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The brutal musical legacy of JG Ballard

Rough Trade is launching its own mag – here we publish their piece on ten pioneering musicians whose work has been inspired by Brutalist architecture, city tower blocks and the novels of JG Ballard

This article is taken from the first print issue of Rough Trade Issue 1, out in all Rough Trade stores now.

In March, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s High-Rise hit our cinemas, featuring Clint Mansell’s most haunting score since Black Swan, a chilling cover of ABBA’s “SOS” by Portishead, and a soundtrack peppered with CAN, Amon Düül, The Fall and Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft. While mainstream film homages to Ballard’s books have been few and far between – the last one was David Cronenberg’s Crash in 1996, and before that Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun in 1987 – the late author’s influence on contemporary music culture has remained consistent and thrillingly diverse since the early 1970s.

When High-Rise was first published in 1975, the UK resembled a dystopian wasteland itself. The country was in the chokehold of a double dip recession; industrial unions held the economy to ransom; and the IRA was indiscriminately blowing up coaches, hotels and pubs on the English mainland. The reputation of the government’s futuristic Brutalist tower blocks were changing for the worse, too. Once heralded as utopian “streets in the sky”, poor maintenance and rampant anti-social behaviour had transformed many of them into nihilistic “slums in the sky”.

As “the sick man of Europe” made uneasy strides towards post-war modernity, Ballard spotted the potential pathological and sociological dangers of vertical living, and created a story about a block of flats whose residents turn feral after the building’s facilities begin to break down. Unlike his literary peers who focused their science fiction tales on laser-toting lycra-clad spacemen in galaxies far, far away, Ballard’s novels The Atrocity Exhibition (‘70), Crash (‘72), Concrete Island (‘74) and High-Rise amplified the harsh realities of modern urban life. And he somehow managed to make the prospect of living in and amongst these monolithic concrete structures sound dangerously alluring.

Disaffected young musicians 
empathised with his brutal view of the
 world and throughout the 1970s
 and ‘80s artists like Joy Division,
 The Normal, Cabaret Voltaire, 
Hawkwind, David Bowie, Gary 
Numan, Grace Jones, John 
Foxx, The Human League and This Heat crafted visceral songs directly inspired by his nightmarish “inner space” prose. With their “No Future” slogan, The Sex Pistols, formed the same year as High-Rise’s publication, became the quintessential dystopian poster boys. “I can see the connection between Ballard and punk,” says film director Ben Wheatley. “It was an absolutely new voice looking at the modern world and smashing it up. Ballard wasn’t afraid of the chaos either.” At the same time in the east end of London, Throbbing Gristle were busy creating industrial music by sampling the sounds of the streets and fusing it with white noise.

The early ‘90s saw Ballard’s brutalism become adopted by Suede, who tipped their hat on “High Rising”, the last single from their self-titled debut album. In 1994, the Manic Street Preachers sampled the author talking about Crash for
 their album, The Holy Bible. In 
the introduction to “Mausoleum”, Ballard can be heard solemnly
 intoning: “I wanted to rub the 
human face in its own vomit, and
 then force it to look in the mirror.”

By the time the Millennium bug failed to end life as we knew it, the term “Ballardian” had become a by-word for “dystopian”, yet his musical influence had begun to wane. However, uncompromising homegrown genres such as grime and UKG pushed bleak British urban psychogeography into a new realm. Broadcasting from kitchens and living rooms of high rises across the capital, pirate radio helped birth a new breed of chart star.

In their video for “21 Seconds”, South London’s So Solid Crew chose to depict themselves battling in a charred post-apocalyptic city landscape, surrounded by thunderstorms, wire fences, black Chinooks and looming concrete structures. When The Streets followed with Original Pirate Material in 2002, Mike Skinner chose to use an image of Islington’s 18-storey Kestral House for his album cover. A year later, Dizzee Rascal, an MC who grew up on the infamous three-tower block Crossways estate, pushed grime into the public arena with Boy In Da Corner just as Ballard released his penultimate novel, Millennium People.

In Liverpool, electroclash stars Ladytron kickstarted a renewed wave of interest in the author with their 2005 song, “High Rise”. A year later, one of the dubstep’s leaders, Kode9, gave a talk on the “Sonic Fiction of J.G. Ballard” and also released Burial’s eponymous debut record on his label, Hyperdub. With its infinite rain and desolate beats, the album conjured up imagery of a metropolis being submerged under water following an ecological disaster – a narrative first imagined by Ballard in 1962’s The Drowned World. In 2007, The Klaxons would scoop the Mercury Prize for their album Myths of the Near Future, named after one of his short story collections. Aussie synth-pop conceptualists Empire of the Sun would pay lip service to the “Seer of Shepperton” by naming themselves after his 1984 book.

Artists like Death Grips, Arca, Prurient, and Roly Porter have twisted electronic music into strange new interzones since, but perhaps the most Ballardian musical concept of the last five years has been “Gulf Futurism”, spearheaded by avant-garde artist Fatima Al Qadri. Juxtaposing abrasive sinogrime rhythms with video art that subverts the ideology of shopping malls, desert skyscrapers and even sexting culture, the Kuwait-born musician’s songs are the perfect embodiment of Ballard’s “future of the next five minutes” approach to fiction. Her latest album, released in March on Hyperdub, is somewhat fittingly entitled, Brute.

With the film of High-Rise triggering off yet another wave of interest in the author’s extraordinary novels, we ask ten pioneering musicians about the influence of Ballardian tower blocks on their creative process.

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Clint Mansell

CLINT MANSELL

Clint Mansell first discovered JG Ballard’s High-Rise via The Atrocity Exhibition at school. “At the time I wanted to become invisible,” he recalls. “He created characters whose observations about the world resonated with me.”

When Mansell formed Pop Will Eat Itself in 1986, he found himself on the dole and living on the 19th floor of Byron House, a brutalist tower block just outside of Stourbridge. “It was full of a lot of youth, but also the castoffs of society. It was punk. We had no responsibilities. We could do what we like,” the Grebo pioneer remembers fondly.

Now living in Los Angeles, Mansell has composed the scores for films such as Black Swan, Requiem for A Dream and most recently, High-Rise. “I think environment undoubtedly influences what you are thinking and creating,” he says. “If you’ve got tinnitus in your ears, you can get rid of it by putting in that same frequency and cancelling it out. When you go out in the countryside you probably don’t feel like listening to Nurse With Wound because the environment makes your brainwaves go in a different direction. But driving in downtown LA at nighttime listening to Tangerine Dream, Miracle Mile or Thief fits the environment perfectly. Your brain latches onto certain visual nuances and music plugs into what’s making all your neurons and synapses fire.”

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Actress

ACTRESS

Like Clint Mansell, avant-garde electronic artist Actress grew up in the Midlands, surrounded by factories. His Dad worked at the Goodyear tyre plant for the duration of his life. “It was industry at a very working class level, people didn’t have smiles on their faces day to day,” he recalls. “That definitely influenced my music. It has always had an air of melancholic isolation.”

Moving to London, he lived in a one- bedroom council flat in a high-rise in Brixton before his musical career
took off. He still empathises with the idea that people
in high-density urban areas
are drawn towards extreme
music as much for therapy as
entertainment. “I could listen
 to white noise all day, because it recalibrates you. As technology has
gotten better, everything is fine-tuned. Clear signal, high definition. I prefer pure noise.”

In February, Actress played at the high temple of brutalism – The Barbican. Collaborating with the London Contemporary Orchestra, he premiered classical reinterpretations of his acclaimed brand of techno. What made it extraordinary was that they created new sounds inspired by the shapes of the actual building, from abstract motifs on the orchestra’s sheets to synthesized sine waves that resembled the tower’s outline. “What I wanted to do was use the shapes of the interior and exterior of the Barbican estate to influence the sound that people experienced inside the building. I wanted to take a brutalist approach to making music, like Iannis Xenakis.”

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Lonelady

LONELADY

LoneLady recorded Hinterland in her flat on the seventh floor of a Manchester high rise. Or as she lovingly calls it, the Concrete Retreat. “Since I was 18 I’ve lived in a tower block,” the Warp Records artist says. “You are aware of people on all sides, above and below you. You hear unexpected, ridiculous and also traumatic things.”

After discovering JG Ballard through Joy Division’s song The Atrocity Exhibition (named after his 1970 novel), the post punk artist became obsessed with the “abject strangeness, tension and sense of psychosis” that permeated his books.

Taking her brutalist sound experiments further than most, she implanted an mp3 player of unreleased tracks in the wall of an underpass on the A57, with just a head- phone input socket ex- posed to the outside world. She called the project, The Utilitarian Poetic. “There was something very satisfying about sending people to a forlorn patch of ground by the side of the Mancunian Way to stand in an odd position, lone, only able to experience the music in a solitary way, leaning into the concrete.”

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Genesis P-Orridge

GENESIS BREYER P-ORRIDGE

As the driving force behind Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge helped create industrial music in the mid-1970s. An icon of experimental art, s/he has embraced a pandrogynous existence since 1993, referring to h/erself in the plural and physically identifying as “third gender.” But surprisingly, Ballard’s work has never consciously been an influence. “No, we were more into Burroughs and Burgess,” s/he says with a laugh. Next to Throbbing Gristle’s old studio in London Fields now stands a huge 16-storey residential high rise.

“Is there?!” s/he exclaims, gazing out of the windows of h/er sixth floor Manhattan apartment. “That area was once the source of industrial music. There were all these workshops under the railway arches, and next to them was the All Nations Clubs. On the weekend it was loud as fuck and all these people parked their cars on the pavement outside our building, yelling, and beeping horns. The place was in sonic turmoil. We thought, ‘How can we manipulate this so that it’s not abrasive in that way that it makes your nerves on edge, but somehow reconfigures the experience so it’s acceptable, and even creative?’ By doing that we created a new kind of music. The fact that it is endlessly mutating to this day around the world and influencing labels, DJs, clubs, and clothes suggests that we were speaking a new language – but it was a language people understood. We were the white noise of the city.”

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The Bug

THE BUG

Growing up in Weymouth, Kevin Martin was introduced to JG Ballard’s books after becoming obsessed with post- punk, Joy Division, the Sex Pistols, the Birthday Party, and Throbbing Gristle. “I would try and investigate all their cultural influences and references,” he recalls. “Ballard was a submariner of the subconscious. The ‘Urban Disaster’ triptych of Crash, Concrete Island and High-Rise literally scarred me for life.”

Having recorded under 
different aliases such
 as GOD, Techno Animal 
and Ice, it was as
 The Bug that his
 sound started
 to penetrate
 the skulls of a
 wider audience. In
 2008 he released 
London Zoo, an album that fused together dancehall,
 grime and dubstep. “It was the soundtrack to my struggle to keep afloat in London. It was the score to me trying to stay sane in difficult circumstances.”

Before deciding to leave London for Berlin, he lived on the 18th floor of the Balfron Tower in Poplar, reputedly the inspiration for the brutalist building at the centre of High-Rise. “A guy on top of us screamed in absolute agony several times per week, and at very regular times, like a terror alarm,” he recalls with a shudder. “Living there felt like incarceration. Paranoia, fear and dirt may have been good for my musical inspiration, but I was happy as hell to get out of that environment. It subconsciously polluted my mind with the realisation that my choices were low, my finances were lower and the urge to escape was high.”

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Kode9

KODE9

Kode9, the boss of Hyperdub Records, is one of the most influential musical Ballardians of modern times. A founding father of dubstep, his collaborations with The Space
Ape on albums like Memories of the
 Future took listeners deep into the mindset of the UK’s post-7/7 surveillance state. He has also written a book on audio weaponry (inspired by the author’s short story, The Sound Sweep), and given a keynote speech about the author’s sonic fiction. “I don’t think there are enough high rises in London,” he says. “But very few of the new developments seem to be social housing. Rather they seem to be exactly the kind that Ballard describes which are liable to be populated by feral, bored middle classes in meltdown. The problem, of course, is who gets to live in the current wave of overpriced luxury blocks that are going up.”


In 2006 he released Burial’s eponymous debut album, a conceptual record about a submerged metropolis that Kode9 likened at the time to Ballard’s novel, The Drowned World. 10 years after Burial, and with a roster of uncompromising artists such as Fatima Al Qadri, Cooly G, and Laurel Halo on his label, what role does he think urban architecture has on the young sound pioneers of today?

