Pop Playground
The West Coast Main Line



there's something in Britain called the West Coast Main Line. It's a railway built by the pioneers of the 19th Century, which brought together the main commercial and cultural centres of a Britain re-invented by the Industrial Revolution—the capital of empire in London, the industrial power of Birmingham and the West Midlands, the port of Liverpool, the free-trading centre of Manchester and the shipbuilding might of Glasgow, with other powerful towns like Wigan, Preston, Stoke, Stafford and Coventry dotted along the way. Rarely does the WCML make any concessions to an older idea of Britain—the public school town of Rugby and the old Cumbrian market town of Penrith are about as close as it gets.

If the West Coast Main Line corridor symbolises any particular streak in British culture, it's the concept of modernity-for-its-own-sake (Milton Keynes, the largest of the post-war new towns, lies on the line). It's where the industrialists and self-made men lived, at least until the late 19th Century when the blandishments of the old aristocracy swept in with their gentrifying life peerages and promises of great estates. It's the place where the working classes embraced Mickey Spillane, James Cagney, Tamla Motown, Public Enemy while the landowners of the shires aspired to the protectionism of Arthur Bryant, and the self-educating miners of South Yorkshire and South Wales looked up to its Richard Hoggart equivalent. The WCML cities have always looked towards America much more than the rest of the country has historically done, well beyond the fabled soul and R&B; records which arrived at Liverpool docks and inspired the young Beatles.

And—as a direct result—the WCML corridor is where the *pop music* came from. Let me give you a brief list of the biggest-selling and most significant artists to have come from towns and cities on the WCML (counting those raised in London commuter towns and suburbia as Londoners); Lonnie Donegan, Cliff Richard, The Beatles, all the original Rolling Stones except Brian Jones, The Who, The Kinks, Herman's Hermits, The Spencer Davis Group, The Move, Marmalade, Rod Stewart, ELO, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Joy Division / New Order, Simple Minds, The Specials, UB40, Duran Duran, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Take That, East 17, Oasis, Robbie Williams, The Verve and, in his way, Panjabi MC. And it don't stop.

With the natural advantage of containing a disproportionately high percentage of the national population, and containing practically the entire national media within its major cities (mainly London), the WCML has had a sufficient enough pull over Britain to define the national psyche through peaks and troughs. In the 1960s, when its music held almost complete dominance of the pop charts and the offshore radio airwaves (on 9th March 1967, admittedly an extreme example, WCML acts held eight out of the top nine places in the Record Retailer chart), the modernisation of the line was a source of deep national pride in collective endeavour to improve public services, planning a world where *nothing could ever go wrong*.

But today the WCML as symbol of British futurism has reached a humiliating nadir. On 1st April the Guardian led its front page with a story which, unfortunately, wasn't an April Fool. As a result of the Tory government's monumentally ill-thought-out privatisation of the railways and the bloated mess of inefficiency that resulted, the WCML upgrade is running years behind schedule, is the most expensive non-military product ever undertaken in the UK, has chewed up £10 billion of taxpayers' money and won't achieve the high speeds and massively-reduced journey times originally planned. Meanwhile, the WCML corridor's domination of British pop music is not what it was; you may have noticed a distinct tailing-off as my list moved towards the present day, and that was no accident on my part—Oasis peaked eight years back, Robbie Williams' power now seems to be gradually ebbing away, the Verve split half a decade ago and Panjabi MC is sadly unlikely to be anything more than a one-hit wonder.

But those who support the values of the WCML corridor—in Donald Home's phraseology "pragmatic, impirical, calculating, enterprising, adventurous, scientific, serious"—shouldn't worry too much. The key work in the creation of the New Norms—the populist, commercial imperatives which have eroded both the disdain and sniffiness of the old middle and upper classes and the "libraries gave us power" tradition of the mining communities—is Martin Wiener's "English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980". This is a defiant statement in support of the WCML idea of Britain as against every other idea that might ever have existed (the movement of the Industrial Revolution capitalists from the cities to the country estates was, for this unknown revolutionary, the moment When It All Went Wrong), and it has also done much to erode other tendencies in the WCML cities (the Smiths were the last puritan socialists; Happy Mondays firmly re-established the pure commercialism of 19th Century Manchester Liberals).

Most of the major social changes of recent decades originated in WCML cities, and not just London. Now that the British national anthem and its symbolism are ever more marginal, it must be remembered that Granada TV in Manchester was closing down without playing "God Save The Queen" as far back as 1956, at a time of utter, forelock-tugging deference to the monarchy throughout the UK media. Granada also produced less religious programming than the BBC and other ITV companies of the time (it may be significant in this context that the Incredible String Band, so famously beloved of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, emerged as part of a counter-reaction to the techno-modernist moment defined by the WCML electrification of 1966/67).

In the last 25 years, the values founded in the WCML cities have they tried their hardest to impose themselves on the rest of the country and strip aside everything that symbolised wariness of unbridled US capitalism—a victory symbolised by Dido and Coldplay in particular. I realised how much things have changed the other week when I thought it worth mentioning that the highest-placed UK act on the chart, Jamelia, came from a WCML city. The previous week I hadn't thought it worth mentioning at all that the top UK act, Busted, are the embodiment of a new kind of middle class who would blend perfectly into Stoke and Stafford and Warrington, and the second-placed UK act, Keane, are from the Sussex town of Battle, the heart of pre-WCML England.

If my colleagues Nick Southall and Dom Passantino are looking for scapegoats for the trends they despise, they need look in no other direction. They may be reassured to learn that this piece is in no way a celebration of the WCML worldview's influence—quite the opposite, in fact. I would state without hesitation that the influence of the WCML corridor is a key reason why Blair thought he could get away with the whole Iraq business and all the other lies and betrayals; it's been a factor in creating a depoliticised, disengaged population, disinterested in their civil liberties and in the honesty of their governments.

With yet another example of the WCML-isation of the rest of Britain—the hideous Busted Mark II that is McFly, at least one of their number privately-educated, all of them the type of grinning sheeple that enables corrupt governments to get away with it—topping the UK charts, we must start asking serious questions. Once we all thought that breaking down class distinctions would enlighten everyone on equal terms. Instead we've got McFly at number one. Things must get better. And no matter the fact that I might be damned as "corny-ass" or suchlike, it has to be said: *fight the power*.


By: Robin Carmody
Published on: 2004-04-15
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