Chant Down Babylon: Notes from the 3rd Annual Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture

Everyone who played at for k-punk 2020 was incredible. The energy was so high and the sound so good and the crowd so up for it. I don’t think there is any combination of words that can do it all justice.

Mark Leckey alone, as the first act of the night, played everything from Meredith Monk-esque vocalisations through to Throbbing Gristle and a gabba explosion. It felt like such an eclectic hour but it also like a microcosm of the sonics to come, shifting from Tetine’s mutant tropical funk-punk through to Jennifer Walton’s hyperplastic edit fest.

“Write about this!” was Natasha’s challenge towards the end of the night, as if to say “I bet you can’t”, and she was right.

But then, have I ever? A run down of the Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture is a given and it is inevitably the lecture alone that gives context to the amorphous love-in that is to follow. This year’s presenter, Simon Reynolds, was no exception. Simon sparked off so many thoughts that were both discussed and danced through in the Goldsmiths SU shortly afterwards.

The theme of the lecture was pop’s ability to instigate political change but, as Simon himself conceded, that’s hardly a question to which anyone can give a quantifiable answer. However, that’s not to say there aren’t dozens of very explicit examples of pop music instigating a political consciousness raising.

In the unfinished introduction to Acid Communism, of course, Mark revisited the pop of the 1960s and ‘70s and the explicit political messages contained within many of the hits of the day; the usurping of capitalist realism that lay in the verses and choruses of tracks from the era that still reverberate down the years.

Simon discussed Sly and the Family Stone at length in this regard, as perhaps the most tumultuous and infamous example of Black protestant funk finding itself under the weight of militant politics and mind-altering drugs. He adeptly plotted their trajectory from “Sesame Street to revolution” — from the music-by-numbers breakdown of “Dance to the Music” to the “broken and dispirited” sociopolitical rock-and-a-hard-place of There’s a Riot Going On…

(No conceivable shade cast upon Sly and the Family Stone but if you like your “Sesame Street to revolution” funk bands without the browbeaten dejection and hard drug abuse, then might I point you towards one of my favourites: the intriguingly named Stark Reality.)

Rather than simply echoing Mark’s reference points, Simon demonstrated his passion for YouTube archaeology by sharing his own selection of clips and videos. It was surprisingly thrilling, like watching a blissblog post unfold live before your eyes.

Whereas Mark loved the Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack”, Simon drew attention to the Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind”. I liked his analysis of the song’s penultimate verse a lot, noting how the lyrics might contain a powerful anti-capitalist sentiment but, at the same time, there’s a deferral of revolution to another day, perfectly encapsulating the strange tension Mark was fascinated by in the counterculture in his final years:

Do the five day grind once more
I know of nothin’ else that bugs me
More than workin’ for the rich man
Hey! I’ll change that scene one day
Today I might be mad, tomorrow I’ll be glad
‘Cause I’ll have Friday on my mind

Whereas Mark talked about The Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping”, Simon focused on John Lennon’s “Nutopian International Anthem”. He also drew attention to an interview Lennon gave in Red Mole magazine — a surprisingly erudite and impressive conversation that counters Lennon’s reputation today.

(My impression has always been that Lennon was just a blundering artist without any real critical faculties, too alienated by his unimaginable stardom to create the timeless tracks that populate Paul’s solo outings, for example. It’s quite nice to be proved wrong and find a man deeply concerned with the class politics of his own position and an engagement with the here and now.)

Whereas Mark wrote about the Jam’s strangely modernist social realism, Simon spoke of the paradoxical fun of the Sex Pistols’ cover of the Stooges’ “No Fun”. A libidinal delibidinisation.

I really liked what Simon had to say about punk’s embrace of a wholly nihilistic place in society, knowingly embodying the corrupt adage of “children are the problem” rather than the ’60s whimsical “children are the future”. (Kudos where due to Greta Thunberg for simultaneously channeling both positions and upsetting all the boomers.)

The paradox at the heart of the Jam was also particularly interesting to me. (It came up again over dinner last night.) Speaking of the Jam and the likes of, say, Joy Division, Simon made the distinction between post-punk and new wave as being a distinction between modernism and realism. Whereas Ian Curtis was heralded as defining the sound of Manchester in that moment of late-70s / early 80s transition, the music itself was also hugely dystopian and otherworldly — it was the sound of another Manchester, a future Manchester but also a present Manchester, lurking in the depths of the post-industrial unconscious. It was a sonic modernism as new and radical as its previous aesthetic instantiations in literature, painting and architecture. By contrast, Simon explained, “Paul Weller sought to escape his situation by describing it.” The new wave bands like him took the kitchen-sink social realism of a previous era and made it pop — “describing things too humdrum to enter pop previously”, as Simon put it. Mark’s great intervention in this blogosphere debate was to encourage a cross pollination of the two.

