Listening biographies

Phil Ford

The last couple of substantive posts I’ve written have dealt with nostalgia and writing about rock. This post (another long one, sorry about that) is a mash-up of both: a bit more autobiography (sorry about that, too) and a thought about “listening biographies” — the individual, peculiar, contingent path by which which I, like anyone else, come into my mature (?) musical tastes. And thinking about individual listening biographies, in turn, is a way of thinking about the usual rock-historical narratives, which rely on the assumption that anything of importance happens in a scene that taps into a zeitgeist — a formulation that tends to diminish the individual, to make him into the mere cell in the larger organism of a movement, and tends also to make rock history simpler and more ideological than it ought to be. This is what is now called rockism: a normative rather than descriptive understanding of rock history.

One of the books I read last summer was Simon Reynolds’ Rip it Up and Start Again, which deals with postpunk. He starts by saying that punk passed him by; by the time he was aware of it its moment had passed. But what mattered most to him was postpunk. Postpunk is an interesting subject for inquiry, because all the many writers who have written histories of punk in 1976-1977 have tended to conflate the collapse of punk with a new collapse of rock in general. The heroic narrative of rock history (i.e., the rockist narrative) finds a few points where rock is either not yet commodified or has (temporarily) renewed the purity of its revolt. Those points would be, let’s see, the mid-1950s until Elvis goes into the army; the period of 1963 (when the Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan show, say) until 1969 or 1970 (the end of the 1960s, the break-up of the Beatles, Woodstock); the original punk scene of 1976-1977; and the grunge scene (1986 until Nevermind, maybe, although, being more recent, the jury is still out on this one).

Now, Reynolds makes an interesting and I think vital point: that the heroic narrative emphasizes very select scenes (San Francisco in 1967, London and New York in 1976, Seattle in 1986) and, for the listener, the importance of being at the right place at the right time. Postpunk, a more diffuse phenomenon, happened everywhere, and involvement in it, for musicians and writers and fans, relied much less on those local scenes that had created the heroic moments of the rockist narrative. For one thing, these bands often weren’t part of “scenes” at all. Devo, for example, was from Akron, Ohio, and while there were other bands on the Akron scene, no-one outside of Akron ever heard of them. Unlike, say, the Jefferson Airplane, which we understand as part of the 1967 explosion of San Francisco folk-rock (and by extension the Summer of Love, the countercultural revolution, etc.), Reynolds understands Devo in connection with bands like the Gang of Four, which was from Leeds, many thousands of miles away. Reynolds is interested in how a kind of music (like postpunk) can exist outside of a local communities. Because of his own personal experience, he is acutely aware that a new musical movement doesn’t have to be wedded to a particular place, time, and subcultural milieu. Which is to say, it can be mediated: the lines of influence between bands, and between bands and listeners, can flow out from city centers to the suburbs and small towns by way of radio, records, TV, etc. If the rockist narrative posits an ideal listener who is also a participant (“I was at Woodstock, man,” or “I saw Richard Hell at CBGB in 1976, man”*); if the rockist narrative privileges being at the right place at the right time; then postpunk is marked by the decline of subcultural prestige. Growing up, I was into Devo, and I lived in Sudbury, Ontario. The fact that my experience of Devo was entirely mediated — I experienced them through media channels, never as a participant in their “scene” — doesn’t change anything. Postpunk is only a virtual scene.

I think Reynolds is onto something, and yet there is a problem. On the one hand, he’s right to note that music’s cultural power that goes beyond its subcultural origins. But the problem is that when you deny yourself the mystique of subcultural origins to explain a genre or phase or movement of popular music, you are left with a much weaker basis for arguing identity among a widely disparate group of musical texts. “Post-punk,” for Reynolds, means new music put out between 1978 and 1984 by groups as widely spaced, both stylistically and geographically, as Devo, Joy Division, David Bowie, uh . . . well, a whole lot of people, mostly British, but not necessarily, many of them art-rockers, but not always (and often very pop), etc. He doesn’t talk about Captain Beefheart or King Crimson, presumably because they started their careers earlier, but Crimson’s 1980s stuff is as “post-punk” as anything else, and Beefheart was a big influence on many of the bands he does mention, and he also put out his last great albums in 1978-1984 period. And people more knowledgeable than myself can doubtless pick more holes in Reynolds’ criteria for inclusion and exclusion. The problem is, what allows you to group all these musicians and say that they form a broad front of something called “post-punk”? If you were to say, it’s the music that originated in a six-square-mile area of downtown Pittsburgh for a few months in 1981 or something, you might have narrowed your definition too much to be very helpful, but as an intellectual gesture it has a certain feeling of rightness, because in making such an argument you are doing the hipster thing of grouping some small unit of cultural production into a little bulls-eye of authenticity from which radiates successive rings of increasingly impure, commodified, co-opted, mediated stuff. (The gesture is aimed at establishing the power of the critic, who affirms his own taste in defining the center and his authority to bestow subcultural capital on the contenders, pretenders, and also-rans.) But when you see through the gesture and reject it — perhaps for the very good reason that a band, like, say, the Beatles, can make great music without ever being anywhere close to its models — you are left with a much less secure ground on which to base a claim for generic identity.

Reynolds himself falls back onto a general appeal to zeitgeist — the collective movement of young people’s souls — that remains popular among rock critics. “Something is happening here”: kids coming of age at a certain time can all perceive a certain vibration in the music of all these unrelated bands they’re hearing on the radio or buying from their suburban record stores. For Reynolds, that vibration is alienation from the policies of Thatcher and Reagan (in this respect Reynolds isn’t too different from other rock critics), but whatever it is, Reynolds’s presumption is that the music he calls post-punk shares it.
But if you are a kid of the times and your experience of music is mediated, then the sheer diversity of the market will tend to make it much less likely that any one kid will listen to the precise grouping of music that Reynolds’s history assumes. I’m thinking of my own history here. I am exactly the right age to be one of those post-punk kids. I was born in 1969, six years after Reynolds, and until I was 17 I lived in Sudbury, Ontario. Although it has improbably reinvented itself as a government and tourism hub, Sudbury in the 1970s and 1980s was famous for a landscape stripped bare by the caustic sulphur fumes of its mining industry — a landscape likened by one noted travel guide to Hiroshima or Hell — and dominated by the symbols of its Pyrrhic success: smokestacks and a giant nickel coin. In the Canadian national imagination, it is the very model of the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, mullet-haired, Trans-Am driving, hockey-playing, and completely uncultured town on the frozen end of nowhere, hundreds of miles from the nearest city. As a kid with ambitions of a career as a classical pianist, I was greedy for any kind of classical music and got what records I could from the local stores and libraries, and I grabbed as much stuff as I could afford at Sam’s on Yonge Street when my family would make the five-hour drive south to Toronto to visit my grandparents. Afflcted then, as now, with insomnia, I would listen to the CBC FM2 service’s overnight show, which was how I first got to hear crazy shit like Luciano Berio’s Circles. When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher, as a first-day icebreaker, had us go around the room and say what our favorite band was. Panicked, I named the Beatles, figuring that such a famous band would make for an inconspicuous lie. (In a town where Black Sabbath was much bigger than the Beatles, it wasn’t.) But when I was 15 my best friend started turning me on to popular music. The first thing he brought over was a tape of the Dead Kennedys’ Plastic Surgery Disasters, which I laughed at, a little too heartily, even when no-one was around. But despite the distance I tried to maintain from it, I kept playing it over and over again. Another friend lent me a tape of Frank Zappa’s Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch and some stuff from Shut Up ‘n’ Play Yer Guitar. And after that, I bought or taped more Kennedys, Black Flag, King Crimson, Devo, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp (by themselves or together or in various collaborations with others), the Sex Pistols, PiL, Captain Beefheart, Peter Gabriel, Ultravox, Yngwei Malmstein, New Order, Joy Division, U2, and all the Zappa I could find. For older stuff I listened to Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Jimi Hendrix.

This list resembles Reynolds’s notion of post-punk, but it doesn’t fit it either. And keep in mind that the whole time I was still listening to Scriabin, Liszt, Bach, and so on. And once I realized that I was only kidding myself when I laughed ostentatiously at the Kennedys, my Pauline revelation was that I listened to all this music in basically the same way. I wasn’t so dumb as to think that it was all the same, or worked the same way, but I didn’t compartmentalize my listening, either. So what generalizations could you make about that? What zeitgeist did I have in common with the other kids growing up in the post-punk age? Brainy music geeks growing up in the mid-1980s would naturally gravitate towards some of these names, of course, but my point is that every listening biography is different. Movements like punk or psychedelic rock or bebop, however specious the claims of their official historians, can offer some vision of historical coherence because of their limited and shared origins. A mediated movement seems like a contradiction in terms, though, because it is the nature of mediation to allow the consumer to tile together whatever he likes. In my case, everything was mediated, because I lived in a city far, far away from anywhere with a “scene” in which I could participate. All our music was from somewhere else.

Damn this is long.

*and you weren’t nya nya nya

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Books, Historiography, Rock. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Listening biographies

  1. thank you for the post. I love the idea of a listening biography. it is something i have often thought about, though not by that (or any) name. The link I am providing goes to a Zappa mixtape I posted today on my blog. Thought you might enjoy it.

  2. Mona S. says:
    A lot of my other favorite music bloggers have done this quiz…will you guys jump in too?=)

  3. ben wolfson says:

    Witch Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch
    Ship, I think.

  4. Scraps says:

    I think Beefheart’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970) is — musically — the first postpunk album. (I’d love to hear proposed earlier candidates.)
    I love the idea of a musical biography, too. Most people don’t have one beyond early adulthood, so far as I can tell: they aquire tastes as teenagers, discard the embarrassing ones and refine the cool ones as young adults, and stop.

  5. eba says:

    Regarding collective scenes and underground music known only to those in the scene, watch these 91 seconds:

  6. MediaGroove says:

    Thanks for this (yes, 2+ yrs. later) – it make sense that post-punk was a ‘virtual’ scene, as it was subcultural enough to not have tremendous currency withing popular music culture at the time. Which is why some of us still like it – you could see examples of mixing and blending of musical styles, esp. cross-pollination of black & white music (e.g. – Talking Heads lifting from Fela & disco, and Afrika Baambaataa lifting from Kraftwerk) that would never be allowed, (let alone acknowledged) in dogmatic hardcore punk or MTV-craving New Wave scenes. That is the secret history of post-punk that still has not been told. Check out our documentary in progress at . Cheers.

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