Music’s in the house

Rappers have found a role in lockdown: chronicling coronavirus with topical tunes. Most people, though, are rushing to the safety of the past

Peter Doggett

The Met had received a tip-off: an illegal gathering of celebrities in the heart of the capital. As Superintendent Sutherland’s men burst into the sumptuous, Louis XVI-styled lounge of Ciro’s nightclub behind the National Gallery, the crowd of 250 socialites was shocked into a sudden cessation of its reckless hedonism. Friends ushered prominent bluebloods away through hidden exits, to safeguard the already tattered reputation of the Prince of Wales and his set.

In 2020, the party might have been hosted by a Premier League star too famous to recognise the Covid-19 lockdown. This raid was in 1916, however, and its target was illicit Sunday night drinking. Little more than a year later, London’s 8,000 nightclubs faced a starker threat than the uninvited presence of the Metropolitan Police. Ciro’s had lost its licence, and was refashioned into a private hospital in time to host the first victims of what passed into history, with geographical injustice, as “the Spanish flu”. So aggressive and relentless were the successive waves of this H1N1 virus that it has been estimated that one-third of the world’s population may have succumbed to it, with a death toll of perhaps one hundred million people.

British health officials struggled vainly to contain a disease that could devastate one district, while leaving neighbouring boroughs untouched. With no vaccine or recognised cure, GPs could only prescribe draughts that might alleviate the symptoms rather than attacking the cause. Brandy and whisky were by far the most popular of these makeshift panaceas.

In the absence of a single government department assigned to the crisis, it was left to local officials to issue guidance about containing the virus. There was an underlying assumption that it might be sensible to avoid crowds and confined spaces; the Daily Mirror explained light-heartedly that in London’s theatres, “Sneezing actors have been performing to sneezing audiences”. But there was no government intervention to close the theatres, pubs or picture houses. Responsibility for one’s health was loaded squarely onto the individual rather than the state.

Press barons were reminded that, with the nation still at war in 1918, the British public should be shielded from too much reality at home. Even as the daily death toll ran into the thousands, the gruesome statistics were confined to an inside page. Doctors were quoted as declaring that the most effective remedy was to “Keep merry and bright”. The Mirror went so far as to publish a lengthy editorial of which Donald Trump would have been proud, under the reassuring headline: “Don’t Think About It”. Rather than worrying about influenza, the paper insisted, the most sensible course was to “carry on”. Its readers did exactly that; and so did the virus.

Music halls now incorporated a new stock character: the unwelcome guest with an explosive sneeze and a window-rattling cough. Comedians added the flu to their punchlines; comic songs inserted the illness into their litany of life’s inescapable curses, alongside the nagging wife and the mother-in-law. As the virus cut a swathe across the North American continent in the final weeks of 1918, professional songwriters offered rival versions of the Influenza Blues. Happy Klark, doyen of the vaudeville circuit, was sidelined in El Dorado, Kansas, after the local mayor took the sensible decision to close down the theatre for a fortnight. When his show reopened, he was ready with his “catchy and lilting” Influenza Blues, which proved so popular with those who hadn’t succumbed that it was winning a prominent place on his troupe’s posters.

The bandwagon of hacks ready to exploit every gimmick and catastrophe in a song vanished decades ago, along with music hall and vaudeville. But there is one musical genre that retains the ability, and desire, to chronicle history as it unfolds: hip-hop. Via uploads on YouTube or Soundcloud, its practitioners can respond within minutes to a police shooting, a government outrage or an unforeseen pandemic. Modern recording technology has democratised the making of hip-hop, if not its marketing, and as soon as Covid-19 began to impact on people’s lives, rappers of all degrees of fame and skill began to “drop”, in the contemporary parlance, tracks that were hooked around the virus. Some, like the Tin Pan Alley fodder of the Spanish flu era, were designed solely as entertainment—such as iMarkkeyz’s “Coronavirus”, built around an online rant from pop star Cardi B, who had desperately informed her millions of followers that “Shit is real!” Fading rapper-turned-reality-TV-star Tyga stumbled across a TikTok video from the next-to-unknown Curtis Roach, and built it into his addictive lockdown anthem, “Bored in the House”.

Other artists saw a higher calling than mindless distraction: an alternative vision of lockdown life to that purveyed by Johnson and Trump. Psychs, a representative of London’s drill scene, unleashed “Spreadin’”, which lamented the suspension of Premier League football, sent out “love to the families” stricken by the pandemic, and concluded that nobody should have been surprised by the virus because these days, “everything’s made in China”. G’Mac Cash from Detroit used his “Coronavirus” rap to demonstrate the disease’s distinctive hacking cough, before explaining that he was playing it so safe, “I ain’t even ’bout to drink me Corona beer”.

The most comprehensive response to Covid-19 thus far has come from Canadian rapper Dax, whose “Coronavirus (State of Emergency)” is accompanied by a commendably professional video—almost as if he has dragooned a film crew into ignoring social distancing for the afternoon. “Everybody’s turning animalistic,” he spiels as he tackles panic buying and worldwide distrust of one’s peers. Before long he stumbles into a theme that recurs throughout the hip-hop community: the belief that Covid-19 is “a man-made virus”, a paranoia perhaps inevitable in a genre that is ever alert to police brutality and societal discrimination. Yet Dax can still offer some consolation, and a sense of community. “Before you go crazy,” he warns, “just know—we’re all part of the remedy, we’re on the same team, and corona is the enemy.”

This music can spread as quickly as any pandemic: at the time of writing, Dax’s video had amassed almost 1.3 million views in two weeks. But beyond the reach of hip-hop, there is little sign of a population eager for its entertainment to masquerade as social commentary. The diet of a community under stress is comfort and familiarity. The role of showbiz, as the trade magazine Billboard noted in 1942, is to act as “a major factor in the great morale offensive that has turned the nation into a single vast working-fighting machine with but one end in view”. Faced with a country in lockdown, and a disease that strikes with deadly force and without warning, most people want to consume what they already know they like. That might be as well-worn a pop anthem as “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, or the Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These”, or that most reliable of broadcast regimes: a telethon comprising musicians of all ages revisiting their signature tunes, accompanied by bland but undeniably accurate assertions that “we’re all in this together”.

As if on cue, veteran rock icons have emerged from hibernation to offer new material that has attracted wildly extravagant critical acclaim. The Rolling Stones’ “Living in a Ghost Town” was hyped by the Guardian as “their best new song in years”; it was also their first new song in years. Likewise Bob Dylan’s hypnotic, tantalising blend of doggerel and inspiration, “Murder Most Foul”, which commentators universally seem to have agreed is a “fever dream” of nostalgia and historical speculation. No rush towards the safety of the past would be complete without the Beatles, the 50th anniversary of whose dissolution coincided neatly with the early days of the lockdown. In the absence of fresh music from the Fab Two, fans have latched instead onto the reassuring pages of Craig Brown’s rendering of the group’s all-too-familiar saga in an episodic 600-page biography.

Previous extended bouts of social disturbance, most notably the two world wars, have reflected a similar cultural swoon into the comforting arms of familiarity. “Homely Songs Stir Nation’s Heart”, a newspaper declared in autumn 1914. Twenty-five years later, it was national treasure Gracie Fields who ventured across the Channel with British troops, so that she could record a medley of First World War favourites alongside the boys who were surely about to overthrow the Nazis by Christmas. (Her gesture was soon undermined when she married an Italian citizen, and had to move to North America to escape public disgust at her fraternisation with the enemy.)

Popular music was considered vital to morale, on the home front and in the trenches. The Red Cross delivered gramophones to Flanders and the Somme, along with a selection of songs from the West End’s latest hit shows. In the Second World War, they slipped 78s into the food parcels despatched to POW camps in Germany. While young men battled for their country’s honour, their families were serenaded by songs of sentimentality and romance—none more pervasive than those from the songstress dubbed “Everybody’s Friend” in 1940, Vera Lynn. It was no coincidence that Her Majesty’s address to the nation amidst the current pandemic drew upon our folk memory of Miss Lynn’s WW2 hit, “We’ll Meet Again”. Not that everyone at the time was convinced that her song was appropriate for a country at war. Soldiers complained that it heightened their sense of distance from their loved ones, while a BBC executive despaired that her music “will have the opposite effect to making any of them ‘fighting mad’, and rather turn them to ‘wishing it could all be over and done with’.” Bing Crosby aroused similar misgivings with his contributions to the melodic war effort, “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”—neither welcomed by troops bogged down beyond New Year in the heat of Burma or the Philippines.

If these songs were intended to convey a sense of continuity for civilians and soldiers alike, they also served to disguise the musical revolutions that greeted the returning military heroes after both global conflicts. Officers returning war-torn and shell-shocked to London in 1918 and 1919 discovered that their sweethearts had fallen prey to a pernicious, and alarmingly erotic, American import: jazz. The capital was “writhing” and “wriggling” to the syncopated rhythm and cacophonous arrangements of the earliest jazz tunes, concocted in the Deep South, 5,000 miles from the front line. One observer recorded officers “complaining that in her craze for the restaurant, the revue, the tea-dance, the jazz or the foxtrot, they find difficulty in recognising the wife they marched to war for”. Jazz was the soundtrack of anarchy, abandon, hedonism: yet it acted as an anaesthetic for a generation scarred by the anxiety of separation and the barbarism of trench warfare.

When the Second World War ended, it was New York rather than London that registered a jolting shift of musical perspective. Jazz musicians who had escaped the draft, by fair means or foul, found themselves unable to secure regular work, because petrol rationing had taken all but the most prominent swing bands off the road. Instead, the most transgressive amongst them gathered in the clubs along 52nd Street, exploring the narcotic potential of “tea” or “junk”, and rewriting the harmonic rulebook. Those musicians who had served overseas returned to discover that New York was now the bastion of bebop, a style that combined rigorous musicological expertise and daredevil experimentation. Most of the demobbed jazzmen could not understand it, let alone play it; but the swing music that had once been their stock in trade was destined for oblivion.

Amidst both conflicts, the regime of hardship, austerity and isolation—a lockdown of emotions and dreams—had triggered not only a primal need for comfort, but a desire for reckless liberation from the strictures and conventions of the past. In 2020, or whenever musical civilisation is released from its current lockdown, will the pandemic prove to have been a hothouse of artistic and technological innovation? Is revolution afoot in the cramped bedrooms of Camden or Compton? Or will we simply carry on, in the spirit of 1918, and prepare ourselves for the next Beatles anniversary—yet one more wallow in the Lethe of the swinging Sixties?


This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.

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