By Wallace Wylie
Whenever discussions about authenticity crop up, which they often do, the urge to debunk is strong. Artists claiming ‘street’ credibility are subject to scrutiny and ridicule. While this is a healthy approach in general (one should always be on the lookout for spurious claims of authenticity) it has led to the assumption that almost all great art is ultimately made by the middle-classes. David Thomas, lead singer of Pere Ubu, sums up this attitude neatly in an interview conducted by Simon Reynolds. In the interview, available in Reynolds’ book Totally Wired, Thomas makes the claim that all adventurous art is middle-class in origin.
This is the strength of our upbringing. This is why all adventurous art is done by middle-class people. Because middle-class people don’t care. “I’m going to do what I want, because I can do something else better and make more money than this.” If you sit down and make a list of the people you consider to be adventurous in pop music, I’d bet you lots that the vast majority of them are middle-class.
When Reynolds mentions The Beatles, Thomas scoffs:
Do you really think The Beatles were working-class? Really? The Beatles were not working-class.
Now, the last thing I want to do is talk about The Beatles. Yet I find it interesting that it is now an accepted ‘fact’ that The Beatles were middle-class. The proof of this claim seems to rest on the fact that, after his working-class parents abandoned him, a caring Aunt with middle-class aspirations brought John Lennon up in a relatively well-to-do Liverpool suburb. He did not attend private school. His education was no different from other working-class children. All the other Beatles came from stalwart working-class backgrounds. Ringo’s household was certainly the worst-off but, in regards to the other Beatles, working-class does not mean destitute. It means working people with no means of income other than selling their labour. Yet somehow, over the course of time, The Beatles became middle-class. This reeks of class appropriation and class prejudice. Apparently thousands of people cannot accept the fact that a group as inventive and adventurous as The Beatles were working-class. David Thomas repeats this illegitimate claim with no evidence. He believes it, other people believe it, and therefore it is the truth. Typical middle-class thinking.
It surely does not need pointing out that almost every adventurous musical innovation of the 20th Century came from working-class origins. The blues, jazz, country, rock’n'roll, soul, reggae, disco, r&b, hip-hop, techno, house; the list goes on. It would take a mixture of ignorance and arrogance on a monumental scale to appropriate all of these innovations for the middle-classes. David Thomas certainly fits this criteria. After claiming all adventurous art comes from the middle-classes, he then claims that only Americans are fit to play rock’n'roll, and people from other countries have no business playing it.
Nobody would in their right mind argue that an English band could play African tribal music as well as African tribal people. So where do you get this idea that English people can play rock music – the folk music of America – in any authentic way?
He then goes on to quote Russian music critic Artemis Trotsky who said:
The most ordinary amateur garage band in America has more authenticity and fire and soul than the most adventurous band from England, because they’re playing the music of their blood.
Thomas endorses this claim by going on to say:
In any bar in America you can find ordinary musicians playing rock music of such high quality that it puts to shame stuff from other countries. That’s because it’s in their blood.
This little fantasy ignores one very salient fact; the vast majority of white Americans in 1960 had no idea about America’s musical heritage because it was music made by African-Americans and working-class whites. There’s a reason the average bar in America in 1960 did not shake with rock music, the reason being that, even after the advent of Elvis, listening to music made by black people was still frowned upon. Suburban teens learned of America’s rich musical heritage from the writing credits on Rolling Stones’ albums, not because it was in their blood. If it had not been for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks and Them, all groups who worshipped black American musicians, then middle-class Americans would have remained ignorant of the music of their blood. It was a well-known fact that blues guitarists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf would play to packed houses in Britain, be treated like royalty and have nervous young Brits hanging on their every word, and then return to segregated America and play to half-empty bar rooms.
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