“The Empire Never Ended” – Thatcher and the end of democracy

Margaret Thatcher

So there it is. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first -and so far only- female prime minister has shuffled off her mortal coil at the grand old age of 87. I’ll make something clear: unlike some, although not as many as claimed by The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, who decry any such outbursts of cynical joy as manifestations of the entire “Left”, that terrible, intangible -i.e. pretty much non-existent- social group those two newspapers seem to fear and loathe so much, I take no pleasure in the death of an old woman with dementia. Death is a grim specter that hangs over all of us, and the only significance of Thatcher’s actual demise is that it reminds us of how fragile life is. Other than that, it is a meaningless event. For those of us who rejected her politics during her tenure as PM, and who continue to do so as her legacy casts a sinister shadow over the entirety of UK politics, any celebrations of her passing are not only a bit tasteless but, more importantly, pointless.

But, let’s get something else straight: Margaret Thatcher was a hated woman. She inspires more revulsion than almost any other politician in modern British history. This is not some mean-spirited posturing by the SWP, or a reaction restricted to communist comedians on Radio 4, no matter how much the Mail would like to claim them as the sole spokespersons of the “Left”. Up and down the country there are people who despised Margaret Thatcher, not out of some sort of silly tribalism, but because her policies wrecked their lives and those of people they cared about. This is a reality, and no amount of attempted trivialisation/sensationalising (delete as applicable) on the part of the right-wing press will succeed in obfuscating that (especially not Toby Young’s juvenile suggestion that, had it not been for Maggie, someone like Mark Steel would have wound up in a gulag. Yes, Young’s paid to write such crass drivel). If the tasteless outpourings of glee signify anything, it’s that Thatcher was a divisive and traumatising figure for large numbers of this country’s populace. And guess what? Because of that, we’re not happy with talk of a sort of state funeral. We’re not happy with the sycophantic eulogies currently being proffered by our politicians and most news outlets. We’re not happy that she will get the kind of send-off usually reserved for war heroes and royalty. For a lot of us, she doesn’t deserve it. Maybe the hacks at the Mail and Telegraph should try considering that before turning on their sneer-and-outrage buttons.

Equally, however, those of us who loathed her need to remember some key facts. Margaret Thatcher stands today as the most successful and significant prime minister this country has had since Churchill. She was in office a stunning 11 years, one more than her closest rival -in modern electoral success terms- Tony Blair, and you can’t argue that she transformed this country, perhaps irrevocably. She oversaw economic upturn in several sectors, a wildly popular jingoistic war, and cemented the UK’s relationship with the USA, re-establishing it as a significant global power. This country would not be what it is without her, generally for worse, but sometimes for the better. I don’t want to hide from these facts. There is a large number of people who will, despite being part of the working class she generally scorned, forever adulate her because she allowed them to buy their council flats and injected a bit of national pride into their hearts; or who could identify and admire her rise from a lower middle class background to head of a party and then country dominated by men. We can of course discuss at length the merits of any particular policy, and many others, but that won’t deter from the fact that many people, of all backgrounds, not just Tory toffs and City boys, adored Thatcher, and always will.

Therein lies the fundamental problem for any analysis of the events of the past two days, and of the upcoming week or so: Thatcher won. She may be dead, but she won. Her policies were almost always hideous. She targeted the poorest in the country and systematically dismantled any aspects of their communities and societies that would allow them to oppose her free-market capitalism. She destroyed unions, aided and abetted by a vicious campaign against them by her allies in the press, spearheaded by -who else?- Rupert Murdoch, whose hold on Britain’s media narrative and political class was established at the height of Thatcher’s reign. Supported by the rhetoric of his and other papers, she demonised those on welfare, the working class and left-wing politics to the point that the latter became unpalatable to large sections of a middle class electorate rendered better off by her other policies and the boom of the financial sector. It was a phenomenal exercise in divide-and-rule: as the poorest plunged into unemployment, their communities -especially in the industrial North, Scotland and Wales- brushed aside, with the nouveaux riches and big corporations, benefiting from increased deregulation and the unwavering privatisation of public services, becoming her vocal cheerleaders, even as services such as transport, energy and telecommunications, supposedly ones intended to serve the people, became the playthings of the very richest, and an increasing financial burden on the rest. But, hey, so long as we could feel good about caning some Argies and owning a council flat that once could have housed a poor family, who cared -among the middle classes and above- if the train service got worse and gas and electricity prices rose? We weren’t all in it together, to coin a phrase from Thatcher’s descendents, but most of us didn’t even notice. Those that did were comprehensively deprived of a voice.

She may be dead, but the “reforms” Thatcher used to cut a swathe across British life in the eighties have had a lasting, maybe even permanent effect, so much so that when the supposedly left-wing Labour party came to power in 1997, they themselves had been corrupted by free-market capitalism, to the point that Thatcher saw Tony Blair as part of her legacy. She had effectively destroyed her opposition by forcing it to transform into a slightly more socially progressive clone of her Conservative party. Deregulation of banks continued unabated, corporations continued to harvest more and more of the UK’s wealth into the hands of a select group of privileged individuals, and inequality deepened to a catastrophic degree. We only have ourselves to blame. The media narrative  depicted any views to the left of Blair as “loony” or even dangerous, to the point that ideas such as nationalisation or unionisation have become political minefields. What unions we have only subsist in the public sector, such as among teachers and nurses, as well as  in the rail industry which, whilst privatised, still relies on public funding. This might be the greatest sour joke of all: Thatcher and her ilk have implemented a system in many industries where corporations take over public services only to be bolstered by the supposedly unwanted state, the main effect being that state subsidies line shareholders’ pockets, even as the services the latter are supposed to have taken off the hands of the inefficient state get worse. It’s a gigantic catch-22, and a tunnel from which little -if any- light appears to be shining, because any talk of reclaiming public services for the people is even derided by said people’s supposed party, Labour, let alone the right-wing press or the Tories. The very principles that Labour was founded on have been discarded as part of Blair’s -and therefore Thatcher’s- legacy.

