Last Friday I watched BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album
documentary and I wouldn’t recommend it. Not that there wasn’t some good music on offer, Ziggy
, Pet Sounds
and What’s Going On
are all in my collection but for every snippet of one of those, there was an interview with some pompous eejit like Ian Anderson or a long clip of The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
on ice at the Empire Pool Wembley.
You know that feeling of wanting to bang your head against a wall when some evangelical nutter in the Mid-West makes a bizarre statement about the Harry Potter books being witchcraft? Or when an Islamic preacher decries the series for ‘paganism, evil, magic and the drinking of unicorn blood’?
I shouldn’t really complain about outbursts like these as part of me does think that every single album made by Jethro Tull and Rick Wakeman are very likely the work of Satan. And the chances of me ever changing my mind on the matter are about as likely as me drinking a glass of unicorn blood tonight with my evening meal.
Oh and while I’m on the subject of religion, what is it with this ‘Don’t Judge People By Skin Colour, Religion or Sexual Orientation – Judge Them By Their Record Collection!’ idea?
I mean I agree wholeheartedly with two thirds of that statement but if you believe that I’m going to burn in hell because of my atheism then I reserve the right to judge you on something other than your record collection (which is likely to be crap anyway if you even have one).
Okay, back to the documentary. I do reckon that the programme confused ‘concept’ with ‘theme’ although maybe I just wasn’t paying close enough attention and/or drinking slightly too much. After all, you could make a case that the first Clash LP was based round the theme of alienated British youth in the age of Callaghan, Crossroads and the Cod War or that Parklife is themed around an alienated section of the British population in the age of Prozac and Poundland.
In fact, Damon Albarn himself has said that Parklife is ‘a loosely linked concept album’ and you could make an even better case for Modern Life is Rubbish, its unifying theme being that modern life is rubbish (American cultural imperialism being to blame for much of its rubbishness) but according to Wakeman, rock acts stopped making concept albums in the 1990s as they thought they were hackneyed.
Anyway, by 1976, the golden era of the true concept album was coming to a close and once more the 45 was where it was at. Not only that but the fast and furious 45 was beginning to come to the fore across the globe, one of the finest examples coming from New York: The Ramones and Blitzkreig Bop.
Then during the sweltering heatwave of ’76, Keys to Your Heart by pub rock act The 101ers came out on new independent label Chiswick. Eddie and The Hot Rods released their Live At The Marquee EP, four lacerating covers, the pick of the tracks being their take on a Bob Seger song that had scraped into the Billboard charts a couple of years earlier called Get Out of Denver, while in Brisbane, The Saints self-released (I’m) Stranded on their own Fatal Records in September 1976 and Jonh Ingham (no that first name isn’t a typo) in Sounds called it the ‘Single of this and every week’.
Some of the Kosmiche bands even embraced the single and late in the year Can made their sole appearance in the British singles chart with I Want More. The band were introduced by Noel Edmond on Top of the Pops: ‘I wonder if Can will get into the top tin?’ he asked as if this some witticism worthy of Oscar Wilde. To make matters worse, at the end of their slot, the DJ continued in the same vein, ‘We wanted to have them on at the beginning of the show but then realised we couldn’t have a Can opener.’
Just the sort of crap patter that ensures a decades spanning career in television.
In Britain, 1976 was a year of controversy in culture. The tabloids declared war on modern art, firstly ridiculing the cost to the taxpayer and the artistic value of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, better known as the Tate Bricks, when they were displayed at the Millbank Gallery for the first time. More savagely (and successfully) elements of the press condemed performance art collective COUM Transmissions’ Prostitution show at the ICA, with a string of journalists baying for the ICA’s funding to be ended. Memorably, Scottish MP Nicholas Fairbairn decried COUM as ‘the wreckers of Civilization’. The following year the gallery’s Arts Council grant was withdrawn.
On television, 1976 proved to be the most scandalous year in the history of British TV. Bouquet of Barbed Wire was packed with sex scenes, domestic violance and what many viewers inferred as an incestuous relationship. I Claudius ramped up the sensationalism with Caligula murdering his pregnant sister (who was also his wife) and then cutting the foetus from her womb and eating it. It’s maybe miraculous that this drama was ever shown. Dennis Potter’s religious fable Brimstone and Treacle wasn’t so lucky and was pulled from the schedules by the BBC due to a particularly disturbing rape scene.
Cinema too witnessed censorship with Pasolini’s Salò failing to be granted a certificate by the British Board of Censors on the legal grounds of gross indecency due to its graphic portrayals of rape, torture, murder and coprophagia – there’s a word I hadn’t imagined would ever be used in this blog – in Mussolini’s Italy.
Then there was the case of David Bowie’s alleged Nazi salute at Victoria Station. The Thin White Duke did later apologise over his deeply distasteful thoughts on Hitler and fascism from this period (when he was so consistently out his face on coke that he was probably incapable of coherent thinking) although he has always maintained that no Nazi salute took place, claiming a photographer caught him mid-wave, which strikes me as plausible enough.
Even the comic Action was debated in the House of Commons after its strips – particularly the series Kids Rule OK – created a moral panic with Mary Whitehouse campaigning to have it banned. Under pressure, Action soon dropped much of its violence and anti-authoritarian content.
The most notorious cultural brouhaha though, strange as it might seem forty years later, would not involve incest, rape or sexual depravity but some ‘bad language’ on an early evening interview on Today of The Sex Pistols by Bill Grundy.
Here, introduced by Tony Wilson on So It Goes, are The Sex Pistols with Anarchy in the UK:
Anarchy did stray in to the UK charts for one week but before the year was out it was withdrawn from shops and officially deleted by EMI (which stands for Every Mistake Imaginable according to John Lydon) as the company came under pressure from senior members and shareholders to end their association with the band.
Even some of EMI’s roster of acts joined in the chorus of disapproval including Cliff Richard, who’d been signed to EMI since the late ’50s. Richard, an ally of Mary Whitehouse and Britain’s most high profile Christian at the time, is quoted in Brian Southall’s Sex Pistols: 90 Days at EMI as saying: ‘I think EMI made a big mistake signing the Sex Pistols for all sorts of reasons. I always thought they couldn’t sing and they couldn’t play so what were they doing in our industry? Who were the crazy people who actually gave them some semblance of success? They had absolutely less than zero to offer the industry, just heartache, broken contracts and a few bits of the public who got spat at.’
After terminating their contract with Johnny and the boys, EMI continued on largely controversy free until a project involving the members of Monty Python persuaded their film division to ditch their involvement with Life of Brian in a manner not dissimilar to the way they had treated the Sex Pistols.
Luckily, an ex-member of a former EMI band – and co-creator of big hitting concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – George Harrison, stepped and created HandMade Films to help ensure Brian went into production. Very funny it was too.
And here is my 1976 top ten in full:
Junior Murvin: Police and Thieves
Ramones: Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue
Blondie: X Offender
Klaatu: Little Neutrino
The Quick: It Won’t Be Long
The Damned: New Rose
The Saints: (I’m) Stranded
Can: I Want More
David Bowie: Station to Station
The Sex Pistols: Anarchy in the UK
On another day the list might have been included:
Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Blank Generation / The Walker Brothers: No Regrets / Roxy Music: Both Ends Burning / Candi Staton: Young Hearts Run Free / La Düsseldorf: Silver Cloud / Flamin’ Groovies: Shake Some Action & The Sensational Alex Harvey Band: Boston Tea Party (but I’ve already featured those last two).