- 1 Simon Frith, ‘Rock and Popular Culture’ Radical Philosophy, 103. Radical Philosophy Group, Mathemat (...)
1Our first edition of Counterculture(s) and Popular Music offers readers the opportunity to explore its history and how it has been theorised. It also provides an insight into the ways in which it emerged and took shape internationally in scenes that embraced its challenge to the dominant culture. In December, our sister edition, “Utopias, Dystopias, Anarchy” explores utopias and dystopias and sonic anarchy and freaks, focussing on the ways in which the 1960s counterculture embraced both an idealistic frame of reference and one where its emphasis on freedom and beat-hip bohemianism resulted in a bacchanalian orgy of rape and murder. As Simon Frith knowingly observed, ‘rock can’t just be consumed, but must be responded to like any other form of art – its tensions and contradictions engaged and reinterpreted into the listener’s experience’.1 Further discussions of Counterculture(s) and Popular Music are also being published by Ashgate in collaboration with Éditions Mélanie Seteun, so confirming its significance as a vital moment in the continuing history of popular music. As Andy Bennett writes in our Introductory article, ‘Reappraising Counterculture’, while ‘issues such as the essentially diverse, heterogeneous nature of both individuals and socio-political and cultural ideologies’ have been thoroughly explored in relation to ‘subculture’, there has been far less engagement with the counterculture and, as such, it remains a problematic concept.
2What has emerged, from the 21 articles published in our three editions of Countercultures and Popular Music is its non-specificity. ‘It was an entity with a significant degree of fluidity such that it could incorporate diverse groupings and, thus, manifest itself differently at specific times and within specific places depending on local socio-economic, cultural and demographic circumstances’. While the previous lack of attention given to the 1960s counterculture accounts for our timely intervention, it is also apparent that there have always been certain issues that have, as yet, to be fully explored, not least demographic diversity and identity politics within ‘the underlying unity of the countercultural variety’ (Roszak, 1970: 66). As I wrote in in The Space Between the Notes, ‘Initially there appears to be an underlying tension between the political activism of the student New Left and the “Fuck the System” bohemianism of the hippies and the yippies. At a deeper level, however, both extremes were united in their attack on the traditional institutions that reproduce dominant cultural-ideological relations – the family, education, media, marriage and the sexual division of labour. There was a shared emphasis on the freedom to question and experiment, a commitment to personal action, and an intensive examination of the self’ (Whiteley, 1992: 83) whether pathologically invasive or creatively expressive. As Theodor Roszak observed at the time, ‘Beat-hip bohemianism may be too withdrawn from social action to suit New Left Radicalism; but the withdrawal is a direction the activist can readily understand’. (1970: 66)
- 2 Whiteley, 2013.
- 3 To an extent, this can be traced back to the romantic anarchism of the Beats, with its interest in (...)
- 4 Although it is recognised that the fight against middle-class prurience led increasingly towards an (...)
- 5 See Giovanni Vacca, Musique et contre-cultures en Italie : la scène napolitaine, pp. in Les Scènes (...)
- 6 As Jacque Attalli observed, noise contains prophetic powers. ‘It makes audible the new world that w (...)
- 7 The mood is right for us to fight politics with music, because rock is now a media. Sure it’s basic (...)
3On re-visiting my earlier research into rock and the counterculture 2, it occurred that chaos and uncertainty, allied to the impact of noise (inharmonious sound, distortion, dissonance, and the connotations surrounding discord itself) could be interpreted as underpinning a revolutionary agenda suggestive of a state of creative anarchy3, which is arguably distinct from the more soft-focus connotations of ‘All You Need is Love’ and the pacifist agenda implicit in such slogans as ‘Make Love Not War’.4 If, however, Roszak was correct in identifying ‘beat-hip bohemianism as an effort to work out the personality and total life style that follow from New Left social criticism’ (1970: 66), then the forming of countercultural communities, such as the communes that emerged in, for example, Naples5, could appear a logical development in ‘providing a particular location for self-identity’ (Whiteley, 2000, 23). Discord and the darker extremes of ‘noise’ associated with performers such as The Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix and MC5 would thus come into focus as the first stage in the countercultural agenda of establishing a relevant and alternative life-style.6 As Jeff Nuttall observed, two of the aims of the Underground were to ‘release forces into the prevailing culture that would dislocate society, untie its stabilizing knots of morality, punctuality, servility and property; and [to] expand the range of human consciousness outside the continuing and ultimately soul-destroying boundaries of the political utilitarian frame of reference’ (Nuttall, 1970: 249), a philosophy that resonated with the International Times identification of rock as a political weapon.7
4But was this the whole story and is the concept of counterculture still meaningful? It would appear from the articles that follow that ‘despite the theoretical arguments that can be raised against the sociological value of counterculture as a meaningful term for categorising social action, like subculture, the term lives on as a concept in social and cultural theory… [to] become part of a received, mediated memory’. What emerges from the articles that appear in Music and Counterculture(s) is that this involved not simply the utopian but also the dystopian and that while festivals such as those held at Monterey and Woodstock might appear to embrace the former, the deaths of such iconic figures as Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, the nihilistic mayhem at Altamont, and the shadowy figure of Charlie Manson cast a darker light on its underlying agenda, one that reminds us that ‘pathological issues [are] still very much at large in today’s world’.
