Interview: Gavin Butt
...a lot of the energy driving this stemmed from well beyond the art college context in DIY punk rock but also in the practices and politics of the alternative left in Leeds, which was particularly strong in cooperativism and feminism in the 1970s...Mekons, Delta 5 and Gang of Four in their earliest incarnation tried to frustrate the hierarchies and identities of individual bands and band members by performing in various different formations, sometimes switching instruments amongst themselves as they did.
In the Intro to Simon Reynolds’ 2005 Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 he observes ‘There are scores of books on punk rock and the events of 1976-77, but virtually nothing on what happened next’ (1), that was echoed as late as 2014 by Gavin Butt’s comment that ‘there is relatively little scholarship on the period’ (2). Over the last few years that situation has improved with a number of books on post-punk published, for instance Matthew Worley’s 2017 No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture 1976-84, David Wilkinson’s 2016 Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain, Mimi Haddon’s 2020 What is Post-Punk? Genre and Identity in Avant-Garde Popular Music 1977-82 and Post Punk Then and Now published in 2016, a collection of ‘talks, lectures and discussions’ (2) on post-punk edited by Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher. The fascinating chapter by Gavin Butt, ‘Being in a Band: Art-school Experiment and the Post-Punk Commons’, focuses on the Leeds post-punk scene which included Gang of Four, Delta 5, the Three Johns and the Mekons. The chapter contextualises the Leeds scene both culturally and institutionally recognising the importance of Leeds art schools and drawing attention to the fact that for some being in a band was seen as a prefigurative activity, opening up new possibilities of being and doing. Butt comments ‘People created bands because they wanted to change the world’ (2).
In the chapter Gavin says that he hopes his interviews and research will result in a book on the subject AND IT HAS!! No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk comes out in October on Duke University Press with the Intro free to read now (link below)! As you can probably tell I’m pretty excited about this book and so contacted Gavin to find out more.
E&D: Post Punk in Leeds is very specific, how did your interest in that time and place develop?
Gavin: I had begun to reflect upon the history of art school post-punk around the time that the ConDem government tripled university fees in England and Wales in 2012. I got to thinking about the changing circumstances of an art education, and of university-level education in the UK, as we were moved quite abruptly by the then government from the remnants of a state-funded system to the turbocharged neoliberal one we have today.
I began to think quite specifically about what the old system made possible that the new one made difficult, even impossible. Chief amongst these things was how the new commodified reality of university education made it more difficult for students from working-class backgrounds to go to university, and certainly made it more difficult for them to study creative arts subjects – chiefly, for fear of accruing high levels of individual debt. I come from a debt-averse working-class family in the English East Midlands and yet I still went to art college in the 1980s: mainly because I was enabled to do so by the provision of a “free” education: no fees to pay, maintenance grants to be had, and even the availability of housing benefit to cover my student rent. What, I wondered, was being lost culturally as this older system of state-funded education was consigned to history, and “free” study and working-class participation in art school began to wither on the vine?
This is what got me to thinking about Leeds specifically. I’d originally wanted to go to Leeds to study Fine Art in the mid-1980s because I was a fan of The Three Johns. And I knew that two of the Johns went to art college in Leeds. Leeds was also home to two exceptional art departments in the 1970s: a libertarian one specialising largely in performance art at Leeds Polytechnic, and a radical one at the University where Marxist, feminist and critical theory were being taught from 1976 onwards. I was struck by just how many art school bands came out of these places after punk (in addition to the Three Johns: Gang of Four, Scritti Politti, Delta 5, Fad Gadget, Soft Cell, The Mekons, Household Name and many others…). I was struck doubly so because nobody had written about any of this. I wanted to know how an art education, and the state-funded system in which it was offered, conspired to help make all this possible in the first place.
E&D: What were the particular ‘historical conditions’ (3) in Leeds at that time that created the environment for the emergence of so many significant post punk artists? Was there a unique convergence of various factors?
Gavin: Yes there was. I’ve already begun to lay this out to some degree I guess. I would say it was a particular conjuncture (as Gramsci would say) of these two exceptional art departments and the mixing of students from different social classes therein – alongside student disillusionment with the avant-garde and the counterculture. All of this was then then detonated by the testy example of punk rock which came to Leeds in the shape of the Anarchy in the UK tour in December 1976. Punk seemed to many Leeds art students at this time to offer an answer, a sense of possibility, to the elitist dead-ends of the art world.
E&D: In Christina Kiaer’s wonderful book Imagine no Possessions: the Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism she quotes Rodchenko and explores the question ‘What would the qualities of a socialist (non capitalist) object be in contrast to the object under capitalism?’ The idea of objects as promoting ‘egalitarian socialist culture’ rather than capitalist values (4). Do we see something of that same discussion going on in the Leeds post punk scene regarding music?
Gavin: This is a super interesting connection. Yes, in a way, is the answer. I write about how music-making by art students in the mid-seventies emerged in part from the collapse of earlier egalitarian hopes for what we might call anti-object work – the conceptual and performance art of the early 1970s. In chapter 1 of No Machos I trace the beginnings of both Mekons and Gang of Four to a collective piece of performance art made by members of both bands whilst students at Leeds University. Performance art was, however, quickly viewed by all involved to be an anti-capitalist object form whose cultural power was dissipating on the eve of punk and was quickly abandoned as an artistic “dead-end”. Conceptual art – that other immaterial or anti-object practice – was important to people like Green Gartside and the early incarnation of Scritti Politti. Gartside found a way of carrying a practice of intellectual contestation birthed in conceptual art’s challenges to bourgeois art discourse into music culture. In the book I chart how Scritti Politti shifted the terrain of this practice of questioning away from Art & Language toward Music & Language, precisely in order to sustain it as a politically efficacious, viable practice in the wake of punk.
E&D: You comment in Post Punk Then and Now that for some ‘being in a band…became a way of living, a mode of existing even, through which an alternative future could be glimpsed’ (2). Being in a band as a prefigurative practice, allowing other ways of working, the opening up of new possibilities, and even seeing it as ‘prefigurative of alternative ways of organising society’ (2, 5). Could you expand on this for us?
Gavin: This goes right to the heart of what No Machos or Pop Stars is about. Perhaps above all, this is what ends up being most significant about art students making popular music: that they take the formal inventiveness of making art objects to what I call the “band-work,” to experimenting with e.g. non-hierarchized and egalitarian forms of group connectedness as ground for their music. This is instanced variously in the book. For example, I look at how Soft Cell reimagine the strategy of avant-garde aesthetic juxtaposition in the hybrid “electro soul” of tracks like Tainted Love and in themselves as an oddball music duo (by 1970s rock standards at least: Marc Almond gay, gregarious and emotional; Dave Ball straight, quiet and technical). I also look at how this gets played out on the dance floor at the Leeds Warehouse in the early eighties, where members of different sub-cultural tribes came together as a crowd and moved to Almond’s “mutant” DJ-mix of musical genres on the decks. Relatedly, I look at how Delta 5 send up the strictures surrounding female participation in seventies rock music by having two women bassists rather than the customary lone female bass player, and how Gang of Four aimed to create the sound of a democratic, disputatious collective – as if it might be possible to hear the different “views” of individual band members as music.
E&D: In Post Punk Then and Now you also commented on how a particular musician alluded to the idea of the artist as collectivist worker or artisan simultaneously locating himself outside of the individualism of neoliberalism and in opposition to the lone, (often male) genius of post Renaissance art (2) Did Leeds post punk more generally explore these questions of art practice, modes of art production, the gendered figure of the artist?
Gavin: Yes. I think Leeds post-punk was really trying to create forms of coming together in bands which eschewed the machos theatrics of both cock rock and the transgressive individual male artist. Importantly I think a lot of the energy driving this stemmed from well beyond the art college context in DIY punk rock but also in the practices and politics of the alternative left in Leeds, which was particularly strong in cooperativism and feminism in the 1970s (with the founding of SUMA, the wholefood collective, and the emergence of strong strands of both socialist- and revolutionary forms of feminism in the city). Mekons, Delta 5 and Gang of Four in their earliest incarnation tried to frustrate the hierarchies and identities of individual bands and band members by performing in various different formations, sometimes switching instruments amongst themselves as they did. The Mekons also initially tried to take on the music press by refusing posed images of the collective and only giving individual names of band members in the manner of e.g. Mary Mekon or Kevin Mekon.
E&D: You comment in the Intro to No Machos or Pop Stars that the aim of some of the Leeds post punk bands was to encourage fans to ‘become self conscious about the larger societal structures in which they were caught’…‘while dancing to a Situationist beat’ (5). What were the main cultural/political influences on post-punk? Art history, left politics, feminism, preceding counterculture, punk, working class experience?
Gavin: All of these things in complex conjunction. They were variously influenced by the virtues of pop music and punk rock production, situationism, collectivism and cooperativism, Marxism, feminism, critical theory, Rock Against Racism, performance art and queer theatre (Fad Gadget owed a debt to Lyndsay Kemp’s mime) and emerging club-culture – all during a heightened period of politicisation in the city.
E&D: In Networks of Sound, Style and Subversion, Nick Crossley writes about the importance of the density of networks in the emergence and sustainability of a ‘music scene’ (6). Was that something you identified in Leeds, clusters of people and institutions that sustained the post punk scene?
Gavin: Yes. Towards the end of the book I acknowledge all of the work that’s been done recently by other scholars of UK popular music, including Crossley and Matthew Worley, in providing accounts of punk and post-punk scenes beyond London. Worley in particular lists elements of regional infrastructure that made punk and post-punk music scenes both possible and sustainable and includes things like record shops and clubs, local record labels and recording studios, fanzines and music venues. What I add to this list in Leeds is an account of how the city’s unique cluster of radical and avant-garde art schools fed into this infrastructural mix. I focus on how the policy of state-funded education provided many on the Leeds scene with the resources of intellectual and cultural capital, but perhaps above all, with the time to be able to make music in bands freed from the yoke of employment. Of course, these particular elements of the scene were hardly sustainable, as the post-war educational settlement was already being unpicked even before Thatcher achieved office in 1979, and such forms of educational freedom have now largely vanished today in the contemporary UK academy, especially for students who have to work while they study to pay their way.
E&D: In the Intro you also mention how by post punk a false dichotomy was being propagated around punk that authentic working class identity excluded higher education (5). Was this the start of the reductive idea of working class identity as excluding education and politicisation? Do you think this story supported the neoliberal dismantling of working class political organisation and the move to construction of identity around consumption?
Gavin: Interesting. There is so much to say on this issue, more than I can say here.
I guess punk might have been responsible for emboldening an already circulating idea of the working-class as essentially, and authentically, uneducated. But, put more positively, this might better be understood as youth culture beginning to find ways of valuing working-class culture, especially subculture, on its own terms rather than see it only through the eyes of establishment institutions (like universities) and (often outraged) middle-class society. That is why so many art students were skeptical of institutionalised forms of education I think in the punk era – because universities and Polytechnics were seen as organs of the ruling elites of the technocratic state. Working class youth culture, on the other hand, offered possibilities of self-organisation, and forms of protest music and dissident forms of identity and appearance, that opened up the possibilities of gender, race and sexual expression beyond the available identities in traditional class cultures and in traditional forms of politics.
Punk and post-punk, therefore, certainly didn’t suggest a lumpen working-class. Quite the contrary. They could be seen instead as expressions of what the late Mark Fisher used to call “popular modernism”: forms of experiment and resources of transformational political possibility located within popular, rather than elite, culture.
But I did also want to tell the important story of working-class participation in education, within 1970s institutions, and how education itself was being transformed as a result of this in some instances. Emboldened by the Worker’s Education Authority and perspectives from the burgeoning field of Cultural Studies, working-class participation in higher education had the effect of reimagining its purpose beyond it being simply as a route into the egg head middle-class in favour of making it into a space for imagining genuine forms of alternative world-making and of social and cultural transformation.
The legacy of all this clearly shouldn’t be that reductive image of the working class as politically regressive and as under- or un-educated (which perhaps has flashed up particularly vividly in recent years in media reporting around Brexit). I like to think my book might modestly resist this image hardening into what we think we “know” of working-class culture and working-class people by providing an historical image of cross-class artistic and musical experiment that contradicts it.
E&D: There has been a revival of the post punk sound since the early 2000s but it has often been less overtly political. In Inventing the Future (7) Srnicek and Williams make the point that cultural change often precedes political change. Have you come across many contemporary bands that have the concerns you identify in the book, that take the process of production and musical form seriously?
Gavin: What springs most immediately to mind is the work that is being done / has been done over the past ten years by people who are in bands but who are also involved in collectively organizing and running social spaces and art and music venues in increasingly capitalised city spaces. This is perhaps where the impetus of a kind of “neo-post-punk” persists most strongly, with the need being acute for self-organized spaces and forms of mutual aid for contemporary music artists beset by neoliberal austerity and the post-pandemic downturn. From Chunk in Leeds to the Rose Hill in Brighton, to the recently defunct DIY Space for London and the Old Police Station in Gateshead, these spaces are as vulnerable to gentrification and closure as they are needed by those who populate them. Such spaces resonate with the sounds that run the gamut of contemporary musical expression – from neo-punk, noise, turntablism, experimental and electronica, to contemporary gospel, funk, alt-country, improvisation and folk – and, as such, they might provide us with the closest thing we have right now to the cross-genre experimentation of the post-punk days. But art education no longer seems to play the pivotal role it once did in shaping all of this. Perhaps we have Nick Clegg to thank – or blame – for this. At least we might start the process of our reckoning with him.
Many thanks to Gavin for his time, the link to No Machos Or Pop Stars Intro is here.
(1) Reynolds, Simon (2005). ‘Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984’ (London: Faber and Faber).
(2) Butt, G. (2016) Preface, Introduction and Being in a Band: Art-school Experiment and the Post-Punk Commons – a Lecture by Gavin Butt (16/10/14) in Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher, eds, ‘Post-Punk: Then and Now’, Repeater Books, London.
(3) Wilkinson, D. (2016) ‘Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain’, Palgrave Macmillan, London, p. 11.
(4) Kiaer, C. (2005) ‘Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism’, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, p. 1.
(5) Butt, G. (2022) ‘No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk’, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, USA. Preface and Introduction https://www.dukeupress.edu/Assets/PubMaterials/978-1-4780-1863-6_601.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1HfnJhoQJfGr60gjNQyf0SmkfrttJA80NE4jqXMU-2OTSu0N1e3e0snJE
(6) Crossley, N. (2015) ‘Networks of Sound, Style and Subversion: The Punk and Post-Punk Worlds of Manchester, London, Liverpool and Sheffield, 1975-80’, Manchester University Press, Manchester.
(7) Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) ‘Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work’, Verso. London UK and Brooklyn, NY, USA.