Slumped in front of the tv last night after a long day of fieldwork about energy usage in Worcestershire, I got Peter Hooked into Danny Baker’s pop music o’ the past chat programme on BBC4, Danny Baker’s Rockin’ Decades. Despite the (I have to assume deliberately) naff title, it was compelling viewing. There’s a link for those in the UK to the BBC iPlayer – it’s on there for the next week.
Baker’s going decade by decade on BBC4, an hour’s chat and clips per decade, giving his tuppeny ‘orth on the spirit of each decade in popular music. It’s the kind of iconoclastic stuff we know and love Danny Baker for.
Baker is known by many for his period at the NME in the 70s championing the emerging punk scene. But boy does he want to escape that now: not that he has abandoned punk completely but that he has realised the way punk has been culturally packaged and presented as an artefact to look back on is very … well, un-punk. The punk thing to do is precisely what Baker does in this programme: subvert the narrative about punk.
The lazy orthodoxy about punk was that it was a much needed bucket of cold water thrown onto a bloated, comfortable, corporate music industry which had lost touch with reality. The absurdity and tedium of much prog rock represented what was wrong about the music scene in the mid 70s. But Baker now suggests: perhaps prog rock wasn’t such an offence to culture as we have told ourselves it was; maybe some of it was OK. And in any case, prog rock had peaked by around 1973. What punk was really kicking against in 1976 wasn’t the virtuoso wizard noodling of Rick Wakeman, but the comfortable pop of ABBA and ELO.
It doesn’t mean the lazy orthodoxy isn’t true though. Viv Albertine of The Slits pulled rank on Baker and stood up for the received narrative: as a 17 year old in 1976, the music scene was underwhelming and irrelevant. Yes she saw Dr Feelgood at Dingwalls and they were entertaining, but nothing really spoke to her until The Damned, the Sex Pistols and all came along. I was more convinced by Albertine than Baker; but I salute his mission to cut against the grain.
The quality of the guests was mixed, but Baker’s seemingly insatiable drive to confound the expectations of the complacent extended to his choice of contributors. Loyd Grossman on alternative culture anyone? If you could get past the famously twisted vowels, he did have something to say. Albertine was the pick of the bunch of the two shows I watched.
In the 80s show, I was less enthralled by Pauline Black (though I like her generally): I just thought she didn’t have much to say about the 80s beyond her own milieu of early 80s 2 Tone and Ska. Adam Buxton’s honesty was refreshing and confounded expectations in his own way. Despite being a fan of the Fall now, he admitted they scared him then. He said he shied away from bands that he thought would have contempt for his Southern, private school, privileged life, which I found quite touching. Buxton imagined bands like Orange Juice would be nice to him, so he gravitated towards them.
But happily, for the 80s programme, Baker chose to give us The Fall’s performance of Big New Prinz from the I Am Kurious Oranj show with Michael Clark & Company at the Edinburgh Festival, 1988. One of the great pop music moments, for me:
And it says something about the 80s too: even The Fall got glamorous and theatrical then. In their own way though. I can’t see Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet writing an album around the theme of the accession of William III to the throne. As an Ulster Protestant, I Am Kurious Oranj perhaps makes more sense to me than to some less affected by the events of 1688. If only Ballyquin Loyal Sons of Ulster and the like would blow their flutes and rattle their drums on the 12th July to The Fall’s Wrong Place, Right Time instead of The Sash, the parades issue would be transformed. As pasta sauce pumper Loyd Grossman put it in the 70s programme: “All revolutions ultimately end in the banality of a disco ball.” Even the Glorious Revolution. Which is why David Holmes is more important to understanding my native culture than the Grand Master of the Orange Lodge.