Veteran DJ – "Paul Weller once danced to a Northern Soul set when I was DJing at the Astoria in the mid 90s" – journalist and filmmaker (including documentaries about Billy Childish and Subway Sect), Graham Bendel has just published his second novel Dress Rehearsal Brags: An A-Z Of Unpopular Culture. With the book using "the more 'peripheral' aspects of popular culture" as its backdrop, he's written Q a guest column looking at Britain's DIY culture.
A flu-ridden friend asked me what I am writing. “Why are you writing about DIY torture? I said “DIY culture”. She then asks “Why are they asking you to write about putting up shelves?” (This isn’t made up, btw). In fact, the former misheard snippet is not far from the truth. DIYing your particular creative wares can be punishing and extremely torturous. So why do we put ourselves through this humiliation?
We do it because – to not – is ultimately more depressing, more degrading. We might die with a stack of unreleased scripts, CDs and our souls shoved unceremoniously into that half-closed drawer. The appointed experts and tastemakers: the publishers, record companies, art galleries don’t always get it right. Many of the books that are firmly established in the Western canon were rejected many times, by many people (Catch 22, Lord Of The Flies, Animal Farm, Harry Potter). Van Gogh and William Blake died penniless. Some one turned down Bowie and The Beatles.
I persevere with what I believe in not because I’m deluded but because I don’t require the permission or approval of someone whose opinion I don’t particularly respect. And if your detractors write off your efforts as some kind of ‘Vanity Project’ – then screw them, as any artist worth their salt is probably suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder anyway.
Remind them of The Buzzcock’s Spiral Scratch EP or more recently, early Sleaford Mods, Jack White or even Prince. Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf published themselves. Great music and writing has been and is being produced by artists taking the initiative. I’m fuelled and driven especially when editors, publishers, executives actively discourage me (and they really do!). Before I made my documentary about Billy Childish, I was told to give up on the idea as “a client of ours is interested and he works for the BBC and has been shortlisted for a major literary prize”.
But it was only until Billy Childish himself suggested I stop that I did take some notice. But the real moral of the story is my documentary – once I had made up with Billy – went on to be nominated for a British Independent Film Award and has been shown all over the world. My upcoming documentary on Vic Godard and Subway Sect has got fans and music lovers very keyed-up. These austere and economically unjust times have affected our creative aspirations, I feel. My teenage dream of being part of some burgeoning Warholian Factory probably won’t happen. Maybe not so much to do with a repressive government but because people know what a moody bastard I am to work with – as my flu-ridden friend likes to point out.
I do believe that the creative world is becoming a playground for the moneyed and the well connected – much worse than before. There is an apathy and blandness endemic in what is produced creatively too often because the people making the art, music and books live their lives – and I heard this recently – “without really touching the sides.” Even posh writer Sebastian Faulks thinks he should get a nine to five job. Those who are hungry, angry, talented and have something to say are too often sidelined by record companies, magazines, publishers. For every grubby but brilliant Fat White Family, a hundred Clean Bandits appear from elite schools, Sylvia Young, wherever. Celebrated young authors tend to be more Norman Tebbit than Norman Mailer. In our current risk-averse culture, convention-breaking or non-conformism is thin on the ground.
And so now: there has never been a better time to fight for what you believe in and produce art, express yourself and believe in your own relevance and credibility –as opposed to simply being an obedient and passive consumer. Look back at the independent heroes of the past, and be inspired.
Ian McKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi – a beacon of creative independence - once sent me a postcard, and I thought he did this because he really connected with me. I was overjoyed! Though later I found out it was because my account kept bouncing his emails back. It was a nice postcard though. One of my big heroes is Robert Downey Sr who directed the 60s counter-culture classic Putney Swope (whose soundtrack I put out). Speaking to him was really edifying and I liked his policy of not bowing to the suits. “If you listen to these people, you can get stuck in the system and never produce anything. You’ll just spend your life in a creative limbo waiting for the next meeting – looking for the money, the approval. It may never come,” he said.
I’m all for homemade recordings, Kickstarters, printing your own books, making your own small magazines. It’s all good apart from minor drawbacks like finding that you talk about yourself in the third person more often. And developing a metaphorically broken nose from having so many doors closed in your face. But what doesn’t kill you. It’s not all black and white, heroes vs villains. Some big companies can be helpful and considerate while the small, indie outfits can be arrogant, dreary and about as counter-culture as watching Strictly Come Dancing. And some people’s music and writing and art can truly suck. But that’s another story. Graham Bendel
For more on Dress Rehearsal Brags: An A-Z Of Unpopular Culture, head to Roughtrade.com, Derailed Sense: A Film About Vic Godard & Subway Sect has its premiere at The East End Film Festival this year.