Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Friends, again

"We spend our days in front of screens which broadcast us more information than we’re able to handle about things we aren’t able to change. Is it any surprise that safe and familiar relics are being dug up to soothe us?" - Olivia Ovenden

What with being Mr. Retromania, I am quoted in Ms. Ovenden's Esquire piece "The Pull Of The Past: How We All Got Hooked On Nostalgia In The 2010s", an interesting deep dive into the memory-surfacing algorithms of social media etc, with a particular focus on Nineties-nostalgia and the widespread recourse to Friends as a sort of televisual eqivalent to ambient / Ambien.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Hauntology Parish Newsletter - Bumper Yuletide Edition

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

Moon Wiring Club cometh with his customary seasonal offering: Cavity Slabs. Like the atypical summertime long-player Ghastly Garden Centres of earlier this yearSlabs is a brisk and beat-driven effort, veering away from the boggy hinterland of ambience and vocal gloop into which much of Ian Hodgson's output this past decade has sunk so deliriously. Focused and concise, the new record  boasts just eight tuff tunes. The reference point this time around is breakbeat hardcore - in moments, I'm reminded of the phat-but-spooky sound of Eon, although Ian says the launchpad for the new direction was actually this obscure tune:

This very very early Moving Shadow track (by a group later and slightly better known for their Rising High releases) first reached Ian's eardrums via an Autechre radio show from many years ago. "It always stuck with me. It’s that mix of beats with ‘anything goes’ sampling and environmental sounds ~ it always makes me think of coastlines... and a sort of grey mistiness."


The aim with Cavity Slabs was to take a detour round the ongoing overload of rave-replicas, with their neurotic attention to period detail and naked nostalgia, and instead reactivate the bygone playfulness and incongruous-samples-clumsily-collaged approach of the early Nineties, which threw up so many genre-of-one anomalies and half-realised oddments alongside the classic bangers and slammers.

^^^a megamix of three tunes from the album^^^

"I wanted to compose something that reflected the dankness / mystery of fog without it being an ambient drone affair," adds Ian. The name Cavity Slabs comes from a pile of building materials Ian passed on a rainy-day stroll, which conjured associations both of vinyl platters and "limestone moorside and burial chambers". The overall atmosphere and thematic is caught in the slogan "COAX ANCIENT VOICES FROM THE LANDSCAPE" and track titles like "Cromlech Technology" - cromlech being a megalithic altar-tomb or circle of standing stones around a burial mound.

Cavity Slabs is available for purchase here .

But wait... there's more... adding to the Xmas feast, there's a new, radically different version of an old MWC fave: a DL-only VULPINE REDUX edition of Somewhere A Fox Is Getting Married.  "The original album plus 47 minutes of 12 bonus track alternate takes / extended versions / tangentially related nonsense from the vaults circa 2006-2011" including unreleased experiments like "35 Year Sit Down" and the lost "Schlagerdelia" classic "Mountain Men".


Talking of "grey mistiness" -  remiss have I been in not alerting parishioners to this new release by  Lo Five - Wirral-based electronician Neil Grant.

There's a really nice "mundane mystical" atmosphere to the sound Neil's worked up on his lovely new album Geography of the Abyss - muzzy textures like looking out through a coach window that's streaked with rippling rivulets of heavy rain, or trying to peer through the frosted-glass window of your front door to see who's coming up the path. The vibe of the album reminds me of the sort of trance you can fall into while travelling on a train or a bus, that feeling of slipping outside the moorings of time. 


A record that not only remissly passed without comment from me, but that I missed completely when it originally came out in June - Vanishing Twin's The Age of Immunology.

Triffic stuff -  at times like The Focus Group if based around "proper" musicianship rather than sampladelia. As with their previous album Choose Your Own Adventure, the starting points of Broadcast, Stereolab, White Noise, library music, etc, are still discernible, but now they are definitively on a journey of their own.

‘You Are Not an Island’, ‘Invisible World’ and ‘Planete Sauvage’ were apparently "recorded in nighttime sessions in an abandoned mill in Sudbury"!


More remissness - alert overdue for the release of the audio element of Andrew Pekler's wonderful Phantom Islands - A Sonic Atlas  project of last year.


A recommendation from parish elder Bruce Levenstein

Release rationale:

Mount Maxwell continues his run of 1970s themed releases with a full length meditation on the perceptual experiences of children born in the wake of the 1960's cultural revolution. Highly ambivalent in tone, Only Children marks a departure from earlier MM releases both in its use of acoustic instruments and in a newfound sense of criticality towards its subject matter; the back-to-the-land optimism of tracks like 'Nature ID' in uneasy proximity to the skeptical disquiet of 'Weird Places' and 'Nomad'. 


Bruce also brings to my attention this effort

Release rationale:

There was a certain something about watching television in the 70s and 80s. The static crackle when you switched on your set. The faint smell of ozone as it slowly warmed up. The chunky buttons (including such flights of fancy as 'BBC3' and 'ITV2"). And, of course, the programmes themselves.

Whether it was HTV's seminal Folk Horror tinged children's classics 'Sky' or Children of the Stones, BBC1's fiercely intelligent 'adult-show-for-kids' 'The Changes' or ITV's everyday tale of alien possession, 'Chocky', the era was bursting with inventive, unforgettable and yes, terrifying shows.

The only thing more memorable than the actual programmes were their theme tunes. The unique talents of Paddy Kingsland, Sidney Saget, Eric Wetherell, John Hyde and many more were responsible for the atmospheric, eerie soundscapes which formed the aural backdrop to our favourite shows. Which is where Kev Oyston (The Soulless Party) and Colin Morrison (Castles in Space) come in. They've corralled the best of today's innovative electronic musicians, and together they've created 'Scarred For Life: The Album', a collection of new music inspired by the terrifying televisual sounds of our childhoods.

All proceeds for this album will go to aid Cancer Research UK, a charity which is close to the hearts of some of our artists, one of whom is currently undergoing treatment for cancer.

Enjoy. And remember: DO have nightmares. They're good for you.

-Stephen Brotherstone & Dave Laurence, co-authors 'Scarred For Life Volume One: the 1970's'. .


The incredibly prolific and thorough Stephen Prince of A Year in the Country - independent scholar of the rustic eerie and convenor of reliably interesting compilations - has just published a second book.

Straying From the Pathways: Hidden Histories, Echoes of the Future's Past and the Unsettled Landscape is the companion volume to last year's Wandering Through Spectral Fields: Journeys in Otherly Pastoralism, the Further Reaches of Folk and the Parallel Worlds of Hauntology. 

How does Stephen do it?!?

More information about Straying From the Pathways here.

Hark at this here Table of Contents!

