Pop icons such as John Lennon and Mick Jagger were never the
spokesmen for 1960s youth, but shrewd capitalists who cashed in on
the mood of their time, a new study suggests.
In a radical reappraisal of the story of British youth culture
published this week, a Cambridge University historian writes that the
"Swinging" Sixties were less a golden age for the nation's young than
a celebration of wealth by its social elite".
Dr David Fowler argues that youth movements actually reached their
apex between the wars, when they prospered under the leadership of
figures such as the subversive Cambridge student Rolf Gardiner. A
revival followed in the 1950s, but by the 1960s - so often a decade
defined by its rebellious, younger generation - they were in decline.
Bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were more interested in
selling records than acting as a mouthpiece for young people, Dr
Fowler says. "Swinging London" was a high society phenomenon
inaccessible to most 18- to 25-year-olds.
So out of reach was it, he observes, that iconic youth cults of the
time - such as the Mods - were forced to inhabit a subterranean world
of basement coffee bars in places like Soho; venues located quite
literally below exclusive and glitzy nightclubs like Annabel's in the
fashionable West End.
Even the epic running battles between Mods and Rockers on Brighton
Beach pale into insignificance next to the far more vibrant youth
movements which flourished during the supposedly "mean" 1930s,
according to the book.
"The 1960s are often viewed as the point at which youth culture in
this country exploded, but in many ways they were the years in which
the idea began to fall apart," Dr Fowler said.
"People forget that real youth movements are about a lot more than
spending and consumerism - they are a way of life. Groups like The
Beatles were basically capitalists interested in enriching themselves
through the music industry. They did about as much to represent the
interests of the nation's young people as The Spice Girls did in the 1990s."
While historians have traditionally viewed youth culture as a
post-war phenomenon, Dr Fowler's study, Youth Culture In Modern
Britain, starts in the 1920s.
It defines youth culture as a philosophy of living distinct from that
favoured by the older generation. Authentic youth movements do far
more than champion a series of consumer choices about what music to
listen to or clothes to wear - they create a living, creative
community based on engagement with like-minded youngsters.
The book suggests these communities were started by middle class
students in the 1920s and developed to such an extent that by the
outbreak of World War II they had become flourishing international
networks that transcended class boundaries.
Chief among them was the collective started by Rolf Gardiner, the son
of an eminent Egyptologist who studied languages at St John's
College, Cambridge, between 1921 and 1924. Fascinated by the emerging
concept of Jugenkultur in Germany, Gardiner formulated the blueprint
for a "cult of youth" in Britain through which young people might
express themselves more freely and challenge the opinions of their elders.
Using diaries and other documents stored at Cambridge University
Library, Fowler traces how Gardiner's cult championed physical labour
and rural reconstruction. It was, however, both recreational and
highly controversial. At a time when women at the University had to
be accompanied merely to take a walk along the River Cam, Gardiner's
group organised naked bathing sessions for male and female members -
an expression of its "back to nature" values.
Dr Fowler argues that the perception of youth culture as developing
only after World War II comes down to a "break in chronology". In the
1940s the nation's young were first conscripted, then endured years
of austerity which spilled into the next decade.
The book suggests that when youth culture did resurface, in the late
1950s, British society was in a state of "collective amnesia". As a
result, the public - and later historians - wrongly viewed the
concept of young people rejecting their elders' philosophy in favour
of their own as a new phenomenon.
By the 1960s, however, Dr Fowler believes that examples of genuine
youth culture were few, as young people's interests became
increasingly commercialised. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones may
have embodied "counter-culture", but they never did so exclusively
for the sake of an 18-25 age bracket that needed a voice.
Indeed, the Stones' penchant for buying large countryside mansions
and living like gentry was hardly something their fans could copy. As
the book observes, when once asked if he regarded himself as a
spokesman for his generation, Mick Jagger replied that he saw himself
only as a musician. Young political movements of the time - notably
the student rioters of 1968 - viewed themselves more as
"revolutionaries" of no specific age group and often despised what
groups like The Beatles stood for.
"The world of Swinging London may be viewed as an emblem of youth
culture now, but it was really for the Michael Caines of this world;
an elite who could afford it," Fowler added.
"People like Rolf Gardiner were true cultural subversives - pop stars
before pop even existed. In terms of the influence he had on giving
Britain's young people a sense of identity, there's no doubt he is
just as important as Mick Jagger."
Youth Culture In Modern Britain, c.1920-c.1970, is published by Palgrave.