The Seeds of Social Destruction

Charles Radcliffe

One of the most interesting aspects of revolt within the more advanced capitalist states since the war has been the emergence, one after the other, of groupings of disaffected youth. Such groups are not isolated phenomena; they exist wherever modern, highly bureaucratized consumer societies exist; in the USSR (stilyagi), France (blousons noirs), Britain (mods and rockers), in Holland (provos). They have little immediately in common but their implicit rejection of the positions allocated to them in society. At least in sensing this much the authorities show themselves more aware of the reality than most revolutionaries. Let it be understood this is not primarily a class matter but a matter of the wholesale destruction and frustration of our dreams. Adults, be they left wing journalists or right-wing magistrates (for example: Paul Johnson and J.B. 'Call me Fathead' Priestley in The New Statesman or the magistrates who dealt with the teds, mods, rockers and ban the bombers), can be relied upon to attack every aspect of youth rebellion and most revolutionaries likewise see in it no more than a symbol, or perhaps the knowledge that it cannot really be important since it was never mentioned in the old revolutionary sacred texts. The reaction of the Communist Party to USSR youth rebels is instructive and hilarious; Moscow teen gangs are dismissed either as 'high spirited student-types' or 'bourgeois-minded, jazz-corrupted decadents.' They have, as befits the changers of societies, been content to condemn without understanding, showing only their own pitiful ignorance and shallowness. By now it should be obvious - even to the traditional revolutionaries and other preservers of instinctive ignorance - that teen groups are not merely the neatly tagged symbols of the alienation of whole sectors of youth from society at large, but in their extreme forms, amongst the few groupings in society which have presented and continue to present an instinctive, sustained and potentially shattering social threat to stable society. Youth revolt is not necessarily a panacea; neither is it necessarily the precursor of social revolution; rather a grim-humored reaction to the frustration implicit in this society and this manner of living. It is one of the few things in this society worth serious defense and support. I welcome youth's rage: I share it. I support their outrages because I wish for explosions infinitely more brain-peeling than in their wildest, most socially profane dreams. In this article, a short and necessarily limited introduction, I want to note some aspects of the post war unofficial youth movements in Great Britain.

The Teddy Boys:   The Teddy Boys, named after their preoccupation with Edwardian (1900-1914) fashion, were really the first cohesive post-war grouping in Britain. Their emergence coincided with post-war 'reconstruction' and also with the consumer invention of 'teenage'; their number was increased by young adults whose youth had been lost in the 'pre-teenage' austerity of the post-war years. The extravagance of ted clothes (drape jackets with velvet collars, elaborate brocade waistcoats, 'slim-jim' or 'country and western' ties, 'drainpipe' trousers with huge turn-ups and heavy car-tyre shoes and later Italian 'winkle-pickers'), the outlandishness of their hairstyles (massive duck's arses at the back and Tony Curtis-type quiffs at the front and thick sideburns) and their aggressive arrogance earned them the immediate hostility of generations who had learned to see in thrift both a moral code and a social cement. Ted fashions were a curious throwback to the Good Old Days (otherwise known as GOD) when gay irresponsibility was the chief social virtue and wars were theoretically still heroic, romantic and colorful. They were also a powerful reaction against the drabness of the war and post-war years. They were a conscious imitation, by working class youth, of aristocratic fashions at the last point in time when a really rigid class (and parallel fashion) structure existed. Had the teds been Edwardians they would have been unable to wear such clothes. In an odd way therefore these clothes seem to have been both a case of following upper class fashion ideals (albeit archaic ones) and snubbing the upper class by doing so. Although many were only sartorial rebels, the teds, as a whole, were the most overtly violent of all youth groupings; many carried and used coshes, flick-knives, 'cut-throat' razors and bicycle chains. They fought in gangs - usually a gang from one area against a gang from another area. They were broken up - either by each other or by the police. They were constantly harassed and arrested and fiercely criticized by every element of respectable society. Above all they were feared. In fact the teds' attitudes were closer to those of their 'elders and betters' than any subsequent group. The teds were socially unacceptable precisely because they acted out the values of a world were force and corporate brutality were the officially postulated simple answers to all problems, because they were unable to accept the living death to which they had been so casually consigned or the non-sequiturs of a society which demanded of its citizens and uncomprehending acceptance of dumb non-violence towards internal authority and ferocity towards officially-designated external enemies. For all their failings the teds were able to sense their real enemies. In the end, however, they were the easiest rebels (en masse) to deal with; they were progressively conscripted out of existence. They had their last real fling in the mid-fifties; they tore apart cinemas like avenging furies and jived in the aisles to the early rock'n'roll films. Now teds are comparatively rare, confined for the most part to the working class areas of larger Northern industrial centers.

