Apologies for all the scabrous language, teenage sexual attitudes, Nazis and whatnot. But this is the way it was.
What happens if you’ve decided that you no longer want to be human? To be rid of all that? What does the dehumanization process entail? Can (e.g.) one close down parts of the brain, discretely? Does the thought process exist in modular form? These were the questions, this was the journey that I decided to embark upon in 1981 – just how do you turn yourself into a machine?
This was going to be difficult. I was going to have to do it myself, internally. If P. K. Dick was correct (and I regarded Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a kind of self-help manual), I reasoned that the first task was to try to switch off all empathic response. First, I figured, I needed to lose all emotion. And feel no pain. (I was getting fuck all pleasure anyway). But the emotion thing – that’s tougher than it looks. Before the internet you couldn’t do desensitization through immediate external overload. You couldn’t, as now, switch on death and pornography and ultraviolence on demand. In any case, that wasn’t what I was looking for. Any fool can destroy himself. I wanted power, control, to find the on-off switch.
I practiced mental gymnastics. A death is occurring in front of your eyes. You could help, stop it if you wanted. Someone is torturing a small animal. A helpless child. A friend. Your mother. Feel nothing. Now feel something. See the flesh ripple and melt, the sound of screaming as the oxyacetylene torch burns the face. Switch it on. Switch it off.
Bear in mind that I was mad. And if I wasn’t at the start of the decoupling process, I was certainly heading that way by the end.
At the back of the Politics class at college I doodled and stared out of the window at some girls playing hockey. By protocol, this seat was mine – the furthest, corner position, where one could smirk and snigger and write lyrics. I had a friend called Ian, who also considered himself an outsider. And with good reason. Ian was a Nazi – a passionate admirer of Hitler, a holocaust denier, a member of The League of St George and (so he said with a voice of hushed awe) in contact with Combat 18, the UK fascist paramilitaries. Strange to write those words now, because they make Ian sound untouchable, whereas then, especially in our confused teenaged value system, extreme politics were du jour and I didn’t find them much odd. Everyone was a Commie or a Nazi. I was myself a confused determinist Marxist, and I didn’t get the racial thing at all. It seemed ugly and uncouth to me; animalistic, very anti-machine. But no one else liked me and in the sense that we hated everything in smug mid-Sussex, Ian and I were at one.
(I blame the bomb. When you live in the shadow of the inevitable war, the thermonuclear flashes and aftershocks of your dreams, not much seems extreme.)
A sample of Ian’s lunacy was the plan to destroy the college record system. We knew that the college, in line with standard educational procedure, kept confidential personal files on its students. Retrospectively I can’t quite understand why, but we hated, hated, hated that. We decided that one night we’d break in to the administration rooms, jemmy open the filing cabinets, pour petrol over the student records, then torch the lot. In the confusion of the inferno, we’d make our getaway on Ian’s decrepit Lambretta, which exposed at least one fatal flaw in the plan since even under optimal conditions this laughably unreliable vehicle was barely capable of powered forwards movement.
Ian was carving out names of Nazi death camps on the desk with a penknife as he outlined his plan.
“The next day, they’ll suspect everyone right? They’ll question us. But we say nothing. Nothing.”
“Right.” I nodded.
“Then. To disguise our nerves. We take 40 mg of valium each. Maybe 60.”
“OK, we’ll be bombed. But if we’re so bombed we can’t speak, they can’t make us talk, right?”
“Right. Uh… You missed out the “L” in “Treblinka””.
I bought a secondhand electric guitar. But I didn’t have an amp, I couldn’t play and I couldn’t be arsed to learn. If there’s a less satisfying musical experience than learning unplugged electric guitar, I’ve yet to try it.
Then, one day, at the back of the politics class, waiting for the start.
“Ian.” I nudged him.
”Check it out.”
He checked it. “What the fuck is that?”
And we thought we were strange. The look in Mid-Sussex at the time was what was called “casual” – Fred Perry shirt, maroon slacks and loafers – fag in right hand, stud in left ear, looking for a fight. So, we tried to dress a bit weird. A bit of black. Some badly applied eyeliner. But there, right at the front, sat someone who, in a college of compulsory shirts and blazers, stood out like a lone poppy in a cornfield. This fellow (how did he get away with it?) wore a white boiler suit. At his neck was a silk cravat. His hair flopped lazily over one eye, Quentin Crisp style. He lounged foppishly in his seat. Most extraordinarily was his set of perfectly manicured nails, painted an expensive plum red. In lager drinking, Cortina driving, “you-calling-my-pint-a-cunt?” Haywards Heath, this dude looked exquisitely, unashamedly bent.
Ian and I started to snicker, pantomime sotto voce.
“Erm… please do not adjust your TV set.”
“Yeah. Pardon me? The embroidery class is on Tuesdays.”
We gazed happily ahead at the freak boy’s back. I think we were both relieved to finally side with the normals.
The lesson started. Our Political Studies teacher was called Friar, a fierce and sarcastic little man with a satanic beard. Ian doodled and wrote a poem called England’s Field of Flowers or something. I daydreamed about robots. On and on Friar droned. At one point he made a comment about the British political system, something like…
“… the House of Lords – which is really an archaic, anti-democratic institution….”
“But who says democracy is so great anyway?” Boiler Suit Boy interrupted, in an infuriatingly confident upper class drawl, the kind of accent that sets off revolutions. “Everything you’ve just said presumes that we wouldn’t be better off under a feudal system anyway.”
Now this was simply not allowed in state education. You listened. You took notes. You vomited it all out in the exam. But you didn’t interrupt. You certainly didn’t tell your teacher he was wrong.
You most certainly didn’t say this:
“Democracy is bankrupt. We don’t need a revolution, or social “progress”. We need the re-imposition of the class system. To keep the proletariat happy. The workers should be kept down. Because they only worry if you give them more power. It’s no good for them.”
Friar stopped in his tracks and boggled. There was an odd silence. Someone near me stifled a giggle and Boiler Suit Boy turned around. Our eyes met. Let’s test this boy’s mettle, I thought.
“What a prat”. I said, quietly but clearly.
There was a beat, then things happened quite fast.
“I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU!” BSB screamed, then leaped across the desks at me.
In a fight, attitude and surprise are key. Looking back, what was impressive was the ramped up rapidity of his violence. And in the second it took him to twist around and throw himself towards me, hands extended towards my throat, I could see that I had misjudged my man. First, he may have dressed like a pressed flower, but he was actually quite tasty, heavier than I was, yes certainly. Second, and more relevant, one glance at his snarl and blazing eyes confirmed that here was a certified, 100%, nothing-added-nothing-taken-away nut job.
I winced, but he was just too distant to connect with that first bound, and the power of his initial lunge was broken by a row of desks. Girls screamed as some chairs flew over. Nevertheless he would shortly have reached me, no doubt, were it not for the intervention of our teacher,
“What IN GOD’S NAME is going on?” Friar screeched.
Since I continued to sit entirely motionless, transfixed with fear, I looked considerably cooler than I felt.
“Get back in your seat boy!”, commanded Friar, with a face like a snarled thundercloud.
Boiler Suit Boy gazed at me with hatred. Our eyes met and something horrible passed between us. “I’ll see you. Outside.” He said, panting viciously and returned slowly to his seat.
I stared ahead and allowed myself a blink as cold sweat trickled down my back and into the crack of my arse. A nasty business.
Ian pursed his lips in a silent whistle. “Wanna borrow my Eickhorn SS dagger?” He whispered, helpfully.
That was a merry class. My mind played over the possibilities. I’d been given quite a slapping by that rocker in the Crowborough car park. A couple of kicks in the balls at gigs. But I’d never been beaten up by a six-foot queer psychopathic feudalist before. Maybe he won’t just beat on me, I thought. Maybe he’ll bugger me first. I’d seen Scum. Yeah, he’ll smash me in the face just for starters, then when I’m crying and bleeding toothlessly, and my tears and snot and blood are pulped together in a muck over my face, and when he’s ready, he’ll get a broom handle and… Fuck! You’re alright Marc. Calm down, old son.
Afterwards, I loitered. I seem to remember deliberately dropping a pen behind the radiator to buy some time, but outside, Boiler Suit Boy was indeed waiting for me. Stare the fucker out I thought, as he purposefully strode towards me, lips pursed bloodlessly, eyes blazing. A loon, no question. Weirdly, he was stretching out his hand, stylized, fingers tensed. Christ, I thought, that’s all I need, he’s a black belt in some form of homo Karate, or queer boy Kung Fu. If I can just jab him in the eye with my pen and kick him in the bollocks, maybe I can buy enough time to….
He offered me a manicured hand. He said, in cold, languid upper class tones. “I’m Robert. Come to my place for drinks tonight”.
So I did.
Robert lived, mostly alone, in an 18th century cottage in the forest, left to his own devices for months on end by his ex-pat parents. Sussex is full of these kind of ancient bolt-holes that smell of antiques and affairs and upper class devil worship; old money, hiding away in the woods. Sometimes, on a clear night, I would drive my small motorbike to the foot of the Downs. If you climbed up a couple of hundred feet and let the wind howl past you, you heard the voices of paleolithic ghosts and ancient human sacrifices jabbering madly in your head.
Later that evening we got drunk on Special Brew and Port, We talked a lot of shit and boasted about sleeping with lots of girls none of whom we had ever slept with, and we listened to The Monochrome Set and The Scars and Kraftwerk. We swapped influences animatedly.
Robert was saying, “Kraftwerk – so cool. Check this cover out. Ralf and Florian. Look at all that electronic gear. I mean what that fuck is that thing?”
“Or Moroder. Seen photos of that stuff, all those wires falling out of those modular things in his studio?”
“Yeah. Donna Summer, having an orgasm to electro-bass pulses.”
I laughed hard.
“You like girls? You like black girls?”
“If they’re having orgasms to electro-bass pulses, I jolly well do.”
“Uh huh. Numan?”
“Uh… not for me, old fellow. How’s this… Mute sampler LP. B-Movie. The The. Soft Cell.”
“This lot – Day-pesh-ay Mode?”
I coughed on the joint and passed it to him. “So, uh. You’re not queer then? Not that I care, but… you don’t mind me asking?”
“Dear boy. No of course I’m not queer.”
“So uh, why the nails? And the hair?”
Robert shrugged. “I had rather a funny time. I went a bit tonto for a while, for a few months.” He paused. “Plus. I’ve actually noticed that girls like it. All the gay stuff. You can swap nail manicure tips,” he said, vaguely. I laughed.
After a while he said, “You see, I hated public school. Hated it. Locked up with a crowd of absolute wankers who wanted to kill me, and I wanted to kill them.” I saw his knuckles go white with the force of his grip. I nodded and said nothing. Yup, I thought, this guy is clinging on to the cliff edge with nothing but a couple of crumbling fistfuls of dirt.
“But”, he continued, “I couldn’t get out. So I didn’t eat for a long time. And when I started again, I…” He stopped. Then in a different tone he said, “Do you ever feel like you hate everything? That everything is set up against you? And boring? And you just want to, to start something off?”
I gave him the Machine Manifesto. It was good to talk, to get that stuff off your shoulders, you know? Standard teenage angst about wanting to replace your body with hydraulics and re-engineer the brain to extinguish human emotions. To be free of feeling and morality and be able to have sex with machines. Normal youthful hormonal stuff.
“We should start a band.” Robert said, handing me back the spliff.
“Yeah”. Sounded good to me, but despite my influences I still thought of a band in conventional terms. “Uh… I can’t… I mean guitars… and drums… and shit.” I said.
“Not a bloody guitar band. God. I mean synthesizers.”
I didn’t know how much a synthesizer cost – I imagined them as the toys of very rich scientists and rock stars.
“But… the money?” I asked.
He had a messianic look in his eye. “We are going to buy some synthesizers”.
I coughed again. “I got no money to buy a synthesizer!”
He sounded absolutely certain. “I’ll lend it to you. We buy some synthesizers and a drum machine”.
Understanding dawned. Drum machine. Machines. The machine must speak. Yeah. I started to get into it. But even drunk and stoned I felt it incumbent to raise a few matters of procedure.
“You know that I, uh… I’ve never been in a band?”
Robert shrugged. “Me neither.”
“Also, I can’t read music.”
He sniggered. “God no, nightmare.”
“Plus, uh, I like the cool noises but I don’t really know even how a synthesizer works, or what it does?”
“Christ, no. We’ll jolly well have to find that out. I’ll buy some magazines.”
I paused. “Also, I mean, we think each other is a bit of a cunt. “I’ll fucking kill you”. And… all that”.
Robert nodded silently, sympathetically, philosophically.
“Then again. The rythyms, of the machines. I hear them in my head. You know? And the hate. I feel that too”.
He looked at me clear eyed, approvingly. “OK, then.”
I took a slug of ice cold Special Brew and sluiced it reflectively through my teeth.
“When?” I asked.
“Tomorrow. We start tomorrow”.