Monday, 25 March 2013

The Spectre Of Hauntology

Ghost Box Records, 2004 – 2009:
A Personal Appreciation

For a long time, from early childhood up until about ten years ago, in fact, I had a recurring dream about the Somerset town of Sedgemoor. In the dream, I simply walked around familiarising myself with the topography of the place: the pub, the cinema (which only showed French films, no subtitles), the zoo, the observatory. I always felt anxious, uneasy, however: as if I was looking for something that was always in the next street, around the next corner - and confused, as if I’d been there before but forgotten almost everything (can you have déjà vu in a dream? It seems like a bit of a neurological cluster fuck.). The dream was unsettling but intriguing at the same time. I always looked forward to the next instalment. I’d never been to Sedgemoor, of course, indeed, I couldn’t have been to Sedgemoor, as it doesn’t exist as a town, being instead an administrative region (which, interestingly, contains the village of Shapwick*).

Sedgemoor Today.

Fantasy Village Not Pictured.

It’s origin was easy explained in that I used to obsessively read my Dad’s ‘AA Guide to Great Britain’ on car journeys and had seen it mentioned there with regard to the bloody Civil War battle that took place in the area in 1685. My Sedgemoor was a combination of pictures in the book, things I had seen on my travels and a distorted, reconfigured version of Colchester, the town I was born in, with its Iron Age earthworks, Roman wall, Norman castle, Medieval abbey, Tudor houses, Civil War bullet holes, Victorian Town Hall and 1960’s brutalist car parks and tax office.

The Castle.

The New Arts Centre.

Balkerne Gate.

North Hill.

As I got older, the dream continued, but the location gradually moved from the town centre to the outskirts, then to the moors and, eventually, to a high and wind-blown vantage point above another, larger and more industrialised town. The dream would end when it started to get dark, and the lights would start to come on in the conurbation below. This dream was less intriguing, and a lot less fun as it seemed to be telling me something slightly unpalatable, and I was glad when it stopped.

So what has this to do with Ghost Box? Well, I suppose the recurring dream (and a myriad of other things) made me inordinately receptive to the hauntology movement (if you can call it a movement -  it might also be described as a slow, collective realisation) and I immediately dedicated myself to the cause.

Let’s be clear: I’m not a theorist or a philosopher or a commentator, and my interest was less in the science that underpinned it (something about Derrida, Marx, postmodernism), but in the way it grouped together the real and the imagined, not distinguishing between the two complementary, but contradictory states, but instead creating a third way: a collision of fact and figment filtered through a series of complicated and incomplete emotional responses. That’s a lot of verbiage but, in effect, hauntology took my dream of Sedgemoor (and all the other fragmented pieces of the ever present past which I couldn’t get out of my head) and gave them a context – a framework - and, just as importantly, through Ghost Box, a soundtrack.

Since 2004, my life has been enriched by the existence of Belbury Poly, The Advisory Circle and The Focus Group, the original Ghost Box dream team. Their early recordings, beautifully designed and on homemade CDR’s, are masterpieces of time and space warped dream pop: wonderful electronic collages of post-war British life and culture, but seen fleetingly and incompletely, as from the corner of the eye, or through a prism of refracted light.

Ghost Box music perfectly encapsulates the experience of my recurring dream: the always moving, never arriving; the unfamiliar familiar. This music doesn't get worn out, you can't know every note by heart. Instead, it shifts eerily from moment to moment, presenting a different face at each listen.  The artists on the label have both distinct and indistinct personalities: they have their own style, their own sound, they are unique - but they make Ghost Box music - melodic, but odd and abstracted; easy listening avant garde.

Belbury Poly are led by Jim Jupp. The first out of the blocks, their 5" CD EP was the premier Ghost Box release and set the tone by making library music that sounded as if it had been captured from VHS tapes of old Anglia TV documentaries. There’s something slightly despicable about the term ‘imaginary soundtrack’, given how many times the idea has been abused, but Belbury Poly work it in an interesting way: you can see the programmes in your head, but the music is the illusion. Like a Rorschach ink blot test ‘Osprey’ is pretty specific for something so nebulous: it’s the sound of a ‘Survival Special’ broadcast to no-one in the aftermath of a nuclear war. It also reminds me of The United States Of America track 'Love Song For The Dead Che', which is about as good as it gets for me.

The Focus Group are chief designer Julian House's concern. The most uncompromising on the label, their music sounds like a photo album of people you don't know in familiar settings (or, conversely, people you do know in places they couldn't possibly be). Their albums are pin boards of sonic invention, a jittery, febrile jumble of ideas and daydreams. I think they’re probably my favourite GB artist. Here's 'Hey, Let Loose Your Love', a marvellous melding of a sample from Scrabble high score John Yvisaker with a ton of general and assorted aural weirdness. Nicely apropos visuals here too, taken from 'Bizarre: Secrets Of Sex', which I must get back to at some point.

The Advisory Circle are led by Jon Brooks. Their output seems the most musically conventional at time, but, as Brooks has said:

 ‘everything’s fine, but there’s something not quite right about it’.

Brooks is responsible for the first Ghost Box concept album***, ‘Other Channels’, a record about a housewife who can only get through the day by sitting in front of the telly stupefied by a handful of Mogadon. 'Fire, Damp and Air' is simply a beautiful and evocative piece of music that conjures up the best in soundtrack music (Barry, Morricone, Marc Wilkinson's amazing score for 'Blood On Satans Claw') an adds additional unease, the off kilter, the off balance, the 'not quite right'.

The dates 2004 to 2009 in the title of this post do not refer to the lifespan of the label, by the way. They are still here - and long may they be so. The dates aren’t indicative of my interest, either, I bought my last Ghost Box release in October 2012, i.e. when the last Ghost Box release came out. Instead, the dates, for me, mark the first phase of GB history, from their DIY beginnings to the magnificent album 'Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age’(not actually on Ghost Box, ironically, but Warp Records, the home of Broadcast – but this is a mere detail).

This album, with its shimmering and hallucinatory blend of folk, pop, electronics and horror soundtrack, seems to me to be the ‘Blonde On Blonde’ of Ghost Box records, i.e. the culmination of the five year evolution of a sound, a genetically perfect ‘best of breed’ where all the elements are perfectly balanced to create a definitive document. From here, Ghost Box changes, diversifies, spreads out, grows. But that’s another story, another post. Here’s a somewhat dazzling and disorienting trailer for the album which, if you haven’t already got it, is bound to make you want it.


As a postscript, in December 2011 I had to have an emergency operation and had to stay overnight in hospital. I only slept for a few hours that night but I had the dream again, the dream where I was above the town and it was getting dark. This time, however, there was an elephant and a circus tent and a sinister, black faced man in a red coat. When I woke up, I realised the sad, silly truth: my dream had been replaced forever by another fiction - my memory of the closing scene of the second series of ‘The League of Gentlemen’.

*   In 2012, Jon Brooks from The Advisory Circle released an album called ‘Shapwick’, a set of soundscapes inspired by his imaginary vision for a very real place.

** Ghost Box themselves are largely ambivalent about the term ‘hauntology’. I’m not particularly convinced by it myself but, to as I’ve said, it gives a single name to a complex concept. 

***In truth, all Ghost Box albums are concept albums.


  1. Love this blog, been a regular here for a long time, but this is the first post that's made me want to reply. Great great piece about Ghost Box, a label I love along with the ever amazing Trunk, and I agree with pretty much everything you've written above. There is something comforting yet uneasy about the music, and in the absence of the incredible Boards Of Canada for the last number of years, they've filled a musical gap in my life which I was yearning for. The Broadcast and Focus Group album is tough listening in a 'you need to be in the right frame of mind' kind if way, fir me anyway. Reminds me a lot of BOC's 'Geogaddi', in its underlying menace and, in some parts, down right scary moments.

    Thanks a million for this, really enjoyed reading it this evening, and as ever you've put it into words far better than I ever could.


  2. wonderful post! you've beautifully articulated many of the reasons why ghost box (and the "scene" that has coalesced around it) is able to cast such a spell on those of us who are attuned to its frequencies. as the previous commenter said: "you've put it into words far better than i ever could." thank you!

  3. Thanks,Eamonn; thanks, Nan, your comments are very much appreciated. I've met some wonderful, interesting people through a shared understanding / love of the hauntological, and it's great to make your acquaintance.

    Paul (U-W)

  4. What a great bit of writing. I am grateful that I have now the perfect thing to refer people to when they want to know what’s so great about Ghost Box. You described it perfectly. I personally discovered Ghost Box during a long period of asthma-related illness, where it was almost always difficult to breathe. The Ghost Box releases were one of the few things that intrigued me enough to distract me from the panicky feeling of not getting enough air. They truly transported me to a more comfortable and interesting place. My breathing is fine now, but I am still just as fascinated by Ghost Box, and just as transported by what they do.

  5. Magical. I suggest you write a book full of stuff like this.

    Ghost Box is dead,

    Long live Ghost Box !