…An absurd title since we play our music in venues quite often. We only just played the Kitchen Garden Cafe in Kings Heath the other day and we had a good time. It was there afterwards we were discussing the question of whether or not it was our business to play in venues at all. On our more radical days we say No, never! On other days we say sometimes… if its purposeful and if its fun. But either way, we all know that the home of our music is in public space and in domestic space. Our forays into commercial spaces can only be novel excursions to where we don’t belong, because the commercial spaces, as they stand, cannot be the forum for the authentic culture of our people. And why not?
There is a tension on the lower rungs of the music scene’s ladder between three parties: the band, the audience and the promoter (and all the while a fourth party hovers invisibly over the whole thing). It is the promoters’ general method to ask the bands to bring an audience. Oddly, there is little pretense anymore that the bands are there to entertain the audiences. The “audiences” dutifully show up at the request of the bands, to pose as an audience so that the bands may entertain their own vision of themselves as cultural deities (as rock gods, or pop idols, or bohemian poets or what have you) – a vision that we’ve swallowed whole from the ever present fourth party, mass culture. Not only has the audience become a means to the bands’ ends for the evening, it is usually the case that the evening is not an ends in itself either, it has become the means to a higher goal. We are not partying for the sake of partying, we are merely creating the illusion of a party as a fanciful launch pad toward careers in the music business, and this whole notion is yet another vision swallowed whole from the narratives of mass culture. The poor terracotta audiences, stood there with beer in one hand and coat in the other, are under no illusions that they’re there to be entertained, energised or edified – or that they’re there to party. This is so horribly obvious from the rotation of three or four or five different audiences in one night, standing patiently to gratify the vision of their friends’ band and disappearing long before the next band has plugged in.
This means two things. One: the music scene is not for the people. It exists to aid the bands’ (usually vain) attempt to escape the cultural insignificance of the people, and to enter mass culture’s designated realm of fame and glory. Two: the music scene is not for the moment. These moments are contrived as mere stepping stones towards a career path misleadingly dangled before the people. The whole structure affirms and reinforces mass culture’s stranglehold over the people. The whole structure asserts mass culture as the only realm of significance and power, and as the ultimate judge of the legitimacy of all cultural expression. The whole structure presumptuously assumes the total cultural insignificance of the life of the everyday people – the hair dresser, the bus driver, the office worker. In this structure, the only possibility of realisation is that an ‘artist’ might propitiate mass culture enough, and that mass culture just might graciously respond by sweeping the person up out of the venue and into their celestial place.
The venues of the music scene are generally complicit with this structure in their imitation of mass culture’s theatrics. The stage – that the artists might be elevated above the audience, the lighting – that the artists alone might be shrouded in the illusion of glory, and the PA – that the artist’s voice be given the illusion of a god-like prescience over everyone else’s. Obviously we buy our ticket to see and hear the artist, but it is the familiarity of this scene as a pale replica of mass culture’s realm of glory that reveals it to be, not an entertaining show in the manner of the circus or the stage play, but the yearning of an oppressed people who would prefer to be in the seat of the oppressor. Even if the artist truly innovates, the scene still imitates and the artist is stuck within that narrative.
Up the ladder a few rungs there are artists that we see because we are genuinely edified and energised by what they do. But even so, mass culture’s oppressive structure still looms. I saw Carina Round play a set at the Hare & Hounds a while ago, and we the audience were there to see Carina Round (and not to entertain her vanities!). The guy from the Wonder Stuff got up to do a song with her at one point, and before he left the stage he gave his final word down the microphone. His sentiment was roughly this: that Carina Round is an exceptional artist and sooner or later the media will wake up and realise that. But what a patronising and presumptuous message! It asserts the oppressive dogma that Round’s art is illegitimate until acknowledged and canonised by mass culture. And it asserts that this electrifying evening was merely a means to an end, that all we were participating in was part of Round’s ongoing process of propitiating the oppressor (an assertion that does her art no justice). Those words spoken turn the whole thing into a sham. They relocate the place of meaning and vitality out of that room and into the mysterious and god-like will of mass culture.
The structure is the same on every rung of its ladder. It hangs oppressively over the bands who have fans, and those who merely have friends. It hangs oppressively over the artists we think are good, just the same as those we don’t. It hangs oppressively over the music scenes we call ‘dead’, and those we call vibrant, since we only call them vibrant because some of the local acts have been accepted by mass culture into its inner ring. In the X Factor, that most diabolical expression of this oppression, which the bands, promoters and audiences alike all despise, the structure stands just the same as it does in the local venue. Both say that the people have no culture except that which mass culture recognises, and that the songs of a hair-dresser do not count until her face is coopted into the visage of mass culture and her songs are coopted to generate capital – until she is no longer a hair-dresser and no longer one of the people.
It is this assumption of the artist’s mercenary self-interest (which is synonymous with our waning late capitalist era) and of the artist’s obedient recognition of mass culture’s hierarchical order, that made our words and music quite impotent in many venues. The ABH is unambiguously a spiritually and socially motivated collective. Our interest has been in our people, in our social awakening, in a spiritual liberation, and in the subversive and critical power of our repentance. But whatever radical, revolutionary, compassionate or offensive word we wished to speak in the commercial venues of the music scene, they seemed to be immediately emptied of any significance, because the structure doesn’t allow for the possibility that the word spoken is ultimately for the people and not for the artist’s own glory. Indeed, whatever vile and disgusting sentiments might be expressed are equally tolerable, because any word spoken in that realm is meaningless by virtue of the whole charade.
So it was for these sorts of reasons that the ABH took to the streets. People join in with us when we play on the streets, because the environment carries none of the alienating exclusivity of the venues. People dance to our music on the streets, because it is clear that we came to the people’s realm to play for the people, and not, in some underhand way, for ourselves. People discuss, debate, agree and disagree with the words we speak onto the streets, because outside of its designated forums mass culture loses its remarkable power to translate the word of the people into nothingness and insignificance.
There are certainly venues, promoters and acts which are striving in various ways to overcome – the forerunners of new things, I hope. In order for the people to recapture a culture that is genuinely of the people and for the people – a culture that is genuinely our own and not some bid for acceptance by the mass culture that bears over us – we need to work outside mass culture’s spaces, outside mass culture’s mediums, and outside mass culture’s narratives of fame and glory. It may be that there, speaking our own word in our own space, we might begin to ask ourselves the questions that truly concern us.
This is a call to practitioners. We will not suggest giving up using commercial spaces, or pusuing commercial aims. But if our work is in any sense, for our people, the dare is to take it to the people. To play where we shouldn’t – in the unauthorised venues of public space, where our voices are somehow our own again.
The first ever ABH gig, under a railway bridge in Digbeth..