Behind the Fifth Wall

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JC stretches his legs out in front of him, lights a smoke to delay answering my question immediately, then says, “You’re exposed to soooo many new things all the time, you’re not loyal to any of it, at all. If you used to buy an album,” he explains, “or a tape or a CD, you’d listen to it a thousand times. That might still happen, but you’re also listening to a hundred things at once, because you can, which means you’re not emotionally invested in any of it.”

JC Visser is on a roll. He’s an inventor and the bass player for Mr Cat & The Jackal, and a few side projects, the latest being Staaltjie Visser, a somewhat puzzling audio serial that I’m not quite getting the hang of. Doesn’t matter, though, because we are talking about music, South African rock music specifically, the pros and cons of now and then, “then” being the eighties. He started his music career in the early noughties, he says, and I’m curious to know what his experience has been thus far, which is, in the main, surprisingly positive, as is that of Benji de Kock, 23-year-old music entrepreneur and latest keyboard-toggling addition to the ska/reggae outfit The Rudimentals, whom I’ve also interviewed. I say surprisingly, because from where I’m sitting, the music world appears to have progressed from a mere hi-fi clusterfuck to a serial hi-tech mother of all clusterfucks, digital and platformed, and endlessly streaming into an all-consuming millennial hellhole that offers little benefit and no return. No financial return, that is - not to musicians, anyway.

Yet they are unperturbed.

The way I see it, the biggest difference between the (white) youth of the eighties and youngsters today is twofold – political and technological, and how that has influenced and controlled our behaviour.

Compared with today’s neo-liberal free-market capitalist fascism at the one extreme and the Gucci comrades’ victim-rich woke black nationalist fascism at the other, a host of colourful and lively guppy parties making up the middle ground, the politics of the eighties was quite simple and straightforward – Afrikaner national socialism or English liberalism or black socialism. There was, of course, also a “middle way” that I was part of, which was more like a drug-fuelled anarcho-nihilism, a solitary fuck-you finger in the air that served as a kind of zigzagging now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t second front in the formal race war.

Those days, we were cut off from the world because of sanctions and the international cultural boycott. Left to our own devices and stewing in our own juices, we turned out to be quite fucking subversive, producing word-class tunes that could have had those international charts burning if we’d got the chance.

The whole scene was like being dropped into a pressure cooker, wrapping and all, with the heat turned up high, and the cook in tjoekie. Influenced by punk and the new wave, the eighties youth produced inflammatory songs about rebellion and insurrection. About breaking down shit like The System, setting it alight, or simply blowing it up. Our gigs were powder kegs and the bands and musicians were hanging around, eager to strike the match. We took drugs and drank ourselves into oblivion to escape, but also to confront. The music itself was confrontational, and was meant to provoke. I’m thinking the Asylum Kids’s “Fight it with your mind” and National Wake’s “International news”.

Few of the record companies were prepared to take on a bunch of rebels with no hope of radio play, and therefore no sales, so we helped ourselves. Obz Records, Radium Wreckords, Shifty Music were a few of the independent labels that filled the vacuum left by the mainstream labels, though ironically both the Kids and National Wake were signed by Benjy Mudie’s WEA label. As I recall, Benjy was the only major label exec that got his hands dirty with punk.

The scene was very much underground, a sub-culture cobbled together with safety pins and a common need to express ourselves. It was like this gig economy that hopped from weekend to weekend and gig to gig in town halls, bars and a handful of clubs and lefty theatres like The People’s Space, the Glass Theatre, the Black Sun, and during the week surfacing at record bars, punk clothing stores like Sgt Peppers and So Modern, hairdressers and – most popular of all – kitchens in communes. A few fanzines – the blogs of the eighties – were the mouthpieces of this informal movement, and hand-written xeroxed copies were regularly distributed at clubs and parties.

It was a small scene, numbering perhaps a few thousand weirdos countrywide, mainly in the urban centres of Cape Town, greater Joburg and Durban, and at the English universities. Darkies did their own thing on the outskirts, banned as they were from participating in anything that smelt white. Afrikaners were few and far between, and they would do their best to hide their ethnicity. Afrikaans youth would join the scene en masse only at the end of the eighties during the Voëlvry Toer, long after the demise of punk as social comment.

One of the pros of this small sub-culture was that everyone quickly got to know one another. This also made it a bit exclusive, I guess, but for good reason – there were many police spies trying to infiltrate this movement, because it was thought to be subversive and anti-government, which of course it was.

To compare this scenario, where songs were routinely banned, musicians harassed and/or locked up, and parties and gigs teargassed, with the rock scene of today is like comparing porcupines with export grapes. It’s not only impossible; it’s simply not useful. The porcupines – that’s us – felt they had no future, but were intent on going down fighting anyway, where today’s export grapes are generally free of the political handicaps of yore, live in a globalised world and hence are free to operate on a global level – in my experience anyway. That pressure cooker is long gone.

Today’s porcupines are the black youths, who have no future, nothing to lose, and are, understandably, pretty much pissed off at the world. Ironically, Afrikaans music, led by self-proclaimed leader of the Boerenasie Steve Hofmeyr, is attempting to recreate that anti-authority feeling too, but the main difference, of course, is that today we have a legitimate democratically elected government, albeit a failing one.

*

In case you’ve been living under a rock in a cave peopled by Neanderthals: the music industry has moved from vinyl and magnetic tape to CD to MP3 downloads to streaming digital playlists in roughly 30 years – that is, from something you collected and held dear to “something” on a mobile phone - “something”, because it’s digital, and therefore doesn’t actually exist. It’s not even “on” your phone, really, it’s more like “through” it. Essentially, you are just borrowing the song for the length of its reproduced existence – and listening to it via pretty mediocre audio hardware optimistically referred to as EarPods™ – in the form of a playlist of songs that Algorhythm, in its omniscience, decides you like.

By the way, according to USA Today, serious injuries have increased 300% in the last six years for pedestrians wearing headphones or EarPods™. Even more worrying, 70% of the people in these instances were killed, and nearly 70% of those that died in the accidents were under the age of 30. Millennials, in other words. The survivors are bound to have to live with damage to the tiny little bones that allow you to hear, caused by streaming overly loud music straight into your aural cavities, otherwise known as ears. Just thought I’d mention that interesting statistic.

One of my favourite lines (from my book) is “The thing about the music business is that everyone except the musos is driving around in big fuck-off Mercs or BMWs.” This is perhaps more true today than ever before, despite the tech that has turned the business upside down. In the eighties, performances were useful to help market recordings. Today, it’s the other way round. Recordings are literally given away, and most musicians’ primary income stream is live performances.

JC gets really excited when I ask him about the state of the music business when he started off in the early noughties. His voice goes up a notch, and he gets animated. It could be that it’s the joint we’ve just smoked, or maybe it’s the memory of those good ol’ days …

“Yes! It was a very, very good period of time. And, in my ignorance, I ascribe it to a couple of things,” he says, pulling himself upright from his slouch. “First of all, it’s post-Voëlvry and a new breath of air came in, like the Springbok Nude Girls and Squeal and Battery 9 that were fucking rocking and had something to say and we're like a free nation. And then came of course Fokofpolisiekar. And it's like Giaan Groen obviously …” [he rubs his head as if to wake himself] “… Johannes Kerkorrel. Like he was still flying high doing things all across the world. Everybody listened to Koos Kombuis, the Akkedis Broers, Spinnekop, Delta Blue ... and then, of course, MK.”

JC is confirming what I’ve suspected all along, and he’s not the only one. Ask any of the musos from that time and they will all say the same thing. MK – that’s Musiek Kanaal, not Umkhonto we Sizwe – was at the centre of the revival – no, the upheaval – of the rock scene at the time. First suggested to DStv by a visionary dude called Haddad Viljoen, and based on the music-centred MTV, Musiek Kanaal revolutionised the local rock scene by playing local music videos for 24 hours per day. MK kickstarted an entire industry by commissioning music videos, bringing fame and country-wide recognition to an entire generation of rock musicians, just as the state broadcasters and other radio and television stations beamed kwaito into black homes. The stranglehold of state broadcasting was broken. Probably for the first time it seemed possible to become a professional rock musician.

We would have killed for that …

But, nothing lives forever, and no golden age stretches out across the ages into infinity. Technology set the music free, made it cheaper and easier to record and make videos, but then YouTube appeared, and while it gave us immeasurable pleasure in terms of access to music you would never had heard of – never mind listened to – it also took control over your output and placed it in the hands of what would follow – the tyranny of the algorithms used by Spotify, iTunes, Deezer, and other streaming platforms that are dominating not only music, but literature, the media, communication and even social interaction. These platforms are making money in unheard of quantities, and paying the creatives peanuts for the honour of providing the content that attracts all of the above in the first place.

But that’s another story.

*

Benji is still in his dressing gown when he meets me at noon and walks me to his studio, which is actually a garden flat where he lives. He tells me he only got into bed at 5 am, due to a paper he had to write for his honours course, but you could have fooled me. He is hyper, uses his arms to make a point, talks fast, and says “yo!” a lot. He seems a bit wired, but in a totally positive way. I’d met Benji before. Still a high school kid, his then band Texas Radio did a gig or two at the Blah Blah Bar. The gigs were memorable for two reasons: the band members were too young to drink (saving me some hospitality costs) and they had a great repertoire of tunes – mostly covers, but they played with such verve you knew they would prevail as musicians, and somehow crack that glass ceiling that sits so low over young bands. And, indeed here you are, chatting about the ins and outs of being able to make it in this very tricky world of music today.

Like JC, Benji is not in the least discouraged by the things that bug me, like Autotune, GarageBand, Udemy, and a host of apps that allow you to never sing out of tune, play any instrument you want, while laying down tracks for recordings released on YouTube that may go viral but earn you peanuts. My concern is that like everything else, the music world is also dumbing down, that it’s becoming harder for challenging, innovative work to reach an audience. Benji reckons that there is a lot of unprecedented shit happening these days. That’s his thing, actually – this “unprecedentedness is the new normal”, something he also calls the “Fifth Wall”. The rest he takes in his stride. “There’s space for everything,” he reckons, “you just have to look for it.”

He makes me coffee in a moka pot, which impresses me almost as much as his neat little studio and the work ethic that made it happen. Munching hungrily on a salad that he’d clearly made himself, consisting of nothing but leaves, Benji explains his theory, which is also his honours thesis.

Taking the performance concept that the Fourth Wall is the invisible imagined barrier between stage actors and the audience a step further, Benji’s Fifth Wall is the barrier between individual millennials and the world out there, controlled by the mighty god known as Algorhythm. This barrier can be broken only by performance, as experienced by being part of a temporary community formed around it, the performance being an act that is not individualised and aimed at you personally, but at the audience at large. It’s an interesting concept, and makes sense to anyone who has witnessed a twitch of millennials seated around a table, not talking to each other, eyes glued to their phones, thumbs flying up and down like short pink pistons. Problem is that venues are closing one after the other. But that’s yet another story.

This Fifth Wall idea is possibly the major difference between the eighties anarchists and the millennials. “There’s a lot of politics out there,” Benji says with a grimace, “that everyone behind the Fifth Wall fucking posts their opinions about on Facebook, expressing their self, that represents their opinion, but it doesn’t break into the (real-time) present, like in the old days.” It appears that politics, as a social movement or uniting force, is basically non-existent. That which happens in the privacy of your room, with EarPods™ in your ears, listening to say, black queer rap, or nihilistic thrash metal, or whatever niche you’re into, presented by the god Algorhythm, is the political act, albeit it solitary and unbeknown to anyone else.

This idea seems very weird to me, being used to bunches of people getting together, tuning in and egging one another on, resulting in some kind of communal action, like a demonstration, or a march or a demolition. But, so it goes.

And then, of course, there is the little problem of standing out from the global crowd.

There’s this guy, one Jered Threatin, an American musician who created a fake record company, fake booking agency and fake promoting agency, recorded fake shows for his YouTube page, peopled his Facebook Page with fake fans, and booked a European tour to which no one came. Halfway through the tour the venues cancelled, his backing band fucked off, and the whole thing came to a grunting, wheezing halt. He looked good, though, and he could play. Threatin created all of this to work his way into the business, and it backfired spectacularly. Or so one would have thought, but since then, Threatin, or Eames (his real name), has become kind of famous, and if he would book those venues again, he’d probably sell them out. That’s how tricky and fickle the business is.

After getting stoned with JC and coffeed-out with Benji, there are some points we agree on: Firstly, everything has changed, while nothing has changed; secondly, you can’t fabricate the socio-political environment, nor can you recreate it – it is what it is, like the hippies used to say, so deal with it; third, unprecedented is the new normal; fourth, performance really is the only way of making money, so you had better be good at it; fifth, the deeper underground the scene goes the more real it gets. And finally, now that we’ve been alerted to it, let’s get rid of that Fifth Wall.

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