Wallace Wylie

Ignorant Fantasies | Race and Class Delusions From David Thomas

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David Thomas

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.

(continues overleaf)

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9 Responses to Ignorant Fantasies | Race and Class Delusions From David Thomas

  1. Erika May 1, 2012 at 12:19 am

    These discussions of “authenticity” – I have to ask, WHY do music critics care about this? It’s already obvious to me that people buy into all manner of story, myth, or “brand” in order to appreciate an artist or musician or type of music – but I would think critics at least would have the critical thinking skills to see that that is all relatively superficial. Why should it matter what style of music is played, or from what tradition, or by whom, if it comes from a genuine place within the individual?

  2. Erika May 1, 2012 at 12:38 am

    Ok I had to look up “authenticity.” Which according to wikipedia “refers to the truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions.”

    There’s so many problems with the whole concept. For example an artist may be a full on liar about his/her origin while still being very sincere about the message coming through in the art. Does that make him/her inauthentic? Sometimes fiction overlays a deeper truth. Heck, isn’t that what art IS???

    AND it continues to be true that those who are most “authentic” – truthful, sincere, and rooted in a tradition – are rarely appreciated. Most fans would rather have a SOUND BITE. A BRAND. A MYTH. Something shiny. Something larger than life. A t-shirt. A slogan. A poster for the dorm wall.

    Seems to me that the authenticity stuff comes up mainly to justify an opinion already formed.

  3. Daniel May 1, 2012 at 3:33 am

    LOVE & THEFT is what we talk about when we talk about authenticity. I wish being poor or marginalized against gave some supernatural ability to make bitchin’ music, but such is not the case. What it does give you is a seldom heard voice, but it’s not piano lessons, Marlboro or Julliard. IMO, the Brits didn’t really do rock or blues “correctly”(in step with the prevailing orthodoxy of the genre), but that is irrelevant when discussing its merit as music.

    Everything borrowed is stolen and stolen again. There is no pure and unrooted music. We might hear a 60’s folk revivalist doing a rendition of “Gallow Pole”, thinking they’re covering Leadbelly, who in turn grifted lines from some poor unrecorded bastard who stole entire verses from a much older Lithuanian or Finnish folk tune heard from who knows where. New forms come from mistranslation.

  4. Stocky May 8, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    While I generally agree with Wallace and disagree with David Thomas, I find that this post tries to debunk myths that don’t really exist. The views of David Thomas are very peculiar. I’ve never heard anybody claim that The Beatles had middle-class origins before apart from those who argue, with good reason, against John Lennon’s self-appointed ‘working class hero’ status. In an age where I frequently see the word ‘white’ (i.e. middle class white) used as a synonym for ‘lame’, it is more common for working class to be associated with authenticity and middle class with inauthenticity. When Noel Gallagher says in the Live Forever doco that, compared to the members of Blur, coming from a working class background means that ‘that fundamentally makes my soul a whole lot purer than theirs”, he’s only half-joking. He knows he’s seen as the underdog with the upper hand over Private School Damon. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLMc1aKuFWY

    Many artists (I’d say most) that (not necessarily romanticise but) depict working class life, from Charles Dickens to Mike Leigh to Gillian Welch, come from middle class ‘privileged’ backgrounds and I see no problem with this as – and I’m being very idealistic here, but – authenticity (a more appropriate word would be ‘the truth’) should derive from the art, not the artist.

  5. Orange October 22, 2012 at 2:36 am

    Of course rock ‘n’ roll can only be American. It’s like how Indian folk music can only be Indian, no matter how British hippies try to imitate it. You can’t authentically record someone else’s local music when you’ve spent your life half a world away. If you can’t feel a ting of pretentiousness while listening to England’s Newest Hitmakers, then something’s wrong with you. Music, when written with honesty, is entirely related to one’s physical setting. Maybe it’s that abandoned factory yard in Pullman, Illinois. Maybe it’s that molding motel somewhere in New Jersey. Or maybe it’s that rusting rail bridge alongside the Mississippi River in Davensport, Iowa.

    As for a Liverpudlian, though, he’s been breathing a different kind of air since the day he was born. He has to base rock music on his imagination and perception of a foreign land rather than on his own surroundings. Authenticity is therefore impossible. Just because a few English acts helped popularize the genre among American kids doesn’t mean they can pass for the real thing.

    The author also seems to stress the belief that David Thomas is claiming rock for -all- of America, implying that any American can do it. This cannot be further from reality. Thomas once said, quote on quote, that “…not everyone can do it.” He is aware that only a small percentage of the population, the truly talented and motivated, is able to make worthwhile music. He even went on call music a “nearly masonic craft.”

    It’s clear that the writer only possesses a very surface understanding of the Pere Ubu frontman, not having much knowledge beyond those few catchy tunes on The Modern Dance. ‘Cause that’s the only reason anyone would even dare to call his career “…two decent albums made decades ago.”

    I don’t usually go this far to defend someone I’ve never met before, but this article is just ridiculous.

  6. Ron January 17, 2013 at 10:53 am

    I don’t understand Thomas’s comment at all. In America, working class and middle class basically mean the same thing. My moms a low end lawyer who literally takes home less money than the unionized janitor at my manhattan high school, and my dads a construction worker. My dad makes more money than her. See the contradiction behind the myth of ” working class”?

  7. Itchoad January 27, 2013 at 1:49 am

    David Thomas works in polemics, he always has. Here is a person who has made 40 years worth of intractably offbeat music, most of it good to great. Wouldn’t you suppose a recalcitrant personality is fundamental to that?

    Every interview with him is prickly and antisocial. Of course he’s going to contradict any response the interviewer feels is appropriate or factual. You mention Mark E Smith in the article. Is he any different? How many outwardly perverse and offensive things has he claimed in interviews? Does it mean he always believes them?

    I think both David Thomas and Mark E Smith view the interview like they do standard pop music. Don’t give them what they expect. Maybe it will fall flat and come out alienating, all the better! Doesn’t change all the great music they’ve made.

  8. Minkawf September 11, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    Thomas likes to say strange, apparently non-factual things. Not sure what to make of some of it, but as the previous commenter said, he’s been involved with 40 yrs of terrific music. I pay attention to that, not every weird word that comes out of his mouth.

    To say that he’s only done two good records is to just lazily repeat the lazy accepted view of dumb people without imagination or initiative. It’s embarrassing that you would write that.

  9. Geoff The Postman September 12, 2013 at 1:31 am

    “Musicians are liars and cheats. Don’t believe anything that a musician tells you. Stay away from them, they are scum.”
    – David Thomas speaking to a glove puppet.

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