Robbie Williams and the heat death of the white working-class hero

(or: TFI, the sequel and aftermath and logical end point)

I keep thinking about Williams at the 2002 Brit Awards, just before the royal events which decisively set the tone for the effective merger of pop culture and the culture that is ritualistically showcased this time every year, 55 minutes from Waterloo (which is why that event feels worse than it once did; it isn’t quite as much a museum anymore, its connections to the wider mass culture are much greater).  His speech attempted to render class politics explicit in his attack on the man, also destined to feature repeatedly (not as often, but in the end more lastingly) on TPL, whose rise to fame had just confirmed the scale and the extent of the cultural revolution within those who would once have been genuine Tories but had become Whigs, specifically in terms of their view of commercial television; “you want to take my food from my table, stop my kids going through school …”

(Something that might be relevant here is that the Tory ministers who had turned up at the Brit Awards during the first phase of Toryism-as-Whiggery – Tebbit, Baker, eventually Thatcher herself – were exclusively those Who Had Worked Their Way Up, albeit via the grammar school route which pop had decried in favour of multiple other options even when most areas still had such schools; you can’t begin to imagine Heseltine or Hurd or Moynihan showing themselves.)

But of course it didn’t work, and couldn’t have worked; what makes it worse is that it didn’t deserve to work.  If pop culture as a (white) working-class phenomenon had reached the end point of Robbie Williams, I don’t blame those who were exposed to it on no other level and in no other way – and for whom all manifestations of purely working-class pop would simply have been too much, not on the John Harris/Stuart Maconie New Old Left level but on much simpler, consumerist, commercial radio terms – coming to the conclusion that it had reached the end of its natural life.  Far more explicitly than Liam Gallagher (precisely because Williams’ peak era was when the Blair government was a reality, not a dream, and is the natural conclusion which TFI hysteria leaves out), he represents the moment where sheer hubris, arrogance and contempt for the rest of the world finally brought the concept of “working-class boy made good/bad/good” which had sustained much of pop culture for the previous four decades crashing to the ground, and made it pretty much inevitable that what remained of the old “respectable working class” would end up preferring the likes of James Blunt, because even he was – by mistake and by default – closer to the social values that class had once cherished, before there was pop (which of course was where much of the UK, in many ways, ended up again).  If he was all that people knew about it in the present tense, in a sense that they could relate to and see as on their level and in their world (and I know there are many reasons, and unsettling ones at that, why they did not feel that way about certain artists who the industry was doing its best to ghettoise, but let us take the empirical approach here), it shouldn’t be a surprise that it fell in the way it did.

I don’t want to romanticise boomer rock culture; there were plenty of people within that who were happy to take the toffs’ wealth as long as absolutely nobody else from their background ever had it (“here’s to the salt of the earth” was never about redistribution of wealth; those who attended schools some of my own friends went to, in no way reformed even to the extent that they were in most of the United Kingdom – Kent now probably has more institutional social ghettoisation than any other part of the UK, not least because it has the pockets of genuine poverty that, say, Buckinghamshire doesn’t – were only glamorous to the extent that their glamour didn’t take the spotlight from Jagger’s own).  I sort of became famous, long ago, for taking such a stance when it was a considerably braver and rarer position to take than it is today, after all.  But at least there were isolated individuals within that culture who didn’t simply want their children to make such schools less institutionally formal without changing them in any other sense (which of course is what actually happened to them, and precisely why this government can exist) and who didn’t simply want to dine while others starved.  Not enough, by a very long way – indeed some of them were further from that mould than the ruling elite of the day – but enough to make it wholly believable that, with different politics subsequently, we might have no reason to have the doubts about the era’s pop-cultural impulses that we do.

By Williams’ time, all that had dissipated entirely; there was no attempt whatsoever on his part to deny that he only wanted food on his own table, and his kids in Wellington College for all I know; how could he possibly be expected to be taken seriously or given any respect at all when his only objection to people more privileged than himself in his own sphere of activity was that their power might prevent his own children from joining the very same class?  How did he expect to be taken seriously on socialist terms when socialism is all about the abolition of social class, not simply perpetuating it as long as your own children can do well out of it, and damn everyone else?  His objection to Will Young was merely that Young supposedly wanted to keep his class for himself and keep everyone else out of it; Williams’ desire actually to abolish those privileges was nil.  Indeed, he was casting himself as The Right Kind of Working Class – manna from heaven for the mean-minded little Tories in the industry, for whom some of the crossovers of the previous three years had been worrying and threatening, The Wrong Kind of Profits from The Wrong Kind of People – and glancing ahead with cynical accuracy to a time when Noel Gallagher would complain that if his children were not educated privately, they might pick up Multicultural London English, as if it were a contagious disease.

It would be casting him in far too positive a light to describe Robbie Williams today as a tragic figure; to call someone that is largely a term of praise, which implies respect and admiration for someone of huge personal gifts thwarted by the nature of the world in which they found themselves, and maybe by aspects of their own personality as they translated in purely social terms, the obvious and directly relevant example in this case being Gordon Brown.  He was far too obnoxious, far too riddled with greed and self-love, and most importantly, far too successful for far too long to befit that description.  What he eventually became was rather someone who simply could not face the implications of why he had fallen and why those who had replaced him had replaced him, hence his rant to (of course) The Sun about his kind of pop still being “a despised art form”, as if the entire transition from actual Toryism to Whiggery, and the entire marketisation of society, not to mention a profound shift of attitudes among what remained of liberal intellectualism, had never happened.  It must indeed be very tempting for someone in Williams’ position to pretend that these changes have not occurred.  If he did, he might have to face the reasons for his eclipse.  It isn’t the comfort you probably need in the loneliness that must have befallen him, before he eventually did arrive at fatherhood, and no doubt the enforcement via such a means of elite control.

The albums he kept at number two in the UK were by R.E.M. (hey, coincidence! – although in that case they were much further behind), Gabrielle, My Chemical Romance (they were held off by Rudebox, which actually, and tellingly, represented some kind of commercial peak for him in mainland Europe), André Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra, and Gary Barlow.  I can’t see any of these, even the last, inspiring a TPL epic.  All I can see is a long goodbye.  Even the fact that you can’t see him being one of the lumpenproletariat whose presence at Royal Ascot is, contrary to popular myth, precisely what the ruling elite want doesn’t make him seem any less of a social and cultural embarrassment, someone who justified everything he said he was against simply through being what he was.  Could anyone’s life be less justified than that?

On his third TPL entry, though, he almost uniquely reached for some kind of ideal, and got it; “The Road to Mandalay”, considerably nearer on Popular (where it will appear, a year after the album came out, as the less prominent part of a double A-side with a rather depressing “this is me” new song) remains a wonderful song, and is really the only thing he did that I’ve ever liked or felt able to like: momentarily, he evoked what might lie behind his facade, and got close to some kind of notional lost Eden.  Even if (like all such concepts, and we’re dangerous fools if we pretend otherwise) it could only exist within the human mind, it stripped down all the greed, all the arrogance, all the basic contempt for others and for anything vaguely social.  Even if it could only be a dream, it was a beautiful one.

But behind the frosted glass there are no dreams.  And that’s where white pop – the only pop Harris and Maconie consider “legitimately” working class, the fools – left us, and died.  Pop as a whole is, in many ways, more alive than ever.  But what a shame it is that the closest thing to a meaningful escape route should have made so many dangerous friends and allies, even out of “convenience”.  Homelessness is a cloak we must all wear, even those of us who never became so famous that all we could do in the end was destroy ourselves.

Craig Douglas and the Brook Brothers considered as models for David Cameron

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I’m not Arthur Marshall – I’m not Philip Larkin, even – but I like old girls’ stories.  That’s not an easy confession to make in public, so let it be rendered clear and absolute that there are no dubious sexual connotations involved, just the arcing/arching eye of the amateur historian, prevented by his own mental condition and social limitations from ever formalising his study, and in any case taking – as previous generations generally didn’t, or at least found harder – from anywhere, however obscure or ostensibly insignificant or arcane.

And yet in the end I always walk away rather exhausted and melancholy from charity shops, the places where you can most easily chance upon these things; there are just too many memories which for me aren’t even that, too many ghosts that even I don’t really want to awaken, too many echoes of Ray Davies singing, as he suddenly realises that his vision of a world he never knew is not only doomed but might even destroy him in the end, “don’t show me no more please”, too strong a resonance of Morrissey admitting he will never go back to the old house, because in the long run that is no way of fighting the battles on whose frontline the late Tony Benn stood, the one thing less satisfactory than the capitalism of Miami Vice and Five Star (which is why it is so apt that the Would-Be-Goods – who, at a few isolated and sporadic moments these last thirty years, have made the records Florence Welch and Laura Marling should have made – ended up covering the song; their world, the utter opponent of Morrissey’s world in the decades of class war, was doomed by the same forces long term, and they knew it).

So it’s not often now that I walk into one of these places to dredge up what is rotting wood (to quote from another of the definitive texts of 1988) and whenever I do, it usually tells me something depressing about the things I find depressing, without having remotely intended to do such a thing.  Sometimes there’s a surprise: just this week, amid all the usual suspects (the biggest sellers of the recent past, when the CD format was still a cash cow, who nobody had any real feeling for even at the time: Boyzone, Dido, Stereophonics, all the long-term Then Play Long problems) I came across Skinnyman’s Council Estate of Mind.  But then there was the book which appears at the top of this post, and suddenly I had a new insight into how and why we are what we are today, without – in pop terms – even the radical capitalism of an early Now or Hits album.