1. Explorations of an Eerie Landscape: Texte und Töne – The Disruption, The Changes, The Edge is Where the Centre is: David Rudkin and Penda’s Fen: An Archaeology, The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale, The Stink Still Here – the miners’ strike 1984-85 – Robert Macfarlane – Benjamin Myers’ Under the Rock: The Poetry of a Place

2. Fractured Dream Transmissions and a Collapsing into Ghosts: John Carpenter – Prince of Darkness, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Village of the Damned, Christine – Nigel Kneale – Martin Quatermass – John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos

3. Hinterland Tales of Hidden Histories and Unobserved Edgeland Transgressions: Adrian McKinty’s In the Morning I’ll Be Gone – Clare Carson’s Orkney Twilight – David Peace’s GB84 – Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest

4. Countercultural Archives and Experiments in Temporary Autonomous Zones: Jeremy Sandford and Ron Reid’s Tomorrow’s People – Richard Barnes’ The Sun in the East: Norfolk & Suffolk Fairs – Sam Knee’s Memory of a Free Festival: The Golden Era of the British Underground Festival Scene – Gavin Watson’s Raving ’89 – Molly Macindoe’s Out of Order: The Underground Rave Scene 1997-2006

5. The Village and Seaside Idyll Gone Rogue: Hot Fuzz – The Avengers’ “Murdersville” – The Prisoner – In My Mind – Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Mon Amour

6. Albion in the Overgrowth and Timeslip Echoes: Requiem – The Living and the Dead – Britannia – Detectorists

7. In Cars – Building a Better Future, Peculiarly Subversive Enchantments and Faded Futuristic Glamour: In the Company of Ghosts: The Poetics of the Motorway – Joe
 Moran’s On Roads: A Hidden History – Chris Petit’s Radio On – Autophoto – Martin Parr’s Abandoned Morris Minors of the West of Ireland – The Friends of Eddie Coyle – Killing Them Softly – Langdon Clay’s Cars: New York City 1974-76

8. Brutalism, Reaching for the Sky and Bugs in Utopia: Peter Chadwick’s This Brutal World – Bladerunner – J.G.Ballard – Ben Wheatley – High-Rise – Peter Mitchell’s Memento Mori – Brick High-Rise

9. Battles with the Old Guard and the Continuing sparking of Vivid Undercurrents: A Very Peculiar Practice – Edge of Darkness

10. Lycanthropes, Dark Fairy Tales and the Dangers of Wandering off the Path: The Company of Wolves – Danielle Dax – Red Riding Hood – Wolfen – Hansel & Gretel: Witchhunters – The Keep

11. The Empty City Film and Other Visions of the End of Days – Survival and Shopping in the Post-Apocalypse: Day of the Triffids – Into the Forest – Night of the Comet –The Quiet Earth

12. Universe Creation, Spectral Lines in the Cultural Landscape and Reimagined Echoes from the Past: Hauntology – Hypnagogic Pop – Synthwave – D.A.L.I.’s When Haro Met Sally – Nocturne’s Dark Seed – Beyond the Black Rainbow – Mo’ Wax, UNKLE, Tricky, Massive Attack, Portishead, DJ Shadow, Andrea Parker – Ghost Box Records,  The Focus Group, Belbury Poly – The Memory Band – The Delaware Road – Rowan : Morrison – Howlround – Mark Fisher – the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – Adrian Younge’s Electronique Void – DJ Food – Grey Frequency – Keith Seatman – Douglas Powell – Akiha Den Den – The Ghost in the MP3 – Black Channels – The Quietened Village – The Corn Mother


Now this is a little odd - not only is this here chap trespassing on Hatherley's terrain, he's borrowed his first name too! 


Finally -  and no doubt this morsel of news has already reached your flabbergasted ears  -  but cor blimey guvnor,  Paul Weller's only going to release a record on Ghost Box! The In Another Room EP is out early next year. And it's actually rather good.

Monday, December 16, 2019

the Future is 50 years old

i.e. young people dancing to electronic music

RIP Gershon Kingsley, who reached the ripe old age of 97

interesting, isn't it, that the Future would emerge first under the sign of easy listening - and even kitsch?

c.f. my "friendly futurists" thesis (Jean-Jacques Perrey et al)

the most successful hit version =  Hot Butter

Didn't realise that Jean-Michel Jarre did a version

Makes sense cos "Equinoxe 4" always felt like a semi-rewrite - not literally, but the vibe 'n ' feel, albeit more sedate, less boppy-bouncy

another of the many 'Popcorn' covers

Inane in the Membrane

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Neu! versus Alt!

Met Michael Rother last week

Neu!'s children are legion, still

(that last one has a bit of Hawkwind in there, and "Transmission")

Entertaining tunes, but old Neu!s let's be honest

Is it unreasonable for me to not only prefer - but to be biased in favor of -  the neu when it was actually neu?

How come alt-Neu! still sounds neu-er than nu-Neu?

The paradox of modernism innit - the Breakthrough, suspended for all time thanks to the 20th Century miracle of recording, recreates the original moment of emergence and insurgence each time you listen (or look, or read). Is somehow eternally new, like fresh-picked fruit flash-frozen.*

Flaubert's Madame Bovary startled me awake, when I read it for the first time last year -  even though all its innovations have been long assimilated and rendered second-nature commonplaces in subsequent fiction.

The context for meeting Rother was a Hamburg conference panel discussion in which we were both involved (along with Gudrun Gut, another German modernist albeit of a later vintage) and in which issues of lost futures etc were discussed. Mark Fisher's name came up.

* I also feel that the groups reactivating (if not quite reenacting) the breakthroughs made by other earliers, have evade all the hard work that went into actually breaking through into the new / Neu!. Their undoubted youthful energy masks an idleness - an Idles-ness, even

Saturday, November 2, 2019

broken time / brain strain

an article about how the 2010s played havoc with our sense of temporality and strained our brains to breaking point, by Katherine Miller

"This long and wearying decade is coming to a close, though, even if there’s no sense of an ending. People are always saying stuff like: Time has melted; my brain has melted; Donald Trump has melted my brain; I can’t remember if that was two weeks ago or two months ago or two years ago; what a year this week has been. Donald Trump tells the story of 2016 again. Your Facebook feed won’t stop showing you a post from four days ago, about someone you haven’t seen in three years. The Office, six years after it ended, might be the most popular show in the United States. Donald Trump tells the story of 2016 again....

"The touch and taste of the 2010s was nonlinear acceleration: always moving, always faster, but torn this way and that way, pushed forward, and pulled back under.... 

"In the 20 months between Hillary Clinton’s campaign announcement and Trump’s inauguration, everything from Apple Music to HBO Now to Apple News launched or relaunched; the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple Watch hit the full market; publishers established the current form and tone of the news push alerts that you receive; Facebook launched a livestreaming function and then deprioritized the function when people aired violence; Instagram launched the ephemeral, inexhaustive stories, so you can share — as they put it — “everything in between” the moments you care about; Twitter introduced the quote-tweet option, which formalized and democratized a function from the earlier days of Twitter, and transformed every Trump tweet into an opportunity for commentary.

"And, within a few months in 2016, both the primary catalog for millions of lives (Instagram) and the primary channel for news and culture (Twitter) switched from chronological to algorithmic timelines...."

As well as political churn, Miller also inspects popular culture:

"We’re living through an incredible boom of great shows. Often described, with a weary irony, as the era of Peak TV, this wealth of programming followed tech and traditional premium broadcasters finally figuring out how to commercialize streaming platforms in the 2010s. As a result, you the viewer can move in any sort of direction, watching in bulk something that aired last year, or on Sunday, or one scene again and again, freed from the now-or-never quality that TV once had. For decades, TV either made or ran parallel to the rhythms of American life: morning shows, daytime soaps, the 6 o’clock news, the playoffs, Johnny Carson. In between, the broadcast networks aired 22 half-hour episodes, weekly from September to May, at a fixed time, winding away in sequential order at a mass scale."

