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Wreath Lectures

Behead The Traitor Doherty! Notions Of Britishness In The Music Of The 00s
Luke Turner , December 17th, 2009 08:49

The 00s have been a decade dominated by American indie imperialism. Much of the blame can be laid at the door of Britpop, but there are treasures from our own shores that have been cruelly ignored, argues Luke Turner

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Let what happens in Denver stay in Denver. For it was in that nondescript mid-West American sprawl, midpoint in the summer of 2004, that I accidentally fell in love with The Libertines. It was inevitable, in a way; I was weeks and thousands of miles from home, and surrounded by scenes of men in Stetsons standing on the back of their pick-up truck as they bullwhipped the empty cans of Bud that they'd just finished. It was a short-lived affair - the uglier forms of nationalism will always surface when a sense of identity feels estranged from belonging. Before that trip, I'd been angrily hunting for left over dregs of piss-poor lager to hurl over the balcony at The Libertines' supposedly epochal London Forum gigs. Their take on Britishness had, as someone fascinated with the music, art and history of this country, infuriated me - Doherty's waffling on about Albion seemed an excuse to make regular trips to his back-street pharmacist, as if he were some indie Coleridge. It was superficial, deeply ill-informed, and of course Doherty never wrote a Kubla Kahn.

Those who came after him were worse. The mainstream press, in collusion with the major and independent labels, funded a trend for groups who espoused a sense of Britain that was on one hand a commodified Dickens tourist shop and, on the other in the hands of The Enemy and their ilk, patronisingly exploited notions of class. In the same way, Lily Allen espoused a sense of London that was straight out of the pages of the Capital's thankfully-departed freesheets, everyday and humdrum yet at the same time faux-Notting Hill boho, the legacy of what the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant described to me as the West London clique that came to dominate what is canonically perceived as the best of punk. Because of the perennial insecurity about expressions of national pride, these acts were allowed their voice without any question from the press who, as with so many who worked for the labels, were hoping for a return to the commercial good old days of Britpop.

It was Britpop that was largely to blame for this identity crisis. As record sales plummeted, it seemed that the industry thought that a séance for that cash cow would cure their ills. But they forgot that Britpop's protracted and brutal hangover occurred precisely because the intelligent artistry to explorations of nationality of the pioneers - Suede, The Auteurs, Pulp, and Saint Etienne - was replaced by the boorish, simplistic tendencies of the big hitters Blur and Oasis.

Yet strangely enough, Britain fell for a similarly clichéd idea of the worth of American music. At the beginning of the decade, the American underground had been a politicised, gripping place, a refreshing alternative to much of the stale, false patriotism of the UK. These darker, politicised sounds came from the likes of Erase Errata, Black Dice, Liars, and Numbers. But just as many in Britain - rightly - turned their backs on Doherty's skiffling hordes, the attraction of American music seemed to undergo a fundamental shift. Suddenly, those abrasive, often European-influenced bands were ignored in favour of an obsession with rough-shirted American traditionalism. Even the more radical groups, your Healths, No Ages, Vampire Weekends and Animal Collectives that have subsequently emerged, are an easily digested bunch, creating pleasant enough, but ultimately unchallenging, mellifluous soundscapes - as explored by Ben Graham in his surprisingly controversial review of the new Animal Collective EP. Are we to say that these American groups are, perhaps due to the earnestness of craft, beyond criticism? And what of those groups, like Cold Cave, Liars, Sunn O))), who follow a more European-influenced path, yet are in many ways less successful in their homeland than in the UK and Europe? The same people who sneer at NME's supposedly hairspray-funded 'lifestyle choice' of music appreciation were falling for exactly the same idea of a buy-in identity, just with the trappings of an off-the-peg American individualism.

The reality is, of course, far more complex and, as essays by my colleagues Mr David Stubbs, Mr John Tatlock and Mr Kev Kharas have pointed out, the secret to understanding this past decade is to understand how fragmented culture has become. You only have to read the Quietus article in which Tricky talked about his idea of Britishness to see that a mixed race artist from Bristol could espouse a sense of national pride in sausage and chips to know that issues of national identity are never as simple as those on the right - xenophobic, culturally narrow, heritage obsessed - and those on the left - terrified and ashamed of expressing the slightest hint of anything resembling pride in Britain and its cultural life - would claim.

So to look for a true sense of Britishness in this decade, we have to look beyond the obvious signifiers to find music that could only have been made in this country, by people born here. And that has been a rich indeed. Grime and dubstep have been the only two entirely British movements of the past decade. Both are multi-racial, lyrically - in terms of grime - entirely of their place, and make for a very British (flamboyant, cheeky, irreverent) take on American forms. Yet both failed to take off commercially beyond the confines of the major cities, especially London.

Since The Quietus launched in the summer of 2008, one of our central aims has been to champion the British artists who have been blindly derided or ignored in favour of the North American continental invasion. For me personally, the case in point is British Sea Power. Paradoxically Arcade Fire were called "the Canadian British Sea Power" back in Montreal - yet for some reason the former have been given far greater cultural kudos, perhaps because their name has led to BSP being misunderstood. They don't yearn for some half-remembered idea of an England that never existed, but evoke our landscape, and explore change and history both positive and negative. In this year's Man of Aran soundtrack, they produced a work of art that, had it been made by an equivalent American group, would no doubt have been roundly lauded.

There's an argument for a genre themed around evocations of the Night Bus, which might encompass anything from Burial and The Bug to King Cannibal and The XX. The list of groups about whom myself and Quietus co-pilot Mr John Doran have said "they'd be huge if they were American" is a long one: There's the showy and camp pop of Wild Beasts, Simon Bookish and The Irrepressibles, who create an imaginative world that could only have been dreamt up within the borders of the British Isles. Or noisy experimentation that doesn't - as so many American groups do - become mired in earnestness, like Teeth Of The Sea, That Fucking Tank, Divorce, Bomb Factory. Or metal and psychedelic rock - Black Sun, Crippled Black Phoenix, The Heads or Ramesses. Then the new electronic territories of Joy Orbison, Darkstar, Various Productions, Gyratory System, The Caretaker and Zomby. Or Factory Floor, who take up the steel baton few have dared to touch since the days of Throbbing Gristle or early Cabaret Voltaire. Then the more conventional guitar groups like Engineers, Archie Bronson Outfit or Gravenhurst. And, of course, there will always be The Fall.

As music becomes so widely and freely available, so many are looking for guides - this has meant a series of compilations of global music in the past couple of years that have taken hold of imaginations way beyond the weird ghetto of post-Womad ‘world music’. Much of this, such as the Forge Your Own Chains: Psychedelic Ballads and Dirges compilation, demonstrates how musicians from Iran to China adopted and interpreted Western music to their own cultures. My hope is that the same happens to the global riches that are currently making it to our shores, from Omar Souleyman to Group Doueh, Staff Benda Bilili, or Mulatu Astatke, Amadou & Miriam. The music of our own immigrant communities, these immigrant CDs, and the erosion of prejudices against genres like industrial or goth is what is going to make the next decade fascinating for British music, not a bland reproduction of America's earnest craft, or some new Britpop. Britain has always been a contradictory nation of open borders and bloody-mindedness, of expression both louche and blunt, and of rescuing triumph from teetering disaster. Long may it remain so.

Nigel B
Dec 17, 2009 2:45pm

And they say quality music journalism is dead. Pah. Another excellent article. Thank you.

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Baby Jebus
Dec 17, 2009 2:55pm

An interesting piece Luke- I now want that psych/world RIGHT NOW! (or maybe on Xmas morn), but the logical extension of pop's Balkanization is that even Britain itself is home to an infinite number of microscenes. Whether it's grime, born conveniently close to the nation's greatest concentration of cultural production, or Bolton kids putting a donk on it, Britain is too complex to be summed up easily. I can't help but think of Mel Brooks's 2000 Year Old Man claiming every cave had its own national anthem.
Weirdly I suspect that Britpop inhibited experimentalism among its successors, in that an entire generations made their first musical steps strumming Noel Gallagher's singalongs, and far too many never got beyond that imaginative level.
Until BSP get a drummer who can play in a pencil skirt they will always be also-rans. Sometimes pop life is that simple.

