Monday, 22 June 2009

The most easy-to-carmodise band in the world?

It took me a long time to overcome the circumstances in which I departed ILM. Certainly my brief return was possibly the worst of many idiotic decisions I have made on the internet (which are still not quite as unjustifiable as some I have made off it, or before it). But after a long absence I now read it regularly again, and from that position of isolation I can appreciate it for what it is, and understand that it will never be the natural place for someone with my own aesthetics and worldview.

I'm never tempted even to join in the many recent threads about Genesis, precisely because of the fact that they are surely the band who fit most perfectly into my own much-mocked vision of recent British history. Consider:

mid-1960s - Otis Redding amid shafts of light on dormitory walls from a world you are locked outside; national hopes of classless-utopian future; everything has its roots here

late 1960s - Jonathan King attempts to apply old boy network to pop; gets nowhere (at first)

1970 - tentative folkiness amid decade's ruins

1971 - imagined past and mutant science can still just about work together, it seems, and they mostly do

1972 - unresolved tensions coming to a head; New Towns turned from dream to nightmare; entire genre reaches its apotheosis and epitome from which there is no etc etc; final peak sets out "New Jerusalem", but is that the post-war state, whose achievements are being so profoundly neglected and underestimated by those who are their direct beneficiaries, or some mythical, never-come world which may exist beyond it, or even some pre-capitalist, quasi-feudal old-elite utopia? crucially, nothing is ever explained, and all we are left with is a memory of movements. No apocalypse yet, but the intensity is such that you know it is coming.

1973 - nation at war with itself; conflicts of capitalism and the emotional glue of history become unbearable; mood is caught brilliantly with succession of storms interspersed with barely-fooling brief moments of calm. Class war for ownership of future; past now is a desperate burden rather than Carnaby Street commodity; everything culminates in final confession to the supermarkets who are quietly growing and growing as everyone else organises their safe tribal war. You've got to turn out, somewhere ...

1974 - apocalypse, final reckoning, last internal conflict after which anyone must crack, etc. Hermetic universe finally blown open, power and internal insanity of Britain's owners finally confronted; opening songs are a vicious stream of consciousness in which Gabriel's every conflict is thrown in; elsewhere it merges with the old world - "a harvest feast (is) lit by candlelight" in NYC? - but this merely confirms that the whole thing is, at heart, a survey of a nation's riven loyalties. It cannot sustain its own ambition, of course, and by the end it is flailing, but it remains a lacerating experience. But this is precisely what Rutherford and Banks don't want; they only really feel comfortable with received notions of Quality ('The Little Prince', for heaven's sake), not the Hammill-level fuckedupness of, ahem, "In the Cage" or "Back in NYC", and the centre cannot hold. As Jagger is impotently mocked to the fade, you know you won't hear this again.

1975 - the future is almost rewritten

1976 - conscious assertion of normality, albeit in lavishly elegant form which a 15-year-old aristocrat poised for the entrapment of a gilded cage from which the only escape is death will instinctively connect to; Rutherford/Banks vision of High Art clearly in control, all internal turmoil and unease over their nation's post-war position pushed aside; "if we can help you, we will"; uneasy calm of post-referendum, pre-IMF stasis perfectly captured, precisely because it is such a blank canvas; on opening track, Collins insistently repeats (though he did not yet write) the line "better start doing it right", surely not only a statement of determination to push aside Gabriel's mutations of language and sound but also a call to think the unthinkable, to question every certainty of the post-war settlement as Charterhouse has so long wished

1977 - much the same vein: aristocrats gone to seed; "daddy, you promised, you promised"; their class's balance of desperate panic and blind internal fantasy intensifies

1978 - all pretence at ambition finally dissipates; panic over apparent prole assertion takes form of retreat into the already-encroaching cosiness; Labour lead in polls and despite where Rutherford and Banks came from it almost fits; "just one single tear through each passing year" marks their passing on into the world which it appears may still just follow, where detente may reach its logical conclusion; in doing so elite power would of course be seriously weakened, but for a moment it seems as though none of that matters and everything can work; David Morton comes of age to it, although his spirit is already almost dead

1980 - world hinted at in those final echoes-to-the-woods has been cancelled; they become arch-exponents of "creative destruction", the sort of capitalism which relies on the abolition of everything before it for its very existence; "all I need is a TV show - that, and a radio"; they are now wholly owned by, and a lucrative plaything of, the forces working to destroy both socialism and Tory paternalism

1981-83 - consolidation of same

1986 - total immersion in the drained Atlantic; survey of entire international situation which postulates that everything is horrible now because the leaders are Too Old and everything will be OK when the Blair Generation takes control, and is charting as Macmillan leaves the earth; early songs still performed, but in medleys where they are no longer any kind of art-Englishness but commodified heritage, exactly like the newish English Heritage itself; album becomes a surrogate Elgar to the Bullingdon Club, the next generation of the same official vision, merely repackaged and (more importantly) far nastier and less tolerant

1991 - much the same as above, only now with ostentatious sheen of "care" and hideous epic about the construction (at the height of Britain's industrial bucaneering) of the very same railway system for whose final carve-up and removal from the public sphere - back to what it originally was, naked capitalism as it was before Wiener said It All Went Wrong - the ideology for which they have been messengers is now setting the stage

1995/6 - deafening silence. "everyone" thinks they've been defeated forever just as "everyone" thinks NuLab is a force for the equality of opportunity. "everyone" is proved bitterly wrong.

1997 - two Tim Henmans recruit an Andy Murray to desperately revive the formula at height of ostentatiously pseudo-classless Blairmania; needless to say, it fails and falls apart amid rumours of class-based hostility

2007 - Blair's final curtain; 1980s trio reunites and milks the triumph of Rutherford and Banks' caste in all circles as return to power in politics to match new-found pop dominance (for which their later work - though only their later work - can now be seen as having laid the groundwork)

None of this, of course, necessarily makes them great (at their best, they are, but only on comparatively limited and insular terms, and I cannot stop myself thinking this is by accident rather than design, and then I put Tago Mago on so ... well, you know ...) but it does make them fascinating, though in the later years obviously only in the sense that you are gruesomely compelled by the cultural detritus. Can anyone - on this front alone - beat them?


  1. It indeed works well; I ought to listen a bit more to "Trespass" and "Nursery Cryme". Did listen to the debut once and was struck by how much in the shadow of the 60s Bee Gees it was.

    I presume you could almost as easily attempt a Ferry / Roxy Music one... I will write on them myself (once having done more listening and read more of Bracewell's book that i have out from the library), possibly in connection with the long-mooted Confessions of a Pop Group / Between Today and Yesterday piece. North and South. "When the Boat Comes In"* and Jack Fordism. T. Dan Smith and why social democracy didn't work out. *A fine series - am now well into its second and it increasingly compels.

  2. Ferry / Roxy is another obvious example, indeed. Pink Floyd also come reasonably close, especially when you remember that the father Waters never knew, who he became more and more obsessed with as the band became less and less inventive (and, indeed, pretty much ceased to exist as a band in any meaningful sense) came from County Durham, not Cambridge, and was in the Communist Party of Great Britain. As I've commented in my revision, Cameron *must* have owned 'Invisible Touch' and probably 'We Can't Dance' at least ...

    That Bee Gees comparison has often been made by people who have heard 'From Genesis to Revelation' or whatever JK has called it on his multiple reissues (I haven't), although I believe King's intention when overdubbing an orchestra was to make it sound like the Moody Blues, at that time the dominant purveyors of ostentatiously high-cultural proto-prog-lite. I can't say 'Trespass' left any great impression with me, but 'Nursery Cryme' is often quite marvellous - "The Musical Box" (horrific to note that they were still performing this, in full, in *1992*) really does sound like a life caught in ten minutes, and "Harold the Barrel" (surely not an allusion to either PM? I've always wondered) makes you feel as though you're there - in a market town withering on the vine, perhaps, caught between multiple worlds and riddled with paranoia (especially about the coming local government reforms) amid its own ghosts. Indeed, their very best moments - "Harold the Barrel", "In the Cage", even "Pigeons" as we've discussed before - are their *least* theatrical.