moving on to
and by way of Nina Hagen, I explore punk under state socialism:
as well as
- La Movida Madrileña in Spain.
moving on to
and by way of Nina Hagen, I explore punk under state socialism:
as well as
None of them looked like good Catholics.
For all the pervasive global influence of Anglo-American popular culture, its distinctive regional variants around the world are always worth bearing in mind.
In my rash coverage of punk, I’ve expanded to the GDR and China. Now I’m grateful to a recent Guardian article for opening my ears to La Movida Madrileña punk movement in Madrid, also broadening my Iberian horizons beyond flamenco and fado (here, and this sequel)—for more on Spanish punk, click here; for punk in Portugal, see e.g. here.
Franco had been dead for a while before those he repressed in Spain felt brave enough to celebrate in public. The dictator’s four-decade rule did not neatly expire in 1975, when he died. The country was still being effectively run by soldiers and priests when a ragged lineup of young punks staged a free concert at Madrid Polytechnic on 9 February 1980. Forty years later, that night is remembered as the event that launched La Movida Madrileña, a countercultural eruption in the city during the country’s volatile “transition” to democracy.
In Spain the Sex Pistols’ “fascist regime” had a more visceral connotation. As punk pioneer Servando Carballar recalls,
people forget just how long the practices of church-sanctioned military rule persisted after Franco. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1979. Spanish women, including Carballar’s bandmate and future wife Marta Cervera (aka Arcoiris), had long been subject to a patrician curfew, which made most streets and bars an entirely male domain by 9pm. The country’s Civil Guard could still break up any gathering of more than three people, and detain anyone whose clothes, hair, or face gave them the flimsiest pretext under the prevailing law of “dangerousness and social rehabilitation”.
Notable bands included Aviador Dro and His Specialised Workers, Los Secretos, La Banda Trapera del Río, and Parálisis Permanente. Here’s the all-female band Vulpes, reminiscent of The Slits, with their soon-to-be-banned Me gusta ser una zorra (“I like being a slut”), a cover of The Stooges’ I wanna be your dog (1969!):
Another female singer was Alaska—who appears as lesbian rocker Bom in Pedro Almodóvar’s debut film Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (1980). Here’s a trailer:
Today, Madrid is run by a rightwing coalition who refer to that period, if at all, as a brief spell of leftist decadence.
Inspired by Detroit 67, I’ve been reading
In all kinds of wonderful ways, this book does my head in. 
Quite rightly, devotees of northern soul will be underwhelmed if I describe it as a diachronic ethnography based on participant observation—which is just what it is, like some of the great works of ethnomusicology…
Cosgrove captures the buzz of his addiction:
Saturday passed slowly as I browsed around local market stalls. The night slowly fell and we walked through the backstreets of Stoke along cobbled terraces. The army of leather feet resonated like a drum solo, building percussion in our speeding heads and raising the adrenaline of anticipation. A swell of people hung by the door of what looked like a wartime cinema, and a blackout curtain seemed to have closed across the north of England. It was virtually impossible to make out faces or detail; everything was sound. A pounding noise escaped through the doorway and the wild screeching sound of saxophones pushed through the fire escapes, desperate for air. We paid at the ticket booth, but even in the foyer, an intense heat much like an industrial oven scorched through the thick aggressive air, and the noise was so pure, so fearless and so commanding, it dragged you inwards into a scrum of lurching bodies: hot, wet, and demonic. This was in every respect the Devil’s music, and I had travelled hundreds of miles from home to sip with the deranged serpents that slithered so gracefully on the floor. There was no going back. No music later in life would ever touch its uniqueness, no rock concert could match its energy, and no rave could come close to its latent illegality. This was northern soul: the reason they invented youth.
Of all the diverse tribes of popular music, this scene is just as alien to me (and, I surmise, to Alan Bennett) as the spirit mediums of Guangxi are to a scholar trained at a Beijing conservatoire (for China, I broach the issue of insider/outsider status here, here, and here).
Ethnomusicologists like Nettl and Small highlight music as a social activity, and McClary valorizes the physical, bodily response to music as a caveat to the cerebral, disembodied, “autonomous” bias of WAM.
Basic to the northern soul experience were the all-nighters hosted by clubs throughout the north. They may evoke the “red-hot sociality” of festivals worldwide; but such club scenes also broaden our picture, in that live music is subsidiary. At the heart of northern soul was live dancing, athletic and technical—amazing dancers like car mechanic Frankie “Booper” New, at the Torch:
It was as if NASA had invented a device that could drill into the surface of the moon, and the device was a sixteen-stone guy from Widnes.
Some visiting live bands made memorable appearances, but recorded music was more common. After all, a multitude of bands, often inspired by old blues records, were being formed (not least in the north), creating all kinds of new music; but here the point was not to try and form your own soul band—the fetish for rare Motown discs was sacred. Nor did club-goers care to keep pace with the ever-changing tastes of black Americans, for whom both blues and soul were mere staging posts in a constantly evolving scene.
Thus DJing assumed a crucial role (akin to that of the conductor?), with fanatical, driven DJs like Ian Levine and Ian Dewhirst. Another basic element was the amphetamine scene. While not hesitating to depict its squalor (the Wigan toilets “resembling a war zone”), Cosgrove naturally refrains from moralistic prurience. Andy Wilson, a northern soul pioneer from Harrogate who spent much of his formative years at Wigan Casino, going on to become senior lecturer in Criminology at Trent University, “is now an expert in drug subcultures. He always was”. A model of participant observation, then.
