12. The Rutles
The Modern age was occupied with the attempt to build Man as an enlightened being, one that transcends the jungle where other animals dwell. The Modern state, that mighty apparatus, was perceived as a tool to take Man there, to educate and cultivate him until it becomes a creature that transcended its instincts and lives a life of reason. The belief was that if everyone was educated by “high culture”, it will advance humanity to the point where there will be no more violence and suffering. But in the 20th century it already became clear to any reasonable person that this is vain project, that Man is not a logical creature who stands above nature but merely a sophisticated ape, that his presumption to be able to find the order of the universe is ludicrous, that giving power to the state to run our lives is dangerous. And yet, the West continued to operate under the yoke of Modern ideas and continued to believe that Man can stand above nature. This was bad for humanity, but for satire it was a perfect situation, a prolific breeding ground for comedy that mocks all these pretensions. And the satire did not fail to come.
One of these satiric currents begins with the Marx Brothers. The brothers had a vaudeville act in the beginning of the 20th century, and at first they mainly made music. But then it turned out that they had comic talent, and they began to develop a stage act that was mainly screwball comedy laced with musical numbers. Starting from 1929 they took their comedy to the screen in movies that had no plot or logic but were a random and surreal salad of gags, an anarchic carnival during which they slaughtered all the sacred cows of “high” culture and destroyed any semblance of “good form”. The Modern ruling system was displayed in all its bureaucratic and oppressive stupidity, “cultivated behavior” was shown in all its hypocrisy, conservative values were revealed in all their emptiness. Multi-talented, they were also gifted instrumentalists who obliterated “serious” music by combining it with comedy and unruly jazz. For two decades, the Marx Brothers released a series of films that made a mockery of anything the Modern culture held with high regard, and provided release for anyone who felt bound by the view it tried to enforce on humanity.
In the beginning of the fifties, shortly after the Marx Brothers’ last film, their spirit was taken into radio by a British comedy team. The Goon Show, a radio program that ran throughout the decade, introduced skits that poked fun at the overly self-important British culture and at Modern culture in general. With stupendously gifted comedians like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan who could play many characters and many voices, with lots of novel comical sound effects that studio technology now had to offer, the Goons presented comedy that was inspired by the Marx Brothers and had the same surrealistic and anarchic humor. Many British kids of the time were influenced by this show.
Among those kids were the four lads who formed the Beatles, and they drew much of the Goons’ frivolous spirit into their music. In the beginning of the sixties, shortly after the Goon Show went off the air, the Beatles were signed by a label that specialized mainly in comedy records, including by Sellers and Milligan. Since the Beatles were not considered “serious” music they needed a comedy label to sign them, but the man who headed this label, George Martin, had considerable experience in recording both comedy and music and he employed this experience to help the Beatles lace their records with Goons-like sound-effects and gain the same anarchic feel. Peter Sellers himself recognized the Beatles as successors and worked with them, and their first two movies were screwball comedies inspired by the Marx Brothers, only with rock’n’roll replacing jazz. The Beatles’ generation already saw clearly how ridiculous the Modern consciousness was, and it was easy for them to mock it. But as the sixties went on, this generation decided that mockery isn’t enough, and began to try and draft an alternative. The Beatles’ albums of the second half of the decade were already looking for new answers, and their third movie Magical Mystery Tour, that came out in late 1967, combined the surreal humor with the more serious surrealism of psychedelia. Unfortunately the movie wasn’t very good, mainly because the Beatles weren’t good enough comedians, and is considered today as the thing that marks the beginning of their downfall. The bigger problem was that the rock’n’roll generation started taking itself and its music way too seriously, and actually adopted archaic revolutionary ideas belonging to Modern logic. While Beatles albums always mixed the seriousness with musical jokes meant to remind us not to take them as something sacred, a lot of youngsters began to perceive the albums of the Beatles and their peers as the one and only truth.
Magical Mystery Tour nevertheless marked the beginning of something. The movie features the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a comical band that conflated psychedelia with nonsensical humor. A year later the Bonzo Dogs became the house band for the comedy TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set, a show hosted by an ensemble of young comedians who soon adopted the name they will be identified with from here on: Monty Python. At the end 1969, just a few months before the Beatles broke up, Monty Python’s Flying Circus went on air, offering the mixture of anarchic and psychedelic humor that the Beatles tried to achieve and showing them how to do it right. The Beatles themselves recognized the Pythons as successors of the band’s spirit, and Beatle George Harrison even became the sponsor of their movies when they ran into financial difficulties. Monty Python were the ones who took the spirit of the Marx Brothers into the seventies, a decade which they ruled with their TV show and with several feature films, and they held the line of biting satire that deconstructed the basis of Modern thought. In 1979 they released the movie Life of Brian, which demolished the myth on which the view that Man should transcend nature was built, the myth of Jesus Christ. But this was their last great movie, because from here on this type of satire became outdated. The paradigm that dominated Western thought, the paradigm that saw the ultimate goal of society as advancement towards the creation of an enlightened Man, collapsed once and for all.
Which left satirists like Monty Python in a state where they had to look for new material to make fun of, new sacred cows to slaughter. And back in the mid-seventies, Python Eric Idle already started another project. Together with Neil Innes, who was the leader of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and later co-wrote some Monty Python skits, he created a TV show that was supposedly broadcast by a small network in the small fictional county of Rutland. Rutland Weekend Television was a parody on London Weekend Television, a network that was founded in the late sixties to produce “quality” TV but then fell into the hands of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch who turned it into one of his detestable cash dairies. The show was broadcast for two seasons in 1975-76, and on its second season it introduced the Rutles, Rutland’s domestic band.
Looks and sounds familiar? The Rutles were of course a parody on the Beatles, and the short segment on them in RWT was expanded in 1978 into a feature length movie titled All You Need is Cash, in which Rutland TV’s nincompoop broadcaster sets out to explore the myth of the legendary band. If you can no longer effectively laugh at Modern consciousness, then you can instead laugh at pop consciousness and those who took the Beatles too seriously. Idle was Dirk McQuickly, styled after Paul McCartney, Innes was Ron Nasty (John Lennon), Ricky Fataar was Stig O’Hara (George Harrison) and John Halsey was Barry Wom (Ringo Star). The music was written by Innes and always sounded very familiar, even if you never heard it before…
And the movie goes on and lampoons the entire history of the Beatles… excuse me, the Rutles. This is practically the first rockumentary.
The movie is droll and entertaining, but not enough. You can’t do an effective parody on an entity whose humor is the basis of your humor, and anyway the Beatles aren’t ridiculous enough for a satire of them to make burst out in laughter and feel release. Only in the next decade did pop begin to sprout some really preposterous things that were worthy targets for the arrows of satire. But the music is pleasant – the magic of the Beatles works even when it’s just imitation – and the Rutles remain a beloved band. They united several times since then, put on shows, and even made another movie. In 2003, a year after George Harrison’s death, Neil Innes joined Monty Python when they took part in the (recommended) concert held in his memory, and paid him the respect he deserves.
11. The Blues Brothers
Who did the torch of satire pass on to from the hands of Monty Python? This honor belongs to Saturday Night Live, who came on American television in 1975. The idea was to make a Monty Python inspired skit show, but do it live and make it more American. Several unknown young comedians composed the regular (albeit changing every year) cast of the show, and every episode was guest hosted by a known entertainment figure. While Monty Python’s satire dismantled conservative British values, Saturday Night Live was more occupied with the pop world, and while the Pythons were old-fashioned musically and their songs were in music hall style (mainly because they aimed to mock traditional British culture), Saturday Night Live drew its energy from rock’n’roll, provided by the house band that was made of several excellent and revered rock musicians. The biting satire was amplified by the excitement of something happening live, the feeling that anything can happen, and good things happened often. It is no wonder that when the Rutles wanted to conquer America they first appeared on SNL, and some SNL cast members later appeared in the movie. But SNL had its own meta band, too.
The Blues Brothers emerged out of the anarchic spirit of the show, a spirit that was perfect for making good rock’n’roll. Jake and Elwood Blues were John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, both part of the original cast, and they were two white boys who imitated certain mannerisms of black singers: snazzy dressing, cool demeanor, ecstatic dance. In that they were like most other white rockers, but they accentuated the amusing and ridiculous side of it. Then again, they were good enough to make their covers of rhythm ‘n blues classics fun to watch, especially with help of their fantastic backing band. This band contained Steve Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, formerly of Booker T and the MGs, the legendary band that played on almost all of the outstanding soul records of the label Stax. One of Stax’s biggest hits, ‘Soul Man’, also became the calling card for the Blues Brothers. Jake and Elwood are no Sam and Dave, but they have enough talent and enthusiasm for their performance to be a riot.
This is what rock’n’roll is – whites trying to imitate black culture – and the Blues Brothers reflected the silliness of it. But there is also something very essential about rock’n’roll: when someone from one culture internalizes behaviors from another culture, they free themselves from the logic of the culture they grew into, and experience the ecstasy of breaking borders. And when the culture they grew up into seems to them to be hypocritical and baseless, like fifties and sixties youth felt towards the Western Modern society it grew into, this ecstasy is compounded tenfold. The movie The Blues Brothers, which came out in 1980, shows precisely this picture. The Modern system, represented in the movie by the police, appears absurdly ludicrous, as it appeared in the Marx Brothers’ movies. This system put one of the brothers in jail, but in the beginning of the movie he is released and the two brothers go out on a wild trip during which they drive the system crazy, and at the same time do rock’n’roll with the help of some of the giants of African-American music in electrifying guest appearances. The wild laughter of anarchic comedy blends into the ecstatic wildness of rock’n’roll, generating a feeling of exulted liberation. And when this happens, you might also “see the light” and find another logic, a logic more in tune with the spirit of the time.
In the end, the Blues Brothers are caught and put back in prison. But it is not a sad ending – it is exactly the ending that is called for by the new logic that pop bequeathed us. Modern logic aspired to create an absolutely free human society, one where everyone is free. Pop understands that there is no such thing as absolute freedom. We always grow into a world ruled by certain dogmas, dogmas that were appropriate in the past but no longer reflect the spirit of time. Freedom is the moment when you break this pattern that was imposed on you and liberate yourself from these dogmas, but this freedom is always temporary, because the new logic you create will eventually cement into a pattern that will be a new prison. And that is a good thing, because it means that in the future you will have the ability to experience that freedom again. This insight can already be found in ‘Jailhouse Rock’, one of the early rock’n’roll hits. The record tells of a wild party that erupts in a jailhouse, and engulfs the prisoners and the jailers. This creates an opportunity to escape, but the prisoners elect not to do so: it is much more fun to remain in jail and experience the momentary ecstasy of breaking chains. The ideal that the Modern logic offered us – a society that if free forever – is dismal and boring. The aspiration of pop is not to escape the prison and achieve eternal freedom, but to remain in prison and break its chains again and again. And so, the Blues Brothers go back to penitentiary, and symbolically end the movie with ‘Jailhouse Rock’.
The problem was that pop’s assaults made the Modern logic crumble, and suddenly it no longer constituted a prison you can dance in. Therefore, both music and satire found themselves at a loss in the eighties. Saturday Night Live experienced its all-time low during this decade. But don’t worry: something new always emerges, and the eighties gave birth to new conservative values for us to mock. By the early nineties, SNL was already back in full force and experienced another blooming, satire was biting once again, and in music there were also new directions.
10. Disaster Area
Besides the six group members and Neil Innes, Monty Python’s Flying Circus had another writer on the team. His name was Douglas Adams, and after the show went off the air he took their surrealistic humor to other regions, to the world of science fiction. The result was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a work that is all meta, a work that looks at our world through a distorted prism that enlarges everything that is absurd about it, and turns these absurdities into entire worlds that our heroes travel through. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is both the name of the book and the name of a guide book that our heroes carry with them and contains definitions of different phenomena in the universe. Through this meta Adams ridicules the grand aspirations and allegedly “noble” philosophical ideas of humanity, especially its attempts to find the final and absolute answers to existential questions, but he also mocks little anecdotes of modern daily life and pushes them to very funny extremes. More than anything, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy shows how ridiculous our life is from an outside point of view, and demands of us not to take it too seriously. It began as a series of radio programs in 1978 and became a novel in 1979, a novel whose success led to four sequels. In 1980 he published the second installment, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and there we find the rock band Disaster Area, a band that lives up to its name to such an extent that every place it performs in is immediately declared a disaster area. Here is how Disaster Area is defined in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“Disaster Area was a plutonium rock band from the Gagrakacka Mind Zones and was generally regarded as not only the loudest rock band in the Galaxy, but also as being the loudest noise of any kind at all. Regular concert goers judged that the best sound balance was usually to be heard from within large concrete bunkers some thirty-seven miles away from the stage, whilst the musicians themselves played their instruments by remote control from within a heavily insulated spaceship which stayed in orbit around the planet – or more frequently around a completely different planet.
Their songs are on the whole very simple and mostly follow the familiar theme of boy-being meets girl-being beneath silvery moon, which then explodes for no adequately explored reason.
Many worlds have now banned their act altogether, sometimes for artistic reasons, but most commonly because the band’s public address system contravenes local strategic arms limitations treaties.”
Adams, in short, has created the ultimate metal band, a band that doesn’t crack it up to 11 but to over 9000, a band so loud that it is impossible to portray and you must hear it to understand, but you can’t hear it because the area in which the band plays is off limits. He made fun of metal, and through it all of rock, but he also created a legendary band. The “plutonium rock” of Disaster Area lives up to the metal ideal in a way that no rock band can ever hope to achieve, and because of that, it deserve an honorary place in the annals of rock, and to be ranked in the top ten on our chart.
9. Throbbing Gristle
In 1916, smack in the middle of WWI, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was sitting in exile in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland, and continuing to analyze the nature of human society and weave his dreams of a perfect society that will emerge after a worker’s revolution. This was the essence of Modern consciousness: the belief that Man progresses towards finding the truth about his nature, and once he finds that truth and lives by it he will reach peace and prosperity. But not far away from him, in a theatre house in the same Zurich, operated at the time a troupe of six members that undermined this very consciousness. They called themselves “Cabaret Voltaire”, and presented a novel and radical perception of art. Their art did not aspire to reflect the truth “behind” perceived reality, but simply to reflect reality as it is at every moment: chaotic, random, devoid of any logic or purpose. Art, philosophy, religion and science operate on the assumption that there is nevertheless order behind all this randomness, that there are laws governing it, and the former three usually also believe that there is a purpose behind it, that humanity is marching towards finding the order that will make everything logical, moral and clear. Cabaret Voltaire aspired in their art to undermine this very assumption, to laugh at Man’s presumptions, to make us embrace reality in all its diverse randomness and realize that there is no purpose behind human existence. At a time when modernity has turned Europe into a slaughterhouse in an atrocious war that no one could explain, they could not believe in that anymore. They called this new artistic approach “Dada”, and set out to dismantle Modern consciousness.
The rest of the world didn’t generally react this way. Despite the horrors of the war that casted doubt over the belief in progress and enlightenment, most intellectuals were still in the yoke of the need to find the absolute truth to realize the potential of “Man” and make him and his society completely enlightened. Art was also still immersed in it and kept on aiming at reaching truth. In the next few decades, whenever someone in art dismantled the ruling logic it was seen as a Dadaist moment, but every time it eventually just became a new style that once again presented itself as reflecting the truth and order beyond perceived reality. The actual worldview of Dada, the claim that there is no ultimate purpose, was something that Western consciousness refused to accept. Or, if it did accept it, it treated this notion as tragic, as a realization that causes the human existence to lose its meaning.
But in pop culture, Dadaist notions began to percolate, and blended into something that Dada did not have: an alternative to the Modern consciousness. At the same time that Cabaret Voltaire started performing in Zurich, the US saw the rise of jazz, which may have not come with any aspirations to make great art or undermine anything but was similar in some respects. Jazz was also spontaneous and chaotic, a steaming cauldron of sounds that negated the acceptable musical logic and contained some sounds that were perceived by the ears of the time as “non-musical”, and it too wanted to capture the moment. What the Dada artists comprehended only after reflection about the history of Western philosophy and art, the jazz musicians felt intuitively. But it had something more: jazz was rhythmic, enticing the body to dance and the soul to total ecstasy, and whoever felt that ecstasy realized that the perfect world can be experienced at this moment and there’s no need to look for it in something that is beyond everyday existence. This was the seed that jazz planted in pop culture, and it worked on it in a similar fashion to the way Dada worked on Modern consciousness, and yet differently: in pop, every new style emerged from the dismantling of the prevailing logic, and like Dada served to undermine Modern consciousness a little more, but at the same time it also further strengthened pop consciousness, the consciousness that aspired to experience Utopia in the here and now.
Pop provided an alternative in the field of comedy as well. The WWI years are also the years in which the Marx brothers began developing their trademark comedy, a comedy typified by the same scathing, random and absurd humor of Cabaret Voltaire but deriving its energy not from “high” art but from pop culture, and this was the beginning of the comedy strain we followed above, the satire that helped pop in its war against Modern consciousness. While Modern consciousness became more and more tragic as the realization that the Modern ideal is unreachable sank in, pop remained comical and optimistic, more powerful than anything Modern art had to offer, and slowly conquered the minds of people and liberated them from their enslavement to the idea that you have to work to create the world of tomorrow. Gradually, Dada found itself operating in a vacant space: except a thin layer of backwards intellectuals no one cared anymore about Modern art, so Dada’s attacks became meaningless. Pop conquered the world in the sixties, and its optimism replaced the desperation that typified Modern art. But even pop could not ignore for long the two events that dealt the final blow to the belief at the basis of Modern consciousness: the Holocaust and the atom bomb. When it became apparent that the aspirations to create a perfect society and a perfect Man lead to the modern state simply eliminating anyone who is seen as standing in the way of the ideal, and that the advancement of modern technology provides them with the means to do it and even with the means to destroy all of humanity, the belief that Man is marching toward fulfilling his purpose became an empty shell. Statesman and educators may have continued to speak in terms of progress long into the seventies, but anyone who opened his eyes to reality realized that you couldn’t carry on talking like that after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Pop consciousness also realized that you can’t go on celebrating the moment when such dangers lurk at our doorstep, but you should employ critical thinking that would help change the situation. In 1973 a band that called itself Cabaret Voltaire, after the creators of Dada, formed in Sheffield and aspired to deconstruct pop using Dadaist means. The music of Cabaret Voltaire wasn’t happy and ecstatic – it was a mixture of electronic sounds and environmental noise inspired by the industrial city they grew in. ‘The Dada Man’, one of their first records, is a good example of their style.
