Why are the British so good at making popular music?
‘This sceptred Isle…’
A relatively small island nation just off the western coast of mainland Europe has been responsible for more world-beating music over the last 60 or so years than any state in Europe and can happily compete a with the continental American Big-boys across the Atlantic ocean.
How’s that then? With a population slightly smaller than Thailand it can’t be a big population boon and with a landmass a little less than that of the African nation of Guinea, At 0.0014198 square miles (about 39, 000 square feet) per capita it is hard to believe its a geographical factor.
The closest neighbouring country is a little over 23 miles away across the English Channel. France has a similar sized population to the UK and roughly three times the landmass but nowhere near the intensity of quality music despite its international cultural acclaim. In fact, it is difficult to find a place on the globe, short of Jamaica, that has a similar hits-to-population ratio. What is it then that sets this ‘green and pleasant’ land apart?
The accent of rock’n’Roll?
Opera is sung ‘in Italiano’, Rock’n’Roll is sung in English. The home of Rock’n’Roll and all things related is undeniably the United States of America. That’s where it was born, that’s the culture it comes from, but it is worth remembering that this cultures primary language is English. Is that the key?
It is true that there are certain phrases and words that only a person whos’ first language is English can naturally vocalize. During world war two British troops would try to trap German interlopers by simply asking them to pronounce the word ’Squirrel’ and much fun can be had by asking a Frenchman to pronounce the ‘th’ at the beginning of ‘that’ or ‘there’, nearly always being mispronounced as ‘zat’ or ‘dere’.
Can it be as simple as zat? Is it just that the British have an innate cultural handle on the nuances of lingual Rock’n’Roll or is there more to it?
“Playing in the UK is hard-work”
Ask any working musician, UK citizen or not, about performing in the UK and they’ll tell you it is hard work. Perform anywhere in mainland Europe and you’ll be greeted by a “Hey, how are you? Thanks for coming. Would you like some coffee or maybe a beer? Please, have some sandwiches and fruit. What would like for dinner?” In the UK it’d be more along the lines of “Oh, you’re the band, right. Well, we don’t want it too loud OK? Look, you set up over there (pointing vaguely near the toilet door) don’t make any mess or block the door, yeah. There’s a chip shop round the corner if you get hungry, but you can’t bring it in here though, right, it’ll stink the place out”
The audiences are tough too they expect a quality not necessarily reciprocated by their audible appreciation. Far from ignoring they can adeptly persecute an act by means of an occasional firm stare or a crossed arms disapproving stance.
Unlike many other European counterparts, there are no government subsidies for music or the arts at a start out level. No guaranteed wage as in France or public grants as in Germany or Sweden.
You have to be good and insanely committed to the cause to get along in the UK as a musician, with no slacking.
That little island just off the coast of Europe has throughout its modern history punched above its weight. There was a time not so long ago that the sun never set on the British Empire, huge swathes of land around the globe and their native populations, all much bigger than Great Britain’, were ruled and contained by the heavily outnumbered inhabitants of that small island. Maybe that’s it, just a pure sense of superiority. ‘We can do this better than you’ and so they do.
So why this place?
Perhaps it’s a sly combination of all of the above. Sociology, Geography, History and Demography. The left-over arrogance formed of the shadow of the days of empire. The comparative close proximity of major cities and their venues. The ‘Boys from Men’ and ‘wheat from chaff’ separating virtues of the UK gig circuit along with an ancient comprehension of the Rock’n’Roll lingua franca leads to Great Britain presiding on the table of chief nations of popular music across the globe.
Surely it can’t just be the raw talent?
Written by: R. Vee – 2018