ARE ROCK AND PUNK OVERRATED?
A MODERN HERESY
1st March 2020
My candidate for the funniest title for a poem ever written is William Wordsworth’s, The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement. In 1791 Wordsworth visited revolutionary France, had a love affair with Annette Vallon, fathered a child and wrote these lines:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
Essentially Wordsworth’s youth followed a new trajectory aligned with that of the utopian hopes of the Revolution. Rebellion, youth, sex and excitement were all in the mix. The French Revolution itself was a kind of ejaculatory event like a firework shot into the sky naively promising a new heaven and earth.
Liberal revolution against tyranny is sometimes required but only a utopian Marxist or a madman would seek it for its own sake or consider that it can somehow perpetuate itself in an establishment-less vacuum. This is even more true when the experience of revolution is a factitious, surrogate, sub-Marxist one of the kind seen in the 1960s when young people fancied they were ‘rebelling’ during a period of considerable material wealth and political stability. These events had a dual glamour – that associated with youth itself and that of a supposed rebellion against a repressive adult establishment. However, to attempt to reproduce endlessly the (largely faux) emotions associated with such an experience as adulthood was achieved might be seen to be a psychological aberration and one subject to the law of diminishing returns in the same way that alcohol or drug addiction are.
This being the case what is a sane way of arranging one’s psychological geography in order to accord to the maximum with the parameters of the, say, eighty year-long human condition? Surely it is to hope for the rule of law and relative political stability in which one’s loved ones and oneself can thrive and earn a living in order to keep body and soul together. Such wishes are not wishes for dullness if one agrees that the very fact of being a living human consciousness in this fascinating world is full of excitements and is both a miracle and a blessing in itself. This form of sanity extends to believing that the real aim of human life is successful adulthood rather than the bizarre historical anomaly of trying to perpetuate a stage in human development that is really just a staging post.
In spite of this, since the 60s we find ourselves living in an era that is a strange kind of trailing cultural leftover of the period that suggests the psychological maladjustment prevailed. This can be seen in the undeserved status accorded to popular music – one of the most powerful expressions of the mindset - since that time. In its various incarnations – Rock ‘n Roll, Rock, Pop and Punk for example – it has been taken very seriously not to say reverentially in many cases. The fact that the mental landscape of politically astute and highly intelligent people like Rod Liddle is configured in this way is shown by his willingness to take time out to write reviews of Justin Bieber's or Kylie Minogue’s latest album for The Spectator for example and regale us with loud and abrasive New York Dolls Youtube tracks from the 70s on Facebook.
Now, I have nothing against popular music per se. I’m certainly not encouraging people to be excessively sniffy about it (and I enjoy some of the wittier exponents of it like Ian Dury, Ray Davies and Bob Dylan). In a JD Salinger short story a highly cerebral young man wins an argument in which he ‘proves’ that classical music is superior and then walks off down the sidewalk whistling the latest popular melody. And, of course, the real motor for the majority of popular music is not political revolution and protest but love, sex and dancing. We like sex and dancing because every man, woman Jack (and Jill) of us is a ‘sex machine’ as James Brown might have had it. Male-female dancing has, indeed, been described as the ritualised vertical expression of a horizontal desire and Wiki tells us coyly that the term ‘Rock ‘n Roll’ may be ‘a sexual analogy’. This is all good and healthy for sex is life itself in so many senses. That so much of popular music is inspired by these relations is hardly surprising or in any way sinister. Indeed classical composers have always used popular dance modes in their compositions.
However, what is behind the overrating of and even reverence now accorded to the ephemeral sub-culture that is popular music (just look at how Channel 4 and the BBC news programmes lionise rap ‘artists’)? It can’t provide the same complex and comprehensive intellectual satisfaction as classical music. It is, perhaps, the heady amalgam of youth and, as I say, surrogate revolution associated with it.
Of course the affair with Vallon and the early days of the Revolution did not signify the end of Wordsworth’s trajectory. The Revolution degenerated into the Terror and because of the disillusionment engendered by this and the tensions between France and Britain, Wordsworth was obliged to return home. His down-trajectory was not over though. In later years, in order to keep body and soul together he accepted a government customs position as a ‘Keeper of Stamps’, received a Civil List pension and accepted the Poet Laureateship. First Shelley and then his young firebrand successor in the world of poetry, Robert Browning, denounced him, the latter writing ‘The Lost Leader.’
……………………………….he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire....
The use of the word crouch in contrast with any idea of uprising is perhaps significant. Browning makes it clear that Wordsworth was the first of the sell-outs to da man. The question is that, short of dying young like Keats, Shelley, Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison, was it ever likely that he wouldn’t be?
We can see the familiar trajectory at one remove from real revolution in Punk for example. The celebrated Rock critic Charles Shaar Murray, in an article sensibly called - I fought the biz and the biz won quotes as follows:
(All the kids) felt it (Punk) and then got into the clothes - same old story got into the music - same old story - and they said 'fuck' and spit on TV....
The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton's suits - huh
You think it's funny
Turning rebellion into money.
And adds himself:
...most people don't want things changed to any fundamental degree, but they do like a little bit of excitement now and then.
……..(Punk) was an alliance of convenience between two groups of people who all had a vested interest in blowing away the unbelievably boring and flabby mess into which white rock music had declined.
In other words it was just a new attempt to provide the intoxicating hit of what the sixties had provided. In that way it was an end in itself that had little political effect as Mrs Thatcher sailed on in her rather unassailable way. And what was the nature of that hit? Part of the pleasure was that it reassured one that one had real manhood as demonstrated by the ability to spit (often literally) in the face of the establishment against whom one’s courage was defined. It comforted one that one was not a coward and provided lifelong capital of evidence of courage that could be drawn down in later years. The sub-Marxist narrative saw all authority as evil so one had to exhibit unequivocal belligerence towards it. In this sense it performed a psychological role to do with a childish need for self-esteem. I’m not sure how much it correlated with real moral courage.
Wordsworth is to be admired for acknowledging his debt, after his departure from France, to Annette Vallon and their son by continually and dutifully sending them money. For sooner or later adult human love leads to children and a family that needs to be supported. This is why Wordsworth sensibly gave out the customs stamps (it's notable that in an age that pre-dated the childish idea of mental utopias brought about by revolution another great poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, had been Comptroller of Customs for the Port of London), Johnny Rotten made butter advertisements, the drummer from the Clash is now a chiropractor and Mick Jagger ended up as Sir Mick in the full embrace of the establishment he was once at daggers drawn with (there are social as a well as financial needs).
The Spectator TV critic, James Walton recently reviewed a BBC 4 programme called Chris Packham: Forever Punk. Walton reports that in the programme the BBC naturalist and ex-punk attends
….a Punk festival in North London where lots of leather-jacketed oldies were unironically singing along to Sham 69’s ‘If the Kids Are United’. ‘I’m surrounded by old people,’ Packham noted accurately. ‘And the question is: have they moved on?’