Tuesday 21 December 2010
Whether or not one believes in the supernatural or paranormal aspects of magic, there is no doubt that magic is, in the words of Daniel O’Keefe, "real social action". If there is one aspect of magic that has always fascinated the social scientists that study it, it is the phenomenon of voodoo death. In the first half of the twentieth century, it became an object of almost obsessive study by the group of French sociologists of the Durkheim school, and the British anthropologists that were led by Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard. Whereas mana theory showed that human interaction can be deeply nourishing, perhaps even necessary for human health, voodoo death, which is a real phenomenon that has been observed on countless occasions, shows that human interaction can be toxic in and of itself.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of voodoo death is the rapidity with which it takes effect. When a member of a primitive tribe has the smouldering branch or chicken bone pointed at him by the witch doctor, the tribesman will die usually within a fortnight, and often within a couple of days. Ultimately, voodoo death is socially induced death - the man has been found breaking a tribal taboo, and the witch doctor condemns him to death on behalf of the rest of the tribe. Although the actual physical cause of death is still somewhat a mystery, the psychological mechanism of death is an attack by the super-ego, the component of the mind that Freud identified as ideally containing the parental and societal influences needed to compel the ego into controlling the unruly urgings of the id. In reality, the super-ego often works as what Christopher Lasch called "society’s agent in the mind", and this is especially so in modern societies where parental authority has given way to dissipated bureaucratic and corporate structures whose exigencies are disparate and often contradictory. In such circumstances, the super-ego, rather than functioning as the severe but measured moderator we know as "conscience", often takes a harsh and punitive form.
Mostly nowadays we individually experience the super-ego as a minor but persistent nuisance. It’s the voice in our heads that tells us we’re bad if we haven’t done an important task, or done it to a lower standard than we know we’re capable of. It also likes to throw up embarrassing or guilty memories, forcing to us to close our eyes and curse in order to send them away. The phrase "I could die from embarrassment" contains more than a germ of truth - the super-ego that punishes us for social misdemeanors is perfectly capable of killing us (or encouraging us to kill ourselves) under the right circumstances.
The politics of class are probably the area of greatest concentration of magic in modern society. Ultimately it can be said that class is magic. Perhaps the most urgent purpose of any ruling class is to cast binding spells on the lower orders, to force super-ego pressure downwards on those below. I would speculate that one sure definition of class is that the lower down the class structure you are, the more thoroughly you are bound by limiting magic, by the more firmly you have convinced yourself of what you are capable and incapable of doing. Ruling class magic is enhanced in its power by a number of tricks and props, the most important being:
* The symbolism and arcana of authority
* A clear, portentous, priestly manner of speaking, involving the incantatory repetition of key phrases ("there is no alternative", "we’re all in this together" etc.)
* Euphemistic and obfuscatory in-group terminology, expressly designed to preserve the magic of authority from coming under detailed scrutiny.
* Terrifyingly convoluted etiquette intended to focus enormous super-ego pressure on the uninitiated
Margaret Thatcher was particularly masterful at the rites of ruling class magic. Her haughty tones, so redolent of the priest (that modern descendent of the witchdoctor) always make me think that she should have started her speeches with the phrase "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…". Her mastery of this kind of performance is probably the basis of her reputation for competence, which her short-sighted economic programme would belie.
For all the ramifications of economic relations, it is important to note that the class system is ultimately maintained by magical ritual and symbolism, by what Wittgenstein called an "agreement to agree". Essentially we all agree to agree which class we belong to, and to the social relations that result from membership of that class. Whatever privileges or cultural cringes we inherit from this agreement we accept ontologically, as "natural facts". Ultimately however, for all its pretense of sophistication, this is really an old compact that goes far, far back into the primitive realms of witchdoctor-magic, from which contemporary magic is descended, and which has evolved far less than most of us would like to believe.
Monday 20 December 2010
Anyone with an interest in the 70s will no doubt find themselves obliged to read books on the era. At the moment there’s a glut of them, the most recent and heftiest being Dominic Sandbrook’s “State of Emergency” which focuses on but two years (at woeful length) and largely seems to be an attempt to justify the ways of Heath to man or perhaps even less nobly, restore the reputation of Enoch Powell on the basis that he was a monetarist prophet without honour and therefore an unacknowledged force-for-good. Enoch must be alright, he paved the way for Thatcherism!
