Letter from London: Waterloo Sunset

Photograph of Arlo Parks by Erin McCormack – CC BY 2.0

So many people over here are committed fans of the music scene in London. The Comet is Coming is a much loved London band. Consisting of the self-named King Shabaka, Danalogue, and Betamax, they are considered by many of their eclectic fanbase to be one of the most radical musical combos in London. They are so young and free and nailed to the mast of what they call ‘soundtracking our epoch’ that an otherwise bleak period of time for the capital is rendered somehow more manageable by their presence. There are no lyrics to the ‘Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Screen’ album recorded over four days at Peter Gabriel’s studio but you sense people will be referencing it for years to come. Like a kind of aural masterstroke, it matches perfectly the grey sky tones and pulse of the river. Their musical radar seems to pick up on everything however from global chaos to personal chagrin. Walking through the London rain last week listening to the chattering saxophone of ‘FREQUENCY FEELING EXPANSION’, I did not miss the words once, but admiration remains strong for lyrics such as ‘I, this man, me, this matchstick/Understand the futility of our antics/How pointless, the decimals, the zeros of my fabric’ from the ‘All That Matters is Moments’ album.

To many of its younger population, London once again feels like the musical capital of the world, but this does not make living here right now a breeze. That’s because music has so much of society’s heavy lifting to do these days — it has to soothe people, educate, destroy, elevate, act as trusted therapy for the liberally overwrought. In defiance of the great beasts like Spotify and their relentless grab at what always feels like other people’s profit, it’s as though music is simply with us to defy us all to stop listening to it. Because my daughter and son are both hard-working musicians I can at least say I feel its vibrant imperative every day. Remember, their generation inherited Brexit. Many of them were not old enough to vote at the time. Along came the pandemic next and all it bestowed. And now we have the Bank of England warning of the longest recession in 100 years. And yet still they rise to the microphone or instrument or Ableton software every day and give it some. Frankly, I am not even sure one or two people could survive without their music. There are some genuine casualties even with it. I know one super-talented young musician working so hard at getting back to where he was after a difficult period of time in his life. Indeed we shook hands outside the local hospital the other day. I am positively gunning for him.

Just Brexit alone constitutes a mash-up of problems here. Brexit-related travel restrictions are so badly haemorrhaging jobs in the sector that change is now essential. An example of just how utterly friendless the situation is for those bravely setting out on a career path in music today, or even just simply wanting to play a series of small dates in Europe, was at its clearest only a few weeks ago when a group of music experts were invited to a hearing at the House of Lords. This was to present a freshly formulated prediction list on the impact of new touring rules for musicians and crews in Europe since Brexit. Not an especially disastrous number of MPs turned up, but not one of them was a Conservative. In short, the majority party — admittedly in a field famed for protest and not overflowing with Tory voters — revealed their hand as basically unbothered. This is particularly frustrating because all musicians want is for government to sit down and work in a positive manner with the EU to get restrictions removed. ‘Like most things Brexit-related there is huge denial going on,’ said a friend and exceptional figure in the music business to me privately last week. ‘The government pretend there are no problems — so do nothing — while the people affected battle like mad to solve them.’ What is worse, they had been led to believe this was all in the bag. Musicians as a result are sick and tired of being played like stringless guitars when they know full well that the UK in 2019 received an income of roughly £5.8bn from the music industry. You might have thought a government besotted with financial gain over expressions of human creative skill might have rallied to such figures, especially during our new economic crisis.

My good neighbour Chris Page has a London animation and film company which last week saw the release of an intelligently hand-painted video from them of ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ by The Beatles. It is based around a slumbering and pillow-heavy John Lennon, with every frame — effectively 1,300 oil paintings — individually rendered. As well as clearly affectionate flourishes and a zoom-out at the end revealing Jelly artist and director Em Cooper, what I took away was a reminder of just what a truly political animal John Lennon was. For example, one element of the dream sequence in the video shows US bombs dropping on Vietnam or Cambodia, prompting me to remember that I may not have even known what a peace movement was as a ten-year-old without him. George Harrison may have been the Beatle forever emphasising what exactly peace was, but Lennon was always the one kicking away whatever he believed was stopping us finding it. As a footnote, I crossed London’s Grosvenor Square last week and thought of the 1968 photograph of Mick Jagger marching towards the former American Embassy in protest at the Vietnam war, maybe even bashing into a youthful Bill Clinton there, maintaining back then music’s foothold in the global conversation.

