Hardcore for Nerds

"Why sneer at the intellectuals?"*
punk music, left politics, and cultural history - previously found here.
contact: gabbaweeks[at]gmail.com (sorry, no promos/submissions, thanks) or ask
Dublin/Galway, Ireland. 26, history graduate & human rights student
HFN | Best New Punk | HFN 2012 2011 2010 2009 | HRO 2k9 | Hoover Genealogy Project | @HC4N
*from the title of a review of Arthur Koestler's Arrival and Departure by Michael Foot, Evening Standard, Nov. 26, 1943.
Jun 20
Permalink history Irish Michael D. Higgins NO PAST 1913 lockout
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Jun 14
I’m changing my life, I’m changing my soul. I’ve realized that everything in this world is geared towards destroying mankind, to destroying me, among others. Everything; even the faith I once had. The Party, the triumphant revolution, I used to believe in all that. Deep down I still believe in it, but only as one believes in a dream after waking… I am on my own. I have the right to want to live, even through the decline of Europe. The right to defend myself and to run away. From now on I only want to serve life - my own to start with, the only one I’ve got.

Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years (p. 272)

I just had A Moment reading this passage at the end of this book’s third part, following a young and disillusioned Communist in the ruins of Berlin at the war’s end in 1945. It feels narcissistic in the extreme to ‘get’ anything from such a situation, so vastly removed from anything I have directly experienced (the closest I can imagine today is a young ‘rebel’ in the rubble of a Syrian city). Although isn’t that the point of reading literature? Is there a difference between reading a personal story and drawing personal conclusions, and doing the same on a much grander political scale?

I remember when I first read Koestler’s Darkness at Noon in my mid-teens- or rather, I recall the lasting impressions of bleakness and psychological tension; while grappling with historical ideas of expediency and revolutionary terror. I read it again each year after that, then chose the reception of it and the surrounding novels as my MA thesis topic. Aside from Koestler’s many personal flaws, it’s hard to subject the philosophy of what was essentially a polemical if brilliant novel to that much scrutiny (and wade through Merleau-Pontyian critiques that nevertheless seemed to propose the same Machiavellian worldview) without losing some of the intensity of that basic connection. Yet having studied inter-war Europe the previous year, and the project of modernity as a whole as part of the taught MA, it also opened it out to a wider affinity for mid-20th century Europe as a period, and the particular story of Communism within that.

It also helped that the modern-day period between 2008 and 2011 was, if not exactly cataclysmic, certainly possessed of an unexpected bleakness and uncertainty compared to the world as it was when I first picked up Koestler. There was that sense in reading about the 1930s that the decadent, settled capitalism plunged into political crisis was an eerie parallel for the contemporary Eurocrisis, even if no war seems imminent and fascist jackboots are not (yet) on the street. It’s a problem I’ve always had with history - how to express the connections with prior events without falling into blind and naive patterns of progress and continuity, not to mention our obscured understanding of both past and present. Sometimes it just feels like history serves no other or better purpose than just to provide an interpretation for our existence as humans. 

So it’s hard not to feel that ‘I have the right to want to live, even through the decline of Europe' has a genuine, not ahistorical relevance for today even if the contexts are, comparatively, a stretch. From the basic humanism of Darkness at Noon there is something more to take from the period that says something about how we want to live not only as some kind of timeless individuals but also as a historically contingent society. And Unforgiving Years feels very much like the next stage in my understanding of that.

(to be continued…)

victor serge history books europe politics NO PAST
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May 21
abandoned MA dissertation chapter/indefinitely postponed PhD one

abandoned MA dissertation chapter/indefinitely postponed PhD one

history politics merleau-ponty NO PAST french books
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May 03

Husker Du - ‘Dead Set On Destruction’ from Candy Apple Grey (1986)

Poptimism/punktimism [delete as appropriate] means to me: preferring Husker Du’s Warner Brothers albums Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories to New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig (Metal Circus and Zen Arcade are still gold, though). Their last two records are the best examples of Husker Du’s ‘pop’ sound, and the earlier two of the punk/post-hardcore sound. The middle two seem, well, transitional, and I’ve never really gotten into them. I don’t begrudge anyone else who has, of course.

This is interesting (if not surprising), though:

"Hüsker Dü was not expected to sell a large amount of records. Rather, Warner Bros. valued the group for its grassroots fanbase and its "hip" status, and by keeping the overhead low the label anticipated the band would turn a profit."

I should probably read Michael Azerrad’s book (from which the above is sourced) sometime, but as a non-musician and frankly someone who isn’t active in any kind of physical scene, it’s never particularly interested me; and more broadly, I don’t have much interest in the micro ‘process’ side of cultural production. I think it’s good if people recognise that art isn’t produced in a vacuum, and question the way in which artistic creation interacts with broader social and economic contexts; but at the same time I do tend to subscribe to the view of not particularly caring about artists’ personal or even professional lives as a lens through which to view their work. It is a creation, after all, which implies something distinct. On the other hand, it’s hard not be aware of such things if you’re historically sensitive: I wrote a thesis which substantially involved researching the unsavoury life of a man who wrote some intellectually valuable books in response to his time, but containing flaws both internal and external to himself. We love stories, to know the deeper meaning to things, which is a good instinct; but often it changes, and perhaps distorts, our appreciation of whatever meaning excited us about that book or album in the first place.

Then again, nothing lasts forever, which is kind of the point. 

(Source: Spotify)

husker du punk pop 80s NO PAST
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Apr 18
Ed Ward’s recollection that the Sex Pistols were a response to “Margaret Thatcher’s Britain” is really a function of nostalgia, a dream of punk as giving the middle finger to the conservative ideology of shrinking government, tradition, and dwindling social services. And yet, as Momus (Nick Currie) has suggested, punk can be looked at from another angle: as the flowering of expression of a deeper cultural conservatism. “In retrospect,” Momus argues, “we can see punk’s no future nihilism as one of the factors contributing to the triumph of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. If we refuse to believe in - and therefore start building - a positive future, you prepare the way for a politics of fear, which usually means authoritarian leaders. Punk was simply the sexy face of Britain’s innate conservatism, its fear of the future.

Nicholas Rombes, ‘Callaghan, James, Prime Minister of Great Britain (1)’ in A Cultural Dictionary of Punk 1974-1982

I was drafting a post of Leatherface’s ‘Winning’ (“roundabouts and swings aren’t some of my favourite things”) in response to the death of the primary proponent of the Thatcherite ideology, but I was trying to find where I’d discussed this piece in Nicholas Rombes’ superb book on the cultural history of punk - in which he riffs on a journalistic howler:

"In a 2002 essay in The New York Times, Ed Ward wrote that when “the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, draped on his microphone, intoned, ‘No Future,’ it was the cry of youth coming out of school to discover that there were no jobs in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and refusing  to accept that as reality.” At the end of the article there was this correction: “An article last Sunday about the legacy of the Clash and other punk rock bands in the 1970’s referred incorrectly to the social climate from which the Sex Pistols emerged. It was not the Britain of Margaret Thatcher: she became Prime Minister in 1979, and the Sex Pistols disbanded in 1978.”

The association of two Labour and Democrat leaders (Callaghan and Carter) with the birth of punk’s rebellion against society isn’t often discussed, and the more self-consciously political punk and hardcore of the Thatcher and Reagan years tends to supersede it. But if you want to be true to the historical context, it has to be addressed - and in doing so, potentially finding a deeper meaning. This was the post I wrote before about Leatherface, Thatcher, Rombes and the left-wing history of punk (the uselessness of Tumblr’s search function meant I only just found it again now).

punk thatcher leatherface uk history NO PAST
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Feb 12

Wounds - ‘Dead Dead Fucking Dead’ from Die Young (2013)


(Source: Spotify)

punk hardcore NO PAST wounds irish dublin
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So my problem with Retromania as far as I can tell is that I am pretty invested in the following two beliefs:

i. that ‘pop music’ (using the term to cover a whole swathe of musics dating from lets fairly arbitrarily say the 45 revolutions per minute gramophone record coming on to the market in 1949) is in some pretty fundamental senses the creature of capitalism; that its craving for novelty and its frequent-to-constant recapitulation and reanimation of its own earlier forms are both aspects of this;

ii. that pop music (and various allied musics that it becomes harder to call for certain pop or not pop) frequently throws up interesting spaces in which we glimpse some kind of temporary escape from the popular-culture-under-capitalism churn-of-new-product logic of (i.) seems to be negated, in which art happens, in which social possibilities and utopian hopes are glimpsed, let’s say.

Now I think Reynolds would probably agree with these. But as of two-thirds of the way through the book, every piece of evidence he introduces to flesh out his thesis — that recapitulation/reanimation has reached some (critical mass/saturation point/singularity) where the new ceases to have the power to matter — just seems further evidence against it; e.g. in the history-of-punk-as-revivalism chapter he notes that Kaye’s sleevenotes for Nuggets refer to that effort as archaeological as early as 1972.

Anyway: the feeling I can’t shirk is that the book’s argument boils down to something like: the glimpses of social possibility and utopian hope you get these days just aren’t as good as the ones we had when Simon Reynolds were a lad: i.e., that the book is at best a symptom of itself.

I can’t help feeling that this whole thing is the anxiety of influence on a grand scale, and on critics. Given that a large part of the argument is about the political value (or lack thereof) of art in modern society, I’m having a hard time caring about the vitality of pop in a diseased world. A plague on all your genres, etc. Perhaps this discussion about the lack of novelty in popular music is just an echo of concerns about diminishing productivity gains in Western capitalism - i.e., a symptom of an irretrievably broken system. Excuse me while I drown in hardcore punk.

The mention of Nuggets and punk-as-revivalism reminds me of what I wrote - perhaps in happier times - about that Radiators’ retro album:

"But the real fun is in the miniature Nuggets-like quality of the rest of the album, from excellent band names (Eire Apparent) and predictable song titles (“Yes, I Need Someone”), and sounds expanding to folk and psychedelia, to some thrilling pop hooks. Throughout it’s possible to recognise large elements of the Radiators’ own sound, but depending on the vocals and the style of the cover, it can be sometimes hard to remember that it is all just the one band playing the songs. Or sometimes, bizarrely, to remember that this is music that existed in its own time and place and isn’t totally the reimaginings of contemporary punks - not to deny the adherence in spirit to and difference of the styles used, but hearing this music mostly as a blank slate, the Radiators definitely place their own modern (or at least post-‘77, which is not very new after all) stamp on it. 

For example, the atypical “stone solid Mod groove” of showband The Blue Aces (a central theme of the album’s historical revisionism is the distinction between the popular history of 60s, “in which the conventional wisdom habitually depicts the secular pulpit of Gay Byrne’s television show set against a soundtrack of Showband Scene mania”, and the underground of Beat Clubs - although one of my parents describes it as more of a straightforward rural-urban divide between the showbands and the tennis pavilions) is given a take that “acknowledges its kinship with the spirit of the punk bands of a decade later”; but which sounds to me very much like Rancid’s early 90s album Let’s Go. Of course, some bands are always arch-revivalists, but it’s fascinating to hear everything connected on a long line and collapsed together into one asynchronous celebration of a past.”

Kill Yr Innovators, just like you do if you see the Buddha walking on the road…

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Permalink NO PAST punk pop history
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Jan 23


This was recorded before you were born, in a country that you’ve never visited. And yet when listening to it I’m amazed how much it sounds like something that was recorded in the last couple of years, in New York or London. It has touches that we associate with “exotic” music from somewhere else but something about the recording and the mix and the approach to percussion feels very “now”. I can imagine this being made by someone sitting in the room with me though there’s an outside chance that some of the people playing here are dead, even from old age.

216 plays
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Dec 01

The Radiators - ‘They’re Looting in the Town’ from Ghostown (1978)

This is one of my favourite songs on this album, both musically and lyrically. It’s got that big, thumping, spacious Clash-like sound that isn’t really classically ‘punk’, but transforms the essence of the genre into a grander form (I was almost going to say ‘statement’, but it’s more subtle than that). There’s a humility and wry cynicism to this kind of post-punk that easily undercuts any feelings of grandiosity - it’s rather reminiscent of the Boomtown Rats’ more iconic Dublin pop-punk; but I prefer the Radiators as, I don’t know, less obviously snotty - more like the Clash than the Rats’ Pistols.

The opening lyrics set the scene in Catholic Ireland:

The Angelus bell rings out

Just a shadow of doubt

Calls in vain to a city on its knees

Although written in the 1970s, the song is set in the 1913 Dublin Lockout, which saw riots and street-fighting between strikers and the police. At that time the Angelus would have just been a physical institution, the Christian Catholic equivalent of the Islamic call to prayer, but from the 1950s till the present day the Angelus has become an “Irish audial and televisual institution”, that

"consists  of the ringing of a bell for Angelus for one minute and a short film about one minute long. It is broadcast 7 days a week on RTÉ One immediately prior to the Six One News. On radio they are broadcast at 12:00 and 18:00 every day."

Although there are periodic calls for its removal by secularists and atheists, it is quite a popular and (generally) inoffensive institution, supported both by the Anglican Church of Ireland and by those who simply believe an opportunity for a short period of spiritual reflection during the day is valuable. The overtly religious dimension of it has declined, but as the song suggests, the national piety - and the sense of strict morality that went with it - was never entirely what it seemed, especially when it came to advancing self-interest:

well they know the Ten Commandments by heart

but they never get caught

cos they’re too smart

words are only sacred if they’re true

The refrain of “they always land on their feet”, however, puts me in mind of a rather more revolutionary - if perhaps equally cynical - analogy:

"I’m reminded of the scene in Jorge Semprún’s memoirs, Quel beau dimanche. After his family was expelled from Spain, he, at the age of twenty, was swept into the French Resistance and subsequently arrested as a communist. Sent to Buchenwald, he was taken under the wing of an old German communist - which doubtless explains his survival. At one point Semprún asks the older man to explain “dialectics” to him. And the answer comes back: ‘C’est l’art et la manière de toujours retomber sur ses pattes, mon vieux” - the art and the technique of always landing on your feet.”

Tony Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century, p. 88

They’ve got no future, and the past is just for show" seems more appropriate for 1978 than 1913 - when the stale nationalism of the Irish republic met limited economic aspirations. It also chimes with the campaigning phrase of President Higgins of instituting a "real republic", in that the proclamations of that era have not been fully realised. But in particular there is the influence on the album of the social history of Strumpet City, a popular novel in the 1970s, as Phil Chevron described recently:

"I loved Strumpet City because it was the first novel that manifested, in an interesting way, the people who were involved in the 1913 lockout and how people responded to the Rising.

The Jim Larkin statue was probably a catalyst. It was unveiled in ’77 I think. It was the first ‘real’ person we had in that street. O’Connell and Parnell were all in the ‘pre-history’. The Jim Larkin statue chimed with Strumpet history.”

Although Larkin is now nearly as distant from the present day as Parnell was from the 1970s, and cynically one could say statues tend to remain firmly on their feet (unless they’re blown up, like Admiral Nelson). The line about a city on its knees may be a reference to the inscription on the statue, taken from one of Larkin’s speeches as a trade unionist - “the great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!”

they never lose any sleep

they never walk too fast or run too slow

—sax solo!—

the patriot’s farewell kiss can turn adversity to bliss

while the poet sings the catch-cries of the ?clown?

The best line of the song, from a lyrical standpoint, I think is the following expression, summing up the political cynicism in a simple rhyming wordplay:

the revolution in the air is somewhat the worse for wear

then delving deeper into the seam of disappointment and unfinished modernity:

the secret’s out but no-one really cares

take a look at this picture and tell me what you see

the monochrome set up could never be a kodachrome dream

but the tricolour TV set is on the blink

as Chevron explains about the influence of the latter:

"You have to understand that we were the first generation in the country to have TV introduced to us in our lifetime. We were not born with TV. Unlike say American kids. So, we had this strange phenomenon of being introduced to TV. Inevitably it had a hold on the imagination.

At the time, The Late Late Show acted as a sort of ‘secular pulpit’. It genuinely opened up the doors for people to talk about things at the breakfast table that weren’t being talked abut. Suddenly, the words ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ and even ‘atheist’ were becoming topical because of TV.

But TV also reduced people. While it was freeing people, it was reducing people to commodities and units of commerce.”

Incidentally the big event of the Irish television season happened last night - The Late Late Toy Show, in which the jocular host dons a naff Christmas jumper and entices children to perform demonstrations of the latest potential purchases. It’s obviously aimed at a younger audience, and forms part of everybody’s childhood memories, but it’s also a focus for escapism and cheap humour for a disillusioned adult population.

In its final verse the song turns from television to film, quoting Marlon Brando’s famous line from On The Waterfront - and I reckon also referencing, perhaps in a half-remembered fashion, another of the main characters; the Father, based on the real-life Jesuit, who at a dramatic point (and having refused before) shouts at the bartender “get me a beer!”:

the priest in the corner has turned to drink

he says I might have been someone,

heaven knows, I could have been a contender

In the end, though, it’s all summed up by the one line describing both Ireland’s economic depression and the hollowness of its historical legacies:

they’ve got no future and the past is just for show

Punk rock, Irish 1970s style.

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irish punk radiators NO PAST
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