As the pageantry and spectacle (or tragedy and treacle, all depending) of the Olympic ceremonies recede from memory, Danny Boyle’s vision of the history of Great Britain echoes many common sentiments felt by the British. The cultural history of the Isles illustrates an ambivalence concerning modernity and its relationship with a notion of an idyllic Eden lost to the so-called “satanic mills” of industrialization, manifest in the shift from the agrarian hills to the smokestacks of Boyle’s production. Martin Weiner’s English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 succinctly outlines this ambivalence within British culture, particularly its appearance in literature and educational institutions. Weiner’s book created a great deal of discussion during the shift in British politics during the 1980s, but its thesis about the resistance of the middle and upper classes to the transformations of industrialization revealed a schism (or what Weiner called a Janus face) in British culture. Industrialization, a central experience of modern British history, threatened the emerald countryside of Britain but created the power for Britain to dominate the world in the 19th century and symbolized the might of the island kingdom. Another important aspect of the Olympic Ceremonies was the presence of British pop musicians—Paul McCartney, Queen (at least the surviving members), the Spice Girls, and the Who. The Closing Ceremonies celebrated the rich history of British pop music, arguably the nation’s most important export of the 20th century.
British pop music helped to revolutionize Western pop in general and had a far ranging influence, even within the United States. The global impact of British pop artists redefined the aesthetics of pop. Like Weiner’s examples of British literature, British pop music reveals the ambivalence of modernity felt among denizens of the Isles. In a striking example of the tensions between the traditional and the modern, Rob Young’s recent work on British folk music, Electric Eden, details a litany of examples of this tendency as a part of the foundation of the renaissance of folk music in the 1960s and early 1970s. Young notes that through the most advanced sound technologies and new aesthetic combinations, folk musicians celebrated a mystical and pre-lapsarian England. Certainly the musicians in Young’s work reinforce this paradox of British modernism, but their aesthetic choices were predominantly rejections of modern forms outright, as creators and critics positioned folk music as an anodyne to plasticity of modern pop.
However, during this same period, rock musicians illustrated how pervasive this phenomenon was. One of the participants in the 2012 Closing Ceremonies, Ray Davies, is a more striking early example of this tension between the modernism of rock and the yearning for the “lost countryside.” He began his career with the Kinks as a Beat band with singles that established the template for the hard rock that other Mod groups such as the Who and the Small Faces would take to larger audiences. Songs such as “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” took the sound of rhythm and blues and added distortion and urban grit. By 1968, however, Davies had expanded his influences, finding new sources of inspiration in English music hall and began assembling material for the album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Ignored in its time, Village Green has been subsequently reappraised and given extensive reissues, particularly a 3-disc reissue from 2004, cementing its place among the canon of Anglophone rock critics (the indie taste maker Pitchfork awarded the reissue a 9.4 of 10, for example).
Sonically, Village Green is strikingly different from the contemporary musical style of psychedelia in its move towards older musical models of folk and music hall (but not entirely without fellow musical travelers—for example, the Beatles 1968 album The Beatles contains a number of similar experiments). The difference is the single-minded—that of Ray Davies—effort to create a complete song-cycle that deals with the particular nostalgia for the countryside in a complex way. Davies’ manifesto is the title track, which also serves as the album’s opening song.
The song’s narrator offers a list of worthwhile things that need protecting, including “little shops, china cups, and virginity.” Davies lionizes the world of the English village, noting that the people of the village “are the skyscraper condemnation affiliate/ God save Tudor houses, antique tables, and billiards.” The village green serves as a microcosm for the shared values of the countryside, although Davies is not completely divorced from the urban environment: “Preserving the old ways from being abused/ Protecting the new ways for me and you.” In this song, Davies captures the ambivalence of the industrial/ agrarian divide by evoking nostalgia not just for ancient ways but also for those markers of modernity that themselves were vanishing.
The remainder of the album shifts from the rock of “Do You Remember Walter,” “Last of the Steam Powered Trains,” and “Johnny Thunder” to more pastoral efforts such as “Animal Farm” and “Down by the Riverside”. Davies’ lyrics evoke the emotional gravity that the lush green landscapes of countryside, and “Animal Farm” in particular speaks to the British longing for escaping the city and industry entirely: “Girl, it’s a hard world, if it gets you down/ Dreams often fade and die in a bad world/ I’ll take you where real animals are playing/ And people are real people not just playing”. As Weiner notes, the greatness of the English concerns their ability to tame the engines of progress, and Davies’ portraits of the village share this sentiment. He would continue to explore this vision of the green in later albums in what Davies labeled the Preservation trilogy, which met with indifference from audiences and Davies’ band mates. Musically, the Kinks moved away from the sound and themes of Village Green by 1969 with the release of another signature song, “Lola,” which found the group returning to the heavier sound and urban themes of their earlier work. Nevertheless, Village Green serves as an important example of how the pull of the countryside manifested itself within the high modernism of ’60s British Rock.
