|The Instant Automatons Archive|
People Laughed At Me (Coz I Wrote Weird Music)
by Mark (vocals, saxophone, guitar)
Why did I become an Instant Automaton? What drove me to take up my pen and commit my views to paper and then set them to music? Well, like many teenagers I was painfully aware of my own mortality - still am, actually - and also, like all teenagers, I thought I had the answer to everything. So why not combine the two and leave my startling insights behind for the sake of posterity?
I started off (again like many an angst-ridden teenager) by writing poetry, but whereas most teenage would-be poets are totally self-absorbed, intent only on expressing how misunderstood they are, I turned my attention outward to friends, acquaintances and others who interested me for one reason or another. One of my poems, for example, was inspired by Chris Chubbuck*, the American TV news anchorwoman who shot herself on live television in 1974. Fame and death, you see - a winning combination.
The problem with poetry, of course, was that in the days before John Cooper Clarke, Joolz and Patrik Fitzgerald, it wasn't seen as populist entertainment. As much as I needed to voice my worldview, I needed people to listen to me. One poet who had achieved fame among the masses was Leonard Cohen. He'd done it, as far as I could see, by sugaring the pill; setting his poems to music.
So that seemed to be the way to go. Looking back, I still think that of all my many influences, Cohen was the greatest. Not in an obvious way; I don't think much of the Automatons' oeuvre is comparable to Cohen's either in form or content, but the way that he could effortlessly marry commonplace phrases with more oblique imagery was a constant source of inspiration for me. On top of that, I still think he's the coolest guy in popular music.
Of course, Leonard Cohen isn't noted for his cheery singalongs (in the song Field Commander Cohen he refers to himself as "the grocer of despair") and neither were my other influences. The poignancy of blues music, the songs of heartbreak and loss that run through English traditional music like veins through marble, The Velvet Underground's tales of New York low-life, the bitterness and insecurity of Dory Previn's lyrical psychotherapy sessions, Jim Morrison's alcohol-fuelled visions. I'm sure there's a place in life's rich tapestry for songs about sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, but I preferred my world to be coloured a darker hue.
Although Punk inspired us, we were never a punk band. In fact, I was openly suspicious of the punk movement at first. Protag, who has always had his ear closer to the ground on these matters, was keen to champion the likes of Stiff Records and Richard Hell and The Voidoids. I, on the other hand, felt that it was all probably a marketing ploy dreamed up by Malcolm McLaren. Maybe it was, to begin with; that doesn't really matter now because we all got caught up in the divine madness and the "rules" still got shattered. The landscape of popular music had changed forever, and the Automatons stepped forward along with all the other One-Chord-Wonders and Bored Teenagers to claim their rightful fifteen minutes of glory.
So here we are, a quarter of a century later. Did I achieve what I set out to do? Well, I have posterity now in the most literal sense of the word - two children to (hopefully) carry my memory forward to subsequent generations. But also, the Automatons' contribution to popular culture has endured, albeit in a small way. Some people still remember us from our heydays with a bemused fondness and there are even those who (thanks to the efforts of worthy institutions like WFMU Radio) are discovering us anew. That makes it all worthwhile.
* She turns up again in the first verse of Song on the Radio Silence cassette.
NB: If you are one of the many people who have arrived at this page searching for information on Chris Chubbuck, you may well be interested in the fact that 391 have produced a piece of artwork to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of her death on 15th July. Go to the 391 homepage and then click the Gallery link to learn more.
Additionally, for the most in-depth analysis of Chris's story I cannot recommend too highly Sally Quinn's article from the Washington Post of 4th August 1974. It features a detailed account of the events of the morning of 15th July 1974, interviews with Chris's family, friends and colleagues, and an investigation into the possible reasons behind her suicide. It's available from the Washington Post archive for the very reasonable sum of $2.95