Beginning to See the Light; A life in style…
‘Jack is in his corset, Jane is in her vest
And me, I’m in a rock’n’roll band’
This week we deviate from the normal weekly commentary highlighting the government’s latest failings to a far more personal piece. Please, however stick with it, the summary highlights the point of this personal musing. We also include a festive-50 guaranteed to brighten up any Christmas morning.
This piece was inspired by an article in Saturday’s Guardian entitled ‘The Beatles were like aliens from the future in 1969 – and they are still as radical today’.
As I regard The Beatles as being the most overrated band ever (U2 runs them close), who made music that was as pointless then as it is tired today, I was inspired to write the alternative scenario.
One quote in the article I can agree with is, ‘Yes, the post-war years had been humbling; the economic and political story was one of decline’. This is undoubtedly true, war was everywhere, Africa, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the Cold War. Workers resorted to industrial action at the drop of a hat as mainland Europe and the UK was beset by strikes.
Many developed countries were experiencing ‘progressive’ unrest, with black people finally fighting back against years of subjugation. In the US there was the Civil Rights movement, and even Motown was finding its political side. Who can forget Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece ‘What’s Going On’. Gay Pride was nascent, and found it’s voice through disco music, and pioneering DJs such as ‘Frankie Knuckles’.
I regard The Beatles as being the most overrated band ever
Away from stoned-out hippies who saw the world through ‘kaleidoscope eyes’(1) came two bands, one from Detroit the other from NYC who saw the world differently.
From NYC came the Velvet Underground (‘The Velvets’) who the New York Times quoted as being the most influential US band of all time. Their songs were a social commentary of what they saw; sex, drugs, drug dealers, transvestitism. Their musical experiments, and nihilistic attitudes influenced everyone that listened to them. As the musician and producer Brian Eno wrote, ‘The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band’.
The Stooges were every bit as nihilistic, their lyrics a summary of the lack of hope teenagers living in declining industrial cities such as Cleveland and Detroit felt…
Last year I was twenty one I didn’t have a lot of fun
And now I’m gonna be twenty two I say oh my and a boo-hoo
It’s 1969 OK all across the USA
It’s another year for me and you
Another year with nothing to do
Ground Zero for me musically was July 1972. Although I had been aware of music before that it was David Bowie preforming ‘Starman’ on TOTP that was the watershed moment. ‘The way Bowie pointed that finger, smilingly draped an arm around Mick Ronson, and looked beyond the camera to engage the audience sitting at home, stickily hemmed in by disapproving members of their immediate family, seemed of a piece with the new Ziggy Stardust persona we’d been reading about. It felt like an arrival long delayed.’ (1)
‘Bowie changed the face of music and the world. Everybody’s got dyed hair or mad clothes now, but until he kicked in ’72, it was rare to see that kind of flamboyance. I was 12 when ‘Starman’ came out and I remember hearing it on the radio before going to school. It connected with me in a way no other ever had. I saw him on Top Of The Pops, it was like ‘bloody hell’. The presence of it. I’ve met loads of people since who say it changed their life as well.’ (2)
What Bowie gave us was a sanitised version of the Stooges and The Velvets. In 1972-73 he produced a solo album for Lou Read (The Velvets) and ‘Raw Power’ for Iggy and the Stooges. Together they formed the holy trinity of music; Lou Reed was the Father, Iggy Pop the Holy Ghost, with Bowie the Son. Also, over a weekend in July 1972, Lou Reed, and Iggy and the Stooges played back-to-back gigs at the Kings Cross Cinema, in the audience was what became the great and good of English punk.
The 1970s wasn’t a time to de ‘different’, and Bowie Kids were different. ‘Real’ men didn’t really do fashion, or sexual ambiguity, they preferred the clothes and terrace anthems of Slade, et al.
‘Real’ men didn’t really do fashion, or sexual ambiguity, they preferred the clothes and terrace anthems of Slade, et al
Progressive politics simply didn’t exist in the UK. Sexism, and racism were the order of the day. Top TV programmes Included ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and comedians such as Bernard Manning exemplified how primitive society was.
Bowie perhaps summed this up in ‘Rebel, Rebel’ when he sang ‘You’ve got your mother in a whirl, ‘She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl’. What we did know was that we wanted to party and look good ‘We like dancing and we look divine, You love bands when they’re playing hard.’
Musically, Bowie was the driving force of the 1970s, there was a direct line to punk, disco, post-punk, and the electronic music that mushroomed in popularity in the early-80s.
As has been well documented, the 1970s saw the continuation of Britain’s industrial decline, as industry found itself unable to compete with a resurgent West Germany and Japan. Unions continued to push for higher wages, strikes were rife; 23.9 million working days were lost in 1972, due mainly to a strike by coal miners. This was only exceeded in 1979, due mainly to the so-called ‘winter of discontent’, when 29.5 were lost. (3)
Part of the driver for strikes was rampant inflation which peaked at 25% in 1975, and stagflation (rising prices and zero growth). In addition, the Pound was devalued several times as we experienced continual balance of payment deficits. All of this culminated in the government applying to the IMF for a ‘bailout’ in 1976.
Reflecting on this in March 2016, I wrote in ‘Brexit, The Never Ending Story’,
‘The picture of London, and of the UK I have now isn’t the one I had when I was growing up. I remember strikes, inflation (more specifically, my parents worrying about it), queuing for petrol, but my overwhelming memory is that it was grey and drab. In case anyone can’t remember, the winter of 1978-79 was christened the ‘Winter of Discontent’ because of the widespread strikes including refuse collectors, leading to Leicester Square being submerged in rubbish sacks.’
The class system was still very prevalent in the UK, something that started from schooldays. The haves sent their children to public schools and were assured of a white-collar existence in a profession such as law, medicine, or the City, the ultimate old-boys club. The rest went to the local comprehensive, where those who aspired to be haves were in the top-stream, the rest were corralled and would end up in blue- collar work, factories to you and I. ‘I got this job in a piss factory inspecting pipe, Forty hours thirty-six dollars a week, But it’s a paycheck, Jack.’ (4)
Essentially, the system kept you down. It was this frustration and anger that led to the explosion that was punk in 1976. The originals were a disparate bunch, bought together through frustration, the want to party, a love of Bowie, and because we were ‘different’.
Punk was a short sharp shock that ran out of steam by the time of the Silver Jubilee in June 1977, although it arguably died the In December 1976 night when the Sex Pistols, ‘our band’ went on TV and swore!
Essentially, the system kept you down
When Johnny Rotten sang, ‘There’s no future, No future, No future for you..’, he spoke for a generation just as Bob Dylan had 15-years previously.
Punk was a cultural watershed, its anyone can do it, DIY ethos, inspired many to start bands, record labels, and fashions.
The US had its own punk scene based around CBGBs in New York, who’s influence was seen more in our post-punk scene.
At the same time as punk was horrifying the British public, in Milan, Giorgio Armani was designing clothes that had a similar impact, making it acceptable for men to like fashion.
‘Armani opened a third way in men’s clothing, an alternative to the traditional approach of English tailoring and the expectations associated with Italian made-to-measure clothing, realizing an innovative synthesis between formal wear and loose, flexible sportswear. With the invention of the blazer worn as a pullover, Armani offered men a new identity that rejected rigid professional divisions and allowed them to present themselves as young, attractive, and vaguely feminine’. (5) Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh, Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani. (6)
Politically, 1979-1980 created their own watershed moment with the election in the UK of Margaret Thatcher as PM, and in the US where former actor Ronald Reagan became President. Neither of them believed in ‘Society’.
In an interview in 1987 Margaret Thatcher made remarks that are often taken as a definition of modern Conservatism; ‘Too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it!’’ Thatcher said. ‘They are casting their problems on society, and who is society? There is no such thing!’
‘London became a thriving multi-cultural city, one that stands comparison with the other great cities of the world’
One of the key drivers of Britain in the 1980s was the way as a society we assimilated the European ways of life that previously was limited to our holidays. London became a thriving multi-cultural city, one that stands comparison with the other great cities of the world, and often it is a favourable comparison. Café society came into being, it became possible to eat well as people become more experimental and demanded greater quality.
Musically decades rarely begin when they should, I would argue that 1980s started in 1978. In Britain post-punk was the most creative period in our musical history and represented the regions economic declines, Leeds was very political (‘The Gang of Four’), Liverpool was psychedelic inspired by ‘The Doors’ and the writing of Camus and Proust (‘Echo and the Bunnymen’), Manchester and Sheffield were bleak and sparse the electro of Sheffield (‘Cabaret Voltaire’) reflecting the decline of the steel industry whereas Manchester (‘Joy Division’) was a dark sound reflecting the cities industrial wastelands.
London was a cultural collision, The Clash turned to reggae beats and racism; ‘White youth, black youth, Better find another solution, Why not phone up robin hood, And ask him for some wealth distribution.’ (6)
Alongside this was a bunch of former Bowie Kids and punks, who wanted to dress up and party, better known as the ‘New Romantics’. Pretentious was the order of the day, ‘Feel the rain like an English summer, Hear the notes from a distant song, Stepping out from a back shop poster, Wishing life wouldn’t be so long’.
The Thatcher governments were very divisive, racial tensions, and rising unemployment, especially amongst the young, led to series of inner-city riots between 1982-85.
Thatcher created an aspirational society, driven primarily by the ‘right-to-buy’ scheme where tenants were able to buy their council houses at heavily discounted prices. This, at a stroke, created a new generation of Tory voters in London and SE, broadened the so-called ‘middle class’ turning them from Daily Mirror readers to the Sun. The latest impact of this has been seen in the Leave vote in 2016’s Brexit referendum, and in the 2019 when, on the back of Brexit, turned Labour’s so-called ‘red wall’ blue.
In the US there was a healthy hard-core punk anti-Reagan scene that culminated with the success of Nirvana in the late 1980s. ‘you’re fucked up ronnie you’re not gonna last you’re gonna die too from a neutron blast’. (8)
Running parallel to all of this was a nascent movement is NYCs South Bronx, where in 1973, DJ Kool Herc, a.k.a. Clive Campbell, laid the first building block of hip-hop, when he reportedly hosted a party in his building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue with a sound system, or sound equipment used to DJ a party. Herc’s sound system was a guitar amp and two turntables. (9)
Hip-hop and rap have grown in popularity to such as extent that is now the predominant genre in music. In doing so, it has given black people a voice, an outlet to highlight societies shortcomings; ‘N****z start to mumble, they wanna rumble. Mix em and cook em in a pot like gumbo’. (11)
Musically we can skip forward, different bands and eras come and go, but, by and large, my tastes stayed the same.
Style wise, men have become increasingly aware of fashion, which is heavily influenced by the ‘street’; trainers and baseball caps not being the least of it. Success and wealth are a major driver and excess is king, logo’s predominate as an expression of this.
‘Different bands and eras come and go, but, by and large, my tastes stayed the same’
‘His [Virgil Abloh] way of elevating street clothes so closely adjacent to the black experience into a realm of fashion that historically negated it was quite astounding,’ says Darnell Lisby James, fashion historian and curator. ‘If you look at the past 40 years of fashion, you see this transition, and when Virgil comes into the industry, he really takes the ball running, cementing what many of us from the black community always saw as luxurious into [elite] mainstream luxury and Paris fashion’ (12)
Me, I moved from Armani’s relaxed elegance to minimalism, Japanese avant garde. a brief flirtation with 90s Gucci, Saville Row, and most recently a return to where it all began; oh, oh, oh, Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
My musical and style tastes were shaped in the 1970s. They may not have been to the taste of the masses, maybe I was ahead of my time? As the saying goes, ‘to be right too soon is to be wrong’.
At outset I promised that there would be a point to these personal musings. The point is that when I look back to the 1970s the issues affecting the UK were:
- Society was class conscious, a polite way of saying haves and have-nots
- Everything, everywhere, and everyone looked grey, we were a cultural desert.
- Rampant inflation and stagflation
- An inward-looking society lacking culture
- Regressive politics, racism, sexism, gender issues
- Northern Ireland
Next year, 2022, will be the 50th anniversary of my watershed year, when I look at the issues highlighted above, I ask myself, what has changed?
‘Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
I’m a Blackstar’
- ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’, the Beatles
- Never a Dull Moment, David Hepworth’s book about music in 1971
- Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen
- ‘Piss Factory’, Patti Smith
- ‘Paninaro’, the Pet Shop Boys
- ‘White Man in the Hammersmith Palais’, The Clash
- ‘Fucked up Ronnie’, D.O.A
- ‘Straight Outta Compton’, NWA
- Virgil Abloh, who died this weekend, was the creative director of Off-White and menswear creative director at Louis Vuitton. Abloh is credited with elevating streetwear into luxury wear and in the process altered the perception of blackness within the fashion industry.
Beginning to See the Lights Festive 50
- Black Flag – ‘Fix Me’
- Blondie – ‘X-Offender’
- Bob Dylan – ‘Hurricane’
- Bruce Springsteen – ‘Born to Run’
- Carole King – ‘I Feel the Earth Move’
- Clash – ‘White Man in the Hammersmith Palais’
- Cocteau Twins /This Mortal Coil – ‘Song to the Siren’
- David Bowie – ‘The Jean Geanie’
- Echo and the Bunnymen – ‘Bring on the Dancing Horses’
- Elvis Presley – ‘Burning Love’
- Einstürzende Neubauten – ‘Schwarz’
- The Four Tops – Reach Out I’ll be There
- Fugazi – ‘Margin Walker’
- Human League – ‘The Sound of the Crowd’
- Jesus and Mary Chain – ‘Never Understand Me’
- Joy Division / New Order – ‘Shadowplay’ / ‘Blue Monday’
- Jonathan Richman – ‘Roadrunner’
- Kraftwerk – ‘Autobahn’
- Massive Attack – ‘Inertia Creeps’
- Marvin Gaye – ‘What’s Going On?’
- My Bloody Valentine – ‘Only Shallow’
- NWA – ‘Straight Outta Compton’
- Nirvana – ‘About a Girl’
- Outkast – ‘BOB (Bombs Over Baghdad)’
- Patti Smith – ‘Piss Factory’
- PIL – ‘Public Image’
- Pet Shop Boys – ‘One More Chance’
- Portishead – ‘Sour Times’
- Prefab Sprout – ‘Appetite’
- Primal Scream – ‘Jailbird’
- Prince – ‘Sweet Little Red Corvette’
- Ramones – ‘Beat on the Brat’
- REM – ‘Radio Free Europe’
- Rolling stones – ‘Tumblin’ Dice’
- Roxy Music – ‘Street Life’
- Sex Pistols – ‘EMI’
- Scott Walker – ‘Breaking Up Is So Very Hard To Do’
- Simon & Garfunkel – ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’
- Sly and The Family Stone – ‘Dance to the Music’
- Soft Cell – ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’
- The Smiths – ‘This Charmin’ Man’
- Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – ‘I Second That Emotion’
- Sonic Youth – ‘Teenage Riot’
- Stooges – ‘1970 (I Feel Alright)’
- Suede – ‘Animal Nitrate’
- Suicide The Supremes – ‘Reflections’
- Talking Heads – ‘Psycho Killer’
- Television – ‘Marquee Moon’
- The Temptations – ‘Just My Imagination’
- Velvet Underground –’ I’ll Be Your Mirror’
Philip sets the scene by saying ‘his week’s piece is very different; I have become so bored with what is going on that I needed a distraction – sleaze, incompetence, blaming the French, blah, blah, blah – this week’s piece was inspired by an article in the Guardian about the forthcoming Beatles documentary (please, nooooooooooooooo), and their significance then and today. Insignificance might be more accurate.’ So nothing too controversial then.
What he serves up is a very personal piece; it is his story through clothes and music of how he and many others grew up, what they enjoyed, what they sought, and what they saw.
Philip said ‘the music reflected this, depression, desperation, nihilism, hope, enjoyment, a desire to be different but not just for different sake.
‘The backdrop to the story is what has happened in society, and the economy over that time. Recessions, booms, pandemics, Brexit, progressive politics. I set out to prove something, like me time has stood still; I’m back wearing Armani and I love the music I grew up with. Depressingly, the issues of the 1970s are still the issues of the 2020s.
Whilst it may not be everyone’s idea of a ‘Christmas Mix’, Philip has listed his favourite 50-bands and selected a song from each. It’s impossible not to paw over it nodding at the inclusion of some, and tutting at the exclusion of other.
Unfortunately it’s also difficult not to recognise the fact that so many of the societal challenges that existed all those years ago, remain today.
Lyrics are peppered throughout the article and Philip’s summary of musical styles reflecting the decline of the regions is fascinating. His festive treat is from his ‘Holy Trinity’ – the Father, Lou Reed, and the Velvet Underground’s with ‘Sweet Jane’, the Holy Ghost, Iggy and the Stooges with ‘1969’ and the Son, David Bowie, and his last gift to us ‘Blackstar’. Enjoy!
Philip is a great believer in meritocracy, and in the belief that if you want something enough you can make it happen. These beliefs were formed in his formative years, of the late 1970s and 80s