Like a few of my fellow smug Americans, I got a good chuckle out of An Idiot Abroad, last year’s Sky1 series that follows English comic Karl Pilkington—a veritable Mancunian Neanderthal—as he tours the world at the behest of his colleagues, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. The shtick, of course, is that Pilkington hates it. Given the opportunity to get paid to trot the globe—a job most people would kill for—he approaches the Seven Wonders Of The World with dragged knuckles and a grudging sufferance of other cultures. Pilkington is pressed between two forces: Gervais’ and Merchant’s sadism from without, and Pilkington’s own myopic “Little Englandism” from within. Hand the guy the planet on a platter, and he’d rather cling to his packet of crisps from the corner shop.
A couple episodes in, though, my smugness melted. I realized something: I was a lot like Pilkington. But where he’d prefer experiencing the big, scary world through a TV screen, chaperoned perhaps by the soothing voice of David Attenborough, I’ve spent most of my life visiting Pilkington’s precious England vicariously through music.
Like a meat-hating kid who one day discovers what vegetarianism is, I’d never heard the term “Anglophile” until I was irreversibly one myself. I couldn’t tell you when it started, but I can guess why: The shitty little towns where I spent my teenage years—Port Charlotte, Florida, and Northglenn, Colorado—didn’t offer much in the way of culture to a nerdy loner like me. This was the ’80s, and the so-called Second British Invasion was in full swing. Duran Duran and David Bowie (who, by the way, both played at the first concert I ever saw) made sophisticated pop with a gilded edge of glamour. My family, on the other hand, wore grubby denim and listened to Skynyrd. We were also poor as dirt, and I couldn’t hope to dress cool; neither was I tough enough to hang with the metal kids, despite a morbid fascination with Iron Maiden and its undead, Union Jack-waving mascot Eddie.
Punk rock, as the cliché goes, saved me. I was 15 when I started getting into The Clash, Buzzcocks, and The Damned, not to mention their moodier cousins, The Smiths, Joy Division, and Gang Of Four. (Coincidentally, half those bands—and scores more that I’ve adored for years—hail from Manchester, the city Pilkington calls home.) I liked American punk and hardcore, too, but the British stuff just captivated me more. I guess I’d already had my brain rewired by the neon-lit, vaguely alien anthems of Billy Idol, Adam Ant, and Culture Club back in junior high. Not to go overboard with the adolescent angst, but back then I felt pretty suffocated by the chain-store drabness and lower-middle-class docility of Port Charlotte and Northglenn. England was like some shining beacon of alluring otherness—but it wasn’t so exotic that I couldn’t understand the language, even if songs like The Smiths’ “Panic” was riddled with references to places (“There’s panic on the streets of Carlisle, Dublin, Dundee, Humberside”) that I knew nothing about.
And that’s where I turn into Pilkington. Early on, my Anglophilia branched out—starting with movies and television (The Young Ones, This Is Spinal Tap, Doctor Who, Monty Python) that complemented my musical tastes. From there, all kinds of British music were fair game. In the early ’90s I read the British music papers, NME and Melody Maker, religiously, and hunted down all kinds of import records by bands like Swervedriver and Primal Scream. Then Britpop hit, and I went nuts for Supergrass, Elastica, and their ilk—to the point where I DJed a Britpop night at a local club for a couple years. I also started working backward and digging into older British sounds: classic rock, prog, folk. The punk in me had to clear room for Fairport Convention. As it turns out, they made amicable flatmates.
But the further afield my turntable roamed, the more stationary I became. I moved around a lot as a kid—I attended over a dozen schools growing up, thanks to a single mom with a strong case of wanderlust—but rather than instilling in me a love of new horizons, it made me kind of loathe travel. I used to agonize over the idea of someday making a pilgrimage to Ian Curtis’ Manchester and Nick Drake’s Tanworth-In-Arden, sites that served as gardens for the tragic English genius I romanticized. But would I be disillusioned when I got there? Could I even afford it? Wouldn’t I be happier spending a couple thousand dollars on more British rock records? Ultimately, those sketchy plans faded away. It’s not too late, of course. But the older I get, the less I care. I’ve wound up resembling—at least in a different interpretation of the lyrics—the target of Gang Of Four’s barbed anthem, “At Home He’s A Tourist”: “At home he feels like a tourist / He fills his head with culture / He gives himself an ulcer.”
In Rob Young’s excellent new book, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, the author speaks eloquently about English identity, and how the land’s long history has been dug up and repurposed by its folk musicians over the last century. Young wonders if British music “will continue to channel all the buried dreams, imaginative advances, and desired utopias harbored by its people.” Ironically, Electric Eden crystallizes what this Yankee has always loved about British music, folk or otherwise: Unlike my relatively young country—and unlike my relatively sheltered self—Great Britain has roots. I’m envious of that. Its roots are mine, at least marginally; I’m told much of my family is originally from Wales. But I was raised just another strip-mall American, so that heritage never factored into my upbringing (although I do harbor an inexplicable love of Tom Jones).
So what does it say about me that I’d sooner stay at home and listen to quintessentially English music—The Kinks’ Arthur, Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day, The Jam’s All Mod Cons—than actually go to the land that inspired them? (I won’t even dive into my fascination with British songs that comment on America: Supertramp’s “Breakfast In America,” The Exploited’s “Fuck The USA,” Blur’s “Magic America.”) Maybe it’s a moot point, and someday I’ll finally drag myself off my couch and across the Atlantic. I won’t have the benefit of a salary, an expense account, and a camera crew like Karl Pilkington, but you never know. Until then, at least I can say I’ve been taking the lifelong audio-tour.