I have a pet theory. Every generation of music lovers is doomed in its conviction that their youth was a golden era for rock’n’roll. That music will never again reach the heights it climbed when they were 16 years old. That youth is wasted on the young. Especially the current bunch.
Each fresh generation on the other hand should rightly judge their predecessors to be nostalgic sentimental dinosaurs who can’t get over the fact that John Lennon’s… married Cynthia!
It’s a necessary attitude for innovation for how else can we create a climate for rebellion? If young John Mellor was content withWoody Guthrie impressions. Or the infant Van Vliet wanted no more than to continue covering Bo Diddley. Or if Bronx resident Joseph Saddler went along with his mother’s ambition for him to study electronics, music would be the poorer. No Joe Strummer. No Captain Beefheart. No Grandmaster Flash.
Do you follow? We learn the ropes and then a chosen few tear up the rulebook and create a new golden era for the next generation.
Of course all this was hopelessly lost on my mother, who, despite seeing her children reach the rock’n’roll bar mitzvah age of 16 in three different decades, maintained down the years an infuriating and tactless habit of approving of her childrens’ taste. Every fresh attempt to reinforce the generation gap was met by beslippered toe-tapping and a pause in her tricky cable-knitting to offer an encouraging smile. The zenith of this activity was reached when she interrupted my autodidactic attempt to channel the late 60’s psychedelic revolution by bursting into my room to announce “I like this one our David. It’s got a very jolly beat”. I’m not sure that jolly beats were what The Seeds were aiming for when they recorded 1967’s unhinged masterpiece “A Web Of Sound” but I like to think singer Sky Saxon would have approved of the generational crossover appeal of his 15 minute two chord album closer “Up In Her Room”
There was however one exception to all this parental good will and an outlet for my teenage need to rebel. Terry Hall. She just couldn’t stand the man.
There are dozens of reasons to like Terry Hall. The sinister, sneering performer of “Gangsters” who introduced us to a better dressed version of punk. The bonkers pop star version of Terry who with the Fun Boy Three epitomised Tom Waits rhetorical question “tell me, how long have you been combing your hair with a wrench?”. The duffel coated artisan songwriter with The Colourfield who chronicled the Thatcher kitchen sink years with a wry smile.
What seemed to lead people to apoplexy though was the overwhelmimg impression that Terry simply couldn’t give a toss if it all ended tomorrow.
Asked what he was rebelling against in “The Wild One” Marlon Brando famously replied “what have you got?”. Nevertheless, we knew that the object of this rebellion would be faced whilst wearing a really nice set of leathers. Take Johnny Boy’s Harley away from him and he’d kick up a proper tantrum. A right old mardy and no mistake. Terry Hall made people nervous because there was nothing you could take away from him. In fact he’d get in the first blow. Having recorded, in “Ghost Town”, what many people regard as the greatest number 1 single ever, perfectly soundtracking the inner city riots of the early 80’s, Terry did what any well brought up iconoclast would do. He legged it.
It’s a bit tricky after all these years to describe the effect of “Ghost Town”. On the face of it simply bemoaning the lack of live venues in Coventry, but anticipating perfectly the havoc, industrial, political and social, that Thatcher was about to wreak on the country. Nobody could’ve guessed just how medieval she was about to get on our collective ass but The Specials with their “yaarrrrrrghh ya-ya-ya yaarrrrrrghh” bedlam chorus showed us it wasn’t going to be pretty. And that we could do nothing. Not a thing, to stop it.
So how to you top that? Easy. Ditch the guitars. Buy loads of drums and a cheap synth. And most importantly, crank the paranoia knob up to 11.
Where “Ghost Town” was all wild eyed careening, the inmates of “The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum” had long ago resorted to banging their heads against the wall. Slowly. Insistently. Endlessly.
And here’s my case. Why the music of my youth is better than the music of yours. OK, “Lunatics” isn’t ground breaking in its originality. The song is a paper thin two chords, the rhythm merely a slightly lysergic “Sympathy For The Devil” and the technology, by 1981 standards, familiar. But lets sum up: a funereal rant about the arms race with a “doomed, we’re all doomed” conclusion performed by a bi-polar miserabilist. And it reached #20 in the charts. It was mainstream pop. The Fun Boy Three graced Top Of The Pops. Pan’s People may even have interpreted it. In 1981 this was par for the course as the graduates of punks ram-a-lama high school started looking for something more interesting. As kids from New York’s less fashionable boroughs started to explore what more could be done with two turntables and a microphone. As nerds the world over began exploiting the availability of cheap synthesizers. And as, seemingly, everyone and his mate claimed “yeah, I’ve always been into African beats. Actually”.
The Fun Boy Three cavorted wildly from 1981-83, spawned two albums and contributed to a period of pop almost unprecedented in its tolerance. Pil, Pigbag, The Associates, Soft Cell, Grandmaster Flash, Bow Wow Wow, Devo, The Teardrop Explodes, Motorhead. All would, in other, less broadminded times have been regarded as leftfield acts. Even The Birthday Party managed to nudge the bottom reaches of the charts and by 1983 no one questioned the appearance of one Jim Thirlwell on Top Of The Pops, contributing the saxophone solo to Orange Juice’s “Rip It Up”. A man previously known for such chart friendly acts as You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath, Foetus Over Frisco and Scraping Foetus Off The Wheels.
It couldn’t last of course and soon the money men moved in to force feed us a diet of Howard Jones. Even my mum had trouble keeping count of stitches whenever Then Jericho appeared. I realise that all this makes me sound a bit like a rock’n’roll Colonel Blimp forever complaining that it was better in my day, but I just don’t see the same degree of careless rebellion in Father John Misty or Sia. We live in more brand-savvy times and any statues to be kicked over need to approved by a focus group first.
Then again, I’m 52 years old – I would say that wouldn’t I?