Saturday, 26 September 2009

Oh, and this is how long we've all lived

on Pick of the Pops today, Dale Winton played a song by Cranes

The best thing in S&S for ...

Lee Hall on a film legacy at least as valuable as - and perhaps more politically potent than - the British Transport Films archive I've perhaps known too long

also check this if you really want to feel bereft: this was contemporaneous with "Billie Jean"!

This is
relevant to the recent assertion of The Beatles, Inc. on multiple levels: while the remasters are, on one level, an attempt to sell the music to a generation for whom it is, finally, becoming ancient history, for whom the still-potent-in-1995 language of "it's the Beatles, man! the fucking Beatles!" - the irrational suspension of regular criticism whenever they are mentioned - no longer has any meaning, the reassertion of that very irrationality in the way they've been promoted and sold may also be seen as a cynical attempt to see off discussion of what the Beatles mean today, of whether or not their legacy is truly progressive now (and even if it ever was). If there was ever going to come a time when the progressiveness of the Beatles' inheritance would be up for question it would have come when the very class their power laughed out of office in 1964 (or so their official story has told us for so long) were on the brink of a gloatingly triumphant return and when the writing of the heavy-industrial-socialist legacy out of the public memory was being tentatively challenged. That time is now. EMI, if they are to survive, need to perpetuate the suspension of serious debate over the Beatles and what they mean four decades after - yes, quite, exactly - "Carry That Weight".

Of course, as I said, it isn't - mostly - their fault that Joy of a Toy (an Abbey Road / Python beginning / Murdoch eyeing his prey contemporary) hasn't been used to sell neoliberalism whereas their work has - it was an essential part of the Blair con-trick, the lie that somehow along with Anthology was going to come a return to the post-war settlement and an abandonment of everything from the hated 1980s (in truth, The Swing Out Sister Anthology would have been a more accurate harbinger of the political times to come). As I said earlier, I remain convinced that Lennon knew McCartney was more of a socialist than he was, and that the awareness of this haunted and chided Lennon far more than he would ever have been prepared to admit. And, as I said, I still love a lot of their work. But the fact remains that the Beatles are beloved of the very same forces who have written our industrial past and all it stood for out of history - and, in the long term, what has the Beatles' influence done more to erode: unaccountable elite power in the UK or the genuinely progressive culture of betterment (a word, tellingly, only used once in pop to my knowledge: "Earn Enough for Us" off Skylarking, what the Beatles' legacy should have been) and learning in the old industrial working class? You could surely, surely, not seriously dispute that they have done far more damage to the latter to the former. It wasn't their fault. But it still hurts.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Oh, the irony, oh the sainted bloody irony

from the Digital Spy forum:

"Americans have spelled most of our words wrong, pronounce them wrong and stick their flag against the English options for things. That's insulting."

And there are in this country people who don't believe that England has a profound problem on multiple levels, people who do believe it could stand on its own - and within Europe - without the decrepit yet reassuring old flag of convenience ...

The Beatles: a brief (and perhaps final) threnody

Ask yourself this rhetorical question: if Prime Ministers now have to present themselves as if they were pop stars (and they do) and if an Old Etonian can do that better and more successfully than any of the contenders from much more traditionally "pop" backgrounds (and he can), then what does that say about what pop is today?

The most bitterly chiding and ultimately dispiriting (because I loved pop as an apparently egalitarian force, too) effect of hearing the early Beatles today - I think I can safely say this now that most of the remaster dust has settled - is that they were the sound of a precise moment when it seemed as though pop's power was actively forcing Old Etonians out of office, laughing at them, humiliating them to such an extent that they could never return again. The first few albums are the authentic sound of pop as a genuinely egalitarian movement. Now that pop is so definitively a means of shoring up elite control - both in the form of Coldplay at Wembley (whoever may support them, as a desperate attempt to cover their tracks, to disguise themselves) and in the form of the global power elite, the latter a force which simply didn't exist in the same way when Beatlemania hit - they have the heartbreaking power of defeated pioneers. It's hard to listen to that joy - in terms of sheer feeling, British pop has rarely come near "There's a Place" since - without feeling deeply depressed afterwards, and when you buy the Beatles in 2009 you're effectively buying that memory, a means of distraction from all the machinations of power around you. At the time of the last great Beatles repromotion, there were hopes - however vainglorious - that pop might again lead a movement towards greater equality of opportunity. Now we can see that for the myth it was, and that - combined with the simple passing of time - must be the main reason there has been that much less fuss this time. Every promise is discredited.

