Anyone who’s been following the blog during recent times will be in no doubt of my admiration for John Higgs’s ‘The KLF: Chaos, Magic And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds’, a book like no other, full of incendiary ideas and inspiration – a proper mindsparker. I wrote about it here:
When we were looking for a guest for our talks section at the Liverpool leg of last years’ series of Super Weird Happenings, John, given that the city is central to the narrative of the book, emerged as our ideal candidate. I tweeted him a private message and he responded in the affirmative. As a serendipitous by-product we would also get to meet John’s friend, the playwright Daisy Eris Campbell, whose adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘Cosmic Trigger’ I’ve waxed lyrical about previously on the blog. Daisy would join us at our London Happening, and both will be giving talks at our Happening #6 at Festival No.6 in Portmeirion, North Wales this Saturday. More info here:
This time around John will focus on his new book, ‘Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense Of The Twentieth Century’. Whilst his KLF book has earned the author cult acclaim, his new offering is destined to reach a much wider audience, hopefully gaining his work the full recognition it merits. When the Northampton bard himself, the great comic book writer Alan Moore, goes as far as to call it ‘an illuminating work of massive insight’, adding ‘I cannot recommend this magnificent work too highly’, you know that a lot of people previously unaware of John Higgs are now going to sit up and take notice, as they undoubtedly should.
I was lucky enough to get a proof copy sent to me in advance of publication, so having eagerly read it, I’ve spent the interim between then and now soaking it all in – it’s observations and acumen hits you on different levels, some instant, others that linger along with you, making greater sense the deeper they seep under your skin. Having also read his revealing limited edition ‘Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On’, as well as his biography of psychedelic luminary Timothy Leary, ‘I Have America Surrounded’, John has fast become my favourite contemporary author. His storytelling really hits the spot, coming at you both head on and from lateral angles, ambushing you with ideas. It’s thought-provoking but also fun, which is a powerful combination – he’s got the alchemy just right.
The way in which John connects things that you might have previously regarded as disparate is something that very much chimes with me. I feed off the discovery of these hitherto hidden connections – it’s like a switch that lights up a circuit in my brain once this new information is added to my current bank of insights and impressions, igniting further connections and causing a chain reaction of fresh awareness.
‘Stranger Than We Can Imagine’ is John’s alternative roadmap of the 20th Century, based on his own insights and impressions, some of which overlap with mine, others which provide me with totally new understanding, covering subjects I might be aware of, but have never looked at beneath surface level. The shifts from the age of empire to the era of the individual, from scientific surety to the shocking uncertainty of Einstein’s relativity, play out in its pages, but in a manner that brings history alive with colour, rather than being some serious studious text with plenty of cerebral appeal, but no heart.
Reading the book got me thinking about how its themes played out when applied to the history of music, specifically black music, in the 20th century. The advent of Jazz, the Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funk, Disco, Electro, House, Hip Hop and Techno provides a main thoroughfare from the beginnings of the century to its end. If we go back to the 19th century, musically speaking, the American lineage was still more within the grand European tradition of orchestral / classical music on the one hand and the basic folk expression of the less privileged on the other, with church hymns in some ways bridging the two. A further key musical element, often overlooked, would be the military music. It would be via the American Civil War of the 1860s that black conscripts would take up the bugle, which would lead to the great trumpet players who heralded the arrival of Jazz, not least arguably the 20th century’s most influential musician, Louis Armstrong, whose phrasing on the instrument would make a major impact not only on other musicians, but most notably singers, who adapted a completely different approach to conveying a song, which was neither folk, nor opera, nor gospel, but a whole new fusion.
Whilst John Higgs talks about the paintings of Picasso, or the theories of Einstein, illustrating that there was no fixed perspective, as the scientists had us led us to believe in the 1800s, the same can be said of the rhythm and polyrhythms of black American music, which dominated the century – rhythms and polyrhythms that the ancestors of these musicians were deprived of when they were captured in Africa and shipped overseas to a life of slavery.
Perspectives in music changed radically in the early 20th century. John tells us of the hullabaloo concerning Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite Of Spring’ with its utilization of African influenced polyrhythms, when performed in Paris of 1913. The fact that by the 1920s young upper crust white women, God forbid, were dancing wantonly to Negro music, illustrates this change and highlights another aspect of individualism emerging – nonconformity very much in vogue. These people came from the same type of stock as those in attendance for ‘The Rite Of Spring’ – society’s elite, the people with money (those who could afford to buy the expensive technology of a gramophone to hear these circular miracles of sound called records). The working classes would have to wait longer, until owning a radio became affordable and they were able to tune into this brave new frontier of Jazz (although often in a diluted ‘whitewashed’ form, as has been the case for all black music innovation to one level or another).
Although it’s too big a subject to go into here in any depth, the rise of EDM (the marketing term for Electronic Dance Music) in the US over recent times has seen young people finally embracing the dance movement largely rejected when the UK and Europe was rave central in the late ’80s into the ’90s. Dance culture in the US, post Disco (and its untimely ‘death’ in 1979 – murder might be a better description), existed more on the periphery, but now it’s square in the mainstream. Only problem is that, generally speaking, much of the black has been wrung out of it along the way, leaving something more akin to European marching rhythms of the 19th century than the complex polyrhythms of Africa.
John brought into play a wonderful word in the opening salvo of the book – Omphalos. It’s a word from antiquity that refers to a fixed central point in the world – to the Greeks in was Delphi, to Christians in was Jerusalem, and to the Japanese Mount Fuji (in John’s KLF book, its symbolized by the manhole cover at the bottom of Mathew St, Liverpool, where The Beatles played at The Cavern many times in the early ’60s, and which later provided the location of the legendary club Eric’s and the esoteric Liverpool School Of Language Music Dream And Pun in the ’70s). At the turn of the 20th century John places the Omphalos at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, the designated center from which time is measured.
My personal Omphalos is more symbolic than static. It isn’t a place, but it’s four people from my home city of Liverpool, The Beatles, who provide my greatest point of reference, and if you pinpoint the epicenter it’s the release of the era-defining album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ on June 1st 1967 – in that mythical realm of the summer of love when, as far as the youth of the western world was concerned, all was possible, this was the high watermark, and the point from which I move forward and backward throughout the century. Learning about The Beatles’ journey enabled me to know so much more, for their story takes in a wealth of subjects from politics to philosophy, marketing to mysticism – they really were in the eye of the 20th century hurricane.
From knowing The Beatles you get to know the ’60s, from knowing the ’60s the ’50s and the ’70s come more into focus, and it was in this way I was able to find my route through the century.
What John Higgs has done for me personally is enrich my own road map, adding new junctions and signposts along the way. His chapter on relativity allowed me insights into this subject that I’ve never previously experienced. It’s helped colour the landscape, which now feels vibrant and approachable rather than dark and foreboding. As with Alan Moore, John is able to demystify within his writing – transmit information in a way that resonates now. His easy style is laced with depth and meaning – that’s its potency.
These are the keys to a never-ending puzzle. Understanding, like everything else, is relative to your place in space and time – what might be taken as an empirical fact at one point may not, as Einstein showed us, be so certain at another. What we are able to do though is set our basecamps from which we can go out exploring, and these basecamps are areas of interest / understanding that we’re passionate about, for its what’s going on in the heart rather than the head that dictates the pace of these things. As John points out, there are high mountain ranges of information, but there are also caves and woodland where less visible but still significant signposts point the way. In fact it’s here where some of the greatest discoveries can be made.
For example, John tells us about a remarkable woman called Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven who, having been completely marginalized until recent times, is finally gaining recognition as the first American Dada artist, possibly responsible for one of the major art statements of the entire century, a piece attributed to Marcel Duchamp called ‘Fountain’ (credited to the fictional R. Mutt) – a urinal turned on its side, which shocked the sensibilities of the New York art community in 1917, when it was withdrawn from the exhibition it was to have featured in.
‘Stranger Than We Can Imagine’ is split into 15 chapters, all (bar one) with single word titles – Relativity, Modernism, War, Individualism, Id, Uncertainty, Science Fiction, Nihilism, Space, Sex, Teenagers, Chaos, Growth, Postmodernism and Network. John’s basic premise concerns the pursuit of individualism during the century, summed up by the almost slogan like maxim of occultist Aleister Crowley ‘do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’.
By the turn of the 20th century the influence of the church had significantly waned in the western world, the supposed certainty of science replacing religions reliance on faith, whilst in the early decades of the century, following the horrors of World War 1, Empires would crumble, with the long age of Kings, Caesars and Tsars reaching its conclusion.
Whilst people were previously born into a structured hierarchy, where they were obliged to do their duty for church and crown depending on their position in the social ladder, with the breakdown of these power bases personal expression seemed increasingly prevalent as the century progressed – beginning with artists like Baroness Elsa who, as hindsight illustrates, was way ahead of the curve of individualism. This seems to have been a necessary progression.
That said, doing as thou wilt can only go so far, and if everyone is applying this ethos there’s bound to be conflict as two separate wills clash in pursuit of their opposing individual goals. A line from the animated movie ‘The Incredibles’ (2004) has increasingly popped into my mind during recent times – it’s when Syndrome, having been shunned by Mr Incredible when he was younger, discloses that he now has the technology that enables anyone to have the type of superpowers Mr Incredible’ himself has, informing him in a sinister tone that ‘when everyone’s super, no one will be‘.
Reality TV has been a major example of this manifestation. Andy Warhol called it exactly right with his ‘famous for fifteen minutes’ quote. We live in a crazy age where people can become celebrities for little more than being ignorant or bigoted – nasty often having greater currency than nice. As Alan Moore has previously stated, and John Higgs repeats here, the alchemical principle of Solve et Coagula might provide the key to the next stage – Solve refers to reductionism and analysis, Coagula to reconstruction or synthesis. In this sense the individualism of the 20th century illustrated the process of Solve, and now we’ve entered a new phase where Coagula needs to be applied, rebuilding what we’ve broken down in new and improved ways, suited to the 21st century in which we now reside and its substantial challenges.
John makes the astute observation that Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ was perhaps the most symbolic song for a century of individualism, and it’s no wonder that this is the most played song at funerals in the west. He also made an interesting comparison between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The Stones, he suggests, flew the individualist flag to the full, consciously acting out Crowley’s call to ‘do as thou wilt’, whereas the Beatles were more about community and togetherness, and that whilst the Stones might be summarized as ‘I want’, The Beatles are best summed up via that four letter word ‘love’ (interestingly, Crowley appears as part of their lonely hearts community on the fabled ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ album cover, whilst there is also a doll on the sleeve wearing a stripy top that bears the words ‘Welcome The Rolling Stones’).
This would suggest that The Beatles were the prophets of the next phase – that their philosophy was not of its time, but pointing the way to the future. Maybe this is why their music feels so familiar yet so otherworldly at the same time. Perhaps part of their mass appeal was in preparing us for what’s ahead – helping us to think in a way that goes beyond individual self-satisfaction.
I could go on and on considering these connections, but that’s what a great book does to you, gets the old grey matter sparking technicolor as I explore the avenues and lanes they lead me down.
We need people like John Higgs to help us make sense of these tangled times, to bring the strands together. So it goes without saying that, amidst this culture of steam, in which we find ourselves, wading through the treacle of information that increasingly controls our lives, ‘Stranger Than We Can Imagine’ provides an important navigational tool for our age, highlighting aspects of our past which inform our future as we slowly shed our 20th century skin and begin to view the world through 21st century eyes.
John Higgs Blogspot: