The guitarist Keith Richards is perhaps most famous for having constructed a short and very simple rhythmic musical phrase, over the top of which his colleague Mick Jagger expressed an increasing irritation at being unable to acquire, in both general and specific terms, any kind of ‘satisfaction’ — despite, as he proceeded to explain, repeatedly attempting to do so.
The guitarist Keith Richards is perhaps most famous for having constructed a short and very simple rhythmic musical phrase, over the top of which his colleague Mick Jagger expressed an increasing irritation at being unable to acquire, in both general and specific terms, any kind of ‘satisfaction’ — despite, as he proceeded to explain, repeatedly attempting to do so. Or, at least, that’s what he should be most famous for. That almost insultingly simple ‘riff’, plus a slightly more complex one a few years later, over the top of which Mr Jagger, in a more ebullient frame of mind, expounded upon the pleasures of whipping black women at midnight. Both of these songs were perceived as being ‘counter-cultural’ and therefore, de facto, of the left. I suppose you might argue that ‘Satisfaction’ was in essence a plea for more stringent regulation of the advertising industry, perhaps via a quango rather than direct legislation — which is a slightly leftish position. But it is hard to stretch the lyrics of ‘Brown Sugar’ to resemble something which approaches those of the ‘Internationale’.
Of course, the Rolling Stones also took copious quantities of drugs and had sexual intercourse with beautiful young women; they may even — the jury is still out on this — have involved an iconic item of confectionary in their lovemaking, that is to say a Mars bar. Mars bars have changed over the years; that once dense and gritty greyish nougatine base is now an airy and wholly inadequate counterpoint to the intensity of the caramel — an attempt to appease the sensibilities of women consumers who wish to think they’re eating something which will not make them as fat as a pig. They do king-size Mars bars now, Marianne. Think of that.
But I suppose that this is beside the point. My real point is that this hedonistic behaviour was also assumed to be, in some indefinable sense, left-wing, perhaps as a consequence of the left forever assuming that youthful rebellion is in itself subversive and thus undermining of the status quo and that fairly soon the means of production would be in the hands of the proletariat.
Keef’s autobiography is being serialised now and it has come as a shock to many commentators that he is not quite as left-wing as he was once assumed to be. A writer in the Guardian castigated him for his ‘foul’ attitude towards women and it was revealed that Richards had written a letter to Tony Blair urging him to bomb the hell out of Iraq. ‘Stick to your guns, Tony,’ the addled, aged guitarist proffered, presumably dressed in his usual attire, which is that of an eight-year-old attending a pirate party.
It is a historic, if ultimately unimportant, fallacy — the notion that rock music was essentially left-wing. Rock is a deeply conservative musical form, a simple and comfortable and brief excursion usually resolving itself, relievedly, to the major chord, the status quo (both upper and lower case). It is none the worse for this, of course. It is also a blue-collar medium, or was until recently; full of class-based inchoate chippiness and anger at times (‘Satisfaction’), but also extremely reactionary and politically incorrect (‘Brown Sugar’). Think of John Osborne and David Storey for a comparison within a more intellectually demanding medium; these dramatists were hailed by the left for being working-class and incredibly cross about stuff, but revealed themselves to be way, way to the right (and were punished, later, as a consequence).
Thus it was in rock. For while the writers of the rock press were themselves usually of the radical left and the performers sometimes, therefore, felt the need to make vague genuflections in the direction of fashionable causes, often their lyrics — and always their personal behaviour — let the cat out of the bag. None more so than in the case of John Lennon, as Michael Henderson rather wonderfully explained in these pages last week. Michael’s excellent analysis was beaten for succinctness only by the judgment of the rock auteur Todd Rundgren in the mid-1970s: ‘John Lennon ain’t no revolutionary, man. He’s just a fucking idiot.’
Almost all of Britain’s Sixties pop wunderkinds were later espied to be closer to the Monday Club than the Finland Station. The Kinks’s Ray Davies cited his favourite politician as Anthony Eden and — believe me — if his, uh, mock calypso song ‘Apeman’ were played on the radio now the Equality and Human Rights Commission would be demanding prosecution. The Small Faces, The Who, Rod Stewart — Tories. David Bowie and Eric Clapton still further to the right. As Jonathan King, a very clever man who himself suffered the hypocrisy of the liberal left, put it to me: ‘They may have pretended to be left-wing, and maybe even believed they were. But they were not.’
Even punk rock, which hit the scene in 1976 and was championed by the left-wing music press as the antidote to the conservatism of mainstream rock music, a blast of revolutionary zeal from a new generation of dispossessed young people, was more Thatcherite than Trotskyite. Punk turned its guns on what it saw as moribund institutions — the monarchy, the BBC, the church, the ossified establishment, the record companies, the trade unions. Punk was about individual expression, writ large; it had no great objection to economic inequalities or the profit motive, per se. Do anything you wanna do, we were all urged by those Essex-bred speed merchants, Eddie and the Hot Rods. Or, in the USA, The Ramones: hard-core, blue-collar Republicans, insofar as they were able to articulate the word ‘Republican’.
And it’s no use looking to black music for succour either; by and large hip hop and rap was the same blue-collar aggressiveness, misogyny, hedonism, homophobia and the glorification of ill-gotten wealth, with an added spurt of anti-white and anti-Semitic racism from those groups most adored by the liberal music press as being ‘radical’.
The idea that rock music was left-wing — a view which, curiously, right-wing newspapers bought into — was always a con.