[Bring the Noise deleted scene #63]
THE MOST OVER-RATED SCENES/GENRES OF ALL TIME PART 2: THE MOD/SOULBOY CONTINUUM
from Unfaves 2001, Blissout
by Simon Reynolds
Thoughts prompted by three near-simultaneous irritations: seeing the video for Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" on VH1 Classic (Weller and Talbot as Tour De France cyclists); reading Kirk De Giorgio's Invisible Jukebox in the Wire; perusing the suspiciously dapper and small-faced Paul Gorman's In their Own Write, with its excessive number of quotes from Paolo "Cappucino Kid" Hewitt.
I'm using "mod" here to signify not so much a specific period in the Sixties, or even its revivals and explicit echoes, so much as a UK youth cultural continuum, a perennial space in the sociocultural field of possibilities. And it's something whose appeal almost entirely bypasses me; it consistently non-resonates. And obviously in this respect I'm just as much trapped in my own class identity (middle middle class, as opposed to lower middle class). What irks? Mod's non-Dionysian, neat-freak retentiveness? Its refusal of both "revolution" (mod is essentially about resignation: youth as brief burst of energy and hope before capitulation to the humdrum) and "bohemia" (which as someone wise said, basically replaces politics with art as solution to/salve for the contradictions of late capitalist society)?
The mod/soul-boy continuum occupies a thin strip of sociological terrain--basically suburban upper working class/lower middle class--and is defined on one side through its disdain for the "studenty" (that bedrock of all things "progressive", Floyd to Radiohead) and on the other through its recoiling from the base pleasures of the un-sussed plebs (your proper proletariat). Caught between these two equally unattractive prospects and with the dire fate of suburban mediocrity staring it in the face, Mod escapes England through a massive projection towards Black America (never, crucially, rock'n'roll America) and through its flirtations with European-ness. As per Style Council's Our Favorite Shop, what's imagined is a utopia of perfect consumption: transcendence achieved through the details of a lapel, the iconicity of a label.
At the core of the mod self-conception is the idea of being one of a select few white boys who truly understand black passion and black style, simply through strenuous self-education in all its crucial details. The original mods were at least dealing with contemporary Black American music, but by the Seventies, with Northern Soul, the mod continuum became increasingly and paradoxically opposed to Black Modernity--it was equally horrified by white misappropriations of black music and by black musician's own deviations from the true path.
For Energy Flash, I was interviewed by Robert Elms on his GLR show, and during a desultory interrogation, with one eye kept on the Test Match playing on a little TV above the studio console, the former doyen of the style bibles opined that as far as he was concerned, house and techno had been the death of the British working class's love affair with black dance music. Like everybody else from a certain mid-Eighties moment in style culture/London clubland, Elms seemed to have imagined that rare groove/"the jazz revival"/go-go should have just have extended itself in perpetuity: a Thousand Year Reich of refinement and righteousness.
Elms's inability to accept house and techno as "proper black music" (let alone all the things that followed like jungle and 2step), then gets weirdly echoed by your Terry Farley types who went a bit further than Elms, falling in love with deep house, but stops there. Read his house review column in Muzik and you sniff the tell-tale neo-mod whiff of "we are the custodians", signaled by phrases like "proper black dance music" and "this is real black house music for those who know". Then there's Kirk DeGiorgio with his historically confused insistence that Detroit techno came entirely out of black synth-exponents like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Bernie Worrell, and owed not one whit to Kraftwerk/New Order/Depeche. DeGiorgio operates some kind of web-site project dedicated to documenting early Seventies black music year by year down to every last record released--so far as he's barely got to 1971!.
I've strayed a bit far from mod here (DeGiorgio is probably as much a case of a jazz curator or Steve Barrow-style archivist type as anything...) but the syndrome is essentially the same: what typifies the mod/soul-boy mentality is this weird self-effacing relationship with black music, where the best one can aspire to is to emulate/simulate black music as closely as possible. These white people are continually complaining about other white people ruining black music, making it too "white boy."
Like the house bods referenced earlier, these guys always seemed destined to become curmudgeons, disenchanted by the direction that their beloved black music has gone. Because their attitude to black music is so reverential, conservationist, and purist, they cannot comprehend black musicians own impulses to be faithless and heretical, to miscegenate. Your actual black musicians, on the whole, give or take a few real cultural protectionist/Afrocentric/black power sorts, don't think like this: in fact they think as musicians first, responding to excellence wherever it comes from. The examples are too numerous: southern soul singers who loved the plaintiveness and everyman's-woes aspects of country, George Clinton loving the Beatles and Vanilla Fudge, Ice T's penchant for Phil fucking Collins and making bad hard rock records, jungle with people like Goldie being into The Stranglers, David Sylvian and PiL as much as Loose Ends, Maze, Marley Marl; Jeff Mills's digging post-DAF Euro Body Music and actually playing in an industrial band called Final Cut.
For your mod/soulboy types, this sort of swerve is a real headfuck. And so electro and the hard, drum-machine driven rap of the early Eighties totally wrongfooted the chaps at Echoes and Blues & Soul [supposedly they formed a--admittedly jokey organisation--called something like LADS, League Against Disco Shit if I recall rightly], and most of your style bible clubland guru types consistently backed the wrong horse, rallying to go-go or rare groove rather than rap or house. All hand-percussion and call-and-response, go-go corresponded to their received ideas of proper blackness; Troublefunk's shows in 1986 were wall-to-wall white hipster funkateers, barely a black face in sight.
Black music has an inherent mutational drive that is continually pushing it into directions that are "un-black"--in the process challenging and complicating the reified notions of blackness ("swing", "funky", "soulful", "warmth" etc) cherished by the white believers. (And sometimes the black believers too: in The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Nelson George's ideas lead him towards the paradox that, post-electro, the true conscientious custodians of black music, the people who really cherished and had a gut-understanding of its principles, were all white and mostly British: your George Michaels, Phil Collins, Daryl Halls,Steve Winwoods, Mick Hucknalls etc.) Time and time again, a younger, upstart generation of black musicians will find themselves attracted to some new white music and embrace its qualities (hard attack riffs, distortion, machinic angularity), and the result is the next quantum leap for black music. Time and time again, the white soulboys huddle in horror and disdain, holding tightly onto models of black innovation that have become essentially antique.
And here's the truly perturbing twist---quite often it's been the "pale theory boys", the studenty, art-school, pretentious twats that your mods and soul-boys love to mock--who are not only the first to grasp the new cutting edges of black music (I'm thinking here of your Cabs, New Orders, Mark Stewarts) but who even occasionally have reciprocal influence back on black music (DAF and Throbbing Gristle with the Chicago house pioneers; Pop Group deeply shaping members of Massive Attack, etc). Standing to one side of this fruitful dialectic of funklessness and refunktification, the mod/soulboy types condemn themselves to irrelevance and redundancy. Can you imagine any black musician being inspired by, or finding some re-deployable element worth stealing in, the music of Jamiroquai or the Style Council?