Writer who was, outsider who is. Still struggling to understand social norms, but not contemplating the soon-come end of his life as he once did. Happiest on horseback, because even those risks are easier to understand than other people. Still trying to work out the contradictions of loving M.R. James and Channel AKA. But slowly getting there.
Some on the hard Left, or what has evolved out of it, will no doubt see a correlation between this and this (both from Tuesday's edition of my local rag). They will gleefully tell you that the fewer people go Morris dancing, or do anything else roughly considered "traditional" in this country, the fewer people will be riddled with bigotry against "newcomers" or "outsiders" (I would suspect that Brendan O'Neill would fall into this category, though I'd be delighted to hear otherwise). Don't believe them. Even if they are not part of the tiny fringe that defends Soviet suppression of the equivalent cultures in its satellite states (which accordingly gained a meaning that lasts to this day and which such things in long-term capitalist countries can never have again) they forget several subtly important realities - that the mass of the public don't have the knowledge of where post-1956 popular music mostly came from that white middle-class liberals wear so proudly and self-consciously, that for most people popular culture is simply a background noise that doesn't meaningfully impact on their deep-rooted personal prejudices, that the British folk tradition has if anything had its strongest manifestation on the Left, that (I can imagine O'Neill vomiting at this, but extreme class-based dogmatism, wherever it comes from, rarely reveals truth) most people into folk-rock were confirmed left-liberals and there were plenty of Paki-bashers into reggae and ska, even rock'n'roll fans "nigger-hunting" (as they delightedly described it) at Notting Hill '58 ...
I don't have much time for Morris dancing as it has become, myself - I tend to see it as a played-out, elderly parody of something that once genuinely meant something socially and culturally, a postcard sideshow of a pastime. But I certainly don't think that the orthodoxy of pop/rock today is any more socially progressive. They are both pretty much on the same level - exhausted, irrelevant parodies of once-great cultures. I would be prepared to bet, though, that the men who attacked Khalique Miah listened to plenty of the music that white middle-class liberals wrongly presume is inherently an anti-racist force (it would only be so if everyone was a white middle-class liberal) and that plenty of Morris dancers are tolerant, outward-looking Guardian-reading lefties. The assumptions of the dogmatically pro-pop-culture, anti-trad-culture extremists fall down in the eternal complexity of British realities.
Good to see David Cavanagh mention the death of John Smith in his Uncut piece on Blur. Quite a radical thing to point out, by their standards.
In his aptly-timed autobiography/autopsy, Luke Haines claims that the term "Britpop" was initially used to refer to pre-Beatles British pop of the Norrie Paramor school. I'm not familiar with that, although I have seen the term used to refer to British pop as a whole in 1980s music papers. It would be apt, considering where we seem to be returning and where NuLab was probably always destined to end, if it had been used back then, though.
Sorting out mid-1990s editions of Melody Maker isn't like sorting out any old magazines. It's like going through a litany - at once both personal and public - of lost dreams ("we could just be seeing the most art-literate generation since the mid-60s, and in a roundabout way you can thank Blur for that" - Taylor Parkes in November 1994, a tear in the retrospective eye), dying worlds, collapsing subcultures, bloated new-elite arrogance, the birth of a false, lie-built consensus, and the ultimate end of almost everything the magazine itself had stood for. It was much more cathartic than I thought it would be. And I think, as with almost everything else, that it was the power of timing that did it.
In January 1994, two structures which now seem impossibly irrecoverable - the genuinely political (as opposed to showbiz by other means) structure of Conservative and Labour parties, the latter fairly recognisable as historically Leftist, both essentially pre-pop and pre-marketing, and the idea of subculture in British music established by punk and redefined by rave - still existed in the present tense, even though actual public belief in the relevance of the former and confidence in the latter's cultural power among its exponents had been in decline for years. Within two, certainly three years, neither existed in the same sense, nor could they ever exist again. We were into a whole new world by now - of British politicians defining themselves by jumping aboard pop bandwagons (adopted by NuLab largely because all the genuine political differences that had previously told them from the Tories had been thrown on the scrapheap, and later by Cameron because all the supposed genuine political differences that told him from the old Tories didn't actually exist), and of what had been a subculture defining itself by its absorption into a Radio 1 which within a year of Blair's election had decided it no longer needed them because fashions had changed. The cultural dynamic which British pop had thrived on since its post-Suez prehistory had well and truly died: from this moment, nobody pretended that it could ever be more than a tool of the neoliberal state.
