A ticket to deride

Having a pop at the Fab Four for being ‘capitalists’ is a cover for slating the dynamism and materialism of the 1960s.

Neil Davenport

Topics Culture

Every so often, a writer or cultural studies academic will put forward a myth-busting, ‘this-will-be-big-news-for-you-sunshine’ fact about The Beatles. And more often than not, they say something anodyne (and untrue) like ‘Herman’s Hermits, not The Beatles, were the real innovators of the Sixties’, or ‘Ringo Starr was the true genius of The Beatles’.

Dr David Fowler, a Cambridge University historian, is the latest opportunist seeking to grab the headlines with a Beatles claim. He has decided to stun the world by declaring that the Fab Four were ‘capitalists’ rather than radical youth leaders. In his new book Youth Culture in Modern Britain, Fowler says: ‘They did about as much to represent the interests of the nation’s young people as the Spice Girls did in the 1990s.’ Whatever next? Will The Beatles be slated for failing to stop the Vietnam War?

Fowler says that many commentators in the 1960s considered youth culture to be all about The Beatles. Yet just because they were highly popular, he argues, that does not mean they were leaders of their generation. Yet although The Beatles’ enormous success and masterful songs speak for themselves, and precisely because John Lennon exhibited a narcissistic brand of gesture politics, not many of us believe that The Beatles were leaders of anything. They were a strikingly innovative pop group, not Leninists. So although their pop cultural dominance in the Sixties means they feature in modern history books, they certainly don’t come under the heading ‘political leaders’ – of youth, anti-capitalism, anti-war protests or anything else.

John Lennon may have sung about starting a ‘revolution’, but that is hardly the same as leading one. And why should we expect pop groups to be political agents anyway? It is only academics like Fowler who seriously believe that pop musicians have some kind of social responsibility. What The Beatles did was feed off their period’s creative energy and sense of open possibilities, and articulate those sentiments with a force and influence that still resonates today. While it’s true that the counterculture of the 1960s contained many retrograde and infantile ideas, it was also a time when individual choice and freedoms were being opened up to ordinary people for the first time.

Without wishing to indulge the tiresome and neverending nostalgia for the 1960s, the era’s brief burst of experimentation (limited though it was) is still highly significant. Indeed, it is the continual attacks on that decade for its sense of opportunity and discovery of freedoms that ensure it remains ingrained in the popular imagination. And it is precisely the culture of consumerism which the 1960s ushered in that Fowler is rather aggravated about. The ‘anti-capitalist’ rhetoric served up in Youth Culture in Modern Britain is simply a contemporary cover to express hostility towards the experimentalism, dynamism and materialism of the 1960s.

Debates on modern history are often informed by contemporary concerns – and Fowler’s book is no exception. He argues that The Beatles were ‘young capitalists who, far from developing a youth culture, were exploiting youth culture by promoting fan worship, mindless screaming and nothing more than a passive teenage consumer’; this loudly echoes today’s phoney anti-capitalism and its dubious hostility towards consumerism. Fowler isn’t the only historian making these questionable points. An Oxford academic, Dominic Sandbrook, has also challenged the many ‘myths’ of The Beatles and the 1960s, arguing that both were more conservative and conventional than we would like to think. Sandbrook mocks The Beatles for appearing on light entertainment shows (ignoring the fact that having working-class musicians on TV was unheard of at the time), and rails against that ‘era of consumerism’ for undermining traditional communities.

In 2003, BBC4 also decided to put the 1960s in the dock for being reactionary rather than radical, overly materialistic, consumer-driven, and thus a contributor to future environmental problems. So the Sixties were responsible for climate change, too, as well as family breakdown and drug abuse. Whatever radical-sounding language historians and commentators use to deride the 1960s today, it still amounts to a familiar-sounding hostility towards experimentation, and an expression of the prejudices of older conservatives: the clearest prejudice being that, during and after the 1960s, the working classes no longer ‘knew their place’ in their ‘traditional communities’ and instead indulged in far too much consumption, free living and so on. Under the cover of bemoaning a lack of genuine radicalism in the Sixties, Fowler and others are really expressing repulsion against the idea of increased individual choice (branded ‘consumerism’) which arose in the 1960s.

Fowler’s disdain for the modernist sentiment of the 1960s is hilariously underlined by his bizarre championing of the interwar folkie Rolf Gardiner as the ‘true cultural subversive’: a ‘pop star before pop stars even existed’. All of a sudden, extolling the virtues of Herman’s Hermits over The Beatles sounds sensible by comparison. Gardiner was a virulently anti-modern, anti-urban crank who lionised aristocrats and Morris dancing. And unlike The Beatles, the Stones or The Kinks, Gardiner advocated a German-style youth movement to ‘return to the land’ and embraced Nazi ideas about ‘blood and soil’, before distancing himself from the grisly consequences. That he was also an early member of the Soil Association, Britain’s leading organisation for organic food faddists, gives a clue as to why he is championed by Fowler.

Even here, however, Fowler is hardly making some exotic new discovery. In the 1960s, many radical lefties also championed ‘pure’ folk music against what they saw as the ‘decadent’ and ‘corrupting’ sound of The Beatles and other popular beat groups. The folkies turned on Bob Dylan when he cranked up an electric guitar at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Yet where some radical Sixties activists – including Sheila Rowbotham – at least recognised that the pro-folk contingent was lamentably out of step with the modernist times, Fowler’s championing of an anti-modernist crank like Gardiner will probably be seen as laudable today. After all, if any musician from the past best echoes what passes for ‘radicalism’ right now, it is not The Beatles, with their electric sounds and aspirational lyrics; it is Rolf Gardiner. On that score, at least, Fowler seems to understand the current period better than he does the past.

Against all this, it is true that many aspects of the Sixties were never quite as they seemed. Fowler is right to point out that the cultural elites were the real beneficiaries of Swinging London, and, for all the claims of meritocracy and equality, workers, women and newly arrived ethnic minorities were still expected to know their place. There was some upward mobility, yes, but Britain remained a class-ridden society.

It is also true that the counterculture of the period was rather facile and not really ‘counter’ at all. But to dismiss the 1960s because The Beatles didn’t lead a workers’ revolution is to ignore what did happen, and why it happened. A big part of the story was how increased living standards changed a generation’s attitude on everything from war to sex to deference. When the alternative is nostalgically to advocate the interwar period of austerity and fascist-style folkies, I’ll take The Beatles any day. Fowler’s book ultimately reveals that the long and winding road of phoney anti-capitalism is the dead end of modern history.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild went to a Leonard Cohen gig and found his witty, heartfelt misery as uplifting as ever. Emily Hill did not see anything countercultural about the Glastonbury festival. Andrew Calcutt recalled being demobilised by the Rock Against Racism concerts in the 1970s. Neil Davenport was not too impressed by Anton Corbijn’s Control, about Joy Division. Donald Winchester saw no reason to mourn the death of the LP. Or read more at spiked issue Music.

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Topics Culture


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