Posted on 25.01.12
Review written for Winter 2011 issue of I, Science magazine.
You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier (Penguin, 2010)
Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook, BBC2 (4 December 2011)
In You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier – computer scientist, virtual-reality pioneer, and ‘scholar-at-large’ for Microsoft Research – describes the rapid rise in computing power and the exponential growth of the internet since his early programming days in the 1970s: “It’s as if you kneel to plant a seed of a tree and it grows so fast that it swallows your whole village before you can even rise to your feet”. Lanier is a technological visionary who witnessed the web explode from being the bespoke tool of a niche community, into the multi-purpose platform on which everybody does everything. But he believes that “the internet has gone sour”.
“The early waves of web activity were remarkably energetic and had a personal quality. People created personal ‘homepages’, and each of them was different, and often strange. The web had flavour”. Part of the problem is the massive commercialisation the web has seen: “Commercial interests promoted the widespread adoption of standardized designs like the blog, and these designs encouraged pseudonymity … instead of the proud extroversion that characterized the first wave of web culture”.
Despite how that sounds, it is not a matter of nostalgia but of choice. Lanier’s point is that there was an arbitrariness to the web’s inception – Tim Berners-Lee, its inventor, was just one man working at CERN, looking for an easy way to share research materials across the internet. Currently, despite the impression that Web 2.0 is largely controlled and created by us, its users, the vast majority of its content is channelled through homogenizers like WordPress, Facebook, or Google.
Lanier wants us to be aware of lock-in. Arbitrary design decisions can stick around – most especially in complex and interdependent software systems, where layers are built on top of layers and choices once made with little thought to the future become fossilised. This is a problem for the software industry in general, but on the web it underpins a new online society. Facebook alone has 800 million users (20 million of them in the UK) and at its peak recorded half a billion online at once – that’s more than the population of the US and EU combined.
Recently, Lanier appeared in BBC2′s Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook, where he talks of the “flattening” effect of social network interfaces, where “everybody’s just filling out a form”. The choices made by Facebook’s designers – ‘relationship status’, ‘philosophy’, ‘music’, ‘books’, ‘movies’, etc – became the way we express an identity: “If you want to know me, know my forms!”
Lanier’s book is a manifesto for engineering, a salutary reminder not to miss out on a technology’s full potential – even its full meaning – because of a limiting design. “It takes only a tiny group of engineers to create technology that can shape the entire future of human experience with incredible speed”, he writes. “Therefore, crucial arguments about the human relationship with technology should take place between developers and users before such direct manipulations are designed”.
Is it too idealistic to assume this kind of dialogue could take place? At times it looks as if Facebook listens. Outcries over its tinkering with privacy settings, rights to uploaded photos after users had removed them, and innovations like Beacon, which alerted your Friends to what you’d been buying online were all met with appeasing U-turns.
Of course, Facebook needs our trust to survive. We cannot forget this is a company with an estimated value of $100 billion, despite Zuckerberg’s way with faux-naive pronouncements: “If you go back, most people had no voice, no podium where they could share things. Now everybody does”, he says in an interview in the documentary. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO – a Google executive brought over to show Facebook how to make the most of its advertising opportunities – pushes a similarly utopian line: “When you put technology behind the power of who we are as people, the world changes. That is the power of what we do”.
Perhaps the most telling moment is when Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s VP of Public Policy, pauses for a full 15 seconds – an age in TV time – during a quibble over the difference between capital-L Liking a brand and implicitly agreeing to advertise it, as in the Sponsored Story sidebar where the click of a button can make you the new face of Coca-Cola. “You’re asking a profound question”, he finally manages. “What’s advertising? On the Facebook system when I click a Like button I’m affirmatively communicating that I’m associating myself with whatever I’m Liking”.
Of course, Facebook is paid each time somebody clicks that button. Our online identity and behaviour are what it sells. “It’s not that people don’t care about privacy”, Zuckerberg says. “But people are seeing every day [that sharing is] awesome and that’s why the world is moving in that direction”. Is ‘awesome’ enough?
Posted on 25.01.12
Written for Winter 2011 issue of I, Science magazine.
Update [04.02.12] Since this piece was written, The Observer has published videos apparently showing topless Jarawa women being made to dance for policemen and tourists on “human safari”.
Update [06.02.12] After Stephen Corry left his comments below, I invited him to put across his point of view more formally in an interview posted on the I, Science website.
In January 2006, two Indian fishermen were killed by indigenous tribesmen when their boat drifted too close to North Sentinel Island, a tiny outcrop in the Andaman archipelago between India and Burma. When an Indian coastguard helicopter later approached the island to investigate, Sentinelese warriors repelled it with spears and arrows – but not before the helicopter’s down-draft had revealed the fishermen’s bodies lying in shallow graves on the beach. This at least put paid to local rumours that the unfortunate men had been eaten by this uncontactable tribe, a people reportedly without the ability to work metal or use fire.
Keen to know more about these isolated Andaman Islanders, I contacted Dr. Michael Stewart, an anthropologist at University College London. “It’s all fantasy, the idea of an uncontacted tribe!” he interrupts, when I broach the subject. “It’s a total fantasy. And the Andaman Islanders are a wonderful example of that. The Andaman Islands are one of the major tourist destinations for South Asian tourists. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands go there every year”.
It is the Sentinelese who are at threat from an encroaching outside world. Their Andaman neighbours, the Jarawa, have suffered disruption, measles outbreaks, and unwanted tourist attention since the 300km-long Great Andaman Trunk Road was built through their forest homeland. Private companies operate illegal sightseeing tours for curious outsiders to take photographs, while dislocated Jarawa beg at the roadside. Legislation has been put in place to offer some protection but the fate of these people may still end up being similar to that of the Native Americans. “When the Andaman Islanders throw things at people it’s because they know them and they’ve had a bad experience with them”, Stewart wryly suggests. “It’s precisely the opposite of an uncontacted people”.
The fantasy of unknown peoples is a compelling part of popular culture and promoted by TV programs like BBC2′s Tribal Wives. “It’s more a kind of romantic fantasy that it would be possible to really get away and hide – it’s a humanized version of the yeti story”, Stewart says. He mentions an episode of Tribal Wives featuring the Huaorani – a remote Ecuadorian tribe – which doesn’t quite manage to keep the airstrip the Houarani have built to receive tourists out of shot. Similarly, in The Tribe That Hides From Man, a famous 1970 documentary film about ‘first contact’ with a Brazilian tribe: “If you watch it with a critical eye, it becomes quite clear that these people have steel axes – steel axes don’t grow in the Amazon jungle, they’ve got them through barter with other people”.
That’s not to say there aren’t pockets of truly isolated people, but it’s more accurate to think of them as reclusive than uncontacted. “There are Huaorani who are living in the Amazon who travel around in very small groups – just a family – a man, a woman, and some children – who really do avoid, as far as is possible, contact with other people. There are people who systematically avoid contact”. The Mbuti – an indigenous pygmy people from the Congo region of Africa – are another group who are “ambivalent about contact with outsiders”, as Stewart puts it. For the Mbuti a history of indebtedness and exploitation at the hands of neighbouring tribes led them to shun interaction.
If such people have deliberately sought isolation, there are obviously ethical questions about studying them. “It’s a constant source of self-questioning”, agrees Stewart. Generally, he believes social research is for the public good, noting parallels between much ethnographic research and journalism. As in the Leveson Inquiry, the issue is where to draw the lines. “Somebody who in some way betrays the secrets of a population they do research with – if that includes where they hide out, as it were – that would be universally condemned”.
But are there truly no unexplored peoples left in the world? “If people don’t want to be studied then they don’t get studied”, he says. “Famously, anthropologists don’t study the super rich of the Western world, who don’t want to have their lives exposed – there’s no ethnography of the Saudi royal family – these people stop you. Anthropologists have tried to do ethnography of the super rich and the super powerful but they don’t want to let anthropologists in”.
