Popular Culture in Britain

Popular Culture in Britain - The Beatles

In the early 1960s British popular culture emerged from the long winter of postwar austerity, rejvenated by the assertive claims to attention of the young working class. Responding to prime minister Harold Macmillan’s 1958 election message, “You’ve never had it so good”, previously unregarded groups began to demand consumer cultural goods designed specifically for them.

Rock & Roll is often used as a generic term, but its sound is rarely predictable. From the outset, when the early rockers merged country and blues, rock has been defined by its energy, rebellion and catchy hooks, but as the genre aged, it began to shed those very characteristics, placing equal emphasis on craftmanship and pushing the boundaries of the music. Just as rock `n’ roll had provided a commodity around which the American teenage market could be defined in the 1950s, the Mersey Beat – a raucous and driving form of rock that emerged from Liverpool in 1962-63 – signaled the arrival of the young British consumer as a commercial cultural force.

But, as so often it Britain, their arrival was touched with class division. To be young, affluent and rebellious was not enough. As John Lennon later put it, “A working-class hero is something to be” Unexpectedly, this new kind of British cultural artefact proved highly exportable, and provided a major stimulus to popular culture all over the world. Superfically at least, the radicalizing effects of rock `n’ roll seemed to have worn thin by 1960. Bland American “high school” sounds predominated. Britain’s own Elvis clones, such as Cliff Richard, had turned into entertainers for all the family, while its imitation Sinatras continued to prosper both on records and on the airwaves.

‘The Rolling Stones are arguably the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world so to secure a performance from them is amazing. The Stones, who first formed in 1961, August 31, and played their first ever gig outside England in 1963 at the Royal Lido Ballroom in Prestatyn. And although the four remaining members – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood – are now all around 60, they say they are still enjoying performing live.
‘We do enjoy ourselves doing it. Everyone has been saying how can they enjoy themselves, they should be bored to death doing this,’ Jagger said, in an interview from Dallas, Texas. ‘If we were bored to death, we would not be doing it.’

The advertisement for the August 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair promised the appearance of more than twenty performers, including Joan Baez, the Who, Arlo Guthrie, Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix. As the personification of hippiedom, Woodstock–actually held at Bethel, New York–was the most successful counterculture event. In 1969, during the three-day rock festival at Woodstock, performers such as Arlo Guthrie pleaded with Customs agents not to confiscate his drugs, Jimi Hendrix rendered what the establishment probably regarded as a blasphemous interpretation of the “Star Spangled Banner” on his electric guitar, and Country Joe McDonald’s cynical claim that he didn’t give a damn about Vietnam, offended the patriotic silent majority.

Next Page: Here Comes Beatlemania!

The Protest Movement in the Sixties

The Protest Movement in the Sixties

The relationship of popular culture to ideology in the 1960s and into the 1970s has become of interest to academic sociology, although the alarmed interest of politicians has given way to accommodation. The relationship of the entertainment favored by highly visible classes of teenagers and young adults to the behavior of that audience, and especially its use of drugs, is probably now still too current an issue for full perspective and confident judgment.

The sense of possessing qualities equal to but set apart from those of established culture was an important element in the counter – culture of the later 1960s. But as increasing store was set by poetic texts, however radically they might be interpreted, the music was in danger of being cut off from its source of inspiration.

As singers became prized for originality, and originality led to complexity, complexity negated the political point (just as it negated the symbolic simplicity of the singer-and-his -guitar). The history of popular music suggests that it is very unlikely that musical entertainment can induce new behavior, or even introduce new ideas to the audience it must court in order to sell itself.

Though popular music has been blamed in the past for undermining community standards or otherwise damaging society, it is a new phenomenon for popular music to have the pervasive presence that prosperity and the portable radio and tape deck have given it lately, and for such conspicuous economic power to be vested in a youth audience.

The history of popular music that is now happening cannot be fully schematized and managed by the patterns of earlier popular music. Its development has always been contingent, surprising, and even discontinuous except when we rationalize it with hindsight, and it is continuing that unpredictable development now.

A second major contribution of the folk revival was the creation of an audience whose members identified themselves as a community. Until now, even the most committed notions of audience solidarity had centered on sharing the status of being deviants from the social norm; milder forms of teenage commonality had been limited largely to tastes in entertainment. The audience for Dylan, Joan Baez and Phil Ochs began to see their music as the first, essential step in the forging of a whole way of life.

