NIGHT TIME IN AMERICA
by Chris R. Morgan
James Parker earned a bit of internet side-eye when, in the October issue of The Atlantic, he ventured to liken the character of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign to the career of the Sex Pistols. Trump, he writes, “has co-created a space in American politics that is uniquely transgressive, volatile, carnivalesque, and (from a certain angle) punk rock”:
He’s done it by harping on America’s most conservative intuitions … while addressing us in a style that thrillingly breaches every convention of political presentation. It’s as if the Sex Pistols were singing about law and order instead of anarchy, as if their chart-busting (banned) single, “God Save the Queen,” were not a foamingly sarcastic diatribe but a sincere pledge of fealty to the monarch. Electrifying!
The ire, or in any case the irritation, was justified to an extent. To find no daylight between an early punk band, which performed from the River Thames on the titular monarch’s silver jubilee, and a nascent office-seeker, who mocks the disabled at rallies, almost entirely on the virtues of their being vulgar and contrarian seemed a lazy angle from a sharp pop culture writer who knows better.
But I say “to an extent” because Parker was wrong mostly in the particulars. Pointing out the cultic populism of punk and the occasionally subversive messaging of politicians are not novel insights, but expressed in the right way they are passable rhetorical firecrackers for lagging table talk. If the comparison tells us anything about what we’re dealing with, however, it is found beneath the spectacle. If Parker wanted to make more than just a pyrotechnical display he would have placed firmer emphasis on the fact that, like Trump, the Sex Pistols were a chaotic and undisciplined unit. Parker mentions this but only in the positive, overlooking that the band had virtually no chemistry, clashed often, and imploded early. Like Trump, the Sex Pistols were a kind of assemblage project by opportunistic holdovers from an earlier generation, just switch in Roger Stone for Malcolm McLaren, which again Parker mentions mostly as a positive. And so, like Trump, the Sex Pistols themselves were not strictly true believers in the cause they were fomenting. The Sex Pistols weren’t really a very good or interesting band left to their own devices. In fact most people who saw the Sex Pistols play didn’t so much see a band as four blank spaces on a stage they thought they could fill just as if not more ably. That last point is somewhat significant.
If all the indicators of Trump’s doom—the sinking poll numbers, the impulse-driven strategy, the impolite utterances, etc.—do, in fact, doom him, then many would likely hope that that would be the end of it. That from November through into the winter, talk of Trump or what Trump did or did not stand for will deplete until the ascending Clintonian matriarchy becomes the gravitational stabilizer of the national conversation. This is foreseeable in the short term, provided other scenarios (“vote rigging”) fail to launch. But to hold that out over the long haul is less feasible. Laughable as it may be to return to the Sex Pistols, here they are the most helpful.
There was a cultural moment in the United Kingdom between 1978 and, say, 1982 or 1983 that was characterized by a kind of ritual iconoclasm. It wasn’t the simple matter of a band imploding and leaving behind a rudimentary blueprint; it was that the blueprint had to be redrawn almost completely. “Punk enabled you to say ‘fuck you’, but somehow it couldn’t go any further,” Factory Records founder Tony Wilson said. “Sooner or later someone was going to want to say more than ‘fuck you.’ Someone was going to want to say ‘I’m fucked.’” In that short period, sophistication, intellectual rigor, and high art were brought into punk, while retaining punk’s anti-art core. The barbarian outlanders had discovered brutalism. Leading the charge was, as it happens, John Lydon whose Public Image Limited sought to undo nearly all he had done as singer of the Sex Pistols. “The whole first wave of punk, it was a bit like a boy band,” Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman said, “but then after the masquerade there was something real and tangible that was left and came through from that.”
Killing Joke, founded in London in 1978, was just as much a byproduct of this moment, but was kept at a remove early on. Unlike a lot of their peers, they did not abandon the root punk sound—loud, distorted chords, guttural vocals, staccato lyrics—in earnest. In many ways they doubled down on it. Reviewing a show the band had played with Joy Division in 1980, NME’s Paul Morley wrote that “Killing Joke were the worst, heroically adding nothing at all to the latent seventies post punk beats and bashings.” As Joy Division’s self-appointed mythologizer, Morley seems to have been saying that Killing Joke were insufficiently cerebral for the temper of the times. On the first point, Killing Joke were not inclined to argue. But they were certainly neither behind nor outside of the times. If anything they were more in tune with it.
Punk’s confrontation with the Cold War was more diverse than it is given credit for. The Sex Pistols were sardonic and shallow, yes, but Magazine were ambivalent, This Heat! were oblique, Gang of Four were danceably partisan, and Crass were crass. But what unites these bands is the sense that the Cold War was mostly an inconvenience, something they had to address out of a kind of anxious obligation. Not so for Killing Joke, who saw their concept as a direct outpouring of the conflict and what they thought was its logical end. With Killing Joke, Coleman sought “to define the exquisite beauty of the atomic age in terms of style, sound, and form.” In Killing Joke’s music, the Cold War was less of a world event than it was a condition unto itself that required a psychological mindset and even an emotional investment to bear its myriad fallouts. This was music for people who “don’t think they’re going to survive the next 10 years.”
If there is a near-perfect demonstration of this aesthetic, it is the band’s second album What’s THIS for …!. Released four years after Never Mind the Bollocks, Killing Joke stripped down the funereal, almost metallic, synth-driven sound of their debut to deliver a refinement of the Sex Pistols’ classic almost beat for beat. If the Sex Pistols’ aggression was played with winking, contemptuous detachment, Killing Joke would play it in earnest, infused with menace and shell shocked resignation. “Forests are falling there’s smoke in my throat/Machine over man and the mass over mind/Reassurance from face on my screen,” Coleman sings on “Butcher.” “Out of the virus immunity comes.” The album is a leaner, cleaner work, not cold but focused, even when songs stretch beyond the five-minute mark not a note is wasted. Geordie Walker’s guitar is as sharp as it is catchy, showing what The Edge would sound like if he didn’t need effects. Paul Ferguson’s drums pound with the precise fury of a depleting magazine. And Coleman’s vocals replace Lydon’s dismissive snarls with State of Emergency declamation. What Morley heard as derivative could just as plausibly be heard as a resolution of discipline and craft with a messianic vision. So messianic, in fact, that Coleman famously quit the band in 1982 and moved to Iceland to wait out the coming annihilation, and also to delve into the occult.
Returning to Parker’s analogy, what does this tell us? Not much, admittedly. My politician remains a hypothetical; but for one to come onto the scene in the wake of Trump’s mess and reassemble it more elegantly is not something that should be so easily written off. He or she will undoubtedly see Trump’s campaign as a catalyst, but less as something to emulate and more as something to apply a deeper, more committed moral and political framework. Where Trump applies brashness, he or she will recast it in eloquence. Where Trump boldly shocks, he or she will subtly menace. Where Trump parrots superficial sentiments, he or she will arrive having long plumed the depths of the constituency’s collective psyche, and will not just placate, but persuade and perhaps direct. And where Trump is impulsive and off the cuff, he or she will be strategic, efficient, and clear, and will garner respect from it. Yet his or her vision will still be irrational overall, if not out and out apocalyptic then certainly thriving in likeminded moods, of facing down oncoming crises and existential threats; of decrying a sickness’s hues and lesions but not endeavoring for its cure.
How this plays out long term is just as hypothetical, but unlike the Sex Pistols, Killing Joke had staying power. Their work varied in quality over the years but has had both unusual resilience and influence. “There are thousands of people who are Killing Joke fans, but aren’t even aware of it,” Adrien Begrand wrote in Pop Matters. If the Sex Pistols have a wider influence it is mostly as a beta test, while Killing Joke’s own descendants—Metallica, Godflesh, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Big Black, Nirvana, and so on—spend whole careers trying to replicate their intensity. (In the case of Nirvana, quite literally.)
This case, I admit, rests on a lot of assumptions, both hopeful and dismal; and its being framed in this way possibly betrays a shallowness of thought. After all, no one who knows culture needs to be reminded of punk’s evolution, nor does anyone who knows politics need to be reminded of the sustenance of Trumpism over time. And I can say precious little of how specific policy points under Trump’s umbrella will dominate or cohere—such as Daniel McCarthy’s libertarian noninterventionism besting John Bolton’s redemptive violence.
Even if this case is as wrong in the particulars as Parker’s, I find it necessary to instill in as many people as will listen the general idea that, while so much still hangs in the balance, both in the remaining weeks of the election and just over the horizon, it’s worth calling upon a unifying faith in which very little, perhaps nothing at all, will be foreseeably better. To the extent that it can get worse is not for me to say. But something is calling for a new mindset as events trudge forward, one of caution and psychological preparation rather than one of hope, which now seems a more entitled posture than pessimism. If this was the subtlety of Parker’s piece that he was either unable or unwilling to divine for us, well, he can thank me at his leisure.