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April 20 2010

Oh, come off it ...

David Cameron loves Take That, Gordon Brown's addicted to Glee, Nick Clegg's an Othello nut . . . as politicians vie for cultural kudos, Mark Lawson asks: who are they trying to kid?

Gordon Brown's favourite Shakespeare play is Hamlet, while Nick Clegg's is Othello. For the prime minister, the greatest living British painter is David Hockney, but the Liberal Democrat leader prefers Lucian Freud. David Cameron, meanwhile, is a fan of the music of Keane – but the band can't stand him.

These cultural revelations have come from the 2010 election campaign. The fact that we know so much about the tastes of the potential premiers reveals the extent to which references to entertainment have become part of the business of campaigning. What a politician likes to do for fun (or judges it politic to pretend he does) is seen as a clue to their personality, or even their politics.

There is a certain logic to this phenomenon. Shown into the house of a stranger, we make assumptions about them on the basis of the paintings and books on display. Similarly, were we to find an iPod in the street, we would use the tracks stored to make Sherlockian deductions about the age and background of its owner.

The view that everything from ticket stubs to record store receipts can be a form of confession has inspired an entertaining series of interviews in the Radio Times, in which party leaders are asked to choose from certain lists: "David Hockney, Tracy Emin, Banksy, Lucian Freud?" and "Coronation Street, EastEnders, The Archers, The Bill?"

Such exercises are an echo of the popular dinner-party "Blur or Oasis?" question of the 1990s, when preference for Damon Albarn was seen to identify a middle-class conformist, while admiration for the Gallagher brothers signalled solidarity with working-class radicalism. In school playgrounds in the 1970s, there was a similar class division between viewers of the BBC's Blue Peter and its ITV rival Magpie.

But problems arise when such an analysis is applied to politics, chiefly because it's unusual (except at certain stages of dating) for normal people to pose as fans of things they don't actually like. We suspect, however, that politicians do this all time, in their desperation to suggest that they are normal, or to redress a prejudice about them. We can be fairly certain that, when Cameron answers the Radio Times questionnaire about down-time next week, he won't be confessing to a fondness for Brideshead Revisited, Wagner and Tom Brown's Schooldays.

Equally, when Brown tells the magazine that his favourite TV show is Glee and that 6 Music is his favourite radio station, our reaction is not, "How interesting" but "For God's sake, drop the demographic massage and tell us what you really like". In the same survey, Clegg's refusal to accept any of the alternatives – given the choice of Avatar, An Education, In the Loop and The Hurt Locker, he opts out and goes for The Class instead – could suggest an independent mind; but it also fits suspiciously with his party's electoral pitch of looking beyond the conventional possibilities.

In the same way that it has become standard for journalists to ask politicians the price of a pint of milk or a loaf of bread, because ignorance of such daily stuff can reveal someone with a large cushion of wealth or staff, knowledge of popular TV shows is considered a badge of accessibility. This was why Brown began his contribution to last Thursday's TV debate with a reference to the fact that this wasn't "The X Factor or Britain's Got Talent".

But TV name-dropping can be treacherous. The first President Bush notoriously confirmed his stereotype as a grumpy grandpa figure by pledging to make US families "more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons". This not only dated the politician (a 1970s reference rather than a 1990s one), but revealed that he was televisually illiterate: any regular viewer knew that, though very different in tone and structure to The Waltons, The Simpsons is, in moral terms, just as much a portrait of a loving and secure family. Any modern candidate would be advised to plump for Bart over John-Boy.

'Fire up the Quattro'

Despite their greater savviness in cultural matters, the main parties still got themselves in a mess over Ashes to Ashes at the start of this campaign. The Labour poster making a connection between Cameron and DCI Gene Hunt ("Don't let him take Britain back to the 80s") was always a risk because the Hunt character, though an antihero, is glamorous and attractive. For the Tories to show that they welcomed the identification – issuing their own posters glorying in the portrayal, including the slogan "Fire up the Quattro, it's time for change" – was also unwise, given that Hunt is a racist, sexist Thatcherite: exactly the type of Tory from whom Cameron has spent years trying to distance the party.

There was a further twist in that Ashley Pharoah, co-creator of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, expressed surprise that his character could be used without permission. The BBC later made the same legal point to both parties, with the result that more TV-stealing campaigns are unlikely.

But the use of elements of entertainment without permission is a common feature of elections, especially in the choice of theme tunes. In 1998, the singer Bobby McFerrin reacted angrily to the Republican party adopting his song Don't Worry, Be Happy and forced its withdrawal. Such spats, though, will continue because campaign managers are less concerned with the possible political affiliations of a singer than with the symbolism of the lyrics. Brown, Clegg and Cameron have all claimed to like David Bowie's song Changes, but, at a time of electoral transition, they would, wouldn't they? There's little risk, of course, of Bowie's Backed a Loser or Dead Man Walking blaring out of the loudspeakers at rallies.

If an artist does declare a political preference, though, things can get more complicated, not less. Cameron would be unlikely to cite Take That as a personal musical highlight (not cool enough) and would be wary of promoting Harry Brown as a favourite movie (it promotes vigilante violence as a response to social disorder). Yet once Gary Barlow and Michael Caine endorsed him, he had to endorse them back with joint appearances in public. Equally, it's hard to imagine Brown, in civilian life, at an Eddie Izzard gig; but because the comedian has stayed Labour while more fickle showbiz types have switched, they became pals on parade.

The use of cultural references involves strategic choices, while celebrity endorsement is simply a matter of making the best use of whoever chooses you. All the parties would like to have Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe to catch the youth vote, but he inclined towards Lib Dem even before it became a national fashion.

The problem with politicians trying to jump on cultural bandwagons is that leaders literally don't have much time for entertainment. Revealingly, Brown told the Radio Times: "I want to see The Hurt Locker." But that film has been available on DVD since December; if he were, say, a university lecturer, he would have rented it over Christmas.

On such issues as the state of Britain's finances and the economic measures needed to tackle the recession, leading politicians routinely pretend to know less than they actually do. On culture, they are doing the opposite – a tactical adoption of normal interests that will keep getting them into trouble. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 14 2010

Once upon a life: Nick Kent

In 1972 he was sorting mail in a Sussex post office. Twelve months later he was partying with Led Zeppelin. Here, the hugely influential music critic Nick Kent looks back on a year in which he witnessed the birth of punk, the arrival of Ziggy Stardust and the life-changing impact of Iggy Pop

Michael Caine was recently being interviewed on French television when a question about the 1960s came up. The venerable actor set off on a misty-eyed saunter down memory lane about the early years of the decade, when he and his immediate social circle – folk like Terence Stamp, Vidal Sassoon and Harold Pinter – were suddenly catapulted from struggling obscurity to glittering blockbuster success in their chosen fields of endeavour. There was a window of opportunity back then – or so he claimed – that was magically made open to anyone who was young, slightly different-looking and imbued with a certain irreverent outlook on life and good instincts about their profession. That window was now closed, he quickly added, because the novelty of youthful self-empowerment had gone the way of all flesh and the times had simply changed.

His words stirred something in me because I'd known that window, too, albeit a decade later than Caine. It might not have been wide open in the early 1970s, when I came of age, as it had apparently been throughout the 1960s. But it was still definitely ajar – offering just enough space for the young and ambitious to squeeze through in order to go on and make their mark on the world. I was ordained to receive my catapult ride from student nonentity-dom to gainful employment as fledlging celeb journo for the NME in 1972. I began the year sorting mail in a Sussex post office to the baleful strains of comedian Benny Hill singing his No 1 hit single of the day, "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)" – His name was Ernie, and he drove the fastest milk cart in the west – and ended it in a four-star hotel carousing with Led Zeppelin. It wasn't what you'd call a normal or particularly healthy career trajectory to embark on, but I've never complained. Later on in the decade there would be hell to pay, but it would all seem worth it in retrospect. If I hadn't let myself get sucked up in the career tidal wave that '72 presented me with, I'd have probably stayed in my student garret dreaming my way into an underachieving life as a provincial librarian.

The key events that sparked my rise in fortune and public notoriety are dealt with in microscopic detail in my new book – specifically a long chapter dedicated to the year in question. Mostly it was about being in the right place at the right time, I now feel. From my vantage point, 1972 was the year when 70s culture truly cut itself off from the ghost of the 60s and began to express the real growing concerns and desires of its age. Films such as Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and Martin Scorsese's seminal Mean Streets were all put into production during its 12-month duration. And there was a brand-new sensibility in rock music, too – a turning away from po-faced musical virtuosity (or middle-class prog rock ideal for post-hippie navel gazing) to make way for the emergence of something shorter, sharper, more vanity-driven and impudently audacious. In January, David Bowie first showcased his doomed peacock alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, on English stages, and it was at that moment that the 70s as we now perceive them were born. David Bowie didn't invent glam rock – Marc Bolan and Alice Cooper had both predated him as hit-making ambassadors of the form – but he was its prettiest and most musically accomplished human asset and, moreover, possessed the requisite charisma and lightning intelligence to change the whole course of popular music that year.

Bowie also had exquisite taste, particularly when it came to choosing other rising forces in the new decade to share the spotlight with. He cajoled both Lou Reed from New York's recently disbanded Velvet Underground and a wayward Michigan-born young man known as Iggy Pop to move to London that year and employ the services of his manager, a loud Colonel Parker wannabe called Tony DeFries. Reed had been Andy Warhol's house minstrel in the late 1960s and didn't waste the opportunity to instil the fey pop artist's glamour-fixated anti-utopian doctrines on British pop culture upon his arrival on our sceptred isle. And Iggy Pop imported his old group, the Stooges, from the Motor City that spring and performed just one concert, in a King's Cross cinema, that was already being called "punk rock" four years before the Sex Pistols and their scheming manager claimed to invent the genre in 1976.

Elsewhere in the metropolis a young US poetess – Patti Smith – gave her first feisty spoken-word recitation to European ears early in the year, while a bunch of snooty UK-based refugees from the halls of higher learning, known as Roxy Music, were busy re-styling art rock with bold camp flourishes and a menthol-cool postmodernist perspective. In short, those of us who'd failed to cast our shadows across the 60s creative landscape suddenly were dealt the opportunity to leave our respective signatures on the decade's trickier successor.

In my case, things took off in January when – tipped off by a friend – I'd taken an afternoon off from studying "linguistics" in a section of the University of London then known as Bedford College in order to offer my fledlging music-writer services to an underground journal based on Portobello Road called Frendz. I just turned up at their office unannounced, but the paper's editors were encouraging. When I returned with three album reviews, they printed them and then offered me the job of becoming their music editor for the princely sum of £4 a month and all the free albums I could cadge from the record companies. It seemed like a sweet deal to me, and it only got sweeter. That spring I went out on separate tours with weird and wonderful acts, like Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, the Grateful Dead and Hawkwind. Sometime in February I met Iggy Pop and discovered in the process my very own lifestyle guru for the years ahead.

The Iggy connection was important also because it was what first drew me to the attention of the New Musical Express. The music weekly had been struggling to keep afloat at the beginning of the 1970s and in early '72 was given an ultimatum by its owners, IPC: either find a new direction and a much larger readership base or get put out to pasture. The editors had exactly 12 issues in which to turn things around and began furiously headhunting young scribes from the (then-ailing) underground press to help swell their ranks and inject a more "irreverently hip" attitude into the copy. Nick Logan – then the assistant editor – phoned me out of the blue some time in the summer and asked me to write a short piece about Iggy for their pages. Once I handed him the text, he offered me staff membership but I politely refused, preferring a role as a freelancer to a (mostly) desk-bound job in the office. He was agreeable to this less structured arrangement and I was suddenly afforded the financial sustenance and mainstream platform to really get my name out to the greater Brit-youth consumer demographic du jour.

What was it exactly that made me so suddenly sought after? I couldn't even type my own copy – I'd scribble everything out in wobbly longhand and then pass the pages over to a long-suffering office secretary to type instead – but the editors never made an issue of my (considerable) shortcoming. I had a problem with deadlines, too. In point of fact I was any self-respecting copy editor's worst nightmare. But they tolerated all this because they evidently sensed I was an overall asset to their general operation. I'd like to think it was all somehow tied in with the excellence of the work I was handing in, but I've reread most of those old early pieces of mine and they're neither excellent nor particularly good.

The truth of the matter is I wouldn't start maturing into a writer of credible "new journalism" for another two years. But I was prepared from the very outset to go to extremes in order to snag a story, and "going to extremes" always gets results (even if – most of the time – they're not the results you may have at first set out to attain). Also, I had good instincts for embracing rising talent and, recognising instantly that the paper's readers were generally afflicted by an extremely short attention span, I thus chose to affect a flamboyant, look-at-me approach to my journalistic endeavours and general comportment when in public in order to keep them (hopefully) hanging on to my every word.

But the key to it all lay in the fact that I was really just part of a winning team. Two other underground-affiliated young writers – Charles Shaar Murray and Ian MacDonald – had come on board roughly at the same time I had, and both proved to be deeply influential on the paper's rising style and substance. And Nick Logan was at the controls, honing the skills that would go on to make him one of the most visionary and successful editors of the late 20th century.

The paper's change in fortunes was practically instantaneous. By autumn of 1972 the NME's weekly sales had rocketed up from 60,000 to approximately 150,000; by year's end we'd become "the world's biggest-selling music weekly", a state of affairs that lasted throughout the decade. But skyrocketing success always brings its share of problems to whoever is tied to the rocket, and we were no exception to that rule. An unhealthy measure of divisive competitiveness soon entered into our office relationships and grew as the paper became more and more widely read. Heads started swelling – and as the youngest contributor to the journal I became more arrogant than most. In due course this would turn to premature jadedness, and soon enough I'd be heading for self-destruction.

My immediate future was blindingly bright: in '73 I'd tour with my heroes the Rolling Stones through Europe, spend two months traversing America on a hectic voyage of (self-) discovery and fall head over heels in love. But a year after that I'd fall into heroin addiction and heartache, and all that early journalistic promise I'd displayed would be hijacked and rendered dormant for the rest of the decade.

But back in 1972 everything still seemed possible. My NME co-conspirators and I were still in our brief-but-blissful honeymoon period of one-for-all-and-all-for-oneness. And I'd yet to become personally tainted by the whole pop process. At heart I was still a callow 20-year-old who'd spent his teenage years in his bedroom lost in music, and now that I'd penetrated the music industry itself and was getting records for free, free tickets to all the concerts and lots of face-to-face contacts with musicians I'd once only dreamt of encountering, I couldn't get over my luck.

When I think back to that year, the memories that shine brightest are the many times I was privileged to see shows in London – and elsewhere – that left me trembling with ecstasy. I caught the UK debut of Germany's groundbreaking Can, witnessed Captain Beefheart speaking in tongues and reinventing electric music to a bewildered Brighton audience, was bedazzled by David Bowie's first Ziggy show in London and equally captivated by Roxy Music's early showcases. Oftentimes those future historic events would attract only a handful of paying punters. Indeed one monumental concert that the MC5 performed in London's West End that summer only attracted three attendees, none of whom had paid to get in. Even the Stooges's now legendary "punk"-inducing King's Cross gig only managed to draw 150 or so spectators. But that show changed my life. Before it I'd been a cautious youth, but when I witnessed Iggy doing somersaults on a moving microphone stand that night, I realised once and for all that – in order to leave a lasting impression on the times I lived in – I had to throw all caution to the four winds and plunge headlong into the fray of whatever fate had in store for me.

By December of 1972, it was official: I'd been expelled from the University of London, exiled from academia. It was bound to happen, as I'd failed to turn up to all my lectures and hadn't even been there to sit an important end-of-term exam. In fact, I'd been out on tour with Led Zeppelin when it had occurred. My fate was already sealed, in other words. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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