It is the end of 2010 and we are still in the quagmire of recession. We have a government that is making huge slashing cuts to education, the NHS, benefits – anything and everything that moves seems to be coming under the butcher’s knife. There is also a war – with no end in sight – being fought in our name in a far-off land, unemployment is rising and there are riots again on the streets of London. To top it all off, the weather is doing its best to pile on the misery, and we have the usual seasonal garbage at the top of the charts. So Happy New Year!
For anyone old enough to remember the 70s, 80s or 90s, (vanity asks me to tell you that I don’t remember the 70s) we have been here before, and have lived to tell the tale. Still, it doesn’t make the current state of affairs any the more palatable.
Despite everything, I found myself – during a rare and almost debilitating attack of optimism – trying to derive some meagre positives from these troubled times. I thought of punk when it exploded in Britain’s face in the late 70s, and how it was a direct result of governmental policy and social deprivation. This was the catalyst that fuelled the nihilistic attitude of punk band The Sex Pistols, and the politically conscious lyrics of The Clash – two of the biggest bands of the punk movement. I also thought how the social unrest and government intransigence in the 80s, helped shape and become a catalyst for the rave scene’s second summer of love.
So seeking positives in my unlikely bout of cheerfulness, I am wondering whether our present sorry state will precipitate a new and exciting musical movement to light up our lives, and change the landscape of a forlorn 21st century Britain.
Those who witnessed punk and rave, saw how an original and vital musical movement can sweep the country, challenge authority, help you forget your own depressing reality, and change your life perspective forever. My hope is that somewhere – a belligerent teenager with sunken hopes of an affordable education or decent job, who sees everyone around them struggling with the stark realities of a bankrupt and broken Britain – takes solace in a musical instrument, deciding to change their reality and our future.
This article is an in-depth look at the halcyon days of the rave scene and its formative years. How the social, cultural and historical conditions were vital factors that influenced the direction of its innovation. You won’t need me to point out the similarities to our current malaise in 2010. But despite everything to the contrary, my new buoyant demeanour tells me there is something good around the corner. As Kate Bush said ‘I just know that something good is going to happen, I don’t know when, but just saying it could even make it happen.’ My sincere apologies for this article’s unashamedly nostalgic tone – but it seems like nostalgia is all we’ve got – for now.
Rise of Rave Part 1
”Government leaving the youth on the shelf, this place is coming like a ghost town,
No job to be found in this country, can’t go on no more, the people getting angry.’
The Specials – Ghost Town 1981
On a sweltering summer’s day in June 1983, Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first women prime minister, was voted in for a second time. She gained a second term almost entirely on the back of Britain flexing its military muscle in the Falklands War , the year earlier over the sovereignty of the tiny Falkland Islands.
For once all the bloated rhetoric and jingoism seemed justified and the British people voted overwhelmingly Conservative, their misplaced pride intact. Unfortunately the reality for the majority of the population in the 80s was nothing to celebrate. Britain was still suffering a hangover from the Labour mismanagement that permeated the 70s; unemployment had trebled since 1979 and was steadily rising. There was huge economic difference in the north and the comparitively affluent south. There was ill-informed panic about a new virus called AIDS that killed indiscriminately, and MI5 the counter intelligence organisation, had turned its attention from terrorism and national security, to political organisations, trade unions and domestic surveillance. In David Child’s book ‘Britain Since 1945’ he suggests that MI5 is alleged to have had files on half a million so called ‘subversives’.)
Eerie footage of the SS Canberra returning home after the Falklands War 1982
When the miners strike of 84 occurred Thatcher vowed to “smash the stranglehold” the unions had on industry and production. There were running battles between picketing miners and the police. The flashpoints were a direct result of Thatcher’s economic reforms where she ruthlessly privatised any industry that was perceived as a drain on the state.
Fight between miners and police in South Yorkshire 1984.
The National Union of Miners were led in their battle with the government by the doughty Yorkshiremen Arthur Scargill. The striking miners were subsidized by the N.U.M during their battle of attrition with the government over intended pit closures. When the N.U.M.’s limited funds ran dry, there were rumours that the then communist Russia agreed to bankroll the striking miners, which only served to harden the government’s stance.
Most of the pits were in the poor industrial heartland in the north of the country and also in Wales. This divided the country, most northerners were right behind the miners struggle in what they saw was another split in the north-south divide. Southerners with working class sympathies supported the miners also, but didn’t feel the financial squeeze that was felt in the miner’s communities. However, most well to do middle class generally had no sympathy with the miner’s predicament, and were right behind Thatcher’s ‘no quarter’ policy. Arthur Scargill and his striking miners held out against the government for a whole year; but were eventually beaten into submission. Their capitulation was inevitable as the miner’s families, children and communities could no longer bear the financial strain. The miner’s took the paltry redundancy that was on offer and soon after the pits started to close for good. This had a dramatic ripple effect on the northern cities and their hinterlands for the next few years; it left the people oppressed, bitter and again pushed unemployment up in the already heavily deprived north.
Billy Bragg, folk singer, left wing activist and supporter of the miner’s strike.
What is a Synthesizer?
A synthesizer is an electronic instrument that is designed to produce an electronically generated sound. To do this it either manipulates electrical voltages as with an analogue synthesizer, or through mathematical manipulation of discrete values when using a digital or software synthesizer.
Playing with the step sequencer on the wonderful Moog Modular from 1968.
Synthesis in musical terms is the manipulation of a sound or note to create a new sound. This can be done by altering the pitch or frequency, or by altering the attack, decay, sustain and release of the note or sound. This gives the musician a whole new spectrum of possibilities ranging from replicating a full symphony orchestra, to gut shaking basslines that sound like robots farting.
Synths are able to take the characteristics, timbre, fingering and acoustic responses of an instrument, and replicate the individual components by manipulation of oscillators and the ADSR envelope. This produces a realistic approximation to the original sound.
Synthesizers have been used in virtually every musical genre since they first appeared. Every band from synth pioneer Bruce Haack to cold as steel minimalists The Normal, and modern pitch-bend terrorists Late Of The Pier, have explored the delights of oscillating, modulating and knob twiddling.
German band Kraftwerk were perhaps the most innovative synthesizer group of all – after 1973 they solely used synthesizers and removed any human element to their music – famously using mannequins during their live shows. With the synth-generated rave sounds of the late 80s, the synth was for the first time giving the guitar – the rock star’s instrument of choice – a run for its money and the synthesizer is now an essential part of every band’s make-up.
Kraftwerk – Robots
What was the first synthesizer?
There seems to be some debate about the first synthesizer – though Elisha Gray had the bare bones of a working synthesizer as early as 1876 – it was a chap called Thaddeus Cahill who was nearer the mark with his Telharmonium in 1897. It had velocity sensitive keys and could generate several sounds at the same time. Weighing in at 200 tons it needed 12 steam powered electromagnetic generators for it to perform. It was not exactly ideal for the rigours of nineteenth century touring – so its music was piped through the early public telephone network. The first commercially available synthesizer was the classic Moog synthesizer invented by Robert Moog (below) in 1964. For the first time synthesizers were self contained and portable, which meant bands could use them to record in the studio, but also take them out on the road for live shows. The Monkees, Beatles, Beach Boys and Herbie Hancock were all big fans of the Moog and its potential for exciting sound manipulation that they could add to their music.
Image from : 1000suns.org
What is the most distinctive sounding synthesizer?
The Roland TB 303 was manufactured in the early 80s and is responsible for some of the most defining sounds in dance music history, creating its own genre in Acid House. Roland intended it as a bass generation unit for guitarists to practice with. It was not at all successful – after 18 months and only 10, 000 sold – Roland stopped its production.
They could be found in junk shops for next to nothing. However, in 1987 Detroit musicians started to tweak the knobs while the bass was playing anything up to a 16 step sequence. This brought the previously redundant sequencer back to life in a big way as the sound was unlike anything ever heard previously. By twiddling the filter cut-off frequency, resonance, decay, accent and envelope modulation they were able to create the bubbling, morphing liquid acid sound that can be heard today.In 1987 DJ Pierre released Phuture – Acid Trax – and almost 25 years later – it still sounds like the future. It is believed to have been the first recording to incorporate the 303 trademark acid squelch. Other artists fond of the 303 include: Hardfloor, 808 State, Underworld, Luke Vibert, Caucasian Boy and LCD Soundsystem.
DJ Pierre – Acid Trax
Luke Vibert – I love Acid
What is the most popular synthesizer of all time?
The most popular synthesizer of all time was a Yamaha DX7. Released at the height of synthpop in 1983 the DX7 was digital and featured a new type of synthesis called Frequency Modulation. This gave it a whole new set of parameters for processing original sounds. It was also one of the first MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) keyboards which meant it could communicate and synchronize with other synthesizers, computers and drum machines.
The affordability of the synth together with the new innovations meant that everyone, and not just rock stars could afford them. With the advent of MIDI it was the start of musicians producing music from their bedrooms. Notable non-bedroom users of the DX7 include: Japan, Orbital, Brian Eno, Sir George Martin, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Front 242, Aphex Twin, Talking Heads…and er.. Level 42.
Japan’s oriental electronica show the rich tapestry of sounds available from a synthesizer.
Aging hippy Francis Monkman of Curved Air runs through some of the sounds on the DX7.
Available from: ebay second hand.
What is the most expensive synth to buy?
The Roland Jupiter-8 with MIDI is the most expensive synthesizer made commercially. Brought onto the market in 1981 there was only 2000 ever made. The rarity of the keyboard means synth nuts are willing to pay over £25,000 to get their hands on them. If you haven’t got £25,000 at the back of your underwear drawer – Arturia make a more pocket-friendly software version for £220 that is compatible with Cubase, Logic and Protools.
Man in bedroom pitch bends Duran Duran‘s Save A Prayer on £25,000 worth of synthesizer.
What is a good starter synth?
Yahama MM6 Workstation
One of the best low entry level keyboards on the market at the moment is the Yamaha MM6 Workstation – which costs about £400. It has a sequencer, effect section, arranger and great patches or sound banks. For more in-depth and thorough details check the video.
A hilariously enthusiastic Dutchmen tries to get you to buy the Yamaha MM6.
Available from: Amazon UK
Another affordable synth on the market is the Roland Microkorg at a recession-friendly cost of £300. It has 128 built in sounds available for manipulation through the parameters. I have used this keyboard myself and really enjoyed creating some amazing sounds. The highlight for me is the Vocoder which has a microphone for voice manipulation. It is small enough that it can run on batteries, though the downside is that the keys are very small too.
Having fun with the Microkorg.
Available from: Amazon UK
If size is not an issue, how about the fully customizable MegaSynth. At only £3.70 from the ITunes App Store – it is a good way to check out the endless possibilities for sound creation in synthesized music – before you think about investing in a physical keyboard.
The fully functioning capabilities of the IPhones Megasynth.
Available from: Itunes
If anything over £0.00 is just too expensive, there is always the free NLog Synthesizer which can also be downloaded from the App Store – though you do need a smart phone to run both these synths Apps.
Available from: itunes.
In the space of just over a hundred years we have gone full circle – from the 200 ton behemoth Telharmonium, which was played down the phone lines – to a state of the art synthesizer, that is an afterthought on a phone, which takes videos and is connected to the internet. Sounds like progress.
This is a photo blog of New Year’s Eve 2010. My friends and I are lucky enough to have part-ownership of a sound system that we hire out for various events. These pictures tell the story behind setting up a sound system for a friends party, and then playing out with Superfly Soundsystem at Champion’s NYE party, later in the evening. It starts at 7.30 am on a freezing New Year’s Eve morning and I have just driven – or more skidded – to my friend Michael’s house to pick up the sound system…
To access the pictures and read the story captions please click here N.B. You will have to click on blue dots at bottom of picture on Flickr to access all the text of some captions. Sorry!
BBC News report on acid house – the sinister and evil cult. 1988.
