Best of British

Pop music provides a national identity based on creativity rather than hatred

Last month I took my twin 13-year-old sons to see the Black Keys at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. The Keys are two American guys, one on drums, the other on guitar, and they make a mean, dramatic and impressive noise. That evening my sons were tired from a day at school; they were worried about not doing their French homework, and whether they'd get in trouble the next day. "Missing your homework for a rock'n'roll band," I grumbled. "You'll have to do it in the morning on the bus." Then, as casually as I could, I asked one of them what he was best at, at school. "Don't worry about it, Dad," he said thoughtfully, "I'm the best looking."

The boys, who are uninterested in most adult things, were mesmerised by the show. They considered the evening to be "sick", watching the guitarist and drummer carefully and talking to one another about what the musicians were doing. It was the usual rock'n'roll experience: sticky carpets, the toilet cistern leaking on your head, people taking your seat, the boredom and excitement of waiting for the band to appear, and a headache at the end. But during the gig I recalled a quote from Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine, who said something like: "I recognised that the most talented of my generation were going into music, so I did, too." Wenner was acknowledging the truth, something I've known since my teens. Music has been the most interesting, significant, liberating and sexually compelling cultural force of my time - and the most lively, gifted and attractive people went into it. Alas for the talentless and shy.

Now, nearly 40 years after Sergeant Pepper, it's not only Tony Blair strumming his Stratocaster in the evenings. A good proportion of the over-40 male population is doing the same. Well-off and winding down, these lost men can now spend a lot of time in the music shops of Denmark Street, and with friends, practising their licks.

A successful writer pal of mine has been rehearsing with his band every Monday for ten years. He jammed with my sons recently, teaching them Clash songs as they explained to him who the Feeling are. For this man, there is much to wonder over, and even regret. "Don't you think," he says seriously, almost plaintively, "I could have been in a professional band - maybe as a bassist? I'm not Hendrix, but I'm as good a player as many of those who made it."

Like most of my generation, I've spent more time listening to music than I have spent reading. Pop is the cultural form I have in common with most of my friends and certainly, as I'm discovering, with the kids. Luckily, after listening to hip-hop for a couple of years, my sons turned to American rock, and then to British pop and rock. I became interested in music again through them. Otherwise I'd feel a little embarrassed liking the Kooks and the Streets, as if I should have grown out of it.

When music hall died after the war, reappearing on television as variety, pop took its place on the stages of those old theatres. During the 50 years I've been alive, this country has continued to produce masses of high-class music, as well as absorbing and reinterpreting American music and saturating its youth in the leery attitudes that accompany it.

Pop is the cry of the "outsider" - free speaking to a large audience. It has done more to remake British identity than any other form, and the spirit of punk still inspires it. British music has always been mixed up in all senses. It is a democratic form, and it is multicultural; it has been black and Asian, working-class, middle-class, gay and lesbian. If I find myself talking to the kids about this, it is because this is their history, too, and something they might like to know about - indeed, probably should know about, as an alternative education.

The present commitment and fervency of religious believers is disconcerting, impressive and daunting, making us wonder what it is we believe. Our own lack of such belief might make us slightly ashamed. However, if such commitments are more or less unavailable to us, there are others which are, though they are less tangible and authoritarian, less of a programme, and more about feeling and self-expression. However, that which makes an identity - perhaps the most important part of it - might be something that, as The Who put it, you "can't explain", that is put beyond the refinement of language.

Pop still represents the voices of those who are not normally listened to, and there remains something subversive and obscene about it. The odour of cheap sexuality, drugs and drinking, as well as desperation and people going mad, reminds us that pop is, ultimately, about the deepest and most important things: anarchic enjoyment and bodily pleasure. Unlike most art, which becomes over-sophisticated as it develops, pop remains simple and direct. As with music hall, its most important qualities are vulgarity, naivety and exhibitionism.

Fortunately, it is almost impossible to articulate or teach this. Think of our recent passion to characterise "Britishness", in order that we might impress it into the psyches of the potentially British, to stop them from becoming terrorists. Perhaps we could have newly arrived immigrants being forced to sit in booths while wearing headphones, writing an explication of "I Am the Walrus".

The Britain of pop is the country I understand and like, partly because its music has never quite been domesticated. Neither parochial nor patriotic, pop is an unusual identification, one based not on hatred, but on creativity. Unlike identifications built on religion or on love of the state or the leader, it is forever shifting, still anarchic, cussed, rebellious, nonconformist. It is intelligent and witty, a running ironic description of contemporary British life.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour