Thursday, October 14, 2010

U.K. versus U.S.A.
(published under the title "Remotely Interesting")
GQ Style, Autumn 2008


I never felt the faintest twinge of patriotism when I actually lived in Britain. The political sort seemed either silly or ugly; I wasn't into sports. As for pop, I was always embarrassed when music journalists got into flag-waving boosterism, could never see the point of their quests for the homegrown version: UK reggae, Britfunk, Britrap…. that long line of underachievement. In reaction, I became almost an Anglophobe, preferring American underground rock of the Eighties to this country's scrawny indie fare. For every Smiths, there seemed to be a score of jingle-jangly Housemartins-type bands and Wedding Present-style Northern miserabilists; for each My Bloody Valentine, a couple dozen shandy-weak shoegazers of the Ride/Chapterhouse ilk.

All this changed when I left the U.K in 1994 and settled in New York permanently. Not immediately. But, in what's probably a common syndrome with expatriates, it was only upon removal from the native context that I actually ceased to take it for granted, saw it properly for the first time. The crappy mundanity that makes up so much of the UK music scene dropped away and I started to appreciate the lippy, quippy, concept-driven approach of the better British bands; the way they dedicated their energy to shaping a striking-looking aesthetic rather than mastering the craft of rocking convincingly. I missed the hype-d up metabolism of UK pop culture, fueled by the competition between the music papers and between individual journalists, motored by bands skilled at self-salesmanship and image-cultivation.

The British scene's excitingly frenetic pace contrasted with sluggish alt-America, where trends evolved at tortoise-like tempo, thanks to cautious, responsible, hype-wary magazines, and to bands full of mumbling slackers pretending to be less articulate and educated than they actually were, and who espoused a sort of anti-corporate passive-aggressiveness that made a virtue of lack of ambition. In Britain, thanks to the influence of the music papers on the record industry, Top of the Pops was a reachable target. The UK charts were regularly penetrated by scruffy indie bands (along with underground dance anthems and all manner of novelty hits), whereas in America, only corporate muscle and ruthless professionalism could get you into the Billboard Top 40.

Top of the Pops was actually one of the things I started to miss as an expatriate, along with John Peel's show. This despite the fact that I hadn't listened to Peel in ages while TOTP had become an increasingly disappointing experience during my later years living in London. Nonetheless, the existence of these channels for the mediation for the underground into the mainstream, with their distant echo of Lord Reith's vision of the BBC as the educator of public taste, seemed to explain a lot about the volatility and eccentricity of the UK pop landscape over the decades.
In the second half of the Nineties, ie. pretty much immediately after I'd left the country, there suddenly seemed to be a lot to be patriotic about, musically. Not so much Union Jack-clad Britpop, though. For me it was all about our endlessly fertile and mutagenic dance culture, from jungle and trip hop to Big Beat and 2step garage. House and techno may have started in middle America in the mid-Eighties, but there's no doubt that in global terms the UK was Number One Rave Nation. In 1997, it was thrilling to see some of that wild spectrum of sound bust its way into the US mainstream--Prodigy, Chemicals, Orbital, Underworld. By then I'd also began to feel intensely, wistfully nostalgic about a particular British approach to pop, fashioned by art school kids and petit bourgeois autodidacts. The success of Pulp (which I'd have so loved to witness first-hand but caught only an after-tremor on a rare visit home, when the DJ played "Common People" at my brother's wedding reception) reminded me of how in the UK it's always seemed possible for figures who weren't obvious heart throbs or even particularly able (in conventional terms) as singers to become pop stars: the lineage of unlikely charisma and peculiar sex appeal that runs from Ray Davies via Ian Dury and Morrissey through to Jarvis. The US pop machine has never had a place for such mis-shapes.

"Nostalgia" originally referred not to the impossible longing for "lost time" but to homesickness for one's native land (an 18th Century physician coined the word to describe a psychosomatic malady affecting soldiers on long tours of duty abroad). The pangs I felt for the UK art-into-pop tradition were obviously related to my own geographical displacement, the ache caused by the thought of the shape of post boxes, the taste of Marmite, the vocal timbre of Radio 4 announcers. But in truth, that artpop tradition was become more remote in time too: back in Blighty it was, if not fading away completely, then certainly being pushed to the periphery of the pop mainstream. The culprits were the having-it hedonism of club culture (what rave had degenerated into by 1998) and the boorish nu-philistinism of the Oasis end of Britpop. Then around the turn of the decade, UK pop culture was inundated by hip hop and R&B.

All these changes--and there's no denying that the brash, ego-maniacal energy and futurism of Black American music also had invigorating effects--contributed to a slowly building, retrospective pride about British pop on my part. Almost in reaction to the UK's subordination by American music this past decade, I've become preoccupied by the earlier phase of pop history when it was a two-way street spanning the Atlantic. Again, perhaps it's only when something is gone that you appreciate how remarkable it was. I'm talking about the singularity of the British pop achievement, how for a huge stretch of its lifespan we enjoyed co-dominion with America over global pop culture. This, despite having only one-fifth the population of the U.S.A. and lacking their organic connection to rhythm-and-blues, soul, country, etc.

"Co-dominion"? Actually, during the Sixties, it's game set and match to Britain: the Beatles and Rolling Stones wipe out everything else. The massive Dylan industry of books and documentaries that's gone into hyperdrive these last dozen years or so is, I reckon, a semi-conscious retaliation to British dominance of the Sixties, a delayed form of American babyboomer patriotism that seeks to boost the profile of the only possible candidate when it comes to rivaling the historical immensity of the Beatles. But when I were a lad in the late Seventies, Dylan seemed like an esoteric, far-from-the-centre-of-things figure, a talisman only for those fusty freaks known as Dylanologists (admittedly this was during the singer's Born Again Christian phrase, an all-time nadir in the graph line of his iconicity). Same goes for the Beach Boys, actually: they were this slightly naff surf group with castrato voices, and once again it's only sustained effort from the Brian Wilson Is a Genius industry that has subsequently placed them in vicinity to the Fab Four. No, from Liverpool in '63 to London from '65 onwards (with a slight intermission for San Francisco, but who actually listens to the records made by that fair city's acid-rockers?), Britannia ruled the airwaves even as she repeatedly waived the rules of rock.

In the Seventies, things evened out between USA and UK, but on balance I'd still give it to us Brits. We invented three of the decade's crucial rock genres (metal, prog, glam) and co-invented (I'd say perfected) the other one, punk. Without the Sex Pistols and all that followed them, punk would never have changed rock history; the New York scene was a coalition of post-Beatnik poets, junkie axe heroes, and B-movie obsessed record collectors. Give or take "Marquee Moon" the song, I'd swap the entirety of NYC punk for the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady.

The Eighties? Started well, with a Second British Invasion (what American journalists dubbed our horde of gender-bendy synthpoppers and fair-haired funkateers, with MTV playing a treasonous Benedict Arnold-type role) that echoed if not quite equaled the British beat boom's impact on Sixties America. But then things started slipping in the later Eighties and from grunge and gangsta onwards it's been downhill ever since for the UK in terms of our special relationship with America. In 1984, the peak year of the Second British Invasion, UK artists commanded 28 percent of the best selling albums in America; by 1999 that figure had shriveled to 0.2 percent and, despite a Coldplay here and an Amy Winehouse there, it's never really recovered. It's like an extremely unfair trade pact: the Yanks flood our market with their pop product but (outside a niche audience of nutty Anglophiles) they've no interest in taking our exports.

Paul Morley suggested recently that pop music--our flair for it, our prominent role in it globally and historically--has been perhaps the major force in holding the nation together during its post-imperial twilight of identity confusion. That pop was a kind of groovy surrogate for the British Empire, in fact. So what happened? How did we manage to lose a second Empire? Simon Frith argues that the 1963-84 period was an exceptional "moment," during which a confluence of historically contingent factors made the UK an equal partner with America. Rock'n'roll may have started out as purely American, but by the time the music became "rock" it was Anglo-American, and with the emphasis on the first half of that hyphenate. Just at the point--1963-66--when the music acquired a sense of artiness and literacy (while simultaneously coming into alignment with revolutionary and progressive currents within society) Britain came to the fore. And did again, with punk, recharging the fading battery of rock-as-oppositional-force. Perhaps Britain's eminence has declined in ratio to the extent that those things are no longer what rock is about? Maybe our eclipse ran in parallel with the gradual relapse of rock/pop into showbiz, a fully-integrated product within the capitalistic leisure/entertainment complex?

There are other factors that gave us our historical edge, I think. One was the very element of distance, which opened up possibilities of irony, artifice, and conceptualism, but also had sonic effects. The American theorist Joe Carducci notes how Sixties and Seventies British bands's music often had a quality of starkness, comparing the "organic", muddily-produced sound of US groups (everyone from Grand Funk Railroad to the Stooges) with the relative clarity of heavy-riffing outfits like Sabbath, Zeppelin and Free (just think of the use of silence in "Alright Now"). That led in turn to the punchy production of glam rock and the diagrammatic sound-structures of postpunk outfits like Wire and Gang of Four. It's almost as though our remoteness from the roots source allowed for a certain coldblooded detachment, an ability to stand back a little way and then open up the rhythmic engine of rock to rearrange its moving parts. Perhaps that's also why British bands embraced the studio so avidly. I've long felt that British rock is essentially about recordings, whereas Americans invariably withhold judgement about a band until they've seen them live (where sound is more mushed-up and what counts is "feel"). Compare the Beatles, tampering with the raw materiality of sound using effects and tape-splices at Abbey Road, with the Byrds, whose innovations were rooted more in the fluidity of the improvisatory jam. The Beatles were Stockhausen fans; The Byrds admired Coltrane. That difference goes some way to explaining the UK lineage of studio wizardry that takes in Joe Meek, Pink Floyd, 10CC, Brian Eno, Trevor Horn, the list is endless. There are American equivalents--Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren, Lindsay Buckingham--but not nearly so many.

Another factor to consider is the special British susceptibility to Black American music (and Caribbean too--could there ever have been an American Specials, a U.S. Police?). Scan across British pop history and you'll repeatedly find black sounds of diverse sorts sparking the brightest musical minds: countless Sixties groups who studied blues recordings with a scholarly intensity; Robert Wyatt with his love of jazz and vocal emulation of Dionne Warwick; John Lydon going to reggae "blues" dances chaperoned by Don Letts; entire cults from trad jazz to Northern Soul to 2-Tone based around bygone styles of black dance; everyone from Jamiroquai to LTJ Bukem mooning over the "kosmigroove" jazz-funk of Roy Ayers; Mike Skinner entranced by Nas and Raekwon but then deciding to honor the rap dictum "do you"… Sometimes it feels like we feel this music more deeply than any other non-black people on Earth: it supplies something we need, lets loose something that would be otherwise hopelessly knotted. But at our best we've always brought something to the music, our own twist, some uniquely British content.

Why did our mutations of the Black American source sounds stop playing so well internationally, though? By the end of the Nineties, our overseas profile had slipped to the parlous point where chart-topping UK sensations as various as So Solid Crew and Girls Aloud not only failed to match their UK impact in America, they couldn't even get their albums released there! The reason, I think, is the dominance of hip hop and our failure (unlike with R&B in the Sixties and funk in the Seventies and Eighties) to come up with spin on it that Americans cared for or found convincing. Jungle, trip hop, 2step, grime: all fantastically innovative, but with a few exceptions--Portishead, riding high in both Billboard and the UK Top Forty as I write--they never got close to rivaling American rap. Not even in the UK itself. Hip hop's appeal is partly based on the fact that it is always originally a local music, rich in a sense of place, steeped in 'hood lore. But injecting exactly that sort of English parochial quirkiness into rap got UK artists like the Streets and Dizzee Rascal no more than cult followings of Anglophile hipsters in the USA.

We may no longer be able to foist our homegrown pop peculiarities on the entire world like we once did. But we still, occasionally, foist them on ourselves. Amid the latest American-made machine pop and its second-rate homegrown clones, there are always things in our singles chart that could only ever be a hit in Britain. Bassline house from Sheffield and Nottingham, all faecal-splattery low-end and deliriously treble-tastic euphoria. Wiley and his "Rolex". Daft art school chancers like the Klaxons, who modeled their career on the KLF's The Manual: How to Have a Number One Hit the Easy Way and ended up performing a live mash-up with Rihanna and her "Umbrella" onstage at the 2008 Brit Awards. Only in the UK! For sure, there's a pathos to that. But there is also-- strangely, resiliently, defiantly--a pride.

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