“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
– Hunter S. Thompson
Old enough to have sat in the Kings’ Road Chelsea at the fag end of the ’60s and observed the passing parade of rock stars (“Hi Mick! Hi Keith!”) and members of the nobility and landed gentry making la passeggiata in their hugely expensive hippie outfits, and noting a decade later David Jones displays of high-priced punk regalia, I have long been clear about the inadequacy of merely cultural rebellion.
Styles and sounds, however superficially confrontational, are rapidly commodified and merchandised. And however much they may have their roots in subjectively sincere existential revolt, unless they are tied to liberatory movements – in the way some of the music of the ’60s was an accompaniment to the anti-war and civil rights movements – they will fail as rebellion, whatever their continuing merit as art.
All this was dealt with ably many moons ago by anarcho-surrealist George Melly in Revolt into Style – as you will discover should you find one of the few intact copies of a production job which gave “burst binding” a new meaning.
A younger member of our family got me the Jann Wenner biography Sticky Fingers for Christmas. Wenner co-founded Rolling Stone magazine. The biography explains the phenomenon whereby a music originating in barrel-houses and honky-tonks and performed by Memphis truck drivers and London gravediggers ended up in Studio 54 with Truman Capote and Andy Warhol, and in Spandex-bedecked caperers on MTV.
I wouldn’t be the first person to note the more than coincidental co-emergence of rock and roll – a music compounded of electric urban blues and country music with a dash of pre-rock era pop – and the US civil rights movement.
Many white teenagers made contact with Black popular culture through music. And many white fans and performers were genuinely anti-racist, throughout the years when US radio was more segregated than a Birmingham bus prior to Rosa Parks.
But it wasn’t until the so-called British Invasion, and the repertoire of Motown (Beatles) and Chess (Stones) covers, that a mass white youth audience in the US intersected with a culture growing up all around them on a dusty part of the radio dial they weren’t used to visiting.
That’s when people like Wenner, a superficially liberal hustler, came in to package, homogenise, corporatise and de-fang the dangerously edgy music. Unlike the fanzines and early underground music mags, Rolling Stone was a corporate product from its founding in 1967. It had a commercial dependence on record company advertising, which conditioned the often fawning nature of its reviews and features.
You could be forgiven for thinking that rock music was invented by white people. Despite Rolling Stone having a Black readership roughly commensurate with the proportion of African-Americans in the general population, I doubt if more than one cover in 10 featured a Black artist – and even then that artist might be Michael Jackson at his whitest.
The ethos of the record business is tooth and claw capitalism (and actual, literal, gangster capitalism – see Roulette Records and its head Morris Levy, whose silent partner was the Genovese family, the model for Hesh in The Sopranos). And although the business was an equal-opportunity exploiter happy to steal even from white people, as ever, the burden fell more heavily on Black artists.
For example, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, finally assured that he would get songwriting royalties – including those accruing from Elvis Presley’s cover of “That’s All Right Mama” – got his children dressed up and went down to the HQ of music publisher Hill & Range only to be told, “Oh, we think it would cost us less to defend a lawsuit than to just pay you, so no royalties for you”.
Music biz prominenten like Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, who did a great deal for Black artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, were musical plantation owners who signed Blacks to horrible contracts and became rich while many of the artists died in destitution.
Even the folk music movement, a revolt against the bland pop of the early 1960s, with its roots in the leftist tradition, was not resistant to the emollient effects of success, mainly meaning money.
Artists like Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones, who drew a line in the sand over touring apartheid-era South Africa or appearing in front of segregated audiences in the Jim Crow US south, have been de-radicalised to the point that they happily perform in Israel despite Palestinians requesting them not to.
But after all that – after the passage of a musical movement now mostly consigned to the record collections of nostalgics – people in revolt against the system will continue to come across things like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Going To Come”, an aching evocation of both suffering and hope, or Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” about rich fratties like Donald Trump dodging the draft while poor kids were sent to Vietnam to die in their stead.
And they’ll get an inkling of the power of vernacular music to arouse and inspire the oppressed and to provide a backing track to struggle.