Perfect Sound Forever

'90's Noise

Part 4 of 4 by G.E. Light

Works Cited



1 The material in this essay has taken many forms over the period of its gestation. It began as an attempt to meld a show review of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless tour date in San Francisco to 25 minutes of a backstage pre-show interview I conducted with Kevin Shields in late 1992 or early 1993. His answers to most questions were thoughtful, lengthy, and articulate, running against the preconceived notion of him as the mad stoner genius heir to the likes of Julian Cope and Syd Barrett. As that developed, it became apparent I was back to an old undergrad bugaboo, the proper role of generic distinctions in criticism.

Taking off from Isaiah Berlin's exposition on Archilocus' fox and hedgehog, or what my friend John G. Norman calls the two basic types of intellectuals: splitters and lumpers, I decided to write a truly radical academic piece which would not only call into question the utility of extremely precise generic distinctions which don't allow for drift, indeterminancy, intertextuality, jouissance, différance, and the like but also would hopefully prove to be stylistically foxy. Furthermore, the text itself would demonstrate this issue by dealing with both obscurantist (at least to a mainstream academic audience on the whole) indie rock as well as highly canonical Highbrow English literature (Renaissance and Romantic writers were my exemplars).

Too often students are taught things like the following restrictive phrase as THE TRUTH: Keats' 'On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer' 'is a Petrarchan sonnet, divided into an octave and a sestet' ( Of course, the volta doesn't necessarily occur at line 9. The "Yet" starting line 7 really begins the turn in the poem's sentiments. Furthermore, reading deeper into Keats' oeuvre, you discover he experimented over and over again with melding Italianate and English traits in his fine sonnets. This is just one relatively minor example of what has become, I think, a national scandal: an attempt to dumb down intellectual pursuits to absolute right and wrong answers, to make knowledge beholden to computer-graded national exams under the 'compassionate' rhetoric of not leaving anyone behind. I for one have seen enough. The response to my 'radical' essay from the journal I sent it to was simple enough: 'What is this and why are you writing about literature and music together? Please go away.' Fair enough, I guess.

So for the last decade or so, I refocused the efforts of this essay on solely making my larger point by taking a motley crew of bands from a more of less synchronic moment and arguing that they represented a trend that could not be understood in the traditional terms of genre theory. If you will pardon a bad neologism, this is my new model lumpennoiseocracy.

2 Within music, that can be understood in a traditionally masculinized rock 'n' roll context (and thus skipping over much glam rock of the early 1970's), such moves seem to originate within punk's repudiation of its forefathers (although arguably disco got there first), and particularly the sexually ambiguous nature of its clothing (see especially Hebdige pp. 100–12), and later more specifically within America, in the straight edge movement, where a band like Minor Threat could produce three chord records which proclaim '(I) Don't smoke / Don't drink / Don't fuck' ("Out of Step"). Recently in live shows, Bob Pollard gives a clinic on how to do lo-fi indie rock, while ironically preening as if he were Tom Berenger playing the lead in a Roger Daltrey biopic-- complete with shoulder-high leg kicks, back-to-back straddling with both guitarists, and swinging microphone helicopter moves (Birmingham; -- click on 'Concert Photos' under 'The Band'). Recent shows often close with a cover of "Baba O'Riley" (Athens, Memphis, Dayton). For more on noise specific gestures with an emphasis on My Bloody Valentine, see Sangild (2004), esp. Section 4.3.

3 How many more times will 'The Who' have another final reunion show? At least, the Eagles were ironically self-deprecating in titling their reunion tour 'Hell Freezes Over' as a riposte to their own 'youthful' enthusiasms, unlike Pete Townsend's apparent disavowal of 'Hope I die before I get old'-- fat chance, Mr. Faber& Faber poetry editor! See Gardner.

4 There's a dual point here. Stylistically, these student cohorts change media from LP's to CDs. Substantively, the records/CDs one could expect the average college student to own were quite similar through the '70's and '80's but that began to change in the '90's, despite the tyranny of AOR radio and Baby Boomer demographic marketing power. Lest we be pleased too much with this trend, remember that at Mississippi State University, the two most popular bands are bland 3rd generation Dead wannabes: The Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic

5 When Billboard started using point-of-sale information, their charts changed forever. Immediately, hard rock/grunge and rap came to dominate the charts. Perhaps Nirvana might not have become the cultural phenomenon they did without the chart topping success of Nevermind, which caused AOR to play them in heavy rotation.

6 There are obvious intersections between the music I'm talking about and what Simon Reynolds has dubbed "post-rock" (see Wire #123). I hope this essay will make the differences apparent as well.

7 To get this argument, play Never Mind the Bollocks against any one of the following generic records: Deep Purple, Machine Head; T. Rex's eponymous debut; Black Sabbath, Paranoid; or the MC5, Kick out the Jams. If you can isolate Johnny Rotten's vocal hysterics, you're left with pretty plain power rock dynamics. In Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds makes a very similar point:

Rottens lyrics and vocals were incendiary, but Steve Jones fat guitar sound and Chris Thomas's superb production—thickly layered, glossy, well organized —added up to a disconcertingly orthodox hard rock that contradicted the group's reputation for chaos and ineptitude.
(2006, p 17).
8 In Music for Pleasure, Simon Frith explains this phenomenon with respect to mid-1980's indie rock icons Hüsker Dü and the Jesus and Mary Chain:
From the start, American hardcore musicians were formalists... more enraged by the constrictions of pop music itself. Hüsker Dü's cover versions--"Ticket to Ride," "Eight Miles High"--reinterpret psychedelic pop as music in the throes of collapse. The tunes are deconstructed, turned into a grinding noise--which is how this noise was originally heard live anyway. To get the argument, play The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl (the screaming never stops) against Hüsker Dü's Flip Your Wig or the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy.
(1996, pp. 92)
I believe this argument can be extended in a technological fashion to include listening to classic 1960's pop on distorted AM wavebands, the way in which most Westerners first experienced this music. Drive under any overpass and your amplitude's gone. Regular FM broadcasts came to BBC1 in the late 1970's. In my hometown of Tallahassee, FL, we listened to AM radio almost exclusively well into the mid 1970's, about the release of FM--a mediocre movie and even worse soundtrack, which I'm sure I dug at the time. Kevin Shields clinches my point:
When I first listened to him [BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel], in Ireland - and I've still got loads of tapes of that music - the reception wasn't very good and there was all this phasing, it made music sound much weirder than it was. Did that have an effect on me? That I heard all this great British music through distortion and phase? Very possibly
9 To avoid confusion I do not mean Sangild's 'Extreme, Minimal Noise' (2004, Section 4.4), although such a term might apply to their live finale of 'You Made Me Realise' on the Loveless tour, about which more anon.

10 According to Alan McGee, 'In the meantime he's taken £500,000, I think, off Island, approximately a quarter of a million off EMI Publishing and approximately a quarter of a million off Warner Brothers in America. And none of them have ever heard one piece of music' (Hewittt 118). Unfortunately, Shields has stayed true to form. He has been the studio for almost six years with little to show for MBV other than a version of "Map Ref 41?N 93?W" for the Wire Tribute album Whore. Bandmate Debbie Goodge has joined the indie supergroup Snowpony. Colm O'Coisig drums for the Warm Inventions on Hope Sandoval's on releases in 2000 and 2001. As of February 4, 1999, Shields told New Musical Express a new album was 'unlikely.' However, Shields has been busy working with other artists as guitarist for hire and remixer, most notably Primal Scream, for whom he produced the 'MBV Arkestra' remix of "If The Move Kill 'Em" (itself a nice intertextual nod to the late legendary Sun Ra mediated I suspect through Afrika Bambaataa). Since then Shield has toured and worked further with Primal Scream, worked with J. Masci & the Fog and guested on a Manic Street Preachers disc.

11 One should be wary of such triumphalist ex post facto speculations, however psychologically appropriate they might appear. On the night of February 2, 1992, Kevin Shields gave no indication whatsoever that MBV was on its last legs. In fact, he exhorted American fans to 'Come and see us again if you don't think we're any good live cuz... until we really have control over our whole sound... our whole production I can't really vouch for it... We've finally got that in England.' We're still waiting for the promised box set of MBV.

12 For more on the phenomenon or art school students and rock, see Frith, Art into Pop. A special notice given my topic needs to go to the constellation of art school based bands in the Leeds of the mid 1970s including The Mekons, Gang of Four, Delta 5 and Mancunian interlopers The Fall, who played early gigs at Leeds Polytechnic and the Fan Club before making a 17 March 1981 debut at Riley Smith Hall, Leeds University ( Blame it on T.J. Clark and the Situationists, if you must.

13 Apparently Albini really despises Weasel Walter and the Luttenbachers. On his infamous Crap or Not Crap game at the Electrical Audio forum, he has posted the following:

I don't know why, because I should like it very much based on any description of it, but I have always hated the Flying Luttenbachers, on every exposure. I have actually hated almost everything I've ever been exposed to that Weasel Walter has done.

There was this magazine, Lumpen, which embodied a kind of snotty "look at me!" prankless-pranksterism that I detested immediately. Almost every Weasel Walter enterprise has smacked of this Lumpen-ish self-obsession, this irritant-for-the-sake-of-irritation... I guess you'd have to know what I'm talking about to know what I'm talking about.

Anyway, crap.


steve albini
Electrical Audio
sa at electrical dot com


14 This was the universal sentiment of my KZSU compadres about this joint tour (cf Noise e-list library re: last Fugazi/Ex joint tour).

15 Unfortunately, this total football, while beautiful to watch, has never grabbed the ultimate prize; in its first inception in 1974, the Dutch rampaged with an 8-0 whitewash through the Group A semifinals, defeating East Germany and the cup holders Brazil 2-0 and comprehensively thumping Argentina 4-0, who would prove their nemesis in four years time. In its most recent inception, Holland thrashed Yugoslavia 6-1 in the 2000 European Cup quarterfinal with the tourney's finest display of football only to falter again in the semifinal, falling to the Italian catenaccio.

16 Since the publication of Wolk's review, The Buzzcocks, The Fleshtones, Gang of Four, Mission of Burma, Wire, and The Undertones all seem to have met his challenge.

17 For the hairsplitters amongst you who want to know about the variety of noise genres, start with Wikipedia's entry on Noise Music ( and follow the various links to things like 'Dark Ambient,' 'Japanoise,' 'Noise Rock,' 'Power Noise,' and 'Onkyo.' Within Japanoise, there is a wide variety of styles and two city-based camps: Osaka around eYe, the Boredoms, and Alchemy records and Tokyo around Merzbow, Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M, and the Off Site club.

18 For brevity's sake I will just call him eYe throughout this essay.

19 With a productive band like Boredoms, I have neither the time nor the money to pursue their catalogue in any kind of complete fashion. I propose covering those discs most familiar to a generally well educated audience. The web provides innumerable sources to hunt down every scrap of their recorded output and that of the multitudinous side projects. As David Gedge would say 'Go Out And Get 'Em Boy!' Of course, the DIY aesthetic and artist-run and -owned labels not only link several of the bands considered herein but also tie them back to the earlier immediate postpunk era as recently chronicled by Simon Reynolds (2006, pp. 27–8, 249, 318–9, and passim).

20 As I was finishing up the final edits of this essay, I came across Torben Sengild's "The Aesthetics of Noise" and was heartened to find a fellow traveler whose approach was quite similar to my own down to the fact that we both titled our final section the same thing. Well O.K., he appends a final paragraph cum Miles Davis coda: 'So what?' I was also intrigued by the fact that he believes that by '1991 the development of guitar noise seemed to come to an end, culminating with My Bloody Valentine's Loveless as a worthy climax' (p. 13), whereas my story begins at the same moment and tweaks it to look forward and certainly there's no denying that the Flying Luttenbachers at least in the Revenge-phase are a guitar noise band primarily.

While I'm at it, I should also say a word or two about Mark Sinker. What exactly to make of his extension of Lester Bang's essay on 'horrible noise' as well as of his own earlier Wire #211 piece in this 'Director's Cut"? I really don't know. But I did want to acknowledge its existence and that it provided grist for the mill in an earlier overhauling of my own efforts on the subject.

