The Null Device

The bizarre lost world of cabaret pop

The Graun's Alexis Petridis looks at the one genre of 1970s musical entertainment not yet revived or reappropriated by anyone: cabaret pop, which, by his description, is a lukewarm broth of reactionary light entertainment aired on British television throughout the 70s. Cabaret pop pointedly ignored all the stylistic innovations of the past decade, and was so unabashedly naff that it makes Eurovision look polished by comparison:
These days, we tend to view the years 1965 to 1968 as a high watermark of daring creativity, greeted with untrammelled delight at the time: after all, who wouldn't prefer Jimi Hendrix to Gerry and the Pacemakers? Look at the charts, however, and the answer seems to be: loads of people. The shift from pop to rock, and all the things bound up with it – drugs, dissent, the rise of the counterculture – clearly horrified as many record buyers as it delighted, and they responded by buying music as far from the cutting edge as it's possible to imagine. The incident in which Engelbert Humperdinck's Release Me kept Strawberry Fields Forever off the top of the charts wasn't an aberration, it was part of a trend. By late 1969, the predominant style in the UK singles chart is reactionary gloop. The Stones' Honky Tonk Women and the Temptations' Cloud Nine are fighting for space not just with Englebert, but with Clodagh Rodgers, Ken Dodd, Joe Dolan and Karen Young.
You're struck by how utterly cut off all this music seems from anything else happening at the time. There's not the vaguest intimation of glam rock or soul or singer-songwriterisms about the artists' sound or appearance. Children's TV was packed with pop music in the 70s – Lift Off With Ayshea, Supersonic, Get It Together, Shang-A-Lang – but a decade after the Times approved of the Beatles' Aeolian cadences, it's clear that no one working in light entertainment considered rock or pop music suitable mainstream entertainment for adults. When the Three Degrees appear on The Wheeltappers and Shunters, all hotpants and inoffensive Philly soul, the audience look aghast and baffled: you'd have thought Kraftwerk had just come on and played Autobahn in its entirety.
Even more astonishing is the way the musicians have shut themselves off from pop's recent past. You might have thought at least the Beatles' oeuvre had swiftly attained standard status, that Yesterday or Something might be precisely the kind of thing the balladeers with the shag-pile sideburns would gravitate towards, but no: it's still clearly considered too racy. During my light entertainment marathon, I hear two Beatles songs. One is courtesy of Little and Large: Syd Little sings Till There Was You while Eddie Large interrupts him doing impressions of Deputy Dawg. The other is Can't Buy Me Love, performed by the Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang: three men huffing away accompanied by a dancing midget in a wig.
Cabaret pop's most lasting contribution to pop culture may well have been being an irritant which contributed to the welling up of rage that brought about punk and the explosion of rule-breaking creativity that followed:
From a distance of nearly 40 years, punk can be hard to grasp: not the music, but the spitting and the swastikas and the fuck-everything nihilistic rage. But when you're drowning in light entertainment pop, you start to get an inkling of why so many people were so eager not just to listen to the Sex Pistols – that's obvious – but to indulge in all punk's unsavoury gestures. It's partly because anything, even dressing up like a Nazi and coming home covered in someone else's flob, was more entertaining than staying at home and watching three men play harmonicas accompanied by a dancing midget in a wig, and partly because, judging by what constituted mainstream popular entertainment in the 70s, not one of the previous decade's supposed revolutions had affected wider popular culture at all. The youth culture of the preceding decade seemed to have failed: to anyone watching the TV, Britain still looked trapped in the 1950s.
It's not clear whether this will remain cabaret pop's only claim to historical significance, or whether it will end up, eventually, being reappropriated by someone. Perhaps it'll be an adjunct to wickerfolk or hypnagogic pop, the insipid blandness and lack of artistic significance compared to the other things revived (from 1970s folk revivalism to radiophonic library music) merely a red rag to the bull of hipster irony. Perhaps someone will sample it, and the white-gowned ladies and dancing midgets will enjoy a post-ironic new lease of life at festivals. (Stranger things have happened; the Australians reading this will recall Kamahl's transition from ultra-bland crooner to ironic Big Day Out performer.) Or perhaps cabaret pop, without the antediluvian cool of lounge music, the polyester smoothness of yacht rock or the subtle undertones of the outré that shade the folk and radiophonica of that epoch, is truly beyond redemption as a subject of sincere interest going beyond half an hour of cringing at fuzzy YouTube videos; one of those things there isn't enough hipster irony in the observable universe to redeem.

There are 9 comments on "The bizarre lost world of cabaret pop":

Posted by: datakid Sat Oct 9 06:44:14 2010

absolute gold: "one of those things there isn't enough hipster irony in the observable universe to redeem"

Posted by: wolfstar Sat Oct 9 10:14:28 2010

I think Petridis views pop culture through rockist goggles. I love the fact he's "discovered" what he calls "cabaret pop" - which in reality is just the light music and TV light entertainment that formed the staple of UK TV schedules in the 1970s and still does in much of the world. He is right, though, in his observation that The X Factor etc are the modern form.

Posted by: acb Sat Oct 9 10:39:40 2010

Well, genres tend to be named after the fact by the commentariat, and often refer to things that never were part of a coherent scene in the first place. Take "krautrock", a label slapped on a random, largely unconnected, collection of West German experimental musicians by the British press. Or "lounge music" (a term nobody used until some hipster raised it up a flagpole in the 1990s), or its more recent cognate "yacht rock". Or, indeed, "goth", "shoegaze" and the like.

Hence it was only a matter of time until someone found common threads in 1970s light music programming (namely its reactionary refusal to acknowledge the past decade of pop culture and its almost Eastern Bloc naffness), drew a lasso around it and slapped a label on it.

Posted by: Greg Sat Oct 9 11:02:30 2010

I think this is a really interesting topic (I know it's popped up before) and I completely endorse the statements made. I often catch myself thinking in terms of after-the-fact music eras like "60s prog" or "70s punk", and then realize these were tiny drops in the giant ocean of the music that was actually popular and that we're all trying to forget. To a good approximation, mainstream audiences didn't listen to the Beatles after 1965, or to punk at all, especially outside the UK.

I wonder whether this pattern continues into the 90s? Many people think of the 90s as either the grunge, indie-pop or techno era: I wonder, if we examined the actual top 40s from the 90s, what percentage of them would be from one of those defining genres?

Posted by: wolfstar Sat Oct 9 19:02:53 2010

I think "cabaret pop" is a poor choice of name because it makes this type of music sound far more artistic and less commercial than it actually is. To me, the word "cabaret" conjures up images of tiny Berlin clubs, theatricality, and acts like the Dresden Dolls. What Petridis describes as cabaret pop is simply what has always been called light music or easy listening - music for the masses, and what much of continental Europe would call Schlager (

It's a type of music that lots of people enjoy, and the reason it's never been "revived" is that it never went away. Look at the top 10 best-selling singles of the 2000s: mass-market songs by acts like Hear'Say, Tony Christie, Gareth Gates and Bob the Builder. Not the sort of stuff that music critics generally like, but it has its place.

Posted by: Greg Sat Oct 9 21:28:32 2010

Interesting link Wolfstar. And regarding the original post, check out this fragment!

"During the 1980s and the early 1990s, Schlager was not popular in Germany and Austria[citation needed]. During the mid-to-late 1990s and into the early 2000s, however, German-language schlager saw an extensive revival in Germany. Even reputable dance clubs would put in a stretch of schlager titles during the course of an evening, and numerous new bands specialising in covering original '70s schlager tunes as well as performing "new" '70s-ish material were formed. In Hamburg, schlager fans still (as of 2006) gather annually by the tens of thousands and dress up in freakish '70s wear for a street parade called Schlager Move. This revival has always been associated with ironic kitsch and, to a certain extent, gay culture (see Camp)."

Posted by: datakid Sat Oct 9 22:07:44 2010

Out of interest, what's the defining features? How is Mike Flowers Pops lounge and not cabaret pop?

Posted by: acb Sun Oct 10 01:07:13 2010

I think the Mike Flowers Pops is lounge and not cabaret-pop/schlager because of its knowingness and intended audience (i.e., hipsters). You were unlikely to encounter them if you weren't into music or art-oriented subcultures. Its wilfully retro stylings also contribute to that.

Posted by: acb Sun Oct 10 01:10:10 2010

Wolfstar: though, concerning the claim that light music has never been revived because it never went away: surely there is a distinction between today's light music and that which Petridis writes about in that the latter was pathologically in denial of recent cultural history, whereas today's music is happy to lift from, say, hip-hop and dance music. You even hear some watered-down 1990s-alternative-style guitars here and there.