Look to the Future Now: Christmas 2016

Posted: December 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

xmas-rock-copy 

‘Look to the Future Now’ is a deceptive title for a post which mostly gives voice to echoes of the past. Those who have read my previous posts will know that I’m interested in what is commonly known as the ‘affective turn’ – especially the importance and power of love. Nostalgia is another form of affect that has grabbed my attention, especially as I’ve gotten older. Having grown-up in England, my childhood memories of the festive season are mostly a series of sentimental Christmas clichés involving snow, ice, carol singers, sledding, church choirs, gift giving, and romanticised family gatherings. Last December, I published a post titled Loving Christmas and concluded by asking; “what would Christmas be without a special song about hope, peace and love?” So this year, inspired by various ‘people’s histories of pop music’, I’m writing about some of the special tunes, especially popular Christmas songs, which have affected me in various ways over the years.

Elsewhere I’ve celebrated the impact of musical cinema, such as the movie Oliver and artists like folk singer Pete Seeger, on my early political education. Throughout the 1960s, I was introduced to the music of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, and the proliferation of politicised love and peace songs. The first pop Christmas track I remember well was released by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and the Plastic Ono Band. Happy Xmas (War is Over) debuted in the lead-up to Christmas 1972, reached number four in the UK charts, and has since become a Christmas standard. As the campaign to end the war in Vietnam reached its conclusion, this record was a culmination of John and Yoko’s anti-Vietnam war activism, a more general cry for peace, and an attempt to convey optimism while avoiding the sentimentality that often characterises Christmas music. For a child whose experiences of the past decade had revolved around opposition to the war (I learned to walk delivering anti-war leaflets on council estates in Sheffield with my parents, was regularly traumatised by the war’s atrocity images, awestruck by the huge protests we participated in, and shocked by the police violence in response to them) for me the song struck both an upbeat and downbeat chord, as a pre-emptive celebration of a peaceful future we could hopefully look forward to.

Teenage Rampage

The music of the 1960s continues to be an important influence on me; however it wasn’t until the early 1970s that music became a major part of my persona. Becoming an adolescent during a time of unisex androgynous fashion, and with a family background of rebelliousness, it’s perhaps no surprise that my ‘teeny bop’ years were snared by glam rock band The Sweet.  Hearing them first on BBC’s Top of the Pops, the band attracted me with their performances of youth revolt, gender bending, and a series of chart topping hooky tunes. Emerging from the sixties under the influence of a feminist mother and a patriarchal father, I was gleefully ready to join a widespread cultural mutiny against gender norms and stereotypes, embracing ambiguity as much as my parents and school would let me get away with. I rushed out to buy The Sweet’s first single Blockbuster as soon as I heard it and was totally smitten when their next tune, Teenage Rampage, was released in 1974. Described in a recent history of Glam Rock  as “pure celebration” and “one of the hardest-rocking pop anthems ever made” the song “imagines the kids rising up, taking complete command, writing constitutions and starting revolutions.”

Heavy Metal

My family’s English roots are located in the capital of the Midlands, Birmingham, and near-by Walsall, a deprived working class town in the heart of the ‘Black Country’, so called because of the effects of industrial pollution. It was here my maternal grandad Ron introduced me to heavy metal music, during its birth as a global subculture. Having been traumatised in combat during World War Two, Ron would often escape into the world of records he’d discovered at Walsall Council’s music library. It was on his prized stereo that I first heard a local band called Led Zeppelin and enjoyed their Tolkeinesque story telling, harking back to the feudal past and the emergence of capitalism. Some say that Tolkein, who grew up in Birmingham and based The Two Towers on a couple of the city’s landmarks, used the Black Country as the model for the grim region of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings.

Yet, despite Led Zeppelin’s artistic talents, it was another local band, Black Sabbath, who seemed more in tune with my darkening teen and existential angst. They released their song Paranoid at the beginning of the 1970s, described as “the bleakest hit single in [English] history, forged in the dying embers of declining industries across the British Midlands.” These ‘dying embers’ were where my grandad worked as a bricklayer, in the region’s ‘dark Satanic mills’. Close by, my father, like Black Sabbath founder John (Ozzy) Osbourne, grew up living in poverty in a bleak, bomb-ravaged suburb of Birmingham where after leaving school they both went to work in local auto factories. Heavy metal was ‘working class music from industrial towns’ and heavy metals were at the heart of the foundries and furnaces that stretched across the ‘Black Country’. As Black Sabbath launched their assault on our ears, a few miles away a young steelworker was forming Judas Priest and noting; “The factory I worked in was a massive steelwork labyrinth, riddled with polluted canals, massive grimy workshops, foundries and steam hammers. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to realise why metal ended up sounding the way it did.” Nor is it hard to imagine why, having spent much of my childhood in the environment which inspired metal music, growing-up in ‘post-war’ Britain surrounded and raised by survivors and victims of World War Two, during a ‘Cold War’ that was really a hot war, Sabbath’s song War Pigs was my favourite of theirs.

