Simon Reynolds is one of the most recognisable music critics around — or at least his style is, not least for its willingness to tackle pop music as an art form worthy of sustained intellectual discourse rather than as a fleeting moment of adolescent flash. Reynolds breaks new ground, melding unbridled enthusiasm with a robust theoretical framework in a body of work that is thrilling for its eclecticism alone: he’s never less than compelling writing about hip hop, Britney or rave, as he is about grunge, prog or grime.
Reynolds reached a peak of sorts with the publication of Rip It Up and Start Again, a deliriously good excavation of the postpunk era, the generation of musicians that broke immediately after punk: Cabaret Voltaire, PiL, Magazine and so on. What’s more, J.G. Ballard was a thread throughout the book, as Reynolds charted the influence of JGB — and The Atrocity Exhibition, especially — on this particular era.
Reynolds has also invoked Ballard in past interviews regarding his own formative influences, so the stage seemed set for Simon to appear here on Ballardian. I wanted to chat to Reynolds when Rip It Up was published, but the moment slipped away for various reasons. But now, with the release of Simon’s latest collection, Bring the Noise, here’s a chance to put that right.
Originally published on ballardian.com, 7 June 2007.
LEFT: Ballard (photo courtesy Fine Line Features).
SS: You were into Ballard before you were into music. What attracted you to his writing?
SR: A better emphasis would be to say I was into science fiction before I was into rock music, and that Ballard was one of my favourite SF writers. Obviously I always loved music but it was things my parents had introduced me to, like Beethoven, or Hollywood musicals, plus stray things I’d heard on the radio like the Beatles. And then aged fifteen or so I was inducted into that whole rockist apparatus of taking music – pop culture, youth culture, rock criticism – seriously. And the thing I was into on a fanatical level immediately before entering rock culture was science fiction; the new fanaticism displaced the prior fanaticism — not immediately, there was an overlap — but eventually totally. At one point I wanted to be a SF writer and then the next major ambition I had was to be a music journalist. Which is where I stuck!
I kinda half-forgot about Ballard along with other SF writers that were key for me: Frederick Pohl & CM Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, John Brunner, Philip K. Dick, to name just a few. Ironically this was at a time, the very end of the 70s and the early 80s, when Ballard’s influence was as strong as it’s ever been in music, with postpunk.
SS: Are you still sweet on Ballard today?
SR: It’s quite a common syndrome for people to grow out of SF and suddenly drop it as juvenile, and I’d always swore I’d not be one of those, but it happened. Really though it was because a whole set of other obsessions crowded SF out: music, rock journalism, politics and philosophy, critical theory. It’s really in the last decade or so that I rediscovered an interest in SF and particularly in Ballard, who now seemed to me to be clearly the most advanced writer and thinker in that field. I also read more of his critical thinking, his interviews and journalism, and become more and more impressed by him. He seems a much more towering figure now than he did when I first read him as a teenager.
The coveted Penguin editions (designer David Pelham).
SS: Which of his books rocked your world?
SR: In some ways the one that grabbed me most and has yet to relinquish its hold was the first one I read, The Drowned World. Penguin used to do these great paperback editions of SF and they had one series with really evocative paintings – glossy, garish, almost hyper-realist – on the covers. The Drowned World, The Drought and The Wind From Nowhere were all in that series and looked particularly good [ The Terminal Beach was in there too; SS ]. But with The Drowned World, the severity and fixatedness of Ballard imagination was what hooked me, and just the idea of the protagonist who – as with all the Ballard cataclysm novels – is perversely drawn towards the heart of the catastrophe, goes the opposite direction to everybody else, and really finds his true self in the transformed landscape. That really grabbed me. Also, the whole idea of the world you knew being drastically transformed… I lived near London, in a commuter town thirty miles north of the capital, and went up to the city quite frequently, so to imagine it submerged was exciting.
SS: Has he influenced your work in any way — as a cultural critic, say, rather than stylistically?
SR: Not really. The influences on my writing and thinking come from a totally different place, although there’s certain affinities maybe. A sense of the power of the irrational, these atavistic drives pulsing inside culture. I’ve long felt that pop music is driven by some pretty ambivalent, sometimes outright antisocial or malevolent energies. But I’ve probably derived that more from various French thinkers and Nietzsche, also from certain rock writers. And also just listening closely and honestly to my own responses to music. Still you could see that idea of music as fitting a Ballardian worldview to some degree. The idea of human culture as fundamentally perverse.
