Glenn Branca and the Lost History of Cyberpunk

Glenn Branca

I first connected to the Internet in 1998. There was nothing hip about it, no mirrorshades, no chilled Kirin, no hacker’s cant, no rude-boy antagonism against the frozen walls of malefic corporations, but merely weeks of frustration waiting for a freelance Dell engineer wearing greasy blue overalls to inform me that my machine had been shipped from the factory with its modem already burnt out. In my apartment, the engineer held the device up to the light, a cloudy patina of carbon wrapped around it, as suspect as O.J. Simpson’s black glove; planned obsolescence making its end run. He unwrapped a new modem from a foil packet, checking it for scorch marks. With this hardware replaced, I returned to the inexorable negotiations of early dial-up and an uncomprehending telephone operator at British Telecom. My admittance to cyberspace required a dozen hours of listening to Vangelis loops as hold music, “Chung Kuo” with its anticipation of Blade Runner.

But, this was not the Tokyo-ized, Hammett-hacked sprawl of transnational prosthetics, nor the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll of William Gibson’s “consensual hallucination”. Of course it wasn’t. Gibson’s fiction of the early eighties, published in Omni, was the map that preceded the territory. Even in the 1930s, before his pulpy serial The World of Null-A, had made the transition from Astounding Stories magazine to hardcover, A. E. Van Vogt (quasi-Scientologist, and Alfred Korzybski acolyte) had declared “the map is not the territory.” In turn, postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard hacked that notion. In 1998, the actual aridity of the virtual territory was still remote from the glamor of the map drawn by science fiction writers. Yet, my early explorations of the Internet connected some things that continue to fascinate me. At the time, I was working as a bookseller and those wages and a new credit card purchased both the computer and an important visit to London twelve months earlier. What did the Internet have to say about music?

On Halloween 1997, I was in London watching New York composer Glenn Branca conducting the premiere of his “Symphony No. 12 (Tonal Sexus)” at The Barbican. Glenn Branca is the Moses, the Ahab and the Faust of the electric guitar. No other composer has so authentically unleashed the potentials of the instrument, the spectral and the deafening, the primal chord and the phantom harmonic. The concert – that also featured Wharton Tiers, Virgil Moorfield, and a fantastic array of No Wave and avant-garde guitar composers and musicians – was billed as Glenn Branca’s Guitar Swarm. It was a storm of noise in the desert of the real, with detuned guitars and loud amplifiers. Branca twisted and punched from his lectern, his body interrupted by violent ghosts of sound on a brutal sea.

It was immersive and spectacular, a chimera of the amplified gestures of the musicians and the virtual banshee tones howling off the architecture of the Barbican Hall. For those of us that did not flee the auditorium covering our ears, Branca’s music possessed us (and continues to possess) with structures, planes, and hyperspaces, compelling a weird consensual hallucination in the distortion. It was through Branca that I read Antonin Artaud. Artuad’s work had informed Branca’s mid-Seventies enterprise The Bastard Theater. As William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in Burning Chrome (1982), so “virtual reality” or la réalité virtuelle originated with the poet, dramatist, actor, drug addict and asylum inmate Artaud. It begins in “The Alchemical Theater”, from The Theater and Its Double in 1938, a collection of manifestos including The Theater of Cruelty. Artaud’s manifesto for the theatre, like Gibson’s map without territory, anticipates what we might recognize as our experience of the psychogeography of cyberspace:

So composed and constructed, the spectacle will be extended, by elimination of the stage, to the entire hall of the theater and will scale the walls from the ground up on light catwalks, and physically envelop the spectator and immerse him in a constant bath of light, images, movements, and noises. The set will consist of the characters themselves, enlarged to the stature of gigantic manikins, and of landscapes of moving lights playing on objects and masks in perpetual interchange. And just as there will be no unoccupied point in space, there will be neither respite nor vacancy in the spectator’s mind or sensibility. That is, between life and the theater there will be no distinct division, but instead a continuity. – The Theater of Cruelty, Second Manifesto, Antonin Artaud, 1938.

The Internet is a map without a territory, a theater of cruelty, and the penultimate manifestation of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. So, the most interesting thing to happen for me in cyberspace in the aftermath of seeing Glenn Branca in London was to discover that he was selling cyberpunk literature by mail order from his website: there was a used 1979 first edition of John Shirley’s Transmaniacon, followed by Bruce Sterling’s The Artificial Kid, and books by Vernor Vinge, Rudy Rucker, Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and the two major cyberpunk anthologies: Bruce Sterling’s Mirrorshades anthology and Larry McCaffery’s Storming the Reality Studio. The list went on, dozens of titles. Glenn Branca was also the originator of the short-lived annual Rominauld Tangin Award (from Sterling) for cyberpunk fiction. In 1998 this had been awarded to K.W. Jeter for his novel Noir.

The subcultures of home computing and punk arose almost simultaneously, and there’s a kind of oscillation between the avant-gardism of home computing and the No Wave scene of New York in the late 1970s/early 1980s and post-punk subcultures that flourished afterward. In the same manner that French existentialists identified Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)as one of their own, so it was with No Wave catalyst Branca’s unacknowledged championing of cyberpunk. Sometimes it is the reader who is more important than the writer. Branca the cyberpunk aficionado is, for example, the link between artist Robert Longo whose work from the Men In The Cities series Branca used on the cover of his album The Ascension (1981) and Longo’s movie Johnny Mnemonic (1995)based on Gibson’s short story of the same name (1981); thence to the convulsive ‘sharp suit/interrupted body’ lineage running through Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime video promo, and Max Headroom, to The Matrix where ‘bullet-time’ takes the Longo/Byrne/Frewer riff to its logical conclusion.

Branca’s music, particularly his compositions after Theoretical Girls and The Static allude to commodification and to virtuality, to simulacra and simulation, the backbone of cyberpunk. The shift from John Carpenter, Charles Manson, slasher pulp and Catholicism toward science fiction in the lyrics of Sonic Youth –the most successful of the bands that derive/dérive from Branca- via Philip K. Dick on 1987s Sister album to their frequent allusions to Gibson from “The Sprawl”(Daydream Nation, 1988) to “Pattern Recognition”(Sonic Nurse, 2004) and beyond, might be said to revolve around Branca’s literary influence, as much as his dissonant guitar work. And in the secret history of cyberpunk, we should note that when Sir Tim Berners-Lee uploaded the first photograph to the World Wide Web in 1992, it was the image of an all-girl new wave/punk band of CERN employees, ‘theoretical girls’ named Les Horribles Cernettes.

The punk component of the cyberpunk compound has always been a contentious element of a more contentious marketing label. Let’s face it: the ‘punk’ component of ‘Punk’ is contentious, but I’ll leave that aside for the present. William Gibson’s use of Richard Hell’s (and Lou Reed’s) guitar player Robert Quine as a reference in Burning Chrome, and in Neuromancer (1984) in particular stands out in a field of what tend to be pre-punk and psychedelic references. That great opening line of Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” is derived from The Doors’ My Eyes Have Seen You and “a city under television skies”(1967). Neuromancer is loaded with allusions to The Velvet Underground, and both the pre-punk (Bowie), the post-punk (Laurie Anderson), and, as a study in apocalyptic references, to Gram Parsons. Sonically, and in terms of narrative, Gibson’s Neuromancer is informed by Dub, a reggae subgenre. Yes, one can simply connect Dub to Punk to Cyberpunk via Don Letts at London’s The Roxy clubinfluencing The Clash, John Lydon and others, and it is a simple matter to suggest that Dub, with its process of copying and alteration to create a numinous replacement artifact is most definitely part of postmodern simulacra-making á la Baudrillard, possibly explaining its appeal to Gibson as a cultural reference. However, this would not be a case made by those who defined cyberpunk from the inside. Gibson’s musical references help make it clear why cyberpunk was, at least for him, an awkward, inadequate or plainly specious label. In contrast, Bruce Sterling threw on his mirrorshades and leather jacket and ran with it.