Yup, it's not so much that we've lost the monoculture, it's that we've lost monotemporality

Miller quotes Emily Nussbaum on how "time itself has been bent", with one factor being the pause button, which  “helped turn television from a flow into text, to be frozen and meditated upon.”

Certainly because it's  possible to stop the flow of televisual (or filmic) time, it becomes irresistible to do it at any and every excuse - watching a program or film becomes a stop-start experience with interruptions for urination, rehydration, snacks, unrelated conversational digressions, and then also rewinds to catch dialogue or plot nuances or repeat particularly enjoyable sequences.

Yet it's also likely to be subject to acceleration, with Netflix planning to introduce a 1.5 speed function (and YouTube already allows you to alter the speed of viewing) - which will make watching TV even more fitful and spasmodic.

Long before TV though, I noticed this disruption to the flow of experiential time when I got my first compact disc player in 1989 - with a remote control with pause and skip etc. Music became a frangible, interruptible thing.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

These Reboots Are Made For Watching and That's Just What You'll Do

"Déjà vu may be eerie and unsettling in real life, but on the small screen it’s comfort food. Familiarity breeds content..."

Vanity Fair feature by Joy Press  (a.k.a the Missus) on retro-TV - reboots of bygone much-loved series...  movie franchise-style prequels and sequels...  adaptations from the big screen to the small screen, including zoom-ins that take a second-level character and make them the lead protagonist of a new series.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

retro- sexuality (LDR, NFR)

here's my review of Norman Fucking Rockwell!


Watch out Adele! There’s another soul lady coming up behind you and her name is Lana Del Rey.” 

So said a Top 40 radio deejay last month, transitioning between “Rolling In the Deep”  and “Video Games”. This piece of patter wasn’t just a smart way to introduce an unfamiliar, relatively edgy song to mainstream listeners, it was a rather astute bit of music criticism. Think about it: Adele and Lana Del Rey are young women who’ve had their hearts broken and who sing about it in musical idioms that are overtly non-contemporary:  Etta James-style Sixties soul, with Adele, and in Lana Del Rey’s case, something less tightly anchored to specific sources but equally old-timey in its evocations of the Fifties and early Sixties.  The question both singers raise is “why do these otherwise thoroughly modern women express first-hand feeling s in such second-hand imagery? Why coat something raw and real in this vintage veneer?”

Lana Del Rey arrived on the scene too recently to make it into my book Retromania, but—like Adele—she is an absolute gift when it comes to talking it up: “look, see,  that ’s what I’m  on about!” . That said, they  represent different kinds of retro-pop.  Adele’s is unselfconscious, just an artist who’s embraced a decidedly old-fashioned style and reiterates it without adding much to it.... The hallmark of unselfconscious retro is not dressing the part, not looking like you’ve time-travelled from the era  in which the music is sourced.

Lana Del Rey is much closer to the hyper-conscious retro that’s endemic in indie/ underground music, where clothes and artwork reference a bygone era, while the lyrics and the music itself often teem with crafty allusions..... Retro of this kind, where a group’s sound-and-visuals incorporate citations and where spotting them is an integral part of the fan’s enjoyment, is not a new thing. It’s been part of indie almost from the beginning  (The Smiths’s iconographic record-sleeves, Jesus & Mary Chain or Butthole Surfers “sampling” riffs or backing vocal refrains from Sixties and Seventies rock legends). It can be traced back further still, through glam rock’s Fifties echoes to The Beatles’s Chuck Berry pastiche “Back In the U.S.S.R.” and Zappa’s doowop album (both 1968). At the same time,  there’s no doubt that this kind of conscious retro-activity has intensified in the 21st Century, partly as a result of just how extensive the archive of pop history is now (five or six decades) and partly because the broadband era has made accessing that history so damn easy. YouTube, in particular, is a vast, evergrowing repository of promo and music-on-TV clips along with every other kind of pop (and unpop) culture.  And YouTube is as much as audio library as a video archive. You can school yourself there, free of charge.

Which brings us back to Lana Del Rey. Her rocket-like ascent was propelled by videos she put on YouTube made out of footage she’d found on Youtube.  “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” put History in shuffle mode:  a miasma of Americana that drifts back and forth across the decades  but  is unified by its sustained elegiac mood of not-now-ness.  Amid the appropriated home movie footage of swimming pools and skateboarders and kids on mopeds,  specific allusions pop up: the Hollywood sign, Chateau Marmont, Lana in Lolita sunglasses from Kubrick’s movie, Lana in a racing driver jacket that suggests Evil Knievel or maybe the  70s road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, Lana in a white leather fringe jacket that echoes Easy Rider or maybe Elvis in Las Vegas. 

According to Del Rey, though, the recurrent invocations of places like Vegas and LA in her videos (and also her lyrics) aren’t really references so much as mood-tints.  “The thing that fascinates me about all of them is the colors of the places,” she says on the phone, in transit to another mythic-Americana landscape she adores, Coney Island.  “The muted blues and greens in California, the bright lights of Vegas...  People ask me about what the Fifties imagery from California represents to me, but actually I’m mainly just a visual person.   Sometimes when my producer and I talk about songs, we talk about them in terms of colors. In a way the  album was visually driven. “

Part of the nostalgia effect of the found footage in  Del Rey’s videos derives from the properties of the different kinds of film stock, including the specific way that it ages and decays.  The bleached and blotchy textures trigger a poignant sense of time’s passage, an inkling that even your most halcyon memories will fade to nothingness.  “Blue Jeans” explicitly forefronts the idea of “dead media” and antiquated formats with its opening footage of a hand grabbing a pack of Eastman Ektrachrome Super 8 film.

Lana Del Rey may, in fact, be about to become the first Hipstamatic pop star.  Photo apps like Hipstamatic, Instagram, and ShakeIt!, or Fuuvi’s new faux-Super8 device the Bee, offer a digital simulation of an analogue past. Something similar is going on with Lana Del Rey’s music : old-timey instruments like mandolins, strings, harps and twangy surf guitar make up much of its texture, but there’s also  unidentifiable sounds flying about that are clearly sampled and processed, while the beats on Born To Die are boombastic,  hip hop in impact if not actual feel.  The result:  the RZA meets Lee Hazelwood. Factor in Del Rey’s choices in clothes, hair, accessories and make-up, and it’s clear she’s the perfect pop star for the era of vintage chic. Not that she’s only artist around with sound-and-visuals that are pre-faded and artificially distressed.... 

It’s not just the stylized form of Lana Del Ray’s songs that feels out-of-time, it’s the emotional content too:  a language of romantic excess that harks back to Roy Orbison’s most over-the-top ballads or Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World”. Love as malady and madness, delirium and delusion...  and at the ultimate degree, death. “Dark Paradise” is a song of morbid fidelity, an abandoned or bereaved lover who prefers to keep the company of ghosts: “There’s no remedy for memory...  I wish I was dead.” Elsewhere, Lana sings “I’m not afraid to say that I’d die without him.”

“I don’t really condone relying on another person to the point where you’re going to die without them,” says Del Rey.  “Something I never really expected was to have gotten into a relationship that ended up being very tumultuous.  But I had met someone who was so magnetic and made me feel differently from the way that I felt for so long, which was sort of confused and bored...  and because in the end we couldn’t be together, it ended up having a  do-or-die element to it.  That was an experience that struck me and I kept on falling back to that place in terms of inspiration for the songs.” 

Born To Die goes beyond retro-romance, though, to retro-sexuality, retro-gender.  All those yielding, doe-eyed ballads of abject devotion...  seem to look back in languor to a time when men were men and women were thankful. A pre-feminist world, or more precisely, America before Betty Friedman’s The Feminine Mystique  was published (1963).  So in “Without You”, Del Rey coos “I can be your china doll if you want to see me fall”, while “This Is What Makes Us Girls” seems to define femininity as being a fool for love:  “We all look for heaven and we put love first/Don’t you know we’d die for it?/ It’s a curse.”  At the other extreme, there are songs about women who uses wiles to get what they want. “Off to The Races” recalls Ginger, the Casino character played by Sharon Stone, except if Ginger actually enjoyed being a kept woman and was as docile and adoring as DeNiro’s Sam Rothstein hoped.  She’s a moll, wasting a rich man’s money (“give me them coins”), breaking into a Betty Boo squeak for the lines “I’m your little harlot, starlet” and purring “Tell me you own me”.

 “I’m an interesting mix of person,” says Del Rey defensively, with just a hint of annoyance.  “I am a modern day woman.  I’m self-supporting. I went to college. I studied philosophy. I write my own music. But at the same I also very appreciate being in the arms of a man and finding support that way.  That feeling influences the kind of melodies I choose and how romantic I make the song. Maybe it ends up giving it a slightly unbalanced feeling.”  Asked about the references in other songs on Born To Die about good-girls-gone-bad  (“degenerate beauty queens” is one memorable lyric), she points to David Lynch’s movie Wild At Heart as not so much an inspiration as a parallel with phases in her life. “The way I  ended up having relationships and living life, it sometimes mimics those more wild relationships.  Wild At Heart was an influence – in terms of the way it was shot, but also the love story.”

Right from the off,  commentators have talked of Lana Del Rey in terms of  David Lynch’s dark dreamworlds. They’ve also mentioned singers linked to his work such as  Chris “Wicked Game” Isaak and Julee “Falling” Cruise, whose songs  evoke a bygone era when the brokenhearted died inside but did it in style.  The Lynch connection highlights a curious quality of Lana Del Rey’s whole shtick: not only does it hark back to the Fifties and early Sixties, it inevitably also recalls the Eighties’s own echoes of that time. Movies  like Lynch’s  Blue Velvet, Jarmusch’s Strangers in Paradise and Mystery Train, the S.E. Hinton adaptations Rumblefish and The Outsiders. Musicians as various as Tom Waits,  Alan Vega, Mazzy Star. 

This Sixties-via-Eighties syndrome isn’t  unique to del Rey  by any means. As much as R&B originals like Etta, Adele recalls forgotten Brit soul revivalists like Alison Moyet, Carmel and  Mari Wilson. The scene that Frankie Rose belongs to—Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls—reaches Spector’s wall of sound and the Sixties girl group’s via Jesus and Mary Chain and the “C86” movement of bands like The Shop Assistants. Then there’s The Men, as featured in this issue, who draw from the harder side of mid-Eighties British psych-revivalism. On their song “( )” they filch not just the riff from Spacemen 3’s “Revolution” but a chunk of the lyric (“And I suggest to you/That it takes/Just five seconds”) along with lines from another Spacemen song “Take Me To the Other Side”.

If retro culture has reached the point where we’re seeing revivals of revivals, citations of citations (Spacemen 3 remade Stooges songs while “Revolution” itself is an already-somewhat-hokey homage to MC5), what are the implications for music going forward? As time goes on, signs are becoming more and more detached from their historical referents, hollowed out.  All these sounds, gestures, time-honored phrases, are entering into a freefloating half-life, or afterlife, where all they are is pure style.

This appears to be the ghosty place where Lana Del Ray comes from.  In “Without You”, she sings “but burned into my brain all these stolen images”  and I can’t help thinking of Blade Runner and the android replicants who are given transplanted memories.  Her lyrics are full of sampled clichés (“ walk on the wild side”, “white lightning”, “feet don’t fail me”) or references to iconic brand-names (“white Pontiac heaven”,  “Bugatti Veyron”).  But she says that the Pontiac allusion isn’t for its pop-cultural associations (Two Lane Blacktop and other 70s movies, songs by Tom Waits and Jan & Dean) so much as “just the sound” of the word. Likewise, the name “Lana Del Rey” was chosen for its lilting loveliness, rather than its rippling resonances (a Hollywood movie idol with platinum blonde hair and a turbulent private life, a California beach town, a make of 1950s Chevrolet). It was “a big risk” renaming herself, she says, “but my music was always beautiful and I wanted a name that was beautiful too.”

“Beautiful” is a word that crops up repeatedly in Del Rey’s conversation, as it does in her lyrics. She seems to be intensely susceptible to the splendor of appearances, to the point of vulnerability. “You look like a million dollar man/ so why is my heart broke?”, she beseeches plaintively in “Million Dollar Man”.  In “National Anthem”, she sings about “blurring the lines between real and the fake.”  The gap between image and reality is an obsession. So is fame, portrayed as the dangerous desire to lose oneself by merging into a glamorous facade. “I even think I found god in the flashbulbs of your pretty cameras,” she sings in “Without You”, while the words “Movie Star Without a Cause” flash up in the video for “Blue Jeans”.

Then there’s “Carmen”, seemingly a song about a 17-year-old starlet who’s dying inside and only comes alive when “the camera’s on”, but really more like a perturbing self-portrait. “‘Carmen’ is probably the song closest to my heart,” says Del Rey, who seems vaguely put-out that I’ve heard it. “’Famous and dumb in an early age’—that’s fame in a different way, in different circles, for different reasons. Not really for being a pop star. It’s sort of like, my life”. Once again, you have to wonder about an artistic imagination so colonized by old movies and old songs that it can only express things that really happened in a real life through this “cinematic” prism.  Is this a distancing mechanism, a buffer to manage the emotion? Or was the actual love affair itself contaminated by fantasy and role-play?


What we have with Lana Del Rey is the problem of the undeniable talent who is also a throwback, and who therefore sets back the cause of musical modernism. (See also: The White Stripes).  She’s not a  straightforward revivalist: the music and the presentation are diversely sourced and the end result is a sophisticated concoction (in that respect, she’s closer to The White Stripes than Adele). But it still falls, ultimately, within the domain of pastiche, memorably defined as “speech in a dead language”.  Given her passive persona, it’s tempting to say that the ghosts of pop culture’s collective unconscious speak through her....   

[disco edit of Spin, 2012 piece for their Retro-Activity issue]

[full length mix here]

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

OPM (Other People's Memories), or, The "lucky bag" principle of aleatory record buying applied to photography

aka Why Do Some People Develop the Lost Camera Films of Total Strangers?

Amelia Tait at the Observer, er, observes this strange subculture of hobbyists who purchase rolls of undeveloped film and then develop them - sometimes getting a bunch of blank grey images, sometimes nondescript snapshots, but occasionally something weird or poignant:

"Those who sell mystery film often don’t set out to trade in the stuff, instead it’s usually picked up by chance at house clearances, inside old cameras or in charity shops. There are many tragic reasons why these rolls could have been forgotten about – divorce, death, dementia – and many mundane ones: film processing is expensive and it’s easy to set aside a half-used roll to be finished later and simply forget about it. Used film can sell from £1 to £100 on eBay, and more and more people are gathering online to celebrate their hobby....

