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This Ain’t a Scene, It’s a Goddamn Class War

Written by Jon Bate (jonobate)


I’ve been waiting to use that title for ages. There was an excellent article in Friday’s Guardian on class in the British indie scene:

The British indie scene has never been so divided, and the two sides are facing off across a sticky dancefloor over the issue of class. Just ask Coventry Britrockers the Enemy. An interview with singer Tom Clarke last year saw him berating rival bands whose backgrounds he considered to border on the aristocratic. “I think having working-class roots does mean better songs as they are songs the majority can relate to,” he told the Sun. “If you live in a castle, you’re going to write about living in a castle and who wants to hear a fucking song about a castle?”

Those supposedly up in the turrets were never going to take that lying down, and so, sure enough, earlier this year Observer Music Monthly ran an article featuring the privately educated Foals, Ox.Eagle.Lion.Man and These New Puritans, proclaiming the arrival of “a new class of smart, literate British bands challenging the lumbering louts of indie rock” and deriding bands whose members look like “plumbers”. This in turn provoked NME features editor James McMahon to fire off an enraged letter to the paper warning that “the views expressed by the privately educated bands reeked of an inherent fear of the working classes”.

We do indeed seem to be seeing a divergence of indie music between arty middle-class indiedisco and laddish working-class garage rock. Personally I like both, and have never been taken with the notion that art should be judged on the class nature of the artists involved. In fact, the tension that occurs due to class differences in pop music can be fascinating. (Radiohead are a fine example- a band who shortly after completing their expensive private education reportedly saw a TV programme about public (i.e. private) schoolboys and had a moment of Zen-like insight- “That’s us! And we’re a bunch of wankers!” This self-deprecation, and a social awkwardness and liberal guilt informed by it, has formed the basis of their worldview ever since.) The problem with such a zero-sum equation of ‘lads vs. toffs’ is that it ignores the spectrum which exists between these extremes, and the fact that the bands which do exist at the extremes are often not terribly good.

Nethertheless a polarisation is occuring and this is largley due to the way the development of indie in recent years reflects the development of post-punk music in the 1980s. Punk drew in people from all sorts of backgrounds, from football hooligans to socialists to National Front thugs to art students and fashion designers. Once the initial energy of 1977 faded away the remaining components forged in different directions, creating two souls of punk.

On one side was the US Hardcore and UK Oi! scenes, with their parady of working-class yobbishness, championed by figures such as International Socialist turned English Democrat Gary Bushell. On the other side was the new wave art collective approach, which somtimes exhuded middle-class privilege. Pere Ubu, for example, claimed that only the borgeoise could make revolutionary music, as unlike the working-class they could create without worrying about the financial consequences of artistic decisions.

If in the ‘post-punk revival’ of the early 2000s the Libertines were the new Clash, then the Strokes were the new Television. Since then modern indie has eveloved along similar lines to eighties post-punk, bringing us to the stand-off described in this article. If the Enemy are the new (albeit Northern) Cockney Rejects, then Foals are the new Talking Heads. But there’s more to it than that…

The spectre of Oasis looms large over any discussion of class and today’s indie scene. For the cultural commentator Jon Savage, the Gallaghers’ “class fundamentalism” delivered a crushing blow to the idea of aspirational working-class music. “Oasis were so big that they could have done anything they wanted to - they could have done incredible things with their position, but they chose to put themselves in a box and be a malign influence,” he says. “There was that famous quote of Noel Gallagher saying that he never reads books. Compare that to the Manic Street Preachers - they came from a South Walian valleys tradition, an old Labour tradition of education and hard work and self improvement, which is a very strong part of working-class history, but something Oasis always rejected. Oasis are a very fundamentalist act, in their attitude to class and their attitude to music. In a way they’re very reactionary.”

Bands like the Manic Street Preachers subvert the media created perception of an ignorant, dangerous and violent working-class, and this is why they are important. Likewise, Radiohead illustrate that not everyone who comes out of a fee paying school is actually a wanker, despite the best efforts of the private education system. It’s important to recognise that- as with the ‘Battle of Britpop’- the music press fuels this sort of class war narrative for it’s own entertainment, and we should avoid taking sides when both are defined in such a stereotyped way.