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Porn and the Anti-Liberal Backlash

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Porn would also relate to what we were talking about before re: the anti-liberal backlash of people like Legs McNeil. Feminists, by the mid-‘70s, were anti-porn, and so if being anti-liberal was your shtick (or genuine creed) then being pro-porn would fit. And as it happens Legs McNeil followed up his punk oral history Please Kill Me with an, er, oral history of the porn movie industry!

Devo, I reckon, were just sexually starved, that’s why they were fans of Hustler! Hustler, though, sounds like quite an interesting magazine, this writer Laura Kipnis wrote a fascinating and provocative article about it in Village Voice, talking about this element of class rage and scurrilous baiting of the establishment in it, e.g., their printing of a nude photo surreptitiously taken of Jackie Onassis.

With people like Lydia Lunch, the porn impulse relates to the idea of pushing boundaries of expression, the “emotional nudism” of her lyrics, her love of the literary avant-garde, and maybe back to radical theater and ‘60s stuff like the Living Theater.

It’s complicated, because there would have been a ‘60s impulse towards libidinal liberation, breaking taboos, building a culture of Eros vs. Thanatos, and the feminists at that point would have been right in the thick of that (as would the gay liberation movement—porn, I think, has a much less negative status in gay culture than straight). That late ‘60s, early ‘70s stage of women’s liberation was called “radical feminism”, it was much more like women claiming the freedoms of men and attacking things like Miss World for their sanitized view of what women were like. You look at a figure like Germaine Greer, she was into female wildness and female libertinism, sleeping with whoever you liked, she was into the whole Sixties rock’n’roll dope and fucking in the street trip, etc.  So while that generation of feminists might have criticized a magazine like Screw for chauvinist attitudes, there’s an extent I think that they’d have regarded it as a fellow traveler in cultural liberation.

Then by the mid-to-late ‘70s, what was called “cultural feminism” took over—figures like Andrea Dworkin, the focus shifting more to things like rape, wife abuse, porn as pernicious and oppressive. Lunch, then, is perhaps more in the Greer mold. (Later doing her spoken-world stuff she’s more anti-patriarchal and Dworkin-like perhaps in her all men are rapists mode of rhetoric).

Funny thing: Richard Kern’s son Fletcher used to go to the same East Village pre-school as my son Kieran, we see them in the neighbourhood regularly!

Do you think that American underground hipsters, despite their own knowledge of Derrida, see Scritti Politti, ABC, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood as mere fluff, compared to say, The Fall?

Making this connection between post-punk and what we in the UK called New Pop—in the US people talked about New Wave or New Music or Second British Invasion—was one of the main objectives I had in doing the book. I mean, it’s simply a historical fact that the two things were inseparable, it’s all one unified epoch of music. There are obvious band narratives that show this—Scritti Politti being the paradigm example, also the transition from Joy Division to New Order.

If you dig deeper, you have things like the fact that Human League and Gang of Four were originally on the same label, Fast Product, and the guy behind the label, Bob Last, went from working with Go4 and the Mekons to being the manager of Human League, Heaven 17, Scritti Politti, and, via his partner Rob Warr, ABC. Warr had managed Gang of Four during the Entertainment! era.  Or you have things like Altered Images starting out as kind of protégés of Siouxsie and the Banshees.

But I’d gathered over the years that a lot of Americans are unaware of these connections, and that the New Pop seemed from an American perspective to be just this stuff that materialized out of nowhere on MTV. And when it arrived here it was jumbled up with a lot of stuff that I personally find quite flimsy and vapid, like Culture Club, Kajagoogoo and Duran Duran. I’ve seen some early reactions to Rip It Up… on US-based blogs where the writers are clinging really hard to this idea that there’s ABSOLUTELY NO CONNECTION between the culture that produced The Fall and Swell Maps, and the likes of Duran Duran and Thompson Twins. But you know, Duran Duran actually played in the same Midlands venues as Swell Maps!

And the Thompson Twins are another paradigm example: Alannah Currie, the woman in the band with the shaved eyebrows and albino-blond curls, she was originally in this all-female punk-reggae band, modeled on the Slits. They were called the Unfuckables and they used to go around paint-bombing sexist advertising billboards and things like that! She played free jazz saxophone and had originally picked up the instrument after seeing the Pop Group!

