Thursday 30 June 2011

Got Carter

It was Carter, not Reagan, who brought the religious right into national politics. Even though they turned against him later, Carter won the Southern evangelical vote in 1976 by advertising himself as a born-again Christian. Like Reagan later, Carter, the folksy farmer and veteran from Plains, Ga., appealed to the nostalgia of white Americans in the 1970s for a simpler, more rural, more traditional society.
Carter, not Reagan, pioneered the role of the fiscally conservative governor who runs against the mess in Washington, promising to shrink the bureaucracy and balance the budget. Early in his administration, Carter was praised by some on the right for his economic conservatism. Ronald Reagan even wrote a newspaper column titled "Give Carter a Chance." The most conservative Democrat in the White House since Grover Cleveland, Carter fought most of his battles with Democratic liberals, not Republican conservatives.
Carter, not Reagan, presided over the dismantling of the New Deal regulatory system in airlines, railroads and trucking. Intended to reduce inflation by reducing the costs of essential infrastructure to business, Carter's market-oriented reforms have backfired, producing constant bankruptcies and predatory hub-and-spoke monopolies in the airline industry, an oligopolistic private railroad industry that has abandoned passenger rail for freight, and underpaid, overworked truckers.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Well You Sure Don't Fuckin' Look Hip!

Was on the brink of doing a post on one of the key movies of the 70s (so key, I'm surprised it hasn't been done here already. It's lurked around a fair few other posts). However, I'll instead direct your attention to this excellent piece by Philip Matthews. If he's reading, can I make it clear that he'd be more than welcome as a contributor to these blogs? I attempted an invite, but can't seem to access his email with my senile computer.

Sunday 26 June 2011

The Belgians!

You see, this is what we're missing nowadays - serious silliness. Because there's a time when all the analysis must stop, and we must lose ourselves in play.

Friday 24 June 2011

Not The Blues, Man

I bet you didn't know there was a white Robert Johnson, did you? He was fugging brilliant. This record was the party-starter in Sheffield in the early nineties. No matter whose house we went to, the same scratched, tatty vinyl copy would magically appear, and, when the needle touched the groove, you knew it was only a matter of time before the furniture was burnt in the garden and firearms were discharged into the ceiling.

Show Me The Way

Does anyone know where I can get hold of some free, easy-to-use graphics software? I want to create a graph for classic-era Seventies rock acts in which the bottom axis will be "Contempt Levelled By Punks", and the left-hand axis will be "Actual Brilliance".

Peter Frampton will be in the very top right-hand corner.

Sunday 19 June 2011

SHUT UP!!!!!!

Of course, what really differentiates a Seventies blog from an Eighties or Nineties blog is that the former has to deal with social attitudes and assumptions, and therefore cultural products, that may have been worthy on their own terms, but totally unacceptable decades later.

The above song, which was a number one hit during the long hot summer of 1975, was performed by two regulars of the most popular World War II based comedy of the 1970's, written by "Dad's Army" writers David Croft and Jimmy Perry. Only it wasn't the rather lame and over-polite "Dad's Army" that they came from; it was from a much more prickly, class-conscious show. Alas, it was also a show in which the common racial stereotypes of the 1970's were upheld. That said, much of the rather treacley over-fondness that is now ladled over "Dad's Army" is partly due to a sense of guilt over the deliberate forgetfulness applied to "It Ain't Half Hot Mum".

The military is always a good medium to examine and ridicule class relations, and "It Ain't Half Hot Mum" was a more acidic dissection of the underlying tensions of British society than "Dad's Army". Like the latter programme, "It Ain't Half Hot Mum" offered a gallery of British class stereotypes - from blithering idiot upper class officers to the resentful members of the lower ranks, all held together by Windsor Davies' Sergeant Major Williams; the classic foreman, elevated from the working class to lord it over the rest of them, his small advance in rank provoking a torrent of gleefully malevolent abuse on those who were now below him.

Set on the Burma Front of 1945, Williams was forced to oversee an ENSA concert party full of female impersonators, intellectual Oxbridge-graduate musicians, and physically stunted tenor sopranos; all terrified of the Japanese and unanimous in their desire to escape Army life. Windsor Davies' Shut Up Williams was the most memorable character in the show, and indeed one of the great comic characters of the 1970's. The sheer physicality of Davies' perfomance was on a par with Leonard Rossiter's Rigsby in "Rising Damp"; both were minor-league bigots whose slight social advantage was turned into a gleefully malignant sense of schadenfreude.

Where "It Ain't Half Hot Mum" (rightly) falls foul of modern sensibilities is in its portrayal of the Indian manservants employed to keep the British soldiers' lives comfortable. Partly functioning as a kind of Greek chorus of comparative normality in observing the eccentricities of the British (especially the perceptive Punkah Wallah Rumzan), their role was rendered grotesque by Michael Bates' performance as Rangi Ram. Although raised in India and speaking fluent Hindi, Bates's grease-painted Bearer was too much of a caricature to withstand the soul-searching examination of racial attitudes that followed the urban riots of the 1980's. And of course the programme's racial outlook was much closer to that of the mid-1970's than to that of the war that had finished 25 years earlier, which had necessitated a much more pragmatic and respectful view of the cultures of the Indian frontier.

Simultaneously crass, brilliant and stupid, "It Ain't Half Hot Mum" is a classic example of the kind of priceless yet objectionable entertainment that the era threw up. There's a full episode below - make of it what you will.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Rhythm Of Cruelty

There are few more relentlessly tragic and depressing stories in the history of showbusiness than that of Lena Zavaroni. Born and raised in Rothesay, a town on the Western Isle of Bute in Scotland, and a star as soon as she entered her teens, she would die alone at the age of 35 in a council flat in Hoddesdon, a claimant of disability allowance, plagued with a neurological illness that defied all attempts at diagnosis and cure.

Zavaroni’s career began, ominously enough, when in 1973, at the age of ten years old, she won "Opportunity Knocks", the premium television talent show of the day, hosted by Hughie Green, a man who made the likes of Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh appear comparatively mild. Green was probably the most psychotic individual in the history of post-war British entertainment (and believe me, there’s some stiff competition there) after himself suffering a traumatised youth as a deeply reluctant child star. Green’s appeal largely consisted in professing his sincerity in the grotesque tones of an American huckster, an act that went down oddly well in an era before the emergence of irony as the dominant national sentiment. Unfortunately he was also something of a jinx, and spent his adult life both wittingly and unwittingly destroying all those around him.

The following year, Lena had her first top ten hit with "Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me", and was the youngest person to ever appear on Top Of The Pops. Over the next five years, her career as a wholesome light entertainer was spectacularly successful, with her own TV shows, international tours, and even an opportunity to sing before the US President, Gerald Ford. By 1977, having moved to London to join the Italia Conti stage school, she was estimated to be Scotland’s richest teenager.

In 1979 she spent her 16th birthday in Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital, complaining of stomach upset and listlessness, the early signs of the anorexia with which she would battle over the next two decades. Lena herself was convinced that her problems were neurological, and referred to the overall complex of symptoms, which also included agoraphobia and chronic depression, as "static". Throughout the 1980’s she would vacillate between futile attempts to restart her career, attempts to live a "normal" life (such as a short-lived marriage to a computer programmer) and inevitable regressions back into her illness. Numerous family tragedies, including the suicide of her mother, would also take their toll. Her rare television appearances were memorable chiefly for the shocking impact her appearance had on the audience, especially as her most appealing trait, her genuine sweetness, was all too apparent. Despite dogged efforts from herself and on the part of others to effect a cure, she died of pneumonia in 1999, having stated "I feel as though I’ve given away my soul, I don’t have it any more, I’m dead inside."

Ultimately what Lena Zavaroni lacked was what Wilhelm Reich called "character armour". For Reich, character armour was the tell-tale posturing and formation of the body that a person accumulated over their life both to protect themselves from external emotional threats and the expression of culturally inappropriate internal desires. Reich considered all character armouring to be psychologically unhealthy - the distorted signature of repression. For him, Western culture created an excessive amount of armouring from the moment a baby left the comfort of the womb to the alien hands of the nurse and the sealed isolation of the incubator, and it was Reich’s (often physically) shocking approach to the breaking of his patients’ armour that would lead to his disastrous encounters with the authorities.

However, in a culture as impersonal and hard-driving as that of the West, to be one of the few who is without such armour can make one extremely vulnerable indeed. For Zavaroni, who claimed never to have seen traffic lights or escalators before visiting London, full exposure to the insistent demands of an entertainment world that was in itself evolving into an ever-slicker, ever-crueller spectacle was unbearable. Lena Zavaroni, like Karen Carpenter, was an anachronism, their careers flowering at a time when showbusiness could still pretend to support such tender blooms. Nowadays such an illusion can no longer be maintained.

All dying civilisations have their theatres of cruelty, and ours is the media matrix of digital radio, satellite television and the internet. Celebrities are the gladiators of our age, and the most elite corps of these warriors are female vocalists. Artists like Rihanna, Cheryl Cole, Beyonce and Lady Gaga must be some of the psychologically toughest people who have ever lived. Nominally in competition with each other (because of course Capitalism mandates competition) their real opponent is the vicious contemporary superego that subjects them to 24-7 surveillance and mercilessly punishes any display of weakness. Make no mistake, the concentrated venom that tabloid newspapers, gossip magazines and 24-hour infotainment channels can direct against you is lethal. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can give you bulimia.

With these women, with their physiques sculpted like a centurion’s breastplate and their sexuality projected like a mailed fist, the Reichian character armour is explicit. The model for this new type of woman (and occasional man) was of course Madonna, the first megastar to intuit that the secret to survival in the age of New Media lay in disciplining the body; that the shape you were in was an outward manifestation of The Will. And of course it is the body that the media superego is always seeking to attack, searching for patches of cellulite as though searching for chinks in the armour, exactly because they are chinks in the armour; the first sign of a lapse in willpower, of potential psychic confusion, of the opportunity for a story.

Protection is also afforded by the channeling of events through choreographed rituals. Splits with dim, unreliable boyfriends are coordinated during transatlantic flights, so that the tipped hat and mascara-covering Jackie O sunglasses, symbolic of "heartbreak", can yield the requisite photo-op on touchdown. Disputes with their svengalis, often the Senators who first raised their thumbs to them in the talent show arenas, can provide reliable storm-in-a-teacup coverage, with both disputants invariably returning to their prior dependent relationship. These ritualised dramas are effective in dissipating superego pressure by providing a media narrative that ends in satisfying closure.

In its death phase, Western culture has constructed an entertainment culture populated by individuals in the mould of one of it’s prime symbols; beings with the soulless invulnerability of an Apache helicopter, both equally dependent on a complex technostructure that has no future.

Saturday 4 June 2011

A Memo from the Standards & Practices Dept. (Re: Last Night's Revolution)

{Author's note: Below you'll find my own efforts to put down some thoughts on the recent passing of Gil Scott-Heron. It wasn't an easy task, which is why I initially balked at posting them here, opting instead to save it for my own personal blog. But judging from the feedback I've received (including from one of this venue's contributors), perhaps it merited posting here instead. So here it is. }

Bluesology: Evolution and Flashback

Truth be told, some of us had been expecting to receive the news for some time. Hearing what we'd heard, knowing what we knew, we figured that the word would come any day now, and it had been like that for a good many years. And then finally, word arrived.

I don't know if there's much I can say about Gil Scott-Heron's music or his passing that won't prove redundant to what's already been said elsewhere. While there was a point in his life where his work almost faded into obscurity, that certainly hasn't been the case for some years now. It is (thankfully) very much the stuff of an ackowledged history by now.

Gil Scott-Heron had a tremendous run in the 1970s. It wasn't until the 1980s that I encountered his music, about the time that his public profile had begun to dwindle and fade. Dropping off the register, dropped by his label, continuing to tour and play live but less and less often as the years wore on, and then all but disappearing somewhere in the back streets of New York during the 1990s. The explanation, we would later learn, was on account of his having succumb to a particular fate.

As narratives go, the story seemed too numbingly banal, lent itself a little too predictably and conveniently to the insidiousness of a shrugging cynicism. But cynicism was the order of the day, one reckons, especially considering the decade when all of this began to unravel – amidst the shallow, self-serving cultural tide of the Reagan era. Sure, he probably didn't do himself any favors by letting egotism and "creative differences" poison his relationship with his longterm creative partner. But the whole enterprise might've already been doomed, perhaps, because it went so wildly against the temper of the times. For some, such words and music seemed like little more that a peculiar remnant from another era.

Almost, but not quite. It wasn't too much later that a new generation of artists took up the banner, and in doing so helped place the music of Gil Scott-Heron in the cultural canon. The artist himself, admittedly, was never wholly comfortable with his newfound status as the "Godfather of Rap." Partly this was due to aesthetic reasons, but also because he saw himself a merely one among many upholding a long line of discursive and artistic traditions. And what do such designations amount to, anyway? In the end, one could argue that he as much the offspring of Nina Simone as he was of -- say -- Langston Hughes or Amiri Baraka.1

As far as what happened to him in his later years – yeah, it was shocking, tragic, disheartening to learn. Still, I can't say that I ever felt it tarnished or eroded his legacy. If anything, the fact that he eventually fell victim to very same things that he'd previously warned and written about only served to underscore the urgency of his original message. He may have started out with literary aspirations, but what he chose to write about wasn't the stuff of mere myth or fable. It was, and remains still, just a little too real.

* * * * * * * *

But about the music. Everyone has their favorites, often they're the same handful of tunes -- the ones that shook them or smacked them upside the head the first time they heard it. No need to mention them by name, I suppose, because chances are they're the first thing anyone thinks of when they think of Gil Scott-Heron. But the discography runs deep. Wading through that discography, despite its unevenness, I always found there were a good many other tracks that stood out, that shone brightly, but seemed to have been often overlooked or undercited. Were I to compile a collection of personal favorites, it would easily fill four discs, perhaps five.

So here's a few favorites of my own...

"Pardon our analysis, America..." These later spoken-word/monologue pieces constitute a category all their own in the way that they framed the events of the era, the way they put things into perspective. As such, many of them rank among my favorites. "H20 Gate Blues," "Bicentennial Blues," "The Ghetto Code," etc.

Aside from the words, there's that voice -- especially when it slides into speaking mode. The grain of the voice, plus the prosody and cadences and tone -- the delivery. Sharp in the early days, mind you; but once he put all the barking and proclamating aside, his voice took on a more direct and personable quality. Casual and offhanded, friendly and direct, warm even in the way the speaker leans in -- with a slight, wry smile and a bemusedly arched eyebrow -- and intimates to the audience/listener in an among-friends lowered register, "I'm sharing this with you, because you and I both know that all of this is bullshit." Part standup comedy, part street-corner punditry, part agitprop, always killingly on-target.

The two-parter that bookends Winter in America. "You're my father, you're my uncle, and my cousin, and my son. / But sometimes I wish you were not." Part lament, part tribute, the song's a testament to the frailty and fallibility of human nature. As the years would play out, this one took on additional layers of meaning; as it seems that Scott-Heron might as well have been writing to his later self -- rebuking the demons and personal failures that were as much his own as anyone else's.

But all of that aside, it shows Scott-Heron and Jackson slipping into a rare "celestial," "cosmic," invocational mode. While part of the tune is rooted in a bluesy here-and-now, the stunningly lovely backing vocal on the chorus opens the song up, stretches out into a more expansive domain.

Perhaps one of the most ambivalent songs of praise I can think of, written as a response to the famous "Drop Dead" verdict of 1976. America's long had a love-hate relationship with its cultural capitol. Judging from the variety of comments circulating in the public domain in the days following the attacks of September 11, I'd say that this is no less the case now than it ever was. Which is probably what prompted this song to spring to my mind at the time.

It's of no small significance that Gil Scott includes gay rights among the litany of fundamental equal rights in the lead-in monologue of "B Movie." What, considering that it amounted to him turning his back on his own previously and altogether different position on the matter a few years earlier. That in many ways represents what those peak years of development and productivity were for the artist -- broadening the frame, connecting the dots, discovering how things aligned and diverged to form the bigger picture, a more universal and fundamental struggle. An extended and open critique that was prone to self-correction and revision.

Which brings us to this song, from an album that often got short shrift over the years. Yeah sure, the anti-nuke stance of "Shut 'Em Down" wasn't such a controversial one to hold in the days following the Three Mile Island incident. Considering the political climate of the day, this can hardly be said of the album's pro-immigration anthem "Alien." And in terms of taking unpopular positions, this applies triply so to the song above, written in honor of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Putting it in the context of a larger, global struggle of "power to the people," it offered:

My name is what's your name / I am the voice of same,
Remembering things that I told me yesterday.
My name is what's your name / I am inside your frame.
We knew the devils, had to make them go away.

Soon followed by the chorus...

You only take it as a symbol.
But look closely, tell me who does it resemble?

Which now seems all-too-prescient as we sort through the conflicted and inherently contradictory rah-rah discussions of the events of the so-called Arab Spring.

* * * * * * * *

At any rate, I could go on at great length. And I suppose I could do a lot more to make all of this more comprehensive and coherent, if not a more fitting tribute. Having spent the better part of three decades seeking out the man's music, wading through it, it's a difficult task to impose order on, to attempt with any hopes of doing thoroughly or properly.2

Gil Scott-Heron often spoke of the blues, usually situating and emphasizing his own music as being firmly of that continuum. To my mind this brings LeRoi's Jones's 1966 critical essay, "The Changing Same (R&B and the New Black Music)." In the course of discussing the relationship between "avant-garde" jazz and more traditional or colloquial blues-based music, Jones wrote:

"The Blues, its 'kinds' and diversity, its identifying parent styles. The phenomenon of jazz is another way of specifying cultural influences. The jazz that is most European, popular or avant, or the jazz that is Blackest, still makes reference to a central body of cultural experience. The impulse, the force that pushes you to sing...all up in one thing...what it produces is another. It can be expressive of the entire force, or make it the occasion of some special pleading. Or it is all equal...we simply identify the part of the world in which we are most responsive. It is all there. We are exact (even in our lies). The elements that turn our singing into direction, reflections of our selves, are heavy and palpable as weather.

We are moved and directed by our total response to the possibility of effects. [...]

The differences between rhythm and blues and the so-called new music or art jazz, the different places, are artificial, or they are merely indicative of the different placements of spirit."

Part of this realm of cultural experience included what Chester Himes was referring to when he spoke of "the quality of hurt," of what Scott-Heron was talking about when he asked, "Why should the blues be so at home here? / Well, America provided the atmosphere." But it includes a number of other things too -- love, hope, the promises of a better day, the joys of music, etc. -- that Gil Scott-Heron often wrote and sang about.

"What we do with the truth is the key to our freedom," he once said. Indeed. And peace go with you.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1. Being asked, sometime in the early 1990s, by a hiphop magazine if he had any words of advice for aspiring emcess, Scott-Heron crustily responded, "I'd tell them to learn to play an instrument, that way you can make what you do your own. And while you're at it, keep your hands off of my shit."

2. For instance, I hope that in acknowledging the darker passages of Gil Scott-Heron's later years, that none of this aligns itself with a particular type of insidious narrative. That being the sort that I've repeatedly encountered over the years whenever it comes time to eulogize some former counter-cultural figure. The sort where you often find, tucked away somewhere in the middle or later passages of the thing, a comment to the effect of: "In the final years of his life, he became increasingly unhappy/depressed/frustated/erratic in his behavior...". Tedious, that...but more often more than a little unctuous, as one senses the author(s) taking their revenge on the deceased by decreeing: if only he'd just been able to accept things the way they were, hadn't criticized or gone against the tide, then perhaps he might've found happiness and stability. Ultimately it's the backlash narrative, or the self-serving and -congratulatory voice of the status quo, effectively declaring the subject to have been on the "wrong side of history" for having chosen another, more difficult path. And I hope that none of my comments or thoughts above might be interpreted as lending themselves to that sort of account.