Confessions of a Cultural Industrialist
Issue #46, December 1999
Was there ever an alternative?
When I was 14, 15 I taught myself to play piano using a Beatles songbook borrowed from the library. I'd never heard the Beatles, but something about the airbrushed illustrations in the front of the songbook attracted me to them. I'd never seen airbrushing before, you see -- and for a brief moment in time, it seemed somehow sexy and new to me. Piano was a strange choice, though. Even though my two elder brothers and elder sister could all play their chosen musical instruments with more than passing skill, I seemed to lack the talent necessary. So I taught myself to play via the Beatles -- painfully, one note at a time, one finger at a time, with no discernible sense of rhythm -- singing along to such child-like, deceptively simple melodies as "Nowhere Man" and "Love Of The Loved." The lyrics attracted me. They seemed so wise, so understanding, so directly related to my situation. Boys having no luck with girls. Boys vowing revenge on girls because they had no luck with girls. Boys knowing how truly alone they are. Boys knowing what bastards girls are. Boys being sensitive, and hence misunderstood by girls.
Yes... these were good lyrics.
I would sing those songs for hours on end, picking out the bass harmonies with one or two fingers on the keyboard. Not having any reference point to judge my own work against, I would endlessly rework the songs, creating my own rhythms, cadences, harmonies, interpretations, meanings. It pleased me to do this: later, when I made a handful of friends who listened to "pop" music (at that point in time -- 1977 -- pop music was coincidentally also known as "punk,") we would join forces and create our own concept albums. Usually, they would have sad themes -- boy sees girl, girl doesn't want to know boy, boy kills himself -- and the music would be less than rudimentary. Hammered out chords on the piano. Packs of cards rifled through close to the tape player's microphone. Recorders blown down, for no apparent reason. Electric plugs banged against something. Words solemnly intoned, then forgotten.
I'm sure we would've used guitars, if we could have afforded them.
This, to me, seemed an alternative to what was going on outside. Boys being successful with girls, friends being beaten up in nightclubs, sports... there were always fucking people going on about how good at fucking sports they were.
I was safe at home with my piano, safely caught within my own alternative world.
Safe, me and my friends, in our alternate reality.
Soon, I grew to discover the outside world. Comics, music, the odd book or two... I liked it. I particularly liked the punks, the way they seemed so curiously sexless and sexual simultaneously. They seemed unafraid to flaunt their feelings to outsiders. Me, too. Except no one wanted to listen to me. I liked the punks, though. Their music was angry, assertive, a source of annoyance to those on the outside. It made my feet want to move, my body want to shake. It filled my ears with a glorious resonance. And - even more importantly -- women were part of punk. (Women had never been part of my alternate reality.) They had feelings, too! And -- hard as it was to believe by someone as fucked-up by the English public school system as I was -- it seemed that it wasn't just men who hurt.
Beyond wearing my school tie with an Essential Logic T-shirt and getting spat at in the streets of Chelmsford, I never joined the punk movement, though. Probably because I believed all those proclamations by people like Lydon and Perry and sadly forgotten punk poet Patrik Fitzgerald that you should think for yourself. Probably because I was scared -- intimidated by all those bikers in Chelmsford pubs who wou1d hold knives to my throat 'cos I was sporting a porkpie hat. Anyway, wasn't it obvious? As soon as the alternative to the mainstream is recognizable as an alternative to the mainstream, it's time to leave and move on. Maybe moving on is part of youth. But I never seriously thought that punk (and you can interchange that word with a thousand others) could ever provide anything aside from a temporary escape. A bit of solace. A world within other worlds. But I liked punk 'cos it made me dance, and I liked to dance. I found the rhythms of disco too repetitive, too unimaginative to dance to. (The same still holds true now for the vast majority of techno.)
That was it for punk, though. Good dancing music.
Except, of course, I did walk through the scummier streets of London in several angry marches denouncing racist attacks in the early 80's, as part of the music-inspired "Rock Against Racism" movement. Later, I helped super-glue a few keyholes in London's banking area as part of the gleeful, Crass-inspired, anarcho "Stop the City" demonstrations. Then again, doesn't every young student go through a political period? Does music have anything to do with that? I'd come to the conclusion that women and minorities got treated like shit long before I ever heard The Clash (a group I despised at the time for being so male) or Alien Kulture (a local Asian dub group, precursors of today's brilliant Asian Dub Foundation). Going on marches didn't make me an individual, and it didn't make me part of the solution.
Fast forward 10 or 20 years, and I've seen too much and experienced too little. I've found myself dragged into a music industry that never had much to give me, except for soulless sheep, several thousand free drinks and regurgitated cigar smoke blowing back in my face. I've found myself talking to people I never wanted to talk to, drinking with people who should never have been fucking allowed to live. Somewhere along the line, my very natural desire to dance -- I ONLY EVER WANTED TO DANCE! -- has been turned into a career, a life, a job, a house by the seaside, free trips to America and the irritation of being known only because of those I know. Is this an alternative? I don't fucking think so.
I'll tell you where the only alternative that I know lies.
I've been asked this question so often -- mostly by shape-changing chameleons who are only after protecting their own kind -- that I can repeat the answer in my sleep. What am I currently listening to? (Like you care.) What do I reckon will be the Next Big Thing? (Like I care.) What is the alternative? (Like anyone cares.)
At the start of 1998, I finally had my precious piano returned to me from my mother's house where it had been lying dormant for several years. (It wasn't actually MY piano -- I couldn't play it the best in our family, or even third-best -- but I felt that I could lay claim to it simply 'cos I poured my heart out over it back in the day when I was a lonely, scared teenager.) Around then, I found myself almost physically unable to listen to music -- any music, even Dexy's Midnight Runners. It was too irritating, too painful, too close to home. So I returned to my roots -- picking out the same Beatles songs painfully, with a couple of fingers, singing lustily and soulfully along. Picking out Tom Waits and Nina Simone and tired old sixties classics with my raw fingers, barely able to hold the melody. Back in my alternate world. Back in my alternative reality, with just me and my couple of friends for company. Except now, the brash enthusiastic band-mates had been replaced by a bonafide girlfriend who -- wonder of wonders -- professed to enjoy my singing.
My love for the Beatles' harmonies hadn't been diminished by all the years that I'd spent hearing them unable to cope with the emotion and glorious melodies of their songs. (For example: try playing Paul McCartney's "Another Day" organically on piano, or singing the lyrics to "Fool On The Hill" without the airbrushed backing and almost flippant spirit). I could still lose myself within their songs, even if I did feel their words were at a level only a tormented, self-obsessed fifteen year old boy could relate to. And more than a fraction misogynist, to boot.
I'd found my alternative again.
Everett True has written for a variety of international music magazines including Melody Maker and New Music Express. Most recently, he served as the music editor for Seattle's acclaimed alterna-weekly The Stranger. Currently Everett resides in Austrailia. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.