NPR is airing a new show which describes the gospel roots of American American pop music and its intimate relationship with the civil rights movement. Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” is a very clear call to action to the community. I didn’t know that. Or rather I didn’t realize I knew that.
So it got me thinking about the roots of European pop music, of which British pop music is just a part.
In 1994, “Tiger Bay” was an album released by St Etienne, and for whatever reason, the band is celebrating this anniversary by performing it with full orchestra at London’s Barbican. It might have been the mightiest English album ever made, intertwining folk music with dance music. No trust me. Really, it might have been. And the only reason it isn’t, if Sarah, Pete and Bob will forgive me, is it that the album loses itself every now and then.
It is my mother’s fault that I love pop music. I know it is a cause of great disappointment to her. After two sherries, she will tell anyone present that my greatest achievement is to have been a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral. She and my father revelled in English church music from the 16th century to the end of the First World War. They don’t like church music from the 1920s onwards, because it gets a bit atonal and awkward. Frankly, I can’t stand the genre, period. I suppose it is because I had to sing the stuff every day for three years until my voice broke. I also can’t stand Handel’s Messiah (he was a showy pop star of his time, a German who lived in London – and obviously not cool enough to “make it” in the more happening cultural centers of the Germanies, France and Italy). He also had an extraordinarily poor sense of timing: his “opus magnum” should end after the Hallelujah Chorus, but it doesn’t. It rather goes on unnecessarily for an additional act, as shocked audiences continue to find out every year at Advent.
For many centuries, Royalty and the Church across Europe supported the arts, making music (amongst other art forms) a pleasure for the rich and religious. Meticulously written down and copied, adapted and expanded upon.
So what were everyday people listening to? Europe, including the British Isles, had strong and vibrant oral traditions of bards, minstrels and other entertainers. Being preserved and transmitted this way, there’s no adequate record of what their music was like. Presumably they influenced the formal annotated music of the Church and courts - and vice versa. During the upheaval and slaughter caused by the reformation and restoration across the continent, there was something called the madrigal. Very popular in England, this is a pop song if ever there was one, written by composers who were also composing for the Church (which ever one was in favor with the Tudor monarch of the moment). And it coincided with the emergence, from Italy, of easily-printed music manuscript.
From the 18th century onwards, every day Europeans were listening to “broadside ballads”, songs roughly printed onto one side of a cheap piece of paper. Brass bands began to emerge in the latter half of the 19th century and by the end of the First World War, musical halls had spread across Europe’s cities, where people would dance and listen to a new generation of stars. The entertainer would sing a verse the chorus, encouraging the audience to sing a along to the chorus. An approach many Catholics and Anglicans adopt during mass, to this day. A “John Lennon” of his time, Noel Gay wrote and performed many popular songs. His real name was Reginald Armitage. He took his stage name from an advertisement he saw on a bus in 1924 for Noel Coward and Maisie Gay). He wrote “The Sun Has Got It’s Hat On”, “Run Rabbit, Run” and that classic “The Lambeth Walk”. The editorial of the Times of London (long before being owned by Murdoch and deteriorating into a long-winded version of The Sun) said, “While dictators rage and statesmen talk, all Europe dances – to 'The Lambeth Walk'."
For me, pop music revealed itself when I was ten, in Canterbury Cathedral’s Choir House. I was looking for and found the resistance. Each night, after “lights out”, I would ferret out a one-ear headphone and plug it into the second-hand portable radio cassette player I had bought from another chorister, and listen to Blondie, CHIC, Earth Wind and Fire, and ABBA. Hardly the Clash or Sex Pistols I know…
But I never saw the glitz and cheesiness of ABBA. Rather I was in awe of their wall of sound, and the misery they sang about. And Annafried’s deep red or brown hair. Wavy, straight or permed. It fascinated me.
My cousin, Andrew Hollingsworth, introduced me to The Human League - before they became all famous and Wham-like. And from there we both discovered German and French electronica, Kraftwerk (which had a UK number one with “The Model”) Mathematiques Modernes and Elli et Jacno. And back home, I stumbled upon New Order – as its members reemerged from Joy Division, after the suicide of their lead singer, Ian Curtis.
All my life, I have loved the power of music to heal and nurture us. In the 1990s, us “young people” were supposed to enjoy Raves – large, informal, open air dance-happenings, usually drug-induced. Not me. I was happier in smaller, trashier discos, like the Phoenix - a venue under a pub just north of Oxford Street. And I was scared about what recreational pills actually included, afraid they would turn me into a zombie…)
It was there that I discovered Sweden’s Army of Lovers – and particularly, “Crucified,” which I mistook to be a campy parody of the rash of Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals that were infecting London’s musical theatres. It is perhaps not surprising that “Crucified” was not the huge hit in the UK, as it was in the rest of Europe. The UK being snobbishly pre-occupied with the (not very good) Brit Pop of the time. A sign of things to come, alas…
I found comfort in the more “pop-y” side of electronic dance music from across Europe. Besides Alexander Bard’s different incarnations over the last three decades, I have a particular fondness for France’s Mylene Farmer, Germany’s Rosenstolz and Britain’s Saint Etienne. For your delight, I have put together a short playlist of my favorite tracks for your delight.
But my ever-green number one is that international sensation, The Pet Shop Boys – who combine dance music with irony, culture with commentary. I got to meet them once – they usually kick off their North American tours at the the Fox theatre in Oakland. I managed to scrounge a meet-and greet. A friend of mine was going to take photos, but their iphone crashed just as Chris Lowe was putting on his sunglasses. The result is rather odd, to say the least. I won’t include it here, for fear of offending any of them, Pet Shop Boys and my friends.
The Pet Shop Boys provided the soundtrack that accompanied my journey into adulthood, the horrors, tragedy and hope of the early AIDS response, the trials and joys of relationships, and the slide into middle-age frustration with the status quo. I have even made a bet with the Friends of the Fight’s Chris Collins, that I will be able to weave the Pet Shop Boys into every episode of my upcoming podcast series, which will be launched in two weeks. Wait and hear my cunning plan!
In the early nineties, I nearly wet myself when the Pet Shop Boys collaborated Electronic (New Order’s Bernard Sumner and The Smith’s Johnny Marr). I bought two cassette-singles - “Getting Away With It,” and “Disappointed” which The Pet Shop Boys’ Chris Tennant proudly acknowledged as an homage to Mylene Farmer’s “Desenchentee” which had dominated the French Charts. I listened to them both, one after another, on my Walkman on a British Rail train from Charing Cross to Lewisham (just as the creepy and greedy Tories were completing their evil plan to privatize the railways).
I realized that I knew deeply the feel and beat that inspired these new tracks. They were born in CHIC’s “I Want Your Love.”
Which brings me back to KQED. If Gospel and civil rights were the roots of R&B and Disco, then these genres themselves were the roots of European pop music. In today’s times tribal populism and isolationism, it is reassuring to be reminded of our common roots. Despite the tsunami of AIDS, and the malevolent incompetence of monetarism that were about to crash, Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had it right in 1979, “These Are The Good Times.” And we need to get them back.