Friday, 25 February 2011

ILM, Mumford and Sons and politics

I still read ILM. I often enjoy it. I've made my peace, to some extent. I've recognised how good and important a space it can be by not pretending that I can be part of it. Because the truth is that, even ten years ago, I never really could. Quite apart from the effects of my condition (far more profound and total and overpowering then than now, not that things are at all easy now, they never really will be) preventing me from existing socially in a casual, informal fashion, there is also the fact that I'm never going to be part of the forum culturally. I simply have never lived in the same way, or really lived at all in the most commonly-understood sense of living. This is why I have, in the past, identified with old conservative types far more than I now realise I should have done. This is why I have come over as infinitely more fogeyish than I actually am in my tastes and feelings about art and culture (and what can be defined with those inherently loaded words), and this is why I have misrepresented myself almost every time I have stepped outside the world this blog has, almost accidentally, created for itself - a world where the principles of the Third Programme are applied to a range of creativity and flux that those who created that station could never have imagined. There is nothing, now, that can be done about the times I gave those who've never met me in the flesh the wrong idea. All I can do now is try my hardest to give the right idea for as long as I've got left.

So I think it is time - and ignoring the goading from someone who seems curiously interested in politics in that thread, yet cannot normally see that even the most theoretically trivial aspects of pop culture are in themselves deeply political - to say how much I've enjoyed and how much I agree with the essential thrust of the ILM thread on Mumford & Sons. Of course Mumford & Sons are important, and signify a certain drift towards vaguely Ruritanian and certainly largely imagined ideas of "community" (their imagery harking back to a time when benevolent "volunteers" supposedly provided all the public services from which the nasty monolithic state should back off, and the proles were just grateful) as a part of mainstream debate, even dressed up as "progressive" because of its mastery of mass communication techniques. Of course Mumford & Sons play the same sociopolitical role as Oasis did in the Britain of 15 years ago, in terms of identifying and defining the rising trends (rehabilitated prole culture as bourgeois commodity then, rehabilitated Tory rewrite of British history as mass commodity now). Whether or not that is their aim, or whether they want to be seen as such, is sheer pedantry, just as it was when the precise loyalty of Oasis to the destruction of the Labour Party as a meaningful ideological force was debated in tedious detail; the nature of the market economy does not afford us time for such indulgence. While G.K. Chesterton is deeply politically ambiguous in the same way that Powell & Pressburger and Selling England by the Pound (which album is one of the very few other things that can also truthfully be described as "Conservative by nature, Labour by experience", an experience that Mumford are, crucially, extremely unlikely ever to have, because Gabriel's experience was still very much defined by the social realignments of the Second World War) are, and is certainly not simply a figure of the crude racist Right (he did, of course, have a relative who was), we can safely assume that Mumford's vague interest in some of his ideas is a simple, barely-understood romanticisation of the quasi-feudal aspects, as ill-informed and potentially as dangerous as my own young fogey phase of 1994/5 (which included a grotesque misreading of Powell & Pressburger) - and also utterly meaningless and irrelevant in terms of the world the band exist in and are defined by, because a Chestertonian society would be as hostile to the monoliths of the 2011 market as to Leviathan 1970s trade unions, and no band of Mumford's ilk are likely to support any kind of serious restructure of the system which gave them their ubiquity when they seriously consider what it would actually entail.

An apposite question at this point: who were the Mumford of pre-Thatcherite times, in terms of combination of socially conservative rhetoric and image-making and appeal to a similar section of the audience, for all that a now unimaginably high percentage of Mumford's core demographic would have ignored pop and rock music altogether at that time? Not ISB, obviously, they were several times too far out there. Not Fairport, they were far too good and never sufficiently popular with the middle mass (though it's interesting that Mumford, like almost all British people in that cultural lineage since the Industrial Revolution, come from a very specific sort of outer London middle-class background from which most FC members also came - this is not any other kind of comparison, and in fact I feel physically sick mentioning them in the same sentence, but at least some of Mumford & Sons went to a day private school in Wimbledon, the same area Sandy Denny came from - meanwhile, most of the rural working class were perfectly happy with Black Sabbath and, with multiple ironies, Free).

On balance, Jethro Tull are probably the best fit - the same backward-thinking lyrics dressed up as something profound, the same essentially bombastic stadium-rock sound with folk as a mere optional extra, the later dabbling in the rural side of big business in the way you instinctively know the Mumfords were born for, the same popularity in the US (where you feel Mumford may, like Ian Anderson's mob, be taken much more seriously in the long term, and in fact probably even now - what to all reasonably intelligent and knowledgeable British people seems like a laughable myth of their country can, even now, seem genuinely believable and credible to even fairly educated and knowledgeable Americans). Pentangle were far too good to deserve the comparison, but they may fit to some extent - Basket of Light was the biggest-selling folk-rock album of the first big wave, they were never off a certain sort of TV show (many of them spin-offs from Late Night Line-Up, I pretend to dimly recall) which appealed to the more pseudo-bohemian part of the dawn-of-the-'70s middle mass, and then of course there is the Liza Goddard in Take Three Girls connection. Steeleye Span fit the comparison pretty well at the time of "All Around My Hat" - with the usual proviso about their being too good for it - but otherwise didn't have sufficient middle-mass appeal.

In terms of broader socio-cultural appeal (i.e. pseudo-intellectuals / the Oxbridge types Phil Redmond called "brains on sticks" / dabblers who didn't want to go any further), if not active pseudo-folkiness and pseudohistory, the Moody Blues probably resonated with a fairly similar crowd as well - and they also had that appeal to social order and certainty (the Yardbirds' "Over Under Sideways Down" is as desperate to get out of the Butskellite norms as Keith Joseph ever was, Days of Future Passed is an unabashed celebration of those very certainties, and by then it was long enough since 1945 that moderate socialism was conservatism). And I suppose Yes and ELP - the latter especially - covered similar bases in terms of appealing to people who thought they were socially above the rest of pop, and the latter managed to lose all signs of the subtlety and elegance of their original classical sources amid the very worst kind of stadium rock (the former blew hot and cold; I'm with Bill Bruford - easily the most likeable member they ever had, because even if he is the poshest he doesn't seem it - that "Siberian Khatru" has a bite and a drive that pushes it far above many of their fan favourites).

But any direct comparison becomes much harder when we look at the very specific sociopolitics of Mumford and Sons' role in the glossing up of Tebbit-level neoliberal fundamentalism as though it were some kind of cuddly quasi-feudal dreamworld rather than the crude, harsh Social Darwinism it actually is; in the days when it still mattered to some how many music teachers were impressed by Thick as a Brick or Close to the Edge, Tory government ministers were rather pathetic figures trying desperately to impose some kind of cohesion on a country whose entire social structure, from Bloody Sunday to the Poulson trial which at a stroke wiped out public faith both in centre-ground Toryism and the utopian socialism whose exponents it revealed as mere capitalists on the make, was falling apart, and making it clear at every turn that they couldn't. They were in no way in control; if they had been, the unions would never have been able to humiliate them so completely, and British socialism, or at least social democracy, would - however perverse it may seem to some - be infinitely healthier today. The politics of pop - the question of whether it should assert some kind of prole identity against an unrepresentative elite, how it should deal with questions of racism and exclusion, how its supposed allegiance to socialism fitted with Old Labour's opposition to any form of media which actually understood pop on its own, essentially consumerist/individualist terms - existed in their own, separate universe, and while they were nowhere near as widely discussed as they should have been during the great early 1970s ideological lull, at least where they were discussed, it was without Reginald Maudling or Anthony Barber setting the terms for desperately limited imitations of "aspiration" or "challenge". Now, these terms within the middle mass - the territory Mumford and Sons now define like no other band, maybe even no other cultural phenomenon - are defined wholly by the Cameronite idea of control (and, in utter contrast to the early 1970s government, it is very real control; they have learnt from the Blairites a whole new set of ideas on media management and ideological full spectrum dominance - with no lingering idea of principle on who to use and how and where to use them - which will make it harder to defeat them than any previous Tory movement, because no other Tory movement has had so many fingers in so many pies; the use of pop culture - through Mumford, Welch and the rest - is as crucial in the Cameronite plans not to end up where the last Tory government did as a confrontational approach to the unions, and the use of rhetoric on immigration designed to appeal to NF defectors, was in the Thatcherite plans not to share the Heath government's fate).

The challenge, in this context, is to take what is currently mere internal lumpen self-aggrandisement - the potential reborn pride of Trilla's "0121" (real regeneration, not the official version of that much-abused word, even Lawrence could get it), Ghetts if only he could turn that venom on those who really deserve it rather than the mere gatekeepers of what kind of grime is allowed to be pop, the whole Nottingham and Bradford scenes - and somehow radicalise it, turn it outwards, turn it into a genuine political statement on the nature of elite power and control (and without the tint of nationalism, sexism, and internal class nostalgia that blighted the only recent 1Xtra show I've heard where political issues were raised). This may seem a hopeless ambition, and perhaps it is. But I can't think of any other kind of pop which has more such potential - even in its poppier forms, it is (as was mentioned early in the ILM thread) a necessary counterpart to Mumford & Sons within Britain's internal cultural wars, a reminder that the vast majority of the British population simply cannot afford to hold Mumford's vaguely indulgent, cynically ill-informed views on the management of power and privilege. All that being said, though I haven't yet heard the new album, I don't think the part of England in which I live, and all its equivalents caught between Mumfordesque faux-romanticism and the reality of Tesco (itself the epitome of the economic system for which Mumford & Sons are mere carriers), has ever needed PJ Harvey so much. I haven't been a fan, but if what I'm hearing is true, Let England Shake may offer some kind of way out.

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