In my previous post, I owned up to a foolish public declaration as a teenager that Creedence Clearwater Revival “shat on” The Beatles. That was essentially an adolescent rebel yell in the face of peer authority, clumsy and misdirected, but rooted in a perception that I consider legitimate to this day – that the masses are prone to stampeding. Such was the case with The Beatles. They could do no wrong. Every single was a smash hit, every album hailed a work of genius. The adulation, the mass approbation, was overwhelming and, it seemed, indiscriminate. Lennon’s wry observation at the peak of The Beatles’ fame that they were “more popular than Jesus” sparked outrage, but it wasn’t far off the mark.
Christian cranks, in the US in particular, heaped scorn on him in a show of hatred that would have had Jesus turning in his – no, that doesn’t work. Roiling mobs threw Beatles albums on bonfires; one priest threatened to ex-communicate any of his congregation who listened to Beatles music; and even those righteous hooded soldiers of the cross, the KKK, joined the witch hunt. Ever the ones with an eye for theatre, they torched effigies of the foul four and crucified their albums on burning crosses.
It is illuminating to look beyond that sensationalist quote. Here is Lennon’s full comment, as reported in The Evening Standard in 1966:
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink…We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was alright, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.
Of most interest in the context of this blog are the last two sentences: Lennon was decrying the stupidity of blind faith and its corruptive dangers (components intrinsic to terrorism and the “war” against it, today). He might also have directed those charges at the vast herd of Beatles’ disciples, whose mob rapture in effect demeaned, rather than honoured, the artistry of their Chosen Ones.
This was never so evident than at Beatles concerts, where the shrill screaming of hysterical audiences drowned out the music, powered as it was then by amplification that was ludicrously puny next to the monolithic Marshall stacks and batteries of monstrously cranked up stadium-shaking speaker bins that were to become de rigueur only a few short years hence. The mob was there to revel in the mania of the stampede, to feed off each other in an ecstasy of communal adoration; the toons and their performance were not only incidental – they were irrelevant.
Lennon’s disquiet at fan worship and his unwilling deification is recalled by post-Beatles footage of him being brought to the door of a country cottage in England in which he was holed up recording with George Harrison, Yoko and others. A chemically dazed lightly-bearded American hippie in a poncho, seemingly straight out of Woodstock, had come to pay homage. He stands there gaunt and shivering in the cold, delivering a barely coherent interpretation of a couple of lines of Lennon’s lyrics, evidently seeking the Great Man’s blessing. Lennon protests that there is nothing profound in the lyrics, that they merely meant what they meant and that he is just an ordinary person, not a god. The guy glazes over like a boxer stunned by a connecting headshot and refusing the count, seemingly unable to comprehend these awful tidings. Lennon steers him into the house for something to eat in a show of compassion not typical of his public persona.
If he survived that reality check, our hippie pilgrim no doubt traded his poncho for a suit a short time later. The Sixties dream was sold out virtually overnight by the babyboomers who shamelessly abandoned their world-changing mission in the far more pressing cause of milking for all they were worth the capitalist system they once professed with much righteous clamour to despise. Yet while the days of Beatlemania are far behind us, and the greying babyboomers who drove the phenomenon now get their kicks from counting their bucks and playing with their expensive toys, the youthful hordes are stampeding still – so how much have things really changed?
A lot and not much. Today is a time of fragmented tribalism among the young. Music is now possibly more divisive than uniting: rap, rock and techno are separate hostile camps, and there are many sub-tribes within each camp who regard each other with contempt. Besides, movies have supplanted music as the youth art form of choice, and a new player – computer games – has entered the equation. In the 60s and 70s, by contrast, the youth of the day assembled under a single banner: rocknroll. Rocknroll meant far more than music; it was an attitude, an identikit for some, a wedge between generations (a good thing!), a proclamation of independence, a celebration of youthful ideology, and most of all, carried with it a promise of liberation and fun – illicit, hopefully. There was a tremendous energy during that period, a sense that the times really were a-changin’, that we were heading somewhere as a united force, and though we knew not where, we were in the driving seat.
Naïve looking back, and illusory. Especially for those us, like me, who believed for a time in the grand dream of a new, better world. But that naiveté wasn’t such a bad thing. At least it allowed for some romance, some idealism, some illusion of control, some excitement in hope. And it wasn’t limited to the callow youth of the day. As has been abundantly documented (though often mythologised rather than approached with dispassionate commitment to accuracy), the 60s and early 70s was a time of social and cultural upheaval – a revolution, no less. And rocknroll was the music of this revolution. It erupted spontaneously out of a confluence of circumstances originating in the 50s, and gathering the momentum of a wildfire swept through the 60s, feeding off itself like a firestorm. It was certainly not the product of a precisely orchestrated marketing campaign. There was nothing very calculated about it. Oh, the moneymen were there all right, fanning the flames as best they could, but juxtaposed against the corporate machines behind today’s entertainment industry, they were babes in the woods, as blind to the way ahead as the rest of us.
Back to today. “Superstars” are churned out like sausages, pre-packaged by the marketing boys in the back rooms according to formulae tried and true. The biggest stars in the music world are the most robotic, almost all from the same mould: when was the last big female star not to have the face of a lobotomised angel, legs to turn an army, an arse to raise Lazarus and cleavage to kill him again? And the music? Slickly produced, samey, safe, lightweight, bland. The obligatory video clip that accompanies every new release is typically far more creative than the track it is promoting.
Rap, the so-called music of the street, is marketed with the same coldly analytical efficiency; the same promotional tools are used to package it for a different target market – the “hood” is just another demographic, no more “real” than any other. Ditto so-called “alternative” music, no less a product of the corporate machine than a vacant sex doll like Christina Aguilera. Of course, there is still authenticity out there, and talent that expresses itself as itself, but it is harder and harder to locate.
And the hordes aren’t interested in looking. They are model passive consumers who do not know what it is to feel part of a musical movement. They wait to be spoon-fed the Next Big Thing, then go apeshit according to plan – o so well behaved, almost as if they were actively seeking to please the marketing men. Even blood-letting in the moshpit and stage-diving, which were, for a moment, extreme expressions of spontaneous reckless exuberance detonated by primal rhythms, have become mere ritual, routine and expected. And concerts are now nothing more than technically sophisticated but ultimately tedious cabaret: big production light shows, smoke and mirror gimmicks and pyrotechnics developed from the crude early prototypes of Kiss shows, studiously choreographed dance moves, digital musical inserts from the mixing desk to augment the musical performance on-stage, even lip-syncing (are we moving towards some sort of holographic entertainment mode in which real, live performers are completely redundant?). Marketing, packaging, branding is everything. Where is the substance?
The movies the hordes shell out for en force are, in the main, formulaic Hollywood SFX fests spectacularly packaged as unmissable cultural events. Where is the substance?
The public fixation on celebrity that feeds an enormous parasitical industry and has half the world living their lives by proxy…where is the substance?
Remove the wrapping, and there’s bugger all there. That’s the big difference between the 60s and early 70s and now.
Rocknroll is dead. It’s them that twisted it that ruined it. And “them” was not, in the end, the disciples. Or the blind faithful, the stampeding hordes. It was a monstrous marketing machine. It’s coming for your children. And if your kids and their friends are running around in witches hats or silly round black-rimmed spectacles and waving wands about, it’s already got them.
Enough. Time to brush my teeth and go to bed. But an obstacle awaits in the bathroom. I bought a new toothbrush. Its packaging is an art in itself: an elaborately decorated cardboard sarcophagus with a window at the front, showing the coloured stem of the brush behind the precise cellophane wrapping. But WHY? It’s only a bloody toothbrush! I know I’ll need to devote a few maddening minutes to picking at the cellophane before I can find a way inside. I broke a nail last time. I’ll probably end up stabbing the bastard open with a pair of scissors.