Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Datacide conference and party in Berlin

I'm going to be in Berlin on Friday taking part in this... If you're within several hundred miles you should try and make it down!

Datacide Conference 2008 and Party
K9, Kinzigstr.
910247 Berlin-Friedrichshain
Doors open 15.00; Conference start at 15.30
Christoph Fringeli: Introduction - A brief introduction to Datacide, where it’s coming from and a brief introduction to the new issue and the conference.

Christoph Fringeli: Hedonism and Revolution
Will true pleasure only exist after the revolution, or will it be indispensable to even lead to the revolution?Proclaiming the revolutionary as a “doomed man” without “personal interests”, the anarchist Sergey Nechayev set the pace for an ascetic image of the revolutionary that would be picked up by the direct heirs of Bakuninism: the Leninists. An “ideal” of a person without desires and only one passion - the revolution - was supposed to bring about a society of human fullfillment, something that had to go wrong, and end in the misery of the Maoist and Trotzkyist sects. But there has always been a hedonist counter-tendency to this, from Fourier to Sexpol to the Commune movement and the counter cultures of the 60’s to the 90’s. CF will examine some of the tensions and discussions that took place in the 70’s and ask if they have any relevance now.

Neil Transpontine (History is Made at Night): A Loop Da Loop Era: towards an (anti)history of ‘rave’
In 2008 the UK media have been full of stories about the ‘20th annversary of acid house’. Neil Transpontine critiques this conventional history, and celebrates instead the multiple trajectories that converge and pass through the various sonic, social and chemical phenomena grouped under that unstable term ‘rave’. It is a story that takes in not just 303s and 808s but gay riots, carnival uprisings and underground jazz clubs in 1940s Europe.

Stewart Home: Hallucination Generation
Looking at some of the more occulted aspects of the counterculture in 1960s London. How some of the key figures in the development of the scene rarely make it into the histories. Terry Taylor the first person to mention LSD in a British novel, and the inspirationfor both Absolute Beginners and Mister Love and Justice by a better known writer Colin MacInnes. Detta Whybrow and the first major LSD distribution network in London after the drug was made illegal. Alex Trocchi, drug dealing and black powers. Plus the Notting Hill’s problematic writers of the 1950s who later occupied positions on the outer fringes of the counterculture.
John Eden: Shaking The Foundations: Reggae soundsystems meet ‘Big Ben British values’ downtown
John Eden will examine the contribution reggae soundsystems have contributed to British culture and identity, and what they can teach the global mp3 generation. John has contributed writing to a vast number of independent publications over the years and currently co-edits Woofah magazine – “a completely DIY rag covering reggae, dubstep and grime”. He has run his own website since 1997. He began unleashing his musical taste on the world in the mid 80s by wrestling all-comers off the stereo at house parties and standing guard whilst his carefully compiled cassettes played. More recently he has contributed sets to the respected Blogariddims podcast series and played records at a bewildering array of obscure London venues.
Hans-Christian Psaar: Kindertotenlieder for Rave culture.
It's a common myth in music subcultures to think of themselves as independent. But what happens? Commodities get produced and sold on the market to consumers. No matter if those consumers wear dreadlocks or suits. Rebellion and subversion are labels to sell capitalist goods in the cultural industry. Be creative! Have fun! Those are the new imperatives of post-fordist capitalism and its cultural economies. The talk will show on the examples of The Prodigy and Kid606 how rave music is branded and sold.
Lauren Graber: Countervailing Forces: Electronic Music Countercultures and Subcultures
This paper will open with a discussion of how counterculture and subculture have been defined, and then ask what is at stake when we seek to assess divergent avenues within electronic music in these terms. Central to the operational imperative of subculture is the solidification of style and genre - visible and audible signs connoting sameness and belonging. The tactics of visibility and disappearance enacted as subcultural and countercultural everyday practices will be drawn out through a commentary on the book “Psychedelic White: Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race” and other oppositional tendencies in experimental electronics.
Alexis Wolton: Tortugan towerblocks: Pirate signals in the 90s
After a clampdown on pirate activity at the end of the 80s, the housing estates of London saw a renewed explosion of pirate stations in the early 90s. During the 90s commentators enthusiastically linked the pirate stations with Hakim Bey’s ideas on pirate utopias, information networks and self-organisation. A decade later the pirates still exist, their relationship to the world radically changed by the internet, but the positivist optimism of 90s technoculture has waned, many of its hopes recuperated by Capital.A discussion of the history and legacy of pirate radio, the theories of self-organisation that accompanied it and current ideas on participatory media.
noise:_____from 23h
Mario D’Andreta (Alien City Soundscapes)
Line Destruction (Spine)
Circuit Parallele (Spine, Hekate)
The Wirebug (Hekate, Coven H, London)
DJ Controlled Weirdness (Unearthly, London)
Blackmass Plastics (Dirty Needles, U.K.)
Kovert (, Datacide, London)
El Gusano Rojo (Hijos de Puta)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Excavated Shellac

One of my favourite quotes is from Walter Benjamin: “A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history” (On the Concept of History, 1940). This is the method I try and follow with History is Made at Night - no detail is too small for recording.