During the 1970s, the fascination of a British arcadia appeared to fade, as the new genres of punk and heavy metal focused on the anxieties of industrial decay. Still, by the 1980s the yearning for the country revealed itself in an unlikely place: the music of new wave. New wave bands, also called post-punk bands, explored the possibilities left in the wake of punk’s appearance in 1976, integrating new rhythms and influences into pop music. The work of groups such as Gang of Four, the Mekons, and the Human League pointed to a resurgence of modernist ideas within rock music. Swindon’s XTC, led by Andy Partridge, was another new wave group that had built a career on choppy guitars paired with skittering beats, often played at a breakneck speed. Partridge’s nervy yet melodic vignettes of modern life belied his own anxieties concerning music, and by 1982 the band had abandoned the touring circuit.
Retreating into the studio, XTC immediately shifted themes, finding inspiration in the pastoralism of the countryside. 1983’s Mummer shows that Partridge (and his writing partner Colin Moulding) turned away from the styles of new wave and the clever wordplay of the earlier recordings and instead toward a more elemental concerns. Partridge’s “Love on Farmboy’s Wages” lends a Romantic aura to the life of the peasant—simple work and simple pleasures. “High climbs the summer sun/ High stands the corn/ And tonight when my work is done/ We will borrow your father’s carriage/ We will drink and prepare for marriage.” Again, Weiner noted how the farmer became an anachronism during industrialization, and the tendency for British elites was to celebrate these lost traditions as examples of purity.
XTC had already shown an interest in the countryside on the previous album, 1982’s English Settlement, but on Mummer the magic and power of the countryside weave themselves into each composition. Despite the lyrical emphasis on the shire, XTC did not simply celebrate this rural life. Instead, songs such as “Deliver Us from the Elements” and “Great Fire” suggest that the rural life offers a greater sense of reality and clarity of human experience. Partridge had long been concerned with the apocalyptic possibilities of nuclear war, but on Mummer he finds another expression of the apocalypse rooted in real experience of rural life. Perhaps in a sense of irony, the musical arrangements are heavily reliant on synthesizers to evoke XTC’s window into the traditional world of green England.
XTC continued to develop this vision of the rural space, and examples can be found littered throughout the albums that followed Mummer, perhaps most evident in the group’s career defining Skylarking from 1986. Mummer, however, most starkly illustrates how XTC’s nervous modernists found refuge in the countryside, just as authors and poets of the previous century had during British industrialization.
XTC represented a particular vision of Britishness that straddled the urban and the rural, but eventually a new sound came to dominate the press’s conception of British pop: Britpop. A cultural phenomenon in the 1990s, Britpop consisted of numerous British guitar bands who championed the music of the 1960s, including the Kinks, as a representation of British culture as distinct from American pop music. Blur, a group that began its career linked with the baggy music of Manchester, became one of the cornerstones of the Britpop phenomenon, and in many ways their second album synthesizes the concerns of Davies and Partridge and reinvents them for another generation.
As the group began recording Modern Life is Rubbish in 1992, Andy Partridge was brought in as a producer, but these sessions were quickly abandoned. Eventually, a collection of fourteen songs were recorded, again shaped by the anxieties of modernity that had haunted two of singer Damon Albarn’s influences, Partridge and Davies. But Modern Life lacks the reverence and fascination with the countryside, and instead suggests the obliteration of the green thanks to the unending suburbanization of Britain. The songs are populated with deadenders who have become indifferent to the plasticity of the urban and suburban worlds. The escape of Village Green and Mummer has vanished within the false promises of “Adverts”: “You need a holiday somewhere in the sun/ With all the people waiting/ There never seems to be one.”
The lush landscapes have been replaced by a “Chemical World,” in which the girl who tries to escape to the country cannot leave behind the urban society. In order to cope, she consumes in the hope of sleeping. In the video produced for the song, the band lay about in a field with animals moving about them. Yet the group’s blank stares posit the disconnection with nature within the narrative of the song.
Unlike the nostalgia of Village or the wonder of Mummer, the defeat of Modern Life is Rubbish manifests the alienation of a Britain left without the countryside. The ambiguity that Weiner found evident in British culture has collapsed in the face of the reality of the loss of the mythical village green. The bright production and sing-along melodies only reinforce Albarn’s lyrics about the emptiness of modern life. Without the tether to country, modern life is, as the album title points out, rubbish, illustrating how the reverberations of the anxieties of the industrial age continue to haunt British culture. That the most critically and commercially successful British band of the new millennium, Radiohead, would focus its attention on technology and surveillance only reinforces the loss lamented on Modern Life is Rubbish and how the cultural dynamic between the city and country, which shaped modern British culture since the early 1800s, has perhaps run its course.
Jonathyne Briggs is an assistant professor of History at Indiana University Northwest.