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daveid
Dec 17, 2009 3:00pm

wicked article, how downright refreshing a read is this website ?
the only time I have recently felt anything like a proud Brit is seeing T.G. play abroad, and their show this summer at Heaven was possibly the best of the year, and the quietus reviewed it.
hoorah for you people..

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D.A.
Dec 17, 2009 5:27pm

But aren't notions of nationalism and their role in cultural production, especially music, an increasingly moot point? The young gent behind Deep Shit said something along those lines in a recent Quietus interview.

Also, the idea that Yanks are prone to excessive earnestness is about as hollow as the idea that all Brits have bad teeth and can't cook. You can't sit here and knock down Doherty’s feeble tower of tourist board clichés and simply replace it with another one.

Earnestness isn’t a uniquely American trait. Much in the same way that a sense of irony, for example, is not exclusive to members of the Queen's realm. You'll find both traits in the populace of either country and you’ll find both in the ‘art’ they create.

Someone once said to me that the following fact dawned on them after living in a foreign country for some time: 'It's the same shit, just in a different pile.'

I think that holds true here.

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Luke Turner
Dec 17, 2009 5:36pm

In reply to D.A. :

Fair points, though the thrust of the article is more to do with the way that there's been a general feel of America = good art, UK = vapid posturing over the past decade, which has led to a lot of very good UK-based artists being overlooked and neglected.

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Petra
Dec 17, 2009 6:22pm

Where is the evidence that leftist discourse is 'terrified and ashamed' of evincing pride in British culture? It's British multiculture the left defends - British culture as it really is, which is to say not mere Englishness - and it does so frequently, loudly, and alone.

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John Doran
Dec 17, 2009 6:28pm

In reply to Petra:

"mere Englishness" . . . the irony.

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Dec 17, 2009 6:50pm

In reply to John Doran:

How so, John?

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Mr B
Dec 17, 2009 7:55pm

Brilliant stuff.

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John Doran
Dec 17, 2009 7:56pm

In reply to :

The irony's self-evident.

I'm glad you read everything on the site. It genuinely keeps us on our toes occasionally. But this week some of the sniffy comments you've been leaving, read a little bit like 'I'm bored. I want a row.' Especially the borderline patronising comment left after Hazel Sheffield's excellently argued article.

Large portions of the 'left' as I have come into direct contact with them (national/local media, local council, grassroots political organisations, left leaning police and emergency services groups etc), are in my lengthy experience as a court reporter, local council reporter, tribunal reporter, national and local newspaper journalist are *terrified* of expressing any kind of nuanced understanding or expression of English/British culture and instead fall back on a risible politically correct, one size fits all view of UK culture, for fear of being labelled far right wing, or, sadly, just through sheer ignorance. I know it's a thorny issue, dealing with stuff that's been appropriated by the far right since before I was born but that doesn't mean it shouldn't and can't be done.

He's obviously not talking about you in particular of course.

Anyway Luke doesn't need me to argue on his behalf . . .

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Petra
Dec 17, 2009 8:10pm

In reply to John Doran:

No, you're right, he doesn't - particularly when he's not being attacked. Your defensiveness has often been an issue between us John, but this subject is important and Luke's piece deserves a great deal more than personal jabs.

Of course I read the site! It's got some of my favourite writers on it. And I've really been enjoying the Wreath Lectures especially. You're reading sniffiness into my tone where none is intended - I agree Hazel's piece is very well argued, and I'm not in the business of undermining other women writers. Seriously - and I say this as someone who used to be your friend, and would like to be again - you are imagining things.

I think you and I may have to agree to disagree on your main point. Englishness and Britishness are not interchangeable - if there's a one size fits all concept around these parts, that's it. Multiculture is real, and only the Left defends it. I won't bother to list my credentials, since they're irrelevant but you know full well I have worked in the sector all my life, and I still do. What you read as terror (and seriously, I don't know who these terrified people are - perhaps they need a sense of perspective) I read as discomfort with the common assumptions around Britishness. Race isn't real; culture is, and the idea that Britishness means monoculture means Englishness is utterly flawed - it exists only to support the racist flummery of the Right. That point's tangential to Luke's piece, but he has asked for these pieces to stimulate discussion, and I think it's worth thinking about.