By 1989 raves had taken off in a big way and were almost an essential part of Britain’s night life. They had fundamentally come about as a reaction to what was seen as a superficial society with hypocritical morals. They had seen the displacement of the young person living in a country that was trading in a false economy of past glories and antiquated tradition. The young and alienated were estranged from a culture they didn’t understand. So they turned away from patriarchal society; embracing and losing themselves in this new, exciting and hedonistic culture.
Footage from PYMCA exhibition on rave culture 2007.
Parties were occurring in derelict warehouses, churches and even in motorway service stations all across the country, people of many different classes, races and sexual preference were dropping social boundaries, taking ecstasy and getting down to the hypnotic beats. In Simon Reynolds book on dance culture ‘Energy Flash’ , Mark Moore of S Express says he encountered: “this whole new mentality…It was all these suburbanites who.. without wishing to sound elitist –it was if they had taken ecstasy for the first time. It was like they had been suddenly let out of this box they’d been kept inside and they were just beginning to come to terms with the idea that’ I ‘m a man but I can hug my mate’ and stuff like that.”
Football hooligans were one of the first sub cultures to embrace the ‘Second Summer Of Love’ utopian ideals. They like everyone else – were looking for somewhere to belong to – and rival gangs danced and hugged side by side.( Football hooliganism went down almost 60% during the short time of the rave explosion.)
The heavy slab of techno sound that is Cybersonik’s Technarchy. 1990.
Ravers as they had become known, were streotyped as wearing overly colourful Day-Glo clothes. They used whatever they could to heighten their chemical buzz; using Vicks Vapour Rub, Amyl Nitrate and U.V. toys that would glow under the fluorescent lights found at most raves. This was probably a direct reaction to what they saw as grey surroundings, and a grey future governed by outdated grey people (popular satirical puppet Spitting Image had a few of the Conservative cabinet members as grey puppets).
The employed and the jobless, the hedge fund manager and the coal-miners daughter danced together, turning their back on society and embracing hedonism. It is perhaps an oddity in British sub culture that the music played at raves was not indigenous. For the first two years of the rave movement the music was almost entirely of American and European origin; Simon Reynolds argues the possibility that British youth were seeing everything British as bad.
Most of the parties that happened in that halcyon time occurred on the very same wasteland, warehouses and squats in Manchester, Yorkshire, London and the far north; the same places that had previously been devastated by recession, shopping malls encroachment on the cottage industries, and Thatcher’s aggressive privatisation policies. So without Thatcher’s ‘scorched earth’ industrial policy the venues that were used to host the illegal parties would not have been perhaps been so numerous, and so poignant with regards to building a new society on yesterday’s remnants and ashes.
Rave flyers were an important indicator of the mood of the time you can see from them that there was a distinct feeling of breaking society’s claustrophobic shackles and starting again. Raves with names like ‘Genesis’ and ‘Biology’ conjured up images of a ‘Brave New World’ with forward looking cities of unity, serenity and pleasure. With the decline of spiritual faith in Britain young people were looking for something to believe in and the rave scene precipitated a reviving of spirituality with old and new age alternative beliefs becoming increasingly popular. Simon Reynolds contends that raves bore resemblance to religion with the worship of the music, and the hysteria that dancing to the ‘shamanistic’ beats induced.
The flyers from that time did not have a specific venue or sometimes a bogus one and this was because the government had ordered the police to have a severe crackdown on what they saw as a threatening groundswell of youth activity, and a worrying corruption of family values.
Football hooligans who had got into the rave scene early quickly recognised the earning potential there, and in true Thatcher ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit they along with the gangsters put on most of the raves. Having spent a large part of the 80s outwitting the police they were already in a good position for a second round of hide and seek.
It is said that the rave movement was apolitical. While it had no spokesperson and no political agenda, the whole idea of the time was to drop out and reject 80s society with its double standards and restrictions, which could possibly be thought of as a political statement itself when done en masse. Perhaps the corrupt and double dealing nature of the government of the time influenced raves apolitical stance; who wants to take on people that are ruthless and unfair and will crush anyone who stands in their way? The ruthless and shabby way the miners were treated is a good example for instance.
Raves whole concept was perhaps naively about an enlightened new life away from the grim existence of dull and unrewarding employment if you were lucky – dole queues and frustration if you were not. Whilst taking ecstasy was not an overtly political act in itself – when a million people were taking it regularly on a weekend – the government were worried enough that they made plans to criminalise raves in their far-reaching Criminal Justice Bill of 94.
Big box…little box..colour TV….ravers making some shapes to SL 2’s DJs Take Control on BBC ‘s Dance Energy. 1991.
All the factors of 80s Britain, unemployment, hooliganism, the gutting of swathes of once industrial heartland, the superficiality of T.V, and biased media reportage all contributed to a fertile ground for a disaffected youth culture. Perhaps one of the reasons it took off almost overnight here was that Britain needed to purge itself from the outdated and unrealistic view of Britain as a major world power – that many closed-minded and deluded people still clung to. The British people needed to come to terms with a modern and changing multicultural nation and face a new millennium – rather than hark back to the past.
When looking at the UK rave scene in comparison with countries such as Germany and Holland, it took a little while longer for rave music and its culture to enter into the mainstream. When it did, it was popular- but possibly due to their more liberal governments it didn’t have the same revolutionary effect on their way of life.
All three artists were born into desperately poor black families. Billy Holiday and Gil Scott Heron were both brought up by their grandparents; Billy had an awful upbringing and it’s maybe reflected in her music which is sometimes incredibly sad. Heron was mostly brought up in the ghetto; it shows as his music has a much harder edge. Nina Simone, who had the more tranquil childhood of the three, had some classical training and the smoother music she would make in her later years reflected that. So you can say that their formative years influenced all three’s musical direction and outlook.
They all became involved in the creative process because music has been the way that Afro-Americans have expressed themselves right back to the slavery days. Every artist is renowned for their jazz musicianship, Simone and Holiday the blues also and Heron, Rhythm and blues.
They have influenced each other chronologically: Billie Holiday influenced and inspired Nina Simone, and then in turn Gil Scott Heron was influenced by Nina Simone and especially Billie Holiday, so much so that he wrote a song about her called “Lady Day and John Coltrane”. Like each one before it, all three artists were angered and saddened by the prejudice and segregation they and other blacks suffered in the twentieth century. Compelled to retaliate the only way they knew how, they wrote songs documenting their feelings.
All the songs lyrically and musically capture the mood of the time; Billie Holiday’s adaptation of the poem “Strange Fruit” could not talk explicitly about things that Gil Scott Heron talked about quite openly. So the song only alludes to lynching when it says “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze”. There is no mention of feelings or civil rights issues, and if she had sung about revolution she would have possibly been a victim of lynching herself. The music is the best indicator of her true feelings and the mood of Afro-Americans at this time, with its funereal pace and painful end – when the instruments come to a slow death – it speaks as powerfully as Heron does when he talks of revolution.
Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” was almost 25 years later, but to many black Americans life had not changed. With the advent of Rock and Roll, artists were taking more risks lyrically, and this enabled Simone to articulate her true feelings about life for Afro-Americans. The fact she was somewhat freer to speak her mind lyrically, meant the music therefore does not imitate what is socially going on at that time in the way “Strange Fruit” does. With Simone’s sincere impassioned pleas and wake up call feel of the music, you are not left in any doubt as to the sombre mood and brewing tension.
Comparatively Gil Scott Heron’s “Revolution Will Not Be Televised” combines detached vitriol in its lyrics, and brilliant musical tension to tell America what is going down and to motivate its “troops” to be ready for change. Billie Holiday and Nina Simone’s protest songs enabled Heron to speak as openly as he did, and without their courageous stance he would never perhaps made as strong a statement as “Revolution.” We can yet again see the connections between the songs and how social and political upheaval influenced all three artist’s music and words, there is a direct correlation to the timeline of events taking place in 20th century America and a connection between the artist’s interpretations of events musically and lyrically depending upon that time.
Sadly, there is still one more connection to be made between these three legendary artists, and that is they were all afflicted with ruinous drug habits and tragedy in their lives – as is so often the case with artist’s making beautiful and vital music – there is a darker undercurrent to their genius.
All three artists’ protest songs had influence on the civil rights movement. Their songs helped precipitate a change in an age old struggle against subjugation that had been fought, or more endured, for hundreds of years. I don’t think it is possible to hear a record today without it having a connection or owing a small debt to one of these artist’s and their ground breaking music. Their originality and outspoken attitudes will live forever through their musical legacy.
Timeline of the Afro-American Civil Rights Movement
1619 – The first record of African slavery appears in the then English colony of America.
1705 – Virginia slave codes. Slaves defined as non-Christians who were brought into the colony as servants, with their masters as having absolute power over their human property.
1800 – Gabriel prosser leads a failed slave rebellion and is hanged along with 26 members of the revolt.
1808 – Importing slaves into the U.S. is outlawed.
1861 – 180,000 African -Americans fight in the American Civil War.
1865- Slavery abolished at end of the Civil war.
1890 – New constitution passed in Mississippi that denies black people the vote.
1925 – 35,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan march on washington.
Gil Scott Heronwas born in 1949 in Jackson Tennessee in the care of his grandmother, and after her death moved to the Bronx. It was there in the overcrowded ghettoes he first discovered the privations, poverty, prejudice and extreme misery that his people suffered on a daily basis. Like many other Afro-Americans he took solace in music and through writing he tried to appease the pain and anger he felt. He went to university and by the time his first album had appeared he had written a novel and a volume of poems. Heron was inspired to write the song after the race riots which occurred in Newark and Detroit in the long hot summer of 1967, where blacks fought openly with police.
Heron first performed the song with just a bongo player and heron ‘rapping’ his revolutionary clarion call over the top. Heron sympathized with the more radical slogan “by any means necessary” which was echoed by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. They called on African-Americans to arm themselves for a fight to gain liberation and self determination. Lyrically Heron lampoons America’s sanitised, racist and manipulative media, hilariously caustic he says “The revolution will not go better with coke, the revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath”.
When he name checks bland soap stars and random consumer goods he is mocking the shallow and materialistic world that the media and TV were hiding behind – so they could dodge the real issues of that time – civil rights and the Vietnam War. Then, inviting incitement he raps “The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.” Heron then intones “The revolution will be no re-run brothers, the revolution will be live” He makes it quite clear that he sees no other way of gaining equality than a confrontational one.
The line “Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day” is perhaps the only line in the song that could be said to be hopeful of the future, but I think could also be construed as a call to revolt.
Many felt the sentiments of the song strongly. It was adopted by the rather more radical civil rights protestors as a theme song for their struggle, and also by the ever-growing underclass of ghettoised blacks. Young whites also disaffected by Nixon’s conservative policies and the Vietnam fiasco, found themselves in sympathy with Afro-Americans and also talked in terms of revolution.
In this seminal track you can hear the urgency of the bassline propelling the momentum of the track – hurtling it towards an inevitable collision. Heron’s deadpan and conscious invective punctuate the song with chilling intensity. The flute seems to be mocking, taunting, and daring anyone to stand in the songs way. You can feel the temperature rising in that angry and heated American summer – the subjugated about to revolt. To me the music perfectly encapsulates the time, its urgency reflecting the increasingly radical direction that the civil rights movement was now taking. The civil rights act of 1964 had not improved black people’s quality of life.
When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 it meant that his Ghandian peaceful Civil Rights Movement had no credible figurehead anymore. This meant that the overpopulated black ghettoes were increasingly ready to take the militant and revolutionary stance that Malcolm X and the Black Panthers had been advocating.
With good reason Gil Scott Heron is called the Godfather of Rap, without his satirical and conscious diatribes, the legion of rappers that were to follow would not have happened. Like so many other jazz musicians, Heron had a debilitating drug problem which eventually ended him up in jail. Heron released a critically acclaimed new album ‘I’m New Here’ in February 2010, consisting of his trademark combative and contentious words, this time set to a bleak soundtrack of dubstep and electronica.
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 to a very poor family in North Carolina, she played the organ in church and wished to be the first classically trained Afro-American pianist. When she debuted publicly at a piano recital – her parents who were sitting in the front row – were forced to move, to make way for whites.
When rejected from studying piano at the prestigious Curtis Institute, Nina believed it was because she was black, and these incidents fuelled her later commitment to the civil rights movement.
Nina Simone first came to public attention in 1959 with her version of Gershwin’s “I Love You Porgy” and followed it up with her now most famous song “My Baby Just Cares For Me.” Throughout the 1960s she became heavily involved with Dr Martin Luther’s peaceful struggle for civil rights, and also the rather more pro active and controversial Malcolm X.
When a racially motivated bomb attack on a Baptist church killed four little black girls in Birmingham Alabama, it coincided with the murder of black activist Medgar Evers in 1963. These events marked a significant turning point in the civil rights movement as its high profile senior figures, notably Martin Luther King edged much closer to the more radical stance taken by Malcolm X. Nina Simone was furious, it is said she wanted to go out in the streets and kill some white folks. She channelled her fury into the scathing and raging piece of polemic that is “Mississippi Goddamn.” She was at this stage a famous jazz singer, and ironically given the lyrical content, the song is a show tune and in fact she sings” This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written yet”.
The lyrics are a denouncement of white America and the non-existent desegregation which was supposed to be taking shape. Simone conveyed the frustrations of black America and her own lack of hope “I don’t belong here and I don’t belong there, I’ve even stopped believing in prayer”. And warning white America she sings “Oh but this country is full of lies, your all going to die and die like flies, I don’t trust you anymore” which was a thinly veiled threat and a subliminal call to action. At the end of the song Nina pleads “you don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality”. It was one of the first times that a song had openly challenged the oppressive American race policy. When this song first came out in 1963 she was cold-shouldered by the super-club set who had welcomed her because of her sultry and sophisticated music, and it was banned in certain states. This dramatically changed her career path and lent her music a harder edge as she put greater effort into campaigning for change.
At times the music is incongruously joyous given the seriousness of the subject matter, but both the solos hint at something darker and defiant. Nina sings her heart out in a bluesy soul style and her angry sentiments are echoed by the backing singers. It seems that there is a certain tension in the music – a fast gathering force that would not be denied. The music was again echoing the increasingly militant attitude of Afro-Americans and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.
Nina Simone continued to release jazz and blues songs with lush orchestration and her unmistakable rich vocal style, but she was beset with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder resulting in a breakdown when she fired a gun at a neighbour’s son. She was rumoured to have drug problems, and was arrested for evading tax in protest at the Vietnam War. Then giving up on her homeland she moved to France and there died quietly in 2003. She like Billie holiday will never be forgotten, and her brave stance paved the way for other black artists to speak their mind.
This timeline shows the major events in the civil rights struggle and focuses on three legendary artists and their songs of protest: Billie Holliday – Strange Fruit, Nina Simone – Mississippi Goddamn, and Gil Scott Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The songs span a tumultuous thirty year period of Afro-American history. All three artists’ influenced one another chronologically in an ever louder and persistent call for equality and civil rights for black Americans. These artists felt compelled to articulate the discrimination they saw – and rally a call to arms – for those seeking equal rights and an end to poverty and oppression. The need to speak out was borne of the artist’s experiences of America’s unjust social policy, and these songs provide a telling and important aural document of that time.
Billie Holiday or “Lady Day” as she was sometimes known is one of the best known female jazz vocalists of all time. She was born in Maryland on the east coast of America and was placed in the immediate care of her grandparents and was abused and neglected as a child by her relatives. With little financial or other help from those around her she went to live in New York with her mother – who had other plans and left a young Billie to fend for herself again. Billie was always getting into trouble with the law and spent time in jail. When she was released she started singing in clubs to support herself. After auditioning to be a dancer in a Harlem nightclub, she was heard singing a blues tune on her way out and the owner hired her to sing at the club. This was at the start of what is known as the Harlem renaissance; where jazz and blues went on to transform American popular culture forever.
Billie Holiday got herself a record deal and went touring in the south – the spiritual home of the blues. She was touring with an all white band – jazz music was where the first integration of black and white musicians occurred – and would have to stay on the bus as they ate in segregated whites’ only restaurants. In 1930s America, apartheid was closely enforced and blacks and other racial minorities were treated like third class citizens, poor, ill-educated and greatly exploited. Female musicians of this era often struggled much more than their male counterparts and Billie faced both racial and sexual discrimination in every aspect of her life.
The song “strange fruit” itself came about in 1938 and was originally a poem written by a white Jewish schoolteacher who was horrified after seeing a photograph of a lynching in a civil rights magazine. Between the years of 1865 and 1965 it is estimated that around 2,400 African-Americans were lynched. Many times the victims of lynching had broken no laws, but had incurred the wrath of the racist townsfolk. The photo (below) shows two black men hanging from a tree in Indiana in the south after they had been lynched by a mob and these are the “strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree” in the lyrics.
There seems to be some uncertainty about how the poem ended up in Billie’s hands, she wasn’t the first to sing it as a song on stage, but made it her own with her melancholic blues style of singing. Her record label Columbia refused to release it on the grounds that it was overtly confrontational, but Commodore Records agreed to release it and in July 1939 it reached no. 16 in the American charts. Samuel Grafton of the New York Post reviewed it and said:
“Even after the tenth hearing it will make you blink and hold to your chair. Even now as I think of it… the short hair on the back of my neck tightens and I want to hit somebody and I know who. If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise.”
Musically the song is played in minor keys; it is a down tempo jazz number which comes across as basic blues. The instruments used are a misty sounding piano, a muted trumpet, a double bass and a breathy wispy sax. These all help create the funereal feel to the music. Billie Holiday`s mournful blues vocal compliment the lyrical content perfectly. In the last eight bars the instruments sound like they are dying slowly from exhaustion and have no desire to go on.
