Music I’ve Gone Off

Oddly enough, there isn’t a great deal of music I’ve gone off over time. I tend to remain loyal to stuff I liked when young, even if I objectively know it’s dreadful now (i.e. hair metal); or just not really like it much to begin with. Still, some music just doesn’t hit me as it once did. Here’s a few examples.

Tricky

Tricky I suppose is a relic from my pot-smoking days. When a student, I took to hash like a duck to water; it enhanced my imagination, made studying more interesting (if far from efficient – I would wonder down mental tangents for minutes at a time then have to backtrack) and made music more sensual, colourful, and vivid. Studying an arts/humanities course is very agreeable to pot, too, in that your class time will probably be no more than a few hours a day, leaving plenty time for “self study”. It took some time to find the right musical accompaniment, as I’d been too much of a goody-goody to indulge whilst at school (too chicken, also), so it was a case of suck-it-and-see. I first thought the dazzling technicolour of the Beatles’ psychedelic period would suit; but no. It was too bright, too pretty. Once I tried Pink Floyd’s sonorous early rhythms, I was on the right track, and hearing Tricky one day at a friend’s room, I was all over it like white on rice.

Tricky’s first album Maxinequaye is a masterpiece of deep lush rhythms, sensuous atmospheres and understated melodies, with occasional floaters of anxiety and paranoia darkening the emotional palette. Songs like “Abbaon Fat Tracks” are almost preposterously sensual, without being explicitly, juvenilely sexual – this is 4am hash-smoking session getting it on: no rampant animals spirits, but a heightened sensory experience with a languid physical response. “Hell Is Round The Corner”, with its Portishead sample, is similarly languid (with the nice touch of vinyl crackles), but counterpointed by a lyric of ghetto darkness and social breakdown. There are up-tempo songs – “Brand New You’re Retro” takes the riff from “Bad” over which Tricky and Martina both perform great raps, but still sounds deep and fluid in its rhythms; while “Black Steel” is a thrash metal version of a Public Enemy song which left critics non-plussed (they rarely know how to interpret the more aggressive strains of rock), but which effectively breaks up the homogeneity of atmosphere and tempo. The album is not consistent – it declines quite markedly after “Brand New You’re Retro” – but it hits numerous enormous bulls-eyes, and deserved its nomination in numerous “Best of 1995” lists.

Maxinequaye however got Tricky rather pigeon-holed into “dinner party music”, nice “trip-hop” categories. And he didn’t seem to like that at all. But rather than outgrow this with quality output, he reacted in an I’ll-show-them way. His next three or four albums become increasingly dark, sinister and paranoiac. Check “Vent” as an opener to third album Pre Millennium Tension: the thundering drums, the ominous feedback loops, Tricky’s rasping vocal (“can’t hardly breathe!”), sharp guitar attack, and lack of melody or rich bass tones make it a marked development, and a skillfully developed atmosphere, but you have to be enormously creative to sustain people’s interest in such a dark, oppressive ambiance. (C.f. Joy Division). And Tricky just isn’t good enough as a musician. Pre Millennium Tension does start well, with “Vent”, then the understated menace of “Christiansands”, while “Makes Me Wanna Die” is stark and affecting. But tracks like “Tricky Kid” are boring hip-hop braggadocio, and “Ghetto Youth” a long boring raga, while “Bad Things”, “My Evil Is Strong” and “Piano” evoke an atmosphere (yup, a dark, oppressive one), but do nothing with it – Tricky just rasps his familiar lyrical motifs, and that’s it. It’s boring.

Next album Angels With Dirty Faces is a further progression along this route. Dispensing with melody almost entirely, the album comprises tracks of skittering beats and breakbeats, over which Tricky and Martina (there’s rather less or Martina on this album) mumble or wail their problems. When it works, as with “Singing The Blues” or “Broken Homes”, it’s very good – both creative and effective. But usually, unfortunately, it’s just boring. “Carriage For Two” does nothing much, nor do “Tear Out My Eyes” and “Analyze Me”, and… well, the whole second half of the album, frankly.

