I don’t listen to much rock music at all these days, but Steve Albini, via Big Black, Shellac, his production work and his occasional polemics, has remained a fixed presence in my life since I was 13 or 14. He was, is, and will probably always be one of my very few heroes. Given all of that, this week’s verbal collision between the man himself and Diagonal Records head Powell, which began when Powell asked Albini for permission to use a Big Black sample and escalated quickly into a brilliantly surreal billboard based comeback, feels like a weird mash-up between two alternate musical universes that are usually separated by a common disinterest.
If you haven’t read the comments Albini made, google them and have a look. The short of it is that Albini got up the heckles of what looks like the whole of techno by simply stating how much he hates dance music. That he isn’t a fan surely can’t be a surprise to anyone who has ever heard of him. What is a surprise is how many people seem to have had their noses put out of joint by a guy doing what he’s famous for.
Let’s start it off like this: He’s Steve Albini. I guarantee he doesn’t give a shit what you think about him or his views. There is probably a lesson in that for a lot of techno people. It’s one that should have been learned way back. It doesn’t matter in the slightest what other people think of it because we know, and surely by now we should all be secure enough to take a bit of outside criticism no matter how unqualified it is.
If we’re honest, he does kind of have a point when he mentions the way the electronic music he loved lost a war. But it wasn’t a war against early house music, or hip hip or whatever. It wasn’t a war against the rise of genres that had little interest or common gravity with experimental electronic punk other than their shared disenfranchisement with mainstream music and culture. It lost a war against itself, and if anyone is going to attack any genre for the way its early promise was destroyed by the barbarians at the gate, perhaps they should start with punk rock itself. It’s a genre that has done little more than tread water for the best part of three decade with only a handful of honourable exceptions.
And yes, it is absolutely true that the music of the likes of Container, Underground Resistance, Drexciya, Powell himself and an almost uncountable host of others is, paradoxically and wonderfully, far closer to the ethos of raw experimentalism that’s supposed to be found in punk rock than you would actually find in a huge mass of punk itself. The irony of holding up those artists to try to do someone like Powell down is delicious, and I don’t doubt that if someone slipped one of his records on as background music to a night of baby strangling, cat slicing or whatever it is Albini does for fun the big guy would enjoy it. Of course he would. He’s a curmudgeonly old bastard but he’s not thick.
For the record, Powell’s response was great. Subtly cheeky, funny and perfectly weighted, he challenged Albini’s thoughts in a way that would make any retort without proper and genuine consideration seem petty and daft. In a stroke it framed (literally) Albini’s own ‘old man shouting at clouds’ argument (and its ‘darn kids, music was better in MY day’ subtext) within its own deeply conservative conventions, and rendered so many of this weeks far more bitter responses impotent. In short, it took the piss massively, and in that it was infinitely more punk than the original statement. The result is Albini still doesn’t give a shit, and Powell – and techno – came out on top. Everyone’s a winner. Class.