Behead The Traitor Doherty! Notions Of Britishness In The Music Of The 00s
, 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
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.