Melody Maker : 17 November 1984
"The Politics of Junk"
SPK bang on pieces of metal and go spot-welding. Lynden Barber wants to know why. Pictures by Andrew Catlin
The pop press is like Communist politics in the Thirties. One
minute's a friend of the Soviet Union and Moscow's telling German
reds it's Be Nice To a Nazi week, the next they're fighting it
out in the streets.
The important thing to remember is that the change is swift, total, and no-one is allowed to remember things were like before.
About two or three years ago the dominant pop press ideology stated that the smart thing to do was to turn away from the avant-garde and the independent fringes, soften the musical ardour and make an all-out attempt for the pop-charts. In 1984 SPK have just been hammered for doing exactly that. Huh?
"I don't think we've ever managed to fit in with whatever's supposed to be the trend at the time," says New Zealander Graeme Revell, SPK's spokeperson, tea-caddy basher and motivating force. "In some ways I'm a bit masochistic, 'cos I almost look at a trend and deliberately try and go against it, which is self-defeating in a way, but it's what keeps me interested. I'm really interested in situations which are extremely difficult."
Since nobody else is going to say it, I'll just have to politely point out that far from some cheap sell-out, SPK's current single "Junk Funk" is a fine pop record that represents a considerable improvement on the unlistenable muck they'd been spewing forth before. Starting in 1978 in Sydney, Australia, SPK showed promising beginnings with their garage electronic thrash EP "Mekano". Leaving the country soon afterwards they rapidly slid into an unlistenable mire of self-indulgent mewling, documented on such abominations as the LP "Leichenschrei" and 12 inch "Dekompositiones", but since it was fashionable to sit in squats listening to recordings of farts in a bucket at the time they got away with it, gaining kudos through their legitimate claim that they were early-comers in the metal-bonking boom.
Naturally they don't agree that their former unlistenable kick could be a little self-indulgent. "A lot of people didn't find it unlistenable," says Revell. "It was no cause or effect thing, but in pop music there's a hell of a lot of noise albums coming out now that just didn't exist at the end of the Seventies, early Eighties when we were going. Groups that were doing it to pave the way in certain senses. Where would American hip-hop be without European and English noise-making? It's all the same noises."
Unfortunately SPK have been unable to maintain the standard of the single on the rest of their new album, "Machine Age Voodoo", a fairly tiring summary of modern studio techniques that isn't helped by the lack of colour or projection from Chinese-born singer Sinan. What I'm interested in - as are most - is why they decided to make such a radical change. Last year's crass "Metal Dance" single drew the critical flak, with much suspicion of a cheap money-making scheme.
Revell speaks of their rejection of "an attitude of linear development" and praises their ability tho change styles, yet doesn't really get to the nitty-gritty.
When people do something that's going to net them more money there's often hypocrisy involved simply because they won't admit to wanting to increase their income. Accusing Revell and Sinan of only being in it for the money would only produce defensiveness. I tell them there's not necessarily anything wrong in wanting more cash if it means maintenance of musical principles as well. Would they like to earn more?
"Only to the extent it would finance the other projects we've got in the pipeline, and also we've got a young son who has to be fed somehow, I don't think he appreciates art for art's sake," answers Revell. "The other thing is, I got really tired of having to work with sub-standard equipment. that was very frustrating. But as for richness and fame, who cares?"
Sinan: "No, we don't want riches and fame, but I mean as you say, you've got to move on, so you can't live on the dole for the rest of your live."
Revell: "We did a good five years on the dole, that's about your dues, I think."
SPK's behaviour during the recent ICA Rock Week led to further howls of condemnation. Unfortunately I was absent, but the reports of their attitude that evening appalled me. Prevented by a GLC fire officer from including a smattering of spot-welding in their set, they played two numbers, refused to continue and apparently walked off in a tantrum, leaving an ugly scene to develop among the frustrated members of the audience.
"There's only one journalist bothered to come to us to get our side of the story," says Revell. "There's someone called Ted Mico on your paper who wrote the most ridiculous load of garbage. Anyway, this fire officer came along that we'd had at The Venue the year before. He grinned all over his face and said 'Hello, I know you, don't I?' So I said 'We've made all these precautions, we've tried to be quite reasonable about it'. He just said 'No'. Blank. There was no discussion whatsoever. I really thought that if we'd be just reduced to standing up there and going through the motions it would be like any other pop group, it would disappoint people who'd come to see SPK as much as it would not to play at all."
So wouldn't it have been easier to have asked the audience themselves?
