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How Music Became Pointless

August 20, 2014

Let’s start with some history. Following the end of the Second World War there was a huge desire for change throughout British society. This resulted in the creation of a kind of semi-socialist state, and as a result politics was woven into the lives of ordinary Britons far more thoroughly than had previously been the case. The government ran huge swathes of our industry on our behalf (in theory, at least) and millions of people were members of active, powerful trade unions. Whether they liked it or not, this locked them into the political process – not just at election time but on an almost daily basis. And those who weren’t in unions were conscious of the fact that it was possible for ordinary people to have a say in political processes, and that, at least to some extent, they were affected by the choices such people made. People had a voice – even if they used it to criticise the changes which had given it to them in the first place.

A few points need to be highlighted here. First, they had a voice not because they’d been given a platform to “mouth off”, but because their opinions had been structurally linked to the levers of power. That’s what having a voice really means; anything less than that is a sham. It is shouting into the void.

Secondly, once genuine substance is given to your views in one area this automatically (at least to some degree) raises the status of your opinions and values across the board. You gain increased significance not merely as a voter or union member, but as a person.

Thirdly, when I say ordinary life was more political I don’t mean that everyone went around avidly discussing Keynesian economics or the details of the latest budget statement. But British society had voted for a huge change in the way it was run, a change that affected almost every corner of people’s lives. It must’ve been hard not to be conscious of that at least to some degree. And my suggestion is that it coloured people’s attitudes in all sorts of subtle (and not so subtle) ways.

Finally, we shouldn’t get carried away. I’m not saying that the people ruled, or that any ordinary individual could single-handedly change things. But compared to how it had been before – and how it is today – there was an unmistakable move in that direction. Social engagement had been heightened through a shift in the basic political structures that underpinned people’s lives.

One side-effect of all this was to increase the perceived importance of popular forms of self-expression: novels, plays, films, TV, pop music, and so on. It simply made more sense given the new social conditions for ordinary people to consume and create them – and to use them as a way to criticise the world around them. Change was possible and therefore what you valued mattered. And when you expressed your values, that mattered as well. You can see this when you look at how pop music found its critical voice in the second half of the sixties. (NB: I’m using the term “pop” to include rock, dance music, etc.) People were forming bands because they had something to say and they expected to be taken seriously. And, to an astonishing degree, they were. How much real change did this bring about? It’s hard to say, but with hindsight probably hardly any. That, however, is not the point; at the time the hope did not seem completely unrealistic, and so it added a level of significance – of meaningfulness – to the task at hand.

This aura of significance attached itself to pop throughout the 70s and into the early 80s. Of course, by no means all pop was intended as a social statement. Most music still wanted nothing more than to entertain you for a few minutes. But if you had something critical to say, if you had a disaffection, then pop was a legitimate forum for expressing yourself. And this legitimacy was a function of the broader social standing of ordinary people in what became known as the “post-war consensus”. It was an adjunct to the political changes rolled out during the 40s and 50s. I don’t mean to imply, however, that all the disaffected music underwritten by these changes was itself overtly political. Some of it was, but much of it was concerned with the everyday challenges and frustrations of being young. Nonetheless, even this music in part drew its significance from the changes I’ve been talking about. Nobody would really call Jumpin’ Jack Flash or Barbara O’Reilly political songs, but their vibrancy still depended on the wider social structures within which they were created. Society had provided conditions in which they could resonate, and resonate they did.

You can see how far this was true by looking at the way the “establishment” responded to the new type of music. They grappled to understand it, they condescended to it, and at times they downright feared it. The sight of the police hounding John Lennon, The Rolling Stones and John Lydon is a much surer way of judging their music’s social significance than the fact that young people felt it might change the world. Can you imagine the police doing that to a rock act today? They’re far too busy infiltrating environmentalist groups to give a flying fuck about rock stars. And if you want another example, watch the interviews with local councillors in The Filth and the Fury where they discuss why they’ve banned the Anarchy tour. The fear in their eyes as they contemplate the prospect of the Pistols coming to their town is like something from another world. Again, it simply could not happen today.

