Golden Age

Kraus, Chris. “Howl – Punk: the Twentieth Century’s Last Avant-Garde.” Times Literary Supplement, 12 January 2018 , p. 33

Composed of essays, interviews, memoirs and manifestos by veterans of London’s punk scene, Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix’s Punk is Dead is a nostalgic, intelligent homage to the brief, hazy era of “pure” London punk, before it was named, over-described and turned into another sub­cultural phenomenon. This golden age lasted somewhere between four and eighteen months, depending on who’s recollecting, although most agree that by 1978, it was over. Since punk began as a rebellion against boredom, the dead space of commercial music production and the empty hedonism born of the hippie era’s “great sexual revolution”, it was only a matter of time until it, too, would become corrupted. A yearning for its own prelapsarian state was built into punk’s ethos. As the punk musician-turned-philosopher Simon Critchley tells Gallix, “Because of the acute awareness of the fact that punk . . . would become a creature of the very music industry whose codes it subverted, we knew that it was going to be shortlived. And that was fine”. To Critchley, punk was most of all, lucid: a Protestant reformation without God: “We wanted to see reality for what it was in all its ugliness . . . and tear away the decadence and fallenness of the culture industry that surrounded us”.

. . . “Bands are necessarily approximations of the dreams that conjured them up”, Gallix writes in his essay “Unheard Melodies”. Punk is Dead shows the transmission of culture as a kind of lucid group dreaming. The accounts of its contributors capture the role that coincidence plays in history. Ideas can rarely be traced back to one person; they accrete and recur. . . .

Gallix is eloquent in his defence of nostalgia against the cult of an amnesiac future. Punk might be not only the last great subculture in the rock and roll mode, but the most analysed and documented. Nevertheless, art and cultural histories are always reductive, and, as he writes, “the past is subtly rewritten, every nuance gradually airbrushed out of the picture”. . . .

It Was Bound to Go Wrong

Walton, Stuart. “It Was Bound to Go Wrong.” Review 31, 24 January 2018:

… On the other hand, co-editor Andrew Gallix’s essay on the rootless Anglo-Swiss provocateur Arthur Cravan, a gifted self-mythologist who was ‘just too bad to be true’, is a pertinent contribution.

The same author’s ‘Unheard Melodies’, on bands who never got to record anything and, in some pristine cases, never even performed live, existing only as hypothetical propositions, but were nonetheless profoundly influential as such, is a fascinating study of cultural subversion all on its own.

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.