Effectively “State” feels like a synthesis of two vastly superior books on the seventies Alwyn Turner's “Crisis, What Crisis?” and Andy Beckett’s “When the lights went out”. It probably feels like this because that’s exactly what it is. Reading the three books in rapid succession it will strike home quite forcefully just how derivative of the other two author’s work Sandbrook’s is. Turner gets the occasional nod in the main body of Sandbrook’s book but he has the audacity not only to plagiarise Beckett but then suggest that Beckett’s take on the Seventies as a time “when the lights went out” is the kind of clichéd conventional wisdom about the Seventies that should be overturned.
If he’s getting it wrong stop nicking his stuff then you cheeky cunt! Is the obvious response, which as a humble blogger, I can make with impunity.
AHHH. Yeah. I love blogger impunity. Sandbrook, you’re wasting my time and money you thieving, lazy, Tory dullard! Will I be reading the second volume? Ho-ho! Whadayathink?
An additional and important contrast between Beckett’s and Sandbrook’s books, and one that makes his “correction” of Beckett even more grating, is that hoary old trope about Making History Come Alive. Sandbrook’s Seventies are a tedious museum piece compared to Beckett’s for a number of reasons, firstly because the Seventies seem to be important enough to Beckett for him to get out and do a bit of wandering around and wondering aloud, interviewing key people and asking pointed questions about the nature of and direction of the time, whereas with Sandbrook’s book you feel he’s basically racing against a deadline cutting and pasting other people’s work in furiously. There seems to have been a deep investment of time and thought in one, a sense that the Seventies matters and matters on a personal level as opposed to a maniacal, impersonal ploughing on through the post war decades ( Sandbrook’s already done the Fifties and Sixties) to keep your publisher happy on the other.
Secondly and most significantly, what’s both haunting and Hauntological about Beckett’s book, and the real sense in which it makes history “come alive” is its own aliveness to and quiet insistence on the possibility that it may all have gone some other way. Beckett’s book isn’t a “counterfactual” in the normal sense but it invites the reader into all kinds of speculations and reflections on alternate paths out of the Seventies: dusty inevitabilities are broken open into moments seething with latent possibility and as a result the text itself is ghosted by a whole series of alternate and parallel histories. In this sense Beckett’s work is packed with political energy, is “inspirational” not because it’s directly polemical but because it enlists the reader’s imagination, because it believes that there was and always is an alternative and that history is shaped both by chance and by the judgment and commitment of social agents at all levels. It’s a superb work of anti-Realism in other words, and as such, irrespective of the fact that it’s a book on the Seventies it is certainly a key book of our increasingly fractious times.
Saturday 18 December 2010
Interesting the amount of mileage they get out of the idea that even The Queen will have to complete a census form (I expect the Queen Mum filled it out with a betting shop pen) but then these were the days when the Royal Family still had a totemistic, cap touching appeal to the majority of the public who watched the telly.
I'd like to see the results of the work of the army with light blue satchels when it's finally made public but, sadly, I'll be dead. What I do know is that 2 year 11 month old Paul lived at 79 St Andrews Avenue, Colchester, Essex with his bricklayer father, Keith (25) and his factory worker mother, Vicky (23).
Although the Seventies saw the rise of J.G. Ballard as the bête noire of British fiction, they also saw a revival in the fortunes of a previous enfant terrible of the literary world. Colin Wilson, a working-class autodidact from Leicester, had risen meteorically in the 1950’s as the author of "The Outsider", a biographical examination of the visionary impulse within Western art, and had fallen just as quickly, as a series of highly public sexual escapades and a realisation that some of his ideas were deeply idiosyncratic saw him being dropped by the gatekeepers of Hampstead literary life like a hot pentacle.
Wilson’s response to personal and professional ridicule throughout the 1960’s was to release a torrent of work, both factual and fictional, encompassing biography, philosophy, detective fiction and science fiction. Voluminously well-read, he enlisted the ideas of such varied thinkers as Bergson, Nietzsche, Husserl, Jung and Abraham Maslow to support his central idea; a kind of anti-existentialism that posited that reality is what we experience in "peak moments" of involuntary visionary wonder, rather than the listless banality that we experience in our daily lives. Although this idea has a long history in Eastern mysticism and Christian esotericism, Wilson went further in speculating that the task of human consciousness was not to mediate and interpret reality, but to narrow and compress it, to block out rather than gather in.
Following the social ructions at the end of the 1960’s, the Seventies, perhaps not coincidentally, saw an explosion of what we would now call Fortean phenomena: UFO sightings and abductions, poltergeist hauntings, appearances of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. In 1971, Wilson published "The Occult", which fortuitously coincided with this deluge of psychic arcana, and revived interest in his work, but perhaps the strangest and most perplexing adventure he became involved in was documented in the book he co-authored with "cryptozoologist" Ted Holiday, "The Goblin Universe".
Holiday was convinced that the Loch Ness Monster, along with other denizens of what he called "the phantom menagerie" such as the Yeti, the mystery big cats of the English home counties and extra-terrestrials, were not real creatures, but what he called "thoughtforms" - manifestations of the human collective unconscious that have a tendency to form when certain highly charged locations are visited by highly sensitive individuals. Holiday, who claimed to have seen Nessie on several occasions, regarded these manifestations as being irretrievably evil, the product of the more grotesque aspect of whatever unknown power organises the universe.
In 1973, in what Wilson considered to be a dangerously reckless move, Holiday enlisted a Presbyterian priest by the name of Donald Omand to accompany him out onto the water to exorcise the loch. Although the exorcism passed off without apparent incident, within a few days Holiday and his accomplices were to encounter a bewildering array of bizarre phenomena, including mysterious flashing lights, and sudden tornados that would shake the walls of their homes before abating in seconds. Holiday himself would come across one of the notorious "men in black" while attempting to investigate an alleged UFO landing site. It was to be a fateful meeting - he would suffer a heart attack at exactly the same spot a year later. As a keen student of Jung, he himself would observe: "Synchonicity and the forces that control it never give up".
In an unusual postscript, in 1983 The Police would record this song, which would seem to have a curious resonance with Holiday’s account. Any literal connection would be impossible though - Holiday completed his manuscript just before his death from a second heart attack in 1979, and the book itself wasn’t published until 1986, meaning that at the time the song was written no-one other than Holiday’s mother and Wilson would have known his full story.
Some of you were barely alive in the 1970s.
Some of you would have been in nappies, and in nappies in the late Seventies.
Speaking as someone who turned seven half way through 1970, let me tell you what the British Seventies were really about.
Pretty much every decade since the Seventies, there's been this whole "comedy's the new rock'n'roll" palaver. But in the Seventies, comedy really did give rock'n'roll a close run for its money.
Monty Python's Flying Circus was like the Beatles.
It spawned an entire industry of spin-offs, cash-ins, solo careers, imitations.
There were books.
Paralleling the boom in TV comedy books was a thriving market for collections by humorists and satirists, many of them spinning off Punch magazine (which I bought every week between the ages of 10 and 12).
Disappointed not to be able to find an image for Willie Rushton's Super Pig, his guide for male chauvinists spoof on a pop-feminist best-seller of the era called SuperWoman.
Then there was Private Eye's micro-industry of books...
American humor books is a whole other area I'm not qualified to comment on
Books of cartoons, that's a separate topic really. Giles's annual collection distended Christmas stockings across the nation, but he's not a particularly 1970s figure, although you can imagine the conflicts, crises, foibles and national humiliations of the day provided plenty of fodder for him.
Back to British comedy: the big TV series spun off records. Just as me and my brothers aquired all the Python-related books, Python-spin-off-related books, and Python-imitator-related books (i.e. Goodies) at the top of this post,so too did we own all of the following:
I didn't own the following ground-breakingly obscene platters, but a few years after they came out, I had friends who'd got hold of them, sometimes through their older brothers.
The whole realm of records made by the big up stand-up comics of the time, vaguely edgy seeming and coming out of folk clubs in some cases--Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrot--was not something I was into particularly.
And then there was National Lampoon. Mostly known in the UK for the frat-boy retro-comedy Animal House and perhaps for the winsome and innocuous Vacation movies starring Chevy Chase, this was a satirical magazine initially (some of the people involved went on to do Spinal Tap), that quickly spun off into records and stage shows (some of the people involved went on to Saturday Night Live). For all I know there were National Lampoon related books too.
As a teenager I managed to track down a single issue of the magazine, in some kind of specialist store in London.
But this album wound up in the local record store in Berkhamsted. My brother bought it in a sale they had of records damaged in a flood. I can almost picture the stain on the cover, the ripples in the cardboard caused by its drying out.
This one came out of a stage show, a satire of Woodstock and the squalor of rock festivals. I recently picked it up for $2 but I have yet to play it.
But American comedy records, that's a whole other mega-zone in itself that I'm not equipped to discuss. There's people who talk about the life-changing impact of Richard Pryor's albums for instance.
Of course comedy records existed before the Seventies... My parents had records by Tom Lehrer (singing what for their time were blackly humorous songs) and Pete Sellers (Songs For Swingin' Sellers, produced by George Martin I believe), as well as a couple of episodes of Hancock's Half Hour in vinyl form. There were recordings of the The Goon Show , albums of Woody Allen doing stand-up, etc etc
Still, as I recall comedy LPs were a big part of Seventies British adolescence.
An obvious point to make is that before the age of the VCR and video rental stores, the only way to get a permanent and replayable document of your fave cult comedy show was to buy the records. Most of the early Python records consisted not of new material but of the most beloved sketches from the TV show, rerecorded in the studio, without the interruption of studio audience laughter, which drowned out some of the best lines. Replayable is the key point: you listened over and over, until you knew every line and every inflection by heart.
Thursday 16 December 2010
Deciding not to repeat What's Going On's success by recycling its subject matter, Gaye moved from The Waste Land to Eliot's dictum of: "Birth, copulation and death. That's all the facts when you get to brass tacks." Let's Get It On was a manifesto of sorts, but not as clear-cut as the liner notes suggested. Gaye was plagued by sexual neurosis, reputedly a result of his harsh fundamentalist upringing. Compared to the previous album, God is barely mentioned. This is a hymn to the body, where faith in its pleasures nevertheless remain open to question. The desperate fear of rejection is of course a common motif in soul ("please!"), but the album still aims to seduce. Along with soul, Gaye foregrounds his roots in doo-wop, arguably the prettiest of post-war pop genres, that seductive crossroads between blues, gospel, soul, rock'n'roll and the Great American Songbook crooners that Gaye longed to join (he eventually did, posthumously). Yet as with his other songs of the period, background harmonies were provided by Gaye himself. Without the camraderie of doo-wop's backing singers, it leaves his serenades sounding all the more anxious: Scared that if I close my eyes/When I get ready to wake up/I might find you gone. Desire on the verge of splintering into duality and doubt, widening the gulf between serenader and his object of seduction, but paradoxically creating more intimacy with the listener. This is also the case with its more cavernous and fragmented follow-up I Want You. For all of Let's Get It On's erotic charge as the 'luurve' album par excellence, there's an overwhelming sense of absence to it.
Now it's too late to live and love and it's too late baby
It's too late for you and me, much too late for you to cry
Ohhh it's much too late
Well, all we can do is, we can both try to be happy...
Wednesday 15 December 2010
“You know the Woodstock generation of the 1960s that were so full of themselves and conceited? None of those people could dance.”
"Disco seemed to arouse something like castration anxiety in rockers."
"It felt to us like Nazi book-burning. This is America, the home of jazz and rock and people were now afraid even to say the word 'disco'."
Tuesday 14 December 2010
The works of the contemporary historians of Baghdad are still available. They deeply deplored the degeneracy of the times in which they lived, emphasising particularly the indifference to religion, the increasing materialism, and the laxity of sexual morals. They lamented also the corruption of the officials of the government, and the fact that politicians always seemed to amass large fortunes while they were in office.
The historians commented bitterly on the extraordinary influence of popular singers over young people, resulting in a decline in sexual morality. The ‘pop’ singers of Baghdad accompanied their erotic songs on the lute, an instrument resembling the modern guitar. In the second half of the tenth century, as a result, much obscene sexual language came increasingly into use, such as would not have been tolerated in an earlier age. Several Khalifs issued orders banning ‘pop’ singers from the capital, but within a few years they always returned."
Sir John Glubb, "The Fate Of Empires"
Saturday 11 December 2010
Monday 6 December 2010
'"Ladies want to weaken us", a lay yogi told me. "They want our semen - they will not say so, but they will rob us of our only power."'
- Agehananda Bharati, "The Light At The Centre"
"It’s only the children of the fucking wealthy who tend to be good looking"
- The Stranglers, "Ugly"
The Stranglers are one of those bands who, if they hadn’t existed, would probably have to have been invented. Spectacularly malignant even by the standards of their day, their viscous, visceral sound provided the backdrop for the most fetid of lyrical concerns. If misogyny was a commonplace amongst 70’s rockers, with The Stranglers it was ontological. Indeed, to accuse The Stranglers of misogyny is much like accusing Liberace of kitsch.
However, it would be wrong to place The Stranglers in a continuum with what had come previously in the decade. With their debut album, 1977’s "Rattus Norvegicus", there was something very new in the way they portrayed men’s relationship to women. Rather than being cocks-of-the-walk in the Mick Jagger/Robert Plant mould, men are relentlessly portrayed as the weaker sex. Instead of having a whole lotta love, The Stranglers gape into the Mersey Tunnel equipped only with a sausage.
Flaccid and post-coital rather than priapic and anticipatory, the misogyny of The Stranglers was not that of the braggart who treats women like dirt, but of the sexual failure who is reduced to voyeurism and violence. Whereas The Rolling Stones could casually jettison ex-lovers as "Yesterday’s Papers", in "London Lady" it is Jean-Jacques Burnel who is raging about being used and discarded. Underlying all of "Rattus Norvegicus" is the tremendous melancholy born of impotence. "Goodbye Toulouse", "Princess Of The Streets" and "Hanging Around" take us through rain-washed streets and piss-stained alleys with their throngs of love-addicts. Hugh Cornwell is forever pushing his nose up against the window of the brothel and contemplating his next dose of humiliation, while Burnel’s bass rumbles around the back of your skull like a resentful memory.
"Peaches" takes us to the seaside for more heavy-duty ogling, but again there’s no contact, just deluded fantasising. "Ugly" is an extraordinary eruption of inchoate rage, Burnel seething that he can be sexually out-competed by an ugly old fart who happens to have money. The Stranglers understood too well the cord that connects sexual failure with violence.
Finally, The Stranglers take us to where all bodily fluids eventually end up. "Down In The Sewer" demonstrates why they identify so strongly with the rat, enough to make it their mascot. For The Stranglers, sexual desire turns men into rodents - inquisitive, instinctive vermin. Depicting the male sexual experience as one of envy, frustration and humiliation, "Rattus Norvegicus" is the most thorough demolition of masculine conceit ever recorded.
The follow-up "No More Heroes" album, released the same year, was even more combative, though focused more on settling scores with those, real or imagined, who had crossed them. It featured two remarkably offensive tracks that were both inspired by pornography. "School Mam" follows the example of the kind of imported magazines such as "Color Climax" in which the same group of models would perform the same implausible sexual scenario in a variety of mundane social settings. "Bring On The Nubiles", perhaps still a little bit too strong for daytime Radio 2, depicts an equally implausible pre-pubescent orgy, this time given extra brio by the juddering bass-line and Dave Greenfield’s whooping organ, which almost blows a gasket, like an orgasmatron going into meltdown. However, the pay-off line ("I’m high beneath my zip") once more undercuts the song with its revelation of voyeuristic fantasy.
The Stranglers could probably have flogged this attitude forever, but something very strange was happening to them. The first inkling of this was the b-side to the single of "No More Heroes". With "In The Shadows", The Stranglers bypassed 1978, and made the sonic leap straight into 1979. Featuring dub-spacey production, bass as lead instrument, guitars as scratchy ambient accompaniment, and keyboards as synth-alienation effect, they had effectively abstracted their sound, and leapt far in front of their peers.
This new space was explored further on 1978’s radical "Black And White" album, in which their sound was strung out even further. Lyrically too, their vision had expanded. Awash with dread, the songs on the album primarily addressed the Cold War, but also the alienation induced by technology, the relentlessness of time and the atomisation of the individual. Even the remaining misogyny became abstracted, mythical, in the bizarre quests of "Nice’n’Sleazy" and "Toiler On The Sea". As well as being spacious, it is also a remarkably physical record - only Gang Of Four’s later "Solid Gold" can match it for metallic muscularity. Burnel’s bass playing still invokes awe in it’s mechanical suppleness - like pipelines creaking at the bottom of the ocean, or heavy machinery changing gear. Dave Greenfield is a one-man Radiophonic Workshop, equally capable of beaming in sounds from Alpha Centauri or the massage parlour next door.
By the time contemporaries such as Joy Division and PiL had sonically caught up with them, The Stranglers had already moved on. Their last album of the Seventies, 1979’s "The Raven", although considered to be their last "heavy" album, in fact laid the template for the rest of their career (notwithstanding the occasional concept album about alien abduction). Tight, professional, thematically diverse and pop-orientated, it prepared the way for the gradual softening of their sound. The Stranglers would continue to produce great records well into the Eighties, but the days when the Earth would tremble beneath their feet would be long gone.
Sunday 5 December 2010
"Man is a machine. All his deeds, actions, words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, opinions, and habits are the result of external influences, external impressions. Out of himself a man cannot produce a single thought, a single action. Everything he says, does, thinks, feels - all this happens. Man cannot discover anything, invent anything. It all happens.
To establish this fact for oneself, to understand it, to be convinced of its truth, means getting rid of a thousand illusions about man, about his being creative and consciously organising his own life, and so on. There is nothing of this kind. Everything happens - popular movements, wars, revolutions, changes of government, all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as everything happens in the life of the individual man. Man is born, lives, dies, builds houses, writes books, not as he wants to, but as it happens. Everything happens. Man does not love, hate, desire - all this happens.
But no-one will ever believe you if you tell him he can do nothing. This is the most offensive and unpleasant thing you can tell people. It is particularly unpleasant and offensive because it is the truth, and nobody wants to know the truth."
- G.I. Gurdjieff
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