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Echoes of Ian Curtis: Film and the Punk Voice

PUNKSOUND

Image of Alice Bag used with her permission (thank you!)

For full intro and part one of the series click here. For part two, click here. For part three click here. For part four click here. For part five click here.

Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands.  Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel.  While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?

In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on.  In today’s essay Landon Palmer shows us how film may be just as responsible as music for how we remember the punk voice.

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)

In Joy Division’s 1979 song “Transmission,” singer Ian Curtis embodied several aspects of what made the group’s post-punk sound unique with the chorus, “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio.” As a piece of music, its repetition is intense and rousing, working as a compelling instruction that, when played loud enough, can be felt to the bone via Curtis’s deep timbre. At the same time, Curtis’s voice is robotic and distant, the signature of the group’s bleak sound that signified the post-industrial alienation of Thatcher-era Manchester. A historically specific critique of media, “Transmission” plays out a loss of agency. In the 21st century, however, the song has circulated more as a self-referential testament to Joy Division’s – and Curtis’s – musical skill, a container and a summary of myth.

Image by Ho-Teng Chang @Flickr CC BY.

To adopt Alexandra Vasquez’s question that has framed this series, what happens to representations of punk sound as they change over time? I argue that the cinematic techniques employed in presenting Ian Curtis and his voice in both 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom 2002) and Control (Anton Corbijn 2007) help us to understand the construction of a mythic punk voice.

Punk’s avoidance of comprehensibility, identification, and what Dave Liang calls “the prettiness of the mainstream song” have existed in awkward relation to narrative cinema, which requires legibility as a central component of storytelling (70, 71). While displacing the voice through fragmentation and asynchronous sound work has proven vital to theorizing and subverting cinematic norms, rarely has depicting a well-known punk singer’s voice in cinema translated to a cinematic punk aesthetic, as Stacy Thompson argues regarding the narrative and documentary Sex Pistols biopics Sid & Nancy (Alex Cox 1986) and The Filth and the Fury (Julien Temple 2000) (49-50). Even the revered punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris 1981) renders punk voices legible by providing lyric subtitles. However, the two most notable cinematic portrayals of Ian Curtis–24 Hour Party People and Control, released during the band’s resurgence in 21st century popular culture–demonstrate competing interpretations for a punk voice’s place within filmmaking and put into play the question of how to interpret it.

Image by a town called malice @flickr CC BY.

Despite Curtis’s short lifetime, his voice continues to be amplified throughout popular culture. These extended echoes of his voice have participated in shaping its meanings and myth. In his book Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Chris Ott writes that Joy Division’s music “defied imitation” (xiii); however, imitation (and citation) have fueled public memory of the band and augmented the myth of Ian Curtis. By the time Joy Division’s two LPs were re-released by Rhino in 2007, several contemporary bands–The Killers, Editors, Interpol and She Wants Revenge–built music careers that are openly indebted to this Manchester sound but distinct from its socio-historical context. Public memory of the group has been interpreted through uses of their music in the 1980s-set period pieces like Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly 2001) and Netflix’s Stranger Things (2016). The contemporary circulation of Joy Division’s music has extended to films that resurrect Curtis himself.

To start, 24 Hour Party People self-consciously stages an inquiry into Ian Curtis’s meanings and his contemporary resonance as part of the post-punk scene writ large. Chronicling the ‘70s-‘80s Manchester music scene through Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), the attention-seeking TV personality and unlikely underground music patron who formed Factory Records, the film fits several tenets of Thompson’s definition of punk cinema in its “engage[ment] with history” and “critique [of] its own commodification” (64). A tongue-in-cheek historical guide, Wilson narrates via a fourth-wall-breaking blend of mythmaking, footnotes, and commentary that reflects upon the film’s historiography as he articulates it, and in so doing overtly selects myth over “truth,” stating, “When you have to choose between truth and the legend, print the legend” (itself a quote dubiously credited to John Ford). The film’s self-conscious performance of history extends to its musical numbers, where Winterbottom liberally blends imitation with the genuine article through a mix of archival and staged footage, thus overtly staging encounters with key moments in Manchester musical history. The film’s play with historiography does not go so far as to trouble its reinforcement of a canonical timeline.

It is in this spirit that 24 Hour Party People brings actor Sean Harris’s portrayal of Ian Curtis to life. In re-creating Joy Division’s performance of “Digital” at the Hacienda Club, Harris invokes Curtis’s jittery-mechanical dance style while his “voice” remains Curtis’s. Additionally, the film mixes ambient crowd noises with a band of actors performing in synch to the song’s studio recording. 24 Hour Party People not only preserves Curtis’s voice as an inimitable icon of this history, but places the studio recording of “Digital” as the authoritative version of the song within the nascent period of the Manchester scene, thus mapping this studio recording onto the band’s live sound (rather than implementing an existing live recording). Curtis’s voice is reproduced only through the most valuable, resonant historical record of it–the recorded commodity.

Image by bixentro @Flickr CC BY.

The retrospective framing implied by this choice speaks to the film’s greater approach to Ian Curtis as a figure best understood (or perhaps inevitably shrouded) via his posthumous legacy, and thus foregrounds Curtis’s transformation into myth. Due to the timing of his passing, there exists a relatively limited media archive of the actual Curtis compared to other late-20th century rock singers of similar influence. Beyond official performances on television, music video, and records, scant recordings of Curtis performing and speaking are available via silent 8mm home movies and archival audio interviews. Thus, 24 Hour Party People cannot resort to the historical record(ing) in all instances, and thus Harris’s voice proves central to interpreting Curtis off-stage. In recalling Joy Division’s notorious first encounter with Wilson, 24 Hour Party People portrays Curtis as intimidatingly sure-footed, confronting Wilson through quick, direct speech and locked eyes. Harris conveys the actorly qualities that so often typecast him in villain roles. Further complicating Curtis’s public image, Coogan’s Wilson provides a counter-narrative of the singer following his suicide, asserting to the audience that Curtis was not exactly the “dark and depressive…prophet of urban decay and alienation” that his music suggested, and recounts a rousing collective rendition of “Louie Louie” with the band to prove his point. The only instance in which Harris’s actual voice is used as Curtis’s singing voice, this cacophonous chorus depicts a Curtis participating in a deliriously muddled punk sound. Yet even this counter-narrative does not challenge the mythmaking of Ian Curtis, for it reinforces Curtis’s suicide as central to his meaning and value as a musician.

Music biopics have long bolstered definitive interpretations of a popular performer’s biography. In contrast to 24 Hour Party People’s self-conscious approach to mythmaking, Control is adapted from Deborah Curtis’s autobiography and directed by a former Joy Division photographer. Control’s most conventional choices as a rock biopic are the narrative associations the film makes between events in Curtis’s life and his songwriting, connecting Curtis’s music directly to his troubled marriage and the distress caused by his epilepsy. Control juxtaposes Curtis’s interior life with his production of music, cutting to the recording of “She’s Lost Control” after he learns that a client in his unemployment office has died of epilepsy, and featuring a performance of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” following a scene in which he tells his wife (Samantha Morton) that he no longer loves her. Control thus connects the singer’s authorial voice to the film’s narrative voice, arguing that the sounds Ian Curtis left behind are legible remnants of his biography. In so doing, the film deterministically situates his life through the framework of his death, his music serving a seemingly inevitable path to his suicide and thus transformation into musical myth (staged at the end with a crane shot rising up to the Manchester skyline during “Atmosphere,” indicating a ubiquitous echo of Curtis that has transcended the corporeal).

Punks in Manchester. Image by agogo @Flickr CC BY.

The film’s voicing of Curtis is articulated through Sam Riley’s performance, not through archival audio of the singer. As with 24 Hour Party People, Corbijn initially planned to have Riley and the supporting actors mimic their performances. However, during preproduction the band of actors rehearsed together until they were confident enough to play live shows for Joy Division fans. This convinced Corbijn to utilize them as a sort-of legitimate cover band for the purposes of embodying Joy Division’s history. Riley’s voice is notably higher than Curtis’s and is thus distinctive enough that it resonates comfortably alongside the numerous bands of this century whose leads “sound like” Curtis. Indeed, the resonance of Curtis throughout contemporary alternative rock may have helped make Riley more palatable as an authorized substitute for Corbijn and Joy Division fans. Such homage through imitation is reinforced by Control’s end credits, which features The Killers’ cover of “Shadowplay.” Both of these invocations of Curtis locate his value in his contemporary influence, not his historic place, an approach evident in Control’s less overt interest in post-punk’s socio-cultural context than 24 Hour Party People.

Control is uninterested in recreating the details of Joy Division’s history with exacting verisimilitude, forgoing the archive for a resonant aura of the band’s history. This approach is evident in Corbijn’s visual decisions – shooting the film in black-and-white memorializes the band through the stark photography with which Corbijn captured them – as well as his musical ones. In Control’s depiction of the band’s breakthrough performance on Tony Wilson’s (here played by Craig Parkinson) Granada Television program So It Goes, for example, Corbijn’s Joy Division perform the enduringly popular “Transmission” rather than “Shadowplay,” the song they actually played. Joy Division’s breakthrough television moment was further recast through “Transmission” in a fan-made Playmobil animation that curiously combines introductory audio of Parkinson’s Wilson from Control with Joy Division’s 1979 performance of “Transmission” on BBC2’s Something Else. Control not only situates Curtis’s singing voice coherently within authorial and narrative legibility, but also reflects and participates in contemporary popular memorialization of Joy Division regardless of the historical accuracy of such choices.

Pamela Robertson Wojcik argues that the human voice and its mediation through recording technologies is an important but overlooked component of cinematic performance. It is also vital to consider how famous voices travel and gain meaning through processes of imitation and citation–tropes of authenticity which pervade the musical biopic. While 24 Hour Party People and Control avoid many clichés of the musical biopic, narrative cinematic imperatives of legibility, coherence, and individual-centered storytelling motivate each film to participate in the production of rock star myth despite efforts at historical critique in the former or the austere style of the latter. Even in punk, rock star death is the most compelling biographical framework. The punk voice has long held a discordant relationships to cinematic norms, and these two films demonstrate how the translation of punk sound into cinematic soundscapes presents the inherent problem of recounting punk’s history.

Featured image “scream” by be.refreshed @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Landon Palmer is a PhD Candidate studying Film and Media in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University and recently defended a dissertation on the cross-industrial history of casting rock stars on film titled “Rock Cinema: A Transmedia History, 1956-1986.” He has published on popular music and moving image media culture in Music, Sound, and the Moving Image, iaspm@journal: Journal of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, and Celebrity Studies.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

G.L.O.S.S., Hardcore, and the Righteous White Voice  – Chris Chien

If La Llorona Was a Punk Rocker: Detonguing The Off-Key Caos and Screams of Alice Bag – Marlen Ríos-Hernández

Riot-Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique – Tamra Lucid

 

If La Llorona Was a Punk Rocker: Detonguing The Off-Key Caos and Screams of Alice Bag

PUNKSOUND

Image of Alice Bag used with her permission (thank you!)

For full intro and part one of the series click here. For part two, click here. For part three click here. For part four click here.

Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands.  Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel.  While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?

In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on.  In today’s essay Marlen Rios-Hernandez discusses how all the politics of punk sound, queer chicana identity, and feminism can be found in the scream.

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)

Mexican cultural theorist Carlos Monsiváis looked at various aspects of Mexican youth subcultures in the early 80s and revealed how youth relied on “caos” or chaos as a way to attain pleasure within disruption, spontaneity, and noise (68-79). How does the scream emerge through caos as a instrument of resistance? Alongside scholars like Fred Moten, I argue that the scream ruptures caos and allows us to glimpse the pleasure of resistance. In Alice Bag’s scream we find this medley of pleasure, interruption, and spontaneity. Bag explains, “once the Bags hit the stage and the music started, ego checked out and id took over, channeling my libido, my inner rage, whatever… I was free to be myself with no holds barred. It was the ultimate freedom” (221). These elements epitomize what I consider a queer Chicana feminist exorcism of tonality.

As explained in Bag’s memoir, particular to punk, there is a general reliance on informal/community-based ear training where musicians teach each other (183). European traditions of musical analysis both negate the horizontal learning central to punk while also normalizing the historical colonial presence within the Borderlands. In order to reveal how Bag’s scream exorcises these Eurocentric traditions, I consider her performance of “Violence Girl” at the Whiskey (1978), footage of “Gluttony” from The Decline of Western Civilization Part 1 (1981), and a brief clip of The Bags’ “Survive” in What We Do is Secret (2007). Because of how the scream disrupts formal analysis, there is an urgency to understand how it works against the grain.

In the face of Chicana women being politically silenced by the Chicano Movement and Women’s Movements during the late 70s and 80s, it was important for Chicanas to speak up for increased autonomy and access to space. Thus, Alice Bag’s caos is informed by an intersectional ethic of Chicana feminism. At the time queer Chicanas were largely absent from Chicano nationalist organizing. Between the Chicano Movement and unruly Chicana punks, the screaming voice became a multi-layered instrument of protest and empowerment necessary to invert normative gender and sexual politics within punk, the Chicano movement, and second wave feminism. The ability of the Chicana scream to contest oppression is not new. Such a linage can be drawn from La Llorona–– the villanized folkloric mother that drowns her children and haunts Mexico’s shores by wailing in the night.

Drawing on Latinx scholarship and a sonic reimagining of La Llorona’s wailing (as a feminist cry and public display against patriarchy), this post reimagines Alice’s scream as simultaneously resistance and pleasure. This aligns with Gloria Anzaldúa’s notion of deslengualidad. Suturing Anzaldúa’s concept of deslengualidad (detonguing)–which I define as Chicanas speaking with an orphan tongue–with caos shows how Chicanas can claim visibility through the scream. Deslengualidad and caos account for colonial interventions within the Chican@ identity, they demand the preservation and celebration of the mestiza language and help to provide visibility to Chican@ art.

Though the voice has been rendered repeatedly as a gendered instrument, usually legible via lyrics, and always harmonic, some examples tell us otherwise. For example, Alice’s scream is interrupted by her microphone malfunctioning in her performance of “Violence Girl” at the Whiskey (1978). This multi-layered recording with it’s already grainy inaudible features, helps us to understand the scream as a stand alone act of caos. Although the scream is interrupted by multiple forms of dissonance, it also persists as a public gesture of empowerment.  The quality of the recording is poor and in it Alice experiences technical issues on stage. These distortions lead Alice to artfully perform a sonic delengualidad by making use of silence, inaudible screaming, and the body. She continues to move, interrupt, and most importantly still is accompanied by stable beat of the Bags despite singing without a microphone. Yet, in the absence of aurally decipherable lyrics (like the absence of a singular Chicana language) a lyrical analysis here wouldn’t serve any other purpose than to organize that which is on its own refuses order––her voice.

The seminal footage of “Gluttony” in The Decline of Western Civilization Part 1 (1981), features an aural scream. It helps us think about how the Chicana scream goes beyond mere aurality. Michelle Habell-Pallán’s notion of “el grito,”–the shout–relates to Alice’s shriek in “Gluttony.” Both punctuate emotional drama and harken back to Ranchera music. I suggest, however, that Bag’s shriek in “Gluttony” also signifies a growing concern with the homogeneity of white suburban beach punks who had infiltrated the scene. In her memoir Bag shares, “as I looked out into the audience, I could see that the once quirky men and women artists who prized originality above all else were being replaced by a belligerent, male dominated mob…playing for a belligerent group of individuals can be quite satisfying. What I didn’t like was the sameness” (308). Pushing back against the scene’s homogeneity, Bag does not end “Gluttony with a full closed cadence. Rather, she ends abruptly, leaving the listener with a sense of incompleteness.

The combination of repeated interruptions throughout “Gluttony” and the inability to conclude pushes the listener to a place of discomfort, where they are left yearning for some kind of ending. The musicologist Susan McClary argues that the absent cadences in Carmen signify how the cadence represents a return to normality and a satisfying feeling of closure. By withholding a full cadence in “Gluttony” and using her “grito” to celebrate difference, Bag enacts caos by rejecting the emerging uniformity of the scene. Much like Bag’s performance of “Violence Girl” at The Whiskey, the scream is less about being musical and ordered but instead a gesture to making do with what one has, a similar manifestation of deslengualidad.

The brief sound clip of the Bags’ “Survive” in What We Do is Secret (2007) illustrates how Alice’s scream offers a genealogy of caos via her disruption of the story of L.A. punk. The Bag’s “Survive” for the duration of a few seconds plays in the background during a scene in which fans are getting ready to watch The Germs perform at The Masque. In this clip, Alice’s voice isn’t immediate because of how it resonates within the background music. Hence, her voice refuses containment by emanating from the periphery. Alice’s voice emerges as delengualidad within the film precisely because women are written out of the story of L.A. punk. They are depicted as secondary players in the film.  Fred Moten’s In The Break reminds us that the site “where shriek turns speech turns song–– remote from the impossible comfort of origin–– lies the trace of our descent.” Within the shriek also lies our resistance tactics as Chicanas. The map of our survival through loudness–though heavily stereotyped–is a testament to the unwavering and inherited conocimiento that silence has never protected us. It is the task of women of color to interrupt, archive, and preserve their roles in the L.A. scene.

Screenshot from Alice Bag Band’s video “Gluttony.” Image used for purposes of critique.

Within Bag’s screaming from the Whiskey performance, Decline, to What We Do is Secret  are snapshots or sonic/visual testimonios of queer Chicana women during the early 80s. These sonic snapshots/testimonios speak to the severely gendered and racialized repression of queer Chicana youth while still reconfiguring what empowerment looked like in the aftermath of the major socio-political movements of the 60s and 70s. In a casual conversation with Alice in a panel I guest moderated, she mentioned that watching “Gluttony” today was irksome to her because she was off-key. Perhaps, being off-key is one way that Chicana feminisms audibly reject neoliberal (and gendered) state repression. When we are surrounded by noise, we must remain enveloped in its infinite shape and simply listen. In noise we can resist, interrupt, and move away from orthodoxy and order. In today’s political climate, we need this framework now more than ever.

The return to Alice’s voice in this current moment is no coincidence.  In preparation for this piece, I reflected on my brother’s deployment to Iraq during George W. Bush’s term. I was in community college taking a music appreciation course and I was searching for a paper topic that would be palatable to me as both a newly politicized queer Chicana and a former regular in the South Gate punk scene. It was through an interview with Teresa Covarrubias of The Brat and Alice Bag in an issue of Los Angeles Magazine that I heard Alice’s scream for the first time. It was the description of these women’s careers that led me to look up Chicana punk and come across the Whiskey performance of “Violence Girl.” To this day, Alice’s voice reminds us that if “Alice Bag was born from chaos” (310) then the Chicana punk voice remains a testament to punk’s resilience in the face of political uncertainty.

Featured image “Alice Bag Performing at Club Lingerie with the Cambridge Apostles” (CC BY 2.0)

Marlen Ríos-Hernández is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Riverside. Her current research revolves around queer Chicana/Mexicana punks in Mexico and Los Angeles from 1977-early 2000s respectively. Her dissertation aims to theorize and argue how Alice Bag, an innovator of the 1970s Los Angeles punk scene alongside other Mexicana punks, utilized noise to correlate the systemic disenfranchisement of womxn of color with the desire for transformational change integral to the survival of Mexicanas and first generation Chicana womxn especially during the Reagan and Bush Administrations. Via Ethnic Studies as her area of study along with her humanities and arts training as a Musicologist, Marlen investigates the relationship between unruly Chicana/Mexicana performing bodies and bisexuality, swapmeets, police brutality, photography, and film as instruments of noise-making.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

G.L.O.S.S., Hardcore, and the Righteous White Voice  – Chris Chien

Feeling Through the Keen and Grind: Team Dresch’s Personal Best – Gretchen Jude

Riot-Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique – Tamra Lucid

 

G.L.O.S.S., Hardcore, and the Righteous White Voice

PUNKSOUND

Image of Alice Bag used with her permission (thank you!)

For full intro and part one of the series click here. For part two, click here. For part three click here.

Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands.  Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel.  While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?

In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on.  Today’s essay is by the amazing and prolific Chris Chien. Join Chris as he questions the the uneven intersection of racial and sexual vocalization in punk’s legacy.

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)


Eddy is white, and we know he is because nobody says so. – Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

We just celebrated the 4th of July, which is really just national Fuck the Police Day… I bet that during the Revolutionary War, there were songs similar to mine. — Ice-T, interview in Rolling Stone, August 1992

I think it’s real important that us as Americans recognize the fact that we have a lot of violence inherent in us, you know, it’s like part of our culture; it’s part of our art, you know, the 1950s, the great artists, like [Jackson] Pollock and [Willem] de Kooning, and we should work now, now that wars are over to not be ashamed to put violence in our art; I have a lot of violence in my art — Patti Smith, interview from Rock My Religion

 

INTRO 

In a 2015 interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Toni Morrison recounts the time her father threw a drunken white man down the stairs because he thought the man was coming for his daughters. She concluded that it made her feel protected. Gross circuitously questions this rationale, implying that her father’s act, his black violence, must have been terrifying for Morrison and her sister to see. Morrison responds, “Well, if it was you and a black man was coming up the stairs after a little white girl and the white father threw the black man down, that wouldn’t disturb you.” Chastised, Gross adds, “I think it’s a product of being in this, like, not-very-violent, working-class, middle-class family where I didn’t see a lot of violence when I was growing up, so any violent act would probably have been very unnerving to me.” Gross’ response to Morrison’s childhood memory of black fatherly love and protection, coded to elevate her white, middle-class upbringing, left me wondering: whose violence is acceptable, and whose is not?

An example of the “punch a nazi” meme. Image reproduced for purposes of critique.

This question remains pressing in today’s climate. In the past year, state-sanctioned violence against indigenous, black, brown, queer and trans people, which has run like rich, nourishing marrow through the backbone of this country, is once again being openly and actively fomented throughout the public sphere by the figures at the apex of state power. In reaction, antifa anarchist groups, responsible for the much-publicized #PunchANazi meme have revived the use of black bloc tactics; along with the rise of “left-leaning” gun clubs, these responses have given renewed currency to the notion of arming up to fight back out of fear, disgust, and rage.

Olympia queer and trans hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. embodies many of these impulses, especially in their most recent (and now final) EP, Trans Day of Revenge. Through calls to direct action and explicit violence, the band rages against every oppressor that has ever crossed its path. On the whole, popular and critical reception to the EP has been positive, even celebratory, due in part to the preceding lineage of music criticism in which the violence of hardcore music is neutralized or intellectualized because of the implicit whiteness of the genre. And, in mirroring both critical and popular reactions to the work of Black Lives Matter and other black social movements, the calls to direct action in rap and hip hop are either discredited or disavowed. In other words, certain white genres of music, and the violence therein, appear to require intellectual analysis or even possess an inherent rationalization. (Dan Graham’s seminal video essay Rock my Religion is an early example of this foundational project in the history of intellectualizing rock.) The mutation into either incredibility or physical threat, on the other hand, accompanies music produced by certain racialized subjects—in America, almost always the black musician. By looking at the critical reception to G.L.O.S.S.’ Trans Day of Revenge, I will examine the dynamic that celebrates the white voice, especially when it calls for violence, as righteous and “metaphysical,” exemplified by the Patti Smith interview in the epigraph (note the use of the uninterrogated second person), and condemns the voice of black rage in rap and hip hop, for its “thuggery.” To question this dynamic is not specific to G.L.O.S.S. but is meant to denaturalize the uneven musical imaginary that supports the white ‘voice’ and smothers the black, as symptomatic of the way in which the political horizons of black political action are foreclosed in favor of righteous white action.

While there may be a seeming disconnect between music criticism and the politics of activism, radical hip hop’s roots in Black Power movements and hardcore and punk’s roots in the politics of white disaffection of the 1970s have both been well-documented. These political-sonic genealogies bind these respective genres to their racialized origins and mark the political stakes of G.L.O.S.S.’ message and its critical reception. The primary difference between the two genres is that the former genre was racialized from the start while the latter remains “unmarked” to this day, despite its early, close connection to white supremacy as documented by, among others, influential rock critic Lester Bangs. Even fascinating work that links and critiques American machismo and hardcore violence completely occludes the valence of race in discussions of masculinity. A closer look at the critical reception to Trans Day of Revenge will help to tease out the ongoing influence of the racialized origins of these two genres on contemporary music and political movements.

To be clear, it is not my intent to moralize the use of violence in leftist social movements. It would be foolish to deny the trans and queer rage that permeates Trans Day of Revenge, and which G.L.O.S.S. literally embody as an apt and poignant expression of a life lived under state-sponsored brutality and domestic abuse. No where is it more poignant than the opening, which is inaugurated with squealing feedback, dense, chugging guitar, and then a strained scream from lead singer Sadie Switchblade: “When peace is just another word for death, it’s our time to give violence a chance!” The four songs that follow, totaling a mere 7 minutes, all tap into the well-established tradition of nihilistic vengeance in G.G. Allin’s “Violence Now—Assassinate the President,” direct aggression in antifa punk in Oi Polloi’s seminal “Pigs for Slaughter” and “Bash the Fash,” and hardcore staples such as Black Flag’s “Police Story” and The Dicks’ “Hate the Police,” which center on booting (or shooting) oppressors in the face. More than that, however, G.L.O.S.S. is intent on smashing the culture of respectability and pacifism of LGBT politics, singing, “Your calls for peace are ignorant and basic / Self-appointed leaders / Who put you in charge?”

In a glowing review that invokes Jose Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, Brad Nelson of Pitchfork insists that, “At its best, hardcore is personal; it tends to erase the spatial distinctions between performer and audience, until there is a primordial flow of bodies, ideas, and energy.” Putting aside the cognitive dissonance of quoting Muñoz in a review of an album that urges the use of outright violence, Nelson espouses the grounding liberal, “post-racial” ideology that informs many contemporary conceptions of punk and hardcore. And in doing so, Nelson papers over the racialized history of hardcore while quickly conflating the specificity of state-sanctioned anti-black violence, which G.L.O.S.S. is explicit about, with generalized notions of state oppression. Other reviewers have similarly intellectualized the band’s explicit incitements to violence. Embedded within these glowing reviews, all of which fail to mention the white racial position from which the band speaks and celebrate their calls to violent action, then, is the assumption that white violence is inherently justified because it’s so rare. Put simply, if it’s happening, it’s happening for a good reason. Contrast this with perception that direct action and (self-defensive) violence in both black activism and music reveal some corruption of being, such as an essential “violent character” or the well-worn notion of a savage nature.

Image by mtarvainen @Flickr CC BY-ND

It is certainly possible to argue for trans and queer ways of knowing and creating art that evade these hetero-masculinist histories but this does not seem to be the case here: many reviewers cite the band’s positive influence on hardcore as both genre and scene, work that the band themselves seem invested in. Such interventions in the scene, then, compel us to recognize that the band’s message is channeled through the generic conventions of hardcore, which prime listeners to appreciate the role of violence as a necessary outcome of and antidote to oppression. The main progenitor of this narrative is Black Flag’s Damaged, which invokes the chaotic, uncontrollable violence of white male angst in songs such as “Damaged I.” (Golden Age country music provides an apt analogue with its generic figure of the violent, romantic white outlaw.) Though G.L.O.S.S. rails against murderous gender and sexual violence, they do so by asserting their position in the tradition of white rage that made Black Flag and Minor Threat the deified figureheads of hardcore—though admirable of gender-nonconforming and transfolk to do this work, this tension of lineage is neither addressed nor resolved. In this way, the violent implications of the genre, along with the issue of a privileged white voice, are absorbed and normalized—just a part of the scene.

Indeed, not a single review so much as gestures towards the band’s race, which, as Toni Morrison suggests, codes the neutral as white (whether this is true to their “actual race” or not is not the point—it’s a matter of perception). This is all the more glaring as multiple songs encourage fighting racist police violence against black trans women; yet this message inhabits a continuum of hardcore and punk that has long held an equivocal relationship with white supremacy, which has often been positioned as either a simple matter of white male disillusionment or edgy nihilism. And while there has certainly been anti-racist music in hardcore, the message becomes mixed by veneration of and apologias for songs such as Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White” and Black Flag’s “White Minority.” This muddled message appears in G.L.O.S.S.’ work as well. During the opening track, Switchblade screams: “anti-racist doesn’t mean non-racist!” The lyric may be a riff on a Guardian video by Marlon James in which he insists that “non-racist doesn’t mean anti-racist.” He asserts that non-racism (non-action, moral statement of belief) is inadequate since it does not prevent racial violence. Instead, one must go further and adopt an anti-racist (active) stance. G.L.O.S.S.’ inversion of James’ formulation in the context of hardcore and punk, however, reads with an added bit of irony: if even active anti-racist action does not preclude one from holding racist views, then this highlights the submerged racial dynamics of voice that hold up G.L.O.S.S.’ violent aesthetic and that elude the onslaught of sloganeering that shape their lyrics.

Certainly G.L.O.S.S. screaming the refrain “black lives don’t matter in the eyes of the law!” is critical work being done to highlight anti-black violence and their commitment to addressing oppression of all kinds. But it does not preclude them from criticism for benefiting from structural racism, which includes enjoying the unquestioned privilege of being feted for advocating extreme violence rather than, say, being placed on an FBI watchlist. Simply put, the band has the option of espousing this violence from a position of relative safety, especially from state-sanctioned repercussion and harassment. These unnuanced lyrics make it all the more difficult to square some of their anti-racist lyrics with their intersectional politics. The generic bounds of hardcore dictate crafting lyrics like volleys of missiles, and here such pithy concision becomes an easy conflation of anti-black, anti-queer, anti-trans, and anti-femme oppressions that threatens, ironically, to erase the hard work and frequent clash of axes of oppression in the formation of transversal alliances rather than support it.

Still from “Style Wars” Hip Hop Documentary. Image reproduced for purposes of critique.

Still from “Style Wars” Hip Hop Documentary. Image reproduced for purposes of critique.

If the new hardcore that G.L.O.S.S. spearheaded intends to responsibly involve itself in social justice, the lyrics must move beyond sloganeering. The continued submersion of the multiple and complex intersections of race in white activism is an elision that performs its own form of silencing, a repression of a black voice that has long and often erupted into righteous anger and violence. Scholar Tricia Rose provides an extensive history and analysis of this dynamic in in Hip Hop Wars. In addition to Rose, many scholars from Houston A. Baker to Nelson George, have noted the deep indebtedness of early gangsta rap and radical hip hop (Public Enemy and dead prez, for example) to the tradition of anti-passive philosophies of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and earlier pre-Civil Rights movement radicals. Due to these genre’s callback and conscious inhabitation of the genealogy of the black resistance in order to address the historical nature of their continued material oppression, critical responses to this music focus largely on the music’s racial aspects (unlike G.L.O.S.S., or hardcore music in general). Consequently, the condemnation of violent action against oppression rather than celebratory accreditation is always couched in the fear of the black voice and active body.

This dynamic is nowhere clearer than the press’ reaction to Ice-T’s side project Body Count, which featured the controversial song “Cop Killer.” Ice-T has stated that the album as a whole was meant to actively invoke the sonic cues of not only hardcore but metal (also known for its troubled relationship to white supremacist politics) the mainstream media applied the label of “rap” to it in order to identify the violence as both gendered and racialized, that is, more closely with a black, male genre of music, with all that that entails to American society. Ice-T’s transgressive identification of black genres of music in the epigraph, “music like mine,” with the originary, rebellious violence of the Revolutionary War speaks to the divide within the American imaginary between “justified” revolutionary, white violence, and corrupted black violence. He observed:

There is absolutely no way to listen to the song “Cop Killer” and call it a rap record. It’s so far from rap. But, politically, they know by saying the word rap they can get a lot of people who think, “Rap-black-rap-black-ghetto,” and don’t like it…They don’t want to use the word rock & roll to describe this song. (qtd. in Rose 130)

In contrast to criticism of heavy metal, Rose, in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, explains, “The terms of the assault on rap music are part of a long-standing sociologically based discourse that considers black influences a cultural threat to American society” (130). She explains, young fans of rap are themselves in concert with the music, ready agents of destruction whereas heavy metal is a threat to the fans, young white males, inherently innocent but in danger of corruption. Put simply, the dynamics of racialized music criticism reflect the attitudes of society writ large: the dismissal of the righteousness of violence in black genres of music mirror the same in black social movements or personal survival.

Across the spectrum of black musical genres, we see the same dynamic. Beyoncé, a master of combining maximalist visuals, nuanced political messages, and hyper-popular culture, was greeted with boycotts and protests after her performance at Super Bowl 50, which invoked a Black Panther aesthetic and, presumably, the group’s promotion of anti-passive and self-defense ideologies. Similarly, she faced a backlash to her music video for Formation, which was perceived as “anti-police” and resulted in an attempted nationwide police boycott of her Formation World Tour. Outside the strict confines of the music industry, black folks, especially black transwomen of color, are held to a different standard in eschewing the avenues of violent protest and activism—or even self-defense (see the tragic case of CeCe McDonald). In a seven-minute EP, G.L.O.S.S. highlights the continued violence against black transwomen in their work, which is positive, critical work. But the uneven reception of black political music by the American public proves just how fraught that project can be without full knowledge of one’s positions of privilege, or the history from which one speaks.

 

OUTRO

In the end, this issue of voice is about political horizons. G.L.O.S.S. is entirely future-oriented: Switchblade sings, “we break the cycle with revenge,” the band’s name stands for Girls Living Outside of Society’s Shit, and their first EP features a song called “G.L.O.S.S. (We’re from the Future).” But just how much do their actions refuse repetition?

Jose Muñoz was no stranger to witnessing and experiencing the horrors of anti-queer police brutality. In Cruising Utopia he recalls the brutality of riot police attacking a peaceful vigil after the murder of Matthew Shepard (while recognizing that “if Shepard had not been a pretty white boy, there would have been no such outcry”) (63). Muñoz fights against the violence of the “here and now,” the quagmire of political expediency, which is analogous to G.L.O.S.S.’ anger at the pragmatism of LGBT politics. Yet, in a very real way, violence at all costs can be considered a “political expediency” of its own for what occurs after violence? Is revenge and ultra-violence as sole response really “breaking the cycle”? In the rush to implement such violence, who is left by the wayside as we seize and assert our power? This is a question of effectivity, not morality.

For his part, Muñoz insists on breaking the cycle of the present by citing the use of “queer anger” through activism as public performance (64). This is the means toward utopian possibility, that imagines otherwise in a violent, repressive heteronormative present. But he stops short of arguing that queers must take up arms. The critique often levied against revolutionary utopian theorizing has been the obviation of the conditions of “the post-revolution” in favor of dreamy, uncritical rhetoric. Indeed, the same can be said here in the case of G.L.O.S.S. and all others who uncritically embrace not only outright violence but also intersectional politics blanched of much-needed nuance. As a vehicle to bringing trans and queer folk together, G.L.O.S.S.’ rage is a form of Muñoz’s ‘public performance’; they have poignantly invoked his “critical dissatisfaction.” But the generic bounds of hardcore preclude a nuanced conception of his “collective potentiality” (189), particularly one that is attentive to the racial hierarchies of voice. In short, there are yet songs to be sung. Though they have disbanded, we can thank G.L.O.S.S. for helping to set the stage.

Cover image is G.L.O.S.S. by Sid Sowder @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Chris Chien is an American Studies and Ethnicity graduate student at the University of Southern California, and is doing research on early Asian gay and lesbian organizing in North America, and these social movements’ place within contemporary transpacific, diasporic narratives of a liberalizing Asia, particularly Hong Kong. He has previously written on Sounding Out! about the sonic materiality of diasporic feeling through the relic of the cassette tape, and has an upcoming article on righteous white violence in the music of trans-hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. He hadn’t seen Moonlight or even a trailer before this screening, but heard from many people he respects that it was magical.  When SO! ed-in-chief JS reached out after seeing him post about attending on FB, he immediately embraced the idea of a conversation with Shakira.

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Surf, Sun, and Smog: Audio-Visual Imagery + Performance in Mexico City’s Neo-Surf Music Scene

 Riding the Surf Wave in a City Without a Seashore

On April 24, 2005, at Zócalo square in downtown Mexico City, the Surf y Arena music festival gathered around 100,000 people and nine bands, ranging from local, barely known groups to big names in the new-wave surf music scene: Fenómeno Fuzz, Los Magníficos, Perversos Cetáceos, Espectroplasma, Los Elásticos, Yucatán A Go-Go, Sr. Bikini, Lost Acapulco, and Los Straitjackets, the latter being the only U.S. band in the festival. One year before, hardly more than a thousand people attended the event, organized in a smaller venue at Alameda del Sur, a few hundred yards south of Zócalo square. Perhaps not even the bands were prepared for the huge response in 2005. Interviewed by local newspaper La Jornada,  Fenómeno Fuzz lead guitarist stated, “It’s the first time we see something like this, with so many people. Surf is an instrumental rock genre that was played in the 50s and 60s. There is no sand or sun here as in Acapulco, but we’ve brought downtown a bit of the beach vibe. In Mexico City there must be some 40 bands playing to this rhythm.” In the same interview piece, Lost Acapulco lead guitarist El Reverendo considered, “this festival is a success, for you realize this music is going up. People are on the same pitch. This is not a movement, but a style with many followers. […] It doesn’t matter if there is no beach here—you have to imagine it.”

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Sr. Bikini at Rock and Road on 30 de Marzo 2013, Image by Flickr User José Miguel Rosas (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The bands who played at the 2005 Surf y Arena Festival wondered whether the success was transitory or would endure. More than a decade later, some are still active, most notably Lost Acapulco, whose singles and compilations have been released in countries like Spain, Italy, and Japan; they have toured around the world, and have released a new EP, Coral Riffs (2015). Los Straitjackets lead guitarist Danny Amis has collaborated with local surf bands like Lost Acapulco and Twin Tones; after surviving a hard battle against cancer, he moved to Mexico City’s Chinatown. Los Elásticos also released a new album, Death Calavera 2.2, the Espectroplasma members formed Twin Tones and have played, toured and participated in the short film inspired by their first record, Nación Apache. In 2016, the Wild’O Fest brought together old and new surf stars, starring The Fleshtones (U.S.) and Wau y los Arrrghs! (Spain), as well as local legends Los Esquizitos and Lost Acapulco. In February 2017, the Russian band Messer Chups toured across Mexico, playing with local bands in several cities. So it seems the scene is alive and kicking.

Lost Acapulco’s LP Acapulco Golden cover art by Dr. Alderete (2004). Masks became a famous trait of Mexican surf music. Danny Amys from Los Straitjackets and some Lost Acapulco members wear them on stage, as well as many other surf bands. This cover echoes films from the 50s and 60s featuring wrestlers like Santo and Blue Demon.

Lost Acapulco’s LP Acapulco Golden cover art by Dr. Alderete (2004). Masks became a famous trait of Mexican surf music. Danny Amys from Los Straitjackets and some Lost Acapulco members wear them on stage, as well as many other surf bands. This cover echoes films from the 50s and 60s featuring wrestlers like Santo and Blue Demon.

Today we can listen to how surf music shaped part of Mexico City’s underground music scene in the last decade of the 20th century and the early 21st. Being 235 miles away from Acapulco, one might wonder how wearing sandals, short pants, floral print shirts, plastic flower necklaces, and dark sunglasses became trendy in the country’s capital city. To this beach imagery, surf bands and fans added references to classic Mexican media icons, like wrestler Santo, comedian Mauricio Garcés, and black and white sci-fi movies. The work by visual artists like Dr. Alderete—who has designed covers and posters for many surf bands, such as Lost Acapulco, Fenómeno Fuzz, Telekrimen, The Cavernarios, Los Corona, among others—has been crucial for this imagery cross-reference process.

Lima-based visual art magazine Carboncito cover art by Dr. Alderete (2012). The cover features Kalimán, main character of an old Mexican comic strip, as well as other characters associated both with surf imagery (the Rapa Nui statue, oddly resembling a bamboo Tiki figure) and spy films like James Bond.

In this article I portray the neo-surf music scene in Mexico as a cultural-musical set of audiovisual and performative traits shared, modified, and transmitted by the scene’s partakers. It cannot be said there is a surf music “urban tribe” (a trendy concept for several years in Mexican youth studies), but rather shared “aesthetic” expressions of cultural syncretism, responding to the increase of atomization and alienation in Mexico City.

Just as in ska, punk, or hardcore rock, a number of surf concert attendees participate in typical genre-related rituals like moshing. Surf fans, however, are more “performatic” in the way Diana Taylor understands this term in The Archive and the Repertoire as “the adjectival form of the nondiscursive realm of performance” (6). Several surf concert goers wear masks, originally worn by notorious Mexican wrestlers like Santo, Blue Demon, and Rey Misterio (whose son would later become a WWE star). At the concert, when a song’s tempo suddenly stops or changes, masked dancers pose as if weightlifting, jump and crowd surf, stage fights, and mimic swimming movements. Surf music is the lyric-less soundtrack for the intertwined performance of different cultural traits, portraying a prolific tension between a hedonistic attitude associated with an invented nostalgia for West Coast surf culture, and the halo of exoticness surrounding Mexican culture in the U.S. imaginary, as portrayed by surf bands and artists (just to name a few, Herb Albert’s “Tijuana Taxi,” Link Wray’s “Tijuana,” and Los Straitjackets’ “Tijuana Boots”).

Mosh pit with masked participants. On stage, Lost Acapulco plays “Frenesick.” Multiforo Alicia, Mexico City, March 20 2009.

Tracing the Origins of Mexican Neo-Surf Music Scene

Although surf music bands suffered heavily with the arrival of the British Wave, not all of them disappeared. Bands such as The Ventures became famous for covering surf standards. Others, like The Beach Boys, eventually migrated to different music styles. Later in the 1970s and 80s, bands like The Cramps, The Stray Cats, and The Go-Go’s kept alive surf-related styles, so that by the time Pulp Fiction appeared, in 1994, there were some interesting bands we already can consider “neo-surf,” such as Man Or Astroman? and The Tantra Monsters; Los Straitjackets re-formed and Dick Dale began touring again. Quentin Tarantino’s soundtrack to Pulp Fiction  (including songs by Southern California surf rockers Dale, The Tornadoes, The Revels, The Centurians, and The Lively Ones) contributed to bringing surf music back to mainstream attention, now as a vintage sound commodity (Norandi, 2002).

We might call this “the Pulp Fiction effect,” a phenomenon recognized by stakeholders in the scene, like Los Esquizitos guitar and theremin player Güili:

One day Nacho came up with the idea that we should play surf, because it was the moment in which […] in Satélite [a northern Mexico City neighborhood ] all bands wanted to play funk like Red Hot Chili Peppers or Primus. It became a virtuoso slap competition, and precisely no one was playing surf […]. Shortly afterwards, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was released and surf exploded impressively with the movie’s theme. But we were already riding the surf wave.

Multiforo Alicia has been an important venue for the consolidation not only of a surf scene, but also of other emerging movements at the time. Founder and owner Ignacio Pineda remembers,

When we started Multiforo Alicia [in 1995], there was a generational shift. There were a lot of new bands that didn’t fit into what had been going on in the last 10 or 11 years, and they were the punk rock, ska, hip-hop, transmetal, emo, and nu metal movements, which nowadays are quite normal. […] Luckily for us, [Alicia] was like home for all of them.

Interview with Multiforo Alicia owner Ignacio Pineda, 2011

It is a common venue for surf bands (Norandi, 2002, Caballero, 2012), and through their recording label, Grabaxiones Alicia, they have produced albums for some of the most interesting instrumental rock projects in Mexico, among them Twin Tones/Espectroplasma/Sonido Gallo Negro (three groundbreaking bands with the same members), Los Esquizitos, Los Magníficos, Telekrimen, The Cavernarios, and Austin TV. Massive festivals and concerts, like Vive Latino or Surf y Arena, have also contributed to positioning neo-surf as an ongoing trend in alternative rock.

Masking Identity, Performing Difference

While the emergence of Mexican neo-surf was contingent upon local and international music trends in the mid-90s, its permanence has been due to processes of cultural syncretism and appropriation. Wrestler masks are a good example. Worn first by Danny Amis, and later on by Los Esquizitos and Lost Acapulco, masks quickly spread out as a neo-surf visual icon. Los Esquizitos drum player, Brisa, doesn’t remember there being an aesthetic justification behind the masked man using a chainsaw portrayed in their first album cover. Nacho complains, “Argh! We created a monster unawares! Ah, I sometimes regret that. I really regret having worn masks at a concert.”

Los Esquizitos greatly contributed to blend a Mexican surf flavor through their imagery on stage, as well as with their most emblematic song, “Santo y Lunave.”  One of the few songs with lyrics in the scene (and with spoken word rather than singing), it tells story of how Santo got lost in space, turning him into an important figure of Mexican neo-surf imagery. As Güili recognizes, “I think it was after the ‘Santo’ song when all the Tetris pieces fit perfectly into place—wrestling, masks, floral print shirts, surf— everything in the same box.”

Live version of “Santo y Lunave” by Los Esquizitos, Vive Latino Music Festival, Mexico City, May 17, 2009. The song was originally released in their first LP (1998)

“Performatic” moshing is another example of cultural appropriation. The apparently random movements of moshers in heavy metal concerts have been compared to the kinetics of gaseous particles (as in Silverberg, Bierbaum, Sethna & Cohen’s “Collective Motion of Moshers”) but in surf concerts their movements cannot be reduced to the categories of “self-propulsion,” “flocking” and “collision.” Here moshers interact in more complex ways, mimicking wrestling movements to the rhythm of the song in turn, enacting fights between masked and unmasked opponents, and helping other moshers to jump over the audience and crowd surf. They consciously perform the icons they associate with surf culture. They are aware of the differential traits existing between this and other rock sub-genres, and they externalize them through ritualized behaviors.  In other words, Mexican surf concert goers adopt moshing to participate in simulacra about stereotyped representations of Mexican culture and subjects.

Dancing Desires

In his book Popular Music: The Key Concepts (2nd ed), Roy Shuker describes surf as “Californian good time music, with references to sun, sand and (obliquely) sex” (2005,  262). This sexual suggestiveness is still present in Mexican neo-surf, as can be noticed in songs like Fenómeno Fuzz’s “El bikini de la chica popof” [“The Snob Girl’s Bikini”]:

Ella viene caminando en su bikini de color,

ella viene caminando y a todos nos da calor,

y sus piernas bien bronceadas me hacen suspirar.

Ella viene caminando y no ve a nadie más.

[She’s walking by, wearing her colorful bikini,

she’s walking by and everyone gets hot,

and her well-tanned legs make me sigh.

She’s walking by and doesn’t look at anyone else]

Other bands seem to reinforce this fetishization. Sr. Bikini have sometimes hired women dancers wearing masks and bikinis for their shows, and Los Elásticos have a permanent member, La Chica Elástica, who dances in every live show.

[Final part of a Los Elásticos concert in 2012, featuring La Chica Elástica. All-men and all-women mosh pits can be seen at 0:40 and 3:36.]

However, even though sometimes subject to hedonistic and stereotyped representations, women participate in every level of the scene, expressing agency as band members, scenemakers, and/or fans. Women play in the most representative bands, such as Fenómeno Fuzz’s former singer and bass player, Biani, or Los Esquizitos drummer, Brisa. There are also all-woman bands, such as Las Agresivas Hawaianas (whose brief existence is scarely documented on the internet), rockabilly trio Los Leopardos, and garage-oriented Ultrasónicas, whose members have continued playing solo, most notably Jessy Bulbo.

Offstage, both genders wear masks and enter the pit. Sometimes, when there are many moshers, men and women gather in separate pits. Dancing is much more prominent in the surf scene than in punk; participants appropriate a go-go, swing, rock ‘n’ roll, and ska dancing moves, mixing them with wrestling and weightlifting positions. The attendees accomplish their middle-class expectations of leisure and entertainment by showing off their outfits, feeling desire, desired and/or admired (even if ironically) through dancing and moshing—literally by performing such expectations in situ.

The scene overall, has been critiqued for being too retro and insulated from political critique.  As La Jornada‘s Mariela Norandi points out, “an element that the Mexican movement has inherited from the origins of surf is the lack of ideology. Curiously, surf is reborn in Mexico in a moment of political and social unrest [in the mid-90s], with the Zapatista uprising, the peso devaluation, Colosio’s murder, and Salinas’ escape” (2002, 6a). The fact that this scene has survived for over two decades, despite the many economic and political crises Mexico has faced ever since, suggests it works as an ideological outlet for scene partakers to elude their social reality. Just as it happened in the 60s with the Vietnam War, once again surfers stay away from social and political problems, and reclaim their right to have fun and dance. They wear their floral print shirts and dance a go-go style, remembering those wonderful 60s (6a).  For Norandi, the lack of lyrics in surf music may be partly responsible for most surf bands seemingly uncritical position.

Into the Surf Sound

Although half of Mexico’s states have a seashore, surf music in the capital is related to everything but actual surfing. The imagery built around it, considered “surrealistic” by Norandi (6a), is the most visible novelty in the new scene, since melodically and rhythmically speaking surf remains fairly simple, like garage or punk. However constrained, like other genres, to the 12-bar blues progression, it is in timbre where we appreciate how surf sound has been defined by several generations of music bands and players. A triple-level approach to surf music (timbral, melodic, and stylistic) can account for the creation and development of several genres or scenes associated to the rise of Mexican neo-surf, like chili western (Twin Tones, Los Twangers, The Sonoras), space surf (Espectroplasma, Telekrimen, Megatones), garage (Ultrasónicas, Las Pipas de la Paz) and rockabilly (Los Gatos, Eddie y Los Grasosos, Los Leopardos, among many others).

Appropriation, practiced through covering standards and imitating riffs and melodies, has been always crucial for shaping the surf sound, just as it was in preceding genres that  influenced rock ‘n’ roll, like blues, twist, and jazz. Although not exactly referred to as “surf standards,” there are some foundational songs that shaped the surf sound. Three pieces nowadays still debated as the first surf song—Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser,”Link Wray’s “Slinky,” and Dick Dale’s “Miserlou”—influenced not only contemporary bands and their immediate successors, but also musicians in the ’90s wave.

These and other composers contributed collectively to establishing surf music’s standard traits: the 4/4 drum beat (whose earliest template may be Dale’s “Surf Beat”), the “wavy guitar” riff (perfectly illustrated in the beginning of The Chantay’s “Pipeline”), an extensive use of reverb, and the appropriation of “exotic” tunes (such as the Lebanese melody that inspired Dale’s tremolo style in “Miserlou”). Many surf songs contain, in particular, traits from “Slinky’s” guitar and “Surf Beat’s” drums. Both are simple and repetitive, but can be combined with other arrangements at will. This formula has been used in countless surf songs ever since.

a_taste_of_honey_-_herb_alperts_tijuana_brassCovering is a way of making connections with specific songs, and paying homage to (or deflating) admired bands and musicians. Links between a band and certain collaboration networks are thus established. Sr. Bikini covered Alpert’s instrumental version of The Beatles’ “A Taste of Honey,” setting up a dialogue with a musician that played a lot with Mexican stereotyped imagery and sounds (like the trumpets, substituted by electric guitars in Sr. Bikini’s version).

Lost Acapulco renamed The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” as “Surfin’ Band,” participating in a long chain of covers (including The Cramps and The Ramones) of a song that in turn was the result of mixing two pieces by The Rivingtons, “Bird’s The Word” and “Papa Oom Mow Mow.” Los Esquizitos have their own covers of The Cramps’ “Human Fly” (“El moscardón”) and Rory Erickson’s “I Walked With A Zombie.”

Los Magníficos’ “Píntalo de negro,” after The Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black,” shows that, just as in punk, any piece can be turned into a surf song.

Sometimes it is just a trait (a riff, or a beat) that is referenced. Fenómeno Fuzz’s initial riff in “Tiki Twist” resembles Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” whereas two chili western songs (“Transgenic Surfers” by Los Twangers and “Skawboy” by The Bich Boys) echo The Ramrods’ harmonic and timbral arrangements for “Riders In The Sky,” another song with a long cover history, including Dale, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. A surf version of this song was familiar to Mexican TV viewers in the 90s, since it was a regular soundtrack of furniture store Hermanos Vázquez spots.

Surf was born at a time when stand-alone effects units were just about to change the way music was made, taking audio manipulation off the studio and bringing it to the stage. For example, The Shadows are known for having used the tape-based Watkins Copicat, “the first repeat-echo machine manufactured as one compact unit” according to Steve Russell, responsible for the guitar delay effect in their 1960 rendition of Jerry Lordan’s “Apache,” since then a surf standard. In his book Echo and Reverb, for example, Peter Doyle examines how effects like echo/delay and reverb shaped sonic spatiality in 20th century popular music recording in the U.S., from hillbilly, country, blues, and jazz to rock ‘n’ roll.

Although Doyle only dedicates a few paragraphs to Dale, Wray, and surf instrumentals, acoustic effects greatly contributed to characterize their styles as well. Some traits are intricately related to genre specific manifestations, like the double bass in rockabilly, or the twang effect in chili western. Timbre, then, is the aural counterpart to the scene’s visual aspect, “invoking the rich semiotic traditions that wove through southern and West Coast popular music recording” (Doyle, 2005, 226). It has become a way both to continually define the genre and, in the Mexical neo-surf scene in particular, to overcome melodic and harmonic limitations. Thanks to timbral play, what used to be a blind alley in rock history became in the 1990s a mirror for young generations of Mexicanos to create and feel aligned with fashionable trends, and a sonic filter enabling them to examine their social situations and, sometimes, to willfully sidestep them.

Featured Image: Lost Acapulco in Estadio Azteca 2009, Image by Flickr User Stephany Garcia (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Aurelio Meza (Mexico City, 1985) is a PhD student in Humanities at Concordia University, Montreal. Co-organizer of the PoéticaSonora research group at UNAM, Mexico City, where he is in charge of designing and developing a digital audio repository for sound art and poetry in Mexico since 1960. Author of the books of essays Shuffle: poesía sonora (2011) and Sobre Vivir Tijuana (2015). Blog: http://aureliomexa.wordpress.com/

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