Showing posts with label the beatles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the beatles. Show all posts

Friday, 21 September 2012

Why reviving The Establishment club is a bad idea

I mean, really, for fuck's sake.  Keith Allen blokishly beholding himself before blokish George Galloway, this government's ultimate useful idiot.  Could there be anything more narrow and insular and depressing?

But the fact that the project is cheerled by Victor Lewis-Smith explains almost everything.  The whole concept - rooted in an institutionalised and thus meaningless legacy of John & Paul and Pete & Dud as secular gods (and thus the one thing they'd have hated the most, and felt the greatest desire to break down) - has a fundamental problem with people not born to its exponents' comparative privilege if they can't fit into an instantly convenient narrative.  For the likes of Galloway, Muslims who oppose Islamism - which in his degraded mind he (along with Seumas Milne and other morally and intellectually lost Stalinists) has identified as some kind of "anti-imperialist" vanguard - are "Uncle Toms", a grotesque misuse of the phrase.  VLS has made it quite clear that he has the same view of black people who don't have his own none-more-middle-aged-middle-class (the very thing he pretends not to be defined by) hang-ups about white people of his own class and generation being influenced by hip-hop culture.  No, I don't defend Westwood's drift into self-parody and passive consumerism, but for VLS to say that people not born to his comparative privilege need more exposure outside their own ghettoes, but then to dismiss them for the crime of not being embarrassed by the things he finds embarrassing, just shows how hollow his stance actually is.

It's the way it always works, of course; self-hating middle-class people - i.e. half of self-identified British satirists (the other half, the Hislop half, are vaguely self-loving people of the same background) impose their own embarrassment and shame on the less privileged and can only cope with the latter if they define themselves by that embarrassment and shame, only to find that those older contexts are meaningless to the global proletariat, who can create something new where they literally don't exist at all.  Stonyhurst-educated early 90s indie boy Chris Morris is, in fact, a good case in point here; it's always depressing for me that one of the most-quoted and most-cited parts of The Day Today is a rather lazy LOL-before-the-fact at the idea of an African-American lifting a Phil Collins song.  But of course in reality loads of hip-hop and R&B people really do respect and admire Collins wholly unironically, because the history Morris wanted to escape doesn't exist for them; it isn't just that they didn't go to boarding schools where Selling England by the Pound was played endlessly by the senior boys, it's more that they literally don't know, and never will know, that that album was ever made, or that Peter Gabriel existed before "Sledgehammer".  So Collins was a tabula rasa for them, a palimpsest, a completely blank canvas, and a Morris, or a VLS, has no right to condemn the African-American working class for not living up to their own 80s NME-Spartist vision of the noble fighters against imperialism.  The African-American working class always gets there first, even (especially!) when they're defying posh Brits' cultural cringe at their ancestry.

And it was a unity of intention and vision between that working class and its white-British equivalent which was the undoing of the original satire movement, painful as it is to admit.  The Beatles had no hang-ups, no cringes, and for all the TW3 set's qualities, they had nothing that could live with that in the end, because in the end their culture had not moved away from the hierarchy of art forms and concepts of morality and behaviour which had defined their parents' culture. Their opposition to the ruling class was based on wanting that class to behave better - wanting them to be more like the traditional idea of the gentleman - and while I'm not denying the importance of what they did, in the end the working class wanted and needed something more.  To this day, the mere concept of Pseuds' Corner attempts to deny the Beatles' very existence.

A great shame.  But an inevitable one, really.  It has been suggested - mostly by me, admittedly - that if de Gaulle had said 'oui' (the central issue of the moment the satire boom emerged), Britain might actually have had the future envisaged in the official films of the BR Modernisation Plan; fantastically advanced technology, in some ways (specifically in terms of the public sector) more so than we have today, but social relationships and sexual taboos unchanged from where they were in 1960.  And because such a Britain would have arrested the development of pop culture almost before it had begun, it might have been a Britain in which the morality of classical satire would have made sense.  How can this one mythological concept - the Establishment club as, ironically, a counterpart to the Cavern for a different set of radicals-turned-fogeys - represent any kind of future, when it failed the test of Beatlemania one year short of half a century ago?

Monday, 9 July 2012

Why the Beatles sound better under Cameron than under NuLab

Yes, yes, I know I posted here many times in the run-up to the last election that I'd never be able to listen to the Beatles again once the social tribe I had wrongly believed they had laughed out of power for good in 1964 was back in government.  Yes, yes, I did listen to "I Should Have Known Better" on election night, staring desperately at the sea I've so often wished could be drained to nothing, genuinely believing it would be the last time.  But strangely enough, things didn't turn out that way.  The Beatles actually sound better to me now - stranger, more rebellious, more of a challenge to the dominant ideology of the ruling elite - than at any time since before the Blairites and their pop-cultural allies got hold of them and turned them into a front for all the timewarping and imposing of fixed agendas on the working class that they ever opposed in their time.  The Beatles - or at least their mutant, uncontrollable side (why did I ever dismiss "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" as blues-bore purism?  It's easily the best and strangest thing on Abbey Road - an album which otherwise offers ample proof as to precisely why their split was necessary, and the fact that a teenage Alan Parsons was an engineer on it is frighteningly, chillingly apt) - have been rehabilitated, freed from elite manipulation, by the very event I thought would finally rob them of all meaning for good.

What has made the difference is that our current rulers come from the first generation for whom the Beatles are Before Their Time, a mere detail that contains no personal or emotional resonance and may have been dismissed as an unwelcome parental imposition (indeed, their adolescence was during the very period often dismissed during the Blair/Britpop ascendancy for not sufficiently venerating the band).  George Osborne was born a year after Let It Be was released. But Ed Miliband was also, crucially, born when they had more or less ceased to exist.  It works both ways; the Beatles being History (if not quite, yet, Proper History) to a politician may be a factor in a complete inability to see that alternatives to neoliberalism even exist, a significant reinforcement in an institutional belief that pop culture is merely a front for increasing elite power, but it might also be a reason (Miliband was born at Murdoch's first Christmas; McDonald's first came to London when he was four) for that politician being open to at least quasi-socialist ideas on the organisation of British society, without being blinded - as the Blairites were - by the misleading childhood glamour of Radio Caroline and tabloids and fast food seeming exotic and unobtainable.  Not having lived in the pre-Murdoch world utterly closes some politicians to other options, but makes some politicians far more open to other ways than those who actually grew up in it were.

Virtually throughout the first thirty years of my life (with a slight reversion to older ways under John Major) Britain was governed by former members of one or other of the two great revolutionary movements of 1974.  In my childhood, during which most of my considerable pleasures came from the dying embers of the pre-1979 world, those who - after early political careers which they would later dismiss, with Britain itself at that time, as drifting and directionless - sensed that their time might be coming when they Found Themselves as part of the right-wing anti-state movement of the mid-1970s held sway.  In my late teens and twenties, from which I can take few positive recollections of any kind, erstwhile members of the mid-70s radical student-left who had also supported the withering away of the state, albeit for entirely different reasons, came to the fore, having created a brilliantly cynical hybrid between their old pop-cultural loyalties and 80s neoliberalism which they (absolutely and entirely correctly) now recognised was a far more potent and workable method of enforcing their anti-old-establishment cultural visions and post-Marxist enthusiasm for global capitalism - the capitalist stage of the Marxist process with the ending changed (a phrase which effectively describes New Labour, the American neoconservatism it embraced so enthusiastically, and to a great extent Thatcherism; never forget Alfred Sherman's political origins).

But now, for the first time, those whose political thinking was developed during the tumult unleashed by Harold Wilson's cathartic defeat-in-victory have retired from the front rank, never to return. In the process, the Beatles really have become Proper History - and thus, as they never were before 2010, immune to the distortions and misinterpretations of the political process.  Nothing can touch them now; the elite no longer care anyway.  We have a rising political elite for whom the mid-1970s were about nothing so much as Brian Cant and Geoffrey Hayes (if even that), not a grand-scale left-right power struggle.  And that can mean anything the politicians want it to.  It can mean what George Osborne wants it to mean, or what Ed Miliband wants it to mean.  What do you want it to mean?  That is as decisive a question in 2012 as "what do you want the collapse of the post-war consensus to mean?" was in 1975.  Nobody can afford not to answer it.  There is the Cliff Richard / Duran Duran / Dappy answer, or the Beatles / Human League / Trilla answer.  How will you answer for yourself, if the judgement of history condemns you for not giving the latter answer sufficiently loudly and forcefully here, now?

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The coming battle for the Beatles

Acutely related to the profound change and upheaval in mass culture in the 1960s and 1970s, instigated above all others by the Beatles, was a profound reassessment and re-evaluation of the culture historically considered by academics to be beyond debate, above all other cultures. Tensions opened up - often dividing new universities from old, and (at least initially) those taking advantage of the post-war expansion of mass education from those who'd have had the privileges anyway - between those who stuck to the old hierarchical view of culture, with the innovations of the post-war world considered a mere impermanence, a passing fashion, and those who felt that the development of mass culture far away from the simplicities of the Brill Building and the pre-1960s Hollywood studio system, and into the world of Bob Dylan and the American New Wave cinema, required a reassessment not only of mass culture itself, but of the stuff historically considered to operate on a wholly different plain.

The new wave of academics gave particular attention to the initial poor reception given to works of canonical high-cultural figures, such as the hostility to Don Giovanni when it was first performed - something historically played down by pre-1960s Mozartians - so as to point out the essential subjectivity - contrary to its official position of objectivity - of the old guard's rejection of rock music. They assessed Shakespeare much less in terms of his having written about the privileged classes (an approach to his work which can only appear now as the starting point for those who assume that someone of more privileged background somehow must have been the true author), and much more in terms of his non-privileged background and his work being a form of mass entertainment in his own time (and thus having instigated a lineage manifested in the 1960s & 70s by the original incarnation of Coronation Street, by Armchair Theatre and Play for Today, and by the works of Potter, Plater and Rosenthal above all others). A person's stance on this matter became symbolic of wider divisions in society, and in many people's eyes (on all sides) a sign of what sort of country a person believed in and wanted to live in.

As the Beatles' era fades into history and their generation begins to die off in significant numbers, I can sense a similar debate over the control and ownership of their legacy becoming a divisive issue in the years to come. As things stand, the Beatles are perhaps the most misunderstood mass-cultural phenomenon within living memory, venerated as they are by many petty-minded, fearful Little Englanders who deny the very cultural process - the British working class rejecting the idea of some mystical, spiritual connection with "their" ruling class, and uniting with the oppressed classes of other societies to create a new, unique hybrid which was at once both acutely of its own place and joyfully internationalist - without which they wouldn't have existed.

Many of those who claim to love the Beatles most are, in fact, their greatest enemies, denying as somehow inherently "un-British" any current manifestation of the very same process without which there would never have been such a thing as the Beatles, a process which has recently reinvented and redefined what can be "pop music" in the UK, as necessary as a rejection of the current New Etonians as the Beatles were as a rejection of the 1951-64 governments. Just as it was necessary after the upsurge of pop culture to strip aside much of the distancing language and gilded-cage veneration that had come to surround the Shakespeares and Beethovens, the titans of the old culture, and to reassess their radical, questioning origins, then it has become equally necessary to strip away the official, heritagised version of the Beatles - as crucial to the new establishment in Britain as Shakespeare or Beethoven ever were to the old one - and reassess their absolute rejection of fixed, frozen cultures and of elite disconnection from the mass, their absolute faith in the same form of oppressed people's expression which today, filtered through hip-hop as they were filtered through what was then R&B, is manifested above all else in grime and dubstep.

Now as then, the official version - almost entirely untrue and delusionary - of how certain Great Figures came to be (by no means just the Beatles where 1960s & 70s music is concerned), is putting many of the people who need it most off investigating it; now as then, those who claim to love it, but in fact are the descendants of the Little Englander conservatives who would have hated it when it was new, spread the malicious canard that those who understand where it came from, and set it in a context with the inventions and challenges of today, somehow do not "really" love it. The hostile, abusive stance many of the old guard of Beatles fans take towards those who dare to mention grime and dubstep as part of a lineage instigated by their heroes is overwhelmingly reminiscent of the fearful, defensive stance of Shakespeareans when the techniques and processes of television drama were first mentioned in the context of Shakespeare's work.

Among much else, this also reminds us of a profound truth of British life, which is that conservative academics and conservative lumpenproletarians need each other for each other's security and to remain safe in their own unchallenging worlds, and that neither challenges the other to even the slightest extent. It is wonderfully appropriate that a 1995 Sunday Times article (about Elvis Presley) should speak approvingly of an alliance between the "he's-not-worthy-of-study approach" and the "let's-not-get-too-pretentious approach", because without such an alliance, and its specific manifestation within the Murdoch empire, the right-wing press, and the outmoded assumptions on all sides which it thrives on, would simply not exist. Before the Beatles can be seen in their true light, both forms of conservatism need to be dismantled, or at least seriously challenged (though in some ways, an extreme nativist such as Peter Hitchens - Jurassic Tory as the equally Little Englander Dennis Skinner is Jurassic Labour - understands the Beatles, in his hatred of all they stood for, far more than any Tory hack who superficially likes them ever could).

In 2011, most of the audience for grime and dubstep does not think of those musics in context of the Beatles, any more than most of the audience of Coronation Street in 1961 thought of it in context of classical drama. But as time goes on, and the Beatles become much less a sentimental memory of a generation that cannot face its own privilege and the consequence of its denial of those privileges to the generations behind it, and much more an objective field of study - a subject for further research - the true context of both then and now should become much more open, always assuming (and it may, alas, be an over-optimistic assumption) that the ever-increasing inequality of academic life and the age-old British bigotry of dehumanising intellectuals do not hold it back.

Much of the romantic, overstated nonsense that has come to surround the Beatles is already being deprecated and exposed as largely a fiction as the dust settles on the 60s; for example, it is more and more recognised that while small towns and villages did become less themselves, less self-sufficient during and after the Beatles' era, this had far more to do with essentially coincidental forces such as the growth of supermarkets, driven by capitalist power rather than working-class invention, which would have happened even if the world of Bobby Vee and Gidget had lasted substantially longer, and was already starting to happen even before "Love Me Do" (in some ways, the purely passive and wholly Tory Brook Brothers anticipated modern British consumerism far more than the more proactive, engaged Beatles did).

What made Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head stand out in 1994 seems shockingly ahead of its time today; his view that Thatcherism was largely the natural descendant of the mainstream of 60s pop culture (which actually had much less to do with the Beatles than is commonly supposed) rather than a reaction against it, which at the (just) pre-Blair time was seen as a form of apostasy, even blasphemy on both Left and Right, but is now recognised and accepted by many prominent thinkers on all sides (though it shouldn't be used, as it sometimes has been, to justify the idea that "Blue Labour" is Labour's best way out/back). Even with the many faults in his analysis - if he believed, as he claimed when briefly analysing the mediocrity of much of the individual Beatles' solo work, that "pop/rock is essentially young people's music", surely he should have recognised that he was not in a position to denounce all 1980s & 90s innovations within it, many of them born out of the exact same cultural engagement and relationship that defined the Beatles' very existence, so harshly and simplistically - the refusal of his analysis of the 60s to play by the stereotypical dogma of either Left or Right alone justifies his book.

Recently, Jonathan Gould has written eloquently about the Beatles' cultural legacy from the post-Blair standpoint MacDonald did not choose to live to see, and Peter Doggett has written authoritatively about the bitterness of the divisions within the band and their associates over their broader legacy, which has for so long seemed to embody the absolute opposite of the virtues the Beatles in their own time, for all their faults, very largely stood for (at least before 1968). It will not be long now before those who remain from the band and their social circles, and those millions who had their lives fundamentally changed by their existence, really are going, and going, and then finally gone. I have a decent chance of living to see their centenary; I will most likely outlive even the equivalents of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch among those who saw them in person. When that happens, they will undoubtedly be a less widely-acknowledged, less mainstream phenomenon (they already are, I think, compared with pre-millennial times), but they will seem - are already seeming - stranger, in many ways far more ancient and yet in other ways newer and fresher, when seen from a viewpoint unencumbered by the distortions of half-remembered, mythical personal (or even parental, and eventually even grandparental) pasts.

