Dead Men Left

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Punk, wood adhesive, capitalism

Ed at International Rooksbyism flags up Ben Watson's piece on "post-punk" in Radical Philosophy.

...Simon Reynolds’s Rip It Up has been flying off the shelves. With 126 fresh interviews with the protagonists, pictures researched by Jon Savage, and 550 dense pages written by a blogger ‘too young’ to have witnessed the Pistols, it promises to register what things felt like for the groundlings – those excluded from the scene-setting events in London, ‘too late’ but fully participating in punk as a mass phenomenon nonetheless. Those who cite 1976–77 as the ‘real’ moment of punk are those for whom it was a springboard to TV celebrity. Genuine punks – ‘losers’ from the spectacular point of view – actually lived punk between 1978 and 1984.

Jon Savage's own, excellent England's Dreaming: the Sex Pistols and Punk Rock does touch, in its closing chapters, on the localism and DIY attitude punk fostered: closet punks in faraway lands like Northampton clipping together fanzines; their braver comrades in Grimsby, hair spiked with PVA glue, braving the NF. But being focused on the Pistols, and taking the pro-McLaren line also pushed by Julian Temple's The Filth and the Fury,[*] Savage left these sadly misplaced and belated punks as a footnote to the main event. That they are being rescued from the enormous condescension of posterity is to be lauded; culturally, the history of punk cannot be understood without looking at the scatterings from its wildly freewheeling, centrifugal force.

Considered as a business history, however, what punk shows us is the enormous rapidity with which even allegedly oppositional, allegedly subversive moments in pop music are swallowed and ingested whole by the industry: far from breaking the corporate hold upon pop music, punk was a crucial factor in strengthening its domination: even the sharpest of safety-pins could be safely ingested; even the most confrontational of postures could contribute to the bottom line. Punk, once safely accomodated, paved the way for the staggering concentration of capital needed to reproduce, globally, endless Coldplay singles, and the domination of pop music by four or five giant firms.

The technological breakthrough of the music video, and behind it, MTV, combined with the extremely tight interrelationships between mass media, the PR people, and the music labels turned "authenticity" into a reliable, and conventional product. (Of course, the McLarenesque/Situationist reading of punk would claim this was all part of the original "scam": Cash From Chaos, The Great Rock And Roll Swindle. Those more directly involved would beg to differ.)

Watson's review points up some of this, and touches on some the less digestible elements of the punk mix: specifically, the political battles fought on this cultural terrain: the National Front versus Rock Against Racism; and the irreducibility of the live performance. To grasp both is to break out of a weak and watery post-modernism that now passes for cultural studies:

Convinced that there is nothing relevant outside the text of the recorded product, Reynolds cannot explain the forces acting on the records he examines. In fact, he cannot interpret the records at all, and – paradoxically for someone who rarely acknowledges quirky, unofficial responses – emerges with something as arbitrary and subjective as ‘taste’. This is because he remains obedient to the priorities and perspectives of the capitalist pop industry, allowing the commodity to dictate what constitutes musical culture.

[*] John Lydon/Johnny Rotten's typically self-aggrandaising response is provided by his autobiography, Rotten: no blacks, no dogs, no Irish, which devotes an immense amount of time to McLaren's many "crimes" and misdemeanours.