Tag Archives: alla zoppa

‘Crippled with nerves: polio and popular music’ lecture, University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 14.06.34Department of Music Sociology, University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna, 5 November, 6pm. Ungargasse 14, 1030 Wien, 2. Stock, Seminarraum AW U0205

Polio survivors Israel Vibration, ‘Rude boy shufflin” (1995); feat. wonderful polio-dancing at 3.45

Polio survivor Ian Dury, ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ (1981); ‘Get up, get up, get up, get down, fall over!’

Vienna lecture poster

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Cripping subculture: punk rock and disability

‘the first step that put me on the road to Rotten’—John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), talking about his childhood meningitis and hospitalisation

Sex Pistols 1977 ticketGiving a talk about this topic at MediaCityUK, University of Salford this week, part of our regular programme of research seminars. It’s a bit of a dry run for my keynote at the KISMIF conference in Portugal in July (see poster below). I’ve broken my old rule about not writing about punk rock (again)… It’s to do with a piece I’m writing for the Oxford Handbook of Popular Music and Disability. Here’s the abstract. The paper is on Wednesday 21 May, 3 pm, MediaCityUK. Do come if you’re in my area. (Every punk/Manc blog shd hv a Fall ref.) I probably won’t do all of below, might even just focus on the new reading of Johnny Rotten as crip, as suggested above in epigraph.

This essay is focused on (post)subculture and disability, and specifically on the popular musical subculture of punk rock. It considers the extent to which punk rock in the 1970s and after opened up a space in music for disabled performers and audience members. There are two main areas of discussion. First, questions of subculture and counterculture are explored, in terms of both cultural studies theory and of disability. How far has subculture and postsubculture theory included or even acknowledged the presence of disability? How can subcultural concerns such as clothes, style, fashion, media representations, enhance our understanding of the social significance of popular music for disabled people? Second is a focus on the original British punk scene of the late 1970s and three major artists, varyingly disabled, from it. These are Ian Dury, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, and Ian Curtis of Joy Division. The essay concludes with a view of punk’s ‘cultural legacy’ in the disability arts movement, including the performance of Dury’s 1981 controversial protest single ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ at the 2012 Paralympics Games in London.

Ooh, this bit’s good, here’s an extracted para, gives a flavour:

Punk and punk-era band names have been characterised by a connotation or description of violence or aggression, sex and fetish, social turmoil and irruption, but also of the body, and in particular the disabled or disfigured body. So: the Blockheads, Deviants, Epileptics, Subhumans, Vital Disorders (UK), Disability Sickness, another Subhumans (both Canada), the Autistics (an early name of Talking Heads), Cripples, Disability, Screamers, Voidoids, Weirdos (USA), and many others. This mildly controversial and contumacious juvenilia signals an identification of misfit, clearly, on the part of band members, but also it contributes to the subcultural terrain of the scene in which both direct and indirect referencing of disability has been widely accepted. Such naming becomes self-fulfilling as a public signifier of music offered: I venture to suggest that a band called, say, the Fuckwit Mutants (I made them up, but would not mind seeing a short set) is unlikely to be playing disco, blues or country tunes. As for punk audiences, their anti-dancing style of the pogo (basically, jumping up and down, on or off the spot), while physically demanding, was a further display of a kind of incompetence, an inelegant if thoroughly energetic solo reaction of body to music. When dancing to slower pieces, or to punk’s own musical (br)other, reggae, one saw, one made, frequent ‘twitches of the head and hands or more extravagant lurches’ (Hebdige 1979, 109). (Indeed, could we say that what I have elsewhere written of as the alla zoppa stepfulness (McKay 2013, 197, n. 9) of reggae spoke powerfully to the cripness of punk? Does that offer another way of understanding the close relationship between the two?) The unhygienic and in wider society unacceptable leakiness of the gesture of ‘gobbing’ (spitting) at bands onstage enhanced and lubricated punk’s bodily excess.

KISMIF logo

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Shakin’ All Over, number 9: Israel Vibration, Rude boy shufflin’

SAO cover lo res[This follows on from a discussion of polio and the youthful experience on the part of survivors of hospitalisation, residential treatment, rehabilitation, and so on, and how that might contribute to the artistic compensation of the isolate.] In the case of reggae group Israel Vibration, the fact of institutionalisation was formative for the group: separation from the majority effected a stronger minority identity, since the three original members met and began to sing with each other as polio survivors and long-term residents at the Mona Rehabilitation Centre, near Kingston, Jamaica.  The three young men had several points in common: a passion for the close harmony reggae singing popular at the time, an interest in Rastafarianism, and the experiences of polio and institutionalisation. Their first public performance was at the Theological College next door to the centre in 1974. When they left the centre, some other Rastafarians rejected them, seeing their impairments as a punitive sign from God. When performing live onstage the singers are able to stand and move around by use of their crutches, while on the cover photography of their 2002 album Fighting Soldiers, they pose with their walking aids in a rundown street. In one image, they hold the metal crutches like rifles and point them at the viewer—a mix of gangster and ‘fighting’ polio survivor. Occasionally Israel Vibration sing songs that resonate with their experience of impairment, while even the reggae accompaniment, with its characteristic and insistent offbeat rhythm and chords, seems suddenly more fitting for musicians with mobility difficulties, where a lilt is no longer so far removed from a limp. Indeed Israel Vibration invite us to consider reggae music per se as a music of disability, precisely because of its alla zoppa characteristics. (You need to read the book here for elaboration.) Songs from Fighting Soldiers with titles like ‘Tippy tippy toes’ and ‘Level every angle’ emphasise the visual and sonic narrative of disability. It is not difficult to hear the latter as extending the fairly standard post-civil rights and post-Bob Marley rhetoric of one love reggae into a kind of disability rights context. So ‘Level every angle’ becomes at least in part Israel Vibration’s plea for public spaces and design to consider the access requirements of mobility-restricted people, as they sing:

Some people are blessed while others are cursed… / From every angle things should be level / And everything would be all right….

Watch and enjoy on repeat view this brilliant video from 1995, for the two-chord-wonder ‘Rude boy shufflin”, with quite the best polio dancing you might ever see, from the crutch-wielding IV singers (when they were still a trio) in contrast to the displayed muscled body of the rude boy gangster figure, who struts through the video. And I love the apostrophe in the title, just like for shakin’. What a word: ‘rejectedly’. And the ambivalence of shuffling, a form of dancing and moving to the music, that’s also a description of poor walking. Level.

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