Sunday, April 19, 2009

Let 100 Flowers Bloom

The other day, I went with a friend to see The Boat that Rocked, a delightful comedy film about UK pirate radio, radio stations circumventing the strict UK broadcast rules by setting up at sea in the 1960s. Despite a number of anachronisms, the film is a lot of fun and captures something of the era with a rather fabulous soundtrack of mostly 60s Britpop. Plus Tom Sturridge is drop-dead gorgeous.

I won't give away the storyline let alone the ending but at the end, the film flashes up a closing piece of text to the effect that while the days of pirate radio were over, a whole new world of music and radio opened up in the UK in which commercial radio just got better and better and likewise pop music just got better and better, the implication being that now everything is wonderful.

Afterwards over coffee, I said to my friend that I had a real problem with that. Now I don't know what commercial radio is like in the UK but I can say that its equivalent in Australia is crap. I stopped listening to commercial radio 30 years ago. Of course, we do have community radio stations like 4ZZZ in Brisbane. FM radio started in this country with community radio and if there was an equivalent to the pirate radio era in Australia it was surely the glory days of FM community radio. 4ZZZ has a proud role in that history.

But commercial radio? I regard it as unlistenable and the same now goes for ABC's Triple J. I remember it as Double J in Sydney many years ago and how excited we in Brisbane were when it began broadcasting here in late 1990. But as it spread around the country, re-badged as Youth Radio, it also developed a more mainstream format so by the late 90s it had become, if not unlistenable, at least pretty boring and formulaic.

As for pop music, well, I think that has deteriorated to the point that is now turgid formulaic crap. The beauty of The Boat that Rocked was the actual sound of the era that really holds the film together. And it is a recognisable sound. The various periods of the 20th century are recognisable by their music. And it is hard to really convey to people who weren't around in the 60s just how much the music represented a shaking of the foundations, a call to newness of some sort. And the film does a good job of capturing some of that exciting sense of newness irrupting at the time. I particularly responded to the opening scenes of a kid going up to bed, putting out the light and listening to a transistor radio hidden under his pillow. I remember, myself as a young teenager doing much the same thing to listen to the Underground Music show on Radio 4IP. The term Underground Music only makes sense in the 60s. I can't imagine a program like that on commercial radio nowadays, not least because I have no idea what music it would play. The term Underground Music nowadays is meaningless.

Indeed, looking back on this past decade, the first decade of the 21st century, I'm not certain if there is any defining sound that can mark it, well certainly nothing that developed in this decade. Hip hop, rap etc are much older. They seem to be young people's music in a big way but they don't belong to the decade. And I'm not saying there isn't good music around and good new artists. There is and there are but you're unlikely to hear them on commercial radio. Instead they represent niche markets which can be found via community radio or now the internet. They also work in genres which are not new but pre-date the decade we're in too.

So I have been thinking about the 60s. I find it curious that while there has been 40s, 50s, 70s, 80s retro , the 60s has very much been overlooked in the nostalgia biz. I hope I'm not being a romantic by saying that I think it was too radical to be really retro-marketed without raising too many awkward possibilities.

The 60s was one of those strange times when the intetests of Capital aligned with massive social change and upheaval. Capital is not a single unitary phenomenon but a variety of competing elites. Back in the 60s social revolution was in the interest of some of those elites. The US, for example, always wanted the break up of the old colonial empires and the 60s was the period of massive decolonisation. It also marked the beginning of the rise of consumer capitalism dependnt on credit and constant shopping. The complaints by Turnbull and other Liberals, that people are saving the government's stimulus package rather than spendng it all, would not make sense in a pre-60s world. In many respects, the gender and sexual revolutions that were kicking off in the 60s, likewise suited the interests of Capital, or elements of it, in that whole new classes of people could be integrated into the market in their own right.

And, of course, that's what we see in The Boat that Rocked. The pirate radio station pushing subversion and rebellion is a business operation nonetheless. They have big commercial sponsors who pay their way. When pirate radio ends it is replaced by a whole new onshore commecial broadcating enterprise. And in my youth, the 60s was mediated via Australian commercial radio. Radio 4IP was a new player in the Brisbane radio scene so it was prepared to play more Underground Music to capture an audience from the older established stations. Revolution sold!

The Cultural Revolution in China is a good analogue for the era. Mao actually launched a social revolution to destroy his opponents (real and perceived) in the Party and cement his dictatorship. On one level he succeeded but on another he failed. Maybe a better analogue is the Hundred Flowers Campaign in China 1956/7. "Let a hundred flowers bloom; a hundred schools of thought contend." The greater part of the 60s was more like Capital's 100 Flowers era (although by 1968 it had morphed into more of the Cultural Revolution in some parts of the world anyway but only for a short period). So the 60s aws marked by all manner of questioning, criticism, rejection of many older forms of authority. Through this process, sectors of Capital could flush out and co-opt a range of ideas and possibilities to market and exploit. Ideas that couldn't be co-opted were ultimately sidelined and suppressed often at great cost to their protagonists. Many older institutions and structures were destroyed or transformed to suit the new directions of Capital.

So it was one of those rare moments of synergy between the ruling classes (or elements of them) and the ruled for social change. That made it an exciting period, and a period that it is also easier to forget or trivialise because such times of synergy are rare... and dangerous. So the end of pirate radio in the UK was not the start of something new and better that keeps on getting better but rather the end of a short wonderful moment of energy and creativity and transformation.

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