I’d be talking balls if I said there was very much about Britain that I liked at the moment. The last few years has seen the place plumb the depths to the point it no longer particularly feels a pleasant place to be. Politics and mass culture especially have been on a race to see who can dig their way through the bottom of the barrel the quickest – a phenomenon egged on by the echo chamber of social media where the only rule for discourse is ‘shoot first and bugger the questions later’. But as British society crumbles into a sort of half-wit’s rewrite of Lord of The Flies, a place where we apparently care more for TV shows about fucking cakes than anything else, and we’re endlessly corralled into ever smaller, ever emptier futures, there are still things which resonate sweetly with all the promises we used to believe.
Even before the shit-storm hit us there was a contradiction to British music, particularly of the electronic sort. Regardless of where we are now, and how much worse things seems to be, British culture has always, when you strip away the myths, been quite an inward looking creature. Probably this is due to the fact we are all floating on an island in the pissing rain. It tends to make you want to stay indoors. Even the birth of the Empire and the commonwealth – an otherwise fairly outdoor looking pursuit – was really about showing how much better we were than Johnny Foreigner, thereby proving the correctness of remaining in Britain and refusing to listen to anything they had to say.
But our music has never been inward looking, and the days where it looked to embrace ‘British Values’ died with Elgar. In fact, the music has long been one of our few outlets which have embraced those myths I referred to above – that we are accepting of outside influences, that we are open to fresh ideas and alien ways of doing things. Part of that comes from the growth of cultural elements due to the commonwealth. The post war economy dictated Britain needed an influx of cheap labour from outside the home nations. First came people from the Caribbean, soon to be followed by those from the Indian sub-continent and latterly from everywhere else. Each of these groups brought their own culture with them. Food; clothes; language. Most important was music.
These histories have been written elsewhere by people far more knowledgeable on the subject than I am, suffice to say that without the stimulus these outside influences provided, British electronic music would be in a very different place. Of course, other countries have strong scenes too – Germany and the Netherlands have given much to electronic music over the years – but it’s perhaps difficult to imagine that something like Drum n Bass, for instance, could have flourished somewhere other than here.
In more recent years, the explosive impact of dubstep and grime have further pushed a musical form which is heavy with the concepts of mutated funk – do they exists purely because of Britain’s relationship with outside musical influences? Is it even correct to describe them as ‘outside influences’ anymore? More than likely not. The mishmash of styles and tastes, the absolute refusal to bury the sounds under such a moribund idea as ‘purity’ has been one of the distinguishing factors for so long now it has simply become the normal – very possibly the only place within British culture where this is indisputably true. It’s not really something you can say for literature, or television, film, or even art, which all remain heavily in the domain of a particular sort of person. Those who hail from different backgrounds or educations tend to be the exception who prove the rule.
House and techno arrived here early on and were quickly taken apart to see what made them tick. In the first instance I suspect we took them to our heart because of another national trait which the powers that be have long had a real problem with – our love of getting wankered and going dancing. It’s a trait which transcends class or race or any of the barriers – real or imagined – which are imposed on us by an establishment who would prefer it if we spent our Friday nights doing overtime. Looking back on it, of course dance music was going to do well here.
Even better, it fell into the great British musical tradition of stealing it from somewhere else before taking the number plate off and changing the paintwork. British techno might well have elements of the Detroit original, for instance, but it is its own thing – it was redesigned. British acid house is just not the same as what came out of Chicago. It’s cheekier, dafter, somehow more virulently Brit. It was fed into the mix, along with the reggae, and dub, and everything that grew out of the music of those early post-war arrivals, and became hardcore before just as quickly buggering off to become..well.. a million other things. Garage, techno, house, electro….none of them survived first contact in their original form. The music here seethes with invention and movement, and the understanding that everything contributes to it, everything makes it special. It makes you proud to be British, but it’s not the Britain the people who think we should have the Union Jack tattooed on our souls would recognize. It’s a Britain that exists on another level, an alternative idea of what makes us us. It’s one which is desperate to know what’s going on outside.
I went with Pangaea’s Won’t Hurt tonight. In truth I could have chosen from a million other tunes but I’ve been listening to this a lot recently, and it seems to sum up all that junk I’ve just written in a decent way. I’m sure Pangaea didn’t mean it, but there is close to six decade worth of British history in those wobbling, strangely beautiful bars and chords. And that says something far more important than all the pints of bitter, blue passport covers, and imperial fucking measurements ever could.