Why are there so few right-wing rock stars?

An NME writer suggests that it's thanks to the influence of Britain's music press.

It's a curious fact that, in public at least, there are very few right-wing rock stars. Some, like Phil Collins, who made good on his promise to leave the country if Labour won the 2005 General Election, vote Tory for tax reasons. Some, like Spandau Ballet singer Tony Hadley, who was rumoured to be seeking a Conservative electoral seat, espouse pro-Thatcherite views because it reminds them of the time in the 1980s when they were still having hits, rather than slogging round the revival circuit playing august rock venues like Lowestoft's Marina Theatre.

Collins and Hadley are very much in the minority, however. Rock music's default political stance is a version of libertarianism - a lot of rock stars like to imagine themselves as outlaw figures at odds with the strictures of workaday society, and a small state means, like, less hassle from The Man, man.

In Britain at least, the long-term guardian of rock music's conscience - and occasional antagonist - was the music press, principally the weekly New Musical Express. Founded in 1952 as a tabloid for musicians advertising the latest harmonicas or guitar strings, by the time it reached its peak of influence in the mid-'70s, the NME was providing a steady wage and a willing audience to a whole generation of troublemakers and dissidents who'd learned their craft writing for the underground press.

NME was owned by the International Publishing Company, part of packaging company Reed International, publishers of Woman and Home, Horse and Hound and magazines about fishing, football and kid's comics. The staff of the NME gleefully exploited their position to take the values, ideals and interests of the hippy underground - amplified rock music, drugs, sex, astrology, radical politics - and sneak them into the mainstream through IPC's distribution network.

At its peak in the 1970s, the magazine was bought by a quarter of a million people weekly, but IPC estimated that it was read by four times as many - most NME readers being impoverished students or sixth formers who pass on the paper to friends when they'd finished with it. The values and causes that they discovered through the pages of the NME - along, of course, with the vibrant soundtrack - permeated way beyond the pages of a weekly rock newspaper into the wider culture.

Writing in 1980, the cultural commentator Peter York expressed amazement at what he found in the pages of a magazine sold alongside Shoot!, Bunty or the Sun in WH Smiths. "Peter York wrote a piece on NME for Harpers and Queen," remembers Tony Parsons, one of the many household names who got his break writing for the paper, "and he said 'you wouldn't believe the stuff that's in this paper: politics, drugs'. And this was true. There were people coming to work who'd had just fallen out of a drug den with Keith Richards."

At a time when the TUC conference ended with a round of (female) strippers, or when Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served? was the only gay character on television, the NME advocated feminism and gay rights. It ran passionate cover stories about nuclear disarmament or green politics way before they were mainstream political issues. It advocated relaxing British marijuana laws and covered music festivals long before either became acceptable middle-class pastimes.

After a drunken concert appearance by Eric Clapton in August 1976 where the guitarist repeatedly shouted the National Front's slogan "Keep Britain White" and called for action to be taken to "get the coons out", it was on the letters pages of the NME that the Rock Against Racism movement coalesced. In the 1980s, during Neil Kinnock's latter period as leader of the Labour party, no daily newspaper would give him even the smallest piece of positive coverage: NME put him on the cover twice, once, to their publisher's chagrin, the week before the 1987 general election.

NME writers attended early meetings of the Red Wedge movement, rubbing shoulders with future New Labour architects like Peter Mandelson and Phillip Gould, who noticed how powerful rock music could be when it came to trying to court the youth vote. The result was Britain's first rock'n'roll premier, the first British Prime Minister who'd grown up reading the NME every week. The ignominy of the Blair years aside Britain is a more accepting, more tolerant and more liberal place than it was forty years ago. The persistent influence of the New Musical Express, sixty years old next month, did much to make it that way.

Pat Long's book "The History of The NME" is published on 12 March by Portico. For more information click here

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle