Culture Club 1
France, 1948. A recording studio somewhere in the bowels of Radio-Telediffusion Francais. Pierre Schaeffer is listening to a scratched record as it loops the same four seconds of sound over and over again. He starts tapping his foot, grabs a microphone, and starts talking over the rhythm. “It goes un for the treble…”
France’s national radio station refused to play Antonin Artaud’s ground-breaking radio play ‘To Have Done With The Judgement of God’, and locked it in a cupboard for over a decade. Was Artaud’s work too far ahead of its time for France’s culture-boffins to get their heads around it? Or did they can it because it had too much screaming and too many annoying sound effects in it?
A secret chapter in the history of rock and roll is brought to light. We begin at a plumbing store in New York in 1917, and end with a bald man taking a piss in an art gallery in the mid-90s. Somewhere in between, David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ is recorded.
In most vocations, behaving like a freak and saying stuff that doesn’t make sense is considered poor form. But if you’re a musician or an artist, it’s almost a job requirement. So what if you’re a really good singer who just happens to be very well adjusted and normal? “That’s ok”, said Salvador Dali in 1936, “you can fake it. I do”.
In 1964, a young composer named John Cale sat down at the piano and played a short piece of music called ‘Vexations’ for the 840th time that evening. The one guy who had stayed for the whole show abruptly woke up and started clapping. Meanwhile, in a bar somewhere, Lou Reed played the riff from ‘Louie Louie’ for the 840th time that evening. From the packed dancefloor came a request: “Louie Louie!” Music history was about to be re-written.
Malcolm McLaren famously defined the secret of the Sex Pistols’ success as ‘Cash From Chaos’. But in the beginning, there wasn’t a lot of cash – just chaos. Was the Sex Pistols’ apetite for destruction the legacy of a rich modernist tradition going back to Surrealist pin-up Jacques Vache and his acolyte, Andre Breton? Or did they just like getting into fights?
If you’re Ben Folds’ roadie, and he asks you to ‘prepare the piano’, he doesn’t mean brushing the lint off the stool and lifting the lid. You’re expected to produce a little briefcase full of screws, tacks, pencil erasers and aluminium pie plates and start shoving them in between the strings so that when Folds hits the keys, it goes ‘bink-bonk-blonk’, in the time-honoured tradition of avant-garde piano music.
The inspiration for the Breeders’ ‘Cannonball’ was the 18th century sex criminal, The Marquis DeSade. Why are people still writing songs about him? It’s not because of his books – which are terrible. It’s not because of the orgies either. It’s because of the philosophy he later developed in order to justify the orgies.
“Ahead of your time”. It sounds grand doesn’t it? A pioneer, a lonely genius with a vision of the future, whose work will go on to inspire people for centuries to come. But being ahead of your time doesn’t feel grand at all. Just ask Futurist composer Luigi Russolo, who heard something like The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ in his head in 1910, but had nothing to perform it with except a couple of big cardboard boxes and a rubber band.
Art Galleries are boring because there’s not much real life in them. Real life is boring because there’s not enough art in it. The solution, for George Brecht, Nam Jun Paik, Yoko Ono and Al Hansen was obvious – everyday life as art. Some years later, when Hansen met his grandson Beck for the first time, he gave the kid a machete.
According to Guy Debord, leader of the Situationist International, late capitalism has replaced everyday life with an alienating mish-mash of money and desire called The Spectacle. What’s a modern artist to do? Refuse the spectacle? “That’s hot,” said Debord. Turn your refusal of the spectacle into a spectacle of refusal? “That’s not.”
This is the first series of The Culture Club, which went to air on triple j in 2007. It’s mostly based on the stories and ideas from the book of the same name, so if you want to know more about any of this stuff, that’s probably a good place to start. The random yelling at the start of the intro is from Artaud’s ‘To Have Done With the Judgement of god’