes.)
Many of the essays were diatribes about the State of Pop – hence ‘What’s Missing?’, a document of the glum disorientation felt by those of us who’d been carried along by the futurerush of post-punk and New Pop to find ourselves, by 1984, struggling to grub up some
enthusiasm about thin fare such as The Triffids. The piece lays out many of the core ideas I
would explore and oppositions over which I’d flip-flop wildly during my first few years at
Melody Maker (and ever after, arguably). The final allusion to ‘a new white bohemianism’
echoes an earlier Monitor article called ‘Radical Dance Fictions: Funk’s Fictional Threat’.
A critique of post-punk’s privileging of black music and the equation of ‘roots/rhythm/
radicalism’, the essay concluded: ‘What seems more productive now is a rereading of white
rock heritage – groups who commit violence to the texts of such as the Doors, Byrds, Velvets,
Birthday Party, garage punk and psychedelia . . . It’s music that chafes at the tenet that black
music alone has a hold on desire or rhythm; music ignorant of questions of responsibility,
social conscience and the imperative of “upfulness” (a very narrow understanding of what
black music “is all about” anyway), made by groups who see themselves as artists rather
than propagandists, who deal in poetry rather than reportage.’ Which ties back to the most
jarring thing, for me, about ‘What’s Missing?’ (apart from the excessive use of italics, which
I’ve actually toned down here), the reference to ‘lyrical intelligence’. Soon, I would take the
opposite tack, championing sonics over text, fascination over meaning.


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Central Polytechnic, London

The only soul we got tonight was the pre-gig tape, sublime seventies
slices of Billy Paul, Fontella Bass, Womack . . . Personally, I was grateful – I find vaguely repellent the idea of The Redskins unlocking the
secrets of this magical music, harnessing its redemptive and transfiguring power, only to use it as vehicle for protest. So ulterior. No, this
is a rock band – but one that seems to constrain its punk energy by
grappling with an idiom that doesn’t come naturally. A load of ‘yeahs’,
grunts and Kev Rowlandisms do not a Soul Preacher make.
The Redskins’ great mistake is their limited interpretation of soul –
they see it as an upful spirit (what about the blues?), then reduce this
essence further to a specifically political positivism. A Redskins show
consists of constant affirmation, which rapidly becomes wearing. For
some reason, hope, pride, strength and unity are incredibly dreary
subject matter for pop. Redskins songs endlessly chivvy along doubters
and flaggers – who are hard to find in the fervent crowd anyway.
The Redskins don’t reach me because Chris Dean isn’t a poet, he
can’t make the mechanisms of power breathe, he can’t engage any
emotions apart from determination. He’s a journalist, telling us mostly
what we know already, and telling it baldly. I like the paradoxes of
‘Burn it Down’, but little else. This benefit for anti-apartheid raised
money and a feeling of solidarity, and I wouldn’t trespass on those
feelings. But I like my pleasures to be a little less self-confirming.
A guest speaker highlighted this inadvertently – attacking apartheid
articulately, he went on to remind us to fight racism in Britain too.
There was an irony in the almost complete absence of black faces in the
audience. The Redskins say they want to have nothing to do with the
middle-class institution of youth culture, they want to appeal across

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the barriers of generation, race and class. They’ve fastened on to soul
and funk as a universal pop music. But the group only has significance
in a rock context. Their audience is mostly under twenty-five, white
and male; not even rock mainstream to judge by the array of hip haircuts at the gig. The Redskins, whether they like it or not, are serving a
market. As with all the new soul groups, under the soul finery you will
find the dowdy spirit of New Wave, of social realism. The Redskins are
the Clash of the new soul and what we really need is its Sex Pistols. A
group that can work from soul’s unrealism, its dangerous ecstasy, to
make unreasonable demands.
A group that actually provokes its audience, rather than caters to
Melody Maker, December 1985
The Redskins’ version of black music eliminated the ‘blues’ aspect (low-down, dejected) in
favour of the upright, move-on-up side. When they launched a crusade against ‘miserabilism’
(introspective rock groups like The Smiths, the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, etc.) their slogan
was ‘Reds Against the Blues’: sadness and depression was equated with political defeatism
and capitulation to the Tories, unemployment and oppression deemed more fitting subjects
for pop than love, loss and the more existential forms of alienation. Rejecting mope rock (‘Is
this the blues I’m singing?’ pondered Ian McCulloch on ‘Rescue’), the Redskins and their
fellow travellers (the Style Council, Faith Brothers, the Christians) proposed a strategy of
‘offensive optimism’: a mod-descended notion of ‘pride and dignity’ as a weapon, of Style and
Youth as a victory in itself. Hence the sleevenote to the Style Council’s ‘Shout it to the Top’:
Yes! to the thrill of the romp
Yes! to the Bengali Workers Association
Yes! to a nuclear free world
Yes! to all involved in animal rights
Yes! to fanzines
Yes! to belief
This sort of resistance-through-affirmation talk used to drive me up the wall at the time, but
to put it in its context: this was circa the miners’ strike, the NUM being the last barrier to unrestrained Thatcherism. So the Redskins’ blustery exhortations to ‘keep on keepin’ on’ had a
resonance that someone like myself, on the dole by choice, never fully felt. Nowadays, I feel
a sneaking affection for figures like Chris Dean with their motormouth conviction. Scarred by
the first Clash album, by those classic Jam singles, his kind could never shake off the huge
political expectations invested in music during punk.


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Hammersmith Odeon, London

Zapp live were perhaps the most extreme spectacle I have ever
witnessed, with both band and audience abandoning inhibitions more
extensively than at any rock gig I’ve attended, for all rock’s Dionysiac
rhetoric. And yet the show! was clearly rehearsed with military precision, as it was performed exact in every deranged detail the very next
What’s fascinating is how this kind of excess has an everyday
currency. Soul takes straight values, traditional gender protocol, and
inflates them to epic, surreal dimensions – as in the Battle of the Sexes
duet between Shirley Murdoch and Roger Troutman tonight. The
show! is all monstrously exaggerated sexuality, seriously saucy – full
of ludicrous arse-shaking, mimed cunnilingus, Roger stripping to his
briefs . . .
Roger is an incredible show! person – one minute goose-stepping
across the stage plucking blues guitar, the next reappearing on top of a
stack of amps, then dragging a luckeee ladeee out of the audience for a
cartoon clinch, or impersonating Presley, or venturing way out into the
crowd on a bodyguard’s back while playing a harmonica. Every so
often he asks, rhetorically, ‘London, Englaaaaand! Can I do anything I
wanna do? Can I go crazeee?’
The music’s fab, a fat, freaky, juddering funkquake. Zapp’s
unique ingredient is those dexterously vocoderized vocals, that extra
ultra-tremulousness that simulates a meta-ecstasy, a bliss beyond
imagination, let alone realization. This is the dangerous utopianism
of soul.
Best night out for years.
Melody Maker, July 1986

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Hard to imagine any band I’d want to see live on two successive nights, so I must have been
really BLOWN AWAY. Apart from a slightly enervated Bobby Womack a few years earlier, I
imagine this was my first full-on exposure to the black performance ethos (a commitment to
entertainment and razzle-dazzle approximately 100 times more intense than your average
indie-Britband). A couple of years later I got to interview Troutman and he was as ridiculously
‘on’ in front of my tape recorder as onstage. Zapp recordings from this period (‘Computer
Love’ and ‘It Doesn’t Really Matter’ were small hits) were fine but the Dayton, Ohio group’s
defining masterwork remains 1980’s ‘More Bounce to the Ounce’, a colossus of postFunkadelic weirdgroove; the longer version gets otherworldly two-thirds of the way through,
Roger’s multi-tracked, electronically processed (not vocoder but voice box à la Pete
Frampton) vocal spiralling off towards the peaks of the mystic East, a superfly cartoon of Tim
Buckley’s Starsailor. It was nice to see Troutman enjoy a mini-comeback in 1996 (guesting on
Tupac and Dr Dre’s ‘California Love’) and ghastly to hear of him being murdered by his own
brother a few years later.


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Indie-pop’s Cult of Innocence

Pop has never been this divided.
Over ‘here’ is the world of the ‘alternative’ – indies, inkies and
fanzines, stubbornly and vainly insisting that ours is ‘the real pop’, that
the glossy substance that’s somehow hijacked the Chart is an impostor.
Over there, the music that most people in the world take as pop. In
between, a chasm of mutual ignorance and suspicion.
It’s a breach between white and black definitions. ‘Serious rock’ has
never been so white, mainstream pop so black, so exclusively based in
R&B, soul and disco. What’s noticeable is that the attributes for which
the indie scene despises chartpop are, in black pop terms, its best qualities – for sickly/sentimental/saccharine read soulful, for hygiene and
polish read a classy sound, for slickness read elegance. What the music
press ritually attacks in chartpop is what, for most people, black or white,
is most POP! about pop – glamour, opulent production, showiness.
Green once described the music of indie groups like The Smiths as
‘racist’, and, in a sense, he’s right – there’s a hopeless lack of exchange
or communication between hip white rock and black pop. Each finds
the other preposterous and perplexing. Blacks can’t understand how
anyone would want to look, or sound, scruffy, make a racket you can’t
even dance to. And flip through the collection of your average Cure fan
and you’ll find precious few Janet or Michael Jackson records (the only
‘disco’ record will be ‘Blue Monday’).
I don’t believe Morrissey is that extreme when he declares hatred for
funk, or pronounces that ‘reggae is vile’. The irony is that these indie
hipsters tend to be more politically aware than most, more keen to
align themselves with anti-racism, yet are totally estranged from black

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Examine indie-pop closely and you’ll see that, at every step, it
defines itself as pop’s opposite. For instance, chartpop is still based
around the primacy of the dance beat, but what’s striking about recent
indie-pop is its undanceability, how it’s long since abandoned R&B
roots for albino sources like The Velvets, Television, sixties psychedelia, rockabilly, folk.
In fact, ‘serious rock’, from the hippies through to now, is a head
culture, oriented towards contemplation and bodily passivity. Records
are treated as artistic or social statements, there’s an emphasis on lyrics
and artistic intention, and the primal scene of consumption is the
Mainstream pop is a body culture, oriented around dance and spectacle rather than ‘meaning’. Of course, people will dance to indie-pop,
even when it’s as fiercely anti-dance as Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Never
Understand’, but, strictly, indie-pop really demands physical responses
that contravene the norms of dance-as-sexual-flaunting, that involve a
sacrifice of cool. Jangly-pop ought to be danced with Morrisseyesque
feyness, above-it-all gestures that echo the ‘free dancing’ of the counterculture, while the Beefheartian thrash of bands like Stump and A
Witness incites a bacchanalian delirium. Increasingly, what’s even more
appropriate is immobility before a bombardment of noise: the music of
Husker Du, Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, incites you to flip
your wig, or be frozen in noise, blissed out.
Current indie music contains an implicit drive to rise above, to
forget, the body that’s in marked contrast to chartpop’s hysterical
investment in the body. You can see the head/body opposition at work
in differing approaches to the love song. Chartpop foregrounds sexual
passion, specific body need. The guarantor of true love is physical
ecstasy, sexual success. The soul voice is ubiquitous – in its hoarse,
husky grain and its traces of R&B earthiness you can practically hear
arousal and dilation of blood.
Indie-pop tends to present love in almost quaint terms of devotion
and idealization, barely alluding to sex. Love is vested in difficulty as
much as success. There are far more unrequited love songs. The actual
experience of being-in-love is presented differently, not as racked
passion, but as an almost out-of-body experience, a dreaminess or
entrancement, a rapture not of the senses but of perception and intellect. Which is why indie groups tend to choose a vocal style that
denotes ‘purity’ – the little girl voice of The Shop Assistants, the folk
idiom used by Morrissey or James, or other voices of male vulnerability (Pete Shelley’s campness, Edwyn Collins’s preciousness, sixties
voices like Syd Barrett, Roger McGuinn, Arthur Lee, Lou Reed).

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* * *
It’s six years since Edwyn Collins declared ‘worldliness must keep
apart from me’, twenty years since The Byrds sang ‘I was so much
older then / I’m younger than that now’ – now these dreams are coming
to a new fruition. An idea of innocence and childhood possesses and
pervades the indie scene. It’s there in the names – Soup Dragons,
Woodentops, Five Go Down to the Sea, Flowerpot Men, sweet names
like James, June Brides, Mighty Lemon Drops, Talulah Gosh. It’s
present in the lyrics and cover artwork of groups as varied as The
Smiths, Cocteau Twins, Membranes, James, Woodentops (‘we should
be climbing trees’).
It’s there in the way fanzines privilege naivety and enthusiasm and
mess. Numerous desires crystallize in the fantasy of ‘being like a child
again’ – grief for a lost spontaneity, impulsiveness and unselfconsciousness; desire to recover the ability to dream, to have a magical, wideeyed relation to the world; a hope of remaining unsullied. This is a
romantic conception of childhood that could only be held by literaryminded types (i.e. your typical indie fan/music press reader). Ordinary
people would find this idealization and nostalgia for childhood daft.
Real kids want to grow up as fast as possible, be glamorous like Simon
Le Bon or Madonna. Which is why mainstream pop reflects, as never
since before rock ’n’ roll, adult aspirations, adult sophistication.
Childhood’s become important (again) because it provides a range
of imagery that’s fertile in dissident potential. Rock rebellion was
based in the censored ‘truth’ of adolescent desire, but this form of

younger than yesterday

Indie-pop’s focus is more on the words than on the singer’s mannerisms. Because love is consummated/constituted not in the flesh and its
throes, but in intense exchanges of language – the unique details of
courtship, confidences, the scene. But this is a time when chartpop
grows ever more ‘adult’ in its treatment of relationship – either
more and more explicit and suggestive, or mature and ‘progressive’
(Julie Burchill has noted how black pop is increasingly Me
Generation/Cosmo-speak in tone).
Indie-pop treats love as romance rather than sex. Against the health
and efficiency of chart love, we have the stricken awe of The Bodines’
‘Therese’ – ‘it scares the health out of me!’. Once rock drew its power
from flaunting the body, revealing the ‘raw truth’ of desire. The directness, dirt and carnal insistence of rhythm-and-blues was a dangerous
energy. What’s interesting is the process by which we’ve reached the
point where ‘purity’ and ‘pure love’ seem more radical than sin, more
transgressive than libertinism or ‘setting your body free’.

