Spasticus: Popular Music and Disability

Lead Research Organisation: University of Salford
Department Name: Sch of Arts & Media

Abstract

Hello to you out there in Normal Land
You may not comprehend my tale or understand
As I crawl past your window give me lucky looks
You can read my body but you'll never read my books.
I'm Spasticus, I'm Spasticus, I'm Spasticus Autisticus!
Ian Dury, 'Spasticus Autisticus' (1981)

The uncontrollability of the pop body has been a persistent feature since its earliest days. From Elvis Presley's 'All shook up' (1956) or Johnny Kidd and the Pirates' 'Shaking all over' (1960), songs about uncontrollable neurological tremors, as physical symptoms conflating the ecstasy of sexual attraction and of dance, are heard from rock and roll on. The opening argument is that popular music has always been about corporeal transformation or excess and the display of those -- there has always been 'a whole lot of shaking going on' -- and reading that shakiness in the context of the disabled body is the starting point for fresh insights into both popular music studies and cultural disability studies.

My aims are to widen the scope of cultural disability studies by looking at the arena of popular music, and to contribute to our understanding of popular music studies via a sustained analysis of the place of disability within it. I seek to understand pop, rock and jazz through disability performance studies, but I also want to find out what the trashy, ephemeral, superficial aesthetic of pop can bring to the understanding of the cultural and social performance of disability. Colin Barnes reminds us that an 'element in the development of disability culture and the arts that should not be overlooked is the relationship between disabled people and the 'entertainment' industry. Historically, people with perceived impairments or 'abnormalities' have provided an important source of entertainment for the non-disabled majority'. Such entertainment ranges from 19th century freakshows to 21st century performance art, and there are now extended academic studies of each of these. So cultural disability studies has indeed begun to develop. What there still is not though is detailed critical, historical or theoretical work on disability and popular music studies.

The project takes its title from a single released by the chart-topping English singer Ian Dury (a polio survivor and visibly disabled performer) in 1981, to mark the UN International Year of Disabled Persons. 'Spasticus Autisticus' remains debatably the highest profile and most controversial direct intervention from a major pop artist to disability culture. Yet -- as disability cultural studies has taught us more generally -- the moment we begin to look for disability in popular music, we find it everywhere; pop is a profoundly dismodern cultural formation and practice. Chapters explore the extraordinary cluster of musicians who were polio survivors, visibly disabled performers, musicians with hearing impairments and the place of deafness as an occupational hazard, blind musicians, and cognitive impairment. With the AHRC's support, the aim is for this monograph to appear in 2011, in part to mark the 30th anniversary of Dury's single.

Publications

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Description In the course of researching and writing the book I have had the great pleasure (usually) of going to see artists and shows I thought relevant-a crip popper or rocker onstage? I'd be there in the audience, the one with the notebook. The evening that really stands out was a concert I'd never normally have gone to, since I am a lover of mostly small interior music. It was a very expensive concert in a very large hall by a global superstar, the kind of gig where (if you have some sight) you screw up your eyes to see the key figure moving not onstage but on the large screens either side of the stage. At least the sound (if you have some hearing) at such gigs is usually pretty good nowadays. But you know what? I was totally blown away. I was moved. I was inspired. I was energised to get back to the book, to do the songs justice as far as I could, as well as to ensure that the critical politics and disability theory would not be lost in the close pop readings. And, looking back, I think I was reassured that my own experience of disability-Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, progressive muscular dystrophy-which to be honest had been doing my head in a bit, making me feel like Dury's 'one-legged Peter / who knows bloody well / he's got worse ever since he came in' (Dury 1980)-was, straightforwardly put, liveable with. Yes, I got all that from one pop gig. It still seems a lot to me, and on the way home I felt lucky. And this was from a pop star whose songs I had quite liked, rather than ever loved, who was there in my big sister's record collection when I was a 1970s teenager listening to prog and glam rock, then Kevin Coyne, then Ian Dury and the Pistols. It was when the superstar-I am not supercripping here, believe me, though I fear you will think I am. I don't think I am, anyway. Maybe I am. I am. Reclaim the supercrip from abjection or overcriticality-it was when the superstar moved from singing his extraordinary back catalogue and talking about the history and legacy of the civil rights movement to one simple direct statement spoken between songs (hmm. So: not sung) about the personal experience of disability, the rights of the disabled, and a demand for greater access and social mobility through urban design for all people with disabilities, and 16,000 audience members cheered massively. I wasn't in that moment thinking about Stevie Wonder as freak or wonder, nor even as 'a prosthetically enhanced and up-to-date cyborgean soulman' (Rowden 2009, 119). I wasn't thinking about the Braille lettering on some of the album covers, or the classic albums' resonant names for a blind man-Talking Book, Innervisions-that seemed to confirm the cliché of blindness in music as offering 'an enhanced interiority' (Straus 2011, 6). Nor did I have in mind the sonic urban painting that was 'Living for the city' (at the press launch in 1973, Wonder had all the journalists blindfolded on a tour round New York: Werner 2004, 193), though I had danced joyously to that song already that evening. Nor the later experimental film soundtracks (the blind guy doing the film music?), pushing the boundaries of cross-media collaboration. No, it was not these critical items in my mind then, at my pop concert, where I was being a fan. It was really the quite specific spoken demand for disability awareness and access, delivered onstage by the disabled musician at his pop concert, and the way that that utterance had been so cheered by everyone, that powerfully struck me. The shakin's not all over, is it? The world still needs shaking up. Stevie told me that one night in Manchester and I agree with him.
Exploitation Route By acknowledging the surprisingly central place of disability experience in popular music & culture.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://georgemckay.org/shakin-all-over/
 