The division will not be over whether or not they are seen - as is stated at the very end of Revolution in the Head, we could not know in the 1990s precisely how they would be seen when their own generation had gone, but we already knew that they would be seen - but over how they are seen; as the gilded-cage justifiers of petty-minded conservatism and fear, or as the developers (even if not the actual originators) of all that is open and challenging and outward-looking in mass culture, as the voice of the working class speaking out against elite abuses of power and in favour of the global unity of the proletariat. Let us hope that the passing of time eventually allows the latter view of the Beatles to decisively win. If the former view wins, Cameron and Welch and Adkins and the BRIT School will also have won, and we will all be infinitely poorer for it. If the latter view wins, grime and dubstep and the unacknowledged, still unkillable radical lineage in British society will also have won, if only by proxy, and we will all be - in all the senses that matter - immeasurably richer.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

EMI, post-imperial reassurance and the ruling class

I loathe the idea - currently being promoted by vast swathes of the British media - that I am supposed to care about EMI, or to see any kind of moral distinction between exploitative, short-term capitalists based on which country they come from (Guy Hands' practices were arguably worse than the worst 1950s caricature of the rootless American, itself so often shorthand for anti-Semitism), or to think of pop music predominately in terms of the industry rather than the music itself, or to view pop music as predominately a tool of nationalism and the ruling class rather than a form in which the oppressed classes of the world can unite and reject petty nationalism (even more so when it comes from within their own social backgrounds than when it is promoted by elites). Let EMI be carved up between American and Russian ultra-capitalists. Wholly unlike pop music itself, EMI isn't worth saving; quite apart from anything else, the form it has taken is a threat to everything that has ever made pop music a progressive, liberating force, and a barrier to representative popular art.

The fact that EMI was the sole British survivor in its field from the era of limited capitalism within national borders to have remained a dominant force in the era of uncontrolled capitalism which knows no borders whatsoever has enabled a huge amount of sentimental mythology to surround it, which promotes pop music as something it never was (and indeed never could have been, and defined itself by not being for most of its first thirty years), and fundamentally ignores the cultural process that brought that music into being. Listen to most of the people crying crocodile tears over EMI - the same people who thought it was a moral outrage when a company producing tasteless, badly-made pseudo-"chocolate" was acquired by a set of capitalists who theoretically owed allegiance to a different country from that the previous lot theoretically owed allegiance to, but actively support the sell-off of the National Health Service - and you'd think the Beatles, without whom EMI would have been absorbed, almost unnoticed, decades ago, were a bunch of merry Olde Englishe grateful peasants, happily chirruping nonny-nonny-no and annually laying a wreath at the old squire's grave.

The reality is that not only did the Beatles represent a fundamental rejection of Little Englander nationalism and the idea that the mass of people should be subservient to the ruling class - something implicitly believed by those who have little interest in the creative arts themselves but plenty of interest in ensuring that their gatekeepers will always be exactly the same people acting in exactly the same way - but that even they might not have been enough for EMI to last this long had the British company not also owned their US label, Capitol. We all know that Decca had first refusal on the Beatles, and that had they taken up their option they might have survived until now whereas EMI might have disintegrated, unnoticed, at the dawn of the Thatcher era after years of stagnation, but the real serendipity for EMI was that they had acquired Capitol some years earlier, in a rare example of a declining power absorbing part of its usurper's business. Accordingly, the Beatles' US income - which was where their real money came from - could ultimately remain part of, and be ploughed back into, the British company that had signed them. This is a rarely-acknowledged truth for the precise reason that it points out a deeper truth that would bring the Tory distortion of pop's legacy crashing down; even half a century ago, Britain was already a ghost of a nation, which could do nothing meaningful on its own terms, and the "British Invasion" was really a momentary papering over the cracks rather than any kind of meaningful rebirth. The fact that it was the only way a Britain exiled from Europe could make any significant money or earn any significant international kudos for itself only makes the foundation stones of the modern EMI all the more retrospectively chimaeric.

Ian Gilmour was undoubtedly right when he wrote in 2003 that had the British been more nationalistic twenty or thirty years before, and prevented much of their mass media and entertainment industry falling into foreign hands, they would have been less nationalistic by then, because they would have had much more genuinely of their own and therefore much less need to fall back on kneejerk, vicious tabloid Two Minutes' Hate. This applies, if anything, even more perfectly to the role pop music has played in the creation of the current version of Toryism. Imagine if the British had not embraced the most obvious, most consumerist version of pop with such totality and fervour - demanding the impossible, but predominately, for the mass, of capitalism rather than socialism - during the quarter-century between Suez and the Falklands, and had instead shown a greater appetite than they actually did for new hybrid forms which were nonetheless more heavily rooted in earlier British culture (a Britain where Fairport would have had bigger hits than Free, perhaps). In such a world, much of the nationalism that surrounds those who would preserve EMI from the economic policies they normally cheer on wholeheartedly - Our Music, Not Like All That Nasty Foreign Muck (without which not a note of it would ever have been recorded, of course) - would not have had the chance to grow, because the British would have had enough that was unobtrusively, proudly but harmlessly their own that they wouldn't have needed it.

