The Liberation Support Movement

Josh MacPhee first encountered the Liberation Support Movement while working in a “lefty” print shop in the late 1990s. There, on top of a stack of other publications, he came across a copy of LSM’s interview with ANC leader Alfred Nzo, which was published in 1974 as part of its Interviews in Depth series. As an artist, what first struck MacPhee was the cover design. “It was all so simple, but somehow perfect,” he says. The contents were also striking, dealing with the ANC’s armed struggle against apartheid, a very different tale than the organization’s official line since becoming South Africa’s ruling party. Having discovered this first pamphlet, he began seeking out other examples of LSM’s printed output. Then, a couple of years ago, a mutual acquaintance put him in touch with several LSM members.

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The Liberation Support Movement was founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1969 by anthropologist Don Barnett and several of his students at Simon Fraser University. Over time others joined, expanding the organization into a number of cells scattered across the North America, but eventually the group found a home in Oakland, California, where it consolidated. Members in other areas either moved to Oakland or left the group. The LSM was one of many emerging anti-imperialist organizations during the era whose focus had shifted away from Vietnam and towards other, lesser-known struggles in areas with active liberation movements: Southern Africa, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Eritrea, Oman, and Palestine. During its existence from 1969 to 1982, the LSM operated not only as a small press, issuing pamphlets and other material to publicize these struggles, but was also very active in a number of other areas. During its existence members of the group conducted information tours across North America, collected and sent tons of medical supplies and clothing to the MPLA in Angola, sent several teams to southern Africa to interview freedom fighters and to record music that was later released on a pair of LPs, produced a short film, and even trained a pair of SWAPO militants from Namibia in the fine art of offset printing.

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Josh MacPhee’s Liberation Support Movement: Building Solidarity with the African Liberation Struggle was published in 2016 by the Interference Archive, a Brooklyn-based organization of which he is a founding member. The pamphlet includes extracts from interviews he conducted with three members of the LSM—Ole Gjerstad, Steve Goldfield, and Rick Sterling—followed by a preliminary (but very thorough) checklist of the group’s output. The booklet’s bright colors and simple yet striking graphics echo the design aesthetic of many radical publications of the 1970s.

The history of small radical social movements in the US is tangled and complex. Individuals moved from one group to the next frequently and fluidly. Schisms were common, often resulting in the creation of new groups or the renaming of existing ones, and many seemed to pop up and disappear overnight leaving barely a trace. The traces that do survive are often in the form of the published output these organizations left behind. The discovery of a long-forgotten pamphlet or flier may be the first hint to a researcher that a previously undocumented group ever existed.

When researching small presses from this era, bibliographers are often frustrated by the lack of information available regarding the actual printing process. In the interview section, MacPhee helpfully includes a statement from Rick Sterling explaining that the LSM ran its own print shop, equipped with a Multilith 1250 offset press. The shop was originally located in Richmond, British Columbia, but was later moved to Oakland. Eventually the group formed a relationship with a politically sympathetic shop in Ithaca, New York, called Glad Day Press. Glad Day had larger presses and so printed posters and other jobs the group thought too large for its own shop. This sort of information might seem peripheral to the cultural historian, but is essential for the bibliographer.

Through collating the information he has collected over the years and publishing it in what is basically a very simple format, MacPhee has not only created a major resource for anyone interested in the LSM, but has also provided an excellent model that other researchers could use to present their own work. Very little bibliographical research has been done on the printed output of the huge number of radical leftist organizations of the 70s and 80s so MacPhee’s work fills a gap. I can envision this gap being further filled by a series of pamphlets (or their digital equivalents) on other imprints of the era using MacPhee’s model: a narrative of the organization’s history, wherever possible from the mouths of the people involved, followed by a checklist of all known output from the group. With each pamphlet detailing a single group or imprint, these publications could serve as entry points to wider and deeper studies. In the meantime, MacPhee’s pamphlet is essential for anyone interested in the topic (as well as for any institution collecting in this area.)

