It’s vacation season across the continent of Europe. Business news slows down, and I’m afraid I’m going to go all rock-crit on you. (Just be grateful I’m not Lester Bangs.)
The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error – but I have no fear
Cos London is drowning and I live by the river
One of the best of the silly season stories surrounds the co-opting of the Clash’s London Calling into the countdown to the London Olympics – the use of rebel music to promote the most establishment of activities. It’s unlikely that Joe Strummer had velodromes, Sebastian Coe and Westfield Stratford in mind when he wrote his apocalyptic lyrics, but it’s also unlikely that Strummer (of all people) would have believed that the punk wars were part of a historical continuum that would in due course see rock music neutered and safely at harbour in a bland mainstream soup of manufactured pop.
Although the Clash could be magnificent (Complete Control, White Man in Hammersmith Palais), all too often they were just irritating (I personally found the Jam, Elvis Costello and Buzzcocks more consistent, and more productive to boot). The Clash’s songs have become posthumous anthems – impossible for the masses to enjoy or Radio One to programme when they were newly-minted, but now a suitable karaoke backing track for the Princess Royal and the Prime Minister.
Rock and roll and athletics once occupied wholly separate worlds, with TV sports commentators in blazers and ties, and theme tunes provided by the likes of Tony Hatch. In 1986, Colourbox (a good band who achieved too little) released a single called “The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme”, the joke being that no contemporary group would ever be commissioned to create sports programming music, any more than the Southern Death Cult were likely to represent the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest. Perhaps Colourbox were sensing the generational shift that moved rock from the wrong side of the tracks towards family entertainment. With rock stars getting older and hiring better lawyers, it didn’t take long for their music to move from its own self-defined world into the mainstream (even if an ironic stance was for a long time de rigueur). By the time New Order emasculated themselves with an updated version of Back Home, pop and rock had reverted to the days of Lita Rosa, and was reduced to a bit-part role in the ongoing variety show of popular entertainment. This doesn’t mean that modern musicians can’t spin a pleasant tune, but the revolutionary fire is long gone, and personal or political views are now better expressed through other media.
One definition of great art is that it retains its power to shock or move us, even centuries after its creation. This is certainly true of great painting; whilst images of Botticelli, Breughel or Caravaggio may be well known, the actual canvases have a visceral impact – with the exception of the Mona Lisa, there is little in the world’s great galleries and places of worship that isn’t much more powerful in real life than in reproduction. Every performance of a play is unique, so that even when we know exactly when Gloucester will be blinded, a good performance of Lear retains its original power, 400 years after it was written. And great architecture has to be experienced for real – Canaletto and Woody Allen have their moments, but cannot convey the real Venice or New York.
However, looking back on aeons of great art, our culture does an excellent job of sifting out the junk, and concentrating on the good stuff. Most 16th century art was pretty second-rate, but most of it has disappeared; most movies of the 1930s and 40s were rough pot-boilers, but we can forget those, and concentrate on the masterpieces, looking back at a golden age of cinema.
Music is more pervasive than the other arts, and is often there whether or not we seek it out. It is easy to hear great music (from Telemann to the Temptations) without really noticing it. However, it doesn’t take much concentration to appreciate the logical patterns of discord and resolution in Bach; to be moved by Mahler’s glorification of the human spirit, or Stravinsky’s celebration of
more earthy and fundamental urges. The slow movement of Beethoven’s 7th, written almost 200 years ago, still carries a unique and moving power – a fact understood by the makers of The King’s Speech when they played it beneath George VI’s climactic address to the nation on the outbreak of war. But most of the music written before the birth of electronic recording is now discarded and forgotten.
Artistic movements don’t last, and it would be absurd to expect the reiterative rock of the 90s and 00s to match earlier decades – after the revolutionary newness subsided, every rocker became a part of the status quo (was ever a band more aptly named), condemned to churn out the same variants on their same old themes.
Heartbreak Hotel, Like a Rolling Stone, Respect or Strawberry Fields Forever, to cite obvious examples, were unlike anything created before, in both musical and lyrical tone. Their influences were the blues, country, music hall and 19th century poetry; today’s rock music is inevitably influenced primarily by yesterday’s rock music, and sounds like a de-inspired version of the old stuff.
Hopefully, this isn’t just your writer as BOF, disparaging the young people – all artistic movements grow old. Take the Pre-Raphaelites (whom I love, and others cannot abide) – Millais took the Mick Jagger route, and went from shocking the establishment to painting Bubbles; Holman Hunt was more of a true-to-himself Van Morrison, old and irascible, but still condemned to play his greatest hits. Their successors weren’t better, they were far worse – but they were more canny and
risk-averse. Artists like Leighton and Alma Tadema eliminated the difficult stuff to concentrate on sex and lusciousness, and – like Bon Jovi or Oasis – made a mighty fine living for themselves.
In earlier centuries, old masters were routinely chopped up to fit their location, or to maximise their value – after all, a triptych altar piece made its impoverished owner more money if it was sold in pieces to three different Grand Tourists. Rock music is recent enough for us to carry thousands of songs in our memories, but old enough for it to have lost its revolutionary sting. We won’t be around to see how much of it will survive in another hundred years, and what will become enshrined in the canon.
However, I think it’s safe to assume that the Fab Four will retain a place at the top of the heap. Or, as the old song reminds us:
Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust
– but Sir Paul McCartney will open the London Olympic Games.