Larry McCaffery’s excellent anthology Storming The Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction (1991) alludes to a sonic lineage informing the literature. In fairness to McCaffery, the intersections of rock music with SF warrant a book of their own (my work here is similarly selective), but the brief cyberpunk discography presented is perhaps a missed opportunity to draw these intersections in more detail and to show their more systematic and deliberate application, making the anthology’s case for linking the literature to punk/post-punk musical subcultures stronger. Storming The Reality Studio borrows its title from the “Uranian Willy” chapter of William Burroughs’ 1964 cut-up novel Nova Express. The collection opens with three quotations from The Clash, Patti Smith and Jean Baudrillard, self-consciously aligning the kind of science fiction – a postmodern avant-garde – that McCaffery wants to present with punk rock, and with Baudrillard’s concept of “the desert of the real”, the blank space behind the simulation, simulacra, images, media, representations of the real that constitute experience in a mediated saturated culture. Common to this anthology, and to Bruce Sterling’s 1986 Mirrorshades anthologyis the recognition of the formative axis of Burroughs and J.G. Ballard in the developing literature. Yet, what passes for cyberpunk history appears ad hoc and faulty. For example, in terms of Ballard, since Storming The Reality Studio includes an excerpt from Crash (1973), it’s curious that McCaffery’s cyberpunk discography misses “Warm Leatherette” – a Crash redux – by The Normal released in 1978. It also misses the fact that Grace Jones (whose posthuman representation Ballard admired) had popularized “Warm Leatherette” as the title track of her album of 1980, reinforcing the links between post-punk electronica and certain strains of disco and the sensibilities of the more Storming the Reality Studioexperimental and frequently Ballardian/Burroughsian punk and No Wave scenes.In the same year, former Ultravox lead singer John Foxx included the eerily similar “Underpass” on his album Metamatic. Ballard’s novel Crash originates from a vignette in his experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). Joy Division lifted this as the opening song on their 1980 album Closer. As for Burroughs, at a minimum, why no mention of Punk’s reclamation of Iggy Pop, whose song Lust For Life riffs Burroughs’ junk-sick stripper Johnny Yen and the great “hypnotizing chickens” line. The lineage might mention the band Dead Fingers Talk (Burroughs) who recorded an album entitled Storm The Reality Studios with Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson in 1977. Bowie’s inclusion in the Storming The Reality Studio anthology is merited by the Ballardian “Always Crashing In The Same Car”, from his 1977 album Low. It might have included Gary Numan’s “Cars” (1979) and “Are ‘Friends’ Electric”, which mapped out Ballardian and Philip K. Dick territories. Even sometime Dadaist Alice Cooper was in on it, see 1980’s “Clones (We’re All)”. The ‘Music’ section of the bibliography is scant, unfortunately. In a postmodern confluence of man-machine, computers and car crashes, the omission of the man-machine matrix via Kraftwerk in the punk era is surprising. Neither is there listing for The Blue Oyster Cult. Patti Smith wrote lyrics for The Blue Oyster Cult while she was still a ‘conventional’ poet and music journalist before forming The Patti Smith Group. John Shirley would do the same. Produced by Blue Oyster Cult’s Alan Lanier with whom she was involved, Smith’s debut album Horses has both its explicit Wilhelm Reich science fiction moments in “Birdland” and its Blue Oyster Cult riffs in “Free Money”. Glenn Branca is a Patti Smith aficionado and might have made a similar case. Pat Cadigan, another crucial writer in Storming The Reality Studio, at least in the context presented, arguably references The Who, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones in a more forceful way than she does any punk/new wave act (Oingo Boingo and Bow-Wow-Wow). One can take all of this too far. Has anyone investigated the near-simultaneity between Bruce Sterling’s story Mozart In Mirrorshades (September 1985) and Austrian pop star Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” (June 1985/March 1986)? The term ‘cyberpunk’ was improvised to sound cool. Yet, the point here is that I think that if cyberpunk was as ‘punk’ as it was marketed to be, the case connecting the literature to deliberately literary punk rock, or to the post-punk music that draws inspiration from these postmodern science fiction texts could have been stronger. This is a case, however, that I feel that Glenn Branca has been making, in his own way, for a long time, both via his music, and by turning other stray punks and No Wave artists and fans on to the literature. There are continuities in art that are more visible from the street.  However unconsciously, that Halloween in 1997, from one sometime bookseller to another, Glenn Branca was my introduction to cyberspace.

James Reich is the author of BOMBSHELL: A NOVEL, and I, JUDAS: A NOVEL (Soft Skull Press) and a faculty member at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.


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