5We are privileged to have an opening article by Andy Bennett, whose extensive research and publications on subcultures, cultures and cultural memory have established his reputation as a leading international academic on cultural theory. ‘Re-appraising Counterculture’ re-visits and re-evaluates earlier and on-going instances of counter anti-hegemonic ideology, practice and belief, and how the emergence of the term in the late 1960s has been re-deployed in more recent decades in relation to other forms of cultural and socio-political phenomena. As he explains, recent developments in sociological theory complicate and problematize theories developed in the 1960s, with digital technology, for example, providing an impetus for new understandings of counterculture. What is intriguing is the way in which current movements and groups have been referred to as countercultural, so raising the question of how we position the latter.
6In many ways, the first subsection of Countercultures and Popular Music extends and develops many of the issues raised by Bennett, so providing a reflective space in which to consider different ways of explaining and exploring both the relevance and the diversity inherent in the concept. Ryan Moore’s opening article, ‘Break on Through: The Counterculture and the Climax of American Modernism’ investigates the mediating link between music and 1960s modernism, focusing attention on the shared spirit of innovation and progress, with the celebration of ‘youth’ providing an iconic symbol of hope and transformation. With its origins in the free jazz and folk music scenes in New York at the beginning of the 1960s, Moore’s discussion of Ornette Coleman and Bob Dylan then moves west to consider the different variations of rock music that emerged from San Francisco and Los Angeles, ‘the homeland of the counterculture and the terminal point of American modernization in the 1960s’, identifying LSD and acid rock as symbolic of ‘the spirit of modernity and its ironies’.
7Simon Warner also draws attention to the significance of New York in ‘The Banality of degradation: Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and the trash aesthetic.’ As he successfully argues, Warhol was at the heart of one of the key countercultural gestures of the era. ‘By stressing surface and the superficial over depth and substance and by rejecting traditional motivations – issues of moral purpose, social conscience or political ethos, for instance – the artist and his disciples created an enclosed aesthetic universe that was profoundly alternative to both the mid-1960s mainstream and also those who would challenge it in more conventional ways’. Not least, the introspective, amphetamine-induced music of Warhol’s resident band, the Velvet Underground, was in stark contrast to both ‘the psychedelic jams of San Francisco and the acid-drenched and dandy stylings of London.’ ‘marrying instead elements of the high and the low, the cultural leftfield and the arts underground, harsh rhythms, repetitive drones and minimalist arrangements with stories of low-life transgression, conjured, at least in part, by the toxic charge of speed and heroin’. The trash aesthetic associated with Warhol and The Velvet Underground was ‘to influence artists as diverse as musician Genesis P-Orridge and photographer Cindy Sherman and even more mainstream examples – from Boy George to RuPaul and k.d. lang’ and, indeed, earlier performances by David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed where camp, drag, sexual diversity, gender controversies and violence were an integral and conscious part of their artistic strategy.
8Music played a major role in the way that the counterculture authored space in relation to articulations of community by providing a shared sense of collective identity. Not least, the heady mixture of genres provided a socio-cultural-political backdrop for distinctive musical practices and innovations which, in relation to counterculture ideology, provided a rich experiential setting in which different groups defined their relationship both to the local and international dimensions of the movement, so providing a sense of locality, community and collective identity. As Richard Neville wrote at the time: ‘From Berlin to Berkeley, from Zurich to Notting Hill, Movement members exchange a gut solidarity, sharing common aspirations, inspirations, strategy, style, mood and vocabulary. Long hair is their declaration of independence, pop music their Esperanto and they puff pot in their peace pipe’ (1971:14) Neville’s identification of what he calls the counterculture’s ‘intense, spontaneous internationalism’ is explored initially in Giovanni Vacca’s opening article, “Music and Countercultures in Italy: the Neapolitan Scene” where he focuses attention on the 1960s, a time when the first seeds of rock ‘n’ roll and the ideology surrounding the counterculture were penetrating Italian culture. It was a period when British and American rock stars began to include Italy in their world tours, and Italian rock bands found a more defined political identity as progressive rock superseded beat. Then, during the accelerating conflicts of the 1970s a new radical political culture developed. Born outside the Communist Party, criticism was addressed to 'the system' in all its articulations: family, education, politics, work, and entertainment. Within this highly-charged context the folk music revival and the political song assumed a new significance as popular genres and the classic Neapolitan song were reclaimed and reshaped. As Vacca explains, the song, in Neapolitan tradition, developed both ‘as an important part of the identity of the local emerging middle class’ while being ‘taken up and continuously revisited by the lower classes.’ The strength of these traditions was such that ‘the Neapolitan song had to be violated, debunked, stripped bare of its stock conventions and bent to unheard expressive possibilities’ if it was to embrace and reflect the changes inherent in the countercultural agenda. Vacca’s detailed discussion of Neapolitan bands that revitalised traditional songs through influences as diverse as jazz, rhythm and blues (The Showmen), progressive and psychedelic rock (Osanna and Il Balletto di Bronzo) also focussed on lyrics that encapsulated the two major poles of Italian countercultures: India, which for many Italian hippies ‘represented the myth of an alternative civilization, custodian of an ancestral wisdom lost in the industrial world’, and the factory, which was ‘at the centre of theoretical Marxist speculations of the radical left wing born outside the Communist Party’. Sorrenti’s apocryphal ballad ‘Vorrei incontrati’ (1972), thus foreshadows the late eighties when the fragmentation of large factories and the re-allocation of industrial production to countries with a less expensive labour force lead to growing unemployment and the transformation of what once were working class areas into a waste land’. The subsequent take over of its derelict buildings as ‘occupied self-managed social centres’ led to a new Italian music, which incorporated rap, ragamuffin and reggae and which also brought with it a rediscovery of folk music and the Neapolitan song. As Vacca concludes, ‘it took three decades for Neapolitan musicians to find their own way into modern song and popular music and, at the same time, to recover a glorious tradition’, and today the Neapolitan Song has become a favourite genre by a new generation of performers.
9The next two articles explore the significance of punk as countercultural, and its DIY culture provides a specific insight into Aline Macke’s investigation into ‘Taqwacores: the emergence of a Muslim-American Counter-Subculture’. The impact of 9/11 Islamophobia and consequent US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan on minority Muslim communities in the U.S. and beyond has caused many to reflect on the resurgence of extreme-right politics and its impact on human rights both at home and internationally. As Macke observes, the emergence of Taqwacore, which combines Muslim imagery with Punk DIY has provided a way of conveying ideas of religious tolerance and identity through its ironic lyrics and often controversial public statements and, as such, relates to ‘the three core elements of punk: an anti-status quo disposition, a pronounced do-it-yourself ethos and a desire for disalienation (resistance to the multiple forms of alienation in modern society). (Dunn, 2011: 27) The re-activation of punk’s subversive potential via an alternative Muslim counter-discourse has provided a focus for Muslims who reject traditional authorities (‘There is no Sheikh, there is no Imam. There isn’t anyone who has a higher authority than you (Allah) in Islam’, as one of the Taqwacore bands, Kominas, states. It would seem, then, that by drawing on the global cultural field of punk, the Taqwacore scene is able to articulate its discourse of tolerance and Muslim dignity through a local frame of reference, informed by regional socio-economic conditions within the historical context of alienation, and the hostilities relating to Islamophobia.
10The question ‘what is countercultural’ also raises the issue of whether or not social conflict and struggle can be mapped onto those cultural practices grounded in particular forms of leisure, consumption and lifestyle where individuals are able to connect in pursuit of specific goals and/or participate in a common cause. As Fabien Hein’s article ‘DIY as a countercultural dynamic? The example of the punk rock scene’ suggests, definition is important. If a counterculture is interpreted as ‘a set of protest or marginalised movements that form when the development of dominating organizations accelerate’ (Touraine, 1998: 204), then the characteristic features of authenticity and the demystification of the cultural production process inherent in the DIY ethics of punk rock and its pro-active postures would constitute a counterculture.
11Drawing on research by Laughey (date) and Willis (date), Hein interprets DIY as a form of work based on self production and, as such, one that constitutes a training ground for empowerment, with those involved learning new competences, organizing their own structures, networks, labels, medias, and works, so building up an experience that transforms the real and the agent itself, as well as an alternative economy. Punk thus constitutes a structuring field (experiences, values, business etc.) that fosters individual and collective agency and, as such, is a reflexive, emancipatory pedagogy, not just a means to evacuate pressure or linger in apathy. Hein’s challenge to earlier writing by Adorno (date) and Horkheimer (date) is supported by a discussion of the first DIY album (The Buzzcock’s Spiral Scratch) which demonstrates the pro-active dimension of punk in its entrepreneurship, recognized earlier by Bourdieu as a ‘countercultural phenomenon’ (ref. ): the product of self-taught agents, who free themselves from the rules of the market place, producing an alternative market which can, in practice, contest institutions in a variety of cultural fields. (p. ) This, in turn, raises the issue of authenticity, not least amongst such iconic bands as The Sex Pistols and The Clash who sold out to major labels, versus the punk credibility of Crass who created their own label, organized distribution and sold their cds at half the price of the majors, sharing the proceeds with alternative communities. While the question of counterculture versus counter-market provides an insight into the practical efficiency of countercultural dynamics, Hein contends that Fugazi (date) and Dischord’s (date) pragmatic (non-ideological), short-term (and not structural) model of struggle provides a relevant criteria for evaluating a counterculture’s concrete achievements. Its success depends on three dimensions: it concretely transforms individuals’ everyday lives; it reconciles the question of independence with that of civic engagement; it offers a generalizable operational model. His conclusion: DIY thus demonstrates that it is possible to develop a cultural business, aimed at a niche market, without abandoning punk core values and, as such, can be considered a counterculture.
12The relationship between subculture and counterculture is further explored in Gildas Lescop’s article, ‘Skinheads, from Reggae to Rock Against Communism’, where he wonders how a 1960s working class youth subculture originally fascinated with Jamaican music was later associated in the 1980s with white supremacist neo-Nazi groups. The original skinhead movement had grown out of the radicalization of the « mods » whose trans-class ideology, dandyism and growing interest in psychedelic music were considered by « hard mods » as contrary to their own culture and social background. Sharing space in working-class neighbourhoods with Jamaican immigrants, they developed a syncretic style, combining symbolic elements of British worker pride with violence and a fascination for the myth of the Jamaican “rude boy”, adopting both the music – reggae, ska, rocksteady – and elements of their style: the low-slung pants and the shaved head. However, the predominance of “roots reggae”, mysticism and Rastafarianism in 1970s Jamaican music and the subsequent segregation it established lead to a decline of this subculture. While the phenomenon had first exemplified Dick Hebdige’s hypotheses on the great influence black immigrant culture had on youth subcultures (date of publication, pp ?), Jamaican culture’s “return” to an (invented) tradition, combined with police repression (in response to violence in stadiums and the streets) sealed its extinction.
13A second skinhead generation was born in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, once again from the radicalization of a previous subculture – punk. “Street-punk” bands criticized punk’s inauthenticity (compromises with capitalism, with the star system…). A certain number of bands, such as Cock Sparrer and Sham 69, and their “bald punk” fans constituted the oi! scene, which radicalized street-punk’s cult of violence and proletarian pride, adding a pro-British, often racist content to that configuration. As Gildas Lescop very clearly demonstrates, this new generation of skinheads was not, in fact, an emanation of the original movement, although it did share some of its values (the working-class pride, the violence). This in no way means that the “originals” were “pure”: Lescop insists on the importance of homophobic and xenophobic symbolic and physical violence within the first skinhead movement, but these acts did not get the media coverage the second generation would attract.
14The identification of skinheads to neo-Nazi extremists was the result of a double process. Firstly, a political hijacking, as the young National Front saw in this movement an opportunity to efficiently disseminate its ideology, in venues and stadiums, thanks to virile, rowdy young men. Acts of violence between conflicting members of the skinhead movement increased, as well as those aimed at Pakistani immigrants. As a result, many bands left the oi! scene; those that remained committed to its radical ideology and attitude later moved toward “Rock Against Communism” – a new sub-scene, the product of an active collaboration between Skrewdriver's frontman Ian Stuart and the National Front, as a response to the Rock Against Racism events. In the mid-1980s, however, the National Front, looking for respectability and a new image, changed strategies, and the riotous and untameable skinheads were cut loose in 1986. This brought RAC skinheads to organize their business according to their own brand of DIY ethics.
- 8 Thanks to Jedediah Sklower for his thoughtful discussion of Lescop’s article.
15Secondly, the media reduced the complexity of the skinhead movement to its equation with neo-Nazi violence, ignoring both its history and multiple facets. There was indeed a symbolic struggle for authenticity within the broader skinhead movement, with a scene denouncing both the political and the media manipulation, as well as its racism – groups such as the SkinHeads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) fought to reclaim the “Spirit of 69” (the year considered to be the apogee of the original movement), with its cultural opening and its dress code. A revival vs. a diversion. Yet Lescop’s research reveals the ambiguity of the relationship between both historical phases of the movement – left-leaning skinheads also demonstrated, as he writes, “counter-countercultural” values (values opposed to both the “hegemonic” and the 1960s countercultural discourses): chauvinism, homophobia, anti-intellectualism, associated to the ideal image of the working-class man, proved to be reactionary. The movement’s countercultural claims were thus exhausted in a formal opposition to a fantasized, ambiguous, multiple enemy; not a class, but a dropout struggle.8
- 9 Albeit drawing on Beat philosophy as discussed earlier.
16I have to admit that I have never considered “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” countercultural, not least as the youth revolts associated with the Counterculture are, as Roszak, Bennett and other theorists have argued, a sixties phenomenon9. As such, I was fascinated by Philippe Birgy’s discussion of ‘Yéyé Music and the importation of American counterculture in the French 1960s’. Not least, I was surprised that a novelty pop song that explored a young girl’s hesitancy in revealing her scantily-attired body, the bantering ‘one, two, three four/tell the people what she wore’ and ‘stick around, we’ll tell you more’ (recited, in the original version, by Trudy Packer) was in any way countercultural. ‘Itsy Witsy’ was, surely, pop rather than the more controversial and subversive rock ‘n’ roll genres that were to challenge mainstream culture across the late 1950s and beyond and hardly countercultural in the sense explored in Bennett, Whiteley et al. However, Birgy’s tantalising title (‘If this story amuses you, we can start again’) invites a closer reading and his interrogation of ‘the relationship between American youth counterculture and the Yéyé musical’ provides the reader with a new insights into the cultural problem associated with Yéyé music within French society and how and why such tracks as ‘Itsy Witsy…’ and the Nabout Twist (sung by French singer Claude François) provide a way of re-evaluating Yéyé’s role as an expression of societal/cultural conflicts. As Birgy explains, Yéyé is characterized by covers of US pop and easy-listening songs and is too often looked at as a pure result of the cultural hegemony of post-WWII USA’.
17Written by Paul Vance and Lee Pockniss, ‘Itsy Witsy’ was first performed by Brian Hyland, reaching No 1 in the US in August 1960, and covered three time in France in 1961. Identifying the cha-cha rhythm of the verse, Birgy situates the song as a form of exotica (tropical jazz), relating his analysis to writings by Edward Said (date of publication) and Julia Kristeva (date of publication) and the tantalizing prospect of what lies veiled beneath the bikini. The bantering tone of the chorus suggests, in turn, the carnivalesque, so constructing a comical tone which defuses the song’s claim for a ‘liberated sexuality’. The three cover versions, which include Johnny Halliday, are then compared before the discussion of exotica returns in an analysis of ‘Le Nabout twist’ which draws on North African kinship dances. Birgy then turns to scholarly writings from the review Communication (1965) on the yéyé phenomenon and concludes that yéyé music exemplifies the complexity of the cross-cultural exchange process, and the porosity and irregularities of the frontiers set between mass culture, hegemonic culture and counterculture before posing a final question: ‘Hasn't Yéyé music conveyed countercultural claims too, after all?’
I would like to acknowledge and thank my co-editor Jedediah Sklower for his support and enthusiasm throughout our planning and design of Counterculture(s) and Popular Music. What could have been a laborious task was instead a joyful exploration of the countercultures’ history, as well as its diverse manifestations.