Radio On is also haunted by another kind of tradition, social realism, one it seems intent on escaping, but which it’s repeatedly drawn back to. Radio On’s quest in some ways is for a more youthful British cinema, one that acknowledges the importance of technology and popular culture in contemporary life, that wants to look at the lives of the marginal and dispossessed without overt reference to class, without being directly polemical. This is partly because the tradition has become cumbersome and strident in the Seventies, a seemingly endless grinding out of the exhausting deadlock between capital and the labour that it is envisioned the great shifts of the Eighties will render historically null and void, and because British film is seen to lack the wit and flash, the thrilling modernity of contemporary American or German cinema. Radio On’s promise of a reinvigorated social realism is carried forward not by film but, appropriately enough, by music in many ways, the social realist mode that became the default setting for punk and against which Kraftwerk and Bowie appear to stand is eventually synthesised into its fullest expression in the Nineties, with Pulp.
To a degree, with regard to Europe and the U.S. Radio On suffers from Icon-envy, and this is where its more conservative tendencies kick in. It wants to aggrandize England, to give to its daily practices the sense of the mythic that seems intrinsic to American lives. In one of the films most celebrated shots the key social realist terrain of the council estate or the tower block is transformed into pure spectacle. Radio On yearns for an aesthetic transformation, a new way of looking at England that hollows out and depopulates the tower blocks, sees them only from the outside. Robert does not live there, or struggle to feed his children through a night shift at the Gillette Factory. Radio On may be on the side of The Modern in some sense but it also carries streak of snobbery and disdain, transforming the underpasses and flyovers through the use of black and white photography and a futuristic soundtrack in an attempt to deselect the unpleasant and offensively unaesthetic elements of England, the cities, its people, and overlay them with a patina of style. The driver, in the car, with the windscreen as a frame, the smooth flow of images and the cinematic soundtrack all render social space as a ground not for contention, but consumption.
The fundamental problem with England though, is that the country is simply too small, it’s hard to get lost in. Both America and Europe offer up the possibility of dazzling, meditative stretches of emptiness, vast nowheres and in-betweens where the soul can be purged, the sprit purified. In England wherever you go you’ll find someone who wants to tell you the story of their misfortunes, the miserable work, the missing children, the thwarted hopes and dreams, return you to the cramped and the pettily provincial: the social, with all its grubby worries lurks around every corner. The Squaddie arrives uninvited in the safe, hermetically sealed world of Robert’s car, bringing with him a life marked by unemployment, limited opportunities, political conflict and death.
A quick detour
The Driver: You can never go fast enough.
It’s instructive in many regards to compare Radio On with one of its avowed influences, Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop.
Two Lane Blacktop is one of the most remarkable films of the early Seventies and certainly the best of the crop of existential American road movies that influenced Radio On. If the heroes of Easy Rider or Electra Glide in Blue or Vanishing Point meet their fates at the hand of The Man or Hippies Gone Bad, Two Lane Blacktop is not a film about protest or rebellion, the demand to be free to be who we wanna be, it is instead a film about the basic unfreedom, about drive and its relentless momentum. If the anti-heroes of other movies are romantically doomed, then the central characters of Two Lane Blacktop are unheroically consigned to the empty insatiability of drive. Even the characters’ names suggest the two basic components of the psyche: The Driver and The Mechanic.
Two Lane Blacktop follows the trajectory of Sixties liberation in pushing past the domain of the social into autistic compulsion. It’s a sparse, austere film that for all its location shooting and its focus on youth remains resolutely non-picturesque and non-picaresque. It also contains a generational split between Warren Oates’ G.T.O. and the characters of The Driver, The Mechanic and The Girl. G.T.O is a relic of the 50’s as is the car he’s named after, an ostentatious, streamlined, canary yellow muscle car. He clings on to certain comforts and elements of style, he has a mini-bar in the trunk, a wide selection of cassettes to play, comfortable seats. G.T.O is loquacious, clubbable, a spinner of yarns, a toothy man in golfing slacks adept at the soft soap and the hard sell. The Driver’s car by contrast looks like a cage, stripped down to it’s barest, functional components, as are the lives of its owners, their primary concerns are the car’s performance, racing and driving, finding the money to support their habit. G.T.O. has a narrative of sort to his life, improvised often contradictory, clearly shot through with melodramatic or pathetic fantasy, The Driver has no back story, nor does he want one. When G.T.O. begins to tell him the sorry tale of his younger years, The Driver cuts him short with," I don’t wanna hear about it.” Histories, personal or otherwise, with their failure and pathos, messy humanity in all its ugly striving, are to be consigned to the past. If we go fast enough we can break the chord that binds us to a time and place, to other people, to ourselves: erase memory, surpass need.
The European sensibility demands high artifice accompany its radicalism, the American combination of roots-y and radical, futurists in flannel shirts, is an aesthetic abomination to the British Modernist, but this preoccupation with style shouldn’t preclude a serious consideration of Two Lane Blacktop’s vision of the man-machine. The film’s soundtrack, diegetic via the radio or cassette player, is all classic country and western or country rock and this serves to extend the films Frontier theme (Hellman’s previous films include the tremendous The Shooting, the Last Year at Marienbad of Westerns) but the frontier here is not geographical, rather the limit between man and machine. At sufficient speed the frontier is breached, the intense concentration, the intensity of the acceleration almost beyond physical limits. In the white heat of hitting the highest possible velocity there is a molecular fusion, a voiding out of subjectivity, a dispersal of the senses into the body of the machine. This absence, this floating emptiness is conjured up at the end in the long slow motion take on The Driver’s face and the back of his head as he starts the film’s final race, in which there’s a paradoxical sense of silence and stillness, suspension and remove.
In a sense Two Lane offers up a vision of, if not salvation, at least transcendence, but the emptiness and absence that the drivers wish to embrace, to occupy, are inaccessible in England. You just run out of road. Robert ends up weaving around in circles in an empty quarry before coming to a halt at the edge of the cliff, whereas The Driver reaches a point of acceleration so intense it appears to burn through the celluloid and cause the film to melt. The final illusion which must be destroyed is the film itself, a drive toward the real so unchecked it breaches the limits of all representation, all mediation. This is the consummation, the conflagration devoutly to be wished. It’s Two Lane Blacktop which best anticipates the trajectory of the culture toward the guitar bands of the late Eighties as hardcore start to disintegrate under the compulsion to go ever faster, into an impressionistic blur, the point at which riffs rupture and haemorrhage, reach maximum velocity and atomises into a directionless immanence. Husker Du’s early live album for instance is called Land Speed Record, the cover of which is a couple of coffins draped in American flags. The cover of the same bands Zen Arcade shows the band mooching through a scrap yard piled high with rusting cars.
Radio On reaches a different kind of resolution and has an entirely different kind of soundtrack, though one song does unite the two films, the Stones’ Satisfaction ,which The Girl in Two Lane Blacktop sings to herself in a diner. She eventually leaves on the back of a motorbike, dumping her few meagre possessions on the ground behind her in order to do so.
Given that the soundtrack is so vital to Radio On’s project and success, given that it is on an equal footing with the images themselves (and a higher billing than the actors) and brings in a whole separate set of themes and associations, it is not unreasonable to spend as much time dealing with the soundtrack and its omissions as the film’s characters.
The Missing Track.
The film’s title is most immediately sourced in The Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner, with its repeated, echoing cries of (I’ve got the) radio on! Roadrunner, with its smooth, two-chord motorik propulsion, jangly Velvets guitars , droning keyboard and celebration of modernity is in some ways the bridge between American and European aesthetics, between the Fifties and the Seventies, between Eddie Cochrane and Krautrock.
But what Richman has and which Radio On manifestly does not, the reason why the song doesn’t belong on the soundtrack even as its inclusion seems obvious, is joy. Roadrunner is unabashedly excessive in its celebration of youth. Richman’s joy springs from that heady combination of hormonal overload, inexperience and the vast, unexplored tracts of the future opening before you: the sheer, unencumbered exhilaration of simply being young. This gauche, effusive energy has no place in Radio On’s measured, monochrome world. I’m in love. I got the radio on! But there is no love or sex in Radio On, unless it’s the love of the questing mother for her daughter, Sting’s love for a dead musical form, the central character for his missing brother: no direct, positive object of love is available to them.
Neither the cosmic compulsion of Two Lane Blacktop’s burn out, nor the rhapsodic overflow of Roadrunner is attainable in Radio On. In Roadrunner (alternate version) as Richman lists everything he loves about the modern world he begins to stumble over his words, improvising, accelerating into a kind of glossolalia. There is a different breakdown in Roadrunner (alternate version) of patterns of representation: meaning and mediation collapsed through euphoria, an uncontainable excess of essence rather than, as in Two Lane Blacktop, through its concentrated density: one is an eruption the other an implosion.
Crucially both Roadrunner and Two Lane Blacktop lack angst, they are by or about men possessed. The Driver and the Mechanic are set on a particular course, they are not questing or questioning, wondering how to live, they have surrendered to or been overtaken by their obsession and are carried along by it. In Radio On, Robert gets drunk and fidgets around on the periphery of his desire, a grey, fumbling, intermediate state, quintessentially British. Toward the end of the film, alone again in an industrial wasteland, he slams down on the car horn in frustration then goes off on his own to a threatening pub, before driving out to a disused quarry. Robert is tortured, quietly desperate and unable to exactly name his despair, a diffuse sense of dread and discomfort that has seeped into everything. Mud, drizzle, the crumbling cliff edge, weaving around in your clapped out car half-drunk on stale beer.
The only track by a woman in the film is Lene Lovich’s Lucky Number, a song about finding love. We first see Lene gazing quizzically at us from the picture disc that Robert leaves unplayed spinning on the deck in his D.J. booth. She makes a brief reappearance, heard faintly in the club, Platform One, that Robert is turned away from in Bristol. When they do finally meet she is playing on the jukebox of a dingy pub. Robert encounters an aggressive pool playing girl who attacks him when he spoils her shot. The world of women, of couples: remote, inaccessible, threatening.
The Frozen Years.
Radio On was filmed in winter, Robert’s flat is authentically freezing, there is snow by the side of the road, an icy sheen to the shots. This corresponds to the repeated reference to the 70s as an Ice Age, from the title of the novel itself, to the images of Joy Division snowbound against unforgiving concrete, and is continued by the least well known song on the soundtrack (other than a snatch of ambient Frippery ) Frozen Years by The Rumour.
The song promises release from this condition, the thaw will come and life will be restored. In a sense then all one need do is wait for rebirth in the Eighties, the Seventies is not a set of particular social circumstances but a kind of geological phenomenon, beyond human agency: drift, drive, drink, just stay alive long enough and you will be delivered ( Mike Leigh’s later Naked deals in similar themes). There’s a degree then in which utopian teleology carries a disempowering, depressing element, the future will be better than the past, now always stands in the shadow of what is to come, incomplete, underdeveloped: at its worst the present is idiotic, contemptible, the dark age we toil through as we wait for deliverance, concrete immediate struggles are pointless historical minutiae. This combination of contempt for the present and a sense of being for, or partly of the future (you have your Kraftwerk cassettes, after all) can lead to a certain smug quietism, a remaining aloof, a sense of election. This is the reverse of the nostalgia mode, a disabling homesickness for the future.
German Aunt: They (young people) are not afraid so they become selfish instead. I think young people in this country don’t know what it is to be afraid.
In another sense the Cold World of the Seventies, the dejection of living through a period between epochs, when one world has declined, before the next has arrived, is not cold enough. The Eighties promises to be colder yet and brighter, a different kind of coldness, the ecstatic release into the coldness of the man-machine, the wired world, the interface, freeing us from the cage of nerves and the bodies needs, releasing us to become creatures of pure play and sensation. This is the promise of the electronic reality, dematerialisation, we are on the cusp of entering a post-political realm which will also be a post-embodied world. It’s not just, as Pater had it, that all art aspires to the condition of music, all life does. This Utopian current continues on right through the Eighties and Nineties, with the promise of the ultimate disembodiment of Cyberspace, in which one is everywhere and nowhere, half out of the world, a democratization of the Artists blessed remove.
The cold world, the sparse world, is also one relieved from the burden of objects, (and here we might contrast Robert and The Dead Brother’s flats) the melancholy weight of your own history, from which you can not detach yourself. The Eighties promise is one of liberatory minimalism, an escape from all those things which crowd in on us, oppress us, and link us to our losses, objects as a concretization of our own lost time, of abandoned, earlier selves. This is the mysterious presence of death and the dead within life, existing in these things that they have left behind, that they owned and cherished. Mass produced, easily replaceable they become imbued with a paradoxically intense particularity. Technology’s promise is that it will eliminate the ways in which we are slowly saturated in and suffocated by the baleful aura of the objects bequeathed to us. The Seventies are still a point in which the dead themselves are in an intermediate stage, unable to pass over, trapped in things. We are all caught in limbo, living and dead alike, waiting for the full release, the return to Spirit that technology can offer. In place of our imperishable souls our images and voices will live on, through photographs and video, floating in some radiant non-place. The current obsession with cataloguing every nuance of taste and every action no matter how trivial is this: the building of a Soul, an attempt to cheat death.
Home sweet Home.
Robert’s journey ends in a quarry, he brings the car to a halt perilously close to the edge of a sheer drop, is unable to start it manually when the battery dies. There is a strong suggestion that Robert will commit suicide at the film’s conclusion, he has shown obvious signs of frustration, been shocked and intimidated by the girls attack, is drinking and has set off for the most desolate, remote place he can find.
But instead a subtle and miraculous shift takes place. He plays his brother’s cassette, pauses for a moment to finish his drink and then walks away, leaves the car singing quietly to itself on the edge of the abyss, setting off on foot for the nearest train station. As he goes, in a two shot sequence in which he appears to cover surreally enormous distances, the music shifts from diegetic to non-diegetic, filling the vast empty spaces of the quarry, the shoreline, the country train station, in a reversal of the opening sequence in which Heroes/Helden is miniaturised, contained and neutralized. The track, appropriately enough is Kraftwerk’s punning Ohm Sweet Ohm. This is Robert's homecoming, he has held out long enough, either the times have changed, he has passed through his own period of anomie, or both. He abandons the only objects he seems to possess, his car, his/his brother’s Kraftwerk cassettes and as Ohm Sweet Ohm picks up to a gentle canter, its techno-bucolic mirroring the rural railway station from which Robert returns to the city, the rain stops and the sun breaks through the clouds. There is a final reversal, the mirror image of the sustained, high angle take of Robert leaving London. In the first shot the camera holds long enough for a train to cut across the centre of the screen as the car disappears into the distance, here Robert boards the train, and as we watch it move away the barriers go up and a series of cars now move across the middle of the shot. Journey’s end.