An Open Letter To Massive Attack And Adam Curtis
I am still quite stunned by your piece of 21st century theatre- which was Adam’s stunning film and Massive Attack’s series of covers threaded together into a thought provoking, question everything piece of cultural psychosis that flashed and reflected the undercurrent of darkness and confusion and mass hypnosis of these strange and foul times back at me and the 1800 strong audience at your recent show for the Manchester International festival.
The team up between the pair of you and your disciplines was perfect for a wake up call but also strangely entertaining and stunning proof that we don’t need greatest hits and cozy film making to be entertained for two hours whilst getting a life affirming alarm call about the post sophisticated boom boom of the post war revolution and the numbing economic crash of the post 9/11 market and the subtle shift in control from the invisible powerbreakers.
Instead of a jolly knees up, greatest hits set from Massive Attack and some pithy film making supporting these songs we got something quite different and stunningly powerful in its esoteric execution.
I’m not sure what my fellow gig goers thought –maybe many of them felt they were on the way to some sort of revival of the old school warehouse party from the pre acid house days- the kind of thing that Massive Attack specialized in the their older sound system incarnation around Bristol and there was certainly an air of that early on in the night- after all this was a big fuck of warehouse- a huge abandoned railway station in middle of Manchester next door to Piccadilly station. A place that has been shut for 20 years and begging for an event like this.
Swiftly after the film flickered into life on the several huge screens draped around the warehouse with Adam’s voice intoning the script and the seething subplots started their long journey to some sort of climax in the collage of found images and documentary, the atmosphere was changed from party to concentration- a brilliant piece of expectation confounding that kept nearly all the audience to the end.
This may have been a warehouse but it was far from being a party and the film’s dark and powerful message was perfectly bookended by Massive Attack playing a series of cover versions that they amped up into wall of sound punkoid explorations that were sometimes riveting and powerful and sometimes stripped down and plaintive especially when Liz Frazer took the mic for her hauntingly beautiful vocal and then a for a sliver of their own classic Karmacoma track.
Massive and Adam, some critics have been baffled by the show, but they perhaps came from a different place than you and us . The reviewer in the Independent called a ‘relentless barrage of gloom’ but after reading that you knew it was going to be great.
We like gloom and we like things that fuck with our heads.
But I’m guessing some of these reviewers didn’t grow up in the confrontational punk and post punk eras which have always been such a big part of Massive Attack’s work and the contradictions of those times are played out partially in the film.
Interestingly, Adam- as a child of the sixties, you are often on record for pointing out that the I Wanna Be Me individualism of punk is scarily close to the same mantra from Margaret Thatcher and her saggy faced droogs and the accompanying rise of neo-liberalism. This is not as crazy as it sounds and something we have touched on ourselves on LTW.
The privileging of the individual over the community, you have said, Adam, had the unintended consequence of atomizing the world to the extent that today “everything is acceptable and everything is ubiquitous”.
It’s true as well and something we have to be very aware of before we pat ourselves on the back- we like to think we are not the problem but the solution but maybe, we too, were suckered by the meltdown of the counter culture and it’s new nihilism and individualism that rose in its ashes in the late seventies.
Of course art itself is always a contradiction Adam, we know we are poor fools who scream community and individualism and art and commerce all at the same time whilst staring the truth in the eye and still unthinkingly selling the lie.
It’s pretty confusing for us (and for you, I guess) and I loved the way your film reflected this- especially the Russian fan of the Siberian punk band, Grazhdanskaya Oborona, whose song Massive Attack touchingly cover early in the event and who were big in Russia in the early nineties with their anti everything message.
One of their fans took their nihilistic message to the extreme and masterminded Putin’s rise to power. This is just one of the entwining stories, that along with the tale of the beautiful early sixties UK art school near icon who dreamt of a brave new world and America and pop art who died young before she saw how tarnished this dream would become. The film details this and her husband and daughter’s destruction by the American dream before moving onto a myriad of topics like the freedom of the internet being used to shackle us into a hypnotized blur of half sleep whilst we type blogs about it…
Adam, your film itself is full of this- the thoughtful and the confrontational, the clever and the daring, the conspiracy theory and the challenging the system and wake up from your daydream message that was a perfect realisation of all that we fought for in that punk period albeit with shonky rusty equipment and shit PA’s.
