Two Steps Back: a Critique of Today, a Dismissal of the Past and a Eulogy for the Future, as Presided over by Mark E. Smith and The Fall

“I had come to loathe my husband, Mr Harlax.  I mean, physically, be revolted by him.  I could look at him and think only of the functions.”

 

  • Artemis ‘81

 

Différance is the funeral held for the meta-narrative.

 

Memorex.  Manufacturer of computer peripherals and recordable media.  Established in 1961, Memorex were synonymous during the 1980s with home recording.

 

Kraken.  Legendary squid-like sea creature said to wrap its tentacles, once disturbed, around vessels and drag them to the bottom of the ocean.

 

The time of year I remember most distinctly from my childhood were those strange weeks when the nights drew in.  Halloween, Bonfire Night…the cheap masks at the shop at the end of the twitchel (because that’s what they were called in North Nottinghamshire), the divine aroma of potatoes being charred on the backyard fire which, in our age of ultra-safety, would never be bureaucratically tolerated.  Those cold, dark evenings carried their own gothic magic as a child.  One could quite easily imagine Spring-Heeled Jack bounding from the council estate roofs and the bizarrely-gnarled trees in the woods actually being science fiction organisms.  Renowned as one of the most haunted villages in England, the remains of an old Roman garrison sat atop the clay hill which hamletted the village on all sides.  There was always a spectral threat on the lips of our parents, and all of this has indelibly left a quasi-Victorian gothic impression on my recollections of the early eighties.

 

To begin, then, with the problematic word.  When we say “haunting,” we are tacitly referring to the ineffable: concepts which, when attempted to give form to or study, vaporise.  Something altogether apart from philosophical immanence, this is the run-out groove which carries the fading analogue vibrations of our specific pasts, and if words such as “haunting,” “ghosts,” “spectres,” (ad nauseum) are to characterise memory this is only because these terms serve best to outline a difference which cannot be described in binaries.  We may, if we are so inclined, steer off track and cite Bergson at this point though it serves just as well to propose that memories are recalled in units, rather than successive elements of time.  Were we to recall perfectly our entire lives in reverse beginning with the absolute present then we would doubtless pick up on subtle ideological or cosmetic shifts in our environs.  We would, however in all probability miss the greater shifts and distinctions, but given that this kind of recollection is impossible, we instead focus on the event.  These events, as unitary measures, are themselves “haunted,” as it were, by dead elements (be they cars which are no longer on the road, a foodstuff no longer manufactured or a television programme that nobody else remembers being aired).  We may then say that we are haunted by the event, or even the unit.

 

This is hinted at by Derrida, yet made explicit by the 21st Century permutation of Hauntology.  Our factually oblique and rose-tinted recollections of the past coupled with the present conundrum of  “already been done” has suspended Western culture in a temporal loop.  “Two Steps Back,” in fact.  The time-locked cultural blockage of an age after Postmodernism has rendered the “new” profoundly spectral: we are watching, listening and responding to ghosts.  These ghosts are the spectres of Modernism and pre-Modernism, the last cultural epochs where technological and biological growth were anywhere near in tandem with one another.  Indeed, the “new” is necessarily enshrouded with quotation marks – even visually, the word is spectral.  Unknown to me in the 1980s, the literal ghosts alluded to in local folklore were in fact the unconscious parental responses to a time which made more harmonious sense, when there were less technological leaps to bemoan.

 

Différance is the individuation between biological memory, political memory, cultural memory…it is how Proust’s memories distinguish themselves between Dostoyevsky’s, how Beckett’s memories are internalised whereas Joyce’s remain geographical.  Escape from Marienbad, indeed.  Différance is the temporal linguistic rift rent by dromology. Différance is the colloquial vapour trails left hanging in the air in the wake of cultural imperialism.

 

Différance is the family unit with lost unity.

 

Derrida likened the spectre of Marx (that phantasmagorical after-image which has haunted capitalism for over a century) to Hamlet’s father: literally and etymologically the root spectre at the feast.  Indeed, that crucial textual link was made early on by highlighting that Hamlet was “the Prince of a rotten state,” allegorically that same rotten state which was to be found in the wake of communism itself, its ectoplasmic remains congealed in the scattered debris of the Berlin Wall.  1980s Britain, or its working class communities, had more than it’s share of this rot: alcoholism, redundancy, solvent abuse, domestic violence, mass unemployability…all of these were to be found, as a child, beneath the superficial halcyon sheen of the nuclear family.

