Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Herman Hesse's novel Steppenwolf, first published in 1928, is an outsider novel whose protagonist, disgusted by German militarism and bourgeois complacency, retreats into self-loathing and isolation like a lone wolf of the Steppes. That is until a series of encounters lead him into a world of bisexual flirtation, sex, drugs, jazz, dancing, 'Anarchist Evening Entertainment' and ultimately a fantasy Magic Theatre where he must come to terms with the illusion of the self.

The book has had an influence on music- its title gave a name to the rock band who recorded 'Born to be Wild', while one of its phrases, 'For Madmen Only', was used by proto-goth band UK Decay for the name of their first album.

For me though the most interesting aspect is its description of dancing. I used to wonder if that euphoric sense of dance as festival was a product of late 20th century electronic music and MDMA, but Hesse describes similar sensations in the 192os in his imagined Fancy Dress Ball where they danced the foxtrot to unamplified sound. Check this out:

'Every part of the great building was given over to the festivities. There was dancing in every room and in the basement as well. Corridors and stairs were filled to overflowing with masks and dancing and music and laughter and tumult… the whole building, reverberating everywhere with the sound of dancing, and the whole intoxicated crowd of masks, became by degrees a wild dream of paradise… the intoxica­tion of a general festivity, the mysterious merging of the personality in the mass, the mystic union of joy... I myself swam in this deep and childlike happiness of a fairy­ tale. I myself breathed the sweet intoxication of a com­mon dream and of music and rhythm and wine and carnal lust…I was myself no longer. My personality was dissolved in the intoxica­tion of the festivity like salt in water. I danced with this woman or that, but it was not only the one I had in my arms and whose hair brushed my face that belonged to me. All the other women who were dancing in the same room and the same dance and to the same music, and whose radiant faces floated past me like fantastic flowers, belonged to me, and I to them. All of us had a part in one another. And the men too. I was with them also. They, too, were no strangers to me. Their smile was mine, and mine their wooing and their's mine.

I had lost the sense of time, and I don't know how many hours or moments the intoxication of happiness lasted…There were no thoughts left. I was lost in the maze and whirl of the dance. Scents and tones and sighs and words stirred me. I was greeted and kindled by strange eyes, encircled by strange faces, borne hither and thither in time to the music as though by a wave... And now a feeling that it was morning fell upon us all. We saw the ashen light behind the curtains. It warned us of pleasure’s approaching end and gave us symptoms of the weariness to come. Blindly, with bursts of laughter, we flung ourselves desperately into the dance once more, into the music, and the light began to flood the room. Our feet moved in time to the music as though we were possessed, every couple touching, and once more we felt the great wave of bliss break over us'.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fairground Music

No festival seems to be complete without a fairground and in the past week I've been to a couple in London. On Sunday I went to the Lambeth Country Show in Brockwell Park, enjoying the Brixton sun, cider, and Sean Rowley broadcasting his Guilty Pleasures kitschfest show with the help of the Bikini Beach Band (who play surf versions of chart hits - this time including Amy Winehouse's Rehab and 'I bet that you look good on the dancefloor'). The weekend before was The Rise festival in Finsbury Park ('London United Against Racism'), where we saw Saint Etienne before it poured with rain - I blame the band for playing their song 'Lightning Strikes Twice'.

In both parks there were big fun fairs, and as I was spinning upside down at high speed listening to Bob Sinclair's Feel the Love Generation at high volume I pondered the nature of fairground music to distract myself from feeling sick. In both fairs there was a preponderance of chart house, pumping four to the floor beats and melodies simple enough to pick out above the sound of screams and machines. Mid-1990s floor fillers seemed popular - I heard Heller and Farley's Ultra Flava and I Love You Baby in Brockwell Park. Even more anachronistically, The Drifters were being played on one ride. The sound of the old Fair Organ were nowhere to be heard, though you do still come across them occasionally at retro Steam Fairs. I wonder how fair music gets selected - is it just a matter of one of the operators having a Best of Ibiza '95 cd to hand or is there more sophisticated programming at work? Does the music get changed according to the audience (e.g. at an indie or rock festival would the soundtrack change)?. Does music sound different upside down? Further centrifugal investigations are required.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Back to the Classics (1): Gilgamesh

Just how fundamental is musicking and dancing to human experience? To be sure, 'music', 'dance' and indeed 'human' have meant different things to people in different times and places, but it is also clear there are continuities across time and space. As one of my favourite DJs might say, let's get back to the classics and have a look.

First up, there's Gilgamesh, arguably the oldest surviving substantial work of literature. Various tellings of this Babylonian epic tale have been found written on stone tablets some four thousand years ago. The story tells of a king who goes on various monster-slaying, goddess-defying adventures in search of the secret of eternal life only to discover the futility of his quest in the face of human mortality.

In this tale, music and dancing are presented as being very much part of the good life. Making offerings to deities and heroes, Gilgamesh presents ‘A flute of carnelian… for Dumuzi, the shepherd beloved of Ishtar'. Another character is tempted into Gilgamesh's city with the promise that 'Every Day in Uruk there is a festival, The drums there rap out the beat, And there are harlots, most comely of figure, Graced with charm and full of delights'.

The most remarkable section for me is where Gilgamesh encounters Shiduri, a goddess who keeps a tavern at the edge of the world. She urges him to abandon his quest and focus instead on human pleasures:

'But you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full, enjoy yourself always by day and by night! Make merry each day, Dance and play day and night! Let your clothes be clean, Let your head be washed, may you bathe in water! Gaze on the child who holds your hand, Let your wife enjoy your repeated embrace!'.

This is timeless advice and arguably still holds true for those fighting today in the land where this story was first written (present day Iraq), as well as for the rest of us.

Quotes from the 'The Epic of Gilgamesh' translated by Andrew George (Allen Lane, 1999)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

July global round up

This month, rave shut down in England, religious police raid club in Malaysia, and Iceland's first Reclaim the Streets party.

Suffolk, England: Five arrested as police shut down rave ( Evening Star, 16 July 2007)
'Suffolk police today put ravegoers on notice that illegal parties would be shut down this summer.The warning came after scores of officers from across East Anglia were drafted in to break up a rave in a Suffolk forest. More than 70 officers were involved in the operation to stop the party at Ingham, near Bury St Edmunds, and five people were arrested on suspicion of organising the event. Police chiefs leading three units of officers - one each from Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk - said there had been few problems and the rave of up to 1,000 revellers had been stopped relatively peacefully thanks to the number of officers brought in.

The major operation, in which officers also seized sound equipment, follows two similar raves in recent months - one at Parham Airfield and the other at Euston, near Thetford - which both erupted in violence towards the police. Supt Alan Caton stressed illegal raves on privately owned land would not be tolerated in Suffolk. He said: “This is the start of summer and our message is clear. We have a duty to ensure where possible that rural places are not subjected to the noise and disruption that these parties cause. Where evidence is found to identify the people responsible we will do everything we can to bring them to justice.”

A police spokeswoman said officers were called to the rave on Forestry Commission land in the early hours of yesterday: “Our aim was to take swift action to disperse revellers, arrest organisers, seize equipment, minimise damage to land and prevent disturbance to local people.” The illegal party was still going on at lunchtime and ravers leaving the forest clearing insisted they were doing no harm. One, from near Newmarket, said: “It's not upsetting anyone - there are no houses around here. It's just young people having good time"... Tim Root, who lives in the village, said he only heard the rave as he walked his dog and could see nothing wrong as long as the parties were kept out of the way and the revellers left no damage or litter behind.

Malaysia: Nightclub Singer Facing Prosecution (The Star, 16 July 2007)

'The Perak Religious Department (JAIP) will decide on Aug 6 whether to charge nightclub singer Siti Noor Idayu Abd Moin for dressing sexily and “encouraging vice” by performing at a club. JAIP director Datuk Jamry Sury said he would wait for a recommendation from his enforcement personnel after they meet the 22-year-old at the department here on that day. On July 3, the department detained Siti Noor Idayu and several others during a raid at a nightclub in Tambun here.

In a move that drew criticism from non-government organisations, Siti Noor Idayu was ordered to explain why she had “exposed her body” and “encouraged immoral activities” by working at the outlet. However, Siti Noor Idayu had said she was not even drinking and wore a white sleeveless top and long pants when JAIP officers raided the nightclub' (picture of singer in offending outfit).

Iceland: Reclaim the Streets (Indymedia, 14 July 2007)

'REYKJAVIK, July 14th - Today, Bastille-day, around a hundred people raved all over Reykjavik's ring road in a carnaval against heavy industry. Iceland's first Reclaim the Streets began cheerfully as Saving Iceland ran down Perlan and onto Reykjavik's western ring. A clown army danced to the beats down into the city centre. This Rave Against the Machine was organized by Saving Iceland to "reclaim our public space, space to be free to dance, to be free from dreary industrial car culture and to voice a sound of festival in opposition to the grim industrialisation plans for Iceland," says a Saving Iceland activist.

When the crowd descended Snorrabraut on it's way to Laugavegur, the main shopping street, police blockaded the road and there was a standoff for an hour and a half. When the driver of the sound system tried to exit the vehicle, police attempted to arrest him, violently attacking bystanders. A number of people got injured and four arrested. Police went for people's throats, knocked people face down on the ground, leg-cuffed people and smashed a car window. Activists stayed non-violent. The crowd moved on to the police station down the road, and sympathizers welcomed us with a surprise second sound system'.

Video of party here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NenbTc0cQs4

Brooklyn Bridge Street Party

One night of Fire in New York (Village Voice, July 16 2007) :

'Global terror, the NYPD's increasingly restrictive rules governing public gatherings, and a city economy based on honing New Yorkers into efficiency drones has sucked much of the spontaneity from New York City's street life. So it was a rare act of liberation to watch a crowd of thousands—sans permit—swamp the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday for a renegade street party known as "One Night of Fire."More amazing still, the cops let it happen.

Perhaps the NYPD brass figured there was just no stopping the exuberantly costumed hordes who began converging from both sides of the Brooklyn Bridge at the assigned time of 7:57 pm. Organized via email and listservs, the party came with instructions to "wear white, the more costumed the better. You are the angels that keep this city alive and untamed." People did that and then some, showing up in wings, festooned in sequins and gossamer threads, smothered in white plastic bags, or covered in face paint.

Prodded along by "coaxers" dressed in red and black with flaming cherry motifs, all sorts of drummers, pipers, stilt-walkers, angels, devils, and curious creatures filled both the pedestrian and bike pathways—to the great annoyance of commuting cyclists forced to dismount and wade through what felt like a cross between Mardi Gras, Burning Man, and a Grateful Dead show parking lot.

No one knew where the party was headed, which was half the fun, the point being just to be there and test the bounds of what's possible in this increasingly bounded city. A 9:01, a great whooping went up as a txt msg came through to "follow the cavalry!" That turned out to be a guy in a rubber horse-head pedaling a bike and blaring what sounded like a foghorn. We flooded back into Manhattan and into City Hall Park, where people frolicked in the fountain for several minutes, then on to the Q and R trains to Brooklyn.

It was so packed, it took half an hour just to get on the subway, despite the gyrating exhortations of several half-naked stilt walkers and Carny gals urging people on. For a second, it looked like things might turn ugly when a half dozen cops armed with with assault rifles jumped out of a black SUV on Broadway, accompanied by several police vans. The cops eyed the crowd warily, then just as quickly got back in their SUV. But that was the closest things got to conflict.

Subway cars became moving discos, jammed with marching bands, ravers blaring boomboxes, pole dancers and a guy toting a cooler full of liquor-drenched cherries and other libations. And at Coney Island, police watched as a dozen or so fire twirlers whirled flames on the beach, accompanied by scattered bursts of fireworks. The commanding officer clapped as he ordered the cops to shut down the pyrotechnics. Later these same officers watched as skinny dippers dashed into the waves. They eventually ordered everybody out of the water'.

Pictures by Sarah Ferguson. More reports and pictures at NYC Fashion Geek

Monday, July 16, 2007

Born in the UK

Previous posts have considered the recent 30th anniversary of The Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen and the 25th anniversary of The Falklands War. 1977 is marked in a series at 3am magazine, where (ex)punks like Richard North/Cabut and Michelle Brigandage recall The Summer of Hate as it played out from the Kings Road to Dunstable (some interesting personal photos in this series).

In 1977 I was still at school, old enough to be fascinated by punk but not quite old enough to acitvely participate. So I was intrigued to hear Badly Drawn Boy's recent Born in the UK where he remembers the period from the perspective of being born in 1969, with landmarks including punk, the silver jubilee and the Falklands War:

Where were you in Seventy Six, The long hot summer,
You wanna be a rebel, Then turn your hosepipes on,
With two years to wait, For the sound of Jilted John

Virginia Wade was winning our hearts, She made us want to live
Vicious and his brothers, Were trying to set us free,
But much more than this to you and me, This was the Silver Jubilee,
We made something out of nothing, A sense of loathing and belonging

Some of us were gonna be rich, With the Iron Lady,
Lennon's gone already, Let's post the boys to war,
Oh mother, what're you worrying for,
It's somewhere he's not been before

Then you see the Union Jack, And it means nothing,
But somehow you know, That you will find your own way,
It's a small reminder every day, That I was born in the U.K.
The video is very evocative too, maybe less so if you were born in 1979 or 1989

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Dancing in the Service of Thought

Soren Kierkegaard has a great line about ‘dancing in the service of thought’. I don’t think he was really talking about dancing, but it got me thinking about dancing and thinking. Reading lots of books about dance, it has struck me how little consideration is given to what is going on in people’s heads when they are dancing. I guess there’s this Cartesian notion that dancing is something done with the body, whereas thought, the work of the mind, is best suited to quiet contemplation. Hostile critics see dancing as mindless, while others enthuse only over the body in motion.

Sometimes it's possible to be lost in music, but in my experience there’s often a lot of thinking going on, particularly if the physical body gets into a semi-automatic groove and there are no distractons like conversation (well usually the music's too loud). Sometimes there are flashes of insight, sometimes a stream of consciousness - ‘I love this tune – I recognise this sample – I remember dancing to this in Ibiza – I loved that crème brulee we used to have in the café in the old town when we couldn’t be bothered to go clubbing – they’re cute – have I get enough money for another round – I must remember this so I can write about it in my blog - I wish life could be like this all the time – I hate my job – what time’s the last bus - I love this tune’. Awareness of the present slipping betweent the past (memory) and the future (desire). Indeed the tension between actuality (concrete, immediate sensation) and potentiality (abstraction, 'what is not' actually present) that constitutes consciousness for Kierkegaard.

What do you think about when you're dancing? Have you ever written a song, solved a problem or made some kind of breakthrough of thought? If you can't remember perhaps you should try to notice next time, though obviously the act of being conscious of consciousness might partially invalidate the thought experiment!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

I wanna be a cosmonaut

Next up in our collection of space-themed songs comes this East London punk obscurity from 1978. 'I wanna be a cosmonaut' by Riff Raff (Chiswick Records) includes the lyrics: 'I should be starring, Just like Gagarin, There’s the place for me... I wanna be a star in USSR'.
Other than being the first punk record from Romford, this is probably most notable for being the first outing on vinyl by one Mr Billy Bragg.

Download - Riff Raff - I wanna be a cosmonaut (MP3)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Remembering George Melly

Just a few months after the death of his former bandmate Mick Mulligan, another of the great jazz ravers has died - George Melly. We have mentioned here before his role in the 40s and 50s revivalist jazz scene in London, seemingly the time when people in England first used the word 'rave' for a party. There's lots more to be said about Melly - as pop culture writer, libertarian, surrealist for a start - but for now here's an extract from his 1965 book Owning Up, describing dance hall venues in the early 1950s (by the way does anyone know where Le Metro club he refers to was?).

During this period the band was rehearsing for its first public appearance... we used the upper rooms of various pubs. I suppose that most of early British revivalist jazz emerged from the same womb. Rehearsal rooms existed, of course, but we never thought of hiring one at that time. They were part of the professional world of which we knew nothing.

Many of these pub rooms were temples of 'The Ancient Order of Buffaloes', that mysterious proletarian version of the 'Freemasons', and it was under dusty horns and framed nine­teenth-century characters that we struggled through 'Sunset Cafe Stomp' or 'Miss Henny's Ball'.

Although we had not yet performed we already had a name. The fashion was for something elaborate and nostalgic. Admit­tedly Humph was satisfied with 'Humphrey Lyttelton and His Band' but he swam in deep water. Among the minnows, names like 'The Innebriated Seven', 'Denny Coffey and His Red Hot Beans', and 'Mike Daniel's Delta Jazzmen' were more typical. Mick decided on 'Mick Mulligan's Magnolia Jazz Band'...

We still played a few jazz clubs, mostly in the provinces, and, due to the fact that several towns still wouldn't license Sunday cinemas, there was the odd concert. Most of our jobs, however, were in dance halls. The dance halls of Great Britain, the halls, that is, where dances are held, can be subdivided into various groups. Start­ing at the top are the great Palais, some, like Mecca, part of a nation-wide chain, others individually owned.

The Mecca Halls are standardized so that once you're inside you might be anywhere in the country. They are run like mili­tary organizations in which the musicians are privates. The band-rooms are full of printed rules: no alcohol to be brought on to the premises (we were actually frisked in some places), no women allowed behind stage except for band vocalists, no frat­ernization with the public. The decor is usually Moorish in inspiration. There are strange bulbous ashtrays on thick stems, a forest of lights sprouting from the ceiling, bouncers with cauliflower ears circling the dance floor in evening dress, revolving stages and managers with safes in their offices and 1930 moustaches.

The privately-owned halls were on the whole a great im­provement. Of course they very much depended on the character of the manager or owner. Some of these suffer from a Napoleon complex. The hall is their Europe, the visiting band­leader an ear which cannot refuse to listen to their grandiose schemes and delusions. Others are friendly and courteous men who ask you in for a drink after the dance and become, over the years, familiar faces in the endless repetitive nomadic round.

The decor of the dance halls outside the big chains was as varied as their owners. Some were luxurious, influenced by the Festival of Britain, given to a wall in a different colour, wall­papers of bamboo poles or grey stones, false ceilings and modern light fittings made of brass rods and candle-bulbs. Others were as bare as aeroplane hangars, or last decorated during the early picture palace era. Mick's inevitable comment as we staggered in with our cases and instruments into these was, 'What a shit-house!'

There was also a series of halls over branches of Montague Burtons and Co-ops. There were always a great many very steep steps to drag the drum kit up. We also played for promoters whose offices were either in London or some large provincial town, but who covered a par­ticular area and hired halls which had other day-time func­tions.

Territorial Halls where the floor was marked out with white lines and there were posters showing muscular young soldiers giving a thumb up in a jungle or diagrams of a machine gun with the parts painted different colours.

Corn exchanges, often rather beautiful nineteenth-century buildings with glass roofs and terrible acoustics. Round the circular walls were little wood-encased partitions with the names of cattle-food firms or grain merchants painted across the back in faded trompe-Foeil Victorian lettering.

Above all the town halls, massive monuments to civic pride in St Pancras Gothic, where we played on stages big enough to seat an entire chorus and orchestra for 'The Messiah', and the young bloods of Huddersfield or Barnsley staggered green-faced from the bar in a vain attempt to make the gents, and were messily sick under a statue of Queen Victoria or the portrait of some bearded mayor hanging above the marble staircase.

The jazz clubs were moments of release and pleasure from this dismal round. We didn't have to change into uniform, we could drink and smoke on the stage, above all we knew the audience would be on our side and that we would only have to play jazz. In London, too, we made a deliberate effort to go on playing jazz for kicks. At the beginning of the week, unless we were away on a long tour, we were usually in town, and every Tues­day we played in a cellar club which catered for French stu­dents and was called 'Le Metro'. The club had a curved ceiling and did look rather like a tube tunnel. Behind the bandstand was painted an unconvincing metro train. The bar had Lautrec posters in it.