July 27, 2004

Keenan, Morley, Cool, Pop


Ah, the view from inside the solitary urinal of male subjectivity, again.

Well, poor old Dave Keenan is getting it in the neck from all directions. Still, you don't have to be Jacques D to see how Keenan's discourse

("If pop music is daytime, a nine to five soundtrack regulating work and consumption, then noise is its night…. In contrast to music manufactured under the surveillance glare of pop, noise provides a cover of dark that encourages both experimentation and criminal acts. Noise generates the perfect conditions for interrogating control and jamming its channels. Noise is the meltdown of logic. And it refuses the notion that everything is consensual, that communication is paramount, that music must be about pleasure." )

is structured around binary oppositions

(daytime night
glare/ light darkness
music noise
logic unreason
consensus dissent
pleasure ???*)

which are sterile and, as Simon said, somewhat superceded...

(I suppose I shouldn't really comment, since I haven't read all of Keenan's piece, still less [uttunul forbid] heard the music, but that would entail paying good money for the Wire, which, let's face it, it isn't worth. If I read the Wire these days, it's in Bromley library.)

It's fitting, given the lone male fetid unemptied ashtray unwashed flesh reek that rises from Keenan's prose that it should have been feminist thinkers like Helene Cixous who did the most with Derrida's critique of binary oppositions. As you know, Cixous famously argued that the principal binary which structures western logocentric thought is that opposing Man to Woman (logocentrism = phallogocentrism). Even if, to be fair, Keenan privileges certain properties usually associated with the cthonic feminine (darkness, unreason), the deeper problem remains in reproducing this oppositional structure at all.

This is especially troubling given what has happened to noise since 1984 (when, as Simon implies, it appears that this piece was written)**. Loveless and successors such as Fennesz are powerful precisely because they melt the oppositions between melody and noise, pleasure and pain, pop and experimentalism, upon which Keenan - and presumably the bands he is celebrating - still trade.

Odd though it is to say it, Keenan might constitute the 00's equivalent of Cool (=boy-curated anhedonic anti-Pop) derided by Morley back in 82 in the piece reproduced by Tom at NYPLM. (I say odd, because DK is not exactly what I think of when I think of 'cool'). Marcello is right to raise his eyebrows at Morley's dissing of the Pop Group, which is significant on a number of levels (the PG then =ed not only Experimentalism but Social Relevance); I'm going to come back to this in a major k-p thinkpiece later on this week.

It seems that what has been lost - if not in Pop itself, but (blogs apart) in the discourse surrounding it and feeding it - is the space between the avant garde and the Popular. The NME and the Sinker-era Wire set up their unhome upon this discontinuum (and set off so many of the trails in this obsessive reader's psyche that ended up here). If the 82 piece sees Morley at his most intoxicatingly - and intoxicatedly - Popist (such that it could serve as a Manifesto, or as MC says, a Bible for Popism), his recent radio show found him much more on avant-Pop, Pop-Art deterritory. At its best, the Avant-Pop aesthetic performs a mutual libidinization, in which the experimental is vindicated by its take-up in Pop, just as Pop is re-invented and inf(l)ected by the experimental. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that Chris Bohn now rules the Wire roost, Keenan's article demonstrates that the Wire has given up on this between and taken to the comforting shadows of marginality. (I know that Fennesz was recently a cover star so it's not all over yet, I guess....)

All the more reason to celebrate the likes of Reynolds, Carlin, Ingram et al who are keeping the avant-Pop spirit unlive...

*What would fit here? I'm all for moving music beyond the pleasure principle, but what exactly is Keenan proposing should take the place of pleasure?