There’s another parallel actually, which applies to SF in general as well as Ballard in particular: that’s the extreme degree of self-reflexivity that you get within rock criticism. Or at least the zone I move within and which has now broken out into the blog world. It’s very similar to SF, or at least how SF was when I started reading it, which would have been in the years coming out of the whole New Wave of SF. SF writers seemed to have been really into analysing the genre, talking about what defined it as a field of writing and how that related to other forms. And that was largely because – just like rock criticism – its status was contested, it was very much an underdog genre that didn’t get the respect or acceptance from the literary establishment, give or take a Kingsley Amis or an Anthony Burgess who talked about being SF fans and had a go at the genre themselves now and then.
LEFT: New Worlds; new wave.
So SF, like rock writing, had this mixture of inferiority complex and superiority complex. SF writers loved to see SF as the one really crucial, relevant, truly contemporary form of literature. A literature of ideas, which was exactly what drew me to, the element of speculation, as well as the estrangement effect. Rock critics are just the same: they both crave that validation from the mainstream of arts criticism but they also kinda like being the renegade form. As well as novels and story collections, I would sometimes read books of critical essays by SF writers. It seemed like an exciting little subculture, especially the New Wave writers who always seemed to be having workshops and conferences! Ballard exemplifies that meta aspect of SF, although he goes beyond it to be just a great cultural critic.
SS: You’ve remarked elsewhere that his short stories have more appeal to you than the novels.
SR: After the disaster novels I think I read the mid-Seventies urban breakdown ones like Concrete Island and High-Rise, both of which I liked a lot, and also a couple of collections of short stories. And it’s the Ballard shorts that, with my critic’s hat on, I think are his supreme achievement – so magisterial, so distilled and precise and atmospheric and unsettling. In fact, my getting back into Ballard came about through a collection originally published in 1978 but reissued by Picador USA in 2001, The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. My wife was working as a book reviews editor and it turned up in her mail and I was like, ‘I’m having that’. So many of the classic Ballard short stories are in there, some I’d read before in The Terminal Beach and similar collections I’d have got out of Berkhamsted Library as a teenager. There was one called Low-Flying Aircraft I particularly liked, especially the first long story in it, almost a novella [ ‘The Ultimate City’ ], about a young man who lives in a near-future where it’s very green-conscious and placid and dull so he goes to the deserted city and starts up urban life again, gets the generators going, and misfits start to flock in from the eco-communes and garden towns, but of course it all goes haywire.
The Best Short Stories collection has a few things from the Atrocity Exhibition era, and writing and reading them as a thirty-something I appreciated them more. But it wasn’t so much the experimental Atrocity-era stuff as the stories he did that are quite close to conventional hard-science SF, but with that extra dimension of interiority and the collective unconscious – all the inner space, psychological aspects that you associate with the New Wave of SF. Back in the day, I didn’t really get on with the experimental writing side of Ballard. I still haven’t read all of The Atrocity Exhibition I’m ashamed to admit, and only a few years ago finally read Crash all the way through. I’d had a go as a teenager but failed. The impetus to finally read it came from doing the book on postpunk, Rip It Up and Start Again, wanting to understand why it was such a big influence on certain bands. And for sure, it’s fantastic writing, and fantastic as thought, too.
There’s certain SF writers I can’t get on with, like Samuel Delaney, often the ones who are doing overtly experimental writing. Nor am I that crazy for the side of Philip K. Dick that’s all about multiple levels of reality, what is real and what’s hallucination. So similarly I prefer Ballard’s post-cataclysm novels and his short stories to the Atrocity Exhibition type stuff. I think maybe it’s that I like that thing where realism as a literary mode is applied to something with a SF or alternate history premise. In a way, I prefer the side of Ballard that relates to a writer like John Wyndham than the side that relates to Burroughs. I like that dour, flat Britishness confronted by something alien or catastrophic.
SS: You mention the influence of Ballard on postpunk. As someone who grew up with this music, Ballard was always a vague referent on the edge of my consciousness, glimpsed through obscure Cabaret Voltaire or Ultravox! interviews, so I appreciated the way Rip It Up took the time to unpack the connection. But what about today’s crop?
SR: Ballard allusions had become a bit of a cliché by the time I started writing about music professionally in the mid-80s – I did a piece on this post-Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield outfit called Chakk and gave the singer a slightly hard time for overdoing the Ballardisms. Since then I’m hard pressed to think of Ballardisms coming through in music, although this very year The Klaxons put out an album called Myths of the Near Future [ also the title of a Ballard short-story collection ]. But the Ballard homage seems fairly cosmetic in this case.
SS: But there’s also kode9 and Burial, right? Every second review I read of their albums last year seemed to invoke the dreaded word ‘Ballardian’ – it seemed to become as much a cliché as it was during the postpunk period.
