Ian MacDonald and the legacy of the 60s

There aren’t many books of music writing that change the way you look at the world, but Ian MacDonald’s “Revolution in the Head” is one of them. Although its main subject is the music of The Beatles, the introductory essay is required reading for anyone with an interest in culture and why we are where we are now. In it, MacDonald argues that Western society has been in a downward spiral ever since the Sixties, and comes to some surprising and controversial conclusions about who’s to blame.

I interviewed Ian in 1998, at a time when his reputation as a writer on music and culture could scarcely have been higher. Ian died in 2003.

Q: In your introduction to “Revolution in the Head”, you discuss at length the fragmentation of Western society since the Sixties. How much do you think the popular culture of rock ‘n’ roll, The Beatles, Sex Pistols et al sped up that fragmentation?

A: It’s difficult to separate these things out. In a way, popular culture was and is that fragmentation. But the reflex response to that is, like some Conservative backbench reactionary, to look for someone to blame for it. And the fact is that the Sixties, and everything good or bad that’s flowed from that era, was the popular expression of mainstream society, of ordinary people. Trying to isolate popular culture in order to pin the blame on it for social fragmentation misses the point. Popular culture is us.

The right wing naturally detests the hippies and “Lefties” of the Sixties counterculture, but blaming them for social fragmentation makes no sense. They were arguing for a new form of social cohesion, an alternative vision of society. The social fragmentation we see now stems from the economic aspirations of the populist mainstream: the people who bought all those millions of Beatles records; the people who voted for Mrs Thatcher and then for Tony Blair.

Pop music has plenty of reprehensible qualities and it can’t be dismissed as mere unconscious expression, as a kind of halo of sound and image given off by society. Pop also reflects society back at itself, thereby encouraging certain tendencies often anti-social. But, in the end, pop is a product of our society – the society we made from our desires for more freedom, wealth, and self-fulfillment at the expense of the social regimentation that once kept us in our places. The problem is not in our pop records but in ourselves.

Q: Can pop culture stop social fragmentation? I’d rephrase that: can pop culture stop the fragmenting effects of microelectronic industrialisation? Because it’s that hi-tech economy which has facilitated the mass impulse to individualise and privatise beyond the old sociocultural restraints.

A: The next stage will intensify this trend tenfold: the unification of Internet, satellite, cable, and digital TV into a single global system of transactional interconnectedness. Those who can afford to buy into this will never need to step outside their houses again; the whole world will come to them. Those who can’t afford such a life will become marginalised, even excluded; indeed, to the extent that they’re also, for a variety of reasons, unemployable, they’ll become socially superfluous. What we’re looking at is vastly bigger than pop music or pop culture. It’s a climactic phase in modern history: science and technology pushing at us from every angle – destroying our faiths and loyalties and trusts and mutualities by pandering to our “self” interests: self-indulgence, self-satisfaction, self-importance, self-love.

It sounds apocalyptic and, because of that, many will dismiss it as exaggeration. I sympathise. It’s hard to see what’s happening because, although it’s happening insanely fast, in day-to-day experiential terms we don’t notice the changes. And the faster this technology runs – and speed will continue to be the essence of it until everything, even transport, is virtually instantaneous – the faster our old world will fall apart and dissolve into the new one. If pop music can do anything about that, it will have to be gigantically smarter than it is now.

Q: Do you distrust technology?

A: Technology isn’t in itself malevolent, but it becomes so in the hands of people, like us, who are too young in evolutionary terms to understand the changes it brings to our culture and society, let alone how to cope with these. I agree with Devo – we’re now actually de-evolving. Machine civilisation is dominating our outer and inner worlds. As a result, we’re not only not trying any more but are also losing any sense that striving for and respecting greatness is vital to the evolution of our race. Everything’s melting down to the same cynical, body-centred, lowest common denominator level. Wisdom? Contemplation? Consideration? Who cares so long as we get our daily ration of sense-food?

Q: In ‘Ocean of Sound‘, David Toop cautions against the notion of music as simply something to be used, sampled and remade – the emergence of digital technology places sound on a hard disc as data, existing without any frame of reference. And now, in the on-line world, millions of people now accept that a part of their identity now exists outside of them, in a Web.

A: Lack of a frame of reference is precisely what this life-on-demand technology collaborates with our self-centredness to produce. We live in a tacky cultural mall where the past – past people, past “styles” – are just commodities. We have no sense of these people: why they did and said the things they did. We take their work without reference to context, refusing to treat it as if it has any historical autonomy or specificity. This lets us make it into anything we like – but the result is that the depth and quality of feeling that gave birth to these works vanishes and their original dynamic evaporates. You see this in classical music, the further performances get from a composer’s sociocultural location: timbres and dissonances are smoothed over, tempos become distorted (slow ones get funereal, fast ones emptily virtuosic), and the “inner” structure of the music gradually fades away.

Fortunately, there are musicians who are trying to reverse such trends, though I’ve yet to find a music critic who understands what they’re up to. In pop music, a classic instance of this is Sergeant Pepper. People who weren’t around during 1967 often haven’t a clue what that record is about and so miss its “inner” meanings. In terms of thought and feeling, it’s a far deeper album than Revolver, with which these days it’s unfavourably compared. But if you don’t care about context, you’ll never sense this and never benefit from it. To the extent that we turn art into whatever we want it to mean, we forfeit the chance of being changed by it, of being enhanced by it. Only if we make an effort to take it on its original terms, can we get something from it that isn’t a mere reflection of ourselves.

It’s easy to be too blackly pessimistic, but the chances of our culture pulling out of its present nosedive are slight. Regardless of what humanists say, the “old” notions were basically religious ones, founded on transcendental values beyond mundane dispute. All ancient civilisations depended for their customs and laws on the precept of holy words handed down from heaven or from the depths of the earth by oracles. That way, social morality was effectively beyond mere opinion. As soon as you take away the transcendental background, morality becomes debatable – which, as time wears on, means “up for grabs” and eventuality “dispensable”.

Nietzsche likened the “death of God” to the earth falling out of moral orbit into subjective relativism. His solution was the Superman: fascism – always an option. If things get too chaotic, those with a lot to protect may vote to put society under heavy manners. This could be anything from vigilante law to Singaporeism to out-and-out totalitarianism. Or there could be a spiritual revival of some sort – a real one based on love, as opposed to the quasi-fascism of the American so-called Christian Right. This might come from the New Age movement, although it’s too sentimental and self-deceiving to be able to manage this without external help (some sort of visitation, from space, say, or from a higher dimension). Or we might relearn solidarity through a massive global disaster: the weather could go mad, some nut in the Third World might nuke the First World, half the world could be wiped out by disease then we might pull together – for a while. Or we might just manage to rationally work out our problems, the way superficialists prefer to hope. Personally I think that’s the least likely option, if only because it would involve giving up so much that’s bad for us but which we absolutely love.