Punk-U-Like

Dave Haslam

  • The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi
    Faber, 230 pp, £14.99, March 1995, ISBN 0 571 15086 1
  • The Faber Book of Pop edited by Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage
    Faber, 813 pp, £16.99, May 1995, ISBN 0 571 16992 9

Pop music in Britain is almost forty years old. By 1957 ‘Rock around the Clock’ had opened a generation gap, London-based record labels like EMI, Decca and Pye had started to refine the art of hit-making, and Manchester had an import record shop bringing American rhythm and blues direct to Northern youth. By the mid-Sixties Jamaican sound systems in South London, Birmingham and the North of England were playing the bluebeat and ska records that marked the ripening of reggae. In 1964, while rock ‘n’ roll, soul, rhythm and blues, and beat music were mutating into vying forms, and laying down roots in British cities, Brian Epstein had taken the Beatles over to America, and the Beatles had taken over America.

In St Petersburg, on the other hand, youth culture has been left alone to flourish only for the last year or two. A venue-owner in the city recently told me that he has nearly three hundred local bands lined-up to play over the next four months. But this enthusiasm doesn’t mean that there are any quick – or even slow – bucks to be made in Russian pop music. The local bands have little access to records from abroad, and no means of production or distribution of their music other than rudimentary tapes recorded on eight-track machines at gigs and passed on through friends. The bands, it seems, all want to be the Sex Pistols; a fair choice. The Faber Book of Pop reprints an interview with the Sex Pistols in which one of them tells an NME journalist that ‘we’re into chaos.’ There’s plenty of that in St Petersburg: to be like the Sex Pistols you need mastery of only two (or maybe three) chords and something to say – or shout – above the equally discordant sound made by falling roubles, gangsters’ Mercs and roaring inflation.

The predicament of St Petersburg’s bands throws Britain’s situation into sharp relief; in the last four decades, pop music has thoroughly infiltrated this country. In 1994 £900 million worth of records, CDs and tapes were sold in Britain. The music industry recorded a trade surplus of £571 million, making it as big a contributor to the nation’s wealth as the steel industry and a better performer than either the oil or pharmaceutical sectors. The economic activity surrounding live performances and dance clubs also has an impact on the economy, as young people juggle their Giros to ensure a Saturday night out. The other lunchtime I heard a Portishead song being played in Spud-U-Like, and every weekend since 1988 motorway service stations on the M6 and M62 have been haunted by clubbers who spend the nights journeying between venues in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and the Midlands.

Pop music has also stormed the citadel of literary fiction, and characters in novels such as Karline Smith’s Moss Side Massive and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity are identified, and minutely differentiated, by their music tastes. The characters in The Black Album tend not to be pinned down by their music tastes. Chili, the central character’s brother, is, in fact, one of the most alarmingly eclectic music fans in contemporary British fiction, listening to the Rolling Stones one minute, and the Pakistani qawali singer Nasrut Fatah Ali Khan the next. Chad – a hardline Muslim trying to forget a slightly shady past – insists that ‘pop music is no good for me. Nor for anyone... I used to be a music addict... it was overtaking my soul,’ yet he can’t stop himself looking through someone’s record collection to find his favourite Prince LP.

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