Blog of the AMM

Ben Watson: Anti-Wire

Preview of a polemic against Wire magazine and its punting of 'Avant' musical culture culled from the script of Ben Watson's Late Lunch With Out To Lunch, to be broadcast live from Borough High Street, London SE1 at 2pm today on resonancefm.com.
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“Music has lost its sense of fun”, writes John Coldwell in this month’s Wire magazine, “and become a joyless task as the music lover strives like a fashion slave to keep up. Almost every review in your wonderful magazine references other musicians worthy of exploring — and we, the readers, are left in a constant state of feeling that we are not even in the right backyard. There is far too much music product out there — hundreds of hours of music claiming our attention in The Wire before we even reach the review part of the magazine; Amazon, striving to point out my listening inadequacies by publishing pages and pages of five album retrospective sets at giveaway prices; while The Guardian and Jazzman magazine recommend exciting stuff beyond the scope of The Wire. Dare I switch on the radio?”

Mr. Coldwell feels as if he’s the victim of some weird conspiracy, but he’s too estranged from the point of musical production to understand what’s going on. Just bacause he’s paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get him. The inflation of product he’s complaining about arises from something I noticed when I left the magazine in 2005: I sloganised this as “avant became a sales tag”. I bade farewell to The Wire by issuing a CD with Sonic Arts called Frankfurter Ahnung (I think it’s the only one in their series that never got a review). I can proudly say, that unlike the CDs which Wire magazine gives away every so often, in which morsels of good music are drowned in oceans of borderline swill, Frankfurter Ahnung consisted of nothing but stone cold masterpieces. This is because I was not making a financial deal with some ‘label’ — i.e. transforming claims to your attention into hard cash by flattering some wealthy tosser who wants to be in the music business — but compiling tracks I thought (and still think) are fantastic and beautiful and moving and funny in themselves.

The phrase “Avant became a sales tag” appeared in the middle of a polemic against Sonic Youth and Rob Young (‘rob the young’, what an appropriate name), which began the booklet which acompanied the CD. It was also emblazoned across a collage on page 20. The whole thing was called Frankfurter Ahnung to draw attention to the fact that Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse — collectively known as ‘the Frankfurt School’ — had the best explanation for the emergence of avantgardes in every industrialised country at the beginning of the twentieth century: the bourgeois epoch was over. As well as echoing the name of a famous newspaper, Ahnung means ‘inkling’ in German. My conceit was that the CD might give listeners the inkling that good old British middle-class commonsense was not quite sufficient to understand what was being done to them in the name of ‘avant’ music. To describe the workings of culture under capitalism, we require the Marxist concepts developed by the Frankfurt School.

In using these concepts in the pages of The Wire myself, I became aware of how ‘inconvenient’ it is for editors if writers don’t join in the general approbation of acts which successfully ‘reach’ the magazine’s demographic. I see The Wire still describes itself as an ‘underground music zine’. Managing the task of being both ‘underground’ and viable-as-a-business-entity is a delicate one, and not one you can entrust to mere writers. Since Marxism bring to the fore matters of buying and selling, my reviews were a runing source of annoyance to the editors, who were greatly relieved when I threw in the towel.

But by ridding themselves of their only writer unafraid to condemn music which is wasting your time, Wire magazine lost the critical filter it had when it was a jazz magazine. Jazz has a long history of musical judgments which make qualitiative distinctions within the genre, rather trhan simply boosting the ‘jazz’ brand. Although it’s been rocked by wars over Fusion and Free Jazz and New Age and Neo-Classical, jazz writing frequently delivers objective assessments. But, as Coldwell complains, in the pages of The Wire, the sheer quantity of music products being sprayed with the magic sheen of commodity glamour — hip appeal — is out of all proportion to its readers’ minds or wallets. Genres in music are echoes of class struggle, and the discussion goes limp if the Noiseniks can’t be rude about Classical music and the Jazz brainboxes can’t sneer at the rock louts, or the punks vilify the jazz yuppies. The reason Frank Zappa is the presiding genius of Late Lunch is that he manages to collide different genres without losing the funk and spunk of their righteous antagonisms. Zappa was a previous Wire pin-up who spookily went out of favour with the magazine’s turn from Jazz to Avant, even though he never played Jazz and frequently mocked it. Why did he go out of favour? Because he encourgages critical thinking about music.

A drunk Evan Parker once tried to turn a whole roomful of free improvisors against me because I’d written a book on Frank Zappa. Sober, his line on reviews is that it’s ‘damaging’ to write any negative reviews of Free Improv events or releases, because it’s a form which must be protected and nurtured. This is like SWP members being told to stop talking about rape allegations. It’s a ridiculous injunction on a writer or indeed anybody, who should be told to follow their conscience and tell the truth as they see it. How stupid Parker’s line is was proved when the London Musicians Collective started issuing a magazine. It named this radio station: Resonance. Pages and pages of mates extolling each others’ albums? Reading it was stomach-churning, I tell you. And economic nonsense too. The only people it could convince to buy albums were the musicians, and they all expect to get them free anyway.

Anyone wanting a more objective view needs to face a few facts. Facts derivable from Marx’s analysis in Capital. ‘Avant music’ faces today the identical problem as other branches of capitalist production, from the manufactuers of microprocessors to suppliers of car insurance: the decline in ‘value’ — in exchange value, not use value — of products, due to a greater proportion of capital being used in their production. Hence the “five album retrospective sets at give-away prices” which so fatigue Coldwell. Now, the desire to appear hip, sexy and attractive, is pretty much printed on the genes of hom. sap., and no amount of Christianity or hair-shirt socialism is going to eliminate that. The debate about which products make you hot and fit and ready to ruck is endless, and an essential part of the fun of music-writing. The bizarre thing about The Wire is that it’s somehow — for the more nerdy, brainbox, middle-class types, anyway — made ‘knowing about the avantgarde’ sexy. David Toop has ensured that there are hordes of young wallies wandering about Shoreditch sporting goatees and with a copy of Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music under their arm. Next thing we know, they’ll be handing out Harry Gilonis masks at orgies!

Avantgarde music used to be the preserve of freaks, outcasts and weirdoes, but now it’s pursued by normal solvent people, i.e. insecure, immature twerps who’ll try anything to get laid. But the scam is running out of gas. In the anarchist purview of Wire-editor Chris Bohn, there’s no musical judgment, no sense of music as objective form, just a creeping moralism about people’s ‘intentions’. Somehow, despite their music being dreary piffle and a waste of your precious time, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and Einsturzende Neubauten and Sonic Youth are all on the side of the angels. He’s even managed to get David Keenan listening to Neil Young (which beggars belief, but it’s true). Keenan is a man so ignorant of musical form he could declare himself deaf and still keep up the weak brew of fantasy and rumour he pours out every month in the magazine to order. The problem with centering the discussion on ‘good intentions’ rather than concrete results is that the critic is no longer a critic — someone taking a sharp look at something objective — but a scene booster and PR-merchant.

Real writing about music registers the music’s affect on the listener as a direct, physical force. Historical knowledge and sociological theory are only be applied in order to explain these affects. Everything else is just cultural clutter. The reason Coldwell is upset is that Wire magazine has betrayed the motivating principle of the avantgarde, which is to destroy commodity production in culture: a revolt in favour of use value versus exchange value. Wire magazine gives its readers no tools with which to distinguish good from bad, but instead offers a vomit-inducing Smorgasbord of Deleuze and Guattari’s “either … or … or … or” ad infinitum. Readers are made to think that they need to be “informed” about all this pitiful dreck, and there’s no-one left in the magazine (unless it’s Ed Baxter) to point out that the emperor walks naked. Advertising suddenly at the very heart of the anti-capitalist underground? You got it. Only in the pages of The Wire

Let’s fend off these self-defeating conjurors of exchange value out of speculation and spin, and listen to some blues on that topic Raya Dunayevskaya says Marx begins with, namely the Man/Woman relation …

Jimmie Rodgers with the Lousiville Jug Band ‘My Good Gal’s Gone Blues’, Louisville, Kentucky 16-vi-1931 Blue Yodellers with Red Hot Accompaniment (Retrieval, 1999) CD Track 7 2:52

Out to Lunch, 2013-i-30

48 Comments

  • John B-R says:

    This is my favorite passage from Benjamin on music. It&#39;s from his &quot;Hashish in Marseilles&quot; <br /><br />“The music that meanwhile kept rising and falling, I called the rush switches of jazz. I have forgotten on what grounds I permitted myself to mark the beat with my foot. This is against my education, and it did not happen without inner disputation” …<br /><br />Which leads me to

  • Out to Lunch says:

    Fair enough. But we&#39;re YOU there? Or is this supposition? Are there any records I should listen to? Dark Star is a good composition, sort-of like mild Zappa …<br />

    • John B-R says:

      I&#39;m going to respond to your question below before I respond to this one, to make sure you get my context, and what I was trying to say. <br /><br />As for that comment, I don&#39;t disagree a bit. I was listening to Blind Lemon Jefferson and Willie McTell and Muddy Waters and Junior Wells and Howlin Wolf and Mingus and Trane etc etc long before I ever saw the Dead. I wasn&#39;t arguing for

  • Out to Lunch says:

    I don&#39;t object to the much publicised music of hippie San Francisco because its slovenly infectiousness tempts me away from the Rigour and Moral Standards of High Art Music, but because it&#39;s bland and over-rated compared to the funk and swing of the music they were ripping off. As Zappa pointed out, these bands weren&#39;t even as funky as his own high-school band. I&#39;d listen to a

  • harryg says:

    I used to think there was some mileage in being attacked by young master Benedick; but actually it&#39;s like treading, barefoot, in particularly runny dogshit. Argument ad hominem needs *some sort of content, or it&#39;s just insult. How does making jibes about my appearance help focus or further an attack – once necessary, by now tediously old-hat – on The Wire? Unlike Ben, *I didn&#39;t

  • John Eden says:

    [Disclaimer: I have written small pieces for The Wire on a handful of occasions.]<br /><br />&quot;Managing the task of being both &#39;underground&#39; and viable-as-a-business-entity is a delicate one.&quot;<br /><br />Well quite. Isn&#39;t this really a case of form dictating content? How critical can a specialist print magazine BE in 2013 and still pay its contributors and staff a wage? Isn&#

  • Out To Lunch says:

    I don&#39;t despise anyone for writing for The Wire at the moment – any more than I despise anyone for being an SWP member. I wish you best of luck, in fact. Having been through the mill myself, though, I reckon I can advise you about some of the pitfalls, is all …

  • AMM says:

    I have just been told by Ed Baxter at Resonance FM that he has received so many complaints about this text when I broadcast it on 30 January, that my show – &quot;Late Lunch With Out To Lunch&quot; – has been suspended until a Resonance board meeting discusses the matter in April. Apparently he got sick of the phone calls and emails. So if you&#39;d like to hear Late Lunch With Out To Lunch,

  • Groupe L'étranger says:

    Peter Brotzmann doesn&#39;t get decent exposure? I&#39;m worn out from reading about old Walrus moustache on the back of every biscuit tin I carelessly crush with my steel cape … come on, we all know about The Wire, it&#39;s your senile grandmother who keeps bashing her elbow against the fridge, just kind of nod your head and move the fridge a couple of inches … I&#39;ve managed to ignore it

  • Out To Lunch says:

    I just reread this, in the light of the fact that broadcasting these words led to the suspension of Late Lunch until April. Any guesses at to which sentences caused most rage at Wire? Or was it the heresy of stating that avant idols are occasionally drunk?<br /><br />

  • conditionsoftruth says:

    &quot;Mr. Coldwell [is] too estranged from the point of musical production to understand what&#39;s going on.&quot; I suppose someone who (aside fom not being a practitioner) sees everything refracted through the work of a musician who espoused reactionary political positions throughout his life and died twenty years ago *might* be able to regard himself as somehow much more intimately connected

  • Out To Lunch says:

    Look, I didn&#39;t airbrush Evan Parker out of anything because he said something nasty to me. I attended improv gigs for twenty years before I wrote my book with Derek Bailey, and during that time I simply was never very impressed with his playing, even though Alan Wilkinson, a sax player I did admire, sang his praises. I find the circular-breathing act trance-inducing, something I dislike in

  • harry says:

    I dunno, Ben. I worked with you on the Bailey biog., and tried to impress on you on the basis of the text I saw the crucial importance of Evan Parker to the early/formative history of UK free improv, simply as a matter of plain historical fact. But: no dice. As l thought and said at the time, that lessened the strength/worth of your book; it became a personal, counterfactual fiction. Maybe

  • Out To Lunch says:

    What&#39;s &quot;plain historical fact&quot; – repeating opinions you can&#39;t endorse from either gigs or records? Sounds to me more like passing on journalistic misinformation. Your role as the &quot;defender of truth&quot; for the improv community is pure sucking-up to the powers that be. I&#39;ve NEVER heard you express a direct response to anything actually, why you&#39;re so painfully

  • Pierre AKA says:

    As someone who has been to fewer than twenty improv gigs, I can&#39;t help but feel that this is an avoidably insular discussion. Although someone so pompous as to give the name, conditionsoftruth, will likely disagree. <br /><br />However much some might protest otherwise, any book on music will be a personal view. That doesn&#39;t necessarily mean it will be thoroughly &#39;subjective&#39;, as

  • harry says:

    Ben, I thought you believed ad hominem insult was an essential part of the rough-edged fabric of discourse. Or is that only when *you&#39;re dishing it out?

