Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Punk was proletarian

The New York Times reported that Tom Morello, of the metal rap band Rage Against the Machine, described Romney's pit bull, Paul Ryan thus, " He is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades. I clearly see that Ryan has a whole lot of rage in him; a rage against women, a rage against immigrants, a rage against workers, a rage against gays, a rage against the poor, a rage against the environment. Basically, the only thing he is not raging against is the privileged elite he is grovelling in front of for campaign contributions." And metal is not the only type of music to offer meaningful social comment...

Jowe Head and the Demi-Monde (featuring singer and multi-percussionist Catherine Gerbrands) played a short set in July at Club Integral at 'The Grosvenor' in Brixton in London. Jowe, resplendent in an exploding psychedelic tie-dye shirt and a top hat with feather performed a Kevin Coyne song with Gerbrands on theremin, a 12th century ballad beautifully sung by Gerbrands, and a cover of Oscar Brown's 'Rags and Old Iron'. Jowe Head played in the bands Swell Maps, Palookas, TV Personalities, and was one of the pioneers of low-fi DIY music production which represented punk's swipe at corporate and monopoly capitalism.

Punk was proletarian at musician level but the capitalist manufacturers of music were major labels like EMI who also had commercial interests in the defence industry. Punk was critical of capitalism, consumerism and commodity fetishism (X-Ray Spex's 'Oh Bondage Up Yours!'), alienation, and the selling of oneself in wage slavery (The Pop Group 'We Are All Prostitutes' and Vic Godard sang “Everyone is a Prostitute”). Punk was also concerned with a sense of existential authenticity in life criticising “poseurs”, and The Clash sang of “bullshit detectors” to identify inauthenticity.

The first low-fi DIY production was the Buzzcocks 'Spiral Scratch' EP in 1976 whose cover detailed the means of production; recording process, takes, overdubs, and the catalogue number ORG 1 (ORG ONE) was a playful reference to Wilhelm Reich.

Green, a member of the British Young Communist League playing as Scritti Politti also 'appropriated the means of production' for the pressing of the single 'Skank Bloc Bologna' in 1978. The single cover demystified the process of production by listing the complete costs of studio hire, recording, mastering, pressing, and printing. Green made reference to Leninist thinker Gramsci idea of a 'bloc' of classes in opposition to capitalist hegemony. Green was inspired by 'il movimento' in 'la rossa' city of Bologna in 1977 where a cultural revolt and political uprising of autonomists (Marxists and Anarchists) and counter culture radicals took control. There were clashes with the police, protesters killed and eventually the Italian Army went in to suppress the revolt.

The Desperate Bicycles pressed 500 copies of their single 'Smokescreen' in 1977 on their own label Refill Records. The cost of production was £153 (studios, pressing, sleeves), and a profit of £210 was made in 4 months which went to a second pressing of 1,000 and with profit from these sales a further 2,500 copies pressed and capital investment in equipment made.

Jowe Head and the Swell Maps booked Spaceward Studios in Cambridge and pressed 2,000 copies of their single 'Read About Seymour' in 1977. Jowe Head recalled “the thrill of feeling empowered by our realisation that we could seize the means of production”. Low-fi DIY music production was about making your own entertainment and selling it to other creative, autonomous and like-minded souls. It represented authenticity and a purity of intent, and was an exercise in anarcho-capitalism.


EdwardSexby said...

I'm in two minds on this one. Forgive the banality, but any cultural form is a product of the society it comes from, and will reflect that in all it's contradictions. I don't doubt that the vast majority of musicians have to sell the products of their labour - ie, their music, their songs or their performances - in order to make a living, so in one sense they are "proletarian", but can you really label an entire genre as such? "Punk", in the UK at least, was at it's outset the product of two inveterate self-publicists, Malcolm McLaren and Vivian Westwood. This was done in order to promote their boutique on the Kings Road ("Sex"), sell their products and establish McLaren as a manager of bands. he had a good line in Situationist slogans and so forth, but all devoid of their original revolutionary meaning and intent. Rather, they were designed to make them rich and famous, which worked for him, but ask any of the surviving members of the Sex Pistols how much of the millions their music made found it's way into their pockets. A familiar tale of capitalist exploitation, with the added bonus of recouperated struggle.

On the other hand, I agree with you that Punk captured and harnessed a great deal of anger and alienation, encouraged at least some "autonomous" activity, and produced some superb tunes! To this day "No Fun" by The Stooges remains for me the quinessential howl of the boredom and frustration that capitalism produces in this Angry Not Quite So Young Man. Maybe that's the point - we conflate the music of our younger selves in all it's hormonal, kicking-against-the-pricks glory with a greater significance than it may otherwise have.

I want to further discuss this idea of how indie music labels somehow constitute controlling the means of production, but I'm going to have to pick it up later - my struggles are about to be recouperated themselves as I've got to get off to work now!

Wage slavery sucks.

EduardSexby said...

Picking up on my previous post, did Scritti Politti, Rough Trade et al really constitute an "appropriation of the means of production"? I would argue that this is not much more than posturing, based on flawed theory and politics.

What they did was to record, design and market their own music, through (I assume) owning a studio, opening shops and raising money for advertising, distrubution etc. Fine, but within the context of a wider capitalist system, just what is going on? Capitalism is not just a profit driven system based on private property and the "anarchy of the market", as the standard Lenninist and Social Democratic position assumes - a flaw stemming from a shared assumption based on a Second International era orthadoxy. I would argue that capital is essentially the self-expantion of alienated labour. The creative and productive powers we posess become an alien force that swallows up our time and energy and also requires it's own autonomous expansion. Alienation assumes the seperation of producers not only from the means of production, but also the means of subsistence. In other words, you still have to produce a commodity to sell in order to earn money and provide for your needs. Simply recording yourself, publishing the accounts on the record sleeve, then perhaps selling said record in your own shop, in no way constitutes a move beyond capitalist relations. By the way, on a much larger scale, these are the same assumptions behind the idea that nationalisation is somehow "socialist", and that the various forms of state capitalism that exist (Stalinist states and Western Social Democracies) are in some way a "higher" form of capitalism. It's like Jowie Head buying his own lawnmower, then having the thrill of feeling empowered by the realization he can charge people to mow their lawns.

I'm not trying to do anyone down, or question their motives here, but lets not pretend this kind of activity is somehow "moving beyond capitalism". There's always the danger that today's punk anti-establishment hero is tomorrow's Coca-Cola salesman. Green Gartside of Scritti Politti sacked the rest of the "collective" and went on to become an Eighties pop sensation. The Clash went on to sell Levis jeans and provide the soundtrack for the recent British Airways Olympics ad campaign. Dame Johnny Rotten sells butter. Mick Hucknell went on to become the white soul boy and massive prick we know and despise today.

I think Don Letts has the right of it when he says that the best of punk survived and evolved as an attitude. It was certianly in evidence in both the music and attitudes of some of my youthful musical heroes - hardcore punk legends the Dead Kennedys and Fugazi, grunge acts Nirvana and Mudhoney, Tool and Rage Against The Machine. The thread that runs through these acts is that none of them allow their music to advertise things, quite apart from any direct causes they may espouse and promote. In that sense punk still survives, gives voice to our anger and frustration, but also maybe inspires us to confront the structures and effects of capitalism and make moves to begin tearing it down by our own, self-aware, proletarian action.

steve clayton said...

All these DIY 'appropriation of the means of production' post punk leftists are really gesture politics. These bands were working inside capitalism and 'sold' their product in the capitalist marketplace, they could be seen as taking a swipe at corporate monopolistic capitalist record companies and demanding a share of the market place. Capitalist definitely. anarcho? Anarcho-Capitalist in that outside the corporate establishment at the time. Todays rebel tomorrows establishment figure has been with us for long time now. George Mckay in his 'Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties' wrote " The spectacle of rebellion replaces the possibility of revolution" - that sums up lots of so-called rebellion in music. The Clash are ultimate leftist gesture radical chic politicos what with their Red Brigade/Baader Meinhoff t shirts and eulogising sandinistas.
All great music though.
Steve Clayton