The British beatniks

Youth culture and the rise of the young consumer

The first sighting of the term ‘youth culture’ is generally traced to an article by the American sociologist Talcott Parsons, published in 1942. This is not, of course, to suggest that there was no such thing as youth culture before that time, as a range of historical studies has shown. However, the widespread identification or labelling of youth culture as a distinct social phenomenon – not only in academic and journalistic commentary, but also in popular culture – is largely a post-War development. Parsons’ claim that there were rituals, tastes and practices that were specific to young people – and that there was a gap between them and older generations – became widely accepted in the US in the 1950s, although (for various reasons) the UK may have lagged somewhat behind in this respect.

The Teddy Boys are generally identified as the first post-War British youth culture. While one can detect signs of the Ted style in the early 1950s (see my discussion of the film Cosh Boy (1953) in an earlier essay), it did not fully coalesce until the middle of the decade. The Teds were identified by their distinctive dress (an assemblage of long ‘Edwardian’ drape jackets, crepe-soled ‘brothel creeper’ shoes, cowboy-style bootlace ties, and elaborate quiff hairstyles), as well as their enthusiasm for early rock-and-roll. They achieved notoriety largely as a result of the rioting that accompanied the release of the film Rock Around the Clock in 1956; and as we shall see, they were also implicated in the attacks on West Indian immigrants that precipitated the Notting Hill Riots of 1958. The Teddy Boys were very clearly working-class, and their style has been interpreted as an attempt to defend their social status at a time when it was under threat from wider social changes of the time. In this sense, they might almost be seen as a throwback – an attempt to cling on to an identity that was gradually being swept away by the onward rush of modernity.

By the end of the decade, the Teds were already beginning to fade, and a new breed of young, largely working-class consumers was taking their place. Mark Abrams’s short report The Teenage Consumer, published in 1959, is often cited as an early indication of the ‘discovery’ of the youth market in Britain – a discovery (or indeed an invention) that seems to have taken place some years later than in the United States. Published by the London Press Exchange, a major advertising agency, and based on market research conducted by his own company, Research Services Ltd., Abrams’s report maps the emergence of what he describes as a ‘newly enfranchised’ consumer group. Abrams uses an extended definition of the teenager, as those aged between 15 (the point of leaving school) and 25, although he excludes those who are married; and on this basis, he estimates that they represent around 5 million people, approximately 13% of the British population. According to Abrams’s research, the spending power of this group had doubled in real terms between 1938 and 1958, as young people had moved into what he terms ‘modern jobs’ – engineering and building for young men, and retail, nursing and secretarial work for young women.

Abrams notes that the expenditure patterns of this group were dominated by media and leisure (cinema admissions, records, popular magazines, clothing, soft drinks). As he puts it:

… the quite large amount of money at the disposal of Britain’s average teenager is spent mainly on dressing up in order to impress other teenagers and on goods which form the nexus of teenage gregariousness outside the home. In other words, this is distinctive teenage spending for distinctive teenage ends in a distinctive teenage world.

Despite this insistence on age-defined identities, Abrams’s account is principally concerned with working-class youth – a characteristic that differentiates it from the more class-blind approach of early research on the youth market undertaken in the US by Eugene Gilbert and others. Middle-class youth and the small minority then in full-time education are explicitly ignored: Abrams suggests that ‘not far short of 90 per cent of all teenage spending is conditioned by working class taste and values’.

Abrams argues that the distinctiveness of this market in terms of both age and class poses a significant new challenge for marketers and manufacturers (for whom his report is principally written). The teenage years, he argues, are ‘a period of intense preoccupation with discovering one’s identity’, and teenagers are looking for products that are ‘highly charged emotionally’ – something that will be difficult for the ‘middle-aged industrialist’ to understand. In terms of class, Abrams argues, ‘post-War British society has little experience in providing for prosperous working-class teenagers’:

The aesthetic of the teenage market is essentially a working-class aesthetic and probably only entrepreneurs of working class origin will have a ‘natural’ understanding of the needs of this market.

The influence of American culture on working class youth is seen as a further problem in this respect: ‘it is difficult’, Abrams argues, ‘for the middle-aged British manufacturer to adopt the styles and language and appeals of American manufacturers concerned with the teenage market’.

In general, Abrams’s account of this market is fairly non-judgmental. In a follow-up report, published in 1961, he speculates about the impact of new weekly magazines (such as Reveille and Valentine) that were popular with working class young readers, but largely ignored by their middle class counterparts:

This bias is so marked that almost any research on adolescence might well start by asking why working class young people on leaving school and starting adult life stand in such acute psychological need of what is provided by these publications.

Yet aside from this slightly awkward moralistic note, Abrams’s stance is generally neutral, and even seeks to defend young people against the negative perceptions of adults. The economic enfranchisement of the teenager, he argues, has provided

… the chance to be himself and show himself, and has misled a number of people, especially some elderly ones, into the belief that the young of mid-twentieth-century Britain are something new and perhaps ominous. We ourselves see no cause for alarm, and not much for diagnosing novelty except in the new levels of spending power and their commercial effects. There remains the ancient need for the older to understand the younger, and we now confront a business necessity for this understanding, as well as the older moral and psychological imperatives.

Subsequent writers have questioned Abrams’s rather generalized account. Adrian Horn and David Fowler, among others, have argued that the affluence he identifies did not extend far beyond London, and that it was generally much less apparent than in the United States. Nevertheless, as we’ll see, this view of the affluent young consumer was a recurring theme, both in academic and journalistic commentary, and in fictional representations. Along with the associated rise of the popular music industry, it represented a particular concern for those on the political left, who feared that it might neutralize the potential appeal of socialist ideas, and undermine the gains of the post-War welfare state.


Beatniks: a middle-class youth culture?

As I’ve noted, Abrams’ focus is primarily on working-class youth: he dismisses middle-class youth largely because of their lack of independent spending power. However, one can also identify the first signs of a more middle-class youth culture that began to appear – especially in London – at around this time, and which eventually led on to the more celebrated youth movements of the 1960s. These developments were quite diverse, and are probably best thought of in terms of overlapping trends rather than distinct tribes like the Teds.

The ‘beatnik’ style was perhaps more widely taken up in the UK than the work of the beat writers themselves. The 1959 film Beat Girl, which I’ll be discussing below, is a case in point – although in fact the film was originally entitled Striptease Girl, and was paradoxically renamed Wild for Kicks in the US. The girl of the title is an art student, but she is also distinctly affluent. The following year, the much-parodied TV reporter Alan Whicker ran an item for the ITV news magazine programme Tonight (available on YouTube), in which councillors and older residents in the Cornish town of Newquay were interviewed about their attempts to be rid of a plague of long-haired, apparently ‘dirty’ beatniks. Again, the beatniks interviewed appeared to be middle-class students seeking to live inexpensively through the summer break; and one of them notably responds by singing a Woody Guthrie-style folk-song.

These British beatniks (if such they can be called) shared some characteristics with their American counterparts. There were some overlaps in styles of dress and appearance (berets, sandals, sunglasses, beards), although the stereotypical British beatniks were also more likely to wear duffel coats and even tweed jackets. Both were inclined to hang out in cafes, rather than in bars or pubs; and they shared a generalized resistance to ‘the Establishment’ and what they saw as its materialistic values. Nevertheless, there were some other youth cultural trends at the time that were more distinctively British, even if some of them had partly American origins.

Music played a vital role here. The British beatniks were mostly dismissive of American rock-and-roll, and especially of its more commercial varieties. Like their American cousins, their main preference was for jazz. Yet while modern jazz of the period (what would now be called post-bop) was certainly popular, there was also a significant revival of ‘traditional’ New Orleans jazz, which didn’t seem to occur in the US at the same time (although there had been a partial revival some ten years earlier). The beatniks also led, or at least shared, the short-lived enthusiasm for ‘skiffle’, a form of do-it-yourself music played on inexpensive and sometimes home-made instruments (washboards and tea-chest basses) which combined early rock with the apparent authenticity of American folk and blues music.

These different musical genres overlapped, but distinctions between them were vitally important. Passionate battles were fought between the fans of traditional jazz and the modernists (referred to by their enemies as ‘mouldy figs’ and ‘dirty beboppers’ respectively); while there were also narrower debates between different varieties of New Orleans enthusiasts (‘revivalists’ versus ‘traditionalists’). These conflicts also led to physical battles, as in the ‘riots’ that erupted at the Beaulieu Jazz festival in 1959 and 1960 – a ‘beatnik beat-up’, as it was described in the popular press at the time. As Alan Sinfield has described, jazz was a key arena for wider battles over cultural capital, despite its lack of status with official cultural authorities. While concerns about the ‘Americanization’ of youth culture were probably overplayed (as we’ll see below), it is striking how the origins of much of this music were nevertheless American – even if it took British musicians (like the New Orleans purist Ken Colyer or more commercial artists like the skiffle player Lonnie Donegan, or the trad bands of Chris Barber and Acker Bilk) to go in search of what they imagined was some kind of authentic American folk culture.

