PRINT May 1994


Lipstick Traces on the CD

MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, what makes a bad music critic bad is the dream of describing music in some inspirational way that will unite text and sound, making the writing somehow the correlative of the music. The idea of the MC (music cassette), CD, or flexidisc accompanying a piece of writing is a symptom of the contrary belief: the idea of music as the ultimate indescribable, metaphysical medium. In Greil Marcus’ case it’s usually the opposite: his descriptions work independently from the sound of the music he writes about, and are often more interesting in themselves than in relation to their subject matter. I like to read Marcus on Elvis or the Orioles much better than I like listening to them. The context and the narratives he delivers are often hard to reconstruct from the records themselves.

Now, some four years after the publication of his counterhistorical history of dissidence, Lipstick Traces, Marcus has provided us with a soundtrack to the hook: Rough Trade has published a CD of key tracks. Some of them are worthwhile for their historical interest, and by virtue of being otherwise hard to find—excerpts from the soundtrack of a film by Guy Debord, for example, and samples of Lettrist and Dada sound poetry (one recited by Marie Osmond). But the emphasis lies on a neglected chapter of English and European punk, between 1978 and 1982, that Marcus has always championed. Although the Buzzcocks and the Gang of Four are a longtime influence on American hardcore, their most important early seven-inches have always been hard to find. And young American hands are just beginning to discover other music on the Lipstick Traces CD—the self-produced and independently released, often rough records of such groups as the Adverts, the Mekons, the Slits, Essential Logic, Kleenex, and the Raincoats. The late Kurt Cobain of Nirvana wrote liner notes for the CD rerelease of one of the Raincoats’ three albums.

These bands were among the first to break the dominance of London as the capital of the British music industry, introducing cities like Manchester and Leeds, which remain important today. They founded “independent music” both esthetically and economically. Most of those on this album have a relationship to Rough Trade, the legendary “major indie” that later made artists like Morrissey famous. From Adverts bassist Gaye Advert to the women’s bands Kleenex (later Liliput), the Slits, and the Raincoats to Essential Logic (four men dominated by singer, composer, and saxophonist Lora Logic), these bands were the first in the history of pop not to use women as signposts or as objects of desire.

In contrast to the sound poems and glossolalia of the Lettrists and Dadaists, this music was more than an achievement in the history of the avant-gardes; it marked a major shift in mass culture, even if initially only on its margins. An entire generation discovered that the means of production of popular culture (from musical skills to pressing plants) were accessible to all. The predictable beauties and beautiful unpredictabilities of dilettante sound became workable models for musicians outside the centers, outside male dominance, outside the culture industry. In an age of record companies as little more than software departments for their hardware-producing corporate owners, this model has become harder to apply, but it remains responsible for most of the music worth considering these days, on the most interesting independent labels—Matador, Big Cat, Drag City, and, still, SST, which coined the advertising slogan “Corporate Rock Still Sucks.”

The CD’s emphasis on the Rough Trade epoch reinforces a thesis embedded in Lipstick Traces: that dissident movements should be described not from appearance to disappearance, but as reappearances in different times and places. This proposition has the virtue of setting up a countermodel to the intrinsic cultural pessimism of a writing of history that can only view movements from the point of view of their endings, their failures—a writing that unfortunately also works to “anthropologize” artists’ political dissidence. With the Lipstick Traces CD, Marcus canonizes the little-known early days of British and Continental independent sound at a time when young musicians all over the world seem to be contributing to its revival. The record, then, can be understood as a broadening of his original thesis: the recent reappearance of punk’s musical ideas constitutes a reconstruction of where they were when they left the scene. This reconstruction adds a “historical” dimension to the anthropological totality constructed in the writing of history. Between the moments of appearance and reappearance (or between two reappearances, without an original) there is of course a phase of burrowing in the real, unobservable “underground”; but this phase too occurs in time, and is historical. Like any good burrowing, it leaves channels below the surface—reminding me of a sentence of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s: “The American singer Patti Smith sings the Gospel of the American dentist. Don’t look for the root, follow the canal.” In this sense Lipstick Traces is more than a CD accompanying a book, and certainly more than a mere illustration of Marcus’ ideas.

Diedrich Diederichsen’s most recent book is Freiheit macht arm, an essay collection published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne.

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.