All the Latest

My piece on electronic literature appeared today in the Guardian books blog. Here’s an extract:

“When I first ventured online, the internet struck me as the last word in literary experimentation. I was in good company. For Kathy Acker, and other pioneers who were already pushing the envelope on papyrus, cyberspace (copyright William Gibson) was truly the final frontier. The very first novel to be serialised online — Douglas Anthony Cooper’s Delirium (1994) — made full use of the new medium by allowing readers to navigate between four parallel plotlines. Geoff Ryman’s 253, first posted in 1996, became an instant hypertext classic. A year later, Mark Amerika’s Grammatron transcended the fledgling genre by turning it into a multimedia extravaganza. This, I believe, was a crucial turning point. The brief alliance between literati and digerati was severed: groundbreaking electronic fiction would now be subsumed into the art world or relegated to the academic margins. The subsequent blogging revolution shifted the focus further away from web-based writing to news coverage of dead-tree tomes, thus adding yet another layer of commentary to the ‘mandarin madness of secondary discourse’ George Steiner had long been lamenting….”

More here.

All the Latest

My blog on spam lit was published today by Guardian Unlimited:

“Here’s what happened. In order to bypass increasingly efficient filters, spammers began embedding blocks of text — often pilfered from great literary works via Project Gutenberg — in their junk mail. Techniques like the Dissociated Press algorithm were employed to randomly generate new, essentially meaningless texts or text collages (“word salads”) so that each message would seem unique. Lee Ranaldo has compared the outcome to a “dictionary exploded”. Another early aficionado, Ben Myers, observed that “it was as if the text had somehow been remixed and shat out down the wires of modernity”. “Spam Lit”, as Jesse Glass dubbed it in 2002, uncannily mirrored bona fide literary experiments that were taking place simultaneously: Jeff Noon‘s exploration — through textual sampling and remixing — of “metamorphiction” in Cobralingus; Jeff Harrison‘s aleatoric poems based on Markov chains; or even Kenji Siratori‘s baffling cyber-gibberish”.

More here.

The Fascination of Phantom Bands

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Here’s a slightly longer version of the piece published by the Guardian on 27 December 2007:

The Fascination of Phantom Bands

Remember that time you opened the NME and chanced upon a picture of The Perfect Band? The one that was going to save your life? And then you read that they sounded like the roar on the other side of silence — only better? And then you rushed out the next day to buy their single (a limited pressing on 4’33” Records) but it had already sold out? And then you had to wait several long months for their eagerly-anticipated debut album that turned out to be…well…just ok? Tired of musicians who fail to live up to their hairstyles? Why not dance to the spirit ditties of no tone?

You see, when it comes to music, I take my cue from Keats: heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter, hence my infatuation with L.U.V. or the Flowers of Romance. Even the greatest bands are mere approximations of the impossible dreams that conjured them up in the first place. However brilliant The Clash or The Smiths may have been, they often fell short of their own Platonic Ideal. More recently, The Libertines‘ music never did justice to the Arcadian rhetoric that made them so damn exciting.

Releasing a record is, ipso facto, a compromise whereas an unreleased (preferably unrecorded and strictly imaginary) record remains pure potentiality. In the final analysis, music can never compete with the silence it comes from and returns to — the silence inhabited by phantom bands.

In Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds defines phantom bands as ones that exist “mostly as a figment of bragging and gossip”. The archetype is Liverpool’s The Nova Mob which included Julian Cope, Pete Wylie and Budgie. Cope explains that they had decided to form a purely conceptual group “that didn’t make music at all” but simply sat in cafés discussing imaginary songs — a practice they called “rehearsing”. Of course, they eventually went and spoilt it all by playing a disastrous headline gig at Eric’s following which they did the honourable thing and disbanded. Others, though, never sold out.

Designed to subvert showbiz from the inside, the proto-Pistols Chris Gray Band never existed beyond a few daubings in the vicinity of Victoria Coach Station. What they would have sounded like is anybody’s guess, but in my mind’s ear they are a gloriously shambolic cross between T.Rex and the MC5.

Talking of glammed-up rabble-rousers, no survey of phantom bands would be complete without a mention of London SS — probably the most influential group never to have released a record or played a single gig. Revolving around Mick Jones and Tony James (who are reunited today), their short existence was one long audition that brought together most of the major players on the future London punk scene. Legend has it that a demo tape exists somewhere, but the two founders have vowed, in true phantom band style, never to release it. Don’t you just wish more musicans followed their example? No Music Day would never sound the same again.

****

Here is the version that appeared in Guardian Unlimited:

The Fascination of Phantom Bands

From a ghostly Sex Pistols’ forerunner to Julian Cope’s conceptual collective, some of the greatest groups of all time were the ones that never happened

Julian Cope

Remember that time you opened the NME and chanced upon a picture of The Perfect Band? The one that was going to save your life? And then you read that they sounded like the roar on the other side of silence – only better? And then you rushed out the next day to buy their single (a limited pressing on 4’33” Records) which had already sold out? And then you had to wait several long months for their eagerly-anticipated debut album that turned out to be … well … just OK?

If this sounds familiar — if you’re tired of musicians who fail to live up to their hairstyles – why not dance to the spirit ditties of no tone? In other words, when it comes to music, I take my cue from Keats: heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. Hence my infatuation with phantom bands, such as L.U.V. or the Flowers of Romance. The appeal of semi-real or imagined groups is obvious, as even the greatest bands are mere approximations of the dreams that conjured them up in the first place. However brilliant the Clash or the Smiths may have been, they often fell short of their own Platonic Ideal. More recently, the Libertines‘ music never did justice to the Arcadian rhetoric that made them so damn exciting.

In Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds defines phantom bands as ones that exist “mostly as a figment of bragging and gossip”. The archetype is Liverpool’s the Nova Mob, which included Julian Cope, Pete Wylie and Budgie. Cope explained that they had decided to form a purely conceptual group “that didn’t make music at all” but simply sat in cafés discussing imaginary songs – a practice they called “rehearsing”. Of course, they eventually went and spoilt it all by playing a disastrous headline gig at Eric’s, following which they did the honourable thing and disbanded. Others, though, never sold out.

Designed to subvert showbiz from the inside, the proto-Pistols Chris Gray Band never existed beyond a few daubings in the vicinity of Victoria Coach Station. What they would have sounded like is anybody’s guess, but in my mind they are a gloriously shambolic cross between T Rex and the MC5.

Talking of glammed-up rabble-rousers, no survey of phantom bands would be complete without a mention of London SS — probably the most influential group never to have released a record or played a single gig. Revolving around Mick Jones and Tony James (who are reunited today), their short existence was one long audition that brought together most of the major players on the future London punk scene. Legend has it that a demo tape exists somewhere, but the two founders have vowed, in true phantom band style, never to release it. Don’t you just wish more musicans did the same? No Music Day would never sound the same again.