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This impression is what always returns when one hears The Fall.  The oblique, rumbling production on Dragnet, the keyboard trail on Frightened, the choppy vaudeville of City Hobgoblins.  And those words…like tapping into long-forgotten truths which revealed themselves in layers the more one could discern them.  Listening to any Fall record was worth a dozen trips to the library and provided a far more comprehensive (albeit labyrinthine) education than one could hope to gain in those Thatcherite penal colonies we were forced to attend during the week: instant psychic Cinerama of a world made up of grotesque (ha!) dog-breeders, phantom stalkers, Disneyland beheadings and strange conjugations of literary figures.  Mark E. Smith saw himself as a writer above all else, and it is indeed within those wordscapes that one is ensnared once those primitive, repetitive rhythms and snarling Northern barks have either enchanted or repelled you.  One reads The Fall as one reads Deleuze – in layers and multiplicity; the libido in despair, castrated by its own production.  Listen to Room to Live, or Tempo House and you have a Deleuzian machine absorbing as it creates.  One can almost hear the ideas forming in Smith’s mind just before he contorts them, the rhythm section in endless repetition as time strangles the pleasure principle.

 

Once one hears The Fall (either as a joyous or attritional experience) one is at once haunted by The Fall: like Marxism, the time between first contact and present time is rotten with phantoms.  The “ghosting” effect on an old television broadcast is merely the ghost of multiplicity, information forced down a tube which is continuously caught up with itself in a cathode Möbius.  The “captured” cultural elements of the past, ensnared by Smith, become distorted in much the same way as Francis Bacon would pervert his subjects and, like Bacon, Smith froze his subjects at their most primal as though intuition led him to their animal state: Terry Waite, Alan Minter, MR James, Lou Reed and Doug Yule (in an instant fused into the one chimeric state) – all in a state of “…becoming Fall.”  The industrial landscapes sonically conjured by a superficially grotesque rumble are another “becoming,” for in that instantly primal cacophony lay not only the bleak Conservative wasteland of late-70s and early 80s, but also admitted to the industry of Blake’s Jerusalem – a bleakness far sootier and rooted in diaspora than anything suggested by Kraftwerk or Joy Division.  Here was (and is, captured in essentia) an industry transcending political trend: if Marxism is the spectre haunting Europe (macro), then The Fall conjure the specificity of a Britain enslaved to a Marxist ontology, or rather the phantom of differance which manifested itself in a typically Northern blue-collar attitude which eternally defies translation.

 

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This was the Britain one would experience if one watched Coronation Street on through a lens in any way similar to Smith’s – the Barlows’ crepuscular killing sprees, Kevin Webster copulating with Jack Duckworth’s pigeons in the outhouse to produce a malformed beak/moustache hybrid, all in those lurid cathode reds and blues of early colour television, yet with shadows darker than a Castiglione monoprint.  And we respond to those grotesqueries knowing full well that we – the working class with our fathers risking life and limb daily at the colliery – are the grotesque products of a perverted society.  Smith took the narrative experimentation of The Velvet Underground and twisted it to his own vision, throwing in all manner of literary, cultural and political allusion along with it – the mystical autodidact Roman Totale XVIII his early prosopopoeial alter-ego emerging from the song lyrics to commandeer the sleeve notes.  So within, so without.

 

Shane Meadows’ 1999 drama A Room for Romeo Brass was filmed in the same village alluded to in the first paragraph.  Shot nine years after I left the village, there is a marked difference in the landscape of my childhood and that recreated on the screen, a difference which went beyond representation.  Seeing the village in Meadows’ film, I felt no nostalgia, no sudden desire to return there.  Indeed, aside from the novelty of recognition, there was nothing to link the me in the present to the me who recalled playing in the exact locations now being used as a stage for Paddy Considine.  Partially, this can be attributed to simple displacement and the passage of time, but more crucially the topography had altered to such an extent over those nine short years that my very conception of the village had become the recollection of a ghost, or at the very least an erasure.  My childhood existed only in my memory, and no amount of old photographs (of which there are very few) could ever amount to anything more than a multiplicity of reflection.  Time is no longer a thing which can be measured by temporality alone – of all the images and zeitgeists left to us by the Twentieth Century, a sense of echoing pastiche is likely the dominant sensation which has only increased with massive exponentiality to the present day.  Which decade is this year in the 1990s emulating?  To what extent do the purveyors of culture in 2012 understand the forms and aesthetics they are aping from 1969?

 

I have, since an age too far back in my memory to place with any exactitude, been in a state of mourning.  This is no silly Freudian claim of being desirous of a return to the womb: personally, I frequently refer to that oft-repeated Smiths lyric whenever I encounter Freud – “it says nothing to me about my life.”  The mourning I claim is the mourning for a childhood half received, or indeed a deferral of childhood which was felt just as (if not more than) keenly during my infancy.  Betraying the above claim, I must nonetheless turn to Freud for his unheimlich to describe that jarring notion as a child that there was always something wrong, something awry or missing.  Unheimlich is perversely the most fitting term for my domestic childhood situation, for the home was sporadically and decidedly unhomely.  Growing up with alcoholism from an extremely early age means that there has been no chance for the child to know anything other than a home run through with alcoholism, and that home being in a relatively (by today’s standards) tight-knit community means that any social comparisons must be drawn from other homes which are in some way complicit with alcoholism (few could have not known that our house was the one with the parent who lapsed wildly into stupors lasting days and, sometimes, weeks.  Yet very little was ever done to circumvent the vicious circle of dependency: in fact, the reverse was so often the case).  In such circumstances, one lives in a microcosm of Other: there is nothing wrong with this picture…and everyone who knows precisely what is not wrong with the picture knows how to mind their own business about what is not wrong – at least until their front door is closed.

 

When an infant encounters an adult who is drunk, the first instinct is to think of the adult as “unwell,” which is conveniently confirmed by other adults and becomes the official euphemism. “Unwell” also means “absent” in such cases, even if the unwell person is in the same room, because the sober parent has been purged of all parental virtues, such as responsibility, kindness, indulgence or accommodation.  The entire architecture of home life is dismantled to such an extent that the very state of childhood is placed in suspension.  If a parent is too drunk to collect their child from nursery, then that child ceases being a child in the eyes of nursery staff and becomes a problem.  If a child is not in school because of parental alcoholism, then that child is now a “case.”

 

But what is perhaps the most destructive of all are those periods when the parent is sober: life is less complicated, certainly, and the parent/child bond is soldered together once more, but there is always the dread – which can occur at any time, with or without warning or cause – that the unwell will return, rendering the moments of sobriety something to fear just as much as the periods of chaos.  This, then, is the mourning I have felt since infancy.  Petite morts in the most literal sense: mourning the death of the home, the death of a childhood being allowed to live itself out, the small, staggered death of a parent.

 

I was six years old in 1984, the year forever burned into scholarly discourse as the official death of the blue-collar worker in Great Britain.  My father worked in the mines, though ours was a colliery who outlasted many others in Nottinghamshire.

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I was twenty-five when my mother died, just one week after her sixtieth birthday.  Those small, staggered periods of mourning I had undergone all throughout my life until that point returned, massively intensified and furiously indignant at the torment I had lived through.  To have my mother’s death played out in front of me so many countless times, whereby the person who should have been a constant in my life mockingly replaced by something so animalistic finally and so swiftly taken from me at a point in my own life when I should have been adjusting and reacting to the vicissitudes of my own adulthood felt like the most vicious betrayal of all.  Depression had been a factor in my life since the age of twelve (if I have to give an age to the time when it was finally recognised that the sense of “wrongness” at home had finally been absorbed by my own psyche to become an unwellness in its own right), and by the time of my mother’s death I had already made no less than six attempts at my own life.  Any attempts at academia up to that point were offset or sabotaged by personal feelings of insufficiency and I had tellingly fallen into catering – a vocation frequently associated with verbal abuse and physical suffering.  All relationships I had were a priori doomed to failure, though that only served to exacerbate the pain when this inevitably became the case.  Again, the protracted mourning period playing itself out.

 

A Memorex, then, for the Krakens.  These memories remain buried, submerged beneath countless quotidian events waiting to be re-activated by sensory stimuli.  The stimuli, though, must be of the time of the memory in order to function.  The Memorex must be a pure recording.

 

Ti West’s 2007 film The House of the Devil goes further than pastiche: it wants you to believe that it was made in the early 1980s, down to the camera tints, synth-heavy soundtrack, dialogue and content (devil worshippers here deliberately chosen to harken back to the Satanic Panic in the wake of the Richard Ramirez killings).  Most tellingly, however, is the film’s title shot.  Filling half the screen in garish yellow, the title reeks of cheap exploitation horror though the inclusion of the film’s date in Roman numerals gives pause: the tradition of placing the film’s title with it’s production date directly underneath with All Rights Reserved is something which died out in the late 1970s, thus creating not only a jarring anachronism but also – perhaps most poignantly – turning the charade in on itself.  What we are left with is not a reference to the past, but rather an atemporal, half-remembered throwback which forfeits historical exactitude in favour of nostalgia for a time which never happened as it exists in collective memory.  The House of the Devil is by no means alone in this stylised misappropriation: It Follows, Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Neon Demon, Nightcrawler, Under the Skin and Amer are but a small selection from the hundreds of motion pictures made with an eye to providing the viewer with that most ultra-postmodern thrill of experiencing the past as they have always remembered it: not factually, but mnemonically via associations and cultural connection.  The danger of this, of course, is in the potential for collective memory to wipe out the historical fact.  A Twenty-One-year-old watching these films today has no first-hand experience of 1984, therefore leaving them with nothing to distinguish between the two oppositions.  Reason concludes that the result of this phenomena will be an entirely muddled collective memory in 40-50 years whereby the Twentieth Century will eventually be remembered amorphously and atemporally.

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Though the above may be a peculiarly altermodernist symptom, its eventual effect is, to all intents and purposes, what one is listening to on And This Day, Hex Enduction Hour’s cataclysmic denouement.  Time crashes in on the listener all at once, the preceding fifty-three minutes of the album serving as individual elements while And This Day serves them all up at once.

 

In 2018, we are still in the process of mourning (a deferred mourning, but a mourning nonetheless). We mourn the failed promises of modernism while we adjust constantly to the increasing pressures of a neoliberal world.  For the working classes, we mourn ourselves as we struggle to ward off the demands of abstract capital.  Our ongoing mental and psychic collapse is as much the product of Victorian Dad ideology as it is lagging concentration in an age of advanced dromology.  “Pull your socks up” is scandalously still being uttered by mental health workers who themselves cannot ever hope to reach the bottom of the piles of cases stacking up every day.  Those children lucky enough to be dealt with in timely fashion are furnished with ADHD statements as readily as birth certificates, while other children less fortunate (mine included) wait years to be granted a cursory inspection, before an inevitable non-conclusive conclusion.  The fault lies squarely with the parents, so the official party line goes.  Parents, however, are sinking under ever-increasing debt just to stay above water.  For the working classes, the very concept of a meritocracy is not as ludicrous as it is offensive. Perhaps this penchant (yearning, even) for the relics of the past – albeit reformatted to fit in with our collective memory – is nothing less than a coping strategy: there was a time when those in need would be accommodated, when the poor were dealt with sympathetically rather than with scorn.  And as much as we know this to be far from the truth, it is a falsehood far more comfortable than today’s crushing truths.  Mark E. Smith was the ever-present rage against the horrors of neoliberalism: fiercely opposed to the fol-de-rol of social media and distrusting to the end of a system which streamlines cultural endeavour to fit the device, Smith took The Fall and made it rougher as the rest of the world became sleeker.  The grotesque salmagundi of sound sculpted in the 1980s, consisting as it did of harsh Germanic repetition, quasi-Jamaican barked ad-libbing, Velvet Underground drone and a brash form of working class country music (country and northern, if you will [and he did]) had, over the last decade, become a feral beast of unrelenting curmudgeonly fury, primed and aimed at any and all facet of a West so utterly surrendered to the growing weight of capital.

Mon coure et je suis d'accord

As amusing as it may be to recall Smith’s innumerable bon mots, jibes and drunken slurs collected over the decades, it is nonetheless to miss the point – Samuel Beckett was no less the caustic wit when in his frequent cups and Jackson Pollock could just as easily clear a dinner party as Smith could a pub.  Yes, I frequently return to YouTube for my regular fix of Smith’s brusque humour in interviews yet, for the proper stuff, I delve feet-first into Grotesque and Hex Enduction Hour.  These albums weren’t joking.  They meant every rancorous syllable.  While Morrissey was regaling us with upturned bicycles and Oscar Wilde throwbacks, Smith gave us the world red in tooth and claw, only redder and toothier.  And while the former produced countless soundalikes throughout the eighties, nineties and to this day, nobody has ever managed to sound like The Fall.  Quite right, too.

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