Thursday, 6 August 2009

Harry Patch and Radiohead

Today is the funeral of the final soldier to have fought in the first World War, Harry Patch. The pop group Radiohead have recorded a single which is on sale (£1) - proceeds of the sale go to the Royal British Legion.

There is a little bit of a kerfuffle about this, some accusing the band of opportunism. The argument goes that, despite all the money going to a charity fully representative of the deceased and his profile, the band will no doubt get a minimum of residual publicity. This is true. It's also the case that the band have put the B-side collection from their two year old album In Rainbows on sale less than two months ago.

What's the alternative? It's possible that a piece of music could be commissioned. We have a composer* & poet laureate, state-sponsored and royal-warranted artists that could fulfil this role without any suggestion of piggybacking personal interests on such a gesture. Yet it's a sure sign of the manner in which British society has moved on that these positions are socially invisible, ivory-tower-consigned roles that simply do not have the appeal of a free-market-leading artistic outfit such as Radiohead. For all that the band are a commercial outfit, their success and profile is mainly due to the success of their labours. People have put them in the position they find themselves by staking their money in them - it's a significant, if modern vote of confidence. And of course, having a high-profile outfit producing music that's market-tested means that the cash bonus from this episode for the Royal British Legion will be considerably more than that of a Sir Peter Maxwell-Davis, Carol Ann Duffy exercise. I'd imagine.

I think that Thom Yorke and Radiohead have behaved pretty well over this issue. Their offering makes no claims other than to honour. If in the process of making the gesture they cause a bump in interest in their own commercial corner then that's a sort of collateral issue, which reminds me of Churchill's famous statement on democracy: it being the least worst system.

* the 'composer laureate' = Master of the Queen's Music

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