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Saturday, 22 June 2013

Keep on rocking in the free market

Enchanted by an image of itself which is decades out of date, rock and pop music continues to strike a rebellious pose, in denial of the Faustian pact its dreary narcissism has allowed it to make in order to accommodate the vagaries of advertising and fashion.  Where once it might have been informed by genuinely counter-cultural impulses, rock and pop’s sheer ubiquity makes it ludicrous to argue that it is, in any meaningful sense, ‘anti-establishment’. 
Yet in spite of enjoying the riches generated by its cosy niche within the capitalist machine, the rock aristocracy, ostensibly at least, has long held an overwhelmingly leftist-liberal ‘stick-it-to-the-man’ worldview, with very few willing to deviate from the stifling orthodoxies of the party line.  

It was easy (and profitable) for John Lennon to ‘imagine no possessions’; not only would he never have to worry about actually having no possessions, he knew that the sentiments expressed in that anodyne lyric would strike a chord with an audience primed to accept easy answers to complex problems.  The notion that all we have to do is to ‘imagine’ a better world in order to make it happen is, at best, a tad na├»ve; at worst, it is a fatuous piety.  But Lennon, after all, was only writing a song; it’s hardly a big deal that most rock and pop lyrics are about as profound as the kind of sentiments normally expressed on cheap greeting cards.          

The actual business of rock can be more problematic.  Take Radiohead, for example.  At the turn of the century, they announced that they would not be ‘promoting’ their new album -Kid A- in the sense that other big acts ‘promoted’ their work, but would instead be running a low-level campaign aimed to ‘dispel the hype’ about the new record.   
No advance copies of Kid A were circulated, but the album was showcased under strictly controlled conditions for critics and at special listening parties for selected fans.  Yes, it was played in full on MTV, but apart from that (and all the clips on the internet and the articles in magazines), there was hardly any promotion; in fact, I remember seeing lots of Kid A posters in town telling me that Radiohead wouldn’t be promoting the album.  In spite of their best efforts, the hype was not dispelled and the album duly shot to the top of the charts.  In the summer of 2000, the band toured Europe in a custom-built tent that was smugly declared to feature no corporate logos.  Having enjoyed the album (released through an obscure little cottage-run label called Parlophone-EMI) the fans could go along to the concerts, safe in the knowledge that they had not succumbed to any horrid multi-national business practices.  Lots of folk enjoyed those gigs, but some will have noted that capitalism failed to collapse in the face of Radiohead’s disdain.

Student angst is one thing, but perhaps a more egregious example of rock’s apparent hypocrisy was provided by U2.  Their spokesperson Bono is fond of preaching about the crippling debt of African countries and about the developed world’s abject dereliction of moral duties, yet in 2006 his band decided to move its publishing operation from Ireland to the Netherlands in order to exploit a more lenient approach to taxing sensitive artistic types.  This in spite of the fact that Ireland’s tax regime was generally perceived to be quite favourable to artists. 
With an accumulated net worth said to be well in excess of €800m, U2 had plenty of motives to avoid paying tax, but it’s not the avoidance that grates.  After all, how many people and how many businesses on the planet would volunteer to pay more tax than they have to? Their tax avoidance was merely sound business sense; what makes them deserving of opprobrium is their insouciant ability to preach one thing and practice another. U2 wanted to pay less tax into the very system that they argued should have been doing more to support poorer countries.  In other words, they wanted support for African countries to increase, but just not on their dime. 

With the music business providing the perfect illustration of capitalism ‘red in tooth and claw’, it seems rather odd that we’d struggle to find many examples of rock artists being brave enough to kick against the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy to actually make the case for free-market capitalism.  Enter stage left (or should that be stage right?) Jean-Jacques Burnel, bass player with The Stranglers.  In 1979, JJ released a solo album called ‘Euroman Cometh’.  It appeared to present an argument -in as much as a rock album can present an argument for anything- for a federal United States of Europe.  JJ was all kinds of wrong about that, but the single from the album did strike an unusually libertarian, pro-market note.   

Freddie Laker – Concorde and Eurobus’  managed to get a dig at the protectionist policies of the United States (who fought long and hard to stop the Concorde landing on their shores), but was also a celebration of the work of Freddie Laker, one of the first airline owners to adopt the ‘no-frills’ business model.  Up until the mid-seventies, transatlantic air travel had been mainly the preserve of folk with a higher-than-average disposable income.  The airline industry -heavily unionised and shackled by outdated protective practices- would have kept its iron grip on transatlantic travel for decades without Laker’s determination to challenge the vested interests of the established companies.  After years of legal battles (which included having his licence revoked by the Labour government in 1975) Laker finally saw his Skytrain take to the air for the first time in September 1977.  It flew from London to New York, charging a fare that was about one third of the price at that time charged for a transatlantic flight by the established airlines. 

Freddie Laker - Concorde and Eurobus’ was released in April 1979.  Sadly, it created barely a ripple in the nether regions of the pop charts, but remains, nonetheless, a bracing little slice of abrasive pop.  JJ wasn’t much of a singer and you had the feeling that he was only getting to do a solo album because the record company wanted to appease the bassist in The Stranglers, who were –at that time- a very successful new wave act. 

This video captured something of the anarchic joie de vivre of the song.  The use of the vocoder brought a certain ominous energy, a hint of dystopian menace.  In 1979, a vocal like that sounded like it came from the future, from a strange and exciting world in which some of our key assumptions (about nationhood, about business, about art) might have been broken down.  We may even have imagined that the act of singing in a band might one day be the preserve of industrially-manufactured art robots. 

So hats off to Jean-Jacques.  He set his sail against the prevailing wind and made his personal statement, cocking a snook at the received orthodoxies of his peers.  
Now doesn’t that represent the authentic spirit of rock and roll?

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