Fast Crash Psychogeography
Manchester, daytime. A man, sharply dressed, strides briskly through the empty streets. Periodically, he stops to take in his surroundings. The Hexagon Tower. UMIST's Barnes Wallis Building. A Wythenshawe council estate. The man absorbs and observes his environment as though it were art rather than a practical milieu for the monotony of everyday life. When he wanders, it is without direction, but not without purpose.
The man is of course Johnny Marr, and you are watching the accompanying video for The Messenger
's second single, 'New Town Velocity'. But more than just a music video, you are also watching something else: a dérive
Driving the Dérive
A cornerstone practice of psychogeography, the concept of the dérive can be described as an aimless, unplanned journey, or 'drift', through an urban landscape, guided by whim and with emphasis on the effect or appeal of specific spaces within an individual's geographic environment. In contrast to a simple 'stroll' or 'wander', a dérive requires acute attentiveness to not only one's physical surroundings and the natural and cultural environment it entails, but the perceived character of spaces and the moods they evoke.
In the 'New Town Velocity' video, Johnny stars as urban explorer; as modernist flâneur, and it is his dérive that we are witnessing on screen. Like a modern-day Guy Debord (albeit with a much better haircut), you can sense that Johnny is not merely observing his environment, but feeling it - and furthermore, analysing it.
Fast crash psychogeography
'I am a product of my environment and of my time'
, Johnny acknowledged in an interview with Vive Le Rock magazine in 2013. Combining this awareness with existing interests in architecture, geography and social theory, it's not surprising that psychogeography - the study of the effects of the geographical environment on emotion and behaviour - would be of interest to the intelligent and eternally curious Mancunian guitarist.
Psychogeography, a concept developed by pre-Situationist movement Letterist International, initially originated from ideas articulated in Ivan Chtcheglov's influential 1953 essay 'Formulary for a New Urbanism' (coincidentally, the same essay that went on to inspire the name of Manchester's famed Haçienda nightclub). Through the Letterists, many of whom went on to form the Situationist International in the following years, the study of psychogeography further developed into an urban praxis alongside the dérive, détournement (a technique in which mainstream works and ideas are reconstructed into a subversive context) and recuperation (the flip-side to détournement). Grouped together under the larger praxis of unitary urbanism - "the synthesis of art and technology" - two major themes emerged: play, and exploration.
Whether intentional or not, the title of Johnny's upcoming second solo album contains a subtle nod to the more ludic elements of psychogeography. Psychogeography, and the concept of the dérive in particular, relies heavily on the theory that playful experimentation within the urban landscape is crucial for heightened awareness of one's environment, both mental and geographic. This awareness is of course not an end in itself, but a tool to subvert the conditions and controls of everyday life. Backtracking again to The Messenger
and the 'New Town Velocity' video, there is clear visual evidence of Johnny engaging in 'play' within his urban environment: tracing invisible patterns on window panes and on Hans Tisdall's wall mural at the UMIST campus; pretending to walk along a tightrope; practicing tai chi poses - and of course, playing his guitar. While most dérives wouldn't literally encompass such actions, in the 'New Town Velocity' video they serve as handy visualisations of an otherwise intangible concept.
More songs about buildings & paranoia
Beyond the influence of psychogeography on the 'New Town Velocity' video, cities and architecture are a recurring theme in Johnny's lyrics.'I like the sound of cities and I like stories,'
Johnny told Travel Almanac magazine in 2012. 'If you take any city in the world and really take in the architecture, all these stories come up.'
'European Me', a paean to cultural identity and the crossing of borders, and 'Lockdown', a touching tribute to coastal towns in winter, are two oblique examples from The Messenger
. Meanwhile on soon-to-be-released second album Playland
, the sublime 'Dynamo' is - at least at face value - quite literally a love song to a building.
When speaking of the inspiration behind themes evident in both The Messenger
, observation of society is a key concept. As a psychogeographer, Johnny is highly perceptive of his surroundings and all that entails - the people; the geography; the architecture. As an artist, he has the ability to turn those perceptions into something beautiful and creative. Though the Situationists and the Letterists before them have disappeared into the annals of history in their original incarnations, their ideals still live on in artists today, and Johnny Marr is certainly one of them.