The Kids Are Not Necessarily Alright
Or how the ’70s has seen a limp-wristed sell-out of the ideals of the 60s. MICK FARREN discusses the way the Uncle Toms of Teendom have taken Rock off the streets and into the penthouse.
WHEN YOU spend a great deal of your waking time hard up against the outpourings of the rock and roll industry, it gets difficult to believe that the music we’ve all grown up with is actually drifting away from the mainstream of everyday life.
Unfortunately, if you do step far enough back to get modern rock trends into perspective with the general movements in society at large, the suggestion that contemporary boogie is fast becoming somewhat irrelevant cannot be ignored.
Admittedly there’s plenty of music about. There’s more rock and roll coming out of radio than at any time since the golden age of the pirate stations. There are certainly more live bands on the road than ever before, and although there is a temporary slump in record sales, this is no way indicates that the actual playing of records has at all diminished.
It’s not that, as Don McLean used to whine at us, the music’s died.
There is little danger of rock and roll imminently shuffling off this mortal coil. The real problem that could maybe do with a morsel of examination is the way in which rock has, over the last couple of years, come in off the street and cocooned itself in a cosy escapist world all of its own.
It has always been possible to trace the history of just about any period by listening to its music. The last great era of economic insecurity, the ’30’s was documented at almost every level.
Woody Guthrie left behind a vast and detailed panorama of the American working class during the depression, Cole Porter produced a series of brittle insights into the urbanites’ fear and cynicism, while in Europe, Brecht and Weill mapped the entire spectrum of class conflict.
The World War II period was a marked exception. As with most other media, popular music was forced into a soft propaganda role and reduced to the level of tinsel and sentimentalism. The music of the post war period, however, immediately settled down to mirror the conflicts that were being bred in the crushing paternalism of the Eisenhower/McCarthy/Churchill/Eden era.
In many respects the musical underground, which spanned such diverse artists as Charlie Parker, Hank Ballard and even Hank Williams, paralleled the moves that were being made by Kerouac and Mailer in the same way that Steinbeck and Fitzgerald paralleled Guthrie and Porter.
This divergence in different sections of society eventually exploded into rock and roll, and music became a symbolic spearhead in the generation conflict that surfaced with the primal rockers.
Chuck Berry, Cochran, Buddy Holly and writing teams like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller placed the emerging music firmly on the street and created songs that were a complete statement of the day-to-day highs and frustrations of that generation.
Despite the machinations of hustlers like Dick Clarke or Tom Parker, who tried to smooth it with a harmless, apple pie, candy coating, the energetic, gut level thread of rock and roll gathered momentum as it shifted into the ’60s.
The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Dylan all catalogued, and at times even predicted the behaviour changes in a restless and often renegade core of the kids of the sixties. All of them came to success straight from the street and brought street language, street mannerisms and raw energy with them and injected it straight and undiluted into their music.
For a period of seven or eight years all these artists were able to write very directly as part of their generation. They were leaders, but it took no conscious effort. They were a part of what was going on and it seemed as if there was no way that they could do anything but become spokesman for their peers.
In the same way, The Who and The Small Faces totally summed up the amphetamine aggression of the mods. The Animals were an extension of the rough, tough, rather purist attitude of the northern industrial punks, and The Beach Boys built a whole musical style around the cultism that was the first stirrings of California craziness.
When drugs and global upheaval hit in the middle of the decade, rock and roll was there with artists who represented just above every shade of opinion for that confused time.
The Grateful Dead offered good time, falling-down-stoned, funky hippyism. Jim Morrison came through with sexual gothic, Jefferson Airplane cornered the market with fuzzy psychedelic romanticism. The MC5 embodied the street corner, speed freak rebel and the Stooges made a killing in delinquent vandalism.
Rock was, for a time, the sole language of white youth revolt, and more than any other art form, it recorded the successes and failures of that particularly convoluted piece of rebellion.
It was a time when even soul music broke out of its purely sexual terms of reference to begin to state the pride and anger that was dominating urban black consciousness.
Then the ’60s slid into the ’70s, and things began to change. Where rock stars would once chatter about drugs or Vietnam or Chairman Mao or imminent downfall of capitalism, the outside world suddenly became just altogether too unfashionable.
The revolution ground to a halt, a few incautious militants went to the slammers, and not much more than a year after the Kent State killings, decadence was the new thing, or so they told us.
That was the major change. Instead of the rock star reflecting what was going down on the street, he began to attempt to dictate it in advance.
The mods had wrestled fashion out of the clutches of the haute couture house and set it down among high energy grass roots. At the start of the seventies, a spurious rock and roll high society was trying to put it back into Blake’s Hotel and the International Hyatt House. We were witnessing a limp wristed sell-out.
For a while the surreal, spangled Alice Cooper spectacle had its attraction, but it quickly became revealed that the Cooper ethic had much more to do with dollars than with dada.
Next came Bowie and the rest of the glitter crew. The commentators started to talk about how the new generation was experimenting with its innate bisexuality.
But was it?
Were there as many kids getting into ambidextrous sex as there were dropping psychedelics in ’67? On analysis it would seem not. Max Factor didn’t bring out a single brand of male eyeshadow. Was this really a great leap forward for liberation from the genital role, or was it just a bunch of creatively bankrupt rockers falling back on an elaborate drag routine to cover up that they didn’t actually know what was happening?
Of course, just because the world passes an arbitrary ten year mark, and we start writing a seven after the nine on our cheques instead of six, it doesn’t follow that all the idols of the previous decade turned back into pumpkins.
Most are still around in force. A few died, and a few more ran scared to God, Krishna, Vishnu, L. Ron Hubbard or fat Maharaj Ji. Some went crazy. The majority simply matured to the point where they realised they were no longer delinquent rockers, but grown up super-stars. They started to write about where they were living.
Dylan recounted his confused attempts to have kids and raise a wife, Lennon ranted about simplistic politics, primal scream therapy and breaking up being hard to do, while Lou Reed kept us up to date with the saga of where the junkies go in the wintertime.
Some of this may have been fine stuff. It is good to know what’s going on in that rarefied world, but it didn’t have much to do with everyday life.
Even when a punk fantasy was served up neatly packaged by, say, the Stones or Faces, it still had the air of vision carefully observed while peeking from the window of a penthouse suite.
So what of the new crop of punks? There really don’t seem to be too many. Is it possible to look to Showaddywaddy, Mud or the Rubettes for a picture of the new generation? There seems to be little going on there except a revamping of stylistic quirks of the ’50s, which, if these people’s press releases are to be believed, most of them are too young to remember first hand.
The alternative to the Top Of The Pops regulars seems to be either Ferry or maybe Feelgood, but once again we have to face the fact that both of them are primarily engaged in recherché stylistic jokes.
Given a choice between Ferry and the far less talented Brian Eno, it would appear that Eno is maybe closer to his tiny minority of ambiguous crazies than Ferry is to his new improved lost generation.
Even when the recording scene drifts into a sterile phase, you can usually hope to spot some measure of salvation in the bands working live. At present that seems to be denied us. From ELP to Hawkwind the prime function of most big touring draws seems to be to produce exactly the right noise for a particular section of public taste to bathe in when they’re wasted.
It’s a laudable endeavour, but hardly communication on anything but the most simplistic level.
So what does that leave us? A choice of Hello or Bruce Springsteen.
It is an unpleasant fact that if Hello and their like are representative of the ’70s youth culture, then God have mercy on our souls. Sure, they’re young, they’re very pretty, but as far as one can see, they’re a manipulated product who know their place and don’t talk back. With all respect, they do come on with all the flair and dash of Julie Andrews and give the impression that the ’70s have produced a generation of teenage Uncle Toms.
Bruce Springsteen, on first examination, is a much more plausible candidate for new wave punkhood. What makes him a little suspect is the way his imagery is an amalgam of previous archetypes drawn from a range of classics that encompasses Herbert Selby, Bill Burroughs, James Dean and, of course Dylan.
It could be that the only drawback with Springsteen is that he is labouring under too much pressure, exerted either by himself or by the commercial interests around him, to confirm to his “new Dylan” role. In fact his Fourth Street revisited pose is no more spurious than the young Dylan playing at Woody Guthrie.
The real proof of whether Springsteen can cut it or not is in the response of the younger kids. If they wrap their little legs around his New Jersey waist in sensational ecstasy, the way our lot did with Dylan, then all is well. If not, then he will be relegated to just another nostalgic put-on for the Blonde On Blonde Memorial Society.
The very last ray of hope in this whole depressing examination is that maybe there is the MC5 of ’76 working out in a church hall somewhere. A cursory look round only revealed that nobody’s working out anything anywhere. The youth of the nation just doesn’t seem to be starting up bands with the alacrity and blind determination that they had a few years ago.
There could be a mass of reasons for this. One is economic. Whereas once it was possible to equip a modest band with one fast HP shuffle, a glance round the guitar stores makes it look as though you now need the solid backing of a well founded merchant bank to put a band on the road.
Another answer might be the progressive relaxation in the sexual climate. A lot of established rock stars have cited some kind of sexual inadequacy as the reason they originally took up playing. Pete Townshend is a prime example. He has always admitted that he found his nose so brutally unattractive that he felt the need to seek safety behind a guitar.
It could be that in these liberal times the kids no longer have that kind of traumatic motivation.
Another, much more serious, reason for the lack of new talent could be the current structure of the music industry. There are times when it really appears that over the last ten years we have produced a new strain of executive fat cat who is just as conservative as the old Tin Pan Alley breed who did their best to stop the flood of creativity during the early ’60s.
What once were maverick outfits have turned into big money operations with the big money reluctance to trust their technology and finance to a bunch of raw, ignorant punks from out of nowhere.
Of course, this is all speculation.
Before you pick up your pen to complain, gentle reader, look back over the first half of the ’70s and see if you can define a solid, on-going thread in rock and roll that somehow syncs in with the broad stream of social attitudes. See one? No, me neither.
Neither, for that matter, did the scarf-toting kids I talked to outside QPR’s ground at Loftus Road – football, after all, being the real crowd puller. They were 15 and 14 respectively. Two ten-years-on mutations of what mods once were. Fast talking and sharp, they made it perfectly clear that music was no great force in their lives. Their prime motivation was football.
Sure they consumed music. They bought records, and owned something to play them on, but music was purely incidental. They followed no trends, could listen to The Tymes or Gary Glitter with equal enthusiasm.
Their idea of a good album was a K-Tel hits collection because you got a lot of good stuff for your money. They obtained most of their information from Top Of The Pops and the radio. They liked to have music around, but it was less important than Bruce Lee or Birds.
Is this the younger generation?
It was certainly two of them. It is hard to say whether they were typical. The thing to remember, dear readers, is that we are hardly typical. We go to the trouble of reading a music paper. That shows a devotion over and above the call of duty. Most record buyers don’t.
It could be that rock and roll is sliding out of the pre-eminent position it has enjoyed for so long. It could be that the world is simply waiting for something new to appear, born from the waves like Aphrodite. If the latter’s the case it is one hell of a long time coming.
© Mick Farren, 1975