- 13 May 19
But it might just be sung, because rock 'n' roll can both describe change – and inspire it. That's what some Irish musicians are setting out to do...
It’s said that anybody who can remember the Sixties wasn’t really there. But this isn’t true. I can remember the Sixties and I was there. Or thereabouts.
I remember Philip Larkin and The Beatles ushering in a new era of fucking and freedom, facilitated by one of the most reactionary fossils in the British legal establishment making a filthy-mouthed speech to a dozen decent citizens.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was D.H. Lawrence’s last novel. It told of Lord Chatterley, a middle-ranking member of the British aristocracy who had been wounded in the First World War, left impotent and in a wheelchair. His wife, Connie, finds comfort and sexual release with their gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors.
The book was banned under the Obscene Publications Act for its horny-handed eroticism and, many believed, for its depiction of a lady of good quality involved in uninhibited adultery with a man from the lower orders. Penguin Books challenged the ban at the Old Bailey.
The acquittal of Lady Chatterely just three months into the 1960s was a tremor presaging the youthquake to come. (More on “youthquake” soon.)
A line of literary giants queued to testify to the book’s literary merit and to the fact that the obscenities which splattered the text were integral to its art.
Sir Reginald Edward Manningham-Buller challenged this perspective. Even in the context of artistic freedom, he snorted, the swear-word count was just too high. “The word ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’ appears no less than 30 times, ‘cunt’ 14 times, ‘balls’ 13 times, ‘shit’ and ‘arse’ six times apiece, ‘cock’ four times; ‘piss’ three times, and so on.”
He invited the jury to ponder: “Is this the sort of book you would be content to allow your children or your servants to read?” That’s what did for him. The reaction in court and across the land was guffaws of startled disbelief and great hilarity, signalling the beginning of the end of an era of furtive fumbling, stifled desire and dour suppression of joy.
Thus Larkin: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (which was rather late for me) / Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban / And The Beatles’ first LP.”
Of course, the end of the Chatterley ban did not of itself lift the weight of ages from the shoulders of strained society. But it was an augury announcing the imminence of individual liberation. And The Beatles, more than any other band of the time, sonar-echoed what was astir beneath the surface.
Homosexuality was legalised in 1967. The Abortion Act was introduced the same year. The contraceptive pill was suddenly widely available. Divorce became much easier.
Individual liberation didn’t mean the liberation of all. The position of women may even have worsened at the outset. But change was on the way.
There was little in the Beatles of the macho strut which had characterised the first rock-and-rollers. Chuck Berry was a brilliant rock performer. He was also a repellent misogynist.
He owned a restaurant in Missouri where he installed hidden cameras for filming women using the rest room. There’s a strong case for excising him from playlists.
Jerry Lee Lewis was a child abuser.
We could make a list.
The Beatles weren’t immune either from wink-and-nod sexism. “She was just 17 / You know what I mean.” And we surely did.
Not in the low-down league of Jagger’s ‘Brown Sugar’.
But the Sixties wave rolled on. Jagger had the grace to change the lyrics of ‘Brown Sugar’ and hasn’t sung the original version since the 1980s.
The Beatles gave us early clearer sight. “You know it’s up to you / I think it’s only fair / Pride can hurt you too / Apologise to her.”
“Oh please, say to me / You’ll let me be your man / And please, say to me/ You’ll let me hold your hand.” “Oh, I can’t sleep at night but just the same / I never weep at night / I call your name / I call your name.”
Berry would have scorned such plaintive expressions of love. But the sentiment sat comfortably with what was happening with those most likely to lend an ear.
Music can chart changes in society as least as accurately as literature. And as it reflects it reinforces, fuelling the change it strives to describe.
Art which doesn’t challenge the way things are never in the end amounts to much.
Strength N.I.A. challenges all preconceptions of the Irish rebel song. The N.I. stands for Northern Ireland. The music celebrates regions of life too awkward to slot into any standard narrative. “Northern Ireland Yes” transgresses all our political assumptions.
The priority of this Irish rising is not booting out the Brits, but winning a freedom unconstrained within the narrow limits of nationalism that all the world can share, even as the imperative to save the world shuffles into the consciousness of hundreds of millions.
Electronic organ wailing and swirling, emphatic thumping bass, inexhaustible container of beats, shaped around Rory Moore’s yearnful meditations on the slog of life, the beauty of home, the vastness of the spirit, the sparkle of imagination, the necessity of revolution. The sound of a new world busily struggling to be born.
(Rory calls it “werewolf pop,” upon which we shall elaborate as soon as we work out what it means.)
Bennigan’s, Derry, May 17, TPM’s House, Dundalk, May 18, The Roundy, Cork, May 18.
This is the way the old world ends, not with a bang but with the brightness of being.