The Hauntological Sounds of Ghost Box Records
Alexander J. Zawacki explores the hauntological majesty of Ghost Box Recordings, and becomes immersed in music both familiar and strange...
Hauntology of the musical kind has gone mainstream. It has a Wikipedia page, an official Spotify playlist, and even citable academic research. In the process, though, its meaning has been diluted; it has to be about more than just ‘the aesthetics of the past,’ as Wikipedia puts it, or there’s nothing to distinguish it from bog-standard nostalgia and retro stylings. And indeed to listen to any release from Ghost Box Records, the British label that helped establish the genre fifteen or so years ago, is to be immersed in music that’s at the same time familiar and strange, like the soundtrack to a Public Information Film from a universe just a few degrees off from this one.
The term ‘hauntology’ made its debut in Jaques Derrida’s 1993 book Spectres of Marx (or to give its full burdensome title, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International). It’s a portmanteau of ‘haunt’ and ‘ontology,’ and in its original French, it’s a pun — hantologie with a silent h, indistinguishable in pronunciation from ontologie. The h is present but absent, like a ghost — very Derridean. And though hauntology is undoubtedly Spectres’ most famous contribution to popular culture and discourse, Derrida only actually uses it three times in his book’s two hundred-odd pages. When the term does appear, its precise meaning is a bit difficult to discern. No one has ever accused the French philosopher of being too straightforward, and the closest he comes to supplying a definition of ‘a hauntology’ is that it is:
Repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time, since the Singularity of any first time, makes of it also a last time. Each time it is the event itself, a first time is a last time.
‘Hauntology’ is a neat word, but it needed a clearer meaning if it was ever going to escape the confines of academia. Fortunately, in the mid-2000s a few vaguely off-beat music bloggers were looking for a term to describe the sound and aesthetic of artists like The Caretaker and the whole Ghost Box label, and they landed on Derrida’s neologism. The late, great Mark Fisher supplied it with a more coherent definition, suggesting that we ‘think of hauntology as the agency of the virtual, with the spectre understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing.' Hauntology is what Hamlet meant when he said that time was out of joint: the spectre of an unresolved past that we are compelled to revisit, and the ghost of a future that never was but that haunts us with the possibility that it might have been.
Ghost Box is hauntological in both senses. As Fisher notes, the bands on the label (Belbury Poly, The Focus Group, Eric Zann) are ‘names from an alternative 70s that never ended.’ They hail from a timeline where the austerity of the Thatcher years never came about, the postwar consensus never died, and — crucially — where ITV and the BBC never stopped airing things as gloriously weird as Children of the Stones (Peter Graham Scott, ITV, 1977), The Prisoner (Don Chaffey, etc., ITV, 1967), or the oeuvre of Nigel Kneale. The music of The Advisory Circle in particular sounds like it might have come out of a haunted reimagining of the Radiophonic Workshop, soundtracks to Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84) episodes that never saw the airwaves. Their albums are punctuated by logotones, the vaguely unnerving channel identifiers that once blared out at the top of the hour, now made eerier in distinctly Scarfolkian British fashion (‘The Advisory Circle: We make the decisions, so you don’t have to’).
It’s a label saturated with the weird in general — the name itself is a reference to a piece of ghost-hunting equipment designed to capture the voices of the dead by sweeping through radio channels — and 70s-era British weird in particular. Kneale’s spectre is especially active: his 1972 television play The Stone Tape (Peter Sasdy, BBC) gets a reference from Pye Corner Audio, and Mount Vernon Arts Lab’s 2007 album ‘Séance at Hobs Lane‘ takes its name from the infamous setting of Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967). These are all stories of the past returning to haunt us; so too, in a way, is ‘Chanctonbury Rings‘, from Justin Hopper and Shannon Krauss with Belbury Poly. Over the latter’s allusive instrumentation, Hopper reads extracts from his book The Old Weird Albion (2017), a psychogeographic travelogue of Britain in which history, mythology, and memory interweave and inscribe themselves on the island’s landscape.
Ghost Box Records (and I apologise for how this is going to sound) should really be experienced physically, ideally on vinyl. Not for audiophile reasons which at any rate are mostly made up, but because each release goes far beyond the music in establishing its tone, its feel, the particular space it’s carving out in the other world from which it hails. Everything from the bold retro artwork to the liner notes works to summon up something that is old and new and strange. The latter alludes to snippets of stories never played out, like the memo from a mysterious agency in Pye Corner Audio’s ‘The Concrete Tape’ that seems to be conducting some kind of paranormal investigation into ‘anomalous activities in Belbury’ where snippets of a manipulated past seem to be embedded in the material structure of the buildings, endlessly repeating.
This is hauntology: the past returning, the present bending under the influence of something that does and does not exist. In a distinctly tongue-in-cheek characterisation of the album, the inner sleeve describes the recurrence of ‘dyschronic’ music that Belbury residents hear in their dreams: ‘It doesn’t appear to belong to any definite historical period; instead it is characterized by a strange temporal slippage, an overlaying of sounds from different eras.’ This is presumably what the record we’re holding plays back for us, as well as an apt description of Ghost Box’s general output. It’s also where nostalgia and the Freudian uncanny meet to produce Fisher and Derrida’s hauntology. For Freud, the uncanny can arise from repetition, from the appearance of something that is at once familiar and strange. This is the experience of listening to a Ghost Box pressing. It’s nostalgia for a past that never was and a future that won’t be, and on that never and won’t rest all the melancholy of hauntology. There’s a sadness underneath even the most joyful tracks on Belbury Poly’s 2020 release ‘The Gone Away‘, and the core of the album is about a felt absence: the departure of the faeries.
Derrida, Jacques. Spectres of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York and London: Routledge (1994).
Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Alesford: Zero Books (2014)