The Din Of Pop

The subject of “the elite” has been getting more attention lately. The proposition that a “new elite” has taken over, or is in the process of capturing power, is a regular feature in British social commentary, for example in such works as Anatomy Of Britain and its successor volumes by Anthony Sampson.

It’s certainly the case that hierarchies and positions come and go, as industries and institutions change or die. Once upon a time the TUC conference was important enough to get its own week of live TV coverage on BBC2, at the start of the season of coverage for the party political conferences as well. Arthur Scargill’s appearance there in 1984 was as tumultuous as Neil Kinnock at Labour 85, but only one of them has lasted as a cultural image, as the importance of its platform faded away. Nobody under 30 could understand that world nowadays, it might as well be footage of the Queen’s Coronation.

But are the people that fill the new posts a “new” elite in that they fill new roles, or “new” in being unconnected by bloodlines to the old ruling classes? This is a trickier question, and there’s a fair bit of social satire over the past century picking away at it. One contention of the Angry Young Men wave in 50s film and fiction was that the old boys were still in power after the War. The best exposition of this idea was by a young woman. The Middlemen (1961) showed that the world of Democratic New Britain was in fact full at the top with the old elite who’d known each other for years, putting themselves in all the new jobs in the Arts Council and commercial television and new agencies, as well as leading both main parties at Westminster. The Labour Party was of course falling under middle class leadership from the moment it became a viable election-winning machine at the start of the 1920s, with the influx of young men like Michael Foot, whose family background was in the declining old Liberal Party. Christine Brooke-Rose herself had a good background but her father didn’t leave much money available for her. She got her chance to get in to Oxford only after the war, as one of those given the opportunity as a reward for their National Service, in her case at Bletchley Park.

21st century Inclusive Britain might have a wider range of new jobs in HR and other areas of corporate and public sector governance, and they may be available to graduates of more than just the older universities… but it could still be the same old families and classes soaking up the opportunities, because they are always the quickest at learning the new rules of the game, no matter how much their elders might complain about the changing view. In 1962 there was Sum Total, and one of young Ray Gosling’s observations was that one of the shiny New Universities that he briefly attended was attracting mostly the lower parts of the middle class that had previously not needed or wanted the boost of higher education. The real lower orders, the “common as shit” proles, weren’t the chief beneficiaries of the expansion. When someone of that time mentions that they were the first in their family to go to university, it does not mean they were deprived, but rather just not privileged in the time when that was one of the markers of privilege.

Regardless of who the elites are or were, one thing that elites tend to do is express their own preferences and self-images in culture. Something that has definitely changed since 1960 are attitudes towards, and engagement in, popular and high culture in the media, and whether any such of “high culture” is considered to be tenable, and what it might be. Several other strands this year have made this topic relevant, and its more interesting. The People Make Television exhibition was a reminder of how much gatekeeping and how little public feedback or interaction existed in the media before technology became simpler and more accessible.

In January was the death of Paul Johnson. Johnson produced a great mass of writing and comment over his career, but perhaps only 2 works were truly significant. His 1988 tome Intellectuals, which was serialised in the Sunday Telegraph, can now be seen as the starter pack for modern conservative culture war writing that seeks a bigger audience than the US university-centred arguments of Allan Bloom’s The Closing Of The American Mind, from the same era. Nothing could more perfectly sum up the mood of right-wing anxiety at that time that this scan from The Claremont Review Of Books, which has the start of an article about Bloom alongside an article derisive of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika: New Thinking For Our Country And The World:

Far more important at the time, but with less lasting appeal, was his 1964 essay “The Menace Of Beatlism”.

The growing public approval of anti-culture is itself, I think, a reflection of the new cult of youth. Bewildered by a rapidly changing society, excessively fearful of becoming out of date, our leaders are increasingly turning to young people as guides and mentors. If youth likes jazz, then it must be good, and clever men must rationalise this preference in intellectually respectable language. Indeed, the supreme crime, in politics and culture alike, is not to be “with it”.

Before I am denounced as a reactionary fuddy-duddy, let us pause an instant and see exactly what we mean by this “youth”. Both TV channels now run weekly programmes in which popular records are played to teenagers and judged. While the music is performed, the cameras linger savagely over the faces of the audience. What a bottomless chasm of vacuity they reveal! The huge faces, bloated with cheap confectionery and smeared with chain-store makeup, the open, sagging mouths and glazed eyes, the broken stiletto heels: here is a generation enslaved by a commercial machine. Behind this image of “youth”, there are, evidently, some shrewd older folk at work.

And what of the “culture” which is served up to these pitiable victims? According to Mr Deedes, “the aim of the Beatles and their rivals is first class of its kind. Failure to attain it is spotted and criticised ruthlessly by their many highly-discriminating critics.” I wonder if Mr Deedes has ever taken the trouble to listen to any of this music? On the Saturday TV shows, the merits of the new records are discussed by panels of “experts”, many of whom seem barely more literate or articulate than the moronic ranks facing them. The teenager comes not to hear but to participate in a ritual, a collective grovelling to gods who are blind and empty. “Throughout the performance,” wrote one observer, “it was impossible to hear anything above the squealing except the beat of Ringo’s drums.” Here, indeed, is “a new cultural movement”: music which not only cannot be heard but does not need to be heard.

At this point Johnson was editor of New Statesman, and on the Left. There was a daring new magazine around called Private Eye, whose first editor was young Christopher Booker. But times change and we change with the times.

The next bit is far too much typing so I’m just going to scan the original, you need all of it.

“Paul Johnson: The Convert Who Went Over The Top” is in “Part Four Culture Heroes – Nostalgia and Self-deception”. The text notes that it was “Written at the time of the Conservative Party Conference, 21 October 1978)”.

It was two or three years ago that it first became apparent that something politically very remarkable was beginning to happen to the most brilliant left-wing journalist in Britain. As he launched with increasing fervour, particularly in the New Statesman, into a series of highly impressive articles excoriating the growing drift of the Labour Party into a mindless, collectivist brutality, spellbound by the greed and power-lust of the trade unions, Johnson’s journalism took on an energy, force and depth it had never shown before. So long as he continued to proclaim his loyalty to the ideals of Socialism, it was inevitable that eddies of apparent self-contradiction would continue to bubble to the surface. One of the more conspicuous was the curious moment he chose to declare that only Tony Benn could save the soul of the Labour Party – in almost exactly the same week that he published a book called Enemies Of Society, savaging long-haired students, trendy theologians, modern playwrights, and generally, as I remarked at the time, proclaim a view on the major political, social, moral, artistic and philosophical issues of our day ‘indistinguishable from that taken for the past forty years by the Sunday Express.’

We really can’t trust these tuppence ha’penny pundits, flipping so easily from one side of an alleged crucial cultural divide to the other so whimsically. 21st century theologians may wonder what it would be like to live in a time when their views were circulated widely enough to be trendy and controversial. Johnson would of course later on abandon Toryism and endorse New Labour, at least until he realised Blair didn’t love him back sufficiently. What this saga rather suggests is that, despite his emphasis on solidity and seriousness, and the degree of erudition acquired by a life spent acquiring the varnish of culture, starting from that teenage consumption of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Beethoven, Paul was himself just another bubbleheaded fanboy whooping at the figures in the golden lights, and breathlessly chasing them for their autographs.

In 1964, Booker was on the side of the groovy kids who were “with-it” about The Beatles and The Stones, and he still had a memory of that in 1978:

Nevertheless, even in the days when his left-wing credentials were still fairly impeccable, there was another aspect to Johnson’s Sense Of Outrage which occasionally disconcerted the comrades no end, and which was at least one of the reasons why in that profile in 1965 I implied that he was already a certain kind of Tory… An even more famous occasion was his celebrated attack in 1964 on Beatle-mania, in which he lashed out at the proletarian kiddies mesmerized by the Fabulous Foursome… what really offended Mr Johnson about our contemporary cultural scene was the hideous, mindless, soulless materialism produced in no small measure by a decadent consumer-oriented capitalism… I have already written in these columns of what I believe to be one of the saddest conclusions to be drawn from Johnson’s spiritual tergiversations – that when a man speaks as often as he does of his own devotion to ‘reason’, and of the ‘fanaticism’ of his opponents, one may look to his own works with confidence for a conspicuous absence of the former, and an over-abundance of the latter.

Booker then rather over-reached himself by drawing a lesson about the dangers of extremists simply shifting to the opposite extreme, which doesn’t sound so convincing from the man that we now know ended up as the Sunday Telegraph’s UKIP crank-in-residence. As for Beatlism, however, we get this:

One of the main reasons why the Seventies had such an air of hangover, of aftermath, was that a psychological climax had been passed which could never be worked up to with the same frenzied excitement again, simply because so many of the ‘kicks’ had come from the very act of ‘pushing back frontiers’, dismantling ‘taboos’ and ‘flouting conventions’ which could never again, in the same way, be re-erected.

And then this little swipe in a footnote:

One of the more pitiful shadows of all this in the Seventies were the so-called ‘Punk Rockers’ who, with their safety-pins stuck through noses, their circus-clown make-up their abysmal music, showed how virtually impossible it was any longer to exceed the ‘bounds of convention’ in order to excite some last vestige of sensation.

But it is the pinnacle of Neophiliac narcissism to assume that some generation has achieved the end of history simply by reaching the limit of its own imagination and stunted creativity. A “psychological climax” can only occur in some particular consciousness, and even we if assume that generations have some peculiar gestalt awareness then that would also be limited to their own passing members, the coming world of future youth will not be part of it. The boundaries can go up and down again and nobody has to insist on uniqueness in doing the action again, or they may simply be ignorant that it was ever done before. I don’t think we should trust either Johnson or Booker or those that followed after them to have the greatest of insights into the mood of the times. They’re too stuck in their insular worlds of the London media and its feeder pools and they never feel the need to canvas the opinions of the people in the faraway towns who don’t read the news magazines or know about the fashionable theologians.

Getting back to the early 60s and away from the nihilistic dead-end of the Sex Pistols, who else was concerned with “the saccharine world”?

This book was the fruit of a process started by a conference organised by a trade union.

As was normal, the back pages of this book contain adverts for related Pelican titles. The ones in this case are: The Necessity Of Art – A Marxist Approach by Ernst Fischer, The Contemporary Cinema by Penelope Houston, The Comprehensive School by Robin Pedley, Educating The Intelligent by Michael Hutchinson and Christopher Young, and Soviet Education by Nigel Grant. But first in the sequence was Personal Values In The Modern World by M.V.C.Jeffreys, for which we are told:

The future of our civilisation depends on the extent to which we can rescue and promote personal values. The Professor of Education at Birmingham University discusses in this book the need for the rediscovery of a coherent view of life, the achievement of intelligent and effective communication between people and groups of people, and the encouragement of voluntary action both alongside and within public administration. The undermining of individual responsibility and mutual human respect by the impersonal mass-production of a ‘faceless’ culture is essentially an educational problem, and the main aspects of education are therefore discussed at some length.