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misbehaviour is not just allowed now, it’s enforced as a prescribed
model. Images of healthy sexuality and youth vitality saturate the
media. Hence the recourse to a model of deviancy earlier than the
The sixties loom large in the indie scheme because they were the
last time that ideas of childhood and lost innocence were current.
The Yippies, the Situationists and radical psychoanalysis proposed
the recovery of play as the crucial component of cultural revolution;
they used play as a political strategy and as a critique of Western
consumer passivity. Elsewhere, the music of Pink Floyd, The Byrds,
Love, etc. abounded with imagery of childhood and of gardens (Eden
before the Fall), reflecting a belief that growing up is just a process of
brutalization and dis-enchantment.
Moreover, latent in our indie scene are ideas that echo the concerns
of the sexual/psychoanalytical politics of the sixties. The flirtation with
androgyny and camp, the prevalence of love songs with genderless love
objects and free of fixed sexual protocol, the defence of sensitivity
and ‘the wimp’, the refusal of performance-oriented sex – all these
connect not just with feminism but with radical psychoanalysis’s
project of a return to the ‘polymorphous perversity’ of the child
(an undirected and limitless sensuality). In The Smiths, for instance,
the refusal of maturity is as much a rejection of the strictures of adult
sexuality as of work.
I’m not suggesting that a new counterculture is about to spring out
of our indie scene, just that some of the desires are the same. No, I’d
stress that these radical currents remain sublimated in music – there’s
been no attempt to connect dream with practice, no attempts at
cultural improvisation to transform everyday life.
Style is where the sixties and childhood collide. Indie types often
seem to be endeavouring to look like an ordinary person of the sixties
or fifties. There’s a taste for pre-permissive clothes – cardigans, frocks,
overcoats, those short jackets and anoraks, caps and headscarves,
quaint jewellery, short back-and-sides that must seem peculiar to those
who once had to look like that and now relish the right to long hair
and perms.
Mixed in with these archaic elements are childish things – duffel
coats, birthday-boy shirts, outsize sweaters, bows and ribbons and
ponytails, beardlessness. Fresh faces and bare ears. Stray punky
elements persist, plus psychedelic items, but the effect of these garish
primary colours and patterns is just as infantile, because childhood is
the only time bright colours are appropriate. In trying to dress unlike
adult women are supposed to dress to look sexy, girls like Fuzzbox

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younger than yesterday

have slipped into a style rich in connotations of paedophilia. And so
many of these boys and girls look anorexic.
The indie style is an elaborate, stylized way of indicating authenticity. The sixties and childishness both represent a simpler, happier,
more genuine time. The sixties are seen as rock’s childhood, a moment
of innocence before bloated middle age, before pop was overdetermined by criticism. A time when the idea of youth was young.
And the sixties also stand for a time when the working class were
‘real’ – poor but happy, oppressed but united. The American indie
scene adopts a similar stylized authenticity (based in country and
psychedelia) against a similar enemy – MTV’s co-opting of rock as just
one component in the leisure apparatus.
This consumer paradise is the future. And so independent music is
forced to set its back to the future, enter a wilful, defiant exile. The
Smiths are famed for their Luddite tendencies, but this spirit pervades
the scene – the fanzines that sing the delights of mono record players
and flexis (against the CD), the hostility to video, the revival of the DIY
ethos. To oppose the passivity our entertainment culture induces
requires making a virtue of lo-tech and lo-fi. Otherwise the modern
premium on perfection dispossesses us of our right to make things, to
make a culture.
The indie scene is struggling to protect ‘innocence’ in the face of a
sophisticated culture. That’s why indie music is based on almost totally
white sources. The DIY ethos has no resonance in black music, which
does set a premium on sophistication and professionalism (lest Frank
Owen box my ears, I’d better say that hip hop is an exception here).
Rebel rock could once base itself in the delinquent ‘animalism’ of
R&B, but now that sexual energy is just part of the entertainment
mainstream, just healthy vitality. The conflict presented in The Stones’
‘Satisfaction’ between desire and materialism doesn’t apply any more.
Increasingly, being a success in life requires development of your body’s
capacity for health and pleasure – from aerobics to health food to
competitive sex.
Our alternative scene contains two approaches to resistance. Some
try to make sex dangerous again, linking it with sickness and debauchery and violence (the brutalists and immaculate consumptives and dark
noise types). More radical is what I’ve described above – a forgetting of
the body, a rediscovery of romance and of the psychedelic properties of
noise. Husker Du and Jesus and Mary Chain are the sublime union of
both – chaste rapture and celestial noise.
A new kind of youth culture taking shape, based in romanticism and
asceticism? Make no mistake, ‘How Soon is Now’, ‘Still Ill’, ‘You’ve

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Got Everything Now’, these were the lost ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘My
Generation’ of our time. Lost because the independent scene is just an
island, an asylum, that no one wants to know.
To most people in the world, pop means Madonna, and Queen,
and Dire Straits, all those worn, staid forms of ‘breaking free’. I’m
talking of a bohemianism that’s cleansed of the self-destruction and
fast living of earlier forms of rebellion. A quiet withdrawal, a defection
as much from (the old) youth culture as from straight society. For pop
itself is now a process of normalization, of training desire. Faced with
a leisure paradise that promises satisfaction, what’s radical is not just
to make more demands, but to insist that satisfaction itself is an illusion. Faced with the infinite accommodation of consumer capitalism,
the radical response is to abstain, to cling stubbornly to the will to
* * *
You will have gathered that this isn’t a critique, more of a soft celebration. I recognize the scene’s introversion, its impotence, its subtle
racism; I enjoy black music from hip hop to new jazz, but always it’s to
this music that I return. Music that’s saddened by dreams, torn
between fatalism and the imprecise desire for something more. ‘There
are brighter sides to life and I should know because I’ve seen them / But
not often.’
This music inhabits neither a subculture nor the mainstream,
though it may stray to puzzle the outside world, infiltrated by Echo, U2
and others. It lives in the interstices of possibility, those gaps in the
social fabric where people can convince themselves, for a while, they’ve
not grown up, not given in. Sixth-formers, students, art schools, the
new ‘dole cultures’, the alternative career structures – wherever it’s
possible to subsist outside the pressures of adjustment and adaptation,
the pressure to make your mind up. A rootless communality, without
geography, that’s articulated through the media. That’s why The
Smiths and James have more in common with Husker Du and Meat
Puppets than their own neighbours. Because the same predicament has
brought them into being, demanded their beauty.
These are the people who only know what they do not want.
Something is happening. Obviously there’s no threat to the outside
world, but within the helplessly contracting, hopelessly isolated orbit
of the ‘alternative’ scene, there are new shapes emerging. Here’s a little
contribution to counter the unstimulating commentary of those who
insist it’s just a matter of renewed ‘vitality’, an ‘upsurge’ of vibrant
‘energy’. Scared shitless of making premature exhortations, they say

