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ROCK AROUND RACISM: Mixing Politics and Music
by Danny Schecter, News Dissector
All the power is in the hands
of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the streets
too chicken to even try it
And everyone does what they are told to
And everyone eats supermarket soul food
White Riot, I wanna Riot
White Riot -- a riot of my own
- "White Riot"
These are the lyrics of a song that Americans didn't hear last June, when our TV was going goo goo and gah gah about the Queen's Jubilee live, via satellite, from London. They are words from a tune by "The Clash", a group now big on the English charts, whose musical insurgency is part of the ferment beneath the Royal calm in England. They are one cultural force which is determined to bury the myth that politics and music don't mix.
To the untrained ear, The Clash is just another punk rock band -- a musical phenomena that I have ruminated about in these pages before. But actually, according to a direct report I've just received from the British Isles, England's punk rock has very little in common with New York "New Wave". It is much more passionate, political, and oriented towards the working class. Significantly, some of its outlaw white musicians are linking up with their rebel reggae counterparts active in London's sprawling West Indian Ghettos Together, they constitute a refreshingly militant interracial movement which has participated in a well-attended "Rock Against Racism" dance and concert earlier this year. Unfortunately this event was not reported by any American music newspapers which seem content to depoliticize the music scene as much as possible.
With your indulgence, I would like to quote from a short piece written by Dr. David Widgery, a respected English cultural commentator. He reports that "the swinging London of yesteryear is now in seedy tatters" as social tensions rise while the economy declines. Writing from his base in Islington's exotic chapel market, he explains:
"For just as the British bands of the mid-60s related to the dynamism of black music in Memphis and Detroit, now British kids look to Jamaica and the dreamy uprising and insurrectionary yearning of black roots music, especially of dub, the black electronic music which whispers and shrieks and carries messages around the basement four-wall sound systems of Brixton, Dalston, Tottenham, Moss Side and Liverpool 8. [These are all English ghetto areas inhabited by West Indians and Asians. - D.S.]
"The punk bands and the network of proudly amateur, printed on xerox paper, fanzines are a rebuke to the excesses of tax exile stars who sold rock and roll's soul for a mess of art noveau lampshades and country castles. There's been no real working class Heroes since the late 60s and most of them have made their peace (excepting John Lennon who everyone is longing to come back and get stuck in). It has proved rather difficult for Rod Stewart to keep up his sense of proletarian insolence when he is so blatantly into vintage cars and film star girlfriends. When Elton John serenaded an exclusive Jubilee Doo, the dinner-jacketed guests had to elbow their way through protesters (including J. Rotten of the Sex Pistols) shouting 'stuff the Jubilee' and 'Fight for the Right to Work'.
"It's a reaction to chronic youth unemployment, the vanishing stars, the boredom of official politics, superstars and super-profits. It's the music of kids with no future, who are bored silly with being told about the hippy dream and seeing Mick Jagger from the back of an aircraft hanger, about as remote and friendly as the Crown Jewels. It's music for people going down the third time while the rock elite discuss the seating arrangements on Cloud Nine. And it's connected up with another important move within music: Rock Against Racism (RAR), whose Mayday concert was an exciting night to The Clash and packed out London's Roundhouse, hub of counter-cultural stirrings in the sixties.
"RAR is a free-form musical guerilla outfit formed last summer to respond to Eric Clapton's drunken tirade against Asian migrants and David Bowie's well-publicized enthusiasm for the thought of Adolf Hitler. 1976 had seen three open racial murders of Asians in Britain and mounting class for 'repatriation', which means forced deportation, which would mean the open rounding up of 'alien' Blacks -- no matter most are British-born -- became an official "problem", to be measured by statisticians, harried by the police and attacked by fascists on the streets at night. RAR was formed to take a stand against the creeping ideas of racism in popular culture and called on music fans to pay back some of their dues to black music by taking a stand against the racialism which had moved 'from a few lunatics polishing their boots to a nation-wide pastime.'"
RAR has caught on like wildfire and local supporters have organized a string of benefit concerts all over Britain with musicians playing [for] expenses only under the Rock Against Racism banner, "Love Music, Hate Racism". Posters, badges and stickers have been pumped out and at a national conference musicians (who got up in time), fans, black and white politicos talked about recapturing the music from the super-star, super-profit mentality and putting it back on street level, where it belongs.
ELTON IS BORED, DISGUSTED WITH HIMSELF
It is significant that at least one English superstar is beginning to have doubts about the self-indulgence so characteristic of the whole Rock scene. Elton is quoted by Rolling Stone as saying that he has taken a year off from touring because, "I was fed up with what I stood for. I'd reached the crossroads, and couldn't go on doing the same thing." According to John, the whole Rock scene is beginning to turn him off. "Most rock albums sound so boring to me now. All the big dreadful acts seem to have got into a dreadful rut."
On this side of the Atlantic, powerful operators in the music scene seem to function in a way that encourages the big groups to stay in that rut. Bill Graham, the rock impresario of impresarios told a recent panel discussion on the future of Rock that he is encouraged by the way that rock musicians have opted for the socially accepted and properly apolitical status of professional entertainers. He sees it as a sigh of "maturity" for rockers to strip away all of unnecessary 60s-style counter-cultural accoutrements and political symbolism.
After all, business is business, and according to a Time magazine profile of the "hot new rich", business is very good. the Wall Street Journal, in an editorial aside, asserts that "clearly the best road to riches is to be an entertainer . . . It seems the rich will be always with us, whether of not they fit the stereotype of greedy exploitative tycoons. Today, the stereo has apparently displaced the stereotype -- it is hip to be rich as long as the process is not to closely scrutinized."
THE TAMING OF ROCK
Co-optation and capitalism seem to go hand in hand, as Mark Crispin Miller pointed out in an essay on a myriad of new rock books in the New York Review of Books: "The romance of persecution has ended," he writes. "Rock sounds feeble without the proud illusion of defiance. It may have been 'co-opted' all along, handled by shrewd promoters from the beginning, but it was exciting as long as no one knew this depressing fact. The music sang out for community, however loosely defined, and Dad's business partners made sure that the music would get what it wanted." Miller calls this an "inevitable taming process".
This process will go on despite the fact that it grinds and chews up the very individuals who seem to be its greatest successes. Curiously, the stars themselves, like the afore-quoted Elton John became either totally cynical and slick or they join the prominent list or victims, both dead and living. A number of recent rock biographies and even autobiographies penetrate the cocaine curtain rather well and offer further elaboration. As Miller puts it, "The phrase 'rock star' connotes immobility and heaviness, and the status it describes is, literally, a drag. No artist is more encumbered. And in the midst of all the sound equipment, costumes, cars, and hangers-on, the rock star himself is a product in demand, grabbed in every way, by everyone." Working musicians may love their jobs, but they are, in the final analysis, workers too. that makes them subject to all the pressures and alienation that goes along with that status in society."
For a satirical view of the Rock scene and America's most important Rock publication, may I call you attention to "Rolling Bolder", a parody of Rolling Stone produced by a crew assembled by David Bieber for the weekly Boston Phoenix newspaper. It's a full 72 page slick and amusing takeoff which purports to tell us about Elton John's transsexual operation and the time The Beatles staged their long-awaited reunion concert but hardly anyone showed. Your News Dissector joins two other members of the Richard Nixon Character Assassination Bureau to produce an X-rated "Rolling Bolder" interview with the deposed president. Copies are 75 cents from The Phoenix, 100 Mass Avenue, Boston, Mass. 02115.
NO SOAP, RADIO
The ratings scandal in Radio continues with the credibility-shaken Arbitron Agency advising all of its subscribers that it will finally take action against stations engaging in "diary distortion". This is the practice of holding contests just before ratings periods begin to try to confuse listeners who are keeping the "diaries" that the Agency uses to compile its questionable statistics. Stations that engage in this practice will now be dropped by the ratings bureau. According to Record World, this policy will not be applied to stations that engage in "hypoing", the practice of running special contests or promotions during rating periods. Hypoing is apparently prohibited by Federal Communication Commission / Federal Trade Commission rules but it remains a widespread practice.
In mid-August, a three-man team of FCC investigators began launching its own set of hearings in Los Angeles into abuses and illegalities in the broadcasting industry. Although the hearings were not public, informed sources told trade publications that record company executives as well as radio execs were being questioned. There were rumors that two witnesses were granted immunity and the hope that they will spill the proverbial beans about payola and other illegal practices. Meanwhile, it seems as if the industry's biggest honchos may be on the verge of calling in some political debts. Phil Walden, president of Capricorn Records, an early and important supporter of Jimmy Carter's presidential candidacy, and Joe Smith, chairman of Elektra/Asylum, are spearheading a get-together of 20 label execs with the Chief Exec., set for September 15th. "Our goal," Smith told Billboard, "is a dialog between the Administration and our industry. What can we do for the country? That's what we're going to ask."
