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Ian Svenonius’ Escaping Act

The records and books of Ian Svenonius exist at a silly-serious intersection of politics and comedy, revealing the potentials and pitfalls of their combination.

Ian Svenonius' career in comedy has involved various vehicles, but the silly-serious approach is consistent throughout. (Akashic Books)

By this point, with thirty years of activity, at least five bands, four books and now, a co-directed film to his name, it’s obvious that Ian Svenonius is, most of all, a comedian. It sounds like an insult, but it isn’t, not quite. Svenonius doesn’t do political comedy in that faintly Rory Bremner-like ‘commenting on political events and making fun of politicians’ manner that is, lamentably, still highly popular on the left, an approach which can sometimes result in moments of fun detournement but mostly drags politics into the dreary world of personalities, politicians, and parties.

A lot of the contemporary podcast landscape is always just steps away from becoming a Have I Got News for You of the left. This is odd, because these kinds of comedians hate us. As Juliet Jacques has pointed out, aside from the obvious fact these are the people that helped Boris Johnson create his persona, both the naff debating society world of HIGNFY and the 1990s generation of ironic, ultra-smart comedians based loosely around Chris Morris’ The Day Today have espoused a basically reactionary politics, with most protagonists (excepting Morris himself and a couple of others) becoming vehement public critics of Jeremy Corbyn at best, and obsessive campaigners against transgender rights at worst. But the main problem with this stuff is that it isn’t very funny. Being told things you already know usually isn’t.

I suppose what makes Ian Svenonius funny is a little different. He’s funny in his use of language in music, in the ridiculous extended conceits of so many of his songs; he’s funny in his prose style, a supercharged Marxist-Leninist jargon placed at the service of deliberate absurdity; he’s funny in his presentation as a self-made character, a preaching, yelping, evangelical amalgam of James Brown and the protagonists of Godard’s La Chinoise. His career in comedy has involved various vehicles, but the silly-serious approach is consistent throughout. Svenonius’ career began with the Marxist-Leninist hardcore punk band Nation of Ulysses, whose first album was pithily titled 13-Point Program to Destroy America; went through The Make-Up’s freakish combination of New Orleans funk and French pop, the psychedelia of Weird War, the ’60s R&B of Chain and the Gang; and most recently settled into the one-or-two-chord synth and guitar drones of his current vehicle, Escape-Ism, with the film director and photographer Alexandra Cabral. The books range from the neo-Maoist pocketbook of The Psychic Soviet to the polemics of Censorship Now!!, to a bizarre, séance-based KLF-style ‘how to’, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock & Roll Group. The main thing these have in common is that there’s usually a moment reading or listening to them when I get the uncontrollable giggles.

Like any joke, it is worn down by repetition and the risk of diminishing returns, which is why it’s important that a lot of these bands and the ideas were actually good. You could dance around the room to The Make-Up’s LP Save Yourself even after you’d got the joke. Their gigs, with their call-and-response routines and audience participation were warm collective experiences even though the slogans being shouted were, well, odd. A lot of the arguments in the books—rock and roll becoming ‘intelligent’ was a CIA psy-op used to bring down the USSR! IKEA deliberately makes its instructions illegible to encourage couples to break up so that they have to buy more flat-pack furniture!—are ridiculous but also, in a more fundamental sense, true, and sometimes, true to the point of being commonplace, with uncomfortable verities about the internet and about the American cult of tipping, say, more easily expressed through being written in a style that is one part Bob Avakian and one part Jerry Lee Lewis than it would be in a more straightforward polemic.

But the problem with this approach is that eventually the mask eats the face. At the height of ‘#metoo’, Svenonius posted on his website a confession of being ‘inappropriate’ and a ‘creep’ to women, apologised, and welcomed the outing of himself and similar offenders. The problem is that the confession was written, like everything Svenonius writes, in that silly, high-pitched, rhetorical, sectarian style, which made it look like it was all a joke rather than a real apology. At whose expense the joke was, wasn’t quite clear. He deleted the post and was dropped by his record label, who apparently received some corroborations of this ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.

Svenonius is now seemingly emerging from this still rather unnerving self-cancellation, and is on tour promoting his film with Cabral, The Lost Record, and a new book, ‘the last book you will ever need to read’, Against the Written Word. I went along to see him playing Escape-Ism songs and proselytising for ‘Analphabetism’ (illiteracy being ‘the only defence’ against the ‘disgusting garbage’ of 24 News, text messages, and the ‘violence’ of social media), at Dash the Henge, a recently opened record and bookshop in Camberwell, on the site of much-loved south-east London institution Rat Records. He led the crowd in a call-and-response to a ’12 Step Programme’ of Analphabetism and invited members of the audience to testify to their experiences ‘by reading from this piece of paper I’ve printed out’.

By now, the routine is stand-up comedy with songs attached, and everyone in the room was clearly enjoying it as such. But there was a nagging sense that he might be getting a little sick of himself. All those layers of irony are very 1990s, thirty years time is a long time to be playing a character, and new songs about being ‘One of the Greats’ and ‘The Last to Sell Out’ suggest a certain degree of self-disgust. Me, I preferred the few songs where he’s just being something perilously close to sincere about a politics which he usually prefers to express through wilfully preposterous conceits. Take ‘Rome Wasn’t Burnt In a Day’, three minutes of long revolutionary optimism; or a song I hadn’t heard before, that he played in Camberwell, which adapts Mike Davis’ modest proposal for letting Malibu burn into a catchy tune. The fires engulfing the art collections and mansions of the super-rich are described in the usual economical couplets. We all laughed.