** And this piece was written in 1984, more or less. There was something familiar about that noise = night metaphor (metonym?). It nags me for a while until I pick up Charles Neal's Tape Delay. There it is, introduction 'Bacillus Culture' by Biba Kopf/ Chris Bohn, in which Bohn aligns Noise with 'night-time' culture. (Interestingly, given my gender worries above, that Bohn's main theoretical ref [besides an uncredited Bataille] is Kristeva and her Powers of Horror. )

Posted by mark at July 27, 2004 03:16 PM | TrackBack

morley *isn't* dissing the pop group though - he's dissing ppl who are "only into the early pop group"

(i think marcello is right that there is/was a sorta kinda fight with rip rig and panicists going on - haha title of second lp I AM COLD, as in cooler than cool? - but it is a fight abt the fetishising of technique/manifesto/attitude as a means of shutting down/shutting out surprise/openness/possibility)

i think simon is wrong abt the degree to which the target wz richard cook - who wz v.pro-RRP at a time when orthodox jazzers inc.free jazzers turned their noses up - plus also i personally think cook's strategies of universalism were better (at that date) than morley's (who wz not unnaturally overinvested in his own particular recent pets - paul haig!!) tho a little later cooky got too caught up in the Brit Jazz Revival, which involved a dfift species of bothersome special pleading possibly

when wz bohn's NOISE issue at nme: 1986 surely? "noise: the political economy of music" wz published in the uk in 1985 (when the original not-so-great version of my anti-attali megahowl ran in wire, bohnski told me he kinda regretted championing attali the way he had, but given the heavy return of all his tropes now he runs wire - which i recall p.oldfield dissecting in monitor!! - i'm a bit baffled how this regret is meant to be operating)

Posted by: mark s at July 27, 2004 03:47 PM

haha though actually come to think of it i *do* think early pop group is better than anything that followed: inc. "how long must we tolerate...", rrp and anything by mark stewart

TS: "Context of Abundance" (©Frank Kogan) vs "Refined Essence" ------> the latter being the problem, really, in the post-RnR (post-45rpm) world

xgau once called the rock principle MASS BOHEMIANISM, which - as so often w.xgau - is an intiguingly accurate and fruitful phrase/idea which he never really followed up: i think the "think" which marcello and morley and cook and i are/were all trying to keep alive (via difft tactics) is that spirit of active useful contradiction?

Posted by: mark s at July 27, 2004 03:58 PM

("think" = "thing")

Posted by: mark s at July 27, 2004 03:59 PM

(kogan on context of abundance)

Posted by: mark s at July 27, 2004 04:01 PM

In person - the few times I met him, quite a long time ago now - Keenan seemed pretty close to the 'ideal fan' the anti-popists would seem to want: charming, bouncing with enthusiasm, always chasing the stuff that excited him, always talking about it, very dismissive of the stuff that didn't. So his current status as Blogosphere Whipping Boy is a bit odd to me.

Posted by: Tom at July 27, 2004 04:10 PM

mark s: you're quite right on Morley not dissing the PG per se. (Incidentally, while, like everyone else I think that they - or spin-off projects - never equalled y, I, unfashionably, have much more time for the second lp than most. I mean, discourse-wise it's horrible, but sonically it's still interesting IMHO)

(btw email me for the Penman Ferry piece; mark.fisher27@ntlworld.com)

Dates wise I was a bit previous: Tape Delay was 1987, tho Bohn's piece was substantially recycled from articles in the NME as I recall.

I used to like Richard Cook's stuff in the NME; wrote some good pieces on the Fall as I recall...

Tom, well, I've nothing against Keenan in general (his 100 best albums for instance is a very good read) but that piece - or the bits reproduced by SR - does seem to sum up why the Wire is such an unreadable chore at the moment.

Posted by: mark at July 27, 2004 04:20 PM

He was in a band called Telstar Ponies a while back which had some decent tunes.
However most of the music he champions is rubbish and so I personally question his judgement.

Posted by: Nicolai Carpathian at July 27, 2004 05:17 PM

Woah. Keenan is getting a ludicrously undeserved kicking.

Firstly- noise is itself often pleasurable. The breakdown of logic can be liberating. Keenan may be wrong to say it's revolutionary, but he certainly, certainly takes pleasure in this tuff (as do I).

Secondly, more importantly-

"What would fit here? I'm all for moving music beyond the pleasure principle, but what exactly is Keenan proposing should take the place of pleasure?"

