Cope

James Wallis levels with you

Sudden Sway: Neuro-Activity Modules and Klub Londinium

‘This is a Neuro-Activity Module, broadcast to you on the wavelength of sound. NAMs help you “be” more easily. From Conceptat, the idea agency.’

The words jolted me out of my late-evening fervour of typing. It was the early 1980s and I was in my study at boarding school, banging out an article for the gaming fanzine I’d set up a few months earlier, Wereman, with the John Peel show on Radio One in the background. But suddenly—this. This wasn’t Peel’s usual eclectic noisy nonsense. This wasn’t even music. What was it?

‘Kev and Kath, function and data processors for Conceptat—the idea agency—have recently attended the office self-awareness weekend at the Olde Mill By The Stream. Kath is under stress as a result of an attack made outside the Green Man. Kev has left his first wife, who he has understood so well that she no longer exists. Hrrrh hrrrh winebar, hrrrh hrrrh cosy place between town and country. However, the noisy quiet has been broken by a card from the local society. “Come to the Union Ball!” it reads. “Bring two presents, a What and a Why.” Kev is anxious.’ 

What the hell? The text was half-way between the new turks of cyberpunk and Philip K Dick, the audio production like a well-produced self-help tape. Kev and Kath chatted earnestly about Whats and Whys, and spinach gnocchi. It was J G Ballard’s banal future brought vividly to life with quiet hysteria—not knowing whether to laugh or scream. And then, as a distorted voice pronounced ‘Please press [Return] on your computers now’ and the radio speaker broke into the shrill staccato of a home computer programme recorded on cassette, I decided that whoever these people were, and whether or not they got around to making any music, they were going to be one of my favourite bands of all time.

Fast-forward to 1990. Sudden Sway’s two Peel Session tracks, ‘Relationships’ and ‘Let’s Evolve’, have entered legend. The band is about to release its third proper album, having put out the extraordinary Spacemate in 1986—a double album in a box five centimetres thick, stuffed with literature and ephemera about a bizarre and strangely plausible over-commercialised near-future, costing their label WEA a great deal of money that I’m sure it never saw again, and ’76 Kids Forever, the soundtrack of a never-produced musical trading on a faux-nostalgia for the 70s and 80s that didn’t exist yet.

They’ve also released Sing Song, eight different 7” singles pushed out simultaneously in identical packaging to a bewildered and somewhat oblivious public; followed by Autumn Cutback Joblot Offer, an eight-track album on a 7” single. They’d done a residency at the ICA Gallery in London, sitting in a chipboard hexagon playing songs when visitors pressed one of four buttons, while an exhibit around them extolled the delights of the fictional new town of Heavenly Springs. They are still one of my favourite bands.

And then a small mention in Time Out notified me of Klub Londinium, guided experiences by Sudden Sway, by application only. Of course I applied. In return I got… a personality test?

At this point my memories of the event are just that—twenty-year-old memories—so if you’re a Sudden Sway completist please do not rely on the details of what I’m saying here. This is what I took away from the event, not necessarily what was actually organised or actually happened.

I filled in the personality test and sent it back, and was told to turn up at Liverpool Street Station on a Saturday afternoon, with a portable cassette player and headphones. I think at some point a fiver changed hands, and at some point I got a cassette marked ‘Klub Londinium: Outsider’. And this, at last, was the Neuro-Activity Module I’d been promised a decade earlier.

The instructions explained the intention: having graded people into four personality types—Materialists, Hedonists, Mystics and Outsiders—the organisers wanted to give paticipants a way of experiencing London through a different set of cultural filters, by letting them take a tour designed around a different personality type.

‘Ah, psychogeography,’ the smarties are already muttering, ‘the Situationist International, the idea that cities only exist as we perceive them, everybody knows a different London’ and that was part of it, certainly. But this appeared to be the first example of a system for letting you experience someone else’s London—not just giving you their places but their interpretation of them, within the intimacy of a pair of headphones. For the 45 minutes that the tape played you had someone else walking with you, their voice in your head, not talking to you but talking to themselves. And more besides. It was, in 1990—Margaret Thatcher still prime minister, Amstrad computers still considered acceptable—transmedia.

How did it work? Participants were met outside Liverpool Street Station by a representative of Klub Londinium, who gave them an identity badge and told them when to start the walk. Participants walked on their own, with only the tape for company, to guide them and keep them at the right pace. I think there was a ten-minute interval between walkers; it may have been less but it should be fairly obvious already that this wasn’t an activity that was going to scale well.

Press play, and follow the tape’s instructions. There are three elements on the tape: the Narrator, who tells you where to go; a musical score that comes and goes; and the Outsider, your companion on the journey, your Virgil through the seven circles of east London and your guide to this stranger’s perspective.

The only problem was that on the personality test I’d come out as an Outsider, so this wasn’t a million miles from how I’d have seen the walk anyway. It wasn’t me exactly, but it was a worldview I recognised, though exaggerated and unnecessarily depressed. Nonetheless, interesting.

The walk lasted forty-five minutes, and covered—I’d guess—slightly more than two miles. I don’t remember the details of its course—do you remember the route of a 45-minute walk you did once twenty years ago—and most of the sights along the way I’ve forgotten too. The general tone was about urban degeneration, the loss of community, the searching for somewhere to live and to call home. It wasn’t political at all, there was nothing that might alienate the walker from the recorded soundtrack—but the soundtrack was working to create a sense of alienation from the environment, a sense of displacement and discomfort.

It was very well done. It was also quite depressing, that being the core of the Outsider personality. It’s difficult to distance yourself from voices in your head, to gain a sense of detachment and a space in which to analyse what you’re experiencing, and besides it was 1990, nice people didn’t do that sort of thing.

I do remember two specific things:

1. Entering a raised area, like a large courtyard, surrounded by modern buildings. I want to say it was a housing estate or at least modern flats, but that seems unlikely. At this point the narrator makes a reference to something like a surveillance society, and the voice in my head starts going a bit paranoid: ‘I feel like I’m being watched, like I’m a test subject in their laboratory. Are they following me? Are they observing me?’

—except there were people following and observing me, carrying clipboards. They were keeping their distance but there was no question, of all the people around (and admittedly it was a quiet Saturday afternoon so there weren’t many) they were explicitly paying attention to me.

It took my internal games-designer a few seconds to realise that they were stooges who were reacting to people wearing Klub Londinium badges, but for anyone less analytical it must have been an eerie and disorienting experience.

2. Further on, probably two-thirds of the way through the course, there was a long bridge under a railway. The afternoon was overcast and drizzly and the space under the bridge, shadowy at the best of times, was dark and ominous. The narrator warned of crime, of dispossessed youths with nowhere to go, and the Outsider began to worry about danger, about what might be lurking in the shadows

—and there was someone in the shadows, silhouetted against the daylight at the far end of the tunnel, leaning against the wall in a post of arrogant, youthful hostility. Just waiting, not moving. And it was clear that the tape was taking me towards them, right past them.

No one else in sight. Just me and this unknown figure, and the voices in my head: the Narrator calm but insistent that I proceed; the Outsider increasingly panicked by the possibility of confrontation or worse.

Fifty feet away. Twenty feet. Ten. And as I reached arms-distance from the lounging youth he suddenly stepped away from the wall, turning towards me, took a step towards me—

—and another, and walked past me, the way I’d come, and away.

My heart meanwhile, was going like an over-caffeinated jackhammer. It was a brilliant piece of minimal theatre, with me as unwitting stooge and audience together.

The walk concluded at the Geffrye Museum in Bethnal Green, as the Outsider either evaporated or expired in a frenzy of exclusion from the selection of homes that the museum offered; and the participants rendez-voused with members of the band at a nearby pub for something of a postmortem.