"It's exciting to be recognized as an industry and not just something which is related to long-haired musicians and drugs. This Administration is open and accepts us as a cultural medium," he explained. In other words, he is saying that it is about time that a billion-dollar industry be recognized for what it is, and is pleased that its industrialists now enjoy the same access to government accorded their counterparts. We wonder whether it is appropriate for such a meeting to take place while another branch of the government is investigating the very same industry.
AMERICA IS BULLISH ON RECORDS
Every major record company reported increased sales last year. According to Recording Industry [Association] of America, retail sales of discs and tapes reached a staggering $ 2.74 billion in 1976. In other words, it was a boom year. Yet, curiously, it was also a year when record prices went up. It seems clear that push for profits has once again squeezed the consumer. Although the industry is riding high, financial analysts fear the bubble could burst. Experts at Price Waterhouse, for example, have concluded that because "the industry is supported by discretionary income, it is vulnerable to economic slowdowns." Others are critical of some internal tendencies as well. Some observers note that the corporations are relying more and more on a handful of superstars whose blockbuster album sales actually distort the financial strength of the industry itself. Thus, a label with a Peter Frampton, to suggest an imaginary example, may seem economically invulnerable one year when he's on top, but should his popularity diminish, the whole company could be in trouble. Still other critics complain that the record companies inflate their costs by pissing away money on extravagant business expenses, which eventually get passed on to record buyers. A blatant example is the expensive billboards which hype artists on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. According to the New York Times, insiders concede that they don't influence record sales, but instead are intended to boost the egos of the record moguls. The Christian Science Monitor noted "The Falangist (neo-fascist) theme song, 'Face to the Sun' plays eerily alongside the Socialist hymn, 'The Internationale'." . . . Last March in Paris, subway riders were pleased to be entertained by a four-day underground music festival. Officials of the METRO spent $ 20,000 to hire professional and amateur musicians to entertain. One report said the festival was tantamount to official recognition of street musicians who have moved beneath the streets of the French capital to play.
BACK IN THE USSR
Last issue, we reported that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would be the first U.S. act to tour the Soviet Union. Well, they've done it now -- and the response was fantastic. Corespondents who accompanied the tour say the Russian fans loved the music and carried on at their virtually sold-out concerts very much like their American counterparts. Interestingly enough, tickets to the five-stop tour were only $ 2 apiece. A woman singer, Jan Garret was included on the tour at Moscow's insistence, She was given a warm reception as well, although she referred to herself only as the "token chick singer". In all 80,000 people packed the concerts and it is likely that other U.S. groups will also get the opportunity to play the USSR. the Soviet authorities are slowly making more Western music available on disc as well.
One of the first Western pop stars to play Moscow and other Soviet cities was Cliff Richard, the "born-again" English singer who is often compared to Elvis Presley. Richard, who has just released a tasty new album for Rocket Record (distributed by MCA), was in Boston recently and told me that he was amazed at how much young Russians know about the rock scene. "Many have pirated tapes of all sorts of U.S. and English music. There is a big audience there," he said.
AROUND THE WORLD
Elsewhere around the world, the Chinese have not opened their doors too widely to rock music although some liberalization of cultural policy has followed the campaign against "the Gang of Four". Beethoven, whose music had been banned as revisionist, is now back in official favor. (Ditto for the works of Shakespeare.) . . . In Portugal, Stew Albert recently reported in Crawdaddy that a prominent political folk-rock group is called "The Beatniks". . . . In Spain, some of the political parties during the recent elections were known by the songs they played. TURN IT UP
The federal government is concerned about the damage that loud rock concerts might be doing to our ears. the National Science Foundation is allocating ten thousand dollars to a graduate student at the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute to study the effects of rock music on both concertgoers and radio listeners. the study is called: "Amplified Sound Systems as a Source of Acoustic Trauma".
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From the Editor . . .
Danny Schecter is the first Rock Around the World contributor to be named as Nieman Fellow at Harvard University for the 1977-78 school year. Only 11 American journalists received the prestigious fellowship.