How The Baby Boomers Stole Music With Myths Of A Golden Age
, October 3rd, 2013 04:22
In an extract from the Quietus' new eBook, Luke Turner despairs of John Lennon tooth cloning and the cultural stranglehold the baby boomer generation have over culture and the media... and asks, in our diverse modern age, might it be starting to weaken?
One of the lead stories on Radio 4’s Today programme at 8am on June 12th, 2013, concerned an interview given by Bishop of London Richard Chartres. In it, he said that his generation – the baby boomers born and brought up after the Second World War – were hoovering up an unfair proportion of our resources. “Much of that is absorbed by the fortunate generation to which I belong in ways which raise questions – severe questions – of intergenerational equity,” he said. Shortly before the next news bulletin, listeners enjoyed an extended, eight-minute report on a new eBook of former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr's “never-before-seen” photographs. There followed a discussion, heavy with the fug of nostalgia, on the importance of these photographs and what they told us, before it broadened out to encompass the important cultural legacy of Starr's infamous hair salon.
It wasn't hard to grasp the irony of the bishop's words being juxtaposed with this report, for it's not just fiscal and state resources that the post-war generation have greedily consumed at the expense of those who have come since, but cultural oxygen too. The likes of Today, along with BBC television, the commercial channels, the broadsheet media and much of the music press, insists that the 60s (and most of the 70s) were the greatest era in western cultural expression and that we have been in a slow tailspin ever since. You can't seem to turn on the telly without ANOTHER documentary on the BBC about “the golden age of music”, something about The Stones or Beatles' 50th anniversaries, or insane plans to clone John Lennon via one of his teeth. I love buying vinyl, but I do not need these wobbly old bores going on about how in the 70s you'd stoke up the boiler, whip the donkey, eat a lump of coal and do an incantation while having three spins on a space hopper to make sure there were sufficient authentic crackles to properly enjoy the latest number by Slade.
I was born in 1978, and came of age in the mid-90s. This meant that, as for so many growing up in tedious English towns, Britpop was the soundtrack to my teenage years. As a genre, neither Britpop nor its evangelists in the music press claimed for it any originality. Instead, all revelled in its arch postmodernism, and the sense that, at what Francis Fukuyama infamously termed the “end of history”, the lack of any potential seismic shifts in the wider world would likewise be reflected in the music that would be its soundtrack.
The obvious influences and homage paid by Britpop artists to their forebears meant that we were all well aware this was second-generation, some of it a straight 60s/70s rehash a la Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene or Dodgy, some of it a pop interpretation of more “difficult” sounds, as with Elastica's facsimile of Wire. The cultural dominance of Britpop in that period (I still remember coming back to the UK after weeks away in the summer of '95 and being amazed at Blur vs Oasis dominating the front pages) meant that the media's job was made incredibly easy. Not only was there a mainstream musical movement they could use to snare a new, young readership, but its lack of originality meant their parents' generation could be involved too.
Suddenly, music festivals weren't terrifyingly countercultural events populated by drug-demented anarchists straight from the pages of the tabloid press, but an all-the-family affair. Now everyone could sit down to Later With… Jools Holland and watch the latest new groups alongside their heroes of yesteryear. With a careful spread of classic artists and new acts, music magazines could thrive. Unfortunately, the media were pulling from a very narrow pool – only those who wielded guitars were deemed worthy of attention. Stagnation was inevitable, and in no time at all we had Coldplay, Travis et al being held up as exponents of “classic“ songwriting, just like you heard back in the day. The “tune” rules above all else.
Britpop set the nostalgia trap, yet it wasn't too hard to realise that it wasn't up to all that much. It was too insubstantial, looking to the past in pastiche rather than reinvention. This, of course, played right into the hands of the golden-agers. If Britpop was the last time we saw a cross-generational musical movement, and if it was one based around shallow copies of the past, surely it spelled the end of musical development? If we're listening to music that's essentially all been done before, why not just set our gaze forever upon the past?
Alright then, let's do that. We're always told of a mythic era for music, and (of particular interest to us at the Quietus) great writing about it. From the way people hark back to the 60s and 70s, you'd think every record was a White Album, every article in the music press an eloquent, lengthy piece of insightful prose, a ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’. This simply never was the case. It was of course a time of great invention, and many groups got to achieve firsts with the tools available, yet it doesn't take much to reveal the amount of pap that swiftly followed the pioneers – after all, rock & roll was a marketable commodity in a new consumer age. As far as journalism goes, fewer groups, larger budgets and fewer publications meant those who wrote about them got far more access to artists than we'd ever see today.
Though they'll never admit it in endless retrospectives, music critics often got things wrong. Take the violently forward-and-freethinking German kosmische groups of the mid-1970s. Critics seemed incapable of writing about them without falling into helpless Basil Fawlty-esque stereotype. There's NME's 1976 review of Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity tour (“This is what your fathers fought to save you from…”), and Lester Bangs (also in NME) asking the group if they were “the final solution to the music problem” on a spread with a photograph of Kraftwerk crudely pasted onto a photograph of the Nuremburg rally. Then there's Nick Kent's 1974 piece on Can, the headline: “Ve Give Ze Orders Here”. Even as post-punk attempted to rewrite the rulebook, hacks were still stuck in the past – in the June 14th, 1980, tribute-to-Ian-Curtis issue of NME, Charles Shaar Murray wrote an introduction to the singles reviews in the style of Hunter S Thompson.
You rarely heard of anything from non British or American artists, scant regard was given to female artists, homophobic language was rife, and a May 1974 full-page NME feature about the decline of a certain LA nightclub makes for bracing reading. Under the headline 'Groupie Paradise Almost Lost', it reads: ”…at Rodney's the children rolled in straight from the suburbs and put on their tinsel before they even reached puberty. At 12 they were getting down and by 15 they were expected to become jaded and world weary. At its peak, Rodney's was the mecca for the sub-teen groovers of southern California and horny British rock musicians.”
The hot young writers of the past now find themselves gainfully employed in regurgitating the same old stories and past glories while being closed to new sounds and ideas. Cultural discourse has been totally shut down. Decreased revenues means more nostalgia so as to desperately shift copies. Where do you read the articles slaughtering sacred cows these days? Instead, we are faced with a constant barrage of information telling us it was better back then, when things were “new”. The dominance of indie in the mainstream press (as a false binary to the telly talent-show dross currently celebrated by the poptimists) and other media is entirely the result of this conservatism – there have been radical movements in music, yet how often are they given exposure? Too other, too loud, too far away from the 60s blueprint.
The myth of the golden age in music feeds the conservative notion that everything must be based around a limited idea of song structure and melody that is still tied to the rock & roll explosion of the 50s and 60s. Progress was fast then and continued to develop with new technologies in the late 70s and early 80s. A brook will always be loud and fast at its birth, with gravity and fresh rain feeding it. Yet do we discount the powerful flow of a river's lower reaches? Back then you could be radical by combining the blues with bits and pieces from here and elsewhere, but most of those songs (always love songs) have been written now. Why not move further out, to the eddies and creeks where the fresh treasure lies?
Yet the cultural gatekeepers hear those who are forging new sounds from the tributaries of the past and deny them. Take a recent Evening Standard article on These New Puritans playing their Field Of Reeds album in London's Heaven venue. The reviewer worried that “without a guitar to drive these songs” they didn't have much impact, while the music was a “tad humourless and might have suited a seated venue such as the Barbican”. The implication is, of course, that those who began as guitar groups had better stay that way, and best not try and get above themselves. Much better the Mumfords, Ed Sheerans, Killers, Laura Marlings and Frank Turners of this world, who simply pick up on the canon and sing again the tired old songs. By showing their own conservatism, these critics belittle and patronise their audience.
How do we end the baby-boomer hegemony and reclaim our culture? It's fair to say my generation don't help ourselves. The Stone Roses' recent reunion shows, which saw thousands squelch through lager-soaked park grass to see Ian Brown groan through the band’s back catalogue, are evidence enough of that. On the flipside of the same coin, a love of American indie rock has fed a market in nostalgia from fans of the supposed leftfield who'll queue up to see band after plaid-shirted band trot through their “seminal“ albums at Don't Look Back events.
There was an unfortunate dovetailing of the end of Britpop with the decline in music sales. Now, the staunch refusal of younger generations to pay for music means it's nigh-on possible to measure the “success” of any given artist in record sales, as much as the media love to. This is entirely entwined with another generational difference. The baby-boomer generation found political radicalism in music, even if it pains me to find worth in the mawkish sentiment of Bob Dylan or John Lennon. My generation, and those younger, all too often display their anti-establishment instincts by refusing to pay for music on the grounds that record labels and musicians are greedy, instead consuming it on devices made by companies that display a false image of radicalism while simultaneously operating as the worst kind of free-market libertarians. This sympathy for brands and corporations over old political and artistic ideals seems to dovetail with recent research that suggests that 18 to 34-year-olds are moving rightwards.
Despite all this, the golden-age myth is starting to lose its sheen. The past decade has seen an explosion of music of many different genres, forms, volumes, sounds, aesthetics, origins, shapes and sizes. In an age of fragmentation, invention is to be found on the extremes, not in the middle. The baby boomers mistake the lack of a central cultural narrative for a lack of progress. They're content to sit there praising the bloke who came up with the wheel by first attaching a couple of flat slices of tree trunk to his hod, and worse, those who lamely copy him. They never celebrate those who came after and continue to come, who improve and develop or noisily and enthusiastically deconstruct the past to build anew.
Who are these bold souls who refuse to be beaten down? There's the older acts who refuse to be trapped by their own past and constantly push themselves forward: Swans, Wire, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, Neneh Cherry, Gary Numan, the Fall, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Björk, John Foxx, even Kraftwerk, who will still be a futurist group and one of the best live bands you'll ever see even in 100 years when the Rolling Stones are long dead.
In the vanguard are the new wave, who fight hostile, retro-thinking media and plough forward, opening minds as they do so. Imagine, as a 16-year-old, hearing on record or seeing live any of the following for the first time: Factory Floor, These New Puritans, the Bug, the Knife, Frank Ocean, Laurel Halo, Mykki Blanco, Islam Chipsy, Le1f, Karenn, Grumbling Fur, Perc, Teeth Of The Sea, Vatican Shadow, Omar Souleyman, East India Youth, Sunn O))), the Body, Holly Herndon, Liars. How can the baby boomers deny those who’ve come after that thrill of the new by muttering over their paunches that it's all been done or heard before?
It's ludicrous that a 20- or 30-year period in just two countries nearly half a century ago has been allowed to utterly dominate conversation on contemporary music ever since. This was a tiny blip in the history of human beings clattering things together and stretching their vocal cords in expression of the awareness of being alive. Surely it's time to end the fool's errand and admit that the golden age is over because it never existed in the first place; that instead, we're looking boldly through a glorious kaleidoscope towards a bright horizon. For there is a great deal to be positive about as I write this in the summer of 2013. More and more, when I read blogs, articles, even tweets by writers born in the late 80s and early 90s, I'm struck by how confident, wise and worldly they seem… miles from how wet behind the ears I was the same age. Even better, they seem confident and proud about their own generation, less in thrall to the past, instead exploring and exulting in the wide open culture that lies before them. Are we starting to see the powerful, suffocating grip of the baby boomers starting to fail? That sound you hear? Underfoot, the cracking of your rose-tinted round glasses.
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