But even if you have a more positive view of pop's first quarter-century than displayed above - and I do myself, much of the time - few could deny that the cycle has been broken and that the EMI myth is at the heart of that process. In the last ten years, the epicentre of EMI's role at the core of the greatest nationalistic distortion of an open-minded, liberal-internationalist form since First World War flagwavers began the never-ending distortion of Elgar has been Coldplay, a phenomenon as crucial to the creation of the current form of Toryism as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies "thinking the unthinkable" were to the last reinvention of that movement. The reason why so many of us genuinely believed, for a while, that the Tories might never get back in was that after 1997 it was obvious that no government peddling an essentially pre-pop vision of Britain could ever be elected, and for a long time it looked as though the Tories would never be able to reconcile themselves with pop's legacy, which still had a residual hint of egalitarianism (even if never socialism) about it. Had it not been for the wave of ruling-class scions denuding pop of any hint of its original political meaning, and refuting any belief in the solidarity with the oppressed peoples of all countries (and against the ever-more global ruling class) which underpinned every note the Beatles played, that reconciliation might have been postponed forever.

Through enabling the creation of a whole new establishment culture - with just the right crumbs thrown at the proles just often enough to make themselves look "inclusive" (Chris Martin's regular association of himself with "urban" acts is surely the model for the Cameronite house "ethnics"), and through combining a passive, uncritical consumption of mass culture with passive-aggressive, One Of Our Own flagwaving - EMI and Coldplay, with the latter carrying the former's flag as a cypher for the Union flag itself, have effectively allowed the current government and all it stands for to develop almost from nowhere. Yes, Billboard can point out they've got Professor Green as well, but those who think EMI is some great national asset, a St Paul's for the modern secular religion, couldn't care less about (even) him. The objectively pro-ruling class - and thus anti-Beatles and, ultimately (even considering what pop meant for the Neil Sedaka or David Cassidy fans, the Photoplay Film Monthly readers, the white picket fence dreamers) anti-pop - reporting of EMI's likely defenestration is telling me that I should care about Coldplay's contract being in the hands of a part of the capitalist elite based in one part of the world rather than another, even though Coldplay's music could have been made by and for the ruling class pretty much everywhere (but not by or for the oppressed classes anywhere). What can be said about an idea of nation that has been reduced to this?

I never thought anything could be worse than old-fashioned British nationalism. I was wrong. Pop British nationalism is, and almost every word written about EMI proves it. Let it, and EMI, rot.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Daily Mail Socialism and the Barnsley by-election

The dramatic scale of the difference between Lindsayism/Daily Mail Socialism and the more outward-looking, cosmopolitan version espoused in the West Coast Main Line cities can best be defined by the simple statement that, had the Liverpudlian working class identified - as Lindsay wishes the entire British working class would, and cannot face the fact that many of them never did - with the landed aristocracy rather than with those as marginalised in the United States for racial reasons as they were for social class reasons here, there would simply never have been such a thing as the Beatles; the impetus which brought them into existence would, without argument, simply not have been there. Now you can argue at length about whether or not that would have been a better or worse Britain or a better or worse world - I can certainly see both sides - but it would have been, equally without argument, an almost indescribably and unimaginably different Britain and arguably an even more different world. It would also, of course, be a Britain and a world in which enough people would identify with quasi-feudal ideas of "community" for Lindsayism to make sense.

The historical reasons why Daily Mail Socialism has been much stronger in north-east England, Scotland and Wales, places where a deep-rooted antipathy to the Tory party is combined with an equally deep-rooted social conservatism, than in the WCML cities (whose populations have been far more shifting and varied) and in the southern English shires (which have been, broadly, C/conservative in both the party political and literal senses, and whose self-image has seemed ever more ridiculous and ill-thought-out in recent years through the irreconcilibility of the two), have been gone over well enough already. It is not surprising in this context, and in that of Liverpool's very specific history where both traditional socialism and most (in my lifetime, all) forms of Toryism have seemed equally alien and out-of-place, that the only use Google reveals by anyone other than myself of the term "Daily Mail Socialism" is by a Liverpool season-ticket holder criticising Gordon Brown's use of the term "British jobs for British workers".

This was and is wholly accurate; my partial defence of Brown here in the past extends only to the crude Blairite/Cameronite taunting for reasons that have nothing to do with his politics rather than out of any real defence of those politics themselves; now the dust has settled, the pathetic, futile nature of such rhetoric is most reminiscent of the utter impotence of Major's ministers opposing aspects of Sky's influence, having previously done nothing to stop it while there was still time. Brown, as a leader with some residual, sentimental ties to the older incarnation of his party following an overpowering political personality who had achieved unprecedented electoral success at the expense of the party's entire cultural base, stands perfect comparison; while he had never been as wholly committed a cheerleader for neoliberalism as the Blairites themselves, he had no meaningful opposition to it either, certainly not sufficiently so to prevent him waving through such policies in his decade as chancellor. For him then to mouth vague statements in favour of the organisation of the economy along the lines of heavily protected and separated, psychologically socialist nations, when he had spent the previous decade happily pushing through economic policies which aggressively confined such things to history, just made him look stupid and weak. Of more direct relevance to the issue being discussed here, though, is that a Liverpudlian should use the term "Daily Mail Socialism" to describe the rhetorical language of a Scot, a fact which seems aptly to sum up the differences between the dominant versions of socialism in these two left-leaning places.

This of course also explains the recent political history of Barnsley, a town where a disillusioned "Old Labour" emotional feeling of betrayal combines with a profound insularity and fear of outsiders, and where the residual Tory vote - obviously never anywhere near enough to win the seat even in an election like 1959, but still greater than they could expect now - felt so alienated by the party's abandonment of "One Nation" politics and confrontational attitude towards South Yorkshire during the 1980s that much of the area's Tory vote collapsed for good, perhaps to the Lib Dems in the days (how long ago they now seem) when they were a protest vote for disillusioned supporters of both larger parties. While a Tory vote could obviously never be any kind of protest vote now, it could - without the legacy of the 1980s - have been a protest vote against Labour when they were still in office, but in practice could not be because the hatred for the party's handling of the industrial disputes of that time (one far above all others, of course) was still too strong.

This dual alienation led directly to the disturbing success of the BNP in the 2009 European election (where the party won 16% of Barnsley's vote, a significant factor in the shameful election of Andrew Brons to the European Parliament) and in last year's general election (more than 3,000 votes in Barnsley Central) - sheer despair and isolation, the long-term legacy of a cultural fear of the much more hybridised, cosmopolitan style of socialism "over the Pennines" (and even, to some extent, in Leeds and Sheffield), and the insular racism and Europhobia of certain aspects of "Old Labour" culture (typified in the late 1990s by Austin Mitchell's Mail on Sunday column and defence of the Duke of Edinburgh's dodgier remarks because, effectively, "everybody said that in my day and it never did us any harm", and by Dennis Skinner's claim that the German owners of Rolls Royce were "getting too big for their jackboots", both arguably worse than the worst Blairite) manifesting itself on the most odious level imaginable. Last week, the BNP's decline since the general election was thankfully evident (though they still won more votes than is comfortable to think of) and it was inevitable that the Lib Dems would have fallen as far as they did (as they undoubtedly will, for the same reasons, in the Scottish and Welsh elections) seeing that they are propping up a government that many in Barnsley will see as something akin to an occupying power, but UKIP's second place was deeply depressing, and clearly very much the same kind of misguided and deluded protest vote, inheriting both the Daily Mail Socialist and Tory-but-for-Thatcher tendencies.

We can say, as much without argument as that both Britain and the wider world would have been unrecognisably different without the Beatles, that the comparative success in Barnsley of parties like UKIP and the BNP is one of the worst legacies of an organised safe tribal war that never needed to happen. This Hugo Young piece - written three months before the death of John Smith - is a fine example, with all the eloquence and command of language that The Guardian still misses, of what is probably the second best point of departure other than "In Place of Strife" succeeding. As things are, though, the political alienation of so many in Barnsley is very precisely the legacy of 1984/5, and as depressing and enervating as anything else that can be so described.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

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

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.