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A warm revolution
Music, ripping it up and 'making change'
Everything is about change these days – ‘change-making’, system-change’ and a myriad of other euphemisms from various silos of academia and practice – including my own field of psychotherapy and psychology. We’re always banging on about ‘development’ or ’transformation’; finding new ways of describing the ‘self improvement’ or ‘change process’ or the ‘healing paradigm’ - as if we could plan our route from A to B.
I’ve always been sceptical about this mindset; in fact any mindset that promises predictable outcomes; particularly those of a ‘growth’ or ‘transformation’ variety. I’d rather trust the organic, ecological chaos of life. Which is where, for me, music usually comes in.
This essay was prompted by a post on a Warm Data forum by friend, warm data host and fellow Unpsychology editor, Lesley Maclean. She posted the trailer video for the film Rip It Up And Start Again and wrote, "I loved watching this both because this was the music I listened to as I grew into adulthood, but listening to these musicians talking about what they were doing really evokes the symmathesy
This essay is my response – my contribution to the discussion…
By the way, one of the talking heads in the film is Mark Stewart, of The Pop Group (and loads of other bands since). He died earlier this year (2023), so there is some poignancy here – a bitter-sweetness that we often find in the world of music. His legacy continued with this recent video, Cast No Shadow, which was produced alongside the Rip it Up project.
1 Rip it up
It occurred to me, as I watched the trailer for Rip It Up and Start Again, that music movements – these organic, orgasmic explosions of culture – are places where ‘change’ really does take place. I wasn’t sure at the time that Post-Punk was really my scene (of course, there wasn’t a scene, but many scenes) but seeing those bands and the artists talking made me realise how much their influence seeped into my consciousness. And, like a number of other bits of revisiting I’ve embarked upon recently, I can see that the organic integrations of post-punk and related music movements might epitomise Warm Data, complexity and change in ways that self-conscious consciousness-raising can never do.
Revolution starts with intention, spontaneity and ‘ripping it up’; then, all too often, it gets rigidified into rules and tribes. Almost by definition, a cultural revolution only lasts as long as the people involved continue to stick two fingers up at… well, everyone else. Once they become part of a scene, or a movement, or the culture, it’s time to pass on to the next generation – or withdraw to the shadows to keep a small flame burning.
Back in the day - the days when I was growing up as a teenager – pre- rather than post-punk, my revolution came from Ziggy and Mott (the Hoople), the cool rockier end of Glam, which fucked with gender norms in quaint ways that could really only shock the 1970s denizens of Middle England. It wasn’t a real revolution of course, and I wasn’t a real revolutionary. Despite my leftist leanings, revolution seemed scary and a little uncivilised.
And then punk came, and this did seem like a revolution, but it was over before it was even a thing – morphing swiftly into post-punk and new wave. This grew quickly into a vast and diverse scene, so it was hard to get a handle on what bands were cool or authentic and who were the pragmatists, hanging on the coat tails of the 'revolution' in order to make it.
As I say, I wasn’t much of an actual revolutionary. At university, I remember having a debate/argument with a very articulate member of the Socialist Society (or some such group I had joined). I was taking a pragmatic democratic-left stance, and he, a revolutionary marxist, was just so scornful of my naïveté and my lame mainstream positions.
But at a gig, I felt like a revolutionary, even if only for the evening, and the best bands always had a sense of transgression about them – and I’ve held onto this.
There were other musical revolutions brewing across the pond of course. By the time ‘rock’ was fading into MOR and AOR and earnest, endless solos, soul and disco had long been fucking with our feet. And as this music came to Europe – in the UK, spawning the Northern Soul scene in the North; more glittery Disco in the South – there was a multi-tentacled revolution growing worldwide.
It eventually became Electronica, House, Rave and Techno, Drum and Bass, Hip Hop, Garage and Grime, and these merged with each other (and also with post-punk, new wave and, later grunge). As they emerged into the mainstream, they were all ruthlessly commercialised (as music from the margins always is) and sometimes lost their edge. However, there were always a few that kept their edge. The seeds and roots of new transgressions, perhaps.
A little later in my life, House was part of my revolution and revelation and I can hear the transgression and yes, the punk sensibility, in it even today* - just listen to something like Mike Dunn’s If I Can’t Get Downto hear an artist fuck with your head and feet big time! House can still be revolutionary in the ways that Glam and Disco could sometimes be. Born from the US Gay/Black experience, and then organically growing in many directions from a myriad of seeds and roots, today it still carries a LGBTQA+ inclusiveness that enables people - identifying as queer, gay, trans or non-binary - to move together: still 4-4 on the dance floor.
*As a Warm counterpoint to Rip It Up…, I might suggest the recent Glitterbox documentary, Where Love Lives: A Story of Dancefloor Culture & Expression
2. Nostalgia sucks
Some personal context. I’ve been around the ‘personal growth’ scene now for far too long. My excuse: a psychotherapist is always on the lookout for new ways of helping, but I was always more a fellow traveller, and I never really bought the bright, shiny fantasies embedded in the New Age.