If Blair was bad, what has come along since he and then Gordon Brown were shown the door is even worse, probably even worse than anything Margaret Thatcher could have dreamed up. Riding on flimsy narratives about the budget deficit and a right-wing press campaign against people on benefits, David Cameron’s Tories have taken Thatcherism to a new level, one where those most vulnerable are demonised as somehow responsible for the country’s economic woes whilst the mega-rich, who, if they are big bankers or millionaire tax avoiders, actually are part of the problem, get given tax breaks. Most terrifyingly and frustratingly, the aforementioned narrative fails to be broken, even when exposed as false. Tax evasion and avoidance cost the treasury far more than benefit fraud, yet no matter how often this is repeated, the Tories’ “skivers vs strivers” rhetoric wins out, even among those they’re hitting with bedroom taxes and disability benefit “reforms”. The power of Thatcher’s divide-and-rule technique has never been stronger, turning fellow members of the working class against each other whilst the mega-rich reap the rewards of what little growth the country garners. With the welfare state getting vitriolically undermined, so the way is cleared for even the bastions of public service, such as the NHS and education, to feel the cold blade of privatisation press against their necks. It doesn’t matter that inequality is continuing to separate the richest from their fellow citizens to an unprecedented degree, and clear for all to see. If the Royal Wedding and Elizabeth II’s Jubilee showed anything, is that the presumed right of the elites to lord over Britain’s underclasses has never been never been so profoundly established in our minds. The Queen is set to get a £6 million pay-rise and few will bat an eyelid.

This is why so many of us will feel such rage today, as Thatcher is fawned over by her supine idolators. In her wake, Britain has become a more unequal, less fair and more precarious place to live for too many people. And, call me cynical but I am certain that things will never change. Any alternative progressive vision is systematically and vocally undermined by both the corporate press and the uniformly similar LibLabCon political class, to the point where progressive parties can’t even get more than the odd parliamentary seat. It’s a world where the chattering classes -and, by extension, the people- would rather give airtime and space to the vacuous and noisy xenophobia of UKip rather than look at systems that could actually redress the balance. Thatcher won. The 99% of us who don’t belong to the privileged few will slowly but surely get left behind in the race towards some sort of quality of life.

The line “The Empire Never Ended” has been trotting around my head for some time now, and I’ve even used it in another article. I stumbled across it in Philip K Dick’s Valis, where it’s used in his bizarre gnostic philosophy to describe the sociopolitical system established by a mad god, one that gave us the Roman Empire and supposedly ended with Nixon’s resignation, the latter orchestrated by a “good” and “wise” god, who is some reflection of Jesus Christ. I’m an atheist, so this vision means little to me, for all its interest. And Dick died three years into Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister (and a year into Reagan’s presidency), so he missed the way the militaristic empires of old have been replaced, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, by a convoluted regime guided by the monetary interests of a few wealthy individuals, backed loudly by a media dominated by vested interests and supported by an opportunistic political class that, of course, can still turn to a bit of military muscle when needed to further the free-market cause, as Tony Blair, Thatcher’s child, so ably (and, thankfully, to his detriment) demonstrated. The Empire never ended. It just got clever. And, by being clever, through the vision of Thatcher, Reagan and their followers, it’s more powerful than ever. I don’t see it ending anytime soon, and that’s to our eternal shame. I won’t join in with the crude celebrations over Margaret Thatcher’s, no matter how much I hate the fawning she’s getting, mainly because they’re pointless. She won.

* As a footnote to the above, I am startled and dismayed to see that so many gay people have lamented Thatcher’s passing, to the point that these individuals are overlooking -perhaps caught up in the euphoric wave of Thatcher sanctification- that she oversaw the introduction of the most homophobic law the UK has seen since 1967, by which I of course mean Section 28, which prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools and had a hugely detrimental effect on gay kids all over Britain, one that is still being felt today. I can just about get that Gay Times and many of the LGBT community got a bit doe-eyed over The Iron Lady, I assume because of gay icon Meryl Streep, but if we’ve got to the point where, as a community that has had to fight for our rights, we have become so imbued with the attitude of sheer selfishness and greed she promoted that we forget, disregard or neglect our own past, then this world is even more screwed than I thought.

Photo (c) of Don Mcphee. I hope he won’t mind me using it.

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Film Feature: Things Learned At The 27th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (April 3rd, 2013)

 The Empire Never Ended

Sci-fi fans might recognise the above statement from the great Philip K. Dick’s novel Valis. For Dick, the sentence signifies -I think– that the Roman Empire was the construct of an insane god whose nebulous influence traversed time and space and was reincarnated in the imperialist tendencies of Nixon’s United States. I make no such bold exegesis, but, nonetheless, the phrase kept running through my head throughout the 27th edition of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Whilst I do not have any grandiose vision of the nature of time and reality, it is clear that, whilst the rights of gay and lesbian people in the UK have come along in leaps and bounds, many films in the programme highlighted just how far we have to go on a wider scale, and that the spectre of hate-filled prejudice, brewed over centuries, still looms heavily over the global LGBT community.Take Taboo Yardies (dir. Selena Blake), for example, a harrowing documentary about life for LGBT people in Jamaica. Blake’s interviews with people in Jamaica are downright scary. The level of violent hatred -extending even to people saying they’d kill their own children if they found out they were gay – is beyond anything I’m used to witnessing, and the testimonies from gays and lesbians living on the island (with obligatory pixelated faces) are heartbreaking. Whilst there are very positive interviews in the film with Jamaicans both gay and straight now living in the US, and with a couple of psychologists based in Jamaica, all debunking (and perspicaciously analyzing) Jamaican attitudes to LGBT people, the most important man interviewed, the island’s prime minister (until 2011, but interviewed before he left office), trots out the same kind of putrid bigotry one hears time and time again from right-wing twits in America and the UK. At the end of the film I was left with an exhausting sense of hopelessness. We’ve come so far here, but for Jamaican (or Ugandan, or Nigerian, or Kenyan) LGBT people, the reality is close to nightmarish. What is also noted is that Jamaica’s anti-sodomy laws are a hangover from British rule of the island. The Empire never ended indeed. Taboo Yardies is a brave documentary, but does little to suggest things will change for the courageous, isolated, gay, lesbian and transgender people living in terror in Jamaica.

More uplifting was Facing Mirrors (dir. Negar Azarbayjani), a hugely effective emotional drama in which an ordinary Iranian woman is confronted with her own prejudices when she helps out (inadvertently, then against her will, and finally with conviction) a transgender woman who wants to escape to Germany in order to transition to being a man. Facing Mirrors forgoes overt political statements to concentrate on the emotions and experiences of its protagonists, and is filmed in a realistic style, mostly with hand-held cameras. The two main actors are excellent, especially Ghazal Shakeri as Rana, who expertly balances melodrama and understatement as her character goes from naive conservatism to acceptance.

Also touching on the much-covered theme of homophobia was short film Queer Beograd Border Fuckers Cabaret (dir. Jet Moon), a documentary about how radical, feminist queer performers in Serbia are fighting back against the intrinsic bigotry they encounter from all sides, including supposed allies on the left. It’s an eye-opening piece, sadly undermined quite a bit by weak production values and a tendency to rely on shoddily-filmed performance footage. A shame, but also a reminder that homophobia is not just restricted to Africa or the Caribbean, and in fact still festers in European society (see the 300,000 who demonstrated -violently- in Paris against gay marriage).

Films like Taboo Yardies and Facing Mirrors highlight how unfortunate people in places like Jamaica and Iran are if they’re LGBT. These are often countries in the UN or the Commonwealth, and yet their institutionalised hatred remains only mildly condemned by those who are supposed to uphold and enshrine human rights. Equally, all the above-mentioned films reminded me that more Tory MPs in the UK voted against gay marriage than for it, despite David Cameron’s attempts at modernisation. It would be too easy to think we can rest on our laurels: this is an issue for LGBT people everywhere. The gruesome spectre of old world hatred and bigotry haunts us all. ‘The Empire never ended.’ How’s about we make sure it does, soon?

We are not alone

By that, I do not mean that we lesbian, gay and bisexual people are increasingly surrounded by allies amongst straight people, although that was also made quite clear to me across the festival’s ten days, but rather that we have often overlooked the other members of queer society. How often do we, the majority of our minority, display true solidarity towards transgender and intersex people? The ‘Bodies’ section of the programme seemed to dwell at length on this issue, through a number of documentaries (and the occasional fiction) exploring themes of gender identity. Of course, we had the uproarious and frankly excellent I Am Divine (dir. Jeffrey Schwarz), an hilarious homage to Harris Glenn Milstead, aka Divine, cross-dressing superstar of John Waters’ best films and successful disco diva. It’s a bittersweet portrait of a unique individual who pushed back the boundaries of taste and acceptance and ultimately paved the way for a lot of drag performance as we know it. I for one will be eternally grateful to Divine.

But perhaps the strongest social and, dare I say it, political stance that Divine took was to present himself the way he did despite being overweight. This isn’t explored in the film as much as I would have liked. How often do we hear talk of ‘body terrorism’ in the gay (male) community? A lot. By refusing to be cowed into covering himself up when in drag, Divine set a marker down to us all.

I – unlike some in the film – do not feel it is appropriate to label Divine as ‘she’ or ‘her’, because Milstead was at pains throughout his career to stress that he did not want to be a woman, even though he dressed up as one. So, as enjoyable as it is, I Am Divine offers little insight into issues of gender (and yes, I know that was never the aim). Much more enlightening, in that sense, is Intersexion, a documentary by Grant Lahood, focusing on the opinions and experience of intersex activist Mani Bruce Mitchell and his/her friends.

I can honestly say that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen such an eye-opening documentary, and much of my assumed knowledge was proved to be false. I am ashamed to admit how little I knew about intersexuality before seeing the film, and my eyes were opened to the pain and discrimination intersex people are subjected to, from the moment they are born and parents and doctors decide to use surgery to impose a gender on people who, in terms of sexual organs, do not have a defined one. I recommend that all see the film, but suffice to say, the results of surgery are traumatic and agonising. And that’s before we get onto the stigma and prejudice most, if not all, intersex people go through. As one of the film’s interviewees, Esther Morris states, it’s like society is “trying to build a heterosexual”. It’s clear that, whilst the bandwagon of gay, lesbian, bisexual and, to an extent, transgender rights has gathered steam, intersex people are forced to live in the shadows or subsist on lies, because even LGBT people tend to reject someone who doesn’t have a clearly-defined gender.

Before the festival, a friend asked whether films about intersexuality should really be featured in the programme, as they didn’t “count” as gay, lesbian or trans. After seeing Intersexion, I can emphatically say yes. And for two reasons. Firstly, the vast majority of men and women interviewed in Lahood’s film lived as gay men or women, despite having some element of the genitals of the “opposite” sex from the one they chose to embrace. Secondly, and I think this is more important: gay, bisexual and transgender men and women spent too long as outcasts to do the same thing to others. Intersex people are still treated horribly, and if the LGBT community can help by lending its voice and support, then it should. Intersexion may be simply made, but it’s an eye-opening, affirmative piece of cinema.

Conservatism is killing the alternative

It’s like with British rock: the more the ‘indie’ bands (who aren’t really indie because they sound like Oasis or The Libertines and end up signing for EMI) get absorbed by the industry, the less radical and more banal it all sounds. The edge has been taken out of British rock, after 40-odd years of record-industry interference, and I’m not sure we can get the spirit of, say, Hawkwind or Gang of Four, back.

It would appear the same goes for us queers (and I apologise now to gay women, as this segment focuses mainly on the gay male experience which I, for obvious reasons, know better). I have already lamented the rise of conservatism among gay men on this site, but what I had not thought of is how the rise of the Lady Gaga-devoted, Thatcher- and Queen Elizabeth-loving, fashion-and reality TV-obsessed gay male would effectively do away with the gay sexual underground. And it’s happening. In the highly-anticipated Interior. Leather Bar., director/actor/all-round super-celeb James Franco notes that one of his professors had highlighted that the push for gay marriage has led to a normalisation that leaves gay people who are drawn to BDSM or cruising at an increasing risk of being marginalised, even denounced, by their own community. Interior. Leather Bar. sadly doesn’t build on this idea in a very successful way. Its premise is that directors and actors Travis Matthews and Franco wanted to recreate the mythical lost 40 minutes of hardcore footage from William Friedkin’s Cruising. Although the film is more entertaining than I was expecting, its focus on straight actor Val Lauren’s (faked) discomfort and watered down ‘hardcore’ footage ultimately means that its message seems confused and undefined. Unlike, say, the short Little Gay Boy Chris T is Dead, in which a young man explores the underworld of BDSM in Paris, intercut with footage of S&M and an arresting, Aktionist segment of alternative dance. It’s an uncomfortable 30 minutes, but it highlights quite neatly the conflict between desire and fear that lies at the heart of BDSM.

Before Interior. Leather Bar’s screening, two intriguing shorts were shown, one a brief history of the career of artist and pornographer Avery Willard (mentioned recently in Keep The Lights On), the other, Todd’s Gifts, an extract from a portmanteau project by Todd Verow focused on cruising. In the Q&A following Todd’s Gifts, both Verow and the short’s director Charles Lum lamented that cruising is in decline as gay people edge closer and closer to the mainstream. It’s an interesting point (echoed somewhat facetiously by John Waters in I Am Divine when he mentions that the period before homosexuality was made legal in the US was “kind of more fun”), and one that showcases a certain schism in the psyche of gay men, between the young and the, shall we say, more mature. In its brief seven minutes, Todd’s Gifts, and the premise of Verow’s final film The End of Cruising, throw up important questions: does mainstream acceptance by straight society engender conformity? Are (young) gay people turning on those that once relied  for pleasure on saunas and illicit sex on Hampstead Heath? Are we losing the frisson that made so many gay artists and activists push the boundaries of creative and political impetus? Of course, tying illicit sex and LGBT activism together is a long stretch, but all the above films made me wonder why the decline of one seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the similar mellowing of the other.

If the 27th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival taught me anything, it was that we are not done. In light of Taboo Yardies, let us not forget that, as both Labour and Conservative governments of recent years have played the populist card and tried to “crack down on immigration”, a number of LGBT people seeking refuge in the UK have found themselves at risk of being sent back to their home countries to face persecution, violence and even death. The debate over the festival’s name passed me by, but Intersexion reminded me that the queer (for want of a better word) community is vast, and not restricted to homosexual women and men. And, try as some might -in the wake of increasing improvement of rights here in the UK- to focus on pop songs, mortgages, reality TV, the chap on benefits next door or whatever, complacency and egotism will only harm the entire LGBT community as a whole, be it in Jamaica, Tehran or London. Solidarity got us where we are – that and an eye and ear for transgression. We still need that spirit. I was disappointed that more young gay men didn’t attend the festival (it’s curious to notice that young gay women were far more present, both among the public and the press), and can only put it down to indifference or complacency. We’ve got this far, but The Empire still stands.

