God Save The Queen?

by Russell Blatcher

Now, I have to admit I watched very little of Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee ‘pop’ concert at Buckingham Palace, I happened across it just before Sir Paul sang All You Need Is Love, and the Royals trooped out on the stage. I gather from the Guardian that the Queen herself only turned up for the last half hour, wearing yellow earplugs. Later, on the news I caught a brief glimpse of Brian May on the roof, strangely reminiscent of a scene from Mary Poppins.

I want to avoid the Rec.Music.Dylan style recriminations about what is good and bad music, I personally no longer feel affronted by what other people choose to listen to. After all, listening to music, whatever it is, is better than many things we could be doing. However, I was appalled by that line-up being presented as representative of any form of youth culture. I’m afraid the only person I would regard as having produced anything of serious lasting worth present on that stage was Brian Wilson, who, in the closing hoopla sing-a-long (The Last Waltz has a lot to answer for in setting that model) looked a strange haunted figure. I was disappointed to see him in such company. Other than him, I could see no one who has stretched the boundaries of popular music, or threatened the status quo.

Clearly McCartney was presented as some kind of culmination of ‘the best’ of whatever that show was meant to represent. I know that he and his former colleagues are icons for many, but the Beatles are a difficult issue for me personally. I clung hard to them while they existed, but can no longer listen to much of their work. Lately Sir Paul often appears in the guise of an eccentric dilettante millionaire, dabbling in whatever takes his fancy (his Liverpool Oratorio in particular represents the nadir of vanity publishing, and confirms Frank Zappa’s characterisation of the orchestral musician as a whore for hire). On his credentials as a lyricist, I must quote a line from Flowers In The Dirt, his last album which I bought: “butterflies buzz around my head”. Lennon has ascended to an unassailable post of martyrdom, untouched by any memory of his embarrassing antics when he was alive. Even if we accept the Beatles canon as exceptional, their work since the group ended puts the parabola of their careers in a true perspective: great artists follow a graceful curve, not a lottery win followed by a stock market crash.

In the audience at the palace, clearly digging it all were Tony and Cherie Blair, and I realised that the ruling class highjack of youth culture had been completed at last. They came close in the seventies, but, at the last gasp, the Sex Pistols saved us. In the eighties it was Nirvana. But who now is going to wrench Rock music back from the establishment, now they have wrapped it in so many layers of cotton wool, to keep it safe.

I can claim very little knowledge of current popular music trends, my own movement these days is into the past not the future (The Carter Family, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday whose vast back catalogues will, I know, keep me engaged for many years). At my age I need no new fuel for my anarchist impulses, I only occasionally scream at the politicians on the television nowadays, even though we currently have the most mendacious and despicable crew I have ever seen.

The one thing that young people deserve from music is a bit of danger. What is the most dangerous thing anybody ever said in a pop song? For me it is ‘Don’t follow Leaders’. When our leaders are sitting quite happily at such a show, they have stolen the venom from the snake. The great performers and writers of the Rock era, from Little Richard and Elvis Presley onwards were feared by the establishment. When the stars of tomorrow are selected by television, with the knowing complicity of the existing media industry powerbrokers a new Sex Pistols will never emerge. The Pistols and a large section of the British public recognised each other, they were alike, and back then they both hated the comfortable safety seen this week at the palace. Not many people got to see the Pistols play, but they were so powerful that they transcended the mechanical means of broadcasting and reproduction to reach their audience. That was a two way process. One essential requirement of art is that something must pass in both directions between artist and audience - in most cases packaging and copying with bits of plastic, metal and glass remove that possibility. For all the absorption of punk into the mainstream fashion and pop industries, many people’s lives were changed by it.

There was recently a protracted and occasionally vitriolic exchange on Rec.Music.Dylan about one of the 2002 shows in London. A long time fan expressed deep depression at the standard of Dylan’s performance and what he saw as the audience’s self deceiving reception of it. But, Dylan understands that you cannot package or preserve music. When it is over it is gone. We all cling to our CDs, videos and the rest, but you cannot hold that experience except through the attenuation of memory. For a few brief moments while I watched Dylan in Manchester this year, albeit in a dreadful cavernous ice-rink, I felt a few precious moments of connection.

All the Dylan oeuvre, however vast and distinguished, is merely a template for the forging of the live experience, a potential moment of danger, as well as beauty. I want to highlight in particular his performance of Masters Of War. Of all the songs, this had the clearest delivery, a chilling and precise denunciation of the guilty men.

In all the events since last September, it is the murderous ascendancy of the hawks and their industrial paymasters in the United States that represents the greatest disaster. That ascendancy is still so complete that you are unlikely to hear from any American in public a balanced view on the “war against terrorism”, the latest excuse to play with their toys. And yet, in this performance of that song, I was relieved to find one American with the intelligence, perception and compassion to condemn equally Bush, Blair, bin Laden, Sharon, Arafat and all those leaders who so love to set us at each other’s throats. I don’t suppose our leaders fear Dylan’s influence any longer, but perhaps they should. Tony Blair may well see himself as a Dylan fan, but will never realise that he too is now a master of war, one who has not shirked a single opportunity to kill and destroy in other people’s countries.

So, be it 1977 or 2002, I shall not say God Save The Queen, but God save Bob Dylan.