However, it seemed to be where the progressive action was once the political and cultural Left in the West seemed to go into terminal decline. New Age, humanistic and holistic worlds seemed inclusive and open-minded. If not revolutionary, they were certainly questioning of social, cultural and economic structural norms - and sometimes seemed to lean towards including the other-than-human ‘voice’, paying attention to the Earth, and what humans have been doing to it.
However, one of my hesitations and constant niggles about these integral and holistic places that I often seemed to find myself, was that the art was always a bit obvious, and the music was often, and definitely still can be, a bit shit.
Plinky-plonk, diurnal beats for the meditation vibes; earnest jazzers and living-off-the-land folkies; appropriated ‘world music’, played by white people in dreadlocks and harem pants. And the art: brightly coloured over-literalised spiritual and transcendent pieces drawn from themes from Hinduism or indigenous cultures – and lots of pictures of magical trees (tongue in my cheek right there – I like a good tree picture as much as the next person!)
What sometimes seemed to be missing from these places was an appreciation and celebration of the genuine transgression, transformation and anarchic joy that are to be found in the waves of here-and-now underground musical movements, where the music might jar and challenge and hurt your ears and your sensibilities! It might often be massively awful, but is NEVER just a little bit shit.
Maybe, these holistic and integral folks are a bit too evolved for all that blood and thunder. Or maybe they have succumbed to the understandable human tendency to stay with what we know. If we were brought up in the sixties, then what people sometimes call ‘my era’ might still be the music of the sixties – much of which was genuinely part of a cultural revolution at the time. Or the seventies, eighties and so on. Or we might kid ourselves that jazz, punk, Northern Soul, reggae, or traditional folk are still where the edge lies…
Everything moves on…
I guess we all move on. I might be an old leftie, but I’m no longer stuck in the days of Red Wedge, the Anti-Nazi League and the old-skool disco and dance music that fucked so wonderfully with my head and feet back then. They’re all still in there, of course, but I’m always looking out for what is bubbling under, because that’s where the warm stuff is now…
And these are the bubbling days of what McKenzie Wark calls the ‘Carbon Liberation Front’: the name she gives to the progenitors and protagonists in the game of global warming, mass extinction and climate emergency, together with the double-binds that see governments and corporations unable or unwilling to move beyond our civilisation's inherent straight-line reliance on carbon to keep the system running.
Is there a punk/post-punk equivalent that can respond to this artistically? Or will we be locked in an endless loop of looking back, to either an imagined golden age or historical dystopia, as we advance into a hot-mess of a warming future, to a soundtrack of power ballads, appropriated dub beats and earnest singer-songwriters?
In Rip It Up, founder-member of The Pop Group, Mark Stewart (who died this year) says, with characteristic grumpiness:
“I’m loathe to talk about the past, but because you’re making this bloody film, I’d like to put a few things straight, of this, what I call, historical revisionism”.
He wants to warn us off nostalgia. He says it right. Nostalgia sucks. We all do it from time to time, but when it sticks, we get stuck. And music gets stuck more than most things in our neo-liberal, commercially compulsive culture.
In truth, there were no golden ages - culturally, musically, ecologically, politically. There is history, of course, and we should honour that, and our ancestors – the transgressors and revolutionaries who came before us. Yet perhaps the only thing we can ever say about the times we grew up in – our so-called ‘formative years’ – is that these particular experiences and expressions are part of the person we became. They are part of our ’self’; not in any predictable or deterministic way, but certainly in a sense that is deeply relational and collective.
It’s not development or growth, but it is an ongoing, lifelong process of revealing, of catalysing, of bringing together elements in relationship and creation that will, before too long, spring apart again.
One of the cultural myths of our age is that through our development we improve ourselves. This is a fallacy. For all we know the women and men who were at the heart of the post-punk revolution back then, have not improved themselves. They might actually have fucked themselves up. Never meet your heroes, we are told, and I think this is wise – especially heroes from back in the day. They might not have grown at all. They might have been arseholes back then, and now they might be bigger arseholes. That doesn’t take away what they achieved, but the baton of relevance is always handed on – and it takes great self awareness and grace to recognise this and to step back or move aside.
Films like Rip it Up and Where Love Lives also challenge us (if we are open to it) to examine another of the great fallacies of progressive thought in the 21st century. I will call this the ‘Gaia Assumption’.
Gaia and the City
Based originally on James Lovelock’s and Lynn Margulis’ revolutionary Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s, it makes the claim that there is some homeostatic, ecologically balanced, indigenous world of the wild that humans (and other-than-humans) could and should return to – and that we will all be able to live happy, harmonious and creative lives.
Despite criticism (such as that from Stephen J Gould that Gaia is "a metaphor, not a mechanism”), and insistence from Lovelock that Gaia is not a spiritual or metaphysical model, the Gaia Hypothesis has morphed into the Gaia Assumption – a taken for granted fixed-in-stone reality in Green and New Age circles about the way the world is.
Gaia has intention, in this reading, and is a spiritual, holistic entity – far from the intention of Lovelock’s and Margulis’ audacious (revolutionary!) theory of complex scientific systems – that planted the seeds for new branches of systemic scientific research in subsequent years.