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Interference Archive: Publications

Liberation Support Movement from MSU’s African Activist Archive

 

This is Memorial Device: An Hallucinated Remembrance of Things Past

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On the surface, David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device is a clever, offbeat novel about the underground music scene in a small Scottish town from the late 70s into the first half of the 80s. The scene is a swirling vortex with a very local, but hugely influential, band called Memorial Device at its center. Keenan writes as someone who was there, vividly detailing the subtleties of taste and fashion that informed the era. He has created something of a 21st century epistolary novel, with various participants of the scene recounting their memories via letters, transcribed interviews, or e-mails.

One can’t help being a bit suspicious, though, that the novel is also something of an hallucinated roman a clef. Just a few pages into the book Ross Raymond, a character who might just be Keenan’s alter ego, grounds us in the scene’s musical aesthetic, “Every Saturday I would meet Johnny and we would travel to Glasgow and buy two LPs each: the first Ramones album, The Sonics’ Boom, Easter Everywhere by The 13th Floor Elevators, which is still the greatest psychedelic record ever made, Can’s Tago Mago, Metal Box by Public Image Ltd, the first Roxy album, This Heat, Nurse With Wound, So Alone by Johnny Thunders—in fact anything by Johnny Thunders, everyone in Airdrie was obsessed with Johnny Thunders.” Other characters voice other influences, the Only Ones, Suicide, or Throbbing Gristle (and in fact this novel is likely one of the few ever published to carry a blurb from Cosey Fanni Tutti on its cover.)

This is a culture where the record geek is king. This idea is strengthened by a section in which the character Bobby Foster recounts his experiences with Teddy Ohm, an older, biker type who “looked like Johnny Winter crossed with Frank Zappa crossed with Cher in the 1970s, effeminate but tough and kind of scarier for it.” Besides being the local drug connection, Teddy was also a dealer of the rarest vinyl, specializing in “weirdo private-press” discs, “like the Fraction LP, Circuit Rider, D. R. Hooker, garage stuff like the Bachs and Index” as well as the folkier end of things like Relatively Clean Rivers and Hickory Wind. As the private-press label collecting scene was still in its infancy even in the later 1980s—and was a very American phenomenon in its earliest days—this section feels like a fantasy of how things should have been. But it’s exactly this sort of savvy anachronism that makes the book endearing. There’s a certain type of reader who won’t have to look up any of the obscure band names mentioned and for whom the adventures of Keenan’s motley cast of characters will bring back memories of his or her own local scene. It is this reader-as-insider who may just find This is Memorial Device a warm, fuzzy read despite the dysfunction it honestly portrays.

In recent years the theme of memory has been very influential in literature, film, and music. This is evidenced by the spike in interest in the works of W. G. Sebald over the last decade or so, as well as the emergence of the not-exactly-parody blog Scarfolk Council and the nostalgia-haunted sounds of the bands on the Ghost Box label. For me, if This is Memorial Device has an overarching theme it has to do with what and how we remember. Lucas, the singer in Memorial Device, has a vaguely defined condition in which he has no long- and very little short-term memory. Like the notebook he carries in order to keep his world in order, the very name of the band seems to imply that the group functions as a tool to help him remember. Perhaps the band took its name from this notebook in the same way that other bands in the scene took their names from unlikely, random objects, incidents, or ideas. The format of the novel in which each chapter of the book is told by a different individual recounting his or her personal memories helps emphasize this theme of slippery remembrance. Sometimes the voices contradict one another. Sometimes they recount the same incidents painted with a different brush. This is not an exploration of multiple realities a la Rashomon, but simply what happens when different people try to remember the events of several decades past. For me, This is Memorial Device demonstrates that there is no single narrative that constitutes an objective musical history. The history of a genre, a local scene, or an individual band can only be pulled from a field on which multiple narratives interplay, driven by the always subjective, ever-flawed engine of memory.

—Stephen Canner