Pensive

Keeping It Real, an Early Shriekback Biography

The biog in its entirety, with lots of pretty pictures, can be found on the Official Shriekback Tumblr. I encourage you to go visit and, if you're on Tumblr, follow their account.

Here's the text. Please pass it 'round. All this is leading up to the release of their 13th studio album, so the more folks who know about it, the better!


Keeping it Real: Defining Moments, ‘Entertainment’, Punk and the Quest for the Authentic.
I had my defining moment in the early 80’s. When I got defined. Like a word.
'Barry Andrews (noun): a prematurely balding, young (20’s) man of tormented yet hedonistic proclivities. Besotted with art and what you could do with it. Aspiring to create some, if at all possible. Blazing ego held in check by some particularly English Shames and Terrors.’

Musically I was a curious mixture. Still a sucker for a good tune, but, post-punk, and post a number of, on the whole, quite helpful Self-Help activities*, all a-throb with the variousness of everything: world music, electronic dance, funk, avant garde difficulty. Best of all: all of these at once. I was not alone in this.
(representative list of fave artists, all media, random order: Fela Kuti, Joseph Beuys, Pierre Boulez, Peter Maxwell Davies, Lee Perry, Parliament, Bill Burroughs, Afrika Bambaata, Salif Keta, Werner Herzog, Apocalypse Now, Cathy Acker, Raoul Vaneigem and so on..
Of our ethnic and cultural peer group probably the Slits, Cabaret Voltaire, the Gang of Four, the Pop Group, Talking Heads, and, of course, Eno got a -qualified- thumbs up)
Of course, in their mid 20’s is when a lot of people get themselves defined. It’s a time of realising what it is that you genuinely like (not necessarily what’s cool, though that will come into it). And what you like is a bigger deal than it sounds. A list of films, books, music etc is most certainly part of it but that’s the tip of an iceberg. What these Hornby-esque lists represent is one’s developing accommodation with the world. What you like leads to who you are.
In the mid 20’s is also often when people find their tribes. Not the people you were stuck with through family and home town but the ones who chose the same things as you: who perhaps went to the Big City; who liked the things you liked; who wanted similar experiences. A community of preference instead of accident.
For me and my People, that meant moving to London, living cheap -squatting, perhaps- almost certainly signing on the dole** ; boozing and taking drugs, going to gigs and private views; working on our Genius Projects and getting off with each other on a feverish basis.
But there was a Worldview: something to do with a regard for Authenticity. Across the board: in art, in conversation, in dress***, in the quality of our relationships. You can see this manifesting in the list above: artists who came from other, less priveliged cultures, who had suffered; who had risked something to express themselves; who had fought the Man in a non-metaphorical way: this was Authenticity you could trust. The rest of them -those pampered middle class Westerners like us- had better be hard to like, grimly venting bitter truths. A bit ashamed of themselves possibly. Showing us how dark was the human condition.****
And they couldn’t be too successful, either.
Then they were Authentic.
Some of us had been in the music business culture in the wake of Punk and we were disappointed. In my opinion, something that began in the 60’s -a cultural project so to say- had, around the turn of the 80’s, finally taken too many hits and had laid down and died.
It was the idea of Rockn’Roll as a political force. Of art, actually, as something that could make a practical difference to power relations in the real world.60’s radical leaflet
Symptomatically, the Gang of Four’s first album was double-ironically called ‘Entertainment’ (what that said to me was: 'we acknowledge that politically influential music is impossible: it all gets put through the sausage machine of capitalism and comes out minced up as… 'Entertainment'. But…but.. maybe acknowledging this is, in itself, an act of subversion?').

Whether it was or not, plenty of other people were trying this tactic: Factory Records with their sandpaper album sleeves that damaged the records they were placed between. Test Department putting on quasi-Performance Art gigs***** in an old bus garage where much metal was banged (there was a lot of metal being banged in those days -it was another signifier of harsh, urban, unmediated alienation -also, possibly, a yearning for a ‘tribal’ expression, untainted by bloated, corrupt Rockist guitars etc ). My own band, Restaurant for Dogs, hiring people who couldn’t play or sing anything: to ensure their untainted…Authenticity. Sigh.
test dept…bangin’
The presiding idea was of somehow sidestepping the iniquitous System. To work within it but not be of it. Of course, this position was extremely precarious; impossible to maintain. It was the last tortured position of the 60’s Project before everybody finally said: ‘fuck it, let’s just try and make a decent record and tour the States, unless anyone’s got any better ideas?’
It was the failure of Punk, I assert, to impact on the austere realities of late 70’s Britain in anything more than an aesthetic way that led to this abdication. Punk was full of impossible ideologies, all rooted in Authenticity. You had to be young -really young -Johnny Rotten, at 19, was frowned upon by the hardcore as chronologically suspect- and working class to the max ('I never lived below 25 floors' -Mick Jones’s famous quote). The worst thing you could say of anyone was that they were a ‘poser’. Musical skill was anathema -it reeked of middle class privelige, of the Old Fart school of long guitar solos.