The political structure affected the significance of producing music, and this in turn affected the music produced. Basically, if you’re working in an environment where you can bring about change then it’s natural enough for your music to be in some way progressive. I don’t use that word in its left-wing sense (“progressive taxation”, etc), but in the sense of being forward-looking (and here the right, too, has its vision of progress). Through its lyrical content, but also through its form, the music will be drawn to pushing boundaries, experimenting and generally being transgressive. There will, in other words, be an intense focus on making something new. It will try to say new things, develop new forms and incorporate new sounds. It is difficult to miss this aspect in the music of the 60s and 70s (and equally difficult to miss how it was an echo of the effort to create a new society after World War II). Psychedelia, prog, krautrock, dub, glam, heavy metal, disco, punk and post-punk; the aim was always to create something that wasn’t quite like anything you’d heard before. And that could be true even where the musical form borrowed heavily from the past; Bob Dylan, for example, produced self-consciously retro music (before he turned electric), but lyrically he was game-changingly original. Something similar could be said of The Rolling Stones, The Specials and The Jam. But a lot of the time the music was ground-breaking in terms of its form and its content. It’s difficult now to get across just how exciting it was to hear, say, Remain in Light for the first time. It was like the future had turned up today. You can’t say that about Elbow.

So the opportunity to create socially significant music led to an emphasis on innovation and daring, and this daring music was doubly intoxicating because it was (felt to be) socially significant. It was a recursive relationship. In my own case, “daring music” meant new wave and post-punk, or the music produced between 1978 and 1982 (ie, from when I was 13 to when I was 18). And it was a thrilling period. Virtually every week brought something strange and new. Pleasantly bewildered by Devo? Well, here’s John Cooper Clake. Not sure what to make of Hong Kong Garden? Well what about Love und Romance? The list of acts is near endless, but here’s a selection culled from my alcohol-decimated memory: The Buzzcocks, Wire, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the Jam, The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones, Theatre of Hate, The Damned, Squeeze, The Stranglers, Teardrop Explodes, Blondie, Echo & the Bunnymen, Human League, Heaven 17, Magazine, The Beat, Talking Heads, Wreckless Eric, The Specials, XTC, Soft Cell, The Tom Robinson Band, Selector, The Cure, Public Image Limited, The Fall, Scritti Politti, X-Ray Specs, Joy Division, The Monochrome Set, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Gang of Four, Alternative TV, the Mekons, Cabaret Voltaire, Crass, The Birthday Party, Dead Kennedys, Throbbing Gristle, A Certain Ratio, and so on and so on.

Here, of course, I’m wide open to the charge of viewing things through the rosy glow of nostalgia. Every generation is thrilled by the music of its youth, isn’t it? I’ve thought long and hard about this, and although it might be true to some extent I honestly don’t believe it accounts for everything. Not even close to everything, in fact. For a start, I’m not an idiot. I can tell the difference between music that I’m fond of for nostalgic reasons and stuff which has a deeper resonance. Moreover, I don’t simply think that all music from that period was great and all subsequent music is shit. A lot of the music of the late 70s/early 80s was poor (including some I adored at the time). And of course there is good music being made today; it’s not as if people suddenly forgot how to play. There are god knows how many talented bands/artists out there doing their utmost to produce music that amounts to more than a pleasant listen while you eat your tea. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not a question of talent, or even bravery. It’s a question of the underlying social conditions in which that music is made. And that’s the crucial point. Even as a fourteen year-old I could see that the music I was in to was part of something bigger. It was connected to a broader struggle over the values of society. Today I don’t think that’s true to anything like the same extent. Of course young people still care passionately about their music, but it’s much more like caring passionately about a football team than participating in a meaningful social discourse. The passion is genuine but inconsequential.

I’ve mentioned music as part of a cultural struggle and it’s important to note that there were two aspects to this. On the one hand, there was the hope of changing society at large. That was a genuine, but somewhat distant, aim; it more or less lurked in the background. More immediately, however, there was the hope of changing the music scene itself. That seemed far more obviously doable. (The connection between the two was the thought that if the music scene changed then, as a matter of course, society at large would change as well. This thought was completely wrong. In case you’re in any doubt, I’ll just mention that David Cameron’s favourite album is The Queen is Dead.) Here, then, we are dealing with the relationship between mainstream culture and the counter-culture, and pop’s attitude in this regard varied over time. In the 60s, for example, there was no clear distinction between the two. Sure, you had obscure groups like The Velvet Underground, known only to a select few, but the counter-culture also included The Beatles and The Jimi Hendrix Experience – and nobody could call them obscure. By the early 70s, however, the musical counter-culture had largely transformed itself into an underground scene. It was an alternative to the mainstream (more specifically, chart music) and wore its obscurity with pride. Pink Floyd, Genesis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra wouldn’t have been caught dead on Top of the Pops (not in 1973, at least). Spurning mainstream popularity earned these acts kudos with their fans but also created a rather sterile ghetto for themselves. They weren’t confronting the mainstream; they were hiding from it.

