Rock of ages: A passing fancy

IssueDecember 2007 - January 2008
Comment by Jeff Cloves

Here are a couple of books of interest to PN readers; seasonal gifts perhaps? Both are doorstoppers of around 500 pages and both are by blokes who are, to quote 1066 and All That, “a good thing”.

In the 1970s I wrote for Pete Frame's celebrated music mag Zigzag but Pete has since become more widely known for his series of superbly researched and drawn Rock Family Trees. These are the product of his meticulous research and obsessive interest in the minutiae of popular music in general and rockanroll in particular; but now comes his awesome The Restless Generation (Rogan House £18.99) and he's revealed as an idiosyncratic social/cultural historian unrestrained by academe and its faux objectivity. Sub-titled “How rock music changed the face of 1950s Britain”, it is a work of love and devotion which makes his case - and pretty well justifies it. Wandering troubadour Mike Horovitz, whose work has been recommended many times in PN over the last 40 years, has waged a righteous (nonviolent) war against the forces of authority and repression throughout his creative life. In making a nod towards T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) and New Labour's obsession with re-branding, his latest book has re-branded Eliot too. Thus, A New Waste Land (New Departures £15) is a poetic assault on Blair and the New Labour Project. However, if Pete's affirmative examination of the years 1949- 59 is popular history from the rock bottom up, then Mike's denunciation of the Blairistocracy (1997-2007) veers towards media history from the top down. There are no photos of Pete's working class rockanroll heroes in TRG (they would have made it even more pricey) but ANWL is stuffed with cartoons from Steve Bell et al. and photos by persons known and unknown. In all it includes 64 photographers, artists and cartoonists and, in particular, the photos of torture, death and destruction are used to horrifying effect. What I like about TRG is how unfussily and naturally Pete has combined the story of the rise of skiffle and the birth of British (imitation American) rockanroll with his accompanying social commentary. In writing, for example, of the rise of coffee-bar culture in Soho in the late '50s he combats Fleet Street's denigration of it: “As they [its denizens] recall, their refuges incubated and fostered the swinging sixties, tolerance, spirituality, social and sexual equality, inter-racial and gay relationships, beat culture, ban-the-bomb communality, an interest in poetry [for which they owed a great deal to Mike H and friends - JC] and jazz and folk music, not to mention decent coffee. People wrote, read books, and newspapers, played chess, played guitars, sang, ruminated, discussed, argued - or, if they were Diz Disley, drew on the walls. “A jazz-bent guitarist, often forced to take skiffle gigs for the money....he painted American jazz greats and Botticelli-style angels in return for mountains of spaghetti bolognaise - `spag bollock naked' as it was known.” TRG contains Pete's best writing as well as occasional crudities and excesses. And so it should. It was a decade of musical crudity and excess which ushered in a decade of musical invention and genius and he has properly told its story with pride and prejudice - and passion. As for the venality of the Blair years, Mike Horovitz can hardly miss. His angry poem takes 214 pages and the notes to it occupy a further 212 in which he generously quotes from other poets and writers - alive and dead. His reach is exhaustive; but somewhat exhausting. And too late. His aim is true, his targets deserving, but his prologue - referring to (New) Labour's election victory in '97 declaims: With Labour in office again we felt free Well for a month - or three.... That “we”! I never felt freed by Blair's triumph. More of the same I thought and I was right. I'm an admirer of Mike's poetry but ANWL is just too party political. A shrill cry of “betrayal” runs through it which I find naive. His tirades against the arms trade, though, endear him to me as ever: Hear the cries of babies and the birds on the wing From your lies about wrongs righting wrongs That hot up night and day with more Big Deals that pay Endless wages to war and bombs. Pete Frame notes that in March 1959 10,000 CND protestors arrived in Trafalgar Square having marched from Aldermaston, and in August The Quarry Men skiffle group played the Casbah Coffee Club in Liverpool. By the end of the '60s, song writers were among the finest poets of the twentieth century.

Topics: Culture
See more of: Jeff Cloves