August 10, 2012 5:01 pm

Pop and circumstance

Elgar, the Beatles and Dizzee Rascal all starred in London’s Olympic Games. But can British music continue to punch above its weight?
A montage of British musicians by Graham Tuckwell©Graham Tuckwell

Soundtrack to the Olympics

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony contained some astonishing scenes as it told the world the story of Britain’s contribution to popular culture, with music at the fore from Elgar to Queen and the Beatles to Dizzee Rascal and the Arctic Monkeys. But did we have a bit too much of the Beatles and the swinging 1960s?

Peter Aspden I think the Beatles were hard done by. Paul McCartney’s performance of “Hey Jude” wasn’t fantastic; his voice is a bit shot, bless him. But I don’t think we did have too much of the swinging 1960s. Danny Boyle avoided a lot of those clichés.

Laura Battle The danger with all these ceremonies – and this year we’ve had the diamond jubilee and the Olympics in quick succession – is that some of the live performances by Paul McCartney might deter younger audiences from discovering the Beatles for themselves. His performance didn’t convey any of the excitement that one gets from playing the band’s early records.

PA But how can you look away from the Beatles? They invented a kind of pop music that has had extraordinary antecedents and, of course, an amazing succession.

Panelists

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

Laura Battle is an FT classical music critic

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop music critic

Paul Morley is a radio and TV presenter and music critic

Paul Morley I found the opening ceremony quite refreshing, partly because we’ve been lambasted with the Simon Cowell/Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtrack so much recently. The opening ceremony has wiped out this strange idea that Duran Duran and Take That are somehow symbolic of British music when in fact they’re very, very minor. Boyle’s ceremony was a great act of criticism. He was saying, “This is my choice, this is what I believe in and there will be no Oasis, no Take That, no Duran Duran.”

LHT It reminded me of an Elizabethan masque, from the days when Englishness would have been celebrated at official ceremonies with home-grown musicians. It seems that this is something that pop music is capable of emulating, but I wonder whether it’s beyond the capabilities of contemporary classical music.

LB It’s very difficult for classical music in an arena setting. You mentioned masques but I don’t think Purcell, for example, would have survived a London Olympics opening ceremony. There are some fantastic pieces of contemporary classical music that would be great at an opening or closing ceremony, such as “Ecstasio”, a movement from Asyla by contemporary British composer Thomas Adès. The piece references drug culture in the 1990s and it also picks up on dance music.

LHT It does seem as if classical music has been crushed by the sheer weight of pop music that Britain’s proved so good at producing. Britain has a rather ropey reputation for creating classical music; some take the view that all the action is taking place in France, Italy, Germany and the US.

PM There’s also an anxiety with British classical music that it slightly contradicts the multicultural element that is now required at Olympic events. Although the history of 20th-century British composers is exceedingly multicultural, there remains a worry that by playing classical music it takes everybody back to a romantic, idealised landscape of cathedrals and village greens. And that is seen as an embarrassment. It’s considered too gentle and polite.

LHT Are we too reliant on the likes of McCartney, Queen, the Who and the rest of the creaky old canon?

LB All canons become crystallised over time, but I do think there weren’t enough contemporary pop acts at the opening ceremony. Dizzee Rascal performed, and he was great, but there could have been a lot more.

PA It’s also important to remember that the Olympic Games are about sport, which brings people together in an uncomplicated way. Culture is far more nuanced and complicated. So the attempt to ram the limits of music into the arena of sport is already an awkward one. Let’s just enjoy the fact that this is one of those moments that people are all uninhibitedly enjoying themselves and shouting and screaming for whatever they want.

LHT Doesn’t that just turn British pop music into a form of escapism?

PA I think much of British pop music is indeed a form of escapism – there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Soft Power

LHT British acts accounted for 12.6 per cent of global music sales in 2011. Yet a couple of years ago the UK economy made up less than 3 per cent of the global economy. I can’t think of other times in history when a country lost so much real power yet maintained such a strong cultural influence.

From left: soprano Lesley Garrett, singing after Bradley Wiggins’ victory in the Tour de France; British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber; music promoter Simon Cowell©Getty

From left: soprano Lesley Garrett, singing after Bradley Wiggins’ victory in the Tour de France; British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber; music promoter Simon Cowell

LB Absolutely. This idea of soft power is even more relevant to classical music. A sense of place and history is so important to orchestras. There’s a huge demand around the world for British orchestras – particularly in Asia. The problem we have is how to control how artists are represented. Here I’m particularly thinking of Lesley Garrett’s warbling rendition of the national anthem after Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France. It was the very worst advertisement for British classical music.

PA Bradley Wiggins is such a magnificently British character. I watched him in a press conference and he was having none of the celebrity treatment that was being heaped upon him. It reminded me of how John Lennon treated the American press in the early 1960s. Lennon would speak with this brilliantly intelligent, sarcastic edge that was eventually taken on by the Rolling Stones. The brevity and the quirkiness, the weirdness, irreverence and wit of those great pop groups are absolute trademarks of British rock.