And the super rich are a lot better than indigenous tribes at keeping outsiders away.
Location: Ecuadorian Amazon
Location: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Location: North Sentinel Island
Population: ~250 (incomplete but official census: 39)
Location: western side of South Andaman and Middle Andaman Islands
Population: ~150 in 1950s. So few that their lands were considered uninhabited and used as an atomic-bomb test site. They have since been allocated a protected conservation area.
Location: Great Victoria Desert, Western Australia.
Posted on 25.01.12
Written for the excellent Guru magazine.
The speed of light is as much a part of popular culture as Chewbacca or Mr Spock. The scandalous suggestion last September that neutrinos had exceeded the universal limit of 299,792 km/s – a violation of the seemingly inviolable and a threat to science’s very own poster boy, Albert Einstein – understandably captured the popular imagination. Particle physicists the world over (once they’d got the jokes out of their system) have been poring over the results of the OPERA experiment looking for sources of possible error, and coming up with pet theories of their own for what might have happened beneath the Swiss Alps. Now, in addition to special relativity, it appears even the principle of the conservation of energy might be at stake.
One setback in the rush to corroborate the original experiment’s results was that a key particle accelerator in the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC) had been damaged in the March 2011 earthquake. But now, after almost a year’s worth of repairs, it’s about to be switched back on. With the Japanese T2K experiment once again firing off neutrinos and with speed cameras poised, maybe we’ll get some new neutrino news.
Nevertheless, through all this waiting I’ve been left with a simple question: How on earth do you measure the speed of light in the first place? I don’t think Chewie ever got round to that. So, ever the investigative reporter, I did a little googling and looked in a book. Here’s not one, but five ways to measure the speed of light.
1. Claim to have infinitely fast rays shooting from your eyes and skip the measuring altogether.
For obvious reasons, it took us a long time to realise that light was even something that travelled. And once we were beyond that, there was a stubborn theory around for a while that light didn’t travel into our eyes but out of them. If you’re starting from this premise, it’s a small wonder people agreed that the speed of light was infinite. After all, when we open our eyes we see the sun and moon and stars immediately, so the light rays our eyes are emitting would have to reach those distant objects in an instant. There were the usual mavericks, Galileo among them, who devised cunning experiments to test the idea – such as uncovering lanterns on hilltops several miles apart to see if delays were discernible – but the distances involved were too small and the speed of light too great for these methods to help.
2. Spend night after night watching the movements of celestial spheres and begin to notice tiny discrepancies.
In the 17th Century many people started pointing telescopes at the sky. Some of them eventually noticed variations in the time between eclipses of Jupiter’s moon Io, which decreased when the Earth was moving towards Jupiter and increased when it was moving away. Those not still hung up on the infinite-eye-ray idea realised that light from Jupiter must take longer to reach us when Jupiter is farther away. In 1676, based on estimations of the distances involved, Danish astronomer Ole Rømer calculated the speed of light to be about 214,000 km/s, which is amazingly accurate given the technology of the time. Cassini and Huygens – contemporaries of Rømer who are more famous because we’ve named spaceships after them – came to similar conclusions, but history’s decided were giving this one to Rømer.
3. Devise increasingly ingenious contraptions with mirrors and moving parts and do away with telescopes.
In the 19th Century people set about making machines. In 1849, ingenious Frenchman Armand Fizeau placed a rapidly spinning, toothed wheel between a light source and a mirror. Knowing the rate at which the wheel spun, and adjusting it, he determined the speed of light to be 315,000 km/s by observing when the reflected beam passed through one gap in the teeth of the wheel on the way out and the next gap on the way back. But, in 1862, even more ingenious Frenchman Leon Foucault (he of the pendulum) dispensed with the wheel and used a revolving mirror. By reflecting light off the rapidly revolving mirror and measuring the difference in angle of the source and reflected beam, he calculated the speed of light to be 298,000 km/s.
4. Use a microwave oven.
In the 20th Century people invented lasers. The most accurate measurement of the speed of light to date – 299,792.458 km/s – was obtained in 1972 at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology by looking at the interference patterns of lasers and simultaneously measuring their wavelength and frequency. Multiplying these together gives the speed of light, which is good news for citizen science because the technique can now be used by anyone with access to a microwave. First remove the microwave plate so it won’t spin. Then choose something that melts, like butter or chocolate (not ice), and put it in the microwave for 15-20 seconds. By the power of luck and science, you should then see spots that have begun to melt: these spots are where reflected microwaves meet, so measuring the distance between neighbouring spots and multiplying by two gives the microwaves’ wavelength. The frequency can be discovered even more easily by reading what it says on the back of the oven. Multiply the wavelength by the frequency and voila, you’ve calculated the speed of light! When I tried this I found the speed of light to be 367,500 km/s, so either I was a little slapdash with my measuring or I’ve got even more exciting news than those guys with the neutrinos. I’ll try again when I’ve got some more butter and a ruler than hasn’t been chewed by a cat.
5. Shift all the attention onto something else and measure that instead.
Nowadays, it’s all about defining standards. In 1983, people gave up on measuring the speed of light and the Seventeenth General Congress on Weights and Measures simply came out and defined it as 299,792.458 km/s in perpetuity, spoiling everybody’s fun. From then on, increased precision in measurement affects not the agreed speed of light but the agreed length of the metre itself, which in a complete reversal has become defined in terms of light: the metre is now the distance light travels in a vacuum in one second. I wonder how we measure a second.
Posted on 06.01.12
Uzeda | Refused | Chevreuil | Pairs | Melt-Banana | HDU | Sumo | Minutemen
From 15 October-8 December 2011 I wrote a weekly column called Punk Planet (ripping off the late, august US zine of the same name) for Felix, Imperial College London’s student newspaper. Skipping a week somewhere along the line makes that eight columns. I wanted to focus on the do-it-yourself ethic integral to punk scenes worldwide. Each installment picks a band or two from a different country and says a little something about why I think they are great and interesting and worth seconds of your internet attention. You’ll find loud punk, quiet punk, fast punk, and slow punk. The common theme is that these are bands of ordinary people who wanted to make music and understood there was nothing to stop them. Read, listen, and then start a band.
/// Punk Planet #1 / Uzeda / Italy
Sicily: land of citrus fruit, olive oil, and Uzeda, a band hailing from the foothills of smoking Mount Etna. Three of their five albums were recorded by Steve Albini, the pixie of punk rock himself, and released on the Touch & Go label. Albini’s instantly recognizable sound on 4 (1995), Different Section Wires (1998), and Stella (2006) encouraged online music magazine Pitchfork to call Uzeda a Touch & Go cover band with the Pixies’ Kim Deal on vocals.
That’s no bad thing. They share a soundscape with Touch & Go labelmates Shellac (Albini’s own band) and the David Yow-fronted Jesus Lizard. “Tighter than a supermodel’s stomach” is one way I’ve heard the Jesus Lizard described and that’ll do just as nicely for Uzeda. But Kim Deal’s the wrong name-check. Uzeda’s vocalist Giovanna Cacciola is a female Yow, cooing and moaning and pleading in a monologue that tugs at the engine of the band.
And what an engine: it’s jazz rock, jittery and just in-tune, but firing on all cylinders. There’s a wildness here, the bass growling like a feral dog, the guitars spiking like the tongue of a snake, unpredictable yet languid. But the tightness makes it more machine than animal, bolted together by the piston snap of the snare.
Check out www.uzedatheband.com for audio and video streams of all the band’s recorded material.
/// Punk Planet #2 / Refused / Sweden
There’s nothing more hardcore punk than having a creed to live by. The straight-edge subculture – an abstention from drink, drugs, promiscuous sex, and often hair – was a scene-wide creed of sorts, inspired by the anti-hedonistic stance of 1980s bands such as Minor Threat. Many bands have adopted the stance of political revolutionaries.
But Refused (1991-1998), a hardcore punk band from Umeå, Sweden, wrote manifestos. A typical liner note proclaims “the art produced by Refused is a weapon in the service of the struggle and an inseparable part of it”. Their final press release, announcing their split, begins: “Just like the political theorists and philosophers (Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida, Debord and so on) we also managed with a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. A manifestation of an idea to a concrete action”. They believed in their own pretensions, they backed every word of their cod-theoretical cant with an intensity of songwriting and performance that made you believe it too. I’d like to send copies of their records to my MP.
Refused started out on This Just Might Be The Truth (1994) as a good homegrown European version of The Nation of Ulysses. Like their American counterparts, theirs was a punk that had roots in the protest song: Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent (1996) took its name from a 1909 songbook from the Industrial Workers of the World, an international trade union calling for a united workers’ class and abolition of the wage system. But it is for The Shape of Punk to Come (1998) that they truly matter. A few years ago Kerrang! ranked this album at #13 on a “50 Most Influential Albums of All Time”. Yeah, who cares about Kerrang! and who cares about lists? Yet few people noticed The Shape of Punk to Come when it came out – it lives instead, as its title proclaimed it would, in the hardcore scene of today.
Refused wrote songs full of complex rhythms and stomach-lurching dynamics. In The Shape of Punk to Come they also played around with electronica and jazz and the kind of studio production that normally kills a band of this persuasion. Here it’s done so artfully, fitted so well to the songs, and without loss of intensity, that it lifts this record atmospheres above the angry, shouty street-punk kids they’d grown from. But most importantly, Refused could write pop hooks worthy of ABBA. Take Summer Holidays vs Punk Routine from this last album: sandwiched between churning guitars you’re hit by a euphoric rush more immediately uplifting than anything you’ll find in the superclubs of Ibiza.
Refused broke up in 1998, bitter, disenchanted, and tired. True to their grounded roots, they played their last show in the basement of a friend’s house. When the police raided the party and shut the band down, they saw it as a liberation.
A few mp3s can downloaded from the old Burning Heart site and other places dotted about the internet. But you should go and buy The Shape of Punk to Come immediately.
/// Punk Planet #3 / Chevreuil / France
There’s more to French rock than Serge Gainsbourg. For a time there was Sloy (1991-2000) who looked like they were going places after playing shows with Shellac and being invited on tour by P J Harvey. John Peel took a shine to them too, back in the day. But despite sexing up their sleazy punk sound with a bugle solo on their third album Electrelite (1998) it still ended up being their last.
Carrying the Tricolore today are Chevreuil. Chevreuil are so French they don’t even bother translating their band profile. But no matter, the gist is clear: “Tony C. (guitare) et Julien F. (batterie) commencent le groupe CHEVREUIL en 1998 … 3 albums (“SPORT” – 2000, “GHETTO BLASTER” – 2001, “CHATEAUVALLON” – 2003) … mentor STEVE ALBINI … batterie mécanique/métronome … le groupe inaugure la guitare magnétique, instrument hybride qui a un pied dans l’univers du rock et l’autre dans l’atmosphère de la musique électronique”. Roughly speaking, Chevreuil tread the same territory as Battles, but they’re scuzzier and do without the squeaky vocals. There’s also only two of them, augmented by multiple amps and – in case you missed it back there – a “magnetic guitar”.
All punk has roots in its fanbase, with many bands doing as much as possible to blur the line between band and audience. Lightning Bolt famously set up on the floor in front of the stage when they play, with the crowd usually bouncing into the drumkit. Chevreuil have gone further and taken an academic stance towards inclusiveness. Last year they collaborated with Prof. Rodolphe Durand, chair of the Strategy department at the HEC Paris business school, on his latest book The Pirate Organization: an essay on the evolution of capitalism, which seeks answers to the questions “what connects sea pirates of the 17th century to the pirate radios, cyber hackers, and biopirates of our times?” and “how does piracy relate to the evolution of capitalism?”. True to the spirit of the project, Chevreuil wrote a song to accompany the book and released it under a Creative Commons license. For their part in the enterprise the band were profiled in the Financial Times, an outlet not well known for its coverage of punk rock.
Since we’re in France this week anyway, it’s also worth checking out Sincabeza and Pneu, especially if Chevreuil are your cup of chocolat chaud. All three have song samples streamed from their last.fm pages (Chevreuil, Sincabeza, Pneu) and Chevreuil’s song about pirating can be downloaded from The Pirate Organisation.
/// Punk Planet #4 / Pairs / China
With Europe gone to the dogs and its leaders making gold-digger eyes at China, it’s probably a good time to check out Shanghai’s eclectic punk scene. Sure, there’s a whole Beijing vs Shanghai thing, but what Beijing has in the way of a distinct and cohesive sound, Shanghai more than makes up for in its DIY ethic. Andy Best – one-time Scouser turned champion of the Shanghai scene and founder of the local Qu record label – says “It’s only since I came to Shanghai in 2001 that I found a music scene I liked again, one based around DIY culture and not sending tapes to A&R men”. But then, as he also points out, “people are in it for the love and not the money (there’s no choice)”.
Also holding the scene together is Shanghai’s mainstay venue, Yuyintang, and a lo-fi, stripped down aesthetic, to which western ears are most partial. It’s this that probably first got Pairs noticed by the likes of MTV and BBC Radio’s Tom Ravenscroft. Taking the common line-up of just guitar and drums – this generation’s power-trio – drummer Rhys squawk-shouts along to F’s raucous and hurried guitar-chord melodies – fuzzy, happy melodies that bring on a smile like a Sonic Youth pop song.
Interviewed by We Live In Beijing, Rhys explained: “Our music just comes from our lack of talent, our inability to play up-strokes on the guitar and from our personalities. We tried to write some slower songs, but I think we just got too excited and they sped up overtime. Maybe if we had a metronome we would be a totally different band.”
But in spite of this they still won Best New Band at the 2010 Shanghai Grammys, with one of the judges sensibly observing “[Pairs] are a lot of noise, but I like their noise, and they make sense … They kind of invaded us during summer, and I’m happy they are there”. Andy Best hopes they “kickstart a bunch of similar bands who just go for it and don’t try to be polished genre acts”.
Pairs put out their first, self-titled album with the Qu label in 2010 and released their second Summer Sweat (2011) themselves. Pairs want you to stream both of them from pairs.bandcamp.com.
/// Punk Planet #5 / Melt-Banana / Japan
As with many of its cultural exports, Japan’s punk is a little different. Epitomised by bands such as the percussion-heavy Boredoms, the metal-heavy Boris, and psychedelic OOIOO, its brand of noise-rock tempers avant-garde intensity with kitschy dollops of fun. Fastest, sharpest and strangest of the lot, though, is Melt-Banana, who play what might as well be cartoon music at three times the intended speed.
Melt-Banana are a four-piece, but they do without a proper drummer, the drum stool occupied in a kind of hot-desking arrangment. Singer Yasuko Onuki, guitarist Ichirou Agata, and bass player Rika Hamamoto make up the band’s sound, each given equal prominence in the insane onslaught. Imagine a soundtrack to The Itchy & Scratchy Show scored for pneumatic drills and laserguns, played on fastforward and interspersed with sound-effects from a bullet-hell shooter. Except all those pew-pew noises are coming out of the guitar amps. It’s not a surprise to learn that Agata converts euphoric melodies that come to him while playing video games into guitar riffs – apparently, the Tony Hawk skate-boarding games are especially inspiring.
Melt-Banana have been prolific since the core band came together in Tokyo in 1992, releasing ten albums and 20+ EPs, most of them put out internationally through A-Zap, a label they started themselves. But it’s their live shows that have made them legends. The band spring and jerk about the stage like perpetual-motion Jacks for an entire set, ripping relentlessly through dozens of songs, few more than a minute long. There’s often a popular interlude where they play through a bunch of 10-second songs, each followed by a politely yelped “Thank you!” to the audience. The whole band sometimes wear iconic surgical masks, but it’s said Agata wears his because he gives himself nosebleeds onstage.
Still, awesome as Melt-Banana are, not everyone likes to sprinkle shichimi on their udon, so let’s end with a nod to Shonen Knife, a pop-punk girl band formed in Osaka in the 1980s. Sticklers for the DIY approach, they eschewed the J-Pop fashion and modelled themselves instead on the Buzzcocks and Ramones. It wasn’t long before they caught Kurt Cobain’s eye and they toured the UK with Nirvana in the pre-Nevermind days. Other things to like? Shonen Knife have a song called Rock n’ Roll Cake and 30 years in, they’re still releasing records, still honouring their idols: their latest album is Osaka Ramones (2011).
You can stream short, sharp shots of Melt-Banana from A-Zap’s myspace and choice tidbits of Shonen Knife from Shonen Knife’s myspace.
/// Punk Planet #6 / High Dependency Unit / New Zealand
You can’t go much further than Dunedin, New Zealand, before you’re on your way back again. Nearly 20 thousand kms away, give or take, it’s probably the remotest city in the world. Wherever you are, though, it’s usually only the little things that change. A good friend who moved to New Zealand was struck most by bus drivers not sitting behind perspex and the common habit of barefoot supermarket-shopping. Then as you stand there reflecting on how everything’s more or less the same on the other side of the world, you suddenly notice they have a different sky.
So it is with the Dunedin band High Dependency Unit (HDU), whose claims to fame include touring with Shellac and exciting John Peel enough to call them “one of the 10 best bands in the world you’ve never heard of”. Starting off on the Christchurch-based independent label Flying Nun Records with Abstinence: Acrimony (1995), HDU have released 6 or 7 albums (depending how you count) and several EPs of dirty psychedelic punk.
This isn’t punk played with pace: HDU take their time, the songs building up to what for most bands would be a starting point. The vocals are the slow slur of a drunk proclaiming happily to a world hurrying by. Their sound has become even more drawn out, more ambient as they’ve aged. You could argue that the ethereal soundscapes of their latest release, Metamathics (2008) – which drummer Dino Karlis pointed out was “the first album where we’ve used hand-claps, the first where we’ve used saxophone and the first where we’ve used piano” – isn’t punk at all, but I’m not going to. HDU just do punk at a distance, familiar enough to be uncanny. Same bedrock, different sky.
If you want a more upbeat variety of Dunedin punk, check out the similarly psychedelic but far more bouncy Die Die Die! who share a split 7” with HDU. The local New Zealand scene is characterised by the “Dunedin sound”, which one well-known internet resource helpfully describes as “jingly jangly”. Indeed, Flying Nun Records was also a home to the Californian band Pavement, who made up for not being local by being the jingliest jangliest band of the lot.
All of High Dependency Unit’s releases can be streamed by turning on the tap at highdependencyunit.bandcamp.com. But don’t rush things. Let it drip, drip, drip. As a chaser you can stream one song from Die Die Die!’s latest We Built Our Own Oppressors (2010) from diediedie.bandcamp.com.
/// Punk Planet #7 / Sumo / Argentina
Argentine punk had a troubled upbringing. Though inspired by the notoriety of the Sex Pistols (1975-1978), Argentina’s pioneers couldn’t afford to play the same kind of media-baiting games. The year that brought us punk rock brought Argentina a vicious military dictatorship, and all evidence suggests dictators don’t like punk. As taboo-breaking as the Sex Pistols were at the time, with their God Save the Queen and chat-show swears – the headlines “4-Letter Words Rock TV” (Telegraph) and “The Filth and the Fury!” (Mirror) give some idea of the kerfuffle – the taboos broken were parochial. In Argentina, at the time, similar antics would have had you disappeared.
One of the most important scene-setting bands was Los Violodores (1981-) – the violators, or law-breakers – who despite heavy-handed censorship established an underground movement of dissent and released an album a year. One way they survived their dangerous early period was by cannily adopting the name Los Voladores – the flying ones – whenever things looked especially dicey. They’re still going strong, chastising slightly younger upstarts 2 Minutos (1987-) for writing unpunk songs about beer and football.
Just as Argentine punk was escaping its oppressed childhood and coming of age, the Falklands War made eveything associated with the UK, well– let’s just say, uncool. Sumo (1981-1987), one of the most influential scene-setters, understandably didn’t want to be a punk band, and peppered its sound with everything from reggae to tango. Luca Prodan, Sumo’s frontman, was born in Rome but grew up in Scotland, where he went to Gordonstoun – the famously cold and character-building boarding school that counts both the Queen’s husband and eldest son among its alumni. In a divergent career path to our heir to the throne, Prodan then befriended Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in Manchester, suffered from heroin addiction, and moved to a friend’s farm in Argentina’s backwoods to kick the habit. There he recorded a few songs in a small studio, eventually moved to the big city, and ended up fronting one of the biggest bands in Argentina. As heritage stories go, Sumo’s beats the usual Peter-meets-Jane-at-art-school.
But let’s end with the fine example of Fun People (1989-2000), a Converse-wearing, pogo-jumping band in the same bouncy vein as punk pioneers Bad Brains. Originally called Anesthesia after a famous Metallica song, they ended up promoting their music as antifascist gay hardcore to distance themselves from the boneheads they were attracting.
All these bands want you to visit their websites, except Sumo, sadly, who might not have one. Los Violodores, 2 Minutos, Fun People.
/// Punk Planet #8 / Minutemen / California, USA
Most people probably wouldn’t point to San Pedro, California, as a birthplace of punk, but they might as well. Punk isn’t Green Day and Blink-182, punk isn’t green hair and safety pins. Punk is an attitude and it can take any form you like. For Minutemen that form was 2-minute bursts of jazzy, bombastic R&B, but in their attitude to playing – to recording, to touring, to what it meant to be in a band – Minutemen were the epitome of punk.
Minutemen (1980-1985) were a three-piece in which bass player Mike Watt’s sound – his “low flow” – was as prominent as the bright guitar playing of his childhood friend D Boon. Their early output eschewed choruses and guitar solos – what they deemed commercialisms of rock music – and stuck to the short, sharp shocks typical of hardcore punk. Armed with such material, they played their first show opening for scene ambassadors Black Flag. However, though the song-writing changed, embracing not only choruses and guitar solos but jazz licks and a little of Captain Beefheart’s avant-blues, the commitment to anti-commercialism would define the band.
For Minutemen, a band wasn’t a get-rich scheme or a path to glory, it was a way of life. They kept their day jobs and they jammed “econo”: they rented studio time during off-peak hours, they used second-hand tape, rehearsing the songs and recording them in as few takes as possible, playing them in the order they wanted them to appear on the record to avoid the costs of editing. They drove themselves around to shows they’d set up themselves and they preached what they practised. There’s a book about the 80s US punk scene called Our Band Could Be Your Life and the title’s taken from the first line of a Minutemen song. It’s a statement that simply and inclusively says, you can do this too. That’s the punk ethos.
Minutemen ended when Boon was killed in a road accident. It took Sonic Youth to pull Watt out of his depression and Minutemen fan Ed Crawford to pester Watt and Minutemen drummer George Hurley to form fIREHOSE (1986-1994). With Crawford on guitar, fIREHOSE flew the DIY flag for almost another decade. Watt also contributed to the Sonic Youth albums EVOL (1986) and Daydream Nation (1988) and played with the Stooges. These days Watt is a punk statesman, driving himself around in a van, playing his “boom-stick” in a grab-bag of side projects, telling everyone he meets to start a band. And you should.