7
Dec 18

when the gang chooses you: or how the
puffin club turned me into a punk rocker

Hidden Landscapes3 comments • 119 views

[This post originally went up at my PATREON: subscribers get to read posts and hear podcasts early — and help offset costs and time and help me do more of this kind of thing. Please share widely and encourage participation in the comments!]

This is a lightly edited extract from a piece I wrote for Frank Kogan’s fanzine WHY MUSIC SUCKS (#11, pub.June 1997). The topic was “My First Record”; some of the tone is me not quite sure at that time who I am as a writer any more, especially in this context. All the square-bracket interpolations and footnoted annotations are new.

[…] The first LP I bought was almost certainly Slapp Happy’s Slapp Happy [in 1976]. It was on bargain offer in a local shop, and I remember the grins on the faces of the shop girls when I took it off their hands. But it was very nearly – which would have been hilarious – Metal Machine Music, which was in the same bargain bin. For some reason I decided against MMM. I think that I decided it was too popular: or – since this makes no sense – that someone I knew would have bought it, so I didn’t need to.

Between these points [i.e. 1967-76], ten years of what? [Footnote 1] Growing up in the depths of England’s rural midlands, isolated from kids my own age [2]. My parents aren’t puritans; I was forbidden nothing [3]; but living in the deep country I had no access, except to books, and no idea of what I was missing. I spent my time reading reading reading, till places like Narnia and Moominvalley seemed real and familiar, and the outside world grey, pale, without energy.

[When I got to secondary school] and began to hang out with kids who talked about rock, my solution to not being up to speed was straight out of Alien Nation [4]. The off-worlder studies the host culture’s ways diligently, committing all trivia to memory, just in case. Soon he can pass as human: or will some ridiculous detail be his downfall?

I bought a book in 1977: The NME Book of Rock, a chubby little pulp-encyclopaedia of pop [5], and read it cover to cover, committed it to memory, and turned myself into a little book-based expert [i.e. on records and in music I wouldn’t actually hear for years]. More importantly, though, I read in it that a man called Tony Palmer (a British TV director in the 60s) who’d heard no rock until 1967, when he read about Sgt Pepper in The (London) Times, had asked a friend for Ten Essential Albums, and become a professional national rock critic within the year. [6]

I decided to do the same. But I went further, polling maybe 30 people. NOT all in my immediate gang, and several not even close to being friends. I ended up with a list of maybe 100 records [7]: all LPs (a fact of significance, though I didn’t yet know this). I had no record player, but my sister did have a little tape-recorder/cassette player. Everyone played tapes then anyway – it was the era of the portable cassette-machine. I borrowed tape after tape, writing careful critical notes — subjective? ignorant? innocent? pure? — marking everything out of five. When they played stuff at school on their little machines, it had to be quiet (it was school). At home, I played things even more quietly. Some of this rock stuff sounded very nice; very little hit me particularly hard (all those touches of classical imitation). Three exceptions: Patti’s Horses, 666 by Aphrodite’s Child, Camembert Electrique by Gong.

Mainly there was a central cluster of Progressive Rock: the gang’s median taste, its mainstream: Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, Purple, Rainbow, ELP, Barclay James Harvest, Wishbone Ash. I was also now listening to John Peel – very very quietly – every night (on a tiny little radio, under the bedcovers), and reading the weekly rock papers, as assiduously as Talmud. There were then four in the UK: NME, Melody Maker, Sounds, and Record Mirror [8].

[From the four weeklies and Peel] I learnt that prog rock had gone out of fashion, very suddenly, about six months before I began this project. Just as I began my big daft quest, punk had invaded. Though mostly younger than me, the gang I had till then imagined hipper than me were already beached by history — and I was beginning to exchange this briefly desired companionship, of those to hand at my school, for the idea of a gang I knew was better. A virtual gang, an imagined community: a mass movement without local representatives (except for me, of course). This was easier than it may sound. [9]

Rock-paper language was just then full of praise for punk because it spoke “ordinary language” about “everyday, relevant things”. But urban rage wasn’t ordinary or relevant to my initial gang — nor to me [10]. This was a rhetoric my to-hand gang resisted: you could even say they saw through it. ’ But I loved it for its non-ordinariness, and bought straight into it. I entirely convinced myself that, as Simon Frith would say, reality was what happened elsewhere. [11]

My secret reason for finding punk both comforting and alluring was its yen for absolute moral conflict: when I gazed at grainy photos of dark rooms full of odd-looking people and occasional shiny gleaming things (guitars, mike stands, Siouxsie Sioux’s eyes), I was thrown straight back into a world I was already perfectly familiar with, and happy in. Children’s books are thick with absolute moral conflict, odd-looking people, occasional shiny gleaming things (swords, stars, Lúthien Tinúviel’s eyes).

I loved the idea that somewhere in the world, far away, were people whose “ordinary everyday” shared tone and texture with my utterly personal totally bookish world of moral quest and the innocent but determined defeat of evil, of small bands of small folks against the dark forces. Goblins didn’t exist, but Johnny Rotten did. I might even meet him [12].

However this gang-transfer did not happen immediately. [13] It was preceded, or in fact accompanied, by a failed transfer into a rival virtual community. One established less by reading than by listening; but again one that demanded I gravitate to the real, familiar energy of the imagined, and retreat from the pale grey failure of my immediate surroundings. [14]

The poll returns that intrigued me most even then were the ones that failed to fall into any pattern, the replies of those without group allegiance, the bands who the rock papers seemed to have little or no [current] attitude towards. Lone votes for Sabbath, Tull, Bethnal [15], Rory Gallagher, the Groundhogs. And beyond this, the eccentric – because so casual and so ill-considered – votes of a guy called Peter, who everyone called Tool. [16] He’d voted for the only three records he knew. He brought them to school, but he didn’t own them; they were his sister Nora’s: In Hearing of by Atomic Rooster, 100 Ton Chicken by Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack, Camembert Electrique by Gong. The first two were very minor BritBluesBoom groups, just as it began shading into Prog Rock (Christine Mcvie, then Christine Perfect, later of Fleetwood Mac, sang for Shack; co-founded by Carl Palmer, Rooster were an offshoot of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, though Palmer had left for ELP by Hearing-time).

But Gong were completely different. For a while (c. 1971-72) France’s most popular avant-garde free-rock group, they were pluperfect Euro-hippy anarchists, playing disorderly spacerock that would have been jazz-rock if they hadn’t been so out of it. (Indeed, the more time passed, the duller and more jazzrocky Gong became.) They lived in a chateau-commune in rural France (there was a picture on the sleeve: it looked like a shabby mountain farm). They gave themselves cartoon names (sax and fluteplayer Didier Malherbe was Bloomdido Bad de Grasse: the only one I can remember), and there was some elaborate though never-explained mythology involving the moon, Tantric sex, weed, teapots, pixies, and the poet John Donne. Their bossman was an already aging Australian ur-beatnik called Daevid Allen, who had been buddies with minimalist tape-looper Terry Riley and also a founder of Soft Machine. This particular record you could find all over the place in those days: it sold for 99p only, when LPs were £3.99 or £4.99. I didn’t buy it at the time: we just played Pete’s copy (including playing frisbee with it and walking on it).

I never met Pete’s sister Nora. Her taste intrigues me.

With its black-and-white hand-drawn sleeve, handwritten song titles, fuzz of marginal jokes, Camembert Electrique was a fabulous detailed microworld to me: an explosive little 1968 in my own heart. It wasn’t the drug references, which meant nothing to me: it was the sense that this cartoon world was extended and internally consistent (as subsequent exploration proved it wasn’t) [17], that you could leave the beckoning dreary straight world, and make off into this alternative space. I wanted to hang around and do nothing and grow my hair really long and have a funny cartoon name in a Chateau in France. Under the paving stones, the Chateau.

