Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 3 No. 2, December 1985

Rock Culture: The Dialectics of Life and Death

David Rowe

Rock flashes around the cultural arena in a splenetic, dionysian amphetamine rush, leaving the analyst breathless. Rock is many things, a shifting configuration of signs, a concatenation of (aural, visual) texts, an articulation of oppositional youth sub-cultures, a cluster of culture industries. In this brief article I wish to examine some of rock's trends, its transformations and its resonances. By the time my commentary has been produced and reproduced, rock's kaleidoscopic configuration will have shifted once more.

Production: Independence

Conventionally, rock is mass culture—'music produced for the simultaneous consumption of a large youthful market' (Frith, 1978:14). In recent years, there has been an explosion of small scale, low-budget independent production and distribution, a veritable cultural entrepreneur's renaissance in the heart-land of corporate capitalism. Performers can now press l,000 or so of a single at relatively low cost and sell it via an independent distribution network, or join an 'established' independent label like Mushroom Records and take their chances on the mainstream charts. Bands like the Go Betweens, Celibate Rifles, Scientists, Triffids, The Birthday Party, Models, Hunters and Collectors and Machinations have all been involved in the 'independence movement' in varying degrees. Their counterparts in the U.K., such as UB40, Joy Division, New Order, Stiff Little Fingers and Cabaret Voltaire, had in the early eighties collared a market share that worried the majors. The growth of rock on-a-shoestring may be attributed to a number of interlocking factors:

1. Technological Development—the mass production of recording equipment, studio technology, etc., facilitated cheap independent production. The great and typical irony of this process is that divisions of the same corporations were, with the widespread sales of cassette recorders, tapes and now videos, in direct competition for the consumer dollar. Hence, the purveyors of electronic equipment


from within CBS, EMI, Philips, RCA et al were set against the purveyors of records and pre-recorded tapes in the same corporation. Out of the confusion sprang the independents—or to put it in political economic terms, the forces of production (high technological forms of the means of production and reproduction) came into conflict with the relations of production (musicians contracted to large record companies and selling their labour power in the production of cultural artifacts whose ownership and distribution is assigned to the employers), resulting in the development of new organizational structures. It is, in fact, becoming difficult to keep up with the new media—tapezines and studio-recorded independent cassettes and independent videos being the latest examples of the ingenuity of independents, born of cheap, freely available means of production and reproduction.

2. Economic Recession—One important, and paradoxical, contributing factor to the independent explosion has been the general depression in consumer spending, which enabled the independents to take advantage of under-utilized studios and production plants and to get hold of vinyl, which was monopolized by the majors during the mid-70's vinyl shortage. The degree to which the majors' shortcomings in the provision of music contributed to the drop in record and tape sales is uncertain, although they have become increasingly vociferous in their condemnation of home taping and in pressing for a levy on blank tapes—a move which threatens their own soft and hardware manufacturers.

3. Standardisation—some sociologists of popular music (eg. Peterson and Berger: 1975) have attempted to establish connections between increasing industrial concentration and musical standardisation, followed by public disillusionment. In the U.K., for example, the 4-firm ratio for L.P. sales rose from 40 per cent in 1976 to 57.4 per cent in 1979, and for singles from 47 per cent to 59.8 per cent, coinciding with a decline in record sales (by 30 per cent between 1979 and 1980), redundancies in the major record companies etc., and contrasting with the emergence of independent labels like Rough Trade, who in 1980 were doubling their turn over every three months. A similar tale of mergers, redundancies and falling sales is evident amongst majors in Australia. It is not possible here to establish in detail the relationship between standardisation/concentration and sales, but certainly the emergence of a new musical movement and style provided the cultural impetus for the growth of independents.

4. Punk—Punk represented a cultural rupture with previous forms of the organisation and interpretation of rock, feeding off the developments


at the economic and technological levels. The material and cultural conditions of the mid-1970's—youth unemployment, absence of a binding style of identification, increasing remoteness and technological obsession of rock musicians, etc., forged an alliance between petit-bourgeois and working class youth in inner urban areas to produce a style which was nihilistic, minimalist, anti-technological, anti-industry and, above all, a D-I-Y culture. The inchoate anarchist political stance of the early punks fed upon a conception of musical production which was technically rudimentary and in which there was no complex division of labour, and it was this attitude which provided the 'spiritual' basis of independent record production. Nevertheless, this was as often a case of expediency as of conviction—the means of record production were now available to those groups who did not and could not secure major record contracts. Hence, it is misleading to suggest that the growth of the independents was/is due to the idealism (in both senses) of 'art for art's sake'. The aetiology of independence is complex—a combination of material and cultural explanations in which there is clearly a high degree of interdependence, but in which the framework out of which independent record companies emerged can be discerned. Whether or not the independents can resist major moves to re-concentrate and, particularly, to squeeze them out courtesy of the rock video boom is not clear. But local independents will not have missed the current mega-success of Frankie goes to Hollywood on the ZIT label in the U.K.

Style I: Heavy Metal

In my brief discussion of punk, I have described the emergence of the movement as a response to particular material and cultural conditions. Indeed, in analysing any particular musical style it is necessary to examine the features of the conjuncture out of which it was born, especially when we are considering the degree to which a style reflects its 'environment' or represents the concerns of its audience. Peter Curtis (1982:63) suggests that the popularity of Heavy Metal is a direct reflection of the environment out of which it is produced—for example, the Western Suburbs of Sydney. While environmental theories of this kind are dubious, it is necessary to explain the resurgence of Heavy Metal in the shape of Rose Tattoo, Iron Maiden, Twisted Sister and the reformed Deep Purple. Heavy Metal has never been away, but its mandrax-and-leathers style was submerged beneath punk, which rejected its masturbatory phallocentrism, and reviled by punk's successor, synth-rock, which abhorred its atavism and carnality. Heavy Metal, in turn, has ought to fill a vacuum left


by assorted gender-benders and asexual synthesiser doctors. It is a reassertion of a leaden, hidebound masculinity and a gestural primitivism.

Heavy Metal, pace Curtis, is not predominantly concerned with the 'problems and politics of the street' (1982:62), but its foci are generally (i) sword and sorcery lyrics, ie., science fantasy coupled with phallic symbolism; and (ii) rock'n'roll. The subject matter of Heavy Metal is itself—it is completely self-absorbed because it is concerned with being, doing, getting rock'n'roll, (ie., it signifies itself or nothing) all to a soundtrack which is loud but, crucially, regular or regimented in rhythm. There is, perhaps, a fundamental homology (as Paul Willis has suggested) between the structure of the everyday lives of Heavy Metal fans and their chosen style of music, so that they are not creating a musical environment which is the antithesis of their everyday experiences, but on the contrary parallels it, albeit undergoing a partial transformation through volume. Heavy Metal is not an automatic and unrefracted reflection of teenage unemployment or urban deprivation, but its return to prominence signals a re-awakened desire for the time-honoured ritual of head down boogie and cardboard guitars, uppers and downers, badges and bikes, hot bitches, banshee demons and living the rock'n'roll outlaw life. It brings the comfort of resignation which throws into sharp relief the political intervention of Peter Garrett.

Style II: The Agit-pop of Peter Garrett

Most mainstream Australian bands who have been touted as world-beaters sound Anglo-American. Men at Work have a Police sound, Moving Pictures do a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, The Church resurrect the Only Ones and the Little River Band are A-N-Other West Coast sessioneers. Midnight Oil are less overtly influenced by UK/US cultural imperialism, and they like to provide material relevant to Bondi before Berkeley and which is polemical rather than passively pop-oriented. Lead singer Peter Garrett has taken his anti-nuclear politics a step further by standing for the Senate as a member of the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the December 1984 Federal election. All this at a time when overt politicking in rock is decidedly outre.

In my discussion of the resurgence of Heavy Metal, I argued that it is a music of resignation and phallocentrism, as apolitical as most post-Punk rock. Heavy Metal contrasts with the kitsch foppery of New Romanticism (Spandau Ballet, Adam Ant), and clinical detachment


of synth-rock (Ultravox, Icehouse) and the self-absorption of modern pop (Wham, Duran Duran). Yet, all these genres have in common a rejection of the truculent politics of negation and social realism evidenced by the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Punk, in its stylized alienation, did not embrace a political program because it rejected everything, and rock acts which dealt explicitly with political themes and articulated political programs (Tom Robinson, Gang of Four) found themselves painted into a corner. What Peter Garrett has done is to realign left ideology and rock, drawing on the consistently apocalyptic quality of rock and matching it with the vision of Armageddon provided by nuclear politics.

Rock and overt politics collide only intermittently, at particular moments when broad social movements meet performers with Brechtian aspirations. Garrett hopes to use his over-18 fans as a block vote and to link them to the heterogeneous clutch of organisations (including churches) which is anti-nuclear. At the same time, he is utilising his bizarre appearance and the outsider mythology of rock to scare conservatives by playing Pied Piper to the nation's current and emergent youthful constituency. Garrett is no more the face of the future of rock than the Eurogliders. Rather, he is a spectral repudiation of Hawke's consensus, a metonym for the excluded and the dissident. It is encouraging to feel that in the dialectics of life and death, rock can still provoke dreams of a new synthesis in the slumber of fiscal austerity. Garrett is transforming the iconography of rock into the psephology of popular culture.

Style III: The Face of Bowie and the Didactic Dance

Kerouac and Burroughs in the 50's, Kesey and Reed in the 60's, Rotten and Bowie in the 70's. Three decades of personified cool.

Appraisals of Bowie normally take the reader on a Blue Guide tour of his various periods, from the Laughing Gnome to Major Tom, from Ziggy to Thomas Newton, from the Thin White Duke to the Elephant Man, indicating the various youth cults which have fol lowed in his wake. There has certainly been no more enduring and influential arbiter of rock style, no shrewder judge and populariser of the young's shifts of mood and taste. However, every time he takes a new turn there is no guarantee that he will take his existing audience with him or establish a younger following for whom Bowie is a man without history, as fresh, hard and enticing as a new synthesiser. Descent into self-parody or, worse still, eclipse by a posse of slavish imitators constitute Bowie's nightmare. An impotent Bowie, histrionically


threshing and gesturing without effect is unthinkable, but a real possibility for a singer-turned-actor approaching middle age.

The latest version of Bowie, unlike all other personae, is the naked and unadorned quintessential real man. Since 'Let's Dance', he has matured, he now understands his artistic responsibility, is enjoying the experience of fatherhood but fears that his son's future will be destroyed in the nuclear apocalypse. He wishes to attack racism, to make warmer, more accessible music with a message and has over come a debilitating drug problem, crises of the self and an obsession with the dark nihilistic underbelly of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. For now. The alien has departed, eschewing the darker world, the impenetrable visage of otherness, and presenting the human face of post-modernist rock. He selected Australia as the site (and signifier) of this transformation. In the 'Let's Dance' and 'China Girl' videos, Bowie's attention to style is as intense as ever. Bowie standing calmly in an outback pub, an aesthete amongst neanderthals. Bowie playing footsy with his girlfriend, the epitome of calculated benevolence and indulgence. One is reminded of the punk era shibboleth that 'being natural is the greatest pose of all'. Also of John Clarke's (1976:177/8) analysis of style:

Like Levi-Strauss' myth-bricoleur, the practitioner of sub cultural bricolage is also constrained by the existing meanings of signs within a discourse—the objects, the 'gear' used to assemble a new sub-cultural style must not only already exist, but must also carry meanings organised into a system coherent enough to their re-location and transformation to be under stood as a transformation. There's no point in it, if the assemblage looks exactly like, carries exactly the same message as, that previous existing.

Bowie, myth-bricoleur par excellence, is trapped within the discourse he has significantly helped to shape. The gallery of characters has been exhausted, the personae and postures appropriated. Save one. Bowie cannot compete with the contemporary representatives of his previous manifestations. The Human League, Spandau Ballet, Yazoo, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Echo and the Bunnymen, Culture Club, Duran Duran and on and on, have all leant on his legacy, exploited and expanded some feature of Bowie's fantastic voyage through style. Bowie has learnt from Malcolm McLaren that if you want to compete in the rock business then it should never be on the opposition's turf. The Sex Pistols pretended that they couldn't play and wouldn't let journalists see them. Bowie has absorbed the prevailing funk orientation but has used it in a harder, more direct manner. He has also opted out of the


cocktail-soaked lounge lizard circle. The transformation is complete. The (obvious) make up has come off, the angst has been exorcised, the pancake masks have been jettisoned. Bowie's new assemblage is a radical transformation because he does not have to appear more camp, more tortured, more weird and more strung out than the rest. He has created Bowie au naturel and constructed a new style by sub verting his own stylistic creations. If he wanted to stay in rock'n'roll, that was the only avenue and the only discursive option left. Yet the transformation cannot be complete, he could not be just the Sebastian Flyte of the rock universe. The weirdness is held in abeyance, but it is there, smirking behind the creamy aristocratic new facade.

