Not so deaf, dumb and blind

16th May 1997 at 01:00
England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie By Michael Bracewell, Harper Collins, #163;18.

One of my favourite television adverts featured a groover holding up placards bearing what he guessed to be the words of impenetrably sung pop songs - Desmond Dekker's famous reggae anthem, "My Ears Are Alight" and so forth. In contrast to that hapless groover, and anyone else whose singalongs always degenerate into nonsenses or apologetic "dee-dee-doos", Michael Bracewell is clearly someone who knows and remembers all the lyrics to every pop song he has ever heard.

He makes full use of this talent in England is Mine, a book that surveys and analyses the history of English pop music, together with films, books, ads, paintings - in fact, just about everything Bracewell can draw on to advance his ideas.

According to the dustjacket blurb, those ideas have something to do with the essence of Englishness, the English dream, and the lost Arcadia of the English pastoral, but I had to check the blurb because the ostensible themes of England is Mine are often mislaid during Bracewell's frenetic quest to discover more and more examples to illustrate subsidiary points.

Despite that, and despite his penchant for easy generalisation and some irksome stylistic tics and tricks - and much to my own surprise - England is Mine works. This is a wonderfully intriguing book, overflowing not only with examples and insights but with real verve and panache. Although he often loses his grasp on his overall argument, Bracewell more than compensates for that by making the most of his intellectual and literary vivacity. Summarising the impact of Elvis in the 1950s, for example, he concludes that in a drab, shabby England, "pop stood out like a sore thumb to be sucked". A few pages later, he provides an inspired analysis of the Mods, showing that, however inadvertently, The Who in particular were questioning sexual attitudes and suchlike, opening English pop up to issues more profound than finding a girl for some huggin' and a-kissin'.

The competition is very strong but perhaps the best part of this book arrives when Bracewell takes an intelligent and sympathetic look at the English suburbs - paradoxical places where city-dwellers can supposedly live in the country, where intended bourgeois paradises have become "synonymous with the sinister and the sad", and where many angst-ridden adolescents, like The Cure's Crawley-born front man, Robert Smith, have rehearsed the callow turmoil that would soon propel them to global fame. Typically, Bracewell provides at this point a comparison of The Cure's lush but formulaic and self-regarding lyrics to the novels of Lawrence Durrell, before inserting a discussion of early Carry On films, noting that these always looked "as though they were filmed in Morden on a wet Tuesday afternoon".

Bracewell is at his impressive best when he is performing such intellectual riffs - playing with ideas, plucking persuasive similes from apparently unlikely sources, rarely hitting a dud note. He has a disarmingly high success rate with his quips, too, and regularly proves that he has the knack of conjuring up a memorable turn of phrase. Evelyn Waugh is "rigid with neurotic snobbery" and Waugh's hero Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited is granted "the sense of superiority born of grim misanthropy".

The German group Kraftwerk "played with the cliches of Teutonic efficiency" to become "the Swingle Singers of the Economic Miracle". Two superb paragraphs pinpoint the strange appeal of Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley of The Human League - their banal yet disconcerting stage presence Bracewell brilliantly identifies as carrying "an independence and home-grown glamour", plus a feminist strength suggesting they "could either dance around a handbag or hit you with it".

Inevitably, this kind of fizzing polemic invites lots of objections and begs many questions. Why try to set the parameters between Oscar Wilde and jungle music, for example, when Bracewell is really focusing on pop music in the years between 1968 and 1986? Why not take into some kind of account the built-in obsolescence of the pop industry? Etcetera. But for once the prose outweighs all the cons so that I gave up on any attempt to argue and settled back to admire a bravura performance.

Harry Ritchie's book The last Pink Bits: travels through the remnants of the British Empire is published by Hodder amp; Stoughton (#163;17.99)

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