The proliferation of micro-genres in the internet age is more often than not an excuse to deride the online music press. Appellations such as ‘witch-house’ or ‘seapunk’ start as social media jokes, but end up getting snatched up by the likes of Pitchfork and Dazed and Confused for cultural capital. The idea being that cultural capital will increase readership and advertising, and therefore convert into actual capital.
This piece is not a rant against the aggressive and farcical marketing tactics that feed off such a phenomenon. Those tirades have been delivered by critics more vitriolic than I will ever be. Pitchfork defector Chris Ott, in his ‘Shallow Rewards’ series of video essays, provides a detailed and informed breakdown in an episode titled ‘Genrewave’. Sadly, in the last month Ott fell to another of his notorious internet-crises, purging social media of must of his work, which is now available exclusively as a 24 GB torrent.
As a freelance music journalist, the problem of communicating the idea of sound through words is usually solved through two, equally horrendous means: defining a band by genre (‘post-black-metal shoegaze’ for the likes of San Francisco’s Deafheaven) or by referencing other bands (“[insert name] is the art-school educated, illegitimate spawn of Donovan and Black Flag”). The latter at least gives space for some tired wit, but is usually nothing more than an attempt to justify the former by being a little less vague. In this context, genre seems something that should be left to (virtual) record stores.
There is, however, a more creative critical approach to music genres, typified by ‘Night Bus’. Chris Ott discusses it at length in the aforementioned video essay, but in essence the term defines a loose grouping of artists, or more properly, tracks, that encapsulate the feeling of cinematic melancholia that comes from, say, being stuck in a National Express bus on a highway at 2 AM. What is crucial about this approach is that it is ahistorical, which is to say that it can be applied retroactively to any song, audience-defined, and non-contextual. One band may only have one ‘Night Bus’ song, but even then, this depends entirely on the feeling engendered in a particular listener.
From a certain perspective, this definition doesn’t differ to widely from the traditional idea of genre. Terms like ‘punk’ or ‘metal’ come into being not only as a description of the present, but as a reinterpretation of the past. Thus a song like the Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter‘ might justifiably be called ‘proto-metal’, just as Fats Domino’s ‘Be My Guest‘ has been called “the birth of Ska.” And of course one’s acceptance of those epithets depends on how one defines ‘ska’ or ‘metal’ in the first place. Genre is interpretation, but genre itself must first be interpreted. What separates ‘Night Bus’ from traditional ideas of genre is that it does not depend on stylistic features (though these can recur often enough to become codified), but simply on the affective states they produce.
The difference between Night Bus and some Spotify ‘Songs for a Thursday afternoon at the juice bar’ is that the former is generated by a community, and has enough impetus to spawn new artists and record labels. But to base a cultural movement on one single mix of emotions, however liberally interpreted, is a little unsatisfying. It succumbs too readily to the idea that pop music exists simply to satisfy the affective states and desires of the listener. More interesting in this respect is the idea of ‘hauntology’ in music, a movement that certainly recognises its forebears (Coil, 70s film soundtracks, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), but takes an active approach to delving into the past, reawakening the spectres of lost cultural artefacts. Much has been written about both ‘genres’ in the past few years, but the focus has generally been on artists applying them to their music, rather than as examples of listener-led reinterpretation.
British Sea Power
The technology available today begs to be used in a more creative way. Mix tapes have been fetish objects for close to three decades now, and much is always made of the attention and care necessary in making a cassette tape compilation. In the ending of High Fidelity John Cusack goes some way to explaining the rules that dictate the perfect mix tape, but these tapes are romantic gestures, postcards that say “I love you and I know what you like.” You can do the same on Spotify today, but the absence of effort makes this largely futile. Instead you can make use of the availability of almost any song you can think of to do something less romantic, and more interesting.
One of my first attempts at playlists simply involved cover versions. As far as they go, this is a very amateurish and dull playlist, involving some very obvious choices (‘Take Me to the River’ by the Talking Heads, the Echo and the Bunnymen version of ‘People are Strange’). Other than Marc Ribot’s rickety version of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, the rest of the tracks are relatively straightforward reworkings of the originals. So far, so pointless: the subject was too wide, and generated nothing. A better idea, if still very obvious, was to choose only one song. ‘Too many versions of Louie, Louie‘, if utterly unlistenable, highlights the differences between different recording artists in their reworking of the same three chords. Tempos and instrumentation change, as do song lengths, and not everyone recognises that the third chord is minor, not major. ‘Louie, Louie’ might just be the prototype for almost all rock and roll, R’n’B and soul, and there are twelve tracks to illustrate it.
Classic compilations create a canon, codifying a generation or a genre, as C86 defined, for better or worse, jangle pop. Having spent a week or so listening almost exclusively to playlists marked as ‘hauntology’, I wanted to attempt something similar for myself. Firstly, you need a basic, but easily definable concept. For me, it is that of rural English horror, or rather, the perversity that people like Jonathan Meades project onto the English landscape. Part Grimm tales, part inbred motorcycle gangs. Having spent only three years in the physical manifestation of England, for the large part the country is, in my mind, a collection of films, novels, music, the more gruesome the better. The second part of the concept, to differentiate it from ‘hauntology’, is that it should only involve guitar bands. This immediately disqualified most of Broadcast, who had been the main reason I got into hauntology in the first place. This pseudo-genre then needs a name and a band that encapsulates it. For the lack of anything better, lets call this ‘pastoral punk’, since this implies a fictitious idea of the countryside, as well as hinting at the attitude and sound projected from it. My model is a little-known band from Worshershire, active from 1979 to 1982, called the Dancing Did. The Dids, in their obscurity and brief life-span, were something of a cult on goth message boards when I was teenager, having been unearthed and minutely catalogued by music critic Mick Mercer. Their music was shambolic and theatrical, melded with frontman Tim Harrison’s witty Neo-Romantic tales of man-eating wolves and homicidal truck drivers.
As something of an oddity, the Dancing Did fared rather badly in genre assignations. Some called them goth, in reference to the Cure-inspired instrumentation of ‘Squashed Things (On the Road)’, and others, including Wikipedia have them as folk-punk. Well as of this moment, I am claiming them for pastoral punk, and must find others to join them. Two artists come immediately to mind: the Mekons and Julian Cope. The Mekons have straddled so many genres over the years that that it would be difficult for them not to be included, particularly in the country-tinged ‘Hard to be Human’ and the lyrics describing ‘Ghosts of American Astronauts’ appearing in Bradford. Cope, on the other hand, in his guise of punk-rock Shaman and rock ‘n roll Antiquarian, is a pure embodiment of the more mythical, mystical and psychedelic sides of pastoral punk. To this we can add Bauhaus’ ‘Hollow Hills’—as a reminder that British goth music has, more than any other genre, explored the ‘Satanic Mills’ of the landscape—, and, for the sake of something current, British Sea Power’s ‘Loving Animals’.
That British Sea Power are committed to exploring the island’s cultural and physical texture is clear enough in their scoring of Man of Aran, and are frequently mentioned in ecologically-minded publications like Caught by the River. But it is the twisted humour of ‘Loving Animals’ (“I want you to know that it’s wrong, man”) that makes them pastoral punk. It is not enough to talk about landscape or sound a bit hill-billy; the essential element is a sense of ambivalence and fear towards what is contained in hills, fields and woods. The approach to environment has to be in some way progressive, rather than nostalgic, as in New Model Army’s ‘Vagabonds’: “We follow the taillights out of the city/ moving in a river of red./ As the colours fade away from the dusky sunset/ we roll for the darkness ahead.”
In terms of nostalgia for a bygone, pastoral era, and satirical takes on it, no one beat the Kinks. They are implicit in The Dancing Did, hovering at the edges of the Mekons, egging on British Sea Power. The Kinks are masters of having their cake and devouring it, evoking nostalgia as they remove the carpet from underneath its feet. Pastoral punk is not just about landscape, it is about history and the myths created around it, resurrecting the past only to tweak its nipples and send it off again. For that reason I include ‘Victoria’, as well as the Billy Childish version of “Who Do You Think You are Kidding Mr Hitler?” Some might want to add the Libertines to the mix, but I think it takes a little more than wearing red coats to qualify.
I make no high claims for the term ‘pastoral pun’ or for my particular interpretation of it as manifested in the playlist. This is not a grand reinterpretation of pop music, but rather an invitation to a conversation. There are many open-ended questions lurking behind the mix, concerning everything from nostalgia in pop music to the dividing line between punk and hippiedom. Can goth be re-examined as a more relevant and interesting take on history and social changes that it has thus far been credited with? You tell me. At some point people started accepting that this music was worth writing thorough criticism, but for god’s sake, don’t leave that up to music magazines.