Other acts were less shy, however. In particular, the “art rock” wing of glam (basically, David Bowie, Roxy Music, T-Rex and Sparks) was more ambitious than its prog contemporaries. Those acts didn’t just want to be an alternative to the mainstream, they wanted to become the mainstream. They wanted their values, their opinions, their aesthetic to become the norm. And this sense of “storming the barricades” was eagerly taken up by punk. They released singles, they got into the charts, they appeared on Top of the Pops. This all added hugely to the exciting sense of danger which surrounded the movement. When Lydon sneered “We’re the future – your future” in God Save the Queen, it terrified the authorities because there was just a chance that he was right. He wasn’t, of course. Indeed, a more prophetic act would’ve been a group of middle-aged call-centre workers sneering “We’re the future – your future” at a bunch of punk rockers. That would’ve been far more terrifying, too.

For a while, though, it really looked as if the barricades were being stormed, as if things were changing. All sorts of weirdoes started to make the charts. Ian Dury got to number one (admittedly, just as he went off the boil). The Specials and the Jam did likewise. The Dead Kennedys charted with a song called Too Drunk to Fuck. Joy Division charted (admittedly, Ian Curtis had to kill himself to manage it). Laurie Anderson reached number two with a six minute poem about the US industrial-military complex sung over a single, looped breath. Dave Lee Travis was forced to play it on his Radio 1 daytime show! What joy it was in that dawn to be alive, and to be young was very heaven. We were winning.

And then it all went to shit.

Okay, so what the hell happened? Well, regarding the music industry itself, the money men finally started to catch up with the artists. Punk and its aftermath had caught them on the hop, but now they made up for lost time. Major record companies started setting up faux-indie labels, everything slowly drifted towards structured careers and increased commodification. What had once been a chaos of spontaneous creativity solidified into a check-list of increasingly self-conscious gestures and ploys. If you played this type of music then a label could get you into these venues. Your first album should sell this much and with carefully targeted marketing the second album (which would be better produced and slightly more commercial) would sell that much, allowing you to trade up to those venues, appear on this day of this festival (sponsored by Barclaycard), and so on. The whole thing started to run on rails. It was depressingly like a video game: Sim Indie.

Of course, such changes were just corollaries to broader developments in British society. That’s where the real action was. And bearing in mind my previous comments, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see what I’m talking about. After 1979, the post-war consensus which had leant vitality and significance to self-expression was brought crashing to an end. Throughout the 80s the public industries were privatised (and largely shipped overseas), and the unions were (literally) beaten into submission. Thus two great levers of democratic change were removed from the public’s grasp. The whole focus of social policy shifted decisively from public welfare to commercial viability. And the underlying message for ordinary people was clear enough: you have no voice, and even if you did who would you speak to? The government no longer runs things; it merely facilities the wishes of multinational corporations. You don’t even know who those people are and you certainly don’t get to vote them out – so shut up and buy!

The final twist of the knife probably came with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s. Soviet communism represented the possibility of an alternative rather than an attractive option in its own right. So long as it staggered ineptly on you couldn’t say that capitalism was the only game in town. At least one alternative could exist, and if that was true then why not more than one? Why not something better than Soviet communism? Significant change was at least an option, and that added a degree of urgency to the social discourse whatever type of change you were after and, indeed, whether you longed for change or dreaded it. But once the Soviet Union collapsed the whole question became moot. All you could expect now – and for the foreseeable future – was the same only more so. And that’s exactly what we got.

Inevitably, the grip of market-place values on our culture strengthened (a development neatly symbolised by the Thatcher Government’s insistence that users of the newly privatised rail system were “customers” rather than “passengers”). At first it seemed faintly ridiculous – a childish game played with words. But it was backed up by all sorts of substantive measures allowing the market to intrude upon and control our lives. Thatcher wasn’t just indulging in a right-wing version of political correctness; rail users really had become customers, because that’s how they were treated by the people who owned and ran the railways. And gradually this subtly different way of looking at things became the air we breathe – so much so that today it’s difficult for anyone under the age of 40 to grasp the significance of what’s happened because they’ve never known anything else. Multinational corporations sponsor rock bands? Of course they do! What’s the harm in that? I don’t see what you’re getting at….

All this, of course, was the increased commodification that I’ve already mentioned. But it went hand in hand with another pernicious feature: the atomisation of society. Again, Thatcher summed things up with typical directness: there’s no such thing as society, only individuals and families. At the time we lefties thought she was just indulging in right-wing propaganda, but in a sense she was merely expressing the logical outcome of a world dominated by commercial enterprise. It is a vision of life brilliantly summed up by Ned Beatty’s character in Network:

There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and sub-atomic and galactic structure of things today.

And what of individuals in such a world? Their only voice is their money. What they do is only important in a commercial sense. They are customers, consumers; the one significant way in which they help shape the world around them is by purchasing this rather than that. The content of what they buy is totally unimportant; each item is merely a variable on a spreadsheet, whether it’s a pair of Nike trainers or a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. That is the power dynamic between the individual and the state in such circumstances. And, as a result, the relation between the individual and what he or she buys becomes predominantly a matter of entertainment. All other significance is stripped away until the only question about the things you own is: how much pleasure do they provide? Outside of work and raising fresh consumers, life becomes one long, dreary, infantile matter of having fun.

Again, we shouldn’t get carried away here. The above is an extreme vision rather than an accurate picture of where we are now. But I think the world has moved unmistakably in that direction over the last 35 years, and its corresponding effect on rock music has been hard to miss. Specifically, it’s involved an increasing break up of the market into a plethora of niches. Some of them are massive, some of them are tiny, but they all represent a profit opportunity, and that’s the main thing. If you’re sexy, female and a bit odd, there’s a huge market waiting for you; but don’t worry if you’re an ugly bunch of angry malcontents – they can still turn a profit from that. In 1977 the music industry didn’t know what the hell to do with the Sex Pistols. Today there’s a pre-prepared slot waiting for you no matter how outlandish your product is. As a result, of course, the old idea of taking over the mainstream has become otiose. There is no mainstream anymore, and so there’s no counter-culture either – just a massive range of ghettos. Forty years ago we all watched the same TV programmes and listened to the same chart music. Even if you hated it, you couldn’t really avoid it. Today we have satellite TV, TiVo boxes, a different digital radio station to suit each taste, iTunes, iPhones, iPods, iPads, Spotify, YouTube, and all the rest. This sounds like a great advance (that’s certainly how it’s sold to us) and in some ways it is, but the end result is that we’re each of us alone in our own little sonic universe. And, frankly, there’s something downright creepy about a society in which it doesn’t matter if most of the people around me value things I consider abhorrent because at the flick of a switch I can completely blot them out. The fact that I value x rather than y used to be important because it unavoidably brought me into conflict with people who valued y rather than x. I had to contend with their views and they had to contend with mine. Today who cares? It’s all just a series of consumer choices, and why should what I put in my supermarket trolley be something that bothers you? We have become musical solipsists. We don’t have to listen to anything we don’t want to, and so what we choose to listen to doesn’t matter a damn. It’s about momentary amusement and nothing more.

You can see all this in the shift of attitude towards rebelliousness over the last few decades. Once it was feared by the authorities and cherished by those with a grudge against society. Today it is sold to us as a life-style option. The reason for this change is obvious: in a society where people have a genuine connection with political power, youthful rebellion is potentially a dangerous force. But once that connection has been broken it becomes merely a form of amusement – a brute urge that can be packaged, priced and sold, just like everything else. As such it is actually beneficial to the status quo; it helps keep us distracted and fosters the illusion that we’re not helpless victims. The “man” doesn’t own me, because when I’m not doing my fifty hours a week I listen to an illegal download of Nine Inch Nails (praise be to Virgin Media!). In all forms of advertising and popular entertainment we are relentlessly urged to be mavericks (my own personal favourite in this regard being John Deed, the maverick High Court judge), to stand out from the crowd, to avoid being one of the “sheeple”. Or, to put it another way, to be isolated, inconsequential and impotent. In this respect, the function of alternative music (as part of our broader culture) is eerily similar to that of religion in the 19th Century. It is, as Marx said about religion, “the heart of a heartless world”.

