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Pick ‘n’ (Re)Mix

In which The Author casts an eye over contemporary youth culture

Thirty years ago, a young sociologist wrote one of the ground-breaking texts in an embryonic field which became known as ‘Cultural Studies’. His name was Dick Hebdige and the book was Subculture: The Meaning of Style (Methuen, 1979). It became a standard text for the next decade or so; it remained in print until a few years ago to my certain knowledge. It may still be. My own copy was borrowed by a friend some years ago, and I haven’t seen it since. Dr Hebdige attempted to analyse British working-class youth movements – their fashion, music and political allegiances – from the earliest days of the Teddy Boys (before Elvis), onwards via Mods and Rockers, touching on Ska and Reggae, through the Skinheads, and finishing with Punk.
Dr Hebdige glossed over Prog Rock, Heavy Rock, and Glam Rock. Prog, in particular, was too middle-class to suit Hebdige’s thesis. A guy called Paul Stump has subsequently analysed Prog at some length, giving it the treatment it deserves in his book The Musics’s All That Matters (Quartet Books, 1997).
Dr Hebdige’s research project ended long before the New Romantics, Futurism, Electro-pop, Goth, the NWOBHM, Posi-punk, the Mod revival, the Psychedelic revival, the Baggies, the new Goth, the Acid House phenomenon, the second Psychedelic revival, Industrial, Grebo, Techno, Shambling, Madchester, Hip-hop. R’n’b, Ragga, Gabba, Drum ‘n’ bass, Dance, Trance, and fuck knows what else, were ever dreamt of.
Dr Hebdige’s theory of Subculture was relevant in the days when communities were limited by geography and education. In a nutshell, his argument was that subcultures arose spontaneously amongst working-class youths, from the ‘bottom up’ as it were, before being labelled and catalogued by music and fashion journalists.
The Teddy Boys adopted their style as a flamboyant rebellion against a decade of rationing and austerity. The Beatniks saw their image as part of an all-encompassing revolutionary movement, which would herald a global communist utopia. The Mods were drawn together by their love of Modern Jazz, which in turn saw them associated with bands like The Who and The Small Faces. The original Skinheads danced to soul and ska and blue-beat, and had no right-wing agenda. Punk was originally a street-level rebellion against the stadium gigs and concept albums of the Glam and Prog Rockers – their rallying call was ‘anyone can do it!’ The New Romantic scene grew up largely amongst the decaying post-industrial towns of England. It provided both a welcome splash of colour amongst the greyness, and a rejection of the very conventional masculinity associated with heavy industry.
Dr Hebdige’s thesis was valid three decades ago. Things have changed. Anyone using his book as a reference for a research project today will be using hopelessly outdated material.
Growing up in South Wales in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was acutely aware of the dividing lines between these affinity groups. In school, most of my mates gravitated towards either the Rock/Metal axis, or the Post-Punk/New Wave axis.
The former were easily identified by their denim jackets adorned with patches proclaiming their allegiance to Iron Maiden, Saxon, Motorhead, or Black Sabbath. They wore their hair as long as they could before incurring the wrath of our teachers, and spent their reading time in the fantasy worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien and his imitators, or the nightmares of Stephen King and James Herbert. They knew colossal amounts about the career of Michael Schenker or David Lee Roth, but had never heard of the Human League – even though they’d had the Xmas No 1 a few months before.
The latter group favoured flick haircuts with razored sides, and long ‘granddad’ coats bought from the Oxfam shop, usually with novels by William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac tucked in the pockets. They carried LPs by Joy Division, Killing Joke or Magazine tucked under their arms, lending these valuable items around the inner circle. Extended guitar solos were the province of ‘musos’, and technical skill was sneered at.
Besides these two groups, there was a small minority who favoured Prog Rock, but they were mostly seen as ‘old hippies’ by the people with their fingers on the pulse of popular culture. There was also a smaller group who were into electro-pop – The Human League, Japan, and Visage, amongst others. The rest of the guys didn’t seem to be bothered by music, or express any preferences.