SR: That relates more to Spaceape’s contribution to the Kode 9 album, Memories of the Future. His lyrics and delivery – they’re a bit like Linton Kwesi Johnson reading excerpts from The Atrocity Exhibition. With Burial, the connection is that his album is supposed to be a concept record about South London becoming flooded when the Thames Barrier breaks in the global warmed near future. I think Katrina and New Orleans is more likely to be the inspiration, but there’s an obvious parallel there with The Drowned World.
LEFT: Spaceape and kode9 (photo via 3Voor12).
There is also an urban psychogeography thing going in Burial’s music (and dubstep generally) that recalls Ballard in Crash. The album draws a lot from South London, this interzone of semi-suburbia between Brixton, where the tube line stops and Croydon which is on the periphery of London, maybe a dozen miles from the centre. So it’s a hinterland probably not unlike the outer London areas near Heathrow where Ballard situated Crash. A real anomie zone, but possessed of a certain desolate beauty. Burial has also talked of putting his tunes through ‘the Car Test’, driving around South London playing the music in his car to see if it has the atmosphere he wants, the ‘distance’ in the music he’s looking for.
People have also compared Burial to Joy Division in terms of that bleak urbanism thing, and Martin Hannett, their producer, used to do a similar thing: drive around Manchester’s most brutally industrialised zones in his car, stoned, listening to Joy Division, PiL, Pere Ubu.
SS: You casually injected something interesting into our correspondence — that you see Ballard and Brian Eno as ‘the two greatest British thinkers of the second half of the 20th Century.’ I’m now going to pin you down and ask you to elaborate.
SR: That’s slightly over the top, isn’t it? I wonder if it really stands up. Then again,
as thinkers specifically about culture, in the British context, I can’t honestly think of too many rivals. Certainly as people who came out of the Sixties but came into their prime – as artists and as influences – in the Seventies, they are these towering figures, I think.
One of my fantasy projects that I toyed with for a while was a book on Ballard and Eno. They do seem of a type in some ways and they are patron saints of postpunk to an extent. But the project founders immediately owing to the fact that they are so eloquent about what they do and such brilliant writers, that there’d be zero role for any critic or commentator. There’d be very little to mediate or interpret, as they’ve said it all, so much better. They know what they are doing. I suppose you could historicize them, contextualise them. Ballard with the milieu he emerged out of in the Sixties, which was based around the ICA, right? And Eno with the UK art schools.
In some ways the affinity seems as much temperamental as anything ideas-based. There’s this wonderful Englishness. You imagine they would get on like a house on fire, trading ideas over whisky and soda in the Shepperton living room. One thing they both do is take ideas from science and set them loose in culture, find applications. Ballard is like a British McLuhan, except much better because he’s a far better writer, and a better thinker too – more original, more convincing. Eno is almost like a British Barthes, in some ways.
SS: Explaining his collage method in The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard said he wanted to produce ‘crossovers and linkages between unexpected and previously totally unrelated things, events, elements of the narration, ideas that in themselves begin to generate new matter.’ To me this seems strikingly similar to Eno’s formulation of generative music.
SR: I’m not sure about that. It seems more related to Burroughs and perhaps also to Ballard’s artistic debt to Surrealism, which I really appreciated a few years ago when I read him talk about it in that RE/Search collection of interviews. I liked the fact that J.G. would stick up for Dali and the rest. Surrealism and Dada is big teenage impact thing for a lot of us I think, until we learn to say ‘ooh Chagall, so much better than Dali.’
Eno’s generative music is much more cybernetics meets Zen, emptying out the authorial ego, setting up a process and then withdrawing. I don’t think with Ballard there’s that Eastern mystical aspect. With Ballard’s there’s always more of a violence bubbling up from below aspect, even though the writing is cold and controlled. Actually if Eno is a British Barthes, a languid sensualist, I’d say that Ballard is a British Bataille. I can also imagine Ballard enjoying Camille Paglia’s writing, which I can’t imagine Eno doing – it would be too passionate for him.
LEFT: One Brain (Eno portrait by Paris Rebel Richens).
SS: Alright, then, try this: both Ballard and Eno inverted, retooled, then abandoned the genre they started out in. As Richard Sutherland wrote, ‘to call Ballard’s work SF is a bit like describing Brian Eno’s music as rock ‘n’ roll.’
