Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Rock'n'Roll Years

The Rock'n'Roll Years was one of the most curious television programmes of the mid-1980's. Each half-hour episode was a mix of news footage and pop music from each individual year of the post-war era. The only "commentary" was the occasional subtitle to give context to a particular event, these being as mordantly non-committal as possible. The episodes were all shown at prime time on BBC 1, and no doubt constituted pretty cheap television as the BBC could compile the greater portion of them from their own archives. Despite this apparently unpromising formula, it was surprisingly compelling viewing, and still is so even on the scraped-from-videotape remains that have been loaded onto Youtube. The first series was aired in 1985 and started, naturally enough, in 1956:

The unspoken premise of the programme was that the Rock'n'Roll years were effectively over, and this is certainly how I interpreted it at the time - the era of tumultuous social change was over, and hey, this is what it was like. The comparatively pedestrian first series wound up at 1963, and it was in the second series, aired in 1986, where the meaty period of 1964 to 1971 was covered. The episode for 1968 is particularly exciting, as I'm sure you can imagine:

The funny thing is, this footage looked as ancient in 1985 as it does now. Perhaps more so. For me at the time, the clip of the Rolling Stones performing "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was akin to watching footage of the D-Day landings. The sense of the past being irretrievable was much stronger in those days, before the pick'n'mix technologies of the digital era permitted it to haunt us. The years 1972 to 1980 were covered in the third series, which was aired in 1987, and 1977 starts off on exactly the right note:

This still felt old, old, old at the time though. It's impossible to express in hindsight how different 1987 felt to 1977, and watching this episode was like looking at the polaroid photographs of a party in the cold light of morning. This sense of disconnect was no doubt accentuated by the callowness of youth, as a decade feels like an eternity when you are still in your teens. One thing that comes across is how much more intense this period was than nowadays. For all the contemporary hysteria about populism and wokeism, I still think we live in a much calmer world. Perhaps it's the ghettoising effect of social media, where the different tribes of political obsessives can engage in endless symbolic battle outside the purview of the average person. At the Twitter coalface a person can feel that they are in a war for the future of civilisation, while offline the world plods on regardless. A fourth and final series of The Rock'n'Roll Years was aired much later in 1994, this covering 1981 to 1989:

This didn't make much sense at the time as almost nothing musically world-shaking happened during the mid to late eighties, and I don't think I even bothered to watch this series. That said, the big events had continued to occur, such as the miners' strike, Chernobyl, and the fall of the Berlin Wall; and there was the final tying of the post-war knot with the end of the Cold war. Also at this time Live Aid was very much a part of the official narrative of popular music; of Rock'n'Roll finally growing up and accepting its responsibilities. In hindsight, Live Aid was the release that signalled that the pressure was off, that history was already coming to an end, despite the tragic events that had prompted it.

That there was no fifth series of The Rock'n'Roll Years merely confirmed this.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

From Suez to the Falklands - Part 5

Perhaps the first victim of Margaret Thatcher's rise to power was Punk itself, which deflated at almost the precise moment of her infamous recital of St. Francis of Assisi's Prayer outside 10 Downing Street. Rather than offering a restoration of the old order of deference, the new regime intended to liquidate what remained of the old world to an extent that the punks had not even begun to comprehend. First to go were to be the old nationalised industries, which were deemed to represent an inefficient sop to socialism, and incubators for the trades union militancy that was anathema to the new economic order. The withdrawal of support for both public and private industry coincided with a worldwide recession, itself prompted by that familiar bugbear, a sharp rise in the oil price. The result was an alarming rise in unemployment, which was to reach a hitherto unprecedented three million. It initially appeared that Thatcher, her popularity plummeting amid vistas of urban riots and dole queues, was yet another dud, as the malaise contined much as before. Indeed events got so bad that the pulse of popular culture briefly revived, most notably in the form of The Specials' "Ghost Town", the most acute musical appraisal of the early Thatcher era. If the energy from Punk was still extant, however, it was confined to a rarefied form. Having failed to kick down the front door, the clarion call for many of the remaining punks was "entryism"; an attempt to package subversive content within an "aspirational" commercial form. This had very brief success in the pop charts, although most of the alleged subversion went over the punters' heads, and its very existence was a de facto acknowledgement of defeat. Although it is retrospectively viewed as forming a seamless continuity within a singular Punk moment, the New Pop was ultimately an inadequate response to an earlier failure.

Despite its apparent struggles, the Conservative government did have one asset that had been far less available to its predecessors, and that was the burgeoning production of its own source of oil, thanks to the exploration of the North Sea over the two prior decades. As the revenues from this source began to accrue from the beginning of the 1980's, they would form a stable floor on which all other economic policy could be built, and permitted a degree of risk taking not previously permissible. Initially, a good portion of this money would be spent mitigating the appalling levels of deprivation that the Government's parlous industrial policies had generated, as entire regions suffered economic devastation. The evisceration of domestic industry was also enabled by British membership of the European Economic Community, which had been negotiated by the earlier Heath government. This effectively allowed the relocation of the locus of south-east England's industrial supply from northern Britain to Germany, a scheme that would simply not have been possible if the UK had remained outside the bloc. As such, London and the south-east would become a consumer fringe of the greater Continental economy, rather than being the nerve centre of an industrial economy of their own, with all the effort and strife that implied.

Nonetheless, it was clear that two years into her premiership, Margaret Thatcher was no less vulnerable than her predecessors had been, and just as her policies were being viewed as unnecessarily harsh and extreme, so the opposition Labour Party were emboldened to combat them with increasingly radical proposals of their own. However, it was seven thousand miles away, in the South Atlantic that the critical event of the era would unfold. This would focus on a neglected imperial possession known as the Falkland Islands, which the British Government had been quietly attempting to cede to Argentina over the objections of its inhabitants. The latest attempt to palm off the islands to the Argentinians had been a leasing scheme, which had been rejected by the military junta in Buenos Aires due to what they perceived was its excessive length of 99 years. The Argentinians had been emboldened further by the British Government's 1981 defence white paper, which had recommended swingeing cuts to the Royal Navy's surface fleet in order to redirect spending towards shoring up the "main front" against the Warsaw Pact in Europe. The Argentinian junta, under the hapless General Leopoldo Galtieri, had at least as many domestic problems as Thatcher's administration, this intensifying their inclination to resolve the issue of "Las Malvinas" once and for all. As a consequence, on 2nd April 1982, Argentian forces seized the Falklands in an amphibious operation that appeared to all the world as a fait accompli.

Once again, it appeared that a British prime minister was being presented with a humiliating ejection from an imperial possession. However, on this occasion the defence chiefs were surprisingly optimistic that the situation could be reversed, and, for once, they found themselves serving a Prime Minister who was prepared to countenace an unusually high degree of risk. A naval task force was accordingly assembled, and the islands were retaken by what would subsequently be recognised as the narrowest of margins, as the operation had faced disaster on numerous occasions. But far more notable than the military aspects of the Falklands campaign was the symbolism. This was addressed in a remarkable essay by the US naval historian Norman Friedman, who observed that:

"In 1982, many in the Soviet leadership believed that the West had lost so much of its morale that its end was inevitable, and perhaps even near. The Soviets themselves were in trouble, but they thought they could survive. The Argentinians clearly thought much the same thing about the British. Initially many in Britain seem to have assumed that Argentinian seizure of the islands was just another unavoidable step in the slow decline of the British Empire."

Although small in scale, the Falklands War was probably the most consequential and far-reaching conflict of the second half of the 20th Century, simply because it demonstrated an apparent resolve that had previously been considered lacking. As Friedman further explained:

"The Soviet leadership was shocked. The West was still a serious threat. The Soviets found themselves taking Western initiatives, such as Reagan’s “Star Wars,” very seriously indeed. Thatcher’s was not, of course, the only demonstration of Western resolve; at about the same time, the Russians found it impossible to intimidate NATO governments that had decided to accept the deployment of U.S. Pershing and Tomahawk missiles on their soil. They, in turn, were probably much encouraged by Thatcher’s example."

The Soviets' appreciation of declining Western resolve had been partially based on its popular culture, which they had assessed as being both the source and the product of its demoralisation. The famous aversion of the Soviet authorities to the music of The Beatles was believed in the West to be due to its potential to grant Soviet citizens a tantalising glimpse of Western freedom. In fact, the opposite was the case, as the Soviets believed that the music was just one more avenue for social and cultural dissolution; that it was as effective a route to demoralisation as opium. If the Soviets could take some satisfaction from what Punk demonstrated about the wretched psychological conditions in the West, they were absolutely determined that it would not be allowed to affect life behind the Iron Curtain. However, if, contrary to all cultural indications, the West was not as weak as it appeared, then the fate of the Soviet Union was sealed.

However, the Soviets had essentially been correct. The explosion of British popular culture had been totally dependent on the collapse of national morale and the consequent malaise within the ruling class. Post-war popular music was like a flourescent lichen that could only grow on rot. And in its display of incontrovertible ruling class competence, the Falklands War effectively broke the back of post-war popular culture, and it would never fully recover. Following the Falklands, the last big punk bands, The Clash and The Jam, would split up, along with numerous of their peers. Those bands that stuck around invariably softened and slicked-up their sound, in anticipation of the unsympathic commercial environment that they would soon find themselves in. The result would be the infamous musical desert of the mid-Eighties, in which commercial brashness would contrast with the feyest and most colourless "indie" music, with little of sustenance inbetween. The sense of danger, revolution and infinite possibility present in the beat boom and Punk would never fully return. For her part, Thatcher would take the antinomian energy of Punk and direct it against her internal enemies. If the Queen could be dismembered then so could the National Union of Mineworkers. If the Union Jack could be torn up, then so could the regulations that restrained the City of London. What the punks had failed to understand is that once the most sacred national symbols are defiled, then nothing is sacred and anything goes. All Margaret Thatcher ultimately did was confront the rebels and revolutionaries of pop culture with the logic of their own desires.

Friday, February 26, 2021

From Suez to the Falklands - Part 4

"The British love of Queens does not seem to be based merely on the historical commonplace that 'Britain is never so properous as when a Queen is on the Throne': it reflects, rather, a stubborn conviction that this is a Mother Country, not a Father Land - a peculiarity that the Classical Greeks also noted about Crete - and that the King's prime function is to be the Queen's consort. Such national apprehensions or convictions or obsessions are the ultimate source of all religion, myth and poetry, and cannot be eradicated either by conquest or education."

- Robert Graves, "The White Goddess"

The long hot summer of 1976 was notable for two particular events, the first being yet another currency crisis, with a dip in the value of Sterling and an incipient budget shortfall precipitating the Labour Govenrment, now under the unsteady stewardship of James Callaghan, to ask the International Monetary Fund for a loan. Although in itself a relatively prudent measure, this was perceived by the public and press as a further national humiliation, as the United Kingdom plied the global financial circit for alms. The parade of fumbling that had characterised the leadership of a series of almost identikit leaders in Heath, Wilson and now Callaghan had led to a general impression of a confederacy of grey men, all equally lacking in vision, ability and nous. The second noteworthy occurrence of that summer was the stealthy but irrepressible emergence of the latest model on Hebrew trickster Malcolm McLaren's Golem production line, the Sex Pistols. This extraordinary group specialised in a kind of incendiary vapidity, its singer and lyricist Johnny Rotten (née Lydon) having an uncanny ability to find exactly the right national taboo to point and shriek at, without saying anything profound or useful in consequence. However, this very incoherence was the source of their brief but efflorescent power, as it ensured that their grievances could barely be comprehended, let alone reconciled or resolved. Whatever the Sex Pistols may or may not have wanted, it was non-negotiable. Equally impossible to assuage was their music, which was the most conventional riff rock possible, but so insistently single minded that it adventitiously sounded explosive.

