When I was growing up in England 50 years ago, the newspapers still periodically caused a certain amount of mirth by “outing” a national figure as not some impeccably Eton-reared patrician, as his public image seemed to imply, but a horny-handed son of the soil who had gone to the local state school and taken elocution lessons before relaunching himself as a smooth-talking toff. I can vividly recall the ill-concealed glee when the Daily Express informed us that Noel Coward had been born in the unprepossessing London suburb of Teddington, and that his father had been a traveling piano salesman known for his ripe dialect. Or, a bit later, there was the case of Norman St. John-Stevas, ultimately Lord St. John of Fawsley, the superbly shod Conservative politician who was leader of the House of Commons under Margaret Thatcher. It seemed almost endearing to learn that St. John-Stevas was born in London on May 18, 1929 (“the same birthday as his late Martyred Imperial Majesty Nicholas II,” as he told us), and had taken his surname from eliding that of his Greek pub-owning father with the middle name of his Irish mother. Good luck to him, too, but as I say there was a certain degree of public hilarity that a rank outsider from the artisan classes could have successfully reinvented himself as a mannered, self-applauding pillar of the establishment with that thin film of superiority between himself and the rest of the human race that apparently came from close acquaintanceship with Princess Margaret. On the other side of the political aisle, there was the long-running entertainment provided by the firebrand Labour MP Michael Meacher and his spirited attempts to define his proper place in the social pecking order. At one point, these saw Meacher (more recently, a vocal 9/11 conspiracy theorist) arguing the precise nuance of his late father’s trade as part of a libel action he brought against a journalist who had raised the matter in print. Only in Britain, surely, could the full majesty of the law be called upon to determine if a man had once been a “farm laborer” or “an agricultural accountant who sometimes helped out at milking time.”
More recently, however, the “revelations” in the British media have tended to view the class structure through the other end of the telescope. It’s no longer considered an offense to be, like Coward, an ill-educated, insecure, and anti-intellectual social climber, or, like St. John-Stevas, an Anglo-Greek slum boy who affected the flamboyant mannerisms of an Edwardian dandy, and liked to proffer his hand in papal fashion when encountering the public. Nowadays, in fact, the only crime is that of downward mobility—the well-educated, middle-class individual with a cut-glass accent who goes to almost comical lengths to conceal these defects, and among whose ranks can be found many, if not most, of the modern greats of popular music.
If you were in the more rabid modern pop-loving faction (I am not), you might have noted the antics of the latest cloaca-tongued singer to appear on the horizon, one Donny Tourette of the combo Towers of London. For those Chronicles readers—perhaps a majority—who may have missed it, here is the story to date: A young man (Tourette) with spiked hair and a hostile look, and wearing implausibly tight jeans, has for some time been diverting the British and American youth by swaggering around their concert stages, periodically swearing at the audience and delivering unappreciative remarks about their political leaders, in between the shouted paroxysms that constitute the more formal part of the proceedings. While resting between public performances, Tourette has been photographed with a variety of strikingly contoured female companions, and once enlivened an episode of the television show Celebrity Big Brother by diving fully clothed, drink and cigarette in hand, into a Jacuzzi. As a result, he has attained a certain cult status as pop music’s latest bozo-in-chief.
It was therefore not without amusement that the press recently discovered that Tourette was not the cruelly deprived young working-class hero he purports to be, but rather an expensively educated 32-year-old man from the affluent West London suburbs, whose family know him as Patrick Brannon. As his former drama teacher, Sandy Tuttle, put it,
The Patrick I see [on television] is not the Patrick I know. He was an extremely polite, well mannered boy who would always go out of his way to help others . . . He got an A-plus in theatre, and was a natural performer. We even cast him as a religious figure in Fiddler on the Roof because he was perfect for the role . . . he’s a very caring person.
In a further blow to Tourette’s street credibility, James Everest, the owner of a hotel near the Brannons’ home in leafy High Wycombe, said that “Patrick is the kind of lad who acts the bad boy on stage. But off stage he is a well spoken, middle-class boy who you could tell was nice to his parents and would kiss his granny.”
We can perhaps leave for another day a discussion of whether or not Tourette’s art will endure, or if his slim recorded oeuvre will be among the detritus one eventually takes to the nearest Goodwill store. But, on a broader level, it’s worth pondering why so many of the acknowledged masters of pop music over the past 50 years have been so far removed from the working class they celebrate in song and performance.
Am I alone in carrying a nostalgic torch for the British so-called punk-rock group of the 1970’s and early 80’s, The Clash? Probably not. With LP records like Give ’Em Enough Rope, Combat Rock, and London Calling (voted the “best album of the 1980’s” by Rolling Stone), they set the bar for an intoxicating mix of politicized, right-on lyrics, tunes with a proper verse-chorus structure that often edged the songs perilously close to anthem territory, and a robustly high-energy performance style. Not for nothing were they popularly called “The Only Band That Matters.” How often these days do any of us feel as excited about the imminent release of an album as so many of us did in 1985 about The Clash’s Cut the Crap (only for our expectations to be dashed by 35 minutes of abject drivel, and the announcement shortly afterward that the group had disbanded because of the familiar “creative differences”)? In particular, Clash frontman Joe Strummer caught the eye. A twitchily charismatic figure in black, he seemed to have a full set of angry-young-man credentials, including a taste for wearing distressed leather jackets and ragged jeans, and a violent antipathy to Margaret Thatcher. Add the fact that he had famously married a woman in exchange for money so that she could obtain British citizenship (he used his dowry to buy an electric guitar), and like so many of his ilk was obviously a stranger to the dentist, and you can begin to see why the phrase “spokesman for a generation” was applied to Strummer as to no other rock star since Bob Dylan.
Alas, it was another case of artistic dissimulation. “Strummer” was in fact born as one John Graham Mellor, and raised not by wolves but by a senior British foreign-service diplomat and his Scots-gentry wife. His formative years were spent at the exclusive City of London Freemen’s School in the bucolic setting of Ashtead, Surrey, not widely known as a hotbed of youth rebellion. It’s reliably said that until the age of 20 or so Mellor spoke with a fruity accent, bought his clothes at the Savoy Tailors’ Guild, and enjoyed a glass of good claret over dinner. Nothing wrong with that, you may say, although it’s perhaps hard to get from there to the lupine punk snarling out such songs as “White Riot” and “Tommy Gun.” Joe Strummer died at his home in the English countryside in December 2002, aged 50, of a congenital heart defect.
Tourette and Strummer are very far from isolated cases of well-heeled young Britons who adopted working-class mannerisms, flattened their vowels, and took to vomiting in public. In fact, this sort of artifice is the classic blueprint for much of modern pop culture, whatever one makes of the records that have resulted. I would not dream of suggesting, as a musicologist might, that such behavior lies buried deep in rock ’n’ roll’s roots in the blues—that on some level Tourette and his ilk are seeking to emulate the grinding poverty and genuine horrors endured by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters. But it’s a strange fact that, generation after generation, the archetypal working-class heroes of popular music have been on no more than nodding terms with real austerity, let alone deprivation. While they set out to make money and have as much sex as possible, their groups are seized upon as the marching bands of the revolution. It may be that the Tourettes and Strummers of this world are sufficiently privileged to identify and indulge some of their artistic fantasies, but not privileged enough that they can afford to be materially unambitious. There remains the problem of sustenance.
Should the purveyors of punk music not be to your taste, there are always the gods of classic rock. Take, for example, John Lennon. Even the most cursory perusal of his life (and there are many) reveals that he was reared in almost comical suburban comfort. It is true that Lennon barely knew his seafaring father, and that his mentally fragile mother informally gave her child up for adoption by her sister. It’s also true that from the ages of 4 to 20 Lennon lived in a large, bay-windowed villa, where there was a plant-filled conservatory and a lounge furnished by Turner seascapes and the complete works of Winston Churchill, bound in blue cloth. This was not the “flimsy slum” he later portrayed harrowingly to Creem. “We were bombed by the Luftwaffe . . . nothing was left,” Lennon once remarked, although his imagination seems to have provided more richly furnished accommodations. His family home survives intact today, a testament to an eminently respectable and materially affluent upbringing. The classic images we all have of Lennon—whether as the wisecracking moptop, the drug-gobbling surrealist, or the bearded sage haranguing a street audience through a megaphone—are as easily accessible in the mind as family snapshots in a wallet. If a common theme can be said to exist, it’s that Lennon was a card-carrying member of the proletariat; apart from the interviews and the slogans, in 1970 he even released a song entitled, without apparent irony, “Working Class Hero.” Alas, romantic as these notions are—and Lennon played on them with the utmost skill—they turn out to have had little to do with the facts. At bottom, he was another well-groomed white English adolescent who looked around for a way to avoid a career as a provincial schoolteacher or a middle-ranking civil servant, and found it in the black American R&B tradition of Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
I’ve touched upon my old friend Mick Jagger previously in these pages, so suffice it to say that his classic 1960’s public image was also somewhat removed from his private persona. The former was a lewd-minded young thug with a faux-cockney accent; the latter, who answered to “Mike,” an invariably polite, somewhat austere, and utterly dedicated artist who liked to work on a strict schedule and, the drug laws apart, had nothing to say on the burning social issues of the day. Meanwhile, Keith Richards still speaks movingly about a childhood spent in part on a council estate in the London outer suburb of Dartford—a rather twee town at heart, with long cobbled avenues of trim Edwardian houses—as if to compensate for the fact that he also played tennis at a private club, and more than once sang in his beautiful soprano voice (yes, it’s Keith Richards we’re speaking of) in front of the Queen at Westminster Abbey. These would not seem to have been the seminal experiences of men who might later be inclined to storm the palace, or spike the public water supply with LSD.
