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'No-One Dances in Ballard': An Interview with Mike RyanAuthor: Simon Sellars • Jun 15th, 2006 •
by Simon Sellars
I think I’m the only person I know who doesn’t own a record player or a single record. I’ve never understood why, because my maternal grandparents were lifelong teachers of music, and my father as a choirboy once sang solo in Manchester Cathedral. But that gene seems to have skipped me.”
– JG Ballard, Paris Review (1984)
In 2005 V. Vale and RE/Search Publications launched the JG Ballard: Conversations book with a party featuring ‘Ballardian music’ from DJ Mike Ryan. Mike (who’s also the co-editor of RE/Search’s JG Ballard: Quotes volume) was channelling post punk and industrial music, dropping tunes by the likes of Brian Eno and David Byrne, Throbbing Gristle, Devo, Wire, Gang of Four and Cabaret Voltaire (see the appendix for the full playlist).
It was a timely selection, covering some of the musical and conceptual territory Simon Reynolds outlines in his recent book Rip It Up and Start Again. According to Reynolds, Ballard fused ‘amoral and clinically described avant-porn with Marshall McLuhan-like insights into the mass media…[probing] with forensic precision the grotesque (de)formations of desire stimulated by media overload and celebrity worship… Tapping into this Ballardian vision…Cabaret Voltaire pioneered what would eventually become an industrial music hallmark, the use of vocal snippets stolen from movies and TV’.
I’ve a tin ear, I’m afraid… If my girlfriend’s playing Mozart or Serge Gainsbourg’s lovely songs, I enjoy them tremendously. But on my own I’ve never felt the need — I don’t know why. It’s just some gene that skipped me.”
– JG Ballard, New Musical Express (1996)
But what could we have expected if RE/Search had asked Ballard himself to DJ? JGB’s Desert Island Disc selection for BBC Radio in 1992 provides some clues — he lists ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ as a fave rave, along with hit picks by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich (see the appendix). It’s safe to say that the vibe would have been completely different if DJ Jim was behind the decks. So, how exactly did we arrive at Cabaret Voltaire from the Andrews Sisters?
There’s no music in my work. The most beautiful music in the world is the sound of machine guns.”
– JG Ballard, The Face (1987)
Ballard may claim there’s no music in his work, but there certainly is an attitude, a postpunk, posthuman sensibility – a cool irony providing the backdrop for an ambiguous, detached protagonist, a cipher who may or may not be seduced by the unleashing of technology’s dark side.
Really, it’s technology – the media landscape; the urban sprawl; the self-regulating, self-sufficient cityscape – that’s the main character in much of Ballard’s work, so it’s not that hard to see the appeal of his world view to a bunch of callow, early 80s non-musicians living in the shadow of the urban wasteland with just their synthesizers and reel-to-reel tape decks for company.
I spoke to Mike Ryan about all this and more.
– Simon Sellars
Mike, your RE/Search set was publicised as ‘Ballardian music’. Do you want to have a go at defining that?
I’m going to dodge that question, because that was Vale’s label. It was a good idea. I think people saw ‘Ballardian music’ and they thought, ‘What the hell does that mean?’, regardless of whether or not they knew who Ballard is. Of course, I then got stuck with people coming up to me asking that very question, but it was a good way to pique people’s interest.
The idea of ‘Ballardian music’ is ironic or maybe an oxymoron. Ballard does not listen to music. My favourite anecdote about Ballard and music is that he doesn’t understand why anyone would listen to music when they are trying to have a conversation at the same time. He said that if he’s visiting someone and they put something on the stereo, he’ll just sit there and won’t talk until the song is over. I don’t think he’s trying to be funny, but I think that’s hilarious! It’s such an obvious, logical thing to do. If you’re going to listen to music, you should just listen to it and pay attention to it.
I don’t listen to music. It’s a blind spot.”
— JG Ballard, Search & Destroy (1978)
I like that Futurist statement of his, that the most beautiful music in the world is the sound of machine guns. But where does that leave us with defining Ballardian music? You can use obvious referential songs like Joy Division’s ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, but is the music itself — that chattery guitar noise — Ballardian? You can use recordings of factories, highways, the Columbine massacre, corporate campuses — but then is that music?
