Monday, 29 June 2015

The Special Relationship

The Revived British Skate-Geek Love of 'Merica

I'd planned three posts on why skateboarders should keep keeping on from their first curb ollie through 'til old age, moving on from the physical barriers to the attitudes held by the civilian world and the media.  This was overtaken by events.  Venerable UK punkrock and shredding site Caught in the Crossfire kindly asked me to do a bunch of articles, from personal favourite topic Gino Iannucci to a heartfelt goodbye to Sidewalk Magazine in print form.  One Crossfire article covered many of the same themes planned for this here blog, taking the LOLz inducing profile of 'people who do skateboarding' from market researchers YouGov to look at how full-grown skateboarders are viewed by regular folk. Society at large may point and laugh, but society's got bigger things to worry about. Oh, and Eric Koston turned 40 and yet the world kept turning. This makes room to meander towards different topics of interest to all of three people: kind of the point of a quaintly low-fi blog.  

The problems facing advanced, post-industrial societies in 2015 are pretty gob-smacking, though not sufficiently so to drive the average adult from their sofa to do much about it.  At the same time, the consensus between politics and business has shafted the younger generation - who are 7% poorer  in 2015 than they were in 2007.   Whilst Western culture continues to venerate extreme youth, it blithely blocks opportunity for all but the most privileged.  In accepting this, we acquiesce to Ed fucking Sheeran and Mumford and fucking Sons as personifications of the zeitgeist.  The world sinks like a mammoth in a tar pit in an economic, social and creative malaise.  Nowhere is this more true than in the United Kingdom and the United States of 'merica.  Whilst both economies are, on the face of it, well into recovery, this is coupled with Victorian levels of income inequality and a suffocating sense of cultural 'meh'.  Hollywood gets ever more stuck for good ideas whilst the British electorate happily signs up for five years' of rule by pantomime villains and farcical upper-class buffoons.  

Skateboarding in 2015 is different: we're more motivated than ever to get up and try to reshape our little worlds, albeit on a usually local scale (with the exception of those saint-like men and women who've jetted off to Afghanistan, Myanmar or Palestine with quivers of skateboards, big plans and bigger balls).  A flurry of DIY skate-spots (shout out to the #Trentside grafters), independent start-up companies, giant-slaying community activism, film, art and all sorts of other weird things (including ramps on train tracks and bowls in trees) combining wheelbarrows full of 'crete with end-of-times frontier survivalism.  This makes it pretty hard for an active skateboarder to be jaded even whilst the real world is kind of awful.

In the midst of all this energy, British skateboarding seems to have rediscovered its love of America and, to a not-insignificant extent, Americans are returning the favour. Or so you'd conclude from the internet echo chamber of obsessives, industry heads and taste-makers enthusing at one and other. Kids in small town skate parks in either country appear largely unaffected by the cultural shifts that excite the 1%, as was ever the case.

Up until some point in the early to mid-2000s, the whole skateboarding world looked to a corner of Southern California (and occasionally northern California and cities along the Eastern Seaboard if you were more esoterically inclined).  Skateboarding was small, full of newish and exciting brands - almost all of them American.  If you were growing up in Britain, the Americans had the spots, the skills, and the vision of how skateboarding should look like.  The mark of a good European brand was to look in some way comparable to an American brand.  Sure, many Brits and Europeans made it, both on planks and to high places in the industry - Pierre André Senizergues, Jeremy Fox, Penny, Shipman, Rowley, etc. - but the unwritten rule was that to really do it in skateboarding, you had to do it in the United States.   

In the space of not much more than five years, a succession of things happened to shift the axis on UK skaters' world views.  British skating established an identity and pride through Sidewalk magazine and Blueprint (with which Dan Magee suavely re-imagined  East Coast US brands with references to tea, Morrissey lyrics and awful weather). The European scene exploded and Barca replaced SF as destination of choice, enabling Puzzle then Kingpin to legitimately and fruitfully document skateboarding without having to look across the Atlantic.  In comparison, a large share of American skating, pumped up on elitist handrail athletics, logo boards and identikit epic videos, got pretty dull.  Sure, the likes of Girl, Real, Anti Hero and the Sovereign Sect could be relied upon as shining exceptions.  But like your favourite bands in adolescence, attention craves new shit. Somewhere between the dying of the embers of 2000's Photosynthesis and the arrival of Cliché's Bon Appetit (2004) and Blueprint's Lost & Found (2005), I realised I'd fallen out of skate-love with America.  I read Sidewalk, Document and Kingpin and rarely looked at Thrasher or Transworld.  I looked to British or European skaters for inspiration, jumping from Colin Kennedy, to Luy Pa Sin, Jan Kliewer and JJ Rousseau.  Only as Youtube became all pervasive in the late 2000s, did I start regularly looking back at the old US favourites.

In the last few years this has changed.  The first indie brands to make a big impact may have been European, notably Palace, Polar and Magenta, but a call and response momentum has pinged back and forth across the Atlantic with like-minds in the US, like Hopps, Scumco, the Northern Co, Welcome, Bronze and Politic plus indie media like Jenkem and Quartersnacks - all offering a view of skating in contrast to gargantuan handrails, Street League and post-colonial filming trips to deserted East Asian plazas that seemed as all-American as big white teeth.

That's before we get to the indie video footage flying out of the US and delighting the cool kids over here.  American content from the likes of the GX1000 crew, Bronze, Lurk NYC, Johnny Wilson, Colin Read and Chris Mulhern (not to mention anything from indie Godfather Josh Stewart and Strobeck's regular post-Cherry output) regularly tops the list of stuff recommended to us by Sidewalk, Lost Art, Grey, Palomino or other internet active UK institutions - dramatically tipping the US/domestic UK footage scale that's been weighed in the other direction for the best part of a decade.

And now taste makers in the US and UK started fluttering their eye lashes at one another, with skate geeks and keyboard warriors from either skate scenes keen to consume an idealised version of the other.  If Lev and Palace have changed the way half of the smaller US brands make videos, Peter Sidlauskas' Bronze have changed the other half.  When you read US coverage around the recent Palace-Bronze collaboration, or excitement over the inclusion of American and Canadian riders on the Palace roster, it's illuminating how this reflects US assumptions about UK skateboarding and Britain more widely.  Blissed-out house and crackly VHS become short-hand for multi-cultural, belligerent and swaggering London.  This is a million miles away from the lived experience of Grimsby, Luton or King's Lynn, or Bournemouth or Chipping Norton.  Down-at-heel dreariness or leafy, sleepy Little England are far from the idealised symbolism of ultra modern Britain that Americans seem keen on via Palace, the London sections of Static, or Eleventh Hour.

The special relationship between skateboarding in the two countries is far from equal because it's not based on a comparable level of familiarity.  Consumers in the UK are well aware of the dross produced by the bottom end of the American skate industry, the straight-to-mall brands or the five-minute failures that fill Transworld's monthly advert broom-cupboard. We choose to consume the very best, or the most interesting, of literally thousands of US companies. Conservative Middle America is there in the stuff we could buy into, but we choose not to - preferring our own set of idealised characteristics invariably connected to modern, liberal and outward-looking urban America. 

Skate nerds in the US don't have to make that choice:  only the best UK and Euro stuff makes it in the other direction across the pond.  In the early 2000s, I suspect most Americans who knew about and were stoked on Blueprint - and took it as short-hand for an earlier ideal of London, understated and urbane, with a penchant for miserable indie music and dark UK hip hop - were totally ignorant of Reaction: the skate equivalent of a British commuter town, all chain pubs and indoor shopping centres, pissing away an amazing team with some of the worst graphics and laziest branding (whilst having the temerity to declare themselves the UK's "number one skate company").  The 'rough spots/stylish skaters/cool brands' formula with which Quartersnacks describe UK skating is flattering n'all,  but any British skater can think of a dozen towns where MTV emo and stinking boneless finger flips are alive and well across the local skate park inhabitants.

This dichotomy is also true for much of grass-roots American skaters, with Jenkem's illuminating interviews with regular kids showing that the cool US, UK and Euro indie brands aren't on the radar for those minors who account for the largest share of US domestic skate sales. Any trip to a skatepark in either country shows how our idealised images describe a tiny minority of what goes on. By choosing which internet echo chamber we participate it (i.e. not any of this stuff), we blare at each other about exclusively good shit that is unrecognisable from the much bigger world of Monster fitted caps and 1,000s of clips of cringeworthy quodruple flip nonsense. This is of course a micro-example of the bafflement liberals in the US express when UKIP can get 10% of the vote in the last British election, or we feel in the UK when we hear of each US police or high-school shooting, and subsequent noisy and counter-intuitive renewal of the 'right to bear arms' argument. How can a country that brings us amazing music and film also voice significant opposition to equal marriage rights? The majority are numbskulls on both sides of the pond. 

A final thought, or more accurately question, is why now? With Palace going from strength to strength, and more old and new UK companies, filmers and crews than ever, and with Europe an equally powerful draw (not least from the pulse of activity emanating from the small Swedish city of Malmö), why on earth should America have gotten cool again? It's a nightmare to actually skate there, and US sources still put out corny, commercialised, brain dead skateboarding like it's going out of fashion (when will it go out of fashion...). Obviously America has always had rad stuff going on - and the internet seems to speed up the cycle of one thing becoming hot shit in the eyes of another. What seems likely is that the answer goes back to the rise of the indies. If we got bored of the mainstream, as established by the US, it wasn't because we got bored of American stuff per se. We'd just seen so many lookalike vids and product churned out by the same generation of people who held/still hold the keys to the kingdom. Now the doors have been flung open, and Americans have proven every bit as able to churn out exciting, small scale stuff as a bunch of bros from Bordeaux, Malmo, Tokyo or London, reviving the temporarily dormant interest in things American - especially if it evokes grand old, grimy East Coast cities, or hilly, windy West Coast ones. As was ever thus: although the average kid still chooses the Element logo board here as well as there.

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