21 For a prehistory of the art of noises, see Kahn, pp. 56–9.

22 The definitive discussion of the entire building and its concomitant sub-projects is Treib who settles any and all mistakes and/or disagreements of fact between the narrative accounts of the "Poème électronique" in Prendergast and Toop. My details concerning the piece and project are all taken from Treib, pp. 98–213.

23 Historically, my conceptualization of '90's noise draws on earlier musical movements. In the U.S. from the late 1970's, I would call to attention the variety of improvisational styles denoted variously as either "horrible noise" (Bangs p. 301, discography pp. 302–4) or "skronk" (as christened by Robert Christgau). In the U.K., Chris Cutler finds the creation of a popular "noise" even earlier in the British psychedelia of 1967 as opposed to the "relaxed Californian hedonism" (p. 118). In fact, he traces the whole movement back to Cliff Richard's backing band! "The Shadows, The Yardbirds, The Who, The Pink Floyd; an unbroken line of uniquely British development" (p. 117). Cutler's narrative has a melancholy end in 1968 as "this flowering of experimental music came and went with frightening speed" (p. 120).

24 My point here is quite similar to one made in Jason Gross's 2003 EMP Pop Conference talk, 'Between a Rock and an Experimental Place' later presented in the April 2004 issue of Perfect Sound Forever ( To wit

As I myself look over numerous examples of recent appropriations and convergences of rock and avant music, I come to one inescapable conclusion—with the exception of avant ideas/themes applied to rock music (and not vice versa), the idea of the convergence itself seems much more aesthetically pleasing than the actual execution of it.

25 This is another (I hope not incompatible) potential solution to the problem David Grubbs (2003) describes as the vexed relationship between originally 1960s musical inventiveness and the neo-avant gardes, which he resolves through the medium of recording.

26 I thought long and hard about whether to include Fugazi as a case study in this essay, but decided that they were both well known enough and diverged from their noisier 1980's version as the decade rolled along that I could afford merely to name check them occasionally. Finally, they would probably merit an entire article of their own due to their stature and prolific nature. Ditto for Sonic Youth. For the latter, see esp. Cunningham and Pisaro. 27 In a Powell' author interview with Dave Weich, Greil Marcus has a telling anecdote about Neil Young from John Irving that explains his continued vitality:

He [Irving] was talking about Neil Young and Bob Dylan and why they were heroes of his. He said, 'Because they're not afraid to make fools of themselves, and you have to be able to do that.' I didn't quite get it then, in '78 or whenever it was, but for a critic or any person who does his or her work in public, to take the stance of You can't fool me and to always be careful not to be fooled, to always be one step ahead, to always be a figure of good judgment and probity, is absolute death. It's the worst thing you can do.
28 Arc is now available for stand alone purchase as Reprise 26769–2.

29 My formulation arrived at independently is similar to David Cunningham's notion that 'noise cannot -- in this, its fullest critical sense — be contained by any idea of "style" or "genre"' (p. 5)

30 For a much more theorized notion of noise as a positive force, see Hellie, esp. 506. I also must mention the fine work presented at the recent London-based NOISETHEORYNOISE conferences, which I was unfortunately unable to attend.

31 Again it would appear Sangild and I agree. He speaks of noise as a kind of chaos following Michel Serres but is quick to point out that "Serres does not use the word chaos, lest being associated with chaos theory" (2006, p. 30). It is, however, far less clear where Sangild himself stands on such a connection. For more about chaos theory and culture, see Hayles (1990), Hayles (1991), and (Perloff and Junkerman, pp. 226–41).

32 There is a burgeoning amount of wonderful recent scholarship on the history of recording and producing technologies, but alas this essay is over, so I suggest you start with the following: Bull & Back, Chanan, Cox & Warner, Eisenberg, Kahn (1994), Katz, Sterne, Thompson, Van Assche, and Young. Apologies to any worthy author I have slighted in this admittedly incomplete list.

33 Proving there's almost nothing new under the sun, Herbert Lindenberger, in discussing John Cage's Europeras, describes the new aesthetic they propose: "Once we view the work as something to be tinkered with--whether by its maker or its consumers--it loses whatever autonomy it had within the terms of the older aesthetic, and, in effect, comes to "spill over," as it were into the everyday world' (Perloff and Junkerman, p. 157).

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