When pop princess provocateur Lady Gaga strutted onstage at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards clad in a dress made of meat, it caused a calculated outrage in an industry presumed to be unshockable. Not since Madonna and Britney Spears swapped saliva onstage has a latter-day diva set out to shock in a live arena with such a statement, feminist or otherwise.
As was reported widely at the time, in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres after the show, Gaga explained that she had come to the ceremony with four former servicemen and women, who had been forced to leave the military because they were gay and unwilling to hide the fact, as the US Army’s unspoken code dictates. “If we don’t stand up for what we believe in,” Gaga emoted, “if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as many rights as the meat on our bones.” Adding an ambiguous flourish to her argument, she picked up a copy of Japanese Vogue and pointed at the cover. “I am not a piece of meat,” she said conclusively.
Here, then, was an all too perfect example of performance art iconography being co-opted by the mainstream and putting it back into the frame that its inspiration so radically burst out of to define something that was too messy to be formal theatre and too unruly to be restrained within the gilt-edged shackles of historical tradition.
Except, rather than this flesh and blood outfit being some empress’s new clothes culled from an increasingly bare wardrobe, the faux outrage caused by the artist formerly known as Stefani Germanotta was all so much old hat. Rewind to the 1930s, and fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who fell under the influence of Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau, was making a bespoke hat made of lamb cutlets. Flash forward to 1964, and Carolee Schneeman was creating Meat Joy, in which eight partially nude figures rolled around a floor awash with wet paint, sausage, raw fish, scraps of paper, and raw chickens in a typically sixties version of a freeform Dionysian rite.
The most striking comparison with Lady Gaga’s butchering of the past, however, is with what was ostensibly a rock gig that took place in Manchester’s Hacienda club on November 5th 1982. Ludus was the band fronted by Linder, whose early feminist collages had graced the record sleeves of contemporaries such as Buzzcocks and Magazine. Ludus – the word comes from the Latin for play – was the physical manifestation of Linder’s practice, a Pandora’s Box of cocktail jazz guitar stylings, primal screams and blood and lipstick lyrical fragments that took a hard line on sexual politics seemingly at odds with the musical backdrop’s deceptively soft centre.
By the time of Breaking The Rules, a pan sexual orgy of cross-gender, multiple-partnered earthly delights in just under three minutes and released on the conceptual Sordide Sentimentale label with an accompanying booklet of images and an essay by Throbbing Gristle adventurer in outrage and former member of the ICA banned performance art provocateurs COUM Transmissions, Genesis P Orridge, Ludus, now fleshed out to a seven-piece, sounded almost commercial. It should be noted too that Throbbing Gristle were named after northern English slang for an erect penis.
Live appearances by Ludus were becoming increasingly rare, however, although he Hacienda outing would become the stuff of legend. While Factory Records had founded the Hacienda on Situationist ideals with the aim of creating a glossy fun palace for Manchester youth, it was still commonplace to show pornography on the still half empty club’s video screens. Taking umbrage with this mix of unreconstructed machismo and post-modern fetishism, Linder and her cohorts Cath Miles and Liz Naylor, then the gobby enfant terribles behind Manchester scene gossip sheet zine City Fun and their own band The Glass Animals, devised the ultimate cunning stunt to accompany what would be one of Ludus’s final and most provocative shows.
As was documented in Shadowplayers, James Nice's exhaustive history of Factory Records, prior to the gig, on each table in the club was placed paper party plates littered with stubbed-out cigarettes and what appeared to be a used blood-red tampon. By all accounts, cocky Factory frontman, mouthpiece and TV talking head Tony Wilson became uncharacteristically explosive and had the objets d’art removed. As he was about to discover, however, he and the other Factory boys had seen nothing yet.
For the event, guitarist Ian Devine sported gender-bending stiletto high-heel shoes to accompany his baggy suit. This was nothing, however, to Linder’s show-stealing grand entrance. Bedecked in an extravagant dress made of leftover chicken entrails acquired from a Chinese restaurant and sewn onto black netting, Linder and the band singularly and determinedly went through their set as the bloodied juices of what was part couture, part haute cuisine, dripped under the stage lights and onto the club floor. Both audience and misogynist club management may have been shocked, but the piece de resistance was yet to come.
The year before, squeaky-clean boy/girl vocal quartet Buck’s Fizz had won the Eurovision Song Contest for Great Britain via the anodyne chirpiness of Making Your Mind Up. With its own, somewhat conformistly retrograde take on sexual politics, the song climaxed with the fresh-faced females in the band synchronising ripping off their primary-coloured over-the-knee skirts to reveal same-coloured micro-minis beneath. Linder took things several stages further when, during the band’s final song, the perfectly named Too Hot To Handle, parted the curtains of netting and dripping chicken, revealing herself to be wearing a large strap-on black dildo. From Linder’s eye-view, the audience visibly took a horrified leap backwards as the fourth wall framework of the Hacienda stage was penetrated while they gagged.
Significantly, the Hacienda was the venue where a still unknown Madonna would make her low-key UK TV debut in 1984 in a special edition of The Tube, Channel 4's Friday tea-time music show broadcast live from the club. Still to find its feet and stuck in its own frame of a proscenium arch stage, it was a long way off the Madchester years, when the spectacle happened, not onstage in that self same frame, but on a now democratised dancefloor where all notions of any distance between performer and audience were now blurred into a mess of gyrating bodies that suggested Meat Joy reborn in day-glo colours and school-of-hard-knocks Manc swagger. Only the irresistible rise of the superstar DJ would make clubbing an us and them experience once more.
A precursor to Ludus’ Hacienda appearance occurred the year before at the other end of the M6 in Liverpool. Plato’s Ballroom was a monthly night that took place in a faux Dickensian chicken-in-a-basket dive called Mr Pickwicks. Mr Pickwicks had what was then the biggest dancefloor in town, and, in its heyday, was the sort of place you could imagine cabaret turns who weren’t good enough to be Petula Clark belting out Clark’s Tony Hatch penned smash hit, Downtown.
By January 1981 when Plato’s announced its arrival via series of large size screen-printed posters, Mr Pickwicks was a favourite for weekend grab-a-granny meat markets, and Wednesday nights were dead and available for hire. The posters were classicist in style, very Peter Saville, and totally different from the scrappy handbills of other venues. Headliners were New Order, then still finding their feet for what was their eighth gig with the new name following the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in May the previous year. Support acts were Blackpool-based Factory runts Section 25 and the tantalisingly named Send No Flowers.
Even more intriguing on the posters were the promising headlines of ‘ART’, ‘PERFORMANCE’ and something called a ‘videoteque.’ On the night, the place was packed with local scenesters who watched the bands play to backdrops of Surrealist films of the likes of Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or’ or else reel after reel of homo-erotic Kenneth Anger shorts. A poet read, while, opening the show on the semi-circular wooden sprung dancefloor more used to the wandering hands of the last chance couplings that lurched together late night, holding onto each other for comfort or desperation in-between the pawing after the cabaret turns had done their bit, was a piece of performance art.
At the centre of the semi-circular dancefloor, a coffin-size wooden box was revealed. As a recording of a voice repeated the words, ‘Man…Box…Box…Man…’, the box began to move as whatever was inside it attempted a break for freedom, like some showbiz escapologist had been buried alive. As the recorded voice continued, ‘Box…Man…Man…Box…’ the box in question began to rock and shake with the exertion, until, inch by inch, the lid began to give and vampire-like fingers appeared, followed by a hand, then a second. The man that emerged from the box had broken his own frame, able to walk away from the mess he’d made, free at last
The idea of Plato’s Ballroom was to take art out of the galleries that framed, contained and restrained it, and to put bands in more interesting environment than the bog-standard black box pub toilet circuit that prevailed. The nights were organised by the Situationalist (sic) Youth Collective, most vocal of whom was Nathan McGough. A few years later back at the other end of the M6, McGough would go on to manage Happy Mondays, the band most instrumental in breaking the Hacienda’s frame and democratising the dancefloor, just as the band’s later exploits would descend into a very public and even more chaotic spectacle of crashed hire cars, stolen master tapes, stints in re-hab, and, eventually for previously self-destructive mainstays singer Shaun Ryder and pop-eyed dancer Bez, a very twenty-first century kind of fame as they went back in the box via I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and Celebrity Big Brother respectively.
In this respect, Plato’s Ballroom looked both to the Dadaists original Cabaret Voltaire nightclub in Zurich and to Andy Warhol’s other Factory, as well as the art cabaret of former Doctors of Madness frontman Richard Strange’s nouveau happenings at his London club, Cabaret Futura, and other contemporary events attempting to blur the boundaries between form, content and execution.
In the eight months Plato’s Ballroom existed, headline acts included the crème de la crème of the post-punk avant-garde. A Certain Ratio played twice at their most exploratory percussive best, Cabaret Voltaire the band, who were one of the first acts of their era to utilize visual material into their sets, played when still a trio, and a post Public Image Limited Jah Wobble played with his new, still un-named instrumental band. Throbbing Gristle were supposed to play, but terminated their mission before they could take the trip. On a bill headlined by a solo Vini Reilly as the Durutti Column, first support was Ludus, then a trio, just as provocative, but, without a dildo or a chicken carcass in sight, Linder and co had yet to poke through the invisible wall as she would a year later.
Elsewhere on the Plato’s Ballroom bills, however, beyond pure music things were happening. Another piece of performance art involved another man taking the stage on Mr Pickwick’s wooden dancefloor with a piece involving him undressing on a folded out sheet, dipping his head in a bucket-full of coloured paint and other sticky substances before getting dressed in a brand new set of clothes. A Wild West show stepped straight out of the circus with a cowboy and Indian knife-throwing routine. Black dance troupe the Jazz Defektors threw shapes dressed in austerity-chic tank tops that a couple of years later would give way to B-Boy street gear. Plato’s Ballroom, it seems, was a place where top light entertainment really could be seen as art and vice versa.
One of the final bands to play, The Royal Family and the Poor, even released a single called Art on 45, after Stars on 45, the then lucrative series of pop singles made up of show-band medleys of other hits and served up in bite-size chunks of disco pap. In its own way, the Stars on 45 series was as much about sampling and collage as the Grandmaster Flash’s Adventures in the Wheels of Steel twelve inch imports that were played at Plato’s alongside The Pop Group’s incendiary Nietzsche referencing single, Beyond Good and Evil and the angular punk-funk yelp of Manicured Noise’s Faith.
Fast forward to the 2010 edition of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, and in the cavernous, womb-like expanse of The Arches venue, Linder is both overseeing and performing in a large scale work called The Darktown Cakewalk – Celebrated From the House of FAME. Inspired by the grand spectacle appropriated from negro servants by their white masters, The Darktown Cakewalk was a thirteen hour semi-improvised promenade performance epic that in part looked at the nature of pop stardom, as it charted the rise and fall of a gold lame jacketed icon tempted into the dark side and away from his dancing Muse. Also incorporated into the piece were assorted celebrations of assorted dance routines, including jumping jive and northern soul, which became little performances in themselves as the action was played out in and among them.
Again, as with rave and Madchester, this was the dancefloor being democratised in a way that put the ‘audience’ centre-stage as they acted out little rituals in a sprawling flesh and blood collage of sound and vision that culminated in as civic style parade where fashion week catwalk met radical thought.
Linder had done something similar in 2001 with The Working Class Goes To Paradise, in which Shaker rituals were re-enacted as three indie-rock bands played simultaneously as Linder donned the spaghetti western guise of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. As was apparent when the piece was restaged at Tate Britain in London in 2006, rather than be squeezed into rows of seats, the audience were all but spilling into the action, while the performers wove their way among them. A black box framework this wasn’t.
Linder isn’t alone in taking performance art into a musical arena which is arguably its natural home rather than studio theatre spaces. Alison Goldfrapp’s penchant for dressing-up-box spectacle is as apparent as the sources of her and musical partner in Goldfrapp Will Gregory’s pick and mix musical collages. For the elaborate stage shows that accompanied their third album, the tripped-out waftiness of The Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp fused ancient Pagan rites with pole dancing just as their music plundered and fused Krautrock, electro-disco-kitsch and psychedelic acoustic whimsy. Even Alison Goldfrapp’s outfit could have been anything from a Sunday best choir-girl smock to a straitjacket or a shroud.
PJ Harvey too is a mistress of reinvention. From her austere blues-based beginnings, Harvey has moved with a similarly willfulness as Linder, and by the time of her 2009 collaboration with guitarist John Parrish, A Woman A Man Walked By, she was playing character roles more explicitly than ever. On the tour that accompanied the album, each song was like an acting masterclass, with Harvey adopting personas and different voices for each song, crawling about the stage or else leaping off it sprite-like to do a hippy shake among the audience in a way that was more joyful if as equally provocative as Linder putting the willies up the Hacienda crowd twenty-seven years earlier.
Which brings us full circle and right back to Lady G. Unlike all the other artists mentioned here, for all her faux bad-gal attitude and showbiz chutzpah, there’s something strangely plastic about her. She may have adorned herself with the trappings of avant-schlock, but in terms of umbilical links is in fact no more outré than Barbara Streisand. By trying too hard to impress, Lady Gaga is tucking herself into a box marked ‘untouchable’ in some imaginary VIP room of her own construction. And who’d want access all areas to a bad romance like that?
Line magazine issue 4, winter 2011