Tag Archives: post-punk

42 – Public Image Ltd: Careering

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Last week, televisions were pumping out The Jam and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, as Channel 4 broadcast yet another Tube retrospective. For those who grew up with Youtube and iTunes, The Tube was not a docusoap about the London underground, but a pop programme from another time and planet. It was hosted by a boogie-woogie Blackheather called Jools Holland and a flirty punk fairy called Paula Yates, and it was filmed in Newcastle. You could be forgiven for thinking that Tyneside was a grim place in the 1980s: dole queues and Jimmy Nail in a hard hat. But for three hours every Friday, it turned into a noisy Freshers’ Week disco replete with inappropriate come-ons, exhibitionist dancing and impulse haircuts. The Tube was somewhere to the left of Top of the Pops. The chart acts of the day were well-represented – to think that one of Madonna’s earliest TV appearances was a Tube broadcast from the Hacienda! – but it also offered a chance to perform album tracks and one-offs. Then there were the interviews, sometimes dull, sometimes shambolic, sometimes completely unexpected (for example, a rare sighting of Scott Walker coming out of reclusion to promote Climate of Hunter). And, naturally, there was a hell of a lot of Howard Jones.

From Muriel Gray’s leftie squatter demeanour (she was a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art!) to Michael Hutchence’s Samson barnet, The Tube was the eighties in microcosm, just as the nineties yin-yanged between earnest old Later and the vanity and vomit of The Word. Every pre-internet generation had its spirit-of-the-age, sign-of-the-times music programming (and lo and behold, Later is still with us, a jolly old BBC institution). But for so many, it is still The Old Grey Whistle Test that proves most durable in the memory. The gatefold-sleeved seventies! Beards! Bob Harris proclaiming the greatness of Lynyrd Skynyrd! Not so old or grey, it seems, Whistle Test refuses to die a dignified death. The number of Tube retrospectives pales into insignificance compared to the frequency with which the BBC wheels out its archive of old Boz Scaggs clips. It seems that the phrase ‘music lover’ is a synonym of ‘seventies’ and a near-cognate of ‘hi-fi’. And Whistle Test erected an altar to that holy trinity, with a Strat for a crucifix.

Of course, that’s the rehearsed and rehashed version. Peek beneath the fug of smug and you get clip after clip of groundbreaking noise. The cliché is that Whistle Test didn’t know what to do with punk – Bob Harris’s infamous put-down of the New York Dolls, like a parent weathering an adolescent tantrum – yet here we have Patti Smith at the peak of her genius, and there we have The Damned smashing it up with glee. Harris gave way to Annie Nightingale, who reigned supreme from 1978 to 1981, and suddenly it was as if Peel’s festive fifty had gone visual. Many of the performances from those years, my favourite years in the entire history of pop music, are hair-raisingly brilliant. For all the surface anarchy, The Tube never cajoled truly great performances from its roster (though there are some pearls to be found). But Whistle Test? Just watch Gang of Four shredding their way through ‘To hell with poverty’ in 1981. Andy Gill, inscrutable of face but fleet of funk, gyrating over his guitar. John King, looking for all the world like a young estate agent who’s had his lager spiked with amphetamines, sweating his way through the slogans. I wonder if Norman Tebbitt ever saw it. Or what about Siouxsie Sioux, bathed in chilly blue light as she hiccups her way through ‘Metal Postcard’? On Top of the Pops you’d get the Banshees miming to one of punk’s greatest crossover hits, the irrepressible gongs-and-cymbals artillery of ‘Hong Kong Garden’; and on Whistle Test, despotic death-dirge. Fabulous.

Your legs might have twitched to Gang of Four: definitely danceable. And your head might have nodded to Siouxsie and the Banshees: metronomic, marchable. But what in God’s name would you have done in 1980 when Public Image Ltd performed ‘Careering’ to an unprepared public? Is that…Johnny Rotten there? The old punks were scratching their Mohicans in disbelief. And Sid barely cold in the ground! He’d be turning in his grave, though undoubtedly tangled up in a confusion of offbeats. And what happened to the golden rule of punk – three chords repeated over three minutes? This tune doesn’t even have chords! Not a single bloody one!

I first heard ‘Careering’ on a Rough Trade post-punk compilation in the mid-2000s. We were at the height of a revival of sorts, but while certain bands du jour clearly found inspiration in some of the other bands on the album (XTC, Delta 5), I found nobody attempting to emulate PiL. Nevermind the music itself, there was no-one around even entering into that spirit, that ethos: a vertiginous position balancing on the very cliff-edge of popular music, surveying the great canyon of nothing below. Of course, that frightening freedom no longer exists – PiL’s brave new world is, as they might have put it, a metal box now, contained, catalogued and knowable. Back in 1979, however, it was terra incognita. I’m not sure I would have even opened the box, for fear of what might have lurked inside. At least with Pandora it was butterflies. But with Public Image Ltd it was bacter-iaaaa. You thought it was clichéd to call a song ‘infectious’? Well, think again, friend. This one will have you running to the doctor for a prescription.

The Metal Box album had already been previewed by a hit single in the summer of 1979, ‘Death Disco’. I kid you not; it got to number twenty in the UK chart. Perhaps the public were expecting more bright fodder a la ‘Public Image’ itself (a top ten effort with chiming guitars and self-referential lyrics that now sounds tame compared to what followed it). Perhaps they were so hung up on disco at the time that they conveniently ignored the death. Well, you could sort of dance to it; it even plundered Swan Lake, though it sounds a bit like Tchaikovsky’s being murdered in a souk. It’s actually a song about cancer – surely the only one to have ever made it onto Top of the Pops. To think Mike Read would one day initiate a ban on Frankie Goes to Hollywood. That was in his regal, Saturday Swapshop days. It’s quite something to watch him in 1979, introducing ‘Death Disco’ just as he might have announced The Dooleys or Boney M. The next single, ‘Memories’, also had a crisp disco hi hat, though as in so many of the tracks on Metal Box, it’s processed and phased, and ever so slightly deprived of oxygen. It got to number sixty. There, that’s more like it.

There is a real case to be had that the hour-long (yes, hour-long!) Metal Box is the most far-reaching of all those post-punk albums released in 1979. As distinctive and original in its sound as Unknown Pleasures, it nevertheless takes rock music even further away from its origins in the blues. Only two years earlier – less than the time it takes your average band to write and record one album these days – John Lydon was fronting a group that played standard 1-4-5 progressions and mouthed off about rebellion. However thrilling The Sex Pistols were, they were trying to replant a seed, trying to re-water the roots of rock ‘n’ roll: anarchy and thrash. Metal Box pulls up the roots completely. ‘Poptones’, for example, is hilariously named. Whatever pop might be, it’s certainly not this spiralling, enervated shoulder-shrug. The album even ends with a track called ‘Radio 4’, surely the least rock ‘n’ roll of all stations. A synth instrumental of cool, neoclassical beauty, it’s the final shock of an artwork that defies all assumptions.

These tracks variously coil like snakes, bang off their own walls like spiders trapped in glasses, wind and bend like Borgesian mazes. And in the centre of the labyrinth, a Minotaur. ‘Careering’ is the most radical track of all, a ‘song’ which as its title suggests, constantly ricochets against its own sides. The fade-in beginning sends a ripple of electricity through the room. Detuned synthesizers, an anguished howl, a bang that could be gunfire, a door closing or an industrial machine clanking in an abandoned factory, and then Jah Wobble’s dubby bass right up in the mix. Mist and shadows; almost unbearably high and low frequencies spaced out, stretched, as if all previous pop music had been operating within only one octave.  The sole anchor is that bass-line; in fact, it’s the only thing that seems to have anything resembling conventional pitch. Still, it’s slippery and uneasy. You have to work to follow it. And if you don’t follow it, you’re lost in something near to agony. Or ecstasy. I’ve yet to figure out which.

‘Is this living?’ asks John Lydon, which is really a question about dying, of course. We give birth astride of a grave, in the words of Samuel Beckett. Yet perhaps it’s a rhetorical question that actually yields an answer, and a surprising one: a resounding ‘yes’. Rather as I feel with Magazine’s ‘The light pours out of me’ (you can read my thoughts on that here), this is music that sees life and death as the same thing, and thus despair and release are also the same. To many people, ‘Careering’ will sound like torture; a thumbscrew record. But once you readjust your ears and clear your head, it really is the most marvellous noise. Perhaps watching the Whistle Test clip will convince you, as it did the rather shellshocked Annie Nightingale after Lydon’s bathetic ‘that’ll do’, that this is ‘the most powerful performance [you’ve] ever seen’ on a television music programme. Keith Levene doesn’t so much play the Sequential Circuits synth as karate chop it into battered submission; all it can do is spew out whooshes of air and cries of pain; his guitar is no less a percussion instrument here, completely denatured. The visual presence of Lydon is almost a distraction – spirit of ’76 stuff – but then, that’s also the point; this is a familiar figure gone utterly offroad, ironically thinking nothing of his ‘career’ and everything of his ability to create something unspeakably original with what little conventional talent he has. The whole package is almost queasy. It’s borne of that state of mind that usually only belongs to the ill and the fevered, where the body and mind are simultaneously both numbed and hyperaware. You see, it isn’t really a song at all. It’s a quality of air; a change of state; a visit from the afterlife. You also need an aspirin after you’ve listened to it. Or a bit of Haydn. Something clean and symmetrical, something with form and tradition. This thick, sulphurous stew of reggae, Krautrock, Eastern drone and microtone is pretty much British popular music’s Rite of Spring moment.

Three years later, and Public Image Ltd (sans Levene and Wobble) appeared on The Tube. You know what they played? ‘Anarchy in the UK’. Johnny, you can’t half be rotten sometimes! Still, there was a brief time when you were more Radio 4 than Channel 4. And more radical than either of them. And it’s all there in that metal box. Open the padlock, and set those bacteria free.

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35 – Magazine: The light pours out of me

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Ten years ago, August would have stretched. The dust of high summer would have clogged up the clockwork somehow, slowed the tick. But days are shorter now, now I’m in my thirties. September has already knocked at the door, and here I am again, contemplating the darkening of days, the sudden need for woollens, the transition from beers and barbecues to tea and toast. I-pod mixes on the terraces give way to vinyl in the lounge, reggae basslines to frosty string quartets and fireside folk-strumming.

I love the approach of autumn: it’s my favourite season. I’m conscious that ‘autumnal’ is one of those words music journalists rely on inordinately to describe burnished Americana or acoustic contemplation, but it always fits. It’s the melancholy passage of time, the ‘mellow fruitfulness’ of Keats’ ode; it’s that faded Instagram treatment people seem to love, yellowing and browning the cast of the image. In that direction tend most of those early seventies Island label stalwarts – the John Martyns, Nick Drakes and Fairports – as well as the moonshine-and-clapboard minstrels (the Crosbys, Stills, Nashes and Youngs, and their Fleet Foxy descendants). The slow drawing down of the blinds is accepted, welcomed, and harmonised, before being photographed, sepia-tinted and immortalised on the front of a cult album. Lovely.

But there are those who do not go gentle into that good night. Those who rage against the dying of the light. When I was an undergraduate student, chewing my nails obsessively and pinning song lyrics to my bare walls, autumn terms always had a tension about them. After the indolence of the long summer vacation, I would face the new university year with a vague dread, anxiously anticipating the highs and lows and the fallout costs (killer hangovers, snotty colds, nosedives in self-esteem, the usual crap). The trees were always very beautiful, but they were less a palliative than a slap in the face: how dare they revel in the season! For the first couple of years, Radiohead albums were my soundtrack of choice when indulging these bilious moods. On October 2nd, 2000, I went off to HMV (remember them?) to buy Kid A, the moment it was released. I shuffled back to my digs, lay on my bed, donned my headphones and drifted. That was an autumn and a half. I spent a lot of it contemplating ‘how to disappear completely’. But then, I began reading about this other band, one that Thom Yorke and others framed as a key precedent, one that had also been produced by John Leckie. A few months later, I went out and purchased Real Life, Magazine’s first album, and the whole world of late-seventies post-punk opened up for me. Or shall we say, it invited me in to lick its wounds; stripped off its shirt so I could count the bruises; then swiftly re-clothed and told me to quit gawping and fuck off.

Real Life was a bit of a Pistols moment for me, though woefully belated, twentysomething years after the event. But it was also a return, a comeback.  In the nineties, my Dad would record UK Gold’s reruns of Top of the Pops onto VHS. My first encounter with Howard Devoto actually came from one of those videos – a performance of ‘Shot by both sides’ that I’ve since learned was rather infamous. The first time I saw it, I found it almost unwatchably awkward; this man looked seriously uncomfortable there on TV, anaemically pale and eye-linered. Apparently, the British public were unimpressed, and Devoto’s static, bloodless performance caused the single to plummet down the charts. Now, what I find unbearable is how quickly they cut off the song, as if in protest at Devoto’s refusal to gurn or pogo. Little did they know that pop history was being made; an amazing whoosh of punk energy, delivered without any of punk’s poses, ‘Shot by both sides’ proved that post-punk was the punkest of all. Some years later, Bernard Sumner would deliver an infamous live ‘Blue Monday’ with complete indifference. Later still, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe would redefine the meaning of the term ‘stock still’ while swathed in dry ice and faced with a load of tie-dyed teenagers. But in 1978, an oddball man turned up looking almost contemptuous of the brilliant, cop-chase racket around him. In an era of tribal affinities, it seemed impossible to pin Magazine anywhere; they were shot by both sides, because they belonged to no side.

Punk was frequently driven by a gang mentality. The Clash appealed so much because you wanted to hang out with them in the street, follow their rules, swim in their slipstream. Post-punk bands were the complete antithesis. Gang of Four were ironically named on many levels, not least because their play on the Cultural Revolution suggested a little pop uprising on the side: from now on, bands could come across as if designed in a political theory seminar, and what’s more, they could still bloody well rock into the bargain. Magazine didn’t take Gramsci into the studio with them. They clearly preferred Penguin Modern Classics – the ones you now find in charity shops with creased, pale green spines, and which in Magazine’s day would most probably have sat on public library shelves, unborrowed and unloved.  This was a different kind of outsider’s music to that of The Clash or even The Buzzcocks, Devoto’s previous band. For all their outlaw swagger, The Clash were rather humanist; they believed in the power of culture to effect change. Howard Devoto, on the other hand, seemed unremittingly misanthropic. Everything is twitch and tic. ‘Why are you so itchy, kid?’, he asks in ‘Shot by both sides’; ‘Look what fear’s done to my body’, he exclaims in ‘Because you’re frightened’. This is no punk, folks: this is a man who would rather pick his scabs than pick a fight. And more than anything, he’d rather be reading Kafka.

It could all be so terribly undergraduate, but Magazine had the good fortune to be brilliantly versatile musicians, and Devoto was a viciously clever and funny lyricist to boot. ‘A song from under the floorboards’ turns Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground into an almost Pythonesque black comedy, brimming with killer lines, jaunty barrelhouse piano and thick smears of synthesizer. It’s still utterly unlike anything – chilling, daft and moving all at the same time. Existential music-hall synth-punk noir, anyone? When Morrissey covered it for a 2006 B-side, a little collective epiphany may well have erupted through the indie world. ‘I am angry, I am ill, and I’m as ugly as sin’ is a Smiths opening line if ever there was; same goes for ‘my irritability keeps me alive and kicking’. Another Mancunian misfit walked those streets before you, Stephen. He even wore cardigans.

He also stared death squarely in the chops. ‘The light pours out of me’ is Devoto’s Macbeth moment, the tragic death and catharsis of Real Life before the closer, ‘Parade’, serenades a descent into hell. In fact, ‘The light’ is post-punk’s most Shakespearean song, period. Just as Macbeth reflects on life’s ‘brief candle’ and ‘walking shadow’ before hurling himself headlong into battle, so does Magazine’s song contemplate a life in which time both ‘flies’ and ‘crawls’, ‘like an insect up and down the walls’ (yet another spidery analogy from the most entomological of songwriters). Then, just as the murderous thane cries ‘Blow, wind! Come, wrack! / At least we’ll die with harness on our back’, so do Magazine blow out the candle in their trench and jump over the top, heedless of wind and weather. The song oscillates between triumph and defeat, and as such could be an analogy for anything really; as ever, art that confronts its own death is all the more life-affirming.

But what is so special about ‘The light pours out of me’ is that the music both affirms and contradicts the lyrics. Devoto’s light ‘jerks’ out of him, ‘like blood’, but it is anything but enervating. From the first bar, an unrelenting pulse is established over which John McGeoch can assert his beautiful, mysterious guitar motifs; Devoto’s brain may prevail, but only because the band around him has established a pumping heart to feed it. Everywhere in the song, there are vital signs, indicators of its health and functionality, defying the death towards which it propels itself. The bass is deep, rich and charged with momentum. The drums sizzle crisply. Suspended guitar chords glow duskily in the background like those photos medical scientists take of the body, illuminated by infrared thermography. And then, after the second verse-chorus, at around 2:55, the song takes off into uncharted territory, guitars wailing and drums crashing in a titanic break. If the light is pouring away, then Magazine are stealing fire from Prometheus here. It’s just a thrilling gust of defiance, a fist shaken at the Maker, a sudden primal scream from the deathbed.

And the song has prepared us for it. The title refrain may not be an expression of fatalistic resignation at all. What if it is instead an assertion of courage and pride? Remember, the light is only ‘like’ blood. Instead of ebbing life, this may well be pure radiance. The light is simply pouring out of Howard Devoto; he can’t help but transmit it to the world. The exuberant blasts of thrash in the instrumental breaks are the life-force itself, a force that refuses to ebb.  So by the time the final break ends with an abrupt chord, as if someone has pulled the switch, we don’t feel the presence of death, but rather a momentary power cut. It’s a punkish move, a daring act of self-sabotage; to invoke the (now almost clichéd) Neil Young line, better to burn out than fade away.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Ultimately it’s Dylan Thomas, not Devoto’s more favoured Camus or Dostoevsky, whose blood courses through this magnificent song. But there are also chuckles here if you can find them. Watch the 1978 video and marvel at Devoto’s disinterest. He wanders in and out of the frame like an extra drafted in as a last minute replacement. This pop music thing is just a brief distraction from ‘real life’, he seems to be saying. In interviews around the time of Magazine’s return to the studio in 2009, Devoto joked about how he’d had a ‘day job’ for the best part of fifteen years, as librarian at a picture archive. It’s so remarkably on the button. At his best in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Devoto was the Bruce Banner/Hulk of New Wave. Geek chic had yet to be invented, but Magazine sowed the seeds for so much of the indie to follow. The freedom to stand still, to be deliberately obtuse, to be European, to be cerebral, to dress like a lecturer at a polytechnic disco – it all leads back to five guys who were unafraid of keyboards and seemingly limitless in their cheek. They even had the nerve to cover Sly Stone’s ‘Thank you for letting me be myself again’, restyled as a funkless expression of Devoto obstinacy. Hurrah for that, and for them.

I tried to pay homage to ‘The light pours out of me’ when I started playing in my first band. I wrote a song called ‘Waste’ which kicked off with the line ‘Time doesn’t heal, it kills’. I’d definitely been listening to Real Life at the time, and the example of Devoto was at the front of my mind; he showed me that it was possible to be in a punky band and still look like a charity shop worker. If only my song had had less self-pity, if only it had had half the majesty and drive of ‘The light pours out of me’…ah well, it was an important developmental stage, and I don’t disown it. Later I worried, though, that I might outgrow Magazine; that their neurotic froideur would cease to produce the itches and pricks of excitement it did when I first played Real Life in that college bedroom. No such problem. I don’t listen to them nearly so much these days, but when I do, those first three albums still really get me in the gut. And as autumn approaches, it’s time for my annual fix. I’ll draw the blinds, put the kettle on, nurse my cold and welcome in the dwindling afternoons.

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28 – Wire: Map Ref 41N, 93W

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Red lines, blue lines; keys and legends; tumulus, barrow, bridge. Maps are charms; maps are mantras; maps are magic.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve read maps like novels: like poetry, in fact.  Hours on the backseat poring over AA road atlases and gazetteers, matching the pages’ hieroglyphs to the world both blank and familiar beyond the Volvo window. Weekends scribbling on discarded rolls of wallpaper, ridged with rivers in crayon and settlements nuclear and dispersed; family haunts warped into parallel universes; alternative ordnances of bedrooms and gardens. The escapist stuff of children’s literature, stories about losing your way only to discover opportune shortcuts and alternative routes.

But it wasn’t just about adventure for its own sake. You sense early that mapping is an agenda, a politics. Imagining new space is often about finding the unmapped, that territory that has eluded the cartographer, somehow slipped through the nets of human knowledge. But it’s also about the very opposite, about plotting the course, about making a plot of the earth, in all senses: carving it up in order to give it narrative significance. Our group of school sad-sacks fantasised about lands colonised by other misfits; it was nothing less than a burning desire to rewrite history, to evacuate the winners from mapped space and fill the grid-squares with the losers. We learn these things early; learn how physical space is carved up, bounded and walled, used and abused according to the exigencies of power. Playtime is all passwords and border control. Don’t step on that line or you turn into a statue. Step over the line and you transgress; step onto the railings and you’re granted immunity. Valuable social lessons all: what else is being a citizen than observing limits for the greater good, what else is being a subject than knowing your place?

Yes, it’s all lines. You learn that queuing is important, though you do everything you can to hang a little off-margin and upset the regime. History, of course, happens in lines too; as Alan Bennett put it, ‘it’s just one bloody thing after another’. In English, you end up scanning them; in maths, drawing them.  And all of it in ruled exercise books, which says it all really. Lines are indeed the rule. And if you break the rules, what do you get? Lines, lines, lines! According to Simone de Beauvoir, lines are patriarchal. They’re projections; the pointless protrusions of male pomp, like antlers and erections. Men are always thrusting, looking outside of themselves for meaning. I’ll draw a line under that; this is not a forum for my thoughts on early first-wave feminism. But I see it now. Maps as patriarchal instruments, as premises for war: the coloured territories that so fascinate the young Marlow in Heart of Darkness (and look where they led him). Who would have thought there’d be a song about this very subject, and what’s more, a song that flags the dangers of trundling the surveyor’s wheel, while revelling in the pleasures and mysteries of mapping? It could only have been by Wire, really. Wire, the great obscurantist art-punks, with their abstractions, their equations and taxonomies.

