I read this last week. A music mag timed to coincide with the launch of the refurbed New Century House venue in Manchester.
New Century. Seems very last century. All the blind empty Manchester clichés are collected in one place. Its message seems natural because it has been repeated thousands of times. The city as ‘defiantly non Tory’ is almost meaningless when the Labour Party hegemony is neoliberal right. The ‘revolutionary spirit and zeal’ here is capitalist revanchism. This magazine is timed to cull cash from naive, excited freshers.
Most of the content sounds like drunks at closing time who can only repeat the same jumbled words, brutalism Sex Pistols blah… tiny moments inflated into a careerist, hot air balloon. The tedious local ethnocentrism, that a Manchester building is somehow a middle finger to Westminster. Really? seen the news? As I write, the truss Government is reversing the post-WWII social contract even further. They are not afraid of working northerners, northerners now vote for them.
And that news carries an older message, that Westminster will cut the city council budgets to ribbons here: all this empty aesthetic posturing does nothing whatsoever to resist that politics, in fact it positively aligns with a polity of individualistic consumer capitalism. It benefits retailers and estate agents and their money people before it benefits anyone else. Or perhaps you believe the trickle down is rain, rather than someone pissing on you from behind.
Young people should be doing what punk did in only one way, and that is asking who these old people are, with their now meaningless nonsense, before rejecting it forever. But what they often do is make bands that sound like the old bands, that make the same noises, with the same generative set of supposedly ‘transgressive’ messages. There is no year zero here, no new aesthetic. It is still a postmodern city. Zine culture is often on university syllabuses as something young people put on CVs to show an employer they can manage a project. I know, I have taught that session in the past. Rock’n’roll culture, in its expanded form, is in turn just part of a wider spectrum of career options, via which you are already aiming for something ‘in the industry’, the spectacle-economy, that is. You become a DJ, while gaming your way into the real tricks.
When I interviewed Jeff Nuttall he called rock’n’roll culture ‘stand up wanks using somebody else’s fist.’ He was right and when he said that the culture wasn’t even half as empty as it is now (I think it was 1998). I resisted his take on it then. Now I embrace it fully and finally, I say reject it all: it only absorbs energies that might be used for better purposes. Give me only Adorno. My Marcuse has been mothballed.
Back to the magazine. The writing just gets worse, the further in you get. Other people’s xeroxed cliches are photocopied again and again, until they have no relationship with life in the city. Turn over another page. In this case, Stuart Maconie:
‘…from vegetarianism to feminism to trade unionism to communism, every upstart notion that ever got ideas above its station, every snotty street fighter of a radical philosophy, was fostered brawling in Manchester’s streets, mills, pubs…’
Kirsty Allison – who wrote the worst article in a publication of terrible articles – describes the writer of that empty doggerel ‘Poet Maconie.’ His quote appears even stupider when lifted out of its calmer fabric. It becomes a raised arse cheek and single gaseous emission, which is what ‘Manchester culture’ is, in this iteration.
It is a copy of a copy of a copy of a dead history which never happened like that in the first place. Because all the exciting sexy bits are strung together into a necklace of fetish to wear to the rituals. And those rituals aren’t just the doxa-droning leftwing meetings anymore: every wonk in expensive brogues in the city comes on to the podium smoothly and confidently extolling this goofy nonsense, usually to sell some neoliberal shtick, ‘of course, this is a radical city.’ The empty dead years of oppression are never strung together along with the glittering ‘radical’ baubles. They need to be, it is that dead hand of oppression that causes the tiny sparks of revolt. It won some battles, in some places, but it did not win the war, look around you, open your eyes.
The sparks of revolt were the anomaly, not the rule, and the aesthetic rebellion of Factory was no revolution at all, it went hand-in-hand with the city as a money machine, it was at least half Thatcherite. The people who say this is a radical city are now often the very people who are invested only in the city as a surplus-skimming assemblage, the new machine era capitalists. It is radical, as in radical right, as in shatter communities rather than halt the money elites. But nobody thinks, everyone switches off and sinks deep into their narcissism, that they live here, and so of course this must be a radical city and ergo, I must be radical too. Smugness and solipsism combine into a powerful amnesia, on an internal, subjective landscape. Outside, deep cynicism and unbroken lines of brutality and stupidity, they reach back to the 1970s, the 1910s, the 1840s…
In Manchester, read everything in inverse. Here, the truth is a lie and the lie is a truth. When they say ‘this is Manchester we do things differently here’ it means this is Manchester we don’t do things differently any more. This was a globalising city, it is now just one of the many globalised cities, and globalisation is ending, leaving what once were interconnected nodes a little more isolated.
This is the era of the balkanisation of globalisation.
But still they come back every few months to desperately and excitedly tell us Manchester is essential and edgy, using examples that are already scattered ash, and so while doing this they prove that it is neither essential nor edgy. It is half-asleep stoned nonsense lazily on the make. Like Ian Brown’s recent tour dates. They tout a supposed ‘LA street culture’ in the city but there are magazine vendors one could call aesthetically hipster here who are being needled by the council because they aren’t the kind of thing they want to see, or rather, they don’t bring enough revenue in. The ‘Manchattan’ skyline is apparently exciting, an indication of cultural health, rather than a vast and permanent reminder in physical form that MCC are almost entirely in the service of capitalist expansion. I hope you remember the recent Saudi land deal scandals. It is not that long ago. The writers of New Century appear to have forgotten already.
What’s more disturbing is that the worst piece in New Century is written by the editor of Ambit, a publication once famed for innovative combinations of words. In the list of references is Sean Ryder’s Selected Lyrics, published by Faber. Some time ago you could go to Rylands and see Ian Curtis scribbles in vitrines. I am fine with the idea of pop artists being as good as canonised ones, but Curtis lyrics, and Ryder’s secondary school taunts, they are just not it. In any case, this isn’t what the original spirit of punk and post-punk was about, endless veneration. But of course, when it comes time for you to go, you don’t want to – I get that – but come on, it is way after time.
The massive bloated arts complex Factory is surely a huge sign on the landscape of the final termination of any vital city imaginary. Its name alone couldn’t be more stone dead, I’m struggling to think of a more fossilised word to use. I worked at URBIS and saw the sad, pathetic Sid Vicious scrap of paper in the vitrine, insured for hundred-thousands. URBIS, at the end, was Factory Mausoleum 1.0. It was also the first iteration, after the Sheffield Centre for Popular Music, of a thinner 1990s culture, which this New Century magazine still coughs up. Rebellion as consumerism and consumerism as rebellion. A non-revolution of surface posture. Counterculture as smorgasbord of ‘cool’. Envelopes of style with nothing therein. Vaughan Allen the last head of URBIS is now at CityCo and withers the Corbynistas on LinkedIn, and apparently sees few problems with the recent Truss-Kwarteng budget. I’m not a Corbynista either, but these people, if you are on the left, are not your allies. Reject the City Elites.
‘We’re all the children of Factory bluds’, this white person Allison concludes, blathering LA gang references into a meaningless manifesto. One problem with writing like this is that often The Hacienda appears as White City. It wasn’t, actually, it was a hybrid dancefloor culture, but the white facet of the prism always projects the images, and then that particular lens prints the historical document. British Hip-Hop, Caribbean Carnivals, they are not in the ‘new century’, an entirely unconscious bias, as the writers write their habitus, only.
Allison then postures about posturing about being a terrorist in 1996. Another copy of a copy of a copy. I caused a bomb scare coming out of Manchester. A real one. I was very tired and left a bag on a train, in ’95. There was nothing sexy or cool about it. It did nothing good in the world. It was a stupid mistake. I haven’t made a piece of writing about it.
