Jazz and Rock

Jazz presumes that it would be nice if the four of us – simpatico dudes that we are – while playing a complicated song together, might somehow be free and autonomous. Tragically, this never quite works out…


Rock-and-roll, on the other hand, presumes that the four of us – as damaged and anti-social as we are – might possibly get it to-fucking-gether, man, and play this simple song. And play it right, okay? just this once, in tune and on the beat. But we can’t, The song is too simple and we’re too complicated and too excited. We try like hell, but the guitars distort, the intonation bends, and the beat just moves, imperceptibly, against our formal expectations, whether we want to or not, just because we’re breathing, man. Thus, in the process of trying to play this very simple song, together, we create this hurricane of noise, this infinitely complicated fractal filigree of delicate distinctions.

From Dave Hickey, Air Guitar.

As for living….

As For Living, Our Commodities Do That For Us……:

Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Social Synthesis and the Dialectic of Real Abstraction.

How is social synthesis possible by means of commodity exchange?

This is the central question Alfred Sohn-Rethel wishes to address in his book Intellectual and Manual Labour,[i] published in German in 1970 and in an English translation in 1978. The Kantian echo is deliberate: he goes on to say:

The word synthesis is used to arm the formulation of my enquiry with a spearhead against Kant’s hypostasis of an a priori synthesis from the spontaneity of the mind and thus to pay back transcendental idealism in its own coin. (IML 37)

If the notions of synthesis and possibility announce the presence of Kant in the investigation, ‘commodity exchange’ tells us from what direction the ‘spearhead’ is to be mounted.

The key text is clearly the first chapters of Capital, but Sohn-Rethel also takes as central the well-known passage from the preface to the Critique of Political Economy

The model of the production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life processes in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.[ii]

It has been too easy to take this as a delineation of a ‘base-superstructure’ model; to see ‘production’ as the determinant of consciousness, and consciousness as a simple reflection of the material basis of life.

The view is rather this: ‘the model of the production (produktionweise) of material life’, the forces and relations of production, and the whole complex interplay of capital and labour that both conditions and enacts such forces and relations, is understood as a unity through, and only through, the commodity form. And the commodity form in turn conditions ‘social being’, the mode in which we, as otherwise atomised individuals, relate to each other.  So the model is not one where the physical processes of material life – the interaction of labour and nature – nor the class relation of capitalist modes of production, condition our social being which in turn conditions the consciousness of individuals. Rather, our social being, which is not merely the aggregate of individual consciousness, but a totality through which the self-consciousness of individuals is brought into being, rests on a particular nexus – the commodity structure – that is also the ground and condition of the processes of production.

The core of Sohn-Rethel’s argument is contained therein; the Kantian subject of the transcendental analytic is displaced onto ‘social being’, the categories and forms of which ‘produce’ a world for us that has all the singularity and necessity of the Kantian model but one that is not hung from a skyhook in a domain of reason outside and beyond time, space and the limits of the human understanding. 

Continue reading “As for living….”

Zoom Poem

Zoom Poem

(Excerpts from a Zoom transcription of a research interview)

I would have got tokens from a conference where God opens for my answer

I mean, I can remember I’m a weightlifting iPhone for the year

I was in charge of Valley Shannon, like Bosch office LP,

 Which I actually have a Bible

 Anyway okay for 50 cents

 On the basis of like a bad driving home

When I bought that first Cassandra

 Was on a visit up to document my mother

Yeah, the goddess in town and 20 minutes Gospel tourists you know I’d be washed up the pups

The Fire this Time

“You the English, you the French, you the West, you the Christian: you can’t help but feel that there is something you can do for me, that you can save me. And you don’t get to know that I’ve endured your salvation so long, I can’t afford it anymore, not another moment of your salvation”

James Baldwin, 1970 in Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris, directed by Terence Dixon

The Worst

This Weekend I will Mostly (not) be Listening to the Worst.

In January 1978, the Buzzcocks played in the Exam Hall in Trinity College, Dublin. This was just after the release of Another Music in a Different Kitchen, the band, having been early to the party with Spiral Scratch, came a little late to the debut album stage. There were two support bands that night: Revolver, probably at that point the most popular punk -new wave act in Dublin and the Worst, from Manchester, on the bill as Buzzcocks’ guests. Much to Revolver’s annoyance they were forced to go on first and then watch as the Worst put on a performance that left much of the audience open-mouthed. The drummer had a toy Chad Valley drumkit, songs appeared to stop and start at random, with little enough in the way of intelligibility or melodic sense. I thought they were fantastic, being, at the time, at about their level of musical competence, but I recall Revolver’s singer, Philip Byrne, being outraged: ‘they can’t sing, they can’t play, it’s a joke!’ or words to that effect. The Worst remain one the few completely unrecorded bands from that era: as the trawl of demo tapes, radio sessions, and limited issue singles that has put almost every note recorded by a band with any claim to be considered post-punk anywhere in the world onto vinyl, the Worst appear not to have recorded anything or even have had a gig picked up on a stray cassette recorder. Truly, the Buddy Bolden of (post-?) punk. They were not however a joke: the point was an almost Maoist purity, a refusal to compromise with the industry even to the extent of writing a song that might be exploitable.

Continue reading “The Worst”

History has a Stutter…

Intro to VOX 80-83/ Hi-Tone Books, Dublin 2018

‘History has a stutter/ it says w…w…watch out!’

The Mekons – Sympathy for the Mekons

Writing about stuff that happened almost 40 years ago, when you were in your teens and early twenties, from the vantage point of late middle-age is fraught with all sorts of temptations: most vicious perhaps, the tendency to reduce the struggles and frustrations of the time to cosy anecdotage, and to forget how much it hurt. It is also somewhat paradoxical, and a little sad, that men and women of my generation seem increasingly to be going to print with memoirs of an age that was supposed to rip up ‘rock’s rich tapestry’, not stitch it all back together seamlessly as part of the never-ending story. Theodor Adorno, no friend of popular music, began Negative Dialectics with the observation that philosophy lived on because the time to end it had been missed: the period in question, punk and into post-punk was probably the time when rock music might have most usefully have been put to sleep; again, the opportunity was missed, but at least Vox, and many of the artists featured in it did their best.

It would be easy, much to easy, to make a list of all the ways in which Dublin was different ‘back then’: some of them to do the ways in which everything was different, some of them specific to Ireland, some even more specific to Dublin. Such a list would still fail to capture the affective grain of the time: which is where the artefact as dialectical image comes in. Looking at records from the time, and handling fanzines and flyers, something of the past, or of a past, finds mute expression, not a voice exactly, but a look, possibly a reproach.

Continue reading “History has a Stutter…”

Old man writes about old music

This Weekend I will mostly be listening to….Exile on Main Street.

(originally posted on the Cedar Lounge Revolution)

The Rolling Stones. You’ve probably heard of them, and this one is usually considered their best record (though it wasn’t universally well received on release). So what is there to say about it?

All I can offer is that I was provoked: in a piece in this slot back in April, IEL talked about the Doors and in the comments WbS suggested that the Doors were ‘vastly better than the Stones’. Now my view of the Doors is much like Churchill on liberalism: anyone who doesn’t like the Doors when they’re 20 has no heart and anyone who still likes them when they’re 30 … maybe stop there. Some of you will be aware that I’ve been researching how we arrive at our judgements of taste around music and one of the things I’m interested in the way we build up a personal canon, a sense of what’s important. And for some – me, for example – this looks a bit like a mental league table, or at least a categorisation of artists and records according to some criteria, often obscure, certainly influenced by others, but internalised as ones ‘own’ taste. And in my table, the Stones are infinitely more significant than the Doors.