To me this echoes what was going on socially and politically for Afro-Americans, slavery may have been abolished but most blacks were as poor, tired and as downtrodden as they had ever been – essentially nothing was changing. The mood of the lyrics read like the obituary it is – a sad acceptance of the situation – and is perhaps one of the most emotive combinations of words and music ever written. The song did however strike a chord with white liberals and also inspired other black artists to start to sing about the injustices they saw around them. Billie Holiday continued to make beautiful music even though plagued by mood swings brought on by drink and drug addiction. She died aged 45 of severe heroin withdrawal.
80s music was and is unfairly maligned – the decade managed to produce some breathtaking and incendiary music. Many young people hoped to relieve their boredom by catching their heroes on Thursday night’s Top of The Pops. Artists that would have graced any decade include: The Jesus and the Mary Chain with their honeyed feedback, the Mancunian obtuseness of The Fall, the ethereal beauty of the Cocteau Twins or the madcap pop of Kate Bush.
Kate Bush – Cloudbusting 1985. A beautiful song about controversial psychoanalyst and rainmaker Willhelm Reich.
Home-grown bands such as The Smiths, The The, The Cure and The Sisters of Mercy were very popular for different reasons. The Smiths and The The documented the general alienation and anti-institutionalism of the times, Morrissey lead singer of Mancunian band The Smiths was anti-monarchy, staunchly vegetarian, (their 1985 album was called Meat Is Murder) and a cult of fandom grew up around him. Their obsessive fans would dress similarly, read poetry and carry flowers like their idol Morrissey, another example of young people looking for something to belong to.
The criminally ignored King of The Slums with scratchy violin vignette ‘Fanciable Headcase’ 1989.
The Sisters of Mercy and The Cure were decidedly bleak in outlook, their early music characterised by Spartan guitars, minimal electronic drums, sombre synth swirls and hopelessness. Their fans were called Goths and wore black clothes with heavy white make up, and were stereotyped as skinny and pasty-faced. Robert Smith of The Cure sung “I live with desertion and eight million people” on ‘One Hundred Years’ from the 1982 album ‘Pornography’. He was talking about the anonymity of living in a city, and many young people identified with the goth philosophy of existentialism and pre-millennial pessimism.
Perhaps the most evocative song of the time was folk troubadours The Waterboys ‘Old England’, released in 1985. It is an utterly beautiful lament to a country changing irrevocably, in it lead singer Mike Scott sings “Man looks up on a yellow sky and the rain turns to rust in his eye, rumours of his health are lies…Old England is dying” . Here he is singing about the perpetuation of the myth of a 20th century British Empire and how the government talked of a new affluent era while 3 million languished on the dole.
The Waterboys – Old England.
When he talks of ‘rust’ he is perhaps alluding to the decline of traditional values and British way of life. Later in the song he sings “Criminals are televised, politicians fraternize, journalists are undignified, everyone is civilised and children stare with heroin eyes” here he talks of Britain’s growing inner city heroin epidemic and when ironically he sings ‘everyone is civilised’ he refers to the stiff upper lip mentality of the British; that when things are clearly not how they should be, British reserve and social conventions are far more important.
The Young Ones – 80s comedic interlude for no reason other than it’s very funny.
Love Can’t Turn Around – Daryl Pandy sporting the iconic 80s fashion hairdo the mullet. 1986.
When Margaret Thatcher was elected for a third historic term in 1987, ‘rave music’ had already unwittingly appeared in the nation’s consciousness when it charted in 1986 with Farley Jackmaster Funk’s ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ as noted in Simon Reynolds excellent book Energy Flash. Farley, a DJ from Chicago – the now spiritual home of house – was responsible for the huge slabs of funky backward sounding brass instrument.
He used newly-coined electronic ‘house’ beats; while Daryl Pandy bellowed the vocals to the Isaac Hayes original over the top. It can be said to be one of the first rave tracks with its heavy bassline stabs, and repetitive refrain. Its roots came out of the 70s and early 80s gay disco scene that originated in America. The sounds of early rave music were forged by a collective of Detroit musicians who were inspired and influenced by European artists Kraftwerk and British artists such as Depeche Mode and Cabaret Voltaire. Detroit’s Belleville Trio of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson made many of rave’s future classics such as May’s Strings of Life and Saunderson’s The Groove that won’t stop.
Derrick May captures the spirit of the time with celebratory techno track ‘R Theme’ from 1989.
At the start house was regarded as a passing phase in England, and when played in clubs in early 87 it had the opposite of the desired effect and cleared the dance floor. It wasn’t until Paul Oakenfold, now legendary D.J, spent time in Ibiza Town dancing to balearic music and taking Ecstasy with friends, that he decided to revive a discarded idea to bring balearic style nights to London.
In his book Energy Flash, Simon Reynolds (1998) says Oakenfolds club Future opened in Charing Cross playing house and blissed out indie favourites. Ecstasy – while not part of everyday British drug culture – was available and was a big part of the hedonistic feel of the nights at the club. There was a growing clamour and soon everybody wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Another club called Shoom (a term that described the heightened sensations of coming up on ecstasy) opened in south London. Shoom was the nebulous blueprint for rave culture, with its now iconic smiley faces on its flyers and brazen chemical calls to ‘Get Right On One Matey!’
The club’s door policy was strict and elitist – to keep out riff-raff and newcomers among the ever lengthening queues. Those who did get in were considered to be part of – lollipops, fruit, space dust and glo-sticks were handed out to the sweaty dancing crowd.
Acid house stories were starting to appear in the tabloids and broadsheets and initial coverage was positive. The Sun labelled the scene as ‘cool and groovy’. They printed a rundown of the slang and even had a special offer on smiley t-shirts. Less than a fortnight later The Sun changed its mind and ran the headline ‘Evils of Ecstasy’. Readers were warned in typically sensationalist style that MDMA could cause brain damage, heart attacks, and horrendous hallucinations. Focusing on ecstasy’s supposedly aphrodisiac properties – The Sun then hilariously surmised that you might end up in bed with ugly people – and that there was a pretty good chance you would be sexually assaulted while under the influence.
The loved up parties could not be kept underground for long, and in early 1988 acid house clubs opened in other parts of London, Manchester and Leeds.
By late 88 D Mob’s chart friendly ‘We Call It Acieed’ was in the charts and house parties were becoming an essential and vibrant part of mainstream culture.
