I’ve just finished reading Sylvia Patterson’s book on her life as a music journalist and felt instantly compelled to recommend it. It’s very like Viv Albertine’s memoir, being full of not only the silliness and thrill of being young and loving music, but also casually devastating insight into personal tragedy and cultural shift – and how often the two are combined.
Patterson was never one of my particular favourites growing up (totally unfairly – I think I found her Smash Hits-raised pithy exuberance irritating because I was an insufferably morose teenager, and also I always tribally preferred Melody Maker to NME) but I like her writing a lot more in retrospect and it’s actually clearly been more of an influence on me than I’d realised – her deployment of incisive epithets especially. There’s something distinctly feminine, too, about both her and Albertine’s style of autobiography, and it seems to be specifically an older woman’s thing – this isn’t confessional writing so much as unassuming honesty, a certain understated wisdom and maturity, a settlement with the self that renders obsolete the need to front.
Patterson also captures the death of a particular ideal of music journalism – and of a whole approach to music – that I think people my age may be the last to truly remember. Before the internet as both community and culture/media platform, we were atomised, connected by a music press which was hugely – unimaginably, now – important as a site of cultural discovery, debate and conflict, and for feeling as though you belonged to something bigger, something beyond yourself. This way of thinking and writing about music and culture was formative for me. It was the only thing I saw any sort of sense in or any kind of point to. I grew up wanting to do the same thing, but I grew up into a changed world where the prospect of doing so no longer existed in any stable or secure way. (I mean, I did so regardless; Clampdown is (an attempt at) exactly that kind of writing and I was lucky to find the right publisher for it – indeed, the only imaginable publisher for it.)
There’s been a notable amount of 90s revisionism since that book, as though a particular generation can now see clearly enough at twenty years’ remove to try and weigh up what’s occurred as well as tell their own story. There’s a bit in this book where Patterson recalls her younger self finally recognising the NME’s transformation, round about ’98, into “the indie Heat“, and reading it made me feel, like it was yesterday, that sense of incredulity and personal betrayal that characterised the still-spectacular decline of the 90s music press. But her description is at the same time entirely aware of how absurd and inexplicable, how deeply daft it is to even care that much – about music, about bands, about magazines, about words in print, about anything that isn’t a capitalist imperative.
But we did care. For me for a stretch of my formative years – far shorter in retrospect than it felt at the time, maybe no more than four years or so – this kind of thing was everything. As this book confirms and brilliantly documents, there was a definite and decisive cultural shift to the right in the 90s, in which we lost something that hasn’t really been replaced. Things still feel poorer for it.
Originally written for Wales Arts Review 13.11.15
Part of the pleasure of studying history is its ability to throw as much light on the present as the past. Long-term perspectives can make the short-term easier to understand. For me, having an interest in history was a function of growing up in a place which often seemed to consist, as the poet observed, of nothing but the past. History in Wales is not so much submerged as sedimentary, with much of it seeming to commemorate only struggle, failure, loss, and things which might have been. In school and out of it, I learnt about the Valleys’ radical tradition: the Scotch Cattle’s nascent trade union agitation, the raising of a red flag in the 1831 Merthyr Rising, and Welsh Chartism’s mass drive for popular democracy and parliamentary reform. Intrinsically tied to the progress of industrial capitalism, the grand narrative of the south Welsh coalfield presented instance after instance of the clash between workers trying to improve their conditions and local employers and authorities. In this context, things like the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, which still casts its shadow over post-industrial parts of the country, slotted more comprehensibly into place. The history of my part of Wales, it seemed, was full of conflict, resistance, opposition – and, apparently, inevitable defeat. While this knowledge helped me to make historical and political sense of myself and my surroundings, it became at the same time a source of fatalism and of pique. However inspiring and heroic figures like the Merthyr Rising’s Lewsyn yr Heliwr or the Chartist leader John Frost seemed to me, they were also undeniably tragedies, martyrs, their stories bleak and their endings unhappy.
When I looked at the gloomy chronicles of Welsh protest, its single bright spot seemed to originate further afield, not from my own bleak and militant south-east coal and iron belt but from the country’s apparently placid south-west muzzle of Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire. The 1840s agricultural unrest known as the Rebecca riots is remembered as having been an unqualified success and, most famously, as having been carried out on horseback at night by men dressed, for some reason, like our grandmothers. The Rebecca riots capture the retrospective imagination, much as they did at the time, by their colourful and spectacular qualities – not least the fantastical images of stout Welsh farmers sporting bonnets and petticoats – and by their appearing to be a textbook example of righteous community uprising against unfair financial penalties, a bit like a nineteenth-century incarnation of the Poll Tax Riots. I spent a chunk of my postgraduate years examining how true this impression was, and discovered a complex but still inspiring picture. Having maintained my interest in the Rebecca movement through years of incremental independent study. I now find myself in the vaguely surreal position of bringing out my own book on it.
Rebeccaism, then: what happened, and why? For south-west Wales, the early 1840s were years of population growth, increasing poverty and unemployment, and deepening social and economic division between landowning gentry and their tenant-farmers and labourers. The latter group, facing a fall in income due to bad harvests and low prices for their produce, saw no such fall in the money they had to spend, as church tithes and poor rates remained constant or increased and landlords refused to lower their rents. This material pressure intersected with a developing sense of cultural conflict between largely Welsh-speaking, chapel-going tenants and Anglicised, Church-going landowners. Additionally, the effects of the 1834 New Poor Law were also restricting the support that poverty-stricken individuals could expect from their local authorities. Those asking for help risked being committed to one of the multiplying number of workhouses, in which families were separated and conditions frequently made deliberately harsh in order to discourage applicants from seeking further relief. In 1843, the Welshman newspaper described the region’s rising sense of economic and social crisis: Continue reading
“Faced with possible Parliamentary destruction of all that is good and compassionate in our society, extra-parliamentary action will be the only course open to the working class and the Labour movement.”
– Arthur Scargill, 1983
“We’re secure in the knowledge that we already lost a long time ago.”
– Richey James, 1992
I knew the death of Margaret Thatcher wasn’t likely to usher in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Eighties, but it’s been good to see the thirtieth anniversary of the Miners’ Strike pass this year and last with due commemoration, and with little attempt to present what happened as a good thing.*
A few months ago I went to a screening of Still The Enemy Within.** This documentary does a fine job of detailing the strike’s background and bringing the experience of the strike to life. Generally I avoid (resist?) revisiting the strike in quite such unflinching detail, because – and apologies if this sounds hyperbolic; it isn’t – I find doing so almost debilitating, as though nothing else matters outside of emphasising how permanently shattering its results have been for a huge part of this country. The depth of feeling can be such that you want to back away from the edge. At this stage, at this distance, all one can do is bear witness. All one can do is testify.
(Every time I try to write about the Miners’ Strike and its aftermath, the exercise turns out to be merely a scraping at the surface, an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the heart of the matter. It’s a gradual stripping away of layers, on my part, of bravado and defensiveness and fatalism. This post won’t be definitive either. I want to do the thing justice, to give it adequate weight, and I know I can’t, so this will have to do. For the purposes of this piece, in any case, the strike is less of a conclusion and more of a jumping-off point.)
In its uncompromising commitment to telling a bleak and unrelenting story, Still The Enemy Within is a necessary supplement to something like Pride. The strike deserves to be remembered in the latter’s upbeat and uplifting terms of solidarity, sure, but equally what deserves remembering is that there were no happy endings, nothing of what we learned in the Nineties to call emotional closure. (Hoho, the only things that got closure in the Nineties were more of the pits.) There are wider questions here about what counts as history, and whether history must be necessarily cool-headed and objective, not relieved by colour or comedy or complicated by messy, judgement-clouding emotion. But the tangle of story and history surrounding the strike suggests that the event and what it stood for are not “just” history yet. Like Hillsborough in 1989, Brixton in 1985, Toxteth in 1981, the Miners’ Strike is a flashpoint that unforgivingly illuminates its era. That Eighties hot war of government against people still hasn’t cooled.
You may imagine how exceptionally bored I was as a post-industrial Nineties teenager. (I mean, I couldn’t even join a brass band.) Growing up, before I ever knew I wanted to be a historian, I wanted to understand history – both its grand outlines and its bathetic, personal confines in which I knew my community to be stuck. How did we get here, and why? Growing up I felt stymied and stifled by history, and had the consequent compulsion to dig beneath the surface for the story. What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, out of this stony rubbish? Continue reading
This year I’ll be writing a book on Manics album The Holy Bible, along with Larissa Wodtke and Daniel Lukes. My section will focus on the album’s social and political context ie Britain in the 90s, the album’s appeal to teenagers, and reasons why the band had such a huge female fanbase.
As part of researching this book, I’d find it helpful to speak to other fans of the band about the album – both those who, like myself, grew up with the Manics in the 90s, and those who discovered them later. (If you’re interested in what I’ve written previously on the band, most of it is here.)
If you’d be willing to tell me a bit about your experience as a Manics fan, please reply to this post with a contact email or, if you prefer, contact me yourself on firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
In advance of the Manics’ anniversary tour of The Holy Bible, the Cardiff production company Barefoot Rascals is making a short documentary on the album’s history and its impact on fans, involving interviews with Simon Price, myself and others. To get the film produced, we are asking for funding on Kickstarter – please donate a couple of quid here if you can. We are halfway to meeting the funding target so far.
Below is a guest post and pictures by former music photographer Lorna Cort, who remembers the original album tour in 1994 and whose pictures will be used in the documentary.
The Manic Street Preachers were my life. After discovering Stay Beautiful in the Summer of 1991 I’d followed tours, collected just about everything, written too many letters to James, learned to play guitar ( a white Gibson Les Paul obviously!) and helped form the band of fellow Manics fans ‘Dead End Dolls’.
By 1994, I bought a camera and decided I was going to be a music photographer. I can’t remember who gave me a photo pass for Portsmouth Guildhall on 12th October but thank you, I have treasured the results. Back in the olden days of film and developing at Boots, I had no idea how the photos would turn out. As well as manual focus I had to contend with stage divers flying overhead, security guards taking up all the room in the photo pit, and the deafening sound of a thousand screaming fans 2 feet behind me and the flimsy barrier! The gig was over in a flash, I remember James raised his eyebrows ‘hello’ at me, the white sailor suit looked amazing under the lights, the sound was incredible, I wanted to sing along but no, I was a photographer… I couldn’t look like I was actually enjoying myself!
The Holy Bible was a challenge to listen to, it was at times uncomfortable, shocking, it was emotional… and it was perfect. When I look at my photos 20 years later I see the concentration on James’ face, the determination to get all the words out, Nick’s anonymity, head down with a nose-skimming fringe, and I see how painfully skinny Richey’s arms look, and that he has the word ‘LOVE’ written in black marker on his fingers. They were so beautiful, so focused.
I wanted to be part of The Holy Bible – My Testament to share my photos with old fans and new, to celebrate one of the most amazing records ever created and to remember the excitement and love I had for this band. To paraphrase Nick – they remain the most intelligent people I ever met in my life. I so hope this project goes ahead and maybe brings the Holy Bible to new listeners. Thank you.
1. ‘Crumbling Pillars of Feminine Convention’ – on Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys. Sex, punk, feminism, the usual.
3. Retrospective on the 20th anniversary (!) of The Holy Bible, the summer of 1994 and the travails of being a teenage girl, available in the new issue of Planet magazine. Well worth buying a hard copy as it also contains, among other things, a fascinating article on the history of cross-dressing in protest. My piece is accompanied by the photo below, taken some time in the mid-90s when I had taken to hand-spraying a glittery hammer-and-sickle onto my dress, as was the style at the time. Outfit is not currently, as one correspondent suggested, housed in the museum of Welsh folk art.
Alex Niven’s book on Oasis’ Definitely Maybe is out now and worth your time. It’s a book about working-class art, working-class politics, and the decline of both in Britain since the 90s, but there’s no denying the fact that it’s also a book about Oasis. So for the purposes of this post, which isn’t about Oasis, let’s talk about Oasis first:
Yes, it’s alright if you think Oasis were shit. Yes, Oasis went downhill fast – almost immediately, in fact. Yes, Oasis were a more ‘authentic’ version of the freewheeling should-know-better casually chauvinist Lad that, in Niven’s term, the ‘bourgeois wing of Britpop’ attempted to pantomimically portray, and no, this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Music press, tabloids and lad-mags in the 90s lionised the Gallaghers’ laddishness as part of a tediously retrograde cultural discourse that was intent on rolling back the ‘politically correct’ gains of the decades before. This same discourse imposed a false dichotomy of class, in which Oasis’ supposed proley authenticity was linked with loutish ignorance and excess, while experimentation, education and glorious pretentiousness were presented as the preserve of the middle class. So yes, Oasis were damaging. But more by accident – or by deliberate exploitation by a largely middle-class cultural industry – than by design.
And yes, there was more than Oasis happening in the 90s. The issue here is that no other band got so big, so phenomenally quickly, and the question is whether anything interesting can be said to explain that – you know, beyond the not-even-trying paradigm of “people like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis; you can’t trust people, Jeremy”. The book’s background argument on this, to which I am a rock-solid subscriber, is that, as 90s politics capitulated to a post-Thatcher consensus, a more subversive, anti-establishment spirit persisted in early-90s pop culture – including early Oasis alongside the Manics, Pulp, Kenickie etc – which then got flattened under Cool Britannia, Blairism, and Britpop’s imperial stage. Overthinking it? Yeah, if you like. Better than underthinking it, mate. Continue reading
With riot grrrl now approaching the status of a heritage industry, not to mention Courtney Love’s current incarnation as the post-grunge Norma Desmond, it can be hard to recall that both of them helped me find my feminist footing on the slippery rocks of a ’90s girlhood. This is a roundabout remembrance of how it happened.
The arts have long been a space for radical expression by women, even if the extent of that radicalism has often gone under-acknowledged. In 1915, the author and journalist Dorothy Richardson produced Pointed Roofs, credited as the first English stream of consciousness novel, using an innovative prose style which she saw as necessary for the expression of female experience. Virginia Woolf observed that Richardson ‘has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. If Richardson’s challenge to linguistic convention in her writing has musical counterparts, one of them is the ‘new, raw and female’ sound made possible by post-punk. Punk removed barriers of precedent and technical expertise to engagement in music, enabling trips into less-charted musical and lyrical territory. But it was in the subsequent voyage of discovery that was post-punk that punk’s revolutionary potential really bore fruit, and the untried, experimental nature of post-punk music was particularly suited to women.
I am answering the following questions on my writing, having been handed the baton by scholar and poet Alex Niven, a man currently poised to rescue Oasis from the enormous condescension of posterity.
- What am I working on?
Officially, I am working on a new cultural history of the Rebecca riots, as detailed in this post.
Unofficially – having gained the nichest of niche acclaim with Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender, I am making life difficult for myself by changing tack from ~cultural ~studies to fiction, and currently have three novels on the go. Here follows, in brief, Not My Elevator Pitches:
Book A – Dystopian satire on this country’s likely future under Tory government. NB this book is full of things that I made up in order to illustrate the horrific and ludicrous nature of a near-future Britain. Roughly one third of these things are now actual government policy.
Book B – Much less pointed satire set in present-day and Old Weird London, centred on the mutually reluctant attraction between a girl on the disillusioned fringes of the anticapitalist left and a boy who is a Shoreditch twat. (If you know me, laughably autobiographical.)
Book C – Historical fiction set during the aforementioned Rebecca Riots. Not satire but an exploration of class struggle, sexual identity, and tremendous outfits.
I write things like this secure in the knowledge that commercial mainstream publishing is being ever more relentlessly filleted and focused on the search for the next 50 Shades of Grey or other soon-to-be phenomena that the online world under forty in fact got bored with weeks ago.
My only previously published fiction is of course the smash-hit satirical mash-up P G Wodehouse’s American Pyscho.
If I write anything more in the vein of Clampdown it will probably be a self-indulgent comic 90s memoir tentatively titled I Was a Teenage Manics Fan.
- How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m not sure that there are others of its genre – or indeed what its genre is to start with. Clampdown is a book that no publisher other than the small and heroic Zer0 Books would have taken a punt on, being as it is a blend of cultural criticism, class war, “angry” feminist intervention, incidental autobiography, excuse to fashion my aesthetic taste into socio-political critique, and love-letter to great but forgotten aspects of ’90s and ’00s music and culture. (Or ‘Chavs for girls’ as I think one review termed it. It’s not Chavs for girls.) It was mostly written as a caprice and I’m still surprised when it strikes a chord with people. If there are others like it, do send them my way.
- Why do I write what I do?
I write what I do primarily because I do not see myself, my interests or my history adequately represented anywhere in current popular culture, politics, journalism or art. This doesn’t mean that I personally am a special snowflake, rather it means that these channels are increasingly closed-off in terms of influence and interest to whole swathes of this country.
Secondly, I write because political satire is currently noticeable by its absence. I think this is both a consequence of the complacency and lack of political engagement now prevalent in arts and media – which, again, may be related to their class composition – and because this government is so outrageously, casually, gleefully accelerationist that it manages to easily outpace anything satire can conjure up. When you have Cameron sitting on a golden throne while making a speech on how there’s no money left and we all need to tighten our belts, there’s little room left for satire to breathe.
Finally, I write because I was and am heavily influenced by the kind of cultural criticism in which the 90s music press often engaged, which talked about music (and film, and tv, and other objects of consumption) both on its own terms but also with one eye on its social, political and historical context, and which brought theory and critique to bear on pop culture in a way often derived from book-learning but accessibly and enlighteningly applied. It’s the main reason I began to write about music in the first place, but, aside from the occasional diamond, this kind of thing now seems to be a dying art.
- How does my writing process work?
Like everyone else without independent wealth, I have been working for the past decade in high-street retail, admin, reception, customer service and similar jobs, and writing and studying around them. So I think of myself less as a writer and more as a worker who writes in their spare time.
Currently I work two jobs. In between, I co-edit New Left Project; write stuff I’d hesitate to call journalism for various print and online publications; research/write/edit the Rebecca riots manuscript due in December; and work on other arbitrary stuff, both fiction and non-fiction, whenever inspiration strikes. Ideally this would necessitate working on each thing in a methodical and disciplined manner in pre-planned, focused bursts of activity, but instead I have very little process or method other than to write when I feel I have something to write, and – more crucially – when I can find the time to write.
I start every week yearning for some free time – for more free time, to be exact – and at the end of every week I languish unfulfilled. I get ideas at inconvenient moments like on the shopfloor, or during the commute, which I find to be good times for thinking but not for writing down an idea in depth, as you lack the time to adequately put your thoughts into words. Then by the time you get the chance to do that, your initial inspiration’s dissipated and the idea sounds shite so you decide to forget about it – or worse, you’re sure the idea was pretty good but you can’t remember exactly what it was, and you’re too knackered to think straight and write well anyway.
I could pretend that all this plate-spinning and theft of time concentrates the mind marvellously, and encourages motivation and discipline in the free time I do have. I could pretend that having working hours and contracts that are unpredictable from one week or one month to the next makes life terribly exciting and lends a dusting of raffish bohemian glamour to the task of earning a living. But of course it doesn’t. Working to support oneself and trying to produce something creative in the cracks between is – as you’ll know if you do it yourself – exhausting and exasperating. (Or maybe I’m just making excuses for myself, eh, and should do the artistic equivalent of getting on my bike.)
On rereading, I see this answer got away from me somewhat. Oh – I tend to write drunk and edit hungover. Maybe that’s a better answer.
You may be wondering why I haven’t leapt into the current wave of 90s/Britpop nostalgia with all the teeth-bared alacrity of a pseudo-academic Berserker, desperate to point out that the career of Alex James highlights everything wrong with the world. The reasons I haven’t are, broadly, that a) I desire a worthier opponent than Alex James; b) Britpop isn’t, and really never was, the problem. Anything I might want to say about Britpop is wider than Britpop itself and concerns the particular intertwined development of politics, culture and society in that weird and decisive decade.
The problem with the 90s wasn’t simply that “politics” (specifically, the recognition of class as a political identity) vanished from mainstream pop culture, but that it vanished from mainstream politics too. After the Tories’ scorched-earth approach to industry in the 80s, the 90s saw a salting of the ground though privatization of the railways and the coal industry – as though by removing a class’s economic basis for existence one could somehow magically remove the class itself. Meanwhile, the Labour Party saw Blair’s ascendancy and the ditching, along with Clause 4, of its traditional base of support. In the late 90s, Blair’s rictus-grinned insistence on liberal harmony had no more room for class conflict than Major’s early-90s confected nostalgia for a pre-Sixties (‘back-to-basics’) England. In both politics and pop culture, we were held to be all middle-class now: in the swirl of postmodern irony, nothing mattered – certainly not your socio-economic position – so everything was permitted. The fact that alternative guitar music ended up mirroring this short-term hedonism and boorish chauvinism, and abandoning its early-90s countercultural instinct, makes it more a victim of the era than a villain.
The 90s cultural studies bandwagon should not be allowed to flatten the complexities of those years in the same way that commercialization steamrollered early-Britpop’s interest and potential and left us with Cool Britannia. In the strange and significant year of 1994, as Alex Niven points out, the movement that became Britpop retained a lot of chippy subversiveness, earnest optimism, and creativity, which was later lost to money-making, irony, and formulaic blandness. While capitalism has always been able to commodify alternative culture, and rebellion has always been turned into money, the 90s set in motion a wider process whereby pursuits previously associated with collective enjoyment, escapism and improvement particularly for the working class – whether pop music, or football, or the Labour Party – were sanitized and made safe for those beyond their traditional pale. This would have mattered less had it not been accompanied by the rise of networks of nepotism and the spread of unpaid interning in arts, media and politics, which not only reduced the ability to compete but began edging the working-class and/or non-independently wealthy out of the arena entirely, to an extent that is now glaringly apparent. All this alongside a relentless pretence at meritocracy and a stress on individualism over collectivism, implying that dissatisfaction with your circumstances was not a result of structural conditions, but an individual failing that only you could change – by altering yourself and not the system.
Perhaps the Labour Party’s Blairite turn played into the shape that 90s opposition to the Tories took, being scrappy and direct – Reclaim the Streets, 1994’s Criminal Justice Bill protests – and displaying an attitude to constitutional politics that was at best distrustful and at worst disgustedly disenfranchised. The turn to direct action and civil disobedience rather than parliamentary politics grew throughout the 00s’ anticapitalist (‘anti-globalisation’, in the parlance of the day) movements, reaching its zenith perhaps in Occupy.
None of which should have happened at all, of course. What reasons did we 90s children have for dissatisfaction or dissent now that it wasn’t the 80s anymore? Another of this year’s anniversaries is of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, which should in theory have rendered us with nothing to protest about. The ‘end of history’ bore as much relation to reality as ‘we are all middle-class now’, but it fitted very well with the arrogant complacency with which the West began the 90s. It fitted in too with a Britain punch-drunk and reeling from the 80s but denied the means to articulate the fact that the fight was still on. Anxiety could be expressed in the 90s, and damage acknowledged, but only if framed in terms of emotion and not economics. This of course dovetailed with the erasure of class and the emphasis on individual striving and ambition as a cure-all, without reference to socio-economic conditions which might hinder an individual’s ability to achieve. So the 90s ideology claimed: if you couldn’t achieve, you needed to work on yourself and your sense of ambition and entitlement (after all, girls can do anything, just look at Thatcher!); if you were stuck on benefits then you probably preferred it that way, otherwise you would have striven and done something about it; and if at some point you wondered about any of this, if you were anxious or unsure, then again, you needed to treat yourself kindly, to be soothed, to consume, to empower yourself through earning and spending. You certainly didn’t need to conclude that the problems might (still) be systemic, still external, still political rather than personal.
Probably the last useful thing that Julie Burchill ever wrote, in respect of her working-class provincial origins, was this:
If you don’t read books, you really have been fucked over in a major way… To read, voluntarily, is the first step to asserting the fact that you know there is somewhere else.
Read, or you’ll get fucked over. Growing up, I read like fuck. I read out of boredom, I read to escape my surroundings and to understand my surroundings, through history and politics and music and literature and whatever there was left over. I also read because I wanted to write. And a thread that ran throughout my reading was, indeed, the sense that not to read was to, somehow, allow yourself to get fucked over.
Furthermore, once I began to read, finding stuff to read wasn’t a struggle. I read at school, on and off the curriculum – ‘comprehensive’ might mean cash-strapped and struggling, but it needn’t mean incapable of giving you a good education in spite of your circumstances, and it needn’t mean not having books. My town had a single bookshop, but it also had a library. I went on expeditions to larger towns further afield and, along with music, I brought back books. A huge amount of secondhand books, old books, books that no one other than me was likely to read in the twentieth century, okay – but new books, too, weren’t beyond my purchasing power. I read books, I read newspapers, I read journals, I read samizdat Riot Grrl and Manicsfan zines. I just read. Reading is, in no small measure, how I got to where and who and what I am today. I read in order to combat alienation, boredom and despair; in order to learn what existed beyond my horizons and what I might be capable of; in order to succeed academically; in order to live and study in places beyond my socioeconomic imaginings; and, ultimately, I read in order to construct an independent life for myself virtually from scratch. I read voraciously, avidly and eclectically, which is why I now know so many big words – a fact not unrelated to my subsequent social mobility, but a cause of it, not an effect.
So you’ll imagine how aggrieved I was to read the following:
“The bookshelfie and shelfie alike are ways not just to geek out with fellow book fiends, but also to send a signal about your cultural, social, and class position. Owning large quantities of books, being familiar with them, frequently referring to them, working in an industry where books are valued, these are all markers of upper middle class status, reflecting education, purchasing power, and social privilege.”
Now the publication ‘xoJane’, as far as I can tell, is what would happen if Nathan Barley edited Jezebel. So I’m sure the writer of that piece is well aware of what they’re doing – ie, churning out deliberately controversial, easily contradicted, falsely absolutist, neat shiny parcels of clickbait bullshit in which, as the esteemed James Ivens remarked, the tone manages to be both superior and anti-intellectual at the same time. I’m sure they don’t actually believe what they write.
Not that it matters. What S E Smith has written in that piece reflects and reinforces a damaging discourse whereby education, intellectual capacity, wit, thought, learning or finer feelings are held to be the preserve of the better-off, while what used to be called the working class are held to be mired in mental ignorance and incapacity. I’m aware of differing ideas and definitions of class in the US and UK, but this idea – certainly not new, in fact yet another neo-Victorian reanimation of old spectres – is cropping up everywhere, in left and right-wing perspectives, like a particularly unedifying game of Whack-a-Mole. At its most egregious and asinine, it fuels Boris Johnson’s pronouncement in which the poor are held accountable for their own misfortune because they aren’t clever enough to be rich.
As actual representatives of the non-elite have vanished from politics, media and the arts, so representations of the non-elite have grown increasingly lurid and grotesque, with observers nevertheless meant to be fawningly grateful for whatever unlikely examples we manage to get. This is why Caitlin Moran’s recent caprice Raised By Wolves could be hailed as ‘a genuine first’ – as though ‘council-estate intellectuals’ were a novelty previously wholly unheard-of. (Oh, Rab C Nesbitt – not to mention Working Mens’ Institutes and Miners’ Libraries and Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams – we hardly knew you!) Like Russell Brand’s Newsnight intervention, Raised By Wolves is a perfectly acceptable and obvious offering that looks more revolutionary than it is because everything surrounding it is so dull and disingenuous and uninspired.
To be boringly political about things: what has taken place over the past decade or so – in the vanishing of the tradition of working-class autodidacticism; in the enforced closure of libraries and adult education classes; in the narrowing of access to the arts, media, politics and journalism to those able to afford internships; in the privatisation and pricing-up of higher education; in the continued neglect of areas economically devastated in the 1980s and the ignoring or denial of the after-effects of this – is the rolling back of social, cultural and political gains made by the post-war working class. This development has been given the dodgy and diverting gloss that we are somehow a post-class society, that working-class status in particular no longer holds currency – and then, with the continued existence of socio-economic division becoming impossible to deny, the idea that there is still no actual working class but only ‘the poor’, a lumpen rump distinguished by their supposed lack of fitness for anything better or greater than their current lot.
Similarly, that xoJane article’s fundamental crime is to crassly conflate ‘education’ – which to me has always indicated general learning, consciousness and enlightenment – with the institutional process of ‘getting an education’. And while tuition fees, loans, and the rising cost of living may be making the latter an increasingly distant prospect for ‘the poor’, it does not automatically follow that the former is also beyond their intellectual reach. (And if students become defined as all middle-class, of course, then their concerns – whether over heavy-handed policing of demos, or the private outsourcing of university facilities, or the closing of ‘non-economically viable’ Humanities departments – can be dismissed as elitist and bourgeois issues, self-indulgent and out of touch with the real world, with the material concerns of ‘ordinary people’. And so can the very idea of pursuing education for its own, horizon-expanding but non-economic sake, as opposed to for the sake of ‘adding value’ to yourself as a future economic unit.)
My more personal response to the xoJane article, in particular the line: ‘… working in an industry where books are valued [is a marker] of upper middle class status’, was to question when the writer last stepped inside a bookshop. If their idea of the model for book retail is Amazon-centric, then I guess I can understand their perception of an industry split between literate cash-frittering shelfie-taking consumers sitting detached behind an ordering screen, and warehouse-bound overworked drones whose preoccupation – presumably – is with shifting the merchandise rather than entertaining any finer feelings towards it. This bizarre kind of Morlock/Eloi conception of society isn’t far from the absolutist idea which paints the modern working class as ignorant and education-hostile ‘chavs’, an underclass unable to be conceptualised as readers or thinkers, whose lot of worsening deprivation can therefore be presented as entirely expected and logical for ones so wretched and with so little capacity for improvement.
Outside Amazon’s fastness – and very probably inside it – things are rather more shades of grey. I have spent most of the past decade working either part-time or full-time in high-street book retail, and in this environment I have never felt my background and my no-man’s-land class identity to be inexplicable or unique to me. I have worked with other similar products of post-industrial small towns and comprehensive schools which nonetheless granted us a good enough education to get us into higher education. (From which point, our paths led us to London and into precarious just-about-bill-paying jobs through which we currently fund our artistic, creative, academic, political and other pursuits – because, in the absence of independent wealth or access to internships, that’s what you do. The same is true, in my experience, of a whole host of low-paid workers – but that’s a whole other, if not unrelated, rant.)
Such escapist, often class-transcending trajectories are almost always fuelled, in part or in whole, by a love of learning, words and language, and by books and the possible worlds contained in them. To disingenuously reduce centuries of self-improvement, aspiration, and just basic comfort, entertainment and enjoyment, to the narrow and solipsistic horizons of the studied and curated ‘shelfie’ is smug and unhelpful enough. To further suggest that the ability to access and appreciate books is automatically beyond the intellectual grasp of an entire socioeconomic sector, and to do this in a way that contributes to pernicious and damaging ideas of class on both sides of the Atlantic? Let me stress, with the full weight of my book-learnt and comprehensive-schooled vocabulary, how much I fucking hate that shit.
We cannot get rid of employers and slave-driving in the mining industry, until all other industries have organized for, and progressed towards the same objective. Their rate of progress conditions ours, all we can do is set an example and the pace.
– The Miners’ Next Step (1912)
Of course, having put away excitement and belief and other childish things, I no longer await a new Manic Street Preachers album with the same starry-eyed avidity I once did. (Do you?)
On the title track and its accompanying video, I liked what Lost Communication had to say:
While I don’t doubt that the video portrays places, issues and themes that the Manics hold dear to them (as do I), I fear they have fallen into the trap of adding a romanticism to the ‘noble decline’ of the industrial heartland of Wales. There should be nothing romantic in portraying how working class communities have feebly clung on to life after being chewed up and spat out by a succession of neoliberal governments.
… and I’d add only that the swampland that lies between mawkishness and sentimentality is a thoroughly Welsh place to get stuck. On at least one of the tracks discussed in the Quietus interview, though, ‘30 Year War’, the band seem to succeed in side-stepping the rose-tinted ‘noble decline’ trap:
“It’s not about Thatcher, it’s definitely about Thatcherism, about the establishment across the last 30 years, and it doesn’t matter what government is around, we always love to portray ourselves as this holier than thou country, and yet we have scandal after scandal uncovered, right to the root of power, government, Murdoch, the police, Hillsborough, this stupification of the class I grew up in, which I think all stems from Thatcherism really. The idea that if you break down any power that we had we’re going to be fucked forever…
I find that elitist, ‘We know what’s better’ is so all pervading, from the monarchy to fucking Cameron to Mumford and Sons. We’re just told… what did one of Mumford and Sons say the other day? ‘Either ignore it or celebrate it.’ What a fucking futile attitude. Don’t say anything bad, just ignore it or celebrate it. So what about fascism then? We don’t like it, we’ll just ignore it. It does feel like the last five years has been such a redress of monarchy and establishment and public school through all points of our culture. I feel a bit helpless about it.”
Bang on, of course, as is everyone else who appears to be waking up and wondering what went wrong after the Old Weird Nineties (that Mumfordian ‘ignore or celebrate’ ultimatum is straight outta Cool Britannia, although much of that era was more notable for its ability to do both at once).
I’m glad that bullish bullshit detector of his endures to an extent. It’s encouraging that the disingenuous and damaging nature of both austerity and austerity chic is being increasingly noted, but the lack of analysis and alternatives are still too glaring for this to be any more deeply gratifying. Not that analysis or alternatives have ever been the preserve or the responsibility of rock stars.
Obviously I’m pleased, not to mention surprised, to see my book reviewed in a national newspaper that isn’t the Morning Star. Without wishing to sound ungracious, though, it is mildly exasperating to see the review uncritically reflect the idea that using Big Words makes the writing ‘over-done’ and ‘in thrall to the strangulated cult-studs vernacular’. I do know what John Harris means by the latter term, of course, and I will write at a later point about the regrettable tension that seems to occur in a lot of contemporary writers, invariably ones on the left, between the wish to make one’s writing easily understood and the fear of sounding overly simplistic. The latter, incidentally, often seems to be fuelled by a feeling that, in order to be taken seriously by a small potential readership whom one has been conditioned to regard as cultural and academic gatekeepers, one needs to somehow ‘prove oneself’ by larding one’s prose with gobbets of Žižekian sophistry, lest one stand accused of being low-brow or naïve or Owen Jones or something.
The thing is that these words don’t strike me as ‘big words’ when I’m thinking or writing them, they simply strike me as the most appropriate words to use. I also dislike repeating words, and so I use a lot of words which mean similar things but which I guess might grow progressively more outlandish until the book ends up describing 90s popular culture as ‘atavistic’ rather than simply ‘backwards-looking’. Sorry about that, I guess? Ironically enough though, the review goes on to cite ‘those great pop-cultural intellectuals’ the Manic Street Preachers, whose lyrics were nothing if not a strangulated vernacular of their own. For good or ill, the Manics, in their encouragement of reading and general cultural immersion as a cure for small-town boredom and alienation, were far more of an influence on my subsequent vocabulary than some nebulous villain called Cult-Studs.
So here’s a question. Is vocabulary now considered a class signifier? Does understanding, and using, ‘big words’, mark you out as someone who cannot belong to ‘the ordinary’, ‘the normal’, the demographic conveniently delineated by external commentators as ‘working class’? Or is it the case that one’s socio-economic background does not preclude one having an expansive vocabulary? Might one have gained a knowledge of ‘big words’ from, uh god I don’t know, reading books and reading broadsheets, despite where one was brought up? And does knowing ‘big words’ mean you can never be categorised as ‘working class’? Continue reading
Struck by several aspects of this (pretty old now) interview with the writer John Healy, but in particular by this, on the Amis/McEwan crowd: “Middle-class mafia… They can buy their way to a lifelong competitive advantage over the uneducated and poor.”
I don’t disagree. However, one thing I was always aware of when growing up was that, while I might never be able to change the latter aspect of my circumstances, I could certainly change the former. So I did. The apparent erosion of both opportunity for and encouragement to working-class self-education and/or pursuit of higher education is, for me, one of the more galling of recent developments.
The long essay linked here is something I wrote years and years back, as an undergraduate, and I have finally now got round to finding somewhere useful for it to live online. It is set at a time, in the late 18th c. Britain made famous by Blackadder the Third, of a rise in popular radicalism, political organisation by artisans and labourers, and campaigns to extend the franchise. The essay looks specifically at the process, in many ways unprecedented and bizarre, whereby organisers of, participants in, and vague or occasional sympathisers with campaigns for popular democracy were rounded up and questioned by the highest echelons of a hostile, uncomprehending and paranoid state. (Think the Thatcher cabinet doggedly interrogating not only the NUM leadership but also the whole audience of a Coal Not Dole fundraiser, or, idk, the present cabinet interrogating UK Uncut.)
Like many things which can be given that kind of build-up, the actual material of the interrogations can be a surprisingly dull read, but there were several aspects that I found, and hopefully the general reader will find, of interest, amusement, and continued relevance, viz:
To begin with, despite the mass arrests of radicals being justified by panicky accusations of treason, this accusation wasn’t a comfortable fit with the evidence. Treason in 1794 specifically related to plotting against the reigning monarch rather than the government, and the societies agitating for popular democracy, despite a preoccupation with Revolutionary France, were invariably concerned more with the latter than the former. The 1794 interrogations and the trials which followed, however, were an abrupt step in a long-term shift of the legal location of sovereign power towards Parliament, in which the extra-parliamentary advocacy of constitutional change became construed as a treasonable practice. In 1795, the new Treason Act defined as traitors not only all those who ‘compassed or devised’ the death or deposition of the monarch, but also those seeking ‘to intimidate or overawe both Houses or either House of Parliament’.
Relevant today? Take your pick. My thanks to the John Thelwall Society, who are great.
* E P Thompson: “But for spies, narks and letter-copiers, the history of the English working class would be unknown.”
** M. Philp, ‘Intrusions’, History Workshop Journal, 65 (2008), pp. 220-7
This is the fifth AND LAST in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’.
“For a start, the very fact that we were Welsh meant that we had to try 100 times harder than any other group. Even now, in some terrible news magazine, someone’s reviewed the album and the headline is ‘Boyos To Men’. And I’m not saying it’s racist or anything: I just find it incredibly thick. In a way I’m glad I’ve got all that now: it gives me something to rail against, to use as a creative feeder.”
Can you speak any Welsh?
“We were never allowed to learn. And that’s another big bit of resentment in us: it wasn’t on the curriculum for the whole of South Wales. I’d have loved to have been able to speak Welsh.”
“Damn it all, you can’t have the crown of thorns and the thirty pieces of silver.”
