In the UK we always like to run ourselves down. maybe it’s got something to do with the weather. But for some people there is an endless fascination with our music culture. The editor of America’s Alternative Press magazine, Jason Pettigrew, grew up in Cleveland and is an anglophile which he explains here…
A LOVE LETTER TO COOL BRITANNIA
Dear Great Britain,
I have a dear friend who is so immersed in British culture, it borders on scary. I’m sure if he reads that line, he might say, “As long as it’s a Hammer horror, we’re okay.”Â The small alcove you walk through before you enter the bathroom in his home is covered with a selection of framed photos of classic Mini Coopers and ephemera representing Mod culture. The music room is filled with compact discs, vinyl and the occasional autographed promotional poster of artists headquartered in the United Kingdom. In fact, the only non-American bands in my friend’s collection are of acts beloved by British nationals (cf. the Hives, the Flaming Lips, the White Stripes). He owns two Minis (one a classic from the Sixties, the other from this decade) and recently began acquiring tattoos of British iconography.
But the piece de resistance so to speak, is his basement bar. The Underground features a selection of imported pint glasses; a pub regulation dartboard; framed tube-station-size posters of Blur and Pulp; a circular, two-foot Mod/RAF target carpet; the Sex Pistols poster that came with the original pressing of Never Mind The Bollocks; another poster issued by British Rail apologizing for a rail-workers strike; a number of saucy phone box cards lining the steel girders; a wall rack of crisp packets (really, ketchup-flavored?); and naturally, a selection of serious British ales.
Such devotion to a particular culture seems equal parts quaint (it comes from a place of love), eccentric (most basement man-caves in America are rarely so thematic) and annoying (like a 35-year-old who’s never visited Great Britain but can quote lines from any Monty Python episode at the drop of a bowler. Let the record show my mate escapes that particular designation). I remember telling this story to Lightspeed Champion’s Dev Hynes, who, as a member of Test Icicles, thought it was the saddest thing he’d ever heard. I don’t remember his specific comment; I think it might’ve had something to do with trying to find an identity within a culture that he found trite and tired. Which made perfect sense because the band he was in at the time was far more exciting than the majority of participants in the legendary Britpop wars of the Nineties.
But when I take stock of my personal mythology through any kind of art, the most resonant things have always carried a U.K. passport. While my older brother and sister saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, my path in life was destined to be significantly weirder. Imagine being six years old and being transfixed to the television set watching The Avengers and having the most bladder-distressed nightmares after seeing Arthur Brown on Tom Jones’ American variety show singing (lip-synching?) “Fire.”Â As I got older, it seemed that Great Britain was this mythical place where things were just cooler than anything that was happening in my white-trash hamlet of Western Pennsylvania. My sister would have posters and signs from Yardley of London and Granny Takes A Trip hanging in her bedroom. I’d look at them and they felt like destination murals you would see at a travel agent’s office.
In the pathology of my lifelong obsession with music, I always looked toward Britain for stuff the piqued my curiosity. Why would I ever worry about crap American music, having my first cigarette or kissing girls when it was imperative that I stay up at 1 am to see the Sensational Alex Harvey Band on some syndicated late-night rock show? By the time the late-70s had arrived and I heard the first Damned album (having considered the Ramones to be merely okay and the Sex Pistols as comedic), I vowed I would never pay attention to commercial radio, rock shows that would let me down (although seeing Suicide on The Midnight Special was pretty sublime) or the spoon-fed tastes of my friends.
Fast-forward through the decades (and my record collection) and I’m reminded of the legacy of British-based ro”Â¦ er music. Surely, the masters of glam, punk, prog and indie scenes have been well documented over the years. But there are plenty of unsung heroes as well. During the late-90s-early Naughties period, there wasn’t that much primo rock happening anywhere, but Britain was completely on the forefront of high-powered electronic music. Yeah, the world knows who the Prodigy are, but if you knew the score back then, you were well-aware the real sonic power came via Techno Animal, Aphex Twin, Chemical Brothers, Twisted Science and Squarepusher. My record collection is filled with such amazing jazz fulcrums as Derek Bailey, Keith Tippett, Gary Windo, Terry Day and John Law. There is so much to be gleaned from the British sonic legacy, Parliament could ban the creation of new music tomorrow and you’d be okay: You could bask in the wealth of works you may have missed by virtue of other obsessions, real life pursuits (i.e., education, employment, finding someone to have sex with) or by simply being born too late.
That very idea is what inspired me to sit in front of the computer right now. Sometimes you folks need to be reminded of that very wealth. About 15 years or so, I was interviewing Jamie Hince, the guitarist from the angular-rocking trio Scarfo. I asked if his team were taking cues from the scrabbling indie scene centered on the legendary British label Ron Johnson. The future Kills founder’s response to me was to laugh and say, “Yer speakin’ in riddles, mate.”Â Another thing I was taken aback with back then was the number of girl-powered outfits who seemingly had no idea who Tallulah Gosh were. Who do you think put the “we”Â in “twee,”Â anyway? Fast-forwarding to the past few years, I have read the idiocy of halfwit Englishmen exalting Coldplay and looking down their wedge-angled noses at all the vibrant indie music happening today. Most recently, I read a review of My Chemical Romance’s new album where the reviewer likened the band’s self-referential tendencies as stolen from American underground maniac Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion. The lift in question MCR were pulling off was copped lock, stock and CD-Exchange-voucher from the Sweet’s stone cold classic, “Ballroom Blitz.”Â These kinds of things sadden me, because while musicians frequently go back to carry forward, today’s cultural critics have an obligation to make those very same gestures.
The point of this whole screed? Plain and simple, Great Britain has always been cooler than the rest of the world”âand it always will be. The Americanized versions of your movies are pitiful. American students are too exasperatingly self-absorbed to run riot in the streets for a noble cause (over here, it’s easier to flame someone in an internet chat room). Americans know what it’s like to be betrayed by politicians, but your populace has the great sense to get rid of them faster than we get rid of ours. I can tell you all of my friends proudly stand alongside Louder Than War readers in your contempt for Simon Cowell’s assorted manifestations of televised mediocrity. But you should take great pride knowing that whatever musical genres you personally hold dear, agents of your country set the bar for excellence and plain old fucking excitement, past, present and future.
The photo that accompanies this blog is me hiding behind a candy dish I bought the first time I ever visited London. It’s the only ugly-American-abroad tourist tchotchke I keep in my record room. It is a reminder that when I’m looking for noise that will curl my toes, stir my soul and fire my synapses, most of the time it’s going to be Union, Jack.
If you’re ever in town, look me up. If you’re feeling homesick, I’ve got this friend who’s got this basement bar”Â¦
Jason Pettigrew is the editor in chief at ALTERNATIVE PRESS magazine, located in Cleveland, Ohio. He once bought so much music in London, he paid a cab driver to take him round the block to an airport shuttle stop because he couldn’t carry it all himself.