Dead Mentors Talk: The pop world of Ballard and Burroughs
By Ben Granger.
Once pop, rock or one of its hybrid offshoots passes a certain critical mass of seriousness, it often seeks to transcend its simple origins, and lends itself open to the influence of other art forms; other art forms including literature. It isn’t always a success. As often as not it can be an embarrassment – Dr. Johnson’s proverbial dog on its hind legs. There is nothing wrong with the simple in itself after all. When everything goes to plan however, great things can occur. It would be a Sisyphean task to quantify which authors top the list of the league of pop literature. Hesse, Hemmingway, Huxley, Orwell and Lovecraft would all get a look-in, Tolkien too. It’s a fair bet however which would be the most influential of all – and it’s not one author but two, a pair inextricably linked and engrained in the pop-cultural mind. Just as ChesterBelloc and (however unfairly) Sartre/Camus before them became two authors forever entwined as one in the popular literary imagination, so J. G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs have come to signify a certain Janus-faced Titan of the leftfield literary counter-culture, emblematic of an unique and unsettling mind set, and inspiring a massive segment of the music which has made up our modernity.
In a straightforward narrative, it is perhaps easy enough to see why Ballard/Burroughs might sate the avant-garde yearnings of that minority in the pop world who seek to reach beyond the sex and sentimentality of the genre’s early lyrics. The pair seemed to share an alluring aesthetic: alien and alienating whilst revelling in earthly trappings, a solipsistic individualism and a belief that reality is not all that it seems. Savage, stark, amoral, relentlessly transgressive, dismissive of conventional love and sex alike. Both used elements of science fiction whilst managing to transcend the presumed gaucheness of the space-bound clichés of the genre. Profoundly urban, like pop, the pair dwelt in high rises and retail parks, drugstores and alleyways. Completely lawless, like rock (or rather rock’s projected image), the characters in their work reject societal niceties and conventions far more completely than the seediest hoodlum you might find in crime literature.
Always attuned to the modern (as distinct from the future), and unassailably opposed to tradition (as distinct from the past), the pair dealt in surreal and striking images which flashed on the retina, and seemed to lodge in the consciousness of those producing three minute pop singles and longer rock players alike. Ballard and Burroughs were friends and mutual admirers – the work of both deeply inspired by the psychic shock caused by the deaths of their wives (which in Burroughs’ case he was directly responsible for). Plenty here to tantalise a minority of the pop world, the 10% who look beyond. Like the narratives of the pair itself however, this influence is anything but a straight story.
In terms of sheer numbers, the score-sheet soon adds up. Burroughs, first in chronological notoriety was also the first to galvanize the name-checkers. In the mid-60s various trip-hippy bands took inspiration from what they saw as Burroughs’ psychedelic aesthetic. American rockers The Mugwumps and Insect Trust later claimed to have taken their names only indirectly from the phantasmagoric horrors appearing in the Naked Lunch, taken second hand from others who were familiar with Burroughs’ work rather than direct readings from the man himself. This ironically fits with the man’s own vision and theory of language as a virus from outer space, flitting from one host to another in a blind contagion, skipping over conscious thought.
The influence of the better known Soft Machine, prog pioneers in England’s Canterbury Scene was a more direct and sincere homage. Robert Wyatt’s band was undoubtedly inspired by Burroughs’ later 1962 cut-up work, a progression into ever greater obscurity and experimentation. Soft Machine itself also boasts the first ever recorded use of the term “heavy metal” in its description of character ‘Uranian Willy’, appearing again in 1964’s Nova Express.
With their diseases and orgasm drugs and their sexless parasite life forms – Heavy Metal People of Uranus wrapped in cool blue mist of vaporized bank notes.
Again, while it is likely few if any of the early metal bands were conscious readers of Burroughs (surely more Tolkien men) the fact that a term forged in the infernal kernel of the man’s mind would soon be familiar to every music fan in the Western world is another satisfying example of the idea of language as virus, which he extolled.
Better known than any of the above were the early 70s New York jazz-rock sophisticates Steely Dan, named for the deadly steam-powered vibrating dildo used by a lesbian dominatrix in the Naked Lunch. The fact that the Dan’s urbane slick sophistication has very little musically or culturally in common with the head-trip psychedelia of Soft Machine shows the capacious breadth of Burroughs’ rock reach.
Whilst the main drug of both inspiration and choice for Burroughs himself was heroin, the maniacal, whirling narratives alive in his more experimental work had a clear appeal to those whose main tipple were mushrooms or LSD. If the fantastical world of whimsy in the works of Lewis Carroll had an appeal to the acid-rock cognoscenti (‘I Am The Walrus’), then here was its dark, modern underbelly. Burroughs’ presence as a backdrop to the psychedelic underground was subliminal but profound. Lacking the didacticism of Timothy Leary and his decree to “turn on, tune in, drop out”, his narcotic presence was subtler, more enigmatic, a sinister-wise shaman of the backstreets.
This reputation was sealed when he was immortalised as one of the many cultural ‘figures of the age’ on The Beatles’ much celebrated cover for Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his cardboard cut-out nestling between Marilyn Monroe and Hindu guru Mahavatar Babaji in a crowd including Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis and Lewis Carroll (and famously just missing out on Hitler). Less well known was that Paul McCartney met Burroughs himself several times in the same year, and he was in fact present in the studio during the recording of ‘Eleanor Rigby.’
Burroughs became more directly involved in the world of audio himself with the advent of Giorno Poetry Systems in 1968. The brainchild of New York poet John Giorno, this project set experimental tape-loop effects against recordings of the work not just of Giorno himself, but also Burroughs and his frequent collaborator, the French artist Brion Gysin. This was not really part of the pop world as such, but it was an early sign of Burroughs’ appreciation of the potential for the realm of the recorded output to bring his work to a wider audience.
In terms of impact however, all this is a mere prelude to Burroughs’ most direct cross-fertilisation with the art-pop oeuvre, triggered by the interest of a certain rising star in the field of fusing rock to the higher arts. David Bowie was a greedy and avid cultural magpie, constantly devouring literature from Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley to Jean Genet and Anthony Burgess in an insatiable quest to achieve a sinful intellectual symbiosis. Burroughs’ writing had already been a key element in the creation of Bowie’s most celebrated character persona Ziggy Stardust, with the hair and make-up modelled on the descriptions of the eponymous Wild Boys in Burroughs’ 1969 novel; marauding, lawless homosexual teenagers whose’ rapacious, alien amorality was obviously appealing to the similarly drug-fuelled wunderkind.
The influence was to become more direct still, when, after reading Burroughs’ Nova Express, Bowie began to use the ‘cut up’ technique for the lyrics on his album Diamond Dogs in 1974. This technique consists of cutting and folding separate pieces of text together, drilling through the rational in a quest to unearth deeper unconscious truth. First used by the 20s Dadaists, it was re-born in the collaborative efforts of Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Bowie’s use of cut-up was as calculating as it was audacious, a spirited attempt to annex a new intellectual territory in a realm previously forbidden to mere pop starlets such as himself.
This homage resulted in the canny Rolling Stone magazine arranging a staged rendezvous between Bowie and Burroughs, the pair interviewing one another on their respective writing techniques. As we will see later the sincerity of the engagement with his pop acolytes may be open to question, but from that moment on Burroughs was permanently plugged into the cultural mainframe of the New York avant rock cognoscenti, frequently hanging out with Bowie, Lou Reed and Patti Smith at the Bunker – the 70s successor to Warhol’s 60’s Factory as Manhattan’s counter-cultural powerbase. Reed in particular had already gained inspiration from this hierophant of the backstreets.
When I read Burroughs, it changed my vision of what you could write about, how you could write.
Bowie’s image and technique mined the work of Burroughs later more experimental snapshots, whereas Lou Reed’s depictions of transgressive New York nightlife from both the Velvet Underground and after seemed to take greater inspiration from the more earthbound, depictions of the hustling nightlife world of Burroughs’ earlier work Junky (though Reed’s early solo song ‘Andy’s Chest’ from Transformer with “Daisy Mae whose hands became her feet” is a direct tribute to the ‘man who taught his asshole to talk’ segment from Naked Lunch). While Burroughs’ was pushing the boundaries of subject matter for the novel, so Lou Reed was doing for the pop song. Reed absorbed much from other writers and sources too, although it was Burroughs who, as Reed put it “broke the doors down”. Reed’s exploration of the urban underbelly directly inspired far more bands and singers than his mentor ever did, but it was Burroughs who made it possible.
This sexy-sleazy bohemian commingle would eventually lead to perhaps the greatest single musical homage to Burroughs’ from the New York crowd – the title track from Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life album – “Here comes Johnny Yen again” drawls the pit-deep vocal, invoking the central character from The Ticket That Exploded segment of the Nova trilogy with its wild-eyed vision of an artist on the edge; a viscerally thrilling song whose marauding rhythm has resonated down the years. With Iggy, Lou and Patti’s praise ringing in his ears, Burroughs was assured of the veneration of a new generation, the New York CBGB punk scene, even to the point that those whose image and lyrics owe little indeed to Burroughs were desperate to be seen with him – witness Deborah Harry and others posing with the grand old man further down the line.
While Ballard’s literary star was rising at the same time as Burroughs, his parallel vision did not seem to grab the hippies and the beatniks in the same way. Here is an important schism perhaps; that the rather more clinical chrome sheen of Ballard did not have that same appeal to the mystical side of hippiedom which Burroughs seemed to possess. Burroughs was dark years removed from the love and peace mantras of the flower power generation. Nonetheless, as a sincere believer in psychic projection and mind control, a sometime dabbler in elements of the occult, long immersed in the cultures of Mexico and Tangiers, it seemed elements of his life and work had an intrinsic appeal to those who sought wisdom in the esoteric, and style in third world chic. The same allure did not seem to attach to a man dedicated to a forensic and surgical logic, and forever resident in suburban Shepperton.
In fairness straightforward chronology accounts for the difference too, for while Burroughs was already being feted, Ballard’s boldest and best work was yet to come. Ballard did inspire at least one band among the prog rock firmament, albeit for one of their later late 70s recordings. Hawkwind’s ‘High Rise’ takes its name and atmosphere from Ballard’s novel, in which the well-heeled residents of a middle-class residential block fall prey to the alienating angles of its apartments, and end up descending into savage violence – a repeating trope in the man’s work. This anomic aura found its chief resonance however on the next musical generation but one – skipping the fiery savagery and idealism of British punk, and finding its homestead instead in the icy ennui of post-punk. The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ from 1979 was an explicit paean, a brutally minimalistic take on Ballard’s most controversial novel Crash, dwelling on the erotic possibilities inherent in automobile accidents, the ultimate “perversion of instinct made possible by the machine age” to borrow Orwell’s quote on Dali. Pulsing in its urgent, unrelenting two note cascade, the song was later covered by a cast of hundreds, from Trent Reznor to Grace Jones to Laibach. If this represents the more avant-extreme edge of homage in the period, at the poppier end was Buggle’s ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, which writer Trevor Horn explained was inspired by Ballard’s short story ‘The Sound Sweep’, a lonely paean to a world where music is no longer needed.
Somewhere between the two was the work of John Foxx and his album Metronome, and the more ubiquitous Gary Numan. Numan’s ‘Cars’ was yet another ode to Crash, although the all-embracing alienation which post-punk played with in general, and in which he was the most popular proponent, had its roots in a variety of sources other than that of Ballard. Numan’s rather stagey persona seemed equally rooted in more conventional science fiction – it should be remembered that neither androids nor aliens feature in Ballard’s work, and Numan did always seem to be impersonating one or the other. Nonetheless, there remains an indelible link between Ballard’s unnerving exploration of the mutability of the human mind in the modern world, and the aura of alienation so vital to the post-punk aesthetic.
Something in the pair spoke to an underlying yen for uncompromising and amoral freedom which seems wired into the very sinews of rock and roll. But how does this figure into the much-disputed politics of the pair? Unleashed and lawless, self-styled in rebellion, it seems natural that rock’s natural political tendency should be towards the libertarian, whether that be of the Left or Right variety. The politics of both Ballard and Burroughs are arcane and at times inscrutable, but the libertarian slant of both seems beyond reasonable doubt. Their commitment to their own contrary concepts of freedom is a recurring theme in both their lives and their work. Conventional wisdom has the pair as eccentric but nonetheless convinced Right-libertarians, and certainly a convincing argument can be made in both cases.
Both had a repeatedly expressed horror at any government interference in human life, which sometimes segued into the natural sympathies of men of their respective classes. Burroughs’ correspondence with Allen Ginsberg shows his initial move to Mexico was at least in part due to the more limited nature of government there, where “a policeman knows his place, he is just an official like a traffic warden or a librarian”, whilst denouncing the United Kingdom as a “police state” for what he saw as the encroaching statist horrors of the newly emerging National Health Service. He would fire off frequent provocative broadsides against socialism in his letters, goading the decidedly leftist Ginsberg. He was an implacable enemy of gun control (though not perhaps the best advert for the responsible ownership of firearms himself). Other facets in his outlook were also more at home on the Right than the Left – his undeniable and pathological (though inconsistent) misogyny, his reflexive (though even more inconsistent) anti-Semitism.
Nonetheless, unlike most libertarians, his was a largely holistic worldview, and his hatred of authority was directed at corporations just as much as against governments. This was a consistent view – consistent in its paranoia (“sometimes paranoia is just having all the facts” counters Burroughs). The shadowy villainous corporate entities in his fiction – The Trak Corporation from Soft Machine, Islam Inc from Naked Lunch – are embodiments of his feverish fears. He saw political and corporate elites alike as engaged in a struggle for absolute control over the individual. His memorably described nightmare was
An elitist world state very much along the lines laid down by the Nazis. At the top would be a theocracy trained in psychic control techniques implemented by computerized electronic devices that would render opposition psychologically impossible […] in short, you don’t get in by merit or ability but by being an all-around one hundred percent shit […] the elite lives happily ever after, at the top of a control state that makes 1984 seem cozy and nostalgic.
If this seems a somewhat adolescent mindset, then maybe it is – and maybe that’s another reason why the vision it is so popular with rock musicians as well.
Perhaps perversely for one so far removed from it, he hated the British Royal Family with a passion; labelling it “a flabby, toothless fascism to be sure”, which “keeps a small elite of wealth and privilege on top”. While the first wave of British punks did not seem to take any cues from him, Burroughs’ claimed he sent a congratulatory letter to the Sex Pistols following the release of ‘God Save the Queen’ for putting the boot into the despised Windsors. (A curio: there was in fact one first-wave British punk band named after one of his works – Dead Fingers Talk from Hull – an exception proving the rule).
More fundamental, and more relevant to his American audience, was his absolute hatred of Christianity, and indeed all established religion (despite a perverse – again with the perversity – flirtation with Scientology). “Never do business with a religious son-of-a-bitch”, runs one of his more famous aphorisms, “his word ain’t worth a shit — not with the Good Lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal”. This attitude alone placed him diametrically and dramatically against the heart the God-terrified US establishment.
His detestation of God and conformity led to him being a bitter and eternal foe of American apple pie patriotism and the redneck racism which so often dwelt within it. Witness his famously anti-patriotic ‘Thanksgiving Prayer’:
Thanks for the American dream,/To vulgarize and to falsify until the bare lies shine through./Thanks for the KKK/For nigger-killin’ lawmen, feelin’ their notches/For decent church-goin’ women, with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces/Thanks for “Kill a Queer for Christ” stickers.
When he marched with a Students for a Democratic Society rally to protest against the American Democratic Convention in 1968 alongside Ginsberg and Jean Genet – he did so with all the authentic sincerity of the counter-cultural establishment. In many ways he was with the radicals, even if not of them.
Ballard had an early fascination with Thatcher, and in keeping with his always avowed modernism approved of what he saw as her “attempt to Americanise the British people”. “Marxism is a philosophy of the poor, what is needed is a philosophy of the rich” he claimed, the general direction of which was maximising freedom against governmental interference. However, once again it’s not a clear cut picture. The other side of Ballard’s modernity was a life-long opposition to what he saw as the restricting rigidities of the British class system. There was a contradiction in his desire for small government with what he also saw as the necessary “civilisation” of the modern welfare state. He would also balk at class distinctions, whilst like many libertarians before and since, not seeming to realise that such distinctions are only bound to increase once unleashed commerce is let loose.
With Ballard there seems to be an element of change in his later years and a reversal of the classic cliché in that, as he informed Spike Magazine‘s Chris Hall in 2004, he was getting more left-wing as he got older (denouncing Blair’s military adventures in the same interview). Around the same time he was pronouncing that the only way to help destroy the iniquities of class distinction was to abolish private education. He had long since grown disillusioned with Thatcher, parodying her as Dr Barbara in the 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise. “I used to have a thing for Thatcher until I got too old for her”, he clarified, acidly labelling her “a public-spirited psychopath” just like many of the ambiguous hero-villains of his novels, not just Dr Barbara but Bobby Crawford in Cocaine Nights or Wilder Penrose in Super-Cannes.
Crucially, while he may have been something of a Thatcherite for a time – he was never a conservative. He never had the faintest flicker of desire to preserve tradition in any way – quite the opposite. His was an uncompromising evangelism for progress in all its forms. (“I’m not that opposed to pollution” he once mused during an interview in 1974 “I feel there’s a certain beauty in looking at a lake that has a bright metallic scum floating on it……”). He shared Burroughs’ attitude to the Windsors, and turned down an OBE as he refused to be co-opted into the ‘Ruritanian charade’ of which the monarchy and the honours system were one and the same.
If anything, Burroughs has probably the more radical reputation than is deserved, and Ballard a more conservative reputation than is accurate. Burroughs’ indelible association with the counter-culture gives him an eternal radical sheen by reflection, emphasising the violent revolution and Oppositionalism and overlooking his Ron Paulite- shrink-the-state tendencies. But with the auto-erotic automobile riders of Crash and the eponymous teenage Wild Boys pushing the concept of libertarian ‘freedom’ to its very furthest and blackest reaches, this is rock’s wild ‘freedom’ taken to its darkest and most devilish degree.
It should be seen already that the concept of a Burroughs-Ballard axis of influence is fundamentally flawed. To a large degree the inspiration of each took place against quite separate people, and -to hugely oversimplify – it is Yanks for Burroughs, Brits for Ballard (Bowie was after all an honorary ‘Young American’ in more ways than one.) But a more fundamental difference emerges when one sees the massively different ways the two men reacted to the fact of their adulation among musicians – avuncular amiability in Ballard’s case – wholesale whorish acquiescence in Burroughs.
For the great truth here is that for all their similarities, Ballard and Burroughs were vastly different men, vastly different artists. Ballard himself, while always speaking admiringly of Burroughs, was equally forthright in stressing their dissimilarities.
His narrative structure is without architecture, written straight out of feelings, without planning […] my stories have a very precisely designed structure […] my emotions remain uncommitted to whatever my imagination happens to generate. He believes everything he writes. He lives in a paranoid micro-climate of his own.
It is probably only in the Atrocity Exhibition that there is a detectable prose similarity, given its fractured, photographic style, but even then even a half-trained eye would never mistake one for the other. Burroughs is full of great expressionistic painterly strokes, almost literally so given the frequent use of bright and clashing colour (“green flashing bulbs of orgasm”, “Lord Jim has turned bright yellow in the woe withered moon of morning”, “blue spark messages leaving smell of ozone in shiny pubic hairs”, “Nitrous fumes twist from pink rectal flesh in whorls of orange, sepia, rose”, “a hot Mercury crackling all over with blue fire…”). Ballard by contrast wrote with the coolly observed clinical exactitude of the doctor he almost became.
Ballard described Burroughs down as an arch snob-satirist in the mould of Swift, again differentiating himself from the didactic outlook on the world. While Ballard is often described as a dystopian, this is a highly misleading view. Satirists and dystopians, are, almost by definition, passing judgement on what they write about. Ballard very rarely does, and increasingly less so as he developed. As he often said, his outlook was that of an optimist even his more grotesque and violent works are trying to “affirm a more positive world view”. In his early novel The Drowned World the protagonist comes to revel in the coming apocalypse, and ever since then the characters have seemed to embrace rather than escape from their troubled destinies. It is this apparent amorality which also seems to be appeal to the avant-pop mind.
As different as their styles were, the lives of the men were even further apart. If one could make a serviceable if tenuous case for Ballard the Apollonian against Burroughs the Dionysian – the structure and order of one (no matter how perverse) and the chaos (though sometimes controlled) of the other, their lifestyles were even more archetypal exemplars.
While both were sons of businessmen, Ballard was far more a product of what one would term a classical ‘middle-class’ than the opulent plutocracy from which Burroughs’ sprang. This middle-class/upper-class division could be seen in their lives as well. Ballard was a classic straight-laced suburban bourgeois, as were most of his protagonists (making their descent – or should that be conversion – into violence and perversity all the more unnerving.) While he may have been revered by the speed-fuelled post-punk crowd, he himself rarely imbibed anything stronger than whisky (though he did have more than his fair share of that). Burroughs on the other hand lived the life of the outright outlaw, with all the true relish of the debauched Hellfire Club aristocrat reborn among the streets, the street hustling, the gun, the drugs, all this was as essential to his life as his writing, and as essential to his writing as his life. That he was homosexual in a time when gay sex was illegal was just as crucial to his outsider status, and a further contrast to Ballard – straight in all three main senses of the word.