As the year progressed, the band gradually built up accolytes and notoriety by word of mouth, and racked up their first television appearances, while their debut single, "Anarchy In The UK" grazed the Top 40 at the end of the year. This record would be the template for their subsequent output, being both shocking and invigorating as long as you didn't look at it too closely, and realise how silly it was. Despite the tremendous effort that went into this recording to shock, the Sex Pistols would burst into the public consciousness accidentally, and in the most quotidian format possible. A cancellation by EMI labelmates Queen led to their invitation onto the Today show, a normally staid teatime television programme hosted by Bill Grundy, who was the kind of mildly dissolute but avuncular host that was typical of the era. Apparently inebriated, and obviously not briefed on his subtitute guests, his attempted inteview with the band and their cohorts quickly degenerated into puerile name calling, which appalled the show's more delicate viewers, as well as the wilting violets of the tabloid press. The result would be sensational, with the band being catapulted into a maelstrom of media controversy that wouldn't fully abate until years after they had split up. In truth, the scenario was one that most younger viewers would have recognised instantly; that of the out-of-depth supply teacher employing increasingly desperate bonhomie as they lost control of the class.

The controversy around "Anarchy" and Grundy would be eclipsed in the spring of 1977 by the release of their second single, "God Save The Queen", which their latest record company, Virgin, decided to release on the eve of the Silver Jubilee that marked the monarch's 25th year on the throne. The release would be accompanied by a characteristic McLaren stunt, when a boat was chartered on the Jubilee weekend to cruise down the Thames so that the band could play the song in front of the Houses of Parliament. This intiative was duly intercepted by the police, producing another avalanche of publicity. Nonetheless, in impugning the current Queen, the Sex Pistols had, advertently or inadvertently, identified the epicentre of Britain's post-war malaise, and that was the failure of the monarch herself, Elizabeth II. As Robert Graves had noted, the Queens who had preceeded Elizabeth Windsor had been extraordinarily powerful matriarchs who had inspired their subjects to exploration and expansion. In particular Elizabeth I, Anne and Victoria had been icons, the former and latter even being instantly recognisable to this very day. Elizabeth II, however, was a mousy, modest figure who dressed like a suburban housewife and who had presided over an era of retreat and retrenchment. As a result, the current Queen was a present absence, the void at the heart of the British establishment. The Pistols' "God Save The Queen" is usually misundestood as a modernist excoriation of a deluded Ruritanian idyll, of the refusal of a nation to recognise its true station in the modern world. In fact, it is a personal attack on the vacant occupant of the throne, and on the notion that such a vast celebration could be accorded to such a non-entity.

There is an unthinking prejudiuce held among atheist, secular humanists that the monarchy is an outdated remnant from a bygone era, an inconvenient anachronism that has somehow, temporarily, escaped the inevitable fate of being swept away by progress. Nothing could be further from the truth of course; monarchism is one of the most durable human institutions, and the world will be full of monarchs long after our scrappy, decaying liberal democracy has been forgotten. There can also be no doubt that despite their separation from the levers of government, the current British monarch holds enormous moral, spiritual and political power. If Elizabeth II had voiced any public doubts about the intervention at Suez, say, how could the government of the day have done anything except stay their hand? Elizabeth's reign was marked by excessive political caution, as it was her belief that the monarchy rested on such fragile foundations that it could not afford to embroil itself in the slightest political controversy. She was so fixated on the long term survival of both herself and her family, that absolutely no political policy or social trend, no matter how disastrous, could draw from her the slightest public comment, let alone disapproval. If the Government had mandated the compulsory eating of babies, Elizabeth Windsor would not have piped up. All her subjects could expect was a few bromides once a year at Christmas. She had even failed the most basic prerequisite of being Queen, which was the capacity to look formidable, to inspire fear and devotion by her very appearance.

The result was that John Lydon would now accuse her of being an imposter ("Our figurehead/is not what she seems") whose timidity had turned her family and nation into a voyeuristic tourist attraction ("'cause tourists are money"). However, Lydon was not the only person who had noticed the gaping void that Elizabeth II had opened up with her diffidence. The new leader of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher, had become increasingly regal as she consolidated her position as leader of the opposition. She had begun to style her hair in an extravagant bouffant that emulated, and indeed mocked, the style of Elizabeth herself. Thatcher's voice had also become increasingly lofty and regal; she no longer spoke but declaimed, as though like a true monarch she was receiving her instructions directly from God. It was clear that if Elizabeth Windsor could not be an imposing Queen, then Margaret Thatcher would be. This granted the Conservative leader access to an almost bottomless reserve of power, because the archetype of the female monarch not only encompassed Elizabeth II's none-more-illustrious predecessors, but also the very deepest national archetypes of Britain, notably the chariot-riding warrior queen Boadicea, and the very protector of the nation herself, Britannia. What Thatcher's political opponents failed to realise was that when they attempted to refute her, or point out the harmfulness of her policies, they were not debating with a mere person; they were confronting a 2000 year old archetype. In turn, this meant that she was to all intents and purposes unbeatable.

