Genre Trouble: Post-Rock and Other Lost Sounds

Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, ready-made genres, and audiences lying in wait, some sounds still just seem to don’t fit anywhere. As I wrote previously about another post-something band, when genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Straw (1991), Josh Gunn (1999) calls this “canonization” (p. 42): The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (e.g., Godflesh, Radiohead, dälek, et al.) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble.

Mogwai live [photo by Leif Valin]
Pedal power: Mogwai live. [photo by Leif Valin]
Storm Static Sleep by Jack-ChuterPost-Rock would seem to be just such a genre. Ever since Simon Reynolds etched the term into the annals of music journalism, there has been a post-everything-else. Sometimes it’s just lazy writing, sometimes it’s for marketing purposes, and sometimes a genre has truly emerged alongside its parent designation. Regardless, in Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock (Function Books, 2015), Jack Chuter tries to get to the bottom of all things post-rock, even devoting an entire chapter to Reynolds himself. There seems to be very little consensus on exactly where Rock crossed the line and became something else. The roots of the genre run deep and in many directions (e.g., Prog, Brian Eno, Jazz, CAN, PiL, Industrial, Jim O’Rourke, et al.), and Chuter goes as far back as the New Romanticism of Talk Talk and its separate ways before moving on to Slint and Slint-inspired rock.

If any band is worthy of its own genre, it is Slint: a band certainly more talked-about than listened-to. About such talking-about and genres as they emerge in writing, Lisa Gitelman (2014) writes,

As I understand it, genre is a mode of recognition instantiated in discourse. Written genres, for instance, depend on a possibly infinite number of things that large groups of people recognize, will recognize, or have recognized that writings can be for (p. 2).

As Star (1991) and Gunn (1999) describe canonization above, Gitelman contends that genres emerge from discourse. Subsequently, we internalize them. They are inside us. She continues,

Likewise genres—such as the joke, the novel, the document, and the sitcom—get picked out contrastively amid a jumble of discourse and often across multiple media because of the ways they have been internalized by constituents of a shared culture. Individual genres aren’t artifacts, then; they are ongoing and changeable practices of expression and reception that are recognizable in myriad and variable constituent instances at once and also across time. They are specific and dynamic, socially realized sites and segments of coherence within the discursive field (p. 2).

Sounds of the UndergroundChuter’s pathway through Post-Rock also goes as far out as the Post-Metal of Neurosis and Isis, and as current as 65daysofstatic, God is an Astronaut, and This Will Destroy You. Just when you think Post-Rock is too narrow a designation for a book-length exploration, with a quick list one sees how wide its waves crash.

Further mapping the fringes, Sounds of the Underground (University of Michigan Press, 2016) by Stephen Graham covers everything from extreme noise to black metal, and from hardcore improvisation to the festivals and venues that host them. Graham distills a massive amount of cultural, political, and aesthetic history into his investigation, and his attention to the means of production, the shifting control thereof, changes in consumption, and the lack of change in content are all paramount to the story.

Graham concludes by writing, “whatever boundaries I’ve laid down should be understood as liquid and tentative” (p. 243). Noting the gauziness of genre doesn’t necessarily negate the pursuit of classification. As radically subjective as music fandom can be, it’s nice to have some signposts. These two books are maps made of many.

References:

Chuter, Jack. (2015). Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock. London: Function Books.

Gitelman, Lisa. (2014). Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Graham, Stephen. (2016). Sounds of the Underground: A Cultural, Political, and Aesthetic Mapping of Underground and Fringe Music. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Gunn, Josh. (1999, Spring) Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre. Popular Music & Society23, 31-50.

Straw, Will. (1991). Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music. Cultural Studies, 5(3), 361-75.

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Apologies to Josh Gunn for the title of this post.

Shakedown, 1979: Gang of Four and the Germs

To create a spike of novelty high enough to land in the history books depends on a lot of things aligning: an open-armed zeitgeist, an interested public, a little bit of chaos, and a lot of charisma.* Sometimes they become folklore, affecting only those who were there, like Woodstock, Altamont, or the June 4, 1976 Sex Pistols show in Manchester: Supposedly everyone there left that show dead-set on starting a band. There’s even a book about it. Other times these events are recorded, as great performances, art works, books, or records. Two of the latter that emerged from 1979 and have since been documented elsewhere are Gang of Four’s Entertainment! and the Germs’ (GI).

Kevin Dettmar, Hugo Burnham, and Dave Allen at Chicago's Seminary Co-OP bookstore.
Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Hugo Burnham, and Dave Allen at Chicago’s Seminary Co-Op.

Emerging at the end of the 1970s, Gang of Four‘s debut album tapped in to a tectonic shift in the times. 1979 was just close enough to Year Zero. As Mark Fisher writes in The Ghosts of My Life (Zer0 Books, 2014), “It has become increasingly clear that 1979-80… was a threshold moment – the time when a whole world (social democratic, Fordist, industrial) became obsolete, and the contours of a new world (neoliberal, consumerist, informatic) began to show themselves” (p. 50). It was also the dawn of post-punk. In tangents like tentacles, Joy Division, Wire, Gang of Four, The Fall, PiL, Talking Heads, and Television, among others, were stretching punk in new directions.

Gang of Four: Entertainment!One of the more significant of these, Gang of Four combined the lean muscle of punk with the bare bones of funk. Lyrically social and political, their lanky limbs swung hard and wide against the “middle-class malaise” of the 1970s (Dettmar, 2014, p. 36). Satire of such subtlety and impact wouldn’t be seen again until the rearing of Radiohead.

Like Kevin J. H. Dettmar (invoking Simon Reynolds and quoting Gina Arnold), I never knew “punk in the present tense” (quoted in Dettmar, 2014, p. 3). The closest I came was in the aforementioned tangents: post-punk, hardcore, and new wave. The first time I heard Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, suddenly much of what I was already listening to made much more sense. Fugazi had a lineage. Naked Raygun had context. Wire had contemporaries. During the post-Lollapalooza package tour phase, I finally saw them live in 1991. It was a woefully crippled line-up that only included Andy Gill from the original Four, sharing Atlanta’s Fox Theatre stage with a motley mess of bands: Young Black Teenagers, Warrior Soul, Public Enemy, and The Sisters of Mercy. Years later, I met and worked with bassist Dave Allen and am since proud to call him one of my best friends.

The original Gang of Four reconvened in 2004 for a brief run, but ideological differences would drive Dave and drummer Hugo Burnham out of the fold again by 2008. When it came to recording new material, half the band wanted to go the traditional route. Dave, having consulted many bands on negotiating the music industry’s new digital landscape, wanted to do something new, something different. He told me at the time, “If we don’t own the idea, there’s no point in doing it.”

Darby Crash

And we don’t know
Just where our bones will rest
To dust I guess
Forgotten and absorbed into the earth below
Double cross the vacant and the bored
— Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”

While the Germs one and only studio album is often as high on the influential list as Gang of Four’s debut, its foundation—personal, personnel, and otherwise—wasn’t near as stable. The Germs’ enigmatic leader struggled with fame, substance abuse, and his sexuality while the other band members struggled with him. Their lone record, (GI) (Slash Records, 1979), produced by Joan Jett, represents one of the very few times Darby Crash found himself in a studio. The record pre-dates Entertainment! by several months. Often touted as one of the first documents of the hardcore movement, (GI) is a thin slice of the West Coast chaos the Germs helped stir up in the wake of punk. Darby’s five-year plan to take over the L.A. scene culminated in his suicide on December 7, 1980, only to be over-shadowed by the death of John Lennon the very next day.

Lexicon DevilSome say he was a lyrical genius, others accused him of just plagiarizing Nietzsche. Either way, it is notable that before they recorded (GI), Darby distributed photocopies of his lyric sheets instead of a demo tape. Brendan Mullen, Don Bolles, and Adam Parfrey’s oral history, Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and The Germs (Feral House, 2002), is a very even handed account of Darby’s brief and tumultuous time in this world. Lexicon Devil‘s compiled quotations from the people who were there provide a slightly less aggrandizing but no less entertaining picture of Darby and the Germs than Roger Grossman’s biographical film What We Do Is Secret (Peace Arch, 2007).

Both of these bands illustrate the undeniable chemistry that great teams have. Think Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Pink Floyd, and Rush. Darby Crash proved that he, Pat Smear, Lorna Doom, and Don Bolles were something special together when he reunited the Germs after an abortive attempt at forming The Darby Crash Band (many tout the 1980 reunion show as their best ever). And everybody knows that Gang of Four is only really Gang of Four when it’s Jon King, Andy Gill, Dave Allen, and Hugo Burnham. It’s never just the one thing or the one person. It takes a team, a network, personality, and persistence.