Of course, people aren’t stupid. They grasp their position within society, and that the music they produce and consume cannot help but be tailored to (or created by) the environment as it stands. So, for example, the production of critical or rebellious music has become a self-conscious pose. The people who make it do their utmost to be sincere and radical, but they can’t quite take themselves seriously. They’re just dressing up and they know it. That also explains why their music tends to be so obsessed with (haunted by) the heroes of the past. They listen to stuff from the 60s and 70s and cannot help but notice how much more meaningful it seems (of course, they don’t look beyond the music itself to the times in which it was produced). Naturally, they want to manifest that level of significance in their own music, but no matter how hard they try they just end up with a skilful parody of the past. In a worst case scenario you get Jack White’s nerdy enslavement to outdated genres and recording techniques (or “authenticity” as it’s known).

Here it’s tempting to assume that the problem lies with the artists themselves. Somehow they lack that magical quality which turns a three-chord thump into art. If you go down that route then the artists of the past appear to be not just talented, interesting human beings but mythical creatures. They played the same chords and riffs as people today, yet somehow – through some kind of secret magic – they utterly transformed them. I’ll leave it to you to decide how far that’s become a common attitude. The truth, of course, has nothing to do with talent (or a lack thereof). Today’s artists fail because they’re trying to fly in a vacuum. They beat their wings and nothing happens. They suppose that if they could just beat them a bit harder they might take off. And they gaze with awe at the legends of the past (who had air beneath their wings) and wonder how the hell they managed it.

Given this, it’s not surprising that many artists prefer to shy away from rebellion or anything remotely political. Instead, they focus on relationships and personal feelings (the hope being that they’ll express themselves more honestly and insightfully than, say, Katie Perry or Blue). There’s nothing wrong with this approach per se – for obvious reasons it has always been a feature of the pop landscape. Unfortunately, however, it’s been stripped away from a context in which expression is socially meaningful. Within such a context it can provide a much-needed counterpoint to angry rants and leather-jacketed sneering. But outside of it the results are truly appalling: an endless stream of fey, wistful, bitter-sweet, melancholy, intentionally childish, folkie japing and whining. It is the sound of defeat, and it’s absolutely no coincidence that it works so brilliantly as a bed for TV adverts. (I can’t help suspecting that every time The Lumineers write a song they ask themselves “How advert-friendly is this tune?”)

One final point. There’ll doubtless be some who object that music is still very much a social venture. People turn up to gigs – especially festivals – in huge numbers, and the internet is awash with enthusiasts sharing and commenting on all kinds of music. And that, of course, is true. But it doesn’t increase music’s social significance one iota because, at the end of the day, it is part of the consumerist power dynamic rather than a challenge to it. Gig-going has become so thoroughly commodified that one might as well cut out the middle-man and hand the money straight over to Arthur Levinson. Small and medium-sized venues are struggling while glorified circus acts and flesh-and-blood nostalgia-trips pack out the O² Arena. The festival scene is particularly ironic in this respect, since it owes its existence to Woodstock and other “happenings” of the late-60s and early-70s. Now, in terms of actual music I’m not a huge fan of Woodstock – there sure was a lot of ropy old folk going on – but even so it’s impossible to ignore the sense of something important happening. Those people had a voice and they were using it. By contrast, modern-day Glastonbury merely offers the indulgent (and somewhat fascist) thrill of being part of a huge crowd – not being part of a crowd that’s out to achieve anything; just simply being in a crowd. That’s social, I suppose, but not in any meaningful way. Do you seriously believe that 135,000 people thought they were achieving something by watching Dolly Parton mime?

As for the internet, it certainly provides a platform for any old nitwit with an axe to grind (me, for example). But, so far as music is concerned, it doesn’t give anyone a voice. It cannot do that because there is no mechanism at the other end for converting opinion into social change. It’s like pulling on a brake lever when the cable’s been cut and thinking that if you just pulled harder the wheel might stop. Indeed, far from giving us a voice, in turns us into part of the marketing industry, for that is the net result of all the file-sharing, amateur reviews and liking stuff on YouTube: a few more units get sold. A few more units of a product that means nothing.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how music became pointless.