After this Tricky had clearly backed himself into a corner and took three years to release his next album (and re-think his entire approach). Comeback album (I feel that should be in neon: COMEBACK ALBUM!) Blowback saw Tricky with about a dozen guest performers, from the Chilli Peppers to Alanis Morrissette to Cyndi Lauper. (Yes, really). And while the album is more varied and melodious, it’s really just sad and embarrassing, feeling and sounding like famous wellwishers grafted on at record company behest to help pull Tricky out of his hole. Some of the effects are diabolical – the Nirvana cover “Something In The Way” features perhaps the worst raga you’ll ever hear. It’s atrocious. And that was where my patience snapped and I gave up.

I’ve perhaps laboured the point, but there was a time when I felt Tricky was outstanding, and Maxinequaye was a very fine album (up until track nine). But he’s a clear example of someone with a very clear musical vision which was all used up after two albums.

Cypress Hill

There was a time when I was interested in rap and hiphop. This was the early 90s, so it would be oldskool stuff, I guess, like Ice T, Public Enemy and NWA. The progression is pretty natural for rock fans who like anger and dissent in their music; and with the injustices featuring in Public Enemy etc both genuine and demonstrating the ugly face of the ruling class and culture, some felt even more into it. While I liked Public Enemy, whose skewering of American institutions, myths and culture was both brave and immensely skilful, the others I went off of very rapidly. Tales of ghetto histrionics and bravado are just fucking tedious to me, and symptomatic of a sterile destructive culture. Subsequent artists in this vein, from Snoop Dog onwards, I just despise.

There was a time that’s embarrassing to recall though, when I thought Cypress Hill were good. Simple funky rhythms and “fuck-the-law” lyrics and all that. I liked it for about a month when I was thirteen, then the repetition of the beats became glaringly obvious, and their appeal wore out like cheap chewing gum. Fin.

(If you’re wondering why I’m embarrassed to recall a musical passion at age 13, well consider that at that age I had already discovered Nirvana, the Sex Pistols, Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd, The Clash, Slayer, etc, who in their various ways I still love).

The Smiths

It’s not so much I’ve gone off The Smiths, maybe, as that my adolescent infatuation with them wore off. When I was in the grip of it, I listened to them daily, religiously; now, I put on The Queen Is Dead, Hatfull of Hollow or Best of Vol 1 occasionally, but that’s about it. With the best will in the world, they are something of an teenager’s band – their lyrical preoccupations particularly. The music is dazzlingly lyrical, running the gamut of emotions, but with a few mordant slabs of sadness, gloom and even downright self-pity, they were easy to dismiss as miserabilists. As I’ve aged, what’s become more important to me in music is lack of affectation, a reality, the conveying of true emotions passionately felt. You get this in abundance throughout the greats, from Miles Davis to Bob Marley to Kraftwerk (once they’d hit their stride). With Morrissey’s lyrics, one sometimes feels a distancing, so that his word-play and allusions become not verbal pleasures but self-protection from revelation. There have even been books about the interpretations people place on his lyrics, such are their opacity/allusiveness. Take “What Difference Does It Make?”:

All men have secrets and here is mine,
So let it be known
For we have been through hell and high tide
I think I can rely on you
And yet you start to recoil,
Heavy words are lightly thrown
But still I’d leap in front of a flying bullet for you

I’ve always thought this was about someone telling a friend (or desired lover?) that they were gay. But equally it could be an argument, a confession about anything, etc.  Allusion and resonance are nice, but there comes a time when you ask “Where’s the beef?”

Other things that irritate about Morrissey’s lyrics are their preciousness, and the preening intellectual pretension. Again, fine when you’re fifteen, and you’re just discovering DH Lawrence and EM Forster and Martin Amis. But when you get to 30+ and you’ve read a book or two and aren’t afraid of using, you know, big long type words, it gets a bit tedious.

