The end of year chart overdose time is over but I thought i'd sneak in, hours before we hit 2013 with mine. 2012 was a good year for music, probably better than 2011, but possibly not a completely vintage year that we'll look back on in a decade and rhapsodise about endlessly. Once again I over indulged on music both new and old (but new to me) and have a pile of albums that I still haven't had time to listen to properly. Still, I am joyful that so many people still want to issue new music or reissue lost gems on vinyl. I'm sure some people manage to make a living from it but it seems that most (like myself) put records out simply because they love doing it and are fortunate enough to be able to do this without the profit motive being too much of a concern. I seem to always pretty much break even each year on my releases but would keep doing it anyway up until the point where I was jeopardising being able to keep a roof over my head. It feels a little like cocking a (very small) snook at capitalism's imperative to always realise profits and commodify culture. This ties in nicely with another great passion of mine which is being an armchair critic of our current capitalist system, something that featured heavily in my reading habits in 2012 (Hey! I'm a fun guy, really).
Last year I posted a list of my favourite reading material of 2011, not because I'm necessarily a pretentious twat but because it appealed to me to do something a little different. This year I was inundated with requests to do it again (well, in truth one person asked me. Hello Linus), so here we go with a selection of books that shook (or mildly quivered) my world in 2012. They may or may not have been published this year but all of them found their way into my heart some time in 2012.
The Art of William S. Burroughs: Cut-ups, Cut-ins, Cut-outs
This book might have veered dangerously close to coffee table material but thankfully manages to avoid that trap as it's William S. Burroughs we are talking about here. I can't imagine having gone through life without being aware of him; he has been a towering influence and inspiration to me since I stumbled across him in an NME article at the age of 15 and he went on to open my mind to new ideas, thought processes and ways of looking at the world. He also has one of the most listenable and distinctive voices I have ever heard; I could happily listen to recordings of him talking all day long. This book contains a series of interviews with him as well as a compendium of his artwork, collages, cut-ups, scrapbooks, photographs, films, ephemera and paintings. The perfect present for any Burroughs fiend I'd say.
Andy Roberts - Albion Dreaming : A Popular history of LSD in Britain
I used to live with a (still very) dear friend who traveled to Basel to attend Albert Hofmann's 100th birthday party in 2006. He told me a Hofmann anecdote from the party that crops up in this book. Hofmann, still mentally very alert at 100 makes his way to the stage, wobbles a little bit, steadies himself with his stick and then turns to his audience and says "I'm sorry for being a little unsteady but I must remind myself that I'm no longer in my nineties". LSD was first synthesised by Hofmann in 1938 but wasn't discovered to contain psychedelic qualities until 1943, at the same time as some of the world's greatest scientists were developing the atomic bomb. Perhaps the intuition that had led Hofmann to think his previously synthesised discovery required further investigation was the cosmos balancing out the creation of the ultimate bomb of destruction with the ultimate mind bomb?
LSD has many associations with the United States; from CIA experiments to Timothy Leary's evangelising of it to hippies melting their heads in the summer of love. This book tries to redress the balance by presenting a psychedelic history of Britain and explores its use in psychotherapy (involving figures such as the comedian Frankie Howerd and actor Sean Connery!), the psychedelic freak scene in 1960s London, free festivals and on into Operation Julie, an infamous police raid on a Welsh LSD lab in the 1970s, and beyond. I loved every page of it.
Qiu Xiaolong - The Mao Case
I used to be an avid fiction reader but in the last few years this passion seem to have tailed off. I think this is partly due to going through an information junkie phase and also because I have developed a habit of having multiple books on the go at any one time, delving in and out and going back to them over a prolonged period of time until I have finished them. This kind of reading behaviour isn't so suited to reading fiction. My mother in law gave me this book and I took it with me on a trip to do a gig and had finished it by the time I got back. I hadn't expected too much from it as crime fiction was never something I was big on, but once I got to grips with the somewhat poetical style, I was smitten. It is a fascinating look into the Chinese mindset and a thinly veiled critique of both the Mao era and China's continued fixation with, and love of the man who either directly, or through hugely ill advised policies was responsible for the deaths of countless millions of Chinese. A good story too.
Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung aka The Little Red Book
After reading the "Mao Case" I dug this out that I picked up in Shanghai along with a load of other Mao era kitsch I bought to keep the load of Soviet era kitsch I already owned company. Apparently between 1 and 6 billion copies of this have been printed (the figures are very vague!). Taking the lower figure, only The Bible has been printed more and taking the higher figure, it is by far the most printed book in the history of humanity. It could be argued that the existence of this book is more important than its contents but the contents definitely help one to get a better perspective on the Chinese world view, something we in the West are mainly either completely oblivious to or put down in immensely patronising terms. Mao has a lot of cool quotes - "Women hold up half the sky" is a particular favourite and this one hits the nail on the head - "Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed". But, like all dictators he was a brutal sociopath responsible for untold death and misery, yet in China remains a much revered and loved icon.
Charles Mingus - Beneath The Underdog
My friend Leon lent me this years ago. Lending books is perilous as 8 times out of 10 they never get given back (if the person who has my copy of Lloyd Bradley's "Bass Culture" is reading this, I still want it back!) Anyway, Leon, if you ever read this I promise I will return this to you one day. This was on my "to read" pile for eons but I found myself listening to a lot of Mingus' music this year so I dug it out. If I should ever, God forbid, find myself incapacitated some day, someone please come and play some Mingus records to me as I'm sure they'll reach the depths of my consciousness and soothe my inner mind. Surprisingly his autobiography doesn't mention his music too much and concentrates on his sexual prowess (which he goes on about a little too much) and spirituality and family. He was patently a bit of a nutter (in a good way) but he was an excellent and endlessly entertaining writer too.
Phil Harding - PWL From the Factory Floor
I felt like i had a fairly productive 2012. I remixed 20 different artists, produced a couple more, made a handful of 12" singles and managed to release a few other artist's records on my label. At the end of Phil Harding's book about his time at PWL there is a discography that makes me realise I did in a year what he used to manage in about a month; PWL really was a factory. I have little interest in PWL or Stock Aitken and Waterman but always enjoy reading about any aspect of the history of music and Phil Harding was / is a prodigious talent who pushed the frontiers of music technology and did some phenomenal mixes along the way. He is a big part of the reason Nitzer Ebb's records still sound so good when played in discotheques.
Despite having zero affinity with most of the music he worked on and talks about, this was a fascinating and compelling insight into one of Britain's most successful ever labels and the production processes behind it. It left me also having to grudgingly admit that Pete Waterman is probably a genius.
Rosa Luxemburg - The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg
Along with Eugene V. Debs and Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxemburg is one of my heroes of the early 20th Century. An internationalist brutally clubbed to death by German nationalists in 1919, she is responsible for one of my all time favourite quotes : "Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently". Unlike myself, Ms. Luxemburg got out of her armchair and ultimately dedicated her life to positive change in this world. She formulated ideas and arguments that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago and these letters are a poignant and insightful window into her inner world.
Grace Lee Boggs - Living for Change: An Autobiography
I first came across Grace Lee Boggs while watching the Julian Temple documentary "Requiem for Detroit" about the decline and industrial collapse of America's motor city. I was enchanted and entranced by this (now 95 years old and still very active) lifelong social activist and feminist who spoke so eloquently, positively and powerfully. This autobiography charts her life as a radical activist through the political turmoils of 20th century America and into our current millennium. Also recommended is her book (written at the age of 94); "The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century".
MacKenzie Wark - The Beach Beneath The Street
Something else I discovered and got into as a teenager was Situationism. I bought Guy Debord's "Society Of The Spectacle" and veered form revelatory euphoria to being completely stumped by the often impenetrable text, coming to the conclusion that my brain simply wasn't yet developed enough to fully process it. I tried again a few years ago and found it even more impenetrable than the first time and realised that my brain either switches off if text is too dense for it to cope with, or more likely is destined to never fully develop. (i.e. I'm a bit thick).
Over the years I've read several book about Situationism hoping for further enlightenment. This book broadens the scope to take in a far wider cast of characters than Debord & co including dissolute Glasgow writer Alexander Trocchi and while I found myself again confronted by some impenetrable text it brought home that even though they disbanded in 1972, how prescient a lot of Situationist thought was (including envisioning a Govt. free internet long before anyone else had thought of it). They also had a profound influence on the next lot I write about.
Coincidentally, while writing this, I happened to read an article in The Guardian that quotes Debord and is prophetically relevant to our current times - "Consumers are filled with religious fervour for the sovereign freedom of commodities whose use has become an end in itself. The proliferation of faddish gadgets reflects the fact that as the mass of commodities becomes increasingly absurd, absurdity itself becomes a commodity. All this is useful for only one purpose: producing habitual submission." Viva Situationism!
The Invisible Committee - The Coming Insurrection
Hyped as the most radical book of the 21st Century so far, the writers of this small book (The Invisible Committee, also known as The Tarnac 9) are currently awaiting trial in France in relation to a series of instances of direct action. This book, a tract that hypothesises the "imminent collapse of capitalist culture" is a surprisingly easy read and a thoughtful critique, although, in my opinion it fails to take in the full global perspective, but it is nonetheless thoroughly thought provoking. The second half of the book (optimistically) proposes that the youth will rise up and there will be a breakdown in the modern social order which could give rise to partial insurrectionary situations.
Will the youth rise up? I am fairly cynical about that but more to the point am vehemently anti insurrection or (violent) revolution. Has there ever been a violent revolution that didn't cause as much misery as it alleviated (usually to the very people the revolution is purported to be benefitting)? Those who tend to gain control after revolutions almost always exhibit all the negative characteristics most leaders seem to have - monomaniacal, sociopathic, power hungry control freaks and soon impose their own detrimental doctrine on the "people". Give me a revolution of thought or a Velvet revolution over insurrection any day of the week (though it would probably be a very long week before even that is likely to happen).
Richard Fairfield & Timothy Miller - The Modern Utopian: Alternative Communities of the '60s and '70s
I'm not a Utopian. I don't know what i am but I know I'm struggling to avoid aligning myself to any ideology. I'm not even sure I'm for moving beyond capitalism, per se. if Karl Marx was alive and writing now, I'm not sure he would be either as even in his time he could see that capitalism was capable of achieving some impressive feats. It is certainly responsible for increasing the living standards of hundreds of millions of people - read Robert Tressell's "The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists" for a terrifying insight into what life as a working man in The British Isles was like 100 years ago. But, our current form of capitalism is corrupt, dangerously skewed and manipulated to favour the rich and powerful and leaves the majority of this planet's population living in abject poverty as we rape their resources to feed our over indulgent Western lifestyles. The free market is a myth. The market is rigorously controlled and abused by governments and corporations and we live at the whim and caprice of the bloodsucking financial institutions. We all feel mostly powerless to enforce change and have become so beholden to our gadgets and (over) consumption that most of us will continue to blithely go along with the status quo. Consuming less and aiming for negative economic growth seems the only sane way forward but we are all brainwashed to think this is wrong and that endless growth is sustainable. Don't think about the future, don't think about future generations; just shop, shop, shop and keep shopping until we all fall off the fiscal edge of the planet.
Is the alternative to drop out and set up our own communities (which is the premise of this book)? Possibly, possibly not, but back in the 60s and 70s a lot of people did and many quietly and without fanfare continue to do so. Sometimes it feels like the only balanced option but I like living in the real world (for all its myriad faults). Reading this did however make me revisit Alduous Huxley's "Island" for the first time in many a moon. Exactly 50 years on from first publication it is still an inspiring masterpiece from a man who spent his life looking for the answers to questions few of us dare to ponder.
JD Twitch 31/12/2012