Can Radio be Revolutionary?
Some Notes on Late Lunch with Out to Lunch
By W. C. Bamberger
Is there anywhere we can go on the radio band to avoid the prevalent slide toward trivialization? The tone of National Public Radio, self-proclaimed home of intelligent content, is steadily morphing into that of morning radio ninnydom, while rock and hip-hop radio continues to devolve toward something frighteningly close to the Top 40 format that rose up out of Omaha in 1949 and homogenized the stations of my early teens. Independent stations offer some hope. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, near where I live, there is a university student-run station (WCBN, 88.3 FM) that plays everything from Middle Eastern Pop to Sun Ra, Punk to Process Music--at times with different recordings playing simultaneously over the two stereo channels. The station has a broadcast range of about a dozen miles, with my town being in the picket-fencing penumbra, but I listen online as often as I can. In general, the on-air staff, whatever their vocal style of choice, adopt a stance of passivity, an attitude of "This music is great, I'm going to put it on and let it engage you, then I'll play you something else." That is, they sit back and let the music do the engaging and inspiring for them; they, too, are primarily audience rather than actors. And, considering what often comes of having on-air personnel become "personalities"--not singling out WCBN, but including all stations--odds are that passivity is the better choice.
And yet, now and then, we encounter a personality actively tailoring a radio program into, as Marxist art critic John Berger has put it, "the shape of a pocket"--as in "pocket of resistance"--of resistance to all the energies, economic, social, even those of personal habit, that constantly push radio toward embracing and, even worse, disseminating, trivialization. One such pocket is that being shaped by a man who refers to himself as "Out to Lunch":"By hook or crook, analogue radio or broadband, you are listening to my weekly program Late Lunch with Out to Lunch, where greater efforts are made to maintain internal consistency than in attracting chance listeners. Naturally, if you are a chance listener then the dilemma is simple: either listen to something unique and true and riddled with ideas and motifs filched from Vladimir Lenin and Frank Zappa, or turn the dial and find something more congenial."1"Out to Lunch" is the public moniker of Ben Watson, critical thinker and writer, novelist, poet, adept of Marxist-Trotskyite-Adornoite political and mental arts, and--having retired "hurt" from trying to pursue music journalism through a thicket of clashes with music magazine editors--unpaid radio broadcaster on London-based Resonance FM. Resonance is a tiny arts radio station (one which nonetheless can be accessed world-wide via the Internet) set up by the London Musicians Collective in 2001. Since November of 2002 Watson has hosted Late Lunch with Out to Lunch, Wednesdays from 2:00 to 3:00 PM, London time.
I first encountered Watson by way of Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, his pioneering Theodor Adorno/Marxist influenced study of Zappa as artist struggling against and embedded in his culture (Watson was able to read parts of the manuscript to the amused Zappa not long before his death). Watson's even more intellectually spectacular Art, Class & Cleavage--which quotes Adorno, Josef Dietzgen, John Norman's Gor sword-and-slave-girl novels, offers a wide range of musical analyses, notes on "rubbish theory" and much more--came along a couple of years later. More recently Adorno for Revolutionaries, a collection of Watson's talks and essays about Adorno's ideas about music and radio, has appeared. He has also written a biography of free-improv guitarist Derek Bailey, among other books. While I don't agree with Watson on every subject (I enjoy John Fahey and Laurie Anderson, for example, whereas he dismisses both), I find his writings and radio programs essential to my mental health.
Late Lunch is an hour of music and ideas meant to disrupt the calm obliviousness of our consumption of radio. It is just as dense and entertaining as Watson's writings, but with the plus of actually being able to hear the music being referenced without madly pushing and pulling CD's into and out of the player with one hand, book in the other, as well as a insistent invitation, by way of the music--which ranges from the most cerebral to James Brown funk--to become involved on the physical as well as the intellectual level (what is difficult to capture is words is how often Watson is laugh-out-loud funny, as well). All musical notation, from symphonic score to jazz fake book, is implicitly written on "the great stave," the lines and spaces that delineate the available range from the lowest grumbling bass to the highest pure whistlings. Intellectually and musically, Watson does his best to cover the entirety of this great stave. And Late Lunch with Out to Lunch is less Watson coming to us once a week "to offer a show," than it is him opening a door that allows listeners samplings of how his mind lives--not a packaged offering but more a glimpse into a complex listening and thinking life, anything audible that might gather at the intersection of daily material existence and revolutionary theory.
Integral to Watson's radio programming are recordings of free improvisation. While the station was set up by a free improvisers' collective, aside from Late Lunch, "you're extremely unlikely to hear free improvisation if you tune in to Resonance FM. You're more likely to hear various forms of 'alternative' (or, deliberately unappealing versions of) mainstream pop music."2 (sound familiar to anyone else?)
Watson is a partisan of free improvisation for reasons both musical and otherwise:If you think free improvisation has a unique relevance to the current capitalization of music, then you're going to use your programme to alter this state of affairs.3Beginning in 2002, the Head of Drawing at the Royal College of Art has put up the brass to pay free improvisers to play while students draw. Watson recorded dozens of these performances and plays these on his program.
Other times Watson might declaim his bricolage-esque, non-referential poetry--at least once over some Captain Beefheart music--have his children make nonsense noises over his the bluesy vamp of his theme music, play Howling Wolf or some deeply greasy early R&B, or explain how the Doors singing "riders on the storm/into this world we're thrown" distills a basic tenet of Martin Heidegger's philosophy. These programs are now available on the (easy name to remember) Internet Archive (www.archive.org); one only has to type "Out to Lunch + Ben Watson" into a search engine. The archive also includes sound collage pieces Watson has made. I recommend Worn Paws, which includes Watson heckling (humorously and otherwise) the host of a gathering, mixed with the sounds of clanking things, poetry/political exposition--"the obvious danger being that disappeared ideas will only turn up dead, or be animated as zombies"--Derek Bailey's guitar and thick electronic sounds, and Zappa's "Muffin Man."
Once you hear Watson in full flight, some passages in the Watson-on-Adorno-on-Music essays seem self-portraits at a remove: "[Adorno] is an easy man to caricature because he believed in exaggeration as a means of reaching the truth. He said about psychoanalysis that 'Only in its extremes is it true.' The same is true of his own writing." We might keep this note in mind when reading the listing for an archived CD of recordings of "undiscovered geniuses" as chosen by Watson:Frankfurter Ahnung: A CD curated by Ben Watson on retiring (disgusted) from music journalism in 2005, presenting his private (though unassailable) canon of undiscovered geniuses - as well as a sketch of what music listening could be if niche-marketed identity-flattery shriveled up and died. The blurb [ . . . ] on the CD (originally released by Sonic Arts Network) ran: BEN WATSON - CRITIC IN HIS OWN LUNCHTIME (OPINIONS CURRENTLY TOO CRISP AND MIRTH-INDUCING FOR THE ACTUALLY-EXISTING MUSIC PRESS) - HAS COMPILED A CD OF MUSIC WHICH ACTUALLY MATTERS. ASKED TO EXPLAIN HIMSELF, HE SHOT BACK: "MY FINELY-PRESSED GANG OF MUSICAL IRRITANTS - A.K.A THE ESEMPLASM - TAKE ISSUE WITH THE NEO-KANTIAN PRECEPTS UNDERLYING CULTURAL CONDITIONING TODAY. FRANKFURTER AHNUNG ACTIVELY INKLES THAT THE OH-SO-KNOWING CIRCUITS OF DEFUSION AND CONFUSION WHICH DEGALVANISE THE FROG-LEG SALAD OF THE CONTEMPORARY FARCE ARE NOT THE LIMITLESS GAMBITS OF SIR BRAIN END. HISTORICAL MATERIALISM WILL RISE AGAIN TO EMBALM YOU IN YOUR SLEEP, RUNNING SORES OF THE FESTOONED MARKET SYSTEM!"As will anyone seriously involved with his or her subjects, Watson at times questions himself, and this is true of his approach to his radio program. He most often does this with displays of both a sense of self-mocking humor and an urgent sense of mission in regard to his musically and politically revolutionary efforts. During a time of anti-Iraq-war demonstrations in 2003, he told friends,"Maybe we should rush in and occupy Resonance, so I can do still more unpaid labour for the arts intelligentsia of London!" In other words, I don't think of Resonance as a political intervention, so much as a restricted and contained means of reflecting in public on subject-object relations in the politics of music.4In regard to Adorno specifically, Watson asks himself, "Does my current practice measure up to [Adorno's] famously stringent requirements?" And, further,Will Adorno explain in philosophical terms my proclivities and animosities about what makes interesting radio, and so connect them to something wider and grander, maybe even to history and the ongoing struggle against capitalism?5The ideas Watson takes from Adorno are many, but what is perhaps most basic is that Adorno is the thinker who explains "in rational, historical-materialist terms proclivities and animosities [Watson had] previously thought to be subjective and arbitrary." That is, Adorno helps Watson explain himself to himself--and tries to help us do the same. Specifics that Watson has taken from Adorno include the idea that revolutionary thinking requires revolutionary means--such as a radio program that refuses to flow in expected musical channels; an insistence on being politically non-coercive (leading by aesthetic example, instead of advocating violence); and that attention must be given to the medium that carries one's ideas--or music offerings. These certainly are "stringent" requirements. Part (and only part) of what Watson hopes to help bring about by keeping these ideas in mind as he writes and broadcasts is freeing music from the strictures that capitalism places on its production and delivery. These ideas may sound very dry and rarefied, but Watson nearly always finds ways to ground them for us:Adorno reserved his special invective for the '"uplifting" arguments for radio prevalent on the American left, pointing out that a compressed version of Beethoven's Fifth on radio sets throughout America enlightened no one. Any historical account of the politics of American radio would have to admit that Elvis Presley did more for the Civil Rights struggle than any amount of Beethoven. . . .6Is this simply a case of, as Watson himself puts it, "the kind of degenerate person who likes 'weird contemporary music' naturally [finding] justifications in degenerate and 'weird' theory," or can a one-hour radio program really have any such effect? I believe the answer is yes: As we continually are reminded "All politics is local," and there is not much more local than a radio program or a book in hand experienced in our own rooms.
A small sampling of the many available episodes:
August 6, 2008: Last Exit, or All my Eggs in One Basket. Here Watson talks about free improvisation as a way to rediscover some aspects of ourselves that we may be neglecting: "Unforseen and untried music is a direct test to your alertness to actuality, the degree to which you're in touch with your animal self. . ." For the musicians playing the music--Ronald Shannon Jackson, Peter Brotzmann--Watson observes that "it's only by wrecking their personal cumulative finesse that they can reach true expression."
December 6, 2006: This Urge Here: Marco, Len and Lenin, with free-improv guitarist Marco Maurizi playing Walter Benjamin scholar Esther Leslie's telecaster, and Len Massey on analogue synthesizer playing live with the intent, as Watson puts it, "of bringing the military logic of imperial music to its camouflaged knees."
Elsewhere, Bob Dobbs and Watson discuss Marx, Joyce and McLuhan over the oeuvre of Frank Zappa. Zappa and Zappology are a recurring part of Late Lunch. During his introduction to his February 24, 2010 broadcast, Watson says of his show,When challenged to say what it's all about, I sometimes say it's a weekly oration which as its ground bass, rather than commercial viability or political correctness or Michael Nyman's book on experimental music, uses the oeuvre of Frank Zappa.The April 14, 2004 show features readings from Joyce's Finnegans Wake alternating with guitar solos by Zappa. Watson has in fact described his musical Marxism as "a confluence of punk, Zappa and Adorno,"7 and understands culture (musical and otherwise) as "interaction, provocation, and consciousness expansion,"8 a Zappa-esque constellation if ever there was one (read Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play if you need this clarified). Watson engages with Zappa both in his hilarious, brilliant audio form and as intellectual springboard. In his 1995 essay Frank Zappa: Hollywood Contradictions, to offer just one example, Watson asks,So what would a non-elitist modernism look like? I want to argue that it would look like the works of Frank Zappa: products that are mass produced, sit in every record shop, yet ceaselessly remind us of all the possibilities of the twentieth century, all its dreams and hopes.9With a few updates and quibbles--is a radio show, with its cyborg-surround technology, "mass produced?"--and pointing to the obvious parallel between an Internet archive and that endangered species "the record shop," this description might well stand as an apt description of Late Lunch with Out to Lunch as well.
Still, the question remains: Can a radio program be revolutionary? The only way to answer this is to listen. When all is said and played, a revolution can only come about one mind, one pair of ears, at a time.
1. This introduction is from the September 28, 2005 episode, "Musical Predictions of Baby Iris."
2. Adorno for Revolutionaries (London: Unkant, 2011), 39-40.
3. Ibid., 40.
4. Ibid., 32.
6. Ibid., 39.
7. Ben Watson. Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation (London: Verso, 2004), 9.
8. Ibid., 1.
9. Adorno for Revolutionaries, 211.
Resonance FM site
Ben Watson site
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|