I came of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England. She and those who followed along after her deliberately closed many of the doors which were held open for me, and which allowed me to side-step the otherwise crushing dictates of class, upbringing and expectation. She impoverished England, literally and figuratively, even as she made it superficially richer. I feel luckier than I deserve to have benefited from the things she destroyed.

I am not the sort to dance on graves, or to celebrate anybody’s death. The petty escalation of minor grudges was one of Thatcher’s defining characteristics, and it is a game which leaves indelible stains. Ironically for one so fond of quoting small town shopkeeper home truths, her major legacy is one of waste.



Consett Park housing development  Pauline Eccels

 As it happens I have recently been re-living my muscial youth – as part of an only partially successful attempt to recover some of the fitness and strength I enjoyed before persistent tendon injuries forced me to abandon regular exercise six to seven years ago. I still cannot run in any serious way, but I have taken to training on a rowing ergometer as a way of generating a substitute sweaty buzz. Without the distractions of passing scenery and wildlife, musical accompaniment has become more necessary than ever.

I never learned to run to rap, and its pervasive influence on rhythms means that today’s mainstream hits don’t seem to sync with the way my body works. I don’t know if I have become less tolerant of blatantly commercial music or just mentally viscous with age, but I find myself mostly ignoring contemporary pop and reassembling my old running tapes as iPod playlists. I have conducted my own personal 80s revival via YouTube, Amazon and the Apple Store.

One reaquaintance that has given special pleasure has been with the bands of the U.K. ska revival, The Beat in particular. Why the depths of a bitter recession should have produced a pop movement which emphasised joyful exuberance and racial inclusiveness has, I’m sure, already fueled multiple PhD theses. Quite why my normally analytical brain sneers at today’s cynical teenyfluff but falls for over-produced ska versions of over-produced Motown songs is also the likely topic of a raft of unread sociology texts. No matter: the songs are fun, and the saxophone riffs are fun squared. Hip, hip hooray yeah yeah.




But the curmudgeon will find a way in. The same inner eye that notices not-quite-right commonplace details, that enlivens and informs my life as a photographer, is also at heart a niggardly besserwisser. I seeth inwardly at tourist maps which do not show which way is North, and I would welcome the reintroduction of flogging for childrens’ illustrators who draw rainbows with the blue on the outside. My knowing eye is always awake and it comes with an accompanying ear for dislocated language. I wince at how routinely any largish group of trees becomes a forest, and I grieve a little for what has been lost now that any field with flowers in it may be called a meadow. Don’t get me started on “decimate”.

In The Beat’s first hit, a reworking of a Temptation’s song, “The tears of a clown“, there is a change of gear two thirds of the way through. It is a brief switch of tempo, key and tone, and it usefully trips up any tendency to drift along with the song. The gearchange has now become a stylistic cliche (it is a staple, for example, of Eurovision Song Contest entries) but in the 1980s it retained a tiny smidgen of its original freshness. In this case, it signals the impending arrival of an incomprehensible lyric, a gabbled pair of lines which seem – amazingly – to be saying something about a Greek or Latin philosopher. That music directly descended from Desmond Dekker should contain a mondegreen or two is no great surprise, but successful googling for the lyrics doesn’t actually lessen their oddity:

Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room
I cry the tears of a clown
When there's no one around.



MacNeil, Cornell as Tonio in Pagliacci N2089_W


Just how did the lead character from a stodgy repertoire opera insinuate his way into my top-rankin groove?

And that’s where the Besserwisser starts with the interjections. Small at first:

It’s obvious you idiot: Pagliacci is a clown who is famous for masking his sorrow!

Then, more insistently, and less in support of the song’s basic premise:

He’s not really Pagliacci, he’s an actor called Canio who is sad and trying to hide the fact while having to play a clown who is also sad and trying to hide the fact.

And then things really get messy as we pile on the needlessly introduced complexity. An unusually indulgent mentor might just let this pass as a subconscious way of testing an idea to the limits, to see if anything coherent survives:

He’s not really Canio either. He’s an opera singer we know from countless recordings and televised performances, who may or may not be sad in real life, but who is – today at least – playing an actor who is getting sadder by the minute and failing to hide it very well, all the while having to play a stoical clown who is most certainly sad but hiding it much better, but who for all we know might – if given the chance to play to the end of this play within a play within a play – quite possibly have followed the lead set by the middle member of this nested chain of characters, gone apeshit, and killed everybody.

I’m not sure which ‘he’ I’m talking about either.



Sketch for Pagliacci, Judy Cassab

Art Gallery of New South Wales


By this time the song is over, Nedda and Silvio are well-stabbed, in storyworld number one at least, and I am alone in the silence wondering if Smokey Robinson was really intending to darken his otherwise straightforward and likeable song with veiled threats of double domestic murder and schizophrenic personality disorders. Probably not.

This could easily be taken for an example of how easy it is to over-intellectualise almost anything, of how rational thought supposedly complicates simple pleasures out of existence. But I think it’s more than that. The fuzz of peripheral ideas doesn’t stop me enjoying the song – it is, after all, now a permanent mainstay of my workout playlist – but it acts like a scuff mark on a comfortable pair of shoes, or a knot bump on a well-worn wooden bench. It is an example of how experience and usage can inject the particular into the universal, and sustain individuality in the face of widely-accepted convention, often when you least expect it.

My mental hiccup over that one brief opera reference is a useful reminder that communication is often imperfect, that signs and allusions are always open to interpretation in frames of reference entirely unsuspected by their authors. As a creator of a work this means not only that you will almost certainly be misinterpreted by at least some part of your audience, but also that you may reveal things you did not intend to make public. As a consumer of art or information, it means you may place a false significance on minor aspects of the thing perceived.

Gallows humour can be seen as a particular case of the latter: those who grew up in my sort of background and culture inevitably carry with them an inner urchin, and cannot help but frame their personal reactions around one of those fragments of incidental comedy which can always be found frollicking in the margins of every report of tragedy.

Examples abound.

I do not miss Thatcher’s England. I miss the uncomplicated acceptance of immortal opportunity I had when young, and I miss having knee joints which could run down a one-in-four carrying an eighty pound rucksack. The beat, at least, goes on.





  1. Mike Chisholm says:

    Ah yes, the mondegreens of reggae and ska (“Wake up in the morning, Baked beans for breakfast”, etc.). When I was squatting in Dalston, London in 1980, we used to go to parties in a block of flats in Hackney where Bad Manners were the house band. They were terrible.

    You 80s kids were probably the first generation to consume self-consciously post-modern pop — pop eating itself — and the last to forge a generational identity. Rap aside, nothing new seems to have happened since.

    I think your Pagliacci Problem is, in essence, the distinction between “art” and “entertainment”. Art, of whatever form, is (or should aspire to be) solid from every direction. Entertainment is for dancing to. I miss being able to dance unself-consciously and without pain…


  2. struan says:

    I like your point about the 80s being self-conscious, but I suspect that Phil Spector and The Colonel modelled themselves at least partly on the record promoters and producers of the early radio age. And they no doubt were inspired by the huge sales of printed music of popular music hall / vaudeville tunes.

    I wholly agree that nothing much seems to have happened since, although the sophistication of electronic instruments and the ability to do sampling/mashups have resulted in a quantitative change, if not a musically stylistic one.

    Personally, I keep waiting for the pop world to rediscover triple time. Dubstep waltzing – you heard it here first.

    I think some of the tension between art and entertainment that has simply disappeared. An opera reference lent a pop song a useful respectability which is not needed any more. One of the things I like about folk music is that there is a continuous spectrum between music you sit and listen to, and music you dance to. The pop/classical pair seem to have settled for living at opposite ends of the house and rarely talking to each other.

  3. Mike Chisholm says:

    Oh, sure, pop has always been a recycling act, but apart from the fans of some dreadful bands like Sha Na Na in the 70s, I think the 80s pop *audience* was the first to see itself ironically in that po-mo way — you’ve only got to look at that 2 Tone graphic style. It’s a brand!

    I think there is a queasy interaction between some classical and some pop — did you hear about Phillip Glass’ relationship with Coldplay?? — but they’re best kept apart. The thing about the “Pagliacci” reference is that in “art” you’d expect it to carry its full weight, such as it is; in “pop”, it’s just a noise to add a flavour (and how I loathe Bohemian Rhapsody… Very, very frightening, indeed).

    N.B. When checking out “syzygy” I came across the phrase “Caledonian Antisyzygy” — useful…


  4. struan says:

    I have spent entire summers waiting for a chance to drop “Caledonian antisyzygy” into the conversation.

    Re: 80s. I was thinking more in terms of consciously packaging, styling and selling music as different and subversive, but still as a mainstream commercial product. I’ll give you the audience awareness though. If nothing else, enough time had passed – and values had changed – for Motown to have become an exemplar of capitalist mass production.

    There is a corporate cowardice at work in the death of originality. It’s especially strong in film soundtracks – 50s or 60s thrillers, even Disney films, can be very unsettling for modern ears – just because the music is so weird. Hip-hop and House deserve a tip ‘o the hat though. I got last year’s “Thrift Shop” stuck in my head just as thoroughly as anything from my youth, but there’s no mistaking it for anything remotely retro.

    Which reminds me of another factor which has (mostly) changed. You couldn’t say ‘crap’ on the radio back then.

  5. Mike Chisholm says:

    Not “crap”, but I swear John Peel called something “preposterous doodleflap” once or twice…

    Motown was always pure pop and packaging, and none the worse for that. For me, personally, the real Real Thing will always be 50s rock’n’roll — Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Shakin’ All Over — as heard on a cafe jukebox aged 5 around 1959, while my mum had a cigarette and a cup of tea. Nothing will ever be so exciting ever again.