The Ton-up Kids:   The coffee bar cowboys arrived shortly after the teds, the product of a rather more affluent society. Motorcycle gangs in Britain have been relatively small and well behaved; nothing like California's Hells Angels has ever happened here. The appeal of motorcycles - speed, power, danger - has been almost exclusively to working class youth. The middle-class kid typically has a small sports car; the working-class cowboy has a bike - cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, easier to tune, more exciting and less impersonal to use. I remember doing the ton (100mph) with a cowboy on the A1 in Durham; after stopping the cowboy rubbed down his bike and checked it for damage, treating it with a care and respect that really astounded me. Cowboys are not interested in converting anyone to their way of life; they vary so much anyway that the only real points of contact between them lie in their leather clothes, their bikes and attitudes forced on them by society's reaction to their enthusiasms. Some gangs play 'chicken' games - most often a race against a record on a cafe jukebox - while others see their bikes mainly as an exciting means of weekend escape from employment, dull urban environment and nagging adults; speed is an optional, if delirious, bonus. Some aim simply to bug the squares, either in mocking the police who, particularly in the provinces, are quite scared of the cowboys, or alternatively in burn-ups round middle-class housing estates which stop only when a high proportion of the inhabitants are openly annoyed or, better still, furious. The cowboys, like most people, are unsympathetic to those who do not share their preoccupations; they are not particularly sympathetic even to each other. Birds (girls) are usually seen as sexual ballast; something to hold the rear wheel on the road and to be shafted afterwards. But again, most people are less honest about more or less identical attitudes to women. The ton-ups do not worry very much about tragedy, either on a personal or cosmic scale. Most of them have friends who 'fucked-up' on a run; they are philosophical about death; accidents are one way out of the fuck-up routine of dead end jobs in a dead end society. Most cowboys work simply to keep riding. They are not interested in success; they live for weekends, days off, nights at the few 'caffs' where the owners do not see social responsibility in terms of keeping the cowboys out. They accept, more or less, that one day they will opt out and join the squares. Some compromise earlier by joining ton-up priests collecting for charity or organizing rock'n'roll church services to spare the church the need to face its own total redundancy. Though members of the famous 59 club - a respectable priest-ridden rocker club - were at the 64 Clacton riots. Many ton-ups do seem compulsively respectable; appearing on TV panel discussions about teenagers (with all the painful insistence that under the rebellious exterior lurks humble goodness) and helping dear old ladies across the road. However, the last cowboy I knew well told me that most ton-ups think 'priests and that load of shit' every bit as bad as the 'snotties.' (One of a wide variety of designations for the police, an abbreviation of 'snot-gobbler.' Other terms include the slightly square 'rozzer,' 'shit sucker,' 'copper' (square), 'gestapo,' 'fuzz,' 'law'.) He seemed convinced that rebellion went deeper, pointing out that the only reason ton-ups 'doing good' attracted attention was because it was so unusual. In any event he was able to get rid of a large number of Spies for Peace leaflets at London's ton-up center the Ace Cafe, after the 1963 revelations.

The Beats:   If the English beat movement had its roots in the beats of the USA, particularly as mythologized by Jack Kerouac, it soon developed its own character. Less interested in artistic achievement than the American beats apparently were, the English beats were, for the most part, content to disaffiliate and leave it at that. They usually dropped politics, if they ever had any in the first place, when they went beat. The hard-core beat movement was probably never more than a few hundred strong but its influence went much wider; over the last ten years any number of kids have gone beat. Once having done so it is inevitably more difficult to rebuild or prop up the illusions on which society functions. The beats are probably the gentlest of the rebels; they have been attacked and even killed, in those interstices of society where they have been involuntarily forced into contact with social delinquency, but their main interest has been to keep moving, 'cutting out' of any 'scene' after a short time. The beat communities have been notably, and often chaotically, libertarian and in most cases short-lived. If the beat rebellion is essentially short-sighted (within an unfree society everyone, even the least committed disaffiliate, is unfree and it is impossible to talk of rejecting society when to do so one has to beg, borrow or steal the wherewithal for existence from people who, however reluctantly, continue to live within society), it is nevertheless magnificent in its nonchalant, long-haired contempt for 'straight' society and in its proud indifference to the dreary disgust of all office-bound pen-pushers, bureaucrats and wearers of the regulation weeds of the living dead.