Obscurity and obsession
Alongside the sweaty hedonism of northern soul, just as important was the craving for obscurity—not just any obscurity, like seeking out early blues, but “rare soul”—rougher, less polished than the mainstream Motown sound. Even the origin of the term “northern soul” itself, commonly attributed to Dave Godin, is somewhat arcane (pp.25–6).
Cosgrove lovingly details the nerdiness of the scene: “compiling lists and recording obscure detail is part of the everyday autism of northern soul”. OCD was rife. He even provides a suitably nerdy Glossary.
One of the cardinal rules of the northern soul scene is a respect for obscurity and those who die young. […] Northern soul cherishes its role as savior of the neglected—rescuing some acts from being almost wholly forgotten while plucking others from semi-obscurity and giving them the status of gods.
Ill-fated singers like Linda Jones and Darrell Banks were idolized. Cosgrove also pays tribute to some of the casualties within northern soul itself.
He notes, and shares, the jihad mentality, “the Hezbollah rituals that defined the scene”:
Eclectic tastes were rarely tolerated on the northern soul scene, which by the mid seventies was hardening into a zealous sect with its own strict rules. […]
One night, a DJ was brought in front of the crowd charged with playing a Bowie record; he was given a stern warning and a second chance, but there was a noisy faction on the committee who wanted him hounded through the streets in sackcloth and then burned at the stake outside H Samuel. I was among that zealous throng and I have not mellowed since.
Northern soul devotees shared a virulent aversion to the mainstream as embodied in Top of the pops; they were creating their own charts. Meanwhile in a parallel universe, Morris dancing was enjoying a revival, and my own nerdy tastes were for Boulez and Zen scriptures. The northern soul collectors remind me rather of scholars poring over the cataloguing systems of the Daoist Canon, or WAM bores who can’t help citing Köchel numbers.
At a certain remove from the quest of Oxbridge academics for neglected Renaissance church music, northern soul addicts were on a different kind of “early music” craze. Trapped in a mythical past, they were also on a constant quest for new material from that past.
Cosgrove notes the importance of rail and road networks (“You can go everywhere from Wigan train station”, as DJ Richard Searling commented), the impact of immigration, and the scene’s distinctive fashion sense. Chapter 7, elegantly titled “Soul not dole” after a Doncaster club, explores the effects of the miners’ strike, with the story of pit closures running in tandem with the high points of northern soul. There’s a cameo for Grimethorpe, whose brass band was to be immortalized in the film Brassed off. And the heyday of northern soul coincided with the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror.
Unlike punk, which was more openly anti-authoritarian, the northern soul scene has often been written about as if it “floated free” from the politics of the day, but the reverse is true. The northern soul scene was rooted in the industrial towns and cities of Britain, which across the arch of time faced unprecedented waves of deindustrialization.
The book has more on the relation with punk:
Britain’s two greatest subcultures had much in common. Both were underground and frequently misunderstood. Northern soul had grown up organically across a period of ten years since the height of the first-generation Mods and was a subculture that was more authentically the product of young people themselves, often hiding from authority, dodging the drug squad and attending self-managed clubs that were only sparsely advertised. Punk was largely contrived and skillfully managed in part by [Malcolm] McLaren, driven by his genuine love of New York garage bands and an opportunistic interest in anarchism and the Situationist movement.
He cites Paul Mason: “we were using the black industrial music of the late sixties to say something about our white industrial lives in the seventies”. I think also of the intriguing Finnish affinity for tango.
Though—like Daoist recluses—the northern soul crowd prided themselves on shunning outside attention, the scene was soon discovered by media moguls like Tony Palmer, whose 1977 film This England: Wigan Casino divided opinion:
Echoing Alan Bennett’s lament, Palmer
added smouldering furnaces, decaying coalfields and derelict canals—overwrought historical imagery that the citizens of Wigan had long since tired of.
But amidst ongoing debate over “purists not tourists”, the Casino soon became a casualty of economic recession.
Cosgrove’s passion for the music is always evident too:
If the beginning of the night was hectic, the end was emotionally more subdued: it was regretful, solemn, almost elegiac. By 1973, it had become established practice that all-nighters would finish with “3 before 8”: these were three soul songs to mark the end of the night, played as the clock reached 8am and the morning light sliced through the skylight windows in the decaying roofs of the Casino.
Discussing them in sequence, he gives pride of place to the second-to-last song in the set, Tobi Legend’s “Time will pass you by”:
The chapters describe the heydays of the legendary clubs in turn. In the early days they came up against another kind of fundamentalist, James Anderton (“God’s copper”), with his moral crusade to clean up Manchester. The Twisted Wheel there became “the template by which all subsequent northern soul clubs were judged: the intense atmosphere, the rare soul music and the extravagant dancers”. It was succeeded by the Golden Torch Ballroom, a converted cinema in the suitably obscure venue of Tunstall, near Stoke-on-Trent:
The interior of the Torch also told a story of change, not least the collapse of traditional religion and the rise of youth culture. It was a small hall with marble pillars and a balcony overlooking the wooden dance floor. It had started out as a church, before becoming a roller-skating rink and, in the immediate post-war period, morphing into the Little Regent Cinema. Local soul fan and businessman Chris Burton changed its use again and it became a Mod club, and then eventually an all-nighter whose influence stretched across the Potteries, to Lancashire in the north and the Midlands to the south.
aped the patterns of older working-class institutions—electing committees and treasurers, and holding nights in fading workers’ clubs, miners’ welfares and industrial social clubs.
Next the baton was taken by Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca, with their musical policies competing. Describing the rise and fall of seaside venues, their decline complementing the rise of foreign package holidays, Cosgrove gives an evocative portrayal of Blackpool, “a wonderland of donkey rides, kiss-me-quick hats and venereal disease”.
He sings the praises of the all-nighters at the Top of the World in Stafford, a late flourishing of the scene from 1982 to 1986, and serving as a bridge between the warring factions. By now he had moved on to a media career, joining the drift to London—a city pithily described by a friend as “just like Barnsley but with more wankers”. He continued to collect rare soul:
After a few days in Washington DC I had perfected a modus operandi that has served me well over many years in America. Written down on paper, it sounds like the machinations of a serial killer, but here goes…
In Birmingham, Alabama he has an epiphany as he discovers a rare copy of the DC Blossoms’ “Hey Boy” (Shrine, 1966) in an inauspicious-looking store minded by an inscrutable assistant:
For northern soul collectors there is nothing more visceral than a “find”. A sudden surge more emotional than meeting an old friend, more powerful than an away goal, and more satisfying than sex itself. I stared in wonder at the light blue label and the iconic burning Shrine logo. I checked for vinyl cracks and deep scratches, but whatever its wandering history, the disc was virtually pristine and had survived its orphan years with no damage. The paint that had splashed over it like semen on a truck driver’s T-shirt had stained the sleeve, but the record itself was flawless. It was a moment of sheer unadulterated joy. I had an uncontrollable urge to snatch the Kool cigarette from the woman’s hands, kiss her peachy lips, rip off her velour pants and make urgent love to her over the cash register. But sense prevailed. I calmly gave her another dollar bill and waited obediently for my fifty cents change. As she handed me the loose coins, her lips curled into a chubby smile, and she gave me the most generous grin I’d seen in three days in Alabama. It had the look of post-coital ecstasy—the look of true love.
Of course, as he notes, northern soul collectors were far from alone. Such initiatives had
a hundred-year history of collectors and black-music pioneers scouring the backwoods of America, visiting brutal prisons, outdoor chain gangs and hidden rural villages, searching for blues performers and for early recordings. […] Northern soul was not the unique leader I had imagined; it was part of a long legacy of trying to collect and catalogue the very best of the African-American heritage from jazz, to blues, and on to soul.
In 2009, just as Frank Wilson’s “Do I love you” came up for auction,
the National Gallery of Scotland had secured the £50 million it needed to prevent Titian’s 16th-century masterpiece Diana and Actaeon being sold at auction. Fearing that Kenny Burrell’s copy of Frank Wilson would also leave Scotland, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek feature for the Sunday Times arguing that northern soul was as worthy of public investment as high art: “Comparing a soul record to a masterpiece by Titian will seem ludicrous to the uninitiated. But leave aside the mores, prejudices and snob value that separate high art and popular culture, and the strange world of northern soul bears very deep similarities with art. Both are driven by collectors who are fixated by rarity, authenticity and the provenance of their collections. So far, both have also resisted the pressure of recession and the value of collections has either increased or held strong. Words like rare, original and limited edition exist in both communities. Respected dealers existed in both worlds and auctions are a familiar mode of transaction. Art and soul share a culture where fakes, bootlegs and shady attempts to replicate the look of original works are not uncommon.”
Cosgrove mentions the multitude of new underground subcultures, like warehouse parties, the Carolina beach scene, the Chicano low-rider scene, and the rare groove scene in London—where the 100 Club also played a major role.
By the millennium, there was a new and lasting schism within northern soul, the latest division in a series of civil wars: those who wanted to look back to the grand days of the past and saw northern as a revivalist and reunion scene; and those clubs that kept the torch burning and insisted on new discoveries and an upfront music policy. Each new era brought with it ever more demanding clubs. […] Many thousands of people who had drifted away from northern soul returned to swell the ranks of new faces who had discovered the music via the scooter scene and still more who had lasted the journey and never left.
The final chapter, opening with the excellent quote
Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born,
describes how social and digital technology has given the scene a new lease of life—YouTube, Facebook groups (where he notes in particular “I used to Go to Stafford All-Nighters”, a veritable popular history project), Mixcloud, and so on.
For all his fundamentalism, Cosgrove admires the new generation:
Younger and brasher than the survivors on the scene, are passionately engaged in the scene and its origins, but have a healthy disregard for its arcane rules: the chin stroking, the soul police regulations and the grumpy insistence that yesterday was always better. […]
The worldwide web has been kind to northern soul. What was once a scene restricted to cardboard boxes and wooden crates in a few obscure clubs is now a global phenomenon, and the footprint that was restricted to a few hundred miles of the industrial north of England now has worldwide reach.
Popular all-nighters now sprung up in Germany, Spain, and Japan (cf. the punk scene in Beijing).
As to gender, while many female singers from the Motown heyday were worshipped by aficionados (as long as they weren’t too well-known), there were few female DJs, and we find little portrayal of the lives of female dancers—like the young Pat Wall from Rochdale, an early denizen of the Twisted Wheel:
While swimming, she would imagine the body turn at the end of a length as part of a dance routine and would simulate the northern soul “swallow dive”. She often practised in the kitchen of her mum’s council house, mastering the smooth sliding style across uneven linoleum, and within a matter of weeks she would compete with any of the Twisted Wheel’s young men. Her dance trucks were mesmerising and her unassuming smile, whispering the lyrics as if she were praying, as if there were no greater music in the world, made her stand out in a crowd of older and brasher men.”
Another regular on the scene was none other than Jane Torvill, who described her 1984 Boléro at the 1984 Winter Olympics as “the dance of my life”—but as Cosgrove gleefully observes, “that had already happened nearly ten years earlier on the floor of Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room.”
As the obscure civil war raged, a more benign figure on the scene was Mary Chapman, who hosted events at Cleethorpes Pier—also including a 1976 appearance of the Sex Pistols as the moral panic over punk exploded. And the much-loved Fran Franklin (1961–2014) gives perceptive insights in documentary footage. More recently, female DJs have become important on the scene.
As usual, however evocatively one writes about music (or ritual), it’s still a compromise: silent immobile text can never approach the sensation of the lived experience (cf. China). Among myriad finds on YouTube, following Tony Palmer’s 1977 This England, try
Note also Ian Levine’s YouTube channel.
* * *
I’m rather envious that they coined the term northern soul 北靈 before I could use it for the ritual groups of Hebei and Shanxi, but ethnographies like this can inspire us (obscurely, as ever) in documenting pilgrimage networks and temple fairs in China. Echoing northern soul aficionados’ aversion to the mainstream, I essayed an arcane Strictly spinoff here.
And as I write, I also delight in the wondrous Bach orchestral suites in a live broadcast from the Proms, alternating with new compositions inspired by them. Though from an utterly different social milieu, devotees of Bach—whether amateur concert-goers or nerdy professors poring over manuscripts and watermarks—have more in common with the early music movement of the northern soul scene than one might think. Up to a point…
 Apart from numerous websites, other books on northern soul include
As an abrasive counterpoint to my recent series of posts on ritual in 1950s’ China, and to follow the setting of Red detachment of women to Bikini kill’s Rebel girl, here’s another fine playlist for the riot grrrl movement (Like I’d Know)—also including tracks from Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, L7, Huggy bear, Sleater-Kinney, The frumpies, Le tigre, The gossip, and Perfect pussy.
While delighting in all manifestations of the Terpischorean muse, and wonderful as it was for me to be playing Bach and doing fieldwork in rural China, I can’t help feeling I was missing out on a lot. Still, the scene endures: here’s a great playlist of more recent bands (see also here). And Bikini kill are on a reunion tour, with a second gig at Brixton tonight.
Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.
I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.
Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).
To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.
I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including
Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.
I’ve added a few more categories and tags, notably
I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as
Some posts are instructively linked in chains:
Most satisfying is this collection of great songs—still not as eclectic as it might become:
Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!
The recent BBC Radio 3 Late Junction programme on the Beijing indie scene (still available here for 20 more days) prompted me to educate myself a bit by exploring further—with my customary disclaimer. Whatever our tastes, our modern ears are imbued with modern sounds (for a somewhat less contemporary take, see here).
As in any society, the Chinese soundscape is diverse. What individuals mean by “music” may often seem comically circumscribed (see also here). Just as “European music” means more than either Beethoven or British pop, so “Chinese music” should encompass all kinds of genres. For some, it may mean the qin zither (which, as I am wont to observe, is like focusing on the clavichord); for others, the schmaltzy solos of the conservatoires or the kitsch song-and-dance ensembles; for folkies like me, the gritty rural shawm bands (cf. here) and the songs of spirit mediums. Of course, the Chinese soundscape is all of the above, and more. Zooming out still further, there’s the whole issue of elite and folk cultures worldwide.
* * *
While Cui Jian still remains iconic, it’s a relief to be reminded that the scene moves on. Like I’d know—it’s largely invisible (inaudible) to me. My first arrival in Beijing in 1986 more or less coincided with the rise of Chinese rock (though I don’t believe I can claim credit). It makes me feel my age—I can tell you much more about temple ritual groups there, now and before 1949.
But the indie scene too is a worthy topic of ethnography, all part of the diverse soundscape. And of course it’s always fluid. The current scene in Beijing, with its diverse techno and clubbing subcultures, has been compared to New York or Berlin—no wonder that artists like Miranda Vukasovic are drawn here.
Besides hanging out with performers, he learns from producers and other industry people, fans, and pundits. The book is an exemplary ethnography, and makes a fine prism to view change in modern China altogether.
As is common worldwide, most of these bands disavow simple political agendas—and not merely out of prudence. And by contrast with the early period after the 1980s’ reforms, people no longer seem so hung up on issues like “But is it Chinese?”. De Kloet delves deeper into such issues; particularly in his Conclusion, he unpacks deeper political meanings.
Anyway, the scene is an important corrective to the Western media image of a brainwashed population cowed by Xi Jinping Thought. It’s worth listening to these bands as you read the latest propaganda from the People’s Daily (as you don’t…). De Kloet also offers a nuanced view on the commercial pop scene:
If we dig deeper, both sonic as well as political realities are more complex and contradictory than we may at first realize, and hence refuse to be essentialized into monolithic meaning like “rebellious” and “totalitarian”, or to be contained in fixed dichotomies like official versus unofficial or resistance versus compliance. Neither state nor artists can be pigeonholed that easily.
Sure, in this field my grasp of taxonomy is impressionistic (rock, underground, punk, noise, metal, hooligan, dakou, depression, grunge, and so on; for hip-hop, see e.g. here). But popular musos are simultaneously capable of wonderfully fine distinctions and not at all hung up on them, as we can see in the Rito y geografia del cante flamenco series. Anyway, I may be doing a bit of genre-bending with this selection.
Punk, including girl bands, makes the most lively sub-tribe (cf. here, including Riot grrrl’s take on China)—as ever, De Kloet’s Chapter 3 “Subaltern sounds” is well worth reading. Many online sites give updates, with bands like Criminal Thought, Gum Bleed, and Torturing Nurse—try this, and listing sites like thebeijinger.com and timeoutbeijing.com (e.g. this 2014 survey); see also this interview with entrepreneur Michael Pettis. For punk in the GDR, see here, and in Madrid, here.
Just a few tracks to whet your appetite:
Hang on the box sound great:
Here are Hedgehog live in Beijing at D22 in 2008:
Carsick Cars—whereas the fieldworker’s choice of Zhongnanhai cigarettes, named after the luxury compound of the Party leadership, has lost its ironic bite, this is more incisive:
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai… I can’t live without Zhongnanhai.
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai… Who the fuck smoked my Zhongnanhai?
De Kloet is also good on “hyphenated scenes”, like pop-rock, pop-punk, folk-rock, and so on. His book also led me to this hard-hitting 2007 song from blind musician Zhou Yunpeng (cf. Mo Yan’s Garlic ballads, cited here under “Old and new stories”):
And here’s a 2010 documentary from Shaun Jefford (and as ever, note the BTL comments):
* * *
For what it’s worth, while I remain deeply committed to the ethnography of rural society, I find all this an invigorating contrast with the fusty, rosy official praise of “traditional culture” and the absurd heritage flapdoodle. It’s gratifying to think that playlists like these must be on the phones of students who attended my recent film screenings in Beijing.
Meanwhile in the poor countryside, perhaps terminally demoralized, much of this is alien to funeral singers in Yanggao; but there too the scene has been changing. And students returning from city colleges to attend the rural funerals of their grandparents may be listening to the grittier urban sounds.
Meanwhile on our own sceptered isle, I’m reliably informed that (as I’m sorry I haven’t a clue would have it) Popular Beat Combos have achieved a certain currency—with singers like Vera Lynn, Lonnie Donegan, and Frank Ifield. Yeah, I’ve got my finger on the pulse all right.
The title of Viv Albertine‘s brilliant memoir Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys derives from her mum’s despairing litany of her daughter’s tastes as a teenager. In her new book To throw away unopened her mum takes centre stage. Structured around a shocking flashpoint, it’s at once harrowing and inspiring. *
Always brutally honest in her account, as daughter, sister, and mother in a matriarchal setup Viv Albertine both comes to terms with anger and makes a compelling case for it.
One of the reasons why feminism took such a strong hold in my mind, and in the minds of many girls of my generation, is that we were brought up by repressed and dissatisfied women who had grown into adulthood during the war, learned new skills, tasted independence, and then had to dissolve back into their dark-brown homes and watch from behind their ironing boards as the swinging sixties unfolded.
On the saccharine brainwashing of pop songs:
Society had the same dreary old expectations of us girls as always: to be attractive, smile, acquiesce to men, search for romantic love and become supportive wives. […] Such an effective way to keep girls and women down and render us ineffective.
I managed to fight off the dogmas of patriarchy, organized religion, capitalism, class deference and respect for authority easily enough. How come I fell at the last fence and impaled myself on the railings of romance?
Where’s the advert on TV telling you to call a freefone number if you’ve been mis-sold, not a pension, but a belief system? My religion turned out to be bogus. I’m still unpicking those decades of conditioning that were stitched, or rather sung, into my brain.
A review can hardly encapsulate her psychological nuance in dissecting the demons of dysfunctional family life. The contrary scenario of a comfortable middle-class family leading contented idyllic lives over the generations is not only less compelling, but it must be rare—even illusory.
Along the way the book also contains valuable social history. She’s good on the disjunctures of urban life, and the unlikely pleasures of its architecture. In her youth, living near the Hornsey Gas Holder No. 1, she appreciates its elegance while comparing it to a Lowry painting in winter.
Like Annie Proulx and Ciaran Carson, she effectively evokes the texture of daily life with long lists of mundane objects, with vignettes on topics like the history of the Craven A cigarettes that her mum smoked. As for the Queen Mother, “No wonder she looks good for her age, she’s never had to carry four pounds of potatoes home.”
Modifying our image of punk history, on a US tour with the Slits in the 70s she looks forward to homely letters from her mum. Even recently, embarking on a weekend away with yet another feckless partner, her detailed inventory of preparations and packing, while hardly exceptional (“just to feel comfortable”), is still sobering—”If men lived in a society that expected them to put that amount of work into a date, they wouldn’t bother dating.”
Reading this traumatic family history, it’s intriguing to return to Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys. Everyone (including men) should read these books!
* While this blog, rashly or mercifully, does venture way beyond Daoist ritual, an encomium from me may not seem the most likely addition to the many rave reviews of the book (e.g. here)—but it’s all ethnography, unpacking the messy complexities of people’s real lives…
Notes from Berlin, 2
In Berlin a couple of weeks ago, apart from my visit to Sachsenhausen I was keen to explore the city’s GDR history, moving on into the 1950s and beyond—the Stasi memorial sites (as the Rough guide notes) making a potent antidote to the trendy Ostalgie of Trabi kitsch. Here my experience of China, learning to empathize with “sufferers” there (Guo Yuhua, after Bourdieu), feels all the more relevant.
To limber up I took the U-Bahn to Alex, which I can’t presume to call by such a familiar name.
Alexanderplatz: the Weltzeituhr and Fernsehturm (1969), with the 13th-century Marienkirche—not leaning towers, more an innocent trompe-l’oeil of my camera…
My splendid host Ian Johnson (whose own writings are a must-read on both China and Germany) made a fine guide for a trip along the remnants of the wall, Checkpoint Charlie and so on.
We passed the Staatsoper, where I performed Elektra in 1980. How shamefully little I knew then, and how limited was my curiosity. Throughout my recent visit to Berlin it finally hits me how very pampered our lives have been compared to the painful decisions that our German contemporaries constantly had to make.
Do click on these links, from a fine series of short films tracing the timeline of the Wall:
Meanwhile Timothy Garton Ash was beginning his long acquaintance with the regime.
