Sunday, 13 November 2011

The coming battle for the Beatles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Dusk, and the impermanence of life

Daylight on 21st June and darkness on 21st December feel like they could go on forever, precisely as human life cannot. Dusk, at any time of year, is impermanent, precisely as human life is; you relish every moment of it all the more because you know how soon it will be gone and how elusive and impossible to define in straightforward, logistical language it is, precisely as human life is. And walking as daylight dies - especially at this, still somehow, despite everything, the oldest time of year - makes you ever more acutely aware of your own mortality. You walk faster, go to places you don't know, and may not even know where you are, so as to fit it all in before darkness (11/11). And somehow you can feel the place in which you live - and thus somehow feel fuller, more complete - in a way you never can at any other time. You want to live all the more fervently, all the more involved, because you've had a sense of a deeper, longer belonging. Even if you can never truly be part of it, you want to believe you can. You realise that there was a point after all, you just never remembered or felt it.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Alex Ferguson: an alternative history of the last quarter-century

The precise timing of Ferguson's career turning points run in such parallel to the modern history of English football itself - itself so much a mirror for the social history surrounding it - that it is almost too perfect to be true. The same years of struggle and uncertainty in the late '80s, the same moment of serendipity in 1990, seven minutes away from Wembley humiliation, a European shut-out in the first year of English clubs' return and probable oblivion, the same moment of celebration as a new kind of elite returned the success whose restoration had become what seemed like a futile obsession, the same millennial ultimate triumph and ultimate old-establishment embrace, the same eternal, endless status - permanent neoliberalism - on the other side. Precise dates can be identified. A YouTube upload of the September 1990 European return, just as BSB headed further and further towards the inevitable, has several commenters stating that they became Manchester United fans that night - six months earlier, they would so clearly have aspired towards the mythos of the NFL (while ignoring its semi-socialist reality) that you do not actually have to be a Palace fan to find reading them a painful experience.

Even the timing of Ferguson's original appointment is symbolic. We know that this has become perhaps the most bitter time of year, when we are reminded most harshly of the market as destructive force, eroding so much of value and lasting potency and power (infinitely more ancient and permanent than exaggerated and misremembered residual anti-Catholicism), and replacing something embedded, and for the most part wholly unthreatening and unprejudiced, with something hollow, empty and utterly devoid of resonance. We may not remember so easily that it was also at this time that, 21 years ago and another 21 years before that, Rupert Murdoch enjoyed two of his three greatest territorial advances, and when a further 13 years earlier an entire culture was discredited, ripped apart, rendered untouchable for an entire generation - a fully deserving fate had it not been for the fact that its replacement, once so promising, ended up arguably even more rotten, even more the detritus of a decaying empire. These weeks, which carry so much historical weight, have become almost unendurable for their meaning in modern times - and Ferguson, in his own way, is as much a part of that as anything else.

Ferguson, I think, suffers from the same underlying problem as the 'Republic of Mancunia' axis; like them, he has continued to regard an affinity to American pop culture (and thus Sky) and antipathy to "official" British culture (and thus the BBC) as somehow rebellious, unorthodox and anti-establishment, even as it has become so embedded in elite institutions that Etonian Tories use it to justify their claims to be more "of the people" than Labour (you cannot help fearing that some of the "Manc Attitude" diehards really do believe that Cameron and his acolytes feel more personal and spiritual affinity to the BBC than to Sky). As with so many of his generation, so anxious is he to distance himself from the squalor and deprivation of his early years in his current job that he views any criticism of the economic state he has benefited from so spectacularly - while pretending to be somehow above it, not fully part of it - as an attempt to drag the game back to Heysel and Bradford, and himself back to the slums of post-war Glasgow, a simplistic view of modern history which exists to close down any serious argument and debate before it has even begun.

Far from representing any kind of challenge to the orthodoxies of the modern game, he is thus their ultimate embodiment, the epitome of the false, either-or dichotomies and the one-way Journey as if there had never been another option. Trapped within the dicta of capitalist realism even as he pretends to be uneasy with them, he epitomises the dilemma of so many British people with post-war, pre-Beatles childhoods, now steadily retiring from the public stage but leaving a legacy which continues to define their successors as assuredly as it will, eventually, define his. Nobody else could be a more fitting bridge between the old game and the new, and precisely for that reason nobody else could have had that level of success. And precisely for both those reasons, nobody else poses deeper long-term problems.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

EMI, post-imperial reassurance and the ruling class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010/11 = 1974/5 in reverse?