"For Levi Bettwieser, a 33-year-old video producer from Idaho, an interest in forgotten film can be both expensive and risky. Bettwieser estimates he has spent “upwards of $10,000” on rolls of film over the past five years, and says he “can get 10 rolls in a row that come out blank” due to the film being degraded. “A couple of years ago, I was winning and buying every single roll of used film on eBay,” Bettwieser says. “There’s always a feeling of overall excitement that you might get something amazing, something historically viable. Or you might get more cat photos.” Bettwieser now runs a non-profit scheme, the Rescued Film Project, where he encourages people to give him their old rolls which he then develops. “Part of the reason I’m doing it is because I like the idea of being the first person to ever see these images; even the photographer has never seen them.”

It's a bit intrusive.... a bit peeping-tom-ish, if you think about it.

It's also archive fever finding a new zone to flex itself in - again the idea that everything deserves to be preserved....

“I love so many images for so many reasons,” says Bettwieser, when asked about his favourite photo he’s recovered. “I try and look at every image I rescue as if I’m looking at it in 50 years – everything I rescue is history. People hold on to rolls of film for years and years in the back of a drawer, because we all know that pictures are history, whether it’s just a birthday party or not. Pictures are our only defence against time, our only evidence, sometimes, that we ever even existed.”

Postscript August 1st - 
interesting thoughts on this subject from Xenogothic, who is a collector of such images and is drawn to them for their "alterity"

"The main thrill comes from seeing something radically out of context. The anxiety of the unanswerable question that haunted Roland Barthes instead becomes a perverse thrill — indeed, as it was for Barthes though he seemed reluctant to admit it.

Like an object found on the beach in a ghost story, the energy trapped in a photograph like a fly in amber is a special thing that is highly susceptible to romantic flights of the nostalgic subject and, as such, to find such things in the world of the vernacular image is far past the pale of cliche...."

Xenogothic also says that another place to find such images is record covers

Saturday, June 1, 2019

dead pop stars and their profitable afterlife

Interesting piece on the pop hologram phenomenon by Owen Myers at The Guardian, featuring some quotes from me, specifically on the exploitation of dead stars .

Here's the full responses I sent to Owen a week or two ago:

My gut insta-reaction is that it’s a new way for the old to tyrannize the young – because you can’t get any older than being dead. So the next step beyond the reunion tours, and all the legacy acts that dominate festival line-ups, is the hologram tour: no longer alive artists extending their brand power beyond the grave.

The syndrome raises all kinds of ethical and philosophical questions. To what extent are these performances in any real sense, given that a performance (whether showbiz entertainment or performance art) is by definition live, involving the unmediated presence of living performers, whereas the hologram tours  are  “unlive” and involve  non-presence? 

On an ethical and economic level, I would liken it to a form of “ghost slavery”. That applies certainly when done without the consent of the star, by the artist’s estate in collusion with the record company or tour promoter. 

But even if an artist might consent while still alive and legally grant the posthumous rights to  their image, voice, etc, for exploitation, that doesn’t make it right or proper. Nor does the fact that there might be a consumer demand for this make it a wholesome development. 

It’s a form of unfair competition: established stars continuing their market domination after their death and stifling the opportunities for new artists.

It’s reminiscent of Marx on  capital as the spectral vampire of dead labour, which when living and working had surplus value sucked out of it and then turned into yet more finance capital, thereby continuing the dominion over and exploitation of  living labour for generations to come.  But it’s Das Kapital crossed with Freud’s writings about the uncanny.

Hologram tours are very much an extension of the syndromes discussed in Retromania. I don’t think they existed as more than a rumour when I was writing the book - there might be a brief mention of them in there. But I do discuss the idea of movie stars being reanimated and how that was happening then already with figures like Audrey Hepburn being used in commercials using digital trickery. 

It does seem  like another facet to this that will soon be possible is that the technology will emerge such that the vocal timbre and mannerisms, the facial expressions and bodily gestures, conversational speech patterns, etc etc, of performers can be captured digitally - through assimilating and analysing the sum total of all their existing recordings, performances, videos, films, etc etc -  and that you will get a sort of digi-simulacrum of the artist singing new songs, guesting as vocalist or rapper on other people’s records, appear in videos or movies etc. That seems totally conceivable to me. The simulacrum would probably not be able to do convincing spontaneous stage banter or appear on chat shows, but who knows?  In those circumstances, they could be remotely ventriloquized by someone offstage, so that that person’s voice – or even written text – would be spoken by the simulacrum’s real-seeming voice.  In the recording studio, you’d just need the software which would generate the voice, or the instrumental performance.

In response to a question about whether watching a hologram performance was really any different from watching, say, an old Marilyn Monroe movie on TV.... .

No, I think there’s a greater dimension of wish-fulfillment and suspension of disbelief. The spectators are allowing themselves to half-believe that they are in the presence of the star. That’s why it’s like a ghost – a ghost could be defined as a “present absence”, neither here nor there, neither now nor then, but in some ontologically queasy interzone between being and nonbeing.

It’s eerie, it’s fascinating, it’s troubling. 

Thursday, May 23, 2019


“This embracing of what were unambiguously children's characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence... It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite 'universes' presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times" - Alan Moore

I guess there is a retro element to the endless torrent of Marvel / DC / et al superhero vehicles

A regressive or stagnant element in terms of character typology, motivation, fantasy, morality, narrative etc

Coupled - paradoxically - with absolutely ultra-modern state of the art powers being flexed in terms of the technical execution of these "children's entertainments" - the CGI and motion-capture, the 3-D camerawork,  the sound design, the grading, the editing etc etc etc.

A parallel to my avant-lumpen theory about the most progressive or futuroid musical forms being coupled with politically regressive values and attitudes.

Technosonically in the future;  emotionally-libidinally in the.... Middle Ages, really.

Codes of honor, warrior-masculinity, potlatch etc etc

Return of the saga, the legend, the epic, the allegorical etc etc


On the subject of heroics and heroism, I think also of this book

Friday, May 17, 2019

Hauntology Parish Newsletter spring 2019 - Moon Wiring Club, Baron Mordant, The Caretaker

In the new edition of The Wire, I have an extended essay-review about the career-closing releases from The Caretaker and Mordant Music: the sixth and final installment of James Kirby's gargantuan Everywhere at the end of Time project, which started three years ago, and Baron Mordant's last blast, Mark of the Mould. The latter is an unmissable emission - like eMMplekz if the Baron handled the backing tracks as well as the verbals... the latter proving once again that Ian Hicks is simultaneously the Robert Macfarlane of built-up Britain and the Chris Morris of BoomkatKultur.

Also ruffling the parish this month - and making this newsletter a tale of two Ians - is the announcement of an unexpected, non-wintertime release from Moon Wiring Club aka Ian Hodgson.

Ghastly Garden Centres is a timely swerve from the ambient-amorphous direction of recent MWC releases and a jaunty step into brisk concision. In fact, the guiding concept here is that every track is a single - making the assemblage perhaps a Now! style compilation of hits, or a chart countdown. It's MWC - so it's still creepy and manky - but it's also catchy and bouncy.

As for the ghostly-ghastly gardening theme - well, apparently this is a real thing, a subject of internet obsession: abandoned, overgrown plant nurseries and derelict garden centres.

