Review by George Yatchisin
Polymath producer-musician Brian Eno has this great theory about “scenius” as the corrective to “‘genius,’ which exemplifies what I call the ‘Big Man’ theory of history – where events are changed by the occasional brilliant or terrible man, working in heroic isolation.” You don’t even need to sic the use of man in that quote, as we all know how he-heavy official history is.
Eno would no doubt approve of Gavin Butt’s insightful and informed No Machos or Pop Stars:
When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk, as it makes a distinct scenius case for the creative caldron of that north Yorkshire city in the late 1970s. Butt, a professor of fine art at Northumbria University, provides this precis in the introduction:
“No Machos or Pop Stars follows a select band of art school students—and their compatriots—who dared, for a time, to imagine things could turn out differently to what became Thatcherism’s neoliberal makeover for 1980s Britain. It tells the story of a dialectical entanglement of punk rock and art college radicalism through which both were sublated, in the manner of the Hegelian Aufhebung, into artistic forms that variously attempted to plot alternative routes out of the crisis that had befallen postwar welfarism—alternative, that is, to avant-garde art or rock industry business-as-usual.”
So, yeah, this is a university press publication, and Butt is conversant in both music criticism and theory, as he cites everyone from Greil Marcus, Simon Frith, and Mary Harron (back when she was a journalist and not a film director) to Lucy Lippard, Stuart Hall, Julia Kristeva, and Antonio Gramsci with Dick Hebdige in between. But more powerful than his scholarship, and his own voluminous interviewing of those in the scene, is his clear passion. He writes as someone moved by the music, weird, wonderful, and varied, that Leeds spawned, groups like Delta 5, Gang of Four, Soft Cell, Scritti Politti, Fad Gadget, and the Mekons.
Leeds, like much of the UK, had felt like it had come to the end of the 20th century road by the 1970s. Butt writes of the failure of the twin -isms, modernism and progressivism, and attests to a “strange sense of apocalyptic dystopia.” The region even had its own mass murderer afoot, the Yorkshire Ripper. Leeds was not only far enough away from London to be more provincial, but it also escaped serious air raids during World War II, so was late to the revitalization process that had to happen elsewhere. The city was also primed with two schools that seemed to embody a pervasive art world split—the University was the esteemed site for fine art and theory, the Polytechnic for vocationals and mechanicals.
December 6, 1976 changed everything. The Sex Pistols came to town mere days after scandalizing the nation on the BBC (to the point 17 of the 20 dates on their tour were cancelled). Their show, that also featured the Damned, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, and The Clash, suggested a way out of what seemed the doldrums of the art world, whether that be stultifying studio art or the audience-free elitism of the avant garde—join a band. Butt puts it this way: “For some in the eye of the initial punk storm, it was the promise of an emergent, newly participatory, and creative body politic that felt electrifying at the outset—as much as, if not more so than, any aesthetics of revolt.”
The bulk of the book works through the different genesis stories of different key bands to see how art school lessons played out in 4/4 time. Gang of Four, one of the most directly political charged of the groups—its song “Not Great Men” is an antidote to the belief of genius, after all—unsurprisingly took perhaps the most from theory courses. Leftist Professor T.J. Clark, a former Situationist, oversaw Andy Gill’s dissertation on Manet, for example. And then Butt quotes Gill from a Simon Reynolds’ interview saying, “‘It’s then a short step from that [kind of art historical analysis] to me and Jon using the same sort of approach to look at ourselves and our friends, our sex lives, and what we’re seeing on TV.’”
Other bands grew out of communal living situations and the sharing of instruments and furniture. Take the couch, with the word “spaceship” attached to it, that the Mekons rode onto the stage for their first gig. At first almost more a prank collective than a band, Butt describes them thusly “as continuing the counterculture’s unfished project of self-determination well into the 1970s, albeit in full recognition of its failings the first time around.” Mark White, one of the band’s founders, puts it this way: “‘We were just flailing around, trying to find some form that would represent, or bear witness to disillusion. Certainly this is what the Mekons were doing…We never had the confidence that what we had to say would make any difference…But we knew we had to say it.’”
The joke might be that a different version of the Mekons, with two of its original members, are still “flailing” today, four decades and over 20 albums later. But that’s getting far ahead of Butt’s story, which culminates in Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” going number one in England. Butt writes, “It was the mutant’s moment.” That hit grew out of Marc Almond’s performance art studies at Polytechnic with Jeff Nuttall (a wild professor well captured by the book), Dave Ball’s attraction to Poly’s recording studio where he could make “‘strange ultra-low-fi/sci-fi pop ditties and instrumentals entirely for my own amusement,’” and glamorously decadent club nights billed Digital Disko at the Warehouse that brought a New York City edge to the scene.
Of course, the moment couldn’t last. Shambling tends towards entropy, after all, so DIY bands tended to either break up or fade away. The culture that made this growth happen also shifted, in ways good—as with all art education, people wised up to including more women and people of color (if, as always, slowly)—and ways bad—the UK decided to underfund its art programs and art schools.
But the book expresses a conundrum all cultures face—can people be educated out of their best creativity? (See the argument that MFA programs make for cookie-cutter poetry claims, say.) Instead, it’s best to think about it as longtime Mekon Jon Langford archly expressed it at one point, “We discovered that it was ok to have a little high-brow as long you have a lot of low-brow. That’s entertainment value. The one thing you want to avoid is the middle brow, because the whole world is frigging middle brow at the moment.”