Spiders, Crickets and Beatles

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Buddy Holly and the Crickets in 1958

As part of my series of articles on band names, I thought it would be interesting to go back to the beginning of the band name itself.  The folk music of American immigrants from Europe, known as Hillbilly, threw up a few interesting group names in the 1930s – notably the Skillet Lickers.  Primarily, however, Hillbilly, or Country as it was known from the 1940s, was a style based around individual singers.

More influentially, into the 1950s  black R&B musicians in the United States started adopting quirky collective nouns – The Orioles, The Penguins, The Crows.  Down in Texas, Buddy Holly, dutiful son of a religiously conservative family, secretly listened to black musicians on late night radio. Amongst them was New Orleans vocal group, The Spiders. Later, when he became a musician himself, Buddy had to think of a name for his own group. Using The Spiders’ name as his starting point, he searched through reference books on entomology,  eventually finding his way towards a much less threatening insect, the cricket. Crickets are harmless little creatures, which under the cover of darkness, fill the night with their chirpy sound. The story of Buddy Holly is something similar, the story of a young man using a kind of camouflage to make forbidden music.

This camouflage was vital.  In white dominated 1950s America, the music of black R&B musicians was a symbol of moral threat and a focus for bigotry.  Philip Norman in his biography of Buddy Holly quotes from a leaflet distributed at the time, to restaurants and shops throughout the southern United States:

“NOTICE! STOP! Help save the Youth of America.  Don’t buy Negro records.  If you don’t want to serve Negros in you place of business, then don’t have Negro records on your jukebox or Negro records on the radio.  The screaming, idiotic words and savage music of these records are undermining the morals of our white youth in America.  Call the advertisers on radio stations that play this type of music and complain to them…”

If the Crickets wanted to write and play music inspired by black musicians, they could only do so by hiding in the linguistic long grass.

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Beatles related graffiti – photographed during my visit to Abbey Road in 2005

Buddy Holly died in an air crash in 1959, but the musical force he helped set free continued to develop world-wide. By the early 1960s two young Liverpudlians, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, were trying to think of a name for their band.  As Buddy Holly fans, they naturally followed tracks that Crickets made through dangerous social undergrowth.  They decided to keep with the insect theme and become The Beatles.  While the name Beetles had been on Buddy Holly’s own list of insect related name options, he had realised that mainstream taste was not ready. It would take a few more years before Beatles would be acceptable, which even with its musically adapted spelling, suggested darker connotations of scuttle and scurry not seen with crickets.  A style of music once symbolising sin and social breakdown was now becoming an accepted part of global society.  Some bands even felt it was safe to call themselves the Spiders, major examples including a successful Japanese group formed in 1961, as well as a 1964 version of Alice Cooper’s band.

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Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – one of the first albums I ever bought

The Spiders as a band name probably had its greatest success in 1972, when David Bowie and The Spiders From Mars shot into the rock stratosphere. Now it seemed the world could fully accept a group of musicians named after the kind of creatures that Buddy Holly had to turn into crickets.

 

The Smiths

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The Smiths in 1985

Continuing my irregular series of articles on band names illustrating artfully selected words, we now come to The Smiths.  I knew there was a lot going on with this name, so I read Johnny Rogan’s massive Smith’s biography The Severed Alliance. And after reading all those hundreds of pages, I came to the conclusion that the two words The Smiths used to identify themselves might qualify as the definitive achievement of the band.  This comment is not as flippant as it might seem. During his 1970s schooldays at a tough Manchester secondary modern, future lyricist and lead singer, Steven Morrissey retreated to his bedroom, taking refuge in the music of Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black, Marc Bolan, and the New York Dolls. With vague creative ambitions of his own, young Morrissey would enjoy making up clever book titles and chapter headings for novels that never happened.  Morrissey seemed better at the flash of insight rather than the long slog of consolidation.

Once he left school our unlikely hero joined forces with guitarist Johnny Marr, and against all odds became a singer songwriter himself.  At this point, Morrissey came up with his best title ever – The Smiths. The name implies so many things. First, there is that sense of a back to basics approach, as a reaction to glam rock, or pompous concept album rock. Yet this is not back to basics in the sense of a Punk band thrashing around on instruments they learnt to play last week. Instead, there is a suggestion of artisanship. A smith labours in a sweltering smithy, making horseshoes and ironwork. This is a person who upholds traditional values of hard work and honest service.

At the same time, there are darker undertones to explore. Originally, the band considered the name Smiths’ Family. The word family implies togetherness. Think of The Partridge Family – sunny and happy on a bus with David Cassidy, his mom and cute siblings. The Smiths, or The Partridges, divested of the word family, conjures more of a vision of one of those clans who fight amongst themselves, using any energy left over to terrorise their local area.  The Smiths had much of the anti social behaviour order about them. Their shows were famously rowdy, with Morrissey welcoming a good stage invasion.   He could also be relied upon to provide controversial quotes, supporting the violence of the IRA, or the extreme fringe of the animal rights movement.

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“The Smiths” describes Morrissey and his band brilliantly.  The name is also strangely reflective of the times the band lived through.  The 1980s was a divided decade.  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would often refer to her personal values resulting from her Methodist upbringing in a greengrocer’s shop in Grantham – solid virtues of hard work, thrift, and respect for the rule of law. Yet she was also profoundly confrontational, having no time for consensus, compromise or the status quo.

Margaret Thatcher’s hope was that the 1980s would turn Britain into a kind of vastly successful greengrocer’s shop, or smithy.  But there were so many contradictions. There was the mismatch between talk of thrift, honesty and hard work, and the flashy lifestyle and murky ethics of the the money-driven society the Thatcher government helped enourage.  There was also the conflict between harking back to supposed traditional values of application, self reliance and the rule of law, whilst also rejecting the equally traditional values of respect for compromise and consensus.  It is hard to walk the tight rope between old fashioned stability and revolution.  Amidst the resulting confusion it is perhaps not surprising that the 1980s were violent years defined by miners’ strikes and city centre riots.  It was as if the 80s was The Smiths decade, yearning for the stability of lost values, and intent on tearing them apart.  By some miracle, all of these conflicting forces were held together, for a few years at least, in The Smiths.

 

 

 

Selfie

 

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A “selfie” of me and my brother taken in a mirror at the Tate Modern, London

A few weeks ago I wrote about the name of the band Blondie, amusing myself by reflecting on the ie ending, which is typically used in words that convey a playful, childlike quality.

While writing that article I started thinking about the word selfie.  This manner of presenting yourself has become hugely popular. On Instagram over 90 million photos are currently posted with the hashtag #me.  According to Wikipedia, the first written use of the word occurred on an Australian internet forum on 13th September 2002, when Nathan Hope wrote:

Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer (sic) and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.

Of course Nathan did not invent the word selfie.  This was just the first time the word appeared in print, just like George Harrison did not invent the word “grotty”, even though, the first print use of that word came about in the transcript of an interview with him.

From Nathan’s description of his mishap in 2002, selfies proliferated.  Their huge impact has attracted some substantial analysis.  Elizabeth Day writing in The Guardian has compared the selfie to pictorial representations of the self going all the way back to hand stencils seen in prehistoric cave art.

Stenciled hands at Cueva de las Monas in Argentina.  The art in the cave dates from between 13,000 to 9000 years ago 

But here’s the thing – imagine you are at a concert.  You are on stage and everyone is waving their hands above their heads as you sing your latest hit.  Those hands do not signify individuals so much as a mass of people offering up their hands, their abilities, their efforts, to the greater good, which in this case is the person on stage singing a song.   Hands held up in offering to the singer suggest the suppression of individuality.  I remember reading Hard Times in the Sixth Form at school, a book in which Charles Dickens called industrial workers “hands”, because to the factory owners that’s all they were.  And archeological evidence would suggest that individuality wasn’t important back when prehistoric people blew pigment around the outline of their hands.  Prehistoric people seem to have lived as Kalahari bush people do today, sharing all they have with each other.  Individuality came later as a more complex society required people to play lots of different roles.

Hands at a gig

 

And so, to cut a long story short, we get to 2002. A young Australian man gets drunk at a party, falls over, sustaining injuries which probably require the attention of an oral/maxillofacial surgeon, and then takes a photo of himself in said state of disarray.  The selfie was born.  If ever there was an art form that expresses the swing towards the importance of the self, then this is it.  Some commentators describe selfies in terms of narcissism.  There is some support for this view in that ie sound which ends the word, harking back to childhood where the self and its needs are all there is.  The hands of the caves are no more.  The complexity of society has produced individuals, and the ultimate in an individual art form.

And yet we remain social animals. The selfie is a fun, playful image of yourself – but it is also a planned image masquerading as the playful.  Trained selfie takers use a high angle, which serves to make the eyes look bigger and more appealing, as well as tending to have a slimming effect on the face.   Then you might apply a filter, something with a nostalgic tint perhaps that suggests happy hours spent surfing waves that broke on beaches in the 1970s, a beach trip from which you have just returned all tousled and refreshed.   Then this honed image goes out to others, who might provide likes. The hope is that your face will meet with approval from the wider group to whom, if you’re braver, younger and better looking than me, you offer yourself up.  The selfie is you, but it’s you going out to others.

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Puzzlewood – Walking Through a Story

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It’s the summer and people are taking their holidays.  A few days ago, my brother set out on his bike ride from Land’s End to John o’Groats, while my wife found us a hotel in the Forest of Dean, convenient for meeting up with the intrepid adventurer.  It seems natural to take trips like this.  It’s hard to remember that until the sixteenth century, most people had only two options for getting away.  You could become a soldier, or a pilgrim.  If you didn’t fancy the prospect of getting hacked to death, or facing a dangerous journey in pursuit of dubious spiritual gain, the only other option was to read, or more likely listen, to a story.   Not surprisingly, authors aiming to transport their readers often based their work on activities that offered escape in real life. English literature’s oldest work, Beowulf, written some time between the eighth and eleventh centuries, tells of a warrior journeying in pursuit of a monster. Then in the fourteenth century, Chaucer wrote his famous Canterbury Tales about a pilgrimage between London and Canterbury. Going back to the military travel option, the fourteenth century also offered readers Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by an unknown author, following the wanderings of a soldier trying and failing to live up to the virtues of knighthood.

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At about the same time, William Langland was attempting something a little different. His traveller was a ploughman, who rather than leaving his monotonous rut in a physical sense, went journeying in dreams.  Piers Ploughman is like someone sitting in their bedroom, reading.

By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the idea of travelling to a new world while not straying too far from home was catching on. Places in the UK that happened to have an otherworldly feel became popular tourist destinations. Mother Shipton’s Cave, Britain’s oldest paying visitor attraction, opened in 1630. The Mother Shipton experience involves a gentle walk beside the River Nidd, to an unusual cave formation produced by the passage of mineral-rich water.  Here, conveniently close to the Yorkshire town of Knaresborough, visitors find themselves in a place that seems a world away. Other easily accessible escapes also became popular.  The Silent Pool and Box Hill in Surrey, Chedder Gorge in Somerset, Lydford Gorge in Devon, Dovedale in Derbyshire, the whole of the Lake District, and Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean, all provided a way out into the unknown.

Once again the physical places where people went to escape, influenced the writing that served a similar purpose.  Mother Shipton’s Book of Prophecies was a best seller in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Lake District influenced a lot of famous poetry. Martin Tupper wrote stories about the Silent Pool. Keats wrote about Box Hill. Tolkien visited Cheddar Gorge, which influenced his imaginary Helms Deep.

Tolkien also visited the Forest of Dean – as I did this weekend – and probably made his way to the well-known curiosity that is Puzzlewood.  This is an amazing few acres of woodland, growing around a collapsed cave system and Iron Age mine workings. I paid my £6.50, walked down a path beside an enclosure for hens and passed through an opening between thickly foliaged boughs.  Then, against all odds, the forests of Middle Earth reared up around me.  I saw a child in a Star Wars T-shirt, busy exploring the forest planet of Takodama, a part played by Puzzlewood in Star Wars The Force Awakens.

Walking through Puzzlewood I was walking in a story, a place that takes you somewhere else, while staying in the world you know.