Howard Jacobson: You would never think that Mick Jagger and Rab Butler had anything in common

Forget all you've read about wild old rockers. Forget the weed, the waywardness, the sexual excesses
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Attended a spectacular event at the Twickenham rugby stadium last week. An ecstatic, off-your-head celebration of the English grammar school system. Twenty, thirty, perhaps forty thousand of us, clapping, shouting, cheering, dancing in the aisles, all in our own way saying thank you for everything the 11-plus had given us. It wasn't billed as a celebration of the English grammar school system. What Twickenham thought it was staging was a Rolling Stones concert. "A Bigger Bang", the organisers called it. But I know a party thrown in honour of selective education when I see one.

Forget all you've read about wild old rockers. Forget the weed, the waywardness, the sexual excesses, the gestures of rebellion. In the Rolling Stones, as in the Beatles, the 1960s found a mode of articulate expression for white, mainly middle-class kids who'd been to grammar school, maybe even been house captains or prefects, and not improbably teachers' pets, but who didn't want to go on to be dentists or solicitors. Quick-witted and well-informed, educated to be knowing and ironical, schooled in the bitter-sweets of the English lyric, they sought to give an impression of untutoredness that fooled no one who'd enjoyed the same privileges. They might not have known it at the time, but what toppled those thousands of screaming pre-pubescent girls into temporary insanity was an only slightly mussed up version of the clean-cut English schoolboy in his cap and blazer as envisioned by Rab Butler's Education Act of 1944.

Historians of the early lives of pop singers won't need reminding that Mick Jagger went to Dartford Grammar School or that Keith Richards, for all the air of absenteeism he has been cultivating for nearly half a century, was a pupil of Wilmington Grammar School for Boys. It is no less common knowledge that John Lennon went to Quarry Bank High School (hence his original band, The Quarry Men) and that George Harrison and Paul McCartney attended the still more prestigious Liverpool Institute. That the archives have less to say about the education of Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts is only to be expected. Drummers aren't expected to go to grammar schools. Theirs is a more inchoate function. They listen to a more ancient beat.

I know that the English grammar school system is not normally credited as a major influence on rock. This is partly because we harbour a fantasy that popular music and elitism are at odds with each other. They aren't. Elitism is nothing other than the provision of what is best for whoever will avail themselves of it, and while egalitarians insist that no one has the right to impose an idea of the "best" on anybody else, rock musicians and their followers have no such compunctions. Try telling a grizzled aficionado of the Rolling Stones that he might just as well, for all judgement can decide, follow Westlife, and you will learn what an elitist has to say when he is affronted.

The other reason we deny grammar schools their rightful place in rock history is our sentimentalisation of American culture. How many televised histories of popular music have we watched that lovingly trace the origins of gospel in the cotton fields of the southern states, locate the birth of bluegrass in North Carolina and the blues in the Mississippi Delta, but stop short of newsreel footage showing schoolboys with Latin mottos on their blazers swapping conkers in an English playground. If only Jagger had gone to a secondary modern. If only Paul and George had been thrown out of borstal. As it is, the transition just doesn't film well, from Memphis and St Louis to Wilmington Grammar School for Boys.

Of course you hear sticky nights in Harlem when Jagger sings. Anyone who practises an art implicitly encompasses his forerunners. And with Jagger, in particular, you can make the case for popular music's long gestation. To my eye he is Kokopelli, that licentiously twisted, sexually ambiguous, hunchbacked insect figure whose semi-sacred silhouette you find carved in the most unlikely and precarious locations (and whose image you find in every ethnic gift shop) all over the American-Indian southwest. With his flute forever to his lips, and his phallus always prominent and busy, Kokopelli is close relation to Pan and Dionysus and all the other trickster figures of ancient cultures. The music maker, the clown, the seducer, the changeling, the magician, the fertility god - these are as much Jagger's antecedents as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters.

But so too is Dartford Grammar. The biographies always feel bound to reassure us that the embryo-rocker behaved badly at school, played truant, didn't like lessons and didn't do his homework. Myself I see him sitting sweetly behind his desk wondering if he dare ask permission to go to the toilet. But even if he had been a tearaway who threw ink pellets at his form master it's no matter. The glory of the grammar school was that it served equally those who valued and those who resented the service. By providing an ideal of learning, it gave you something to reject. The alternative to being brainy as the school valued braininess was not to be a moron but to be brainy in another way. The music you made was a kick in the teeth to the music you were asked to value, but it was still music. Ditto the lyrics you wrote. You rebelled but you didn't opt out. You were kept in the loop. You accepted the discourse. Hence the educated verbal brilliance, with its mastery of tone and innuendo, yoking melancholy and defiance, of the Stones and Beatles in their heyday, when they could still remember singing hymns in school assembly and nodding off when their English teachers made them learn by heart "Oh to be in England/ Now that April's there".

They stay in your mind, the lessons you don't listen to. They have their effect, the examples you scorn. Only where you are given nothing, is nothing what you're left with.

And as with learning, so with demeanour. That great lolloping tongue of Jagger's, that logo to end all logos, was shocking only to a culture which understood a tongue as something you were meant to keep inside your mouth. The mixed-sex comprehensives which exist to provide contestants for reality TV shows recognise no such niceness in the matter of mucous membrane. Who are we to say where you should or shouldn't put your tongue? Who are we to make rules, set standards or be elitist?

Consider this, anyway, when you wonder why popular music has grown effete. It is because we got rid of our grammar schools.

Comments