– Aneurin Bevan, c. 1956
After all this, I mean, I still feel Welsh, and I still call myself it. ‘Welsh’ for me can be a residual, reserve identity, buried or submerged, but still enduring; something to cling to when adrift, rightly or wrongly; something to anchor me. What the identity consists of, though, I’ve never been sure. It’s not a national identity but a local one, and its localness – the ways in which I feel myself to be Welsh -always keeps me conscious of the ways in which I’m not. Rather than ‘yes, that’s it’, it’s easier to say ‘yes, but that’s not all it is’. Wire in that 1997 interview may well proclaim himself ‘into oneness’, but there is no One Wales. Even beyond the country’s linguistic, geographic and political divisions, there exist multiple fractured identities, defining themselves by the local not the national – particularly through being from X, rather than from Cardiff. Growing up, attributes, accents and attitudes were associated with specific areas, towns, areas of towns, sometimes pinned down to exact streets. The Wales of swords and stone circles, drowned lands, dragons and druids, Taliesin and Eisteddfodau exists in romance alongside the reality of GLC’s Newport, Gavin & Stacey’s and Simon Price’s Barry Island, the drug-soaked, politically corrupt underworld of Lloyd Robson’s Cardiff Cut, the Valleys anti-romances of Rachel Trezise, and a multitude of other identities scattered and self-contained but highly secure in their specifics. To brush under the national carpet all of these peculiarities, to smother them in fantasies of ancient racial purity, the flag, the Senedd, or MTV’s predictably execrable The Valleys, does justice to nothing Continue reading
This is the fourth in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.
To be Welsh is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky…
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcass of an old song.
– ‘Welsh Landscape’, R S Thomas
To be born Welsh is to be born privileged
Not with a silver spoon in your mouth
But music in your blood and poetry in your soul
– from ‘In Passing’, Brian Harris
While living in London I had that second quote on a keyring for several years; if you’re Welsh, you might have done so too – or you might have had it on a mug, a teatowel, an embroidered sampler. The 1967 poem from which it is (mis)taken contains far bleaker Thomas-esque currents (‘ugliness that scars the spirit / as the earth’, ‘rivers of mingled blood and sweat’), but this opening snippet has become both tourist branding, found everywhere it can be sold, and a kind of faux-folk fetish for the Welsh themselves. With its elevation of ‘natural’ cultural creativity over material advantage making a virtue of necessity, it is our Keep Calm and Carry On – a comforter, a pacifier. Continue reading
This is the third in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.
The furies are at home
in the mirror; it is their address.
Even the clearest water,
if deep enough can drown.
Never think to surprise them.
Your face approaching ever
so friendly is the white flag
they ignore. There is no truce
with the furies. A mirror’s temperature
is always at zero. Its camera
is an X-ray. It is a chalice
held out to you in
silent communion, where gaspingly
you partake of a shifting
identity never your own.
– ‘Reflections’, R S Thomas
Most people see me as a rake, womanizer, boozer and purchaser of large baubles. I`m all those things depending on the prism and the light. But mostly I’m a reader.
– Richard Burton
Besides the drowning of Tryweryn, Ready for Drowning also snags the idea of drowning one’s sorrows, referencing the alleged propensity of the Welsh for – what shall we call it? – a steady, a committed, a co-dependent relationship with drink. The association of Wales with a certain kind of romanticised and spectacular inclination to alcoholism – not so much in reality as in legend – still persists. Ready for Drowning compares the flooding of Tryweryn with how, according to Wire: ‘a ceaseless chain of Welsh people seek to adjust to their circumstances by drowning their synapses in alcohol. …‘it’s half Richey, half Welsh identity – about how many of our icons either drink themselves to death or run away’. Continue reading
This is the second in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.
In the Bible, God made it rain for 40 days and 40 nights. That’s a pretty good summer for Wales. That’s a hosepipe ban waiting to happen… I was eight before I realised you could take a cagoule off.
– Rhod Gilbert
O where are our fathers, O brothers of mine?
By the graves of their fathers, awaiting a sign…
The slopes of slag and cinder
Are sulking in the rain
And in derelict valleys
The hope of youth is slain.
– from Gwalia Deserta, Idris Davies (1938)
Idris Davies, the coalfield’s ‘bitter dreamer’, lost a finger in a mining accident and was first radicalised and then disaffected by his participation in the 1926 General Strike. Subsequently unemployed, and having been introduced to the work of Shelley by a fellow miner, he began four years of what he called ‘the long and lonely self-tuition game’. In his poetry, as fanboyed by T S Eliot, he is notably attached to the word ‘derelict’, especially as a description of the south Welsh valleys, desolate and desecrated by industry. (They’ve only grown more apt as a pairing.) Davies has little of R S Thomas’ brutally bleak, at-bay snarling; his jeremiads are, like the landscape and land he describes, just ‘sulking in the rain’, sad and sullenly resigned. Continue reading
‘I’ve never written about Welsh identity before: these days, I’ve got to search for things to write about, whereas in the past everything would be driven by anger and all the rest of it. Now I’ve got to delve more… Ready For Drowning is the most complete song I’ve ever written, I think…’
One: All Surface No Feeling
“The submerged land of Cardigan Bay is called Cantre’r Gwaelod (‘the lowland hundred’). It was defended from the sea by an embankment and sluices. Seithennin was keeper of the sluices, and one evening when there was a great banquet he became drunk and left the sluices open. The water rushed in and drowned the inhabitants. The poet Taliesin was the only one to escape alive.
“When man first came to live on the coast of Wales (sometime between the Neolithic and the Iron Age), the sea level was still rising between Wales and Ireland, separating the two countries further and further, and the legend relating to the drowning of the Lowland Hundred probably developed as a result of folk-memory of a sudden coastal flooding many centuries ago. The remains of peat and tree trunks which are visible on the beaches when the tide is far out further captured man’s imagination. Similar traditions are connected with certain Welsh lakes [and] with other parts of the Welsh coast… The moralistic and onomastic elements in all these traditions are very obvious.”
– Robyn Gwyndaf, Welsh Folk Tales (1989)
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?
– from The Wasteland, T S Eliot (1922)
Lately I’ve been revisiting both the land of my birth and upbringing and mid-period Manic Street Preachers. The latter was a moderately painful process which has, incidentally, left me staggered all over again that ‘Tomorrow Steve Ovett has injured his calf’ was considered to pass muster as a lyric. I don’t generally subscribe to the idea that everything good about the band vanished along with Richey; I think Design for Life is, while maybe not the best thing they’ve accomplished, at least the most valedictory, the thing I remain most proud of them for doing. But yeah, they should perhaps have called a halt to things shortly after that. Continue reading
This is a now outdated post written for Bad Reputation.
I wrote a quick and exasperated piece recently on what I perceived to be a reductive, stereotyping and patronising use of the term ‘working-class’ cropping up in a lot of otherwise well-meaning writing. I was initially set off by the editors of Vagenda Magazine’s defence of Caitlin Moran, but the surrounding debate and its systemic problems are bigger than both of these. Despite retaining their article as a jumping-off point, therefore, I’m less interested in the specifics of Vagenda themselves than in giving a more considered explanation of some of the reasons behind my annoyance with the idea that intersectional feminism and ‘comprehensible’, ‘accessible’ feminism are somehow incompatible. Continue reading
I write this without even attempting to address the tangled canopy of class under which the above play unravels. There is very little new under the twentieth- and twenty-first-century sun, not least the withdrawal in disgust from engagement with the whole system of parliamentary party politics. I find this tendency more in erstwhile members of the Labour Party, myself included, than anywhere else.
So often Labour seems to exist only in negative terms: as an entity at once, depending on who you ask, too centrist, too militant, too bureaucratic, too in hock to focus-groups, trade unions, spin doctors, Scotsmen, businessmen, Bennites, Blairites, castigated from so many angles for its invariable failure at any one time to be precisely what a given individual within it might desire it to be, that it’s frankly astonishing that the party in government got anything done at all. (And on a probably myopic, material level, it did, from the NHS to the minimum wage – yes, ameliorated capitalism, concessions wrung like blood out of a stone, but notable improvements to the lives of working people all the same. It’s not as though we aren’t going to miss them when they’re gone.)
The party has always been, to a great extent, held together by surface tension. Its history is a brittle ballet of compromise and pragmatism – which equals selling out – versus purism and idealism – which equals getting nowhere. I suspect each of these scenarios suits some proponents of each set of watchwords just fine. The ‘right kind’ of Labour Party has never wholly existed, has always existed more as a series of competing fantasy constructs, of potential parties never quite made real. And, like its kindergarten the National Union of Students, the party has always seemed more serviceable as a vehicle for advancing individual careers than for furthering the interests of collectives. It’s not as though this critique has only been crystallised post-Blair, although admittedly the post-Blair party appears so risibly, shamefully hollowed-out, in terms of ideology, passion and commitment, that it looks lost for good.
A machine of perpetual disillusion, then, sure, but, whether stemming from self-interest, tradition, sentiment or principle, a residual and almost utopian – read: naive, deluded if you like – faith in what the party could be is very hard to shift. This post was brought on, obviously, by last week’s bravura turn by Owen Jones on Question Time, and his subsequent invocation of the ghosts of Labour past. I think Owen Jones in the wrong party, but mostly I’m fucked if I know what the right party is any more.
I am in print this month, having written a chapter on women in post-punk for Julia Downes’ new history of the girl band, Women Make Noise. A surprisingly difficult part of this was establishing what we talk about when we talk about post-punk. Post-punk’s disorderly, subversive and category-resistant nature has seen it marginalised in accounts of its era, although the past few years have produced a handful of useful retrospectives, as well as the early-2000s revival of post-punk musical techniques which, if you still can’t explain what it is, at least make it easier to explain what it sounds like.
For me, a large part of post-punk’s significance was that it seemed to involve an unprecedented amount of women as artists, fans, critics and ideologues. Extending the gains of punk’s emphasis on DIY culture, accessibility and amateurism, post-punk women were able to take their bands in experimental and innovative directions. Post-punk’s ideological concern with the politicisation of the personal, and with identifying and promoting authenticity in the face of popular cultural stereotypes, lent itself to exploration from a feminine and feminist angle, resulting in lyrics which demystified and deconstructed conventional femininity, love, sex and romance, and which analysed social and cultural pressures on women or the tensions of personal relationships in implicitly political ways. Continue reading
There’s a lot being said and, I’m sure, a lot more that will be said on intersectionality within feminism (good); its misunderstanding and mispresentation (bad); and the fact that while intersectionality may be an off-putting term to use, it’s not that hard to understand because for many women (hell, and men) it constitutes lived experience. I write for Bad Reputation in part because we strive to “do” intersectionality all the time, although I don’t think we overuse the word. Intersectionality in part, for me, is about recognising that people have it tough even if they aren’t you. I’m just going to add this.
This post was mostly inspired by the complaint of my fellow Bad Reputation member Sarah J that, when the subject of Elastica comes up, the band are frequently dismissed outright as flagrant copyists led by Britpop’s version of Lady Macbeth. In fairness, I spent most of the 90s thinking the same thing. God, I used to hate Elastica. Willfully amateur slack-jawed rip-off merchants whose frontwoman seemed to exist only as a drawly amalgam of her indie boyfriends (hair by Brett, boots by Damon), whose competency in snagging the catchiest bits of post-punk couldn’t disguise how irritatingly thick and bland they were in all other respects. Right? Right. Now that I’m no longer a chippy thirteen-year-old convinced that people with trust-funds can’t make good music, I’ve been reassessing Elastica. Continue reading
In my former life as a shiftless, rootless, and economically useless humanities student, I researched and wrote on weird, failed, disreputable and consequently marginalised or forgotten moments in the history of popular resistance to industrial capitalism – food riots, rough music, cross-dressing and animal masks, legendary figureheads (Ludd, Swing, Rebecca) and the use of theatre, symbol and spectacle. My guiding principle was that eighteenth and nineteenth-century protest often contained a popular symbolic and ritual repertoire adapted for the purposes of expressing discontent, and that it also made visible an increasing conflict between established popular custom and the nascent doctrines of industrial capitalism and constitutional law. Some of what I wrote is here, though it’s not very good.
If you’ve never read about any of this then you ought, it’s great. E P Thompson’s concept of a ‘moral economy’ motivating collective social and economic protest – the idea of a continuous extra-parliamentary and extra-legal tradition based on an appeal to established popular rights, which juxtaposed natural and social justice with prevailing civil and criminal laws – still finds expression where it has to, from ‘proletarian shopping’ to the ideas of social justice expressed through ‘rough music’ in the recent kickings-off in Montreal and Quebec. I mean, one might be tempted to conclude that the increasingly visible powerlessness of the average citizen to exercise opinion by constitutional means has encouraged a return to more immediate and hands-on methods of collective bargaining.
Anyway, the Scotch Cattle – an early attempt at industrial organisation in 1820-40s south Wales – are obscure and getting obscurer: one monograph, a couple of local history articles, and minor mentions here and there, usually with audible disapproval. The Scotch Cattle tend to be dismissed in traditional histories of labour and of Wales, due to their failure to fit neatly into narratives of either the sober and respectable growth of trade unionism or the development of an orderly Welsh society. This is a large part of what interests me about them and others like them, though they are also fascinating on their own terms, being at once an obvious and logical response to the conditions of early industrial capitalism, and peculiar as fuck.
Much to my own surprise, I have an article on the Scotch Cattle published in this month’s Welsh History Review – I presume out now, or impending. My take on them is that they are a hybrid movement, representing the attempts by workers to transfer their accustomed techniques of pre-industrial protest – yer basic charivari – to the untested environment of the south Welsh coalfield in its wild and brutalising stage of development (in Gwyn A. Williams’ useful phrase, its ‘frontier years’). Divorced from their original context and the social relations on which they depended, these techniques were open to mutation and fragmentation, and their effective operation was no longer guaranteed, with less than hilarious consequences.
That’s what my research has led me to conclude, at least. Throw in proto-class war, contested constructions of masculinity, and the old ritualised ultraviolence, and you’ll be unsurprised to learn that my application for AHRC funding got turned down three years on the trot.
I had only one real beef with the excellent Paul Mason’s most recently printed reflection on ‘the graduate without a future’, but it’s the same beef I have with almost every recent lamentation on the state we’re in: lack of attention to class as key. Given Mason’s interesting and not especially privileged background, it seemed a particularly surprising omission. While of course I appreciated the article’s update on how there’s still no future, but there might be some putative entrepreneurial ‘survival in the cracks’, stringing beads together on a collective farm then selling them through The New Inquiry (I paraphrase) – it’s still the case that all graduates are not created equal, and some are still more equal than others. Correct me if I’m wrong (really, do correct me if I’m wrong), but while very, very obviously, it’s still shit to be a graduate right now, surely it’s marginally more shit to be a poor graduate?
Take the Coalition’s recent wheeze, the proposed cut in Housing Benefit for those under 25, which has been widely predicted to herald jobless or low-paid graduates being thrown back to live on the largesse of their parents, or failing that, on their settee. Is there really no discernable difference in the future that awaits a graduate returning to a post-industrial unemployment blackspot, and that awaiting one whose family are able and willing to subsidise their rent and support them while they work unpaid internships? Those graduating with wealth and connections are surely likely to retain their privileges? Take, too, the withdrawal of EMA and cutting of university funding, which is serving to entrench the idea of education as something undesirable because unaffordable, not something which can serve as a route out of poverty and a broadening of horizons.
Also, as several people stressed below the line on Mason’s article, this focus on the plight of the graduate – pitiable, emblematic, and potentially revolutionary as it may be – is part of a broader narrative whereby conditions which have always been likely for those at the socio-economic sharp end are becoming something to which the middle class, and their graduating sons and daughters, are increasingly exposed. The resulting shrieks of indignation are amplified in the media. While it’s true and valid to note that the current economic model is visibly failing, there are those for whom it has never really worked, and whose struggles with it scarcely ever receive broadsheet coverage. In the grand scheme of things, and especially right now, I’m not sure whether this is too insignificant a complaint to make, or whether it’s the only complaint worth making.
Two things I wrote recently on the music, culture and politics of that weird, desultory decade, the 1990s:
1. Up Close and Personal: Lost Girls
For the decade blogs, my Tesco Value Greil Marcus number on gender, class, Britpop and everything after, chav-hysteria and narrowing of access.
2. Rebel Music #5: Manic Street Preachers
For New Left Project, a cleaned-up and condensed version of my customary closing-time rant on the politics of the Manic Street Preachers. I know I fail to mention, eg, Soviet chic, or Castro, or self-harm and anorexia, or the band’s appeal to teenage girls, or anything after This is my Truth Tell me Yours. It’s not that they’re irrelevant, they’re just relevant to a different article. Or possibly a whole book.
I mean, I don’t hate ‘Ill Manors’. I did at first, almost instinctively, but I like it more the more I hear it. I also find it easier to take in without the video. (Also that sample of ‘Alles Neu’ gives me flashbacks to 2008 when an ex of mine would repeatedly play it; fair enough you can never escape your past, but I don’t think anyone expects theirs to pursue them in the form of Peter Fox.) Still, the alacrity with which it’s been leapt on as the protest song we’ve all been waiting for has slightly surprised me, even though it’s more vital and switched-on than, from a year ago:
and – maybe – more accessible than, lest we forget its glory, and the possibility of ‘TOSSAH’ being the present Secretary of State for Health’s epitaph:
I’m not convinced ‘Ill Manors’ taps the roots of the present malaise with any greater degree of elegance and articulacy than, say, Dizzee Rascal did in 2003:
Something that seemed to get overlooked in the past few years’ constant referencing of a ‘lost generation’ and of ‘graduates without a future’ was that, lower down the socio-economic scale, little had substantially changed. For many with memories that stretch beyond the credit crunch, the last recession and the last UK election, attaining comfort and security has always been a struggle, prospects have never been great, and home-owning and independently funded internships, for instance, have always been implausibilities. For many there has always been poverty, precarity, petty criminality and police animosity, even if the past few years have exacerbated their reach and increased their visibility, resulting in their sudden horrified pointing out by those who might previously have missed them due to being shielded by better prospects and broader horizons.
Although ‘Sittin’ Here’ is nearly a decade old, running through it is a very relevant current of chill and clampdown. But ‘Sittin’ Here’ is not a ‘protest song’. It’s a laconic, fatalistic and very mature anatomy of socio-economic melancholy. Simmering but unspoken discontent, alienation, anomie and lacking signs of positive change have for a long time been a way of life to which many have of necessity had to reconcile themselves, not a sign of the final crisis or a spur to mounting the barricades.
I guess timing is everything, though. There’s an inescapable sense (as in, one is constantly given the impression) of right now being either turning-point or snapping-point. The recently added ingredient of a recklessly ideological government seems to have clarified and amplified things that have been the case for a while, made them more immediate and obvious. ‘Ill Manors’ does validly externalize rather than brood over its anger and confusion, and doesn’t assume some golden age of mortgages for all and paid internships cruelly wrested from this generation by everyone over the age of twenty-four. ‘We’ve had it with you politicians you bloody rich kids never listen / There’s no such thing as broken Britain we’re just bloody broke in Britain / What needs fixing is the system not shop windows down in Brixton / Riots on the television you can’t put us all in prison’ is a very hard line to argue with.
You’re all joking about the roads being next for privatization, aren’t you. Aren’t you. Oh, you’re not.
It’s just that in another lifetime, one of toil and blood, I did my whole thesis about a little local difficulty which centred around privatized road networks: the ridiculous/amazing “Rebecca riots”.
Part of what I liked about the study of history was that it did occasionally seem – by no means always, of course – as though society in general wasn’t too disparate, atomized, hopelessly confused, thick, or arrogant to learn from its mistakes.
For example: ‘Wow, at least private roads wouldn’t be an option /these days/’, I’d often muse, back in the day, having conducted hours of research and written thousands of words about how badly it had all worked out in the face of popular insistence upon public utilities being kept for the collective good rather than left to the profiteering of incompetent private companies.
(The Rebecca riots were a lot more complex than that, obviously, hence my studying them in the first place, and my bringing in their use of masking, cross-dressing, ritually smashing stuff, inter-class cooperation, liminal states, gender essentialism, and the disparity between lived experience and political and media discourse – don’t worry, neither the Taxpayer nor Hard-Working Families were paying for me to study any of this – but the general resentment of private ownership as leading to general neglect and profiteering holds true as a contributing factor – as indeed it holds true over two hundred years on.)
I’m sick of saying we’re being taken back to the Victorian age, but this? Is the government just trolling, now?
Or, with less (or perhaps more) conspiracist fervour: RT @bengoldacre Wouldn’t it be a shame if this distant roads nonsense distracted you from the Lords’ final vote on #NHSbill.
So little allure does contemporary music hold that I forgot the Brit Awards were taking place this year, and spent last Tuesday evening in the bowels of a club in that odd hipster-troubled enclave north of Oxford Street, watching Tim Burgess launch his autobiography. Well, we all have to pay the rent somehow.
You recall the rash of soi-disant Minor Indie Celebs which infested post-Libertines London? If you don’t, I wouldn’t blame you; they were peole like the Queens of Noize, or The Holloways. But if you do, you might also recall that a secondary feature of this period was the reemergence of several 90s indie also-rans (now there’s a tautology for you), lurking in support slots and at DJ sets, most often in the vicinity of Barat and less frequently of Doherty. Apparently the 90s are now officially back – finally! The 90s revival has been ‘impending’ for at least four years – which at least means the 80s aren’t back any longer, unless you count things like politics, economics, society and culture. But the 90s never really went away, their cultural detritus over the past decade continually bobbing to the surface like something unflushable.
Tim Burgess is harmless enough, of course, and to criticise him feels akin to cudgelling a seal-pup. The book, like the Charlatans, is probably a perfect example of its inoffensive, tolerable, un-vital type. After exacting dissections of Blair and Britpop, the 90s as the subject of memoir and history doesn’t even have the shock of the new, although a wider perspective on the music of the period does show what an odd time it was, post-Thatcher and pre-Blair, briefly and freakishly fertile before the greywash. And even afterwards: this happened at a Brit Awards ceremony in the 90s, and so did this. Privatised and atomised examples of protest, sure, but you know, if I somehow missed Adele making a Bastille-storming speech on Tuesday about the scandal of government money being siphoned off by private companies who maintain their luxurious lifestyles off the backs of the unemployed, then do correct me.
Anyway, the only point I vividly recall about Tim Burgess’s autobiography was the repeatedly-mentioned chapter entitled – and I haven’t checked the spelling here – ‘Cocainus’. ‘It’s a portmanteau word’, explained the author, with no great necessity, ‘formed from the words “cocaine” and “anus”‘. Rarely have the 90s been so succinctly summed up.
A spectre is haunting London. My daily commute, never a joyful affair, has recently been granted a further dimension of irritation by adverts on buses, hoving into view with tedious regularity, bearing the image of Meryl Streep dolled up as Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Thirty years on from her rise to power, and after a minor rash of small-screen depictions – Andrea Riseborough in The Long Walk to Finchley, Lindsay Duncan in Margaret – Streep will now portray her on the big screen, the prospect of which I could have happily lived without.
Having as I do firsthand experience of Thatcher’s impact, her government’s break with prevailing consensus and bloody-minded devotion to neoliberal orthodoxies, an objective and rational evaluation of the woman is probably beyond me. That said, her presumably impending death, although I do have a longstanding appointment at a pub in King’s Cross to dutifully raise a glass, is something I’ll be largely indifferent to. It won’t matter. Thatcher as a person has far less bearing on the current world than what she represents. The damage has been done, the battle lost, and much as I might appreciate a Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the 1980s, Thatcher and her co-conspirators are by now too old and whiskey-soaked to be held to any meaningful account.
Efforts to humanise Thatcher, even when they enlist Meryl Streep, seem discomfiting and deeply bizarre. What she means has transcended what she was, is and will be. The purpose of this post, therefore, apart from being an exercise in detachment for me, is to look briefly at some aspects of Thatcher’s image in political and pop culture, the effect of her gender in her role as a woman in power, and her political legacy. Quick, before the next bus goes past.
Chav, n. British slang (derogatory). “In the United Kingdom (originally the south of England): a young person of a type characterized by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of designer-style clothes (esp. sportswear); usually with connotations of a low social status.”
– Oxford English Dictionary
1. The C word
If ‘cunt’ is reportedly losing its power to shock or offend, don’t worry, other c-words are available. ‘Class’, for instance, appears to have become unsuitable for use in polite society these days, while ‘Chav’ has never been so commonplace in the respectable parlance of those who would never dream of using any other c-word so blithely. Owen Jones’ book Chavs, a welcome and necessary analysis of the latter phenomenon, identifies it as a culture ‘created and then mercilessly lampooned by the middle-class, rightwing media and its more combative columnists’, and examines the word’s place in current political and cultural discourse in the context of a simultaneous narrowing of socio-economic opportunity. Continue reading
I’ve had coalmining on my mind recently. Contra last week’s Metro, I don’t think it’s accurate to say ‘the world looked on in despair’ at events at Gleision Colliery – in fact the story was predictably underreported and largely unremarked upon by my usual social media circle, until the story became a self-evidently human tragedy, whereupon it was hardly engaged with at any deeper level than that. Anyway:
As the admittedly lame title of this blog suggests, the coalmine for me is bound up with a certain sense of national identification, but also, if not more so, with class and regional associations. I feel that I have more in common with someone of my age from a post-industrial area in (say) south Yorkshire, than I might with someone from rural west or north Wales or indeed the great bright-lit sprawl that is Cardiff and the Vale. Weighted against this potentially mawkish shoulder-to-shouldering with other unemployment blackspots is the knowledge that this landscape as a functioning entity, as something that defined one as part of and in relation to a certain workforce, as the sum of one’s labour, has (been) altered out of all recognition and what it tends to be seen as generating now is dysfunction. But the mine as a symbol of shared frames of reference carries an inescapable emotional weight. Continue reading
Yeah, I’m still here, although increasingly writing elsewhere. Notably I wrote for BadRep on Why ‘Chav’ is a Feminist Issue.
Have some more songs.
Lupen Crook, Junk n Jubilee
This from oh, such a while back now. Seems like a whole other London. A cut-off video, which is all I could find, but do hear the proper version, which still makes me tense with the urge to put my fist through the window of the Hawley Arms:
Manic Street Preachers, A Design For Life
This from the band too weird to talk about when you talk about the 90s. Included half because I’ve just been back to the place I grew up (and for ‘grew up’, read ‘grew up a Manics fan’) and half because the song resonates with me right now, with reality topping dystopian visions at every turn almost faster than one can think them up:
Oh, and I went to an Amanda Palmer gig last Friday. Not to damn with faint praise or anything, but I liked her more than I did when I wrote this.
Music books written by women, list of. Go, compare, question, critique.
Why don’t more women write about music – or do they? And why don’t more women write about Dylan? It can’t just be me and Sady Doyle.
Also, with due apologies for more self-promotion – I don’t think I’ve mentioned this here yet, but I’m currently writing a chapter on female postpunk musicians for a forthcoming anthology on that shy and elusive creature, the girl band. This book will be a contender with or without my contribution though. Watch this space.
Some of my juvenilia, from when I lived south of the Thames. I wrote this in 2005 for the much-missed marvel that was Smoke, A London Peculiar, and I was inspired to dig it up by reading this post on Transpontine, the compendium of south-east London life. It’s an elegy on my favourite ex-pub in London, which I still miss. Now only the Montague Arms keeps a remnant of the dream alive.
Number one on absolutely no one else’s list of Good London Pubs is the sadly defunct Goldsmiths Tavern. When I lived in New Cross as a student I didn’t go near this place for months – it was open past 2am but was extremely dodgy in look and reputation, you heard various stories about plans hatched and deals done that would’ve made Guy Ritchie come on the spot. Continue reading
So I liked Owen Hatherley’s piece on Pulp, and I knew reading the comments would spoil it all, but reader, I read them. The majority were bafflingly wet-blanket in nature, wildly and wilfully missing the article’s point, if studded with bits of valid and interesting discussion. Specifically, though, I was surprised to encounter in both the article and the responses a lack of any mention of Manic Street Preachers. Surely you can’t reach back into the 90s, grasping for lines to describe the sociopolitical here and now, without burning your fingers on the white-hot irony of ‘A Design for Life’?
‘We don’t talk about love,
We only want to get drunk
And we are not allowed to spend
As we are told that this is the end’
If Pulp were the last art-school band (and I’m by no means convinced of that), then surely the Manics were the last artistic gasp of a certain breed of late 20th-century industrial working class? Continue reading
In 1874, Samuel Clemens called Ambrose Bierce’s latest effort The Vilest Book in Print, writing that ‘…for every laugh that is in his book there are five blushes, ten shudders and a vomit. The laugh is too expensive.’ I mean, it’s anyone’s guess what Samuel Clemens might have made of Bret Easton Ellis. Continue reading
There are times when I think that readers of this blog are simply bearing witness to the Orwellian tragedy of someone once boundlessly enthusiastic about live music slowly having it ground out of them by the suspicion that I’d be better off reading a book than spending yet another evening squashed, skint and bored in Camden while some overindulged former public schoolboy vomits down a microphone, but oh well, on with the motley.
I was sorting through some things last night – ticket stubs, diaries, anal-retentively compiled whathaveyou – and look, these are all the gigs I went to in 2004, back when Dirty Pretty Things was still a club night named after a Stephen Frears film rather than a by-word for frustratingly pedestrian musical spin-off projects:
Cards on the table: I am a (very) former Labour Party member, a former unaligned-far-left hack, a former student politician, and a current jaded burn-out who’s more or less lost the faith. What I’ve regained since the last election is not the faith but the fear. Seeing this government use the excuse of debt reduction to conduct a sustained assault on the welfare state’s structures and foundation is not something I can stand by and watch. The question, as ever, is how to express this opposition. Saturday saw a TUC-organised official march, fringed with unofficial peaceful protests and unofficial direct action. The discourse after demonstrations is always varying degrees of unhelpful and unrepresentative, as reportage and analysis splinter into shards of individual experience, each of which reflect only a portion of the whole. This is in no way a contribution to ongoing debate, it is merely my own record and reflection.
The black bloc on Saturday was by some accounts the biggest since J18, which made me think that, as I’ve said before, what’s happening now seems like not a revolution but a return to the protests to which I was introduced over a decade ago – the days of carnivalesque anticapitalism and reclaiming the streets. That said, I think our critique of capitalism in the early 2000s was certainly more vague, still post-Cold War, appealing more to globalising and internationalist issues of social justice and civil liberties because less immediately rooted in financial crisis – and perhaps, for the same reasons, less last-ditch and desperate than it currently seems. I don’t know, and to have a clearer idea, I’d have to get out there and see for myself.
I didn’t do a great deal of Getting Out There on Saturday. I remained with a small group of disparately aligned friends and family, massing outside Embankment tube and then crawling through Waterloo and Westminster. There were an awful lot of us. There were gorgeous trade union banners which had seen action throughout the past century. There were Banksy-esque stencils of Clement Atlee’s image. There were official placards manually-adjusted to call Nick Clegg a variety of entirely-deserved things. The Bloody Hell, That Must Have Taken Ages prize goes jointly to those carrying the huge black cube representing the income of the highest percentile of earners, to which was attached far smaller red cubes showing the relative size of the average income (I think), and those driving the miniature tank playing the theme from The Great Escape. Both of these were the best things I’d seen on a protest since the enormous papier-maché bomb labelled ‘structural readjustment’.
The only demo of comparable size I can remember – where the front of the march had walked the length of the route and reached its destination while more people were still at the back of the march, waiting to move off – was the big Iraq protest in 2003. Then as now, those marching were not homogenous, came from all over the country, and held no obvious signs of slavish adherence to the Labour leadership. Nor did I feel alone in lacking both faith in parliamentary process and any burning desire to stand for hours in Hyde Park listening to hackneyed whistling-up from the stage. Hence, by the time of our stop-off in Trafalgar Square, I opted for the pub. When the revolution comes, shoot me.
The Chandos crouches just off Trafalgar Square, and used to be the post-rally destination of most of my comrades whenever we ended up in the vicinity, largely because, unlike many pubs on or near the route of demonstrations, it had no sign on the door banning work-boots, banners and/or placards. Once inside, an illustration of how far I’ve fallen since the early 2000s was provided by there being no one I knew there apart from my old politics lecturer, who failed to recognise me, as indeed he had during most of my time at Goldsmiths. At the bar I got talking to a bloke who, like me, was a veteran of 2003’s enormous anti-war march, to which he had taken his 12 year old daughter. According to him, she’d said, impressed by the turnout, ‘they’ll have to listen to us now, won’t they?’
He told me this and rolled his eyes, as though aware of how mawkish and implausibly convenient an ending this might make to a subsequent spiel on the pointlessness of peaceful protest. But honestly, fuck irony. Politics in the last few years has got so blatantly contemptuous, so transparently indifferent, that I doubt any kid on the march on Saturday would have had that degree of faith in people power.
The Monday after the march, back at work in Soho, I went out to see the damage done. Little trace remained beyond some indistinct scrawlings on the boarded-up HSBC on Cambridge Circus and, further up the sidestreets, a circled-A in pink spraypaint on a couple of flaking black litter-bins. The slogans written on the scaffolding outside Central St Martins – ‘Make the banks pay’, ‘ACAB’, were at least making more of a stab at focused oppositional discourse. Yesterday lunchtime, more than a week on, the slogans on HSBC were invisible under daubs of white paint, the bank was open for business as usual and pretty soon the West End will look, and feel, as though nothing ever happened.
Am I glad I marched? Yes, of course. And I’m still unaligned, and I reject the notion that my lack of a membership card matters. March 26th wasn’t an attempt at revolution, and was more than a bid for space on the front page, and more than an exercise in branding. It was an act of solidarity, an attempt to demonstrate to all who watched and all who took part that no one is alone in opposing the actions of this government. And it did that, even if that’s all it did.
Let me begin with some residual New Year bonhomie by saying that the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross is not the problem here. It’s just that you sometimes need to take an inventory of the symptoms before starting on the cause. Last month I attended a talk by Ross on the release of his latest book. The talk and the discussion which followed were interesting enough, but throughout the evening I couldn’t help noticing that, although there were several women in attendance, every single raised voice in the room was male.
Following my attempted rehabilitation of S*M*A*S*H, here is another song snipped from the forgotten High Agitation Pop tapestry of 1990s Britain, to which I haven’t listened for a good ten years.
Oh, remember Agit-Pop? Remember when mixing punk with hip-hop and electronica in the name of antifascism seemed like a good idea? Remember Blaggers ITA? Their Wiki helpfully did-you-knows that ITA is ’90s slang for “in the area”‘, which I didn’t in fact know at the time. There you are, that’s the 1990s for you: we made the word ‘here’ two words longer, then we developed an acronym for it.
I discovered Blaggers ITA via their short-lived support slot on the Manic Street Preachers’ 1993 tour. This was curtailed amid controversy over their singer having allegedly lamped a journalist over an alleged accusation of his past, intensely regretted, involvement with the far right. (I’m always less shocked than perhaps I should be by the number of people who switch political extremes, starting off by, when young, channelling frustration and resentment through a right-wing filter before seeing it for the repugnant sham it is. A similar trajectory was taken by the young Ricky Tomlinson, whom I like less than I like the late Matty Blagg. Maybe that’s because Tomlinson went on to do The Royle Family, which gradually decayed into a pseudo-sentimental piece of confected class voyeurism, whereas by contrast the 1991 Blaggers effort Fuck Fascism, Fuck Capitalism, Society’s Fucked is perhaps the best lairily succinct summation of a certain late twentieth-century mindset we’re likely to get.)
Anyway, ‘The Way We Operate’ was a response to the racially-inflamed brutalization of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991, and the riots which convulsed that city the following year after the defendants’ acquittal by an all-white jury. It mixed televised reportage and calls to arms with guitars that swirl like circling news helicopters, riffing on Public Enemy’s ‘Burn Hollywood Burn’ and segueing the admirable internationalism of ‘West Belfast, Brixton, Broadwater Farm, Soweto, East LA – it’s all the same thing’ into its inanely earnest chorus.
Don’t write ‘em like that anymore, do they? Not a great song, maybe. But with most of popular culture – comedy, tv, literature as well as music – currently punching downwards when it punches at all, I find it helps to be reminded that songs can have worthier targets. Even if these days this sort of thing could almost be described as fucking quaint.
‘Sexuality in Rock’n’roll is one more area weighed down heavily by its history and language. While none could or should deny the aspects of sexual interest and thrill inherent in live music, the performance space is problematically male-dominated.’ – Ian Penman, NME, 1979
‘I really wish that I’d been born a boy; it’s easy then ’cause you don’t have to keep trying to be one all the time.’ – Gaye Advert, 1977
Women in bands, when under the media spotlight, often find themselves swindled out of due credit by virtue of their gender. If they’re not being accused of clinging to the coattails of their backing boys to disguise their own lack of musical ability, they’re being judged on their aesthetic appeal to the exclusion of anything more relevant. It’s disappointing to observe how ubiquitously this principle applies. Even in the midst of punk, as girls picked up guitars, bass, and drumsticks, taking the stage alongside boys as more than cooing vocalists or backing dancers, they attracted that lethal combination of critical suspicion and prurient interest.
I love punk partly for the number and variety of women it involved and the freedom of expression it offered them. I loved X-Ray Spex – a Somali-British teenage feminist demagogue whose vocal screech swooped like a bird of prey over twisting vistas of saxophone. I loved the Slits and their slippery, shuddering dub-punk hymns to the tedium of sex and the joys of shoplifting. And I loved Gaye Black, bassist for The Adverts and widely regarded as punk’s first female star.
If you’re an easily suggestible sort, the last few weeks’ flurry of alarmist headlines on strikes, snow, and student riots might lead you to think of London as the convulsing epicentre of the end of the world as we know it. In fact, it’s still perfectly possible to work and play on the streets of the capital without detecting any signs of the collapse of civilisation, although that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
A rant, minor and ignorable. I get like this sometimes.
You know one of my earliest memories? My parents dressing me up in a bloody stupid costume in order to attend the street party that my town was holding in honour of the Royal Wedding of that clot the Prince of Wales to that vacuous brood-mare Lady Diana Spencer. All the children in my town were in fancy dress. Fuck knows why, it must have been a temporary madness. We’ve still got a sodding commemorative mug.
I was born in the 1980s. I grew up to get away from them. The only good thing about getting older was, I fondly deluded myself, that at least it wouldn’t be the fucking, fucking 1980s anymore.
And now what have we got? A Tory Prime Minister, unemployment through the roof, pointless wars abroad, strikes, bankers still raking it in and now a fucking, fucking, fucking Royal Wedding that we’re all expected to take a blind bit of notice of because it’ll take our minds off how SHIT everything is. And we will, of course.
And some of you are wearing bleached denim, crimped hair and the type of horrible moustaches more usually seen on sex offenders – not because it’s the perfectly laudable Movember, but because it’s in some way ~cool. Well, screw the 1980s revival in its overstyled Thatcherite ear. What the fuck are we doing as a nation?
Everybody asks your name, they say we’re all the same
And it’s “nice one, geezer” –
But that’s as far as the conversation went.
Last weekend was notable for a mass rave held in the heart of London’s West End, in the shadow of Trash’s last resting place. Inevitably, this ended up breathlessly reported in the Guardian as having marked ‘the return of rave culture’. Did it bollocks. Rave culture is, like the poor, always with us, and free sub-legal gatherings are scattered over the country like the unspeakable flakes shaken from a white boy’s dreadlocks.
Last Saturday has, like several other online-organised mass Doings of Cool Stuff, both social and political, set an interesting precedent for the relative power of a sufficiently large group of citizens to dodge, outstrip or overcome police opposition or obstruction through the power of social networking. But that’s as far as my positivity can stretch. I was dubious about the article’s claim that it marked the return of alternative culture – specifically, the free party – as a channel for political opposition, and perversely heartened by the similarly-minded cynicism swamping the comment section. The article has things arse-backwards: a confrontation between the law and people having a good time is a side-effect of the event, not its objective.
As shown by Emma Goldman’s frequently misquoted maxim and, I’d like to think, this blog in general, music is inherently political. Any song retains the imprint of its conditions of production, and you’d be a fool and a Ramones fan to think otherwise. But the question of whether a particular form of music and culture is inherently radical or revolutionary is much murkier. Continue reading
While the 1990s weren’t the greatest decade for feminist comings of age, as a small-town girl who loved her music, I didn’t do too badly. I’d grown up on the leftovers of punk, awed and enthralled by women like Poly Styrene, Patti Smith, Ari Up and Gaye Advert. Closer to home, I had Shampoo’s deadpan, dead-eyed bubblegum-punk and Kenickie’s bracing uber-proletarian blend of grit and glitter.
Marx’s Europe was haunted by a single spectre, but the furthest shores of the Welsh cultural psyche are stalked by two figures as powerful as they are petrifying: the Mam and the Missus. Such well-ploughed dichotomies as that of Madonna/whore are wholly inadequate as explanations of this particular view of feminine duality. Here I shall focus on the Missus, a figure who inspires both hypersexualised fascination and visceral dread of her destructive powers. This delicate divide between titillation and terror is nowhere more suggestively straddled than in Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s seminal release ‘Your Missus is a Nutter’. A full transcription of this sadly underexplored work is available for reference here. Continue reading
Like a certain kind of Dad tends to ruin Bob Dylan, Julie Burchill almost ruined Patti Smith for me. I only really trust Julie Burchill’s opinion on the need to outlaw asbestos, and my early-teenage reading of her enthusing over Smith made my eyes roll like a pill dropped on the floor of Soho House. A year or so later, I listened to Horses and kicked myself. Her stark and disdainful image on the record sleeve left me as amazed as the music. To realise that not only was it okay to be female, to be queer, to be ungroomed, to read, to write, to have ambition, to want to get out, to let yourself go – it could actually be brilliant.
On Saturday I went to her book-signing at the South Bank. The book itself is interesting, not least for its function as a kind of anti-confessional, a memoir shrouded not in prudishness or desperate self-mythology but content, affectionate dignity. She also played three songs, the second of which was her cover of ‘Because the Night’. She asked the crowd to join in to cover her nerves, and we did, hesitantly and subdued, nearly reverent:
There is something in her recasting of Springsteen’s song, the swooping and quavery way she delivers ‘they can’t hurt you now…’, that perfectly captures for me the certainty of protection afforded by music and its sharing, the sense of at once standing recklessly, defiantly before the world and taking refuge from it with another who understands. Making it so by proclaiming that it is so. On Saturday, collectively participating in its singing felt like something primitive, a basic ward against the elemental world outside my head. (It’s the chorus that does it. Not that the security, trust and defiant resolve embedded in its primal thump is peculiar to this song; I’d think, and frequently have thought, the same when singing drunkenly along to Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’.)
Did you know Patti Smith used to work as a bookseller? She talked a bit about that, about having the permanent mark of the bookseller that means that, when in bookshops these days, she still occasionally gets asked for directions, and about the pre-fame certainty of failure and unappreciation. This led on to her method of getting over this by recalling that William Blake was an unappreciated and ridiculed failure for his entire life. I must admit, my optimism worn down to a stump, that whenever I hear variations on this theme I find it trite at best and depressing at worst, rather than comforting, but I managed to avoid thinking so for the duration of her saying so. It helped that her speaking voice is gorgeous: low, hypnotic, sleepy, vaguely like Dylan’s, chopping off the ends of words and pronouncing ‘cigarette’ without its middle syllable so it sounds like ‘secret’.
Face to face, she was astonishingly old, I thought: nerve-thin, tightly strung, beatific. Smile. Clasp of the hand. I skipped off down the South Bank in the spring drizzle, the book clutched to me like it could stop bullets.
When I first got into music, in the moribund middle of the 1990s, not only was I living in a godforsaken postindustrial blackspot, but I was living there without the internet. The only place in my town which sold records was Woolworths, which sold the Top 20, on CD and cassette, and that was it. I once, as a thirteen year old Manicsfan, went into Woolworths and tried to preorder a copy of The Holy Bible. My enquiry was met with the same look of horror-struck uncertainty with which my mother, that same year, asked whether I’d been in a punch-up (I hadn’t; Rimmel’s ‘Gothic Miss’ eyeshadow palette and I were in our ill-advised experimental period, but the mistake is understandable). The nearest town whose emporia offered more cosmopolitan fare was an hour’s bus-ride away. In alternative cultural terms, the last one to leave my town had not only turned out the lights, but also painted the windows black and pissed on the stereo. Oh how I suffered.
The debt that’s owed to Magazine and Howard Devoto, both musically and stylistically, is massive, from Radiohead’s paranoid melancholy to Joy Division’s jumpy genius. Morrissey, a fanboy from early on, would never have made his career complete without summing himself up to the point of self-parody in Devoto’s line I know the meaning of life / It doesn’t help me a bit. And on a Tuesday night in the twenty-first century, after the end of office hours, with London’s South Bank still marinading in post-Bank Holiday blues, peerless post-punk outfit Magazine are ‘reconvening’. The future ain’t what it was, alright.
This is my first gig at the Royal Festival Hall, and it feels about as incongruous as you’d imagine. Most of the glass-and-air-and-exhibition-space complex has the feel of an aircraft hangar, and waiting for the gig to start is akin to sitting around, sipping from plastic glasses of overpriced drink, in the hours before your flight is called. The bar urges you to order your interval drinks in advance to avoid the rush.
At a respectable hour we’re ushered to the fifth floor and out into seats in a box to the right of the stage. The whole venue is odd from up here. The boxes jut like cars on the slope of a rollercoaster and the crowd, spread out below us, is balding and bare-armed in the anticipatory heat. Magazine have always attracted the self-styled intelligentsia and that part of their fanbase appears to have grown in the thirty years they’ve been away. It is, as my companion observes, a very paunchy audience. There are children, there are mums and dads, there are ageing Camden casualties with their hair still – or perhaps, once more – an ill-judged peroxide. It feels very much like we’ve taken a night out from the present day and our current personae to not so much step back in time as step outside it.
The lights dim. Showtime. Projected onto the back of the stage is The Soap Show: Episode 2009. The spotlight glints off a glistening pate. It’s Devoto, dull-suited and scarlet-shirted, glaring round and holding the eye of the crowd like a ringmaster. He’s very far from his Bambi-eyed boyhood, but then aren’t we all. He’s aged with all the advantages of a teenager who started out looking fiftysomething, and he moves like a cross between Dr Evil and Nijinsky.
For the first hour or so the band run through third album The Correct Use of Soap, all the songs in order, including their bizarre and broken cover of Sly Stone’s ‘Thank You’. In between songs, Devoto deadpans quotes from the anonymous writer of Caring For Your Record Collection, a pamphlet which must be older than the thirty years the band are making up for. Its pay-off line is ‘Try to avoid, ever, lending records to your friends’.
‘Turn the guitar up!’ shouts a voice from the back, several times. The band pay no attention at all.
The album’s highlight as played tonight is ‘You Never Knew Me’, a swirling, tauntingly tender glimpse of the Buzzcocks roots which otherwise stay as well-hidden as a teenage tattoo at a job interview. They close the first half with ‘A Song from Under the Floorboards’, which Devoto introduces as a song detailing ‘what happens when you don’t manage your coping mechanisms properly’. Like Radiohead’s indebted ‘Let Down’, the song pulls you down with it, spreading its hands to show you Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmare extended to a world glimpsed only through the cracks. Devoto nails the chorus, snatching an imaginary insect from the air with precision so pinpoint that I flinch.
On the show’s second half the record is flipped. They open with Dave Formula playing the RFH organ halfway up the wall at the back of the stage, while behind a lectern at the stage’s lip Devoto intones his spoken-word piece ‘The Book’, the story of an entrance into hell, and for the rest of the set Noko’s guitar licks and Barry Adamson’s basslines come boiling, scourging, coruscating across the stage like something tangible.
As I’ve often said to emo kids in love with the validity of unconventional attraction: if you must form emotional attachments to the tubby and balding and call it cool, then Devoto’s your man. Like Morrissey these days, he’s got an odd balletic grace that transcends his age and stockiness. He slips the microphone out of its stand like he’s unsheathing a dagger, legs twisted and spine crooked like Steerpike, and his control of the stage tonight is something to behold: not a movement or a moment wasted. He doesn’t touch an instrument all night, but he’s dead-on in touch with the music: fingers snap, wrists flick, arms windmill, imaginary whips are cracked over the rhythm section. More than once he leaps, both feet off the ground, and brings his hands down flat at the split second the music stops dead. It’s something beyond dancing, something short of conducting: a blindingly obvious and perfect balance between controlled and controller.
In this mood, when he gives the off-the-cuff command that we don’t have to stay seated, within seconds there’s a rush for the space in front of the stage. The back rows and balconies rise and from there on in the set is thrown at us head-on, ‘Permafrost’ snarling unsettlingly out of the speakers with Devoto transformed from avuncular maitre d’ into something darker that holds the eye and ear transfixed. At the song’s apocalyptic apex, with the presence and possession of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Devoto sneers ‘I will / drug you / and fuck you / on the remains of the permafrost’ and the possibility that the little freak won’t doesn’t even cross the mind. (And with manual dexterity like tonight’s? Bring it on.)
Straight on into ‘The Light Pours out of Me’. Songs this good should be strictly rationed. Even – or especially – in the mouths of fiftysomethings, nothing sums up bored adolescence like the listlessly buzzing, chopped-out lines ‘Time flies / time crawls / like an insect / up and down the walls’. Always a band ahead of their time, post-punk while punk proper was still revving up and sounding no less undateable thirty years on, Magazine have achieved something like timelessness. There’s no ‘Shot By Both Sides’ tonight, due one suspects to their pioneering contrariness as much anything else, but the whole of the set has been a reminder that the best a band can offer is the chance of losing yourself in the crowd.
As a Valleys expatriate, part of my filial duty is to call home every so often and update my mother on how her golden child is getting on in the big city. Usually this is a simple matter of concise summation, adjusted for altered terms of reference based on the fact that my mother last went adventuring in 1972, but when describing what I did the previous evening to her I ran into difficulties:
‘Well… I went to an art gallery in the bit of London where all the bookshops are and stood in an exhibit of books which haven’t been written and only exist within the fields of reference of other books – it’s called an invisible library, right – and we heard a bloke play guitar and read bits out of Dylan’s experimental abstract novel and he had to stand in the window and play to the street because there wasn’t room for everyone inside, and then he’d tell us various writers were great because they didn’t give a fuck, and then he read some more which proved that the same writers actually did give quite a significant fuck about several things, and then some other blokes played guitar but we had to wait because they were in the pub so we told each other what we were reading and then Carl Barat, I’ve told you about him, turned up and he played guitar and everyone cheered and then we went to the pub. No, no, there wasn’t anything to drink in the art gallery.’
‘…Oh,’ said my mother, ‘you went to a happening.’
I suppose I did. There’s no clearer way of describing what went down in Theatreland’s shoebox-sized Tenderpixel Gallery. For an hour before doors the queue snaked along a drizzly and damp Cecil Court – a fantastically bijou Victorian remnant full of bookshops and antique emporia – drawing curious glances from shoppers and shopkeepers. I’d stake my reputation on the bet that everyone’s here for Carl Barat. Pity the dude who strode the length of the queue determinedly handing out postcards for a private view, before asking what the purpose of the queue was. ‘Do you mean to say I’ve given these out to musos, not art-lovers?’ he lamented, watching several get used for roaching material or impromptu shelter from the rain.
Had he been talking to me and not the impossibly glamorous girls behind me, I could have pointed out the irony of his agony, what with Kieran Leonard’s Pages in Plectrums night being basically an attempt to blend music, art and literature. The gallery’s tiny space featured a windowledge as makeshift stage, scattered with dog-eared copies of Improving Tracts. As many of us squashed inside as could fit, with about half as many again left outside to peer through the window like Dickensian urchins. Kieran takes to the stage, looking fretful. An organiser hauls half the PA system to the doorway and turns it to the street. A voice from the back: ‘It’s like the Beatles!’
I’m never sure what to make of Dylan-bothering beanpole Leonard, the latest in a long line of Friends of Carlos. In the current cultural climate I’m loath to criticise someone so obviously well-intentioned and good-natured and who knows one cover of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas from the other. So, to be charitable, here is a list of things Kieran Leonard is better at than singing:
1. being a compere, albeit in the manner of a trendy English teacher getting the guitar out on the last day of term
2. keeping people entertained while the rest of the bill is reportedly in the pub
3. being the only other person in the world to rate Tarantula
4. earnest rants studded with nervy swearing
5. making sudden eye contact from under his eyelashes to EMPHASISE the IMPORTANT parts of his SONGS
And here is a list of things Kieran Leonard is worse at than singing:
1. white-water rafting (I’m guessing here, and stand to be corrected).
He talks about Harold Pinter, then he does a song about Harold Pinter. Cans of Red Stripe are passed among the organisers. My lips twitch.
A voice from the back: ‘Is he here yet?’
Kieran looks troubled: ‘D’you want to give him a call? I think he’s in the pub.’
And another thing about daytime dry gigs: there are children in the crowd. Real actual children. There are children who look like cartoons of children: gap-toothed Gavroches in Converse, talking of that time they saw the Specials support the Horrors and repeatedly droning the wrong words to ‘Gangsters’. I glance around me. No, there’s still no bar.
Thankfully, we are at this point graced with the presence of Drew McConnell, Peter Doherty’s erstwhile Babyshambles lieutenant and more recently anchor of the Phoenix Drive and Helsinki. He’s solo tonight, bearing an alarming resemblance to Zammo from Grange Hill and a disarmingly sweet stage presence. His couple of songs, one new and one a Fionn Regan cover, slip down well and are a welcome reminder that in terms of Meaning It trumping vocal talent, Dylan is still the exception not the rule.
A voice from the back: ‘Carl’s here! …oh, no, okay. He’s just getting some soup.’
Third up is Mark Morris. At first I wasn’t sure why that name should strike such dread into my heart, but as he clambered on ‘stage’ it all, like a hideous acid reflux, came rushing back: the Bluetones. The mid-Nineties. The horror, the horror. I suppose if Tim Burgess couldn’t make it, someone has to play the desiccated indie casualty still smearing around the lukewarm shite of their Britpop glory days. They haven’t changed a bit. According to Kieran, much of the Bluetones back catalogue drew inspiration from the relationship between Byron and Shelley. Odd, as the only line I could previously recall of their oeuvre ran When I am sad and weary, when all my hope is gone / I walk around my house and think of you with nothing on, and even that was an Adrian Mitchell rip-off. See also ‘dull’, ‘plodding’, ‘quavery’, ‘utterly wet and a weed’, and ‘the reason I became a Sex Pistols fan at the age of twelve.’
Before fucking off, Morris nods to the upcoming attraction: ‘Can never pronounce his second name, but you know Carl – the hat, the hair…’
A voice from the back: ‘He’s not wearing a hat tonight!’ A visible ripple of anticipation. ‘Ooooh.’
Kieran’s back and he gets us to précis Oedipus Rex – ‘Greek tragedy, yeah, that’s some fucked-up shit’ – before doing the best song of his I’ve so far heard, setting the tragedy’s narrative in the contemporary London club scene. More flashbacks to lower-Sixth English class.
As the ‘stage’ is prepared for El Barat’s grand entrance, I think about The Sixties redux. There are inherent problems with the sort of unexamined ancestor-worship that gets Dylan to number one with his most mediocre album in decades, to say nothing of its choking-off of many aspects of progressive politics. Sure, this country’s headlong dash back into the maw of the 1980s in political and economic terms calls for a cultural renewal based around civil rights, feminist, anti-racist and youth activism, but, with the exception of Love Music Hate Racism firebrand McConnell, this evening was more Sixties-chic. The fusion of music, art and literature worked, but it doesn’t make up for the music in question being well-meaning-white-boys-by-numbers, nor for the readings being the usual roll-call of dead white modernist males – Eliot, Hemingway, Pinter. The currently pressing issues of racism and wider politics were engaged with only through the prism of readings from Thompson and Dylan and by Leonard’s (like the man himself, well-meaning and tolerable if you grit your teeth) cover of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’. I suppose it’s not a bad start, but blinkers and boundaries need to dissolve if Pages in Plectrums is to be anything other than a contribution to the Scene That Celebrates Itself.
A voice from the back: ‘Wahey!’
And then Carl’s here, and my attendant privileges (white, Western, in London, employed) mean that I can stop chin-stroking for a while and start putting my hands together. Polishing off a full glass of Guinness, he kicks off with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. For the first verse, there is not a dry seat in the house. And then you’re struck anew by the fact that, Christ, the man can mumble. The misjudged nature of this cover becomes apparent when he fucks up the line that has the title in, rolls his eyes heavenwards and peels the written chords off the back of his guitar, shaking his head and muttering about only having done that as a favour. He tosses his hair back and, to the biggest – actually, the only – roar of approval all evening, he throws himself headlong into ‘What a Waster’. The song provides an accidentally apt showcase for the Libertines’ golden touch with cultural references, having that line that juxtaposes the Beano and the unabridged Ulysses (or, as Carl has it tonight, with perfect impromptu scansion, the Celestine Prophecies). Just as I’m marvelling at how a musician of Carl’s status can be unfamiliar with the Cohen canon, he reminds me that he’s also got the technological understanding of an elderly maiden aunt: glancing around at the forest of handheld cameras and videophones before him and looking baffled as ever at his own charisma, he exclaims ‘Stop Youtubing me!’.
On the set’s very brief evidence, it’s difficult to tell if he’s still got it, but this is at least nothing like the dark days of his ‘DJ’ and ‘club night’ wheelings-out. He’s in good voice, holding his guitar like a long-lost lover, and remains the only man in the world capable of giving a convincing rendition of the ‘Time For Heroes’ solo. It’s also telling that Carl’s giving up on Cohen and launching into his own intricately expletive-strewn missive gets the best reception, perhaps elevating the need to do it for yourself over the contrived sincerity of paying homage to the old masters. Though his inability to fake it for the space of a song does make me fear for his acting career.
Back in the speed-addled, black-eyelinered days of my early adolescence, the NME had bite, balls, and brio. And it still had nothing on Melody Maker. Every Wednesday lunchtime saw me, lower lip bitten with anticipation, heading into town to snag the latest issue of each; our newsagent stocked all of three copies, and I never found out who, if anyone, bought the others. For me and others like me – small-town, provincial or suburban kids beyond the pale of London’s bright lights, with mass internet access as yet untapped, gazing wide-eyed on stories of the gig-circuit – the weekly music press served as a channel of cultural discovery and as the cool older brother we didn’t have.
So scalpel-sharp was music journalism at that time that I can still recall features, reviews and even some lines from them, both the building up and the demolition jobs. Taylor Parkes skewering the Cult of Richey with a cutting You don’t deal with depression by making it the focal point of your personality – you have to rage against it, perpetually. Neil Kulkarni’s still-astonishing wrecking-ball swing at Kula Shaker and the post-Oasis consensus (Crucially, retro-accusations are less important than pointing out how deadly dull the bulk of this LP is, in a way that only true scumcunt hippies can be: “K” … shits itself in fear of the future (1973) and stinks of living death) which at the time made for what felt like genuinely revolutionary reading.
And yes, it was fucking political. NME’s former editor Neil Spencer claims the pre-Britpop music press treated music as part of a wider oppositional culture in which the angry and intelligent political consciousness of bands like S*M*A*S*H and Asian Dub Foundation was considered an asset rather than an embarrassment. Encompassing the world beyond music, as well as music beyond the mainstream, the NME and MM took on fascism, racism, sexism, Morrissey, Thatcher and Blair. More sophisticated than the sledgehammer sludge of many more overtly political publications, a certain left-wing sensibility shone through the best of their writing like sunlight through stained glass.
But, as every Libertines fan knows, the best things never last. Whereas Spencer blames IPC for the NME’s political castration, the decline and fall of Melody Maker has been generally attributed to its enforcing of what Parkes and Kulkarni identified as a ‘kid’s taste’ PR-led consensus and its aimless chasing of a demographic which already had Smash Hits. The latter half of the Nineties, with its rapid turnover of scenes and genres, saw the paper hitch its wagon to a succession of shortlived stars, including Nu-Metal and, notoriously and prematurely, RoMo, before its last-gasp glossification and eventual merger with NME.
The gulf between then and now is perhaps most apparent in the NME’s current attitude to the industry and its failure to adequately define itself against a cultural mainstream. Whereas Kulkarni trained his sights on mainstream radio and MTV as peddlers of the creativity-crushing Kids Consensus, the NME now revels in unholy commercial alliances, sponsorships and tie-in deals. The dangers inherent in this trend were exemplified in 2005 by the controversy over its Top 50 albums list. The ensuing furore both dealt a blow to what little of NME’s credibility remained, and proved that the paper had fallen prey to a system largely built on mutual backscratching where, yes, there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones.
The NME’s present incarnation – a dishwater-dull industry cum-rag with an editor who resembles a spoon in a suit – is of course merely reflective of a more widespread erosion of choice and illusion of independence which currently infects most aspects of culture and politics. The music industry in particular will always aspire to Johnny Rotten’s vision of ‘a bloated old vampire’, and nothing has filed down its fangs so much as the relocation of sharing, discussion and critical analysis of music to online publications, networks and forums. As for the NME, appearing in its pages these days is akin to standing on a moonlit Transylvanian balcony in a billowing nightdress bellowing ‘Come and get me, Vlad!’; you’ll be drained dry and thrown aside for something juicier within weeks. Hope lies in the blogs.
I never had especially high hopes for Dirty Pretty Things, and not just because they chose to operate with a bassist called Didz. Carl Barat’s self-destructive and self-fulfilling pessimism seemed to make their dragged-out demise inevitable. The man is essentially a throwback to a half-confected, distinctly pre-Sixties matinee-idol world of crypto-chauvinist chivalry and genuine honour, dignity and class, any product of which could never find mass acceptance or acclaim in a triple-distilled popular culture where pantomime, melodrama and public humiliation are painted as gritty reality, angst and authenticity are faked or appropriated wholesale, and the self-assurance of slick and cynical ironic posturing carries more weight and gets you further than this band’s faltering steps towards emotional sincerity. When did you last hear a song as guilelessly earnest and heartfelt as ‘This Is Where the Truth Begins’? If you don’t cringe, you’ll cry.
For a man out of time, engaged in a culture war where your side can only hope to go down fighting and where snarling gets you nothing but praise for how pretty your mouth is, the best you can hope for is a shrug and a smile. Much of Carl’s work post-Libertines has been you know how I feel out of place until I’m levered off my face writ large. ‘Bloodthirsty Bastards’ and the frankly astonishing ‘Buzzards and Crows’ transcend what begins as myopic scenester-baiting to make a stab at expressing universal and eternal human tragedy. Their protagonists are cornered, boxed-in, trapped, disgusted and despairing, Up The Bracket’s swaggering urban sprawl reduced to spying on cities through cracks in the floor. (Carl dedicated ‘Gin and Milk’ to longstanding fans last night. You have to wonder.)
Their second album gave up the fight in its opening song, its narrator abandoned face-up to the vultures, and then slumped into halfhearted crowd-pleasing fluff (‘Come Closer’, ‘Plastic Hearts’) or half-articulate railing (‘Kicks or Consumption’, ‘Best Face’), picking itself up only for the quietly embittered, finally accusative closure of ‘Blood on my Shoes’. By this point my feelings on the band had come almost full circle. Their first UK gig left me with an aftertaste of baffled disappointment at a frustratingly lacklustre affair, Carl’s head-hanging and the band’s general insubstantialness overshadowing their tightness and competency. They lacked entirely any hoped-for spark, that moment of connection which makes you glad you’ve made the effort. Their second tour saw them switch stasis for spontaneity, with unpredictable setlists and endearing interband dynamics, and subsequent gigs in Oxford, London, Sheffield, Cambridge, Paris and Edinburgh led me through unqualified adoration to a comfortable, affectionate familiarity, with a side-order of horror at the encroaching tides of industry imperatives that made the band at times little more than a soggy, sorry exercise in marketing and money-making. Study and work aside, it’s been a year or so since I felt compelled to go chasing round the country in search of some definitive, catalytic bangbangrocknroll glory-story that seems to have proved as illusory for them as for us.
And so we arrived at The Last Hurrah, a diminished hardcore of provincial girl veterans, reminded of better times and absent friends. A half-full thousand-capacity club in the bowels of the metropolis, plastered with aftershow posters that dripped with desperation. A solitary tout outside in the cold. The stage ungarnished except for a Union flag. The sound periodically fucking up. An ending fitting for the start?
Their songs are full of endings, of course, each delivered in an angry and bittersweet manner that rendered them equally apposite, from the bleakly resigned (they all followed me down here / to the story’s sorry end) to the grimly dignified (I know when I should leave in disgrace) to what passes for optimistic (here’s to tomorrow and the lonely streets we’ll roam / but if we don’t leave now we’ll find ourselves with no way home). With them providing the closing credits to their own biopic, there was little else fitting to do but join in.
The last ‘So…’. The last obnoxious oi-oi intro to ‘Playboys’. The last what would it take for me to be your man? The last digging out the deadwood, the last post on the trumpet and the last words: yeah yeah yeah. Carl is still breathtakingly beautiful. No Pete, god rest his musical soul, no Libertines songs and no special guests to speak of, just all the boys together. A final defeated bow, arms linked. No hope of hope and glory, but one of their better gigs, and one I’m glad I made the effort for. I know the essentials of what this band gave me: a friendship group imbued with the same spirit of adventure, defiance and recklessness, the same last-gang-in-town camaraderie as the songs we paid and travelled and shared all we had to sing along to. They gave me catharsis and connection. I can only give them the credit that appears to elude them even now.