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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Surfing against the zeitgeist



After their triumphant televised gig from Hyde Park, the critical re-appraisal of Jeff Lynne’s ELO continues apace, with articles appearing in various ‘proper’ newspapers testifying to the quality of their music. Although I’m glad to see them get what they deserve, this kind of thing just reminds me how silly it is to pay too much attention to music journalism, to "fashion-monging boys, that lie and cog and flout".
For those not old enough to remember, it was precisely the opposite of ‘cool’ to like ELO in the late 70s, when the rock cognoscenti would heap opprobrium on them at every opportunity. The fact that they were clearly a quality pop act counted against them. Certain bands (usually accomplished musicians who had paid their dues over many years on the club and university circuit) were seen as the ‘enemy’ by portions of the British music press, some of whom believed that punk had ‘happened’ in order to rid the world of light and shade. Surfing against the zeitgeist, ELO represented the epitome of naff. I remember one particularly silly example when the band was butchered on Radio One's Round Table because -in the opinion of some jerk on the panel- the French bit of the lyric on Hold on Tight sounded more French-Canadian than 'genuine' French (clearly a heinous crime). When I was young and impressionable, it was difficult to own up to liking stuff that had not been approved by the taste-makers in the music press, particularly the resident high priests at Sounds and NME. Nobody wants to betray their own generation and there was a time when admitting that you preferred ELO to the Sex Pistols would have been a hanging offence. 

By today’s standards, the band took the long road to stardom. Their early records showed promise, although some of the songs were overwrought and stodgy and the sound was often grittier than it had to be. After three albums in which they couldn’t make up their mind about whether they wanted to be heavy (always seen as a good thing) or light (almost never seen as a good thing), band leader Jeff Lynne finally hit his songwriting groove on ‘Eldorado’. For the first time, an orchestra and choir were hired to expand the musical palette (on previous albums, the cellists had been overdubbed). That fourth album marked the spot where the focus moved joyfully and unashamedly to the tunes.  
By the time they hit the high spots in their catalogue (‘A New World Record’ in 1976 and ‘Out of the Blue’ just a year later) ELO had graduated from the dingy hinterland of prog rock to become a sophisticated pop act on the way to selling 50 million albums. The visual template for tribute acts was set at this point, with Jeff adopting that ‘shaggy perm, beard and shades' look. It’s clearly a disguise, because he is essentially a modest and unassuming bloke who chooses to put his art front and centre of our attention. It’s not about him, the image is suggesting; it’s about the tunes. It’s about the sound of the music. 

I can think of loads of acts that I listened to in the late 70s /early 80s that don't do anything for me now; by contrast, the albums from ELO's imperial phase still sound fantastic. There are many things to love about their music (personally, those ‘major to minor’ chord changes on songs like Livin' Thing and Turn to Stone get me every time), but there is no point in trying to analyse why it has taken some people so long to work that out. There was a time when nobody would have admitted to liking them and at least that seems to have changed. It could be that some folk have mellowed with age, or perhaps new listeners are just experiencing the music without having to put it through the 'cool /uncool' cultural filter that was compulsory in the fallout from the cultural revolution of the late 70s. Either way, I'm just happy to enjoy the moment and hope that it encourages Jeff Lynne to hit the road once more, hopefully with something resembling the spectacular combo that featured at Hyde Park.

In the meantime, here’s a link to one of my favourite internet musical discoveries. It’s the Sunflower Orchestra performing their version of one of ELO’s most beautiful songs. Other than the fact they are Polish, I know nothing about the Sunflower Orchestra. It looks like their gig took place in a community centre with maybe twenty folk in the audience, but the performance was measured, dignified and faithful to the melancholic beauty of the original. For someone not noted for being much of a lyricist, Jeff Lynne comes up with a lovely image on the chorus in which he expresses loss, regret, longing and the ebbing away of hope with this single evocative line: 
My Shangri La has gone away, faded like the Beatles on Hey Jude.” 

Who needs to surf the zeitgeist when you can write like that? 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Sticks and stones



For all that it had its high points and low points, there are things about the referendum campaign that Scotland can be proud of, not the least of which is the fact that so many folk turned out to vote after a debate that was –for the most part- reasonably civilised, if often rather light on content.  Those of us who voted No should be mindful of the disappointment that our friends and neighbours on the Yes side will be feeling.  I honestly don’t know how I would have reacted had the vote gone the other way, but I do know that I felt just as strongly about my vote as my friends on the Yes side felt about theirs. I had to be prodded with a big stick before making my move and it was only in the last couple of weeks of the campaign that I realised just how strongly I felt about it. Had the Yes campaign prevailed, I would have been very disappointed indeed, but I’d like to think that I would have had the grace to accept the result. I’d like to think that I would not have disdained my fellow Scots for deciding to take that leap of faith.  And, if there had been a ten-point margin in the polls and 28 out of 32 local authorities had voted Yes, I don’t think I’d have been asking for a recount.

Accordingly, it has been disappointing to hear and read some of the things that have been said in the aftermath of the vote. It’s as if some folk are unwilling, or unable, to appreciate that it is possible for people to look at exactly the same information but arrive at completely different conclusions.
One common observation is that No voters somehow forced Scotland to miss an opportunity. This overlooks the fact that something is only an opportunity if the person who is offered it perceives it to be one. I might, with the sincerest intentions, offer you an ‘opportunity’ to invest in my new business. In such a case, you’d expect to consider the pros and cons before making a judgement about whether or not the likely outcomes of that opportunity outweighed the possible risks. Most people would apply this logic in their everyday lives, so why shouldn’t they have applied it in a decision about the fate of their country? It was incumbent upon the Yes campaign to persuade enough people to vote against the status quo; for a variety of reasons, most of the Scottish electorate was not convinced that the opportunities outweighed the risks.

Surely only the most deluded Yes supporter can believe that the way to rebuild an independence campaign (which is a perfectly legitimate aim) is to start by traducing 55% of the population? But voting No, according to some, was equivalent to expressing a desire to see more food banks, the dismantling of the NHS and the west coast of Scotland obliterated in a nuclear attack.  Reading and hearing some of the more hysterical stuff, I’ve wondered if the folk who say these things are aware of the contradiction between, on the one hand, their claim that they want to create a newer, fairer, more compassionate Scotland and, on the other, the fact that they are willing to describe 55% of the electorate as fools, quislings, cowards or – my personal choice of nadir- victims of Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological condition in which hostages start to have positive feelings towards their captors. Presumably the folk who level that accusation are angry about all of those English tanks rolling down our streets and the occupying troops arresting anyone who has red hair or who is wearing a kilt. Pathologising the enemy within was an old Stalinist trick.  ‘If you don’t agree with us’, so it went, ‘there must be something wrong with how you think. Perhaps some time spent in a correction centre will help you to see things our way.’ This is, in essence, a totalitarian impulse and one which has no place in a civilised polity. 

It is clear that, for some folk, political discourse is underpinned by a received narrative which allows that the left somehow occupies the moral high ground. It’s a nonsensical idea, but at least one of the positive side effects of the referendum is that more people will now recognise it as such. Some of my No-voting Labour friends were stunned at the extent to which their intentions were impugned during the campaign, but I merely welcomed them to the club; for anyone who sits to right of, say, Andy Burnham, this is what it’s like all the time.   

This desire to dismiss opponents as stupid, selfish or uncaring has long been one of the great limiters to mature political debate and we’d all be much better off without it. Many people don’t seem to understand that to attribute negative emotional or intellectual characteristics to folk who don’t agree with you is not a political argument; it’s the absence of a political argument.  I can understand why it might make people feel good (and by ‘good’, I mean ‘superior’) to dismiss their opponents as stupid, selfish, or –in the case of the independence referendum- ‘scared’, but all that does is absolve the accuser of the responsibility of actually winning an argument. When you use tactics like that, it doesn't say anything about the other side; it says something about you.

Politics isn’t a vanity contest about who purports to ‘care’ the most; it’s a marketplace of ideas, a push and pull of competing philosophies focused on how best to manage resources.  And, however some folk might choose to deny it, the truth is that these conflicting philosophies generally want the same thing: the greatest outcomes for the greatest number of people. A political stance that, primarily, makes you feel good about yourself is hardly a political stance at all, because politics isn’t about you and it isn’t about me; it’s about us. It’s about how we come to an accommodation with each other, how we find ways to co-exist peacefully with people with whom we may have very little in common.
History tells us that there is no such thing as a perfect world and no possibility of perfecting humankind. In the imperfect world we inhabit, politics is -and always will be- a series of compromises between intention, imagination, utility and will. Sometimes it will be pretty and sometimes it will be ugly, sometimes poetry and sometimes prose. Grand ideas are all well and good, but the little details are usually what count the most. As PJ O’Rourke succinctly puts it: ‘Everyone wants to save the planet, but nobody wants to help mum do the dishes.’

All of the available evidence tells us that the left is correct about some things and that the right is correct about others. Anyone who thinks that politics really is as simple as ‘agree with me = good, disagree with me = bad’ simply hasn’t given it enough thought.