Bowie's new constellation of signifiers is an artful contrivance. Its meanings are evocations familiar to its audience, but they have been rejigged through their association with Bowie mythology, the trans formation achieved by presenting conventional features (funk, protest) alongside the conventionally unconventional Bowie. Bowie's self consciously produced realism is a human construction, but it is masquerading as 'natural'. His encounter with Brecht in a BBC production of 'Baal' seems to have put him in touch with the socialist realism v. expressionism debate. Bowie did expressionism back in '76. Now he is producing what he describes as simple, direct and naive visual and musical material which makes the point that racism is wrong. Bowie's mythology may have taken a Leftward turn, but it is nonetheless mythological for that. Bowie is working hard at his new, straight role and his new found sense of artistic responsibility leads him to confront new dilemmas. Under previous guises the hard questions could be swathed in a blanket of the bizarre, another cut-up technique, but today he must confront the problems of humanism, sociological analysis and communication head on. Currently uncertain of his bearings, he is searching for some familiar experience to mediate between a committed Bowie and his art.

'Let's Dance', single, video and album track, exemplified Bowie's technique of plundering his 'Pin Ups' past and cobbling it to his socially responsible present. Echoes of the cumulative, chiming vocals of early rock'n'roll, a monstrous backbeat and a theme of the exploitation of Aborigines (in particular their habitation of the waste land between the 'frontier' towns of the bush and the inner urban zones of transition) is treated in a far more direct manner than the romance-across-cultural-boundaries 'China Girl' video. Bowie, acutely mindful that Australia is flavour of the month amongst the chic gatekeepers of global popular culture, relishes the contrast between its hi-tech cities and its largely pre-industrial interior. The scandal of the Aborigines' plight provides him with a social cause to champion and a cinematically unique landscape for a backcloth. The irony of


one of the prime instigators of the flashy studio video returning ' (flashily) to nature is striking, but, of course, entirely consonant with the new direction. The attractions of urban white culture (symbolised by a pair of red dancing shoes) are rejected, but there is no hint . of a strategy, a way of overcoming white domination. The formal constraints of the medium and Bowie's self-acknowledged political naivety determine that his break from the past is partial, the picture incomplete. In view of his restless, chameleonic record, it is still uncertain that he will do more than sketch the outline of his latest perspective.

'The style to end all style' is as carefully fashioned and orchestrated as previous campaigns. The 'Blue Jean' video/mini film which fol lowed Bowie's Australian period is an ironic commentary on the weird/normal duality he has now set up, while Bowie's good works for Live Aid have led him to resurrect 'Dancing in the Street' with Jagger, played straight and for laughs.

In his late thirties, Bowie has had his fill of peripatetic decadence and is taking stock of his identity and career. In distancing himself from the 'art for art's sake' of old he has embraced an unsophisticated political stance and a romantic focus on the personal. We now wait for his disenchantment and disillusionment, a future Bowie, romantic manque, relating how he tried to be warm and committed but was left only with a handful of (Angel?) dust. It has been a long, strange odyssey for Major Tom and his heterogeneous crew, but it is a journey that merits the close attention of its monitors. For the iconography of Bowie is the history of androgynous rock style. Bowie's attraction lies squarely in his weirdness, his unattainability. Seize him and you merely hold his cast off skin. Yet Bowie is ageing, he is exhausting his repertoire of signs. Currently he flirts with accessibility, with being a people's rock star, a paradigmatic good guy. Such a stance runs counter to his presentation of self, but is essential for the creation of a crucial dissonance between his accessible appearance and his elusive essence. For while the postures and the images are transient, it is his alienation that is eternal, a double bluff accompanying a double bind. We must participate in his imaginary resolution so as to preserve his distance. Behind the face of Bowie, earnest yet bland, is the Laughing Gnome, absorbed in the dreams of inchoate generations.

Form: Video

The positioning of video has constituted a wide-ranging debate in the Journal of Australian Cultural Studies and elsewhere. Video has


been regarded both as parasitic on music (Turner: 1983) and resistant to dominant ideology (Fiske: 1984). There is little doubt that video is now a medium crucial to the rock enterprise, and also that videos have developed in a particular direction. As Turner (1983:108) has pointed out, there has been a shift from the 'film clip' as a simulated live performance to the free-form surrealism or narrative structure of most contemporary rock videos. This change has ramifications at several levels.