In the case of Jagger’s and Richards’s colleague Brian Jones, you would be hard pressed to find a more classically middle-class product of the England of the 1950’s. Jones spent 22 of his 27 years in the western spa of Cheltenham—still a synonym for dullness and decorum—where he excelled at school, sang in the church choir, and in general gave no sign of latent rebellion against the town’s blue-rinse image. It’s true that by the age of 19 or so Brian had persuaded several of the nubile inmates of Cheltenham Ladies’ College to join him in various displays of hormonal abandon, but set against this was the fact that he was studiously polite to his elders, impeccably well groomed (the other Rolling Stones knew him as “Mr. Shampoo”), and spoke in a clipped, BBC accent, which still counted for something in the pop culture of the day. He never lost this essential moral center, even if the familiar combination of drink, drugs, and excessive fame ultimately proved too much for his delicate constitution. It’s a small but illustrative point that, even while running up an impressive tally of overnight partners during his time with the Stones, Jones treated each of the women with almost Edwardian courtesy for the few hours of her tenure. If one of the other band members happened to say “damn” or “f–k,” for example, Brian would invariably blush, turn around to his companion, and say, “Sorry, love.” Since the Stones are still regarded in some circles as the archetypal rock outlaws, it’s worth adding that their other founding member, Charlie Watts, paused in his own apparently spirited attacks on traditional English family values in the 1960’s to take the train home most evenings to his parents’ neat home in the north London suburbs. Mrs. Lilian Watts was bemused to read that her son was involved in a group with such an equivocal reputation. “He’s always been a good boy,” she told the press in 1967, the year of the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request. “Never had any police knocking on the door or anything like that. And he’s always been terribly kind to old people. He was always a tidy dresser. That’s why I get nonplussed when he’s called ugly and dirty. When he’s home you can’t get him out of the bathroom.” Twenty years later, Watts’s father remained equally perplexed, especially because Charlie (who never learned to drive) still came up on the tube every Friday night he possibly could, “with a lovely fresh cake for me and his Mum.”
A common theme among many of those suburban English boys who became the prototype 1960’s rock stars was their attendance of an art school. It remains debatable whether that particular form of higher education did any academic good for the likes of John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, David Bowie, and Ray Davies. But it undeniably rewarded anyone with an ear for a tune and sufficient diligence to take American blues music, wring out the grief and sadness, and insert a few homespun lyrics palatable to a mass teenaged audience. Much of the truly enduring British Invasion fare came about through the efforts of young men for whom countercultural effusions coexisted alongside a daily existence of fishing, playing cricket, and worrying about graphic-design exams. With the best will in the world, it would be hard to see the Beatles, the Stones, and their like as part of any highly organized or even recognizable coup against a social order that was essentially unchanged since their grandparents’ day. Some of them, to their own surprise, may have subsequently conjured up a spirit of assumed revolt against the Britain of rationing, deference, and petty repressions, largely because the newspapers of the era told them that they had. If so, they did it by a characteristic mix of what Lennon rather quaintly called “professional zeal [and] self-improving ‘oomph,’” rather than by any ideological posturing. By and large, these were not young men with an agenda other than to work hard, make money, and enjoy themselves. When the editor of the London Times interviewed Mick Jagger in July 1967, at the height of both the Vietnam War and the Summer of Love, he was astonished to discover “a right-wing libertarian” who insisted, “I don’t really want to format a new code of living, a new code of morals.” It was a line that could serve for a whole generation of supposedly subversive pop idols whose secure yet not pampered childhoods had exposed them more to virtues such as thrift, self-help, and perseverance than they had to the diabolical ambitions of Robert Johnson.
Clearly, not every well-bred child, even those with the classic career advantages of an emotionally cold father and an indulgent, musical mother, had it in them to become a global rock star. But it remains striking to note how many of those still entertaining us from the distant stages of our local football and baseball stadiums, echoing out among the soggy junk food, are grounded in the most conservative social values. I’m reminded of watching the late Kurt Cobain, prince of “grunge” music and unwitting mouthpiece for a generation, pause in front of a backstage mirror to carefully tear his T-shirt by a few millimeters, before running on for another of his raucously anarchic concerts. That sartorial mutilation was rebellion superbly controlled. Somehow it illustrates the whole connection between performance and the middle classes, and symbolizes a pop revolution that was always less concerned with replacing one set of privileged persons with another, or with paying off old scores, than with the time-honored practice of putting on a good show.
“It’s only rock and roll,” indeed.