I am not saying that there is no good pop music being made in this country - indeed, if you know where to find it, there's at least as much as there ever was, whether it's Chipmunk or Rachel Unthank and the Winterset (parallel pops which in truth have far more in common, inasmuch as that both define and express the experience of those who never had credit to play with as if normal economic rules had come to an end during the Blair era, than dogmatic camp followers of either would ever want to admit) and of course there are means of bypassing the industry middleman that simply weren't around 15 years or more ago - but when everyone has their own clique, and nobody needs to take the "norm" because that norm simply isn't around anymore other than as Simon Cowell's plaything, having collapsed in its vainglorious last gasp that came with Britpop, you can't blame people for feeling a sense of loss, a sense of frustration that the most potentially transcendent pops are happy to exist in their own ghettoes while the elite ideology becomes an ever more brazen mistranslation of pop's essential opportunism.
It's incredible, in retrospect, just how much non-thought, and how many non-ideas, were justified in the mid-'90s on the grounds that they weren't the same thoughts and ideas as had prevailed in THE EIGHTIES (spoken of almost as if it had been an actual, as opposed to mere pop-cultural and political, war crime). In a manner all too typical of how the Blair government would turn out, genuine thought was suspended, and criticism of the era's holy grails was seen almost as blasphemy, as a distraction from what turned out to be a deluded, false promise. NuLab had to be the wholly good because at least it wasn't full-on Thatcherism, the Premiership had to be the wholly good because it was the opposite of what football had become in the mid-'80s, Britpop had to be the wholly good because it was a different situation from that of a decade earlier when Phil Collins had been dominant and the Smiths stalled at number 26. There was a good deal of justification to the anti-1980s attitude, but it's increasingly shaming to reflect on how few people dared to say that NuLab did not represent a genuinely radical or profound shift from Thatcherism, or that football might eventually become every bit as unequal, dominated by plutocrats and removed from the lives of most of its followers as it had previously been squalid and outmoded, or that Britpop's denial of the very idea of a subculture, and abandonment of interest in all territories beyond the singles chart, might do profound, long-term cultural damage. All that mattered was short-term interests and being the opposite of the '80s. We can see the results of the pop-cultural short-termism all around us, and we can see all too viciously that NuLab proved to be simply a continuation of all the aspects of the '80s most portentously condemned in the mid-'90s, which in some ways might reach their natural conclusion in a regression even further back, combining the essential self-centredness and disdain for public provision of Thatcherism with the autocratic / aristocratic rule of the '50s and early '60s as it would have been without the Attlee settlement as a constant background presence. If Britpop remains for the foreseeable future every bit as untouchable and beyond the pale as prog used to be - and I can only see its reputation declining even further - it will be the political nature of its con trick that damns it, not its regressive but, in itself, unremarkable music.
It hadn't been the best of weekends, after all. Hearing ELO's "Telephone Line" half-asleep on Sunday night hit me harder on pure emotional level than any song has for some time - I've always loved the song, responded to its desperate all-or-nothing, now-or-never last gasp as an accurate emotional reflection of its time (I'm not suggesting that Jeff Lynne specifically wrote about "living in twilight" to consciously mean the twilight of Butskellism, more that the feeling of the time was so total and all-pervasive that it affected very nearly everyone on some level) but now it's intensified and full-blown, because that 1977/78 feeling that even those of us who weren't even born at the time know almost as if we were there, that balance of dread (which briefly dissipated, it would appear, in the mirage summer of '78) and certain knowledge that everything is up for grabs, that whoever wins the next election has complete ownership of our forseeable future, feels so unsettlingly like now. When Cameron invoked Hadrian in his New Year message, could he have been implying a coded message that he might even become an ally of convenience of the SNP when the final shoot-out is on? And could the harsh moral of the mid-1990s - that what seemed to be a fantastic rebirth of British pop as we had known it actually turned out to be its death rattle - have been merely a trial run for the same fate befalling the Labour Party, even in its most neoliberal incarnation?
Somehow this seems a grimly appropriate end to the Bush era, for the last eight years in the US have seen a glorification of kneejerk bigotry against the other, of the whole "oh, he looks a bit foreign - he must be suspicious" mindset. What in any progressive society would have been a worldview to be ashamed of seemed, at times, to be almost the sole guiding principle of the state. But if the US can make a profound and genuine move away from this sort of attitude over the next four years - in other words, if it can return to its founding principles and to the single biggest reason why it has for so long been so attractive to so many - things could yet fundamentally change for the better for all of us.
What a deep irony it seems now, the idea that rock'n'roll - more specifically the vague, tantalising early hints here at the now all-too-familiar idea that the firepower of rock can be part of a broader campaign against whoever the West's bogeyman is this week - could possibly be seen as somehow allied with, on the side of, the last roar of the British Empire before it very visibly submitted forever to the realities of American dominance. Now, we're so used to the idea of rock'n'roll as an anti-Suez force, as part of the wave that blew in to overpower the old Britain in tandem with its geopolitical humiliation, that it is genuinely shocking to see that (as I'm guessing, anyway) anyone ever thought (and it would literally have only been for a matter of weeks) that it could be allied to the Suez adventure, could be used as part of a British campaign under its own steam, in defiance of Washington. Halfway between then and now, the legacy of the Falklands War - Britain's largest-scale military action under its own steam since Suez - did untold (arguably still unfolding) damage to British pop as measured by the singles chart, but it could hardly be seen as any kind of rock'n'roll war, partially because it started when the UK singles chart was at its absolute peak and also in probably its most un-American phase ever, and partially because it was purely a British war when the rock generation had yet to become Britain's military and governmental elite (although it is hard to find fault with the comments of some NME writers after it had ended, criticising the absorption of much of British pop into uncritical support for that adventure - it is as key a starting point for the British context of "The Eighties", as the phrase is most commonly used, as Gaitskell's death and de Gaulle's non for "The Sixties" and Cobain's and - far, far more importantly - John Smith's death for what Britpop became). Although the Falklands was not a rock'n'roll war, it nevertheless set the stage - in a (classically Thatcherite) manner that many of its greatest cheerleaders would not personally have supported - for Britain's involvement in wars that were.
The most important difference, from the perspective of how popular culture interrelates with military adventures, between the time of Suez and the geopolitical epoch that will hopefully end in seventeen days' time is that, in 1956, rock'n'roll was - in truth - entirely on the side of social progressiveness and anti-imperialism (at least in the context of what Britain was attempting to do), something it has not been for a very long time now. In truth, whoever wrote the words "Nasser's Rock'n'Roll" was nearly half a century too early as far as Middle Eastern military adventures were concerned. He or she was wrong in 1956. But had a supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq approvingly written the words "Saddam's Rock'n'Roll" they would have been entirely correct.
I never asserted that everything about the West Coast Main Line corridor and its influence on British culture was evil (I may have said that it has curdled from exciting future to narrow, repressive New Norm, an entirely different assessment). I did however say that the dominance of the WCML cities' white working class of British pop has greatly declined, for multiple reasons: the middle class having taken on pop as they have absorbed commercialism more generally, the crushing of what was, even in the 1980s, a greater resistance to debt-fuelled consumerism in Yorkshire, south Wales etc. and thus an increasing pop-friendliness in those places, the impact of 60 years of immigration fundamentally altering the fabric of the WCML cities and thus creating an entirely different form of pop (although of course that has been going on for a long time - three decades will very, very soon have passed since 2-Tone).
But the fundamental changes that have weakened a few cities' grip on British pop are as much technological as anything else. Classic example: everyone knows that the Beatles were hugely influenced by the fact that they had access to R&B records (otherwise almost unobtainable in the UK and receiving zero media exposure) because Liverpool was a port, almost everyone knows that the Stones could obtain similar records in London for the same reasons, it's like knowing that Citizen Kane is A Very Good Film, it's that obvious. But today the closest equivalent music can be heard wherever you are in the UK by multiple means that quite simply weren't around then - I almost feel like I'm talking to five-year-olds when I say this, but the main point I have always tried to make is that this fact must, by its very nature, make a vast difference to the entire nature of pop in Britain, every single aspect of the way it is produced and consumed. Where pop was once a treat, it is now as mundane as light orchestral music was then - and it is the WCML cities who have lost their dominance as a result of the normalisation of pop.
And hand in hand with the normalisation of pop goes the sheer passing of time. Listening to "To Know Him Is To Love Him" (charting in the UK half a century ago this week) earlier on, I could hardly believe it was as old as Second World War songs used to be. The oldest schoolteachers still in work in any great numbers are of the generation that screamed at the Beatles, and even they will be gone before too long. What does this change? Nothing, except everything.
30 years on, "Baker Street" and "Night Owl" seem all the more perfect for their moment, its disillusionment and desperate nerves for the future, a moment uncannily, frighteningly like our own. It's as if he had to disappear at this moment, his own sense of security within himself somehow destroyed by that brief upsurge of success, his past rendering him unable to take part in Scotland's new assertion of itself. His recent life has undoubtedly been, to say the least, like the protagonist of "Night Owl" at the end. But I hope he returns, if only because I genuinely believe there is more to him than mere MOR comfort food.
I thought I'd miss the subscription satellite channels much more than I do. Having Freeview and keeping the Sky dish up for the free channels (plus copious amounts of radio) provides the best of all worlds - you are saved from the unspeakable Edmonds (the comparatively likeable Deal or No Deal excepted), you are now also saved from Madeley and Finnigan (fuck those first names), you are saved from darts fans pissing all over Planet Funk's shimmering "Chase the Sun", but you still get Channel U, Flava, Flaunt (which had a fantastic New Year's Day retrospective - Stardust, Darude, "Out of Space", all the best aspects of the 1990s, basically) and, eek, Clubland TV.
