I was listening to The Ramones blasting through Tom Waits’s I Don’t Wanna Grow Up this morning. While an unacknowledged highlight of their twilight years, it also seemed to have a certain tragic poignancy now that three of the original Ramones have prematurely gone to that great Bowery Bar in the sky.
Hearing Da Bruvvers (always a good way to start any day) has set me to thinking. So much of our outlook has been moulded by pop culture to the extent that we tend to define ourselves against our idols. Strangely, if we see them constantly we never notice them aging, in much the same way as we don’t notice changes in our siblings. Only when you look at pictures from long ago and make direct comparisons do you see the change. It’s the same with our own faces. We like to think we look at the same person in the mirror every day, but the creep of age is imperceptible, like erosion on the sandstone of an old tenement building.
Inspired by my Ramones encounter, I’m currently listening to loads of old punk records – at the moment Dancing the Night Away by The Motors is chuntering along on a wave of gob and guitars – and reflecting that my earliest musical memories were of punk, which evolved into the mass consciousness just as I was becoming aware of music beyond my parents’ Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan albums. Jon Savage, in his classic book England’s Dreaming, is at pains to point out the sheer alien-ness of the 1970s, although being a mere lad at the time I wasn’t really tuned into the Ballardian despair of the times, being more concerned with Action Men and 2000AD comics. Still, looking back at the cultural forces which shaped the music of the day, you can’t imagine the same thing happening again.
Unfortunately, the day punk lost any anti-establishment credibility was the day people like Ferne Cotton started wearing Ramones t-shirts. The fad for recycled band t-shirts, which at its apotheosis saw Robbie Williams declaring how he was rich beyond his wildest dreams while wearing a Shout at the Devil-era Motley Crue t-shirt, seems to have died down, but it represented what, for me, was a worrying trend. Everything was fair game for nostalgia, as long as we all adopted a knowing mask of irony. The fact that Mr Williams wouldn’t have known a Crue album if it jumped up and fellated him in the back of a tour bus is neither here nor there. It’s all just fashion, and fashion fades.
But a preoccupation with irony, in which we’re encouraged to take nothing seriously and strip mine our collective memories for artefacts with which to furnish the bachelor pads of our post-modern minds, has the effect of making us take nothing seriously. The reason I, and many other people my age, eventually grew to loathe The Darkness, was because they treated it all as a big joke. What they failed to grasp was that even at their most ludicrous, most heavy metal bands take what they do very seriously indeed, as do their fans; even while Angus Young is duck walking in front of a giant inflatable naked woman you can see that he means business.
When I was younger, we lived through music. It defined your identity. Friendships were forged based around what albums you could swap with people. You’d sling an armful of records into an old HMV carrier bag and head off to your mate’s house and make a point of listening to them. I’m not one of these old farts who maintains that vinyl had a certain charm and the art of the compilation tape is just as worth keeping as the skills of a stonemason, but it was a very serious business. Whilst I love my i-Pod I can’t help but feel that this obsessive need to share everything, with everybody, all the goddam fucking time, has diminished what it was that made music interesting to many people of my generation. The fact that it was something you only shared with your mates was what made it special, as it was what made you special, at least in your own eyes.
All this online stuff has done has made us six year olds swapping football cards again to fill our empty albums. If music is just about filling up empty spaces, then it will go the same way as all those Pannini albums once the season is over – dumped beneath the bed if it’s lucky, or else thrown out with the old comics.
And that would be a tragedy.