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Low Culture Essay: Will Burns On 90s Skate VHS Soundtracks
Will Burns , January 29th, 2024 10:22

In this month’s subscriber-exclusive essay, poet and novelist Will Burns argues that skateboarding is close to dancing as he reflects on how the soundtracks of grainy DIY VHS films opened his musical mind

I grew up in a house full of music. Records, CDs, cassettes, Minidiscs. All stacked on shelves around the tiny living room, strewn around the hi-fi – the household’s current favourites piled up on any available side surface. My dad owned a record shop, so in one sense this was unsurprising, even inevitable. It made me lucky, or at least that’a what everyone told me. From the age at which music rather suddenly became important the stuff was always just there. Stone Roses first record? Always in the car. Gram Parsons? CD in the player. And - my real big one - Nirvana? On constant rotation. Because of this there’s also always been something ambivalent about the sensation of recalling my first musical loves, something ‘unearned’ about it all. I didn’t have to dig hard enough for the stuff and there remained a sense of a kind of reflected taste, a feeling that I merely inhabited a version of somebody else’s – my parents’ – sensibilities and ideas. There lingers a certain aftertaste of posture, of appropriation. The Kurt Cobain cardi, the long hair, the ripped jeans. Was any of this mine?

After Kurt’s death, that strange and obsessive teenage part of me was looking for something new to fix itself to. A couple of my friends had already moved on from the ‘grunge’ canon to the bands on labels like Epitaph and Lookout Records. Pennywise, Rancid, NOFX – skate punk they called it. Somewhere in amongst this particular branch of musical discovery I found something else, and something that I could claim honestly for myself… the act of skateboarding itself. Over a period of a few months my jeans got looser, my hair got shorter. And then something came along that felt so perfectly blended, so ripe for my still unsatisfied post-Cobain yearning for that full youthful excessive immersion that it might have been conjured out of my own imagination. That thing was The Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication. Once again I had a band that weren’t simply producing music for someone like me to just listen to, but initiating me into an entire imaginative world, an aesthetic guide book, a culture. Made in Hong Kong films, skateboarding, hip-hop, clothes, trainers. I had a new map and I was all in.

It’s a strangely blended memory, now, thinking back to that period. I can recall a few things in pinpoint, precise, detail - some specific gigs, my first set-up, my buddy’s punk fanzine It’s The Law, but there’s another sense of blurred amalgam, of a kind of generic endless summer day spent skateboarding and, well, just hanging around. It’s a sort of listlessness, but one qualified with anticipation, impatience, desire. In that odd time when the world of adults – sex, pubs, work, travel – is simultaneously closed off and vividly alluring we fell into skateboarding and its jargon and vernacular, its quasi-poetics just as others do video games or music, or weed and boyish in-jokes.

All of us in our little gang came from the same few villages and were aged around fourteen years old. We consumed all we could from the only sources available to us at the time. Long before the internet reached the public, these were, firstly, skateboard magazines like Thrasher, Transworld, Big Brother, and most importantly, the UK’s own Sidewalk, and secondly from the skateboard videos which we began to circulate amongst ourselves on pirated VHSs or via swaps or occasional inheritances from older kids who’d given up on their ‘useless wooden toys’. The videos were the truly powerful stuff. At this point we were effectively as far away from the serious business of skateboarding as it felt possible to be. A nondescript suburb too far from London to make that a practical or regular option, and as for the concept of California or New York, those cities that we saw in the American magazines… that might as well have been a different planet. It would be years until we had access to cars or the proper money for train tickets to travel to do this thing. For now it was three or four of us, like exiled members of a strange and secret order, trying to learn what it actually was that we were falling so hard for. Skate videos became the only real way of seeing this stuff properly done, to see it, literally, in action. To watch how the pros did it. To obsessively rewind a trick to try and catch some vital clue to unlock its magic, to coo over some implausibly perfect Californian spot, to pick a style, to inform our emerging sense of ourselves as weird, unloved outsiders.

The first video I recall us properly obsessing over was Plan B’s Second Hand Smoke. While we’d seen a few older Bones Brigade and H Street videos, this was the first film that stamped a proper, contemporary imprint onto our psyches, and part of that, at least for me, was to do with the music. For so long skateboarding and punk rock had a kind of umbilical relationship – skating had, after all, grown out of a Californian street culture that had, at the same time, produced bands like Suicidal Tendencies and Black Flag and had for so long shared a cultural DNA. But when I first saw Second Hand Smoke there was something else, something broader, something slightly more interesting going on. The film’s intro sequence is soundtracked by Rush’s ‘YYZ’, which posed questions for my possibly still overly-tribal little mind at the outset, but it was the first pro’s section that really blew it. Pictured in the reflection of a puddle, Pat Channita’s shoulders bounce in time to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s ‘Freakish’ in the sort of shot that is a skate video trope – the cool-as-fuck-striding-down-the-street bit just before the action kicks off. Here that action is perfectly aligned with the music, which sounded like some of the instrumental stuff I’d heard on those Beastie Boys records, a bit like the stuff more musically sophisticated people at school were talking about when they talked about samples on the hip hop records we’d started to get into. No distorted guitars, no dressed up angst.

In that first section Channita’s skating is stylish, unrushed, solid. The music’s own rhythmic solidity and repetitious brass riff are exquisitely synced before the song cuts on a slow motion heelflip backside noseslide and we hear the first few bars of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ with that evocative, introductory howl, that “oh yeah, baby…”. I could not have put it better myself, Stevie. Suddenly the skating feels quicker, more technical – the flips in and out of the manuals, off the ledges, down the stairs, over the chains, all choreographed as deftly as if Channita was riding with, or to the song itself. I watch it now and recall the feeling I had all those years ago, the surge of something up through my stomach and into my chest that has to do with the deep-tissue memories of skateboarding. Yet it’s also to do with music’s particular power to evoke not just feeling but sensation, the eros, the exultant, obsessional, overpowering desire, to be outside with the sound of four urethane wheels rolling over concrete in my ears.

This film wasn’t finished with me yet though. As great as Pat Channita’s was, my personal favourite section was Jeremy Wray’s. It starts with Wray skating through a school, unsoundtracked - tre flip down a set of stairs, a small ollie, roll past Rodney Mullen doing pogos in the background, nail a nice solid kickflip, and eventually he winds his way to another stair set down which he snaps a beautiful, perfectly executed frontside flip. Almost exactly at the moment he pops that last trick, the first long, weird, sustained wails from Clapton’s guitar intro on Cream’s ‘The White Room’ along with Ginger Baker’s almost military drums boom out and continue across the next few clips of Wray doing a series of impossibly huge moves down and across stair sets and gaps that would become icons in their own right. As the intro breaks into the song proper, Wray’s footage stretches into effortless lines, trick after trick as the music is augmented by a textural layer of urethane on concrete. It makes for a kind of under-music, along with the whoops of the crew watching Wray defy the laws of physics time and again, all in time to the song’s almost baggy backbeat.

But that was all California baby, and we were stuck here with the rain and nothing more than a rusty old miniramp in the park to play with. We used to trespass onto the local secondary school at the weekends and tried our best to imagine it was Carlsbad High School and that the puny little three-stair set was worth our time and effort, which, of course, in retrospect it absolutely was. Anyway who’s to say what part all those minor, unseen miracles of foolhardiness and stubborn, almost insane dedication are worth to a culture’s wider whole? I’d certainly not change one of those ‘wasted’ Friday night school sessions for anything more glamorous now.

In 1996, we got a video that seemed cut from that same damp, grimy English cloth as our own skateboarding experiences. True, the Panic and Blueprint teams were very, very, very good at skateboarding, and also true, Mixed Media showed them being very, very, very good in the spots that we only read about in Sidewalk each month – Milton Keynes, Southbank, Bristol – but there was still something knowable about it, somehow, something close, something getatable. By this time, Matt Pritchard, a skateboarder from the Panic team, had become my champ and the song on his section (‘Matthew and Son’ by Cat Stevens) will forever retain a place in the playlist of my heart. This was the first film we had the experience of anticipating. We knew it was coming and we knew that when it did, we’d watch it over and over again on those wet days when we couldn’t be out there ourselves. Along with films like Girl Skateboards’ Mouse, the Panic and Blueprint videos used music in a way that went beyond the tribalism of the punk and thrash days. There was what might be termed more obviously skate-ish stuff such as Dr.Octagon’s ‘Bear Witness’, but at the same time there was Paul Shier’s elegant, smooth style sublimely harmonised by Al Green’s ‘Tired Of Being Alone’. There was the intro to the video which featured Ella Fitzgerald, while the credits were accompanied by Jim Croce’s ‘Photographs and Memories’. This was music that even then, at fifteen, seemed redolent of that end-of-summer melancholy that is the shadow-side pregnant in all our youthful endeavours. One of the things pop music is exceptionally good at is sentimentality (I’d even argue that music is sentimentality’s great redeemer), and this was the perfect deployment of that quality, an articulation of the truth that is the inverse of Camus’ ‘invincible summer’.

One of the videos that had perhaps the most profound effect on any of our little gang a year or so later was Zero’s Thrill Of It All. Zero head honcho Jamie Thomas was my brother’s chosen man and he emulated almost all aspects of his style – black T-shirts, black shoes, launching himself down big stair sets, onto handrails, off roofs. The Zero team were all about big, fast, gnarly skating, and Thrill Of It All employed exactly the right music to go with it, from classic and hard rock, to proto-punk, a little dash of the goth via Zeppelin, AC/DC, Danzig, even the Stones. This was deliciously, almost defiantly not the sort of stuff we found around the house. This was ours. To my dad’s ongoing chagrin, I maintain a huge soft spot for Black Sabbath thanks to that video’s opening sequence; I still think of Wade Burkitt when I hear AC/DC and Adrian Lopez if I hear the opening bars of ‘Gimme Shelter’. The intensity of feeling I experienced at that time - the sheer physical ecstasy and cultural refuge that skateboarding offered us, the dirt and the heat and sweat of those summer evenings, is all bound up in those specific songs. Punk’s ‘year zero’ bullshit be damned – I loved Led Zeppelin now thanks to Scott Copalman. I had finally found a small pocket of rebellion against the punk-purism of my parents – who polices the police, as the old saying goes.

The point, I suppose, is that skateboarding, and particularly at that time, skateboard videos provided an access point to music that was different to any other, that belonged, so to speak, purely to me. Nietzche writes that “life itself is ESSENTIALLY appropriation”, and while that might be true, I also think there is something in everyone that desires to shrug that sense off, to resist it, to find something original and meaningful and necessarily of their own in the world. Music and skateboarding coalesced around that sense for me at that very specific time of life that makes these things so profound and fruitful. As a form there is something physical, something immediate about music - its power stems from movement, vibration, in the actual physical world, and that power compels us to move in response – to dance. I still believe that skateboarding is close to dancing, and certainly was at that time when the consumption of it at what might be called ‘elite level’ by the rest of us occurred most commonly through these films and their unique and precisely choreographed relationship with music.

These were the pre-Olympic days, the pre-energy drink days. It felt, to me, like art-making, not athletics. And there is, after all, an essentially surrealistic nature to the whole enterprise of skateboarding. The complete transformation, through use, function and form, of one’s entire built environment, as if it were psychogeography in action. The French filmmaker Guy Debord played what he called ‘The Lowry Game’, named after the English novelist and poet Malcolm Lowry – the enacting of a psychically-altered drift through space and time. Any skateboarder will recognise a parallel sense in which handrails, banks, gaps, stairs and even kerbs become utterly transformed and do so forever. The material of the city (or the small and shabby market town) will never feel the same again, and will carry that uncanny double-sense of itself long beyond the point at which you might have ceased to actually skate it. Those pla​​ces instead become sites of… well, what exactly? Art? Sport? Remembrance? Some distinct blend of all of the above? Are we in fact in the realm of ritual? When Hemingway describes the bullfight, isn’t that what he’s getting at? Something somehow beyond what we seem to have come to mean by ‘sport’, which has been degraded and enervated through a wider malaise of commercialism and greed. Not that, then, but rather something wild, something visceral, ecstatic. Something – ironically – impossible to articulate, perhaps. Music, skateboarding, summer. Oh, to be young.