books monthly september 2017

This month Jerry Dowlen looks at music and politics in the 1970s

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‘Future Rock’: Music and Politics in the 1970s

 

Future Rock – David Downing (Panther, 1976)

 

When the Labour Party manifesto was published for the 2017 General Election there was predictable scorn from the British right wing press. Nationalise the railways, the utilities and the post office! Give power back to the trade unions! Soak the rich and tax big business! Oh, dear - Jeremy Corbyn wants to take Britain back to the 1970s!

 

A reader of the i newspaper nevertheless enthused: ‘A return to the 1970s? … A decade of full employment, social housing, decent pay, strong unions, strong NHS, Britain the most equal society in its history, great music and I even had hair!’ [Martin B, Bournemouth].

 

Another reader likewise praised 1970s pop music. The debate reminded me of an interesting if curious little book entitled Future Rock that I bought in 1976. It was the debut work of David Downing who subsequently has authored more than twenty books of multiple varieties including biography (film and music), football, history, and spy thrillers. A Londoner, his early 1970s career as rock music journalist drove his Future Rock series of scholarly, analytical essays on Bob Dylan, Byrds, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Hawkwind, Tangerine Dream and others.

 

Why did the author choose these particular artistes and bands from the UK, USA and European rock music scene? The book’s front cover didn’t reveal much (and the author’s name was printed in microscopic size!) but the back cover explained:

 

‘In this groundbreaking book David Downing explores the wild, cosmic, freaky and sometimes sinister worlds of Future Rock – where time-travellers disguised as electronic Pied Pipers rock beyond the clock to unleash tomorrow’s music today.’

 

Future Rock: The Space Race

 

When first I saw and bought this book I assumed that DD meant that ‘Future Rock’ was pop music with space exploration as theme. The 1960s heralded mankind’s exciting advances in the fields of telecommunications, rocket design, satellites in space, man on the moon.  And yes: in the publisher’s foreword to the book I duly found ‘Future Rock’ defined as ‘Listen to Tomorrow!’ – a sub-genre of rock music that ‘ … travels into space and into the future here on earth, and explores the possibilities of our future.’

 

DD mooted that rock music might have started in an LA studio in January 1965 when The Byrds electrified Bob Dylan’s folk song Mr Tambourine Man. I might have mooted that Telstar by the Tornadoes in 1962 was the first incarnation of ‘Future Rock’?! – or in alliance with DD’s version of history I could have nominated these thematic songs that were great favourites of mine in later years of the 1960s:

 

Byrds: CTA 102; Mr Spaceman; Eight Miles High

Pink Floyd: Astronomy Domine, Interstellar Overdrive; Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

David Bowie: Space Oddity

 

The chapter headings of Future Rock help to illustrate the sort of music, and most importantly the songwriters, that DD hailed as foremost visionaries during the period 1965 to 1975: David Bowie - Red Mutant Eyes Gazing Down; Jefferson Starplane – Volunteers for Andromeda; Pink Floyd – The Dark Side Brightens; Hawkwind – There’s a Space for Us. A chapter on Science Fiction was headed Looking for a New Frontier … ‘you can write your own SF story to a Pink Floyd instrumental.’

 

It was with affection that I called Future Rock a curious little book after first I read it: I must have culled hundreds of books from my house during the last forty years, but my yellowing paperback copy of Future Rock (price 60p in 1976) has somehow clung on, giving me an occasional nostalgic re-read and a reminder of superb rock albums like Fifth Dimension (Byrds) and Dragon Fly (Jefferson Starship) that I used to play obsessively but I haven’t heard on the radio or anywhere else for thirty years at least.

 

Future Rock: Culture and Politics

 

To try and put the term ‘Future Rock’ into a post-war UK and USA cultural and political context, David Downing peppered his thesis with extracts from lyrics penned by ‘prophets of rock’ beginning essentially with Bob Dylan. He included quotations too from Leonard Cohen, Arthur Koestler, Doris Lessing, R.D. Laing, George Orwell and R.M. Rilke. DD afforded ‘Future Rock’ a much broader spectrum than my simplistic definition of songs about space exploration. He insisted that ‘Future Rock – the music of social vision’ - was pioneered by Bob Dylan … ‘giving popular music a breadth and depth it had never known before, solidly orientated towards the future.’ Ironically with regard to the 1970s genre of pop music known as ‘progressive rock’ pioneered by ELP and Rick Wakeman, DD argued that this moog-mood music was ‘regressive’! – a revival of old style pop, country or folk music.

 

In the year 2017 that marks a half-century of time since the celebrated ‘Summer of Love’ of 1967 it is especially interesting to see what DD had to say about it in 1976. One commentator, David Lister, has claimed in 2017 that the ‘Summer of Love’ hardly ever happened! He insists that its legacy is mostly myth. Writing in 1976, DD noted Jeff Nuttall’s claim (in his 1968 book Bomb Culture) that ‘To some degree, the Underground happened everywhere spontaneously’ – with principal centres London (the Pink Floyd), San Francisco (Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service) and New York (Velvet Underground / Lou Reed). But DD held that a striking difference between the British and American scenes was ‘the degree of overt politics present in the cauldron of ideas.’ In America there was the symbol of Vietnam to fuel disenchantment and unrest. But in late 1960s Britain the ‘hippies’ were too weak and fun-loving a force to engender a revolutionary struggle against the ‘politicos’ (government and ruling classes).

 

What of Karl Marx, who lived in London? Would he have been an advocate or a gainsayer of the new frontier music that David Downing defined in the 1970s as Future Rock? DD informed us that Marx would sometimes say: ‘The new society is born in the womb of the old.’

 

Jerry Dowlen

August 2017

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

  The New Love Poetry and London's 1967 Unforgettable Summer of Love

   Stan Barstow

   The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.

  The novelist R.F. Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.

  How The Wild West Was Written

Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins

John Updike

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

H G Wells

In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield

Bailouts

Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...


 

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