Culture, Politics and Pleasure
In one of the weekend magazines -The Guardian or The Times – they always feature an interview with some celeb who generally has a new book or film to promote. The interview follows a set pattern so the same questions are printed in the piece, with the answers below, like a script. One of them always concerns guilty pleasures. You know the sort of thing: Which book are you ashamed you’ve never finished? What’s your cultural guilty secret? The premise is that there are a set of cultural products that are high status, that everyone with aspirations to intellect and cultural heft should have watched or read, but definitely enjoyed. The flip side of this is that, in this post-modern world, the real mark of a cultural heavyweight hipster, is someone who can slum it with the oiks and can enjoy (though no doubt in an ironic, knowing way) the cultural sludge of popular entertainment. You know it’s trash, but it’s clever trash, it’s funny trash, it’s significant trash. Hence the epithet “guilty”. You know you’re not supposed to, but you like it anyway. You little rebel.
I hope I don’t disappoint, but this blog will walk a different path. I’m afraid I don’t buy the High brow/Low brow distinction that bedevils cultural commentary and cultural transmission in this country. Stormzy or Beethoven? Well, as I’ve made clear before on this blog, the obvious answer, the only admissible answer, is, of course, both. Unfortunately, at this point in our history, the Traditionalists hold sway, and culture wars are engaged in enthusiastically, not only for their tactical worth, but also (and more frightening this, in some ways) because some of the key players of the present time actually believe in all of that stuff.
Well, I don’t. And so, the guilty pleasures in the title are not those things that you shouldn’t really like but do, because they are so ITV. No, there are genuine reasons to feel guilty about them, but you can’t help yourself. Music is most vulnerable to the guilt reflex because of the frequent dislocation between lyrics and music. Something that sounds wonderful can become problematic as soon as repeated listening reveals the meaning of the lyrics. And so it is with the two examples I’m going to confess to today. Believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
- “Stay with Me” Rod Stewart and The Faces
Quite simply, this is the greatest record ever made. Or rather, it is this week, because as we all know, those kind of judgements change all the time. But unlike all most of the other contenders for the title, it’s quite likely to feature repeatedly as the GOAT. For youngsters who know nothing of Rod apart from his later manifestation as a cheesy embarrassment, this may seem like a deeply unfashionable choice. But they, poor innocents have yet to discover the magnificence that was Rod and The Faces in the early Seventies.
Rod, despite the horror of “Sailing” and “Do Ya think I’m Sexy?”, has one of the finest white soul blues voices ever. Period. And The Faces are the consummate bluesy Rock band. Listen to “A Nod’s as Good as a Wink” if you don’t believe me. “Stay with Me” is them at their peak. The opening guitar riff is a joyful harbinger of the greatness to come, reprised at the end by a delicious honky tonk shuffle, as if they can’t bear the song to be over so soon. Magnificent fuzz guitar by Ronnie Wood, honkytonk electric piano by Ian McClagen and a wonderful vocal by his Rodness. The record is greater than the sum of its parts however, because the band motor through it, charting a perfect path between being as tight as a drum and achieving the loose elasticity of boogie woogie. It’s the aural equivalent of the bouncy suspension of a classic Citroen DS. The other great strength is just how evident it is that they are all having a great time, not just playing the song, but living the life. The video of the song depicts the rock and roll fantasy of being in a gang with your mates, having a laugh, going on the lash and the certain promise of sexual activity. A heady cocktail for any seventeen year old.
The trouble is, of course, that once you’ve recovered from the sublime experience of the music, you’re left with the lyrics. Back in the early Seventies they caused me some disquiet as an embryonic progressive. Now, they are positively antediluvian, in their, ahem, strangely sexist portrait of teenage kicks. Back then, no-one really batted an eyelid. But, keep the faith for a moment, the lyrics provide the merest smidgeon of hope. Rod was a clever guy, and understood the essential ridiculousness of rock stardom. The instinct for witty and knowing self-deprecation that was often seen in his interviews, surfaces in this song too. (“I don’t mean to sound degrading……”) It’s a hymn to the joys of young, casual, meaningless sex between consenting adults rather than a misogynistic leer between blokes. And in these days of gender fluidity, that spirit can be retained and improved, simply by substituting “Peter” for “Rita”. Genius. As if by magic, a great work is repurposed for a different age.
Have a little look and listen here:
Unfortunately, with my second choice, it’s not quite so simple. Step forward the sublime Dr Feelgood.
2 “Because you’re Mine”. Dr Feelgood
It’s hard to accurately convey just what an important place Dr Feelgood occupy in the history of British Rock music in the Seventies, to anyone that wasn’t there. They were the bridge that led directly from Prog to Punk, via Pub-Rock. The John the Baptist to Punk’s Jesus Christ. The key element of their greatness is the texture their records possess. “Because you’re Mine” crackles with menace. It’s as tense as a tightly stretched skin over a drum, the sound created by the simple combination of rhythm guitar, drums and bass and growling, prowling vocals from Lee Brilleaux. Live, the sound was just as ferocious, but the experienced was enhanced by the key characters. Brilleaux in white mohair suit soaked in sweat punching the air in time to his rasping staccato vocals. The Big Figure on drums – large, still, unmoving and unmoved. John Sparks on bass an honourable example of the unremarkable, functional bass layer and last and foremost, the magnificent Wilko Johnson on guitar.
When I first saw them, both on TV and then live, I had never witnessed a guitarist with such a relentless attack. He was the Ian Curtis of guitar, manic staring eyes, mechanical chopping, plectrum-less hacking, and a non-stop, all action, straight lined, psychotic and repetitive marching across the stage. The word “strumming” could never be applied to his playing style. In the age of twenty minute squealing guitar solos, he rescued pop and rock with a thrilling reminder of the glory of three minutes of rhythm guitar.
They were tremendously exciting to watch. But apparently, only for young men. A Feelgoods gig was an extended exercise in male bonding, as I recall. Perhaps there are some female fans out there who went and worshipped as I did. If so, I’d love to hear about it.
But……. Glorious though they were, they had one major flaw, a crack as wide as the San Andreas fault. I’m afraid that, to the naked eye and ear at any rate, Seventies feminism completely passed them by. “Because you’re mine” is actually a nasty little song, a paean to stalking, male domination and possession. And no amount of fiddling with names or pronouns is ever going to fix that. In a case like this, the only permissible response is to cut them loose and consign them to history, like a statue to a long dead slaver.
Two versions here. One is the studio version and the second a mashup to give you a flavour of what they were like live. For some reason, there’s no footage of them actually playing Because You’re Mine live. Enjoy.
So, as a progressive socialist atheist republican concerned about my radical reputation, I plead guilty. There’s really no defending this song. It’s just that it sounds so delicious. My perfect Christmas present this year would be for some gifted song writer to write an entirely new set of lyrics that would enable me to enjoy this masterpiece of tightly wound aural tension with a clear conscience. Politics, Culture and Pleasure, eh? Who knew it it could be so hard?