Smith vs Wilson

Tony Wilson and Mark E Smith have loomed so large over Manchester’s recent cultural history that I’ve felt inclined to ignore them both as much as possible, in passive protest. (Why give them attention when they already receive so much from other people?)

However when I stumbled across their discussion below, I found it so funny and revealing that it seemed worth reproducing here. They are so engaged and challenged by one another that the reader gets ‘maximum insight for minimum effort’… which is ideal if, like me, you don’t want to waste too much time trying to understand these people.

On The Legacy of Situationist Revolt, Hacienda, Manchester 28/12/96

(This was a conference, 20 years after punk I’m guessing, which was recorded in book format. I’ve copied the text from here.)

AHW = Tony Wilson
JK = Jon King (Gang Of Four)
SH = Stewart Home
MES = Mark E Smith

Situationist International (1957-72) = intellectuals opposed to capitalism.

Round 1

MES: So what’s Situationism Tony?
AHW: Malcolm McLaren thought it would be a Situationist act to create a band which would be massive simply because they were disgusting, and had no value in themselves. But…
MES: Forget all the pop shit. You got me here to speak about Situationists.
AHW: No I didn’t
MES: See, that’s a typical Situationist reply.
AHW: No Mark, you were invited probably because in your attitude, demeanour, philosophy and activity…

(Probably? Doesn’t he know? Who organised this event?)

MES: So this is Situationism? A sort of sub-psychiatry.
AHW: Mark, you are a Situationist but you don’t know it.
MES: How do you mean?
AHW: You follow your own will. You do what you want.
MES: So that’s all this philosophy means?
AHW: Look, I just like the slogans. (What an air-head!)
I’ll tell you the slogan I like. In 1969, as a ‘child of the left’ I went down to London for a meeting of the I.S.

(International Situationists… obviously not Islamic State, although how ironic? Because some of Islamic State’s methods are very ‘Situationist’.)

It was the most horrendous evening of my life. (I wonder why?) But I found an image taken from the Return of the Durutti Column. It has two cowboys talking to one another. One asks what the other thinks about reification!

(That’s not even a slogan, for heaven’s sake… Reification means making something abstract into something real – I looked it up)


MES: The Stalinists did that better…
AHW: Automania in Italy were good but the Situationists were funnier.

(Did anyone in the audience get that? The intellectual name-dropping makes me cringe but maybe that’s because I’m ignorant. Mark, in his rush to score points, has been drawn into sounding like an intellectual tw*t. He quickly changes tack…)

Round 2

MES: Look the thing about you Situationists, is that you go into a situation and you just leave it, you don’t work at it. You put people in a situation and then just piss off with your bloody degrees. Richard Branson’s a Situationist.
AHW: No he’s fucking not!

(Did he do a degree?)

MES: Richard Branson signs 115 bands and then sacks them when he’s bored with it. That’s not Art in my estimation. What’s the difference between Situationists and bloody Prince Charles? You just put people in situations and then bugger off.
AHW: Look Mark it’s about Anarchy. Do you know what that means?
MES: It’s go down to fucking 10 Downing Street if you want to do something about it.
AHW: Yes that’s right
MES: You take the IRA. They’ve done nothing positive. They just fuck up working class people’s lives.
AHW: I think you’ll find that the Situationists were the most anti-IRA Mark. We can all sit here and have a laugh… (About the IRA?)
…but Anarchy means something. It’s a term like Conservatism or Republicanism.
MES: But you’ll still keep the Chair. You remind me of Stalin at Yalta.
AHW: Anarchy’s the complete fucking opposite of that. Look, I’ll buy you a book on Buenaventura Durutti, which will explain to you what it means. No leaders – which is a dichotomy, because we always need leaders (So Durutti’s book doesn’t make sense then?) – no hierarchy. Make men fight through belief in themselves, not military discipline.

(Make men fight? What’s he on about?)

AHW: Look, I’m a fan, and I just use slogans and references.
MES: See, you just keep changing the subject. The Situationists keep going around from art to politics to pop music…


JK: It’s difficult to follow all that. What I found mostly interesting was not to be passive. I was attracted to the Situationist ideas of voyeurism, passivity, postponement, denial… (WAFFLES ON ABOUT COWBOYS, NEO FASCIST ARCHITECTURE AND THE GANG OF FOUR)

JK: … What matters is doing things.
MES: What, like the Gang of Four?
JK: I suppose we did.
MES: No I mean the Chinese Gang of Four. They killed ten million people.
JK: I have no sympathy for these people. The Gang of Four is just a phrase that was used by the Liberal Democrats.
MES: That’s going back a bit.
JK: Yes it is. The good old days. And of course we have the religious name of your band which refers to Adam and Eve. It is interesting to have with us today a religious extremist… (Pointy! He then rambles about Vichy posters in Newcastle and finishes by saying…)
JK: Basically I wanted to make music that was totally different and not easy to listen to.
MES: Is that why you tried to pinch my bass player in San Francisco in 1983?
JK: It was worth a try. We had 2 records banned by the BBC: At Home He’s A Tourist in 1978 and I Love A Man In Uniform. Now I feel miffed at not making lots of money, but it gave you a sense of pleasure to know you had done something objectionable.

(OK so Jon’s justified his presence, now it’s Stewart’s turn:)

SH: I got into punk after seeing the Sex Pistols on Tony’s TV programme. I was 14 at the time and switched on to see Mott The Hoople. It had a terrible effect on me.
Now if we take genre theory from Marxist theory and apply it to punk… (A dry art-historyish lecture follows… the only slightly interesting bit is a theory that…)
SH: …Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid were in King Mob in the early 70s… King Mob were part of the anarchist freak scene in Notting Hill. King Mob did contain people who had been in the British section of the Situationists but who were expelled because of their links with the Motherfuckers. If you read issues 21/2 and 3 of King Mob you see that there are eulogies to the Motherfuckers. They based themselves on the Motherfuckers; for instance going into Selfridges dressed as Santa Claus and giving out toys to kids, then being arrested by the police. The Motherfuckers had already done this in New York.
MES: Who are these Motherfuckers?
SH: You should read my books Cranked Up Really High and a new selection of my essays which are now on sale in this hall. Plug Plug Plug. The Motherfuckers demonstrated against art exhibitions. They would advertise that there was free booze and then loads of tramps would turn up at art exhibitions.
MES: Are there any other bands you like?
SH: I like Panasonic, if you’re into Finnish techno.

Round 3

AHW: If you look at the intersections between British pop and Situationism you see that we (We as in who?) are responsible for the references to and popularisation of Situationist ideas. Malcolm and Jamie wanted to do something interventionalist and failed. Because the Sex Pistols turned out to be a fabulous band whatever fucking genre they are in. I think the only truly Situationist act in British pop music was Malcolm’s ex-partner Fred and Judy Vermorel’s beautiful glossy book on Kate Bush which can still be found in Virgin shops.
MES: Are you serious Tony?
AHW: I’m more serious than you’ve ever seen me Mark!
SH: You have to buy my books.
MES: I think that shows how little we understand what we’re talking about.
SH: No they took all their ideas from me.
(Stewart is even more of a big-head than Tony or Mark! How novel!)
You see this is all to do with historicisation. The Situationists needed a stalking horse in popular culture and punk provided it even if they would denounce punk. Punk gave them an entree into the mainstream media.
MES: So basically you are taking the piss out of the working class.
SH: No I’m taking the piss out of the bourgeousie
MES: You’ll end up like bloody KLF
SH: KLF are attacking the art establishment
AHW: I think KLF wanted to be artists. I’m not sure about burning the million pounds…
MES: That was easy. You just use a photocopier.
AHW: But I liked what they did on an icy field off the M4. Blackmailing that woman from The Tate to come out. And the Channel 4 Team running around like scalded chickens trying to get rid of the advert.
MES: If you piss around like that you dilute art
AHW: Yes you dilute it till it washes away
MES: But then you become like a Chinese, Russian or Soviet
SH: How do we define art?
(Give me strength!)

Round 4

AHW: The rock scene has played a big role in popularising these ideas. Whatever you think of him Greil Marcus’s writings have kept interest alive. And all that comes from Factory records enclosing the horseman sticker in a record we sent him. Greil stuck it on his cassette player for 3 years until he wondered where the fuck it came from.
MES: There you go talking about the past.
AHW: But that leads to the present, to KLF
MES: We’re talking about the bleeding past. Art is timeless it never stops. You’ve got to carry on.
JK: I agree. What matters is that people should do things.
(Sounds funny but so true.)
MES: There are alot of people who go on about the old days. It’s a kind of middle aged crisis. I find this objectionable.
JK: Yeah, teddy boys and zoot suits. (What?)
MES: I always thought being a Situationist meant the now
SH: The Situationists dissolved themselves in 1973 or 72. They’re not going anymore.
MES: Good

Round 5

AHW: This is a museum, Mark. I’m thinking about the most shocking band of recent times, who played on this stage, the Happy Mondays. Were they anarchist interventionists Mark? I’ve always wanted to ask you: Why did you try to stop me putting out their records? You left a message on my answerphone in 1990 saying “Tony this has got to stop”. I’ve always wanted to know what time of the morning it was, and what you meant.
MES: It was probably 5 o’clock. I wanted the video back of my play. You were plagiarising me.
AHW: Did you think we were corrupting society?
(Surely Mark wouldn’t have minded?)
MES: I objected to upper middle class kids pretending to come from Salford.
AHW: The Happy Mondays were lower working class.
(Apparently Bez is the son of a Police Detective Inspector… don’t know much about the others.)
MES: Who cares?
AHW: It was you who brought it up you dick
(This is where everybody turns on Mark. Tony just gave the others permission.)
JK: Why are you here Mark?
MES: I was a last minute addition. I thought we were going to talk about French writers.
AHW: It could be because you, as a typical British rock star, embody these undercurrents. You do what the fuck you like, and you’re objectionable.
MES: Maybe Tony you wanted to be a pop star?
AHW: Never I’m musically incapable. I’m a journalist.
MES: And I just like to write.
SH: So you want to be a writer?
MES: Have you met any writers?
SH: I am a writer. I’ve published 4 novels, on sale at £5.95 over there…
AHW: Mark, do you ‘drift’?
MES: What do you mean?
AHW: Do the streets coax you down?
MES: Mind your own business!

(The “debate” moves to the floor. A question is asked by Professor David Bellos)

DB: Can you explain to me why you called this place the Hacienda, and whether the spirit of Situationism lives on it?
AHW: I didn’t find the name. I would give to all my employees this little green book Leaving The Twentieth Century. One day my partner Rob Gretton was wondering ‘what the fuck are we going to call this place?’ He opened the book at Chtcheglov’s essay and saw the phrase ‘The hacienda must be built.’

DB: That is an anecdote about how you found the name but does it have any meaning?
AHW: No, not at all. We were looking for a name for the bar over there. We were attracted by the anarchist idea of a pantheon of heroes.
The Angry Brigades considered Philby and Burgess to be great class traitors, comedians of the twentieth century.
MES: You find that funny? Two of my school friends were killed by them.
AWH: Tough!
(I wish he’d asked “Why, what happened Mark?”)
MES: What, Blunt hanging around with the Queen? Is that Situationist?
AHW: At Cambridge the Angry Brigades had the Kim Philby luncheon club.
(That sounds quite lame.)
MES: They were pissheads, traitors.
(Pissheads Mark?)
AHW: Exactly we called our can bar ‘Hicks’ after Burgess’s code name.
MES: Blunt was showing the queen paintings while my mates were being tortured to death.
AHW: That’s class war.
MES: Class war? Looks like the upper class fighting the working class.
JK: We should remember that a lot of bands took Situationist ideas seriously, and forwent commercial success. Raul Vaneigem’s book changed a lot my way of seeing things: stealing slogans through detournement, disrupting cliches.
AHW: Although there was nothing in the books to guide us, I wonder how much Factory records was influenced by this world of thought?

(Well you should know, Tony.)

AHW: We were the only record company which did not own the music. Because of the contracts we signed in blood in 1979 we had no control over our back catalogue, which meant that when Factory ran into trouble four years ago, we had no assets. I wonder if this circle of thought led us to do something so stupid… and hysterical?

SH: If we look at things historically (or hysterically?) we see that those who made revolutions were all in their forties or fifties. Our society is trying to get the rebellion out of the young before they can do any real damage.
JK: According to a Situationist text ‘Misery of Student Life’ the young have no economic value, no stake in the system. They can therefore be dangerous.
AHW: But kids today have loads of money. They are a big economic force. And they refuse to be browbeaten into being selfish. (Really?)
I think it’s very strange living in the nineties, after the end of history and the left, to look back at the sixties and seventies. Then we were going round with Marxist and Anarchist slogans unaware that they were bizarrely opposed.

(I didn’t know that they didn’t know… isn’t that a bit basic?)

AHW: It was one of the tragedies of modern politics. When Bakunin was expelled from the International, the link was broken between community and individualism. From then on the Left was fucked. It’s why the Wall came down. Because we’re all individuals.
MES: No, it’s because they ran out of money.
SH: I think you’ll find the Bakuninist ideas of organisation were not abandoned. The Communist International was the realisation of Bakunin’s idea of a centralised secret society. Leninism, I would contend, was the realisation of Bakuninism.
AHW: Bollocks!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I’ve asked a few people over the years what the significance of the name of the Gay Traitor Cocktail Bar was, but all anybody could come up with was that it was ‘something to do with Cambridge’. But here it is:

“We were attracted by the anarchist idea of a pantheon of heroes*. The Angry Brigades considered Philby and Burgess to be great class traitors, comedians of the twentieth century… …At Cambridge the Angry Brigades had the Kim Philby luncheon club… …we called our can bar ‘Hicks’ after Burgess’s code name.”

He says ‘we’ but surely these ideas must have come from Tony. Clearly he was deeply impressed by a subversive element which he encountered (or hoped to encounter) at Cambridge, and sought to emulate thereafter. His infatuation with Situationism seems to date back to this time, although the impression given by his cryptic anecdotes is that he wasn’t deeply involved. Oddly, this formative period is glossed over in David Nolan’s biography “You’re Entitled To An Opinion…”. I wonder why?

It seems that Tony wanted to be recognised as part of the Legacy of Situationist Revolt. He wanted to be considered part of that ‘anti-establishment establishment’ which he admired.

His devotion to Malcolm McLaren is striking.

But he seems to lack intellectual rigour. For instance, Tony seems to feel that Mark is a Situationist, but he hasn’t carefully analysed ‘why?’ and isn’t able to argue the point effectively.

Also there’s his airhead comments: ‘I just like the slogans'; ‘we were going round with Marxist and Anarchist slogans unaware that they were bizarrely opposed'; ‘I wonder how much Factory records was influenced by this world of thought?’ and ‘I wonder if this circle of thought led us to do something so stupid… and hysterical.’ This display of loveyish airheadedness is surprising… it’s also disarming and weirdly endearing. Maybe it was an act?

I find it baffling that Tony appears to have been infatuated for years by a set of philosophical and political ideas and yet his account of them is so superficial and incoherent.

The irony of the discussion as a whole is that Mark disrupts and challenges assumptions throughout, in the manner of Situationism, while claiming to have no time for it. Meanwhile the other three, who all seem to be fans of Situationism (or at least experts on it), are irritated by Mark’s (entirely predictable) performance. It’s so neat it seems like it must have been a set-up, but apparently not one that Tony was in on, because his comments betray genuine frustration.

Mark seems to believe that the other three are a bunch of old phonies and goes about demonstrating this by tripping them up at every opportunity. He has a beef with academia, and the media, with “their bloody degrees”… presumably because academics and media people have such an unfair advantage when it comes to setting agendas and getting their voices heard.

It seems to me that Mark objects to the patronising and manipulative aspects of Situationist International… the extent to which ordinary people are always seen as pawns by the big thinkers.

So while Tony seems keen to identify with a subversive intellectual elite, Mark seems to view all elite groups as equally dodgy and wants to identify with the man in the street.

Postscript regarding The Gay Traitor:

Anthony Blunt’s name was much in the news during the years before the Hacienda opened, due to his public exposure as a spy by Margaret Thatcher in November 1979.

I remember thinking The Gay Traitor was a very witty name for the cocktail bar at The Hacienda, without really knowing why… I suppose it sounded subversive and somehow urbane and well-informed.

Blunt’s name is coming up again now with reference to another establishment scandal – not spying this time, but sexual exploitation of children. Whenever he is mentioned, the face which appears in my head is the one I saw so often on the wall of the Hacienda; it’s an uneasy set of associations, which are echoed in a scene from Carol Morley’s film The Alcohol Years filmed in the derelict bar. I must re-watch that film.

*Pantheon Of Heroes
“Anarchists hoped that their rites and symbols would encourage rebellion among Buenos Aires workers and awaken feelings of belonging to an exploited class. They wanted workers to embrace an identity formed around proletarian not capitalist values. Their symbolic, ritualistic arsenal was broad, including more than just the red flag and May Day commemorations: there was also a large and heterogeneous gallery of anarchist and anarchist-related heroes, a pantheon of revolutionary martyrs, funeral rites, almanacs replacing the calendar of Catholic saints’ days with events of note for revolutionaries, hymns and songs…”
Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires, 1890-1910, p205

← Previous post

Next post →

1 Comment

  1. scherben

    In a nutshell: A bunch of boring narcissists talk to themselves whilst nobody listens.

Leave a Reply

Confirm that you are not a bot - select a man with raised hand: