Sourcing the sound of cool: 1958-1985
“Il 1959 rappresenta un punto di svolta nella storia dell’arte dei suoni.” (Enrico Merlin, 1000 dischi per un secolo)
1958 and 1959 weren’t just ordinary years; they mark a definite break, a turning point in the widespread realms of the aesthetics and the art of listening to music. Miles Davis two albums from those years, the cover photo of his album Milestones and the reductionist cool of the modal approach in Kind of Blue, redefined in retrospect, what modernism left untouched in popular culture. Although there already existed a current of thought in the early 1930is, that affirmed the power of the individual to create, improve and reshape its environment through experimentation, knowledge and technology, in the early 1950is Britain it was all about the Trad versus the Modernists. It was about a sound, a style, an attitude in defiance of the generation, that wasn’t yours. A brief read of Paolo Hewitt’s seminal work on The Soul Stylists gives a perfect introduction to the hermetic circle of this subcultural movement.
On the verge of a new era, where your choice of clothes would become the distinctive attribute, which defined your working class ethos, these young men embraced everything American. From the predominantly black music that came over the Atlantic, amongst others through the Cunard Yanks in Liverpool, to the Ivy League dress codes established by the strong presence of GI’s in the clubs of the cities, their senses were sharpened and ready for it.
Their stand was clear: you won’t see us during daylight, because we don’t want to be seen. We live for the all-nighter from Friday night to Sunday evening. The clothes Miles Davis wore on the Milestones album cover were crucial for a white working class youth in 1958 to define the codes of their breakup with the generation of their fathers. The newly achieved financial power became essential for the creative process involved in and the openly consumption of a lifestyle that clearly holds its roots in the modernist movement of the early 1930is. In a fast forward leap to 1985 we find ourselves unexpectedly confronted with an aesthetic whose lineage can be traced back to the cover of the album Milestones. The band The Fine Young Cannibals release their single “Johnny Come Home”. In the accompanying video – we enjoy watching music on MTV for the first times in the early 1980is – their moves and their clothes resemble a style that is known from the photographic images that were taken back in the early 1950is. Those visionary individuals used to call themselves The Modernists. Although in 1985 they already belonged to a Revival Subculture that consciously adopted mid-century aesthetics in Popular Music, the trios musical background were the off-beat rhymes of Ska and the soulfulness of Motown. Their knitwear, their trousers, their colour palette: all kept in soft but clear pastel tones. Their dance moves and the sound of the trumpet with the Harmon mute on: linked fiercely to their predecessors rehearsing in a basement at the end of Great Windmill Street, the Club 11. Roland Gifts startling voice is definitely a gift, something so unique and recognizable but at the same time so unmistakably soulful, that the ambience of Fine Young Cannibals video to their 1985 single “Johnny come home” couldn’t be more appropriate: A perfect studio Interieur time warped from 1958 served as the stage for their performance. Andy Cox and David Steele, respectively the guitarist and the bass player of the band, show a striking combination of retro-soul attire and hip dance moves, completing the colour palette for a seemingly perfect re-enactment. One aspect though would have been interesting to verify with the Fine Young Cannibals in person. While the style worn by Miles Davis in 1958 bore a strong political message, I wish I’d knew if it still detained the same in 1985.