Posted by: davidjmarlow | 23/07/2015

A Steely Dan take on local growth…

I could make a case for any one of Steely Dan’s first five albums being my favorite, and their greatest. Taken together, ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’ (1972), Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), and Royal Scam (1976), present an exquisite, engaging portfolio of Dan’s intelligent, almost-unique rock ‘genre’. They also tell an interesting story of the two major protagonists’ (Walter Becker and Donald Fagen) journey through the early 1970s.

Their destination, perhaps sadly, was ‘Aja’ (1978). This technically near-perfect but somehow less personal (and personally-touching) album, was followed by the forensic intricacy of ‘Gaucho’ (1980), and then a very quiet decade. Nevertheless, I return to the music of the first five ‘glory years’ frequently. Occasionally, I find it can even stimulate reflection on policies and practices of growth and development in contemporary Britain. Bear with me, whilst I contrive a Becker and Fagen ‘take’ on the real challenges of 2015-20…and take the opportunity to (re)visit some truly great music…

In fact, I wrote about the ‘pretzel (i.e. twisted, circular and ultimately meaningless) logic’ of the coalition’s approach to local economic growth back in 2012. Unfortunately, this seems set to continue over the coming parliament. For instance, there is no evidence presented for the elected mayor requirement, and no willingness from Osborne to have a serious debate on it. The precise ‘meaning’ of ‘northern powerhouse’ (or ‘Midlands engine’), or what is in and out of scope of enhanced devolution seems to vary with Minister/Department, audience, day of the week….

Local leadership teams must do better. The need for a coherent narrative, detailed propositions about the future of our geographies and communities – rooted in evidence, analysis and argument/ deliberation is discussed further in my post-election LGIU ‘building the case’ briefing. I omitted the ‘meta-meanings’ of that album’s most famous track in the LGIU briefing –  listen again and enjoy!

When I think about some of the ‘jewels’ of those albums, specificity of place is a common theme. Brooklyn (owes the charmer), Barrytown, Pearl of the Quarter (for New Orleans), Biscayne Bay (‘where the Cuban gentlemen sleep all day..’ on Dr Wu), and even some of the lesser tracks (e.g. My Old School at Annandale) leave clear, differentiated images of place. As government drives us increasingly to aggregate convenient ‘intermediate tiers’ of leadership and governance, there is an ever greater need for individual cities and communities to clarify, agree and promote their story, their specific roles and functions in larger geographies. Do we need a big debate with government about the case for single places (e.g. the Cornwall model) negotiating their own bespoke ‘deals’?

Perhaps what Steely Dan is most known for, however, is, firstly, their graphic, detailed descriptions of losers, abusers, cynicism and excess – often wrapped in what appears to be a sugary, catchy pop tune. What is in local growth, the ‘powerhouses’, and Osborne’s public services reforms for the disadvantaged places and communities not at the ‘top table’ of enhanced devolution discussions? Will credible community regeneration be part of 2015-20 narratives, and who will champion it?

Second is the difficulty of categorising and pigeon-holing Dan’s music. They bring pop, jazz, blues, funk, soul and many eras and traditions to the musical cocktails they manufacture. Individually, songs may appear ambiguous and/or multi-faceted – but collectively they add up to a superlative and coherent body of work.

Similarly, growth and development requires the productive interchange between and alignment of professions, institutions, analytic models and frameworks, and – yes – national-regional-local levels of leadership and governance, to be effective generally and well-tailored locally.

I worry sometimes (no, often!) that too many of my reference points for thinking about contemporary challenges are rooted in formative years (professionally and personally) that are now more than a generation past.

But, to each his own…

In a sense it doesn’t matter that I use Steely Dan to provoke thoughts on the ‘bigger picture’ issues facing growth and development. What is important is that we do allow ‘left field’ stimulus to generate creative thinking and debate.

The opening song of their debut album – Do It Again – set man’s failure to learn from past mistakes to a catchy, slightly unusual (for 1972) chart-bound bossa beat. If we are to make the most of 2015-20, we need to stop playing the ‘deal-making games’ in the way we have haggled in recent years.

A coherent narrative, specific and distinctive to real places, with something in it for struggling as well as successful communities, bringing together a broad range of perspectives, is a major part of the recipe for authentic local growth progress.  Adopting the ‘pretzel logic’ menu can only lead to the desperate last stand of ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ in a right ‘Royal (local growth) Scam’…

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