We also have “Notes on Contributors”:

The contributors to Discrimination and Popular Culture were a diverse group of men, with 3 Cambridge Fellows, 2 Oxford graduates, and 2 graduates of other places or unspecified. But to be fair they do also have experience of the wider world, mostly through teaching in a variety of places (not Eton) and they also served in the Armed Forces. Denys Thompson (another Cambridge man) sets the tone in his Introduction:

The reformers of the nineteenth century nobly hoped that the workers, once freed from the prison of illiteracy and long hours, would give themselves a liberal education and feed on the same intellectual delights as the reformers themselves. Their disappointed hopes may have been pitched too high: today our expectations of popular culture seem altogether too low. The hypothesis of this book is that the shortcomings of popular culture are with us because the mass media just listed have become the expression and mouthpiece of a particular type of civilisation. One, that is, in which our productive powers have acquired a life of their own and run away with us. The drift can certainly be checked and society acquire a sense of direction, but up to the present changes seem to have been too swift for us fully to control them or successfully adapt ourselves to them. The mass media affect our lives closely at many points, perhaps more intimately than we are aware of. This book is an attempt by its authors to throw light upon this influence.

The most dated chapter is Michael Farr’s contribution about “Design” – his concern about manufacturers not taking enough interest in usability or safety has surely been superseded by new development processes, probably also spurred by statutory regulation. Focus groups and other new market research methods would now supply more information than the guesswork and limited options he depicts here. In our time the worries are that producers know too much about their customers, not too little.

Donald Hughes on “Recorded Music” is surprisingly broad and optimistic in its response to the music industry of 1960. “It needs considerable imagination today to realise how difficult it was for anyone interested in music at the beginning of the century to follow up that interest.” What follows is a description of the limited outlets and means of the recent past, and the technological achievements of the present.

All this means that there is a strong temptation today to under-value music, to take it for granted. Even thirty years ago the composer and conductor Constant Lambert wrote a book in which he complained of ‘the appalling popularity of music.’… We may not listen to the background music, we may not consciously take it in, but it is likely to affect our musical values, and maybe even our ability to appreciate other music.

After giving this warning about the bland ambient muzak (though he doesn’t use that term, which may not have reached Britain at that point), Hughes is nevertheless positive about the possibilities of popular music.

Over the years there have developed two different traditions in music. One is what we call ‘art music’, or (wrongly) classical music. In this the composer puts down his ideas on paper as exactly as possible, and the duty of the performer is to give as accurate an interpretation as he can of what the composer wrote, playing the ‘correct’ notes in the ‘correct’ time.

On the other hand, there is a tradition of popular music, or, as it is more commonly called, folk music, which has somewhat different characteristics. First of all, and fundamentally, the popular music tradition is an aural one. Tunes are handed down from one singer to another, and often change in the process. A singer may take liberties with a tune, may alter the notes or the rhythm, may purposely attack a note below pitch (as blues singers often do). There are some accepted common habits of performance, and an instrumentalist will harmonize a tune by ear with certain conventional and well-worn patterns of chords.

The two traditions have not always been as far apart and as clearly differentiated as they are today…. Jazz, in its traditional form at least, is true folk music.

The influence of jazz on the development of modern ballroom music was a positive, driven by the “essential simplicity of form”.

But [another] element has appeared and, more particularly during the past twenty or so years, has radically altered the face of popular music. This is the enormous diffusion of music through the mass media, and notably the gramophone…. Yet the inevitable effects of mass reproduction of music, and particularly of folk music, are not all good. We have seen that one of the chief effects of folk music is its spontaneity, its immediacy. If, on the spur of the moment, a folk musician feels like altering the tune, or improvising, he is entitled to do so.

He goes on to analyse the differences between ‘music which comes from the people’ and ‘music written for the people’.  “Let us look at the content of an average Top Twenty hit and see why it is cast in the particular mould which we all know so well.” This entire discussion is occurring in a world at a particular point in technology, when it was able to spread products to the largest possible markets, but the business required a big capital investment in the latest studios and pressing plants and distribution. And so pop music has to be a commodity and subject to the same standardisations and market expectations. What would allay Hughes’s concern for the loss of authenticity and autonomy would be some way to make the capital and networks available to The People again – he is enthusiastic about skiffle as medium for youth to make their own music easily. Disdain for “assembly line hits” and the cynicism of the A&R men (Artists and Repertoire – the job was to select the performers, and also the material they would be working on) had its place in that time, not so much 50 years later when at least some young people might be able to make their own folk music, even if that term would never be used about it. Whether they could distribute it widely enough to make a living from it is another question.

Distribution problems also shape the products discussed in “The Press” and “The Film”. In the former, the importance of advertising is noted, and the viability of titles being tied to how large and what social sector they can deliver, and thus which kind of goods are promoted in them. Concerning cinema, the discussion starts with a selection of quotations, including a long chunk from the start of 1984 in which Winston sees the graphic violence of the war films at the flicks. There is also an aside from Lenin that “The cinema is the most important of the arts.” The discussion praises the importance of European films that deal with complex moral and political stories, and defends them against sensational negative reactions to any controversial topics. There is also an extended negative discussion of popular far such as The Guns Of Navarone for casual depiction of violence, indifference to moral questions, and melodramatic unrealism. Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory is hailed as a far superior work.

Educationists tend to assume that people need to be protected from any experience of violence on the screen. Yet in a film like Paths Of Glory, the theme of violent death becomes a moral statement.

Unstated political messaging is something to be wary of, and there is a long negative appraisal of The Angry Silence as a work of crude anti-union anti-solidarity propaganda. “Above all, The Angry Silence sees people in terms of a mob to be manipulated – and in this it is a direct reflection of the way the makers of the film see their audience.”

The deepest of the essays in this book is the reflection on “Magazines” by David Holbrook. This hands out the most severe judgements on its subject, whilst also showing the greatest engagement by its author in actual education of young people. On the latter point, he is withering on the “alarming trend… towards sexual precocity… Here is the source of the precocious ‘knowingness’ of the adolescent that, as teachers know, does lead to personal disaster.” On the former, Holbrook’s own education with F.R.Leavis shows when looking askance at the pretensions of the Sundays and the “serious” papers. “[E]ven the New Statesman readership tends to need to ‘wear’ the latest literary opinion” and we then get a footnote: “A woman said to me at a party, ‘Yes, I’ve read Wain’s new book but I don’t know what I think of it as it hasn’t been reviewed yet.’” “Wain” here would be John Wain, who had his moment as the author of Hurry On Down (1953).

It’s the smart-boy writers who are held in the lowest regard by Holbrook, including the ones who fancy themselves as being daring and iconoclastic but really just never had any taste of responsibility.

Meanwhile by compromise and a certain suspension of conscience and integrity; by ‘brightness’, by facherie – a kind of deliberate rudeness and by the display of a carefully calculated ‘persona’, the journalist who is less troubled by doubt and disinterested opinion gains rapid influence, and the ‘serious’ weekly merges thus into the world of popular journalism. (There is no need to mention the names of those who move with equal lack of grace and true conviction from television, to the Spectator, Punch, or the Daily Express.)

Inevitably, in such a situation, it becomes difficult for any group of writers to stand outside the trends of popular journalism, and the trends of society itself, to pass a comment and judgement. The pyrotechnic derisiveness of such a paper as Private Eye marks a new stage in the abrogation of a ‘point of view’ altogether, and of the need for moral positives behind social satire or journalism. In this situation, while there are many responsible and sincere articles and reviews in them, it may be said that the world of English culture, thought, and opinion would lose too little if such papers as the New Statesman, Listener, Spectator, The Times Literary Supplement and the ‘posh’ Sunday papers closed tomorrow. There is an urgent need for the intellectual pretensions of these papers to be questioned: they are by no means as in touch with ‘the best that is known and thought in the world’ as they would wish to make us believe. Nor is such a paper as Encounter.

True then and true now, and what a pity young men today can’t have Holbrook as a mentor instead of dregs like Andrew Tate or posers like Jordan Peterson, who only have a tiny fraction of his learning and insight. The “Notes on Contributors” noted that he was writing a novel Flesh Wounds, and he did finish it, about his experiences fighting at D-Day and beyond. It is still available as a print-on-demand title from Amazon.

What the smart boys like Johnson and Booker didn’t have was any real creative powers or appreciation of the hard work of making art instead of simply admiring it or admiring the admiration exuded by Kenneth Clark talking about items they can understand to be deserving of attention. They might have dabbled in writing novels or squibs but it was only a diversion from the self-regarding circle and boredom at other people not supplying enough innovative distractions any longer.

It takes a creative artist to have a comprehensive feeling for creative culture. Let’s look at a female creative writer of around the same time. Here is Brigid Brophy’s article about Gillian Freeman in London Magazine, May 1963 (reprinted in Don’t Never Forget):

A novelist who possesses talent has always been a rarity, but nowadays a novelist who trusts it is rarer still. Too often the post-war novelist spreads his risk. Just in case his novel should turn out no good as a novel, he puts forward an extraneous claim as well – that his novel documents or, by its very existence, exemplifies some social trend we can’t afford to miss, the Lolita Thing or the Teenage Syndrome (to neither of which does Lolita itself, to its credit, make the smallest contribution) or the situation of women since sexual emancipation. Too often the post-war reviewer lets himself be bought off by these irrelevancies with relief. They spare him the pain – it is pain – of making an artistic judgement. He is perfectly justified, and at much less expense of spirit, if he commends the book as an interesting phenomenon or an interesting quasi-Kinsey report, without broaching it as a novel at all.

Brigid Brophy’s novel The Snow Ball (1964) was certainly more than “an interesting phenomenon”, but in its own way, retrospectively, it can seen as making a comment on the Teenage Syndrome and perhaps the Pop Music Thing. In this story of a New Year’s Eve Ball inspired by Don Giovanni, everyone’s mood sags and they drift away from the ballroom once the entertainment switches to modern French pop.

The pianist began to play a strummy accompaniment, contriving to make the piano sound like a ukelele… The next song was of a different kind, though the accompaniment was the same as ever… But from the ballroom there came a screech of self-admiring laughter every time the narrative turned the corner into another verse… The next song everyone understood. It was the lament of a young woman whose rich husband was impotent. What no one understood was whether it was meant to be funny or sad.

When everyone comes back in the very early hours, “…[the band] had set up music stands and were propping music sheets on them, as though they were going to be playing real music.” Real music – not that formulaic, pretentious rubbish that was fuelling only “self-admiring laughter” earlier on.

The great big rock and roll at the end of the 60s party that Booker lamented was realised much better imaginatively in In Transit (1969). In a chaotic breakdown of social and sexual boundaries, angry youth makes a thoroughly banal and uninteresting attempt at revolt, since they don’t know what they don’t know and thus can’t be truly radical about anything.

The television, meanwhile, continued to transmit the message:

             THERE IS NO REASON

After standing looking up at it for some seventy seconds, the professor emeritus said to Och, who was still at her side:

’That can’t be the whole of it.’

‘Why can’t it?’ Och asked.

’It can’t,’ the professor said. ‘I’m sorry; does that sound like an unargued judgement delivered with authority? What I mean is: surely the roller has got stuck, thereby preventing the transmission of the next part of the message, which in its entirety must surely read “There is no reason why” something or other or “There is no reason to do” something else – something on the lines, for example, of “There is no reason why one person should assume authority over another” or “There is no reason to suppose a deity exists.”’

…’To my mind, if I may say so,’ Och modestly remarked, gazing up at the television set as romantically as if it had been the moon, ‘that is what gives the message its beautiful ambiguity. I find it pregnant.’

To the din of pop, popping cigarette lighters and subdued chatter in the Lounge, there had lately been added the stirrings of communal unrest, with the result that the professor, who though not in the least hard of hearing was unaccustomed to noise, misheard Och’s remark and understood her to have said she was pregnant.

Din of pop music, or the din of pop-popping lighters? What a beautiful ambiguity. The picture at the start was The Beatles meeting some fans in 1963 at Stowe School.

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