Wire have regrouped sporadically over the last three decades, and produced fine music on it, but their first and greatest period of activity lasted only three years, over three albums (Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154). 1977-80 was a time of staggering invention across British pop music, but Wire might just have been the most inventive of them all, and on release as a single in late 1979, their final 45 ‘Map Ref’ brought to an end the fascinating process of deconstruction and reconstruction that they set in motion with Pink Flag. Flag was their first album, a collection of un-songs, splinters of sound that made the verse-chorus structures peddled by their contemporaries seem very traditional indeed. It was as if Wire were saying the only way to be a punk was to be a post-punk; to be avant is to be après (a bit of pseudo-Derrida for you there). Only by smashing the pop song into shards could Wire begin to find their own way to piece it back together. To carry through the map metaphor, this was terra incognita; the ground virgin, the waters uncharted. Many of the lyrics on 1978’s Chairs Missing seem to acknowledge this obliquely. There’s the spine-chilling ‘Marooned’, in which ‘an unwilling sailor’ has come adrift from his vessel; ‘I’m standing alone, still getting a thrill / while the ship is afloat’, sings Colin Newman, tensed up with the power that comes of total erasure or whiteout. It’s taken further in the magnificent ‘Being sucked in again’, driven by frissons of cold guitar and neuralgic synthesizer, rife with imagery of dorsal fins and fishwives’ dreams. Where on earth do we find this strange land, populated by outdoor miners and flies in the ointment? No other musicians make late seventies England sound so Daliesque.

Sandwiched between the fractured melodies of Chairs Missing and the dark sweetnesses of 154, the single ‘A Question of Degree’ asks a big question over music of pitch-bending weirdness: ‘Can I really manage to survive outside? Can I? Can I?’ This is the height of meta, a Naked Lunch on the end of the fork moment. Is it possible to be in pop and yet marginal or external to it? Do you stay inside the lines or play in the unlimited field? Do you accept the binaries and work with them or submit yourself to the ecstasy of jouissance? This is absolutely a question of degree. And it’s one that ‘Map Ref’ answers in part, as Newman, Gilbert et al climb into their little chartered plane to survey the lie of the land. No more fish in freezing waters; here, Wire soar.

‘Map Ref’ is driven by an almost Krautrock beat, constant, rigid, measured. It’s a beat that walks great, unrelenting distances over endless fields or long tracts of prairie (the grid reference in the title actually points to Des Moines, Iowa, but this fact is a red herring, maybe even a prank). Yet this is not the coiled Wire of old. The cables have been untangled, the current is flowing. The sangfroid thaws, the blood runs warmer, and a pin-sharp sun is guiding the ‘cartologist’ towards the rocks and rivers which he must plot. These features are listed – the ‘crystal palaces for floral kings’, the ‘flat lowland landscape’ – but the song’s real excitement is reserved for the rendering of the material as abstract, the representation of territory as lines and squiggles much like those on the cover of the album. Its wondrously beautiful refrain (indicated with a typically pomo declaration of ‘chorus’) sings the praises of ‘longitude and latitude’ in stacked four or five-part harmony – it’s so harmonised I can’t actually tell – and registers a deep contentment in refashioning the world as a page of symbols and keys. I’m willing to argue that this is self-referential, the sound of a band standing outside of themselves and surveying their own progress, taking stock of how they have reconditioned pop by making it recondite.

Perhaps it’s a plateau, then; but there are always more distant ranges, some of them disappearing into cloud. The misty synths introduced at 2:29  are ominous, and the lyrics even more so. From this vantage, ‘Map Ref’ seems to be about the dangers of claiming land, of politicising it; even a pink flag planted in the underbrush of punk is a potential emblem of power, a power that can easily be abused. The opening lines take a punning, intellectual line on this: ‘An unseen ruler defines with geometry / An unruleable expanse of geography’. Are the cartographer and his ruler more powerful than the ‘rulers’ who use his maps to suppress communities and nations, and prosecute wars? The imagery becomes more suggestive towards the end. As Newman urges us to ‘witness the sinking of the sun’, he then admits that ‘a deep breath of submission has begun’. Is this some coded reference to the British Empire, on which the sun supposedly never set? What is this submission? Is it a people giving in to subordination? Or might it, more intriguingly, express a resignation at the end of empire, a submission to the final sunset?