And so, when Margaret Thatcher inevitably came to power in the spring of 1979 after a Shakespearean Winter of Discontent, the British public had not elected a Prime Minister, but annointed a Warrior Queen: icy, formidable, decisive, divisive, and destructive. If "God Save The Queen" had been the symbolic execution of the monarch, then the election of Thatcher was a symbolic rebirth. And in the elevation of Thatcher, the movement inspired by the Sex Pistols had played no small part. In many ways Punk had been conceived by Malcolm McLaren, and accomplices such as Bernie Rhodes, as the consummation of the counter-culture, as "one last heave" to unseat the old order and produce the conditions for a new society to flourish. However, in trashing the monarchy and amplifying the sense of decay, they had merely paved the way for a new and unprecedented revolution that would be unleashed by Margaret Thatcher and her advisors, for she was not like the hapless Butskellite leaders of old. As such Punk, far from being the voice of the street, and the clarion call of liberation that its proselytisers liked to depict it as, was merely the birth pangs of Neoliberalism. Punk was ultimately a total social, cultural and political disaster, and its protagonists would witness the full scale of the resulting devastation in the decade ahead.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

From Suez to the Falklands - Part 3

The controversy and media swirl that surrounded "Mad Mitch" and the withdrawal from Aden was in many ways deceptive, as it helped to obscure a far more important and consequential conflict further to the east; one that was being prosecuted by a character who was very different in temperament and style to Colin Mitchell. This was the secret war against Indonesia that was colloquially known as the Konfrontasi, after the strategy of brinkmanship implemented by the Indonesian leader President Sukarno to destabilise Malaysia, which itself was an amalagamation of former British colonies, and which Sukarno viewed as a British puppet state. Major-General Walter Walker had commanded the Brigade of Gurkhas in the long, grim campaign to eradicate the communist insurgency in Malaya, and his response to the Indonesian infiltrations into Malaysian territory from the beginning of 1963 was charaterised by both its unobtrusiveness and its restraint. Like Mitchell, Walker understood that the Western media were as much of an enemy as the people he was fighting, but whereas Mitchell had attempted to overcome this by sacrificially offering himself up as the charismatic focus of attention, Walker instead kept a low profile and shrouded his operations in a cloak of secrecy.

The most notable example of this was the two year long Operation Claret, in which Walker turned the tables and authorised the British Army to cross into Indonesia and break up enemy troop concentrations by ambush before they could penetrate into Malaysia. The anti-Western character of the mass media, although pervasive, had many forms. In some, albeit relatively rare instances, journalists and reporters were overt or covert Marxists whose deliberate agenda was to expose and therefore implicitly condemn what they saw as imperialist or colonialist depredations. Somewhat more commonly, journalists simply embodied or reflected the antinomianism and rejection of deference and duty that pervaded the wider popular culture, this being expressed in a general sympathy for what was popularly known as the Third World. However, the most prevalent case was that the very structure of the media tended to generate a passively condemnatory account of Western actions, even when journalists attempted to be sympathetic towards them. The sight of bristling, well-armed Western soldiers brushing through villages marked by abject poverty brought home to the nation's living rooms the uncomfortable reality of a harsh and brutal world that existed beyond the horizons of Western affluence.

Nonetheless, Walker's strategy would pay off, and by the middle of 1966 the Indonesians had agreed to end the confrontation at the negotiating table, this in itself being facilitated by the removal from power of Sukarno by the right-wing Suharto, after an extraordinarily bloody purge that had in part been facilitated by the British. From the domestic point of view, the most important lesson of the Konfrontasi was that it demonstrated, for all the apparent evidence of terminal decline, that there were still elements within the ruling class and the British state that were capable of acting effectively and decisively. Indeed, it supported the view held by more sceptical observers on the Left that the British Empire, rather than disappearing, had merely transmuted, its form having changed from one of territorial governance to one of networked influence; a "skeletal" empire for the communications age. This was, coincidentally, one in which the "soft power" of its delinquent popular culture might even prove to be useful.

However, by the time the last substantial British forces had withdrawn from Malaysia, this popular culture had effectively imploded. After the giddy optimism of 1967's Summer of Love, the counter culture had been subsumed in a deluge of violence and paranoia, most famously iterated in the twin horrors of Altamont and the murders conducted by the Manson family. The dream of a new world was further eroded by the deaths of such luminaries as Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, and by the arrival of essentially cynical conservative governments on both sides of the Atlantic. Whereas the most daring and visionary music of the Sixties had been imbued with an almost spiritual sense of new possibilities, the emergent music of the new decade of the Seventies would be marked by three characteristics - bombast, glamour, and nihilism.

The bombast was most apparent in the music that had directly evolved from the beat music of the first wave of British rock bands. This was the hard rock of groups such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Free, which was ultimately an over-amplified and frenzied version of the Blues that was marked by its technical accomplishment and high standard of musicianship. Although this music would give birth to perhaps the most durable of all popular music genres, Heavy Metal, it was incapable of embodying or transmitting the intertwined utopian and antinomian sentiments of the Sixties counter culture. Led Zeppelin were particularly characteristic of this predicament; their music was vast and yet remote, gargantuan yet hollow; devoid of any yearning except perhaps for individual self indulgence. The characteristic that would erupt most evidently within the public sphere would be glamour, as evidenced in the emergence of Glam Rock. In many ways this was a retrograde movement, as it looked back to the "heart throbs" of the late 1950's, and indeed in the form of Alvin Stardust it literally facilitated their return. However, the more sophisticated proponents of Glam also drew energy from the sexual revolution, with gay liberation and feminism being subsumed within a miasma of double entendre and gender confusion. Glam was also partially a response to the introduction in Britain of colour television, which warranted the gaudy, glittery clothing and pancake make-up that were so essential to its disorientating shock effect. Nonetheless Glam, with its artificial teenage rampage, suffered from the same drawback as bombast in its lack of sincerity and spiritual content, in its inability to give political voice to the tumult of the times.

This was because the vertiginous sense of national decline had, if anything, accelerated as the Seventies had progressed. The Conservative government of Edward Heath was engulfed in economic turmoil which culminated in 1973 with an oil crisis, as the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargoed those countries, including Britain, that had supported Israel during its victorious Yom Kippur campaign. The resulting surge in an already perilous inflation rate spurred calls for industrial action from workers who were experiencing an effective cut in their purchasing power. Most critical of all were the miners, and at the end of 1973 Heath implemented a disastrous "three day week" policy in order to conserve coal stocks ahead of an anticipated strike, and to ensure that any available oil was diverted to transport stocks rather than power generation. The ensuing Miners' strike duly commenced at the beginning of February the following year, this being the third major episode of industrial action that the increasingly powerful and successful National Union of Mineworkers had undertaken in five years. In turn, Edward Heath called a General Election in order to obtain what he could declare as a public verdict against the strike, but the result was inconclusive and allowed Labour's Harold Wilson to instead form a weak minority government.

The sense among some elements of the ruling class was that the accumulating power of organised labour represented only one tendril of a nebulous "enemy within", which was being organised and directed by professional Soviet agitators. The intimation of impending collapse was only intensified by the increasingly violent and chaotic campaign of the Provisional IRA, whose Balcombe Street Gang would cause mayhem in central London. As a result, a number of disquieting right-wing pressure groups began to come to prominence, these having an explicit anti-communist and anti-trades union stance and nebulous links to the military. Such groups included the Freedom Association, the Economic League, and Civil Assistance, the latter of which was founded by none other than Walter Walker. Ostensibly conceived as a strike-breaking organisation, Walker's idle boast of it having 100,000 members sparked one of the more notable anxieties of the era, in the rumours of the mobilisation of private armies. As British politics appeared to be heading inexorably to a febrile climax, so the third major characteristic of Seventies popular music would come to the fore. The nihilistic response to the collapse of the counter-culture had hitherto been confined to a handful of cult American bands such as the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, and to the most proletarian and unfashionable strand of British heavy rock in the form of Black Sabbath. However, by the mid-Seventies some of the sharper minds in the British music industry had started to conceive of the possibility of packaging nihilism for the mass market. Most prominent of these was the agitator and entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren, who had attempted a trial run with the prematurely clapped-out New York Dolls.

The Conservative Party was also in the mood for experimentation. Walter Walker had formed Civil Assistance as a substitute for what he saw as the gaping absence of leadership within Britain's political class. This chasm would be filled to his great satisfaction in February 1975 by the accession to the leadership of the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher. Carefully nurtured by the party's most fervent economic ideologues, the icily determined Thatcher would prove to be a marked contrast to any of her predecessors. The stage was therefore set for the denouement of the post-war era.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

From Suez to the Falklands - Part 2

While the Profumo affair had been focusing prurient attention on the pecadillos of the ruling caste, a spectacle that was intensified as Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies were being dragged through the courts in the vindictive establishment persecution of their svengali Stephen Ward, an underground revolution had been fomenting beneath the attention of the nation's media. This was overwhelmingly a working class and lower middle class phenomenon, as teenagers, inspired by the initial supernova of rock'n'roll that had arrived from America, sought to emulate it. The original rock'n'rollers were by this time in abeyance, either dead like Buddy Holly, brought low by scandal such as Jerry Lee Lewis, or had had their careers diverted by shady managers in the manner of Elvis Presley. However, these stars, as well as their lower wattage British impersonators, had also been stymied by their own limitations, being dependent as they were on professional songwriters and lacking the imagination and musical breadth to enhance their artistic vision, which in any case tended to be minimal. In many ways the first rock'n'rollers, like so many of the itinerant musicians of the era, had simply been glorified versions of that classic American archetype, the salesman; they, like so many of their compatriots, were effectively no more than trappers drifting from town to town in the dollar hunt.

However, the new generation of British musicians represented something entirely new and unprecedented. Although it is invariably posited that the chief lure of American music to the callow, knock-kneed British teenagers of the era was its libidinal excess, the really deep attraction was in its spirituality; the residual echo of gospel in soul music and the devilish voodoo undertow of the Blues were the sense-deranging effects that really mattered. These cast a magic spell on a social cohort who had been primed to undertake mundane work, in a mundane environment, within a mundane society. If the Profumo affair had revealed how the other half lived, then popular music at least offered the potential to sample a small portion of it. However, one of the key differences that marked the new British musicians from their American inspirations was in their organisation. Whereas the American rock'n'rollers had been individuals, or at least clearly identified frontmen, the Britsh ones were agglomerated into tightly-knit bands. If the Americans were salesmen, then the British groups were gangs, and this had an important ramification in that the gang structure inherently precipitates competition to be top dog. This in turn manifests both internally within the gang itself and externally against other gangs. As the ultimate marker of status within the music industry was the quality and innovativeness of creative output, the hierarchical gang structure encouraged the members of a group to attempt to musically out-compete each other. It also paradoxically encouraged intense collaboration within each group in order to creatively out-compete their rivals, these two processes being the source of a potential chain reaction that would initially lie dormant, as groups like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones learned their chops with covers of songs from Motown, the Brill Building and the old Blues masters.

The Beatles' first top ten hit, "Please Please Me", arrived on the heels of the Ward trial, and the following year, 1964, the new music broke its bounds by dominating the domestic pop charts. It was immediately both innovative and familiar, based as it was on established American forms, but carrying its own distinctive fervour, the reaction it induced in British teenagers far exceeding the excitement elicted by the original rockers. It was also unprecedentedly well received across the Atlantic, in an America that was reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and which had its own need for ecstatic oblivion. One of the most fascinating peculiarities of the "British invasion" was the awkward manner in which straight-laced American television presenters atempted to interview the British musicians. This invariably included the basic mistake of singling out individual group members for questioning, the expectation clearly being a helpful response as both interviewer and artist collborated in a clear, coherent sales pitch. The Americans have always derived great amusement from British dentistry, but their own predilection for immaculate pearly whites is ultimately derived from their atomised sales culture; the notion that their smile is the foot in the door to greater prosperity. Salesmen have always been dismissed as vaguely disreputable in Britain, and unfortunately for the avuncular American presenters, the likes of The Animals and The Who were not salesmen. The first thing that becomes clear is that as insular gangs, the British groups have evolved private languages pitted with nuanced gaps and sentences that need the input of several members in order to be completed. In this environment, even the most basic questions ("so when did you guys meet?") generate embarrassing hesitations and lacunae, there being no desire on the part of the musicians to please the interviewer or his audience. There isn't even a basic aspiration to generate a good impression, the result being a kind of polite mutual incomprehension that nonetheless carries an undertow of hostility.

