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Sonic Continuum

The ensemble cuts harmony; and ‘the rhythm of the iron system’

is broken as the beat goes on by the tone of the DRUM.[1]

This work is based upon listening to industrial and post-industrial landscapes and the music that was made and danced to in these places. Situated within the geological and technological soundscapes of heavy industries in and around the cities of Bochum, Birmingham and Manchester, for example, the project searches for echoes and reverberations from other parts of Europe, the United States and the Caribbean that are connected through history, music and industrial capitalism. Initially, I tried to imagine a deep underground coal seam connecting the coalfields of the Ruhr all the way to the North of England, along which sonic vibrations from the rhythms and shouts of music could transport mutual histories of union movements and strikes back and forth between the two areas. I was interested in music that had intervened in fights against the injustices of industrial capitalism. Then the idea came to try and complicate and question the narrative around the genre of industrial music, beginning with a rather problematic quote from Genesis P-Orridge:

And then there’s the joke we often used to make in interviews about churning out our records like motorcars – that sense of industrial. And … up till then the music had been kind of based on the blues and slavery, and we thought it was time to update it to at least Victorian times – you know, the Industrial Revolution. Rock ’n’ roll had been somewhere away in the sugarcane fields of the West Indies and the cotton fields of America, so we thought it was time to try and update it somewhat, towards the world as it now…[2]

I take issue with this statement as it attempts to circumnavigate the direct relation of plantation slavery to the Industrial Revolution. There would have been no Industrial Revolution without plantation slavery in the Americas, and furthermore plantation slavery was itself a form of industrial capitalism that brought together human bodies and machines as forced labour within the machine of the plantation itself – hence the Blues, Jazz, and Reggae, for example, are forms of industrial music if we start to expand our understanding of the genre in this sense. Updating music to Victorian times did not mean that Throbbing Gristle[3] could move music away from the cotton field into the factory, as the factory was forever indebted to the forced unpaid labour of enslaved people in plantations producing raw materials. Victorian Britain was formed through the afterlife of slavery.[4] Queen Victoria’s reign began only four years after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and the £20 million compensation that British tax payers had to pay to slave owners (and all people with investments in slavery) for ‘loss of business’. Much of this money was invested back into British industry, culture, education and health, and the debt was not paid off until 2015. We are still living within the afterlife of slavery in the United Kingdom, albeit in very different ways for different people.

For the purposes of this essay, I would like to push the thinking and use of the aesthetic experience of industrial capitalism (and the labour that it entails) into an approach quite different from that of the genre of industrial music. Rather than focus on how music seemingly imitates the sounds and spaces of (post)industry, I am more interested in listening to the ways music has been (and can be) made to offer liberation to the violent spatio-temporal restrictions imposed on the human body through industrial capitalism. For example, listening to how polyrhythmic vocal phrasing in the Motown records of Marvin Gaye gave a completely different ‘erotics of time’[5] as a political gesture that broke with the temporal ordering of the Fordist production line, or how migrant workers from the Caribbean forged a new social space in Britain through dance nights and sound systems in industrial cities such as Leeds and Birmingham, and then how the nightclub offers an out-of-work-hours moment of utopia in which the gesture is to ‘Heal Yourself and Move.’

Listen: Theo Parrish, Heal Yourself and Move (1998)

I would like to stress however that this focus is not just on how music has been used as release from the hardships of labour, but also as resistance to industrial capitalism and the systems it sets in place to entrap people within repetitive cycles through history.

Watch: The Factory Scene from Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times (1936)

We will situate ourselves in England now, beginning in 1978 – the year of The Winter of Discontent, a period of strikes by public sector trade unions within British industry, and also the year before Margaret Thatcher came into power as Prime Minister. We will then move through different sonic spaces until 1990, the year Thatcher went out of power and the euphoric intensification of the British rave scene after the Second Summer of Love of 1988–89. As such this essay plots its route through the Thatcher years from the winter to the summer, and we will be listening for echoes of resistance to the neoliberal regime of Thatcher’s government (specifically in relation to the problems of industrial capitalism) present within British musical production in that period.

It is 1978, and we are in the city of Birmingham, in the neighbourhood of Handsworth to be precise. In the cemetery at Handsworth Park you can find the graves of the three so-called fathers of the Industrial Revolution: James Watt, Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch. Birmingham is the second most populous city in the UK after London, and was a centre for Industry from the 18th century on, with coal mines, coking, iron foundries, glass factories, brickworks and steel mills. Handsworth is a neighbourhood with a long history of migration from previous British colonies such as Ireland, India and different parts of the Caribbean and Africa. It is important to note that migration to Birmingham (along with other parts of the UK) increased greatly after the Second World War, with citizens from the Commonwealth invited to work to rebuild the country and its economy through factory work, and also work in state-run services like the NHS and public transport.

Birmingham is also one of the birthplaces of British heavy metal music, and this goes hand in hand with industry, as the members of the Birmingham metal band Black Sabbath were indeed steel factory workers. Yet, how many people know that the Midlands was one of the epicentres of British reggae production?[6] How many people have heard of the reggae band Steel Pulse? Perhaps some, but not as many as I would hope. Steel Pulse were a British reggae band of second-generation immigrants from Jamaica who formed their band in the Birmingham neighbourhood of Handsworth. Their name invokes a relationship to steel factories and the pulse of the factory work that eventuated the pulse of the reggae beat in the ‘Blues’ parties that filled Birmingham working-class neighbourhoods in the 1970s and 80s.

Listen: Steel Pulse, Handsworth Revolution (1978)

In 1986 The Black Audio Film Collective[7] made a film called Handsworth Songs, an essay film that, as Kodwo Eshun and I have suggested, uses post-production techniques of dub reggae and post-punk, such as remixing, sampling and echo, as a way to look into the period of civil unrest in the UK during the years of Margaret Thatcher from 1981 to 1985. The film focuses on riots in Handsworth, as well as Tottenham and Brixton, that were happening largely in response to new powers given to the Police by Margaret Thatcher’s government, particularly the informally titled ‘sus’ laws that allowed Police to stop and search people on ‘reasonable suspicion’ that they had committed an offence.

The introduction of the sus laws led to outrage within certain communities in the UK as they assisted racist profiling that targeted Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic people by a largely white police force. The laws were also used as a way to check people’s immigration status, a violent form of surveillance that brought forth racist ideas about ‘Britishness’ and the right to live in a country. Handsworth Songs draws connections between the riots and the history of migration from ex-British colonies after the Second World War, the police/state racism and oppression that these people faced – and the difficulties as low-paid workers within British factories. It is a film that re-tells the story of British industrial capitalism, creating a kind of echo from the past that reminds us of the relation of British industry to plantation slavery. The voice-over in the film reminds us; ‘there are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.’

The opening shot of Handsworth Songs is an audiovisual sample from the film The Colony made by Philip Donnellan in 1964 about the Black working class of Birmingham. The image is of a Caribbean bus driver, Victor Williams, at the Science Museum in Birmingham; he is pondering over the huge iron wheels of a factory machine spinning round and round powered by a steam engine. The image opens the film, reappears in the middle and then again a few minutes before the end, and as such can perhaps be ‘…read as a symbol of the eternal return of the past in the future; the expropriated labour of the guard’s slave ancestors, transferred into the dead labour stored up in the machine itself. But also, as the narrator confirms, in the movement by which “the living transform the dead into partners in struggle”.’[8]

Watch: The Black Audio Film Collective, Handsworth Songs (1986)

I think that Handsworth Songs is a film with a particular relationship to death; it feels as if the film is haunted by the afterlife of slavery. We see archival film of chains being made for ships in Birmingham factories and we see people arriving on the Empire Windrush from Jamaica to Tilbury docks, yet slavery is never actually announced in name. Instead, it is present in the film as a traumatic history that is constantly spiralled back into the present. It seems to be a sublayer in the unconscious of the film, repressed and unresolved, echoing through into present day Britain even as I watch the film in 2020. These thoughts about echo as a method for understanding how history returns are indebted to the work of Louis Chude-Sokei, who brought my attention to the use of echo in the work of Édouard Glissant, especially ‘…what Glissant means when he describes “echoes” in the magnificent Poetics of Relation (1997) as a form of “spiral retelling”.’[9]

This idea of an echo as spiral interests me greatly as I believe it presents the possibility for breaking out of the circular trap of certain historical narratives. The spiral is a form of repetition that never quite completes a full turn back to exactly the same point, and in doing so it manages to move forwards; it is more evolution than revolution. The wheels in a factory, which serve no other purpose than producing commodities at the expense of the life of the workers making them, constantly turn and return even 100 years later. Handsworth Songs, in creating an echo of Donnellan’s The Colony, spirals those wheels out of their fittings through a ‘detour’ that brings the narrative back ‘“…to the point of entanglement”, a return to something permanently unsettled.’[10] Which is, I believe, the entanglement of industry and plantation slavery, and how it created the Britain they were filming in flames, in 1985.

A song that features prominently in the film invites further thinking about these echoes and spirals of return: Jerusalem by Mark Stewart and the Maffia, produced by Adrian Sherwood in 1982, the year after the first major riots in Handsworth and also Brixton (London), Chapeltown (Leeds), and Toxteth (Liverpool).

Listen: Mark Stewart and The Maffia, Jerusalem (1982)

What you have just heard is a dubbing, a versioning, an echoing and spiral re-telling of one of the most famous poems from England, William Blake’s protest poem: ‘And did those feet in Ancient time’.[11] This poem was also versioned into a hymn in 1916 by the English composer Sir Hubert Parry, called Jerusalem. It is often considered, by some, as the unofficial national anthem of the UK, invoked in a flurry of patriotic pride at events such as The Last Night of the Proms[12] or the London Olympics in 2012. Yet, Blake certainly never intended his poem to be used to celebrate British nationalism, but more as a lament for ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ that had been drastically changed through industrial capitalism. This is suggested by the beautiful line ‘…these dark Satanic Mills’ that refers to steam-powered flour mills first built in the UK at the end of the 18th century, designed by the Birmingham engineer Matthew Boulton. At the end of the poem Blake quotes from the bible: ‘Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets’, and so perhaps it can be interpreted as a poem in a form of prophecy, a protest poem that prophesies a time over and beyond industrial capitalism. Adrian Sherwood and Mark Stewart bring the poem back into a form of protest and away from its nationalist appropriation by British conservatives. In a very clever and highly contemporary gesture, they did this through the sound of dub, a music that came from Jamaica to the UK in the 1970s and that continues to infuse and inform British music to this very day. Using techniques of echo and delay, this dub version spins the narrative of Blake’s poem and Parry’s Jerusalem into a different sonic space that breaks with any conservative ideals of nationalism.

Now we shall move to the West of the British Isles, over to Wales. Here we will listen to the British industrial group Test Department, specifically two songs from a 1984 album made in collaboration with the South Wales Striking Miners Choir, called Shoulder to Shoulder. Test Department came together in 1981, in the midst of Thatcher’s de-industrial demise of the UK. In their own words, the group’s formation ‘…in the decaying docklands of South London, was an urgent reaction to the materialistic drift and reactionary conservatism of the prevailing musical and political culture.’ Test Department rejected the conventional and developed a style that reflected the decay of their surroundings, scavenging the unregenerated wastelands for raw materials, and transforming found industrial items into designed, sculptural instruments.’[13] Shoulder to Shoulder was an intervention into the 1984–85 miners’ strike; a large-scale industrial action against the Conservative government’s closure of collieries across the nation, which itself was part of a Thatcher-led plan to weaken labour unions and to open the way for globalised capitalism, free markets and free trade agreements. It was also part of Thatcher’s general project of disintegration of the British working class and a form of class revenge, but that’s another story for another time.

The choir was made up of 90 striking miners that had come together from different villages in South Wales and from three different male voice choirs; Crynant, Glyneath and Onllwyn – and they all shared political ideals of socialism. Initially they went to London to meet people and generate support for their cause, and ended up singing in a concert with Test Department. They then decided to record an album together, featuring songs developed individually and collaboratively. All profits from the album went to support the miners’ movement and the album was never reissued. The album therefore can be understood as serving deeply important political purposes; to publicise and popularise the struggle, but also to provide economic means to continue the industrial action.

Listen: Test Department & South Wales Striking Miners’ Choir, Shockwork (1984)

Listen: Test Department & South Wales Striking Miners’ Choir, Comrades (1986)

What we hear in the second song Comrades, is a form of sonic solidarity woven together through the spectral web of echo and delay. The quite distinct approaches to music are brought together by Test Department through post-production in the mixing studio. Perhaps we could even listen to this song as an industrial dubbing of the choir by Test Department, complete with clangs and clashes of the recuperated metals of de-industrialisation. Interestingly again, a British group has turned to the dub techniques of studio manipulated echo and delay as a way to create a form of music-as-protest against Thatcher’s government and the violence of its capitalist projects.

Maybe echo is a technique that encourages solidarity? In his book The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics, Louis Chude-Sokei reminds us of Leo Marx’s idea that ‘…in The Machine in the Garden, echo is also a metaphor of reciprocity’,[14] and also how echo was for Glissant an emblem of cross-cultural diversity. Chude-Sokei continues and develops an idea of how echo can create a type of resonance between things that creates a feedback of exchange, mutation and affinity that ‘…operate as echoic repetitions of affective responses, but do so through correspondences and affinities, [Wilson] Harris’s “depths of mutuality” or “unfathomable kinships”.’ I find a profound beauty in these words, as much as I find perhaps in the 90-person-strong striking miners choir from Wales meeting with Test Department to create an album in defiance of Thatcher’s closures of the collieries. The echo in their song, from the valleys of Wales to the destroyed post-industrial spaces of South London, reveals their deep mutuality and the strength of their kinship.

Moving forwards with this idea – echo as creating cross-cultural kinships – and to the year 1990 in Leeds, a large industrial town in the north of England. The song is called Pressure Dub and was produced by a young musician known under the alias Ability ii (David Duncan). It hails from a subgenre of techno called ‘bleep ’n’ bass’ – a particularly British versioning of techno and house from echoes received from across the Atlantic, both from the USA and the Caribbean; from Detroit and Kingston. The song is in fact a great homage to the after-hours, unofficial reggae sound system parties called ‘Blues Nights’ that were extremely popular in various cities in the UK with large Jamaican populations, such as Bristol, Sheffield and Birmingham. The song displays an affective mutuality discovered at these Blues nights, recorded and expressed through the time capsules of dub plates from Jamaica, and eventually seeping back out again through the deep bassy echo that fills the spectral space of Pressure Dub.

In a 2017 interview Ability ii describes his experiences of the late 1980s: ‘You’d go there and you’d hear different things, almost all of which would have really heavy bass’, Duncan enthuses. ‘At one point I had my studio in the basement of the place I was living in, so I could come straight back from the Blues and get into the studio. I’d bang through track after track that way, such was the inspiration from what I’d heard at the Blues.’[15] Pressure Dub was released in 1990, the year that ended Margaret Thatcher’s political mandate, and the year in which the beginnings of the somewhat utopian and euphoric era of rave culture in the UK took hold [you can’t spell Leeds without LSD and a couple of Es!]. Raves took place within old factories and warehouses and were situated at the peripheries of British life at the time, within the centre of the underground, within the break from the ‘rhythm of the iron system’ ruled by the disastrous policies of the Iron Lady.

Whilst the record spins and the grooves in the vinyl move the needle forwards, I would like to suggest the possibility of the reconstituted echo or spiral retelling as ‘…a prophetic vision of the past’.[16]

Listen: Ability ii, Pressure Dub (1990)



The ensemble of the senses and the ensemble of the social is a collaborative research project initiated in 2018 as a commission for Urbane Kunste Ruhr made in collaboration with the artist João Polido entitled Composition (2019) and installed in the de-commissioned Opel car factory in Bochum. The work would not have been possible without the invitation of Britta Peters and the invaluable help of Jana Kerima. This text was initially written for an event in 2019 at The Institute for Endotic Research, in Berlin, thanks to an invitation from Laure de Selys and Arjuna Neuman. Later it was used for a talk I gave after a screening of The Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs (1986) at the Endstation Kino in Bochum, organised by Christina Danick for Urbane Kunste Ruhr. Some of the ideas have been developed through informal conversations with Louis Chude-Sokei, Jasmina Metwaly and also Kodwo Eshun, with whom I co-organised a screening of Handsworth Songs followed by a conversation on the idea of black industrialism in the work of The Black Audio Film Collective. This event also took place at the Institute for Endotic Research, at the invitation of Benjamin Busch and Lorenzo Sandoval, eventuating in the publishing of an earlier iteration of this text for The Endotic Reader No.1. The author would like to thank all the above for their involvement.