At the economic level, it is clear that, just as the independents cannot compete with the majors in the sophisticated production of recorded music, they also cannot match video budgets of $10,000 up wards. The position of the epic video in the rock production process parallels that of the hi-tech, 'dinosaur' rock of the pre-punk era, when bands such as Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis mounted stage shows of enormous scale and produced music of considerable technological sophistication. From this perspective, video is the attempt ed re-assertion of the dominance of corporate organised rock, raising the stakes of the game so that the independents are priced out. At the very least, extravagant videos greatly increase the number of units which have to be shifted before a record will 'break even', unless the video is utilized as a substitute for loss-making 'live' tours. Thus, videos squeeze the smaller rock enterprises while transforming the presentation of rock. Videos can now function as replacements for performers in the flesh, increasing the dependency of rock consumers on privatised domestic technology. Video hegemony has begun to erode rock's essential communality.

Yet, as I have noted earlier, rock is viewed synchronically at the analyst's peril. The penetration of video technology into spheres out side of the 'professional' has made possible independent video production. One report, for example, has revealed that English rock band The Gas made a 'respectable' album video for two hundred and seventy six pounds and sold it for nine pounds (NME: 1981), while Philip Brophy's low budget rock video is an encouraging augury. As in the case of punk, there is likely to be a return to rudimentary D-I-Y rock production in the face of the $200,000 video leviathan. David Laing (1985:83) has argued 'music video may have its punk revolution'. Without rapid change the prospect is the wholesale extinction of the independents.

Apart from the economic and organizational aspects of video, there also remains the question of how we should appraise the relationship between video and rock music. Robert Hodge (1984:118) sees this relationship as essentially one of competition, stating that the 'music, as a message system, has to compete with the visual


images, which typically have a narrative form that parallels the words of the song', while Fiske (1984:113) celebrates and Turner (1984:124) bemoans such disjunctions. These are complex aesthetic and formal subjects which I can only briefly touch upon here. What I think needs to be addressed is the question of the extent to which we require a connection between the visual and musical texts.

There are a number of potential relationships between the musical and visual spheres. They may be randomly disconnected, tenuously linked or integral to each other, and they may enhance each other symbiotically, adopt antagonistic positions or exist in some Althusserian teeth-gritting harmony. Of course, such contradictions and disjunctions existed prior to the advent of video, through various combinations of tour posters, album cover art and stage visuals. Yet, what video has done is to transform the way in which we receive rock music by making itself the primary medium through which a song may be apprehended and interpreted. In the period before the flowering of video, rock music, values and subjects were transmitted predominantly through often half-intelligible lyrics, largely arbitrary musical signs, esoteric writings, the frothy discourse of fan worship and the immediate contact of performance. Video, in a short time, has made itself indispensable to the understanding of rock music. To hear the song on the radio but not to have seen the video provokes a feeling that the song is only half-known and one's response to it must be provisional. Yet, to see the video is to surrender to the tyranny of the motivated visual sign and to embed in the imagination the constellation of images which will shape, or at least substantially influence, interpretation and response to the aural text. Rock video, as Fiske has pointed out, may provoke myriad interpretations and responses, but he seems not to recognise that they are constrained by the repertoire of visual images provided, moulding the imaginative discourse which flows from them. Thus, rock video may provide an illusory sense of semiotic liberation at the same time as it is systematically circumscribing textual possibilities. While rock video may be benign or beneficial in other respects (for example, by creating a generalised textual unity on occasions) it nevertheless threatens to re-fashion rock in its own centripetal image.

David Rowe teaches at the Riverina-Murray Institute of Higher Education.



Clarke, John (1976) 'Style' in Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (eds.) Resistance through Rituals. London: Hutchinson, pp. 175-191.

Curtis, Peter (1982) 'Wanted: Dead or Alive Rock and Roll' Bowyang, No. 7, March, pp.50-63.

Fiske, John (1984) 'Videoclippings' Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol.2, No.9, May, pp.110-114.

Frith, Simon (1978) The Sociology of Rock, 1978, London: Constable.

Hodge, Robert (1984) 'Videoclips as a Revolutionary Form,' Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol.2, No.9, May, pp.115-121.

Laing, Dave (1985) 'Music Video—Industrial Product, Cultural Form Screen Vol. 26, No.2, March-April, pp.78-83.

Peterson, Richard A., and Berger, David G. (1975) 'Cycles in Symbol Production: The Case of popular Music,' American Sociological Review, 1975, Vol.40 (April), pp. 158-173.

Turner, Graeme (1983) 'Videoclips and Popular Music' Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, May, pp.107-110.

Turner, Graeme (1984) 'The Musical Roots in Videoclips' Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol.2, No. 1, May, pp. 122-126.

Willis, Paul (1976) Profane Culture, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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