Sunday, 15 February 2009

A cringe we should all be ashamed of

The forelock-tugging response to the supposed "British victory" at the Grammy awards - yes, Carmody, only a week late - is dispiriting not so much for what it is itself (all too familiar and, I fear, unavoidable) but for the way the apologists for Heritage Soul genuinely appear to believe that "our" winners are in the tradition of the canonical British "greats" of the '60s, i.e. they have sold a freshened reinvention of the best of black American music back to the US. The truth of the matter is that these pallid, tedious, NuTory-friendly weaklings stand a better comparison with the likes of Chris Barber and Kenny Ball, who in the late '50s / early '60s sold a similarly irrelevant and timewarped pastiche of the black American music of several decades earlier back to the US* ("Petite Fleur" and "Midnight in Moscow" were among the few major pre-Beatles British hits there - "Stranger on the Shore" was even bigger, but it has little to do with jazz of any kind). The arbiters of the American "mainstream" in the early '60s would have been far more comfortable with those records than they were with, say, the Miracles' "Shop Around", even though that had reached number 2 on the pop charts. Whoever is in the White House and whatever advances may be made in other fields, the pop-cultural part of the American elite's obsession with British Heritage Soul shows that their mindset today is essentially the same. Luckily, the US audiences who really count - i.e. those unconfined by Heritage, the equivalent audiences of those who put "Shop Around" where it was all that time ago - far prefer T.I. and Lil Wayne. Other than as indicators of a desperate heritagised elite searching for something they feel happy with, the Grammys don't matter. But Britain should feel ashamed of its cringe on every possible level.

*I notice - admittedly only as an aside - an attempt by Reynolds in Word magazine to partially rehabilitate the early '60s trad jazz revival as part of a continuum of "white people getting the funk" long before Tony Wilson said they did, seemingly because the Daily Mail dissed it in 1962. To invoke such ancient cuttings today is unhealthily reminiscent of the way those for whom "Pirate Johnnie Walker" is the highlight of their weekend continue to regard themselves as somehow inherently rebellious - whatever the Mail may or may not have said very nearly half a century ago, it doesn't change the fact that trad jazz was as much part of the post-Suez stasis as the Mail itself. The paper's outrage back then was partially because the music's fans (as Reynolds himself concedes, and c.f. also Raymond Durgnat's remarks in Standing Up for Jesus - itself a fine example of an astoundingly strong piece of rhetoric which nevertheless would make no sense at all if translated to the present) were largely middle-class (and therefore the Mail cared more about keeping them within its own confines than it did about the largely working-class tribes who would create much more inventive youth cultures throughout the '60s, who were prole scum beyond salvation as far as they were concerned), and partially because - I suspect - it stll employed many of the same writers who had been around when trad jazz wasn't trad, when the Mail had said hurrah for the Blackshirts, when indeed a fear of this new, intimidating sound was a crucial factor in their Nazi sympathies. These writers are long since dead, and for all those of their ilk today, trad jazz has been completely neutralised through the passing of time. As it was Reynolds himself who rightly likened Britpop to the trad revival (and thus, by implication, to the era of the Last Aristocratic Government, before Harold Wilson's emergence) back in the mid-1990s, when such a comparison genuinely seemed blasphemous to Britain's dominant pop-cultural arbiters, it is depressing to see him attempting to reclaim it as part of a continuum with the genuinely inventive white British reinventions of black American music that have followed, rather than see it for what it actually was, the antecedent of both Britpop and Heritage Soul.


  1. As far as Chris Barber's authenticity and contributions to British music are concerned, the above is total drivel. It betrays a complete lack of understanding of the nature of British jazz and the place of Chris Barber, traditional jazz, and skiffle in the development of British music and exposure of the British public to black artists in the 1950s.

  2. I am well aware of the importance of skiffle (which, incidentally, I did not mention) - as those were the years when British mass culture passed from the ghost of music hall to incipient consumerism (the most important change in British mass culture in the last century), so Lonnie Donegan played midwife to the transition every bit as much as Lew Grade and ATV did. He made it seem so easy (and so much less psychologically difficult than it was, but that doesn't make his records any less thrilling). I'm well aware that skiffle was a hybrid of multiple influences and loyalties that, at its best, set the tone for much of the best of what was to come, and lifted from artists who at the time were largely hidden behind both the dying fall of Reithianism and early ITV's replication of whitebread America. But I still think that, compared to what happened later in the '60s, the trad revival is an aesthetic irrelevance. It lacks that crucial fusion that skiffle had, and when I see it being reclaimed as an antecedent of mod or northern soul (both of which were genuine mass movements which lifted from what was happening *at that moment* in black American music) I have to be opposed to it. Of course it could not have been imagined at the time just what was about to explode, but them's the breaks. I suspect you were around then, and I respect your views if that is the case. But do you honestly believe Barber ever did anything as vital as, say, the Miracles' "Shop Around"? If so, I'd love to hear it (honestly).

    (p.s. I don't think British popular music began with the Beatles - I would rate "Cumberland Gap", "Shakin' All Over" and "Telstar" well above many/most subsequent number ones from the 1960s. A disdain for one movement hardly equates to mass historical revisionism.)

  3. Looks like we have an interesting discussion going and I'll turn off the strident tone to recognize that. Yes, I was around then (I'm 62) and I've been a fan of Barber (and a very few select others) since the end of the 1950s. I should also put my biases on the line and say that I run Chris Barber's website -- precisely because I love and value his music and his contribution to musical history. I'm not being defensive because I'm a fan; rather I'm a fan because I value the things that make me a bit defensive when I see dismissals such as you wrote.

    I think it's worth separating two things, to begin with: first you have to separate Barber from most of the rest of the so-called "trad" movement, most of which was dreadful (and I include Kenny Ball and the later Acker Bilk in that). Second, I think it's worth distinguishing between Barber's music (for which a strong case can be made, although I wouldn't want to cherry-pick particular tracks for comparison) and his impact on musical history. After all, he not only brought over to the UK Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but he paid for this out of his own pocket. I don't think anyone would disagree on the profound effect this had on British youth, or that it likely wouldn't have happened without Chris Barber. I could point to several places and quotes on the Barber site that support this view.

    I might also add that, earlier today, I was listening to Barber's "Gatemouth" from 1949 and "Merry Go Round" from 2008. A continuous sixty-year career tells me he must have been doing something right.

  4. P.S. May I refer you to Pete Frame's The Restless Generation?

  5. Interesting. Glad that you dislike most of the rest of the trad revival! I was sort of aware of the Barber/Donegan connection, but I wasn't aware of Barber personally paying to bring the artists you mention over, and I completely agree that those were seismic events.

    It actually occured to me earlier on that most of the good current British music can be traced back to skiffle, specifically in its combination of an awareness of what was vital in black American music of the time with a consciousness (and, at the same time, a reinvention) of the (by then, lead and dead) weight of music hall etc., and most of the bad stuff (specifically Heritage Soul) can be traced back to the trad jazz you don't like, which was simultaneously snobbish and dismissive of what was happening *then* in the US, and of the idea that anything vital could be gained from remaking their own cultural past.