Monday 17 February 2020

Inferno, the First Volume in My Three-Part ‘Trash Project’ Launches February 18

‘Trash has always served me well—over the years it has become the outer form and material expression of my dreams: of tomorrow, of life in space, of the blissful alienation from this world that I have always craved…’

My latest book Inferno: a Genealogy of 1960s Trash is being launched at the Horse Hospital on Tuesday February 18. 

The Horse Hospital is bravely fighting back against threats of closure once again – and once again they have managed to hang onto their amazing space off Russell Square until the end of March. I doubt whether Inferno would have been the same book, or would even have existed at all, if it hadn’t been for the Horse Hospital. The Trash Project has been a long time in the planning. Over twenty years of screenings, exhibitions, discussions and debates at the Horse Hospital have had an undeniable impact on writing and thinking about Trash and Trash Aesthetics. 

There has been no other place like it. The launch of my first book, Destroy All Monsters, took place at the Horse Hospital. Strange Attractor Press also enjoys strong connections with the Horse Hospital – some of its earliest events were held there. To celebrate the launch of Inferno at the Horse Hospital has tremendous significance both for me and for my publishers. I hope you can join us. There will be movies, a reading from Inferno, plus a book signing and special guest star DJs. You can find more details of what should be a highly memorable evening by clicking here.

Inferno is the first volume in a three-part work on the subject of Trash and Trash Aesthetics. It has been very closely modelled upon the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The architecture of Hell as laid out in Dante’s epic poem perfectly suits the main subject of my own Inferno, which deals predominantly with exploitation and underground films in 1960s America. You can find more details about the book, including the complete blurb, by clicking here.  

Strange Attractor have included in their press kit for Inferno a short Q&A that I was asked to respond to earlier this month. I am reproducing the resultant exchange herewith, with thanks to Esmeralda Vogele Downing for asking such great questions. I think it tells you quite a lot about the new project. 

How can one best recognise trash?

Well, that presupposes that we already have a workable definition of Trash and its appeal. Trash maintains a highly elusive presence precisely because it escapes recognition. We might claim to ‘know it when we see it’ – but how far has this assumption ever got us? Apply the same pronouncement to ‘art’ or ‘beauty’, and you’ll see what I mean. One of the reasons why I started The Trash Projectin the first place was to explore how Trash is set up within a culture and why it is so necessary to the life of that culture. We tend, for the most part, to recognise Trash ‘when we see it’ only so that we can immediately dismiss it. This is essentially what’s happening when we claim that something is ‘so bad it’s good’. I understand what is being claimed by this statement as it is commonly used but not the mechanisms or attitudes that have produced it. These need to be exposed and examined much more closely. Or to put it another way: when everything tells you that you ought to look away but you keep on watching anyway – that’s the quintessential Trash experience to me.

What in Inferno is likely to surprise first-time explorers of trash?

That Trash even exists at all, to be honest. The sixties are habitually characterised as the decade when the western world went ‘pop’ for the first time. TV shows and comic strips, product design and advertising, AM-friendly radio tunes, dance music and romances were suddenly celebrated as examples of what was already being classified by the late 1950s as ‘popular culture’. But that celebration is itself highly selective: Disney’s OK but Speed Racer isn’t. Mickey Mouse is fine but Rat Fink isn’t. Advertising spreads in glossy magazines are acceptable, but ads for X-Ray Spex and plastic model kits in comic books aren’t. Playboy and movie star magazines are fine – but men’s adventure magazines and nudie cuties aren’t. In other words, critical accounts of what constitutes popular culture during this period tend to suppress or ignore Trash or, at the very least, garble the essential details of its existence. Concepts like ‘Camp’ and the ‘New Sentimentality’ gave a certain permission to celebrate some forms of Trash – but the cops and censors, the school board and the ‘moral consensus’ were always close at hand to keep an eye on things and make sure they didn’t go too far. On the other hand, it’s also likely that readers of Inferno will be surprised that some of the films, records or books featured should be considered Trash at all. That’s fine by me. The Trash Project is intended as an exploration, after all – not a definitive statement. However, I would be curious to know when, and under what circumstances, they first encountered these disputed examples of Trash. The passage of time has a pleasing way of sanding off the rough edges. I’m trying to look more closely at what made them rough in the first place.