(Later I mourned how this surely blatant and powerful precursor to the political and cultural tensions explored around Speculative Realism blogosphere could today be reduced to Graham Harman wondering about whether his dog is a Great Old One or about the politically impotent ontologising of material science.)

Moving swiftly up the decades, Simon went on to speak about jungle and the calls to arms sampled from reggae and its various sub-genres, repurposed for a new generation and giving rise to so many resonant attempts to chant down Babylon. (Soundbite of the night for me: “‘Babylon’ is a far more powerful word than ‘neoliberalism’.”)

But then we came to grime and the problem of modern day hip-hop.

A notion that came out of the Q&A I found quite haunting was the suggestion that hip hop, as the most important and innovative popular music genre of the last few decades, by constantly bringing the new to the ears of the masses, is also, at least in its lyrical content, an integral vehicle for upholding the illusionary status of capitalist realism.

(Mark’s intervention was to write surprisingly glowing endorsements of Drake in Ghosts of my Life, drawing attention to “the secret sadness of the 21st century” that undermines the aspirational politics of capitalism’s emphasis on individual — rather than collective — advancement.)

Grime doesn’t do this to the same extent. Or does it? Grime, in the first instance, for Simon, seemed to be wholly devoid of any political consciousness. As grime has found its feet, this has changed noticeably. It is a genre that echoes many of the tensions of inner city black experience in the UK but still, beyond the political endorsements and lyrics of someone as outspoken as Stormzy, can we still say that grime is a political genre?

It’s a trick question. The answer is “of course” but that doesn’t meant you can quantify it. Grime, like hiphop, is innately political simply given its nature “as a social force” and as an “aesthetic vanguard” — that was Simon’s argument — and this was the sentiment carried over into for k-punk 2020 for me on Friday night.

Is what we’ve done political? Not really; not on the whole; not explicitly in terms of its overall content… But as a social force, I think so, absolutely.

We’ve been doing this for three years now and so there is a sense of tradition setting in, but in the most beautiful way.

I realised that there are a number of friendships I now cherish dearly that were born on these nights. People I adore and who now feel like a major part of my social life were met in or around the Mark Fisher Memorial Lectures in 2018 and 2019. Others I only ever seem to see at for k-punk nights. They are part of its fabric simply as repeat attendees who choose to come up and say hello.

At the first for k-punk night, for instance, I met some of Cave Twitter in person for the first time. The second year I met Lucy and over the year since we’ve been for drinks and to gigs and I joined her and her partner-in-crime Sean to record an episode of their Wyrd Signal podcast. This year we had members of Gruppo Di Nun staying with us, and it felt extra special to have the memorial lecture feel like a truly international event. (They were not the only ones, I later heard, to fly over to the UK for the occasion.)

Each year has not only been an opportunity to engage with people on the dancefloor but it has also been an opportunity to invite people who have otherwise emerged as fellow travellers to join us in our remembrance. Whether someone knew Mark or not is somewhat irrelevant. If they understand the importance of what they and others around them do as a social force, then they’re in. This year’s lineup was, I think, the perfect testament to that sentiment. (Not bad for another year organised with no actual knowledge of the content of the lecture.)

A huge thank you to everyone who came and danced with us and who came to the lecture. An enormous thank you to Mark Leckey, Bruno Verner, Eliete Mejorado, Chooc Ly Tan, Robin Buckley and Jennifer Walton for playing for us and making it such an incredible night. Thank you to everyone who made the effort to travel and who came to the fundraiser last year and who bought my book in the lobby afterwards and everyone who said hello.

The other thing to be said about Friday night is the strange wealth of emotions floating around. As each year goes by, and as we travel further and further from the initial event of Mark’s death, the more bizarre the emotional landscape becomes. I found myself overwhelmed by sadness and joy in equal measure on the dance floor that night. Not all at once but the pendulum swing was sharp and rapid; the root obvious but also indeterminate.

I missed Mark. I was also just exhausted. I am grateful to everyone — performers and attendees — for so skilfully blasting away all fatigue and melancholy and creating a night that was so seamless and enchanting I went home feeling lighter than air.

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