Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Eve of the War (1913, 1963, 201?)

2014 is an unusual new year. It is dominated not by looking forwards but by looking back. Our retrospective culture is relishing its biggest opportunity yet. 2014 marks the first year of the centenary anniversaries of the First World War: we are set to have four years of analysis, mourning, re-enactments, school trips and political positioning. In Britain, the Tory education secretary Michal Gove has been quick off the mark, saying that it is time to overturn left-wing criticisms of the War. He accuses leftist historians and artists of misinterpreting it as ‘a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite’. Gove wants us to instead praise ‘patriotic leaders’ who were fighting a ‘just war’. He has also claimed that ‘the past has never had a better future’.
            I hope that amongst all the retrospection, re-evaluation and squabbling, there is time to look at the eve of the war. What is often most interesting about great conflicts is the world that they leave behind. Britain didn’t just lose a generation of men in the First World War, it said goodbye to a whole way of life. Some of the best art about war has depicted societies that are on the verge of eclipse: Cabaret, Oh! What a Lovely War, An Inspector Calls, even the first series of Downton Abbey.
            2014 is the anniversary of another cataclysmic event. It marks 50 years since the first British pop invasion of America. On 1 February 1964, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ by the Beatles reached number one in the Billboard Hot 100. On 9 February, the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, attracting an estimated 73 million viewers. Although by no means as tragic as the First World War, Beatlemania wrought havoc upon a previous way of being. In his appropriately titled book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elijah Ward outlines the effects of the group’s success. They ‘transformed teenage dance music into a mature art form’; they recast black music ‘as the roots of rock’n’roll rather than as part of its evolving present’; they promoted the recording studio at the expense of live music; they introduced the idea of the self-contained group; they introduced the idea that artists should write their own songs.
            I’m sure that this year will see commemorative analyses of the British invasion. As with the First World War, however, I hope some attention is paid to the world that existed before this cataclysm. I love the pre-Beatles musical era: rock ‘n’ roll, the Brill Building, American Bandstand, Alan Freed. If we look closely at it, though, something curious materializes. The modern pop landscape looks a lot like the world the Beatles were supposed to have destroyed. We have manufactured teen idols and girl groups. Black music of all kinds is dominant. Hit songs are just as likely to be written by teams of songwriters as they are by the recording artists. Cover versions are rife. Live music is apparently generating more money than recordings. Dance crazes are breaking out all over again - last new year I was dancing Gangnam Style, this new year I was doing the Twist.
            And maybe the state of pop music should make us think again about the eve of the First World War. The British Prime Minister at the time was Herbert Asquith. Like the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, he was educated at an independent school and Oxford University. The early Edwardian era in Britain was the last period without the semblance of a welfare state (the Liberal government introduced pensions in 1908, National Insurance in 1911, and Health Insurance in 1911). The future has never had a more appropriate past. 

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