WISH I WAS THERE

Blind Faith 2Kurt Cobain once remarked that there was a feeling amongst his generation that everything had been said and done before they’d even had the opportunity to make their mark, and (belonging to that very generation) I was reminded of the late Nirvana front-man’s observation when I spent an enlightening hour a couple of days ago watching a DVD of Blind Faith playing a free gig in London’s Hyde Park. For those not in the know, the short-lived Blind Faith (one album, one tour) were one of Rock’s first ‘super-groups’, a band whose individual members had already enjoyed a degree of success in other combos.

The reason Blind Faith attracted immediate media attention and were able to stage their debut public performance in a venue guaranteed an audience of several thousand was that their ranks included Eric Clapton on guitar and his cantankerous Cream cohort Ginger Baker on drums. By 1969, Clapton was venerated to a degree that annoyed the man himself, and power trio Cream had blazed a pioneering trail in both Psychedelia and Hard Rock before internal frictions between Baker and bassist Jack Bruce brought about their split in 1968. Their commercial and critical cache remained high, however, so when two-thirds of the band were back together in a new venture, they were bathed in an intense spotlight from the off. This four-piece were completed by the addition of the little-known bassist Rick Grech from underground band Family and by the soulful vocals of the precocious (21 in ’69) Steve Winwood, who had already established himself with both The Spencer Davis Group and Traffic.

Blind Faith had yet to release their only album when they decided to unveil the project with a free gig at Hyde Park a month before The Rolling Stones staged a similar and more retrospectively remembered concert there in the summer of 1969; but expectations were so high that it didn’t seem to matter that the majority of the material played would be unfamiliar to the punters; whatever they played would be received rapturously. With their instant enthusiastic fan-base, the band took to a remarkably tiny stage that seemed to be situated in the middle of the audience rather than a grandiose platform of the kind the Stones played upon a month later. Ironically, the camera picks out Mick Jagger as Blind Faith begin their set, perhaps taking notes on how to get this kind of event right.

The dearth of new material the band had assembled reduced their performance to forty minutes, padded out with a few covers, and Eric Clapton later regretted their premature entrance into the arena, brought about by over-confidence and commercial expectations. He became further disillusioned by the sell-out tour the band undertook to promote their chart-topping debut LP later that year; he felt audiences were not responding euphorically to the music but to the past reputations surrounding the band members; and this was instrumental in his decision to call it a day before any further Blind Faith recordings could be made. In a way, it was a shame, because an album primarily remembered for a striking sleeve evocative of more innocent and less cynical times (one that would today probably result in the whole band being placed on the Sex Offenders Register) was a strong, experimental mix of Psychedelic Blues, Soul, Folk and Jazz-inspired improvisation, a refreshing melting-pot typical of the ‘anything goes’ mindset prevalent in the UK music scene at the time.

What struck me watching the sole filmed performance of Blind Faith, however, was a reminder of how non-corporate Rock was in 1969, and how it was still in its joyously embryonic stages, having broken free from the ‘Sunday Night at the Palladium’-type showbiz circuit, but yet to fully establish a true alternative. There are no sponsors’ banners decorating the stage and, of course, there was no overwhelming ticket demand exploited by unscrupulous touts or promoters, with the gig being free. Blind Faith could afford to resist the contemporary rip-off of astronomical charges to see the band in action because they knew the real money would be made from the record sales.

The whole event has the look and feel of a casual gathering, as though a few thousand beautiful people wandered down to Hyde Park on a summer’s day and happened to stumble upon a performance by some of the hottest performers in the country. Naturally, unless they had a car (which I doubt many did), the majority would have got there via public transport, clad in their hippie threads whilst surrounded by City Gents in bowler hats and pinstriped suits, passing through the monochrome side of 60s England into its Technicolor parallel universe like urban Alice’s breaching the pastoral looking-glass.

Were I a member of the generation present that day in June 1969, I could be accused of donning rose-tinted specs when marvelling at the high summer of youth culture with envious eyes; but I was approximately eighteen months old when Blind Faith took to the stage and therefore can only view it as a detached bystander, raised on Pop that has spent most of my adulthood languishing in the shadow of the groundbreakers and the pioneers. The parents of the time dismissed the long-haired liberators with the same venom as today’s parents dismiss the Instagram selfie-junkies that constitute 2016’s equivalent youth; but that generation were exceptionally blessed with intelligent, articulate cultural figureheads making up a new, vibrant art form as they went along and genuinely believing their endeavours would transform the world into a better place, artists to whom resting on laurels, milking a formula and sucking the proverbial corporate dick were anathema. Rock in its wretched death throes via Coldplay at Glastonbury or Rock in its glorious ascendancy via Blind Faith at Hyde Park? No bleedin’ contest, mate.

© The Editor

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5 thoughts on “WISH I WAS THERE

  1. There is a parallel from those times in Bonfire Night.
    Back in my childhood of the 50s and 60s, every street had its own Bonfire event, but these were not ‘organised’, they just happened organically. The kids collected combusible material by whatever means, parents spent scarce money on fireworks, toffee-apples and potatoes for roasting, the fire was built-up over a few days, nothing happened until 6pm, then it was lit, fireworks followed, kids went to bed, parents probably carried on chatting around the embers for hours. In the following days, any remaining debris was cleared away and the street returned to normal until next year.
    But there was no organising committee, no ‘leader’, no application to the council, no health & safety audit, no insurance, no structure, no money changing hands – it just happened.
    Back in those apparently dark days, you could stage events spontaneously, fly a kite and see what happened, do it just for the hell of it but, sadly, the pressures of corporate greed, social control and cultural management are now too powerful – some would say we’ve lost far more than we’ve gained, a look around Glastonbury will quickly confirm that.

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    1. The first street I lived on was one of about half-a-dozen in a row consisting of terraced back-to-backs and exactly the same thing happened on Nov. 5th. From the air, it must have looked like a trail of incendiary bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe, with each little street having its own bonfire – as you say, organised, enjoyed and cleared-up by the residents. Those streets were cobbled, so I don’t know if the cobbles could cope better with the intense heat? I don’t recall any lasting damage. My most vivid memory is throwing a plastic dagger I had into the flames, basically to watch it burn and melt (I must have been about three or four).

      Funny how, for all our tradition of ‘No Parking’ and ‘Keep off the Grass’, leisure time was once largely unregulated and people could be trusted to be left to their own grown-up devices. A very potent comparison.

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      1. You were posh – no cobbles for us, our streets were unmade, just long-compacted earth which generated dust in summer and mud in winter. (Sounds like a Python sketch coming on….).
        The only advisory ‘rule’ about the bonfire was that it shouldn’t be set too close to the single gas-lamp, a lonely device which made a feeble and failing daily attempt to illuminate around 20 similar back-to-back, terraced houses, a street filled with decent folk who all knew what ‘community’ meant without ever using the word. The communal Bonfire Night was just one demonstration of that.

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  2. Yesterday, I went to Wonkfest, an all day punk festival in London with no names from the past, no big headliners, held in a two room venue, where roughly 30 bands were limited to 20-minute sets; a band playing in one room, while the next set up in the other, so there was a constant stream of music and no overlaps. It cost £20 , had a free BBQ, a free buffet (to which people who bought tickets had been asked to contribute, as they had also been asked to bring items for a food bank).

    The age range was from about (roughly) 16 to 60+. There were about 1,000 people there and the atmosphere was brilliant – no attitude, (apart from the “FUCK YOU” of the bands to the general political atmosphere rampant in this country at the moment) and the message was very much akin to Auden’s “We must love one another, or die”. Even the aforementioned “FUCK YOU” was tempered with – “think independently and you can disagree and not like someone’s views but that doesn’t mean you dislike the person”.

    The music was punl/metal/thrash rock. A lot of it was incoherently shouty/ranty, but it was entertaining. highlights for me were Mystified (who mysteriously changed their name mid-set to, I think, Honour Louise), led by a wonderful young female guitarist who made sounds that were brilliant} The Francines; Pizza Tramp (very offensive, very funny); Revenge of the Psychotronic Man.

    To say that everything has been said and done before is untrue. And smug. And self-indulgent. The world is constantly changing and young people are always coming up with a response (not one we may always like, but it’s there, nevertheless). To hear these bands engaging with Brexit (they did), or gay rights or just be young was a joy. Yes the past can inform us and even comfort us. But the future will happen anyway and it was good to see a group of people come together to try to challenge the mainsteram. Not every new band wants to be Coldplay.

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    1. Distance probably alleviates the sensation that I felt afflicted my own generation for those in their 20s today (as I presume most of the musicians you saw were); the high creative point of the 60s was obviously much closer when I was at that age and it seemed to me that what I had was a watered-down version of something that had amounted to more than mere showbiz or recycled retreads in its initial stages. I think it’s feeling as though I just missed out on the birth of something special, something I can only experience via films or recordings rather than in person. Mind you, considering my aversion to crowds, I probably wouldn’t have been there even if I could have!

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