Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Pop and 2009, 2009 and pop

Matt DC, ILM:

"Looking at all these (2009's UK number 1s) on paper, it does feel 2009 was a bit of a paradigm shift in British pop. Barely any huge guitar bands or sensitive songwriters, and loads of rappers and Fisher Price electro-pop. That these records are mostly not very good is kinda beside the point, I'm interested as to whether it in retrospect looks like a blip or like the start of something.

If there's one thing that's characterised the 00s in mainstream British pop, it's been an endless and soul-destroying search for 'credibility'. Everything from Coldplay and the Sugababes onwards has felt like it's searching for some middle ground between Radio 1, Radio 2 and XFM. I don't actually like many of these, but I'm happy that British pop vulgarity is finally back.

The breaking of the glass ceiling by British rappers after about 20-something years is surely the biggest story here? I have faith that all three (Dizzee Rascal, Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk) will make better records than these in the future, as they have in the past."

Correct on every point. But bear in mind that the "sensitive songwriters" especially have only vanished because they're gearing up for bigger, deeper power. This has been the best year for British chartpop since the early part of the decade, but mainly by default - those who have done so much to eat away at its fabric, its cultural power and meaning, have bigger fish to fry now, and that's the only reason chartpop has begun to improve. And do not rule out the possibility that British rappers, successful or not, will suffer on all kinds of levels - especially if Britain finally dies and they are left with an identity that still seems too exclusive, too white to take them in - in the years ahead.

It's a relief that Keane flopped last time round. But do not be misled: their real power, their real, horrific victory, is yet to come. By comparison to such things, pop should not matter at all.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The sudden sense of feeling bereft, as you hadn't expected or been prepared for

Normally I try to look forward, because if you don't look forward, you're as good as dead. I know how much creativity there is in this country, so often hidden and marginalised (wherever it comes from) and that's normally enough to hide the fact that I can't recall ever looking into a new year with as much dread and uncertainty as I am staring into 2010. But sometimes you get overtaken, however hard you try to stop such a feeling - and I'd rather BBC Four made me feel that way than almost any other source.

I may in the past have sometimes tired of his work, considered it overexposed by those who simply Didn't Get The Point, but that's all under the bridge now, and I still can't imagine ever achieving half of what Oliver Postgate did, and I feel less complete, less fulfilled for it. I don't have anything embedded in my spirit such as he had the socialist tradition he was born to, and I don't have the ability to take part in collective endeavour which enabled him to do what he did. This has, without doubt, been the year in which those raised pre-pop, those who represented earlier, more independent forms of creativity, left us at such a pace that absolutely nobody could even pretend to ignore it anymore. The year when we - the wholly pop-defined and driven generation - were left alone to make something of our own. I'm not sure whether we're up to it. I'm even less sure whether I am.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

"Killing in the Name"

is a dreadful, bludgeoningly simplistic song which offers no real challenge to the tyranny of aggressive individualism - it's merely a repackaging, a different form of the same. Anything to do with the charts is, ultimately, an illusion, "democratisation" only in the misleading, Blairite sense, which merely distracts people from the much more difficult task of achieving true democratisation (such rhetoric may well be seen as unreconstructedly Communist, but the last twenty years have surely shown us that there was a lot of truth in Communist ideas of "revolutionary" rock as ultimately counter-revolutionary almost by definition).

That's not to deny I was moderately excited, though, and pleased about the number one on its own level. But nothing more. And "nothing more" is all that Rage Against The Machine ever were.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

In the Observer today ...

... X Factor power-grasping and Lennon corpse-fucking.

Where is the real alternative to Murdoch? We used to have it, before deregulation. "Choice" in the established media is, as almost always since it became a neoliberal mantra, an illusion. No wonder so many newspapers fear for their futures. If they had offered a genuine choice, rather than simply becoming cheap and incompetent imitations of the Murdoch rags, they might have found some sort of niche for themselves. Their fall is their own fault - and the sooner it becomes permanent and irreversible the better. They don't deserve to present themselves as exponents of "choice". Not when they have actively taken it away.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Just sent to the Guardian

Does Alan Rusbridger not think Belgians are hip, cool, trendy, rock'n'roll enough? Did he not turn enough Belgian bands up to maximum volume in his boarding school dormitory and still think the act makes him "anti-establishment" 40 years later? Was he taken to too many concerts including works by French and German composers when he would rather have been listening to Radio Caroline? Would he have felt safer with Blair because he could then have been certain that there would be no remaining counterbalance to the dominance of Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism and rock'n'roll at gunpoint?

I can only assume that at least some of these criteria apply, because I cannot otherwise work out how and why you could have run the exact same headline as the Daily Mail (The great EU stitch-up, 20th November). If your editor ultimately feels safer with Cameron than Brown because Cameron went to the right sort of school, he should say so. Your front page headline confirms the Guardian's dispiriting slide to become a free advert for the very same American pop culture The Sun has been a free advert for these past forty years. You are still just about the least worst newspaper in the UK, but you can be right down there in the gutter when you want to be. Herman Van Rompuy was a far better choice than Blair, and he should not be smeared because your editor is still bitter about the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act.

Yours, disappointed,
Robin Carmody


I doubt it will be printed - letters that seriously challenge editors' assumptions rarely if ever are - but I think the point must be made that post-modernism, and the consequent view that Europe is where yesterday's culture came from, is a key factor in Britain's wariness of a unified Europe and certainly the biggest reason why the supposedly right-on Left end up, as here, saying exactly the same thing as the Mail. Europhobia born out of ideological opposition to "dead white males" and Europhobia born out of simple xenophobia end up in the exact same place - after today, who can honestly doubt this?

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


The first of BBC Four's "Women We Loved" season was excellent - all the unspoken tensions and gaping emotional holes of so many middle- and upper-class homes of the 1930s and 1940s, only in this case occupied by the woman whose legacy still shores up a romantic vision of those times in which that sort of thing simply didn't happen, all the right expressions, every silence in just the right place.

Contrary to what has until now been a popular myth, Blyton-bashing predates trendy-leftism by decades - she was effectively kept off the very BBC whose favoured style of children's broadcasting would be condemned by '60s and '70s leftists in exactly the same terms that they used to condemn Blyton, as though there was no objective difference between her and, say, Antonia Forest (it is significant that the BBC finally used Blyton's work on Jackanory in 1974, just at the time it clearly wanted to distinguish itself from the marauding left). Now that her reputation, at least as a storyteller, is so secure - partially through the new unquestionability of popularity, partially through simple nostalgia - and now that we've all seen how easily the New Left that condemned her so vociferously could merge into market fundamentalism under Blair, I think it can be safely stated that much criticism of her work had less to do with it being politically unsound (never as absolute a criterion for the New Left as they wanted us to believe) and more to do with a simple desire to react against what they saw as the oppressive cultural norms they'd grown up with, just as they'd have hated Eric Coates and Ronald Binge while championing as inherently progressive a form of rock music which cannot now be anything other than the cultural wing of neoliberalism.

For leftists of the Polly Toynbee / Martin Jacques generation and ilk - the harshest of all Blyton's critics - the world of the Famous Five would have seemed boringly omnipresent, the establishment culture, and the world of rock music would have seemed fascinatingly alien and exotic. For leftists of my generation, it is completely the other way round - when Blyton was so resolutely condemned in the '70s, the era in which most of her books had been written was still the day before yesterday, and her rehabilitation began when it really became history and, simultaneously, the tide of neoliberalism washed its vestiges away more effectively than the left ever could. In fact, much of her appeal today may relate to the way they present a calmer, less uncertain world in which neoliberalism had never upset every certainty, and they can therefore be justified - partially because of this, partially because of the revisions to most of her books removing the most of-its-time content - even by leftist criteria.

And yet even this is a serious simplification and idealisation of the truth: as Helena Bonham Carter points out in the Torygraph, Blyton was an early master of the technique of marketing of the self, decades before it had become institutionalised as the norm - her cynical manipulation of her public image anticipates the very neoliberal era her books are now such a tantalising escape from, so much so that her life may be a warning that the whole idea of "nice Toryism", most definitely a grand-scale lie now, was probably always a myth, except during a comparatively brief post-war period which she predated. Hers was a desperate legacy to overcome - her daughters turned out so wildly different, one a quintessential Middle Englander, the other defined by a far more liberal, psychological frame of awareness, that they simply could never even speak to each other. There was ample tragedy involving her grandchildren. As would have been clear to anyone who watched BBC Four on Monday evening, her life sums up exactly what her romanticisers and sentimentalists at the Mail and similar places want us to forget ever happened. Yet I cannot forget the thrill of the Five and the nagging feeling that, had it not been for her, I may never have read anything meatier, and I cannot write out of my mind the truth of her late-life interview (probably based on her first and last BBC appearance in 1963) in the BBC Four drama where she claims, to a knowing smile from her second husband, that children would always want what she gave them. I cannot forget that the majority of comparably huge-selling mass-market authors, whether for children or adults, of the mid-20th Century are barely read now, and that endurance - an endurance probably caused by her emotional and physical immaturity, which placed her pretty much outside normal human rules - is, I suppose, its own kind of immortality.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Never forget

that the old Daily Herald was the authentic voice of a particular way of existence, overwhelmingly shaped by collective endeavour and determination to create a more equable society (and let us not forget Dennis Potter's early involvement), and that the original Sun carved out of its remnants was, like Wilson's government itself, a tantalising attempt to bring the whole concept forward into the age that never truly was, the popular daily of a better world.

Exactly 40 years have passed since Rupert Murdoch acquired the latter paper. Today's Pick of the Pops - even if Dale doesn't play "Oh Well", perhaps the greatest single ever made that could reasonably be defined as rock music, right to the bitter end, as Peter Green returns to the forest, retreats from the world that made him and that he already knows is turning sufficiently that it would destroy him - will undoubtedly be a lacerating experience, so much so that I'm actually scared to listen to it. Because everything, in terms of equality and public stake in society, was steadily getting better until then. At that precise moment, the seed was planted for the passive-aggressive, narcissistic mess of reheated prejudice and market brutalism we live in today. A passing of ownership that went almost unnoticed was the beginning of the end for Butskellism and the start of the breakup of British public life and the descent of the working class into pathetic safe tribal wars: at that moment, those who had learnt over decades to work together began to be taught to hate each other, because Murdoch knew that a collective spirit, if not broken, would make it forever impossible for people such as him to restructure society as they intended. Within the middle class, the seed was sown for the world of unashamed knowledge and education for its own sake to also slowly die, though that would take another twelve years to really take effect - it was still hanging on when the working class had already been smashed, and I just about managed to catch its end, those Saturday mornings at the Royal Festival Hall, but the point is that had Murdoch not destroyed working-class solidarity first, he'd never have had the economic or cultural base to effectively do the same to the middle class in February 1981, in an act which some misguided Marxists thought even as late as that would be the last step before they took over.

This is, within the British cultural context and to some extent beyond it, at least as important an anniversary than the one recently marked in Berlin. Everything that is depressing and self-perpetuating about our present society, everything that alienates us from our neighbours and true allies, has its roots in that moment. I am not a reactionary. Sometimes the truest form of radicalism, and belief in some kind of positive future, is to condemn the false consensus of the present.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Swimming thoughts

There are still bits of Portland I've never seen in fifteen years. The old Navy leisure centre, five years younger than me, has a slightly run-down functionalism I find rather appealing - because however uninteresting it may seem, better that than the pseudo-opportunities of the Olympics, a stone's throw away less than three years hence, whose benefits to those outside a narrow nouveau riche are, at best, debatable (and it has the same clock as the first swimming pool I ever went to, back on the Estuary, which gave me pleasant 1988 flashbacks). The whole of Castletown has a sense of multiple worlds in collision - pub after pub closing, the new luxury flats going up in the old sports field, dangerous staircases still standing in the back streets, memories of the unending quasi-nightmare of the old hospital that part of me nonetheless now misses, the doomed grandiosity of the old Navy flats redesigned for the new elite as a 1950s liner directly facing the brutalist shell of those as yet unconverted, a general sense that this place - like the political state of the UK itself - is in a state of flux that will soon be decisively decided in favour of a certain narrowness that poses dangerously as "democratisation". The final impression you get is that, while the old Portland was probably unsustainable, especially once the Navy had left (just after I came), it should have a future less neoliberal and more equal than this one.

Those around me will never really understand why I see poetry in ruined brutalist buildings - they won't grasp that, for me, they represent a world and a way of organising society which for all its faults, and it had many, shared the benefits of new developments much more evenly around the populace than is the case today, where the Olympics coming to somewhere like Portland (or, indeed, east London) would have been a genuinely public project. All told, a strangely fitting backdrop to swimming ten lengths for the first time in eight years. I'll go back. But I hope the backwash of new wealth doesn't take the surroundings beyond the means of their people. The pub timebomb forecast fifteen years ago has undoubtedly gone off, and I can't say I'm too sad. But we don't have to throw the communality baby out with the insular bathwater. A fitting sign-off for the hundredth post.

Joss Stone: the legacy of capitalism's first great compromise

O. Henry said that to be really happy in this world you must have "a little country where you don't live". Britain was the first country in the world to have a predominately urban populace, yet ran in fear from the full implications of this shift almost as soon as it had happened. Joss Stone's new album Colour Me Free! - am I wrong to find this title distasteful, as if she's trying to imagine a title The Holy Sainted Aretha would have used, had she been as crass and moronic as Stone herself is, a few years after the Civil Rights Act? - entered the UK album chart at number 75.

They may not appear so to the tediously compartmentalist, but these three facts are inherently and absolutely connected. When I'm told that I shouldn't be more upset by "Rep Ya Endz" graffiti on Portland than I would be if I still lived on the Thames Estuary, I offer the defence that such an instant reaction is illogical, irrational and Neurologically Typical - in other words, everything those around me have always wanted me to become. The fact that it can come even from as logical and calculated and unemotional a creature as I am says, I think, everything that needs to be said about the society I've grown up in. I attempted to make that point here, back in the old ghost ship, but I know so much more now.

The root cause of Joss Stone's unpopularity in her home country, even while she can still have Top 10 albums in the US and some European countries, can be traced directly to the trade-off between the landed aristocracy and the new business elite which followed the Industrial Revolution. Rather than take absolute control, as their equivalents would go on to do in many of the countries which copied our original blueprint but were then able to overtake us because they weren't ravaged by the legacy of feudalism, the new elite accepted an uneasy compromise - sometimes cited, probably correctly, as the key event in British history - in which a romanticised vision of a pre-industrial countryside would retain a key cultural role wholly out of scale with its actual role in the heart-of-empire economy, or the percentage of the population who lived there. And so it has remained, carried down through the generations to the point where, even today, even amid the grand technological dissolution of geographical borders, most of our predominately urbanised populace will not accept from those who have actually grown up in that "little country where they don't live" what they take absolutely for granted from those who share their own background. As the English are now far greater "prisoners of history" than the Irish on either side of the border, so Stone, in her home country, is arguably the greatest prisoner of all.

Of course, in a fanatically market-led society such as ours all such romantic visions are bollocks - inherently culturally embedded bollocks, but bollocks all the same. At least I am a critic of global neoliberal capitalism, the serious restriction and curbing of which would be the only way it would ever be even remotely possible to reduce the impact of hip-hop etc. in the sort of communities our urbanised majority fondly imagines to be more rooted and "traditional" (whatever that word means after decades of marketing speak) than the ones they themselves live in. Those who mock Stone for what they would take as the absolute norm from Lily Allen or Amy Winehouse - or, indeed, themselves - would usually be the first to tell people like me to go live (no "and") in North Korea.

No doubt all urban populaces have a desire to imagine their countries' hinterlands as somehow shielded from the levelling effects of global neoliberal capitalism. No doubt tall poppy syndrome is at least as strong in Britain as it is in Australia (where that term originates). But I'm convinced that if Joss Stone was from Dartford - where both I and, more pertinently in this context, Mick Jagger - grew up - nobody would have batted an eyelid at her 2007 Brits appearance (Russell Brand had a nerve to take the piss, because he's part of the exact same culture as she is, but it's a sign of how embedded this psychological sense of the West Country is that it is somewhere deep inside even him), and she'd still be at number 1 as she was back when neo-feudalists invaded the House of Commons.

Not that I'd welcome that, you understand. I mean, her music is fucking tedious heritage shit. Exactly what Richard Drax and the rest of the resurgent feudal elite would want, then.

It was a post-punk standard for a reason

"Jerusalem" became a post-punk standard precisely because it was already a standard, but only in a segment of society which that generation rightly believed had distorted it and turned a radical socialist statement into a complacent hymn of praise to the very quasi-feudal way of existence it originally attacked: there was a wholly justified desire to reclaim it. Like the works of Powell & Pressburger or indeed Selling England by the Pound, it can be almost anything politically depending on the spin being put on it (I remember Gilbert Adair comparing and contrasting Arrows of Desire, Ian Christie's masterly study of P&P's works, with - yes, quite, exactly - Chariots of Fire, the New Heritage Right's rallying call when they were so nearly overthrown before they'd really begun), but the post-punk generation used it for a reason, and a very good one, akin to my own "reclaim the countryside" rhetoric at the beginning of this decade - it was taken back into the hands of those who need it, given the radicalism and crucial ambiguity it always deserved, reclaimed from those who distorted it as Major did to Orwell, and it is because of that generation that it can burn at the end of the "Dirtee Cash" video and you don't feel, ever, for one moment, that it deserves to be burnt.

Still no defence for either the ELP or Fat Les versions, though.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Buy this. Now.

the moment you put it on you know it's an experience, and if you're anything like me you have precious few of those

And when we remember the wall, we should remember ...

one of the highest water marks of the remaking of British pop destroyed in the South Atlantic

not that this is bad

nor is this (because that is what 1983 was doing to all of us)

but we live and die by this

It had to end - I just wish it had ended differently

Much that was repressive and needed to be destroyed undoubtedly ended twenty years ago. But much that was worth keeping, in terms of social camaraderie and a society not completely controlled by plutocrats, also ended. As was made clear in the BBC's Lost World of Communism this year, most of those who demonstrated were not against the idea of socialism, but against corrupt, unaccountable leaders who had distorted the concept. They wanted a freer and more genuinely equal form of socialism, not neoliberal dominance. I certainly don't think Berliners, whatever MTV and its acolytes would have you believe, wanted the reunited capital of a reunited Germany to end up with less cultural sovereignty for city and country, rather than more. They wanted, in short, a halfway house, the old independent left doctrine of "neither Washington nor Moscow" brought into reality.

That halfway house had looked genuinely possible in the 1970s. Had Callaghan held his nerve and the Soviet Union stayed out of Afghanistan, graveyard of all empires, it might yet have been achieved. A world in which the west became more socialist and the east more liberal, in which the worst repressions were torn down without being replaced by a mere triumphalism of pop culture and consumerism. A world in which Eastern Europe was, as it deserved, genuinely democratised rather than merely consumed by one form of autocratic control from outside in place of another. A world in which we all became more "global" in the truest sense, rather than many of us in fact becoming less so. There's nothing I wish more than that that world, so close to formation for a few brief years, had actually happened. That's what should have happened in 1989.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Not remotely offended by "autistic": it has to be said

and said, and said again

we will all lose

if we are not together we are nowhere, and who would not rather be somewhere than nowhere? that is why I am convinced we will see colonisation by the US, subtly introduced via Cowell

these people will alienate us from our true friends and allies more completely than we have ever seen before - we cannot let them win, and if that means giving up pop as a bad job, so it must be

No real surprise, to be honest

note the subtle, cynical mockery of fans who dare to question absolute market fundamentalism

though to be honest I, too, think they're deeply naive to be surprised: perhaps they should abandon football at that level

New Forest thoughts

- once, here, I referred to "the Hallowe'en wall". I've regretted that turn of phrase ever since - back in the age I'm getting at, it was still all about Guy Fawkes Night in England - but it's too late to change it now, and anyway I'd mentioned bonfires earlier in the same post, and didn't really want to repeat myself. What may not have been apparent to the casual reader who doesn't know what I know all too well is that this is a real wall, always for me most evocative of wind-blown autumn landscapes, which runs alongside the road which leads Portlanders to Wimborne Minster, or indeed the New Forest, or anywhere else where the Wilson Plot once lurked. It gives the impression of being a distinct dividing line - obviously not on a par with the barrier that split Berlin and the world until 20 years ago this week, or even our own Cutteslowe Walls, but on one side - the side you're driving on - you feel you're part of the mass society, the society of buying and selling, of instant access, of something that resembles democratisation so tantalisingly that you can so easily forget it's the complete opposite. Behind the wall, you sense, strange things may happen, things beyond your knowledge, or your grasp, or your control. I know Charborough Park is a particular family's estate, but somehow I can't help thinking an M.R. James scenario may have happened there, once. In my head, it was the 1970s scene of paramilitary exercises: men rehearsed behind that wall, planning for the day they overthrew the unions and restored feudal supremacy, paranoid that within ten years detente would have quietly turned into something greater, something in which they had no place unless they fought back now. Even now, looking behind the gates has an eerie, disturbing feel: the sense of a never-admitted underbelly of the elite, an underhand, undying refusal of any form of democracy.

The fact that I will almost certainly have a scion of that very family claiming to represent me in Parliament precisely six months from now - the same family that produced five members of the unreformed pre-1832 House of Commons - makes it all the more disturbing: that whole tribe has reinvented itself in terms of mass media while nobody was looking, every bit as morally bankrupt as it ever was, and far more dangerous because they've learnt how to distance themselves from their past, Joss Stone's marketing tactics turned into politics.

- someone had written "civil right or civil war" on the sign leading into the forest: was this a leftover from the era, which seems so much longer ago than it is, when some, myself included, wildly predicted social implosion over foxhunting, a legacy of the age when the Shires could only put their hopes in same vague new GB75 on horseback? Or is it very now, very 2009, born out of a deeper, more profound sense of alienation from the entire system, which will elect the NuTories and vaguely tolerates even the BNP not because of who they are but because of who they are not? Or is it - as I suspect - somewhere between the two: a statement that, without instant and permanent withdrawal from the European Union and a stupid, ill-defined attempt to "reclaim" a country that long since ceased to exist, or even be able to exist, on its own terms, the NuTories will have betrayed those who most strongly believe in them, that a mere continuation of NuLab's vague halfway house will inspire a violent reaction among those so long and so wrongly believed to be inherently peaceable?

- you can still forget everything in a place like the New Forest, still imagine yourself in some parallel autumn, some battle for the future that ended wholly differently, some world that never really existed (because my vision isn't anti-modern at all, it's altermodern)

- I'm pretty much exclusively listening to 1Xtra music while I write these postings

Samhain reviewing thoughts

I didn't say enough about Lost Hearts last Christmas - the song itself predated the TV adaptation, but I wonder whether "The Musical Box" by Genesis was influenced by a misremembering / creative misinterpretation of the original story? It's still the apotheosis of a certain sort of prog Englishness, next to which everything that came after (and it has never really ceased to exist, ever more irrelevant and pointless with time) seems shrivelled and that many more generations removed from the source. It's vicious, not a hint of stultifying whimsy. It's that much closer to the source. Gabriel knew both the idylls and the evils, or at least their last knockings. He also knew Lost Hearts, I'm sure.

And that last scene of all, as the children set free from Mr Abney's evil dance off into some parallel world, some time alongside our own where they will never grow old as the rest of us grow old ... that must have influenced Cresswell and/or Cant because it's too proto-Moondial for words (and that has never seemed more resonant and voluminous, never more capable of making you believe that there is that other time, somewhere: I hope, like nothing else, that I am still here to rewatch it when it's as old as Quatermass is now and even beyond, because the first things that really change your life are the ones you have with you in your last hours).

"then they should go and live there" reclaimed

"Then they should go and live there" is an infamous argument for good reason. I am not seeking to defend the way trade unionists abused their power in the 1970s and gave the Thatcherites all the excuse they needed (and I fear those in the Post Office are doing the exact same thing now) but the old rational-argument-destroyer "they should go and live in Russia" was as infuriating as it was primarily because it wasn't true: those smeared as such frequently had an immense feeling for British history and culture, merely a different interpretation of it from that cherished by Tories (Dorset as birthplace of trade unionism rather than as land of feudal lost content, etc.) and knew little, by comparison, about Russian ways.

But I would say the same argument could now apply far more legitimately if reversed and applied to all NuTory supporters, X-Factor watchers, trick-or-treaters and so on, people who - unlike the trade unionists whose knowledge of British culture and history was far greater than you will ever see among the New Etonians - really do owe their cultural, social and (let's not pretend anymore) political loyalties entirely to a foreign power. It is time we responded to these people by saying, quite simply, "if they think the US is so wonderful then they should go and live there". If they are that unable to come to terms with who they are and where they are then it is time we asked them whether they should even live here at all - at least while they remain dishonest about their true aims, for whose achievement Cameron is even now secretly hoping for Scotland to break away.

Never before now have we had so many cultural, social and political fifth columnists, and yet nobody - least of all those who invented the Soviet bedtime bogeyman and tried so hard to do the same to Islam this dying decade - is prepared to acknowledge or admit the fact. The unspeakable truth is that nobody in England really knows their own history and culture anymore. If they did, the phrase "then they should go and live there" would be common parlance - and, unlike in the 1970s, it would actually be justified. It is time we made it so. The alternative is isolation and a living hell ending in the smiling face of occupation from another continent. You can no more watch The X-Factor and condemn neoliberalism and NuToryism than you could read Der Stuermer and condemn Nazism.

However much he can irritate, nobody else could do this

nobody except Dizzee Rascal could get this on every music channel that might conceivably show it (and this version when I'm posting on here, exhausted). Nobody else could get into such a public environment such a brutal description of what neoliberal capitalism literally does: literally, the bonfire of thought, the symbolic destruction of any ambitions or aspirations anyone ever had that weren't built wholly on financial gain (that Diana shot is, clearly, not coincidental).

I'm still frustrated that he can't go further, indeed contradicts himself on the next track. But for this alone he deserves the praise of all those who want the pop myth destroyed and shown for what it is. He may still be that close, but he's closer than anyone else that deep in the public domain.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Icons of your past immerse themselves along with the rest of their class in Cameron's dystopia and the rest of us have to suffer for it part 34215

Alec Christie, face of all wonderment in The Children of Green Knowe 23 years ago, has "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz as one of his favourite videos on YouTube.

A part of me just died.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Last Saturday

was one of the most glorious - and on a personal level, socially triumphant - moments of my life. Many thanks to all at Kaleidoscope for making it possible, and may there be many more to come, to make me feel that indeed I am alive, and life really is worth living.

Pop's changed circumstances, and how to cope with them

A few years after 1989, at the height of Nirvana's impact, it would have been easy to guess that come 2009 Radio 4 would commemorate the 20th anniversary of the year's political changes. It would still have seemed unthinkable that, when that time did come, they would throw in a retrospective of Nirvana's first session for John Peel, right next to Nigel Lawson's resignation as Chancellor, all the more so if - as is the case - the programme was presented by John Tusa, the very same John Tusa who spent most of the Birt era condemning every action the BBC made to shake off the legacy of Reithian cultural hierarchy, and accusing the new government in 1997 of showing a bias against "anything that could be called high culture" (I don't actually disagree with this, but would view this as an inevitable byproduct of any market-led ethos of government, a world NuLab, for all their faults, were given and didn't make).

The fact that this has happened will undoubtedly make certain people shudder with accusations of cultural theft, but for me it's something to respond to constructively - something to make us realise that we have to reinvent what pop can be if we are not to be bound up to a new establishment even less democratic and accountable than the old one was. It should be the starting point for a whole new burst of creativity. I fear it won't be, though.

Not in their name

One of the happiest events of the weekend - and I hope their win will not cause temporary satisfaction; these things are wrong in principle - was the Liverpool fans' demonstration against the club's ownership by unaccountable American plutocrats.

This was particularly gratifying because, all too often, we hear the apologists for football plutocracy justify it by saying that if it hadn't happened we would inevitably have had another Hillsborough, and that it has somehow been done in the name of those who died there, at Bradford and at Heysel. This is the same dangerous and misleading "either with us or against us" argument used by apologists for the Bush administration's foreign policy, and for so much else that is unjustifiable: those who lost their lives in those terrible events would probably have wanted the old-style, petit-bourgeois, provincial, small-scale capitalism which once controlled football clubs to be swept away, but in common with all other socialists (and that, considering their geographical and likely social background, is what the vast majority of those killed, at least in the two Yorkshire tragedies, almost certainly were) they certainly wouldn't have wanted it to be replaced with a grander-scale version of the same thing. They would instead have been infinitely more likely to want a true democratic ownership, controlled neither by aldermen nor by billionaires, with each citizen having a stake in what was theirs - everything the fanzine movement was calling for in the 1980s.

The idea that there are only two possible ways, dangerous squalor or ever-increasing elite control and inequality, is like the idea that the only two cultures in the world are Coca-Cola and Home Service (often trotted out by those who mock my concept of European pop) - a deeply depressing narrowing of the parameters of debate. If you were to tell those Liverpool fans who demonstrated at the weekend that control by plutocrats was justified in the name of the 96, you'd be viciously and scathingly condemned in no uncertain terms. As you should be. It's reassuring to know that not everyone has fallen for the myth that the new-style capitalists care about them any more than the old ones did.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Six years ago

Reynolds, K-Punk and I had an epic discussion about, among other things, when exactly the 1960s lineage ended, highlighted by a disagreement over what exactly Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" ended - Reynolds thought the lineage of liberal tolerance and art-pop inherited from the 60s, I thought the Old Tory England which was the other, less fashionable victim of Thatcherism (as I have pointed out elsewhere, Cameron - or, as he will forever be known here, Carlton Man - merely confirms this end rather than challenges it).

I'd still broadly stand by that, though I can now better express my view that to see the 80s as a force crushing absolutely everything that came from the 60s, a decisive ending to a mythical golden era, is profoundly misleading because it ignores the vital fact that, to a very considerable extent, neoliberalism was merely a natural continuation of impulses set loose by 60s pop culture. But by the same criteria I think I can say, almost certainly with much greater accuracy, that the punk lineage - the line of descent to 1977 in British music - decisively, definitely ended with "Whatever" by Oasis. I will explain why, if anyone wants.

Why do they still feel the need?

Looking through the new Radio Times - yes, yes, I know it's a bit like fucking a corpse, but it has to be done - I notice repeated derogatory references to "snobbery", and even one to (good grief) "lingering European hauteur". What makes these constant allusions so much less defensible than similar references in, say, the NME of the 1970s would have been is that they're condemning something that no longer really exists anyway. Mass demands being the only ones that matter and the market deciding everything are now so absolutely embedded in the structure of British society that you wonder why anyone feels the need to so constantly denounce something they themselves have long since decisively defeated.

There are two possible reasons, and I suspect it's a combination of the two. If the new rulers of the modern BBC were so confident and assured of the rightness of their ideology - commodified anti-elitism in lieu of real democratisation (if that much-abused word can ever be reclaimed) - then they surely wouldn't be so anxious to constantly denounce that which they have destroyed. Could it be that, somewhere underneath, they know that much of value has been thrown out and are secretly full of shame and regret over their own involvement?

But I suspect there is another, less reassuring, perhaps bigger element. These people really are riddled with obsessive hatred and intolerance of anyone who doesn't conform to their creed. Their contempt for anyone who dares to transgress - whether towards Reithianism or socialist-utopianism, or any ideology which isn't built on popcult fundamentalism - is, if anything, far deeper and nastier than the contempt of at least post-Reithians (who didn't really die until 15 years ago) for those who went against their principles, and far more dangerous because it is couched in terms of inclusivity and tolerance. It is far, far off those aims. It is the antithesis of true democratisation.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

"Democratisation": the great soft-left myth

Momus quotes Reynolds & K-Punk to make a point I've often felt like making but never really known how (in fact, I'm not sure I know now) - that what is most commonly described as "democratisation" actually isn't anything of the kind, and is in fact a self-sustaining myth which does not live up to its own promises, and dresses up an increase in corporate power and control as an increase in mass self-empowerment, whereas in reality it represents precisely the opposite, seemingly only because it may alienate an Old Right axis at the edge of British society who lost all meaningful power decades ago. It cannot be said too often.

Web 2.0 isn't the first major cultural shift the left have played badly in this way: when the state's covert involvement in pop was massively ramped up in the 1980s, a nervous, embattled left threw the baby of articulate, reasoned criticism of capitalism and the means of production out with the bathwater of Hoggartist snobbism, and in doing so rendered itself utterly impotent as a critic of the culture which it falsely assumed, based on misremembered boomer wet dreams, was a legitimate democratic voice - by the decade's end, the left's view of popular culture was pretty much indistinguishable from a reinvented right cowing that rock'n'roll had brought down the Berlin Wall virtually single-handed, and less progressive even than the most insular elements of the Old Left (and, indeed, than some - only some, obviously - of the regimes that fell 20 years ago this autumn; for all Communism's obvious faults, you don't become inherently and instantly more progressive by running to the opposite extreme). During and after the 80s, the same unhappy conclusion - blind celebration of all mass production on the grounds that it fitted prole tastes so therefore must never be criticised, however cynical the exploitative means and methods of its creators were - pretty much did for Cultural Studies. By 1990, much of the left was so deeply riddled with apologias for the narrowing of British television's cultural scope, justified in terms of being "accessible" and not "alienating" the mass, that its only difference from the Murdochian lobby was - and has remained - its reason for holding certain views, not the views themselves.

But perhaps of more direct relevance here, the left played the 80s badly in the precise sense of not using the new forms to convey a clear message in the way the right did: fearful of engaging with those forms at all, it indeed preferred instead to celebrate a vague, poorly-defined dictum of "openness" rather than setting out a definite set of views of its own. All it offered to challenge the blatant neoliberalism of Duran Duran or hair metal, or the world-eating pseudo-concern of U2, was the vague, cuddly, non-threatening multiculturalism of BBC community programmes or, indeed, almost all the black pop favoured by the mid-decade NME which backed go-go against both house and hip-hop. Now there's probably an underlying message here about the inherent incompatibility of mass pop culture and leftist-utopianism (even back then, the dominant gene in hip-hop was aggressive-individualist) and if that is true, and it probably, unspeakably depressingly (because I still want to love pop, for many reasons) it is, I can quite understand why much of the left has long wanted to give pop culture up as a bad job, but the fact is that it has to be engaged with on some level - the alternative is leaving yourself open to something far worse, just as the left running scared from the 1980s speaking in terms of "inclusivity" without stopping to define what they wanted to include left it indefensible against the Blairites (note that I am not aligning myself with Blair's own comments just before he left office, encouraging repression of what little serious investigative journalism there is in the UK and of free speech on the internet - I am merely questioning whether forms of communication which should in theory increase free speech, and often do, also encourage the weak-minded and weak-willed to surrender their opinions to the point where they have practically none left, and therefore work directly against their own best purpose and use).

What is most dispiriting about the present situation is that, just as all the left's political mistakes of the late 1970s have been repeated, all its cultural mistakes of the subsequent decade seem to be being made again: the right is using Web 2.0 just as it used the newly-globalised pop industry in the 1980s - as a platform to spread a message of divide-and-rule rendered misleadingly appealing to the young by its encasement in imagery still very widely (but wrongly) believed to be inherently "democratic". Much of the left, by comparison, aren't even trying - they're using the exact same Cameronist rhetoric of "democratisation", based not around real democratisation (it's a fine word in principle but, like so many, irrevocably tainted by misuse) or egalitarianism, but around the rhetoric of mere numbers, of wealth and power justified in the most misleadingly faux-egalitarian terms, of the fiction that having the privilege of commenting on newspaper websites gives the mass any genuine power. It may well be that the form and style of modern mass culture is inherently shaped against the left. But they - we - should be trying harder than this.

