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

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser