A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

31/07/2011 § Leave a comment

Nothing is worse than active ignorance – Goethe

Up till a few days ago I was working in a medical clinic in South-East London. One of those ‘up and coming’ areas, each road flanked by dowdy, breeze-blocked hutches with the odd new bar sandwiched in between. I blame bars and gastro-pubs for the economic crisis of 2009. Too many of the damn things sprung up all over the place, and of course the new managers had to get their money from somewhere in order to pay back their loans. What better way to solve the problem of funding your middle-class dream than to charge godly sums of cash for even the most meagre of comestibles to go with your German lager, I even remember one bar in Muswell Hill asking £4 for a packet of crisps. Not just any crisps of course, but natural, organic root vegetable slivers in a small tube. Instead of a Pringle-esque strongman, some hand-drawn sketch of a couple of parsnips and a carrot adorned the front, probably with a rural farmer in the background looking on proudly at his crop and reminiscing on the large amounts of money he wouldn’t be ceding from getting up at 4.30am every morning in order to feed the glossed lips of the well-to-do North Londonites in N10. From Gable To Table, the slogan should have read. Bless those funny folk and their tramsheds, customers would muse as they twizzled their G&T stirrers.

The people near the clinic were altogether something else, a real mix of misfits who would come in for the most pitiful of ailments. As someone who would hardly go to the GP for a rapidly increasing heartrate should I worry the ECG monitor, I was making space for the doubled-up hobbits of the vicinity to rush in at even the excitement of seeing a bee on a cold day.

The locals are questionable where I live too, SE8 is a hive of working-class activity or inactivity depending on what the weather chooses to be doing. The Brits are disgustingly affected by the hot weather. Summer, ‘Season of Yellow Awfulness’ as Jonathan Meades called it. 22 degrees is generally the Rubicon, above which everyone streams out of their houses like children into a theme park, invading the local area with all manner of noise – music noise, football noise, screaming noise, ice-cream-van noise, riant noise, noisy noise. The call of the idiots, the summer-zombies. They probably have digital barometers on their walls with an alarm set to 22C, at which point Coronation Street goes off, they throw on the ballerina pumps and belt out of their UPVC doorways while the local pubs run around looking for the connector cables to the public televisions. That’s what people do in hot weather, after all. They go to pubs. They move from drinking and watching football in their living rooms to drinking and watching football down the road for three times the price.

We had this work experience child in the clinic, this well-spoken, well-dressed but slightly awkward teenager who’d sit at reception and do little else but make pyramids out of plastic cups for two weeks, giving a less than ideal impression of time-management and usefulness to the good citizens of South London. He would talk about music to me, as would a couple of other people on reception who, in their “real lives” were very much involved in their respective chosen music scenes. After this kid left and rotated back to his existence in a hardened Christian upbringing with weekly reproaches through overly-strict parenting, more new work experience kids entered. I remember one of them, a rakish, tall, hipster-looking something with awful, swishy Lego-man hair sitting behind reception on my arrival, waiting indifferently for something to happen. Wearing earphones, white ones at that. I mused over our incidental dialogue for when I would show him round the clinic later that morning, “so, what were you listening to there?” “Oh, nothing, just some indie music…”, “indie eh… well, I bet you were listening to Gang Gang Dance or Iceage or Grizzly Bear or Mumford… haha, isn’t Pitchfork great?”

For a moment I was serious about the idea. I then realised how desperately sad I sounded, and how so many music fans think they’re experts. Whether they admit it openly or hold it in silently.

The same was true of myself years ago. At the start of 2002 I was thrown into a state of bewilderment and wonder at the sound of After Forever over Shoutcast radio. This, I felt, was my calling. And I must let absolutely everybody know about it. I should let everybody see that I not only had a newer, developed taste in music, but that I ostensibly had a new identity. I was… this newer person that listened to metal. And such a person dresses differently, listens to loads of depressing music, I even considered dropping my normal speaking voice a few tones in order to sound more ‘dark’ [and I know some people who actually went ahead and did it]. I had actually been listening to metal on and off since 1995, but something about this really grabbed me and inspired me to make a sea-change in my life, one which I’m very thankful for. And, given my obsessive nature, I had to know absolutely everything about it. I had to become an ‘authority’.

I don’t think that this is a particularly exceptional move. It’s common lore that the more obscure bands you now, the more knowledgeable about your particular area you are. There are even people who will go out of their way to listen to bands with below 200 listeners on Last FM, avoiding the horror of turning into something too mainstream, whatever the mainstream counts for now. The mainstream isn’t something to be detested and ridiculed, any more than a Twix bar should be detested for being bad food. Sure, there are charlatans masquerading as talented artists, but so there are in Covent Garden market. Just walk past and hold onto your change.

I’m realising more and more that this whole thing is more of a learning experience than a teaching experience. By talking about the music we have dug up from the post-industrial underground, we should not only be talking about what we know, but exploring what we’d like it to be. In a thriving underground scene saturated with artist upon artist of samey, innovation-less slobber, we should take more notice of where we’re going rather than where we are and where we’ve been. We are not special because we are specialised: everyone feels that their own interests are worth something, whether they be death metal and extreme fetishisms or Su Doku and package holidays to Majorca.

The bane of the underground music scene is not only arrogant fans, but arrogant musicians, and I’ve seen my fair share of both. A one-second realisation in that South London clinic put any remaining shred of my attitude into perspective, possibly because right there I saw what I had been years ago. Without there being room for what we don’t know, there is no more space for learning, no more space for discovery and no more space for experience. We should see as much value in our knowledge gaps as the content surrounding them.

So how to go about this? The main idea is to think outside our sphere of reference, a very difficult thing to do. We all move in and out of a routine which we don’t always realise, whether it be in our working days or in our music listening. As with many examples of successfully breaking routines, the chief way is to go to places you wouldn’t normally go to. Visit websites which seem uncomfortably different; look around; explore; improvise. Don’t be one of those people who spam the Recommendations board at Metal Archives, urgently seeking something overspecific like grindcore with female vocals, synths, viola interludes and references to cheese culturing. If you’re looking to introduce variety to your music listening through such wild criteria, you’re already lost.

The most surprising results come from experimentation, a tiring exercise indeed, but most of the time the consequences will be worth it just when you’re ready to give up. The more we search, the harder it is to be self-important. The sheer volume of material out there is grander, bigger and more daunting than one can ever triumph over. When I was younger I thought I was enlightened because I knew more than my peers. But when your peers feature the musical underground as a whole, it’s a very humbling perspective.


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