by Josh Templin
Wasteland Records uncovers obscure records from the darkest recesses of the Internet.
A little over ten years ago, U.S. Senator Ted Stevens made an infamous gaffe when he called the Internet a “series of tubes.” It was both very funny and very horrifying that Stevens, then 86 years old, was a member of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and yet seemed to have no grasp on the very Internet he was charged with regulating.
In the ten years since Stevens’ statements, the Internet has completely buried that gaffe under the weight of thousands of new gaffes and memes. While this process of use and disuse has always been a part of culture, it seems like the Internet gorges itself on cultural detritus, pushing it through the slimy digestive process of memeification, then shitting it out to be forgotten as it travels through some godawful septic system. This system could be described as a “series of tubes,” and out of these tubes crawl the many Milhouses of the Internet, in the form of memes and anti-memes, in an endless cycle of inception and re-appropriation. Our very President attained his office in part due to his ability to navigate the Internet’s filthy sewage pipes.
While the internet may produce more trash than ever, its dumpster divers can also uncover gems that may have been hidden for decades. Vaporwave as a genre was borne out of an attempt to reckon with all the background noise and muzak generated in the 90s. It’s a kind of cyberpunk pastiche; combing through the very hopes and anxieties of the first era of digital music. At its best, the genre is not ironic; its most progressive producers hope to reckon with the hidden influences of the past as much as find the aesthetic of the future.
Wasteland Records is my own attempt to reckon with the “lost levels” of music: music that, while obscure, may seem particularly prescient. Or perhaps it will sound weirder today than when it was first recorded. In each column, I’ll highlight a curious and obscure song and examine the context, micro-genres and scenes from which it came, trying to evaluate where the aesthetic may fit in the grand tapestry of modern music.
For the very first column, I’ll be looking at a band who is far from obscure, but taking stock of one of their deepest cuts from an album that was rightfully maligned as terrible.
In the mid-90s, a somewhat acrid atmosphere of mistrust between fans and artists. As record labels looked to sign droves of alternative bands, hoping to produce another MTV gate-crasher like Nirvana, many independent rock bands came under fire for signing to major labels. Though the increase in production funds did result in an often shinier, happier R.E.M. or a glossier Smashing Pumpkins, most of the great alternative bands didn’t compromise their vision to appease their labels.
No, to see a truly abysmal cash-in, one had to only look at the transformation of punk band Gang of Four from fiery agitprop pioneers to preening, overproduced New Wave pop band. While their music was always funkier and more disco-friendly than what anarchists Crass would produce, their politics were as hard-edged as their sound. Gang of Four were passionate and brazenly anti-capitalist.
One can easily imagine the sleazy agent who told Gang of Four what they needed to do in order to sell records: sand down those angular guitars and smooth over all that Situationist nonsense. It might be reductive to envision such a straw man, but Gang of Four’s fourth album Hard is trying as hard as its title suggests to produce a radio-ready hit.
And if the thought of a funky bunch of Marxists retooling their sound for radio sounds even slightly promising, Gang of Four manage to bungle the album so badly that it appeals to no one: not to their punk comrades in arms and not to the hip club-goers who could make a New Wave record into a dance hit.
Despite that dim assessment, “Woman Town” manages to salvage something intriguing from the formula of punk plus funk plus dub that fails elsewhere on the record. Perhaps the reason it works on this track is that the formula seems almost skewered somehow, as if they managed to divide punk by dub and funk. A melodica provides a propulsive staccato that, along with Andy Gil’s trademark nervous guitar, is too angular and syncopated to really relax into the groove.
Indeed, the track and its production are murky in a way that makes it feel like you’ve taken the wrong drugs in the right club; maybe echoing the bad trip into “Woman Town.” The lyrics, though cryptic, seem to revolve around a man’s fruitless pursuit of a famous woman. The falsetto chorus mocks the song’s agent, singing “I don’t need you, I’m a woman, not some naming game.” It’s a suitably subversive take on the kind of bravado found in Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film.”
What works about “Woman Town” is that it is an acerbic take on fame and the politics of dancing. Its wry opacity is exactly what’s missing elsewhere on Hard, where songs are direct and easy to digest. “Woman Town” is nowhere near Gang of Four’s peak, but it’s a worthy and smart addition to their best work.