Unchaining the Human Heart — A Revolutionary Manifesto: Pirate Radio
On April 1, 2009 in the UK, and on November 13, 2009 in the U.S., a movie originally titled The Boat That Rocked and retitled Pirate Radio for its American release, told a fictionalized and somewhat fanciful story of a boat in the early 1960′s, anchored just far enough off the British coastline that it was in international waters. Consequently — at a time when the government-owned British Broadcasting Company monopolized British radio broadcasting and had no pressure to respond to its listening audience’s desire for pop music — “the boat that rocked” broadcast rock and roll to an eager British listenership, and sold commercial advertising to pay for it.
Historical anachronisms in this wonderfully enjoyable movie are beside the point for me. There really were commercial pirate radio stations broadcasting rock into the UK in the 1960′s for the precise reason the movie portrays. The BBC had a government monopoly, were not subject to any incentives or penalties if they failed to attract an audience, and thus had no reason to seek popularity. Elitism requires either tax subsidies or wealthy benefactors in order to survive. The BBC operated by taxing the public but its elitist operators felt no accountability to broadcast to the taxpayers what they wanted. Seeking popular approval — known as box office, sales, rentals, ratings, impressions, circulation, subscriptions, or eyeballs — is survival for any enterprise that hopes to pay its bills by satisfying a customer base.
Pirate Radio is a classic object lesson contrasting the difference between government and privately run enterprises.
But an economics lesson isn’t my point here.
In the movie Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcolm, is skeptical of the idea that breeding reconstituted dinosaurs is a sound business plan for a theme park. He makes compelling arguments that small variations in complex systems can result in unintended consequences, especially when dealing with biology. When Malcolm is told that the dinosaurs can’t reproduce on their own because they were bred all female, he retorts, “Life will find a way.” The plot of Jurassic Park proves Malcolm correct, as a spliced DNA sequence used to bring back the dinosaurs allows for spontaneous sex change — and the dinosaurs do start breeding on their own.
As it is with forbidden dinosaurs it is with forbidden music: life will find a way.
I grew up in a household devoted to classical music. My dad made his living as a classical violinist. My parents were of a generation that never heard rock and roll until they were adults … and when they finally heard it they didn’t like it.
My older sister and I were a different story. We came of age in the era of rock and roll. One of the first songs I remember hearing on the radio was Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog.” I was ten when the Beatles first played Ed Sullivan … and within a few years I had my own electric guitar and amplifier (a Bar Mitzvah gift from my grandmother) and I was playing nothing but rock and roll — the Beatles, the Stones, the Animals … and my own attempts at songwriting.
Still, whether coming from the radio, or a record player, or a tape recorder, or my own electric-guitar amplifier, the only words I ever heard from my classical parents about the rock and roll music my sister and I loved was, “Would you please turn down that noise?”
Rock and roll wasn’t the first music to provoke fanatical passion from its audience. Teenage girls swooned over crooner Rudy Vallée in the 1920′s and over Frank Sinatra in the 40′s and 50′s. By the time teenage girls were straining their larynxes over the Beatles in the 1960′s musically-generated hysteria was a well-known phenomenon, reliable enough to write it into business plans. But even crassly commercialized and packaged, the passion of musicians to be true to their muse, and of audiences to follow the geniuses rather than be herded toward plastic imitations, meant that even if Jimi Hendrix was an opening act for the Monkees, it was Jimi Hendrix who was making the musical history.
Rock and roll was hardly the first forbidden music, either. Long before rock and roll was forbidden ragtime was; and long before ragtime was forbidden “consecutive fifths” were disallowed in musical composition that we today would regard as classical.
Over and over, passion prevailed, rules were broken, and the silly control-freaks were overcome.
But with each new generation of musicians came a new generation of self-appointed guardians of the public morality, jealous no-talents who considered that if they couldn’t create anything great at least they could put their jackboots on top of it.
I hope my repeated examples in this book of power-grabbers targeting anything that makes life worth living doesn’t get to be tiresome.
So to avoid making this book a mere litany of passions and their oppressors, let’s change things up and talk about just what it is They want from you, and what They will offer you to get their slimy hands on it.
Next in Unchaining the Human Heart — A Revolutionary Manifesto is Chapter IV: Selling Your Soul
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