by Boff Whalley.
Sukhdev Sandhu, reviewing Simon Reynolds’ book ‘Retromania’, refers to ‘the poverty of abundance’, describing how popular music can now be heard (and consumed) so easily and so universally that its ubiquity ‘puts a brake on its ability to astound or shape-shift.’
Elvis was the first pop musician to astound the world, and the shape-shifting was more than a noise on a radio – it was a cultural upheaval, a shock-wave that challenged everything people thought they knew about music. It threw down a gauntlet, championed the uppity teenager sneering at the previous generation. It wasn’t just music, it was hips, snarl and cool. Couple Elvis with Chuck Berry and Little Richard and you have rock ‘n’ roll’s unholy trinity of sexuality, race and youth. Frank Sinatra, asked his opinion on the new music, called it:
“the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact, dirty—lyrics, and it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth …”
Strange that Frank should accuse rock ‘n’ roll of being ‘phoney and false’, since as an antidote to the outgoing crooners (most of whom had already retired to extended seasons in Las Vegas) Elvis was nothing but raw, tangible authenticity. And if anything was going to incite young people to go and buy those degenerate records, it was the wagging fingers of the older generation alongside that compelling lure of authenticity. Because apart from the attraction of rebellion, what young people needed in that post-war era was to feel like they had a culture that was theirs, that their parents just didn’t get. And such was the joy of that feeling of owning culture that it happened again when The Beatles turned up. Then again with the hippies. Then the rockers, mods, androgynous pop stars, skinheads, punks, rappers, ravers… it kept happening again and again, young people planting a flag on their own musical and cultural islands, taking pot-shots at the older generation and revelling in their ability to shock their elders.
But then, sometime around the beginning of the 1990s, it stopped happening. People like Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren and Creation boss Alan McGhee had formulated theories on the cyclical nature of pop music, how a new musical revolution tended to emerge every six or seven years. But they were wrong; the new stuff we were waiting for just didn’t arrive. Radio DJ and avant-garde champion John Peel, bless him, was dead. Of course there’ve been trends and styles in music in the last two or three decades, from jungle to Britpop, grime to nu-folk. But none of it has come with the ability to shock, or come with the intention of cultural upheaval. None of it has had that incredible power to collectivise and educate youth, to actually shift the way young people think about their world. Why make the effort to rip up the seats in your local cinema – as countless thousands of kids did when fired up by Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’ – when you can lie around in your bedroom watching YouTube, working out your teenage frustration through Instagram and Snapchat?
The pop music I grew up with was, for me, literally life-changing and often shocking. It taught me about protest, about rebellion, about the importance of culture. It did it by being in and of everyday culture, it was right there in the mainstream – Bowie, the Pistols, Public Enemy. It was, simply, extraordinary, and one of the things that helped make it extraordinary was that you had to make an effort to be a fan, had to tune into that one radio show for an hour every weekday night, travel to the nearest city to hear the new records and buy music papers to find out what was happening. So what are young people to do, faced with an ‘everything is available to everyone’ download culture?
Well, one thing they’re doing is finding out for themselves what the good stuff is and working out where it came from, why it was so good, why it still sparks and crackles with the idea of ‘real’. Why it looks and sounds pure, powerful and truthful. And yes, I know this article so far has been guilty of the generalised cliché of myth, nostalgia and “fings ain’t what they used to be” – but hang on. It’s about to shape-shift into something celebratory and joyous, something that swaggers and brags, something jubilant and good-looking.
I think I know how it feels to discover and love this stuff because even though I was born in the 1960s I was too young to hear it, growing up instead in the pick ‘n’ mix music of the glam/prog/Abba/punk 1970s. And I know how it feels because as soon as I heard the old songs, as soon as I saw the old films, I was hooked. It didn’t matter that it was just one decade rather than four decades past. It still felt to me like something from an earlier world, a world detached from my own. Dave Davies of The Kinks on some old black-and-white NME Winners’ Poll show forcing feedback out of his amp, Bob Dylan stroppily confronting the audience at Newport Folk Festival, Janis Joplin screaming ‘Summertime’ and Mick Jagger handcuffed in a police van after a drug bust, and all of them looking utterly beautiful – especially so since I spent my own school years in ridiculous patch-pocket flares until I was saved by punk’s resurrection of drainpipe trousers. From where I stood, the sixties looked cool. The sixties still looks cool. I don’t quite know how it managed it, but it was timelessly, gorgeously good-looking, and it’ll be good-looking forever.
And musically, the 1960s was an incredible decade. It’s the decade where John Lennon went from playing cover-songs in Hamburg basements to lying in a bag on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall wailing for peace, a decade that took in boy-girl pop, Dylan and the Beats, hippy psychedelia and heavy rock. What that unfolding decade declared, culturally, was essentially “make up your own rules”. Be surprising. Find yourself, and be yourself. And what’s more real than being yourself?
That’s what young people want, now, in the face of what looks to me like cultural blandness. They want something real, something authentic, something that gets close to ‘being yourself’. Watch footage of The Who, on stage in 1966, Keith Moon laying waste to his drums while Pete Townshend smashes a Rickenbacker to bits and imagine how it looked back then; today we see (at best) tame tantrums at award ceremonies or millionaire artists bitching about their record companies.
Most of today’s pop is air-brushed, sanitised and smoothed-over. It rarely surprises because being surprising doesn’t fit with the non-stop commercial power of the market. There’s very little edge. And it’s no wonder that young people today wanting more than wall-to-wall perfection will look at the ‘cretinous sideburned delinquents’ of the 1950s, 60s and 70s and be attracted to its literal warts ‘n’ all honesty. This is not a game of cultural spin-the-bottle, it isn’t a trip to the vintage retro personality shop, it’s young people grabbing something real – cheap guitars that go out of tune, records that crackle and skip, pop stars with spots, faltering harmonies and broken mellotrons. It doesn’t matter (this is the important bit) that what seems real may not be. What matters is the urge, the desire, to find that authentic, human, drum-toppling, guitar-smashing physical reality. That authenticity isn’t there in our shopping malls and it isn’t on our TVs. It isn’t in the sanitised art galleries and it isn’t on the Premier League football grounds. But it’s there, in that old footage. It screams and shouts and snarls and writes its own songs.
Simon Reynolds, author of ‘Retromania’, talks of a narrative where older generations say,“This music isn’t real music anymore. It’s just noise”, and they make fogey-ish complaints about music being incomprehensible. But in fact, Reynolds says, “my problem is that a lot of what I hear does sound very comprehensible. What disorients me is the lack of surprise.”
That’s arguably what’s missing right now in pop culture – surprise. The sixties and seventies were when pop’s shape-shifting was at its most extreme, when bands changed their sound overnight, influenced by technology, media and drugs. Hair got longer, then scruffier, then spikier. Clothes got progressively weirder. It’s no wonder we look back at that time and see it as a watershed in popular culture – an era when your parents wanted to kick the telly in when your favourite band came on. If you believe the late sociologist/journalist Ian McDonald, you’d accept that Britain reached its cultural high-water-mark in the late seventies, and that, a few hiccups aside, since then it’s been little more than a long list of revivals and reinventions. Nowadays there’s not much telly-kicking-in going on. Young people don’t watch tellies, for one thing – it’s all on smaller screens, possibly less adapted to shock and outrage, less… well, a little less real.
In that world of tiny screens, the search for authenticity continues. Looking back at the 1960s and 70s doesn’t have to be nostalgia. It can be seizing on a culture that, unlike the sanitised and neatly-packaged version of ‘rebellion’ we’re fed today, feels honest, dangerous and unruly. And fun. Mustn’t forget the fun.
(Boff Whalley was a founding member of the punk group Chumbawamba, so he knows what he’s talking about here. You can find him at boffwhalley.com.)