DJ Taylor: DLT, Slade and the felling of tyrants

From Burma to Poland, repressive regimes tremble under the influence of our Seventies pop icons

A cultural analyst who wanted to make the tills ring could do a great deal worse than write a book about anti-American sentiment in the UK.

Such a work would, naturally, have deep historical roots. Its early chapters, for example, would pre-date the 1776 Declaration of Independence. There would be a special section devoted to literary visitors to America of the 1830s and 1840s, such as Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens, who left scandalised accounts of tobacco-chewing vulgarians and Yankee bombast of the kind vouchsafed by Jefferson Brick, war correspondent of the New York Rowdy Journal in Martin Chuzzlewit ("The libation of freedom must sometime be quaffed in blood" etc).

Moving forward into the mid-20th century, the putative author would have a high old time tracking the cross-currents of the 1950s, in which the British left resented the McCarthyite purges while the right could never forgive Eisenhower for Suez. Many thousands of words would be required to do justice to the British media's attitude to presidential elections, generally made manifest in the kind of snootiness that led the Daily Mirror to ask, on the morning after the 2004 result, how 53 million Republican voters could be so stupid, or The Guardian to solicit votes for the Democrat candidate John Kerry in some bellwether East Coast battleground.

This type of prejudice is always at its worst in considerations of the Republican nominees. Already 2012's hopefuls are being presented in British newspapers as not much more than a casebook in idiocy. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is regularly lampooned for his Mormon faith. Michelle Bachmann's grasp of economic affairs is loudly disparaged. Meanwhile, yet more improbable figures lurk in the wings. There is no denying, of course, that all this is a satirist's dream. On the other hand, there is a suspicion that one or two British politicians might themselves look rather odd to the TV watchers of Nowhere, Nebraska.

Anti-Americanism, though a feature of British political life, is only practised by small minorities. Given that most of our cultural tendencies have taken their cue from the United States since the late 1920s, most ordinary people are vaguely, if not consciously, pro-American, and take the view that Stateside political arrangements are none of our business. As for this as yet unwritten book, I offer the idea gratis to Simon Schama, who must be getting rather tired of conducting celebrity interviews for the Financial Times magazine.

***

The revelation, dropped in this week's Radio Times, that the Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi was a fan of the BBC World Service, and a particular admirer of its erstwhile ornament Dave Lee Travis, stirred unreasonable amusement among the commentariat. This, everyone agreed, was an unlikely fixation, and the link between Mr Travis's on-air chat and the first stirrings of Burma's National League for Democracy tenuous in the extreme. "Could DLT build on his Burmese efforts," The Independent's Matthew Norman speculated, "with an undercover mission to North Korea, to rally resistance to Kim Jong-il, with help from Tony Blackburn and Arnold the dog?"

But Ms Suu Kyi's absorption in the patter of "the Hairy Cornflake" (to allow him his mid-Seventies soubriquet) should not surprise us, for the role of popular music in subverting tyranny is sadly under-estimated. Turning up at Gatwick Airport many years ago to interview an entity known as "Slade II" for a Sunday newspaper, I was startled to discover that the boys – original guitarist Dave Hill, drummer Don Powell and some newly-recruited sidemen – were off to Poland with various other Glam Rock veterans to play to 20,000 people. It turned out that the height of rebellion for a Polish teenager circa 1973 had been to listen to "Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me" on short-wave radio under the bedclothes. Two decades later, Mr Hill, with his morlock hairdo and six-inch platforms, was, to use an over-worked phrase, a wholly iconic figure. All this is good news for Mr Travis, who will have his statue in Rangoon yet.

***

Still with rock'n'roll, as photographs of Glastonbury's mud-caked hordes begin to appear on newspaper front pages, the debate about the value of music festivals grinds on. After several years of capacity crowds, bookings are down – a phenomenon variously ascribed to the dearth of new talent, inflated ticket prices, or a simple over-expansion of the industry. According to several commentators there is another explanation, which is that the experience of a music festival, with its quagmires, inconveniences and distance from the stage, is one of the worst imaginable ways to listen to music.

As the evidence of a recent BBC4 documentary on the history of the rock festival seems to suggest, what we have here is a classic contradistinction. Thirty years ago, when the festival circuit was in its infancy, one baulked at going because the events were badly organised and laxly policed. Three decades later, with the music festival no more than a single gem in the wider diadem of corporate entertainment, one stays at home because the things are too sanitised. No doubt the ancient spirit endures and somewhere in a field in Dyfed 200 gnarled survivors of the Age of Aquarius are listening to Hawkwind reprising the "Space Ritual". Sadly, such gatherings go unreported.

***

There was great excitement in the world of light literature at the news that Penguin are releasing an iPad version of Jack Kerouac's legendary Beat novel On The Road (1957). As well as the complete text of the original, the app will include an interactive map of the route taken by Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady in their journey across America, "rare audio clips" of the author reading from an early draft, and a reproduction of the first, 120ft scroll draft of the book, which Kerouac allegedly typed while on Benzedrine. These may be compared to the original and, among other advantages, highlight "the elements removed by lawyers, including the author's most explicit treatments of sex and drugs".

Call me a boring old fart, but I'm going to pass on this one. On the other hand there is a desperate fascination in the thought that other artefacts from the Beat Generation may soon be making their way on to the iPad. Obviously Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" can be decked out with examples of the author howling, or out-takes from the celebrated Albert Hall poetry exposition of 1965, but what on earth are the designers going to do with Ed Sanders' less well-known but equally representative "Sheep Fuck Poem"?

Comments