In 1961 (almost all British annuals were produced in the year before the one that appears on the cover) School Friend found itself half in existential crisis, half calm and collected: it knew that the world it had represented was dying, but it still had a reasonable confidence for the future because the world that now presented itself – the world of the Bobbys and Gidget – required a relatively seamless adaptation.  The one time – until our time – when we had a technological, pop-culture-driven future which was wholly compatible with unrepresentative elite rule.  So it now advised its readers on how to barbecue hamburgers (authentically socially avant-garde at the time, especially if we use this term – relating to the 1960s – as Ian MacDonald used it), gave many more tips on the embryonic manifestation of what would now be called style culture, and compared to their earlier annuals, the stories are set much more elsewhere in the Anglosphere (Australia or Canada as classless idylls where you wouldn’t even have to leave the reassurance of home comforts behind) and much less in English girls’ boarding schools.

When this period first fascinated me, it did so because it represented an alternative, parallel model for modernity and the present which had happily been left on the fire, but which intrigued as a means through which we could have escaped Edward German and The Arcadians without anything else much changing at all.  Imagine, I used to say around 1997, if the models for mass culture weren’t “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” but “War Paint” and “Ain’t Gonna Wash for a Week” by the Brook Brothers!  But I didn’t know at that point that history would bite back, and that such an alternative vision would actually come to be, with disastrous consequences for the whole of British public and political culture, or what is left of either.

Some time around 2002 or 2003, British mass culture and consumerism slipped into a sort of ersatz 1961, where the social advances of a third of a century – a period topped and tailed by otherwise very different utopian-modernist Labour moments – were quietly and subtly thrown on the fire.  Because this was done in a quiet and unobtrusive manner, and because technological advances obviously weren’t reversed, most people didn’t realise that this was what was happening.  Most people, no doubt, couldn’t really believe it.  Most people still haven’t, and this is why they get the Cameron government so wrong.  But this is, indisputably, what happened at that point: Coldplay as a new model of paternalistic, caring capitalist (a sort of in-place-of-strife One Nation Toryism, as if what would follow would even be that good, or that equal), Simon Cowell as Carroll Levis, his proteges (all classes now seamlessly together) as Adam Faith.

All the good stuff in British pop comes from the twin moments of Tory crisis of confidence: Suez / Donegan and Profumo / Beatles.  All the stuff worth fighting for – all the stuff that, perhaps, Tony Benn’s failure to understand was his greatest fault, all the stuff that the late Stuart Hall did understand in the face of mass resistance from his comrades – comes from those twin moments of ruling-class retreat and working-class assertion of unity with other oppressed peoples.  All the bad stuff comes from the moment in between, the consumer boom of which that School Friend annual is a perfect artefact (the Girls’ Crystal annual published at the same time even had white picket fences on the cover!) – the moment of one-way, passive absorption of the overclass.  And, as if in revenge for UK Garage’s great moment of crossover, and the genuine insurrection that followed (the last time I ever paid attention to Top of the Pops was when I saw Oxide & Neutrino doing “Rap Dis” and thought to myself that this could be as great a culture-war moment as ever seen on British television, if only the mass audience had still been paying attention, or seen it as part of their vague responsibility, or been doing anything other than watching Coronation Street), the legacy of the consumer boom bit back and swept all before it (there’s a whole other article to be written about how the initial launch of 1Xtra, which wouldn’t have happened without the UKG moment, actually helped to push it back underground until non-FM radio became easier for most people to hear most of the time, and the ruling class had bigger fish to fry).

Suddenly – the Golden Jubilee was also a huge factor, showing that pop and aristocracy could co-exist seamlessly and without any sense of crackling tensions and divisions – it really was like the Beatles had never happened (this is why Alex Niven’s sense of Definitely Maybe as an “end of history” album is so apt).  We’d restarted as if the British future of 1961 (I have to specify British because this was, very definitely, not JFK’s future) had been the model and blueprint – in other words we were now in a situation which had only applied for a very few short years before it appeared to be yeah-yeah-yeahed into oblivion in the last quarter of 1963: where technology and pop-culture-driven modernity were compatible with unaccountable quasi-aristocratic rule, and everyone else frozen out of the mechanisms of power.  The Brook Brothers really had been more influential than the Beatles!  The relevance of this to how and why the present British political situation could happen should be too obvious to need further hammering home.

In pop terms, happily, such a situation didn’t entirely last.  From the very late 2000s onwards there has, in terms of the singles chart, been some kind of resurgence of the Beatles lineage, the lineage of hybridisation and cross-fertilisation.  But the people who set the tone for the current political state of affairs – Lily Allen as the ultimate useful idiot, the ultimate Tory sticking plaster – cannot leave us alone, cannot break apart from us.  And they are hardly likely to when they know that, without them, it would have been that much harder for most members of the current government, the Mayor of London and even the Archbishop of Canterbury (there’s a whole other Christian-socialism-as-establishment-culture parallel history of the immediate post-1945 years if William Temple had lived, with potentially serious aftereffects for the British Left and British pop) to get where they are.  And if seeing a schoolgirl annual brings on such thoughts and such desperations, it should be obvious why I don’t usually choose to enter those ghost ships that don’t know they are anything of the kind, why – more than ever – I prefer not to fan the embers long enough to sometimes catch their flames.