Of course, pop can still be great on the strict level of redemptive, glorious, unifying popular art. This year it's thrilled me more than it has for just about a decade, the year of Guetta gone global ("I Gotta Feeling", world-reuniting force that it is, has kept me going several times these last months) and grime gone pop and Kanye gone Euro and, perhaps greatest of all, Jay-Z gone universal. But when it's over and you know the unification is only on one level, you feel deeply frustrated, angry that its brilliance cannot be something more - and you also fear that it's only been able to happen because those who have done so much to wreck British pop in the last decade have abandoned it as a triviality now they are on the brink of greater power. In a bigger world, when what happened within one country on its own terms mattered far more, the Beatles must have convinced many that they could be that something more. Yet, as we now know, the world which had made them was as good as it was going to get in terms of equality of opportunity, and it's our knowledge of this fact which chides and taunts us when we hear the Beatles now: the sense that flows out of those records that they genuinely believed that when the post-war order fell it would be replaced by a utopia of artistic flowerings and social reconciliation. The Beatles' relationship to the post-war settlement is surely the most interesting thing about them now: quite simply, they could not have existed without it - because it was only then that there was sufficient security and a strong enough safety net for them to thrive: the Beatles were made possible by the existence of public spaces, and the sense of consciousness they expressed in their later years had more in common with earlier collectivism than with rock's ultimate privatisation of the mind, the latter always much more enthusiastically purveyed by the Stones (the real North/South divide 'twixt those two bands: Beatles collectivist, Stones individualist?) - yet, with the exception of McCartney, they never seemed at ease with it, always longing for some mythical fulfilment beyond, a land that could never have come into being in part because of their own impact (which, through no fault of their own, led the world in an infinitely more aggressive-individualist direction than they'd have wanted).

I need not, of course, mention the specific moment which rankles the most, the song on which a supposed exponent of togetherness and universal love objects with the arrogance of a five-year-old to the very idea that he might give some of his vast fortune so as to ensure that there are options and escape routes for those who might want to come up the same way, through whichever means. McCartney could never have written that, and while he may have become the embodiment of many of modern England's worst traits - studied, now unnatural "Englishness" combined with a child's gratitude to the USA - he should still be recognised as the only Beatle who recognised that the post-war state was doing much good for people who came from where they came from, and should not be thrown away in the vain hope of a mythical Utopia beyond (which is what I like to think he's getting at in "Goodnight Tonight", which was in the Top 10 on 3rd May 1979). I recall the unequivocal anti-Thatcher statements he made on Saturday morning children's TV when he released "All My Trials" just after she had fallen, and that is how I want him remembered. What did ultimately mutate into a stultifying cosiness was at least rooted in an awareness of the multiple edges on which Britain was placed ultimately greater than Lennon, for all his harsh and often accurate (but crucially, never wholly thought-out) cynicism about the world surrounding him, truly understood (and McCartney did, in 1980, briefly grasp British pop's sadly fleeting continental drift).

If the Beatles are tainted for me it is because of the passing of time, not (apart from isolated cases such as, you know, the song Paul Weller ripped off) what they actually tried to do themselves. I would happily concede that the way the organ flows back at 2'23 on "The Clarietta Rag" by Kevin Ayers affects me more than many/most of the Beatles tenets I grew up with. But, as I said, that isn't the Beatles' fault, most of the time. One thing is for sure: the remasters offer no way back into pop, or any sort of future for it. If anything, they ought to be a way out. As the 45-year loop of comparative egalitarianism in power is about to close, so is the loop of their model of pop about to close for good - in reality, it slammed shut years ago, probably before 1995, even. There are other ways, and those are the only valid ways. The Beatles remasters seem as much the utopianism of former times as anything from William Morris, or the birth of the Fabian Society. And maybe that's why, however great they are, I'm more likely to fill out each day of my terminal existence with "Shooting at the Moon", and conclude each day - and, momentarily, hold my head high again - with "Run This Town". Between them, they seem to offer a much less tainted past and future. But, like I said, don't blame the Beatles. Blame time.

"Down" by Jay Sean & Lil Wayne

isn't a particularly good song in itself but:

a) it is important that mass US audiences know an England beyond that of the rebranded elites of both politics and pop (and Coldplay, however closely-affiliated they may be with Jay-Z, are wholly embedded within those elites), the non-heritagised England most people here actually live in and which they've always been least familiar with


b) I love Wayne's "Communist" T-shirt in the video, the ultimate (literally) red rag to those who are working to destroy everything that filled us with such hope less than a year ago - it may not be the best form of diplomacy, but in this context - and despite the inherently anti-Communist nature of pop, etc, etc - nothing could work better

Monday, 14 September 2009

My repulsion at the very title of Chipmunk's next single

whose number one status looms ahead, as certain as the horrors of 7th May 2010

is not, I think, anything to do with any sort of patronising white liberal's desire for those from Chipmunk's background not to remind them of what they hate about their own. It isn't down to any sort of cringe. It isn't down to my thinking "I don't want to be reminded of cosy 1950s England and how dare those brave, naturally rhythmic coloureds remind me of what I'm running away from": if Chipmunk wants to attempt to reuse and redeem such language and phraseology (I think he fails utterly, but that's my opinion) I'll let him. I'm not going to stand in his way. It certainly isn't down to any crypto-right-wing sense of feeling safer with the racial and cultural other the dumber it gets: if I felt that way, I'd be a Soulja Boy cultist and would have turned the word "corny" into an all-purpose mantra, ILM-style. On the contrary, it's born out of wanting those who have come up Chipmunk's way to make good records (and "Take Me Back" was a great one). Nothing simpler than that. I don't think it's patronising white liberalism to want these people to be better. You can be better and still get that mainstream money ("Bonkers", though its title is almost as bad, has a lyrical statement that surpasses its context and, for all that it was a mere shell, was still A Good Thing to have at number one in what, due mainly to the US-European rapprochement which I hope will not be destroyed by the anti-NHS propagandists, has been the best year at the very top of the UK charts since very, very early this century, if not before). I know Chipmunk needs the money, and I regard some of the indulgence of those who don't as genuinely patronising and narrow and everything I don't want to be. I know the album will reveal more of what he's actually capable of. I don't begrudge him anything. I just wish he could find ways of making money which don't involve phrases which could have been uttered in a Hereford terrace in 1955. Nothing personal, like: I remember when the Brotherhood worked redemptive wonders on all our pasts with the line "give this shit some welly". Just that some phrases are quite irredeemable. I applaud the effort. "Beast" was one of this year's great moments, and the kids singing "Diamond Rings" as we rode along the cliff path was the best nerve-calmer of August autumn. He may be hated more than he deserves. But sometimes one phrase can do undeserved damage. Sometimes you just can't turn it around.

When only one element is ever allowed to interfere with the market ...

... you get an inherent unfairness, and it usually tends to favour whatever is supported by the market-fundamentalist Right and their well-meaning, unconscious allies on the Left.

If anything is allowed to interfere with the market today it is usually the criteria of Health and Safety, undoubtedly the only factors which actually have more power to interfere with the market than they did before Momus's "accident" of 30 years ago. As with "political correctness", the above phrase has of course been misused so often by all the wrong people that it has effectively become devoid of all meaning, and I would be the last person in the world to condemn the very real increases in public safety it has led to. But when it is the only non-commercial factor allowed to affect British life, deep inconsistencies come into play, and a case in point is the restriction on the sale of fireworks to two or three fixed periods in the year. I approve of this, for what little it is worth: restrictions may not have been needed when there actually still was a national culture that flowed subliminally and unselfconsciously (this isn't Mailism, in case anyone thinks it is), when 5th November was just one night which had an inherent, almost neo-feudal place in almost everyone's minds, but since the withering of that way of existence, and the coming of a near-universal cynicism about and disconnection from such rituals, such restrictions are necessary. If enough people are sufficiently alienated from the meaninglessness of their existence to throw fireworks around on any night of the year - and they are - you cannot allow them to be sold as freely as you could back when almost nobody would have dreamt of letting them off on any night but one (outside Scotland, New Year's Day was an ordinary working day until the 1970s) and so you didn't need restrictions.

But if the market can be bucked for things considered "dangerous" but not for anything else, you end up with an unfair competition. A case in point is that where I live the hard sell of Halloween (no apostrophe here: it doesn't deserve it) now begins on, at least, 14th September. In the context of the great battle for the turn of the seasons (bonfires at the beginning of winter go back to Samhain and predate Guy Fawkes by centuries, and continued in Ireland as part of the real Hallowe'en, facts which should be remembered and, indeed, remembered by those well-meaning soft-Leftists who decry the largely long-buried, outside a few well-publicised but essentially unrepresentative towns, "anti-Catholicism" and, as they have done so many times before, let naked commercialism through by default) such promotions should really be restricted to whenever it is - mid-October, from memory - that fireworks can be sold. It's only fair. Only then would you have what the unrestricted other than in special circumstances market is supposed to be provide but doesn't: the mythical level playing field. Only then could autumn perhaps become again the time of the year I most enjoyed, rather than the time I most dread.

What I did last summer

Or is it still this one? Hard to tell, really: it looks like September 1978 probably did (though of course we've already had our very own 1978: that came in 2007), balmy sun, sweaty nights, but leaves already on the ground due to August autumn. Only back then (deep breath ...) autumn was autumn, and Hallowe'en wasn't being promoted when the summer was still lingering around (of which more anon: Christmas is also already being sold, but because I can't really remember before it had a lengthy commercial preample, I find it less personally upsetting in that case).

I must apologise for the many promised essays that never came (and for the absence of one in particular, the most emotionally exhausting for me and so the most necessary to write). They may appear in My Book, when the time comes. I'm still deeply unsure of what form it will take, and nervous about how on earth I could compare - in terms of the range of ideas covered and invoked - with the company I'd be keeping - but nonetheless I have a place now (and I will definitely have a place in the first book which currently appears on that blog). Then and only then will everyone, including myself, be able to discover whether I've been frauding everyone, including myself, all this time.