A basic tenet of this lifestyle was antipathy to “commercialism” and the trappings of mass consumerism. Here the political contradictions soon became apparent – contradictions that dogged the fully-fledged counter-culture later in the decade.

As rock has evolved in the last quarter of a century and brought, among other things, self-conscious seriousness to popular music, it has prompted an immense volume of reportage and analysis, much of it empty but some perceptive and judicious. The attention that rock has demanded has occasioned the first widespread, serious critical attention to the popular arts in general.

Many adherents found themselves torn between the desire to spread a cultural and political message, via folk music, and the fear that the channel used to do so – the communications market – place – would taint the musical tradition through commercial exploitation. Successful dissemination brought with it the risk of betrayal: “ Folk music,” wrote Sing Out editor Irwin Silber in 1964, “ is the voice and expression of generations of ordinary folk who were on familiar terms with hard work. Success is the `American Dream’, the middle-class confusion of illusion and reality.”

Dismayed by the appearance of the personality cult, that most hated aspect of “rat-race culture”, diehards saw no gains in the coming together of folk and commerce: “ The fundamentally healthy content of the folk music tradition (is) lost in the caverns of Tin Pan Alley”. From the perspective of popular music, rather than folk, however, the encounter was significant: it marked the beginning of a “creative space” or division between art and image, or between the artist’s authentic voice and the product that reached the market-place. Later musicians would find this space a fruitful area in which to explore and dispute meanings.

To younger folk-revival musicians – and perhaps to Dylan especially – by 1964 the limitations of the idiom, of its audience, of its saleability, had become too clear to overlook. Wholly unexpectedly, the impetus to switch direction and absorb the sounds of rock (as rock `n’ roll had now come to be known) came from a country that, according to critic Charlie Gillett, “had made no previous significant contribution to popular music in the 20th century”. Nostalgia, publicity promotion, and the university environment of a part of the proprietary audience of rock have contributed to the growing critical and scholarly interest in popular music of the past as well as the present. We are in the process of discovering a heritage; it is certain to contribute to the understanding of our own culture.

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The Folk Revival

The Folk Revival

“Man, when I was nine, I couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to be Elvis Presley,” Springsteen remembers.

The first two Elvis Presley albums, both on RCA in 1956, neatly illustrate the basic dichotomy: Elvis Presley shows him onstage, eyes shut and mouth wide open, with his guitar thrust in the air, while Elvis has him seated in a staged pose, strumming his guitar. Here is the musician, they seem to say, and here are his musical instruments, his primary materials: his voice and his guitar.

In the 1960 songs in which women are part of the continuing love relationship, the male is clearly the dominant figure. The sixties were to see American popular music receive an unprecedented degree of attention. They began inauspiciously enough, dominated by the inoffensive sounds of “Philadelphia schlock”. This was a neutralized, watered-down version of rock’n’ roll.

This music accepted the emancipating changes wrought by Elvis and others in the fifties, but, unlike theirs, remained transparently artificial and commercial in intent. The music was predictable and unambitious, and, in reaction, many people began to seek something “authentic”, untainted by commerce.

Throughout the postwar period a small nucleus of musicians had followed a path that ran counter to the prevailing tastes of young and adult markets alike. They sustained and developed the part of the rural folk tradition (white and black) that had made a point of articulating its social grievances. This urban musical left wing was a mixture of an educated white middle class (Protestant and Jewish) and a “genuine” ex-rural proletariat.

Combining a fundamentalist approach to folk music with a form of political radicalism that drew heavily on the bitter experiences of the unions in the interwar period, their songs expressed two basic needs – the need for roots, and the need for change – in one form. The music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Almanac Singers and others demonstrated the stark contrasts between the phoneyness of contemporary popular music and the honesty of the traditional sounds, between the duplicity of current politics and an idealistic vision of justice. This radical and libertarian thrust of the folk revival found political form in the association between the music and the civil rights movement in the United States, as well as the anti-nuclear movement in Europe in the early sixties.

A major contribution to popular music of the ensuing “folk revival” lay in the increased importance of the lyrics, and the fact that the folk singer usually wrote his own material. Here one particular figure embodies both the achievements and the paradoxes of the genre. Bob Dylan’s songs, delivered in tones more nasal even than those used by earlier rural singers, specialized in a “shimmering collage of literary metaphor, alliteration and imagery” which musicians of an earlier age would have found incomprehensible. In the context of early sixties pop, through, this music opened immense possibilities for the use of language, and gave a sense of cultural tradition.

Bob Dylan began his career with some quarrelsome rhetoric, forceful but single-minded utterances. Dylan’s early lyrics are marked by fervor, righteous indignation, and a rigid dichotomy between them and us, villains and victims, haves and have-nots, treacherous women and betrayed men. To excoriate the wicked “Masters of War” (1962) and to affirm his own rectitude, Dylan presumptuously speaks for Christ: “Like Judas of old / You lie and deceive…. Even Jesus would never / Forgive what you do.” Tentatively, the young Dylan began to explore more complex dualities and — I will argue — dramatize more compelling quarrels with himself.

Dylan’s lyrics and his delivery also had the effect of moving the music firmly away from dance and providing the basis for the more intellectual reception of popular music characteristic of the later sixties. Once again, therefore, a tension became apparent, between music as supporting the domination of the explicit, literate tradition, and music as expressive of alternative, implicit ideas. Now, however, the poetry seemed to come “from within”, as if it were a companion the music had long sought; it was also frequently identified, if not always unequivocally, with politically radical sentiments, and this considerably broadened the range of subject matter.

Furthermore, Dylan’s complex lyrics were so lacking in the traditional qualities of popular music that they proved virtually unusable by the vested interests of the music industry. Dylan’s development indicates a seriously comic and self-ironic interrogation. In “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963), his apocalyptic vision includes the cameo appearance of a clown: “Heard the sound of a poet who died in the gutter, / Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley.” In this jejune jeremiad Dylan notices the crying clown without seriously regarding him as anything more than a fringe figure.

Gradually, in other songs, Dylan gives more license to clowns and fools, gargoyles and grotesques. Unleashing his humor strengthened his prophetic songs. Envisioning the last day, “When the Ship Comes In” (1963) blends salty yarn, scriptural idiom, and comic gusto: Dylan was learning how to make disparate, even contradictory, elements cooperate and cross-pollinate.

Next Page: The Protest Movement in the Sixties

Sports and the Third World

Olga Korbut, Soviet Gaymnast in 1972 Munich Olympics

Sports Behind the Iron Curtain

Russia was a founder member of the modern Olympic movement, but after the Russian Revolution of October 1917, no Soviet team took part in the Olympics until 1952. Initially, there was an explicit rejection of “bourgeois” sports: the Soviets boycotted important Western competitions. Instead, a centrally organized government program of national fitness, “physical culture” and sport for the masses, free of charge, was designed to create in every citizen a sense of emotional identity with the aims of the Soviet state, as a way of uniting the diverse nationalities and cultures of so vast a country.

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The Politicization of Sports

With the nation state the primary unit of international sport, nationalism provided the most conspicuous form of political interference. Sophisticated ceremonial, ritual displays of nationalism, pageantry, medals and tables of results became intrinsic to all big international competitions, and the media exploited the volatile nature of sport to promote feelings of patriotism and rivalry, often carrying racist overtones. Competition was treated as a drama of national emotions, survival, and political and ideological superiority.

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Munich 1972 and the Olympic Boycotts

In September of 1972 an unprecedented terrorist attack unfolded live before 900 million television viewers across the globe and ushered in a brave new world of unpredictable violence. It was the second week of the Summer Olympics, and in Munich, West Germany, the games that had been dubbed “The Olympics of Peace and Joy” were off to a rousing start with swimmer Mark Spitz and gymnast Olga Korbut wowing the crowds.

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Sports and the Media

Modern sport is characterized by its precise attempts to achieve outstanding performances. It is indebted to the English for this characteristic which raised it from the level of pure enjoyment and differentiated it from its more pedagogical side, gymnastics. They were the first industrial people in the new world and they also provided sport with its technical refinements. It was in England that athletic performances were first measured. It was for this purpose that they invented the stop-watch in the year 1737 and simultaneously with this precision in the making of comparisons.

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Sporting Superstars: Pele & Muhammad Ali

A basic need for outdoor exercise to conserve national health and the sponsorship of social leaders thus served in large measure to break down the barriers that had formerly stood in the way of the development of organized sports. Games which could appeal to every one had at last been invented or developed. In the 1960s there emerged two sportsmen – both black men from unpromising backgrounds – who each won vast fortunes and became amongst the best known faces and names in the world. The two of them challenged many conventional assumptions about the place of the sportsman in modern society.

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Sporting Superstars: Pele and Muhammad Ali

Peli - Brasilian Football Player

A basic need for outdoor exercise to conserve national health and the sponsorship of social leaders thus served in large measure to break down the barriers that had formerly stood in the way of the development of organized sports. Games which could appeal to every one had at last been invented or developed. In the 1960s there emerged two sportsmen – both black men from unpromising backgrounds – who each won vast fortunes and became amongst the best known faces and names in the world. The two of them challenged many conventional assumptions about the place of the sportsman in modern society.

Born in 1940 in the small town of Tres Coraçoes in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pele) began playing professional soccer for the Santos club at the age of 16. Two years later he attended his first World Cup Finals in Sweden. Soccer is the most widely played football game in the world although Americans have always shown a marked lack of enthusiasm for it. It is popular throughout the South America, and matches are played in enormous atmosphere.

In a career spanning 20 years and over 1300 games, Pele established unparalleled scoring records. Late in a career which had witnessed three World Cup Final victories for his native Brazil, he became the focus for the expansion of the game in North America.

His pre-eminence as a sporting legend made him a powerful symbol of the possibilities of sport as an avenue to social mobility in the 1970s. He was the highest – salaried team athlete in history and probably the richest.

Pele’s success attracted attention to Brazil itself, and his team. He showed that a Third World country could compete against and challenge economically “advanced” nations.

Muhammad Ali - World Heavyweight Champion

Muhammad Ali and Heavyweight Championships

In 1960, two years after Pele had appeared in his first World Cup Final, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.) won the Olympic light heavyweight boxing gold medal at Rome, at the age of 18. To many Blacks, however, Muhammad Ali is much more than a boxing legend. To them, he is the man who spoke out against racism and who risked everything, including his freedom, when he refused to be drafted into the Army during “the White folks'” Vietnam War. That single act of defiance (for which he paid dearly by being banished from the ring during his prime fighting years) elevated him to a permanent symbol of Black manhood, Black courage and Black pride.

In twenty years, Ali rose from the obscurity of Louisville, Kentucky, to global prominence. As a sporting role model for young blacks he explicitly confronted racial stereotypes. Sonny Lizton lost to Cassius Clay in 1964 and was defeated by the same boxer, now Muhammad Ali, in a 1965 rematch. Both fights were controversial. In the first bout, Liston failed to answer the bell in the seventh round; in the second match, Ali felled Liston with a punch ringside observers said did not land. After his loss to Ali he fought mostly undistinguished opponents, losing a North American Boxing Federation title fight to Leotis Martin by a knockout in 1969. He won fifty of fifty-four professional bouts, thirty-nine by knockout. His career was marred, however, by his criminal record and alleged connections with organized crime. Sadly, he died of a drug overdose.

His audacity in promoting his own ability, his successful challenge for the world heavyweight championship in 1964, his conversion to Islam, his stand against the Vietnam War and the regaining of “his” world title all thrust him into the center of world sport.

In the 20th century American boxers have monopolized the world heavyweight championship. The pre-eminence of black champions since 1956 has fueled racist sentiments. Ali himself saw boxing as “the fastest way for a black person to make it in this country”. As his career developed, many people prepared to pay vast sums to see him beaten.

In 1966, Ali claimed conscientious objector status because of his Black Muslim beliefs. He was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his wrld titles and had his boxing licence revoked. In 1970, the United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed the conviction and Ali was allowed to fight again. In 1971 he fought Joe Frazier for the world heavyweight title and lost in 15 rounds. Three years later he defeated George Forman in Kinshasa, Zaire, to regain the world title and in the process earned $5.450.000. In the six years after his return to boxing, Ali earned an estimated $26 million; but shortly after his retirement he was diagnosed as having suffered brain damage from his boxing career.

Judging by his durable popularity, there’s a good chance that Ali will eventually get his wish. If not, he’ll probably settle for being remembered simply as The Greatest. As he once put it himself, “If you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble.” Who can’t sympathize with that?

Next Page: The Folk Revival