Monday, March 18, 2013

Ian F. Svenonius — ‘Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group’

First off, this book has a great feel. I was talking a while ago about how what the internet really lacks is any kind of friction, and although I must admit I did buy this book on the internet (it was so easy), the moment your hand hits the cover it is slowed down by its texture, which is more like velvet than your average paperback. You just have to pause to paw it. Its diminutive dimensions (107mm x 174mm x 12mm) are a good fit for my left, book-holding hand (98mm x 200mm x 30mm) and it recalls, in form and function, a 2002 reprint I have of Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond’s The Manual [How to Have a Number One the Easy Way], which is only 147mm tall, but otherwise much the same. It features much better proof-reading than some of Bill’s books, some cute hand drawn illustrations, and what is possibly the best author photograph of all time. It’s very well written, too, as you’d expect from such a witty songwriter, and yet... This is a ridiculous accusation, really, but it feels — once you’re off the texture and into the text — a little too scattershot. Its polemical thrusts are isolated (mainly accusing the US gov’t of fascism), and there is the problem that, since The Manual came out at the height of the music industry’s monetary success, there has been such a change in the ‘greatest thing in the world to be’ that — well, a pop star certainly isn’t it, anymore, let alone a member of a rock ’n’ roll group. In 1988, it was obvious why a manual explaining how to have a number one single was a good idea; in 2013, though, why would anyone who doesn’t already know all about groups want to find out how to make one?

So maybe scattershot is inevitable if you’re starting out from the endpoint — the group — and trying to justify its continued relevance, but Svenonius has plenty of interesting ways of arguing the case. For instance,

In a country alienated from national feeling such as the USA, where individualist, capitalist ideology strongly dissuades identification with the group and instead encourages sociopathic selfishness and greed, subcultural bonding is a radical act. Without rock ’n’ roll, it is virtually impossible. (pp. 64-5)
This is kinda great, although it doesn’t really follow that because Americans are encouraged by free market rhetoric to be selfish, rock ’n’ roll is the only way to be community spirited. Though it certainly is a way. And it’s interesting that ‘national feeling’, here, is seen as a positive thing — in the UK, of course, it is usually shorthand for bigotry. It is also interesting that this argument arrives hard on the heals of its opposite. As part of the string of seances which make up the first section of the book, the spirit of the still-living Paul McCartney has the following to say, via the medium of light-bulb Morse code. He is responding to the question, ‘Was the British Invasion a conspiracy?’:
Yes. It was a brilliant ploy to reconfigure the popular street-club model into a commercial enterprise which would harness anti-social tendencies and teach fealty to market values. (p. 51)
Maybe context is enough to make sense of this: when rock ’n’ roll was popular enough to generate stupid quantities of cash, it was an instrument of capitalism; now that it can’t, the sword-stick has become an umbrella to huddle under. It’s indie snobbery, it’s common sense, it’s Tony Wilson’s idea that possessing wealth is a sin (think he nicked that from Buddha to justify the Factory table). It’s the ruler of the universe in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, living with his cat in a remote shack, embodying the idea that nothing makes a person unsuitable to rule as much as a desire for power. It’s Orson Welles, who became great as he lost his worldly position, and was infinitely preferable as a maverick, a Hollywood pariah. Svenonius echoes what Welles has to say about greatest things in the world to be:
All art is, after all, a failure until the circumstances of history change and somehow that kind of expression, for whatever reason, cannot be replicated any longer. Then it is perfect and therefore dead.(p. 70)
He also relates rock ’n’ roll to the industrial revolution:
Once the machines had taken over, humans were off the hook. They no longer needed to do laundry, thresh wheat, or stamp dies. They were saddled with the oppressive ‘leisure time’ paradox. Not coincidentally, they — for the most part — abandoned their former hobbies such as painting, poetry, and writing, and focused on creating something as brainless, self-satisfied, and repetitive as their masters. First they tried modernism; then abstraction, collage, avant-noise, and existentialism. Eventually these experiments were retired with the discovery of the most devolved mode of expression ever. It was called The Group. (pp. 165-6)
Now that’s a theory. Ominous not only in its biblical intonation, but in its suggestion that now, through and beyond industrialisation, we have reached a stage where we can replicate anything. And if nothing can die, nothing can ever be perfect again.


Andy said...

This sounds and looks pretty interesting. Have you read his collection of essay, The Psychic Soviet?

Chris said...

You can borrow it if you like. No, I haven't read his other book, but would certainly not be averse.

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