“People getting angry”: crisis music and the Tottenham riots

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Yesterday morning I was reading reports of the previous night’s rioting in Tottenham when the radio played Gimme Shelter. The combination was unexpectedly visceral. The Rolling Stones’ slow-burning jeremiad played out over images of riot policemen and buildings on fire. Possibly this portrays a chronic inability on my part not to relate dramatic events to music. It’s a habit intensified by working on a book in which songs and historical events become inextricably tangled. But it brought to mind a phrase used by Rock Against Racism co-founder David Widgery: “Crisis music.”

Widgery meant music which responded to the specific danger of the National Front in the late 70s but to me the phrase has a broader application. Crisis music is a subset of protest music which is not always perceived as protest music because it captures a mood of anxiety and imminent collapse and offers no solutions. It tends to be sonically of the moment (“NOW music,” Widgery added) and to embody the crisis in the music itself rather than the lyrics. As the critic Jon Landau wrote of the Stones: “Beggars Banquet is not a polemic or manifesto. It doesn’t advocate anything… They make it perfectly clear that they are sickened by contemporary society. But it is not their role to tell people what to do. Instead, they use their musical abilities like a seismograph to record the intensity of feelings, the violence, that is so prevalent now.” Certain genres are aflame with crisis music: late-60s rock, mid-70s reggae, punk, turn-of-the-90s hip hop. The classic example most often cited over the past 48 hours is Ghost Town.

Like all cultural myths, the myth of Ghost Town can be annoying and overstated. The charts, as a rule, are not stuffed with records documenting social anxiety. My Guardian colleague Alexis Petridis is fond of pointing out that the single competing for the number one spot when riots exploded across Britain in the first week of July 1981 was Bad Manners’ version of the Can Can, which would certainly make for a more antic soundtrack to archive footage of Brixton and Toxteth. Apart from UB40’s Don’t Let It Pass You By and The Jam’s Funeral Pyre, no other songs in the Top 40 at the time spoke to what was going on in Britain’s inner cities, unless I missed some coded messages in Body Talk.

But still, that was the number one single and a remarkable one at that. Forget the lyrics for a moment: the mood is the message. As I wrote in the book, “It is the negative image of a song like Babylon’s Burning [by the Ruts]: hollowed out rather than crammed with incident, smouldering instead of blazing. Like all great records about social collapse, it seems to both fear and relish calamity.” Whatever your feelings about Cher Lloyd’s Swagger Jagger, the current number one, it doesn’t quite have the same effect.

Ghost Town is a prophecy that sounds like an aftermath. The ghost town it describes, gutted by recession, is the terrain before a riot (“people getting angry”) but you get the sense that it will be as bad or worse after the anger has erupted. Hence the song’s circularity: it begins as it ends, with a spectral wail that could be either a cold wind or distant sirens. When the riots did break out, the Specials found the experience frightening rather than vindicating. Let’s not forget that the violence had pernicious unintended consequences: Thatcher ignored many of the recommendations in Lord Scarman’s report and instead invested in an arsenal of state-of-the-art police riot gear that came in very handy during the miners’ strike three years later.

This was the feeling I had looking at pictures of the smouldering husks on Tottenham High Road on Sunday morning. A riot is a weapon of last resort; a cry for help; a public form of self-harming. The spark in Tottenham was political: the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police, the incompetence of the police in explaining to the community what had happened, and – reports currently suggest — at least one instance of heavy-handed policing during a demonstration on Saturday. The fuel was the pervasive frustration and anxiety of a suffering neighbourhood: record levels of youth unemployment, social services (especially youth services) slashed to the bone, the Education Maintenance Allowance scrapped, a damaged relationship between the police and the community, and collapsing faith in the political class. But a lot of the behaviour, especially the looting, had no political impetus and the immediate outcome makes the lives of deprived residents even worse than they were last week. There are no winners.