Description They have been used in media reporting of popular music and disability, health,polio. Also via a number of public lectures and presentations on the topic, greater understanding of these areas and of the significance of pop music in discussing them has occured. Further, the understanding of disability in music, in terms of advocacy and activism, has been enhanced (eg by my contribution to the 2018 UK Disability History Month, for which the theme was Disability and Music).
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description BBC World Service, live interview about popular music and disability 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact BBC World Service, live interview about popular music and disability

Interview and discussion on Newshour programme, with pop singer and polio survivor Steve Harley
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Cripping subculture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact Research seminar, Media School, Birmingham City University

Stimulated thinking about the place of disability in media and musical cultures.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Professor in Residence, Kendal Calling pop festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was a public engagement innovation, the appointment of the first ever 'professor in residence' at a UK pop festival. I gave a series of interview in the media before and after the festival, and at the festival, in the Lake District, gave two public lectures on my research, in the spoken word tent on Friday and Sunday afternoons. One of the lectures presented my research on popular music and disability.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
URL http://georgemckay.org/festivals/kendal-calling-2011-professor-in-residence/
 
Description Science and the Arts Festival 2015, Birmingham University, guest public lecture, polio and popular music 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public and medical professionals attended talk, leading to discussion about disability, culture, public awareness.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description UEA London Lecture 2019: Popular music and disability 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact C 150 people attended a public lecture, one of an annual series organised by University of East Anglia, called the UEA London Lectures. The topic drew on McKay's research expertise in popular music and the disabled body, different embodiments and voices from rock n roll onwards. There were many questions and lively debate from audience members, scholarly, informed, anecdotal, and personal. This continued in a very lively way at the post-lecture reception. A pre-lecture short film showing McKay introducing the topic was made as taster and is available on Youtube.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnXvwpJvsmE
 
Description University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna, research seminar, music and disability 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact 30 people attended a lecture and following it was extended discussion about UK and Austrian and German perspectives on disability, culture, and public awareness.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://georgemckay.org/crippled-with-nerves-polio-and-popular-music-lecture-university-of-music-and-...
 
Description interview (transcribed) with disabled drummer David Rohoman 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact David Rohoman played with Ian Dury in the early 1970s. Here he talks with GM about his career, thoughts about Dury, his autopathography. Rohoman has rarely been interviewed, even though he is an important historical figure in the field.

Rohoman has rarely been interviewed, even though he is an important historical figure in the field.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010
URL http://georgemckay.org/interviews/david-rohoman/
 
Description public talk as part of a series US culture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was a public talk in the central library in Norwich, about jazz and disability, as part of the annual lecture series from the USAF Memorial Library in the city. Attendees came as a result of their interest in music or in US culture and history, as well as some from disability perspective. Many commented that the relation of jazz and disability was a new and different way of thinking about the music.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description talk about research at launch of UK Disability History Month 2018, in Westminster 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A talk around my work on music and disability, at the parliamentary launch for the 2018 UK Disability History Month. The theme for that year was in fact music and disability, and much of it drew on my work from the book Shakin' All Over: Popular Music and Disability (AHRC-funded), including a significant schools resource bak produced for the month's activities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://ukdhm.org/previous-years/2018-disability-and-music/