Convention, reaction and The Beatles

"The failure to adapt suggests not moral concern but crude reaction in moralistic guise."

Geoffrey Heptonstall
23 July 2014

Flickr/thejcgerm. Some rights reserved.

There was an American evangelical publication I once saw that showed a photo of the Beatles in 1963 and another of them in 1969. The contrast was startling. They began with neat fringes and innocent faces, well groomed in their Pierre Cardin suits. A few years later they were unshaven, long-haired bohos. The interesting point is the way their progress not only mirrored the Sixties, it presented a mimesis of adolescence, from prep school to university, from neophyte to radical sophisticate.

That, however, wasn’t the point the evangelist wished to make. His case was  to indicate the general moral decline in society. In 1963 society was taken aback by a stylised modernity, whereas in 1969 the wilder look passed without comment. Society had accepted the outrageous. This evidence of decline seemed clear enough to a certain cast of mind.

The flaw in the evangelist’s case was to presume the moral conventions of a particular tradition are to be acknowledged as universal absolutes. That the Beatles in 1969 had the look of First Century Palestine was ignored. They even had something of the look of Western heroes like Custer. Conventions, especially of style and manner, are transient. Conventions change. The standards we apply are relative. Custom is not morality. It is the lore of the tribe, the way things are done in this place at this time. The god created in the image of the American Midwest circa 1960 is a reflection of political values articulated in religious terms. It is both opportunistic and manipulative. And at heart it is extraordinarily arrogant in the attempt to make universal values from ad-hoc standards which fail to adapt to changing circumstances. The failure to adapt suggests not moral concern but crude reaction in moralistic guise.

That the Beatles in 1963 were considered to be outrageous indicates how deeply embedded was the conservatism of Western society. The absence of style was significant. Conformity to customs that no longer applied was more or less the accepted, unquestioned way. Cold War values of discipline and obedience did not allow for notions of alternative social and personal space. The changes of fashion (longer hair for men, shorter skirts for women) were symptomatic of a desire for deeper transformations. We think of the Fifties in monochrome. We see the Sixties in colour. There’s a truth of sorts in there, not literally of course, but in terms of feeling. Even David Bailey’s black and white photographs are ‘colourful’.

As for the Beatles, they had a success that can’t be measured in record sales. Other entertainers may attract attention, but the Beatles were singularly placed as historically significant. Unusually representative of their generation, they reflected a social mood, a cultural climate at a pivotal moment. Their energy was the optimism of social change, a feeling of transformation to a more fluid class structure, a more generous moral code, a more responsible presence as a nation, and a more dynamic voice as a people.

The process was documented at the time in George Melly’s Revolt into Style which ended on a cautionary note that the forces of reaction were gathering to oppose and even to reverse the mood of change that we now name as the Sixties. The decade ended with an interesting comment from the Daily Express. ‘It has gone far enough.’ The changes couldn’t be reversed (at least not immediately), but the process could be halted. It was an attitude that confirmed Melly’s thesis, reflected in his book’s title: society absorbs its challenges.

It is apposite to consider Christopher Booker’s The Neophiliacs, published as Melly was finishing his own account. Booker covers the same period but in an entirely different mood. For Melly Pop was an innovative creative form channelled into the mainstream, often at the cost of its freshness and vitality. Booker saw not the creativity of original minds, but a trivial interest in the superficially glamorous. Booker saw publicity culture not as the devourer of talent but as the originator of mindlessness. He made no concession in his adamantine opposition. Like a latter-day Gilbert Pinfold, Booker abhorred television, psychedelia, mini-skirts and the Beatles – in fact everything that has happened in his lifetime.

The Neophiliacs is a mere curiosity now, in contrast to Melly’s informed, tolerant account. Although Booker’s polemic is expressed with some verve, the intentional attitude is monotonous. Booker is well informed without exercising any sense of discrimination. Everything that happened between 1956 and 1969 was wrong. It was simply innovation for innovation’s sake without direction or purpose. As a description of commercial publicity culture the charge has some weight, but as a general condemnation it simply misses its target by aiming comprehensively: ‘Change and decay in all I see.’ The burning of the vanities means that Sergeant Pepper and Blow Up are destroyed in the conflagration

The more intelligent conservative understands that outright opposition does not work. Some changes, especially in style, are inevitable and even welcome as a breath of fresh air. There is also the cynical recognition that as youth matures there come the responsibilities that exercise acceptance rather than rebellion. Let them have their fling and get it out of their systems. Marginal concessions can be made now to ensure compliance later. The energy and optimism can be channelled into working for existing values of class and nation and, of course, money.

The vast mechanism of publicity culture expands to invite and accept the creative minds in search of a supporting structure. A modern consumer culture has the capacity and the will to adapt itself to meet its challenges. A survey of advertising art is an informal social history. It shows the surface changes in taste and attitude. It also reveals, unwittingly, a narrative of the tension between transformation and continuity.

‘England Swings’ was Time magazine’s famous headline when the emergence of the Sixties style shocked established attitudes. It did not take long for society to adapt. But the challenge was genuine, and the fight drew blood. Thirty years later Cool Britannia was a government-sponsored pastiche. Its resemblance was not to W.H. Auden’s (surprised and surprising) appreciation of the writings of John Lennon. The stronger resemblance was to clergy singing along to Summer Holiday at the church fete in an attempt to be ‘with it’.

Of course non-conformity soon became the convention. A running joke through George Melly’s last book, Slowing Down, is the Turner Prize. An official avant-garde is an oxymoron.  It is too self-aware, and it lacks that essential quality of innocence. It is not a challenge, but a means of deflecting any potential challenge. There comes that moment when the Establishment gets in on the act, like the BBC’s embrace of satire in the early Sixties. It is the kiss of death.  Similarly, you can have a lot of fun at Glastonbury, but the radical dynamic has moved elsewhere. The real advances in the arts are always happening elsewhere. In basement theatres and attic studios the real work is being done.

The real advances in society are happening elsewhere. Social experiment begins beyond the bounds of convention. By degrees it reaches the margins. Then slowly it advances into the accepted wisdom. The radical edge is diminished with acceptance. Society, however, does make gains. If it has any sense.

What seemed to happen in the Sixties was that the process of transformation was accelerated. How far that really was the case is another matter. We have to be certain that it wasn’t simply a question of style. But if there was substance then the challenge was formidable. This surely accounts for the great reaction that has sought to turn the clock further and further back in terms, not of applied science and personal morality, but of the embedded structures of the social fabric.

Who is the current Prime Minister? Lord Salisbury of course. That’s about where we are politically. This may account for the current fashion that mimics the style of a Victorian underclass. Who are the models for the contemporary look? Bill Sikes and Nancy as seen by the creators of Eastenders. You look after your own in a world where the only strong survive. Ideas of co-operation and welfare vanish. Only the weak accept charity. The strong take what they can get

There are many currents in society, of course. But the fascist gangster style is undoubtedly a strong presence, and it is incompatible with a progressive culture. A tolerance of the tokens of reaction betrays an acceptance of the reaction itself. ‘Tee-hee-hee, you’re out of touch,’ just won’t do as a response. It’s not we who testify to something better who are out of touch. Just because something is in vogue it isn’t necessarily right. The evangelist who objected to the Beatles was looking in the reverse mirror. He presumed his standards were absolutes. He presumed that good order would prevail. There is an order prevailing, but goodness has got nothing to do with it.

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