The British Sense of Decorum & Music
8th June 2022
Often attributed to George Bernard Shaw but more likely Oscar Wilde, the actual quote was apparently, “We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”
The USA and the UK shares a language but there are so many differences between our two cultures. Many of those difference reside in those essential little things.
Little things, as you know, matter most of all because little things get under your skin. Little things are often taken as sacrosanct, they are taken as read. Beyond appraisal. They are part of the how the world moves or does not. Little things give people a sense of solidity and comforting predictability.
So when those little things are questioned or challenged, it can shake you up. Probably more than it should. Probably out of proportion to their real importance.
Let me give you an example.
In fact, let me take you back in time.
I remember, on one particular occasion, listening to the radio back in the 70s. I must have been what, 12? Thirteen? Something like that. At that moment, I had stumbled onto and was listening to jazz. This piece of music was a live recording, taped within an iconic New York jazz club, perhaps? Who knows?
What I do remember is this. About a third of the way through the music itself, one of the musicians stepped forward and played a solo on the saxophone. When he was finished in his task, he stepped back and the group carried on.
My personal, earth-shaking moment was this. The audience applauded.
This one moment shook me to the core. I even forgot the music because of my confusion and bewilderment.
Why was the audience applauding? Had something happened away from the stage to trigger this spontaneous reaction? It couldn’t have been anything to do with the music. Why did I think that? Because the music hadn’t finished yet.
So the music carried on. A trumpet player contributed a solo, stepped back and, would you credit it, there was that applause again.
I couldn’t understand it. The music still had not finished. How – thought 13 year-old I – how thoroughly disrespectful to applaud in the middle of a performance.
DAZED & CONFUSED
I felt completely grumpy about this but my demeanour only worsened when the music finished because not only did the audience applaud, they then acted wholly inappropriately by hollering and shouting. They even added a series of tasteless noises that sounded suspiciously like “whoop, whoop”.
I switched off the radio. Had the world gone mad? This undisciplined, discourteous response to the artist on the stage was certainly not something you would hear in the UK during that time. It’s not something you would have heard or seen during the regularly televised variety show, Sunday Night at the Palladium, let me tell you.
Am I the only one that recalls this sense of behaviour? UK audiences back then would react to a stage artist(s) in a wholly different way to my American brethren. UK audiences of that time would sit, listen and wait.
Check out YouTube if you don’t believe me. ELP’s 1970 London Lyceum concert begins with raucous applause. Then the audience settles down to listen and all goes quiet because the band is…creating. Creating on the stage. They must not be disturbed. During the quiet moments on the stage there is silence from the audience. There is no whooping. When one song is ended, there is respectful applause. That dies away. Another song begins and that behaviour cycles around.
Take the Caravan LP, Caravan & the New Symphonia. This live, 1973 Theatre Royal performance is full of quiet areas, full of mid-performance silences but the tension is never broken by the audience who seem wholly wrapped up in the moment.
Which is part of the reason why Beatlemania, screaming girls, drowned out performances, audience chaos, bodies flying around and about, the expulsion of bodily fluids and fainting was so alarming, disturbing and threatening to many people in the UK. It just wasn’t ‘done’.
It also shows that this uncontrolled chaos wasn’t the norm. Even then. Take another UK-based live concert of the time, Booker T. and the MG’s 1967 performance in London – again on YouTube.
The young audience, half of them looking like clones of their mum and dad no doubt, sit there in their hats and their coats. Their expressions reveal how engrossed they are in the music but they sit in silence. Waiting. Drinking it all in. Some gently clap (not too loudly, now), others nod imperceptibly. One chap looks down to the ground, concentrating. Contemplating. Studious.
As for the American musicians on the stage? I wonder if they were thinking that they were doing badly that evening? Where was the reaction they were used to seeing and hearing from their compatriots?
Little did they know, they were a smash hit. What they were facing that evening was old fashioned British reserve. What I want to know is this: where did it go?
(And one last question – if you’re reading from different country – including the USA – have you noticed a similar cultural change? Do live audiences respond in a different way when compared to the 60s, 70s or 80s? I’d love to know.)