How often do you hear something that truly shocks you? Something that dances between exhilaration, upset and questioning? Because that is exactly the case at the culmination of this series of films and performance over four days at Glasgow’s Tramway Theatre. An incendiary lecture by David Keenan in support of a new chapter and new edition of his seminal England’s Hidden Reverse, Crime Calls For Night proposes the likes of Throbbing Gristle and the, never less than divisive, Whitehouse, as the true punks, the true innovators and subversive ne’er do wells when put up against the Sex Pistols et al. A proposal made all the more persuasive by a following set by Groan Vessel that veers from noise, to Kate Bush on acid to the Devil’s own disco within a concise 25 minutes. Disquieting and thrilling, a killer combination.
Before we get to all that there’s a series of films from Cordelia Swan, Grayson Perry and Judith Goddard amongst others. As always when technology enables popular participation the quality varies widely. Some such as Goddard’s Lyrical Doubt tread perilously close to what one may trip over in an installation art degree show. Abstract but pointed images – some quite powerful such as an abused fruit of some sort – with disjointed musical collages give an illusion of meaning. Or aesthetic beauty anyway. Like a lot of visual and sonic work of this type however there are occasional moments of so what.
There is a nice film covering the miner’s strike where the previous owner of Donald Trump’s hair, Arthur Scargill, is compared in the press to Hitler – impressively invoking Godwin’s Law 15 years before the rest of us even had dial up. Perhaps the most effective highlight is John Smith’s Echo and the Bunnymen: Shine So Hard. Possibly best described as an impressionistic concert film, it manages to shackle the essential mundanity and drabness of elements of even such a recent past with a tingling live performance by the band at Buxton Pavilion. Indeed, despite the footage from inside the gig being an almost entirely black screen, what elements of colour there are are so much more vivid than the exterior footage the effect is to electrify the band and the experience. Coupled with Ian McCulloch actually being rather good live for once, it’s a compelling dismissal of natural light and embrace of the darkness – where warmth and excitement exists away from the sun.
Which brings us a touch too neatly to author David Keenan’s presentation on all things transgressive, from Palaeolithic drawings through to the provocative career of Whitehouse. Taking the proposition that art should head towards the noirish, should never explain itself and, if it ends up in difficult places, should reflect that full horror, it’s hard not be persuaded. Nor is it easy to disagree with the notion that, whatever its qualities, punk essentially played (plays) a debased version of rock and roll whereas artists such as Genesis P Orridge of Psychic TV as well as Throbbing Gristle were truly revolutionary in their use of sound and confrontational attitude.
Were the early industrial and noise bands juvenile in their use of song titles such as ‘Dedicated to Peter Kürten‘, ‘Buchenwald‘ or ‘Catholic Sex‘ simply scrawling immature abuse on all that surrounded them? In fact naming your band Nurse With Wound – who also feature briefly – is that needless prodding at the sensibilities of polite society? Possibly, but a central plank of the excellent and fascinating talk is that puerility, juvenility even, is nothing to be ashamed of. It may even be redemptive. As well as a great deal of Palaeolithic art actually being the modern equivalent of drawing a cock on a toilet door – one memorable caveman daub we examine manages to unify both sex and violence by having a fellow chucking a spear at some ancient beast whilst simultaneously penetrating Mrs Caveman – there is a celebration of youthful vigour. From the, unknown to me at least, fact that the famous Lascaux cave paintings were actually discovered by some kids heading quite literally into the dark, through to the more theoretical idea that the occultish fear of the night as instilled in man throughout the millennia is most easily assaulted by the young or young at heart at least. Those relatively unshackled by the social mores that restrict us all.
Which is where the unnerving aspects of this loose collective of ideas and expression come in to play. Whereas Sid Vicious may have been photographed wearing a Swastika in the Jewish quarter of Paris, there’s still a relative conventionality about the shock tactic. Perhaps allowing punks like the Pistols and Siouxsie Sioux to nestle happily in the rock canon whilst flirting with fascistic imagery, while those operating at the outer edges, dedicating albums to concentration camps, serial killers, sadism, sexual violence and the rest are still virtual pariahs. Pariahs who, up to a point at least, refuse to apologise. Problematic for many but that seemed to be the point. Listen to the horror that is ‘Buchenwald‘ by Whitehouse, with it’s groans and piercing white noise, it seems to embody exactly what such a terrible Holocaust stain on humanity should. It is nasty and unpleasant and has half the audience jamming fingers into violated ears. However perhaps its a truer reflection laced with greater integrity than any number of other, more life-affirming, looks at our various calamities and assaults on morality.
Whether you actually want to experience all this on a regular basis is another matter of course. And possibly irrelevant. Perhaps one should listen rather than necessarily desire to do so. Tonight in the room it is rare window into creations that have a real primal impact. Cerebral also, but alarming and disquieting in a very honest way. A way that should not be censored or avoided as to do so is to deny the undeniable. The atavistic indignities our dubious species seems never to lose enthusiasm for visiting upon itself. Inglorious life reflected by a harsh, uncompromising mirror upon the observer.
Which is also the case with the closing gig by Groan Vessel as well. A specially commissioned one off supergroup of musicians from Green Door Studios it’s a growling and deeply impressive tour through electronic slabs of sound, ethereal vocals of indeterminate language, to atonal melody and assorted scrapes, bangs and, well, industrial noise. Bewitching in its scope and pushing you back in alienation whilst slyly drawing you in. By the time the closer drops in a twisted take on an Italo groove it truly is hedonism in Hades. One wants to dance but is faintly terrified at the same time. Superb stuff and one hopes they will be seen again.
A wonderfully impressive series of events that throws up an array of challenging experiences and ideas. It might not always feel good, but then neither does life.