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What pop music tells us about JG Ballard

Joy Division
Joy Division: Ian Curtis (second left) was a Ballard fan

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Magazine

Author JG Ballard, who has died aged 78, cast a huge influence over the literary world. But for those who have never picked up one of his novels there's another forum for learning about his work - pop music.

Through his books and essays JG Ballard was said to have predicted the melting of the polar icecaps, terrorism against tourists and Ronald Reagan's ascent to the White House.

His science fiction of the almost-normal - based around suburbia and urban hinterlands, fixations on celebrity and car crashes - became best known through the film Crash, and the surreal semi-autobiography Empire of the Sun.

But his feverish imagination, stoked by pre-lunch whisky and sodas in his study, found an unlikely appeal among pop musicians - many of whom liked to invoke a bit of Ballard in their work.

JOY DIVISION

The 1980 album Closer - the band's last record before the death of singer Ian Curtis - included the track Atrocity Exhibition, a chilling glimpse into psychosis. The track is based on Ballard's 1970 short-story collection The Atrocity Exhibition, in which a psychotic mental hospital doctor tries to make sense of world events surrounding him. Curtis had written most of the song before reading Ballard's book, but the song - anchored round the oppressive chorus "this is the way, step inside" - is still heavily informed by Ballard's tale of a man restaging world events in his mind.

COMSAT ANGELS/EMPIRE OF THE SUN
Empire of the Sun album cover
Not the film, but the group...

Two bands who took their names from Ballard's work. Sheffield post-punkers the Comsat Angels, who enjoyed a brief flourish of cult success in the 1980s and have recently reformed, named themselves after a late-1960s short story. Sleepy Jackson frontman Luke Steele named his new band, Empire of the Sun, after Ballard's best-known novel, which was based on his own experiences as a child in war-torn China.

THE KLAXONS' MYTHS OF THE NEAR FUTURE

Mercury Prize winners The Klaxons named their debut album Myths of the Near Future after Ballard's short story collection published in 1982. One of its tracks, Golden Skans - "Light touch my hands, in a dream of Golden Skans, from now on, you can forget all future plans" - marries the psychedelic lights of a concert to the planet scouring rays which transform the Earth in the short story Myths of the Near Future. Ballard alluded to environmental devastation often in his work, exploring how man-made landscapes and the retreat from the natural world might affect humanity.

BUGGLES' VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR
JG Ballard
JG Ballard: Lyrics influenced by his violent surrealism

Producer Trevor Horn's 1979 single Video Killed the Radio Star ushered in the MTV age - it was the first song played on MTV when it launched in 1981. Horn admits the song - about a radio star whose career is cut short by TV - is based on a Ballard short story The Sound Sweep, in which a mute boy obsessed with collecting music discovers an opera singer hiding in a sewer. It taps into Ballard's interest in the hold of mass media on people's lives, especially the influence of television, beamed into the same suburban homes that used to listen in their millions to radio.

RADIOHEAD'S OK COMPUTER

Not a band to simply knock out two-minute pop songs on unrequited love, Radiohead condensed Ballard's preoccupation with the spectacle of tragedy - most famously explored in the story Crash - into some of their most celebrated work. OK Computer, their 1997 album, includes two songs influenced by Ballard's worldview. Opener Airbag describes a car crash almost in slow motion - "In a fast German car/ I'm amazed that I survived/An airbag saved my life" - while the haunting Lucky relates a near-death experience in a crashing airliner. Singer Thom Yorke, never one to wear his esoteric pursuits lightly, blogged excerpts of Ballard's anti-consumerist novel Kingdom Come in the run up to the release of the band's 2007 album In Rainbows.

HAWKWIND'S HIGH RISE

Space-rock pioneers Hawkwind released a song called High Rise on their 1978 album PXR5, which they said was inspired by the author. Ballard's 1975 novel High Rise is set in a futuristic high-rise building that offers its pampered inhabitants everything they need - closing them off from the wider world. After intermittent power failures within the sealed-off building, the closed society begins to fragment, leading to a brutal, violent tribalism. Ballard believed an urban life aided by technology might warp the human psyche in unexpected ways.

MANIC STREET PREACHERS
James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers
Manic Street Preachers have also relied on Ballard's words

The Welsh band's lyricists Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards were both fans of Ballard's work. Their bleak, unsettling 1994 album The Holy Bible included the song Mausoleum, a dystopian nightmare which included a sample of Ballard talking about his book Crash: "I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, I wanted to force it to look in the mirror..." Elsewhere, the capital punishment treatise Archives of Pain and the Intense Humming of Evil - which describes the horrors of the Holocaust through the emptiness of modern day Auschwitz - connect with Ballard's dystopian themes.

GARY NUMAN's DOWN IN THE PARK

New wave synth-pop man Gary Numan's Tubeway Army song Down In the Park is a Ballard-influenced dystopian nightmare. The lyric relates a story of humans raped and killed by androids for entertainment, viewed by a crowd in a nearby club - a fear and fetishism of technology that was a Ballard staple. Asked about his inspiration, Numan cited Philip K Dick and, of course, Ballard. The concrete futurama of other Numan songs contains much Ballardian imagery, with the twin themes of technological improvement and alienation explored succinctly in the 1979 hit Cars "Here in my car/Where the image breaks down/Will you visit me please?/If I open my door/In cars".

SUEDE

You don't need to cite Ballard to have worn his influence. Suede, who always had a dash more pretension than most of their Brit Pop peers, paid homage to Ballard - knowingly or otherwise - with the cover image of their 1997 B-sides compilation, Sci-Fi Lullabies. Its picture of a scrapped RAF English Electric Lightning jet fighter lying on desolate moorland is the perfect Ballardian image; the writer repeatedly used downed or crashed aircraft in his work. Suede's lyrics often touched on a Ballardian conceit of urban life, rich with allusions to concrete, traffic and ennui.


Below are some of your comments.

Strangely 'Warm Leatherette' was also covered by Grace Jones. Also not mentioned was that High Rise was set in a tower block built where The Canary Wharf Tower now stands. He obviously foresaw that that run-down area would become prime real-estate.
Robin, Medway, UK

Bowie's "Always Crashing in the Same Car" from "Low" is also supposedly influenced by "Crash". A lot of Throbbing Gristle's stuff also evokes a Ballardian landscape, although they were more influenced by William Burroughs - but hey, Burroughs provided the introduction to a reprint of "Atrocity Exhibition" and Ballard did the same for "Naked Lunch", so perhaps the cross-fertilisation of influences is no surprise.
Mark Edwards, Taunton, Somerset

I totally concur with the previous comments about John Foxx and The Normal - how could they have been ignored? As a musician myself, i think Ballard's influence lies in the types of extremes he explored - they are immediately identifiable to anyone who has ever been in a band! Being on a motorway or in a concrete car park at 5am, or dealing with macho bouncers in clubs playing 'alpha male' mind games is pure Ballard! Rest in peace Jim. Your legacy is to have refined and updated that 'Orwellian' dystopian future into a 'Ballardian' present. You might not like it, but you were right.
Martin Swan, London

See also Burial's albums and Kode9's 'Memories of the Near Future' for the sonic equivalent of the underwater London Ballard imagines in The Drowned World.
P, London

There are many, many lesser known artists that have used Ballardian imagry or inspiration in their work. Two that come to mind are the UK band The Greywolves- they did a tape called "The Atrocity Exhibition" in the late '80s. Each piece is titled after a chapter in the collection. Another is the Japanese guitarist, Kazayuki K. Null (also part of ANP, under the name 'Null', in this case) who did a CD titled "The Terminal Beach". This is pretty obscure stuff, hard to find, and not likely to appeal to many. But for diehard Ballard fans, it's worth a hunt. Ballard always said he didn't much care for music. I've always wondered what he would've thought of this stuff - Radiohead, it isn't. Check the blogs- or be prepared to spend quite a bit on eBay.
Krw, Denver, Colorado

I know it was partly based on an abandoned adaptation of Orwell's 1984, but when I first heard David Bowie's Diamond Dogs I thought it was the most Ballardian rock music I'd ever heard. I still think it's probably the most Ballardian I ever will hear.
Guy Lawley, London, England (a minor city nestling on the outskirts of Shepperton)

Always Crashing in the Same Car by David Bowie, in fact all of Bowie's Low lp, is suffused with Ballard. The instrumention throughout co-ops human warmth with synthesised machinery, and despite never explicitly referencing Ballard, it moves in his world.
Stephen, Sheffield, UK

I'm more than a little suprised you haven't mentioned what to my mind is the number 1 Ballardian track, 'Warm Leatherette' by The Normal from 1978 - 'see the breaking glass, in the underpass'...what a great piece of dystopian post-punk electronica directly inspired by JG Ballard. Ah, you don't hear toe-tappers like that these days!
Nigel Jackson, Manchester

The English Motorway System by Black Box Recorder is definitely Ballard-influenced.
Alex, London

That's strange I was listening to Comsat Angels this morning looking forward to their reunion gig, thinking of Ballard's influence in their songs from the My Minds Eye album like They come from the sun and Red Planet, the songs are full of a tense atmosphere.
Karim, London

The Human League (and fellow Sheffield electronic musicians Cabaret Voltaire) were also heavily influenced by Ballard, especially in their Ware/Marsh period (though Phil Oakey was an enormous fan of Ballard, and fellow dystopian stalwart Philip K. Dick). But one could go on for hours talking about all the musicians he's influenced, few other authors have left such an indelible mark on music, especially on 'darker' music, than he.
Mark Allen, Dublin, Ireland

I loved Ballard's books so much I named my solo recording project 'Ballard'. Sadly, it nowhere near evokes his startling imagery and genius, but it is pretty disposable and I guess disposable culture was a running theme throughout his work.
Darren Riley, Bolton, UK

He Thought of Cars - Blur. Very chilly and spooky little number from when dystopian was Damon Albarn's word du jour
Janine, St Albans - UK

Ballard's influence on musicians was by no means limited to brits. American band jawbox made numerous ballard references over the course of years, the lyrics to their song "motorist" and the title of their album "my scrapbook of fatal accidents" being the most obvious examples.
Ian, USA

And then there is Warm Leatherette by The Normal, virtually a musical adaptation of "Crash". The repetitive music and the vocalist's deadpan delivery excellently evoke a world of Ballardian alienation.
Ian Moore, Dublin, Ireland

The most Ballard album of all - John Foxx Metamatic is missing.
Mark Jacobs, London

Freaky! I had just started playing Joy Division's Atrocity Exhibition as a minor personal tribute to Ballard when this article dropped in my RSS reader.
Ian, Glasgow



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