In March 1974, a minority government came to power following a hung parliament, which despite its questionable remit proudly and unashamedly attempted to push the consensus of the previous three decades measurably further than anyone had taken it before. A sense of triumph and pre-revolutionary fervour among the working class, and an equal sense of paranoia and pre-revolutionary fear among the ruling class, spread through the country. For a brief while, the Tories seemed utterly out-thought and outflanked, and something close to a workers' state seemed tantalisingly near, really far more so than in 1945 when the working class had been far more conservative and had far more faith in the quasi-feudal institutions (it is one of the great tragedies of British television that the changing climate in television drama and political pressures on the BBC ensured that Trevor Griffiths' Country, set on that first post-war election night, remained a one-off rather than the start of a sequence of plays, running up to that 1974 moment, as initially planned).

But that Labour government had a fatal fault; it didn't have enough broad-ranging public support for its remarkably radical agenda (whereas in 1945 it very definitely had). It wanted to take the populace in a direction not enough of it wanted to go, and thus opened the door for another kind of radicalism. Even though Labour later shifted to a more consensual position under Jim Callaghan (who, intriguingly, recently won Peter Hitchens' seal of approval, and would surely be considered underrated, with both his proto-SDP and hard-left opponents seen as overrated, by the Blue Labour tendency) the semi-revolutionary circumstances in which it had come to power and the electoral fragility of its remit did for it - and, by extension, for an entire set of assumed norms of the organisation of the economy and society.

The similarity of the mid-1970s situation to the present one seems intriguing, at least from the perspective of those who believe that electoral politics - despite its profoundly, inherently flawed form with which an early heatwave, a royal wedding and a late Easter may have ensured we are now stuck for the rest of our lives - have to be worked with if significant change is to be effected. Once again, a hung parliament has given us a government with an unequivocally radical agenda, taking the consensus of the previous three decades considerably further than anyone has previously dared. Once again, we have the logical conclusion of what would have happened had those who had built a three-decade consensus abandoned all residual halfway houses with the previous assumed norms. And once again, it is happening at precisely the moment when significant numbers of people, who would not previously have questioned it, are wondering if that consensus, and the people it has empowered, have been good for the country.

The economic crisis that began in 2008 is now emerging as to the post-1979 consensus what the industrial strife of 1972-4 was to its post-1945 equivalent - the moment when much of the population began to question what it thought it knew unequivocally and forever. And just as those circumstances, which were the direct reason why it was in power at all, made things far more difficult for the Labour government of 1974 than they would otherwise have been, so are the present circumstances, and the way they are similarly encouraging many to cut loose from their fixed economic and political moorings, creating hostility to the current government among people who would once have supported it unquestioningly. Even in Thatcher's darkest hours in the very early 1980s, there was a broad public consensus (at least outside the heavy-industrial areas) that industrial relations had to be reformed - a view that was already developing across much of society by the mid-1970s. Today, the closest thing to a broad public consensus is that banking and the financial service industries need to be reformed - and this is as profound a problem for the current government as dissatisfaction with union abuses was in 1974/5.

This is where Ed Miliband has much of the public - indeed, much of the public that would never previously have accepted his views or thought they were necessary - on his side in a manner remarkably akin to the way Margaret Thatcher, right at the start of her Tory leadership, was already, quite unexpectedly, winning over some who had voted Labour with pride and the desire to create a new society in 1945, and who had broadly stuck by them for the subsequent quarter-century. I do not want to over-emphasise my hopes for the current Labour Party. There is a long way to go in the party's rebuilding, a long way to go before I can believe unequivocally that an Ed Miliband government would be what can only be vaguely imagined now. But at least the germ of questioning and change is there in a place where it seemed it might never be again.

Could it be, perhaps, that the current government will be viewed by history very much as the Labour government of the mid-1970s is viewed today - as an extreme assertion of a set of ideas on the economy and society just before they were decisively challenged and overturned - and Ed Miliband's conference speech will be viewed as Thatcher's early speeches are, as a statement that was widely mocked and viewed as marginal and unworkable when it was made, but eventually stands out as the beginning of a fundamental change?