Led Zeppelin, typify New Labour’s cultural legacy.



After all the carefully choreographed hype around Led Zeppelin’s recent gig at London’s 02 Arena, I got to thinking about the low level of popular culture under the Blair regime. Whilst far from scientific, a useful benchmarks I have found over the years when judging whether a government is progressive or radical, is to take a look at the cultural output during its period in office. For example the first years of revolutionary Russia saw some of the finest poetry, poster design, music and writing of the 20th Century. However once the Bolsheviks locked down Soviet Russia and Stalinist rule took hold, the arts despite being heavily subsidized, as far as innovative work was concerned withered and died.

Two of the Soviet Union’s and the worlds finest writers Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Boris Pasternak were two amongst many who had their work banned in their homeland, which would be an anathema for any artist. The great composer Dmitri Shostakovich was forced by bureaucratic and political philistines to beat the Stalinist drum and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky preferred to put a bullet in his brain rather than betray his art and people, which are often one and the same.

The Hitlerite period in Germany is a similar sordid tale as there was a stagnation of that nations once not inconsiderable artistic output. Many of its best writers, artists, architects, film makers etc preferred exile, whilst others were blacklisted or worse. Modern art had no place in either the Third Reich or Stalinist Soviet Union, the purpose of an artist within these societies was to glorify the great leader, the State and the people; although not as living beings but in a mythic infantile way in which human foibles did not get in the way of political reality.

In the UK the three post WW2 Labour Government’s for all their limitations and which were led by Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan not only created the political space from which progressive political ideas could blossom and grow, but something similar occurred in the cultural realm. True the Attlee administration coming as it did at the end of world war two mainly concentrated on economic and organizational matters, but even so amongst many artistic endeavors that took place between 1945-51, British cinema produced some of the 20th Centuries classic films and George Orwell managed to produce 1984, which would be in the top ten of most influential books of that century. It was however during the Wilson administration when the UK experienced an explosion of creative endeavors; and even James Callaghan’s government was far from a barren period as far as the arts were concerned.

From 1964-70 free thinking magazines like Oz, International Times, Private Eye and Red Dwarf flourished and whilst Gay News and Spare Rib did not hit the streets until the early 1970s, the idea to create it came to fruition in the late 1960s. There were also countless other leftist newspapers and publications, many of which came out of the progressive publishing houses which were founded during these years such as Pluto Press. Of course if one looks back at the aforementioned publications, especially the papers, they look quite staid, somewhat conservative and a little under-whelming. However if you think back to those days their real value was that they broke out of the intellectual middle class ghetto and were read by all social classes. I remember first reading IT whilst a young worker employed in a Paper Mill, where my younger work-mates were as keen as I to read the latest issue of the paper . That there was this explosion of cultural output alongside left wing political activity, was no accident but a living example of that half inch of space we had come to expect when social democracy ruled and which we miss so much these days.

TV drama and documentaries was at the fore with many leftists believing that television would become a liberating and democratizing force for the good, indeed they viewed television in much the same way that many people view the Internet today. TV programming moved from being middle class melodrama and angst, [much as it has returned to today] to become something much more, when at long last the BBC finally recognized that the British working classes existed in human form and were determined to play an important role in the Nations affairs. Left wing program makers like Ken Loach and Tony Garnett were to the fore busy exposing the inequality which existed within British society. Problems of inequality I might add that previous generations of broadcasters and program makers had swept under their nice middle class carpet.

The whole point about this generation of program makers was not only that they sympathized with working class people but they actually liked us, which made this period in history almost unique as far as TV in the UK is concerned. The example of Loach, Garnett and others encouraged working class writers like Jim Allen, Barry Keefe and Trevor Griffith’s, and later Alan Bleasdale, Jimmy McGovern, all of whom came at their work from a left wing working class perspective and worked in both TV, theater and film.