This is also the reason why I don't post here all that often, or fall for the pseudo-democracy (in fact defined in terms of a narrowing of thought and range which is about as "democratic" as Cameron's talk of rolling back the state) of Twitter et al. I post as often as I feel like it. I only communicate when I genuinely feel I have something of interest and value to communicate - I had my fingers burnt by too many years of pumping the air with bullshit because I thought it had to be said, or was somehow worth saying. That may put me out of sync with the spirit of the age, in some ways, but I still make use of the communicative aspects of Web 2.0 to challenge the neoliberal myths and lies in whose name it is so relentlessly misused - I can be as critical of the general assumptions on certain fora as I have ever been, and I want that to remain the case. The lies of an era can only be challenged by serious engagement with its most widespread means, however much abuse you may have thrown at you (it is the mark of maturity to be able to wear that kind of response with pride). That, not tabloid kneejerkery dressed up as constructive comment, is true democracy.

(p.s. HKM - you may not believe it, or even want to believe it, but I write this and say this in large part because of you)

Friday, 9 October 2009

Why I don't say the obvious, now

One of my ghosts speculates - in the forum where I learnt and unlearnt almost everything, the one I could not leave alone, however much I knew - that I might post about the parallels between the slow death of New Labour and the final end of Oasis. I considered that, briefly, in August. But I didn't because I've - to use a phrase which will never really fit my writing style but I'll use it anyway - been there, done that. Carmodism cannot be renewed forever, at least not if I want to keep renewing myself. I could easily also be posting here about how every tragic mistake made in the late 1970s has been repeating itself, from the failure to jump at the chance of an autumn election (which, more crucially now than then, could not have had a virtual year-long campaign before it as in the US) to workers in a vulnerable national industry going on strike just at the time when it could be most politically fatal for the very survival of that industry. But I don't, on the whole. Futile escapism, perhaps. But others can write about pure politics better than me. When I do post here, and I hope I will more often, I prefer to create a sense of a parallel universe. When we go, we can at least all go together. Also, Oasis - unlike the band whose reputation they distorted and damaged so much by association, as the BNP do to any national idea, however vague - are simply too depressing musically to want to write anything about them whatsoever, whichever angle it comes from. They heralded an epic lie and fraud. Now we're on the brink of an even greater one. What's new?

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.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

They know more than you think they do

Why would a McDonald's ad use a 50-year-old song? The answer comes when you remember that it's those 50 years and that summer, the summer when - more than any other - the groundwork was laid that would eventually let them through, and when - coincidentally enough - an Old Etonian laid the groundwork for other more obvious leaders of consumerism to exploit during the comparatively egalitarian interlude, but ultimately keep it safe for another one to come back. There could be no more auspicious time for their ads, or anyone's ads, to use Jerry Keller's "Here Comes Summer", which - suffering from the usual transatlantic time lapse of the day - actually didn't take off here until the autumn (admittedly one of the warmest of the 20th Century, along with - heartbreakingly - 1978) and ascended to joint number one on the Light Programme, shared with an Isle of Wight native slaughtering Sam Cooke, two days after the 1959 election. They may not know. But I think they do.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

A harbinger, I fear

"This week on the BBC" trailers on BBC Four. "Part of the thousands of hours of Arts and Culture programming the BBC produces every year." (I suspect there are variants for other fields, on the relevant channels.)

The last time the BBC ran promos like that was in the early 1990s. There can be no better indication of the political times coming.

Friday, 17 July 2009

there is a fourth, at least

The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage (February 1974). Especially "Modern". Absolutely astonishing.

There is so much more waiting to be discovered. To be honest, I've only just started.

Massive autobiographical / pop as of now (and possible recovery thereof) piece coming this weekend, you may or not be thrilled to hear.

How do we read the 70s and what followed?: two different worlds

I know I've always lived in one.

Let me begin by stating that I'm well aware I'm not a prog fan as such, I'm just someone who likes some music that could be considered part of it, just as I like large swathes of other music. I know entirely that this poll comes from a world other than mine, and that I'm not the man most qualified to comment on it. I know that my ideal poll would take a few cornerstones from this, redefine its criteria around art rock and genuine experimentation and Anglo-weirdness rather than prog (art rock inherently a more flexible genre because it's based around its own criteria of art, which anything can theoretically be, rather than someone else's idea of "progression"). But all the same, fuck it, and concentrating on British music alone so only touching the tip of the iceberg: the three most redundant and overexposed Floyd albums all in the Top 10 and no mention whatsoever of any of their 60s work or even Animals, the absolute heart of the 70s - cynicism over the machinations of business and the exhaustion of a crumbling elite tempered by genuine hope that an upsurge to overpower them is possible, the same bitter ennui we're living through today only now without that hope - and far and away their most satisfying, because most direct and least absorbed in the dead end of "hanging on in quiet desperation", post-weird work? More appearances for innumerable revivalists and pasticheurs than for Peter Hammill in any incarnation? No appearances whatsoever by Soft Machine or Matching Mole? A Genesis album from as late as 1980? Truly, even in an age when - as is commented on that thread - many of the old divisions (which were undoubtedly once necessary but in the end had become the death knell of ambition and an unintentionally conservative force) are no longer communicating themselves in the same way to the young, there are still two different worlds (one way of putting it - and certainly another way of expressing m the g's post in that thread - is that musically it's a little too Alan Freeman and not sufficiently John Peel, or in US radio terms too much what AOR radio became, with too few hints of its roots in freeform).

If Geir Hongro has served no other purpose, he provides a useful anti-me in terms of my assessment of almost any music - whatever he thinks was the peak I am likely to find desperately overplayed, canonical, pseudo-classical and drunk on notions of someone else's respectability rather than creating your own (in the case of prog), or pathetically deluded in dreams of mythical summers before you were born and justifying a certain leader's pseudo-politics rather than keeping an independent voice and capturing the tensions of your own time (in the case of 1990s British music), whatever I think is genuinely innovative, powerful, the epitome of all that is best about pop and that only pop can do, an expression of the actual Britain rather than his own heritage fantasy world he will consider to be "tuneless", degenerate, overtly "experimental", just plain worthless or, most worryingly, not even British at all. To say that he should simply not comment on hip-hop or latterday pop, and stick to the music he knows, would still be legitimising endless tedious anti-thoughts - he is the man who thinks King Crimson's best work was under Lake/Sinfield, that the "psych sound experiments" on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn should have been replaced with "more nursery rhymes", that Ummagumma is worse than A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and that the 1970s' greatest achievement - rather than, say, Red or Rock Bottom or anything from Germany (a country unsurprisingly wholly unrepresented) - was the entire territory of "symphonic rock", something that for all its occasional high points (the concert-hall hush of the second half of "The Cinema Show" does have something very special about it, the fields and farms of the shires huddling together and wishing the unions away, bonfires blazing in fear of coming socialist revolution) is ultimately a dead end, and could not have been anything else, because it was playing by someone else's rules.