References:

Corgan, Billy. (1995). 1979 [Recorded by Smashing Pumpkins]. On Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness [CD].  New York: Virgin.

Dettmar, Kevin J. H. (2014). 33 1/3: Entertainment!. New York: Bloomsbury.

Fisher, Mark. (2014). The Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures. Winchester, UK: Zer0 Books.

Mullen, Brendan, Bolles, Don, & Parfrey, Adam. (2002). Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and The Germs. Port Townsend WA: Feral House.

* I’m borrowing the concept of novelty from Terence McKenna‘s Timewave and the idea of nodal points from William Gibson‘s Idoru (1996). The former is a computer-generated time-line based on chaos theory and the I-Ching, in which the peaks represent increased human novelty (e.g., artistic innovation, scientific discovery, etc.). The latter is a sort of subconscious pattern recognition where certain seemingly mundane data converge into sharp points of interest. Influential and classic cultural artifacts like records are excellent examples of both.

Joy Division: The Rest is Mystery

In late May of 1980, Joy Division had planned their first tour of the United States. Planned, that is, until just a few days before they were board the plane, Ian Curtis committed suicide. Life had been a few notches higher than hectic for Curtis for the months before the planned tour. He was juggling a family (Debbie and their one-year-old daughter Natalie), a girlfriend (Annick Honoré), and a band on the verge (they’d just recorded their second record, Closer, and were all set to tour the world), not to mention his epilepsy getting the better of him both on and off stage. They’d had to cancel several shows in England, and he’d already made an attempt on his life on April 6. All of the above would have been heavy load even without the disorder. Something had to break.

Joy Division

Even with his life’s story on film with the Anton Corbijn-directed Control (2007) and many books written, there remains so much mystery around Ian Curtis. “He seemed able to surrender control of his life as if it was nothing to do with him at all,” his widow Debbie writes of him at the time of his overdose (p. 115). Indeed, he wasn’t much in control as the band went straight back to doing shows. “Ian went straight from his suicide attempt to a gig at Derby Hall, Bury, on 8 April 1980,” Debbie writes. He only sang two songs at that fabled show, which ended in an outright riot. Something, nay, many things had to break.

Just four years earlier on June 4, 1976, the Sex Pistols played another much-fabled show in Manchester to a few dozen people and even more empty chairs (the scene in the movie 24-Hour Party People supposedly has it about right). Supposedly everyone there left that show dead-set on starting a band. There’s even a book about it: I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World by Dave Nolan (Blake Publishing, 2006). In attendance were Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto (of the nascent Buzzcocks, who organized the gig but weren’t ready to play), Kevin Cummins (photographer who took many great pictures of the British punk and post-punk scene, including the one above), Mark E. Smith (The Fall), Mick Hucknall (Simply Red), Tony Wilson (TV personality and future Factory Records owner), Paul Morley (writer; chronicler of the Factory scene for NME; future co-counder of The Art of Noise), Rob Gretton (future manager), Martin Hannett (future producer), Morrissey (duh), and Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook (who of course went on to immediately start the band that would become Joy Division). Peter Hook gets all of this down in his newly released Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (!t Books, 2013), and like Debbie Curtis, he was right there when it all went down, albeit facing a different facet of there.

Peter Hook: Unknown Pleasures“Inside Joy Division” is an apt subtitle for this story as Hook was as inside as one gets. Playing high on the bass, as apparently Ian liked it, Hook’s bass-lines are some of the most distinctive in rock music of any kind. Hook’s prose in the book is even-handed, heartfelt, and hilarious. He’s open about what he remembers and what he can’t, and he struggles throughout with the mystery surrounding Curtis. As troubled and tortured as he was, Curtis always said he was okay, and everyone believed him to the very end. A lot of it was apparently written right in his lyrics, giving them an eerie hindsight prescience. Debbie, Annick, Tony, Martin, Rob, Steve, Bernard, Peter–no one near him believed he was singing about himself. It was his art.

Like Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and Darby Crash, Ian Curtis was the stormy center of an iconoclastic young band. They were all “serious young men with important things on their minds,” as Tim Keegan describes Joy Division in The First Tim I Heard Joy Divsion/New Order (see below). All of these singers left behind a legacy of longing, but Peter Hook’s book helps explain the groupthink that may have contributed to their early deaths. It’s tragic and truthful, complex and comedic, and essential reading for any fan of the band.

The First Time I Heard Joy DivisionAs many did at the Sex Pistols gig above, everyone has that moment with a band. Scott Heim has set out to capture them–poignant and palpable–in his The First Time I Heard... series. The Joy Division/New Order entry boasts tales from members of Lush, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Maps, Rothko, Stereolab, Swervedriver, The Wedding Present, Bedhead, Silkworm, and Jessamine, as well as writers such as James Greer (once of Guided By Voices himself), Daniel Allen Cox, Sheri Joseph, Mark Gluth, and Sylvia Sellers-Garcia, among many others.

Having missed his one chance to see Joy Divsion before Curtis died, Philip King describes seeing New Order for the first time a few months later: “My memory of the show was the band looking very numb and solitary as though they were all on their own separate islands, having to deal with their grief on their own–and there being a very conspicuous space, center stage, where Ian Curtis would have stood.” The song “Ceremony” stands in that liminal space between Joy Division and New Order, between the presence and absence of Ian Curtis. Joy Division only performed the song live once just a week before Curtis died, and it became New Order’s first single. Illustrating that middle, and the lasting influence of both bands, here’s Radiohead doing a rather Pixiefied version of “Ceremony” [runtime: 5:01]:

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Like that song, The First Time I Heard Joy Division/New Order illustrates the how important the Ian Curtis mythos is to the experience of these two bands but also how much it’s just about rocking out to great music.

I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling.
— Joy Division, “Disorder,” Unknown Pleasures

Chris Ott: Unknown PleasuresChris Ott describes Joy Division’s music as “potent as any drug: overwhelming, stupefying, and certainly addictive” (p. xvi), and Simon Reynolds cites Unknown Pleasures as one of the trinity of “postpunk landmarks” from 1979, along with Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box (p. 164; to which I would add Gang of Four‘s Entertainment!). Joy Division’s odd conventions are among the “hallmarks of indie sound” (Reynolds, 2007). One can hear their punky proto-goth in everything from Low, Codeine, Radiohead, and Godflesh to the more obvious Bedhead, Bloc Party, and Interpol — the latter of whose resemblance prompted my friend Max Bristol to quip, “Joy Division is a band, not a genre.” Joking aside, their legacy still lingers.

Listening to Joy Division as much as I have over the years and particularly in the past few weeks, a few key things about them emerge. As most of the above witnesses and writers are quick to point out, their chemistry is undeniable. As large as the presence and subsequent absence of Ian Curtis looms, Joy Division was the distinct product of these four guys. Think about most other truly great bands: They are something beyond their sum. It wouldn’t be what it is otherwise. Another thing that becomes evident is that they were still growing. Joy Division only recorded two full-length records and a handful of singles. Some of them are rock n’ roll romps reminiscent of Chuck Berry, some of them are Sex-Pistols punky, some of them hint at the goth/industrial bent that others would later pick up, and some of them are something else entirely. Their sound just wasn’t quite developed yet. With that said, it’s also obvious that they are one of the greatest groups to ever do it. There’s no mystery about that.

References:

Astor, Tom (Producer), Gee, Grant (Director), & Savage, Jon (Writer). (2007). Joy Division [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Hudson Productions.

Corbijn, Anton (Producer/Director), & Greenhaigh, Matt (Writer). (2007). Control [Motion picture]. United STates: 3 Dogs & a Pony.

Curtis, Deborah. (1995). Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division. London: Faber & Faber.

Eaton, Andrew (Producer), Winterbottom, Michael (Director), & Boyce, Frank Cottrell (Writer). (2002). 24 Hour Party People [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Revolution Films.

Heim, Scott (ed.). (2012). The First Time I Heard Joy Division/New Order. Boston, MA: Rosecliff Press.

Hook, Peter. (2013). Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. New York: !t Books.

Nolan, Dave. (2006).  I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World. London: Blake Publishing.

Ott, Chris. (2004). 33 1/3: Unknown Pleasures. New York: Continuum.

Reynolds, Simon. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. New York: Penguin.

Reynolds, Simon. (2007). Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Hip Rock and Hip-hop. London: Faber & Faber.

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Full disclosure: I have an essay in the forthcoming collection The First Time I Heard My Bloody Valentine.