2016: The year of the great British icon

There must be something in the air. Because since the start of this year, British icons of great repute, not just at home but also abroad, have been hitting the headlines willy-nilly, serving to emphasise our stature in all things musical, literary and design.

 

The biggest event was the shocking but not altogether surprising death of David Bowie from liver cancer. I say not surprising because, while I, and undoubtedly others, hadn’t necessarily put two and two together at the time, when he released his melancholic “The Next Day” album in 2013, it did come across as a sort of nostalgic summing up of a glittering musical career. A kind of review, in fact, encapsulating and echoing all that had gone before. Which, given what we know now, does makes sense.

 

And then there was the subsequent “Blackstar” album and its “Lazarus” single in particular, which Bowie recorded as a final farewell to his millions of fans throughout the world, releasing it on his 69th birthday just two days before he died on 10 January. “His death was no different from his life – a work of art,” as Tony Visconti, his producer on Blackstar, “Young Americans” and his seminal Berlin trilogy, “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”, aptly put it.

 

While maybe not quite on the same scale in terms of international stardom – unless you happen to be a punk/heavy rock fan, that is – Motorhead’s founder and frontman Lemmy also passed away last month too, only 48 hours after being informed that he too had an aggressive form of cancer, which was a mere four days after his 70th birthday.

 

Lemmy
Lemmy

What did make me smile through the tears though was the news of a petition, launched by his fans on activist website change.org, to name one of four newly-discovered heavy metal elements that are due to be included in the periodic table “Lemmium” in his honour. A tribute of which I’m sure Lemmy would have been proud. A tad surprised maybe, but nonetheless proud.

 

But famous pop stars aren’t the only British cultural exports being mourned at the moment. Another is motoring legend the Land Rover Defender, a 4×4 off-road vehicle renowned all over the world, which will, as of Friday 29 January, roll off production lines no more, having fallen foul of modern day emissions and crash test safety standards.

 

Something approaching two million of the iconic rattletraps have been made since first emerging on the scene in 1948 to be purchased by such high-profile personages as former Beatles singer Paul McCartney, actor Sean Connery and even video game star, Lara Croft – despite the fact they were originally designed for use by both the armed forces and farmers and were themselves based on the US Willys military jeep.

 

But it was actually Queen Elizabeth II who really made the alluring gas-guzzler synonymous with the UK when she was first spotted bouncing around behind the wheel of one in 1952 – and she’s understood to have owned quite a few of the things since.

 

 British cultural exports

 

Anyway, on a slightly more cheery note, it turns out that Landrover aficionado Sir Paul McCartney and the rest of his Beatle chums – yet another British cultural export of the music-making variety – have actually ended up giving quite a lot back to their local community of Liverpool, whether they particularly intended to or not.

 

Some 46 years after the Fab Four split up in 1970, a report commissioned by the City Council on the contemporary value of their legacy to the local economy, has revealed that it is worth an impressive £81.9 million a year and is growing at a rate of up to 15% per annum. Currently supporting more than 2,300 tourism-related jobs, the aim is to build on this foundation by relocating the British Music Experience, a museum of UK popular music since 1945, to the iconic Cunard building on the banks of the River Mersey from the O2 arena in London – once a third party operator can be found, that is.

 

But there is also talk of redeveloping Strawberry Field, the site of a Salvation Army children’s home in Woolton. It was in this garden that John Lennon apparently used to play as a child and after which he named his psychedelic rock song, ‘Strawberry Fields forever‘.

 

And such developments would appear to make sense too given the apparently rising popularity of The Beatles among young music fans both from the UK and as far away as Brazil and China, all of which is fuelling a new-found tourist boom.

 

Beatrix Potter's favourite characters
Beatrix Potter’s favourite characters

Just as popular elsewhere, meanwhile, has been the recent discovery of a long-lost manuscript by children’s author, Beatrix Potter, famous all over the world for her tiny illustrated books of whimsical characters such as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck.

 

Fittingly, seeing as this year marks the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth, the manuscript for “The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots” was tracked down by publisher Jo Hanks after she found a reference to it two years ago in a letter that Potter had written to her own publisher in 1914. As well as three manuscripts of the story, which according to Potter centres on a “well-behaved prime black Kitty cat who leads a rather double life”, Hanks also found a rough colour sketch of Kitty and a pencil rough of arch-villain Mr Tod too.

 

The new book, which is due to be published in September, likewise features some of the author’s best-loved characters such as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and an “older, slower and portlier” version of Peter Rabbit.

 

Illustrated by cartoonist, Quentin Blake, amazingly, or perhaps not, it is already a bestseller, merrily topping Amazon’s book charts months before its official appearance – an impressive fact which just goes to show that once you’ve got it, you never really lose it.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Retro trends: Keeping it real

The whole retro thing seems to be massive these days.

Fashion has gone distressingly 1970s – a look that’s no better recycled, in my opinion, than it was first time around – with its muddy brown suede, seriously unflattering flares and hippy/cowboy fringing currently all the rage.

Then there are the nostalgia-driven toys appearing all over the place – everything from 1980s cuddly Care Bears to action-packed Thunderbirds play sets and whistling Clangers to entice those of us brought up in the 1960s and 1970s – let alone our kids.

Even the film studios are in on the act. Items on the current remake list range from 1980s comedy classics Police Academy and Ghostbusters to horror movies such as Nightmare on Elm Street and An American Werewolf in London. And then there’s Dad’s Army, an adaptation of the British comedy series of the same name that was massive here in the 1960s and 1970s, and which will be having its time in the sun again next year.

They’re all at it – to the extent you can now step back in time at retro-gaming events to revisit the arcade game favourites of your youth, whether that be pinball or video giants such as Space Invaders. There’s even a Vintage Nostalgia show in Stockton, Wiltshire, where you’ll find everything from vintage cars and antique fashion to old-fashioned sweet-shop sweeties and traditional entertainment, all played out against a backdrop of classic tracks steeped in comforting nostalgia.

Old-fashioned sweeties
Old-fashioned sweeties

Because that, according to the marketers, is what it’s all about. A recent study led by Jannine LaSaleta, a nostalgia specialist who teaches marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France revealed a strange irony – that the feelings of social connectedness generated by nostalgia make most people – no matter what their age – attach less value to money, which in turn encourages them to spend more freely.

In other words, nostalgia sells – particularly in a social media age characterised by false intimacy where we broadcast our communications to the masses rather than chat with a mate, and calculate our popularity based on the number of Facebook ‘friends’ we’ve collected.

But nowhere is the “nostalgia sells” adage more true than in the case of the music world’s so-called “vinyl revival”. In fact, revenues from old-style albums have jumped a huge 69% year-on-year for the first quarter of 2015, while singles rose 23%.

Between them, they made up about 1.5% of total record sales in the UK last year – the equivalent of 1.3 million discs – compared to only 0.1% in 2007, with rock acts, in popular music terms, leading the charge.

And appropriately the top sellers included vintage rock acts such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and that old crooner, Bob Dylan – although Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds was the most popular choice overall.

Vinyl interest

In fact, in what would appear to mark a significant milestone for the industry, high street supermarket chain Tesco even started stocking the new vinyl album from ageing heavy metal boys Iron Maiden earlier in the year to see how it went, with a view to carrying more if it proved a hit. So to speak.

The UK’s Official Charts Company, meanwhile, has also found a way to mark this new-found interest by adding a vinyl Top 40 to its line-up this year, complete with separate countdowns for singles and albums – an endorsement unthinkable even a few short years ago.

The move was, in fact, made to coincide with April’s Record Store Day, an event that originated in the US in 2007 but migrated to the UK a year later. Held on the third Saturday in April to celebrate the existence of independent record stores, it is currently run by the Entertainment Retailers Association.