This was like the grown up version- the same message but amped up through a huge PA and on the several giant muslin cloth screens draped around the disused Mayfield train station in Manchester city centre where your stark and powerful film that details the subtle and dangerous slide into a new kind of subjugation and the rise of the sinister new forces and thought patterns in these fast moving and dangerous times was played out.
Behind the screen, like a 21st century take on that debut Public Image gig behind the screens in New York all those decades ago that started a riot, Massive Attack emerged in and out of the stark monochromatic warehouse gloom playing versions of a varied series of songs that interlace with the film and enhance it with perfectly executed covers.
Musically shape shifting yet again the band were more guitar heavy than before and there were great versions of Leadbelly’s In the Pines leaning towards Nirvana’s brilliant cover of the song accompanied by clips of Kurt Cobian in the film as it explained the dead are always with us in the new media. ‘the jukebox sings dead men’s tunes, their souls come alive all fill the room’ as someone once sung.
There is a great version of Suicide’s Dream baby Dream- it’s ghost like shivers attempting to punctuate the dreamlike state of our modern lives.
With a series of singers including the stunning Elizabeth Fraser and the always brilliant Horace Andy, you performed songs by Burt Bacharach, the Shirelles and that brief tantalising hint of your own Karmacoma as well as Liz reworking Dusty Springfield on “The Look Of Love”, and Horace Andy singing “Sugar Sugar” which adds a bit of light relief in the middle of the film.
Massive Attack, you sometimes feel like the realisation of everything from the thinking wing of the punk rock period played out in a completely different time zone. This is what happens when the children of the revolution know how to work the technology and play it back against the powers that be.
I’m reminded of a perfectly executed and hi tech the late period Clash with their barrage of TV sets and political messages. I’m reminded of the talk of situationism, the post year zero everything up for grabs music as your combination of fields of England English folk, the deep dark space of dub, the finite possibilities of the smashed glass of punk and the eternal strange terrain of post punk with the hypnotic motornik of kraut rock that makes you the genuine successor to Metal Box’s urban soundscapes that makes you and tonight’s event, a hi tech tap into centuries of a very British distrust and dissent.
This is the musical continuation of the post punk deconstruction of contemporary culture, sometimes it feels like the political and media barrage of someone like Crass taken from its decades ago rudimentary and powerful creativity and played out with a hi tech perfection (the ultimate irony is that next door to the station in the Star and Garter pub, Crass singer Steve Ignorant is doing a spoken word show…if only Massive Attack knew this!)
The event is accompanied by loose and wise talk of “Technocrats and global corporations have established an ultra-conservative norm, which is meekly accepted by the millions affected by it…internet and algorithms have created a “fake, enchanting world, which has become a kind of prison”.
The idea for the collaboration came from you, Robert Del Naja- the dapper Massive Attack member and I see that you have described the whole shebang perfectly as “a collective hallucination’
Robert, I remember interviewing you twenty years ago and you talked of Bristol cider punks, the Dead Kennedys and being the former punk kid who went through the emerging hip hop, graffiti and dancehall culture in the mish mash of cool culture of Bristol- the most musically diverse music city in the UK and how you hooked up with the Wild Bunch and then Massive Attack with Grant “Daddy G” Marshall and a posse of collaborators and how you all took all those ideas and promises from the post punk generation and the creative cutting crews from hip hop and ran with them and created this new English folk music.
Instead of getting lost in the very white 4/4 of punk you ran with something else- an open minded music that reflects the real diversity of the UK and rest of world music and made your own stunning hybrid in a series of records that just get better and better and have been a huge influence on UK music from the growing Bristol music scene to the Gorillaz and many others.
You were at the forefront of the breakdown of the band structure – the swerving away from the traditional frontman/axe hero template of rock n roll to the post Jamaican idea of bringing in the right singer for the right song and the backroom blur of creators whilst creating a music that is melancholic, somber, yet also startling uplifting and danceable and works on so many levels.