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Melody Maker, 28 June 1986
The piece that made my name. Bizarrely, there was even a letter about it in NME ’s readers’
letters page, complaining that the paper never did that kind of piece any more. The only
problem was that as much as I liked what the subculture stood for, I was ambivalent about
the shambling bands’ scrawny music. So ‘Younger than Yesterday’ was a manifesto for something I didn’t fully stand behind; a manifesto, also, that none of the bands rushed forward to
embrace. Indeed when I did a follow-up piece focused on the movement’s fashion element,
some scenesters described it as the death-knell for ‘cutie’ (a word briefly in vogue to describe
the ultra-naif tendency of bands such as Talulah Gosh, who did songs like ‘The Day I Lost My
Pastels Badge’ and featured my Monitor comrade Chris Scott on bass). The look was ‘anoraksia nervosa’: the shamblers always seemed to be small and thin, and they wore sixties-style
children’s anoraks and similar non-adult garments. The look was suggestive of ‘clothes your
mum buys for you’, the innocence of a time before the child takes on interest in style, selfexpression, youth culture, competitive cool. Early in 1987 I vented my disappointment with
the music in a piece called ‘Regressive Rock’, castigating a new breed of indie runts who’d
frozen pop history at 1966 and 1978 (just before the leaps into psychedelia and post-punk),
the sonic analogue of anorexia’s arrested development.
Yet ‘cutie’ – or as it’s now more commonly known C86, after the NME cassette compilation
of the key bands on the scene – has proved surprisingly enduring. Birthed by shambling
diehards like the Sarah label, there’s an international network of ‘twee-pop’ that encompasses the likes of Belle & Sebastian; Riot Grrrl and its UK counterpart (the ‘Huggy Nation’
bands clustered around Huggy Bear) was the politicized, overtly feminist offshoot;
Kurt Cobain was a huge fan of the Pastels, the Vaselines, et al.; Manic Street Preachers
revered two shambling bands that had an unusual political consciousness, Big Flame and
McCarthy, and the latter group evolved into the great Stereolab; Saint Etienne and Primal
Scream, meanwhile, fused C86 with house music. The legacy is larger than I would ever have
imagined at the time.


younger than yesterday

there’s no movement, just some new bands. Against this dour deflation,
here’s an inflation of meaning. I say, jump to conclusions!

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What is hip hop’s uneasy fascination? Where’s the pleasure in having
some stranger berate you about how they’re the best, the ultimate, how
they’re gonna devastate you?
I don’t think there should be an easy relationship between hip hop
and rock criticism. I think hip hop means trouble, and it should trouble
the orthodoxies into which critics try to slot pop music. Hip hop is
identified with a ‘truth’ of the street, and this truth is assumed to be
in some way proto-socialist, or at least humanist/humanitarian. But
what if ‘the street’ contains desires that us liberal hipsters can’t really
Hip hop’s pleasure lies in nakedness. The music is stripped, fleshless,
free of frills or plumage, streamlined for efficiency. But in terms of
motivation, too, there’s a minimalism or nakedness. Hip hop reflects
straight values and aspirations, but as in a kind of distorting mirror,
one that strips away the veils of protocol and ideology, the cant about
freedom and enterprise and choice. Hip hop reveals the impolite reality
of capitalism – dog eat dog struggle. The competitiveness between
MCs and bands is a metaphor for the struggle of all against all; there’s
an absence of solidarity, of a collective vision. The ghetto is like this:
black violence against blacks is always rising.
Similarly there’s a naked obsession with the trappings of status.
Songs like 12:41’s ‘Success is the Word’ show a naive fascination with
‘sophistication’, with the trinkets and surfaces of high life – cars, furs,
jets, diamonds, champagne. Pop is about fantasies. Criticism that identifies black music with ‘authenticity’ misses the point that the authentic desires of most blacks are to be inauthentic – to be anywhere but the
street. When funkateer Prince Charles’s ‘Cash Money’ was being hailed

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nasty boys: rap

by all the white crits as a raw protest song, it was real funny when he
appeared on Janice Long and said it was about how he wanted to make
loads of money. Such confusions arise because rock fantasies are about
returning to this mythical ‘street’, this lost ‘real’. But blacks find rock
culture’s downward aspirations ludicrous: they can’t renounce the
privileges of affluence that most of them never had.
A hip hop track, then, doesn’t contain a ‘real person’ but a persona
constructed out of the interaction between the rapper’s desire to be not
himself, and the range of imagery/models available in mass culture/the
media that allow him to be something else. As Frank Owen writes, ‘hip
hop exists between street and screen’. Writing about hip hop nonetheless still harps on this wearisome authenticity shtick – think of
David Toop’s placing of rap in a lineage stretching through the R&B
shouters, the plantation work chants, way back to Africa, think of the
knee-jerk cant about ‘pride’ and ‘dignity’.
Let’s examine this ‘pride’ closely. Apart from the valorous exception
of records like the Roxanne series, this is male pride. Black machismo
has always been a defiance in the face of a racist society that unmans,
by denying blacks access to status. But the cry ‘I’m a Man’ has always
been problematic – there’s an overcompensation that results in aggression, a demand for victims and victory to shore up the ego – the endless
vistas of ‘sucker MCs’. Masculinity is hardness, entails a brutalization
of the self, of others. Manliness can only be defined in opposition to
womanliness. Hip hop is riddled with misogyny – from the rappers
who boast of being heartbreakers or of their sexual appetite/prowess,
to songs like Mantronix’s ‘Ladies’, with its strict notions of femininity
(to reassure men uncertain of their masculinity). Women exist only as
facets of the rappers’ status, to be scored. The hip hop ego always tries
to impress, too hard.
And hip hop music is a metaphor for violence – that punishing beat,
the abrasive attack of scratching is a kind of killing machine. The
language used to valorize the music – ‘rock’, ‘wreck’, ‘damage’ – is
violent too.
Hip hop is a hyperbolic reflection, virtually a caricature, of the
system – capitalism/patriarchy. Inevitably those who are excluded from
full status in society only want that status, and its material trappings,
more severely. It’s noticeable that the traditional escape routes of the
working class (black or white) – sport, crime, pop – are ultra-macho
and mega-acquisitive. Yet rock criticism still struggles to recruit the
‘pride’ of hip hop/black pop into a left-wing political scheme that’s
wholly inappropriate. Remember the fuss over dreary records like
Afrika Bambaataa/James Brown’s ‘Unity’, over ‘Renegades of Funk’

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and ‘The Message’ and all those records about ‘cash’ and ‘dollar bill
y’all’? But hip hop’s ‘protest’ songs strike me as primarily documentary, offering no solutions, no utopianism, no criticism, even. They say:
this is how it is, this is how tuff you gotta be. The spate of records like
‘Survival’ make me think of Christopher Lasch’s analysis of the
survivalist mentality in The Minimalist Self: the solitary ego, beset
on all sides but fighting on, streamlined for survival through the
excision of all affective/cooperative bonds. Bodybuilding/breakdancing
is a metaphor for survivalism – this asexual, desensualized dance is a
display of prowess, an armouring of the body in readiness for trouble.
This analysis ignores for the moment the humour – musical and
lyrical – of hip hop, along with the sheer avant-garde exhilaration of
the sound, but I do think that a big part of the pleasure of hip hop is
that it’s appalling. There’s something recalcitrant and unsound that
can’t be ironed out, that won’t fit into a City Limits worldview. And yet
these records coerce. Why? Maybe it’s useful to compare hip hop with
other forms of male teenage vileness that I disapprove of but can’t
resist. Hardcore/psychobilly/sixties garage punk/heavy metal all work
on the same premises of (stylized) machismo/misogyny as hip hop, and
there are musical affinities – jerky, unsupple rhythms, an aura of
violence, noise. Heavy metal’s swords ’n’ sorcery obsession parallels
electro’s sci fi/video game phase – both providing a range of masculine
warrior archetypes. Both heavy metal and hip hop spend a lot of time
self-reflexively boasting how hard they’re gonna rock you.
Hip hop can present an epic solipsism, an arbitrary and aggressive
will, comparable with that which animates ‘Anarchy in the UK’ or an
Iggy and The Stooges song. Hip hop, like punk, nihilistically inverts
values – ‘bad’, ‘wicked’, ‘ill’, ‘treacherous’ are all good terms – but this
is also an exposure of what it really takes to get on in free market
society. Value and meaning have absconded, the only authority is the
self, there are ‘so many ways to get what you want’ . . .
This megalomania is a monomania. Rappers really have nothing to
say, they just want to prove themselves, show they exist. There’s no
meaning, just assertion, a scream in the face of eternity. Hip hop intimidates because its motor is fear – the fear of anonymity and failure.
There’s something tragic about the rapper, about his victories in a
vacuum. What happens to these self-proclaimed stars when their glory
disperses? A rapper’s ego punctured must be a pitiful thing.
Above all, hip hop is about the intoxication of violence – those
clenched voices are a constant reminder of the possibility of force. Hip
hop allows us the dizzying pleasure of enjoying both triumph and
submission simultaneously – we can identify with the persona of the

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Melody Maker, 19 July 1986
Hard to believe, but in 1985 rap was widely perceived (in UK hipsterland anyway) as not so
much a passing as a passed fad. The black music bigged-up in The Face or NME end-of-year
critics’ polls were styles like go-go, African music, contemporary soul, ‘jazz-dance’. I too
started 1986 completely bored by rap. What flipped my head around was Mantronix (and
Mantronik’s production of T. La Rock ), the hard-riffing Def Jam sound of LL Cool J and
Beastie Boys, and Schoolly D’s debut. Hip hop became hugely hip again, but the appreciation
it received gave me a weird sense of disconnect: critics seemed to gloss over, or misrecognize, the most compelling element in the music, its rage and (Sid) viciousness. Hence
this polemic, arguing that if rap was ‘black punk’ it wasn’t in the worthy Clash/Jam ‘social
comment’ sense but punk as a theatre of tyranny and domination, appetite-for-destruction
and wanton will-to-power. Actually, subsequently, most rap turned out to be more like the
black heavy metal: fantasies of alpha male triumph, of warrior male gore and glory. Which
makes sense: as much as it’s a black thing, rap is also a teenage boy thing, all hormones and
Plenty of wild sociocultural generalizations here (bear in mind I’d only just turned twentythree) but the one bit that really makes me wince is the line about rappers having ‘nothing to
say’: back then the genre was 99 per cent boasts and threats, but ‘content’ soon arrived with
Public Enemy, Rakim, et al. Still, I reckon the piece does capture an abiding essence to rap
that would only get stronger with the emergence of gangsta. (The reference to ‘anonymity
and failure’, incidentally, is a second-hand lift from Robert Warshow’s famous essay about the
mobster movie, ‘The Gangster as Tragic Hero’.) It also expresses my enduring bemusement
about rap as a form of ‘entertainment’, how we pay good money to experience what in real
life we’d run a mile from: bug-eyed sociopaths threatening cruel-and-unusual deaths,
nouveau riche bores droning on about their wealth and possessions.


nasty boys: rap

song at the same time as we’re being threatened, put down, dominated
by the singer. Hip hop connects with those same areas of (male?) power
psychology that respond to the myth-resonant confrontations of
boxing or other sports.
The message turns out to be something we white liberals shouldn’t
want to hear, but precisely because the music’s nasty, packed with
ugly contradictions, it retains the power to agitate and transfix where
the ideologically sound, neatly aligned music of groups like Fine Young
Cannibals and The Redskins doesn’t.

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Beat Happening (K Records/Rough Trade)

Beat Happening are Calvin and Heather and Brett and they’re from
Olympia, Washington, on the north-west coast of the USA. Perhaps
this is the Next Big Thing, perhaps there are hundreds of West Coast
shambling bands out there. But I like the idea of them being some kind
of freak happening. To me they seem to come from another planet.
‘Shambling’ is a useful means of entry to what Beat Happening are
all about. Like many of our indie bands, Beat Happening use incompetence as a springboard to glory. They don’t have a proper drum set,
often appear to be hitting things that come to hand, and so have the
shuffling, faltering beat of Jesus and Mary Chain or Shop Assistants.
And the way they’ve been recorded captures the sounds of the music
being made – the creak of the strings and plectrum, the rustle of percussion. Voices are creased, sometimes they fail. My friend Chris says this
sort of thing is important because when you can hear the group struggling with instruments they’ve yet to master, when you can hear the
concentration, you know they care. Fluency means less feeling, because
it’s the result of rehearsal.
And like many of our indie groups, Beat Happening are obsessed
with innocence. They appear to be slightly older (one’s at college,
another works) than the experiences they write about – first love,
picnics on the beach, swimming in the lake, ‘we don’t care / if there’s
sand in our hair’ – they’re looking back to the purity of that joy and
pain. Quite instinctively they’ve decorated the record with ‘cutie’
graphics – a crayon-scrawl logo just like our own Pastels, a chalk
doodle of a cat in a spaceship.
Their music reinvents sixties garage punk, not so much the proficiently raucous rhythm-and-blues on compilations like Pebbles and

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Melody Maker, November 1986
K Records had actually been founded way back in 1982 and circa this Beat Happening debut
Calvin Johnson was already a little too old at twenty-four to be play-acting the teenager! His
fantasy about ‘the teenage underground nation’ versus ‘corporate rock’ would reach fruition
through K’s influence on both grunge and Riot Grrrl. Johnson organized the International Pop
Underground Convention, a six-day indie-pop festival that took place in Olympia in August
1991 (just before ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ broke) and proved to be a key moment in the
emergence of Riot Grrrl. Kurt Cobain esteemed K as a beacon of purity in a corrupt world and
he proudly wore the label’s logo – a small K inside a shield – on his forearm, a tattoo he did
himself using a sewing needle and ink. Nirvana’s breakthrough smash got its title from


beat happening

Mindrockers, as the more eerily inept stuff on What a Way to Die and
Back From the Grave, groups like The Hombres, We The People, the
Outsiders. Choosing to model themselves on these lost tearaways
constitutes a discreet dissidence against the pop mainstream.
On the sleeve insert they talk of an indie ‘cassette revolution’ that’s
‘exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the
corporate ogre’. On their anthem ‘Bad Seeds’ they exhort ‘a new generation / form a teenage nation / this time let’s do it right . . . They make
a lot of rules / They tell a lot of lies / but if we don’t wanna / We won’t
behave.’ There’s a delicate poise between pastiche and underlying
seriousness here, that’s delicious, almost camp.
Their magic comes out of the friction between the limits of their
ability and the scope of their ambition. Perhaps it’s only because they
can’t make chord changes very fast yet, but their use of minimalism
and repetition suggests that this music is the missing link between
Question Mark and the Mysterians and The Fall, between Primal
Scream and Suicide.
‘Bad Seeds’ out-zombies Lux Interior. ‘I Spy’ is a join-the-dots Link
Wray stomp that extends itself with the diagrammatic exactness of a
Kraftwerk. ‘I Love You’ is like the Velvets fronted by Alan Vega – ‘I
woke up / I had a tear in my eye’. But best of all are the songs where
they’ve purged garage punk of its misogynist insolence and reanimated
it with a proto-feminist tenderness. ‘Run Down the Stairs’, ‘What’s
Important’ and ‘Fourteen’ are psychedelic lullabies midway between
We The People’s ‘Eyes the Color of Love’ and The Woodentops.
Maybe Beat Happening will get skilled, lose that special tension that
arises when urgency is confined within close musical quarters. Right
now, they’re the most enchanting, unearthly thing to come out of
America since the Meat Puppets. Our own shamblers have yet to
produce anything this strange, this moving.

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graffiti that Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna sprayed on Cobain’s apartment wall, ‘Kurt smells like
Teen Spirit’: not a reference to some elan vital of renegade youth, but to the fact that Cobain
was dating Bikini drummer Tobi Vail, who used a deodorant called Teen Spirit. Before teaming
up with Hanna, Vail had played in a K Records band called The Go Team – a duo with Calvin
While we’re talking ‘incestuous’, ‘my friend Chris’ = Chris Scott, who’d penned a pair of
brilliant pieces for Monitor on the aesthetic, and ethic, of incompetence in indie-pop. The first
celebrated fanzines’ refusal of professionalism – a riposte to a piece I’d done critiquing zine
culture – while the second, ‘Concrete Pop’, analysed how the shambling sound of the Pastels,
Shop Assistants, and Woodentops jolted both players and listeners out of rehearsed-to-livingdeath, going-through-the-motions music.


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The Folk and Country Resurgence in Alternative Rock

Groups who use accordions and fiddles taken seriously? Nick Cave
covers of Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell songs? The Grateful Dead,
Creedence Clearwater, Fairport Convention as reference points? Bob
Dylan and George Jones now cooler than Bobby Womack and
There’s been a weird turnabout in hip orientation this last year or so
– a switch from black music to folk and country as influences. Five
years ago funk was universally taken as the appropriate base for
adventurous/intelligent/subversive activity in pop – by groups as
diverse as Heaven 17, Scritti Politti, Talking Heads, ABC, Cabaret
Voltaire, Style Council . . . All the rhetoric about Sex, Sweat and Blood
and Dance Don’t Riot seems incredibly dated now, but at the time
there was a vague idea that sex, desire, glamour could be dangerous,
a threat. Another guiding idea of the early eighties was of a radical
eclecticism – the melting pot of music, a rainbow coalition of races and
eras, postures and images. But, inevitably, these ideas moved rapidly
from the left field to the centre stage of pop. The moment people like
Phil Collins got hip to modern black production techniques it was no
longer possible to maintain the fiction of funk’s intrinsic radicalism; the
moment lesser spirits like Eurythmics picked up on postmodern pick
’n’ mix, it became impossible to believe there was anything clever
about eclecticism.
Now that their ideas have become domesticated in the mainstream,
the indie scene has abandoned them and staged a retreat – a flight from
production, from technology (the synthesizer, sampling, the studio-asinstrument), from chartpop’s hypersexuality, from musical crossbreeding. A return to purity. What’s been revived is the (moral)

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conviction that what you put on a record must be reproducible on
stage. This new purism embraces anything ‘authentic’ – folk, Cajun,
country, soca, African. Anything either old or Third World. There’s a
hankering for a lost pop innocence, a return to the sound of a time
when the idea of youth was still young. A lean, underproduced sound.
Now that the charts are choked with white imitations of black
music, the indie scene embraces anything white. A discreet, but
implicit, racism has been reinstalled, a revival of the mid-seventies
progressive rock snobbery about ‘that disco shit’. Five years ago it
would have been inconceivable that a song like ‘Panic’ by The Smiths,
with its notorious ‘hang the DJ / burn down the blessed disco’ chorus,
could have struck a chord.
So why are so many politically right-on hipster types drawn to the
music of the most redneck, reactionary and backward parts of
America? Why do you find City Limits readers dancing perfect jigs and
waltzes at Tex-Mex festivals on Clapham Common?
American roots music is being used by groups in this country (and
in America) as a critique of contemporary rootlessness – the way
MTV/stadium rock/the disco are superseding the conviviality of live
performance in pub or bar. What’s happening in the USA anticipates
what’s happening throughout the West – the erosion of local communities and geographical identities, and the atomization of society into a
mass of detached consumers, who are plugged into the media’s pleasure circuits. American folk musics are being used against the spread of
the new American yuppie culture worldwide.
There’s a haunted awareness on the indie scene that progress is
‘freeing’ us into a world without the anchorage of faith or narrative,
‘freeing’ us of the norms and values that tie, but also console. The
cowboy’s drift and the ghost town have become potent metaphors for
our present. Five years ago troubled spirits would have used funk’s
tension to express their paranoia and disorientation, but now they’re
drawn to the desolation, despondency and fatigue of folk and country.
The Smiths sing ‘It’s over and it hardly began’. The June Brides
moan that ‘there’s no place like home’ to be found anywhere. The
Mekons say ‘we’re falling like leaves from the trees’. Nick Cave resuscitates an ancient C&W song called ‘Muddy Water’ as a contemporary
metaphor – it’s the tale of a family whose farm is flooded again and
again and who lose the will to carry on: ‘We won’t be back to start all
over . . . it’s hard to say just what I’m losing.’
You can find a similar feeling that possibility has subsided into
entropy in a host of groups – The Pogues, Costello, the Band of Holy
Joy, Lloyd Cole, James, Husker Du, Throwing Muses, and many more.

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iD, winter 1986
Given the resurgence of interest in folk these last several years (the Folk Britannia
festival/documentary series, the glut of compilations of vintage ‘wyrd folk’, and the network
of contemporary troubadours and minstrels known as ‘freak folk’), it’s disconcerting to recall
that there’d been this earlier revival of interest. Today, it’s specifically UK folk of the most
esoteric sort (Vashti Bunyan, Comus, Forest) but in the mid-eighties, the emphasis was on
American roots music (I recall the Mekons saying that while they loved the Band they’d never
had any time for Fairport Convention or anything chunky-sweatered and real ale-y). Nor was
there anything mushroom-munching trippy or mystical about the eighties rediscovery of folk
and country: the music was very much about former punks dealing with their sense of disillusion and their political demoralization following Thatcher and Reagan’s re-election, drowning their sorrows with alcohol (very much the drug of choice). Folk-punk was pioneered by


backs to the future

All are influenced by folk and country. These bands make up a lost
generation, the dying embers of punk – people who are still teased by
the memory of what it was once like to have a hope of change. There’s
a parallel with the way the folk-rock and country-rock movements
of the early seventies stemmed from the disillusion of the burnt-out
But folk and country offer indie groups more than a fantasy of
community – both present a vision of love as absolute, either totally
redemptive or totally devastating. In this era of yuppie narcissism and
self-sufficiency, chartpop’s representation of love is increasingly secular
and ‘progressive’ (‘On My Own’ and ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ on But the
Rent’ are benchmarks of the new pragmatism). So those who still
believe in the romance of broken hearts, ruined lives, obsession and
devotion are drawn to the religious imagery of country, its tales of
betrayal, guilt and revenge. So someone like Nick Cave moves from
art-terrorism to interpreting Gene Pitney’s ‘Something’s Gotten Hold
of My Heart’ because the song’s melodrama accords with his own
vision of love as possession and affliction. And he can profess admiration for country and western’s hall of fame of self-destructive stars –
singers like Gram Parsons, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George
Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Presley – who lived on the edge, and sometimes
fell off it.
The return to tradition is a revolt against technology, against yuppie
self-management, against health and efficiency, against ‘progress’. It’s
the first wave of dissent in rock that hasn’t made the ‘New’ its rallying
cry, the first anti-modernist revolt. Backs to the future, certainly, but
then these people would also say: back to the things that really count.
I wonder.

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The Pogues (led by a drunkard vet of 1977) and The Men They Couldn’t Hang (Clashobsessed jigsters who saw themselves continuing a centuries-old tradition of UK folk songs
railing against the ruling class). But it was those other punk survivors the Mekons who were
the true poets of the new despondency, albums like Fear and Whiskey and The Edge of the
World, and songs like ‘Hard to be Human Again’ and ‘Darkness and Doubt’ capturing the
bereft and adrift feel of the time.


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Dead Weird
Salt-N-Pepa – ‘Beauty and the Beat’ (Next Plateau import)
Hip hop’s internal economics (the impulse towards heavier beats,
towards more daring, alarming juxtapositions) are pushing the music
beyond any dance utility, into the realm of the psychedelic. The beauty
of ‘Beauty and the Beat’ is the way female DJ Spinderella cuts sections
out of organic, groovy black pop – a trail of blues guitar, a rumble of
go-go, a snatch of seventies soul clavinet, some call and response – and
reassembles them in a harsh, inorganic way. This is surgery of the order
of Frankenstein, a dance monster constructed out of ill-fitting, inconsistent limbs. Wholly disparate ambiences are forced into friction.
There’s nothing stable in this music: rhythms shift, are subject to
lapses, sudden subsidence. There’s a constant danger of tissues rejecting one another. This pop barely hangs together as a body, and the only
reliable human thread is the supercilious female rapping. Salt-N-Pepa
are all over the place, and out of it.

Lame Ducks
Raze – ‘Let the Music Move U’ (Grove Street)
Private Possession – ‘This Time’ (Fourth & Broadway)
House music has turned out to be something of a lame duck, a nonstarter, if not quite a flop in the same league as go-go. (Shouldn’t gloat
really.) In truth I don’t think there’s much to the music anyway. Where
hip hop actively destroys sense and identity, wrenches up roots, House
music strikes me as sleekly, meekly anonymous, a faceless and placeless

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efficiency, without attitude or charisma. Everything is mixed in
smoothly, layers are built up and faded out gently, there are no fissures
or chasms or wounds as in hip hop, no violence. In a club, House
tracks can course through the body like electricity, sheer fluid elation.
The hi-hat bashes your brain to pulp by sheer metronomic attrition. It’s
a music of tiny details and shifts, minuscule fascination – the consistency of a bass motif can be what hooks you: compact, nagging, the
sound of a bowel tremor. But even the best records sound weak outside
a club. And House really does all sound the same – a mixture of
‘Walking On Sunshine’, Hi-NRG, D-Train, Man Parrish. Raze’s new
single is much like their previous semi-hit ‘Jack the Groove’. Private
Possession sound like a spindly D-Train, all kick and no bottom. Death
to disco!