Further raising the pulse of parishioners is the parallel release of Catmask, a collection - styled as issue no. 1 of a glossy magazine - that pulls together Ian Hodgson's artwork: some already released, on the records or at the Blank Workshop website, but much unfamiliar and never seen. There are images from Ian's abandoned children's book project, for instance, which if I recall correctly, was the acorn from which grew the mighty oak of Clinkskell and the 21 - or 23,  depending on how you count - releases to date, including collaborations and side projects.


Catmask is a gorgeous slinky looking and feeling object to peruse and fondle. It completes the sense of Moon Wiring Club as a project of.... I won't say, world-building, as that's a cliche now... but place-making, maybe.


UK customers can buy Ghastly Garden Centres and Catmask here 

European customers can buy Ghastly Garden Centres and Catmask here 

Rest of world customers can buy Ghastly Garden Centres and Catmask here 

Thursday, May 9, 2019

meat(loaf) substitute

Tim Somner notices that

"Meat Loaf has, essentially, given his name and brand good-will to another artist, who is, essentially, touring as Meat Loaf . Personally, I think this is the wave of the future"

Yes, this is one step further towards rock developing the equivalent of  classical music repertory

But it's not just the score / songs that has to be reconstituted - it's the voice and the performance moves, the presence of the performer, as ersatz

Rock being as much about the vocal personality and the look / vibe of the artist, as it is about notes and textures and tempos.

The facsimile artist must replicate as closely as possible the grain of the singer's voice, the phrasing, the staging and gestures - all of those elements are "the score"

There was a Genesis tribute band who did a whole tour based on the  The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway Tour and got hold of the original slide projections and other staging elements (costumes, i should imagine) from Genesis. The whole thing was done with their blessing and perhaps with some of the revenue going to the original band, who knows.

You could imagine a really big band that is too old or frail to tour anymore actually franchising out concert-playing versions of themselves in different territories - South America, Asia,  Eastern Europe / Russia.

Of course the other route for retro-rock nostalgia would be the hologram tour, when it's a ghostly simulacrum of the artist as was that is wheeled out to "tread the boards"

But it's not too hard to imagine that digital technology could soon be capable of turning an artist's whole being - the sound, the look, the mannerisms, even creative reflexes - into an immortal brand that carries on long after the artist's death, perhaps even creating and performing new songs. Generating a revenue stream for the estate on top of the publishing, recording, etc monies. T

You could imagine that being done fairly easily with an actor, or a singer...  motion-capturing all the facial expressions and vocal / conversational tics - and then perhaps pasting that stuff on top of a body double in the filming situation, or simply generating it artificially for recordings.

The creative part - and the side that can do interviews or on-stage spontaneous banter, or collaborate with other musicians, jamming onstage with them or writing songs  - that might be a little harder. But given how fast technology has advanced, it's fairly likely that within our lifetime we'll see technology that can capture the soul-signature of an artist's identity and turn it into generative software.

A new way that the dead can tyrannise the living, the old dominate the young.

Friday, May 3, 2019

ArchivFieber, slight return - "The Remarkable Story of a Woman Who Preserved Over 30 Years of TV History"

via Atlas Obscura

"About 71,000 VHS and BETAMAX cassettes are sitting in boxes, stacked 50-to-a-pallet in the Internet Archive’s physical storage facility in Richmond, California, waiting to be digitized. The tapes are not in chronological order, or really any order at all. They got a little jumbled as they were transferred. First recorded in Marion Stokes’s home in the Barclay Condominiums in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, the tapes had been distributed among nine additional apartments she purchased solely for storage purposes during her life. Later, they passed on to her children, into storage, and finally to the California-based archive. Although no one knew it at the time, the recordings Stokes made from 1975 until her death in 2012 are the only comprehensive collection preserving this period in television media history.

"In 1975, Stokes got a Betamax magnetic videotape recorder and began recording bits of sitcoms, science documentaries, and political news coverage. From the outset of the Iran Hostage Crisis on November 4, 1979, “she hit record and she never stopped,” said her son Michael Metelits in Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, a newly released documentary about his mother and the archival project that became her life’s work."

"Stokes was no stranger to television and its role in molding public opinion. An activist archivist, she had been a librarian with the Free Library of Philadelphia for nearly 20 years before being fired in the early 1960s, likely for her work as a Communist party organizer...."

"Roger Macdonald, director of the television archives at the Internet Archive....   recalls asking [Michael] Metelits, “How could you physically manage taping all this stuff? And he said, ‘Well, we’d be out at dinner and we’d have to rush home to swap tapes’ … that was one of the cycles of their lives, tape swapping.”

"In addition to her son Michael and her husband, Stokes’s nurse, secretary, driver, and step-children were enlisted to assist in her around-the-clock task of capturing every moment on television....

"Now, Stokes’s work will be made publicly available on the Internet Archives, bit by bit, offering everyone the opportunity to examine history..."

Calling Borges, or do I mean Benjamin....

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

the horror, the horror

A piece at Loud and Quiet looking back on The Horrors's second album Primary Colours, ten years after the fact. 

Writes Fergal Kinney:  

"Of course, British bands have been referencing the electronic utopia of Krautrock since the late ’70s, but the internet afforded those records an ease of access which had always been absent – former collectors items are now just a click and an aux cable away. Simon Reynolds’ post-punk study Rip It Up and Start Again was read within the band too. “Just reading that book gives you ideas for ten different bands,” says Faris [Badwan]. “That book was really influential for me.”"

Well, I'm flattered, naturally - but talk about getting the wrong end of the stick! 

The point you should come away with, from reading Rip It Up, is obviously (or so I thought) "do something new!". That might mean "do something that's a warped and strange-making take on the new ideas bubbling out of your contemporaneous musical surroundings" (generally black music, so at that time, second half of the 2000s, grime, nu-R&B, dubstep). Or it might mean "do something that involves the latest technology" e.g. Auto-Tune, etc etc). 

The "instruction" to come away from reading that book would be "apply the methods and outlook and mentality and procedures that created the legendary music". Expressly not "reactivate the actual substance of the legendary music; repeat the exact same hybridizing formulas that led to it, or recreate the outcomes of those musical equations." 

Still, it's a good inadvertent illustration of the connection between Retromania and Rip It Up (and indeed between both those books and Energy Flash - the three forming an unintended triology, as my Faber editor Lee Brackstone once put it). It explains how doing Rip It Up led directly to Retromania (indeed Rip's afterword contains a section on the "rift of retro" that occurred in alternative / independent rock circa 1983-84, effectively ending the postpunk era.) 

Further, it demonstrates how the person who wrote Rip It Up, who had lived through and felt in their fibres the meaning of that era the first time around and then relived it as an immersed historian, could only respond to the 2000s (the first decade of the 21st bleedin' century) with the perspective that underpins Retromania

And the post-punk revival - although far from alone as evidence for prosecution - was exactly the kind of contradiction-in-terms that spurred the book into being.  

Thursday, April 11, 2019

nostalgia for the future / militant modernism


Here's something I really enjoyed researching and writing - a feature for RBMA on Luigi Nono, the great "militant modernist" of post-WW2 avant-garde music. This article focuses on his electronic and tape works of the 1960s, his exploration of vocal extremes, his support for liberation movements around the world, and the surrounding context of Italian Communism in the post-war era.

