Civilise the rebels and the music dies

12th January 2001 at 00:00
am getting increasingly worried where our next generation of rebellious, dirty, arrogant young rock'n'roll stars is going to come from.

Take, for example, the government-funded Youth Music Action Zones, launched last month by the National Foundation for Youth Music with the endorsement of Culture Secretary Chris Smith.

The aim is worthy enough: to provide musical opportunities in areas of need and to deliver the music young people want rather than what the arts establishment thinks is good for them. At the launch a government official proudly said that this meant favouring hip hop over opera, rap rather than Rachmaninov and guitars instead of string quartets.

Now, I don't want to sound churlish because I have long campaigned, often in these very pages, both for greater funding for youth music and against elitism in the arts. But let's think for a minute about what is going on here.

When the Beatles started out in Liverpool they didn't expect Harold Macmillan's pinstriped ministers to sponsor them. The Sex Pistols were not offered a government-funded rehearsal room in which to practise their spitting and sneering. The cry of parents and teachers everywhere used to be "turn that bloody racket down!" Now it's "did you know you can get a government grant to buy a new amplifier?" Rock music used to be born of frustration. It was about doing your own swaggering thing, thumbing your nose at boring old farts in authority, venting your anger and rejecting everything that had gone before. An act of defiance and independence, even of insurrection and sedition. And it certainly had nothing to do with government initiatives or the classroom. "School's out forever," Alice Cooper once celebrated. "We don't need no edu-cashun," Pink Floyd sang. Now we've got government initiatives to find and encourage our best school rappers.

The paradox struck me last March when I accompanied Mick Jagger to his old school where he was opening a performing arts centre named in his honour. After the ceremony the school rock band played their version of the early Rolling Stones hit Satisfaction. As it happens they were rather good. But when they told me their last gig was at the mayor's garden party, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

In Jagger's day rock musicwas something you did when that joyful moment arrived and you were let outside the school gates. The Stones practised in a shed sound-proofed with egg boxes. Their creativity was fuelled by frustration and honed by struggle. Would they ever have written Satisfaction, Jumpin' Jack Flash and Honky Tonk Woman if they'd started life as the official school rock band and the headmaster had sat in the front row tapping his foot approvingly? I doubt it.

I remember telling my careers teacher I wanted to play in a band. He asked if I'd ever considered a job in a bank. It only made me more determined. These days he'd probably recommend a vocational course on the music industry. If we carry on incorporating our young musicians into the mainstream, all we are going to be left with is a bunch of clean-cut, wholesome boy and girl bands who help pensioners with their shopping and give up their seats on the bus to pregnant women. Is that what we really want?

Of course, loutishness will still rear its ugly head from time to time. But be honest, aren't you rather glad it does? Our lives would have been considerably more boring in recent years without the snarling, bad boy antics of Noel and Liam Gallagher.

At a Youth Music Action Zones launch, an official expressed the hope that the scheme might find "the new Oasis". What she didn't understand was that the Gallagher brothers' school was the street and if they had diligently done their homework their music would have sounded very different. And almost certainly inferior.

Admittedly not all great rock music comes from such roots. Oasis's rivals Blur are well-educated art-school boys. Radiohead, currently Britain's biggest band, are almost egg-headed in their seriousness and Marilyn Manson, the most outrageous singer in America just now, also happens to be the most educated and articulate rock musician I've ever met.

And it was ever so. Many of the biggest stars of the 60s went to art school, while Jagger went to the London School of Economics.

No one is arguing that our future rock musicians can only succeed by turning their backs on education. But let's not incorporate their music too closely into the educational establishment. For their own good.

Nigel Williamson is a music journalist

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