The British Aren’t Coming

In which The Author ponders the generation gap

An interesting meme popped up on Facebook yesterday. It was a fact I’d known for many years, but I’d never seen the evidence with my own eyes.


This milestone in US musical history heralded the so-called ‘British Invasion’ of pop (and, later, rock) groups across the pond. Within a few months of the Fab Four’s explosion into American youth culture, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Animals, the Small Faces, and a whole host of popular beat combos started to repay the debt they all owed to Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Little Richard et al – with substantial interest! Arguably the most productive, inventive, experimental and enduring two decades of popular music started pretty much this week, forty-two years ago.
I say ‘enduring’ for a reason. Radio 2’s long-running Sounds of the Sixties, presented by the avuncular broadcasting veteran Brian Matthew, continues to do exactly what it says on the tin. On a Sunday afternoon, Johnnie Walker (who last week marked his fiftieth anniversary on the air) presents Sounds of the Seventies. I love both shows, but whereas Mr Walker spends a fair bit of time reminiscing between records, Mr Matthew just spins the discs and reads out dedications. (Incidentally, if Dad were still alive, he’d be just about six weeks younger than Mr Matthew. Mr Walker is about two years younger than Mother. You can probably tell why I’ve got such a broad taste in music!)
Anyway, last night in the pub, Gareth S., the usual Friday night DJ, was a no-show. I don’t know where Mark, the guv’nor, was. The upshot was that the DJ booth was unoccupied. Courtney, Mark’s daughter and barbint of this parish, was in notional charge of the jukebox. And thereby hangs a tale.
Courtney is eighteen. Her sister Brooke is a couple of years older. They’re very definitely products of the Heart FM/MTV generation, which I referred to at the tail end of ‘Pick ‘n’ (Re)Mix‘. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. (Incidentally, kids, the M in MTV originally stood for ‘music’, in case you’re wondering.) There’s a TV channel called The Box, which broadcasts an endless stream of advertisements for mobile phone apps, cosmetics and fashion chains, punctuated with the occasional music video. (Or is it the other way round? It’s hard to tell sometimes.) Anyway, on Friday afternoon they broadcast what’s amusingly referred to as the ‘Top 40’. Forty videos, averaging four minutes apiece, plus ad breaks, makes a reasonable three-hour slot on TV. Then, instead of delving into the archives (which, in MTV terms, equates to about 1988 at the earliest), they play the entire three hour show again!
As my young friends would say: I shit you not!
The weirdest aspect of the whole phenomenon is that, once a song drops out of the Hit Parade, it ceases to exist entirely. There was a time, when I was in my second first year at university, when you couldn’t walk into a pub without hearing ‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga. It was a breath of fresh air when it first came out. Then it was played to death. The Pickled Pepper in Aberdare (formerly the Bush Inn, and now the Bush Inn) had one of the music channels on all day, and ‘Poker Face’ must have been on at least a dozen times every day. After a while the novelty kinda wore off. But Gareth gave it a spin last weekend, and I thought, ‘Wow, I haven’t heard this for ages!’ (It’s still a great song. It ain’t ‘Comfortably Numb’, but it’s a great song nonetheless.) It goes to demonstrate the market saturation we’ve reached, that a song you couldn’t escape from less than seven years ago is now considered to be a Golden Oldie.
A few weeks ago, Chazza invited (challenged?) me to duet with her on the karaoke. She’s half my age, if that. Straight away I said, ‘I know the perfect song: “Shut Up” by the Black Eyed Peas.’ She leapt at it, once she got over her initial amazement. I think she was expecting me to suggest something from Chicago, or a classic sixties/seventies hit. But it’s a great pop song (or rather, it was – until we got our hands on it!)
I can’t say the same for the majority of the stuff in the Top 40 at the moment. Acts don’t even have decent names any more. Gone are the days when you could call yourself the Clash, or the Stranglers, or even So-and-so and the Such-and-such. Now it’s all What’s-his-face featuring Wossnim and Wossnim. When I started doing my regular Xmas special quizzes in the Cambrian, I used to dread the music round. On paper, it’s a nice idea: identify all the No 1 UK hits from the year – a point for the title, and a point for the artist. In practice, it’s a pain in the arse, because half of them sound identical, and there are often as many as five or six credited performers. Teams were scoring forty or fifty points just on the fucking music round! Crazy.
As for the ‘songs’ themselves – well, this meme (again found on Facebook) kinda sums things up:


(Yes, I know the date for the Led Zeppelin song is wrong! I don’t make the memes. And I thought a hoe was something you used in the garden, too …)
A few weeks ago, I was chatting to Gareth E. and Wayne W. about music in general. Wayne and I share the opinion that Morrissey is probably one of the the finest songwriters working in the UK today. He’s disarmingly frank, outspoken, erudite and witty. The aforementioned Ms Minaj could live to be a thousand years old and never come up with anything remotely close to the sheer audacious brilliance of ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ or ‘This Charming Man’.
But great lyrics are only half the battle, aren’t they? You also need to have great music behind them. That’s why the Morrissey/Johnny Marr partnership was such a revelation in the face of synthpop (which I also love, by the way). That’s why Pink Floyd’s masterly concept pieces work so well. That’s why Abba’s massive hits have stood the test of time. Look at the superb body of work which resulted from Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s collaboration, or Simon and Garfunkel’s back catalogue, or the tremendous output of Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland. (Stock, Aitken and Waterman had the brass neck to call themselves ‘the Hit Factory’! They were a cottage industry in comparison to the Motown guys.)
When songwriting partnerships really come together, it’s a perfect illustration of what R. Buckminster Fuller meant by synergy – the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. And they didn’t get much greater than John Lennon and Paul McCartney when they were firing on all cylinders.
To illustrate my point even more fully – as I’ve said, last night Courtney was in charge. After pumping several credits into the jukebox, she proceeded to dial up the same music that was on the TV (with the sound down). She could have saved money and just turned the idiot’s lantern up, but that’s not the point. The Lighthouse isn’t a kids’ pub. Yes, youngsters come in, but they rarely stay for the duration – it’s just a stopping-off point on the way around town. Most of the punters are around my age, or a bit older. We don’t want to listen to Justin bloody Bieber or Iggy Azalea (not her real name, apparently), or Jason DeRulo, or even Fetty Wap. (Personally, I thought Fetty Wap was a bondage-themed website optimised for mobile phones.) We were brought up listening to proper music, after all.
So, when Courtney returned to the bar and left the jukebox unattended, I thought I’d mark the momentous anniversary of the British Invasion in fitting style. I couldn’t remember all five songs, but I found four of them on the menu, and threw in ‘She’s Leaving Home’ for good measure.
And the atmosphere was immediately transformed. One couple, around my own age, started dancing. Everyone else started singing along. A few people who were passing came in and stayed for a drink – purely on the strength of the music. It only lasted for a quarter of an hour or so, and then normal service was resumed. I, along with quite a few others, made my excuses and left.
I know it’s early days, and (as I’ve noted several times previously) predictions of the future often land well wide of the target. But I’m fairly confident that people will still be playing the Beatles’ records in a thousand years’ time – and that they’ll continue to influence countless generations of songwriters and musicians to come.
What can Britain offer the world today, by way of comparison. Sam Smith? Fine voice, but largely wasted on piss-poor material. Adele? (Ditto) Ed bloody Sheeran? Some clothes horse from Simon Cowell’s stable? Do me a bloody favour! Most of the current crop of UK performers will be lucky if anyone’s still listening to their music ten years down the line, never mind fifty. In fact (as I observed to my pal Jimmy N. yesterday), I strongly suspect the current charts, filled as they are with interchangeable and indistinguishable garbage, are probably America’s way of getting revenge for showing them exactly how it’s done, forty-two years ago this week.

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