Saturday, January 4, 2014

Onwards, Through The Fog

I thought I should pause for a moment to reflect on what has been happening recently with regards to the intersection of music, power and abuse of power. 

It has become increasingly difficult for me to write wholeheartedly about music in general because of Operation Yewtree – which, if you don’t know about it, is looking at the extensive abuses of the late DJ Jimmy Savile; the revelations of these abuses have caused others to come forward and for other prominent musicians/broadcasters to be called in for questioning.  It is a terrible thing to think of the ugliness and sleaze of the music industry extending to the BBC, but it has.  Paul Gambaccini*, for instance, has been off the air since October, awaiting legal proceedings; retired DJ Dave Lee Travis has been under a cloud of allegations.  Sports broadcaster Stuart Hall has been convicted and put in jail and will likely be there for life.  Musicians are part of this as well:   Rolf Harris has been brought in for questioning; Roy Harper has been too.   Ian Watkins of Lostprophets has pleaded guilty to things more hideous than what most of these men have been alleged to have done, but at the very, very least he has admitted guilt and is now in jail.  The Fog that I have been writing about has its heart here; and that is why writing has now become difficult.  I wish I could just write about the music, but in understanding the charts I have to understand the BBC.  I have reached the point where Gambaccini is working at the BBC, Travis & Savile are fixtures there and only his co-workers really know what Stuart Hall is up to, there in his room…

And it is really like a David Peace novel, save I am not a crime reporter but a mere music blogger, taking my magnifying glass to songs and sensing something toxic about them.  I think of how while it may be noble to write about these times, I am reopening things that should stay shut, not just for the good of you readers but for my own good.   When I think of the mid-70s I remember abuse, plainly, and when I look at the corresponding #2 song I wince – if I have the year right, and the time, and I think I do.  For me there is no going back to accuse my abuser or even naming him – I don’t remember his face, or much of his voice.  Just the notion that I was a thing to be “educated” and the non-cheering thought that if another girl had been outside that cloudy summer afternoon it would have been her, not me.  And as you’d expect, the gulf of experience between now and then means I only am in “now” or “then.”  As the 70s pull ever-closer into focus for me the further many of the #2s of the mid-70s become distant objects, ultimately irrelevant to my experiences as they were lived.  The mere action of looking back at this time does not do what it once did; far more vivid things come to the fore, demanding attention, and crucially almost none of this is helping me adjust to life in the UK.  

Nor does it help that the BBC’s most popular station, Radio 2, is meanly fixated (in part) on this very time.  I have difficulty listening to it now as what I want to hear – the new – is all but drowned out by the old, the creepy and outright awful.  This is, as far as I can tell, is to provide some odd layer of comfort to the listeners, a kind of cozy nostalgia.  Certainly none of it is played in an ironic or facetious manner.  It is – this terrible music – played straight, accepted straight, with no comment or fuss.   I sometimes think I am the only one who notices this, just as I notice that so many of the “love songs” played on R2 aren’t, in fact, love songs at all. 
Now, I could (and have) changed the station, but how absolutely wonderful would it be to actually change the station.  But I know that this would be difficult, as the ratings for these shows are so high, proving that the public is willing to listen to crap music and why would the embattled BBC want to lose even one listener?  I think (as Marcello so often says) they are actually terrified of that, but then what to make of the listeners themselves, the UK public at large?  Is this a station that actually exists (a leap here, but not a huge one I don’t think) for the broadcasters rather than the music?  Is what gets played ultimately meaningless?  And are the charts (therefore) also meaningless? In a place as small and dense as the UK, what a DJ plays matters, the charts matter, but what if those associated with charts and shows are…suspect?**
As you can see, dear reader, the whole music system closes in on itself here, the actual fans of music themselves – the girls – unable to see what is happening, due to fandom and naivete, until for far too many it was too late.  They may find some therapeutic purpose in writing about the mid-70s; for me it is a step into the past that makes things more complicated than even I had expected.  I like to think as a trained journalist that I can use some of my own personal experience to illuminate the wider scene, but the scene here is ugly, relentless, smug, self-denying…and that scene seeps into the charts, until they become one.  Any steely determination I might have is nearly crushed by that accumulative repulsion.  The rebroadcasting of TOTP on BBC4 shows just how elemental the BBC were to keeping fun and joy off the charts as best they could, the shows being labelled with the tags  “#nostalgiafail” and “#wrongness overload” and variants on twitter for two years now. Even the punk scene ends up as just part of the general scheme of things, alas; the BBC did not alter itself but stays staunchly middle-of-the-road, right in the thick of things where the status quo (no pun intended) remains what I would call “passive aggressive/neutral” – which is also where most abusers would classify themselves, I think.      

So how can I continue to write here?  The only way I can get through The Fog safely is to avoid writing about large chunks of it.  Not all of these songs are here because of The Fog – some I or Marcello have written about already – but I think by listing the ’74 ones you can see where I’m coming from.

“Angel Face” The Glitter Band (I have never heard this on UK radio, and while they are innocent it’s a case of guilt by association, alas.)

“Remember You’re A Womble” The Wombles (I had Woodsy The Owl and I don’t pollute – did The Wombles have the same effect at the time? Again, a question better answered by someone else.)

“Homely Girl” The Chi-Lites (Ugh, and this got in while Curtis Mayfield was sold in the wrong shops.)

“Don’t Stay Away Too Long” – Peters & Lee (who have been pretty much already written about on Then Play Long)

“Shang-a-lang” – Bay City Rollers (I strongly recommend Bye Bye Baby by Caroline Sullivan in all matters to do with the band and their Tartan Army; I was far too young to be part of it.)

“Hey Rock ‘n’ Roll” Showaddywaddy (I will be avoiding this band altogether.)

“Kissin’ In The Back Row Of The Movies” – The Drifters (Perhaps the center of The Fog musically at least, and I must emphasize how their 70s hits weren’t hits in the US.)

“Band On The Run” – Wings (already discussed on Then Play Long)

“Born With A Smile On My Face” – Stephanie De Sykes (I don’t think writing about this or any other soap-based hit will help me understand the UK any better.)

“Far Far Away” – Slade (They remain more than a little alien to me for some reason, so, no.)

“All Of Me Loves All Of You” – Bay City Rollers (see above)

“Killer Queen” – Queen (already discussed on Then Play Long)

“Wombling Merry Christmas” – The Wombles (Isn’t it odd how the ’73 Christmas hits have become standards while the ’74 ones have no lasting impact whatsoever; or maybe not.)

Take away those songs and there are still a few to write about from ’74, ones I can write about with enthusiasm and a strong belief that despite everything, good music does will (like truth) out.  The Fog is something to contend with, but in the next few years I will try to find all the signs of life and light. 

*I cannot comment on Gambaccini's situation directly as it has yet to be resolved one way or another; for someone who was such a fixture at the BBC (R2 had a whole week dedicated to his 40 years there) it may be that no matter what happens he may choose not to return to the station.

**Top of the Pops reruns now have to skip all episodes hosted by Savile and Travis; a whole tranche of shared culture has been denied the UK public, all because the BBC will not just edit their links out – a case of the BBC going too far to correct themselves when in the past they should have done so, but didn’t.