Union jackals

In the spring of 1995, I moved to the UK from San Francisco with three guitars crammed into duffel bags, a little green leather jacket, a few songs and some socks stuffed into the spaces between. I had a real live manager, a little money and a place to live in London for a few months. I had just landed a major record deal. I was going to be a rock star.

This was at the height of Britpop. If I had understood what that meant, I might have stayed in San Francisco. Britpop was a righteous and necessary reaction to airwaves that had been dominated by American grunge bands for several years. The sound of Britpop was arch and ironic in a way that only the British can pull off, and it was acutely aware of its nationality in a self-referential manner.

Most of all, it was xenophobic in a defiant, kitchen-sink-drama sense. As a response to the monotonous riffage of the Seattle-bred bombast that preceded it, Britpop blossomed and produced some great music. When Blur’s moment-defining album Parklife failed to set America ablaze, Britpop suspicions were confirmed: Americans were too simple, too loud and self-absorbed to “get it.” It was the most actively “Buy British” moment since the Sex Pistols’ Class of ’76. An American girl playing noisy guitar music didn’t stand a chance.

Cut to 2002. Swinging London couldn’t be more different. The irony has worn thin; the defensiveness has passed and Loud is the New Loud. London realized that being so terribly smart got tiresome and, heaving a huge sigh of relief, gave itself permission to get drunk and listen to some slutty rock ’n’ roll.

And then the White Stripes happened. And happened, and happened. A star was seen winking in the overcast skies of Camden Town and a phenomenon was born.

Nurtured by a press that hailed the new messiah, Jack White and his “sister” (actually, ex-wife), Meg, descended from the firmament and blessed Great Britain with the magical, sexy, life-affirming gift of rock ’n’ roll. Hallelujah! Let the pigeons fly. It’s official: It’s cool to be American again, and Detroit is the rock ’n’ roll HQ.

Americans haven’t been so popular since World War II. Overpaid, oversexed, over here. I plan to be out of town the day that the backlash hits, but until then, life is good. If I had a pound coin for every time I’d heard “Detroit is the new Seattle” during the past year, I’d be buying rounds all night, plus dinner and the cab ride home.

It’s crazy. It’s beautiful. It’s delusional, and it’s kinda cute, all at the same time.

How did it all come down?

Theory No. 1

Or International Pop Conspiracy 101.

The initial hypothesis holds that this media shitstorm was deliberately stirred up by Geoff Travers, head of Rough Trade, an independent record label which has always had a reputation for being the House that Cool Built. According to Camden lunchtime pub legend (which is where the press officers and PR hacks and journos roost 90 percent of the time they are pretending to work), Travers wanted to sign the Strokes and the White Stripes. He instigated the feeding frenzy to prove his lurve and his astute understanding of the way British pop music works to the ever-skeptical Americans.

It worked for the Strokes, who are signed to Rough Trade in the UK with a top-five album, but he lost the White Stripes to XL for “a million” pounds. Whatever that means — most likely a fictitious number spread out over a seven-album record deal laden with infinite options, but we can rest assured that it will keep Jack and Meg in peppermint Levis and high tops for the foreseeable future.

Even if something as crass as media invention has taken place, it doesn’t go far enough to explain the strangeness that has come over the otherwise chart-obsessed British press and public.

First it was the music press — the White Stripes got frothing reviews not only in the NME and Q, but in the Sun, News of the World, and the Daily Mail. These are national tabloids — written for little Englanders with twitching net curtains, people who buy papers to read the sports scores and to see what Madonna is wearing. All this attention for a band that, at that time, had no British record label.

“It was the perfect time for the right band,” says Colleen Maloney, who does the White Stripes’ press at XL Recordings in London. “It was only available on import when it was first released in the UK, but White Blood Cells has already gone gold. The ‘Hotel Yorba’ single entered the UK charts at 23, and ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ entered at 21. They’ve played every live-music television program in the UK,” including a triumphal live session on Top of the Pops, the traditional bastion of miming pre-teen pop fodder.

“Q Magazine has them [White Stripes] headlining a Detroit Night in London, along with the Dirtbombs and the Von Bondies,” continues Maloney. “A few days later [on May 2], the same lineup is doing a night in Dublin at the Dublin Castle. That’s a 6,000-capacity venue!”

The castle sold out in a matter of hours — in a city with a population of less than 500,000.

Don’t get me wrong: I love this band. I saw one of its first London gigs, before the hysteria kicked off, and I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever seen. Sweaty, impassioned: knowing and vital. Everything about it spelled Great Cult Band; everyone in the small Camden venue knew this was the real deal. We just couldn’t have been more surprised when the rest of the country agreed.

The UK charts had been choked with aging artists’ greatest hits, Ibiza chillout and dance collections and manufactured boy/girl bands. Radiohead alone was left to wave the flag of intelligent rock ’n’ roll — no fear, but plenty of loathing. With few acts firing the public imagination and not even another questionable new genre on offer, British pop music seemed exhausted and in desperate need of a blood transfusion.

“There has always been a layer of [pop] chart bollocks,” says Maloney. “But there have always been good bands out there, just bubbling under the surface, this one [White Stripes] just boiled over.”

The timing is perfect. Official celebrations are planned for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. It’s been 25 years since the last jubilee, the year the Sex Pistols were denied their No. 1 chart position for “God Save The Queen” on grounds of taste. The Queen’s subjects and popular entertainers are being scheduled to line up and metaphorically curtsey to a monarchy dying of irrelevance and general apathy, but the party’s guaranteed to be a dud. There is no second Sex Pistols, because there is no perceived need for them. We are long past the twilight of Empire. The monarchs are dying off quite nicely and need no help from the commoners who have better things to do, like watching Big Brother and listening to the squall of American guitars, the primal thrill of oil-stained Detroit burst and blast.

Theory No. 2

Zoom in on the tabloid press.

“It was Dominic Mohan of the Sun who really started it,” says Gareth Grundy, news editor at Q Magazine. “It was very strange, as if the New York Post converged with Rolling Stone. The mainstream tabloids were aware of being left behind when the Strokes hit and were determined not to miss the next one. So when Kate Moss is showing up at a White Stripes gig …”

The column inches grew exponentially. An almost-unheard-of Detroit garage band was getting more column inches than Britney Spears. When the papers had nothing more to write about the White Stripes, who had only done a handful of small promo gigs, they wrote about how much they had written. Then the inkies sent out their explorers – Lewis and Clark groping through the vinyl, feeling by memory and trying to kick out the jams. And, behold: Detroit was named rock ’n’ roll ground zero.

This is where it started to get silly. Correction: This is where it starts to get dangerous. Not ones to do something by halves, Great Britain went into pop-culture overdrive. The Stooges and the MC5 have become the only bands to reference. The national weekly music press New Musical Express sent out writers and a photographer to define the time and place, take pictures of the scene, namedropping the Come Ons, and Detroit Grand Pubahs, Adult. and the Dirtbombs. BBC Radio One, the national radio station, did a documentary on Detroit, narrated by the revered John Peel and featuring extensive interviews with garage queen-bee Ko from Ko and the Knockouts et al, talking about the scene. The kids in Camden Market are talking about the Magic Stick and wearing Von Bondies shirts, and enthusing about the latest Detroit Cobras record.

Grundy has a theory of his own: “We have a history of Brits warming to American acts before America does, the classic example being Jimi Hendrix. The Pixies, Nirvana, Tori Amos — they all used that early attention to sort of re-import to their home town. Maybe it gives it a snob credibility.”

“We picked up on them because they are a new band [they clearly are not] and because they are good,” he continues. “Remember, the UK has a weekly as well as a monthly music press. All those pages: We need more fuel.”

Theory No. 3

Keeping it “real.”

Maybe it’s just a much-needed antidote for the past five years of dire pop-chart fodder. Kids who grew up on the Spice Girls and ’NSync are just reaching the summer of their malcontent — the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll years — and their older siblings came of age to the impersonal sound track of techno. One can almost imagine the very mannered British teens being too self-contained to cut loose and looking to the American primitives for icons of messy rebellion.

I would never presume to tell Detroiters about their city, but from the outside, the romance is hard to resist. Detroit has multiple mythologies that are only magnified by distance, a magic otherness untroubled by conflicting realities. It’s birthplace of mass production and the $5 day — one of the most profound revolutions of the 20th century, but also one of the most dehumanizing. In a single decade, it produced Motown, the White Panther Party, the Stooges and Creem magazine, ample qualifications for rock ’n’ roll central, Version 1.0, back when rock ’n’ roll could lay some claim to real revolutionary intent. And then the OPEC years yanking the rug out from under one of America’s first truly multiethnic cities, followed by a never-ending ebb of cash, security and national interest while the white middle class fled the sinking ship.

