Love Me Don’t – Not every British Institution is Fab.

4 12 2009

An American friend of mine recently cornered me and asked me my views on various UK institutions.

Parliamentary procedures and legends, the role of the Monarchy, the obsession with queueing (although after my experience at The Magic Kingdom, I think that the Brits are way behind), the rules of cricket and my favorite Beatles song.

 I have to make an admission. I don’t like The Beatles.

And I am English.

Sorry. Just not my cup of tea.

I am now expecting a deluge of abuse, but I will remain firm in my apathy to The Beatles.

This may come as a surprise to many people who see the Fab Four as the epitome of British music, but I have never been overly keen on the music produced by these mop-topped individuals either as part of the group or even as solo artists.

There are a hundred bands on my Ipod that I would listen to before them. Although I don’t mind Sgt Pepper as an LP.

I know that they are hugely influential, and that every 10 seconds on radio there is a Lennon/McCartney composition played somewhere in the world. I also know that there are thousands of musicians who picked up a guitar because of John, Paul or George. 

Although I have never met a drummer who picked up his sticks because of Ringo.

But when we consider British music, are The Beatles the first act to come to mind?

The problem is that in the minds of many the answer is probably yes, a situation that will not be helped by the reissue/remastering of LPs and the latest version of the best-selling video game “Rock Band” which allows you to play along to some of the Fab Four’s greatest hits. Forty years after the release of Abbey Road, The Beatles are still in the public eye. 

The fact that this small island has produced many more artists and bands that some would consider to be better than the Liverpool quartet, it is The Beatles who have become synonymous with music from the United Kingdom.

Every year tourists flock to The Cavern Club, where these ‘lovable scousers’ made their debut in the 1960’s, and every day somewhere in the world a Beatles track is being played on the radio. It seems not to matter that their recording career spanned less than ten years, that following their split the band members solo projects were either brilliant (‘Live and Let Die’, Paul McCartney and Wings, 1973), average (‘Imagine’, John Lennon, 1975) or just plain awful (Paul McCartney &The Frog Chorus, 1985), they are still considered by many to be the pinnacle of British musical achievement.

This would be unfair.

Think of the British bands that existed at the same time as The Beatles and who outlasted them. A veritable who’s who of influence and, more importantly, achievement.

The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds (featuring Jimmy Page), The Who, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Black Sabbath to name but a few. Add Eric Clapton and Elton John into the mix and then maybe you can see why I can look beyond The Beatles.

Whilst Paul McCartney was treating us to the hideous bagpipe sounds of Mull of Kintyre in 1977, the Sex Pistols were inspiring an entire generation of musicians to pick up instruments and then imploding in the same year. As John Lennon sat in a bag with his very odd partner, bands like Joy Division showed that songs of angst and depression had more value than a song that seemed to yearn for a Utopian future of “imagining no possessions, no need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man”.

Whilst most British bands struggled with the reality of life, the former members of the Beatles sat in their luxury homes and told us to all be nice to each other. How ironic then that ‘the voice of peace’ was shot outside his apartment building in New York.

The problem is that British music doesn’t really have an identity.

 This island has always been somewhat of a ‘mongrel race’, we have become a huge melting pot of multiculturalism and former colonial influences coupled with our ‘special relationship’ with those across the pond has led British music to have an almost androgynous feel.

If we look at the bands that people consider to be the ‘Best of British’, we have to consider artists like Oasis (who haven’t released anything decent since Definitely Maybe and who have now split), Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Amy Winehouse and perhaps even The Rolling Stones who are inexplicably still touring their Greatest Hits. Not one of these artists is intrinsically British, they are all peddling middle of the road AOR to a generation of people who think that Chris Martin is a lyrical genius.

 British music used to stand for innovation and experimentation, it used to have an edginess that mirrored the way we felt about our own place in the world. When John Peel declared that ‘Teenage Kicks’ by The Undertones was the perfect song, we believed him because it came from a time of turmoil and uprising.

The British have always been associated with conflict, of refusing to bow down to supposedly superior forces and fighting our corner with pride. Although there have been some moments in British military history that we can draw a discreet veil over.

That aside, let me continue with my music concerns.

 British music is now dominated by the equivalent of a microwave meal, pop it into the studio for five minutes and out comes another hit. Indie music, once the jewel in the crown of the 90s scene has become tired and repetitive, an endless succession of earnest youths in skinny jeans and floppy hair. Innovation has been replaced by imitation and our identity has suffered accordingly.

 It says much about the UK music scene that Susan Boyle can have a hit record. And don’t get me started on the Take That reunion.

So what is the answer to the question of what is British music? Perhaps we don’t need to have a specific identity to continue to produce music?

 There are still pockets of innovation amongst the homogeneity of the industry. Bands such as Muse have taken the step into the mainstream whilst retaining their progressive rock roots, Biffy Clyro have shown that not all Scottish music is bagpipes and The Proclaimers and there are still post punk bands such as Killing Joke around to continue to make statements that make you interested in agitation rather than relaxation.

 British music is not dead, it just needs the occasional prod to stir it back into life and as long as there is an audience for innovation and experimentation then there will be artists to provide it.

As long as we don’t have to rely on Sir Paul McCartney to maintain our presence on the world stage.




2 responses

5 12 2009

Hey David,
The post is great. I’m surprised you did not mention that Michael Jackson owns (or did own) the rights a lot of the Beatles songs though. I can’t wait to read future posts, and if you want to keep in touch, feel free to email me at anytime.

5 12 2009

Hey Dan,

There is a very good reason for not mentioning the King of Pop – I forgot!

But the piece is a comment on British music, so perhaps bringing in Michael would not have been apt (although he did duet with McCartney on Say Say Say).

Thanks for your support


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