musicology #377


Modernist #5

(Ray Charles – What I’d Say)

Received this on an email last night and thought this was probably the best place to share it rather than on the Comments. Why? because It’s another piece of critical writing straight from the horses mouth so to speak and in keeping with the authentic nature of this theme deserves a place on the front page. There’s some excellent dialogue taking place in the comments so it’s a small dilemma as to whether to put it there but, (in the words of Rupie Edwards on ‘Census Taker’) “time is short and money a roll on this ‘ting”, (not really money but certainly time !!) anyway on with the debate..

“Purely out of academic interest I’ll start by asking a question. It’s a simple, honest, and open question that I’ve not only (and often) asked myself, it’s one I’ve left hanging out there since first stumbling across it for any other interested party or person to answer. To date no-one’s properly answered it!

The question is this. Do you or did you know a Modernist?

Well, put simply, I didn’t, or if I did then said Modernist didn’t make it clear to me (which is the same thing). Thus, and as no-one else responded to the question, I’m left to ponder the very existence of this mythical harbinger/precursor to “Mod”.

Who was he? Where was he? When was he? What was he into? How many “hims” were there? (I’ll stick with the “he” if that’s OK ladies? Purely as a literary tool, nothing else)

First. Who Was He?
According to the little what’s known he was well educated (grammer school at the very least) and he wasn’t working or upper-class. So does this establish him as “middle-class” then? Somehow I doubt it. The middle-classes were, well, the “middle” class: safe, plodding, grey, they were rocking no boats with “attitude”, they were quite happy living the “you’ve never had it so good” life in their “Little Boxes”. So if Modernist wasn’t upper, middle or lower (working?) class who was he? From which social category did this legend rise from? It can only be from the post-war “striving” class i.e. upper-lower/lower-middle class families (mainly second generation immigrants and of those most likely Jewish or Italian… now there’s a religious conundrum if ever there was one! ).
As we know he was well educated that means he was over 16 and under 21. Why? Cutting a long explanation short, bright boys like him stayed on at school to the 6th. form and he wasn’t conscripted into the army.

Again, according to what little is known, he was a very sharp dresser, neurotically so! Clothes were more important to him than money or sex. This guy was a real true dandy! The clothes he wore were either designed (sometimes made) by him or his VERY close circle of fellow Modernists or rare and expensive imports. Once worn or better said shown-off they were disposed of fast; past on/over to younger brothers or the such like. His clothes were SHARP to say the least. Every detail, from style of shirt collar down to the cloth cover buttons on trousers (yes, trousers) was meticulously thought out. What he wore no-one else wore (if they did he – and the other face – was a finished article in the circle). Styles changed at the speed of light. The pace of it all took it’s toll. Going out looking like he did was all about being SEEN; being looked at and being copied. It goes without saying that aggro was avoided like the plague.

To summerize… He Was.
Aged 17-19. Good looking, slim build. Clever but no academic (good head on his shoulders). Not short of a few bob (son of a local businessman perhaps). Street-wise but not tough (a lover not a fighter). An individualist (with those clothes he had no choice). A narcissist…Next installment… tomorrow.”

Today’s cut is from a legend who needs no Introduction with a tune that needs none either. The great Ray Charles Robinson with a groundbreaking piece of modernist musicology that as far as I’m concerned defines the word and essence of the elusive ‘Modernist’ in a matter of minutes…

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10 thoughts on “musicology #377

  1. Following on from today’s piece of writing I am adding the following instalments here in the comments.

    Second. Where Was He?

    Remember, we’re talking early sixties here. I’ll start by stating where he wasn’t. He certainly wasn’t in or from the bad lands south of the border (river). In such a bigoted, culturally deprived area as south London a “cissy” immigrant Jewish/Italian kid, let alone Modernist, wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. To a much lesser extent the same can be said for east London. If he was Jewish he probably hailed from north London (Swiss Cottage, Finchley Rd., Stamford Hill and north-north-west as far as Hampstead), if Italian, then most likely the tight/close-knitted area known as Little Italy (Clerkenwell, The Angel, Holborn). These are vague generalizations, but both areas were culturally diverse, had artistic heritage, were open-minded and, importantly, flowed intellectually, physically, and economically, to and from the mecca of London’s post-war cultural activity i.e. it’s famous West End.

    The West End of the early sixties was quite small considering the size of ol’ London town. Its most northern boundary was the Euston Rd. between Portland Pl. and Tottenham Court Rd. It’s eastern boundary started down at Charing Cross Station, ran up the Charing Cross/Tottenham Court Rd. to the corner of Euston Rd. Its western boundary began down at the junction of Pall Mall and Regent St. then ran up Regent St., across Oxford Circus and up Portland Pl. to Park Crescent. These two sides and top of the West End “triangle” were sharply defined: they ran along wide, main roads. The two top courners were hives of business activity; the north-west one the centre of the rag-trade (and, but of little consequence here, the BBC too) and the north-east one the very iffy part of the motor-trade. But the (inverted?) up-side-down apex of this triangle is not so easy to explain. It sort of covered the whole area around Charing Cross Station, Trafalgar Sq., Lower Regent St., Haymarket, parts of Piccadilly, with Shaftbury Ave. the only main road cutting through it. And yet, as difficult (geographically) it is to nail this area, so much easier it is to define it culturally; this was the happening centre of the World. It was here, in this misty, ill-defined apex, up to and including the scruffy, throbbing heart of the West End i.e. Soho, where all the action went down. From theatres, museums, galleries, auction houses, famous churches and palaces, the very best outfitters and grocers, gentlemen’s clubs, fine eateries and toff inhibited pubs to tarts, strip-clubs, opium dens, jazz clubs, drug dealing coffee shops etc., etc. all were there to gawk at or partake off as you dallied/strolled/bowled through London’s West End.

    In years to come property developers/sharks and media hype would magically spread The West End out as far as Hyde Park to the west and beyond Kingsway. to the east. But the West end we are talking of here is the much smaller, tighter, insular, one. It’s the one you could criss-cross by foot in the space of a good hour without losing breath… which is what plenty of people – young and old – were doing 24/7 in the early sixties.

    The rag-trade corner centred around Gt. Portland St. was predominantly Jewish. The motor-trade corner’s with it’s epicentre in Warren St. was a racial/social free for all, and the infamous Soho, with it’s restaurants, coffee bars and clubs (not to mention it’s “sleezy” side), was the domain of the Italians.

    Bearing in mind the Modernist credo i.e. ME and the Modernist’s phobic aversion to aggro, religious/racial tension was not on the agenda. Therefore, our lucky Modernist hero could and would have swanned around all parts of the West End like it was his second home. So it would have been in places like Berwick St., Old Compton St. and the much maligned Carnaby St. where he would pick up and tune into the clobber vibe and Wardour St., Dean St., Frith St., and Gerrard St. where he’d chill out to the music vibe. Principally, it was those two “vibes” which were to identify/mark Modernist man. The “clobber” vibe – a riotous kaleidoscope of colour and cut – was destined to define all following youth cults/movements/phenomenon. The music vibe -a cool, mix of (Modern?) jazz and the Blues – was (as incredible as this may sound) destined to change mans perceptions of human rights.

    To summerize… As a kid our hero grew up in a relatively wealthy, stable society. He had a strong, dynamic family background. He went to school and did well. He passed his 11-plus exams and went to grammer school. As a teenager he continued where he left off as a kid… a classic goody-two-shoes in the language of the day. He took his A-Level exams and passed them too. But what then? The UK wasn’t offering much in the way of “a future” in the early sixties. That’s when he and his ilk rebelled. But rebelled in a novel way. Unlike previous youth “movements” there was NO shouting and screaming for them, NO dropping out and moping around. NO punch-ups with authority, NO attitude… NO Siree!

    Coming from immigrant cultures seeped in “exotic” un-British traditions they had no silly gender hang-ups about fashion. These boys flashed their rebellion with what they wore i.e. they LOOKED different. Neverthe less, Modernist man-boy was NO hero. He didn’t do travel. Having cut his symbolic teeth there, the West End is where he was most comfortable.

    Thus the Modernist myth was born, lived, and died in The West End.

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  2. Dropping this piece which was a comment on the ‘Track List’ from the same Cat who penned the above.

    Well worth a read for those interested in the period

    The Hustler was on general release in London round and about 1961. The music you’ve been laying down to it was also on release and being played at the same time. Right?

    Well, and I doff my cap to your intuition (it couldn’t be experience as you’ve already said you wasn’t around at the time) the first three slices/plays were absolutely perfect, full on, Late Modernist music. Music which wasn’t anything like the boring, banal, stuff being served up by the monopolistic “authority” known as The B.B.C. but at the same time wasn’t the difficult “intellectual drivel” so loved of the middle-classes. It was music with something else; with something which hadn’t yet been named; it was music with SOUL i.e. jazz, and Blues, which was structured, orcastrated, with rhythm and a good beat and yet, in its own way, was still “easy on the ear”. I suppose you could say popular music. Popular before the word became “unpopular” that is.

    And the strange, paradoxical, thing is/was that most of the Artists/musicians laying this “popular” music on us were Modernist icons (a couple of other names that spring to mind are The MJQ and Dave Brubeck. Later, the likes of Brooker T Jones would lead the charge of the second wave of SOULFUL JAZZ),

    Late (or Post) Modernist is a term I’ve just hit on to nail/identify the group of kids who were NOT Modernists and didn’t YET know they were Mods (of tribal instincts, labels and propaganda, more at another time).

    Anyway, getting back on theme, those three slices were perfect examples of Post/Late-Modernist Mod music. The music of a generation groping around looking for itself.

    And then? The next three slices played on AlternativeSoundTracks4 were Barret Strong, Sam Cooke and The Shirelles. Again perfect; perfect examples of a generation that had found itself and found its collective voice…. You couldn’t have picked three better examples of Mod music if you’d been there.

    The music of a generation found… Incredible!!

    I’m generalising here but imagine it like this… The first three slices were getting “aired” in the cellar-like clubs. The second three were “jived” to in the dance-halls.

    And finally, the puzzling thing is this…. All of this Modernist/Mod stuff happened simultaneously (and I’m not just talking music here)…. That is, and always has been, my quandry!!

    I hope I haven’t lost you (or me) while meandering down this Mod’s memory lane. And I trust I haven’t bored you to tears.
    Ahh, that reminds me of a song…. hahahahaha

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  3. Yes, Ray Charles… The High Priest.
    I’m not 100% sure but his The Ray Charles Story Volumn 1 was my first album purchase!

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  4. Third. When was he around and for how long? 

    Britain’s prima shopping mile, Oxford St, running west-east between Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Court Rd., divided the old West End into two distinct halves. The northern half is of little interest here, it’s the southern half with it’s epicentre in Soho that our Modernist (along with everyone else into something different) was attracted to. It was here, south of Oxford St. where song lines like “lets Go Baby, To Where The Action Is” meant something. 

    In the summer of 1962, a 15 year old fledgling Mod, I started work at a department store on Oxford St. Times were certainly a’changing by then. The music was really kicking in. The clubs were mainly established. If you had you’re eyes open the clothes were there to be had. ‘The Look’, if not yet in the media’s sight, was at the very least on the streets and identifiably so.

    My daily journey to and from work home took me through whichever part of the West End took my fancy so within weeks I knew my way around. Once I’d settled(?) into the work routine I’d spend most of my 45 minute lunch-hour(?) wandering through Soho. Berwick St. market and Old Compton St. (Sportique) were my personal favourites (Carnaby St being too “poofy” for me). Berwick St. market was a Mod hang out before the word Mod had crept into the English vocabulary. It was a known meeting/posing place. Kids would mill about the market… and they weren’t there for the fruit an’ veg. It was the cloths stalls which, like flies around a honey pot, attracted them. De rigeur clothing like Ben Sherman’s and Levi’s were to be had (they sold out as soon as they came in). The atmosphere was good. It was like “it’s all a lark” if you know what I mean, But Old Compton St. and Shaftsbury Ave. (Cecil Gee) were different, they were more “mission” addresses. The clothes there were expensive (very). Having spotted something you liked you had to save up for it. The actual act of purchase was a last longing look at X weeks pay then a fast in-pay-out type mission. And, in my opinion, it was here, during the summer 1962, at these cutting-edge fashion addresses, where “fading” Modernist was confronted with “swaggering” Mod.

    To summerize… If the summer of ’62 was the Modernist Swan Song when when was he hatched? I suggest “the style movement which cannot be named” began 1959… “the seismic year jazz broke away from complex bebop music to new forms”. 

    Modernist. 1959-1962    

    Going a little of theme here, but hey…… There was one good record stall in Berwick St. market where I’d hang out and occasionally buy music but, come pay-day, it was the excellent record stalls in/on Seven Dials I’d head for (good I only went there in my lunch break… any longer and I’d have been broke before I got home). Music-wise I think I was a bit of an odd-man out because I wasn’t a singles buyer. Once bitten by a song, singer or band I always wanted to know more. And so, more by fault than design, I became one of the first collector’s of LP’s on my manor. Cutting a long story short, I’d hit Seven Dials knowing exactly which “performer” I was after but not necessarily which LP. A 15 minute walk from and a 5 minute dash back to work gave me 25 minutes to whittle my choice down, read the sleeve, check the condition and pay the lazy bastard standing there taking no interest whatsoever in a panic stricken kid waving money under his snotty nose (especially when said geezer probably thought the  strange kid dressed up like a poncy undertaker waving money at him was “speeding”).

