MARCH OF THE PRIGS: POP VS ROCK SNOBBERY THROUGH THE AGES

This was written for a magazine that never happened, but if it had it would have been the best rock magazine ever. And it would probably be defunct now.

“ROCK IS NOT POP YOU THICK FUCKER”: I actually said that to my music teacher Mr Campbell in 1973. It was an argument over Led Zeppelin IV. I had lent my copy to a mate who had returned it. But really it was an opportunity to walk around with the album under my arm to smugly advertise the fact that I had superior taste to everyone else.

We were in the music class when the music teacher snatched it off me and played Rock And Roll – or at least the first minute – then, with an I-smell-shit expression, took it off and then proceeded to lecture us about ‘pop’ music, pompously proving to us logically why it was “to Beethoven, Schubert and Bach what a dirty postcard from the seaside is to Shakespeare.” Actually these days I quite like Beethoven and Bach – Schubert is and always was a heap of feeble Teutonic saccharine bollocks, wanker couldn’t even finish a symphony – and comparing them unfavourably or otherwise to Led Zeppelin (or Miles Davis or John Cage or Burt Bacharach or Metallica for that matter) is as dimwitted as saying that a cream bun is better than a steam roller. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

In many ways my sneering music teacher was just a reflection of my own raging musical snobbery. Me and my small clique of mates just hated the idea that as far as anyone like that was concerned there was no difference between Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Uriah Heep and Hawkwind – all bands big with the ‘hip’ kids in small town Scotland – and Slade, The Sweet, Mud, The Osmonds and Gary Glitter. That was POP: commercial bollocks for teenyboppers, kiddies too thick to know better. Unlike us, who were into ROCK: proper music played by real proper musicians with long hair and beards who wrote their own songs and …er…stuff.

There were endless lectures, putting down poor old George Forbes who still liked T-Rex. It was like the bloody Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, attacking the class enemy with relentless criticism. “It all sounds the same. Not proper music like Emerson Lake and Palmer. They’re classically trained!” George took it all in good spirits but you could tell he didn’t really give a fuck what we thought. And as for girls who liked David Cassidy and Donny Osmond, there was no point because they were all lost causes anyway. Future teenage mothers, as somebody in my nasty little circle put it.

With hindsight, it’s the bitterness that small differences produce and obviously these days I’m not only actively more tolerant of Mud, Slade and the Sweet but, reader, I actually like them. Back in the music class of 1973, though, I had run out of arguments – the musicianship, the originality, the authenticity etc – which reached deaf ears anyway. So I fell back on a petulant outburst of “ROCK IS NOT POP YOU THICK FUCKER.”

The teacher looked at me with an expression of raw hatred. In retrospect, I think he restrained himself admirably: I’m sure that I would have punched my bloody face in and not stopped until nmy fist came out the other side.

In Scottish schools in the 70s they still had corporal punishment so I was sent off to be hit by a strange old man with a leather strap wearing a black gown. Six times. Hard. As far as I was concerned, the dissidents in Soviet gulags never suffered half of the injustices and oppression visited on me that day. All I had done was to utter THE TRUTH. I was a martyr to rock.

In my defence, I was 14.

Today, pop has soundly defeated rock after three decades of bitter struggle. Tin Pan Alley is firmly back in control and this time it’s personal: you can pretend all you like about the importance of Franz Ferdinand or the Arctic Monkeys or Mastodon, but we’re all in Simon Cowell‘s world now and he just lets us live here. Under sufferance. Pop Idol and an endless procession of interchangeable stage school graduates are the sweet revenge of every kid who was ever sneered at in the playground for preferring T-Rex, or Motown or The Human League or Kylie to Gnidrilog, Yes or REM.

And in truth the ‘rock’ snobs have had it coming for years…

Pop vs rock is only applicable to the UK: the ‘culture wars’ fought in the 60s and 70s was born from a sort of ‘cultural cringe’. The boys who were doing A Levels, going on to college or university, destined for white collar jobs did not want to be associated with the music, fashion and haircuts of their blue collar compatriots. It was a far worse kind of snobbery than the disdainful to-the-manor-born kind for we were all working class kids looking down on other working class kids. I know, for I was that stuck-up and desperately aspirational smug little ponce.

The early 70s ‘rock’ fans would distinguish themselves from the other kids by adopting a deliberate anti-fashion look, an extension of hippiedom and other youth-cult leftovers going back to the beatniks. The look was faded flared denim (preferably Levis in opposition to then more populist brands like Wrangler or Brutus), granny glasses, beards (as much as could possibly be grown, always a good look for a 14 year old), steel-grey RAF greatcoats, ragged trainers, suede desert boots, cheesecloth shirts or Afghan coats (preferably white ones) and lank centre parted long hair as opposed to feather cuts. We smoked spliffs, ‘they’ smoked Embassy Regal, we drank Schlitz, ‘they’ drank Breaker Malt Liquor. We dropped acid, ‘they’ took Mandrax. We read Sounds, ‘they’ got Disco 45 (a weekly mag that printed the lyrics to records in the Top 20) and the Daily Record. We thought we were pretty hot shit and that ‘they’ were peasants.

People like me then would tell you with pride that they did not own any singles (usually a lie), never watched Top Of The Pops (always a lie) or listened to Radio 1 apart from Sounds Of The Seventies (the BBC’s grudging concession to ‘prog rock’ on Monday to Thursday between 10 and midnight). Albums were kept in transparent plastic sleeves and treated with reverence and care. You did NOT roll joints on them. The record went into the inner sleeve, opening upwards, NOT outwards so that the disc slid out. The way my mum did it. Albums were stacked upright, arranged by band or by genre NOT in one of those K-tel flip-stands. Albums were regularly wiped with a calotherm impregnated cloth. Albums were never played as background music: they were approached with ritual and reverence and often listened to – nay, contemplated – in solitude, on headphones.

The ‘rock’ fans would even speak differently, adopting knowing Americanisms. We’d refer to ‘albums’ (derived from collections of 78 rpm discs issued in album form) as opposed to the more accurate ‘Long Player’ or ‘LP’. ‘Gig’ (from jazz hipster parlance for a job of work, not necessarily musical) rather than ‘concert’ or ‘performance’. ‘Cans’ rather than ‘headphones’, ‘shades’ rather than ‘sunglasses’… You get the drift.

There was something a little bit emperor’s new clothes about it all: Jethro Tull or Yes or The Mahavishnu Orchestra, so the reasoning went, were superior to The Rubettes because they were harder to listen to. Bands who made singles made them to be instantly catchy, but bands who made albums made them like great novels or paintings. You had to work at it. You had to ‘know’ stuff before you could appreciate it. This snootiness evolved, and had me, at 16, pontificating on how I much preferred Metal Machine Music to Transformer.

There were different pecking orders within it all, of course. Those of us who liked Sabbath, Mott The Hoople, Cream, Hendrix, Zep, The Who etc were often patronised by the kids who liked ‘high’ progressive bands by Yes, ELP and King Crimson. And the true rock snob – the fan who was into genuinely difficult and unpopular music like Faust, Can, Hatfield & The North, Henry Cow, stuff that was on Virgin when the label was synonymous with extreme underground stuff – looked down on everyone. Sadly – and this will come as no surprise to you – the guy at my school with all the Comus albums was me. I was in the mindset that if you liked Queen, you may as well like the Bay City Rollers.

‘Pop’ was trivial, ‘rock’ was profound.

But really I was just part of a cycle of snobbery that was as old as popular culture itself. Before there was rock there was rock and roll. Little Richard, Elvis, The Big Bopper, Jerry Lee. But as the 60s dawned, rock seemed to have proved those who dismissed it as a passing fad to be correct: Elvis was in the army recording lame show tunes in his spare time, Little Richard had found God and Jerry Lee Lewis was playing country music to make a living. The brightest and best were dead – Eddie Cochrane, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, the Big Bopper – or, like Chuck Berry, in jail. Popular music was once again dominated by white-bread, easily manipulated Judeo-Aryan boy puppets like Fabian, Bobby Vee, Bobby Darrin and Pat Boone. They looked like they ate and shat candfloss and were smooth between the legs, like Barbie’s unfortunate boyfriend Ken. In Britain, Tin Pan Alley ruled: we had a string of seemingly identikit pop stars with overly-emotional surnames – Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Terry Eager – churned out by sinister uberfag impresario Larry Parnes. Sound in any way familiar?

The market for rock and roll was teenage girls. It was teenage girls who made Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, The Who, who screamed and bought all the rip off merchandising and made them rich. But their affection is fickle, and when they grew up and moved on, the bands that they once screamed for were either left high and dry or they were left with the minority audience: other blokes. And that’s where the haughtiness came in, from a shared sense of inferiority and latent misogyny.

Music then as now was ridden with brutal snobbery. The ‘thinking’ male music fan in 1964 would have been withering about The Beatles. He’d have been into stuff like John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck and the Modern Jazz Quartet. He was a scowling figure dressed in a duffel coat and a black polo neck with a small CND badge pinned to his lapel and a copy of the City Lights edition of Allen Ginsberg‘s Howl sticking conspicuously out of the pocket of his brown corduroys. He may have been into folk music – proper authentic traditional American acoustic music by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lefty Frizell as ‘collected’ by folk’s own John The Baptist Alan Lomax – and was maybe a bit sniffy about ‘newcomers’ like Phil Ochs or Bobby Dylan. He had one of those awful beards with no moustache and a shaggy non-haircut. Although only 20, he was likely to smoke a pipe. He was into ‘free love’ in theory though seldom found girls who would actually ‘put out’ and voted Communist at the general election of 1964, mainly to piss-off his dad. If he was really really hip, he might have discovered the blues on a few dusty imported 78s or crackly LPs and if he lived in London he may have been a regular at Alexis Korner or John Mayall‘s blues sessions at the Marquee, then on London’s Oxford Street. But before the mid 60s there is no way on Earth he’d have cared about rock and roll – even the new breed of bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and The Who. That was music for little girls.

Variations of this archetype evolved and permeated the 60s and 70s: by the time punk rock came around, you had these guys trying to give the impression that they were hip to something beyond punk even though you knew for a fact that a few weeks before they had been grooving to Gong.

At some point in the early 80s I was granted the gift of a moment of clarity, when, to paraphrase Burns, I was briefly able to see myself as other people saw me. At that time I had mutated from big-headed prog bore to pompous post-punk pillock with what seemed like little effort. Joy Division, Magazine and A Certain Ratio were the albums under my arm then. The Afghan had been replaced by a grey suit with narrow lapels, black shirt with tab collar and skinny red tie and a shaved at the sides long at the top haircut that was supposed to make me look like a 1920s Russian Constructivist. Inevitably I edited a fanzine, full of earnest think-pieces and interviews with bands like Josef K, The Poems and Positive Noise. I’d ask questions, in all seriousness, like: do you see yourself more in the tradition of Dada or of Futurism? And: how would you say that Kierkegaard has influenced your songs?

For some reason I found myself on Radio Clyde’s punk show Streetsounds, hosted by journalist Brian Ford. I was excited: at last I was going to have a megaphone to shout it out loud and put everyone right. And Christ, did I? I droned on about how The Human League had sold out (Love Action had just entered the charts), sneered big headedly about The Ruts, was condescending and patronising about the utterly great Altered Images and big headedly nasty about the new Simple Minds album. What should people be listening to then? asked Brian. Clock DVA and This Heat, I replied without hesitation.

 

I got home feeling all pleased with myself. My girlfriend had recorded the show and I listened back. But instead of the erudite, witty and bitingly smart chap I imagined myself to be, I heard somebody who sounded suspiciously like a right stuck-up prick. A boring know-all. All at once I was the fat trad jazz bloke in That’ll Be The Day sneering that rock and roll was a passing fad, I was the sad beardy with horn-rimmed glasses who shouted “Judas!” at Dylan; I was John Milner snapping off the radio in American Graffiti and barking: “Rock’n’roll’s been going downhill since Buddy Holly died.” “I sound like a twat!” I wailed. My girlfriend smiled and nodded. It was true!

I’m not pretending that things have totally changed and moved on, but I like to think that at least now I recognise the snobbery in myself and do something to challenge it. Mostly because in overcoming snobbery you have more to gain than to loose. I had to overcome priggish attitudes against pop music but also against soul, jazz, heavy metal, hardcore punk, reggae, funk, disco, you name it. I’ve tried with contemporary R&B and I guess I just don’t like it. Oddly, I’ve also had to overcome a certain amount of snobbishness against the prog rock that I grew up with and see that I was right all along. And so so so wrong.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s