Four years ago, as part of my research for a book I was writing, I went to interview a retired miner called Jack in a village near Barnsley. Jack had worked with a great uncle of mine in the 1950s. At the time, Jack had been in his early 20s; he had come to mining after the watershed of nationalization in 1947, and I wanted to ask him about the differences between his generation and the older, pre-nationalisation one to which my great uncle had belonged. It didn’t go very well.
The problem was, I wanted to talk about public ownership as the generational marker, but Jack wasn’t interested in the idea. The generational marker Jack was interested in was Elvis Presley.
‘Do think you and Danny [my great uncle] thought about work differently because he’d worked for private bosses, but you worked for the people?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘All I thought about were Elvis. Records, films, books you name it. I even dressed like him.’
‘Did he seem part of a big change in how people acted?’
‘But there had been a change, hadn’t there? With nationalization and the Welfare State and that sort of thing?’
‘No, it were t’same gaffers in charge. I never thought about it, I was too busy going out dancing. That were t’ best music weren’t it? ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Hound Dog’… they’ve never topped it.’
And so on.
And on and on, because when I talked to other ex-miners born between 1940 and 1950 it was the same – basically, me asking, ‘Did you believe the postwar settlement?’ and them saying, ‘Of course he was never as good after he went in the army.’ I do realize this makes me sound rather like a blend of Mr. Casaubon from Middlemarch and Student Grant from Viz, though I would point out in my defence that (a) British colliers do talk a lot about political history – ie it was reasonable to ask about it – and (b) they campaigned for public ownership for more than 50 years – ie it was quite a Big Deal when it happened.
I should have realised sooner, however, that Elvis and his hair and those songs had not been ephemeral distractions, but part of a generational change that was articulated and communicated in looks, sound textures and movements. ‘But what was it about him?’ I once wailed at a former lamp-room man from Grimethorpe. ‘His voice,’ he replied, ‘and just the way that he was.’ It reminded me of what John Lennon once said about hearing Elvis for the first time. ‘I could hardly make out what was being said. It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end… It took us a long time to work out what was going on. To us, it just sounded like a noise that was great.’ I suspect it’s also a way of saying that ‘he looked and sounded the way I felt, although I didn’t actually realize I felt it until I heard him.’
What Elvis did for those men was similar to what the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley once described the Sex Pistols doing in the mid-1970s – ‘making people freer to become themselves’. This is an interesting and possibly unique agency that pop music can have, one arising from the combination of sound, melody, lyric, performer and context; to me it seems as close as the effect a scent can have on the memory as it is to other art forms. It’s doubtless important – certainly the men I was talking to felt that no one could understand them without understanding Elvis – but it’s sometimes dismissed as apolitical and inconsequential by certain critics.
In the 1970s, for example, Dick Hebdige, together with fellow sociologists Ian Taylor and David Wall, railed against David Bowie for relying on visual spectacle rather than advancing the post-hippie counter culture. More recently – and more credibly – the artist Jeremy Deller has written that the famous 1973 photograph of glam-rock wrestler Adrian Street and his father, a Welsh miner seen in his work clothes, was ‘possibly the most important photograph taken post-war’ because ‘it encapsulates the whole history of Britain in that period – of our uneasy transition from being a centre of heavy industry to a producer of entertainment and services.’
Deller explored this idea in his 2010 film about Street, So Many Ways To Hurt You. It is a great film, but personally I don’t think the industrial, the entertainment, the self-realisation, and the socio-political are as discrete as that. I remember talking to another ex-miner, Gary, who had also worked at Grimethorpe colliery in the 1970s, when he was in his late teens and early 20s. He and his friends had graduated from heavy rock to glam (Sabbath to Bolan, Ziggy Stardust and ‘Starman’ on the Top of the Pops). In an era when the older men would accuse them of being queer if they so much as used deodorant, they pierced their ears, wore great flapping flares and lapels, and grew their dyed hair so long that the management introduced rules compelling them to wear hairnets when using heavy drilling equipment. This was not about a retreat from the socio-politics of industry into the self, said, Gary, but a combination of the two.
‘Working class lads tended to be defensive about their gender and how they looked. You wanted to look confident and strong, but probably didn’t feel as much like that as you wanted, so you dressed and cut your hair in a hard, masculine way. But you see in the 1970s suddenly you were going through strikes and winning, and getting good pay as a result, and you were a young lad with money in your pocket. We thought our time was coming! And because of that we were confident enough to experiment with androgyny. It doesn’t happen often, but it happened then. To me that’s what that music and those clothes were all about in the 1970s, an expression of a belief in your own power.’
‘Going through strikes and winning… We thought our time was coming! ‘
Listen to 70s Bowie with that in mind, and those dystopian/apocalyptic/sci-fi-fantasy lyrics begin to conjure different images.
‘Now the workers have struck for fame/Cause Lennon’s on sale again…’
‘These children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds…’
‘He looked a lot like Che Guevera/drove a diesel van…’
But that’s probably trying to make the link too literal. When the music moves you, it isn’t a process you can explain with a flow chart – though doubtless many app-developers try.
And if that’s what Bowie was expressing for the young men of South Yorkshire in the 1970s, what was Elvis representing for their fathers 20 years earlier? Probably something like a British version of what the critic Robert Cantwell described in his account of the success of Elvis’ first RCA single: ‘The opening strains of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’… opened a fissure in the massive mile-thick wall of post-war regimentation, standardization, bureaucratization, and commercialization in American society and let come rushing through the rift a cataract from the immense waters of sheer, human pain and frustration that have been building up for ten decades behind it.’
Of course it would have been quite hard for anyone to say that, which is partly why humans invented music in the first place.
I have a postscript for this story, if you can call it that. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, that echoing piece of modern gothic whose lyrics were inspired by a suicide note, was the recording that made me understand Elvis. It was his big major-label breakthrough track, and it’s interesting that a star so associated with 1950s affluence and optimism made his name with a macabre, Edgar Allen Poe-like two-minutes that captures not Bobbysox-ed gaiety, but utterly bleak, black despair. Elvis tracks tend to be so overplayed that it’s hard to really hear them, but if you listen to ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ again, properly, you can quite easily imagine how people of Lennon’s generation felt on first hearing it. Sometimes it still makes me wonder: it sounds so weirdly ghoulish, all the more so once you know that ‘Lonely Street’ is a phrase from the one-line suicide note.
The year after it was released in the UK, Jack was due to marry Pam, my great uncle Danny’s daughter. Four weeks before the wedding, Jack took what was for him the highly unusual step of pretending to be ill and taking a day off work so he could paint the flat he and Pam would be moving into. That day, on his and Danny’s shift, there was an explosion at the pit. Along with 19 others Danny was burned so badly his wife didn’t recognize him in hospital, and he died 29 days later. Jack was racked by guilt. He and Pam delayed the wedding, and when they did marry, she refused to be given away, and wore a grey dress.
A few months after that, Jack was working on another face with his own father when a roof-fall buried his dad. Jack managed to dig him out alive, but after that he experienced irrational rages that did not stop until a doctor persuaded him that he needed to change his job, and he went to work on the railway.
We talked about all this a few times, and once, when he was talking about Elvis, I did wonder if he had ever felt the despair of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ speaking to him. It seemed too flippant and trivial to ask, so I didn’t, and as Jack and Pam both died last year, I shall never know. I think he would have asked me what on earth I was talking about, but you never know. Music moves people in mysterious ways.