In practice and in theory, this assumption and belief system has so many layers of delusion embedded within it. It is riven through with short-term historicism, moral relativism, eugenicist assumptions that stem from colonialist privilege and simplistic myths of nature as a kind of balanced, spiritual healer, working harmoniously together with our ‘natural immune’ systems.
In her excellent book Molecular Red, McKenzie Wark pushes back against the idea of nature as inherently pristine, balanced or whole – the metaphor on which the New Age and its fellow travellers base their Gaia Assumption.
She writes of nature as:
“recalcitrant, enervating, unpredictable, only ever partially known, and if known at all, known badly, through the metaphors of the time. It has no ecology, in the sense that it is nature without guarantees. It has no necessary tendency to stability or order, no bias towards homeostasis. Its history is a history of metabolic rifts, of varied cosmological, geological, and biological causes”.
In other words, it's complex, and not in a linear way, and far from inherently benevolent. Wark continues:
“In the era of the Carbon Liberation Front, there is no way to return to a lost ecology where that is understood as a cyclical, healing and soothing natural orderliness”.
So how is this at all relevant to musical revolutions?
Punk, House, Post-Punk, Jazz, Soul, Hip Hop, Folk - all the major 20th century musical movements and their social, cultural, political and artistic reference points – have some things in common. They come, not from integral, holistic dreams of wilderness and nature, but emerge from human struggle and labour – most often in urban settings (in the City) set against the ‘enervating’ aspects of nature and established historical and societal human norms, with their inherent inequalities and straight-line philosophies. These urban and suburban movements (Detroit, Chicago, Berlin, Liverpool, Manchester and way, way beyond) stand for the expression of something chaotic, archaic, liberating and communitarian hidden deep within the human spirit.
It’s ironic that, for all the talk of ‘rewilding’ the mind in eco-spaces, it is often in these transgressive, urban, cultural spaces – framed most clearly by ‘popular’ music – that we are truly in touch with the ‘wild’ parts of being human! In some ways, the ‘back to nature’ pseudo-rebels can be deeply reactionary and tame, stuck in nostalgia and often turning their back on the realities and complexities of our times, perhaps not wishing to face up to the personal and collective trauma that they hold.
On the flipside, to be ‘punk’ means accepting reality in the here-and-now — with all the grime and shit and trauma - and making art out of these unlikely ingredients.
I don’t want to set up a false polarity here, nor to make music into some over-serious analogy for life and philosophy. People like what they like – and there are transgressive and ‘punk’ strands in all musical genres – including metal, country and traditional folk. And, of course, music can be soothing and transcendent, calming, predictable, uplifting and spiritual too, and this is entirely OK.
However, the often self-conscious New Age practices of transformation – slickly turned into monetised products by ever adaptable capitalist systems – offer nothing more than can be experienced (often more deeply and viscerally) on a dance floor or at a gig - or even in our bedrooms.
As has probably been said many times before, what lies behind punk (and post-punk and House and all the rest of these revolutions) is an attitude – embedded in the present moment – that emerges when people come together at a particular unpredictable confluence of circumstances, without – as a number of the post-punk pioneers say in the film – a rulebook.
I was reminded of this while reading China Miéville’s exhilarating history of the Russian October Revolution of 1917. All through those extraordinary few months, there was such a flurry of social, cultural and political activity and change. The action ebbed and flowed through St Petersburg and beyond at a breathtaking speed. Everything was up for grabs, there were no rules – or rather the rules (even those agreed upon the night before!) were always up for changing.
It felt a bit like the Rip It Up musical revolution and the ways streams of thought and culture converged into a raging river. rushing downstream with the speed and intensity and sense that anything is possible – right here, right now.
And it’s inevitable, I think, that such intensive, creative chaos (in whatever field it emerges) eventually subsides into a state in which there is some consideration of what this means in terms of ‘organisation’. Organisation is, after all, the way human beings make practical sense of our world and live pragmatically day-to-day.
We know what happened to the Russian Revolution as its swollen blood-red river moved downstream. So maybe this reminds us that this move to organisation might be the most dangerous phase, in which the complexity, creativity, chaos and transgressive relational joy can either be welcomed as bringing something new and essential for the human (and other-than-human) condition, or rejected, ‘othered’, twisted or pushed back into the shadows – and so the potential for ‘change’ is lost.
On the positive side – and sticking with warm musical revolutions now – there will always be a new wave of true rebels and artists ready to rip it up and start again. I salute them, and look forward to listening to their noise; at first screwing my face up at the brash, unfamiliarity of it and then later getting it, sensing that there is once again a tear in the fabric through which the gods of noise can be heard.
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Notes and references
Rip It Up And Start Again is a film by Nikolaos Katranis and Russell Craig Richardson about the global Post Punk scene of 1978 to 1984. The extended trailer can be found HERE.
Symmathesy is a word coined by Nora Bateson: “this notion of mutual learning taking place in-between contexts”. Find out more in her Substack article HERE on Unpsychology Voices.
Where Love Lives: A Story of Dancefloor Culture & Expression is a film produced by Defected Records about the House and Dance music scene and the people involved in it.