Hot To Trot
C-Bank – ‘No Matter How I Try’ (Next Plateau import)
C-Bank have been making great records for years, like the staggering
‘One More Shot’. The kind of record that New Order are always trying
to make, but minus the bedsit anguish that enables New Order to sell
New York dance production to their vast student miserygut
constituency. C-Bank are a perfect example of the anonymous pleasure
of disco, of how disco works through bits, rather than through a coherent narrative, as in rock. Ignore the thin, replaceable vocal – the heart
of this ‘song’ (where the emotion resides) is in a strange call-andresponse between a shudder of clotted synth (reminiscent of Liaisons
Dangereuses) over there and, in the other corner of the mix, a tiny
trickle of piano, a tear tinkling out of an eye. Seismic rumbles of bass
impart a sense of impending calamity, huge phalanxes of synth rear up,
there’s this super quacking noise, lots of kick in the drum programmes
. . . all in all, this record is inhuman, inane, but a monumental piece of
dance architecture.
Melody Maker, 10 January 1987

Rip it Up
The best rock record this week is by a hip hop group, Ultramagnetic
MC’s. ‘Travelling at the Speed of Thought’ (Next Plateau, import)
starts with a beat that is pure Rolling Stones circa ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’,
a beat so supple and exuberant you want to leap around and holler and
break things. And the masterstroke – a sublimely teasing edit from the

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Start Again
The traffic between hip hop and rock only seems to work well in one
direction, as yet. Both Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction’s
‘Prime Mover’ (Mercury) and Gaye Bykers On Acid’s ‘Karma
Nosedive’ (In Tape) are unfruitful attempts by others at a hip hop/rock
dialogue. Gaye Bykers’ is the bloodier and more raucous of the two,
but ultimately both records are useless because they have no grasp
of the low end of the sonic spectrum that’s crucial to hip (and rock
for that matter). For all their priapic bluster, these records lack
bollocks. Get a Roland 808 if you want to kick ass like The Beasties,
boys. The fundament-als of bass-biology interface is something that
Sugar Ray Dinke understands: ‘Cabrini Green’ (Rhythm King) has this
graunchy, bowel-quaking riff, which I’m sure has been pilfered from
some forbidden recess in rock history . . .

hip hop and house singles reviews

chorus of ‘Louie Louie’, the anthem of a thousand garage bands as
covered by the Kingsmen, Motorhead, and Black Flag! I could weep
for joy. The sixties punk tearaway reincarnated in the eighties B-boy
motormouth! What a vindication of the ‘black rock’/hip hop wig-out
fantasy! What a fabulous record!
Another interesting hip hop trend: DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince
mercilessly shred and scatter some sultry, mellow jazz on ‘A Touch of
Jazz’ (Jive, import). Moods are shattered and subjugated to the beat.
The potential here is limitless; I’d love to see what someone like Herbie
Luv Bug could make of Weather Report’s dense polyrhythmic jungle,
or the new jazz savagery of Art Ensemble of Chicago or Sun Ra . . .
The dominant trend in hip hop still seems to be scratching and
sampling old school R&B grooves, although there are signs that this is
running out of steam. The Microphone Prince’s ‘Who’s the Captain’
(Music of Life) is based around a ghostly refrain constructed from a
trail of doo-wop. The Classical Two’s ‘New Generation’ (Rooftop)
consists of some git-on-UP’s strewn rather unimaginatively over a
Clintonesque pulse. Rather more interesting is the new Eric B And
Rakim single. ‘I Know You Got Soul’ (Fourth & Broadway, import)
isn’t in the same league as the unearthly ‘Eric B. Is President’, but Eric
B. is still evidently some kind of Hendrix of scratch. Here a collection
of chants, pants, groans and grunts, an outpouring of deep soul testifying, is crucified, turned into nonsense. What was once whole and
human is turned into a series of inhuman effects; soul is smashed, not
commemorated, by the fad for old school grooves. The nihilism of
twelve-inch culture is killing soul!

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Two great dance records. Go-go may be dead, but it has maintained
a kind of zombie existence in hip hop, where thankfully it is held down
in a subservient position, its percussive girth used to bolster hip hop’s
megalomaniac schemes. True Mathematics’ ‘After Dark’ (Champion)
employs diced chunks of ‘Still Smokin’’, severed from the rather affable
ambience of the Troublefunk original, and relocated to an ominous
nocturnal inner city scenario, in which the chant ‘the beat is bad’
acquires a whole new resonance. And Jesse Rae’s ‘Houdini’ (WEA):
Zapp’s Roger Troutman crams every second of his production with as
much squirming ecstasy as it can hold, but there’s this ludicrous (and
very nasal) Scottish voice, and I’m very sorry, but I just keep thinking
of sporrans and haggis. Actually this is a very strange and very funky
record and, towards the end Jesse spirals off into some delirious scat as
though Fulton Mackay was metamorphosing into Prince in front of
your naked and astonished eyes.
Three Wise Men’s ‘Refresh Yourself’ (Rhythm King) brings out a
whole side to hip hop that ‘soul-cialists’ seem ignorant of: the side that
believes in private initiative, the Power of Positive Thinking, assertivenesstraining, self-definition through competition. The ‘politics’ of hip hop,
such as they are, have far more to do with the right-wing fantasy of the
self-sufficient individual (who exists ‘outside’ politics) than with any
left-wing vision of collectivism. Three Wise Men inform us, chidingly,
that it is up to us to change our circumstances, us and no one else.
Thankfully we can ignore their tedious exhortations and enjoy the
hyperactive dub and metal mixes on the B-side . . .
Melody Maker, 2 May 1987
C-Bank belonged to a post-disco meets post-electro genre called Freestyle that was hugely
popular with Hispanic kids in New York. Most famously DJ-ed at the Funhouse by Jellybean
Benitez, Freestyle influenced Madonna’s early pre-megafame club hits (back when she was
Benitez’s girlfriend) as well as New Order circa ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Confusion’. I can’t figure out
why I slagged off the house records but then immediately went on to exalt C-Bank, when both
could equally be celebrated as radically impersonal disco-as-new-sonic-architecture. I felt it
was only fair to show me making a completely dud prediction. Still, you’ll just have to take my
word for it: there was a moment in early 1987 when house seemed like a fast fading fad.
There’d been some huge hits and a lot of hype, and in the North (where they prefer uptempo
beats) the Chicago sound’s popularity grew steadily. But London clubland dropped house in
favour of rare groove (vintage seventies funk). Later in 1987 came a track that totally converted
me: Nitro Deluxe ‘This Brutal House’, its very title seemingly confirming my feelings that most
house music was a bit mild. Also known as ‘Let’s Get Brutal’, the tune’s fusion of electro bass
pressure and house hypnotism made it a touchstone for the early Warp Records scene.


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hip hop and house singles reviews

‘Hip hop wig out’ was a slogan touted by Melody Maker comrade Frank Owen and me as
part of our polemic with the soul boys of NME/City Limits/The Face, fervent adherents of rockis-dead. We stressed the resemblances – sonic and attitudinal – between rap and rock: the
noise, the aggression, the riffs (either sampled guitar licks or scratch as a rhythmic device).
Hip hop at that point seemed to be getting so wound up, it was approaching total seizure.
Instead of move-your-body party music, it offered punishingly slow monsterbeats that B-boys
nodded their heads to, arms folded across the chest. The touchstone tracks for me were
Schoolly D’s ‘P.S.K. (What Does it Mean)’ with its vast, cavernous beat too slow and spacedout for dancing, and Skinny Boys’ ‘Rip the Cut’, its abrasive drone-riff sounding like someone
puking down a deep well. Crushing your consciousness like a scrap-metal compressor, these
heavy, headbanger tracks seemed to have more in common with Black Sabbath or Big Black
than with R&B. ‘Twelve-inch culture kills soul’ refers to the avant-ugliness of this phase of
rap, as well as the