The twin pegs for this piece are the fiftieth-anniversary vinyl reissue of Musica-Manifesto N. 1 by Die Schachtel and the publication of Nostalgia for the Future: Luigi Nono's Selected Writings and Interviews by the University of California Press.

     Nono at work with his prime collaborator, the sound engineer 
  Marino Zuccheri, at the Studio di Fonologia in Milan

Monday, April 8, 2019

ArchivFieber (extended mix)

Archive Fever
uncut version of column published in Der Tagesspiegel, March 2019 

by Simon Reynolds

Almost a quarter-century ago, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida published a slim, dense book titled Mal d’Archive. I would be lying if I said I understood every bit of his typically abstruse argument, but what struck me immediately and has stayed with me is the brilliance and beauty of Derrida’s title phrase as rendered in English: archive fever.   It sounds and looks even better in German, I should imagine, because of the way you guys smush words together: Archivfieber.  

Whether two words or a single word, Derrida’s coinage impacts me like a miniature poem: it’s a cogent and potent distillation of how so many of us live our lives these days. Since the launch of broadband internet and the invention of social media, a mania for cataloging, collecting, list-making, documentation  and commemoration has enveloped our culture. The total recall and instant recall enabled by search engines and wi-fi means that we live in a proximity with the cultural past that our ancestors would have found inconceivable. If things like Spotify and Netflix weren’t sprawling enough,  open-access archives like YouTube, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, and Discogs tend towards entropy: an infinitely recessive profusion and confusion. Somewhere between a library and a maze, you could get lost in any one of these for a lifetime.

“Retromania” and Archivfieber are almost interchangeable as concepts. One of the symptoms of the retro-virus is coming down with archivfieber.  Personally, the malady has made me a sickly, wilted being, whose memory is shot, whose arms and fingers ache from daily races back and forth across the internet’s spatialization of history. I get temporal whiplash as I oscillate between different pockets of the past.  In any given day, I visit many eras and sample many treasures, but like a practitioner of “check list tourism” I barely retain any after-images from the musical museums and sonic monuments I’ve seen.  I’ve tried to cram too much in. I don’t want to miss out anything, so I end up just barely experiencing everything.

Archivfieber is a transitional affliction, to some extent: it’s particularly chronic among those who grew up in analogue-era of cultural scarcity and have only partially adapted to the digital abundance. Embedded deep in the bones and the nerves of our listening selves is a matrix of consumer desire shaped by growing up with never being able to get hold of enough music. So we have poorly adjusted to an inside-out world where where’s too much.  People – such as my children – who are digital natives don’t have the same compulsion to keep and collect: they might bookmark favorite things or otherwise sensibly organise their listening, but they feel no need to own the MP3s. They live in the certainty (and the confidence is not necessarily well-placed - things do disappear from the internet, get taken down) that these songs, mixes, and video-clips will always be out there should they want them.

People from my generation are still wired for a world of non-availability and inaccessibility. We grew up inside that gnawing need for more music than you could afford to buy or to copy (given that blank cassettes cost money too). We remember the sensation of boredom as emptiness and lack of choice, as opposed to the new forms of boredom that have emerged with distracted overload and surfeit of choices. So we cannot completely exit the psychology of accumulation and ownership. That’s how come an individual with my particular mix of curiosity, wide taste and sheer simple greed ends up with thousands and thousands of hours of music stockpiled in an external hard drive, vastly more than I could hope to listen to even once during the remainder of my time on earth, let alone do justice to any of it through dedicated repeat immersion.

It’s not just music, of course: they are so many forms of cultural data and digitized entertainment out there to forage and hoard.  A recent obsession of mine that got a little out of hand is experimental animation of the pre-digital era, particularly from Eastern Europe: within a matter of weeks, I harvested 1200 short films from YouTube, Vimeo and  other online resources, out of which I have to date watched perhaps forty. The drive to seek and gather displaces the desire to experience. The buzz is the momentary thrill of acquisition as the file downloads into your computer, even as you are already searching for the next obscure discovery.

People predisposed to obsessive-compulsive disorders could get just as out of hand in the analogue era, of course – trawling into their homes unmanageable quantities of vinyl recordings or books. But the digitization of culture – through its removal of the limitations of storage space and the disincentives of cost – causes the mania to balloon to grotesque degrees. The fact that it is out of sight, compressed into the minuscule cubic space of a computer, laptop, or even phone, conceals the disgrace from other’s eyes, but it does not alleviate the squalor of the soul.  But even if you keep it all in the cloud, or don’t “keep” it in any form beyond bookmarks in your browser, the internet’s sprawl has a way of invading your inner world. It clutters your mind and eats your time. Many are the days in which, as the end approaches, I look back on the hours of journeying across the internet and can barely remember where I “went”, what I read or watched or heard, nor indeed what I saved for later – a “later” that will never  come.

There is nothing necessarily unwholesome about an overdeveloped musical libido: rather than a debilitating disease, we might think of the “fieber” in Archivfieber as a fan’s enthusiasm or shared excitement (Saturday Night Fever) or even the erotic fire of Peggy Lee’s “you give me fever.”   Music-desire is a form of sensualism, it can involve a hungry curiosity about new sensations and stimulations, and in that sense belongs to the kingdom of Eros. Still, as mediated through the internet, music consumption habits can take on an automatized quality that Freud would classify under the sign of “the repetition-complex”, a regressive drive he linked to the  death instinct.  Archivfieber, in this dark light, would be a literally morbid impulse. In yet another sense, the archival drive is a denial of mortality. “We buy books because we believe we're buying the time to read them,” said Warren Zevon, adapting a maxim of Schopenhauer’s. The same applies to records and MP3s.

So far, I have only discussed the anal-retentive aspects of music consumption in the age of overabundance: the residual impulse to collect, a refusal to let go.  What about, to coin a quasi-Freudian phrase,  the “anal-expulsive” – the people who are compelled to share and upload, to build and maintain discographic websites or unofficial archives like UbuWeb?  Is there not something slightly deranged about their manic sprees of generosity (an artists’s entire discography laid out on a blog for the feasting - a gift to complete strangers, from a complete stranger). Is there perhaps something suspect and even disturbing about the sheer amount of time and unstinting care that goes into these contributions to a commons of creativity (other people’s creativity -  expropriated, unrecompensed). Although I’m vastly more a taker than a giver, I too have felt this archivist-sharer impulse to digitize rare things in my unique possession – cassette recordings of pirate radio broadcasts from early Nineties London that may be, I fondly imagine, the only document of this one particular show – or to add the public listening library things that no one has yet bothered to put on YouTube, like the 12-inch B-side instrumental by a  postpunk or Eighties ‘new pop’ group.  There is a vague feeling of virtue attached to these acts. But there is also the neurosis of completism at work: you are rectifying sins of omission, filling in gaps in the historical record, for the benefit of the public or posterity.

How does the monstrous growth of music archiving affect music itself? There’s two areas: the listening experience of fans, and the mentality of musicians. Giving that time is finite and we all have other things to busy ourselves with, fans confronted with a surfeit of choice -  unlimited listening both in the present and in terms of all prior recorded music– must listen faster, or listen while doing other things. In effect, they now consume music much more like critics and deejays (back when they were the only people, apart from the very wealthy, who listened to such absurdly largely amounts of music, and to such a wide range of music -  simply because they were sent it for free). So, like critics and deejays, ordinary people make snap judgments, listening once and never returning (something you would almost certainly never do if you’d paid hard-earned money for the record). They listen while doing other things: the sort of multitasking that computers and phones not so much make possible as enforce. They listen thinly -  skimming and skating across the surface of sound at top speed. 

