‘Magisterial, precise, unsettling’: Simon Reynolds on JG Ballard

Simon Sellars Interviews, J.G. Ballard, Music & sound art

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds

“‘Magisterial, precise, unsettling’: Simon Reynolds on JG Ballard”, originally published in 032c, no. 18, winter 2009/10, pp. 126-9.

Simon Reynolds is one of the most recognizable music critics around. He possesses a willingness to tackle pop music as an art form worthy of intellectual discourse rather than a fleeting moment of adolescent flash. Reynolds breaks new ground, melding unchecked enthusiasm with a robust theoretical foundation in a body of work that is exciting for its eclecticism alone: he’s just as compelling writing on hip hop, Britney, and rave, as he is on grunge, prog rock, and grime.

Reynolds’s work reached a peak with the publication of Rip It Up and Start Again, a timely excavation of post-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 especially his experimental novel, The Atrocity Exhibition — on the era.

Simon Sellars: For you, what’s the relationship between J.G. Ballard and music?

Simon Reynolds: Obviously I always loved music, but it was things my parents had introduced me to — Beethoven, or Hollywood musicals, plus stray things I’d heard on the radio like the Beatles. And then when I was around fifteen, I was inducted into that whole rock apparatus of taking music -pop culture, youth culture, rock criticism — seriously. And what I was into on a fanatical level immediately before entering rock culture was science fiction, and particularly Ballard. The new fanaticism simply replaced the old one, and I stuck to music journalism!

SS: Do you still return to his work?

SR: It’s only in the last decade or so that I rediscovered science fiction, and particularly Ballard. I’ve also started reading more of his critical work, his interviews and journalism, and become more impressed by him — he was clearly the most advanced writer and thinker in his field.

SS: Which of his books have impacted you the most?

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 science fiction paperback editions, and they had one series with really evocative paintings — glossy, garish, almost hyperrealist — on the covers. The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Wind From Nowhere were all in that series and looked particularly good. But in The Drowned World, the severity of Ballard’s imagination was what hooked me, and just the idea of the protagonist who — as in all Ballard’s cataclysm novels — is perversely drawn towards the heart of catastrophe, and finds his true self in the transformed landscape. That really grabbed me.

Also, the idea of the world you know being drastically transformed … I lived near London, in a commuter town 30 miles north of the capital, and went down to the city quite frequently; so imagining it submerged was exciting.

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds

Two David Pelham-illustrated ’softcover classics’ (both Penguin, London, 1974).

SS: Has he influenced your work in any way, either as a critic of popular culture, or stylistically?

SR: Actually, the influences on my writing and thinking come from a totally different place, although there are certain affinities — a sense of the power of the irrational, these atavistic drives pulsing inside culture. I’ve long felt that pop music is driven by ambivalent, sometimes outright malevolent energies. But I’ve probably derived that more from various French thinkers, and Nietzsche; or certain rock writers. Still, you can see the connection between music and the Ballardian worldview, which sees human culture as fundamentally perverse. And the self-reflexivity in science fiction is very similar to music criticism, because neither genre gets respect from the literary establishment, give or take a Kingsley Amis or an Anthony Burgess in science fiction. Both science fiction and rock writing have an inferiority and superiority complex. Science fiction writers love to think of what they’re doing as one really crucial, contemporary form of literature — a literature of ideas with elements of speculation and an estrangement effect.

Rock critics are just the same: they crave that validation from mainstream art criticism, but they also like being the renegade form. Ballard exemplifies this meta aspect of science fiction, although he goes beyond it as a great cultural critic.

SS: His work can also be read as philosophical inquiry, an approach that seems to sum up a particular late-capitalist mode of being. What makes the Ballardian worldview so prescient?

SR: He was dealing with similar things as Marshall McLuhan, and, later, as Jean Baudrillard. But he was doing it with far greater clarity, sharper perceptions, and more style and wit than either. All the obscenity of mass communication, simulation, and social implosion in Baudrillard’s books was being explored earlier, and more effectively, in Ballard’s fiction. He was dealing with the pornification of everything very early.

SS: You’ve remarked elsewhere that Ballard’s short stories have more appeal to you than his novels.

SR: After the disaster novels, the mid-1970s urban breakdown ones like Concrete Island and High-Rise, I think that, as a critic, Ballard’s shorts are his supreme achievement — so magisterial, so distilled and precise, atmospheric and unsettling. I recently re-read “The Ultimate City,” which is about a young man who lives in a near future that’s very green-conscious and placid and dull. So he goes to the deserted city and starts up urban life again — gets generators going, and then misfits start to flock in from the eco-communes and garden towns. But of course the whole thing goes haywire.

It was only a few years ago that I finally read Crash all the way through. I was writing Rip It Up and Start Again, and I wanted to understand why it had such a big influence on post-punk. In away, I prefer the side of Ballard that relates to someone like John Wyndham over the side that relates to William S. Burroughs. I like that dour, flat Britishness confronted by something alien or catastrophic.

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds

SS: I was surprised by your Ballard tribute in Salon, in which you wrote: “While his novels of the late 1980s and thereafter, such as Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, have admirers, few would argue they’ve contributed a jot to his enduring cult.” For me, Super-Cannes seems to be one of his very best, a hyper-aware distillation of the “pornification” you were talking about earlier, a sense of entrapment within a system that only recognizes exchange values as authentic modes of being.

SR: It’s not about the relative merits of his books, but about what his cult is based on. It’s a bit like with rock stars. Morrissey put out a number of solo albums, ranging from dire to mediocre to excellent. But the basis of his cult will always be the Smiths. The same goes for the Rolling Stones — their last album, A Bigger Bang, was actually a really fine album, but “Stones-iness” was defined by the 1960s albums, plus Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. It’s hard to imagine many people starting their Stones fandom with A Bigger Bang, just as it’s hard to imagine many people becoming obsessed with Morrissey on account of You are the Quarry. I think the same thing applies to Ballard’s work. Not to say you’re wrong about Super-Cannes.

SS: You’ve mentioned Ballard’s influence on post-punk. Growing up on this music, Ballard was always a vague referent, glimpsed through obscure Cabaret Voltaire or Ultravox interviews. So I appreciated the way Rip It Up and Start Again unpacked the connection. But what about today’s crop? Is there a continuum from then to now? For example, the dubstep musicians Kode9 and Burial — every second review of their albums seems to invoke the dreaded word “Ballardian,” possibly becoming as much a cliché as it was during the post-punk period.

SR: That relates more to the Spaceape’s contribution to the Kode9 album Memories of the Future. His lyrics and delivery are 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.

There is also an urban psychogeography thing going on in Burial’s music that recalls Ballard in Crash. The album draws a lot from South London, this inter-zone of semi-suburbia between Brixton, where the tube line stops, and Croydon, which is on the city’s periphery. So it’s a hinterland similar to the outer London areas near Heathrow where Ballard situated Crash. A real anomie zone, but possessed with a certain desolate beauty. Burial has also talked of putting his tunes through the “Car Test,” driving around South London playing music from his car to see if it has the atmosphere he wants, the “distance” he’s looking for.

People have also compared Burial to Joy Division in terms of bleak urbanism. And Martin Hannett, their producer, used to do a similar thing: drive around Manchester’s most brutally industrialized zones in his car, stoned, listening to Joy Division, PiL, or Pere Ubu.

SS: Does “Ballardian” mean anything substantial to you, or do you think Ballard’s work is too complex to be contained in this way?

SR: It has become something of a cliché, and that’s perhaps the inevitable result of having an impact and becoming famous — that your ideas become simplified, reduced to a caption. So Ballardian equals “picturesque, postindustrial decay,” “kinky technophilia,” and “perverted obsessions with celebrities.”

When the Diana and Dodi crash happened, people in TV newsrooms were apparently like, “Let’s get Ballard on the phone.”

SS: You’ve casually mentioned that Ballard and Brian Eno are “the two greatest British thinkers of the second half of the 20th century.”

SR: That’s slightly over the top, isn’t it? I wonder if it really stands up. Then again, as thinkers specifically on culture, in the British context, I can’t honestly think of too many rivals, especially for the generation who came out of the 1960s and developed during the 1970s.

One of the fantasy projects that I’ve toyed with for a while is a book on Ballard and Eno. They feel like the patron saints of post-punk to an extent. But it’s difficult, because they’ve said it all better than anyone else. I suppose you could historicize or contextualize them – Ballard with the ICA milieu and Eno with the UK art schools. In some ways the affinity seems as much temperamental as anything conceptual. They have this wonderful Englishness — you imagine they would get on like a house on fire, trading ideas over whisky in a 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 better because he’s a far better writer and thinker — more original, more convincing. In some ways, Eno is almost like a British Barthes.

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds

SS: While 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 begin to generate new matter.” Could you draw parallels 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 debt to surrealism.

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 Ballard has that Eastern mystical aspect. With Ballard, there’s always more of a violence bubbling up from below, even though the writing is cold and controlled. If Eno is a British Barthes, a languid sensualist, Ballard would be 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.

SS: Both Ballard and Eno inverted, retooled, and then abandoned the genre they started out in. As Richard Sutherland writes, “To call Ballard’s work science fiction 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 he owed a lot to Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, a certain English kind of psychedelia. And he could do the “idiot energy” thing with “Third Uncle.” As for Ballard, to divorce him from his genre is unnecessary. The methodology in his disaster stories and in the bulk of his short stories is totally science fiction.

SS: As someone who has successfully integrated critical theory into writing about music, what do you think of the growing incursion of theory into music criticism?

SR: I’d make a distinction here between theorizing about music and applying critical theory to music. The former happens a lot, obviously — and you could argue that any critical position is at some level theoretical. What I don’t see a lot of is people using ideas from critical theory or philosophy 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: To return to Ballard, is it possible to imagine, after his death, what his enduring legacy might be?

SR: That’s too big a question really. But I guess his legacy is due to his invention of a completely original way of perceiving reality, which merges reality with the unreality of the entertainment-scape. He did this to the point where it seems almost obvious, even cliché, as we discussed earlier. You see that a lot in music. I’ve argued that coming up with a cliché is the highest achievement in dance music, a sound or a beat or a riff pattern that everyone wants to copy. Becoming a cliché is, in lots of ways, a triumphant success for any artist.