There’s definitely a cultural difference between America and Britain, the word ‘pop’ is not a dirty word in the UK— perhaps because there isn’t the same fixation on live performance as there is in America, so that a lot of people’s primary experiences of music are based on seeing things on TV. Also the mainstream radio was better in the UK, during this period there was only really Radio One, which was state-controlled and had more of a commitment to doing interesting stuff, less chasing of the middle ground, less fear of listeners switching to other stations (because there weren’t any other stations!). And I guess we have a more prominent tradition of arty, clever pop—starting with the Beatles but going on with things like Bowie, Roxy, T-Rex, even things like 10CC. Sparks, for instance, were huge in Britain, but nothing in America.

So, the idea of pop as a forum where interesting, weird things go on—and as a forum that could be redeemed by arty types—that is so much stronger in the UK. The New Pop groups had all grown up on glam, their role models were Bowie and Roxy.

You essentially end with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. They are like pioneers of pleasure. Yet, you don’t juxtapose them against earlier gay rockers, like Dead Fingers Talk, or cross-dressing Jane County. Do you think punk culture, and post-punk culture, are inherently shaped by gay outsiderness?

I’m not familiar with Dead Fingers Talk; for the post-punkers Tom Robinson’s approach was kind of a touchstone of what-not-to-do with politics and pop; Bronski Beat had some nice tunes, but always came across as slightly worthy. But it’s true that there was a strong gay influence in the more arty and theatrical end of post-punk and New Pop—from the gay radical theater input in San Francisco with groups like Tuxedomoon, to the disco-worship and hysteria of the Associates, to Soft Cell’s love of the torch song, Northern Soul, and sleaze. Club 57 and B-52s obviously owed a huge amount to gay sensibility, that John Waters-type kitschadelic thing. DAF’s homo-eroticism, Japan’s neo-glam exquisiteness….

Different facets of gay sexuality, and also a more diffuse androgyny/pansexuality, crop up all over the place. But there was also a lot of stern “heterosexual modernism” about too! So, I don’t know about “inherently shaped by gay outsiderness.” The gay element, the glam rock element, it has to be noted, was also there in a big way during punk—Jon Savage has written about how the early punk scene in London resembled the Factory.

You seem to deplore the end of post-punk. The Clash tried in vain to remain on the cusp of current music on Cut the Crap, basically a product of their production team under the helm of Bernie Rhodes, not Joe Strummer. Is it possible to talk about the record as a failed attempt to redefine themselves as post-punk?

Well, I don’t know if I deplore the end of post-punk, because there’s a sense in which it had exhausted its ideas, and the turn to ‘60s-type ideas and influences, for people like me who’d never listened to that music much, was very refreshing and mind-opening when it started to happen in 1983. The groups who did persist with post-punk ideas in the mid-‘80s and beyond were mostly pretty dreary and second rate—I’m thinking of outfits like the Membranes and Bogshed, or the second-wave industrial/avantfunk groups who imitated Cabaret Voltaire and A Certain Ratio—outfits like Hula, Portion Control, and Chakk. The post-punk thing had run its course by 1983-84 (as had New Pop, actually).

So, there was a sad little period of drift and fracture in the middle ‘80s, people started ransacking the archives in earnest for want of anything better to do, and it was quite a demoralizing time as I recall. Then you started getting people building on aspects of post-punk, whether it was Sonic Youth making No Wave listenable and rockin’, or the acid house and UK techno people picking up on some of the avant-funk/industrial/synthpop stuff of the early Eighties and taking it into the future.

I do think that the post-punks were a bit unfair with the Clash. They became the whipping boy, especially from PiL. But if you look at their records, after Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the Clash are exploring all kinds of ideas, going in all kinds of directions, not all of them work, but they were trying dub stuff, funk stuff, they had a go at rap. They did some great things in that period up to and including Combat Rock. But it didn’t quite register as abrasively modern in the way the post-punk groups did, because the Clash were also doing quite a lot of stuff rooted in traditional American roots music. So they were exploring the present with their funk/dub/rap tracks but also discovering the richness of the past. Also they were always, right through it all, a rock’n’roll band in spirit and that was what most post-punks were trying to leave behind.

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