Real nerds/geeks can't help it.

by Ian Thompson

It’s a bit late in the day to be talking about this, given how much has already been written about it. Nevertheless, it’s been on my mind lately and I feel a strong need to add my account as far as I can remember it.

I’ve been listening to Dr. Feelgood lately – part of an ongoing fascination with music I didn’t really like at the time. It was a bit too bluesy for me and it was consigned to the pub rock genre before punk came along. However, I always liked Wilko Johnson’s choppy guitar, and when I saw him, I really liked him. The rest of the band looked pretty much the way everyone did at the time – longish hair, wide everything – trousers, collars, ties, and hideous wide shoes. Wilko was tall and awkward, dressed head to toe in black with his top button done up, and with a basin haircut that looked liked his mum had done it. What’s more, his face and his physicality made him look like one of the cast of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. Nowadays, he would be seen as ‘rocking’ some kind of geek-chic look, but it couldn’t be further from the self-conscious affectation that seems to pervade every band that occupies the nerdy-synth rock slot on Later with Jules Holland these days.

Nerds 1

Back in the early-mid 70s, not only was it not cool to be this way, it was the best way to go about getting a kicking, and unfortunately there were plenty of kickings available for those who stood out. So, the nerds of the times, among which I number Ron Mael from Sparks with his Hitler tache (try that even now) and trail-blazing uber-weirdos Kraftwerk, had two distinctive qualities that don’t seem to be common amongst nerds of the noughties – they were nerdy because they had no choice and, they were difficult and unpredictable – even confrontational.

Nerds 2

1977 a the real liberation for the weirdos. Suddenly, it most definitely WAS cool to be odd, different, a bit mal-nourished and slightly mental.  I was at art college and there was a kid on my course who absolutely summed up the mood of the times, but we were all aware that, just a year earlier, he had probably suffered the agonies of looking like the biggest div in the school.Devo were the real trailblazers, along with David Byrne, Ian Curtis, Elvis Costello and even the Residents whose eye-heads predated the spooky Specsavers ad by over 30 years. All produced great music and were largely uninterviewable by NME, Sounds and Melody Maker journalists who will have all seemed like Bob Harris to this lot, however short they cut their hair. It’s worth noting here that, to the best of my knowledge, the words nerd, geek, dweeb or any other such Americanism didn’t exist to describe these guys at the time. If you’d have asked for a collective term at the time, it was likely it would have been closer to a now thankfully defunct derogatory derivative for the term used for people with cerebral palsy. The glam-punk later used in the ‘Mickey’ video for Toni Basil was known openly and on-air as spaz-attack,Now, there’s a strong chance I’m getting these ‘nerds’ mixed up with the wider group that now seems to include people like ‘Bill Gates’. However, this use of the phrase seems specifically to support the ‘meek shall inherit the earth’ theories of contemporary social commentators. I’m talking specifically here about style and it definitely doesn’t include either Bill Gates or any computer nerds for that matter.

Nerds 3

Post-punk, it was clear that looking a misfit was a great way of identifying with the emotionally dispossessed. It was inevitable that the style would be taken up as a badge of cool, although it did take a long time to become an acceptable look in the high school – decades in fact. Morrissey built a career on it in the Eighties, going as far as wearing a hearing aid on stage. Although I’ve never come across anyone with any real disability who claims to have felt particularly empowered by this, I’m sure that angst-ridden teenagers everywhere saw a kindred spirit in Stephen Morrissey. It took me longer than I’d care to admit to get past the daffodils and posturing to see the music for what it was. By the time the post-Pulp Jarvis appropriated the look much later on, it was pretty much all over for the real nerds.

Nerds 4

The style now belongs to the mainstream. Worse than that, it has been stolen by the people who always steal from the marginalised – the normal and the good-looking. Rest-assured, the likes of Mark Ronson wouldn’t be wearing big glasses with clear lenses if there was any threat that it might actually put him on the outside of anything. The current crop of glamour nerds would flee in disgust from any style from the margins, if it might really marginalise them. They need at least 20 years of distance from its origin for a style to feel safe enough to be appropriated without serious consequence or impact on their popularity.

Nerds 5

So what about the real nerds now? Well, mostly they still look like nerds. Landmark weirdos in music still pioneer idiosyncratic stuff. Although Thom Yorke, Beck and Alexis Taylor are clearly aware of the lineage of their species and the look that goes with it, it’s more fortunate than anything because it’s not as if they could pull any other look off credibly. However, in schools across the country, we should look at what the real nerds are wearing while they work through the breaks and produce the music for the school play, because it’s certainly what Lourdes Leon and  Pixie Geldof’s kids will be wearing.Ian

Hide comments >
comments powered by Disqus