Saturday, 25 March 2017

Prejudice Assisted Pop

A Lambretta scooter propped up against the railings on the Brunswick Docks awaits the return of its owner. A young, upper-working class guy, attired in an Italian suit scans the flotsam washed upon the shore. He’s hunting vinyl, the London fashion of Mod culture still in its infancy here in late 1950s Liverpool.

Succumbed by the beatnik adoration of French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre, the finesse of an Italian lifestyle and the melodic African-American rhythm and blues, these youth, jaded with the dowdy status-quo, breach the chic coffee-bar culture and combust a fresh subculture progressively to commercialisation.

Unlike the pubs with strict closing times, the bohemian coffee-bars are lively until the early hours, part of the attraction for the early mods. The jukeboxes are occupied with jazz; the “modernist” youth though crave a raw rhythm and blues. Dancehalls in England’s cities are yet to cotton-on; the house party, with an ethos of “bring your own records” is the trendy way to congregate.

The only way for our beachcomber to impress is to find American R&B records, discarded from transatlantic vessels; vinyl is not cheap and seldom the genre obtainable.

The records have been jettisoned from mess-hall jukeboxes of US Navy ships by Caucasian country-and-western loving servicemen who do not favour R&B, the era of segregation awards them superiority and the right to rid their vessel of “black” music.

Ironic and shameful to think these days, with perceived equality in the music industry and campaigns like Rock against Racism, that in substantial quantity, racism has assisted the spread of musical styles and shaped what we now know as pop music. Undoubtedly but sadly I consider, pop music would not sound the same if it wasn’t for the very thing it’s supposed to reject; racism.

Now please do not misunderstand me, quite the opposite from condoning racism I despise it, but akin to the development of computers via the WWII Enigma code-breaking machine, perhaps some good has spawned from a terrible thing.

It backfired for right-wingers, attempting to stall the merge of musical styles in line with their discriminatory views; it incongruously spread the idea across the globe through a rebellious generation.

If it wasn’t seen as outrageous for a white country-boy to sneak into negro blues dances, maybe the young Elvis Presley wouldn’t have, and the archetypal American folk wouldn’t’ have seen a white man offensively  gyrating like a black-man on television and thus, rock ‘n’ roll may had never seen popularity.

Through all criticism, the watered down rock ‘n’ roll of  conforming artists such as Pat Boone created admiration for blues and black rock ‘n’ rollers from his largely white audience through his plagiarisms of original sounds.

Fats Domino showed a diamond ring to the crowd at a concert in the 50s, announcing Pat Boone’s version of “Ain’t That a Shame,” paid for the ring. Even if Boone wanted to change the title to “Isn’t That a Shame,” radio listeners liked it and ventured to find its roots, discovering black R&B.

Now the duel-race citizenship of rock ‘n’ roll will shake the foundations of pigeonholing xenophobic Americans.

Similarly back in the UK, if the US Navy didn’t discard records because of their racist ideals, the mods in the northern cities may never have discovered the soul sounds which hatched the blues-inspired Mersey-Beat scene, a cradle for the most influential pop band of all time; The Beatles.

The Northerner’s love of R&B and early soul christened a later genre when they ventured to London to search for such records. In jest the staff in the record shops put the older tunes aside for the northern customers, labelling them “Northern Soul.” A name-sake built on north-south divide prejudices.

As we’ve discussed records didn’t come cheap, but if you only have to pay royalties to third world artists the price can be cut significantly to persuade people out of your target audience to purchase them. This is true for Trojan Records who in an attempt to cater for the Jamaican immigrants in London priced their records accordingly.

They bought cheap licences from Kingston’s Studio One and Coxsone Dodd to create the compilation album series “Tighten Up,” but because of its respectable price-tag, the white mods bought them up and thus gave birth to a second wave of reggae and ska, in a unique British fashion; so emerged the “skinhead,” with an appreciation of all things Jamaican.

But reggae was still considered “novelty” music and not to be taken seriously, a prejudice Chris Blackwell would put to rights when deciding to dispel the myth and sign Bob Marley and the Wailers to his Island Records label.

Similar to Pat Boone plagiarising but therefore assisting the attention of a wider audience to black R&B artists, Bob Marley and the Wailers found a universal audience in the 1970s through Eric Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff.”

Bob Marley’s intelligent lyrics would pave the way not only to superstardom but spread reggae globally and enhance the career of other reggae artists. Richard Branson assigned Johnny Lydon to take a holiday to the Caribbean island and sign as many reggae artists as he can to Virgin; lucky punk.

This is reggae inspired by the wisdom of Rastafari, a faith in the emancipation of black slaves. When these revelations first came to light at the crowning of their god, Ethiopian king Haile Selassie in 1930, the Rasta’s were viewed by the Jamaican government as terrorists and after they flocked to the shores expecting Selassie to have called upon the monarchs of countries that profited from the slave trade to provide them with ships back to Africa, they were pushed underground for some time.

It was only after the rude boy culture of 1950s Kingston caused the government to enforce a curfew that the cultivation of marijuana trade blossomed, introducing youth to Rastafari. Prior to the trend Rastas were viewed as hermits and "Blackheart men" (bogeyman.)

This is why the music slowed from ska to rock steady and then to reggae. Without the racist slave trade then, we wouldn’t have reggae or its influence on modern pop; from dubstep to Sean-Paul toasting over Little Mix tracks, and possibly, all hip hop, punk and two tone ska.

Meanwhile reggae’s predecessor Ska, with its up-tempo brass style, breathed again, but Two Tone’s bitter undertones were a haven for nationalists to build an army out of disgruntled youth in a Britain obliterated by recession. Racism killed the scene off just as it reached commercialisation, preying on Pakistanis initially and progressing to an ironic hate for the Afro-Caribbean immigrants who gifted them the music in the first place.

As it is with all fading youth cultures diluted with commercialism or ironic hate and racism, the death of the skinhead movement would only be replaced by a new ethos to be exploited by mass media. 

The first I knew of Americas separate pop charts, divided by colour, was when George Michael touched number one on the “black” chart in the USA with his album aptly titled “Faith.” For us in the UK there was only one chart and we tended not to separate them. Still soul broke borders in the 1980s, ask Vanilla Ice.

Maybe the bottom line that most modern musical styles originated in the US is because segregated ideals challenged new genres to develop. Of course I could consider the birth of hip hop actually stems from the New Yorker Kool Herc and his innovative DJ skills, who originally emigrated from Jamaica where, just like pioneer producers King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry, was the proud owner of a sound system.

Dub reggae not being New Yorker’s cup of tea caused Herc to experiment with funk and soul music, moving into a miss-mash of differing styles. However, to argue reggae mothered hip hop is to neglect that American R&B inspired reggae’s older brother ska; swings and roundabouts.

I was in awe of BBC’s early 1970s TV program “Tomorrow’s World,” when a group of Germans, stiff as posts and nerdier than Walter the Softy; Ralf Hutter, Fritz Hilbert and Henning Schmitz made music entirely on computers; it was an abomination for the elder generation but we, the kids, knew Kraftwerk was a vision of the future.

It took the creative genius of Italian, American and British artists and producers to tweak the new-fangled technology and create a soulful or spritely sound. Giorgio Morodor showed us how computer generated music could change funk into disco with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”

Afrika Bambatta, Arthur Baker and Grandmaster Flash spurred Electro and hip hop in the US, whereas the more British punk approach saw the development of a fresh electronica sound, birthing New Romantics, and bang, we had New Order, Joy Division, Duran Duran and a plethora of electronic pop icon posters to pin on our walls.

Disgruntled with the immediate debasement of technology by “Hit Factories,” such as Stock, Akien and Watermen, again the next generation sought a way of keeping it underground and England blessed the Chicago-based sound created at nightclub, “The Warehouse.”

House music was the epiphany of racial unification, rather than being a youth culture with uniformed style and sound, it was akin to early hip hop, a musical melting pot where anyone was welcome to bring in their influences and calmly discuss them over a bottle of water and some chewing gum.

The burgeoning rave scene did break down barriers; a euphoric psychedelic experience was enough even to dull down football violence in the 1990s. Surely racism did not stand a chance now. But the “hardcore” sound of rave divided equally into Drum and Bass/garage, largely reggae inspired sounds for a majority black audience, and “Happy Hardcore” driven by sped up BPM madness and smiley-faced white kids. I recall those kids defining D&B as “Jungle music.”

Still though it was more unified than previous youth cultures which sought to fight out their differences; mods and rockers, skins and Teddy-boys, as while there was an alternative to bleeping repetitive bleeps, it’s term coined from independent labels, “indie kids” and ravers kept themselves to themselves; ravers too obliterated into their own scene to even realise there was an alternative until the likes of the Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim aligned them again.

Truth be told, indie developed from the raving Madchester scene which bought us Oasis and the Stone Roses.

If you compare a free party’s “trance” sound to an African shamanic drumbeat in which the trance it produced acted as healing, the last great youth culture, the raver, has bought it full circle; all aforementioned genres stem from folk music, different geographical places mean different instruments but still, it’s all the same. The only fresh concept the rave generation really blessed us with was the technique of using technology.

So, make some folking noise.

Of course now there’s a washy insignificant difference between pop styles where acoustic sounds seem to influence or electronic R&B thrives, a world where a rap, ragamuffin or hip hop fashion, can be slotted into any track and with that the idea of discriminatory concepts being involved is thankfully uncommon, but the roots will never be wiped.

For today’s downloading, twitter generation who listen to identical tinny beats through a phone’s speaker, and where street dance is taught in COE primary schools, it’s a far cry from the image of our mod beachcombing for records washed ashore by racist American navy servicemen, or a Caucasian dancing like a “black guy.”

But as our stable world crumbles before us and right-wing politics appears back on the agenda its possible influence on music concerns me.

Last year’s 50th anniversary of the Country Music Awards sustained a grave repercussion in Trump-favoured Tennessee, when Beyonce performed alongside The Dixie Chicks, racial tensions in music clearly hasn’t evaporated. After the show raging racists took to social media to express their abhorrence at a black artist appearing on a show clearly perceived as something wholly “white.”

How erroneous these idiots are, if they love Country music they should see beyond the contemporary redneck, Confederate Flag connotations, their style of music belongs just as much to African-Americans as Caucasians. Despite the African-Americans probably wouldn’t admit they listen to modern Country, the very essence of country is rooted in their culture. The notable instruments of which, such as the banjo and fiddle, were formed by African-Americans.

And so the world turns on its axis, history repeats and the beats go on; music is supposed to be an escapism, a moment to let ones hair down and enjoy life any from niggling issues; in order to do that you can consent its history lays in prejudges, but try to celebrate its cultural diversity instead.

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