Smurfpunx

12/12/2010

‘Horrendous cut-throat system’

Filed under: Philosophy & Politics — Tags: , , , , , — smurfpunx @ 11:50

Here’s a piece of writing of a guy that visited some Smurfpunx concerts and offered to share his views about that era as a writer/art-critic/philosopher…

My time spent in the Belgian hardcore-scene – that’s what we called it back then, it would probably be called the Flemish hardcore-scene today, if it still existed – was brief, intense and (on a personal level) absolutely formative. I probably heard my first punk record some time in 1985 (when I turned thirteen – it may well have been Tielt’s unholy ‘Dirty Scums’), saw my first punk show in 1986 (French noise-core outfit ‘Scraps’, in Torhout, if I remember correctly), published the first issue of my fanzine Pyrobolum in 1988, the same year I co-founded a handful of short-lived bands (only ‘Sloth’ ever played a gig, only ‘Anal Disobedience’ ever recorded a demo-tape), organized my first gig in 1989 (featuring Bradford’s crust-punk super-group ‘Warfear’, at the Vort’n Vis in Ieper) and checked out of the whole thing after moving from the West-Flemish outback – hardcore-punk music was largely a rural or small-town phenomenon – to Ghent, to study philosophy late in 1990. The fanzine folded, the bands disbanded, my music listening habits changed rather radically and so did my dress-sense. But the spirit that had led me to engage with the hardcore-scene – evidently it was never just about music, hence the heterogeneity of my rushed involvement in something called a ‘scene’ – more or less remained the same, and much of the beliefs that first took shape in that short but packed period have remained with me since (much of the beliefs were also already there – once again, that’s what led me to engage with something called a ‘scene’ in the first place). I don’t have to explain what those ‘beliefs’ are, right? It’s twenty years ago, more or less, and I have since gone back, on occasion, to the scene’s connective tissue – the music. I liked the loud, fast and brutal stuff back then, and I like it still – the physical experience of hearing, say, ‘Extreme Noise Terror’ play certainly mattered to me then, as did the aesthetic choices of the bands associated with that particular paradigm (if I may be allowed to call it that). There’s nothing quite like the extreme bodily experience of a full-on grindcore assault and when I first heard early ‘Napalm Death’s infamous one-or-two-second songs, I was immediately turned on to this music’s (largely unconscious) connection to the long history of transgression in art – to me, this wasn’t so far removed from Dada and certain Surrealist and Futurist practices, and fuelled my interest in those nebulous regions where hardcore’s outer fringes bled into art. (I should probably add here that I come from an ‘artistic’ milieu and eventually returned to that milieu after graduating from university. Before my love affair with hardcore music, I had been listening to more explicitly ‘arty’ stuff too – ‘Einstürzende Neubauten’, ‘Psychic TV’, ‘SPK’, etc.) The poppier, less abrasive melodious punk stuff never quite did it for me – too close to the conventional pop-format (I’ve always hated pop music) and no amount of intelligent, engaging lyricism could alter that fact (this wasn’t helped by the fact that this was the genre preferred by many Straight Edge bands, whose tendency to ‘police’ the hardcore-scene and overall humorlessness I disliked intensely). Which is probably why I didn’t go to many Smurfpunx concerts, or hardly remember the ones I did go to. What I did appreciate in the particular scene-culture fostered and promoted by Smurfpunx and their associates, however, was the relative sophistication of their political stances. They may have been a bit too overbearing and righteous at times, but at least there was some basic intelligence at work in them (Brob wore glasses – like me) and it was the general lack of intelligence, and a deeply seated anti-intellectualism – not to mention a clear distrust of, or hostility towards, anything smacking of ‘art’ (this is where I first heard the slur ‘arty farty’ after all) – which finally forced me out of hardcore-punk. And the fact, finally, that people like Smurfpunx were regularly denounced as doctrinaire and overly zealous ideologues did much to secure my sympathies already then, if only because the late eighties signaled the beginning of those post-ideological, post-political times that, depressingly, constitute our only reality today, twenty years on. Many bad things could be said about ideologues but at least they’re people with ideas, and the passion for ideas, if convincingly argued, is what matters most to me in the end. (A necessary digression to put my readership at ease: the problem of homophobia and racism, for instance, is not so much that they are bad ideas – who’s to say that they are, after all? – but above and beyond all that they are poor ideas that do not stand up to the test of dialogical argument.) A passion for ideas entwined with a passion for noise – that, in short, was what the hardcore-punk experience was about for me.

So what gigs do I remember? ‘Sore Throat’ in Poperinge – probably organized by Bruno Vandevyvere, who more or less introduced me to the whole scene – and ‘Sore Throat’ in Liège. They were one of my favorite bands at the time, not only because they were loud, fast and abrasive, but also because they were funny (though not a ‘joke’ band); ‘Napalm Death’ were just loud, fast and abrasive – their humorlessness more than anything else would precipitate their downfall. (The often-told anecdote about the violent showdown between ‘Mad’ Mick Harris and Rich Militia does not really consider that this may well have been a battle of the humorists versus the humorless.) In Poperinge, my bandmate David ‘Spans Hrac’ Stubbe and I were invited at some point to mount the stage (a great honor of course: I was not insensitive to the trappings of fandom) to growl along with ‘Horrendous Cut-Throat System’:

>>Mucked about, fucked about /// And generally abused /// Horrendous cut-throat system /// Stabbed in the back /// And kicked in the face /// Horrendous cut-throat system<<

What was this cut-throat system they were going on about anyway? Was it ‘the’ system that everyone was used to hearing about or was this a veiled comment upon the hardcore-punk ‘system’ instead? For this little island off the coast of society that we called our ‘scene’ did resemble ‘society’ in one aspect too many to fully deserve the accolade of being something else, a somewhere else or ‘heterotopia’.

‘Hiatus’ were around then too, which usually also made for maximum comic effect, if only because in their drunken stupor they often tended to soil their pants – I distinctly remember the urine-stains on one mattress in the Vort’n Vis backroom we used as a rehearsal-space in particular, and I didn’t think this was especially disgusting. It was OK to wet one’s pants. ‘Dirt’ was also part of a certain aesthetic that seemed to flower along the axis that was most vital to my involvement in the scene, one that tied Ieper together with Bradford up in the British Midlands – home to the notorious ‘1 in 12’ Club, home to half of ‘Doom’ and half of ‘Sore Throat’, stomping ground of ‘Generic’, ‘One by One’, ‘Pleasant Valley Children’, etc. (Sometime in the early nineties, after I had checked out of it all, I went to see a ‘Health Hazard’ gig at the Vort’n Vis in Ieper, a Bradford band fronted by a woman I proceeded to fall in love with.)

Embarking on this trip down memory-lane, I suddenly remember a handful of pen-pals from back in the day (pen-pals!, none of them were ever female, and all of us wrote our letters by hand – imagine that): Jamie, who played guitar for ‘Jailcell Recipes’ (who hailed from Huddersfield or something like it) and showered me with US HC tunes; a French fellow who played in a band called ‘Ice Cream’ whom I ended up having a bit of an argument with concerning the vices of pop music; a very nice guy called George (Yorgos to his mother, I assume) who ran an Athens-based fanzine called Screaming For A Change, who, amazingly, turned into a born-again Christian in the course of our correspondence (I like him a lot because of his passion for the idea of Christ but could not join him in his enthusiasm for Christianity); Bri from ‘Doom’/’Sore Throat’/’Warfear’ and Rich from ‘Sore Throat’/’Warfear’; Vrokker from Brugge’s own ‘Chronic Disease’ (what was his real name? Why would anyone ever call himself ‘Vrokker’?)… And who were the great people around back then whom I only met sporadically but enjoyed talking to? A strange fellow called Nicolas, a bit of a boy wonder, hailing from the unlikely locale of Maubeuge in the barren north of France. The guy who ran Raising Hell – maybe the best fanzine coming out of England at the time, not in the least because it had such a wicked sense of humor (I’ll happily admit that Pyrobolum was modeled after Raising Hell in the main). A late arrival on the Vort’n Vis scene but a very funny one: Steve ‘Meat Heap’ Wackenier, who founded ‘Neuthrone’ with one of my best friends at the time, the aforementioned David Stubbe. Of course, Ieper was quite a hub at the time and there were plenty of wackos around. Jan ‘Doomy’ Claus is another person I remember with great fondness – why did he wear earplugs to loud concerts? That really didn’t make sense to me at the time. (That said, I must admit that I mostly listen to Morton Feldman nowadays.) Kortrijk was nearby but just as far away: I remember going to a ‘Gorilla Biscuits’ gig there and not being caught when I attempted a stage-dive – perhaps I was too scruffy-looking? Was I wearing the wrong patches? I had the strong impression that was pretty much what it was about and this certainly accelerated my growing alienation from particular strands within the hardcore scene. (I should add here that I don’t remember there being many assholes and the ones I knew were still quite friendly and entertaining – very different from the assholes I meet in my professional environment today.)

But let me go back to Aalst because that, in part, is what the Smurfpunx blog requires. I remember an underwhelming ‘Intense Degree’ gig – another band that, once on stage, could not deliver the goods promised by their tremendous debut album and Peel Sessions recordings. ‘Force Fed’, yes, but please don’t ask me any details. Is Netwerk were I first saw ‘Agathocles’ perform live or did that happen in the B-52 in Torhout – or was that in Tielt? And is Tielt where Tilt! got its name?

I’ve rambled on quite a bit. Too long for blogging purposes perhaps – I acquired my writing-skills before the advent of the blogosphere after all and I’ve never mastered the art, so crucial to online ‘journalism’, of the sound-byte.

Perhaps I may be allowed one long last look back before I bid this late-twentieth century countercultural Atlantis farewell.

I may be mistaken in believing that the hardcore-punk movement reached its zenith pretty much around the same time I became involved in it (the classic symptom of any egocentric fallacy) but there definitely was something special in the air during the second half of the eighties and that ‘something’ has long since ceased to exist – its disappearance belongs to the same history that has enable the emergence of the very medium I am now using to write all this down and communicate with a readership of unknowns. Hardcore-punk culture belonged to my youth, adolescence and early adulthood, and I now look back upon it as a crucial phase in the processual politicization of my views on life and general attitude towards the world. Although music, in the end, was what it was all about for most of us – and there’s nothing wrong with that – this music came with a certain politics (and a no less certain belief in the validity of politics as such) at a time when the depoliticization of public life and of youth-culture in particular was getting ready to make itself felt. (Hence my previous statement about these ‘post-political’ times.) I was a vegetarian for a year and a half only (we depended on my mom’s cooking and the vegetarian regime we wanted to impose on our household proved too much of challenge for her rather limited cooking-abilities) but at least I returned to a carnivorous way of life enriched with an awareness of the politics of food. I’ve never set foot in a McDonald’s restaurant again since checking out of the hardcore-scene in 1990 (and in some parts of the earth, like Moscow anno 2002 or Mumbai anno 2003, that wasn’t always so easy). The early exposure, sometime around 1986-1987, to discussions of racism, sexism and phobias of all kinds have decisively shaped the political culture of the environment I inhabit today. And the do-it-yourself ethic which, on a purely procedural, methodological level, is perhaps hardcore’s most dearly held principle, well – who does not want to do it him- or herself rather than trust ‘the system’ to do it for them or on their behalf or (worst of all) in their stead?

This brings me back, in conclusion, to a discussion of the ‘horrendous cut-throat system’. Hardcore is gone, punk is gone (‘dead’) – ‘the’ system has prevailed. Some of the bands from the Golden Age of hardcore-punk never split up and are still going, well, ‘strong’; interestingly, many of them reunited in the second half of the noughties – why that had to happen exactly then is a whole other question, but one that requires consideration nonetheless. Just a little while I came across a poster in Berlin (where I now live, in a part of town where many people born in the eighties wear ‘Exploited’, ‘Discharge’ or ‘Amebix’ T-shirts – a bit like the Jimi Hendrix or ‘Led Zeppelin’ T-shirts I saw people of my own age wear around 1991) advertising a ‘Spermbirds’ and ‘Youth of Today’ gig. ‘Youth of Today’??? Didn’t they re-invent themselves as ‘Shelter’ and turn all Hare Krishna? Haven’t they become the ‘Youth of the Day before Yesterday’ in the meantime? It’s hard to say exactly what I think of this but these are obviously events that cater for the strong and very profitable taste for retro experiences in contemporary culture. Whatever hardcore-punk is and was, it belonged to a certain time and place, and that time has gone and that place has changed – better still, it has disappeared, and one of the ‘sites’ where it forever dissolved is none other than what is now known as the internet.

Dieter Roelstraete (a writer based in Berlin => Chicago) *** www.muhka.be * www.afterall.org

Yours truly and the writer, ‘Sore Throat’ wellcoming-comittee, Poperinge 1990 (pictured by Sned)

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3 Comments »

  1. “This little island off the coast of society” :-) Brilliant formulation. Great piece BTW!

    Comment by Duco — 12/12/2010 @ 18:30

  2. What am I up to? Working in a college as a music-technician. But also recording bands at the 1in12 Studio, playing bass in ‘Lazarus Blackstar’ and doing ‘Doom’ again!
    Bri

    Comment by Brian T. — 12/13/2010 @ 08:35

  3. Dieter’s a cool dude and he shouldn’t take this personally but I can’t totally agree with his opnion. (One that I encounter regularly on blogs – like e.g. that of Erich van ‘Fear Of God’). Apparently many people think that everything’s dead when they loose interest in it themselves. There quite a lot of HC/punk-bands nowadays as well as many small labels that do things for the passion of the music. Of course a lot has changed compared to the ‘old days’ but I believe that there is always a generation that feels attracted to loud music with an ‘outsider’ edge. One doesn’t even have to be radical-political for that. In fact, I don’t think highly of those radicals with no sense of humor who criticise everything. For me, it’s already enough if people question certain things that seem obvious. I’m also asking myself what people who assume that everything has been done, think of people like Seein’Red’, ‘Geriatric Unit’ (ex-‘Heresy’) or ‘Violent Arrest’ (ex-‘Ripcord’), or Vrokker and myself – who still play in HC/punk-bands despite our older age? Are we idiots who live in the past, that didn’t ‘progress’? (Be certain that I also live totally different than 20 years ago). Is HC/punk still relevant these fays? Not really, but it will always keep having an attraction.
    All this makes one think: Is it nowadays nothing more than a sub-culture? I’m afraid so. The ‘dangerous’ part has gone. It’s more about music than about subversive ideas. Now, I think it’s OK that the radical has gone, otherwise it just becomes a select little club, an elite. And the last thing HC/punk should be is elitist. There’s always a difference between being politically active an being politically conscious.
    Leffe

    Comment by Leffe — 12/18/2010 @ 10:13


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