Of the many things I love about ‘Map Ref’, this irresolute mystery is foremost. It’s a song beguiled, fascinated by mapmaking, but also one which confronts anxieties about the political implications and applications of cartography. And it’s a perfect metonym for Wire themselves: a band drawn in by the sweet charms of pop, only to be forever restrained by their scepticisms. In their time, they seemed off the map, but now we can see that they redrew the boundaries, just so that they could then sit within them. You have to work within the system to change it, but knowing you’ve changed it means you’re forever indebted to it for meaning. Paradox, aporia, deadlock. Vertices, grids, intersections. Wire’s music maps the puzzles of living. Read it, follow it, use it.

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24 – Joy Division: Transmission

joydiv

There’s a haze surrounding Manchester. A sort of vapour that grows thicker and soupier as you roll on down the M62. It’s not the industrial fug of Victorian cliché, or the drizzle-clouds of the Southern imagination.  It’s the atmospheric pressure of myth. In its own way, it’s just as irrepressible (irresistible?) as the mists swirling around Glastonbury Tor or the breakers lapping at the lip of Fingal’s Cave. Some of it is merely the hot air of dozens of talkers: the patter of Tony Wilson, Shaun Ryder’s halitosis. But there are other chemicals in the mix – the powdery ghosts of the Pankhursts, Marx and Engels, former Guardian editors and co-operative society pioneers. And there’s the dust that still refuses to settle – the dust of a thousand demolished backstreets, the terraces we know from Morrissey and Tony Warren and Shelagh Delaney. Manchester is all particulates; a fine mesh of reference, suspended cloud-like over the redbrick.

Well, maybe. Every time I’ve been to Manchester I’ve tried to feel it. It should be a spiritual home of sorts – Northern, a bit pinko (a bit pink in fact, if not rainbow), nodal point for some of the coolest music ever committed to vinyl – but it hasn’t been shrouded, and the wraiths have stayed well underneath the cobble-line. I’ve seen a lot of consumption, as much as anywhere – palaces to it, in fact. A city once world-renowned for production, now erecting glass edifices with nothing in them. Many would say that Manchester’s always been about ‘front’ (something that unites Elsie Tanner and the Gallaghers) but I don’t want veneer. I don’t wanna be adored. I want to be hemmed in like a boar between arches.

I want the vapour to bear down on me, to stop my breath, to dampen my pleural cavity. And that’s when I reach for Joy Division.

Transmission’ appropriately begins with the faintest hum of static. It’s the ambient hiss before the station settles, the echo of unintelligible voices in the hall before the conductor lifts his baton. We’re waiting for something to happen. It’s damp and drear; we need a match to catch, a gas-lamp to light. In the event of it, we get Peter Hook’s bass guitar cutting through the fog, and it briefly promises something menacing. The light isn’t glowing as much as glowering. It’s all front though. Stephen Morris’s drums stutter into life and then the tinny, skinny Sumner guitar, two notes played with pale fingers. ‘Radio, live transmission’, sings Ian Curtis, to himself and his bandmates. Live but barely living: if this is a broadcast, it’s the 4am shift, just as the quarter-light becomes the half-light, and the eyes open into gummy slits. Joy Division are practising in the basement of a disused textiles factory, watching malnourished hands strike strings in the dismal wattage of a dimmed bulb. The walls are thick with mould; spores bother the throat.

Are there any opening bars in popular music more pleuritic, more bronchitic, more burdened with the set-in weather of the industrial Pennines? It’s not such a jump to see chimneys and furnaces when listening to Joy Division (they were on Factory Records, of course), but Ian Curtis grew up in Macclesfield, within sight of the western fringe of the Peak District, and the frowsty atmospherics of peat moorland, the lurch from clam to chill, are there in the fug of synth and the spitting snare and cymbal. For those unfamiliar with these landscapes, or unsympathetic to Joy Division’s music, this might be a virtual no-brainer. The band is a byword for a type of Northern ‘miserabilism’ – cue the clichés about trenchcoats in Ancoats. But then, the sun does sometimes shine up there on the pocked hillsides; its fingers poke into the viscid canals, revealing spectrums in the foam of industrial waste and the rusting shopping trolleys. These moments can be epiphanic, and this is what makes Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’ so damned special.

