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Metronome Sessions

Matthew Collin

17 June 15 words: Scott Oliver
"When you have what you feel is a life-changing experience... you want to believe that it was more than just a fleeting moment of ecstatic bliss"
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image: Press

What got you started as a writer? How did you find your particular pathway?
It was a case of sheer serendipity. I was a regular clubber at The Garage in Nottingham, where DJ Graeme Park was mixing up hip hop and early house. It all sounded really radical and exciting at the time, which is why I wanted to write about it. So I quit my job as a printer and moved to London to try my luck as a music journalist in early 1988, just as acid house was kicking off. I was in the right place at the right time.

Do you believe there was something intrinsically revolutionary about rave - be it psychically or socially?
When you have what you feel is a life-changing experience, like so many people did during the rave era, you want to believe that it was more than just a fleeting moment of ecstatic bliss. For me it did mean something because it was the magical gateway to becoming a journalist and having all these other incredible experiences over the years, some of which are documented in Pop Grenade. I started out as a teenage clubber in Nottingham and ended up as a BBC correspondent several thousand miles away. That whole trajectory was shaped and informed in many ways by that acid house inspiration. I don't often quote Paul Oakenfold, but he was dead right when he said that the acid house experience makes you believe that you can go out and do something significant.

Do you feel rave music can mobilise the same oppositional or radical sentiments today as it once did, or has a place like Berlin been co-opted into the leisure economy? 
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of the divided city was a real cultural flashpoint. It coincided with the start of the techno scene in Berlin, so that meant it was seen in some way as the ‘music of liberation’. There’s no doubt that techno helped to redefine the image of Berlin as a vital hub of creative freethinking people. If you look at Berlin now, there is what seems to be a thriving and hopefully sustainable subculture based on the electronic music that grew out of the nineties techno scene - and it does have values that are different to the hypercapitalist superclub ethic. In terms of nightlife, in some ways it’s the opposite of the glitz and expense of Ibiza; Berlin is raw and scruffy and relatively cheap still.

How significant was the free party at Castlemorton, near Malvern, in 1992 and rge subsequent fallout in the dissipation of that utopian energy of early rave?
It was immensely significant because it represented the high water mark of that anarchic illegal party culture in the UK, while the moral panic around it caused the Conservative government of the time to bring in legislation to crack down on illegal raves. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 essentially put an end to these remarkable autonomous enormous outdoor gatherings you used to get in the late eighties and early nineties. In a way, it’s amazing that such uncontrolled hedonist extremism was allowed to continue for as long as it did.

Some of the instigators of that scene, militant psychedelic sound systems like Spiral Tribe, then left for Europe in search of more freedom and fewer restrictions, and created a radical techno-fest format that they called the Teknival – an itinerant Continental scene that endures to this day. I really think pop culture needs people like this – the radicals, the dreamers, the ones who will go further out than anyone else just to see what the view is like from the very edge.

If one’s teenage introduction to music is a rite of passage, what do you make of X-Factor and its effect on musical aspiration and imagination, on the wider consumption of music, and the effect of all that musical conformity on the political imagination?
Since pop has been on television, there have always been talent shows – The Beatles entered one in the late fifties called TV Star Search, when they were still called The Quarrymen. There have also always been manufactured pop bands (and that doesn’t always mean they were necessarily bad). X Factor is just on a much bigger scale with a much more refined, some might say, cynical, understanding of marketing and cross-platform promotion. The existence of TV talent shows has never prevented mavericks from making challenging and adventurous music and probably never will. I hope.

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Smiley happy ravers

What were the best stories or examples of contestatory pop music that you excluded from your book, Pop Grenade? Have there been any particularly surprising scenes you’ve come across in different parts of the world?
The book is based on first-hand reportage – I’ve been lucky to have experienced quite a few inspiring and bizarre situations during my career as a journalist, and I didn’t want to include any stories that I had no personal experience of at all. Obviously that means it’s very subjective, and in no way a ‘history of music and politics’ – but if you want that, there’s a very good book by Dorian Lynskey called 33 Revolutions Per Minute about protest songs from Billie Holliday to Green Day via Bob Dylan and James Brown. That’s definitely worth getting hold of.

Slightly cheesy question, this, but if you were to compile a top ten of ‘subversive’ musicians and performers, who might make it?
Among the ones who’ve meant most to me personally, definitely Fela Kuti. The first track of his that I ever heard probably has the best protest song title ever – Equalisation of Trouser and Pant. It’s got the most incredible groove, an indication that when progressive politics are mixed with radical music, the result can be truly inspirational.

That’s really important – the music has to be as powerful or even more powerful than the message. As Bill Adler, Public Enemy’s PR man at Def Jam Records, told me, “If it hadn’t been for the revolutionary music, if the music had been lame, some people wouldn’t have cared about the politics.”

The Clash were the band whose name I would scrawl on my rucksack as a schoolkid. The late seventies were much darker times. The far right was on the rise, the nuclear threat was very real. I know it sounds a bit naive, but for me The Clash really pointed the way towards movements for social justice at that time – Rock Against Racism, the Anti-Nazi League. But again, if their music hadn’t been so fiercely different from most of the other stuff on the radio at that time, would I have taken any notice? Probably not.

Going back to the question about musical subversion, there are so many great political songs right across the funk/soul spectrum too. As the journalist Stuart Cosgrove has noted, there is so much writing about the socio-political significance of Bob Dylan, so much less about the importance of soul and funk.

Nottingham was once considered a musically barren city - house music aside. Have you kept an eye on things here? Do you think there’s outlaw potential in any of the artists?
I absolutely love Sleaford Mods. They really capture that zero-hours-contracts/’austerity Britain’ mood of the times perfectly. Jason Williamson is so maximally choleric, he just lets fly with this blunderbuss gobful of expletives, spraying anyone who pisses him off with his toxic invective. He reminds me of Arthur Seaton, the classic working-class hero from the fifties novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, but ripped to the tits on cheap lager and badly-cut speed. He’s almost the living definition of ‘vexed’. But that’s exactly how I felt when I woke up on 8 May and saw the UK election results too.

What did you make of Scorzayzee’s Great Britain and subsequent furore?
He certainly took aim at a wide range of targets – the royal family, consumerism, advertising, the finance industry, the so-called ‘special relationship’ with the US. It was interesting though that when the Telegraph published its shock-horror article about what it called this “diatribe against the British way of life”, it compared the BBC playing Scorzayzee to the moral panic around the Sex Pistols – but didn’t mention any single listener’s complaint against the BBC for playing the track. It was just fabricated outrage. I got the impression that it was more about Tory press BBC-bashing than the song itself. Anyway, the newspaper’s description of the song saying that it “portrays a nation torn apart by rising crime, grinding poverty and political corruption” was definitely a good advert for it.

Matthew Collin’s latest book Pop Grenade is available from Zero Books now priced at £12.99.

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