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The Good Old Days Tomorrow Brings

Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski
Some "not so new Puritans". Photo from StormsBlackCompany.org

'Tis difficult for a modern man of means and ability to be the intellectually, culturally, environmentally, absolutely inclusively-thinking global specimen of the species the world demands of him. New Puritans and Neo-Cromwellians battle for his soul.

There was a time at university when I was nicknamed 'Victorian Father'. Rest assured, it wasn't because I shared anti-footloosing Reverend Shaw Moore's love for saying things like: "If our lord wasn't testing us, how would you account for the proliferation, these days, of this obscene rock and roll music, with its gospel of easy sexuality and relaxed morality?" After all, I had been in a rock band since the age of 16, and we weren't navel-gazing, dancing-is-the-commodification-of-the-body indie-heads. That would have been way too hyphenated for us.

Perhaps it was because of my use of phrases like "It is a melancholy truth that even great men have poor relations", or my insistence that I wear a tall silk hat and frock coat to lectures. But my tippling stick and pocket watch aside, I do have an old-worldly belief in gentlemanly conduct, in social etiquette, and in what the French call savoir être. And no, it is not all about using the person's name instead of 'he' or 'she' (though one should never forget that 'she' is the cat's mother); nor refraining from the pretentious use of quotations (Gaskill does say, does he not, that quotations "are suggestive of pedantic affectation"); or never correcting people in public (except, perhaps when someone uses 'who' instead of 'whom' or 'less' instead of 'fewer'); and never using flattery in public (but, of course, as intelligent readers you already know this); or only speaking when spoken to (and then never being prolix); and never asking what people 'do' (or even worse, how much they earn).

But because I believe that civility is not simply a question of good manners, but should be part of the consensus of a civil society that allows us to exist as authentic autonomous individuals and preserve the rights therefore of others to live as authentic autonomous individuals, these rules are more in line with other strict codes of conduct I have imposed upon myself over the years and which help, perhaps, construct my social and cultural identity: I don't drive (I've never even had a single lesson); I refuse to drink Coca-Cola or eat McDonald's; I shop with independent traders; prefer listening to radio than watching television and; won't fly Ryan Air or other low flight airlines. Of course, these things don't really set me apart from any other liberal-minded middle class 'global' citizen. And let's face it, these rules are easier to adhere to when you are middle class and not struggling on or around the breadline.

Perhaps something that sits less easily with the middle class label is the belief that a civil society should be coupled with an interventionist state that isn't just accountable to but also responsible for its citizens. These will never be the concerns of industry, which is only responsible for market reliance and accountable to the shareholder. The problem here is not the global market or indeed having shares in a company, but the belief that those intent on dismantling the welfare state seem to have that industry will ensure our pensions, put our children through school, and foot our hospital bills. And this remains a genuine dilemma for me.

But here's the real problem: according to The Observer Magazine I'm not a Victorian Father, at all. Wrong century. There is a new British trend which openly and forcibly rejects "social opprobrium" and is defined by Lucy Siegle in her OM article 'Just Say No' as the "dieticians' favourite adage, 'a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips' given socio-economic resonance." It turns out then, according to the trend-forecasting Future Foundation, that I am in fact one of these 'New Puritans' or 'neo-Cromwellians'. Well, bless my punishment stool.

But none of these labels rest easy with me and I refute them all. Victorian Father was simply a university joke that stemmed from my love for Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone and parodying the upper-class English gent. Neither do I recognise myself as a New Puritan. As a friend pointed out, I may have strict principles concerning myself but am extremely liberal when it comes to others. That I can live with.

Apparently New Puritanism is a small but growing movement in Britain, and Lucy Siegle predicts in her article that "a battle is shaping up between the New Puritans and the old guard libertarians." Surely, then, if New Puritanism is to be opposed to libertarianism then isn't it just a fancy way of talking about a new wave of what we could call hippy authoritarians? According to the article these people tend to enjoy organic food, self-sufficiency, cycling, and they believe that a nanny state should make everyone else enjoy these things too. They don't like alcohol, possessions, meat, and believe that a nanny state should stop everyone else liking these things, too.

As far as I can tell the term itself derives from a song by The Fall of the same name, except that Mark E. Smith ironically vocalises: "The grotesque peasants stalk the land / And deep down inside you know / Everybody wants to like big companies". The term was then picked up by a group of British writers, including Alex Garland of The Beach> fame. Publishing a collection of short stories entitled All Hail the New Puritan, these British writers echoed the doctrines of the Dogme 95 group of filmmakers and put forward a 10-point manifesto which promotes the need for narrative simplicity, clarity, ethical realism, action, contemporarity, and the absence of the poetic in modern story-telling. This basically means that the story has to be all very real, all very grounded, and all very here and now. And no flashbacks! Hmmm.

