Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll

Sunday saw the first installment of a new four part documentary series on BBC2 entitled 'Girls And Boys - Sex And British Pop', and rather good it was too.

Beginning in the 1950s with the advent of British rock 'n' rollers like Billy Fury and moving on to consider The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Jimmy Hendrix amongst others, the programme traced the way in which pop impacted upon culture (and particularly gender and sexuality) and vice versa.

There was much to enjoy, not least the odd assortment of talking heads - everyone from Cilla Black to Yoko Ono - and the original footage of gigs like The Stones' triumphant 1969 Hyde Park show, a few weeks before the nightmare of Altamont. It was fascinating to learn that the whole industry in Britain was set in motion by a few ambitious and flamboyant entrepreneurs with an eye for a pretty face (the music business consequently becoming one of the only spheres of life in which attitudes to homosexuality were more liberal), as it was to hear how the carefully construction and manipulation of stars' public images is not at all a new phenomenon.

What emerged was a sense of the profound radicalism of songs overtly about sex and of men having long hair and wearing make-up, a radicalism which has dissipated. By wearing dresses on stage in the early 1990s, Kurt Cobain and Nicky Wire weren't so much being radical as harking back to a time when such gestures were novel and had a much bigger impact.

Certainly the next three episodes promise much.

The broader theme of the series - how music influences society and culture, and vice versa - is one on which I've been focused of late, as I've made my way into 'England's Dreaming', Jon Savage's dense chronicle of The Sex Pistols and the British punk explosion. Malcolm McClaren actually appeared in 'Girls And Boys', and the night of the programme I read a section of the book in which Savage quotes McClaren enthusing about Billy Fury's manager Larry Parnes, in Savage's words "the most outrageous, flamboyant Rock 'n' Roll impresario of them all" and "the creator of what we today understand as the English music industry". Thus far, 'England's Dreaming' has been a gripping if occasionally bewildering read.


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