Charles B and Adonis acid house classic Lack of Love 1988.
Simon Reynolds (1998) Energy Flash. London: Picador.
“I was looking for a job and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now”
The Smiths ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’. 1984.
Those of a sympathetic disposition to Thatcherite policies could argue that for the 87% of the workforce in employment, things were definitely looking up; more people were buying their own property and possessed more consumer goods than ever before.
The city workers known as the derogatory acronym, Yuppie – young urban professional person – flaunted their wealth by buying Porsches, Mercedes and getting personalised number plates. They would also spend their money on expensive designer clothes from exclusive boutiques.
The power suit was popular among men and also women, who for the first time were seriously challenging their male counterparts in climbing the corporate ladder. It wasn’t just the professional elite who could afford luxuries in the boom and bust consumerist environment; ordinary working class people could also afford colour TV’s, video recorders, stereos, computer games and dishwashers.
The Smiths on pop music institution Top of the Pops. 1984.
Advertisement for must-have 80s gadget the Walkman 1985.
The country’s media grabbed hold of the bust and boom economics and further espoused the ‘greed is good’ philosophy, they were after all owned by Lords and multi-national media and publishing empires who unsurprisingly were massively biased towards the government. Right wing papers such as The Sun which was then the best selling paper, concentrated on lowest common denominator tittle-tattle, and hounded celebrities and the Royal Family in search of salacious gossip and compromising pictures.
Television, which had seen the start of 24 hour programming with the start of breakfast T.V., was on the whole content to play it safe. Old and new favourites that continued to enforce stereotypes such as Coronation St and Eastenders were the most popular in British homes up and down the country.
80’s soap opera sex God – Benny of Crossroads.
MTV had only just started to be piped into British homes and lent itself perfectly to the superficiality of the 80s, showing all the mainstream artists in their latest videos in glamorous clothes and exotic locations. One such example shows Duran Duran singing their hit ‘Rio’ dressed in their finest suits on a yacht in the Caribbean. Perversely, considering the increasing Coca-colonization of Britain, its musicians such as U2, Queen and Def Leppard were the ones that dominated MTV playtime in the 80s. In 1985 Live Aid a massive concert in Wembley Stadium was staged in aid of famine relief for a slowly starving Ethiopia. Organised by the now Sir Bob Geldof, it was a definite reaction to the greed of the times the whole country came together and raised 14 million.
Sir Bob Geldof gets a bit sweary during Live Aid plea for more money.
The big films of the day were Gandhi, Chariots of Fire, A Passage to India and the film of George Orwell’s 1984. All these films give us a glimpse into the British psyche of the time as they all harked back to a day when Britain was still an Empire. With the increasing Americanisation at home most Britons were dreaming of Britannia still ruling the waves. The only exception to this is the film of George Orwell’s 1984. It warned of a frightening future of state control which became ever more prophetic to 80s Britain’s, with the increase in political lies, censorship, C.C.T.V. and MI5’s concentration on domestic targets.
Film version of George Orwell’s 1984.
In his book ‘Britain Since 1945’ David Childs talks about how shopping took on a new significance in the 80s, with the development of huge American style shopping malls which took the emphasis away from the town centre and high streets. It created a new ‘consumers paradise’ where identikit retail outlets started to peddle their wares in identikit malls up and down Britain. Big Macs, elevator muzak and faux designer clothing became the new retail norm. The end result was the erosion of centuries of traditional high street shopping. British town and village life suffered as a result with small businesses sacrificed at the new altar of consumerism. British businesses bounced back through diversification but for old and young, urban and suburban, there was increased marginalisation.
Religion which had been heavily declining for the last half century continued to do so; the values and beliefs held by the church belonged to a very different era and did not fit in with modern living. In the past going to church was an expression of belonging and of civic responsibility; however in the 80s many young people felt widespread alienation from many institutions of British society including church.
Alexei Sayle – A scouse take on God.
For young people in Thatcher’s Britain the future didn’t look too bright. Despite the materialism that was displayed all around them, education cuts had led to teachers’ strikes. Many young people left school with no job opportunities, with no option but to sign on to receive benefits. This left them on the streets with time on their hands, and during this time there was a proportionate increase in crimes resulting in overcrowding of prisons, sparking prison riots in 1989.
Pink Floyd get a dose of punk attitude and rail against indoctrination in education. 1980
Young people were limited in what they did for a night out. In towns up and down the country, young people looked for excitement and escapism; and finding none, got drunk on cheap alcohol in stuffy outdated pubs and fought with the youths from the next town. There was a large rise in football hooliganism during this time as disenfranchised youths looked for somewhere or something to belong to. Mostly male youths would become part of their local football ‘firm’ and go to a game for the football, but primarily for the violence between rival gangs that would ensue afterwards. They were highly organised and played a game of cat and mouse with the police and rival gangs. The football casuals as they came to be known – avoided club colours as not to get stopped by the police – and instead their uniform was expensive European designer clothing like Lacoste track suits, Fila or Pierre Cardin jumpers and Adidas shoes.
Young wannabe football casuals on yoof TV show The Network in 1983.
‘West Ham taking liberties at Millwall.’
Hooliganism was one of the big social issues of the time, questions were asked repeatedly in the House of Commons about what the government were going to do about the increasing yob culture. In 1985 an awful precedent was set with the Heysel Stadium disaster. Before the televised European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus, 39 people were killed as a result of awful policing, fighting between fans and an unsafe stadium. English teams and fans were banned from Europe indefinitely.
In 1989 football disaster struck again at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. Liverpool fans involved again, as 96 people horribly trapped in the stands were crushed to death. Hooliganism this time wrongly blamed, as it was the result of incompetent police control.
In this post I will be evaluating and analysing two online newspapers The Sun and The Times Online; both owned by the media conglomerate News Corporation. We will be using website conventions and theory to inform the conclusion that both websites have positives, but also negatives that can be improved.