Funny thing is, a year ago, I probably would have been annoyed about the comment, but no more: but, over the past months, I’ve become obsessed with this record, and a few other Stones songs to an extent that I find perplexing. Either I’ve finally succumbed to the lure of classic rock and am about to become one of those guys who goes on about ‘real music’ in YouTube comments, or ….well actually I don’t have an ‘or’.

Continue reading “Old man writes about old music”

Review of Millar: ‘Sounding Dissent’

Sounding Dissent: Rebel Songs, Resistance, and Irish Republicanism.

Stephen R. Millar

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020

ISSBN: 978-0-472-13194-5

248 pages. Hardback $80

Music and Irish nationalism have a long, co-dependent history, one that, for some commentators, was not to the advantage of musical life in Ireland. For Harry White, the cultural nationalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries relegated music to the service of politics and entirely prevented the development of a nationally informed ‘art’ music as in other fledgling European nations. Music, when not ignored, was pressed into service as an agent of political consciousness raising: “insofar as music stimulated political feeling (…) its cultivation could be enthusiastically commended. Its redundancy otherwise was painfully apparent” (White: 1998, p. 9).

In the absence of ‘serious’ music, songs of various kinds, from the genteel poeticisms of Thomas Moore, in the early years of 19th century, to the anthems of Young Ireland in the 1840s and the Fenian Songster of 1866, constituted a shared songbook from which nationalisms of equally various kinds took inspiration.

Continue reading “Review of Millar: ‘Sounding Dissent’”

Outsourcing Taste: Are Algorithms Doing All the Work?

Outsourcing Taste; Are Algorithms Doing all the Work?



It is a truism that is nevertheless true that creativity does not come into existence in a vacuum. Creative endeavour, whether individual or collective, requires a material and social context within which it can practice. This context includes, but is not limited to, the existence of an audience that might be expected to understand the work produced, the means by which the work can reach that audience and at least the possibility – within capitalism – that the single creative practitioner or collective enterprise can profit from such work.

Popular music, by which, for the purpose of this essay, I take to refer to – for the most part – music produced from within the post- Rock and Roll, Anglo-American cultural space, has always had a specific and necessary entanglement with the technology by which it is disseminated and consumed. An alternative definition to the one offered above might simply state that popular music is recorded music: not music that is recorded, but music that is made as recordings. In other words, the primary object is not the song, or the score, but the record. Over the more than 60 year history of this form of popular music, the physical – and later ‘virtual’ – form that recordings have taken has changed many times: I imagine it would be possible to listen to the same Elvis Presley recording 0f ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ as a 78 rpm disc, a 45 rpm single, on a 33 ⅓ LP compilation, on cassette tape, on 8-track tape, on a CD, as a digital download and as streamed content from a platform such as Spotify – and, of course, on the radio. It is even possible that the same listener might have purchased or consumed the same or similar content in all these formats.

Each of these formats bring with them specific affordances: the car radio, the high- end stereo system, the smartphone, all permit differing modes of attention and demand specific social contexts. The argument I wish to pursue here is that the technological and social context in which popular music, and the associated industry, reached its commercial –and some would argue, artistic – apotheosis in the roughly two and a half decades  between the mid-sixties and the late nineties of the 20th century was supported by a notion of taste that had its roots in ‘high’ modernism, albeit misconstrued, and that as listening habits and industry structures have been transformed since the start of this century, so have the ways in which taste is understood and mobilised by the industry. The first section will look at how notions of taste and judgement, rooted in Kantian aesthetics, were smuggled into the commercial music industry, even as the inheritors of that tradition – the Frankfurt school – railed against it. The second section will examine how the technological changes and consequent shifts in listening practices wrought by the move to digital means of production and dissemination have disrupted this ‘ideology of rock’ and the final section will posit some possible outcomes. Continue reading “Outsourcing Taste: Are Algorithms Doing All the Work?”