As the world reflects on the events in London and other British cities, the lyrics to the Mekons’ single, Never Been In A Riot, springs to Porky’s mind like the chiming of a bell at noon.
“I’ve never been in a riot / Never been in a fight / Never been in anything / That turns out right.”
What’s clear is that for thousands of people across the UK such words won’t apply anymore, having been involved in both a riot and a fight, and for those facing the courts, it very much didn’t turn out right. With buildings torched, raided and looted, the deaths of five people, and hundreds of arrests, it’s been a week that Britain would rather forget.
As well as the social cost, the riots have badly hit the independent music sector in Britain by destroying the Sony distribution centre in Enfield, north London and with it about 1.5 million CDs. More than 150 labels have been affected and Warp Records – home to the Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and Grizzly Bear – say their entire back catalogue has been incinerated and is unlikely to be re-pressed. Other labels to be hit include Rough Trade, Independiente, FatCat, Ninja Tunes, Soul Jazz, Track and Field and many small outlets that release only a few hundred new releases at a time.
It’s hard to comprehend what was going on in the minds of the teenagers suspected of carrying out the attack on the building, but surely they had little idea of how this would affect cash-starved musicians and label owners, most of whom do what they do out of a love of music and no material desires.
Meanwhile, the Notting Hill Carnival, which ironically was hit by rioting by disaffected black youth in the late 1970s, but now attracts more than a million people every year, is under threat due to the rioting.
Music has not been immune from rioting and general disorder in the past, the Bank Holiday flare-ups between the Mods and the rockers in the mid-60s being a notable watershed in the history of youth culture.
There was also the so-called riot at the inaugural Phoenix Festival in 1993, when crowds of people turned on security and the organisers, after festivalgoers, who had paid quite a lot of money to see Julian Cope, the Manic Street Preachers et al were told to put out campsite fires and go to bed early. Hordes of angry people berated the organisers inside the arena until security guards, who had changed into black attire, charged out of the main entrance and clubbed people with what was likely to be baseball bats.
Child’s play in comparison with what’s just been happening in what I called the Chav Uprising to a friend. There can be no excuse for looting and senseless violence, which are the last vestiges of the desperate and the opportunists.
But to hear righteous politicians and self-appointed judge and jurymen vent their spleen on those involved, without attempting to get to the root of the problem, is unseemly. Prime Minister David Cameron’s call to dismiss “phoney human rights concerns” smacks of a Pacific despot. Human rights are far from phoney and there are people around the world who are losing their lives to achieve human rights in their country. Mr Cameron has no justification in attempting to influence the law courts of his country and he should allow the judicial process to run its course, independent of political interference. There’s also a hint of hypocrisy here. There are 16,000 police officers on the streets this weekend to ensure there’s no repeat; but that is the same number of officers who will lose their jobs under proposed government cutbacks, by 2015.
Unlike the riots of the 1980s, in Toxteth, Handsworth and Brixton, most notably, race, police oppression and unemployment was the spark for a downtrodden group of people, mainly black, to hit back. There was a public outcry about the rioting, but they did, at least, lead to a debate on what was happening in the inner cities.
Nothing like that will happen this time around, and with stories of the Sony distribution centre being torched, and rioters taking whatever material possessions they could find (except books apparently), from electrical goods to Imodium, it’s hard to see why.
But to dismiss the riots as just wanton criminality will be ignoring some key questions, and could lead to a repeat. We live in a consumer-obsessed society, with the notion that we should aim to buy Gucci and Louis Vuitton, or if you are on a more restricted budget, anything that comes out of China and Indonesia. Economic growth is tied in with how loud the tills are ringing on the high streets. It’s impossible to walk down any main street, or open a magazine, without an ad screaming at us to buy, buy, buy.
The people who looted the likes of Foot Locker and Boots would not have been oblivious to this slavering devotion to the consumerist society, so we can’t claim to be surprised when a generation bred on such nonchalant terms as “retail therapy” with shopping elevated to something of a sport, turns on the retailers and claims what they feel they should be entitled to. Still, it doesn’t justify what has happened but equally some understanding of the sparks that cause such actions need to be addressed. Don’t hold your breathe though. Governments no longer look at long-term solutions to social problems and pander to the public’s thirst for justice and the rise of fast-media that lacks an insightful function, into creating more laws and regulations that often only create more problems than they solve.
Musicians have often had concerns about the consumer society; back in the late 1970s a pivotal theme in punk music, particularly by the likes of X-Ray Spex, was how young people were becoming consumers, and were encouraged to obtain as much high street goods as they could. Now seems about a good time for modern musicians to return to such themes.