On my Twitter feed over the weekend the comments which chimed with me were the ones professing sadness, confusion and a willingness to wait for more information before jumping to conclusions, the latter being particularly welcome. Some commentators leapt to equal and opposite forms of idiocy. Conservative pundits spoke mechanically of “mindless” violence (it’s never mindless, it just means you don’t care to consider the mind behind it) while some on the left bent over backwards to justify looting as an anti-consumerist act, failing to discriminate between anti-police violence and nicking trainers from Foot Locker, understandable outrage and plain old criminality, and thus doing right-wing pundits’ job for them. (Because I align myself with the left, I’m always more disappointed by lazy thinking from that end on the spectrum. I can’t say the Daily Mail has ever disappointed me.)

When people rush to either condemn or condone a riot rather than taking time to understand it they are merely assuming their usual positions, like the commentators after 9/11 who, wrote Greil Marcus, “stepped forward to deny that anything had been done that required any rethinking of anything at all. None had changed his or her mind in the slightest about anything. Nearly every argument was intended to congratulate the speaker for having seen all the way around the event even before it happened.” A riot is neither a solution nor an unforeseen calamity but a problem brought to the surface: a manifestation of community angst and official failure. As the global economy shudders, that kind of angst is not a localised phenomenon and this will not be the only explosion. In its circular misery, and the memories of past violence that it now contains, Ghost Town’s crisis music is horribly relevant to Britain in 2011.

UPDATE: The spread of the riots on Monday makes my focus on Tottenham here seem quaint already. My thoughts on the wider violence are expressed for me, with elegant balance and concision, by Kenan Malik. And this is a good piece by Joe Muggs about the warning signs in grime and hip hop.

Note 1: Two of the best responses to the riots are by Claudia Webbe and Dave Hill in the Guardian.

Note 2: In the narrative of worsening police-community relations, the death of 80s reggae star Smiley Culture during a raid in March has become something of a cause celebre.

The rage of Common People

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So, Pulp are back and with them comes Common People: arguably the defining British single of the 90s (“a song that was in the right place at the right time,” reflected Jarvis Cocker), and probably the most oversimplified. One critic recently described it, in passing, as “a freak call-to-arms”, but that’s true of Mis-Shapes, not Common People. It sounds like an anthem to be sure, with its krautrock/Roxy rush and mounting intensity, but anthems are meant to unite, and Common People, on every level, is about division. It is desperate, vengeful, bitter, and brutal. The vast majority of Pulp fans planning to sing along to it at Hyde Park next year are excluded from a song which speaks for such a specific stratum of the class system that, if it is a call-to-arms, then the only person it’s calling to arms is Jarvis himself, and even he’s not entirely sure.

It starts as an old-fashioned Kinksian character study of the kind that Damon Albarn was producing at the time (Albarn, of course, being the songwriter most often accused of class tourism), but one that’s clearly about specific individuals rather than archetypes. Why “She came from Greece”? If Jarvis simply wanted to skewer what he called a mood of “patronising social voyeurism” he would have constructed a type: posh, English and instantly recognisable. Instead, he based it on fellow St Martin’s College student (who didn’t actually study sculpture) who aspired to live in down-at-heel Hackney “like the common people”. She’s a slumming hipster, belonging to a line which runs from Norman Mailer’s “white negro” to trucker-cap-wearers in Williamsburg. She’s a little gauche and condescending but Jarvis’s initial response is amusement: the rinky-dink keyboard line, the rakish wink in his voice. “I said I’ll… I’ll see what I can do.”

Who’s getting hurt in these first two verses? He’s happy to exploit her taste for a bit of rough (a milder version of I Spy’s sex-as-class-war theme, which directly follows Common People on Different Class; in reality, Jarvis hardly knew the girl) and he’s the one who tricks her into looking foolish in the supermarket (“I said pretend you’ve got no money”). In this scenario, Jarvis has the power and if the song continued in this vein it would be just a wittier, less misogynistic version of “silly little rich girl” Stones songs like Stupid Girl and Out of Time. But then she smiles and holds his hand and the whole song shockingly, brilliantly snaps in half.

Suddenly we’ve left the supermarket and the Greek girl behind, along with any sense of social comedy. It’s as if a trap door has opened up under Jarvis and his sudden sense of big-picture powerlessness wipes the smirk from his face. The rage that consumes the rest of the song is way out of proportion to anything the girl said: she’s the trigger, not the cause. His voice becomes ever more ragged and desperate, and his anger shreds his coherence. His hysteria reminds me of Ian Curtis in Transmission, his contempt of Jello Biafra in Holiday in Cambodia and his careening violence of John Lydon (Common People’s producer, Chris Thomas, also produced the Sex Pistols album).

So where does this rage come from? In a word: failure. Jarvis, in this song, has no safety net, no plan B. He’s done OK for now, getting to St Martin’s, but if he flunks it then he’s back where he started. She can call her dad to rescue her if it all goes pear-shaped, but he can’t (and couldn’t even if his dad hadn’t walked out when he was seven). Jarvis was already 25 when he enrolled at St Martin’s in 1988, by which time Pulp had been unsuccessful for so long that they were on hiatus. The band’s career didn’t begin to turn around until 1990’s My Legendary Girlfriend single. So within the song he’s between worlds, riddled with anxiety. “I didn’t believe in the concept of class at all when I was in Sheffield,” he told Q in 1996. “Then when I moved to London, I couldn’t deny it existed. That’s where the class obsession on this album started.” (In 80s Sheffield, Jarvis studiously avoided politics; guitarist/Russell Senior was the one who wanted Pulp to be “more political” and less “frivolous”. Jarvis told BBC3: “It was a shock to me to find myself writing a song like this.”)

This helps to explain the song’s problematic view of working-class culture. Unlike the Manic Street Preachers in A Design for Life, the other great class-based single of the Britpop era, Jarvis doesn’t contradict the Greek girl’s reductive view — he actually makes it even more reductive. She meets him at St Martin’s, not at the dog track, so obviously she doesn’t think all he can do is “dance and drink and screw”. And we know from songs like Mis-Shapes that he’s done his damnedest to escape mainstream working-class culture: “You could end up with a smash in the mouth just for standing out.” And yet, goaded by the Greek girl, he finds himself lionising (“they burn so bright”) a culture he never really liked. Stuck between worlds, he enjoys neither working-class community nor middle-class financial security, so when she says “I want to sleep with common people like you”, she both wounds him (I’m not like them at all) and worries him (what if, despite every effort, I am?).

Insecurity breeds viciousness. The pathos of “watch[ing] your life slide out of view” and having “nothing else to do” gives way to blistering fury at those who “think that poor is cool” and that, in turn, to violence. In a verse cut from the single edit, Jarvis compares the “common people” to a dog lying in the corner who, without warning, will “tear your insides out”, a line so savage that it seems impossible that just two minutes ago we were still smirking in the supermarket. In the BBC3 documentary, Jarvis calls another section missing from the single edit (“You will never understand…”) the “punchline” to the whole song, and winces at the intensity of his own vocal. Did he intend the song to contain so much discomfiting ambiguity, or did it get away from him, as great songs often do?

Common People offers a voice that was prevalent in punk (John Lydon) and post-punk (Mark E. Smith), survived into the 90s (Nicky Wire), and is now almost inaudible in an age when pop seems as dominated by a single class as television or publishing: that of the spiky working-class intellectual. And because of its musical power, and its cute video, and its moment in time, and Jarvis’s peculiar charm, it managed to fool people into taking its rage and pain for something simple and stirring. Common People is like that dog lying in the corner. You think it’s cuddly but it will tear your insides out.

Note: Wikipedia identifies the Greek girl as Greek Cypriot St Martin’s student Ambrosia Sakkadas but supplies no evidence to support this. Jarvis himself says he can’t remember the girl’s name.

Note 2: Some of the ideas in this blog were prompted by a fascinating discussion on the I Love Music messageboard, which made me think afresh about a song I thought I knew inside out. One contributor suggested that Jarvis’s choice of drink was a reference to Rum and Coca Cola, a 1940s Trinidadian calypso about cultural imperialism, which adds an interesting wrinkle. Or maybe Jarvis just really likes rum and coke. I wholeheartedly recommend the BBC3 documentary linked above.

A fake revolt

A new comment piece for the Guardian on Keith Richards and why the Stones were always reactionaries at heart. Ironically, it was Keith’s guitar playing more than Mick’s lyrics that made them sound revolutionary. As Tariq Ali said: “The rhythm of the Stones’ music captured the spirit of ’68 much more than did that of the Beatles.”