“By this point in the game, the idea of the industrial landscape as a muse for electronic music has 
become somewhat 
over-saturated,”
 he says. “Sure, it 
was the dereliction 
of the dying industrial age that
 inspired many musicians in the late 
‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. But we are now living through the emergence of a whole new strata of technological civilisation and I think musicians and artists can spend their time much more productively by actively engaging with the new spaces and situations that digital capitalism throws up in front of us every day.”

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Kano

KANO

Kano didn’t grow up in a tower block, but they’ve made him the artist he is today. After debuting his first ever song on Déjà Vu – a pirate radio station located in a Stratford high-rise – he signed a deal to 679 Recordings and in 2006 released his first album, Home Sweet Home. Ten years later, he’s regarded as one of grime’s most influential pioneers and has carved out a second career as an actor with film roles in Tower Block and Rollin’ With The Nines, and as Sully, a drug dealer in Channel 4’s acclaimed inner-city drama, Top Boy.

“The architecture of a city can have both a good and bad effect on you,” he says. “There’s a line about it on my new album in which I say, ‘If this estate had lakes and green fields.’ It’s me asking, would we be more
 open-minded, relaxed 
and peaceful? It’s that
 whole nature versus nurture argument. Where I come from there’s this attitude that we’re not 
supposed to amount to anything, that the world’s 
against us. Some people fall in line with that way of thinking, and others rebel against it. 
Luckily for me, it inspired me to make the most of my situation. I made a positive out of a negative, and so did a lot of my peers. I mean, who would have thought a flat in a tower block would have birthed a Dizzee Rascal?”

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Roly_Porter

ROLY PORTER

As one half of Vex’d, Roly Porter played a key role in the evolution of dubstep. However, for the past decade, Porter has stepped further and further away from the genre with which he made his name, and focused on instrumental sound design and electronic experimentation. In January, his album Third Law was released on Tri Angle Records, a label who have released music by some of the most pivotal electronic artists of the last six years.

For Porter, who recently moved from London to Bristol, psychogeography will always play a key role in his approach to production. “A city is an unnatural environment and even when you have lived there for years I still feel that in the back of my mind,” he says. “Most artistic impulses are driven by a reaction to something and the more comfortable you feel the less driven to react against your environment you will be. Unless you’re fighting against something you just slow down and retreat back into comfort.”

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Deerhunter

DEERHUNTER

Based in Atlanta, a city which boasts one 
of the ugliest brutalist libraries in the world, it comes as little surprise to
 find that Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox has
 no time for concrete obsessives. “Coldness seems very ‘in’ these days. Disassociation. Brutalism. Irony,” he says. “My vision of hell is a large brutalist government building or hospital. Functional and soulless.”

Cox does, however, have a penchant for Ballardian literature, after coming across a Xeroxed copy of The Atrocity Exhibition at the age of 19. Last year, he published an interactive map of the influences that inspired Deerhunter’s last album, Fading Frontiers. On it, Ballard found himself rubbing shoulders with Al Green and Matisse. “I can’t listen to our song Leather and Wood and not associate it with him and Marvin Gaye,” Cox states. “It’s a dystopian funk stroller. What made it interesting to me is what is under the surface of it. We tried to emphasise a certain panic with electronic dissonance but kept it kind of just out of focus. The song’s basic idea has something to do with synthetic odors replacing organic ones. It’s hard to explain.”

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Langham Research Centre

LANGHAM RESEARCH CENTRE

Langham Research Centre are devoted to creating authentic performances of classic electronic music. In 2014, they performed at Only Connect, an Olso festival dedicated that year to the life and work of JG Ballard. For one of the 
performances they 
delved into his 1992 Desert Island Discs selections. Somewhat surprisingly, Ballard
 was not a fan of much contemporary music, preferring Noel Coward, Rita Hayworth, Astrud Gilberto, and a bit creepily, The Teddy Bears Picnic by Henry Hall. “It has never sounded more sinister until being heard in that context, recalls LRC’s Ian Chambers.

His band mate Robert Worby thinks that the reason why so many progressive new musical genres have come emerged out of high-rises comes back to the human condition. “We are primates, a species of ape. Apes are social creatures that do not like being confined in small, enclosed spaces,” he says. “We herd and we swarm occasionally but most of the time we like to have an empty physical space around us ... maybe enough to swing our arms and walk about. When the physical space around us is restricted then this affects our psychology which, in turn, has an impact on creative processes.”