What does remain about The Smiths are Marr’s unerringly fantastic guitar playing – which is yet never wankily flashy, which makes for a great relief in the 1980s – and when Morrissey’s lyrics are genuine and heartfelt. “How Soon Is Now?” (despite the dreadful pretension of the opening lines) remains painfully true:

I am the son
and the heir
of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir
of nothing in particular

You shut your mouth
how can you say
I go about things the wrong way
I am human and I need to be loved
just like everybody else does

“Back To The Old House” creates a brooding, desolate atmosphere, heightened by a stark Marr accoustic finger-picked piece:

I would rather not go
Back to the old house
I would rather not go
Back to the old house
There’s too many
Bad memories
Too many memories

When you cycled by
Here began all my dreams
The saddest thing I’ve ever seen
And you never knew
How much I really liked you
Because I never even told you
Oh, and I meant to
Are you still there ?
Or … have you moved away ?
Or have you moved away ?

While the sharp observation of “Girl Afraid” is rich with biting humour and pathos:

Girl afraid
Where do his intentions lay ?
Or does he even have any ?
She says :
“He never really looks at me!
I give him every opportunity!
In the room downstairs
He sat and stared
In the room downstairs
He sat and stared
I’ll never make that mistake again !”

Boy afraid
Prudence never pays
And everything she wants costs money
“But she doesn’t even LIKE me !
And I know because she said so!
In the room downstairs
She sat and stared
In the room downstairs
She sat and stared
I’ll never make that mistake again !”

“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, “Never Had No One Ever” and “Last Night I Dreamed Somebody Loved Me” are in the same direct, emotional, vein. But notably, of course, all focus on doomed romance and loss, the typical narcissistic adolescent complaints. The emotional resonance of this is somewhere around zero for me, and so despite The Smith’s numerous great gifts of expression, I’ve just don’t listen to them much these days.

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Pink Floyd Albums – A Rating

Animals (1977)
I guess why this is top of the list is that it has zero fat or flab; no duff bits. Though essentially comprising three long songs, all over ten minutes, it is dense with invention and fantastic playing. The lyrical and tonal cynicism introduced in Wish You Were Here dominate, but where WYWH‘s negativity comes over as adolescent sulking, on Animals it is skilfully articulated into a broader worldview. That literary flavour is, of course, derived from Orwell, but while on some bands this might have seemed pretentious, the numerous lyrical bullseyes help the Floyd carry it off. “You radiate cold shards of broken glass”, “A certain look in the eyes with easy smiles”, “This creeping malaise”, “Only dimly aware of a certain unease in the air”… brilliant. (I’ve written more on the qualities of Animals here).

The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
Like Animals, this album absolutely teems with invention, densely packed with sound effects and the broadest musical palette the Floyd had ever dared to use. Synthesizers, female vocalists, jazzy chords, looped tapes, saxophones; the whole damn kitchen sink, man. I guess I don’t need to rhapsodise about what a terrific album this is – you know this already, I am sure. I do have a few quibbles about it, though, which prevent it being top of the list (while still being miles ahead of anything else most bands could ever hope to achieve). FIRST: it’s a bit uneven, with the middle a bit soggy, though the start and finish are amazing. SECOND: there’s a certain irritating dryness to the production during the verses of “Time”. THIRD: I don’t like how they produced “Money” much at all, either. It doesn’t really bring out that brilliant lolloping 7/8 rhythm. Check the demo by Roger Waters seen in the Classic Albums episode about Dark Side: it’s got this almost funky deep-blues rhythm. FOURTH: I am all for longish intros, but two and a half fucking minutes for “Time” to kick in? Still, “Any Colour You Like”, “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” finish up the album magnificently.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
The sole Barret-era album is a bit of a Marmite album amongst Floyd fans, I think. I’m on the “love it” side. Its whimsicality, teeming invention, lyrical cuteness, pastoral playfulness, and full-fledged psychedelic explorations (“Interstellar Overdrive” literally sounding like galaxies ebbing and flowing, born and reborn) and achingly groovy 1967 vibe, man, make it an utter delight. You really wonder what would have been.

Meddle (1971)
Any album with “Echoes” has to be high on a list of the best. It is a stunning piece of work, stately and unhurried yet filed with drama and incident; vivid and theatrical, but running a gamut of emotions; brooding, mysterious and like, totally deep, man, but instantly comprehensible and recognisable (none of the unnecessary wanky musicfests as you get with King Crimson or early Genesis). Amongst the short tracks, “A Pillow Of Winds” is touching and heartfelt; “Fearless” highly atmospheric, and “One Of These Days” a brilliant pulsating bass-line workout. On the other hand, “San Tropez” is a dryly humourous throwaway, and “Seamus” is easily the Floyd’s least popular song, with good reason.

Wish You Were Here (1975)
I am one of those (relatively few?) who do not rate this album as amongst the Floyd’s very very best. Sure, “Shine On” (both parts) is utterly magnificent, stately and yet pulsing with emotion, and “Wish You Were Here” is such a very fine example of humanity, empathy and loss. However, I really am not a fan of “Have A Cigar”, with its easy targets and sneering, and its jarring keyboards, nor do I much like “Welcome To The Machine”, which is a bunch of sound effects of some more dismal and bitter lyrics (“You bought a guitar to punish your ma”).

The Wall (1979)
I’ve already explained my conflicted feelings about The Wall. Suffice it to say – brave, clever, profound, provocative, skilful, artful; but at the same time, in its bitterness and angst, it’s just a bit much. These days, I have a young family and I need the art I consume to sustain me. In its unremitting negativity, The Wall does not do that. It has its moments of utter greatness, of course; it is one of the most interesting albums I’ve ever encountered. But… I am not sure whether it bears sustained listening, in the same way that Animals or Dark Side do.

A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
The first post-Barret album retains his influence, though only one song bears his writing credits, “Jugband Blues”. The other tracks keep it relatively conventional, with Richard Wright’s “Jigsaw” and “Remember A Day” achingly English, and not so far from the tone of Piper, if lacking their madcap invention. The seeds of the new Pink Floyd are there, but mutedly: the title track does have several great ideas in it, with the shift to the sombre organ after the madness of the syncopated drums perhaps the finest transition in the whole album; yet the live version on Umma Gumma blasts it out of the fucking water. “Set The Controls” – frankly, this songs stumps me a bit.

Ummagumma (1969)
This double album is half live, half studio. Unusually, it’s the live section which is the more interesting: instead of being filler, it shows the Floyd working on their arrangements and improving their delivery of existing tunes. Both “Set The Controls” and “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” are more full-bodied, and the Floyd’s handling of dynamics in both songs is masterful. Their version of “Saucerful Of Secrets” is even more noteworthy – Gilmour’s overblown guitar in the “Something Else” and “Syncopated Pandemonium” sections is outstanding, but his wordless singing in the concluding section, “Celestial Voices” is mind-blowing, majestic, magnificent. This was where he went from new-boy in the band to essential member, and his contributions in succeeding albums became increasingly remarkable.

However, the studio disc is… crap. OK, it’s not all bad – “Grantchester Meadows” is very nice, and Gilmour’s “The Lonely Way III” is very good, creating a weary, desolate atmosphere. But holy fuck, all four parts of “Sysyphus” and all three parts of “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party” are utter gash.

The Division Bell (1994)
I think this is a fine album. It’s not great – it’ll never win any prizes for originality or invention. But within its modest aims, it has perfectly crafted mature pieces of rock. The sound on it is also terrific, with lovely clean guitar (no fuzzy psychedelic noodling) and fine singing from Gilmour. (Too much from the female backing singers though, especially in “What Do You Want From Me?”). I love moments like the way the song kicks back into gear in “Poles Apart” (around 4.13), Gilmour’s emotion-soaked singing at the start of “Coming Back To Life” (“Where were you…?“), and the very fine “High Hopes”. It’s a dignified ending to their studio career.

Atom Heart Mother (1970)
If Piper is a Marmite album, then the title track on Atom Heart Mother is a Marmite song. And here I come down on the other side – it just seems like a bunch of stitched-together pointlessness to me. It has moments of colour and drama, but it just does not sustain your interest. It’s good, I suppose, that the Floyd were ambitious and took risks – their approach paid major dividends later in their career. But not here. “Fat Old Sun” is a nice piece of English nostalgia, as is “Summer ’68”, but “If” is a bit of an oddity, and “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” like an underpowered self-rip-off.

The Final Cut (1983)
This album doesn’t do much for me. Some people whose opinion I respect tell me it’s a good one; but it seems to progress the formula of The Wall about being about concept and lyrics rather than music or even tune. Now it seems a dated series of diatribes. Waters’ lyrical facility never wavers, but the increased topicality and personal nature of the songs make all seem a bit forced, like he is writing as a Very Important Lyricist, rather than doing honest heartfelt stuff like in Animals or Dark Side.

More (1969)
A soundtrack album, with a few memorable songs like the minor-key “Cirrus Minor”, the roaring “Nile Song” and “Cymbeline”.

Obscured by Clouds (1972)
Less memorable tunes than More. The soundtrack albums stand a little apart from the rest of the Floyd body of work, I think, unlike, say, Dylan’s Pat Garret & Billy The Kid, but similar to Miles Davis’ Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)
Apart from “Learning To Fly” (which I was a bit disappointed to learn was actually about Gilmour getting his pilots licence – I had always taken it to be metaphorical…), this really is a duff album, bland commercial late-80s rock. The production is sterile (unlike the organic, band-in-a-room feel of much of Division Bell), and there’s very little Floydian about it. It’s really a Gilmour solo album of course, and I suppose it’s good he kept the show on the road, but I really feel this is the weakest album in their catalogue.

Queen Playlist

Here’s my Queen playlist:

Keep Yourself Alive  Queen I
Seven Seas Of Rhye  Queen II
In The Lap Of The Gods… Revisited  Sheer Heart Attack
Now I’m Here  Sheer Heart Attack
Stone Cold Crazy Sheer Heart Attack
Killer Queen  Sheer Heart Attack
’39 A Night At The Opera
You’re My Best Friend  A Night At The Opera
The Prophet’s Song  A Night At The Opera
Seaside Rendezvous A Night At The Opera
Good Company A Night At The Opera
Bohemian Rhapsody A Night At The Opera
Somebody To Love  A Day At The Races
Tie Your Mother Down (2)   A Day At The Races
We Will Rock You News Of The World
We Are The Champions  News Of The World
Sheer Heart Attack News Of The World
Spread Your Wings News Of The World
Bicycle Race  Jazz
Let Me Entertain You  Jazz
Fat Bottomed Girls Jazz
Another One Bites The Dust The Game
Dragon Attack The Game
Play The Game  The Game
Under Pressure  Hot Space
Radio Ga Ga  The Works
I Want To Break Free The Works
I’m Going Slightly Mad Innuendo
Innuendo  Innuendo
These Are The Days Of Our Lives  Innuendo

That is an amazing set list! A great body of work.

Incidently, my wife, who is Chinese, likes Queen better than any band I’ve introduced to her. Even The Beatles! Her percipient comment was, “They are a band that loves their power”.

Top Ten Mega Favourite Music Acts In The World Of All Time Ever

  1. Beatles
  2. Pink Floyd
  3. Kraftwerk
  4. Miles Davis
  5. Velvet Underground
  6. Sex Pistols
  7. Guns N’ Roses
  8. Boards Of Canada
  9. Joy Division
  10. Nick Drake
  11. Metallica
  12. Rolling Stones
  13. John Coltrane
  14. Mike Oldfield
  15. Nirvana
  16. Queen
  17. Pubic Image Limited
  18. Spiritualized
  19. Talking Heads
  20. Aphex Twin

Edit – added an 11-20.

I guess it really comes down to albums – though Queen, for example, have an strong list of classic tunes, their albums are a bit hit-and-miss, with only A Night At The Opera and The Game really consistent, I’d say; and their 80s stuff is pretty banal, to my ears.

Clement Attlee and the State

The post-1980s reduction of the welfare state aims to return provision for the poor to charitable institutions and community groups. This is one of the broader intents of David Cameron’s “Big Society”. While this soundbite/slogan has been lost in the grind of government, I believe he is sincere in his belief that greater community and charitable involvement is preferable to the state handling such matters. To the wealthy, community involvement is a fine thing, demonstrating leadership and compassion, while the state is cold, impersonal and prone to bureaucratic bloat. Cameron (though he’s never articulated this) is I imagine a Burkean conservative, a right-wing communitarian who sees inherited rights (of property, etc) a better basis for society and government than abstract rights or progressive ideals. (He has often said that conservatives work with “the grain of human nature”). However, as is typical for the wealthy, he’s looking at it from the perspective of those giving. To those on the receiving end, it looks rather different.

Clement Attlee however knew better. He served as a MP for Limehouse in the East End of London, an area of serious poverty and associated social problems. He knew what it was about. His famous quote about charity goes:

Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.

The full quote, with qualifications, is:

In a civilised community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways – they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organised community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community. The first way is intolerable, and as for the third: Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient’s character, and terminable at his caprice.

One should not have to feel gratitude or subservience for sustenance in a wealthy society. George Orwell has a memorable section in Down And Out In London And Paris, where he describes the aggressive behaviour of the tramps towards a church which distributed food to the homeless.

Outside the church quite a hundred men were waiting, dirty types who had gathered from far and wide at the news of a free tea, like kites round a dead buffalo. Presently the doors opened and a clergyman and some girls shepherded us into a gallery at the top of the church. It was an evangelical church, gaunt and wilfully ugly, with texts about blood and fire blazoned on the walls, and a hymn-book containing twelve hundred and fifty-one hymns; reading some of the hymns, I concluded that the book would do as it stood for an anthology of bad verse. There was to be a service after the tea, and the regular congregation were sitting in the well of the church below. It was a week-day, and there were only a few dozen of them, mostly stringy old women who reminded one of boiling-fowls. We ranged ourselves in the gallery pews and were given our tea; it was a one-pound jam-jar of tea each, with six slices of bread and margarine. As soon as tea was over, a dozen tramps who had stationed themselves near the door bolted to avoid the service; the rest stayed, less from gratitude than lacking the cheek to go.

The organ let out a few preliminary hoots and the service began. And instantly, as though at a signal, the tramps began to misbehave in the most outrageous way. One would not have thought such scenes possible in a church. All round the gallery men lolled in their pews, laughed, chattered, leaned over and flicked pellets of bread among the congregation; I had to restrain the man next to me, more or less by force, from lighting a cigarette. The tramps treated the service as a purely comic spectacle. It was, indeed, a sufficiently ludicrous service–the kind where there are sudden yells of ‘Hallelujah!’ and endless extempore prayers–but their behaviour passed all bounds. There was one old fellow in the congregation –Brother Bootle or some such name–who was often called on to lead us in prayer, and whenever he stood up the tramps would begin stamping as though in a theatre; they said that on a previous occasion he had kept up an extempore prayer for twenty-five minutes, until the minister had interrupted him. Once when Brother Bootle stood up a tramp called out, ‘Two to one ‘e don’t beat seven minutes!’ so loud that the whole church must hear. It was not long before we were making far more noise than the minister. Sometimes somebody below would send up an indignant ‘Hush!’ but it made no impression. We had set ourselves to guy the service, and there was no stopping us.

It was a queer, rather disgusting scene. Below were the handful of simple, well-meaning people, trying hard to worship; and above were the hundred men whom they had fed, deliberately making worship impossible. A ring of dirty, hairy faces grinned down from the gallery, openly jeering. What could a few women and old men do against a hundred hostile tramps? They were afraid of us, and we were frankly bullying them. It was our revenge upon them for having humiliated us by feeding us […]

The scene had interested me. It was so different from the ordinary demeanour of tramps–from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we outnumbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor–it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.

To receive charity is to place someone into a subservient position, and any healthy person will resent this. The only healthy way to provide welfare is through the state, as Attlee knew. His 1945-1951 PMship is still venerated on the left (and even praised by the Daily Mail) for its progressive reforms: the National Health Service, sustaining the full employment sustained by the war, nationalising the dangerous and inefficient mining industry, nationalising steel and rail, decolonisation of India, nationalising the Bank of England.

However, Attlee, perhaps through naivety, perhaps through decency, seemingly did not appreciate that merely handing functions to the state would not be enough. Curiously, there seems to have been little thinking about the state, or more precisely the governance, needed to run the new functions taken up by Attlee. There seemed to have been an assumption that simply to have welfare run by the state would be enough to make it both dignified and efficient. Subsequent experience over the “welfare state years” (1945-1979) disproved this. (There was a similar failure to consider whether the state had the tools to run the nationalised industries effectively, but that’s a different story for another day). As any common or garden economist will tell you, it’s all down to incentives. With government running welfare, health, pensions etc, there was far fewer alternatives from churches and local charities, so the state became a monopoly provider. While the left was happy with this, as provision through the state would be “democratic”, “for the people”, and other undigested ideological bulletpoints, the right-wing criticism of monopoly provision seems to me to be spot on. Lacking incentives to be anything other than basic, and working with the least empowered sections of society, the British welfare system might have been equitable but it lacked dignity. This can be most acutely seen in situations where state provision was to the politically weakest members of society – in prisons, the mentally ill, and the truly destitute. (On the other hand education, which had to provide for the middle-classes, attained a good quality of service – at least in middle-class residential areas, a post-code segregation which blights the UK to this day).

There are fascinating documents capturing the ignobility, inhumanity and oppression of state services to these weakest sections of British society. The 1977 TV drama (and subsequent 1979 cinematic remake) Scum dramatises the failings of the “Borstal” system of corrective discipline for youth offenders (and, more broadly, the entire public sector). It is a shocking indictment of cruelty and hopelessness. The photos of Dave Sinclair show a sclerotic Liverpool in the 1980s. Council housing was as variable as education: some areas held a mix of working- and middle-class residents in decent quality buildings, while some sink estates became notorious. (Not so much because the tenants were inherently bad people, but because some areas were used to house various strands of the disenfranchised, from immigrants to unemployed youth, leading to a vicious downward spiral). Even Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982), with its evocation of the bullying teacher, indicts the education system.

It is perhaps unfair to attribute all the failings of the UK welfare state to to Attlee, who set it up in expectation of full employment, and who would not have foreseen the economic strife of the 1970s. The welfare state of the 1980s was clearly not up to the job, but it had an 1940s design which had not been retooled or rethought. But the question of state provision remains: if the state is the sole actor/distributor, how can you ensure it does not ossify, as monopolies do, into arrogance and contempt for its “customers”? The classic economic answer is competition: companies, institutions and people stay on their toes when there’s a rival. The state, public sector, answer has tended to be checklists and targets.

While John Major was best known for introducing competition into areas such as education and health, under his premiership the state was encouraged to identify performance targets every year and to report on their achievements. The opening-up of the black-box of the state really came to fruition under him, an under-appreciated achievement. Also notable is the way that the public sector had to make year-on-year improvements without additional funds. One saw this in areas from the Post Office to the railways to school league tables. The targets incentivised areas to compete against neighbouring colleagues and sections, of course, but the key was the provision of information to the public and the year-on-year identification of improvements. One can imagine only too well the complaints from the unions, wanting a tit-for-tat, and their shock to discover none forthcoming. Yet Major’s reform was a significant success, with improvements in welfare and public services significant and sustained.

Blair’s first term saw a maniacal use of targets on the public sector, as Major’s reforms went into overdrive. But being bidden from the centre, they failed to get accepted by those at the sharp end, ending up distorting the outputs. NHS waiting lists might go down, but there would then be waiting lists to get on waiting lists, and so on. In time, Blair would come to realise that Major had the right idea and made “choice” his mantra for public sector reform. (See, for example, A Journey). Brown came to the premiership with a far more statist concept of public services, but by the latter phase of his time of in Downing Street, he too was advocating choice as the guiding principle. (See the excellent Brown At Ten for this about-turn).

What is interesting about all this is that Labour, as the left wing party, and therefore most closely associated with the state and with the public sector, rarely even had a theory of state provision. It seems that they expected ministers to instruct the civil service to provide, and that was enough; government provision was democratic provision, and therefore ideologically and politically sufficient. Not so. A monopoly is a monopoly, wherever it occurs, and unless it is fiercely minded, it will decline into the shambolic DHSS centres of grim 1980s memory. Now perhaps we have a better understanding. How we provide high quality state provision in education is the current foremost battlefield. If we can solve this, we will stop wasting the potential of half the children in our society.