Rat Fink or Mickey Mouse; who’d win in a fight, and why?

If it’s in an alleyway, on the drag strip or round the back of the school cafeteria, then Rat Fink would win every time. But if it’s in the boardroom or the courtroom, then my money’s on the mouse. Ed Roth’s creation may be an awkward and scabrous misfit, but he’s got heart; you just know he’ll fight dirty if he has to. Mickey Mouse is a suburban dad by comparison, and has a suburban dad’s values, which means he’d also have the best legal representation – and that’s where I’m going to leave it.

Which three items of literature, music or film would you recommend to accompany Inferno?

Just three? OK, I’ll offer one example in each of the suggested categories. While writing InfernoI went back again and again to Mary Douglas’s classic work of cultural anthropology, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. It’s so beautifully and clearly written, and first published in 1966, so it fits exactly into the period I am describing in the book. I also listened to a lot of surf instrumentals and songs about cars from the period when working on the book – everything from ‘Surfin’ Bird’ and ‘’Wipe Out’ to ‘Little Street Machine’ and ‘Dracula’s Deuce’. Couldn’t get enough. Finally, and after much thought, the film I would suggest to accompany Inferno would have to be Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. Itsuits the mood and terrain of Inferno right down to its frozen heart – plus it’s a beautiful example of the strange poetry that you might find showing at your local drive-in during the early 1960s. 

How does the book tie into or evolve from your other works of critical theory?

That’s a hard question for me to answer because I tend to see each of my books as existing in its own separate world: written at a specific time in a specific way in response to a specific concern. I’m also not sure that they can really be categorized as works of critical theory in the conventional sense of the word. I think of my books as tools or devices that enable the reader to explore a relatively unexamined idea or condition. To this end they often use multiple voices, perspectives and disciplines. The lines between critical and creative writing in my work are intentionally blurred. This has remained a constant throughout my books and essays. Similarly, much of my writing has a strong structural component. The form and the strict ordering of material within my books has always been a recurring concern of mine – from the 200 numbered files of Destroy All Monsters and the chronological sequencing of Welcome to Marsto the labyrinthine doubling back of themes in The Bright Labyrinthand the astrological ordering of sequences in The Space Oracle. In that respect, Inferno definitely follows the same line of development –being the first in a larger three-part Trash Project, whose structure is directly derived from Dante’s Divine Comedy. I am currently about halfway through composing Purgatory at the moment, and Paradise is already being mapped out. I’ve never done a three-part work before, so that is also a new departure for me. Structure alone can say so much.

The Trash Project: Volume One
Ken Hollings
400 pp
34 b/w images (approx.)
ISBN 9781907222795

February 18, 7.00 – 9.00 pm
The Horse Hospital
London WC1N 1JD

Cover design by Tihana ล are 
Third and Fourth Inferno images by @lahollings 

Monday 3 February 2020

‘Live It’ by Biting Tongues – Some Notes and Afterthoughts

Finally received my author’s copies of Live It in the morning mail. This is a collection of early Biting Tongues recordings released on vinyl for the first time by Finders Keepers. The core material for this album was drawn from a cassette-only release put out in the early 1980s by Manchester punk label New Hormones, also under the title Live It – six of the ten tracks in fact. The others are outtakes from the various Live It sessions, which actually sound so interesting that I wonder why they weren’t included in the original release.

