British Rockers Trot Out the Flag

LONDON — In rock-and-roll just as in politics, the United States and England have a special relationship. Together, they have dominated global pop. Over the decades, rock’s centre of gravity has shifted back and forth between each nation. In the ’60s it passed from swinging London to San Francisco, in the ’70s from Southern California’s soft rock to British punk. The rest of the planet has never had much of a look-in.

Musical innovations generally originate in America, and in particular from black music (rhythm-and-blues and soul in the ’50s and ’60s, funk and disco in the ’70s, rap and house in the ’80s). But usually it’s British bands that respond quickest to black American innovations, adding a vital element of art-school conceptualism, style and attitude, then promptly selling this repackaged black American music to white America. This is what happened with ’60s white blues or ’80s New Pop (funk given a video-friendly gloss).

But just as the special relationship in politics often engenders anxiety among the British, similarly the trans-Atlantic traffic in pop is fraught with rivalry and resentment. Right now, the British pop scene is convulsed by one of its periodic fits of anti-Americanism. All year long, there have been murmurings of discontent, which has swelled into a “Yanks go home!” uproar, in reaction to the deluge of music from Seattle grunge bands.

From the late ’80s until quite recently, British indie bands had looked to American hardcore and alternative rock, envying and admiring the likes of Sonic Youth and Big Black. American underground bands seem to have an un-self-conscious and intuitive approach that was felt to be preferable to England’s traditionally overtheorized and premeditated take on rock-and-roll. The best British bands of the late ’80s, like My Bloody Valentine, took the slacker spirit and neo-psychedelic sound of Dinosaur Jr. and Husker Du, giving them an androgynous spin.

The explosive success of Nirvana changed everything. What was once cool and a trifle exotic became commonplace, oppressive. Even more resented are the home-grown plague of slacker-wannabes who’ve struggled to emulate the invaders, growing their hair shaggy, mumbling their lyrics, grunging up their guitars. As 1992 turned into 1993, a wave of bands emerged that reject the notion of an “English curse” (of pretentiousness and preciousness) and instead embrace the idea of being literate, self-conscious, stylized and ironic. The most successful and most volubly anti-American of the new patriots is Suede. The band is currently trying to conquer America with its first full-scale tour, which reaches New York on Sept. 18.

Suede’s roots are the British art-rock and the glam of the ’70s (David Bowie, T. Rex, Kate Bush) and the English nostalgia of the Smiths. Its front man, Brett Anderson, sings in an exaggerated London accent, a defiant gesture against a pseudo-American slacker drawl that so many British bands still mimic. His fey, flamboyant image and gender-bending lyrics are a resurrection of the English tradition of sexual ambiguity, a concerted reaction against grunge’s machismo.

Other bands flying the flag for the imperilled legacy of English pop include Denim, Pulp, the Auteurs and Saint Etienne. The Auteurs herald a return to wordy songcraft. The group’s singer Luke Haines worships what he calls the “wryness and dryness” of quintessentially English songwriters like Ray Davies of the Kinks. The band’s debut album, New Wave, released in America last spring by Caroline, even contained an anti-grunge anthem called ‘American Guitars’. Saint Etienne is a stylish dance pop trio whose delightful, irony-drenched songs with titles like ‘London Belongs to Me’ and ‘Avenue’ often seem like reinvocations of ’60s London.

The anti-American mood was prefigured by that most England-obsessed singer, Morrissey, formerly of the Smiths. On his 1992 glam-rock-tinged LP, Your Arsenal, the song ‘We’ll Let You Know’ mourned the fact that “we look to Los Angeles for the language we use . . . London is dead”. He also incited controversy when he draped himself in the Union Jack during a performance.

If there’s a sociological backdrop to this mini-movement of bands that are proud to be British, it’s that England is in the throes of political, social and cultural crisis. Economic recession, rising crime and the deterioration of public service have all fuelled unease about where Britain is heading as a nation, and what it means to be British. On the one hand, Britons are nervous about merging with their neighbours on the Continent in a greater European Community; on the other, they feel inundated with American culture, from grunge to Hollywood blockbusters to television shows like American Gladiators.

THE DEFIANT Englishness of this new crop of indie bands is a sort of perversely parochial response to global pop culture – everything from Nintendo to sample-based music like techno (a truly international and rootless music). Since the future would seem to promise the loss of national cultural identity, these bands turn their backs to the future and rifle the back pages of England’s pop glory.

This trans-Atlantic antagonism often cuts the other way, too: there’s a long tradition of American scepticism toward the latest British trends. For some, Britain produces an endless stream of overhyped “haircut bands” that are seen as videogenic and weighted with conceptual baggage without musical substance. Suede, for instance, has received a mixed reaction in America. While the college rock audience, which has always been Anglophile, has responded favourably, indie hipsters remain sceptical.

American critics have often suggested that the British lack a natural, “organic” relationship with rock-and-roll. There’s an Anglophobic tradition that stretches from the critic Dave Marsh, who in the early ’80s celebrated Bruce Springsteen’s all-American populism while decrying the British New Pop invaders like Culture Club and Human League, to Joe Carducci’s recent, influential polemic, Rock and Pop Narcotic. In his Anglophobic theory of rock, Mr. Carducci argues that British bands quickly lost touch with the blues roots of rock-and-roll, and after Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, they made little contribution to the evolution of the form.

In recent years, only a handful of Britons have been given the critical red carpet in America. One is Teenage Fanclub, an Americanophile Scottish quartet that is influenced by the likes of Neil Young and Big Star. Another is My Bloody Valentine, which also initially took its bearings from American underground bands like Sonic Youth before radically transforming its sources.

The trans-Atlantic traffic in musical ideas often works by a process of innovation through misrecognition. This syndrome of unsuccessful imitation leads to all manner of ironic developments, like the way the northern English band the Fall has suddenly and inexplicably emerged as a major influence on a breed of lo-fi indie bands in America like Pavement. In a similar fashion, the Sex Pistols have been adopted by American metal bands, with everyone from Guns N’ Roses to Megadeth to Motley Crue remaking their songs.

Misappropriation and miscegenation is the way that pop evolves. In view of this, the attempts of bands like Suede and the Auteurs to safeguard the purity of English pop seem short-sighted and futile. Insularity and inbreeding may ultimately condemn British pop to extinction.

© Simon ReynoldsThe New York Times, 5 September 1993

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