Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Europa Ending

What defines England most? For Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt, the country was:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

In 1941 George Orwell initiated a more prosaic tradition. For him, England was comprised of

The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin tables in the Soho pubs, old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings, these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.

T.S. Eliot’s politics couldn’t have been more different, but his own summary of English culture, from 1948, had echoes of Orwell’s:

Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the 12th of August, the Cup Final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century gothic churches, and the music of Elgar.

Eliot advised that ‘The reader can make his own list’. And perhaps this is what defines England most: it is not the contents of these lists that count, but the lists themselves. The English love them. They are the verbal equivalent of standing in queues. Writing in 1980, Mark E. Smith saw through this crap. For him, Orwell’s English scene had become the ‘English Scheme’:

You got sixty hour weeks, and stone toilet back-gardens
Peter Cook’s jokes, bad dope, check shirts, lousy groups
Point their fingers at America
Down pokey quaint streets in Cambridge
Cycles our distant spastic heritage
It’s a gay read, roundhead, army career, grim head
If we was smart we’d emigrate

Although Smith has prided himself on his ‘pre-cognition’, it is immigration rather than emigration that has prompted England’s darkest fears. Xenophobia marks the nation as much as lists do. In recent times, little Englanders have seen their fortress breached. They want it to be rebuilt. And so, the years of European Union have seen the ghost of Orwell rise in the most unlikely places. Speaking in 1993, when he was Tory prime minister, John Major claimed that

Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’.

Johnny Rotten has witnessed less permanence. He waxed nostalgic in 2012:

I miss the roses, those English roses, of salad and beer and summer here and many mannered ways of cotton dresses skipping across the lawn off happy faces, when football was not a yawn and clear the bomb sites, and all the days were long. November into winters here, snows would turn my page.

His revelries were shot through with the blues of an ex-pat. In 2011, P.J. Harvey evidenced a different longing for home. She wrote in character as a soldier who had been posted abroad:

Goddamn Europeans!
Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey damp filthiness of ages
And battered books
And fog rolling down behind the mountains
On the graveyards and dead sea-captains.
Let me walk through the stinking alleys
To the music of drunken beatings
Past the Thames river glistening
Like gold hastily sold
For nothing

She is as unromantic as Smith, but these lists are always slippery. It is February 2016 and voices P.J. Harvey would never have dreamed of are chorusing her ‘Goddamn!’ 

Friday, 19 February 2016

The Singer Came Last

When listening to records from the early part of the twentieth century one thing that is notable is the absence of singing. There are a lot more instrumental records, and in those records where there is singing it often does not arrive until we have gone through at least one instrumental verse and chorus.
            This can now strike us as odd, as we have got used to the fact that songs come with vocals up front. It is mediation that has been ringing the changes. Jazz was one of the first genres of music to become known through recordings. It was primarily focused on the timbre and improvisation skills of the musicians. Sound recording could capture these qualities; sheet music could not. It was also recording techniques that returned us – gradually – to singers. Electric recording arrived in the mid-1920s and for the first time singers used microphones in recording studios. New, intimate styles of singing were developed, and with them a more intense relationship developed between listeners and singers. Singers were also pushed to the forefront because of the broadcast and filming of music: these media required a different centre of attention to live performance.
            At the same time, the neglect of vocals should not strike us as odd. Anyone who has played in a band will be familiar with the fact that singers can be an afterthought. It is often musicians who form bands: a gang of mates who play guitar, bass and drums. The singer is often the last to join and they can be something of an outsider. In addition, they are not usually listened to. They will be drowned out in rehearsals and also at some live gigs. It is also the case that at smaller gigs there may be no spotlight; thus the audience’s attention is spread between various group members. It is only when bands turn their focus towards recording that things begin to change, and it is only when they are signed to a record label that the singer starts to be elevated to pole position. This can be a hard dynamic to handle for all parties concerned.