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In Defence of Doggerel:
Michael Butterworth's ‘Spunkee-Doo!'
iiii Residency

Hannah Nussbaum

29.03.19

In 2017 Michael Butterworth wrote a short prose piece called ‘Spunkee-Doo!’— not a fiction but a self-proclaimed ‘routine’.

What follows is an introductory text that contextualizes ‘Spunkee-Doo!’– a set of responses to it and questions around it that might guide a reader in approaching its language, which is wacky and obscene and slightly ridiculous. It’s possible that the trawling net of references and questions produced by this introduction in some ways precede or digress from the piece itself, but it is my opinion that no chunk of text is too small or too zany to use as a prism for something larger. What’s more, the language in ‘Spunkee-Doo!’ is a microcosm of language that appears throughout the Savoy archive, so any argument made here about ‘Spunkee-Doo!’ can also effectively be mapped onto other Savoy work.

IN DEFENCE OF DOGGEREL

The word ‘routine’ rightly frames the piece as a performance, even as a comic performance, and it’s true that its pith points back (several decades) to the ‘alt-comedy’ landscape which was unfolding in the UK in the late seventies (which percolated alongside of and through post-punk).

Alt-comedy coincided with the rise of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and employed a strange bricolage of absurdism, violence, wacked-out antics of Dadaist deconstruction, and post-ironic, earnest appeals for an explicitly anti-right-wing agenda: a sort of highly political clowning that aimed to more sincerely address political issues than the nihilistic punk ken had. Also called ‘alternative cabaret,’ it was an unambiguously left-wing comic approach, and its critical (dis)engagement circumvented both the problems of didacticism and the problems of irony (the one too straightforward, the other irresponsibly ambiguous). A group called ‘The Alternative Cabaret’ was at the center of this approach, (comedians Tony Allen, Jim Barclay, Pauline Melville, Alexei Sayle, others). They were self-designed in opposition to, as Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone describes, the Bernard Manning red-faced racism of Working Men’s club comedians, but also to the irony and silliness of Oxbridge sardonics. They found a home on Dean Street, London, in the somewhat washed-up Gargoyle Club, a fraying relic of the ‘bright young things’ phase, which had once served as a drinking hole for Francis Bacon in the 50s.

Though he was not involved with alt-comedy per se at the time, and though it was not written until 2017, Butterworth’s ‘Spunkee-Doo’ can be understood through this alt-com middle space: it’s a work that avoids both on-the-sleeve politicking but also covert irony. Instead the text activates a sort of maximalist nonsense, a hybrid of Dada-burlesque — what author of ‘The Punk Turn in Comedy’ (2018) Krista Giappone might term an ‘alternative route’ in-between direct sloganeering and indirect sardonicism. For Butterworth, this means the use of doggerel, gibberish, invented words, and fabulousity, all delivered in a framework of excessive political satire. The tactics of Dada are distinct in his language. Hal Foster describes how in the midst of World War 1, the Zurich Dadaists ‘took the corrupt language of the European powers around them and played it back as a caustic nonsense’. This sort of approach was re-activated by the alt-com comedians in the late seventies and too by Butterworth and his post-punk contemporary writers. Maximalism and near Pierrot expressiveness, also repetition — lines like: ‘the fucking fucker’s fucking fucked!’ delivered alongside mock violence, toilet humor, and also non-ironic leftwing politics.

Foster notes how the Cologne Dadaist Max Ernst used the term “hypertrophy” to describe Dada hyperbole. It means ‘the enlargement of an organ due to excessive nutrition’, Foster tells us, and this word feels important in approaching Butterworth’s work. There is something ‘non-fiction’ about the prose in ‘Spunkee Doo’, flesh-bound but enlarged like a distended body part, the original outline only vaguely familiar amid the inflation. Its narrative sees contemporary fascists in an invented ball-sport: ‘infrastructure’ and ‘rules of the game’ revealed as ludic, illogical, and libidinal.

Giappone frames the alt-com move towards obscenity, towards rejection of irony and ambiguity, as an attempt to ‘redress punk’s failure to articulate a political stance’. But it’s important to distinguish between the politicized deployment of obscenity used by lefty alternative comedy in the late seventies and eighties, and free-speech-flaunting that subdues the bodies and thoughts and freedoms of folks oppressed under neoliberal capitalism. The obscene which we have been told should be kept offstage, in the tradition of John Waters filth or the Bataillean notion of l’informe (which originally posited honesty to be found in guttural gestures), is about uncovering a ‘truth’. But this line of thinking can, and is, bastardized, and the pores of ‘filth’ must be continually probed. When does filth destroy the straitjacket; when does it don one?

In many ways, this punk failure to distinguish its left-wing politics produced a question in post-punk culture. How best to activate language towards a more explicit political project? This links up with a perennial impasse on the left: the question of how language and rhetoric might best be used to bring people into a fore instead of pushing them out of it.

Recently, the conversation has centered around populist speech: what it is, what it does. The Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau points out that the so-called ‘intellectual poverty’ of populist language might be source of its affective strength. Its reliance (not on logic but) on hyperbole might be a method appropriated by the left, Laclau writes, and used to interact at a more emotive register. Perhaps his point refers back to the Dadaists’ recruitment of affective nonsense towards a critical project: ideological dissonance produced through exceeding the limits of sensible language. Neo-Dadaist linguistic ‘nonsense’ might also be understood as a logical tactic in response to a loss of meaning in the media. If, to recruit the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, information in the media began devouring its own content in the eighties — ‘it is useless to dream of a revolution through content’ — perhaps the neo-Dada push towards anti-information (used by the doggerel-loving post-punks) was a backdoor way into effectively communicating a feeling.

This is all to say that the overblown theatrics of neo-Dada parody was one way in-between or out of the stuckness that plagued post-punk culture — stuckness between the two ends of ‘political’ language. On the one end was overly earnest and ineffectual didacticism, on the other end dangerously ambiguous irony as a punk hangover.

Some post-punk outfits went more in the direction of didactic political sloganeering than others. Bristol-based ‘The Pop Group’ was one, moving increasingly away from affective musical experimentalism towards moralizing lyrics that Simon Reynolds describes as (being received as) ‘self-righteous soap box agit prop’. Reynolds writes,

‘The band seemed to proceed methodically through a checklist of issues (‘Justice’ dealt with police brutality, ‘How Much Longer’ with Nixon and Kissinger’s war crimes). And the self-flagellating guilt trip vibe was off-putting’.

On the other end of the spectrum was a space of abstruse, ambiguous irony. Public Image Limited wore suits and promised franchise goods in a send-up of ‘corporate rock’, an attempt at staging a burlesque of the increasingly non-punk and neoliberal record business — but it was not always clear where the joke ended.

Irony relies on meta-comic double framing: you are saying something, but you are meaning something else. And wherever surface meaning is supplanted by a covert underbelly, there runs a risk of courting mis-readings. While didactic sloganeering doesn’t give the recipient enough agency in interpretation, irony maybe gives too much. There was a lack of clarity with the way irony was deployed in punk — particularly with the use of the swastika in punk products, which was meant to be read by the knowing as a critique, but which ultimately had irresponsible ambiguity bound up in its presentation. In her discussion of punk irony abdicating or transferring too much responsibility to the interpretation of the receiver, Giappone rightly cites an example of the Dead Kennedys:

Frontman Jello Biafra’s practice of speaking within quotation marks – usually as a character to be rejected – proved amenable to misinterpretation: ‘There were some right-wing politicians in Portugal that liked “Kill the Poor” [an anti-fascist song] because they liked the message. They didn’t see the sarcasm.’

And so what has been mapped out is a skeleton of a specifically post-punk impasse in communication, which arguably was the impetus for the period producing such strange and new work–increasingly elaborate and peculiar experiments meant to communicate a politic where punk had failed. The perceived flop of both irony and direct political engagement were two albatrosses around the neck of post-punk culture, and so neo-Dadaist clowning became an affective third way: a weird rhetorical tool that seemed to punch above its weight.