Playing your instrument well was In-Authentic, weirdly. Stupidly, with hindsight.
Like a lot of rebellions, Punk wasn’t good at establishing a brave new status quo. Which, ultimately, after you’ve Got Pissed and Destroyed, you do kinda have to do.

So then, as we know, the old realities tediously, inevitably, asserted themselves: the Clash started touring the USA they had been so bored with. The Pistols broke up in an old school rockist druggy mess. There was the Zandra Rhodes diamante safety pin. Capital had effortlessly absorbed Punk as it had every other movement from Rock to Situationism.

Punk was the last time anybody seriously proposed that Art -and Rock music particularly- might be an agent for anarcho-revolutionary political change. After the self evident collapse of Punk’s agenda the game was, irrevocably, up.
There was, in Thatcher’s First Decade some frantic twitching of the corpse -Red Wedge, Rock Against Racism, gigs supporting the Miners Strike- but there was a sense in which these activities felt more like helping out with posting leaflets for the Labour Party rather than storming the citadels of power or Revolutionising Everyday Life. Though you could argue that, since they were based on doing what was actually possible, these things arguably made more difference than the all-or-nothing ideologies that preceded them.

But, ah the Miner’s Strike, precisely. The spectacle of the miners, that last bastion of militant, working class resistance, so easily crushed by the naked power of the State. As the Clash noted, with wry pragmatism, their White Riot years behind them: ‘the British Army is waiting out there -it weighs fifteen hundred tons’.

Everybody had the feeling that the psycho-political high water mark that Hunter Thompson had seen in a vision near San Francisco was, by now, a long way up the beach and would not be superseded in our lifetimes. We had, in the words of Presuming Ed: ‘failed to paint it black’.
Anyway, I suspect we wouldn’t have been much cop on the barricades when the Revolution came. Though we would have loved to have played at the aftershow.

Three Vignettes from the New Dispensation:
1: ‘Hue and Cry’ a band with lefty leanings being taunted on TV by the reptilian manager Simon Napier-Bell -it’s a good idea to be anti-establishment, he said -it’s a good gimmick that’ll give your pop career more longevity. You could see he liked bursting the earnest young muso’s bubble with his shitty little truth-stick.
2: A 21 year old (Christian) engineer at a studio I was working at telling me that he knew The Mission sounded just like Led Zeppelin, but they were fun and they played live. It would not be long before a plague of covers bands would appear to fill this considerable niche.
3: On Shriekback’s last US tour in 92 I got a ride from the young (American) support band’s roadies. I was shocked by the eclecticsism of their driving music. Lou Reed jostled with Yes, Deep Purple with the Dead Kennedys and so on. I was confused. ‘Calm down grandad’, they didn’t actually say, ‘they’re just a bunch of tunes’.
NOTES
*Primal Therapy and Est, since you ask. Of which more anon.
**the Dole, in UK also known as Social Security or Supplementary Benefit was the basic welfare payment you got whatever your circumstances (paid by the DHSS: ‘Dept of Health and Social Security’ aka ‘Dept of Hassle and Slow Starvation’). Now known as (passive-agressively; a hint with teeth, tres New Labour) ‘Job Seekers’ Allowance’. It was the lifeline for many a creative type at this time and for many years after (‘the New Artschool’ as I believe the Jam called it). It was about £25 a week plus your rent. Just about livable-on if supplemented by a few little earners on the side. The DHSS staff, on the whole, knew the score and didn’t really pressure you to go for crap jobs. It was a very helpful and civilised thing which I believe is being dismantled by our glorious leaders as we speak.The payment came in the form of a green ‘Giro’ cheque, hence the joke: ‘what’s green and gets you pissed?’
*** clothes are interesting. To start with we Shrieks all wore Oxfam threads, 3rd hand leather jackets, old bloke’s trousers, scruffy plimsolls -it was a definite Look of the time (see: Cabaret Voltaire, G4NG, Test Department, early Scritti ). It said: ‘in a world defined by image, we refuse image: we wear the minimum necessary to fulfill the function of clothes but take no responsibility for any ‘statement’ you may infer.’ It was, come to think of it, a bit like the production on G4NG’s 1st album: deliberately underproduced, as though there were more important things in the world than getting a big assed drum sound. Talking Heads had their US preppy version of that. Ultimately, though there was no hiding place: a band’s clothes in a photo session paid for by a record company is, however much sophistry you try to employ, an image, a statement. The only question is: ‘what are you saying?’ Shrieks (with a certain amount of prodding and a lot of free money) eventually succumbed to logic and bribery and walked down New Bond Street heads held high, emerging from our pupae as Yohji/Comme des Garcons/Jaqui Hancher/Pam Hogg Designer Mothmen. It was more Authentic, paradoxically, and certainly prettier.
Before:


And after…

(ponces)
****(Mark Stewart out the Pop Group coming up to me at some gig, loquacious on magic mushrooms and cider, apparently, and telling me that living in a rich Western country meant that you should ‘feel like a cunt the whole time’. He might have just meant me, I didn’t want to ask.
*****it was a gig but not a Gig, geddit? No, I know..
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