Comfort of an empty box

by Richard Johnson

Strange days. A friend of mine in the US quite recently remarked on my having apparently become “more politicised” over the past year or two. I countered this by, firstly, illustrating that with what’s been going on in the West during recent years it has been difficult to avoid it and, secondly, noting how certain events in my life inadvertently shoved me to this point. Not that I am especially “politicised” but, rather, do strap myself in for the joys of social media daily in order to mostly promote my releases and books, or to try and sustain interest in them through the posting of a music link, a status update or perhaps even a gripe that may or may not be related. Accordingly, social media plays a significant role here, as it seems to “politicise” most of those I know who use it. I generally try to avoid becoming too embroiled in discussions and debates there, however, as they lead nowhere beyond becoming a waste of time better channelled more constructively. Of course, I do sometimes relapse, but it’s largely wise to curtail any such compulsion before it inevitably drags one to yet another island of regret. These things rarely end well. They can even culminate in the severing of a friendship, or the creation of such a huge rift in one that it’s then difficult to recover completely from.

Although it was not through social media, a former friend of mine who’d been in touch since the days of Grim Humour quite literally ‘unfriended’ me in real life a few years ago simply because of some disagreements that had arisen in our regular email exchanges. These differences of opinion concerned, amongst other matters, weighty topics such as capitalism and the fact he felt everybody who supported UKIP was a ‘Nazi’. I personally never supported UKIP (and, more importantly, was always deeply sceptical of most of their policies, and don’t really go for party politics in the first instance anyway), but a few members of my family did. They are neither ‘racist’ nor ‘anti-immigrant’, hence my telling the aforementioned friend he was way off with his claim all supporters of said party are ‘fascists’. It’s not even worth returning to whatever was also said, or not said, about capitalism, but I know I made some remark about his favourite organic wholefoods shop in Brighton having overpriced products in it that I’m sure were making its owner rather wealthy. Another friend of this former one likewise worked in this very same shop and when not either doing that or participating in weekly sessions with an improvisation collective (ugh!), the kind of pursuit positively drenched in middle class allusions, was known for his vocation as a landlord. He rented out places he owned in Brighton. Now, that’s all fine, of course. I have no problem with anybody making a buck from, well, pretty much anything if they can. It’s how our world works and I cannot see any viable alternative, irrespective of how ‘unfair’ this might be to those unfortunates snagged on the wrong side of it all. My problem, rather, was greased along by the former friend’s abject hypocrisy; something itself further hammered into shape by virtue of his barely having worked properly his entire adult life. He was an only child and lived with his parents until he was almost 40 (something much overlooked as he bemoaned his singleton status and, instead, obsessed over women way out of his league simply through their being, well, simply the opposite sex, really). As much as I partly blame his parents for allowing this situation to happen in the first place, I likewise understood his father making it clear his son was something of a disappointment to him. And, indeed, whilst none of this might seem especially relevant to the main points I wish to address here, it is crucial to the colouring in some of the background to an individual who projected lots of personal issues onto the world around him. A world he not only felt at odds with, but one in which he evidently also felt reasonably comfortable in. Which is where we can conveniently nudge things back to social media’s own serving a support mechanism to those similarly afflicted. Social media platforms are a hub for those who feel ‘oppressed’, whether by ‘capitalism’, the government, the rampant strands of bigotry and hatred unspooling in every direction, the ‘patriarchy’, the notion of privileges oneself is not being accorded, skin colour, or some other half-imagined ogre the immediate social circle believes in that must likewise be subscribed to for fear of not fitting in with it. Not getting enough ‘likes’ for a post on a social media platform can really bring out the worst in people and, let’s face it, nobody really wants to feel alienated.

In saying this it doesn’t mean that terrible things aren’t happening around us, either. Of course they are.There will always be people who want to conduct awful things for all kinds of nefarious reasons. No amount of fist shaking, sloganeering or whatever is going to eradicate that. Very clearly, the hordes of indignant keyboard warriors need a refresher course when it comes to this rudimentary fact. All that shouting and screaming along the way to a utopian ideal (which for all intents and purposes might as well be rendered in crayon) not really amounting to anything more than the sound of a rampant ego attempting to illustrate exactly how ‘great’ its owner is.

It is also worth noting that not everything is bad about social media, too. For all of its faults, some of which are touched on here, it would be difficult to refute its many benefits, especially for those of us who have something to promote. In terms of helping my own labels and books, it has been incredible. It’s a great tool for pushing a new release, plus is good for keeping up with (or finding new) friends, contacts and customers, etc. Am not even averse to the odd benign personal post, whether a photo or a link to something interesting or even a cursory alleviation of a thought bubble. All of that is absolutely fine as we can dive in and out as we wish and can tailor such things according to our own tastes. We do have a modicum of control over whose posts we see. However, this in itself is equally married to a negative side.

What’s going wrong is how social media and other channels essentially impose on our lives and direct them through our chosen narratives. The power of influence in this respect cannot be underestimated. We can in turn play a role in this process as we decide what we wish to see or read, meaning that if one already thinks a certain way then there’s a higher chance one will filter out everything and everybody that goes against this. And herein lies a significant factor in the divisiveness presently running amok. To overlook this underpinning to what has been happening in recent times is a huge error, but does not account for just how so many who ought to know better readily fall prey to its machinations.

Like most of those involved in music, I would be lying if I claimed I was not possessed of similar liberal sensibilities to just about everybody else there. We are all shaped by our environment and, moreover, those of us who grew up in the West during the past few decades would have found it difficult to not have been touched by their heavily pronounced influence. It is a good thing, no less, and a factor often overlooked as people fight amongst each other on social media platforms (and elsewhere) due to their having picked a ‘side’ with whom they both feel best speaks for them and stands boldly against the ‘opposition’. This taking of sides has become increasingly pronounced with the advent of the Internet’s domination of our lives. I am not criticising all of this, either. It is great that likeminded people can meet each other there. My publishing a fanzine in the 1980s was partly driven by this very same yearning, no matter how much I claimed otherwise. In fact, I would contend it was through the erecting of these barriers that became more emboldened as Grim Humour went on that this was especially apparent. I was always looking for those who could see through the bullshit. I detested sycophants as much as I completely abhorred those in music who considered themselves somehow ‘better’ than everybody else simply because they could play an instrument or whatever. Self-importance always left a nasty taste in the mouth. Likewise, any supporting clique of lizard-brained backslappers. The music world is steeped in this, and social media is no different whatsoever. Actually, no, that is not true: it’s worse. Far worse.

The problems inherent stem from just how few people are prepared to accept differences of opinion, or become engulfed in flames of self-righteousness as they refuse to grasp the simple fact people have different views. Discourse and discussions only too often succumb to escalation into displays best reserved for the battlefield. Rarely is anything kept to a civilised level. Everybody remains fixed to their own position. There’s no room for manoeuvre. No place for anything, again, that resides outside one’s own narrative. Everybody is correct, nobody is ever ‘wrong’. To admit to having made a mistake is a sign of weakness. To stray from the chosen box from which the espousing of certain views is de rigueur is unacceptable.

The former friend previously noted was a prime example of someone unable to think outside the comfort of his own box.  He was also a classic example of somebody who would be mortified to be told thus. For all of the deeply ingrained liberal protestations of ‘tolerance’ and ‘open-mindedness’ on his part, absolutely everything that stood outside his line of thinking was dismissed by caustic asides and the kind of epithets now seen all over the virtual (or should that be ‘virtuous’?) landscape being wantonly thrown around by people behaving like absolute idiots. I never once thought my ex-friend was an idiot, but on this count alone he more than compensated for it.

Moving forward a year or two, to the year 2019, I was on the receiving end of another blow. Following my having arranged a Fourth Dimension Records label night at Cafe OTO the previous October (with MAP 71, Richard Youngs, EXTNDDNTWRK and Alternative TV), I felt I should try and use the relative ‘success’ of that to organise another such event in London in October/November 2019. Initially, I was in touch with Corsica Studios near the beginning of the year and had mooted such an idea with, once again, Alternative TV and MAP 71 involved, plus two of the respective solo ventures of Ramleh’s core members; namely Kleistwahr and JFK. Another friend, the founder of both Whitehouse and Cut Hands, might have been invited to DJ at this point, too, but my poor memory is already getting the better of me. What I am, however, sure of is that The Quietus had run a piece attacking Matthew Bower of Skullflower around the same time for alleged support of the extreme right and using ‘fascist’ imagery on his releases. It had been quite a while since any music journo had reheated this particular nugget and, again, given the age we are now in, where hypersensitivity only too readily bursts like a lanced boil at each and every turn a purportedly ‘wrong’ or ‘inappropriate’ remark is made, the timing couldn’t have been any better. Now, I am not defending Bower’s own comments here and honestly don’t know him even remotely well enough to know what any of his politics are. All I can say is that, from the outside, he seems fairly smart (a rare thing amongst musicians), knows how to run rings round the countless morons music attracts, and generally seems rather reclusive (due in part to a salubrious disdain for the music world, I’d contend). I’m not even that much of a Skullflower fan beyond the earlier records, but know Bower has long adorned releases in runes, mythical imagery and ancient symbols. What I personally think of that is  entirely irrelevant, but it’s clear he has a deeply set interest in such esoteric matters and it doubtlessly all makes sense to him with regard to his music. I personally haven’t seen anything amongst his releases that could cause concern, though (and I have certainly stocked a number of them in my ailing mail order service). Nobody ever even mentioned it in all my years of dealing with such music, either. Or, more importantly, has even once pointed an accusatory finger in Matthew’s direction due to any purportedly dubious affiliations. I only ever heard he was a family man and led a fairly sedate life. Not that I am touch with everybody in such music circles, of course, but one would think there’d have been some waves made if Matthew was now using his guitar to channel ‘fascist’ propaganda or ‘white supremacy’. He still seems to be liked by many of the same people as always, and has had a longstanding relationship with a number of the same labels as he always had. Basically, I am quite certain that if any bad words were to be made about him they would have permeated the circles I am likewise enmeshed in. 

Despite everything, Matthew Bower was singled out as an object of vilification by The Quietus. He doesn’t quite fit in with their hipster-shaped prism of ego-massaged cock-gobblers who dare not say anything out of line for fear of being cast from the ledge honed from already innocuous stabs at a ‘career’.

How does this relate to the second Fourth Dimension Records event I was trying to arrange, though? It just forms part of the backdrop to why my contact at Corsica Studios then, after this piece was published by The Quietus, decided that “certain artists” I wanted to include on the bill were no longer acceptable due to their, uh, “history”. Of course, he was tiresomely referring to how they had unwittingly fostered “terrible” reputations because of some of the imagery and song titles adorning their respective early releases. All old ground, no less, long prodded and poked at to new levels of mundanity decades ago. Anybody still wishing to unpack what the ‘meaning’ or ‘intentions’ were of records created by these artists when they were over four decades younger and still barely out of their teens without having conducted even the remotest amount of research would have to be pretty dim. Beyond the fact the actual context of this work gets conveniently overlooked, one does not have to scratch too deep to find that the accusations hurled at Ramleh and Whitehouse are, and always were, wholly misguided. There is also plenty of evidence on the Internet to counter any such ludicrous claim. Not that it should be necessary. Those who stand behind such assertions are the kind of fools completely undeserving of the credence they’re accorded when making them. They’re usually best ignored. However, we live in times where such people are infesting every direction. They inhabit the Internet and social media platforms like some kind of nasty infection. This is but one symptom of how things are now. I do not wish to go into why this phenomenon is so prevalent here, either. I merely want to stay focussed on how social media platforms play a significant role in all this. There are, I am certain, all kinds of reasons as to why a new puritanism is presently running rampant, but it manifests in places that have directly affected me. I found myself in the position of once again having to explain, or defend, the work of friends. Because Corsica Studios refused my inclusion of said artists I had to find an alternative venue.

With Mark Perry of Alternative TV’s help, I was pointed in the direction of The Dublin Castle. The promoter there was fine with everything, including the expansion of the event to a two-nighter, spread over a Friday and Saturday, the best days of the week for any such thing. There was no problem with the Ramleh-related Kleistwahr and JFK being added to the bill, nor with the choice of DJ (William Bennett of Cut Hands/Whitehouse). I then added groups who’ve been on Fourth Dimension Records, MAP 71 and Gad Whip, plus my own Splintered. I also invited Ice Baths, a London-based contemporary post-punk group whose records I enjoyed and who, being somewhat younger, I felt would offset the generally more middle-aged groups comprising the lineup. They immediately accepted the invitation and seemed genuinely thrilled to have received it. However, after several email exchanges with their guitarist and his asking about the full lineup again he told me he had no other option than to pull Ice Baths out of the proposed bill. I challenged this and found out that he, a self-proclaimed ‘person of colour’, had taken umbrage with my inclusion of, ho hum, “certain artists” for the event. Although he’d been alerted to the lineup proposal from the outset he had clearly since read The Quietus piece, or been informed about it and/or the background of these “certain artists” now pressing so heavily on his moral panic button. I spent another week or so exchanging emails with him, trying to convince him he was absolutely mistaken. He would not budge, though. He then started bemoaning the “cultural appropriation” of black music in Cut Hands, saying he felt this was wrong. I’d previously heard a similar argument propounded by a festival organiser friend in Krakow a year or so prior and steadfastly disagreed with him as much as I did the Ice Baths’ guitarist. I likewise countered the latter’s ridiculous proclamation by wryly asking him how he, being someone identifying as a ‘person of colour’, could play ‘white boy indie-noise’ guitar music, but he replied he was mixed race so was accordingly “allowed”. This convenience was, of course, then batted away by my reminding the guitarist that all rock/pop music was survived by its having ‘culturally appropriated’ different forms of music. A very significant amount of it is indebted to different strands of black music, too. This has been widely acknowledged since its inception. Black artists likewise play electronic music, which came from Europe originally. But who fucking cares? It is all there for the taking. Personally, I never especially felt music to be anything other than ‘universal’. The idea of making an issue of who is behind it, with respect to their ethnicity, skin colour, sex and so on, always seemed regressive or redundant to me. Of course, certain groups of people have created music directly due to the influence of their own environment or cultural heritage, but as soon as it is exposed to the general public  it is part of that wider domain and can be duly assimilated and hopefully inspire. More importantly, or obviously, absolutely everything around us in the broadest sense can be accused of having been “culturally appropriated”. The entire rationale behind such arguments when it comes to music is utterly meaningless. It’s a non-argument. The Ice Baths guitarist later tried driving his point home by suggesting Cut Hands had no “right” to (half-jokingly) describe the music as “Afro-noise”. Why? Because William Bennett is not black. It’s cultural appropriation gone mad. I sincerely hope he pontificated over this whilst walking around his home city of London which, like all modern cities, is a veritable (and very healthy) explosion of different cultures. Perhaps he also believes only Egyptians have the right to eat falafel? And what the fuck are some of those very same people doing wearing Levi jeans and Nike trainers? Where does this sap draw the line? 

Following these exchanges with this guitarist (whose name, I believe, originated from his ‘white’ heritage), who towards the end of them started fulminating about ‘white privilege’ and other such ridiculousness, I simply replaced Ice Baths on the bill and reduced the whole sorry saga to an anecdotal level I knew I’d later write about. I am just glad no such problems arose from everybody else on the bill. I included a group I’m involved with, Theme, on it instead. One half of Theme consists of a good friend also in Splintered. He’s mixed race as well, but never once made a big deal about it. As, indeed, I hadn’t. He was always, very simply, my friend. Skin colour has never been discussed as there was no reason to. Beyond the usual array of perfunctory  questions that arise from curiosity as one gets to know another person at the beginning of a friendship, we preferred to discuss music, books, films, family, politics, life, comedians and the usual glut of topics when not working on our own music. The same as everybody else I personally know. Is this ‘colour blindness’ or, indeed, the result of imply taking individuals on their own merits? Since when did that apparently become unacceptable?

The very same as with all my friends, matters such as ethnicity, sexuality, religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), politics, skin colour and so on have never been an issue. If anything, there might even be an underlying sense of celebration of the differences to be found at our respective cores, or at the very least a healthy acceptance of them. I can only speak for myself here, but the idea of everybody being identical to each other just seems both absurd and abhorrent. It’s also such a blatantly obvious thing to say that it’s worth returning to the reason I’m now doing exactly this. Following my entire adult life being centred only on judgments formed due to somebody’s individual abilities, behaviour and qualities, I have found myself drawn into discussions about race, identity and the extreme right. Why? Where has this come from? Why are people making a big deal about skin colour? Why wouldn’t the Ice Baths’ guitarist confront his own misconceptions when I made it clear that my label event would be a warm, friendly affair free of extreme right types looking for trouble? Such narratives emanate from the exact same place as the one the ex-friend of mine noted near the beginning wedded himself to. People lock into them and refuse to then challenge them. Is it a fear they might actually, gosh, be wrong? Through being thus proven, a fissure would automatically appear in their character. How to then explain the diminishing of something that had previously formed a significant part of their own identity? An identity itself propelled by extensions or facets of the ego such as social media platforms. If wrong about one issue, the likelihood of more following might increase. The domino effect could lead to a complete decimation of one’s place in the world, or at the very least a slow subsumption to that despicable ‘other side’ which never really existed in the first instance.

I have been wagging my finger at social media’s role in all this, but it is only part of the whole picture. Tribalism or a basic human yearning to feel part of something bigger, or to feel accepted by a group, is essentially what social media is great at tapping into. The craving for ‘likes’ or interaction with apparently likeminded people lays heavily at its crux. In a world where alienation feels stronger than ever, this is understandable, but increasingly frustrating. Even some of the smartest of people seem to be throwing themselves off cliffs with arms spread yet ready to embrace the comfort accorded these enclaves of mutual agreement. Anybody then sticking their head above the parapet must hastily be abrogated. Cast assunder like a leper whilst the nearby crowd continues to wave flags of ’tolerance’, ‘virtue’, ‘fairness’ and ‘truth’. 

Only last year, when so-called ‘cancel culture’ began to gain momentum due to, again, social media’s thick lubrication of platforms for the morally outraged, as now represented by ‘the same kind of ‘tolerant’ liberals my former friend would have readily identified as rather than priggish religious types or the now long gone yet terminally dismayed Mary Whitehouse, I found my own comments defending comedies now considered ‘offensive’ being gunned down by people who grew up with punk/industrial culture, weird art and de Sade. The very same types who’d usually lambast conservatives have become precisely that. I am sure most would have once declared themselves ‘anti-censorship’ when Tipper Gore created a huge stink in the 1980s about the language and imagery sometimes used in certain music (chiefly, punk, metal and hip hop). I am equally certain most, like myself, would have found the early 1980s Mary Whitehouse-led crusade against ‘video nasties’ just as abhorrent. And yet here they are willingly and unthinkingly climbing on board the bus destined towards a new form of censorship. A censorious world propagated by not only those incapable of understanding the irony at work here, but countless others too naive to grasp any of of the greater implications. People who clearly believe the idea of our cultural interests being policed more and more heavily is a good thing. People who evidently feel more filters need implementing lest we fail to understand rudimentary notions like context or indeed its being broken down into component parts such commentary, satire and irony. People who, even as adults, need everything fucking explained to them. People who without even a hint of irony will deplore the ‘dumbing down’ of everything in modern culture.

It all plays directly into the hands of everybody being considered too moronic to distinguish reality from fiction. It suggests, once more, that everything is monochromatic and falls readily into a box of one kind or another. There’s no grey area and certainly no concessions to be made for those deemed to have fallen into the ‘wrong’ box. Anything  largely considered recondite or oblique will automatically be cast into one regardless. We live in an easy-fit culture of ready meals, straitjacketed ideologues, low-shelf identities tailored for the lazy, and faintly ridiculous belief the ‘right’ and ‘left’ still have great meaning in a West absolutely wonderful yet staring ever more at the yawning chasms of darkness presently poised to swallow it.

To this end, I can see most of those reading this completely failing to grasp the key points I have attempted to make. I do not have any problem with those noted who seem to me rather misguided or mistaken in their thinking, either. I only have a problem with why this is happening and, indeed, why more do not seem to be speaking out against it even if apparently aware of it.

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