There is a saying that goes, “I care not who makes the nation’s laws, so long as I can make its songs.” Music is a powerful medium. The purpose of a song can be many things, even political. All types of music deserve study, but popular music is what gives someone the simplest perspective into a specific culture. Popular music has a special relationship with the youth of that culture. British popular music of the 1960s, while not always political, had a massive effect on Britain as a whole. While many bands played a role in this phenomenon, two groups were at the front: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. This essay will take a look at how British politics effected music and how, in turn, the music effected the politics.
The first attribute that is attached to pop music is not its political nature. Today, when listening to the newest Pop Idol sensation, angry political dissent is not a standard theme that you hear. The same can be said for pop music of the 1960s. A perfect example of this is that the Beatles’ first few hits included song titles such as “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me” (rs.com). The 1960s were a different era, however. Britain was still trying to find its post-war image. The economy was being poorly managed by the government, but income levels were staying ahead of the correlating inflation marks ( bs s 45, p193). The government made many breakthroughs on the social side of the law: homosexuality was legalized, capital punishment was halted, divorce rules were relaxed, and state censorship was stopped. Strides were also made on the educational front.
Many of these changes affected the youth of Great Britain. This is of note when discussing pop music because the youth are the driving force behind it. At a certain point in time, there is a vital relationship that exists between the youth of a culture and the popular music that they listen to. Simon Firth argues that unlike in America, the social significance of pop music is defined by the youth (se, p10). In the U.S., the audience grows up with the music that they listened to as children. They continue to be the audience for that music as they grow old. In Britain however, pop music is made for a certain age bracket. The audience changes, but the target remains the same.
An interesting look inside the youth culture of Britain is given by the 1959 Youth Commission. This was created by the Labour Party, and a report entitled The Younger Generation was produced (yg, p 208). The Commission was created because the Labour Party believed that they had lost connection with the youth of Britain, or the “Y” vote. Labour was out of power and they wanted to understand their disconnection from the youth of Britain.
The report found that youngsters had more money to spend. They paid less money for room and board than they used to and there was full employment. Teenage crime had drastically gone up from the 1955 to 1961, a vast majority found politics a bore, class had become less of an issue, and there was a generation gap forming that was much larger than it had been in the past (yg). Coming off of World War II, teenagers were, for the most part, financially well-off. Parents who were not privileged enough to have this situation as a child did not understand it (yg, 223).
The Beatles are most likely the most popular band of all time. Their success, covering the majority of the sixties, is unparalleled. They left a massive impression on Britain. While Beatlemania is most often associated with the U.S., the fact is that it all started in Britain. When discussing the Beatles’ connection to politics, however, there are a few issues. Every band needs to start somewhere, and the Beatles started as a cover band (rs.com). This is not an important concern, however, because this is natural first step for any band. Another point is that the Beatles were a “pop” band and they wrote ‘pop’ songs. Not a lot of these songs have blatant political messages.
The political climate played a role in the Beatles’ British success. As the previous decade winded down Harold Macmillan said, “You’ve never had it so good” (www.univ). This portrays the mindset of Britain at that time. People were better off than they had been, and more importantly, consumerism was in the air. When the Beatles hit, and so too the Rolling Stones, the consumers were ready.
The Beatles were a pop band and their early catalogue strictly follows the pop format which they created: quick, light-hearted love songs that make you tap your feet. In fact, John Lennon said that ‘In My Life’, released on the Rubber Soul album in 1965, was the first non-pop song that he ever wrote (www.songfacts.com). Unlike most pop acts, the Beatles took a progressive approach with their sound. They became songwriters in the true sense of the word. This is evident on songs such as ‘I Am the Walrus’ and ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’, which are supposedly written about drug use.
One of the Beatles’ undoubtedly political efforts is ‘Revolution’, released in 1968. It was John Lennon’s response to the situation in Vietnam. In an interview, Lennon said, “You look at that song and see my feeling about politics, radicalism and everything” (songfact.com). While this can be seen as a letter to the American government, Britain supported the war and this song can be seen as defiance to that stance. When the 1960s ended, the Beatles had left a mark unlike any left by any band before them. They started out as a pop craze, and ended up as a socially-conscious group who’s lyrics were so scrutinized and over-analyzed by the end that they often created nonsensical lyrics just to throw off fanatics.