Thursday 26 April 2012

White Riot

If there’s one cultural milestone that separates the Sixties from the Seventies, I would say that it’s Jefferson Airplane’s "Volunteers", an album that anticipated Sly & The Family Stone’s "There’s A Riot Goin’ On" in two ways - the first and most obvious one being the purloining of the Stars ’n’ Stripes for the purposes of irony; the second, and only mildly less obvious, of announcing the death of the counter-culture. Released right at the beginning of the decade, it is perhaps the last pop-culture statement that can be taken genuinely seriously, being as it is an admission of total defeat; a bloody-but-unbowed acknowledgment that whatever dreams of a better world the boomer generation may have entertained, there was now no possibility of them ever being realised.

It’s an unusual record mainly for its frankness - there is no attempt here to disguise the defeat of the counter-culture in allegory or metaphor, or to pretend that there were never any serious expectations entertained; there’s also no attempt to pretend that the future offers any opportunity to rebuild the movement - it’s either "up against the wall" or a "march into the sea". In its nihilism it is strangely reminiscent of The Pop Group’s recordings at the end of the decade - there’s not only the same sense of hopelessness, but also that feint sense that there was never any hope all along. "Volunteers", its sleeve art especially, crackles with sardonic humour - the mock Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich gatefold sleeve taunting the presumed bourgeois gluttony of the listener; the parody of the archetypal rock festival report on the back cover satirising the already-visible phenomenon of the spectacle.

All pop-cultural rebellion after the release of this record was either phoney and manufactured, which could be graded on a sliding scale from Alice Cooper to The Sex Pistols, or stillborn, as in the case of Crass or the aforementioned Pop Group. Even the Airplane themselves conveniently forgot that they’d recorded it; in the Eighties their dissipated remnants declared that they’d "built this city on rock’n’roll", as though their entire generation had never been motivated by anything more than apple-pie wholesomeness all along. If they hadn’t left the archaeological remnants of their actual recordings behind, you could’ve been forgiven for believing that the whole thing had never happened.


Greyhoos said...

I'll admit that I never paid much attention to Jefferson Airplane, but from what I'd gathered Volunteers and Blows Against the Empire were considered the more enigmatic (and often overlooked) albums by them from that period. So now you made me curious to give it a proper go.

But once I think about it, the whole matter of them eulogizing a counter-culture makes a certain sort of sense. Like a lot of members of the big-name acts in the Haight-Ashbury scene, they reputedly started out as post-beatnik "folkies" playing in various acts, eventually jumping on the rock bandwagon because they felt that was "where it was at." So they'd cycled through two counter cultures by that point. And had dealt with a corporate label.

Phil Knight said...

They were rich kids too - I think Slick was an heiress IIRC, so there's that whole thing of being able to go politically much farther due to knowing the shape and size of the establishment.

You get the same thing today of course - a lot of the ringleaders for the "Occupy" and anti-austerity protests are upper crust types, who have less in-built fear or sense of inferiority to those in power.