Pop music was to play a massive part in the social changes that took place between the mid 1960s and 1979. The coming of the Beatles, four working class lads, internationalized and politicized more working class kids than all the great tomes written by the socialist old beards, I for one owe far more to Lennon than Lenin. During the more conservative Callaghan years we saw the birth of punk rock, rock against racism, and bands like the Clash and UB40. A band which took its name from the then unemployment benefit card which you had to produce when drawing your dole and god forbid it if you failed to produce it.

Skip forward to 1997 and the election of Tony Blair, expectation was high not least due to the large majority Blair possessed, as this Labor Government would be able to pass whatever legislation it so wished. Politically its period in office could have been golden years, surpassing Clem Attlee’s administration let alone Harold and Sunny Jim. In the cultural realm a million blossoms would bloom and the arts would finally be properly funded. Or so many people dared hope.

It was not to be, politically Blair was a disgrace, for not only has he removed the working classes further from the levers of power, but he also committed this country to cowardly military adventures overseas which border on criminality. Culturally the arts have reflected the political track that Blair’s government has taken. Money is all as displayed by the Led Zeppelin gig, thus the Opera House in London has been refurbished and returned to its glittering days, whilst at a local level the arts are in a deplorable state. All is show, fur coats and no draws. Vain glorious architectural project like the Dome and silly and pompousness as epitomized by Damien Hurst’s skull with diamonds and billingsgate crap. Popular music began as Blair’s pals in the music industry conglomerates meant it to continue with the two louts from Manchester aping the Beatles as if they were a tribute band.

What ever their artistic endeavor or abilities under NL, artists and musicians placed paying the publicist above buying paint or guitar strings. Almost all of those artists who have come to prominence in the last decade have reverted to the age old custom of artists being courtiers. They go about the business not by first creating great work but by courting slimy Billionaires as if their art can gain substance via the Midas touch.

Whenever the media cover the arts the first thing they come out with is the sale price, whether it is a Hockney, Hurst or Bacon, or the million pound contract a new recording artist has signed. If a movie takes millions at the box office it is not only judged a financial success but a great cinematic piece of work. Of course there are exceptions that disprove the aforementioned and great art can be created whatever the political climate, one only has to hear Amy Winehouse sing to understand that class can win through given half a chance.

However there is no doubt in my mind the cultural legacy of Tony Blair will by Pop Idol, Dinosaur Pop stars reunion concerts and Damien Hurst’s over priced crap; plus countless bank vaults around the globe, full of the artwork of past masters brought as investments which the general public will never get a chance to see.

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13 Comments

Filed under art, bacon, hockney, hurst, Led-Zeppelin, music, popular-culture, Tony Blair, UK

13 responses to “Led Zeppelin, typify New Labour’s cultural legacy.

  1. Anonymous

    Very interesting article, Mick. I’m a big music fan and it provides some logic to why I like very little that has come out of Britain in the last 17 years or so, under the unofficial or official Tories.

    I’m 24 yet my favourite bands and artists in no particular order would be the likes of the Morrissey and The Smiths, Sex Pistols, The Manic Street Preachers, McCarthy, Suede, Jarvis Cocker and Pulp, Stone Roses, Madness – All formed in the late 70’s or 80’s and nearly all working class guys. And much like Led Zeppelin, they’re nearly all still around today (bar McCarthy and the Stone Roses) in one form or another and have been touring recently to huge crowds. In fact I’m going to see the Manics tonight at Brixton Academy. Coldplay, Snow Patrol et al don’t really compare in comparison.

    It is not that I don’t try and listen to anything new or recent, it’s just that most of what I come across is so dull and uninspired compared with what has gone before. There are exceptions, the likes of M.I.A would be one but then she wasn’t brought up in Britain and is the daughter of a Tamil activist-turned militant. Keane (named after their nanny, who taught them piano when they were kids!) aren’t likely to have anything as interesting to say in comparison!

    And it’s not like I demand orginality either. The Manics for example used to mock the fact that they were hopelessly unoriginal musically but at least they had something to say and had some attitude. They were racialised by the Miners strike which directly effected them. A lot of artists today just haven’t had the same experiences of struggle.

    Paul

  2. Anonymous

    That should be ‘radicalised’, of course!

    Paul

  3. Jemmy Hope

    Television changing anything? Under capitalism? My God we were naive!
    You have to lay the blame for Hirst, Emin and Shit-dauber Okri at the door of Charles Saatchi. He knew after he sold us Thatcher that he could sell us any old shit, and he continues to prove it.
    For me the big cultural mystery is Israel; all those great Jewish composers, painters, sculptors, authors from Europe and the US. From Israel, what?
    I suppose this goes against your thesis, Mick; a little adversity appears not to have curbed the talents of Mahler, Chagall, Epstein, et al.

  4. Anonymous

    Sorry, Mick, but I have to disagree. As someone involved in the entertainment business, I KNOW you can’t blame THIS one on Blair. (I can see you have a visceral need to blame everything on him – that’s YOUR problem, not his). The arts have never been funded as well as we’d like, true. Which area of life ever has? But to concentrate mainly on popular rock bands is to miss the obvious. They were mostly rubbish before! Nothing, but nothing has ever been truly original since the Beatles – of “The Taxman” fame in Wilson’s time. (Nothing in their message changes; just the talent). Just as nothing in politics will ever be original after Blair. Sickening for some, eh?

    But we have a world-renowned film and TV industry with a burgeoning independent production sector. We make films, still, of worldwide significance with some amazing acting talent.

    I suppose you could give THAT one to Blair: the actor leading the actors. That might keep you happy for today.

    We have clasical composers and musicians in demand worldwide, and even a few decent vocalists. Our artists (though I don’t always applaud their talent) are originals, if nothing much else.

    And we can all have a dabble at tapping words out on our computers today – for the sake of posterity benefiting from our deep insight.

    Everyone’s a writer now.

    Valuable, don’t you think? No? I have to agree with you there.

    Ther’s another issue as far as popular music culture is concerned. Many of us, certainly me, and possibly you, know MANY individuals with great musical talent. But because they do not wish or are not the right type to appear on the X-Factor type excuse for a talent programme, other ways of breaking through are not open to them. This is today’s music culture, as run by the ‘big audience, big megabucks’ captains of the industry, where an AGENT makes multi-millions! It’s not something which is under a prime minister’s control.

    http://keeptonyblairforpm.wordpress.com

  5. Mick Hall

    ktbfpm

    As always you write very articulately, but in some ways you missed my point [my fault I’m sure] yet in another way confirmed the point I was trying to make.

    There will always be wonderful actors and musicians etc about no matter who holds power, that is the blessing of the human spirt. However I believe there has to be a liberalization of society for great art to implode upwards from the Street. What I believe you are mainly writing about is professional actors and musicians interpreting other peoples work.

    Indeed the fact that we have so many Dickens, Jane Austin etc adaptations on our screens these days is an indictment of the conservative nature of those who run the arts, whether within TV, theater, where-ever. The reason they put so much of this stuff on TV/movies is because it is both safe yet also popular. Sure there is a place for this work, but every bloody week? Remember the people who run these outfits are put their by government and the city and it is to them they pander.

    The British/international movie industry is much the same, safe is what they want, no apple carts must be knocked over. I heard Richard Attenbourough one of our greatest film makes saying the other day he has tried for 15 years to get the money to make a film about Tom Pain. The bankers he said complain Pain is not Box Office. He replies, your predecessors said the same about Gandhi, but they gave me the cash and I proved them wrong. Not today it seems.

    All the best.

  6. Mick Hall

    jemmy

    As I said great art can be created what ever the political climate, it is just that I believe it is more difficult when a reactionary or conservative government holds power, and vice versa.

    All the best.

  7. Mick Hall

    Paul,

    Thanks for the compliment, it is appreciated, I found your point interesting, forgive me if I am wrong about this but I feel what your saying is that for you it is not about any music, but good music.

    I hope you enjoy the Manics tonight.

  8. Madam Miaow

    Don’t forget the NME in its heyday, Mick. If you were working class with no access to the high or middle end of the “Culture”, the NME journos were like older brothers and sisters inducting you into it.

    Later, when I had a fledgling career going and was the first British Chinese comedian to take a show to Edinburgh and produce work with a class perspective, the bureaucrats in the SWP stamped on it with their big Monty Python foot. Fellow performer and comrade, Mark Steel’s fraternal response was, “Well, that’s show biz”.

    Bureaucrats and their creatures do not create healthy, vibrant culture and they always do their best to wipe it out.

  9. Mick Hall

    Madam Miaow,

    What a great handle, your right about the NME, although for my genration it was the melody maker which fulfilled this task, up until the sixties it had been very middle class yet for a short period it became much as you view the NME.

    We all went out and brought it every Thursday, or in my case shop lifted it in my school dinner hour, to find out who was doing the alnighters at the mingo [Flamingo jazz club]. Its short lived burst of excellence was due to bringing in young writers who were part of the scene themselves and wrote about the bands they loved as equals not idols who inhabit the stratosphere..

    Your last sentence about bureaucrats is spot on and is one of the reasons why the Beeb has become such a farce.

  10. WorldbyStorm

    I know where you’re coming from, but I genuinely don’t think Blair has/had anything to do with general cultural trends. I think technology has been much much more important in music, from the demise of vinyl, the shift to CDs (the shifting of back catalogues into shops in order to sell more product – at least partially responsible four or five years later for the rise of ‘Britpop’), digitisation, electronica, etc, etc. These things stand largely outside of political culture. And it’s important to note that all the bands namechecked by Paul at the foot of these comments are bands – which I also like/or love (with a question mark over Morrissey and the Smiths) – who sit outside general pop music.

  11. Mick Hall

    WBS,
    Not Blair personally perhaps but my point is about the type of society he endorsed and encouraged and what flows from within it. If what you say is true and the stagnation in popular music is down to a change in the technology, one would expect to find a host of creative musicians at street level. Is that happening, it is not my subject but I see little ‘new’ music around.

    What you seem to be talking about is the means by which the music is delivered to the public. If so there would still be great innovative or experimental live music breaking through, is that happening on a similar scale to the progressive periods in history I mentioned.

    In any case comrade this is not simply a matter of popular music but the arts in general, I detect a creative stagnation right across the arts, although on the surface if you were to look at the publicists powder puffs one would think we were going through a cultural el dorado, look a little deeper and that is far from the case.

    In truth I do not believe much beyond true love lays out side political culture.

  12. WorldbyStorm

    You know you’ve really got me thinking about this issue Mick… I guess the counter argument which has been raised above is that during Thatcherism creative arts in music at least flourished (although that too was a radicalism of sorts, albeit a right-radicalism). As regards live music… seems to me that bands such as Arcade Fire, Sigur Ros and a myriad of others are producing innovative material and gaining audiences for it. And that too has in part been due to technology as people are hooked in by iPods, etc, but want to actually see the musicians. The live scene in Dublin, for example, has hardly been better. I’m stunned by the sort of bands coming here… Serena Maneesh, Asobi Seksu and the like. But that could be a byproduct of the RoI’s wealth. Indeed Dublin Opinion is probably the blog for all that sort of thing. As for the visual arts… well as the old joke goes, it’s too soon to tell. But… for example the crack in the Tate, the current way in which the Britart crowd are on the backfoot and so on seems to me to point to interesting work being done.

    I think you’re right though that politics pervades all, just that sometimes it is heavily entangled with other things. On the other hand the Labour govt in the UK is the most redistributionist (albeit tolerating disgraceful disparities in income) in a generation. How does that affect things? Or could it be that higher employment kills off the creative pools that I remember from the 1980s when in squats in Hackney and environs… (although they were filled to the brim with anti-statists… so who knows 🙂 )…

  13. Mick Hall

    WBS
    Just a quick point for now, I think your correct when you said “well as the old joke goes, it’s too soon to tell.”

    When writing this piece I at first including Gay News and Spare Rib in my short list of publications that were on the street in the latter 1960s. i did so because i remember conversations I had myself back then about the need for such newspapers and magazines. But when I double checked both of these were first published around 1972.

    the point being as you say it often takes time for progressive ideas to ferment etc.

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