The London 2012 opening ceremony, Glastonbury, the sheer street-cred importance of Prime Ministers’ responses on Desert Island Discs; it’s no secret that the British take music seriously. We download more music per capita than anyone else in the world, and we’ve arguably (certainly?) produced more of the most important bands than anyone else. But why?
A large part of it is simply getting there before others did. Like our long-gone imperial glory, we managed to get the jump on most of the world simply by starting first. Although the Americans can claim the first international popstar in Elvis (in our defence we were pretty occupied with the crippling aftermath of the World War II) once we did get going, boy were we good and since the British Invasion, our music had been a force to be reckoned with abroad. The British continued to chase the next sound, the next scene, the next big thing – often finding it and a supporting network of venues – from the toilet-sized to the stadium – supported it all the way. From glam and punk, grime and dubstep, innovation has poured out of our little island on an unprecedented level. Whilst we can’t claim that everything originated on these shores, there’s no denying that we done good.
Once we built up the momentum, the support network, and the rabid enthusiasm for more and more music, it was always going to be tough for anyone else to stop Britannia ruling the soundwaves.
Spiralling out of decades of successful, incredible bands came a nationwide obsession with music. British teenagers in particular tend to broadcast their musical tastes to the world, whether swathed in baggy plaid, sporting mohicans, trilbies, or snapbacks, or wearing jeans anywhere on the vacuum-tight to circus tent spectrum. Arcade Fire summed it up succinctly: “The music divides us into tribes, you grew your hair so I grew mine” . The myriad scenes become socially divisive and all-consuming, leaving a gang-like story of conflicts, traceable back to the mods and rockers, the punks and new Romantics, through to Oasis and Blur and the chavs v goths.
I’ve lived abroad in both Spain and France, either amongst or working with teenagers, and I’ve been increasingly shocked at their casual attitude to music – which is only amplified in the wider society around them. I recently asked a class aged 17-18 to name all the The Beatles – or any of them. They couldn’t and my shock shocked them. Of course there are exceptions – the odd case of One Direction-mania, the occasional devoted Anglophile who wants to discuss The Smiths or to understand the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ lyrics; but the majority don’t conform to any scene, don’t care what’s being played in their clubs, and can’t tell you their favourite band. Again, why?
Our closest European neighbours are that much less passionate about sounds, and it’s a particularly southern, Mediterranean issue. While the Germans, Scandinavians and Slavic countries have all embraced music – especially electro, punk, and metal – the Spanish, French, and Italians seem less than enthused. Spurious though it may sound, I think the climate is a big factor. Whilst our Lennon/McCartneys and Morrissey/Marrs were strumming guitars, across the channel, kids were out in the sun, at the beach or in the mountains. The Catholic/Protestant division matters too and the strength of the Catholic influence, particularly in Italy and Spain still manages to keep many from the darkest depths of rock ‘n’roll.
There’s also the question of sport. Despite our prowess in terms of invention, the British performance in world cups, Wimbledon, and elsewhere indicates that the minds of our youths are otherwise engaged. As France, Italy, and Spain churn out sports stars, their majority of their teenagers dress in the tracksuits of their heroes, whilst the British strive to become the musical voice of their generation. Perhaps our recent Olympic successes equate to the current perceived dip in the British rock and indie scenes?
More realistically, I think a major factor in the UK’s prominence is the dominance of English, internationally. English is the world’s most widely spoken second-language, and of course, the main language of the ever-influential US. Of course other countries produce their share of musical geniuses but it’s that much harder to get exposure and fame outside of Eurovision if you’re singing in another language. While everyone else has to accept that to listen to The Beatles it’ll have to be in English, the Anglophones are much less willing to listen to music in other languages – there’s so much in English anyway that we don’t really need to! This goes some way to explaining the widespread success of French electro – innovative, instrumental, and often with artists with Anglicized names, it was able to thrive because we didn’t really have to acknowledge its nationality.
Of course, I’m sure the Americans see the whole thing differently and given the chance – judging by the sheer volume of “Please come to Brazil!” comments on YouTube – it looks like we can expected a the rise of another musically obsessed nation soon. But thanks to our combination of dismal weather, lack of athleticism (sorry Beckham, sorry Team GB) our pre-existing network that churns out so many new artists and our own rampant enthusiasm for the tunes they create. we can continue to revel in our rich musical heritage.
Photo by Gaelle Beri