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Mock ye not

On transatlantic Puritanism, and Pink Floyd.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Politics

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  • Bad bar-code

It is the received wisdom of many a pub philosopher that beneath America’s international image of a licentious, whacky, razzmatazz kinda place lurks the brooding presence of Puritanism. It is something the English have always taken delight in mocking.

Consider that old yarn that people in the nineteenth-century were so prudish that they covered up table legs. This is one of the first examples of those ‘…in America’ stories. Visitors from England were so amused at nineteenth-century America’s up-tight mores that they fashioned the tale that Yanks feared they’d be aroused by naked furniture. Or consider the phrase ‘stiff upper lip’, coined in the stoical USA in the 1830s and only popularised in Britain by PG Wodehouse 100 years later. Contrary to what many think, in the past it was the English who usually derided the Americans as stuffy, repressed and fun-hating – not the other way around. Prohibition, for instance, didn’t happen in England.

What with New York City implementing a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, this perception seems more justified than ever. In following California’s example, the Big Apple is only cementing the impression that priggish low-Church Protestants still rule the roost in the States.

Wipe that smirk off your face. In England, the Pitcher and Piano bar company has been fined a total of £82,000 – for letting its London customers dance. This activity is illegal in pubs unless the premises have a licence. Fearing the public partaking in this arousing activity, licensing officers spent time spying on the chain’s Soho and Trafalgar Square bars, where they spotted through the window revellers cavorting to music. In their defence, the chain’s owners claim their patrons were not dancing at all. They were merely ‘moving rhythmically’.

What with the Criminal Justice Act making it illegal for more than five people to assemble and listen to repetitive-beat music, and this government’s attempt to make all public music-making, singing, dancing and acting a criminal offence unless licensed by the local authority, it seems that the English have not lost their old, hardened Protestant distaste for people enjoying themselves. If this Pitcher and Piano episode had happened in the Scottish Highlands, we’d all have a haughty chuckle at those Wee Free Sabbatarians who, as the old joke goes, feared that ‘sex might lead to dancing’. If it had happened in America we would grin smugly about that country’s Presbyterian legacy.

I thought we’d shipped all the Puritans off to America after the English Civil War. Evidently, we did not kick out enough.

  • Dead heads

The thirtieth anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon has just passed us. And what a time to remember just what a woeful band and a baleful influence they were.

Listening to Pink Floyd is like glue-sniffing. You do it in your teenage years for kicks thinking it’s cool, then give it up after realising it’s doing your mind no favours. The fact that Pink Floyd is invariably the dope-head’s band of choice is apposite. Like people who smoke too much weed, their music is weird in a thoroughly boring way and their lyrics are not profound or incisive at all, merely air-headed and banal.

Their ethos was that of the drippy hippy era. All the world’s problems, they intoned, could be solved if we could just ‘mellow out’ a little and forget about material concerns: ‘Money, get back / I’m alright, Jack, keep your hands off of my stack / Money, it’s a hit / Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit.’ Pink Floyd’s lyrics embody that babyish notion that the world’s problems would be solved if we were just nicer to each other – a still pervasive philosophy judging by the undimmed appeal of that sinister nursery rhyme, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. It is that same derision of individualism and ambition – reflected in Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’ – that keeps the masses in a state of liberal conformism.

Of course, the band did grow up and grew to hate each other. Roger Waters’ controlling impulses and hostility to Rick Wright eventually led to the latter’s departure. It proved that financial matters were a significant cause for this squabbling. Wow man, what bread-heads.

The Cambridge combo did give us a few genuinely memorable tunes, such as ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’. But that leaves us with lots of sound effects – heartbeats, clocks, the clinking of money – over-lengthy experimental ‘songs’ about dogs, pigs, apples, oranges, the demented album The Wall or the positively suicidal Final Cut.

The success of Pink Floyd is one of the great mysteries of modern times. How did such an unremittingly dreary and occasionally cacophonous outfit become so successful? Maybe, like impressionable teenagers cradling their copy of Catcher in the Rye, it’s because their fans think Floyd’s music is ‘deep’. Maybe it’s the improved technology for growing skunk weed. More likely, in these ‘stressful’ times, we listen to Pink Floyd to ‘relax’. They are an aural substitute for bubble bath.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics

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