Your da is at it again.
He and your mum are throwing a dinner party and you had no plans this weekend, and it’d been a while since you’d seen them, so out of sheer obligation there you are, wolfing down an authentic spread of steak, spuds & salad and sifting through the craic. Spotify’s on – your da’s tunes. Old school stuff. Bantering around the table are some of his work friends, a couple of couples the family know from way back when and your uncle who supports UKIP and is wondering why your aunty, his sister, deleted him on Facebook and won’t accept his new friend request. All is convivial enough, you just get locked into a conversation with your mum, and then, all of a sudden, your da’s belly-laugh cuts through everything.
He’s holding forth and, although you didn’t hear what he was laughing at, it was almost – actually, scrap the “almost” – certainly one of his own jokes. But, by this point, he’s had a few. It’s clear he’s upping the ante; revving up for more. You cringe and bow your head as your da clears his throat.
“That Twitter? You won’t catch me on there. It’s just a bloody echo chamber. I mean, those Corbyn supporters,” he begins, taking a glug of rosé, “are like a religion. They follow Marx, Engels and Trotsky as –”
“You forgot Lenin!” one of your da’s workmates excitedly pipes up.
“And Stalin,” your uncle guffaws.
“They follow Marx, Engels and Trotsky,” your da continues, “as if they are the Bible, but they were creatures of their time. If Marx was alive now he would have a completely different view, but they crystallise it into a faith. You have to be a true believer.”
“Here he goes again,” your mum groans, but your uncle is impressed.
“Damn right,” he says.
This is all the encouragement your da needs to whip his soliloquy up to a stirring, tempestuous crescendo.
“They’re out of touch. Just no understanding whatsoever of the modern world,” and it is here that he reaches, oh how he reaches; he reaches for the analogy, “It’s like when Bob Dylan went electric. He had the folk music with the harmonica – they thought that was proper music. When he went electric they booed him. Labour went electric when we revised Clause 4 and appealed to a much larger group and they want us to go back to playing folk again.”
It’s too much. You rise from your seat, fling open the front door and run, just run. Your da is Labour MP Alan Johnson, and your life is a living hell.
Apart from the bit about Twitter, these are comments made by Johnson in an interview with the Times, in which he also typifies Jeremy Corbyn supporters as “tyrannical middle-class smartarses.” Despite this being psephologically inaccurate, it’s worth saying that this isn’t just some corpulent Etonian Times journalist flinging the “you’re a bourgie!” mud. Johnson, a former postman who dropped out of school at 15 has – like fellow class warriors Michael Gove and Sajid Javid – impeccable proletarian credentials in every way, with the exception of his staid Blairite politics.
But Johnson, who has served as Education and Home Secretaries, once dreamed of a life outside the political or postal spheres. The MP, who is – I kid you not – apparently known as “The Modfather of Westminster” harboured ambitions as a young man of pop stardom. He formed a band called The Area, for whom he played lead guitar, and whose “varied repertoire” included the songs of such wildly disparate white British Invasion-era rock bands as the Rolling Stones, the Monkees, the Small Faces and the Troggs. In 1967 they even cut a single, which sounds like all the aforementioned bands, but unfortunately failed to secure a record deal, and sooner than later Johnson found himself working as a clerk at Remington Electrical Shavers.
The man clearly has previous with popular music, and that’s why one of the most remarkable things any tyrannical smartarse – middle-class or otherwise – will notice in his strained Corbynsceptic simile is that, simply put, Alan Johnson doesn’t know shit about Bob Dylan.
The first and most pedantic point to make is that he draws a distinction between “the folk music with the harmonica,” and Dylan’s subsequent, electric work, as if Dylan isn’t tooting away in C major at the end of every chorus of his quintessential “going electric” song, Like a Rolling Stone; as if he didn’t do this at literally the show at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where he was booed by folk fans for playing with an electric rock band, or at the show in Manchester the next year where a folkie in the audience infuriated him by calling him “Judas.” Dylan didn’t start playing with a rock band and promptly begin cramming the instrumental breaks of his songs with his wild, breakneck shredding; that his songs would come “with the harmonica” is as inherent to Dylan’s musical aesthetic as his reedy vocals.
Nor was Dylan really calling time on folk as a whole with his transition to electric music. He was certainly calling time on himself as a key figure of the folk movement, but this has to do with a process of mystification, de-didacticisation and depoliticisation that his songwriting had entered into starting with his (solo acoustic) 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan, on which he broke decisively with the powerful but prosaic protest folk model and began to deal in a kaleidoscopic array of abstract imagery. From thereon, whilst authoring the odd protest song like George Jackson or Hurricane, he considered himself apart from the milieu and could be absolutely scathing about political folkies like Phil Ochs, telling him “you’re not a folksinger, you’re a journalist”.
