Under this Tory government it feels more important than ever to have an adventurous attendant popular culture

Reflections on a turbulent couple of months

On 12th December 2019, the climax of a rollercoaster few weeks, I spent the evening in Battersea, South West London, knocking on doors and making sure local residents had voted in the day’s UK General Election. I was knackered – weeks of canvassing for Labour around work and music commitments had taken their toll – but as I collapsed onto the Overground train from Clapham Junction just before 10pm, I felt oddly tranquil. We’d all done our bit, and I felt grateful to have been able to contribute in some small way; whatever happened with the result, I thought, this campaign for a better society had been enormously positive. I sat back in my seat, swearing quietly as I spilt a little beer over myself opening the first can of the night, but otherwise content. Then the exit poll came in.

Labour’s defeat was catastrophic. There’s no getting around that. As a person on the left, everything following the exit poll that night – the depressing inevitability of the drip-fed results, the ashen faces of my friends when I eventually got to my local in New Cross, the immediate finger-pointing, responsibility-shirking and opportunism – added up to a profoundly, painfully bleak experience. That might sound melodramatic – after all, able-bodied, young, white and male, I’ll probably be alright, and I’m aware of the privilege that is – but it’s true. For all of the shortcomings, limitations and missteps of the parliamentary Labour party, it’d felt like something new and hopeful had been within reach, before being snatched away from us.

Back on the Overground, Tyskie soaking gradually through my trousers, I stared aghast at my phone as the initial reactions began to pour in. I may be projecting a little here, but it seemed that the carriage went silent at 10 as the exit poll was announced. Conversations, political or otherwise, petered out swiftly, replaced by a stunned hush.

I reached for my headphones. I wanted to retreat into them, close my eyes and wrap myself up in something safer and warmer than the cold reality of what was unfolding. First, I put ‘Come Down To Us’ by Burial on, but then I pulled my head out of my arse and chose something else. I went for The Blue Nile instead – hardly the choice of a man avoiding drama, but at least a little less specifically clichéd – and did my best to focus on the stately beauty of ‘Tinseltown In The Rain’.

A few days later, I took another night-time trip across South London, this time to the Windmill Brixton for a one-off Christmas gig featuring two bands whose respective emergences have provided a much-needed glimmer of light in recent months: Black Midi and Black Country, New Road. Black Midi, New Road, as they were called that night, spent the first hour of the show on a freeform, improvised jam, all loping groove, semi-deliberate dissonance and occasional instrument-hopping. In lesser hands, this might well have been a) boring and b) self-indulgent, yet for such incredibly capable musicians, it was a thrill to witness. By way of an explanation for their prodigious talent, The Times recently noted that BCNR are a vanguard band for the first generation of artists to have grown up with and benefitted from the improved investment in music education that was one of the few silver linings of the last Labour government. Good thinking, The Times.

After a brief interlude following the improv set, Black Midi, New Road returned to the stage. The crowd were pretty tanked up by this point, so the ensuing set of Christmas songs was met with enormous enthusiasm. Mangled versions of Mariah Carey and Wham classics sailed by, before a festive rework of BCNR’s ‘Sunglasses’ (‘I am invincible in my Christmas hat!’) tore the roof off the place.

In an earlier edition of this column, I wrote about how bands like these two could well be understood as the first green shoots of something new, breaking through the murk of capitalist realism’s stranglehold on popular culture. Walking down Brixton Hill from the Windmill later that night, a few days into the recovery, I felt more convinced of that than ever. As Alex Niven says in my interview with him in this issue, one shouldn’t put the cart before the horse when trying to understand how social change and popular culture interact with one another. Yet at street level, away from the Westminster soap opera and in the context within which bottom-up social change can be engineered, it does feel important to have an adventurous attendant popular culture. At this point, I’m taking my victories, however small, where I can.