There's an excellent satirical show on BBC Radio 4 called The Now Show. For an all-too-short six-episode season it broadcasts on Friday evenings in summer with a Saturday lunchtime repeat, poking gentle fun at the figures and issues in the news of the preceding week. One of the show's most reliable regulars is Mitch Benn, who generally contributes two topical songs in an appropriate pastiche style; he's a gifted mimic, as well as writing genuinely funny comedy lyrics.
My only problem with Mitch Benn is that he was born in 1970. Why is this a problem? Because Mitch recently had his own series aired on Radio 4, in which he explored the music and legacy of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Elvis Presley. And why is that a problem? Well, because the series is very much about the impact of these artists on Mitch himself, and by any reckoning their golden years were pretty much over by his fifth birthday. It seems that, in these days of instant access to everything, anyone can "own" anything, as if they were there at the time. It shouldn't annoy me (Bach's golden years were over two centuries before I was born, after all) but it does.
Being there at the time used to be important, when it came to pop culture. I mean, I have always regarded myself as a little too young to really be into Bob Dylan, despite the fact that Blood on the Tracks came out while I was at university. He "belongs" to the generation that came of age in the mid-1960s. Bowie, on the other hand, started out belonging in an ironic kind of way to my generation -- giving a cohort of students an excuse to glam it up like drag queens for a few years and bounce around to "Jean Genie" -- but he really belongs to the next wave, who saw "Starman" performed on Top of the Tops in 1972 aged 12 and came into their own college years synchronously with Bowie's "Berlin" phase. Musical generations used not to be matter of choice, but of destiny, and were separated by as little as five years.
"Being there" is clearly still important when it comes to live music. Anyone can listen to the recordings of past years, and increasingly they do -- I posted some years ago about my amazement at hearing Black Sabbath's Paranoid playing to 14-year-olds in a Games Workshop outlet -- but to have been in the audience at significant performances is the thing that really knocks those character-forming dents into your soul (and also, unfortunately and less figuratively, your eardrums -- curse you, Hawkwind!). Obviously, a significant gig needn't be a stellar performance by a big name. The occasion that turned me from a mild-mannered swot into an idiot-dancing degenerate was a tiny set played in a community centre function room by a local blues-covers outfit, Vinegar Tom (no, not Vinegar Joe)*. They were probably awful, or at least no more than competent, but I had never been within concussion range of 100 watt amplifiers and a drum kit before, and went home with my ears ringing and my soul truly on fire for the first time.
Even today, you don't just happen to be at a gig, the way you might catch something interesting on the radio or on Spotify: you have to know about it, it has to be happening within a convenient travel radius, you may even have to get hold of a ticket; but most importantly you actually have to turn up, and you have to fit in. All of which means you may have found yourself a tribe. Finding a tribe is one of the transformative experiences of youth, and not everyone is lucky enough to find one. If you do, though, for a few heady years you may experience a completeness of being and belonging that will mark you for life, though not necessarily in a helpful way.
All the young dudes (Knebworth 1974). image © Martyn Cornell
The best thing is to form your own tribe, or to join a loose coalition of local tribes with a strong identity. Think of the Canterbury Scene of the late 1960s, or the Bromley Contingent of the punk era. Those few years of intense fun will store up enough nostalgia to see you well into your anecdotage. Not so good, though, is to have joined an off-the-peg tribe, one of those with a strict dress-code and which encourage life-time membership. Teds, bikers, heavy metal, punk... These are tribes with some seriously senior members. No doubt somewhere there will eventually be retirement homes for rockers who have finally banged their heads a gig too far, with the muzak turned up to 12, and a relaxed policy on in-house intoxication. But it is a grim sight, to see grey-beards and grannies still rocking the tribal uniforms of their youth or, worst of all, to see youngsters aping the youthful getups of their elders and betters, especially when it's my youthful getup. It is simply not true that you are only as old (or as pretty) as you feel. If only... Get a mirror, old dudes, and hey, you young 'uns, get offa my cloud.
But to get back to Mitch Benn, and other slightly nerdish enthusiasts like him... I suppose the annoying thing is the sense of having your old clothes stolen (even if they don't really fit you any more), but I do think that this pick'n'mix attitude towards music which is actually the partial fossil record of long-extinct "scenes" does do a disservice to popular music. You can't form a new scene around pop antiquarianism.
It all adds to the feeling that pop is now stalled in a perpetual revival of styles that are forty, fifty, even sixty years old. Yes, Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan and Bowie were great, but they were also new. I seem to have heard nothing substantially new for the last thirty years, not since rap and the various forms of techno first crunched into the airwaves, and neither of those was much more than a rhythmic recycling machine, musically-speaking. Perhaps we're now in a post-pop world? In the words of "Kansas City", have we gone about as fer as we c'n go? What do you mean, kid, you've never heard of Oklahoma? That -- and all the music like it -- is the reason why rock'n'roll exists!**
It weighs pop down to be handled with the kind of semi-scholarly reverence that forgets that it is primarily throwaway music for young people to dance and have fun to -- nothing more, nothing less. A book like Ian MacDonald's much-praised Revolution in the Head has added nothing to my enjoyment or understanding of the Beatles. Worse, to regard the soundtracks of previous teen generations as a library of models to copy -- right down to reproducing the sound of a particular guitar or studio ambience on a particular record -- is not just uncreative, it is to put on voluntarily the constricting straitjacket of classicism.
Unfortunately, the Web means that this is now a permanent and universal condition, rather than the private vice of the kind of person who used to read and remember the credits on album covers. Everyone now will "always already" have heard it on the grape vine, and done the Locomotion while dancing in the street with Maybelline and Lucille, the girls from Ipanema. It's all just one big musical grab bag. You've got to feel sorry for creative young musicians who live with the burden that their task is to match or improve upon, say, the mighty works of Motown or Atlantic Soul. R-E-S-P-E-C-T to anyone prepared to give it a try, though.
But remember, kids... As we used to say in 1971: be here now. And, no, that has absolutely nothing to do with bloody Oasis...
Some tribes are for life...
* An interesting sidelight: the name "Vinegar Tom" can be found on a 17th c. engraving relating to the activities of Witchfinder-General Matthew Hopkins -- it's the name a witch under interrogation gives to one of her familiars, a hound-like creature with a bull's head. The name was used by Caryl Churchill for the title of her 1976 play about witch-hunting, and I presume that engraving is also the source of the band's name (ca. 1969), though I recall speculation at school that, you know, "vinegar" equals "acid" and, like, "Tom" is short for "Tom Mix", rhyming slang for a fix, obviously. Which just goes to show how a little learning can turn you into an idiot. Quite how the originators of the band Vinegar Joe latched onto the formula is an interesting question.
** Yes, I am beginning to repeat myself. See these posts: G-L-O-R-I-A from 2010 and You Can All Join In from 2011. I'm 61, you know....