Pop became global when the first 78 rpm disc was pressed, potentially transporting locally recorded music to anywhere on Earth. Pop has continued its progress towards becoming a universal language in the 21st century, with nearly all of it available in its entirety to anyone with an internet connection. Rihanna’s latest video belongs equally to viewers in Basildon or Borneo as it does to those of her Barbados homeland. But a counter-force to this rootless, weightless idea of music stubbornly endures. Technology, from transistor radios to iPads, has made pop borderless. Its makers, though, still come from somewhere, often unmistakably so.
From the Midlands factory grind that inspired heavy metal to grime’s private east London patois, pop is audibly a product of its environment. Many of the best songwriters focus still more narrowly, chronicling the streets and people of their immediate surroundings. For them, home is truly where their heart is.
Mercury prize-winner King Creosote, aka Kenny Anderson, has been forced to think deeply about his roots for his latest project, the soundtrack to the film From Scotland With Love. The documentary’s images of a century of Scottish life confronted him with his own place in his country’s culture. He realised his upbringing in Anstruther, an obscure Fife coastal village, meant more to him than being Scottish. As a result, his new album speaks a very local language. “There are certain words that we use in the East Neuk villages of Fife,” he explains. “There’s always the odd ones that slip into my songs. This project gave me license to explore that a lot more. It can be embarrassing laying on a thick accent, and conforming to Scottish type. But there are huge skies up here, and each village has their own identity, even if they’re just across the next field. The broad idea for a lyric may have come from watching someone at King’s Cross, but when it comes to colouring it in, I use the characters and places I know. That’s where your lyrics start taking on a unique aspect. Standing still in East Neuk, the world goes by you anyway.”
The constituent parts of the American pop machine that conquered the 20th century – jazz, rock, blues, country, soul and hip-hop – were equally regional in nature. New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, Detroit and the Kentucky backwoods all played their part, as rock’n’roll’s first self-aware lyricist, Missouri native Chuck Berry, chronicled in songs such as “Memphis, Tennessee”. Ray Charles’s 1960 version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind” gave a gorgeous glow to his home state’s sultry atmosphere.
But pride hasn’t been the only response to places often scarred by racial division. Eminem’s “8 Mile” was named after the avenue that separates Detroit’s black and white citizens, a local border-zone in a bankrupt and nationally abandoned city that he made globally notorious. Though Louis Armstrong sang “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” till the end of his life, he privately grew to loathe his birthplace’s apartheid reality. Dr. John protested the desperate aftermath of the “federal flood”, as New Orleans natives call Katrina’s devastation, in furious albums such as The City That Care Forgot (2008). Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” is the most infamous example of conflicted regional pride. Their answer song to Canadian Neil Young’s attack on their region’s slavery heritage, “Southern Man”, became Southern rock’s anthem. The genre’s current kings, Kentucky’s Black Stone Cherry, have stripped the racist threads from states prone to flying the Confederate flag with songs such as “White Trash Millionaire”.
Britain suffered an overwhelming cultural cringe at America’s local riches, until The Beatles and The Kinks staked claims for Liverpool and London as subjects. The Beatles’ Liverpudlian accents struck the first blow. Their 1967 double-A-side single “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields Forever” transformed the nondescript streets of Liverpool suburbs into places of aching nostalgia and wonder. In the same year, The Kinks performed similar magic on commuters streaming over a dull London bridge in “Waterloo Sunset”. “With the exception of stuff like ‘You Really Got Me’, all the best early Kinks stuff took place within a mile of where I grew up,” the band’s songwriter Ray Davies reflected to me once. “It all related to the neighbourhood, and the people that I know.”
Such localism has helped define British pop ever since. The Clash turned the Westway flyover into a legendary landmark, and parlayed fear of the Thames flooding and nuclear dread into the international anthem “London Calling”. While mainstream pop has become more deracinated, British rock, already increasingly marginal and provincial compared to Katy Perry, has dug deeper into its roots. In recent years, “Wasted Little DJs” by Dundee’s The View, “Suburban Knights” by Staines’ Hard-Fi and “Wander My Way Home” by west London’s 12 Dirty Bullets have all described the small, obscure neighbourhoods the bands call home. Their fans have football-style travelling loyalty. The music represents them, when no one else will.
Damon Albarn, born in Leytonstone, east London, wrote boisterously general songs such as “London Loves” when he was a member of Britpop kings Blur. This year’s autobiographical solo debut, Everyday Robots, places its emotional core in “Hollow Ponds”, a woodland corner of Leytonstone where he spent time as a child. It is his version of The Kinks’ “Village Green”, itself a heightened version of north London woods where Ray Davies played and dreamed as a boy.
Such specific subjects add to pop’s power, Kenny Anderson believes.
“When I first started Fife’s Fence label in the mid-90s,” he reflects on his cultural heritage, “we wanted to cloak the fact that we were from this weird little backwater, sticking out into the North Sea. But then we realised that most people, even if they are living in London or Manchester, come from quirky little towns themselves. We were isolated, and it felt like nothing we did made any difference. But when you talk from that point of view, you identify with everybody else on this little island that feels exactly the same. There are a lot of us.”
‘From Scotland with Love’ is out now on Domino. King Creosote plays the album live at a screening of the film of the same name at the Barbican, London EC2, on 27 SeptemberReuse content