I don’t remember much about that part, to be honest. But about the same time I saw Derek Jacobi perform Henry IV parts 1 and 2 over successive nights and I don’t remember anything at all of that. And Klub Londinium made such an impact on me that twenty years later I can still recall the face of the man in the tunnel, a face I saw once, in shadow, for a handful of seconds two decades ago. Anyone who doubts the power of transmedia hasn’t seen it done properly, is what I’m saying.

But why am I telling you this? Klub Londinium was a one-off series of four events and as far as I know they were never repeated. Sudden Sway seem to have ebbed away as the 90s witnessed their predictions of a bland future of corporate brain-whitewashing beginning to come into actuality. But as technology has given games designers the tools to create psychogeographical walks with transmedia elements, geo-synched events and even augmented-reality add-ons, I thought it would be useful to make a record of what must have been one of the earliest attempts to do something like this.

Perhaps not the earliest, though. I’m sure the ghost-walks where hidden watchers cue spooky events have been around for centuries, whether with a human guide and narrator, or with participants following a map.

But Klub Londinium was a specifically media-based experience, possibly one of the first real transmedia experiences, more than twenty years ago, before portable technology included CD players let alone MP3s, GPS or Google Maps. And it’s interesting to look back and compare how cassette-based technology and a couple of friends stand up to today’s enhanced digital experiences.

To this end in a few days Kevan Davis and I are going to redo one of the Klub Londinium walks. Obviously it won’t be the same: the geography of the city will have changed over twenty years—though we’re deliberately doing the Mystic, the one set in Regents Park, to minimise that—and there won’t be any actors or stooges along the way to bring the psychogeographical elements of the landscape alive the way that Sudden Sway originally intended. But we will reconstruct what we can, compare it to the state of the art, and report back.

(Klub Londinium tape inserts courtesy of Fruitier than Thou.)


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10 Comments

  1. Love this post. What an experience that must have been, and so finely judged with the man in the tunnel and the watchers with clipboards. Imagine the fun they must have had putting it together. Much better than a ghost walk. Did you ever find out what the other routes were?

    • James Wallis says:

      The four Klub Londinium routes were:
      Hedonist – Leicester Square and the West End. I imagine this is un-doable these days, the area has changed so much;
      Materialist – the Square Mile, starting at the Nat West tower;
      Mystic – Regents Park;
      Outsider – Liverpool Street, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green.

  2. I’d never heard of this before. It sounds terrific. I had on Singsong 7″, and later found MP3s of the other ones.

  3. […] and I met in Regents Park and did—simultaneously and not as it’s supposed to be done—the Klub Londinium ‘Mystic’ walk. It was a lovely evening, the temperature and mood were just right, and the experience was […]

  4. […] heads or at least the mindsets of people mostly unlike themselves. I did the Outsider walk in 1990 and blogged about it recently here. Our journey was an attempt to see how the walks had survived 22 years, and whether it stood up to […]

  5. Bob says:

    Fantastic to read about this. I remember desperately wanted to go on this walk, but i lived in Scotland at the time and couldn’t make it. I did however see Home is Heavenly Springs in Edinburgh. I spent quite a bit of time chatting to Sudden Sway and spent a good couple of hours wandering around the various booths. Brilliant experience.

  6. charnelboy says:

    It would be great to hear all these tapes , i have one and would happily trade with anyone ownign the others Any takers?

  7. It’s late, I’m tired, my brain is slippy… I may have missed a point: are you sure those people were stooges? Or were you just primed for the unexpected?

    (related – you will like Framework http://www.frameworkradio.net/ – it is excellent listening for mundane tasks such as train journeys and supermarkets. And because I know it will grate: the consecrated thing is deliberate)

    • James Wallis says:

      I can’t check because Outsider is the only one of the Klub Londinium recordings I don’t have any more, but I’m pretty sure that at the appropriate moments the narrator was cueing the listener pretty hard to be aware of people around them. I am certain that the guy under the bridge was a stooge because Sudden Sway used exactly the same dramatic trick on the Mystic walk, and even listening to it twenty years later it’s absolutely clear where there’s meant to be an interaction with another person.

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