Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Editorial: Cassandra Complex: Undergrounds & Underdogs

The internet and the exploitation of niche markets have driven obscure cult interests out into the open. Antony Johnston asks, whatever happened to the underground?
27 February 2004


Whatever happened to the underground?

I'm not just talking comics here, although it was comics that set me off on the train of thought. Back when I was a teenager, there was one scene in 2000AD which gave me pause for thought. In the epilogue to Phase II of Grant Morrison's ZENITH, a main character called Ruby Fox is seen to be wearing a badge on her coat bearing a logo for UK underground noise band The Fall.

Truth is, at the time I didn't even know The Fall were a band. But it was a neat logo, and it stuck in my mind. Very shortly after, in one of those instances where you're made aware of something and then soon after bombarded with references to it (which I've always found a bit odd, but seems to happen to me a lot) I kept seeing mention of The Fall, and Mark E Smith, all over the place.

Putting the two together, my teenage mind made the connection that well, if they were being mentioned in ZENITH - probably the most interesting comic story going at that time - then they must be cool. And they might be quite good, too, but being cool was what really mattered.

(Thus begins a long, slow and at the time expensive descent into experimental music, which continues to this day. Cheers, then.)

Seeing that badge, and then seeking out The Fall, was a first in a couple of ways. It made me wonder if maybe some of these comic writer-type people were actually quite young (until that point I'd just assumed they were all middle-aged men - "proper grown-ups", as it were). And it made me realise that there was a load of good stuff out there that wasn't handed to you on a plate by the TV or radio, and that to find it you had to either go looking for it, or find out about it from somewhere else.

(I'd always been into a lot of stuff that few other kids my age knew about, such as Black Sabbath and Monty Python; but those things were old, and it just never occurred to me that there might be new stuff out there that I'd have to go and look for. Ah, naivety.)

Remembering the above got me thinking about how seeing 'underground' pop culture reference in comics used to be quite common. Philip Bond and Jamie Hewlett used to drop references to their favourite bands or films all over the pages of DEADLINE - half-obscured posters, CD cases in the background of a picture, that sort of thing. Brendan McCarthy would scatter New Age references all over the place in his surreal strips.

And it used to happen a lot in other media, too - Pop Will Eat Itself's famous reference to Alan Moore in Defcon One was a good example of these roles being reversed. Primus' blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE sent me off searching back to the record shops, only to discover that virtually no-one in England had even heard of them.

It doesn't seem to happen much any more, and I don't think it's because creative types aren't just as likely to drop obscure references into something. I think the problem is that there's very little anyone can call "underground" these days.

It seems to me that it started in the early nineties, with the Seattle music explosion. Media moguls have always been looking for the Next Big Thing, but the success of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam - so utterly unlike what self-styled experts believed was popular - brought about a shift in attitude that said, you may think this is crap, but kids have adored it for the last four years and they will spend buckets of money on it if you sell it to them.

The subsequent explosion of MTV from niche market into mainstream media juggernaut proved that there's plenty of money in niche markets, bringing about more channels that didn't just focus on music, but on a certain kind of music. The parallel surge of cable channels started us down the road of endless content, where media producers are so desperate to put something different on the air, something new to their viewers, that niche interests are now just as covered as mainstream ones.

The rest of media has followed suit - the real money in magazine publishing, for instance, is now in incredibly narrow but specialist markets. Radio is off the scale, with so many narrowcast stations available that you can find any kind of music at any time you like, every day of the week, especially on the Internet.

Ah, the Internet. Glorious, wonderful thing that it is - and don't try to deny it, you wouldn't be reading this if you did - it's grown up in parallel with this niche media explosion. It's even instigated some of it, with broadcast and print media struggling to hold on to an audience slipping through their fingers because they're increasingly able to find what they want for free, on the Net.

Which means if you're looking for the underground, you won't find it on the Internet. The exponential rise of Net access and literacy means that nothing stays hidden for long. Found a cool new band that no-one's heard of? Not for long. Give it a week and they'll be featured on fifty websites, their MP3s will have circled the electronic globe twice, and someone at the local cable station who read one of the myriad web interviews will be on the phone to get them down to the studio for an interview.

I don't think this is a bad thing. It's just all a bit overwhelming, as the media perpetual motion machine gathers speed and keeps on churning. Where do you go for the cool, obscure stuff that no-one else has heard of? You can't go to the net, because everyone else is already there. You can't look to the TV, because they're all out scouring the globe for the Next Big Thing, even if it turns out to be Not That Big After All.

Where is the underground movement of the 21st century?

Here's a funny twist: the best example of a recent cult/pop culture vehicle that continues what used to be the long-running tradition of in-jokes for the boys is, would you believe, a TV series called SPACED.

SPACED was bursting at the seams with obscure pop culture references, even down to the cinematography and costume design. In some ways it was kind of like watching an early Jamie Hewlett comic come to life - you could almost see the scribbled margin notes rambling on about how brilliant this band was, or slagging off Genesis. There were dropped references to movies, other TV shows, videogames, novels... and comics.

And what always struck me as funny about SPACED was that despite how important it was to the show - the main character was an aspiring comic book artist, for example - it was always the comics references that were the most obscure, that friends of mine who could catch every other geek/nerd reference would simply have no knowledge of.

Perhaps we have met the underground, and they are us...


Having lost Phil Anselmo and Rex, the brothers Abbott have abandoned Pantera itself and instead formed new band Damageplan with Patrick Lachman and bassist Bob Zilla (ho, ho) to release NEW FOUND POWER. And overall, it's a bit of a disappointment.

It doesn't sound entirely like a Pantera re-tread, but then it doesn't sound entirely unlike Pantera either - not to mention half a dozen other bands. Lachman has a good range, probably more so than Anselmo, and Zilla is a perfectly competent bassist. But there's very little that sounds new here. The tracks that don't sound like Pantera instead sound like, well, someone else; Alice In Chains on SOUL BLEED (ironically not the track Jerry Cantrell guests on), Anthrax on PRIDE, Metallica on BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA... They even manage to sound like Paradise Lost on BLINK OF AN EYE, which is certainly something I never thought I'd hear from chez Abbott.

None of this album is bad, per se. But from the musical force behind a band known for pushing everything to its limits, you naturally expect something a little less pedestrian. (It's perhaps no surprise that one of the best tracks on the album is FUCK YOU, where Corey Taylor steps in for three minutes of rapid-fire hollering and the band unsurprisingly end up sounding like Slipknot.)

Personally, I hope Damageplan gets better. But given that the first album after a line-up change is normally the one with the most innovation and invigoration poured into it, I don't hold out much hope.

Antony Johnston is the author of JULIUS, SPOOKED and THE LONG HAUL. His new ongoing series WASTELAND begins in July 2006.

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