Friday, July 04, 2008

The biggest English export

Isn't it weird to be driving anywhere in the world and suddenly hear Basildon-born Depeche Mode on the car radio, Madness' ultra-heavy Cockney twang or the Gallaghers' nasal Manc voice?

"There's some corner of a foreign field, that is forever England", were the famous words from Rupert Brookes' The Soldier. For those of you who are well travelled, and don't like to see things from a militaresque angle, I suppose Brookes' words can be turned into "there are radio waves that are forever England". Music is, in fact, the corner of England you're most likely to find abroad.

How weird to be driving anywhere in the world and suddenly hear Basildon-born Depeche Mode on the car radio, Madness' ultra-heavy Cockney twang or the Gallaghers' nasal Manc voice. With the exception perhaps of some French electro blasting out of your taxi drivers' car stereo, no other country is so likely to export such thriving levels of music and youth culture.

I was speaking to some Portuguese lads the other day and they looked at me in amazement when I told them that the one they like isn’t actually an American band, but an English one instead. You should have seen their face when they learnt that Pink Floyd actually hailed from Cambridge and not somewhere in the mid-West. I once had to convince one that Led Zeppelin weren't a New York band; he was obviously unaware of the proud Black Country roots of singer Robert Plant. And the Rolling Stones too, they're English for goodness sake! No doubt, the US can claim they came up with rock'n'roll and exported some remarkable music along the way, but it's unbelievable how so many European citizens expect anything that isn’t The Beatles or Oasis to originate from America.

In spite of its small size, Britain is the cradle of music-inspired movements that have been appreciated and copied around the world. It's quite a sight when you walk down the streets of provincial towns round Europe and see young punks sporting Sex Pistols t-shirts or kids humming a Franz Ferdinand song. But aside from punk, the fashionable Mod scene also originated in the UK and so did heavy metal, new romanticism, indie, goth and Britpop. Whereas in most European countries pop and rock music are considered an exclusively teenage-affair or something confined to the extreme fringes, Britain is the only place where any forty or fifty something can routinely hold a music-related conversation. And they will then proceed to put you to shame with all the gigs they've been to in their life. The planetary success that UK bands have enjoyed in the last forty years also convinced those who pull the strings that such a profitable export is to be cultivated. The music weekly NME has long been cherished as a national institution, and a number of music monthlies (Q, the now defunct Select, Mojo, Uncut and others) and television programmes (The Tube, The Word, Later With Jools Holland, Top of The Pops, etc) have punctuated British pop culture in the last few decades. I don’t know if figures exist, but the UK's live music circuit can probably claim it shifts a bob or two. Following a tradition that started in the Seventies with Glastonbury and Reading as pioneers, Britain's outdoor summer festivals have mushroomed up in the last fifteen years, offering tens of thousands of people the chance to come together to appreciate live music on a large scale.

I will never forget my trip outside Manchester's Salford Lads Club in 1995. The otherwise grotty place, located in an incredibly rundown part of the city, was handed a touch of worldwide notoriety when The Smiths posed outside its front door in 1986 for what was to become The Queen is Dead album official photo-shoot. I was simply blown away by the amount of scribbles jotted on the outside entrance, tributes and declarations of love that had been left by hordes of people from all over the world. Fans from France, Hungary, Sweden, America, even Japan had trekked all the way in praise of the most characteristically Mancunian band. Years after their split, their music still obviously inspires an army of people worldwide. No other creative crop in the world can claim the same level of infatuation and personal involvement that British music has managed to instigate in the last few decades. The Smiths, in particular, are part of a family tree of popular culture and eccentricism that stretches back to Auden's writing and on through Larkin's poems, Shelagh Delaney's films and - even most recently, Ken Loach's gritty realism or Mike Leigh's kitchen-sink - epitomising the unrivalled gift of self-expression that the British have. In the words of writer Michael Bracewell, that "mixture of bitterness, resignation and hatred", that "ambivalence towards England - their simultaneous love and hatred for the country and its culture" that is the "refining element of their lucidity"

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