Essay: Shades of Ariel Pink

In his latest essay, Adam Harper challenges the dogma of Ariel Pink's influence and recontextualises him as a child of the Cassette Culture of the 80s.

Ariel Pink has already become one of indie music’s historic figures. Lately his earlier mid-00s albums have been increasingly enshrined as the primary influence on what could be called the “Altered Zones Generation”, a wave of home-recording, retro-inspired indie artists who’ve dominated underground indie since around 2009 and who constituted the focus of Pitchfork’s now-defunct sister site Altered Zones. This generation brought with it the genres of chillwave and hypnagogic pop and saw the rise of such giants as John Maus, Julia Holter, James Ferraro, Laurel Halo, Autre Ne Veut, Grimes, Oneohtrix Point Never, Maria Minerva, and How To Dress Well. Yet while it’s far from wrong to notice that both Pink and the AZ Generation base themselves in home-recording, lo-fi sound and some degree of retro-pop idiom, Pink’s guiding role in their music is beginning to feel overestimated, with the result that the uniqueness, originality and diversity of latter-day underground indie artists is being significantly underestimated.

The last issue of Spin magazine ran a feature on Pink (‘Ariel Pink: In Praise of Guilty Genius’ by David Bevan) that offered one of the most pronounced accounts yet of the narrative that Pink was the cause of the AZ Generation, as well as evidence that Pink himself is starting to support the story. The standfirst claims that Pink “inspired an entire indie generation of like-minded weirdos”, and Bevan elaborates: “Pink’s idiosyncratic, visionary aesthetic would present itself as a left-field blueprint for a generation nearly ten years his junior”. As the conclusion of the article: “[LCD Soundsystem’s James] Murphy told [4AD boss Simon] Halliday that 4AD should print and sell T-shirts that read: IT’S ALL ARIEL PINK’S FAULT… ‘It is,’ [Pink] says with a definitive sneer. ‘It’s all my fault’”. There’s a degree of sarcasm there perhaps, but it’s strong stuff even so.

“If you look at the whole of the indie-pop underground wearing Ariel-Pink-tinted spectacles, it should come as no surprise that you’ll only see a multi-coloured scene in monochrome, in shades of Pink.”

Both Bevan and Pink himself pick out Claire Boucher – aka Grimes – as one of the supposed fruits of Pink’s influence. Bevan calls her “one of Pink’s many nascent disciples,” and later Pink adds, rather boldly perhaps, “every time I hear her, I hear a little of myself”. To hear the influence of Pink in James Ferraro circa 2009 or Matrix Metals is relatively understandable – both are very lo-fi and very retro-trash – but to extend the same assumption to the 21st-century electronic pop of Grimes has to be a stretch too far. Or does the attempted comparison, and the subordination to Pink it entails, come from something as superficial as their both being, as the standfirst put it, “weirdos”? What’s more, it robs Grimes of her uniqueness. If you look at the whole of the indie-pop underground wearing Ariel-Pink-tinted spectacles, it should come as no surprise that you’ll only see a multi-coloured scene in monochrome, in shades of Pink.

When Bevan reports on the similarly debatable claim that Ariel Pink is the “godfather” of chillwave (that is, the chilled synth-funk jams of Washed Out, Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi and others), his own influences become clear. In January 2011, Simon Reynolds wrote about the AZ Generation for Village Voice), asserting about them that “the godfather of all this, of course, is Ariel Pink” and referring to “the genre spawned off those three Pink albums”. For Reynolds, the entire, multicoloured AZ Generation (which he himself described as a “legion”) could be grouped together under one genre term, in this case “chillwave”, which apparently accommodated everyone (dubbed Pink’s “chill-dren”) from Emeralds to How To Dress Well to Oneohtrix Point Never to Sun Araw to James Ferraro to Toro Y Moi and even key witch house act Salem, and gave them one over-arching description relating to nostalgia and ‘pre-faded sounds’. The reductive tendency to pre-judge contemporary underground pop as ‘nostalgic’ (again with the Pink-tinted-spectacles), while not entirely or always unsubstantiated, has been all too prevalent in recent years, and it’s undermining the unique contributions made by its artists.

“Pink’s albums are zany, personal, largely rock-based and dressed in awkward glam, they don’t have the mirror-shades-cool synth groove of chillwave or the pop-art pastiche of hypnagogic pop, and they have very little indeed to do with Grimes.”

Now of course, it’s too easy for me to claim that the scene was and is a lot more diverse two years later. But Reynolds certainly wasn’t the only one to lump anyone and everyone that felt a bit lo-fi and a bit nostalgic into the same box with Pink, and Bevan’s recent reproduction and re-enforcement of the Pink-as-godfather theory shows that such a reductive perception of the scene is hardening into a consensus historical and aesthetic fact, one that will affect how we listen. Without retreating into obvious absurdity – such as the notion that Pink’s role in today’s underground pop is chiefly negligible – it’s time to consider the counter-arguments.

It hopefully doesn’t need emphasising that Ariel Pink didn’t invent home-recording, or lo-fi, or even retro-lo-fi. In fact, if we look at the history of home-recording and lo-fi, Pink can begin to look like the end of an era rather than the beginning of one. Since the early 1980s, the very same language applied to Pink was being applied to one of his avowed greatest influences and sometime collaborator, R Stevie Moore. Moore was called “the godfather of home-taping” so many times it was practically a cliché. The term was relatively justified, not only because Moore had in the late 1970s been an early adopter of pre-Tascam reel-to-reel technology, but because a significant fraction of the ‘cassette culture’ wave of home-tapers (the AZ Generation of the mid 80s, artists who are mostly not very well known today) shared a number of musical similarities with him. Theirs and Moore’s aesthetic followed in the wake of avant-rock eccentrics like Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett and Kevin Ayers, with lots of deep, closely-miked vocals, fuzzy guitar, combinations of speech and singing, surrealism, complex structures and arrangements, and psychedelic electrical effects. After R Stevie Moore in cassette culture came artists like Don Campau, Dino DiMuro, Dan Susnara, Linda Smith, Kevyn Dymond, Ray Carmen and many others, all occupying a broad, multi-dimensional spectrum from conventional rock and pop to musique concrète and noise. And though these artists were rarely significantly ‘retro’, they were often very knowing and self-aware, and, like many indie underground artists and fans of the 80s, often looked back to the rock and roll of the 50s and early 60s and the psychedelia of the late 60s.


Cassette memories and interview with Don Campau.

Rather than being the progenitor or the AZ Generation, Pink can easily be understood as the youngest member of this mid-80s Cassette Culture Generation. His recordings, especially his most recent album ‘Mature Themes’, are much more similar to those of the CC Generation than they are to the core artists of chillwave like Washed Out or of hypnagogic pop like early Ferraro and Matrix Metals. Pink’s albums are zany, personal, largely rock-based and dressed in awkward glam, they don’t have the mirror-shades-cool synth groove of chillwave or the pop-art pastiche of hypnagogic pop, and they have very little indeed to do with Grimes.

Pink’s connection to the cassette culture of the 80s is more solid than musical comparisons, however. In the early 2000s, Pink distributed his cassettes the same way that cassette culture did – through personal connections and the mail. Cassette culture certainly hasn’t died out either, and a big proportion of its artists still record today, most notably among them R Stevie Moore. As a recent collaborator with and key contact of Moore’s, Pink is very much an active participant in that tradition of cassette culture.

But perhaps the most revealing connection comes in the form of a book: Richie Unterberger’s ‘Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Psychedelic Unknowns, Mad Geniuses, Punk Pioneers, Lo-Fi Mavericks & More’, published in 1998. Richie Unterberger was one of the most influential indie music critics during the 1980s, running Option magazine until 1991. ‘Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is in many ways a culmination of his role in developing that subcategory of indie aesthetics focused on the romanticism of rock’s outsiders, especially those buried in the past and leaving only crackly and bizarre recordings behind. In short, ‘Unknown Legends’ bridges the interests of the 80s and the CC Generation and those of 00s, providing an early sketch, a portent – a “leftfield blueprint”, perhaps – of 00s movements like hauntology and hypnagogic pop, but most of all, Ariel Pink himself and the way he would be received by the indie music community. No wonder he was such a success – whether they’d read the book or just absorbed its narratives from years (decades, even) of underground music discourse, lots of indie fans already knew how to understand Pink’s music. It might not be particularly surprising to learn, then, that Pink has read the book and has even covered one of the songs on the CD that came with it.


Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Bright Lit Blue Skies

If anyone can be credited with inventing lo-fi, at least aesthetically, it’s Richie Unterberger and the community of like-minded critics and fans surrounding him. ‘Unknown Legends’s tone of joy mixed with pathos and archeological nostalgia closely matches that of the reviews of Pink’s earlier albums. In its foreword, Lenny Kaye writes of “these dusty corridors of rock ‘n’ roll history, walls covered with posters advertising gigs long encored, and record collections consigned to that great garage sale in the sky”. But it’s when Unterberger turns to one early cassette culture artist who was very popular with Option magazine in the 80s, Martin Newell of the band Cleaners from Venus, that the book really begins to prophecy Ariel Pink. Unterberger describes the band’s early recordings as “lo-fi, murkily recorded affairs that couldn’t hide the power of the melodies, or a wit that could be both tender and savage”, which incorporated “boxy drum sounds” and bore comparison to R Stevie Moore, who was “using the same sort of approach”.

The similarities don’t end there – both in his dress and in his music, Martin Newell adopted the (even then) retro, androgynous, psychedelic image that would mark Ariel Pink out in the 00s, a hangover from the Syd Barrett era that added a dimension of stylistic hipness few in the CC generation explored. The early Cleaners from Venus songs that came to be posted on Altered Zones in 2011 (listen to ‘Gamma Ray Blue’) are perhaps as close to the sound of Pink’s early albums as you’re likely to hear. It may not be a coincidence that in 1998, when ‘Unknown Legends’ was released (and with a Cleaners from Venus song on its CD too) Ariel Pink switched from the experimental noise later released on ‘Ariel Rosenberg’s Thrash and Burn’ to the retro pop he’s now known for today. Martin Newell was Ariel Pink twenty years before Ariel Pink was Ariel Pink. So perhaps in response to Spin’s quotation of James Murphy, and by means of Unterberger’s ear: it’s actually all Martin Newell’s fault.


Martin Newell

Yet, whether it’s Ariel Pink, R Steve Moore, Richie Unterberger or Martin Newell, it’s of course wrong to pin responsibility for the music of the AZ Generation on any one person. The assumption that history unfolds mainly by individual musicians influencing other individual musicians in a purely musical way is an old-fashioned one that comes from classical music history and its long lines of Great Men and their Great Works. There are greater forces at play, such as taste, technology and social relations. So what might be a better assessment of the historical causes of the AZ Generation? I think the answer’s relatively clear: digital recording technology.

“The assumption that history unfolds mainly by individual musicians influencing other individual musicians in a purely musical way is an old-fashioned one that comes from classical music history and its long lines of Great Men and their Great Works.”

When CDs and MP3s began to replace analogue media almost entirely around the turn of the millennium, it was only a matter of time before the distinctive sounds of tape, vinyl and VHS, together with the particular style of outdated music buried beneath those sounds, would start to sound absolutely amazing to the indie music community. As demonstrated by Unterberger’s book, indie music has long kept a tradition of romanticism about the sounds of the past and about musical outsiders (preferably both together) at its core, an aesthetic that can be traced back at least as far as the Second Folk Revival of the late 1950s, when a young Bob Dylan was obsessed with Woody Guthrie’s recordings of the 1940s. It’s unsurprising, then, that lo-fi 80s and 90s pop would become so popular in the late 00s, as it carries exactly the same romantic appeal. This appeal was so strong and so widely spread that hundreds of musicians explored it in their own way, as (dialectical) responses to a particular techno-aesthetic climate. Ariel Pink rode this wave early on as one of the first to make such a response, but I would play down the idea that none of the AZ Generation would have done what they did without his contribution. It’s a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: just because Pink arrived a little earlier, it doesn’t mean the others arrived because of him. Besides which, as Reynolds noted, the Internet played a key role in the blossoming of the AZ generation in a way that it had not done for Pink.

It’s not my intention to denigrate Ariel Pink or his considerable musical achievements here, of course. Very little could be done to undermine his obvious song-writing talents and imagination, and again, I don’t assert that his influence is nil – if nothing else, it’s got to be true that most of the AZ Generation have paid attention to his work. He is indeed a historic figure, one who clearly produced some of the most fascinating albums of recent times. But we shouldn’t let that blot out the uniqueness and creativity of those who came after him.

Illustration by Emma Shore.

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