in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Monday, February 12, 2007

From the desktop to the hilltop (via the pill drop)

A few weeks ago I put forward the proposition that clubland has become a drug culture that uses music, instead of a music culture that uses drugs. I’m still not sure if I agree. But the reactions of my nocturnal f(r)iends to the rant has been more interesting than my unresolved doubts: the beer monsters and stay-at-homes mostly agreed, saying (surprise, surprise) that the disco was too late, too hard, too loud, too taxing. The hedonists conceded a point, but felt that I’d overstated things: it isn’t just ‘that’– a party’s all about the people, the venue, the atmosphere. You can’t blame the essence of the problem on a substance, or separate it from the crazy tangle of elements that makes an event – yeah, yeah. But what was really interesting was the number of people who argued a combination of these two points:

a) ‘It didn’t always used to be like that’ [historical]
b) ‘It’s not like that in {Hawtingrad}’ [geographical]

I scanned the dark recesses of my own discotheque memory tapes for confirmation of both assertions, and found that… yes, it had been true. There had been places and times… ahh. I spent days wallowing in a tepid bath of ‘the good old days’ wondering what had happened. Had I become preternaturally middle-aged? A fuddy-duddy in my twenties? Did ‘the suck’ exist outside the disappointments of my sad little sourpuss? Maybe… maybe it’s just me? Maybe it’s where I live.

There’s some truth in it. I’m not old school, so I can’t speak for the spirit of ’89, but I do remember when and where it was possible to go and see Laurent Garnier play for six hours on the best sound system you could imagine to a room full of adoring fans: ah, Tokyo’s old Liquid Room (now defunct). Sure, it cost the equivalent of forty US dollars to get in, but it was the business. But this is rare anywhere, and perhaps only metropolii have the critical mass of both people and objects in circulation to make it happen. In 2006, Tokyo has Unit, Offenbach has Robert Johnson and Berlin has the Panorama Bar – but these places are the exception, rather than the rule. Ah yes, the rule is something else. The Rule is Rex. I have this wonderful, terrible memory of seeing Isolée play at Rex in Paris. Isolée was bringing his set to its crescendo with a speaker-blowing rendition of Face B, and there in the audience was this utter penis and his two mates, shirts off, fanny packs strapped across their fronts. I thought it was fist-pumping. I thought it was praise. Then I thought it was a rave hybrid of the Gallic shrug and big box, little box, bouncy ball. But no, these mofos were heckling the good man. They weren’t losing their shit, they were giving him shit. I don’t speak much French, but it was pretty obvious what this guy was saying:

‘C’mon you pulsating glowstick, pump it up! I paid hard euro for this!’Or perhaps, ‘My pill is kicking in, you German pigdog!’ Or even, ‘Can’t you see my prune is pulsating – play Gehts Nocht!’

Below said ‘ecklers, in a small semi-circle, were the discerning few – smiling that smile, dancing that dance, blowing that smoke and all that jazz. Behind them was everyone else, not really dancing, just kinda nodding along. We could not have been listening to the same music, and yet there we all were...

All over the world (with the exception of the exceptional places mentioned), the same scene seems to be repeated. Is it Abletonitis (maybe the music I like is boring, as some have suggested... gosh, what if mother was right about that too)? Is it the perennial sigh of the ‘misunderstood’ artist casting his pearls before swine? Is it the fact that the nightclub and its needs are fundamentally at odds with the appreciation of, well, music? Maybe Isolée played his next set to an adoring, appreciative crowd the following Saturday somewhere in Hawtingrad, but my experience at Rex was typical of what I saw in Europe outside of the handful of ‘truly great’ clubs.

But it’s not just drugs, or boredom, or booze, although they play their part. The real enemy here appears to be habit. Habit is that strumpet who’s up to her old tricks – forever. The same thing as yesterday, and the day before. Whatever she did, you know that miserable so-and-so’s done it before, and she’ll do it again. Habit can wear a hole in your shoe, build a callous in your most sensitive parts, or make you a bodybuilding champion.

We need habits, no question. Once is never. Repetition is our only defence against gone – you wanna build something, you wanna make something happen? You’re gonna have to do it again. Try building a house, try being a drummer, try making a baby. Maybe life itself is nothing but the transformation of this repetition compulsion into pleasure, and our fear of death is simply a fear of breaking the habit of living.