The sense of having "conquered" the home of rock'n'roll, and its accompanying vast commercial market, opened up a potentially boundless field in which the British bands could explore their creativity. However, the sense-deranging acceleration that would effloresce over the following four years, which essentially created a new art form and which has never been equalled, was also dependent on a couple of other factors. The first of these was that despite the British bands' professed veneration of their American progenitors, British rock music was essentially a strip-mining operation, drilling as it did into the deep wells of spiritual force, of mana, that lay both apparent and latent within American music. These forces were particularly deep in African-American music, having been built up over decades, or even centuries, of adversity and its corresponding fortitude. Their extraction would be ruthlessly undertaken with characteristic imperial thoroughness, the long hair of the British musicians effectively functioning as latter day pith helmets. However, this had the corollary that the British bands were in a race against time, as they had to wring as much value as possible from the source before it was used up. As such, it was not long before the dwindling reserves of mana available had to be artificially enhanced, and there were two means employed for doing this. The first was by studio experimentation, with a gallimaufry of techniques being adopted, from multi-tracking to tape manipulation, to the use of exotic instruments and synthesizers. The second, simpler, and ultimately more effective method was to literally boost the mana-effect via heightened amplification, with bands becoming focused on increasing the mass and heft of their sound. This was initiated with the assistance of amenable amplifier manufacturers such as Hi-Watt and Marshall, who gave every impression of having been providentially founded for this moment.

The other major stimulus for the accelerating musical and cultural derangement was the continuing degradation of the ruling class, which only accelerated as the Sixties proceeded. Having come to power promising the "white heat of revolution" in 1964, by 1967 the Labour government of Harold Wilson had been forced by global market pressures into devaluing Sterling, a humiliating moment that carried echoes of the Suez crisis of ten years before. Wilson's pathetic assurance to the public that "the pound in your pocket" had not been debased evoked derision, but also intensified the impression that nobody within the upper strata of society was capable of getting a grip. The social reforms undertaken by the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, which relaxed the legal restrictions on such concerns as homosexuality, abortion and divorce, were opportunistically portrayed as marking the advance of enlightened "progressive" standards. However, they were also tacit admissions that the ruling class could no longer regulate the public's private behaviour, as their moral authority was shot. This absence of authority facilitated the almost open drug culture that was essential to the development of popular music, as it simultaneously rushed towards nirvana and into the void. A half-hearted rearguard action was attempted by the authorities to circumscribe "the permissive society" with the arrest on drugs charges of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at the latter's Redlands home in 1967. However, the attempt to gaol the pair was undercut by the ruling class itself, with The Times newspaper sanctimoneously pleading "Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?". The sheer pathos of this sentiment was ultimately another manifestation of the phenomenon that had first materialised at Suez; that although the ruling class may not have liked the new world that was emerging, they liked the idea of reclaiming authority and responsibility over it even less.

If there were any remaining vestiges of the old values of duty and deference, they lay in the last lingering outposts of the Empire, and would briefly emerge in the form of one of the most extraordinary characters of the era. Colonel Colin Mitchell, the commander of the British garrison in Aden, in the present day Yemen. This port had been the first major British base east of the Suez canal, although it was now beseiged by Arab nationalist insurgents inspired by that perennial bane, Gamel Abdul Nasser. Mitchell would be accorded the epithet of "Mad Mitch" due to his anachronistic devotion to his imperial duties and his tendency to wax dolorous on the state of Britain, like a legionnaire in the Teutoberger Wald lamenting the decadence of Rome. His Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders insouciantly swaggered around Aden, intimidating all and sundry and dishing out torture and punishment beatings, as though it were still the high Victorian era. Nonetheless, Mitchell's quixotic endeavour to impose a measure of national will garnered strong approval among many sections of the public. To a British Government devoted to decline and retreat, however, he was simply an embarassment. One suspects that for such arch-technocrats as Harold Wilson and Denis Healey, their objection to imperialism was not that it was immoral, but that it was out of date. Mitchell's real crime was not that he was oppressive or brutal, but that he was old fashioned, in an era that celebrated the novel and the sensational. The Labour government's 1966 Defence White Paper had already announced the withdrawal of all British forces East of Suez, and the following year Aden would be evacuated despite, or possibly even because of, Mitchell's efforts. Unusually for a British imperial withdrawal, a sympathetic government had not been arranged in succession, and Yemen would briefly experience the Arab world's first, and only, experiment with socialism, complete with its own KGB interrogation centre. During a 1967 television interview Mitchell had perceptively linked drugs and devaluation, imparting that:

"I believe that this is the national malaise, isn't it? I mean nobody really knows what they're on back home and we watch ourselves going from being a first, second, third and how far down rate power. And it's all mixed up with everything you read about, the LSD, both sorts of LSD, and the lack of leadership".

In this at least, he wasn't wrong.

Monday, January 11, 2021

From Suez to the Falklands - Part 1

The most intensely creative and culturally explosive era of British popular culture, and therefore Western popular culture, was bounded by a pair of amphibious military operations that had enormous global and domestic political consequences. In fact, the impetus for the dramatic outburst of British pop culture was given by the first of these military adventures, and the most serious blow to its vitality was delivered by the second.

