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