Going For A Song: ‘We Got To Have Peace’

Curtis Mayfield – We Got To Have Peace

On Friday night, having watched the ITV News at Ten for as long as I could before I felt it repeating itself, I switched over to BBC4. I wasn’t too surprised to find on the usual trawl through the Old Grey Whistle Test archive.

They seemed to be concentrating on the early 1970s. Watching the bands Lindisfarne, Vinegar Joe and Brinsley Schwarz among others, I was reminded of something Charlie Brooker had written about the main cast of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, when it was brought back briefly to our TV screens in 2003:

You know you’re within a true jungle of ugliness when Kevin Whatley’s the best-looking man on screen by a wide margin

None of the bands on OGWT were lookers. There’s nothing wrong with that. As Brooker found then, and as I found now looking at this smorgasbord of big noses, sweaty brows and buck teeth, it felt strangely ‘refreshing’. And I found in these bands, in their unstudied nature, quite a celebration of the odd, the weird, and the idiosyncratic. It made me think of David Berman, of the Silver Jews, lamenting on “the handsome grandsons / what have they done with the fat ones, the bald and the goateed”.

From my sofa I began to formulate a theory: it was the rise of punk in 1975, only a year on or so from these bands, that, even with its inclusivity, paradoxically, put an end to all this. Think of Shane McGowan I thought. A truly great songwriter, but a man who could be accidentally entered in, and be awarded third prize, in a best looking cabbage competition. The photos of him at those early punk gigs though, as a “face”, he looked, dare I say it, contextualised within the moment, young, cool, and handsome. My theory ran then that in 1975 through punk there saw a shift to youth, to fashion, to aesthetics.

They become important (again). Punk got rid of a load of crap, but it also got rid of, or at least pushed them into the shadows, this parade of duffers and miscreants appearing before me this Friday night. In the end, as Berman realises, the musical landscape became a lot poorer for it.

Was it a change of lighting, presentation, camera work, technology in TV land that caused this? Was it London’s fault? I don’t know. But I think my theory holds if you look at what came next in the 1980s. There are exceptions of course. Any nascent theory has its challengers. This became apparent when, after retiring to bed, I read Doug’s Song of the Week blog post he’d written about Twisted Sister. I took one look at them and got up and turned on the big light. But these were Americans. My theory could accommodate them. But now up, and looking in my wardrobe for Dee Snider, my mind returned to Shane and the band he formed in the early 1980s, The Pogues. They seemed to disprove my theory. But I think they are the exception that proves it. It was Shane forming a band, to go against fashion, against aesthetics, all those things he helped usher in, albeit maybe accidentally, with punk. It could even explain why he kept his teeth in such disrepair for so long.

Mixing amongst these bad haircuts (some just receding) and beer bellies on OGWT, and the news not being ignored on the other channel, was Curtis Mayfield. And it’s his song I’m choosing this week. Maybe the message sung of is a bit idealistic, naive; forced as it is upon this moment, maybe it has always sounded so, but if my Friday night has taught me anything, it’s the importance of the availability of difference.

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