Initially, Curtis’s eyes are ‘dark grey lenses frightened of the sun’. It’s a Vitamin D allergy, sure consequence of reading Camus by torchlight. But this song is about learning to let go of that; it’s about willing yourself free. And though the bloodless drums continue splishing mercilessly, and Barney’s guitar never finds itself moving in anything but one-tone steps, ‘Transmission’ begins to strain out of itself, wrenching up and away. Martin Hannett’s switches and sliders slowly build the track into something choral and big, hitting upon a new kind of musical paradox: the emaciated epic. Not epic in length (the song is only three and a half minutes long), but epic in implication. At just over the two-minute mark, something uncanny happens – Ian Curtis discovers he can dance, and the realisation is so forceful it threatens the song with disequilibrium. So far, the verse has been chanted tentatively, if portentously, on a monotone; the bridge (or chorus, if it can be called thus) takes Curtis up a fifth, as he decides to ‘dance to the radio’. The effect of these fifths is of open strings, which register in the subconscious as a kind of tuning up. We’re back to the hum of the rudderless orchestra and the static of audience sibilance before the first bar begins. It’s a powerful effect, notating what supposedly comes before the piece proper, voicing the flutter of anticipation; mull this over next time you listen to Beethoven’s 9th, whose opening movement mimics this tuning-up excitement before battering your eardrums with a ferocious D minor chord.

Funnily enough, we’re in D minor here too, and the open string leads to a thrilling octave. Two and a half minutes into the song, and Ian has vaulted into a higher register, his paranoid baritone morphing into a tenor which, while hardly gleeful, seems to voice a kind of desperate release. This is the territory surveyed by David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, a rise from croon to holler. It’s a fair comparison – we know that Joy Division lapped up Berlin-period weltschmerz, and though equating late 1970s Manchester with the darkness of divided Germany might seem a little invidious, there is scant difference between those two mental landscapes (let’s not forget that Marxism began in Cottonopolis).  Just as Bowie’s lovers kiss by the Berlin Wall, ‘as though nothing could fall’, Curtis’s dancers have to believe in the possibility of unbridled physicality. His painfully inflected yell – ‘we can daaaaance’ – speaks to all those pimply, iron-deficient youths on rundown estates; all those disaffected by Labour and about to be dispossessed by Hayek-worshipping monetarists. It sounds like Curtis is rounding up the undead for a totentanz by the Ship Canal; but it’s a dance nevertheless. Dance as if your life depends on it, he’s saying. ‘No language, just sound, that’s all we need know’. Language is power. What better way to subvert the power structures of society than to call for a new kind of eloquence?  Articulacy happens in the gut, in the legs, in the wobble of the arms.

This threshold is genuinely exciting. The track bubbles under Curtis’s screams, offering more and more glimpses of dappled light, octaved pianos glimmering like Saint-Saens’ ‘Aquarium’ through the post-punk noir. The dance could gain traction; the dance as social movement, as mobilisation, as exuberance unquashed by reactionary edict. Perhaps this transmission leads to transition, change, progress. But then in its last twenty seconds, the track winds itself down. Morris’s drums lose their footing, and the radio batteries flatten. All we are left with at the end is the synth hiss from whence the song was hatched. The possibility of progress is an illusion. The youth movement flares up in a momentary blaze of passion and heroism, but dies as quickly as it sparks. Life is mostly dull. Revolution is a dream. The monochrome grey settles in over Salford once more.

A certain romance now clings to Joy Division, surely one of the most mythologized of all British bands. Contrary to my expectations, I found Anton Corbijn’s Control a genuinely affecting film, though I do wonder how much of this had to do with the exquisite black-and-white palette (Macclesfield seemed utterly foreign, and this to me, a Northerner!), and the pitch-perfect recreation of the electrifying Granada TV performance of ‘Transmission’, which unleashed Ian Curtis’s own flailing dance on the world. Nevertheless, Joy Division’s reputation as doomsters is lazy thinking. Though their name was a horribly ironic reference to Nazi whorehouses, there is yet some ‘joy’ in the Division. ‘Transmission’ is realistic; it knows that as soon as the youths go to dance, the authorities will come and flick off the power switch. But it’s also idealistic; these men are far from conventionally gifted musicians, but with will and individuality, they produce an utterly singular piece of art that recognises the extraordinarily transformative power of good noise. ‘Transmission’, then, is not only a metonym for Manchester’s impressive pop music heritage, but for British indie music at large. Over and out.

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