Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dead King Watch: Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley died thirty years ago and there is a great article in this week's Socialist Worker by Ian Birchall about how socialists might remember 'The King of Rock 'n' Roll'. Birchall notes that the contradictions of rock and of Elvis in particular were missed at the time by most of the Left:

Unfortunately the left was looking the other way. The New Left that had emerged after the Suez crisis defeat for British imperialism and the revolt against Stalinism in Hungary in 1956 preferred jazz and folk music. Communist intellectual Eric Hobsbawm declared that "the habitual rock-and-roll fan, unless mentally rather retarded, tended to be between ten and 15 years of age."

One might take issue here with Birchall a bit - surely Hobsbawm's hostility to rock came out of the rather crude anti-Americanism which affected members of the Communist Party of Great Britain at this time (Americans were routinely labelled 'Yanks' in the context of the Cold War) - and so perhaps Hobsbawm (who stayed in the CPGB after 1956) is here far more representative of the 'Old Left' rather than the 'New'? However, Birchall was around at the time - I wasn't. Yet Birchall is right to take issue with the Left's general dismissal of rock music - I am personally well up for watching the Smashing Pumpkins later this month - yet we wouldn't have got to the heights of the Pumpkins (whose excellent new Kafka-referencing album 'Zeitgeist' surely marks a political turn of sorts) without Elvis - and so it is surely right to salute 'the King' (even if this post was really an excuse for me to discuss the Pumpkins).

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At 10:55 pm, Anonymous Colin F said...

Actually Snowball, you (and Ian) don't seem to be particularly fair to Eric Hobsbawm, if his autobiography Interesting Times is anything to go by. He has some pretty interesting things to say about both jazz and rock music, while recognising the importance of age differences and cultural background (for rock, see pp 224-5 and 251-2).

Here's a couple of quotes : "Nor could the jazz world, with the rarest exceptions, understand rock. It reacted to rock music with the same sort of contempt as it had traditionally reacted to the Mickey Mouse music of the old pit and commercial bands. ... The generational gap between those for whom the Rolling Stones were gods and those for whom they were just a creditable imitation of black blues-singing was virtually unbridgeable ..."

"... for a few years in the 1960s the language, culture and lifestyle of the new rock generations became politicised. They spoke dialects recognisable as deriving from the old language of the revolutionary left, though not, of course, of orthodox Moscow communism ..."

Not bad for someone born in 1917 (even before Ian Birchall), it seems to me, even if he frankly admits that he never got round to wearing jeans. As a matter of fact, Hobsbawm's interest in jazz and openness to other cultural forms (like his work on bandits or his exploration of Latin America) seem to have been pretty original for the time.

The truly appalling part of his book is his defence of Neil Kiçnnock and his attack on Tony Benn and Michael Foot - not to mention his dismissal of the "sectarians" (i.e. the revolutionary left). But that's another story.

PS Ian's articles are always great, but it's a pity Socialist Worker's editorial policy doesn't let him give his source or the context for the Hobsbawm quote on rock fans.

PPS Who are the Smashing Pumpkins ?

At 9:24 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Thanks Colin - very useful - it would be very interesting to have a reference for the Hobsbawm quote Birchall uses as it clearly seems he changed his mind on the matter. Perhaps you should write into SW in Hobsbawm's defence?

The Smashing Pumpkins - 90s American rock group - check out the album 'Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness'. Possibly their greatest song - 'Bullet With Butterfly Wings' is actually quite apt for the predicament Elvis was in come to think of it:

'Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage'.

[Yes, I am aware I need to get out more]

At 11:20 pm, Anonymous Ian Birchall said...

Thanks for noting I am not quite as old as Hobsbawm.

Yes the argument is rather more complex than it was possible to make it in a short SW piece. Hobsbawm was heterodox in his enthusiasm for jazz, which was frowned on by strict CP orthodoxy. I took the quote from the article Norah Carlin and I wrote on Hobsbawm many years ago, at http://www.marxists.de/workmvmt/birchcarl/hobsbawm.htm
Unfortuinately this only attributes the quote to Hobsbawm's book (under the name Francis Newton) called "The Jazz Scene", 1961, p. 62. This was a collection of articles, and I don't have a note of the exact date/source to hand. The other Hobsbawm quotes given by Colin F are interesting, but seem to be much later, probably late sixties, when the mood had shifted considerably.

The CP line was basically established in a little book edited by Sam Aaronovitch (David's daddy) called "The American threat to British culture" (Arena Publications 1951). This contains Edward Thompsons's first essay on William Morris, so there is a direct link to the early New Left.

A study of the early New Left, and of thinkers like Raymond williamms, would show a hostility to rock'n'roll that is quite pervasive.

This was also true of the International Socialists, in which the dominant musical culture was folk, with rock being rather looked down on. However, if you consult a file of the IS youth paper "Young Guard" you will find an article called "Don't knock the rock" putting the minority position. It was written by myself, commissioned by "Lord" Gus MacDonald.

At 11:20 am, Blogger Snowball said...

...'if you consult a file of the IS youth paper "Young Guard" you will find an article called "Don't knock the rock" putting the minority position. It was written by myself, commissioned by "Lord" Gus MacDonald.'

Ian, you are a legend.

At 9:22 am, Anonymous tuxedo tails said...

Elvis is the king of rock,he made an history he is a legend.


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