September 2nd, 2009


Pickled, salted, dried and candied rock

Playground column
September 2009
The Old Revolution

You're at the airport, queuing for security. Next to you are four individuals who look different from everybody else. They're traveling together, but they aren't a family; they're all male, all about the same age. They aren't businessmen either. At first sight they appear to have been beamed in from the past; their hairstyles and clothes are the essence of 1972; shaggy, fluffy, forward-combed hair, tight, exotic materials like velvet and satin.

The four men speak English, and their sentences are peppered with in-jokes delivered in street slang hardly heard these days outside the yellowing pages of beat novels: "man" and "chick" and "groovy" and "heavy" and "trip". They're making jokes about drugs: "Did you remember to flush your stash, Eric?" Their sense of humour is cheeky and surrealist, it reminds you of films of Beatles and Dylan press conferences in the 60s, or John Lennon's whimsical nonsense book A Spaniard in the Works.

The four men have already checked their luggage, but it's easy to guess that it included several square black cases containing electric musical instruments; basses and guitars in designs and colours little modified since the 1950s: sunset yellow, starburst orange, chocolate brown. They are, of course, a rock band: men from "the Old Revolution".

Ah, The Old Revolution! The term comes originally from Mexico; the skulls and skeletons of artist José Guadalupe Posada, used during the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, became a symbol of death as the ultimate equaliser, a jubilant defiance of the strict social hierarchy which prevailed before the revolution that lasted from 1910 to 1920, the Old Revolution. But we're using it today to indicate our own Old Revolution, the rock revolution that lasted from the mid-60s to the mid-70s.

Now, I'm as fond of that Old Revolution as anyone. With the possible exception of Spain, I think people in the West, circa 1970, were probably more funky, experimental, free and liberal than they are now. It's a time of extraordinary creativity and rebellion in the arts, a time when Modernism is rubbing up against Post-Modernism, globalisation is just beginning, 747s and Concordes are plying back and forth, men are walking on the moon, and there's an airline called Braniff which uses Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali in its adverts and paints its aircraft orange (in fact everything in 1970 seems to be orange, or mustard yellow, or pink).

What's sad is when the Old Revolution becomes a ghetto forty years later, a series of reflexes, a snow shaker ornament encasing, in miniature, a scene that was once vital and widescale. You cannot make a revolution pocket-sized, and preserve it in aspic. But that's what's happened to rock music's Old Revolution.

Let's take a specific example: a type face. We have to go back to Mexico for this one; designer Milton Glaser spotted some fat, funky handpainted lettering in Mexico in the mid-60s and photographed it. In 1968 he made his own hand-drawn version for a poster of Bob Dylan. Later the same year he turned the font into a commercially-available typeface called Baby Teeth. By the 1980s Baby Teeth had fallen out of favour, but recently a revival of interest in the excess of the 1960s and 1970s -- especially in the rock world -- has led to various imitations and variations on Glaser's Baby Teeth font appearing, with names like Bebit and Constructivist Block. You can see these fat fonts on album sleeves released this decade, including the new Jarvis Cocker solo album. Trace the history of that particular gesture back and you reach Bob Dylan in the mid-60s. Trace it further and you reach Mexico and the original Old Revolution.

Or how about clothes? Look at these pictures of the The Kings of Leon and The Killers. They're 2009 people, and yet they dress like 1969 people. Now, 1969 was a great year, but isn't that a little sad? Can you imagine people in 1969 dressing like it was 1929? They would be considered conservatives, even if they were aping the most progressive parts of the Weimar Republic. I think we can safely say that if people in 1969 had been aping people in 1929, people in 2009 would not now be aping people in 1969. Certainly nobody in 2049 will be aping these people in 2009. Well, not unless the Old Revolution becomes some sort of timeless tradition, some sort of cultural bubble.

It might happen. Societies are sentimental about their music. Even when they update and renovate everything else, societies designate certain zones, certain times in which the old music -- protected and tolerated no matter how different its values are -- can linger on as if all the intervening time never happened at all. Christmas is such a time; at Christmas melodies from the 14th century come drifting back and hang in the air above tables laden with foods pickled, salted, dried and candied in ways which refrigeration has long since made unnecessary. There are other festivals -- fire festivals, mystery plays, church rituals -- in which the ancient past is preserved, and there are populations of traveling people still wearing medieval motley as they perform feats of juggling and acrobatics in designated areas of waste ground on the outskirts of cities.

Rock music may well become -- and may already have become -- just such an ancient tradition, as it draws further and further away from the golden age of its Old Revolution. The problem is that 1970 has, for rock music, a gravitational pull that makes it more and more difficult to rip up the old rules and start again. Henrik Franzon is a Swedish statistician who fed all the rock critics' Best Of lists he could find into his computer and came up with a list of the 3000 most recommended albums and songs of all time. When I broke down Franzon's figures by decade, I discovered that almost half of the 100 most-acclaimed albums of all time were made between 1967 and 1976.

It's the magnetic pull of the styles and attitudes associated with these all-conquering albums (by people like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan) which causes the men in the airport queue to dress the way they do. They want to look like rock stars, and rock stars look, stereotypically, the way everybody looked in about 1970: long hair, tight clothes, bright colours. Normal people long ago moved on to other styles, but rock stars are supposed to look like that forever. Which is great. And terrible.

There's something valuable about preserving the styles of 1970, but also something pathetic. Rock stars in 1970 weren't so different from everyone else. Their revolution was a widespread social tendency, and their social power came from articulating widely-held attitudes. Now, though, rock stars are a bit like the animals that we gawk at in zoos. Separated from us by security staff, up in the coloured lights on the stage, our rock stars enact a pantomime caricature of the values of 1970. Their pelvic thrusts and androgynous clothes reflect nothing going on in the wider culture (which has retreated from 1970s radicalism back to something more like the 1950s). Rock stars have become mannerists, pastiche artists, actors. The Old Revolution, stiffened into pantomime, is grinning like a papier maché skull.

This column first appeared in Spanish in Playground magazine.