It probably says more about my life than theirs, but I seem to be haunted by old punks propping up the bar telling me stories about the Clash, or showing off their badge collection on ebay. There’s certainly a lot of punk ghosts around – icons– Sid, Nancy, Rotten before he became farmer Lydon , and reunion bands are everywhere. But what are the ghosts for? And why are they following me round all the time?
Ageing subcultures work
Work on ageing subcultures, or subcultures and ageing has helped us unpick some of the obsession with youthful rebellion in subcultural lives. The history of academic work on subculture is wrapped up in the move to reclaim youth, popular culture and subcultures from associations with ‘deviancy’ and claim them instead as a form of resistance. Since then the battles over whether subcultures are or are not ticking the box of ‘resistance through rituals’ have been run and re-run, with generations of subculturalists assigned a pecking order as to whether they qualify as resistant, and radical or even important (which usually means working class boys are probably important as long as they appeal to a middle class aesthetic)
Recent work on growing up and growing older with a subcultural identity has shaken this up a lot. Andy Bennett and Paul Hodkinson’s edited collection Ageing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style and Identity gives up on the youthful ghost and looks at the ways in which subcultural identities can be carried around in and on ageing bodies. In the process however, it seems as though the radicalism assigned to the original subcultural generation, youth, has been withdrawn. The subcultural capital only goes around so far. If the ageing get assigned some subcultural capital, it is usually by default because the current youth of today have let us down. Their pick n mix, virtual fluidity just can’t be so easily shut in a box labelled ‘resistance’.
I’ve often thought that this is partly about the generation who write about subcultures as much as what happened to the generation that they write about. As a generation of researchers, we’ve have mapped our own life cycle stages onto the chronology of subcultures. The more distant we are from teenage years the more we refuse to recognise current young people’s dissidence, transgression and resistance. The more we age the more we drag the tropes (or ghosts) of our subcultural pasts with us. If you go to a Subcultures Network events, for example, you will see more DMs and harringtons that at the average Ace Café Reunion. You can spot us a mile off.
So I wanted to think about what we do with this attachment to the subcultural past in our older here and now. Can we still wield subcultural resistance in our 40s and 50s – and if so can we do it without negating the creative agency of the youth?
I’ve bemoaned the omnipresence of punk nostalgia, often for its insistence on set piece narratives around big London slebpunks and an obsession with authenticity. I think I’ve spent too many nights in pubs, with too many men I really like, ranting on about their top trump punk collections and encyclopaedic knowledge of punk factoids. I’ve got to say its’ put me right off.
Recently I’ve felt a lot of old punk hanging about – largely self inflicted, teaching a course on Post-Punk Britain, being married to one, and hanging out with the Subcultures Network will do that to you. But the ghosts of old punk, or particularly post post-punk, appear to be doing more than hanging about, they appear to be actively haunting the present.
Just like punk, there’s quite a lot of thinking about ‘Haunting’ going around at the moment too. I’d read Avery Gordon’s book Ghostly Matters: The Haunting and the Sociological Imagination and to be honest hadn’t really got it. Or couldn’t quite see what it could do for me. But after I saw some of my favourite sociologists (Nicola, Ingham, Lisa Mckenzie, and Tracey Jensen I’m going to put in a bit explaining what they said when I find my notes) actively wield haunting as an analytical tool at the Working Class Studies Association conference in Washington this year. I thought I should probably look again.
Thoughts on Haunting?
Haunting helps us get rid of some of our hang ups about memory. I’m not even going to bother thinking about reliability or selectivity of memory because that stuff is seriously dull, especially when we’ve got more interesting ways to think about memory; public memory (there is a politics to what is and isn’t formally and collectively remembered), the cultural circuit ( we fit in our own stories with the big stories we see around us in film, the media and popular culture more generally), composed memory (we structure ourselves and our stories through the process of sharing narratives about the past), or trauma (the impossibility of reconciling the past becomes written into fragmented traumatic memories), or nostalgia, (the warmth of a romanticised past is really a way of criticising the present). But all of these don’t quite get us to where we need to be. Memory is either collectivised to the extent that our individual sense of experience is flattened out, or our memories are shaped in ways that speak only of the present. Above all these concepts of memory as history often lack a materiality – what is it is a given context that means that some versions of the past speak of the present rather than others?
For me the strength of haunting as a historical lens is that it is explicitly not bounded by ideas of nostalgia, or trauma. In practice Gordon’s ideas help to get us out of the immateriality of memory in the now. “[T]he very tangled way people sense, intuit, and experience the complexities of modern power and personhood has everything to do with the character of power itself and with what is needed to eradicate the injurious and dehumanizing conditions of modern life. “ p194
Haunting can let go of the old questions about resistance, rejection or celebration of the past because haunting is in itself a form of knowledge. The Haunting, and the haunted, allows the past to trouble the present. For anyone looking back on their lives, let alone on a history of activism and subcultural utopianism, we need to work out what we do with our failures and losses (and our lost dreams). Haunting shows us that they can still work for us now, even from the past, even from our defeats.
“haunting is an encounter in which you tough the ghost or the ghostly matter of things: the ambiguities, the complexities of power and personhood, the violence and the hope, the looming and receding actualities, the shadows of our selves and our society” (Gordon, p134)
The haunting ghosts demand that the present should be upset by the past, but it should also be inspired by it, on a joint enterprise. Here memory is more than a measurement of an individual loss, of youth, of hope, of politics, of battles, it is about claiming a collectivity to those losses which can be reclaimed to enact in the now. “yearning for a something that must be done” (Gordon, p184 ) We know it can be, because we tried before, we failed, or were failed ‘but we got up again’.
So when how does that help make sense of the post post-punks hanging around?
Alongside the commercial ‘ of sell out’ Sex Pistols perfume (it smells of pepper) and credit card, there is a very different spectre haunting our now: the anarcho memory in the present. I’ve written on here before about the recent growth in really good academic work on the anarcho punk scene, and the development of ideas around teaching as punk as well as teaching about punk. It looks like we don’t need to look only to the past for inspiration, there is an anarcho haunting the now. Community projects, activist groups and movements like UK Uncut or Occupy re-animated ideas from earlier countercultural groups. But right now the anarcho musicians and performers, seem to be taking up a more active haunting, beyond re-enactment, that ‘yearns for something that must be done’. The resurgence of 80s stalwarts Class War and their warrior queen Lisa Mckenzie have taken the haunting to the street – with pitch forks.
Sleaford Mods, and Crass’s Steve Ignorant, and my new favourite band Interrobang!? are also using their past to haunt the music they produce today for themselves. These post post-punks are doing something very different from reunion gigs (although I should be clear that I’m not opposed to a reunion gig). These post post-punks are very much based in the now, with an active reflection on what can be learnt from the failure and from the dreams and energies expended in the past. I love the Sleaford mods, I love everything about them, but not as much as I love Interrobang!? Interrobang!? put the haunting to the front and remind me that as impressive as the academic work on ageing, haunting and anarcho memory might be, there’s nothing like taking your lead from those who are doing being haunted in the now.
As usual, I’ve relied on Dunstan Bruce (ex-Chumbawamba) to do the thinking in the now for me. I interviewed him as part of his visiting lecture for this year’s second year course 1984:Thatcher’s Britain (again).
Interrobang!? are Dunstan, and Harry from Chumbawamba and Griff from psychedelic rock band Regular Fries. The Interrobang, a combination of the exclamation mark and the question mark, is the grammatical equivalent of WTF? It challenges, questions, but it also exclaims. Interrobang !? don’t need to borrow resistant rituals from youth culture, they write, sing and shout about what it means to be turning fifty in the now. Haunting finds a way to take inspiration from faded youthful dreams, and of lost past successes and allows our past to unsettle and trouble the past rather than offer the warmth of nostalgia as a distraction from what is to be done. If we map the biographical ageing process onto a broader marker of historical continuity and change than Interrobang!? haunts the present. Interrobang!? are asking and answering an important question ‘How do I express anger in my fifties’ in the now?
Interview with Dunstan
DB: People go talk about 1976 as year zero as though there was nothing before that…. I don’t know why everybody is looking back to that era all time, but there is a thing from my point of view, in music where there seem to be a lot of bands around at the time in the 70s and early 80s who were saying something that was relevant or interesting or challenging and there doesn’t seem, to me, … that you can only find that sort of thing in underground subcultures now. I don’t see it in the mainstream, and I think what’s fascinating about the 70s and early 80s was that a lot of that stuff was mainstream and you were aware of it and people were quite happy to say stuff.
We were at Kate Tempest the other day at the Concorde and what was interesting was that she was saying stuff that could have come straight out of the 80s, but it was weird because I found it really rewarding to hear someone saying that to a new generation.
LR: She was quite uncertain about how to say it … even as a wordsmith and a poet, so there was a sense that there’s a new generation learning how to do it for themselves
DB: Is it just our generation? Maybe its just our generation that are looking back to that time, because that’s the time that we thought a lot of stuff was going on… its interesting watching those old episodes of Top of The Tops from the 70s and 80s. I had this idea that punk was huge and it was all over everything and you watch them episodes and it wasn’t at all. You watch all those episodes and you see who was in the charts… I thought we’d wiped all this out with punk.. but we hadn’t at all. Its still this monster rolling on?
LR: and what about old punks when they grow up?
DB: We’d just been talking about that. That was something that’s been a massive problem for me over the last few years. There’s been a massive thing about nostalgia and about bands reforming. For people of my generation that’s become the go-to gig, that everybody just goes to see Buzzcocks .. to me there’s too many bands reforming and they’re not doing stuff that says something new. They’re doing what they were doing in the 70s – which is fine up to a point, but I find that really frustrating, there’s not enough people talking to your generation [to the students], there’s not enough people talking to my generation, saying, something about our experience of the now. There’s a lot of people talking about their experience of the past. Or just regurgitating some old shit from forty years ago, I’ve sort of had enough of that really. So I got a new band together and I’m trying to do something that’s saying something to people of my generation. Like, what do you do when you’ve come through all that punk, all that rebellion, all that thing of being your generation when we thought we could change the world and that something amazing was going to happen. And then realising that that’s not going to happen and you think well right, but I’m still angry about stuff. I’ve still got something to say. How do I channel that?
What you do is put a vest on and some braces.
The importance of the mainstream matters here. Rather than settling in the authentic vs the mainstream binary, Chumbawamba grasped the opportunities offered to them by a surprising chart success with Tub Thumping. Subverting their profits in to activist groups, talking about anarchy on light entertainment shows, and taking money from multinationals who used their music in advertising and feeding it back to the same campaign groups challenging the multinational’s work practices. Unlike Crass, Chumbawamba thought it mattered to be heard in the mass market. Signing to EMI was a situtationist prank, but it was also the ultimate sell out in anarcho folk lore.
Alice Nutter explained the importance of being heard, leaving a trace in 1997 Alice now a writer, has always nailed it when it comes to what matters, when and why.
Alice: You see, that’s great, the idea that catalysts like Chumbawumba & .and the idea that we’re in people’s houses and on karaoke machines. Popular culture is what shaped us. Punk rock led us towards politics, punk rock led us towards music. Then you want to be part of popular culture. The fact that little children are singing our songs, just makes us think, “great, this is how we’ve always wanted to be.”
The children’s singalong, karaoke soundtracks and mobile phone ringtones of Tubthumping liberated ghosts to come and haunt us later. When we need them. So where does this get me and my ghosts? When they’re not being smug and showing off their badge collection, the ghosts of anarcho punk can do some of the work that we need doing. Post post-punk can be an arsey ghost, rather than a smug romanticised memory of youth. That is, as long as its not the ghost of a old punk at the bar banging on about Joe Strummer, but is a man, in his fifties, in a [vest, braces and] nice suite suit shouting through a megaphone.