Operation Musketeer was launched on 31st October 1956 by the Anglo-French naval Task Force 345. two days subsequent to an allied Israeli incursion into Egypt across the Sinai Desert. The purpose of this combined land and sea assault was to seize Port Said at the northern end of the canal and its surrounding airfields and military installations, thereby returning the Suez Canal to French and British control following its nationalisation by the Egyptian president, Gabal Abdel Nassar, three months previously. Although sometimes erroneously described as a "military disaster", Musketeer was in purely military terms an almost clinically successful operation that proceeded like clockwork, a product not only of the accumulated experience of the British, French and Israeli forces, but also of the comparative weakness of the Egyptian army. However, it would be the diplomatic context within which Musketeer was launched that would prove its undoing.

The build up to Suez from the British perspective was characterised by two factors that the Conservative government of Anthony Eden considered vital to its eventual success. The first was to garner approval for its execution from the newly dominant Western power, the United States of America, and the second was to convince a deeply sceptical British public of its necessity. The possibility of a misunderstanding on all sides was intensified by the byzantine complexities of the local situation, and the extraordinary dexterity of Nassar in bluffing and manipulating the multifarious forces involved. These included the intense rivalry between the various Arab states to achieve regional dominance, the increasingly nationalistic demands of the local Arab populations, and the apparent expansionist aims of the newly created Jewish state of Israel. External to these factors were the desire of the former imperial powers to retain their influence, the strategy of the Soviets to increase their influence in the region, and the resulting fear on the part of the Americans of it falling under communist influence, or even succumbing to Soviet occupation.

The latter factor was the most critical to Anglo-French intentions, as it meant that the Americans were more interested in anchoring the Egyptians within the pro-Western sphere of the developing Cold War against the Soviet bloc than they were in shoring up the colonial interests of the British and French. A series of diplomatic initiatives were therefore instigated in which the major national users of the canal convened to discuss whether the canal could be placed under international control rather than be subject to continued Egyptian sovereignty. Neither Britain nor France took these discussions particularly seriously and began planning for an intervention in earnest, these being joined by Israel, who had become alarmed by the build up of the Egyptian army with weapons supplied by the Warsw Pact. In discussions with the US President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold MacMillan, had somehow managed to misinterpret Eisenhower's clear indication that the Americans would oppose any attempt to seize the canal by force, with both MacMillan and Eden convincing themselves that they would come round to an Anglo-French intervention if it were delivered as a fait accompli.

The domestic opposition to any military intervention was also being drastically underestimated, with public opinion being distinctly charry, and much influential opinion, especially within the Labour Party, being distinctly hostile. The outbreak of hostilities would see a flurry of denunciations being submitted to influential periodicals, and anti-war protests erupt nationwide. Indeed, a demonstration at Trafalgar Square, featuring a scalding condemnation delivered by the Labour parliamentarian Aneurin Bevan, would even lead to an attempt to storm 10 Downing Street. However, the unprecedented intensity of the domestic objections paled against those of the Americans, who prevented the British Government, whose monetary reserves were quickly depleting, from receiving assistance from the International Monetary Fund, while threatening to sell the US Government's sterling bond holdings. Succumbing to the pressure, Anthony Eden duly announced a ceasefire on the 6th November, without having consulting his French and Israeli allies. The British and French forces, despite having come close to securing the entire canal, would consequently withdraw over the following month in favour of a United Nations peacekeeping force, with the Egyptian ownership of the canal now being firmly secured. The common wisdom of the era would subsequently declare that Operation Muskateer had been an anachronism, a peerless example of a pair of unreformed colonial powers throwing their weight around in ignorance of their own diminished stature.

But was this correct? In hindsight, the Suez affair was a very curious one with particular regard to the British contribution. Despite providing the bulk of the forces for the operation, especially the naval elements, Britain proved to be the weakest willed of all the protagonists. Both the French and the Israelis were prepared to sit out the international pressure, and indeed the French, who were far more clear sighted about the likely response of the Americans, had previously secured international credit lines especially to resist the expected US financial pressure. If Operation Musketeer was essentially a gamble, a bluff to retain international status and prestige, the British ruling class had been suspiciously quick to fold. Whereas the French, disillusioned with the unanticipated timidity of their British allies, would turn away from the USA and invest in their Continental project, the European Economic Community, the British would submissively draw themselves further into the American orbit. There is a sense that the failure at Suez was actually something of a relief for a tired and weary British ruling class; that they were at last relieved of the burden of responsibility that came with global hegemony; that Muskateer had been, in fact, an organised collapse, a set up from the start. It should be not be forgotten, though, that this ruling class psychodrama had resulted in the death of several thousand Egyptians, most of them civilians.

As well as the loss of status on the international stage, what would come to be called the Suez Crisis had also led to a loss of domestic prestige for Britain's rulers, and this was the essential first condition for the outbreak of popular culture. It began the end of the culture of deference that had exerted an iron grip on British life, in which the low-born genuflected to the high, and the young respected their elders. The emergence of the adolescent, the teenager as a cultural phenomenon, was dependant both on the failure of the old order at Suez, and the simultaneous arrival of a new one from across the Atlantic in the form of Rock'n'Roll. As well as being the year of Operation Musketeer, 1956 was also the year when Rock'n'Roll music first began to penetrate the British pop charts. A distinct youth subculture had been emerging from the beginning of the decade with the Teddy Boys, urban youths dressed in Edwardian-style suits that had originally been produced to appeal to demobbed servicemen, and the first tremors of the energetic new American music had hit Britain in 1955 with the film The Blackboard Jungle and its hit song by Bill Haley and the Comets, Rock Around The Clock. This record is generally agreed to have fired the starting gun on the true post-war pop culture, and by the following year, the year of Suez, Elvis Presley and Little Richard had had their first top ten hits. The frenzy intensified during 1957 with the appearance of Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, the latter in particular incinerating what remained of the traditional values of duty and restraint.