Of course, we know the music tastes of politicians are often limited. Maybe they need some Naaz or Radiohead blasting through their offices. Invariably, the music many of them like — or profess to like — is middle of the road, because that is where most of the voters are. The fact the politically short-lived Liz Truss once told the New Musical Express that she liked Macy Gray told voters absolutely nothing about herself. I’d be more impressed if foreign minister James Cleverly or health minister Steve Barclay turned out to be massive avant-gardist John Cage fans, or Sun Ra or Ayler aficionados, or regular listeners to some early Gong like the seriously psychedelic ‘Camembert Electrique’. Or if they want some genuinely popular music, why not go for the weblike mastery of a worldly Lisa Stansfield instead? Music and politics do co-exist. As a fifteen-year-old poring over Hunter S. Thompson, I well remember reading about a relatively unknown Georgian man called Jimmy Carter tracing his personal sense of social justice all the way back to music: ‘The other source of my understanding about what’s right and wrong in this society is from a friend of mine, a poet named Bob Dylan,’ famously declared the peanut grower. ‘After listening to his records about ‘The Ballad of Hattie Carol’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘The Times, They Are a-Changing,’ I’ve learned to appreciate the dynamism of change in a modern society.’ How cool if our politicians — like scary William Whitelaw at the time — were like that, I remember thinking. At least Abraham Lincoln sought good music for the White House drawing room after dinner, ‘though he was not versed in the science and preferred simple ballads to more elaborate compositions,’ wrote White House aide John Hay. Churchill also gave music some thought. His aide John Martin wrote on May 28 1944 about Odessa-born pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch playing piano at Chequers: ‘The PM startled us by saying that what mattered in music are the silences between the notes,’ which is only slightly better than Emperor Joseph II’s quote to Mozart in the 1984 movie ‘Amadeus’ about there being ‘simply too many notes’.

It seems new prime minister Rishi Sunak is happy to be considered more of a gamer than music fan but he does follow US fitness king Cody Rigsby and therefore has to listen to Britney Spears. I do hope someone tells him about the flood of newer independent women songwriters now out there. In London alone, we have Arlo Parks, Emma Thackeray, and Little Simz, who sings so instructively ‘How the hell did I get here?/Sometimes I sit and I wonder/I’m the version of me I always imagined when I was younger/All the doubt I had thrown at me/All the time I invested/I sit and read my old lyric books like, “Damn! It must’ve been destined”.’ Further north, not so far from his Yorkshire constituency, he could have Self Esteem. From the States, where he still holds a green card, he could maybe surf Phoebe Bridges or Maggie Rogers, or, from the Commonwealth — British politicians are supposed to like the Commonwealth — the lyrically peerless New Zealander Lorde: ‘These visions never stop/these ribbons wrap me up/but when I reach for you/there’s just a supercut’ or maybe more appositely ‘You get fifty gleaming chances in a row/And I watch you flick them down like dominoes/Must feel good being Mr. Start Again.’ My daughter crossed London last week to see the above-mentioned Maggie Rogers who is back on the road again after studying at Harvard Divinity School. She told me she was crazily on fire and buzzing to a large appreciative crowd. Young London really is all eyes and ears for music like this right now.

American songwriter and rapper Kendrick Lamar is so seeped into the young British psyche that my talented niece and her boyfriend came to stay with us last week having travelled 110 miles from Gloucestershire on a weekday just to see the gifted experimentalist perform at the massive nearby 02 music venue. Lamar is truly off the scale. They were so immersed in what the American was doing, not only because they were so close, but because of first-rate lyrics such as ‘Let bygones be bygones/but where I’m from/we buy guns and more guns/to give to the young’ or ‘Third surgery/they couldn’t stop the bleeding for real/then he died/God himself will say/‘you fucking failed’/you ain’t try’. It’s not even just the wordplay, it’s the way Lamar moves into a kind of moral war zone with his music, ducking and advancing and ducking some more, until he has taken over the entire argument, peaceably too. As producer Tony Visconti said in Hip Hop Hero about former Londoner David Bowie’s final masterpiece ‘Blackstar’: ‘We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar. We loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.’ Seeing the independent unity of Kendrick Lamar fans, it is hard not to feel that today’s society keeps largely out of the way of the mindset of our urban youth. They mistake it for something else. We have a huge well of both the vocalised and marginalised here. In this regard, a few of us long for the inherantly affirmative attitude of an Amy Sherald portrait such as on display in London last week at Hauser & Wirth.

Finally, my daughter and son worked right through the whole of last week on a specific music project themselves, culminating in an important showcase next month as Clara Bach. Without music, I have thought while listening to Clara’s voice and these songs, life would indeed be a mistake. Urging them on will be a loyal group of friends and bevy of knowledgeable allies. All across the city will see other families like ours. In many other cities and towns and villages in the world. Sometimes lying awake at night, though, I can feel all of London throb to a kind of unique accumulation of everybody’s sounds within it. I love it. My son Anders Bach also plays in a band — Butch Kassidy — and we ventured out to see them recently in a small tightly packed Hackney basement with its devotee smell of damp. The visual artist of the family was loving it. My daughter and friends were loving it. We all were. ‘Every once in a while, a band slinks out from London’s murky underbelly and sets the alternative music scene alight,’ wrote Gigwise music critic Joe Connell about Butch Kassidy. Let’s not kill the thing we love.

Peter Bach lives in London.