First let’s get one thing straight: this isn’t nostalgia for 1979 or for what followed, because it was dismal for so many of us. Even so, such is the callow nature of the present day ‘national conversation’ that it’s doubtless still worth reiterating what ought to be the glaringly obvious.
So yes, for every Department S there was a Dollar; for every Specials a Spandau. But it’s hard not to miss that feeling which permeated so much of everyday life at that time that things mattered beyond the tapered vanity of self and image.
Just check out any pop video from that era for a sense of the faintly absurd or the touchingly earnest which would act as standard bearers for those shoulder-padded times – what the critic, Raymond Williams would have termed their ‘structure of feeling’. It’s there with Bananarama and it’s there with Simply Red. Moonlighting dole chancers or would-be Mancunian soulsters alike, what united them beyond the ginger shock or the amateurish dance routines was a playfulness rooted in an earlier pantomime of rebellion; the gentle subversion of the working week supplied by a generation of mod errand boys, clerks and apprentices in the original ‘weekender’ culture which nonetheless became adept at snipping a corner here, adding a tea break there.
Having fun and looking better than their bosses; and whether through threads, tastes or demeanour aspiring to something more than their parents, too, who they’d view with a touch of disdain settling into the comfy chairs to digest the hard-won gains of their labours; or what boffins would call the postwar settlement between labour and capital. These kids were staunch for sure, but not always parochial, and even then not straightforwardly so.
That restlessness with one’s surrounds is there too in the original hybrid composition of late-mod folk devil, the skinhead, in the ready amalgam of astronaut, cinematic gangster and rude boy style: Timpson’s brogues, button-downs, sta-prest and Ivy (Harrington) jackets; wingtips and Lee Marvin as much as Bronco Bullfrog and Live Injection.
It’s both economy of style, and of language. And in the case of Desmond Dekker, even of cloth. (The Jamaican singer became a cult fixture with skinheads after altering a suit he had been given to perform in by cutting the trouser leg by 6 to 7 inches and going on stage like that). Look closely and interwoven with the threads is that sharper stitch, cognisant of E.M.Forster and his assertion that suburbia breeds muddle. Or erring to one side of the Michael Bracewell equation that ‘the districts of your personality could be classified as either pastoral or urban’. This is Lee Marvin in ‘Point Blank’ striding purposefully across the Golden Gate Bridge in his suit and royals, away from the ‘summer of love’ and its effete connotations; and intoning ‘somebody’s gotta pay’ as lethal, minimalist mantra. Except this is Stepney, not San Francisco, or it’s Bethnal Green; and the wingtips have morphed into harder shapes stalking the edges of Hyde Park while Jagger quotes Shelley at the Stones’ free 1969 gig.
A presage of darker times.
Disgust for the ‘hairy’ and class antagonism, to be sure, but a harsher, more unforgiving confection for closer neighbours too. ‘Paki-bashing’ broaching its own style and patter – more recreation than dirty little secret; the inevitable payoff for these first-generation multiculturalists.
And class war a rapidly fading alibi.
So not exactly Arthur Bryant’s England as a ‘land of singing milkmaids’. But a tribe as sharp in its dislikes as in its attention to stylistic detail. The irony of course of The Kingstonian’s skinhead anthem, ‘Sufferer’, not lost on a burgeoning Bengali East End with its own imaginative inheritance in dreams of jute and survival; but muddied in other sectarian waters too; so a complicated victimage wrapped in other kinds of cloth, but with a taste for patterned shirts, tie-pins and slip-ons. Service sector, late lascar chic which must at some point have caught the eye of post-Bowie New Romantics who’d strayed too far east but with one eye still on the Weimar Republic and the other on an uncomprehending, recession-strapped public.
More cross-currents the other side of the drink too. South London’s ‘sticksman’ look as exemplified on those early Gregory Isaacs records, morphing into the Italian knitwear and Farah trousers of Peckham and Bermondsey casuals, blurring the boundaries of both soul and reggae, and bringing this acknowledgement from legendary London DJ, Norman Jay:
‘The Casual look was predominantly a reggae one. It started in JA. I mean, check out Gregory Isaacs, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photo where he is not wearing Gabicci.’
Or this from reformed football hooligan, Mick Mahoney:
‘The sportswear thing in London, that was predominantly a black scene and they were doing it before the Scousers and doing it much better. I don’t mean to sound down on Scousers because I do like them, but they do have delusions.’
Of course there’s a thousand different ways to make sense of one’s environment, but maybe the reason style (and patter) matter so much is because it’s the first thing you see and hear. It’s the detail from the grainy newsreel that stands out. And even when it’s not there, it’s in essence what the actual footage seeks to evoke. So there’s calypsonian, Lord Kitchener – one of the original Windrush arrivals -regaling Tilbury Docks with an impromptu rendition of ‘London is the Place for Me’. And there’s the late, great Laurie Cunningham as precocious youngster, in his Oxford bags, wowing them Friday lunchtimes with his footwork on the dancefloor at Crackers, and then again at the weekend as a lightning fast winger for Leyton Orient.
And this cross-pollination of style and no little substance would feed a long term, cold island appetite for social spice in unusual ways too. In the presence of punk stalwarts, John Lydon and Siouxsie Sioux, as regular fixtures at the cult soul night at ‘The Goldmine’. Or perhaps in the soulboy origins, at least in terms of its earliest clientele, of latterly famed ‘punk’ emporia, Acme Attractions and Sex. Or even in the Bernie Rhodes inspired culture shock of The Clash playing at the legendary Ilford soul club, the Lacy Lady. And in a slightly later incarnation, of jungle don, Mickey Finn, on jump-up/bhangra double headers with Malkit Singh. None of which is quite so unlikely once the shared social and cultural routes leading to Gravesend and beyond are taken into account.
We know all of this, or at least it’s lodged somewhere in our collective sublime. And yet at some point, as Ian Brown pointed out in one of his more shouty, angular moments, this entire country began to talk like Ali G. There no longer seemed to be any distinction between kids and their parents, a one-size-fits-all death of the imaginary in the triumph of the ubiquitous shell suit largely dispensing with the conventional need for creative, and stylistic, distance between the generations. Instead, great swathes of the population, parents and kids alike, suddenly appeared frozen in a homogenised rictus of entitlement. Style was now simply the regulation kit of the thief at both ends of the social spectrum, with exposed boxer shorts here – the inner city looter of today but formerly the emblem of the prison ‘fag’ – or the classic faux-gent, designer Americana of the asset-stripper there.
Musically, too, the cupboard feels bare either side of the pond, and in all honesty can ill afford the loss of a Winehouse or a Dilla.
And of course this is what I would say. It’s what any old timer would come out with.
The anachronism on his soapbox, waving a gnarled digit at no-one in particular. And returning to his lair each time a little more tired, a little more defeated.
If that’s the charge, it’s probably a fair one too. And it’s fair because the networked generation, or to give them their official designation, ‘generation Y’, has been brought into this world by…Us! Raised by us, and those attitudes – selfishness, greed, a lack of compassion, materialistic obsession – came from somewhere familiar too.
We ushered in this nonsense, wallowed in our own trivial digitalised pursuits, and then woke up one bankrupt morning wondering what had happened to this modernism. How we’d managed to louse things up this badly.
That’s right, we held the door open for Simon Cowell and X Factor, but also for the execrations of Grime and dubstep and a kind of willed uniformity in which the past simply became a vast, amorphous digital archive. No longer history, with its living, breathing entrails of doubt and dissent, but rather just a ‘resource’. Not even in the interactive sense though; just something to be poked and prodded, and occasionally mined for a sample here or a handy soundbite there. And if some of us always suspected that no good could come from such amnesia; that there was a shitstorm brewing in its midst, and that when it hit, we’d be more isolated than ever because the kids, far from being united, would side instead with the accountants, then what did we do about it?
We stood by not long ago, gurning nervously, but keeping schtum anyway while slack jawed youth rode roughshod over many of those ties that used to bind. Burning and looting in the conventional manner for sure, but showing no greater derision for us, for something beyond us even, than in their pathological avoidance of bookstores or of anything remotely resembling a book during the ‘English’ riots of 2011. And we stood by out of shame as much as fear. That this style, of lyrical atrophy and am dram rage, was also somehow our style. And its touchstones? Shortcuts, convenience, greed. Tweeted haikus of despair; of truncated ambition; of self-serving parochialism. We ushered in, to borrow Stuart Maconie’s memorable phrase, ‘a world that’s recognisable. But recognisably gone too.’
The battle lines were drawn long ago, and not even the jumbo cords now fraying along with our memories or the padding of all that Gregory-inspired knitwear can dispel the feeling of vulnerability. The dread realisation that this is Agincourt and that this time they’ve got all the archers.