Performing the Margins: Punk and Place

Monday, September 7th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

Even as Kostis was conjuring his posts on Pink Floyd at Pompeii and the Scorpions at Mytilene, another iconic locus of punk rock magic is reaching the end of its life.  The Uptown Bar & Cafe in Minneapolis is apparently slated to close sometime this year.  Its octogenarian owner, Frank Toonen, is looking to sell the bar to secure the financial future for his family (a noble cause, if there ever was one).  The bar hosted virtually every major punk(ish) rock band to come out of Minneapolis (Soul Asylum, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü) and ranked as a local CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City.  Ironically, the bar will be torn down for a three story retail space as the Uptown neighborhood continues a process of re-gentrification (for a nice history of the neighborhood).

To be honest, I’ve never been to the Uptown Bar & Cafe (nor Uptown, for that matter), but the story of the Uptown Bar & Cafe caught my eye in the context of our ongoing conversation about punk and place.  Many of the most storied punk establishments established themselves in seemingly marginal urban spaces made available by white flight and the post-war growth of suburbs and now confront the reopening of the urban center to economic development which in many ways challenged both economic opportunities made available by the marginal status of various neighborhoods and urban locales as well as the gritty and explicitly anti-suburban ascetic that punk cultivated. The creative risks exploited by punk rockers as they returned to the urban center from the security of suburban “garage” demanded an authenticity of the punk experience that cannot be maintained when surrounded by boutique shopping spots and chain clothing retailers who seemingly revel in the make-believe character of the consumer experience.

The authenticity of the urban experience is not just a hallmark of punk music. Today, it is seen most visibly in hip-hop music where credibility is tied a performer’s ability to maintain their ties to economically and socially marginalized segments of urban areas.  (As hip-hop has globalized, it has shown that the performance of authenticity has transferred from marginalized areas within the American city to marginalized areas of the globe.  Take, for example, the Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan who mocks the urban posturing of North American rappers by contrasting their claims and experiences to his upbringing in Somalia).

Common’s song “The Corner” is a another great meditation on the space of performance in contemporary hip-hop.  The song juxtaposes Common’s lyrics about his experiences on “the corner” with nostalgia tinged lyrics of the radical spoken-word poetry collective “The Last Poets” who note:

…The corner was our Rock of Gibraltar, our Stonehenge
Our Taj Mahal, our monument…

Of course, in hip-hop the corner invokes more than just an urban space associated with drug dealing, informal social gatherings, and, perhaps more properly, the performance of dozens between rappers that formed the basis for the combative aspects of modern hip-hop music.  The corner invokes the crossroads which was an iconic symbol in American Blues music.  Most famously, the crossroads was where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent.

Crossroads represent both central places where diverse paths cross, but also liminal sites where clearly-defined spheres of control and authority break-down or lapse entirely.  It is not surprising, for example, that Oedipus met the Sphinx at a crossroads (see: S. I Johnston, “Crossroads,” ZPE 88 (1991)217-24) .

To return, then to punk and place, the impending loss of the Uptown Cafe & Bar (and other punk landmarks) stands out as the return of marginal spaces to the control of the center.  In many cities in the US, this has manifested itself as reclaiming the marginalized zone of an urban core neglected in the post-war migration to the suburbs for the commercial, capitalist, gentrified space of the new suburban centers (i.e. let’s make the cities look like we imagined them when we built those surrogate cities: suburban shopping malls).

To bring my archaeological interests more fully into the conversation, I’ll just point out that for the last 7 years I’ve been working with the team of the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project to study a community situated at a crossroads along the coast of southeastern Cyprus.  Peripheral to the main centers of power on the island, there is reason to think that the ancient community situated in what is now the coast zone of the village of Pyla (another liminal space!) served as a local crossroads community.  David Pettegrew’s work at a similar site in the Eastern Corinthia commonly referred to as “Cromna” is another example of a crossroads community.  These liminal spaces situated neither clearly within an urban core or in the romanticized space of the rural periphery defy categorization.  The complexity and density of the artifact assemblages found in these areas press to the limit methods devised to document more dispersed kinds of activity in the countryside.  At the same time, the absence of a built up center with known, monumental architecture, makes it challenging to justify large scale, systematic excavation.