The first thing to look at is their Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). When putting newspaper in Google; The Sun was third in the list, and The Times Online (hereafter known as TOL) was seventh and required scrolling down to view it. The Sun had links in Google to categories on the website whereas TOL had just one link to the homepage. The TOL’s low SEO could have a negative impact on readership volume. A major difference between these two online papers is that The Sun is totally free, unlike The Times Online which charges a subscription of a pound a day. When trying to subscribe however, there were many complications with processing a payment.
This took upwards of five minutes and many frustrating attempts. TOL also timed out after a certain amount of time, meaning the subscribing user could not leave it open as a window while browsing other sites, without having to supply a password constantly. Nielson (2000) states ten seconds are the limit for holding user’s attention on the page and that any website that wants to retain traffic will need a prompt response while navigating from page to page. Any user looking to read a newspaper would have been tempted to seek out a competitor who firstly did not charge, and secondly, that its navigation could possibly have a quicker response time.
When analysing the homepage of The Sun, the logo is on the upper left hand side and when clicked goes to the homepage. This is recommended by Neilson & Tahir (2002) as the optimal location for the logo. Neilson (2000) says having a home page tab, like The Sun does, on your home page is pointless, as all it does is link back to the same page. The search bar usefully enabled users to get the latest RSS feeds on any topic that was on the site.
Visually the homepage is very busy, adverts placed on top of headlines, and rolling headlines fight for your eyes attention. Its home page has one main column which further down the page is then divided into two further columns. Neilson & Tahir (2002) suggest any advertising should be placed on the side banner and be labelled to avoid confusion with content. The Sun’s layout is gaudy, unstructured and not at all aesthetically pleasing; it does at least have a site map for navigation. Vincent Flanders’ website ‘Web Pages That Suck’ criticizes excessive content that confuse the user who is trying to find a focal point. Paring down the overwhelming content would give better focus and be beneficial to a user’s first impression of the home page.
TOL’s homepage however is laid out reasonably well, in a black and white layout similar to its print alternative. Neilson (2000) says that ‘whitespace can guide the eye and help users understand the grouping of information’. Pg 18. TOL has a simplistic 3-column layout which is symmetrical. It has a clear drop down menu from selected top-bar category which has headlines, latest news and features related to the subject, and it also has a site map to aid navigation. A negative is that structural navigation links are limited to the top-bar. Another big downside is article text is partially visible, but cut off at the bottom of the page, as if you were reading a broadsheet folded in half.
This lazy type of shovelware is very distracting to the user, and this allied to the fact that you have to scroll to the top of the article to access it fully, is off-putting. This could easily be remedied by having a read article link at bottom of box rather than just the partially visible text. Associative links to related stories are visible on both websites. Neilson (2000) argues that links are an essential part of hypertext which allow users to explore ‘new and exciting places on the web’ Pg 51. This stickiness means the user will spend more time on the website and this is the ultimate objective of any website.
When comparing useability; The Sun and TOL’s pages were generally quick to load – averaging around two seconds. Both website’s videos were a little slower. The Sun’s videos enabled the user to fast forward and had a whole list of links to related videos, sharing – though the link to read related article was greyed out and did not work.
TOL in comparison was extremely limited, had no ability to share and it was not even possible to fast forward a video. When looking at The Sun journalistically, its content’s emphasis is primarily geared towards the sensational side of journalism and celebrity gossip. The content is perhaps suitable therefore, as it is mostly aimed towards its target demographic of 23% of men aged between 16-34, and the 41% of women that read the sun daily. (Figures from Sun advertising page: Source NRS Jan 10 – Jun 10) TOL’s content on the other hand is targeting young middle class professionals ABC adults aged 25-44. (Figures from Times Online advertising page: Source NRS Jan 10 – Jun 10)
This is reflected by the serious nature of the journalism. TOL has a number of in-depth articles that are written well and aimed toward an informed readership. TOL’S article length is a problem perhaps, Neilson (2000) acknowledges that users skim instead of read which has been proven by many useability studies. He goes on to say that websites must account for the scannability factor, and that a preferable amount of text would be 50% less than in the print publication. On the other hand it could be also argued that TOL readers are used to reading long and comprehensive articles, and would not be happy if the text was diluted or shortened.
With regard to The Sun’s interactive options we can say that there is a good degree of interactivity on their site. Users are able to interact with multimedia, comment at bottom of article, have blogs hosted, and enter discussion forums. An anomaly of the site was that it was not possible to share an article on Twitter.
The Sun has its own vast community page to encourage UGC and helpfully provides breadcrumbs for navigation here. This community is used by many unique users and is a great way to enhance appeal and increase the site’s stickiness. TOL had less UGC on its pages; though it was possible to leave comments, the blogs seemed to be written solely by TOL writers. TOL does however make it possible for users to send in a 250 word review of the previous day’s paper that can be published.
TOL is limited in its ability to share content; users must sign in to LinkedIn to have the ability to share content on anything other than Twitter. This is another frustrating feature that would have a detrimental effect on the users’ experience. Both the papers do however have the options for making content suitable for different platforms such as the Ipad and mobile phones. What we can conclude from the analysis is that both websites could be improved. TOL’s navigational structure and content is generally good, though UGC was limited to a few options when compared to The Sun’s online user community. TOL’s major flaw is the fact that it charges, but then times out on the subscriber if the window is not in constant use. Neilson (2000) argues that web users are impatient and demand instant satisfaction, which if not delivered will be found elsewhere in the space of a few clicks.
The Sun’s garish and cluttered pages do not welcome the visitor, and it needlessly has simple faults, such as the home page tab on the home page. Considering they are both owned by the same media conglomerate News Corporation – they could do worse than compare what works well on one and apply it to the other, and vice-versa.
Another option to improve their websites would be to get useability advice from readers using eye-tracking, interviews and focus groups. This would give them invaluable feedback that would improve user’s experience and increase the amount of traffic to their sites. In his study Stewart (2008) said the best way of testing usability was to get users to initially conduct tests on an existing site, and discuss their navigation as they went through the site with the designers.
In this way constant usability testing can foresee any problems and develop solutions instead of only becoming aware once the site is online. This is perhaps the ideal formula for any website looking to improve their website’s usability, which would in turn increase its level of unique users.