Stasi memorial sites
I visited both the Stasi prison and the Stasi museum. Though they’re not so far apart in the Lichtenburg district, I wouldn’t advise trying to do both in one day—the prison tour is excellent, and even by spending the rest of the day there I still only saw a small part of its exhibits. While the museum is less taxing than the prison, its location has retained a more suitably grim, bleak, forbidding air. As in Sachsenshausen, it’s wonderful that these sites are so busy, with many school parties—though I didn’t see any Chinese tour groups among them…
Just a few months before I was born, the major popular uprising of 17th June 1953 throughout the GDR (wiki, and a wealth of online sites, notably here), documented in both exhibitions, is far less known abroad than Budapest 1956 and Prague 1968. Needless to say, the popular uprisings of June 1989 in China are not so called there.
Studying the exhibits of perpetrators and victims, one continues to deplore the appalling ethical morass caused by Nazism—what a terrible price to pay throughout the following decades. Again, what would we have done?
At the Stasi prison (Gedenkstätte memorial) of Hohenschönhausen (formerly a Soviet special camp) the team of wonderful tour guides includes many former inmates; though our guide that day wasn’t among them, he gave us passionate articulate reminders of how crucially important it is to learn lessons amidst the current erosion of crucial rights worldwide.
There were many strands to the counter-culture in literature and music. Icons of the resistance in the arts became figureheads, like singer-songwriters Wolf Biermann (b.1936, exiled in 1976) and Bettina Wegner (b.1947); Bärbel Bohley (1945–2010), whose 1978 painting Nude makes a striking image in the prison; performers Freya Klier (b.1950) and Stephan Krawczyk (b.1955); and Jürgen Fuchs (1950–99). For subversive film in the GDR, see here.
But just as moving in the prison is the series of mugshots of ordinary people making a stand, trying to escape, or just caught up in the maelstrom.
However much I admire our own posturing counter-cultural heroes, all this can only make them seem bland and smug. Sure, the punk movement in London, New York, and so on was important—more so than my life in early music, anyway, though that was also new (“original”!). But apart from getting abused in the Daily Mail, the punk life in the UK hardly involved such serious risks. For the GDR punks,  the “fascist regime” casually snarled by the Sex pistols would have had a far deeper resonance (cf. punk in Madrid, and jazz in Poland).
The Stasi museum also has exhibits on the vast network of IM informants—including punks. The Stasi even managed to recruit two of them in the band Die Firma—“it is not known whether they both knew each other’s secret”. Of course, the “decision” to inform, framed by self-preservation or desperation, and with whatever degree of apathy, was itself no simple matter.
Here they are live in 1988:
But the most basic routine parts of growing up were fraught with anxiety.
The Christian resistance was another crucial focus right through to the 1989 Montag demos that brought the whole system down. The pastor Oskar Brüsewitz burned himself to death in protest in August 1976—just as I was spending an idyllic summer after graduating (cf. Alan Bennett’s wry comment).
Also explored at the museum is the psychology of the Stasi employees.
The whole second floor of the museum preserves the offices of Erich Mielke, head of this whole hideous edifice. It’s a riot of beige and formica (cf. Deutschland 89, scenes of which were filmed there). Mielke’s diagram of the layout for his breakfast is a masterpiece of pedantry—of which, I have to say, my father would have approved.
The diagram has now been cannily immortalized in a mouse-pad, one of the few concessions to modernity in the museum’s suitably antiquated little bookshop—Is Nothing Sacred?
The museum also tellingly depicts the scramble of people all over the east to limit the destruction of Stasi files after November 1989.
* * *
It’s little consolation to reflect that the GDR was surely exceptional in its degree of surveillance, even in East Europe. And in such a vast and predominantly agrarian country as China, for all the horrors of Maoism, and the current intrusive mission, “the mountains are high, the emperor is distant”.
Again it’s worth citing Timothy Garton Ash:
Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken them for granted. You value health more when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all.
And again, I both recoil at this horror that was perpetuated right through my naïve youth, and admire the German determination to document it for future generations.
 Among a wealth of coverage of punk in the GDR, see e.g.
For the 1988 documentary Whisper & SHOUT, see here.
Of my several distinguished namesakes, I will (alas) not be readily confused for my fellow muso Steve Jones, guitarist of the Sex Pistols—imagine the look on the face of his Careers Guidance Officer at school.
Press cuttings about him provide me with hours of harmless fun. This quote might seem to describe one of my own performances of the transition into the finale of Beethoven’s 5th symphony:
We were all looking at one another. It wasn’t panic, it was more confusion.
Another Stephen Jones, of Babybird, received this concert review:
Stephen Jones abused his audience, his band, and himself.
Forty-seven years after playing The Rite of Spring with the National Youth Orchestra (“Yeah, I KNOW…”), I just heard them doing it at the Proms.
In The shock of the new I reflected on the scandalous première, the ballet, jazz and HIP versions, and a rendition on organ.
Like the NYO’s other Proms in recent years (Turangalîla, Mahler 9; cf. here), there’s something special for the audience in experiencing young performers relishing challenging modern masterpieces, sizzling with energy and commitment. The Rite may have become more of a repertoire piece than it was even in 1970, but it never fails to amaze. Even if I missed Boulez—who relished the sensuality as well as the violence of the piece (“Not A Lot of People Know That”—I grew up with his Mahler and Ravel too).