Isn't it totally self evident, blindly obvious, that there is more to music than pleasure? Take Keiji Haino, as Keenan is wont to do- it's a music of psychological liberation, a struggle to create creative space via sculpting sounds. The struggle is itself rewarding...

Psychological exploration. That's what this stuff is about. As opposed to the pop-experience of a sort of psychological ergonomics (ie it's instantly "right").

Posted by: Derek Walmsley at July 27, 2004 06:15 PM

Rockist rot, rejecting the possibility that "psychological exploration" cannot be divined or extrapolated from the context as well as the content of any given week's Top 40 - thereby noise apologists end up sounding like Paul Foot but without the latter's key ability, not just to stride gleefully between political "popism" and "rockism" but to dismantle the artificial bridge between the two and still remain true to his life as everyone, not least himself, saw it.

And while it is undoubtable that the leitmotif of "a struggle to create creative space via sculpting sounds" is central to improv, it is the result of the struggle which should be rewarding, not the struggle itself. Otherwise morally you could say as much about the US Army in Iraq. In performance we are happy to witness the musicians' struggles and compromises because we know that the process is completely central to the aesthetic (together with the number of people in the audience, the air we're breathing, the colour of the stage curtain), but at home we shouldn't really need to. Unfortunately the historical purpose of art is to create order out of the randomness of everyday life, rather than to reflect it, even if the "order" is evident only to the artist him/herself.

As for Haino, his early '70s stuff is great, but since then he's been playing to the gallery; his music is as conservative in its way as that of Paul Weller - you put a Haino record on (any one of the 34 he releases per week, and that itself is another problem) and you know exactly what you're going to get; the same story, told more balefully, and with some added showbiz (the cape! the silver pony mane!). Typically the only recent record of his to which I return repeatedly - the Purple Trap album - was the one the Keenans of this world slagged off for "selling out." Liberation? Hardly...Haino has imprisoned himself in his music as securely as Bryan Ferry, and with the same aesthetic net losses.

Posted by: Marcello Carlin at July 28, 2004 08:35 AM


noise is itself often pleasurable

well, quite --- but this is one of the many deconstructable oppositions that Keenan himself proposes...

Isn't it totally self evident, blindly obvious, that there is more to music than pleasure?

It's certainly self-evident when yr at many of these Noise/ Experimental events, yes. :-)

More seriously, though, I wasn't disputing that there's more to music than pleasure. On the contrary. I just think that what we put in pleasure's place - whether it be desire, pain, unpleasure, whatever - needs to be theorised, i.e. precisely not assumed to be 'self-evident.'

Posted by: mark at July 28, 2004 09:41 AM

To be fair to Keenan, at the end of his introduction, he does admit that not all noise is like this; he is just concentrating on the stuff which 'bypass[es] genre conventions'. An interesting turn of phrase in a primer on a genre.

What I want to know is when did this stuff stop being the soundtrack to an industrial landscape and turn into a naughty nocturnal adveture? It all sounds suspiciously Gothic to me...

Posted by: johneffay at July 28, 2004 10:39 AM

The pleasure of displeasure, perhaps? (Antoine Artaud to thread) Where would all we critics be without it?

Posted by: Marcello Carlin at July 28, 2004 10:39 AM

I have long suspected that the Wire is turning into a nostalgia mag for 40-year-old Goths. Jazz Journal with added eyeliner.

Posted by: Marcello Carlin at July 28, 2004 10:41 AM

"the chiiildren of the niiight, what muusic they make!!"

Posted by: mark s at July 28, 2004 11:00 AM

I use noise as a kind of music wasabi - occasional palate cleansing between courses of shiny pop (or whatever). I think a lot of dabblers probably do and don't find themselves shocked or tested at all - viva the weekend ravers of the xtreme music world!

Posted by: Tom at July 28, 2004 11:05 AM

As for theorising pleasure and pain- yeah, for sure it's got to be done. But music is difficult to theorise (much more so than film), and noise all the more so. Theory is great, but we might have to wait a long time for a good one, so it's not Keenan's fault if he uses rather broad brush rhetoric instead in the mean time.

As for the joy of "creative struggle"- of course this happens WHILE one listens, not solely afterwards. Struggling with noise is a process. I'm sure players in AMM or whatever has many moments of enjoyment while they're playing, and I think the listener has the same. What kind of psychology would it be that only experienced pleasure while REFLECTING on events, rather than at some point during them? A damn strange one.

A Keiji Haino footnote- his music is incredibly diverse, especially so after the 70s! While it always sounds like him, I don't see that this makes him especially genre-constrained. He could make a pop album or a classical album (just about).

MORE GENERALLY- in 1984, it might have seemed like "noise" was a revolutionary musical alternative of some sort. Now however, it's just one option in a range of musical pleasures (broadly defined). I certainly wouldn't want to replace all music with "noise" (as per Marcello's quote). Maybe Keenan does, but you know, I think he likes ACDC and the like so I doubt it. To suggest that the noise-nik argument claims it's music always to be an alternative, a replacement for music is to turn it into a straw man. I think that's what's happened with the Keenan bashing personally!

Posted by: Derek Walmsley at July 28, 2004 02:59 PM

The thing that connects my two original posts--and it's entirely inadvertent, they both just happened to be things to talk about that day--is that Keenan corresponds to the archetype of cooler-than-thou anti-pop type that Morley sets up as his Aunt Sally

I actually enjoy Keenan's writing as writing (i meant it about the rutting
moose line!) and he obviously has integrity and an aesthetic vision that his painstakingly built up, which is always cool. There's
no doubting his enthusiasm. It just seems quite narrowly focused to me. The "dancefloor plodders" line still rankles!

if you've actually seen that issue of the Wire,
the canon of Noise-makers he's dselected
is such a self-enclosed, inbred genealogy -- metal machine music via TG to all the usual
suspects. Why not extend the category to the limit, feature things like the Sabbath-grinding grisly scratch hip hop of 'rip the cut' by
the skinny boys, or gabba (Mover's Mescalinum United cut 'symphonies of steel' jousts with Merzbow) or ----- [fill in yr own examples]. why not include "lovelynoise" [TM] or things like husker du's 'reoccurring dreams'?

Wasabi -- love the analogy. although come to think of it, don't you put Wasabi on things as edge to essential blandness (delicious blandness) of japanese food. that analogy would lend itself to a kind of noisepop or popnoise, early J&MC type clash of incompatibles. cleansing the palate with wasabi would mean sinuses on fire and you coudln't taste anything for hours!

Posted by: simon r at July 28, 2004 03:03 PM

In any case, "noise" is the most parasitic of musical forms. It depends completely and utterly on music, and especially pop music - or, as Bohn sometimes idiotically used to call it "State pop" - because otherwise it would have nothing to react against or define itself against.

As for theorising about pleasure and pain - why not just experience them? Life's too damned short.

Re. AMM: I am sure that Mr Rowe and/or Mr Prevost would hit you over the head with an economy-sized gong mallet if you told them that what they were doing was "noise" - viz. pathetic victimisation of AMM throughout Watson's Bailey biog just 'cos Evan P's mates with them.

Re. struggle: if I pay £16 for a CD I expect to listen to a finished and organised product, not the process leading up to it. Otherwise what's the point of putting out CDs? For shelfloads/shitloads of "statements" and "documents"? Pass the hemlock please. How one chooses to react to a recording is another matter entirely.

"Theory is great, but we might have to wait a long time for a good one, so it's not Keenan's fault if he uses rather broad brush rhetoric instead in the meantime."

Rubbish. Of course it's his fault. If he wants to big up Noise as the be-all and end-all (of music?) then it's his responsibility as the progenitor of such opinions to provide us with watertight and logical reasons why this should be the case.

"He [Keiji Haino] could make a pop album or a classical album (just about)."

Why doesn't he, then? Would it be too much effort for him to stray from his security blanket template of noise? Or is he scared of being found out?

Posted by: Marcello Carlin at July 28, 2004 03:32 PM

Not listened to the thing for ages (I only had it as a tape copy) but Haino's album as Vajra is if not 'pop' certainly 'lovelynoise' in a blissy style.

Posted by: Tom at July 28, 2004 03:40 PM

If you mean the Tusgaru album, then yes, that's a very nice record in a lighter-side-of-Fennesz kind of way and thank you for reminding me of it. Also it's only about half an hour long IIRC (I'll check when I get home), so brevity also works in his favour.

That record was made in 1995, though; he really ought to explore that particular path again as a relief from thrashing away at the old tabletop...

Posted by: Marcello Carlin at July 28, 2004 04:03 PM

If he wants to big up Noise as the be-all and end-all (of music?) then it's his responsibility as the progenitor of such opinions to provide us with watertight and logical reasons why this should be the case.

Perhaps so, but as there's no evidence that is what he's doing, I fail to see the problem. Anybody who wrote a hack piece for a commercial mag entitled 'The Primer: Noise', and started by saying something along the lines of 'well, it's interesting stuff, but not that interesting' probably wouldn't receive their commission.

Posted by: johneffay at July 28, 2004 04:55 PM

I took it that the crucial claim in Mark s's epic on Noise was- I'm glossing obv - the cybernetic concept that noise is literally unlistenable. Noise = the background from which 'what is listened to' (the figure) is differentiated: its zero. As soon as (what was) noise becomes foregrounded, it's no longer noise...

I think what Simon's saying highlights many of my doubts about the Wire actually. Maybe once it would have included the Mover or the Skinny Boys in its noise continuum; but now, it's the same old suspects...

A nostalgia mag for 40-year old goths? I wish it were that interesting...

Posted by: mark at July 28, 2004 05:43 PM

MC MC- that bit about the tabletop was laugh out loud funny.

Fair points by SR.

Yeah, re: The Wire, I'm biased since I do reviews for them. BUT, I think it would be virtually impossible for it to retract into just a noise magazine. Avant-pop of whatever hue is something it really MUST cover- it's claimed it as part of it's intellectual remit for some time now via things like the State Of Songs article etc.

If it doesn't cover avant pop, then yeah, it's a very bad thing.

Posted by: Derek Walmsley at July 29, 2004 10:52 AM

Dunno about avant-pop, D; to me the Wire would do well to go back (ha, I could have ended the sentence there really couldn't I?) to simply acknowledging and distorting the existence of pop, as Mark S did so entertainingly. But then as you are no doubt aware, the Wire's demographic range is if anything even narrower than the Uncuts of this world (indeed I have better luck getting improv into the latter than getting anything into the former!); its current remit is very strictly and solidly set to cover things that other glossy monthly music magazines don't, and to cover it in a specific way. I seriously doubt, for instance, that Wilco would have got even a quarter-inch in a Wire page were it not for the involvement of Jim "Friend Of The Wire Whom We're Not Allowed To Slag Off"* O'Rourke in their new album.

(*unless you're Ben W or Ian P with years of experience behind you allowing you to get away with it in a "funny uncle in the attic's at it again" way)

Posted by: Marcello Carlin at July 29, 2004 12:08 PM

yep. and the repeated mentions of o'rourke in the wilco piece made that especially obvious.

Posted by: jc at July 29, 2004 12:28 PM

seems that the article put a barbed wire bow around an already (hand made in an edition of 418) sealed box - which is the problem with the current state of the wire.

a more interesting piece would be to treat noise as a virus, how it's bled into music pop, rock, dance, reggae etc and how and why.
why not really celebrate it.
bu then it's a primer and the format is to have a primer cos that's what readers expect etc.

I don't think you can really blame keenan for that overall - don't hate the player hate the game.

Posted by: mms at July 29, 2004 01:48 PM

Funnily enough, I remember DANNY KELLY of all people writing a thinkpiece of that kind in the Noise/Attali issue of the NME (mid-'86?) quoting Sonic Youth's EVOL, Wyatt's Rock Bottom, Neubauten's Halber-Mensch, etc.

Those were the days, eh?

Posted by: Marcello Carlin at July 29, 2004 02:38 PM

those were the days - I was 10!

Posted by: mms at July 29, 2004 02:54 PM