The division extended to the music news which each group received. The rockers bought Kerrang!, the Post-punk crowd bought New Musical Express or Melody Maker, and nobody read Smash Hits – or, at least, would admit to it in an all-boys school during the early years of the Thatcher regime. Pop music was reserved for one’s girlfriends, sisters, or those who just listened to the radio without discrimination or interest.
I fell between stools. We’d always had Radio 2 on in the house when I was growing up, so I was fed a fairly bland diet of old pop songs, easy listening, novelty songs, and the occasional great song that transcended age and class. I used to watch Top of the Pops, (largely because all my mates did, and I wanted to try and keep at least a fingertip on the pulse) and so I saw Boney M one minute and the Stranglers the next, without ever thinking that there was a world of difference between them. The first single I bought was a novelty pop song, ‘One More Night’ by a band called Yellow Dog. Dale Winton played it on Pick of the Pops a year or so ago, and I couldn’t help laughing when I heard it again.
The first LP I bought was by Hawkwind. I’d come across them in the entry about Michael Moorcock in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (ed. Peter Nicholls, Granada Publishing, 1979), and that was my main reason for checking them out. I was a big fan of his books, so I bought one of their more recent LPs (Levitation) in Woolworth’s in Aberdare a few months later.
And so my exploration of the musical universe began. I roamed far and wide, looking for anything a little bit off the beaten track, but never losing track of the wider scene.
My initial discovery of Hawkwind led me to Gong (see ‘Leaving No Turn Unstoned’) and Pink Floyd (see ‘Making One’s Own Luck’), who had been mentioned in a cross-reference from the above-mentioned encyclopedia (which probably made me an old hippy by anyone’s standards), but not to the now-seminal Krautrock bands like Can, Faust and Amon Duul. Virgin in Cardiff (opposite the castle, a fraction of the size of the Megastore that later occupied a large chunk of the Capitol Centre) didn’t have too many of their LPs.
Mike Oldfield had recorded a new arrangement of the Blue Peter theme tune for the BBC, and so I bought Tubular Bells, as well as his later LPs Incantations, QE2 and Platinum. They, in turn, got me interested in ‘electronic music’ so I found myself buying records by the Human League, Heaven 17 and the Cure (putting me firmly in the ‘granddad coat’ camp).
In about 1982 my cousin Christine had given us a bunch of old vinyl LPs. Among them were the first four Led Zeppelin LPs, some early Black Sabbath, four Emerson, Lake & Palmer LPs, and Roxy Music’s debut. I still rate this last as one of the greatest LPs I’d ever heard at the time. Granted, I hadn’t heard many, but it was so different from anything I’d heard at the time that it led me down yet another road less travelled.
I bought Pete Frame’s mind-blowing book Rock Family Trees (Omnibus Press, 1979) and started tracking some of the twigs. I still own Brian Eno’s first four solo LPs on vinyl. I bought them in Cardiff over a period of a couple of months, when I was seeing Lisa.
On another visit I bought Soft Machine’s final studio LP The Land of Cockayne. By then, the Softs had become a pretty standard jazz-rock outfit, but it’s still a fine piece of work. Their earlier stuff was long-since deleted. (Having acquired some of their earlier LPs since, I wonder if – at the age of 16 or so ― I’d have liked them anyway.)
To my surprise, I had to lend these new acquisitions to a couple of the ‘sophisticated’ set in school – the boys who knew about music and played instruments and were in bands. I’d discovered something that had eluded them, while they focussed entirely on their own established tastes and refused to explore any further.
The last ‘subculture’ to grow up spontaneously was probably the original manifestation of Goth, back in the early 1980s. Centred around the Batcave, a weekly club night in London, the original Goths favoured bands like the Specimen and Alien Sex Fiend, later expanding to include Bauhaus, the Cure and the Sisters of Mercy among their pantheon. Somewhere in the Odd Sock Vortex is my copy of The Batcave compilation on cassette.
In 1983, a gang of us went to see the Cult in Cardiff’s New Ocean Club. We must have looked like what we were ― small-town trendies in the big city. Six months later we went to see the Cure in Bristol, looking even more out of place amongst the überGoths who filled the Colston Hall that night.
By now I was reading Sounds regularly. There’d been another music broadsheet called Soundmaker for a short while, which featured a lot of electronic music, and Sounds seemed to be the nearest alternative to it. (I found out later that it used to feature eccentric journalism by John Peel back in the 1970s, and had moved seamlessly from covering the rock scene through the transition to punk and beyond.) NME was self-consciously trendy and determinedly left-wing. Then, as now, its core readership was made up of students who liked to be told what to listen to, rather than explore for themselves. Melody Maker ploughed a similar furrow, but with a bigger emphasis on pop music.
Sounds came closest to my own tastes. Dave Henderson’s regular feature ‘Wild Planet’ was a round-up of experimental demo tapes from across Europe and further afield. Jack Barron and Sandy Robertson favoured bands who were a bit out-of the-ordinary. David Tibet even gave Crass a five-star review for Single of the Week, when they released ‘You’re Already Dead’. I acquired LPs by Einstürzende Neubauten, SPK, and Throbbing Gristle. I also started buying the old hippy bible Zigzag after it rebranded itself as a flag-bearer for the post-punk and Goth scene (see ‘Zigzagging Down Memory Lane’).
Back last summer I put all my old copies of Sounds and the few remaining copies of NME and Melody Maker out for recycling. It was a nice nostalgia trip for an afternoon, looking at interviews with no end of ‘Next Big Things’ (most of whom never made it past the first single release), eight- or ten-page gig listings, and the semi-display ads for long-forgotten bands at demolished venues.
Particularly amusing was an full-page ad for the Monsters of Rock Festival at Castle Donington. The line-up included bands of the calibre of Dio, Saxon, Def Leppard and a host of other huge rock acts. It was all on one day, and the tickets cost a massive £13! I remember being with a gang of boys in the Carpenters Arms in Aberdare, while they were complaining about how expensive the tickets were that year, and some of them were wondering whether they’d actually bother going.
The boys in question were undoubtedly part of the heavy rock/metal subculture. Tattooed, denim-clad, long-haired, smoking roll-ups (often with a little something extra added for good measure) and drinking Newcastle Brown or bottles of Pils, they usually wore faded black tour t-shirts proclaiming their allegiance to Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath. When they went to Cardiff for a night out, there was only one possible destination – Bogiez in Penarth Road. It was Cardiff’s rock club. The trendier kids went to the Square Club in Westgate Street or Clwb Ifor Bach, if they were feeling brave.
Further out of town there was PC’s (properly known as Poet’s Corner) on Albany Road, where new and established bands performed seven nights a week. These three venues were primarily student haunts, but Bogiez attracted a rock crowd from right across South Wales. Of course there were no end of mainstream discos and clubs as well, but these were the places to go if you wanted something a little bit different.
I used to call into Bogiez after work on Saturday afternoons towards the end of its life, before that whole block was demolished and ‘redeveloped.’ Even in my late twenties I was too old for the place. It was full of teenagers who espoused what became known as ‘Industrial Music’ – Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, and that rock/hip-hop hybrid which was starting to break through in the UK at that time.
They’d clearly never heard of Throbbing Gristle, SPK or Einstürzende Neubauten – which was what I thought of as as ‘Industrial Music’. (Some older friends of mine also got caught out by this redefining of genres a few years ago, on a night out in Cardiff. They saw a poster for an R ‘n’ B night, and found themselves surrounded by kids dancing to Destiny’s Child and the like, rather than early Fleetwood Mac or Cream covers.)
Younger than the young rockers in the Carpenters were a group of (mostly) lads and a few girls, who had adopted a clichéd punk style. They’d come into the pub at weekends, all sporting spiky coloured hair, leathers, and big boots. Younger again were the under-age girls, not old enough to be part of the heavy metal crowd as such, and who believed that Faster Pussycat and Pearl Jam were heavy metal bands. They always struck me as having more in common with the heavier end of Glam Rock, back in the 1970s – bands like the Sweet – than Black Sabbath or Motorhead. Even so, the music press (especially Kerrang!) gave these new bands as much coverage as they did to the old stalwarts.
By virtue of sharing the minibuses to Bogiez and Donington, these young girls found themselves part of our group near the window. On Thursday nights, about fifteen of us would assemble in the pool room of The Bush to watch Metal Hammer on the big TV. Faith No More and The Red Hot Chili Peppers rubbed shoulders with Iron Maiden and Guns N’ Roses. Some of the stuff they broadcast on the show was okay, most of it was fairly unmemorable. To that extent, Heavy Rock hadn’t changed since the 1970s.
The Carpenters had live music on Thursday nights, so we’d head back from the Bush in time for the band. The majority of them were older guys playing what I now know to be the Great Valleys Songbook, but we also saw some storming gigs by the Original Mind Band, Terry Williams (yes, that Terry Williams, he of Dire Straits fame), and Foreign Legion, among other Welsh bands.
There was a charming, eccentric old boy who used to come to the Carpenters gigs. His name was Mr Wilson (I never knew his first name) but everyone called him ‘Tug’. (My dad once told me that it was the usual nickname for guys called ‘Wilson’ in the forces, but nobody knew why.) He lived around the corner from me, and I used to see him on the last bus home.
Tug was only five feet tall, if that; always immaculately dressed, and with his white hair Brylcreemed, he looked every inch the retired major. He was in his eighties, almost blind, and I used to see him across the road in the nights to make sure he got home safely. He could drink prodigious quantities of Gold Label without ever getting pissed, and would dance to the bands, regardless of what was being played. There was one group who used to visit regularly, with a tiny female singer. She and Tug used to entertain us, dancing together during the guitar solos. Everybody knew him, everybody liked and respected him, and everybody was sad when he passed away a few years ago.
But, of course, as Diane tells Mark in Trainspotting, drugs were changing, and music was changing.
At the back of The Carpenters, where the serious drug-taking went on, the old hippies and punks were starting to share the pool table with some new arrivals. A different group of youngsters enthusiastically embraced the dance music which was starting to take hold in the UK in the late 1980s. I still have a copy of the seminal UK dance record of that time – ‘Pump Up the Volume’ by M/A/R/R/S – on vinyl.
These kids looked like extras from a Sigue Sigue Sputnik video, and took ecstasy and LSD rather than dope or speed. The different subcultures even had their own drugs at this stage. Even though I’ve always steered clear of the drug scene, I found that I had more in common with the Rock crowd than with the Dance crowd.
I remember when the next wave of Punk/Goth first came onto the scene. It was about the time that I was involved with Gema. Suddenly there were dozens of girls in Cardiff wearing bondage gear, and with the sort of Siouxsie-style hair and make-up that I’d always liked. The dog collar became a bit of a fashion accessory for a while, even amongst trendier girls, with Laura and Becky and Rachel and Liz wearing them around town at weekends. The only problem was that they were teenagers, or in their early twenties, and I was in my mid thirties.
One Halloween night, after having a couple of pints in The Angel Tavern after work, I got chatting to a black-clad and black-haired girl wearing a very kinky dog collar. For some reason I ended up in Metros. There were even more of my ideal girls there ― including at least one of the barmaids ― and I ended up horribly pissed before getting a taxi home at stupid o’clock. The girl I’d originally talked to had vanished into the darkness at the far end of the club, and I spent the rest of the evening on my own.
I’d been on a hiding to nothing from the outset, of course. I wasn’t part of their subculture. They might have heard of Bauhaus or Alien Sex Fiend, but it was unlikely to say the least. Similarly, I knew nothing of Placebo or Marilyn Manson. Like my friends who’d got caught out at the R ‘n’ B night, I’d made the mistake of attaching the label to the style of music that I knew, and not the music of the same name that these youngsters knew.
About five years ago, there was a sudden eruption of youngsters forming bands in South Wales. It was triggered by the success of Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers and Lost Prophets, I suppose. Friends of mine used to promote gigs at a couple of venues in Aberdare. I can’t remember any of the bands. It was just a barrage of noise and screaming.
In the early 90s, we used to go to gigs in the Bristol Hotel in Cardiff – pretty much next to Bogiez – and see bands like Chaos UK and Doom doing their stuff. That was a barrage of noise and screaming, of course, but we were young and it was cutting-edge stuff at the time. Fifteen years on, it just seemed silly to stand at the back of the Black Lion watching a Doom tribute act. I’d seen it all before. I felt sorry for the kids in their Slipknot hoodies moshing at the front, thinking they’d discovered something new.
Anyway, I was thinking about all this a couple of weeks ago, while watching a friend’s band in one of my semi-local pubs. It’s the favoured place for the borderline drinkers at the moment. There’s always been a pub like this since the Carpenters closed, ranging through the Railway Club, the King’s Head, the Black Lion, the White Lion, and the Mount Pleasant. It’s a small pub, just outside the town centre, where no ID is ever required ― and therefore the nearest in spirit to the much-missed Carpenters. It’s the only place where young bands can try out new stuff, instead of just churning out predictable covers, with a pretty much guaranteed audience of young people.
Salmon Orbit started the evening off. I got there a little way into their set. It’s quite experimental psychedelic rock, and I could tell straight away that most of the youngsters didn’t know what to make of it.
We were back on solid ground for the next beat combo. Smash Alley (for it was they) are a Heavy Metal band. Or maybe a Thrash Metal band. Whatever they class themselves as, the guitarist plays far more notes than strictly necessary; he and the bass player have fairly long hair, and their drummer is a rather cute girl who looks as though she’d be just as at home in the queue for a Girls Aloud gig.
For the most part, the audience – most of whom were just the weekend pub regulars – were wearing the latest fashions from New Look or Burton’s. There was no indication that any of them had gone to a gig with the aim of seeing a ‘rock’ band. There were no denims, no leathers, and no tour t-shirts, except for those worn by the two front-men of Smash Alley and their close friends. The same clothes could be seen outside any trendy club in any town on a weekend night.
In the interval between the bands, the musical vacuum was filled by the jukebox. It played a bizarre selection from Elvis through to Eminem, stopping at all points in between.
And these youngsters danced to it all, regardless of genre.
For one of the Carpenters rock crowd to dance to a song by ABBA or Soft Cell or Kylie Minogue would have meant a calamitous loss of face in the eyes of one’s peer group. This new generation of kids, force-fed a diet of pop music every minute of their lives, through radio, television, iPods, MySpace, and the record collections of their parents and even grandparents, have no sense of discrimination and no sense of the wider universe which gave rise to the music in the first place. I felt like Tug in the Carpenters on a Thursday night – totally out of place amongst people less than half my age, and doing my best to enjoy myself in a music scene which clearly wasn’t mine to inhabit.
There was a jukebox in the Conway a while ago. It was connected to the Internet, and it claimed to have ‘Over 2 Million Songs’ to choose from. Naturally, one had to pay for the downloads, and wait a while until they were processed, but you could while away a Sunday afternoon by putting weird stuff on and annoying the rugby boys. The Cambrian had the same set-up, and Nick B. and I were chatting one day about the company’s boast to have ‘every record ever released’ on their database.
A few days later I took down an old copy of Record Mirror, which used to list the week’s new releases in DJ-friendly form, and we searched the jukebox for a random selection of songs. We drew a complete blank. The fact remains that there were far more songs released in an average year than anyone could possibly own, never mind store on a database and make available for download.
I searched both jukeboxes several times for some of my own favourites, and occasionally came up with a result. Apparently, this practice is commonplace, and even has a name – ‘Wyatting’. It’s named after Robert Wyatt, the former drummer with the Soft Machine, who still puts out the odd (in both senses of the word) record now and again.