The complete BBC4 broadcast included a feature before The Rite with lovely paeans to the band from some of the great conductors who have worked with them, including Boulez and Rattle—the latter himself an alumnus. Our 1970 Rite with Boulez wasn’t at the Proms, but our 1971 Prom with him included more Gran visits York (sorry, I mean Igor Stravinsky), as well as Bartok, Berg, Webern, and Debussy. Wow, how awesome is that—as we hadn’t yet learned to say...
Rather like the leader of the free world shoving the prime minister of Montenegro aside in Brussels:
(The only logical explanation is that he somehow mistook the occasion for a beauty queen molestation contest with a prize of unlimited ketchup-drenched steaks),
Nina elbows the competition out of the way. In her case the competition includes Maria Callas, Kate Bush, Sid Vicious, and Lady Gaga. As one YouTube BTL comment observes, she could be Klaus Nomi’s sister.
Pre-punk, while still in the GDR, her early song Du hast den farbfilm Vergessen (1974) is nuanced:
With all due respect to free healthcare, she is one of the great things to come out of the GDR—which she did, of course, inevitably. Even if the GDR “didn’t always have enough bananas” (my book, p.147), at least Honecker could pat himself on the back for inadvertently nurturing a superstar.
Whether or not you subscribe to Nina’s Weltanschauung, her vocal technique is, um, breathtaking. Here’s a live version of Naturträne:
Some more BTL comments:
This is what comes out when you stuff highly talented kids with best education and at one point they start to think for themselves.
Please, when I die I want to be reincarnated as her mic.
She gives Sid Vicious a run for his money in My way (this also from 1978):
And listen how she subverts Somewhere over the rainbow:
Good to see the Leipzig Big Band accompanying her instead of Bach for a change. I’m not sure I’m quite ready for her version of Erbarme Dich, though. OK, she belongs to a particular moment in time—but expressive culture always does, like Bach.
Almost anyone knows more than I do about punk, Country, film music, and so on. But when I write about them, however naively, my own narrow classical upbringing only serves as a reminder of what a very basic part of the soundscape all such popular genres are for anyone born since around 1900. This is just as true for WAM performers and the Li family Daoists—and even for scholars who interpret them. We really can’t bury our heads (ears) in the sand any longer, or unhear the sounds all around us.
But that’s only one rationale for the growing role of popular music in ethnomusicology since at least the 1960s—from Wilfrid Mellers on the Beatles or the wide-ranging studies of Susan McClary, to all the important work on genres in Asia and Africa, and so on. More fundamentally, I return to “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpischorean muse“: all kinds of musicking in all societies should be treated on an equal footing—Amy Winehouse, Erbarme Dich, and Daoist ritual really do deserve to be part of the same celebration (for a great playlist, see here).
* * *
That’s very different from the old cliché of “music is an international language”. For better and for worse, it really isn’t (see here, and here): in any tiny region of the world there is incomprehension, with music (and culture generally) delineating barriers as much as commonalities—and that’s what I’d like to overcome.
Guests for my fantasy dinner-party this week (Friday to Monday):
Jaroslav Hašek, Stella Gibbons, Flann O’Brien, Harpo Marx, Keith Richards, Viv Albertine, Zoe Williams, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Caitlin Moran, Diane Morgan [far-fetched stage name of Philomena Cunk—Ed.], and Bridget Christie.
Dress optional. 1859 for 1900. That gives them 41 years.
It might be churlish of me to worry that Hašek and Myles might not shine in a large mixed group. But hey, it’s a fantasy.
Veering somewhat off the beaten track, here’s Klaus Nomi (1944–83) singing Purcell’s Cold song:
Nomi was singing the song shortly before becoming an early victim of AIDS. But it still recalls the vibrant experimentalism of the New York scene, with punk and so on—like Diaghilev’s Paris, or indeed New York after the war. For more on the American minimalist scene, try Alex Ross, “Beethoven was wrong” (The rest is noise, ch.14); and on BBC Radio 3, Tom Service.
Meanwhile England was buzzing too. Apart from punk, we had the films of Peter Greenaway, like The draughtsman’s contract (1982—just before Lost Jockey’s Buzz Buzz Buzz, and Madonna’s stunning debut album!) with Michael Nyman’s exhilarating minimalist take on Purcell:
And his funky Don Giovanni:
All this, note, at a time when it was Neither Profitable Nor Popular.
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the world in a poor village in north China, Li Qing was leading the revival of his hereditary tradition of Daoist ritual, copying a full set of their manuals, preserved by his uncle Li Peisen. Indeed, having noted the importance of percussion for the minimalists, they might enjoy the cymbal patterns of the Daoists, with their complex hocketing.
Later (we’re back in England with the counter-tenor now), Martin Jacques, in The Tiger Lilies, was spellbinding too:
For a roundup with further posts, see here.
* Note for Rowan: There, I did notice some popular culture at the time…
Apart from its spacey vibe, there’s one detail of Debbie Harry’s song that Yer Average fan will experience instinctively, but the tedious analytical bent of the musicologist may home in on: the hallucinatory temporary modulation at the end of the third line (find/blind), fleetingly sketching a major triad on la—all the more ironic for the deflation expressed by the lyric.
That harmonic shift reminds me of rag Marwa, with its implied major scale on Dha/la (A major, one might say) over the Sa–Pa/do–so/C–G drone, the flat re (C♯) clashing with the tonic. Sure, Heart of glass hardly compares with the complexities of the ascending and descending scales of the rag, worked through over a long period, but hey.
Most transcendental is Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra vina, in his last year:
Or Nikhil Banerjee on sitar:
Here’s a sarangi version from Sultan Khan:
For another rendition on sarangi by Ram Narayan, see here.
Still thinking about Alan Bennett’s feet and early religious culture:
In the wonderful song Jerusalem, rather like those questions they ask you at the airport check-in desk, you think all the answers are going to be “No”, but you have to keep on your toes (sic, see below) just in case.
Great that it’s tipped for our new national anthem, to replace the meretricious God save the Queen (although the version here is fine)—but we have to take care not to “leave it unattended at any time” in case it gets hijacked by “Paul Nuttall and the UKIPs”.
Mind you (and talking of keeping on your toes), if I had an anthem like this (Wow! Italian opera at its most intoxicating! 1831-ish, see here)
even I would score a goal like this:
I was in Washington DC with the amazing Hua family shawm band in 2002 when Brazil won the World Cup. We all crowded into the hotel bar early in the morning to cheer them on, suitably lubricated with A Pint of Plain—It’s Your Only Man.
And then there’s our fantasy football team/Daoist ritual band—
[Been at the Bombay Sapphire again, Dr Jones?—Ed.]
As with feminist punk, vocal styles of the world, the organology of the world’s instrumentarium, and indeed any other human activity, the taxonomies made by ordinary people are evident from their fine discriminations of nuance between pop genres that may seem arcane to the outsider—like acid house, drum and bass, grunge, indie, metal, Northern soul (“Naa, I’m not into the Manchester sound, guys”), rap, hip-hop, and even trainers, FFS (don’t ask me…).
And just the same goes for rural dwellers’ perceptions of ceremonial genres and ritual activity in any single county of China: shawm bands, geomancers and spirit mediums (distinctions within the latter partly gender-based),  amateur sects, temple priests, occupational household ritual specialists, inner and outer altars, civil and martial altars, Buddhist Daoists and Daoist Buddhists (I kid you not),  “northern” and “southern” ritual wind bands around Beijing,  opera troupes, singers, bards, beggars….
Taxonomy is not merely the preserve of the fusty academic; it’s part of what makes us all human.
Such perceptions can also arouse passionate and bitter disputes—never more so than between, and within, religions (if less so in China, notwithstanding imperial persecutions). But classification doesn’t have to equate with building walls. Whereas the brutish black-and-white (sic) xenophobia of a certain Tangerine fuckwit suggests that his sensibilities may not be so finely tuned, taxonomy can also reveal connections and build bridges.
 For just one region, see Adam Chau, Miraculous response, pp.54–8.
 See several reports in the Daojiao yishi congshu series, and Overmyer, Ethnography in China.
 See also my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 1.
While I’m on the topic of feminist songs, and continuing from Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys, this is another fantastic piece of, um, diachronic ethnographic herstoriography:
Predictably, bands from East and West coasts of North America dominate the list. For any China-watchers branching out into Riot grrrl and Bikini kill, try this:
Indeed, Feels blind was released in 1991, the year I first met the late great household Daoist priest Li Qing in Yanggao…
The UK comes up a strong second on the list—not least the amazing Poly Styrene, and The Slits, and there’s even a great early PJ Harvey number (roll over “late Beethoven“). The playlist does suggest the wider nature of the scene, with Volpes from Spain and the Swiss band Kleenex. But I do wonder if Pitchfork’s postbag has been flooded with a letter from a Mrs Ivy Trellis of North Wales, deploring the lack of French, German, or Spanish bands—or indeed Dame Vera Lynn. Not to mention Pussy Riot, or Chinese bands… For more female punk playlists, see here.
Consider this an addition to my growing category of topics about which I know Fuck All. I guess covering feminist punk in a blog about Daoist ritual is marginally less implausible than the other way round—I do look forward to that, though.
Talking of Brief encounter, Trevor Howard also appeared, remarkably, in the title role of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (Vivian Stanshall, 1980)
—yet another gem that I missed at the time.
It’s hard to classify—a Spike Milligan remake of Last year at Marienbad?
That was inedible muck. And there wasn’t enough of it.
Worthy of the great Flann O’Brien is the line
If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink—I’d spend it on drink.
Along with punk, the film was part of the rich tapestry of British culture at the time (please be upstanding for God save the queen)
Under the rubric of delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, having just added a meretricious page on Gregorian chant, I now offer an equally piecemeal post on punk.
Further to Lives in jazz, Viv Albertine’s memoir
(to give it its full title—her mum’s reproach to her as a teenager) is a beautiful inspiring book, full of sincere humanity and insight. We can draw a veil over the story of her messy “dalliance” (dunno why I’m suddenly coming over all Jane Austen) with Johnny Rotten. The account of her post-punk life is no less compelling than that of her time in The Slits, with their amazing singer Ari Up (RIP). Women, and sexism, in punk are justly favoured topics in musicology and glossies alike—more so, I note, than Daoist ritual (funny, that). For female punk band Vulpes in Madrid, see here.
For Viv Albertine’s next book, see here.
You can, and must, watch her singing it live on video too, but that recording is astounding. I was busy being a Boulez groupie… OK, there’s room for technique in punk too, but it’s not quite the point; I could presumably square that song with my snobby sensibilities long before I also learnt to rejoice in the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. Or Daoist ritual…
Just as much as the Matthew Passion, or Wozzeck, it makes want to learn German:
Natur am Abend, stille Stadt
Verknackste Seele, Tränen rennen
Das alles macht einen mächtig matt
Und ich tu’ einfach weiterflennen
We can save punk in China for another time—but again, it’s all part of the rich ethnographic tapestry. Not quite punk, but Cui Jian’s classic song Nothing to my name
prompted a fine complaint from Wang Zhen, veteran of the Long March:
“What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?”
Mutatis mutandis, Thatcher might have concurred.
 Pedantic note: most superior reviews abide by the title’s lack of punctuation.