The Ban the Bombers :   The beat movement reached its height at much the same time as the anti-war movement - in the late fifties and early sixties; in fact the two groups were deliberately confused with each other by press and public. The more deracine elements of the anti-war movement often looked beat and often associated loosely with beats. The public adults distrusted beats, partly as scavengers and partly because they made the already too unrespectable political kids look even less respectable - this last factor may turn out to be the beats' most singular and most valuable contribution to British politics. The young people who made the nuclear disarmament movement the largest and most influential youth movement in British history were the post-Suez generation. Anyone who doubts that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was primarily a youth organization should read contemporary reports of Aldermaston marches. The Aldermaston March, started two year after Suez in 1958, became the center of these young people's activities; a happy-serious carnival-protest, a gathering point for remarkably varied people ranging from hardened-arteried veterans of various Communist Party front groups to dedicated Quakers, from old ladies with curious pasts to dedicated wild-eyed kids burning with self-sacrificing seriousness. After the second march the image was permanently fixed: Youth. A great deal of space has already been devoted to the ban-the-bombers and most people who read this will either know (or not care) why such a generation emerged, what it did, why and how it did it and how in the end it declined and shattered into its myriad components as CND ceased to be umbrella enough for all the disparate ideas which had been attracted to it. CND educated youth, usually out of CND and into all the sad little splinter groups that are the only traditional, authentic, political, British folk-art form.

The Ravers:   The Ravers were possibly the last distinct and, in their classic form, shortest lived group of them all. They had some beat characteristics and rather tenuous connections with the anti-bomb movement but their main preoccupations were jazz clubs and jazz festivals; this was the period when ersatz traditional (trad) jazz, as purveyed by Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball and others was inordinately popular. Partly trad's popularity arose in reaction to the decline of the small fifties beat scene; it was easy to dance to and jazz clubs were among the few places where teenagers could do more or less as they wished without adult interference. Partly it arose because the musicians did not take themselves too seriously and were often simply good-time ravers. (See, for example, George Melly's delirium-fest autobiography, Owning Up, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.) The raver movement took its 'ideology' from the stale-ale-and-spermatozoa humor of musician-ravers and its dress, if loosely, from that of the Acker Bilk band - 'music-hall-cum-riverboat-cum-contemporary-folk-art' with Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament symbol decorated bowlers, umbrellas, striped trousers, elegant jackets. The chicks had long hair, wore ban-the-bomb type uniforms (duffle coats, polo-neck jerseys, very loose around the hips, and jeans). The ravers moved not only in the world of British 'jazz' but also on the fringes of the beat and political worlds. Chris Farley, now connected in some way with Bertrand Russell's Peace Circus, once interviewed a group of ravers at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival for Peace News and was obviously distressed by the fact that most of them had no political program beyond the election of Acker Bilk as prime minister. One West Indian observer (C. Lindsay Barrett in Revolution, January 1964) described them as 'mainly frantic English teenagers inspired in recent years to new heights of happiness by the indestructible and tireless Negro "faces" happiness habits nightly in the West End. In their over-enthusiastic aping of Negro dances, over-indulgent drug taking, they actually outdo their mentors in self-destruction if not in jail-sentences.' The ravers were, on the whole, distrusted by other groups with whom they came into contact; the beats used them term 'raver' derogatorily and the nuclear disarmers treated ravers' 'superficiality' with superior amusement and occasional annoyance. (The fact that many of the serious kids are now regretting their aloofness is a reminder that we all change.) The ravers, as such, died with the 'traditional' jazz boom but the 'raver philosophy' continues and there are once again groups calling themselves ravers. The term has likewise regained its approbatory meaning after the frequent critical use by the CND generation.

The Mods and Rockers:   The mods and rockers began attracting attention in 1963; the mods as a developing group (they were actually beginning as early as 1962), the rockers as a yet-unchristened continuation of earlier strains, the teds and, more particularly, the ton-ups (the two terms are now used synonymously). The mods (modernists) originally favored short hair, wool shirts, casual suede or corduroy jackets, lightweight ankle-length trousers and casual sneaker-type shoes - very much of the continental type. Mod girls wore collaborateur-type hair-styles, drape leather overcoats and calf-length dresses which came up as time passed but were, in the early days, extended to ankle length for visits to clubs etc. The rockers were the entrenched traditionalists of teenage fashion - long ted-style hair, sideburns, jeans with turn-ups, leather jerkins or bum-freezer jackets and winkle picker shoes. The girls' clothes echoed those of the boys - at least out of working hours. At work they were in the teenage fashion mainstream. Rockers were barely a group as such; they were put together by the mods as 'them' figures, hot, breathy, archaic squares to the mods' ice-cold, up-to-the-second hipsters. In 1963 the first fights between the two groups broke out in the city of London during lunch hours. What usually happened was that a group of mods began jeering at - and later bundling with - a rocker delivery boy. But such fights were nothing to those which broke out at the various seaside resorts during public holidays the following year. By then the mods were a large group and their outlook was formed.

In general they owed much to the West Indian hipsters (faces); much as the white-negro hipsters of the USA took the soul-ethos from the urban ghetto Negroes so the mods reflected, in a slightly less conscious way, some of the patterns of British Negro existence. Their coolness, their drug-taking (primarily of the goof-ball / lid-flip type at first), their musical taste and many of their expressions (e.g. 'face') derived, more or less directly, from actual or fantasy life-patterns of the hip 'Spades.' (At least in this sense the mods were a sophistication of the ravers.) The mod's rebellion was perhaps more experimental than any other groups - except possibly the beats and the disarmers - and the mods despised the rockers and others precisely because they were bedded in the past. 'You can tell us by the way we walk - feet out. Rockers are hunched. We hope to stay smart forever, not shoddy like our parents.' The mod distaste for parents and rockers was reciprocated. 'I can't think why he turned out like this. We always gave him everything he wanted and we have good values for him to see.' The harassed parents of an arrested mod. 'Orgy, kids shagging birds all over the shop; all bloody sex and pills. It's no way to live.' A rocker on a typical mod party in a disused London house. Mods, despite the time they spend decking out scooters with ephemera and accessories, have a less emotional relationship with machinery and a less mechanical one with girls than most rockers.

For all that, they are less tied up with 'going steady' than the rockers. They distrust particularly the rockers attempts to fit into adult society; 'We don't talk about politics or religion. We hate attempts to make religion "with it." It's always rockers on those telly programs.' At the height of the mod 'thing' in 1964 mod fashions were changing at breakneck pace. Beatle-type clothes had been exhausted, along with Beatle-type music, by the end of 1963 and mod clothing, at the beginning of 1964, reflected the taste of the new London in-groups. The Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Yardbirds. Later West Indian blue-beat music was 'in' beyond the small circle of very hip faces with whom it had been the music for some time, before it too was overcome by the next enthusiasm. The whole furious-competition program of the mods seemed to be a grotesque parody of the aspirations of the mods' parents, typically lower-middle or upper-lower class suburban. The leaders of mod fashion were changing and re-fashioning clothes overnight to keep up with each other; the situation became so desperate towards the end of the year that the reigning 'faces' simply refused to allow new faces to take over. By the end of 1964 the hard-cult was over, although the mods still exist, largely as loosely organised scooter gangs. There may still be a few minor mod-rocker skirmishes to keep blimpish magistrates busy and furiously absurd in those quiet seaside towns where the bourgeois go to lining-die like happy squires and the kids go to explode the unholy peace of a death structure. But if the heyday of the mods is probably over, the youth rebellion is not, as is indicated by the recent case of the Matlock Hill Trogs, and many other continuing elements of humanising chaos. (See Freedom April 30, May 21, May 28; and Rebel Worker pamphlet 1: Mods, Rockers and the Revolution).

The Future - Can't Get No Satisfaction :   The various youth groupings I have discussed are not parts of a cohesive movement; some presented a violent threat to good order, some presented an ideological challenge, some merely an annoyance. Their attitudes were and are varied; the ted a partial reflection of adult mores; the ton-up kids rebelling at those points where their will crossed society's; the ban-the-bombers a complete rejection of their birthright (the majority were almost certainly war-babies; the movement, perhaps significantly, arose in the first of the post-war years in which there was no conscription); the beats rejecting everything; the ravers living for kicks; the mods annoyed by, and determined not to emulate the shoddiness of their parents. The backgrounds too were different, although attempting to classify heterogeneous youth groupings is dangerous. Broadly the ton-ups, rockers and teds were working class. The ban-the-bombers were broadly middle class. The mods, beats and ravers come between the two. But class origins, for the most part, are irrelevant to the youth revolt. Between the groups there was and is little contact. Teds fought each other, mods fought rockers, ban-the-bombers and beats coexisted, ban-the-bombers hardly ever associated with those right outside politics, except, rather awkwardly, as preachers. There has been some interchange between the groups. A number of beats came from the cowboys and, rather curiously, became mods, typically at the stage when mods were discovering British Rhythm-n-Blues. The art school beats were not only the first Rhythm-n-Blues audiences - listening to the early protagonists of the music like Cyril Davis and Alexis Korner, but became the first real popularizers of the form. As mods adopted some of the more obvious characteristics of the beats so some beats became, almost by accident, mods.

All these movements can be seen as the groping of youth towards explosive self-expression and show that young people are not content simply to become the well-ground sand in the joints of a crumbling, oppressive, adult-delinquent society. They are expressive both of consumption-crazed and of rebellion against corrupted mores; both a visible and audible symbol of a society whose effusions, institutions and attitudes are hopelessly disoriented and no longer completely intelligible or logical to anyone, least of all to those authoritarians who have unconsciously created them, and a reminder that it cannot long continue without the chaotically-engineered safety valves finally breaking down and shattering both their own Heath Robinson ingenuity and the society they protect. In a society which has everything, everyone wants nothing. What is important about the youth revolt at this stage is not so much what it is but that it is; that in some ways and however hesitantly, however unsurely, youth recognizes its exploiters and is, if only temporarily, prepared to pay them off in a currency they can understand. The explosions are imperfect and impermanent; the rage is fused and canalized; the violence is exploited and utilized; the dreams become advertizing slogans. But the revolutionary, of all people, must be able to sympathize with and encourage such revolt; if nothing else it increases the bourgeois' suicidal paranoia which is, in a very real sense, the revolutionary's best friend. The suburban mental derelict, his world threatened by the phantoms of disquiet - car tyres deflated, windows smashed, flowers stolen, sleep destroyed, business threatened by the Conspiracy, status constantly challenged by neighbors and business colleagues, wife at the mercy of ravaging backdoor tradesmen, sanctum permanently challenged by nameless youth tyrannies - sees in all youth a savage innocence and a mindless threat to his well-being; his mind - torn already by the frustrations of working into an emotional gutter - his body - obese with the non-foods of a death-oriented society - his prestige - so intangible, so dependent on irrelevancies and reactions which can never be based on concrete evidence - are not enough to address the challenge. It is this disquiet factor that all rebel youth has in common, that threatens the carefully moulded suburban fantasies whose function is as a contraceptive against reality, sexual, social and cultural. It is this, together with the unrepressed violence and viciousness of those in authority dealing with youth rebellion, that should have told the revolutionaries they were dealing with more than a symptom of the degeneracy of a system. For the facts proclaim that youth revolt has left a permanent mark on this society, has challenged assumptions and status and been prepared to vomit its disgust in the streets. The youth revolt has not always been comfortable, valid, to the point or helpful. It has however made its first stumbling political gestures with an immediacy that revolutionaries should not deny, but envy.

Brief Bibliography:   [from Heatwave #1 (July 1966)] Generation X (Library 33), Only Lovers Left Alive (Pan), Rave Magazine, Mods, Rockers and the Revolution (Rebel Worker pamphlet 1).

 


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