27 March 2006

Where have all the Cassandras gone?

I recently had a conversation with Clarissa Vincent (partly in here, partly in private email and partly via her sea green ribbons blog) about why we have different ideas of what constituted "hippie" music. She remembers a world of "prog rock", I one of "folk rock". The difference seemed to be partly in our tastes at the time, partly in our different ages (a decade is an eternity in popular music), and we left it at that. Today, though, a chance connection has made me think further about it.

"Hippie" is a word which has come to mean many things to many people. Technically, the loose cultural movement which called itself by that name both disbanded itself and became absorbed in 1971: neither Clarissa nor I can really claim to have belonged to that (I for geographical reasons, she for temporal). The general connotation now is "lazy, dirty, unkempt, irresponsible" – I don't think that has ever described either of us, and it's certainly not what either of us means when we claim the label in our different ways. When Clarissa refers to Terry Riley's Poppy No-good and his Phantom Band as "pure hippy", she is using the word in a different way from me but no less valid.

So, what happened today to resurrect the topic? I went looking for a particular song by Barclay James Harvest. Which song that was has little to do with anything I'm saying here; it's what I found that matters.

I haven't played BJH for ... oh, years. I don't know why that is; just happened, I think; the result being that I looked at their music with fresh eyes. Or perhaps I should say heard it with fresh ears. Either way, the first thing I noticed was the description: Barclay James Harvest, apparently, are described as progressive rock.

So, I did like some progressive rock after all, it would seem. But ... memory tells me that I picked them up from my brother, nearly six years younger than I, when he was in his mid teens, so ... a quick check with Wikipedia confirms that BJH started up in 1970 and had their first major success in 1971 – so they just about shoe horned in at the end of the true hippie period, after my musical tastes were largely set, and I probably didn't hear them until 1973. Oh yes ... and although they were described as prog rock in the sleeve notes, Wikipedia prefers "Symphonic/Melodic Rock with folk/progressive/classical influences." Ah, well; nothing's simple in this life.

Skipping through the tracks, listening to some in full and pulling others from memory, other things started to tick over.

Summer Soldier, for example, could have been written expressly for a time of protest against both September 11th on one side and the occupation of Iraq on the other:

I feel sorry for the soldier who is shot and stoned in anger
I feel sorry for his wife and child at home
I feel sorry for the bomber who all life and limb dishonours
For the people that he's maimed and left alone...

Protest, including pacifism, has always been a strand in popular music. Much the same sentiments as Summer Soldier projects were present in (to take examples from my own more folky version of hippiedom) Pete Seeger's Where have All the Flowers Gone?, Buffy St Marie's Universal Soldier, Simon and Garfunkel's Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream, Donovan Lietch's The War Drags On, Bob Dylan's With God on Our Side, and so on. In recent years the likes of Anti-Flag, Rage Against the Machine and many, many others continue the tradition. While the technologies of war change, the results at the sharp end (about which songs are written) stay pretty constant and live on in music.

Another track is After the Day, and here there is a difference with time.

If he takes a look around him
Is there nothing left to see?
Is there nothing left at all
After the day?

There were a lot of post apocalyptic visions in hippie music (however you define it) too. Simon and Garfunkel's The Sun is Burning is the one which stays with me most hauntingly, but there were plenty of others. When I was sixteen, the threat of nuclear apocalypse seemed so real and imminent that we more or less accepted a blasted planet, survivors with radiation sickness wandering plains of glass, nuclear winter, and so on, as our inevitable future. Nowadays, my students find that impossible to comprehend – and it has disappeared from popular song, too.

Why this change should be is hard to explain rationally. The dangers of nuclear weapons haven't gone away – if anything, they have become even more acute with ownership spreading and the collapse of one former nuclear superpower into fragmented gangsterism. It's easy to point to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and of the USSR shortly thereafter ... but I suspect that those were coresultant, alongside the disappearance of nuclear paranoia, rather than a cause of it.

So ... where have all the Cassandras gone?

The answer to that, I think, is that they haven't gone anywhere: they have just refocused. Climate change and irreversible ecological shift, with consequent collapse of the human survival bracket, are the terrors which now occupy concerned young people who might, in the sixties, have been looking to nuclear devastation. When you look at the words of After the Day, in fact, they could (like Summer Soldier) equally well have been written today for today's nightmares. A survivor in a blasted and post ecological catastrophe landscape has much in common with a survivor in a post nuclear holocaust one: both, if they take a look around them, will find nothing left to see.

Once you start looking back in this way, the differences seem less and less significant. A few days ago I watched the film 28 Days Later. It's an extraordinary effective film. Animal activists freeing experimental chimpanzees from an vivisection lab inadvertently release a lethal virus as well. A man awaking in hospital from a coma, 28 days later, finds that most of the population of Britain is dead and most of the rest are murderously infected with the virus. With a few uninfected survivors, learning to kill or be killed, he makes his way to join a safe haven colony of others. The colony is small and military, ruled by a monomaniac soldier; our hero and his small group have to kill again in order to escape.

In the 1960s, when nuclear nightmares were the order of the day, I read John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (it was published earlier still - 1951). A man wakes in hospital to find that while he was under most of the population has been blinded by malfunctioning orbital weapons. Unconstrained by their human breeders, bioengineered foodplant, mobile and carnivorous, have escaped from their secure farms and the blind population are falling victim to them. With a small group of survivors, our sighted protagonist learns to kill or be killed as they seek to establish a safe haven colony. They are visited by a monomaniac soldier and his followers, and have to kill again in order to escape. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose...

Oh yes ... in case anyone thinks than my title for this post is intended to be dismissive: it's not. People too often forget that Cassandra's warnings were correct: the Trojans (and later Agamemnon, who of all people should have known better) who ignored, ridiculed and dismissed her were sadly deluded and didn't live long enough to regret it. I'm not saying that every dire warning, nuclear or ecological or whatever, will come to pass; but all of them could. We got too depressed over fears of nuclear armageddon in my teens, to a degree that was unhealthy; but, as the old joke has it, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. I'm glad to see that young people still take saving the world seriously – even if it's from something different.

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