British Beat Conquers the World

British Beat Conquers the World

The Beatles-led British invasion of American airwaves and record stores in the 1960s influenced all aspects of the American popular music scene. In Britain and the United States, few towns were without their amateur groups, almost all of whom attempted to write some of their own material. Self-penned songs were unusual for the mainstream of popular music, but held no fears for folk revivalists; what struck them most forcibly was the immense, unsuspected capacity of this new form of rock’n’ roll for personal expression.

The greatest impact of British music may not have been on “creative artists”, however, but on the music industry. The industry had grown bored with the popular – music scene in the early 1960s. The Beatles in particular reawakened its interest. The reinvigoration of popular music recording brought with it a search for new ways of marketing, and a scramble for new performers to meet the demand.

The Beatles pioneered the idea that the long-playing record (LP) should be more than a discrete collection of unrelated songs. This encouraged the industry to move much of its popular music production into that area – a shift made permanent a little later in the decade by the arrival of the “concept album” (usually attributed to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – 1967). And the simple but effective notion of reducing the traditional number of tracks (and hence the royalties) meant that LP’s could be sold at the same price but bring in more revenue for the music industry.

To an audience that took its music with a growing seriousness, the LP was confirmation of the status of that music. It also proved particularly attractive to the ever-increasing number of FM (frequency modulation) radio stations in the United States. This system of broadcasting, conceived in 1933, was based on a fuller range of frequency than AM (amplitude modulation), and was characterized by its ability to filter out intruding noises.

Finally taking hold in the 1960s, FM statitons steadily grew in number, helped by several related factors such as the introduction of stereo sound in about 11960 (stereo systems soon came complete with FM); the consequent improvement in LP quality; and the adoption of the LP for rock records. Beginning in San Francisco, FM stations became closely associated with “progressive” rock.

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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.

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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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