In the world of “high” art, in the meantime, there were already those who realized that art that hides itself in museums, theatres and concert halls is toothless art, and looked for ways to reconnect. The sixties saw the blooming of what was known as “performance art”, artists that came from the tradition of European art and wished to take it back to the streets and to places where it could confront the public. Performance art was known for its provocative nature, for its attempt to assault the spectators in places they don’t expect it and rock their world. Operating in northern England was a collective of performance artists that called itself COUM Transmissions, led by a guy called Genesis P-Orridge (genesis porridge is kind of what Dada is trying to achieve) and a girl called Cosey Fanni Tutti (some knowledge in opera makes the name even funnier). They began as a musical outfit that produced crazy cacophony, but then turned to visual art, conflating traditional English imagery to taboo things like pornography, Nazism, excretions and more. They got involved in the medium known as “mail art”, which entailed printing their provocative imagery on postcards and sending them to random people, forcing them to confront these things that Modern consciousness tries to suppress. They were notorious in their local area but not beyond that, but then, in 1976, the pop world begat punk, which had a similar attitude to theirs and used the same imagery. Orridge and co. realized that they can shock a much larger audience through pop, and returned to their musical roots. The result was Throbbing Gristle, a band that wasn’t exactly a band – it was a performance of a band. At least at first, Throbbing Gristle was just another performance art project, a group of artists presenting itself as a pop band. The music was akin to the music of Cabaret Voltaire: a combination of synthesizers and machine noise along with more standard instruments like electric guitars. Their first single, which came out in 1977, contained ‘Zyklon-B Zombie’, a song about a Jewish girl in the Holocaust standing naked in front of the entrance to the gas chambers. The record was sort of a parody of punk, and distorted it to such an effect that the singing becomes almost inaudible. The lyrics, a macabre combination of horror and pornography, reflect that dark side of the Modern world.
Influenced by the “do it yourself” ideology of punk, Throbbing Gristle formed the label Industrial, and began releasing their albums by themselves. Along with Cabaret Voltaire they are considered to be the founding fathers of industrial music, a style characterized by the addition of machine sounds and other urban and technological noises to the music. To the ears of Modern consciousness, it did not sound at all like music. The Modern goal was after all to liberate “Man”, and Man was perceived as an organic being that grows through history until it realizes its potential. Technology was regarded as a tool to help him achieve this goal, not part of who he is. Music was always perceived as expressing the essence of Man, his spirit, and therefore should not have contained anything that is inessential to him. Throbbing Gristle’s music performed the Dadaistic deed of mixing everything that belongs to Man’s world at the moment, without determining what’s essential to him and what isn’t. All the things deemed “inessential”, things we must eschew to achieve Man’s potential – mechanism, repetitiveness, pornography, fascism, genocide etc. – were thrown into the musical mix, posing a mirror that showed Modern humanity in all its ugliness and undermined the Modern pretension of advancement towards the creation of a perfect Man. The record ‘Hamburger Lady’ is based on a true story of a woman who was burned in her upper body to such an extent that she looked like cooked meet, but modern technology enabled the doctors to keep her alive and extend her suffering. This is what Modern consciousness tried to hide from itself: that progress might lead not to the enhancement of happiness but rather to the enhancement of suffering.
Industrial music was effectively the more extreme version of punk, which dealt with the same issues. But punk was also much more popular, and its seizing of the mind of the youth constitutes the moment when Modern consciousness collapsed completely in the West. This was actually also the death of Dada, which is meaningful only as a counter-reaction to Modern consciousness. Throbbing Gristle disbanded in 1981, but industrial music did find a way to adjust and remain relevant. In the mid-eighties, Cabaret Voltaire fused the mechanic sounds with funky rhythms and began making danceable and ecstatic music, mingling in with the pop bands and the world of techno music. It is a process that new wave went through as a whole: if in 1977 pop announced that there is “no future”, that the Modern era is leading us to apocalypse and doom, then in the eighties it gradually began to internalize that this realization does not make existence meaningless (Modern consciousness, on the other hand, loses its compass in an existence that isn’t directed towards the future). Pop, after all, is looking for utopia in the present, not in the future, and as long as the present is here we can experience utopias. The horrors of the modern world continued to be part of pop’s content, but the aim was to make them part of the mixture that generates something ecstatic that shoots you to heaven. Genesis P. Orridge travelled the same path: along with his band mate Peter Christopherson he formed a new band called Psychic TV that continued to explore dark matters, but in 1988 saw the light of electronic dance and became part of the loving and utopian world of acid-house. Dada was left behind.
At the end of the eighties, the Soviet monster that was born out of Lenin’s delusions collapsed, signaling the death of Modern consciousness in the West as well. Modern consciousness, which was responsible for spawning Nazism, Communism, the Holocaust, the nuclear race and other monsters, is pretty much behind us, and the danger that these monsters will return has subsided. As a result, the belief in an imminent apocalypse has also diminished considerably, and it’s hard for us today to connect to the sensitivity at the basis of the Dadaist industrial music of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. But their explorations into the fusion of Man and machine are still relevant, and are important building blocks in today’s pop.
8. The Timelords
Besides The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams had another project on his hands in 1979: he was appointed head writer of Doctor Who. The longtime British TV series tells the story of an alien from a race called “Timelords” who travels space and time in a vehicle called TARDIS that looks like a public phone booth, accompanied by humans and alien companions. The show invites us to meet famous characters of human history and get another perspective on them, or takes us to other worlds that give us another perspective on elements of our world. It could be claimed that The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is just and absurd and exaggerated version of Doctor Who, a show that similarly has a combination of British humor, satire, and lighthearted approach to philosophical questions. The show began its broadcast in 1963 and was on for 26 consecutive seasons until 1989, leaving an indelible mark on British and global pop culture (so much so that it couldn’t remain in oblivion and was relaunched in 2005, better than ever). A year before it was canceled we got a demonstration of its influence, when a duo of musicians who called themselves “The Timelords” released a single that overtook the first place in the British chart. The duo had other names throughout the years, incarnations that were more well-known and productive, but the short moment when they were the Timelords was the moment when their “meta” reached its peak.
The Timelords were Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, two names that were already quite familiar in the pop scene of the eighties. In the middle of the decade they decided that they were tired of the rock world that became no more than a money making machine, and they are going to fight it. Their initial influence was Iliuminatus, a book trilogy that came out in the seventies and was for conspiracy theories pretty much what The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was to science fiction – that is, told a satirical story that poked fun at them. The world of Illuminatus is controlled by nefarious bodies that scheme to maintain their power, and there are heroes that fight them in a funny and absurd plot. Cauty and Drummond called themselves “The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu” (or the JAMs for short), after one of the renegade groups in the book. This symbolized their fight against the pop industry, but at the same time it also signified the fact that they are ridiculing the myth of the rock band that fights against the system and that they realize that it too is no more than a marketing ploy of this industry. This is what happened to the pop world in the eighties: it was trapped in a reality of mirrors endlessly reflecting one another, a reality in which you couldn’t tell who is lampooning whom and who is reflecting whom, who is real and who is bogus, who is being ironic and who is just a cynic. Musically, the JAMs adopted hip-hop, especially its habit of sampling bits of other records and weaving them together to create a new record. Although they were Brits who were whiter than pale, they chose the hip-hop names Rockman Rock and King Boy D, hired rappers to rap on their records, and used hip-hop to deconstruct pop. In 1987 they released an album in which all the tracks were made of samples that took the piss out of of pop’s sacred cows, for instance this track in which they demolish the Beatles’ “sacred” ‘All You Need is Love’ and juxtapose it to records that were considered detestable by rock connoisseurs, like Samantha Fox’s ‘Touch Me’.
A year later they changed their name and became the Timelords, and published a booklet they called The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) in which they instruct pop novices on how they can get to number one in the UK chart. The name change signified a change of attitude. They no longer assumed the characters of guardians against the conspiracy, but of aliens who are taking a top-down view of pop and scoff at it. The Manual is written with a pen dripping with irony, and attempts to bust all the myths that arose around pop and its idols. Among other things they provide another reason for creating a record based entirely on samples: it refutes the myth of originality. In their view, there is no such thing as “original music”: every new musical number just reassembles things that were already done, whether the creator is aware of it or not. Those who sample are simply those who are no longer lying to themselves and others. Earlier in the year they’ve already provided an example of how you can make a hit this way, with the single ‘Doctorin’ the TARDIS’, a record that conjoins sampled sounds from Doctor Who with two glam classics: Garry Glitter’s ‘Rock’n’roll’ and Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster’. The winning combination conquered the first place in the British chart, and to troll the media even further the Timelords claimed that it was created by a singing car and sent the car to do the interviews in their place. The car, which suspiciously resembles the Blues Brothers’ Bluesmobile, also fights Daleks.
This derisive attitude towards pop isn’t new. There were always people who despised pop and asserted that pop records are nothing but a consumer product that the industry churns according to a tried and tested formula of hit making, and selling it to the masses who remain unaware of how they are manipulated to like this music. But this too is no more than a myth that the manual debunks. The pop industry actually has no idea how to create a hit, say the Timelords, because while it is true that hits are made according to a formula, the formula can only work when applied to a style that is in tune with the spirit of the time. Only the musicians that emerge from that generation and understand its sensibilities can create music connected to the spirit of the time, and only they can, if they choose, turn this music into hits that will go to number one on the charts. In other words, the Timelords are not mocking pop itself, whose potency and importance they understand, but only those who form fantasy myths around it or those who are only interested in producing hits. The Manual also noted that there are periods in pop when a truly important style emerges, music that expresses a completely new sensibility that changes the world of its listeners. And it just so happened that the year in which they wrote their manual saw the rise of such a style.
House music was born in the beginning of the eighties in Chicago discotheques, and purified disco from its soul elements to leave only the danceable merger of man and machine. At first, it sounded to many as another step on the way to losing our humanity, but then, in 1987, house musicians found a the ghost in the machine, the way to use the technology to produce novel psychedelic sounds that would take the mind of the listener to other regions. The result is what became known as acid-house, and when this style crossed the ocean to Britain, it became the basis for what was called “Rave”, a style that uses synthesizers, computers and electronic instruments to create ecstatic, danceable and uplifting music. Rave absorbed house and techno and generated a bang that changed everything. In 1988, pop experienced a new beginning.
Why did rave have such an effect? Because it was exactly what the spirit of the time demanded. Modern consciousness was trapped in the project of creating the perfect Man, and the struggle was between two lines of thought: the one that perceived “Man” as universal and aspired to create a global and unified human society, and the other perceived “Man” as an individual and propagated that every individual develop themselves. The universalist school was the first to realize that all this belief in “Man” is bunk, and the belief in creating a universal human society collapsed during the seventies. That led the individualistic school to believe that it won, and during the eighties there arose a new conservativism that put the emphasis on the individual, on an ideal of a capitalist society where everyone will operate on selfish motives and think only about self-advancement. But actually, the fall of “Man” meant that the belief in the individual was also wrong, and the claim that selfishness is good was baseless. Rave was the thing that liberated the minds of the youth from this cynical individualism and enabled them to find the “together” again. Rave creates a tribe in which individuality disappears and everyone dances together in loving unity, transcending the selfish world around them for just a while, and this sensation was the basis for the new pop.
Drummond and Cauty were there just in time to capture this spirit and employ their formula on it to create triumphant records. ‘Doctorin’ the TARDIS’ already combined their hip-hop sampling with anthemic and danceable house, but was in some ways a parody of house (its title paraphrases the house hit ‘Doctorin’ the House’ by Coldcut). When the spirit of rave swept them, it was easy for them to transform their identity and turn their Mu-Mu into something tribal. The result was another name change, and now they were called Kings of the Low Frequency, of KLF for short. And as the KLF, this duo of satyrs that at first seemed like no more than a musical joke turned around in 1990 and released The White Room, one of rave’s greatest masterpieces. This album is not a joke. The irony is still there, the defining imagery is still there, but it gets swept away by the enthralling music, one long rave consisting of tracks designed to take the dancers to heaven.
But the KLF did not forget their origins, and in 91 they remade one of their earlier records, ‘Justified and Ancient’. The message of the single was a call to the world to stand by them in their struggle against the cynical music industry, and since it was about standing by them, there was no one more fitting to sing it than the singer most well-known for standing by someone – yes, the KLF contacted Tammy Wynette, the country singer made famous by her hit record ‘Stand By Your Man’. A duet between rave and country is one of those jokes that only Drummond and Cauty could come up with, but guess what? It works.
In 92, the duo realized that the joke had played itself out, and they are too famous and successful to be able to make effective satire. They announced their retirement from the pop world, changed their name again to “The K Foundation”, and moved to the pretentious world of “High” art to spread their Dadaist terrorism there. But what they did in their few years in pop was not forgotten. They were a mirror to their time, and pointed at ways to get out of the cynical eighties and pave new roads. The two styles they’ve combined – hip-hop and rave – are the two styles that provide the basis of pop in the past 25 years, because they are the styles that best express the truth of our time. Today we know that there is no universal or individual “Man”, but every one of us is a compound of many different things, none of them particular only to us or shared with all of humanity – the thing that makes each of us unique is the quality of the compound. For each of our traits we can find those who are like us and form a community with them, and in that way we also expand our personal world. Since those years, rave split into hundreds of different tribes in which we can unite with those who share our love to the same musical style, and it represents this tribalism; whereas hip-hop, in its composition of samples, represents the ability of each individual to mix all the tribes they belong to and create their own individuality. Eighties conservatism is still with us, and actually it currently dominates the system and imposes its cynical and rapacious capitalism. But the truth of pop digs underneath it, justified and ancient, and will win in the end. From the outside pop may seem superficial and trivial, but it is bigger on the inside.
May the 4th, 1970, was a dark day in American history. In reaction to violent protests of students in Kent State University in Ohio against the Vietnam war, the national guard opened fire and killed four of them, an act of excessive and tragic institutional violence that was the result of the tensions created by the revolutionary atmosphere of the time. The event was immortalized by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in their record ‘Ohio’, which describes it in the context of a struggle against an evil regime. This was the Hippie view: we are living under a bad regime and must instigate a revolution that will bring about a new society and achieve Utopia. But in the university itself there were some students who viewed things differently, and their reaction to the event was to form their own band, whose name and image would reflect a different view, diametrically opposed to that of the Hippies.
Devo is short for “Devolution”. This is an idea that was born in religious circles in reaction to the theory of evolution presented by science, and maintains that Man did not evolve from the ape but it was actually the other way around: the apes were once humans that devolved to the level of animals because they renounced faith. The devolution people blamed science and modernity for taking Man away from his spiritual origin and precipitating this downfall. Devo took this idea and secularized it, and their attack was not on modernity but on consumer culture, which they claimed is infantilizing Man and turns him into an ape. They regarded the political violence and feral rock’n’roll of the time to be symptoms of this devolution, and reflected it in their image. They were a rock group that played guitars, but did it in a robotic and repetitive manner and added electronic synth sounds, an expression of a humanity losing its soul. The visual aspect was also very important in their art, and in the early days of Devo, in mid-seventies, they assumed the image of scientists exploring devolution. Because the visuals were so important they filmed several video clips for their records, and are considered today one of the pioneers of video-clip art. ‘Jocko Homo’ (ape man) presents their vision of humanity.
This was the B-side of their debut single, which came out in 1976. The A-side was ‘Mongoloid’, which showed another characteristic aspect of their art. The record tells of a mongoloid man who lives among the “normal” people and leads a perfectly regular bourgeois life, and no one notices anything different about him. And that is because he is not so different: all of us, imply Devo, have become mongoloid because of the world we live in. They had other records in that vein, and the band members did not look like long-haired rockers but adopted a “normal” look (besides the strange clothes) to show that they are merely a reflection of our society. Another typical look was radiation suits, a reflection of our life in a nuclear world that causes degeneration. In their performance of the Rolling Stones classic ‘Satisfaction’, they best reflect humanity as they saw it. The original record was an attack on consumer culture, which the Stones claim does not provide real satisfaction but sells us cheap knockoffs. Their version expressed the hunger for something better, hunger that gives humanity its vitality. In Devo’s version, on the other hand, there is no hunger, and humans are portrayed as automatons driven by basic urges and without a will of their own.
In 1980 Devo released the album Freedom of Choice, in which they pretty much ditched the guitars and used mainly synthesizers to express the mechanical nature of contemporary humanity. Several tracks sound like capitalist manifestos and eulogies to the American way of life, but their real meaning is of course to imply that these are some of the things that lead to devolution. The new image of the band contained a hat that was called Energy Dome, making them look like Lego constructs, or a technological plant, or coneheads, and anyway not at all like Man as we would have liked to imagine him. ‘Whip it’ sounds like one of those records designed to drive us to get up and improve our lives, the type of pep songs that characterize the American spirit. That’s the way that the Americans like to picture themselves, but the clip shows them to be a bunch of ignorant, violent and sexist rednecks.
‘Whip it’ was the band’s biggest hit, got heavy rotation on MTV and won them many new fans. Naturally, most of these fans did not get the irony in their art and got on Devo’s nerves. Suddenly they felt that American culture is absorbing and incorporating them, and their reaction was the album New Traditionalists, in which they portray themselves, ironically of course, as the new conservatives. The new look of the band consisted of boy scout suits and President Kennedy wigs, as if they were good ole’ American boys. At the dawn of President Reagan’s era, the beginning of Reaganism which preached that Americans live in a good and just society based on traditional American values, Devo were there to lampoon this illusion. It appears that their look was meant to imply that the revolutionary sixties generation, which Kennedy was one of its heroes, evolved into middle-aged bourgeois conservatives who vote for Reagen. Religion wasn’t spared either, and during that time they also began to appear as Dove, a bogus Christian rock band that played the soft rock typical of this genre, but used it to perform Devo songs. Meanwhile, Devo’s video clips continued to feed MTV with imagery of the type that people didn’t really want to see. ‘Beautiful World’ describes the beauty of the world we live in, but gradually exposes the ugliness we are trying to hide.
Devo kept on being a popular band throughout the eighties and kept on doing their thing, but increasingly lost direction. Both their music and their image were incorporated into the mainstream and don’t look and sound so weird any more, and as a result lost their ability to shock. But they are still fun.