Good point. Given that dilemma, how did your selection evolve?
I was just pulling songs that I thought were somehow loosely connected with Ballard, either referentially or thematically. I think some people thought that Ballardian music would be music directly influenced by Ballard. But I don’t have the musical knowledge or the library to encompass that. Ballard said of the many musicians who have been influenced by his work, ‘It’s a pity: they all seem to be dead’. And I don’t think I ended up covering that group. The only person I thought of who fit that description was Ian Curtis. My criterion was: ‘What music would you play at a Ballard launch party?’ Not ‘Is the music I’m choosing ‘Ballardian’? I think there’s a difference. It’s a party! Who wants to listen to half an hour of Metal Machine Music or machine-gun fire?
I wouldn’t mind. I love Metal Machine Music, quite possibly Lou Reed’s finest hour. How was the set received by your audience?
I had to shift over to songs with a lot more low-end so you could at least tell some music was playing. The acoustics were horrible. It was a great space for hanging art. It used to be this indoor shopping market near downtown San Francisco that our very progressive former City Supervisor, Matt Gonzalez, helped turn into an art space. Nice, huge space; poor acoustics. When I was playing ‘Ha Ha Ha’ by Flipper, this one guy was singing along to it with his ear right up against the speaker. I guess some songs were recognisable. When Graeme Revell came in, ‘Hamburger Lady’ by Throbbing Gristle was playing and he said, ‘I recognise this!’ He also said that Ballard’s influence on his music was inconclusive. Ballard’s influence on Revell himself, of course, is indisputable.
Not knowing anything about [punk] music, I saw it as a purely political movement – the powerful political and social resentment of an under-caste who reacted to the values of bourgeois society with pure destructiveness and hate. Bourgeois society offered them the mortgage, they offered back psychosis.”
– JG Ballard, New Musical Express (1985)
How do you explain the influence Ballard’s had on a range of musicians?
It has to do with making music that is influenced by the same things Ballard is influenced by: media, architecture, painting, highways, business parks, fashion, obsessiveness, psychopathology, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, suburbs, etc. That is, being influenced by those things and being a maverick about it. That’s my favourite Ballardian concept: the maverick. The maverick is in all of his stories, and he is the maverick of literature as Burroughs was. I always think of Devo embodying all of these things.
I remember reading a Rolling Stone article back in the early 90’s. Kim Thayil, the Soundgarden guitarist, said the best music is influenced by books…or was it movies? I don’t remember which. But it put the idea in my head that it would make sense that literature, movies and music make up a really good holy trinity where the best artists in each category are mostly influenced by the other two. Wouldn’t you come up with something much more interesting from a band that has never heard a note other than film soundtracks and is immersed only in books and movies, and vice vice versa versa (or however you would put that)? I feel like that’s the kind of band Devo is.
Ballard’s ideas are attractive and subversive and original. He’s a great source to tap into when you’re sick of singing love songs, I guess.
Punk was so interesting. I still haven’t recovered from it.”
JG Ballard, New Musical Express (1985)
I’ve never quite made up my mind about Devo. I always think of the Lester Bangs quote: ‘Sounds like tinkertoy music to me’. But what do you think of the three soundtracks to Ballard feature films: Howard Shore’s Crash, John Williams’ Empire of the Sun, and Jim ‘Foetus’ Thirlwell’s Atrocity Exhibition? (I’ve not seen nor heard the film of Low-Flying Aircraft, very unfortunately). Do you feel they succeeded or failed at conveying their respective Ballardian moods?
The only soundtrack of the three I’ve heard is Crash. I love it. My girlfriend hates it because she says it’s so cold and unemotional. EXACTLY! That seems appropriate considering Ballard’s comments about looking at things like car crashes with the eye of a test engineer or any other scientist, where you may get obsessed — but not emotionally involved — with your subject. Then again, in The Kindness of Women, Ballard writes about how the first woman he loved was the cadaver he had to dissect in medical school. But that’s another great thing about Ballard: you can’t pin him down, which is why you can’t say what Ballardian music is.
One reason I don’t like this whole ‘Ballardian music’ thing is that it seems to imply that someone is not Ballardian unless they’re singing about a car crash. Instead I think it’s about being a maverick and commenting on contemporary topics and having a forward vision, which I think Thirlwell possesses or is possessed by. And if that’s my criteria I guess I’d add Alan Vega of Suicide as well. But whatever anyone thinks about what is or isn’t Ballardian music, it seems to really get people thinking and everyone seems to have an opinion on it. At the very least I think it’s an entry point into thinking about Ballard’s writing.
In the current edition of The Wire, Chris Bohn, along with referencing some of the artists you do, asks why Ballard ‘no longer excites the imagination of musical subcultures the way he used to’. He wonders if it might be to do with Ballard’s mainstream profile after the success of the film versions of Empire of the Sun and Crash. Any thoughts on that?
I basically agree. I think Ballard’s direct influence on music has waned, probably due to less people actually reading books. I have a hard time believing he attained some damning ‘mainstream’ exposure, though. When I mention Ballard to regular people they have no idea who I’m talking about. I mention the film version of Crash, which they will probably now mistake for that piece of crap that came out last year, and there is this foggy recognition, and then a sort of uneasiness that expresses a latent disapproval (‘Oh…THAT film.’). I mention Empire of the Sun and then I have to mention Steven Spielberg, and there’s the same sense of dredging up a hazy memory. I have a really hard time believing the new wave of underground artists keeps Ballard at a distance because they think he is too mainstream. I think most of them still don’t know who he is, and if they do they think his stories are just about cutting yourself and having an orgasm.
The modern airport defuses…tensions, and offers its passengers the pleasures and social reassurance of the boarding lounge … The concourses are the ramblas and agoras of the future city, time-freeze zones where all the clocks of the world are displayed, an atlas of arrivals and destinations forever updating itself, where briefly we become true world citizens.”
– JG Ballard, The Observer (1987)
How successful do you think Brian Eno’s Music for Airports was in providing a soundtrack to Ballard’s ‘future cities’? Eno wanted – in part — to reassure travellers who might be contemplating their death in a possible air crash, although Ballard seems to see the modern airport as a self-sufficient organism that already possesses this inbuilt function.
If no airport is using his music, then I guess it was not successful. I own that CD, but I’ve never sat through the whole thing. I just get bored with it. If I want to contemplate death, I want complete silence, which of course we never can achieve. John Cage once recounted his experience in an anechoic soundproof chamber. When he was in there he asked the sound engineer what all that whooshing and thumping was that he could hear. Turned out that it was the blood rushing through his veins and his heart beating.
In regards to ‘future cities’, judging by recent articles by Nick Tosches and Mike Davis, it sounds like Dubai is the city of the future. Eno should do ‘Music for Dubai’ and see if it catches on. Maybe he could be the first Dubai superstar in the post-Las-Vegas world.
Of course, pressure groups have been very successful in getting piped music banned from airports, so the question’s rather academic.
I’d rather have no music at all at airports. There is so much there to listen to already. I think music would simply be an obstruction to those sounds; it would add to the chaotic environment. Although, maybe circus music or Nino Rota soundtracks for Fellini films would capture the absurdity that we have to experience going through security checkpoints.
On the other hand, if I wanted to run an experiment or practice some sort of acoustic terrorism, I would play Albert Ayler at deafening or even moderate levels. Imagine the psychological climate that could create. People would run for cover. Or maybe it would just empty the airport. But there is this sense that once you are in, you don’t leave until you reach your destination.
Amplified 100,000 times animal cell division sounds like a lot of girders and steel sheets being ripped apart…a car smash in slow motion. On the other hand, plant cell division is an electronic poem, all soft chords and bubbling tones.”
– JG Ballard, ‘Track 12′ (1967)
Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
In a recent discussion about Ballardian music, Paul Williams said that field recordings are more complementary to Ballard’s work than people singing about fucking an exhaust pipe. One of Paul’s example is ‘The Crackling’, a work by John Duncan, composed of treated field recordings made at Stanford Linear Accelerator, like ‘being in a vast space filled with the hum of a serious particle accelerator permeated by the distant voices of research technicians.’ In sound art, there are plenty of other people mining similar territory, so my question to you is: what could be more Ballardian than the sonic exploration of built environments and their psychological and social effects? After all, Ballard’s writing ‘records’ the spaces ‘in between': the hum of traffic, of sodium lamps in business parks, of the technological exoskeleton. And – at least in one important strand of his work – that’s often explicitly mirrored in inner space, reflected in the magnified, interior sound of blood and arteries pumping…
‘Ballardian sound’ does makes a lot more sense than ‘Ballardian music’ as far as being applicable to Ballard. On the other hand, even if an exploration of ‘Ballardian music’ means we’re on the wrong track, ‘Ballardian sound’ does seem to lack the sense of mystery that ‘Ballardian music’ has (even if it’s only mystery due to an incompatibility that defies any sort of rational definition). And besides who wants to dance to factory sounds! Although there is Einsturzende Neubauten or Savage Aural Hotbed.
I know – no one dances in Ballard.
As I gazed at these immense pagodas stranded on the floor of this fossil sea, I heard music coming from a sand-reef two hundred yards away. Swinging on my crutches across the sliding sand, I found a shallow basin among the dunes where sonic statues had run to seed beside a ruined studio.”
– JG Ballard, Vermilion Sands (1971)
APPENDIX I: JG Ballard’s ‘Desert Island Discs’
::: ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ (Bratton/Kennedy) 1932
::: ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ (Cole Porter) performed by Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters 1944
::: ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ (Fisher/Roberts) performed by Rita Hayworth 1946
::: ‘Falling in Love Again’ (Hollander/Connelly) performed by Marlene Dietrich 1931
::: An extract from ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ (Mozart) 1786
::: ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ (Antonio Carlos Jobim) 1962
::: An extract from ‘The Barber of Seville’ (Rossini) 1816
::: ‘Let’s Do It’ (Cole Porter/Peter Matz) performed by Noel Coward 1955
Ballard scholar David Pringle notes that the Mozart and Rossini selections were both opera. David muses, ‘The influence of working in Covent Garden flower market, outside the opera house, perhaps?’ There’s no Puccini, says David, although ‘we know from elsewhere JGB has expressed a guilty liking for Puccini — romantic and over-the-top’.
David explains that ‘the rest of Ballard’s Desert Island choices were mid-century popular music, unexceptionable for someone born in 1930. His liking for Cole Porter and Noel Coward betrays a certain leaning towards clever lyrics – the primacy of the word, rather than melody, unsurprising in a writer. Rita Hayworth singing ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ and ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ both represent sizzling sex…’
APPENDIX II: Mike Ryan’s Ballardian playlist
Mike’s comments below are excerpted from his follow-up post on Premeditated…
::: ‘Are You Afraid To Die’ — The Louvin Brothers 1960
“The Louvin Brothers sing the title without fear or dread but with a sense of resignation, as can be found for example in the final pages of Super-Cannes“.
::: ‘The Voice Of America’ — Cabaret Voltaire 1981
“White supremacy isn’t a theme in Ballard’s work, but the underlying danger to society it represents is”.
::: ‘Evil & Good’ — Splinter Test 1997
“Ballard has said that institutions such as religion and government are slinking away into the abyss, and this touches on that”.
::: ‘The Jezebel Spirit’ — Brian Eno & David Byrne 1981
“The voice of the preacher in this song is reminiscent of the unstable characters that Ballard creates…”
::: ‘You And I’ — Silver Apples 1944
“The sound of an airplane taking off… Enough said.”
::: ‘The American Astronaut’ — Billy Nayer Show 2001
“The title and the delivery are in line with Ballard’s approach to space travel, akin to John Carpenter’s Dark Star.”
::: ‘Boredom’ — The Buzzcocks 1977
“…the problem that many of Ballard’s antagonists attempt to confront”.
::: ‘Everyday Routine’ — Splinter Test 1997
“Another collage of found footage…”
::: ‘Ha Ha Ha’ — Flipper 1981
“We go downtown to do our shopping / and we … work in sub-urb-ia …”
::: ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ — Joy Division 1980
“One of the few tracks in the list directly influenced by one of Ballard’s books”.
::: ‘Baby’s On Fire’ — Brian Eno 1973
“One of the reasons that Ballard wrote Crash is that he started to observe people viewing atrocities as mere spectacles…”
::: ‘Warm Leatherette’ — Grace Jones 1980
“The one-time Helmut Newton model…Newton is one of Ballard’s favorite photographers.”
::: ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road’ — Lydia Lunch 1991
“…sultry dirty voice, the sounds of cars, industrial slide guitar, sexual lyrics…an obvious allusion to Crash.”
::: ‘Jayne Is Dead’ — unknown newsflash
“Within The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash there is an obsession with fame and death. In this newsflash we hear the demise of ‘Hollywood’s smartest dumb-blond’, Jayne Mansfield…”
::: ‘Hamburger Lady’ — Throbbing Gristle 1978
“Further emphasis on the crash-mutilation obsession by what seems to be the description of a crash victim, drowned in a vibrato-filter and noise…”
::: ‘Contort Yourself’ — James Chance & The Contortions 1979
“In Crash characters are contorted by their cars and they contort themselves into crash positions…”
::: ‘The Spirit Of JFK’ — Devo 1996
“This sampled mix…invokes the vision of the Zapruder film, constantly referred to in Ballard’s writing”.
::: ‘Uranium Willy’ (Rewrite) — William S. Burroughs 1995
“The writer that Ballard holds in highest esteem”.
::: ‘The Battle of Algiers’ — Ennio Morricone 1966
“The terrorism and rebellion within the film that this is the main theme for…represents the anti-authoritarian and maverick mindset of both [Ballard and Burroughs]“.
::: ‘Yuppie Cadillac’ — Jello Biafra With The Melvins 2004
::: ‘She Watch Channel Zero?!’ — Public Enemy 1995
::: ‘Explosions’ — Devo 1982
::: ‘Reuters’ — Wire 1977
::: ‘5.45’ — Gang Of Four 1979
::: ‘AK-47′ — Weird War 2004
::: ‘Caught At Midnight’ — Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra 1998
::: ‘Jungle Madness’ — Martin Denny 1958
::: ‘We Have Explosive’ — The Future Sound Of London 1997
“…this was more an homage to Ballard’s Millenium People, where terrorist actions take place in unexpected places like art museums and are carried out by the middle class…”.
::: ‘Shortwave Transmission On ‘Up To The Minuteman Nine’ — Pop Will Eat Itself 1989
::: ‘Neuron Factory’ — Cabaret Voltaire 1993
::: ‘Teenage Lust’ (Desdemaona Mix) — The Jesus & Mary Chain 1992
“Seemed like a good way to inject some sex into the set.”
::: ‘Mmmmm Skyscraper I Love You’ Underworld 1994
“The title alone, and its repetition within the track…is a nod to…High Rise“.
::: ‘The Model’ — Kraftwerk 1978
“…makes me think of Helmut Newton, one of Ballard’s favorite photographers and an admirer of the David Cronenberg film interpretation of Crash“.
::: ‘Future Sex’ — Alan Vega 1990
“This song epitomizes the Ballard equation: The Future = Sex x Technology.”
::: ‘Fall Fashion’ — The Prima Donnas 2001
::: ‘I’m Seein’ Robots’ — Kool Keith 1999
::: ‘Water’ — Christoph De Babalon 1998
“The Drowned World is the obvious reference”.
::: ‘Days Passed’ — Scorn 1994
“When you play a song called ‘Days Passed’ right after ‘Water’ the immediate reference, for me, was New Orleans — our real-life drowned world”.
Newer: Can We Ever Escape This Death Drive? »