Sunday, December 3, 2017

J.G. Ballard's contribution to post-punk and new wave

"Punk" aesthetics has had its share of predecessors, but just as important is punk aesthetics' impact upon, and subsequent genre development of, "punk rock" as musical genre (what "punk" is usually most associated with). The close association between cultural phenomenon and musical genre places punk near other counter-culture movements, whether the motorcycle and hot-rod gangs of the 1940's and 1950's listening to doo-wop (i.e. the "rockers" and the "greasers"), the beat generation in America with its jazz, the sun children and "hippies" of the '60s and folk rock, and folk rock becoming the psychedelic (and loud) garage bands that transformed into "heavy metal" during the late '70s and early '80s. Even "alternative" music - made popular among young people due to college radio airplay during the early '90s - was an "alternative" to the main stream and has influenced what today is called "indie music."  In current times as genres are unnecessarily multiplied I find consolation that the do-it-yourself, edgy and aggressive, throw-the-system culture of punk rock has transformed for the better and evolved the way it has while retaining its core aesthetic elements. During the years of (roughly) 1977 through 1983 or '84 punk transformed into something that so many young people today are trying to re-create. Namely, punk became post-punk and new wave. As that transformation took place however, none of punk's edginess or aggressive aesthetic was lost. How did such a transformation occur, and what might we learn from it?

"Post punk," the natural outgrowth of punk that picked up where other alternative and edgy anti-social genres took off (not only music but youth culture more generally), had the identity it did because of a brand new musical invention: the synthesizer.  While the electric guitar took rock 'n roll to an entirely new level in garage bands and then metal, the synth took punk into post-punk and new wave - elevating and developing the original punk aesthetic into something even more dark, edgy, and untimely. Unlike today when counter-cultural genres meet popular or new technologies and dilute as a result, post-punk and new wave retained its distinct "dark" and post-apocalyptic vibe nevertheless. With the invention of the synthesizer and its eventual low cost price point, and the fact that quite simply just more people were incorporating synthesizer into that genre of music, one would expect post-punk to be a former shell of punk rock, especially when it came to its dark and edgy aesthetic and its "underground" and "independent" nature of composition. So how did post-punk and new wave do it? How did they retain that core "punk" aesthetic element? Well, as I found out in the fantastic documentary which I embed below, musicians during those years weren't just playing the synthesizer. They were all reading plenty of J.G. Ballard. Allow me to explain...

Punk rock's transformation into post-punk and new wave just wasn't a matter of brand new musical instrument and whose hands happened to be on it; it was, rather, a matter of there being twin core aesthetic influences affecting and even driving that transformation. Therefore, the transformation of punk into post-punk and new wave was due just as much to new literary/film/cultural genre (including "cyber punk," dystopian or post-apocalyptic science fiction - again, whether literature or film ) as it was to new musical instrument. The relatively new genre of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, of dark futurism, of cosmic pessimism, helped post-punk and new wave keep in view what punk rock could have easily lost: speculating a darker and and more "bleak" future to come. And, that future? It wasn't to be seen five hundred years from then, nor even a hundred. It could very well be five minutes from then. The apocalyptic future was immanent. Ballard, but also Kubrick, and others like them, created speculative futures which could very well be seen as occurring the day after tomorrow for those who encountered them. They were futures which were all the more probable, and this made them all the more terrifying. For as fictional as they were, these were realist speculative futures.

Definitely worth watching, Synth Britannia charts the course of post-punk and new wave circa 1977 through 1984. (For those unable to watch, THIS write-up in the Observer would be almost just as good.) And as we see, J.G. Ballard, Kubrick's 1971 masterpiece Clockwork Orange, and other dark, edgy, and bleak iconic aesthetic cultural treasures had their share fair of influence on the genre of music that, to my mind, represents Generation-X's sensibilities more than any other. Interestingly, if I might add, Gen-X philosophers still read Ballard today (and many, including me, still listen to post-punk and new wave, whether the originals or the "new retro-wave" of today).

My understanding is that the electronics of new wave that transformed into experimental dance music and electronic avante-garde are what influenced CCRU and friends such as Nick Land and Sadie Plant. Philosophers such as Ray Brassier have written about Ballard (and also participated in improvisational music scenarios), and perhaps even more generally speaking, many Gen-X philosophers are tremendously influenced by "cyber punk," post-punk and new wave's corresponding literary genre.

Ballard makes appearances mostly in the first half of the documentary.