We’ve all been transported by music—swept away, taken out of ourselves. It’s what the Lovin’ Spoonful meant in “Do You Believe in Magic” when John Sebastian sang about “a smile on your face and you don’t even know how it got there”; it’s part of what Pentecostal preachers mean when they damn rock ‘n’ roll as devil music; it’s what theorists mean when they bump into the limits of their theories and start talking about the ineffable. When you step back from the experience and try to make sense of it, nothing is sufficient; any attempt to break down the effect through an examination of a musician’s genius or a lyricist’s profundity seems like so much desperate irrelevancy. Not long ago I saw a new band that raised this question, and read a new book that offered a clue to an answer.
In Sound Effects (Pantheon), an essential study of how pop music is used by its listeners, British critic Simon Frith takes up a point made by the late French semiologist Roland Barthes. Barthes argued that the thrill of music is not a result of one’s conscious or subliminal response to “significance” (the rendering of an important idea, emotion, moment in time, or whatever—think of how you’ve tried to make sense of your response to “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Gimmie Shelter”); rather, the thrill comes from one’s response to signifiance. This odd and intriguing word has baffled Barthes’s translators (some, as if to say the hell with it, have rendered it as “significance”), but Frith handles the word best: signifiance refers not to a sign but to “the work of signification”—not to meaning, but to “the making of meanings.” We do not respond to symbols (doom in the dark chords and apocalyptic lyrics of “Gimmie Shelter,” escape and release in the rising choruses of “Like a Rolling Stone”), though we seize on such symbols and connect them to historical events or personal situations in order to explain our response; we respond to symbol creation.
The moment when we feel music taking us out of ourselves, Frith writes, is a moment when “the terms we usually use to construct and hold ourselves together suddenly seem to float free.” If this is so, then that moment can be understood and fitted back into daily life: music on this level deconstructs the frame of symbols we use to represent both ourselves and the world, and thus confronts us with the prospect of making new symbols. Frith’s example is startling, and perfect: “Think of Elvis Presley—in the end this is the only way we can explain his appeal.” We can never understand that appeal, that explosion of response, “in terms of what he ‘stood for,’ socially or personally.” Instead, “Elvis Presley’s music was thrilling because it dissolved the signs that had previously put adolescence [or, one might argue, American identity] together.” Because it dissolved those signs, or symbols—symbols, one might say, of conformity, restraint, and limits—Presley’s music was a celebration of the possibilities of signification, of “symbol creation itself.” The best writers on Elvis speak of the sense of freedom one can hear in his music, but Frith may be closer to the mark.
This whole matter of signifiance, of symbol making, seemed to be at stake in the show New Order gave last November 9 at the I Beam, a disco in San Francisco—though the context was not adolescence (you have to be 21 to get in, after all). The context of New Order’s performance was more like that of dread and resistance.
New Order emerged from the ruins of a late 1970s band from Manchester, England, called Joy Division—a name Nazis gave to the concentration camp brothels they stocked with female slaves. Joy Division’s lead singer was a young man named Ian Curtis. He sang on the edge, and not as a metaphor: his strongest numbers conveyed the feeling that he was fighting against all odds either to back away from the edge or to go over it. The nihilism of the Sex Pistols’ singles that had inspired Joy Division’s more measured music had been recognized from the start as a political negation; Curtis personalized that nihilism. He hung himself in May 1980 at the age of 22.
Immediately Joy Division’s albums—Unknown Pleasures and Closer—topped the U.K. charts (both were released in 1981 in the United States on Factory; the excellent Still, a two-record set of live and studio material, came out late last year as a Factory import). The band’s final singles, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “She’s Lost Control,” headed the major U.S. critics’ polls. Instant legend, but what to do with it?