This is the transformation Dylan underwent both in his artistic process and how he chose to present himself as a public figure – fed by an adventurous musician’s desire to make the type of music that excited him, and not have to conduct himself as the “spokesman for a generation.” Dylan’s music would remain rooted in folk traditions and, within two years of “going electric,” he would release John Wesley Harding, an austere album that found him spinning stark tales of Americana over his acoustic guitar, harmonica and a spare rhythm section. Two years after that, he made the splendidly un-rock’n’roll gesture of going to Nashville and crooning over a breezy half hour of unapologetically slick country music, released as Nashville Skyline, which he followed up with his baffling cover album Self Portrait, from which he drew deep from the folk canon. The records Dylan has made so far in the 21st century feel like they were recorded at least 20 years before he “went electric.” Johnson was alluding to the direction in which Dylan pushed popular music by “going electric”, but anyone who thinks Dylan ever abandoned folk music to the extent Blairites have abandoned any semblance of traditional social democracy honestly doesn’t know shit about Bob Dylan.
But if we are to humour yer da Alan Johnson – and take him at his word that Blair’s scrapping of Clause Four (the section of the Labour constitution committing the party “by hand or by brain” to common ownership) represented a move into the brave new world of amplified rock music – then there is maybe something to his (*cough*) laboured analogy. This is provided you accept that, just as folk was in the mid-60s, the rock band form has been superseded in cultural primacy by numerous others: that, just as folk had by the mid-60s, it has matured into near-stagnation, its ageing establishment forever crystallised as its platonic ideal.
Because Alan Johnson is your da, he’s not been privy to too many of the developments in popular music since Dylan strapped on a Stratocaster in 1965: as far as he’s concerned, the band (or the Band) plugged in, “play(ed) it fuckin’ loud,” Peter Seeger hopped up and down in rage, trying to cut the cords with an axe, but really all the dumb folkies were shut up for good (and their dumb left-wing politics with them) and that was that. Rock had won, rock ‘n’ roll, baby, and we were all rockin’ forever with our cocks out til our socks fell off. Fuck yeah, baby, rock ‘n’ roll all night: balls to the wall and TVs out the window.
But in 2016 rock as social movement is basically dead. Rock as genre is still alive and kicking, and some of it is good, but there’s no way rock bands in 2016 have anywhere near the kind of cultural epicentrality they once did. The biggest-selling bands – both in terms of touring and what still counts for record sales – include many of the same names Johnson would’ve been bumping back in the ‘60s, thinking retirement looks deeply unappealing as they skim the tops off the deep pockets of the baby boomer rockers who enjoyed them first time round.
Rock got its social power from being a common point around which young people could rally, but it no longer serves such a purpose for a number of reasons: reasons demographic – along with its ageing fanbase rock has traditionally been quite exclusionary towards women and minorities, including the people of colour who birthed it – material – just as the two-turntables-and-a-microphone set-up of hip-hop was born from the slashing of funding for state music programmes in urban America, many now find that the most convenient and accessible way for them to make music is on a laptop – and cultural – as musical trends have simply shifted away, many times over, from the traditional formula of the guitar-drum-bass combo, often so conservative in practice. Alan Johnson is probably correct that, in 2016, Blairism is about as fresh and exciting as guitar-based rock music.
If we are to accept the terms of Johnson’s simile, we must accept that, in 1994, Blair’s Labour Party – with all their “fuck public ownership!” vigour – were as genuinely fresh and exciting as when Bob Dylan made some groundbreaking records that honestly hold up a lot better than the record of the last Labour government. This is an impossible task, and if you polled Labour members today I have a strong feeling Dylan would score a higher approval rating than Tony Blair. However, for the sake of the dialectic, I will allow New Labour to represent the classic rock tradition, including but not exclusively consisting of electric Dylan. Noted N.W.A. enthusiast, beer drinker and invisible Lib Dem leader Tim Farron thinks Blair is analogous to the Stone Roses because he “prefer(s) the early stuff” of a band with two albums, but who gives a fuck what Tim Farron thinks.
Johnson has spun a nice little fairytale for Blairites to scare their kids to sleep with, and the villains – amidst the primordial acoustic ooze of pre-Blair social democracy – are the old bogeymen of Labour’s 1980s internal struggles: the nasty Bennites, the sinister Militant entryists, or, rather, the beard-stroking folk strummers who love harmonica but only in an acoustic setting. The left unplugged, with their unreasonable demands for more steaming coffeehouse jams or public ownership of major industries and utilities.
