Thursday, 5 July 2012

US 80s-90s

This article deals with the loose period 1987-1994. It could just as easily have gone in ‘Faces’, but I assume most people who follow one decade blog follow all three.

In December 1990, tunnelling machines knocked through a final section of chalk, and an Englishman and a Frenchman were able to shake hands deep under the seabed. It came as a surprise to me, because Europe had always seemed further away than that. Culturally speaking, at least, Britain’s real neighbour in the eighties was the United States of America.  This was about more than sharing a common tongue, or the politics of the ‘special relationship’. If Business Ontology (the belief that everything in society should be run as a business) is a dominant ideological position today, then the 1980s enjoyed a particular variant on the theme: everything in society should be run as a business, because that’s how they do things in America. ‘American’ was for long time a straightforward synonym for progressive, modern, desirable.

The plutocracy-celebrating soaps Dallas and Dynasty enjoyed huge ratings. Channel 4 launched their American Football programme in 1982 (with the marketing blitz reaching peak levels in 84-85), perhaps reasoning that association rules football was in irreversible decline and that a gap existed for a flashier, more commercially minded rival sport. Others who’d been thinking along the same lines had taken over football clubs in this period, pushing their ‘inevitable’ club mergers and price rises, struggling to understand why the enduring popularity of football was failing to generate the money that washed around in American sports.

Irving Scholar floated Tottenham Hotspur on the stock exchange in 1983, and Spurs were also ahead of Manchester United in the area of omnimerchandising  - catalogues packed with everything from bedspreads to pencil sharpeners were doing the rounds in my school playground as early as 88-89. Alan Sugar picked up Scholar’s ball and ran with it through the early 90s. But Tottenham were always makeweights among the ‘Big Five’, and they never made the step up to globe-spanning giant, in either sporting or marketing terms.  The football modernisers of the 80s could say they were ahead of their time, and that’s true to an extent. ‘Ahead of your time’ isn’t necessarily a compliment, given that businessmen are supposed to understand their audiences.*

This first wave of Americana had broken by the end of the decade. Between rave, Italia 90, and Thatcher’s defeat over Europe, we’d seemingly found enough confidence to stand by ourselves for a while. But while the ‘official’, media-narrative grip of America had been broken, the process continued on an everyday level all over provincial Britain. The metropolitan media, and the creative/artistic world, didn’t really pay much attention to this (except occasionally to exhibit a sniff of disdain, before moving on to more important things). When Brett Anderson posed behind the slogan ‘Yanks Go Home,’ he and the writers were referring to one pond-crossing musical genre, not to the Americana the rest of us could see everywhere we went.

Kids who’d grown up on the osmotically influential cultural touchstones of mid- 80s America (Back to the Future, Michael Jackson) found themselves spending their adolescent leisure time in a passable imitation of this dream-country. In the late eighties and early nineties, every town in England grew bowling alleys, shopping malls, multiplex cinemas, and ice rinks, while the kids who spent their adolescence in these places almost invariably did so dressed in American leisurewear. The films showing at the new cinemas were, almost without exception, American. Even the two standout British successes of the period (A Fish Called Wanda**, Four Weddings and a Funeral) were set in a tourist’s theme park version of Britain, and had American female leads.

The theme parks, of course - a collection of sodden fields outside Lowestoft became home to Pleasurewood Hills (properly: ‘Pleasurewood Hills American Theme Park’, with a cuddly beaver mascot). In Ilkeston, a venue once known as ‘Britannia Park’, which had been ‘a celebration of British culture’ (tiresome echoes of both 2000 and 2012 there), was replaced with the American Adventure Park, its themed zones covering everything from the Aztecs to the Wild West. It fell into disrepair, zone after zone being closed down and dismantled, before it gasped its last in 2005. The pathos of the overgrown site made it a briefly popular location with urban exploration/hauntology types.

Older and wiser, we can look back and sneer at our Americanised leisure options, but there’s no denying how exciting all of this was to pre-adolescents at the time. Like the transition to Post-Fordist capitalism, this was something we wanted, something we asked for. When the out-of-town mall opened, when the local chain video store became a Blockbuster (with attendant Jelly Belly concession) – it’s not hard to see how it all seemed fantastically exotic to a child growing up in a depressed city, let alone a small provincial town. Those who weren’t fortunate enough (in the days before the internet, when you really needed a gatekeeper:  a friend’s older sibling, or a sarky bloke in a record/video shop) to stumble across a suitable subculture remained in the world of leisurewear and consumption***. ‘We’ pitied them, or reviled them – in the 80s, they might have been casuals; in the 90s, they embraced the American tendency (not that they would necessarily have admitted this) and became ‘townies’. Later, with an added dose of arrogant, frightened bravado; ‘chavs’.

With this proselytising done on the ground, the modernisers had a more receptive audience to their attempts to reshape British sport.  The FA launched the Premier League in 1992, supposedly (charitably) in order to head off a breakaway by the leading clubs, and invited bids for exclusive broadcasting rights from pay-per-view as well as terrestrial channels. Sky TV, who had hitherto struggled to make an impression on the British market, narrowly won out (the anecdote goes that, with ITV’s final bid on the table, Spurs chairman and satellite dish salesman Alan Sugar left the room to make a phonecall. Not long after he returned, Sky upped their bid by just enough to win).

The aesthetic of those early Premiership years was a strange one. The footballers themselves were still distinctly 80s-looking – relatively skinny, legs unwaxed, wave haircuts, the odd survivor with facial hair. The grounds were, for the most part, in the same condition they'd been in for decades. The Sky presenters addressed us from rickety chipboard studios perched up in the gods of places like Boundary Park, in the age before stadia were designed with executive boxes and media suites as priorities. But the continuity viewers could see on their screens wasn’t the point. What they were told they were seeing was something new and revolutionary, year zero, a whole new era in sport.

Sky’s presentation was jarring, to begin with. In those first few weeks they showed us the ‘Sky Strikers’, a dancing girl posse in puffa jackets, who gamely went through their routines to near-unanimous baffled silence (folk memory suggests massed, hostile booing, but this doesn't come out in the clips), while inflatable Bart Simpsons careened around them. As for Sky’s actual game coverage, hyperbole ruled and negativity was verboten.  Andy Gray became a comedy routine staple for his heroic insistence that every single game was a thriller.

The 80s were hardly a golden era of kit design – Hummel and Umbro in particular were responsible for plenty of overdesigned horrors. But it was only in the Sky years that football kit manufacturers really began to push the boundaries of creativity. There was a tendency toward gimmicky colouring and detailing, on away shirts most of all. Forming a neat parallel with the wider cultural trend, this took root most easily at modest provincial clubs. Tranmere? Teal and purple diagonal halves. Hull? Tiger stripes.  Aston Villa (okay, not exactly provincial, but the Midlands were culturally quiet at the time) enjoyed a green and black striped effort with a big red yoghurt company logo on the front. Manchester United’s most famous kit of the era, the Newton Heath 1893 tribute strip, was hardly ahistorical, but still fit the template – gratuitous green and a lace-up collar. The team who were wearing these shirts were backed by an off-pitch media and marketing operation far beyond anything Spurs had tried to do in the preceding years.

By 95-96, it all seemed to fade away. At the Euros, the St George’s Cross replaced the old-Establishment symbol of the Union Jack, and England lost in the quintessential ugly, commercial away strip (supposedly chosen because it went well with jeans), leading a stampede back to more familiar designs. Outside football, too, the flood of tacky Americana into provincial Britain seemed to come to a halt. The conventional wisdom on the subject would hold that Britpop and the YBAs (and so on, and so on) restored our pride in our own cultural produce, while the subsequent election of a moderately pro-EU government resulted in a cultural turn from the distant west to our immediate neighbours to the east. Alternatively, more cynically, we could hypothesise that the modernisers became more savvy to their target market, trimming away the overtly American edges of their wares to appeal to British punters. There’s a figment of truth in these arguments. The music charts began to look more to Europe, two key late nineties trends being the cheesy Europop of the Vengaboys et al, and French House. The American-style building developments of 1997 onwards had more of a sensitive, European sheen (compare this Walmart-style big box with this – but these explanations still skirt over an uncomfortable truth.

Sky’s 1992 Premiership coverage struck everyone as needlessly American. Today’s equivalent – Sky rolling out their sponsored ‘Grand Slam Sunday' idents – is, if anything, more brash and overblown, but doesn’t carry the same feeling of otherness. Britain is like that now.  In the 1980s, the gap between American leisure culture and British ground zero was unbridgeable, partly because of cultures of resistance that still existed on the ground. In the early 1990s, the poles had moved closer together, but the juxtaposition was still striking. By 2000, the discontinuity had been completely smoothed over. Britpop’s claims of patriotic triumph couldn’t be more hollow. American leisure culture is now so seamlessly worked into our lives that we no longer notice it. The ‘Yanks’ didn’t go home. We met the enemy, and we were them.

*A common trope of the time was club chairmen who’d taken power on a raft of ambitious promises eventually turning against and publicly abusing their own fans, fairly explicitly blaming the supporters’ luddite mindlessness for the failure of their own ill-conceived schemes.

 **‘Wanda’ bore a not-quite-sequel – ‘Fierce Creatures’ – about a brash, know-nothing American business guru who takes over a ramshackle British zoo. This ‘slick but clueless American business moderniser’ character was an archetype in British comedy throughout the period under discussion.

 ***Confusingly enough, kids who did belong to a subculture spent their free time in most of the same places, but they made more of a show of not enjoying them.


Rhian said...

Fascinating and, given that I grew up with this kind of thing as backdrop, entirely convincing. I guess the idea of 'chavs' and proto-chavs as passive absorbers of US leisure and culture, while the middle class (and aspirant working-class?) are tasteful European sophisticates, also crystallises the conflicts, resentments and loyalties behind a line like 'Take your A Year in Provence and shove it up your ass' ... not to mention 'There are fewer more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap'.

digitalben said...

Hah, yeah.

Alternatively, going with a band I know you like, exhibits A ( and B (

The 'fairtrade coke' line presumably nicked from HMHB, which is bewildering. Somehow I can't imagine Simon and Julia kicking back and putting on 'CSI Ambleside' of an evening.

Rhian said...

Yeah, the Indelicates' (libertarian? who knows) pro-American stance, especially in deliberately provocative opposition to 'the British left', is interesting. Don't know about HMHB but they certainly have the Auteurs and Carter USM as influences, and like them are a band whose contrarian prickliness - among many other good qualities - doesn't really work in anything other than a British context...

William said...

Also remember kudos of people who had been to the States (usually either NY or Florida) on holiday and bought Nike trainers, which were supposed to be cheaper than ones in Britain.
I think it’s interesting that the current American cultural products that dominate like Apple and Google don’t ‘feel’ specifically American at all. All the minimal good taste I guess.
There is an indie current that always looks to American culture though – people like Keith Cameron with their unswerving loyalty to Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr etc.

Phil Knight said...

What Britain really discovered was its inner spivvery. The Americans simply lead us to discover our true selves.

You know "shopkeeper's knack"? That habit where instead of charging £5.00 for an item, you charge £4.99 in order to kid the punter they are paying £1 less?

It only exists in Britain. Nowhere else. Not even in the USA.

That's the kind of people we are, and have always been.

No point blaming outsiders.

Alex said...

You know "shopkeeper's knack"? That habit where instead of charging £5.00 for an item, you charge £4.99 in order to kid the punter they are paying £1 less?

It only exists in Britain. Nowhere else. Not even in the USA.

I can confirm this isn't true. Further, it supposedly originates with the cash register - it's very unlikely anyone will count out the 99 pence/cents/whatever, so you have to make change. As a result, you can't pocket the money because you have to run it through the till. it's actually labour discipline rather than salesmanship.

Alex said...

Something else, more on-topic. By the mid-90s, I remember thinking that the US was just...irrelevant and a bit kitsch. Obviously music had a lot to do with that, but I didn't really grasp that there was a US heritage of dance music until much later.

Of course, hip-hop was different, but then, that's not the same America is it?

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