  • conditionsoftruth says:

    For someone who bandies phrases like &quot;insecure, immature twerps who&#39;ll try anything to get laid&quot; you seem indeed to be overly sensitive to what you call &quot;insults.&quot; I didn&#39;t mention Evan Parker in order to start a discussion about his circular breathing, though: I just wonder what your grounds are for asserting that (in distinction to John Coldwell) you yourself aren&#

  • Out To Lunch says:

    What&#39;s a non-ad-hominem insult?

  • Out To Lunch says:

    John Coldwell equates music with trying to keep up a flood of product; I see music as a struggle to expose the 1% of artists whose work makes a difference. This involves me quite closely with all sorts of producers – as a radio (now net) artiste I am myself a producer – and that makes me look from the point of view of production rather than consumption. If you&#39;d like to know who I think the 1

  • Out To Lunch says:

    Yes, these claims at &quot;expertise&quot; in improv are moronic, mea culpa. Thanks for reminding me. I only really enjoy an improv moment when I take someone along who&#39;s never seen the like before … usually, they love it, sometimes they don&#39;t (and sometimes, unfortunately, they&#39;re right not to like it). Without such risks, no gain. Guaranteed &quot;genius&quot; is a complete bore.

  • conditionsoftruth says:

    So those are the 1% of artists &quot;whose work makes a difference&quot; to you. Looks like most of them are more obscure than most of the stuff peddled by The Wire, and I guess that would make them cooler to a public-school-and-Oxbridge-educated (am I right?) Marxist intellectual for whom a working knowledge of the works of Theodor Adorno and Frank Zappa is a prerequisite for intellectual

  • Andy Wilson says:

    Fuck yeah – Adorno *and* Zappa. Weirdo.

  • conditionsoftruth says:

    Pretty sophisticated dialectic there, Andy. On the level of Ben&#39;s &quot;Great music is plain as a pike staff to everyone in the room.&quot; (I guess that means a room full of middle-aged hipsters.) And you people call yourselves Marxists. Nothing to see here, it becomes clear. Bye!

  • Andy WIlson says:

    It hardly requires dialectics to see off the sort of pissant, mithering &#39;contribution&#39; you feel inclined to make. Your points and objections have been answered quite clearly – you just don&#39;t like the answers.

  • Out To Lunch says:

    Obscurity isn&#39;t THEIR fault! Evil Dick is aiming at PRIME TIME. You&#39;re full of piss and vinegar (I&#39;ve seen your other posts around) – what&#39;s the matter, darling? I suspect some kind of blocked libidinal problem …

  • Pierre AKA says:

    I notice this &#39;conditionsoftruth&#39; didn&#39;t respond to me. Their checklist determinism and dismissal of &#39;obscurity&#39; might be less uncommon, but it is NOT Marxism. <br /><br />As I said, there is lots of &#39;obscure&#39; music around on the web. Made by, and listened to, by young and middle-aged, from all kinds of backgrounds. Some of these people might go on to gain a wider

  • conditionsoftruth says:

    I will reply to Pierre AKA and then leave once more, since Out to Lunch and Andy Wilson seem to confuse discussion with mudslinging and smutty insinuations. I&#39;m not dismissing &quot;obscurity&quot;, just remarking that a cultish fetishism of obscurity is something that The Wire and Ben Watson share (although the latter is better at it). Whether a musical artist&#39;s work gains mainstream &

  • harry says:

    Sorry, Ben; forgot words aren&#39;t your forte. OED: &quot;attempting to disprove an argument or proposition by attacking the beliefs or character of the person proposing it&quot;. So: if someone were to say that a person was too stupid to be the figure-head of a left-wing organisation, that would be, evidently by its tone, an insult; but not irrelevant, since intelligence would surely be a

  • Out To Lunch says:

    I don&#39;t know why you bother with poetry and music. You think like a lawyer. These distinctions you make evaporate as soon as you stop rubbing my brain on them. I can&#39;t believe someone who claims they&#39;ve read Adorno can hold onto such retrograde concepts as &quot;intelligence&quot; and &quot;beauty&quot; sundered from a social position. Just look how politics actually works (rather

  • Out To Lunch says:

    If The Wire adopted what you call my &quot;rhetoric&quot; (do you insult as a matter of course?), it&#39;d be commercial suicide. They&#39;d be truly underground rather than pretending to be. That&#39;s my point.

  • Paul Sutton says:

    Since you so resent careful argumentation, allow me to observe that you&#39;re a whining, fish-faced prick whose wits have long been addled by vanity and spite. Is that non-legalistic enough?

  • Out To Lunch says:

    Well, I prefer that to the head-aches induced by Harry&#39;s pedantic expositions of the term &quot;ad hominen&quot; which resort to the kind of hypothetical scenarios beloved of logical positivists and screen out actuality. I await your the careful argumentation of your &quot;great work&quot; with great interest, but suspect it&#39;s going to evaporate in the usual cloud of smoke. Paul, you

  • Paul Sutton says:

    My connection with the &quot;Real Academy&quot; is, as you well know, much slighter than your own. Neither do I have any kind of special relationship with Zizek and Badiou – I can only assume that any deviation from the Lunch reading list, however slight or passing, is to be anathematised, such is your jealous rage towards the non-Lunch segment of reality. And this, I suppose, is &quot;what you

  • Out To Lunch says:

    Yes, that&#39;s why I spend my time reading Azmud on air.

  • Richard__Barrett says:

    Nice one, Ben. No wonder so few people take you seriously these days.

  • Out To Lunch says:

    Oh come on, Richard. What has HG actually done that you like? Taken Heidegger seriously, or what?

  • Richard Barrett says:

    He&#39;s done a lot of stuff that I like, and I&#39;ve learned more about music from him than from most musicians, but that isn&#39;t the point and wasn&#39;t why I posted here. I mean, I thought this was supposed to be an Association of Musical Marxists, where you&#39;d expect at the very least to find substantive discussion about politics and music, which is rare enough in the world already,

  • Out To Lunch says:

    You didn&#39;t start off in a very friendly way, Richard, saying that &quot;so few people&quot; take me &quot;seriously these days&quot;. What is this &quot;serious world&quot; I should be so worried about anyway? I too would like to get past all these insults and find out what the substantive issue is. Gilonis and Sutton are very keen to point out I&#39;m crap but I&#39;m yet to find out what I&

  • harry says:

    Well, Ben, it&#39;s not really my place to start saying how wonderful I am; though I note that the tag-cloud to the right of the Unkant page indicates that by far the most important topics therein are Ben Watson and Out to Lunch. Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas! I will say that I do rather regret having published you, several times; though I don&#39;t regret helping you out with your early

  • fk says:

    I&#39;m not going to start off in a friendly way either, Ben, nor will I end in a friendly way. <br /><br />You’ve “yet to find out what you’ve said which is so very wrong”? <br /><br />You pose this question so often, Ben, ostensibly with the intention of inviting people to argue with your *ideas*, but you can’t actually handle an argument about ideas, can you? It has to get personal, it has to

  • Out To Lunch says:

    Wow! and who exactly are you? Your unexamined bile makes me think that everything I say is right. Why should I have to flatter pretenders? What exactly is your problem?

  • Out To Lunch says:

    Trotsky had to be very scrupulous about the historical record. You made a total knob of yourself in front of an AMM crowd. I&#39;d love to see you try boasting about how much you know about everything at a Revolutionary History meeting …

  • Paul Sutton says:

    Is there anything which doesn&#39;t make you think that everything you say is right?

  • Pierre AKA says:

    Some thoughts: <br />To counter Harry in the spirit of his own pedantry, while AMM and Ben Watson are the biggest words in the tag-cloud, Sean Bonney and a number of other tags are the same size as Out to Lunch. <br /><br /><br />I&#39;ve never met Harry, or indeed anyone from Unkant, or the vast majority of people who have commented on this site, but aside from whatever personal disappointments

  • harry says:

    &quot;Everything I say is right. Why should I have to flatter pretenders?&quot;<br /><br /><br />Just a whiff of &quot;folie de grandeur&quot; there…<br /><br /><br />Who *precisely is pretending to be you? (Apart, that is, from you?)

  • Out To Lunch says:

    Real<br />writing about music registers the music&#39;s affect on the listener as a direct,<br />physical force. Historical knowledge and sociological theory are only be<br />applied in order to explain these affects. Everything else is just cultural<br />clutter.

  • Rob says:

    be curious what you think of this; the RCP USA Chairman Bob Avakian&#39;s spoken word/rap to free jazz promoting communism. <br /><br /><br />https://soundcloud.com/allplayedout/all-played-out-avakian-and-parker

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