Light out of Darkness

Rock bands, empires and 'stupid Americans'.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Topics Politics
  • Light out of Darkness

Pop music aficionados are currently perplexed by the question: are The Darkness for real?

This band, who have just released a stunning debut album, Permission To Land, have confused reviewers and members of the public, who don’t know if the outfit is being ironic or not. Their music sounds like AC/DC, with guitar solos reminiscent of the early Iron Maiden and falsetto vocals worthy of Judas Priest. Lookswise, they resemble Spinal Tap – all pouting, poodle haircuts and leather. Surely their over-the-top attire cannot be serious? Surely their music is light-hearted parody?

Well, not according to their bassist Frankie Poullain. Asked in an interview if he was being ironic, he said ‘No.… I’m just doing what’s real and right’. Asked if The Darkness is taking the mick out of heavy metal, he says ‘No way! Fuck that’. He elaborates: ‘Everyone’s too uptight these days…. I hate the arrogance of bands who think their petty emotions are interesting. If you look at bands from 25 years ago, people have smiles on their faces. We’re bringing a bit of that back.’

Why have a band that sounds like a classic unfashionable heavy metal outfit become the darlings of the New Musical Express (NME) and Xfm? Twenty years ago the taste police at the NME used to regard metal with haughty derision – instead exalting the likes of Joy Division and the Smiths. The change in approach reflects a deeper culture shift. Today’s all-purpose cloak of irony means that you can get away with loving anything, as long as you protest you do so with your tongue in your cheek – and appreciate those who do likewise.

The Darkness have completely gone over the heads of this lot. This band actually represents a return to authenticity. They embody the notion that rock music can be theatrical and fun. Their raucous, three-and-a-half minute power-tunes are a much-needed antidote to Radiohead’s terrifying reign of inaudible miserablism.

The bastions of alternative music may be smirking now, but I predict that those who go out tomorrow to buy Permission To Land ironically will next week secretly be enjoying it sincerely.

  • The Empire writes back

The British publics hold pretty much polar opposite views of the British Empire. Some regard it as a benign adventure that brought civilisation to the world – others seen it as a racist vehicle of exploitation and oppression.

At the risk of sounding a wet liberal, I think it is legitimate to point out that the Empire brought both happiness and misery to the world. For instance, at one point it was instrumental in running a slave trade on a scale hitherto unknown to humanity. Yet while the vast majority of cultures have practised slavery, Britain was the first to abolish it.

In the words of historian Niall Fergusson: ‘no organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organisation has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world. For much (though certainly not all) of its history, the British Empire acted as an agency for relatively incorrupt government.’ Eric Hobsbawm, no fan of colonialism or capitalism, sums it up thus: ‘The empire was mixed, like almost any historic phenomenon of its size. It had a lot of downsides. It had a certain amount of upsides too.’

So when historians recently addressing the Prince of Wales summer school called for the British Empire to make a comeback in history lessons, we should welcome the news. Our failure to address its legacy properly in the classrooms has led to a great deal of intellectual impoverishment. It’s time to tell the post-colonial students of ‘the other’ that the Empire wasn’t all bad – and tell the ‘two world wars and one world cup’ school of ignorance that it wasn’t all fantastic, either.

  • Dumb Yanks and Englishmen

There is an old story that the American who bought the second London Bridge in 1968 purchased it by mistake – confusing it with the more ornate Tower Bridge. It’s easy to understand the confusion. I went to a party the other day believing it to be by Tower Bridge. It wasn’t. I had simply mistaken it for (the present and third) London Bridge. ‘What American behaviour!’ I joked to fellow revellers upon my late arrival.

The problem is that, as I’ve subsequently discovered, the original story isn’t true. As one recent obituary of Leonard Groome – the man who oversaw the moving of the bridge to the USA – reminds us, the American in question, Robert McCulloch, bought London Bridge in full knowledge of what he was getting.

This is simply one of those stories the English like to believe, because it confirms three stereotypes about the Yanks: that they are stupid; that they have a hang-up about being a young country; and in their quest for artefacts bequeathing antiquity they display utter vulgarity. ‘Fancy putting a bridge in Arizona! How ghastly.’

There may be a more innocent explanation: historical confusion. There are precedents here. In 1925 a Czech called Victor Lustig ‘sold’ the Eiffel Tower to a gullible millionaire, Andre Poisson. He fled to Vienna waiting for all hell to break loose, but Poisson was too proud to go to the police and kept the affair quiet.

Soon after the Second World War, a British conman called Stanley Lowe persuaded a wealthy Texan that the same Tower had been so badly damaged during the war that it was to be sold as scrap for £20,000. The Yank fell for the story, but before he handed over the money Lowe was found out by the police and sent down for nine months in jail.

So if you’re going to talk about dumb Americans, at least know which ones you’re talking about.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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