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

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
Show Hide image

No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain