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Test Dept – Still Raging Against the Machine

When iconoclastic 'metal-bashing' auteurs Test Dept reconvened in 2014 to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the UK-wide Miners Strike as part of the Newcastle upon Tyne based AV Festival of art, film and experimental sound and music, it was an emotional experience. Rather than play live to reclaim the band's provocative fusion of martial percussion and constructivist inspired stage shows that recycled the scrap metal ruins of industrial Britain into an impassioned and visceral form of oppositional spectacle throughout the Thatcher years, Test Dept chose to take audiences on a boat trip and give them a film show.

DS30 was a thirty-minute collage of archive footage pulled together by Test Dept's Brett Turnbull that charts the history of the mining industry and the communities that worked in it, through to the bitter unrest during the strike and Test Dept's own presence throughout it on their 1984 Fuel To Fight tour. With the sturm und drang of Test Dept's own soundtrack intact, musical input came too from moving footage of the South Wales Striking Miners' Choir, with who Test Dept collaborated with on the record, Shoulder to Shoulder, in 1984.

The film was screened along and about the route of the Dunston Staiths, the monumental wooden structure built along the River Tyne by North Eastern Railway Company in 1893 to transport coal from the Durham coalfields and loaded onto ships waiting on the river which would transport their cargo across Britain and the world. All of which, set against the backdrop of what is believed to be the largest wooden structure in the world, made for something far more than a mere pleasure cruise.

“People were crying,” says Angus Farquhar, who co-founded Test Dept in South London in 1981. “There were lots of people there from different generations, from miners' families, some of whom had grown up with and lived through the strike, and others who weren't even born then. It made for a very emotional experience.”

The event was in part inspired by avant-garde twentieth century Russian composer Arseny Avraamov, whose 1922 work, Symphony of Factory Sirens, utilised navy ship sirens and the entire Soviet flotilla in the Caspian Sea to create a piece that also included renditions of the Internationale and Marseillaise performed by a massed band and choir.

A year on from the AV Festival, DS30 arrives in Glasgow on a tour of cinema-based screenings presented by the AV Festival that follows a cross-country path through some of Britain's former centres of industry, finishing up at Durham Miners' Gala in July. That event will no doubt foster some kind of taking stock regarding the Independent Police Complaints Commission's recent decision to reject calls to investigate the conduct of South Yorkshire Police – the same force, incidentally, responsible for policing the Hillsborough football ground in 1989 where ninety-six people died – during confrontations with miners throughout the strike, particularly during the Battle of Orgreave.

In this way, DS30 is both a vital document of its times and a call to arms to re-engage working class people with a struggle presumed to have been written off by New Labour managerialists in whatever guise they take.

“We've hooked up with the Justice For Orgreave campaign,” Farquhar explains, “and with what's going on regarding the Orgreave investigation now, it feels like things have come right round again. In England we need to rediscover activism. The Left needs to find itself. That's how you rediscover consensus rather than just mourning the death of the Labour Party. Masses of people who weren't even born at that time are hungry for change.”

The tour, led by Farquhar alongside fellow Test Dept members Graham Cunnington and Paul Janrozy, also marks the launch of Total State Machine, an epic 350 page book containing a blow by blow pictorial and text-based archive of Test Department alongside a series of new essays and reflections. These come from members of the group as well as peers including Cabaret Voltaire vocalist Stephen Mallinder, Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner, Ivan Novak of Laibach and former Kent miner Alan Sutcliffe among others.

“It's quite a personal thing,” says Farquhar. “It's a full-on engagement with the past, and it's taken three years to edit the book. Going back to what you were doing in your twenties is something you don't do that often, so it's been quite a powerful experience.

“I've talked a lot with Graham and Paul about this. At the time we were doing Test Department, and when the Miners' Strike was gong on, people could see that things were wrong. They could see the police brutality, and that courts were being set up to criminalise people, but there was no social media then. The only thing we had was television and mainstream newspapers, and we felt like we were helping to create this real centre of resistance. By taking footage off the TV and footage that was given to us, we could put on a soundtrack and share the real intensity of the struggle.”

The history of Test Department is one which chimed with the times they were forged in, even as they continually and determinedly stood in opposition to the status quo.

“That first year, in 1981, we were in this tiny basement with no electricity,” Farquhar recalls, “and we'd play for five or six hours a day. It was almost Dickensian. There was a rag and bone man who'd bring us prime pieces of metal which he'd sell to us.

“At that time South London was in the midst of this major transition, so many factories were closing, and we'd spend hours in junk-yards, trying to figure out how we'd play all these pieces of metal. Then gradually, from being ramshackle, we became really disciplined, and these five scrawny kids, each with our own baggage, had suddenly found something that was ours, and through which we could say something.

“We ended up making political art that was about more than singing protest songs. I think Billy Bragg's brilliant and I think Paul Weller did some great songs at the time, but they were very commercial. Punk had been rendered meaningless, so what we were doing was completely rejecting that whole lineage of rock n'roll. The instruments we were using were a military bugle, bagpipes and a cello, so there was this neoclassical thing going on, with early sampling from Shostakovitch, taking snippets from my Scottish background and from Paul's Polish background in this insanely utopian fashion.”

Farquhar admits, however, that Test Dept “never quite knew who we were onstage. Were we these propagandist, drone-like figures, making these incredibly ironic, mock-heroic gestures, or were we just these young people who'd found this thing. It was totally instinctive. We didn't make any intellectual claims for what we were doing, and we only really came of age during the Miners' Strike.”

The first Miners' Strike benefit show Test Dept did was at the Albany Empire in Deptford, when any qualms they might have had at how a bunch of hardened grafters might regard a bunch of shaven-headed youths striking faux-heroic poses while hammering with abandon at fire and steel were instantly dispelled by some members of the audience.
“There were these two women who were probably in their seventies,” Farquhar remembers, “and while we were playing they practically had their heads in the speakers. We asked them if they were alright, and they said it was fantastic, because they were tone deaf and it was the first time they'd heard anything for years.”
While Test Dept concerts themselves became spectacles which eventually tapped into a burgeoning underground club culture, alliances were being forged beyond the Miners' Strike that saw the band – if that's what they were – move into more formally theatrical terrain. Gododdin was a collaboration with Welsh theatre company, Brith Gof, that reinvented ancient legends in an epic water-soaked staging at Glasgow's Tramway venue.

The Second Coming saw Farquhar and co take over the St Rollox Locomotive Works in Glasgow as part of Glasgow's City of Culture year in 1990. With some fifty performers navigating an array of industrial detritus in a space the size of two and a half football pitches, the show was a bold comment on how Thatcher and her her progeny were intent on turning Britain into an industrial theme-park. The industrial so-called urban regeneration which has followed is testament to The Second Coming's dramatic foresight, which can be seen in Brett Turnbull's film of the event, which will screened alongside other Test Dept films at the DS30 event, including archive footage of the Fuel to Fight tour.

“Thatcher and that government had this idea that you could take a rubber and wipe out these places and these communities and replace them with enterprise zones,” Farquhar observes with disdain. “When you drive into Glasgow now all you see is these horrible regenerated business centres. You don't just erase your history. When you erase that history, you wipe out all the authenticity of the things around it and you replace it with something false.”

In spirit, DS30, The Second Coming and the other Test Dept films are akin to The Last of England, Derek Jarman's equally fractured quasi-documentary 1987 state of the nation impressionistic portrait of broken Britain. In terms of explorations of working class communities, the work of Jeremy Deller too is some kind of kindred. This is particularly the case with Acid Brass, in which the Stockport-based Williams Fairey Brass band played arrangements of classic Acid House and Techno anthems. Such a disparate affinity can be heard too with the goose-bump-inducing beauty of the Miners' Choir counterpointed by the assault-course clatter of Test Dept in DS30.

It's probably no coincidence either that Deller created a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, in which survivors from the Miners' Strike from all sides worked with re-enactment groups to commemorate one of the Strike's most combative moments in an event filmed by Mike Figgis.

“We knew Derek Jarman,” says Farquhar, “and one of the reasons I returned to Scotland was because he said to never be scared to take a risk. There was a sense then of making alternative networks, so all these things are part of that and are connected. Like Derek Jarman and like Jeremy Deller, we were trying to do powerful things that were opposed to the prevailing orthodoxies, and we were trying to work collectively in a way that has informed me to this day.”

In the final years of Test Dept, Farquhar reconvened the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh, a Pagan spectacle which pitched drummers, body-painted dancers and an ecstatic May Queen between the pillars on Calton Hill. While Beltane continues to this day without Test Dept involvement, its inception acted as a bridge of sorts to Farquhar's next venture with his NVA Organisation. Set up in 1995, NVA (Nacionale Vitae Activa, a Latin term meaning 'the right to influence public affairs')has moved the spectacle out of the factory and into a largely outdoors-based environment with a series of equally grand gestures which Test Dept laid the groundwork for.

In Stormy Waters, the cranes on the River Clyde danced. The Secret Sign took audiences on a gorge walk along the Devil's Pulpit in Finnich Glen in Drymen near Loch Lomond. Speed of Light fused public art with sport and performance as runners wearing light suits activated intricate pathways around Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh. And, in perhaps the most iconic reimagining of a landscape, NVA are currently engaged in a long-term rebuilding of St Peter's seminary, the long abandoned masterpiece of modernist architecture situated in the woodlands of Cardross in Argyll and Bute.

In the meantime, Farquhar and co's revisitation of Test Dept, through both DS30 and Total State Machine, is telling. As well as the Orgreave decision, Police Scotland's local authority backed closure of Glasgow multiple arts space The Arches similarly suggests that, in terms of its ill-informed fear-mongering regarding underground activity, the state's attitude to club culture has come regressively full circle. These pages have already observed that such an action marks the dawn of a new culture war, which, in the spirit of Test Dept, must be resisted at all costs.

“That's the power of coming together and finding common cause,” Farquhar affirms. “The last time we saw that was with the demonstrations against the Iraq war, when people from all different backgrounds came together and were roundly ignored. That was the day the Labour Party died. But there are good things happening in Scotland right now, where the government aren't ignoring things as much, although the lines were drawn when the police were very surreptitiously armed. Things like that have to be changed, and activism can do that, but you have to be careful not to romanticise that as well.”

The destruction of the mines that led to the 1984/85 strike may have been ideologically calculated, but DS30 is both a grim and heroic reminder of a time before working class communities were ripped apart and disassembled by an ideology that still prevails in the recently elected Westminster government.

“Looking back at that time like this, it's good to remember where you came from and how you can work collectively with a common voice,” says Farquhar. “The history of the 1980s as told on TV and elsewhere is all about Top of the Pops 2 and Duran Duran and horrible things like that, but Total State Machine is really a history, or part of a history, of an independent subculture, and I think the book will stand as a record of a history that's never been told publicly before.”

Test Dept: DS30 Tour, Friday June 19th. DS30 Screening and Q&A, GFT, Glasgow, 6-7.30pm; Total State Machine launch, Aye Aye Books, CCA, Glasgow, 8.30-10pm; Test Dept DJs and JD Twitch (Optimo), Saramango Cafe, CCA, 10pm-late.Total State Machine is published by PC Press.

Bella Caledonia, June 2015



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