Continuing the series of old Situationist stuff, here’s a shortish essay about their cultural legacy in pop music. This was originally delivered as a lecture, hence the slightly odd phrasing here and there. I don’t know how much I stand by this stuff now, but hopefully it’ll be use to someone…
Last week I spoke about what can be seen as the philosophical impact of Situationist thought and the way in which the events of May 1968 and their aftermath affected the shape of French post-modernist thought. What I would like to do this week is to examine what can crudely be thought of as the ‘other side’ of this: the legacy that the Situationist International has had in the sphere of popular culture. The arresting imagery and anti-establishment insouciance of the movement has proved a fertile mine of inspiration for a number of political and cultural movements since the SI was dissolved: in the following, I shall look at some of the ways in which this inspiration has manifested itself, and to examine what else, if anything, has been carried over by these movements from the original Situationist concepts.
I don’t think that it is overstating the case in saying that the primary area for the popularisation, re-appropriation and re-use of the situationist’s ideas and tactics has been popular music. The Sex Pistols’ merchandise was emblazoned with graffiti slogans from May ’68; Tony Wilson referenced Ivan Chtcheglov’s ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ with the creation of The Haçienda night club; the lemon slices on the Stone Roses’ eponymous first album are a reference to the events of ’68, the students having used lemon juice to alleviate the effects of the tear gas used by the police during the riots. However, popular music is the arena that is also the most problematic in terms of its relation to the anti-capitalist core of the Situationist philosophy: it is all to easy to reduce the SI’s intentions and stance to youthful rebellion, and this is a commodity that is always in high demand. Popular music, in the forms that we find it today, is show business, and for the record companies, it always comes down to the money. The following quote from Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s extraordinary book The Manual: How to get a Number One the Easy Way illustrates this quite nicely:
If the rise of the UK indie label can be seen as a positive offspring of punk sensibilities, a very negative one was the cult of the very big advance. This can be traced back to the supposed situationist shenanigans of Malcolm McClaren. The idea that the major record companies were some how being ripped off and some clever scam was being pulled was totally false. There was no Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. The four living ex-members of the band have nothing left except fading memories of their glory days, like fuddled old soldiers; a front man trapped by his own cynicism and a corpse forever young. While the record companies and publishers involved are still getting bigger and stronger and the employees are busy negotiating their next rise over the expense account lunch. It’s as if Malcolm never understood Faust.
Within pop culture, if not all cultural production, art that criticises the society within which it is produced must always grapple with its own recuperation, its own status as commodity, and it is within pop cultural movements such as punk rock that this uneasy relationship is most sharply drawn.
Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols
The self-styled ‘impresario’ of Punk, Malcolm McLaren, has loudly proclaimed the influence of the Situationists on the movement that he claims to have started. To examine the veracity of this, we need to go back to 1967 when Christopher Grey and Charles Radcliffe, two members of the British section of the Situationist International, were excluded from the group as result of their involvement with the New York group Black Mask. Black Mask, also known as Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, or Black Mask and the Motherfuckers, described themselves as a ‘street gang with analysis’. After their expulsion from the SI, the two former members joined forces with some of Black Mask to form a group known as King Mob, a name adopted from graffiti painted on the walls of Newgate Prison during the Gordon riots of 1780. King Mob adapted many of the techniques associated with the Situationists to promote their anti-capitalist and anarchist political stance. For example, graffiti on the London Underground ascribed to the group read ‘Same thing day after day – tube – work – dinner – work – tube – armchair – TV – sleep – tube – work – how much more can you take? – one in ten go mad – one in five cracks up’. They also produced a flyer celebrating the assassination of Andy Warhol, and drew up a hit list of other artists including Yoko Ono and David Hockney. However, their best known intervention was an occasion when members to dressed up as Father Christmas and started distributing toys from the shelves to children in Selfridges’ toy department. The children then learned a valuable lesson about authority when the police were called and confiscated all of the distributed toys. Malcolm McLaren, at the time an student at Croydon Art College, claims to have participated in this event.
Jamie Reid, a friend and fellow student who shared McLaren’s interest in counter-culture radicalism was also a participator in King Mob’s demonstrations. Later, McClaren and Reid, together with some other students set up the magazine and print workshop Suburban Press. The magazine often featured sections of Situationist texts alongside Reid’s graphic designs. He described his role in the development of his unique style as follows:
My job, graphically, was to simplify a lot of the political jargon, particularly that used by the Situationists. Far from being an obscure group in the mid 1960s, by the time of the Paris riots in 1968 they had captured headlines around the world and the imagination of a generation.
When McLaren went on to manage the Sex Pistols, Reid became responsible for the band’s iconic graphics which included cut-up newspapers, adapted comics and brochures and parodies of official notices. For example, most famously, a Belgian holiday brochure was appropriated for the cover of the Sex Pistols’ album Holidays in the Sun in which the text was changed from ‘It’s just a short excursion to see wonderful historic cities’ to ‘a cheap holiday in other peoples’ misery’. Reid’s graphics also included some of the now famous images that we automatically associate with the punk movement, frequently employing techniques such as détournement. The following are all examples.
Alongside the artwork Reid designed for album covers and promotional materials, stickers with text such as ‘buy now while stocks lasts’, ‘this store will soon be closing owing to the pending collapse of monopoly capitalism and the worldwide exhaustion of raw materials’, ‘this store welcomes shoplifters’ were produced for people to use as they saw fit. Apparently official publicity material for a new town declared ‘A New Town like the Old Town, but NEW!’. The brochure continued
New Towns are being built in the middle of the countryside, away from strikes, tenant’s committees, claimants’ unions, occupations, shoplifters, vandals, smog, dirt and noise. Away from all distractions so you can get on with the job.
One might gather from this that Reid and McLaren were committed activists. However, as Stewart Home insightfully puts it, it is far more likely that McLaren, ever the self-publicist, merely wanted a good marketing tool for his shop, and the Sex Pistols were this to become this. A pamphlet circulated in 1978 entitled The End of Music articulated this sentiment quite succinctly, arguing that McLaren’s take on the Situationists was to remove the dangerous political message at the heart of their philosophy and then sell a ‘suitably doctored’ version of it, the trappings of rebellion. Situationist slogans such as ‘Be reasonable, demand the impossible’ became equivalent to ‘buy some of my kinky gear … and help make me a rich man.’
Moreover, if one listens to the biggest hits of the Sex Pistol’s career, it is striking how unchallenging they sound now. Yes, there is an unmistakable snarl and anger to their music, but the structure and melody are pure pop. (play track). As Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty put it in The Manual
The Pistols might have been swearing on T.V. inciting a generation of kids to “Get pissed! Destroy!” but if “God Save The Queen” had not stuck rigidly to The Golden Rules* (*THESE WILL BE EXPLAINED LATER), The Pistols would never have seen the inside of the Top Ten.
Drummond and Cauty define these rules as follows:
Firstly, it has to have a dance groove that will run all the way through the record and that the current 7″ buying generation will find irresistible. Secondly, it must be no longer than three minutes and thirty seconds (just under 3’20 is preferable). If they are any longer Radio One daytime DJs will start fading early or talking over the end, when the chorus is finally being hammered home – the most important part of any record. Thirdly, it must consist of an intro, a verse, a chorus, second verse, a second chorus, a breakdown section, back into a double length chorus and outro. Fourthly, lyrics. You will need some, but not many.
Listening to the Sex Pistols’ output confirms that they were in many respects the packaging and commodification of rebellion – something that pop music has always been expert at. However, good songs nonetheless…
Furthermore, both Reid and McLaren are on the record admitting the paucity of their understanding of the political intentions of the SI. Jamie Reid stated that:
I was never involved with the Situationists to the fullest extent because I couldn’t understand half of what they had written. I found Situationist texts to be full of jargon – almost victims of what they were trying to attack – and you had to be really well educated to be able to understand them. I was trying to put over the waffle in a visual form: trying, say, to summarise a whole chapter of a book in one image. There was a way in. I wasn’t so much attracted to the Situationist theory as to how they approached media and politics. The slogans, for instance, were so much better than the texts.
To be fair to Jamie Reid, the texts, as we have seen, are not without their challenges, and it’s quite possible that he was having to read them in the original French. However, I feel that nonetheless the quote is somewhat telling. Malcolm McLaren is similarly disengaged from the intellectual content of the SI publications:
I’d heard about the Situationists from the radical milieu of the time. You had to go up to Compendium Books. When you asked for the literature you had to pass an eyeball test. Then you got these beautiful magazines with reflecting covers in various colours, gold, green, mauve. The text was in French: you tried to read it, but it was so difficult. Just when you were getting bored, there were all these wonderful pictures, and they broke the whole thing up. They were what I bought them for, not the theory.
This sums it up pretty well, but the following short clip from On The Passage of a Few Persons Through a Short Period of Time, a film made for the retrospective exhibition that showed at the ICA in 1988, is even more damning.
As far as the Sex Pistols themselves were concerned, John Lydon stated in his autobiography that
All that talk about the French Situationists being associated with punk is bollocks. It’s nonsense! Now that really is coffee-table book stuff. The Paris riots and the Situationist movement of the 1960s – it was all nonsense for arty French students.
Moreover, Lydon’s recent cultural contributions such as his involvement with such TV gems as I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here perhaps prove the point better than words ever could.
However, despite the lack of serious engagement with the ideas of the SI from the band that have become almost synonymous with the movement as a whole, this is not write off all of the attempts to wed the punk spirit to serious political ends. Moreover, I do not think that punk would have had such an immense impact on the British cultural landscape had it not been providing a means of expressing a genuine antipathy towards society. In addition, the engagement that the Sex Pistols, or more accurately, Malcolm McLaren had with Situationist ideas, however shallow, undoubtedly brought these concepts to a wider audience than would otherwise have encountered them. Sadie Plant argues that
Punk’s do-it-yourself ethic also produced a host of self-published fanzines and autonomous organisations, and the observation that fortunes were so easily made cannot belittle the sincerity, anger, and achievements of those involved in punk and its later manifestations. Punk provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the anarchist movement, with Class War’s ‘Stop the City’ and ‘Bash the Rich’ campaigns providing some light entertainment and heavy policing during the 1980s.
Stewart Home has argued that the DIY spirit of the second-wave of punk bands ticks all the boxes for the avant-gardiste movement: the dissolution of the boundaries between the audience and producer, the assault on prevailing aesthetic standards, the questioning of the status of the art work. Bands such as Crass wedded the punk aesthetic to a political stance more considered and in many ways more provocative than the first wave of punk’s nihilistic swagger. Their philosophy espoused a more coherent and historically grounded understanding of the term ‘anarchism’, suggesting not merely chaos, as the Sex Pistols often seem to be advocating, but a society without leaders or hierarchies – a stance that is at once much less nihilistic than that of the early punk movement, but also one much closer to that of the SI. In the politically volatile atmosphere of early 80s Britain, Crass set about creating a viable political alternative to the very real threat of extreme right-wing groups such as the National Front. They also employed Situationist-derived tactics to spread their political message, managing to have one of the tracks from their third album Penis Envy, a parody of a love ballad entitled Our Wedding’, distributed with the teenage magazine Loving. This caused predictable outrage within the tabloid press. Similar stunts included creating a tape from cut-up recordings of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan that seemed to suggest that Europe would become the target of medium-range nuclear weapons in a face off between the United States and the Soviet Union. At one point their subversive activities and vehement opposition to the Falklands War led to questions in Parliament. The following image from their album Yes Sir I Will is perhaps indicative of why, and seems to sum up the state of the class relations that still shape Britain today.
Similarly, in the States early eighties punk bands such as Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys grafted the early punk ethos to a more coherently formed political agenda, grappling with the inherent contradictions of popular culture to produce work that cannot be reduced merely to iconoclastic rebel swagger. For example, this track, ‘Pull My Strings’, written for the Bay Area Music Awards, satirises, with sledge-hammer subtlety, the contradictions facing the band as both critics of the society within which they found themselves and producers of musical products for general consumption, at once exploiting and deconstructing the pop form.
Needless to say, they weren’t invited back.
Although punk is the movement that is most strongly associated with the SI, there have been several other re-appropriations of their techniques. These tend to have side-stepped the issues of recuperation that plagued punk, and instead used the commodity form of popular music as a weapon against itself. In a way, they get their recuperation in first before capitalism is able to the job for them. In 1987, Bill Drummond, the former manager of Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes, and the musician Jimmy Cauty formed a duo known as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. The following year they adopted the pseudonyms King Boy D and Rockman Rock and released, as the Time Lords, a record entitled ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’. Their sole intention was to produce a record that would get to number one in the UK singles chart. They succeeded, and this was their performance on Top of the Pops, which at that point was a major weekly cultural event:
As can be seen, the track was a completely shameless amalgamation of a number of previous pop hits – Garry Glitter’s ‘Rock and Roll (Part 2)’, The Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster’ and, of course, the Doctor Who theme tune. Drummond later was proud to boast that he and Cauty ‘didn’t play a note’ on the record. Following their success, they then produced the book that I quoted from earlier – The Manual: How to get a Number One the Easy Way. This book does exactly as the tile says: it gives you a step-by-step guide to achieving exactly what the authors did with their previous number-one single:
Firstly, you must be skint and on the dole. Anybody with a proper job or tied up with full time education will not have the time to devote to see it through. Also, being on the dole gives you a clearer perspective on how much of society is run. If you are already a musician stop playing your instrument. Even better, sell the junk. It will become clearer later on but just take our word for it for the time being. Sitting around tinkering with the Portastudio or musical gear (either ancient or modern) just complicates and distracts you from the main objective. Even worse than being a musician is being a musician in a band. Real bands never get to Number One – unless they are puppets.
If you are in a band you will undoubtedly be aware of the petty squabbles and bitching that develops within them. This only festers and grows proportionately as the band gets bigger and no band ever grows out of it. All bands end in tantrums, tears and bitter acrimony. The myth of a band being gang of lads out “against” the world (read as “to change”, “to shag” or “to save the world”) is pure wishful thinking to keep us all buying the records and reading the journals. Mind you, it’s a myth that many band members want to believe themselves.
So if in a band, quit. Get out. Now.
The two events, the single and the subsequent book, act as a both a critique and celebration of the cynicism of the music industry, and bring into sharp relief the commercial imperatives that are at the heart of pop music. The stunt is two-faced: it at once loudly trumpets the ephemeral nature of pop, its vacuity, its political impotence even when it is most politically engaged, while at the same time, refutes this in exposing this very quality.
The KLF continued using such situationist-inspired subversions until their dissolution in 1992, which they announced in a performance at the Brit Awards. They did this by appearing on stage and firing machine-gun blanks into the audience. They then dumped a dead sheep at the after show party. In the following months, they deleted the entire KLF back catalogue, and, in a now infamous gesture, burnt all of the money they made in their pop career.
Laibach and NSK
Another, less well known re-use of Situationist ideas in popular music occurred during the break up of the former Yugoslavia. As part of what has been termed Europe’s last true avant-garde, NSK or Neue Slowenische Kunst, the Slovenian band Laibach attempt a similar implosion of pop through exaggerating its own tendencies to ludicrous heights. The pomp and spectacle of popular music as a form of mass entertainment form has disturbing connotations for Laibach, echoing such events as the Nuremberg rallies. Laibach attempted to counter these tendencies by making them explicit: dressing up as Nazis and covering well know pop songs such as the Rolling Stone’s ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, Europe’s ‘The Final Count Down’, and Status Quo’s ‘Your in the Army Now’ in a ridiculously overblown and bombastic style.
Whilst these songs are intended to be funny, it is crucial to bear in mind the times in which Laibach were producing their music: Yugoslavia was in the process of disintegrating in an ethnic conflict and was witnessing the resurgence of dangerous far-right extremism. Laibach, whose name is derived from the name that the Nazis gave to the Slovenian capital Ljubljana whilst they occupied it during the Second World War, were playing a dangerous game in adopting the imagery that they did. There was a very real danger that people would think that just because they dressed like Nazis they might actually be Nazis. However, this amplification of currents that they see inherent to pop music, as with the KLF, acts as a critique of the pop music form itself – something that goes way beyond the simple contrariness of bands such as the Sex Pistols and creates something which is far less easily digestible than pre-packaged rebellion for disenfranchised teenagers.
Stewart Home’s Cranked Up Really High: Genre Theory and Punk Rock provides an eloquent summation of the politics of punk:
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to suggest that PUNK had a political programme, or even a ‘profound’ social analysis, it didn’t. What PUNK did do was tap into a reservoir of social discontent and create an explosion of anger and energy. PUNK wasn’t offering a solution, it was simply a genre of novelty music being hyped on the back of the manic and frequently pointless exploitation of social tensions. PUNK was pure sensation, it had nothing to offer beyond a sense of escape from the taboo of speaking about the slimy reality of life as the social fabric came apart. After all, if Punk Rockers had preferred ‘analysis’ to ‘rhetoric’, they’d have been attempting to organise a revolution instead of pogoing to three minute pop songs.
Stewart Home’s conclusions about Punk rock are resoundingly negative, and to my ears ring disappointingly true: it is all too easy to package and sell rebellion to disaffected youth. However, as I hope I have shown you tonight, those working within such commercial structures who have more coherently formulated political goals can to some extent avoid their own recuperation by getting it in first – using the nature of the pop form as a method to deconstruct it. It is these practitioners who, despite the extravagant claims of Malcolm McLaren, are closer to the Situationist intent than the Sex Pistols ever could be. However, all of these musicians, from Crass, the Dead Kennedys through to more recent bands, are dealing with something that the all of the avant-gardes of the past century have been grappling with, that which Walter Benjamin described as the threat of ‘becoming a tool of the ruling classes.’ What I believe the Situationists were doing, what some of the bands I have spoken about this evening, and what we must do if we want to effect change in our own times, is to grapple with Benjamin’s assertion that ‘In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Situationists developed tools for doing exactly this, and I would argue that they are still available to us if we wish to take them up.
 Bill Drumond and Jimmy Kauty, The Manual: How to have a Number One the Easy Way (London: Ellipsis, 1999).
 Jamie Reid, Up They Rise: The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid, quoted in Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 144.
 Jamie Reid, Up They Rise, quoted in Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture, p. 145.
 The End of Music, quoted in Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture, p. 146.
 Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, The Manual, p. 8.
 Jamie Reid, Up They Rise, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 149.
 Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 150.
 Lydon, John, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs: The Authorised Autobiography, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, (London: Black Dog, 2005), p. 152.
 Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture, p. 146.
 Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, The Manual, p. 5.
 Stewart Home, Cranked Up Really High: Genre Theory and Punk Rock, <http://www.stewarthomesociety.org/cranked/blood.htm>, 2007.
 Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History http://www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/depart/media/staff/ls/WBenjamin/CONCEPT2.html>, 2007.