Looking for a New England

Simon Matthews
Looking for a New England: Music, Film and TV 1975–86
Oldcastle Books, 2021
261 pages, £16.99

‘Whatever happened to the teenage dream?’ wondered Marc Bolan in 1974, just as his star began to wane. And essentially, that’s the question that Simon Matthews addresses in his very fine and hugely enjoyable new book on pop music, film and television, picking up the story as rock ‘n’ roll left its teenage years behind it and embarked on what proved to be a difficult decade.

His previous work, Psychedelic Celluloid: British Pop Music in Film and TV 1965–74 (if you haven’t read it, you should) covered the extraordinary explosion of popular culture that swiftly become enshrined in the national mythology. Casting its net wide, taking in everything from Poor Cow and Privilege to Girl Stroke Boy and Little Malcolm, it showed that the legacy of the Swinging Sixties wasn’t all moptops and miniskirts; this was a time when the radical and the underground infected the mainstream.

By contrast, one of the key narratives in Looking for a New England is the decline of the fringes. There were still movies being produced with alternative angles, whether it were the documentary Blacks Britannica (1978) or the avant-garde electronica-fest Decoder (1984), but they had little or no impact. And it’s striking that neither of those was native-made, directed by American David Koff and German Jűrgen Muschalek respectively.

In Britain, it seemed as though the film industry was withering on the vine. Starved of new ideas, it was looking tired and washed-up. By the mid-1970s ‘the remaining bankable UK stars were all decidedly middle-aged: Glenda Jackson, Michael Caine, Oliver Reed, Sean Connery and, greyest of them all, Roger Moore’. (If that seems a little down on James Bond actors, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how often George Lazenby turns up – including as original choice to play Jesus in Life of Brian – and with what approval he is met.)

And then there was Joan Collins, the eternal queen of British exploitation, from Cosh Boy (1952) to I Don’t Want to be Born (1975), who was suddenly elevated to superstar status with The Stud (1978) and its sequel The Bitch (1979), based on her sister Jackie’s novels. They feature here in a chapter entitled ‘Trash!’, and the exclamation mark acknowledges that there’s a certain kitsch appeal. But not much; these were poor efforts at cashing in on the disco boom, aiming at sophistication, seduction and glamour and ending up plain sleazy (in a bad way). Matthews points out that the average age of the cast of The Stud was forty-one: ‘this was the youth culture of the ‘60s appropriated as entertainment for “grown-ups”.’

And that’s part of why the interaction of music and movies is such an intriguing subject: the fact that the two artforms travel at such very different speeds.

Pop music is the bellwether of popular culture, moving and reacting rapidly to fads and innovations. In September 1976 an unsigned band called the Sex Pistols made their TV debut. Within four months, they’d signed to EMI, released their debut single and been thrown off the label. Twelve months after that, the group split and the creative destruction phase of punk was over.

But as Matthews points out, it takes a long time to put a film together, so that cinema is a lagging indicator of taste, and movies inspired by punk had barely even begun by that point. The most celebrated, Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978), was released the month after the Pistols split.

The result is that New England cuts cultural history in a way that orthodox histories don’t. Eras are less rigidly separated, less defined by pop fashion. The first chapter is titled ‘The Long Tail of the 60s’ and takes in Slade in Flame (1975), Quadrophenia (1979) and The Wall (1982), as well as Flash Gordon (1980) and Dune (1984), for both of which Pink Floyd were first choice to provide the soundtrack. And there are veterans of the 1960s to be found everywhere, from Malcolm McLaren to Richard Branson to George Harrison. The latter is perhaps the real hero of the book, his ‘one-man rescue mission in UK cinema’ with his company HandMade Films bringing us Life of Brian (1979), The Long Good Friday (1980), The Missionary (1982) and Withnail and I (1987), inter many alia.

And, of course, there’s David Bowie, the presiding cultural genius of these years, so omnipresent that he warrants his own chapter. He made his feature-film debut in The Virgin Soldiers (1969), but it was an uncredited and very brief debut that wasn’t followed up by anything more substantial until after he became an international superstar. The skimpy c.v. wasn’t for want of endeavour; he tried to get into The Touchables, Oh! What a Lovely War, The Haunted House of Horror, Sunday, Bloody Sunday and Dulcima but was turned down on every occasion.

He couldn’t even get into the London stage production of Hair, which featured Paul Nicholas, Oliver Tobias, Marsha Hunt, Tim Curry, Sonja Kristina et al. As Matthews observes: ‘If an aspiring mime-artist and singer-songwriter couldn’t make the grade there, when so many others could, what precisely was he lacking?’

The answer is ‘acting ability’. Bowie may have sung ‘I felt like an actor’, but feeling ain’t doing, and he really wasn’t much cop at wearing other people’s skins. Which didn’t stop him eventually making some fine appearances in movies; they just had to be precisely the right roles: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), obviously, but also Into the Night (1985), Labyrinth (1986) and Basquiat (1996), in the latter of which he played Andy Warhol, whose wooden remoteness Bowie caught perfectly. And, for those fans who felt their faith tested in the pre-Tin Machine 1980s, it was the songs from the movies that we clung to as evidence that he was still capable of great work: ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ (1982), ‘The Dirty Song’ from Baal (1982), ‘This Is Not America’ from the soundtrack of The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), ‘Underground’ from Labyrinth.

Also, the title song from Absolute Beginners (1986), Julien Temple’s version of the Colin MacInnes novel. Matthews delights in documenting what an artistic – let alone commercial – disaster the movie was, concluding that it ‘confirmed that the British don’t do musicals’. I’m not sure about that, but I think he may have put his finger on the central problem, pointing out that no one had ever adapted one of MacInnes’s books for the screen, either at the time they were published or in the decades since. And, significantly, MacInnes himself never wrote anything for the screen, despite working at the BBC in the years when drama commissions were not hard to come by; he wrote 1,500 radio scripts but nothing for television. Maybe he just wasn’t suited to visuals, his ‘very arch, highly stylised slang’ being better on the page.

It’s the kind of insight that recurs throughout the book. Naturally, you’ll disagree with some of Matthews’s assessments – that’s part of the pleasure with someone who cares enough about his subject to have strong opinions – but they’re worth hearing. It’s an argument, not a reference work.

It’s also shot through with some wonderfully wry asides. A note that, before he was an actor, Tim Roth played trumpet in a band called the Casual Labourers is accompanied by the observation that ‘there were a lot of trumpet players around in 1981’. Which is true. Bowie in his coke-fuelled creative heyday was ‘an austere, detached and rather unclubbable figure’, and that ‘rather unclubbable’ gets him (and his appeal) perfectly. Mark E Smith ‘usually came across like a character from an early ‘70s Alan Sillitoe novel, defiantly spitting out contrarian denunciations’.

And there can be no arguing that Throbbing Gristle was ‘a truly dreadful, but very ‘70s, name for a band, culled surely from the same lexicon as Spinal Tap’. (Inexplicably, Matthews tends to refer to TG frontman Genesis P-Orridge by his birthname Neil Megson, though Bowie isn’t called David Jones.)

The story ends with the violence of the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985, and the arrival of the multiplex in 1986. The last vestiges of the free festival were crushed and the pictures got big.

The wheel would turn again. Rave culture would emulate the free festivals of the hippies, Madchester and Britpop would reclaim rock ‘n’ roll, and Channel Four Films – joined by BBC Film – would oversee a rebirth of the movie industry. But that’s a different story. This one is of a handful of dedicated individuals trying to keep the torch burning for alternative visions of what Britain was and could be.

There’s some truly tremendous work documented in these pages, but by the end, it’s hard to escape the truth of Matthews’s despair at ‘what a sad place the UK was throughout much of the ‘70s and ‘80s and how much artistic creativity (and economic activity) went to waste then’.

An editor writes: It is incumbent on us to note that Simon Matthews has written for this site. This is a good thing. Here’s some of his work…

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