J. G. Ballard and music. How to write the entire New Wave into being.



“I don’t listen to music. It’s a blind spot.”

I started reading J. G. Ballard in earnest way back in Perth. I’d read “The Voices Of Time” in Spectrum 3 in my early teenage second-hand bookshop fueled SF paperback binge — the quintessential Ballard drained swimming pool story — but didn’t get heavily into him until my early twenties, deep in rock critic angst and Perth ennui. It was when I read the Vermilion Sands collection that it became clear: Perth is Vermilion Sands made flesh, and coming from there is like growing up in a holiday resort out of season.

And of course the Re/Search Ballard issue, and The Atrocity Exhibition, which is as close as you’ll find to hideous screeching noise music in written form. (The entire first edition was shredded by its publisher before release! You don’t get a tribute like that for free.) I treasure my copy of the fancy 1990 illustrated edition, with the explanatory footnotes you’ll find in the present paperback. Going down the park on a Saturday afternoon, sitting on a bench amongst the greenery, watching the ducks and reading about Traven painstakingly assembling JFK assassination dioramas and slowly losing it.


Part of the new wave of science fiction in the 1960s, Ballard framed the point of view for the whole of the new wave of music in the 1970s. He’s all over punk, post-punk, ’80s chart synthpop and industrial, to this day. Music press articles on his influence are a staple — here, have a wide-ranging survey from 2009, and a less rigorous one (the name “Daniel Miller” never appears) from this year. It’s Ballard’s musical form, we just get to listen to it.

The power is in Ballard’s imagery. The adjective “Ballardian” is not so much about his verbal style (though that too), but the rapid-fire images his writing projects onto your mind’s eye. His characters tend to the cardboard at best (variations on increasingly unbalanced middle-class suburban English scientist Dr Richard Traven and his photocopy cutout wife or girlfriend, with the occasional refreshing lunatic like Vaughn from Crash), but his way with a striking written image is the quintessence of lyrics. And if you were keen on writers like the then-obscure Burroughs, Ballard’s clear and clinical tone — he studied medicine, he edited on a chemical industry news magazine, his friend Christopher Evans gave him all his technical junk mail for inspiration — was like a brilliant crystal, sharp enough to use as a weapon. And shape you into more of itself.

The best part of this is that he had essentially zero interest in music himself. He preferred silence while writing, he often watched TV with the sound off (it’s all about the flow of imagery), he seems never to have bought a record in his life and he got his girlfriend to help him pick records for BBC Desert Island Discs. From The Paris Review, Winter 1984:


Speaking of the media landscape, you don’t seem to mention music very much. What do you listen to?


I think I’m the only person I know who doesn’t own a record player or a single record. I’ve never understood why, because my maternal grandparents were lifelong teachers of music, and my father, as a choir boy, once sang solo in Manchester Cathedral. But that gene seems to have skipped me. I often listen to classical music on the radio, though never as background. I can’t stand people who switch on the record player as soon as you arrive for drinks. Either we listen to Mozart or Vivaldi, or we talk. It seems daft to try to do them together, any more than one would hold a conversation during a screening of Casablanca. In fact, without thinking I usually stop talking altogether, waiting for the music to finish, to the host’s puzzlement.

He was interested in music video, apparently being quite keen on David Bowie’s video for “Ashes To Ashes”:

As Ballard scholar Simon Sellars notes:

Ballard may claim there’s no music in his work, but there certainly is an attitude, a postpunk, posthuman sensibility – a cool irony providing the backdrop for an ambiguous, detached protagonist, a cipher who may or may not be seduced by the unleashing of technology’s dark side.

Really, it’s technology – the media landscape; the urban sprawl; the self-regulating, self-sufficient cityscape – that’s the main character in much of Ballard’s work, so it’s not that hard to see the appeal of his world view to a bunch of callow, early 80s non-musicians living in the shadow of the urban wasteland with just their synthesizers and reel-to-reel tape decks for company.

(You may also enjoy Simon Sellars’ Ballard playlist on Spotify.)

Ballard himself notes in NME in 1985:

Punk was so interesting — I still haven’t recovered from it. Not knowing anything about the music I saw it as a purely political movement, the powerful political and social resentment of an under-caste who reacted to the values of bourgeois society with pure destructiveness and hate. Bourgeois society offered them the mortgage, they offered back psychosis.

Sadly, there’s not much in the way of songs about Ballard. Though Dan Melchior sings of living in Shepperton and accidentally shadowing Ballard through his day. Jim got all the frozen peas first.


Reviews: The Royal They, Unity One, Graveyard Love (2016).




the-royal-they-stTHE ROYAL THEY: The Royal They (King Pizza) — “It doesn’t make you any less of an insufferable cunt!” shouts the singer, starting as she means to go on. Post-hardcore indie rock like from just before grunge hit, with range from screeching garage punk to jangle pop. There’s considerable sonic contrast and variation along the way (e.g. “Laurels”, which admittedly is a bit louder on the record than the acoustic session above) but it all hangs together. You’ll enjoy this. Also check previous singles LongLady and Tank House.


unity-one-tomorrowUNITY ONE: “Tomorrow” (SkyQode) — a good solid dancy EBM pop single and catchy with it. Really takes off just after first chorus. The instrumental version shows the song off well. B-side “I Don’t Need The City” is an excellent tranced-up Neuroticfish cover. From the forthcoming debut album. Also check their 2012 single “Infrared”. Their EBM “Blue Monday” is fun as well.


graveyard-love-the-sentiment-of-escapeGRAVEYARD LOVE: The Sentiment Of Escape — Auckland synthpop artist Hamish Black and friends. The basic schema is drum machine and synth bass (there’s an occasional bass guitar) with vocals and guitar coming and going on top and pulling you along through the landscape with it all, slightly disoriented. The first track is the atmospheric noise introduction, so start at the second track “Dynamism of a Getaway Car”, which is a reasonably representative starter. Above: “Dance Dark at the Dead Disco”, “A New Start” and “Me I’m Not Myself” from their 2013 EP Dissociate and there’s lots more on the Bandcamp.


Links: Psychoacoustics for recording, blockchain band names, Dépèche Mode demos.




  • Hacking The Hearing System: 9 Psychoacoustic & Sound Design Tricks To Improve Your Music. Advanced studio and mixing trickery!

  • OK, OK, how about, right, a common form of meaningless scam site that has no legal effect … but on the blockchain!! Pay to register your band name on their buzzword-compatible website, and have your name fully protected in no manner anything like an actual trademark, whether usage or registered.

    (I’ve had to deal with that last issue: there may be a Perth reader who wonders why, in the late ’80s, Peter Johnson’s band Hooker suddenly had to change all their advertising to say “PJ And The Hooker Band”. This was because a disgruntled ex-member had registered the name as a trademark and sent them a cease and desist. They came to WAM (then WARMIA), where I was on the board and editing the Music News newsletter — the start of my long career in sub-competent nonprofits — and asked what they could do about this. We had to break the news to them that it was now a legal battle of who could fund the best lawyer longest, and I wrote an article for Music News on how and why to register your name, carefully not naming any of those involved.)

  • Let’s get back to something bouncy and cheerful. Dépèche Mode’s early demos, before they signed to Mute. Recorded when they were known as “Composition Of Sound”. And “Dépèche Mode” so too has the accents in.

Reviews: Crack Cloud, Night Trap, Ivy Fae (2016).



crack-cloud-stCRACK CLOUD: Crack Cloud — This caught my attention from the first note of “More of What”, as something tagged “post-punk” that gets into the funkier style of the time, something you hardly hear attempted these days. Work that bass! And yelped vocals! Avoids quirk by being impassioned.


night-trap-someone-like-youNIGHT TRAP: “Someone Like You/Looking Glass” (Little Gem) — uptempo straight-up synthpop single. “Someone Like You” (video above) keeps things moving from the first note; simple, but well-structured and effective. Really takes off at the bridge. It’s five and a half minutes and doesn’t feel like it. Not quite like “Temptation” by New Order, but in that vicinity. “Looking Glass” is angstier but gets to the beat. Also check the Soundcloud.


ivy-fae-book-of-seedsIVY FAE: The Book Of Seeds — if I were the sort of person to tag things “unrepentant witch house”, this would probably be one. Atmospheres with a beat — dark ambience, synthetic beats, disconcertingly processed vocals, lots of messing with the sound in the service of effect, decent songwriting and composition. This is the sort of thing that amazes me how good a first homemade album can be in 2016. Favourite tracks: “Ground”, “Icy Clouds”, “The Between”. That’s her up in the top image.

Links: Negativland, Diamond Rio MP3, Dylan, writing.



  • From Negativland, the ultimate in artist-fan relations merchandising.

  • Getting out an 18 year old Diamond Rio MP3 player and bringing it back to life. Well, nearly.

  • When I was in high school (Western Australia in the early 1980s), selected Bob Dylan lyrics (I forget which) were on the English Literature curriculum as poetry. It’s really hard to argue he isn’t up to standard. Not that he gives a hoot.

  • 7506 words so far on Bitcoin and blockchains. Getting into the swing of things. Arkady has forbidden me from mentioning the B-words at the dinner table. Slightly surprised I’m also managing to keep up with Rocknerd … just.


Culture is not about aesthetics redux: scented candles in a human face, forever.



“Culture is not about aesthetics. Punk rock is now enforced by law.” is the most popular thing I have ever written, anywhere, of any sort. On a music blog that nobody reads, this thing got 80,000 hits. A one-hit wonder I failed to cash in on in any manner.

The piece won’t tell you anything that wasn’t already obvious to any reasonably informed pixel-stained technopeasant — but this stuff was actual news to musicians I knew personally, who had been musicians since the ‘70s and ‘80s and were going “what the hell happened?”

Best bit: the comments on it were really good and apposite, with meaningful discussion. I was most pleased.

Part of the problem that I didn’t really hammer on is the Great Cultural Fragmentation. Given the choice, people want what they want, not what you want them to want. Mass movements are nothing like so massive now that listeners have options. The mass media hegemony broke absolutely the moment we could escape them.

Even pop music isn’t actually popular any more — you can have a mainstream number one “hit” in the UK with less than 10,000 sales, which thirty years ago would have had you topping the indie charts. Mainstream pop used to be a serious cultural force, and now it just … isn’t. You haven’t heard of most of these people because they aren’t actually famous.

The gigantist twentieth-century record industry is decreasingly viable simply because they no longer control the means of either production or distribution. And are jawdroppingly inept in any case. Hail Mary passes and wishing for magic aren’t going to make it rain. They’re doing a pretty good job of dying in a fire, but they need to hurry it up please.

And this is despite there being more music than anyone could ever keep up with.

Bob Stanley in Yeah Yeah Yeah offers a useful distinction: music can become “pop” when there’s intermediation between you and the performer. Forms in which you know the performer are not “pop”:

What exactly is pop? For me, it includes rock, R&B, soul, hip hop, house, techno, metal and country. If you make records, singles and albums, and if you go on TV or on tour to promote them, you’re in the pop business. If you sing a cappella folk songs in a pub in Whitby, you’re not. Pop needs an audience that the artist doesn’t know personally – it has to be transferable.

(He didn’t mention drum machine goth songs in a pub in Whitby, but that’s pretty clearly folk too.)

What we’re seeing now is all music increasingly being forced by the laws of the market to work like folk.

So how do subcultures work now? In the ’80s, a whole city’s indie rock scene could subtly change sound because one guy’s Flying Nun albums just arrived from New Zealand and he played them for his mates. Now it’s picking a genre to mine. The meaning of “subculture” changes when they’re self-organising groups on the Internet.

I didn’t manage at the time to come up with a programme of action less broad than the downfall of neoliberal late capitalism in its entirety. (Though at the least, you’d need people to feel secure enough in their lives to spend money in the first place.) Thinking further on it, there are approaches such as finding a niche and owning as best you can — a given small cultural area, in which context aesthetics can then hold — while working on your general game. Base yourself in a scene to learn your chops.

I have no idea if this would work, by the way. It would certainly be a tough row to hoe if your intent was to make a living. Music’s a rough game. Also, you have to transmute into a sort of entrepreneurial marketing obsessive — the approximate opposite of art, certainly as far as artists I know are concerned.

(e.g. the one I’m married to. Buy a bloody T-shirt, will ya. They’re really good!)

All of this is what life looks like when the means of production have been seized. Everyone with a computer has the tools to be an artist, and the distribution channels. You are an artist. I am an artist. (I literally can’t play an instrument or sing, but here’s my SoundCloud.) Anyone can sell their music easily, cheaply and in the same outlets as the hugely popular people. Or just give it away.

For professional artists, it’s a bit of a problem — but the problem is not internet piracy, but competition:

  • you’re literally in direct competition with every other artist in the world, not just the city;
  • you’re literally in direct competition with non-professionals doing adequate work as a hobby;
  • you’re literally in direct competition with everything that isn’t consuming your art. In 1986, there was going out to a band, or bad TV. In 2016, there’s going out to a band, or the whole Internet and all your friends.

Steve Albini says life is incomparably better now, and the Internet has solved the problem with music, but you gotta hit the road, Jack. This is a limited approach that not everyone has time for, but I suppose someone has to stay home and foment revolution.

Culture is not about aesthetics. The laws of microeconomics means everything collapses into a folk-based singularity. (Not punk rock, I was wrong.) Cottage industry for all! Scented candles at a county fair in a human face, forever.

“Oh, I already wrote the greatest pop song of the 21st century. Did that in 2006.” The National Pep.



Andrew Hickey:

And going back to the post about The Manual, the blagging thing is the most important part of having any kind of success in the arts.

I was having a conversation with Bobsy Mindless a few weeks ago, when I was very low, and he was trying to pick me up a bit, and one thing he said was:

“Seriously this is your project for the next week: write the greatest pop song of the 21st century. I wouldn’t tell you to do it if I didn’t think it was feasible.”

And my immediate response was to say “Oh I already wrote the greatest pop song of the 21st century. Did that in 2006“ and link him to this.

And the thing is, I do think that this song (for which I wrote the music, co-produced, and played every instrument except sax, theremin, melodica, and drums) is at least a contender for “greatest pop song of the 21st century”. I may be delusional, mind, but I think it’s got a good claim for it.

But I think in total maybe thirty or forty people have ever heard it, because there is nothing of the huckster in me. I cringe whenever I try even the mildest self-promotion, like putting a Patreon link at the end of my blog posts, and my instinct is always to downplay any achievements I have.

So read The Manual. Don’t be like me.

national-pep-love-punks“Jaded” by The National Pep, from the EP Love Punks Want To Make You Cry. A strange song, but it seems to know what it’s on about. It achieved a full play, which is remarkable these days) Mad artist fodder with six ideas in a song that don’t actually fit, but he’ll MAKE them fit dammit. Not quite the thing straight after two days of Nouvelle Vague.

I couldn’t work out how it fits into the KLF Manual template and this alone made me wish to play it again. Job done.

On Spotify here, or download here. And the complete recorded works of the National Pep here. And give Andrew money here.

(“Nouvelle Vague but with six ideas that don’t fit would actually sum it up pretty well“ — Andrew.)

Rosebud: Discoballs: A Tribute to Pink Floyd (1977).



Thanks to Paul Haesler for tipping me off to this inspiring work after he saw the Polka Floyd video yesterday.


Have a Cigar / Free Four / Summer 68 / Interstellar Overdrive
Money / One of These Days / Arnold Layne / Main Theme “More”

This creation was the work of Gabriel Yared, whose Wikipedia entry passes over this particular project, getting into discosploitation a couple of years ahead of the flood. Also involved were prog rockers Claude Engel and Jannick Top of Magma. They decided it was the perfect moment to discofy a selection of Floyd, from their psychedelic period through to Wish You Were Here, two years before Pink Floyd themselves tried on this disco lark.

The record ascends well beyond tawdry considerations of “good” and “abomination”. The playing is precise, allowing the collision of what works perfectly and what fails immaculately (a bright and bouncy disco rendition of “Free Four”. Yeah) to proceed to completion. As one reviewer put it, “JUST TRY to deny the power. I defy you to.”

Their take on “Have A Cigar” was released by Warner in the US in 1979 and hit No. 4 on the disco chart, selling 40,000 copies. “Money” in 4/4 at 92bpm also apparently charted.


Yared tried again in 1978 with Rosebud II (New Orleans Junction), which leads with a thirteen-minute disco medley of “When The Saints Go Marching In” and “Mack The Knife”, though this somehow didn’t see any chart action.

The album was rereleased on CD in 2008, though it inexplicably failed to sell very well. In the meantime, try their take on “Interstellar Overdrive” (“Acid music revised for coke heads”), or indeed the whole album. “Bizarre, moderately hilarious, and ultimately something that really should never have been created.”

Links: bad lyrical subjects, worse record companies, Psychic TV and Polka Floyd.

Reviews: Frustration, Logic + Olivia, Beborn Beton, Disjecta Membra (2016).



The latest works from bands who’ve been around a while.


FRUSTRATION: Empires of Shame (Born Bad) — post-punk of the variety that was just punk rock a couple of years on. Not quite post-punk revival. (Though “Mother Earth In Rags” reaches into the post-punk era proper.) A satisfactory punk rock noise. A pile more albums on the Bandcamp.


LOGIC + OLIVIA: Pink (Infacted) — EBM synthpop. First track “To Be A Man” is a winner here. The vocal is very Covenant in both melody and style. Starts slow, gets into the early 2000s trancier EBM in the last couple of minutes. Further tracks (e.g., “Another Rainbow”) show he is indeed trying to sing like Eskil Simonsson. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. “Because Of Your Smile” starts with a really pretty good beat. The album’s songs are OK — they’re trying to be bigger and more wide-angle cinematic than they can probably sustain — though the sound is excellent. Above: “Because Of Your Smile”, “It Seems To Be A Better Pain”.


BEBORN BETON: “She Cried” (Dependent) — a new single from last year’s album A Worthy Compensation. They still have it. More the industrial end of synthpop than the synthpop end of industrial. This has an excellent chorus with a sticky hook, and leads from and to the verse melody nicely; you’ll keep moving for the whole song. As well as the remixes, the first B-side is a cover of “The Black Hit of Space” by the original Human League.


DISJECTA MEMBRA: The Infancy Gospels — the evidently correct cross of New Zealand post-Xpressway noise and the excessively musicianly variety of industrial goth. (With a “neofolk” tag, but oh well.) The seven-minute title track is so Doors it’s clear they’re thinking of Fields of the Nephilim. “Lilitu” is a bit like that too, the drum machine sounds like not the right instrument in place of drums. “Madeleine! Madelaine!” is the nice pop piece. They have and try to have some stylistic range. This succeeds.