I want to be a machine

from miramax.com
Six years ago now, I wrote a post called 'Android Rock', which was about synthesisers and Gary Numan and the future. In the interim my musical tastes have shifted much more to this kind of music:  not only post-punk and synth-pop from 1978 to 1982, but crucial antecedents like Krautrock or kosmische 1970s German bands (from Tangerine Dream to Kraftwerk to Manuel Göttsching, but mainly Michael Rother in Neu! or Harmonia or solo), space rock, electronic experimentation, psychedelia. And of course Bowie, always Bowie.

In 2010 Bowie was retired, 6 years hence; but in 2014 we got The Next Day, and then in January 2016 we had Blackstar, and then... I couldn't listen to Blackstar for months after Bowie died. And I put on 'I Can't Give Everything Away' as I write this, and it's a goodbye, with that harmonica, and a return to the sound of his wedding album Black Tie White Noise, and then some Fripp-guitar at the end, and I think - I miss having DB around. The title of that last track, set against a career of personas and performances, Ziggy and Aladdin and the Thin White Duke and the Man Who Fell to Earth and Nathan Adler and so on, even 'David Bowie'; and set against rock's insistent authenticity, of feeling and connection and emotion; and his ten years away from the spotlight from 2004-2014; and I realise how much I'm drawn to music (these days) which plays along that edge of giving everything and nothing away, of distance and intimacy.

The centre of my musical sensibilities has moved from the Sixties to the end of the 1970s, from a time I don't remember to one I remember very well. When I read Simon Reynolds' excellent Rip It Up, it was a kind of return, to bands and songs and albums. Even though I was a teenage Mod, I always liked (in a slightly guilty way) electro-pop too, which is why I've still got the Blue Monday 12", OMD's Architecture and Morality lp, Shriekback's Care and Jam Science. And throughout the 1980s (and ever since), I've loved the combination of drum machines and guitars, from The Jesus and Mary Chain to Big Black to The The to Sisters of Mercy.

Andy Warhol once said, famously, 'The reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do'. Warhol was referring to silk-screen printing, and the suppression of human 'making' in the artistic process. Of course, these were often of film stars like Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, and whatever erasures of authorship or Benjaminian 'aura' are delivered by a machinic process are re-instated in the art market which sells the prints as 'Warhols'.

But perhaps this is another dance along the edge of giving nothing and everything away. (Bowie of course wrote a song called 'Andy Warhol' on Hunky Dory and played Warhol in the film Basquiat.)

In one of my favourite films, from 1979, the same year as Numan's The Pleasure Principle and Bowie's Lodger, is Chris Petit's Radio On. A black-and-white road film from London to Bristol and thence the sea, Radio On is soundtracked by the kind of music I'm now drawn to recurrently. It begins with a wonderful use of Bowie's 'Heroes' with a long hand-held track through a Bristol flat, and uses Kraftwerk's Radioactivity album over images of the protagonist driving down what now seem like eerily empty motorways. In the opening tracking shot, the camera comes to rest on a handwritten note pinned to a board. It says: 'We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun. We are the link between the '20s and '80s. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration via tape recorders, synthesisers and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality'. In that flat, the brother of the protagonist has committed suicide. A Roberts Radio plays 'Heroes' (and the German language version, 'Helden'). Death in an electronic reality: distance and intimacy.

I'm hoping to pursue that connection, that collaboration, between synthesisers and recording devices and communications technologies over the next months. In 'Android Rock' I suggested that late '70s/ early 80s' synth-pop still sounded like the future

because the sounds of analogue synthesizers bear little relation to the tonal qualities of 'real world' sounds ... these sounds are still machine sounds, and I think we hear them differently (even now) than we do organic, 'natural' waveforms. 

In pursuit of machine music, I'm fully prepared to admit to what Simon Reynolds diagnosed as 'nostalgia for the future', that the music I'm drawn to represents a kind of modernity and future that will never come into being. But in that nostalgia, a longing for a different world, at least there's hope in the sentiment 'je est une machine'.


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