Monday, October 19, 2009

Synthesised Spaces

Whoever chose the locations and archive footage for Synth Britannia, a fine BBC documentary on the UK synthpop moment, either really knows their stuff, or has been lurking round here. In the first few minutes there's Thamesmead, Hyde Park/Park Hill in Sheffield*, Hulme Crescents, T Dan Smith's multilevel central Newcastle, later on Basildon and the Lloyds Building, all adding up to - finally! - an explicit acknowledgement of the pop debt to Brutalism without any sociological hand-wringing. For these and many other reasons - Richard H Kirk waxing sinister by the river Don, adroit links between pop and politics, culminating in a smart revisionist argument for Depeche Mode as synthpop's finest anti-Thatcherite entryists** - it's an unexpectedly excellent documentary, everything the enormously disappointing Made in Sheffield should have been and wasn't. Yet, one question which occurred to me when watching it, trying to resist the temptation to just gaze and think 'sigh, those where the days, except for the casual violence and bigotry', was - will there ever be a sound of the decline of the Urban Renaissance? The riverside dromes of most British cities are, as is now becoming clear, the successors to the system-built towers of the 60s, except meaner and cheaper.

Sometimes it all seems rather cyclical. Take for instance, this mildly racist BBC report on fraud in Thamesmead, centring on the negative equity ground zero that is 'The Pinnacles'. The caption to the pic above dubs the buildings 'tower blocks' rather than the more familiar stunning developments or luxury flats. They're emptying out, and becoming fantastically desolate places, as are the business parks and call centres that often accompany them. Yet I can't quite imagine what their sound might be, when in a generation or two they have properly insinuated themselves into our lives, when they've become an accepted part of the city rather than the exclusive enclaves they initially present themselves as, and when people have had the chance to grow up with and in them. At best I could come up with Black Box Recorder's coldly sinister suburbanism, but the aesthetic of postpunk, which fits so neatly the Brutalist fetish for the stark, ambitious and futurist, would seem to jar with this desperately ingratiating style, the sheer relentless jollity of this stuff. I do sincerely hope that the presence of the dromes in Leeds, Manchester and every urban British waterside leads to some interesting new incarnation of musical space, but I wonder if they're powerful enough to elicit the requisite sense of romance and sinister drama. The barcode façades are without the raw power of the concrete panels. The death of Blatcherism lacks the tragedy of the death of Butskellism, and the music may reflect that. We could perhaps imagine a music which sounds like dinner party soundtracks gone curdled and sick, a Hed Kandi compilation appropriated for a post-apocalyptic landscape.

* Gratifyingly, some Sheffield folk seem aware of how important these places are. I recently got sent some copies of Article, an excellent Sheffield zine which features a Sheffield Brutalist Top Five, excepting of course that which has been demolished; and from whence the picture above comes. Think also of the Sesquipedalist's instructive recent comparison of two Sheffield exoskeletons.

** Which might perhaps be linked to the fact that Jeremy Deller seems to be fitting Depeche Mode into his curious counter-narrative of English aesthetic radicalism.


Blogger Nemesis said...

T Dan Smith, of course, lived in a rather nice 19th century terraced house in Spital Tongues. He made sure that wasn't bulldozed and replaced with aspects of his 'Brasilia of the North'.

9:39 pm  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I'm not hugely familiar with the historical discourse on synthpop - who was previously touted as the "finest anti-Thatcherite entryists"?

10:36 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Smith lived the last couple of decades of his life in one of the tower blocks he'd commissioned however, so a certain amount of cyclical justice there, no?

Ross Brighton: Heaven 17's Penthouse and Pavement is often considered a satirical record. My point tho was that Depeche are generally condescended to, so it was interesting and unusual to see them being taken so seriously.

10:51 pm  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Ah, ok. I've always quite liked them myself.

10:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Four great posts in one day! Still unconvinced by 'first wave' synthpop, though - but old age has made me as reactionary as this guy when it comes to music:

11:43 pm  
Blogger it said...

Glad about DP! But Owen, surely you're not the only source for all this pop music/concrete buildings stuff...are you?!

12:17 am  
Blogger Nemesis said...

Yes, he did, although in reality I think a pretty low rise still in Spital Tongues. Not exactly Cruddas Park.

12:32 am  
Blogger it said...

I meant DM, of course...and obviously everyone reads you on this stuff, Owen! x

12:40 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Nemesis - his flat was indeed in Spital Tongues, though Wikipedia says on the 14th floor, from which I suspect he had a magnificent view of one of the finest cityscapes in Europe. (NB I'm aware Smith did some awful stuff both personally - all the corruption, obv; and architecturally, through demolishing the Royal Arcade and the building of the Eldon Square mall, but I think the walkway system, the fantastic Town Hall, (some of!) the housing programme, and a few developments later for which he can be given at least partial credit (like the Metro) show his reign was not entirely malign. Anyway there's a piece on the way about TDS...)

Nina - well, I suspect there are other sources. It's that all my obsessions are there in the documentary at the same time that made me think I might just have been read by them. But maybe this is hubris on my part!

12:48 am  
Blogger Nemesis said...

I'm afraid we will have to disagree about Smith. Even thinking about him still makes my blood boil. Brasilia of the bloody north indeed.

But there's no town hall - it's the far more grandly named Civic Centre, by George Kenyon, City Architect, with its 'carillon' playing 'Tyneside tunes'.

Sadly, the fine town hall was another swept away.

1:46 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Yes, the Civic Centre, that's where I meant. With murals by Pasmore in the room where people went to pay their rates. Needless to say I think it's absolutely brilliant, the best of its kind in the country, easily as good as the great Victorian town halls in Bradford, Leeds, Manchester. Sometimes you have to destroy in order to create...(slinks off cackling)

2:11 am  
Anonymous Daniel T said...

Interesting that while the documentary itself made the link between music and architecture, Richard H Kirk, Throbbing Gristle and John Foxx all tied it directly to the *sounds* of a city - in particular, the bit where Kirk talked about strange booms in the Sheffield night coming from drop forges. There may be physical similarities between c20 tower blocks and the current yuppiedrome developments, but the sounds that go with them are very different, I'd bet. That might be a clue as to what kind of new music could be made...

9:24 am  
Blogger Nemesis said...

I was married in 'the Civic'. (I always thought certain elements of it bordered on the kitsch really.)No expense spared though. Just don't stand near the 'water feature' on a breezy day.

But the destruction of the original town hall in the early seventies (bottom of Bigg Market, opp St Nick's)didn't allow for the creation of anything very fine; it was just another example of bulldozer mentality.

So much more would have gone if they could have got way with it; Dobson's Grainger Market for example.

I note the 'new' library didn't last long.

9:43 am  
Blogger Nemesis said...

Of course, beauty being in the eye of the beholder etc, but I think the sign speaks of much more than it intends

10:45 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Re: the sound, yes, that's very interesting. There's been a much sound of construction over the last few years (although without any Neubauten-ish response), but the dromes themselves tend to sound eerily quiet in my experience, save for the odd low-flying aircraft. Connecting with the general trend for technology to become smaller and quieter, less obviously 'industrial'* - so I suspect it would be something similarly unnervingly quiet.

* (the exception to this being the rather fun Big Science revival, Gerald Donald's Big Science fixation, music for the Large Hadron Collider, etc)

12:12 pm  
Anonymous Daniel T said...

I think it's related that a lot of modern "city music", for want of a better term, has been more about inner worlds - even grime, which journalists sometimes (lazily) associate with tower blocks etc is more about the sounds of playstations, gangsta rap cds, horror films and so on. It all sounds very pent up.

2:56 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Well, tbh I made that lazy connection myself in MM, albeit in a more positivist manner - the weightlessness of Wiley's Eski-oeuvre etc - but I think that interiority and closedness is spot on, hence the sweaty, smoky claustrophobia in those unwatchable grime DVDs, and also the martial-arts-film Chinoiserie in Boy in Da Corner and Jammer tracks from that time. Certainly it seems to come from those soundtracks (and the Wu) more than from Sakamoto and Sylvian, though I do think there's a certain elective affinity there...

Also, mobile phone noise had I think a definite effect on both grime and bassline - when in the area for the Warp thing, listening to other people's bassline playing on a train in Rotherham it struck me how the producers had, remarkably, managed to produce a kind of bass audible on phone speakers.

3:14 pm  
Anonymous Daniel T said...

Soz, I didn't mean all comparisons like that were lazy - I was thinking of a particularly rubbish bit of Grauniad music journalism I read the other day - just the assumption that music like grime (or dubstep or bassline for that matter) must come from a particular kind of high-rise council estate. Good point about the phones and bassline - I think similar is true for Giggs, who I'm reliably informed is the bus soundtrack of choice for London's young people.

Btw, Andrea Arnold's new film is really good in its use of music (including Wiley, as it happens) to map out the claustrophobia of its characters' living conditions.

3:53 pm  
Anonymous Pop Fop said...

That article on Depeche Mode was similar to one I read, as I recall from the same source, on Spandau Ballet. I found it whilst researching Pop Thatcherism which this blog privied me to. As far as I am concerned, Spandau's look and music were rather awful but the article did mention how the their particular aesthetic was a sort of class warfare born of a certain "working class elitism". This reminded me of the Mods particularly and the idea that working class kids can look sharp (even sharper!) than the mundane middle classes. Nowadays it seems that Joe Sixpack culture is a form of proletarian unconsciousness whereby being an ignorant slob is part of class identity. Opinions?

6:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Parkhill is glorious. I am so happy that persons and the general public are starting to understand what people like myself see in Brutalism. Long may it continue and hopefully.

4:26 pm  
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