Sunday 5 December 2010

Ramble On

A big question about the 70s is “was the period up to late 1975 part of the same artistic, social or political era as the period post 75?” If the answer is “no” then it undermines the whole idea of a Decade as a meaningful construct [which, I suspect we all knew it wasn’t anyway]. In asking the question one is also simply replacing one artificial division of time with another of course. Is the question worth asking as a way of provoking thought about the sorts of things that were happening? Arguably, I’d suggest.

It seems [subjectively and in retrospect] that there was a consensus that social mobility was possible through education and that educational opportunity was equally distributed. I took my eleven plus [in 1976] passed and went to a boys Grammar School and was expected by that school to take A-levels and go to University with the sons of Doctors, Teachers, MPs, single parents and unemployed parents who were my peers. Ultimately, of course, by the end of the seventies there was a strong sense because of high levels of unemployment and the apparent probability that we would all die in a nuclear holocaust, that there was really no point pursuing any form of “betterment” save for the short-term merits of personal artistic expression.

Carl’s essay on Martin gave me pause to wonder how the British sense of frontier was expressed in the 70s. The archetypal liminal figure of the American frontier is of course the cowboy / sheriff / cavalry officer. This dramatic space is variously replaced by Space [more dead end than “final frontier” ] the afterlife [ zombies, vampires, ghosts etc] and it’s treading very much on Carl’s territory to venture that the peaking of social mobility in Britain in the mid 70s is reflected in the way that Class might be the British Frontier.

It intrigues me therefore the wonder why when such American concerns as The Wild West, Space Exploration, the Mafia seemed so readily transferrable and why, when the myth of transcending social boundaries is evident in the representation of sport, why is there so little apparent transferability from American to British sport.

Nowhere is the class frontier so potently embodied in sporting culture as the popularity of Welsh Rugby Union in the seventies. Essentially this was class war -Wales v England in the annual Five Nations Championship was The Miners from the Valley v the Public School toffs. Every right thinking English person supported Wales. Max Boyce was the mythmeister in chief. However, reviewing prominent players - Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams, The Pontypool Front Row's- biographies on Wikipedia and expecting that they were all secretly posh [Williams, for instance was a practising surgeon whilst playing in the then "Amateur" team] - It turns out that, by and large, they were all actually fairly authentically from the mining valleys.

This may say much about why American sport never caught on, because no easy transformative myth can be attached to it. Football manages to be international in this sense as the story of Brazilian street kid endures [again with some validity]. American Blues music by contrast to sport exploited and exported this trajectory beautifully and perhaps this gives us a clue. Basically, British musicians and fans bought into the stories of the poor delta blues singer making good because they were fundamentally untroubled by the skin colour of the protagonist. Anybody could see that Pele was black, but somehow he wasn’t once he became the world’s best footballer. Nobody seemed much to cared either that West Indian cricketers were black, because again class affiliations trump more superficial differences.

In American sport particularly baseball and Am Football these issues were just too difficult to cope with in the sense of the American media feeling empowered to sell American Sport through this message. Did white Americans in the 70s embrace Mohammed Ali in the way the British did?

Not to say of course that British sports media weren't complicated in this way, getting themselves into a right pickle about Apartheid and unable to engage effectively with it's own non-white or non-posh sports personalities whilst working itself into a lather about the meagre attainments of, for instance James Hunt whilst relatively neglecting the mighty Barry Sheen

Returning then, to our original premise...

To look at the album releases from any year in the early 70s is to be absolutely staggered by the quality of the output globally, week on week. Can't help but feel there's been a rapid decline to match the decrease in social mobility.

It’s hard to tell whether my subjective feeling that the pre-1975 era was something completely different from the post 1975 era is based on my age – events in the latter part of the decade feel like part of my life, stuff from the earlier period seldom does- or has some objective existence that can be supported by tangible artefacts. Radioactivity is one such artefact.

United in my Brother-in-Law’s [not Carl btw] record collection in my late 70’s first-ever encounter with a proper Hi-Fi were Straight Shooter [see below], Autobahn and ELO's Face the Music. There were a lot more besides, but these were the three that I listened to whilst babysitting that night.

Why these three? Well, it wasn’t 1975 – I would guess it was about 79 – so ELO had become much bigger- I was aware of them. I didn’t have a clue who Kraftwerk or Bad Company were, but their albums had appealingly big, simple, symmetrical designs. I felt very comfortable with Autobahn, having previously mostly been exposed to Classics for Pleasure Beethoven Symphonies at my Nanas’ house.

Had the Kraftwerk album been Radioactivity then I would have been able to remark on the curious coincidence that all three albums were released within a month of each other [ish]. There’s probably a lot interesting to say about ELO, but for the time being I’ll settle for the further coincidence that, according to Wikipedia,

"Fire On High" contains a backwards message in the beginning. When the song is played backwards, the message voiced by drummer Bev Bevan can be heard stating, "The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back."

Twaddle, of course, but perhaps in some ways a summary of where aspects of the American – British – European cultural/political/social axis could be located and expressed through these three albums.

One of the things that may have compelled musicians on both sides of the epochal watershed to adopt occultist tropes was the need to position themselves as liminal figures, able to transcend the physical and spiritual world.

Zeppelin,as has been noted, were "well into that stuff " [Check out Page's fantasy sequences in "The Song Remains the Same" if you fance a laugh]. Physical Graffiti [also 1975]– recorded in a manor house to give Swan-Song stablemates Bad Company access to a proper studio- has little competition, particularly in In My Time of Dying and Kashmir as the most monolithically and mystically massive creation of the rock era. It is the apotheosis of the blues/ rock project.

It was always a fundamentally nostalgic project, this blues based stuff though. It’s creators were always looking backwards whilst stomping onward. This is what pioneers often do, becoming more entrenched in the rituals of the old country whilst advancing the frontier in the "New World."

Kraftwerk on the other hand were looking forward and moving forward but at an uneven pace. The contrast between the euphoric galactic onrush of Kometenmelodie II and the haunted static of Radioland couldn’t be more pronounced. But if you were propelling yourself forward to the edge of the universe, you might occasionally pause to explore the wreck of an abandoned space station. And if you want to know what that sounds like Radio-activity has the answers.

So is 1975 the point at which the Anglo-American and European projects diverge? Look at the Graph

No comments: