In a feature published last month entitled A Paler Shade of White, Frere-Jones recalled an Arcade Fire show, which he said was enjoyable, but not exactly funky. “Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voice-like guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat . . . that characterised black music of the mid-20th century?” he asked.
The question seems anachronistic, and oddly myopic, and, like an inverted Alf Garnett, he has unsurprisingly caused instant offence. Playboy wrote: “Frere-Jones has demonstrated himself every bit the racist for buying into this pathetically regressive set of ideas.” The more gracious Arcade Fire sent the writer an MP3 of chunks of their music to prove that they “steal quite blatantly from black people”.
Frere-Jones’s New Yorker article harks back with fondness to the blues-wailing Seventies rock of Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad, with Mick Jagger lauded as “an original” and “a product of miscegenation” with apparently no equivalent today. He believes that the intermingled blood began to separate in the Nineties, an argument that would put him at loggerheads with almost any British writer.
“It’s complicated even there,” Tyondai Braxton [of Battles] says. “White America, white Europe, has had no problem assimilating. This is great, but it can be dangerous. You have to remember that this is still a sensitive issue. We are talking about one of the most displaced cultures in the world, trying to create its own foundation. It created blues, funk, hip-hop, and, with hip-hop especially, it’s saying: ‘You can’t copy this ghetto life, this is real truth.’ It’s a flag. Right now I think black culture is going through a preservational state.”
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