Music For Real Folk: Bruce Springsteen.

bruce

Bruce Springsteen does quite a lot of remarkable things in his stage show. It lasts 4 hours or so, and he manages to make a stadium seem like a club back on the New Jersey shoreline. He goes through a range of personae to fit his songs, from a freedom-train riding Sam Cooke-soundalike on ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ to jump-jive on ‘Open All Hours’ to solo tortured soul on a closing ‘Thunder Road.’

And everything in between: thrash, soul, folk, old-timey and 60’s pop (in Glasgow even tugging his sweaty forelock to Lulu with a ‘Shout’ that reduced Hampden Park to delighted rubble.)

So what is the essence, what is the secret of being able to pull this trick off? How do you assimilate dozens of different popular styles from different decades (even centuries), give them relevance and excitement for a crowd itself spanning generations, and even inspire them?

There may be clues to be found in the work of two other musicians.

The first is George Dalaras, who was born in Piraeus in 1949 and started recording during the Colonels’ junta, finally making a breakthrough in 1972. What was remarkable about Dalaras is that he took Greek popular music – laiki – from its debased and trite state of the mid-1960s and restored it to dignity and integrity.

He did so by reclaiming the original songs of the Rembetika movement, and reminding his audience of its importance in resistance to hardship and political oppression. This was especially the case with his second successful album which featured songs of the German occupation of Greece. Above all, he respected the music and through its audience, and applied his singing, playing and production talents to making these as good as he could.

The USA equivalent of Dalaras might be Gram Parsons. His background could not have more dissimilar – he was born into a wealthy family and attended Harvard – but while a student, he came into increasing contact with country music, having seen and heard Merle Haggard play.

Crucially, Haggard was part of the Bakersfield tradition of country, rather than the debased and overproduced Nashville products which dominated the pop charts. The Bakersfield sound had been developed in exile by the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ Okies who had travelled west to California and had retained a tougher and more uncompromising ethos.

Parsons’ approach, most famously with the Byrds in 1968, and including his versions of country standards, mirrored that of Dalaras. He took seriously a genre which was widely considered to be a trite and over-commercialised product, added first class playing, arrangements and production, as can be heard on the Grevious Angel – with Emmylou Harris sounding genuinely unhinged on George Jones’ “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes.” Above all, his approach gave country due respect as a music that people like, buy and sing themselves, while being despised by intellectual and fashionable taste.

And this brings us back to Bruce Springsteen, who was asked in 2009 to explain why he put so much effort into his marathon shows. He said:

“I’ve had an experience through music that has touched almost every part of me. It educated me in ways I didn’t get educated in school. So we try to lay on a bit of that, by being funny, being serious, playing hard.”

What this does not convey is the quality of music which he plays, nor the simple poetry of his lyrics which combine to present the audience with situations, contradictions and dilemmas in which they can identify themselves and their neighbours and communities.

But it does reflect an appreciation of the power of popular music and an appreciation of the role which it plays in their lives. This is incredibly difficult for a popular artist to pull-off, as it depends entirely on the artist being credible as an image of the listener or viewer, who will by definition be able to spot a phoney version of themselves from many miles off, as the likes of Rod Stewart will be well aware.

But as the achievements of George Dalaras and Gram Parsons also show, when it is done accurately, real music about real folk, delivered with real quality, fortifies and inspires us like nothing else. And Bruce Springsteen’s music and his shows are celebration of exactly that.

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Labour In Power (3) – Equality.

Perhaps famously relaxed about the growth of wealth, Labour in power was at the same time successful in attacking poverty, although its detractors, and even some of its supporters, may not appreciate to what degree.

Edit: see also http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2013/10/21/wealth-more-equal-in-uk-than-in-france-or-germany/

As for equality, the background elsewhere in Europe and the world is important, not least the growth of footloose individual wealth, in the form of billionaires from other parts of the world.

In the UK, these have an effect on equality defined by the American economist Paul Krugman as ‘Bill Gates walks into a bar…’ When that happens, the total income of the bar increases, as does the average income, but so does inequality, without the circumstances of the rest of the people necessarily being affected.

The relevance of this analogy is that the UK has gained many international ultra-rich residents since the 1990s, for example, Russian oligarchs and middle-eastern potentates, attracted by relative safety and security  for both their fortunes and their persons. The effect of this upper income stratum of ultra-rich has been to distort statistics, which show that outside this group, Labour did indeed have real achievements to boast about.