Theory No. 3 is that Detroit’s garagey rock and roll is the desperate shout in the wasteland, all the more valid for its lack of self-awareness. Financially abandoned and left to rot, the howl is perceived to be authentic.

It’s Mad Max-style cartoon sociology, but does it have a point? Does a depressed economy mean that rent is cheap and band rehearsal space is readily available? Does a lack of solid career opportunities make starting a noisy rock ’n’ roll band all the more appealing? Are there scores of twentysomethings going to gigs every night instead of getting to bed early to prepare for that morning meeting? The Detroit myth says that nobody is middle class and everybody’s got the dirty blues.

Zane Lowe is a DJ at XFm, London’s only “alternative” radio station. “It’s hard to monitor the way music changes,” he says. “ I don’t try to analyze it too much, ’cause I like the surprise. There’s a lot of interest in bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes, it’s a more pure, less marketed version. It’s all part of this rock ’n’ roll renaissance. We’ve got to find some heroes.”

“Their intentions are pure,” he continues. “The coolest thing about what these bands are doing is saying: We will continue making records. We will do it in our bedrooms and our attics. They inspire each other. They come from the same circumstances, they get paid the same crap money to do the same crap jobs — there’s a sense of solidarity. It’s very democratic. It’s almost like they’re singin’ the blues.”

“Stylistically, there are these romantic notions of Iggy and the MC5. Detroit is a gritty, authentically American rock ’n’ roll place,” says Grundy.

But is this romance justified?

“There’s always the lure of the exotic,” he continues, “and it produces a lot of good music, so who cares?”

The capital of cool

Get ready for the British hipster abroad this summer. You will know them by their pale complexions and their über-hipster obsessions. He will wear a Stooges/MC5 T-shirt and be cultivating a ’fro or floppy fringe that hangs in his eyes; she will wear white patent boots and a Von Bondies-perfect belt. They will have vintage airline totes or obscure record-label bags: They will consume vinyl like it’s mother’s milk laced with cocaine. They will make pilgrimages to the Magic Stick and the site of the old Gold Dollar. They will be intimidated by the size of American restaurant portions and cars, and they will talk about how it is all so “real.” They drink like little fishies, but they’re in need of some good, dirty fun. Teach them how to rock. Teach them how to tip. Theirs is a mission for rock ’n’ roll Esperanto, and they think Detroit is the capital of cool.

Be nice to them, these Brit kids, because the way we believe in a place we love is untempered by reality, and why shouldn’t it be? Ideas are insubstantial, but they leave shadows and burn holes in our imagination. We replay memories of places we’ve never been as though they were our own home movies. One has to wonder if Detroit is a sphinx without a secret.

London used to be magical for me — these street names, these views used to evoke the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” and countless other scenes of England’s dreaming. I’ve lived in this country seven years now, and I still cannot cross Waterloo Bridge without the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” playing in my head.

And that’s a beautiful thing — these are the sound tracks of our lives — largely magical, largely fictitious, but wholly potent with the ability to transport, to change you and make you feel different. London sells artful pop history and arch self-awareness to the Americans — irony is the UK’s stock in trade. In exchange, Detroit has authenticity for a cynical disUnited Kingdom coyly marketed past caring.

So when I’m driving down to the druggier end of Camden Town Road and the Stooges come on the radio, I am transported. I am transported to a time when rock ’n’ roll was dangerous and incendiary, when there was an inherent risk in going on stage and shouting. I forget I’m in an impossibly small car built for Kingston-On-Thames. I roll down the window in a flurry of American swagger and sing along with Iggy: “Now I wanna/be your dog/now I wanna/be your dog” until it goes all banging, blinding and techno. Filters and gadgets are crunching the nagging piano into impossible shapes of noise, the guitar breaks into infinite distortion, but the sexual grind of it is still ominously present. Abort, retry, fail: It’s all there. It’s a remix, and it fucking rocks.

It is the sound of Detroit eating its tail. It is the sound of rebirth.

Metro Times' UK correspondent Shireen Liane will periodically pen "Letter From London." She still makes records: www.lumierebrothers.com
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