The idea is that each of the country’s 220 participating shops, often run by the die-hard vinyl enthusiasts who have been at the forefront of fuelling the revival, throws a party and may even be graced with the presence of artists making special appearances or undertaking performances. They are also sent a number of records specially pressed for the occasion.

Independent record shop
Independent record shop

But Record Store Day is not without its critics. Some accuse the major labels of hijacking it, while others complain it is aimed more at record collectors than your average punter – a claim backed up by the fact that an awful lot of the limited releases seem to end up being sold online at jacked-up prices.

Anyway, no matter what the truth of it, it seems that, unlike their vinyl cousins, more modern formats, counter-intuitively, are somewhat in decline. For instance, sales of CDs dropped 6.5% last year, while digital downloads fell by nearly 9%.

So just who is responsible for this surge in vinyl interest? Most pundits agree that it’s a mix. There are the youngsters and hipsters creating record collections from scratch. They buy everything from new releases to classic albums by iconic performers in order to understand the influences on current music.

Then there are the older ones who are genuinely amazed and delighted to see vinyl returning and so dig out their old record players from the loft and continue where they left off 20 years ago.

But there are also others who, like me, bought into the whole experience first time round and are now dining out on the nostalgia of it all. On the pleasure of going into an (ideally) dusty record shop, admiring the artwork on the cover, reading the lyrics on the inside and feeling the physical satisfaction of holding something real. Because no matter how you try, you can’t download that.

Britain’s black music: Is integration skin-deep?

In as few as three generations after the great waves of immigration from the Commonwealth that sated British labour shortages, “black music” can in all honesty no longer be called “black music”.

Instead in what must be record time if looking at things from a global perspective, it has simply become “music”, having moved entirely into the mainstream – although its influence on the scene in the interim has, of course, been vast.

This is one of the contentions made by my old mate Lloyd Bradley in his well-respected book on black music in the capital entitled “Sounds Like London”. Lloyd and I have known each other for more than 20 years after working at Dennis Publishing together, albeit on different publications, and whiling away many a happy moment gossiping over a cup of tea in the kitchen.

Cover of Sounds Like London
Cover of Sounds Like London

Anyway, a weekend or so ago now and a couple of years after the original launch of his book, he put on a fascinating “Sounds Like London” film festival in a great arty space called The Russet cafe and bar bang smack in the middle of Hackney Downs Studios.

The Studios themselves used to be part of a industrial estate that has since been transformed by developers Eat Work Art into a lovely little secluded area that includes shops, studio spaces and co-working environment, The Heart Space. Eat Work Art, which was formerly known as Creative Network Partners, meanwhile, sees its mission as being to reclaim abandoned buildings in London and transform them into “spaces for independent creative businesses to grow”.

Which simply has to be a good thing in an age in which rents in the capital are going through the proverbial roof and all too many creative types are being pushed out to the countryside, cheaper provincial towns or even foreign cities such as Berlin to do their thing as they can no longer afford to do it in London.

The dynamic is a well-understood one all over the world though – arty people move into run-down, deprived area because it’s cheap, making it a trendy place to be seen in the process. Over time, they find themselves pursued by young professionals, who want their own slice of “cool”, but as the wealthy immigrants progressively take over and property/rental prices start to rocket, creatives are once more forced to move to pastures new and, more importantly, cheaper. And so the gentrification cycle continues.

Which has essentially been the story of Hackney, whether we’re talking about the town or London borough. For example, when I first moved to the now disconcertingly “cool” Dalston, which is a hop, skip and a jump away from Hackney Downs, in the mid-1990s, it was really rather rundown and deprived.

Dalston

As much as I loved the buzz of the place, its amazing West Indian food market on Ridley Road and the fabulous but now deceased Kurdish restaurants on Kingsland high street, it could be quite dangerous depending on where you went – on occasion, you’d hear the jarring retort of gunshot and there were definitely pubs you knew not to go into in case you got caught in the cross-fire.

In fact, living in John Campbell Road where you’ll still find the indie Rio Cinema to this day, I was lucky enough to dwell just across from Sandringham Road, Dalston’s notorious [front] “Line”, a no-go area for those of us not involved in smack and crack cocaine.

But oh how things have changed. A gaff in the newly regenerated Line will cost you a small fortune these days. But you’d be lucky to spot a backstreet, formica-tabled Caribbean café serving immense helpings of jerk chicken and rice and peas – although one or two do still remain. Just as rarified are the dark, smoky, literally underground music clubs that never seemed to sleep and revelled in playing reggae and jungle till all hours.

Jerk chicken and rice and peas
Jerk chicken and rice and peas

Because everything is so much more sanitised now. It’s all been replaced by trendy “urban” bars, selling top-of-the-range golden ales and other aspirant craft beers. There are lots of boho chic restaurants complete with optimistic outdoor tables and voluminous ferns in the windows. And don’t forget the chichi home decor stores where you need to take out a second mortgage to afford a cushion. You simply wouldn’t recognise the place.

But anyway, to get back to the point, in light of Lloyd’s contention that black music is now a mainstream phenomenon, the obvious question that springs to mind is, have we witnessed the end of racism in this country too then? Sadly, the answer seems to be no.

According to the British Social Attitudes survey, published last year, nearly a third of us admitted to being “very” or “a little” racially prejudiced – a figure that, after falling steadily during the 1990s, has ticked up again over recent years.

But the picture across the country also varies widely. For example, while only 16% of inner London residents acknowledged their prejudice, the figure rose to 35% in the West Midlands. Older men in manual jobs were the most likely to admit bias, but levels across both genders increased with age – 25% of 17 to 34 year olds compared with 36% of over 55s. And education also seemed to have a part to play, with 19% of people sporting a degree reporting negative racial feelings compared to 38% with no qualifications.

Racism

London’s Metropolitan Police, meanwhile, also unveiled some rather depressing figures recently, indicating that the numbers of racist and religious hate crimes had leapt by 27% over the last year to a huge 13,007.

And sadly, it was London’s Muslims who suffered the single largest increase as they witnessed a massive 70% hike in Islamophobic attacks, bringing the total number of incidents to 816 in the 12 months to July 2015. Disgracefully, according to Tell MAMA, it was women wearing the hijab, or headscarf, who were the biggest single target.

But there are also more anecdotal incidents of British intolerance. There’s the case of the woman who started ranting at two men talking to each other in an Eastern European language on the London tube, telling them “you can only speak in English while you’re on my train”.

And of the group of black students denied entry to a nightclub in Leicester because of the colour of their skin. And of four Chelsea football fans who pushed a black guy off a Paris Metro train, while chanting racially abusive songs at him.

But even more worrying than such overt bigotry, it seems that institutional racism, which is much more hidden and insidious, is rife in this country too without most of us even being aware of it. The Metropolitan Police, for one, has been called out on this sorry state of affairs on a number of occasions, not least because black people in London are 12 times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites.

Metropolitan Police
Metropolitan Police

But law enforcement isn’t the only area where such behaviour is in evidence. A study based on the results of 2007’s SATS national assessment of schoolchildren’s performance, which were blind marked – that is, the examiner was unaware of students’ racial identity – found that black learners performed far better in the exams than when teachers evaluated their work. White students, on the other hand, were found to achieve much higher grades in teacher assessments than under SATS.

To make matters worse, a report published by think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research revealed earlier this year that people from ethnic minorities needed, on average, to make 10% to 150% more applications than others in order to get a job. Research going back to 2009 also found that call-back rates for job interviews were between 50% and 90% lower among people belonging to black African and Caribbean communities and those of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin.

But that’s not the end of it – similar tales can be found across all aspects of life ranging from housing to criminal justice. So it seems that, while our music may have become completely integrated, our people – and our attitudes towards them – sadly haven’t.