Having a pop at the Fab Four for being 'capitalists' is a cover for
slating the dynamism and materialism of the 1960s.
16 October 2008
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
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
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.