Friday, 18 November 2011

You Can All Join In

Do you know that famous tease by Virginia Woolf, that "on or about December, 1910, human character changed" (Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown)? Well, on or about, let's say, December 1968, I think something similar happened. Amongst other things, British pop and R&B mutated into "rock", and a brave new world began. Or so it seemed at the time.

I remember the moment well: it coincided with that snowy winter 1968/69 that followed the release of the Beatles' White Album, their failed attempt to come to grips with the new "progressive blues" paradigm. Next thing you knew, the Beatles were gone, and the likes of Led Zeppelin were shaking the stage. Personally, I never really liked that twee, psychedelic phase that dominated British pop in the mid-1960s, but as soon as I heard the new, riff-driven, "heavy" blues, I felt that thrill you only get a few times in a lifetime, when something sets up an overwhelming sympathetic resonance in your soul. Well, you're only 15 once, and if ever there was a music for 15-year-olds (15-year-old boys, anyway), this is it.

If you are of a similar age to me, you will probably remember those "sampler" albums that the new rock-oriented labels started putting out: most significantly, for the nascent British Prog Blues generation, You Can All Join In and Nice Enough To Eat from Island. These were loss-leading prospectuses aimed right at YOU; it was clear that someone really wanted to get their hands on your pocket-money.

Popular music has always been a business, naturally, but 1968/69 marks the point when music tipped over from being an accessory to social life to becoming a lifestyle package, a brand you could adopt and live inside. For a while, the word "alternative" was loosely stuck on the front of "lifestyle" as part of the packaging, but that label fell off somewhere in the early 80s. There's nothing alternative about getting your lifestyle off the peg in a High Street shop.

It suddenly seemed normal for youngsters from any background to imagine themselves as leading characters in a far more exotic and colourful narrative than the one lived by their parents, or even their older brothers and sisters. A sort of mass permission was granted, by some mysterious sprinkling of Zeitgeisty fairy dust, that allowed thousands of us to fantasize about becoming poets and vagabond musicians, rather than teachers and chartered accountants. It was as if, having unprecedentedly more choices in our lives, we had decided to add the powers of flight and telepathy to the list. Hey, why not? (Well, lots of reasons why not, but that's another post).

It was the spirit of the times, of course. Primary schools at the cusp of the 1950s and 1960s were all about free expression, play, and the untrammelled development of personality. We were encouraged to grow, imaginatively, and not to limit our horizons to a dull job at the nearest shop or factory. Typically, there was a dressing up box in the corner of every classroom, full of oddments of adult clothing and accessories, bags and scarves and hats. If you had the imagination and inclination, you could dress up and go anywhere and be anything between the morning milk break and dinner-time. See Emily play!

The new music was, in a sense, an extension of that dressing-up box attitude into adolescence. It might have been assembled from off-cuts of blues, folk, and R&B (with maybe more than a bit of Black and White Minstrel Show "blacking up" thrown in), but joining in didn't require anyone to become a musician. There was a symbiosis, a "scene", between performers and fan-base that created a new paradigm for popular culture.

Getting into the music, adopting the look -- and no-one should underestimate the aggro it caused back then simply to let one's hair grow long -- was to be more than a "fan". It was an elective affinity, a freemasonry of youth that crossed boundaries of class and geography, whose clandestine handshakes were the LP record sleeve tucked under a great-coated arm and the packet of Rizla papers with the mysteriously missing top.

The essence of that era is nicely captured by the cover of You Can All Join In. All the musicians on the album are herded together in a group photograph, like a school outing with a hangover, dressed in the DIY surplus-store uniform of early prog rock; smirking, scowling scruffs in donkey jackets and army greatcoats, with unstyled, grown-out thatches of unruly hair. Sandy Denny, the only girl, wears a charity-shop fur coat, and the cheeky boys from Jethro Tull are pulling faces at the back. It wasn't a difficult look to aspire to, and very low-maintenance -- we could all join in!

Ever since, fresh generations have revelled in those feelings of conspiracy and solidarity, of having a delightful shared secret, that being part of a Scene engenders; I suspect the 1980s "rave" scene may even have taken it further and done it better. But, we wrote the book or, if you prefer, we opened Pandora's dressing-up box.

Just another teenage dirtbag...

So far, so nostalgic. But there is a down-side to all this.

When he was 12 or so, my son became interested in those fantasy-gaming models branded as "Warhammer", and sold in Games Workshop stores. If you don't know them, they are miniature versions of those grotesque creatures that populate Heavy Metal album cover-art, all spikes and fangs and improbable armour. It's a phase many boys go through, but they seem to pass unscathed out the other side (though one of my younger colleagues did tell me of her dismay at discovering boxes and boxes of the stuff under her 30-year-old boyfriend's bed).

So, there I am, in about 2003, standing for the first time in a Games Workshop, doing some Christmas shopping. A bunch of kids in Heavy Metal tee-shirts are sitting round a table, dabbing paint onto models, and nodding their shaggy heads rhythmically. The muzak is loud and, I notice, oddly familiar. My God, I realise: that's Black Sabbath... These boys are listening to Paranoid! This music is thirty three years old!!

It was as if we, in 1970, the year of that album's release, had been listening without irony to music by Glenn Miller or Fats Waller. Very, very weird.

A style like Heavy Metal crystallised out of the primal progressive blues soup quite quickly, and has been with us, essentially unchanged, ever since. This is astonishing. And it's not just Heavy Metal: I can't remember the last time I heard something and thought, "Hey, this is new..." Even rap is 30 years old. Something odd is going on, wouldn't you say, when the latest musical scene for the style-conscious teen is yet another retread of musical styles established 30 or 40 years ago? In some weird way, 1968 has become the Year Zero of pop music -- anything before is "retro", anything after is "contemporary".

Seeing those 14-year-olds nodding along to Black Sabbath in 2003 made me think: this music has infantilized so many of us. We are stuck, unable to grow out of the sounds that intoxicated us before we had our first serious affair, before we had raised children, before we had experienced the full range of adult emotions. We have mistaken nursery rhymes for poetry. It's no wonder so many of us have a problem choosing music for a funeral.

As serious as your life...
John Coltrane, by Roy DeCarava

Part of the problem, of course, is that an alternative is hard to find. Unless you enjoy visiting those musical museums called "classical" and "jazz" (I do), there is very little accessible, serious contemporary music being broadcast. It doesn't help that screeching monsters like Harrison Birtwistle are blocking the way -- "serious" has become synonymous with "unlistenable".

A handful of listenable pieces by the likes of Arvo Pärt do get played to death as background (amusingly, there is a campaign on BBC Radio 4's Feedback programme to stop Phillip Glass's haunting Facades being used as "atmosphere" more than twice a week), but, infuriatingly, such pieces are rarely identified and as a consequence it's hard to put a name to these attractive, oddly familiar sounds. It's a real challenge, trying to break the rock/pop stranglehold, and find contemporary music by and for adults.

But let's not get too gloomy. Music isn't everything. And I find I never tire of seeing the parade of ageing geezers wheeled in as talking heads on rock nostalgia TV shows, one-time rock-dandies now looking like welders or accountants. Who'd have guessed that Nick Mason, Pink Floyd's drummer, was going to turn into Dennis Healey? Or that the elfin John Martyn of 1970 would become a one-legged, bloated Falstaff before he died in 2009? You may be forever 15 in your head, but your body is telling a very different story.

Surely, though, if only for the sake of preventing the human race from dying of boredom, we're overdue for another change? On or about December 2011, perhaps? By definition, of course, at 57 years old I will hate it; but even so I really, really look forward to it. Come on, kids, let Dads' Music be Dads' Music! Get your own groovy noise!


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

It could be that that 20 years, give or take, mid-50s-mid-70s, was a really verdant and fertile period, and the kids appreciate it in the same way some of us appreciate Sibelius, or Bach, or Shakespeare. ( The possible "8th" has rekindled my Sibelian mode)

Poetry24 said...

I remember a conversation I had with a student, about Bob Harris. It was an enjoyable exchange, particularly when the young guy said, "Bob plays some great sounds. Have you ever heard of The Kinks?"

I wonder if The Beatles were ever conscious of their "attempt to come to grips with the new "progressive blues" paradigm"?

Mike C. said...


No question, but do you suit up in a frock coat and wig at the weekends to listen to the Brandenburgs?? It's one thing to visit a museum, quite another to live in it...


I think that first para is your foretaste of old age -- I hope you resisted the temptation to put him straight ("Now listen, young feller-me-lad...").

As to the Beatles: yes, absolutely they were. Things like "Yer Blues" on the White Album, or late singles like "Get Back" show a very ambivalent attitude to the new, "everything's a twelve bar" stance. They were tunesmiths, and could never have gone "heavy".

Or perhaps you mean "paradigm" is an awfully posh word to inflict on pop? Which it probably is.


Dave Leeke said...

Hmmm . . . "before our first serious affair" . . . does that mean the earlier ones were somewhat more hilarious? I once spoke to the great John Tams and was explaing that I had become a teacher in the intervening years since we had last spoke. He told me that he had, "failed miserably at teaching - no, make that hilariously at it."

Anyway, I am a few years younger than you, as I like to point out often, so "Bumpers" was the Island composite album that I cut my teeth on. Unfortunately, it had such an impact that I managed to totally screw up school and never really looked back.

Great post, Mike, it may be time for a revolution in music but unfortunately all punk did was to bury prog in a shallow grave. It clawed its way out and seems to have hung around longer than punk ever did. The Rick Wakemans of this world seem to have managed to stay in the public eye/ear far better than the Johnny Rottens. I don't believe any old proggers ended up on "I'm A Celebrity . . . "

Anyway, The Sex Pistols were only a Monkees for the late '70s.

Mike C. said...


Some of my early relationships were definitely hilarious, at least in retrospect. "That's when you're learning the game"... (I really like the version of that on The Bunch album).

And, talking of Island records, did you hear that spot on Radio 4 a few weeks ago, with Paul Morley talking about the Basing Street studios? What a time it was...


Dave Leeke said...

Love the Bunch album - the production and playing on it are bench marks. Unfortunately I didn't hear the Morley thing but will see if it's still available.

I can still laugh out loud (albeit when I'm alone) at some of the ridiculous relationships I had as a young man . . . actually, still occasionally have . . . so hilarity continues into autumn years . . .

Mike C. said...

There's a wonderful story about Paul Kossoff trying out some new Hammond organ effect for the guitar, and being left in the studio with it ("Lock up when you're done", sort of thing). When they came in the next morning to record a John Martyn album, he was still there, and they couldn't get him off it, so he ended up playing it on the album.


Dave Leeke said...

I saw Kossoff get up and do the encore with John Martyn at a theatre in Victoria (I'm far too tired to check out which). He was supposed to be playing on the tour but was, of course, incapable. It was great to be able to tell people that I actually saw PK play live.

Not much time passed before I was back there at the same theatre and saw Joni Mitchell and the LA Express. It was the Court and Spark" tour - the only time I saw her live. "The Last Time I Saw Richard" solo at the piano is still one of those spinechilling memories.

I'm sure this all falls in to the point you were making in your blog. Somehow. Vive la Revolution.

Martyn Cornell said...

We are now further from the start of punk rock than the start of punk rock was from the end of the Nazis.

(Not an original thought - I nicked it from someone else)