Notwithstanding geography, is Britain truly part of Europe? Or is does it stand aside, a child invited to the party but too petulant to really engage with the other kids? Is it slightly removed from les autres as a consequence of empire? Is it that it (briefly) stood alone and freed its neighbours from tyranny?
Or is it simply that Britain is incalculably, limitlessly and effortlessly better at pop music than the rest of Western Europe put together?
Possibly this is no longer the case. But it certainly seemed to be so in my salad days. European pop music was universally dreadful, absolutely without exception*; so poor, in fact, European governments had to introduce legislation to ensure that a certain percentage of it was played on the radio. European pop artists just didn’t get it – they were too old, wore stupid clothes and sang daft shanty songs in languages other than English.
What was it that made Britain, by contrast, such a hotbed of creativity?
As a child I travelled in Europe, on family holidays and school trips and looked in wonder at their clean wide city streets, fine cuisine, historic buildings, lack of advertising and superior weather. Most of all, however, I marvelled at European children. In contrast to their British counterparts, European kids seemed well adjusted; part of society. They wore sensible clothes and looked like they ate wholesome food. Typically they were brown, lithe and free of spots. Adults seemed to like them. Boys were at ease with girls and vice versa. They looked comfortable in their own bodies. They wore their backpacks over their shoulders, sensibly using both straps. They laughed a lot and were tactile. They ran in the sun, eating peaches, figs and tomatoes, until being caught and swung aloft by their doting grandparents who twirled their lustrous chestnut hair adoringly in their gnarled fingers.
In short, they seemed to exist in some sort of prelapsarian arcadia. This is the key point – they had no need for rock and roll.
For those of us in the UK, East of Eden, things were different. We smoked Players No 6, chucked stones at greenhouses, started fires, shoplifted, binged on pilfered Harvey’s Bristol Cream, fought, bullied, were bullied, stood in the rain at bus stops, were poor at sports, wore baggy grey slacks and national health glasses taped up at the corner, were chased into cul de sacs by gangs, had puce bodies and spindly arms and subsisted on midget gems.
The angst and self-loathing arising from this state of affairs was the catalyst for the greatest pop music the world has ever known.
But what in God’s name, I hear you cry, has this to do with also-ran 80s UK jazz-popsters Matt Bianco? Or perhaps you have no idea who Matt Bianco were, or are. I have not the time or energy to enlighten you. Suffice to say that they had limited success in the UK and much greater success in Europe.
There is not a lot of angst in Matt Bianco’s music. For example, one would never describe them as ‘the natural heirs to Joy Division’s troubled legacy’. Rather the music of Matt Bianco is ideal for accompanying you as you sit idly in your elegant 1940s suit, smoking a stylish cigarette and drinking thoughtful kir in an ancient European square on a warm summer evening, whilst at a nearby table a beautiful girl casts you a long, cool look.
Matt Bianco records were freely available in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, in tremendous abundance, and always at a remaindered price. Everywhere one went there was the opportunity to purchase a Matt Bianco double-pack single (with free patch) or 12” for next to no money. Often one would receive one gratis with a pint of milk or a bap. Consequently I have a formidable Matt Bianco collection. Declassified documents recently released by the British government indicate that this was a deliberate strategy to bring stability to the province by ‘chilling out’ the natives, or europeanisating them. For the most part it failed. (Interestingly, however, international statesman Gerry Adams does note in his recent autobiography, A Bearded Poet, how one day he was happily presiding over the kneecapping of a 16 year old joyrider in Andersontown when suddenly he felt the urge to drink grappa by a canal – could this be a consequence of the much-derided Matt Bianco policy?)
Dancing In The Street expresses in music what it must be like to be a young, carefree European. It is completely celebratory. The song’s protagonist is vaguely aware that summer will not last forever, but like Aesop’s lazy grasshopper, this is of no consequence while the sun is shining. Indeed the object of his affections is called ‘June’ – the month when it feels like summer’s lease will last forever. Like Mole in The Wind In The Willows, he has flung down his spring cleaning brush, never to return. These sentiments, so alien to the British psyche, were reflected in the single’s poor chart performance; it peaked at a modest #64 after a mere 3 weeks on the chart.
I had never seen the above video before writing this piece. I know nothing of its provenance, but I can say with some assurance that it cannot have been filmed in the UK – the audience are happy, they are enjoying the song and the band. No-one is calling Matt Bianco “wankers”. No, it looks like it was filmed at one of those inexplicable and anodyne European music award ceremonies in a city like Geneva or Luxembourg – somewhere you will never go, which may not even really exist, where there is no crime and full employment.
The Europe of which we will never truly be part.
*Notable exceptions are Trio’s “Da Da Da” and Nena’s “99 Luftballons”. I cannot think of other notable exceptions.