SR: Yes and no. Eno is like the culmination or extension of certain ideas within rock to the point where they verge on un-rock. But when he started out there were obvious debts to Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, a certain English kind of psychedelia. And he could do the ‘idiot energy’ thing with ‘Third Uncle’. I think he shifts the emphasis so it’s the noise or the mechanistic insistence of rock that’s retained and amplified, but he sheds the passion, the ego drama, the theatre of rebellion. Later there is the entropy of ambient, which as much as it’s un-rock is also the furthest extension of the psychedelic principle.
As for Ballard and SF – I see him having lots in common with the best people in the genre. I mentioned John Wyndham, who’s under-rated I think, and then people like Dick, Bester, Pohl. But really there are lots of SF people, especially in the Sixties and Seventies, who weren’t doing corny pulp nonsense. To elevate Ballard by divorcing him from his genre is unnecessary. The methodology in the disaster stories and the bulk of the short stories is totally SF.
SS: Spoken like a true SF fanboy! OK, as you said earlier, people tend to drop SF as ‘juvenile'; similarly, people often say that writers should grow out of writing about music. How do you maintain your interest?
SR: It doesn’t take any effort! It’s a compulsion, nothing I can do about it. Although there are lull years – and indeed the last few years have been slimmer pickings than for a long while. The Nineties were an insanely exciting time and that spilled over into the early part of this decade but now it feels like a number of sonic-cultural narratives have petered out. Hip hop in particular seems to be in deadlock. But still I can’t shake this gut belief that popular music is the place where the most exciting cultural energies and ideas get played out.
But maybe this feeling is just a hangover from having grown up during the postpunk era and then living through the hip hop Eighties and rave Nineties. Maybe that conviction can no longer be substantiated by what music is coming up with. It could be the ‘vibe’ has moved elsewhere. Certainly the art world seems to have resurged as a place where there’s a lot of energy and a lot of really interesting conversations are taking place. And television I think still has that function where it is where the society examines itself and talks about the issues. It generates an insane amount of rubbish but it’s always interesting, revealing rubbish. And the quality television is really our modern high culture I think, stuff that nearly everybody is plugged into and where a collective conversation goes on.
But if this is the case – that pop music is no longer where it’s at – I would be saddened because I think it’s a much more democratic zone than the art world or films or TV. The start-up costs are so much lower.
SS: You mentioned the blog world earlier; all-pervasive connectivity means that everyone’s a critic, these days. Any thoughts on that?
SR: Blogging’s too huge a subject really, because it goes into the whole nature of what music criticism is and what it’s for, and also the whole scarily transforming nature of the media, the future of magazines. But I was very excited about the music blogging scene when it emerged in the first years of this decade, and got even more excited when I joined in – there was some really great energy flowing back and forth in this circuit of blogs that I participated in, which is really just one small ‘hood in the universe of music blogs, itself a modest galaxy in the vast blogosphere.
Now I’m significantly less excited, while still finding more to read and be inspired by in the non-professional blog world than in music magazines. What I enjoy most, and what has dimmed quite a bit since ‘the golden age’ a few years ago, is the conversational aspect – people riffing on other people’s riffs, that whole argumentative side. But with a few exceptions people seem to have retreated back into a more solitary, monologue-like thing.
SS: As someone who has successfully integrated critical theory with writing on music, what do you think of the growing incursion of theory into blog-based music criticism?
SR: Is it growing? The only music blogs I can think of that go for real hardcore theory are k-punk and… that’s it really. There are blogs that are primarily philosophy and/or art blogs who also deal with music now and then, like Sit Down Man, You’re A Bloody Tragedy or Poetix, but I don’t think people would think of them as music blogs. Actually k-punk isn’t just a music blog either, although music is a privileged area of culture for Mark. You get music blogs that do music criticism in a high-powered form or go deeply into the minutiae of subgenres and esoteric knowledge. But I can’t think of that many who are applying concepts from critical theory.
I’d make a distinction here between theorising about music and using critical theory and applying it to music. The former goes on a lot, obviously – and you could argue that any critical position is at some level theoretical, it relates to an idea of what music should be and how it works. But there is plenty of theorisation about music going on. What I don’t see a lot of is people using ideas from critical theory or philosophy and so forth and using them to explicate pop music. Even I don’t do nearly as much as I used to. But I certainly still generate theorems and analytical ideas that go beyond the thumbs up/thumbs down consumer guidance aspect.
SS: OK, but it wasn’t so long ago that if you mentioned the word ‘scopophilia’ in a film review, for example, people would have thought you were referring to what Richard Gere allegedly did to some unfortunate gerbils (this actually happened to me — the misunderstanding, not the gerbil abuse). Now, if you drop it in a review, people groan because they’ve heard it all before; the word’s become such a cliché that you’re automatically a bit of a poser for using it. In music criticism, ‘hauntology’ seems to be gaining similar mass. But you were there from the start. So, what is hauntology, in musical terms, and why has it lit up the blogosphere the way it has?
SR: Well I think it was me who first broached the idea of ‘hauntology’ as a rubric for this loose network of contemporary bands who were playing with the cultural imagery of ghosts, spectres, the uncanny, the return of the cultural repressed, memory, and so forth, while also trying to make genuinely eerie music. But I didn’t particularly intend for there to be a tight correlation between Derrida’s concept of hauntology and what these bands were trying to do. It was just a convenient and cute term, ‘haunt’ referencing ghosts and ‘-ology’ suggesting the image of crackpot scientists working in the sound laboratory. There are certain affinities with Derrida’s ideas as elaborated in Spectres of Marx.
LEFT: Mordant logo.
Some of the groups – specifically The Focus Group and Belbury Poly of the Ghost Box label, and Mordant Music – are concerned with ideas of a lost futurism, a spirit of utopian idealism that seems to have faded away in recent decades but which they associate with post-WW2 modernism in architecture, the early days of electronic music, grand public works of amelioration and edification. So there’s a kind of radical nostalgia, a looking back to looking forward. But Spectres of Marx was a very specific intervention in a tradition of philosophy and political thought, and I feel there’s nothing to be gained by aligning what these groups are doing with Derrida’s ideas in some tight doctrinal way. Especially as none of them have read Derrida as far as I can tell!
The word ‘hauntology’ has got a lot of traction, though, because it chimes in with things that are going on in modern art (the trend for work based around the concept of the archive and dealing with questions of collective memory) and in academia (with the boom of studies related to the spectral and uncanny, work on ruins, remains and rubbish, mourning and memory work, nostalgia for the future). Even just on the level of the word ghost or its homonyms popping up across popular culture in countless band names, album titles, novels and non-fiction books, et al – something is going on.
With the ghostified bands specifically, I think what has grabbed some of us (apart from the music, which is fantastic) is that these are musicians who have tons of ideas both musical and non-musical. They tend to be very well read and thoughtful, real autodidacts with a passion for esoteric knowledge and bizarre historical arcana. They are making connections between music, film, books, TV, the occult, history, design… and their records also have a highly developed visual aesthetic. For me personally, a big thing is the Britishness of Ghost Box and Mordant Music, the way they are plumbing the nation’s collective unconscious. I’m become very interested in nationality, which is not to be confused with nationalism.
SS: To close, let’s discuss your latest collection, Bring the Noise, which has just been released. It collects your writings on alternative rock and hip hop — why did you bring these disparate musical enclaves together?
SR: I felt it was time to do a collection of all this stuff I’ve been writing for the last 20 years, but there was a problem in that Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, which is an essay collection published in 1990, corralled a lot of the late-80s stuff I did, and then Energy Flash (aka Generation Ecstasy), while not a collection, is based on the rave and electronic music journalism I did in the Nineties, there’s a lot of remixing and sampling from my own pieces. So I didn’t want to overlap too much with Blissed Out or Energy Flash, and what was left was all the writing I did on alternative rock and on hip hop, which I wrote about almost the moment I started out professionally in 1986 – I wrote about Schoolly D, interviewed LL Cool J and Public Enemy, and so forth. And then a theme leap out at me, looking at the relationship between bohemian rock and black street music — this alternately fraught and fertile relationship, with the white underground sometimes trying to catch up with or incorporate ideas from hip hop, and sometimes going its own way. And hip hop referring to not just rap but the whole spectrum of street sounds: dancehall, R&B, grime. There are some pieces on rave in there but usually where it relates to the black/white theme. So it’s Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing About Hip Rock and Hip Hop. The ‘hip’ before ‘rock’ is kinda jokey but also accurate, in a way, since nearly all the rock bands in the book are or were hip in some sense, like Nirvana or PJ Harvey. Whereas I’ve nothing on, say, Bon Jovi in there!
It’s actually longer than 20 years since the first piece is from Monitor in 1985 and the last is from 2006. I have been around for ever, churning the stuff out. This book is 400 pages long and it is truly a tiny fraction of my output. But this particular slice through the corpus tells a story; it does work as a kind of history of the last couple of decades of pop culture. I’ve brought out the narrative and the theme by having little commentaries after the pieces that make connections and thread things together. So I think you could read it and get a pretty good picture of what happened in music, starting from when Rip It Up and Start Again ends, 1985, and going up to the present.
Thank you, Simon Reynolds.