The above "eek" is a natural reflex reaction on my part - the world it inhabits, in its purest form, is a place I would no more want to be than the world of (the thankfully now lost to me) Kerrang! TV and (the still sadly available) Scuzz. It's a working class territorially protective of its whiteness (and thus the BNP's natural heartland), and some of it is - even to me - terrifying (I'm not sure whether I want to see "Caramell Dancing" ever again - I'm sort of glad I saw it once, but the thought of it brings on a shudder between my toes that I don't want to repeat). It is also hard to forgive Clubland TV for its promotion of Scooter's thankfully unsuccessful collaboration with Status Quo (easily the former's worst ever song, because Quo, with all their petty, curtain-twitching rock'n'roll racism - and we all know that is the very worst, because most mealy-mouthed and hypocritical, kind of racism - represent the antithesis of everything that otherwise makes Scooter so great). Nor do I think Ultrabeat's more recent work is up to the standards of the heartstopping "Pretty Green Eyes" and the joyous mirage of "Feelin' Fine". But I still find myself watching it disarmingly often, because the disconnection of this wholly un-American music from tired old pseudo-rebellion overpowers any associations with the lost tribes of Burnley or Stoke-on-Trent (there is no attempt to pretend that this pop is something it isn't and cannot be) and because it gives songs as good as Gigi D'Agostino's "Bla Bla Bla" (almost a decade after the fact in that case, unbelievably) and Laurent Wolf's much more recent"No Stress" a time and space they have never otherwise been allowed in this septic isle. Indeed, at its best Clubland TV defies its own English provincialism and evokes a parallel universe of pop where the Channel is as narrow and the Atlantic as wide psychologically as they are geographically.
Yet it is still Channel U I always return to, because of all the music channels this is the one which best reflects why many on the Left supported deregulation of broadcasting in the 1980s - it is, in fact, what deregulated broadcasting ought to have been (and would have been in a Left-libertarian society) as opposed to what it generally actually has been (I will praise the post-1990 order of broadcasting to the extent that it has been an ally of convenience allowing a channel like this to exist, but not in terms of the ideology it was built on and which its most popular manifestations relentlessly promote). Unconnected as it is to any broadcaster which is forced to work under ludicrous expectations by a press which regards itself almost as Britain's true government, it can do what it does without the constant fear of official quasi-censorship being imposed on it. And of course Chipmunk, Tinchy Stryder et al are a pop in exile, a pop desperate for the place that the elite's retrenchment through pop denies them.
The one thing that unites Channel U and Clubland TV is, intriguingly, N-Dubz (who have a family connection to Mungo Jerry!). I suspect that might be an analogy for something more. Certainly, anyone who can unite pop's twin tribes, otherwise so divided in almost every aspect of their vision of Britain, cannot be ignored.
"Rock'n'roll's remit has always included riling the establishment and shocking older generations."
(from the listing for a programme called, yawn, Lock Up Your Daughters - Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'Roll in the UK, a title which feels, now, rather as The Genius of Eric Coates would have felt in the UK of 1959.)
The very fact that Radio Times - 30, even 20 years ago a sober, essentially pre-pop guide to the BBC's activities - is as it is should, in itself, confirm just how played out and misleading every assumption behind that statement is. The complete absorption of pop/rock culture into Britain's ruling elite culture is confirmed, among much else, by the mutation of the very magazine that feels the need, for its own dubious reasons, to attempt to keep the old myths going. This would be comparatively acceptable, if still deeply depressing, were it not part of a deeper, long-term cross-party campaign to dress up profoundly reactionary, anti-progressive politics as vaguely "hip" because At Least We've Given Robert Plant A CBE. At least with the old Radio Times, as with the establishment in general at that time, when it was conservative it admitted it. Nobody could think that a magazine that printed a letter moaning that gay people ought to be happy to be called poofs, as it did in 1976, was particularly progressive, and indeed it was not. But don't let yourself get fooled into thinking that a magazine which prints the above is, inherently and of itself, dramatically better. The same BBC that held within it the Curran/Trethowan lineage also had space for the Greene/Milne tendency - Birt destroyed both. Listings such as the above are practically made for those who will regard themselves as "rebels" while blaming "immigrants" for the economic crisis.
During one of the ILM threads in which the usual suspects relentlessly aimed abuse at me (some of it partially justified, I will concede), someone wondered whether I liked "Pretty Green Eyes" by Ultrabeat. I can now announce to the world, belatedly, that I love it. I feel moderately better for saying that.