We give like the rose
And the tree gives shade
Take and regurgitate.
Take and claim
As your own.
Profit and analyse
And say it was yours
But you also hoarde
Create barriers of exclusivity.
Accents, breeding, wealth.
Social structures and
Byzantine cultural norms
The appropriation on which
You otherwise thrive.
You burn with rage
When you see us playing with
That which has fallen from your bough.
We gave: jazz, blues, soul, reggae, bossa nova, mambo
You created: opera, ballet, classical
James Brown famously recorded a track entitled Doing It To Death. I discovered this tune as a young man in my twenties (via my younger brother who was a huge JB fan). I loved the attitude that this record suggested, and I felt that it reflected my then hedonistic sentiments entirely. In the midst of sweaty, 1980s dancefloors – and while surrounded by my peers who were also creating intricate physical interpretations of a 4/4 rhythm – I vowed that, like Mr Brown, I too would being doing it until death. The it which I was pledging to do was to dance, to dig music, to be funky. How, I thought then, could life be worth living without the appreciation of funky and soulful music. I reasoned that even if septuagenarian dancing became painful and difficult, I was still going to attempt it – just to show the world that I was still alive.
I grew from babe to child in the second half of that decade, and matured into a teenager during the colourful and spectacular nineteen-seventies. I consider this timing to be fortunate because it seemed to me then – and still does – to be a time in which the populace were not afraid to experiment. My impression is that the middle years of the twentieth century were alive with new ideas as well as the motivation to live them. Most importantly (and especially so from the perspective of today), denizens of that time seemed prepared, if the ideas they wished to live required it, to go against the accepted grain.
It is nineteen ninety-three perhaps, or maybe ninety four.
Whatever the year, it is certainly late. It is nearly one o’clock in the morning.
We are in a dark roughhouse basement room. The walls are carelessly painted in a matt black emulsion as are the wooden benches that occupy various spaces around the perimeter. However, it is far too dark to make out any of these features clearly. There is also the odd cluster of more comfortable seating – little wooden stools with upholstered seats, and maybe a low table amongst them. That is as good as it gets here.
The creation event of twentieth century popular music – its big bang if you like – can, to my mind, be traced back to a singular event in January 1865. That moment could be characterised as a dark black explosion, the shock waves of which reverberated for the following one hundred and fifty years. Despite the myriad creative ways in which this basic story has been retold by the powerful and the political, it is, to me, a tale of slavery, of freedom and of novelty.
In this piece I’m going to ask you to suspend the accepted narratives and to think hard about the origins of what we now call pop music. Through this I hope to arrive at some conclusions about the trajectory of music – and society – in this the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Look, there’s no feeling today like the dark black blues dances of the 1970s and 1980s.
I wish that knowledge of this scene was widespread as say punk, new romanticism, glam rock or even disco. However, my sympathies are with you if you had not previously encountered this particular urban phenomenon. I mean you might have done, inadvertently. Walking past an inner-city council flat or house late at night during the 1980s, you might have noticed deep powerful reggae bass lines and a scattering of black youth loitering outside. You may have simply dismissed it as just an Afro-Caribbean party.
And latterly, no matter how complete your immersion in descriptions of late-20th century youth-led cultural phenomena that the British media are fond of presenting, you would be forgiven for still being completely blind to this particular scene. The lack of media attention is frustrating, especially when I think that all of today’s social consumerism, try-too-hard night life and hipster posturing would give anything to create a sub-culture that even comes close to what I’m about to describe.