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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Origins of musical taste

I've been thinking  about how I came to like the music I do. Despite being classified by the GBCS as a cultural univore, my tastes are, I think, quite omnivorous. I even like country and western, well, at least Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Of course I know nothing whatsoever about the music that  young people, say under the age of  30, listen to, but then again life is short and choices have to be made. I guess my knowledge will improve a bit in 6 or 7 years time when my daughter becomes a teenager and realizes that a great way to annoy her parents is to play whatever she happens to be into at ear splitting, fight provoking, levels.
The musical consumption technology in my family home was, by the standard of the time, quite good. Round about 1972 my dad bought a hi-fi: Keltron speakers, Amstrad IC 2000 amplifier and Garrad SP25 Mk. IV deck. What was played on it was not high culture, it wasn't even contemporary popular culture - as I've mentioned before, my parents' tastes were really formed before the the sixties pop revolution. So we had a diet of maudlin ballads about old shep, bagpipe bands marching through the heather to scare the shit out of Johnny English (though as Billy Connolly once observed, you can't march through heather without falling on your arse), Mantovani, James Last, Val Doonican, Jim Reeves (my mother's favourite), Andy Stewart and non-cast recordings of family musicals like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music picked up from the Woolworths bargain bin. I think we had two LPs of classical music. One was a Classics for Pleasure 1812/ William Tell overture combo. The other was Grieg's piano concerto. Why those? I have no idea. 
As a child I  had an overdose of Grieg. At primary school an ancient crackly recording of the Peer Gynt Suite was played every morning  as we filed into  assembly. I guess educational theorists recommended it as soothing. It is in fact one of the few things I can remember about my primary education, the others being  taking a penny for the "Boot Fund" box so that poor children could have shoes (amazingly this still exists) and my dad racing up to the school in his lunch hour to give the headmistress a row because another child had scribbled in my writing book and I had got the blame. After that the teacher hated me and shortly afterwards I was moved to another class.
I didn't pay much attention to popular music until I was 12 or 13. By that time I had my own transistor radio and could lie in bed at night listening to Radio Luxembourg. This was not terribly conducive to the development of any sort of musical appreciation. The reception was awful,  the earphone hurt, the music was crap and anyway I was more interested in listening to football commentary than pop music. I wasn't even interested in Top of the Pops, let alone the Old Grey Whistle Test which I don't think I saw until around 1976. 
My epiphany was listening to Alan "Fluff" Freeman's Saturday afternoon Radio 1 show while I was supposed to be doing my homework.  In fact I was mostly recording the music on a reel-to-reel tape-recorder my dad had bought off a work-mate for a couple of quid. That's where I first heard Free, Derek and the Dominoes, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Bee Bop Deluxe, Barclay James Harvest, Pink Floyd, Renaissance, Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers, Black Sabbath, Focus and so forth. That's what I liked until I was 16 or so. All pretty standard white-boy prog rock. 
Was there any social basis to this taste? To some degree there was, but it was very heavily restricted by  social homogeneity of my peer group.  There simply weren't many middle-class kids to interact with. At my school there may have been the odd son or daughter of a professional say a secondary teacher, a dentist or a solicitor, but I can't actually remember any. The axes of distinction were more along the lines of rough/respectable working class, grammar school stream/others, boys/girls, age-group and to a limited extent white/ethnic (though actually there were very few ethnic minorities unless you counted the Scots, Irish and Welsh). 
If you were a lad in a grammar school stream it was social death not to like some form of progressive rock. For reasons that were and are still quite obscure to me it was not possible to like both Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, you had to choose. Pink Floyd was compulsory whatever your other preferences. Genesis and Yes were permissible, but considered a bit wet. Liking Faust, Hawkwind or Barclay James Harvest put you amongst the cultural avant garde.  Clearly this was all about tribal identity and your membership of the tribe was announced by reproducing in acrylic on the back of your army surplus haversack an album cover of one of the clan totems. I don't remember which particular groups you professed to like was particularly important for friendship choices as long as they fell within the approved set. Though I claimed to like Led Zeppelin, most of my friends belonged to the Deep Purple faction and one even liked The Who.
Certain preferences were marginal but accepted because of the charisma of the individuals holding them. Elton John and Sparks were regarded as potentially a bit poofy but OK because one of the year's  football stars liked them. Similarly Queen was within the pale because they were the favourites of the year's outstanding rugby player (I think camp was not a word in his or our vocabulary). Other preferences were tolerated without being endorsed. There was a group of "Soul Boys" in the non grammar school stream, but we wouldn't have anything to do with them. There was also a small group of reggae/funk fans who were into Bob Marley, Steel Pulse, War and that kind of thing.They were tolerated on a live and let live basis mostly because they tended to be tough black kids who commanded a certain amount of wary respect. Popular amongst some of the  art-crowd, a little older than us, were The Faces, Roxy Music and David Bowie.
What was on the other side of the cultural divide was commercial pop, the sort of thing that  girls liked: The Bay City Rollers, The Osmonds, disco, Sheena Easton, the stuff you could see on Top of the Pops. To say you liked that was social death.
What strikes me now about all this is its arbitrariness. For all I know a mile down the road at a neighbouring school the lines of division could have been  and probably were quite different. There might have been some generic similarity but the details, and it was the details that were important for us, were purely local. I doubt if there was anyone of my age in my social milieu that liked or knew anything about classical music, jazz, folk or world music. I learned about them much later. Over the past week I've relaxed in the evening to Bix Beiderbecke, Wayne Shorter, Oscar Peterson, Benjamin Britten, Arnold Bax and Gil Scott-Heron. Cultural omnivore or cultural univore? High on cultural capital or low on cultural capital?

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