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John Doran
Dec 17, 2009 8:51pm

In reply to Petra:

Hmm. I didn't know we *had* fallen out. A lot of this stuff sounds like it should be discussed in private over a coffee. But FYI - I'm always your friend.

As for the other stuff; that forward slash isn't supposed to indicate that I think Englishness and Britishness are the same thing. I know 'multiculture' - in the way you are using the word - is real but to suggest that is all that exists in the UK is madness. The idea that either me or Luke is promoting monoculture is also nonsense.

Again, some of the stuff you're suggesting, some of the words you're putting in my mouth and views you're attributing to me a patronising. I live in Hackney. Of course I understand that multiculturalism isn't just a weird PC concept. I'm just enough of my own person to know that this is only half the story - as it applies to me.

I'll say again: there's nothing wrong with exploring what it means to be English OR British. If you wish me to add something along the lines of "within the context of the overall British multiculture", then, y'know, I will because it doesn't really matter to me that much.

My entire - ENTIRE - family are Irish, with a sizeable chunk of them originally (and some still) gaelic speaking Irish. But I'm not, I'm English. My culture is English. I'm interested in my culture as an Englishman first and foremost. The irony being: that I fully recognize that to be an Englishman means to live in a country that has always been shaped by immigration over millennia, not just since the second world war.

Anyway, as luck would have it, I'm just settling down to a Kenyan curry and a documentary about people smuggling.

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Rich
Dec 18, 2009 3:43am

Wow. So incredibly sad. Someone just over analyzed three minute pop songs to death.

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BenMyers
Dec 18, 2009 9:42am

In reply to Rich:

>> "Wow. So incredibly sad. Someone just over analyzed three minute pop songs to death."

Heat magazine's 30 word album reviews are that way >>.

This was a most enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

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LRH
Dec 18, 2009 11:35am

Excellent article.

The "Britpop" of Oasis is something that no one should mourn the passing of.
It was always a shame that so many took them as a template rather than the more interesting artists of the time.

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Petra
Dec 18, 2009 2:12pm

In reply to John Doran:

I'm not sure where you're getting the idea that I'm alleging you're promoting monoculture either in this piece or on the site. I took issue with one sentence of Luke's piece - that which alleged terror among the Left at the idea of exploring Britishness - and pointed out that Britishness means multiculture (either the urban multiculture of Hackney or the less visible mix of Roman, Norman, Celt and modern Scots, Irish and Welsh that makes up the majority of what the Right considers 'Britishness'. I'll reiterate once more that this is tangential to Luke's point (and I can understand how frustrating it can be to see homegrown bands struggling where recycled US heritage acts thrive) but is a useful bit of context, I'd suggest.

The idea that it's somehow impermissible to explore Englishness (which I think is probably the more accurate term for the stuff the Left is most uncomfortable with) seems absurd to me. It's arguably cultural diversity, not Englishness, that is under attack; the discourse around immigration and culture has changed radically over the past 20 years from an acceptance of multiculture - the idea that many differing cultures can sit under a national umbrella - to what's now called 'community cohesion', which can fairly be summarised as a drive towards consensus on one dominant cultural model. This is easily evidenced by government policy post-Burnley: tacit immigration caps, citizenship tests, the Preventing Violent Extremism agenda (which seeks to establish control over mosques by similar manner to those that so singularly failed to quell radicalism in Catholic churches in Ireland in the 80's). In the press too, we find the racist and Islamophobic tabloid discourse around the necessity of cultural assimilation. For me, this is all evidence that it's cultural difference that is under attack.

Ironically, the cultural cohesionists can't have it both ways. Either Englishness is a sub-set of Britishness - since it's clearly losing its fight to be the default culture of Britishness - or no cultural subsets are allowed (and by allowed, of course I mean given economic and social support in the form of funding, education, publicity, etc).

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Baby Jebus
Dec 18, 2009 2:22pm

In reply to Petra:

Yeah, alright, but what does that have to do with pop music?

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Petra
Dec 18, 2009 2:31pm

In reply to Baby Jebus:

It has to do sith duspiting Luke's assertion that cultural discomfort with Englishness is part of the reason we don't offer enough support to UK artists; I'm of the opinion that the cultural discomfort (which he describes as terror and shame) is not nearly as strong or as widespread as he argues here. Don't take issue with his main point - that UK artists are not well enough supported - at all, but I'd say it's perhaps more to do with the odd nostalgia for US indie of the 90s that is so prevalent at the moment, and also that heritage acts from that era are finding it hard to live on their royalties and reforming to tour.

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Dec 18, 2009 3:42pm

In reply to Petra:

"This is easily evidenced by government policy post-Burnley: tacit immigration caps, citizenship tests, the Preventing Violent Extremism agenda (which seeks to establish control over mosques by similar manner to those that so singularly failed to quell radicalism in Catholic churches in Ireland in the 80's). In the press too, we find the racist and Islamophobic tabloid discourse around the necessity of cultural assimilation."

As someone who is, shall we say, Islamosceptic, I'm all in favour of Preventing Violent Extremism. But please can you explain what that has to do with Luke sashaying to Wild Beasts, blissing out with Teeth Of The Sea or grooving to The Bug on the N73...? Am somewhat baffled.

Also, you know how The Sun, Daily Mail et al occasionally claim there's a "PC conspiracy" to abolish Christmas, straighten bananas etc? Well it strikes me that much of what you've said in this thread plays into their hands.

Merry Winterval!

manish
x

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manish
Dec 18, 2009 3:43pm

In reply to :

(above comment is mine, forgot to sign in)

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Petra
Dec 19, 2009 9:56am

In reply to :

Hi Manish. I'm quite happy to be the Daily Mail's worst nightmare, to be honest. They can eat me.

PVE should be a good thing, but isn't. You'll have to take my word. Or, if you're really interested, you can read Johann Hari's take on why the government is targeting Muslims and ignoring the military wing of the far right:

http://www.johannhari.com/2009/10/13/why-are-we-ignoring-the-far-right-terror-threat-

As to your question about what this has to do with Luke's piece: he set up his central contention by arguing that the left was scared of Britishness. It isn't; it just has a really different idea of Britishness to that of the English Defence League. Luke's Britishness - a Britishness that includes the Bug and Wild Beasts - is actually far closer to the Left's idea of Britishness. It's a small point, it was a well-intentioned comment, and it really didn't need a bunch of defensive bluster in response. Does that clear things up?

xo

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John Doran
Dec 19, 2009 10:19am

In reply to Petra:

Y'know, as I have continually said to you, I'd love to commission more features off you where you can make your point more clearly to a larger audience over a greater word count.

I've said this time and again.

But instead, you're content to sit in the comments feature pouring scorn on what we do for what seems like not much reason or at the best petty semantic differences.

The not particularly subtle and continual goal post shifting that goes on in these exchanges means that, yet again, I'm going to have to duck out here. Please feel free to use this massive opportunity to continue making me look like a wanker in public (or if you like, to submit some feature proposals).

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manish
Dec 19, 2009 12:46pm

In reply to Petra:

"I'm quite happy to be the Daily Mail's worst nightmare, to be honest."

you're not, though - quite the opposite, they use semantic-crazed hectoring like yours to reinforce their bigotry

"As to your question about what this has to do with Luke's piece: he set up his central contention by arguing that the left was scared of Britishness."

As I read the article, the Boy Turner's central contention seemed to be that lots of great British music has fallen through the cracks of public acclaim this decade. It's a positive piece about overlooked pop and rock and dance artists.

Luke's references to national identity form strike me as deliberately nuanced:

"issues of national identity are never as simple as those on the right - xenophobic, culturally narrow, heritage obsessed - and those on the left - terrified and ashamed of expressing the slightest hint of anything resembling pride in Britain and its cultural life - would claim"

certainly a great deal more reasoned (and good-natured) than your brow-beating arguments!

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Petra
Dec 19, 2009 1:02pm

In reply to manish:

Manish - we're going to have to agree to disagree. Please note, though, that the only person who's been insulting in the slightest in this discussion is you.

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Dec 19, 2009 1:10pm

If we could perhaps maintain the stereotypically British attribute of civility here, that would be splendid, chaps, what what. Who moderates this stuff? You should pay them one more lump of coal.

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Joseph Stannard
Dec 19, 2009 1:12pm

That was me, apologies, I forgot to sign in too!

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John Doran
Dec 19, 2009 2:49pm

In reply to Joseph Stannard:

I find the idea that we have enough lumps of coal to be just handing them out like a carbon-based Robin Hood an affront to my selfhood.

I'm the moderator and I pay myself by the means of a crayon drawing of a carrot held just out of arm's reach.

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manish
Dec 19, 2009 5:24pm

Good news, everyone! I've spoken to The Quietus' devout Muslim readership: a lad called Abdul, aged 23, lives in Wakefield and describes himself as "a fundamentalist who's never had a Jihadist experience". Despite finding British Sea Power are "a bit la di da" he enjoyed Luke's article and wasn't offended, though appreciates Petra's efforts to take offence on his behalf. Abdul's favourite UK music from the past decade includes One More Grain, Akercocke, clownstep and Morrissey.

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Roy Hughes
Dec 20, 2009 1:00pm

"The intelligent artistry to explorations of nationality of the pioneers - Suede, The Auteurs, Pulp, and Saint Etienne"

Would this be the same Brett Anderson who appeared on the cover of Select under the headline "Yanks Go Home"?

I suspect Luke is being rather myopic in the bands he accuses of jingoism according to his own personal tastes

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Dec 20, 2009 1:26pm

In reply to Roy Hughes:

I don't think that bert was both a bisexual who'd never had a
homosexual experience and an editor at EMAP.

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Petra
Dec 21, 2009 2:30pm

In reply to manish:

Manish, you're coming off as a loon. Anyone capable of reading what I actually wrote can see I didn't impute Islamophobia - or any other prejudice for that matter - to Luke's piece. Do keep going with the sub-par satire on British Muslims, though - that's sure to put this uppity madam in her place eventually..?

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Fred Zeppelin
Dec 21, 2009 3:08pm

In reply to Petra:

Great feature form Luke Turner - this is exactly why I read the Quietus. But what's the deal with Petra? She seems to conform to every lefty stereotype going ie self-righteous, offended on behalf of every minority going when they've got better things to be getting on with.

Turner has made some very good points about pop music, Petra elected to stand on a soapbox. How very sad.

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Louis
Dec 21, 2009 5:50pm

Bit harsh on Petra here, I think her point is valid - there's a difference between the right's idea of Englishness (effectively a fantasy) and the left's (admittedly sometimes patronising in practice, yes, but at least rooted in a realistic understanding of who actually inhabits the British isles). Disappointing, too, given that a) these Wreath Lectures were specifically flagged as to encourage debate and discussion and b) Look at Luke's final paragraph and you see they're both in pretty much total agreement on all the main points.

Still, would like to say that The Quietus has been particularly good these last six weeks or so, so well done to John and Luke.

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Mustang Ford
Dec 26, 2009 7:25pm

Great article Mr Turner! People tend to overlook the fact that the 'Albion' talked about by the likes of William Blake was in fact an evocation of utopian ideals that called for an internationalist coming together of all nations/peoples on this rainy little island (which is what he was getting at in the hymn Jerusalem). This notion of Albion has very little, if anything, to do with pork pie hats or Union Jack guitars (not that I believe there is anything wrong with either of those things per se). This vision of Albion is the antithesis of nationalism.

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Lloyd
Jan 5, 2010 4:07pm

"scenes of men in Stetsons standing on the back of their pick-up truck as they bullwhipped the empty cans of Bud that they'd just finished."

what utter nonsense!

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Luke Turner
Jan 5, 2010 4:13pm

In reply to Lloyd:

I'm talking about what I saw WITH MY OWN EYES, Lloyd old chap.

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Petra
Jan 19, 2010 4:25pm

In reply to Fred Zeppelin:

Hi Fred.

Fred and I are old, old pals.

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Mar 22, 2014 1:41am

Up the Bracket was ace.and yes the Kooks etc who sorta ripped it off sucked.Blur are not a dumb band.The Auteurs have no hooks and are pretentious and dour (critics fave too)as for portraying Englishness or whatever..Ray Davies ..and credit to damon albarn for getting that right

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