An encounter with an angry hippy at Rustler’s Valley prompts Sean O’Toole to rethink the word ‘real’. The dilemma of our age is summed up in two words: cotton and nylon. Otherwise put, it’s the difference between shopping at Woolworths, or not; the difference between expensive organic potato chips and those improbably big orange things that melt in your mouth like an agitated chemical storm.This distinction, between these notionally real and unreal things, between grainfed chickens and those featherless things invented by the fast food industry, permeates almost every aspect of our lives. For purists, it is the difference between straight analogue photography and fancy digital tomfoolery; the difference between an oil on canvas sold at the Everard Read and the insouciance of calling art a bunch of heavies revving their motorbikes in a gallery (as recently happened at a Braamfontein venue).
On the one side of the fence, arguing the case of the resurgent neo-realists, you have the bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party, their sound heralding the triumphant return of that phallic symbol of honest music, the six-string, the axe – the electric guitar. On the other, you have computer nerds and Matrix zealots defending the synthesiser, which generically understood is an electronic device (a keyboard, a laptop) capable of generating and modifying sounds electronically.
Instead of name-checking examples here, suffice it to say that the constant diversification and ongoing popularity of hip hop and electronica underscores the continued relevance of the synthesiser. That this distinction is also entirely artificial goes without saying. The electric guitar is no more real than the synthesiser. Bob Dylan found that out when he plugged into the electricity grid and freaked out his early, folksy constituency.
But that was the 1960s. The idea of what constitutes a real and therefore authentic experience these days is so riddled with contradiction as to be entirely redundant. Frankenstein is our Statue of Liberty.
While depressing, it is also absurdly funny – in an exhausted Samuel Beckett kind of way – particularly when you dive headlong into the contradiction. ‘I hear you’re buying a synthesizer and an arpeggiator and are throwing your computer out the window because you want to make something real,’ mock-raps James Murphy on his band LCD Soundsystem’s paean to lost cool, the song Losing My Edge. ‘I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables, I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.’ Etcetera.
The real dilemma of our age, Murphy’s sarcastic lyrics highlight, is not as simple as distinguishing cotton from nylon; it is the quandary of choosing between synthetic cotton and organic nylon. A moment early in the history of South African rave, that sweaty beast still gasping for breath in dodgy clubs named after jungles and the tropical diseases they harbour, usefully illustrates the point.
It happened at Rustler’s Valley. In 1992 a group of Johannesburg DJs ventured into this Free State valley, their aim to infect it with repetitive beats. The music they played took its cue from the electro futurism of Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Japan’s Yello Magic Orchestra and Depeche Mode (on their debut album, Speak and Spell, the band announced their style as a combination of ‘synthetics’ and ‘voices’).
More directly, the music they played was influenced by a musical instrument targeted at guitarists but now widely eulogised as the foundation piece in the history of rave and global dance music culture. Marketed as a bass accompaniment for guitarists (remember the one-man band?), the Roland TB-303 bass line synthesizer had a very short commercial lifespan. Introduced to the market in 1983, it was discontinued less than two years later, its sound deemed too artificial. Its later discovery by a group of Chicago DJs, around 1986, totally redefined its use, the ‘amnesiac hook,’ as music journalist Simon Reynolds once encapsulated the TB-303’s sound, defining a new chapter in musical history. Back to Rustler’s Valley.
At some point on the last day of the festival, the sky morose, the rock bands having packed up their gear and buggered off, James Phillips drunkenly burning R5 notes in a dismal fire inside the marquee pitched near the river, the drone of the newfangled music got too much for one disgruntled hippy. Sticking his head out of his tent, he shouted into the valley: ‘Ag, fuck-off back to Jo’burg with your computer music.’ Never mind that a year later this crusty would be ecstatically breakdancing to the synthetic beats; never mind that a decade or so later a cracked version of this hippy, his hair now shaved, his lip now pierced, is still shouting down the impossible, arguing the case of cotton in our polymorphic, hybrid age.
Sean O’Toole, once known as DJ Electric Lipstick, now writes books and journalism