2012’s Noises In The Ether: A Rum Music Special (December 13th, 2012)

Ok, so the title of this piece is also a bit of a shameless nod to my radio show, Noise in the Ether, but it’s also a neat and relevant way of describing how noise music has evolved in recent years, culminating in some thoroughly fascinating releases in 2012 that have taken the genre by the scruff of the neck and hauled it into new areas, maybe even into a new era.

Only last year, when asked to select my top albums of the previous 12 months, I included two harsh noise works: Werewolf Jerusalem’s monolithic 4CD set Confessions of a Sex Maniac and Vomir’s Application À Aphistemi. This was par for the course as far as I was concerned: harsh noise rules!

This year – nada. Zilch. Not one. Which is not to say that there haven’t been any decent harsh noise releases (Kevin Drumm’s Relief may not match the potency of Sheer Hellish Miasma, but it’s still a wonderfully gnarly little bastard), but rather that what is being done in new ways to noise is much more fascinating. In 2012, these new strains have finally started to take precedence over their traditional alternatives. And just like that, I’m actually using the word “traditional” to describe noise. I didn’t see that one coming.

“New” is a relative term, it should be noted, and a lot of noise’s recent evolutions stem from a certain amount of rear-view mirror gazing. It’s sometimes hard to imagine it now, but noise’s origins lie not in the sweaty underground bars where its harshest variants now get an airing, but rather in the heady experimentalism of the avant-garde – something that’s still being explored today.


Helm

Take Londoner Luke Younger, aka Helm, for example. Younger takes sampled and found sounds, a technique familiar to anyone who has dabbled in the world of experimental music, filters them through effects and joins them to gritty electronics in order to create a sound world that reflects the environment of London’s urban jungle. In approach, it’s not a million miles away from the likes of John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer’s Groupe de Recherches Musicales or the Futurists, with their emphasis on and interest in “regular” and “non-musical” sounds for musical creation; whilst the ultimate outcome evokes the immersive, sensually evocative musics of “cosmic” minimalists and drone artists such as Cluster, LaMonte Young or Morton Feldman, whose pieces often suggest a sense of place as much as sound processes. Helm’s Cryptography from 2011 felt like sonic experiments conducted with household objects or sheets of metal, but this year’s Impossible Symmetry (PAN) took things a level higher, with urban field recordings providing a tangible backdrop to rough, rolling industrial drone.

This approach is mirrored by Ohio’s Mike Shiflet, whose Merciless album (Type) takes the age-old noise/avant-garde trope of manipulating and distorting pre-recorded tapes as well as conventional instruments such as guitar and synthesiser, transforming familiar sound sources into walls of incoherent, belligerent, saturated noise. Both these artists (I’m tempted to call them “composers”) join the likes of Joe Colley in pursuing noise as a form of acousmatic music and musique concrète in the French avant-garde tradition.

It’s therefore appropriate that this year has seen three excellent reissues on Editions Mego of seminal Groupe de Recherches Musicales recordings, where the likes of Bernard Parmegiani (sounds of trains, water, furniture) or Luc Ferrari (the human voice) transformed everyday noises into musical compositions, many of them so jarring in texture as to fall at times into noise territory. Coincidentally, Mego also released Hecker’s Chimerization, which took the principals of Luc Ferrari’s voice manipulation on Presque Rien (not to mention works like ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’ by Alvin Lucier and Cage’s ‘Indeterminacy’) to particularly abrasive and sonically mangled levels.


Mats Gustafsson

Perhaps not surprisingly, another “out-there” realm where noise elements (saturation, dissonance, atonality) are still de rigueur is free jazz and improv, and for anyone who feels that need to have his or her ears given a right old kicking, you generally don’t have to look much further than saxophonists Peter Brötzmann or Mats Gustafsson, both of whom have released some wonderfully skronking stuff in 2012 – and I say that in full knowledge that both are much more sensitive and complex players than their reputations might have you believe.

Gustafsson is often the more overtly abrasive of the two, as demonstrated on the collaborative album between his band Fire! and Australian drummer/guitarist Oren Ambarchi, In The Mouth – A Hand (Rune Grammofon), where Ambarchi’s seething, feedback-drenched guitar noise is slammed into a squalling torrent of notes from Gustafsson, underlined by raucous, all-over-the-place drumming from Fire!’s Andreas Werliin. Gustafsson is more restrained on Baro 101 (Term), recorded with Ethiopian krar player Mesele Asmamaw and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, but still finds time to pepper the air with some wonderfully saturated notes whilst Asmamaw cranks the strings of his krar like someone stretching out a washing line to breaking point.

Brötzmann, meanwhile, delighted with two fantastic live releases this year, the jazz-heavy, exquisitely-performed Yatagarasu (Not Two Records) featuring Masahiko Satoh warping his piano and Takeo Moriyama on drums; and …The Worse The Better (Oto Roku) with Steve Noble and John Edwards. Both saw Brötzmann unfurling an arsenal of sax assault, from elegant jazz lines to barnstorming free blowing, with …The Worse The Better being particularly hard-hitting.

In a different style somewhat, Rhodri Davies blew the doors off any preconceptions anyone might have when it comes to harp music with his ear-shattering Wound Response (alt. vinyl) album, transforming his elegant instrument into a wall of crunching distortion. Improv and free jazz are too often seen as being too highbrow for noise fans, but if you really want to get a fix of full-on saturation, any of the above would easily satisfy your needs.

For listeners wanting a more traditional approach to noise, you can’t really go wrong with the Midwest scene that swirls around Wolf Eyes, but even those guys have started transforming the way they approach sound, with the forbidding atonality of Human Animal very much a thing of the past. Former member Aaron Dilloway released one of the year’s best noise records in the form of Modern Jester (Hanson), a titanic adventure taking in tape distortion and faltering percussion. Where previous Dilloway albums such as Bad Dreams were potent sonic assaults, Modern Jester is more nuanced, with a sly sense of humour, woozy harmonics and welcome experimental forays.

Mike Connelly, another Wolf Eyes alumnus, has meanwhile continued to explore the darkest recesses of the human psyche via his Failing Lights project, with Dawn Undefeated (Dekorder) a triumphant follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut and a world away from his more gnarly works as part of Hair Police. Eschewing harshness almost completely, Connelly’s tableaux are haunted by the atmospheres of horror films and sinister folklore, like more brittle, sickened takes on the hauntological explorations of Demdike Stare or The Eccentronic Research Council.

Nate Young’s solo music also functions on a more liminal level than what he’s done with Wolf Eyes, as he demonstrated during a concert at Dalston’s Victoria pub in the Summer, all murky synths, propulsive half-rhythms and bursts of unexpected static. All three of these artists seem to share an interest in the haunted textures and ectoplasmic sounds that lie dormant in the interstices between defined sounds. The results of their attempts to conjure them up – acting as musical mediums – are often fascinating, and always as troubling as anything emerging from the harsh noise scene they used to (perhaps reluctantly) represent.


William Bennett as Cut Hands

But the biggest transformation noise has been through of late has been its unexpected integration with dance music, as espoused by two of its most iconic figures. William Bennett needs no introduction as one half of power electronics pioneers Whitehouse, but his solo work as Cut Hands has taken his work in interesting new directions, integrating polyrhythmic percussion with excoriating electronic noise textures. This year, he followed up on his 2011 debut Afro Noise Vol. 1 with a more fleshed-out sequel named Black Mamba (Susan Lawly). Bennett’s approach is intensely physical, with fiercely metallic and jarring beats layered over mesmerising synth melodies. Live, he thrashes from side to side, eyes closed and mouth open, as disturbing footage of colonial-era Africa plays out behind him. In the best techno tradition, the highly rhythmic nature of Cut Hands’ music speaks to legs and arses as much as to the ears. It’s is nowhere near as brutally aggressive as Whitehouse, but Bennett’s unnerving performances and the troubling ambiguity surrounding the project’s imagery trace a line straight back to the provocation and belligerence with which one associates power electronics.

The same applies to Vatican Shadow, aka Dominic Fernow of Prurient fame, who has unleashed several releases this year, including a reissue on Type of his amazing Kneel Before Religious Icons tape and several albums and cassettes of new material, including Ornamented Walls (Modern Love) and Ghosts of Chechnya (Hospital Productions). Again, Vatican Shadow can’t hold a candle to Prurient when it comes to sheer aural assault, but that doesn’t mean that Fernow’s history in noise doesn’t seethe away beneath the surface rhythms. Vatican Shadow’s music (which could be seen as an extension of Fernow’s most recent Prurient album, Bermuda Drain) is centred on looped, repetitive drum machine beats in the tradition of Muslimgauze, British industrial techno artists like Surgeon and Regis and even Berliners like Porter Ricks and Basic Channel. These rhythms are overlaid with moody synth lines and – like Cut Hands – accompanied by dark, ambiguous imagery, in this case military iconography and jargon.

With both Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow, the short, punchy tracks seem well tailored for the dancefloor, but repeated exposure, especially live, highlights how much this new music owes to what both artists have done before, even if they now perform in clubs rather than warehouses or pub backrooms. The beats and melodies are monomaniacally repetitive, beyond anything most techno producers would deem conceivable, and what tunes one can detect are icy and bleak, dragged towards the shadows by sudden bursts of fuzz or metallic clangs, with none of the warmth one tends to associate with dancefloor-oriented music.

Instead, Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow (and, I hasten to add, Raime, whose debut album Quarter Turns Over a Living Line on Blackest Ever Black was less fierce than the other two, but still channeled some of the same spirit in marvelous ways), can be seen to be evolving noise in a semi-circular fashion, twisting it back towards the industrial aesthetics of the eighties while simultaneously dragging it forwards via techno and house. It perhaps a weird way to evolve, but damned effective. And let us not forget former Yellow Swan Pete Swanson, whose Pro Style EP (Type) has continued in the direction he hinted at on last year’s Man With Potential album, with jittering, seductive beats drowning under tidal waves of angry, glitchy electronic noise.

Taking all the above into account, it’s hard not to marvel at the journey noise has taken as it edges closer and closer towards something resembling mass public awareness. It’s not even unusual to hear traces of noise filtering into rock, pop, dubstep, hip-hop or dance: Ital’s Dream On has a definite noisy aspect to its ultra-bright synth explosions, Death Grips’ overdriven punk-rap occasionally evokes Lightning Bolt, and Holly Herndon’s Movement, another of the year’s top releases, is perched between noisy avant-garde explorations and full-on dance-pop. Even my own music as Frayed has been “tainted”, moving away from the monolithic harshness I initially embraced (and considered par for the course) on my first album in January in favour of more open, measured sounds and ideas by my fourth.

