The White Room

In 1966 the pop musician John Lennon, who would shortly evolve into be-speckled counter-cultural icon John Lennon, and then subsequently, following his murder at the hands of a deranged ‘fan’ in 1980, undergo a secular canonisation as Former Beatle John Winston Ono Lennon™, remarked offhandedly that he wasn’t sure which would come to an end the first, Rock n’ Roll or Christianity. Beatle John further stated that, at that point in time, some of the youths paying a few pence for a 45rpm single regarded the Beatles as being more important to them than Jesus. His half thought out comments, which he would subsequently come to regret, chucked away and pretty much ignored by a swinging London where ideas were like fashion, here one minute, gone the next, caused outrage in the American Bible belt amongst self-righteous bigots eager to bolster their own faith by hating someone else’s. Beatles records were burned on communal fires and the Klu-Klux Clan threatened to ‘do something’. Forty-five years later, having seen more than I wanted to of the last series of The X Factor, Lennon’s speculation can finally be settled. Because, whilst – albeit walking shakily – Christianity is still on its feet, rock n’ roll, by comparison, is well and truly dead on its arse. The war is over. Rock n’ roll – RIP. Though it has to be said that Daniel O’Donnell and Cliff Richard seem to be trying to form some kind of suicide pact between the two. Have you seen/heard their duet on the electrified, rocking version of ‘Abide with me’?  They’ve both made careers out of murdering pop music and it seems that they’ve decided that they want to take Christianity with them. Middle aged ladies out there, thinking that these lovely, tea drinking lads don’t mean any harm – don’t be fooled; they are agent provocateurs working for Satan. They will steal your soul.

 

At the time Lennon delivered his unwise and, some might argue, ultimately fatal, sentiments you could, to an extent, see where he was coming from. In four short years the Beatles had gone from being a provincial band, barely making a living, doing rock n’ roll covers, not really moving forwards, to being the Fab bloody Four Lads Who Shook The World. According to the librarian/poet Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three; between the end of the Lady Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP. It wasn’t the only thing. The beginning of the Beatles phenomenon saw the birth of the modern youth and an cataclysmic explosion in pop music. In March 1966, when the ‘bigger than Jesus’ interview with Lennon was conducted, pop music seemed unstoppable. Week after week after week after week, all the singles that we are all still so familiar with were rolling out hit after hit after hit after hit. They were living through a Golden Age. And even though Lennon was carried away with the moment; expecting one gear year to flow endlessly into the next, when in fact his points of reference only went back ten years or so to the release of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock around the clock’, you could see where he was coming from. (That said, Beatle John’s 1966 probably lasted longer than most, with all the LSD rabbit holes he swam down. It perhaps stretched out and seemed to fill three decades). I talk to my mother about the bands she saw play live back in the day and, culturally, it’s like being there when Shakespeare did a recital of his sonnets… OK, here’s one about older women… Shall I compare thee… or Leonardo was dabbing on the final brush strokes to the ‘Mona Lisa’. She saw John and the rest of Fab Four, The Rolling Stones (‘Rubbish. Very disappointing. Mick wore a black and yellow hooped top. He looked like a wasp.’), The Small Faces (‘Brilliant’), The Who, Jimi Hendrix (‘he dangled his belt, teasing me’), Pink Floyd complete with Syd Barrett (‘they played behind a screen with coloured lights projecting onto it. Loads of people were fainting…’), the Byrds, Bob Dylan, the Kinks, and on and on and on. It astounds me. But even then, all these were just a handful. There was Motown and Stax, not to mention a myriad of smaller soul labels who would eventually feed the Northern Soul dancing machine, plus a mass of other singers and bands who immortalized themselves in three minute works of art that will still be relevant long after we’re all dust and the world has been re-populated by Martians. Because the songs that were being turned out then are still with us now. And even the songs that weren’t hits have entered the music pantheon. ‘This old heart of mine’ by the Isley Brothers failed to chart the first time around. The Kinks’ ‘Days’ only reached number 12 in the UK and didn’t chart at all in America. And there are others by bands/artists you can only half remember or don’t know the names of at all who recorded music that we know today. The music made back then stays with us. Will we be able to say the same about the music of 2011? Maybe a few songs will live on and there are still tunes out there, but the momentum feels to have gone. And no one seems to really care that much anymore. Music no longer seems to soundtrack our lives in the same way that it once did. Will we really forever associate the downfall of Gaddafi and his death at the hands of a vengeful mob at the climax of the Tw’ook Revolution with Alexandra Stan’s ‘Mr. Saxobeat’?

 

So what went wrong? Well, even at the height of Beatlemania, the seeds of pop music’s demise were already there. The Nemesis lurking. For instance, the dark figure of production genius Phil Spector was on the same plane as The Beatles on their way to their first tour of the US in 1964; looming like the assassin that travels north in the same railway carriage as Michael Caine in Get Carter. Because it is the producer/manager that lies at the heart of the problem. The producer and record company executive is the cancer nibbling at the innards of pop music. It was the manager/producer that gave The Monkees, the Bay City Rollers, etc to the world. Some – like Spector, as murderously psychotically bonkers as he patently is – out of the same mould as producer/landlady slaughterer Joe Meek – have had a positive affect. Others less so. Primarily, when it comes to pedalling wank, we’re talking about shady figures like Colonel Tom Parker, the man who cut Elvis’s balls off, and Tam Paton, Simon Cowell, Simon Fuller, Nigel Martin-Smith, Louis Walsh… People who don’t really know anything about music and care even less. Can’t sing, can’t play, you’ll go far… To these slimy, grasping individuals music is a Product. Wrap it up in the right way and you’ll sell Units. It could be Baked Beans or toilet rolls or haemorrhoid cream that they’re pedalling for all these money-hungry fuckers care. And then they get carried away with themselves, believing that they have the same understanding and relationship with music as the people who create it. And then they fuck themselves up. Hopefully.

 

To some extent, Disco probably didn’t help, but the real beginning of the end for Lennon’s rolling green fields of pop nirvana came in the unlikely form of New Kids on the Block. Like them or not, The Bay City Rollers could play their instruments, so could the Monkees, who also wrote a few tunes. New Kids on the Block (often shortened to NKOB, which is remarkably close to ‘knob’) could do fuck all. They didn’t play any instruments and most of them couldn’t really sing. They danced a bit. In conclusion – they were shite. And so the massive success of New Kids on the Block became the blueprint for every talentless wanker that followed them. When Nigel Martin-Smith and Louis Walsh first saw New Kids on the Block they must have been rigid. Because with New Kids on the Block the Boy Band was born and millions of pounds were fleeced from the tone deaf and the stupid. The New Kids on the Block format spawned Take That (take fucking what?) and Boyz Own. In their shitty wake came Westlife, Blue, Five, One Direction, The Spice Girls, Girls Aloud etc etc et-bloody-rip your shirt off and jiggle like a cunt-cetera. It is music for people who don’t really understand what they’re listening to or have any grasp of the history of pop music. They might say they don’t want to/need to. Maybe. But I’d echo Pete Townsend in the wake of the relative failure of ‘I can see for miles’ and say that the majority of the British record buying public are thick. And do you want to remain thick all your life? Obviously a lot of people do, because the amazing thing is that twenty years later anyone gives a fuck about any of the aging boy bands. The Take That reformation was hailed like Led Zeppelin had just recorded a new album that was better than IV and Physical Graffiti put together and were going to tour again. And then when Robbie Williams said he was getting back with them you’d have thought Lennon and Harrison had both risen from their graves and the Beatles were going to rock the Shea once more on the back of a brand new double LP. Les McKeown, with a tartan scarf tied to both his wrists, wearing some short white jeans with more tartan sewn onto them for trim, must shake a can of Special Brew and a battered Mars Bar gripped in either fist every time he sees Gary Barlow on the TV. FECKIN’ HOOTS, MUN! EH?! WHY NOT ME???!!!!! And why not? Why is Les any more shit than Robbie? Why is Eric Faulkner in less demand than Jason Orange? Because that fact is that we hadn’t run out of ideas when the Rollers turned it in (or even fifteen years and so later when a comeback might be reasonably expected these days). And so their passing was swallowed up by the next movement and there was always something new happening so we didn’t need them to comeback. Because back when ‘Shang a lang’ was in the charts none of this was meant to last. Even as far back as when the Beatles first started, in 1963 George Harrison was wondering if the boys would manage another year. Pop music had no longevity back then. Bands came and went. Not like now. In the modern era albums are released every two or three years and the bands/artistes fill the spaces in with having their private lives played out in the newspapers and celebrity magazines and selling songs to be welded onto soundtracks. But the actual work ethic isn’t there. For instance, a comparison is often made between the Beatles and Oasis. Between 1994 and 2008 Oasis released seven studio albums (eight if you count the shuffled together collection of B-sides that made up The Masterplan). Fourteen years, seven albums. The Beatles reached the seven album milestone with Revolver. That seventh album was released something like three and a half years after their first. Three and a half bloody years! During the same period they hammered out twelve UK singles (eleven number ones), none of which appeared on any of their albums and were backed by equally exclusive B-sides. Fucking phenomenal.

 

And there’s a world of difference between what the Beatles were doing and the charts now. You can’t compare the tally of number ones or weeks in the chart. The figures involved in getting to number one and the demographic are totally different. If the Beatles retirement from touring and the long recording of Sgt Peppers created the schism between rock and pop, Take That and Party created the schism between what might be defined as real music and utter bastard shite. It is a schism which has continued. And mirroring the battle between the superior Betamax over the inferior but more readily available and harder marketed VHS, the crap that’s peddled by the likes of Robbie and Take That have taken over. We are back to the world as it existed before the Beatles. A world run by the businessmen. What might be termed ‘Real’ Music has gone underground. ‘Real’ music exists away from the mainstream TV and the charts. It’s a world that sees Michael Head and Shack releasing albums every few years and Jason Pierce of Spiritualized steadily fattening out his catalogue. Even Noel Gallagher, after his departure from Oasis, has now, to a degree, turned off the main course and is floating down the same stream. This is music that takes it’s heritage from the Beatles and the Who, from David Bowie and T.Rex, and has fuck all to do with the Sugar Babes or Cheryl Cole.

 

But even this ‘real music’ has stagnated. The overall sound of pop music evolved through the technology available to the musicians at different times as much as anything else. Which is one of the reasons why the Please, please me album sounds radically different to Abbey Road. And how could New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ have existed without the programmable drum machine? Or Gary Numan without the moog? Or House Music without the digital sampler? But what next? What can technology do for us? Where can it take us? Issues of quality aside, there was nothing on the last Oasis album that couldn’t have been on the first and nothing on Noel Gallagher’s extremely good High Flying Birds solo offering from late last year that wouldn’t sit happily on any Oasis album. We have reached a point where even post-modernism is on its arse. Can you have post-post-modernism? Re-warming the already re-heated leftovers? A Jam tribute band is a tribute to a band which was in effect a tribute to something which had already existed fifteen years before. It’s like warming chicken up, you have to be careful. Listening to Liam Gallagher’s Beady Eye is liable to induce projectile diarrhoea.

 

I watched the recent Timewatch documentary cataloguing Beatlemania. In it, Maureen Cleave – the journalist to whom Lennon had inadvisably confided his thoughts on religion and fame back on that misty March morning in 1966 – speaking in the present day, said that before the Beatles pop musicians didn’t have their own names or their own thoughts. They were given material to play/sing/mime to. We are back there now. And so the world rolls around again. We live in a musical age where every female singer tries to sing like some 1920s Deep South share cropper. Boy/Girl bands come and go. New bands are hailed as the saviour of guitar music by re-creating something we’ve already heard before and then snort themselves into nothingness. Some of the tunes are all right. But it doesn’t seem to have any meaning anymore. No one seems to really care. Beatle John is dead. Beatle John remains dead. And we have killed him.