Monday, May 06, 2013

The Filth and the Fury: The Times Ain't Now but What They Used to Be

Last night ended with a gaiety it will be hard to match today. We sat down with our crack pipes and watched The Filth and the Fury, Julien Temple’s documentary about a beat group from the long-ago days called The Sex Pistols. And my head is still reeling with the marvellousness of what unfolded on the old elephantine tv in the corner of the living room at the Bard Gaff.

The Sex Pistols were, and are on the record they left behind, a great fucking band. In 1977, when they released ‘God Save The Queen’, I was just leaving primary school and starting secondary school. I didn’t know anything about them until I arrived at Westfield in Wellingborough, and when I saw pictures and heard their records I was terrified. They looked like the people who were picking on me in the corridors and the playground every day. That, of course, is because those nasty little maladjusted bastards thought that making someone’s life a misery was being very punk.

But rewind a moment. In The Filth and the Fury you see footage of people at those Silver Jubilee celebrations, street parties and union jack bunting everywhere. I was one of those people, improbably. In the summer between primary and secondary school they set out trestle tables on the lane between the church and my school in Little Harrowden and gave us fruit juice, cake and jelly. No doubt lots of flags were waved and some fool played the original version of ‘God Save the Queen’; I don’t remember. But talk about indoctrination. If you saw stuff like that happening in North Korea you’d be calling for air strikes against the revolting Commie dictator.

Now wind forward to 2012. People are at it again, gathering wherever they can to wave a flag whose very design is an emblem of the brutal suppression of once-sovereign countries; they’re weeping big sentimental tears about the monarch, who’s still here even though the Pistols are gone and Sid went to the worm farm so long ago no one even remembers his name. They’re so proud. They love their country. And the best answer anyone can come up with to that is an attempt, not supported by John Lydon, to get God Save The Queen by the Pistols into the download chart. (He didn’t want a great song to be used as a tokenistic act of dissent by people too dumb to speak for themselves.)

Jesus, though, how depressing. What happened between 1977 and 2012 to castrate artists so thoroughly they needed a 35 year old song to tell their story?

Rebellion became systematised. (Were the Pistols a rebellion? or a reaction?) It became a thing you do, a pose you strike, a way of packaging your butter. The last act I heard with talent and access to the airwaves who had something genuinely challenging to say were Public Enemy twenty years ago. Listening to their albums was exhausting, almost masochistic, because they were so intense; and Chuck D., like Lydon, had a fiercely independent, original mind that smashed through political, social and showbiz bullshit like a cannonball going through a wall.

There is the problem of mainstream access of course. The bigger media outlets hadn’t quite found a way of shutting down everything worth listening to in the Nineties, although they were half way there. Digital radio and the internet increase the diversity of what’s available to people, but trying to find a new Pistols or a new Public Enemy in the digital and cyber worlds is like looking for a penny in a million miles of grass. They may be out there; my generation was no more special than my mum’s, or her mum’s. But where are they? And what’s the chance of more than five people ever hearing about them, if that’s the goal?

Maybe it isn’t the goal. We saw in the Eighties what the commercialisation of pop music led to. Fucking Queen being elevated to the status of rock gods by Tory tv presenters and people who love “Emmerdale”.

When I listened to Lydon talking on The Filth and the Fury – I say listened because he’s photographed, appropriately, in shadow (it was never about celebrity) – I realized how much I am the product of a certain strand of thought that came along at a certain time in history. (Unless it’s just a similarity of temperament.) I was too young to know what the fuck was going on in ’77, but I felt exactly his exasperation about the Silver Jubilee during the Diamond Jubilee; and the Olympics drove me up the bloody pole. What is it about people that they want to indulge in public displays of subservience and bad taste with millions of others who look and dress exactly like they do?

My attitude was dismissed as grumpy, as an indicator of the rigidity of middle age, by people reading my writing here and on Facebook. I’m some sort of old crank party pooper, according to people who would rather live their lives on one knee hoping for a crust from the lord of the manor. But that’s not it at all. I always knew that the things I say are true, or at least, I did when I was old enough to start thinking for myself. I just didn’t always have the words or the self-confidence to express my opinion.

I've got bucket loads of words and confidence now. Which is probably why my readership has fallen off a cliff.


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