Digging out the dinosaurs, or How I Came to Love the Canon
BEATLES - The Fab Four, Too Big to Ignore. But in my family it was possible to give it a good go as a consequence of my parents returning decluttered from NZ meant we had no recorded 60s beat music in the house. Yet their limited stories of stepping out in the decade usually included stories of bopping along in the dancehall to Twist and Shout (but it was unlikely my old dear was one of the 18 who attended this 1961 gig in Aldershot!); it was always important to state who your favourite moptop was even before you knew enough to make a judgment (I went with my mum and sided with George, later to be an icon of the Desire warehouse raves in London). So even though my knowledge was restricted to what I’d heard on regional radio shows, that still accounted for a lot.
All this applies to a lesser extent, for the STONES, WHO and KINKS – all playing intrinsic roles in self-expression and hedonistic behaviour (both sometimes confined to the bedroom, but nevertheless…) at various stages between early adolescence and my mid-20s. All bands with history as hagiography to navigate, and with a varied and rich musical output before they all became certifiably crap. If pushed to choose, The Who of Can’t Explain and the Kids Are Alright would accompany me to the desert island.
JIMI HENDRIX - An iconic ace face that made for endless silkscreen and then digital repro treatment, just like Che, that told its own story of countercultural times, that bore repeated commodified representation by manufacturers of cool. Crosstown Traffic sounded great even in that jeans advert, while Viz dug the cat in a gently ribbing comic strip. At the tail-end of the 80s the anti-rockist modernist pop surge had stalled and Jimi Hendrix, who had been deemed surplus to the decade’s alternative music demands (too individual, too virtuoso), would like the Beatles prove a good fit for a dance revolution that let its psychedelic side hang out. Getting into this guitar hero coincided with the first adolescent bursts of free expression, going out, getting out of it, dressing in purple – and a group of us were loud and proud Jimi converts, maan. I dug unusually deep in the short burst of fandom I had for Chas Chandler’s man, getting three or four albums, a tape of Live at Winterland and poring over the couple of documentaries aired at the time that went a long way to consolidating the Hendrix myths. The Experience were a shithot power trio, and in their range seemed to convey ably the occasionally dark and dangerous side of late 60s peace and love. Now he shares museum space with Handel in the house they lived at in Mayfair.
SEX PISTOLS - The recent Punk Britannias told us largely what we already knew. I always bow to Phil Oakey’s description that the uprising was the final ‘end of the second world war’ – meaning Britain was ready to culturally project in a more essential ways than ‘phoney Beatles mania’. And, up to here with bullshit served up by rock dinosaurs or a pop mediated over a by a troupe of protected child abusers, project it did. Johnny Rotten/John Lydon fills one criteria of a fully fledged rock icon in that his very image, right in yer face, was imprinted on my brain long before I’d been properly exposed to the Pistols’ music, let alone PiL. Long after the outrages of 76/77, he was still serving as the media establishment’s bete noire. He WAS punk, and if you were heading that way you’d have to go via the Pistols, a bunch of herberts who largely hated each other, the manager, the industry, the obstacles to their wider success and, of course, this shithole of a country that Britain had become, unable to manage its postwar transition in the face of vested interests; racism, monarchism, the ruling class on one end and working class intransigence on the other. Politically, we entered the long decline so the coup would have to be cultural.
THE CLASH - As the 80s neared an end punk was only a little over 10 years so some protagonists would still hate the idea of the movement being fully assimilated into that rock hall of greatness. But The Clash, the self-styled band of outlaws, were a band that always wanted to be in the canon, and with this in mind probably welcomed the resurgent interest that followed Should I Stay or Should I Go being on that jeans ad.some kind of freewheeling urban prophet, and his daughters' work to ensure the legacy isn’t sullied. But not all of us will forget just how shit the America-infatuated Clash were, the kind of pointless, style mag rocker rock that hung on in Kensington Market stalls for years.
The Jam took on a similar role. A band that was always going to ‘mean’ more as they were almost local heroes to my Surrey/Hants suburban outpost (in fact, a one-nighter with the former girlfriend of Bruce Foxton is my only rock story of note!), but one whose passionate multiple stances (some on politics, some on, er, clothes) looked very gauche very quickly in a 90s environment where so many cultural connections dictated loose affiliations.
JAMES BROWN - Totally vital pathway to the broader, infinite world of soul, funk, hip-hop – hell, black music in general. It would never take much to discard the 80s rocky propaganda of Living in America, his last big paycheck, and head for the earlier stuff, the solid gold off albums such as Raw Soul, The Popcorn, Black Caesar and The Payback. In days where an album purchase had to be earned from supermarket or cleaning shifts and pored over until a point of certainty about its greatness was reached, I again relied on a Best Of tape nicked from my sister, who never held her collection with much intensity (such passion wasn’t necessary where she was heading – perpetual suburbia, soz sis!). But there was so much in those ten or fifteen stone cold gems to provide a long-lasting wow factor, a musicality beyond anything I’d heard, a tightness, a range of expression that you need in your life.
VELVET UNDERGROUND - Another crucial gateway, this one even more acknowledged into the industry protectorate of, sickbags at the ready, *INDIE*. Get Lou, John, Sterling and ‘Republican’ Mo and you get, along with rock classicisms about listening on the radio and the rock ‘n roll dream, freakouts (though they were too sunglasses-at-night cool to freak out themselves), drone-outs and explicit drug texts, all very exciting to a 14-15 y/o suburbanite. Barriers also broke down between mediums, artist Warhol produced the album; the band were art scene hangers-on, with explicitly literary tastes, etc. Importantly for someone of my flighty taste, there wasn’t too much to discover: the banana debut with Nico, one or two other bits – Sister Ray the most revered of the later stuff.
KRAFTWERK - If someone needs to signal pre-dance influence it could fittingly be done within a genre (a liking for electro, disco, industrial) rather than an act, but Kraftwerk were the troupe that you always knew you had to get into to understand techno, electro, synth music in general.
An outfit whose influence over the 80s pop charts was inestimable, but way beyond my teens I had been content with a 7 inch of the Robots and their regular radio play until I bought a collection of their best on two twelves. That stays in the record bag ‘just in case’ today. Forget stodgy krautrock, there is no better cipher of postwar Teutonic progress and indeed the now ill-fated European drive for unity than this lot.
LED ZEPPELIN - The divisions between the youth cultures were beginning to fade as the 80s progressed but being a ‘metaller’ had never been an option. This overground cult was a joke they didn’t get, the non-modern, greasy and often geeky longhairs with old values I in turn didn’t get it until I’d been exposed to a bit of Anthrax and Metallica (and more obviously G’nR). Then grunge in the form of early Mudhoney and Nirvana kicked the door fully open.
U2 - A slightly different case, because Edge Fund and co were still in the process of becoming preposterous in the 80s, their imminent greatness inherent in every bold walk Bono makes into the camera, in the full embrace of America as the forum for their game-changing capacities, and their ability to make a gesture look like something substantial. Full of simplistic, chest beating music, U2 were fundamental to the decade in that they embodied the desire for a rock heroism calibrated with a bit of quasi-ethical hope, and with teenagers often being quite open to leaps of faith and spiritual urges for many it was only a matter of time until they’d get U2. For me it was mid-to-late 80s, after the first electro-hip-hop wave had ebbed and I was looking for something else. So I bought War and some of the other early ones, we watched and were impressed by the Red Rock live show (and bought the LP), Joshua Tree confirmed both their canonisation and their separation from the rest of the new wave pack with their ghettoised concerns. Meanwhile, Bongo had been rising up the rock rungs with some memorable performance at Live Aid.
Mixed legacies everywhere here I'm sure you agreee. As you can see the list of dinosaurs is selective and many of those who I missed, Dylan from the 60s, Bowie and Floyd from the 70s; Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson from the 80s, were for me second-hand legends, at least as defined by ownership of an artist’s recorded output. With radio and TV shows that was hardly a problem then, unless you have completist urges against the populist ‘just the hits’ grain, and it’s certainly not a problem now. Access to my partner’s CDs, iTunes, the ocean of YouTubage, full discographies on Spotify and a televised documentary always around the corner all enable a space for their appreciation.
While there are robots in this overview regrettably there is also no female involvement which reflects poorly on who I regarded as rock icons that ‘had’ to be discovered. And who comes into the canon in the 90s/00s? Oasis are too parodic to make the grade, and too parochial like Blur. Radiohead yearn for this jurassic reach and scale, but their knowing mix of pseud and cool makes it very unlikely they could ever be regarded as ‘the people’s band’. No one US rock band stands out as carrying all before them (Metallica?), although Jay-Z is on track to make a claim for Rap Incorporated. On that note, sales alone (these days as easy as three or four clicks on Amazon) seems less of a guide of influence, as by that matrix Adele would be fighting for inclusion with Pink Floyd.
But when a South Korean pop star rocking his Gangnam Style has had 406m hits on YouTube and counting, that’s even more reason to frown at this western, transatlantic appraisal of popular music. The reissues and retro market may be big business, but increasingly the Beatles’ shake, the Stones’ swagger, the Pistols’ rage are not doing it for the youth – no surprise when Love Me Do is FIFTY years old (cue yet more rock documentaries). Mind, then, that these rockist rockers are not yet all I am listening to
. [pictures mostly grabbed from irrereverent tumblr pages accessible by clicking on the image]