In contrast, Labour’s achievement was to prevent the growth of  inequality of the UK against wider global trends.  In fact, according to John Rentoul of the Independent:

 

inequality increased sharply … between about 1984 and 1990. [The Thatcherite years] For the past 20 years, therefore, the trend has been roughly flat, while real GDP per head has increased by around 40 per cent (even after the correction of the past three years). [1]

 

In other words, inequality did not increase, and at the same time real incomes increased steadily and evenly in the Blair/Brown years. If Bill Gates walks out of the bar to buy some gum, or abolish polio,  no-one is less equal, and everyone is better off.

So how did the Labour governments achieve this? Here are some of the specific measures introduced by Blair and Brown:

  • Labour introduced the National Minimum Wage and increased it faster than inflation each year.

 

  • Labour enjoyed exceptional success at lifting children out of poverty: “reducing child poverty by 900,000 children was a remarkable achievement, certainly without historical precedent in the UK, and impressive compared with other countries.”[2]

 

  • Labour introduced tax credits for families with children plus help with childcare costs.

 

  • Labour introduced minimum income guarantee for pensioners and the winter fuel allowance was increased from a mere £10 under the Tories to £250.

 

  • Labour provided protection against unfair dismissal after 12 months in a job instead of after two years, and increased the compensation from £12,000 to £63,000 to deter employers from sacking un-necessarily.

 

  • Labour gave part-timers equal rights for the first time (equal pay, pro-rata pensions for the first time, pro-rata sick pay etc). They gave everyone the right to a 20 minute break if they worked more than six hours a day.

 

  • Labour increased paid maternity leave from 14 weeks to 39 weeks, and introduced paid adoption leave and paid paternity leave. They introduced emergency time off for parents and carers.

 

  • Labour built 149 new hospitals and by 2009 waiting times were down to just 2 weeks – the lowest since the 1970’s, meaning that people could get back to work more quickly following serious illness.

 

  • Labour upgraded more than 1 million council houses, saving billions on fuel bills.

 

In short, Labour’s ‘relaxed’ attitude to inequality was in fact a strategy of attacking poverty rather than wealth. And by any reasonable analysis, all of this shows that like all governments they were more successful in some of their endeavours than others; but to dismiss their successes would be blinkered, or indeed willfully blind.

 

 

Labour in Power (2) The Banks & the Banking Crisis

Other than Iraq, one of the biggest accusations made about the Labour governments of 1997-2010 was their alleged failure in the deregulation of banking. In fact, history shows that deregulation happened on Margret Thatcher’s watch, and that there were two big deregulations – the “Big Bang” in 1986, which deregulated the City of London, and the 1987 Banking Act, which de-regulated banks, building societies and insurance companies.

Big Bang dismantled the barriers between separate functions in the City: for example reversing the former system whereby market makers used to belong to a separate firm from stockbrokers and financial advisors, which created the risk of one part of a business to be  pressured to distort the market for the benefit of another part. This was a risk which had not existed hitherto.

The 1987 Banking Act then removed further barriers – notably retail banks could now operate investment arms and insurance arms. This led to their investment arms speculating ever more wildly because they could count the capital from the retail arm as theirs, when formerly this had not been the case. The result was more speculation and therefore greater risk to retail customers.

The 1987 Banking Act also allowed for the de-mutualisation of building societies, and indeed incentivised such moves by requiring that the new banks would need to hold less capital than if they remained building societies. The result of this was clear to see in the failure of Northern Rock.

So the question is whether Labour, elected in 1997, could have done anything about these risks – to which even the most hostile answer is a tentative ‘maybe.’

A key difficulty was that there was only had a two-year window between after the election of May 1997 in which to do so. In those two years, American bankers were agitating and lobbying Congress  about how London had an unfair advantage. In early 1999, they succeeded in having parallel legislation passed into US law in the form of the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act. After this, Labour was not able to unwind the UK deregulation because our system would have been at a disadvantage to the Americans.

It is also alleged that Labour should have predicted the world economic crisis. In fact hardly anyone did, and it has been established that worldwide the number of people who predicted the crisis was 12 (twelve) only. The list is: Dean Baker, Wynne Godley, Fred Harrison, Michael Hudson, Eric Janszen, Steve Keen, Jakob Madsen & Jens Kjaer Sørensen, Kurt Richebächer, Nouriel Roubini, Peter Schiff, Robert Shiller.

Notably in UK political terms, this list does not include George Osborne or Alex Salmond or Vince Cable, any more than it does Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling.