If there’s one thing that rock and pop have tried to teach us over the years it’s how to be uncivilised.
We’ve been shown how to grow our hair, free our restless genitals, offend the cloying sensibilities of previous generations, to frug through the night to “so-called” music composed of little more than primal rhythms, to open up our wild sides or at the very least pay saucer-eyed factotums braver or more damaged than ourselves to work the magic by proxy.
Classic, greasy-quiffed rock ’n’ roll aficionados enjoyed plastering the word about. Jerry Lee Lewis puffed out his cockerel chest as the original “Wild One” (with plenty of biographical data and manic piano-hammering to back up his claim). Martha Reeves & The Vandellas swooned over the brooding, misunderstood, leather-jacketed “Wild One” that society just couldn’t tame.
Freedom-loving outsiders were nothing new though. Folk music staple “The Wild Rover” had been crashing boozily about since the mid-nineteenth century. Louis Armstrong started hot-jazzing “Wild Man Blues” in the 1920s. As long as there’s been civilisation, there have been barbarians banging at the door for last orders.
The “wild man” arc reached its natural conclusion with GG Allin, a hardcore punk/performance artist whose stage shows would end with him literally covered in blood and shit (mostly his own) after assaulting his audience and stripping naked. He died of an accidental heroin overdose at a party in 1993.
“Wild” broke whichever cultural taboo needed the most urgent attention. When Nina Simone wanted to describe what happens when “you touch me“, she reached for “Wild is the Wind” to subtly get her point across. That and mandolins. Tone Loc wasn’t quite so subtle when he shared his experience of the “Wild Thing” with us in his proto-gangsta braggadocio. The Troggs were at least a little more romantic (“You make my heart sing!”).
Once the seismic sexual shift of Elvis’s pelvis began to cool, “wild” represented personal freedom, a natural state that we were all born into before the Man ruined our nice vibrations with his wars and monogamy and narcotics legislation. Enter the Steppenwolf like true nature’s children with “Born to be Wild”, running their motors off into the psychedelic frontier at the nightmarish edge of the American Dream.
Youth helps; acting like children, even better. Iggy Pop was a rather wrinkly “Real Wild Child” reboot of the Wild One model in the 1980s. Skid Row’s poodle-noodles nodded and pouted as they demonstrated the awesome power of “Youth Gone Wild” and skin-tight jeans.
The frontier is another favourite idea: a porous space between here and there, us and them, where men can be men and women can be women and Adam & The Ants can be “Kings of the Wild Frontier”. Pantomime crazies The Prodigy had a weekend break at the “Wild Frontier”. Lou Reed sketched the “Wild Side” with anthropological detachment. Bow Wow Wow suggested we “Go Wild In The Country” when the fashion-conscious restrictions of London got too much for them.
But what exactly does this frontier separate nowadays? The boards of rock and pop have been trod by so many “wild” men and women the meaning of “wild” has become flattened under the weight of their collective hooves. Duran Duran anyone? (“Wild Boys!”)
Unruly behaviour itself has become worn down by repetition, the pavements of the citadel jagged with defenestrated TV sets. There was always money to be made in selling rebellion, but marketing so cleverly slipped its virus into the DNA of rebellion when it worked out that you can sell anything to anyone if you tell them it will help them “express their individuality” that there are no restrictions. The pop/rock impulse became a distended black hole sucking the whole culture inside itself.
There is still one border to cross though.
Rock/pop is an urban phenomenon, dependent on a specific density of punters and performers, huddled around the bars, clubs, record shops and venues to stay alive. But out there, beyond the walls, lies … the countryside! There be monsters. Rock stars gape in horror out the windows of their tour bus, clutching their bottles of JD with white fingers, at the kind of unimaginable deprivation that bluesy share croppers and yodelling hillbillies invented R&B and Country & Western to escape.
But there are some for whom the countryside, the Wilderness if you will, has an irresistible allure. Some are country lasses and lads who still feel the tug of the hinterland in their shiny metropolitan hearts; others are city types who feel the need to escape and recharge their batteries.
The Kinks got as far as “The Village Green Preservation Society”, as manicured as carefully squared cucumber sandwiches. Blur (pre-Cotswold cheeses) could only sneer at a “Country House” with no immediate intention of moving into one. But Bow Wow Wow saw the benefits.
Led Zep spent so much time at Bron-yr-Aur in Powys, recording tunes about the magic of mountains and hills, that Robert Plant spoke Welsh. Pulp gradually shifted away from overlit, lip-gloss Britpop to find somewhere green and restful on their leafy “We Love Life” album.
For actual country folk, the countryside was less a mythic escape than a daily reality to be negotiated. Lead Belly and other bluesmen had worked in it (“Cotton Fields”). “Scratch” Perry has cows bumping through his dub mixes. Super Furry Animals sang about being “Mountain People” on the margins and recorded a whole album about the slow death of rural communities before Gruff Rhys marched off solo into the American wilderness.
The continental expanse of the US gifted Messianic types (U2, the Boss) with room for a rugged, big sky aesthetic of self-reliance and spirituality among the prairies, deserts and giant Redwoods. Smog were happy to move to “the Country”. Canned Heat packed their flutes and jaunty time signatures too. “The Woods” held little terror for Sleater-Kinney. Grandaddy spelt out a childishly simple life in their “Nature Anthem”. Even Jay-Z and Kanye seemed relieved that there was “No Church in the Wild”.
But the Romantic poets left the British a legacy of terrible awe at nature, and Northern nature at that. For The Smiths, the moors always offered gloomy escape to desolate hillsides and child graves. Wild Beasts (from the Lake District) shiver breathily about “Wanderlust” and “Nature Boy” while British Sea Power (also Cumbrian) quivered with Ted Hughes visions of “Carrion” and “Favours in the Beetroot Fields”. Southerners Bat for Lashes (“Winter Fields”) and Metronomy (“The Reservoir”) also capture an eerie sense of human life caught in moments of nature-bound panic.
The post-punk generation found the spooky wilderness inside themselves and projected out into “A Forest” (The Cure) or just “Wilderness” (Joy Division), devoid of life exactly as the countryside isn’t.
But the gold star for combining the unpredictable performance of wildness with its high-country backdrop goes to Kate Bush. “Wuthering Heights” hits the spot: bird-flutter vocals escape out the bedroom window to dark, heartless nature; internalised alienation and childish excitement paired with brooding moorlands.
The last word goes to Jeffrey Lewis, or rather to the voracious “Bugs & Flowers” whose zillions of tiny souls will mean there will be “no room for us” in heaven. The real message from nature is that our wild performances and awe-struck contemplations will mean absolutely nothing; we are “infinite dust”.
Try frugging your way through that paper bag.
Top Ten Gone Wild
The Dubliners – The Wild Rover
Louis Armstrong – Wildman Blues
Gruff Rhys – Walk Into The Wilderness
Bow Wow Wow – Go Wild in the Country
The Troggs – Wild Thing
Jay Z/Kanye West – No Church in The Wild
Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – Bugs & Flowers
Sleater-Kinney – Wilderness
Pulp – Wickerman
Kate Bush- Wuthering Heights