Anyhow, it as you, Robert that came up with the plan and asked Adam Curtis to work together on a stark new work where the pair would combine into something this special. It’s a complex and messy story that is dealt with brilliantly.
God knows what people are expecting, many have come expecting some kind of warehouse party- some kind of Massive Attack sound system event but what they are about to get is something entirely different- a ninety minute politically charged film from Adam that entwines several stories from the last few decades as it details the political and social changes that have changed everything in culture and society that encompasses conspiracy theories, real politick, the internet and the slide into subjection and the rise of neo liberalism/neo conservatism that affects us all in such an insidious way that we have not even noticed it.
The film picks up on those themes that are so favoured by Adam that have given you a reputation as one of our great cutting edge pioneering film makers. From 2004’s The Power of Nightmares that painted the new 9/11 world and drew compelling comparisons between the rise of the neo-cons and their Islamist foes. Now aged 58 your films have form and history and are asking the uncomfortable questions in our new 2D internet world where everything is always happening and the dead are still with us like digital ghosts.
An internet, that even by typing this missive I’m adding to- that mass hypnotization that we have fallen under with our google/facebook/yahoo daydream.
I remember that formative Bristol band the Pop Group and their classic song called ‘We Are All Prostitutes’ -nowadays they would probably have to call it ‘ We Are All Facebook friends’- that’s the simplistic version of Adam’s amazing film.
His previously best known work The Century of the Self released in 2002, a film that examined how Freud‘s theories of the unconscious shaped the development of PR and advertising. You once said that, “My favourite theme is power and how it works in society” and tonight’s ambitious piece takes this to its logical conclusion and I’m lost in the myriad of subplots that are merging together and leaving an open ended trail of confusion and madness as the subtle and dangerous power shits in our society are laid wide open with little attempt to provide the answers- and that’s the beauty of it- we have become so lazy that we know expect the artist to provide the answers and surely the artist role is lay out the questions.
This is such a stunning and dystopian work on so many different levels that it’s difficult to know where to start. It could be an ode the post war fallout- and how the idealism of a generation emerging from the ashes of the failed experiment of communism on one side of the world and the equally failed model of capitalism (and its close friend maybe- counter culture idealism) on the other were dashed by cynicism and the far smarter people in control who have out maneuvered us.
Adam you rail at the policymakers, evil bankers and technocrats armed with complex algorithms, CCTV cameras and anti-depressants who just try to predict and manage it – and by implication submit the individual into media-doped subjugation.
The themes come flying at us- the collapse of post war-capitalism, the implosion of the Soviet Union, Siberian punk rock is threaded into the plot with Massive Attack’s cover of the band’s Everything is Going According to Plan. The song was originally a collaboration between Russian punk rock band Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Civil Defence) and Yanka Dyagileva, a Siberian-born poet and singer-songwriter who died at the age of 24 in 1991. The band were against everything, especially the system- interestingly, one of their fans was the key player in putting Putin into power a few years later with his punk rock cynicism about the system turning him full circle as he rigged the elections and invented opposition parties to break the anti Putin vote in a breath taking display of political gerrymandering and, it has to be said, punk rock nihilism.
There is another clip about Al Quida and it’s own freakish daydream, your film is full of this mine of information- startling thought provoking moments that make you sit up and flashed up messages that make you go ‘oh yeah, I knew that!’ It’s all in here in a crash course of contemporary history- from the modern times where the nothing has meaning and the past and the future are all blurred into the 2D of the internet.
And the topics keep coming- heroin, Chernobyl, Disney, Prozac, Vladimir Putin. swinging London, the Taliban, Donald Trump, Jane Fonda, Tony Blair, cable TV, the attacks on the Twin Towers, computers- everything is there playing its part in the modern hallucination- it’s a great film and great music- in many ways a culmination of everything Massive Attack have been working on since they started.
With Adam’s voice intoning the story over the top and the unsettling stories unraveling in front of you and band cutting in with those perfect covers your head is whirling and its a jarring and thought provoking film that makes several mind blowing connections that in the grand tradition of situationists make you think, wake up! Wake up! You’re already dead.