  1. I agree with most of this, and it’s nicely articulated. But I wonder about the relevance of Britain’s “semi-socialism”. Was music less important in the not socialist US (this is not a rhetorical question)? And what about the violent reaction to Ubu Roi in 1896? ( a riot broke out) Art mattered then, long before any kind of socialism.

    Then again, art in those days was for a class that did have power. And even in the US, the 1950s and 1960s were a time of relative economic equality and strong trades unions. So you might be right.

    I suspect your point about the Soviet Union showing that there could be other ways is more relevant. World War II showed that too: the world can be changed, for better or worse. Perhaps it looks that way to Islamists, but not to many other people today.

    • Hi Duncan – I didn’t touch much on the American experience, largely because I don’t know enough about what the culture was really like pre-Reagan (but the mere fact that Reagan was considered such a change is interesting in this context). As for the impact of the welfare state, there were gestures towards it pre-WWII, so I could be wrong about popular political involvement at that time (thinking about it, I probably am wrong). But it seems plain to me that the post-war changes were like an explosion whose after-shock didn’t completely die away until Thatcher came to power. That certainly matches my recollection of the 70s, at any rate.

      And you’re right: the riots over Ubu Roi and the Rite of Spring were a high-culture affair. By the 60s the focus had shifted strongly towards popular culture, and that in itself is significant, I think.

      • Yes, that sounds right.

      • Tommi Uschanov permalink

        I like this, all the more so as I’m currently writing my fourth book, which is largely about cultural change in the 1970s. And one of the things in which I’m especially interested is the so-called postwar consensus in Britain. (In fact I’m probably more interested in it than my readers in Finland would even like me to be.) But I have basically two comments to make at some length:


        “[…] in the sense of being forward-looking (and here the right, too, has its vision of progress).”

        In a sense, the “secret” of the postwar consensus was this: the progress being made was visibly so great that the very idea of separate left-wing and right-wing versions of progress, or separate youth and adult versions of progress, seemed for some decades merely eccentric. (After all, the political faces of the postwar consensus were not at any stage youth, but avuncular sexagenarians such as Clem Attlee, Harold Macmillan or Jim Callaghan.) It was only in the mid-1970s, when economic growth halted for the first time since World War II, that there emerged two or more competing candidates for what we might call the official self-image of society (Thatcherite, Bennite etc.) such that each account attracted support from more than a tiny minority.

        Because of this, I’m not convinced of the weight you put on things such as police harassment of rock stars. The Establishment was always of two minds about youth culture, because the postwar consensus suited its own purposes perfectly well as long as economic growth continued, and coming down too hard on youth culture would itself have risked the continuation of the consensus. Was Harold Wilson’s giving the Beatles the MBE the true face of authority, or was it his banning pirate radio? Was the Stones’ drug bust the true face of the Establishment, or was it a Times leading article by the old Tory William Rees-Mogg, attacking the same drug bust? Was it Jeremy Thorpe’s backstage photo op with Jimi Hendrix, or Mary Whitehouse trying to ban even kindergarten trivialities like Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling”? Surely both.

        One of my favourite pieces of music ever is Chris Barber’s “Battersea Rain Dance” from 1969, which I already discussed briefly on Duncan’s blog years ago:

        It strikes me as a perfect encapsulation of the high noon of the British postwar consensus at its forward-looking best. And it’s an instrumental, so there are no opportunities to get stuck in competing interpretations of the lyrics. Chris Barber: instigator of Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line”, the record that started British rock – early mentor to the Rolling Stones – founding director of the Marquee Club – someone who had Paul McCartney write a song for him on this same album. And yet: Chris Barber was a lifelong Tory, who willingly played many benefit gigs for his party. There is even a famous gag photo of him meeting Mrs. Thatcher to consult about one of these, with him playing trombone and an uncomfortable Thatcher pretending to play clarinet.

        What is so remarkable about the postwar consensus is not that the political left had a newfound voice, but that its opponents too were satisfied enough with their own life that the shaping of a truly loud dissenting voice was postponed seemingly indefinitely. Between roughly 1974 and 1979, this postponement came to an end, but only then. And part of the sense of shock was that this could happen at all, after thirty years of it being the mainstream, “official” view that this would basically never happen again.


        About Pink Floyd and Genesis not being “chart music” or “caught dead on Top of the Pops […] in 1973”. It actually depends on the chart. One of the most significant changes in the late 1960s was the bifurcation of youth music into pop, which was perceived as being singles-based (and whose measure of success was the singles chart) and rock, which was perceived as being album-based (and whose measure of success was the album chart). And in album-based music, it was precisely the progressive acts that ruled. For instance, Pink Floyd released seven albums during the 1970s, all of which peaked between No. 1 and No. 6 on the UK album chart.

        Furthermore, in terms of turnover, albums had already surpassed singles around 1965 or 1966 and become the “main” product of the record industry, with the once proud singles sidelined. So in terms of a yardstick for actual commercial success, singles-chart shows were already starting to become an anachronism by the 1970s. Not only were Genesis and Floyd just as high on their respective chart as the TOTP acts were on theirs, but a No. 1 album raked in far more cash than a No. 1 single. Commercially speaking, most of the TOTP teen pop acts, like Slade, Sweet or Mud, never had even one hit single as big as the Beatles and the Stones had had in the 1960s. They still went to No. 1 on the singles chart, but by that time you could manage this by selling far fewer singles than before.

        And while album-oriented rock acts did not appear on TOTP, they were of course falling over each other on the Whistle Test. Which was not exactly some kind of Cinderella; it often had the highest viewing figures of the week for any programme on BBC 2.

        Ironically, when Dave Lee Travis played Laurie Anderson and made you think you “were winning” (as you put it), this was largely misperception of the extent to which a hit single hinted at “mainstream popularity” anymore. By 1981, the singles market was dying on its feet compared to the 1950s and 1960s; singles sales were by now only about 1/4 of the record industry’s annual turnover. The joy of the “money men” over this freak No. 2 single was cancelled out by the accompanying album stalling at No. 29 on the album chart. That was a more accurate measure of Laurie Anderson’s place in what we might call the political economy of popular culture.

        Your parenthesis “(NB: I’m using the term ‘pop’ to include rock, dance music, etc.)” is inadvertently revealing. One of the most significant developments during that celebrated Hendrix-Woodstock-Velvet Underground turning point in the history of popular culture, was precisely the rise of an obstinate, inflexible ideological divide between pop and rock. Especially in the opinion leaders among consumers of popular culture. This had loosened somewhat by the time of your own post-punk youth, but in the late 1960s and almost all the way through the 1970s, it was not something that could be dismissed lightly.

  2. I don’t agree that music has become pointless, although I do agree that the music *industry* has become pointless. What we have today with computer recording and internet sharing is the punk ideal come to life – screw the industry, we don’t need them; everyone with a computer or even a tablet can create their own tracks to their heart’s content. Sure, most of them won’t be any good, but since when has that been a problem? Most 60s/70s/80s/90s music wasn’t any good either – the only difference now is that the rebels, for want of a better word, don’t have to play the game.

    What has become more difficult, I think, is to get your place on the gravy train. Of course, it was never easy, despite what TV talent shows would have you think, and it was even less easy if you sounded anything out of the ordinary. But those people, who have always been there but rarely noticed by the so-called “listening” public, are much more visible now that everyone is only a google search and a soundcloud account away.

    The social change these days is happening under the radar, but it’s still happening. Thanks to neoliberal ideology great swathes of the democratic public are now basically disenfranchised, and the grand movements of the 60s and 70s won’t come back again. And so it’s down to small groups and collectives ignoring as much of the consumerist trash as they can.

    You don’t have to look very hard to discover lots of vital music and people creating things in all sorts of genres and mixes of genres that the dying industry with its focus on branding and the short-sighted neo-liberal establishment will never get to grips with.

    Let’s not mourn music; let’s cheer the end of monopoly.

    • Hi Robin

      I think the idea that technological developments have helped create a vibrant underground scene is correct in one sense, but in another just an illusion. You’re certainly right that there’s a lot of music being made and consumed well away from the attention of the media (I’ve made some of it myself) – and it’s never been easier to do that. Some of this “under-the-radar” stuff is excellent (mine, for example), some of it is OK and some of it is awful – such has always been the case, as you say. And there’s no doubt about the enthusiasm with which it’s produced and shared. But the problem is that it doesn’t lead anywhere – in fact, it can’t lead anywhere, because it’s not connected to anything that would allow it to. Instead, it’s a myriad of hobbyists amusing each other and nothing more. For all the talent, dedication and sincerity with which it’s made it is no more subversive or socially significant than the latest single by Beyoncé.

      The more you disenfranchise people the less their cultural expressions matter. And from that point of view who cares if their forms of expression are controlled by monopolistic corporations or produced by a completely unregulated field of amateurs?

      At least, however, such people are doing what they can to keep alive the idea of music as something more than fun background noise. And it would be interesting to see what might happen if the power dynamic swung back towards ordinary people. Then it might be a genuinely progressive force.

  3. Tommi Uschanov permalink

    I would dispute, by the way, that 1896 was “before ANY kind of socialism”. It was before the emergence of a comprehensive welfare state on Beveridgean lines. But in terms of anti-socialists trying to pre-empt socialist revolution by giving in to socialism selectively, it was contrariwise the first truly golden age. Bismarck’s social reforms in Imperial Germany are often cited here, for instance. But even in Britain in 1887, a Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir William Harcourt, was able to declare in Parliament that “we are all socialists now”, meaning both Liberals and Tories. And conversely, Herbert Spencer’s “The Man versus the State” (1884) referred to socialism pejoratively as “the new Toryism”!

    In both cases, what was meant by “socialism” was simply state intervention in the economy as such. This was still such a new, revolutionary-seeming idea that those who accepted it were already “socialist” on that account. Of course this later became a ridiculously broad definition of “socialism”, reminiscent of the US Republicans of today. But what is remarkable is the number of both Liberals and Tories who did not shy away at the time from proudly calling themselves socialist, completely of their own accord. On the party political right and centre, the word itself was not in the least the kiss of death which it became later.

    Not too long ago, I wrote a piece of longform journalism which attempted as compact an explanation as possible, specially tailored to mystified liberal intellectuals from Europe, of the unpleasant sociopolitical change in the US from the 1960s to Reagan and beyond. It was fairly well received (speaking of chart success, it was the No. 1 ebook on Finnish iTunes for a while, and is still at No. 34 eight months on) – and it really grieves me now that it’s not in English, as you two would both find it quite illuminating, based on your comments here.

    • Yes, I’d like to read that.

    • Hi, Tommy – many thanks for your comments, and sorry it’s taken a while for me to reply.

      I pretty-much agree with your points on the post-war consensus, The establishment of the day was rather torn between flattering the new youth-culture and keeping a lid on it. And those are both aspects of the phenomenon I’m arguing for: they took it seriously because it was indirectly but structurally linked to power. And the stronger voice that that link provided was just as open to those on the right (like Chris Barber or Ian Curtis) as those on the left (take your pick). The Governments of that time (whether Labour or Tory) were both progressive and conservative – what they weren’t was neo-conservative. That began to change, of course, after the 1979 election.

      It’s interesting you should mention Chris Barber. He was one of my father’s all-time favourite artists, despite the fact that my father was a life-long socialist. Here’s a Barber track I especially enjoy – a storming version of Ellington’s Rockin’ in Rhythm, recorded in 1958.

      As for the underground scene of the early 70s, you’re right to point out that many of those acts were making money hand over fist. But their cultural impact was muted precisely because they were not – and had no intention of being – part of the mainstream. Unlike, say, Gary Glitter, I bet Roger Waters could nip down to Waitrose in 1972 without being mobbed. Groups like Pink Floyd were considered interesting curiosities on the fringe of things. That suited them fine, because (a) it left them free to do their own thing and (b) they were making shed-loads of money anyway.

      And although Whistle Test attracted healthy viewing figures for BBC2, you have to remember that the whole of BBC2 was a bit of an arty ghetto back then. When it was run by David Attenborough, he felt that if a programme got too many viewers then they must be doing something wrong! BBC2 was precisely the place for programmes that lacked broad appeal. And, from the point of view of your cultural profile, there was a world of difference between appearing on Whistle Test (Floyd only did that twice, btw – both pre-Dark Side of the Moon) and being on Top of the Pops. In 1974 it was perfectly possible to be a young person who’d never heard a Pink Floyd track in his life. It was MUCH harder to avoid Abba’s Waterloo.

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