These hugely different approaches were reflected in the vastly divergent ways with which they reacted to their pop acolytes. Ballard was always a warm and welcome presence to interviewers, and this extended to music journalists such as John Savage and Vicki Vale, writers for Search and Destroy fanzine, whose fascinating interviews from the late 70s and early 80s took in everything from the Velvet Underground to Oi! music. But Ballard always took the role of the politely interested outsider, and courtship ended there. There are no images of this clubbable gent lurking with Gary Numan in the 70s, or Suede in the 90s. He would no doubt have found this inappropriate, if not laughable. The contrast to Burroughs’ wholesale whoring of his image could not be more complete.
First, a word on that much-maligned – understandably impugned amorphous concept – that of ‘cool’. Impossible to define, fruitless to try and quantify. But if such a term could ever be applied to any writer, then it surely did to Burroughs. Take a look at the images of the man around the internet – surely this is the coolest writer who ever lived. The drilling reptile stare, the fedora, the revolver. If anyone had it, he did.
As this status as arch-pontiff of cool grew over the years, to be seen to attach oneself to this cultural cache, to be photographed with the wise old warlock became the mother lode – touching the royal hand to ward off the scrofula of squaredom and stupidity. So we see Burroughs with Bowie and Burroughs with Jimmy Page. Not much further down the line – Burroughs with Strummer, Burroughs with Frank Zappa, Burroughs with Mick Jagger. As ubiquity increases so must mystique decrease. After a while this cultural overspend is bound to result in a debasing of the currency. Burroughs with Madonna, Burroughs with Bono. Burroughs had become something of a ‘hired gun’ amongst his apparent acolytes, an insurance policy against allegations of intellectual shallowness. When Nirvana were the biggest band in the world, Kurt Cobain eagerly approached Burroughs for a music and prose collaboration The ‘Priest’ they called him a reworking of an old phrase from Soft Machine and chapter from the Wild Boys. While this was arguably a worthwhile venture of a band who combined massive popularity with genuine integrity, other ventures were perhaps not so. Appearing in U2 videos for instance. Did Burroughs really see much worth in Bono? And if nothing, then how sincere were any of these cross-cultural pollinations?
And here we see an arguably deeper question. Going right back to Bowie, we have a real sense of doubt as to whether Burroughs’ had any genuine interest in the work of the musicians who so idolised him. Burroughs’ remarks in his diary on Paul McCartney when observing the recording of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ are doubly revealing.
I saw the song taking shape. Once again, not knowing much about music, I could see that he knew what he was doing. He was very pleasant and very prepossessing. Nice-looking young man, hardworking.
The innocuous and uncharacteristic pleasantries in this statement are as telling as the tacit admission of his ‘not knowing much about music’. There is no real evidence that he ever did, or at least not in the performers who were interested in him. To paraphrase Noel Coward on television – the New York proto-punk crowd were people you socialised with – not people you listened to. And for all the collaboration and cultural exchange with musicians in Burrough’s career, it is remarkably rare to find an actual moment of enthusiasm, of enjoyment, still less connection. Burroughs would find himself directly involved with a number of recordings, from the Giorno Poetry Systems in the 60s to Dead City Radio compilation of 1990, which saw his work recited to the accompaniment of John Cale, Lenny Picket, Chris Stein, and Sonic Youth. But even then, there was no engagement with or affection for the end product.
There is only one notable semi-exception to this. In 1975, hoping to emulate the success of the Rolling Stone Bowie interview, the now forgotten Crawdaddy music magazine commissioned Burroughs to attend a Led Zeppelin concert, and interview Jimmy Page afterwards. This was an environment so alien to Burroughs that he reported on it as a naturalist might on a fascinating new species of monkey. A man who had spent decades amidst rent-boys and junk dens seems to find a rock concert a far more terrifyingly dangerous place, until he gets caught up in the trance-like atmosphere, “I knew then that nothing bad was going to happen”. He later says to Jimmy Page that he “really enjoyed” the concert, and approvingly compares the atmosphere of the auditorium with that of Moroccan trance music designed to channel spiritual forces. Nonetheless, this still seems to be a man with an endless passion for adventure exploring a strange new realm than actually developing a new taste. Burroughs had been paid to attend the Led Zeppelin concert as a journalistic assignment, and to my knowledge, there is no record of him attending any other rock concerts in the years afterward, unless he was socialising backstage with the performers.
Put bluntly, a great many rock and pop musicians regularly enjoyed and took inspiration from his work – but the veneration was not returned. He took a kind of generalised anthropological interest in them in general, and seemed to enjoy the company of some of them personally. But essentially more than anything else it appears he saw them as a marketing tool to help promote his work. A harsh judgement, but then Burroughs was a thoroughly unsentimental man – except when it came to cats. And nothing wrong, many might say, with a great writer using his followers to help evangelise his work – although the musicians on the other side of the deal may have been a little peeved if they truly grasped the full level of this lack of reciprocity.
With Ballard, the question of mutual respect would never even arise. While he was engagingly open to the interest of journalists, including music journalists, he would have laughed at the whole concept of hanging out with the rock stars. And yet, as the 90s and a new century rolled on, a whole new gang of musicians came to see him as a key intellectual inspiration. The Manic Street Preachers’ troubled and lost Richie Edwards saw Ballard’s work as portraying humanity hopelessly compromised and debased by technology, sampling his quote about Crash: “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, I wanted to force it to look in the mirror” at the start of the track ‘Mausoleum’. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke saw Ballard’s last novel Kingdom Come – where consumerism segues with disturbing ease into fascism – as justification of his own band’s critique of the marketisation of modern culture.
More blatant were new-rave ingénues The Klaxons, whose 2007 album Myths of the Near Future took its title from a compilation of Ballard’s short stories. The Klaxons were much mocked at the time for flaunting literary credentials a little too freely, and that their earnest, wide-eyed salutation of a gleaming streamlined future world was insufficiently “dystopian” to bear comparison to Ballard. As has already been seen earlier however, this is to misunderstand a writer who was full of the most genuine zest for the brave new atomised world himself. Probably despite themselves, the posing Klaxons were perhaps closer to the true spirit of Ballard’s vision than the earnest theorising of either Yorke or Edwards, still less the earlier pantomime frown-face of Gary Numan.
He had clearly awakened something within them. White-blazered suburban gent though he was, Ballard was clearly ‘cool’ in his way too, a rather more literal cool, the coldness of sterilised chrome, dislocation from warm emotion. They also saw that Ballard was writing about the literal world around them in a way that very few writers really do, as he once put, “the real England – the M25, the world of business parks and industrial estates and executive housing, sports clubs and marinas, cineplexes, CCTV, car rental forecourts”. If one of the meanings of cool is also a sense of absolute authenticity, then he certainly had that too. While Burroughs had already achieved the status of high priest and confessor status, Ballard had now ascended to guru status himself (though religio-mystical metaphors seem wrong for the man, more appropriate perhaps to compare him to a rogue lifestyle coach).
Ballard and Burroughs then, are not the unified pop monolith of myth. And yet it is true some artists, and some of the greatest, were influenced by both. Bowie never explicitly cited Ballard in the way he did Burroughs, but the silvery and saturnine atmosphere of the Low album with its metronome rhythms seemed to hark to Ballard, with ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’ making the homage to Crash explicit. This in turn was inspiration to the British electronic, post-punk and industrial scene as a whole, whose most outré representative; Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle, was equally in thrall to both Ballard and Burroughs. Many years later, the Klaxons would be referencing Burroughs as well as Ballard with ‘From Atlantis to Interzone’. And Ian Curtis of Joy Division was dedicated to the pair, proclaiming in a fanzine interview that The Wild Boys was his favourite book, referencing The Atrocity Exhibition in the opening track of Closer, and Interzone in the penultimate track of Unknown Pleasures.
The most effective influences are often the less discernible. The sensibility of Ballard and Burroughs’ shows itself in Joy Division not in hallucinatory amphetamine phantasms or auto-eroticised car accidents, but in the implied psychosis of alienation which is a continual theme in his work. The grey dream of ‘Shadowplay’ with its vision of an urban landscape dredged of all light and nature is the starkest possible take on Ballard’s anomie, sailing to the darkest end of the spectrum. The continual Burroughsian theme of individuals being at the mercy of nameless, mysterious and merciless external agents are brought to an icy, jittering life in ‘Transmission’, ‘Interzone’ and ‘She’s Lost Control’. The concept of inner life becoming outer life alive in the themes of both take on their most poignant zenith in that of Ian Curtis, emotion ossifying into a brittle, breakable carapace. Curtis’ tragedy was that while he shared with the pair the muse of urban alienation, that he nonetheless retained the spirit of the romantic which reacted against it, and reacted with horror. There is nothing tragic about the work of Burroughs and Ballard, for they had managed to shed this old -fashioned humanity altogether. Curtis had not, such was the tragedy of both his art, and his life.
[A brief Mancunian postscript: Mark E. Smith of The Fall claims only to like The Drowned World amongst Ballard’s writing, and in his autobiography Renegade explicitly denied the influence of Burroughs on his own recondite lyrical universe. There may be an element here of hiding the evidence after the crime, as he mentioned Burroughs as a favoured writer in a mid-80s survey interview, and his contribution to the City Life Book of Manchester Short Stories from 1999 certainly seems to have a Burroughsian imprint. (MES would probably counter that both he and Burroughs were indebted to Wyndham Lewis, and perhaps he would have a point) That other most literary Manchester pop star Morrissey seems wholly devoid of the influence of Ballard or Burroughs. Thwarted romance, a black comedy of manners, idealism and social realism belong to an entirely different intellectual register from the pair. The non-criminal working classes, the majority of the population in fact, did not hold much interest to either Burroughs or Ballard. In this sense at least, this simply means they are typical of most novelists who have ever written. The kitchen sink strain of Morrissey; The Kinks and The Jam before him, and Pulp and the early Arctic Monkeys afterward is an entirely separate species of intelligent pop.]
Inevitably, there will be dirt amongst the diamonds. Duran Duran’s ‘Wild Boys’ for instance, “inspired” by their video director who had taken a shine to Burroughs’ novel – but which no member of the band had taken the time to read. “Wild boys never close their eyes/Wild boys always shine” does not quite capture the arcane psychosis at work in the heart of Burroughs’ most viciously ambitious work. Similarly Madonna’s decision to name her ‘Drowned World’ tour after Ballard’s apocalyptic novel was not the most accurate representation of her lyrical output. But this is a small price to pay for the marvels elsewhere.
J. G. Ballard appeared on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 1992, his eight favourite songs of all time revealed. A selection less imbued with the spirit of pop counter culture would be impossible to imagine. Mozart, Rossini, Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich and a rendition of ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’. Forget Lou Reed or Sergeant Pepper, this is a selection from a world where Elvis may as well have stuck to truck driving as Eddie Bond infamously advised.
Burroughs’ own musical tastes were quite different, but equally divorced from the pop rock world, be it populist or avant-garde. Burroughs was into jazz, one of his favourites being Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust’ – recorded in 1923.
There should be nothing surprising about Burroughs and Ballard not being fans of rock and pop music. They were already middle-aged before the Beatles flew home from Hamburg. Music is an instinctual thing, and the favoured style of your youth usually remains your favourite. These seers of the pharmaceutical age were fundamentally products of an older time in more ways than just the musical. Ballard may have predicted the internet, but he never used a computer. Burroughs may have been adored by the cool crowd, but he would no more be seen dead in a t-shirt and jeans than any other scion of the Roosevelt-era Midwestern plutocracy.
Nevertheless the infiltration of their vision into modern music’s core has been profound. Burroughs wrote about arbitrary agents establishing control over unconscious beings through the insidious medium of language. Ballard explored the effects that machine modernity has on the human mind, a mind whose malleability is always shown to succumb to forces beyond its control. It is perhaps not too fanciful to see the mysterious influence they have held on the more interesting fringes of the pop world as a product of both narratives. Their detachment from the end product is as ultimately irrelevant as Albert Einstein’s antipathy to the H-Bomb. There they were, and here we are. They’re in the DNA, forever lurking in the background. A cold fixed glare from the one, a warm bemused smile from the other.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ben Granger, resident of Greater Manchester, is a press officer for the public service by day, and a sometime scribbler for disreputable literary and music publications by night. Organs he has written for include Spike Magazine, Ready Steady Book, The Wildean, Red Pepper, Bookmunch and Manchester’s City Life.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 14th, 2014.