© 2011 David N. Townsend



Changing the World:

Rock 'n' Roll Culture and Ideology


David N. Townsend

Chapter 4

Unrest Overseas

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Meanwhile, back in the '60s, there was this place called England. Most Americans hadn't thought much about Great Britain since the end of World War II. From the standpoint of the American music market, the "British Invasion" began literally overnight in 1964, but on the other side of the ocean an American Invasion had been underway for many years. It is interesting to explore the reasons why America found immediate fascination with anything British, but it may be even more worthwhile to ask why the British so wholeheartedly embraced an indigenous American tradition. After all, in bringing their version of rock 'n' roll to our shores, English bands were merely trying to emulate a style that was already familiar to us; but rock 'n' roll (and before it Blues and Jazz) had no inherent base in Britain to encourage its adoption, no comparable slave descendent or Country and Western frontier musical and cultural traditions. To the extent Britain was a pluralistic society like America, its minorities were generally vestiges of the Empire's former colonies—Indians, Arabs, Islanders—having little historical affinity with the African American minority that spearheaded most twentieth century musical innovation on this continent. Yet rather than develop their own native musics for the post-war period, the older English generation largely fell back on a fading culture of folk songs and show tunes, while the younger generation hungrily grabbed American black music and rock 'n' roll to satisfy its appetite.

The revolution was slower to arrive in England than in America, perhaps because the shock of war remained more immediate for the population at large, and economic and psychological recovery took longer. As a result, however, the disaffection that set in among young people of the post-war generation was probably deeper, and in a more hierarchical society whose class system was still largely intact by the arrival of the 1960s, the basic frustration of teenage life in a working class community when economic times were less than prosperous produced a bubbling cauldron of unrest that was ideally designed to welcome the symbols and images of rock 'n' roll's first rebellions.

Initially the musical influence of rock 'n' roll in England was fairly benign, mostly because it was taken on by imitators who did not well empathize with the energetic source of the music in the States. These British pseudo-Elvises tended to combine some of the feel and style of rock 'n' roll with the lighter, dance hall sound of standard English popular songs. Performers such as Lonnie Donegan ("Rock Island Line," 1954), Tommy Steele ("Rock with the Caveman," 1956), and Billy Fury ("Halfway to Paradise," 1961) pioneered as pop stars within England and to some extent on the Continent, but their styles were only vaguely rock 'n' roll as America came to know it. The term "Skiffle" was invented to describe the hybrid popularized by Donegan and other contemporaries. For the most part these musicians remained well within the social norms of inoffensive entertainment; the thirst of British youth (and the hostility of British elders) was reserved for the imports from America of the true originals, on vinyl, in films, and in person. (They were notably less accessible by radio, which was controlled by the notoriously conservative BBC, leaving young fans to rely on quasi-illicit off-shore "pirate" radio broadcasters for their fix of the real thing.)

Perhaps the two most authentic early progenitors of a legitimate British adaptation of rock 'n' roll were Cliff Richard (and the Shadows) and Screaming Lord Sutch (and the Savages). Both bands, behind their agitated leaders, exhibited a daring and ostentatious flair that appealed to and played off of youthful tensions, rather than deflected them. They came to prominence in the 1960-61 time frame—Cliff Richard in particular was a big star, with several British Number One hits through 1963 ("Livin' Doll," 1959 was the first and possibly biggest, even reaching Number 30 in the U.S.)—a time when young English men were exerting increasing independence and rebelliousness, and developing a sense of identity as a group similar to American rock 'n' rollers in the mid-fifties.

Soon this youth subculture emerged into full public view, in the form of a variety of widespread and opposing clans of teenagers known as teddy-boys, mods, and rockers. For some reason British teens have since these early times always exhibited a greater obsession with the visual requisites of the social trend of the moment, whether it be the narrow tie and impeccable suit of the mid-60s mods, or the yellow tomahawk hairdo and safety pin of the post-punk era; American performers and fans have tended to be the followers in this area of rock culture, and generally less meticulous in sustaining any given style of dress. In the smoldering years of the early 1960s, rivalry in dress and attitude frequently spilled over into rioting in the streets, and Britain experienced a version of teen rebellion that even Americans had not witnessed. This disorder was spurred by the music, by the cultural anemia of post-war England, by class conflict, and by amphetamines, the drug of choice for a huge segment of British youth.

Out of this environment arose a new generation of British musicians, schooled on American R&B and rock 'n' roll, and personally familiar with the daily lives of their audience, because they shared the same experiences. They thus produced music that was in its world an authentic recreation of the original American style, spawned by similar conditions. And to certify their validity, young British fans suddenly flocked to their countrymen's records with an exuberance that rivaled American kids' adoption of Elvis and Chuck Berry and the rest.

The Beatles, of course, founded the movement and built the mold (see next chapter). But although the Beatles unilaterally blazed the trail both within England and across the ocean for a new generation of rock 'n' roll creative expression and new heights of popularity and commercial opportunity, the most deeply rooted sentiments of the British youth audience were in fact better reflected in the music of the less polished, more streetwise groups whose national and international fame followed immediately in the Beatles' wake. Not that the Beatles circumvented the experiences of average English kids: they drew their own inspiration directly from that same world, which they inhabited too; but in the suddenness and dizziness of their ascent they quickly left much of that world behind, to conquer new ones. Among the others who filled the void, three bands and three songs stand out as both definitive of the moment and the place, and timeless in their musical potency.

The first and greatest needs no introduction but its own. After more than thirty years, its opening notes are still the most exhilarating guitar riff ever to announce the arrival of a song. A get-up-out-of-your-chair jolt, an "All Right!" Hold the conversation for a moment, grab the nearest dance partner, and get into this:

I can't get no
I can't get no
'Cause I try, and I try,
and I try, and I try . . .
I can't GET NO . . .

It's interesting that the Rolling Stones, easily the most enduringly popular and prolific rock band of all, are still essentially defined by their first major hit (#1 in the U.S. for 4 weeks in the summer of 1965; "Time is On My Side" had reached Number Six in 1964). They've had—how many?—forty, fifty albums, scores of hit singles, and even though their legend has grown out of sight, they have never really improved upon their initial masterpiece, "Satisfaction". (You know, it's the record companies that insist on elaborating on song titles with parentheticals like "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)". They think record buyers are too clueless to learn the names of songs if they aren't articulately repeated two dozen times in the chorus. Jagger and Richard didn't name it "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo," they just sang it that way; the title was "Heartbreaker," but the execs figured that fans might confuse it with Grand Funk's or Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker"s, so they said, "Why don't we put that doo-doo stuff in the title so the kids will know which one they're buying?" Do you suppose Robert Louis Stevenson's publishers tried to retitle "The Charge of the Light Brigade" something like "Half a League Onward (The Charge of the Light Brigade)"?)

There are certainly many other artists who have either never moved beyond their first big success or have relied on an old standard as a perpetual show-stopper, but none has the all-encompassing history of the Stones. The truth is that the durability is justified. "Satisfaction" absolutely flattens all comparisons with other debut hits and encore numbers, as well as with other Stones records, especially if you consider the context. This song sounds brand new and original even today; in 1965 it was revolutionary. The lead guitar intro, demanding to be played at extra high volume, violently contrasted with prevailing light-handed, melodic styles. The driving beat eclipsed anything coming out of the pre-fab studios of New York's Brill Building, or the Motown hit factory. You had to harken back to the originals—Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard—to find that kind of energy in a song from the first chord on. Even more important was the disgruntled theme, the cynicism in Jagger's voice and words:

. . . and he's tellin' me more and more
about some useless information
supposed to fry my imagination
I can't GET NO . . .

Here was a link to the indignation of Dylan, only it echoed from the walls of dance clubs and the speakers of juke boxes instead of hiding in Greenwich Village cafes or at folk festivals. These words were heard from the beginning by the masses—the masses of kids anyway. The sense of rebelliousness personified in the fifties by James Dean was reincarnated in the character of Mick Jagger, only the new rebel had a bit more of a cause. It still wasn't War or Poverty or Injustice, not yet; it was the less tangible but just as real sense of Hypocrisy and Phoniness and Pretentiousness.

The Rolling Stones embodied this rebellion in their appearance, attitude, and music. Theirs was a direct assault on genteel aristocratic sensibilities, threatening yet bemused. The Kinks were more subtle. They dressed more neatly, avoided public confrontations, and kept their music on the restrained, if loud, side. But what they avoided in overt animosity they made up for with stinging sarcasm in "A Well Respected Man" (1965):

'Cause he gets up every morning
And he goes to work at nine
And he comes back home at five thirty
Gets the same train every time
'Cause his world is built on punctuality
It never fails.

As with "Satisfaction," this was not a challenging of policies or ideas, it was a challenging of values. "Punctuality," a seemingly benign and laudable habit, becomes an object of scorn the way Ray Davies pronounces it. Soon to follow were neatness, grooming, manners, formality and convention of any kind, all the traits for which English society had always prided itself. Indeed, English gentry's self-congratulatory claim to some right of colonial dominion in the Third World always rested on the belief that they were, after all, more civilized than the natives. Here their own children were turning on them, flaunting and laughing at their stuffy pomposity. This was the beginning of a momentous shift in perspective among young fans, one that followed the British bands to America (where Dylan's devotees were already sowing the same seeds). Rejection of parental authority was one thing; kids will stay out late, drink, try drugs and sex, and challenge the law regardless of the era (or the music). It is altogether different to reject simple fundamental elements of a social order such as personal appearance and courtesy. Only twice in the rock era have such extremes of alienation been visible, the mid-to-late sixties emerging Hippie culture, and the late seventies Punk movement. (One might consider Gangsta Rap as a third such wave.) If anything, the former may have been more revolutionary, in part because it was unprecedented.

And he's oh so good
And he's oh so fine
And he's oh so healthy
In his body and his mind
He's a well respected man about town
Doing the best things so conservatively.

How quickly did it happen? The tremendous cultural leap from Bobby Vee cleancutness to utterly defiant sloppiness came about so suddenly it had to be frightening to the outside world. Of course, to the inside world, those joining the cause, it was exhilarating, but sudden nonetheless. The first wave of "long" hair, started by the Beatle mop-tops, began no earlier than 1964 in America. By 1967, three fleeting years later, male hair as short as the original Beatles or Stones was almost laughable within the prevailing hip culture. Lavish, ostentatious clothing just as quickly gave way to worn, old, tattered jeans and jackets and t-shirts. For a long time, any outfit that was too neat or shiny or excessively adorned was a clear signal of uncool unhip attitudes (with the sort-of exception of the temporary fascination with psychedelic fashions that surfaced in the public consumption media through Hollywood and well intentioned but relatively clueless TV outlets like "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In"). This was true not only among the rock performers, but among the audience, the youth culture as a whole. From the mid-sixties straight to this day, the dominant fashion for a large body of teenage schoolchildren is the extremely casual look. Blue jeans, which have formed a massive international trade market, are practically the universal high school dress code in many parts of America. Prior to the Sixties invasions, it was considered unthinkable to allow your kids to attend school in anything less than dress clothes; many schools had real, strictly enforced dress codes, most of which in the U.S. have long since fallen to the pressures of change. This change was rooted firmly in the cynicism, the profound hostility toward the established order, that grew up in the sixties.

By 1966, with the invasion nearly complete, the Who tossed out the last semblance of conformity, and threw down the gauntlet:

People try to put us d-d-down
Talkin' 'bout my generation
Just because we g-g-get around
Talkin' 'bout my generation

Now the challenge was fully revealed, as it was in many other songs and bands of the moment. Full scale, defiant, unified rebellion. The movement gained steam, and even if its focus remained non-specific (well, Vietnam somewhat, but that was more of an American issue, and hadn't quite matured by '66, and the rest of the popular topics, civil rights, women's rights, environmentalism, were all just as vague as anti-establishmentarianism and inter-generational conflict), the commitment of its partisans was solid.

It's so hard to isolate that era and not apply knowledge of what followed, not only through the rest of the Sixties, but right up to the present. Were they just naive kids, finding a newer and louder way to flex their muscles? Were they the founding members of a powerful youth movement that would change the fabric of society? Would they eventually wind up as securities analysts and electronics salesmen? Where would it all lead?

The slogan coined by the Who was bitterly final: "Hope I die before I get old." Patrick ("Give me liberty or give me death") Henry wasn't even that extreme. Well Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry have made it considerably past forty now, and doubtless "old" has become more a state of mind than an age; nor was it fortuitous that Keith Moon died young. One thing is certain here in the distant future: it is a lot more difficult for today's youth to despise and distrust the entire older generation—many of them came up with the idea in the first place. The most rebellious Sixties Hippies have kids of their own now, listening to their own music (or perhaps their parents'). Meanwhile, the Establishment has absorbed countless former rebels, who now populate the offices of oil companies and corporate law departments. The Who's generation, in fact, pretty much runs the world, with the exception of the few older fogeys who retain some of the highest power positions. It's a lot harder for faithful veterans to know whom to oppose any more—and that may be the real problem. It was easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys when the bad guys consisted of anyone over thirty. Today some of the worst offenders (violent racists, Wall Street thieves, reactionary demagogues) are under thirty, and the older crowd is increasingly heterogeneous. And you can't go by dress code either. Two suit-and-tie short-hairs standing side by side on the subway might harbor polar opposite political beliefs, social values, and musical tastes.

If it all makes you wonder whether there ever was a point, then perhaps the Sixties are more dead than we thought. The point was, in fact, rebellion for its own sake. It was Thomas Jefferson, not Abbie Hoffman, who said "A little revolution now and then is a good thing." The British Invasion of American culture and music in 1964 helped instigate a revolution that may not have overthrown the established order, but that shook it up mightily, and that was indeed a good thing. Still, despite the images of political conflict and violence that linger from that era, it was not an armed insurrection that the Brits brought with them to America. Theirs were more devious weapons: cheekiness, playfulness, bemused disrespect, sarcasm. Many of the most memorable scenes from early Sixties "rockumentaries" are those where young stars like Jagger and Richard, Lennon and McCartney, or Townshend and Daltry are interviewed by the basically straight members of the British or American press about their newfound fame. They delighted in belittling themselves, making fun of the reporter's questions (often without him realizing it), and generally goofing off in a situation that, for most people, would have seemed to be a tremendously important, career-make-or-break situation. This type of irreverence, which was institutionalized by Monty Python's Flying Circus in the 1970s and David Letterman in the 1980s, made a telling point that was not lost on the audience: fun is what it's about, above all else, whatever the circumstances or surroundings, and people who can't deal with that idea are losers, no matter how "important" or "successful" they may be. Fun itself was rebellious. Where the fun devolved into hostility, that hostility was directed at those who didn't understand and actively worked to impede the fun.

Not that Fun was a new idea in England or America, or in rock 'n' roll. It was precisely the same idea that had propelled the music forward in the first place. By 1955 the U.S. was becoming a decidedly un-fun place for teenagers, and the same was the case in England by 1960; rock 'n' roll offered an incredibly fresh opportunity to rediscover fun in each case. And by the time the British version washed up on American shores in 1964, there was a desperate new outbreak of non-fun in abundance, owing to the shock wave generated when President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. A dose of madcap British lunacy was precisely what the doctor ordered for a younger generation that hadn't even been around to taste the Fifties' hopeful elixir.

Most of the invading hordes of uniformed, mop-headed Limeys pouring up from the beaches in 1964 immediately after the Beatles' sneak attack fit that prescription perfectly. Besides the aforementioned Big Three, there were countless footsoldiers whom the suddenly Anglophile American youth embraced with undiscriminating glee: the Dave Clark 5 ("Glad All Over"), the Searchers ("Needles and Pins"), Gerry and the Pacemakers ("Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying"), Manfred Mann ("Doo Wah Diddy Diddy"), Herman's Hermits ("I'm Henry VIII, I Am"), and so many others, arriving in a seemingly endless blitzkrieg (Why is that only military metaphors seem to apply to this moment of history? Do we secretly still fear the Redcoats?) that obliterated the entire foundation of the existing rock 'n' roll genre, indeed nearly the whole American entertainment industry. Consider: British acts were virtually non-existent on the U.S. charts in 1963 and preceding years. In 1964 alone, no fewer than thirty releases by British acts reached the U.S. Top Ten, with nine rising to Number One, and dozens more lower on the charts. Napoleon never dreamed of such conquest.

Of course, Napoleon never had an advance team like the Beatles to lead the charge.



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Disclaimer: This is an unpublished manuscript, made available to the public for your personal interest and reaction. It may not be reprinted, copied, or distributed in any manner, without express permission of the author. I neither ask nor receive any financial compensation for this document. Hence, although I use quotes from several published song lyrics without having obtained formal permission of the copyright owner, there is no violation of copyright, since this document is not "published" or sold in any meaningful sense.