When Punk Broke
Then, when punk broke, it actually was as unhinged and uncontrolled as trad rock said it was. Punk’s DIY aesthetic truly breathed the populist rhetoric rock ‘n’ roll and hippie culture just preached. And it was more democratic, too. Punk encouraged a participatory public, which was to include the lowest of the low on the food chain, no matter how well they could play an instrument or how many zits their face was littered in. It was a forum where everyone could speak, not just The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and the cult of personality. Punk welcomed an uninvited anti-celebrity culture of rejects and fuck-ups to the mainstream while smashing the old league to bits. Afterwards, post-punk began restructuring the new wasteland into new forms.
Industrial music sprung from the postpunk moment, punk’s decimated ruins. Fittingly enough, it was in part a response to Britain and Europe’s postwar project of endless deconstruction and rebuilding. Einsturzende Neubaten’s namesake, commonly translated as “Collapsing New Buildings” implies both an accusation of planned obsolescence and a critique of modernism, but industrial’s major gripes were not merely aesthetic gripes (nor did it implicitly reject modernism). In contrast to techno’s privileging of the labor of production, industrial saw that the major export of the factory was devastation. It focused on the externalities of capital, the picture outside of Pravda and Business Week.
Where rock championed the “Factory Girl” and the workers protesting conditions on “Maggie’s Farm”, it had never actually sonically entered the factories or the neighborhoods of the working poor. Stemming from their factory hometowns in places like Manchester and Sheffield, industrial recognized the asthmatic feel of the toxic smoke in your throat, the uneven terrain of the city streets, the decay of the municipal buildings, the crooked teeth, the coughing and disease, the stench of shit in broken plumbing, and the dead look of overworked, underfed workers, who were more like monsters than noble workers, the equivalent of Genesis P-Orridge’s Zyklon B zombies, breathing in the carcinogenic exhaust of other people’s comfort. Industrial’s junk electronics, usually handmade, replicated the rust and grit of the factories. It was imperfect sound that used unwanted sandpaper blipping contours and feedback grime, a textural environment full of pollution, the kind rock studios tried desperately to cleanse from their mixes. Here were society’s castaways gleaning music out of the junk they were thrown away alongside.
Dylan, et al., then came to be seen as politicians and demagogues, filthy rich rock stars who tried to idealize the common man as a self-congratulatory act of salesmanship. Is it any wonder that the rock hegemony are now the biggest cheerleaders for the Democratic Party, the greatest ideological champions of capitalist realism?
Rock’s division from any real perception of working class sensibilities is best represented by the Cohen brothers film Barton Fink, wherein a playwright, who fancies himself an artist of social realism, romanticizes a travelling salesman without realizing that he is a murderous lunatic. The gap between the two involves an alienation between creative and physical labor. Whereas Barton Fink (John Turturro) toils under the crippling menace of writer’s block, his hotel neighbor Charlie (John Goodman) stresses under long hours of dehumanizing door-to-door sales in lonely hotel rooms. Barton thinks he is trying to create art, notably an art that gives voice to the powerless. Charlie, though, is just trying to stay afloat by moving product. Barton fails to grasp that the commonality of the common man is not a noble struggle, but a curse. Ironically, Barton has been recruited by Hollywood not to create art, but to, like Charlie, move product, to create a genre picture designed to turn a profit quickly and be promptly forgotten.
Barton claims to traffic in “the life of the mind”, which he claims to be grueling, but it is Charlie’s common man who is really mentally tortured. It’s the battered mind that comes to welcome fascism, accept murder as a solution. Charlie speaks of being humiliated at work, degraded by the middle class housewives who reject him. In this state, “the life of the mind” becomes unhinged, attempts to regain control and assert authority over what it perceives to be lower castes by whatever means necessary.
Industrial music stepped inside the factory and saw that a working man had no dignity; he was a shell, a complete product of his environment. New conditions of precarity that arose in the ’70s recession (the birth pangs of neoliberalism) augmented this instability and dehumanization. The only time the blue collar man could become unhinged was in the pub, where his excess mirrored rock’s- getting drugged, fucking loose women, and trying to provoke others. Contrary to the rock ‘n’ roll ideal, these behaviors were not liberating to the man who was still shackled to thankless, menial work. This only made him an addict, an adulterer, and a pugilist.
As a study of the extremes of human nature, industrial music found that under the auspices of control the proletariat could degenerate from potentially revolutionary workers into domestic tyrants, serial killers, Nazi sympathizers, policemen and army brats with a fascist streak, scabs, psychopaths, pedophiles, and terrorists. Rather than aberrations from society, these fringe figure were seen by the early industrial musicians as symptomatic of the kind of culture we as a species had created. That the average oppressed citizen didn’t explode into acts of unbridled violence was not a sign of restraint, but one of impotence and exhaustion, libidinal defeat.
Hippiedom tried to imagine a utopianism bred through a counterculture that challenged establishment values and tried to coerce a universal bond based on love and brotherhood. What many of the postpunk generation saw though was a movement interested in permanent leisure, a “cheap holiday in other people’s misery” as Johnny Rotten put it. The hippies, after all, didn’t want people to stop fixing their toilets and pumping gas into the VW buses. All the communes that sprouted during the late ’60s and early ’70s promised self-sustainability, but most of them dissolved for the same reasons that Big Brother style reality shows tend to garner so many viewers. The communal ideal did find success however in the Manson family, who failed to let hidden ego clashes get in the way of their vision of an alternative culture.
Only 25 years after the human animal had hit rock bottom by enacting a bureaucratic proposal of self-extinction, hippies thought they escape the allure of fascism without ever exploring the psychological and social conditions which ushered its arrival. Furthermore, their weapon against the fascist enterprise was rock ‘n’ roll populism, which completely ignored the fact that fascism too was a populist movement. Anxieties that the baby boomer generation would follow this same path were voiced in the film Wild in the Streets, about a young rock star who is elected President and sets up re-education camps to forcefeed LSD to anyone over 35 for the rest of their lives. A silly concept, to be sure, but rock’s descent into misogynist narcissistic claptrap about an eternal party in the ’70s wasn’t a good sign that rock was brewing with answers on how to resolves society’s capacity for subjugation.
Fascism was a source of fascination for early industrial noisemakers. Noisy underground cassettes, performances, and fanzines explored this most extreme of positions in provocative and shocking ways. Chronologically, this preoccupation aligned with the rise of the national front and Thatcherite conservativism in the UK, as well as neoconservatism and the theocratic populism of the religious right in the US, which lead many to question the motives of this movement. In truth, there was little in the music itself to dissuade the opinion that industrial musicians held totalitarian sympathies.
While some, such as Cabaret Voltaire, tried to link the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the West to the (American-backed) advent of Islamism in the East in a critical way, others seemed to be openly drawn to the seductive thrill of the far right. Boyd Rice of NON has often courted controversy for his refusal to disavow his more extreme viewpoints, even going so far as to participate in a cordial interview with avowed Neo-Nazi leader Tom Metzger. Death In June’s Tom Wakeford was a member of the National Front before he became involved in the punk, industrial, and neo-folk scenes. William Bennett’s Whitehouse project, which followed the industrial tradition with an extreme form of atonal sound collage called power electronics or noise, often put out frankly fascist (the album New Britain), racist (participation in the White Power cassette), and sexist (songs like “Rapemaster”, “Just Like a Cunt”, and “Pro-Sexist”) sentiments, which were pronounced as art but provided no commentary and little space for interpretation. To date, a subset of artists in the noise scene, who hold such colorful names as Xenophobic Ejaculation, continue to thrive under the adopted banner of “white power electronics”, which is exactly what it sounds like.