Most of the record was formless, shapeless, draggy wandering, with funny little sound effects (a sort of chuggy clockwork object panned slowly across the stereo-image at one point). Allen couldn’t sing – he kind of spoke ‘poetry’ in a mimsy way. But there was also this one perfectly simple, hypnotic, unforgettable bassline, which I loved then, and love now (everyone loved it who heard it). I gave the record five out of five. No one seemed to understand why. (Even Pete didn’t like it that much. He voted for it because it was his, not because it was good.) I know why, now: I knew that one day I would love and understand as much as I did that bassline all the bits of the record that irritated and puzzled me. I wasn’t ready: but with study this understanding would come.

If people thought this polling project was weird at the time, they never said so. Of course, for years, I thought it was: I never spoke about it, never liked to think about it. It was proof that my rock roots were none too deep, and startlingly inauthentic. [18] The getting of wisdom demands that the mechanism of its attainment be rejected. […]

FOOTNOTES:

1: The 10-ish years covered the time from the first LP that mattered to me, though bought by my dad for my mum: Sergeant Pepper. Here’s a post on that.

2: Isolated by geography, not temperament: welcome to the countryside, where your closest schoolfriend lives 10 miles away.

3: This seems an odd thing to say: like they always inatantly bought me a pony and a sportscar and every double album I desired. What I mainly meant was they they didn’t at any point seem to disapprove of my interests and sense of life-direction as a writer. (And for “aren’t” read “weren’t”: mum died in 2005, dad in 2010, and I miss them.)

4: lol does anyone even remember this TV series, once salient and much-discussed? Probably a more exact reference for the thing I’m talking about is The Man Who Fell to Earth — at least people have actually seen it in living memory.

5: There were three editions of the NME Book of Rock: 1975 (Star Books, ed.Nick Logan and Bob Finnis); Feb.1977 (Star, ed.Logan and Bob Woffinden); Nov.1977 (Salamander, large format, ed.Logan and Woffinden). I own the second and third, now in terrible condition (no covers, some outer pages vanished). The late Bob Woffinden had a fascinating and exemplary second act to his career as a rock journalist.

6: Tony graciously agreed to participate in my Birkbeck conference in 2015, on an entertaining panel with Jonathon Green and Mark Pringle about how well or badly mainstream media tackled rock culture in the 1960s.

7: I wish I still had the documentation that went with this poll, not to mention the results, but it went missing long ago. A hundred seems a lot!

8: Those four weeklies in order of my engagement with them:

A: NME every week from August 1977 — I ended up writing for it and only stopped when I angrily quit in 1988 (a story I’ll tell properly another time) .

B: Sounds most weeks 1977-79: I was driven off by reviewers who seemed not to get post-punk, as it wasn’t yet called: mainly Garry Bushell and his quasi-political thuggishness, then still nominally leftwing, but also Dave McCullough’s bad review of the first Raincoats LP (grrrr). McCullough was actually an interesting writer, generally simpatico with things I liked then — The Fall — and I often wonder what became of him.

C: Melody Maker: dipped in for a while in 1977, only very occasionally thereafter. It was regarded as the most grown-up and serious, but to be honest (aged 17) I found it a bit of a chore, and its page design was pretty terrible. Bascially it had a bad punk wars and I largely missed its late 70s reflowering under Richard Williams.

D: Record Mirror: this by contrast I felt at the time was a little young for me and hardly ever looked at, which I now regret.

9: If this essay has a moral, it’s that this kind of identification can be much deeper, and more life-shaping, than the impact of the seemingly more immediate world around you (your school, your town).

10: We were rural or small-town middle-class kids. Not all my friends were middle-class — but the ones that weren’t mostly weren’t at that school.

