Thursday, 6 December 2012

Getting things wrong so you can get them right

Twelve and a half years ago (I hope that it's not still online and I certainly wouldn't link if it is), I wrote some essentially meaningless and vaguely positive words - on a website that at the time was greatly inspiring and changing the way I saw music and the world - about a really bad and embarrassing 1978-ish Jethro Tull live album.  And I may never forget it.  The memory of everything about it makes me shudder to this day.  The moment it appeared I knew I'd made a grave mistake.  But now - at last - I know why I did it.

At that moment, certainly for someone like me who'd grown up entirely in that time and had latterly been ensconced almost entirely in the NME-led world, anything to do with progressive rock or folk-rock, let alone both, still residually wasn't - certainly hadn't been at all until very recently - allowed, to the point where even the bad stuff had a misleading exoticism about it (actually, even that isn't the main reason I listened to the songs and wrote the piece; that was personal, and I have no intention of writing about any of it here).  We forget now just how powerful the NME consensus was in the twenty years after punk, how much power one set of ideas and one set of gatekeepers could have in one fairly closed-off country (on the Momus newsgroup in 1999, I was astonished that a Swedish contributor could like both Yes and bands who were part of that consensus, little realising that in the US and continental Europe it had long been commonplace), and how much music that is now accepted in the canon was seen as politically suspect, even vaguely fascist (case in point: I only discovered recently the folk-song origins of Saint Etienne's "Like a Motorway"; further case in point, the folk-influenced stuff that is right at the top of the pop charts now that is politically suspect and even vaguely fascist would have been beyond anyone's imagination in the long-shadows-on-county-grounds age). Accordingly, that lack of understanding produced an inability to tell the good from the bad.

The internet was a very, very long way from what it is now, and not having heard it from older relatives, I'd still barely heard any of the actual music, just knew about it as a vaguely untouchable piece of the past (I don't think I'd even used Napster yet; I was still on mp3 newsgroup trawling and I hadn't done much of that).  We were at such an early stage of assessing the prog and folk-rock legacies - and, arguably, what had happened in and to Britain from 1964-79 (which those genres feel fully part of in a way that the most blatantly proto-Blairite bands, the Frees and Zeps and Purples, somehow and probably misleadingly do not) behind the obvious headlines of devaluation and strikes and emergent monetarism - that it was inevitable that some bad stuff would have excuses made for it on the way.  It was an inevitable error on the path to true understanding, a piece of collateral damage that comes with something seeming so weirdly new, after being so forbidden for so long, that it is impossible to fully grasp, as yet, where it went right and where it went wrong.

At this point I cannot help but think - and this is not meant to be any kind of emotional or sensationalist comparison - of the well-documented way some on the British Left once defended the Paedophile Information Exchange.  It is clear to me, in the context of the time, why Harriet Harman et al took the stance they did; at a time considerably closer to the pre-1960s world than it is to 2012, we were at a much earlier stage of understanding which things previously considered abhorrent really were abhorrent and which weren't.  We were at a much earlier stage of telling unjustified prejudice and superstition from justified disgust and revulsion. Repulsed as they rightly were by the way so many people in that older society had made an instant moral equation between homosexuality and paedophilia, seen them as on the same level and all gay men as potential paedophiles (and, often, that only gay men were potential paedophiles, hence why so much abuse of girls might have fallen through the net more easily and taken longer to come out), they assumed that if those instant reactions to homosexuality could rightly be seen as unfounded prejudice, then so must similar reactions to paedophilia, that if the old world had been wrong on the one count then it must also have been wrong on the other.  Millions of people, especially outside the major cities, were still at least half in that world, so - however horrible and misjudged - it is perhaps inevitable that such a false equation would have been made on the Left; we simply weren't far enough out of the old world to be able to tell the difference yet.

It is probably inevitable that such false equations - misguidedly defending the indefensible out of blanket opposition to older prejudices - will be made while those older prejudices are still being shaken off and we can't really understand them yet.  It's probably inevitable in every field and every walk of life.  In some ways, it's a reassuring sign of my basic humanity that I have such an example in my own past.  It doesn't make it any more calming to remember, but writing this has cleared some of the ghosts.  And if I didn't think I could do that, I'd never write here at all.

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