Recession tunes

Oct 22nd, 2009 | By | Category: Pop thinking

“Pretentious rubbish”, a friend would say about music he didn’t like.

His comment was chiefly reserved for a rock group called “Yes”, but was used about other bands as well.  Only years later did the thought occur that his vocabulary, with which to comment on music, might not have extended much beyond those two words; when you have no words at all, having two words makes someone an expert.

It was hard to know what “pretentious” meant, what did he think the music was pretending to be?  Can rock music pretend to be something it’s not?

Going to university in London, there were people whose critical vocabulary extended far beyond two words.  I would buy New Musical Express sometimes in the hope of finding the language to understand those who used the opportunity of being at a college just off the Strand to go to concerts in all the nearby venues.  It never worked. Reading Private Eye’s ‘Pseuds’ Corner’ column, I would wonder if the NME reviews bordered on the point of being ’pretentious’, but would never have dared to say so.  What would someone from the sticks know about such things?

There was music I loved, but would not have admitted.  Tamla Motown tunes could lighten grimy London streets; but what undergraduate in a left-wing college in 1980 was going to admit to being fond of Diana Ross and the Supremes?  It was bad enough being seen buying a Blondie album in the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street.

The other music that could transform a situation was Ska; for a brief period, the Two Tone bands filled the charts.  My friend would undoubtedly have dismissed them as being just ‘pop’ bands, he could hardly have called them  ‘pretentious’ and the smart middle class students in their New Romantic outfits would probably have thought it was pub music.  But there was an energy in the music that drove away the gloom of the outside world.

The lyrics were about the ordinary things of life and the beat was for dancing.  You didn’t put on Ska records to sit down and have intellectual conversations.

Madness were the best.  Their rhythms drove out the thoughts of recession Britain. They could articulate the thoughts for which a nineteen year old working class kid had no vocabulary.  The second verse of “My Girl” expressed in a few lines that inability to communicate:

“My girl’s mad at me
Been on the telephone for an hour
We hardly said a word
I tried and tried but I could not be heard
Why can’t I explain?
Why do I feel this pain?
‘Cause everything I say
She doesn’t understand
She doesn’t realise
She takes it all the wrong way.”

One Step Beyond, the album from which it came sits a few feet away, in a pile on the study floor, along with Blondie and Diana.

Madness came to Dublin last year, their energy remains;  their sound still has a recession-exorcising quality. They are returning after Christmas, but no-one I know wants to go – a recession, and listening to Ska by myself, it will be like going back thirty years.

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  1. You are lucky enough to still have something to play vinyl on Ian? I am lucky enough to have a tape player in my Land Rover so I can play my 30 year old Best of Hendrix as I drive along……I wouldn’t have admitted it 30 years ago but I thought that some of the Tamla stuff was good too…….Must be something to do with being from the ‘sticks’ then Ian!!!!!!!

  2. Les, I’ve a read and white 1965 Dansette that I bought for forty quid off of eBay

  3. Whoa there . . Blondie was very punky in its day! I think musical tastes here were more American than British. Lots of conceptual stuff like Yes. I do share your love of Madness – they’re touring here soon! Amazing longevity. I’d come with you for sure! Wanna buy me a ticket? A plane ticket that is?

  4. I love Ms Harry, but punk she’s not. Compare ‘Heart of Glass’:
    with the Sex Pistols ‘Anarchy in the UK’
    Not quite the same genre!

    Go to see Suggs and Co if they’re in Sydney, a great aul’ night out!

  5. I don’t know how to react to this. Madness were, and are, great. What I find fascinating is that the entertainment industry scooped up the entire skinhead/ska/two tone thing and made it acceptable/marketable to the masses. Don’t forget that Prince Buster wrote ‘One Step Beyond’. The dancehalls of Jamaica were not exactly comparable to dance locations in UK or Ireland, to say the least. Indeed go back to Slade. Pretentious? I think not. Great? Yes. But the skinheads were morphed into Auntie’s Favourite. Go back again to the Kinks. Revered now.
    Yes were definitely pretentious. Just like Deep Purple. Genesis. King Crimson.
    Should you go to the concert? I do not think visiting the swimming hole where you played as a child is a good thing. Those times are best visited in the mind. But do play them on Vinyl – or download them at least and give Madness a few cents royalty.

  6. Ska/Two Tone was a strange phenomenon – it gathered up people from the most unlikely backgrounds.

    Last time I saw Slade was at Monsters of Rock at Castle Donington in 1981 – they were about fourth on the bill – Blue Oyster Cult, Whitesnake and AC/DC followed.

    Going to see Madness is about English roots and identity – it’s like a Dubliner going to an Irish bar in New York!

  7. @ Ian – like your last comment about going to see Madness when English = Irish bar when Irish. However – going to Madness far better and I dare say authentic than the Irish bar abroad schtick.
    Was always very partial to ska myself, only on the radio first time round, but seen and heard a few British two-toners on their second time around – The Selector in Belfast, Desmond Dekker in Kent, and various offshoots/reincarnations of the Specials and the Beat – always a good night.
    I seem to remember that ska was the only thing self-conscious school boys in Belfast would deign to dance to – sufficiently jerky, aggressive, manly I think.

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