The key albums in that poll undoubtedly are The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Rock Bottom and Red (gratifying that that is so high, not so gratifying that its two predecessors and USA aren't there). They have more in common than all being from 1974 and all being invoked here: all, in their wildly opposing ways, capture the feeling of a moment when everything seemed up for grabs, and thus have something to tell us about our own time, when everything should be but seems dispiritingly as though it isn't, and that a discredited elite will merely retake power through the most cynical and dishonest of means. They all show us, as little else before or since, that something else could have happened (something like Station to Station, which is at least as good as all of them and may be better than any of them, doesn't work in quite the same way, so internalised beyond the rest of the world is its very construct). The first of those albums is to me the most complete answer to the post-imperial dilemma of a certain class, and perversely weaves a wholly personalised art out of a state of desperate confusion so well that I'm not sure whether any of those involved, or the vast majority of their caste, should have tried again (unfortunately they would, on all fronts), the second - amid its many other dissolvings of sound, its unashamed loss of self (all you can do when half your self is gone, something which - I know from bitter experience - may equally apply when that loss is mental rather than physical) contains my favourite song of all time. But I think, if I wanted to take any part (I know now why I must not) I might well vote for the third. Because it rages within and without itself like precious little rock music before or since, because it desperately fights its own impotence and somehow manages to create its own fraught self-justification (which was all I could have in my own life, before edging tentatively closer to what Wyatt somehow managed to find for himself), because it's a band, and a world, on the brink of imploding for good. And because of Wimborne Minster, and the private armies, and the plots that lurked behind the Hallowe'en wall. All prog comes back to that in the end, maybe, even the bad stuff. But this, without question, was the good.

(and - I must now add - the poll went pretty well, and thankfully anti-Hongro)

The romanticism of pop commodities: a few thoughts

It's clear that at least one of my old sparring partners will miss the CD single, but I cannot help thinking this is Pure Sentimentalism: The Next Generation, as those who fell in love with pop in the 1990s are steadily overtaken by the yearnings of age and the internal mythologisations of early discovery. The question is: will this ever be as endemic, as widespread, as the romanticism of vinyl clearly still is? I personally doubt it.

CD singles were pretty much the quintessential 90s pop product: taking off early in the decade as vinyl steadily became a niche for romantics, pretty much dead in the US by the decade's end, lasting longer in the UK but nonetheless beginning a rapid decline at the turn of the century, squeezed at one end by Napster and its successors and at the other by the chart rules introduced around that time restricting the length of CD singles and numbers of formats, a futile attempt to return to a vanished era of scarcity which rapidly killed off the collectors' market for rare tracks and remixes which by then made up a very significant part of the format's appeal - you no longer needed to buy a single simply for the lead track, that song was now absolutely omnipresent and unavoidable through countless other means. And that I think is the reason why the CD single will be very largely unmourned - by the time it became dominant, pop as a medium - at least in the form of its biggest hits - had become universal, no longer rationed by lingering echoes of austerity, puritanism and old-elite fear of loss of national power. The generation who grew up in the 1990s - and thus on CD singles - simply did not, on the whole, feel the same level of romantic attachment to the pop that captured their hearts the most in the way that earlier generations had. Music obsessives did, probably (and still to a greater extent than now, especially if - like Nick and myself - they felt the romanticism of geographical isolation in the last years before the internet became almost universal in our generation), but the wider audience did not. Once, almost everyone's experience of pop had been, to some extent, romantic (and thus much more likely to place within the audience a yearning for the specific methods by which they first discovered it). By the 1990s, multiple factors had greatly reduced the romanticism of pop, and those factors I suspect will make it far easier for those who grew up with the CD single to leave the format behind with few hankerings.

Nick comments about songs you love being "hidden and a bit inaccessible" which makes it "a bit more precious". He may not have meant it, but he sums up the entire experience of pop pre-mass media saturation, pre-elite approval, pre-celebification of politics, and everything else he was not old enough to truly be part of himself. I would suspect that comparatively few of our generation feel that kind of attachment, which is why we have been able to take the transition to mp3s without any particular sadness. This is also the reason why vinyl sales have increased in the last couple of years, to the point where the 45-rpm single, as a niche product, may well outlive the CD single as any kind of product - vinyl carries within it the mythos and the memories of the romanticism of scarcity, and can appeal to those who never experienced it themselves but wish they had. This is an appeal that the CD single will, I think, never be able to attain - by the 1990s, after all, we were already most of the way to where we are now.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Never forget ...

... that The 11 O'Clock Show was both the Blair and the Britpop - and specifically the Oasis - of British comedy, in the sense that it pushed out every shibboleth of the cultural Left, every principle that had been more or less retained since the comparative simplicities of "oppositional" culture in the 1980s, and left a legacy which would take on a far greater scale, to the point where it would become ineradicable. As a series which was viewed with general contempt in its own time, and achieved little ratings success, whose alumni and general spiritual influence nonetheless seeped through into so much that followed, it is almost without comparison in British TV history. Basically, if you've ever laughed at anything that's built around deliberately nervous laughter and "ironically" saying the unsayable, you've laughed at its offspring, even if you've never heard of it.

One of the key newspaper articles of the last 15 years - not in terms of what happened in response to it, but what didn't - appeared in The Daily Telegraph (which was still pretty much non-celebified to an extent unthinkable for any newspaper now) in the final week of 1999. Praising Ali G - at last, I thought at the time and still think, Baron Cohen's natural fanbase showing themselves - it made one particular reference which sticks in the mind: that the physical movements of rappers were "ape-like". In the early weeks of 2000, it became known that David Irving - about to be permanently discredited even to the mainstream-right figures who had never previously felt able to unreservedly condemn him - had chanted a poem to his daughter in which he equated black people with apes. As little as five years earlier, such endorsement would still have been enough to destroy Baron Cohen's career in the world where he was then operating, and thus prevent him from going any further. But suddenly what had once been the cultural Left seemed unmoved, and continued to play along. It was at that moment, perhaps more than any other, that the legacy of both Blair's erosion of the political principles of the Left and Britpop's abdication of any sense of obligation to keep up with developments in black pop became clear.

I think we should remember that this week, and keep it in mind.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Should the below sound too much of a Jeremiad ...

these two 2009 UK number ones are the kind of pop that still speaks to me, somewhere within (Guetta/Rowland especially). And although it is very, very easy to get tired to death of it and it's obviously a miniscule fraction of what he's capable of, there is something about hearing Dizzee Rascal up there expressing precisely the state of permanent confusion so many of us feel (which is also, I think, what makes so many of us in England feel that Scotland or Wales, once so isolated and provincial and removed from where the action was, may be a better place for us not so long post-2010).

(It is significant, I think, that none of the main protagonists in the above songs are white and English ...)

And there's also this. It is strange to think that Jay-Z was ever the voice of relentless commercialism and self-promotion against the legacy of 1980s hip-hop (but oh, he was, and oh I hated/loved/hated/loved him for it). Perhaps he has become a reactionary, merely defending his territory. But all I know is that "Death of Auto-Tune" is as lacerating a six minutes as I've heard in aeons, and that it absolutely has to be heard.

Michael Jackson: now the dust has settled

A few thoughts:

- Jackson's initial potency in Britain (much less so in the US, where everyone always knew that pop had been created on their own doorsteps and it was always much more omnipresent) was born out of the romanticism of pop (a concept which I think is absolutely central to much of what I have written about pop and its slowly-dying emotional hold, but which like so much of my work is emotionally alien to most Americans, with the exception of those who really do understand the wider world) and yet it was his own success which did more than almost anything else to crush it. It is certainly not coincidental that the Thriller phenomenon - gathering more strength and making more converts with each week that passed - was pretty much concurrent with the decisive defeat of "gentlemanly capitalism" by the style of business which shamelessly jumps on whichever bandwagon it thinks will make it the most money. And yet, even as Thriller monopolised all it saw, it was still one step removed for the British - we still had parents who wouldn't let their children watch ITV, and if you confined your radio listening to Radios 3 and 4 and your TV viewing to certain fixed points on BBC2 (and to some extent Channel 4, but even early on it was always a lesser extent) you could pretty much avoid any reminders of his existence in a way that is not the case with pop today. Its individual stars may be smaller, but its cultural reach is greater - the very process which Jackson pushed to the limit grew beyond his control and rendered him irrelevant. It could well be that the biggest pop stars we have left are those who have grown up with it and now have the greatest geopolitical power of all.

