The Deathly 90s, Corbyn & An Old Post Punk Hails A New Counterculture

Many of the post-punk generation like to sit on Facebook moaning about how the LOL-addled youth of today lack the political gumption of their forebears. David Stubbs, on the other hand, got stuck in making fanzines with a bunch of teenagers and found that a new generation are far from apathetic

This Friday, at Leighton Buzzard Library, a concert takes place under the banner of Dump It On Parliament Revisited. Presented and co-curated by Steve Spon of UK Decay and assisted by musical luminaries such as Pere Ubu and Nico collaborator Graham Dowdall, it will be a showcase for local musicians, one as young as nine, to perform their own fledgling material as well as cover versions of songs featured a 1986 compilation entitled Dump It On Parliament, released by Bedfordshire bands in protest and proposals to create a nuclear dump in the county. The original compilation reflected both the rough and ready state of recording facilities available to indie bands in the mid-80s – some of the tracks sound like cassette recordings of cassette recordings, because that’s what they probably were. Stylistically, they range from Patrick Fitzgerald-style folk-punk (Kev’s ‘Break Down The Walls’) to the raw electro-pop of Click Click, with dub-soaked pre-shoegaze and sub-Joy Division stylings in between.

The bands involved must have had mixed feelings when the government announced that they were cancelling plans for the nuclear dump. This happened just prior to the release of the album, rendering it as superfluous as a Free Nelson Mandela t-shirt in 1991. The compilation was duly forgotten until it was recently disinterred by locally based artists Dash & Dem, who in conjunction with Bedford Creative Arts and working with musician Roshi Nasehi, decided to make it the basis for a local project to introduce local people to a relic from their recent countercultural past. The project is library-based, part of a general initiative to broaden the appeal of libraries. This is apposite also; "Libraries gave us power," sang The Manic Street Preachers in ‘A Design For Life’, inspired by the inscription above their former nearby library in Pillgwenlly, Newport. Libraries have become dormant, under-used public spaces, also under siege from a government bent on closing down and privatising as much as they can get away with.

Consequently, it was in a library that I ran a workshop introducing a group of local teenagers to the joys of creating a fanzine. They gazed with wonder at the tools of a bygone, pre-internet age: the electric typewriter, the scissors, the glue sticks, the Tippex, the marker pens, the pile of old newspapers and magazines, all of which were instrumental in the co-creation of magazines like Margin and Monitor, fanzine-style publications I wrote for with, among others, Simon Reynolds, while at University in the 1980s. We had an "editorial meeting", in which first we reviewed some tracks from the Dump It On Parliament compilation. It’s fair to say they were initially bemused by its lo-fi, punkish tendencies; "they can’t sing", was one observation frequently levelled, as if that were a criticism.

However, when we began to talk about their grievances about education, they warmed quickly to their theme and an opportunity to express themselves with graphic violence on the page. They railed against the utilitarian aspects of modern education, in which the emphasis was on league tables and examination results, a system designed to appease over-anxious middle class parents and pander to a narrow, Tory idea of "educational excellence" rather than benefit pupils. They railed against the swingeing cuts to the arts which directly affect them, the upshot of the personal disdain of current Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan for the arts, which have no place in her leafcutter ant-style vision of the future workforce. They also cut out pictures of David Cameron and drew pigs’ heads next to him. The eventual fanzine produced from the session was called Cauldron Of Hormones, culled from a rant from a 15-year-old girl, the most vocal member of the group. They even formed their own band and wrote a song, to be performed at the concert, entitled ‘Back To The Eighties’ ("Cut price school vision/Struggle of a generation/Education time bomb"), whose scathing, serrated tones showed that whatever their initial misgivings might have been, they had fully internalised punk.

Two things occurred to me following that workshop. First, there’s the commonly-voiced opinion of 21st century kids as a bunch of spoiled, easy exam-taking, low attention span, glazed, Minecraft-addled, cultureless saps who wear Ramones t-shirts without knowing who the band are and are generally of more pallid stock than their parents and grandparents’ generation ("We gave the world Hendrix, The Clash and The Sex Pistols. What have you given us? One Direction and Olly Murs? Gold help us if there’s a rock festival" etc.) Forget it. As happens frequently when I talk to teens, I’m impressed by their articulacy, their consciousness of the world on whose threshold they stand. When I think of myself at that age, pulling hair, eating dirt and reading the Beano, I’m chastened. Secondly, these kids are going to learn all about being dumped on when they emerge into the world of work and find that rents have risen way out of proportion to any wages they might earn for their services, that owning a house is probably out of the question for 20 years minimum and that they’re generally saddled with a debt accrued by a previous baby boomer generation so fond of looking down on them smugly. And then you will see a real return to levels of disaffection that we haven’t seen the 1980s.

The 80s do feel like another country. At a panel I hosted as part of the project at Leighton Buzzard library, I spoke to Steve Spon, of UK Decay, a group whose activism took in hippy idealism, the DIY punk ethos, a proto-rave culture and were even credited with coining the phrase "Goth" in an indie rock context. I also spoke to Tim Robinson of Gorilla Tapes and Jean McClements of the Bedfordshire based 33 Arts Centre Video, following a screening of some of their "scratch videos" from the 80s. At first glance, with their st-st-st-uttering visual tics, a la Max Headroom and Paul Hardcastle, they look very much of their time; however, their satirical takes on the Thatcher-Reagan love in and the rampant 80s consumer culture reveal a subtlety that harks back to the Dada movement, John Heartfield, Eisenstein. They were a response to the rise of the video age and its tools, which created a media environment, an enhanced "society of the spectacle" to quote the Situationists which was not neutral and benign but acted as both distraction and reinforcement of the prevailing hegemony (both, in the case of the Diana-worship of the decade), and which required deconstructed and resisting. Their work, especially in cutting up and rearranging political speeches, anticipates that of today’s Cassetteboy.

