• Toby Irwin

Music and Counterculture

The link between cultural identity and music is often brushed under the carpet. It seems obvious, yet so hard to pin down and prove. With so many example genres and time periods, all overlapping and intersecting, it can be difficult to provide a coherent link. However, one need only look to after the Second World War for the most fervent of inspiration. This article will focus primarily on the Modernist movement of the 1960s. Indeed, while this article may seem woefully lacking in political analysis for a political commentary site, it is my thoughts that the way music reflected upon society offers interesting insights to political discourses of their time, on top of being purely exciting in itself.

Devastated by the Second World War, Britain found itself reeling at not just economic turmoil but also the more poignant realisation of a peaked and declining hegemony. The mantel of leadership had finally passed to the United States. Over the next two decades into the 60s, this was realised in different ways through a generational divide. The older generation, keen to hang on to the past were reluctant to see American influences creep ever more steadily into the UK. From cinema to rock and roll, to blues and blunt consumerism the Americanisation of Britain prompted the divide between the young, coming of age post-war children and their parents. Keen to assert themselves as independent and different to their previous generations, this new wave of ‘teenagers’ (itself a new concept from America) sought the means to differentiate themselves, and it is my view that one can see this clearly through the Modernist movement. The movement began in London’s Soho, where a few hundred teenagers would meet in 1959 to listen to American jazz music and show off their latest sharp looking suits. The movement branched out after a few years and by the early 1960s had become a nation-wide phenomenon, with its creed tenets of rock and roll (or rather, R&B), consumerism and counterculture defining it. As such, the ‘Mods’ were born. To be a Mod wasn’t just about feeling distinct from their parents, whose generations seemed responsible for the creation of the previous world wars, it was also a means of class disintegration. Being a Mod didn’t matter where you came from, or how much money you had. In fact, it totally relied on the ability for one to dispel inhibitions and purely enjoy their time as a youth, or teenager. Indeed, as the Who’s cult classic song My Generation plainly states ‘Things they [the previous generation] do look awful cold … Yeah, I hope I die before I get old’. Speaking to Rolling Stone Magasine, The Who’s guitarist Pete Townshend described the Modernist movement for young Brits in the 1960s:

“it was a movement of young people, much bigger than the hippie thing, the underground and all these things. It was an army, a powerful, aggressive army of teenagers with transport. Man, with these scooters and with their own way of dressing. It was acceptable, this was important; their way of dressing was hip, it was fashionable, it was clean and it was groovy. You could be a bank clerk, man, it was acceptable … To be a mod, you had to have short hair, money enough to buy a real smart suit, good shoes, good shirts; you had to be able to dance like a madman.”

And as he noted on how it became a national movement;

“It’s like that moment, that incredible feeling of being part of something which is really something much bigger than race and much bigger than – it was impetus.”

Naturally, the previous generation in Britain were outraged by what was seen as pure social revolt against authority. For them, the import of American music, particularly music from black communities in America’s jazz scenes echoed too much of ‘raw sexuality’ and disrespect. While not ‘Mods’ themselves, The Beatles certainly shared the same tendency of wanting to be independent from the older generations. Indeed, in their 1968 film A hard Days’ Night an older traingoer complains to the four men about their long hair, dress style and habit of listening to pop radio on the train. “I won the war for your sort”, he said. And Ringo’s reply “I bet you’re sorry you won”.

Modernism as the musical and cultural expression it was rode the wave of economic growth and the booming 60s. To many young adults and teenagers, acting and behaving a certain way within a nation-wide ‘tribe’ became a means to make something of themselves, to belong to something greater and in the end provide themselves with a better life. By blurring class boundaries one found that a working class lad would be wearing and listening to the same ‘cool’ sounds as their upper class counterparts. Social cohesion, then, was what could be broken down through music. Previous taboo pastimes became the norm as expressed through Modernist music, primarily sex and drug use. As is so blatantly obvious in the Small Faces’ Itchycoo Park and its endorsement of public drug taking, albeit in a comical tone.

By the end of the 60s, the strict ‘Mod’ movement was trailing off yet the trends and ideas prevailed with the morphing music industry. Bands adopted this youthful, rebellious and forward-looking ideology as a means to appeal to the mass market, as well as continuously assert itself against ageing populations. Consider, for example, the British and American musical reflections to social movements. Three artists come to mind. In the US, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” became an icon of counterculture and anti-war elitism. Bob Dylan also led the charge on American campuses, “The Times They are-a Changin’” fused together protest and the civil rights movement. And perhaps most interesting of all, in the UK the more ‘hippie’ movement of love and peace (symbolised with the Beatles’ “All you need is Love”) came to be foreshadowed by the stark reality of war and violence that the Rolling Stones portrayed through severely controversial and eye opening songs “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Gimme Shelter” and “Street Fighting Man”.

One could certainly go as far to say that the trends of Modernism prevailed into many other strands of music, including the Punk scene. The anti-establishment tones of the Sex Pistols speak for themselves, whether it is the sheer anger from “Anarchy in the UK” or the satirical “God Save the Queen”, both musical mirror images of the economic and social turmoil that was the 1970s. It’s little wonder that this abrupt, forward facing movement found its roots in the 60s Modernist bands of The Who and Small Faces. Even today, the legacy of the Modernist movement lives on. In fact, who would be surprised why The Who, the spiritual frontrunners of the movement, were asked to sign off the London 2012 Olympic games with a performance of My Generation. This itself reflecting the centrality of musical counterculture to British (and lesser extent American) society.


Richard Weight’s Mod (2013)

Walter Everett’s What Goes On (2019)


At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.