LHT Irreverence and wit wouldn’t apply to bands like Joy Division. Are we actually just desperately searching for some pattern in British music when there isn’t one?

LB I think some of the wit and irreverence Peter is referring to is lost when all these British musicians are presented together side by side at mega-concerts such as Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. I also wonder if anyone else was asked to take part but refused. Morrissey and the Smiths spring to mind.

PM For me, the Olympic ceremony was a final celebration of this extraordinary energy that came in the latter part of the 20th century.

LHT Which is the same period that the US held sway over the world, with Britain as its lieutenant. Which brings us to the “special relationship” and how British pop so often defines itself against what’s going on in the US. It strikes me as ironic that Churchill coined the phrase “special relationship” the very week he died, in 1965, when Petula Clark was number one in the US charts with “Downtown”, becoming the first British woman in the rock and roll era to achieve this. In “Downtown”, she sang about sidewalks and movie shows in a perfectly modulated Home Counties accent. So, in this negotiation between Britishness and Americanness, it seems pop music is the one area in which Britain has punched above its weight.

PA That’s true but I think we are now in decline, both in terms of pop music and our relationship with the US.

LB I’m less pessimistic. There’s a lot of good music out there – it’s just a question of time: in 20, 30 or 40 years from now we’ll be able to look back and create some sort of order to what we are listening to today. We’ve already had a 1980s revival, and now Blur are coming back and suddenly the 1990s are being talked about again. Plus, people are already talking about Thomas Adès as the next Benjamin Britten. The New York premiere of Adès’s opera The Tempest is taking place at the Met in October, and that’s a big deal. So I think we’re still making our mark around the world.

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British music today

LHT Of the 86 acts in Danny Boyle’s remarkable masque, I counted precisely two Scottish acts (Franz Ferdinand and Emeli Sande) and no Welsh or Northern Irish ones. Are we really talking about English music here? Perhaps the elephant in the room is the fact that it’s the English identity which is very vague and uncertain.

What is British music?

A full version of this conversation is available as a podcast, produced by John Sunyer and Griselda Murray Brown, at www.ft.com/artspodcast

PM I think there’s that extraordinary self-consciousness about the English. A lot of my American friends are always saying to me, “Why are you so worried about who you are?” The rest of the world just gets on with it.

LHT The British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once said, “The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.”

PM I agree. I’d like to see a large amount of music columns in newspapers removed and put into some sort of showbiz section. Over the past 15 years music journalism has been completely dominated by pop. Music is no longer talked about as an ideological force; it is now rated with stars, in the same way that you might consider rating a toaster.

LB The coverage is still there, but it’s just being disseminated throughout the internet. I think one of the things about music now is there’s just so much of it. Also, lots of young musicians are now working across different genres and they wouldn’t consider themselves as either classical or pop musicians. If you look at the world of electronica, for example, there’s such a huge amount being produced it’s become impossible to cover that on a daily basis or even weekly basis.

LHT Could there be something particularly British about younger musicians who are comfortable working in various idioms and who are also stateless – they could just as easily be living in Berlin as in London?

LB That’s the nature of the music industry now. Musicians are no longer working to get a contract with a record company – they’re out there on their own, trying to promote themselves.

PA In my more pessimistic moments I wonder if this dissemination makes it possible to have any kind of national conversation about culture at all. The TV water-cooler moments have almost gone. We all know it’s virtually impossible to get everyone to watch the same thing on Saturday night and talk about it on Monday morning.

LHT Except in the opening ceremony: pop music was a cornerstone of a national conversation.

PA But that was an Olympics opening ceremony and that was a one-off.

LHT What you’re suggesting is a very pessimistic view of British music: that pop’s influence on the public imagination is disappearing. Do you think there’ll just be a hologram of McCartney turning up decades into the future?

PA I think McCartney does have that amount of global significance.

PM I think the sound of pop that was established in the 1960s is over. It’s become tame enough to be incorporated into Olympic events and not have any ideological effect.

LHT Hasn’t that taken the danger away from it?

PM Yes, it’s been totally stripped of its revolutionary fervour.

PA It’s not just the 1960s – the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” featured in the opening ceremony. The most abrasive side of British pop has been co-opted into the mainstream.

PM The glut of modern music is largely because it can be done in such a way that it’s not about the performance. Pop music has always been about great performances that were captured and held in the cultural memory. Today a lot of people are making music in their own little worlds without actually moving out of their comfort zones and representing something. If anything, they’re representing a future that is dissolving and it’s turning us into something else.

PA There’s plenty of good music around, and people know where to find it. Maybe that’s just fine.

Paul Morley presents ‘Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Archive’ on August 18 on BBC Radio 4

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