But Corbyn’s supporters are not just the old Bennite or Militant tendencies (although there is little reason for anyone serious about radical socialist change in this country not to wish him the best). Corbyn has succeeded where Tony Benn failed in the 1980s and brought a huge influx of new members, young and old, many of whom who have never been in organised politics before or who, to the baffling chagrin of some of his opponents, previously supported other parties before switching their allegiance to Labour. What is clear is that only a tiny fraction of the members come from Trotskyist or Marxist-Leninist organisations – who in Britain boast at best two-to-three-thousand members – and theirs are largely submerged under a deluge of more relevant, vital left-wing voices. The politics espoused by Labour under Corbyn’s leadership are miles away (in what is in many ways, frankly, a rightward direction) from Bennism, let alone any variation of communism.
Hence, if we are to strengthen your da Alan Johnson’s flawed formula (doing him a solid here) in which Blairites are classic rock and the old left is folk music, we must ponder who the new left – Momentum, the “Corbynistas”, “Nazi Stormtroopers” if you’re a bullying reactionary fucko richboy – really are, and who Owen Smith – who is definitely not, he assures us, a Blairite, and therefore cannot be classic rock – and the movement behind him really are, in musical terms.
If we’re talking folk music – and we’re talking folk music – then it’s worth pointing out that Bob Dylan playing an electric guitar didn’t really kill it dead. In fact, as we’ve established, it didn’t even kill it dead within the Dylan canon. Plenty of people listen to artists who’ve come from the folk and Americana scenes, and there are some great songwriters who’ve even experienced a reasonable degree of commercial success in recent years, such as Josh Tillman (the former Fleet Foxes drummer who records bitter sarcasm as Father John Misty), Laura Marling, or Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. I’d posit the suggestion that, in the world of modern folk, the Corbyn movement are Bon Iver – pushing the boundaries, steeped in history but not wedded to tradition, using autotune even though they can sing perfectly fine, thank you, coming up with a radical new vision, but one sweepingly transformative enough that it maybe won’t be realised overnight (Bon Iver’s new album took five years to make, and the route to parliamentary socialism Corbyn is attempting could not be accomplished in only nine months.) Owen Smith and the movement behind him are Mumford and Sons – churning out abysmal sanitised shit, teeming with empty echoes of superior work and banal platitudes. But this all falls apart when you consider how Mumford and Sons are incredibly popular and Owen Smith’s campaign has most likely been an abject failure (I mean, if he wins next week, like, sorry?)
Although Mumford and Sons recently had their own poorly received “going electric” moment, Owen Smith and the fine denizens of Saving Labour really beg comparison to another strand of popular music, one more indebted to the classic rock tradition than the waistcoat wankers of Mumford Inc. They are mid-2000s Britrock, landfill indie, glorified haircuts, the bands that once filled the pages of the NME when it still cost money, turning every interview into an extended piece of Oasis fanfic in which they insisted they were definitely the best band in the world, honest. They like a few pints down the pub with the lads – they might even get so plastered they forget the score to the Wales game: they love the footy, though – an honest dinner in with their normal missus (skip the posh salad), they love a good bit of banter – let’s shut her up with a gobstopper! I’ll tell you how I won my wife…could’ve been the 29-inch dick, which works fine without Viagra thanks! Haha! You bloody lunatic! – they’re aspirational (Big Pharma? I love that Shkreli guy’s wacky antics!), they like a good swear, they’re not averse to having a pop at their audience, they have legitimate concerns about immigration and they’re not afraid to fly the flag. Every interview Owen Smith has given defers not just to his twin spirit guides the Gallaghers, but to the rhetoric of Labour leaders gone by, or present ones in the case of Corbyn, from whom he borrows extensively, along with Kinnock – LET’S KICK OUT THE TROTS!!! – and Blair (nobody does Gordon Brown fanfic.) Musically, Owen Smith is a dim, fading ember of classic rock’s flames, fed through quintessentially Blairite ‘90s Britpop: a monotonous clangy churn that demands the late Pete Seeger’s apparition, literal axe in hand, to stop this Godless electric nonsense and for all.
Your da Alan Johnson has highlighted something deeply worrying. Owen Smith has brought the banterous, blokey, “small-c conservative” spirit of Lad Rock to the Labour Party, and this music is shit. Owen Smith must be stopped at all costs or, for the first time, we will be dealing with Landfill Labour.
PostScript: When I told my own father, who introduced me to Bob Dylan and supports Labour but not Corbyn or Smith, about Johnson’s comments, he remarked, “I think that’s quite good.”