But the problem with habits is that they brook no breakage – once established, their inertia will outlive common sense, boredom, even the end of the organism itself. Like Matt Dear’s lyric from Dog Days: ‘Tell another story to your body so it makes sense/the reason for this story is to give away your last chance.’ Indeed. And clubs, being what they are, are the final resting place of our deepest habits, the zenith/nadir of our bodily needs who want to step on the good foot and do the bad thing again and again and again. Have a few drinks, and there you are again (sigh), back in your good old, bad old ways. It’s good that we have a space for our habits to prance about, but the problem for creativity is that habit will have its needs met, and nothing else. The drinkers want to keep drinking, the DJ wants to keep playing, and the dickhead hassling Isolée… well, he just wanted to go ‘go off’ in a timely fashion. Electronic music is up against the overwhelming reality that people in nightclubs want nothing less than to have their expectations perfectly met. They’ve paid hard euro, they came to get wasted, and your job is to satisfy their urges. Hey, they work all week, this is their only outlet, have some compassion. Point is, we’re never going to ‘give up’ our habits. That would be preposterous, pointless, even pleasureless. But ‘good habits’ aside, what we need to cultivate, more than anything else, is a sense of the ‘exceptional’.

The Greeks had the Dionysia, the Romans the Bacchanalia, the Haitians have Voodoo rites – if you’d seen the Borat movie you’d know that even evangelical Christians get to freak out and speak in tongues for a few moments every week without guilt. Maybe we can leave the serpents, satyrs and bloodlettings for another barbecue and just take the lesson that all these events dip their lid to a seemingly immutable human need to lose it for a few days without the fear of guilt or recrimination. Maybe we could think through the atmosphere of permissive repression that dominates most nightclubs (where the way of ‘losing it’ is prescribed and enforced by tacit rules and enormous, violent bouncers) toward a real carnival of ‘big fun’.
It seems to me that we’ve inherited a potentially fantastic idea from Jamaica in the form of the sound system. Monsters and misfires aside, from Coxsone Dodd through the Wild Bunch to rave kidz and their rigs, a mobile sound system retains the greatest potential as a spacemaker. Alls you got to have is a kick-ass PA, some great DJs, choose your space imaginatively, make sure you invite the good peepz and stir… instant party. Kids, if you’re listening, consider getting access to a sound system and throwing your own parties. It sure beats bitching about other peoples’… or does it?

Maybe it’s also time to get DJs and producer/performers out of their habit-generated ghetto and start pushing them into places they’re not expected, and likewise, put bands and dramatic performers into marginal spaces. It has to be conceded that, to the uninitiated, groove-based electronic music is too abstract for hook-line-‘n-personality-cult addicted kids weaned on rock and pop. There’s nothing to grab onto, people don’t know how to listen to it, and too often it’s dismissed as merely repetitive drug music or, my favourite, ‘music with no soul’. The flipside of this is that promoters, drugs and ignorance on the part of the majority of listeners has created the indifferent/boosterist dynamic in most nightclubs, which has in turn fostered an atmosphere where a lot of performers who are actually very boring can get away with, and even make a career of, their bland boom-boom. There’s a split point here: on the one hand, artists like Jamie Liddell and Herbert have appreciated and overcome the performance limitations imposed by the rigidity of computer-based music, but on the other, one of the key aims of dance music was to overcome the personality principle of pop in favour of one in which you, me and the mixing desk are all instrumental performers of a music that is only completely composed through the dance itself. Dance music rarely works this well, but it’s one of our finest ideas – it would be a shame to regress back to an earlier ‘stage’ of our musical expression.

I really feel like electronic music has better grasped the power of the new technologies than anyone else. Broadband means that those (still admittedly relatively few, numerically speaking) with access to a laptop and an internet connection can plug into a form of musical expression that they can fully appreciate and share without translation and that, moreover, they can begin to interpret and re-create for themselves. The reverberation of this explosion of new music can be heard everywhere from Sao Paolo to Lagos or Moscow. It mightn’t change the world, but it’s a start. But where does it all reterritorialise? It seems like the weakest link in this whole chain is the sticky, fleshy one: the human. But that’s where we come in… isn’t it?

Originally published by Stylus, here:
© Peter Chambers 2006

No comments:

The Author

[almost nothing] about me

My photo
PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.