As far as I can tell these manifestations of the refusal of late 20th century postmodernity (that is the refusal of the reference-point-free cut-and-paste aesthetic-over-ethic late-Western cultural model) aren't neo-Cromwellian in outlook at all. They perhaps appear to be more neomodernist as they try to replace the playful with the concrete, the allusive with the explicit, i.e., saying what they mean. For a while, now, postmodernism has toyed with a variety of aesthetic never-endgames, where irony replaces certitude (the Crazy Frog ring tone made it to Number 1 in the British music charts because people thought it would be funny, right?), parody replaces the referent (Licensed to Ill was the best-selling rap record of the '80s), fragmentation replaces unity (the proliferation of sub-groups means the '80s Goth would be lost today having to choose between either one of the 'Gothic sub-culture' styles of music such as Goth Rock, Post-punk, Coldwave, Darkwave, Industrial, or one of the 'Gothic tradition' styles such as Power Metal, Death Metal, Symphonic Metal, Black Metal, Doom Metal — AND whatever you do don't confuse Gothic Metal with Goth Metal), and disorder replaces order (what exactly is the status of cannabis according to British law, now?).

The postmodern world has revelled in its own slippery nature and the interplay of allusion. It remains, however, extremely difficult to live one's life in this fashion when one is forever being decentred. We are by nature relative beings, but relativism remains problematic when the centre, that from which we judge relativity, is continually on the move.

How are we meant to follow a narrative line from A to B when that line isn't linear? How are we meant to draw a moral conclusion from a story if the benchmarks of morality are always shifting and being redefined? As sentient beings we may be able to conceive the notion of plural, extra-territorial existence, but these notions often remain destabilising in our day-to-day existence. The more we are inexorably drawn into these extra-territorial spaces (such as the ideology of the European Union), the more globalisation tries to be evermore inclusive, then the more we end up investing in the imitations of tradition that give us a sense of security (such as the proliferation of the Irish theme pub, old boot on a dusty shelf and all, in the member states of the EU). These reactions can therefore lead to an ideology of nostalgia. And I do mean nostalgia here — not history. I'm quite convinced that today's so-called neo-Cromwellians do not wish to be associated with the Lord Protector's treatment of Ireland, such as the massacre at Drogheda in 1649 which saw 3500 Irish people die including those that were burnt alive after having sought refuge in St Peter's church.

The resultant paradox is, of course, that of glocalisation. The more contemporary society's desire for globalisation infiltrates our lives the more we develop a need to localise ourselves. Back in the '80s, could the BBC really have imagined the success of a programme like Who Do You Think You Are where minor celebrities retrace their family history? Probably not. The '90s needed to happen. Or more importantly, the internet needed to enter our daily lives.

In 1969, Marshall McLuhan got it right. With one computer we now have worldwide access to a multitude of individuals and sub-groups whilst all the time feeling attracted to the idea of belonging to easily recognisable or definable groups. But the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wonders if integration and separation can occupy the same space or if the latter will eventually cancel out the former. This perhaps isn't so much of a problem if all these separate groups can co-exist equally at the centre with no issues of relativism getting in the way. Gay couples being able to have their relational commitments recognised by the state through pacts of civil union is a step in the right direction, but it's difficult to see pro-hunting lobbyists living in perfect harmony with anti-hunting neighbours.

Beyond our New Puritans, there are other social examples of (re)localisation through the re-appropriation of stable narratives that are perhaps more widespread. Take, for instance, the success of the men's magazines Zoo and Nuts. They are the first men's magazines to be published weekly in the UK and their combined sales are in excess of half a million copies every seven days. The content is centred around girls, cars, and football. They are unashamedly non-glossy and trashy — smutty without ever quite being pornographic. This allows Nuts magazine to use the slogan 'Women! Don't expect any help on a Thursday' with a cheeky grin claiming postmodern irony. But in this possible instance, how is it possible to draw the line between sexism and an ironic allusive wink to those pre-postmodernist days where women weren't a part of the dominant discourse. Difficult, isn't it?

Masculinity may be in crisis because postmodernity denied men the possibility of rooting their sexual identity in stable sands, but we must also be wary of a simple return to the uninformed übersexual that only understands existence in binary terms. In the recent past the media has told us that as postmodern men we should have a globalised sexuality, a sexuality that reaches beyond the old traditional values associated to our genetic make-up, a sexuality that is cosmopolitan, that is not insular. But it would appear that this instability only makes us reach for the more familiar and we start re-enacting those old traditional values: from New Man to New Lad. And this is why it is not surprising to have an article entitled 'Are Men the New Women' published in the Irish Sunday Independent on exactly the same day as The Observer ran a piece called 'Metrosexual man bows to red-blooded übersexuals'. It's all just very glocal.

Fed up with global consumerism, the idea of New Puritanism does seem to bear witness to the imitation of tradition. It harkens back to a seemingly simpler time when communities were self-sufficient, when they didn't need cars, didn't have supermarkets selling out of season fruit flown in from the other side of the world, when our health was kept in check by the availability of local resources (denying us the possibility of binging). But self-sufficiency could also mean insular, and I'm not sure that in this idealised past we were particularly open to the other (or for that matter, healthier).

And the religious connotations of the label New Puritansim, could be construed as worrying and not to be lightly dismissed. Cromwell and his chums weren't known for their inclusiveness and tolerance of difference, as the Drogheda massacre seems to suggest. The New Puritans might want to affect the policy-makers so as to render our society more civil, but surely they don't want to see the advent of, say, another English civil war. I'm sure it is just a brand name problem and these associations that I am making between 21st century New Puritanism/neo-Cromwellianism and 17th century Cromwellian Puritanism are just unfortunate linguistic associations. I wonder if these guys have thought about getting someone in to help them with their marketing. You know, to improve their global image.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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