Pre-Blair Britain

Brian Welsh’s Beats

Brian Welsh’s 2019 film Beats wants to revise our understanding of recent British history.

Pre-Internet youth culture.

In telling the story of two teenagers, Johnno and Spanner, whose lifelong friendship is in danger, it also communicates the desperation of living in a land where the future seems to be a thing of the past.

Beats takes place in Scotland, but not the one filled with moors and lochs marketed in tourist brochures.

Although the way characters speak indicates that they are from Glasgow, the abandoned buildings and dingy council estates could just as easily be located in the UK’s industrial Midlands or the depressed coastal regions along the North Sea coast.

In the opening scene, we see Johnno and Spanner dancing to a new electronic dance track in their respective rooms while they talk on the phone.

The year is 1994, and the British government is clamping down on various trends in youth culture with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

As the film reminds us, one section of the bill specifically targeted rave culture, prohibiting “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”

Although the Tories were still in power, with John Major’s government trying to project the idea of a kinder, gentler Thatcherism, the only politician Beats shows is then-Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair, whose rebranded Labour Party, New Labour, was stirring up the same misplaced optimism that Bill Clinton’s New Democrats had in the United States a few years before.

Welsh explained why in an interview he gave when his film was first screened in the Netherlands.

“I remember the sense of optimism and excitement that people felt at that time, perhaps not realising that what was to come in future years was ultimately a real sense of betrayal,” as he put it, once people realised that Blair was actually giving them “newly packaged Thatcherism”.

New Labour’s refusal to take risks and fondness for surveillance capitalism was exemplified by its refusal to support the grassroots movement that sprang up to protest the bill.

“It really divided communities further,” Welsh noted, “in terms of those who were able to get on board” and those who missed the boat.

“If you look around now,” he added, “those divides are absolutely gaping.”

Beats takes us back to a time when the fissures that had already opened up during Margaret Thatcher’s rise in the 1970s were being joined by new ones.

Whereas the former had put the Tories and Labour on opposite sides, the latter pitted haves and have-nots in both parties against each other.

New Labour’s disregard for civil liberties and indifference to the plight of youth made it clear that neoliberalism had transcended traditional political partisanship.

The story of Johnno and Spanner provides an opportunity to perceive the emergence of this new post-political reality, with the boys being torn apart by a power they feel, but do not fully comprehend.

The two of them are too young to have experienced the peak of the rave scene that swept through the country over the previous half-decade.

They love the music, but in the way a ten-year-old might have experienced his older siblings’ participation in the counterculture of the late 1960s.

What makes Beats so powerful is the tension between the experiences of these boys, living in a particular place and time, and the ways in which those experiences both invite allegorical interpretation and resist the generalisations it mobilises.

Johnno, the timider and more serious of them, is about to move from his small apartment into a bigger home in a better location.

His mother is dating Robert, a policeman who sincerely wishes to improve his new family’s lot, though the boy is not yet open to the idea of considering him a father figure.

Spanner lives in bleaker circumstances, sharing a flat with his abusive older brother Fido, who makes his living as a small-time criminal.

Early in the film, Robert and his fellow police officers break up a group of young people who have gathered in a vacant car park.

Robert goes out of his way to treat Johnno with kindness but cautions him to stay away from Spanner, whose family’s troubles are well-known in the community.

A bit later, after Spanner’s brother has driven him out of their flat, he sneaks into Johnno’s room. When Johnno discovers this, the boys tussle.

This draws the attention of Johnno’s mother, who knocks on his door.

After Spanner hides in the closet, he hears Johnno’s mother reprimand him for being rude to Robert and tells him he needs to forget about his old friend, whom she labels “scum”.

When Johnno goes to Spanner’s flat to apologise to him, he witnesses the older brother’s brutal treatment firsthand.

After the brother and his sidekick leave, Johnno empties their stash of ill-gotten money and convinces Johnno to join him for one final escapade.

This adventure takes them back to the car park, where they meet up with some female acquaintances who are more worldly, then to a squat where D-Man, a locally famous pirate radio personality, has holed up, and then, after a series of mishaps, to an illegal rave that is being held to protest the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

Until this point in the film, Johnno has been reluctant to follow Spanner’s lead. He has a lot more to lose.

But as they sit in D-Man’s Volvo, which Johnno has been forced to drive due to the owner’s being too intoxicated, the dynamic shifts.

After Spanner gets Johnno to calm down, he opens his palm to reveal two pills with the image of a fist engraved on them. We understand that this is Ecstasy.

Spanner doesn’t pressure Johnno.

“We could just hang here,” he says, or “Go home.” Johnno is sceptical. “How would we get home like?”

Spanner looks out the windshield with a rueful expression as other revellers stumble towards the location of the rave. Maybe the risks he has taken to reach this point were excessive.

“It’s a fag end scene anyway,” he continues. “All this. It’s been done. Washed up. Look at it.”

Suddenly, Johnno’s wariness metamorphoses into resolve.

“Aye. It’s not been done by us pair,” he tells Spanner. “We’ve come this far, like. We cannot just go home and get back in the box. No, no. Fuck it, Spanner. Eh? Dream team or nought.”

In the private code of their friendship, “dream team” – a reference to the USA’s famous gold-medal basketball team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics – signifies the closeness of their bond.

But it also implies that, whatever their differences, they share a common fantasy.

Spanner turns to Johnno and smiles.

“Aye,” he responds. “Aye. Fuck it.”

The boys take the tablets.

“Well, I’ll see you on the other side then, mate,” declares Johnno.

“I’ve got another one here if you want,” Spanner replies.

They laugh. Spanner grips Johnno’s shoulder. And then they exit the car and join the procession to the concert location.

The remainder of Beats is devoted to the consequences that follow from the boys’ decision to pursue reckless abandon.

Director Welsh does a tremendous job of depicting the rave. As the effects of the drug come on, Johnno is initially terrified. But Spanner calms him down and euphoria soon takes the place of panic.

At this point, the sober-minded realism of the film gives way to a riot of psychedelic colours synchronised to those “dangerous” repetitive beats.

The contrast to the boys’ bleak everyday existence couldn’t be more clear.

We never forget that these hours of exhilaration are bound to come at a high price for the boys. But we understand how important they are.

Even if the liberation they find is fleeting, it’s infinitely preferable to never having had a taste of freedom at all.

Beats closes with matter-of-fact explanations, accompanied by candid Polaroid photos, of how the characters’ subsequent lives unfolded. Predictably, some have happier outcomes than others.

To its credit, though, Beats refuses the melodramatic story typical for coming-of-age stories.

In contrast to cinematic antecedents like Boyz in the Hood, it never becomes the cautionary tale we have come to expect.

No one overdoses. No one dies.

Although the film is mostly in high-contrast black and white, its moral compass is decidedly grayscale. Robert is not a bad man. And we learn that even Spanner’s brother ends up volunteering at a soup kitchen.

The only villain we see is Tony Blair, talking at us from television in his maddeningly measured, middle-class way.

He is the harbinger of a future so dark that even the most cynical Britons of the early 1990s couldn’t see it coming.

The message of Beats is clear.

A world in which it’s still possible for latecomers like Johnno and Spanner to have a taste of something other than neoliberal conformity is far better than one in which we can barely remember how to dream. 

Maybe they would never truly be able to return home after their night of reckless abandon. But at least they still had a clear sense of what they had lost.

These days, when capitalism’s ever-deepening penetration into our lives has turned every moment of every day into a potential workstation, even being a runaway seems better than having nowhere to run away from or towards.

Screenshot courtesy of Resident Advisor. All rights reserved.