The first thing that struck me about the vinyl version of Live It was the insight displayed in the new cover design – it pointed me towards something I had not really noticed before. On the front of the regular edition you can see one of those standard band photos everybody does from time to time for promotional purposes. Biting Tongues never seemed to do that many photo sessions as a group in the early 1980s so there probably isn’t that much material to choose from – at least not from the time when these recordings were made. We were being photographed in the stairwell of some mall or arcade. I really don’t remember where it was – I was not living in Manchester at the time, although the rest of the band were. I used to commute between my home in London and theirs every other week or so for rehearsals, recording sessions, performances etc. 

As I said, I don’t recall the location of the tall high windows featured in the front-cover photograph – but what did strike me about them is how they neatly separated me from the other members of Biting Tongues, as if I had been set aside in a box on my own. I am similarly divided from the band on the back cover as well. Graham, Colin, Howard and Eddie had been photographed standing together in some murky alleyway – the print is high contrast and very post-punk. I appear alone in a photo insert sitting at a typewriter and a microphone, illuminated by a desk light. This time I do remember when and where this photograph was taken – it was during a performance Biting Tongues gave at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on the Mall in London. It was our first ever London gig. We would include all kinds of one-off performance elements in these early shows; and on this occasion it had been arranged that I would actually type up new portions of my text live onstage. Then I would deliver them from the desk while the rest of the band went on playing. 

Somehow the cover design for this release perfectly encapsulates my relationship with Biting Tongues during the time when I was a member. It comments on the different and separate processes at work within the band both within the studio and outside it. The rest of the band worked really hard on the music we recorded and performed. They worked collectively – on a regular basis. They also worked intuitively around very precise formal agreements. Meanwhile back in London, I worked on the texts alone and in isolation – I’d receive rehearsal tapes from the band in the post and use them to frame and shape what I was writing. I was more interested in textual collage, cut-ups, words coming from unknown or unforeseen sources – words overheard from a world you only ever glimpse from the corner of your eye. 

I would use all kinds of techniques at the time: take, for example, the texts for ‘42’ and ‘43’, which you will find on side one of Live It and which are also from the original audiocassette release. These were actually derived from one long mosaic-like text made up from laying random horizontal grids over the pages of existing books and noting down what the grids would either underline or strike through. I can’t remember all of the source material now, but listening to the full text on ‘43’ I know some of the fragments and phrases are from works by Antonin Artaud and Georges Bataille. Yeah – I know. Pretentious. The NME told me as much at the time, and so did just about everyone else. 

On side two, the track that interests me the most is ‘Read This’, the text for which was derived from a chain letter sent to me by someone who claimed that the government was trying to control their mind using microwaves. Their words were cut together with some short texts produced by my tuning through an FM radio dial late at night and transcribing the results. On the first two tracks on side two you can also hear me cutting into the words themselves, to produce abstract sounds. These proved too difficult to learn for live performances – your mind has nothing to grip on to. Instead I used to do readings from them at Richard Strange’s early Cabaret Futura nights rather than including them in any Biting Tongues performances. John Peel’s producer John Walters, recorded one of my Cabaret Futura readings and played some of it on his Radio 1 show, declaring that I was probably ‘the death of rock and roll’. 

If he was right, I don’t think I did a very good job of it. Looking back, I can see that I was always a writer working with a group of musicians – certainly not a singer or performer in any conventional sense of the word. One day I will write more about the few short years I was with Biting Tongues. It was a great time to be working with music, both live and in the studio – everything was up for grabs back then; and there was a real appetite for experimentation, however rough and raw the outcome might be. I think Graham Massey’s selection and editing of the tracks on Live It conveys all of this extremely well. It took over three decades to understand the full implications of all that, but it was worth the wait for these recordings to be available at long last in a vinyl edition. Today, looking back on them and having no choice in the matter, I now think of the texts and my delivery of them on this album as being my first published work. Sometimes the past has a way of telling you what you should already have known.

Pictured above: Biting Tongues: Live It – standard edition; Biting Tongues: Live It – limited deluxe edition; sleeve note insert from the standard edition and one of the facsimile club flyers from the deluxe edition. 

Photographed by @lahollings

Order details for Live It from Finders Keepers can be found here.

 Now buy it.