In ‘All You Need is Cash’, Eric Idle’s 1978 spoof documentary on his spoof Beatles, The Rutles, there’s a scene in which Idle as an inept interviewer grills a veteran bluesman called Ruttling Orange Peel; Mr Peel claims he invented the ‘Rutles Sound’, despite the intervention of his irate wife who informs Idle that every visiting film crew producing a documentary about the origins of white music is met with the same claims by her husband. In a subtly canny moment of a magnificent parody, Idle taps into one of the enduring strands of pop mythology, that of the jobbing black musician struggling to pay his rent while wicked white thieves steal his ideas and make a million.
The nature of racial segregation as it stood in mid-twentieth century America affected music as much as every other aspect of life; the record charts published by the likes of ‘Billboard’ and ‘Cashbox’ were divided not only by genres, but race – indeed, what eventually became the R&B Chart was originally known as the Race Chart. Elvis Presley had been born into the deprived social conditions of the Great Depression, a significant leveller in the Deep South, so it was natural that he should feel more affinity with his equally poor black neighbours than the rich white folk – and this extended to the music he felt spoke to him. The reason he rose to prominence with such swiftness was in part due to the fact that he was one of the most charismatic performers the world had ever seen, but also because no black artist could have achieved the same instant mainstream success in a nation that was so racially segregated. And it’s worth remembering that whilst the 1970s saw Elvis embraced as a Middle-American icon on a par with John Wayne, twenty years earlier he’d been received with savage contempt by the establishment, viewed as a ‘white nigger’ whose only viable castration could come via Hollywood and the US Army.
Elvis wasn’t just influenced by already active black acts like Little Richard and Chuck Berry; he didn’t simply borrow a black sound, but blended it with (amongst others) Country, a rural white genre derived from the indigenous folk music of the British Isles, brought to American shores by successive settlers. The resulting mix was not the Blues, Rockabilly, R&B or Country, but a hybrid of them all that influential DJ Alan Freed christened Rock ‘n’ Roll. The breakthrough of Elvis may have opened the door to other white rockers inspired by the same sources, but it also facilitated the considerable commercial success of black acts that wouldn’t have got a look in without it.
When the British Invasion hit the US in the mid-60s, Eric Burdon of The Animals met one of his own personal idols, Nina Simone; the famously feisty Ms Simone snarled at the soulful Geordie and accused him of stealing and polluting her music, to which he retorted by reminding her she had made a handsome packet singing songs penned by black guys doing time in state penitentiaries without acknowledging their predicament. Shocked that Burdon should know anything of her oeuvre, Simone’s prejudicial attitude was indicative of the grievances many American black musicians felt towards white ones. But the Blues is the sound of the oppressed and dispossessed. Whilst post-war white America prospered, the bomb-sites of Britain echoed with the sounds of guitar-strumming natives who recognised in the Blues the story of their own experiences. Keith Richards himself put the blame on Adolf.
Such was the influence of the Blues in Britain, perhaps even more than the brief blip of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the generation that understood its language venerated the men who made it and gave them credit by covering their songs and name-checking their heroes whenever they could. When US TV’s ‘Shindig’ gave over an entire edition to The Rolling Stones, the band could easily have chosen to eschew guest stars in favour of promoting their own career, but they insisted that Howlin’ Wolf appear, so in awe were they of one of their chief inspirations, sitting cross-legged at the feet of the guru as he ran through his thirty-year-old set-list.
Yes, the Blues always played a crucial role in the sound of Led Zeppelin, and it’s true the band weren’t always honest about the origin of their riffs; but as Robert Plant himself said, the Blues is a family of beggars and thieves. Besides, Led Zep were another act who used the Blues as a launch-pad for a sound that gradually incorporated more widespread influences and became uniquely their own, which is what great musicians always do. Could Robert Johnson have written ‘Kashmir’ or ‘The Battle of Evermore’? And while white acts such as The Bee Gees absorbed R&B to create a platinum music machine, it’s not as though black acts suffered in silence throughout the 60s and 70s – Motown, Stax, Funk, Reggae, Philly Soul and Disco were hardly cult genres immune to commercial success.
Music is genuinely colour blind, as are the ears that hear it; Bob Dylan was as great an influence on Jimi Hendrix as Hendrix himself was on every white axeman to follow. When New York DJs discovered the cold European electronica of Kraftwerk and laid the foundations of Hip Hop, they were simply turned on by the novelty and newness of the sounds they were hearing, just as The Beatles and Stones had been twenty years earlier. Colour didn’t come into it. The Beatles and Stones developed beyond this starting point and blossomed into something wholly original, as Hip Hop went on to do. And now Hip Hop has travelled along the same long and winding road by finally reaching its own equivalent of the vapid vacuity of 80s Stadium Rock, saying nothing new anymore and falling back on the same clichés so photocopied over the past couple of decades to be rendered as meaningless as every wannabe Jimmy Page churning out tired old rock riffs. Kanye West embodies this descent into a superficial vacuum of bling and brag, lacking the incendiary linguistic venom of Ice Cube or the ability to weave the multi-layered sample tapestries of Dr Dre, and more concerned with playing at Posh and Becks with his wife and her gargantuan posterior. He is the Shakin’ Stevens to Chuck D’s Elvis.
The pathetic, petulant reaction of Kanye West to Beck winning the Best Album at the Grammys last week rather than Beyoncé was a thinly veiled burst of mortification that a white artist had scooped a gong that should be reserved for black acts, such is the pre-eminence now of Hip Hop/R&B on what remains of the American charts. Had this situation been reversed and Beck had embarked upon a similar public protest that Beyoncé had won rather than, say, Katy Perry he would have been instantly accused of racism. Yet Kanye West can’t, of course, because not only is PC America terrified of playing the race card, but Kanye West could easily wheel-out the now redundant moral fable of the poor black musician being robbed of his rightful millions by white charlatans – despite the fact that he is one of the richest and most profitable brands in US showbiz and a leading member of the Afro-American Musical Mafia, some of whom appear to desire the retreat of pop back to segregation.
When Muhammad Ali won plaudits for refusing to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, stripped of his world heavyweight title as a consequence, how many of those on the white liberal left who sang his praises were aware he had addressed a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan in his capacity as a Nation of Islam convert? Both ends of the extreme racial spectrum shared the same aim, to keep black and white apart; and by making such distinctions in music, an art-form without prejudice is stifled. The more incestuous white and black become, the better their offspring.