paul morley

Agit Disco

AGIT DISCOedited by Stefan Szczelkun and Anthony Iles, 2012 Mute Books
review by Simon Poulter, February 2012

Walking into a record shop in Hamilton, Ontario last year, it was as if I was going back in time. It is hard not to be sentimental about such places – the smell, the sense of anticipation and the overall experience of a physical space full of music. Oh, a physical space…

One of my favourite songs is ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ by the Only Ones and after scuffing around the shop I walked out with a used 12″ of ‘Special View’. Popular myth would have it that once upon a time there were formative list-makers, DJs such as John Peel, who would spend their time sifting through the world’s music and relaying it back to us via the fuzzy radios in our bedrooms. Then digital music formats appeared supplanting the rule of vinyl before music completely disappeared into data-space, evil piracy and downloads. Along the way the discourses between music, youth and activism changed when music as a popular networked medium gave way to the distributed torrent of the web. So music became ‘content’, free and subjected to random acts such as ‘shuffle’. The Poisoned Apple.

There is no shuffle in the work of Stefan Szczelkun. He has created a project in the form of a book that comprises of a series of suggested CD compilations assembled by invited cohorts. At first, the choice of a soon to be redundant medium such as the compact disc seems oddly perverse, yet Agit Disco offers a syncretic approach to the music histories that transport us from Muddy Waters to Mos Def. The contributors insights are of course reflective on their personal histories; for example Tom Jennings’ reminder that the source code of rap is direct action and not designer clothing. As far as I am aware there are no baseball caps or designer ales as a spin off from this book.

But Agit Disco is a book with a purpose. As soon as you pick it up you are reminded of the personal intimacy of the print medium. The book is anchored on the author’s long-standing connection to working class politics and its musical anthems and idiosyncrasies. As I have thumbed through it I have come to the unshakable conviction that with a straight shoot out between Google and Agit Disco, I would have a higher degree of finding something musically interesting from the observations of the contributors of the book. So there is still work to do on the algorithms of the semantic web, or higher granularity in the recommendations of a human who has listened.

The editors, Stefan Szczelkun and Anthony Iles, are fully aware that this is no contest and that their roles may lie more as archivists and not activists. While Julian Temple’s trilogy of films about punk act as an archaeology of personalities for example, there are still many layers beneath of lesser known mortals who have performed interesting acts. Indeed, Stefan Szczelkun’s credentials in mining and recording the cultural moments of London and the UK’s sub-cultures are impeccable and if I had one criticism of this book then it would be that it lacks a more in-depth narrative on these matters. But perhaps this is a future project that both the editors have in them, given the predominant focus on cult of personality in music writing and relative absence of a political story.

However in his introduction, Anthony Iles, expertly dispenses with the lame reconstructions and self-agrandisations of artists. Northern Soul, oh yes I saw that at an art gallery somewhere. He also points out that Agit Disco emanates from the blogosphere and a requirement to problematise aesthetics and criticality on music as a political force. Wryly, he draws attention to the contradictory status of celebrity within a countercultural milieu, so we have Stewart Home slotted in as a natural contributor here. Home’s playlist takes up the challenge wholeheartedly, recognising the importance of juxtaposition and classics – so we have Toots and the Maytals ’54-46 Was My Number’ spinning into ‘Don’t Be a Drop Out’ by James Brown and the “E Pluribus Unum’ by The Last Poets.

A comparator piece of writing that springs to mind is Paul Morley’s ‘Words and Music’, always bound to be trapped in time with its focus on Kylie Minogue. However, a quote from it:

“Some day music will only be air. There will be no objects to hold or fetishise and people will simply collect lists. No disc, nothing spooled or grooved, no heads to clean, no dust to wipe, no compulsive alphabetising.”

While most of this is true, we could argue that rather than collecting lists, more and more people are making them, as a consequence of distributed media and the disruption of the music industry distribution model. This is one of the most revolutionary actions of our time.

Agit Disco is therefore a project that combines friendships and associations with the full use of the extended communication of digital tools. It’s a book that utilises the aggregation effects of the web to hand the reader back some discrete thoughts and tunes.

Peter Conlin flags up Dissident Island [] and a reminder that music creates a mutuality among generations as we ‘pick the same stuff’. This is never more problematic for some, where in the UK, we have apparently selected political leaders, who as well as studying PPE at Oxford, were listening to The Smiths, hunting stags and wreaking chaos in restaurants.

The last contributor to the book, Tracey Moberly, signs off her list with ‘I Don’t Give A Fuck’ by Peaches (with samples from Joan Jett). A truly seminal track that never fails to bring a smile to a misty grey morning wherever you are.

Ending on an Amazon moment – for aficionados of the UK underground, you might also like Stefan Szczelkun’s ‘Survival Scrapbooks’.

To purchase Agit Disco go to Metamute

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Paul Morley in Conversation

Paul Morley in Conversation

An interview with Paul Morley as part of the McLuhan’s Message Programme curated for Watershed Media Centre in October 2011.


Duration: 1hour 5mins 39secs

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