Sunday, 11 April 2010

We need more evangelists

Every revolution needs its instigators, and every instigator needs his prophets, evangelists, propagandists and advertisers. Just as it was true for religious and political, so it is for the cultural rebels. It's not always by design: contextualisers might be fellow travelers, but the most powerful aren't in the employ of those whom they evangelise.

In these anodyne days, magazines are a great example. They provide context for you and tell you what, how, where and why to buy. No matter that what they say is often patently absurd. Take, for example, this example from the current edition of What Hi-Fi Sound and Vision: It's a review of a power cable - the thing that plugs into your power socket at one end, and into your appliance at the other. This power cable - a regulation 1.5m in length - costs £60. It is carefully constructed, apparently, in terms of "many aspects of the content and construction of the cable - the number and arrangement of conductors, the insulation, the mains plug at one end and the three pin plug at the other." Trust us; it's very technical.

Sixty quid. For a power cable. What Hi-Fi has been quite unable to say what is so special about it: just that it really is carefully constructed. The benefits, it says, over a normal cable are "...abundant. Used in a video discipline, [it] offers greater certainty where movement and edges are concerned, deepens black shades and offers great punch to the high-contrast scenes. Colours are bolder, details more numerous."

The assertion, therefore, is that the construction of a power cable qualitatively, meaningfully, affects the representation of pictures on your TV. Can you imagine anything more preposterous? To catch a magazine reviewer out getting completely carried away isn't the point: the point is that, without this sort of independent publicity legitimising such a transparently absurd idea as a £60 power cable, no-one would buy it.

And so it is with all cultural artefacts.

So Elvis benefitted from Dewey Phillips - a brain-fritzed hillbilly who sounded like he was on speed - a Memphis DJ who championed That's Alright Mama on his Red Hot and Blue show. Later in life Greil Marcus was a leading contextualiser of ElvisBob Dylan and many others.

A prime moving evangelist begets other evangelists - gets a movement going, and from then anything can happen. But had Dewey Phillips not played that record on his show, the cultural history of the second half of the twentieth century might have been very different. Sun Studio, 706 Union Ave Memphis, is a small and unprepossessing place. Just making the music wasn't enough. Someone independent, with credibility, needed to broadcast it; validate it; vouch for it.

Lester Bangs - whose many best works can be enjoyed in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung - was another evangeliser. What he wrote about - punk rock in the seventies - was a base, greasy, countercultural mess that didn't have a shape or a context and stood about as much chance on its own of overcoming its meagre origins as did Elvis, Bill and Scotty's acetate. But - like Greil Marcus did with other artists - Bangs gave it shape, context; consequence; significance. Writing passionately and eloquently about an inconsequential subject gave others a prism - any old prism would do - through which to relate to it. Much of what Bangs wrote was, like the What Hi-Fi review of the £60 power cable,  on its face absurd, but that really wasn't the point. Or perhaps more accurately, that was the point.

This is the point. There's a new blues revival brewing in the UK. I only found out about it by accident: searching on the wonderful Spotify for Ram Jam's sprawling seventies' bastardisation of Leadbelly's Black Betty, I came across this one, by 18 year old Norfolk guitarist Oli Brown.

Norfolk?  Don't smirk. It's no more provincial or parochial than Memphis, Tennessee was in 1953.

Brown's take on Black Betty is less gaudy, less louche; a bit more respectful than Ram Jam's, but then, there's time. Oli Brown's not old enough to have experienced a real Black Betty - bam-a-lam - so hardly surprising he doesn't sing with total conviction about her. But he does have chops, and it was enough to buy the record. There are other interesting youngsters kicking around, too: Joanna Shaw Taylor, for example, from Birmingham (in the England's Black Country, not Alabama) looks a little like a young Kate Winslet, but her demure bearing belies a muscular voice and a bitching guitar tone - it sounds like she's channeling Bonnie Raitt of the voice, and Jimmy Vaughan of the guitar. They're all on an independent blues label, Ruf, which appears to be managed from Germany.

They're all a little too in the thrall of Stevie Ray Vaughan, truth be told, but they'll grow out of that: Given the cultural wasteland wrought by Simon Cowell and his kind, this is exciting to behold: The last time there was a British Blues Invasion, the cultural world turned forever.

But they can't do it alone: they need an evangelist. That, I suppose, is our job.


  1. Olly - is this you my friend?
    rich of southern rd

  2. I have passed this allegation on to my lawyers.