The marginal status of crossroads places have made them a kind of improvisational space for archaeological fieldwork.  In this way, they echo the marginal spaces of desiccated, post-war, urban core which became the places of punk performance, or the ill-defined and marginal space of the corner which became a zone dominated by ancient and modern sphinxes.   Punk archaeology revels in the marginal, ambiguous, ambivalent and, in many ways, dangerous spaces that only become central through the ephemeral performance.

Scorpions in Mytilene

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

I want to thank Ιφιμέδεια for commenting on my last post Pink Floyd and Pompeii and bringing to my attention a recent controversy involving archaeology and rock. On July 4, 2009, the German heavy metal band Scorpions performed in the medieval castle of Mytilene. See the promotion for the event here. The castle has been used for cultural events, but a rock concert proved to be controversial. The concert was initially canceled by the Central Archaeological Council (KAS) on the ground that it would threaten the archaeological site. After great pressure from the Prefecture of Lesvos and the local community, KAS overturned its decision.

When I started visiting Greece in college, at the height of my punk rock phase, I was struck by the sheer absence of punks. For some interesting sociological reasons, the rock underground of the 1980s was monopolized by hard rock and heavy metal. Bands like Metallica, Iron Maiden and Scorpions are a huge deal in Greece (and also Turkey). A quick walk through Exarcheia makes this clear even today. My friend Yorgos happened to be flying into Istanbul a few years ago with Iron Maiden on the plane. The fans had taken over the entire Istanbul airport; it was quite a scene. The simple explanation for the traction between Eastern Mediterranean youth and heavy metal has to do with the ornamental language of heavy metal guitar and its similarities to traditional Eastern music (rembetiko, etc.) The gendered roles of heavy metal, I think, also relate to the scene’s appeal with Greek/Turkish men. The long hair and distinctively male bonds raise some additional issues of a distinct homoeroticism.

For whatever reason, Scorpions are national heroes for a large section of Greece’s underground. The concert promotion in Mytilene makes a strong visual juxtaposition between the historicity of rock and medieval architecture: “two grand legends of music and history meet this summer in a concert that will leave an epoch.” The legendary rock band performs in a monument of equal age and cultural gravity. Another clip on YouTube (here) fascinated me further and made me laugh (I wondered if it might be a joke). It raises an interesting question, namely what happens to local society when a legendary merchandise giant comes into your small town.

Pink Floyd in Pompeii

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

Bill Caraher posted on the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock and the event’s implications for landscape archaeology (see here). Thinking about the archaeology of concert locations, I was reminded of a performance that Pink Floyd filmed inside the ancient amphitheater of Pompeii in 1971, which, interestingly enough, was conceived as “an anti-Woodstock film” by director Adrian Maben. The film is not very well known, although it occasionally turns up on PBS fund drives (see YouTube excerpt here). Live at Pompeii includes psychedelic images interspersed in the final editing. One of the most memorable shots, as far as I can remember, involved laying out Pink Floyd’s equipment along a straight line. The drums, amplifiers, guitars, speakers, etc. make an interesting line of monumental material culture. It was around this time, that Pink Floyd also collaborated with Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni in Zabriskie Point (1970), filmed in Death Valley National Park, California. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is the explosion of a middle-class home with Pink Floyd’s soundtrack on the background. Pink Floyd also performed a controversial concert in 1989, this time, afloat a barge at Saint Mark’s Square in Venice (see YouTube excerpt here, with the Doge’s palace flashing in the background).

Archaeological sites have grown to be popular venues for concerts. Only this last month (August 5, 2009), the Greek Ministry of Culture organized “Greece by Moonlight,” opening 81 sites to the general public for some romantic moon-watching. Some “Greece by Moonlight” sites featured concerts. Moon-gazing was a typical past-time on the Acropolis through the 1930s. My mother, who grew up in Plaka, once told me that the Acropolis was not only continuously open to the public but also the romantic hot spot. This became the narrative structure in George Seferis novel Six Nights on the Acropolis, published posthumously in 1974. The Athens Festival every summer fills up the Roman theater of Herodes Atticus below the Acropolis. But interestingly enough, rock concerts are rarely hosted on Greek archaeological sites. The outdoor theater of Lycabettus is where those venues are held; the unpreposessing steel structure was designed by a great architect from the 1930s, Takis Zenetos, the only Greek to study at the Bauhaus. In addition to the concert series on Lycabettus, Rock Wave has become the annual Greek Woodstock. Before the 2004 Olympics, the three-day rock festival took place at different venues, like the old velodrome. Since 2004, the festival is held outside of Athens, in Malakasa, on the 37th km of the Athens-Lamia National Highway. Much of the audience camps out in this atypically extra-urban terrain. In the future, I’m sure, it will offer a case study of landscape archaeology.

Finally, some words about Pink Floyd’s role in punk archaeology. Many rock listeners would find Pink Floyd to be anti-punk. After Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Pink Floyd became the archetypical example of classic stadium rock that caused the very punk rebellion. Toby Manning discusses this issue, “I Hate Pink Floyd: Pink Floyd and Punk,” in Pink Floyd: The Rough Guide (2006), p. 107. Most famously, John Lydon wore a Pink Floyd t-shirt with “I Hate” scrolled across it, when Malcolm McClaren first spotted him on a street in London. McClaren turned Lydon into Johnny Rotten, the lead singer of the Sex Pistols. Despite the apocryphal origins, Pink Floyd was extremely influential to the art-rock strand of punk. And amusingly in 2005, John Lydon declared that his 1975 t-shirt was a joke and that he actually loved Pink Floyd.

Woodstock, Landscape, and Archaeology

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

A few weeks ago Kostis mentioned that he thought that archaeology was “a post hippie” discipline.  A certain tendency to emphasize rural places, the integrated, almost spiritual, character of landscapes, community engagement, and political activism would seem to evoke many of the central ideals of the hippie movement, albeit within a far more structured environment.  (It’s an open issue whether punk shared the celebrated spontaneity of the hippie movement or parodied it).

This weekend, the New York Times offered a shortish article: “Woodstock: A Moment of Muddy Grace“.  Aside from well-worn ironic observation that the memory of Woodstock became a commodity almost as soon as the festival was over, there was a short paragraph that included one interesting line:

With the 40th anniversary of Woodstock looming — so soon? — the commemorative machinery is clanking into place, and the nostalgia is strong. There’s a Woodstock Festival museum now at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and a recently built concert hall at what was the concert site, Max Yasgur’s farm (though the original Woodstock hillside has been left undeveloped).

The notion that the original hillside would be preserved is an interesting example of how the absence of development could nevertheless represent the commidification of a particular landscape.  Paralleling the desire to preserve battlefields, archaeological landscapes, and other places of cultural significance, the archaeology of absence evokes both the notion of a sacred precinct as well as haunting ideas of ritual abandonment.  In the hyper-commodified world of Woodstock nostalgia, the protected hillside stands out both as an ironic and highly structured place of commemoration.

Perhaps this is another characteristic that separates Punk Archaeology from its post-hippie variants.  The hippie movement, for all its energy, has long been overrun by a kind of crude commercialism so even an archaeologically motivated decision like preserving the famous Woodstock hillside cannot stand outside the discourse of capitalism and gain.

Has Punk remained more authentic?  Certainly the battle to save Punk landmarks like CBGBs has been less successful.  The urban foundation of Punk perhaps created landmarks in an environment which had a more ephemeral character.  Change was anticipated and expected in urban landscapes.  The countryside was idealized as unchanging and efforts to commemorate the countryside typically involve limiting the impact of human activities or even marking it off entirely.  Archaeology, however, relies upon the traces of change through time to document human culture.  The urbanism of Punk contributes to its resistance to commodification (and makes its appeals to nostalgia more ironic still) and preserves it for a different method of documentation later.  Punk Archaeology.

It’s Only a Matter of Time

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

The Pyla Koutsopetria Archaeological Project has released Trench Sounds, the first archaeological example of podcast vérité ever released (to my knowledge) on webspace. The experiment sprang from Bill Caraher’s interests in punk archaeology, in new technologies and in documentary theory. Trench Sounds is profound in its simplicity, like an Andy Warhol movie (e.g. The Kiss, 1963). Trench Sounds is a 10-minute recording of the sounds produced in an excavation trench this last season at PKAP, Cyprus. We hear the irregular percussion of the scraping trowel, archaeological interpretation, but also the serendipitous small talk that makes up the social space of a trench. It might not mean much to many listeners, and I suspect some may wander “so what” or even be slightly annoyed. What I like about Trench Sounds is that it addresses time. It rescues a mere 10 minutes of archaeological life. It enlightens the non-archaeologist but also raises questions for the archaeologist. Isn’t excavation all about the exploration of time, in reverse sequence, in stratified layers and unstratified jumbles?

I know many archaeologists that have been influenced by minimalism. My two mentors, unbeknownst to the reader of their scholarship, have been affected by minimalism, directly or indirectly. Cecil L. Striker’s meticulous method, his love for the abstract beauty of dendrochronology and the incisive excavations by hand drill, not to mention his architectural taste is one example. Frederick A. Cooper, a lover of Proust and Le Corbusier, once told me that John Cage inspired his archaeological directions (especially into computers). Both Striker and Cooper are masters of precision, both are craftsmen of a post-war America, a time when the U.S. lead both the realms of technology and the arts. Like their contemporary artists, they turned method into ammunition against the superficialities of American culture, its consumerism and arbitrary values.

But I return to Trench Sounds. Listening to the podcast made me wonder. Why hasn’t anyone written an archaeological opera, or an archaeological performance piece? Alternatively, why hasn’t anyone written an archaeological report where time as quantity becomes the manipulated medium. Consider the new opera Timberbrit, where composer Jacob Cooper slows down songs by Britney Spear and Justin Timberlake. The technique is called “time-stretching.” Consider the production of Hamlet by the Wooster Group, where the 1964 TV version with Richard Burton is re-timed into Shakespearean meter, projected onto a screen and replicated by live actors (see Scott Shepperd’s/Hamlet’s interview on Studio 360). Consider Bruce Nauman in the Venice Biennale. Consider Bill Viola’s deconstruction of Renaissance space with his time-delayed videos, or Gary Hill’s fragmented utterings. And finally, consider Jeff Wall’s 2003 project Fieldwork (above), which takes up the mysteries of excavation directly. These are only contemporary examples of the minimalist (or post-minimalist) tradition. Such works have not really flavored the archaeological mindset — as far as I can see.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I would like to read an archaeological field report (not an opera, a play, or a movie) that intentionally speeds up or slows down stratigraphic time. I’m imagining a fictitious collapse of archaeology’s double time 1) the time taken for contexts to stratify and 2) the time taken by excavators to peel them off. This would be a biographical, documentary and semi-fictitious genre. And I’m not talking about the overly self-referential methods of post-processusalist archaeology, but a work of postmodern literature. Or maybe I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Trench Sounds is a work of imagination, a dream, a reality show, a fragmented experience that brings PKAP’s field season into the neighborhood of conceptual art.

Punk Archaeology: Trench Sounds

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

The long awaited final Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project podcast has arrived.  Titled “Trench Sounds”, it is a 10 minute extract of over 3 hours of taping in Dallas DeForest’s trench at Pyla-Koutsopetria.  (For more typical discussions of this trench you can down load these two podcasts: Koutsopetria East Week 1 and Koutsopetria East Week 2).  The goal was to capture the sounds of a trench in all of their mundane glory.

The inspiration was Punk Archaeology.  Kostis has posted on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and its seminal influence on the New York “No Wave” movement.  This album, which is almost impossible to listen to, is composed almost entirely of various ephemeral sounds of the musical production process particularly looped tracks of guitar feedback much of which was created intentionally by placing guitars facing their amplifiers.  This dissonant noise was then remixed and edited to produce tracks including an unusual locked groove track at the end of side “D” (of a two record set) which would play the final 1.8 seconds continuously (an effect lost on 21st century listeners who are more likely to spend the 4$ to download the album in MP3 than the $20+ to purchase the album on vinyl!).

Our final “Voices of Archaeology” track is hardly as intentionally dissonant as Metal Machine Music (nor will it likely be as iconic).  It does, however, capture and attempt to present some of the ephemeral sounds of archaeology — the gentle thumping of the pick, the scraping of the dust pan, the cascades of dirt into buckets, the interrupted and fractured conversations.  It attempts to capture sonically, what we as archaeologist are attempting to capture physically: the various bits of pieces of the past.  At one point on the track, Paul Ferderer asks whether a tiny fragment of ceramic material is a piece of tile or a piece of pottery.  The tiny fragment was at once almost completely inconsequential (and the question of whether the fragment was pottery or tile was even less consequential as all ceramic material was analyzed by our ceramicist) and at the same time the bit of ceramics is representative of the archaeological process.  The artifact must be contextualized in some way to generate meaning.  It goes without saying (almost) that fragments of the past have no inherent meaning.  They are displaced objects that the archaeologist envelop in contexts ranging from the place of origin, the original “primary” use, and, of course, the chronology of the other objects at the site.  The tension between the decontextualized object at the moment of discovery (the most tenuous and fleeting contextualizing moment) and various “big picture” narrative and analyses that ultimately come to make a specific site meaningful finds its place in the immediacy of punk rock as experience. 