    What Was He Into and How Many “Hims” together……. soon!!!!!!

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    1. there you have it..an eloquent description from tony blue on when the nameless thing was replaced by the new breed. so it’s safe to say that ‘mod’ stepped out of the shadows in 1962 and galvanised around the younger teams who were more interested in ‘saying it loud’ than their predecessors who prefered to stay nameless and therefore slowly slipped from the shadows into the darkness and out of the spotlight. Interesting for many reasons but none more so than the simple fact that 15 year olds couldnt afford and possibly didnt want to ‘whisper’ about their new found freedom. one shop that is at the forefront, (along with Cecil Gee), of much mod/ernist reminicising is Austin’s where the youth wouldnt have been able to congregate as easily and freely as Berwick Street and Old Compton Street where said new breed could and did from the sounds of it. Seven dials is part of themusicologist’s personal heritage as my nan was born and bred there so not only do I know it well but it holds special significence. Keep up the good and informative work on the memories as they are most appreciated..

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  5. Fourth. What was he into?

    Sorry for the delay but “what was he into” is a bit of a bind ‘cos most of my Modernist absolutes have been undermined in the course of this debate. If, and I repeat if, the Modernist uniform/clobber was “bum-freezer jackets with half-belts” and “winkle-picker shoes with laces up the side” etc. then I did know a Modernist. In fact I knew a good few. Besides my older brother, the boyfriend of my eldest sister, plus a number of my brothers mates were Modernists too. But here’s the catch-22; the “Modernist” guys I knew were not the least bit fastidious, were not individualists, and by no stretch of the imagination narcissists. They worked hard, earned “decent” money and, without being tight-fisted, valued it. They were also well into girls and having a good time.
    Clobber, while important, was not the be-all and end-all. They were regular guys… still are for that matter. Finally, and for me fundamental …. their musical tastes were, well, ordinary, as in “popular” (popular: an misnomer/understatement worth further debate). So. My brother a “Modernist”? A Modernist as defined by all that is currently published?…… NEVER! Dilemma upon dilemma. I give up! What HE was into can only be analysed when HE is nailed. Nevertheless, for the sake of this debate.

    To summarise….
    Modernist man-boy was “into” two things; fashion and music. But fashion and music with a telling difference. He was driven by the obscure (call it elitist?) fashion and music of the day. The clothes he wore were impeccably cut, rare/unique garments which were not Teddy-Boy shocking to the great unwashed British public (society) but, and worryingly, more a case of… the suspiciously bizarre. The music he listened to was “cool”, mainly modern jazz. Music, like him, well ahead of the curve!

    Off theme again but I’ve stumbled across something Modernist which might interest themusicologist…… unlike the poets favoured by the “Beat” crowd, text/words, spoken or sung were way down the list of musical inspiration for the Modernist.

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  6. Fifth. How many “hims” were there?

    I began by putting forward an argument for none and I honestly believed I had good grounds too.
    1. I grew up and went to school in various/varied parts of London.
    2. I was certainly in the mix in 1962 (if not earlier?).
    3. I knew The West End like the back of my hand.
    4. I was into music and fashion.
    5. I was a proven Mod, I knew scores of Mods, mixed it with hundreds of ’em, and can vouch for thousands… but, and bear this in mind considering the Mod/ernist legacy, no more than thousands. That’s not that many you know!!

    Therefore, my argument went, if just thousands are the head count of a well known, well documented “youth movement” what chance is there of counting this mysterious mythical bird of paradise? However, thanks mainly to the many informative/insightful posts on your blog, I’ve changed my mind…. He did exist. There wasn’t that many of hims. And I never met one of ’em!!

    To summarise……
    Less than a thousand, more than a couple of hundred….. a very, very rare bird indeed!

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    1. Quality…
      your recollections are most appreciated. takes nuts to ‘put your head above the parapet’ so to speak..
      Respect is due
      themusicologist
      As for the chance of counting the ‘bird of paradise’ you are right which is probably why he/she is the stuff of myth and wonder!!

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  7. What is without question however is the wide-spread existence (relative naturally) of Modernist GIRL pre 1962.

    Now there’s a topic!!!

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