Interview: David Wilkinson

I struggle to think of many other subcultural/countercultural movements in rock that have so compellingly brought together musical, political and economic radicalism. There is also something hopeful about the way it arose at the same moment as neoliberalism but – at first – offered a very different take on the world.

At the end of the 70s the initial energy of punk had begun to dissipate, the Sex Pistols had broken up and, with the election of Thatcher, like a drunk getting lost on the way home, Britain stumbled out of social democracy and into neoliberalism, an ideology that over the next 40 years would reshape the UK in it’s own unpleasant image. With the two strands of art college sensibility and raucous singalong present in the first wave of UK punk, and exemplified by the Sex Pistols, coming apart (1) there emerged one of the most innovative and exciting periods in 20th Century music!

Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain explores the developing politics of this group of musicians as they evolved and explored their way into the 1980s. Drawing attention to the latent and expressed utopianism in post-punk’s politics and practice it contextualises post-punk as one of the key political struggles of that period, the battle ‘over pleasure and freedom between emerging Thatcherism and libertarian, feminist and countercultural movements dating back to the post-war New Left.’ (2) By contrasting and comparing bands including Gang of Four, The Fall, The Raincoats and the Slits and foregrounding the importance of Rough Trade, David Wilkinson, who lectures at Manchester Metropolitan University, explores ‘who made post-punk, how it was produced and mediated and how the struggles of post-punk resonate down to the present’. (2) Having got very excited by such an insightful, relevant and engaging book I contacted David to see if he would be interested in answering a few questions about the book and post-punk more generally. Despite a busy life he kindly agreed…

(((0))): You were born in the mid 80s? How did your interest in post-punk come about?

DW: I got into post-punk as a teenager when there was a media-driven revival of interest in it at the start of the 2000s. This didn’t just consist of magazine articles and compilation CDS, reissued albums and reformed acts; it also involved a crop of new bands forming as part of this wave. I was part of the last generation whose teenage tastes were shaped significantly by print music journalism. I couldn’t get enough of reading about post-punk’s alternative world, its DIY ethic and its artistic and political radicalism. I have writers like Simon Reynolds to thank for that.

At some level, I must have associated all this with my developing political consciousness (I was involved in movements against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). I think others probably had a similar experience; post-punk influences can often be detected amongst today’s global network of small-scale ‘DIY’ bands and their audiences, many of whom seem to share a broadly progressive political outlook. And I also suspect this connection has continued generationally. Certainly a lot of people I know through left politics who are five, ten, even fifteen years younger (especially in the Labour Party) have a disproportionate interest in post-punk!

The post-punk revival of the early 2000s, however, did not really link up more generally with the anti-war movement. The revival also corresponded with the ‘regeneration’ strategies of post-industrial cities, which (especially in Manchester, my home city) drew on post-punk history and aesthetics to market urban space. They continue to do so in ever more ridiculous ways – Joy Division lyrics advertising luxury flats and so on. Although from my political perspective that’s dispiriting, it did teach me an important lesson – that culture is always politically contested and must be fought for.

(((0))): What makes post-punk so special?

DW: I struggle to think of many other subcultural/countercultural movements in rock that have so compellingly brought together musical, political and economic radicalism. There is also something hopeful about the way it arose at the same moment as neoliberalism but – at first – offered a very different take on the world. Post-punk suggests that the ‘capitalist realism’ that Mark Fisher has convincingly argued goes along with late capitalism may not be quite so total in its hold.

(((0))): Have there been any other musical movements that had/have similar oppositional, prefigurative practice? Early Rave?

DW: I think there’s something about the sociability of rave that might have a utopian dimension – the way that it potentially opens people out to others they may never have crossed paths with, makes us acknowledge at some level our dependence on each other and our shared humanity. Rave’s DIY elements were often more self consciously entrepreneurial than post-punk – and let’s face it once someone’s on a comedown the last thing they want to do is be sociable. But there’s still a glimmer of hope. There’s probably some connection between rave’s rediscovery in recent years and the way we’re all a lot more networked now via social media. Maybe the revival of raves is partly an attempt to make good these proliferating connections in a less alienating way. Just a speculation…

(((0))): Left post punk is in a line of art movements, stretching back to the Russian Constructivists, that explored cultural production and form around the question of ‘What does a process of production that is truly socialist look like?’ (3). What answers did post-punk arrive at?

DW: The first important thing to say here is that post-punk reflects a growing working class involvement in the leftist avant-garde that we can trace back to the expanded opportunities of the postwar years. John Cooper Clarke reckoned it was ‘the furthest the working classes had gone into areas like Dada’ and he was probably right.

On the question of production, post-punk threw up different answers – not all of them explicitly committed to socialism, it has to be said. But of those that were committed, you got a split, basically – between those who thought it looked like building a different infrastructure of independent labels, distribution, media and so on – and those who thought that as things stood, maximum impact could be achieved by ‘subverting from within’ – using the existing music industry to promote an oppositional stance (what came to be known as ‘New Pop’). I’m more sympathetic to the former because I think New Pop was very quickly absorbed into the system it critiqued – but that doesn’t mean there weren’t problems with the DIY approach – one problem being the difficulty of sustaining such an effort against all odds.

(((0))): The associated question was/is ‘What form and content does the object/cultural product that is a comrade in the struggle for socialism look/sound like and how should it affect the individual and society?’(3)

DW: This is something that post-punks (and the music journalists who helped build the movement) argued over endlessly! It’s a constant debate that runs right through the subculture, always popping up in zines, letters to the music press, interviews, even music lyrics themselves with a band like Scritti Politti for instance. Post-punk was a very self-conscious movement – but in a self-critical rather self-absorbed way, thankfully. There was no consensus but that’s what makes it fascinating.

(((0))): What were the main cultural influences on post-punk? Art history, left politics, feminism, preceding counterculture, punk, working class experience?

DW: All those things and more. Post-punk can’t be separated from over a decade of radical upheaval on all fronts that terrified the ruling class and culminated in a reactionary swing behind Thatcher. Even Harold Wilson was spied on by the secret service, such was the paranoia!

On the question of art: It’s often assumed to be the work of a faction of middle class art school students within punk – but that leaves out the fact that a) Not everyone who went to art school was middle class, especially in an era of grants and a social safety net not yet torn up by successive governments since 1979 b) You didn’t have to go to art school to be interested in oppositional ideas and politics. Working class experience is important, not only because it contributed ideas like mutual aid and autodidacticism but in more oblique ways. Despite the demystifying thrust of post-punk it also picked up where the counterculture left off with the esoteric – and there is a tradition within working class culture that gets tapped into here. I think Mark Stewart from the Pop Group says somewhere that his grandmother held séances; Mark E. Smith’s interest in the supernatural and the occult is well known – and figures like Poly Styrene were drawn to mysticism and ended up a Hare Krishna. Folk knowledge was important too – a pre-industrial survival from peasant culture and a transformation of it in changed conditions. The feminism of someone like Una Baines can’t be separated from her interest in Celtic mythology.

(((0))): In Resilience and Melancholy (4) Robin James seems to be saying, if I understand her correctly, that certain pop music structures parallel values within neoliberalism. Did similar ideas inform post-punks preoccupation with form, that musical structure and sound could mirror a politics?

DW: I’ve not read James but yes, there’s a connection – perhaps it’s not so much that music mirrors a direct politics but post-punks definitely got that certain ways of doing music might ideologically reproduce the status quo – and conversely, others might shake it up. That didn’t just come across in their experiments with musical form – e.g. shunning individualistic solos – but also their experiments with actually making music e.g. swapping instruments to keep things fresh.

(((0))): With The Raincoats do you think their musical structures were more organic, that having internalised a socialist/feminist narrative the structure of their music gave voice to that alternative worldview as an integral part of their creativity?

DW: Yes – and I write more about this in the book. They faced accusations of ‘worthiness’ for attempting this but especially their later material on Moving can often be quite playful.

(((0))): There were tensions within post punk; culturalism v anti culturalism/ individualism v collectivism/ essentialism v gender as social construct. Were those tensions an important part of the dynamic or a hindrance to the full realisation of some bands’ potential?

DW: It depends. Sometimes it really did get navel-gazing; other times the self-scrutiny produced a backlash that fed into the New Pop desire to just have ‘fun’ and forget all that intellectual stuff; but more often than not it was the fact of wrestling with these thorny questions that animated the movement and made it so admirable.

(((0))): Punk gave women the opportunity to explore and deconstruct gender but pretty much perpetuated traditional working class male identity as unchallenged (5)-do you think post-punk gave men that opportunity to explore gender identity and relationships- to start to deconstruct the gender models?

DW: This is something that isn’t discussed much in the book. There’s more on it in the thesis that the book’s based on – and in a piece I wrote for the Zero anthology Punk is Dead. I think punk was conflicted from the start on masculinity, class, sexuality. Think of a figure like Pete Shelley – shy, thoughtful, anti-macho, bisexual and consciously drawing on yet subverting the ‘boy next door’ imagery of pop music. Post-punk carried that on but it wasn’t always easy to undo dominant forms of masculinity, so I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘punk = traditional, post-punk = subversive’.

I have a PhD student who’s just started working on post-punk masculinity and I’m interested to see what he comes up with – it’s a productive topic and worth thinking about in relation to bigger shifts of the era like women’s liberation, or changing types of work and consumption and how this redefined manhood.

(((0))): There was a false dichotomy propagated by Garry Bushell that authentic working class identity excluded higher education. Was this the start of the reductive idea of working class identity as excluding education and politicisation? Do you think this story supported the neoliberal dismantling of working class political organisation and the move to construction of identity around consumption?

DW: Yes, in short! That said, I can see the impulses that motivated a figure like Bushell. Obviously I have no common ground with him now, but back then he saw himself as on the left and as defending a form of working class culture that was being eroded, patronised and neglected – one based on community, loyalty and shared values apparently untainted by contact with either middle class education or ‘leftie student’ politics. Of course it wasn’t as simple as that – working class culture and employment had been changing dramatically since the 1950s and had become something very different by the late 70s/early 80s. Meanwhile social mobility had produced a large chunk of young people positioned awkwardly between the working class and the middle class both culturally and in terms of the work they did or the education they had. But Bushell wasn’t alone in his nostalgia – it was part of a wider tendency that hasn’t yet gone away and partly animates today’s hopelessly confused debates about Brexit (hopelessly confused on both sides of the divide, I should add).

(((0))): You observe that the Gang of Four were hot on analysis but lacked any alternatives to ‘what was’, did any of the other bands you looked at strike you as more Utopian, able to give more clues as to ‘what could be’?

DW: Yes. The Raincoats tried to reimagine sexuality; The Fall warped and twisted the everyday world in a way that showed it could be transformed; The Blue Orchids put the questions of ecology and even the meaning/purpose of life on the table.
Even Gang of Four, despite their pessimism, did short-circuit that ideological division between ‘being clever/political’ and ‘having fun’ – you can dance and sing along to them and get into it not in spite of the content but because of its radical fervour!

(((0))): David Harvey writes about capitalism generating new senses of needs and wants (6). One of the themes running through the book is the reimagining of freedom and pleasure from a non capitalist perspective- could you elaborate on that?

DW: It comes down to this – there has always been a strand on the left that’s said: ‘Capitalism not only needs to be superceded because it produces grotesque inequality, exploitation and cyclical crises that are usually paid for by those least able to bear the strain; it also holds back the human potential of the vast majority by making them work for the benefit of a tiny elite rather than to satisfy their own needs and desires and for the benefit of society as a whole.’ You can trace it back to Marx on alienation – even further back if you like, to the Utopian socialists. After WWII, you see a revival of this strand in the work of thinkers like Herbert Marcuse, partly because it’s no longer just work that’s alienating – but also mass consumerism and its deadening, pacifying, wasteful effects. That’s hugely influential – and the most radical strands of youth culture, post-punk included, were often trying to imagine what a truly fulfilled future might look like. That, I argue in the book, is one of the key things neoliberalism had to shut down or co-opt.

What’s exciting is that this strand has popped up again in the present around the idea that automation, artificial intelligence etc, if used right, could free us up to spend more time on the things that really matter. It’s there in Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future, in the feminism of the Laboria Cuboniks collective, in the ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ meme and so on. We could learn a lot from those who’ve been over this ground before – which is why my latest research is looking back at the counterculture, one of the main forerunners of post-punk.

(((0))): Did post punk’s ideas and form influence the mainstream in time or did the segue into ‘new pop’ blunt post-punk’s effect?

DW: It depends what kind of influence we’re talking about. Indie wouldn’t exist without post-punk – both musically and in the sense of independent record labels driven by a commitment to more than just profit. You hear musical echoes of post-punk in the most unlikely places now that we live in a world where the past can be cannibalised by the internet.

(((0))): You compare and contrast Scritti Politti and Gang of Four, The Fall and Blue Orchids, The Slits and The Raincoats to explore similarities and differences within leftist post punk. Were there any other bands you were tempted to include?

DW: Oh, loads. It was hard to narrow it down to those six and I do worry that the book may come across as unrepresentative – but I did want to concentrate on a particular element of post-punk and really do it justice rather than spread myself thinly and risk writing superficially. In the book I justify my in-depth readings by saying that post-punk tends to attract particularly intense fans who would be likely to think about the music in this level of detail!

(((0))): You identify early Rough Trade’s oppositional and prefigurative practice as an egalitarian, democratic collective model, was it an important space for the exploration which was such an essential part of leftist post punk?

DW: Yes – it couldn’t have happened without initiatives like Rough Trade. Not just the ideas they spread and the opportunities they gave to those who wouldn’t otherwise have been heard – but the radical experiments with the form of popular music. The cultural thinker Raymond Williams is a big influence on the book and one of his arguments is that you can’t separate the form of culture from the way it gets made.

(((0))): Do you think digital technology has democratised the means of (cultural) production to the point that it is so decentralised it’s hard for a movement to coalesce like it did around Rough Trade?

DW: Probably, yes. In some ways that’s all to the good but in others we have lost something – we have to remember that although the technology’s there for people to make and release music much more easily now, the channels they often have to do it through are rarely motivated by leftist values in the way that early Rough Trade was. That shapes what comes out – more and more we’re forced to be ‘entrepreneurs of the self’ in the music and culture we make and we have to fight against that – we have to make stuff that communicates something about the world, not a polished, false and partial version of ‘identity’.

(((0))): You comment that the revival of post-punk in the early 2000s was politically contentless, in Inventing the Future (7) Srnicek and Williams make the point that cultural change often precedes political change, have you come across many contemporary bands that have the concerns you identify in the book, that take the process of production and musical form seriously? One band I was thinking about are Gnod who are involved with Islington Mill in Manchester (8) and Tesla Tapes (9).

DW: Yes – there’s loads of stuff going on across a multitude of musical scenes but of the contemporary post-punk acts I can think of, maybe Shopping, Lonelady and Downtown Boys off the top of my head. This idea of cultural change preceding political change (taken from the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci) is right – something was in the air before you saw the revival of the left in Britain, Europe and the States.

Your final chapter talks of post-punk as a resource relevant to contemporary political and cultural struggles. What specific aspects of post-punk do you think we should be re-examining and learning from?

DW: I’ve probably covered a lot of this already, but to sum up: The link between cultural form and politics; the attempt to democratise cultural production and de-link it from the profit motive; the related decentralisation of power; the attempt to start improvising what a better future might look like in the here and now; and its sheer utopianism in shitty times.

David Wilkinson Lectures at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. He has worked on the Leverhulme project ‘Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture’ and is involved with the Interdisciplinary Network for the Study of Subcultures, Popular Music and Social Change.

Buy this ace book here

Bibliography.

(1)Laing, D. (2015) ‘One Chord Wonders; Power and Meaning in Punk Rock’, PM Press, Oakland, CA, USA.

(2)About this book, (2016) https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781349698073

(3)Kiaer, C. (2005) ‘Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism’ The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.

(4) James, R. (2014) ‘Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism’, Zero Books, Winchester UK and Washington, USA.

(5) Laing, D. (2015) ‘One Chord Wonders; Power and Meaning in Punk Rock’, PM Press, Oakland, CA, USA.

(6) Harvey, D. (2005) ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’, Oxford University Press, Oxford UK and New York USA.

(7) Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) ‘Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work’, Verso. London UK and Brooklyn, NY, USA.

(8) http://www.islingtonmill.com/who-we-are/

(9) https://teslatapes.bandcamp.com/

Cover Photo courtesy of Palgrave Macmillan UK

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