My generation - Page 4
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 13: The Next Big Thing
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Creed O'Hanlon
THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, A FILM DIRECTED BY SCOTSMAN JOSEPH MCGRATH, was released in 1969, the same year as Easy Rider. Adapted by the American satirist Terry Southern from his novel of the same name – Southern also cowrote Easy Rider with its stars, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper – The Magic Christian was an absurdist comic fantasy starring Peter Sellers as Sir Guy Grand, an Englishman of egregious wealth and a wicked sense of irony. Grand adopts a naïve, homeless young man, played by The Beatles' drummer, Ringo Starr, to be his heir, renaming him Youngman Grand. He instructs Youngman in the operation of the "family business": exposing and exploiting in most lurid ways the unquenchable greed of everyman. In one of the film's funniest – if least subtle – moments, Sir Guy fills a swimming pool with excrement and tens of thousands of dollars, then invites passers-by to retrieve as much money as they want. Soon the pool is overflowing with people fighting each other for fistfuls of cash as they struggle to keep their heads about the foetid shit, all under the gaze of a bemused Sir Guy and a troubled Youngman: "Grand is the name, and, uh, money is the game. Would you care to play?"
Indeed we would.
FILM SUPPLANTED LITERATURE IN THE LATE '60s (if not comic books, which we reconceived as "graphic novels" to market them to a younger generation) as the repository of all our myths and parables. The medium appeals to restless Boomers because it enables us to rework these narratives from time to time. Eighteen years after the premiere of The Magic Christian, Sir Guy and Youngman Grand were transformed into Gordon Gekko, a rich and ruthless corporate raider (played by a middle-aged Michael Douglas), and Bud Fox, a young if not-so-innocent stockbroker Gekko sets out to corrupt (a still fresh-faced Charlie Sheen), in Wall Street, American director (and Baby Boomer) Oliver Stone's celluloid eulogy over the fresh corpse of a decade notorious for its avarice and self-interest. Boomers don't like to acknowledge it any more (maybe, in part, because it reminds us of just how old we are now), but the '80s were our best of times. The stern, Boadicea-like Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, and the doddery, paternalistic B-movie actor and pretend-cowboy, Ronald Reagan went out of their way to reassure us that the worst aspects of our generational character, the very traits that still grated on the Silent Generation, were not just OK but desirable in a world in which old-fashioned values like ambition, self-interest, wealth, privilege, heartlessness – oh, and empty-headed celebrity – had made a comeback. The decade's bible (or, as another writer would have it, Yuppie porn), was Vanity Fair, a glossy magazine edited by the Baby Boomers' own brainy it girl, Tina Brown.
Even the collapse of the stockmarket on October 19, 1987 – so-called Black Monday, when the New York Stock Exchange suffered its steepest-ever one-day decline and stripped the Dow Jones Industrial Average of nearly a quarter of its value – by the end of the month, the Australian stockmarket had lost over forty per cent of its value – couldn't deflate our confidence. Within a decade, Boomers would set in motion another "bubble" in stockmarket values, this time partnering with tech-adept geeks of Generation X – our myriad neuroses and obsessive compulsive tics an unlikely match with their tendency to Attention Deficit Disorder and Asperger's-like syndromes – to conceive a New Economy, an alternative system of values underpinned by an entirely new medium of communication, information, interaction, transaction and entertainment.
It was a quartet of Silent Generation scientists at the US Defense Advance Research Projects Agency – Lawrence Roberts, Leonard Kleinrock, Robert Kahn and Vincent Cerf – that developed the technology and architecture to interconnect remote computer networks and thus create the internet, although it was a Baby Boomer, Timothy Berners-Lee – an Englishman working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (better known as CERN) – who came up with something he called the world wide web. The far-reaching revolution inherent in Berners-Lee's creation was at first lost on his peers (including the hyper-intelligent head of Microsoft, now the world's wealthiest individual, Bill Gates), so it was left to a younger generation – the Xers, whose very namelessness reflected a disconsolate sense of being a generation adrift, disenfranchised from a mainstream economic and cultural agenda now dictated (or, more accurately, obscured) by Baby Boomers – to recognise the liberating possibilities of the web's capacity to interconnect not just documents – text, static images and, later, sound and video – but also ideas.
The Boomers were never big on originality. We were, after all, the generation that invented technology to make the appropriation or "sampling" of anything as simple as a few keyboard strokes on a computer. We were good at refining existing ideas – the World Wide Web was a case in point, so too were the first iterations of Microsoft's DOS operating system – but what we were, and still are, best at was hype. Our aptitude for effect – the gesamtkunstwerk of those '60s rock shows – allied to our almost forensic absorption of mass media over the previous forty years meant that we were well prepared for the '90s dot.com boom. Most of us were less interested in the web's technology than we were in devising its business models (where, almost instinctively, we sensed the real power would be) and articulating the precarious value equation that turned attention into cash. Nonetheless, the early years of internet entrepreneurism were the apotheosis of the Boomer generation. Too bad that they resurrected in us an ethos that had tainted us during the previous decade – excess in all things, especially greed.
In Wall Street's best-remembered scene, Gordon Gekko confronts the restive shareholders of the fictional corporation, Teldar Paper, to convince them to sell off the company's assets. With the fervour of a TV evangelist leading his congregation in prayer, Gekko tells them: "Greed ... is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA." This wasn't just another of those cinematic moments that resonated briefly in the media-sensitised subconscious of Baby Boomers before receding into the ambient low-frequency noise. Gekko's words became our mantra (Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works.) They permeated our attitude for the next twenty years.
The irony is delicious: Baby Boomers turned out to be the Sir Guys for at least two generations of Youngmans.
THERE WAS A PERIOD BETWEEN 1974 AND 1979 – no more than four or five years at most – when it looked as if we might redeem ourselves. Punk rock is rarely identified with Baby Boomers these days, but it is the one enduring cultural legacy to which my generation can lay sole claim. From its raggedy assed, New York originators – among them, Iggy Pop (born 1947), Patti Smith (born 1946), Richard Hell (born 1949), Johnny, Tommy, Joey and Dee Dee of The Ramones (born between 1948 and 1952), and The Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra (born 1958) – to the rawer, more politicised and subversive Londoners with whom the public most readily associates punk – among them, The Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten (born 1956) and Sid Vicious (born 1957), The Clash's Joe Strummer (born 1952), The Banshees' Siouxsie Sioux (born 1957) and The Damned's Dave Vanian (born 1956) – and its one great Australian band, The Saints, the late G.G. Allin (born 1956) oh, and Nick Cave (born 1957), still the coolest Australian alive, its protagonists were all, without exception, Baby Boomers.
Punk was unarguably a social as well as a musical revolt, and its raw, self-negating anger was directed not only at an older generation, but at the majority of its own who had "sold out" any chance for genuine social and political change. It was no accident that punk first emerged during the mid1970s, when the city of New York, under mayor Abe Beame, teetered on the edge of bankruptcy or that many of its most coherent and vehement songs, such as The Clash's London Calling, were released in 1978 just before the infamous "winter of discontent" under Prime Minister James Callaghan's Labour government, during which the economy began to collapse under the weight of high unemployment, industrial unrest and dysfunctional public services – the rising groundswell of Conservative sympathy (and self-interest) would carry Margaret Thatcher into power the following spring.
Punk's musical prejudices were many, but a constant in all of them was impatience with its own generation's obsession with the surface of things. With its pared-down, DIY approach to recording, total disdain for basic instrumental skills and simplistic, buzz-saw-like songs that were never more than one tempo – fast – two minutes' duration, three chords and four-beatsto-the-bar, with titles like Too Drunk to Fuck, Blank Generation, White Riot and Anarchy in the UK, punk slashed at the tie-died remnants of hippie counterculture – by then, Eric Clapton, the legendary guitarist and founder of the '60s "supergroup" Cream, was appearing in British beer ads – and then directed its razor-edged, amphetamine-fuelled intensity toward the shimmering glitter of disco and the grandiose posturing of heavy metal rockers, whose stadium gigs were becoming as over-produced and robotic as Hitler-Jügend rallies in the '20s and '30s.
Malcolm McLaren (born on January 22, 1946 – one of the very first Baby Boomers) was punk's arch manipulator, its media-savvy Svengali. The then-partner of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood (who had yet to make her name and fortune as a couturier) and the co-proprietor with her of a fetish and bondage clothing shop called SEX on London's Kings Road, McLaren was the dandyish, amoral and rudely cunning (if not downright crooked) manager of Britain's most infamous punk band, The Sex Pistols, fronted by Johnny Rotten (neé John Lydon) The band was a McLaren creation, inspired by both the disaffected, working-class kids – prototypical punks – that hung out at SEX, and McLaren's own encounters with the nascent New York punk scene during a visit there in 1974. The Sex Pistols lasted only a couple of years – releasing just one album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, before Johnny Rotten announced their break-up during a shambolic American tour in 1978, and the band's notorious bass player, Sid Vicious, killed his girlfriend in a drug-addled haze at New York's Chelsea Hotel the same year, before over-dosing on heroin a few months later at a party to celebrate his release on bail from the city's Riker's Island jail – but not before McLaren had demonstrated just how to execute what he would later call "the great rock'n'roll swindle".
In 1976, McLaren showcased The Sex Pistols during punk's first festival at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, London, and talked EMI into signing the band for what was said to be a half-million pound advance – although this figure was probably just McLaren hype – and releasing its first single, Anarchy in the UK, at the end of November 1976. Less than a fortnight after the song hit the UK charts, the band members got into an on-air slanging match with Bill Grundy, the host of Thames Television's popular early evening program Today; guitarist Steve Jones called him a "fucking rotter". It was the beginning of a run of bad press – "Punk? Call it Filthy Lucre" ran the front page headline of The Daily Express – and it was deliberately inflamed by McLaren. It scared EMI enough to terminate its contract with the band at the end of January 1977. Six weeks later, in a ceremony staged (probably by McLaren) outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, the Sex Pistols signed to Herb Alpert's A&M Records. This time the deal didn't last the day: at a party back at the record label's offices, the band members sexually harassed secretaries, picked fights with executives and, in a lurid coup de grace, Sid Vicious trashed the managing director's office and vomited on his desk. A&M publicly cut the band loose less than a week later.
It was left to one of the first of England's Baby Boomer entrepreneurs, Richard Branson (born 1950) – who played in an altogether bigger league than McLaren when it came to both opportunism and shameless self-promotion – to sign the band to Virgin Records for another large advance and the promise of total artistic control. In May 1977, The Sex Pistols released its second single, God Save the Queen. With the help of some well-planned radio airplay and the usual sensationalist press, it reached number two on the UK charts during the same week as the country celebrated Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee. Later, one of the band-members, Paul Cook, told a journalist: "It wasn't written specifically for the Queen's Jubilee. We weren't aware of it at the time. It wasn't a contrived effort to go out and shock everyone." Maybe not.
It was Malcolm McLaren who convinced the band to change the original title of the song, which had been No Future.
McLaren recently recalled that he made money then "by doing the exact opposite of what most people would think would be correct. I acted the irresponsible, the ultimate, child and everything I did was what society hated." His public posturing and game-playing during punk's last gob-spit at "the system" would have made Sir Guy Grand proud. Sadly, by the end of the '70s, punk's truculent nihilism had dissipated, and a corrosive process of cooption and homogenisation had begun. Within a decade, punk and all the other good things youth culture had encompassed over the previous quarter-century – and would encompass, briefly, in the decade ahead, such as rave culture, graffiti art, gangsta rap and mash-ups – would be reduced to an unidentifiable but easily consumable mush. Meanwhile, a faltering global realpolitik, resurgent squabbles in the Middle East, and economic and social disarray in the developed world (especially the United Kingdom) suggested a future more uncertain and dangerous than anything that George W. Bush would have us fear in the aftermath of 9/11. The brittle, pre-Apocalyptic edginess of the early '80s was reminiscent of the '60s.