A couple of weeks ago I was in the White Lion, with the same five songs on an endless cycle on the jukebox. It’s a high-tech machine, so I had a quick look at it. It’s supposedly got 71,154 songs available. But the punters only ever hear five of them. I Wyatted it for a little while, after the band had finished. A bit of Caravan never hurt anyone, after all. The Conway and the Cambrian both had their Internet jukeboxes taken out a few months ago. They kept breaking down, and apparently the company who supplied them has collapsed.
A few years ago, we had a lad from one of the better schools in Cardiff doing his work experience with us in the shop. Ben classed himself as a Goth. Rob C. and I saw a golden opportunity to broaden his horizons. Towards the end of his week with us, Ben came up to me and told me that he’d ‘found out who originally recorded “Tainted Love”‘ (which had recently been covered by Goth superstar Marilyn Manson.) Rob caught my eye and winked at me. I asked Ben to share his newly-acquired wisdom with us.
He proudly announced, ‘Soft Cell.’ I told him he was wrong. I even gave him the correct answer, from memory. Rob grinned.
‘Don’t go there, Ben,’ he warned, but the young lad was adamant.
I fetched a book from the music section – something like 500 No 1 Hits and the stories behind them. I flicked through the index, found the section on ‘Tainted Love’, and gave it to Ben.
Rob and I watched as Ben read the paragraph where Mac Almond tells how much he and Dave Ball loved the original Northern Soul classic by Gloria Jones. Ben reluctantly admitted defeat, and Rob said, ‘See, I told you not to go there!’
This self-styled ‘Goth’ had only just learned of the existence of Marc Almond – a Goth icon himself way back in 1985, when I saw him live in Hammersmith Palais. Any musical history before that was of interest only to old hippies like me, or amateur archaeologists like Rob.
Youth subcultures have ceased to have any resemblance to their original function, as identified by Dick Hebdige all those years ago. They’re not ‘bottom-up’ any more – they’re ‘top-down’ instead. They’re dictated entirely by the press, broadcasters, and the fashion industry. The kids who identify as ‘Goths’ will listen to Eminem just as readily as they’ll listen to Slipknot. It’s just a lot of swearing over a lot of noise at the end of the day.
Popular music no longer serves the function that rock ‘n’ roll has served ever since Blackboard Jungle – to shock and alienate one’s parents – because we’ve all heard the Sex Pistols. We’re no longer shocked when someone inserts the word ‘fuck’ into the lyrics of a song. Now, pop music in its broadest sense is just the soundtrack to the lives of kids who have no real interest in it.
Sounds is long gone – I cancelled my regular order for it about six weeks before it closed down. Apparently Smash Hits is no longer published. It’s a great loss to these youngsters, as they’ve nothing to hang their culture on any more. There’s no context for them to place the music in. They learn the bare minimum about their idols from on-screen captions on VH1, or officially-sanctioned websites that never attempt to introduce a critical edge. They have no subcultures to gather themselves in, nothing to differentiate them from their schoolmates or peers.
They’ve heard songs by the Beatles, of course (who hasn’t?), but very few of them will have listened to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in its entirety. Fewer yet will be able to put Sgt. Pepper into its proper cultural context at the centre of the Summer of Love, along with Pet Soundsand The Piper At the Gates of Dawn..
Popular Music, like everything else these children consume, has been packaged into bite-size chunks for easy digestion. Fair play to my friends’ band the Warthogs, for playing cover versions of songs which you don’t hear on the radio every day. If they manage to put just a tiny handful of their young audience on the road less travelled – a road I’ve been on for nearly thirty years, thanks largely to a random series of connections between disparate musicians ― then they’ll have achieved something important and valuable.
Otherwise, our kids will be stuck forever in TMF Land, where only about twenty songs exist at any given time, anything more than a few months old is classed as a ‘chart flashback,’ and ‘golden oldies’ are what your parents have in their record collections.