Tribune column, 1 November 2013
There’s one song every band can play. If the words don’t ring a bell:
Standing on a corner
Suitcase in my hand
the riff will do it for you. Da – da, da, di, da – da, da, di,da.
OK, maybe not. It’s “Sweet Jane”, and it was not a hit for the New York band that ripped off the lick and recorded it in 1970, the Velvet Underground. I don’t think it charted anywhere until Mott the Hoople, a cheery bunch of British rockers fronted by the great Ian Hunter, covered it in 1972 and released it as a single in Canada and Portugal.
The Velvets weren’t exactly obscure. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker were the house band at Andy Warhol’s studio-cum-party, The Factory. Reed and Cale had by 1970 established serious reputations as artistes (though Cale had left the band and Reed was on the way out) even if no one bought their records.
But it was only after the Velvet Underground went under, after the release of Loaded, their most commercially-oriented LP, that people got Lou Reed. He was turned into an international superstar by David Bowie, then at the height of his fame, who produced Reed’s second solo album, Transformer, which became a global hit in 1972. After that Reed had a mixed career. There are plenty of his records that are very good – Berlin, Rock and Roll Animal, Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle stand out, and the Take No Prisoners live set from 1978 is stunning, one of the funniest recordings made by a rock musician. I’m a fan of New York and of Songs for Drella, the album Reed and Cale put out as a tribute to Warhol in 1990. I’ve even had Metal Machine Music moments. But nothing ever matched Transformer or the Velvets’ recordings.
Now he’s dead, and I’m sad. It might seem odd, but Lou mattered a lot to kids in Suffolk in the 1970s. He was a subversive suburban geek, and there weren’t too many of them around at the time. We bought sunglasses to try to look like him, We did his songs, badly but enthusiastically, in punk bands. I’d say he was more of an inspiration than Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones.
“Give me an issue and I’ll give you a tissue – and wipe my ass with it.” he told his liberal New York audience in 1978. They loved it. In later life he ditched some of the cynicism and came out for the Democrats in a rather curmudgeonly manner, but I’m not really sure it was an improvement.
Russell Brand is a very different beast. The controversial comedian is in the spotlight after editing an issue of the New Statesman and appearing on Newsnight.
His not-so-unique selling point is that he is an anarchist. He thinks that Britain needs a revolution and needs it now – and his plea for revolution has gone viral.
I have some sympathy. Thirty-five years ago, when I wanted to be Lou Reed, well, I used to be an anarchist just like Russell Brand, though I wasn’t famous. I went on every demo against the Labour government in the late 1970s and lots against the Tories after that. I didn’t vote. I squatted.
Revolution was a lot of fun – certainly more fun than straight politics. I met some of my best friends through the anarchist scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s – and some of the ideas we were into back then have stood the test of time pretty well. Anarchism inoculated me for life against the authoritarianism of the Leninist left, and I’ve always held its do-it-yourself ethic in high regard. I also retain my disdain for the timidity of centre-left politicians whose actions are dictated by the findings of opinion polls and focus groups.
But anarchism also has severe limitations – not least that there aren’t many anarchists, which makes the dream of revolution just a little unrealistic. Even if there were lots more anarchists and revolution were a realistic goal, however, I’m not sure I’d actually want one these days. Revolutions are usually nasty, bloody things that lead to different wrong people being in charge. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’d be quite happy settling for a robust universal welfare state and lots more spending on public transport, social housing, libraries and the arts. Which is what Labour used to offer, though now I’m not so sure.