Saturday, June 5, 2010

Rock and Orwell's 1984

Today brings another guest blog from my brother-in-law, Matt, a writer from New York.

National Lampoon’s “That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick” (1977) has a track in which the comedian Bill Murray spoofs public radio fundraising banter.  After hilariously describing his station’s outside-the-mainstream programming, and endlessly complaining that no one is paying to support this unique material, Murray appeals in frustration to fear:  “Do you want to hear public radio again?  1984 is not that far away.”

Growing up in the 1970s, the year 1984 loomed in the distant future as some mysterious milestone.  What was going to happen that year?  We didn’t know.  But as menacing as the year was in the public imagination, no one claimed it would bring anything on the order of the magnetic poles of the earth reversing, causing apocalyptic destruction.  Nevertheless, 1984 was my generation’s equivalent of 2012, today’s much anticipated moment.

 “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen…” So begins the memorable opening of George Orwell’s novel that was published in 1949.  The story is as much about how the will to power breeds tyranny, as it is about how the will to obey breeds complicity in evil. Popular culture has adopted many phrases from the novel: Big Brother, Thought Police, Doublespeak, Room 101, Sex Crime.  And classic rock has incorporated these phrases, and Orwell’s themes, into the canon.

The most successful album entitled “1984” is by Van Halen, the band’s last album with lead singer David Lee Roth, and was released the first week of that year.  The title track, an instrumental, is four seconds longer than a minute, which leads into what became the album’s only Number 1 hit: “Jump.”  The album provided much fodder for the infant MTV network, which actually played videos back then, including the videos for “Hot for Teacher,” “Jump,” and “Panama.” As with the brief instrumental title song, the “1984” album cover quickly dispenses with the fear and trembling surrounding the much-anticipated year.  The image depicts Baby New Year, reassuring everyone that the world has indeed gone on.  But this is not your ordinary Baby New Year.  He is sporting a pompadour, wearing wings, and holding a lit cigarette, taken from a pack with no government tax stamp.  The image is a celebration of the mischievous yet angelic child inside every man, the irrepressible spirit that will not conform to the oppressive tyranny that triumphs in Orwell’s dystopian novel.

Other classic rock artists have attempted more directly to adapt Orwell’s masterpiece to music.  In the early 1970s, David Bowie had planned to turn the novel into a rock musical, and had recorded some of the songs:  “1984,” “Rebel Rebel,” and “Big Brother.”  When George Orwell’s widow, Sonia Brownwell, refused to endorse the project, Bowie appended the tracks to his album “Diamond Dogs,” a post-apocalyptic nightmare or dream, depending on your perspective.  Bowie’s album cover depicts two half man-half dog creatures, as well as the androgynous Bowie himself with a glam hairdo only Adam Lambert could appreciate.  Significantly, these creatures are far removed from the City in the background, showing their voluntary separation from mainstream culture, which is the heart of Bowie’s appeal, and something that Orwell’s Winston Smith could never permanently achieve.

In the early 1980s, after much persuasion, Orwell’s widow allowed Chicago lawyer Marvin Rosenblum to purchase the film rights to the novel, provided that his movie not employ futuristic special effects.  Director Michael Radford adapted the novel for screen, which starred the powerhouse British actors John Hurt and Richard Burton.  Radford thought he had total artistic control over the movie, but billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Films had financed the project, and insisted that a pop band write the score.  Virgin overrode Radford’s musical choice, and hired the Eurhythmics.  Radford hated the music, and when accepting the Best Picture Award from the Evening Standard, he used the platform to denounce Virgin’s musical choice.  Radford was on to something, as the music has not endured the test of time.

Indeed, no music based on Orwell’s novel, which has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, has had the staying power of the novel itself.   Perhaps the nearest thing in influence, staying within the 1984 vein, is the persistent myth that Van Halen introduced a novel element to touring contracts.  After the near-death accident of one of their stage hands, Van Halen grew suspicious that their promoter was not reading their contracts, so the band added a clause requiring that the venue provide them with a big bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed.  According to popular legend, this marked the birth of the whimsical “wish list rider.”  (You can see the riders of touring musicians here at The Smoking Gun.)

Regardless of who pioneered the backstage wish-list rider, classic rock musicians are as far from Orwell’s Winston Smith as can be.  Whereas Smith fell prey to Room 101 and his worst fear, classic rock stars have a long and checkered history of raging against the machinery of oppression and conformity – ironically, creating orthodoxies of their own along the way.   But in the marketplace of music and ideas, everyone retains the freedom to choose what he or she wants to listen to, and enjoy a quality of life that Winston Smith did not.

Which songs that employ the language or themes of 1984 do you enjoy?

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