a political history of pop music
Former i-D editor Matthew Collin's new book is an adrenalin-charged trip through some of the cultural flashpoints of the past few decades, from Public Enemy to Pussy Riot, from Berlin’s anarchic techno scene after the fall of the Wall to outlaw sound...
A career as a foreign correspondent and editor of The Big Issue and i-D, a politically progressive outlook, a love of radical music, and an ear never far from the grapevine have consistently attracted Matthew Collin to those moments and movements, at both the heart and the fringes of the mainstream, where pop music, in its broadest sense, transcends 'mere' entertainment. These are the spaces where a politicized music (whether it knows it or not) confronts and challenges the status quo, inspires hearts and minds, and drags reality kicking and screaming into the future.
His first book, Altered State, looked at acid house and ecstasy culture, the punning title drawing a parallel between the mindbending properties of MDMA and the seeds of social transformation. One and the same struggle. With his latest work, Pop Grenade, Collin gathers six essays that encapsulate some oppositional or seditious energy, some subversive intent or militancy, expressed through music. "The book is based on first-hand reportage," he says. "I've been lucky to have experienced quite a few inspiring and bizarre situations during my career as a journalist, and I didn't want to include any stories that I had no personal experience of at all. Obviously that means it's very subjective, and in no way a 'history of music and politics'."
Subtitled From Public Enemy to Pussy Riot, Dispatches from Musical Frontlines, the work is bookended by Collin's encounters with these iconoclastic though markedly different pop-cultural activists. The fascinating take on the emergence of the fearless Pussy Riot, "the most incendiary art-punk collective of their time, arrested and subjected to an absurd Soviet-style show trial for publicly cursing out the strongman leader of the biggest country in the world," is rightly awe-struck at their courage and cosmic indignation. Meanwhile, the chapter on Public Enemy sparkles with a fan's enthusiasm, yet without losing any of the critic's astringency. It is only fitting that the style is as arresting as the content, since Collin is adamant that radicalism has to go beyond spitting out lyrics of protest. "The thing about bands like Public Enemy is that they set out to be as sonically adventurous as they were politically radical. That's what made them special. That's really important - the music has to be as powerful as, or even more powerful than the message. As Bill Adler, Public Enemy's PR man at Def Jam Records, told me: 'If it hadn't been for the revolutionary music, if the music had been lame, some people wouldn't have cared about the politics'."
Of course, the radicalism of the acid house that he grew up listening to in Nottingham's seminal Garage nightclub couldn't really have been about the lyrics. Nonetheless, it sowed the seed of his idealism: "Obviously when you have what you feel is such a life-changing experience like so many people did during the acid house and rave era, you want to believe that it 'meant something' more than just a fleeting moment of ecstatic bliss. For me though, it really did, and it still does, because it was the magical gateway to becoming a journalist and having all these other incredible experiences over the years that followed, some of which are documented in Pop Grenade. I don't often quote Paul Oakenfold, but he was dead right when he said that the acid house experience makes you believe that you can go out and do something significant - and so you do".
He would subsequently realize that radicalism wasn't intrinsic to any genre or subculture, but implicated what Marxists might call the music's conditions of production (independence from corporate diktat, collectivism) and consumption (the free-party or consciousness-raising aspect). "There were definitely socially radical elements within the scene itself that went beyond the demand to dance beyond 2am," he recalls, "particularly when people got involved who saw it as a form of counterculture rather than just a technologically-advanced entertainment concept, like the DIY sound system crew, for instance."
And it's the social dimension of the music - its role as a rallying point or focus for cultural participation and action - that informs the chapter on the Teknival Scene, the anarcho-crusties and "militant psychedelic sound systems" who, in the wake of the epochal Castlemorton Rave and subsequent Criminal Justice Act clampdown, left for the continent to build an alternative, nomadic lifestyle. Collin cannot conceal his admiration. "I think it takes a lot of dedication to live that traveling techno sound system life," he explains. "There's an almost ascetic commitment to being an outsider, listening to the most extreme acid techno and taking the most extreme brain-warping drugs known to humanity. The people I knew from that scene - Desert Storm sound system, who did a series of aid trips to Bosnia during the war there in the mid-90s - I really admired them, as I think comes across in the chapter I wrote about their amazing exploits both abroad and in the UK. They were truly hardcore. I really think pop culture needs people like this - the radicals, the dreamers, the ones who will go further out than anyone else just to see what the view is like from the very edge."
Another chapter examines Berlin's fabled Love Parade and the role of techno in healing the formerly divided city. "The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Berlin was a real cultural flashpoint. It coincided with the start of the techno scene there so that meant that it was seen in some way as the 'music of liberation'. And there's no doubt that techno helped to redefine the image of Berlin as it became the German capital again - as a vital hub of creative freethinking people."
Even so, Love Parade could be seen as the quintessential tale of an event that initially incubates dissidence only (eventually, inevitably) to be co-opted by the capitalist leisure economy, its radicalism diluted and ossified - turned to image or style, to surface. The same has been said of Berlin, too, although Collin is not so sure: "If you look at Berlin now, there is what seems to be a thriving and hopefully sustainable subculture. It does have values that are different to the hypercapitalist superclub ethic. In terms of nightlife, in some ways it's the opposite of the glitz and expense of Ibiza; Berlin is raw and scruffy and relatively cheap still. So despite the advance of gentrification, it remains a place where the freaks can survive and maybe even thrive".
Nevertheless, that infinitely co-optive power of capitalism - "'Turning rebellion into money', as The Clash sang in 1978" quips Collin- and the fact that seemingly cutting-edge, 'subversive' music can be used to sell anything from toothpaste to Toyotas does present a few problems in thinking about what might today constitute musical radicalism. "Assimilation of 'underground' scenes is much more sophisticated now," he argues. "Sponsorship and commercial branding has become an accepted part of pop subcultures. Look how big a player Red Bull has become in the electronic music scene - it's become one of the biggest global patrons for dance culture. Of course this is a marketing initiative ultimately aimed at selling energy drinks by convincing people that a caffeine-charged fizzy drink is 'cool', but I don't see much resistance to the company's patronage. It's more surprising when you don't see a Red Bull logo in a club these days - a place like Berghain in Berlin, where they don't allow any sponsors' logos at all, is quite the exception, and all the better for it, of course."
Yet despite all the ways in which music today seems tame and neutered there's an unrelenting optimism to Collin, a belief that all genres contain the possibility for dissent, and that the incendiary power of music-as-weapon still rumbles away in West and East alike.
As well as namechecking Public Enemy, The Clash and Fela Kuti as heroes, there's a band from his home town that captures the sort of crazed, heretical energy he so admires. "I absolutely love Sleaford Mods," he smiles. "They really capture that zero-hours-contracts, 'austerity Britain' mood of the times perfectly. Jason Williamson is so maximally choleric, he just lets fly with this blunderbuss gobful of expletives, spraying anyone who pisses him off with his toxic invective. He reminds me of Arthur Seaton, the classic working-class hero from the 1950s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning about a disaffected factory worker in Nottingham, but ripped to the tits on cheap lager and badly-cut speed. He's almost the living definition of 'vexed'. But that's exactly how I felt when I woke up on May 8 and saw the UK election results too."
Pop Grenade is published by Zero Books on May 29
Text Scott Oliver
Photography Igor Mukhin