No other novelist has had as great an influence on popular music as JG Ballard, who died yesterday (Sunday 19 April) after a three-year struggle with prostate cancer. The bleaker, more dystopian side of his work – typified by the novel ‘Crash’, which depicts an urban hell poisoned by mechanisation and distorted sexuality – has shaped lyrics by artists as diverse as Klaxons, Joy Division, Manic Steeet Preachers and Gary Numan.
Why? It’s simple: Ballard’s vividly-drawn imaginary worlds equipped lyricists with the descriptive tools to critique modernity, in a way that felt gleamingly new and urgent, rather than stuffy and reactionary.
But just as Ballard’s nightmare futures take many forms – ecological, technological, psychological – the ways in which lyricists respond to them have varied. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, for example, reads him politically, as a kind of sci-fi Naomi Klein: in the run-up to the release of ‘In Rainbows’, he blogged extracts from Ballard’s anti-consumerist novel ‘Kingdom Come’.
Meanwhile, Yorke’s lyrical obsession with drowned metropolises – the album cover of ‘The Eraser’ is just one example of his nagging terror of inundation – is surely inspired by ‘The Drowned World’, a novel that evoked environmental apocalypse thirteen years before the term “global warming” was first coined.
Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards had a more visceral response. For him, Ballard articulated disgust not with mechanisation but with humanity itself – a kind of nose-holding repulsion at mankind’s irredeemable baseness. Hence the quote included at the start of ‘Mausoleum’, a recording of Ballard explaining his motives for writing ‘Crash’: “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, I wanted to force it to look in the mirror.”
Ballard’s oeuvre resonates with lyricists, too, because it is science-fiction without being ‘sci-fi’ in a naff sense. Pointedly, Ballard never used the phrase, he preferred to call it “speculative fantasy”. Hence, by borrowing his imagery, bands have been able to conjure a dystopian future without resorting to stale tropes such as spaceships and warpdrives. Without sounding like nerds, essentially.
It’s no surprise that post-punk, with its modernist desire to remake rock for a new age, is particularly full of Ballardian references. But Ballard’s fiction ultimately appeals to any artist with an interest in signposting the ‘newness’ of their art while simultaneously questioning the hurtling onward march of progress.
Even a song as superficially jaunty as Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ conceals a Ballardian riptide: songwriters Trevor Horn and Bruce Woolley were inspired by his short story ‘The Sound-Sweep’, in which music has been almost entirely leeched from the world, banished to the sewers.
Plus, it has to be said, the experimental nature of much of Ballard’s writing enables bands with aspirations to the avant-garde to put an intellectual gloss on their work: Ian Curtis named ‘Closer’s opening track ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ before he’d actually read the book.
Similarly, Klaxons’ Ballardisms – they named their debut album after his short story collection ‘Myths Of The Near Future’ – seems more about studenty literary posturing than a genuine engagement with his books: Klaxons are, after all, far more about revelling in modernity than in exposing its horrors.
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But to question bands’ motives for co-opting Ballard’s fiction seems petty: it is difficult to think of a literary figure whose descriptive powers have extended and enriched the lyrical palette of popular music quite so profoundly, and across so many decades.