How American Forces Network Saved Our Lives
Britain in the 1950s was a monochrome society, a rigid, unyielding social order and overt class consciousness constrained social interactions, people were reluctant to do the right thing for fear of it being deemed by "polite society" as the wrong thing. Fortunately a radio station we should not have been listening to, and the subversive music it played took the lead in releasing us from our bonds.
Subversive Radio Listening
My dearest friend across the pond recently gave me a slap on the wrist for my less than flattering innuendo about American lifestyles and the widespread craziness.
Unabashed I replied, "You think its innuendo, how blatant do I have to be?"
It would be easy to go into a Bill Hicks style comedy riff, running through everything American that irritates Europeans: addiction to flags, Microsoft, oversize cars, identity politics, political correctness, Rappers who can't rhyme, Macdonald's, Fox News, Starbucks, War, Muffin Tops, the idea that the british are emotionally constipated, where do you finish (sorry, as I'm being very English here I should say "where does one finish.")
But that would be satire and I want to be a little serious. There are many things about America that are pants but there are many things about everywhere that stink (especially France where almost everything stinks but I still love the country.) The reason Europeans, Australians and Canadians love to make fun of America is that most Americans just cannot see the joke.
The thing is we all love our countries, warts and all. And we can share the jokes. In England we laugh about our tatty hotel rooms, surly waiters, snobbery and the fact that everything closes early.
In France they laugh at jokes about bad breath, garlic, lax attitudes to personal hygiene (viz. the message sent by Napoleon to his mistress Josephine, "ne te lave pas, je reviens,") lax attitudes to marriage vows,existential angst and pomposity. The Germans enjoy jokes about Germans having no sense of humour, no taste buds and a penchant for invading Poland and the Swedes wet themselves at jokes about Volvos and suicide. Its all about not making the nation an icon, nation states are just an administrative expedient, the culture is what holds people together.
But apart from the fun of making jokes about America I think my generation particularly are profoundly disappointed at what America has become since the end of the Vietnam war. When I was going through adolescence we used to look across the Atlantic from a broken and impoverished continent torn apart not just by two great wars in thirty years but by the decline of the great imperial powers and the rise of communism and still constrained by the straight jacket of class distinction and elitism. What we would see was a brave, brash, self confident young nation not shackled by outmoded customs and traditions, a place where everybody could aspire to owning a grand house and a smart car, where even people on average incomes had refrigerators and telephones. A place where it seemed that having fun and living well was not a crime. Of course we were not allowed to see the dark side, those southern states where Jim Crow was expected to know his place and tug his forelock and call his "betters" sir, just as working class Joe Bloggs was in England. The only difference there was skin colour.
So the younger people in the post war years, my parents generation, looked to America to lead the way out of that feudal dead zone and obligingly America led. In music, art, literature, in science and technology, design, engineering but most of all in ideas, America led.
By the time I reached my teens there was no longer any doubt which nation led the western world. Britain and France may have had their pretensions but it was America that blazed a trail towards the better world we had been promised.
Britain was still enmired in snobbery, class - consciousness and elitism. Many things that needed to be liberated from the control of reactionary cliques and brought up to date were still ring fenced by networks of patronism. One of these was broadcasting and in particular radio. In Britain radio meant the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, "Auntie."
This was a disaster for popular music, especially the stuff that was coming out of America. Loud, uptempo music was frowned on, it simply wasn't very British. Classical music could be loud and brassy but popular music had to be restrained and polite, to know its place in effect.
On the BBC's only popular entertainment station records were introduced my terribly terribly well spoken chaps who had to wear a dinner jacket and bow tie (on radio!) because "standards must be maintained." Also much of the BBC's pop music output was performed live on air. This was due to an agreement made with the musicians union when it was thought radio would put musicians out of work. So the first time many people heard Rock Around The Clock or Hound Dog it was being played and sung by people more used to performing waltzes and foxtrots at the local dance hall.
Youth is always subversive and with the complicity of the U.S. Government by the nineteen-sixties we teenagers were able to subvert the regime of fuddy duddies who thought Rock and Roll was unseemly. The BBC was the only legal broadcaster in Britain, its only competition coming from the very limited English language output of Radio Luxembourg. But thanks to the cold war the America military presence in Britain was massive. And the US military thought the boys needed a few reminders of home. Like American pop music. American Forces Network (AFN) officially only broadcast to American bases but how do you control how far a radio signal goes and who can tune their radio set to it?
AFN was never publicised, never even acknowledged but everyone who was interested in lively music knew about it.
A revolution was brewing in teenagers bedrooms. I learned of AFN from one of those subversive adults who in fiction always seem to emerge to help the rebellious teenager to find themselves, in my case it was Aunt Millie, dear, darling, disreputable, twice divorced Millie who wore make-up and high heels, knew all the latest songs and dances, drank gin and tonic and, horror of horrors, dyed her hair.
"That's where you'll find AFN," she told me, marking the spot on the radio's dial with nail varnish, "if your Dad catches you listening don't tell him I did that."
Thus I was cemented into the conspiracy. Millie, I should tell you, had a very influential role in the allies defeat of Hitler. She was a tonic for the troops.
I don't think Dad would have minded much but Millie understood teenagers. It was not listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and the rest that made AFN so delicious it was the feeling of having cheated the system.
I was not alone with this secret, members of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Who, Animals and all the other leading bands of the British pop music renaissance cited AFN as a major influence. The music of those bands and their American counterparts was part of the social revolution that broke the chains of conformity of course. That is how AFN changed the world.
Three decades later, watching Alan Parker's documentary on The Blues I heard Eric Clapton talking about his first meeting with Muddy Waters.
"After the gig we told him we were going to meet Lonnie Donegan," Clapton said. Muddy was impressed, "You know Lonnie Donegan? Can I come along," I have to meet him, he said. Donegan was a British singer and Jazz musician, creator of a peculiar blend of jug band music and blues known as skiffle. He had had a number one with Rock Island Line in the U.S. in the mid fifties. It turned out Donegan was a hero to the traditional blues singers of the deep south, his updated recordings of work songs and spirituals had revitalised their music and generated interest from record companies.
So just as our music and attitudes ware liberated by America through AFN, the music of America's poorest people had been revitalised by skiffle. Its a funny old world.
The liberation in social attitudes that AFN played a part in bringing about continues in Britain and around Europe but America seems to have forgotten the lessons it taught the world. The gap between rich and poor gets wider, there does not seem to be a social contract between government and people, if you fall on hard times you're on your own, bogus and hypocritical piety and patriotism are applauded and Americans cheer politicians who promise to impose American values across the world (its worth remembering that is exactly how Britain lost an Empire.)
So when I and others seem to be saying "America sucks," (I must ask what that actually means one day, I guess its like something being pants,) what we are actually doing is saying, "stop telling us how great and superior all things America are, look in this mirror I'm holding up and get a glimpse of how the world sees you. We want to like you for all your faults but please stop insisting you have no faults."
Picture: Rock and Roll blogspot commons
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