FOLKIN ACROSS THE POND: How a Brit Fell in Love With American Music
23/7 trades emails with London’s Mike Short from the Fearless Romantics blog.
23/7: So Mike, growing up in England, how did you gain a profound interest in, and appreciation of, such purely American music? Not that other people all over the world haven’t always liked Bob Dylan and other American artists, but some of your absolute favorite music (Ryan Adams, Wilco, the Jayhawks, Bruce Springsteen, Dylan) are just so rooted in American folk. How did you develop this taste?
It seems that all through the rock era, the biggest and best bands have been from your side of the pond (Beatles, Stones, Black Sabbath, the Clash, U2, Radiohead). While I’m sure you may be a fan of some or all of them, it’s the American folk that seems to have really struck a chord with you. Also, how do you feel about some of the UK-based singer-songwriters like Elvis Costello and Robyn Hitchcock?
Fearless Romantics: I think originally it stemmed from the group I hung around with when I was at university -which was when I started to stockpile CDs like anything (there was a superb CD fair over the road from my college, first Saturday of each month). At that time, everyone was into Oasis, Radiohead, Pulp…all that stuff. They fetishised these bands and it really turned me off – and what’s more they were very exclusive, disliking everything which was alien to them. When I went to college, it was all about the Beatles and Bob Dylan as far as I was concerned, and I got stick for it! Amazing to think of it, from a bunch of 18 year olds. So anyway, when it came to making decisions about which direction to take my musical interests, I really took what I saw to be the natural routes outwards from Dylan – the Byrds, the Band, later on Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks – rather than those from the Beatles – the 90s Britpop bands, glam, punk, and so on.
On top of this, I have always been fascinated by American culture – most of my favourite authors are from the States, and I think the three trips I made there left a lasting impression on me. Just the vastness of it and the miles of open country – it was the aspects of Britain that I liked, but magnified. I had a late rebellion and instead of reacting against my parents when I was 14, I reacted against the classic British intellectual snobbish anti-American standpoint when I was 18.
In fact the US cultural factor is probably a better explanation than the 18 year old nobody-understands-me explanation. The music I really like represents a culture which, although I’m not a part of, holds a real interest to me. The fact that I’m not part of that culture probably helps – I can over-romanticise at my leisure.
Singer-songwriters like Elvis Costello – I respect them but their excessive and self-conscious Britishness drives me mad.
How about you – how do you view the classic British bands and songwriters that you mentioned? Do you relate them to any view you have of British culture?
23/7: Interesting stuff.
Well, to sound like a typical American, I have very little knowledge of British culture. I have this ignorant, stereotypical view of stuffy queens eating tea and crumpets, much like some people around the world view us as fat, McDonald’s-eating, Bush-voting idiots watching reality TV.
Musically, I’m always reminded of the British Invasion. Like the Beatles, Stones, the Who and others had to come here and show us how to really rock. But there’s always this air of “We’re better than you with our fancy accents.” Maybe that’s the “self-conscious Britishness” you mentioned.
While I really dig Radiohead, it’s more form a pure musical and studio prowess standpoint. Just an enjoyment and appreciation of their albums, as well as their live show. I don’t personally relate to them as much as I do more purely American experiences like Bruce and even hip-hop. I don’t get into Oasis, “brit-pop” and other more contemporary British music. I’m pretty turned off by most of what I’ve heard.
There is this feeling of, if an American artist is “huge in England” than he/she is poised for stardom. Like you guys “get it” and eventually we will to. I think Jimi Hendrix sort of had to go conquer England before coming home to success in America.
FR: One of the things you say which I find really fascinating is your view of British culture – which you say is stereotypical and ignorant – as being stuffy; because I really think you’re right! It is not that we’re all upper-class tea drinkers. But I do think that British culture is very proud. Whatever class or group Brits are from, they seem to be very proud of it, to the extent that they sometimes find it difficult to respect other cultures. My university friends were typical lefty, PC, worldly students, but I think US culture threatened their proud superiority – it’s harder to patronise such a powerful country as the US.
Anyway, musically, I think the UK is a test ground for a lot of acts because it is smaller than the US – start with small goals and so on. Sure, the Who and the Beatles and the Stones taught white America how to rock, or at any rate they helped with that process, but their music came from America to begin with. And ok, much of that music evolved from forms that can be traced back to Africa, so the US can’t claim sole responsibility. But I think those UK bands got big because they were the first white bands to make that kind of music.
23/7: I just heard a quote from Elton John. Excuse me, SIR Elton John. He was performing with Ryan Adams on Country Music TV a few years ago and they asked about how country music influenced them and their music and Elton said he thought of country music as “the white man’s soul music. The only white music that came out of America that was sort of equivalent to black soul music and gospel music.”
I thought that was an interesting point. And it’s funny, modern country music in America has become a pop fashion show. Where good-looking men and woman wear cowboy hats and sing twangy, watered-down love songs that they didn’t write. It’s such a far cry from REAL country music. But I guess that’s happened in almost every genre, where the pursuit of money catches up and surpasses the quality and authenticity. Trying to compare or equate Toby Keith or Tim McGraw to Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson is a bit like putting crap like the Black-Eyed Peas in the same category as Public Enemy.
FR: Yeah, I’ve heard that quote and I agree: there’s a lot to it. I subconsciously relate country to soul and folk to blues. The analogy isn’t great, as I guess folk is a much more general term describing music from all different places (old English folk songs, Irish ditties, bluesy slave tunes), but I guess if you narrow folk down to “American folk,” then it kind of works. So the Basement Tapes are to Robert Johnson as Ryan Adams is to Otis Redding. What do you think?
23/7: Hmm…. I think we might lose each other if we keep up all these analogies. But that’s a pretty good one there.