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Bowie, without the jackboot.


OVER THE YEARS I may have become very conservative in my views but I have not turned against the music of my youth. Unlike Theodore Dalrymple, for example, I don’t consider rock music a cradle of criminality or, as he suggests in a recent article, a breeding ground for fascism.

Dalrymple refers to David Bowie in his early years when he described Hitler as the first rock star and later sang about ultraviolence, insanity, and the romantic European imagery of the Hero, and made up one side of his face to look strikingly like the symbol used by the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.

Bowie was, when younger, a libertine, but he was also a serious artist with great imagination and the ability to compose memorable melodies and lyrics. Whether his songs will last beyond another generation is something we cannot judge, but we can be sure that if they do they will not turn innocent listeners into face-stomping fascists.

The use of Nazi symbolism during the punk era would have carried more weight in this argument but even there it was clear this was done as a deliberate provocation to society at large and the older generations in particular. And just as nobody came plunging sweatily out of a punk gig ready to burn books and synagogues, so no one came out of a Bowie concert, or any other for that matter, fired up to establish an authoritarian British Reich inspired by the irrelevant old has-been, Oswald Mosley. Drunk or stoned maybe, half-deaf with ringing ears yes, but Nazified? no.

The proof, if we need it, is in the fact that no one used rock or pop concerts as a means to generate a fascist movement, for all the immersive nature of the experience. Quite the opposite. From the late sixties onward, with the emergence of the anti-Vietnam war, flower power, drippy hippy, peace and love ethos, popular music was swept ever onward into liberalism. It reached its apotheosis in Live Aid in 1984, when “the world” came together to enjoy a great spasm of self-congratulatory altruism in raising money for famine relief in Ethiopia. Later it was discovered that certain unscrupulous Ethiopian politicians had relieved a lot of the aid for themselves. Unfortunately, the rock and roll superstars and their cohorts could only react with liberal whingeing. If they’d been truly fascist they would have hired a group of ex-SAS types to recover the cash and give those responsible the rubber truncheon treatment.

There frequently seems to be an element of old-fogeyism in the way various conservative writers view popular music. I often share their disdain for some contemporary examples, especially hip hop, but nothing has ever diminished my appreciation of work by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bowie, Pink Floyd and dozens of others. Of Bowie’s last work, I still find “Where Are We Now?” a moving song, simple, economical and restrained in its emotion. Written by someone facing up to the passage of time and the closeness of his own end, it is as far from the androgynous outrageousness of “Ziggy Stardust” as possible.

It’s also quiet. Back in the old days when all this rock and pop stuff was new the older generations complained about its volume. I remember Hans Keller, the famous musicologist, plaintively asking Pink Floyd, “but why is it so loud?”, as if he’d not spent most of his life being subjected to the full blast of symphony orchestras — and believe me, an orchestra at top volume is loud. I still believe that if the pop generation had not been electrified, and played on old-fashioned instruments, our elders would not have grumbled so much.

When it comes to rap, however, I’m sympathetic to every old fogey out there. I find everything about it repellent, its unimaginative and limited form, its dull, repetitious processes, its stultifying mangling of language, its espousal of violence, its pathetic display of individual inadequacy trying to cover itself up with braggadocio and bling. It’s also dispiriting to see how eagerly the establishment has absorbed it as a means to connect with young people and be relevant. The poetry world is not immune, either, and elements of rap have been accepted into both performance and written poetry. Not just accepted but lauded.

All right, so I’ve turned into a complete old fogey, remembering the golden days of the rock and roll past. But, you know, they were the golden days: I was there, my ears suffered, and I never put on any jackboots.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.

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