Monday, 29 December 2008

The most important sense in which 1977 was a turning point

When Peter Hitchens (a man I have actually debated with once, and who confirmed his reputation as someone who simply chooses not to respond to any points that may significantly challenge his, and who cannot even remember the full details and implications of what he has written, so completely that I need happily never bother a second time) proclaimed that he was "just old enough" to have "seen with (his) own eyes ... the very last years of an older Britain" (by which he clearly meant the late 1950s and early 1960s) he was saying so in an entirely different tone, and with utterly oppositional implications, to those we would hear from any of British pop/rock's iconic figures if they used similar language.  For Hitchens, who has built his entire career on what is more or less a false memory syndrome - rose-tinted yearnings for a world of which he himself witnessed only the dying embers (once pathetically moaning that he "thought" he could "just remember" Children's Hour) - it is the sadness of his life than he cannot remember the days when Britain Ruled The Waves, or Stood Alone, or whatever.  For the first true rock generation in Britain (whether they stuck with left-wing views or whether, as happened much more often, they gleefully jumped on the bandwagon of Thatcherism's adaptation of rock culture's privatisation of the mind) it is a repressive memory that they are glad to have escaped and which, when they are not desperately trying to forget they ever lived through it, exists only as the mental source of everything they congratulate themselves for having kicked against (when not congratulating themselves on having laid the groundwork for the privatisation of Iraq's oilfields).

Nonetheless, pretty much all the best British rock music between the mid-'60s and the coming of punk was, to a greater or lesser extent, defined by its shadow of the dying Old World in which its protagonists had grown up.  "Penny Lane" combined rose-tint and an obtuse sense that things were not quite as they seemed.  Hidden almost inaudibly in "Revolution No. 9" (which, incidentally, has an almost exact counterpart for a much later generation in Mordant Music's "We Are the Mean") was an exhumation of memories arguably more powerful than Lennon's later confessionals.  Syd Barrett reimagined his early childhood as a starting point for his creation, in the brief moment before the new world proved too much for him, a parallel universe far richer and stranger than anything that ever actually was either before or after the Big Changes, and in his final moment with Floyd, "Jugband Blues", his use of a Salvation Army band, lost amid the sound of a fading mind, brings on a potent feeling of a '50s universe audibly collapsing and curdling ("I'll get my loving in the winter": the winter of his own life that would only end with death, but also Britain's long winter as Murdoch crept in and the enabling state crumbled).  Even the Rolling Stones, at first, existed overwhelmingly in the shadow of the old order - its very non-acknowledgement in their music only served to hide how much they were about fleeing from it, eventually ending up as the epitome of the corporate institutionalisation of rock which proved to be the real future.  And those are only the canonical "greats" - I could go on almost infinitely if I went on to the (rightly, in most cases - apart from the below) critical "untouchables" of pure prog, or the more credible Canterbury school, or (especially) folk-rock.  I could even return to the Larry Parnes generation, raised entirely amid the old order, and how they relate to the aftermath of Suez (every bit as crucial to early British pop as the death of John Smith and its aftereffects to Britpop).

When Peter Gabriel quotes Del Shannon in the song that gave this blog its URL (though not, importantly, its actual title), he's trying desperately to reconcile the vast range of his post-imperial experiences - growing up amid the wonderfully elegant, utterly useless and played-out detritus of the gently declining upper middle class, and hearing "Runaway" through the fuzz of Luxembourg, and trying to work out which of the two held more emotional sway over his life - and somehow hoping that he can work it all out on the most public stage of the post-imperial world.  The power of that one line, to me, is almost indescribable - an epic battle between Greece and Rome in one man's mind, between his own inheritance and what he must have subliminally known, even in 1961, would be everyone's future. It's far more powerful to me than a great deal of music which I know to be objectively far superior.  And yet in the end, like all the compulsive introspection of the British '70s, it was a dead end.  The generation that supplanted Genesis knew nothing and cared less of these battles.  All they knew was that all certainties were dying.

As I've listened constantly to Metal Box interspersed with the first two Pink Floyd albums for the last couple of days, it's occured to me that this is probably the most profound sense in which 1977 and the years immediately following it were a turning point - it was the first time when the bands coming through were made up of people who had no meaningful recollection of pre-1963 Britain.  The aftermath of punk was also, even more importantly, the first time when the children of those who emigrated to Britain between 1948 and the restriction of Commonwealth immigration in 1962 were old enough in sufficient numbers to be playing a genuinely important role in British music.  So even if you think (as I tend to, on the whole) that 1977-as-year-zero did enough long-term aesthetic harm to outweigh its immense and vital short-term good, you cannot dispute its vast importance - both in terms of what was happening at that specific time (slow death of Butskellism, etc) but in terms of the slow-burning impact of the most important change in Britain within the Butskellite period, the time when we wrongly thought we'd overcome the psychological ramifications of searching for a post-imperial role by sheer pop-cultural celebration.  As was blatantly obvious by the early '70s, we hadn't. Essentially we still haven't.

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