Thursday, 23 June 2011

You have no individual mind. You’re an Amoeba.

I’ve spent most of my life in Peterborough, a city (and it’s only just a city) that for all its flaws, always remains just about interesting enough to keep me here. Too far south to be considered authentically northern, it's also too far north to be comfortably southern. Historically divided between two counties, it’s also awkwardly not quite positioned in either the East Midlands or East Anglia. A home to countless immigrant communities, it remains stolidly Anglo-Saxon. Usually Tory, but frequently Labour, it’s an old working class town in a sea of gentrified suburbs.

It’s really a kind of English everytown, with every social and economic trend of the last fifty years making a mark on its fabric. If anything, what makes it so unusual is its remorseless usualness. That, and the fact that it has managed to keep most of its industry - indeed during the Seventies and Eighties, one of its claims to fame was that on a per capita basis, its export earnings were reputed to be greater than Japan’s.

The Seventies and Eighties were times of great dynamic change for the city. Peterborough had been designated a "New Town" in the 1960’s, and the following decades were the era when the Peterborough Development Corporation set to work laying out the housing estates and business parks to house and provide work for the "overspill" populations, mainly from London, but also from as far afield as Manchester and Glasgow. As most of its historic centre was preserved, the city, far from being a modernist Year Zero in the manner of Milton Keynes, became a strange mixture of the ancient and modern, and this is reflected in its social life. One of the remarkable aspects of the place is that if you go to any of the town centre pubs, the accent you are still most likely to hear is the old local Fenland accent. Visit any of the new estates that ring the centre, and you’ll find them eerily quiet. What do these people, the incomers, do with themselves? It was this strange gulf between the traditional life of the old town, and the weirdly disembodied unlife of the new one, that no doubt inspired Peterborough’s greatest gift to the world of pop.

Nobody understood Sudden Sway during their active period in the 1980’s, and it’s easy to see why. Heavily conceptual, always obscure, their career was marked by what seemed to be bizarrely self-defeating marketing initiatives that appeared to explode in their faces. What wasn’t apparent then, but is obvious now, is that Sudden Sway possessed an unusual prescience. During the dawn of neoliberalism, they had already seen through it, and into the incoherence that it masked.



Sudden Sway liked to portray themselves as a corporation. This was nothing new for a post-punk band of course. Public Image Limited and the British Electric Foundation adopted corporate veneers as a means of intimidatory self-aggrandisation; to project a kind of world-conquering invulnerability (however ironically). The Residents had utilised the idea of the corporation to suggest secret-Masonic infiltration into everyday life. Together these bands saw the corporation as a power-multiplier, as a hidden army that gave them artistic leverage. Sudden Sway on the other hand saw the corporation as a locus of confusion and purveyor of incompetence. They understood that the corporate lexicon of acronyms, buzzwords and futuristic sounding product names (full of x’s and z’s, like the medieval magical grimoires, as English Heretic would no doubt point out) was there as a smokescreen, to obscure the fact that most corporations produce useless or detrimental products via an impenetrable cloud of bureaucracy, the whole melee being kept together only by marketing (the only really important part of the organisation) and political lobbying.

After a couple of unconventional post-punk singles, the first outing of their new corporate sensibility was their Peel Session track "Let’s Evolve". The song mischievously draws the links between classroom listen-and-learn radio shows, New Age self-improvement tapes, aerobics lessons, pharmaceutical innovation, corporate growth strategies and their ur-principle, the theory of natural selection. One of neoliberalism’s great tricks was to adopt Charles Darwin as one of its godfathers, to pretend that "market forces" were simply the inevitable social and economic compliment of his theories. After all, you can’t argue with nature. Sudden Sway’s subsequent career was aimed at demonstrating that neoliberal capitalism, far from being a red-blooded hyena, was in fact a lumbering megatherium plodding towards extinction.



Following their second Peel Session, which introduced another bizarre self-improvement technique, the "hypno-stroll", they were signed to major label WEA’s "indie" offshoot, Blanco y Negro, who no doubt possessed the worst A&R team in the history of the music business. The band’s first release was the "Sing Song" single which was recorded in eight different versions with a promo that was intended to be given to record shops to explain to them how the concept ran together. Each version of the single could only be differentiated by its catalogue number, which meant that the band’s small number of fans had to drive to and fro across the country to track down all the versions if they wanted to hear them. It was the first of incident of what was to become the band’s signature - the disastrous marketing ploy.



Next came the farrago that was "Space Mate", a double album housed in a large, flimsy box that was purported to be a board game. The packaging, which seemed to be deliberately designed to inconvenience both WEA’s distributors and the record shops that sold it, came with a bewildering array of inserts, instructions, wall charts and stickers. I’ve no doubt that there are still warehouses in the south east of England that are full of them.



Sudden Sway were swiftly ejected from WEA and signed to Rough Trade, with whom they released "Autumn Cutback Job Lot Offer", a 7" single that included eight one-minute advertising jingles for products that the band themselves invented. The recording was accompanied by a performing stint at the ICA, and an appearance on "Whistle Test", in which Mark Ellen and Andy Kershaw, (the Jeremy Clarkson and Richard "The Hamster" Hammond of the music biz) could barely contain their authenticist disdain for the group.



For their final release, the concept album/pseudo-West End musical "76 Kids Forever", the band returned to their youth in Peterborough, and lamented how Britain had changed in the mere ten years up to 1986. Remembered nowadays, if at all, as obscurist failures, they were among the very few people of the time who really understood the changes that were happening around them, as well as the ephemeral nature of the ideas that were driving those changes. As neoliberalism starts to wither and contract all around us, Sudden Sway will no doubt emerge inviolate as the prophets without honour that foresaw it all along.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Of course, "the worst A&R team in the history of the music business" was in fact one man, Geoff Travis. Who also ran, and indeed still runs, Rough Trade - hence Sudden Sway ending up there post-Blanco.

Phil Knight said...

All right, the worst HR department, then.

W. Kasper said...

Mark E. Smith's diatribe against Travis was quite amusing, and rang true. ie. How hippy/indy capitalists may be even shadier than the full-on suit'n'tie kind, because they have the pretense of being ideologically sound 'good guys' to cover for their incompetence.

Nice to see these blogs liven up again BTW - I nearly posted a call for our talented contributors to get their arses in gear!

Phil Knight said...

Yes, the worst kind of businessmen are the ones who pretend they aren't businessmen.

There was a famous feminist essay from the early Seventies which described how the attempt to banish hierarchy just leads to the creation of hidden ones which are far more difficult to engage with, but I've forgotten who wrote it.

I feel a long and arduous Google search coming on.....

W. Kasper said...

Well, if we lived in anarchist communes, I reckon we should run it by asking every year who wants to run it - first dozen to put their hands up get publicly executed without trial, to the theme song of 'Malcolm in the Middle'. That should teach the kiddies the right values to aspire to!

Anonymous said...

There's a bit in that Dean Wareham memoir, 'Black Postcards', where he sorta condemns Geoff Travis for being greedy and underhanded re. Galaxie 500; when Rough Trade went bankrupt, Travis retained the group's mechanical royalties, never paid them, and apparently used the money towards buying a new Mercedes. Top bloke.

Phil Knight said...

Ah, but there's something about Mercs and BMW's that seems to warp peoples' minds. I reckon that more than half of the arseholery that takes place in the UK every year is specifically done in order to get hold of a top German motor (or increasingly a Range Rover).

It's like in most middle class milieux, you're naked if you don't own one. I've got an uncle who hangs around with a golfing set, who spent a small fortune last year on a new Merc, and spent the rest of his time whinging about how penniless he was. These things are essential.

It's also why the psychological impact of peak oil on a lot of people is going to be so utterly devastating. There's a huge number of people in the Western world who think that fripperies are essentials.

Anonymous said...

Silly isn't it. Great piece by the way, Phil.

W. Kasper said...

Mercs - and location, location, location.

Anonymous said...

Phil: The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman.

Phil Knight said...

Thanks very much Anon.

Anyone who wants to read it can find it here:

http://www.cddc.vt.edu/bps/CF/structurelessness.htm

It's highly recommended.

J_W said...

They wanted to promote 'Spacemate' by purchasing a fleet of Sinclair C5's and doing impromptu appearances in shopping malls across the country.

Yr Heartout said...

Great to see some words on Sudden Sway but would argue strongly against them not being understood! Is there no mention of Ko-Opera, what was surely their final release (on Rough Trade)? Musically it was very much a taste of what was to come in the '90s and the Klub Londinium walks around London pre-figured the psychogeographical industry of recent times. I wrote a very few words about it here: http://thelondonnobodysings.blogspot.com/2010/05/klub-londinium-20-30.html
There were also some very playful MySpace pages that all interlinked to reflect the different periods of the group, and clearly originated from the group itself. Not sure if they still exist!

Phil Knight said...

Ah, well, maybe it was me that misunderstood them then. I always sort of saw them as one long satire on the Peterborough Development Corporation, who were always releasing films and communiques celebrating a kind of pointless newness; a naff futurism.

If you'd like to write about Ko-opera, you're more than welcome to join the blog and do so.....

Yr Heartout said...

Phil, if you mention Development Corporations you really need this link to some pre-Sudden Sway activity which makes perfect sense in the context of your post. You'll recognise the voice even then: http://youtu.be/WzbvvTy3Kqo

Phil Knight said...

Yes, that makes a huge amount of sense.

I was aware of The Now being the punk antecedents of SS (and quite high profile at the time), but I didn't realise they were so explicit in what they were opposing.

I'm kind of aghast at how prescient they were, once again......