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The rise and fall of a certain subculture - click opera
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Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 07:59 am
The rise and fall of a certain subculture

It's one of those "welcome back to Britain" moments. Lying on the seat on the Stansted Express is a copy of a newspaper called Metro. The lead story is headlined "Chop of the pops". I pick it up and read: "Iconic music show Top Of The Pops is being axed by the BBC after a 42-year run. The chart programme is being dropped in the face of plummeting viewing figures and despite a last-ditch relaunch last year."



I'm a member of a generation for whom Top Of The Pops really meant something. On Heddon Street, after my art opening at Blow de la Barra, I pose as Ziggy Stardust in the phonebox where David Bowie, in 1972, shot the pictures for his album about an extra-terrestrial rock star. The album was the second record I owned, and I remember being 12 and gazing up in wonder at the TV in the boarding school commonroom, watching Bowie playing Ziggy in his TOTP performance of "Starman", the album's lead single. "Switch on your TV you may see his light, if we can sparkle he may land tonight, don't tell your papa or he'll get us locked up in fright", Bowie triple-rhymed, mincing at the mic with Mick Ronson.

Metro quotes Sir Jimmy Savile, who isn't surprised at the show's demise: "When Top Of The Pops was first broadcast on January 1st, 1964 I was asked at the time how long I thought it would last. I said "as long as people buy records".

The death of Top Of The Pops really does feel like the end of a certain subculture in Britain. Add it to the death of John Peel and the closure of Smash Hits magazine, and it really does seem like one of the few truly magical British things, an Aladdin-like pantomime that made this place special, has risen... and fallen. It's lost its mojo. It's now strictly retro.

Walking down to see the show at the ICA, my head crowds with thoughts. So now I know for sure: I'll never be on Top Of The Pops. Well, that's no big surprise. But I wonder if it's really worth pursuing a project I've talked about semi-seriously with my niece Ellie, a project to write songs for her one day and make her "the Scottish Kahimi Karie". Really, what's the point if there's no Smash Hits and no Top Of The Pops? Where would this project take place? What picture would we have of its success? What would we be doing it for? The ringtones?

I look into what used to be Tower Records, Piccadilly Circus. Now it's a branch of Virgin. I want to know if I still "exist" here, with my own divider in the Rock and Pop section. I'm rather surprised to see that I do. They have four Momus albums, mostly compilations.



I think back to when Virgin Records in Edinburgh was a tiny dark, exciting place, the size of Dense on Berlin's Danziger Stasse, with the same feeling of subcultural secrecy about it. I think about how I went into Dense the other day and asked a friend to photograph me buying two CDs, The Mountain Record by Yuichiro Fujimoto and The Correct Use of Pets by Hypo and EDH (Emmanuelle de Hericourt). "I have the feeling these might be the last two records I ever buy," I joked, "so you'd better take a picture of me doing it!"

And I think of something I read in Exberliner magazine, in a feature in which people are asked why they live in Berlin. "I'm here," says one respondent, "because it feels like Berlin is the last city with a real underground".

Now, Top Of The Pops wasn't an underground thing. It was a commercial beast, despite being on a government channel. But to buy records by the artists it showed, back in the 70s, you had to go to dark, cheesecloth- and joss stick-scented places like the tiny Virgin Records on Thistle Street, and flip through big-sleeved, groovy records by Gong and Mike Oldfield. And Berlin record stores like Dense still have that feeling, like they're part of a secret society, and that someone, somewhere might get you "locked up in fright" as a result of some glamourous madness you might find there. But somehow the link between mainstream culture and these dark secretive places now seems gone. Pop music's inventive subversions will continue on the margins, in the shadows. But pop, in Britain at least, will never again command the attention of a whole society, and lead whole generations of children, Pied Piper-like, Ziggy Stardust-like, towards marginal, creative, shadowy places.

Well, not at 7.30 on a Thursday evening, anyway.

37CommentReply

siokaos
siokaos
Christopher W. Moriarty
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 07:19 am (UTC)

love it


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fufurasu
fufurasu
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 08:17 am (UTC)

I have nothing against nostalgia, but do I detect tinges of rockism in your entry? When marginal places become popular to an entire generation they soon stop being marginal. The link between the popular and the marginal cannot last very long. At least since I came to this country in 1995, TotP has seemed like an infomercial for already familiar songs. Perhaps the margin can no longer attract mainstream culture because it is now subdivided into several genres that only command the attention of smaller groups...

