Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Swinging Sixties And All That Jazz

Revolt Into Style by George Melly

George Melly is probably best known in this country as an aging jazz singer with a penchant for loud suits that could double as a pair of gaudy curtains in full sail. Whether as a satirical writer of Wally Fawkes’ satirical cartoon strip, Flook, art historian or author of the hilarious Owning Up series of autobiography, the lugubrious Melly has always brought an extra large personality to his work.

During the early 60s he began reviewing the trends in the emergent pop scene for the quality Sunday newspapers who wondered if their might be any cultural significance in this new fangled pop music. The domestic UK music scene was still a stodgy mixture of polite variety acts and clean-cut beat groups singing whatever Tin Pan Alley could palm off on the industry. As the aftershocks of Elvis Presley’s hip sway vibrated through an innately conservative post-war Britain, a shockingly fast transformation had been set in train.

No stranger to wiggling various parts of his anatomy on stage himself, Melly embraced the role of poacher turned gamekeeper, ideally placed to fire off dispatches from the fast-moving frontline of pop culture from those early buds to its resplendent bloom.

His descriptions of the London clubs in which the great and good were rubbing shoulders with the bad and the ugly reek of the stale cigarette smoke such is the first-hand, first rate nature of his prose.

He’s grappling with all the inherent contradictions and tensions of the era and understands he’s attempting to document something fickle, something that’s transient.

Whilst welcoming the pop arts and positing their impact on art and literature as well as music, he also recognises the difficulty of coming up with a precise definition of the movement; the zeitgeist is a slippery customer at the best of times.

Melly recognises though that the pop arts, at a particular juncture in the period, are in part the product of an increasingly educated and ambitious working class rather than from the usual arts hierarchy (i.e. the middle and upper classes). Effectively this means The Beatles.

Welcoming and approving of their transition from mop-top entertainers to cultural agent provocateurs, he sees past the electrifying novelty of Sgt. Peppers (which was new at the time of his writing) viewing it not so much as an indicator of the future of pop but rather a celebration of what had gone before, concluding “They display little enthusiasm for the way we live now”

If Melly is right, this surely explains their ability to traverse the generations in terms of popularity.

Dismissive of the psychedelic boom as something more to do with marketeers rather than “something in the air” as the propaganda put it, he applauds Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine for their attempts to cross the divide between the dance hall and the art gallery. The rise of the underground music scene predicated on the UK blues boom and the elasticity of American acid rock which in turn is rooted on authentic principles of musicianship and finesse is welcomed.

Even here though he detects the pervasive stain of fickleness and fashion “Here, as always, the old dilemma remains; to succeed you need a powerful individual image (gimmick is the less friendly word for it), and inevitably, with the passing of time, that image seems dated, ossified, out. In consequence the heroes come and go. Currently (August 1969) they include Jethro Tull, the Family and this month’s big deal, King Crimson; but in six months?”

Revolt Into Style: The Pop Arts In Britain, is an quick-witted eye-witness account of what was going on as it was happening without recourse to sentimentality or sensationalism. Throughout these pages, one senses that Melly had his sleeves rolled up and was getting stuck in. It’s this aspect that gives the book the frisson of authenticity that steers it clear from being a dry stand-offish academic survey that it could so easily have become.


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