Who’d have thought that the most subversive pop voice of last year would be pitched somewhere between the girl group teen-pop of the Shangri-Las and the folk purity of Sandy Denny? The Shop Assistants, and lately The Primitives and Talulah Gosh, set a soul-less, pre-adolescent female vocal against either raucous Ramones post-punk noise or else gently shy, jangling guitar.
This innocence is highly contrived, of course, and perfectly matches “shambling” bands’ (an epithet by John Peel, out of shambolic/rambling) stylised lack of experience and musical (in)competence. What is perhaps even more calculating is the coy referencing of pop and youth culture’s history. This is a key feature of shambling’s sound — in particular, sixties folk-rock and seventies punk.
The contradiction between these two golden moments of cultural politics are played out in the music’s textures: 1968 versus 1976; hippy versus punk; feedback versus three chord thrash; authenticity versus artifice. What’s interesting is that ten years on from punk, and in the wake of stern proclamations about the “end” of youth culture, shambling pop is apparently returning to some heyday of “rockville” — a faith in music’s innate ability to set us free. Almost as if punk had never happened. Guitar bands, born again protest singers and hippy convoys now stalk the land like there was no Sid Vicious, and a white music scene now dominates the indie charts, mixing mannered nostalgia for the myths of the sixties with various musical forms (folk, country, psychedelia, rockabilly, garage) which are plundered for their “rootsiness”. In all the rush to define what punk meant — socially, musically, culturally, politically — there has been little explanation of why the most pertinent influences on the new bohemia are the likes of Captain Beefheart, at one extreme, and Bob Dylan, at the other.
‘Shambling’ indie-pop: Talulah Gosh
One clue lies in the fact that it is rock itself which is now deemed to have “roots”, located in various different (take your pick!) sixties periods before the disillusionment set in. Rock’s dream, amalgamating counter-culture with a certain musical style (fossilising it politically in the process), is far from over.
Whether we agree with the music press that it is Bruce Springsteen, or the Smiths, or whoever, who constitutes the “last” great rock band is beside the point. The power of rock lies not simply in its political economy or profits but in its proven ability to produce and circulate “meaning”, primarily the message of its own cultural force — to bind people in “community”, to be “authentic” and so on. Its success in yoking successive rebellious youth subcultures to specific musical forms — styles of “non-conformity” coming round again apparently endlessly — is a testament to its pervasive, durable effect. Punk is the archetypal example. Subculture, style and sound: shrink-wrapped for the pop culture archivist. Not the end of the rock/youth culture nexus, but its most perfect product.
What makes shambling bands refreshing is not that they break musical barriers as such, nor that they are an embryonic youth culture in the making. The sounds themselves have all been heard before (though, crucially, not mecessarily at the same time). It’s more the way the two decades clash that is important. The whole indie-pop scene is far too disparate and changeable to be categorised by one label, however nifty, and the media obsession with pigeon-holing (anorak brigade/cuties/sweeties) ought to be resisted at all costs. Last year’s “underground” heroes are already signing to major labels and the heat is on the indie sector to produce the Next Big Thing.
Whatever else happens in 1987, this likely election year is bound to witness an intensification of the struggle to read the pop signposts of the youth vote. Style, and its metamorphosis into the New Authenticity, are highly misleading notions if taken at face value — deeply dangerous terrain for those seeking a ribellious youth culture, the next punk.
The New Pop may have had its day, a more socially conscious phase (lyrics, rehtoric, even political affiliation) having replaced it post-Live Aid, but it all remains part of the merry-go-round. Shambling bands represent more than a timely desire to refuse political citizenship, to fail to grow up. They are a bright, disruptive influence on rock’s power plays, and consequently might — just might — sow some seeds for a more optimistic future.