At 7:30 this Thursday evening we'll be at fluidbar.com for the Brazil vs Japan game. Otherwise, see you at Pecha Kucha on Sunday?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 09:25 am (UTC)

Erm, can't make Pecha Kucha on Sunday: I've just been told there's a Momus show -- sorry, a "special session" -- at the George and Dragon that night.

Sunday 25 June at 7pm
Momus
Special Session
George and Dragon
2 Hackney Road
London E2
Free

This has been organized by the gallery at rather short notice, but should be a fun evening.


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nickink
nickink
Nick Ink
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 08:48 am (UTC)

Such a lot about TOTP changed over that period though. I seem to remember a big worthy trumpet-blowing about the reintroduction of live-only vocals a few years ago, which I didn't really understand. Having grown up in love with a paralytic Robert Smith failing completely to lip-sync to The Walk, I didn't see the big deal.

On the other hand, I was appalled when they suddenly started allowing artists to perform their new singles before the record had even been released! It seems so quaint and naiive now, but at the time it was shocking. Talk about a fix.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
charleshatcher
charleshatcher
charleshatcher
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 09:41 am (UTC)

Top Of The Pods ... I can hear it now, in all of its silent glory.


ReplyThread Parent

petit_paradis
petit_paradis
erik
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 09:06 am (UTC)

momus, what was the first record you owned?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 09:26 am (UTC)

A T.Rex compilation (bought at Boots the Chemist, Colchester!) called "Ride A White Swan"!


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T Rex - (Anonymous) Expand


(Anonymous)
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 10:17 am (UTC)
sometimes though

Sometimes though, when I read columns/articles/blogs etc by people who are gettng older, and they say that it's all no good now, I just think that it's more about them getting older, rather than about how things are over and lost and going to hell in a handbasket. Like, when you were 20, music was amazing and subcultures were fantastic and exciting and liberating - but to people who are 20 now, that's still absolutely true, they're just so in love with all the new stuff they're discovering and sharing with their friends. And then when they are 40 they will write about how amazing pop culture was in the summer of 2006, which was the Best Summer Ever, but now things are all over and lost and going to hell in a handbasket.

I just can't imagine going back to a time when there was no internet or mp3's or blogs like this one. Music is better now, it is, really.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 10:23 am (UTC)
Re: sometimes though

Oh yeah, you're right: I'm, after all, the man who said "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people". I don't mind that. And I don't think music was better back in the 70s than it is now. What I'm mourning here -- and I stand by this, I don't think we'll ever see this again -- is the death of the link between a unified mainstream culture and marginal subcultures:

"But pop, in Britain at least, will never again command the attention of a whole society, and lead whole generations of children, Pied Piper-like, Ziggy Stardust-like, towards marginal, creative, shadowy places."

Sure, there will be the subcultures, and there will be the mainstream, but it's the link between them that's blown. Like rich and poor, they've drifted ever further apart.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 10:57 am (UTC)

"The rise and fall of a certain subculture"

The real mystery is why it took so long, It's been god awful since the late 80's. I guess the girl/boyband thing kept it afloat for a while. I was always more impressed by Woolworths stocking punk records than I was visiting tiny Virgin record stores. They even had limited edition coloured vinyl, posters, and tacky badges. Wouldn't it be great if you could pop in there to pick up your Hypo album.


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 11:15 am (UTC)
festival

If you're in London at the moment, there might be something here of interest to you. Lots of Japanese stuff, for a start.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 11:43 am (UTC)
mainstream

No its jsut that the link between sub and main is far more porous now, see below for how that icon of contemporary culture youtube merges the gap between the shadows and the mainstraem in someone like Bowie's career.
http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=3AD3E998A4B1015D

oh and more Bowie boxes at
http://www.5years.com/heddonfans.htm


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loveonice
loveonice
...its just that my knickers are showing
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 12:01 pm (UTC)

I was in the audience for TOTP 3 weeks ago and now I know its being axed i'm glad I got the chance to see the studio and how its filmed. It is a tiny place with four stages in each corner of the room and the audience get dragged around from stage to stage in a very hectic manner. I would like to go again before the last show though, its a shame.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 12:25 pm (UTC)

The difference is there are no subversions left. Rock plowed through all that by the end of the 70s.

As if we could live in a state where the public is perpetually shocked by a man in a dress with eye shadow on.

The wheel started turning in the 60s and its now reached its logical conclusion, which is the graphic description of sexual acts and violence with fire arms. Congratulations, children of the 60s!


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)

(Anonymous)
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 01:00 pm (UTC)
totp

Since when did TOTP come from Penzance?
Surely it mean't that people in Aberdeen could see
what people in Shepherds Bush were wearing?
I bet that in 15 years Top of the Pops will return
Doctor Who-style regenerated with new effects and
better storylines...


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 04:54 pm (UTC)
But what about 20 year olds who are nostalgic for a time they never lived in?

I agree with the person who said that depending on your age, each era seems like a golden age....EXCEPT, that I am 20 and for most of my life have listened to music of the 50s-60s.

I feel nostalgic for an age I wasn't even around for.

I wonder if this idea of the link between marginal / mainstream is found in the idea of regional hits? All the number Ones on the charts one hears today (in North America, anways) are the same whereever you go in the country. I like the idea that in 1968 you could have a hit that was huge in Detroit, but no one would know in Austin (or the other way around). Mainstream in one area, marginal in the next.

I kind of believe in those charts WB Yeats made "if you're personality X and born into era 7 (or whatever) you will be deeply unhappy because you are at odds with the time you really should have been born into"

Of course I realise I get all the nostalgic-rose-tinted filter of being in love with the Sixties, but that still doesn't explain why I am more drawn to that period (believe it a golden age) than the one I should be loving right now. I have zero nostalgia for the music of the 90s when I was kid, too.

-Monique

p.s.
I so love the idea of your neice being a Scottish Kahimi Karie! Don't give up on that idea. We should have more Celtic starlettes in the future. Instead of loose socks, torcs and tartans (sorry, that's all I could think of at the moment, that's probably a lame example) becomes the craze as Celtophilia takes over the globe. ;)


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 07:06 pm (UTC)
Re: But what about 20 year olds who are nostalgic for a time they never lived in?

The present is no different. Do you see Lady Sovereign on the US charts? Nope, and thank God for that.


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dignified_devil
A Dignified Devil
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 05:15 pm (UTC)

"No its jsut that the link between sub and main is far more porous now, "

I was unbelievably amazed by the speed with which Dangermouse went from small time hip-hop electronica producer to Gnarls Barkley topping out itunes and setting sales records. It was what? 3 years? Culture is so terribly reflexive these days. As much as no one wants to miss the next Van Gogh, you can be sure the next Iggy Pop will be on youtube starting tomorrow.

On the subject of Berlin record shops, I think part of Berlin's misitique is that alot of it's music isn't as exportable as other places. Rock is available and consumed everywhere and even American emo bands in the lack of radio coverage managed to draw in festivals of the thousands, but Berlin's laptop chicanery is unique to the area and while yeah tech-house legions build and fall where else is Scrambled HackZ, Errorsmith, Mouse on Mars etc. coming out of? The production and performance techniques used in Berlin would be alien elsewhere and when they do travel it's usually under the guise of "experimental" music unlike the club based music that actually populates the area. Also, the low-rent situation (that's ending from what I understand) combined with awesome arts funding always means a boom. Until North Korea falls I doubt we'll see as big a rush for low rent property by well educated folks from the other side of the border as Berlin has experienced for the last 15 or so years.

"The death of Top Of The Pops really does feel like the end of a certain subculture in Britain. Add it to the death of John Peel and the closure of Smash Hits magazine, and it really does seem like one of the few truly magical British things, an Aladdin-like pantomime that made this place special, has risen... and fallen. It's lost its mojo. It's now strictly retro."

Yeah John Peel and others were essential pieces. While I'm sure the BBC will find someone, eventually, with a similar music crazed listening habit, it's that it's now a formula (electic DJ who actually listenes to demos) it makes one wonder will the newer DJ(S?) feel fresh or will it just be an attempt to capture the feeling of old?

"And I think of something I read in Exberliner magazine, in a feature in which people are asked why they live in Berlin. "I'm here," says one respondent, "because it feels like Berlin is the last city with a real underground""

But is it underground becuase so many Germans choose to ignore it? Most Berliners I meet don't even know Ellen Aillien or Jan Jelineck etc. Or is it the experience? It seems like a lot of Germany's sub-culture is more than music, it's also that technology is being used in ways that are free from the capitalist logics of American web services (and the enclosures of thought that their alogrithims and processes insinuate), something that has yet to catch on in most of the world. Even tech heavy Japan rarely can engage in play outside of a for profit model.


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stjamesdawson
stjamesdawson
James Dawson
Thu, Jun. 22nd, 2006 05:26 pm (UTC)
One of the Somewhat-More-Than 15

Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy reading your journal entries, as one of the somewhat-more-than 15 people for whom you are famous. I assume that I'm not your only regular reader who rarely (if ever) sends feedback, but that doesn't mean we're not out here!

Your eulogy for Top of the Pops managed to make me nostalgic for a show I've never even seen, aside from clips that have appeared on video compilations or American TV. Well done!


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