Walking down the stairs to a warehouse-esque party on the last night of Labour conference last year, I couldn’t have been any happier. The authoritatively cool sensibilities of counter culture were being brought into the mainstream political realm and seemed wonderful, especially to someone like myself, brought up on a diet of pop culture and middle class permissiveness.
The comrade next to me wasn’t so sure:
“I dunno, it looks a bit zaney to me”
It had literally never occurred to me that being obtuse, transgressive and edgy didn’t automatically carry some kind of inherent value, and the realisation hit me like a jolt. Ever since the late 1960s, the prevailing wisdom has been that orthodoxy, blandness and conformity are the tools of reactionary power and that any counter-cultural challenge to this blandness is fundamentally progressive.
The post 1960s culture of radical transgression grew from a rejection of both the pre-defined capitalistic modes of behaviour and the societies of socialist world, which were increasingly seen as oppressive and unsupportable by a left disorientated by the economic and cultural boom of capitalism’s post war years.
However, the genius of capitalism is to absorb what it can’t suppress, and it didn’t take long for the symbols of youthful rebellion to be reduced to a series of garish consumption options, a fact that any long time fan of punk rock will regretfully admit.
Perhaps the only surprising aspect of all this is that it took the reactionary right to discover that anti-authoritarian rebelliousness could be an equally effective weapon in their own armoury, as Angela Nagle wearily illustrates in her recent polemic “Kill All Normies” – a text that added another nail to the coffin of my faith in transgression.
All this poses some fairly unpleasant questions about the politics of pop culture and rock and roll in particular. If the whole thing is not, in fact, a redemption for a sick society, but an agent of that sickness, is there a way out? Is there an escape other than nihilistic capitulation to the system, or disappearing down a poisonous rabbit-hole of sectarian insanity? This dichotomy is visible on the left today in the antagonism between dead-eyed Blairites and the foaming-at the-mouth Trotskyists who hate them.
My hope is to trust in the dialectical proposition that everything contains the essence of its opposite. In that spirit please enjoy this 2016 mixtape of retro electro and quasi-industrial deep cuts. A mixtape of songs as bleak, claustrophobic and antagonistic as the societies that spawned them. Even if they fail to signpost the way to a better world, maybe they can shine a light on the one in which we live.
The Human League – John Peel Session 1978
Cabaret Voltaire – John Peel Session 1984
Ministry – Primental (Live 1982)
James Rays Gangwar – Absolutely Free
The March Violets – Deep (Radio Session, 1984)
The March Violets – Face of the Dragonfly (Radio Session, 1984)
Miserylab – Children of the Poor
Miserylab – People
TV Baby – Wild Joy
TV Baby – New York is Alright
Victories At Sea – Up
Genuflex – Lotus Eats Pale Receipts
Genuflex – Bludevotion
Genuflex – Black Sails
The Sisters Of Mercy – Comfortably Numb/Some Kind of Stranger (Live 1993)