Jacques Attali in his famous book of 1977, Noise: A Political Economy of Music, wrote about the era of recordings and collecting as a terminal stage for music as meaningful activity:  the solipsistic stockpiling of sound in the home combined with a privatisation of the listening experience, separating it from the aspects of social ritual or spiritual function that used to surround music But Attali couldn’t have imagined a stage beyond this, where the collection became infinite, at once freed of  the exchange-economy's commodification and ownership, yet devalued even further to the point where patterned sounds literally stream into our lives like electricity or water: a mere utility.

Listeners respond to the overload by various tactics. I have seen bloggers set themselves tasks (or ordeals?) where they listen to just one album for a whole week and nothing else, or attempt to digest an entire artist’s oeuvre in a one giant bloc of listening. While many allow Spotify’s algorithms to guide them on drifting meanders through sameness, others like myself use it in more purposeful ways that vainly strive to master the flux: building enormous playlists of genres or clustered artists that would take a day or two to listen through. These playlists are almost always - in my experience, anyway – promptly forgotten about and never returned to.  Like the downloading, they are residual spasms of the collector impulse, failed adaptions to a medium where music is free (well, apart from the annoying adverts). They are last-ditch stands against streaming's numbing logic of instilling in listeners a mind-state of barely-attentive disengagement,  in which all music becomes ambient (or even Ambien). 

You can turn the internet into a sort of sedentary, stay-at-home substitute for the record shop, “browsing” its virtual racks (album-sharing blogs, YouTube) and discovering things you never knew existed. Or you can recreate the thrills of scarcity by fetishizing the impossibly obscure, pursuing either the absolutely (and deservedly) forgotten, or the exotically parochial. There are blogs dedicated to the state record company releases of folk music from various Soviet republics, to  African dance pop of the 1970s and 1980s that was only ever released on cassette and never reached the West, or – in an exoticism of time rather than space – you can push back through history to pre-WW2 gospel and blues, British music hall, and so forth. Retromania and xenomania merge as we hungry souls explore the heritage of other countries and continents. For me a whole new frontier of sickness – a way of recreating the thrills of digging through the crates in record stores – was when I realized you could strip the audio off YouTube and Vimeo clips. In animations and obscure experimental films, I found electronic and avant-garde sounds – sometimes synth scores made by unknown composers as a favour to the film-maker, sometimes electronic sound-effects and noises – that had never been released on vinyl in the first place. A new frontier for my Archivfieber to rampage across!

And how about the musicians,  stuffing their sonic stomachs with an overly rich and riskily varied audio diet? Inevitably they excrete a maximalist sort of music whose aesthetic I call “glutted and clotted”.  It reminds me of the Gang of Four song “At Home He Feels Like A Tourist” and in particular the lines “he fills himself with culture / he gives himself an ulcer.” In these conditions, it takes tremendous spiritual strength and aesthetic rigor to fend off the inundation of influences and create any kind of distinctive sound-identity.

This kind of stubborn mettle is also essential for critics and historians, not just of music but in any field.  The archival overload makes it irresistible to over-research. I am not exaggerating when I say that there have been times when I’ve embarked on a 500 word record review, having gathered together 50 pages of interviews and earlier reviews of the artist’s work. This is vastly different from when I started out in the late Eighties, when I might respond to a record critically knowing nothing about a band – perhaps a few scraps of data that lodged in my head from reading earlier pieces in music papers, but often not even that (since I barely looked at press releases then). Oblivious to the group’s actual intent or influences, I could project my own critical fancies upon the blank screen of the music, or recruit them to my own critical agenda. Reviewing became a creative act in its own wonderfully irresponsible right, as opposed to a dutiful sorting-through of factual circumstances and avowed rationales. You didn’t necessarily judge the music on its own terms; you invented the terms.  

To be historian or a writer of a non-fiction book in this day and age involves a sort of inverted version of Hercules and the Augean stables: the gathering in of shit that then has to be cleared almost entirely away.  Having amassed steaming mounds of data, the researcher must summon the will and the ruthlessness to cut through it, to consign details and incidents and characters to historical oblivion, to winnow down nearly everything that’s been laboriously accumulated and forcibly impose a shape on the material.  This self-created challenge is not a uniquely digital-era phenomenon: academics and journalists have often got “carried away” and then had to face the day of reckoning. But the limitless of the online archive incites over-research.

We see this need for narrativization in current affairs: the rise of meta-journalists like Seth Abramson, whose role is not to do original reporting on Trump, Russia, Mueller et al,   but to process and organize what is already out there in the public domain, constructing timelines and connective threads that rescue events and disclosures that have already slipped out of the public’s short-term memory.

The ultra-forensic detail and rapid-fire turnover of real-time of news coverage means that important information and discoveries get evacuated from popular consciousness within weeks or even days. This archive of the no-longer-news but still highly germane and crucial languishes in a state of chaos – anyone who can construct a through-line is doing a valuable service.  Future historians will rely on this kind of pattern-recognition to help them navigate the monstrous excess of documentation and commentary.  They used to describe journalism as “the first draft of history”, but figures like Abramson are annotating and abridging what would otherwise likely be illegible and indecipherable to future eyes and brains.  The dark side version of this will-to-order is the rise of conspiracy theories and secular demonologies, which piece together delusory links and connective lines through the data overload. Indeed paranoid schizophrenia can often express itself through a mania for the archives and grandiose system-building

Anxieties about data overload and a creeping cultural senescence related to the build-up of archives is not a new phenomenon.  Nietzsche’s 1874 polemic “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” rails against the antiquarian mentality, warning of that “blind mania for collecting, a restless compiling together of everything that ever existed. The man envelops himself in a moldy smell…”. In Jorge Luis Borges's 1949 fable “The Aleph” one character imagines the connected man of the future: “I picture him in his study, as though in the watchtower of a great city, surrounded by telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, the latest in radio-telephone and motion-picture and magic-lantern equipment, and glossaries and calendars and timetables and bulletins.” With his obsessions with libraries and labyrinths, Borges is often seen as a prophet of the internet - but even he might have felt disoriented at the god-like powers granted by things like search engines and the Cloud.

If we’re adapting badly, it’s because for millennia the human sensorium was oriented around immediate surroundings and the present tense. There were orally transmitted myths and legends, but practically speaking, the here-and-now was all there was. Then came a much shorter period, when rulers and the very wealthy and powerful institutions like the Church or the first universities had archives or private museums, but the vast majority of the population owned no books or images (least of all images of themselves) while music could only be heard in the presence of living musicians. It’s really only been a couple of centuries in which personal libraries have become commonplace and a little more a century in which recordings (phonographic, photographic, film / video) have existed. In what feels like a vertiginous acceleration, communicational distance has been abolished, individual access to archives has become freakily enlarged even as the archives themselves have expanded astronomically, and the scope for personal self-documentation and self-broadcast has likewise grown to be almost limitless. Yet we still have the eyes and ears, the haptic and present-tense orientation bequeathed us by millions of years of evolution. Is it any wonder that our nerves are shredded, our sense of ego boundaries grows every more tenuous, that anxiety and depression and narcissistic disorders proliferate?  

As we say in English, you can have too much of a good thing.