These considerations all exist in concentric rings around Butterworth’s writing, which during the post-punk era was pressurized by the same set of communication questions. In particular, his Savoy-era editorial endeavors utilized comic overstatement, absurdity, and doggerel as a way around the problem of political language never quite working as it should–and perhaps also as a means of aping this breakdown.

Note that Spunkee-doo was written in 2017, long after the ‘end’ of post-punk, but nonetheless seems to reference back to the tactics and proclivities of the era.

*

Spunkee Doo!
By Michael Butterworth

(A routine from Twenty-­‐Seventeen)

The Tingler would take your whole length into his mouth and with long painted fingernails tickle the back of your sac. It would work you up and down, until… Whoomph! Much like Big Boy scudding along at low level to avoid the radar. Can you imagine it in a dress? Ba-­‐boom, Ba-­‐boom, Ba-­‐boom. The Tingler did it to any takers. Got them erect as fuck!

There were other kinds. The Bamboozler came down in a welter of cum from a great height, trapping the inhabitants in radioactive goo. The Syncopator relied on conventional wing-power
to bring itself in, but looking for all the world like Diana Dors – get me? Diana Dors with sails?

They all had the same ultimate effect. But The Tingler was in a class of its own. More than one model too – and they all gave great head. Ba-­‐boom, Ba-­‐boom, Ba-­‐ boom.

I went down on The Keiser, and it fucked my head off! I got passed around, working my dick each time, one explosion after another. Lammy Pie, they called me. I had a ten-storey rocket that blew everything away in one go, and a mouth like the Mersey Tunnel that took up all it could get.

Not long before the endgame the Heads of State were at it. Putin kicking the bomb to Assad, who was passing it to Nazrallah, who passed it to Khamenei – who liked scoring own goals. Kim Jong-un got hold of it, kicking it into the rough. Trump the Jumper handballed it, the whistle went and the fucker exploded. Ba-boom. The world went up like a fucking Catherine wheel spinning off into space, I can tell you.

These Really Big Boys had a dance called The Frig, where they all lined up passing The Hoozey about and dipping their wicks, and they let us join in. We were all cheering like pirates. “You do this dance, you do that dance, and down in France you do the Dirty Dance!” The band were all jacking-off and the gobs of cum were landing everywhere. Catch them if you can! I was Hooby-Joobying inside a gloopy goldfish bowl, blowing kisses at the singer!

All lined up in the deserts we did The Frig, saluting the Marchioness with our doo-dahs. On time, The Tingler shot its load in starry rainbow arcs above our heads, and we danced The Trance until the Ha-Ha’s erupted. Locklar Ford did the Blurb Vurt. In his sidings Mr. Zero hammered the Sloozy Do. We did the Jelly Bean and The Kangaroo, the Butterscotch Hop and the Mary Lou. And The Tingler kept a’rakin’ them ball sacs, and the world kept a’Jiving. Oh did she Jive, boyo, until she all Jibed to bits! I’d never seen her so Fenella Fielding flusky with that deep throtto -“My beautiful dahlings! Haven’t the Chaps finished yet?” – reverberating along the horizon. And yes, the Yardbirds ‘Still I’m Sad’ played in the final moments when we were too floozed to do any more. Going down on our undercarriages, we were, and we were going “God bless America! God bless England!”

Then the Marchioness was grabbing my outreaching hands and gathering them up to her breasts, rolling them round and round, and moving herself into ecstasies. I longed she would do it with my face – lovely jubblies! – but etiquette did not permit, she being such a great Peer of the Realm and I just one of a lowly cotton picking family. We swooned about instead at opposite
ends of Lurve, doing the Harlequin Shoot. We pattered about one another sasheying like
glistening unrequited sharks in La-­‐La Land.

Looking back, why didn’t we bend the rules? We could have done anything. But hey y’all, whatever you got you always wanted more of. S’faras I could see there was no real personal release to be gotten from all that bravado and one-upmanship. Should’ve listened to the Buddha twenty-eight centuries ago, hey?

Now hear me clearly you ghosts. There are one hundred-and-ninety-seven million square miles of planet out there. Not a millimetre of it bears any division of ownership now.

What were you thinking?

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