Instead of looking up to a ruling class that appeared increasingly bereft in the world, British teenagers were looking towards their peers, especially those from the emerging superpower. And this revealed what would become the critical dynamic of British youth culture; that the more the ruling class struggled and the further their authority waned, then the more vital and vibrant popular culture became. This was a symbiotic relationship, and it did not take long for the avatars of the new popular culture to realise that they had a vested interest in further weakening the dwindling authority of what would become known as the establishment. Ironically enough, the ruling class were at least partially invested in this process themselves, so eager were many of them to divest themselves of their remaining inhibitions and responsibilities. Indeed, the culturial revolutionaries would increasingly find themselves pushing against an open door, especially when the Profumo affair revealed the deep moral rot at the heart of the ruling class. If the Suez Crisis had revealed an elite that seemed to have lost its touch in international relations, this latest scandal, in which a senior government minister was found to be sharing a mistress with a suspected Soviet spy, demonstrated that they had also lost any authority to lecture the lower orders on their sexual behaviour. Needless to say, this was to be a liberation for all concerned,

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Putting the Geist in Zeitgeist

In occult theory, an egregore is a collective soul that is formed from the individual souls that comprise any particular collective. As such, egregores can be made from anything from a handful of souls, such as in a pop group, to tens of thousands of souls with regard to major business corporations, and even to millions of souls in the case of nations. Exanples of notably powerful egregores include The Rolling Stones, the Provisional IRA, Ferrari SpA, Mossad, Liverpool Football Club, the Chinese Communist Party, the National Health Service and Google. If you hold any of these entities in your thoughts for a moment or two, the frisson you feel as you consider them is your reaction to their egregore. This can be a fleeting feeling of dread, or danger, or awe, or affection and kinship, depending on the quality of the egregore and your own perceived relationship to it. It should nonetheless be appreciated that, in occult terms, the egregore is a real (though discarnate) living being that is above and beyond the individual human souls that comprise and nourish it. The egregore of the Rolling Stones is, for example, a discrete consciousness that acts in the world, under its own will, above and beyond the individual machinations of Mick, Keef, Ronnie and Charlie. It is not just the sum of its parts, a blend of the combined consciousnesses of its members, former members, collaborators and fans. In any well-established egregore, the egregore itself has at least as much influence on, and control of, its constituents as the constituents have on it. The powerful egregore that is the Rolling Stones will not allow Mick Jagger or Keith Richards to diverge too far from its precepts, which is why that particular group is both so persistent and so artistically formulaic.

From this we can draw out the explanation of what a zeitgeist - literally time-spirit - actually is. A zeitgeist is a time-dependent egregore, comprised of all the souls that make up a particular generation or set of closely related generations. A zeitgeist therefore emerges when that generation emerges and starts to express its distinct worldview, and then slowly fades and dies as that generation ages, thins out, and finally becomes extinct. Once the egregore dies then so, slowly, does its worldview die with it, including its unique slant on art, politics, personal relationships, and morality, among many other things. For example, as a child in the 1970's the Edwardian zeitgeist was still very active and common to experience. This was especially notable in children's television, in which many programmes had a distinctively Edwardian flavour, such as Bagpuss, Andy Pandy and Ivor The Engine. It was obvious to me, even at a very young age, that the people who made these programmes had a far more sentimental and indulgent sensibility than my own comparatively modern and efficient parents. The first three Dr. Who's were all essentially Edwardian gentlement, especially Jon Pertwee with his antique car Bessie. Then there was Vision On's eccentric inventor Wilf Lunn with his waxed moustache and excessive use of ornamental brass fitments. Indeed, a big part of the magic of Seventies kids' TV was that it was anything but contemporary - everything seemed to be a precious relic from an age that was already flickering out. There was plenty of Edwardianism on adult television too, with dramas such as Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street, and Leonard Sachs' thesaurus-busting introductions to The Good Old Days. There were Edwardian films a-plenty most obviously with The Railway Children, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang and Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, but also those long-forgotten Doug McClure films such as At the Earth's Core and The Land That Time Forgot. There was a time when the presence of Doug McClure in a film cast was the absolute guarantee of cinematic excellence for every schoolkid, although the collective memory of this period was effectively wiped clean by the final disappearance of Edwardianism and the emergence of Star Wars.

And this is why death is important. As a generation dies off, and particularly as its most notable and lauded members expire, so to a large extent do the values and beliefs constituted in its egregore. And so as the baby boomers die, so too does the zeitgeist that they created. Their world will still be seen, like that of the Edwardians, preserved in photographs, films and music, but it will no longer be able to be felt. And when generations like mine who were at the tail end of "the rock'n' roll years", and could still divine some of its yearnings, also disappear then the whole era will seem strange, perhaps even unfathomable. This is already happening with the cultural minutiae of the era - who nowadays cares about Oz magazine? Or Fat Freddie's Cat?, or Victor Spinetti? But I also suspect that even the most highly regarded post-war popular music, from The Beatles to Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis, will eventually lie neglected - not because it succumbs to harsh critical re-evaluation, or falls foul of changing morals, but simply because it becomes incomprehensible, that the yearnings that it expressed are no longer felt or understood.

The death of David Bowie in 2016 was not only important culturally, but also politically, and it was not entirely coincidental to the results of the EU referendum and the US presidential election, as well as other seemingly more minor political events. Bowie, with his libidinal, liberatory energy, occupied a key position in the collective egregore of post-war popular culture, and was irreplaceable once he was gone. And so the rise of nationalist populism is to a certain degree a consequence of the eclipse of the idealist, utopian egregore that arose in the generations born in the aftermath of World War II. Progressive liberalism in the USA is nowadays largely a rearguard action that is trying to rekindle the dwindling flame of the Civil Rights era. One of the big problems of the "Marxist-Lennonism" of the British left is that its utopian vision of a world transformed is, far from being a vision of the future, rather an attempt to hold on to the dying post-war egregore. Today's progressives are still betrothed to the 20th Century and its transformative social ideals, while the formless waters of the 21st Century, inscrutable and treacherous, slowly lap in around them.