In rock's early years, it was a rebellion against Englishness. The entire generation of bands that included the Rolling Stones, Nashville Teens, Yardbirds et al grew up surrounded by the signifiers of 1950s middle-class Englishness, what you might call Betjeman Culture. Uncle Mac, British Transport Films (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/day.htm), Enid Blyton, Raymond Glendenning. The basis for a lot of sentimental nostalgia in the 70s (just as the 70s themselves became the root of very similar nostalgia in the 90s). Their reaction against this was to immerse themselves in all things black American, the cultural no-no in that social background during the Eden and Macmillan eras (words like "nigger" and references to an "inherently inferior culture" were still quite common). R&B records were pored over. Their sound and style was copied obsessively. Records like "It's All Over Now" and "Tobacco Road" are still played 36 years later. Things went on in much the same vein for the rest of the 60s, culminating in "Beggars' Banquet" and the so-called "return to authenticity" of 1968, a rediscovery of blues in direct response to the first flowerings of prog in the previous year's psychedelia. Then, at the end of the 60s and start of the 70s, something changed.
The idea of rock music sounding uniquely English, and invoking all that stuff, was no longer so ridiculous. The Kinks had done their bit in the late 60s. From then to 1976, two distinct styles developed which remade rock with the echoes of earlier eras. There was folk-rock (most commonly identified with the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span) and there was prog-rock (usually associated with Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes and Genesis). Both acknowledged tradition and mysticism, and their music included sounds that would either mean nothing or have negative connotations of Britain's imperialism to those born and raised elsewhere, but would have a deep emotional impact (however paradoxical) to the British. It's not surprising in this context that when the quintessential bearded early 70s folky, Cat Stevens, recorded Eleanor Farjeon's children's hymn "Morning Has Broken" (a song which reeks of all the cultural signifiers the Stones tried desperately to sever themselves from) in 1972, the piano (which has the air of a 50s Sunday school about it) should have been played by Rick Wakeman, arguably the quintessential prog musician (for better or worse) both in his work with Yes and his solo epics.
Until 1976 these two styles continued to find new forms of expression for rock, even if, very often, the idea of the music was better than what was actually recorded. Then punk came along, and re-established an aggressive urbanity and urge for revolution as the basis of the music. Folk-rock and prog-rock were confined to seemingly perpetual obscurity and unfashionability, much as the delicate, emotional ballads of the early / mid-50s had disappeared into history after the original rock'n'roll explosion. This unfashionability actually deepened throughout the 80s, even as much of the 60s music dismissed by the punks came back into fashion. A semi-fascistic 1977-as-Year-Zero approach reigned. In the late 80s, even new movements like acid house were likened to punk.
By the mid-90s, a growing and welcome revisionism had brought folk-rock out of its obscurity, and was beginning to do the same for prog (although the re-establishment of an Absolute Rock Orthodoxy by Oasis, Paul Weller et al worked against this). The infuriatingly patchy Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, who initially crawled from west Wales quite early in the decade, have revived both genres full-scale. As with their antecedents, their albums (especially 1995's "Bwyd Time") have been hit-and-miss affairs, veering from heights of inspiration which show what they're capable of ("Miss Trudy", "Lucy's Hamper", "Young Girls and Happy Endings") to depths which remind you of how appalling the Canterbury School of bands like Caravan and Soft Machine could be when they lost their concentration ("The Game of Eyes" and the utterly exasperating cod-country "Heart of Kentucky"). But they display a self-conscious quaintness unrivalled since the days of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. On "Bwyd Time", at least, if it isn't a 1972 analog synth it's a flute or a brass band of the type last heard in the charts on Tony Capstick's "The Sheffield Grinder" in 1981. "Eating Salt Is Easy", gorgeous as it is, is a flute-based nursery-rhyme mantra on roughly the same level of sophistication as Traffic's "Hole In My Shoe", the subject of the "stupid hippy" parody version by The Young Ones' Neil. In short, however much they may dispute the fact, looking at and listening to an early Gorky's album is like going back to Canterbury in 1971, only with some lyrics in Welsh (their more recent work is probably better, and has moved further above pastiche).
The Beta Band have moved above this; they've always sounded to me like a contemporary re-animation of folk-rock, conscious of recent devlopments, although sometimes the use of them can be slightly irritatingly humorous (such as "The Beta Band Rap", which strikes me as an attempt to get in before satirists who find their appropriation of hip-hop inherently funny start taking the piss, a bit like the Beastie Boys themselves recording "Stutter Rap" as a self-parody before Tony Hawks got in). But they couldn't be further away from revivalism or pastiche; mostly from eastern Scotland, their take on folk-rock is quite hard-edged by comparison, but with an emotional vulnerability and underlying melancholia that suggests something isn't quite right. It's an unsettling sound, with a kind of messthetic or frenetic fusion about it, veering off in all kinds of directions. Their DJ sets on Radio 1 say it all - the Beasties next to some Goonish comedy song, and similar joyous juxtapositions. It's a sound and an aesthetic I'm often irritated by, but can't help loving in this case.
But the sonic evocation of English ruralisms which so characterised a lot of prog-rock (and has become increasingly bitter and cynical in many of the genre's practitioners as they've grown old - see the video for Pink Floyd's 1994 single "High Hopes", which resembled a parody of John Major's vision of England, literally including old maids bicycling through the Fenland mists) has not really been given a subtle, multi-layered re-evocation (even disco, another genre condemned by the punks, has returned, although, like 60s easy-listening, it has been revived with the kitsch aspect firmly emphasised). Until now.
Robin Carmody, December 1999 / 27th April 2000
Continued here ...
More thoughts on "belonging":