The Shock Of The Familiar
In Dominic Sandbrook’s ‘The Great British Dream Factory’ (now also a TV series) the author points out that far from bursting upon the music scene and shocking the world, the Beatles were as carefully planned as any boyband, with one member fired, an orchestrated assault on public wallets and a manager who knew how to conquer their all-important American audience. If the Beatles had an ambition it was not to be part of the counter-culture but to own grand old country houses and be very rich, which was also the aim of the Rolling Stones (he runs a hilarious section in which various Stones describe their plans for redecorating mansions, more bourgeois than any copy of ‘Homes & Gardens’). The Beatles performed in matching suits and stood very still, rather like the traditional big bands who had come before them.
Malcolm Gladwell points out that they put in their apprenticeship playing repetitive sets in Hamburg, which produced their polished sound, and musicologist Howard Goodall explains that if the 20th century was exactly divided in half, the first 50 years into harmony and the second into beat, Paul McCartney’s songs were a throwback to harmony based on the hymns he heard in his Liverpool church. And so the greatest band of the 20th century actually tapped into something new but comfortable.
Taking this further you can argue that, far from frightening the horses with wild new TV, films and music, the big popular hits all came from long-standing tropes, so that programmes like Downton Abbey and films like Paddington were born from very traditional ingrained ideas with a modern sheen added to them. There are exceptions, but even they conform; Monty Python came from The Goons and a long British love affair with surrealism. You could argue that more recent hit shows like Inside No.9 are born directly from the love of Victorian ghost stories. Certainly our love for James Bond grows out of hundreds of adventurer novels by writers like Eric Ambler and H Rider Haggard. Even Ian Fleming admitted that Bulldog Drummond had an influence on him, with arch-villains reaching for SPECTRE-style world domination.
But is this so terrible, to create organically? When something entirely new appears such as punk or the Young British Artists it is driven by a tiny wealthy group, not born from a grass-roots movement. The grass roots weren’t in the King’s Road with Vivienne Westwood and BOY creating punk, and they certainly weren’t in Charlotte Street where Charles Saatchi started amassing his art. With the exception of Sid Vicious, too self-destructive to survive, punk and YBA were not about anarchy at all but about money. Also, I would argue that neither of these movements had any lasting effect of their own – their usefulness lay in influencing others. Last week I went to my friend Graham Humphreys’ launch of his artwork at Camden’s Proud Gallery, where 30 years of his film posters revealed the profound effect that punk had had on him.
However, as Hollywood controlled most films, Humphreys’ new rough-edged style did not affect their stylings and now film posters are more conservative than they have ever been. Much mainstream music is currently closer to the 1950s in sound than anything shocking and British films and TV shows have almost entirely capitulated to the US model, albeit with a bit more sex and violence. We revel in the familiar but will accept small twists to the formula. Sandbrook points out that when future generations look back at us in 2015 they will lump us in with the Victorians, because in the majority of ways we live, look, behave and dress like them; an intriguing thought.
Graham Humphreys’ limited edition book is ‘Drawing Blood’ and comes with a fine art print, price £150, and his exhibition is at the Proud Galleries, Camden Town, London.