The three remaining members of Joy Division—Bernard Albrecht, guitar and melodica, Peter Hook, bass, and Steve Morris, drums—were joined on keyboards and synthesizers by a woman who goes by the name of Gillian; Albrecht took over the singing. Going against all necropop cult tradition (Johnny Burnette died in 1964, but an album of newly recorded material by “Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘n Roll Trio and their Rockin’ Friends from Memphis” was issued last year), the four gave themselves a new name. Joy Division’s music had always communicated chaos, despair, doubt, and fear: The Myth of Sisyphus with Camus’s explanation of why you shouldn’t kill yourself ripped out. New Order deepened that sensibility and superseded it with a shining, haunted debut single, “Ceremony” (Factory). The show I saw superseded the single.
To many people, Ian Curtis confirmed his work when he killed himself. I always found his singing florid, or hysterical (listen to his version of “Ceremony” on Still), and as far as I was concerned, to the degree that Curtis’s music was affected by his suicide, it mainly gained a new dimension of melodramatic spectacle. There was no spectacle in New Order’s performance. New Order presented itself as ordinary life: there was no melodrama, an occasional smile but mostly quiet faces, few extra gestures, no flourishes. These were four people doing their work. At the same time, the presence of both sexes on the stage conveyed a subliminal sense of real life. Since 1976, the most interesting groups have formed on the basis of one’s wanting to be in a band rather than on the basis of one’s musical skills; over the past two years so many male-female bands have emerged that an all-male or all-female band can seem as much like an artificial construct, or a conceit, as a one-sex movie. A one-sex band now raises an image that bypasses, or evades, the world people actually live in, whether in their houses, in their fantasies, or in the supermarket. New Order began from these premises, this everyday credibility.
One step past that first impression of reality and ordinariness, the band’s music was primarily dramatic—and the music’s drama, set against the band’s ordinariness, was an immediate, delicious shock. What was dramatized was exclusion. The drama squeezed out various elements of life: fun, frivolity, transcendence, anything casual. It squeezed them out not as possible responses to the music, but as subjects for it.
As on New Order’s first album, Movement (Factory), Gillian built a drifting orchestral frame, often a distantly vamping, syncopated pattern that seemed to loom up before a listener’s eyes. Within this frame, textures took shape and fragmented. One could hear the music being made, as one might find exposed heating pipes in a piece of modern architecture. Though the music was neither improvised nor abstract, the abstraction Simon Frith insists on was there in the difficulty one had precisely associating what one was seeing with what one was hearing. Albrecht’s melodica (a plastic keyboard horn) drew on the otherworldly tones of Jamaican dub master Augustus Pablo’s East of the River Nile; Peter Hook’s structured bass lines led the sound, taking over the role one expects the guitar to play. Gillian’s synthesizers and Steve Morris’s drums—and, at times, a drum machine or syndrums (the latter creating hard, rifle-like cracks that seemed to come from some invisible fifth musician)—further skewed the image of a band that New Order presented. Sometimes the music seemed to move of its own accord, and sometimes it was as if the music were being pulled by an offstage force or an overriding idea: say, the secret intentions of the world outside the I Beam, intentions that overrode those of any mere musicians.
Music is fundamentally ambiguous, which is why its symbol-making (as opposed to symbol-imposing) power is so great. Music can make the dumbest lyrics sound profound, but ultimately it can support no specific message: its symbol-making power is the power of making the ambiguous symbol. If a piece of music is musically alive, if it has its own momentum, it will subvert, it will question, whatever explicit images or symbols it is supposed to carry—which is why in folk protest music (Joan Baez’s “There but for Fortune”) or punk protest music (Dead Kennedys’ “California Uber Alles”) obvious melodies and debilitated rhythms function like a demagogue’s rhetorical tricks. Thus a piece of music with words is a contradiction—not a cancellation, but a contradiction that can lead to a synthesis unintended by whoever wrote the words and music—and from this contradiction comes tension, the source of a song’s ability to dramatize the process by which a symbol is created.
This is what I saw in New Order’s performance. That night, lyrics were mostly more sounds—after a score of listenings to a tape of the I Beam show and to Movement, I’ve picked up only a few phrases (“No reason ever was given” is a current favorite). But at the I Beam, Albrecht’s voice had its own function. It was hard, monochromatic, antirealistic—seemingly lacking an object, and a violation of the conventional postpunk conversational voice. But because the music did include a voice, and thus forced a listener to confront an individual who was singing specific words, even words one could not quite make out, one responded as if a distinct message were there. Albrecht’s voice broke up the lines he was singing as if what he was trying to talk about was the impossibility of speaking clearly, and this, not paradoxically, intensified the possibility of response—of response to sound, to the process of symbol making, to the act of signification. It led the listener to begin to find symbols: to free associate within the structured, dramatic, excluding frame of the music.
As opposed to Ian Curtis, one got no idea of who Bernard Albrecht was from his singing. There wasn’t a hint of confession, of autobiography, of personal struggle. But one got a sense of the singer’s—and one’s own—role within the context of dread. Simply because Albrecht’s voice was a voice, which implicitly carries thoughts, arguments, ideas, he presented the possibility of response to dread: resistance. Otherwise, one’s sense of action said, he would not have been there.
Albrecht’s voice was, more than anything, determined. It had, perhaps, something of the tone of Ian Curtis’s voice but none of its expressionist character. Albrecht’s voice was itself an idea, the idea of symbol making within the dissolution of received symbols—the symbols one brought to the show of a band, of a concert, of Joy Division gloom, or real life—and that dissolution was the burden of the music. If it is true that Elvis Presley celebrated the act of symbol creation, then the four people in New Order did something subtly, vitally different: they argued
that symbol creation was possible.
If the best impulse of the avant-garde has been to make everyday life into art, and vice versa, then StreetArt: The Punk Poster in San Francisco 1977-1981 is one of the purest and most effective manifestations of that impulse. Peter Belsito, editor and designer, and Bob Davis, researcher, collected more than 3,000 of the fly-by-night fliers (most promoting bands, some just trying to turn the moment around) that have been stapled to telephone poles and doorjambs over the last few years; pared down to 126 examples and accompanied by a strikingly thoughtful text by Marian Kester, the result is a superbly produced, large-size paperback that says as much about the ambitions of San Francisco punk culture as San Francisco punk music has said about its limits. Start on page 18, with Carole Alter’s “What Shall I Wear Tonight,” flip back to page 77, for Target Video’s “Iran I Rock I Roll,” and then you’ll have to take it home. Available in adventurous book and record stores for $8.95 and by mail from Last Gasp, 2180 Bryant Street, San Francisco 94110, for one buck more.
Pennies From Heaven was the strongest American movie of 1981—perhaps the first noir musical. The film is perverse, and willing to set its perversity against irresistible sentiment—that’s what happens when Vernel Bagneris, as the destitute Accordion Man, steps out of a diner and mimes his way through Arthur Tracy’s terrifyingly impassioned 1937 version of the title song. Moving with almost feral wariness through the Depression rain—which turns into a shower of golden coins—and “singing” straight to Steve Martin, who as the go-getter sheet music salesman believes every song he sells, Bagneris’s face is all menace, all secret knowledge, but with Tracy’s otherworldly voice coming out of his mouth it’s impossible to tell what he really knows. See the movie, listen to Tracy on the soundtrack (Warner Bros.)—and wonder if the pop music of 1982 will produce a moment half so grand.
Real Life Rock Top Ten
- Nick Tosches, Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story (Delacorte/Dell)
- Gang of Four, “Another Day/Another Dollar” (Warner Bros. 12″ EP)
- Hayden Thompson, Dean Beard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others, Rockabilly Jamboree (Charly Import)
- Lindsey Buckingham, Law and Order (Asylum)
- Ludus, The Seduction (New Hormones import)
- Del Shannon, Drop Down and Get Me (Elektra)
- Romeo Void, “Never Say Never” (415 12″ EP)
- Bunny Wailer, Rock ‘n’ Groove (Solomonic)
- Sub Verse and others: Scaling Triangles (Treble Chants import)
- Flipper, “Brainwashed” (Subterranean) NM
California, February 1982