On the flipside, there’s always the lingering concern that if noise is completely removed from the grimy underbelly it has made its home, and set up for good in art centres and clubs, it’ll end up watered down to something aseptic and harmless, or elitist and high-minded. Noise is meant to be visceral and unsettling. But that’s a question for another day. Right now, as 2012 closes as a landmark year for the genre, noise is branching out, its feet still embedded in the backrooms of smelly pubs but with its eyes casting around for new ideas and new horizons.

Opinion – Rainbow Ambiguity: Defying Conservatism In Mainstream LGBT Culture (August 6th, 2012)

My first piece of non-musical writing was this opinion piece on the encroaching influence of conservatism in LGBT culture.
As a Republican (in the British sense), I was more than a little indifferent to the recent Jubilee hoo-ha, managing to avoid getting even a whiff of bunting or pork pie whilst the rest of the country seemingly went mad. But, in typically myopic lefty fashion, I was startled to see how many of my gay acquaintances were lacing their Facebook profiles with pro-Jubilee posts. As I say, part of this was a form of liberal arrogance, assuming people would follow my viewpoint just because we share a sexual orientation, and then being shocked when they didn’t. But reading a Guardian article by Peter Tatchell about the Jubilee highlighted the fact that, all due respect to her, the Queen has never been a friend of the LGBT community. In fact, she and her family have overtly snubbed us, in ways she wouldn’t with other communities. In that light, the fawning of gay people over the Jubilee takes on a different light.

Equally, I was staggered to see 5-star reviews of The Iron Lady in gay magazines such as Gay Times, and, again, gushing messages about the film from gay people on Facebook and Twitter. Whatever one thinks about the film’s apolitical intentions, Margaret Thatcher’s government ushered in Section 28, the most homophobic law since decriminalisation in 1967. I know Meryl Streep is a gay icon, and was not flying the flag for Thatcherism, but any positive portrayal of Maggie (and let’s not kid ourselves – The Iron Lady comes as close as possible to being a whitewash) should, I think, give any gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person pause for thought. That Section 28 didn’t even crop up in the film was disgraceful (not to mention all the other shameful things she did). The idea that we, as a community, can be so quick to forget our recent history, is for me deeply troubling.

It’s probably not that surprising. For me, coming out was a tortuous and difficult experience. Not vis-a-vis family and friends, who’d always known intuitively, and were overwhelmingly supportive, but personally: I simply couldn’t equate my bi- or homosexuality with the fact that I loved heavy metal and noise music, was tall and gangly rather than slight and effeminate, and had no interest in the mainstream of popular culture. Because that is the norm. Even rugged bears tend to be more into Scissor Sisters than Eyehategod or Throbbing Gristle. By the time I came to deal with my sexuality, the culture I adored, from art-house movies to avant-garde performance art to extreme music, had become my world, and as I ventured out into London’s Old Compton Street, I found few, if any, reflections of that world around me in the neon lights and cheap pop of the gay scene.

Now, of course there are exceptions. Not all LGBT people are indifferent/oblivious to Black Sabbath or Bergman or JG Ballard. Not all LGBT people are obsessed with their hair, the latest Lady Gaga single and Judy Garland, and it’s reductive to think so.

But, to use a tiresome cliche, stereotypes contain a bit of reality, and I collided with this reality as I embraced, and slowly became put off by, mainstream gay culture. As someone in thrall to noise, punk, horror films and experimental art, I like and admire culture that goes against the grain, that fights with and assaults convention. And there was a time when being LGBT meant that by definition you were confronting the status quo. We are “queers”, and that term in itself remains both unsettling and empowering: we go against the norm. That led to Ginsberg, Baldwin, Sontag, Burroughs, Wojnarowicz, Mapplethorpe, Montano, Hujar, Stein, Cage, Warhol, Waters, Jarman, and so many others.

In most cases, exploring and confronting sexuality was a key factor in their art, and one that defied conservatism and prejudice. Where is that defiance now? I may have come along generations later, but my mindset is still informed by the Stonewall riots. And I am staggered that so many younger gay guys (I cannot realistically speak for the lesbian community, and would not have the presumption to try to do so) seem unaware of, or indifferent to, that seismic event. Where is the rebellion, and self-affirmation, in the constant X Factor/Big Brother love-ins that seem to dominate modern gay culture in the UK, to the point that Alexandra Burke or Cher Lloyd headlining at Heaven is considered a major event?

It’s a sad by-product of the society we live in, of course. As LGBT people have become more visible and welcome in mainstream society, so we have floated onto the radar of businesses and media moguls smelling an audience and a set of customers. Homosexuality has become commodified, and the upshot is that easy-sell stereotypes have flourished. I am staggered at how many covers of Attitude and Gay Times feature shirtless straight celebrities undressed for the delectation of gay readers. Do we really want to propagate the myth that gay men can’t be trusted not to dribble over straight guys? Inside, the pages are filled with fashion blurbs, pop hysteria and endless advertising.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail or Heat Magazine’s salacious and intrusive celebrity gossip pages are hugely popular with young gay men, fuelling the cliche that, as a grouping, we are shallow, unimaginative and obsessed with appearance (apparently, few of these gay chaps see the irony in adding to the hit count of the Mail, a newspaper seemingly hell-bent on setting back gay rights by a good decade or four). Of course, straight people are equally corralled into easily-targeted consumer groups, and respond with equal amounts of vacuous enthusiasm – my “gay conundrum” is a reflection, I think, of a greater social malaise. But, in general, most straight people have not had to sweat blood and tears to get to this point.