There's a pregnant silence before Revell replies. "We did in a way. What most people were upset about was that the ICA took a long time in giving their money back, which we'd already negotiated would happen. The riot hting was not because we'd played 10 minutes, people kind of understood that, 'cos I did explain it twice, it was just that the ICA wouldn't hand over the bucks."
If that incident raised doubts, the events at a gig they played in Sydney last year provide an even more serious cause for concern, making their complaint that they are the innocent victims of a sustained campaign of harrassment from zealous municipal safety officers seem somewhat lacking.
Apparently during a bout of heckling from a couple of members of the audience Revell came down off the stage swinging a chain around. Reports stated that people had been hurt. I've spoken to people who were there who were horrified at what was going on. So?
"I'll show you... I don't really want to go into this, but..." Reveel stands up, takes off his shirt and shows off a wound inflicted by glases thrown at the stage at the previous night's appearance at the Camden Palace. "I'm the only f***ing person, who ever gets injured. There's 44 stitches in my arm from last night.
"In Australia I was doing glass percussion, which was oil-cans full of wine bottles and so on - which is quite a nice sound, actually - and has all this mosquito netting hooked up around the place. And part of what I'm interested in is primitive rituals. For example, have you seen those Leni Riefenstahl pictures of the Nuba? they hit each other on the head.
"In just about every primitive society there's like this visual display of violence which is an outlet for inter or intra-tribal tensions. Which means there's blood let and it actually halts any further spread of violence. the minute some blood appears in the Nuba ritual it's stopped.
"I consider that if I want to spill my own blood - and what happened was there were glasses all over the stage and I fell over and got quite badly cut up. I swung this chain around, which is pretty light, actually, and got down in the audience. It's all mock. And the thing is, when a strobe is going it looks much more active than it actually is, and what happened was that the blood from me got on a couple of people's faces, and then really reactionary types started writing up that this fascist flew into the audience and badly lacerated girls' faces and thing like that, which is utterly ridiculous."
Sinan: "In fact no-one in the audience was injured. the press just misrepresented it."
Revell: "People don't understand what ritual or metaphorical violence is. They see it and they think 'This really is dangerous'. And perhaps it's a little bit dangerous - 'Live Dangerously' isn't a bad motto - but we've never had anyone hurt at one of our shows."
It's as innocent as that. Phew! What a relief! Until I check the interview he did with a local journalist the day after the incident and find he said: "I just got really tired of people shouting stupid things, and got a little carried away, that's all." So who's doing the misrepresenting now?
As for the pictures of the Nuba taken by former Nazi film-maker Riefenstahl, US critic Susan Sontag puts the finger on this one: "In celebrating a society where the exhibition of physicall skill and courage and the victory of the common man over the weaker are, as she sees it, the unifying symbols of the common culture, Riefenstahl seems hardly to have modified the ideas of her Nazi films... Fascist aesthetics flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behaviour, extravagant effort and the endurance of pain."
When we turn to discuss the totalitarian imagery on their LP sleeve - Nuremburg-type podium swept by searchlights and a parody of a Red Chinese opera poster - Revell's explanations prove to be no less elaborate.
We started off with that idea cos I do like that stuff from the Thirties, and we looked at the posters and they always shoot from below for the heroic angle - which is after all what pop music is all about, that's what the stage is up there for. And what we're trying to say is that in the Thirties the socialists and the communists" (I think he means the fascists and the communists) "had exactly the same chic - they have exactly the same angles, the same banners the same architecture, everything's the same. It's all a way of impressing by means of spectacle. In fact it's not totalitarian, though people do associate it with totalitarianism."
I can forgive the historical inaccuracy - Red Chinese opera posters could not have been products of the Thirties, Mao Tse-Tung didn't proclaim the People's Republic of China until September 24, 1949 - but find it hard to believe group's are still flirting with totalitarian imagery so glibly.
By using this imagery doesn't it appear to many onlookers that SPK are condoning it?
"No. I don't think so. What it ought to do is people should look at the basis of it rather than have an instant memory of 'This is what Hitler did'. We saw a programme about a month ago, China was celebrating it's anniversary. What was the difference? There was no difference, there were the banners, the military going through the streets - this is the most left-wing regime on earth."
In point of fact even the most casual observer of Chinese politics must have noticed that the country has been marching staunchly to the right for years. "O Motherland O Motherland/You are our inspiration/Our bodies are the lifeblood of the nation" sings Sinan on the track "With Love From China". I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe they do mean all this ironically, but how is anyone supposed to know?
Irony, to work, must be clever; SPK have clearly yet to grasp this.
Arriving home I take another look at the album cover, realise ther's not a low angle to be found on it and remember something Revell had said near the beginning of the interview: "The big danger with pop music is over-claiming for it."
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