Sunday, February 12, 2012

Racism & Retrograde Politics In British Rock

We Americans tend to privilege our understanding of the birth and spread of the multi-faceted phenomenon of pop music that has come to be labeled "rock". From rock and roll and rhythm and blues in the 1950's through hip-hop over the past quarter century, since these phenomena started here, we tend to speak and think their histories in American terms, with American referents. Central to the narrative is the role these musics played in the cultural acceptance of African-American within the American mainstream, as part of the larger demand for political and social rights for African-Americans in this country.

What of other countries? The primary partner in the creation of this music has been Great Britain. In the 1950's, Bill Haley & The Comets toured Britain, playing to sell-out crowds around the country (a young Graham Nash would meet Bill Haley by the stage door in his home city of Manchester, a moment that would change his life forever). Their song, "Rock Around The Clock", became the title of a film that sparked riots among a group of youths called Teddy Boys in Britain. When independent labels, particularly Chess And Checkers Records from Chicago started exporting records by performers like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, British youths like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards snatched them up.

The history of British pop and rock, separate from the overall history of rock, would be an interesting study, to say the least. Matters of race and class being very different there than here, the interplay among these, the music, youth culture, and British politics should be studied very carefully.

Three incidents, all from the 1970's, highlight, I think, the differences between what too many commentators (I'm thinking, in particular, of Ed Ward, Simon Frith, and other historians of popular music) have glossed over as unimportant or irrelevant.

In 1976, David Bowie gave an extensive interview to Cameron Crowe. Crowe managed to publish three stories, two in Rolling Stone, and one in Playboy magazine. The last one has become infamous, for very good reasons.
I'd love to enter politics. I will one day. I'd adore to be Prime Minister. And, yes, I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that's hanging foul in the air at the moment of a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over as fast as possible. People have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership. A liberal wastes time saying, "Well, now, what ideas have you got?" Show them what to do, for God's sake. If you don't, nothing will get done. I can't stand people just hanging about. Television is the most fascist, too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.
In the years since, Bowie has not only apologized, but completely renounced any affiliation with any reactionary politics. He even married African-born supermodel Iman. Fueled by massive amounts of cocaine, he may very well have just been spouting off nonsense. All the same, one cannot unfuck oneself, as the saying goes.

Also in 1976, Eric Clapton said some things that sparked a whole movement. Against what he was saying.
t was 5 August 1976 and Eric Clapton was drunk, angry and on stage at the Birmingham Odeon. 'Enoch was right,' he told the audience, 'I think we should send them all back.' Britain was, he complained, in danger of becoming 'a black colony' and a vote for controversial Tory politician Enoch Powell whom he described as a prophet was needed to 'keep Britain white'.
For those who may not know, here's an infamous speech by Powell from 1968, showing him at his "prophetic" best. Unlike Bowie, Clapton has never apologized for these remarks. While one can, perhaps, consider his subsequent life and career - including his current residency in Antigua - as mitigating any negative judgment upon the man, I would beg to differ for a number of reasons, to which I'll return in a moment.

In 1979, on tour with Bonnie Bramlett, Elvis Costello said, well, I'll just let you read it for yourself.
Bramlett stayed to chat up Costello, a volatile performer whose rising musical reputation has been accompanied by erratic behavior and hostility toward both fans and press. "Someone asked him what he thought of the old guys, like Buddy Holly," reports one eyewitness. Costello replied with an obscenity. "What about Elvis Presley?" Costello snapped another obscenity. "Then he said American people are second-class white people, compared to first-class English people."

Bramlett, a longtime paladin of rhythm-and-blues whose backup bands once included heavies like Leon Russell, Duane Allman and Rita Coolidge, kept cool until, she says, Costello "called James Brown a jive-ass nigger." Next, according to an onlooker, "Bonnie said, 'All right, you son of a bitch, what do you think of Ray Charles?' He said, 'Screw Ray Charles, he's nothing but a blind nigger.'
To be fair (a bit, anyway), Costello did apologize, insisting he was not at all a racist. Indeed, he was active in the British Rock Against Racism movement, which formed initially in response to Clapton's outburst in Birmingham, but also due to an increasing appropriation of punk among racist skinheads (not to mention Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux, among other punk performers, sporting swastikas).

The history of popular music in Britain, running on its separate path from its American counterpart, responded to different political, social, and cultural events and cues. The music itself developed along much different paths, and the musicians themselves, for all they were appropriating a music rooted in African-American life and history, came to the music largely ignorant of the subtle social and cultural cues in it. In the case of Clapton, in particular, it is difficult to unravel the many strands that connect his deep and very real love for the blues of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and B. B. King in particular from an outburst for which he has never provided an adequate explanation, let alone distanced himself. Personally, I believe this is because, while loving the blues and the performers who popularized it, Clapton doesn't understand the music in its original form. Instead, appropriating it from the standpoint of class rather than a mixture of race and class - something that, I believe, lies at the heart of the love for the blues among many British musicians - Clapton (and Jimmy Page and Richie Blackmore and John Mayall and Peter Green and Keith Richards and so many others) could hear the call of liberation within the music without getting it. It becomes easy, if you rip an art form like the blues out of any contextual space, to hear it as one thing, while it may be something else all together. It is one thing, indeed, to take in an art form and make it a part of your life, using it as a form of self-expression to which you believe you can relate; it is another thing altogether to do so without any understanding of all that went in to creating that art form in the first place.

Like the racist Oi! movement in Britain that combined punk and reggae and early ska, appropriating art forms without any grasp of what they are in their totality creates odd situations, to say the least.

The popular music that began in the United States in the 1950's and continues to spread around the world in all its varieties is, at its heart, a music of freedom. It always has been. Freedom from the strictures of parental control among adolescents. Freedom from the social and political barriers that oppress. When one lives out freedom, singing out for all the world to hear, "Ah wop bop a-loo-bop, a whop bam BOOM!", one has already undermined the structures that seek to keep you down.

Not understanding this basic reality, because one's own "set" - one's national and personal history; the cultural and social norms and rules within which one finds oneself - is alien in every conceivable way, one can interact with an art such as the one described above without understanding it for what it really is. In order to write a history of British pop and rock, I think it is necessary to get clear, from the outset, that at the deepest, most fundamental roots of the interchange among culture, society, and politics, the British never understood the music they were hearing. Which gave room for some seriously ugly incidents that demonstrate not only this misunderstanding, but the blemishes among otherwise talented and influential artists.

Virtual Tin Cup

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