‘We’re all the children of Factory’ is the problem, it is the psychic block, which needs a talking cure to shift, right out of the collective mind, forever. All of the empty ‘radical’ posturing and broken litter needs clearing away before any realpolitik change can take hold.
When they raise a signifier such as ‘Sex Pistols’, hoping that will do some work, do they imagine that nobody notices the signifiers underneath have completely rotted away. John Lydon is in America, wearing a MAGA cap.
But what is gloriously positive about all of this is that the scene is now blown wide open. Clearly. These are all signs that there is nothing left. This magazine is like a wax-sealed gift to the future. It says ‘carry on, we are no longer fit to.’ Ambit, gone, Faber, gone, Manchester as radical, completely gone. Blown. That means it is levelled, ready for re-making elsewhere, and that might or might not be in this city. Young people, you are pushing at an open door, make your own genuinely radical culture and make these old farts vanish.
These people desperately try to prove how essential they are, and by doing so clearly demonstrate they are neither, via a platform which is the antithesis of the radical and essential: this magazine is city property and cashflow business; it is spectacle into coin; this is the ideology being sold, underneath it all. This is always where the Situationist dream ends, as an inverted version of itself. When they start putting ‘psychogeography’ on as part of the planning and placemaking consultation, and in the undergrad teaching, you know it is all beyond redemption. It is time to remove yourself to such a distance that you can see it anew. And from there make again. They are selling you an hallucination.
But the majority of young people have no place in it, the dream they are selling, at this point in history, they are Sold Out, at the same time as this magazine invites them in.
Someone will say ah well you’ve got to remember the state of the city back before all this, and I do, even though I was young. I remember it was all black and to go to M&S we parked on what looked like a bomb site, which turned out to be the grim foundations of Angel Meadow. We had a flasher waiting near the car one day, my dad sent him running. So yeah, it has been smartened up and refurbed.
But the Martin Parr book on Manchester presents this story, and it is another representational problem. The old black and white photographs in strange living rooms that look like anthropological curios, are all at the front of the book, and the shiny hyper-coloured postmodern Parrs at the back. A narrative metaphor, also, for Parr’s rise and success. A simplistic before-after picture. If the city’s change mirrors your change in fortunes – and for the better – you are going to sing its praises. But you are not everyone. The capitalist takeover has left little future for anyone but themselves. The young are sold expensive flats with new names, ‘apartments’. They might have a concierge but they have to game it hard to live there or leave.
A question mark hangs over every aspect of their lives, job stability, property ownership, pensions, a basic stable future in a working infrastructure, life without the threat of nuclear obliteration, the question of children… They high five each other and affirmate over the city not so much from genuine love but more because they have to do this to get on. The ‘negative’ is over-ruled, in desperate times, actually, one finds there the most social conservatism.
20 years ago I had an NHS dentist, a permanent job and a functional rather than dysfunctional doctor’s surgery. All of that was in the bag, so we were looking for all the extras, more music, more art, literature. Now we have far too much of the latter, and the quality is spread so thinly that much of it is just an irritation, and I don’t have any of the former.
But young people have No Future like never before. What the hell was John Rotten bleating about, in the face of their challenges? Reject it, young people, make your own culture which challenges all of it and its logics. It is not just ‘boring’ – which was ironically the prime accusation of punk – it is beyond boring, it is a pernicious form of boring, a boring that drills, a boring that rots empty spaces in the fabric of life, where real culture and community could be, that eats everything around it, a cash-fuelled black hole. Reject reject reject.
It is hyper-rot. Give it the name, wherever you see it, and call it out: over there, hyper-rot, over here, what? You decide.
It says Issue Number One on the front. Which suggests someone might be oblivious enough to make another. Probably if it makes them enough money. Not if it changes the world for the better, which it won’t. It might just make it a tiny bit worse though.
There is a good antidote available, however, in Shock City magazine. See their Twitter @ShockCityManc
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