Thursday, January 24, 2008

Britannia waives the rules

The idea behind BBC4's Pop Britannia season, the fourth in the Britannia strand after Jazz, Folk and Soul, was always going to be subject to criticism. That's the way of pop music, something the opinions placed upon which are always subject to greater forces of critical debate than normal. It's something a wider span of the public than the first three genres know and care about, and given BBC2's Seven Ages Of Rock failed to make a convincing timeline given seven hours the central three hour concept was bound to leave as many holes as it made connections. The narrative thus chosen was a kind of loose thread about the battle between the industry's commercial instincts and invention from the fringes, art versus artifice (you know, for kids) with broadly the latter, given this is 'Pop' we're dealing with, having things slightly slanted its way - but given BBC4 were selling it as All British Music Ever and the opening voiceover talked of "reinventing the great British pop dream" and how 'we' led the way in world music this seems a slightly disingenuous sell.

When the first of three parts got over its awkward scene-setting, a cursory sweep (no writer is credited, so let's put it down to producer Ben Whalley) that lasted the entire first half attempting to set the whole first half of the 20th century's entertainment business as a "cosy cartel" centring on the Grades and making clumsy sociological grasps at "the birth of the teenager" theory in a way Colin MacInnes wouldn't have recognised (the way Anne-Marie Duff, who has completely the wrong voice for this, declares the early 50s as "old fashioned and middle aged" would do Johnny Rotten proud) - having introduced the waves of American youth rebellion, it then jumped back into presenting placid old skiffle, what the trad jazzers did with their spare time, as the shock to the traditional music business incarnate - it found a truth about the self-sufficient pop business that was essentially novelty, and about novelty. See, you can take the Beatles as your jumpoff point, as it nearly does with the famous footage of the bobby holding back the screaming waves, but the main reason why they were important is what they represented a break from, or as the script sniffily puts it that "Britain's pop revolution nearly never happened at all". which, of course, makes it interesting, being a latterly little documented facet of pop culture's history.

When Rock Around The Clock at the start of Blackboard Jungle in 1955 introduced America to this rock and roll fad, America already had its musical background, from Broadway to jazz to the Tin Pan Alley tradition, through Sinatra and his bobby soxers. Britain didn't: the labels didn't expect rock to last, but what it had was old time entertainment, variety (different to American vaudeville) and music hall. Nobody knew what was expected of them because nobody had drafted the rules yet, so those sold as rock rebels were directed towards what they knew, big shiny family showbusiness, because there was nothing else. Little of this is really laid bare - Tommy Steele is here identified as Britain's first rock and roll star and reference is made to Larry Parnes identifying the teenage charisma dollar with his stable of similar types, but then briefly hands off his co-option into Little White Bull and Flash Bang Wallop territory to spend time on comparatively minor figure Terry Dene, portentiously held up because of mental instability as someone who "struggled to conform to the mould the music industry had allotted him" and who was set in "the straightjacket the music industry was forcing him into". Similarly, Jack Good, who invented both Oh Boy! and Six-Five Special and thus is really quite notable in charting the spread of the stars of the day, is only introduced briefly as the man who made Cliff Richard into more of an Elvis figure. A brief appearance by the reclusive producer, however, does reveal him in full monk's outfit, which is something.

As a whole it seemed confused whether all this devil's music was a rejection of the industry's old fashioned ways or a reinforcement of them, suggesting that it didn't really make all that much difference once the initial wave receded - while inarguably great Joe Meek, held up as a totem of independent thought in a fuddy-duddy atmosphere, was still at heart making records in recognised hit styles for the major labels.

Luckily, then the Beatles arrive and we're on much safer retrospective ground. Part two opens with a declaration that in fact all we've just seen was tightly controlled after all - indeed, we no learn everyone who'd just been talked up as Britain's most loved singers in fact "left Britain's teenagers distinctly unimpressed", because Lulu and Cilla Black preferred the Americans - and it's only in the 60s that we saw "managers and producers who turned the pop world upside down". The Beatles story has been pored over so much so it's forgiveable that, although George Martin contributes, they get put into the background to an extent - they were their own cultural event beyond anything else British pop was doing. This part takes the curious view, in retrospect knowing that this had been built up as the decade in which the creative artist was king, that it was the managers and starmakers who made it happen, taking pop out of the hands of the controlling managerial interests and delivering it to...erm...they've not thought that bit through, clearly. In fairness, though, the story has been raked over so often at least this was a new way of tackling it, even if the introduction to the Beatles via Brian Epstein admiringly refers to his developing "stable of Liverpudlian acts", presumably very difference to Parnes' stable of acts held up as the old guard ten minutes earlier. It tends to get swept up in the moment of the idea of societal change too - the case for the importance of Andrew Loog Oldham's emergence in the way he sold a rhythm and blues band as the most dangerous young men in the country is well made ("he wasn't a manager, he was an extra member"), but there is no connection however you slice it between him and Harold MacMillan's retirement. Passing by the mods and rockers fights, something very difficult to comprehend from this distance, in fifteen seconds flat as decoration for a brief offshoot into mod fashion won't do either. Was it not important in the developing media age that the Who were managed by two film-makers? It doesn't think the issue important to debate beyond reference. There's a lot of holes that the editing doesn't give room to explain either - Mickie Most apparently signed Herman's Hermits because Peter Noone reminded him of a young JFK, but we doubt that was the whole reason why he sold ten million, and we're told With reference to Most helping him take on America that Donovan's style was "hardly the stuff of pop dreams in '65", a statement which would surprise Dylan and the West Coast flower power kids. And then, after heralding this as the men upstairs' own free thinking revolution, it falls back into realising that it didn't really change the industry as much as give them ideas, the programme finding itself surprised that an industry predicated on income and catching the latest wave might be privy to unscrupulous types. You can't help thinking that going on about management to this extent is reinforcing ideas of The Music Establishment rather than acting as its counterbalance.

It's clear before the end that this isn't actually a free flowing tale, pop music and its USPs in Britain. The first era of rock stardom lasted maybe three years; this one, it's claimed, began in 1964 and was over by 1967 when the Beatles left the road and rock music, which was apparently "conceptual, for grown-ups", became king. And then, apparently, Allan Klein splits the Beatles and "British pop seemed to be over", until complete changes of style by Marc Bolan and Slade "reclaim pop from rock". You can see the way this is going - pop, very literally, although the issues of Bowie and Roxy Music being awkward pieces to fit into the jigsaw of the time are addressed by just ignoring the difficult question of helping it hang together and getting onto Chinn & Chapman before anyone notices.

But lo! What archive film sequence over yonder VT suite monitor breaks? See rubbish pile up in the streets and trade unions picket somewhere or other as Rick Wakeman wears a cape (Mud are directly accused of bringing the charts down too, despite glam being a great stopover point in the story last time) and the Queen celebrates the Jubilee... and here comes our saviour, and it's Johnny Rotten with his vintage mike and his small can of beer! It's surely on a special reel in the BBC archive room by now. Giving themselves a good thirty years plus to cover in part three was going to be difficult enough without going the textbook route on how Punk Was A Direct Threat To The Establishment/British Way Of Life (delete as appropriate), and especially so if you're discarding it with the stock shots and rote lines. What it does smartly show is how that anything goes attitude fed itself into what followed, the early 80's odd ideas of dressing up and presenting free-thinking works, a sea change in its own way that the sainted Neil Tennant sums up as "bringing in new references, new subject matters, doing it with glamour... learning the lessons of punk and dressing it up". Phil Oakey, if you're wondering, is the one to declare his very un-punk band were "really a punk band", although with thought at least he could show his working. Then, without spotting the lack of join, we're into Trevor Horn boasting of making records with machines (Holly Johnson is by no means a man with nothing to say, but he gets a relatively oddly lengthy amount of time to say it in given the nature of Frankie's passing show) and the declaration that New Pop was, yes, like punk had never happened. Duran Duran and Band Aid actually weren't what New Pop was, but let that pass. (Where, though, was Simon Napier-Bell, a shining example of the aforementioned PR-led svengali as well as a pawn in the underlying and never fully committed to (passing reference was made in relation to Epstein) pretty boys/gay managers issue?)

Tennant also makes a case for the Pet Shop Boys being the turning point where the Ants-to-Wham! pop boom took in dance music, and although he's probably too diplomatic to say it it's probably also the end of the big shiny stuff's imperceptibly unique nature as here come Stock Aitken & Waterman and their in-house sound blitzing all. The clips played haven't aged well (one hears Bananarama's version of Venus and realises how far they've moved since their initial chart phase, which even they seem to have forgotten now), but that's the point. As Pete Waterman, who's already admitted writing Mel & Kim's Respectable as a kind of meta-pop stating SAW's immoveable position, points out SAW in essence were run on the same lines as Motown, with writing and production taken from a narrow field, but you sense in tone that the producer can't really make a case for this being anything more significant. Waterman does, however, believe that being hated by the NME is punk in itself ("they'd lost their sense of humour!"), which suggests that, like boy bands who make a video in which they wear silly wigs and reckon it's influenced by Spinal Tap, he really wasn't concentrating. (This, by the way, is backed up by the NME's Bad News Of The Year poll results for 1987 in which SAW come in, erm, ninth. The Conservative General Election victory won, since you ask, ahead of the Smiths split, with four tragedies, AIDS and a cancelled Prince gig also ahead).

Again, it's notable that as we go through Stock, Waterman, Louis Walsh (and one more time round for the Late Late Show clip!), Nigel Martin-Smith and Tom Watkins (who can't have been in the public eye for a decade), the programme doesn't think to make a connection between this manager-led era and all the other manager-led eras, on any level, despite the market being so much bigger this time around. Instead it's full speed ahead to Alex James' gaff and another spin round Britpop, introduced as a reaction to boy bands immediately before Damon Albarn labels it a reaction to American rock hegemony. It feels like they've just given up trying to make a linear argument now. Bizarrely, though, then we get a clip of Menswear, because of course bandwagon jumping was invented in 1996, inspired by Alex Kapranos, who seems to be making a play as the Noughties' own Neil Tennant, commenting that the great bands were "swimming in a sea of shit" if not mentioning any by name.

After that it seems to realise that there's not long left so cursorily races through the Spice Girls and the reality shows, spends just as much time on Gorillaz for no good reason, forgets Girls Aloud and the Sugababes school of production advancement and alights on a present day of "arty groups with their finger on the pulse of British life". Nope, us neither, but while we accept it can't just conclude "and today, well, it's transitional, and to be honest mostly shit. Go and listen to Americans. Ta-ta!" going with Franz Ferdinand as some sort of scene leader makes no sense given what the previous 175 minutes have dealt with, even with a tenuous but inevitable Internet connection (Apparently Jamie T is one of our foremost pop achievers. Who knew.) "Tin Pan Alley is no longer a relevant entity" is a key part of the conclusion, this after talking about managers and pre-packaging svengalis in the same spirit for the best part of three hours, "but the spirit...our insatiable desire for pop music, transcends both time and place." Whatever that means. Then it plays out on Foundations, just to create its own comebacks, concluding a statement of belated intent as confused as the focus of the entire series - it's sold to the casual viewer as intelligent pop for a new technological age, but really it's as much about focus artifice. It's as if rock'n'roll barely happened.


Anonymous said...

looks like you don`t like musik-recco-series,but BBC isn`t responsible for Rock, or.

literally?..."great bands are swimming in a sea of shit" what figuratively means..? me out!?

-germany waives the rulers-

Simon said...

It's Alex Kapranos' quote, basically meaning there were great British guitar bands in the mid-90s but a lot of rubbish around that was getting popular by being in a similar style to Blur, Oasis, Pulp etc.

Anonymous said...

oh....rude boy.maybe he`s working slightly to hard on his dirty songs.

But "etc." wasn`t just shit and rubbish ...allthough I barly can recall Pulp`s musicstyle.

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