Songs in the Key of X
It all keeps adding up
I think I’m cracking up
Am I just paranoid?
Green Day, ‘Basket Case’
Paranoia - in the colloquial rather than the clinical sense - preoccupied songwriters in the 1990s. So I decided early on that paranoia would be a theme in my book on alternative rock, and that I would try to be as paranoid as possible while writing it. I would approach my history book the way agent Mulder in the X-Files would tackle a murder mystery. For Mulder, nothing is ever simple – every piece of information is a sign that something else is being hidden, the news that the case is closed is virtually proof that he has come close to uncovering a sinister government plot. So it would be with me.
I think I’m paranoid,
(Garbage, ‘I Think I’m Paranoid’)
My own investigations began with the letter ‘X’. In the 90s, ‘X’ stood for an invisible generation (‘Generation X’), a storehouse of government secrets (‘X-Files’) a hipster clothing label owned by Adam Yauch (‘X-large’), and its sister imprint, presided over by Kim Gordon (‘X-Girl’). Slowly more ‘X’s revealed themselves to me. The decade began with Sonic Youth’s ‘Goo’, whose sleeve is sealed with a kiss (which in typographic terms is an ‘x’) and ended with ‘XTRMNTR’, by Primal Scream – whose 1997 album ‘Vanishing Point’ could also be seen to describe an ‘X’.
I watched an MTV interview with Beck, in which he declared that “the past is a cancelled check.” Ah-ha! I thought. Cancellation is indicated by an ‘X’! I listened to Bikini Kill singing “in her kiss I taste the revolution”. Another ‘x’! I watched the 1990 film of ‘Naked Lunch’ and heard Peter Weller as William Burroughs say that he would ‘Exterminate all rational thought’. Then I bought a copy of an album called ‘Songs in The Key of X’ for 50p in a charity shop in Southampton, which featured Burroughs reading the lyrics of a song by REM. “There must be a connection!” I thought.
I had become paranoid, but did Burroughs himself not declare, in 1970, that “the paranoid is a man who knows a little of what is going on”? Did Primal Scream not remind their fans that "paranoia is total awareness" on the run-off groove of ‘Vanishing Point’?
I may be paranoid,
but I’m not an android
(Radiohead, ‘Paranoid Android’)
I began to construct an enormous wall chart so as to lay out the timeline of the book...
...and everytime I identified an ‘x’, I connected it to its closest neighbour with a piece of red cotton.
I quickly moved beyond 'x's to connect other things that resembled one another - words, pictures, motifs from songs and videos. Over time, these red lines built up to the point where they criss-crossed each other. One day, I stood back and realised that each one of these cross-points was itself a ‘Vanishing Point’, and also an ‘X’.
It seemed as though a great secret had been revealed to me, but that no-one else could see it. This made me feel lonely and misunderstood, which actually felt surprisingly good.
What the cards mean
'Acousmatic, the Larousse dictionary tells us, is the 'name given to the disciples of Pythagoras who for five years, listened to his teachings while he was hidden behind a curtain, without seeing him, while observing a strict silence.' Hidden from their eyes, only the voice of their master reached the disciples.... In ancient times, the apparatus was a curtain; today, it is the radio and methods of reproduction, along with the entire set of electro-acoustic transformations, that place us, modern listeners to an invisible voice, under similar conditions.'
Pierre Schaeffer, 'Acousmatics', 1966
pierre schaeffer | musique concrete | sonorous objects | acousmatics | pythagoras | phenomenology | twin peaks | red room
'Imagine a traveller from a hundred years ago arrives at our doorstep and asks us why the music of the 20th century operates so frequently on the basis of cyclic repetition. Not just the rap and dance genres of popular culture, but also minimalism - perhaps the single most viable strand of the Western art music tradition... why does so much of our music work this way? What kind of needs do these patterns satisfy?'
Susan McClary, 1999
stardust | daft punk | susan mcclary | minimalism | loop | chaka kahn | repetition
"Could it be that we come to the city in order to achieve solitude? Such has been the unspoken premise of the modern city of utopian individualism. By solitude I do not mean isolation. Isolation is a state of nature: solitude is the work of culture. Isolation is an imposition, solitude a choice."
walkman | ipod | iphone | isolation | solitude | city | the crowd
"The whole human species, looked at from its origins, appears to the philosopher as an immense whole, which, like an individual, has its infancy and its progress … The totality of humanity, fluctuating between calm and agitation, between good times and bad, moves steadily though slowly towards a greater perfection."
Said nobody, at any time in the last one hundred years. Nowadays, our view of the future is more like the one seen from the middle ages than the Enlightenment. But from where he stood in 1750, or perhaps sat, on a chair a bit like the one pictured above, the French statesman and economist Jacques Turgot could look back on the past five centuries and see a gradual transition from primitive agrarians torturing and killing each other over superstitious nonsense, to the confident era of the Enlightenment, with its stupendous advancements in astronomy, medicine and physics.
enlightenment | progress | history | kubrick | 2001
'Thus it is well known that a child learns to walk, talk and to know his way around the world just by trying something out and seeing what happens, then modifying what he does (or thinks) in accordance with what has actually happened. In this way, he spends his first few years in a wonderfully creative way, discovering all sorts of things that are new to him, and this leads people to look back on childhood as a kind of lost paradise. As the child grows older, however, learning takes on a narrower meaning. In school, he learns by repetition to accumulate knowledge, so as to please the teacher and pass examinations. At work, he learns in a similar way, so as to make a living, or for some other utilitarian purpose, and not for the love of the action of learning itself. So his ability to see something new and original gradually dies away. And without it there is evidently no ground from which anything can grow.'
guns n roses | axl rose | daniel bohm | childhood | creativity
'That human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence itself is valueless, for boredom is nothing more than the sensation of the emptiness of existence. For if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, there would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfil and satisfy us. As things are, we take no pleasure in existence except when we are striving after something—in which case distance and difficulties make our goal look as if it would satisfy us (an illusion which fades when we reach it) ...'
rolling stones | arthur schopenhauer | philosophy | rock and roll | desire | boredom