Many others in the blogospere seem to be operating on a similar basis, documenting every available piece of evidence relating to their particular obsession, nowhere more so than in relation to music. As an example one of my recent discoveries is Excavated Shellac, dedicated to '78rpm recordings of folkloric and vernacular music from around the world'. Here you will find fantastic old recordings from all around the world not to mention images of some gorgeous slices of vinyl and their archaic labels.

Critiques of blogging sometimes give the impression that it is all about ill-informed comment and subjective rants. Granted there is plenty of that, but there is also lots of good qualilty research in progress and primary source material being put out there on blogs. My only concern is how fragile this is - held on private sector browsers, and at risk of being deleted if the blogger loses interest, or perhaps dies. Our collective cultural databank is being extended by the efforts of a million bloggers, but at the same time whole chunks of the social memory of the human species get wiped just because somebody can't afford to keep up their broadband payments.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

This weekend there has been a 'festival of New Orleans' in London, with Dr John playing for free at the O2 arena in Greenwich. Unfortunately I haven't managed to get down there, but I have been reading up on the history of New Orleans, and specifically the Mardi Gras carnival.

The Mardi Gras carnival in its modern form is the result of ‘a process of creolization, a melding of cultural identities as strands of cultural material fused into a synthesis of something new’. In the eighteenth century, ‘Carnival began more as a closed operation than as a public festival’ with masqued balls in the houses of the wealthy preceding Lent. These later developed into formal processions under the auspices of the aristocracy.

Alongside this was another tradition of public dancing amongst enslaved Africans from the early days of 18th century New Orleans: ‘The plantation economy soon faltered, and land­owners could not generate enough food to feed the enslaved Africans who worked their holdings. The rulers allowed slaves to trade food they grew, hides or meat they hunted, and vegetables and fruit they cultivated at a makeshift Sunday marketplace on the grassy public commons behind the ramparts of the town. The place became known as Place du Congo, or the Congo plains. Today, a portion of the area is contained in Louis Armstrong Park along Rampart Street, just outside the French Quarter… on Sunday afternoons at the Place du Congo market a tradition of public dancing mushroomed. As many as five hundred dancers at a time formed concentric rings, moving in counterclockwise circles, their hand­clapping and feet-shuffling forming cross rhythms to music made on conga drums, tom-toms, panpipes, and calabashes… Costuming was fundamental to African ritual. Mask making as a specific tribal custom was lost in the Middle Passage, but the idea of mask-and-dance in a spiritual continuum lived on in a city where gentry flocked to see the exotic spectacles. Nowhere else in the South were slaves given such freedom of expres­sion in music and dance. The Africans sometimes dressed as Indians, "ornamented with a number of tails of the smaller wild beasts," wearing "fringes, ribbons, little bells, and shells and balls, jingling and flirt­ing about the performers' legs and arms."'

'The patrician love of masked balls and the high place of costumery in the danced religions of the Afri­can ritual psyche spilled into the streets as Carnival traditions unfolded. "Men and boys, women and girls, bond and free, black and white, exert themselves to invent and appear in grotesque, quizzical, diabolical, horrible, strange masks and disguises," reflected a visi­tor at the 1835 celebration. "Human bodies are seen with heads of beasts and birds, beasts and birds with human heads; demi-beasts, demi-fishes, snakes' heads and bodies with arms of apes; man-bats from the moon; mermaids; satyrs, beggars, monks and robbers parade and march on foot, on horseback, in wagons, carts, coaches ... in rich profusion up and down the streets, wildly shouting, singing, laughing, drumming, fiddling, fifeing ... as they wend their reckless way."'
In the 1850s, carnival began to become more formalised: ‘The Mistick Krewe of Comus, formed in 1857, gave Mardi Gras its formal patina. People wearing costumes and parading in streets had been around for years when along came Comus, a group of elite young white men…This was the first group to form an elite and secretive men's society, which came to be known as a krewe. "Their lavish balls could be attended only by those fortunate enough to have received invitations, but their proces­sions of floats, lights, and music could be viewed by anyone who cared to, and vast crowds lined the city's streets," observes the artist and Mardi Gras chronicler Henri Schindler… Float designs were steeped in themes of antiquity and Renaissance drama. With the artistry of early Carnival rose the aspirations of a former slaveholding class that wedded its eco­nomic recovery to an idea of neoclassical glory. Mardi Gras became a time when "deities of forgotten pan­theons and the splendors of long-vanished courts are restored for a season, summoned into being from the gilded vaults of the old city's memory”’.
Black Krewes

Later other parts of New Orleans society began to form their own krewes: ‘The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the leading black krewe, was formed in 1909 (its parade began seven years later). Zulu today is the longest and most imaginatively designed black parade, a rudder of Carnival. Black men in blackface, wearing grass skirts, hand out gilded coconuts from floats that roll down St. Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras morning, preceding the Krewe of Rex . But where the Rex ball is a pinnacle in the calendar of the white elite, with invitations difficult to come by even for those with personal ties to members, the Zulu ball is a sprawling affair with upwards of ten thousand people, many of them bringing food to be laid out on a vast array of tables. Zulu is where privilege melds with the masses: just about anyone can go to the ball for the price of a ticket'.

'Zulu began as a double satire. A group of black longshoremen engaged in a parody of the Zulu tribe in South Africa and used their African costumes in a further burlesque of Rex and the would-be royalty of white folk. If Rex had a royal robe and scepter, King Zulu wore a grass skirt and waved a ham bone. Out of this smirking parody evolved an organization rooted in the working and middle classes. Louis Armstrong rode as an exultant king of Zulu in 1949. Today the city's leading politicians, including several dozen whites, are members of Zulu… The Zulu parade has been and still is one of Mardi Gras's most loved traditions'.

'The Zulu krewe consists of a non traditional hierarchy of characters. It has a king but no nobles per se, and one character, the "Big Shot of Africa: outshines the king (the term outshine was used in earlier days and meant to look better than someone else in competition). A Zulu member created the Big Shot character in the 1930s. He is the man behind the throne; no one can see the king without seeing the Big Shot first. Among the other Zulu characters, the Witch Doctor was one of the first. He prayed to the gods for good health for the members and the king, as well as for good weather and safety. The Ambassador, Governor, and Mayor were characters created in the 1970s, representing heads of government… Also in the 1970s, James I. Russell and Sonny Jim Poole created the "Mr. Big Stuff" char­acter, who tries to outshine the Big Shot. The idea came from the 1970 recording "Mr. Big Stuff" by Jean Knight'.

'Another side to black Carnival is a symbolic revolt against the overlords of history. In 1883 or there­abouts, a group of black day laborers began masking as Indians. This tradition harked back to the slave dances at Congo Square, where Indians watched Africans who sometimes dressed as Indians. Indians had harbored runaway slaves in Louisiana territory. Unlike Natives in many other parts of the South, where Indians were driven out by force, the Choctaws in New Orleans melted into the local popu­lation, many of them marrying blacks. Traveling Wild West shows of the 1880s had a hold on the black population. But with sinuous street dances and improvisational rhythms pounded out on hand percussion instruments, the Mardi Gras Indians cast a spiritual searchlight onto the African past. Embracing the persona of the Indian, the black tribes paid the supreme compliment to another race by adapting their trappings as spirit figures. The black Indians used the ritual stage of Carnival to parade as rebellious warriors for a day, stopping in bars, sometimes fighting, releas­ing passions otherwise bottled up by the dally grind of poverty and race’
'The trancelike possessions of African Americans in the vernacular churches found an analogue in the dancing of the black Indians, according to the late Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., founder of Guardians of the Flame. "Trance: remarked the chief, a folk philosopher who worked for many years as a waiter and enjoyed the works of Albert Camus, "I can see winos, anybody, you can get to a certain point and go into a trance. To the casual observer they look like they're just jumping up and down, but in reality they're in a world by them­selves, rhythmically." Some call it a trance; others say "with the spirit." The term "possessed" is another way of saying "fugue state." The sudden force of energy rushes into the body, throwing it out of control, into gyrations, while the mind - or spirit- spins into another zone.’

Gay Krewes

'The French Quarter is the Babylonian essence of New Orleans, a riot of erotica during the big day, with many people walking around semi-nude, nearly nude, or nude-but-painted…The high point of Mardi Gras in the Quarter is the midday drag-queen beauty contest on a stage at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann Streets. The dazzling costumes, many with rainbow feathers, dripping light, bespeak a tradition of the day without ­closets stretching back well before the rise of gay lib­eration in the 1970s. Gay Mardi Gras grew more formal in the 1950s with the Krewe of Yuga, which sati­rized the traditional Mardi Gras balls. The police raided Yuga's first ball in 1958, and ninety-six members had their names printed in the newspaper in an arrest sweep'.

'Undeterred, the Krewe of Petronius formed in 1961, marking a move by gay men into the Carnival mainstream. By the early 1980s some fifteen gay krewes were holding balls with elab­orate floor shows. The AIDS epidemic, however, cut deeply into the community, and by 1999 only five krewes were active, including the Lords of Leather and the first black gay krewe, Mwindo'.

Source: Mardi Gras in New Orleans, USA: Annals of a Queen by Jason Berry in Carnival, ed. by Barbara Mauldin, 2004, Thames & Hudson. Pictures: top: a 19th century Mardi Gras scene, sourced from a history of the Rex parade; bottom, Mardi Gras 2007 by 'Sir: Poseyal Squire Poet'

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld

... or at least the 'sounds' of pulsating stars detected by the Corot space telescope in France. Have a listen, some interesting noise from the outer shores of Stellar/Helio Seismology. Did you know that the Sun 'forms a spherical acoustical resonator with millions of different normal modes of oscillation. Due to the waves' long life times, destructive interference filters out all but the resonant frequencies, transforming the random convective noise into a very rich line spectrum in the five-minute range'.

Of course, you're not actually hearing the stars. There is no giant microphone in space picking up sound waves, rather it is possible to infer what sound waves are emanating from the interior of stars by interpreting light images - and then to convert this data into sounds that we can listen to. If we could get close enough to the stars would we ever be able to hear them? I don't think so, because sound waves need air to travel through to our ears. Still it would be nice to find out first hand - set the controls for the heart of the sun.

(a huge ever growing pulsating brain...)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Anita Berber: Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy

Anita Berber (1899-1928) was a dancer in pre-Nazi Germany, famous/notorious for a life of bisexuality, drugs and semi-naked performance.

With her sometime husband and dancing parter Sebastian Droste she published in 1923 a book of poetry, photographs, and drawings called Die Tänze des Lasters, des Grauens und der Ekstase (Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy), based on their performance of the same name.

In Berlin, "Berber was known to dance in the Eldorado, a homosexual and transvestite bar, where Rudi Anhang, dancer and jazz banjoist, accompanied her. Berber's speciality was a depraved dance number entitled 'Cocaine', performed to the music of Camille Saint-Saens. She also did a piece called 'Morphium'" (Kater).

Another dance, first performed in 1919, was Heliogabal where she played a sun-worshipping priest ‘Exquisite, entirely attired in gold, her metallic body lured the sun’ (Elegante Welt, 1919, cited in Toepfer).

In 1925 she was the subject of an expressionist portrait, entitled The Dancer Anita Berber, by the painter Otto Dix. 

Death in Vegas dedicated a song to Anita on their 2004 album Satan's Circus.

Berber's reputation still manages to wind up present-day Nazi sympathisers. While researching this I came across one such scum-site praising Hitler's cleansing of 'decadent' Weimar Berlin, and stating that Berber 'Typified the Jewish mindset. Her stage acts revolved around masturbation, cocaine, and lesbian love' (yes the fascists are still out there, though apparently there's now one less to worry about in Austria)

Sources: Michael H. Kater, Different Drummers: Jazz in the culture of Nazi Germany; Karl Eric Toepfer, Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

100 bpm - songs to save your life

A research study at the University of Illinois suggests that people were more effective at Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) if they were listening to the Bee Gees 'Staying Alive' while performing it. The reason is apparently that the song's tempo, 103 beats per minute, is close to the optimum number of 100 compressions per minute to help jump start a heart during a cardiac arrest.

I don't mind this song, but if you're working in the health service it might be an idea to get a bit of variety and check out other tracks with a similar tempo. DJ BPM Studio - which specialises in just this kind of thing - has a whole list of 100 BPM tracks including Madonna 'La Isla Bonita' and Bjork 'Isobel'; pretty close too is Lily Allen 'LDN' (100.01 BPM), Pink 'Stupid Girl' (100.02), ABBA 'Dancing Queen' (100.47), The Clash 'Hitsville UK' (100.69) and Blondie 'In the Flesh' (100.8).

Update February 2012: The British Heart Foundation have put out an advert for hands only CPR featuring actor/ex-footballer Vinnie Jones and using 'Staying Alive' as the soundtrack 

Saturday, October 18, 2008


My previous post on the notion of community mediated by the senses got me thinking about what senses come into play in music/dance spaces. I would say that they prioritise, in this order, hearing (music), seeing (lights, clothes, people), and touch (dancing with physical contact with others or just feeling vibrations and the sensation of your feet on the floor).

But what about smell? This seems a bit of a neglected sense, it is rare for any effort to be made to create an olfactory ambience, although you occasionally come across incense in 'chill out' spaces and flowers at more glamorous events. The smell of clubs, parties and gigs varies according to the crowd but is usually an accidental cocktail of sweat, smoke (less so since the smoking ban), perfumes and, in some cases, poppers.

While I was pondering this I came across an article by Cathy Heffernan in the Guardian about a club in Finland for deaf dancers which puts a strong emphasis on scent: 'Deaf clubbers respond to the music's beat and vibrations, which is why DJs tend to use heavy bass. But vibrations do not relay tunes or lyrics, the aspects of music that trigger memories and emotions'. At SenCity in Jyväskylä, Finland, an effort is made to 'translate the emotions behind the music... An aroma jockey uses a fan to direct wisps of vapour from burning oils into the crowd, producing scents that will complement the music - citrus flavours are used for happy songs for example. Visual jockeys are responsible for co-ordinating signdancers, who interpret song lyrics on stage through a fusion of sign language and dance, with the music and light displays. And there's the vibrating floor: a raised platform with a transmitter attached to enhance the vibrations, just as speakers enhance music soundwaves'. Sounds interesting, check out this short film about the club:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Community of Sense

The relationship between music, dance and community is a recurring theme on this site, but the word 'community' has come to be appropriated in ways that I am not comfortable with. In some uses it seems to imply an enforced membership of a social body and an obligation to abide by its mores. Worse it often implies an exclusion of those deemed outside of the community - like those migrants locked up in detention centres because they lack the papers to belong to the national community even though in every other repsect they have shared the social life of their neighbours.
I am more concerned with a looser, more open notion of community, the kind of free association constituted by the passage of a few persons (or maybe a lot) through an intense period of time.

In this respect I was interested in an exchange between the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and critic Chantal Pontbriand. The fomer argues that the word community "has come to connote very much the 'exclusive community'... That is why I prefer to speak of being-in-common or being-with". This is "No longer a community whose meaning would derive from some grand narrative, but a community of sense, which makes sense, a community of ties and touch, elaborated pragmatically rather than dogmatically" (Pontbriand).

For Nancy, this sensual connection with others can be magnified by art, which "intensifies a sensibility or a sensoriality, bringing it to an extremity where, precisely it touches the others". This can involve "Hearing, seeing, touching oneself, letting oneself be heard, seen, touched, smelled, sensed: art as the intensification of 'sensing'".

If this is so, the music space (the club/gig/party) certainly intensifies our auditory sense through volume and quality of sound. But it also intensifies the community of being experienced through the senses, constituted by the different ways our bodies relate to each other "distant-near, reachable-unreachable, desirable-fearful, erotic, powerful, weak, fleeting, confrontational etc".

This is precisely the dynamic of the fleeting community of the senses that is the dancefloor - not an undifferentiated mass, but defined by bodies moving in relation to each other - not just moving to the music, but moving to be nearer the object of desire, to get away from the moody guy, to invite in or exclude others from personal space...

I read this exchange in Common Wealth, edited by Jessica Morgan (Tate: london 2003), but it is now available online. Photo of clubbers in Berlin 2006, by Loewenhertz.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Berlin - 21 days and counting

Advance warning – I will be doing a talk in Berlin on Friday October 31st, part of an event to mark the tenth issue of Datacide zine. Not sure of details yet, but the plan is to have talks in the afternoon followed by a party, with other participants probably including John Eden (Uncarved), Stewart Home, Dan Hekate, Controlled Weirdness and Christoph Fringeli (Datacide, Praxis records and once upon a time Dead by Dawn). If you’re within reach, put it in your diary. Details to follow.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Reggae and the National Front

Excellent post at Uncarved on UK reggae and the National Front, complete with a mix of the tracks he talks about. The racist NF, which peaked in the 197os, prompted the Rock Against Racism movement and mass protests across the country.

Last year I helped organise Lewisham '77, a series of events to commemorate the anti-fascist clashes when the NF tried to march through South East London in August 1977. Reggae featured in this story, indeed there was a disagreement about exactly what track was playing at a critical moment, when demonstrators were deciding whether to disperse or to physically confront the NF.

Red Saunders, one of the founders of Rock Against Racism, came on a walk we organised around the route of the protests. He has recalled: 'What I really remember is that there were all these Christians and Communists, telling us to go home. Most people stayed. But we were all just milling about, when this old black lady, too old to march, came out on her balcony. She put out her speakers, as loud as they could, playing Get up, stand up. That did it for me".'

However, Paul Gilory has a different recollection. In his seminal There Ain't No Black in The Union Jack, he mentions that Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves (famously covered by The Clash) 'had blared out from a speaker dangled from an upstairs window when anti-fascist demonstrators attacked the National Front march in Lewisham during August 1977'. Indeed at the Lewisham '77 conference he suggested that Saunders might have been guilty of romanticising events by suggesting that the more militant Get up, stand up was played.

As somebody too young to have been on the streets in 1977, I can't judge who was right - presumably both tracks could have been played. Anyway one way or another, reggae was the soundtrack of opposing the National Front in Lewisham 1977 - when we did our commemorative walk last year we started off in the New Cross Inn where we played Peter Tosh's Get Up Stand Up in the pub before setting off.

A short film about Lewisham '77:

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


It's been a while since I posted anything about space music (see here for the original Disconaut text), but I came across this fine piece of 1977 space disco the other day - Moon-boots by ORS (sometimes known as Orlando Riva Sound), a German outfit formed by Anthony Monn. You might still be able to download at Chezlubacov or The Red Room, or you can listen it to it here.

(Miraculi at youtube has put images to this track of women dancing at what looks like a Russian airport, but it's not the original video ).

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Keep it Tight

Some interesting reflections on tight trousers, masculinity and sexuality cropping up.

The always excellent Pop Feminist has the remarkable tale of (then) Black Panther Party fugitive Eldridge Cleaver and his 1975 attempt to launch a range of clothes in Paris in keeping with his theories about black supermasculinity. I've only reproduced a bit of the picture, you must check out the whole thing

'The pants that men wear now will be looked upon as girls' pants after my models are sold' (Eldridge Cleaver)
Meanwhile Wayne&Wax wonders about the influence of gay style on the sometimes homophobic world of Jamaican dancehall, with the superbly titled post (Tight)Pantshall & Metro Cool, or “How Mi Look?” “Gay!” . He has also posted on the response this has generated, and has linked to a story from earlier this year about the distinctly homophopic No Tight Clothes track by Brooklyn rappers Thug Slaugher Force.
What would these tight-trousered guys make of it?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Sister Ray and Berwick Street

With record shop Sister Ray in London's Berwick Street going into administration (and inevitably a facebook group set up to save it), the usual questions are being asked about the death of vinyl and its retailers. Must admit I haven't bought any vinyl for a while, my decks are actually gathering dust in the cellar. I would like to be able to digitise the huge stack of records I have secreted in various cupboards, rather than buy any more - although I am often tempted to buy old disco records just for the sleeves or even just the design of the record labels.

Berwick Street vinyl fetishism is celebrated/satirised in Stewart Home's anti-novel Memphis Underground, with its semi-autistic narrator:

'I found a dozen collectable punk singles in a charity shop. I paid one pound twenty for them, and sold them for three hundred quid. I made the money in Berwick Street and half of it stayed there, because I spent it on rare groove. It was a potlatch, deliberate waste, what, after Bataille, I might call solar economics if I didn't find this theorist's attraction to the sublime aesthetics of tragedy and sacrifice so unpalatable. It wasn't as if I'd actually listen to the original vinyl pressings I'd bought. I didn't need to, since I already possessed what I'd purchased on cheap CD reissues. Besides, playing the records might well reduce their value. Certainly overplaying them, so that they ended up scratched and worn, would lessen their financial worth...

Analogue and digital are two quite different things. A vinyl record wears away: every time you listen to it, you never hear quite the same thing. Flaws are gradually introduced and these increase with repeated plays. Whereas a CD either works or it doesn't. If a CD plays you always hear the same thing. With CDs change is absolute. A damaged CD is useless and worthless. What I coveted was obsolescence as the ultimate luxury product, so my distaste for ruined CDs is not quite as odd as it may at first appear. Vinyl records possessed me and the only way I could undo this hoodoo voodoo was to purchase the items by which I was enchanted. It was a fatal strat­egy. The revenge of the object became the object of my revenge. A dialectic of metaphysics with Jean Baudril­lard and Rudy Ray Moore battling it out at an all night blues party saturated with gut-bucket funk. It could have been worse, since unlike some people I know, I'm not into the eight track cartridge- a fetish that greatly restricts the choice of music available to you'.

For me going to record shops is as much about getting a sense of what's going on in different music scenes as actually purchasing produce - picking up zines and flyers, hearing what people are playing and seeing what's on the racks. So I guess I'm part of the demographic that doesn't buy records and then complains when record shop disappear!

The loss of a single record shop is no big deal, but it is important that there are zones of the city where you can wander in search of lost treasure - which in my case means books and music. You could plot my serial obsessions by mapping the routes I have taken across London at different times in search of particular zines or singles. Berwick Street, with its various record shops, has often featured on these itineries - for instance at one time there was a good techno shop where I used to buy datacide and nearby Vexed Generation, with its mid-1990s anti-Criminal Justice Act clothing. Whatever happens to Sister Ray, it would be a shame if Berwick Street just ended up full of generic bars and coffee shops like much of Soho.
Sister Ray photo from jereoen020 at flickr . Update 8 October 2008: there's a thread on the decline of Berwick Street over at dissensus - noting that Reckless Records closed its two shops there last year. Sister Ray remains open for now, but seems fairly certain to close - though whether it goes bankrupt or manages to move to an area with lower rents remains to be seen.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Carnivalesque

Peter Stallybrass and Allon White on the carnivalesque, extracted from The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986):

…in the long-term history from the seventeenth to the twen­tieth century, as we have seen above, there were literally thousands of acts of legislation introduced which attempted to eliminate carnival and popular festivity from European life. In different areas of Europe the pace varied, depending upon religious, class and economic fac­tors. But everywhere, against the periodic revival of local festivity and occasional reversals, a fundamental ritual order of western culture came under attack - its feasting, violence, drinking, processions, fairs, wakes, rowdy spectacle and outrageous clamour were subject to sur­veillance and repressive control. We can briefly list some particular instances of this general process. In 1855 the Great Donnybrook Fair of Dublin was abolished in the very same year that Bartholomew Fair in London finally succumbed to the determined attack of the London City Missions Society. In the decade following the Fairs Act of 1871 over 700 fairs, mops and wakes were abolished in England.

By the 1880s the Paris carnival was rapidly being transformed into a trade show cum civic/military parade, and although the 'cortege du boeuf gras' processed round the streets until 1914, 'little by little it was suppressed and restricted because it was said to cause a traffic problem' (Pillement 1972). In 1873 the famous Nice carnival was taken over by a 'comite des Fetes', brought under bureaucratic bourgeois control and reorganized quite self-consciously as a tourist attraction for the increasing numbers who spent time on the Riviera and who were finding neighbouring San Remo's new casino a bigger draw. As Wolfgang Hartmann has shown (1976), in Germany in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, traditional pro­cessions and festivities were rapidly militarized and incorporated into the symbolism and 'classical body' of the State. This dramatic transform­ation of the ritual calendar had implications not only for each stratum of the social formation, particularly for those which were disengaging themselves from ongoing practices, but for the basic structures of symbo­lic activity in Europe: carnival was now everywhere and nowhere.

Many social historians treat the attack on carnival as a victory over popular culture, first by the Absolutist state and then by the middle classes, a process which is viewed as the more or less complete destruc­tion of popular festivity: the end of carnival. In this vision of the complete elimination of the ritual calendar there is the implicit assump­tion that, in so far as it was the culture of a rural population which was disappearing, the modernization of Europe led inevitably to the super­session of traditional festivity - it was simply one of the many casualties in the movement towards an urban, industrial society….

But, as we have shown, carnival did not simply disappear. At least four different processes were involved in its ostensible break-up: frag­mentation; marginalization; sublimation; repression.

Carnival had always been a loose amalgam of procession, feasting, competition, games and spectacle, combining diverse elements from a large repertoire and varying from place to place. Even the great carnivals of Venice, Naples, Nice, Paris and Nuremberg were fluid and change­able in their combination of practices. During the long and uneven process of suppression (we often find that a carnival is banned over and over again, only to re-emerge each time in a slightly altered fashion), there was a tendency for the basic mixture to break down, certain elements becoming separated from others. Feasting became separated from performance, spectacle from procession: the grotesque body was fragmented. At the same time it began to be marginalized both in terms of social class and geographical location. It is important to note that even as late as the nineteenth century, in some places, carnival remained a ritual involving most classes and sections of a community - the disen­gaging of the middle class from it was a slow and uneven matter. Part of that process was, as we have seen, the 'disowning' of carnival and its symbolic resources, a gradual reconstruction of the idea of carnival as the culture of the Other. This act of disavowal on the part of the emergent bourgeoisie, with its sentimentalism and its disgust, made carnival into the festival of the Other. It encoded all that which the proper bourgeois must strive not to be in order to preserve a stable and ‘correct' sense of self.

William Addison (1953) charts many of these geographical marginalizations in the English context in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Within a town the fair, mop, wake or carnival, which had once taken over the whole of the town and permitted neither outside nor outsider to its rule, was confined to certain areas and gradually driven ­out from the well-to-do neighbourhoods. In the last years of the Bury St Edmunds Fair it was 'banished from the aristocratic quarter of Angel Hill and confined to St Mary's and St James's squares' (Addison 1953). In and around London:

‘Both regular and irregular fairs were being steadily pushed from the centre outwards as London grew and the open spaces were built over. Greenwich and Stepney were the most popular at one time. Others - Croydon's for example - came to the fore later when railways extended the range of pleasure as well as the range of boredom, until towards the end of the nineteenth century London was encircled by these country fairs, some of which were, in fact, ancient charter fairs made popular by easier transport. ... Most of them were regarded by the magistrates as nuisances, and sooner or later most of those without charters were suppressed. Yet such was the popularity of these country fairs round London that to suppress them in one place led inevitably to an outbreak elsewhere, and often where control was more difficult. As the legal adviser to the City Corporation had said in the 1730's, 'It is at all times difficult by law to put down the ancient customs and practices of the multitude.' (Addison 1953)

In England the sites of 'carnival' moved more and more to the coastal periphery, to the seaside. The development of Scarborough, Brighton, Blackpool, Clacton, Margate and other seaside resorts reflects a process of liminality which, in different ways, was taking place across Europe as a whole. The seaside was partially legitimated as a carnival­esque site of pleasure on the grounds of health, since it combined the (largely mythical) medicinal virtues of the spa resorts with tourism and the fairground. It can be argued that this marginalization is a result of other, anterior processes of bourgeois displacement and even repres­sion. But even so, this historical process of marginalizalion must be seen as an historical tendency distinct from the actual elimination of carnival.

Bakhtin is right to suggest that post-romantic culture is, to a con­siderable extent, subjectivized and interiorized and on this account frequently related to private terrors, isolation and insanity rather than to robust kinds of social celebration and critique. Bakhtin however does not give us a convincing explanation of this sublimation of carnival. The social historians, on the other hand, tend not to consider processes of sublimation at all: for them carnival came to an end and that was that. They tend not to believe in the return of the repressed.

But a convincing map of the transformation of carnival involves tracing migrations, concealment, metamorphoses, fragmentations, in­ternalization and neurotic sublimations. The disjecta membra of the gro­tesque body of carnival found curious lodgement throughout the whole social order of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe. These dispersed carnivalesque elements represent more than the insig­nificant nomadic residues of the ritual tradition. In the long process of disowning carnival and rejecting its periodical inversions of the body and the social hierarchy, bourgeois society problematized its own relation to the power of the 'low', enclosing itself, indeed often defining itself, by its suppression of the 'base' languages of carnival.

As important as this was the fact that carnival was being margina­lized temporally as well as spatially. The carnival calendar of oscillation between production and consumption which had once structured the whole year was displaced by the imposition of the working week under the pressure of capitalist industrial work regimes. The semiotic polari­ties, the symbolic clusters of classical and grotesque, were no longer temporally pinned into a calendrical or seasonal cycle, and this involved a degree of unpredictability in moment and surface of emergence. The 'carnivalesque' might erupt from the literary text, as in so much surrea­list art, or from the advertisement hoarding, or from a pop festival or a jazz concert.

Carnival was too disgusting for bourgeois life to endure except as sentimental spectacle. Even then its specular identifications could only be momentary, fleeting and partial- voyeuristic glimpses of a promiscu­ous loss of status and decorum which the bourgeoisie had had to deny as abhorrent in order to emerge as a distinct and 'proper' class.

Photos from Notting Hill Carnival: top from 1976 Carnival riot, bottom from August 2008 at the Good Times Sound System (sourced from Flickr, picture by Berg's Eye View).

Friday, October 03, 2008

Street and Studio

I enjoyed Street and Studio: an Urban History of Photography at Tate Modern in London over the summer (the exhibition opens in Essen next week if you're in Germany and curious).

There were some iconic images, like Richard Avedon's 1969 photograph of Andy Warhol's Factory gang (this section shows, left to right, Paul Morrissey, 'Little Joe' Dallessandro and Candy Darling -full image here).

I liked Madame Yevonde's gorgeous 1930s Goddess portraits - who cares if they are aristocrats in fancy dress, there is an otherworld fantasy of fab frocks and hair that anyone can relate to.

My favourite pieces were focused on people in their clubbing clothes. There was a collection of Malick Sidibe's 1960s potraits of young people in Mali (don't think this specific image was in the show, but there were lots of others):

Then at the end of the exhibition was a room dedicated to Rineke Dijkstra's video piece with a splitscreen showing people in the Buzz Club, Liverpool and Mysteryworld, Zaandan (in Holland), 1996-97 - with a soundtrack including George Morel's Morel's Groove). It looks like she got people off the dancefloor to stand in front of a white wall, dancing, staring at the camera, chewing gum, smoking, making out, looking bored....

This bootleg doesn't quite do it justice, but gives an idea of the piece:

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

It is wild. It is sexy. It is the mambo

Around 1950 a new music and dance craze swept across the Americas - Mambo. It had emerged in Cuba during the 1930s as a series of variations within existing styles before becoming seen as something new, distinct and fashionable.

In New York, the key centre for Mambo was the Palladium dance hall in Manhattan. After visiting it in 1951, writer Jess Stearn wrote an article for the New York Daily News with the headline: 'Touch of Jungle Madness: Denizens of Broadway go Slightly Primitive under Spell of the Wild Sweaty Mambo'. The article continued 'it may turn the Great White Way into a veritable Congoland before it is through. It is wild. It is sexy. It is the mambo'.

David Garcia argues that such statements - not uncommon amongst writers in the USA and Cuba - reflected a 'shared sense of anxiety over and desire for racial and cultural Others whose sounds and bodily movements did not complement those commentators' concepts of a culturally and racially homogeneous nation'. They tended to cast 'Latin musicians and mambo music as relics of the remote or "primitive" human past' and by implication not belonging in the present on equal terms with other musics or indeed people.

Dance teachers saw a potential new market in popularising Mambo, but only by reducing it to a simplified series of steps. In a 1951 article in Dance Magazine, Don Byrnes and Alice Swanson argued that 'It is now the responsibility of the teacher to standardize, discipline and properly present this thrilling dance to make it acceptable'.

By contrast, Garcia found that 'Cuban and Puerto Rican dancers... emphasize the individuated, extemporaneous and communal aspects that defined and inspired their dancing in the 1940s and 1950s'. In contrast to rigid steps, the first generation of Mambo dancers stressed 'feeling the music', inner emotions, spontaneity and dancing as 'an embodied experience, in which sound and movement were merged through the body'.

Source: Going primitive to the movements and sounds of Mambo, David F. Garcia in Musical Quarterly, volume 89 (4), Winter 2006

Some great footage of Mambo dancing in Harlem in early 1950s, posted by the folks at