11: This phrase was from memory, and as a result misquoted in this piece. It’s the final sentence of Simon Frith’s ‘Playing with Real Feeling: Making Sense of Jazz in Britain’ (collected in both Music for Pleasure and Taking Popular Music Seriously). The full passage is worth quoting: “To understand why (and how) the worlds of jazz (and rock) are young men’s worlds we have, for example, to understand what it means to grow up male and middle-class; the understand the urgency to ‘authenticity’ we have to understand the strange fear of being ‘inauthentic’. In this world, American music — black American music — stands for a simple idea: that everything real is happening elsewhere.” I knew this quote (and was alluding to it, even if I got it slightly wrong) because Frank Kogan had explored it in an earlier issue of Why Music Sucks. Versions of this discussion can be found in his book Real Punks Don’t Wear Black: Music Writing by Frank Kogan, in the three-page essay ‘The Trouble with the Sociology of Pop’ but also at the start of the epic 47-page (nearing 30,000-word) essay-memoir ‘Roger Williams in America / The What Thing’. Where too many present-day music-writers jump to scorn the notion of authenticity (as risible goal and reliable index of bad music), Kogan explores how the fear could be social and artistically useful and fruitful, and hence not “strange” all. There’s a reason we can’t shed it as a topic, and a reason it seems constantly to return in new form (see also footnote 18).

12: So far I never met him.

13: Since age 10 I had been a member on the distant edges of the Puffin Club. If I now began scouring NME and Sounds for details of how punk worked as group I belonged to, I was simply switching my habit away from Puffin Post, a magazine run by a children’s publisher, a monthly full of interviews and stories and competitions you could enter, and club picnics for members (which never took place in Shropshire). There was an extensive reviews section, in which insider kids got to detail in print the upcoming paperbacks they’d been given to enthuse about. I very badly wanted to be one of these insiders, and tell the world why a book I liked was good.

14: “pale grey failure…” With hindsight I’m a bit out of sympathy with this back-projecting sorry-for-myself flourish. I didn’t feel a failure as a teenager at all — I was excited and stubborn and quietly driven — and now I distrust this attempt at self-deprecation. I want to say that the late 90s is when I most felt a failure: certainly much more than the mid-70s. Probably I’ll change my mind about this too though.

15: Bethnal were a low-tier, now-forgotten pop-punk band, featuring one George Csapo on vocals and violin. Pete Townshend-approved, they made two LPs, Dangerous Times and Crash Landing. The voter in my poll also played violin.

16: This sounds mean, and how I continued it in the original makes it worse: “(because he was one”). In fact he was a sweet friendly somewhat dozy kid whose main defence mechanism was playing the clown. He was teased ruthlessly and seemed not to mind. I hope he actually genuinely didn’t mind.

17: In other words the kind of conceptual continuity that pulls people into Zappa’s world, or Pedro Bell’s cartoons on the Parliament and Funkadelic sleeves — though I never warmed to Zappaworld when I later encountered it.

18: “Startlingly inauthentic”. But startling to who? Inauthentic how? Looking back — halfway across my writing life, I guess — it’s maybe telling that this is the phrase I wave uneasily: “lol authenticity, lol young me?” What exactly is bundled up into it? What was the “unrealness” of musical and/or writerly understanding that I was claiming to find about my early anxious self, in this late-90s stab at describing my mid-80s anxieties about my 70s (teenage) self.

To wander off into a minefield of thinking aloud, it’s two things: the extent of my knowledge, and the mode of its arrival — as in, do writers ever actually understand anyone else?

(A): Was I the kind of obsessive record-collecting scholar I was surrounded by in the mid-80s? Well, no (impostor syndrome klaxon): I knew a lot, almost all gained by reading.

(B): how was this way into and what it means not just entirely at odds with the world of the cap-p Proper pop or rock or soul or jazz fan (black or white). Who had surely somehow directly absorbed the relevant language from their own local community or anyway their older siblings, or else from some bewitched engagement with “the music itself” on radio or (sometimes) TV? Or via obsessive gathering of 45s and 33s (despite 33s at this juncture being somewhat deprecated) 33?

In fact, of course (C): most strong music writers come to writing by reading. By my late teens something about it — the access it gave to something, something I still haven’t quite worked out — it had evolved into a passion, a commitment I couldn’t and didn’t sidestep. Aged 20 or so, it seemed all too belated, but being slow to get things (or to accept things?) isn’t something I’m faking, that’s for sure. In small doses with big gaps and often poor access, I’ve been listening to pop all my life.

As a teen, I wanted to know what it was about music that bound my acquaintances into groups, and could it work for me? In retrospect running a poll seems to me like a pretty smart way of tackling the not-knowing-much aspect — and as a one-off also not the worst stab at critical practice. Evidence if any were needed that being some sort of analyst of matters pop-cultural was already baked in — that it was actually what I was always meant to be. If I felt I was the wrong kind of person from the wrong kind of place back then, I stopped thinking this long ago: this is just who I am.

(D): The key for me here and now is the degree to which music-listening (and collecting and whatever other interaction is involved) bumps sideways into a world shaped by words and refashions it. A lot, a little? Does it challenge it or firm it up? Thee days I prefer always to argue for the former — the disjunction is what a critic shd be hunting for — but the latter remains common (because it seems more normal?) and this (for non-writers?) functions as “the real”. Of course Kogan’s argument here would be the value of the feeling of fakeness — the worry that as a rockwriter I’m not a real rockwriter — is that wrestling with it is what helps drive you towards superior work.

How real is “superior work” though?

No amount of politics or philosophy or theory or backstory or practical musical experience — knowing how to play the changes for ‘Giant Step’s, knowing what they “mean” — are going to resolve the issue of the Correctness the Mix you hit on realness (the genuine emotional or intellectual effects) versus imagined cosplay potential, in yr stance or method or self-presentation. After all punk really did exist, albeit not as I hoped, and ditto Gong and the puffineers. And they’d gone by the time I arrived on any relevant scene. But my dream version stuck around long after, affecting all kinds of other stuff. The abiding panic that you’re getting the mix WRONG is what helps the writer to be smarter or better or deeper or more ____________ or more ____________

(Puffin Club artwork and lettering is largely and very memorably by the late Jill MacDonald… )

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Comments

  1. 1
    Phil on 7 Dec 2018 #

    Founder member of the Puffin Club here. I went to three or four of the annual exhibition/get-togethers; at one of them I was very excited to spot Kaye Webb Herself, and wandered over shyly to say hello – albeit without much sense of what else I wanted to say to her, if anything. Discouragingly, she was deep in conversation with some grown-ups. I waited. Eventually she noticed me, turned round and said, “Have you been waiting ages?” I agreed that I had (in the film-of-my-life version I nodded mutely). She turned back to her friends and went on talking.

    I spent most of my childhood wanting to be part of a gang, and never really felt I was, even when I was (I won four Puffin Club competitions, including one where I’d completely misread the rules and gone to great lengths to create something almost entirely unlike what they’d asked for (not the last time I did that, either)).

    My best friend was a massive Gong fan. Perhaps it’s because I never really got into smoking dope, but I could never see the point of Gong – or else I felt I’d got the point straight away (“oh, it’s a drugs reference”) and there wasn’t anything else to get. That is a hell of a bassline, though (assuming you were referring to this.) Incidentally, Camembert was sold (initially at least) at 49p – the price of a single, the same as The Faust Tapes (which, not to brag or anything, were a much bigger influence on me).

  2. 3
    Mark M on 8 Dec 2018 #

    On footnote 4: Alien Nation snuck back into conversations this time last year because the big-budget Will Smith/Netflix movie Bright was felt to have either borrowed extensively from it or accidentally managed to come up with a very similar idea. I haven’t bothered to watch Bright, nor indeed do I remember AN clearly enough (beyond the basic concept) to be able to judge if Bright stole from it or not.

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