Considered by some as proto-punk – aggressive, bleak, intense, and primitive – heavy metal spoke to my rising anger at the horrors of capitalism and my desire to fight to escape them. Yet despite the hardships endured by my extended family and my determination to resist the same scale of suffering, the most powerful and long-lasting memories of my grandparents are of the Christmases we celebrated together. I can’t remember a Christmas in England without my grandmother Gladys and I’m unsure if this is because we spent every Christmas together, or because Christmas without Gran wasn’t worth remembering. My saddest Christmas was our last one in the U.K., the year before my parents, my brother, and I migrated to Australia. Dad’s father, George, another permanently traumatised World War Two veteran, was meant to spend that Christmas with us, but he never arrived.  My brother and I were told he wasn’t well. After the festivities were over, it was revealed he’d actually died, but our parent’s “didn’t want to ruin Christmas” by telling us.

‘Look to the future now, it’s only just begun’

The overtones of this last English Christmas, as we prepared to leave for ‘the Gong’ on the other side of the world, remain coloured by the hopes, fears, and sadness which permeated our lives at the time. The main sound track of this moment in my life, and the lives of many other people living in Britain during those days, is Slade’s joyful record Merry Xmas Everybody. This was ‘the golden era of the British Christmas single’ which reached its zenith with Britain’s favourite ever Christmas record. In the winter of 1973, Slade were the biggest band in Britain, having had a series of chart toppers featuring their poppier version of heavy rock during the previous year. Slade also heralded from the ‘Black Country’, with their drummer working a ‘day job’ as a metallurgist at a local foundry to pay off his drum kit. Looking to follow-up their success, the band’s singer, Neville ‘Noddy’ Holder, set about producing a ‘Christmas hit’ while spending the night at his mum’s council house in Walsall, where he’d been raised. He described Merry Xmas Everybody as “a working class family song” to cheer people up in the gloomy climate of that year’s ‘silly season’.

It wasn’t only boys who were fretting about leaving almost everything they loved, including Walsall, for an unknown future, who needed cheering up that Christmas. December 1973 was the height of the UK’s ‘energy crisis’ (part of a more general global capitalist crisis following a period of intensified proletarian struggle) when a combination of power cuts and economic gloom saw many in Britain facing Christmas in the cold and dark. In an emergency national broadcast on December 13, Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath told the nation: “We shall have a harder Christmas than we have known since the war.” He also announced a ‘Three-Day Work Order’ and a range of austerity measures, ostensibly to deal with the crisis, but seen and used by the ruling class as an opportunity to weaken militant action. Throughout that winter, hundreds of thousands of people were laid off work and many others suffered the misery of having to work in unheated factories and offices. The Government also introduced a national 50mph speed limit and shops were only allowed to use electric lighting for a total of five days between December 17 and 30. The scale of the cutbacks meant that many parts of the country had no electricity on Christmas Day. When people did have power, this was the song most likely to be heard coming from their TVs, radios and record players.

My family returned to the U.K. in 1977, and it seemed the misery, but not the hope, of our last Christmas in England had remained and deepened. During our stay, the volume of the mainstream media’s fanfare for the Royal Jubilee year was shattered by the sonic force of the Sex Pistol’s hit single God Save the Queen, both a smash hit on the charts and on the smug charade of ruling class elitism. We weren’t able to stay for Christmas that year, so for me, it’s this track which best captures the dissonance of the period and the growing sense that there was ‘no future in England’s dreaming’. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, from then on it was punk that most radically transformed my life, at a tempo which felt like ‘78 revolutions a minute’.

Post-punk music tended to be more politically conservative, but more globally oriented. However, although the focus on western poverty and rebellion receded, the influence of anti-racist campaigning spawned popular protest songs amplifying the concerns of militant struggles in Africa (e.g. Sun City by Artists United Against Apartheid) and launched the Live Aid phenomenon, addressing a widespread desire to do something about the ‘forgotten’ Ethiopian famine in the face of institutional inaction, while becoming the prototype for a new style of celebrity activism. So in 1984, as the remnants of my favourite band, The Clash, played a benefit concert for striking British miners, billed as ‘Arthur Scargill’s Christmas Party’, it was the awkwardly and perhaps aptly named charity super-group ‘Band Aid’ which reached the Christmas number one spot, with their fundraising single Do They Know It’s Christmas? The song was twice re-recorded to again become the number one Christmas hit in 1989 and 2004. Here’s the original version from 1984.

“The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator. But the woman sang so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound.”

(George Orwell, 1984)

Charity ‘band aids’ and ‘rock-star messianism’ have been the subject of widespread derision ever since Do They Know It’s Christmas?  As well, concerns about the increasing commercialisation of music and the corporate distortion, or muffling, of political activism continue to ring out in ongoing debates, while complaints about the death of ‘real music’ have seemingly become the cliché of every aging generation. At the same time, as evidenced by a main story line in the popular Christmas movie Love Actually, the hope of a Christmas hit continues to be the most sought after pop prize in Britain. The Christmas number one is ‘the most talked about and high-profile chart-topper of the year’ and enjoys increased sales over the holiday period. For four years in the late 2000’s, this number one position was colonised by Simon Cowell’s X Factor, with the show’s grand final timed for the Christmas season. Seen by many as the ‘Tone Deaf Grinch Who Stole Christmas’, Cowell’s domination of the Xmas charts was eventually broken by a powerful grass roots social media campaign.

Rage Against the Machine

In 2009, one of my favourite bands, Rage Against the Machine, helped to end X Factor’s rule when more than half a million people downloaded their famously anti-authoritarian track Killing in the Name (released 17 years earlier) in protest against the growing influence of corporatised music. Speaking on BBC Radio One’s Chart Show at the time, Rage’s Zach de la Rocha explained that the band getting to number one for Christmas said “more about the spontaneous action taken by young people throughout the UK to topple this very sterile pop monopoly and less about the song and the band. We are very proud to have had the song chosen as the vehicle by which to do this.”

The campaign to make Killing in the Name the most unlikely of Christmas carols was mainly organised via a Facebook group that quickly transformed itself into an anti-corporate and pro-social justice platform, with participants encouraging each other to support Shelter, an organisation that campaigns to end homelessness and bad housing in England and Scotland, and which subsequently received £65,000 in direct public donations. Rage Against the Machine also lent their support, donating all of the track’s royalties to Shelter and promising to play a free ‘thank you gig’ in the U.K. if the campaign for the number one spot was successful. At the ensuing celebratory concert, held in London the following year and attended by forty thousand fans, the band handed over more than £160,000.

In the final weeks of ‘Christmas Rage’, the band increased the volume of the campaign when they performed an uncensored rendition of Killing in the Name live on breakfast BBC Radio Five. Despite the show’s hosts asking them to change the end of the song, during the crescendo of their performance Zach de la Rocha starts out singing “I won’t do what you tell me”, then after a few lines repeatedly screams the lyrics, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” It wasn’t until the fourth repetition of this obvious retort to suppression, that the show’s production team cut out the microphone and returned to the studio. “Get rid of it!” radio host Shelagh Fogarty could be heard shouting in the background. “Sorry, we needed to get rid of that because it suddenly turned into something we weren’t expecting,” she told listeners. “Well, we were expecting it and we asked them not to do it and they did it anyway.”

Here’s the band’s radio interview and performance from that day.

What would Christmas be without a special song about hope, peace and love?

bitter-xmas

When I was writing last year’s Christmas blog post the number one song in the UK still hadn’t been decided. As it turned out, the National Health Service (NHS) Choir beat Justin Bieber in a tightly run race to score the top spot. The choir’s track A Bridge Over You, “a celebration of the NHS” and an instrument in the long-running campaign to defend public health in Britain, reached number one after another grassroots social media campaign, using the hashtag and slogan LoveYourNHS2015. As the NHS faces sustained vicious attacks from the current Tory government, Katie Rogerson, one of the choir members, explained their motivation for the song: “It’s a challenging time for the NHS and morale is quite low … People have a genuine concern for what’s going to happen and for the future of the NHS … We wanted people to recognise all the brilliant things that happen on an everyday basis rather than feel miserable and unappreciated.”

‘Singing the world into existence as an everyday activity’

As is often the case with Christmas hits, the key to A Bridge Over You’s success is a well-versed ensemble of love, hope, and collective harmonies. The continuing affection people have for a common celebration of new beginnings at the end of each year rests on a long history of struggles, where ‘people continue to sing the world into existence as an everyday activity’. So in offering my Christmas tidings to those reading this post at the conclusion of such a difficult year, I have no wish to lament or reproduce Christmases past. Instead I’m keen to embrace Christmas present and the years ahead, with hope in my heart. None-the-less, this is often a time to pause, rewind our memories, and play them again. Yet each time we spin the old turntable and swing back our nostalgic needle, rather than returning to the same historical groove, we instead alter the record. For some this remix can provide an encore which mutes various miseries and recomposes affects and emotions to make them less discordant. Those longing for days gone by often seek to erase the harsh realities of the past; but we should refrain from accompanying any conservative chorus seeking comfort in an endless replay of ‘the song remains the same’. Instead, although we live in testing and uncertain times, I hope this Christmas you can savour moments of joy, while keeping in mind the sage advice of Noddy Holder – “Look to the future now” because “it’s only just begun.”

Nick Southall

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