Documentaries! I like to watch documentaries. Though the topics may vary widely: about WWII, about 9/11, about former presidents in the USA who have meant a lot for the course of history (meaning Lincoln, Kennedy, Johnson, and certainly not Trump), about all-consuming black holes in space, about the egos of psychopaths, and in a more light-hearted fashion: about music. Last week, I watched a documentary about the British soul band The Real Thing. Founded in the 1970’s, the heyday of disco and soul, they delivered hits by the likes of You To Me Are Everything, Can’t Get By Without You and Can You Feel The Force? However, the band’s history went back as far as the early days of Liverpool’s Merseybeat in the early 1960’s. This early incarnation was then called The Chants, a doo-wop act with a beautiful yet equally remarkable fact to their credit as the only group that once had The Beatles as a backup band!
Now, you may be thinking: this is all very nice, but why bother me with it? I will tell you in a bit, please be patient. So, why would all this be so memorable? The Real Thing was an all black band… from Liverpool, District 8: a racially mixed, economically depressed neighborhood in which they grew up. As stated, Lennon and McCartney saw their potential early on. And in the early 70’s, they appeared on the British Opportunity Knocks (a TV talent show… yes, even then!), as one of the first artists of ethnic origin. And the success floated accordingly: big hits followed quickly. Quite a gratifying achievement for the ‘4 lads from the hood’…
The real strength of the documentary though revolved around their 1977 album (see photo): 4 From 8 (4 boys from district 8). With little to no hit potential, it was a daring experiment after huge commercial success, an ambitious change of course from pure pop to real politics. A conscious choice, however: the focus of this LP was directed at the impressive Liverpool 8 Medley – three beautifully melodic songs, straight from the streets of Toxteth. The trio of tracks from Liverpool 8, Children Of The Ghetto and Stanhope Street was lightyears ahead of their time and utterly unique in British music. Being the first homegrown soul music that dared to address the experiences of blacks in a deeply divided United Kingdom of the 60’s/70’s. An earlier, somewhat more careful attempt was made by hit factory Motown (USA), with Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On (1971).
It took hold of me, took me right back to that era, this documentary… glued to the tube, as they say. Extensive statements were made by (white) politicians with the aim of putting a stop to the multicultural society; and if everyone would please return to their country of origin; followed by a few more uncomfortable footnotes from that particular time.
Going along, I noticed the big difference with my own experiences from those early days. It was definitely the music that fulfilled its wonderful exemplary purpose… so I’m gonna take you on a little musical trip. Are you up for it? Already from a very young age, I was an avid admirer of all kinds of music. Besides the typical and obvious (white) rock bands like The Doors, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Queen, artists like Tina Turner, Three Degrees, Diana Ross, George McCrae, Donna Summer, The Trammps, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire also occupied a spot on my musical horizon. If I have to take my mother’s word for it, I was already dancing in front of the telly as a little boy when Toppop (dutch version of Top of the Pops) was aired on the screen.
Aside from the disco, tending to be rather lighthearted, David Bowie was the first real confrontation that things could be done differently, that there was more than just the music only. Constantly changing his image including the androgynous Ziggy Stardust, I surely was an enthusiast of his insane gender-bending clip Boys Keep Swinging (1979)… acute shock value, so to speak. It turned out to be a turning point: I was kind of drawn in.
However, Prince was the artist who fixed my identity in the teenage years. To me, the only musician who made it clear in quite the non-conformist way, sometimes cheeky but always groundbreaking that gender and race didn’t matter: everyone is equal. As documented in Controversy (1981), amongst other tracks. A few years later, he went even bigger, but now visually: the title track from the movie Purple Rain (1984) is not just your average love song, which many think it is; it’s also a cry for change, him bringing together audiences from different backgrounds (literally seen in the clip!) in a majestic way.
One last shining example from those early years: Billie Holiday. When I discovered the raw and fragile voice of Lady Day as one of the most influential jazz singers, I gradually started reading books about her turbulent life. Thus learning all about a rather dark side of the great American history: racial segregation. Just take a listen to the ominous song Strange Fruit; it will send shivers down your spine.
A fun fact… returning to Bowie: in the mid-seventies there was literally a big wall between the white (more rock oriented) and black (more soul/disco) music culture in the USA. In my experience, it didn’t matter that much in Europe with everything mashed up in one cozy tube. Therefore, it was certainly not traditional in America for a white musician to perform in an all-black program like Soul Train. Yet, Bowie managed to do just very that in 1975 with his then new single, the deliciously funky Fame.
These are the changes which are engraved in your mindset. Already from those early days on, music for me was a kind of metaphor to meet other cultures and to show your true colors. Although, not really: after all, I didn’t see any color. Not even in the 22 years I had the pleasure of working for my company in Amsterdam Zuidoost (1988-2010), a melting pot of about 130 different nationalities. Despite this short time travel through pop music, this story isn’t actually about me…
We often talk about ambitions by ways of integration, and at the same time, diversity and inclusivity are of paramount importance. It is for this very reason it’s also part of our generation to discuss it occasionally, no matter how complicated or inconvenient it may be. So, why this story specifically? Why did the documentary cited above appeal to me all the more? And why did it upset my stomach the way it did? I’m going to unravel it now, so thanks for waiting until this last paragraph. Recently, there was an incident with an acquaintance of mine. A rather clumsy or unhappily chosen comment plunged in completely wrong (not a comment made by me, just to be clear). A comment with far-reaching consequences though: for a week, on the sideline I was a witness which effect it had on him: a combination of anger, disbelief, humiliation, sadness, mistrust. For that reason, those days left a lasting impression on me, and it became the accelerator to this story. I myself know all too well what the suggestion of a possibly discriminatory remark entails, so that very feeling suddenly came very close again. It cuts through your heart like a freshly sharpened knife. Nobody should ever feel that way… ever!
The lesson from this story? Please, just stay alert to unsuspecting comments that -no matter how well-intentioned or sometimes playfully- can be interpreted by others in a different way and therefore are not recommendable. Also, it would be best to deliberate and talk to people directly about this. After all, we don’t want anyone to get hurt in any way by comments about someone’s race, cultural background, skin color, sexual orientation, or religion/belief. Let us try to take care of each other in this way!
All images: Edward Gubbels