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The Beaten Generation

January 11, 2012

Original aartwork by Brad Tuttle Esq. (I only get to join in at the colouring in stage!)

dev·il’s advocate (dᵉv’ᵊlz) n. One who argues against a cause or position, not as a committed opponent but simply for the sake of argument or to determine the validity of the cause or position.

devilsaardvark   (a:d’va:k’) n. As devil’s advocate, only with a much larger nose.

It’s easy when you get to my age to look back at your youth through rose-tinted spectacles. Maybe nostalgia ain’t what it used to be but there was something we used to have as cubs that’s missing today… wasn’t there? And besides…

…my teenage years were, on the whole, pretty abysmal!

I was reminded of this fact (not the abysmal teenagehood, but the something missing thing) when a tweet chanced its way to me from the NME quoting Noel Gallagher as saying, “Oasis and Blur were the last great indie bands in the charts.” Bless him! I’m a big fan of Gallagher Major’s – although I was always more into Blur – and he always gives good copy, but I do think he’s doing a massive disservice to Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian, Bloc Party and Snow Patrol. It did get me thinking though, that what is missing from the current music scene is some good, old-fashioned, scream-into-the-mic protest songs.

Politically motivated protest songwriters have been around for centuries, but in terms of recording artists, each generation has had their champions. My parents had Bob Dylan, my grandparents had Woody Guthrie and I had a whole host of idols to help me through my troublesome teenage years. Growing in up in the late 70’s/early 80’s wasn’t a whole bundle of laughs. Unemployment, the cold war, only three channels on the telly until 1982… Internet? How can you get the internet when ‘state of the art’ consists of ZX81 computers with their 1k of memory? Modem? Isn’t he a character off of Blake’s 7? But out of adversity, they say, comes great art and some of the music inspired by those troubled times made it feel good to be alive.

One of my favourite bands from that era, The Clash, produced some of the most, powerful, gritty, acerbic and yet at the same time sweet and magical music of the period. ‘White Riot’ was their first single, released in 1977, and although it only managed to reach the modest peak of 38 in the UK, it remained in the charts for 33 weeks. Far from being a song about race issues, Joe Strummer, Clash frontman and the song’s author, wrote it as a call to disenfranchised, British, white youth to follow the example set by their black counterparts who had, along with Strummer and the Clash’s bassist Paul Simenon, taken part in the Notting Hill Riots of 1976. Some might argue that the massive police presence at the Notting Hill Carnival that year was entirely justified. Just look at what happened. You can draw your own conclusions.

1979 brought to power a Conservative government, lead by Margaret Thatcher and very quickly the country was polarised. People either cheer or jeer when they hear the Iron Lady’s name mentioned. Finding someone who was around at the time and is ambivalent towards her is about as difficult as finding a subliminal message in a Cliff Richard single. Within 12 months of coming to power, Birmingham-based The Beat had released the unambiguously titled, ‘Stand Down Margaret’.

Then along came The Jam, lead by the electrifying Paul Weller with ‘Eton Rifles’ – a song about an incident which David Cameron claims to have been a part of as a cadet – and ‘Going Underground’, both full of bitterness and resentment and beautifully crafted, reaching no.3 and no.1 respectively. In 2008 Cameron listed it as one of his favourite songs. He said, “I don’t see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs.” Well, if he’s missing the point there, then how in the name of Johnny Rotten’s brothel creepers is he going to get a handle on foreign, domestic or economic policy? If Dave is capable of any ‘untamed wit’, then I’ve yet to see it.

In 1981, ‘Invisible Sun’ by The Police was banned due to its references to Northern Ireland, yet reached no.2. and Heaven 17’s ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang  was banned by Radio 1 Breakfast Show host and all-round Thatcher fan, Mike Read, just because he could. Incidentally it was Read that banned Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ which might have contributed something to its success. It seems almost inconceivable that Chris Moyles would ban a single from his show because it was overtly political, probably due to the fact that there is very little that is ‘overtly political’ going on in the music industry these days and, therein lies the problem.

It might be possible to argue that Simon Cowell alone is enough to make people want to put bricks through windows and light Molotov cocktails, (not at today’s tax-laden fuel prices!) but it is his vice-like grip on popular music culture that has left a residue of apathy amongst our youngsters. The UK singles chart is packed with manufactured boy and girl bands and solo singers spawned from so-called talent shows like X Factor. The very idea that JLS will reach number 1 in the charts with a track containing a political message is beyond far-fetched. But then hey, their fan base is 8 years old. My youngest aardvark cub sleeps in a pair of pyjamas, emblazoned with their uncontroversial faces!

Another music genre that has added to the malaise is rap. I love a bit of hip hop, but cannot for the life of me abide the kind of lyric that goes on about how much better one person is over another because of the amount of bling they have. Or how their car is pimped. Or how much money they earn. Or how much swagger they think they’ve got. Get a grip and grow up! They probably grew up in some sleepy, rural market town for fuck’s sake! Last time I checked, Malvern was not classed as a ghetto! Look around you. Youth unemployment is at a record high. We’re in the middle of the mother of all recessions and the current number 1 single is ‘Good Feeling’ by Flo Rida. Ironic? Absolutely. Intentionally so? Not on your nelly!

There is, of course, the Occupy movement, but these are grown ups in tents. When our youth decided to go on the rampage in August 2011, there was no focus or justification for their actions. It was entirely motivated by the desire to wreak havoc and do a spot of ‘free’ shopping at the same time. Today’s teenagers, just like those of us who grew up 30 years ago, have plenty to be concerned about, but they seem unaware of how politics today is shaping their lives and determining their futures and from where I’m sat, very few of them seem to give a monkey’s. And whilst Simon Cowell’s protégés continue to clog up the charts with their vacuous, bubblegum pop, this will continue to be the case.

Comedy, on the other hand… well, that does appear to be the new rock and roll.

I’ll leave you with a link to a track that sums it all up for me. From 1988, I give you The The’s ‘The Beat(en) Generation’, which features two of my all-time heroes, Matt Johnson – Mr The The himself-  and guitar God, Johnny Marr. The lyrics prove that Johnson is prophetic and Marr’s guitar and harmonica work are almost timeless. And if you like the single, check out the album from whence it came, ‘Mind Bomb’. Armageddon Days Are Here Again.

Enjoy. And apologies to those of you that are now saying, “yeah and what about […]?” Please leave examples of great bands who I missed out due to the fact that I could have gone on until next year writing this in the feedback/comments section. I’ll start you off…

The Smiths. The Manic Street Preachers. Over to you…


From → Music, Politics

  1. excellent, well-written post, which makes me realsie that it is not about trying to publish, but rather about engaging cognitively with the topic. furthermore,the personalisation of the topic allows the empathy to shine through.
    would not, however, subscribe to the belief that the riots last year were wholly unpolitical even if there was a failure to articulate grievances in the way that was achieved in 1981.
    moreover, dylan was a reluctant prophet for a generation and he himself later admitted that he was actually apolitical. difficult to imagine, of course, when we think of the time, place and lyrics.

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