- perhaps the sense in which Jackson is most comparable to Presley is that, like Elvis, his greatest impact combined with political shifts to scupper the European cause in Britain. Presley's initial emergence coincided almost exactly with the brutal realisation that the US simply would not allow Britain to make common cause with France against US interests (an assertion of global dominance - just on the edge of the first flowerings of post-modernism, as well - which also decisively pushed France to ally itself with a Germany only just tentatively re-entering the international stage, and pretty much froze Britain out of the nascent EC), and the Pelvis seemed to subliminally crush the plans for Anglo-French union which had been seriously discussed immediately before Suez. Similarly, Thriller danced on the grave of the simultaneous hopes for a One Nation Tory (and thus much more European-minded) coup against Thatcher and for British pop to take a serious turn to its nearest geographical neighbours and beyond (via Visage, the Associates, Japan, Kraftwerk getting to number one, even one-hit wonders like the Mobiles and a huge pop group like the Human League). While Thriller's impact on mainstream US music as measured via Billboard was, unlike that of the directly comparable Star Wars on mainstream American cinema, overwhelmingly positive - it blew away lots of MOR and country dreck (Crosby, Stills & Nash and America even had Top 10 comeback hits in '82!) - its impact in Britain was much less overwhelmingly positive, and seemed to merely set the tone for a second quarter-century of ever more pathetic chasing of someone else's imperial shadows, precious little of which would have a fraction of its joy of discovery and sense of life (and, with the universalisation of pop culture through the new capitalism, nor could it have), after a brief period when it seemed, as never at any other point in the last half-century, as though the wrongs of Suez could be, if not wholly geopolitically reversed, at least culturally rebalanced to something more conducive to what Britain should have been.

- Jackson's greatest impact, viewed objectively, was probably in countries where English was not the native tongue, and especially in countries nobody would have considered part of "the West"; Britain and Australia had been primed for something like this over decades. In a China and an India slowly opening themselves to international trade and setting their stall for what they now seem poised to become, an Eastern Europe grasping a new future as the force which had dominated it for so long withered under its own contradictions, and to a lesser extent a Western Europe coming to terms with the economic winds blowing around it and the associated forces pushing Schlager and its equivalents largely off the charts and airwaves, he really was what Elvis was to post-Suez Britain - the decisive force sweeping away the dusty pages of the native culture. So much of world-changing political import happened in his peak years that it was as if Jackson and neoliberalism made each other happen faster, especially in Eastern Europe (where, if anything, he peaked with Dangerous). The question remains as to whether the latter will die in tandem with the former. I'm not optimistic - ethnic nationalism in Europe is merely a dead end which makes it easier for the market to carve up the continent while posing as a "people's" force which will make it harder.

- Momus suggests here that the era of narrowcasting will see a major return to high/low divisions and a decisive shift away from cross-class pop dominance. It may be different in places where pop has not been integrated into latterday patriotism - that whole "we may have lost our power, but at least we can still do this!" rhetoric that surrounded the Beatles - for so long, but I can't see such a change happening in most of the UK to a great extent (although it may happen to some extent in Scotland, should it secede from the Union). As I suggest in the comments to that thread, though, the whole Coldplay-to-Blunt axis of middlebrow pseudo-pop - aimed precisely at an audience which has always been suspicious of both the genuinely highbrow and the unashamedly brash and populist, a sort of modern-day equivalent of light classical - may be a British manifestation of such a reassertion of class distinctions. Obviously, it is a wholly negative one, but we couldn't really have expected anything better. We will need to look beyond these shores for genuinely interesting hybrids to be born out of a possible reconciliation with higher culture on the part of those who would have slummed it with Jackson, to places which are not stunted - and confined to an ever narrower mass experience of pop - by the specific timing of their grand imperial eclipse, by the reactionary legacy of the class system and by the cultural memory of ELP and Rick Wakeman, whose undeniable absurdity, point-missing and tedium nonetheless would not represent such an albatross in a country more at ease with its cultural self. Even on the level of pop at its most instant, there is a genuinely great pop single at number one at the moment which is over and done within a little over two minutes. Unfortunately, it's number one in Germany and is nowhere to be seen in the UK Top 75. We have further to go than ever.

Friday, 3 July 2009

So he didn't do it ...

... but, fuck, he came close.

Maybe it might have been different if Murray had held his lead in the first game of the third set, or if he'd taken that set point. The Union may well crumble, even if he does win next year. But he should not be ashamed. He should take no heed to those who will bash him as a "loser" or a "choker". Murdoch need not bother him. It was a great match, and he could have done no better.

Monday, 29 June 2009

A satisfying humiliation for Little Englanders

If Murray is going to win, he really will have had to fight for it. And it is precisely because, unlike Henman, he understands what fighting actually is - and doesn't think, not even in some unthinking mental background, that there is something faintly vulgar about it - that he could fight and win on this most exhausting of nights.

A little bit of Old England died tonight, and all I felt was the drama of sport at its very best, and final elation. Those whose petty little bigotry is infinitely more likely to break the Union than Murray ever will have been definitively defeated. You will never hear Cliff Richard on that ancient turf again. We did get 15 seconds or so of "Sporting Occasion", but we needed no more - and in context it worked, because here was a moment when the worst of the past was put behind us, not - as so often - the best.

I am not saying the Union has to stay together for this reason alone, but those in England outside the southern middle class have - I think - mostly realised that Murray's experiences and attitudes have far more in common with theirs than Henman's ever could have. By Sunday night, something might have happened which could have significance way beyond tennis. Or maybe it's too far gone. But this was a victory to stir even the harshest heart.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Michael Jackson

Another RIP post, fuck.

Any words I may write will be drowned out not merely by size but by strength. Almost everyone in the world will have something to say, and most of them will say it. The scale of this is so far beyond the things I habitually blog about that in any other circumstances it would be almost comic. But in this case it carries more the authentic air of tragedy; for all that his life was so much part of the age of celebrity, with which he shared his childhood and which he did so much to push to its current level, it has the sense of tragedy in the deeper, historic sense, not the sense of merely losing a fucking football match - for so long now, and precisely because of what he had been, it had seemed to be heading this way (he was probably still in his 30s when I first started thinking he wouldn't last long into his 50s).

So no doubt it will seem a morality tale, proof that - if you let it - celebrity will get you. And let us not pretend, as we have with so many others, that we particularly respected what he became towards the end. But why was there still so much excitement about the 02 Arena shows, even though he hadn't toured for over a decade and, when our heads finally defeated our hearts, we all doubted he could get through it? Someone who can still, so late on, create so much anticipation - against all logical sense - must have made people feel, however momentarily, however falsely when we woke up in the morning, that anything was possible. And that, we can be sure, he did. Ignore, for the moment, all the rap remixes and "have you seen my childhood?" and the endless compilations. They were all part of the long road that could only end in this.

Within 24 hours we will all obviously be sick of this comparison point, but as the NME said in August 1977 over its cover picture of the Elvis of half a lifetime earlier, remember him this way. And be, perhaps, more grateful for the mundanity of your own life. But be grateful too that what you have just heard existed.