Sony's Walkman first freed Londoners to travel in a private sound world. Photograph: Contrasto/Eyevine
Show Hide image

Tunnel visions: Krautrock on the Underground

Paul Morley recalls 1979, and travelling on the London Underground with his first ever Walkman, listening to the other-worldly sound of Can.

In 1979, my girlfriend, Karen, brought me a present from Japan, where she had been working. It was a Sony Walkman, able to play, but not record on, cassettes, in stereo, with relatively decent sound quality. It was a little smaller than a paperback book, so therefore not much bigger than a cassette, which seemed some sort of miracle – that the workings required to power the machine and produce the sound could be incorporated into such a compact casing.

Perhaps the most significant thing, along with the removal of an internal loudspeaker, was the 50-gram, or 1.7-ounce, weight of the headphones, which were in scale with the player itself, replacing the usual eighttimes ‑as‑heavy, bulbous, ear-covering headphones. You could now take music with you wherever you went, and somehow, at the time, even though there were machines that could have done this job, and there had been tiny transistor radios for years, this seemed incredibly exciting. Not least because you couldn’t take a radio on the Tube, if you wanted to, because there would be no signal.

Not only did I consider myself the first person to own the fabulously cool new Walkman, but I also imagined that I was the first person to sit on the Tube listening to music of my own choosing. I can’t remember what the very first cassette was that I played on the Bakerloo Line, but thinking about where I was and where the music I mostly listened to was in the late 1970s, I can take a very good guess. It could have been something released in 1979 that was already not only my favourite album of the year but of all time, because this was – if you were approaching music from the point of view of someone my age, with my interests, my levels of anxiety and ardour and with my job on the New Musical Express – a year of considerable transition and purfication. Elsewhere, and perhaps this new music abstractly, nervously diagnosed this, the once-promising countercultural energy of the 1960s had dissipated, and a conservative countercultural revolution was looming, leading to the emergence, along the tracks, around the corner, through the next tunnel, of the controlling, fanatically moralistic New Right of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

This keyed-up, highly charged pre-digital new music also anticipated a world that was about to be cut into gleaming pieces by technology, television, ideology, assisted by its fancy pleasure-seeking slave, the music video, which, what with one thing and another through roaring tunnels that stretched back to the invention of the telephone and forward to the introduction of the Sony Walkman, eventually led to the all-change free-for-all of Facebook and Twitter.

In 1979 – before this post-internet vortex of pressure and pleasure – certain currents and principles had made the disruptive, avant-garde end of rock music particularly engaging. There was still an almost chaste belief in progress, a natural craving for a violent renewal of meanings, and a treatment of influences that was midway between the reverential and the murderous. It was a culmination, rearrangement, refinement of experimental ideas, sounds and principles instigated by punk.

This music was labelled, possibly first of all by me, in the NME (perhaps thought up while daydreaming on the Bakerloo Line stuck outside Oxford Circus), “post-punk”. This name, another slice of convenient collective identification, introduced to diagnose, even conceive, an apparently important cultural movement, slid into general use quite nicely, but didn’t come close to expressing the concern this music and these musicians, often haunted by dread, had with spatial and rhythmic, temporal and geographical displacement, with plotting the physical universe and the individual’s place in it. In some ways they were producing in advance a soundtrack to the disorientating, paradoxically lonely effect of constant contact with the internet.

This 1979 music, not heard much on Radio 1 outside of the John Peel show, where it starred, music which followed on quite naturally from music the year before and would logically move into the 1980s, losing some of its momentum once compact discs arrived, included: Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, Entertainment! by Gang of Four, Metal Box by Public Image Limited, The Raincoats by the Raincoats, 154 by Wire, Lodger by David Bowie, Reproduction by the Human League, Drums and Wires by XTC, Cut by the Slits, New Picnic Time by Pere Ubu, A Trip to Marineville by Swell Maps, Dragnet and Live at the Witch Trials by the Fall, Fear of Music by Talking Heads, Half Machine Lip Moves by Chrome, Eskimo by the Residents, The B-52’s by the B-52’s, Y by the Pop Group, 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle, This Heat by This Heat, Solid State Survivor by Yellow Magic Orchestra, pragVEC by pragVEC, Join Hands by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Mix-Up by Cabaret Voltaire.

I would not be listening on purpose to Rod Stewart, the Eagles, Styx or Foreigner, because they seemed blasé and instantly antique, working on behalf of a mega-corporate entertainment state, with no statements to make about the future. I kept my distance from the Jam, if only because rumour had it one of them voted Tory, and they dressed as though they all did, as if punk were routine show business, a mere day job. Although I would have been paying constant close attention to Neil Young and Bob Dylan, who released Rust Never Sleeps and Slow Train Coming that year, these don’t seem likely candidates for that first Walkman trip. I would have been instinctively drawn to something that belonged on this pioneering new machine that had the capacity to turn an everyday journey on the Bakerloo into an explicit plunge down the rabbit hole or tumble through the looking glass.

Other music that it could have been, the music from the past I tended to play the most at that time: all albums by the Velvet Underground, the spaced-out, splintered Englishness of pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, the telepathic, serenely abstracted post-rock jazz of Miles Davis’s On the Corner, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, most Hendrix, Robert Wyatt, Stooges, Joni Mitchell, John Martyn and even (in a spirit of a nerdy need for otherness, or a need to know something other than what the outside world gave and told me) the new forms, and related protean formlessness, of Tony Conrad and Faust, La Monte Young and Karlheinz Stockhausen – whose sparse, spectral 1956 electronic composition Gesang der Jünglinge, incorporating synthesised and natural voices, sounded like music emerging in the dead of night from Tube tunnels that connected the Bakerloo Line with underground cave cities on Jupiter.

All this music that I could have played for the very first time underground on my Walkman, whether right there from 1979 or from earlier, was sound that would have directly or indirectly influenced or been directly or indirectly influenced by a group formed in Germany in 1968 called Can.

Can were less a rock group than a compact orchestra, a jazz collective, a cartel of dreamers, a loose affiliation of individuals, a battery of technicians, a faction of dissidents, a circle of minds, a square of mystics, a haze of weed, an ambush of gurus, a buccaneer of savants, a warp of collaborators, a cabal of freaks, a body of procedures, a lightness of heads, an education of vagabonds.

“Krautrock” was the convenient collective name given in a slightly jokey, slightly wary and affectionately patronising way to an eclectic collection of radicalised German groups from very different parts of the country that contained musicians who were born in the few years before, during or just after the Second World War. Another collective name for these groups, still frivolous but more descriptive of their mission to create sound never heard before on our planet and invent music that could make you feel you were leaving the earth behind, was “kosmische”. As well as Can, these groups included Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Amon Düül II, Cluster, Popol Vuh, Harmonia, Neu! and Faust, and they were looking for ways to repair their traumatic recent history, remove the crippling infection of fascism, break free of totalitarian artistic repression, negotiate turbulent social and emotional currents, and radically, romantically reinstate the positive, progressive elements of their mortified national psyche.

Also linking them, perhaps, was the spectre, the awareness, the modulated, post-linear cosmos of Stockhausen, a notorious, internationally known techno-shaman from within their corrupted land who emerged from deeper inside the grim Nazi shadow (he was 17 when the war ended) with a clear, spiritualised vision – an act of revenge – of how to break free of the poisoned past and dream up the future and a new sort of other-worldly national sensibility.

From Kraftwerk, Can, Neu! and Faust – speculative, observational artists creating their work in a recording studio with what could be called a post-impressionist, even cubist approach – came a way of manipulating, treating and structuring sound, establishing rhythm, heightening dramatic effect and capturing experience that significantly extended the structural and sonic possibilities of all forms of pop and rock music, from the commercial to the extreme.

These new German musicians were to some extent making a new classical music following on from savage, edited musique concrète and tonally opulent, romantically influenced minimalism, experimenting with tape-recording techniques and multi-track recording that prefigured sampling and remixing, but hearing provocative ideas at the more experimental end of rock and the more electronic end of pop; this led to them placing a repetitive groove resembling a funk groove, a psychedelic rock groove, even a compelling disco groove, inside lengthy abstract compositions that seemed to be pondering the shape of the solar system, the colour of orgasm and the density of experience. Pinning a consoling, pleasing, almost jocular rhythm within epochal, Stockhauseninspired pools and patterns of sound and noise rotating past each other with random, tingling electro-acoustic precision meant that, in 1976, before all that 1979 post-punk commotion which connected a lot of the dots Can helped scatter into the universe, Can had a minor hit. They crept on to Top of the Pops miming to the Dalí disco of “I Want More” as an unholy one-hit wonder, prophets dressed as tramps, treated as curios, spooks out of their skulls possibly needing to be exorcised by nervous non-believers before they caused a change in human behaviour. This was my kind of pop group.

This is an edited extract from Paul Morley’s “Earthbound” (Particular Books, £4.99), part of the new Penguin Lines series, inspired by the 150th anniversary of the London Underground

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes