In 1993, Rough Trade records put out Lipstick Traces, a “soundtrack” to the book by Greil Marcus. It’s one of my favorite CDs of all time, with tracks by The Slits, Essential Logic, The Raincoats, The Mekons, Buzzcocks, The Gang of Four, Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers, Situationist philosopher Guy Debord and others. It’s an amazing collection, but one track in particular stands out from the rest, a recitation by none other than Marie Osmond, of Dada poet Hugo Ball’s nonsensical gibberish piece from 1916, “Karawane.”
Hugo Ball was a follower of anarchist philosopher Mikail Bakunin and became one of the founders of the Zurich nightclub, Cabaret Voltaire, the nexus of the Dada art movement. He would go onstage dressed like this and basically, uh, do avant garde things:
Here’s the story behind this, I think you’ll agree, most excellent clip. From the Lipstick Traces liner notes:
As host of a special (Ripley’s Believe It or Not) show on sound poetry, Osmond was asked by the producer to recite only the first line of Ball’s work; incensed at being thought too dumb for art, she memorized the lot and delivered it whole in a rare “glimpse of freedom.”
This book is about a single serpentine fact: late in 1976 a record called Anarchy in the U.K. was issued in London, and this event launched a transformation of pop music all over the world. Made by a four-man rock ‘n’ roll band called the Sex Pistols, and written by singer Johnny Rotten, the song distilled, in crudely poetic form, a critique of modern society once set out by a small group of Paris-based intellectuals.
Lipstick Traces, well, traces the critique of capitalism from the Dada art movement through the Situationist International and the May 1968 uprisings in Paris, through to the Sex Pistols and the punk rock explosion. In other words, it is the hidden history of the artistic opposition to capitalist society. It was heavily influenced by the revolutionary avant-garde punk zine “Vague” (a parody of Vogue, if that’s not obvious). I was reading “Vague” from my late teens—I still have most issues—and it had a great deal to do with shaping how I see the world. Marcus cribbed a lot from Tom Vague for Lipstick Traces, which is not to take anything away from Greil Marcus at all, but to simply give credit where its due.
Although I can recall a lot of criticism that was leveled at Lipstick Traces by reviewers when it first came out, the book’s thesis was, in my opinion, on pretty firm ground. It has certainly stood the test of time and has remained in print to this day. I’m told that it’s often used in college courses, which is unsurprising. A twentieth anniversary edition of Lipstick Traces was published by Harvard Press in 2009