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Sixties British Pop in the Classroom

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By Gordon Thompson

Baby boomers have not only fundamentally shaped our modern world, but also how their children (and grandchildren) perceive that world.  The generation that gyrated with hula hoops and rock ‘n’ roll also embraced British pop music (among other things) and have bequeathed this aesthetic to today’s college students.  On campuses across North America, students amble to classes with “Beatles” patches on their book bags while their college radio programs often include music by the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks.  At Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York a few years ago, a Facebook survey identified the Beatles as the favorite campus musical artists, followed closely by Bob Dylan.  Given the continuing importance of a band that dissolved in acrimony over forty years ago, a question arises: does this subject merit inclusion in the college curriculum?  The answer is clearly, yes.

As an ethnomusicologist teaching in a music department, I encounter the opinion that my classes on India and on pop music should reside at the periphery of a core curriculum that focuses on Euro-American classical music.  I certainly think that the tradition of Bach and Beethoven I studied as a music-major in college represents a real contribution to human cultural history; but I also now see it as but one tradition of music of many.  The musics of the rest of the world (notably India and China with their long histories and rich theoretical literature) offer other examples.  But what about pop music?  What can we learn from that?

The college classroom allows opportunities for reflection on many things, including how culture responds to various environmental changes (whether natural or human) with few things reacting as quickly to new contexts as popular music.  Situating sixties British pop in the postwar era helps students understand the music, if not the world that shaped the lives of their parents and indirectly their own upbringing.  Indeed, as the first wave of baby boomers (or what the British refer to as the “bulge” generation) approaches age 65 and retirement, the sixties ease into the category of “history.”  By way of comparison, the beginning of the great depression stood in closer proximity to college students in 1964 than the Beatles’ dissolution does for students in 2011.

As Britain fought against the Axis powers from 1939-1941, she borrowed heavily from the United States and Canada to finance the effort, coming to the brink of defaulting on her loans.  The US eventually joined the battle, more than two years after the beginning of that conflict, but the war sorely undermined Britain’s financial independence.  In the postwar years, while the United States implemented the Marshall Plan and contributed to the rebuilding of Europe, Britain concentrated on how to pay back its war loans, delivering its last payment in 2006.  In this environment, subsequent Labour and Conservative governments imposed significant duties on imports from America and abroad, inversely making foreign goods and culture highly desirable, especially for the bulge generation who looked for a way to distinguish themselves from the grey austerity of their parents.

Postwar Britain faced food and petroleum rationing, a staggering trade imbalance, a debilitating national debt, and a public demotion on the world stage while at the same time an internal dialogue raged about social class and generation.  By economic necessity, postwar Britain had taken to adapting foreign recording technology for domestic consumption, as when EMI created their own versions of the recording equipment that Americans had themselves confiscated in Germany.  Moreover, the British took to reinventing many things musical, including guitars, amplifiers, and rock ‘n’ roll.  But this thirst for the foreign involved more than American culture.  When the Beatles adopted the hairstyle of their German college student fans in Hamburg, they mixed a unique amalgam of Western culture.

A collision of demographics, economics, and technology led to an explosion of pop music in the 1950s and 1960s.  Pop music by necessity rapidly evolved and embraced folk, jazz, and classical elements, not to mention reflecting the burgeoning culture of globalization.  For this new stew of influences, London proved the perfect cauldron.  A London pop musician such as Georgie Fame in the early sixties could have African musicians in his band (Speedy Acquaye), along with aspiring British jazz musicians (John McLaughlin) to reinterpret American music with a Latin flavor (e.g., “Yeh Yeh”).  UK clubs buzzed with musical innovation.

With the Beatles’ arrival in North America, the cultural dialogue came full circle.  Notably, British musicians had learned how to reinterpret Americana and successfully sell it back to the Americans, a skill that sat at the core of the Beatles’ expertise.  When my students watch a video of the Beatles’ premiere on The Ed Sullivan Show from February 1964 and see the screaming teenagers jumping in their seats, I drop a quick aside that “these could be your parents and grandparents.”  The comment always earns a discernable chuckle of recognition.  The students have met the audience, and the audience is us.

Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.

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