Such were the 80s, a post-punk era with Margaret Thatcher as the obnoxious Aunt Sally figure of the decade, riding high on the freak tide of Falklands triumphalism, one which gave her the confidence to take on the miners. The polarised 80s, however, gave way to the come-together euphoria of 1990s, a decade supposedly marking the "end of history" following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Thatcher and all her 80s awfulness were now apparently behind us, peace and prosperity apparently reigned. It was time to come together in a spirit of euphoria and frivolity, sorted for E, singing along to Oasis and pretending it was the sunny 60s once more. Only a few grumpy tanktops kept up with all that lefty talk, despite the fall of the Soviet Union. Surely now we were past all that left and right stuff, entering a post-political age, a stakeholder economy in which the old order remained intact but the people were happy?

As it turned out, this was an era of deregulation as well as the dismantling of old dogmas, in which, stealthily and unnoticed, early 80s neoliberalism was settled into a permanence. The 21st centre brought new catastrophes, banking crises, and the exposure of gaping inequality beneath the veneer of Tory "all in it together" rhetoric. Elsewhere, the rise of the internet brought the collapse of old agencies; musically it was hard for a counterculture to coalesce when there was barely a pop culture to kick against; the end of Top Of The Pops was just one obvious sign that we were no longer in the 20th century, but rather in a post-pop era. Meanwhile, the only way to avoid the chronically retrograde rock tradition established by Oasis was to head for the avant-garde. This, like free jazz in the 1960s, was increasingly academic and peripheral.

The younger generations aren’t to blame – their predecessors are. It’s not their fault that for some at least, the very cognitive framework of a counterculture is unfamiliar. However, this is by no means a Lost Generation. As I discovered, the 21st century boys and girls are way more clued up than their elders would think. The Quietus itself is a daily riposte to the oft-groaned refrain that "nothing is happening" musically. Granted, the 20th century pop and rock narratives may have come to a natural conclusion but in their wake are myriad shards of experimentalism across a range of styles, permutations undreamt of in the 20th century Golden Age. In luckier times, today’s musicians would have thrived; had he born 30 years older, East India Youth would have been an icon, while had they been born 30 years later, Pet Shop Boys would have been deserving but commercially unlucky cult neo-synthpoppers. I live in East London and I’m astonished at the number of tiny micro-scenes, working across electronica, Improv or avant-indie permutations; more talent, more ideas than the market can frankly bear. Or check events like the Supernormal festival, in which old countercultural 70s/80s hands like Charles Hayward of This Heat play alongside and nurture a new generation of avant-gardists. The only "dearth" is in the imagination of the lazy waiting for a new David Bowie to fall into their lap like a meteor from the sky. Things are happening; you just have to work harder to find them.

Politically, meanwhile, there are a host of grassroot, green-shoot initiatives taking up the tools and tactics of the late 21st century to tackle the problems facing the young in the 21st. There’s the Radical Housing Network, working to fight the cruel, monumental absurdity of house and rental prices in London, which are pricing out an entire generation, a cause articulated by emerging young writers like Dawn H Foster. There are the London Black Revs, a black and Asian activist group devising direct strategies against indifferent capitalist behemoths, concreting over anti-homeless spikes outside Tesco. There is Demand The Impossible (who take their name from the old Situationist slogan "Be Reasonable, Demand The Impossible"), who are providing summer schooling for working class kids, to counter an educational culture increasingly skewed in favour of the privileged, at both school and university level, and who makes no bones about introducing them to radical politics and class activism.

All of this is peripheral right now but expect such activity to encroach increasingly towards the centre in the coming years, as the kids in my Bedfordshire workshop come of age and discover in full the mess we 20th century boomers and Britpoppers have left for them to clear. Things will happen and you’ll be all too aware of them. There has been much despair recently about the election of Jeremy Corbyn, much of it from a prominent strain of the liberal-left which spends most of its time in a permanent paroxysm of disdain towards the actually socialist element of the Labour party. Their minds addled with memories of the Militant 80s and the excesses of George Galloway, they see his rise as evidence of a party membership that has taken leave of its senses and embarked on a calamitous spree of self-indulgence, abandoning the "grown-up" politics of the neoliberal Con-Lib-Lab consensus in favour of an irrelevant purism. They mock Corbyn’s gaffes in the theatre of Westminster politics and, in tandem with piqued centre-right Labour MPs wish and plot for the day when "sanity" and "electability" can be restored to the party with the leadership restored to some suited, plausible Blairite estate agent.

This is to imagine that we are in a perma-90s, that it’s still the end of history and we will remain indefinitely on our current plateau of comfort. But things are going to happen, things are going to give. That’s what the overwhelming mandate from Corbyn is about. The counterculture is rising again. While it might occasionally take inspiration from the 80s but it will not be a rerun of those times. It will take its own forms, perhaps dispense with music altogether, get directly to the point, directly to the streets, reclaiming the public spaces. And may you never hear Chris Evans again…

For more information on Dump It On Parliament Revisited, including tomorrow’s gig, go here

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