Even writing the above, however, fills me with anxiety. I do not want to seem a snob, condescending, or humourless. I certainly don’t want to generalise. The fact is that these new trends are an unfortunate side-effect of something much more positive: acceptance. In the UK, and most of the West, being gay is no longer deemed something worthy of contempt or condemnation. We live in a post-Queer As Folk world, where LGBT people are visible and, mostly, welcomed. And, to put aside my snide aside earlier, we now have pop artists such as The Scissor Sisters and Patrick Wolf that have followed in the tradition of Marc Almond and Boy George by visibly, even brazenly, putting their “alternative” sexualities at the forefront of who they are. And where their forebears were met with resistance, even anger, these artists are now feted around the world.

That is surely something worth celebrating, and as I gaze at younger LGBT people walking openly through the streets of London, I feel my heart soar. They may be very different to me, but they are free, unmolested by prejudice and self-doubt, there for the world to see. It’s beautiful (although I could point out that, with Queer As Folk now long gone, we seem to be quietly reverting to the John Inman version of gay-ness, at least on TV and in pop music: camp, but fundamentally sexless and therefore inoffensive. And, as Luke Turner recently explored on this website, let’s not even mention bisexuality, one of the ultimate taboos for both gay and straight people).

In such circumstances, it’s too easy to become complacent. In 78 countries it’s currently illegal to be gay or lesbian. In several, it’s enough to be sent to the gallows. In the build-up to Euro 2012, a lot was made of fears of racism, but very little about the fact that one of the co-hosts – Ukraine – plans to bring in their very own equivalent of Section 28, or the fact that across Eastern Europe and beyond, gay pride marches are the targets of violence and intimidation. In the US, one loses count of the number of nasty homophobic comments and even proposed laws that crop up across nearly every state.

Meanwhile, the proposals in this country to allow LGBT people to marry in civil ceremonies has met with an almighty backlash, with some frankly hateful things being said, notably by Conservative politicians. Finally, HIV infection rates are on the up among young gay men, as ignorance replaces awareness. Being LGBT is getting better, but it’s still far from easy, and charities such as Stonewall need the support of the LGBT community more than ever. What’s worrying is how few LGBT people, especially of the generations below my own, seem willing to address these issues, and continue a fight that started decades ago but still needs fighting. Apathy and materialism are proving to be the LGBT community’s biggest self-destructive enemies.

To get back to my lament over the Jubilee and The Iron Lady, what seems apparent is that the fundamental selfishness that underlies conservatism has now infected the gay community, and suddenly solidarity is hard to come by. Like all people, us gays and lesbians want the latest phones, music and fun times. Greater acceptance has given us room to embrace ourselves, which is amazing, but also to embrace consumerism, and therefore distance ourselves not only from our not-too-distant past, but also from the reality faced by millions of less fortunate LGBT people around the world. So, we forget the risk that Allen Ginsberg took in publishing Howl and the tremendous bravery of the Stonewall rioters and Peter Wildeblood, but we also ignore the terrible things that happen to gay people in Iran or Uganda. We sit in G-A-Y and sip our vodka-tonics, whooping when the latest Nicki Minaj song comes on, and ignore that politicians working in our name are trying to forbid us the same rights as straight people.

In this context, the recently scaled-back, float-less, London Pride presents an opportunity: to reconnect with the values and objectives that animated the very first marches of its kind, as the individuals in the procession are brought closer to those watching and cheering. As I walked (in agonising stilettos and a luscious wig!) along the route recently, I was struck by the number of political messages exhibited by my fellow marchers, as I’m sure everyone standing on the pavement must have been. Most expressed either revulsion for current Tory policies or support for gay people living in countries where the kind of freedoms we take for granted are forbidden. It reminded me that solidarity and awareness are still fundamental values of the LGBT community, and can still be driving factors for us. Obviously, the chance to preen and party eventually won out over the strong messages, as Soho was transformed into a gay version of Oldham city centre on a Friday night, but the fact that political stances and mobilisation are still a reality is cause for cautious optimism.

So I make no apologies for lamenting a lot of what has happened to the community I intrinsically, and gratefully, belong to. Conservatism in the gay community is sparking indifference and amnesia, as it is among every other social group in the country as a whole, even as vicious cuts threaten of livelihoods of nearly each and every one of us, bar the proverbial 1%. We need to remember the risks and sacrifices so many LGBT people, both famous and everyday, took to get us to the comfort zone we now reside in. We need to reject the bland stereotypes we are being drawn into. We need to be aware of our history, and our precarious present, and not discard them in favour of trinkets and catchy music. We need to lend our voices to those LGBT people around the world and here in the UK who have none. We need to be militant, proud and unrepentant. Yes, it’s amazing how far we’ve come. Yes, it’s wonderful that we can be seen and heard and accepted by the rest of society here in the UK. But the road first walked by the great cultural and political pioneers of the LGBT community is far from completed. Rolling over and accepting ignorance and disparity for the sake of a smartphone, a pop hit or a quick buck will ultimately undermine everything we’ve achieved so far. Let’s not sacrifice the legacy of those giants, or the hopes of those less fortunate than us.