I recently listened again to the MC5’s first album Kick Out the Jams, a live album, and admired their effort to capture the live sound and mark the band as a live phenomenon while evoking punk rock’s debts to the blues (a genre of music almost always recorded live) and the ephemeral connections manifest in garage bands across the country.  The contextualizing narrative of modern American music has, of course, placed the MC5 in a proper analytical and interpretive category (often placing them alongside Iggy Pop’s Stooges whose first album came out the same year and captured a very different kind of sound through the exacting production of John Cale) and striped the first album of much of its shock value (although it still can capture some of the excitement typical of live performances).

Our short track of trench sounds hopes to capture the same thing — at once it is inconsequential (and frankly hard to listen to!) alone just like Paul’s fragment of pottery — but at the same time, it captures a moment that begs a larger, more dynamic context.  The moment of discovery is the point of departure for archaeological analysis.  Trench Sounds pushes the incidental noise of archaeological research into the center,  like the feedback pushed to the center of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.  By recontextualizing the sonic elements of archaeological fieldwork I hope to have shed light on the analytical process itself which brings otherwise discarded and inconsequential artifacts to the center while pushing the archaeological experience to the edges… 

Enjoy: Trench Sounds

Toward a Definition of Punk Archaeology

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

I was asked recently what exactly Punk Archaeology is… and aside from pointing to our blog of that name, I struggled to come up with a clever answer or really any answer.  The best that I could offer was that Punk Archaeology was an empty vessel, a conceptual universe opening to being filled by the careening intersection of punk rock music and archaeology (in almost all of its forms and meanings).  So far the vessel is filled with bits of methodology, some history, some archaeology (in a Foucaldian sense) and even some proper archaeological investigations.  This description, however, does not necessarily explain what Punk Archaeology is.

So, here goes a first effort toward a definition of Punk Archaeology:

1) Punk Archaeology is a reflective mode of organizing archaeological experiences.  Punk Archaeology began as conversations between Kostis Kourelis and other archaeologists who admitted to listening to punk rock music or appreciating the punk aesthetic while studying archaeology.  The result was a collaboration between me and Kostis as we made an effort to probe the intersection between these two choices.  Why would we be drawn to punk rock — or any particular music — and how does this musical choice explain or organize or condition our approaches to archaeological research.  Both of us came around to the question of whether there is a totalizing discourse in our intellectual lives.  Is there some strand that makes sense of our varied interests?

2) Punk Archaeology follows certain elements of the punk aesthetic through the discipline of archaeology.  It celebrates, in particular, the things that can be grouped under the blanket heading of DIY practices: various low-fi podcasts, infield improvised devices, and serendipitous inventions that allow archaeologists to document space, place, and the past.

3) Punk Archaeology reveals a deep commitment to place.  Punk with its tied to garage band sound has always manifest itself spatially. The tensions between urban and suburban (e.g. Little London Boys), east and west coast, and the persistent association of certain sounds and styles with cities or even places (some of which are intended to disorient: Max’s Kansas City).  As archaeology is, in so many ways, a “science” of place, its affinity to a musical genre that self-consciously laced the experience of music with the experience of place would seem appropriate.

4) Punk Archaeology embraces destruction as a creative process.  Archaeologists destroy the very object that they seek to study.  Digging through strata removes artifacts from their physical context and places them in the disciplinary context of the archaeologist notebook, database, plan, map, article, or monographg.  Destruction as a creative process echoes in some ways the process of punk which sought to deconstruct musically the foundation of Anglo-American pop music and build in its place a subversive recontextualized narrative of safe and comfortable bourgeois life.  I am not sure that archaeology is always subversive and I don’t even know whether punk rock forms the best parallel for the recontextualizing process of excavation, but there is a certain symmetry between the two.

5) Punk Archaeology is spontaneous.  The one thing that the Punk Archaeology blog is seeking to capture is the spontaneity of the connection between punk and archaeology.  The performance of punk archaeology through the medium of blogging allows for our definition to remain flexible and fluid.  We can reshape our argument and our juxtapositions and even challenge and contradict ourselves.  In short, we can create distortion, noise, and a kind off creative chaos.  That might, like Punk, have value. 

Or not. 

We’ll see.

The Magnetic Age

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

David Thomas, the singer of the legendary Cleveland punk band Pere Ubu has written one of the finest essays on rock music. Thomas takes two ballads, “The Wreck of Old 97” and “Dead Man’s Curve,” and constructs a narrative explaining the fundamentals of American music. It all has to do with the Magnetic Age that started in 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the microphone and culminated with Elvis Presley (“the Homer of the Inarticulate Age”). “The Wreck of Old 97” is a ballad inspired by the 1903 train wreck in Virginia (photo above). The earliest version of the song was recorded in 1924 and it has since been sang by everyone, including Woody Guthrie, Johny Cash and Hank Williams. “Dead Man’s Curve” is a ballad written in 1964 by the rock duo Jan and Dean, who preceded the Beach Boys in creating surf music. The ballad describes another wreck, half a century later, taking place with a car. The technical heroism of the two songs corresponds to the technical craft (magnetic electronics) of recorded music, “a dialogue inside the blurred zone between soundscape and landscape.” Thomas asserts that the Magnetic Age is another way of saying the American Age and it unites seemingly unrelated individuals like Edison and Elvis or Eisenhower and Kerouac.

Thomas is not simply retelling a generic version of America’s love for speed, cars and trains but constructs a paradigm through which to interpret rock music. In the spirit of art critic Clement Greenberg, Thomas brings attention to the materiality of the medium. Dan Graham (see Rock My Religion posting) placed punk’s origins in the religious experiments of Protestant America. Thomas places punk’s origins of the magnetic medium–the microphone, the vinyl record, the hi-fi system, the speakers, and the space inside our ears. I’ve been thinking a lot about the texture of dissonance and distortion that characterizes the project of punk archaeology. I have been listening to a lot of Sonic Youth lately–especially their brilliant new album, Eternal– and I’ve been reading David Brownes’ Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (2008). I’ve also just received a library copy of another interesting new book, David Sheppard’s On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (2009). Eno is truly the glue between the Magnetic Age and punk. In 1977, Eno collaborated with David Bowie in the album Heroes, the final record of the Berlin trilogy. It includes the song “Sons of the Silent Age.” I wonder if the Magnetic Age and the Silent Age are not but synonyms of the same mechanical predicament.

David Thomas’ essay is called “Destiny in My Right Hand,” and it appeared in The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad, ed. Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus (2005), pp. 161-174. The book contains 23 essays interpreting some of the most fundamental American ballads. The authors range from R. Crumb to Luc Sante and Sarah Vowell. While reading this book, it’s mandatory to listen to a parallel CD with the songs under discussion. I’ve been reading The Rose & the Briar on-and-off since 2005 and just hit David Thomas’s essay.

Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu are the inheritors of the Magnetic Age. David Thomas does not talk about punk in his essay, although he credits Dead Man’s Curve with a dose of “punk snottiness.” On the dissonate end of the Magnetic Age, see my earlier posting on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. I have just listened to Thurston Moore’s solo project Trees Outside the Academy (2007). The CD inner sleeve contains many pictures from Moore’s youth. Among them, you see a teenage Moore strapped with headphones listening to Metal Machine Music (left). Now, in the 21st century, we should have witnessed the full demise of the Magnetic Age by the Digital Age. Nevertheless, old rockers like Sonic Youth, and even younger ones like Jack White (note his new band, Dead Weathers) remain purists in the Greenbergean sense. Craftsmanship of the Magnetic Age (i.e. the 8-track recorder) seems to have endured in the Digital Age, which might after all be a mere Post-Magnetic Age that claims an ironic self-referential stance to its predecessor.

Rock My Religion

Saturday, July 18th, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

One of Punk Archaeology seminal documents is “Rock My Religion,” the 1984 video by Dan Graham. Although better known as a conceptual artist, Graham was ingrained in New York’s punk and post-punk music scene. “Rock My Religion” makes a historical argument, attributing the origins of punk to the radical religious experiences of early Puritans like the shaking of the Shakers. Many have followed Graham’s line of thinking. Generally speaking, punk as a movement has rejected the hippie ideal of communal idealism. Bypassing the 60s, however, some punks have aligned themselves with older vernacular forms like folk music. The LA punk legends X, for example, also had a parallel folk project, the Knitters. Billy Bragg is another example. Cowpunk, country punk, or folk punk are recent labels for an older tradition.

“Rock My Religion” is screened at.the retrospective exhibition Dan Graham: Beyond, originating at MoCA in Los Angeles and currently at the Whitney Museum in New York (June 25-October 11, 2009). The show will travel to Minneapolis, at the Walker Art Center (October 31, 2009-January 31, 2010). Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) and the Feelies (recently reunited) performed special tributes during the exhibition (see video here). If you cannot make it to New York or Minneapolis, “Rock My Religion” can be previewed here. For the exhibit’s catalog, see Bennett Simpson and Chrissie Isles eds. Dan Graham: Beyond (MIT, 2009). Graham’s essays have been published in Rock My Religion: Writings and Project 1965-1990 (MIT 1994). One of my favorite Graham projects, “Homes for America” for Arts Magazine (1966-67) is a provocative series of photographs documenting the vernacular landscape of New Jersey. Suburban American architecture and punk rock provide inspiration for Graham’s work that has never been successfully branded under a particular art movemnt. Graham is also known for a series of glass and mirror pavilions that link him more directly with the work of Robert Smithson and minimalism.

For reviews of the Graham exhbition at the Whitney, see Roberta Smith, “Bouncing Around a Visual Echo Chamber,” NYT (July 3, 2009), pp. C19, 21, and Randy Kennedy, “A Round Peg,” NYT (June 28, 2009) pp. AR 1, 24. Kennedy begins with a question that best typifies the difficulty of categorizing Graham: “Here’s a good art-world quiz question, one that could stump many an astute insider: What do Sol LeWitt, Sonic Youth, Dean Martin, Mel Brooks, Mel Haggard, Hudson River School painting and midcentury New Jersey tract housing have in common? The answer, Dan Graham.”

Bowie’s Philadelphia Sound

Thursday, June 25th, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

Much of 1980s New Wave (ABC, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, etc.) has an orchestral soulful sound. These “New Romantics” reclaimed the grandeur of Swing from the syncopation of Disco. The city of Philadelphia played a minor role in New Wave with figures like Hall and Oates (who met at Temple) and the Hooters (who met at Penn). A local music scene thrived in the late 80s and 90s, although many bands, like the Johnsons, Scram and the Dead Milkmen, received limited national attention.

Philadelphia is responsible for the origins of New Wave’s grand sound by means of an earlier and lesser known avenue, David Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans. On August 11, 1974, Bowie spent a week in Philadelphia, recording Young Americans at the Sigma Sound Studios on 212 N. 12th Street. It is here that Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff created what is known as Philadelphia soul or the Philadelphia sound (Bowie called it “plastic soul”). Gamble and Huff had started the Philadelphia International Records label only three years before Bowie’s visit. Y0ung Americans was an important point of departure from Bowie’s earlier rock persona in Ziggy Stardust (1972), or Diamond Dogs (1974). In Philadelphia, therefore, David Bowie pursued one of his many incarnations as a spiritually black artist. And it is here that he met Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar, who became an integral member of Bowie’s band. Young Americans also features back up vocals by Luther Vandross and includes the song Fame, co-written with John Lennon, which became Bowie’s first American hit.

I doubt that 1980s New Wave (or New Pop) was directly inspired by Philadelphia International Records. Its point of departure is David Bowie’s 1975 album, which had already reconfigured the elements of the Philadelphia sound. A year after the release of Young Americans, David Bowie turned a new chapter in his musical career by moving to Berlin with Iggy Pop. The short relationship with Philadelphia was hence quickly overshadowed by a three-year residence in Berlin. The Berlin trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger) incorporated Brian Eno’s electronic experimentation into the Philadelphia foundations.

Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and an excellent 4-CD box set was released on the occasion, Love Train: the Sound of Philadelphia (Sony Legacy). Terry Gross interviewed Gamble and Huff in “Riding Philly’s ‘Love Train’ with Gamble and Huff” (NPR, Nov. 26, 2008, replayed May 22, 2009). On May 19, 2009, Gamble and Huff received BMI’s Icon Award.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: A new book explores Bowie’s creative three-years in Berlin, see Thomas Jerome Seabrook, Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town (London, 2008). For the Philadelphia episode, see also Christopher Sandford, Bowie: Loving the Alien (New York, 1996), p. 128. The story of the Philadelphia sound is chronicled in, John A. Jackson, A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul (New York, 2004).