I was talking to a friend the other night about my brief stint as a Big Gig-goer in the late 80s. I saw Bowie twice, as well as Dylan, the Stones and Prince once each within a three-year period and I did it all whilst signing-on, suggesting the ticket prices (not to mention the obligatory coach travel costs) weren’t that extortionate. The stubs from said gigs are probably gathering dust in my mum’s loft, so I’m unable to announce here and now how much I was charged for the privilege of being squeezed into Roker Park, Maine Road, Wembley Arena and the NEC; but a cursory glance at vintage ticket stubs from the same era on eBay suggests that even when the change in the cost of living is taken into account, the gap between wages (or dole) and ticket prices wasn’t that great a gulf.
It goes without saying that those were the days when touring was a handy sideline rather than the prime source of earning for musicians; like being able to turn up at your local football club on match-day without having to take out a loan beforehand, it was possible to see your musical heroes in the flesh for an affordable amount. The simple reason was that record sales financed their tax-exiles back then; even though there wasn’t much difference between the price of seeing them live and the price of their new album, the album would sell to more people than could attend a tour, thus negating the need to hike up ticket prices to a point where they’d be beyond the reach of fans short on ready cash. Not so now, in this post-Napster world.
Other the Ronnie Biggs model (which is itself redundant now the drugs market brings in a far higher income than an old-school blag), Rock ‘n’ Roll and football were the tried and tested working-class escape routes, as well as passionate pursuits for those who couldn’t sing a tune or kick a ball. The audience projected its own aspirations onto the performer, who had come from the same place, and believed it was possible to do likewise. The view from the terraces on a Saturday afternoon was similarly imbued with possibilities, especially for those youngsters hemmed into ‘the boy’s pen’.
There was considerable media coverage when England’s U17 team won their equivalent of the World Cup a couple of weeks back, though few members of that starting eleven will make it off the bench at Premier League clubs crammed with overseas signings. And unless a boy or girl from nowhere is prepared to suffer the indignity and humiliation of being a Cowell marionette, the only kids who can afford guitars, basses and drums today are the posh ones – which would explain why none of them have anything to say. Classic working-class pastimes have effectively priced out the working-class. But, hey, we’ve got Smartphones, X-Factor and microwave meals – what more do we need, eh?
Even the theatre was once an escape; some of our most iconic actors of the 60s and 70s came from humble backgrounds, but getting into drama school without the fear of being saddled with a lifelong debt and then honing their skills on the regional rep circuit is a lost world in 2017. The slashing of local council budgets that previously funded after-school drama classes and theatre workshops runs parallel with Government emphasis on the arts as a ‘luxury’ in state education (not much point reciting Shakespeare soliloquies when you’re cold-calling, I suppose). By contrast, the arts remain a fixture on the public school syllabus, which would explain why the majority of today’s under-40 household name thespians are Old Etonians. Their parents could afford to finance such ‘luxury’.
Considering the last time the economic climate was probably this grim was in the recession-struck early 1980s, it’s worth remembering what that period produced in terms of art reflecting life; and memorable music aside, it’s been interesting to recently reunite with a one-off TV series of the era that has unexpectedly surfaced on DVD. And, no, it’s not ‘Boys from The Blackstuff’.
‘Johnny Jarvis’ aired just the once on BBC1 at the back-end of 1983, and at the time of its broadcast was a must-see at my high-school. Appearing at the tail-end of the gritty social realism characteristic of ‘Play for Today’, this six-parter accurately documented the scrap-heap we Easter Leavers were poised to be tossed onto. The title character was played by Mark Farmer – a familiar juvenile lead at the time via his stint on ‘Grange Hill’, and who sadly passed away last year. Jarvis is the focus of his best friend, the bookish outsider Alan Lipton; Jarvis is a borderline ‘David Watts’ character to Lipton, both envied and idolised. But whilst Jarvis is dutifully subservient to the system once he leaves school, his subservience amounts to nothing when the firm he’s apprenticed to goes under before he fully qualifies as a skilled tradesman.
Lipton opts out and finds his voice with a guitar, starting a band he continues to write for after he forgoes the spotlight, leaving fame to his ex-bandmates whilst he settles for fortune. The steady progress of Lipton’s musical endeavours as the series spans 1977-1983 is a vivid demonstration of how such a thing was then possible from the starting point of a council flat; Jarvis’s struggles to make a living in the traditional heavy industries that were dying on their arses under Thatcherism are equally prescient for the era, and watching the programme after a 34-year gap really brought home to me how much has changed.
It not only reminded me of how those coming from nothing were able to articulate their experiences and could make themselves heard doing so. It also made me realise how those experiences wouldn’t be dramatised by mainstream television today. There is no working-class representation now unless we’re talking stereotypical chavvy thugs in gangs or victims of sexual abuse; and those playing such parts probably learnt their lines in end-of-term productions on the stages of Harrow or Roedean, anyway. Sixty years ago, Arthur Seaton said ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’; well, they have ground us down and they’ve got us where they want us – complicit in our own lethargy. Never mind the bollocks – here’s the Bake Off.
© The Editor