A tribute to JG Ballard – the most punk novelist ever?
The relationship between music and literature is a strong one. These two life-enriching, rewarding disciplines can open up doors to each other consistently, from The Smiths Wildean influence to Kate Bush driving a generation to rediscover Emily Bronte, being well-read can understandably lead to creating interesting music.
But one novelist stands seems to stand above all the others in level of influence on punk culture in particular, which compels me to pay tribute to this month, which sees the fourth anniversary of his death. This is JG Ballard.
Ballard is the sci-fi writer you don’t have to like sci-fi to appreciate. In fact, I’m not sure anybody could put it better than Daniel Miller (founder of Mute records and creator of Ballardian electro as The Normal) with his description of Ballard as “sci fi that could be five minutes in the future.”
Ballard was never quite “cyberpunk,” the label given to many of the other great sci-fi writers of the period such as Philip K. Dick. If anything, he was more like the literary equivalent of actual punk; at times brutally realist (witness his later novel Kingdom Come), straightforward (there is nothing ornate in Ballard’s writing, following a more Orwellian principle) and a wake up call to the world (whilst not his first publication, the first which bought him to wider attention was the environmental warning “The Drowned World.”) His most influential and definitive novel, however, was surely “Crash,” (in which a character actually called James Ballard becomes absorbed into a world of car crash fetisishim) as we will come to see.
It is perhaps the aforementioned Daniel Miller who is responsible for the song with the most heavily influenced by Ballard, The Normals B-side to “TVOD” which actually became the more well-renowned track, “Warm Leatherette.” A fantastically harsh slab of electronica reconstructing the erotic nature of Ballard’s world (memorable lyrics include “the handbrake penetrated your thigh/ quick, lets make love/ before we die.”) Miller had just read “Crash” upon the songs composition bizarrely, it had been recommended to him after his relationship broke up – but many more probably read it upon hearing this song.
Crash is so famous because of controversy, one of the finest forms of publicity. When it was adapted into a film by David Cronenberg, the Daily Mail actually called for it to be banned. Somewhat like punk music, Ballard has been unfairly overshadowed by controversy in spite of being socially worthwhile- while simultaneously having been “knowing” enough to have enjoyed the idea of provocation. He once actually said of “Crash” that he “wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” This quote was sampled by Manic Street Preachers for the opening of “Mausoleum,” a track from their brilliant but oft-discomfiting album “The Holy Bible.”
Crash actually has its roots in Ballard’s short story collection entitled “The Atrocity Exhibition” – the inspiration for the Joy Division song it shares it title with. Post punk as a whole seemed like it could be influenced by the intelligent dystopia of this kind of writing – in his liner notes for the Wire anthology “On Returning,” Jon Savage writes that “Ballard and Burroughs lurked in the shadows.”
It doesn’t stop here. The Creatures “Miss The Girl” is usually credited with a “Crash” influence as Siouxsie Sioux darkly intones “you hit her with a force of steel/ she’s wrapped around your burning wheels” (although to me personally this evokes Luis Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou” more than anything else. In early 2007 the Klaxons entitled their debut album “Myths of the Near Future” after a Ballard short story collection. A pattern is becoming obvious …if there has been a more influential writer on music, I’m not sure who (argument welcome!)
Upon starting to write this, I heard the news that another powerful novelist, Iain Banks, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, the illness which took Ballard’s life. People who help us to imagine another world sadly must leave this one in these everyday, unpleasantly real ways. Banks will, however, leave a huge legacy, as has Ballard – not just in his own works, but in all that he would come to influence.