There was undoubtedly a political dimension to this, and for some contemporary commentators, such as the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, traditional jazz was definitively ‘people’s music’. However, this can also be overstated. The CND protesters who marched from Aldermaston to London were accompanied along the way by New Orleans-style marching bands – although this was partly because their instruments were portable and didn’t require amplification. Writing of this period, George MacKay claims that traditional jazz was ‘leftist marching music of the streets’, although there’s a certain amount of wishful thinking here. (The anti-nuclear protests of more recent times are more likely to culminate in deep house raves, but few people make similar claims about the inherent political significance of the music itself.)

Despite their occasional appearances at Newquay and Beaulieu, it’s fair to say that if British beatniks existed at all, they were primarily a metropolitan phenomenon – and indeed that they gravitated towards a few, relatively select, areas of the capital city. Soho’s coffee bar scene, portrayed in a Look at Life newsreel in 1959, actually dates back to the early 1950s, and provided inexpensive gathering places for artists, media types and political radicals, as well as assorted eccentrics and beatniks. As Look at Life explains (somewhat satirically), they were definitely not for ‘squares’. Cafes like The Two I’s sought to attract young people by providing rock-and-roll music (live and via juke boxes), and were famous recruiting grounds for music business entrepreneurs (there are thinly disguised versions of The Two I’s in several of the films and books I’ll be discussing, including Expresso Bongo, Beat Girl and Absolute Beginners).

In this respect, there is a continuity with the bohemian London that emerged in the years immediately following the war. In his book London Calling, Barry Miles offers a rather breathless portrait of this demi-monde, in which artists, writers, musicians and TV performers rubbed shoulders (and other body parts) in clubs like the infamous Colony Room. While Soho was the key focus – offering a seedy but exotic netherworld of drug dealers, sex workers and street hustlers – bohemian London also extended to parts of Chelsea and Fitzrovia, although not far beyond. As the historian Frank Mort has suggested, the artistic denizens of Soho contributed to a kind of sentimental mythology about the place, in which manifold forms of sex and drugs, combined with crime and an increasingly multicultural population, provided a kind of edgy, cosmopolitan glamour. As we’ll see, writers like Colin MacInnes combined this with a certain mythology of youth, seeing it as a challenge to the suffocating conventional morality of the mainstream adult society of the time. How far any of this extended beyond a couple of square miles or a few hundred people, is (as ever) open to debate. But as the fifties turned into the sixties, this mythology of London’s cosmopolitan youth culture slowly began to extend its influence – arguably reaching some kind of zenith in the discovery of ‘swinging London’ only a few years further down the line.

Of course, almost everything I’ve said in this section has been in the form of generalizations. The identikit image of the beatnik (whether British or American) is self-evidently a media stereotype, although that’s not to say that stereotypes are inevitably inaccurate, or that they are not influential. Nevertheless, I hope I have identified at least some of the diversity of youth culture at this precarious moment of historical transition. This was a period of short-lived trends and seemingly contradictory influences. Distinctions in terms of taste and style were vital, and often seemed to be very finely drawn, at least to the outsider; and they were constantly subject to change. These distinctions were partly about class, but (as we’ll see in more detail below) gender and ethnicity also played a role.

There is a danger in blurring these distinctions together into some all-inclusive grand narrative of youth culture. From the vantage point of the later 1960s, hippy ideologues like Jeff Nuttall (in his book Bomb Culture) were keen to celebrate a continuing tradition of Dionysian revolt against the established society of the squares and the straights. For Nuttall and others like him, the trad jazz boom, the New Left and CND, jazz and skiffle, Teddy Boys, beatniks and mods can all be swept along in the same narrative of revolution and liberation. Yet as I have implied, youth culture at this time was much more fragmented, tentative and provisional than it might have seemed in retrospect: change seemed to be emerging on the horizon (as it was for Ray Gosling), but what kind of change it would be was less than immediately obvious.


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